Look at this restaurant. Isn’t it beautiful? Don’t you want to stay here all day? It’s so pretty and serene and the light is coming through the windows JUST SO.
But someone is having a bad day, and it’s not me. I’m having a great day. It’s Friday! It’s lunchtime! Everything is great and everybody is happy!
It’s my server who is having a bad day. He’s not mean or anything…he’s just…absent. And I don’t mean that he’s not physically present, because he is physically present. He’s just mentally absent. He just doesn’t seem to want to be there. At all. And he doesn’t want me to be there either. He doesn’t seem to want me to eat or drink and he has no recommendations on anything. Everything is good here, he says. All the wines are nice, he says.
But everything is not good here. The eggplant empanada is bland and tasteless and doesn’t deliver on the promise of its appearance.
The salmon ceviche, on the other hand, is quite zingy and tart.
The feijoada is good but I am really jonsing for some farofa to sprinkle around everything.
The Verdict: I like the look of La Sirena Clandestina. I also like the sink in the bathroom. The food was good but I think I’m going to have to give this place another go to say for sure.
Ah, Little Goat. You are trying to kill ALL OF US, aren’t you? There is nothing healthy on your menu, is there? I ordered the Caesar salad once, which is generally not a healthy choice either, but I like how you took it to the next level and DEEP-FRIED THE ANCHOVIES. Thank you for that, thank you. Above, my fish tostadas. What a beautiful mess. How deliciously engrossing. (Really, this was really delicious.) Ah, my cholesterol, my arteries, my heart. Really, we are all going to die, thanks to Stephanie Izard.
The Verdict: Don’t go here if you have had long conversations with your doctor about your lab results.
Four very good restaurants in Chicago! All in a short time period. Amazing! Imagine me, doing a happy dance. Actually, don’t. That’s embarrassing. Now if only it was all just so much CHEAPER. Then you can imagine me dancing. Because really, Chicago, you are not as cheap as I thought you were. Listed roughly in order of deliciousness…
Carriage House, 1700 West Division: Like it so much, I’ve been here three times already. I love the Lyonnaise Salad, with its soft pillows of pork belly and salty, vinegary dressing in particular. It reminds me a lot of Yardbird in Miami Beach though, which is a bit weird. (Still haven’t written up my Miami trip. Sorry!) Either the design aesthetic is just an overall trend or Southern food is just an overall trend or something else is going on?? Anyhow, I don’t care really because it’s great to have a nice new spot in the neighborhood. Verdict: Go.
Au Cheval: 800 West Randolph. LOVE IT HERE. It reminds me of London. Not surprising after I figured out that they are part of Soho House. It was the Cowshed products in the ladies’ that gave it away. I saw the Cowshed and I actually teared up in the ladies’ room. It was all a little awkward, really. I’ve been back multiple times to have the bone marrow at the bar. Because that’s what I like to do, wander around town and eat bone marrow. The burger is pretty ace as well. Verdict: Go, but be mindful that they do not take reservations, so go early or late and do not take 12 people with you.
Trencherman: 2039 West North: I also love it here, although the food was best on my first visit. (That being said, on that first visit, it was my food — the short rib — that was great. My friend Amy’s pasta was so plain and boring, it was painful.) What I really like most about Trencherman is the bar. I like to just show up and eat at the bar. Sometimes, I massage the old white subway tile. My chicken thighs and grits just last week were very, very good. The Verdict: Great addition to the neighborhood. Go.
Grassfed, 1721 North Damen: My mother always told me never to buy white furniture. Grassfed has apparently never met my mother. For $25 for steak, frites, salad, and a huge chunk of garlic bread, this is a very good value. And a tasty one at that. I’d go again. The Verdict: If you, like me, like focused menus, go. If light hurts your eyes, stay away. So for example, I would never willingly choose Grassfed for a first, second, or third date. You don’t get to see my crows’ feet until much later, you know.
I’ve had some “meh” meals too lately. More about that in a later post. And hey, that picture above? It’s from the new Walgreen’s at North, Milwaukee and Damen. It’s in a old bank. So that’s cool.
Winter is upon us here in Chicago. And I’m not happy about that. As I write this, it’s 22 Fahrenheit outside. That’s -5 Celsius for the rest of you. Yes. No fun. So I’m heading to South America. Seriously. But in preparation for my departure, I’ve been eating where and when I can. Here’s the latest…
Vera: First stop, Vera in the West Loop. I like Vera for the sherry alone. Americans don’t drink enough sherry. So I’ve been drinking enough to make up for the rest of you, but you really do need to get on this and widen your drinking horizons. While we were at Vera, we settled in for mixed platters of meats and cheeses. My favorite dish of the evening though had to be the anchovies. I don’t know what it is about me and anchovies lately, but I just can’t get enough. I’ll be back here to sample more of the menu, as we were only there for sherry and snacks. The Verdict: Recommended for the sherry selection and the very nice Spanish menu.
Slurping Turtle: I dropped in here on a Friday afternoon…I think it was their first week of business. Well, that will teach me because I totally suffered the consequences. Service was ridiculously, abysmally slow. (All my American romanticizing about service in America while I was living abroad? I’ve yet to have my expectations MET…forget about having them exceeded. America, what has happened to you???) Service aside, my Yuke Tataki of beef tartar, spicy chili paste, sesame oil, and quail egg was pretty awesome. The pork belly snack was also pretty great. The Verdict: Recommended for interesting Japanese food and communal seating/solo dining.
Jerry’s: I ended up working from home one day for some reason or another and was going a little stir crazy so I needed to get out of the house for lunch. I discovered that there’s barely ANYTHING open on Division in Wicker Park during lunch so I found myself at Jerry’s, which was fine because I wanted a salad anyhow. Jerry’s is very low-key. I liked that. I also liked that they made their own sodas on the premises, so I had something lovely with lime and ginger. Then I ordered a salad, which actually came with a side. (!!!) So I had some creamed spinach. This was all very acceptable, although the service — yet again — was pretty poor. I had no idea where the guy was half the time. Maybe he was in the back making soda. The Verdict: Not a destination, but a good place for lunch.
So…that’s three places I’ve been recently. How about you? Been anywhere good recently?
August in Chicago. It’s been a year since my repatriation. Scary stuff, this time-flies business. I forget how HOT Chicago can be. The British person inside of me is melting. And I don’t have the clothing for this sort of weather. Retail therapy in order, then. Here’s how I’ve been amusing myself so far this month…
Fritz Pastry, 1408 W Diversey, Lakeview: I dropped in for some of their macarons on the way to a Girls’ Night In up in Edgewater. These were disappointing, when compared to the macarons at Alliance. Too big. Too fluffy. Too sweet. Missing all the delicate loveliness of a macaron.
Shine, 756 W. Webster, Lincoln Park: I dropped in here for lunch during WordCamp and was terribly disappointed. My chicken stir fry used the cheapest, most terrible chicken. You know the type…the type that’s all injected with weird fluids.
Sepia, 123 N. Jefferson, West Loop: My friend David took me along to Sepia for the opening of their private event space. I served as photographer’s assistant briefly as he did his thing and took all sorts of lovely photographs. Then I helped myself to some of the lovely terrines and charcuterie. Sepia’s new event space seems like a lovely spot to hold a party.
Bar Bar Black Sheep, 1415 N. Milwaukee, Wicker Park. My friend Amy and I popped in here the other night for a good old-fashioned catch-up. She was lured by the prospect of complimentary bacon with everything. I was lured by the proximity to my apartment. We shared a chicken schnitzel sandwich, which was just okay. And some truffled mac & cheese, which Amy liked but I thought was a bit wet. Then we somehow found ourselves with the Trio of Bacon, which I honestly couldn’t touch, so rich and dense was it. Service at the bar and then outside on the patio was particularly nice throughout our meal though, which was good.
I think with this post, I am fully caught up to date. A good feeling!
I’ll let the pictures do the talking. All very lovely. Even at 9:15 pm on a Sunday night…We four (an American, a Ukrainian, a Moldovan, and a guy from India — if that doesn’t sound like the start of a joke, I don’t know what does — paid $85 for our food, $75 for wine pairings. Irina (the Ukrainian) opted for the juices for $38. Funnily, I had the same table as my first visit.
Service was nearly exactly the same as my other two visits, with two exceptions: They only replaced my napkin during one of my two trips to the loo, and they didn’t escort me there and back as officiously as Paris 1906.
I did like that although I had only bought two wine-pairings with dinner, they did let us add a 3rd wine pairing and the juices right there. (In contrast, during Paris 1906, we didn’t know one of our friends was pregnant until the night of the dinner. It wasn’t right for her to tell us sooner. I had already purchased the wine pairings for her. She downgraded to juices and well, still paid the full wine price.)
I still feel that the bathrooms could be more special. But these are piddly things to note when the experience overall is so lovely.
The Background: I want to like Avec. I really do. EVERYONE likes Avec. So when Dan suggests we meet up at Avec — a place I haven’t been to in ages — I say yes. But in the back of my mind, I’m thinking…”Avec. That place that everyone thought I’d like but I didn’t. And then everyone told me to go to Blackbird. So I did. And I didn’t like that either.” Hmmm. (Granted both my prior visits to these establishments were ages ago. Ages and ages.)
One reason why I don’t like Avec is THE NOISE. There is not a soft surface in this little matchbox of a place, which creates a thundering din as the night goes on. And we were on the end, close to the window. Imagine if we’d been in the MIDDLE.
We ate a lot of vegetables at Avec. I’m cool with that. The brussel sprouts with parmesan were nice. But was it like the best thing I’ve eaten in forever? No. It was just brussel sprots with cheese. And onions. And some green stuff. I know I know. I’m being picky. But when you’re eating in a place that is widely regarded as one of the best casual-dining spots in Chicago, you want more. Or well…at least I do.
We had some soft shell crab, and it was very nice. I could have more of this.
We ordered some of Avec’s “famous” flatbread. (“Everyone” says you have to try the flatbread.) And this is what arrived. Um, I don’t know about you, but I call this pizza. Pizza with beets and olives. But pizza just the same. It was very nice beet and olive pizza. And it was pretty tasty. But it was just pizza.
The Service: Service was a little confusing. Was the girl waiting on us, or was our busboy waiting on us? He certainly seemed knowledgeable enough about the menu. Someone deserves a promotion. And our female server…she did not smile once. Odd. This is America, after all! And stop please stop filling my water glass up every 2.5 minutes. Please.
The Verdict: I think I have this high expectations problem in America. Everyone tells me I will love a place. So I expect to love it. And while I do love Avec’s very comprehensive wine list, and while the food is quite nice and of very high quality, I’m just not totally wowed. You’re probably wondering…”What does it take to wow her?” Good question. It takes things in combinations I don’t normally have. (And it’s probably why I love Ottolenghi in London so much.) Unfamiliarity probably scares off the average diner, and this is maybe why a lot of American restaurants don’t do it all that much. I just want someone to take some goddamn risks.
So…I like Avec. I really do. But would I say you MUST go there? Nah.
When the weather was like this in London, pink wine was everywhere. A bit strange for me at first — remember I’m from Long Island, where white zinfandel is served by the gallon — but on a day like today, it all makes sense. Even though I’m not in London anymore.
The wine? A vinho verde rose from Casal Garcia in Portugal. The place? Avec, on Randolph Street in Chicago.
The Background: Four countries in five days takes a lot out of a girl, so by Thursday last week, I was beat. I needed to curl up on the sofa with a paperback, Oprah, and some good music.
Only problem? I had to write a 12 page document for work. So there’d be no paperback and no couch until that was done. Bummer.
Time for some bao then, huh? Need to keep up my strength, don’t you know? A fluffy bun hugging a bit of tender wagyu beef in coconut milk, along with some sliced jalapeno had things looking brighter. Much brighter.
This photo doesn’t really do my sandwich justice. I stuck with the traditional Bahn Mi–Vietnamese pork, American ham, French country pate, mayo. A couple of observations…the bread is GOOD. Really good. I have to wonder if they do it themselves or if they use Gonella, the Chicago bread manufacturer or choice. Crispy outside, soft inside.
Also, the mayo. I don’t think this is Hellman’s? Not sure. It’s good. Very good.
Constructively…The ham seemed a bit too deli counter to me, and the French pate was only on one side of the sandwich and not the other. Also, the pate had a bit too much liver going on during one particular bite. (You know…when you remember…oh yes, pate IS liver.)
But regardless of my complaints, put all the ingredients together and this was one heck of a good sandwich.
The Service: A bit chaotic upon ordering. I kinda stood there for a while while the staff took calls, waiting for someone to notice me. Also, I know this is all counter service, but it would have been nice if someone had filled my water up at some point. Lastly, the music was a bit too loud and not to my taste. (The music thing is becoming a regular problem for me in Chicago. I had to leave In Fine Spirits in Andersonville the other night because my throat hurt so much from talking over the music.)
On Sundays in London, I would wander aimlessly from Clerkenwell to Columbia Market, and then down through Brick Lane to Spitalfields. Besides for Waitrose and my London flat — the flat which I really should have bought — this Sunday routine is probably what I miss the most about London. (Of course of course my many lovely friends too.)
So when I randomly saw somewhere on the Interwebs that Randolph Street Market was starting this weekend, I packed my umbrella, hopped on the Number 9 bus and headed down for the opening.
Welcome. The market is set up in a big parking lot. I entered from Washington, but you can of course also enter through Randolph. The market offers up some furniture (a mix of antiques), some vintage clothing, some vintage jewelry, and a very cool number of massage-worthy vintage handbags. Gotta keep playing those scratch-off Lotto tickets, kids, I tell ya.
This was one of my favorite stands. It was like a camping catalog…all in plaid and wicker. I wanted to bundle myself up in a wool blanket and help myself to some hot chocolate.
They had a super cool old wagoneer of sorts in pristine condition. (An old Bronco? I’m not sure.) See don’t you just want to play badminton and count the stars with your St. Bernard?
There was one guy selling vintage Schwinns. If your parents and/or grandparents still have theirs, they’re going for $275 to $300 these days so maybe you should help yourself to whatever is in the garage. I’ve been seeing lots of vintage Schwinns around Chicago and totally want to make a photo series out of them. (It’s the seats I love more than anything. Schwinn should bring these puppies back.)
Briefly reminded that I hadn’t made any dinner plans…nor did I want to…today is my day off…
There were no actual potatoes for sale. Just so you know. Also, kinda the wrong time of year for rakes.
I had a nice time wandering around Randolph Street Market. Forewarned…it’s $8 to get in which I have to wonder about. ($10 at the gate. Get yourself together and buy online before you leave the house like I did.) There’s a cool jazz band playing, which was fun. There’s a crepes stand and some people selling truffles. Oh yeah, and a guy selling hot dogs. I went to the coffee van and paid $4 for a latte and it was pretty crap so I wouldn’t recommend that. In short, this place just seems to be SCREAMING out for some decent food options. Hmmm.
I’m kinda sad this isn’t a more regular event. I was also kinda sad that there weren’t that many people there. Sometimes I think that all anyone does in Chicago is sit in their apartment and watch sports on TV. Sigh.
The Randolph Street Market happens June 25-26, July 30-31, August 27-28, September 24-25, October 22-23 (Modern Vintage Chicago), and November 19-20 (Holiday Market). If you know anyone with a food truck, tell ‘em they should go.
I should also note that one stand vendor indoors did seem to have a problem with me taking pictures. He asked me what I was doing and I explained that I had a blog and liked to write about things like this. The conversation didn’t go much further than that; he just seemed distrustful. You know…because I look so dangerous.
I love my friends Matt & Carolyn for one simple reason above all others: they like to drink beer. Matt even makes his own beer in a closet in his apartment. So back in early March, we decided to do a little beer tour of Chicago. We’ve all been gone for a while — Matt and Carolyn were living in London too until recently — so it was a great way to rediscover the city as we made our way from the West Loop up to Wicker Park.
First discovery? I can take the bus from my house nearly directly to Haymarket Brewery on Randolph Street (aka Restaurant Row in Chicago). The only thing that would prevent me from doing this more often is the strong odor of bleach mixed with warm beer emanating from behind the bar in Haymarket. Reminds me of my summer job at the beach when I was in high school and college. Not exactly good memories.
Haymarket’s sweet potato tots were addictive and vanished quickly. But my white bean chicken chili was only okay, served tepid and without much bite. The number of televisions was distracting.
Beer-wise, I loved that one of their beers is called “I’m so lonely.” It’s a Belgian-style session beer (i.e., works well if your plan is to drink all day long), light in alcohol and crisp and clean on the palette.
The Verdict: Too much of a sports bar for me, but if you go, ask the friendly servers for a tour of the beer-making facilities.
Next up, Beer Bistro in the West Loop, which my friend Doug from New York had told me about when he was in town in February. Doug also makes his own beer at home in his closet, but sadly, I didn’t get a chance to introduce Doug to Matt.
Matt, Carolyn and I were obsessed with the old-school ceiling fans at Beer Bistro, and we loved the old-time Chicago bar with all its woodwork. We thought the beer menu was a bit pedestrian though, even though it was quite extensive.
The Verdict: If you’re in the area, drop in and have a beer. But I’m not sure I would make a special trip unless I was organizing another “Day of Beer.”
But there are exceptions to one’s personal rules as there are to everything in life. And the fact of the matter was that I wanted to have dinner and an old-fashioned chin-wag with my good friend Kyra, who has two little kids and a husband who just finished graduate school. The chances of us going somewhere like one sixtyblue without an invite like this were slim. Plus, I’m still feeling like the new-girl-in-town, so when the restaurant dropped me a note and asked if I wanted to come in in my guise as a Chicago restaurant blogger and check out their new seasonal menu, I said yes. Enthusiastically so.
More Background: I’ve been to one sixtyblue before. It was one of my first ever grown-up business dinners back in the late 90s. That’s how long one sixtyblue has been around. (Michael Jordan is one of the owners of one sixtyblue, giving it that certain caché.) I will always remember that dinner because the guy from my company that organized it was a real piece of work. He walked into one sixtyblue and announced “Shafer Merlot” before anyone had even taken their coats off. After this dinner, I saw him repeat this process at many a restaurant. I still laugh whenever I see Shafer Merlot on any wine list. Wherever you are former co-worker, I hope the Shafer Merlot is treating you well. (But not too well, of course.)
Kyra and I arrived late to our meal–and you know I’m never late–because of two things: Wacker Drive construction AND Hu Jintao. (You know…that guy in charge of China.) Totally didn’t realize he was in town on Thursday night until it was too late and traffic had crawled to a standstill. But I called the restaurant from the back of the cab, and they were nothing but not polite about our 15 minute delay. Upon arrival, we were shown to a nice large table and placed an order for something sparkling.
And then we waited. And waited. And waited some more. And some more. I believe 17 minutes had elapsed before our drinks arrived. And the bread. With the pickle butter. one sixtyblue, apparently, is located in an old pickle factory. Nice touch. Very. But the delay in service just goes to show you…even when you’re a Chicago restaurant blogger, things can still happen.
A supremely competent and lovely bacony oyster bisque for me. ($9.) Super silky with that great salty twist of bacon. The more I reflect on this, the more I like it and want to bathe in it. My only complaint is that it could have been a tad hotter.
Kyra very kindly let me finish off her spinach salad ($9), featuring the seasonal vegetable of the month, crosnes. Crosnes (pronounced “crones”) are a member of the tuber family, and they have a jicama-like consistency. They added a nice crunch to the salad, in a very satisfyingly crunchy way.
I am easily excited by all things bone marrow, so was very pleased when this little gift arrived from the chef–as if the meal itself wasn’t enough of a gift–accompanied by a nice little salad of apple and fennel. ($10.) Sadly though, no bone marrow will ever compete with the Minetta Tavern’s bone marrow. I very diligently attempted to scrape as much marrow off the one sixty blue bone as I could, but I probably got less than a tablespoon, and not very buttery at that. The rum-raisin chocolate bread croutons were GREAT though!
I selected the pan-seared skate for my main ($26) which included israeli couscouse, harissa, roasted baby carrots, pickled crosnes, and preserved lemon brown butter. This was a gigantic portion, although perhaps just normal size for America. I did not do it justice! But it was really beautifully prepared and comforting on a cold winter’s night. (When is it not cold here in Chicago? Really?) I would order this again. And again. Normally, I don’t care much for couscous, but the larger globules of Israeli couscous made this much more enjoyable, and the lemon brown butter pulled everything together very very well. Plus the crosnes added some great texture to an otherwise pillowy dish.
Another little unexpected treat. A very sweet shot of bubble-tea-like apple cider. (Tapioca at the bottom of the glass.) A lovely surprise, and I briefly thought of inviting Chef Michael McDonald to come live with me forever so he can make me things like this when I wake up in the morning. Or go to bed at night. I have Google’d him senseless to find out how old he is and if he’s single to no avail.
Last up for me was the roulade of Wisconsin blue ($8), which included–surprise surprise–more crosnes! Candied this time. Along with dried currants and walnuts. This was a very dense, rich and festive English Christmas sort of roulade. It begged for a glass of port, but I wasn’t thinking and ordered the moscato instead.
As we left, they brought us cookies and jellies. A nice touch, that reminds me of Gauthier Soho’s little treat box. All restaurants should give their guests treats on the way out.
The Verdict: How could I NOT like one sixtyblue? Really, I thought it was all very mostly well-done and I loved the little touches like the pickle butter and the apple cider and the treats as we were leaving. (It was the even more complimentary than complimentary bone marrow that subtracts points.) It was also lovely to speak to the chef about his career and goals for one sixtyblue. Truth be told, both Kyra and I got pretty excited about this. On Monday nights in the bar, they do soup nights, where for $8, you get one of the chef’s seasonal soups served with a side of garlic bread. And on Thursday, they do something called 4-5-6, which means $4 craft beers, $5 burgers, and $6 wines. (And the burgers are from 21-day dry-aged prime ground beef from Dietzler farm in Wisconsin, where they specialize in free-range grass and corn-fed beef.) They had a really good crowd in the bar the night we were there, so I’m intrigued by the prospect of returning to check things out.