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Intense Flavors + Foraged Flowers: Elizabeth, Chicago

3 Sep

A phenomenal dinner, with about 15 small, interesting courses over the course of three hours. Tiny intense burst of flavor from small flowers, herbs, and berries (nightshade, queen anne’s lace, fennel pollen, and other flowers) on top of a range of creative and perfectly-seasoned dishes each highlighting a few beautiful ingredients (including malted barley, bear jerky, beets, a few kinds of mushrooms, tomatoes, and roe).

And by lucky chance they sat us right next to the kitchen. I do always enjoy that.

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My favorites were the greens and flowers on malted barley and hazelnuts, the tart sourdough, the smoked cabbage, the beet soup with a variety of accents (see the first photo), and the tomato sorbet with polenta and peaches and dried plums (one of the best desserts I’ve had in a long time), but I enjoyed pretty much everything. Very highly recommended if you’re in Chicago and it works with your budget.

I also liked the not-too-loud background music– mostly various good music from the 80s / early 90s, but I also noticed Parentheses by The Blow (2006’s Paper Television was one of my favorite albums).

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Small Chicago Food Highlights: Avec, Heritage, Do-Rite

2 Sep

 

A few other notable small food stops in Chicago that I’d recommend based on this past weekend:

Heritage Coffee and Bicycle Shop — just a great atmosphere, good people, excellent espresso shots and sour cherry lemonade, some bike accessories to browse (and a full repair shop).IMG_20140831_171727937

Do-Rite Donuts — the meyer lemon / pistachio cake donut was delicious, and perfectly cooked (moist fully-cooked cake center, slightly crispy outside). There were also many people in line for their next batch of gluten-free donuts.IMG_20140830_103047813

 

Avec, one of the highlights of the Chicago food trip a few years ago, also does an excellent brunch and we didn’t even have to wait when arriving at 10AM on a Sunday. And their long wooden box-like space is especially pleasant when there’s natural light. Their take on a greens/egg/tuna salad (vaguely Niçoise but with more dressing) was excellent, as was a tomato and baked egg dish (especially combined with the chorizo-stuffed dates).

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Last visit to Hot Doug’s (wild game sausages in Chicago, closing forever)

1 Sep

Hot Doug’s, the encased meat emporium in Chicago, closes for good at the beginning of October, after 13 years.

I’d been there once about three years ago, but only to get a basic dog before heading to Alinea, so news of its impending closing was enough to motivate a labor day weekend vacation back to Chicago…

The line was several buildings long, down the street past some neighbor’s yard (maybe four times as long as shown in the photo here):

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After an hour in line, a woman came out from inside and informed people in our part of the line that it was probably another three and a half to four hour wait. I’m not kidding. Yet, out of the entire line, only three groups gave up and left. The rest of us settled in (people with more forethought had brought chairs, but our group chatted, caught up on life developments since we’d last seen each other, and did three tricky NYtimes Thursday crosswords).

Finally, after almost exactly 5 hours in line (including the most amazingly patient 2-year old I’ve ever met), we were at the counter, and ordered seven different special sausages:

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And then there we were, in a brightly-lit, festive atmosphere, surrounded by tables of other people dedicated or crazy enough to have made that wait, eating ten different meats (elk, antelope, buffalo, venison, pork, beef, lamb, duck, steak, and chicken). Sausage after sausage was a tender, delicious combination of flavors.

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Thanks, Doug.

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Next: El Bulli photos and dishes

30 May

One of my friends at the 28-course from-the-cookbook-of-El-Bulli/molecular-gastronomy dinner at Next put this excellent summary image together (you can click through and then click again to zoom in to the full-size image).

This is all but one of our courses (it’s missing the liquid-nitrogen-frozen caipirinha):

It was a fascinating dining experience and tour through the history of experimental food– with each dish, they told us what year it had been served in El Bulli (for example, the red mullet gaudi was in one of the earlier years– conceptual in terms of its mosaic-like appearance, but without the “magic powders” of later foams and smokes).

Some of my favorites were the the cuttlefish-coconut “ravioli” (thin sheets of cuttlefish serving the role of the pasta), the “golden egg” (an egg yolk encrusted in a crispy gold-covered sugar shell, somehow without overcooking the yolk, leaving it in a delicious soft-cooked state), spherical olives (olive juice encapsulated in a thin flexible gel-like coating, so that as you put it in our mouth it bursts and releases the juice),  cauliflower “couscous” (shredded and formed into the texture of couscous, with an intensely rich lamb sauce and many interesting surrounding tart and savory and sweet garnishes and gelatinous cubes, each of which I know might have been its own several-hour-or-more preparation. I also loved the eel with bone marrow, paired with a Half Acre beer brewed with beets.

I’m fortunate to have had this experience… and at the same time, I only needed to do it once. If I were to spend that amount of money in Chicago again some day, I’d go back to Alinea instead.

Chicago: Avec, The Publican, Au Cheval

16 May

One memorable evening in Chicago involved a group of 4-5 of us eating at Avec, The Publican, and Au Cheval in succession. Any of their web sites have far better food photos than my quick cell phone snaps below, but so it goes.

At avec (a long, cozy, space with a lot of wood and light), the huge “chorizo-stuffed medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo pepper-tomato sauce” was one of the best things I ate all trip:

We also had a great antipasto, with farro I believe, and a good burrata.

However, while I like pretty much every adjective and noun in  “wood-fired squid with san marzano tomatoes, guanciale, fideo and fennel aioli”, I didn’t enjoy it– I think tomatoes + squid just doesn’t work for me.

After appetizers, on to the Publican (in a high-ceilinged room with plenty of pig-themed paintings), where I loved the blood sausage with hazelnuts, the ramps with romesco, and the boudin blanc (though it was a bit farther along the creamy and sweet axis than the ones I liked at Camino). This was part of a many-dish long, leisurely dinner over conversation and beer (their beer list is excellent).

To my surprise, given how excellent their pork is in general (I went there for brunch once last year), I was not thrilled by their “selection of hams” dish– nothing stood out. And the halibut crudo, the scallops, and the collection of fried seafood also were good but not great (though I’m also finding myself less into fried food in general these days).

After an exciting incident as they were closing down where water started trickling down through six locations in the ceiling (from an overflowing, blocked up bathtub in the apartment above after someone fell asleep: everyone handled it well and it was no big deal), we  moved on to Au Cheval (cozy upscale diner atmosphere, with plush booths) for a beer and long discussions of the restaurant and retail (food, beer) industries. And for some people– cheeseburgers, though I couldn’t imagine that at this point, and just tasted a sliver of one. Ow.

This was a solid 6 hours of eating, walking, drinking, and company– not bad for night #2 in Chicago.

Good Beer in Chicago

15 May

While visiting Chicago, I was usually getting dinner with other people who are into craft beer, making it easy to try a wide variety. It was a busy few evenings so I don’t remember all the details, but I jotted down a few notes of my favorites that I’m going to keep an eye out for in the future:

  • Vichtenaar, a slightly sour Flemish Red
  • Avery Maharajah, a very distinctively-flavored IPA (and one of a small number of IPAs I’m excited about these days– I’d had it before)
  • Half Acre Over Ale (a brown ale, a bit nutty, a bit like toast, quite good — sadly I don’t think they distribute outside of Chicago)
  • Half Acre Sanguis brewed with oranges and beets, and really excellent with strong food (smoked eel)
  • Brooklyn Sorachi Ace (Sorachi Ace is a particular unusual hop that I think smells a bit like dill– I only knew it from the Mikkeller Single Hop series tasting I did with some friends last year)
  • Revolution Coup d’Etat (from a local brewery, in the slightly funky belgian farmhouse/blonde/yeasty style)
As a side note– I liked the design of the Half Acre Sanguis label quite a bit– my photo of it is a bit blurry but I found a blog post from the designer with the image:
Other good beers:
  • Half Acre Daisy Cutter Pale Ale
  • Ivanhoe from Ridgeway Brewing in the UK (light caramel and malt flavors, round, smooth)
  • Vitus (unfortunately I don’t remember details about it, but I jotted down that I liked it)
  • Weihenstephaner (their Lagerbier? Or perhaps it was their wheat beer– I just tasted a friend’s)
  • Belhaven (pretty good in general)
I was less interested in:
  • Biere de Garde from Brasserie Castellion (though friends I was with liked it)
  • Goose Island Green Line (a pale ale, and I believe only sold on tap and only sold within Chicago– mild and reasonable but nothing special)
  • Three Floyds Zombie Dust (a pale ale, a distinctive hop flavor, good and something I’d drink again but not something I’d go out of my way for)
  • Two Brothers Cane and Ebel (rye and palm sugar– sort of fruity/sweet– complex, but I didn’t like it– fortunately I was just tasting a friend’s)

Half Acre has a nice little tasting room at their brewery (which was near where I was staying with a friend). I sneaked a peek in back at their small canning operation as well– ever since friends started The Can Van, I’ve been especially curious which craft beers come in cans and at what scale that happens. From chatting with people at the brewery, one of the barriers to canning more beers is the printed cans themselves– they have to get huge pallets/stacks of cans printed at any given time, making it unreasonable to can their smaller-run beers even after making the investment in a canning line.

Al’s Beef, Chicago

11 May

Taking it down a notch the next day (no pun intended), an excellent beef sandwich (with hot peppers, dipped in beef broth) from Al’s Beef: