Friday, June 22, 2012

Next (Sicily Menu) - Revisited

Having returned from the City of Light yesterday (associated posting to follow, maybe soon), I have exactly 3 days between trips to revisit my placeholder writeup on the Next Sicily menu, which I will now attempt to do here. Our foodie friends Karen and Phil were kind enough to join us as we took a dining tour of the Mediterranean's largest island, home to Greek, Roman, Arabic, African, and contemporary Italian influences (plus probably a bunch of others that I'm missing). The slate of homestyle, stripped-down dishes prepared for us by Chef Beran and his staff this iteration at Next represented an abrupt departure from the last menu (el Bulli), which was all flair, science, and misdirection. Early on, we quickly realized that we were in for a rare treat.

Our table was first presented with 4 street-food appetizers, 3 of which you can see in the photo below: caponata (eggplant salad), panelle (chickpea fritters), and arancine (lamb tongue risotto balls). Blackened husks of fire-roasted artichokes (carciofi alle brace) are off to the left side.

Some of you may recall that I've written about making caponata before (in which eggplant is the main ingredient). I was pleased with my version, but this one was galaxies better, a fine mixture of perfectly seasoned vegetables that was delicious alone and made a great topping for the panelle (suggested by our server as a sort-of Sicilian nacho). The deep-fried risotto balls were rich and decadent, with the shredded lamb tongue made even more complex with the addition of saffron. Far and away, however, the standout of the 4 was the blackened artichokes, whose creamy white interiors (accented with balsamic?) could be scooped out with a spoon and hit 11 on the flavor scale ("even better than Gordon Ramsay's short ribs" said Phil, high praise indeed). For drink pairings, Mrs. Hackknife was given a glass of prosecco mixed with some amaro (a bitter Italian liqueur) and chamomile, while our designated driver (me) had a honey, chamomile, and saffron tea to go with the appetizers.

These beauties were followed by 2 pasta dishes (as often occurs in Italy, pasta preceded the fish and meat courses). First up was a small bowl of bucatini, a straw-like pasta tube, combined with a cream sauce and topped with 3 thin slices of umami-packed bottarga, the cured roe sac of tuna (or, in this case, red mullet) bound with beeswax. While this may sound less than appealing to many of you, it's actually quite good and I found myself wishing I had an Olive Garden's portion size of this dish.

Incredibly, the next pasta course was even better, consisting of gemelli (short twin strands of noodles twisted together) mixed with currants, pine nuts, and fennel, topped with a pair of lovely fried sardines (our fondness for small, salty fishes has been well-documented). The wine for this course was a vibrant blend of Inzolia, Cataratto, and Grecanico (white grapes native to Sicily). My non-alcoholic drink pairing was a, um, robust mixture of zucchini juice and something called Mount Olympus flower (also referred to as Greek mountain tea).

Continuing onward, we were presented with a family-style fish course, a grilled swordfish fillet dramatically plated with a roasted garlic bulb (which we happily disassembled and passed around), bundle of mint, and a mint/basil pesto. This was accompanied by a separate bowl containing an amazing chickpea salad topped with roasted romanesco broccoli that also quickly disappeared. I was given a strong concoction of green tomato, garlic, and white pepper to sip with my swordfish (not sure how I felt about this drink). Mrs. Hackknife's received another white Sicilian blend (tihs time Grillo and Cataratto) that was similar to Chardonnay with the herbal notes of a Sauvignon Blanc.

One protein remainded, described to us by our server as a pork shoulder braised for 7 hours, then plated with a tomato sauce featuring shallots, garlic, and accents of blood orange. The pork was inconceivably rich and spoon-tender, with a crispy flat exterior like the best bacon. Another great vegetable side also arrived at the table - asparagus, zucchini, and squash blossoms in a zesty vinaigrette. My glass of fennel verjus rouge (made from the juice of unripened red grapes) mixed with blood orange was a perfect match, as was the wine pairing, a lighter red featuring a blend of Nero d'Avola and Frappato.

Next up was a refreshing palate cleanser of watermelon granita, a shaved ice common in Sicily with a consistency that varies from place to place.

Our first of two desserts was also the most visually stunning dish of the evening. We first noticed the cassata at the table next to us, presented whole in all its glory. This sponge cake is a traditional Sicilian sweet with elaborate parts, including the decorative marzipan shell, a ricotta filling, and candied fruit toppings.

Unlike the other table, we received our cassata already sliced and plated with some additional jellied fruits. Our server was kind enough to bring out another uncut cake so we could take the picture you see above. Oh, in case you were wondering, the cake was fantastic, even without the unctuous dessert wine (a sweet version made from Moscato Bianco grapes) or the blended white balsamic, watermelon, and Pinot Noir juice cocktail.

Last up was a trio of tasty dessert bites: small cannoli with a marasca cherry on each end, strawberry-filled ravioli (like mini fried fruit pies), and sesame seed brittle.

So there you have it, dish after mouthwatering dish of perfectly-prepared Sicilian specialties, humble yet fit for royalty. All 4 meals I've experienced at Next have been nothing short of incredible, but I'd have to say that I'm slightly leaning towards this one as my favorite thus far, making me want to sample more Sicilian cuisine and even travel to the source someday (hopefully sans the La Cosa Nostra violence seen in the Godfather films). Given this continued track record of successes, the missus and I can hardly wait for the Kyoto menu that's due out this fall...

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Silver Cloud Bar & Grill

We finally got around to using a restaurant gift card that we picked up at a charity auction about 18 months ago. The package we won at the auction included gift cards for 3 eateries, 2 of which (the Gage and Sheffield's) we visited fairly quickly. For one reason or another, the 3rd one (Silver Cloud Bar & Grill, 1700 N. Damen) proved to be a little more elusive, located off in Wicker Park not particularly close to the ballpark or anywhere else that we typically frequent when we come to the city. A rare Saturday night tilt between the Cubs and Red Sox at Wrigley provided us the chance to stop in to Silver Cloud for an early dinner. Given the place's name and description on the website ("Chicago's best comfort food"), I was expecting a retro-diner all covered in chrome and stainless steel; instead, it was more of a kitschy dive bar, albeit one featuring Simpsons Trivia Night and great tunes on the stereo (like Weezer and White Stripes). Mrs. Hackknife and I both put the comfort food claim to the test, ordering a signature chicken pot pie and stuffed turkey sandwich, respectively, along with glasses of the beer of the month, Brooklyn Brewery's light and refreshing Summer Ale. The pot pie arrived from the kitchen looking like a puffy UFO, about the size of a hubcap in diameter (a bit of an optical illusion as the pie's contents were actually inside a smaller bowl below the giant dough cap - see top of photo above) and filled with delicious chicken chunks, carrots, peas, and the like. Mrs. Hackknife especially enjoyed the tidbits of slightly undercooked pastry crust folded under the rim of the bowl. My sandwich came on toasted white bread with slices of roasted turkey, homemade stuffing, cranberry sauce, and mayo, a perfect and portable Thanksgiving feast without having to endure the familial angst that usually accompanies these ingredients. My side of pickle and house mac & cheese (with Wisconsin cheddar, Monterey jack, and mozzarella) were also quite tasty and quite gone before I reached the bottom of my beer glass. Now that we've experienced Silver Cloud's kick-a&* comfort food, I'm not going to argue with their slogan...

Monday, June 18, 2012

Corn Dogs

Let me begin this post by stating that I don't frequently make carnival food at the Commissary (Mrs. Hackknife: "We're having what for dinner?"). I do have fond childhood memories of my mom occasionally preparing homemade corn dogs for my sister and me (once in a great while, she'd get wacky-weird and use bacon-cheddar dogs instead of the generic Oscar Meyer ones - let me tell you, that's living large, my friends). My recollection is that they were surprisingly good (or maybe that's just the way they seem through the 1980s filter in my mind), maybe not as great as the ones out of the greasepit fryers at Kiddieland, but perfectly fine. Outside of a summer festival here and there, I hadn't given corn dogs much thought in the past 20 years until my latest Saveur issue arrived with a feature article on the Minnesota State Fair, including a corn dog recipe that looked fairly easy to me (ed. note - if you do go to this link, try to ignore the blatant, um, suggestiveness of the mustard-slathered corn dogs in the article photo). Not able to conjure enough reasons against making them for dinner (indeed, there were several pluses, not the least of which, was, hey kids, carnival food!), I gathered my ingredients and set off to transform the Commissary into a Midway.

I did encounter a few challenges. The wood skewers I had on hand were too long to fit into my impromptu deep fryer (9-qt. Dutch oven), so I had to chop them down an inch or so using a wire cutter (as it turns out, I should have shortened them even more). The recipe advises a 2" depth of oil in the pot; however, I discovered that when you only have a quart container of canola oil and a slightly larger pot than recommended, the oil only gets to be about an inch deep. This becomes a problem when the top of your corn dogs poke above the oil and don't brown as well as the bottom sides (and yes, I tried turning them with tongs, but because of some sort of nebulous sausage-density issue, they kept flipping back over). In general, I suspect that my batter may have been a bit too runny as I had considerable difficulty getting it to spread smoothly over the hot dogs, yielding bare patches of meat interspersed with warty-looking blobs. Even so, the final product didn't look too awful (judge for yourself in the photo above) and the taste was just fine, although neither mom nor the carny cooks have anything to fear from this hack. As much as I hoped the progeny would latch onto these creations at the dinner table, both Hackknife Jr. and Hackknifette stopped after little more than a desultory nibble or two, sealing the fate of this recipe once and for all back to the dustbin....

Glazed & Infused/Sun Wah BBQ

I had a glorious day for a greeter tour earlier this week to take out a father and son visiting from Canada for the Tigers-Cubs series. Luckily, my guests were up for some mini-food adventures, so we started out on W. Randolph Street to see the city's latest "Restaurant Row" as some are calling it due to the proliferation of new openings. We wandered north from the new Morgan station on the Green Line to Fulton Market Street, which is a beehive of semi-truck/forklift activity on weekday mornings as boxes of product are moved between the various produce warehouses and the street. The fine dining establishments on this strip (Moto, Publican, and Next) are closed when the sun is out, but as of last month, hungry interlopers can satisfy their sandwich and doughnut fixes during the day by stopping in Publican Quality Meats and Glazed & Infused, respectively for some nosh. Since it was only about 10:30a, we opted for G&I (813 W. Fulton Market, with 2 other locations thus far) and were not disappointed. The shop has a bit of a machine shed feel to it, with wood tables and sheet metal-covered walls sporting replicas of World War 2-era propaganda posters cleverly retooled to promote doughnut consumption. Of course, the main attraction is behind the counter, where tray after tray of luscious-looking pastries await your attention (see photo above). Samples of coconut and red velvet sat atop the glass case and I availed myself of both. When the time came to select a whole doughnut, I went with the maple bacon long john (it made me think of breakfast, you know), nearly a foot-long beauty with a brown maple glaze and a whole strip of bacon crowning the soft, fried dough. My visitors chose the 4-way chocolate (chocolate cake with fudge filling, chocolate ganache, and chocolate streusel) and the creme brulee - although a bit messy, they both agreed that the doughnuts were not as over the top as they could have been with either sweetness or grease (apparently the G&I bakers have perfected a deft touch in the kitchen). The semi-remote location of the store allows the proprietors (led by restaurant extraordinaire Scott Harris, of Purple Pig and the Francesca's empire) to avoid the long lines that other gourmet doughnut shops in town experience (see Doughnut Vault), but my suspicion is that the weekdays won't stay quiet for long.

From the West Loop, we headed north towards Uptown, home of some of the city's more famous music venues (Aragon Ballroom and Riviera Theater), shuttered old theaters (the Uptown), Prohibition-era speakeasies (Green Mill), and the nation's first movie studio (Essanay). Uptown also has a high concentration of ethnic eateries, especially those featuring cuisine from Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, China, and Ethiopia. These are not facsimiles of P.F. Chang's or Panda Express, mind you - from their outward appearance, many of them wouldn't seem likely to pass a health inspection (although we here at the Commissary follow L.A. Times food writer Jonathan Gold's philosophy of "the lower the health grade, the more authentic the food"). After giving my guests a lunch choice between Ethiopian cuisine and Hong Kong-style barbecue, they picked the latter, so we ended up at Sun Wah BBQ (5039 N. Broadway). Sun Wah has been on the radar of local dining cognoscenti for many years, having arrived from New York City in 1987 and churning out high-quality roasted meats (especially ducks, whose succulent carcasses appear glistening in the front window) ever since. Having outgrown the original space on Argyle Street, the much-larger location on Broadway opened in 2009, featuring a brick warehouse full of tables, vaulted ceilings, and plenty of room to spread out. Even though we arrived at high noon, the waitstaff had no problem accommodating our party. Like many Chinese restaurants in town (e.g., Lao Sze Chuan), the house menu resembled a phone book, but we three agreed on the following: the large size BBQ combo platter (a pile of bone-in cleaver cuts of chicken, pork spareribs, and duck, covered in soy glaze and resting in a puddle of juices), a large bowl of white rice (which we didn't finish), and a large bowl of stir-fried Shanghai bok choy (which we did). There wasn't anything particularly noteworthy about the rice or bok choy; however, the meats were delicious and fairly mild, not overly sweet with glaze or too heavy on the spice (or at least the cooks dialed down the seasoning for us gringos). The visitors appeared to be very pleased with the whole experience and grateful that I'd brought them somewhere they would have passed over otherwise (my whole mantra as a greeter, I suppose)...

Friday, June 15, 2012

AIA Community Fair - Middle Eastern Food

About this time every summer, our good friends down the street at the American Islamic Association (AIA) hold an open house. The mosque is less than a 5-minute drive from the Commissary and I've had the opportunity to meet several AIA members through an interfaith church group that I volunteer for, so we try to stop by to see what's going on. There are always a lot of activities for kids (bounce house, pony rides, etc.) at the fair; unfortunately, Hackknife Jr. woke up sick on the morning of the event, so the family decided to stay home while I made a brief appearance. Of great allure for a foodie like me is the diverse Middle Eastern cuisine that's available to the fair attendees, some of which is homemade by non-restauranteurs. I promised Mrs. Hackknife that I'd only be gone an hour, so I needed to make some quick dining decisions.

First up was a quiet tent in the back corner of the field with two women and a young man who were dressed in clothing that one might normally associate with India. Their table sported a handmade sign advertising "chat patti haleem", which one of them described to me as beef slow cooked with beans and spices, then pureed, resulting in a zingy, chili-like concoction (she assured me that theirs was a traditional family recipe - of course, they probably all say that). There was a little bowl of additional spice blend on the table for brave souls, but I found it to be plenty spicy on its own, although not so much that I couldn't eat it. I showed my find to one of my interfaith compadres, who told me that it's a Pakistani dish that he tends to avoid since it's a bit too spicy for his liking. Curious after I returned home, I had a tough time tracking down the roster of ingredients online. I did find a single recipe for chat patti haleem in a somewhat-nondescript recipe book - it's half-written in a unrecognizable foreign tongue (Punjabi?), but it lists beef, onions, a couple kinds of garam masala, and a bunch of other ingredients that will remain murky to me.

Anyway, by the time I reached the bottom of the bowl, I did find myself in need of something cool to remove the edge, which led me to my second discovery - mango ice cream. Another table (I think these folks were actually cooking professionals) was offering several types of dishes, plus a freezer-full of large white foam containers of mango ice cream. $2 bought me one of these containers, which held more ice cream than I'd be able to consume in two seatings. Still, I did my best to polish it off and the mellow, creamy dessert perfectly hit the spot. I was now ready to go back to savory, so I stopped by a third tent (I couldn't determine from looking at the occupants if their food came from a house kitchen or a diner kitchen) and asked for recommendations. The nice old lady steered me towards something called a bun kebab. I was a little hesitant at first as images of skewered chunks of grilled chicken and green pepper plopped on a burger bun filled my mind, but what I was given proved to be something different. Yes, there was a bun, but the meat inside was ultra-ground (almost like the inside of a sausage) and heartily spiced, with no condiments or toppings added. I discovered via further research that the bun kebab is a Pakistani sandwich popular at roadside stands in Karachi. The meat (chicken, beef, and/or mutton) is typically ground, mixed with lentils/cumin seeds/egg, then fried before being placed on the bun (sometimes with chutney). I wasn't able to determine exactly which meat my sandwich contained; nonetheless, it was tasty and not as spicy as the chatt patti haleem.

Starting to slow down at this point, I sought out one last dessert. The old woman from the last table suggested I try her gulab jamun, or fried dough balls covered in a honey-like syrup containing cardamom seeds and rosewater (yet another dish popular in Pakistan). Although a little heavy, the sweet warm dough/syrup combo was lip-smacking and I finished off all 4 dough balls. My stomach may have been full and my time may have been up, but I left the fair pretty impressed with the food offerings and look forward to next year's iteration...

Big Jones

(clockwise, from bottom left: wood-fired oysters, tete de cochon, cornbread, pickled vegetables)

The following is a paraphrased transcript of a recent conversation I had with the missus:

Mrs. Hackknife: We've been eating out too much.
Me: How do you figure?
Mrs. Hackknife: We're supposed to be saving money for a new house, yet I think we've been eating at expensive restaurants more frequently this year. Do the math. How much do you think we've spent eating out over the last 3 months?
Me: Well, let's see.....there's been Next, iNG, Vera, Mercat, Vie, the Portage, Yusho, Goosefoot, El Ideas, oh, and that whole Grand Cayman food fest thing, which pretty much dwarfed the rest. Hmmmm....I see your point.
Mrs. Hackknife: Starting now, we need to dial it back some. No more $200+ meals for a while.
Me: What about Father's Day? Do we need to go to Arby's?
Mrs. Hackknife: No, just try to find a place that's not so....extravagant for a change.

So, my quest for a cheaper Father's Day dinner began. The beautiful thing about living in Chicago is that we can eat well at all price points; thus, it wasn't exactly a chore for me to locate an in-demand restaurant that wouldn't empty the wallet. My choice: Big Jones (5347 N. Clark), the city's best (and only, I think) eatery devoted to Southern heritage cooking. What is that, you may ask? Southern heritage is a new trend advanced primarily by Chef Sean Brock that showcases historic dishes from the southern United States, sometimes using once-prominent, but now-nearly forgotten grains (such as Charleston gold rice) and vegetables. This movement is big not only on the farm-to-table, use-the-entire-animal ethos that's in practice almost everywhere now, but also includes the focus on foraging made famous by Chef Rene Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen. Chef Brock and his two restaurants (Husk and McCready's in Charleston, SC) were the focus of an amazing article in the New Yorker last year; if his recent level of national attention is any indication, he's become the chef most likely to de-throne Grant Achatz as this country's culinary pacesetter for the near future.

Having read enough about Southern heritage cooking to want a piece of the action and with no money for a trip to South Carolina in the budget (well, other than that one already planned for July, and don't think I didn't try to schedule a detour through Charleston), I figured Big Jones (helmed by Chef Paul Fehribach) would be the next best way to experience it. So, Mrs. Hackknife and I headed up to Andersonville one warm Friday night for our foray into Dixieland dining. The annual Midsommerfest (celebrating all things Sweden, whose emigrants once resided here in large numbers) was in full swing just up the street from the restaurant and I was surprised to see how upscale the neighborhood had become, chock full of antique stores, trendy bars, and specialty stores catering to yuppies/alternative-lifestyle practitioners. We settled into our table at a half-empty Big Jones as I studied the decor, which seemed to be a Disney-esque representation of a New Orleans parlor room. After a thorough menu review, Mrs. Hackknife and I decided to order a selection of spectacular-sounding appetizers in lieu of larger entrees.

My wife cradled a martini and I sipped on my first-ever Sazerac (from a circa 1850s recipe - rye, absinthe, burnt orange, cane syrup, and bitters, definitely stiffer than the sweet bourbon cocktail I enjoyed at Vie not long ago) as the plates arrived. First up were some complimentary cornbread muffins, baked with cornmeal and hominy, clearly more flavorful than your average Jiff cornbread from a box. This was followed by a slew of terrific house-pickled vegetables, including ramps, red onions, asparagus, chow chow (a southern version of piccalilli, a relish of various chopped pickled veggies mixed with spices), okra, and, of course, plain pickles, although there was nothing plain about this dish, all spice and crunch and acid. Sadly less successful was the Cajun-style tete de cochon (hog's head pate), which was surprisingly bland despite its having brandy and peppercorns in the meat blend - even the homemade rye bread and bourbon/brown sugar mustard couldn't rescue it. The situation greatly improved with the emergence of a knockout seafood plate: a half-dozen Virginia oysters, grilled over pecan wood and topped with a decadent Creole mignonette, bread crumbs, and garlic butter. The smoky, rich oysters paired perfectly with a glass of Tyranena Rocky's Revenge bourbon brown ale. Slightly less laudable, but plenty good Deviled Crab a la McGee's Branch (circa 1940, from an old Savannah, GA cookbook) came next, containing lump blue crab meat, cream, house-made Worcestershire sauce, white wine, and mustard (like spinach artichoke dip on steroids) accompanied by hickory toasted bread.

We managed to swallow down one more savory platter (Cajun boudin balls, a mix of spicy pork liver and rice sausage breaded and deep-fried) before moving on to the tremendous desserts, when Mrs. Hackknife had her best-ever strawberry shortcake and I overindulged on warm dark chocolate and black walnut tart, served with salted caramel, puffed rice, and smoked buttermilk ice cream (they really like using smoke here). Other than the misstep on the pate, the vast majority of the meal really excelled and I'm looking forward to our next visit (which may include the progeny at brunchtime). If Southerners eat this way all the time, I'm starting to rethink the outcome of that whole Civil War thing....

Monday, June 11, 2012

Shrimp Scampi

Every now and again, I'll hit a road block when meal planning. The severity of the block is usually in direct proportion to the number of factors I'm juggling in my mind when trying to identify possible recipes (Is is relatively simple? Can I make it while the progeny are preoccupied with an episode of Yo Gabba Gabba? Will they eat it? Will Mrs. Hackknife be out of town? What needs to be used up in the farmbox/pantry/refrigerator? Do I really need to eat more beef this week? Do I own a springform pan?). You get the idea. This past week's block seemed more excruciating than most, even to the point where I may have threatened to swear off cooking indefinitely (at which time Mrs. Hackknife told me to stop stressing and just by more "pre-fab" stuff like Stouffer's, a comment that resulted in the veins nearly popping through my forehead). After wild forays flipping through numerous cookbooks (some of which, such as "Irish Pub Cooking", rarely see the light of day), I finally stumbled upon something that satisfied whatever outrageous criteria I was grappling with: shrimp scampi. The recipe in question appears in a volume of Food & Wine dishes (entitled "Reinventing the Classics") that was included in the swag we brought home from Grand Cayman. Right up at the top of the page are all of the bullets that I like to see when assessing a new recipe: "Basic-Easy!" "Fast!" "Make-Ahead!" "Staff Favorite!". Not needing further convincing, I forged ahead with plans to make my first-ever batch of shrimp scampi, something I'd hardly ever eaten outside the walls of Red Lobster.

I quickly discovered that this shrimp prep is about as idiot-proof as you can get; it's basically shrimp cooked in compound butter. I found a 1-lb bag of large (22-30), raw, tail-on frozen shrimp on sale at the local ethnic grocery store, thawed them, peeled off the shells and pulled out the poop chutes as best I could, dabbed the compound butter over them, and baked them in the oven at 450F for 10 minutes. The recipe calls for 3 lb of shrimp, so I scaled ingredient quantities down for a smaller amount, using only about 6 Tbsp. of butter, 2 garlic cloves, 1 tsp. of chopped parsley, 3/4 tsp. of lemon zest, 1/2 tsp. of lemon juice, and a dash of dried thyme. With an imitation Italian loaf from Trader Joe's (not my first choice, but it was the best I could do on short notice) and some braised celery w/pancetta, we had ourselves a fine mid-week meal (at least Hackknife Jr. and I did - Hackknifette poignantly declined to touch her shrimp) and several days of lunch leftovers. Given the high cholesterol in the shrimp and butter (not to mention the pancetta - ay, caramba), this won't be a frequent dish in the Commissaary, but I believe it'll make a tasty appearance, say, 3 times annually...

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Portage

For a couple of years now, a core group of managers from Mrs. Hackknife's department at work and their respective spouses have tried to get together at least annually for a nice dinner out (it was during one of these dinners that I posted about The Publican back in late 2010). Now that word has gotten around the office that I maintain a food blog, the job of picking the restaurant for this group has fallen largely on my shoulders (which I'm happy to do, of course - I relish the rare opportunity to receive positive feedback from adults instead of continually absorbing abuse from my kids like most days). For this go-round, I chose an American bistro named The Portage (3938 N. Central), an option that I've kept in my back pocket for a while. The Portage opened in 2010 in our old neighborhood of Portage Park (hence the name), located only about a mile away from the townhouse on Milwaukee Ct. that we used to call home (they could have had the decency to open up BEFORE we moved away, but I'm not bitter or anything). It's conveniently situated in-between Edison Park and Roscoe Village, which is where the other two couples in the group reside (i.e., no complaints about having to travel to some far-flung locale), has garnered its fair share of positive attention from the local foodie press, and is also featured in our magic $10 off coupon deck, making it a slam dunk for this year's manager dinner (as we call them) this past Friday night.

I'd read in some of the reviews that the place was cramped and I'm here to tell you that they weren't kidding. Somehow, the owners managed to fit (not comfortably, I might add) a host stand, around 10 tables for seating, and a small bar with approximately 6 barstools in a relatively small front room. While waiting for the remainder of our party to arrive, I simultaneously sipped on a Founder's Dirty Bastard Scottish ale (which was quite refreshing) and repeatedly dodged out of the path of oncoming patrons and servers that had little space to maneuver. Once seated at our table, things became a little more comfortable (although I did have to beg my way out of the corner once to desperately use the restroom towards the end of the meal). Since we had a large group, we took advantage of the kitchen's propensity towards small plates and ordered a barrage of them to share. Most of the dishes sounded and looked delicious; sadly, not all of them hit the mark. A scrumptious pile of thick duck fat fries with aioli for dipping were soft and lacked the outer crispiness that I normally crave from fries. The house-made bacon crackers that our server assured us was "the most difficult item for the cooks to make" were oddly bland and grainy. Better were the bacon-wrapped dates with blue cheese sauce and an apple cider gastrique (a vinegar and caramelized sugar sauce). I was also won over by two off-menu specials: a zingy lump crab salad (alas, I only managed to snag about 2 bites) and a house-made gnocchi (ditto). I also bit (so to speak) on our server's sultry description of a pork barley soup featuring 4 different cuts of the pig - the soup consisted of a rich (not greasy) broth, tender barley, and savory chunks of said pig.

While there were many entrees to consider (fried chicken and Idaho brook trout among them), I went for the grilled octopus special with fried fingerling potatoes and cornmeal okra. Unfortunately, I wasn't enthralled with my decision. While the okra was good and the octopus was nicely charred, its tentacles remained very chewy, almost rubbery in some cases (I felt like my jaw got a pretty good workout). The dark and fruity Les Abeilles de Colombo Cotes du Rhone I washed it down with helped ease the situation. The meal also improved during dessert - most of the table went gaga over house-made ice creams featuring flavors like buttered popcorn, bacon, and goat cheese, but I was perfectly happy with my decadent (but small) flourless chocolate cake topped with a scoop of custard-like Maker's Mark ice cream. All told, despite the inconsistencies of the food, the service was solid and attentive, keeping the members of our party from getting thirsty (I think we must have nearly cleaned out their entire allotment of North Coast Scrimshaw Ale) and bringing out complimentary tastes of certain requested items (like that Maker's Mark ice cream). I'd like to give The Portage another shot to win me over at some point, but I will definitely avoid grilled cephalopods for a while...

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Art of Pizza/Belly Shack/Margie's Candies

My career as a Chicago Greeter was only 1 visit old before I had been asked to conduct my first-ever food-focused tour (apparently, when you tell the people in charge that you have a food blog, they tend to steer the foodie tours your way). A young couple from Toronto was all set to go on a "non-touristy" dining jaunt with me on a Sunday afternoon, perfectly timed to hit the street taco vendors at the new Maxwell Street Market (allegedly the best in town) and the tail end of the weekly Pilsen Farmer's Market (probably more good tacos, plus exotic fruit drinks, Latino baked goods, etc.). My stomach quivered in anticipation as the day approached. Unfortunately, on the morning of the tour, my guests had to cancel due to injury (a sprained ankle kept one of them laid up in the hotel in lieu of pigging out). Luckily, I had already been scheduled for a 2nd food-only tour later in the week, this one taking a young medical student from Australia around to find deep-dish pizza, ice cream, and some example of our varied ethnic cuisine (a broad topic, for sure). While not quite as adventurous as my earlier planned tour, I was still eager to take up the challenge of crafting a dining itinerary for us that seemed to fit the bill.

My guest and I left the Chicago Cultural Center (C3) on a sunny Tuesday afternoon and hopped on the Brown Line towards our first destination. Although you can get deep-dish pizza in lots of places around the city, I discovered that very few of them sell it by the slice (and as much as I wanted to indulge in a whole 5,000 calorie pie in a single sitting, I thought it prudent not to do so). One of them is called Art of Pizza (AOP) (3033 N. Ashland), which happens to be a favorite of ours from our city dweller days way back when. The restaurant is located in a strip mall only about 6 blocks away from the Paulina stop in the Roscoe Village neighborhood. When we arrived about 2p, the place was pretty much empty and we had our pick of the deep dish pie selections rotating in glass cases behind the counter. My guest went for the cheese and pepperoni, while I opted for cheese and sausage. By the slice, AOP only charges $3.50, even for deep dish, which is clearly the best deal in town. The pizza was just as good as I remembered, delicious crust, sauce, and cheese, well-balanced and studded with tasty pieces of sausage. Although Australia guy didn't say much about it (too happy enjoying his slice), he seemed very pleased with my recommendation. Since I anticipate that lots of out-of-town visitors will be jonesing for our local specialty pizza, I suspect I'll be making AOP a regular stop on my food tours.

From pizza blistonia on Ashland, we hopped on the No. 9 bus southward to Armitage Ave., then walked about a mile westward through Wicker Park until we reached one of Chicago's better 6-corner intersections for foodies (that would be Milwaukee, Western, and Armitage). To satisfy my guest's ethnic food request, I tried to kill 2 birds with 1 stone by bringing us to Belly Shack (1912 N. Western), a self-styled Korean-Puerto Rican Fusion cafe with casual eats and a hipster vibe. Founder and chef Bill Kim is Chicago's answer to David Chang, finding a niche in taking traditional Korean food and making it accessible to the uninitiated locals in more well-known forms (such as meatballs, hot dogs, and barbecue). We both chose the #1 Special, succulent slices of Korean barbecue beef served with kimchi, ssam paste, scallions, and flatbread on which to make little sandwiches. Everything on the plate had amazing depth of flavor and I had difficulty stopping myself from clearing my dish (still needed to save room for ice cream, you know).

Feeling pretty full, but in obvious need of a palate cleanser, we walked a short distance north to the historic Margie's Candies (1960 N. Western), one of the city's best-known ice cream parlors. In business since 1921, Margie's was a favorite haunt of both Al Capone (alleged) and the Beatles (not alleged - the Fab Four stopped in after their 1965 show at Comiskey Park with some female "fans" they picked up to get a few atomic sundaes). When we entered the store (which is much smaller than I expected), we saw dusty cases filled with Beatle memorabilia and other bric-a-brac collected over the years (reminding me very much of the old basement decorating style seen at Burt's Place). Other than the candy counter and a few booths, there really wasn't room for much else. Decor issues aside, my guest and I each ordered small sundaes, which arrived at our table in white clamshell-type dishes and, of course, were much too big for the $5 or so that each cost. I stuck with the traditional vanilla ice cream, dipping my spoonfuls (and the complimentary wafer cookie stuck into the sundae like a lightning rod) in the sinfully-good hot fudge/marshmallow sauce mixture in a little gravy boat next to my scoops. I quickly ran out of steam, but was totally satisfied by the experience and made a mental note to bring the progeny by at some point (they're both ice cream aficionados). Just in case we were still hungry, I had lined up a 4th stop on the food tour (Barcito in River North for some Basque-style tapas); however, we agreed that this wasn't necessary (burp) and began making our return towards C3. Hopefully, word will get around Australia that Chicago food tours are now in effect and I'll be getting requests from many visiting Aussies for nosh enlightenment....

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mercat a la Planxa

As part of Mrs. Hackknife's promotion last year, her firm began paying dues for an annual club membership to assist her with client relations (because nothing promotes business development more than a steak and a glass of nice Bordeaux). The club that she chose, the Union League Club of Chicago, has an impressive list of member benefits, including access to a fine dining restaurant in the club's building called the Wigwam. We received a packet of coupons to use as new members, one of which was a complimentary 3-course meal at the Wigwam with the purchase of a second comparable meal. With the coupon expiration date fast approaching, we decided to book an online reservation to eat there this past Memorial Day, right after attending the Cubs' 11-7 drubbing of the equally-horrendous Padres (thus ending the North Siders' 12-game losing streak - you can call us slumpbusters if you want). After a quick change of outfits from ballpark casual to business casual in the club restrooms (dress code, you know), we proceeded to the 3rd floor of the club to find a completely dark and deserted Wigwam, closed for the holiday. After some consultation with the bell desk, we came to the conclusion that the online reservation system failed to recognize the fact that the restaurant wouldn't be open on Memorial Day, leaving us out of luck for dinner. On the bright side, however, this gaffe left us free to choose another dining option in the Loop; after some brainstorming, I came up with the idea to walk about 7 blocks towards the lakeshore and stop in at the historic Blackstone Hotel (best known for its infamous "smoke-filled room" where Warren Harding was selected as the Republican nominee for the 1920 presidential election, plus the Al Capone baseball bat-bludgeoning scene in "The Untouchables"). The Blackstone is where Chicago-born (and now Philadelphia-based) chef Jose Garces chose to open his first hometown restaurant back in 2008, a Catalan tapas bar called Mercat a la Planxa. Now in its 5th year, I had long kept it on my to-dine list, but never had the opportunity to try it until fate intervened in the form of garbled holiday dinner plans.

When we entered the hotel lobby, we found the entrance for the restaurant somewhat hidden through its small 1st floor bar (called Bodega No. 5), then up the stairs to the soaring dining room on the 2nd floor, a trendy space with an open kitchen (described somewhat cryptically on the website as "mod-Mediterranean") and big windows overlooking Michigan Avenue/Grant Park. As it was fairly early for dinner (5:30p), we pretty much had our pick of tables, settling into a corner banquette. Since tapas was being served, sangria must be drunk (I think it's a law or something), so I chose a glass of the house seasonal sangria (featuring strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries) with my lovely wife picking the house white version (with bartlett pear, peach, and sage), both of which were refreshing. Our server brought us a complimentary appetizer of toasted bread covered with a spread of fresh tomato and olive oil puree that was divine and I inhaled my slice without leaving any crumbs behind. Looking over the menu, we settled on a number of different small plates in lieu of the specialty entrees (such as paella and cochinillo asado, or whole roasted suckling pig), which began to arrive in quick succession. A tumbler contained two almond-stuffed and bacon-wrapped dates, each skewered and resting on a bed of chopped slaw (jicama?) - our server poured a melted cheese sauce over them, adding a rich creamy element to the smoky/sweet dates. This was followed by a vegetable course (although that's a bit misleading since it came in fried form) of an empanada stuffed with spinach and cheese, served with piquillo pepper and tangy artichoke escabeche (i.e., fried and marinated). A braised rabbit agnolotti (something that you're more likely to see on a menu at a Northern Italian restaurant) came next, served with a smear of roasted chestnut puree, studded with brandied cherries, and topped with brown butter foam - the slightly-precious presentation did nothing to diminish the knockout flavor combination of the parts involved. Our subsequent plate was the obligatory pork belly (by this time, I'd moved on to the house red sangria, not as good as the first one), covered in a sweet cider glaze and accompanied by a crunchy Granny Smith apple-black truffle slaw. The pork belly was slightly better than the lamb meatballs we selected to close out our initial round of ordering, which were just average (and a tad undercooked).

To finish things up, Mrs. Hackknife suggested that we get the cheese plate instead of dessert - as always, the smart lady made a good call. We picked the chef's selection of 3 cheeses: a Cadi Urgelia (raw cow's milk) with a sherry-bacon caramel, a Garrotxa (goat's milk) with a roasted garlic dulce de leche, and an Ombra (sheep's milk) with an orange-guindilla pepper marmalade. All three cheeses were great and paired phenomenally with their respective dipping sauces, with the sherry-bacon caramel receiving Mrs. Hackknife's vote for best stuff on Earth. In fact, the cheese plate was so good (and a pretty good value at $16 to boot) that we mentally noted our return just for this item at some point when a late-night snack was needed following a special occasion (like after the opera, for example, or Thursdays). Overall, Mercat may not be our favorite tapas bar in town (I believe Vera currently holds that title), but it certainly belongs on the short list...