Gastronomic Fight Club SM

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Monday, June 27, 2005

REVIEW: TRU - Chicago

posted by snekse
TRU Restaurant in Chicago
Originally uploaded by snekse.
On our last night in Chicago, we ate at TRU. Before we even arrived, we knew TRU was going to be a little extra special for two reasons. First off, we were able to reserve the Chef's Table, which we have never experienced before at any restaurant. Secondly, their Executive Pastry Chef is Gale Gand. The same Gale Gand who is on FoodTV and has written several books on Erin's favorite topic - desserts. Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to meet her, she had left for the night right before we got there.

When we arrived at TRU, we were whisked off through the kitchen to the Chef's Table. It was enclosed in a small room just large enough to seat 8 people. The room had windows along 3 walls, 2 facing the kitchen and 1 facing the street. We really weren't given much of a tour of the kitchen, but I'm sure they would have provided us with one if we would have asked. I didn't ask because I thought they might have that planned for later - they didn't. No big deal though.

The kitchen table is slightly disappointing in the fact that you really can't see a whole lot of action without standing up. The windows are at too high of a level to really see what's going on outside and full length windows wouldn't resolve the issue either because the other side of the wall is being utilized as you can imagine. The only real way to rectify the line of sight issue would be to elevate the room and I don't foresee that happening anytime soon.

The reason I mention all of this is because it brings up an interesting problem. How do you integrate a kitchen table that can seat 8 people without: the kitchen being crowded, the guest being uncomfortable, the guest feeling imposing or secluded, or diminishing the feel of being part of the action? Both of the tables available at Charlie Trotter's seem to fail at the ideal. One table is in the corner of their kitchen which I think would be hot and crowded, while the other table is in a completely separate room with closed circuit TV's (admittedly I'm not sure how this setup works). Honestly, the best implementation I've seen of a kitchen table was at Buca di Beppo. They had a small nook in their kitchen which held a 'U' shaped bench with a square table. The bench was elevated, so you had to step up and slide in. This would never work in a fine dining establishment because of the service issues it would create, but it was a good design for that restaurant.

Speaking of service, our service at TRU was pretty interesting. It wasn't always flawless and elegant, but it was informative. Our, hold that thought while I digress for a moment...

What do you call "waiters" in a place like TRU, Charlie Trotter's or The French Laundry? You usually have several people waiting on you and there are occasions when you'll only see your "waiter" for a total of 10 minutes during the 4 hours you're there. Other people are bringing your food, describing it to you, answering your questions, filling your drinks and what not. I feel that if the person who took your order is not doing at least 75% of the work throughout the night, then they are not a waiter. A Steward? An Attendant? Maybe even an Assistant or Caretaker? Hand out business cards that say 'Culinary Custodian'? And yes, I put my question marks outside my quotes, but that's another rant. For now I'm going to stick with Attendant until I hear a good reason to do otherwise. Now back to our post...

So, where was I? If memory serves me right ,<nod>Iron Chef</nod> ahhh, yes, our attendant. So our attendant was a vast source of information with deep knowledge of food, having worked in the kitchens for 5+ years. He knew all the small details and was able to answer every question we threw at him. He was a tough cookie to crack though. We tried to get him to drop his guard and relax a bit with us, but other than a few canned jokes he tossed out, he just wouldn't show us his non-"Michelin-three-star-wanna-be" facade. Kind of disappointing, because some times we just like joking around with the wait staff and we know he has this ability because we could see him harassing the kitchen staff while waiting for us to finish our current courses. Foiled again by those pesky 2-way windows :-)

Oh, speaking of the kitchen's bane of the 2-way window, my wife caught the kitchen staff pointing, chattering and snickering at us several times due to our (my) insistence on taking a copious amount of pictures of our experience. Granted, she does have a bit of an imagination about such things, but she's also far more observant of surrounding people then I am, so I have the inclination to believe her. However, I did get weird looks from our waiter, I mean "attendant", when I stood up and got closer to the cheese cart to photograph it. So much so, that it made me uneasy to do the same for the Petit Fours Cart, thus the blurry picture. Though, the reason I entirely forgot to photograph the chocolate cart that came after that was because I was too busy enjoying my espresso lollipop.

I guess I should start talking about the food now. Early in our meal our attendant asked us where else we had been. We told him where we had been, what we liked, what we didn't, etc, etc... Of course he asked us what had been our favorite up to that point and we told him Charlie Trotter's. He made the expected comment hoping to change that. I have to say they didn't start strong. But to be fair, they didn't start weak, it's just that we had seen most of their early tricks:

Cucumber Mint Juice - seemed like almost every restaurant in Chicago was doing this one;
Vermont butter with lots 'O fat - both my wife and I thought immediately of the French Laundry;
Sweet Potato Sorbet as an Amuse - reminded me of the Salmon cone at the French Laundry because of the way it was served;
Watermelon w/ Balsamic and The Caviar Staircase - I own the Amuse Bouche book that Tramonto wrote, so these were not a surprise;
Fighting Fish Bowl - again expected because I'm an information whore and I had scoured the net for pics and reviews before we went.

Don't get me wrong, those were great, the Caviar Staircase in particular. I just wasn't wowed, so it wasn't pushing through that barrier to be crowned the Best of Chicago in our minds. That was until...

I'm not sure if it was the Souffles or the Homemade Rootbeer Float - which ever one I tried first - the other was just confirmation of that decision. It's hard to describe just how good their desserts are and how deserving Gale Gand is of the praise she receives. I was disappointed that the Bread Pudding wasn't a little more dense and custardy-french-toast like, which is what I'm used to, but everything else was pretty amazing. The cart of Petit Fours and Chocolate just pushed everything else to an almost bliss state. We just couldn't stop smiling.

Other highlights of the meal include the Espresso-Roasted Quail, Watermelon-Mint Shooters, the Cheese Cart and the Caviar Staircase which I mentioned before (especially the Wasabi infused Tobiko). What's really neat is the fact that they have about 140 dishes in their arsenal, so you could easily go back several times and never have the same dish twice. Maybe even coming up with your own ultimate menu after you've been there a dozen times!

The last bit I'll mention is about their dining room. We only saw the dining room as we were leaving, but it's beautiful. Extremely elegant, modern yet classic with some great artwork. They have taken time and put a lot of money into making the entire experience seem like a piece of art itself. Right down to the bathroom sink.

Rating: 95

TRU - Make a Reservation
Chicago, IL (Gold Coast/Streeterville)

676 North Saint Clair
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 202-0001

Hours of Operation
Monday - Thursday: 5:30pm - 10:00pm
Friday - Saturday: 5:00pm - 11:00pm
Sunday: Closed

Tru in Chicago
RESTAURANT REVIEW: Blackbird - Chicago
RESTAURANT REVIEW: Charlie Trotter's - Chicago

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Friday, June 24, 2005

Charlie Trotter's - Chicago - Restaurant Review

posted by snekse

Originally uploaded by snekse.
What can I say, Charlie Trotter's was excellent. There is a lot of chatter on several forums about how Trotter's isn't what it used to be or that it's not as relevant in today's epicurean world. I've never dined here before, but I think Trotter's food is just as relevant as other place we've been.

Their service staff was friendly and well heeled without being pretentious, which is not all that common. Certainly the only place during our stay in Chicago that was able to provide that kind of service.

The food was simple and elegant with several points of interest. Not cutting edge, but that's not what Trotter's is about. They're not going to put something in front of you that hasn't been put through the paces.

There were 2 really interesting and nice additions to our meal that made it especially memorable and delightful.

The first was the beverage pairing. A selection of unique non-alcoholic beverages, most of them made fresh, that have been specifically paired to go with the menus. This was the first time we've ever had such a pairing. I must say, we both thought they were a great addition and I would highly recommend trying such an accompaniment at least once. They did a fantastic job on matching each drink with each course. The highlight of the pairing was the Pinot Noir Juice. We downed a total of 3 glasses - what can we say, they kept pouring, we kept drinking.

The other addition that made my wife glow was when we realized we had been given an extra dessert course that was not on the menu. She is a dessert freak, so there are few and far more direct paths to her heart.

Which leads me to another unusual note about this restaurant. When you open the menu there is just 2 pages and not a single appetizer, entree or dessert to choose from. Instead there are just 2 pre-fixe menus to pick from: The Grand Degustation and The Vegetable Degustation (There is one additional menu available if you reserve the Chef's Kitchen Table, more on that later). Since we wanted to try as many things as possible, I got the Vegetable menu and my wife got the Grand menu; We switched plates half-way through each course.

After our meal we asked for a tour of the kitchen. This was our first kitchen tour and it was a lot of fun. The first thing you notice is the kitchen table because you almost walk right into it. It's exactly as it sounds - a table planted right smack in the middle of their kitchen. This give diners a chance to be part of the action while enjoying a specially prepared menu.

They then took us through the pastry station and gave us the run down on how they operate. They have no coolers in the building. Everything is brought in fresh every day. This is somewhat exaggerated though. My understanding is that they get most of their stuff brought in partially prepped from Trotter's ToGo, his catering/"Boston Market-esque" carry-out restaurant. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Finally, they took us down the "Hot Line" where they do all of the cooking of, you guessed it, hot items. It was amazing, just walking right behind these guys busy cooking up lamb or whatnot, all while squeezing through about a 3 foot walkway.

On our cab ride home, we both felt that Trotter's was the best meal we had in Chicago and were eagerly waiting to see if TRU could top it. Did it? Stay tuned to find out....

*** UPDATE ***
The verdict is in. We thought TRU was the best restaurant in Chicago out of all the places we tried.

Rating: 91

Charlie Trotter's - Make a Reservation
Chicago, IL (Armitage & Halsted)

816 West Armitage
Chicago, IL 60614
(773) 248-6228

Hours of Operation
Monday: Occasionally open on Mondays - Call for info
Tuesday - Thursday: Seatings at 6:00pm & 9:00pm
Friday - Saturday: Seatings at 6:00pm & 9:00pm
Sunday: Closed

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Blackbird - Chicago
Twenty years of Charlie Trotter
The Charlie Trotter Cookbooks
Charlie Trotter's in Chicago

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Thursday, June 23, 2005

Blackbird - Chicago

posted by snekse

Originally uploaded by snekse.
Alright, we're going to try something a little different here. I'm going to be posting all of our pictures on Flickr and simply pointing our blog to the pictures. And descriptions that require a picture will be with the photos and general thoughts and reviews about something will be here. Make sense? Didn't think so, but hang with me.

So, without further ado, Blackbird. Be sure to scroll down to see the full comments about each picture.

Blackbird - Make a Reservation
619 W Randolph St.
Chicago, IL 60606
(312) 715-0708

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Charlie Trotter's
Blackbird in Chicago

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Thursday, June 23, 2005

Alinea - Chicago

posted by snekse

Alinea Entryway
Originally uploaded by snekse.
I apologize for another temporary post, but I promise I'll come back and detail Alinea more. I wanted our GFC posts about Chicago to be in the order that we dined, and this was the first place we dined, but we didn't take pictures. Instead, I'll be using some of the magnificent pictures taken by Anthony
Marty (yellow truffle) to document what we ate.

Until I have time to write fully on Alinea, lets just say it was good, challenging and not what I had hoped for, but I'd like to go back.

*** UPDATE ***
Alright, I've been stalling. A lot.

What can I say, it's been over 6 months since I've been to Alinea, and I'm still not sure what I think of the place. I know I want to go back, but that's more out of curiousity than because I really liked their food.

Don't get me wrong, there were some fantastic dishes to be had at Alinea. In particular we really liked the Sour Cream, Melon, Finger Limes, Pineapple and Strawberries. But there were also some real duds.

Duds. There's an interesting word. When I use it to describe Alinea's food, it's not because the food lacked flavor. On the contrary, I'd say that certain dishes contained too much flavor. Or at least too much of one flavor that the dish seemed imbalanced and over powered by items that were supposed to play a supporting role. One of the first dishes that springs to mind is the Broccoli Stem. This was a disappointing dish because I had been looking forward to it after reading about it online. The grapefruit in this dish and the steelhead roe just completely masked this poor broccoli to the point that you could have put almost any vegetable in there without making much of a difference.

Then there were dishes like the Porcini that tasted like nothing but pureed sunflower seeds. Oddly, since the porcini flavor is similarly earthy and nutty, it was just a muddled mass of goo in my mouth. I think this was the only dish I didn't finish.

Other dishes were just disappointing because, as creative as they were, they just actually didn't go far enough. The Beef (flavors of A-1) had all of these little flavors to try with your beef, but they didn't give you enough ink in your well to truly experiment with the canvas they gave you. I actually just rolled mine all up to combine all of the flavors and didn't bother trying to mix-n-match in what appeared to be a futile exercise.

I realize that I've focused almost exclusively on the negatives here, but that's because I figured there is enough praise and drooling on the eGullet forums that I should give a counter point.

Don't get me wrong, I can certainly understand what people are raving about and I really do think Chef G is an important figure in the American culinary scene. I think his influences will be felt for years to come, especially as he becomes more established and more of a household name among non-foodies.

Regardless, even after months of reflecting on our meal, it just doesn't change the fact that we walked away disappointed. Some have been criticized for going without having an open mind or they just don't understand the cuisine or numerous other silly knocks. I can confidently say that I went with an open mind knowing fully what to expect, but the food, or more specifically the flavors, just didn't seem like anyone tasted them before putting it on an antennae and sticking in front of me.

This got me thinking about the experience of dining. An interesting thing about dining, is that a single dish isn't going to make or break a meal. The experience as a whole is what people will remember when they decide if they like a restaurant. A particular dish is what people will remember when they decide if they like a particular flavor profile. A great example of this is The French Laundry. Aside from the Oysters & Pearls, I can't say there were a lot of dishes that really stand out in my mind, yet it was one of the best meals I've had in my life. In contrast, I remember quite vividly several dishes from Alinea, both good and bad, yet it was probably our least favorite meal of our entire Chicago trip (Ann Sather being the other).

So no, I didn't enjoy our meal there. Yes, I would encourage others to go. Yes, I enjoyed the challenge. And yes, I'm looking forward to returning. Weird, I know.

Finally I'll leave you with some quotes from other sources that I think sum up my thoughts and feelings about Alinea pretty well:

"That highly experimental movement manipulates textures, flavors and even the chemical properties of ingredients with interesting, thought provoking -- and not always tasty -- outcomes." (Referring to the molecular gastronomy movement in general)

"Our meal at Alinea, which ran us over $200 each, was well worth it, if only to stake out a farther end of a creative spectrum than I'm used to, and to taste things that I can honestly say were totally new to my tongue (...and windpipe, apparently)."

"I hadn't formed a conclusion about Alinea but I will say that Gray provided something, in contrast, that was missing at Alinea. I'm not sure what is was exactly, maybe a combination of time, the privacy accorded by food that doesn't require a chaperone, by food that requests an audience of several minutes from you, or the luxury of flavors that could get a whole sentence out, rather than hiccuping fatally before resigning to an afterlife in your cerebrum."
-Beans, a.k.a. Jules

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Charlie Trotter's

Rating: 89

Alinea - Make a Reservation
Chicago, IL (Lincoln Park)

1723 North Halsted
Chicago, IL 60614
(312) 867-0110

Hours of Operation
Wednesday - Sunday: Dinner Only
Monday - Tuesday: Closed

Alinea in Chicago

2008 James Beard Award Winners ~ Outstanding Chef: Grant Achatz @ Alinea
2007 James Beard Award Winners ~ Best Chef: Great Lakes
Find recipes in The Alinea Cookbook

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Friday, June 17, 2005

Orange - Chicago - A Breakfast Review

posted by snekse

The menu
Originally uploaded by snekse.
It's said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It's understandable and probably even more true when you're on vacation, at least, if you vacation like my wife and I do. We tend to have very active trips - to the point that we often feel like we need another vacation when we return. Without having the fuel to power us, we'd never get to see half of the things we have planned. I swear this is not a PSA. No streaming rainbow proclaiming "The More You Know" - I promise.

Think about the last time you went on vacation, if you ate breakfast, where did you go? The restaurant in the hotel? Mickey D's? A Denny's wannabe with a waitress named Flo? The free continental breakfast? Americans just don't give breakfast it's proper due. Too many buffets and basic Denny's fare joints. This is what truly makes Orange so amazing. So amazing that we ate there 3 times in the 5 days that we were in Chicago.

So, what is Orange? Well, it's definitely not your standard eatery. It's got a very casual, hip and trendy vibe. It's a little hippie, Bohemian, punk, alternative, and yuppie all rolled into one. It's an odd mix, but it works well in the fact that almost everyone will feel comfortable to the point that it makes you want to become a regular. Not just a regular, but that kind of regular where they know your name. And not just the staff, but all the other regulars, who's names you of course know as well, because you're all there regularly at your regular times. I'm not saying this happens, just that you might want it to.

So, who might not feel comfortable here? Anyone who might get easily offended by tattoos, body piercings, middle fingers, anime hair, mixing Prada purses with Chuck Taylors, the music of Bob Marley or The Sex Pistols, or the words "massage oils". If I just offended you, you might as well move on to the next post. The food at Orange may not outweigh your squirm tolerance; plus it's hard to chew with your jaw on the table.

Alright, for those of you still with me, let me set the scene(s). Plural because Orange now has 2 locations, which we didn't find out until after we had been to their marque location on Clark street. Since that's the first one we visited, let me start there.

The Clark street location isn't very large, but it has a lot of charm. The seating is close, but not cramped. The restaurant is laid out in a way that showcases their juice bar/frushi station. The walls are all brightly colored and large front windows let light flood into the entire place. Just a nice quaint breakfast bistro.

I mention all of this, because the downtown has a bit of a different vibe to it. Being located on Printers Row in the Loop, the Harrison street location is far more spacious, but doesn't really have the same charm as it's Clark street sister store. If you have the time or ambiance is important to you, then by all means, make the trek to the smaller, cozier Clark/Belmont spot at least once.

I know, I know, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FOOD! Well, despite the mumblings of some amateur food critics have espoused, I thought the food was excellent. Not mind blowing, but a hell of a lot better than the alternatives. The menu follows lock step with the restaurant by focusing on items that are a bit edgy, creative, alternative in nature, but still works well in the sense of harmony with everything else.

The "menu" itself exudes all of those things due to the fact that it's not a menu at all. Instead of printing the plain old standard menu that everyone is used to, Orange has come up with something that almost brings tears to my sucker-for-marketing mind. Introducing for your reading pleasure...The Menuzine! This thing is awesome. It's a 20 page magazine with an issue number, a table of contents, articles, interviews and of I won't even go into all the reasons why I think this is brilliant, but I will say that it about sums up what Orange is about. Practical yet frivolous and irreverent all at the same time.

So, when you first sit down at Orange you are presented with not one, but three menus. The first being the menuzine and the others being a build-your-own juice menu and weekly specials menu. The juice menu lets you pick a base juice, like apple, and add other juices to it, such as grape, celery, kiwi and ginger - all of which are freshly juiced on site. The other menu features 3 or 4 interesting special items as well as their almost famous pancake flight. Oddly enough, there is no sushi style menu for ordering frushi. This is probably because giving people a choice on which frushi they want would be more hassle than it's worth.

I'm not really going to talk much about the juice. Juice is juice. In the midwest you can't really expect greatness and it's a little like Mongolian barbecue in this form, if it tastes bad, there's a good chance it's your own fault. What were you thinking when you ordered Grapefruit/Blueberry/Lime juice anyway?

As for the infamous frushi, all I can say is "eh". It's not bad, it's not great. It sure looks pretty, but I don't think I'd ever order it again. There's just something about fruit and rice that isn't right in terms of texture. However, it's a clever idea and I hope they keep it on the menu. If they do take it off the menu, try making it yourself sometime just for fun.

Besides frushi, the other thing Orange is most known for is their weekly pancake flights. Four stacks of silver dollar pancakes, each prepared differently with a common theme. The week we were there the theme was: Michael Jackson ~ Episode 2! This consisted of stacks named: The Trap!, The Jury's Question, The PJ's, and The End (be sure to check out the descriptions under each picture). It just so happened that the verdict also came in that week. And the verdict on the pancake flight? A guilty pleasure! Pancakes and loads of sweets, what's not to love?

Not to be out shined by frushi or the pancakes, each of the items on the weekly specials menu was also outstanding (yes, we tried them all). Heck, even the regular menu items blew us away. About the only things we didn't enjoy were the frushi and the rosemary sausage. Neither were bad, just not on the same level as the other items we had. If you want to be a stickler, you can throw the juice in there as well since we only ordered it on our first visit and never bothered to order it again because it was too tart and we felt it just wasn't worth the money.

So, what were the standouts? I'd probably say the Pan-Seared Oatmeal, the Pancake Flight and Chai Tea French Toast. My wife would switch the Chai Tea French Toast for the Cinnamon Roll Pancakes. All around a kudos to chef Alex Gomez for creating some truly innovative and delicious creations revolving around the most important and under appreciated meals of the day.

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Blackbird - Chicago
UrbanSpoon Reviews: Orange in Chicago

Chicago - $25 Gift Certificates for $10

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