Category Archives: Reviews

La cuisine de Montréal

Montreal is a foodie’s city: jam-packed full of bars and “restos,” bistros focusing on comfort food, cafes, boulangeries and patisseries. My sister joked that our weekend trip together would be a “culinary odyssey,” and we did not falter in our task of making pilgrimages to some of Montreal’s most well-known spots. Our cozy, artist-run guest house was located in the Plateau District, so upon our arrival we chose a nearby restaurant and  set out to nosh at Bagel, Etc.

Montreal bagels, like New York bagels, were brought to the city by Jewish immigrants and remain a staple today. The Montreal bagel is typically hand-made and wood-fired,  and is smaller, sweeter, and denser than its New York sibling. Bagel, Etc. was a funky and friendly place, and our lox and bagels served with fried potatoes hit the spot for brunch.

Bagel Etc., Montreal.

Lox and Bagel, Bagel Etc., Montreal.

Two of Montreal’s oldest bagel institutions are St. Viateur Bagel and Fairm0unt Bagel. Both are a bit touristy, with lines stretching out of the small storefronts and cameras flashing towards the wood-burning ovens and annoyed bagel-makers. Fairmount Bagel has been operating since 1949 and offers more bagel options than St. Viateur, which only serves the original sesame or poppy seed variety. A chocolate chip bagel from Fairmount was a nice breakfast paired with a Cafe au Lait from a neighboring cafe. Despite the kitsch factor, a trip to St. Viateur or Fairmount Bagel is worth a trip!

Fairmount Bagel, Montreal.

Chocolate Chip Bagel and Cafe au Lait, Montreal.

Of course, Montreal offers more than just bagels. There are fantastic microbreweries like Dieu de Ciel, which serves a unique variety of beer (hibiscus brew!). Do your best to masquerade as a nonchalant, hipster local while taking in the mounted ostrich heads and sipping absinthe at Bily Kun. Take a break from heavy gastropub fare by exploring restaurants in Chinatown or some of Montreal’s excellent Thai restaurants.

We had our first taste of Québécois cuisine at Au Pied de Cochon, a restaurant that’s certainly not for dieters or finicky eaters. Housed in a narrow, bright space, Au Pied is rustic (serving blood sausage, head cheese, picked tongue, and the ever-so-romantic Pig’s Head for Two) but trendy. Both our waiter and the menu had a “figure it out on your own” vibe; no explanations are provided on the menu. We avoided the cryptic “Duck in a Can” and “Happy Pork Chop” and went straight for the blissful section of the menu devoted entirely to Foie Gras. My ongoing soliloquy to goose liver gained a few verses:

Oh, fried foie gras cubes, thou art quite freaky/

Your liquid center spilled down my sister’s cheeky.

Foie gras tart, buttery and flaky/

I’ll reincarnate as a goose, maybe.

Our dinner at L’Express, on the chic Rue St. Denis, was the quintessential French bistro experience. We ate our meal at the bar and translated the handwritten menu. Spicy cornichons and grainy mustard were served with our hot french baguette, and the wine list highlighted reasonably priced, French wines. Mais oui, we ordered the marrow bone appetizer: sinfully delicious hunks of bone marrow with crunchy toasts and coarse sea salt. Two dainty women who sat next to us at the bar stared with an interesting combination of horror and lust as my sister and I navigated the hot bones to reveal their treasure of gelatinous, meaty goodness.  A gorgeous salad of greens and duck confit and a simple spaghetti with mushrooms finished our spectacular meal.

L’Express, Montreal.

Marrow Bone Appetizer, L’Express.

Salad with Duck Confit, L’Express, Montreal.

Spaghetti with Mushrooms, L’Express, Montreal.

Montreal has an easygoing, young and vibrant vibe.  Given the weak dollar, a visit to Montreal is not the bargain it used to be…but with only a two hour flight from Chicago, it’s a lot closer than Paris!

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.


Kentucky Fried Olives

The South is really not that bad. Seriously. It’s the home of bourbon,  horses, grits, and strange expressions. I planned a weekend getaway for my husband’s birthday to the Kentucky bourbon trail. While brown alcohol is not exactly my thing, I knew he’d enjoy it and I’d enjoy the escape from Chicago’s dreary and never ending winter.

Horse Country, Versailles, KY

We began our adventure in Louisville, a surprisingly beautiful and sophisticated city.  The 21c Museum Hotel doubles as a contemporary art museum, and its playful, eclectic design carries through the hotel and restaurant. Red penguins are the main motif of the space, and interactive art dots hallways and corners.

21c Museum Hotel, Louisville, KY

Housed inside the hotel, the restaurant Proof on Main has been featured in Bon Appetit, Food and Wine Magazine, and was named as one of “Best New Restaurants 2006” by Esquire.  Proof on Main was developed by Louisville philanthropists and art collectors, and  focuses on Italian cuisine laced with Southern influences. A nightly special of rabbit stew served over Parmesan polenta was not as fabulous as our server promised and raved; the entire dish tasted like bitter parsley and the shredded rabbit was simply not seasoned correctly. An appetizer of Ndjua toast with melted lardo, fleur de sel and fried oregano was sinfully fattening and wonderful. Proof’s wine list, named by Food and Wine Magazine in 2006 “as one of America’s 50 most amazing wine experiences” and most recently given the Wine Spectator 2007 and 2008 “Award of Excellence,” was both accessible and eclectic.

Proof on Main, Louisville,  KY

One of the best things about our dinner at Proof on Main was the delicious bread served both table side and incorporated into our appetizers. Once we were told the bread came from Blue Dog Bakery, we added a visit to the next day’s agenda. Louisville restaurant critic Robin Garr writes that “one of the best culinary happenings in Louisville in the last decade was the arrival of Blue Dog bread and its expert baker, Bob Hancock.”

Blue Dog Bakery, Louisville, KY

Blue Dog focuses on its bakery, but also runs a small cafe that’s open for breakfast and lunch. The cafe’s simple decor, open spaces and large windows creates an inviting yet noisy space. The breakfast menu was a bit limited but our choices were delicious. We drank our lattes and watched the Southern kids flop around the restaurant, and dreamed about simpler lives outside of the city.

Egg Sandwich, Blue Dog Bakery, Louisville, KY

Poached Eggs with Prosciutto, Blue Dog Bakery, Louisville, KY

Not So Much….

We tried Sweets and Savories for the first time a few months ago with coupons (Groupons, to be specific) for $5 burgers. As soon as I walked in, I noticed the “close seating” and knew we were in for a rough night: poor couples hoping for a private dining experience were seated in tables about 2 inches from one another. Everyone looked like they were being punished and people were practically whispering so as not to bother their neighbor. No fun!

Once we found a spot away from the crazy close seats, we waited for our waiter to open our wine (apparently the restaurant recently lost their liquor license…not a good sign). We waited-and waited. At one point I was ready to get up and leave. Menus were brought, and yet no corkscrew. Finally, our flustered, overly-dramatic waiter returned and opened the bottle without apologies. Once we told him we wanted the $5 burgers, he snatched our menus away from us before we had a chance to order salads as well.

The burgers arrived-and were just ok. The flavors were there (paired with bizarre frites cooked in beef fat), but the burgers were charred on the outside and rare in the middle. The foie gras was mediocre and kind of reminded me of the prescription canned food I feed my cat. 

5-kobe-beef-burger-at-sweets-and-savories

Kobe Beef Burger, Sweets and Savories Chicago. 

After telling the waiter that we were ready for our check, he went into a 2 minute schpiel about all of the weekly specials available at the restaurant. No thanks.The poorly decorated (no ambiance), small room made me feel like I was in the house of someone who randomly decided to open a restaurant for the night. Skip it.

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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Fishy Love

Aaah, love. Heart-thumping, gut-wrenching, the I’m-yours-you’re-mine-forever-and-all-time kind of love. Romantic love can ebb and flow; the monotony of everyday life, laundry, and bills can sometimes cool the flames. For me, planning my wedding with my Mr. Wonderful has become a fine, manic line between complete obsession and pulling myself back towards reality in fear of becoming Boring Bride: she who only communicates about THE WEDDING and forgets about the sentiment behind the event.

Some may scoff at the concept of “dating anniversaries,” but I think its important as a couple to remember and celebrate the origins of your coupledom. Since this year’s dating anniversary  with Aaron was our last to fete before our marriage, it was even more meaningful to us. Aaron surprised me with a reservation at Wellfleet, which bills itself as an “occasional restaurant.” I’d read about Wellfleet a few years ago in a Chicago Magazine article that highlighted such spots (Efrain Cuevos’ Clandestino dinner parties also come to mind). Wellfleet’s dinners are held every Friday at The Fish Guy, Chicago’s solution to fish mongering.

The Fish Guy, Chicago.

The Fish Guy, otherwise known as Bill Dugan, has been in the fish business for many years and has earned a stellar reputation in Chicago. Not only does the Fish Guy sell the freshest seafood in the city, but it also holds monthly sushi classes (led by Chef Leo Bariso), provides seafood to some of Chicago’s finest restaurants, and offers delicious take-out options like lobster rolls and fish tacos. The night that Aaron proposed, he brought home fresh oysters on the half shell and caviar from The Fish Guy. So, of course, I was extremely excited for this unique experience.

Wellfleet September 2008 Menu.

As we pulled onto Elston Avenue, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Once we walked into the doors of The Fish Guy and realized that we were actually eating in the shop itself (with the fish removed from the counters), we eased in and popped open our bottle of Veuve Clicquot. Bill was extremely friendly and interested in our celebratory occasion, and was glad to talk about his career, ecological issues that impact seafood, and most importantly, the beautiful food that we enjoyed. Each dish featured The Fish Guy’s freshest selections, and each was simply amazing. Some, like the Chilled Heirloom Soup, were light and delicate, while others, like the Arugula Salad with Cortez Shrimp and Green Goddess dressing, were complex in flavor and totally addictive.

Scallops with Pico de Gallo, Wellfleet.

Chilled Heirloom Tomato Soup with Bay Scallop and Herb Swirl, Wellfleet.

Arugula Salad with Cortez Blue Shrimp and Green Goddess Dressing, Wellfleet.

Sashimi of Faroe Island Salmon, Lemonfish, Mano de Leon Scallop, and Rooftop Shiso, Wellfleet.

Golden Trout with Parma Pomme Puree, Wellfleet.

We were simply over the moon all through dinner. Aaron remarked to Bill that the sashimi reminded him of “a melting brass doorknob.” In general, this simile would be labeled as the hallucinogenic type, but Bill seemed to get the gist. The sashimi was velvety-smooth and would convert all raw fish phobics. I actually hugged both Bill and dear Chef Leo on my way out, and with sincerity told them this was the best meal I’d had in a long while.

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