Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Balsan Restaurant

I had the distinct privileged and honor of joining a few chefs and cooks for a rousing meal at Balsan last night. I had never been to the Elysian hotel which is home to to restaurants Balsan and Michelin two-star Ria. The hotel itself is gorgeous and done in the style of a European castle in the heart of the gold coast. The beauty of dining with 12 cooks is that we get to try everything on the menu - literally. Unfortunately I don't have any pictures, but it's not that important or useful, just go to the website.

The food quality and flavor is quite good at Balsan. Most items share a European cuisine theme and classic preparation. There are plenty of fish items, raw bar, cheese/charcuterie and "things from the wood oven". My apologies for the change in format (and lack of pictures) as I'm trying to hit everything.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Roots Handmade Pizza

We're never upset about trying new pizza places in Chicago, especially when they pop up in our neighborhood. Roots is differentiating itself by calling their style "quad city" style. It's not deep dish but has a large and doughy crust made with malt. Yes, malt like the good stuff in beer. The concept is interesting and the place is well furnished in a large corner of the block with a huge patio and a garage door in front. There's a large bar in the middle with access on both sides. The tables are on the outside walls, two steps up stadium style with great leather padding. The scene is definitely set for good times for a hip and family Ukrainian Village crowd.

The other great aspect of Roots is the beer list. There are over 70 drafts plus bottles, and the best part is that all of them come from local breweries in the midwest. The list is organized by state, with each brewery located on the map. Unfortunately, the patio, decor, and beer list are the best qualities. The pizza isn't bad, and I actually enjoyed their specialty taco pizza - served with taco meat, tortilla chips and lettuce. We also ordered a plain cheese and mushroom pizza, which was disappointing compared to the taco. The outer crust is nice but there was too much cheese and not enough sauce or crust in the middle. For an appetizer we ordered the lollipop wings with buffalo sauce, where the sauce wasn't spicy or buffalo and the meat was very ordinary. I like that the menu is not overly complicated for a pizza spot -  a good list of starters, salads (with a build your own option) and sandwiches. The specialty pizzas looked interesting, and the taco was surprisingly good.  The pricing was a little surprising with $20 and $25 for 12'' and 16'' pies respectively. Our entire bill for four people was $30 each including tip and tax - and we didn't over order or over drink by any means.

Friday, June 24, 2011


I guess Erica and I need to eat out more because it took us six months to find another restaurant serving 4 Star meals (Maude's Liquor Bar). We went to Takashi this week and indulged on their 6-course tasting menu to celebrate my birthday (again but privately) as well as my return to the working world. It should be no surprise that a Michelin Star restaurant is fantastic and one of the best meals we've had in town, but it's even better when great reviews and awards are validated on the plate. It's a "cute" and tiny space built out of an old house, with two floors of dining. Erica noticed the grey and white paint and wants to copy it in our apartment now. Our server and staff also were top notch and performed on the same the level as the chef and food. The entire dining experience is very well coordinated and thought out with delicious food as the star attraction. An added bonus is that we ate during a large thunderstorm which only adds to the romantic and "at home" setting.

Takashi is described as Asian influenced French/American style cuisine. I agree completely and think it's a unique angle that no one else can perform. The menu is large enough to have options but not overwhelming that you lose focus. Since we were in a celebratory mood and didn't' want to have to choose, we ordered the six course tasting menu ($69). There's a wine pairing offered but we weren't that thirsty. The courses were an amuse bouche, Carpaccio of big eye tuna, ceviche (shrimp, squid, hokkaido scallops and octopus), sauteed maine scallop and soba gnocchi, pork belly, roasted duck, and The Egg. There are no substitutions allowed, but we were lucky and the chef allowed Erica to swap out the duck for skate wing.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Yerbabuena - Lisle, IL

Every once in a while it's important to stay in touch with the suburban scene :) Erica and I were having dinner with her mom in the burbs and we chose a local Mexican favorite (especially since we had just returned from Mexico :). We had a nice meal highlighted by a huge bowl of table side guacamole and pitcher of tasty margarita. We all managed to order various forms of tilapia - tacos, fajitas and main dish. I'd say the food was a bit underwhelming but certainly filling. It probably was a bit of a mistake/oversight NOT to stick to traditional steak tacos or chicken quesadilla.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Smoke Daddy

One of my favorite meals to have when I come back from an extended journey (particularly of the camping/climbing variety) is BBQ Ribs. I usually go to East Bank Club for real nice rack with Sweet Baby Ray's sauce everywhere, but this go around time was short and we wanted to check out the brick and mortar location of one of Chicago's BBQ institution located down the street from our new apartment. While SD has a great patio and plenty of seats, I was really dissapointed with the sauces and flavor of our ribs. I love BBQ sauce and have tried my best to check out almost every BBQ spot in town. As I've said before, the sauce makes the meal and Smoke Daddy just didn't have that day. There are three table side bottles to choose from - original, sweet and smokey and mustard q. All are vinegar based (not my favorite) and none quite stood out with originality. I found my best flavors with combining the mustard q with the sweet/smokey.

We ordered a chicken + ribs platter, with sides of mac cheese and sweet potato fries. The food came ridiculously fast (a necessity since we were heading to a bulls game) but somewhat curious. I thought the ribs were cooked ok but didn't have anything to put on them, which was needed. Erica is the mac 'n cheese expert and that didn't quite pass the test since it seemed too easy to replicate at home (and not very creamy or cheesy). To our surprise the half chicken that arrived second was cooked to perfection - tender but super moist with a crispy skin. I was full at that point but kept eating the chicken because it was the best thing we ordered. If it were allowed I would order that chicken but BYOQ (bring your own bbq sauce).

Monday, June 20, 2011


Good birthday dinners with a great group of friends is becoming a standard and tradition I'm lucky to have. Two weeks ago friends and family from both coasts joined me at Sprout for a birthday dinner. Since there were eight of us we were able to use their semi-private room at the back with a peep hole into the kitchen. It's a really cool small space in the shape of an oval with a crazy high ceiling. The menu is organized for a three course prix-fixe for only $65, though they say you can order a-la carte (not sure why you would). There are also two intermezzo selections of soup and cheese. We selected the optional wine pairings for each course for an extra $33(?), a great deal with well selected pairings.

 The menu is posted here for details, but as a group we selected many different and many similar choices. Dishes are labeled with a single ingredient, with side ingredients listed in smaller print. Our server gave a detail of any dish when requested to do so. I choose the scallop to start and the skate wing for the main, with corn as my dessert (more on that later). I believe we also had egg, tuna and duck on the table for course one.

 My scallop dish.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Makisu Sushi

One of the first meals I ate when I got back from Alaska was local sushi. Yea, I know I should have just stayed in Alaska and ate fresh salmon or halibut, but I had people to come home to :) and I was ready to be home. After eating dehydrated food and other non-fresh meals, sushi sounded good. Makisu also happens to be around the corner from our apartment with outdoor seating - a recipe for success.

We had a relatively simple and small meal - only ordering a few rolls and one starter. We augmented the meal with a free miso soup c/o Yelp and our server brought us an edamame plate gratis. My two favorite Japanese appetizers are gyoza and gomae. The Makisu gyoza were quite good with a flavorful sauce, but the gomae (boiled spinach with sesame miso paste) came in a presentation I've never seen. Usually it's quite boring, just a block of spinach with miso or peanut sauce. Here, it's served on a bed of lettuce like a salad. I thought the flavors were diluted and distracting with the miso paste not particularly interesting. Oh well.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Back in Action Post Mexico Trip

The "bad" news is that I have ended my time away from the official workplace and will not be traveling around the world anymore. The good news is that I'll be consistently and reliably in Chicago for a while and able to stay on top of my blog and the Chicago food scene. For my "many" (jokes!) readers I'm sure this is a relief. Here's the best part, right before Erica and I left for Mexico our gate was right next to Tortas Frontera at O'Hare airport. What better way the start the day and vacation than with some delicious Rick Bayless breakfast tortas??

The breakfast options are much smaller than the regular menu so next time I'm around I hope to try something different. No surprise, they are large, kind of expensive ($9) but quite tasty. They arrive in an easy to travel cardboard box and since we were on the run to our gate didn't have time to take better pictures. We ordered an Eggs & Rajas and Eggs & Bacon. Plenty of food, good flavors and tasty salsa to add. It sure beats the whatever panini from next door and is a nice change of pace from my usual airport breakfast of egg mcmuffin. But it's not super fast and the price is something to consider. If you're hungry and in the mood for a real breakfast sandwich, TF is an excellent option. I might save my $$ for a lunch or dinner portion, but no surprise, Bayless as raised the bar for airport food.

Tortas Frontera by Rick Bayless on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Big Star/Publican + Lagunitas = ZEPHYR

Lucky me, as soon as I get home I find out that the guys behind Big Star and Publican are teaming up with that awesome brewery in California (Lagunitas) to make a special beer for the summer. Even luckier I get invited to try the beer at Big Star yesterday and hang out on a beautiful day. The beer debuts on June 6 and will be at Big Star and every other bar that serves Lagunitas. Trust me, this 7.6% beer made in the style of pre-prohibition lagers is delicious and strong, but goes down easy and smooth. I know they made a lot of barrels for the summer but it likely won't last as long as it should. Get out there starting next week and drink up.

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