Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Graham Elliot

After the food extravaganza that we experienced at Charlie Trotter's, it was a little hard to get psyched up for more fine dining the very next night, this time at Graham Elliot (GE). GE is the flagship restaurant of Graham Elliot Bowles (he recently dropped the "Bowles" part of his last name, all the better for branding), a local chef known for his inventive, molecular gastronomic-esque cuisine formerly at Avenues in the Palmer House Hotel and now at his own joints. He's cultivated something of a bad boy image for himself, co-judging with Gordon Ramsay on MasterChef, dressing like he belongs on the cover of a Weezer album, and exhibiting a generally-bombastic attitude on most subjects (but especially cooking and other chefs).

As one might expect, this rebelliousness is reflected in both the decor of GE and the food. I arrived a few minutes late for our 6 pm reservation and was escorted to the sparsely decorated bar area to wait for Mrs. Hackknife, where I noticed about as many tequila bottles behind the counter as I did beers. Although there was clubby-type dance music on the house sound system, the restaurant had almost a honky-tonk feel to it. When she arrived and we were finally seated, we opted to try the middle-of-the-road, 10-course tasting menu called the "experience" tasting (our server advised us that we weren't going to have enough time to do the 15-course, or "repertoire", tasting menu and still make our 8 pm performance at Second City). While waiting for our first course, we munched on a bag of GE's version of beer nuts, popcorn doused with truffle butter, black pepper, and parmesan fluff (I wasn't a huge fan of this as I thought the popcorn was too soggy, but Mrs. Hackknife liked it). First up came an amuse bouche, a consomme of compressed watermelon, mint leaf, and jalapeno oil, presented in a shot glass for easy consumption. Next up was a small plate of Wagyu beef (see the photo above), served tartare style with bearnaise yolk, asparagus salad, and pomme frites (french fries), followed by one of the restaurant's signature dishes, a deconstructed caesar salad made of gem lettuce, a white anchovy, and a brioche twinkie, which was basically a long crouton.

Our soup course bore an uncanny resemblance to a soup we'd had at Trotter's the night before, except this one had a little spiny lobster, toasted coquito (baby coconut), and a vanilla marshmallow in it along with the corn bisque, yielding a much more playful dish. We also ended up having more sweetbreads, this time as a schnitzel with napa cabbage, pickled turnip, and chanterelle ragout. A canape of duck confit, celery puree, and pine nut was amazing, as was a salmon plate with blis roe, garlic scape, and shaved fennel. One more fish course ensued (halibut with leek brandade, house bacon, and haricot vert, or green beans), followed by what was my favorite course of the night, a piece of Jidori chicken with dirty rice, country pate, and fried okra. The proceedings slipped a little when we were given bison loin with baked beans, Texas onion, and pepper salsa (not so good), but rallied upon the presentation of a palate cleanser in the form of Concord grape juice, purple essence, and soda spritzer (essentially a fancy grape soda). Our two desserts were excellent, a wild strawberry served with white balsamic vinegar, coriander arlette, fromage blanc, and a basil emulsion, and then a small piece of flourless chocolate cake with a root beer sauce, port-infused cherry, and birch caramel (accompanied on the plate by the words "Happy Anniversary", which, although not entirely inaccurate since it's coming up on 9/6, wasn't really the reason why we were here).

By all accounts, the meal was mostly delicious, artfully presented and well executed, not as high class as Trotter's, but certainly in the ballpark. I have no doubt we would have appreciated the GE experience more had we not been overwhelmed the prior night, so we owe them a return visit when our palates are a little clearer.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Charlie Trotter's (Kitchen Table)

Recently, Mrs. Hackknife celebrated both a milestone birthday (out of respect for her, I won't mention which one; however, if you're really interested, you'll find a song with a numeric title on U2's War album that might give you a clue) and a hard-earned promotion at work, so I thought I'd surprise her (and, by association, me) with a little gift in the form of an extravagant meal at one of the city's top dining establishments, Charlie Trotter's. She and I had eaten at Trotter's only once before, back in 2002 when she had completed her actuarial exams (a big accomplishment in and of itself) - this is when we were still just dating and it represented (at least for me) my first real introduction to high-class cuisine in a lifetime that had pretty much been limited to frozen dinners and cold cereal up to that point. Needless to say, I found the whole thing very stuffy and intimidating: unheard of ingredients/dish descriptions, small portions that looked too nice to touch, the feeling like I needed to raise my hand when I needed to go to the bathroom, an overwhelming desire to stop at Burger King for a Whopper on the way home, etc. Fast forward almost 10 years and now we've become seasoned pros at this type of dining experience; in fact, we have a far wider appreciation for them and actively seek them out. The time felt right for us to revisit where the foodie road began and I could think of no better place to choose as the venue for our special celebration.

I contacted the restaurant about 6 weeks in advance of Mrs. Hacknife's birthday to inquire about reserving the kitchen table, which I'd heard was a standout experience even above and beyond what one would normally encounter at Trotter's, and I was able to reserve it for a party of 4 (the other part of the surprise was to secretly arrange for Mrs. H's respected co-worker/friend Wendy and her husband Andy, both fellow foodies, to join us that night). When the big day arrived, Mrs. Hackknife picked me up at the train station not knowing exactly where we were going, other than it was somewhere near the North/Halsted stop on the Red Line (or was I bluffing?). Conveniently for me, that particular neighborhood happens to be home to another amazing restaurant that we both love and long for a return visit, Alinea, so it was easy to me to do a drive-by of the decoy place and pretend to pull up to the valet stand, only to zoom away at the last instant. Facing a now displeased and hungrier Mrs. Hackknife, I assured her that our next stop was the real one (or was I bluffing?), and, after missing the valet stand at Trotter's and having to go around the block (which, I SWEAR, was an honest-to-goodness accident), we pulled up for real and went inside to await our dining companions.

Once seated, we could immediately tell that eating in the kitchen would be much different than our last visit, that is, much more casual, irreverent, and relaxed (a welcome occurrence if you ask me, as the one criticism that is most levied at Chef Trotter is that he's too high-falutin'). For example, you'll see us all seated at the kitchen table in Photo #1 above - this picture was taken by our head server for the evening, Eric, who is literally standing on a metal counter in the dishwashing station while taking the picture. All of the servers and chefs were very approachable, even going out of their way to interact with us at times, and we were able to walk around the kitchen taking pictures pretty much at will (of course, I tried to keep a respectful distance and avoid being a nuisance as much as possible, as it was, you know, their workspace). At the end of the meal, Mrs. Hackknife was given a happy birthday serenade by the whole kitchen staff, an event that I'm sure she won't soon forget. Overall, the level of service we received was nothing short of spectacular (and even better when I got copies of our menus as souvenirs the next day - more on that later).

And the food, you ask? Well, let's just say that I didn't feel the urge for a burger run after we were finished this time around. Everything that was presented to us was both aesthetically amazing (down to the silverware/serving pieces) and delicious to boot. We were given 15 courses in all (not counting the 6 individual plates that made up the first course, which resembled a giant bento box - see Photo #2 above), a well-balanced array of vegetable, seafood, red meat, and dessert offerings. I don't normally like to list out menu items from a meal line-by-line in my postings (it feels a little rote to do that), but, in this case, I think that's the best way to document what glided down our gullets:

Course #1 -
Chilled miso soup with braised rishiri kombu (Japanese seaweed)
Peekytoe crab with hearts of palm and tarragon
Charred bonito with compressed watermelon and kanzuri (red pepper paste)
Barron point oyster with yuzu mignonette (vinegar sauce)
Skate wing terrine with grapefruit and preserved ramps
(mystery plate not documented on menu - lost to the mists of time)

Course #2 - Squash blossom beignet with zucchini and black truffle

Course #3 - New Zealand cockles with sweet corn and pickled Yukon Gold potatoes (Photo #3)

Course #4 - Heirloom tomato terrine with white sesame and daikon radish

Course #5 - Seared sea scallop with plum, fava beans, and bonito

Course #6 - Grilled Atlantic squid with carrots and couscous

Course #7 - Heirloom beet "lasagna" with sweetbreads and saffron

Course #8 - Suckling pig with black-eyed peas and kale

Course #9 - Lola duck breast with hoisin, spring leek, and thai basil

Course #10 - Elysian Fields lamb with fire-roasted bell peppers and chickpea (Photo #4)

Course #11 - 72-hour braised short rib with lotus and kohlrabi

Course #12 - Ombra (Spanish sheep's milk cheese) with black mission fig and crispy bread

Course #13 - Cucumber sorbet with honeydew melon and candied cumin

Course #14 -
Pineapple tomatillo soup with blackberries and yogurt gelato
Coconut mousse with dark rum and key lime

Course #15 -
Cacao fruit gelato with ceylon cinnamon and pequin peppers
Green tea ice cream with cherries and white chocolate mousse

I failed to mention that Mrs. Hackknife and I opted to do the wine pairing with this menu, which seemed like a reasonable idea at the time, but after 15 courses of food and innumerable pours of nice wines (including champagne, garganega from Italy, chardonnay, pinot nero, cabernet sauvignon, a couple Spanish wines, an Australian sweet wine, and a few others that I couldn't finish nor remember), I was beginning to suffer from consumption fatigue, later manifesting itself as a nasty hangover the following morning (I had to swear off alcohol for at least 10 hours). Even though my kids saw to it that I couldn't sleep off the excesses of the prior evening, it was quite worth the temporary discomfort and urge to avoid eating anything not called Cheerios.

One final note - I called the restaurant the next day to see if we could get copies of the menu from our dinner, not only to help me regurgitate what we had in my blog, but also as a nice souvenir for us and our dining companions. They happily obliged, even though Eric told us during the meal that they normally don't print up menus for the kitchen table (as what they serve changes daily). When they arrived in the mail the other day, I noticed that Chef Trotter appeared to have signed all 4 copies of the menu on the letterhead. This was a fitting touch to conclude what had been a very classy evening....

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Gage

Waaaay back in November, Mrs. Hackknife and I bid on a collection of restaurant gift certificates (imagine that) in a silent auction to benefit the Chicago Training Center (CTC), a charity in which she's heavily involved and I know I've mentioned in past postings. Lo and behold, we won the certificates and finally decided this summer that it might actually be time to visit some of the places that were involved. The first, Sheffield's, is a bar on (duh) Sheffield Ave. not far from Wrigley Field that just recently went through a sort-of rebranding as a casual barbecue joint. Prior to a Cubs game on a Sunday evening, we stopped in to nosh and use our $50 credit. The food wasn't bad; however, when we detached the gift card from its paper mounting, we discovered that it was only valid for a 2nd Sheffield's location (in the suburbs) that had recently gone out of business. The nice folks at Sheffield's #1 agreed to honor half of the $50, so all was not lost, at least not until we arrived at the game to watch the Cubs get beat down by the Yankees.

Which brings us to our 2nd freebie place, The Gage, a gastropub on Michigan Avenue across the street from Millenium Park. The Gage is very much in the mold of another of our preferred local eateries, the Publican, meaning many good beers and much to choose from as far as unique comfort food (sausages, poutine, duck and pig parts served in inventive ways, etc.). I'd already dined here twice and Mrs. Hackknife had been here an extra time with a client who happens to be chummy with the restaurant's owner, Billy Lawless; in fact, Billy introduced himself to her during their visit and told her to call him the next time she was planning on coming by. Business card in hand, Mrs. Hackknife dialed Billy up around 4 on the afternoon before our reservation and left him a message that we'd be by for dinner that night. This little perk managed to get us a quiet table in the back of the noisy dining room with two complimentary glasses of rose champagne (one of my favorites), courtesy of Billy (who, sadly, wasn't in the restaurant that evening). Nothing like starting the meal off on a high note. Anyway, we picked fried chicken livers with spicy mustard as an appetizer (listed as "snacks" on the menu) and they were delicious, tasty, but not greasy, washed down with a nice Belgian beer. Next up were an amazing venison tartare (including quail egg, capers, and a mustard vinaigrette) and a braised rabbit salad with crisp rice, eating both of which made me feel like we were doing our part to reduce the woodland creature population in our neighborhood.

By this time, we were beginning to fill up, but not so much that we couldn't tackle the evening's marquee dish: locally crafted sausages served with crisp potatoes mixed in brie. The first sausage was a house-made pheasant/scallion/thyme creation, while the second was a Polish wedding sausage created by Bobak's, a well-known local provider of quality Polish food. Both were great, but the wedding sausage was incredibly delicious, a blend of garlic and pepper flavors in a neat, smoky bundle. Once our waiter let us know that Bobak's retails it around town, I immediately started beating the bushes to find some for the Commissary (still looking, unfortunately). To help counteract the excessive consumption of meat at our table, we ordered a side of Brussels sprouts (served in bacon and brie, of course) that ended up being just a wee bit better than the sprouts I'd eaten in Asheville at Tupelo Honey the prior week. Desserts were a little anticlimactic, but just as good - we shared a chocolate and salted caramel ganache with toasted milk ice cream, plus a cinnamon brioche with marscapone ice cream and blueberries. All told, we spent every penny of our $150 gift card, plus $0.91 more (oh, and $30 extra to cover tip). Billy (or at least his staff, to be accurate) clearly did us right and we'll be back soon, possibly even before another silent auction....

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Adventures in Deep South 2011

The Commissary is back on line again after our annual weeklong visit to Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina. While this trip mostly features extended sun, sand, and overeating courtesy of my good-cooking Ohio relatives, a journey wouldn't be a journey without some attempt to collect blog fodder in the process. Unfortunately, a mid-day departure from Chicago (instead of early morning) and Hackknifette's flu bug motivated us to drive more and stop less than last year so we could reach our destination as soon as possible. Still, we managed to find time to make an impromptu visit at a Waffle House just outside of Columbia, SC on Day 2 to have a late lunch and try to shunt around a beach traffic jam clogging up I-20 (for those of you unaware, Waffle Houses are as ubiquitous in the South as Denny's is up North). Mrs. Hackknife was blown away by her waffle and I quite enjoyed my Texas Angus Steak Melt (burger w/grilled onions and double cheese served on Texas toast), at least until Hackknifette upchucked up on me the juice box she had just shotgunned. Changing shirts in the parking lot in true redneck fashion, I had a brief moment to ponder the fact that they serve numerous varieties of hash browns in lieu of fries before we piled back into the car to continue our journey seaward.

Upon arrival at the beach, the first days of the trip were a little on the difficult side: sick kids (Hackknife Jr. eventually caught the bug, although fortunately not as bad as his sister) and heavy rain showers prevented much outdoor activity, until finally on Day 4, we opted to punt and take the kids to Wilmington, NC (the nearest large city) in the hopes that our absence would improve the weather for the rest of our party staying behind (it actually did). After a few hours at the local children's museum, we stopped in for lunch at an old haunt just a couple of blocks away in downtown Wilmington, Dock Street Oyster Bar. Mrs. Hackknife and I had eaten here on our last visit to Wilmington in 2005 (when we were still technically childless, although she was pregnant with Hackknife Jr.) and found it to be just as good the second time around, not to mention very kid-friendly (noodles and quesadillas on the kid's menu - perfect). We dove into a sampler platter of 6 oysters, 3 prepared Rockefeller style (bacon, spinach, and hollandaise sauce), the other 3 topped with bacon and a backfin crab mix (referred to as "Imperial" style). For entrees, Mrs. Hackknife chose the crab melt sandwich, while I had the day's special of blackened mahi-mahi with pasta salad. We continued our culinary tour of town by heading over to the Gourmet Market just up the street, featuring groceries, beverages, and ice cream served up with a hefty dose of New Age vibe, the type of place where you find incense sticks in-between motor oil and cans of tuna. Trippy music aside, the ice cream was great, made by a local artisan (he was at the counter taking an order from the owner while we were there) and loaded with flavor. The mango sorbet I had was the ideal antidote to the steamy temps outside. Our last stop before heading back home was Front Street Brewery to taste some brews over a basket of homemade chips. The house sampler featured five different beers, including a Hefeweizen, raspberry wheat, IPA, Kolsch, and a tripel bock, all of which I found to be mediocre at best (apparently, Wilmington rivals New Orleans with respect to poor beer culture).

Day 5 brought what I considered to be the foodie highlight of the trip: a visit to Scott's Bar-B-Que, located in Hemingway, SC (about 90 miles from our condo) for lunch. I had recently read about Scott's in the June/July issue of Saveur, which was heavily devoted to the barbecue arts in America. Scott's specialty is slow-cooked whole hog roasted overnight atop homemade charcoals, and it's prepared only on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. After polling our group to see if I had any takers crazy enough besides me to make a long drive into the backwoods for cooked pig (no one volunteered), I set out in the minivan to the hamlet of Hemingway (population: about 600), a quiet place where locals wave to you on their riding mowers as you pass by. Just on the far end of town is the shack harboring Scott's Variety Store, which appeared more rickety to me in person (see Photo #1 above) than the picture on the website. Gently closing the screen door so as not to knock down any timbers, I scanned the brief, hand-written posterboard doubling as a menu over the counter and placed my order of 1/2 lb. pulled pork, doused in the house BBQ sauce and served with two slices of white bread. I also ordered a couple dollars' worth of pig skins "off-the-hog" to go on the side. The lady working behind the counter scooped up my pork from a large pile of shredded meat on the back table, slapped it into a foam container along with the sauce and bread, put together another container with the skins, and off I went. I sat at a little bar opposite the counter and munched on my food while looking at the merchandise available in the "store" (mostly consisting of gum, bug spray, and matches as far as I could tell). The pork itself was quite tasty, although not as life-altering as one might expect for a rural joint gushed about in a big city magazine. The sauce (vinegar and mustard, not tomato-based, in keeping with Carolina tradition) was pretty spicy, yet pleasant, and the skins were, shall we say, challenging, not light and crunchy like a bagged pork rind, but calling to mind more like a rawhide chew toy that a dog might enjoy (I feared that I was being made fun of by the counter ladies as they watched this cracker city boy trying to gnaw on hunks of pigskin). Not wanting to leave empty-handed, I ordered a 2nd half-pound of pulled pork to go (no sauce this time) and grabbed a couple of bags of kettle-fried pork skins to share with everyone (these were much more like pork rinds, although still quite crunchy and robust, alternately fascinating or repulsing those who tried them back home). When mixed with my Aunt Monica's homemade tomato-based bbq sauce (I know, heresy to the locals), the second batch of meat was delicious and went quickly. I'm glad I made the trek all the way to Scott's, but next year, I think I might stay on the North Carolina side of the border to explore other far-flung roasted meat options.

Day 7 brought the end of the trip and the beginning of our long trek home. Having left the island before sunrise to beat the traffic, we pulled into a Huddle House for breakfast somewhere between Florence and Columbia, SC. Apparently, Huddle House is a competitor of the Waffle House chain with locations mostly in the South and Southeast and we found the two to be very similar. I ordered a monstrosity called the Southern Smothered Biscuit Platter, which included an open-face biscuit topped with sausage, hash browns, sausage gravy, cheddar cheese, and 2 scrambled eggs (I held the extra bacon to help reduce the cholesterol content) - it was nothing short of sublime. Bellies full, we proceeded north and made a quick detour in Columbia to Abbott Farms, a quaint operation offering the world's best combination of peach products and fireworks all under the same roof. Not being a pyrotechnics expert, I can't speak to the quality of their fireworks, but the peach-related merchandise was great: breads, salsas, ice cream, jams, syrups, sodas - you dream it up, they can probably engineer a peach version of it. We bought a bunch of foodstuffs, including a very spicy ginger ale manufactured by Blenheim, a small bottler known for its potent ginger ales, that had my sinuses buzzing like a hornet (and this was the MILD version).

Soon, we rolled into Asheville, NC to meet up with my sister and her significant other (who were also traveling home from the beach) for lunch at Tupelo Honey Cafe, a local institution known for farm-to-table comfort food (it reminded me a lot of Northdown Tap, which I recently blogged about). This was our 2nd attempt to dine there, as last year we were rebuffed by the long wait at dinnertime on a Friday night and ended up settling for Mexican food down the street. We only had to wait about 15 minutes this time and we were rewarded by some fine food and drinks, starting with a rosemary/peach lemonade that went down mighty easy on this hot July afternoon. I ordered an open-faced veggie melt that had fried green tomatoes, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers, lemon aioli, spinach, and melted havarti, while Mrs. Hackknife got a southern fried chicken BLT that looked amazing (see Photo #2 above) and tasted about as good. The sides, while interesting, were a little lacking - I tried the brown butter brussels sprouts and they were just ok. Some local beers (including Green Man and Highland Breweries, based in Asheville) were also sampled and were a bit disappointing as well. Of course, my palate might have been adversely affected by the 1,200-calorie breakfast that I had consumed just a few hours earlier. In any case, our appetites were completely sated until well into the evening and our arrival in Lexington, KY, where we spent the night. Exhausted and just looking for a quick, casual meal so we could get the progeny in bed, we found an El Chico Mexican restaurant near our hotel. I'd never heard of El Chico, but it's a chain with a smattering of locations in the South, Southeast, and, somewhat inexplicably, Egypt and the UAE (I wasn't aware that Arabs had a hankering for enchiladas). Anyway, the chips/salsa were fine and my brisket tacos were surprisingly good. Kiddos were happy because they could get Kraft mac & cheese (the real McCoy) for dinner. I'll be tempted to look for these guys if I ever find myself in Dubai tired of kebabs and couscous.

Our final travel day home found us passing through Indianapolis at lunchtime, giving us the perfect excuse to try Boogie Burger, hailed on Yelp as Indianapolis's best burger. They recently moved to a new location to mitigate issues regarding large customer volumes (the Yelp curse, as it were) and the new restaurant still had that new building smell, with a line of hungry people to boot. We managed to find 4 stools and a counter in the back of place to eat and I jumped in line to place our order. I picked a blue moon burger (1/3 lb. with blue cheese) and Mrs. Hackknife tried the Wild Wild West (1/3 lb. with cheddar cheese, bacon, onion rings, and bbq sauce), both of which were phenomenal. We also split an order of garlic fries, tossed w/fresh garlic and parsley - these were also great, about as good as the garlic fries at Fat Tommy's back home (and not as greasy). We make fairly regular trips to Indianapolis to visit friends and, based on our experience, I'm sure we'll be back to Broad Ripple and Boogie Burger as soon as we get the chance.