Thursday, April 28, 2011

Publican

I’ve been asked many times if I’ve ever been to The Publican since it’s one of the more popular and well received restaurants in the city created by none other than Paul Kahan. Until this week my answer had been a surprising no. Every time I almost made it there I’d take a quick peek at the menu and wonder what the heck would I eat? I’m by no means a vegetarian/pescatarian or shy from trying new foods. But I also don’t run to eat lots of red meat or heavy pork products or other “natural” preparations. While I admire The Publican’s use of local farms and whole animal products, the menu is actually limited in scale (i.e. mostly Pork and raw seafood choices). If you’re not interested in blood sausages, various charcuterie, sweet breads and pork bellies then I’d say your experience might be limited to oysters, other raw seafood and some vegetables. I’m up for anything and was happy to check it out, especially the space (James Beard Award Winning Design) and highly regarded beer list.

I’ll join everyone else when I say the atmosphere and d├ęcor are top notch and not done justice through pictures. It’s a lively “beer hall” style experience with communal tables and a standing bar area. The room has a nice rumble of noise emanating from happy eaters and drinkers. It’s a place that encompasses happy people all sharing a similar experience drinking and eating good food. The beer list is quite interesting and full of choices you might not find in many places in Chicago. Don’t expect to find $3 bud lights or PBRs and most beers are large format with large format type prices.



Saturday, April 23, 2011

Davanti Enoteca

Wow, we finally made it to a new(ish) place in Chicago. Reading the new Chicago Magazine 2011 best new restaurants finally made me get on my horse to check out Davanti. Erica somehow had never ventured down Taylor street before so we were killing many birds with a single stone. I also had not been down Taylor in a while and I am thoroughly impressed with some of the recent additions. Davanti is a great addition with a great atmosphere and popular scene. The bar is right in front, next to the wood fire oven but still at the entry of a narrow but deep restaurant. They don't take reservations so when we arrived at a popular time on Wednesday night the wait for two was over an hour. We choose to sit at the bar and eat our meal immediately (I'm not a huge fan of waiting long for tables). You get the full menu, great service and quick drinks. I also enjoy the people watching experience by the front door and other bar patrons. Finally, something I loved and noticed right away was the amazing soundtrack playing in the restaurant. For all I knew they stole my iPod and hit shuffle because I owned 95% of the songs played and could sing the rest (Erica prevented my from singing anything though I did tell her the name of each song). 

While I loved everything about the restaurant, the some of the food did lag behind.It's designed as small sharable plates (shocker!), which is fine by us so we could try different dishes. The menu is well organized and well priced into starters, salads, pastas, main dishes, etc.  We ordered asparagus, burrata on toast, polenta with pork shoulder (a special recommended), rigatoni and sausage and a cheese pizza. If it sounds like a lot of food for two people, it kind of was. The pizza is large so we only ate half. 


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Barrio Cafe - Phoenix

I just returned from Phoenix and Southern California for the Coachella music festival. Needless to say I was not thrilled to board an airplane with beautiful 80 degree sunny skies and return to midwest storms and freezing wind. Oh well. We had a great time in the warmth and at the festival - highlights included Mumford & Sons, Arcade Fire, Robyn and Lauren Hill. 


When I arrived in Phoenix Jed's father was kind to pick me up from the airport and take me to a local Mexican restaurant for lunch. Only after I returned to Chicago did I realize the chef is a James Beard nominee. I probably could have guess though because the food was tremendous (and all the awards/press on the walls helped). 


It was a quick meal with a side salad and plate of tacos. I ordered the Tacos de Pescado (Halibut fish tacos with cabbage & avocado, Baja sauce for $14) and I noticed that half the restaurant did as well. The presentation was beautiful and the food tasted just as good. The fish was delicious and I loved the fresh combination of avocado, cabbage and sauce (a perfect compliment to the 90+ heat outside). My starter salad was also nice and had lots of fresh fruits and nuts with a nice vinaigrette dressing. 


Friday, April 15, 2011

RJ Grunts

It should be no surprise that the original LEYE restaurant is still alive and kicking and serving great food. I had not been back to RJ Grunts in a few years and Erica had never been before. It's a staple of the lincoln park neighborhood and a wonderful example of a winning formula for success in the restaurant industry - serve simple but delicious food in a fun setting with good service at good value. That's what you want from Grunts and that's what you get.

The place is small and charming, with a small wooden bar in the front and not a lot of tables/booths in the back. The large famous salad bar is front and center in dining area. Grunts' menu is simple American food with burgers, salad, wraps, wings, ribs and shakes. I was surprised/forgot how large the menu actually is given what is on it, but it's nice to have options for regulars or non-burger eaters. We were in hamburger mood so I went with the Yowza (peppercorn burger, spicy ketchup, pepper-jack, onions, lettuce, tomato, bacon) and Erica did her standard plain burger with lettuce and ketchup. Instead of a starter we both opted for the salad bar (only $6 with entree order) - one of the last few great salad bars I've been to in a while with plenty of options, soups, AND JELLO.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Flo

Guess what, we ate at another local brunch spot :) Last weekend Erica and I kept our promise to friends Geoff and Ashley to join them at Flo for brunch (we had to blow them off the weekend prior). I didn't know about Flo or their brunch until we moved but I'm always interested in recommendations from trusted sources.

Flo's website says it best: "Flo brings the foods and flavors of the American Southwest to Chicago. Our food is fresh and from scratch and shows a fondness for spice. Flo is a contemporary casual cafe, offering breakfast, lunch, dinner, weekend brunch, and a full bar."

So when we decided to go I was very interested in trying some southwestern brunch flavors. However I changed my mind when I saw the menu. It's a great weekend brunch menu with plenty of options: sweets, eggs, lunch options and southwestern influenced brunch choices (Huevos Rancheros,Huevos Verdes,Red Chilaquiles,Flo's Original Burrito,Chorizo Scramble...you get the idea). Maybe I spoiled my Huevos appetite the weekend previous at Milk & Honey, but I could not pass up on banana chocolate chip pancakes. Erica went traditional with a breakfast platter of eggs, toast, bacon and  potatoes. Geoff always gets the granola with yogurt - a decision I understood after my small taste. Finally, I had to sit across from Ashley's very tempting french toast.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mana Food Bar

I'll admit, I'm a bit conflicted on this place. I have all these wonderful thoughts and aspects that I loved about Mana, but when I drill down to each dish and think critically about the food I'm left wanting more. Part of that is probably the nature of a strictly vegetarian restaurant and the niche market it serves. Mana doesn't need to appeal to everyone (and they certainly couldn't fit them anyway) but it does a great job of filling a void that Chicago lacks with respect to the vegetarian and vegan friendly crowd. Mana is a very small storefront on Division (and just a block from my new place :) with simple but great wood decor and seating that reflects the subtle Asian influence. As the name implies, there's a long bar that runs the length of the other side of the space - and since we're all crossing our fingers for more good weather, there's a nice outdoor seating area.

The menu is great and approachable, divided into Hot and Cold dishes. Each item is offered in two sizes so you can customize how much you want to share and eat family style or not. Lucky for me my three companions were up for trying lots of dishes. Unfortunately we did not get to enjoy any of the sake list or cocktails (we had already had plenty before arriving late in the evening). And this is where my conundrum starts - I really like the space, the service, the concept, the menu and the value. I just don't know if there are enough things to draw me back on a regular basis (and for other people like me that enjoy meat and fish).


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Maggiano's Little Italy - Naperville

I can't even begin to count how many times I've eaten Maggiano's food - which would also be the same number of times I've had a good meal there. It's a great operation serving quality, large portion Italian food for the family (or the occasional dinner for two though not nearly as fun). The last time we went was a few months ago (yea still catching up...) and we had a good meal. I made a slight mistake by ordering butternut squash ravioli from the daily specials. When I love so many things from the regular menu I should just stick with that. Oh well. Erica had a really nice pasta dish, Jean went with a very tasty eggplant lasagna and Jordan did his typical seafood pasta. The best dish of the meal was definitely the twin profiteroles for dessert. We all could have had 10 more, but luckily we held back.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Milk & Honey Cafe

I have never been much of a brunch person, but maybe that's because I was going to the wrong places or they were too far away. I have a feeling that is about to change, now that we live within walking distance to numerous great brunch/breakfast spots. Last weekend we explored Milk & Honey Cafe, a cute place we noticed walking home from the Boundary. It was noon and a crowded time to try to get a table anywhere. Luckily the weather was changing and they let us sit outside without any wait.

The menu is great with lots of items I want to try for breakfast or lunch. I was in a sweet mood but was completely swayed by the huevos rancheros that seemed to be on every table. It's only served on the weekend and they do it "Casserole-Style" - something I've never seen before. Erica opted for the delicious orange brioche french toast. Jean and Jim did lunch with a portabella panini and crab cake sandwich respectively. I also added a side of turkey sausage and bacon .



Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Boundary Tavern and Grille

Part 2 of our explore the new neighborhood tour takes us to The Boundary, a cool and modern sports bar with a little something for everyone. It has the big bar, the TV in every direction, the semi private booth, the diverse but approachable bar menu and even the shuffle board in the back. We had just moved in and didn't have any food in the apartment and felt grubby having moved all day. There are more than a few casual bars in the area but Erica had heard about The Boundary so we checked it out.

The first thing that came to mind was an uncanny resemblance to State Bar in the DePaul area. It even reminds me of a slightly nicer version of Kirkwood Bar - one of our old staples. I don't have a clue what the crowd is like on the weekends, but on a Wednesday night I was happy to see plenty of local police officers enjoying their meals (I trust the local workforce for reliable food). The menu is quite large with plenty of traditional sandwich, burger, wrap and appetizer options, but also a few salads and "dinner plates". This is important because multiple trips back for sports game will require a solid line up of food choices.


Monday, April 4, 2011

Westminster Hot Dog

I think I'm on a similar page as my fellow blogger friend Krista (her post here). This is a place I want to like to more, and since my office is across the street I might have to give it another go. It's gourmet encased meat, but appears as if you get it from the back alley. The interior is a non decorated dump, and your dog arrives wrapped in foil in a take out bag (which makes some sense as the majority of patrons are just stopping in for take out lunch). But correct me if I'm wrong, but the Wiener Circle has more character and presentation and they don't even try to serve "gourmet" $6 hot dogs. I also think I ordered the wrong item (though I hate that concept) - a "Spicy Garlic". Everyone else I was with went with a traditional "Chicago Style" hot dog (though in Chicago we just call it a dog with "everything"). Those looked, and I bet tasted, much better than my choice.



By the time I got back to my desk the dog was not very warm. I'm guessing the spicy comes from the meat being a spicy Italian sausage, and the garlic from the interesting looking sauce on top (onions too). The fries were still warm and quite good. I ordered a cheese cup on the side that was totally unnecessary, ketchup was just fine. The bun was also an unremarkable sourdough that I could have found at Jewel.

I wish it was better and for $3 I'm sure I'll give them another shot. But it's hard to distinguish yourself making hot dogs in this town and unless their specialty dogs are out of this world it'll be hard to stick around. I hope the bison, elk, venison or whatever they have are great because who doesn't love a great hot dog stand close by?

Westminster Hot Dog on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Leopold

Leopold gets the distinction of being my first review from the new neighborhood. It was a great pick for many reasons: my mother lives in the Netherlands currently (right next door to Belgium) where the cuisine gets inspiration, it's close to our new apartment, and the best reason is that Leopold is located in the old "Relax Lounge" space but still has the neon green glowing sign outside. Why that's important is that Erica and I had been the Relax when Top Chef Dale Levitski did impromptu dinners Wednesday night before he landed at Sprout. That was fun.  

I was impressed with the decor and setting - very clean and modern with nice wood accents throughout. The main bar from Relax did not move and takes up a large portion of the front room. However, that makes sense given how many great beers and wines they have on the list. If the alcohol list appears overwhelming, the food menu if very approachable. I appreciate that you have one page with a list of options and no pre-set courses. There are oysters, scallops, sausages, cassoulet, rabbit, cheese, and other nice options from the region. Most would call it "farmers' food" since everything but the fish is made or found on a farm with relatively simple preparation. 


We (Erica, and our first time with friends Brad and Kate) started with three small plates: mixed greens, pierogi and a giant pretzel. I liked the mixed greens as a fresh start to the meal, but our favorite touch was the gouda cheese croquette. The large pretzel was very large but awesome. It was almost more like bread texture than soft pretzel texture and that was a good thing. The currant mustard served was delicious. Our least favorite of the three were the pierogis. It seemed like they were missing an extra boost of flavor - butter, brown sugar, sauce, just a little something extra.




 

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