Wednesday, December 14, 2011
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).