Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Las Vegas Trip #2 - Days 2 and 3

As you might imagine, given our late night snack (VERY late night if you consider the time change back to Chicago), Mrs. Hackknife and I did not exactly wake up ready to begin the next day's onslaught of gluttony. Luckily, I had anticipated this contingency and planned on us having a late brunch (it was Sunday, after all) and then a late dinner in the evening. By 11 am local time, the contents of my stomach had cleared to the point where I could actually conceive of eating a new meal, so off we went to our brunch destination, the buffet at the Wynn casino, which my insider's information had indicated to me was among the best, if not THE best, Sunday brunch in town. This turned out to be completely and utterly accurate - for about $32 a head (I still can't believe that's all it cost), we were treated to a lavish buffet spread the breadth and quality of which I'd never encountered. Upon being seated, Mrs. Hackknife, her mom, and I made our way to the set of stations nearest to us, where we found lots of fresh fruit choices, antipasti/cheeses, and a diverse cooked fish counter, where I sampled carved-to-order salmon en croute, a mahi mahi dish, fish cake, and a slice of smoked salmon pizza. It was about at this point where I just happened to turn my head only to realize that there was literally a whole HALLWAY of additional stations to explore, extending off in the distance as one might imagine a foodie paradise on the business side of the pearly gates would look. The bounty discovered within was nothing less than remarkable: fresh raw fish (white anchovies, shrimp, ceviches, although, oddly enough, no oysters or crab legs on this day), a carving station of prime rib AND black pepper-encrusted slab bacon, a made-to-order pho (Vietnamese soup) counter, Indian dishes, Italian dishes, pork buns and shrimp dumplings, American comfort food (such as pulled pork on cornbread), and on and on, all delicious, at least from what I was able to try. I began to narrow down my choices and found myself having to winnow even further lest I not be able to partake in the separate dessert wing of the buffet. The desserts on display included various cakes and pies, bread pudding, purees (like kiwi-banana), large dayglo red candied apples, profiteroles, rice krispy treats, and even a gelato counter. I sampled and sampled until I could sample no more, fully aware that I would now be sated until our much-heralded dinner at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon at the MGM Grand some 8 hours later.

Speaking of L'Atelier, this was to be the dining highlight of our trip. Joel Robuchon is one of the legendary masters of French cooking, specializing in nouvelle cuisine, which simply refers to the fact that the ingredients in each dish stand mostly on their own without a lot of elaborate sauces or preparation (i.e., simplicity is paramount). His Atelier restaurant chain (there are 8 of them worldwide) is set up such that the diners are primarily seated at a long bar, behind which the kitchen is completely open so that the chefs are in full view as they prepare each plate (atelier means "workshop" in French). As you can see in Photo #1 above, the kitchen decor is heavy on pink, green, and blacks, and this color scheme is also reflected in many of the dishes. For example, our amuse bouche was a nice cube of avocado (green) and cilantro (green)-flavored grapefruit (pink) gelee. This theme continued throughout the meal, with each plate being not only delicious, but also a visual delight (another characteristic of nouvelle cuisine).

Mrs. Hackknife and I chose separate tasting menus - hers (the Club Menu) came with a wine pairing while I opted to forgo wine in favor of a larger number of courses (the Seasonal Discovery Menu). Both of us received a first course of tomatoes, hers in a chilled gazpacho with croutons, mine featuring heirlooms, basil oil, and fleur de sel with an edible flower to boot (see Photo #2 above). Next up for us was an amazing langoustine course - mine was pounded into a thin carpaccio rectangle and drizzled with lemon vinaigrette and green/red/black fleur de sel, while Mrs. Hackknife received a crispy langoustine fritter with basil pesto. At this point, I was given three additional courses: a nugget of king crab cooked "a la plancha" (grilled on a metal plate) and served with vegetables drizzled with lemongrass oil, a green asparagus kabob topped with a tiny fried quail egg, some shimeji (mushrooms), and decadent Iberico ham imported from Spain (I could see the giant leg of this ham waiting to be sliced up on a counter at the back of the kitchen), and a nice turbot filet with baby leeks, served in a buttery shellfish sauce with lime and ginger. For my main meat course, I chose foie gras-stuffed quail served with a ramekin of the famous Robuchon "death" potatoes, while Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed a plate of veal piccata served with said potatoes (she got a larger portion than me....grrrrrr....) and arugula salad. Allegedly, the death potatoes contain more butter/cream by mass than actual potato (very much the opposite of nouvelle cuisine) and we can pretty much attest to this as we saw the cream generously ladled into the pot as they were made to order in the kitchen (but, boy, were they good). After this, a plate of tasty French cheeses were delivered to the missus, followed by 5 small slices of very good tarts, and finally some rhubarb sorbet. My desserts were just as good, featuring marscapone panna cotta topped with strawberries and balsamic ice cream (see Photo #3 above), then a blackberry compote with spice cake and rhubarb sorbet. With that, our first-ever experience in a Robuchon restaurant concluded and we were both very impressed (I can't imagine how impressed the diners in his other Las Vegas establishment, the higher-end, 3-Michelin starred eatery simply known as Joel Robuchon, must be - hopefully, we'll find out someday).

From that foodie high on Sunday night, it was an anticlimactic descent to our final meal of the trip (not counting dinner at the wedding) on Monday morning, when the 3 of us, plus Mrs. Hackknife's Uncle Bob and lovely wife Sandy joined us for a late breakfast repast at Hash House a Go Go in the Imperial Palace, that wacky joint of the giant plates of farm-inspired cuisine first featured in my last Vegas trip postings in August 2010. As before, I started out with a house Bloody Mary, followed this time by a platter of two sausages, two scrambled eggs, some hash browns, a biscuit on the side, and a humongous Snickers pancake, which sounds disgusting in theory, but was interesting enough that I had to try it. Actually, the pancake wasn't bad, not exactly covered in Snickers, but containing chopped-up pieces of it distributed here and there amongst the batter (needless to say, no syrup was necessary). The rest of the dish was fine except for the biscuit, which was a little underwhelming given the largesse of everything else. As before, I had to tap out way in advance of even coming close to finishing (they like it that way, apparently - I wonder how much food they end up discarding?). In fact, I was so stuffed that I couldn't justify a pre-wedding run to In-n-Out Burger, located tantalizingly close to our hotel just on the far side of I-15 (their sign taunted me all weekend every time I looked out our window), as I'd hoped at one point. Maybe that's where next trip's dining should begin.....

(Ed. Note - The Commissary will be closed for the next 10 days as we make our annual pilgrimage to BBQ country and the Atlantic Coast. Stay tuned for associated postings on this channel in early August)....

Friday, July 15, 2011

Las Vegas Trip #2 - Day 1

For the third consecutive year, unlike wise folks who visit hot climes when it's cold back home, I found myself traveling to the high desert of Las Vegas in the middle of summer. For the third consecutive year, it was wedding-related festivities drawing me there, this time lucky day nuptials (7-11, that is) for Mrs. Hackknife's beer aficionado cousin Rob and his lovely bride Mary. The wedding was a delightfully quirky affair, held on a Monday evening at a reception hall next to the airport, with a full selection of brews unavailable in the Chicago market (Alaskan Amber, anyone?), a Cinnabon tower in place of a traditional cake, and planes near-constantly landing on Runway 25L in the background during the ceremony. Of course, I never fail to utilize a trip to Vegas as an excuse for dining in as many of its fine restaurants as one can humanly hope to do in a short time, and this visit was no exception.

Upon our Saturday morning arrival, Mrs. Hackknife, her mother, and I began our foodie adventures in earnest with a lunchtime visit to Border Grill in the Mandalay Bay casino. I had planned on eating here on my last trip, but was thwarted by flight delays, so now I found myself very excited to be sampling the upscale Mexican fare of Chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, both of whom we'd watched recently on Top Chef Masters. We were famished (airline food doesn't cut it, you know) and immediately dug into the house tortilla chips (awesomely good) and salsas, the green version of which I wanted to jar and take home. This was followed by about the best queso fundido (melted cheeses, onion, chorizo, and roasted peppers) I've ever had, washed down with a nice Blanco Margarita (tequila, lime juice, and agave nectar). As usually happens with Mexican food, the belly is groaning before the entrees arrive, but I somehow managed to (happily) force down a wonderful plate of Yucatan pork tacos (slow roasted pork, guacamole, and spicy pickled onions, served with rice and black beans - see Photo #1 above), plus a potent mojito, while Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed her ceviche duo (Hawaiian fish and shrimp/halibut).

Busting at the seams and feeling a little woozy from the alcohol (here we go again, it's last year all over), I wandered off on walkabout while the ladies stayed behind to play slot machines. My ultimate destination was my favorite gelateria, Jean-Phillipe in the Bellagio, a very long walk/tram ride through multiple casinos to help shield me from the searing 100-degree heat. The jaunt helped improve my condition (as did a brief chance encounter with Pete Rose, Charlie Hustle himself, looking lonely at an autograph signing table in the Mandalay Bay mall) and it turned out that it was a good decision to travel mostly indoors, but not for the reason you might think (a rare cloudburst dumped about half an inch of rain on the Strip while I snacked on sublime coconut sorbet, watching the sunbathers scatter from my dry perch). The frozen treat helped me clear out just enough headspace to have a sensible dinner with my travel companions at Verandah, the Italian restaurant inside the Four Seasons, a calm, welcoming oasis far away from the chaos and bustle of the gaming floors. The ladies and I split a plate of beefsteak tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, and pesto sauce before moving on to the main dishes. I greatly enjoyed my branzino (striped sea bass) with a citrus crust and fennel sauce, served with a side plate of very tender asparagus (wish we could do that at the Commissary) and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. Mrs. Hackknife's entree came in a sealed Mason jar, homemade pasta with various pieces of seafood mixed in.

One item to note here - our sensible dinner was necessitated not only because we were full from earlier, but I had already warned Mrs. Hackknife that we had a surprise coming up later that would require something of an empty stomach. Around 11:30pm, just about the time that our bodies were telling us that it was sleepytime (jet lag), I got us in a cab and we traveled about 10 minutes away to a strip mall in the Las Vegas Chinatown (at least what passes for Chinatown here) for a very unique dining experience. Abriya Raku Grill (means "charcoal grill house enjoyment" in Japanese) is about as authentic of a Japanese restaurant as exists in this country, the virtues of which were recently extolled in a tweet by Mario Batali, who branded it as the best food in all of Vegas (I went back later to find this tweet as it was the clue that initially led me to this discovery - strangely enough, it was gone. Could I have imagined the whole thing?). The place is small (about 10 tables), is filled with chefs from other restaurants whose shifts have ended for the evening (traditionally, a sign of good eats), and has simply wonderful Japanese cuisine, unmatched in Chicago or even New York. Our server brought out menus and the specials board, from which we ordered a barrage of tasty items as mostly recommended by other foodies on Yelp. This consisted of a large square of homemade cold tofu served with bonito flakes and green onions, amazing bluefin tuna sushi (see Photo #2 above), and bites cooked on a traditional robata (charcoal) grill using wood imported from Japan: pork belly, pork cheeks, salmon belly, and a foie gras lobe, all crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. Mrs. Hackknife declared that she hadn't had Japanese food this good outside of Japan before and I was very pleased that she felt our late-night detour was worth the trouble of some lost sleep and extra calories....

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Northdown Cafe and Taproom

Mrs. Hackknife and I found ourselves childless in the city last Sunday evening after attending an informal cocktail party held in honor of a former Olympic rower who was helping out a charity on whose board Mrs. Hackknife sits (it's a long story, even longer than the run-on sentence I just wrote). Anyway, I had unsuccessfully attempted to get us dinner reservations at a few places nearby, most of which were either full or closed for the holiday weekend, so we decided to walk over to the six-corner intersection of Ashland, Belmont, and Lincoln just a few blocks away to see what we could find. I was aware of a new restaurant/bar called Northdown Cafe and Taproom that had recently opened in the shadow of a tall condo building where some friends of ours live at that same intersection. The bar was hip, casual, and fairly full, but there were quieter tables in the back dining room, where a tattooed waitress directed us to sit for dinner. Right away, I was impressed with the menu, which had an emphasis on comfort foods prepared with local, seasonal ingredients and are designed to pair well with beers (sort of like The Publican, one of our favorite restaurants). Mrs. Hackknife considered starting with a plate of homemade bread with cheese, but I immediately overruled her when I saw the pork fries (see photo above), a large plate piled with hand-cut fries atop which sat pulled pork, cheese (almost like a mornay) sauce, bacon, green onions, and pickled jalapenos. This was Flavor Country to the extreme and it was outstanding - I could have easily eaten a whole platter by myself if not for the visions of my cardiologist swooping in and whisking me away to ER. After that monstrosity, we moved on to entrees, with Mrs. Hackknife ordering an almost equally-egregious compact turkey dinner (roast turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing, rolled up into three balls and deep-fried, covered with gravy - yes, you did read that correctly). I went with something a tad less unholy, that being an Old Rasputin stout braised beef short rib sandwich, served with fontina cheese, pea shoots, and red onion jam on kick-ass Ciabatta bread (as a nod to my high cholesterol, I replaced the fries with a side salad). Both dishes were delicious and provided us with magnificent leftovers for lunch during the week (Ed. note - the remnants of the short rib sandwich were divine when dipped into our house pesto sauce). We washed down our food with two excellent beers (Green Flash Le Freak IPA for Mrs. Hackknife and a 3 Floyd's Apocalypse Cow for me, about the smoothest IPA I've ever had) and somehow even managed to find room for a little pie (black bottom banana - banana cream w/chocolate crust). Although I was almost uncomfortably full when we staggered out into the summer night, it was well worth it to get rock star grub and beer like we did....

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Zarlengo's Italian Ice

Now that the summer heat has arrived, we here at the Commissary take it upon ourselves to identify any and all premium ice cream/gelato/Italian ice/sorbet/etc. worth consuming within a 20-mile radius. After repeated visits to the Creamery and Sam & Jake's (our local faves), plus forays farther afield to Mitchell's in Homewood and Gayety's in Lansing, I was under the impression that we had the South suburbs pretty well sussed out, so you can imagine my surprise when Channel 7 food reporter Steve Dolinsky (aka the Hungry Hound) released his list of Chicagoland's 5 best places for icy treats a few weeks ago and on it was an unknown in our relative backyard: Zarlengo's in Chicago Heights. Inspired and undeterred, this past Friday night, Mrs. Hackknife and I loaded the progeny into the family truckster to check out the wares of this newcomer (at least newcomer to us - they've been around since 1983 and currently provide the Italian ice at the Cell for Sox games).

Hackknifette dozed off during the 15-minute drive, so Mrs. Hackknife and Hackknife Jr. hopped out to nosh while I waited in the car with her. After perusing their extensive (and I mean extensive) list of about 30 Italian ices and 30 gelatos (not to mention many sundaes and ice cream novelties), I chose an Aztec chocolate gelato, a mixture of chocolate and cinnamon with a little chili pepper for heat. It was fantastic, rich and sultry, featuring a pretty solid kick of spice on the finish. The family also enjoyed peach Italian ice (Hackknife Jr.), Nutella gelato (Mrs. Hackknife), and plain chocolate gelato (Hackknifette - she had awoken by then), followed by an extra kid's cup of miso caramel gelato that Mrs. Hackknife convinced me to order as an encore (as usual, she was right - it was delicious). Bellies full and smiles on parade, we returned home secure in the knowledge that we may have found a new favorite ice cream joint for future summer evenings....

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Taste of Chicago

We live in a city that, for the past 25 years or so, has held an annual sweatfest the week prior to 4th of July featuring overpriced, fair-to-middling food offerings from mostly mediocre eating establishments for a million or so of its closest friends. This, my dear readers, is known as the Taste of Chicago and it is normally avoided like the plague by most sane, reasonable-thinking individuals. We here at the Commissary, however, clearly do not fall into that category. Since the progeny have been around and with the creation of Millennium Park, Mrs. Hackknife and I have developed a routine whereby we drag the kids downtown to said fest (preferably on one of its lesser-visited days), set up camp on a grassy knoll away from the Mongol hordes on the main thoroughfare, do some controlled gorging on selected food items, then head over to the fountains in the park so that the kids can cool off and splash around. I could go on about how rewarding it is watching Hackknife Jr. and Hackknifette negotiate the fountains and mingle with kids from all ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds in the process, but this, after all, is a food blog and I can tell that you're mostly interested in what I ate this year (or at least that's what I'm interested in documenting), so reveal I shall.

In fests past, I would have taken it upon myself to fill up on every deep-dish pizza slice, bratwurst, oversize novelty turkey leg, cheesecake, and frozen chocolate-covered banana I could find; now, I try to be more selective and seek out the more exotic offerings, which are a little harder to locate. I did some homework before we arrived this year and I came armed with a hit list and a Taste phone app to help me track down my quarry. Unfortunately, cost, time, and weather constraints kept me limited to about half of my list, so here's what I did manage to sample. First up was some jollof (spicy rice) and braised oxtail from Iyanze, a West African restaurant in the city's Uptown neighborhood. I really enjoyed the rice, but was a little disappointed with the oxtail, which was tougher to eat than I imagined it would be (it was flavorful, but hard to pull off the bone, especially since they only gave me a spoon to work with). Even after using my hands, the oxtail seemed like it was just too much work. What followed next put a spring in my step: Vermillion (think sort of a cross between Indian and Latin cuisines) offered a maharaja sandwich, which was shredded spicy beef topped with mint mayo and crispy onions, like an Indian sloppy joe. This was probably the only stand where I could have willing tried everything on their menu without hesitation (of course, the privilege would have cost me a pretty penny to do so). Next up was Lao Sze Chuan, a Chinatown restaurant that was one of the few places represented at the fest that has gotten largely positive press from the foodie cognoscenti. I tried their crispy honey shrimp and was surprisingly disappointed as they tasted like they had been sitting out for a while, chewy and lukewarm. Dessert help improve my mood, with a nice stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate bits) gelato from Franco's (on the West side). By this time, I had gotten pretty full on not only my sampling, but the sampling of Mrs. Hackknife's food as well (most of which seemed to be better, if not cheaper, than my choices) and the skies were darkening with rain clouds, so we thought it best to call it a year and head to the safety of the underground parking garage. Overall verdict: some good food, some bad, most too expensive for what you received, try going to a smaller Taste fest in one of the suburbs....

Crepe Town

Another Cubs night game, another new restaurant to try. I popped into a small storefront near the corner of Dakin and Sheridan (about 4 blocks from the ballpark) the other night to get some grub before first pitch. Crepe Town is almost across the street from TAC Quick Thai (reviewed in an earlier posting), but is much smaller and has a limited menu featuring breakfast, dessert, and savory crepes (hence the name) along with smoothies and drinks. The place was nearly deserted when I sat down to peruse their offerings and I was immediately drawn in by the dessert crepes (especially the banana split crepe); alas, I'm too proud to have sweets for dinner, so I selected the "Spice Up" crepe instead (filleted fried whitefish covered in a coconut curry sauce and basil). It ended up being quite good and filling, not too spicy, but not bland, either, sort of a Frenchman's take on the ol' fish taco. I didn't leave room for dessert, unfortunately, so I made a mental note to return some late night with Mrs. Hackknife for a little after-hours snack, hoping that they'll be playing the same note-perfect, Lite-FM versions of U2 songs that I found strangely appealing...

Friday, July 1, 2011

Fat Tommy's/Original Rainbow Cone

Now that the progeny are getting a little older (Hackknife Jr. is 5, Hackknifette is 2 going on 18), I've found that I reach the stir-crazy level a little faster than I used to, especially during these summer days when Hackknife Jr. is on break from school (I can only mediate so many disputes in a 24-hour period). As a result, I'm trying to get us out more, if for no other reason than to minimize the tumultuousness of staying put at home. What better way to escape the house than to make my children a party to my food obsession?, I say. In that vein, we loaded up the family truckster and headed northeast one fine Thursday morning to visit a couple of eateries on my radar screen, namely Fat Tommy's hot dog stand and Original Rainbow Cone.

Fat Tommy's is the lesser known of the two and is located in the Mt. Greenwood neighborhood of the city (near 111th and Kedzie), an area not terribly far from us (less than 30 minutes), but one I've never visited (shame on me). The place is pretty nondescript on the outside with a blue-collar vibe in keeping with the neighborhood (I had a little trouble finding the front door); otherwise, its interior resembled the usual hot dog stand decor found almost everywhere here in the metro area. The menu offerings were pretty standard, but offered a couple of interesting items that I went after, such as the "grabber" dog (bacon-wrapped, deep-fried jumbo dog with cheese and Chicago-style toppings, hold the sport peppers) and homemade fries doused with garlic butter, both of which were quite good. My kids enjoyed their plain hot dogs with fries and carbonated lemonade (don't tell Mom) as we all noshed outside on the patio (which we had to ourselves on this nice day - the good folks at Tommy's were kind enough to open it up for us). All in all, I'd have to say that this was among my better hot dog experiences on the South side and will definitely be on my return list.

From Tommy's, we proceeded east to Western Avenue and then north a-ways to the Beverly neighborhood of town to find Original Rainbow Cone (9233 S. Western Ave.), serving mom-and-pop ice cream since 1926. The first stand on this site lasted for 4 years before the current pink-hued building was erected in 1930. At the time, this part of the city was out in the sticks, as they say, and the owners' best customers were people making the drive south from Downtown to visit the many cemeteries in the area. The environment is now quite a bit more urban, with a golf course across the street and residences nearby. As for the famous rainbow cone, it consists of 5 different ice cream slabs piled atop each other (see photo above), with chocolate on the bottom, followed by strawberry, Venetian vanilla with cherries and walnuts (what they call "Palmer House"), pistachio, and orange sherbet, all on a cone with a little drip tray around it to prevent messes (genius). This was a fine way, I might add, to complement a deep-fried, bacon-wrapped hot dog, although the progeny kept it simple, preferring just chocolate to the ostentatiousness of my rainbow cone. Later on, I expressed surprise to Mrs. Hackknife that she hadn't mentioned them before (her family has roots not far from Beverly) and she told me that she'd never been there. Having grown up in the Northwest suburbs, I of course had no clue that such a thing ever existed and was pretty happy w/myself for sussing it out.