Sunday, November 8, 2009

More Fun Playing With Food in Chicago

Bob and I recently returned to Chicago for the first time since we visited the Maxwell Street Market in August 2008 to eat, and it ate me. As those of you who were present know, the lack of appropriate pavement in the sidewalk of the market caused me to spend the day in the emergency room with a dislocated shoulder and a torn labrum, among other things. Lots of pain drugs and little food led to my 15 seconds of fame on Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" Chicago episode, where I was photographed at Burt's Pizza looking like I wanted to throw up. It was time to remake that memory. And since I had a business appointment in downtown Chicago on Monday, we'd get an extra night to play with our food!

The Chicago Area Mensa Regional Gathering, Halloweem, took place the last weekend of October (or was that the first weekend of November?). Given our hard work at the American Mensa Annual Gathering last July, and at the Queen's Croquet in September, we looked forward to a weekend of playing with food, and not preparing or serving food. We were not disappointed.

We drove to Chicago on Thursday. I regret not bringing my camera to the RG Hospitality Suite Thursday evening, because we enjoyed a freshly prepared (by a catering company in the hotel parking lot) pig roast. So, we did not head out for culinary adventures until late morning on Friday. Our Chicago friend Ronnie had given us recommendations, and we decided to take him up on the suburban outpost of Johnnie's Italian Beef, 1935 S Arlington Heights Rd., Arlington Heights, IL 60005, (847) 357-8100 (the original unit is at 7500 W North Ave, Elmwood Park, IL, 708-452-6000, no website).

How can you not love a place that has a mural like this on an interior wall?

Or a sign like this on its counter?

The company-made sausage is grilled over charcoal.

The fries were the weakest link - frozen. Though served crispy hot and fresh.

Bob's Beef with Hot Peppers

My Beef and Sausage with Hot Peppers

If I had never had Al's Italian Beef, I would have fallen in love with Johnnie's. However, both Bob and I agreed that we preferred Al's. However - Johnnie's was very good (a little drier than Al's), and a very close second best. We loved every bite!

Our Order of Break Tamales

These "mystery meat" tamales are a Chicago staple at beef and hotdog joints. I needed to try them again - these were very fresh, the cornmeal was incredibly creamy for a mass-produced product.

Friday evening, we met Ronnie, his wife Julie, and their wonderfully adventurous twelve-year-old Lucas for dinner at The Publican.

We basically turned it over to Ronnie to order up a tasting feast! The menu is structured in small plates, tastes, and a small selection of "entree" sized plates. Unfortunately, the low light meant crummy photos.

The room was packed - and LOUD. The acoustics seemed designed to make the sounds bounce. It was really too loud at times - diners shouldn't have to shout at one another to be heard.

Bread Service

The toothy bread is made in house and served with goat butter. Delicious!

Equally savory were the Spicy Pork Rinds (Slagel Family Farm, Fairbury, Illinois). Since a big thing about playing happily with my food is knowing what went into it and where it came from - I loved that The Publican gives a lot of information on the menu about the wonderful products they serve.

The chicharrones had some buttery flavors and seasonings, in addition to the rich, yet airy pork fat. Yum.

House Made Cheesy Crackers

Oysters- 6 Kumamoto (Oakland, Washington), 6 Chelsea Gem (Hood Canal, Washington)

These were a little too briny for my taste - I'm used to Gulf Coast Oysters.

Clam & Walleye Fry

Celery root, lemon, Parmesan and harissa aoli. Loved this.

I have no decent photo of the next dish, which is somewhat appropriate. We shared New Orleans shrimp (with mushrooms and a lovely smattering of grits) that unfortunately smelled and tasted to me as if it had walked to Chicago from the Queen City. Ammoniated. It was one of two dishes that we tasted that failed. But considering the number of wonderful, successful dishes that we tasted, I won't hold it against them and neither should you!

Smoked Trout (Clear Springs Idaho)

The trout was served with apples, pickled fennel, fromage blanc & hash browns. After being disappointed by the shrimp, I was wowed by this dish. This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening - the trout was exquisite, the accompaniments in harmony and the potato cake simply perfect.

Bouchot Mussels, Gueuze, Bay, Celery, Butter & Garlic

This hearty bowl was served with house made crusty bread for dipping. I am not a big fan of mussels, but I tasted. Suffice it to say that my table mates (including Sir Lucas) demolished the mussels, while I finished every bit of the food left on the smoked trout plate!

Frites with George's Organic Eggs

We have enjoyed a similar dish at Cleveland's Greenhouse Tavern; this version did not disappoint.

La Quercia Lardo, Pickled Ramps & Sourdough

We were beginning to feel the effects of all of this wonderful food, so we were slowing down. Since lardo isn't my favorite thing anway, I picked gently at this plate.

Taste of Three Hams

Serrano Ham, Valencia, Spain: lean, savory, La Quercia Rossa Ham Norwalk, Iowa: mild, smooth and Edwards Country Ham: Surry, Virginia: sweet, smoky. Splendid.

We were now down to our third, and final "round" of dishes, from the Meat/Vegetable section of the menu.

Brussel Sprouts (Nichols Farm & Orchard, Marengo Illinois); Bacon & Chestnuts

This was one of the table's favorites. How could brussels sprouts not be fun when paired with toothy artisanal bacon like this?

Next up was the only other dish of the night, besides the shrimp, that failed (as did my photo of it) - Beef Heart, Sunchokes, Red Onion & Olive. For my taste, the meat was a little too rare, and too thickly sliced. Ronnie felt that his had too much dressing, Bob's bite had too little. Oh well - we were getting very full anyway, and had more dishes already on order!

Pork Belly, Tomato, Artichokes and Clams

As before, a less successful dish was followed up with one that sang. This dish ranked up there with the smoked trout. An unlikely pairing of savory pork belly and briny clams - this dish really worked. I would have liked a few more clams on the plate- there were not enough for everyone. But since we were getting very full, we didn't worry about it.

Lentils (Becker Lane Organic Farm Dyersville, Iowa), Pig's Tail & Creme Fraiche

This dish, another huge hit, reminded me of the Norcian Lentils that Dominic Cerino used to make at Carrie Cerino's. Cooked to perfect al dente, it seemed a crime that I could only manage one small bite of these yummies. I am guessing that Becker Lane Farm provided the pig tail and not the lentils, since it is also listed with the next (pork) dish.

Porchetta (Becker Lane Organic Farm Dyersville, Iowa), Leeks and Beet Mostarda

Ironically, it was this final dish, which none of us had any room to really enjoy, that we agreed was the best of the evening (fortunately, it didn't go to waste; our dining companions took the leftovers home). I don't know that I've ever had porchetta before, but this was a wonderful example of it - the pig is gutted, deboned, arranged with layers of stuffing, meat, fat, and skin, then rolled, spitted, and roasted. Crispy on the outside, melt-in-your-mouth pork on the inside, over leeks and topped with the most amazingly delicious beets.

Despite a couple of small misfires (I am sure had we told our wonderfully attentive servers about the two less than perfect dishes, the restaurant would have done something about it - but we had enjoyed so much fabulous food and drink, that this was not necessary), the food and service at The Publican are exemplary without being at all stuffy. This is a loud, but fun place to play with your food.

Outside the dining area, I felt free to use my flash to show you one of the most unusual restaurant restrooms I've ever seen:

The communal sink serves all of the stalls, which are behind the large wooden doors- several for the women and several for the men. This is the kind of cool thinking behind this restaurant. The Publican is defintely a food playground and highly recommended.

Saturday was Halloween. Though our friends had a very busy schedule, Ronnie and Julie were able to join us for a late brunch at the Prairie Grass Cafe. We had visited Prairie Grass two years ago, and were thrilled at the opportunity to again play with the local, sustainable and tasty food of Chefs/Spouses Sarah Stegner and George Bumbaris.

Several folks had told us that Prairie Grass had recently gotten a lot of press for their signature bleu cheese burger. So - Bob had to try it.

Top Sirloin Burger with Mild Blue Cheese Topping, Grilled Tomato and Potato Wedges, without the Bun

My taste of this dish was so good, I asked Bob for a second!

Our companions both ordered egg-white only omeletes:

White Beans and Swiss Chard

Ronnie ordered this side and passed it around the table. The beans were perfectly cooked and the sauce lip-smackingly good.

I ordered three separate items for my brunch, which were served together.

Mixed Greens with Apples, Walnuts, Crumbled Blue Cheese, and Balsamic Vinaigrette

My request for the cheese on the side of this half-salad was granted. It was a refreshing, seasonal salad.

Waffle with Warm Maple Syrup and Whipped Sweet Butter

Bleu Cheese is on the left, Butter for Waffle on the right

Now, you might wonder, with all of the amazing crepes, benedicts, omeletes and other items on the menu (including a more dressed-up waffle), why a "plain" waffle? Because sometimes, I'm a purist. Ronnie said the waffle was amazing, and I wanted to experience the zen of the waffle. Sound silly? Well - scroll down to the next photo.

This was, as Ronnie said, an extraordinary waffle. You could taste the freshness and quality of the ingredients, which were then perfectly cooked - crispy on the outside, moist on the inside - it almost didn't even need the butter and real maple syrup to be delicious (though they helped to add even more goodness to this).

House-made Ancho Sausage

I'd had this on my last visit to Prairie Grass, and it was as fresh and toothsome as I remembered.

I could not finish my meal, even though I shared generously with Bob!

Chefs Stegner and Bumbaris have just announced that they are opening another restaurant in downtown Chicago, to be called "Prairie Fire." Hopefully, we will get to visit Prairie Fire on our next visit!

We planned to go out Saturday night for dinner - but we were both so stuffed from brunch, and having such a great time at the RG, that we just nibbled a little in Hospitality, then called it a night.

But I was determined to get to Asian Bistro - another Ronnie recommendation - reputed to serve authentic Sichuan food (which we have not had in Cleveland). We'd hoped to gather friends and go Saturday night, but when that didn't happen - the two of us headed out alone on Sunday.

Asian Bistro 65 West Golf Road, Arlington Heights, IL 60005, (847) 439-5888

We entered this non-descript, strip mall place, and were almost immediately transported to China. We were the only non-Chinese patrons, and the server who first seated us spoke almost no English (no Mandarin either - I found out later she was from Gai Lin, in southern China, where Cantonese is still the predominant dialect).

Despite its simple suburban location, the interior was clean and modern.

As we went over the generously sized menu - we noticed that the Asian patrons received a different menu. Where is Jo-Mel, my Chinese cooking teacher and translator, when I need her??

Even stranger - the person who ultimately served us was not Asian, but also didn't speak much English. True to Anthony Bourdain's observation about who works in US restaurants of every stripe - the gentleman was Hispanic! And to top it off, he assumed that we were typical non-Asian customers, and didn't understand that we wanted the authentic Chinese meal.

We ordered a bit at a time. We started with 2 cold appetizers, and a hot one. And a pot of Oolong Tea, which took quite a while for our server to bring.

Spinach with Ginger

This dish was the perfect compliment to the hot and spicy goodies we'd be enjoying the rest of the meal. And because it is served cold, it worked well as a palate cleanser throughout the meal.

Steamed Fresh Bacon w/ Garlic Soy Vinaigrette 蒜泥白肉

The pork belly had just enough spice to wake up our palates, without overwhelming them so early in the meal. Perfect.

Szechuan Hot and Spicy Wonton

These were lovely, though not quite as perfect as those we've tasted at New Jersey's Chengdu 1 and Chicago's Lao Sze Chuan. We saved a couple, to save some room for the next course!

This was where the language barrier got a little comical. I wanted to order a dish from the "Chef's Specialties" part of the menu, Szechuan Spicy Whole Fish, described as "braised whole fish filet highlighted by the delicate scent of pine nut." 干燒全魚. The server said that they didn't serve whole fish anymore, only filet (at least, that's what he seemed to be saying). So I said I'd have the dish however they made it.

This brought a gentleman out from the back who spoke a little more English (and was of Asian extraction). He explained that they were simply out of whole fish at the moment, not that the restaurant didn't serve it anymore. Well - that was (I'm sorry) another kettle of fish - so I asked him to recommend a fish dish that would give us a big hit of Szechuan peppercorn. This is the dish he selected for us:

You need to peruse the on-line menu yourself - I'm guessing this was Authentic Twice Cooked Fish Filet (回鍋魚片), but I'm honestly not sure. What I am sure of was that this was exactly what we wanted - don't be fooled by the red pepper visible in the photo - there was both chile and Szechuan Peppercorn heat - plus an intense sour element. Quintessential hot-and-sour preparation.

Bob's choice was equally succulent:

Szechuan Beef Stew with Noodle in Szechuan Style (四川牛腩麵)

This dish proved a perfect contrast with the fish - more of a sweet-hot, with notes of anise and other tasty spices carressing toothy noodles, and incredibly tender beef, which had soaked up the seasonings as if it were tofu.

This is how our table looked shortly before we cried "uncle" and packed up the leftovers.

If you live near Chicago, and you like or love authentic Szechuan food - run - do not walk - to Asian Bistro. Be patient if communication takes some effort - it is well worth it to experience such fresh, expertly prepared and flavorful food. You will be well rewarded.

Our last night in Chicago, Sunday, we returned to the scene of last August's crime: Burt's Place, Pizza For Grown-Ups. 8541 N. Ferris Ave., Morton Grove, Ill, (847-965-7997) (no web site, no credit cards). You can read a lot about Burt's here. Our dining companion, Mikey, has been eating Burt's pizza for over 30 years, and knows the husband-and-wife owners well. As you will learn if you read the LTHForum thread linked above, it is imperative to order in advance, which we did. We ordered one 18" XX-Large to share for dinner, and a 10" small plain cheese to take home with us to Cleveland on Monday. They wanted toppings; purist me wanted to taste the plain cheese version that I had been unable to really enjoy on my last visit.

As with The Publican- the light stunk for photography - but I did my best. Burt's pizza is based in the mold of Chicago Deep Dish - but it is different also. Burt makes his dough daily, according to a recipe he's been perfecting over decades. Unlike most Chicago deep dish - his isn't overloaded with the cheese and toppings - they are plentiful, but the crust always remains the star. Which is just how I like it (and probably why Lou Malnati's did not impress me - it was loaded with cheese, sauce and toppings, but the crust was meh). And the caramelization Burt achieves in both crust and toppings are unique.

Burt's XXL with Sausage and Spinach (and 1/2 Mushroom) Slice

Service at Burt's is also unusual. A set of tables in the center of the single room are reserved for the blazing hot pizza pans. Burt's wife Sharon (who was working alone this Sunday night, though there is another gentleman who works with her on service at times) serves each slice to each diner to order from the service tables. So, I was unable to get a shot of the whole pizza (and actually, we were running about 10 minutes late to meet Mikey and the pies hit the table at the exact time Burt had reserved them for, literally minutes after we arrived).

The lighting was much better in my home kitchen, so I took a few slice shots of our take-home pizza Monday night (we of course reheated the pizza in the oven and not the microwave):

I enjoyed every bite of both of the pizzas. Though this style will never replace thin crust for me - it doesn't have to. Burt's pizza is truly it's own, delicious, pizza beast!

Burt's is a great place to play with your food. The menu doesn't change much from what Gary Wiviott posted here, though the beer selection varies. Right now, Burt is serving several of Cleveland's Great Lakes Brewing Company's selections in bottles. The atmosphere is replete with kitsch and coziness, and Sharon is a wonderful hostess. Just make sure to call ahead and to bring cash, and you will have a wonderful time.

I will skip the details of our final Chicago meal - a very late lunch at Cardozo's Pub, 170 West Washington Street, Chicago Ill 60602 - because it wasn't very good. My Meatball [sic] Parmigian Sandwich tasted like microwaved frozen meatballs and it was served at such a tepid temperature that the cheese wasn't even melted all the way. Bob's burger was ok, but nothing to write home, or a blog about. I had considered trying to drive to someplace more interesting, but it was a quarter of rush hour, and we had a very long drive ahead of us. So we basically stopped at the first non-chain place we encountered near the office building where I had completed my business.

Once again, Chicago lived up to its reputation as a first class choice for playing with food. We look forward to returning!

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