Friday, July 19, 2013

Chicago Trip Highlights/Terzo Piano/Blackbird

Last month, I dragged Hackknife Jr. and Hackknifette up to Chicago for 9 days (Mrs. Hackknife was also able to join us for a portion of that time), thus satisfying my urges to take full advantage of the kids' summer break. The "official" reason for our first return trip since the move was to visit friends and family we'd left behind; of course, off the record, I shamelessly used the experience to stuff my face with coveted local delicacies that I can no longer obtain whenever the spirit moves me. This included (but was certainly not limited to):

1. Gino's East deep-dish pizza, with a sausage patty covering the entire area of the pie instead of scattered sausage chunks (you bet my spiking LDL, I did). Although the Gino's outlet of my childhood (near Golf and Algonquin in Rolling Meadows) finally closed shop earlier this year, enthusiasts can still find the good stuff on Higgins in Rosemont.

(say hi to Maurie and Flaurie)

2. My personal vote for best Chicago-style hot dog in a city full of, well, Chicago-style hot dogs (I just realized what a dumb statement that was) Superdawg, serving up boxes of beefy nirvana since 1948 at the intersection of Devon, Nagle, and Milwaukee. Although you can't tell from the picture, there is a beautifully-crafted Chicago dog underneath the crinkle-cut fries (also some of the best in town), pickle spear, sport pepper, and green tomato quarter, which I finally deigned to try for the first time instead of tossing it aside as usual (it turns out they're not half-bad).

3. A luscious Italian beef sandwich with sweet peppers from Portillo's, a Chicago institution now beginning to extend its tentacles out-of-state, including California and Arizona. I took this expansion to be a sign that perhaps a Florida location would not be too far off; alas, Portillo's corporate regrettably confirms that this is not the case (I emailed them to ask).

4. What you see above is called a Johnny Pop. Devised by Long Grove Confectionery in historic downtown Long Grove, IL, it's an apple cider doughnut dipped in chocolate and served on a stick. Had I not known that the doughnut was apple cider, I probably wouldn't have been able to tell, but the chocolate alone was worth the effort.

5. I'm embarrassed to admit that a terrific ice cream parlor has been dishing out premium sweets in my hometown (Mt. Prospect, IL) since 2001 and, until recently, I'd been largely oblivious to its existence (granted, I'd left Mt. Prospect for good 8 years earlier, but still). Chef Jim Capannari opened Capannari Ice Cream (10 S. Pine) in the old Moehling General Store/Post Office (circa 1882) and hasn't looked back, churning up flavors like Lick the Bowl Cake Batter and Frango Mint (which I had to sample on my first visit). I didn't really need more reasons to visit Mt. Prospect again, but apparently, I've found another.

Lest you think that my dining selections in the Windy City were completely limited to lowbrow nostalgia, I made sure that we included some highfalutin nosh as well. While Mrs. H and I enjoyed an adults-only day of fun downtown at the Art Institute, we popped in for lunch at Terzo Piano, a place we never managed to cross off our list when we were locals. TP is primarily a lunch place (open for dinner only on Thursdays) located on the third floor of the museum's relatively-new modern wing. Originally conceived by Chef Tony Mantuano (of Spiaggia fame) to highlight seasonal Italian cuisine, the restaurant is mainly run by alums of Spiaggia. Even though it's been open for about 3 years, reservations are still a bit hard to come by (we had to show up after 1 pm to get a table) and the all-white space is showing a little more wear/tear than I would have expected (I guess that's what happens with a steady stream of tourist traffic). Nonetheless, we were both pleased with our food choices, including the earthy (and ample) English pea spread crostino appetizer that you see below.

My entree consisted of an obscure noodle from Sardinia called malloreddus (I had to look it up - it's a bit canoe-shaped and grooved to maximize sauce retention) mixed with braised rabbit, chili flake, Parmesan, mint, pine nuts, and golden raisins (see photo below). There were so many wonderful flavors and textures at play in this dish that I hardly noticed the squall line blowing in from the west that darkened the room.

Our late lunch did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for dinner at Blackbird (619 W. Randolph) a few hours later, another fine dining establishment that had eluded us all of these years. The crown jewel in Paul Kahan's local restaurant empire, the Michelin-starred Blackbird has been dazzling patrons for 15 years with a modern approach to classic French cooking. The decor is certainly modern (lots of shiny surfaces and straight lines) and you may want to reconsider your presence if noise/claustrophobia isn't your jam (i.e., it's loud and a bit cramped), but the food is nothing short of remarkable. We opted for the day's tasting menu and were not disappointed. My photos of each course are below (and, no, I wasn't using a yellow filter on the lens, that's just Blackbird's "mood lighting" in the dining room):

Shrimp from Laughing Bird Seafood (Costa Rica), date-kaffir lime consomme, green almonds

Chilled spring pea and tofu soup, paddlefish roe, puffed onion, licorice

Hamachi tartare, sprouted lentils, cured rhubarb, spicy marrow, chickweed

Foie gras torchon, kohlrabi, white grape, black sesame, shiitake broth (amazing!)

Roasted halibut, oyster cream, artichoke confit, sea beans, seeds

Wood-grilled sturgeon, chicken wings, marinated kale, turnips, walnut puree

Aged duck breast, broccoli, potato granola, sesame, raisin cream

Sartori raspberry bellavitano cow's milk cheese, pretzel crisps, chocolate stout crumbs, Valrhona Dulcey blond chocolate

Cucumber sorbet, tahitian vanilla, tomato, green strawberries

Roasted peanut ice cream, carrot-barley sponge, honey mousse, pickled carrot, opal basil (try to ignore the fact that it basically resembles vomit on a plate - trust me, it's fantastic)

Clearly, Blackbird operates at an elite level of both style and execution, a disciple of Charlie Trotter's as well as inspiration for newer upscale dining spots like Goosefoot. I have to nominate Chef David Posey's potato granola as the new titleholder for World's Greatest Invention (sorry, sliced bread) and how Dana Cree's intricate desserts made me swoon with little to no use of chocolate is beyond me. Get thee to Blackbird ASAP before this dynamic duo moves on to other ventures.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Bistec Adobado Tacos with Grilled Green Onions

Men's Journal strikes again - in the latest issue (July 2013), an entire article is devoted to the elevation of the taco from humble street food to serious dining fodder, including recipes for 5 different varieties (beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, and vegetarian) from famous taquerias across America. Chef Joe Hargrave of Tacolicious in San Francisco provided the beef taco recipe, a bistec adobado (flank steak marinated in a chile paste) served with grilled green onions, that caught my eye and inspired me to fire up the ol' Canteen grill. Up first, however, a trip to my local Latino grocery was in order to source the dried chile peppers (ancho, guajillo, and cascabel) needed for the marinade. El Grande Supermarket is located not too far from Hackknifette's preschool (near the intersection of Waters and Hanley, about 15 minutes from the homestead) and, while it doesn't exactly live up to its name (the store is about a quarter of the size of our usual Publix), I was able to find both the ancho and guajillo chiles I needed, plus some pineapple wafers for good measure (most of the store's activity was concentrated around the butcher counter, with scores of hungry patrons calling out orders in Spanish for lamb, goat, and tripe). Back home, I reconstituted the peppers in a warm bath of apple cider vinegar and water, shredded them in a food processor with browned onions/garlic and cumin to make a paste, then slathered the paste on my beautiful 2-lb. flank steak (courtesy of Publix) to marinate for a few hours. After that, the steak went on a hot grill for about 6 minutes each side, and, voila, I had the very tasty (and very pink) bistec adobado that you see in the photo on top, along with some surplus juices and grilled green onions. The family all seemed to enjoy the meat, except the corn tortillas I bought didn't hold up very well under the weight of the steak, onions, and all of our side toppings - in fact, Mrs. Hackknife suggested that we just eat the steak separately in the future (as sort of a carne asada) and put everything else on the side, which I did for lunch the remainder of the week. When paired with a little shredded cheese, sour cream, raw diced onion, lime juice, and a dollop of pureed chipotle pepper, you end up with a tasty dish that hits all the flavor receptors of the palate (sweet, salt, heat, fat, tart, and crunch). I'm now quite anxious to try the other 4 taco recipes in the coming months.

Bistec Adobado with Grilled Green Onions

1 tsp. cumin seeds (or 2 tsp. ground cumin)
1/3 c. apple cider vinegar
2 dried ancho chiles, stemmed and deseeded
2 dried guajillo or New Mexico chiles, stemmed and deseeded
1 dried cascabel chile, stemmed and deseeded (note - I omitted this)
1/4 medium yellow onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp. kosher salt
2 lb. flank steak, skirt steak, or tri-tip
1 large bunch green onions, root ends trimmed
Lime wedges, chopped onions, and cilantro for garnish
12 tortillas

1. Toast cumin seeds in a skillet over medium heat for 1 minute, then grind in a spice grinder (note - skip this step if you are using ground cumin)
2. Heat vinegar and water in a pan until hot. Pour into a bowl with dried chile peppers and let stand for 15 minutes.
3. Put 3 tbsp. canola oil in a pan over medium heat, add onions and garlic, saute until browned, and place in a food processor. Add chiles, soaking liquid, cumin, black pepper, and salt. Puree into a thick, smooth paste.
4. Place steak and adobo paste in a large ziploc bag, massage to coat all sides, and refrigerate from 2 to 12 hours.
5. Remove steak from refrigerator 1-2 hours before cooking. Grill over medium-high heat 5-7 minutes per side. Set aside to rest covered for 10 minutes.
6. Rub green onions with 1 tbsp. canola or olive oil, grill until soft and slightly charred (about 2 minutes), and season with salt.
7. Cut steak into small pieces against the grain and season with salt/pepper. Serve with green onions, cilantro, chopped onions, and lime wedges.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Dishcrawl Dunedin

It's time to get back in the saddle again after a hectic month of June that included the end of the school year, a weeklong visit to the Canteen by the in-laws, and a 9-day trip back to Chicago to see family/friends (and eat, of course - posting to soon follow). I feel great shame about having only posted twice last month, but can only resolve to do better at this point, and I figure there is no better way to support my resolve by adding a new entry on July 1. So, without further delay, the following is a chronicle of my second Dishcrawl event in Tampa, a 4-stop tour of restaurants and watering holes in downtown Dunedin (pronounced "Done-Eden"), a charming, gulfside village located a mere 25 minutes from our new homestead. When I first met up with our Dishcrawl coordinator, Tracy, and the other members of our jolly band (I was solo this time as Mrs. Hackknife was out of town on business), we were at the Dunedin Smokehouse (471 Main Street). The Smokehouse is a honky-tonk style BBQ joint with live music to accompany the meaty goods emanating from the kitchen. In the few months I've been in Florida, I've come to realize that this area of the South is not the one where BBQ is the bedrock of the local culinary tradition; nonetheless, I now know that if I ever get a hankering for St. Louis pork ribs, we don't have to venture as far as Memphis - the Smokehouse ribs were tender and flavorful, nicely matched with a little of the house ancho barbeque sauce.

Just down the street from the Smokehouse is the fabulous Casa Tina (365 Main Street), a lively Mexican restaurant filled to the brim with skeleton-themed decor in homage to Mexico's Day of the Dead. Once served our Dishcrawl plates by Tina herself (her husband, Javier, helped found the original Senor Frog's, presumably not the tequila-fueled frat party then that the chain is today), we quickly realized that there's nothing morbid about the food (nor the house margaritas, for that matter). Perched on the dish were a bowl of terrific guacamole, a knockout version of mole poblano that would put a smile on Rick Bayless's face, and a unique stuffed poblano pepper (called chiles en nogada filled with picadillo (a mix of ground beef and tomatoes) and topped with brandy walnut cream and pomegranate seeds (see photo above). So taken was I with Casa Tina, I actually brought the family back a few evenings later for my Father's Day dinner (during which I had a pan-fried tilapia topped with a papaya/basil sauce, not quite as enjoyable as the first entrees). Throw in Cirque de Soleil-type entertainment (some of the waitstaff are aspiring trapeze artists) and endless baskets of fresh tortilla chips, and we have ourselves a favorite Tampa-area Mexican place.

From Casa Tina's, our group took a quick jaunt up the Pinellas County Trail to a beachcomber bar named Jolli Mon's Grill (941 Huntley Avenue), which bills itself as having "Caribbean food with a Floridian twist". Sadly, we didn't really get to experience much of this food, as we were provided with mostly unremarkable bar grub (cheese sticks, quesadillas, and the like). I'd happily return to catch a cold beer and a ballgame on the tube, but probably would venture back down the block a bit to Dunedin Brewery (937 Douglas Avenue) for more serious nosh and craft brews (Florida's first, founded 1996). Although I wasn't a huge fan of their most popular beer (the Apricot Peach Ale, which was a little sweet for my palate), there were plenty of others on the chalkboard that I'd be willing to sample (see photo below).

While a lively drum circle pounded away in the main dining room (if you ever need to scratch your hippie itch, it's there every Tuesday night at 8), us Dishcrawlers dined on ample-sized pulled pork sliders, fish tacos, and chicken wings (see photo below) in the separate beer lounge near the front of the building.

If I can somehow convince the wife to act as chauffeur come NFL season, I can see myself enjoying many beers and snacks here while watching Bears games on Sunday afternoons. So, to recap, Dunedin has what we need for BBQ, Mexican, and craft brew, all a stone's throw from the ocean. Perhaps this is the place to retire...