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.

Friday, January 21, 2011

La Creperie

2845 N. Clark, Chicago

My bff and I were getting haircuts from Shimi at Carissima Salon (she is AMAZING!) and somewhat randomly stopped in here for lunch, enticed by the sign suggesting hot spiced cider ("Try it spiked!") outside. We immediately ordered two such ciders (spiked please!) and were rewarded with two steaming mugs of deliciousness. I am not always the biggest fan of hot whiskey drinks, or hot alcohol drinks in general. I think the secret is getting the proportions just right - too much alcohol, and you're just drinking hot booze, ie heated alcohol, because all the other flavors seem muted. Too little, and you're drinking hot apple cider that seems to have gone bad. But these were perfect: BFF had the whiskey option, which I loved, and I, in a bid to play it safe, tried the pear alcohol (vodka? whiskey? I don't actually know), which was very tasty.

The interior is all wood, somewhat dimly lit with red accents. Very intimate and pleasant, and romantic, though not in an overdetermined kind of way. You feel strangely removed from the slightly soulless bustle of Clark Street outside. The cutlery and dishes are really lovely, which seems like a minor thing but it gives the place a bit of character.

We followed our drinks up with two bowls of soup - BFF went with the French Onion, and I got the soup of the day, a potato leek. Both were absolutely phenomenal. The French Onion was, quite simply, perfect. Gooey, crisp-at-the-edges cheese, a rich onion broth with that lil' somethin' somethin' flavor that the best onion soups have (white wine? hours of attention?) and blobs of bread. My potato leek was rich and warming and exactly what I wanted. I used some of the soft baguette that appeared on the table to mop up every last drop.

We concluded, somewhat hurriedly, with a coq au vin crepe. The coq au vin filling, again, was a masterful execution of the classic, and it worked surprisingly well as crepe filling. The crepe itself was slightly crisp and very pleasant, enough filling that it sort of squished out as you cut it, but not so much that it became overwhelming or soggy.

Overall, I was really blown away. It was a wonderful place to have lunch or perhaps dinner before a movie at Landmark. I will definitely be coming back. For that spiked cider for sure.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


325 Bowery
New York, NY

We stopped in here for breakfast on a recent trip to NYC, and honestly, expensive though it was, I loved it so much that I have to tell you about it. The interior (downstairs - we didn't go up) is a nice homely white room with massively wide wooden tables. You approach the counter, order your meal, and grab a seat. At said counter awaits an array of absolutely gorgeous pastries. We were in a bit of a hurry to catch our flight, so we both got a build-a-biscuit with meat eggs and cheese - a medium-sized, soft biscuit, with wonderfully fluffy eggs, maybe not quite enough tasty cheese, and then in my case, some phenomenal crisp and flavorful bacon, and in Better Half's case, thin shaved ham that seemed more prosciutto than country. But was very tasty. They came to $9 a pop, which is completely ridiculous, but oh man, I still remember the velvety texture of that warm, wonderful biscuit. I also got a very nice cup of coffee - Stumptown Roasters I think? And each of us got a pastry - he got a pecan sticky bun, which still tasted fantastic when it finally emerged from his bag 6 hours later, having made it safe to Chicago, and I got a slice of spicy ginger cake, which I ate with delight on the plane. It was the most ginger-y of ginger cakes I've ever had - not in an overpowering, unpleasant way, but in a way that made you realize, gosh, isn't this what ALL gingerbread should taste like?

Also, as far as extravagant meals go, yes, it's overpriced. But it's over-pricedness isn't going to set you back more than $20, so hey, in the grand scheme of things... that biscuit is totally worth it.