Thursday, June 28, 2007

Chicago: Custom House

On our last day in Chicago, we wanted to back to Orange for brunch. However, the place was packed. We decided to try out Custom house, the restaurant adjoining our hotel. Glad we did!
I was a little bit apprehensive; I was expecting steep prices for average food.
Nope! It was expensive ($32 for brunch) but it was also succulent. All the dishes had subtle tastes, comforting, yet sophisticated textures. A really nice way to end a great trip to Chicago!

White Chocolate Cheesecake

Spinach Quiche

Chocolate Brioche French Toast

Grilled Primed Flat Iron

Buttermilk Doughnuts

500 S. Dearborn Street, Chicago
Phone 312.523.0200 • Fax 312.347.1385 • info@customhouse.cc

By the way, one last thing: if you fly to Chicago, take the subway from the airport to downtown. There are a lot of stops, however, no traffic, and it costs only $2 instead of $25 or so for shuttle bus. The view is nicer too...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Chicago: Everest

What can I say? There isn't much that we liked at Everest. It was not very full but we were not seated somewhere were we could enjoy the "view" (Everest is a the 40th floor of the stock exchange building). I was also expecting much more impressive views but the restaurant faces North, where the scenery is not all that interesting (not the harbour front).

Decor is somewhat dated but it could be charming in sort of a retro-kitsch way, if it was not so glaringly lit.

I won't spend much time about Everest; we were disappointed. Food was average (certainly not worth the price), staff was cold and seemed jaded. Maybe it was a bad day but I don't think so. Everest felt like a restaurant that would like to serve sophisticated foodies but is stuck serving boring business people wanting to show off. The kitchen's frustration transpires in its dishes.


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Chicago: Charlie Trotter's

Friday June 17, 2007
Grand Menu $155/person

For our second night in Chicago, we had booked a spot at Charlie Trotter's. Just a short 'El' ride away and we were there.

As for Alinea, it seemed to me that the wait staff is much less knowledgeable about food than in the other cities we have visited for an establishment of this reputation. The dishes were described quickly and any questions would result in a blank stare back.

The food itself, was very, very good. We both had the Grand Menu but here are both, to satisfy your curiosity:

Yakitori grilled Scottish langoustine with Yuzu & Tonburi.

Poached New Zealand cockles, roasted mayan scarlet peppers, serrano ham & preserve celery.

Steamed Casco bay cod with picholine olives, artichokes & stinging nettles.

Arkansas rabbit loin & leg with turnips, fingerling potatoes & mustard greens.

Swan Creek Farm lamb shoulder with garlic, aged Manchego & parsley.

Organic buttermilk with white pepper, toasted milk ice cream & nutmeg.
Olive oil ice cream with venezuelan chocolate & red wine. They actually gave us an extra two mystery desserts.

As we were wrapping up the evening, we discussed the comparative merits of Trotter's VS Alinea. We found the ambiance at Trotter's much more relaxed and the food less showy. In terms of feast for the palate, I would say that Trotter might be a little bit less of a risk taker but on that night, I was very glad for him being so. I think that Alinea drew the line for me; I love food as a dining experience, however, I do not care as much when it is an experiment. I guess that's what was bugging me most about Alinea; the feeling of somewhat being in a food lab; cold and distant, while Trotter was convivial and homey.

This all sank in as we were going out; we stopped for a second at the kitchen entrance and the 'maitre d' asked us "Would you like a tour?". That sealed it; those guys know people like us; we love everything about food; how it looks, how it smells, how it tastes and how it's made. The Trotter's staff was more than willing to show us around and even confided "You do not have to be great to be work here, but you have to be passionate." I thought this candid affirmation was very reflective of our evening; passionate food in a non-pretentious environment.

For an extra $100 per person, your party can dine in the kitchen where the chef will design a custom menu. That night, a family from Quebec were enjoying this prime spot (I overheard the unmistakable accent and gave them a 'Bonsoir" that immediately started a discussion about food). Made me wish we had known before and could have dined with them to share stories of carpaccio, fresh Torro Tuna, foie gras and other heavenly food products. We left Charlie with a smile on our faces.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Chicago: Portillo's Hot Dogs

Hot Dogs, what can I say... when in Chicago...

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Chicago: Gino's East

How can we avoid a deep dish Pizza in Chicago?

Cornmeal shell, lots of sauce... not bad. Not worth a plane ride just for it though...

Chicago: Orange

Orange was only a two minutes walk from our Hotel and, as always, May had scouted the place online (Chowhound, what to do without you!?).
We were up early the first morning and we did not have to wait too long to get a seat.
The menu changes often and the items it contains are varied and well executed. Watch it; the portions are gigantic. You may want to share a dish... or skip lunch... or both!
Good food that will get your day started with a smile.
The staff is also very friendly and there is definitely a hip neighbourly vibe floating in the air at Orange.
Not very expensive either.
(And for us Canadians right now, with the dollar at close to par, we can almost buy the place)
Check it out!

Show up early, it gets packed quickly!

3231 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60657

Chicago; Alinea

Alinea; according to Gourmet magazine, 2006's best restaurant in America. After a short elevated train trip. We walked down quaint North Halsted street. You have to know that there's a restaurant at 723 because it looks a bit like a bunker from outside, and there are no signs inviting the diners in. Inside, you are treated with a 'trompe l'oeil' corridor (seems like it is long on the picture? Well, it is short but the walls and ceiling are converging towards the end)

We are quickly shown to our table and the hostess notices our Chicago travel book and tells us she is planning a trip to Toronto. We chat a bit.

Someone brings two glasses with a lime at the bottom. We are unsure about what to think of it but we would later understand that it is part of Alinea's elaborate food "ballet".

There are no "table d'hote" menu at Alinea; it is either the Tasting ($135) or Tour ($195) menu. Provided it it 8:30pm, we certainly do not want to still be eating at 1 in the morning so, we both go with the tasting menu and wine pairing.

Here it is:

Croquette; Roasted panko bread crumbs, filled with 'creme fraiche', endives, smoked steelhead fish roe and cucumbers. An explosion of cream, saltiness of the roe and a nice finishing crunch of the cucumber. A good start. Inventive, yet tasty.

Grilled octopus; shitake mushrooms, papaya, eggplant, red wine vinegar, wasabi shoots, broth of soy milk infused with mint. You have to hold the bowl in your hand because it will roll if placed on the table. My spider sense is tingling; this bowl idea is a bit ostentatious. Food is still excellent so, we're happy.

Pureed of chanterelle mushroom, shaved, crispy prosciutto, dijon spinach, egg yoke, Madagascar curry powder and foamed carrots. Very good; delivers bold and satisfying tastes.

Shell of horse radish, apple juice and celery juice. Ok, Alinea's trying to pull an El-Bulli here. That horse radish shell just melts in your mouth and releases the apple and celery juice. Interesting concept in principle. In practice, I did not find it especially good. Not bad... just not anything special. A non-event for me.

Sturgeon tail, monk fish mousse, onion and lime.

Duck many ways. It sits on a pillow that is lavender infused (and release its scent while we eat). Crispy duck skin. Red wine broth, baby turnips, mango and yogurt. Excellent dish as far as I'm concerned.

"Short Rib"; Guiness beer sheet (tent), braised mustard seeds, peanut puree, broccoli puree, micro cilantro, peppercorns. Braised Kobé beef. It is very tender and just flaked under the fork. However, it was expected since it is Kobe beef. I am not sure what was the point of braising the beef, thereby loosing some of its taste. The layout of this dish is incredible; it looks like a painting.

Black truffle ravioli - it was heavenly

"Lamb"; Peas, yogurt, mint, morels, curry lamb

Bacon on a wire, thyme, apple and butterscotch. That was the first 'dessert'. Sorry, no can do; sweet bacon does not work for me at all.

Brie cheese semi-fredo with key-lime juice from the limes glasses that have been put on our table at the beginning of the meal (naaah, not my favorite. Just give me a cheese platter, I'll be fine)

Strawberry, wasabi Youzon

All in all, I thought that Alinea was a good experience; food was at times surprising, at times just an excuse to "show off" a culinary trick. I thought that the waiting staff was not up to par compared to similar level ones elsewhere (service at The Baccara in Gatineau or the now defunct Lucas Carton is much superior). I found the overall feeling a bit cold and distant, as if the meal was somewhat just a small part of dining at Alinea; the remainder being that you are extra cool for knowing about Alinea, you can show to your buddies that you are willing to spend $250 per person for so little food and that it's not enough for food to be good, it has to be food version of contemporary art (you attend the showing so you can say you did).

I'll contrast this with Charlie Trotter's in my next entry...

Total damage: $135 per person + wine pairing

723 North Halsted,