Saturday, February 27, 2010

RW Day 7: Dinner at Blackbird

My last RW meal was dinner at Blackbird. I cannot imagine ending on a higher note.

When I found out that Blackbird was offering the RW menu for dinner (in addition to the already publicized lunch menu), I was ecstatic. Unfortunately so was everyone else. I was only able to get a weekend reservation at the bar. But I was so excited to eat at Blackbird that I didn't mind.

We arrived a few minutes early for our 8:30pm reservations. We were seated within a few minutes. The hostess gave me a special contraption to hook my purse onto the bar stool. It was awesome. This is the attention to detail that puts Blackbird a step above the rest.

The bartender was wonderful. Not only did he make delicious cocktails but he was passionate and knowledgeable about food. Below is a description of my meal.

To drink: hibiscus kiss... vodka/ hibiscus syrup/ st. germain/ lemon
Refreshing, not overly sweet. Beautifully crafted.

To start: salad of endives and baby lettuce with poached egg, basil, dijon served in a nest of crispy potato
Excellent presentation. Server thoughtfully cut the nest tableside and mixed yolk into the salad. Potato crisps added a nice texture. Well balanced fat, acidity, salt, and texture.

To satisfy: sweet potato agnolotti with saffron ricotta, crispy kale, and spicy peanuts
Heavenly. This dish wins the award for my favorite RW dish. Hands down. Saffron ricotta was light and airy with incredible flavor. The agnolotti was perfectly cooked. The crispy kale was a lovely surprise. It added texture and was generously salted, which nicely cut the sweetness of the sweet potato agnolotti. Initially I was so intrigued by the crispy kale that I completely ignored the agnolotti. The spicy peanuts were a nice touch. Absolutely wonderful dish. I was ridiculously happy.

To finish: manjari chocolate pave with tonka bean ice cream and candied cocoa nibs
Seriously dense flourless chocolate cake. The candied cocoa nibs added a nice crunch to the smooth, intense chocolate pave. The tonka bean ice cream was the perfect complement to the rich chocolate. Terrific.

Service was friendly, attentive, and knowledgeable. This was one of the best RW meals I've had.

Chef Paul Kahan, I think I love you. In the last week I have dined at Publican, Avec, and Blackbird. You never disappoint. Seriously, I could not be any happier. 

Friday, February 26, 2010

RW Day 6: Dinner at Naha

My one absolutely must-go-to restaurant during RW this year was Naha, especially after reading about Chef Carrie Nahabedian and her Mediterranean and Californian influences. When I saw Naha's RW menu, I was impressed by its seasonality and number of options listed per course.

I arrived early so I decided to have a glass of wine at the bar while waiting for the rest of the dinner party to arrive. It took a while to get the bartender's attention so I didn't bother asking for a wine list and assumed that whatever cabernet Naha serves by the glass must be spectacular. At $14 a glass, it did not disappoint. The lounge/bar area is chic yet friendly. The energy is lively but not too loud.

After we were seated, we decided to choose a wine for dinner. In an effort to clear out wine cellar inventory, Naha is offering several bottles in $30, 50 and 70 categories. The server recommended two wines from the $30 section. We felt a bit scoffed at but understood that most people coming in are probably there to take advantage of RW prices and are not going to splurge. Instead we chose a bottle of Syrah (need to call Naha to find out the name). It was a bit young but opened up quite nicely. Heavy on fruit, not very peppery, but full bodied.

We placed our food orders. I asked about the cheese offerings of the day. I responded that I love both of the cheeses, he seemed extremely pleased that we actually knew our food. Overall, he was nice and mostly attentive, albeit a bit distracted due to the packed restaurant.

Shortly after, my rich cremini mushroom soup, foraged winter mushrooms and moroccan argan oil “cappuccino” arrived and it did not disappoint. It was a chilly day, and the soup hit the spot; it was rich but not heavy. I was extremely pleased. 

I was eager for the divine sounding entree to arrive. Cannelloni of acorn and spaghetti squash with "Sylvetta" arugula, buttermilk ricotta and seckel pears and spaghetti squash, apple cider, and chervil. The cannelloni was light and airy. The argula added a peppery zing and the buttermilk ricotta added saltiness, both a nice complement to the cannelloni. The starchy spaghetti squash with apple cider held the dish together well and cut the sweetness of the cannelloni.  Everything worked harmoniously and tasted incredible. I was very happy.

Finally the cheese plate arrived. The first cheese was fromage d'affinois (cow) double cream, smooth, creamy, mild and spreads like butter. The second was pleasant ridge cheddar (cow) nutty, mild, hint of mushroom. Both are cheeses were accompanied by black cherry preserve and hazelnuts in honey.

My dining companion had the parfait of tropical winter fruits, rice “pudding” and mango sorbet. The parfait was crowned by an extremely thinly sliced dried pineapple. Unusual combination but the tangy and sweet components worked well together. Delightfully refreshing end to an exquisite dinner.

I really enjoyed my meal at Naha. It certainly lived up to my expectations that had built up over the last three years!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Avec: Post-opera Dinner

I attended the Lyric Opera last night. The 7:30pm opera ended at 10:15pm and busy schedules did not permit a pre-opera dinner. In anticipation of this, I searched for post-opera dinner options that met the following criteria: 1) kitchen is open until at least 11pm on a weekday and 2) it would be acceptable to arrive dressed to the nines (because that's how we roll).

Sepia was recommended as a post-theatre option but the kitchen is only open until 9:30pm on weekdays.

I decided on Avec, one of my favorite spots around town. The kitchen is open until midnight on weeknights. The menu is inspired and the energy is unrivaled. Yes, there is a long wait most nights but you can enjoy a bottle of wine off the great wine list while you wait. I love the communal tables and crowded feel. And the food is fantastic.

In post-opera bliss, we arrived at Avec at 11pm on a Wednesday. There were still a fair number of diners but it was not crowded or loud. We could actually have a conversation!

We were promptly seated and orders were taken. I had the crostinis topped with roasted leek puree (absolutely amazing) and, my usual favorite, the focaccia with taleggio, truffle oils, and fresh herbs. And of course great wine.

My companion was extremely pleased with the popular bacon wrapped, chorizo-stuffed Medjool dates and the Avec chowder with bacon, channa dal, fluke, and P.E.I. mussels.

As usual, the food was fantastic and exciting. The service was not rushed even though we arrived relatively late. Overall I found Avec to be a good post-opera option for a weeknight.

Any other recommendations for post-opera dining?

RW Day 5: Lunch at Cafe des Architectes

What can I say about Cafe des Architectes that hasn't already been said. The decor is chic, yet inviting. The service is pleasant, although formal. And the bread basket is excellent.

The RW lunch menu did not have a vegetarian option, but I called ahead and was told that I could order anything off the main menu for my main course at no extra charge.

We were 20 minutes late for our reservation, but the host happily accommodated us.

Before placing our orders, I informed the server that I was vegetarian and was told that I could order an entrée off the normal menu as part of the RW menu. She seemed very confused and went to check with the kitchen. She returned to inform me that she could offer the beet salad for the main. I asked if I could have one of the pasta dishes, particularly the homemade gnocchi. She again went to ask the kitchen. She returned saying the chef would make me a pasta. There was clearly a lack of communication between the hostess I spoke with and the server. It reminded of the days when I would go to a fancy restaurant without any vegetarian entrée options, and the chef would offer to make pasta primavera for $35.

We enjoyed the bread basket and butter. The first course was parsnip veloutte, a light, frothy soup with parmesan and truffle butter accompanied by homemade brioche. Divine. The parsnip flavor was pronounced but well balanced by the truffle butter.

As a main I had a nice pasta with asparagus, butternut squash, winter carrots in a spicy light tomato sauce. It was not what I requested, but satisfying nonetheless. At least it wasn't pasta primavera!

Dessert was terrific: praline crunch... rectangular bars layered with dark Valrhona chocolate mousse, hazelnut nougatine, and espresso crème anglaise. Think Nutella + Ferrero Rocher taken to new levels of awesomeness. 

parsnip veloutte and dessert were divine. I wanted to be pleased with the service but the miscommunication diminished the experience. I would not have chosen Cafe des Architectes during RW if the hostess hadn't offered me menu options for the main. I am left with mixed feelings.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

RW Day 4: Dinner at one sixtyblue

This was my first visit to one sixtyblue and I could barely contain my excitement about finally dining there. Definitely a highlight of RW.

The service was slow but good, understandable with a full house.

After being seated, our server informed us of the RW menu, normal dinner menu, and wine pairing option. I was tempted to do the 3-course wine pairings but instead decided to have a glass of the Chateau Granins Grand Poujeaux Bordeaux Medoc (2004). Full on the palate, dark fruit, peppery, and nice acidity.

I had the following:

Key lime vegan caesar salad. Good, but croutons were extremely salty alone.

Ricotta filled ravioli with chanterelles and sauteed spinach in a lemon butter sauce. Incredible. The ravioli were perfectly cooked, the lemon butter sauce complemented the different components of the dish without overwhelming. The chanterelles were well seasoned. I was very happy and wanted more.

My companions absolutely loved the pan-seared salmon.

Key lime panna cotta with graham cracker crumbles topped with a toasted coconut marshmallow (yum). The first bite was intensely tart but, after the initial shock, I found the dessert to be deliciously refreshing.

When the bill arrived, our server informed us that they will now be adding a $32 prix-fixe dinner option to their regular menu after RW ends. Trust me, you will want to go back for more.

Monday, February 22, 2010

RW Day 3: Dinner at Il Mulino

I heart Italian food. Two of my favorite restaurants in Chicago are Cafe Spiaggia and Coco Pazzo. And don't get me started about how much I love Babbo in NY. I am a regular at my neighborhood Italian joint.

A group of friends decided to have dinner at Il Mulino Sunday evening. Given my love affair with Italian cuisine, I was excited.

A light snow was falling as we arrived at the beautiful mansion. We were shortly seated near the fireplace. Almost immediately seemingly endless plates of antipasti were brought to the table: bruschetta, fried zucchini chips, prosciutto, breads, and parmesan wedges cut tableside from a wheel. Wine was poured.

I was still a bit full from my delicious brunch at the Publican, so I decided to order the arugula salad with lemon and shaved parmesan. It tasted like eating arugula out of a bag. Folks, fresh lemon, sea salt, and ground pepper can go a long way.

Next up was the porcini mushroom ravioli in a cream champagne sauce with black truffles. The dish was unnecessarily rich and heavy. It did not do justice to the truffles.

Seriously, I don't understand the desire to smoother truffles in cream. Let the truffle shine, even if it is not meant to be the centerpiece of the dish.

For dessert I ordered the New York cheesecake. It tasted more like wet cake than NY cheesecake. The meal concluded with grappa served tableside.

The verdict on Il Mulino: the setting was absolutely romantic, presentation was dramatic, service was attentive, but unfortunately the food was average.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Publican: Brunch

Considering that the walls are adorned with large portraits of pigs, I was a bit concerned about how I would fare as a vegetarian at the Publican. The verdict: I was pleasantly surprised.

We were told that the all of the tables were fully booked for brunch but we were able to grab two seats at the bar for brunch. It was fun watching the bartenders prepare the Publican Bloody Mary.

After being sufficiently caffeinated, we were ready to order. I had the omelette with mustard croutons and gruyere. The croutons added a crunch but were still chewy inside. Perfection. The mustard was a nice touch. I was happy. My companion had red wine poached eggs on grilled sourdough with an excellent béarnaise sauce. The sauce balanced the acidity of the red wine quite well.

The food was delicious and service was spot on. Even on a gray day, there was plenty of light in the wood heavy room. I will have to come back for the Publican Bloody Mary.

PS I came across this delicious recipe for Eggs with Gruyere and Dijon Mustard Croutons and am looking forward to making this again at home! 

RW Day 2: Dinner at Aria

After hearing good reviews from foodie friends about Aria during RW last year, I was looking forward to finally dining there. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

Upon seating, we were served warm naan with four spreads: spinach, cashew, yogurt, and dal (lentil). The spreads were disappointing, lacking in seasoning and flavor. Perhaps the spreads were diluted to manage the RW crowds?

We ordered a bottle of the Alvaro Palacios Les terrases priorat (2004). It had a ton of fruit, particularly blackcherry and berries, and just a hint of oak. Smooth, balanced acidity, and long finish with notes of tobacco. Lovely to drink.

After placing our orders, I confirmed with our server that all the dishes were indeed vegetarian. He answered in the affirmative.

To start I had mushroom bisque with white truffle oil. I love all things truffle so I was excited about the dish. The portion was simply too large for a starter. The soup was far too rich, thick, and gritty. What's worse is that the oil separated from the soup on top. The dish was presented with a fried wonton on the side. Erring on the side of caution, I asked the server what was in it and he replied beef. Um, did I not confirm that my courses were all vegetarian?? After the first course, I was sure dinner was going to be an Epic Fail. 

The main dish was fiery wok noodles with vegetables in a spicy, tangy sauce. The dish was tasty and the broccoli and shiitake mushrooms were well seasoned. The red chilis added a welcomed fiery kick. My dining companion had braised beef short ribs which were cooked well but overall the dish lacked flavor.

For dessert I had the maple crémeux with strawberry puree, chocolate sauce, and a malted milk crisp served in a glass. The strawberry puree tasted like Nesquik strawberry milk- it was so sugary sweet. The dessert lacked sophistication and was uninteresting.

Service was OK, not as polished as expected at such an expensive restaurant.

The star of the dinner was the wineI am looking forward to trying more wines from Alvaro Palacios, but not at Aria.

Friday, February 19, 2010

RW Day 1: Lunch at NoMI

Today marks the beginning of my favorite dining week of the year: Chicago Restaurant Week 2010.

During February 19-28, participating restaurants are offering 3 course prix-fixe lunches for $22 and dinners for $32. You can see the extensive list of participating restaurants here along with menus and make reservations for most restaurants at OpenTable.

I am SO excited to eat my way through the week!

I could not have asked for a better way to kick off RW this year: lunch at NoMI on a beautiful, sunshine-filled Friday afternoon. The exquisite dining room is even more pleasant against the backdrop of sunny blue skies.

Promptly after being seated, we ordered two glasses of the Spumante to celebrate the relatively warmer weather (it was in the 40's). We were presented with bread (white rolls and walnut raisin bread) and butter with 3 different salts and 3 different peppers. The peppers were from Indonesia, India, and China (szechwan chili pepper). The salts were black salt from Hawaii, Welsch salt, and Australian red salt.

To start I had a delightful butternut squash soup. This was no ordinary soup. It was topped with a coconut swirl, poured over a paprika paste, and garnished with chiffonades of basil and a crunchy wanton ribbon. The combination of the components changed the flavor and complexity of every spoonful, yet none of the flavors were lost. It was wonderfully intriguing. Outstanding. I was very, very happy.

Second course consisted of heavenly pan-seared saffron gnocchi with roasted cauliflower and wild mushrooms over a puree of cauliflower and drops of parsley pesto. The dish was virtually perfect: the light as a feather gnocchi melted in my mouth, the roasted cauliflower had great texture, and the delicate saffron was not overwhelmed with competing flavors. The parsley flavor might have been a bit lost, but the glory of saffron gnocchi goodness was enough to make me fall in love with this dish.

To finish I had pâte à choux: a hazelnut cream puff and a carmel cream puff with gold leaf. Rich, creamy, but light and airy. A lovely end to a delectable lunch.

The service was exceptional, as expected. The experience was flawless. What a perfect start to a week dedicated to eating!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Cyrus: 5 course Tasting Menu

During a recent trip to Sonoma, we decided to dine at Cyrus in Healdsburg, CA. I was particularly excited about the vegetarian tasting menu. Not only was the Season 6 Top Chef season finale held at Cyrus, but Chef Douglas Keane has been a guest judge on the show a number of times. Cyrus is a Michelin two star restaurant, and The French Laundry is the only SF area restaurant with three stars.

We had reservations for Thursday night, but I was not feeling well. We called the restaurant and without any hesitation they accommodated us for dinner Friday evening.

Upon being seated in the beautiful dining room, the champagne and caviar cart rolled by. When we declined, the server did not make any comments or change his expression. That's excellent service.

We opted for the 5 course tasting menu over the 8 course menu. Here is a picture of the dinner menu.

Canapes to stimulate the different taste buds, sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umani- gingered cranberries, grapefruit gelatin, gougères, some sort of tart, mushroom shiu mai. The canapes certainly warmed up my palate for the five courses ahead.

The bread basket was excellent- french baguette, sourdough, brioche, feta and kalamata olive rolls, and multigrain. The feta and olive roll was delicious. We were offered two different butters- one cow and one goat- and salts. The goat's milk butter was amazing.

The servers were almost acrobatic... performing their roles without being obtrusive or even noticed. Everything was well orchestrated. Below is a description of the 5 courses from the vegetarian tasting menu.

Amuse bouche- chick pea fritter with acidity and subtle spiciness.

Silken tofu with tasting of miso- made at the table and finished with a dusting of soy salt which is freeze-dried soy sauce. Very molecular. Kombu seaweed with cream, served cold. The miso broth highlighted salt and umami notes and was rich-feeling in my mouth.

Steamed bok choy, honshimeji and watermelon radish, matsusake broth- Acidity and umami from the honshimeji, pepperiness with slight sweetness from the watermelon radish, and pungency and savoriness from the matsusake broth. The umami flavor in the dish was pronounced, almost meaty. Each component was well reprsented without overwhelming the other ingredients' flavors. The aromatic dish lacked texture but the flavors left me in awe.

Pumpkin Tagliarini with pecorino and steamed bantam yolk- this was beautiful. The pumpkin was enchanced and balanced by the runny yolk. The pecorino added a nice saltiness to the dish. The texture was intriguing. The dish was sublime.

Palatte cleanser- a "popsicle" of citrus

Pot pie with black truffle- Ridiculously delicious. With every bite, the flavors came together and became more intense. I made such a mess trying to get through the puff pastry on top (which was much larger than expected). It was a wonderful melange of textures and flavors. I wish I could have finished the bowl.

We were tempted to order a cheese course but we could not possible eat another course so we declined. For dessert I had the chestnut souffle with passion fruit and green tea. Rich, intense, bitter, sweet, tangy. Surprisingly delicious. Consistent with the theme for the evening, the components all came together wonderfully.

To finish we were presented with delicious mignardises, a cute box containing a brownie for tomorrow, and a customized menu from the evening.

I really enjoyed Cyrus but I don't think it was one of the best meals I've ever had. I felt that the dishes lacked focus. There were so many competing, albeit intense, delicious flavors.

The progression of courses was not overwhelming and was well-timed. There was good acidity and balance and the flavors were distinct across courses. The service was very professional. The attention to detail was commendable. Cyrus was a wonderful experience from start to finish.
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