Archive for the 'Feasts' Category

Next

Finally, at long last, I have conquered Next! Chef Grant Achatz’s latest foray into the culinary landscape has been just out of reach since it opened, due largely in part to its nearly impossible to obtain tickets which sell out instantly the day they are released for public sale.

Yes, you read that correctly. In order to eat at Next, you have to purchase tickets, which are sold only in sets of two, four, and six, and you  must  either have the time to sit on Next’s website and hit the refresh button innumerable amount of times until your desired date and time is available, or have the fortitude to risk hundreds of dollars on the good faith of some dude from Schaumburg who’s selling his tickets on Craigslist.

I, however, was lucky enough to be invited for my friend K.’s birthday celebration by her boyfriend, who had purchased four tickets. Our dinner was scheduled for two days after I returned from a ten day trip to Poland for a dear friend’s wedding (more on that–and my ungodly consumption of encased meats–in a later post), and I was jet-lagged, sick as a dog, but determined to experience Next nonetheless.

The dilly-yo with Next is that the menu changes every three months, and spans not only cuisines but also time and cultures.  This might not bode well for your average bear, but Grant Achatz is nothing if not completely unique in his willingness to experiment with what diners are willing to consume–and how much they’re willing to spend–on a meal at one of his establishments. He was smart enough to leverage his star status as Alinea’s creator and head chef into this new venture, and had the foresight to predict that regardless of how difficult and complicated the reservation process, people would still be chomping at the bit to get a table at Next.

I can’t say that this urgency on behalf of Next’s clientele doesn’t also have something to do with bragging rights and being able to say “Oh, you haven’t tried the latest menu? Oh, aren’t you cute. Well, you’ll get there someday. Now watch me burn this $100 bill.” If you want to be really annoyed, read the insufferable reviews from “Elite” Yelpers. Example:

“Thai thai thai. Although I MUCH preferred the Paris menu (the duck sauce changed my life, I enjoyed EVERYTHING, and the bev pairings were simply divine), Tour of Thailand was still tasty and mostly worthy of it’s price tag.”

Is that so? Did you MUCH prefer the Paris menu? Were the “bev pairings” simply divine? Poor grammar aside, this review is the reason I have such a love/hate relationship with Yelp. Your “Elite” status does not make your opinion more important than anyone else’s. Also you’re an insufferable douche. Anyhoodle. Where was I?

Next’s first menu was Paris circa 1906, which I unfortunately did not get to experience. Our dinner fell during Next’s Tour of Thailand menu, which was  just so FORTUITOUS for me, as Thai is my absolute hands down favorite Asian cuisine, ever.

Upon arrival, we were seated in a cozy booth and took some time to soak in the atmosphere. Next is housed in the oh-so-trendy Fulton Market restaurant district, and as such does not have a whole lot of space. It’s small, and not terribly brightly lit, but boasts a beautiful, sleek open kitchen at the far end of the space, and from where I sat I was able to peer into the kitchen and see the magical elves hard at work.

First Course: Roasted banana, prawn cake, sweet shrimp, fermented sausage, steamed Asian buns.

This little bite course was highlighted by the Asian buns (heh) which our server jokingly said were sourced from Wow Bao. They are in fact made in house and delicious.

Second Course: Tom Yum soup with pork belly, tomato, and kaffir lime.

Oh holy deliciousness. I am a sucker for Tom Yum soup, and this broth was so goddamn flavorful that I was tempted to ask for a second serving to take home with me. It was so silky and gingery, but tasted light and tangy thanks to the kaffir lime.

Third Course: Salted duck egg with green mango and white radish; pickled fruits and vegetables with basil.

Know how some Italian restaurants serve bread for the table? Next served rice for the table, with a variety of spicy sauces and toppings that we could consumer at our leisure throughout the meal.

Fourth Course: Wild catfish braised in caramel sauce with celery and coriander root.

The presentation of this dish outweighed its actual taste in terms of impressiveness, as the fish platter was served with its own charcoal heating element to ensure the fish stayed warm. It was good fish, tender and flaky and not overly fishy the way some catfish can be, but just seemed like a placeholder dish.

Fifth Course: Braised beef cheek with curry sauce, nutmeg, coconut, and lemongrass.

My favorite dish of the night. The beef cheeks were fall-apart tender and so succulent thanks to the infusion of creamy curry. It was a hearty serving as well, and really could have been a meal all by itself.

Sixth Course: Coconut, corn, egg, licorice. (Note: turn your head to the left.)

This dessert dish arrived in a closed coconut, and we were told to open the top half of the coconut in order to get to the dish. I wasn’t sure what to expect with this, as the ingredients didn’t sound super thrilling. It was superb. Think cold, melty coconut ice cream with flavors of star anise, vanilla, and tapioca.

Seventh Course: Dragonfruit, rosewater.

This was my least favorite course I think, as dragonfruit really has no flavor. Our server brought the fruit halves with an actual rose sprayed with rosewater essence, and told us to smell the rose, then take a shot of the rum that was served alongside the fruit, then scoop a bite out of the fruit. It was all very beautiful-looking, but lacking in sweetness and flavor.

Eighth Course: Roobios tea, palm sugar, milk.

This little send off gets points for its quirky presentation, though it really was just chai tea in a plastic bag that you drink with a straw. I liked it though, and it really rounded out the courses.


I really love a good, long dinner filled with whimsy and amazing flavor combinations and Next did not let me down on that. Our servers (there were a few) were all incredibly enthusiastic and helpful, and explained each dish with relish and pride.

The good thing about Next’s ticketing idea is that it is completely all-inclusive, meaning at the end of the meal there’s no waiting around for the bill, no figuring out tips, none of that peasant business. You simply get up, thank your server, and the host calls you a cab. Everything is included, from the tip to the beverage pairings, so it’s really no muss no fuss on that end.

It’s hard to justify the expense of eating at Next every time the menu changes, but I’ve heard rumors of an El Bulli-esque menu coming up after the current Childhood menu, so I’ll be getting my “refresh” finger ready when that happens.

Hot, Sweaty, and Delicious

Last night, with temps in the 90’s and a heat index well into the danger zone, my friend K., her friend M., and I headed to the Green City Market BBQ in Lincoln Park to pursue the offerings from some of Chicago’s best and well-loved chefs.

The BBQ is essentially a scaled-down version of some of the more heavily attended street food fairs around the city, and boasted offerings from roughly 100 Chicago restaurants, served out of booths that were, more often than not, manned by the headlining chefs themselves. To be sure, the BBQ is pretty much everything Taste of Chicago isn’t, and that’s a good thing. I’ll gladly take a swampy summer evening sippy classy wine and perusing dishes from Paul Kahan, Rick Bayless, and Paul Virant than fried fucking cheesecake on a stick topped with a chocolate-dipped turkey leg. Now, because I was so besieged with sweat and overwhelmed by all my options, I’m not going to give an entire rundown, but here are some highlights:

 First stop, wine tent. Here’s K., casually drinking her wine and being totally casual. We started out with some delightful Sauvignon blanc poured by a friendly man in a sweaty shirt. I kept coming back to him and dropping hints about how stingy every other wine booth was being with their pours and nonchalantly motioning with my empty wine glass. After about the second round of this, sweaty shirt caught on and began filling my glass with glugs, not dribbles.

Oh, then this happened:

 

 

 

 

 

(That’s Stephanie Izard, btw.)

 

 

Also, there was this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, I was that close to Rick Bayless. He was right there alongside his staff, mingling with the hoi polloi and serving up insanely spicy salmon tacs. What a guy.

After that, there was alla this:

And finally, a baby who somehow made his way from the 1940’s:

Now, this wouldn’t be a proper Hungrypants post if there wasn’t at least one thing to bitch about, right? Well, here it is: the goddamn process for throwing out garbage. What should be a simple, one-step procedure (throwing out garbage), Green City Market staff somehow turned into a convoluted and nerve-wracking game of what I can only describe as reverse whack-a-mole. They had each trash disposal station manned by a volunteer wielding a paddle (like the kind you use for playing paddleball but without the ball and string), and three holes: one for compost, one for recycling, and one for “landfill”. I could never get it right. I would hover a hand over the recycling hole, tentatively, only to have the staff member sigh and sharply point to the LANDFILL hole with her paddle, clearly indicating that I was a moron for being unaware that compostable food cannot go into the compost hole, and recyclable plates and forks simply don’t belong in the recycling hole.

On and on this went, all night, staff whacking at our hands with their paddles whenever we approached the trash stations. It was confusing! Doesn’t it all wind up in a landfill? The anxiety of being faced with this sudden and remarkably vague pop quiz regarding my knowledge of the intricacies of trash disposal and sorting was too much for me, so whenever I saw an unguarded station I just threw my shit in the recycling bin. Let them sort it out on the other side, I said. Only God can judge me, I said.

Food-wise, a few trends I noticed were the extensive use of lamb and goat meat, a large number of booths serving tacos; handmade sausages, and a proliferation of sustainable, local, ingredients. Apparently last year it was nothing but pork belly.

I’d say my absolute favorite, standout item of the night was the “adult popsicle” from the Primehouse booth: think frozen, gingery bourbon popsicle in a plastic push-up sleeve, not unlike the Flav-or-ices of our youth. It was tangy, a little spicy, and exactly what you need on a hot-ass night. Upon asking the chef handing the popsicles out what the recipe and freezing process was for these little beauties, we were met with a wink and two words: “elf magic”. I almost believe it.

Adventures in Neighborhood Eating

 

 

Well guys, it’s finally happened. I’ve given up my swinging, Clooney-esque bachelorette lifestyle. B. has made an honest woman out of me and we are living  in shacked-up bliss with our psychotic yet eminently adorable dog, Philippa Middleton (aka Pippa, Pips, Pipsqueak, Pipster, and Omgyoustupiddogstopfreakingbitingme!!!  for short).

With this merging of people comes a merging of STUFF, and now B.’s extensive collection of quality cookware and kitchen gadgets are at my disposal! Does this mean I’ve been using them with any regularity? Of course not. My dreams of honing my sloppy and inept kitchen skills have fallen by the wayside in favor of wiping up dog piddle and avoiding our overly-chatty neighbor and her dog, Merlot. No really, that’s her dog’s name. Merlot. Neighbor lady likey her winey.

Our new kitchen is like, five times the size of both of our old kitchens combined, and it really is fantastic for cooking. We’ve been able to knock off a few pretty impressive meals since we got settled, and I’m proud to say that I have been responsible for almost HALF! I have stockpiled a list of recipes I’ve been dying to try and have managed to create exactly two of them. Baby steps.

I’ve also been exploring  new culinary landscape of my new neighborhood. Previously, I reported to you from Old Town, where I frequented such gems as Marge’s, Twin Anchors (Twanchors for those in the know), Cafe Sushi, Old Jerusalem, and Wells on Wells. My move to northwest Lakeview has put me in immediate proximity to at least three different neighborhoods, including Roscoe Village and North Center, each boasting their own collection of local eateries. My hands-down favorite new place is Frasca. You guys, these people freaking LOVE DOGS. Every time we go in with Pippa, the staff freaks the fuck out, gives her treats, threatens to steal her, and just generally loses their shit over this dog. It’s really great having a place in the neighborhood where the dog isn’t banished to the “outside edge” of a patio, like some places we’ve attempted to dine when we’ve had the dog in tow. It makes a world of difference knowing that we’ll be welcomed as patrons rather than viewed as an imposition. Plus, the food is awesome, they have bottomless mimosas during brunch, and their patio is great for people-watching.

If you’re in the mood for something exotic, there’s Cafe Orchid a mere two blocks from my house. Located on the bustling intersection of Ravenswood, Addison, and Lincoln, Cafe Orchid is a BYOB Turkish restaurant with a charming outdoor patio and reasonable prices. I ate there about a month ago with my friend K., and we were both impressed by the food’s authenticity and layered flavors. For those unfamiliar with Turkish food, think Greek/Mediterranean fare with a little bit of Italy thrown in. Lots of lamb-based dishes with yogurt sauces, plus your usual stuffed grape leaves and babaganoush. Just really good, hearty food.

Over on Roscoe just west of Damen, there’s El Tinajon, a fantastic Guatemalan place. There are very slight variations between Guatemalan and Mexican foods and generally if you’re a fan of Mexican food, you’ll thoroughly enjoy Guatemalan as well. This joint has a nice little outdoor patio and pitchers of strong sangria. I really enjoyed a fish dish wrapped in fragrant leaves (I forget the name of it) and their tres leches cake is out of this WORLD. Rumor has it they have a pretty decent brunch menu as well.

 Speaking of Mexican…El Tapatio on Ashland and Roscoe really gets me going. Their fish tacos are tender and flaky and served in MASSIVE portions. The complimentary chips and salsa are fantastic and the salsa packs a wonderfully hot kick. None of this pansy-ass table salsa here, no sir. You will be sweating after your second or third scoop, and that’s the way I likes it. Also a nice little patio here, and it’s great for large groups who want to get bombed off their enormous (and strong) margarita pitchers.

Coming up, I’ll be attending the Green City Market Chef’s BBQ Benefit this Thursday. There are a lot of amazing chefs from a lot of outstanding restaurants participating in this event, so I’m sure I”ll have a lot of things to say and pictures to share.

Roundup: FDL

February: Marigold

Hood: Uptown

Food: Indian

Weather: Slushy and awful

Ambiance: Candlelit, romantic, exotic. Couples, families, groups of friends.

Verdict: Spicy, authentic, flavorful.

                                                                                                

March: Boka (restaurant week)

Hood: Lincoln Park

Food: Indeterminate but ostensibly “Contemporary American”

Weather: Pelted by random hailstorm

Ambiance: Cirque du Soleil-ish tented interior meets mid-90’s upholstery, plus group of women apparently auditioning for Real Housewives of Moscow.

Verdict: (waggles hand from side to side in an indication of mediocrity)

                                                                                                            

April: The Bristol

Hood: Bucktown

Food: Mediterranean-inspired, locally sourced & seasonal

Weather: The sun shone bright on my old Chicago hooooome

Ambiance: Salvaged wood, communal tables, specials written on wall covered in chalkboard paint, owner helping servers expedite and bus. Friendly and breezy.

Verdict: Will return at earliest convenience

                                                                                                           

May: Paris Club

Hood: River North

Food: Durr

Weather: First warm day since last summer. Joyfully sat next to wide open windows.

Ambiance: Paris bistro circa 1920 plus flat-screens. Subway tile and mirrors. River North yuppies mingle with suburban cougars and aging “cool hip guys” who wear those long square shoes and flared jeans and untucked shirts with crosses, eagles, and/or skulls.

Verdict: Solid coq au vain and Roquefort-crusted filet. Thai-spiced mussels seemed inconsistent with Parisian concept, but were naturally devoured nonetheless.

BREAKING: Blogger Remembers She Has Blog; Posts For First Time in Months

Wow, the time really gets away from you, huh? When you’re….doing…nothing in particular that’s different from what you were doing before.

Big things going on over at HPHQ (Hungrypants Headquarters). I had my first GOOD EXPERIENCE AT BIG STAR last month. I swear. I think the secret to managing this place is just patience, patience, margaritas, cheladas, and copious amounts of patience. B. and I went for dinner on a Friday night, and were quoted a 3 hour wait by the doorman, which I suspect is a ploy to keep the hayseeds and riffraff/streetrats away from the inner sanctum. By claiming an absurd wait time, Big Star thereby drives away the tourists, the impatient ones, the desperately uncool and maintains a clientele that knows what it is to really earn their table, diners who can brag to their friends that the wait “wasn’t too bad” and that the food was “uber-authentic”.

I become one of those tragi-comic people that rainy April evening. We disregarded the doorman’s ridiculous assertion and forged ahead, putting our names down on the list with the pleasant list-minder girl. Yeah, pleasant I said. It’s like they got a whole new staff! The girl sympathized with us, and seemed almost upset to inform us that there would in fact be a long wait. Having already actively decided to change my ‘tude, I cheerfully told her it was okay, and we’d be by the bar so she could find us once a table opened up.

Svetlana the Russian Bartender tried to break my spirit by actively ignoring me as I waved my fist full of singles right in front of her Slavic nose, but I won that little game by just shouting our drink order right at her face. She grudgingly assembled our cheladas and give me the stinkeye, so from then on I made B. place our drink orders.

Long story short, I’d say we stood for about an hour and a half by the bar, periodically checking in with List Girl to see how far we’d moved up. I didn’t mind it; Big Star is excellent people-watching and they were cranking out some great classic rock on the ol’ Victrola. We stood and talked and drank and it was quite pleasant, really. Miraculously, four bar seats opened up all at once and we swooped in for two of them, deciding to just fuck it, forget the table, we’ll eat at the bar. Full food service at the bar is a key perk of Big Star, and really made the difference between a crappy  night and a decent one. We chowed down happily (the food really is excellent), paid without hassle, and bounced off into the night.

I won’t take back everything I’ve said about them, but I have no qualms about extolling Big Star for finally, at long last, providing me with a decent dining experience.

It’s Fun to Gather for Culinary Reasons

A few weeks ago, my friend A. (not FDL A., this is a different A. Keep it straight!) celebrated her birthday party in one of the best ways I can imagine: by hiring a chef and having a group of her friends come over and get drunk and help cook the meal. I know! It was fantastic.

Chef Kasey Passen started her company, Culinary Gatherings, last year after returning to her native Chicago after a stint at a few of San Francisco’s top restaurants. She has traveled extensively and incorporates her wordly knowledge into her cozy, accessible, and totally delicious get-togethers. Basically, Kasey showed up at A.’s apartment with all the necessary ingredients, menus and instructions for all of us, and a sous chef. She was incredibly knowledgeable, friendly, NOT condescending (we all know how much I hate those who condescend) and unendingly patient. She had planned a Mediterranean menu which included a stuffed chicken, a spicy eggplant spread and a couscous and chickpea salad (I’m improvising here, as I was so deep into my red wine coma by the time dinner was served that I scarcely remember the actual names of the dishes. But I digress.)

A. had made the mistake of asking everyone to bring a bottle of wine, AND she made sangria, so there we were, about twelve girls with what amounted to a bottle of wine each and copious amounts of sangria. Because of this, we did not make the best audience for Kasey’s wine pairing tutorial and spent most of the time loudly asserting how much we hated white wine. Which is weird because I don’t hate white wine. Kasey had provided us with a slice of apple, a slice of lemon, and a glass each of white and red wine. She encouraged us to take a sip of the wine, a bite of the fruit, and then another sip of wine and told us what tastes and notes to look for each time. I wish I’d taken notes because this chick knows a thing or two about wine.

Then, it was time to cook. Kasey had tasks for each of us, and set up stations to make sure no one strayed from their assigned project. I totally showed off my super sweet knife skills while I was chopping garlic for the eggplant spread, which Kasey complimented me on thankyouverymuch, and watched as the girls at the chicken station drunkenly crammed stuffing up a chicken’s ass. Believe it not, this was even more entertaining than it sounds.

The whole thing took about three hours from start to finish, and the resultant feast was that much more rewarding; knowing we had had our hands up that chicken’s ass and had chopped the garlic and sauteed the eggplant and fluffed the cous cous ourselves. It was truly a collaborative effort and extremely, extraordinarily delicious.

I have to praise chef Kasey for her unending patience and willingness to answer inane questions in addition to her superb menu.

It’s 2011.

Yes it is, and I rang it in in the best way I know how: luxuriously. Behold, my plate full of luxury:

Yes, what you see there is a lobster tail, a filet mignon, truffle mac and cheese (which I made MYSELF thankyouverymuch), champagne risotto with asparagus AND blanched green beans. My dear Lord, it was delicious.

Now, because of my previous promise to myself to start actually getting my hands dirty in the kitchen, I chose to contribute to this New Year’s Eve Meal of Luxury by making truffle mac. Ina’s recipe, of course, because Ina knows what’s up when it comes to cheese and carbs. So, this recipe had shiitake and cremini mushrooms, and Gruyère and sharp cheddar cheeses, garlic breadcrumb topping and just an assortment of all the kinds of buttery delicious things I love to put in my face hole. And it actually turned out pretty well! People claimed it was good and I agreed with them, but vowed next time around I’d take it easy on the breadcrumb topping (and use FRESH breadcrumbs opposed to store-bought) and perhaps mix in a little extra shredded cheese with the crust. It was good, though. Truffly and crunchy and cheesey. I’m also thinking maybe I could, to paraphrase Emeril Lagasse, kick things up a notch by making it a tad spicy.

The rest of NYE weekend was spent playing extreme amounts of Xbox Kinect, competing intensely in track and field events and dance battles. I have never been so sore. Like, the arches of my feet are sore. How does that even happen?? I laughed when the introductory instructions to each game encouraged me to “rest or sit down” if I felt sore, disbelieving that anyone could be so terribly out of shape that they couldn’t even handle a few jumps or volleyball serves or javelin throws while playing a mere video game. I stand super corrected. Moving is still a little difficult on my tight calves and hamstrings and muscles I didn’t even know existed in my back and sides now twinge with every arm movement.

Another highlight of my Holiday Eating Extravaganza was taking B. to Hopleaf for the first time, after seeing TRON LEGACY 3D (must be said in robot voice). He’d never been and after the movie let out, I was in the mood for some warm, rustic, homey food and a good Belgian beer. We made a split second decision and shot over to Hopleaf where we settled in at the bar to wait for a table. We had a few beers, a pot of Belgian-style mussels, and a charcuterie plate with duck liver pate, duck prosciutto, and quail eggs. It was, simply put, perfect.

I hope you all spent your New Years Eves and holidays in the best company possible, as I did, and enjoyed doing whatever it is you enjoy doing the most.