Sunday, January 31, 2010

Pho and I

Should it be Pho and Me? Grammar was never my strong suit, I much prefer to check out new noodle/asian/Vietnamese spots. Sunday night BYOB is also high on my list, so we decided to walk down the street 6 pack in hand and try it out. 

The decor of the place is pretty cool, but only for half of the space. I guess they ran out of time or money to finish the other side, or maybe it's just a white wall on purpose. It's also large enough that I can't quite figure out if they want people to dine in or just carry-out. I'm guessing they want both and should have enough room to accommodate people.

As far as the food goes, I think the major summary is fine, nothing special and not better than the local shops 1/10 of the distance (seems like there is one on every corner). We ordered two starters, the vegetarian egg rolls and crispy wantons. They were fine, nothing special. The crispy wantons were far better, and seemed like a better value since you get six versus four egg rolls, both priced at 4.25.


 

For the main course I went with the house specialty, or so i thought. Since the name of the place contains Pho, I decided to try Pho, which is a typical Vietnamese noodle soup dish. There were plenty of options on the menu that I would want to try, noodle dishes, soups, curry, rice etc, but I figured what better place to check out Pho. 

Unfortunately I either do not like Pho, or it was not done very well. I'm going to give the benefit of the doubt to Pho and I, and conclude I'm not the biggest fan of a huge bowl of broth, noodles and some chicken. 
  

There simply wasn't much flavor, even with the all the onions, basil, lime and whatnot. I added a healthy helping of the hot sauce, and a dash of soy sauce to get my required dosage of sodium. Oh well, next time I end up there, if I do, I'll try something else. My friend had the curry and loved it, so maybe I just ordered wrong. Hard to believe since Pho is in the title but that's not the point. 

My other friends ordered a rice dish, and a pad thai. Everyone else agreed that the food was fine but not great, all reasonably priced at (6.95-7.25 per plate) but noticed that no one was completely satisfied. Usually I walk away with slight pains from consuming too many noodles or egg rolls or some combination, but not tonight. And what's really interesting is that when you look at the servings when they arrive, it seems like there should be plenty of food. Maybe we were all unusually hungry tonight, but it just struck me as odd that we felt we could still eat more. 

In any event, Pho and I serves decent food (try the curry?) but nothing special. The value is on par with what you expect, but maybe the portions are a tad small. This seems like a perfect candidate for a 3/5 score. I don't know if I'll be running back since I already have local favorites for asian noodles and rice. If you are in the neighborhood craving Vietnamese or noodles, go for it. Otherwise stick with what you know and enjoy. 

Pho and I on Urbanspoon

Phở on Foodista

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Charlie's Ale House - Navy Pier

What's the best place to eat lunch on a saturday at Navy Pier? I don't know the answer, but Charlie's wasn't a bad option. We were meeting friends who were in town and wanted a simple, quick meal that wasn't fast food. I thought there were more eating options, but I guess not. Harry Carry's is being built, so that adds a solid option, but not available today. We didn't want Bubba Gump, expensive Rivia, or the non Michigan Ave. Billy Goats. I walked past Charlie's on the way in, so we gave it shot.

I forgot it was part of the "Charlie's" enterprise, my favorite being the original Charlie's On Webster. The menu was fine, cheap and the food pretty good all things considered. Those things being the crazy crowds, families, noise, etc. But that's what you get at Navy Pier so no fault the Charlie. 

I ordered the special, which was a vegi wrap served with fries or soup. I was impressed, large portion with a pretty tasty light dressing. The vegetables were fine, I could have used a little more flavor from the dressing or other seasonings, but perfectly acceptable. The tuna melt my friend ordered was also huge, served with fries, and quite tasty.

The service definitely could have been better, but again, comes with the territory. The portion sizes were plenty and the value actually not bad ($8 sandwiches). I would say this is a good place to grab a decent meal while hanging out at the Pier. I would go back if I had to eat a meal amongst the tourists, but that hasn't been a common situation.



Charlie's Ale House on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 29, 2010

Beard Papa's

Full disclosure, I am not a pastry or dessert person. But I had to check out this new place that is getting a lot of buzz, even more impressive since it's located in the underground pedway of Block 37. I was also curious about a spot where the main attraction costs $2. Call me crazy but the "buzz" to cost ratio was all I  needed to make the pilgrimage underground.

This will be short and sweet, pun intended. I don't know much about cream puffs, and I'm not a huge sweets person. But I could see how these little pastries stuffed with custard are top notch and have propelled this company to franchise nation wide. I particularly enjoyed the fact that you can see how your "puff" is made (I had no idea how it was done). They bake all the pastries first, and then stick them on a little injector of custard depending on what you ordered. I know, not rocket science, just kind of funny/cool. I went with the original pastry (there are 4 choices) with vanilla custard (also 4 choices including ice cream).

Anyway, the product is great, people were in there lined up ordering by dozen. If I liked pastry custard, or knew someone that did, I too would buy a box. I also would go back and try the ice cream filled pastry, or the smoothies. Since I don't venture down Block 37 often it might be tough to accomplish.

I give my personal experience a 3/5 since I don't love custard filled anything, but the quality of the place is definitely 4/5 (I have no idea what a 5/5 custard filled pastry would taste like). Check it out all you cream puff fans, probably the best in town.

 
 Before

After/In progress

 Beard Papa's on Urbanspoon

Chilam Balam

My first review of a Chicago place in a while, since I've been traveling. I'll first say that I can see why it has 100% approval in Urbanspoon and high marks on Yelp. It also took over 30 minutes to get a table at 9pm on a Thursday night, so the locals are voting with their feet/checks too. Add the fact that it's BYOB, no reservations and cash only makes it all the more impressive. 

We had a relatively quick meal, only four small plates AND a bottle of wine. The place was packed as usual and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Since the space is small, conversation noise is high, especially when you pour your own drinks. The menu was surprisingly small, but it's also seasonal so maybe I should come back in the spring/summer. However, sometimes a smaller menu makes decisions easier, especially when dealing with small plates. 

We started with the guacamole ($6.50) and corn masa memelas ($8.50), with the idea of doing vegetarian starters. The memelas are topped with smokey black bean puree, goat cheese, arbol chile salsa and dressed greens.


 Corn masa memelas

Now everything was fine, which may have been the problem. Expectations were high, reasonable or not, but when I finished I realized that I did not really want to order those dishes again. The guacamole was fine, but nothing to write home about and the memelas tasted like black beans and feta cheese without additional flavors from the rest of the ingredients. Nothing was bad, just not meeting sky high expectations and not passing the "I want to order that again" test. 

We ordered two more dishes, also from the small dish selection, jumbo shrimp and pork belly. These were definitely more impressive and what I would guess more representative of the kinds of dishes receiving high acclaims. 

Pork belly

 
Jumbo Shrimp

The pork belly dish was nice, full of flavor that you expect from pork and the butternut squash and sauce really made the flavors exciting. I'm not a huge fan of pork belly but this was very well prepared. In the end though, we saved the best for last with the shrimp. It was the only plate I would have ordered again. They served the shrimp with tortillas to make a taco, and it went down great. The light sauce was salty, but it in a good way that enhanced the flavors. There were also small potatoes served on the side.
I know I only had four dishes, but only one was truly great. For all the praise and hype and waiting for 30 min at 9pm, I was let down slightly. I can see the talent and the creativity in the preparations. Maybe I wasted two selections on vegetarian starters that aren't quite necessary. The problem though is that I'm not enthusiastic to wait again for table to try and order right. I feel that most great restaurants shine through on a majority of the dishes, not the other way around. Again, I can see where everyone is coming from, and the experience is likely enhanced by the cult atmosphere surrounding the restaurant. I give it 3/5 this time around, but I recognize the high potential for future visits.

Chilam Balam on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Switzerland Food

I was surprised and thrilled to find out my first dinner at the Chalet in Villars was going to be another home chef cooked meal. I was with a family of 6 so in some ways, having a chef come to you is easier than bringing 7 to the chef. The three course meal was great, the main course below was pork stuffed with pruns I think.




Unbelievable dessert, home made banana cheesecake. I'm not a cheesecake person, but this was ridiculous.


Nothing caps the night like Drambuie
The last night in Switzerland we went out to dinner for Raclette. This is a type of cheese native to the region, and served as you see below, in a big melted mess on your plate. They heat up the cheese in front of the fire, then scrape off the melted cheese onto your plate. You eat it with bread, potatoes, and dried meat. When you finish one plate, they take it away and give you more until you say stop. As long as you don't have a cholesterol problem, the meal is amazing. 




Melted cheese and dried meat



Put it together and you have a good plate of cheese with a potato and meat.

Other Pictures of Dutch Food



Typical Dutch Cheese Shop



Cheese vendor in Delft Market



Yes, they serve their french fries with Mayo

Private Dinner for two: Tuna four ways

Our last night in The Hague featured a personal dinner cooked by Chef Wouter. Our only request was Tuna and vegetables, he did the rest. A fantastic meal, especially when you can eat in your pajamas. My favorite courses were the second course with pumpkin, and of course the white chocolate suffle. The tuna and beet dish was my least favorite, only because I thought the beet flavor overpowered the delicate tuna pieces. I am still waiting for the official menu, so I can't give accurate descriptions. When I get the menu I will update captions.

The menu is as follows:

Canneloni of Tuna Filled with Cucumber and Celery.  Seaweed salad, Pickeld Ginger, Cherry Tomato and Rucola.

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Grilled Tuna with Marinated Pumpkin and a Sweet Carrot Marmelade and Hoijiblanca olive oil.

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Baked Tuna with Red Mustard and Herbs, Spinach, Salsify and a Poched Quaille Egg.

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Ravioli from Red Beet filled with Tuna, Glazed Jerusalem artichokes with Star-anis, Fennel with a Crust of Breadcrum and a Black olive Vinaigrette.

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Granite from Coffee with a Almond,Lemon Cookie. Amandelkrul in Dutch.






My favorite, tuna with pumpkin






White chocolate suffle with grapefruit slices in marmalade

Thanksgiving in The Hague

Since the original thanksgiving dinner never happened, we re-created the dinner in January. Below are some pictures from the wonderful evening.



Dining Room set up before dinner



My plate setting pre meal



The menu



First Course Salad


My plate full of awesomeness. Yes, I went back for seconds


Yum dessert plate



Compliments to Chef Wouter

Home Again

I was away on vacation overseas in The Netherlands and Switzerland but am now back home in Chicago. While  I did not "review" any of my meals on the other side of the pond, I did take pictures of the more memorable eating encounters. For your view pleasure I will post those now, let me know if you have any questions or comments. Cheers.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Five Great Gastropubs

If you haven't noticed, I enjoy lists. TOC seems to put together some goods ones so I like to share them. This one caught my attention because I love great food and great beer so put them together and you get great gastropubs, right? I'll have to check them out to be sure.

Five Great Gastropubs

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Top 10 Chicago restaurant recipes of 2009

The Dining Chicago Blog compiled this list of their most used recipes from 2009. For those of you who prefer to cook your own food, check some of these out. Don't forget to invite me over when you!

Dining Chicago » Top 10 Chicago restaurant recipes of 2009

Saturday, January 9, 2010

grahamwich is coming

Credit to Gapers Block, where I first read about the new idea from graham elliot. Here is what the chef posted on his twitter yesterday:

grahamwich = sandwiches, snacks, sodas, soft serves. spring 2010, river north, am/pm hours. www.grahamwich.com is coming soon, stay tuned.

Reminds me of the idea of XOCO from Bayless. I may now wait to check out the flagship restaurant in favor of a cheaper option.

Melanthios Greek Char House

I wish I had a better experience at Melanthios, where my list of things that went wrong far out number the good. We didn't send the food back, and left quite full, so it wasn't a complete disaster, but close.

We arrive for a late lunch around 1:30 on a Saturday. The place was pretty empty, only a few tables occupied and a one man show from host to server. It's a real nice space, with fireplaces, wine and olive oil on the walls and roasting pigs right in the middle of the dining room for a "you are in the kitchen" feel.

Yes, those are two pigs cooking right when you walk in.

We sit down, check out the lunch menu and order some drinks. A noticeably long time passes before the server comes back to take our food order, which was an order of grilled zucchini with skordalia ($9), grilled chicken pit ($9.5) and I choose the classic gyros pita ($9.5).

Not a long time passes when the grilled zucchini arrived, not really grilled, and drenched in olive oil with some salt and pepper seasoning. I could have handled that zucchini if I had my skordalia spread to eat it with (the main reason I order that dish is for the skordalia, the zucchini is a bonus). Well apparently 2pm is not early enough to order the skordalia as it was not made yet, something we were not told until after our dish arrived. I was shocked, simply put. I asked how long until it would be ready, and we were told 20 minutes, longer than I wanted to wait. We were offered any other spread (only two on the menu) with the zucchini and choose just to take the traditional tzatziki sauce. When that arrived, I was shocked to see it too drenched in olive oil. They must really like the stuff back in the kitchen. Needless to say the meal was not getting off on the right foot. I figured we'd have our main sandwichs soon and could move on with good greek food.

Unfortunately only half of that happened. The wait time between our olive oil appetizers and the simple pita sandwiches was long enough for the server to be scared of me and send the manager out to make sure I wasn't going to walk out. She asked if everything was ok, that she was told we were upset with a dish. No, not upset, just shocked that something as basic as skordalia spread wasn't ready at 2pm on a Saturday. She apologized and offered a free dessert. After even more time passes our sandwiches finally arrive. This was the best part of the meal, as we could just concentrate on eating the large mound of food in front of us. Everything tasted pretty good, nothing earth shattering. The chicken looked and tasted like something I could do at home, and my gyros were not much better than the ones I can get in the loop for a quick lunch. The portions were very generous and served with fries topped with feta cheese.

 
Chicken Pita

Gyros Pita (Feta cheese on the fries)

We finished some of the food and doggy bagged the rest, ate the free dessert (quite good, lots of honey and nuts but well made) and paid our bill. The value isn't bad, $30 for two for lunch with an appetizer. I wish this place worked and could save me the trip down to Greek town. It didn't so I'll just hop on the halstead bus next time I have a skordalia and gryos craving.

Melanthios Greek Char House on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Tapas Gitana

Maybe I'm just lucky, but I've only been to good tapas places in Chicago and this just makes that list longer. We didn't order anything tricky, just some of the staples like spicy potatoes, scallops, stuffed mushroom tops, baked goat cheese and a very good meat dish that was served over potatoes and onions. Since the dinner was so good we had to order dessert, and we went with the caramelized banana with ice cream and chocolate sauce. Wow that was good. I didn't know this place existed (I don't make it to the burbs that often), but if you are in the neighborhood, check it out.



Baked Goat Cheese


Awesome dessert, Caramelized Banana with ice cream

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Chicago Restaurant Week 2010

It's officially announced, Restaurant Week comes to Chicago the last week of February 2010 (19-28). Try all of those 4 star and out of your price range spots that are on your list and NOT go broke. The great Chicago food blog "Chicago Food Whores" has taken the time to post menus and restaurants. Instead of reinventing the wheel, just go here to read them.

Official Site Chicago Restaurant Week


I posted an update here.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Sunda

My high anticipation and expectations for Sunda were unfortunately not met, though there is a caveat. I went for an early dinner/post work light eat. Therefore, we focused more on the small plate and sushi items of the menu and did not order a main entre. However, that should not exempt a restaurant for serving relatively uninspiring dishes without a distinct flavor. The decor was impressive, especially in the large space. There were two bars, communal tables, interesting lighting and lots of things to distract your eyes. The service was equally pleasant, fast and knowledgeable about the food they were serving. The front room also gets very high marks.

But it always comes back to the food, that is what we pay far (quite dearly in this case) and why we let someone else do the cooking. As I said, we ordered four small plates to share and call a meal. Two of them were sushi rolls (more sushi and sashimi on the menu then I expected), the duck bao and finally the highly touted Devils basket (soft shell crab in a whole host of chili peppers and other hot spices).The Number Nine ($16) and Golden Child ($12) specialty rolls were anything but special in my opinion, especially for the price. Number nine is a shrimp, unagi, tobiko, asparagus, tempura flake, kaiware and unagi sauce while golden child consists of super white tuna, mango, avocado, tempura crumbs with mango crème. I am normally a huge fan of large and complicated maki rolls as I love the different flavors you can create in one bite. Unfortunately I did not get any of that with either roll, with the main culprit being I couldn't quite taste anything from the fish which is supposed to be the star of the show. I think the golden child roll was a bit more satisfying with the mango flavor, but neither one was good enough to order more of (a fair standard for which I judge maki rolls). Maybe I'm being harsh, but there are plenty of good local sushi places I can go for complicated rolls at much less cost. The Duck Bao buns (4 for $10) were also confusing and disappointing in that the main flavor should be the duck, which did not have a lot of flavor. The second part is that the bao bun is more like a bao sandwich, which turns into a lot of bao dough served with some only ok duck. Finally there was the Devils basket, wok tossed crispy soft shell crabs in dried chilies, shallots, scallions and toasted garlic ($16). Hailed by Chicago Magazine as the best new dish of 2009, I was very curious what would come out of the kitchen. I don't know if I would crown it the best dish of the year, but it was by far the best dish of the night. Lots of good flavors with an overall message of spicy crispy goodness. Unfortunately it was the only such dish that seemed to have everything figured out to present a unified flavor.

My main message is not that I had a horrible time, or that the food was terrible and inedible. Quite the contrary. And maybe my expectations were a little high walking in the door so that anything but perfection would be a let down. But what I keep thinking about is that most of the food presented did not pass the sniff test, simply is the food tasty with good flavors. Combine that with questionable value and you leave scratching your head.

Maybe I had a bad night, or they had a bad night because everywhere I look is nothing but praise. I would love to come back, try the main course dishes (they do look very interesting and tasty) and change my opinion (I always love good food); when I do, I know I won't be paying the bill.




The Number Nine

 Golden Child


Four Duck Baos



The Devil's Basket

Sunda on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bakin' & Eggs

UPDATE: I know this is what I wrote back when I first went to the place, but the more I think about my experience, the more I realize I was disappointed. I still believe that they offer unique dishes and things that you would not normally prepare, but the more I think about the food, the more I realize they fell short on execution. I would give it a 2.5/5, which means it's right in the middle of recommending and not. I would imagine some days and some dishes are awesome, and the rest of the time you walk away disappointed that the creative dish didn't come out as expected. Anyway, check it out and let me know how it goes.

I'm not usually a brunch person, but finding good spots close to home is always a bonus and this fits the bill. They present a simple menu with unique choices that taste good and doesn't break the bank. I was also surprised by the size of the place, as well as the decor, which is simple single color walls with wood chairs and tables all around. In order to justify leaving my house and paying for breakfast food, there needs to be something unique or special on the menu that I could or would not normally prepare easily. They accomplish this goal by presenting interesting combinations of usually straightforward ingredients to create a dish. The two we sampled were the cinnamon raisin breakfast sandwich ($8) and banana bread french toast ($9). I think I out-ordered this round with the cinnamon raisin sandwich. The sandwich is chicken apple sausage, eggs any style, cheese and of course cinnamon raisin toast. Since I love each ingredient separately, I wasn't surprised to enjoy them all together in a combination I would not think to make. The sandwich is served with a side of maple syrup, which might seem odd at first, but having taken a bite without the syrup, I can advise to eat the dish as the chef envision. The sugar in the syrup makes the sandwich come together because the other pieces are relatively bland on their own. The other tricky part is actually deciding how to eat the thing. I wouldn't recommend picking it up with two hands but it could be fun to try. There is a side of with heavily season breakfast potatoes (I say heavy because it was good, but by the end you've had enough) or you can choose cheese grits or cheesy potatoes. I enjoyed my plate, and would suggest or reorder again, but if I find myself back there I will explore something else.

On the other side of the table, the banana bread french toast was very good but only if you are someone that loves very sweet breakfast items. I loved it because I only took a bite or two. I don't think I could have finished the entire serving because there is an over load of savory goodness. Again, that's not to say it's not good, because it is. But just know what you are getting into with banana bread (one of my favorites) and french toast all served with hazelnut ganache and banana rum cream sauce.

I don't know where most people brunch at, but $20 for gourmet dishes served with a smile is a good deal in my opinion. If you didn't want to spend that kind of money on breakfast food, I'd suggest just stay home and make it yourself. Check this place out for brunch, or better yet for lunch and let me know how it tastes.


Cinnamon raisin breakfast sandwich with egg white


Banana bread french toast

Bakin' & Eggs on Urbanspoon

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