Archive for February, 2010

Ohhh, oui oui, comment allez-vous!

Last Wednesday marked the almost-iversary of FDL, which means our next go-round will be our GRAND ONE YEAR CELEBRATION! as I mentioned in the last post. We still have yet to make a final decision, but popular opinion seems to indicated that we will be heading to L2O (be warned, the website has creepy crickets chirping and strange music that scared the crap out of me).

Anyway. Wednesday also happened to be FDL’s night out at Avec, which is Frenchy-talk for “goes with” or “compatible.” Avec is another Paul Kahan outfit and is nestled right next door to its sister restaurant, Blackbird. Let me say right off the bat, my experience at Avec blows Blackbird out of the water. Like, Avec is Lindsay Lohan circa 2003 in her Mean Girls glory days and Blackbird is Anna Wintour circa now, all harsh angles and sharp corners and pursed lips. Okay maybe that’s a little extreme but what I’m trying to say is that the vibe at Avec is cozy, friendly, and just all around jolly whereas at Blackbird I got shot a dirty look by the haughty maître d’ every time I even thought about using my cell phone.

Avec takes no reservations so we walked in around 7pm, expecting a wait and a hassle. The space is small width-wise, but long, so there was a bit of a squish around the host stand. The hostess in all her hostessy glory was kind and friendly, and marked our names down on her pad along with my cell number. She informed us we could head down the block and grab a drink at a nearly-empty sushi joint we had passed on the way in. I couldn’t figure out of the sushi place was part of Kahan’s empire or if they were just so used to accommodating Avec’s overflow that they decided to make themselves the default waiting area. In any event, whatever the case may be, we strolled over to Meiji and settled in at the bar. I have never seen an emptier restaurant. The bartenders rushed to serve us, practically tripping over each other to take our orders. “CanIhelpyoucanIgetyouadrinkwouldyoulikeamenuhere’sourspecials!!” Christ. Needy much? Just give me a martini please and thank you. Emptiest Sushi Restaurant Ever actually wound up kicking ass, because they informed us we could take our glasses over to Avec if we weren’t finished by the time they called us for our table. It was only about a thirty minute wait until we were summoned back, which was just enough time for a quick drink.

Now, I think I’ve mentioned my penchant for communal seating several times already, but I’d like to reiterate that I think it really makes for a remarkable dining experience. There’s something about knocking elbows with total strangers (I was seated to the left of a lefty for the second half of the meal, during which we clashed elbows at least 60 times) and spying on their conversations that encourages a sense of community and merriment. Medieval Times is on to something. It also allowed us to not feel intrusive when we inquired about our neighbor’s dishes and asked for their recommendations.

We dined on chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped Medjool dates; flatbread with prosciutto, morbier cheese, pears, and arugula; braised pork shoulder with chestnut-bacon dumplings, buttercup (not to be confused with butternut) squash, and a puff pastry; and a dish of tagiatelle with oxtail, cippolinis, kumquats and crimini mushrooms. Oh, and a bottle of red wine. Sounds extravagant, right? Grand total was around $35 a person. The food was hearty and filling, and came spaced out just enough that we were able to chat at length between courses. The tagiatelle was the least delicious of the bunch, as it came out almost cold and lacked the depth of flavor that we has experienced with the dates and the pork shoulder. Our server was unobtrusive, kind, and informative, steering us towards a moderately priced wine and agreeably explaining various menu items.

In sum, fuck yes I will be going back to Avec.

(Edit: I received quite a backlash from my previous post about the shitty service at Big Star. Someone, who shall remain nameless, asserted that it was MY fault for having a horrible experience. Why? Because I didn’t “do enough research” prior to going to Big Star. I wasn’t aware dining out required intimate knowledge of a particular restaurant’s arbitrary seating system. Next time, I will do “more research” so it isn’t “my fault” that the staff “sucks cock” at “seating paying customers”. Thanks for your input, nameless person!)

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“Hipster Bitches” indeed.

Hey guys, I have a question. Well, a few questions. Do you enjoy being condescended to by hipster assholes? You do? Great. Do you get a kick out of eating your meal off what essentially amounts to a bar a little bit wider than a balance beam? Excellent! Wait, how about being asked–no, ORDERED–to move from a booth that you assumed was fair game because no one told you otherwise? You like that kind of abuse? You sick fuck. You are going to LOVE Big Star.

Let me get this out of the way first. The food at this Wicker Park joint is delicious. Small portions, yes, but the tacos al pastor and pork belly tacos were to die for, as were the creamy guacamole and fresh made tortilla chips. An extensive bourbon menu and beers I’ve never heard of enhanced the experience to just awesome enough that I will probably go back, if only through the take-out window.

So. I consider myself a fairly easygoing diner. I’m not fussy or demanding or picky, and I generally give the servers, chefs, and bartenders the benefit of the doubt, assuming they know way more about their establishment than I ever will. I tip well, I say please and thank you, I smile and nod and am generally agreeable. HOWEVER. My experience last night at Big Star turned me into one of “those people,” those dreaded assholes who complain loudly about the lack of service and nearly unbearable noise level. My dining companion and I rolled in around 7:45, and found Big Star fairly well packed. We entered, showed our IDs to the doorman who gestured vaguely to the seating area when we asked where we should sit. “Over there, whatever,” he said, and turned back to the mopey hipster girl he had previously been engaged in conversation with. Great! We said to each other, having spied a booth emptying out. We waited until the table had left and plopped down, thrilled we’d managed to find a booth so quickly. No sooner had we placed our butts in the seats when Mopey Hipster Girl strolled over, faux mink coat arranged casually just so over her shoulders, and drawled “ummmmmm there’sssssss a waaaaaaaitttt for the booooooothss soooo….yeah, you guysssssss neeeeeed to liiike, move, thaaaaaaanks.” She flitted away with a flick of her swoopy bangs.

Hold up. A wait? For the booths? But your darling doorman said we could sit “over there, whatever”! Oh, there’s a list? Can we get on that list? No? Why didn’t you tell us about this “list” when we asked where to sit? My haircut isn’t edgy enough? Oh, that sucks. Well, I’m sorry for the inconvenience.

Argh. I tried to contain my frustration as we milled around the bar, scoping out seats. Two women had recently moved from their seats against the wall to the bar, so we swooped in. Now, our seats were not “at the bar,” per se. We were seated at what was basically a long ass board nailed into the wall with stools for sitting. Whatever, we had seats. I was happy. We waited. And waited. And waited and waited and waited. When we finally flagged down a pinch-faced ginger server to place an order, she sighed huffily and snapped that we had to place our order with the bartender. Oh, because that makes sense! Seeing as how we are not seated at the bar. Good point, pinchface. Once we had established eye contact with the bartender, our food came out fairly quickly, which I appreciated. We ate, enjoyed, and temporarily forgot about the assholes working the joint.

Having been a server, I know how annoying the general public can be. They suck, actually. But, in spite of this, I also realized it was MY JOB to be at least semi-decent towards the patrons, and treat them with some semblance of respect. Apparently, the servers at Big Star were told to completely ignore anyone who doesn’t have a chest tat, a flannel shirt, and an air of ironic arrogance about them. Fucking hipsters.

I dunno, maybe they were all just having an off night. Maybe they had heard that American Apparel stopped selling the Unisex Slim Slack in Mustard, or that Pitchfork gave the new MGMT album a bad review.  

Whatever the case may be, get your shit together, Big Star. Your food is fucking awesome, your staff sucks. Do something about it. Also do something about the seating clusterfuck, because the arbitrary seating and secret “booth list” are just weird and awkward. This is not a nightclub. This is a glorified tacqueria.

I’ve been here all along.

It’s true, I have! I just haven’t been writing much, due to one of those ebbs in my creative juice tide. I feel this blog sitting here, mocking my lack of ambition and challenging my mild bout of winter blues. But, just because I haven’t been writing does not mean I haven’t been eating.

FDL’s last venture was to Otom, sister restaurant of the much-discussed molecular gastronomy haven Moto. A lovely restaurant, thoughtfully designed and undeniably trendy, Otom didn’t exactly live up to the high, intentive standards set by Moto. The food is more accessible, yes, but lacked the attention to detail I had hoped for. My black wings appetizer was perhaps the saltiest frickin thing I’ve ever eaten, whereas my chicken and waffles entree was flavorless and bland. I think this was just an off night for everyone, and I know J. was peeved that three out of four of us ordered the same entrée. Next up is Avec, followed by the grand celebration of our One Year FDL Anniversary.  Yes! It’s been a year since the inception of the best club I’ve ever been a part of. Any suggestions as to where we should hold this momentous milestone are welcome.

A few weeks ago, I had the immense pleasure of finally eating at Kuma’s Corner, a Chicago landmark that was blown into popularity thanks to Guy Fieri’s bleached spikes and backwards sunglasses. Located in an unassuming corner of Avondale, Kuma’s is tiny, dark, loud, and awesome. They don’t take reservations, they don’t deliver, they don’t do jack shit if they don’t feel like it. And I’m okay with that. We (B, my man-friend and I) waited for a good hour and a half on a Sunday night, which is a significant stretch for an off-peak day of the week. We passed the time drinking PBR and some sort of Belgian pale ale (aren’t they all?) and listening to bone-crunching heavy metal. I’m surprised I got out of there with my voice intact. The serving staff is what you’d expect; heavily tattooed and not overtly interested in their customers, but efficient nonetheless. S&M-themed black and white sketches adorned the walls and a weirdly violent movie played on the one TV screen above the bar. I noticed amusedly that a couple had brought their tiny infant with them to dinner, and watched (not in a creepy way) as the baby slept peacefully in the midst of this mayhem. Those parents are awesome.

And the burgers? The burgers. The menu has about twenty burgers, each of which are named after some awesome heavy metal band, from Pantera (Roasted Poblano Pepper, Bacon, Chedder and Monterey Jack, House made Ranchero Sauce, Tortilla Strips) to Black Sabbath (Blackening Spice, Chili, Pepper Jack, Red Onion). I got the Iron Maiden, a juicy patty loaded with avocado slices, cherry peppers, pepper jack cheese and chipotle mayo. It was spicy, messy, and enormous, and I had to take half home. I’m a wuss, I know. But B’s burger, the Goblin Cock, was truly the pièce de résistance. So take your average bacon cheeseburger  then slap a 1/4 lb Chicago-style Vienna hot dog on top, along with all the fixin’s: tomatoes, onions, neon relish, sport peppers, pickles, celery salt, and mustard. There, my friends, you have the Goblin Cock. It is a burger, topped with a hot dog. It blew my mind. I’d show you a picture but it was so dark in there that my iPhone only picked up on the brightest color on the plate: the neon green relish. So you’ll just have to trust me that this burger is a thing that exists in the world, and that someone I know and love ate the whole thing. I don’ t know whether to be proud or embarrassed.

Urban Belly was another joint I’d been itching to try, after hearing nothing but raves about their ramen. Big whoop, I thought to myself, it’s frickin’ ramen. I survived off those bowls of sodium and fried noodles for four years, it’s called COLLEGE. I wanted to see what the big fuss was.

I was a little put off by Urban Belly’s location; in a strip mall in Avondale (right down the street from Kuma’s), and by the fact that the place only has four tables, designed to encourage a communal feel.  As uptight Midwesterners, I think we have a tendency to shy away from communal seating, always edgy and suspicious about the people who choose to sit right next to us when there’s a thousand EMPTY SEATS over there. But I liked the fact that Urban Belly invited a bringing together of strangers and I was momentarily cheered when a couple decided to join us at our end of the table, then mildly discouraged when they picked up and left for seats at a newly empty table.

Anyway. Urban Belly is cafeteria-style, which meant we went right up to the register and placed our order and were given a number on a little stand to signal the servers as to which order was ours. We hunkered down at the end of the table nearest to the door and I braced myself against the cold every time the door opened, which was often. It was fairly busy, mostly with pairs and couples and one family with a few well-mannered children. It’s also BYOB, a HUGE plus in my book, so we brought cans of Sapporo and poured them into little red cups. Our order came out in what seemed like record time, and dug in immediately. We had crispy duck dumplings and the more traditional pork & cilantro pan-fried dumplings, each of which were spectacular and came with a dark, almost molasses-like dipping sauce. I ordered the udon soup, a giant bowl of it, which was served in a chili lime broth with shrimp, coriander, and little dumpling-y things that looked unsettlingly like elf ears. The ramen came in a murky pho broth with thick-cut slices of pork belly and slivers of shiitake mushrooms.

Everything was outstanding. B claimed the ramen could have used a little more salt, which I agree with, but everything was just plain delicious. Udon noodles might be my favorite kind of noodle; the way they make you WORK for it by sliding between your chopsticks. They’re thick and chewy and just a leeeeetle bit al dente, and the soups hit the spot on a frigid winter night.

If you’re Bob Wiley-esque, I would advise against Urban Belly due to the shared nature of the experience, but I found it downright charming, and an interesting concept in bringing Asian street food to a higher level. They even give you those delicious, spicy, chewy ginger candies in a milky porcelain dish at the end of your meal, which was the perfect way to top off all that heat and salt.

Next up, Chinatown!

Oh, and I’m off the Dorito Diet. Turns out? Not so healthy.

(Also, go here. It’s another blog, but it’s about music. It’s half mine.)