Friday, December 30, 2011

EL Ideas

Although my new immersion blender provided an early Xmas for denizens of the Commissary, I didn't want my stomach to feel left out of the proceedings. Luckily, a chance email arrived mid-month giving me the opportunity to treat my digestive tract to a pre-present as well. Back in October, I placed my name on an email list requesting a reservation at EL Ideas, a 10-table restaurant created by Chefs Phillip Foss (of MeatyBalls sandwich truck fame, chronicled in this blog last January) and Andrew Brochu (formerly with Alinea and the now-defunct Kith and Kin, which we visited in July 2010) in the catering space that had been used for Foss's food truck. With everyone falling all over themselves this year about such new local sweetheart ventures as Next and Girl & The Goat, EL Ideas has operated largely under the mainstream foodie radar, quietly turning out amazing, Trotter-esque plates of food without the fine-dining pretense (evidenced by its location in a completely un-trendy neighborhood, an industrial park near 14th and Western, next to the freight train tracks). Given its diminutive size and reservation backlog, I didn't expect to dine there before 2012, yet here was an email from the EL Ideas hostess, offering us a mid-week table right before Xmas, which I enthusiastically snapped up.

For a refreshing change from usual city visits, street parking wasn't an issue on this dilapidated side of town, where the skyscrapers of the Loop glow off in the distance. Mrs. Hackknife and I were met at the door by Bill, the maitre'd, who took our coats (since the staff just about outnumbers the diners, everyone's pretty much on a first-name basis here). When you first walk inside, you immediately notice that, other than a waist-high partition, there's little separation between the kitchen and the dining area (see Photo #2 above); in fact, Bill encouraged us a couple of times to get up and walk back to food prep, take pictures, interact with the chefs, etc. Despite his reputation of having an outsized ego, Chef Foss made himself accessible a number of times, patiently answering questions about bee pollen and shellfish while clearly focused on the task of creating eye-popping plates. For each of the 13 courses, a cadre of cooks emerged from the kitchen to deliver the dishes, with one of them providing a detailed explanation of the ingredients and the presentation. Our first course included a small pile of orange fish roe laid atop a bed of round cucumber, with small globes of mustard and passionfruit gelee on the side (think of it as an exercise in circles). This was followed by one of my favorites of the evening, a beautiful and delicious plate of raw tuna slab with bottarga (a cured Mediterranean fish roe), anchovy, and saffron accents (see Photo #1 above). Not to be outdone, next appeared a charred piece of curried cauliflower, propping up what appeared to be a kale chip, both accompanied by a small scoop of popcorn ice cream with a cheddar powder - potent and rich in flavor, everything melded well together. Course #4 was hearty chunks of lobster meat surrounded by 4 different preparations of choke (artichoke, sun choke, and other chokes that escape my memory), topped with a pinkish puree of brandade (salt cod) and dusted with the aforementioned bee pollen, which added a floral characteristic.

Things began to lag a bit through the subsequent four dishes, which included (#5) grilled octopus with potatoes, mint, and drops of blood orange gelee, (#6) mushrooms with lemon, tomato, and Parmesan cheese (I managed to force this one down despite my aversion to mushrooms), (#7) scallop with radish, chanterelles, and black garlic, served in a giant scallop shell (ditto), and (#8) a tiny saddle of hare with chestnut, prosciutto, and cocoa nibs, the latter being quite tasty, but minuscule in size. The next three courses were all meat and all wonderful: (#9) a succulent jidori chicken breast served with sweetbreads, celery root, and raisins (the chicken reminiscent of the juicy slab received during the Paris 1906 menu at Next), (#10) an amazing lamb medallion, medium rare, with merguez, couscous, and harissa (immediately conjuring up images of Morocco - see Photo #3 above), and (#11) a venison chop drizzled in sassafras syrup and adorned with dates and pecans. Last, but not least, came 2 dessert plates, the first being a sort of deconstructed eggnog, featuring a sweetened egg yolk, rum sauce, and vanilla ice cream (again, I choked down the egg against my better judgment), followed by a smear of chocolate infused with espresso and Forbidden Rose (which, near as I can tell, is a perfume developed by pop singer Avril Lavigne - I am not making this up) and a small portion of framboisine (white almond cake with raspberry mousse).

Because the restaurant has no liquor license, guests are encouraged to bring their own wine (no corkage fee), which we did. I wanted to bring a single vino that would pair well with a diverse selection of foods and I opted for pinot noir, although the only one I could find in the Commissary cellar was a bottle featuring a smiling Chef Shawn McClain from the Cooper's Hawk dinner we attended back in May (see earlier posting). Once Bill opened it for us, he glanced at the bottle's label and immediately walked it back to the kitchen to show Chef Foss. For a moment, I thought that may have resulted in our ticket out of the joint (is it gauche to bring wine with another cook's picture on it to dinner?) and I don't know exactly what conversation ensued; however, I did see Bill save the empty bottle on the back counter after service was over, possibly for the staff to vandalize at some point in the future (I should note that they were kind enough to offer Mrs. Hackknife and me each a complimentary pouring of some house wine when ours had been exhausted, so it couldn't have been a major faux pas). In any case, to summarize, the missus and I received all of this great cuisine and unique ambiance (which included, but was not limited to, the ultra-attentive service, interaction with the chefs, access to the kitchen, and surprisingly whimsical house soundtrack of Carpenters covers, Sesame Street jingles, and the like) for the low, low price of $135 a person (prior to tip). We left EL Ideas with full bellies and the feeling that we'd indulged in one of Chicago's best-kept culinary secrets. Kudos to the chefs and continued success...

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Kabocha Squash Soup/Carrot-Ginger Soup

I bought myself an early Xmas present this year, that being an immersion (hand) blender from Costco. Why would I commit such an act a mere week or two before the holiday? One word - soup. Cold weather is here, our last 2 farmboxes of the season are laden with squash and carrots, and I'll go batty if I have to consume another version of stuffed gourd in 2011. Soup is the solution to all of these issues since 1) it's hearty, 2) it can include mass quantities of vegetables, 3) it's usually tasty and generally healthy depending on the prep, and 4) it's pretty easy to make provided you have the correct tools on hand (hence the new appliance). With an immersion blender in the Commissary, we no longer have to pour hot, chunky liquids into a stand blender or food processor in order to puree them into a smooth soup (thereby putting the cook at risk for unsightly burns, or, worse, spillage onto the nice counters and wood cabinets while critical eyes watch) - now we just slurry everything out right in the pot.

Trusty tool in hand, I set off to make the first soup, this one featuring kabocha squash (fairly similar in look and flavor to the red kuri from my last posting), pancetta, and fried sage leaves (recipe courtesy of the now-defunct Gourmet magazine via Epicurious). Most portions of the process were very straightforward (e.g., roasting the squash in the oven and scooping out the pulp), with the exception of the sage leaves, which had to be flash-fried in a large saucepan containing a little canola oil heated to 365F. Having never attempted to fry herbs before, I was a little taken aback by the mist of hot oil that erupted as I dropped the sage leaves into the pot; fortunately, the cauldron settled down quickly enough for me to fish them out in a few seconds without requiring a skin graft. It turns out that the fried sage and the crumbled fried pancetta (cooked separately) are key ingredients, adding rich savory notes when sprinkled atop the finished broth (which contains squash, onion, garlic, and chicken stock). Served up with a crusty bread and a light protein (like roasted chicken), this soup makes a fine meal to satisfy even the pickiest eaters (except my kids).

Soup #2 is a carrot base with "ginger essence" (whatever that means), the brainchild of one Chef Carl Schroeder, formerly of Restaurant Arterra in the San Diego Marriott (and who now owns his own well-regarded place, Market, in that same city). This recipe stretched my cooking chops a little more than the first, requiring me to do a little legwork on how to properly use a stalk of lemongrass (discard all but the bottom 6 to 8 inches and remove the tough outer layer before chopping). Another hurdle came when trying to complete the finished soup - once pureed with the hand blender, I was instructed to filter the cooked liquid through a fine-mesh sieve, retaining only the juice to be served tableside; however, there was so little juice leftover and so much pulp left behind in the sieve that I opted to incorporate some of the pulp into the final product (maybe half of it?) to add volume. This ended up not being a bad idea, as the pulp added a nice texture and a little heft to the carrot and ginger liquid. Light sour cream and black pepper were added to the bowls to further deepen the flavor profile (I decided to forgo the chopped chives). Although a little odd-looking (it wasn't orange like you might expect, but more burgundy since I used a couple of purple carrots in the mix), this soup tasted good and (like the first one) made a great side dish at dinner.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Red Kuri Squash Pie

In that ever-shrinking period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we received a red kuri squash in the farmbox during one of our last shipments of the year. It's not a bad looking thing as far as squashes go (see photo above) and has a bit of sweetness to it that other varieties lack. With that in mind, I set out to find a dessert-type recipe for it on the Internet and came up with one (red kuri squash pie recipe) pretty quickly from another blog called Healthy Green Kitchen. At first glance, the end product looks similar to pumpkin pie (and God knows we've had enough of that lately), but has a fluffier consistency to it (more like a custard), probably due to the cream in the batter instead of evaporated milk (which we use in the Commissary pumpkin pie). Other ingredients listed in the recipe are mostly natural/organic; however, I used whatever mega-corporation stuff I had on hand here (including a pre-fab crust) and it seemed to work out just fine (future health impacts notwithstanding). If you're looking for a change-of-pace fall dessert this holiday season, I encourage you to give this one a try.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Short Cuts

Although few posts have made it onto the blog lately, we've been busy collecting material to add over the past month. Here's a snapshot writeup of several places where we've dined during this time (Ed. note - the brevity is not to suggest that these eateries are not each worthy of a full posting; rather, I've just reached the point where I can't catch up anymore and need to do a brain dump for sanity's sake as we approach the end of the year):

Reel Club - Oakbrook, IL

Reel Club is a relatively new venture for the folks at Lettuce Entertain You, popping up in the old Papagus space at Oakbrook Court Mall. My old friend Chad (who works across the street at McDonald's HQ) and I met up for a rare midweek lunch not too long ago and I suggested that we try it out. The focus here is on seafood and they seem to do it fairly well - I had a cup of the house gumbo to start, followed by a lobster roll (lobster salad served on a buttered brioche sandwich-style) that's probably among the better versions that you'll find west of the Adirondacks (it was served with tasty fried potato strings on the side). My friend's entree (pan-roasted tilapia in a creamy Shrimp Bienville sauce) was just ok according to him; however, we ate well enough to consider a return visit at some point.

Rudy's Hot Dog - Toledo, OH

The photo on top says it all - Hackknife Jr. is happily noshing on an original Rudy's Hot Dog (he rarely happily eats anything) while chili dogs await consumption on the tray in front of me. When we travel to eastern Ohio for Thanksgiving, the missus and I like to plan our meal stops at non-chain restaurants when time (and the progeny) allows. This year, we were passing through the greater Toledo area near dinnertime and decided to give Rudy's a go. The original location (not the one we stopped at, which wasn't far from the Ohio Turnpike) opened in 1971 and had the distinction of hosting the Commander-in-Chief earlier this year as he passed through town (this is how I first got wind of their existence). House specialties are the chili dogs and chili mac (chili served on a bed of noodles, like they do in Cincinnati). Our restaurant was pretty much empty (not surprising for 7:30 pm on a Tuesday night) when we arrived, so we had the run of the place, a good thing considering we needed to change Hackknifette's pull-up in the middle of our booth. Rudy's environs can be described as blue-collar casual with a lunch counter vibe, right down to the cafeteria trays and the rotating dessert case containing jello and pudding. My apologies to my Toledo peeps (sorry, Rob D., Mr. & Mrs. G, Tony J., etc.), but I have to play the Chicago hot dog snob card and say that I was disappointed in the hot dog itself, which appeared to be steamed instead of grilled and pork-based (we're spoiled with the prevailing Vienna Beef and kosher beef dogs around here). The fries were also somewhat mediocre, but props go out to the chili - if we come back next time through, I'll be sure to sample a plate of chili mac.

Howe Restaurant - Howe, IN

Our return trip from Ohio found us careening off of the Indiana Toll Road to the quaint hamlet of Howe (best known for a 19th-Century military academy with its doors still open) a few miles south of Exit 121. Mrs. Hackknife found online a potential lunch spot for us that was simply called "Howe Restaurant", yet had some surprisingly good reviews. The unpaved parking lot was jammed as we walked in to find a place even more blue-collar than Rudy's with a curtained-off smoking section to the left (I wasn't aware that such things even existed anymore). The food offerings were diner-esque, simple and American traditional. I tried the meatloaf platter, which consisted of a large slab of mediocre meatloaf atop a slice of white bread, drowning in a pool of gravy the color of espresso. Much better was Mrs. Hackknife's plate, swapping a gargantuan fried pork tenderloin (delicious, I might add) for the meatloaf on the same bread and gravy. Also happy were the elderly diners at the table next to us, all of whom seemed to be enjoying sinful-looking burgers. While the kids were making a pit stop, I had an interesting conversation with the owner, who was an ingratiating fellow channeling Robert DeNiro in both appearance and speaking manner. He told me he used to own Hollywood Grill (corner of North and Ashland) in Chicago, but got fed up with the crime/big-city headaches and decided to relocate to Howe in hopes of achieving a more laid-back lifestyle (he confided that he had been an "informant" for the government at one point and might have been joking, although after a minute or two of talking with him, I got the impression that this might actually be plausible). DeNiro's alter ego wished us well, thanked us profusely for stopping in, and sent us on our way with lollipops for the progeny.

Sprecher's Restaurant - Lake Geneva, WI

The kids, missus, and I recently took a weekend getaway trip to the water park (indoor water park, that is - we're talking about December in Wisconsin) at the Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva, only about a 2-hour drive from the Commissary. The food onsite was what you'd expect from a place that caters primarily to children, namely mediocre pizza, burgers, and the like. On Saturday evening, for a change of pace, we ventured into town and had dinner at Sprecher's Restaurant and Pub, a dining outpost of the well-respected microbrewery of the same name in Milwaukee. Of course, we were able to sample some of their fine beers, including the El Rey Mexican, Octoberfest, and the Pub Ale. Mrs. Hackknife quite enjoyed her wienerschnitzel and spaetzle, served Holstein-style with a fried egg on top (ick), while I tried the drunken chicken, marinated in hefe weiss beer and accompanied by beer cheese potatoes with roasted vegetables (it was a little difficult to carve up a roast chicken with one hand occupied by a cranky and tired Hackknifette in my lap). We skipped dessert at the restaurant in favor of Snickers ice cream bars and local cheeses back at the resort following progeny bedtime.

Grand Geneva Brunch - Lake Geneva, WI

Our last meal before skipping town was brunch with Santa and Mrs. Claus at the Grand Geneva's steakhouse, a very classy operation in a very classy setting (as long as you overlook the fact that the resort used to be a Playboy Club back in the day). The spread offered here was impressive, with a food selection rivaling the better brunches I've had in Vegas. Some standouts that I recall were Chicken Cordon Bleu, a waffle station, crab cakes, prime rib, lots of fresh seafood, a bouche de noel (Xmas chocolate cake shaped like a Yule log), and a giant chocolate fountain with lots of dipping options, including pretzel rods (perfect for Hackknife Jr.) and pieces of Twinkie (perfect for me).

Roka Akor - Chicago, IL

A holiday cocktail party for Mrs. Hackknife's department on Friday night happened to deposit us right in the heart of the River North dining district with a few hours to kill before heading home to the babysitter (cue "Ode to Joy" here). Appetizers and a few drinks were not enough to take the edge off our appetites, so we mulled over a plethora of outstanding restaurant options within a short walk (Cafe Iberico, Frontera Grill, Naha, G&T Oyster Bar, Cyrano, and Crofton on Wells just to name a few) before settling on Roka Akor for dinner. Roka is a new place that bills itself as a "steak and sushi" parlor (although, up until recently, I believe it was "sushi and steak". Hmmm.) and it's been generating significant buzz since it opened the doors this past summer. Unquestionably trendy and filled with attractive-looking sorts (somehow, they decided to let me in), the main draw is the kitchen's robata grill that cooks food over imported Japanese wood (not unlike what we experienced at Raku in Vegas earlier this year). Given the waiting crowd, it appeared unlikely that we'd sit down anytime soon when we checked in, but the hostess managed to wedge us into a small table in the lounge almost immediately. Over a carafe of sake, we ordered a bunch of small plates per the server's recommendations, including wagyu beef and kimchi dumplings (very good), butterfish tataki with white asparagus and yuzu (extremely good, clean and citrusy and unlike anything you'd find at run-of-the-mill sushi bars), robata-grilled pork belly with marinated beet roots (sinfully good), crispy fried squid with chili and lime (just ok, pretty standard kalamari), and a tasty bowl of seasonal vegetables served tempura-style with a complex dipping sauce that Mrs. Hackknife said she hadn't had outside of Tokyo before. All told, the great food made us forget about the cramped quarters, ear-splitting din, and show ponies (and I'm conveniently ignoring the fact that I woke up very nauseous later that night, not sure which food item(s) to pin it on).

Monday, December 12, 2011

LM Restaurant/Paciugo Gelato

With the holidays closing in and Mrs. Hackknife traveling for work more than usual, we here at the Commissary have had little opportunity to post updates during the month of December. As a result, I've got a backlog of material waiting to be hashed out for your reading pleasure. In an attempt to catch up, I'm planning soon to do a multi-restaurant dump where I write maybe a paragraph or two about each in a single posting (I know, it's crude and a bit lazy on my part, but I don't see any other way to crawl out from beneath the ever-growing pile). Until then, I sit down this evening to pen a regular report that's been waiting for its due for almost a month.

As we are frequent diners and, by extension, frequent users of Open Table (OT), earlier this year Mrs. Hackknife earned a dining certificate from the good folks at OT entitling us to $20 off dinner at LM Restaurant, located in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Square. During 2011, we tried a number of times to cash in said certificate, but we were never quite able to find an evening where we were both available and could get a reservation. With the expiration date looming in early January, I finally took the liberty of reserving a table for us on a Saturday night in November just so we could use it up. I'd heard decent things about LM, which bills itself as a "gasto bistro", a term that I'm not sure I fully understand (although it seems to involve fine French-inspired dining without the stuffiness - I'm ok with this). In my mind, I had images of steak frites and other good things that one can get at your average Parisian bistro; however, that perception wasn't entirely accurate as I'll get to in a minute. The restaurant itself is located on a busy stretch of Lincoln Avenue and isn't very big, at least not in the front dining room where we were seated. The decor is bright (yellow walls, orange booths) and modern, with tables close together and a relatively high level of background noise (not surprising given the small space). After settling in, we ordered our starters - I chose the salt cod brandade (garnished with piquillo pepper puree, olive oil, and brioche) and Mrs. Hackknife picked the foie gras torchon (served with red onion confit, strawberry, basil, and toasted brioche), both of which were very good. For the entrees, my lovely bride swooned over the prime tenderloin (she's a steak girl through and through), which was accompanied by pont neuf potatoes, wild mushrooms, and a bearnaise sauce; I opted for the Amish chicken, served atop sweet potatoes, chestnut and ham ragout, candied pecans, and topped with a few Brussels sprout leaves (see photo above). The bite of tenderloin that Mrs. Hackknife graciously shared with me was good (I'm not as much of a steak enthusiast as she is), but my chicken was absolutely fantastic (I commented to our server that I wished I could cook chicken like this at home - he agreed). In lieu of dessert, we did the French thing and ordered the cheese plate. We were presented with 3 varieties of cheese (Brie, Hook's Blue from Wisconsin, and Tarentaise from Vermont) with date/banana compote, more candied pecans, and nice bread. All told, with our certificate, it was a very affordable meal that certainly met our expectations on quality (I sense we'll be back).

As you might imagine, we were pretty full after all that indulgence, but not too full to have a little gelato on the way back to the car. It turns out that one of the better gelato chains around (Paciugo, currently 38 locations with one probably coming soon to a place near you) happened to be just up the street, so we ducked in for a little sweet refreshment. Paciugo started in Dallas in 2000, a scant 2 years after I left the Lone Star State (figures), and they offer a plethora of unique gelato flavors. I tried a sample of the triple chocolate and I was immediately blown away by it, while Mrs. Hackknife happily noshed on a Mediterranean sea salt caramel. While we've already designated Black Dog as our favorite downtown gelato stand and Zarlengo's as our close-to-home gelato fix, I'm pretty sure Paciugo will get our business anytime we're seeking dessert on the North Side...