Thursday, January 31, 2013
With our moving date fast approaching (less than a month now), the missus and her girlfriends decided to get all their respective kids together for one last sleepover in the city on a recent Saturday. Fortunately, this gave me an opportunity to throw together a last-minute Chicago food tour (albeit a truncated one as I had only a few hours in the afternoon to work with) in the hopes of visiting some high-priority eateries that have been languishing on my list for a while. I decided to go the sweet route first and stopped in at a very unusual bakery located in Edgewater called Chimney Cake Island (CCI) (1445 W. Devon). I first got wind of this place when it was featured on the Serious Eats Chicago website last August (they posted a great, step-by-step writeup of the cakemaking process here). Normally, when one sees a Devon address, you expect Indian or Pakistani cuisine; however, in this case, the "chimney cake" is actually a Romanian specialty whose recipe has been imported and painstakingly duplicated by the bakery's owners, Mara and Alex (themselves natives of the Transylvania region of Romania - insert your vampire jokes here).
The store isn't a large place, but has a snappy, colorful decor (see photo above). When I arrived around 3, the only persons present were me, two other customers, and Mara (the owner). After getting the low-down on my cake options, I chose the traditional variety (coated with granulated sugar that caramelizes during baking) and one covered with walnuts. The finished cakes are actually long, continuous strips of dough that have been wrapped around a spindle - when you slide them off, they are hollow in the middle, resembling a chimney (see photo below).
I sampled about 1/4 of each cake before heading out and found them to be both delicious and surprisingly light, almost like a sweeter, less dense hot pretzel. Mara recommended that they be eaten while still fresh (within 24 hours), but I was told by Mrs. Hackknife that her friends and the kids had no problem consuming the leftovers as part of breakfast the next morning (I dropped the remaining cakes off at the sleepover house before continuing on my tour). If you're a pastry lover, please check CCI out - having diverse food options (like Romanian cakes, for example) at our disposal is one of the things that makes Chicago great and can't be taken for granted (Mara mentioned that her advertising budget is razor-thin, so you locals need to help an artisanal sister out and spread the word).
Next up was the main event of the tour, a revered snack shop called Big & Little's (860 N. Orleans) that is the darling of foodies nationwide and Food Network executives (Guy Fieri's face is prominently plastered on both the website and in the restaurant). Amazingly, I'd never had the chance to stop by before, a clear oversight that needed to be immediately rectified. If you're not sure where to find the place, just start at the Hancock Building and start walking west until you run into it (see photo above).
B&L's was started by two local high school friends (one portly, one tiny, hence the name) as a venture to create low-brow fast food cuisine (think burgers, tacos, and sandwiches) using high-minded ingredients. For example, the pair's most celebrated creation is hand-cut fries topped with unctuous grilled lobes of foie gras (not a bargain at $16, but worth every penny in my estimation). Other mainstays include fish tacos (both fried and sashimi), po' boys (including a pork belly version that's on my list for next time), and truffle fries (ditto). With only so much stomach capacity available (and more stops planned), I limited myself to the foie gras fries and a sashimi salmon taco (see photo below).
Saving the outrageous for last, I started with the taco, which consisted of a hard shell stuffed to overflowing with beautiful, pink salmon meat that was flecked with black and white sesame seeds. The salmon had been marinated in some type of teriyaki glaze and I'm pretty sure I detected aioli (or a reasonable facsimile) hidden somewhere inside the shell. As with many successful dishes, this one featured equal parts crunch, fat, brine, and sweet, a winning combo if there ever was one. Feeling pretty stellar about my selections, I dug into the foie gras fries and, yes, they were as unholy decadent as you might imagine. I found that the best way to attack the pile was to chop up the liver into tiny bits, then mix it (and all the rich juices that ooze out) together with the fries, a truly sublime and indulgent experience. Now that I've had it, I can safely say that I'd be pleased to simply split an order of these next time through. Bottom line: although calorie and cholesterol restrictions might prevent folks from being regular customers, B&L's is a must-try for tourists and townies alike.
The afternoon sun started creeping towards the horizon at this point, signaling that the dinner hour was almost at hand. I headed back in the general direction of the Commissary, detouring a bit west and south over to Pilsen for a second helping of sweets. Since my virgin encounter with raspado (the Mexican version of a snow cone) in LA last August, I'd been keeping an eye out for a similar treat back home and read not long after about a new place called the Jam House (1854 W. 18th St., no website) that specializes in raspado. Unable to get over there during the warmer months, I was pleasantly surprised to find them open and empty (save for the owner and his female friend) on this chilly winter Saturday. Like CCI, the store is small and geared for a younger demographic, located on a quiet stretch of 18th across the street from Harrison Park. The owner Rene was kind enough to detail all of his flavor offerings for me, recommending his favorite (strawberry jam with sweetened condensed milk, or lechera), and also suffered through my LA raspado story (even showed him a picture for comparison - his version wasn't as wedge-shaped as the Cali one). Letting him get back to his gal pal, I sat in the car to enjoy my treat (see photo above), not giving a second thought to the fact that this sort of activity must look odd to the average passerby in the middle of January in Chicago. I was able to consume my fill and then some, leaving almost half of it to slowly thaw into strawberry slush on the long ride home (almost 3 hours later, its remnants were still quite good).
I hadn't quite reached maximum capacity yet, but not wanting to overdo it (see last mini-food tour in October), I decided to make one last stop before jumping on the southbound Dan Ryan. Our foodie friends Phil and Karen raved about an after-Sox game dinner they had earlier this year at Pleasant House Bakery (PHB) (964 W. 31st St.) in Bridgeport, a place entirely focused on churning out the best meat pies this side of Cornwall. The typical English meat pie, or pasty (rhymes with nasty), is usually the butt of jokes, a greasy, fried dough sack of mystery protein slung hash-style during intermission at soccer games; however, when given the highfalutin, farm-to-table treatment that the proprietors (Art and Chelsea Jackson) of PHB conceived, it becomes something quite refined. Many of the ingredients put into the pies and sold as sides are grown locally on the Jacksons's very own farm and this quality shines through in the finished product.
I opted for the chicken balti pie (chicken with curry spices, tomato sauce, and Nigella seeds, a bitter tasting seed sometimes used in Middle Eastern and Asian cooking), plus a scoop of homemade mashed potatoes with some zippy coriander chutney. Still experiencing the effects of my earlier indiscretions, I asked for my order to-go, brought it home, and popped open a nice Samuel Smith oatmeal stout (conveniently found in the garage refrigerator) to wash it down (see photo above). Even when only lukewarm (yes, I suppose I could have heated everything up again in the microwave, but it's waaaay over there at the far end of the kitchen), the pie, potatoes, and chutney were spot-on. Is this Tinley Park or Westminster?
Monday, January 28, 2013
Mrs. Hackknife and I took the progeny out for what is probably my favorite regional fast food burger in town, Wisconsin-based Culver's (that is, when I'm in the mood for quality over quantity; otherwise, White Castle will more than do). I'm definitely going to miss the Culver's famous butterburger, so named for the butter-grilled bun that provides the structure of the sandwich. The fries there are so-so, the fried cheese curds meh, the custard is pretty delicious, but the Culver's deluxe (two all-beef patties, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onion, mayo, and a pickle on top - see photo above) is a keeper. Sadly, the franchise locations start to peter out once you head south across the Ohio River, only making it as far as Greenville, SC, so we'll have to identify a replacement regional fast food burger in Tampa that satisfies (Burger 21, perhaps?)...
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
When the missus and I sat down to plan out our farewell tour of Chicagoland eateries, there was little question which place would be atop our wish list - Alinea, of course, North America's finest. Luckily for us, the restaurant released some tickets to dine right after New Year's, so we snapped up a pair for a Saturday night in early January (only 2 days after our stellar visit to SideBern's in Tampa, making it quite a week for us food-wise) when most places are hitting a post-holiday lull. I'd only had the privilege of dining here once before about 4 years ago (pre-blog, I might add - no writeup of that experience) and, as you might imagine, I was pretty excited to be finally going back.
Off of Halsted Street, we passed through the front door and entered the infamous hallway where Chef Achatz and Co. like to disorient patrons such that they feel they're entering a portal to another dimension. On this occasion, the dim space was filled with pine trees (I always wondered what happened to those Xmas spruces that didn't get sold off the lot), giving one the impression of wandering in a moonlit wintry forest. Through the branches and inside, we were each handed a toasty glass of wonderful hot chocolate (made from Valhrona's "Abinao" 85% cocoa and enhanced with spruce essence/smoke) and led to the kitchen threshold, where we watched the culinary staff performing their nightly duties while waiting for our table.
Fortified with warmth, we sat down and were given our first course (see photo above), a curious, wide glass straw filled with a mixture of butternut squash puree, muscovado (a dark brown sugar), finger lime juice, and spices from the West Indies. The straw was placed in a hollowed-out ice block for dramatic effect (and, um, to keep it cold, I guess). We needed some lung power to siphon out all of the ingredients, but it was worth the effort.
Subsequently, a pile of seaweed and driftwood arrived at the table (see photo above). Clearly evoking Noma (Rene Redzepi's mecca of foraging cuisine in Copenhagen), each pile was adorned with a shell containing an oyster leaf dressed with mignonette, another shell of king crab with passionfruit, allspice, and hearts of palm, a third containing a chunk of lobster with sherry, chervil, and trinity (in the absence of further knowledge, I'm guessing here that "trinity" is the Cajun base ingredient of bell pepper, celery, and onion), and a razor clam with shiso, soy, and daikon. All four of these creations were a sweet/briny/acidic marvel, making me long for an oyster shack and a cold beer somewhere near the Gulf of Mexico (hey...wait a sec!).
Up next came a visual study of white and green (see photo above), an amazing slice of otoro (the most coveted portion of the tuna belly) paired with Thai banana, sea salt, and kaffir lime, frothing as if alive and packed with flavor.
The following plate provided a conceptual bridge between sea and earth (see photo above). Even though it featured a piece of halibut (prepared escabeche-style, marinated in vinegar/citrus juice for an extended time), the dish's appearance made one imagine something freshly pulled from the garden, achieved by adding avocado, bone marrow, and a combo of dark mole sauce with the corn fungus known in Mexico as huitlacoche, both dried to a powder that was black and grainy as dirt. Further deepening the earth connection, the next course was a bowl of maitake mushroom pieces suspended in a rich sauce of pumpernickel, black garlic, and Blis elixir (a bourbon barrel and Tahitian vanilla-infused maple syrup). Although I have issues with mushrooms (as many of you know), I still managed to finish most of the plate with the exception of one or two larger, obnoxious slabs.
The only photo I have of the next dish is the aftermath (see above). On the little skewer were pieces of hot potato, cold potato, and black truffle that we were instructed to slide into a waiting shot glass containing butter. Once inside, the whole shot went down the hatch. Simple, tasty, and gone.
I'd gotten wind of the subsequent course from a recent article somewhere that focused on new conceptual dishes at the restaurant. In this case, a three-way preparation of lamb (the loin, belly, and shoulder meat) was drizzled with jus and placed on a plate, accompanied by an extraordinarily-elegant looking glass tray on which sat 60 different garnishes (see photo above), each separately composed, a total of 86 ingredients used (hence the course name "Lamb 86"). You can find much better photos of this online, as well as videos showing the painstaking process in the kitchen of plating the 60 garnishes (better them than me). Anyway, Mrs. Hackknife and I proceeded to try every garnish, making our best guess at the flavors each time. Our server gave us a cheat sheet when we were finished - I was surprised at the number of times that our palates led us astray (who could have identified sorrel?).
Still reeling from the lamb course, another basic bite was greatly appreciated as a spoonful of black truffle ravioli topped with romaine lettuce and parmesan cheese appeared at the table (see photo above). This was the infamous "truffle explosion" (developed way back in Chef Achatz's Trio days), required to be eaten in one closed-mouth biteful unless you wanted a trip to the dry cleaners. My jaw held true.
One last meat preparation followed, a wonderful plate of pork garnished with pain d'epices (a sort of French gingerbread), turnip, and orange sauce (see photo above). This preceded a palate cleanser course of sorts, a cleverly-designed metal disc from which protruded five skewers, each holding a cube of ginger in a different preparation (one of which was candied, the rest I can't recall - what I do remember is that they were all delicious).
What you see above is a bit of a peculiar serving piece. In the bowl was an herbal tea that diners were instructed to drink with a separate glass straw, but not before eating the dessert preparation of carrot, coconut, white sesame seeds, and caramelized honey guarding the tea from above. I loved the dessert, but wasn't wild about the tea, which I found to be awfully robust. Fortunately, the next dessert helped erase away the flavor, a whimsical balloon ingeniously made of edible green apple leather (the string, too) and filled with helium for your temporary speaking pleasure. I made the mistake of touching the balloon with my fingers - be forewarned that it's pretty sticky.
The final course of the evening was also the most spectacular, in my mind. Mrs. Hackknife got to experience this on her last visit to Alinea with some co-workers, during which Chef Achatz himself came out to prepare it (no such luck this time - no offense, other-chef-in-charge-that-evening). Our server rolled a plastic tablecloth onto our table, which was then quickly covered in patterns and designs of various colored syrups by the chef (see photo above) around a large dark chocolate bowl. Once finished, the chef dramatically smashed the bowl to shards into the middle of the table, revealing crunchy and fluffy ingredients based on chestnuts and rye (see photo below).
When all mixed together, these individual elements produced an incredible amalgam of sweet tastes and textures, like eating up the contents of a Hershey's plant following a tornado. Mrs. Hackknife eventually reached her limit, but I was happy to keep going until each and every bite was gone. I have since left several messages for the Alinea staff asking how we can hire out this course to be presented at our next party.
Although expensive, I'm really pleased that we managed to dine at Alinea before leaving town for good. I'm hopeful that we can find a way to get here once every few years or so - for now, it's good to know that Chicago is still home to the pinnacle of innovative dining in America...
Thursday, January 17, 2013
Between negotiating the purchase of a residence in our new hometown and preparing our existing home to be sale-ready, I haven't had a whole heck of a lot of time to attend to the blog. Pangs of guilt finally drove me over to the computer this evening to remedy this shortcoming (it helps that the kids are in bed and Mrs. Hackknife is away on one of her last business trips). Anyway, while house-hunting in Tampa a few weeks ago, the missus and I made time (of course) to sample what will soon be our local dining scene. As far as a home, the neighborhoods we liked best are all situated about a 20-minute drive northwest of downtown Tampa in an area known as Westchase, which largely consists of gated subdivisions, a little bit of retail, and a smattering of ol' Florida jungle still here and there that has managed thus far to avoid the bulldozers. At first gander, the food options in Westchase appear to be mainly limited to a few chain and fast food offerings, but we discovered that there is some variety to be had if you dig a little. In the midst of a whirlwind day that saw us speed-dating through several properties, our realtor, Lynn, suggested that we all pop into a nearby delicatessen for lunch. The Village Market & Cafe is located at the corner of Linebaugh Avenue and Montague Road in an upscale development that combines stores, restaurants, and townhomes. According to the co-owner Gil (who, in addition to being an ex-professional wrestler, happens to know Lynn), the deli and market used to be separate entities that have now combined into one business, selling snacks, bagels, and sandwiches on one side, with an impressive selection of beer (including local favorite microbrew Cigar City - more on that in a minute) and wine on the other. I can't speak for Gil's abilities inside the ring, but he can sure make a mean Cuban sandwich, a tasty concoction of ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles served on grilled Cuban bread panini-style (this sandwich, by the way, is apparently to Tampa as the hot dog is to Chicago - consider yourself warned). I'm looking forward to the day when our move is complete and I can settle onto our lanai with another Cuban and a cold microbrew to celebrate.
Speaking of microbrew, when the time came for us to put down our first offer on a house later that afternoon, Mrs. Hackknife and I decided that the perfect venue to strategize the deal would be Cigar City Brewing Company, a short ride from our hotel in a more-industrial section of town (Carver City-Lincoln Gardens) near the airport. Tampa is known as the "Cigar City" by virtue of its many historic cigar factories and CCB has made it their mission to honor the city's unique heritage by making some great beers, several of which incorporate ingredients that are representative of Florida (such as guava) and are designed to be easy-drinking in the ubiquitous heat. When we arrived (in the rain, I might add - no heat on this day), I noticed that the brewing operation had much in common with Three Floyd's, including the look (i.e., a small brewpub attached to a bustling brewery), the beers (i.e., many diverse and seemingly creative varieties), and the attitude (i.e., we know that what we're doing here is kick-ass and we're probably cooler than you). Vibe issues aside, as with Three Floyd's, the beer overshadows all and I was greatly impressed with my Hefeweizen-like Florida Cracker White Ale (see photo above), while Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed a Tocobaga Red Ale. Luckily for us, it appears that CCB sells bottles and cans of their fine products at many local retailers (including our new friends at Village Market), so we'll have plenty of opportunities to sample their full lineup of brews back at the Canteen.
Offer submitted, the weather cleared up for us a bit in time for dinner. Before Xmas, Mrs. Hackknife had outsleuthed me and identified one of Tampa's newer culinary destinations so that I would have a gift card to use from my stocking. The restaurant, called SideBern's, is located in the tony Hyde Park neighborhood of Tampa and is an offshoot of Bern's, the famous steakhouse in town. SideBern's started as a place for Bern's patrons to get dessert and cocktails after dinner and subsequently morphed into a fine dining spot featuring upscale cuisine with a touch of Mediterranean/Middle Eastern thrown in. Given that it was a Thursday night in early January, the dining room was fairly empty and pretty sedate, with several tables perched around a large circular bar in an airy, open room. Head Chef Chad Johnson (who I want to call "Ocho Cinco" every time I hear his name - inside NFL joke) occasionally poked his head out of the kitchen to check on patrons and presumably gauge reactions to his latest creations. We both ordered the tasting menu and were pleasantly surprised by each and every savory course: tiny puffed brioches topped with rich golden char roe, radish matchsticks, and a zingy ponzu sauce, a petit branzino filet delicately crisped and served atop carrot, fennel, and a saffron jus, grilled scallop with a butterbean tortellini, matsutake mushroom, and something called iberico ham cream (which gets my vote to replace all other forms of cream known to mankind, including the shaving variety), a roasted squab with glazed turnips, guanciale (cured pork jowl), and a rosemary black pepper sabayon, and, lastly, an artfully-presented set of elk loin slices with spaghetti squash, sunflower, pomegranate, and a touch of Syrian hot pepper dip called muhammara. Dessert was just as amazing - I opted for the chocolate marquis, a plate of three chocolate cubes garnished with candied fennel, blackberry, fleur de sel, and olive oil anglaise, while Mrs. Hackknife went with the equally-impressive parsnip and date cake with PX sherry, hazelnuts, and goat cheese ice cream. Accompanying the meal were crunchy, pencil-thin breadsticks and rectangular flatbread sheets that were dusted with curry and harissa, plus a housemade grain bread that was perfect for sopping up bits of stray sauce from each course. All told, once we identify some babysitters in the subdivision, I suspect that we'll be making more frequent trips here for Chef J's grub.
Our final meal in town before heading north was lunch on Friday back towards Waterchase, on a stretch of Linebaugh not far from Village Market. I'd noticed on our first trip a red store with the name "Burger 21" on it and made a mental note to stop in at some future date, which had now arrived. This joint has garnered rave reviews in town as one of the best gourmet burger stops around and its locations are slowly starting to spread their way across central Florida towards Orlando and points beyond (possibly even to a neighborhood near you someday). The menu features a number of unusual burger offerings, including ahi tuna, shrimp po' boy, veggie, chicken, and turkey, along with the more traditional USDA choice beef. I went for the Tex-Mex Haystack, a riotous combo of lettuce, tomato, applewood-smoked bacon, gouda cheese, guacamole, onion strings, chipotle-jalapeno sauce, and beef patty, all on a toasted brioche (see photo above). When paired with sweet potato fries (which came with a toasted marshmallow dipping sauce - right on), this was about the best consumption of 1,100 calories I could recall (I deliberately avoided the milkshakes, including Key lime pie, which may very well be the first thing I stop for on the next return trip - no need to blow all of the day's calories in one fell swoop). So, as you can see, foodies of Chicago - you can pity us, but probably shouldn't too much, as we'll do our best to simply survive down here...
Tuesday, January 8, 2013
As the years go by, I've found that Xmas gift giving has become less about the adults and more about the kids (although I sometimes wonder how many more Star Wars Lego sets junior really needs). This holiday season, Mrs. Hackknife treated herself to a present by purchasing a very nice family photo taken by a professional photographer (I know that he was a pro by what he charged us, exponentially more than what we normally drop at Penney's for pictures, but I digress), thus eliminating the need for me to get her a gift. Of course, she still had to have a package from Santa to open on Xmas day, so I surprised her with theater tickets to see a live rendition of "It's a Wonderful Life" performed as if it were an old-time radio show. The production took place at the historic Biograph Theater and was really impressive, but the true star of the evening was our pre-performance dinner at Takashi (1952 N. Damen), Chef Takashi Yagihasi's fine dining establishment in Wicker Park. The missus and I were anxious to eat here, even more so after recently trying Chef T.'s izakaya cuisine at Slurping Turtle and also hearing positive feedback from our fellow foodies Phil and Karen V., who had been there just a week before. In fact, Phil's writeup of their meal on his blog (the incomparably titled Completely Random and Awesome Thoughts or C.R.A.T. - I highly recommend you check it out) is sufficiently detailed (plus, his photos are much better than mine) such that I'm going to simply direct everyone to his posting to get the low-down (yes, I fully admit I'm being lazy here). Of course, this ploy only works because we all happened to order the same meal (the omakase, or chef's seasonal tasting menu), which appears to have been duplicated for us dish-by-dish.
Saturday, January 5, 2013
With the new year having arrived, I've decided it's high time to make an important announcement about my family and, subsequently, the direction of this blog. After much consideration, Mrs. Hackknife has opted to accept a very intriguing job offer out-of-state. Come late February, if all goes according to plan, the Hackknife Family will be relocating to the warm and sunny environs of Tampa, Florida (this explains the one-off posting about an Italian restaurant in Tampa last November - we were on a house-hunting junket at the time). Now, you might wonder, what does this mean exactly for what I've been writing over the past few years? Here's what's going to occur as best as I can gather:
On or around March 1, my main focus will now be on cuisine in the Tampa - St. Petersburg (or St. Pete, as the locals call it - gotta practice) area. Obviously, this is a no-brainer. Although I certainly can't expect the overall quality and variety of the food we find down here to match that of Chicago (which is, after all, among the best on the planet), there are some areas (specifically, seafood, Cuban, and Spanish) where my fellow Tampadres will have set the bar pretty high. I'm greatly looking forward to exploring and discovering the best offerings of nosh that west-central Florida has to offer (Mrs. Hackknife and I have already started this, by the way - you will soon be reading about in detail the wonderful meal we ate at a fine dining establishment called SideBern's last night, the equal of most any we've enjoyed back home).
This move will challenge my culinary sleuthing abilities. Unlike Chicago, where the foodie media coverage runs rampant, the dining scene is much more low-key, even underground in some cases. I won't have my usual myriad cheat sheets to mine for insight and tips on where to get the best bowl of ramen in town (if one even exists - after all, the hunt is part of the fun). I look forward to possibly even BEING the source of discovery once in a while (if I may be so immodest), something that wasn't likely to happen anytime soon in Chicago.
I expect that I'll be able to cover other regional cuisine hotbeds more frequently. Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Charleston are all not terribly far away from Tampa. I greatly hope that we'll be visiting these locales and, you, my dear reader, will definitely hear about it.
I will still have some focus on Chicago. It goes without saying that I won't be able to cover the scene as before; however, I intend to stay informed as best I can on the culinary happenings of my old hometown. We'll be back to visit family several times a year and there will be much consumption of past favorite dishes on our trips (in case you were wondering, we're keeping our Next season tickets, by the way). That being said, I completely understand if you feel the need to stop reading due to lack of relevancy (I'm aware that my hack writing style alone probably doesn't warrant everybody sticking around - don't feel bad, I might actually be able to acquire a new follower or two down South).
At least at the outset, I'll probably be cooking more at home for a while. A new city means no babysitters at first, so our initial opportunities for eating out will likely be limited until we get a little more established in town (or until we decide to drag out the kiddos more often). The new kitchen will henceforth be christened as the "Canteen". I look forward to you following along as I slowly destroy it dish-by-dish.
Speaking of renaming things, the blog will soon be called "Hackknife South". I would like to change the name slightly to reflect my new environment, thus allowing me to reserve the original in case we ever move back to Chicago (entirely possible at some point).
Now that I've established the new particulars, I sincerely hope you'll choose to continue down the path of culinary adventuredom with me - there's lots of room on the lanai out back...