Archive for the 'Would' 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.

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.

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.

Big & Little’s

Today, I found myself suffering from a food drought.  Sick to death of the lunch places around my office, I couldn’t imagine stuffing another tasteless sub down my gullet, nor could I stomach the thought of yet. another. stupid. salad. My office is located in a charming part of River North, surrounded by tiny eateries and art galleries,  but I have frequented the nearby lunch joints nearly daily for the past two years, and eaten pretty much everything on the menus. Brett’s Kitchen is a favorite of mine, but eventually all their melts and burgers and salads started to taste the same, and even Adriana, the charming, mohawked lesbian Latina who always remembers my name and calls me baby wasn’t enough to keep me coming back.

Luckily, A. mentioned that she’d heard rave reviews about Big & Little’s, a tiny hole-in-the wall on Orleans & Oak, a strip of the city I refer to as Death Valley. There’s literally nothing around there except Pakistani cab driver stands and Baptist churches. Oh, and Stone Lotus. Barf.

I was skeptical, but hopped over to Yelp (don’t hate) to see what Chicago’s helpful Yelpers had to say. Never have I seen so many rave reviews for what is essentially nothing more than a cubbyhole churning out fish tacos. Yes, I said to myself. This place shall cure my lunchtime blues.

And holy amazing deliciousness Batman, cure them it did. Whatever Big Star is, Big & Little’s is the exact opposite. Drenched in yellow paint, Big & Little’s features little in the way of seating, relying on their customers to get in and get out. There’s a long counter to the right of the entry, and three picnic tables set up outside in the parking lot, but most of the patrons waiting in line were there for takeout. I was greeted by a cheerful cashier, and after a moment contemplating the chalkboard menu decided to go with the Mahi fish taco on special, a regular fish taco, and an order of truffle fries. The cashier happily jotted down my order and I moseyed over to the counter and flipped through an abandoned Red Eye and sipped a Diet Coke as I waited, half-listening to the Caribbean reggae music being piped in through a pair of speakers.

 The “kitchen” is right there out in the open, with a fry station and grill manned by two pleasant, scruffy-looking men, each wearing thick-framed black glasses and rocking some flannel and tats. I had a momentary Big Star-anxiety flashback, but that was eased when my order was bagged and ready to go and each of the men thanked me politely for coming in and the cashier smiled and waved and told me to come again soon. I left feeling like I’d just made three very nice friends and had to reassure myself that I was in Chicago and not Grover’s Corners.

I got the food back to the office and unwrapped the fish taco, still warm and loaded with shredded cabbage and lettuce. The fish was flaky and delicately fried, seasoned with light spices and drizzled with a creamy, spicy, garlicky sauce, wrapped in a warm corn tortilla. I ate it in about three bites and instantly wished I’d ordered another one. It was crunchy, creamy, spicy, and hot, and hit all my requirements for what a fish taco should be. The special Mahi taco was a little more hefty than the regular fried fish taco, and more generously portioned. The hunk of Mahi inside the taco was about as large as four of my fingers, and was grilled rather than fried, and topped in the same manner with cabbage, sauce, and lettuce.

 Confession: I’m aware that the Mahi was the “special,” but damn if fried doesn’t make everything taste better. Next time I’m definitely going with two or more of the regular fish tacos (and perhaps an intriguing crab tostada), and at $3 a pop, it’s absolutely doable. Um, the fries? The fries. The. Fries. Get the goddamn truffle fries if you know what’s good for you, and that’s all I’m going to say on the matter. If it were socially acceptable, I’d bathe in truffle oil and exfoliate with truffle salt. Then I’d get ino my truffle car and drop my kids off at truffle school. In a world…

I can’t wait to try the rest of the menu, which is quite small and offers burgers and dogs in addition to tacos. If you find yourself in that neck of the woods, or even if you don’t and just have a craving for some good ass tacos, Big & Little’s is the jam.

L2Omfg.

You know a meal is unforgettable when it takes you over a week (or four) to write a recap of it. The FDL, in honor of our first turn around the calendar, decided to drop mad dough at L2O. That rhymed. Readers, adjective honestly fail me when it comes to describing this wildly inventive, perfectly-presented, full-fledged foodie experience, so I’ll just dive right in.

L2O is located unassumingly in the same building that houses Mon Ami Gabi, another joint on the Lettuce Entertain You roster. Both places sit facing each other across the gilded, ornate lobby of the Belden Stratford; a 20’s era former hotel that has since been turned into “charming” (read: tiny) apartments. L2O’s sleek, warm-toned wood doors are easy to miss, but entering the restaurant’s quiet and starkly-decorated interior is like passing into a different world. The hustle and bustle of the Belden-Stratford’s lobby is hushed, and all that’s heard is the quiet rustle of voice and faint ambient music. I think we all immediately felt the urge to use our six-inch voices as we were led to our table.

We sat half-hidden behind a strange, bare-branched tree of some sort, which was encased in glass and provided us a modicum of privacy. The dining room was relatively quiet, which is not suprising seeing as it was  a rainy Thursday night. However, seated directly behind us was a couple who had inexplicably brought their seven-year-old child with them. I was mildly amused, and could only wonder at the type of income these parents pulled down if L2O was a viable option for a  casual Thursday night family dinner. The kid was well-behaved, so I can’t complain. She seemed content playing games on her mom’s BlackBerrry and regarded the food placed before her with only mild interest. That kid is way cooler than I am.

L2O’s menu is a fixed price deal, and we chose the four-course option. For brevity’s sake, I’m going to focus on my selections, with the exception of M.’s truly unbelieveable pick for her “Raw” dish. L2O kindly divided the menu into four sections: Warm, Raw, Main, and Dessert. Our adorable server took great care to explain the various ways the menu could be consumed; pointing out that we could swap out a Raw course for two Warm courses if we wished, or vice versa. She was impeccable in her service; moving almost unnoticed around our table clearing dishes, placing dishes, refilling water, and she always made sure we understood the menu fully. We told her what brought us to the restaurant, and how we were so thrilled to be dining there that night. “Oh, that’s so cool!” she exclaimed, which gave her another point in my book, “how would you ladies like to see the kitchen after your meal?”

What was that sound, you ask? Oh, just the sound of four girls crapping their pants in excitement simultaneously. Just kidding. But we basically had to curb our enthusiasm as I casually replied with a  “Sure, that sounds great. Thanks so much!”

Back to the food. Because I was trying to watch my spending as much as one could in a place as expensive as L2O, I went with a relatively cheap beer selection, and the rest of the table chose the house cocktail, a delicate aperitif that consisted of prosecco with a raspberry cordial float.

For my first Warm course, I selected the diver scallops served with a sauvignon blanc/vanilla emulsion and crunchy toasted passionfruit seeds. Done to perfection, the scallops were buttery and practically melted in my mouth, and were tinged with just the right amount of sweetness from the sauce. The toasted passionfruit seeds added a delicate crunch, which complemented the perfect crispness of the scallop’s sear.

M.’s Raw selection far outshone anything else on the table, hands down. She chose the Eighteen Flavors of Spring;  tiny little bites presented on lucite block. I didn’t actually count and make sure that there were in fact eighteen flavors, but each one-biter represented an aspect of the earthy, crisp nature of the season. I was instantly jealous when our server placed this in front of M., and squirmed anxiously as I watched her relish each perfect little bite. Sensing this, M. generously offered a taste of the carrot sorbet; a perfect globe dipped in liquid nitrogen. It melted within moments in my mouth, leaving me with a mouth full of smooth, creamy, cold carrot. It wasn’t as sweet as I was anticipating, but rather slightly tangy and, well, carroty.

For my second Warm course, I asked myself the age-old question: “Do you like luxury?” My answer to myself was yes, I fucking love luxury, so I went with the foie gras. Seared on the top and smoothly rich in the middle, the foie gras was about as big as my fist and was served with a garnish of toasted marshmallows and a scattering of flower petals. This dish also entitled me to a tableside emulsion preparation, which involved much whisking of liquid nitrogen into a tiny bowl of rasperry puree. The resulting concontion was to be poured over the foie gras, but I chose to leave it in its bowl, dishing out spoonfuls as I saw fit. Now, you’d think I just basically described a dessert, what with the marshmallows and the raspberries and all, and I too was skeptical about how all the different pieces of the dish might mesh. Well, mesh they did, and beautifully. Foie gras is rather on the sweet side as it is, so the raspberry and touches of ginger drew out the flavor of the meat without being overly sugary or dessert-like.

We have now reached the main event. I’ve said this before–if not on this blog then definitely out loud, ad nauseam, to anyone who would listen–I absolutely love food that makes you work for it. By this, I mean any dish that requires effort on the part of the diner, taking you from passive watcher and consumer to active participant. Lobster is the best example I can think of here, because tackling a whole in-shell lobster takes effort, it takes cunning and patience, and that makes the ultimate reward that much sweeter. Peel-and-eat shrimp, ribs, crabs, crayfish, even mussels; any and all of these items make it a challenge for the diner to just sit and stuff their face without putting in at least a small amount of elbow grease.

This is why, when scanning the menu for my Main course dish, I landed on the shabu-shabu. For y’all who don’t know, shabu-shabu (Japanese for “swish swish”) involves taking thinly sliced pieces of raw protein and submerging them in  a boiling liquid, usually water or broth, until they have cooked to your liking. L2O’s shabu-shabu presentation consisted of perfect, fresh slices of raw hiramasa (yellowtail) served on an arched wooden plank, interspersed with individual slivers of onion, king oyster mushrooms, and leafy, fragrant greens. Alongside this was a small pot of konbu (kelp) bouillon with its own warming element to ensure the temperature stayed constant. I gleefully dunked my slices of of fish into the broth, adding greens and mushrooms as I went. I like my protein a little on the raw side, so I kept the slices submerged just long enough to lightly cook the outside while the innards stayed soft and fresh.

Once the fish had been eaten and all that remained was a pot of flavorful broth, our server removed the broth from the table and returned with a bowl of buckwheat ramen noodles, served in the broth I had just used to cook the fish. It was a delightful and unexepected second act, and I appreciated the fact that the rich broth didn’t go to waste. Apparently I was so enthralled by this part of the meal that I forgot to take a picture.

We were so sufficed after our lengthy meal that dessert was the last thing on my mind. I passed on the house speciality, peanut butter souffle, and selected a dessert of raspberry puree, golden yuzu (a Japanese citrus), and a creamy portion of marscapone cheese. Sticking with the luxury theme, the whole plate was flecked with edible gold leaf. I love luxury.

After we settled up (I won’t say how much this meal cost, that’s just unladylike), our server led us on a tour around the dining room, showing us the private sunken dining areas enclosed in sliding wooden doors and the banquet space. True to her word, she led us out through the Belden-Stratford lobby and through a small door into the kitchen. It was already about 10:30 so the staff was in the midst of shutting down for the night; coating the floor in buckets of water and hurriedly packing up the storage freezers. L2O’s kitchen is beautiful, all stainless steel and bathed in blue light, and I imagine it as a calm and zen space even at the height of the dinner rush.

If you have the means, I highly recommend you try L2O. It is so choice.

Would….

….if I was a lez.Giada

Gidada De Laurentiis is goddamn adorable, can we all just agree on that? I don’t care if you don’t swing that way, ladies, this is something that can’t be argued with.  She’s the granddaughter of director Dino de Laurentiis,  married to an Anthropologie designer, and gets to do nothing but hang around kitchens, show her boobs, and make food. For real, when I Googled her name to get this picture the third choice Google gave me was “Giada de Laurentiis breasts.” This reaffirms my theory that Google is, deep down, a thirteen year old boy.

Would…..If He Wasn’t a Ginger

Bobby Flay.