Archive for November, 2010

Beepa da boopa! Boppa de beepa!

That’s my impression of the way Italians talk! Is that rude? Whatever, I have a friend who’s like half Italian so it’s totally cool. Also it’s my way of telling you guys that FDL hit up its first ever Italian restaurant last night! J. sent out an email yesterday to the rest of us, listing all the places we’ve eaten since April of 2009 when this whole project got started. After last night, we’ve been to 17 of Chicago’s finest eateries; running the gamut from chic gastropub to classic Chicago steakhouse. UNreal. I’m so proud!

Last night was the absolute perfect night for a hearty Italian meal, which is precisely what we got at Coco Pazzo. It was cold, it was windy, and Thanksgiving was two days away. We weren’t exactly in the mood for salads, if you catch my drift. Coco Pazzo was J.’s choice, and was decided upon after she had researched and polled and asked around for the best Italian joint in the city. I won’t say this place is the most “authentic”, and the menu is slightly more refined than that of a more rustically-based cuisine. We were seated in a cozy corner of the warmly lit dining room, half-hidden and ensconced by blue velvet curtains. I noticed that our group was pretty much the youngest in the place, save for a family with a kid who was about seven or eight. The rest of the diners were older and finely dressed in suits and business-casuals, chatting quietly over glasses of wine and plates heaped with thinly-sliced prosciutto, olives, and chunks of parmesan.

I think all of us were feeling a bit selfish and decided to forgo our usual sharing of appetizers and entrees, and to be perfectly honest I was slightly relieved that sharing was not required or even encouraged. In general, the sharing of food is something I relish; being able to take a bite of a particularly delicious dish and look around the table, eyes wide, knowing exactly how the rest of the table feels to be enjoying the same experience. Last night though…I just wanted the food all to myself. Bites were had off plates here and there, but our usual free-for-all was more of an every man for himself situation.

It seems to be an established yet unwritten rule of FDL that someone just has to get grilled octopus at some point in the meal. I unselfishly took that burden upon myself and ordered an appetizer of grilled baby octopus served atop a bed of greens, the plate studded with gigantic white beans and fresh olives, served with a thick slice of lemon. J. eyed my plate and made me promise to give her a bite, so unable is she to resist a plate of grilled cephalopod. (Yeah, that’s right. Cephalopod. Look it up.) I requested a smidgen of M.’s duck liver terrine, which was incredibly rich and resembled a cross-section of a giant hot dog in color and shape. Applause to her for finishing the whole slice, which was paired with sweet accompaniments to presumably balance the luxurious texture and taste of the liver. I should mention here that I DID TAKE PICTURES but I used some stupid iPhone app that–for some godforsaken reason–did not SAVE my pictures after taking them. Thanks a lot, Instagram! More like InstaCRAP, am I right?!

Anyhoodle. For awhile now, there has been some deep and insatiable craving inside me for a plate of squid ink pasta. I can’t tell you why, for I’d never actually eaten it, but I kept hearing about it here and there, seeing recipes in cookbooks and magazines…I’ve even gone so far as to poke at a bag of it in the fancy pasta aisle at Treasure Island, wondering what flavor was hidden in those dark and mysterious strands. Lucky me, then, that Coco Pazzo’s menu boasted a squid ink pasta dish served with PEI mussels (also yum), calamari, zucchini, tomatoes, and a chili-infused marinara sauce. I mean, could you just die? Doesn’t that sound heavenly?

I had always imagined that squid ink pasta would somehow be imbued with a fishy, sea-like taste; so inseparable in my mind are the ideas of squid and sea. After my first bite, though, I could tell that the majority of any such flavor came mostly from the mussels and the calamari rather than from the pasta, which by itself tasted salty and even a little bit sweet. I needed no extra salt or pepper, and the only extraneous condiment added to the meal was a light sprinkling of freshly-shaved parmesan. We rounded out our dinner with two bottles of red wine, no dessert. Dessert would just be far too much, we simply couldn’t. I’d say we made out like bandits, seeing as we managed to get out of there without spending over $60 a person. Blammo! Nailed it.

Our next round will be my choice, and I’m hoping to finagle a way in to Grant Achatz’s new spot, Next, which is speculated to open sometime in the next month or so.

Happy Thanksgiving y’all.

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The 64 Dollar Question

Because I pretend to be an expert eater, I am often forced to field questions about my level of culinary skill and kitchen aptitude. People tend to assume that my interest in food extends to the creation of dishes in my own kitchen, which could not be more wrong. I really cannot cook for the life of me, and when I’m not blessed to have an adventurous dining partner, my evening meals tend to consist of bowls of Quaker Oatmeal Squares (cinnamon!) and maybe a handful of edamame if I’m feeling sassy.

It’s not that I’m not interested in being able to cook well. Au contraire! I’d love to say I can whip up a deliciously tasty meal all on my own in 30 minutes flat, but Rachael Ray I am not. I keep telling myself that part of the reason I have yet to tackle this element of the culinary world is because my cookware effing suuuuucks, which isn’t a completely delusional thought.  I’ve had the same two pans since college, both of which are so overly crusted with ancient grilled-cheese goo and stir fry residue as to render them practically useless. Which is why, as part of my effort to plant my feet more firmly in the “real world”, I’ve decided to both upgrade my cookware and take a wack at recipes from Nigella Lawson’s new cookbook. Guys, Nigella is pretty much the ish. I just melt whenever I hear her talk about food in her fluid, honeyed voice. She just has a way of rolling the words around in her mouth that I could listen to her talk about freaking sedimentary erosion and still be held rapt. Her newest book features recipes that trend towards the homey, the simple, the rustic; lots of stews and one-pot meals and quickies that can be prepared and eaten for several meals throughout the week. She’s the best Jerry, the best.  

Now, I’m lucky enough to have a boyfriend who can wield a chef’s knife like a  ninja throwing star and actually knows the meanings of cheffy-type phrases like “mise en place” and “mirepoix” and “hot stuff comin’ through!”  (Okay, that last one clearly isn’t chef-specific, but it’s what I like to yell when I’m sitting on my ass drinking pinot grigio and watching someone else cook.) Having a boyfriend who knows his way around the kitchen is a perk, but I can’t help but feel guilty that most of the time the onus of preparing and executing an edible meal lies firmly on his shoulders, while I’m perched lazily on a stool, slurping above-mentioned pinot grigio and drunkenly shouting demands like a jerk. “No! Enough garlic! Are you sure you’ve diced the carrots small enough? What about that onion, are you gonna use it? No? Does the recipe even call for that much pepper??”

Well, all that stops as soon as I acquire a tasty new set of non-stick, chef-quality pans and a series of delightful pots. I’m hoping that with the right equipment, the obvious gastronomical genius that has since laid dormant due to lack of proper tools will spring forcefully to life.

Stay tuned because I will be detailing this ridiculous experiment from here on out.

All Praises Due

Chicago has been all atwitter (literally and figuratively…HA!) thanks to the descendence of the venerable Jean Luc Neret and his team of pro-ass eaters onto our fair city.

The 2011 edition of Chicago’s Michelin Guide has been released, and I am proud to say that, thanks to FDL, I have been lucky enough to experience the culinary forces behind several of these establishments. Alinea and L2O received top honors, awarded the rarely-bestowed three Michelin stars, and Blackbird, Graham Elliott , and Longman and Eagle were each granted a respectable one star rating. (For a full breakdown and a handy visual map, visit the Chicago Eater website.)

There’s been buzz about certain establishments being unfairly overlooked, but FDL favorite Girl & The Goat was honored with a Bib Gourmand recommendation, which means that particular establishment was chosen as a Michelin inspector’s favorite for good value. Other Bib Gourmands include Urban Belly, De Cero, Frontera Grill, Hopleaf, and The Publican, all of which have been joyfully experienced by FDL and/or myself.

All in all, I’d say the official Michelin star rating list definitely captured the best that Chicago has to offer, and really only serves to solidify my desire to tackle Alinea and Schwa. Also, Chicago Bites has a nice comparative chart that brings together ratings from across the web, comparing ratings from Michelin to user-generated review off of  sites like Yelp, Urbanspoon, and Metromix.

What are your thoughts? Ever eaten at these places? Wish that a lesser-known but equally delicious establishment had been recognized? Leave ’em in the comments!

Throwback in a New Jacket

Is this November? 65, balmy, breezy, and beautiful? How it thrills me so, to have summer linger like a particularly charming and welcome guest at a dinner party, to keep the ankle-length down coat at the back of my closet for just a bit longer.

Anyway, I didn’t come here to talk about the weather! No, last week was FDL’s monthly eatfest at Sable Kitchen. I really dug the vibe the place is going for, which is meant to mirror the “glory days” of dining out and the chivalry and elegance of the 1940’s. The interior is muted and accented with deep browns and rusty golds, and seemed to attract a bit of a mixed crowd that ranged from apres-work colleagues grabbing drinks to a table full of what were clearly yuppie-ass parents, reveling in a blessed few hours away from their kids.

In keeping with the emerging popularity of the “gastropub” concept, Sable Kitchen strives to inject a farm fresh sensibility into its menus, mixing this with two parts throwback retro cool and one part sleek modern. The bar boasts old timey cocktails, some served in impossibly tiny goblets with a wee carafe on the side, boasting old-school ingredients such as bitters or unusual syrups.

My palate that night was more in the mood for a solid beer than a cocktail, and I found the cocktail menu a tad too cerebral; divided as it was into chapters with themes and lines of prose and poetry. I couldn’t really wrap my head around it, so I went with a simple Allagash White beer. A. had already dined at Sable several times and advised us on what dishes were the best and most flavorful, so we chose bacon-wrapped dates, bison shortrib sliders with a root beer glaze, sweet corn creme brulee, and rock shrimp and corn fritters for our appetizers.

The bacon-wrapped dates were a smash (because really…how can you go wrong?), as were the sliders. I found the sweet corn creme brulee to be too sweet, even though I knew going in that a dish given such a moniker was likely to be less than savory, but it could have benefitted from a salty contrast or even a spicy kick. The rock shrimp and corn fritters were mysteriously devoid of rock shrimp and were instead simply fried bits of dough studded with corn and served with an equally mysterious and vinegary dipping sauce.

With the appetizers cleared, our entrees arrived. J. had decided on the oven-roasted chicken with buttermilk herb dumplings, M.’s pistachio-cherry duck sausage came with creamy parmesan grits, and A.’s seared scallops glistened plumply under madras curry oil paired with a tomato chutney. They were all well-presented and aligned perfectly with the restaurant’s concept. My dish is where things veered wildly and alarmingly off course.

For some unknown reason, I decided to order the lamb ragout. The menu described it as served over pappardelle pasta, topped with ricotta cheese and mint, so I was anticipating perhaps a slightly rustic, Italian-influenced dish, the texture perhaps similar to a cassoulet or a hearty stew. I don’t think my expectations were too lofty, as that’s by definition what a ragout is.  I should have taken a cue from our server’s “uhh…really?” face following my order, which is rarely a good sign considering servers are far more attuned to the subtleties of the dishes they serve, and tend to have a more informed knowledge base when it comes to choosing really solid options.

(As a server, if one of my customers ordered a dish I knew to be sub-par, I would sometimes gently suggest they try something else. But I came to discover that many people don’t like this, as it may denote a hint of judgement on the server’s part; a sly admonishment that the diner’s original choice was laughably off base. So I understand our server’s decision to let me order as I pleased, but I would have preferred to have fully enjoyed my time there.)

When the meal arrived, it appeared to be scoops of shredded lamb meat haphazardly slopped on a bed of unevenly-cooked pasta and crowned with glops of ricotta cheese and shreds of mint leaves. I faithfully dove in, extracting a noodle with my fork, and subsequently marveled at how a noodle could be simultaneously dried out and overcooked; both boiling hot and fridge-cold, and completely lacking in any appealing flavor. Deciding that maybe this was just a problem with the noodles, and that surely the lamb itself would be the star, I returned the offending noodle to the plate and dug in to the lamb part, capturing a bit of cheese and mint as well.

This forkful really did not fare any better than the noodle did. Yes, it tasted of lamb, but it too was off-putting in its uneven temperature and lack of real flavor. The ricotta did not mix well with the mint, nor the lamb, and none of the elements of the dish succeeded on any level. I debated internally for some time as the rest of the table enjoyed their meals and exclaimed over the superb flavors. I didn’t want to be “that guy” that sends a dish back in a restaurant, I groaned at the thought of having to flag down our server and point at the dish with a wrinkled nose and whisper “this…this just wasn’t good. Could I…..possibly….send it….back?” Ugh. It rankled.

But there was just no conceivable way I could finish this dish. It was nearly unpalatable. And as much as I pride myself on being a mellow diner, and as hard as I try not to ruffle any feathers, I had to swallow my pride (along with my final bite of ragout) and send the dish back.  Our server asked no questions, simply nodded and whisked the plate away, which to me again spoke volumes as to her opinion of the dish. It was almost like she was expecting me to send it back.

Taking pity on me I suppose, my friends urged me to take portions of their dishes, pointing out the remarkable flavors and textures of their respective choices. I obediently tried everyone’s dish but I think I was too disillusioned with the place to really put forth effort into noting the flavors.

We waved off dessert and when the bill came, the ragout had been comped. Good form, Sable.

I think Sable may benefit from either removing this dish from the menu completely, or revamping it by using a different pasta shape and injecting just a wee bit more flavor into the lamb element. I wasn’t entirely put off by my experience, I know kitchens get busy and the less popular dishes tend to suffer by being rewarmed under the lamps rather than made to order. However,  Sable does bear the unique distinction of being the one and only restaurant at which I’ve ever sent a dish back. But who am I, right?