Thursday, August 14, 2014

Owen + Alchemy

2355 N Milwaukee
Chicago, IL

I was lucky enough to get invited to the friends and family opening of Owen + Alchemy, the new juice bar -- excuse me, juice apothecary -- in Logan Square. The space is beautiful, as you can see from the pictures in Eater (sorry, it was only after leaving that it occurred to me that this was a good excuse to revivify this blog and hopefully post more often, so I didn't think to document it more thoroughly while I was there). You'd never guess that such a bright, airy room awaits you behind the black and slightly macabre exterior. Spidery looking air plants dangle artfully in alcoves behind the wide counter. There is a giant "alchemical" symbol painted on one of the walls. A large, gorgeous solid wood table rests atop a green metallic polyhedron-type thing instead of legs. The overall look is semi-goth art deco, but with neither the sterility nor the pretentiousness that such a combination implies. It's a very nice room. I wonder if they will add more places to sit, but in the meantime, the irregular edges of the table lead to a subtle sectioning that allows for a sense of personal space in the communal area. Nonetheless, the lack of seating and to-go packaging of everything rather discourages dining in.

The out-of-the-ordinary texture of the disposable plates and forks (and the establishment's obvious commitment to being environmentally conscious) makes me think they are probably good for the planet in some way, but are they really better than reusing silverware and dishes? Definitely, there will need to be a sign to let people know what to do when faced with the landfill, compost, and recycling bins. I was pretty sure that the glass bottle went into the recycling (it would be nice if they'd wash and reuse them instead, as that would definitely be more environmentally sustainable) but had no idea about the rest. The staff surmised that everything else could be composted, except maybe the sticker on the salad container (I don't mind tearing the sticker off, but at the same time...). A quick glance into the bins made it clear that customers had all kinds of different theories on what went where -- or maybe just didn't care.

As you can see from the menu, although the focus is juices, there are also bowls (mostly granola-type things) and salads. They were out of the kelp noodles by the time I arrived, so I had the 3-kale salad and it was fantastic. The kale was torn into pieces of a manageable size, and wonderfully complimented by the radish and fennel, with the almonds adding a pleasing crunch. The avocado dressing was delicious; creamy and tangy, it tied the ingredients together beautifully without being overpowering.

Of course the real point is the juice. I wish I could've tried more than one, but when forced to pick among the incredible array of options, I decided to go out on a limb and taste something really new to me, so I got #57, which is raw almond, turmeric root, raw cashew, cardamom, ginger, and raw local honey. It was good, though I wished it had been a little bit more gingery. The almond was pretty dominant, but the flat salty flavor that can make drinking nut milks (heh heh) a chore was thankfully tempered by the turmeric and honey. I would certainly get it again.

Here's the thing though. The juices come in giant bottles. Or at least they seemed giant; the website suggests that they are 8oz, but that seems awfully small in contrast to the behemoth that I got (the more I drank, the bigger it seemed!). Hmmm. The $9-12 prices are a bit of a shock to the system, but the neighborhood can probably sustain it? In its defense, I will say that I arrived starving, and the juice and salad I had left me beyond stuffed. So you're definitely getting a meal for the price. But I do feel like I might have preferred to pay $7 for a 6oz juice, or $10 for two different 4ozers... There is no doubt that these are high quality juices, and the commitment to sourcing from socially conscious farms -- not just organic, but also committed to fair labor practices -- is certainly worth paying more for... but you have to be able to afford it. However, the website also mentions memberships and subscriptions, which seem to offer discounts. It does not mention actual cost, which makes me suspect that they're waiting to gauge interest before settling on prices.

In any case: I would be surprised if the place didn't take off. It seems like the kind of thing that Logan Square hipsters would go wild over. But the food is also good enough to make it an appealing (and healthy!) lunch option for the less sophisticated as well. And honestly, the juice is so tasty that I could even be persuaded to do the unthinkable and try one of their cleanses...

Friday, August 31, 2012

Estrella Negra

2346 W. Fullerton Ave.
Chicago, IL

My friend had walked by this place a number of times and wanted to try it, so we went there for lunch today. Wowzers. Delicious. The interior is indeed funky and bohemian and vaguely hippy-esque, but not in an eye-rolling way. The music, on this occasion at least, was all 90s, all the time, but I didn't really mind. Perhaps the best sense I can give you of the ambiance is that Portishead didn't sound out of place. The food seems to be eclectic Mexican - fresh ingredients, well seasoned, but with some quirks, like the use of muenster, parmesan, and goat cheese.

The menu is tantalizing. I was seriously struggling to make a decision, because everything sounded awesome. I finally settled on the el valiente tacos with chicken - as it describes it, three warm tacos sauteed with bacon, onion and jalapenos, topped with muenster cheese, onions, tomatoes, and cilantro and served with a side of salsa verde. They were out of this world. The chicken was moist and juicy, the tortilla was soft and warm, the salsa was bangin' and the flavor combination was pure bliss. But I have to tell you, it was somewhat eclipsed by the appetizer that arrived beforehand - the pozole (you get to pick a starter). Oh. my. god. It was slammin'. Perfect balance of rich chicken, fluffy hominy, and the tang of lime. Out of this world delicious.

My friend ordered the tamales (one of each). They were good, but not jaw-droppingly so. The masa was light and fluffy, but it still somewhat overwhelmed the fillings (which were quite good). We started things off with some chips and salsa, settling on the Roja. Our server warned us that it was quite spicy, and it definitely had some kick to it, but it wasn't painful. The fresh chips were crispy and light and quite good. My friend also got himself a coffee to go at the end of our meal. They do pour-over, and while I didn't get to try it, it smelled fantastic.

I definitely want to come back. It's a BYO, they serve brunch until 2 (we were there at 2:30 and they gave us brunch menus), and those ceviche tostadas are calling my name.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Bib Gourmand List

I moved from Chicago to Ankara, Turkey in September and completely forgot about this blog! But I'll get back to work. Perhaps someone will be interested in what's good in Ankara...

I'm thrilled to see Tony Yu get some love (though I like Lao Beijing more than Lao Szechuan). I'm happy to see Arami on there, though based on my experience, I have a hard time believing you can get a proper meal there for under $40. I still think Sticky Rice and Deleece deserve a mention, and scoff at some of their choices, but overall, the list is much more respectable this year.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


1324 N Milwaukee
Chicago, IL

I impulse-bought a groupon for a prix fixe dinner for two here, and then just as impulsively, my friend Harold and I went in to cash it. I was somewhat skeptical - the place definitely seems to see itself as a lounge/cocktail spot than a restaurant, which always makes me worry that the food will be so-so. As it turned out - the food was mostly fantastic.

The interior is definitely loungy, dimly lit, lots of couches with low tables, and even the more standard dining tables are matched with large red velvet chairs. But it's pleasant, and fairly intimate, even if some of the tables are rather close together. It'd make for a nice date spot, I think. The service was not only extremely attentive, but also very friendly.

There were two options on the prix fixe menu, so we went with one of each and split everything. First to arrive were snacks; plantain chips with a chimichurri type dipping sauce. The chips could've used some salt, but overall, it was quite tasty. It arrived with a cocktail - a guavarita. Tequila, guava nectar, lime juice and basil. Wonderful, especially on a hot summer's day.

Next came a salad; quinoa encrusted chicken on a bed of greens with tomatoes, onions, chunks of cheese and, excitingly, some slices of hearts-of-palm. I was surprised by how delicious it was - it sort of looked like your average salad, but the harmony of flavors was wonderful, in a somewhat counterintuitive way. The other first course was a skewer of meat (veal perhaps) with a potato cake and some large grains of peruvian corn. Wow. The meat was tender and flavorful, the sauce was great, and the corn was big and chewy and neato. Then came two balls of cooked, lime soaked potato with a spoon of some kind of seafood aioli concoction on top. Again, I am generally a big hesitant about fish/meat mayonnaise combos, but this was wonderful. It was accompanied by a bowl of ceviche - fabulous, though the lime was a tad sharp. Then came the mains, which were unfortunately the most disappointing aspect of the meal. A chicken stirfry with onions and peppers on a bed of spaghetti was not bad - it was perfectly cooked, with some crisp left to the vegetables, and juicy chunks of chicken - but it basically tasted like it was marinated in a classed up version of soy sauce. Now, I love soy sauce - I actually eat it by the spoonful, and spaghetti noodles with soy sauce are one of my go-to comfort foods. But it seems a bit... simple. The other entree was a sauteed tilapia. Though the fish was cooked just right, the sauce was pretty bland and uninteresting. If you dredged some rice in it and picked up all the various herbs and such that had sunk to the bottom, it improved somewhat, but in comparison to the rest of the meal, which was so astonishingly good, it seemed like a dud.

Finally, the dessert was a piece of french toast topped with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream, and I must say, it was fabulous. Moist, buttery, and just grand. We each got a cocktail to finish with; I had a Perfect Pair, Gray Goose Poire, Amaretto, and lime juice. I think flavored vodkas, especially pear, inspire mistrust in me. I expect them to taste bad, so much so that I can't even enjoy them, because the first impression is a slightly artificial flavor, which leads me to expect some kind of vicious chemical-y aftertaste. When it doesn't happen, I'm relieved, but not appreciative. In other words, this was actually a pretty good cocktail, but I kept expecting it not to be every time I raised it to my lips (why did I order it, you wonder. I have no idea.), and it sort of ruined it for me. Harold got the Spring Lu Lu, St Germain, Hendrick's, and Prosecco. It was fabulous. I was jealous of him.

Overall, I was really pleasantly surprised by Between, and would definitely recommend it. Looking over the menu, there are some promising options for entrees that would probably be more in keeping with the quality of the appetizers/small bites (the ribeye, the duck, the shrimp). It's a nice place, with well executed food and a pleasant atmosphere. Check it out.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mandarin Kitchen

2143 S Archer St, Chicago IL

I had tried hot pot a few times before I actually went to China and liked it, but it was after my visit, and celebrating both Christmas and New Year's with hot pot and friends, that I was totally hooked. But I wasn't sure where to get it in Chicago. I tried the one at Lao Sze Chuan and was very disappointed*. Hot pot is an active eating experience, requiring effort and engagement. While it's a lot of fun with a big group, I think I actually prefer it with 2-3 people, because it makes things less chaotic. Basically, you get a giant pot of broth - or two different kinds of broth, one spicy one not - and then order yourself some things to cook in it. As an accompaniment, you get some sauces - generally, one is a salty peanut sauce, one is garlic oil, but sometimes there are others. Mandarin Kitchen has a third one that I couldn't figure out, vaguely fishy in flavor, not bad. The way to do it, in my opinion, is to spoon some of the peanut and garlic into your little bowl, then dunk your cooked goods in that and eat 'em. Delicious.

Mandarin Kitchen is a hot pot restaurant. The tables have built in burners. These people know what they're doing. There's a spicy and non-spicy broth option, and half-and-half on the pot is probably the way to go, though I think I like the non-spicy broth more. It's all-you-can-eat, whatever you want for $18. A fantastic deal. There's a bit of confusion on some things - if you order chinese broccoli, for instance, they bring cauliflower, but hey. I recommend some piles of sliced meats - they cook in like 3 seconds and are delicious, a bunch of vegetables (greens such as spinach and cilantro are especially wonderful), some bamboo, and some tofu - the dried bean curd is actually the best, in my opinion - plain tofu doesn't hold up as well in the cooking process. You can also get some dumplings to cook in there, which are great. Noodles are nice, but kind of a hassle to deal with.

One of the great things about it, to me, is that unlike a lot of Chinatown places, you leave full but not in a total coma (maybe I'm the only one who always overeats at chinese restaurants...). I think the food is pretty healthy - it certainly feels that way.

There's also an a la carte menu, curiously enough. Turns out it has some lovely dumplings on it that make for a very nice side snack. Next time, I might investigate some of the other appetizers too.

Overall, this place is the bomb. Delicious, affordable, and awesome. I wish I'd spent more of the winter there, but hot weather will not deter me from eating here often.

*It was overpriced and not that good. The broth was so-so, they seemed to discourage you from freestyle ordering the things you wanted and instead pushed you towards a massive plate of whatever they felt like, which is no fun, and the sauces were not so tasty. Really, no point in ordering it there - it's not their strong point, and when so much of their other stuff is so great, why bother?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cafe Ba Ba Reeba

2024 N Halsted, Chicago

I've been vaguely curious about this place for a long time. Better Half has been highly resistant, saying that he'd been there a few years back and it was terrible. But last night, we decided we'd give it a try.

Holy crap y'all. That was terrible. It was honestly atrocious. It might actually have been one of the worst meals I've ever had in a restaurant. It was cheap, service was good, it was a pleasant, lively atmosphere, but oh man - the food was gross. Now, to be completely fair, part of this might be because we arrived at 9:30 pm, and the place closes at 10. We generally try not to do that, and we actually might not have even gone in, except for the fact that the place was packed, so it didn't seem like it'd be that big of a deal. But that might explain some of the quality issues. I dunno though. It was pretty bad.

We started with the short rib stuffed piquillo pepper. It was just that, a lukewarm, meat-stuffed pepper with some cheese on top, sitting on a piece of toast. Perfectly ok, though not all that exciting. Then came some olive oil poached tuna on avocado toast. This again, was not bad I thought, though Better Half thought it was repulsive. The tuna was definitely maligned by its poaching, it was tough and leathery and basically flavorless. But the avocado toast paired well with it, particularly with the addition of red cabbage and a sprinkling of herbs. Next to arrive was a chicken and chorizo skewer. Not so good at all. The chicken was basically like the tuna, tough, leathery, flavorless, the chorizo was so-so, and it came with a pile of roasted veggies which were likewise more pummeled into submission than prepared. Also, the whole thing was lukewarm, on the cool end of the spectrum, which was pretty nasty. We then received one of the special, a steak with green garlic butter and roasted asparagus. The asparagus was revolting, overcooked, mushy, and just awful. The steak was... odd. The green garlic butter was indeed green, but you could easily consume it without ever really knowing there was garlic or butter in it, aside from occasional hints of something like flavor. The steak was cooked just about perfectly - rich, red, and juicy - but was gross. We deliberated for awhile as to why this was. I thought maybe poor quality meat, Better Half suggested it might have something to do with the way the meat was stored. Basically, the texture was just strange. There were occasional mouthfuls of tendon and gristle, which was really unpleasant, but overall there was just something off about it. Then came what was by far the best dish we had, and which would even be acceptable in another restaurant, though admittedly not stellar - the spanish caesar salad. As Better Half pointed out, it did use iceberg lettuce instead of romaine, and I thought the dressing was rather uninspired, but it wasn't terrible, and the serrano did add a nice little spice to it. It was followed, unfortunately, by a dish so bad that we couldn't eat it. I'd been dreading the arrival of this dish since we'd gotten our first few plates, realizing that it was likely to be disastrous, and indeed, it was. The dish was octopus and potato a la plancha, usually one of my favorite tapas dishes (the one at Mercat a la Planxa is incredible). It was a massive pile of stuff - surprising, given that everything else was fairly modest. You know those "breakfast potatoes" you get at IHOP? The brown cubes? So those were the potatoes that came with this dish. They were piled with hunks of octopus was was not only rubbery, but also had an overwhelming, toxic fishy taste. We sent it back in a hurry.

We concluded with a cup of coffee (mediocre) and the bananas dessert, which was to be caramelized banana with vanilla ice cream. Ok, not to be a dick here, but when you say caramelized banana, I envision a banana that gets cooked with some sugar until it, uh, caramelizes. I do not think of a banana dipped in a low quality caramel sauce. But whatevs. Honestly, at that point, I was pleased that it wasn't worse.

Overall - wow. Do not go to this place.

Saturday, February 26, 2011


1800 N Lincoln,
Chicago, IL

Better Half and I felt like treating ourselves, so we figured we'd go out somewhere for Restaurant Week. We settled on Perennial, and then Better Half caught me completely off guard and suggested we simply order off the menu, rather than getting the prix fixe deal. In the end, he went a la carte and I went prix fixe. Of course, he turned out to be right. Because while the food was absolutely transcendental, my $33 dinner was comprised of such small portions that I wanted to cry. Next time, a la carte, for sure. It actually wouldn't have been that much more expensive, especially because there's no way I would have gotten dessert.

So, what we ate: I had the duck croquettes as an appetizer. They were blissful balls of crispy outside, fluffy, duck-y inside with a wonderfully subtle garlic aioli accompaniment. I could have eaten a basket of them, but unfortunately I only received 4. Better Half had the clam linguine, a bed of pasta with clams, lemon juice, white wine, red chili flakes and arugula. He was pleased with it. I tasted it and thought it was quite good, though the arugula made it taste a bit gray to me. Still, quite nice overall, and a very intelligently sized portion for a pasta course.

I then had the pork belly with braised red cabbage, mustard spaetzle, apple puree and apple gastrique. It was delicious. The apple puree was basically apple sauce, and the mustard spaetzle were perhaps a bit too mustardy - but I'm just not that into mustard anyhow. There was also something green on the plate, perhaps kale? Which was wonderful. The apple gastrique was a fabulous compliment to the pork belly, which was tender and moist (though perhaps just a smidgeon drier than ideal - but that I even noticed that is really only a sign of just how close to perfection it came, because it was actually fantastic) - it was just delicious.
Better Half, however, really hit the jackpot. He ordered the roasted chicken breast with fingerling potatoes, swiss chard, wild mushrooms and chicken au jus. This somewhat surprised me, because I generally figure that it's not worth ordering something so simple when there are more exciting options on offer. But oh. my. god. I had a few bites of his, and it was quite possibly the best piece of chicken I have ever had. It was moist, juicy, slightly crisp, and somehow intensely flavorful, despite being extremely simple. The mushrooms and swiss chard complimented it beautifully. It was divine. I actually mopped up every last bit of sauce with the complimentary baguettes (which I ate a lot of), to Better Half's chagrin.

My dessert, which I don't remember as clearly, was a hazelnut (I think?) cookie slab with a scoop of pistachio ice cream and a scoop of chocolate ganache. This did not seem very practical to me. Better Half explained that the point was to combine the three into one bite, and he quite enjoyed it. I think I'm picky about pistachio ice cream. I dunno. It was fine, I didn't dislike it, but really I just wanted to eat more of that chicken.

I'm a hopeless failure because I unfortunately can't remember the glass of red wine that we split, which is a great pity, because I loved it. I remember (enough to check the menu and reconstruct) that the glass of white we shared with the first courses was a Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc-Viogner, which was very nice. I wish I could remember that red. I want to say it was the Zinfandel, but I'm honestly not sure.

Anyhow: the important thing to take away from all this is that the food was phenomenal. The room is nice but somewhat casual, in that hotel restaurant kind of way. The prices are steep, but the food, oh my, the food. Definitely worth a trip.