Sunday, March 28, 2010

Day Three

On the final day of my self-proclaimed Dining Out Week, we visited Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel.  Avenues is located at 108 East Superior and its website is

I always suspected something was wrong with Avenues, even though I had no real basis for that suspicion.  Maybe it was because Graham Elliot Bowles was the chef there (and I do have a problem with that) or maybe its because it was in a hotel.  Whatever the reason, whenever we were deciding what restaurants we want to eat at, Avenues very seldom makes an appearance in that conversation.  I even had a vision of getting in an argument with the head waiter tonight about how bad everything was.  However, it was Dining Out Week, and I have eaten at every other multi-course style restaurant in Chicago, so this was the final frontier and I had to go.

We walked in and got semi-lost walking around the Peninsula (so if you are keeping track, that's 3 for 3 on getting lost during Dining Out Week).  Eventually one of the hotel people pointed us in the right direction and we arrived a few minutes before our reservation.

From the outside of the restaurant, Avenues looked kind of interesting.  There was a long granite bar on the left that overlooked the kitchen, so you could watch the chefs in action if you had one of those seats.  Along the far wall directly in front of us was a windowed wall facing out at the Water Tower.  The room probably had about 18 tables total, so it was relatively small.

We sat down and were nearly instantly ambushed by our waitress Amy (who was very good) with the champagne cart.  She explained the three choices of champagne, and we ended up picking a Schramsburg Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine (which I've always wanted to try).  I was not particularly a fan of the champagne cart coming at me as I did feel like they were pressuring us into buying it.  I would have gotten champagne either way, but I wasn't a fan of having it forced on me (sort of like health insu...ok again, I'll just stop there).  The champagne was very good and had a strong taste of green apples.  It went very nicely with our first three courses.  Next, the sommelier, Aaron, came over and discussed the wine list with us.  I was kind of disappointed that they did not have a wine pairing to go with the meal, but he recommended a Gaja Chardonnay and a Chateau Beaucastel Chateaunauf-du-Pape in half bottle format.  This actually ended up being less than I expected to spend on wine, which is always a nice surprise.

So after getting all the wine choices settled, our first course came out.  It was, as is common in many of these restaurants, a caviar course.  This one; however, was a bit deconstructed and had all of the traditional elements, but in a one bite format served on a spoon.  It had caviar, lemon, oyster, and crumbled brioche to mimic the usual toast points.  This was one of the better caviar courses I have ever had, perhaps just behind the French Laundry's Oysters and Pearls.  The caviar was nice and salty, and the toast and oyster was just a bit sweet.  The Schramsburg wine was a nice complement with its sweet green apple taste.  A very auspicious start that almost immediately broke down my skepticism of Avenues.
After the caviar course, we moved on to the real start of the dinner - what the menu described as King Crag, cucumber, golden wild char roe, and something called kalamansi.  This was interesting because it a two-level course.  It was served in a cup.  On the bottom was a cold cucumber juice with some chilled king crab.  On the rim was a sugar tuile (like a piece of glass made from sugar) that had some piles of roe, orange, and some sort of white sauce (maybe that was the kalamansi).  The waiter, Colin, who looked like he purchased my friend Mike Warren's body on Ebay then jumped in a time machine and went forward ten years, explained that we should break the tuile with the spoon, let the sugar and flavors mix with the cucumber, and then eat it all with the spoon.  All I could think about was how much like Spring this dish tasted since it was so light and colorful.  It was like eating a salad only if salad was good.  The cucumber absolutely popped with vibrance and flavor, and the sugar enhanced the sweetness of the crab.  Finally, the roe added a bit of saltiness to the mix and the few mint leaves added an interesting element of complexity.  As much as I liked the caviar course, this was even better.  Here is a picture from the top and from the side of the cup, so you can see how it was arranged. 
The next course was the Faroe Island Salmon Belly with apple milk that Colin poured over it (they really like pouring stuff onto plates) and whipped chloropyll.  It also had what I think was snail roe on it.  When I asked about that element, they described it as earthy almost "like playing in a playground."  I guess that makes sense, so I let it go.   This course was positively delicious.  The fish was so delightfully fatty and just a touch chilled (after being lightly poached).  The apple milk was very interesting if for nothing else than it was apple milk.  The champagne with its apple-y goodness was nearly perfect for this dish.  The whipped chlorophyll had a strong fennel taste, so I wasn't a huge fan of that, but if you like fennel, then you will probably like it a bit better.
After having three solid courses, I was waiting for the meal to take a turn for the worse (otherwise I would have eaten here already, right?).  I was positive I was not going to like something soon.  The next course was described as Japanese Pumpkin, duck confit, finger limes, and miner's lettuce.  I'm pretty sure they changed this course after they printed the menu because it ended up being some sort of squash soup that they poured over the duck confit with a strip of dark chocolate.  Every single element on its own was absolutely ambrosial (word of the day!), but together they were; somehow, even better.  The duck was incredibly flavorful and the soup must have been made with some sort of meat stock that accentuated the duck perfectly.  The chocolate added a nice hint of bitter and sweetness to the mix.  This was the best course thus far, and I figured that if they hadn't let me down by now, they probably were not going to at all.  This was also where they broke out the Gaja Chardonnay.  It was big and oaky, and as the sommelier described, "a white wine that wishes it was a red."  He was right.  It amply stood up to all of the strong flavors contained in this duck dish.  I think we could have probably gotten away with a nice pinot noir here too, but I'm glad that we went the white wine route since this was such a Spring-y menu.
The next course can only be described as Alice in Wonderland on a plate.  It was beets with strawberries, black garlic, and red sorrel.  On this plate, there were 4 different types of beets: red, golden, candy stripe, and one other that I don't remember.  There were random smudges of fermented black garlic puree all over the plate and different preparations of beets strewn throughout.  On the front right, there was a golden beet ice cream atop the candy stripe beets.  There was a roasted golden beet and a roasted red beet on the plate along with some fresh strawberries, dried strawberries, some fruit jellies, and some extruded beets.  There was an unbelievable amount going on with this course.  I don't often eat beets, but I greatly enjoyed this course and all of its craziness.  I feel like if I liked beets more, this would have been even more tremendous.
The next course on the menu was the one I was most worried about since I've never had a gnocchi that I have enjoyed.  Every version I have had has been a soggy mess that felt like eating a sponge, so I have given up totally on the whole idea of gnocchi.  There were 5 seared gnocchi in a bowl with some herbs that they poured proscuitto broth over.  While the gnocchi was seared and had a decent crust on it, I thought it still tasted a bit spongy even though the proscuitto broth was excellent tasting.  This is also where we switched to red wine.

Following the first course that I really didn't care for came in unquestionably the best course of the night, the Ohmi Gyu (a waygu beef from Japan) with black truffles, pistachios, roasted potatoes, and white truffle.  The meat was cooked sous vide to a perfect medium-rare and then seared to give it a crunchy crust.  The white truffle was cooked into a creme caramel and the black truffle was shaved and placed around the plate.  The combination of the meat and the white truffle creme caramel was one of the best things that I have ever eaten (and I've eaten many many great things).  The red wine was not overly assertive, so this dish could have probably used something a bit stronger like a cabernet, but it was smooth and juicy and played nicely off of the extremely savory elements on the plate.  I could have eaten just this and gone home, and I would have been happy.  I would go back to Avenues just to eat this.  They also served us a waffle instead of bread, which was interesting.

They brought us out a palate cleanser to transition to dessert, and it was gross.  It was like eating carrot baby food (even served in a jar).  I'm just going to move on from here since it was pretty bad and everything else was so good.
With that excellent course behind us, we moved into the two dessert courses.  The first was Rasberry, thai black pepper, marscarpone, and African blue basil.  The raspberry was a puree that was frozen into a log with some frozen framboise.  Again, this dish exploded with Spring flavor, and I always like the idea of basil with berries.  I probably should have ordered a dessert wine for dessert, but at this point I had already formulated a wild plan about drinking wine at Charlie Trotter's after Avenues (luckily that didn't come about).

Finally, we ended with a dark chocolate mousse with saffron, honey, and bergamot tea.  The chocolate was extremely dense and rich.  I love chocolate and it was too rich for me to eat.  The saffron and honey added some interesting floral notes to it, and the tea seemed to be imperceptible.  Overall, I think I liked the raspberry dessert better, but this was excellent too.  We finished off, as usual with some chocolate truffles of different varieties.

Overall, Avenues was amazing.  I'm kind of disappointed with myself that I didn't go as soon as Chef Bowles went to his new and not good restaurant.  The chef even came over to talk to us at the end of the meal, and he couldn't have been nicer.  The service was awesome and we even ended up talking to Time Machine Mike Warren and Amy about Das Boot.  I'd highly recommend it to anyone who wants a great meal.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Day Two

On Day Two of Dining Out Week, we went to the wonderful, incomparable Charlie Trotter's.  Charlie Trotter's is located at 816 West Armitage and its website is

As I mentioned before, Charlie Trotter's holds a special place in my heart since it was the first place that I ever experienced a multi-course tasting menu.  I went there for my 22nd birthday, but, due to a long period of unforeseen joblessness and wanting to try other places, I haven't been back since.  However, once again, Chef Trotter blazes a new path in my life.  I am pleased and honored to write about Charlie Trotter's as my first post about a multi-course tasting menu.  As at Vie, I used my phone to take picutres as not to interrupt the other customers, so I apologize for the picture quality.  Just note that everything had extremely vibrant colors and you will be on the right path.

After getting distracted while driving to Charlie Trotter's, I got a little lost on the mean streets of Lincoln Park.  Apparently Armitage switches directions at some point, which made locating it a bit difficult.  After almost getting T-boned by a bus, we made it to the restaurant unscathed.  We walked into the beautiful townhouse on Armitage and began preparing for what was assuredly going to be an amazing meal.

I had checked the menu online earlier in the day, so I had prepared myself for that progression.  However, apparently, at some point, they had completely changed the menu.  Though I knew it was going to be good no matter what, I needed to get my bearings straight again with this new menu.  As per usual, we opted for the Grand Menu with the accompanying wine pairings.

Without messing around with too much of an intro (since this will probably be a long post), I'll just dive right in.  Our waiter/sommelier, Ryan, brought us the first course which was served in a bento box presentation.  I liked Ryan right away even though he was wearing a bow tie, so I decided to regale him with tons of crazy stories.  This ended up paying off for us in the end, which I will get to later.  In the box at the top of the picture was a fluke sashimi with an orange and onion marmalade (no, Pipes, not Swordfish Meatloaf), on the right of the picture was a Firefly Squid with Sisho, and to the left was an Effingham Oyster with watermelon granite and smoked fish roe.  Of these three elements, I thought the fluke was the best.  Raw fish with a simple fruit based sauce is always a nice way to start off these meals since it is nice and light and would probably get lost if it was served later in the meal.  My second favorite was the oyster.  It was ever so creamy and briney and the watermelon granite and roe added a sweet and smoky taste, respectively.  Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, was the firefly squid.  I think if I had been prepared for the taste, I would have liked them more (not that I didn't like them), but they did that thing where it pops when you bite into it, which was more than a little disconcerting.  All said, this was a solid first course even if I wasn't totally sold on the squid.  It was served, of course, with a champagne.  Not just any champagne though, it was a Chartogne-Taileet "Sainte-Anne" Brut.  While it says "Brut," it certainly was not as dry as most brut champagnes that I have had.  I love starting meals with champagne, even if it is not quite the quality of champagne that we had here.  This one paired particularly well with the oyster element since 1) oysters and champagne is a classic combination and 2) the sweetness of the champagne went nearly perfectly with the roe and watermelon.  I asked Ryan if there was a better way to pour champagne whereby it didn't foam up so much, he told me that the foam depended on the temperature and glass, but in essence, there was no way to stop it from foaming way up.

The next course was a grilled blue prawn with Manila clams, lemon, and salsify.  While the prawn was grilled to absolute perfection and the manila clam was good, I didn't particularly like the sauce that went with it.  Michelle, on the other hand, really liked this dish, even commenting at one point, "I really like this even though it has eyes!"  I concur.  This was served with a 2002 Riesling "Cuvee Fredrick Emile" Trimabach.  I expected, as I always do with rieslings, for it to be extremely sweet.  However, this riesling had very little sweetness to it, to the point that, if I hadn't seen the bottle, I would have sworn he poured us a chardonnay.  In any event, I'm glad it was not so cloyingly sweet because that wouldn't have gone well with the course.  As it stood, the gentle sweetness was amazing with the grilled prawn (which apparently had fallen over on the plate).  Ryan, you have done it again.  Good work!

The grilled prawn was followed up by a Diver Sea Scallop with Preserved Shallots, Fingerling Potatoes, and Parsley foam.  I have wanted to try a Charlie Trotter scallop ever since I read his chapter on scallops in the first cookbook I ever purchased.  This definitely didn't disappoint.  The scallop was huge, nearly the size of a small beef filet.  It had the best crust on a scallop that I have ever seen.  The scallop was so sweet and perfectly salty.  I love scallops to begin with and this only raised my idea of what a scallop could be.  This was served with a Godello, which is a grape from northern Spain.  I had never heard of it before even though I was in northern Spain last summer.  I also found out that Mugaritz, the restaurant I ate at in Spain, had burned down.  I think this is where I really hooked Ryan on talking to us.  I also told Ryan about Cuvee Cellars, and he seemed interested.  He even gave me his direct e-mail, so I'll have to send him some more information about it.  He also is going to teach a wine class, which I hope to attend.  Anyway, the Godello, I think, was served too cold to begin with and I didn't know what to think.  When it warmed up a bit, it ws probably my favorite white wine of the night.  It had some interesting tropical notes and was just a little bit sweet.  This was my favorite of the seafood courses.

On to the meat courses!  The course that I was most excited about at the outset was the Honey Glazed Duck with Spring Garlic, Lavender, and Thyme.  That dish was now upon us, and it ended up being undoubtedly the most complex course of the evening.  I expected it to be more of a whole piece of duck breast, but it ended up being sliced into thin strips, but that is really no big deal and probably made me not wolf it down so quickly.  Anyway, it was served in a bowl with something like a honey stock and also glazed with honey.  the garlic was whipped into a thyme cream, and the lavender was made into jellies.  It all went together so perfectly even though the ingredients are quite disparate sounding.  Again, I wish I could cook duck as good as some of these restaurants do it, but in any event, I'll thoroughly enjoy such perfectly cooked duck.  It was served with a Nemea from Greece from vines that Homer (not Simpson) wrote about, so they are pretty old.  It had an oddly strong alcohol smell too it, but either it dissapated with time or it somehow melted back into the wine because it was incredibly smooth with almost no alcohol taste to it.  If it were super-alcohol-y, it would have been terrible with the duck, but the smoothness ended up making it light enough to go with the duck.  Also, I've never had a Grecian wine before.  Ryan informed me that many Grecian wines are absolutely terrible, so you need to be pretty careful to find a good one.  This was a good one.
At some point around now, Michelle put on an acting performance for the ages.  She was rubbing her shoulders, shivering, she tried building a small fire using the candle, and she huddled around it for warmth.  The attentive staff noticed her not-so-subtle clues and brought her out a pashmina (pretty much a shawl).  I was pretty sure that Michelle was going to try to sneak off with it.

Anyway, the next course was the course that Michelle was most looking forward to, Salt-Crusted Veal Loin with Toasted Brioche, Burnt Oak, Creme Fraiche, and Veal Sweetbreads.  The veal, like the duck, was cut into thin slices.  I'm not really sure where the burnt oak was, but the creme fraiche was gelled into a cake-like thing and topped with brioche.  Again, the veal was nicely salted and savory.  Creme fraiche is generally pretty sour, but whatever they did to it (baking or gelling) took away much of the sharpness and transformed it into something almost savory.  The veal was served with a 2008 Jaffurs "Thompson Vineyard" Petite Syrah from Santa Barbara.  I was a bit concerned because syrahs are generally pretty wound up in general, and the fact that this was a 2008 made me figure that this would be even more tannic.  In 2009 went to a Pax Syrah tasting, and the 2004s were still so tannic that they were nearly undrinkable, so I figured this would be like that.  However, apparently this one did not start with such strong tannins, so it was beautifully smooth to go along with the delicate veal.  It had a bit of smokiness as many syrahs do that went nicely with the grilled meat.  This was probably my favorite wine of the night.
I thought we were moving on to the desserts now since that is what the menu instructed, but instead, Ryan brought out another meat course.  I asked him if this one was on the menu (knowing it wasn't) and Ryan told me "the Chef likes your style."  Well, that certainly is a feather in my cap.  You know what, Chef Trotter, I like your style too.  Maybe we can hang out some time....  Sorry, and back from fantasy land. 

The surprise meat course was a Cypress Wood Roasted Bison Tenderloin with Boudin Noir sauce and Huckleberries and Miatake Mushrooms.  The plate in itself was absolutely stunning with streaks of the sauce across the plate, swirled around the meat.  The meat itself was cooked on a skewer with petrified cypress wood (which burns at something like 2000 degrees).  The wood made it taste like it was cooked around a campfire, which was awesome.  The sauce was creamy and delicious, and the huckleberries added some explosions of tartness to round it out.  Had this surprise course not come out, the duck would have been my favorite, but as it stood, the bison took the top spot for the evening.  It was served with a 1999 Rioja "Reserva II" Roda made from Tempranillo.  This wine was awesome too, though I still think I enjoyed the syrah more.  Since it was 11 years old now, it was awesomely smooth and fruity.  It had a little pepper flavor that many Spanish wines have.  Overall, I loved this dish and its accompanying wine.  The picture makes it look like its a little bit of a mess, but I assure you that it made sense in person.
Ok, finally, we were on dessert...or so we thought.  Ryan came up and asked us if he could interest us in some cheese (another perk of talking to him).  I said that I would eat pretty much anything, but as a cheese hater, Michelle said she would only eat cheddar.  I thought he was going to laugh and bring her a bag of shredded Kraft cheese, but he retreated to the kitchen assuring us that he would come up with something.  Minutes later, he emerged from the kitchen with a plate and a bowl in hand.  The bowl was full of a 15 year aged Cabot Cheddar from Vermont for Michelle and on the plate was an unpasturized cow's milk cheese served with Goji berry.  Her cheddar was amazing.  Apparently when cheddar ages it loses its color and gets more sharp and forms crystals on the inside.  Hers was extremely sharp and nutty and a bit salty.  If everyone had cheddar that good, we would never think about eating shredded Kraft cheese.  Mine was similarly delightful.  The cheese was more creamy than sharp, in contrast to Michelle's.  The goji berry sauce was kind of meaty and strange, but good.  I'll definitely have to keep my eye open for these to see what I can do with it (Ryan told me Whole Foods has it sometimes).  Michelle's was served with an apple-pear brandy, but it was way too strong for her to drink.  Of course, I ended up drinking it because I don't care.  I ended up getting a lightly botrytised Chenin Blanc which was positively delicious and tasted almost riesling-like in its sweetness.

Ok, so seriously, now it's time for dessert.  For my first dessert, they brought me a Grapefruit Sorbet with Compressed Celery and Creamed Olive Oil.  This ended up being mostly a palate cleanser for the actual desserts.  I love grapefruit, so this was right up my alley.  I don't really know where the compressed celery was, but overall it was tasty for a palate cleanser.  Michelle ended up with a lemon sorbet with a black sesame sauce, which was also nice.

For the next course, I got a Warm Date Pudding with Yogurt and Pecans.  This, simply, may have been the best dessert I've ever had.  The date pudding was almost more like shredded dates than a pudding, but they were flavored with something, and it was amazing.  The yogurt added a hint of tartness to cut through the sweet, caramel-y dates.  It was simple but pretty much perfect.  Michelle on the other hand got some sort of honey cream dessert with a tuile and clementine oranges.  She said it tasted too licorice-y even though it didn't have any licorice in it.  Being so nice, I traded her since I still thought hers was pretty good and she, of course, really enjoyed mine.  These were served with a 2000 Felsina "Borardenga" Vin Santo Chianti.  I don't particularly recall this wine which leads me to believe it wasn't terribly special. 

Our final course was a dessert version utilizing Indian flavors.  I had a gingersnap ice cream with a chocolate coffee sauce and a coffee tuile.  I was a little skeptical about the flavors of India in dessert form, but the ginger, coffee, and chocolate all went together in an oddly satisfying way.  Michelle had a Milk Chocolate-Praline Semifreddo with Pistachios and Mint.  The milk chocolate was almost like a mousse and pistachios are always delicious.  Hers was definitely better even though I really enjoyed mine.  Both were served with a Bodegas Dios Bacos "Cream" Sherry Jerez.  Michelle hates sherry, so like all things she doesn't like, I ended up drinking it.  This was probably the best sherry I have had.  It was nutty as is classic of sherry, but it wasn't terribly alcohol-y like some sherries can tend to be.  It was also a bit sweeter than some of the dry sherries that I have had.  I thought it went better with the Indian dessert than the chocolate one.  Yet another perk of talking to Ryan so much was that he brought the pastry chef, Chris Gomez, out to talk to us about the desserts.  He was a pretty cool guy, even though he was kind of coy about how to make the date pudding.  Apparently we can get it at Trotters To Go, so perhaps I will pick some up and try to reverse engineer it out.

So, that was the end of our dinner, but certainly not the end of our adventure for I had requested a tour of their wine cellar.  I was simply stunned by their cellar, and I would have slept in it if they let me.  I got to touch a bottle of 1870 Lafite-Rothschild that cost $35,000.  I promised Ryan that one day I would return to buy it, he seemed pleased.  I also saw that they had Scarecrow wine, which I am semi-obsessed with and my have ordered if I had known it as there.  I'll have to look into it next time! 

Once again, Charlie Trotter, you are a trailblazer in my culinary life, so I'm glad to have you on-board as undoubtedly the longest post I've put up on here.

Day One

On the first night of Dining Out Week, we drove out to Vie in Western Springs to eat their Chef's Week Menu.  Vie is located at 4471 Lawn Avenue in Western Springs, and its website is

After a slight mishap in finding the place and a detour to two pet stores looking for a new wheel for Chipotle the chinchilla, we finally got there.  Upon walking in, I noticed the long, black granite bar to the right, which looked pretty sweet.  As we proceeded past that, there was an elevated dining section to our left that had about 3-4 tables in it.  We snaked through the restaurant to get to our table.  It was at this point I noticed that I thought something was a little bit off about the design.  Some of the tables were on wheels and looked like they should have been in some corporate board room, and others were normal restaurant tables with tablecloths.  Further, some of the tables had "spotlight" lights hanging over them.  Normally I would have paid this no mind, but no more than 4 feet away from these lights were other old-fashioned crystal lights hanging on the walls.  The whole thing seemed very odd to me.  Then again, I wasn't going to an interior decorating convention, so none of this really matters at all.

They brought us our menus, and to my delight, they had added an option for each course (except dessert) to choose from.  I looked at the menu online earlier in the day, and it only showed one option for each of the three courses, so I was a little concerned about being locked into one path of choices, which to me feels a bit like communism (and despite what your presid.... ok, I'll stop there).  Anyway, for completeness and to satiate one of my many quirks (I hate ordering the same thing as anyone else), we each ordered different dishes.  We also opted for the wine pairing to go along with it.

Before we got to our first courses; however, they brought us out a little amuse that I of course forgot to take a picture of.  It was a grilled shrimp with avocado and some sort of lemon sauce on it.  The shrimp was beautifully grilled but not overdone, and it had a lovely smoky taste to it.  The avocado rounded it out with its vegetal creaminess, and the lemon sauce cut through it all to make it a delightful single bite.

For my actual first course, I ordered the  proscuitto with caramel apple jam and spanish olive oil.  The dish came out with two thinly sliced strips of proscuitto in a pool of olive oil covered (and I do mean covered) in a mache salad.  As I pushed some of the salad to the side and began eating one of the strips, I became curious as to where the caramel apple jam was located.  I figured they must have forgotten it, but the proscuitto was very tasty and delightfully salty that I paid it no mind.  When I unveiled the second strip of proscuitto from its salad jungle, I found the jam, and lots of it.  I couldn't figure out whether they did that on purpose or not.  I finished eating the jammed up strip and then realized that I would have liked it if there wasn't such a thick slathering of jam on the proscuitto.  That leads me to believe it was a mistake to only put jam on one slice, but who knows.  They served this with a Vino Espumosa from Spain, which I very much enjoyed.  It was not as dry as many champagnes and could even be described as a little bit juicy.  The bubbles served as a nice contrast to the fattiness of the meat and olive oil.  Also, I apologize for the quality of these pictures.  I felt it would be rude and kind of weird to take big flash pictures with a real camera in a nice place like Vie, so I used my phone instead.

Michelle ordered the burrata, tomato jam, and basil pesto crostini as her first course.  It was like a glorified version of bruschetta except with much more cheese and, again, a mountain of greens on top.  For most people, the cheese would be fine, but Michelle hates most cheese for reasons that elude me (that's why we can never be European), so, needless to say, she was not thrilled with this dish.  I tried a bite of this just to see what a normal, cheese-loving person would think about it, and I too was not thrilled.  I guess it wasn't just the cheese that throws people off.  While the bread was very good, everything else was kind of mushy.  I don't really like bruschetta for this very reason, so it does not terribly surprise me that I didn't care for this dish.  They served this with a 2007 Domaine Hippolyte Reverdy which is a rose from Sancerre.  I did not like this wine when I tried it, but I also tried it out of context with the dish it was intended to be served with, so perhaps it was decent with the food.  Michelle did have it with the food, and she says it was only "mediocre."  I laughed when they refilled her glass.

For my main course, I ordered the pan-fried whitefish with braised potatoes and a meyer lemon vinaigrette.  I thought I had pulled a fast one on Michelle since she just ordered a plain old Chicken Milanese, so I was grinning like a Cheshire Cat.  This dish came out, and again, it had a dump-truck full of salad on top.  I don't understand the need to put a giant pile of salad on every dish, but since I can just push it to the side, I don't really care that much.  I'm generally not a big fan of fish skin, but the skin on this white fish was fantastically crisped and not slimy at all (like when I make it).  The fish was nice and moist and the sauce added a nice smoky lemony taste to it.  The potatoes may have been my favorite part of the dish.  They had some strange (but good) vanilla taste going on which married nicely with the lemon sauce.  I really liked this fish, and I wished that I had just a few more bites.  I guess that is the hallmark of a successful course.  They served a 2007 Hoopla Chardonnay with this.  I believe it was lightly oaked, and the creaminess of the wine really rounded off the sharpness of the lemon sauce.  Vie, you found another winner here.

With my glorious fish dish came Michelle's plain old Chicken Milanese (with polenta, garlic, and, of course, a whirlwind of salad).  They had brought out the wines before the course was served, and I did not like her 2008 Quattro Mani Montepulciano very much at all (continuing my string of disliking Italian wine).  I was watching her as she took her first bite, and her mouth absolutely dropped when she bit into it.  She started pointing at it and wildly gesticulating toward the plate.  Was it possible that her dish was better than mine?  Note that I have a scary ability to nearly always pick the best thing on the menu.  I had to find out for myself.  As I reached over the table to snag a bite sized  portion of it, her eyes narrowed, and I think she tried to stab me with her fork.  This alone confirmed to me that this was going to be really good.  I took the chicken and bit in, and it was like a garlic explosion with amazingly crisp, flavorful breading and some sort of tart sauce (possibly a vinaigrette) to round the whole thing off.  It was positively amazing.  I tried her wine again to see whether it went with the food, and, reminiscent of Sixteen, the wine, while not that good standing alone, was truly spectacular with the food.  This is probably the hardest part of pairing wines, I would imagine.  Risking my life, I even managed to steal another piece off of her plate.  She got me this time, even though my dish was really good too.

After the stunningly good main dishes we had, we ended, as per usual, with dessert.  Dessert today was warm gooey butter cake, tahitian vanilla ice cream, brittled peanuts, and chocolate sauce.  Gooey and butter and cake all in the same sentence?  I was totally sold just from the description.  The actual course did not disappoint my justifiably high expectations.  The best way to describe it would be "The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie in the World."  The cake was so gooey (I mean that in the best way possible) that it was like eating a cookie fresh out of the oven.  The butter flavor was amazing, and you all know how much I love butter.  Michelle was convinced that the vanilla ice cream was like the milk in "milk and cookies."  I get hungry just thinking about this, and it may have ruined other cookies for me forever.
Overall, I would definitely recommend Vie to anyone who wants to eat somewhere amazing, particularly in the western suburbs where there is a dearth of good an innovative places to eat.  Even though I really didn't understand the salad pile thing, I figure that is a minor blemish on an otherwise stellar dinner.  I was going to try to talk them into giving me the recipe for the Chicken Milanese, but I figured I would try my hand at it a few times before throwing in the towel and calling them.  I also may have to ask them about the warm gooey butter cake.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


I desperately wanted to go somewhere for spring break this year to get away from this awful semester. What did I want to do on my break? If you answered "go somewhere crazy to eat," you are correct, of course.

The only question left was where to go. Being a big dreamer, I decided I wanted to try to tackle the current king of the mountain, Per Se in New York. The biggest impediment (or so I thought) in my plan was the 2 month requirement for reservations. Undaunted, I called Per Se and ended up on a waiting list. Surprisingly, they called back about 3 days later with a dinner reservation for me. Sure it wasn't until 10pm, but I'm very European like that, so I took it.

I began checking flights and hotels, but for some reason everything was so absurdly expensive, even by New York standards, that the trip was beginning to look unrealistic. Yes, even more unrealistic than flying across the country to eat at a restaurant.

The flights were $350 each, the hotel would have been about $400, and then dinner would have been $800. Add in meals and other stuff, and we are rolling in at like $2500 when the only thing I care about was Per Se. To twist a Justice Antonin Scalia quote around a bit, "I love to eat, but I'm not a nut." However, if I was quoting Justice Clarence Thomas, I would be going on this trip, but I'm no Justice Clarence Thomas. As such, I sadly cancelled the reservation.

Not one to stay down in the dumps too long, I quickly formulated a new plan. I still wanted to eat out somewhere crazy, and Charlie Trotter's immediately came to mind. Trotter's holds a special place in my heart since it was the first multi-course dinner I ever had, but I haven't been back in nearly four years. I also have been hearing good things about Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel, so that was on my list as well.

I was having a very hard time deciding which to choose when I temporarily lost my mind and said to myself, "hey Brian, you were about 4 seconds away from dropping $2500 for one dinner, why don't you go to both restaurants for less than half of that on back to back days?" great idea, Brian, let's do that! What's that you say? It's Chef's Week too and you can go to Vie in Western Springs? Sure, pile it on.

That little thought process is what spawned what can only be described as Dining Out Week. I'm going to Vie tonight, Trotter's on tomorrow, and Avenues on Saturday. I look forward to writing these blog posts, and hopefully I can avoid buying some 1857 Chateau D'Yquem at Trotter's, though I often lose control of myself in situations like that.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Standing Reservation

I have to say, I really enjoy having Bri over for dinner.  It's like having a dinner party, only every night.  I realized that I always cook too much food, so I decided that from now on, I was just going to send her the menu and a time.  After that, it's up to her if she shows up.

I went to Jewel with absolutely no idea what I was going to cook.  As I was walking around, I noticed that they had "Buy 1, Get 1 Free" whole chickens.  I decided to jump all over that offer and picked up 2 chickens.  Having an idea of what I wanted to eat, I sent Bri the following text "Whole roast chicken, lemon-thyme sauce, 9:15."  Nearly instantly, she responded, "I'm there."

The recipe for roast chicken could not possibly be more simple, and thus, it's outstanding for a weeknight meal.

I began getting the chicken ready for the dinner when Bri texted to tell me she would be over in 5 minutes.  I quickly prepared for her arrival.  Also, I finally successfully trussed a chicken (Thomas Keller would be so proud).

Bri got here just as I was putting the chicken in the oven.  She, as per usual, told me several disgusting stories about being a nurse.  After avoiding puking, she mentioned we should get hammered.  I thought about it, and it was Wednesday, so I readily agreed.

We headed out to In Fine Spirits on Clark Street to pick up some wine (more on this later) while the chicken was in the oven.  When we got there; however, they were closing even though it was only 8:58.  Disheartened but not deterred, we went down the block to the liquor/wine store on Foster and Clark.  We ended up getting a Ridge Zinfandel, a Rombauer Chardonnay, and a Cider.  While at the store, Bri repeatedly insisted that the chicken would not be cooked, but I thought it would be.

We got home right as the oven went off (ostensibly perfect timing!).  I began making the sauce and slicing the chicken when I realized that Bri was right...the chicken was not fully cooked.  I popped it back in the oven for another 10 minutes to finish.

Meanwhile, Michelle opened up the bottle of Ridge Zinfandel.  To my utter shock, Bri started drinking it.  While she was a bit off-put by the room temperature of the wine, she was actually enjoying red wine for what I think was the first time ever.  So for those of you keeping track, she's flown from the grossest sweet Rieslings to some pretty decent Chardonnay to liking some Zinfandel.  By next week she is going to be telling me things like "I detect a faint wafting of asparagus in this wine."  It's like she jumped into the food/wine world in fast forward.  I love it.

Anyway, back to the food.  This was definitely the best roast chicken I've ever made.  The skin was perfectly crisped, and after the additional cooking, the meat was perfectly moist and delicious.  Michelle agreed with me that it was the best one that I have made, and Bri even went so far as to say it was her favorite chicken ever.  I also made a spinach with butter which Bri also ate (she's quite the adventurous eater now).  I thought it was pretty good, but definitely not the best spinach I've ever made.  I think the only thing I would change would be to put the chicken in a cast iron pan instead of a stainless steel one.  The problem there was that my cast iron pan was too small to fit the chicken.  Anyway, here is the recipe.

Roast Chicken with Lemon-Thyme Sauce (serves 3)
1 6 lb whole chicken
kosher salt
1 tbsp butter
1/2 tspn thyme
1/4 lemon, juiced

1.  Preheat the oven to 450
2.  Pat the chicken dry with paper towels, including in the cavity.
3.  Truss the chicken (look it up, this can be important).
4.  Liberally sprinkle the chicken with the salt and pepper.
5.  Put it in the oven for about 45 minutes (or until the meat thermometer reaches 155).
6.  Take the chicken out of the oven and baste it for about a minute with the pan drippings.  Reserve the pan drippings.
7.  Remove the chicken from the pan and put it on a cutting board.  Cover tightly with foil while you make the sauce.
8.  Put the butter, thyme, and lemon juice in the pan and stir until melted together.  If you need to, put the pan over medium-low heat.
9.  Slice the chicken and serve with the pan sauce.

Gearing Up for Baconfest

While Baconfest 2010 is not for another 2 and a half weeks, I figured that it is never too early to start preparing for such an amazing event.  I have also been wanting to make some homemade macaroni & cheese for a while, but have never gotten around to it.  To me, it was a match made in heaven, Bacon Mac & Cheese.  I was sold from the word "go."

Not having any idea how to make non-Velveeta mac & cheese, I thought back to my favorite version of it; from Smoque.  Smoque's has an amazingly sharp cheese in it that is not bitter enough to be cheddar, though it definitely has a bunch of cheddar in it, so I knew I had to have a blend of cheese.  Next, the sauce has a slight grittiness to it that seems to help it stick to the noodles.  Lastly, it is finished with some perfectly browned bread crumbs on top.  I had the things I liked about it down, now all I had to do was make it happen.

To achieve the grittiness and thickness, I knew I was going to have to make a roux (butter and flour heated in a pan).  However, it being bacon mac & cheese, I thought that I could substitute the butter with some rendered bacon fat...mmmmm bacon fat.  I did want some butter in there just to be safe, so I melted a tablespoon of it in the bacon fat.  I love it when a plan comes together.

For the cheese sauce, I decided to stir the cheddar cheese into the sauce so it got the desired orange color.  I poured the sauce over the noodles and bacon and stirred it together.  For the sharpness, I put a layer of parmesan cheese on top of the noodles.

Finally, I covered the parmesan with a thin layer of panko bread crumbs (like bread crumbs a superhero would eat) that were tossed with some melted butter.

After a few mishaps (like throwing the cheese in the butter insted of the bread crumbs, burning butter, flying into a fit of rage, etc.), I finally got this thing in the oven.  A mere 30 minutes later it was out and piping hot.  Visually, it was stunning and was everything I wanted it to be.  Taste-wise, it could use some upgrades, though I still enjoyed it.

I think the main problems were with the noodles and the sauce.  The noodles were overcooked and kind of mushy.  I think this is because I put them into the oven only after they had been fully cooked.  Next time I make a mac & cheese dish, I will cook the noodles until just before they are done (a little crunchy), instead of totally done so that they may finish cooking in the oven.  Next, I would probably use a sharper (possibly aged) cheddar in the mixture for some added sharpness.  I would also stir in about half or three-quarters of the parmesan cheese into the sauce and then top it with the remaining parmesan and some pecorino cheese.  I feel that this will bring it to where it needs to be in terms of sharpness.  Before I toss you the recipe, here is a picture

Now for the recipe:

Ingredients (easily serves 4)
1/2 box elbow macaroni, cooked
4-5 strips bacon
5 tbsp flour
1 tbsp butter
1/2 onion, diced
1 tbsp mustard
3 cups milk
1/2 tspn paprika
1/4 tspn cayenne pepper (optional if you want it spicy)
1 bay leaf
8 oz. cheddar cheese
1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1 egg, beaten
1 cup panko bread crumbs
3 tbsp butter

1.  Put the elbow macaroni in a baking dish so that it is about 3/4 full.  Preheat oven to 350.
2.  Cook the bacon on medium low heat for about 10 minutes until it is done.  Set the bacon aside on paper towels to drain and measure off 4 tbsp of bacon fat and put it in a sauce pan.  Dice the bacon and toss with the macaroni.
3.  Heat the saucepan over medium heat and put the 1 tbsp butter in the bacon fat.  When it is all melted, add the flour and whisk until smooth (this is the roux).  Cook for about 5 minutes.  Add the onions and mustard and stir with a whisk for 3 minutes until onions render their juice.
4.  Pour milk into the flour mixture.  Add paprika, bay leaf, and cayenne (if using).  Bring to a simmer and let it cook for 10 minutes.  The sauce will start to look foamy and thick.
5.  Put the egg in a bowl and pour a little of the hot milk mixture onto the egg.  Whisk vigorously for about 30 seconds to temper the egg.  Pour the egg into the saucepan.
6.  Stir in the cheddar cheese an whisk for a few minutes until smooth and completely melted.
7.  Pour the cheese sauce over the noodles and stir so that it fills the whole dish.  It will look like there is way too much sauce, but it'll absorb and dry out n the oven.
8.  Put an even layer of parmesan cheese on the top of the noodles, but do not stir it in.
9.  Meanwhile, melt 3 tbsp of butter over medium-low heat.  When it is melted, add the panko bread crumbs and toss to coat with the butter.
10.  Spread the panko evenly on top of the parmesan cheese layer.
11.  Put the baking dish in the oven for 30 minutes.
12.  When you remove the dish, let it sit for 5-10 minutes to allow it to "set."

Bri Strikes Again!

On this week's episode of Bri's Big Diner, she came over for one of Michelle's favorite dinners, parmesan cream noodle casserole (for lack of a better name).  I posted the recipe for this dish at  I think this dish is reasonably good; however, Michelle loves this meal.  She doesn't often put in cooking requests for me, but she requests this one fairly frequently. 

I texted Bri the menu for the evening, and even though she was in the Armpit of America (St. Louis, though justifiably you may have thought I was going to say Detroit.  The problem with that thought is Detroit is a much worse part of the body that doesn't bear mentioning in a family-oriented blog such as this one.), she decided she would make it in time for dinner.

As I began looking through the ingredients, I noticed she bought asparagus and there was no broccoli.  I guess I was subbing out the broccoli for asparagus then.  The part of this meal that I didn't like the last few times I have made it was that there wasn't enough sauce.  To remedy this issue, I upped all ingredients by 50%.  I felt that this would give it enough liquid to have a decent sauce, but not enough that it would get gross and soggy.

My plan with the asparagus was to just toss it on top before I put it in the oven and let it roast for 10 minutes.  What I didn't realize was that the asparagus apparently acts as a shield for the chicken, so some of it was woefully undercooked when I took it out of the oven.  Next time I make this dish, I'll cook it for 15 minutes at 400 instead of 10 minutes.  The cooking time was a bit of a mistake on my part, but the liquid amount was perfect to coat the noodles, but not enough that they were floating in it.

I like how this dish has evolved.  I'm still more of a fan of it with broccoli than asparagus, but you should try it for yourself and be the judge.

No, I Haven't Been Lazy, Just Busy

Again, I have not updated this thing in a while.  The difference this time is that there is not that much to update.

As you may have known from some of my facebook musings, I have been neck-deep in FMLA nonsense for law school for the past two weeks.  Pursuant to that end, I have been ordering a whole bunch of terrible delivery food that does not warrant a full review.

Decent Delivery
Apart Pizza
Rosati's Pizza

Terrible Delivery
Any Thai food, no matter how good it is in the restaurant is horrible delivered.
China Dragon
Plenty Chinsese Food

That's all I can think of for now, but if I can come up with a better list later, I'll amend this one.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

My Grandma's Favorite Restaurant

In an unusual twist of events, both me and Michelle had nothing to do on a week night.  In celebration of this rare occurrence, we decided to go out to eat.  Oddly enough, both of us had a craving for mussels.  We weren't going to have just any mussels though, we were going to have the best mussels in the whole world from Chez Joel.  Chez Joel is located at 1119 West Taylor and its website is  Chez Joel is a French bistro, and it is amazing.

Of course, the whole reason we went was to get the mussels with a lemon-white wine sauce (with lots of extra bread for the sauce), so that is what we ordered for our first course.  As always, they were spectacular.  The mussels were sweet and the sauce is unbelievable.  I've made mussels before and the sauce is always much too watery.  The Chez Joel sauce is thick, very lemon-y, and finished with a nice hint of thyme.  I'm guessing they steam the mussels in white wine and lemon juice, then they remove the mussels and reduce the sauce in a separate pan, adding thyme, shallots, butter, and cream.  I should have probably just asked, but I'm pretty sure our waiter may have been a serial killer.
For my main course, I ordered the Duck L'Orange.  As you may have seen, over the last month, I've been trying to perfect my duck cooking.  This dish makes me realize just how far away I am from getting it perfect.  I will say that I think my sauce is marginally better, but Chez Joel's duck is cooked much better and the confit is amazing.  They also have perfectly crisped skin that I have been unable to replicate.  Michelle had the steak with garlic butter.  In the grand French tradition, it was cooked to a perfect medium-rare.  The bite I had of her steak exploded with garlic-y goodness.  Soaking up the melted garlic butter with the fries is one of the simplest, best things you can do.
Both stuffed full of food, we decided to share a chocolate cake for dessert.  I didn't realize that it was a lava cake (meaning that it was undercooked so the batter runs out of it like lava when it is cut open).  They used some nice semi-sweet chocolate and it was finished with a raspberry puree.  While it may not be the most creative combination in the world, it was perfectly executed and a great way to end the meal.  We made the decision to go there once a week for the mussels.  I hope we can manage to do it.

A Day of Firsts

On Tuesday night, my friend Bri came over for dinner after having been absent from our dinner parties for a couple months.  I had planned on not serving any wine because 1.) it was a Tuesday night and I'm not a total lush and 2.) Bri only drinks the sweetest possible wine and I don't like drinking sugar water.

Bri arrived when I was in the middle of cooking dinner, and she was hanging out in the kitchen with me.  To my utter surprise and elation, she asked me if I had any chardonnay.  At first I thought she was joking since I know her wine tastes, and chardonnay definitely does not fall under the category of "Wines Bri Might Drink."  Then I thought she might be taking inventory to see if I did, in fact, have some chardonnay on hand.  After realizing that she actually wanted to drink it, I rocketed into my fridge to get the Cardiff Chardonnay before she could change her mind.  Even more surprising to me was that she actually liked it.  I could tell it was going to be a good dinner.  To celebrate, I opened up a bottle of Miner Family Chardonnay, which was delicious.  She liked the Cardiff better, but I suspect that had something to do with it being less oaky.  In any event, she had finally moved into the world of actual wine!

I hadn't made my Pork with Balsamic-Cranberry sauce in a while, so I knew that was going to be our main dish.  Earlier that day, I had asked her what type of vegetable she would eat, so that I could figure out what side dish(es) we would be having.  She told me corn, potatoes, carrots, and other normal things.  I hadn't cooked carrots in a while, so I went with that.  Michelle wanted to eat asparagus, and it was on sale, so that was our second side dish.  Bri told me that she didn't like asparagus, but I figured she could just eat the pork and carrots.

In the middle of the meal, Bri gave me my second shock of the day.  She was suspiciously, or perhaps curiously, eyeballing the asparagus when she reached out and took a spear of asparagus and ate it.  I thought she was going to spit it out because asparagus is one of those things you either like or hate and she was already on record as being in the hate camp.  However, not only did she not (I know, nice double negative) spit it out; she ate the whole spear and then went back for 4-5 more spears!  I must have done something right with the asparagus if I could flip her opinion.

I made the carrots with a brown sugar-honey glaze.  I enjoyed them, and they were cooked nicely, but they could have used some improvement, specifically with the amount of sugar and honey.

We finished off with a strawberry shortcake using the rest of the shortcake shells that we had bought the day before.  Overall, I was very pleased because we ate a great dinner, and, more importantly, Bri started eating and drinking some awesome stuff.  I hope this trend continues in the future.  I was also giving her a bunch of cooking and wine tips while she was watching me.  With any luck, I'll be able to turn her into the ultimate housewife, except I know nothing about cleaning, so she's on her own there.

I have posted the recipe for the pork before (, so check that out.  Here is how I did the carrots and asparagus.

Carrots (serves 4)
1 medium bag of baby carrots
3 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp honey
kosher salt

1.  Put the carrots in a  medium sauce pan and cover with water by 1 inch.  Remove the carrots and set to the side.
2.  Bring the water to a boil over medium heat and add 4 or 5 pinches of salt.
3.  Put the carrots back in the water.  Add the sugar and honey and stir together. 
4.  Allow it to cook for 10 minutes until the carrots are just done.
5.  Strain the carrots out, put them in a bowl, and cover with foil until it's ready to serve.

Roasted Asparagus (serves 4 unless one of them is Michelle, then it serves 3)
1 lb asparagus, hard wooden ends cut off
1 tspn kosher salt
2 tbsp butter, cut in half
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 lemon

1.  Preheat oven to 450.
2.  In a medium baking dish, spread the asparagus out so that it is in as thin of a layer as possible.
3.  Sprinkle salt all over the asparagus and put the butter pieces in the center.  Grind some pepper onto it.
4.  Put the pan in the oven for about 10 minutes until the butter melts and the asparagus looks a little wrinkled at the end.
5.  Remove the pan from the oven, squeeze the lemon over the asparagus and stir.  Transfer the asparagus to a plate and sprinkle the cheese evenly over it.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ohhh My God!!!! Baconfest!!!!!!

I just got tickets to Baconfest, the heart-cloggingest day of the year!  12 (or 24) chefs, all rocking your face off with a variety of bacon dishes on April 10th at the Stan Mansion.

Get your tickets today at!!

Trying to Make the Perfect Duck

I was extremely disheartened by how the duck dish I made for Valentines Day turned out, so I wanted to remake it so it was perfect.  I liked the sauce, so I felt that I could keep it the same and just shorten the cooking time.  While it turned out better than on Valentines Day, I feel it could still use some improvement.  For whatever reason, the sauce was thinner this time around, so next time I'd probably use less liquid in the sauce.

Instead of letting the duck rest in the pan when it was cooked, I took it out and covered it with foil.  While I got it to a medium-well instead of well done, I would still like it less cooked.  Apparently duck is way more difficult too cook correctly than most meats.  Next time, I may try cooking it sous vide just so I can't screw it up.  However, if I do cook it by pan roasting again, I will probably only put it in the oven for 15 minutes instead of 20 and only let it rest under foil for 5 minutes instead of 10.

A Wine Tasting and a Disappointing Dinner

On Thursday night, we had a crazy evening lined up.  We had to go out to the suburbs to Cuvee Cellars (545 Spring Road, Elmhurst, IL and its website is for the Halleck wine tasting, then we had to come back to the city to go to our final Restaurant Week reservation at Il Mulino.  John, the owner of Cuvee, had been talking up the Halleck tasting for weeks, so my expectations were very high for the tasting.  Unfortunately for me, I was just getting over a cold, so my tasting capabilities were not nearly as high as they usually are.  Nonetheless, the tasting was awesome, and I can't wait to try it again when my faculties are all together. 

The best wine that they served was the Hillside Pinot Noir.  It was soft, smooth, and juicy, perhaps even a little buttery.  They will have this one on the menu this month, so I will definitely try this one again.  The other wine that I really enjoyed was the Sauvignon Blanc.  Upon smelling the wine, I didn't think that I would like it at all, but it ended up having some very nice citrusy flavors.  We flew through the tasting so we could make it to our dinner reservation, but in retrospect, I wish we hadn't left.

However, hindsight is 20/20, and we did leave.  Il Mulino is located at 1150 N. Dearborn and its website is  We got to Il Mulino shortly before our 9:00 reservation, but that did not seem to be a problem for them.  The restaurant is located in the old Biggs Mansion, so it has some Chicago history behind it, which was pretty cool.  The dining room is absolutely beautiful with classic elegance abounding. 

For an appetizer, I ordered the Eggplant Rollatine.  Essentially this was a thinly sliced eggplant that was rolled around some spinach and mozzerella cheese and baked.  It was then covered with a tomato sauce.  This eggplant dish was decent, but not great.  I don't usually like eggplant that much, and this didn't necessarily make me rethink my position on it.  Sadly, this may have been the best dish that I had here.

My next dish, the one I was looking forward to for weeks, was a porcini ravioli in a cream-champagne sauce with black truffles.  That pretty much sounds like the best thing possible.  To me, at least, it sounds like it would be difficult to screw up.  The sauce was pretty good, but the rest of the dish was a complete flop.  The pasta portion of the ravioli was mushy and overcooked and the porcini filling was also mush and somehow not flavorful (I'm not sure how you can sap the flavor from porcini mushrooms, but they did it).  The sauce was nicely tart and creamy, but not overly delicious.  I could not even taste or see any black truffle in the sauce, so perhaps they just forgot it.  I was sorely disappointed over this dish.  However, it was still better than Michelle's dish, which was surprisingly terrible.  She got braised chicken with a red wine sauce and potatoes.  The sauce completely overpowered everything, but the kicker was that the sauce was really bitter and not good.  If it was overpowered by a good tasting sauce, I probably wouldn't have been too upset over it, but that simply wasn't the case.

Finally, I finished off with an amaretto cheesescake (another thing that seems hard to screw up).  It was soaked with amaretto and completely mushy.  It really was quite terrible.

The end of the story is that I am extremely glad that I was only paying Restaurant Week prices as opposed to the usual price.  Il Mulino, I will not be returning to you.

An Overstated Aversion to Casserole?

I'll go ahead and make a confession.  I hate casseroles.  I don't like the look, I don't like the mushy texture, and I generally don't like throwing all sorts of stuff in a dish and cooking it together.  So imagine my surprise when I found myself looking for a casserole dish on Wednesday night.

A few months ago, I made a pasta with cream sauce and parmesan that Michelle apparently loved even though I wasn't the hugest fan of it.  She asked me to make it again and I reluctantly agreed, but I felt that I needed to upscale it a bit if I was going to enjoy it.  Somehow my need to upscale a pasta dish led me to making a casserole, and I'm still not sure how.  I do have to admit; however, that it turned out pretty well and may have slightly altered my thoughts on casseroles.

I substituted rigatoni for linguine because I wanted it to catch the sauce better.  I think that the next time I make it (and there will be a next time) that I would make more sauce to coat the pasta better.

Ingredients (serves 4)
1 lb of rigatoni, cooked
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
2 tbsp black truffle oil
kosher salt
2 boneless skinnless chicken breasts
1.5 cups of broccoli florets
canola oil

1.  To make the sauce, melt the butter in a sauce pan over medium heat. 
2.  Add the garlic and a pinch of salt to the butter and cook until it just begins to brown (about 5 mins).
3.  Meanwhile, film the bottom of a saute pan with canola oil and heat over medium heat for a few minutes. 
4.  Lightly salt and pepper the chicken and add it to the saute pan for 4 minutes per side, just to brown it.
5.  Once the garlic is browned, add the cream and bring it to a boil, then reduce to low.
6.  Add the cheese and stir until fully incorporated and the sauce is smooth.
7.  Add the white wine vinegar and stir to incorporate.
8.  Preheat oven to 400.
9.  Remove sauce from heat and stir in black truffle oil
10.  Slice the chicken crosswise into thin strips (it won't be cooked at this point, but it will finish in the oven).
11.  Put the pasta in a large baking dish.  Top that with rows of sliced chicken, then spread the broccoli florets over the top.
12.  Pour the sauce evenly over the top of it, and bake for 10 minutes until the chicken is just done and the sauce is bubbling.
13.  When you take it out of the oven, drizzle a thin stream of black truffle oil over the top to finish.  Serve with some grated parmesan cheese.

Cherry Poppin' Pork

As you may have seen, I frequently roast pork tenderloin and serve it with a cranberry-balsamic sauce.  Pork tenderloin was on sale at Jewel, so I had some of that on hand.  However, I was bored making the same exact preparation, so I decided that I wanted to do something new, but still along the same lines.  For some reason, I had cherries on the mind, so I thought it would be interesting to make a cherry sauce for the pork.

I headed off to Jewel to pick up the necessary ingredients (even though I didn't have a recipe that I was following).  I searched across the produce section repeatedly, but to my dismay, I could not find the cherries.  I asked one of the fruit stockers where the cherries were, and, after a bit of a struggle with the language barrier, found out that cherries were not in season, but they did have frozen cherries.  Generally I won't buy frozen fruit, but I really wanted to give this a whirl, so I bit the bullet and picked up a package of frozen dark cherries.

I got home and I was looking through my refrigerator to figure out exactly how I was going to make this sauce.  I saw that I had a little bit of oaked chardonnay remaining from the wine bar, so I decided that needed to go in.  I also have about 4 tubs of veal stock in my freezer, so I figured that I could use some of that.  After that, I figured that I would just adjust the taste as the sauce came along with various things in my kitchen.

I thought the sauce turned out relatively well, but I was hungry and didn't give it nearly long enough to reduce.  I ended up putting in about 1/4 cup of Pepsi in it while it was reducing because I didn't think it was sweet enough.  However, upon reflecting, I don't think that it was really necessary as long as you let it reduce for long enough.

1 pork tenderloin
1 bag frozen dark cherries
3/4 cup chardonnay
1 cup veal stock
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
kosher salt
1 tbsp butter
olive oil

1.  Lightly salt and pepper the pork and let it sit to the side.
2.  Put the butter in  a medium sauce pan and heat over medium heat until the butter is melted.  Once it is melted, add the cherries and stir until the cherries render their juice and are thawed.
3.  Pour the white wine, veal stock, and vinegar in the pan.  Return liquid to a boil and then reduce to medium-low.
4.  Cook for about an hour until the liquid is thick and syrupy. 
5.  While sauce is reducing, preheat oven to 450.
6.  Film the bottom of a large saute pan with olive oil and heat over medium heat for a few minutes.  Add the pork to the pan for about 2 minutes on each side to brown.
7.  Put the pan in the oven for about 15 minutes until the internal temperature reaches 150.  Cover the pork with foil and let it rest for about 10 minutes before slicing.
8.  Pour the pan drippings from the pork into the sauce and allow it re-thicken while the pork is resting.
9.  Slice the pork crosswise and serve with the sauce.

Mexican Monday

I felt sure as if I had posted the recipe for fajitas on here, but upon performing a search, I realized I have not put it up.  This is a plainly a glaring oversight on my part since I have fajitas about twice a month.  Anyway, this is an amazingly easy dish to make and it only takes about 30 minutes from start to finish.  I didn't take any pictures of this since I felt sure that it was already on here.  I'll take a picture next time.  You could also grill the chicken, but I don't have a real grill in my apartment, so I just cook it in a pan.

Ingredients (serves 2)
3 boneless skinless chicken breasts, sliced into long, thin strips
1 heaping tbsp chile powder
2 tspn cumin seeds, ground
1 tspn kosher salt
1/4 tspn cayenne pepper (or more if you want it spicier)
1 white onion, sliced into thin strips
1 green pepper, ribs removed, cut into thin strips
6-8 flour tortillas
1/2 lime
olive or canola oil

1.  Combine chile powder, cumin, cayenne pepper, and salt together in a bowl and stir to evenly distribute.
2.  Rub the chile mixture all over the chicken so it is completely covered.  Set aside.
3.  Film the bottom of a large saute pan with olive oil and heat over medium heat for a few minutes.  Add the onion, pepper, and a pinch of kosher salt to the pan.  Cook, stirring frequently, until onions begin to brown and peppers become soft (about 5-7 minutes).
4.  Remove onions and peppers from pan and reserve on the side in a bowl covered with foil.  Add chicken to the pan and cook, stirring frequently until chicken is just done (about 7 minutes).
5.  Meanwhile, heat a non-stick pan over medium high heat.  Add a flour tortilla to the pan once the pan is hot.  Cook for about 15-20 seconds and then flip it over and cook for another 15 seconds.  Put the tortilla on a plate and cover it with a towel.  Repeat this process for all tortillas.
6.  Remove the chicken from pan, put it in a bowl, squeeze lime over the chicken, and cover with foil for a few minutes.
7.  Serve it all together with salsa and cheddar cheese.