Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Next (Kyoto Menu)

Mrs. Hackknife and I recently attended the final seating in our current sequence of season tickets for Next Restaurant (the others being the el Bulli tribute and Sicily menus). Joining us at our table this time were Jose and Sandra, a young couple we'd met via Facebook eager as we were to indulge in this kaiseki, or multi-course meal inspired by traditional Japanese cooking and aesthetics. As explained by the little pamphlet that was first brought to the table by our servers, the chefs at Next did not intend to present a rigid reproduction of true kaiseki (more on that later); rather, their idea was to interpret and honor the concept using the autumn season in both Kyoto and the American Midwest as inspiration. Unfortunately, given our table location in the dining room and the restaurant's no-flash policy, many of my photos didn't turn out so well, so I included only those pictures that look halfway decent.

The first course of our dining journey was a delightful palate cleanser in the form of a hot tea made not with tea leaves or toasted rice, but with burnt corn husks (as those of us who grew up in the Midwest know, corn husks are a ubiquitous presence around here in the fall during harvest time). The subtle sweet and smoke flavors of the tea were enhanced by some incense-like burning hay that had been set alight in a vase by a server at a nearby table of other diners (this mild act of theatrics would actually be part of our second course). As is the tradition with kaiseki (and in keeping with the fanatical attention to detail exhibited by the Next staff), the course presentation and the serving vessels were a visual feast for the eye as well as the food was pleasing to the palate (see photo below).

After the tea, we received a small plate resembling a dark abalone shell with echoes of orange, black, and turquoise (see photo below). On the plate was a sizable chunk of chestnut tofu garnished with an artfully-smeared white miso paste and eight tiny cubes of green apple. The tofu paired beautifully with both my drink (a cocktail containing sake, non-fermented gewurtztraminer juice, shochu, and a liqueur made from the citrus-like yuzu fruit) and Mrs. Hackknife's (a non-alcoholic blend of the gewurtztraminer juice, lemon verbena, and green tea). Also arriving at the table was the aforementioned vase with our burning hay (no doubt perfuming some other diners' meal as it did ours).

A common occurrence that we've noticed with the Next menus is that one of the courses often entails a platter with a collection of "snacks" and this one was no exception. Our kaiseki platter of small bites followed the tofu and featured a jumble of objects (intended perhaps to resemble a Japanese forest of maple trees in autumn - see photo below), including an amazing bite of pickled turnip wrapped with rich duck and red miso, creamy sea urchin (almost like a custard) sprinkled with grape-stem ash, tender poached shrimp with their heads removed and deep fried (the heads were impaled on sticks somewhat menacingly - this did not make them any less delicious), slices of crunchy lotus root chips, discs of karasumi (dried mullet roe, similar to bottarga and a rare Japanese delicacy), and hollowed-out yuzu shells filled with trout roe and the remaining shrimp parts. Although I found the busy presentation to clash a little with the harmonious concept of kaiseki, the snacks were all wonderful. The drinks for this course were a Seikyo "Takehara" (translated as "mirror of truth") Junmai sake and a blend of yuzu, pear, dulse seaweed, and bibb lettuce extract (which sounds somewhat disgusting, but wasn't at all unpleasant) for non-alcoholic.

Next up were three fish courses, each relatively simple when compared to the chaos of the snack platter. A few delicate slices of sashimi (one reviewer I read wrote that his fish were kampachi, medai, and salmon, but I'm not entirely sure which ones we were served, probably just whatever was freshest that day) were placed in a clear glass bowl with some wasabi, shiso leaf (similar to mint), and shreds of pickled ginger, neatly paired with another junmai sake (a Mizuho Kuromatsu Kenbishi, in this case) and a zippy ginger/white soy/cucumber/lime cocktail. This was followed by some braised abalone and abalone liver (in an actual abalone shell this time, not like the facsimile from earlier) with cucumber, red sea grapes, and some spinach-like kinome leaf, which we were told to eat last (the trick being that it acts as a mild stimulant, numbing the tongue). Once the feeling returned to my taste buds, I happily indulged in the subsequent course, a small vessel of brooding, dark broth consisting of rich maple dashi (rumor has it that the stock contained real-live maple branches in order to get the flavor right), shimeji mushrooms (meh), and a tasty log of anago (saltwater eel).

We now reached a point of the menu where we got a brief respite from seafood, a black bowl with matsutake mushroom chawanmushi (traditional Japanese egg custard) infused with pine. After never having eaten it before, this was the second chawanmushi I'd had in as many weeks, the other one having been at the now-shuttered Bonsoiree. The Next egg custard was definitely more restrained and less savory than the version created by Chefs Kim and Clark, an exercise in subtlety in lieu of fireworks (I have to say that I don't think I liked this one quite as much). The drink pairings (a Konteki "Tears of Dawn" Daijingo sake and a sweet potato, kyobancha green tea, and melon cocktail) helped liven things up a bit.

One last seafood course arrived at the table: skewers of grilled ayu fish, served atop a hibachi (which appeared to only be used for aesthetic purposes) and eaten whole (heads and all), garnished with sides of crispy fried ayu skin (like the best pork rinds), pureed wasabi leaf, and cured egg yolk (see photo below). This was enthusiastically washed down with one of my favorite beers, a Hitachino Nest Classic Ale.

Another vegetarian course followed (a bowl of deep-fried tempura eggplant with shiso leaf and a chrysanthemum blossom), which then led to what was probably the most substantial offering of the evening, a hearty, family-style hot pot of soup, rice, pickles, and amazing slices of beef (see photo below). I tried my best to ladle out equal portions of each ingredient to my dining companions, although I'm sure I failed (I swear I didn't take most of the beef - really). The shochu (a Hamada Shuzo "Kakushigura") and apple/barley/licorice drinks that came with the hot pot may have helped tamp down any unnecessary accusations that might have been hurled in my direction.

The first of our two dessert dishes (entitled "first snowfall") is probably the iconic course for the Kyoto menu, a dramatic plate of roasted persimmon, deep-fried yuba (tofu skin), and sweet soy milk custard, topped with a maple leaf that was also deep-fried and dusted with sugar (see photo below). I loved the presentation (especially the leaf imprints in the sugar on the plate) and enjoyed the majority of the ingredients; however, Mrs. Hackknife and I both agreed that we probably could have done without the edible maple leaf, which was a little on the bitter side. I almost feel bad about this knowing just how much trouble Chef Beran (the man in charge at Next) went through to find the perfect maple leaves to accompany this course (TimeOut Chicago has a good writeup on this topic here), but it is what it is. One final sake was poured for the last alcoholic drink pairing (a Narutotai "Namagenshu" Ginjo), as well as another tasty fruit juice cocktail with wasabi, honeydew, and buckwheat honey.

For our farewell course, a simple bowl of dark green tea was paired with a single warabi mochi (a variety made from bracken - a type of fern - starch that differs from other types of mochi, which are usually made from rice starch) that was dusted with toasted soy, a very nice palate cleanser to conclude the meal (see photo below).

By most measures, diners participating in this iteration of Next appear to be just as satisfied with the Kyoto menu as the earlier ones (indeed, Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune gave Kyoto a 4-star review), yet, inexplicably, the missus and I felt a slight twinge of disappointment about the evening's proceedings. After having discussed our thoughts on the car ride home, the issue certainly wasn't one of execution, service, or atmosphere (all of which were near-perfect as always). The nearest that I can explain is that, having had a few tremendous kaiseki meals in both Japan (Kyoto, in fact) and the United States, the version we'd experienced at Next just didn't quite wow us as much as those "traditional" kaisekis did. I acknowledge that the staff made very clear at the outset that what we would be served would be their own interpretation and, to their credit, I was impressed with how they entwined the "Autumn in Kyoto/Midwest" theme throughout each course (with all of the maple references, for example). Maybe this is just a case of us having too many preconceived opinions about a particular cuisine (i.e., Japanese food) at the expense of others with which we're not as familiar (such as Thai or Sicilian, two earlier Next menus that did wow us). Regardless, Mrs. H. and I are still very excited and curious about what the folks at Next are going to come up with, well, next...

Monday, October 29, 2012

Mitsuwa Revisited

While attending to some family business last week, I had the opportunity to visit my favorite Japanese marketplace, Mitsuwa in Arlington Heights a couple of times. The bee was first planted in my bonnet by my usual culinary oracle of late, Serious Eats Chicago, whose glowing assessment of the special toroniku shio ramen from the Santouka noodle stand in the market's food court made me want hot noodles and tender pork cheek for dinner on a cool fall evening (see photo below).

Although I got a little confused and ordered the "shoyu" version (meaning "soy") instead of "shio" (meaning "salt"), the steaming bowl of brown broth and its accoutrements (fish cake, chopped scallions, wavy noodles, single nori sheet, and, um, mushrooms) were mighty tasty. The thin slices of pork cheek that came with the soup were so tender and fatty that I'm pretty sure I blushed out of embarrassment at one point. Flush with porcine bliss, I staggered towards the front entrance and noticed workers setting up temporary stands for a promotional fall street food festival to take place starting the following morning. As luck would have it, I was already going to be back in the neighborhood the next day, so I conveniently added a return trip to Mitsuwa ahead of my other obligations.

Lots of new street snacks had appeared upon my second arrival: savory, sizzling pancakes, many different varieties of croquettes, including sea urchin, snow crab, smoked salmon, and corn (sticking with the themes of the season, I chose a pumpkin croquette, which was a bit on the greasy side, but pleasantly crunchy and slightly sweet), plus two glass cases of assorted mochi (gelatin-like rice cakes often stuffed with a dessert filling). My head was spinning with options as I chose 4 different ones more or less randomly (see photo below), two of them filled with sweet red bean paste and the others with purple sweet potato. The missus and I were able to enjoy these later that night after the progeny had gone to bed.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Fumare/Vanille Patisserie

When you travel to other cities (especially those in Europe, Asia, or Latin America), it's not terribly difficult to stumble across markets with vendor stalls selling prepared foods, fresh produce, meats, flowers, etc. all under one roof to the local populace. Given our entrenched culture of dining convenience here in America, such a concept didn't really get much traction in the states for many years as the Giant Corporate Supermarkets provided (and still do, to a large extent) everything one needed to eat quickly and cheaply at home (just add hot water or pop in the microwave for 2 minutes, and, voila!, instant dinner). With the emergence of the artisanal food movement over the past decade, however, the paradigm is shifting a little towards this fresher, healthier, less-industrial approach of eating. Case in point: Chicago has had one of these year-round markets (called the Chicago French Market, a bit misleading since there's plenty there that isn't rooted in France) for about 2 years now, located in the Ogilvie Metra Station downtown at Clinton and Randolph. Shame on me for taking this long to check it out, but I finally had an opportunity to do so on a greeter tour last Friday with some guests visiting from Los Angeles (another American city with some great markets, as I discovered back in August).

Our French market features stalls with diverse, hard-to-find-in-the-South-Suburbs products as fine cheeses (Pastoral), banh mi sandwiches (Saigon Sisters), Belgian fries and beers (Frietkoten), crepes (Flip Crepes), and Korean food (Bowl Square), plus much more. For my lunch selection, I made a bee-line towards Fumare Meats, a small deli stand specializing in Montreal-style smoked pastrami sandwiches that have been garnering rave reviews from the local press. I'm here to tell you today that all of the accolades are very well-deserved - my pastrami sandwich was nothing short of mind-blowing, brilliant in its simplicity of warm pastrami pieces on rye bread with no toppings other than a small side cup of Dijon mustard. Clearly, the intent of such a sparse presentation is to showcase the meat, of which there was much to love, a perfect blend of slightly crisp, peppery exterior with moist, fatty dark pink pastrami on the inside. Often times, I'm not a fan of rye bread, but this version was mellow and unobtrusive, merely providing a carrying case for the heavenly flesh between the slices. If I worked in the neighborhood (ironically, Mrs. Hackknife does, except she's rarely in her home office), I'd be chowing down on one of these sandwiches daily until my doctor cried "uncle".

Flush with contentment and feeling magnanimous, I stopped on my way out of the market to pick up a treat to bring home. Vanille Patisserie is strategically located near the main exit to the market so that you have to contemplate dessert before proceeding with your day. Packed in the display case among other pastries were many varieties of macaroons, those little French cookies that I'm now hooked on. I carefully selected 7 different types (mango, rose, violet passion, fig, raspberry, coconut, and Nutella) to populate a gift box for the missus and me to share after the progeny were in bed. While they weren't the best macaroons I'd ever had, they certainly were tasty, especially the mango, raspberry, and rose. In any case, I can see myself making many excuses in the future to detour through the market either before, during, or after a tour...

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


In Chicago, we're blessed to have a plethora of fine dining establishments at our disposal. The nice folks at Michelin agree with this sentiment, having designated Chicago in 2011 as only the second dining locale in North America worthy of its own Michelin Guide (San Francisco will be the third later this year, while New York has had one for a while). Some of these local upscale eateries have a globally-high profile (e.g., Alinea or the now-departed Charlie Trotter's), while others operate almost anonymously (e.g., EL Ideas) save for nutty foodheads like myself. Mrs. Hackknife and I recently had the pleasure of dining at a Logan Square restaurant that clearly falls in the latter category: Bonsoiree (2728 W. Armitage), unmarked on the outside and mostly ignored except for Chicago's Michelin inspector(s), who awarded its chef/owner Shin Thompson a single star in 2011 for his imaginative tasting menus in a BYO setting.

Before getting to our specific experience, however, I'd be remiss not to mention some backstory for context here. Only a few months ago, Chef Thompson announced his intention to open a new restaurant in the currently red-hot dining corridor around Randolph and Halsted. In order to free up some of his time for the new venture, he made what many considered to be a blockbuster deal in the culinary world, persuading another well-regarded local chef, Beverly Kim (fresh off her strong showing on Top Chef: Austin and rave reviews for her latest work at Aria in the Fairmont Hotel) and her husband Johnny Clark (also a chef) to sign on with him as partners at Bonsoiree. This move gave Chefs Kim and Clark a new creative outlet for their Korean-tinged fine dining concepts (and a bit of much-needed free time with their young son) while allowing Chef Thompson to garner some new buzz for the existing restaurant during the transition over to his new project. The strategy certainly got my attention; when the time came for us to select a dining locale with another foodie couple (a co-worker of Mrs. Hackknife's and his wife), Bonsoiree was at the top of the list and I made a late October reservation there for the 4 of us.

Filled with anticipation, I was greatly surprised to get a call a short time later from Matty Colson (the sommelier at Bonsoiree, another recent new addition to the staff) with the news that the restaurant was abruptly closing in 10 days. What happened? Well, neither Chef Thompson nor the Kims/Clarks were revealing many details, other than it was a mutually-agreed upon decision (no word on if it was an acrimonious split, although I suspect some hard feelings abound - in her Top Chef appearance, Chef Kim revealed herself to be both tough-as-nails and a lightning rod for controversy, someone whose bad side you wanted to avoid). In the meantime, Matty asked if we wanted to move our reservation so that we could dine with them before closing, and, not wanting to miss out on an opportunity to try Chef Kim and Chef Clark's cuisine, I reluctantly agreed (our companions had to bow out due to scheduling difficulties). After making the change, I wondered if I'd made an expensive mistake. During the last week of service, would the staff be motivated to give patrons the experience thought highly enough by Michelin to award a star or would they just be phoning it in until the kitchen shut down? As the day approached, I felt what could be described as excitement tempered by a small dose of dread.

Sunday night arrived and we traveled to Logan Square for our mystery meal (I had no idea exactly what kind of dishes we would be seeing, although I discovered later that the whole menu was posted on their website, a rare homework lapse on my part). We sat down at a table near the pass in a small, spare, Japanese-styled dining room, all wood, muted colors, and straight lines. Matty brought out the first of our 12 courses on the tasting menu, a Brie-filled gougere (a cheese puff common in French cuisine) topped with a pile of smoked hackleback sturgeon caviar, paired with a flute of champagne. I've eaten gougeres before (wouldn't hesitate to polish off a dozen of them, in fact), but this was the first I'd seen combined with caviar, and the effect was one of pure luxury, especially with the bubbly to wash it down. The next dish transported us from France north to Scandinavia, what appeared to be a Noma-inspired dish of a single oyster doused in a smoked elderberry mignonette and perched atop a bed of round stones and pine twigs. There wasn't a lot of meat in my oyster; however, the mignonette did its job of conjuring a boreal forest via flavors of smoke and pine.

The third course may very well end up being the signature plate of the new staff's short-lived tenure. A bowl of assorted orange, yellow, and purple carrot pieces (described on the website as being ember roasted "Thai style" - not really sure what that means) interspersed with mint leaves/dollops of white whipped yogurt and drizzled with coconut water appeared on the table. Visually striking (see photo above), this dish clearly echoed notes of Thailand and was delicious, although I found the smoke in the carrots to be a bit too prominent (apparently, smokiness is a preferred motif for the Kim/Clark team). Our drink pairing for the carrots was a nice glass of Cederberg Bukettraube wine, made from a lesser-known white grape variety in South Africa (indeed, I don't recall us encountering this varietal when we visited South Africa wine country in 2007) that has floral notes like a muscat, plus some herbal character like a sauvignon blanc.

What you see above was the dish that followed, a small container of traditional savory Japanese egg custard known as chawanmushi, in this case livened up with a little Jinhua ham (a dry cured variety from China), a splash of XO cognac, and some Chinook salmon roe. Given my dislike of undercooked egg products, Mrs. Hackknife was sure I'd have a problem eating this; however, I found it to be surprisingly tasty as long as I didn't think about it too much. Staying with Japan, our next course was a disk of roasted purple Okinawan sweet potato, dusted with nori (seaweed) powder and perfectly paired with a robust, earthy dopplebock from G. Schneider and Sohn in Bavaria called Aventinus (all in all, Matty's drink pairings were nearly spot-on each and every time, rivaling the heralded pairings from Grant Achatz's Alinea/Next empire in breadth and creativity). Plate #6 was a filet of poached Lake Superior trout, served with roasted potatoes/leeks and drizzled with a concentrated leek jus, which Mrs. Hackknife and I wanted to lap up like kittens enjoying a saucer of cream. This was a minimalist, well-executed dish enhanced by the glass of Melon de Bourgogne that accompanied it.

After the fish, we received what could be considered our first "traditional" Korean dish (supposedly the strength of the kitchen's repertoire), a small bowl of seolleontang, or "bone soup", usually made from slow roasting ox bones and other cuts of meat. The house version (see photo above) sported a small slab of bone marrow, pieces of omasum tripe, shreds of caramelized brisket, and scallions, a hearty riot of flavors all rolled up into a few slurps. Matty brought out an unusual wine to drink with the soup, a slightly-oxidized white from Lopez de Heredia in Rioja (Spain) that took a little of the broth's savory edge away (much like the splash of sherry added to turtle soup).

Staying with the meat genre, the next course served was a roasted squab (cooked medium rare) with mushrooms and pickled onions (see photo above) - not terribly inventive, but tasty just the same, although the breast featured some ultra-gamey bites that made me recoil a bit (not even the elegant pinot noir from the Pfalz region of Germany we drank with the squab could counter it). Better received were the two thin slices of duck prosciutto ("a gift from the kitchen", as Matty said) that proceeded the squab, resembling watermelon wedges and packed with rich, fatty goodness. Even more impressive was the following plate, which appeared at first to be just a pile of vegetables (including pickled radishes and kale chips); however, hidden within the pile was a decadent slab of foie gras mousse encrusted with crushed coffee beans and buckwheat grains for texture. The missus and I greatly enjoyed the mousse creation and the wine that came with it, a pale red from the Jura region of southeastern France. And as much as I hate to admit it, the chefs' kale chips were, well, better than my Commissary version (just a little, though). A dish containing a slice of smoked beet (topped with balsamic vinegar/crunchy bee pollen) and a slab of what I thought was a soft goat cheese (it actually turned out to be a vegan cheese made from cashew paste - sure fooled me) provided a nice bridge between the last savory courses and dessert, in spite of the 1990-ish edible flower garnish.

We received three separate dessert courses, the first of which you see in the photo above, an amazing "study in chrysanthemum": pavlova (one of Mrs. Hackknife's favorites) infused with chrysanthemum essence, topping a cured egg yolk mixed with chrysanthemum gel, dusted with powdered sugar, flower petals, and a little gold leaf. Again, there was some question tableside as to my ability to consume the messy egg, but I took one for the team (and was the better for it). Matty's drink pairing was another oxidized wine, this time an amontillado Sherry that melded quite well with the rich and sweet notes of the dessert. The second dessert (another kitchen gift - apparently, they were feeling generous that night) consisted of a blend of grapefruit pulp, malted barley, and coconut, simple yet full-flavored, nudging the experience back in the direction of Thailand (although the Floc de Gascogne, a fortified apertif from southwest France that accompanied the dish returned us back to Europe). One last echo of Korea came next, a take on the shaved ice dish known as pat bing su - in this case, wood sorrel granite played the part of the shaved ice, with additional flavors/textures provided by sweet mung beans and an aloe gel (all washed down neatly with a slightly-dry Kabinett Riesling).

Feeling pretty satisfied at this point, we nibbled on some mignardises (Earl Grey truffle, espresso crisps, and green apple chews - see photo above) while we waited to settle up with our servers. At nearly $200 a head, the meal wasn't cheap by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly seemed worth it to us. In the course of a few hours, we enjoyed a number of Korean dishes that were new to us, yet also went on a world tour of other storied cuisines that were often presented with a slight twist. Having reached the menu's conclusion, I had mixed emotions bouncing through my head - sadness/regret at Bonsoiree's imminent closing (much like when we ate at Spring), joy of having experienced Chef Kim/Clark's work before it was too late, elation (or was that just a buzz?) over the stellar and abundant drink pairings, and hope that we might dine again with this dynamic duo (a trio if you count Matty) at a future-locale-to-be-determined someday. Regardless, as to the question of the restaurant's quality and effort during their final week of operation, clearly we made the correct decision to spend our dining dollars here...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Michiana Breweries

Mrs. Hackknife's cousin Bob (a beer connoisseur and overall bon vivant) is getting hitched this coming Friday. As one might expect of someone who enjoys spending time with a quality glass of suds, Bob chose for his bachelor party theme a daylong tour of microbreweries located in nearby northwest Indiana and southwest Michigan (a region collectively referred to as "Michiana" for those of you who are out-of-towners), an area that is easily accessible from the Commissary. So it was with great enthusiasm that my brother-in-law Dan and I left town on a bright fall Saturday morning, forsaking college football, Premiere League soccer, and general parenting duties in favor of top-drawer beer consumption (in careful moderation, of course - my days of binge drinking, never much to speak of anyway, are long past).

We first met up with the groom-to-be and the other members of our jolly bunch at Shoreline Brewery, located a few blocks from the lake in downtown Michigan City. I've previously written about Shoreline in this blog - in my opinion, it's a kid-friendly place serving decent food and pouring some beers that are really good, some not so much so. This trip, however, I had the good fortune of picking a winner, a Samuel Jackson's black IPA, which I found to be a nice hybrid between IPA (not usually one of my favorites due to the strong hops flavor inherent to the variety) and stout (the brewery's website describes this beer as being made with "six different types of malt combined with Galena, Pearle, and Columbus hops"). It paired well with the platter of housemade hummus, grilled pita bread, and assorted veggies that I ordered for the table to help take the edge off of these early libations (without food, I'd surely be blotto after two beers on an empty stomach - see Las Vegas, August 2010).

With the noon hour having come and gone, we loaded up the vehicles and made our way towards Stop #2: Greenbush Brewing Company in the small hamlet of Sawyer, MI. Sawyer is only about a 20-minute drive from Shoreline and consists of a few buildings scattered along a brief stretch of central business district that's a stone's throw from I-94. We arrived to find Greenbush's facility to be the clear hub of activity in the otherwise-sleepy town on a weekend afternoon, the noisy taproom packed with patrons enjoying the extensive selection of regular and seasonal offerings. Bob and I were first impressed by Greenbush at Baconfest in April and this encounter didn't disappoint, either - I was quite pleased with my sampler selection of Memento Mori (an Oktoberfest ale), Retribution (a Belgian ale with a touch of sweetness), and Distorter Porter (billed as a combination of porter and stout), each available in a 4-oz. pour for $4 or less (see photo below).

Not quite as impressive was the smoked brisket sandwich I ate to ward off any beer buzz (the meat was a little dry and lacking some flavor). Greenbush definitely has the brewing angle of the business well-covered - if they were to improve their menu a bit, I bet a taproom expansion will be needed posthaste.

Feeling flush and halfheartedly fighting a nap, I passively sat in the passenger seat while Dan directed us towards our final stop of the afternoon, The Livery in Benton Harbor (the rest of our party had plans to continue on towards Kalamazoo for the evening; however, us guys with kids back home were content to turn around after a last pop or two here). The Livery is housed in the basement of an old brick building (a former horse stable) in downtown Benton Harbor, a once-bustling, then dilapidated, now slowly revitalizing city on Lake Michigan's eastern shore. You can see the signs of gentrified urban life starting to poke up among the vacant lots and industrial yards scattered around the immediate neighborhood of the bar (see photo below).

As I was still feeling the effects of my Greenbush sampler, I was content to sip an orange cream soda (yes, I know, I'm a wuss) while the guys played in the bar's courtyard what may very well have been the worst display of bag tossing in modern history. My shame was eventually tempered somewhat by the one beer that I managed to rally for, described as a "hopped-up American red ale" called Danimal (named after a recently-deceased friend of the brewer). Although not as expansive of a beer list as Greenbush, the consensus from the bachelor of honor and company was that The Livery's brews were quality indeed, surpassing those that we found at Shoreline earlier in the day. And with that, Dan and I made our way back down the interstate towards Illinois, the only afterthought being a glimmer of desire to stop at Redamak's in New Buffalo for burgers, which was quickly forgotten in the fading daylight and hop haze immersing my consciousness...

Monday, October 8, 2012

Heaven on Seven/Toni Patisserie

I recently concluded a morning greeter tour without stopping for lunch with my guests like I usually do (they opted to forge ahead on their own with some other sightseeing plans). Feeling a bit adrift and not wanting to pop in to the usual joints nearby the Cultural Center, my eyes latched onto a sign at the corner of Wabash and Washington advertising a Heaven on Seven inside the adjacent building at 111 N. Wabash. HOS is a locally well-known Cajun restaurant that's been serving up gumbo and cornbread to Chicagoans since the early 80s. Even in the Food Network-crazy world of today, we don't have a lot of Cajun cuisine to choose from around here, so HOS has been our torchbearer for New Orleans cooking for the better part of 30 years. I'd once eaten at the River North location with some co-workers and had made a couple of visits to the now-departed HOS in Wrigleyville (it became a German brauhaus, somehow a more palatable option to inebriated baseball fans wandering by on Clark, which I guess already resembles Bourbon Street on most gamedays), but, unbeknownst to me, I had stumbled upon the original HOS that Chef Jimmy Bannos opened in an old coffee shop in the Garland Building (on, of course, the 7th floor - hence the name) in 1981.

My first impression upon entry was that the space is pretty small, yet packed with character. I could easily imagine a smoke-filled room of insurance salesmen and newspaper reporters hunkered down over a midday egg salad sandwich and a cup of joe in here sometime during the Eisenhower Administration. I took a seat at the counter and faced the wall that you see in the photo above, which was dominated by shelves of hot sauce bottles and a cooler filled with gargantuan slices of pie. The waitstaff was friendly, but a bit harried, as there wasn't much room for nonsense in the narrow serving walkway leading to the cramped kitchen area. Still, given the constraints on layout, the menu was surprisingly large, covering traditional breakfast, Cajun breakfast, burgers, and plenty of Creole specialties, including jambalaya, shrimp and grits, po' boys, and red beans with rice. Almost everything comes with a cup of gumbo.

I opted for the soft shell crab po' boy sandwich, which quickly arrived looking rather dramatic on the plate (see photo above). I had to break off a few of the appendages just so I could eventually close the roll. Although it didn't quite measure up to the amazing po' boys I had in New Orleans last year, this one certainly satisfied my immediate craving for Cajun (I'd probably try a different variety next time). My cup of gumbo that preceded the sandwich was fantastic, however, and would warrant a return trip on its own.

In lieu of a 1,000 calorie-slice of chocolate peanut butter pie, I left HOS in favor of Toni Patisserie (65 E. Washington), a French-style bakery and lunch spot literally across the street from the Cultural Center for dessert. Since I'm a sucker for macarons (something I thought the progeny might actually eat), I chose a couple of strawberry and pistachio versions sporting day-glow colors, along with an apple pastry and a chocolate-caramel tart to share with the babysitter (my mother-in-law). With a bit of time to kill before heading home, I located an empty park bench in Millennium Park and lustily eyed my purchase before diving in (see photo above). Everything in the box was rich and decadent (and messy, I might add - I don't advise trying to eat a chocolate-caramel tart half with only a couple of unused pocket tissues to clean your fingers), with the sweets bringing to mind a not-so-long-ago trip to Paris and its many associated sugary creations that soothed the soul.