Category Archives: Chicago

Chicago Chef Morel & Ramp Romp

Chefs flock to Chicago not only for its cutting-edge culinary scene, but for the city’s diverse neighborhood cuisines. Inspiration lies in every corner of the city: carnitas from Pilsen, downtown fine dining, a gourmet hot dog from the Northside. Essentially any type of cuisine can be found in Chicago’s city limits, and culinary exploration is unlimited. The only thing that Chicago is really missing (besides its fair share of warm months) is a true green space.  Of course, Lake Michigan offers some solace from city life, but when chefs crave some inspiration from nature, they travel up the shore to Harbor Country, Michigan, roughly an hour away from the city.

The First Annual “Chicago Chefs’ Morel and Ramp Romp” recently offered some hardworking Chicago chefs the opportunity to kick back, relax, and mingle with the culinary-minded. This locavore-centric retreat was thoughtfully coordinated by Adam Seger of Hum Spirits, wine distributor Beverly Malen, Drew and Lauron Turnipseed of Two Turnips catering and consulting, Rachel Collins of Collins Caviar, and Scott and Kristen Sullivan of Greenbush Brewing Company. Participating chefs (including Spiaggia’s Executive Chef Sarah Grueneberg and Prosecco’s Executive Chef Mark Sparacino) spent the day in Baroda, Michigan foraging for morel mushrooms and picking fresh ramps, touring local wineries and eating roasted pig prepared by Rob Leavitt of Chicago’s Mado Restaurant. Winemaker Mike de Schaaf poured tastings from Hickory Creek, one of the premier wineries found along Lake Michigan’s eastern shore. The day’s events held a mood of earthy spontaneity and peacefulness, as well as revealing Harbor Country’s culinary aspirations and resources, which perhaps deserve more attention than granted previously.

Adam Seger muddling ingredients for a cocktail made with Hum Spirits.

Rachel Collins serving Michigan caviar on fresh blinis.

Chicago chefs embark on a morel and ramp hunt.

Morel mushrooms-what a find!

Picking local rapini from Michigan fields.

Chicag0 wine distributor Beverly Malen munches on just-picked rapini.

Roasted pig prepared by Adam Leavitt of Mado Restaurant.

The New Reality

Remember that scene in The Matrix, where Cypher is eating a steak in virtual reality? “…I know this steak doesn’t exist,” Cypher admits. “I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.”

Some fine dining restaurants, in my experience, can feel very false and quite Matrix-like. Servers concentrate intently on preventing any crumbs from touching your table, overworked food intimidates even adventurous diners, and techno, mellow mood music restricts the atmosphere and makes you feel like the experience of paying a lot of money at the XYZ Fine Dining Restaurant should be one of the more serious moments of your life.

L2O is one of Chicago’s stunning, elegant, yet somewhat Matrix-y restaurants. Partnered with Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants,  celebrated chef Laurent Gras presents seafood at its very best. Dining options include a four course prix- fixe menu ($110), a ten-course “luxury” tasting menu ($245), and a twelve-course seasonal tasting menu ($165). Housed in Lincoln Park’s ethereal, opulently appointed Belden-Stratford Hotel, L2O’s sleek interior (designed by Chicago-based Dirk Denison Architects) offers a dramatic, intense contrast to it’s exterior. Glass panels, stainless steel cable screens and coral installations divide the main dining room. Servers in tight, matching black suits discretely push small serving carts among the Macassar ebony tables and white leather chairs.

After opening the giant, heavy restaurant door (that closed silently and ominously behind us), Mr. F and I were warmly greeted by a stylish, slight man. “We’re just thrilled you could join us tonight,” he crowed. Odd, Matrix moments ensued: a gorgeous redheaded bus-woman insisted on walking me up a steep ramp to the restroom; smooth yet loud techno beats undulated through the space; obvious tourists tried their best to keep up table manners and appearances. Thankfully, the cool bubble burst when our server (who predictably resembled Trinity from the Matrix) brought us our first amouse-bouche. A small lobster claw, served over a dollop of citrus marmalade, was topped with a delicate crystallized mint leaf.  A perfect bite and preview of a beautiful meal to come.

We ordered the four-course prix-fixe menu, and each chose courses from a selection of raw, warm, and main courses. While waiting for our first course, I noticed the way light reflected off of tables and water glasses, creating patterns on the ceiling like we were looking up from the ocean floor. Intentional Matrix trickery? Probably, but it was a lovely effect. Our appetizers arrived in heavy, white earthenware. For Mr. F: Medai (Japanese butterfish) with ume (Chinese plum), and fried garlic. For me, just seared Hamachi (yellow tail) with Chimchuri, topped with a tangle of potato string. Each was complex in flavor but delicately presented…no overworked dishes here.

Courses continued with Foie Gras served with raspberry, white balsamic vinegar, and a hint of ginger (definitely the low point of our meal as it was extremely sweet). Kampachi (sustainable Hawaiian yellowtail) teriyaki with salsa verde and tempura vegetables was thoughtful but not completely fabulous.

All courses paired excellently with a Pinot Noir selected with the help of L2O’s sommelier. Wine service was just as impeccable as the dinner service; with the aid of a swift cart, the sommelier uncorked the bottle with ease, sampled some first himself (an interesting touch) and even stuck around to help Mr. F order an appertif at the end of our meal. Our entrees were the high point of the evening. My halibut, paired with pea, ramp, arugula dumpling, and bacon butter was basically holy. I could drink a mug of bacon butter every night before bed (maybe that would help my insomnia). Mr. F’s deconstructed green curry with tai snapper was perfect; items could be eaten separately or combined for a true curry taste.

Desserts (grand marnier souffle and raspberry sorbet) were good but not extraordinary.  L2O is the perfect choice for a special occasion, or for an excuse to unplug yourself from your own reality. Push your shoulders back, follow the redhead to the bathroom, drink your bacon butter and enjoy.

L20

No Flash Photography Permitted (hence my eerie photos)

N Lincoln Park W
Chicago, IL 60614
www.l2orestaurant.com

First Impressions

Sometimes, you just know. You meet someone on a blind date for the first time and know it just won’t work out. You walk into an apartment you’re thinking of renting and the weird energy of the place makes you turn right around and leave. You arrive for your reservations at a restaurant, sit down, look at the menu and take in the ambiance, get up and exit.

That’s right, I said it. I feel that sometimes, it’s totally acceptable to walk out of a restaurant BEFORE you’ve ordered anything, based solely on first impression. Judgment and discretion should be used, of course. I wouldn’t walk out of Alinea or Tru, but I also know that they are two of the top restaurants in Chicago.  If you embark upon a new restaurant, willing to spend your hard-earned money on typically overpriced food, why sit and suffer if you know you won’t enjoy the experience?

The other night, Aaron and I decided to try Fonda del Mar, which recently relocated from Logan Square to Lincoln Square. I’d been meaning to try this Mexican Seafood spot for a while, and was excited to cross it off my list. From the exterior, FDM didn’t look that inviting. The space is a 70’s style, squat brick building with cubed, block glass windows (the kind normally found in bathrooms!). We walked in, and I shuddered. How can a place look like an open cafeteria, and yet make me feel so claustrophobic at the same time? We sat at our table and I took in the view of the rickety tables and glum patrons sitting under fluorescent lights. I looked at my husband, and we got the hell outta there.


Light Year: Jenny Gillespie

Jenny Gillespie’s new album, Light Year, is now available for purchase through iTunes! Go on, treat yourself!





MenuPages

Thanks for the shout out, MenuPages blog! I guess I’m back, although I didn’t go anywhere. I’ve just been entering into my winter malaise period. Heh heh.

Anyhoo, for those of you not familiar with MenuPages, its a great resource to have for checking out menus before visiting a restaurant. I’m always guilty of this and usually know what I’m going to order (aside from any specials) and how much my food will cost days before I actually eat it.

chi_mapChicago Map, Menupages.

The blog does a great job of summarizing local restaurant reviews each week and providing pontification on openings and closings, food trends, and other Chicago culinary news.

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First Look: Mixteco Grill

For a few months now, I’ve been curious about the little storefront on the corner of Ashland and Montrose, just a few blocks from our house. Every weekend, droves of hungry diners wait outside Mixteco Grill, the Mexican restaurant deemed by some critics as “Chicago’s new Frontera Grill.” Mixteco has received great press, and rightly so. Chef Raul Arreola is a veteran chef of Mexican cuisine, with stints at Topolobampo, Fonda del Mar and several other Chicago restaurants.

Choices at Mixteco are a bit scaled back with only a  hand full of selections: no combo dishes or platters here. Instead,  the menu leans towards rustic, simple dishes like wood-fired shrimp, sopes, empanadas, baby chicken with guajillo and pulled-beef chile rellenos. Mixteco is BYOB for the time being, so visit the liquor store conveniently located across the street. Reservations are strongly encouraged.

mix2Diners at Mixteco, Chicago.

We started our meal with Guacamole Con Chicharron, avocado with tomato, serrano chiles, cilantro, onion and lime served with pork chicharron (deep fried pork belly). I was expecting the chicharron to be served on the side for dipping, but instead diced pieces were mixed into the guacamole. The addition didn’t do much for the appetizer; I found the guacamole to be underwhelming and a bit too mild. The accompaniments of radish, jiacama and cucumber were puzzling and didn’t add much in terms of either flavor or texture.

sopesSopes Trio, Mixteco Grill, Chicago.

We continued with three sopes (corn masa boats): two filled with chicken in a red mole sauce and one with mushrooms and a pasilla chile sauce. The otherwise neutral palletes of corn were elevated to showstopping status by a dose of the daring, smoky mole rojo, one of Chef Arreola’s signature mole sauces.

mahi

Pescado A La Verzcruzana, Mixteco Grill, Chicago.

A main course of Mahi Mahi, zucchini, fingerling potatoes and other vegetables, wrapped in parchment and then grilled, was outstanding. This is the kind of Mexican food that’s so difficult to find; un-Americanized, simple and delicate flavors with superior ingredients. The smooth poblano sauce served on the side offered quite a kick!

enchEnchiladas Rojas, Mixteco Grill, Chicago.

We also sampled Enchiladas Rojas: tender pieces of shredded chicken wrapped in fresh tortillas and bathed in chocolately, spicey mole. This dish was so basic, and at first seemed bland in comparison to the Mahi Mahi. But after a few bites, once the sweet spice settled on my tongue, I was hooked and couldn’t stop eating these suckers!

Add Mixteco to your list of places to try for either weekend brunch or dinner!

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Light Year

Music is a catalyst, music is a therapist, music is a weapon.

jen

Jenny Gillespie, Chicago 2008.

“Jenny Gillespie is a singer, songwriter, guitarist, imbroglio-seeker, nightfisher, enfant terrible, and humble loon. She embroiders words into the soil of chords, steals vivid scraps of her heart to feed a hungry melody, mimics the birdsong of messy muses, and would like for you to hear on her new forthcoming album, “‘Light Year.'”

Jenny has posted 4 free fully mastered tracks through bandcamp. The entire album will be available on iTunes and CD Baby on 1/1/09. Go to this link for the download.

I may be biased, as Jenny is my beautiful sister and best friend, and I know how hard she has worked on this project. But take a listen; Light Year grabs your core and squeezes.

 

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