Archive for the ‘Chicago’ Category

The Garden of my Youth

My favorite harbinger of spring, the Park Ridge Farmer’s Market, opened a couple weeks ago.

Because it’s so early in the season, the majority of the vendors were selling seedlings, potted plants and garden starter kits. I wistfully remembered the vegetable and herb garden I had planted in my parents’ backyard some 20 years ago.  I originally planted basil to feed my pesto addiction, and then beefsteak tomatoes because I simply could not stand the perfect-looking but flavorless imposters found in the supermarkets. That successful five-foot by five-foot plot  in the first year led to a five by ten plot the second year, adding plum and cherry tomatoes as well as parsley to the basil and beefsteaks. Somehow by the third year, my little garden grew to 5 by 20 with all the usual suspects, plus cucumbers, bell peppers, zucchini and strawberries.

I learned a lot during those years. Rabbits love strawberries. Clay is very difficult to rototill. A single zucchini can quadruple in size overnight while its plant grows to invade the next block. That porous black fabric really does prevent weeds. Cucumbers have nasty barbs on them that will draw blood. Cilantro and bell peppers will NOT grow for me, no matter how much loving care I provide. Making sauce with real homegrown tomatoes is a labor of love, with a strong emphasis on labor. Pesto will freeze very well provided all you use is basil, garlic and olive oil, adding the pinenuts and cheese right before serving.

With my father’s help watering, weeding and rototilling, I had quite the little victory garden. When my mother asked why I didn’t grow flowers, I told her that if I am going to do all of this work in the dirt, I wanted to be able to eat the rewards. While flowers are pretty, they’re not as tasty as a homegrown tomato topped with fresh pesto sauce.

In autumn, 1994, I bought a condo. Two of the selling points were the extra-large kitchen and large west-facing balcony. The following spring, I decided to do some container gardening on my 25 by 8 foot balcony. A few herbs and some grape and plum tomatoes were the extent of my motivation. But, due to my corporate job, I traveled too much to really tend to those pots properly. Eventually I gave up, leaving a tangle of dried out stems and leaves. The gardener in me died in 1995. The corporate job ended in 2000.

Since then, I have the time to plant and raise herbs and vegetables, but those pots sit unused in the corner of my balcony, filled with 12-year-old potting soil and the remains of the roots of my last container garden. Each Saturday morning, I stare wistfully at the tomato seedlings at the market and think, “maybe next year.”


A Quick Trip to NYC

I hadn’t been to New York since January, 2002. My husband needed to attend  a week-long CIO (Chief Information Officer) conference there in September, and he offered to fly me in for a four-day weekend to celebrate our seventh wedding anniversary.

We stayed in Midtown at Flatotel, a nice boutique property with large (for NYC)  comfortable rooms.  The location was ideal…just blocks from Central Park, Rockefeller Center, Carnegie Hall and MOMA.

New York is among my favorite food cities (along with Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco and  Las Vegas. My only complaint when visiting these cities is, “So many restaurants, so little time!” Like any chef (or foodie, for that matter), planning was key. I began my research a couple months before the trip and narrowed down my restaurant choices from hundreds to less than fifty.

The only disappointment was being unable to get reservations at Mario Batali’s Babbo on any of the nights we were there. But, we managed to have enjoyable meals and snacks over the four-day sojourn.

We covered a lot of ethnic dining territory on this trip…..Greek, Spanish, Chinese, Jamaican, Jewish and of course, Italian.

New York’s street food is legendary…cheap, high-quality, and quick. Alas, wearing Invisalign braces put the kibosh on the street food for me, with the exception of a Jamaican street cart around the corner from our hotel. Called the Jamaican Dutchy, it served rice and peas, Ting and meat patties, with akee and saltfish for breakfast. The meat patty was average, but it brought back great memories of our various trips to Jamaica.

Any trip to New York means two essential stops: Katz’s Deli and John’s Pizza. Katz’s is frozen in time, no different from my first experience there in 1982, and subsequent trips in the 1990s and 2000. The corned beef on rye with brown mustard was everything a corned beef sandwich should be…..somewhat fatty, rich with flavor, served with garlic pickles and attitude.

We walked off lunch by strolling through Little Italy, where vendors were setting up the food booths along Mulberry Street for the annual Feast of San Gennaro. Again, those damn Invisalign braces thwarted any attempt at sampling the street food. Jay, however,  found a booth selling deep-fried Twinkies.  He had always wanted to try one, and he did. It was simply a Twinkie on a stick, dipped into pancake batter and deep-fried. He enjoyed it but won’t repeat the experience. I tried not to gag.

John’s, with locations in the Village, Times Square and the Upper East Side, is my favorite NYC pizza haunt. This time  we visited the Upper East Side location after walking across the width of Central Park on a cool, sunny Saturday afternoon. We were delayed crossing Fifth Avenue for almost 45 minutes by a German-American parade. But we managed to get to John’s for a mid-afternoon proscuitto pizza and a couple beers. Crisp crust from the wood-burning brick oven and the perfect balance of cheese, sauce and proscuitto. My idea of NY pizza heaven.

Spanish was tapas and paella at Sangria 46 near Times Square. A charming restaurant with a lovely back patio decorated in bright colors. The staff was efficient and friendly. The paella was good, not great, but the mussels in the paella were outstanding.

Greek was Avra Estiatorio on East 48th Street. It was a last-minute selection for the one night we hadn’t made dinner reservations. The food was fine, but having been spoiled by all the great Greek restaurants in Chicago, I was not very impressed. We started with fried calamari served with  tzasiki, and an order of grilled sardines, followed by black sea bass and grilled lamb chops. For dessert, a respectable baklava and a bowl of sweetened Greek yogurt. Again, everything was cooked properly and delicious, but certainly not outstanding or memorable.

There was a trip down to Chinatown for dim sum. Dim Sum Go Go on East Broadway was highly rated, so we ventured downtown on the subway, only to get lost by my confusing Broadway with East Broadway. A mile-long hike later, we found the small place, waited 10 minutes for a table, walked upstairs to our tiny table and started ordering. With no cart service, everything comes piping hot from the kitchen when it’s ready. The dim sum was very good…fresh, hot, well-prepared. It didn’t rise to the level of Yank Sing, my favorite dim sum house in San Francisco, but it certainly hit the spot. Afterwards, we wandered around and stopped at a Chinese bakery for winter melon cakes.

The highlight of the trip was dinner at Convivio, a southern Italian restaurant with a kitchen run by Chef Michael White. The dining room was gorgeous and the service excellent. Our starters were cannelini beans with fatback in a tomato broth, and a caprese salad with fresh mozzarella made on premised, micr-basil and heirloom tomatoes. Both were light but loaded with flavor.

We split a bowl of mind-blowing pasta…a fusilli with carravaccio fonduta poured over the top. Rich and unctous, with the fusilli done perfectly al dente and the fonduta as smooth as silk.

My entree was a mixed grill of sweet fennel sausage (house-made), pork belly, roasted zucchini and heirloom tomatoes. I’ve learned through the years to not only appreciate, but also enjoy fatty meats, and pork belly is one of the most flavorful and texturally pleasing of the bunch. The outside was crisy and caramlized while the inside was full of flavor.

Jay enjoyed the braised shortribs in tomato ragu with broccolini. The meat was full of flavor and fall-off-the-bone tender.

Desserts were memorable. I enjoyed a Sicilian chocolate and ricotta layer cake while Jay had the mascarpone with figs, paied with a cordial called Amaro.

We were hoping for a Nathan’s hot dog at LaGuardia, but apparently they closed down the hot dog stand there. Not a great loss, as Chicago is one of the great hot dog cities of the world.

The Joy of Farmers’ Markets

My favorite morning activity in summer is shopping the local farmers’ markets. The Park Ridge market is the one I visit most often as it’s just a couple miles from my home. Most of the participating farmers are from Michigan, although there are a couple from southern Illinois.

There’s nothing like the flavor of fruits and vegetables picked just hours earlier. Right now, strawberries and asparagus are in season and taste fabulous. I am anxiously awaiting Michigan peaches, which should be out within a month or so. Blackberries, raspberries, cherries and apricots are due soon as well. And then there’s the heirloom tomatoes as the summer wears on.

Lest you think it’s all about produce….there’s also a cheese vendor, a flower farmer, a couple bakeries, a garden nursery, the mushroom guy and a salsa guy at the Park Ridge market.

My first experience with farmers’ markets began during college in Madison, Wisconsin, home of one of the largest farmers’ markets in the country. The entire Capitol Square is lined with booths featuring Wisconsin farmers and other purveyors. In Madison, there are a number of organic meat purveyors featuring beef, pork, lamb, poultry, bison, ostrich, venison, and products such as sausages, jerkies and other cured meats.

The artisan cheesemakers are there, along with bakeries, honey vendors, and produce farmers.

As luck would have it, while visiting my in-laws during Passover, the Market opened for the first time this season. Although the pickings were slim after a brutal winter, I was able to find spring garlic and ramps, also known as wild leeks. Ramps are the latest trendy ingredient during spring, and when sauteed in a bit of butter, have an oniony/garlicky flavor that is unmatched by any other combination of plants from the onion or garlic family. Ramps are particularly difficult to find in the Midwest, as the season is very short, and the few farmers who grow them sell their harvest to the top restaurants.

A Non-Fish Lover’s Take on L2O

Last Friday night, I joined a couple foodie/chef friends for dinner at L2O, Laurent Gras’ new fish-centric restaurant in the Belden-Stratford, occupying the old Ambria space.

I’ll admit, right up front, that I don’t like fin fish. Never have. I enjoy most types of shellfish, but never cared for fish with fins and gills. Maybe it was the Friday night Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks I endured during my childhood. Or, too many field trips to the Shedd Aquarium during grade school. My husband introduced me to sushi and sashimi a number of years ago to no avail. He now enjoys sushi with his buddies.

I decided that if I’m ever going to develop a taste for fish, dining at L2O might very well do the trick.

The restaurant had opened on Wednesday and was about half-full when we arrived for our 7:30 reservation. Sitting at the next table was Ina Pinckney, Chicago’s breakfast queen. Restaurateur Rich Melman was there most of the evening, observing his latest venture.

The main dining room is elegant and comfortable, with clean lines, muted colors and architectural flourishes reminiscent of Japanese restaurants. There’s no hint that Ambria ever occupied the space.

After much negotiation, all three of us decided to order the 12-course tasting menu. We each ordered one of their signature cocktails, the Mediterranean Breeze. It was a delicious, refreshing slightly sweet, slightly tart vodka-based cocktail that reminded me of adult lemonade.

I won’t go in to a course-by-course description, because there were just too many. Counting amuses, listed savory and sweet courses, bread service and the chef’s whims, I think we ended up at 16 or 17 courses…most just a bite or two.

I enjoy tasting menus because I can try a variety of items I would not necessarily order, and if I don’t like a particular dish, it doesn’t ruin my evening.

I now know that although I still don’t like fish, I can tolerate mild raw fish. But, even after course after course of this wonderfully prepared meal, I just don’t like the flavor or texture of cooked fish. Salmon, tuna, halibut, fluke…it doesn’t matter. And, I cannot tolerate caviar, no matter what type.

The highlights for me were non-fish related. The above-mentioned Mediterranean Breeze cocktail…a thin slice of foie gras…braised pork belly…praline souffle.

Molecular gastronomy isn’t exactly lost on me, but foams and fizzes and vapors just don’t excite me. Scientifically fascinating, but not soul-satisfying the way I believe food should be. The presentation of each course was inventive, but for me, the “wow” factor ended there, with the exception of the highlights I already listed.

The service was excellent…professional, friendly, knowledgeable, well-paced and not stuffy. After dinner, our server gave a us a short tour of the architectural highlights, and a glimpse into the large kitchen. As we left, she handed each of us an autographed menu presented in a wax-sealed envelope.

Would I return to L2O? No. Would I recommend it to others? Yes, on a qualified basis. This is event dining. If you truly love all things that swim, have an appreciation (or tolerance) for molecular gastronomy, and like to dine at the trendiest restaurants in town, go. Expect to pay a lot of money, but you’ll be treated like a VIP and will certainly have a unique dining experience.

Las Vegas 2008

Enoteca San Marco (Saturday Night): Owned by Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, it’s a casual place in the Venetian. Those who have been to Italy would appreciate the high quality of ingredients and the style of eating. B&B, their ristorante, was booked solid, so this was our second Batali choice.

Jay and I decided to graze….and it was a great decision. We started with our first of two bottles of “Joe’s Rosso,” a blend of reds from Friuli that Bastianish had created, which worked very well with the assortment of antipasti we enjoyed. The wine list was extensive and expensive, focused on regional Italian and Italian-style American wines. But, they also had reasonably priced wine by the glass or quartino.

First, a salumi selection….bresaola, dried salami and pancetta. Bresaola is a type of dry-cured beef, sliced very thin. Absolutely delicious. The salami was a product from Batali’s father’s salumi deli in Seattle. The best we’ve ever eaten. The pancetta was, well, Italian cured (not smoked) bacon. I use it a lot for cooking, but eaten raw, sliced paper thin, was a wonderful porky experience.

Next were the cheese selections. First, our server arrived with the condiments: brandied sweet cherries in sauce, apricot mostardo (dried apricots rehydrated in white wine and seasoned with mustard seeds and chile flakes) and black truffle honey (transcendent!!!) Jay wanted Parmesano Reggiano. It was even better than the pricey imported stuff I get here in Chicago. We also got tallegio and a soft cheese whose name escapes me, but was better than some of the best brie I’ve had. The flavor combinations were outstanding.

Then, three fried antipasti selections: golf ball-sized arancini were delicious. The proscuitto balls were the same size and truly wonderful. Some how, some way, I MUST get that recipe. Finally, a couple fresh mozzarella and anchovy sandwiches. If you love anchovies (I don’t, but hubby does), this is a grilled cheese sandwich you’ll fantasize about for months.

The table next to us had ordered a couple pizzas, and they looked so good, we just had to try the Pizza Margherita. Approximately 10″ in diameter, super thin crust, fresh-tasting tomato sauce, topped with fresh buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil leaves. Had we not had so much antipasti, we could have eaten two or three of these each.

Dessert was a roasted banana-topped scoop of banana gelato with a rich dark chocolate sauce and a couple Illy espressos.

It was an expensive dinner but with the high quality of food and service, not to mention the two bottles of wonderful wine, it was worth every penny. The restaurant was quite comfortable and the service was quite good.

Sunday night was Table 10, Emeril’s new restaurant in the Palazzo, a new hotel/casino next door to the Venetian. First, the Palazzo is gorgeous, on par with Bellagio. The restaurant was beautiful and comfortable.

Having eaten at a number of his restaurants, we were looking forward to a wonderful experience and we were not disappointed. For a restaurant open only 2 weeks, it seems ALL the kinks had been worked out. Our server was a delight (a NOLA native) who knew the menu inside-and-out.

Jay wanted champagne, so he selected one from a small producer in France. 2002 Pierre Gimmonet Gastronome. Fruity, yet dry with a wonderful fizz and finish.

I started with a simple salad of cornmeal-fried oysters (prepared perfectly, plump, juicy on the inside and nicely crunchy on the outside), arugula, shaved white cheddar cheese and a roasted tomato vinaigrette. Jay had the roasted tomato bisque, which was perfectly prepared. Both were accompanied by fresh, delicate, delicious biscuits with a sweet whipped butter.

Jay was feeling beefy, so he had the NY strip, done rare in a wonderful wine reduction. The flavor was amazing and the steak prepared perfectly.

I had the Kurabuta roasted pork loin in a Calvados reduction. It was truly the best pork I ever had. It reminded me of the pork of my childhood…..tender, juicy, flavorful. It was so rich, I simply couldn’t finish it. I had also ordered a half-bottle of Storybook Old Vine Zinfandel, which was perfect with the pork….enough acid to cut through the fat, while enhancing the pork flavor.

We split a side of lobster macaroni and cheese. Wow! One bite and I was swooning. Not too much cheese (a lovely gruyere), pasta cooked perfectly, chunks of perfectly steamed lobster meat, and just enough breadcrumbs and butter on top for a perfect gratin finish.

By dessert time, we were a bit tipsy due to the wine, and giggly due to the tremendous food. So, we split chocolate bread pudding served with vanilla bean gelato with a dark chocolate sauce. Had we not eaten so much, I would have had another.

Pricy? Yes! Worth it? Indeed. Perfect service (friendly, anticipatory, well-timed), incredible ingredients very well-prepared. Portions were large, but not overly so, like Emeril’s other restaurants. The menu is about 75% classic American with a twist, and 25% typical Emeril New Orleans cuisine. We’d go back there in a heartbeat.

Finally, Monday night was Bouchon, Thomas Keller’s French bistro in the Venetian. We thought we had saved the best for last. They had called us a few days earlier to confirm our reservation, so we thought we were all set.

It was, unfortunately, an incredible disappointment. We arrived at 6:55 for 7:15 reservations and had a drink at the bar while we waited…and waited. When we arrived, the restaurant was half-full, with plenty of two-tops available. At 7:30, Jay inquired about our reservation, after seeing 6 different couples who arrived after us, being seated at two-tops. We were finally seated at 7:55.

Our server was young, enthusiastic and inexperienced. It took 20 minutes for him to come to our table to ask for our drink order. While we sat, awaiting water, bread, our server, or some acknowledgment that we existed, we watched bus boys running into each other, dropping service items, servers arguing about whose table belongs to whom, and in general, a chaotic scene we would never expect from Thomas Keller.

We finally placed our orders…splitting a 1/2 dozen Dabob, WA oysters. Then, onion soup for each of us. Jay ordered the steak frites medium rare, and I ordered the roast chicken.

Our onion soup arrived first (!), followed by the oysters 3 minutes later. Our server stopped by and apologized for the mix-up, blaming the kitchen. We had been so hungry that we had already started the soup, so we just let it go. He told us he would slow down the entree order. Frankly, my onion soup is better.

The oysters were okay, served with three condiments….freshly grated horseradish, a pedestrian cocktail sauce, and red wine vinegar.

As we slurped the last of the oysters, our entrees appeared. Jay’s steak, ordered medium-rare, was quite rare, and tough. The steak at Table 10 the night before, was better quality and much better prepared. The frites were tasty but heavily salted…even for me.

My roasted chicken was the only highlight of the evening. Perfectly cooked, atop a celery root black truffle tartlet.

At the next table, a woman had ordered the foie gras (at $48 per order, we passed on it). It was served in a 4-ounce jar with a few slices of toast. She asked the server if she could take the rest home, and he launched into a 10-minute dissertation on how he’d be happy to package it in the 4-ounce jar, which would cost another $35, or in styrofoam. Mind you, this was a $1.99 Container Store jar (I have a number of them at home).

At this point, we decided to pass on dessert and asked for the check. Our server, who was oblivious to our apparent disappointment, then started in on how they still have a few cookbooks, signed by Keller, available for $50 each. We passed.

Fifteen minutes later, he brought the check, which I picked up (I was buying). As I was examining the check, he told Jay to look it over carefully because they kept getting screwed up. I looked up at him, told him it was fine, and handed him my credit card. Ten minutes later, he returned and gave the check and my credit card to Jay. I grabbed it and the server said, “Oops, I’m from Ohio where we always give the check to the man at the table.”

At this point, I figured that this was a brand new restaurant and they were still working out the kinks. I asked the server how long the place had been open, and he said he should know for sure, but he thinks it opened in 2004!

By the time we left, the place was packed, the bus boys were still running into each other, dropping service items, and in general, maintaining the chaos of the evening.

It was our least expensive of the three dinners (Jay drank beer and I had just 1 glass of wine), but we felt ripped off. Both front and back-of-the-house need a lot of work. The floor manager seemed to be oblivious to the chaos and all the missteps as he regularly circled the dining room. The expediter in the kitchen needed training. The wait staff seemed clueless. Jay thinks it is a tourist trap. I’m debating sending a letter to Chef Keller.

Two out of three ain’t bad……and those first two meals were so delicious and so memorable, they far overshadowed the bad experience at Bouchon.