Schwa - 2014-10-08

by Foodbitch 12. October 2014 21:15

If, instead of architecture, Howard Roark opened a fine restaurant, he probably would run it exactly as Michael Carlson chooses to run Schwa. And in that vein, is it fitting that a restaurant that grudgingly tolerates its customers be consigned to an exile so permanent from Chicago’s dining mainstream? Perhaps. But not by me. I give Schwa a perfect score.

Dining out at Schwa is a production. Like Apple Store prayer-gatherings, U2 concerts and a dear-departed emporium of encased meat, Schwa is a hallowed ground where the laws of supply and demand are simply put on hold. But if one is prepared to hold one’s tongue and thus one’s long-held food opinions, one can feast on some of dining’s brightest creativity. And so we did.

When a perfect is awarded to something/someone that is clearly lacking, lots of people wish to fight. MS is much more about service than about food. This is true. And the service at Schwa will leave much to be desired…IF one arrives with hopes of four-star dining. But if the reservation process fails to convince one of the error, the dining room surely must. Or no? In my effort of persuasion, please look up one of the 10,000 Mike Tyson training/sparring/fighting videos available online.

Having watched him hit something...be it heavy bag or 6-foot-6 opponent, is it possible to argue that Mr. Tyson isn’t perfect for his role? I suppose. Given the countless benchwarmers who invoke Ali (if only he were younger), or De La Hoya (if only he weighed in), or that guy who grills indoors (if only he lost weight), I am shocked that Mr. Tyson is spoken of with reverence at all. And it’s sad but true that folk who dare not look or sound the part are overlooked with shocking frequency in the books of greatness. I have been guilty of this often and as a result of this experience, will strive to be less so? How about you? Must you learn from your own mistakes or can you learn from those of others?

The menu and the dining pictures are attached. YES...the quail egg ravioli is THAT good. YES, the chocolate dish/container is creative beyond taste. YES, you should bring a bottle for the kitchen. And NO, your trip won’t be a waste.

Our bottle choices are attached as well. Given the occasion (can’t ask for the female’s help – it’s her birthday) and my utter lack of wino-knowledge, I was forced to rely on labels and prices. I wish I could rely on memory but alcohol has a strange way of dealing with those neurons.

 

In closing, I must write a parable for those who give no care for boxing or Mr. Tyson, or toxic personalities in business. But if you’ve read even one of his great books then you can know: I never had the pleasure of knowing Christopher Hitchens in person. Despite his towering intellect and thesaurus-worth vocabulary, he always struck me as a little bitch. A fact he owned given that his email was: hitchbitch@vf.com. I read, and loved, every word of prose he’d ever written and yet I know that if we ever “hung-out” we would have disliked each other intensely. Schwa is the Hitchens of fine dining. I let this fact deter me for a near decade. May the above serve as argument to persuade you otherwise.

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Umami Burger - 2014-09-28

by Foodbitch 3. October 2014 20:38

When it comes to meat slabs between buns, Chicago can be a judge without much mercy. I was a participant in this elitist game we’ve played for near-2 decades. After eating at Umami Burger, I apologize for my behavior, and wish that you’d learn from my mistakes.

In a city filled with meat, Umami Burger is a star that shines quite brightly.  I arrived at UB against my will because, clearly, I am too good for chain-store burgers. When I departed I was full, but no longer of myself. Au Cheval, Kuma’s, In n’ out, and yes…despite their grotesque price increase: Portillo’s. These are the burgers of my life. I wish that I can tell you that Umami pales in comparison. I really want to. But I can’t. If your preferred temperature is rare, you will appreciate the BUB. It’s two patties (or fatties) that taste like they added extra MSG. I can’t remember a burger that I’ve had that’s better. Even though my sample size has been decreased with much advancing age, I used to eat burgers on a daily basis. I know of what I speak.

This will be the shortest review you’ve read from MS in quite a while. Not because I lack vocabulary to describe the wonders that were eaten but because I mostly focus on experience. That part they are still trying to get right. One would think that a chain with many outposts would know to stem the tide of certain growing pains. Perhaps they choose not to. I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence: that two patties joined on a bun and I ate the both with little try and…you should get the truffle fries too. Amazing.

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Gather 2014-09-07

by Foodbitch 7. September 2014 02:15

The world’s oldest social medium is the dinner table. Even before humans stumbled upon agriculture, the feast that followed the hunters’ kill enabled social sharing of the necessities of life. Not just of essential nutrients but of the trust and cooperation without which complex society would never have evolved. Now, in a world where most meals are eaten in solitude, bent over our keyboards, a restaurant that trumpets “sharing” and actually means it, is a refreshing change of sensory experience. Gather, Chicago is a top contender.

The first thing that one notices about the neighborhood is the density of restaurants. Lincoln Square must now be the most densely populated stretch in Chicago if one were to extend the definition to sports-bars. But they do serve food and pretty decent food so get off your high-horse. And, because rents have not caught up, the places are quite spacious and nearly every one of them has an outdoor seating area. Given it was Sunday and LS either means a pricey cab or very lengthy train ride, and most importantly: because we completely forgot about German Fest, we drove. Now usually, a mistake of this magnitude is sufficient to delay arrival by an hour, cause massive rage in the driver and equal parts anxiety and fear in the passenger. But, not only did we not even realize that we were heading for the mouth of revelry until we heard the music, we found a rock-star parking spot immediately! For free! Try that in River North.

Seated promptly at our choice of outdoor table, service began with the typical: “Have you dined with us before?” I really do wish that the industry picked a different ice-breaker since in the end, all restaurants work in exactly the same way: 1) order, 2) eat, 3) pay. However, that was the end of the cliché. What followed would so completely exceed our expectations that I have already reconsidered my neighborhood elitism. BTW, the restaurant does offer a special family dinner menu on Sundays with an eye to serving actual families. And quite a few came out. If you are allergic to children you should pick a different day but the families dining there last night seemed to all remember that “parenting” does not get outsourced to the waiter just because the parents have their mouths full. Not a single instance of misbehavior was observed and everyone sat and used their indoor voices. It was almost quaint to see 3 generations sitting next to us, dining out like in a time that’s long-since vanished.

Our favorite from the menu were the Brussels Sprouts. The mix of nuts, cheese and miso flavor improved upon the famous veggie in a manner that I wished I could prolong. When will someone invent a small, edible wiper “blade” that would allow us to politely squeegee out our plates without having to embarrass anyone? A close second was the cured salmon. I like this on its own but the mix of fried egg, burnt toast and cucumber crème fraiche was a huge improvement on what I buy at Costco. Almost tied with the salmon was the Crispy Pork Belly. Cubes of pork and watermelon make for an unusual combination especially when both are generously drizzled with soy glaze. And, BTW, when they say cubes they mean smaller Rubik’s cubes – not the confetti that passes for meat in your shrink-wrapped salads. The reason that the pork does not score higher is that the venerable pig has become a bona fide religion as of late. There is so much competition that a simple mix like the above is too small a plan to stir men’s souls. The dish is absolutely excellent but you can have similar at 15 other places. The other two, you can’t. So there. The only disappointment were the scallops. But I have been increasingly disappointed with them, mainly due to stratospheric prices. Still, even here, Gather gives you four for US$23. Compare that to Balena’s 2 for 27. Finally about the portions: They’re HUGE! Not sharing as in morsels but actually for sharing with 3 or more people – or just 2 gluttonous people. Or 2 adults and two smaller kids. Or…you get the point. As usual, we over-ordered and self-extraction from our chairs was a triceps workout. You have been warned. Wanna sample all the goodies? Make sure to bring a posse. They don’t have to share your DNA. Or a to-go bucket. You’ll still spend less than you would for dinner for 2 at any Gold Coast haunt. Money that you should then spend on after-dinner drinks.


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Balena 2014-02-19

by Foodbitch 6. March 2014 05:20

Being a harsh critic shortly after a new opening is akin to punishing a puppy for stumbling over its massive paws. Had I written up mean things about Balena when we first went in 2012, I would now be forced to print my words on 30lb. linen paper and let you watch me eat them. Round 2 was exceptional.

In my long and lovely history of eating to excess, “have you dined with us before?” has been the most consistent opener. But at Balena they open with: “What time is your show tonight?” and it so amused me that I wished the title of this piece could be “Dinner and Show.” Why no “a?” you’ll see. Balena’s proximity to Steppenwolf so highly correlates the two that the waiters themselves assume that if a show is playing, their patrons are watching and they had better get them out in time. And were we glad that they got us out to see this one. But first the food.

While awaiting the female’s arrival, a conspicuous subset of the menu caught the eye: the vermouth tasting. It was there the last time but perhaps my brain had simply lacked the frequency on which it could receive the broadcast. I mean, come on…a VERMOUTH TASTING? Since I was 15 years old I had considered the sight of vermouth from across the room as the perfect amount in a martini. But our server patiently explained that that was all because the vermouth in “the kinds of bars we went to” had all “turned” long ago due to its sparse usage and for this reason tasted like an Arizona sandstorm. He implored that I would need to trust him Omakase style. I did. And I am glad I did. And I wish you would too.

 Since I must complain a little, I will do so about the scallops. The plural is used loosely. Yes there are two. But just two. And for the price of US$27, a grotesque assault on the pocketbook of the working middle class. The rest of the meal was shockingly well-priced for what one gets considering memories of 2012. Balena learned its lesson. I am proud.

The margherita pizza was much larger than we expected despite being warned that it would be larger than we expected. So…let us warn you to expect it to be larger than you expect it to be even after being warned that it would be larger…gawd. Let us stop before we find a linguistic wormhole. I shall say no more about the pizza. Except that it’s really good.

The show? Russian Transport at the Steppenwolf. I found the topic and the accents to be hilarious. Many didn’t. Obviously, the subject matter underlines the worst possible case in immigration where the  transports seem to have a knack for hopping out of the frying pan and directly into the third circle of the Inferno (which is gluttony since you must ask), but, as most things, dealing with the outliers simply makes for better television. And stagecraft.

I found the show amusing for many reasons, not the least of which is because of having grown up in a household where the females all sport the same bizarre shade of purple on their domes as though they all conspire every week to cook up a giant batch of borscht and then dive headfirst into the beet scraps thereby getting done the “cooking” and saving money with the colorist. Russian women are nothing if not industrious.

Anyway, you should see the show. Or any show. But before you do, take care to eat at Balena, skip the scallops but do get the vermouth tasting. Just don’t get as many as I did or you’ll be stumbling over people going to the restroom. 6 times. 

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Nico Osteria 2014-01-11

by Foodbitch 19. January 2014 19:23

Rich parents have a tricky time raising proper children. Not because their wealth intrinsically corrupts, but because of the misguided forces of human correlation. Correlating offspring with themselves, wealthy parents tend to allow the feral beings to tumbleweed through early life because, very likely, they were denied the wilderness themselves. And so it is with hotel restaurants. The hotel is the rich parent and, its overwhelming failure to tighten up the reigns, leads to the certain failure of the child restaurant. I have railed against this scourge quite often. I prepared to do the same with Nico Osteria. But I can’t. Save for their healthy Rush-Street pricing, they are an excellent addition to the street of Dine and Drink.

The location that most recently gave birth to Nico Osteria has gone through so many identities that I joked, 4 years ago, during a month of Spanish-themes, that the staff might walk in to work with “tapas” and walk out with “sushi.” I also expressed doubt about the location’s possible continuance for even the wealthiest of parents (hi Rande Gerber) can grow tired of bailing out their misbehaving children. I regret my cavalier dismissal.

 My only complaint about the restaurant is price. The anemic fish one gets for US$20 is inexcusable, Rush Street or not. “Crudo” means “raw” in Italian and I certainly felt beaten that way. I don’t know why the prices didn’t stop us from ordering 4 crudos. Perhaps they have the supply=demand function figured out quite well. And their wine is priced at a shocking 2x markup. Also excellent.

 

How about the service? Certainly I could find something there I didn’t like. Unfortunately, I couldn’t. What was, perhaps, a testament to overstaffing, my water glass never went below half-way and not a crumb dropped on the table went without removal. I glanced to the far corner of the bar and saw 11 staffers (I counted…come on, you know I did) standing there looking for empty glasses to fill or crumbs to collect. And I felt, for the first time, that someone other than a techie knows what one must do to buy redundancy. Rich parent that actually invest in their children. I think I love it. If I could afford it, I would come here again.

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Goosefoot 2014-01-08

by Foodbitch 16. January 2014 06:58

The chief problem with BYO at large-course dinners is the inevitable (and rapid) descent into total table chaos. As the glasses piled upon glass, keeping track of which vessel contained which pairing was an impossible assignment. This, to say nothing about the different pace of the 4 drinkers. The redeeming quality, of course, is price. Drinking as we did, if the wine were paired up by the restaurant, we could never have escaped without a bill well beyond the painful 4-figures. Still, I was underwhelmed, underfed and out-of-patience.

Goosefoot is named after Chenopodium, a genus of herbaceous flowering plants. Genus! NOT family! Dammit! Why does the staff keep saying family? The “amaranth” family does, in fact, include the goosefoots but the incorrect reversal is no different than saying all rectangles are squares because all squares are rectangles.

You have had geese-feets before. They include some spinaches, Mexican Epazote, Swiss chard, Chioggia beets, and the super-popular quinoa which might be better called a goose-running-shoe based on how fast it sprinted onto every hipster menu ever. Chris and Nina Nugent, chef and proprietors, grow the plants themselves. I suppose a goosefoot fetish is better than the plain foot one.

Despite my opening remark, I cannot say that there was anything on the menu that was bad. Indeed, I was blown away by the savory delight of the second course (shrimp/preserved garlic…), served in an eggshell. The meats were fantastic but wholly insufficient. This 9-course meal borrowed many things from many places. Tru’s synchronized plates? Check. Alinea’s aromatic excess? Check. Contemporary, engaging (and engaged) 4-star service? Check…minus. Because the time between courses was unacceptably long. I know this is the kitchen’s note but it’s service’s echo. One interval stretched over 30 minutes and the average was 15. Our meal took nearly 5 hours – I kid you not. Mrs. Nugent explained that they do not turn tables (which is why getting reservations is so fun) and the seating is for the evening. I’d prefer that be a right and not an obligation. Folk should not have time to get hungry again between courses. Especially given their infinitesimal size. At least we had our wine.  And goosefoots. And, yes, they add amazing value to the meal. So small, yet flavorful. They notably improved on already tasty fare.

The following is in order of the corkage. But in the melee that ensued, no glass was really paired with anything. ‘Twas all a giant free-for-all. I hope you can show more restraint.  

  1. Veuve Clicquot Rose (Champagne)
  2. 2011 Belle Glos Dairyman (Pinot)
  3. 2004 Marcel Deiss (Alsace)
  4. 1986 Château Beychevelle (Bordeaux)
  5. 2003 Parusso Barolo Le Coste-Mosconi (Barolo)

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Wild Ginger 2013-12-27

by Foodbitch 27. December 2013 01:47

“Every earthly thing has a beginning and an end.” Wrote a three-star General in a book on winning warfare. Planning for the end gets one ahead he said. He referred to wars, countries and relations. Not silly, civilian things like restaurants. And yet, given our relatively short time on a very long-lived planet, pets and restaurants are the few things that we outlive routinely. I ate at Wild Ginger in Seattle and was overcome by having outlived so many of my favorites.

It’s hard to quote pop-culture because of its increasing bankruptcy. But there was a scene in The Walking Dead where a character known as “The Governor” (played with repellent brilliance by David Morrissey) performs a monologue about his departed wife. She called him before the apocalypse and he didn’t answer. She didn’t leave a voice mail. “What did she call about?” he muses. If he had known that that was his last chance to speak with her, would he have found the time? What if I knew that on May 2nd, 2009, I would eat at Vong for the last time? Would I have ordered more? Would I have tipped better? I don’t know. 12/16/2010 was my last meal at Opera and 12/30/2010 at Red Light. Any dinner in the West Loop neighborhood usually began with a Mango Martini and tuna appetizer at Red Light. I miss it greatly.

The tuna tatakke at Red Light. The vegetable curry pizza at Vong’s Thai Kitchen. The multi-prepared Duck at Opera. The Chao Tom (shrimp over sugarcane) at Le Colonial. Save for the Rush-street located yet inexpensive Vietnamese, not a single restaurant remains. This is a travesty. In 2009, Elizabeth Gilbert gave a TED talk in which she said that she realizes that her greatest accomplishment may very well be behind her. There is great insight in that statement because it’s so often true with many things and many people. The pop culture name is “one-hit-wonder.” It would be a great shame if Chicago’s best accomplishments in Asian cooking are getting more distant in the rearview.

Anyway, Wild Ginger: there is not a single dish I’ve had here that wasn’t stellar. But the duck is in a category alone. It’s far superior to any I’ve had before or since and I would not be surprised to discover that they sprinkle it with dopamine reuptake inhibitors. If you like the Shrimp/Sugarcane at Le Colonial, you’ll love the lettuce cup here with sea bass. The price, though, you may not. I thought that about the prawns but given how many showed up on the plate, I suppose the average price per prawn was fair. If you recall Red Light and the Mango Martinis…the Mango Daquiri at Wild Ginger is required. I ended up wolfing down so much that I could barely move. This happens every time and can result in an abbreviated evening as we just go home and fall asleep in our clothes since we’re too full to bend over and untie shoes. I do this routinely at steak houses and a place in South Beach called Barton G but this is the only Asian place capable of hitting me in the belt. Trust me, this is saying something.

Seattle is not known for its excellence of service. Although not as bad as LA, Seattle is still West Coast when it comes to energy and speed. Wild Ginger (and Toulouse Petit, Toulouse Petit review) is a shining beacon of exception. I cannot recommend Wild Ginger to you more strongly. Eating there will expose you to flavors you may have forgotten existed. You will receive service so exemplary that it alone pulls up Seattle’s dismal average. You will be reminded of a class of Asian restaurant that has all but left Chicago. Perhaps you, like I, will sprinkle your epicurean evening with a few flakes of nostalgia. And, if you had the privilege to know them, great memories of dear departed friends. 

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Tru 2013-12-19

by Foodbitch 21. December 2013 06:30

Dear Tru, writing you this letter is a little like telling your female friend that she’s gained some weight. She knows. You know. Everyone knows. It usually makes no difference. But occasionally, the friend wakes up one morning and decides she looks like dough. And begins the gym FOR REAL – not just working out the jaw East Bank style. And when we see her in a month she looks amazing because she didn’t have that far to go. You are that friend and I can only hope that your (rock) bottom is higher than that of most.

You and I started dating in 2000. A mere several months after you emerged out of the Lettuce womb. You are my longest-term relationship. My dinner partners have come and gone but you have still remained. My 4-star go-to. My standby. Like a Minnesota Fats, you had no need to hustle others. You made your living by being consistently excellent, no matter what. Against you, others formed their measures. Sadly, your meter-stick has lost some length throughout the years.

I have always thought your dinners to be like gold and diamonds: they owe their value to their scarcity. Some accused you of theatrics but I believed the theater to be important. The “service” part of food. I enjoyed the synchronized pours and the artistry. Both on the walls and off.  Gone is the Warhol Marilyn because it (probably) belonged to Mr. Tramonto (Unlimited). But the art of the dining room most certainly did not. Why are we seeing its extinction? Did he take the service with him in the divorce?

My favorite part of dinner was always the wait staff. Unlike other 4-stars, Tru had the novel insight that its diners did not necessarily wish to sit for hours at a foodie funeral. And the waiters would engage the patrons at precisely the level of volume and activity that the patrons wanted. No longer. Yesterday, service was distant, unforgiving and slow to join the punch-line. It made me miss the Tru of old.

Ironically, even though the food is the easiest part for 4-stars to get to perfect, you didn’t even do that. Borrowing from Trotter, you underwhelm the appetizers and main courses and then overdo desserts as if it were a zero-sum investment. Like the balding guy who starts to grow a beard thinking the hair below compensates for the lack above. It doesn’t. I hated this behavior about Trotter’s and I was very disappointed with yesterday’s emulation of the same. But I must admit that what I had was excellent. It always is. Especially the cheese. Can we trade a few desserts for a higher cheese allowance? My household spends more on fermented milk than on gasoline. Our car gets 9 miles per gallon so you can imagine the value of this statement. And yet, we had not a single one of the cheeses on the menu. This is an accomplishment we admire. Unfortunately, I bet the menu is not available to mortals.

Anyway, our years are spent chasing Lettuce Entertain You gold status. Once we reach enough to maintain, we look for places to blow the accumulated rewards. I hate to tell you that next year we will look elsewhere. You probably won’t miss us because our spending is a rounding error on your books. It is said that critics are legless men who teach running. But what I would hate to see is a small group of dedicated nomads do to you what groups did to the Holy Roman Empire. I am not ready to move you out of memory and into history. I don’t want to write the first chapter in the Decline and Fall of the Tru-man empire just yet. 

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Happy Thanksgiving 2013-11-28

by Foodbitch 28. November 2013 21:07

In 2004 we were very thankful for something. What was it? 

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Cape Cod Room 2013-02-13

by Foodbitch 13. February 2013 23:27

Russell Menkes
General Manager
The Drake Hotel Chicago
140 East Walton St.
Chicago IL 60611

Dear Mr. Menkes,

On February 16th, 2013, we attempted to dine at Cape Cod Room. Since my partner worked on Valentine’s Day, we were going to use this as our date-night. It was not to be.

It’s not a crime for a restaurant to be busy. Indeed, there is a fine balance between traffic and desirability. But there is a big difference between organic crowdedness and the false pretense of exclusivity. Think the velvet ropes in LA nightclubs as compared to the healthy bar scene at a well-managed restaurant like Roy’s or anything by Gibson’s group.

Working the host stand was Theodore Daskalopoulos, who, I have since learned, is the general manager of the restaurant. I suppose the only way such a person can remain employed in the business of service is by being boss. He should not be allowed near customers.

Upon arrival, our customary 10 minutes in advance, Mr. Daskalopoulos advised us with dismissiveness: “We’re running a little behind. Have a seat.” Now, I don’t need massaging or false pretenses to niceness. But I still regarded the completely cavalier instruction to “have a seat” as, perhaps, not in the spirit of the service level to which a hotel like The Drake aspires. To say nothing of the fact that “a little behind” is absolutely meaningless. Quantify it and let us decide if we’re staying.

One other couple was already seated. We were the second. There was no more room to sit but Mr. Daskalopoulos proceeded to dismiss 3 additional parties with the same instructions. Sit where? I thought. No one had the courage to enter the completely empty dining area to the immediate right of entry and grab one of those seats. Had this been a regular Saturday, I would have and kicked my feet up. Maybe called Domino’s as obnoxiously as possible – asked the other victims of Mr. Daskalopoulos’ disdain if they wanted anything while they waited. But this was our Valentine’s Day.  I had to be nice which I regret exceedingly because few things on this planet are less pleasurable than being on the receiving end of my rude-restaurant cross-examination. Especially when I have an audience in a similar predicament.

Now Mr. Menkes, I understand fully well that a restaurant like Cape Cod Room is a rounding error on the books of a giant hotel like The Drake. This difference in scale is also why hotel management is almost always professionally trained and why restaurant management so rarely is. It is probably for this reason that the management charged with the hotel sometimes treats the restaurants’ as beneath them. Certainly Mr. Daskalopoulos’ attitude would imply that he is looked down upon by someone in your executive corridors and he takes out his resentment on his customers; who are also your customers. This affects you for two reasons.

First, most interactions between the hotel’s guests and its staff is through the dining establishments. There is little distinction drawn between the experiences in restaurants, especially when exceedingly negative and the overarching impression of the host organism, which is your Hotel. Secondly, by denying guests a viable place to spend their money inside the hotel, you’re just guaranteeing that what little benefit a restaurant does provide will be evaporate to nothing. Look to NoMi for a perfect example of a decade-long march into irrelevance until finally management was kicked out along with the nightclub attitude. Now, it is Michigan Avenue’s most improved player. Don’t you want to be? The solution begins with Mr. Daskalopoulos’ dismissal. And that of his attitude.

We went inland and had a lovely meal at Le Colonial where, even at their busiest, they have treated us better than Mr. Daskalopoulos treated anyone that night. Just thought you should know.

Sincerely,

Mealschpeal.com  

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STD Sushi 2013-01-10

by Foodbitch 10. January 2013 03:25

Good sushi is easy to identify. A good sushi restaurant is not. For better or for worse, both the yummy fish flesh and the places serving it has become commoditized. Although it may seem counterintuitive, I use the ubiquitous Spicy Tuna Roll as my barometer. And STD delivers.

It started out as the repository of wasted flesh. “Why bother?” the Japanese elitists thought. The dumb Americans are adding spicy mayo. They won’t be able to taste anything. Except when cuts get too close to the tail, the white sinews become ubiquitous. Some restaurants had even taken to grinding up the “sushi” so as to help the customer chew what would otherwise serve as dental floss. Tendon floss. Hehehe…gross. But a restaurant that uses quality tuna even though it’s drenched in spicy mayonnaise is a quality cop indeed. STD Sushi is the most remarkable achievement since Sushi Wabi and even Japonais. Below are some must-haves.

    1. H.I.Victory Sashimi – The sushi world is so stuck on rolls that ordering sashimi is so quaint it’s almost retro. However, the sushi chefs at STD have captured a strain of knowledge from a time before the latency and reverse transcribed it into some infectiously beautiful creations that are now a part of the restaurant’s DNA. Don’t try to resist these macro masterpieces. Your defenses will be useless.

 

    1. Giant Gonorrhea Roll – Its pieces are as soft as gonococci and emit a gentle color-sustaining hue, even in low light. I was infected right away by the spice and burn sensation even though only 20% of men risk infection upon first bite but luckily, more than 60% of women can expect the same.

 

    1. Spicy Syphilis Sixplosion – soft and gummatous, but bold and flavorful, the Spicy SS harks back to a simpler time, when the flavor was transmitted strictly through the mucous membranes. And what a flavor it is. The early stages may be painless but after a period of latency, the diner’s nose can explode with the heat of 1000 wasabis but the heat doesn’t go away. I am told that the chefs, having studied in Tuskegee, know how to make it stop but refuse – and we must endure.

 

    1. Herpetic Simplex Skewer – Once infected with their taste, you cannot but help experience persistent and recurring cravings. A craving that can be sated but not cured. Don’t resist the deliciousness. Call all your friends and gorge! Then upload it to YouTube. Guaranteed to go viral.

 

  1. Crabs Tempura – Crusted crustacean sitting on a bed of lice and curly crab grass, accompanied by a thick white sauce for your dipping pleasure. Not as overwhelming as the others, the Crabs don’t bog you down with craving – they just ping you on occasion. A little itch to let you know they’re there.

 

And so a new year ushers in a new sushi restaurant. The brief bump on the road to openings will not constrain the determined mouth from partaking of the offering. Sushi is, after all, one of nature’s perfect foods. Whether served naked or with culinary jewelry, there is nothing like the pleasure of that first morsel of gently cool sashimi melting on one’s tongue. What began in the 1960s as an experiment to fill the cargo holds of Japanese airliners is a national phenomenon that seems boundless in its scope. A roll is like a tunnel. And at its end there is no light, no hope for cure. Just darkness. For which we are the vector. 

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Lawrys 2012-12-17

by Foodbitch 17. December 2012 00:25

Richard N. Frank

234 E Colorado Boulevard # 500

Pasadena, CA  91101-2211

 

Dear Mr. Frank,

On December 17th, I dined at Lawry’s Chicago. Although my Prime Rib sandwich was, as it always is, excellent, I cannot say the same for the salad of my date. Indeed, I even feel discomfort using the term “salad” to describe the horror that was served. It seemed as though what passed for lettuce in Lawry’s Chicago sphere of gravity was a wilted and aged relic with a frozen past. The promised egg was missing and someone thought it wise to make up in seasoning what the entrée lacked in freshness. Much like my own wilting glow and souring scent of youth has forced me to resort to brightly colored outfits, jewelry and oceans of cologne. Yet I have seen McDonald’s hide their disdain for freshness better that Lawry’s did today and at least they don’t charge $10 for their assaults on salad-eating palates.

My complaint is, sadly, twofold. It is exceedingly rare to be served such inedibility anywhere in Chicago. When it happens, I like to monitor the server’s reaction to clearing a full plate. Today, the bus staff cleared the table and took no notice whatsoever. This is bad training. As is the fact that wilted, browning lettuce can make it past a single pair of kitchen eyeballs and down on a paying person’s plate. This kind of carelessness trickles from the top. So, after paying for our luncheon, I asked the hostess for the manager. “Is it important?” I was asked. I would like to think that if I’m asking, clearly I consider it important but alas, there was no manager around. At all. It startled me that a chain as successful as Lawry’s could fail to impress upon a general manager the importance of having supervisors available to customers at all hours they are served. Especially during lunchtime rush on Michigan Avenue. Had I been able to speak about the matter in real-time, this would have gone no further. But since the GM obviously cares so little for his operations I feel this escalation is a favor to a restaurant where I had enjoyed so many prior meals. And hope to in the future.

You see Mr. Frank, Lawry’s, unlike most of Chicago’s temples to carnivorousness, has never cared for their vegetarian clientele quite as much as I believed was business savvy. Go to Gibson’s or Joe’s and order a salad and what comes back is a caricature on a serving platter. For a comparable pittance. They have, unlike Lawry’s, figured out that the flesh-eaters must often dine with those who are still stuck in moral purgatory eating the plant diets of great apes. They don’t understand that all domestic animals are alive for our entertainment or consumption but instead of shunning these poor souls, feed them! And you’ll see more of their dinner partners too! The marginal increase in cost for a head of lettuce is trivial after the supply chain absorbs the cost of the first 100 units. If you promise egg, deliver it! And a few more than 5 tiny croutons (we counted). And…who thought that freezing lettuce was a good idea? Unlike animal protein, water-rich plant membranes do not maintain cellular integrity (or taste) after being pierced with ice crystals. This is why JR Simplot’s process of flash-freezing his potatoes enabled us to become a country of freeze-dried, French-fried tastelessness. Let them be thankful for International Flavors and Fragrances for creating the chemical mirage of flavor. Lawry’s – I held to higher standards.

Mr. Frank, I love your company’s accomplishments almost as much as I loved the food. But the decline in “caring” continues unabated. Please sir, sneak in one day and eat at Lawry’s Chicago’s lunchtime counter. If you proclaim it even passable (C-) I will eat this letter right in front of you. It’s printed on 32 lb. paper so this is not a run-of-the-mill boast. Although it may not be the worst thing for me. They keep telling me I need more fiber in my diet.

Sincerely,

Mealschpeal.com

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Whole Foods 2012-10-21

by Foodbitch 21. October 2012 07:30

John Mackey

Whole Foods Market, Inc.

550 Bowie Street

Austin, TX 78703-4644


Dear Mr. Mackey,

 On the 21st of October, Anno Domini two thousand and twelve, I shopped at your Chicago Gold Coast location. The experience left me incomplete.

I do not regard unreasonable to want a detailed, printed transaction history. I’m not the only one. Indeed, some merchants offer rewards for the omission of receipts. The employees at Whole Foods, however, regard this as a privilege and an encroachment on their time. Today was a startling example.

Attached are two receipts that I wanted reprinted. I cannot see the price column and this would prevent me from properly categorizing the purchases and checking your POS’s tax calculations. The manager who was summoned to assist said: “It’ll take ten minutes” and stood looking at me with the obvious intent of dissuading me from waiting. I replied: “What are you waiting for then?” That was not the reply he was expecting. But away he went – to the customer “service” counter and began to work. In the meantime, I pretended to be in line at a non-functional cash register and thoroughly amused myself as people began to line up behind me. I paid the gentleman back for his disdain with sarcasm and had he gotten any worse, I would have used the only weapon available to customers in this situation: the outdoor voice.

Anyway, I have attached the receipts. I hope you’re as amused as I am. Before you laugh this off, please know that my life is a case study in partially-repressed obsessive compulsion and I NEED these receipts for proper reporting. I bought $84.89 worth of apples in 2012 and can even tell you how much were Fuji versus Red Delicious. Depriving me of this materially affects my quality of life and causes me great stress. Your staff needs to be more understanding of this particular form of mental illness.

 

Sincerely,

MealSchpeal.com

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Ada Street 2012-09-07

by foodbitch 7. September 2012 18:13

In the interest of time savings, I have started taking an instant dislike to certain types of people. Type-As wielding domination even though I’m neither buying nor competing. HR students who still think that using my first name 8 times in every sentence sounds friendly, not creepy. And finally the too-cool-to-be-there butterflies who wear the perma-mask of disappointment and oblige others to entertain them. At Ada Street, they seem to hire all three. 

We arrived 15 minutes early for our 8:30 reservation. In the game of disrespect, we never want to be the ones to unsheathe first. Especially with restaurants. I don’t know exactly when the lateness became fashionable. To me, it has always been a stark abomination in the conduct of the affairs of men. I used to blame the ease of mobile-calling with the attitude of: “it’s OK, I’m running late” except, no one even bothers calling. So in my very scientific sample-size, I note that there remain two types of tardy: passive-aggressive and clueless-idiot. Exhibit A: I will make you wait because I think I can and Exhibit B: My parents were divorced and were always skiing up in Aspen so they never taught me manners and I never really had a real job so it’s ok, forgive me for being scatter-brained. Sorry: NO. The world has, long ago, stopped cashing checks for those who just show up. And if one shows up late, one may never (should never) get the cash at all. Or the reservation. Indeed, restaurants have tried to flip the table on the grotesque rudeness of their diners and I and my punctual fellows are collateral damage. Something which Next, and Alinea by proxy have been trying to combat with the pre-paid ticket sale system. It works when demand so greatly exceeds supply. A phone call costs nothing. A ticket costs real money. But not every restaurant warrants a pre-payment. In fact, few do and none of this would be an issue if people just showed up on time and cancelled when they knew they couldn’t.

Anyway, we arrived early. As is the custom at Ada Street, greeting us was a 30 minute wait AND – a glass of whatever they were pouring – that night: sangria. Nice touch. Apology accepted. But at my age and lack of patience, I’d rather pay for what I drink while seated at my table. And despite my having asked 2 hostesses about any possible prognosis, none who ever walked down the lengthy hallway to the dining area was seen again. There must have been a revolving door of them somewhere in the restaurant.

After we were seated and served the drinks we actually wanted things started looking up. In terms of service. The waitress was a refreshing departure from the butterflies about the host stand. I can’t help but think that she was also a departure from the median at Ada Street. The food? Eh. Everything – and I mean everything – was safely mediocre. And we do have a reasonable sample on which to base this conclusion. Green tomatoes, kale, polenta fries (2), squid, octopus, scallops, crispy potatoes, salmon tartare, donuts and many, many drinks. To their credit, things were priced at a mediocre level too. In all, we were safely underwhelmed. I would rather pay a premium to be overwhelmed. It’s why we go out to eat.

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Hash House a go go 2012-08-24

by foodbitch 24. August 2012 20:59

A fearsome apparition was placed on the table before me and for the first time in YEARS I feared defeat by a lunch entrée. This “battle” is akin to playing chicken. You win but you still lose. By all the pork that’s holy, I wish I would have lost. I felt like lethargic crap all day.


The waiter started it. He said he had never seen someone finish more than half of it. What was I supposed to do? The Big O’ Crispy Pork Tenderloin is the Jacksonville of sandwiches. It spread over my plate like Jack-o-ville spreads over north Florida. Wide, thin, and cooked extra crispy, Jacksonville sprawls over 800 square miles to contain a population the size of San Francisco. Likewise, my “tenderloin” wasn’t tender in the least but super-wide, super thin and cooked irreparably tender-free. All the flavor of this sandwich could have fit inside 2 cubic inches of pork belly. But instead, my palate got a long, boring suburban commute across a desolate, parched landscape in pursuit of a scarce garnish. Definitely the triumph of quantity over quality.


I will return to HHAGG. I don’t want to rip on it too badly. Some people like pork this way. Some also like chicken-fried ice cream. Their palate was probably abused as children. It’s not their fault. Their parents were, and many still are, high-caloric idiots. But there are other items I will try including the Man vs. Food favorites. The service was impeccable. Despite his warning that “plates come out as they’re ready” the server took my sarcastic reply in stride like a complete gentleman. I was almost misty-eyed. All should know and share my opinion on the philosophy of “we let your food get cold in front of you instead of timing the kitchen properly.” To HHAGG’s credit, they didn’t let it get too cold. Nor would it have mattered. The time it took me to chew mouthful after dry mouthful of irredeemably fried pork meant that my sandwich was cold inside of the first few bites. Heat flees as a function of surface area and this sandwich was a surface like no other. And yet, temperature changes were neither detraction nor improvement. And like the sight of a palm tree in the desert, I longed for the rare pickle sprinkled coyly through the flatness of my pork. I relished every one. Get it? I relished the pickles?


HHAGG, unlike some other recent meals, announces early and loudly that “we are a non-heat lamp restaurant.” This is their way of telling you about the philosophy of the kitchen being timing-free. I appreciate the twist on words to make this sound better but naturally, with the presence of heat lamps, one is discouraged from timing dishes AT ALL since they can just sit and mutate until the other things are ready. But it’s not cheap. HHAGG, being a chain, sought to save heat lamps * 7 locations * untold kilowatthours etc., etc.. Fine. But stop it with creative excuses. Heat-lamp free? Please. All they’re doing is passing down rudeness to their customer. I’m still never going to start eating until everyone in my party can too and I will always lift my ass slightly off the seat when the females leave the table or return and damn those chair-booths. Neither I nor you should let any amount of modern restaurant philosophy ever encroach upon good manners. That’s what booze is for.

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Rustic House 2012-07-26

by foodbitch 26. July 2012 18:05

An easy way for a server to inflict shrinkage upon an otherwise robust gratuity is to make the table wait for the first drink and/or the check.  Even those good about the former can have an uncanny tendency to vanish just before the last bite until well after the table has been cleared. Despite these infractions, Rustic House was a highly memorable meal.


We seldom venture north of North or west of Western. There is rarely any need. Upon the first sighting of a backward ballcap my natural human flight or fight response sometimes kicks into both gears. But this evening, at Rustic House, there were no ball caps, front or back. No pre-theater peacocking. Just some honestly outstanding food for a bargain of a price.


We have a semi-monthly dinner with some true fans of the fermented grape. Such fans they are that drinking acceptable quality in the required quantity would quickly push any dinner bill past a private-school tuition. Thus, they roll their own. At RH, the $20 (per BOTTLE!) corkage fee is a little steep. I recall that even Spiaggia charged only a flat fee. I recall this because the waitress there told me that folks eating rich but drinking poor sometimes order the “Coor-kawjé.” I don’t disagree that a fee should be charged. But there is just something scalding about it costing you a Jackson per bottle considering they don’t even pour the wine most of the time (or change glasses unless you change colors). This, along with the delay before the first drink and after the last bite are already on the list of tiny little knit-picking. And just a couple others before I can go on about the wonder of the food. The dining room was PACKED. I am delighted that people are eating out again since the last few years has been a wasteland for new restaurants. But in the back dining room of RH, the tables are packed so tightly that the most two-dimensional of people would not fit comfortably and any encroachment upon the aisle will guarantee a bump (or 20) from speedy bussers. I am not the most jumbo of Chicagoans but I still spent dinner seated with the back of my chair sideways – perpendicular to the table – because there was no way to breathe or move without chair-grinding the nice older lady behind me. She noticed and tried to move her table over without causing the same issue for her party. If she noticed, I wonder why our server didn’t. But our server was thoroughly overwhelmed. I guess they don’t pack it in like this consistently. Finally in the column of infraction: parking. Our dinner reservation was at 7:30. We arrived at 7:15 and left shortly before 10PM. Check is time-stamped 9:49PM. RH has a policy, supposedly printed on the valet sign, that parking costs $12 for 3 hours and 16 thereafter. We were charged the $16. First of all: this is abusive. Gibson’s doesn’t charge so much for so little and we park there all day. Secondly: the valet sign was long gone by the time we left the restaurant. And finally: we did NOT spend 25 minutes gathering our things after the bill. It shines bad light upon a business when a supporting service engages in wholesale theft on top of already overcharging. You expect this at a strip club as they try to soak you for $10 in the “mandatory coat check” but not after 3-star dining. I called Brianne Carden (GM) and informed her of my displeasure. This was done via the vanishing vocal cord – not via email. She said she’d look into it and follow up. Please don’t be shocked when I tell you that she has NOT followed up and if she is looking into anything she’s doing so clandestinely. But, managerial delinquency aside, on to the food!


I have dined at most of Jason Paskewitz’s restaurants since his bold emergence on our scene. His prior efforts have been consistent. They all had decent management, fair service and great food. From this, Rustic house is only a slight improvement if one averages and reduces the scores down to standardized. But we shouldn’t do that. This is why you’re reading the second page of lengthy rant instead of looking briefly for a star rating. Having made it this far, you have the interest and attention span to want to know what’s good, what’s not and what was absolutely worth the trip. The food is always good or great at a Paskewitz location. It’s always his business partners (with emphasis on the business component) who need polish. This was no exception. The food at Rustic House was better than any other place Mr. Paskewitz has cooked.


Rustic House is basically rotisserie house +. Every day (except for Monday since they’re closed) Rustic House features a roto-special. We’re talking pork chops, veal, lamb, duck and prime rib. The chicken is on daily. Having gone on Thursday, the day’s rotisserie was baby suckling pig. There is something about pork prepared this way that never ceases to amaze me. It’s like when Goldman Sachs is ready to release earnings and disclose bonuses and you know they’re going to be big numbers and you think you’re not going to be shocked but you always are. That is always, always how I feel about pork done right. Every bite is better than the last and even though I agreed to share with my friends I just can’t bear to part equitably with my porcine treasure in exchange for a helping of pasta. Pasta? Please. How much pasta can you give me to make up for a mere morsel of that crispy skin and tender flesh?


The pork was the best feature of the evening and, amazingly, the cheapest. For $22 I expected a finger but got a big old fist. People expect to pay more for this kind of treat and it’s refreshing when we don’t. The lamb T-bone was also shockingly well-priced at $28, the salmon filet at $26, and the only item scratching up the thirties was the swordfish at $32. Now I neither wish to foment religious war, nor insult anyone’s palate. I’m glad swordfish exists, appears on menus regularly and is as substantial as a steak for all the pescatarians. But I will only order swordfish if there is nothing else to eat. Like Dyson Vacuums, male jewelry and BMWs – I have nothing against any of these things, nor the people buying them. But they are not for me. Neither is swordfish. But, in its defense, the male half of our double date said the swordfish was the best he’s ever had. Although I cannot tune my palate to this frequency and receive these signals, this guy is an authority on gluttony and you should listen to what he says. If you like swordfish that is. And wear a pinky ring. In your M3 convertible.

In the last 5 years, entrée prices have seen very large deflation. Like the airlines and the 10,000 computer parts merchants on the early Web. People are drawn to entrée prices (the fare, the hard drive) and not until they get to checkout would they see the scam. Airline fees and taxes and other shameless crap that would double the price as advertised. It was the same with online shopping before Amazon became a giant with little tiny stores selling 20 dollar microphones and charging $85 dollars for shipping and HANDLING. I don’t know what kind of “handling” would warrant such terrific gouging but don’t think it can happen through underwear, to say nothing of a monitor. Rustic House and others have a slightly different approach to the same scam. Sure your baby suckling piggy is $22 but a tablespoon of almonds is $5 and 2 jumbo garlic shrimp (although excellent and enough to repel the Kosher vampires) cost $10 and a pot pie (also excellent; we ordered for the table) was a gouge-inducing $19. Don’t forget the $20 corkage (per BOTTLE!) and the $13 martini and before you know it Mr. Businesschef, you’ve made up the money you’ve lost on meats. We also ordered the grilled octopus for $13 which was actually really good and comparatively inexpensive. It was almost par with Parthenon. Those Greeks…I just don’t know how they do it. Their Octopi are stellar.


For dessert we ordered Crème Brulee but I would have rather ordered another Martini. As you know, I prefer my sugars fermented and distilled. So – in conclusion, we had a lovely meal for about $90/pp (remember that we brought our wine). Despite the neutron star density of people, the overwhelmed service, the price gouging of the appetizers, corkage and the little “bonus” the valet decided to give himself, we had a great time and think that you will too. Go on Thursday. Get the baby pig. You’ll thank me.

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Au Cheval 2012-07-21

by foodbitch 21. July 2012 17:51

When Phil Vettel reviewed RPM he coined the term “Nitropub” to describe the recent trend of selling high-priced appetizers at bars. “Nitro” instead of the conventional “gastro” because he thought it more appropriate for the energy they ooze. Perhaps. They can overload my ears, underload my eyes, and have a Bloody Mary sommelier. They are almost always mediocre. But Au Cheval is slightly better.


I blame Paul Kahan for many sins that I first observed at his establishments. Blackbird for dinner plate microscopy. Avec and later Publican for communal seating. Publican and Big Star for the now endemic: “we bring it out as it’s ready” = inability/unwillingness to manage flow and have one diner either awkwardly sitting with a plate for 10 minutes having it get cold or sitting for 10 minutes at the end of the meal while the other party finishes. Either way, dear management, someone will be sitting awkwardly at one of these two points in the meal so why not just spare us said awkwardness and let the dish that was flamed first sit under the heat lamps? We honestly won’t mind. This policy has infected everyone so thoroughly that Au Cheval (or RPM, and a great number of recent places) doesn’t even bother telling you that stuff will be lobbed onto the table in whatever order they goddam please. I have to stress loudly, past the point of politeness, that WE (not I) will be STARTING with the soup. Bring two spoons. I shouldn’t have to say this. But almost without fail, the plate will arrive with a single spoon leaving me to eat with the glorified coffee stirrer. To their credit, Au Cheval had spoons in their utensil wrap saving me this particular sound-off. And they heard me on the “starting with” which is a rare treat in the ranks of Nitropubs. Hearing anything is a treat I suppose but anyway, I don’t care what Anthony Bourdain says. I love my serving of hot liquid almost as much as my alcoholic one. I want it and I want it first.


Au Cheval is pretty good. It suffers the typical missteps of youth even though Brendan Sodikoff is neither a kid nor inexperienced. He has Gilt, Maude’s and the Doughnut Vault on his resume. With such a thickening portfolio, it would be wise to learn from the mistakes of others as well as their successes. Dinner was good. Not great. The best part of the experience was the Matzah ball soup. Think more e.Leaven’s delicate broth than Manny’s ocean of salted dough. I ordered the 2 pound pork porterhouse on a thick and lovely bone. Why? Because, what did you expect? Restraint? Please. Anyway, when such options do exist, cost 2x more than anything else on the menu ($39), and especially when they are beef or pork or something else not seasonal or perishable, the person ordering damn well expects it to be of excellent quantity, quality and avail itself of the finest preparation. The person who cooked this “porkterhouse” was definitely new to task having perhaps cooked only steaks before. Now, I will be the first to tell you that I prefer pork undercooked. Ditka’s. Hugo’s. Even D. Kelly do (or did) this smashingly. Mind you, the waitress didn’t even ask about the temperature. I presume, because they know better. I also guarantee you that most normal people would have sent this back so fast that a Higgs could have been observed en route. It was absolutely raw in many places, not just by the bone. This despite having been “butterflied” as is common practice when one orders a rock of overcooked carbon for a filet. Again, I love my pork medium-rare. It’s a little creepy but still good when rare but let’s agree to file the black-and-blue preps back in the beef column. Yeah, I ate it anyway. But you probably won’t and what you send back will come back inedible as is always the case when heat is removed and added twice. And, pork of this heft can use a few more seconds at 1200 degrees to help break down the tough gristle and fat that is otherwise uncuttable, unchewable and thus inedible. My two pounds of flesh was nothing of the sort so don’t be very impressed. But there was a sprinkling of Foie Gras bits about the plate so we called it even. They were excellent.


The female had the salmon which was good and well-priced. $18 for a reasonable cut with ample areas of both crispy/burnt and thick, raw. I prefer my salmon with this duality of extremes without having most of the fish fall into the middle class of slightly overdone. This requires a special cut (looks like the graph of a logarithm with a connecting line to x) and a superhot heat source. The fries with egg were very good but fell short of the overwhelming quality and quantity common to most other places charging $9 for the plate. The Bloody Maries that we drank as our Amuse course were truly excellent. I like my mix a little thicker than Branch 27 but thinner than Spoke. But the rim-job here was sensational: thick, cracked black pepper and sea salt. Yum. Well worth the 10 bucks. The martinis however? Unless you give a Gibson’s sized glass, $12 does not belong in Chicago, unless it’s Accounting 101. And $14 for a glass of a $26 bottle of River’s Edge??? That’s retail BTW; restaurants get it cheaper. This is abuse of a high order and you can rest assured that somewhere someone did a breakeven analysis and decided to pad this, not that. I suggest you order the signature drinks. They are worth it.


By the time we got to the gelato I was pretty full and I guess there can indeed be no room left for ice cream if one just got done struggling with a monster porketerhouse, fries, soup, 4 drinks and all the other crap I had that day. The scoops were big and very good. At $6/3 scoops, I’m not overwhelmingly sorry that I didn’t save room for them.

Anyway, if you’re loving the “nitropub” concept you will probably think all of the above to be some bitchy musings. But if you still go out to DINNER and order entrees, you like your food to arrive at the same time as your date’s and you could use a few more lumens in the dining room to properly read the menu then you might be closer to that label than you think.

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NoMI 2012-03-01

by foodbitch 6. March 2012 20:36

History is a nightmare from which NoMI has awoken. When hotel restaurants are good, they are very, very good. And when bad, they stink like filet-O-gangrene. A withered limb of a hospitable organism, hanging there forever. Atrophy is, I guess, better than amputee. The rare wanderings-in of guests spike eerie staff motion like the salted twitches of severed frog legs. Few restaurants step back from this lonely, cold abyss. NoMI has – magma coom loud – or something like that.

NoMI opened in 2000 to tremendous fanfare. My own included. The views, the food, the service were all completely stellar. There was no shortage of pretty young things haunting the trendy halls and patios. I was, myself, a lot younger, not much prettier but a whole lot better dressed. Learning from the school of Tru, which opened in 1999, NoMI had a snob factor of zero while engaging with the diners as much or as little as they wanted. The prices, although high, were on par with those of other hotel restaurants. Life was, for a while, sweet. Until the inevitable: artist meets accountant. 2000 predated (slightly) the epoch of the Cheflebrity. And, right or wrong, hotel restaurants were always relatively immune to raving prima donnas. The revenue contribution of the kitchen is typically a rounding error on a giant hotel’s books and since the accountants were always left in charge, the mission of turning a dollar into $1.02 trumped any attempts at the high-end staffing and selective waste whose absence quickly knock a 3-star dinner down to zero. With NoMI it began with sushi.

What the Sam Hill did they know of sushi? Not a damn thing except for how to charge for it. $15 micro-rolls back in 2000? The wannabe economists saw the kick-off of the sushi craze and ordered the kitchen to comply. Except they didn’t actually commit to BEING a sushi restaurant. Or even a Sushi bar like Blue Door at the Delano. After the first or second disappointment no one ever orders sushi again. Sushi is too expensive for a dice-roll, get it? Hahaha! If there ever were a sushi chef, he likely died of boredom. The “apprentices,” whose claim to sushi chefdom was bussing in the kitchen, were all that would remain to drench rice with spicy mayonnaise. Yet, there, on the menu, it’d remain – for a decade – as testament to stubbornness and inability to admit mistakes. NoMI still serves sushi but now, the price is commensurate with quantity and quality. On every level. 

Dinner was outstanding. They sure made the occasion special. After all, I am now of middle-age according to the US Census’ demographic grouping. This entitles me to a little pampering. The female probably requested, and received, the best table in the house. It was a great compromise between viewings of the diners and the avenue below. The waiter was utterly professional and engaging in a perfect balance. There when we need him, gone when we don’t. He didn’t get my joke (or maybe chose not to) about my preferred temperature for pork being medium-rare because: “I’ve never known anyone who came down with a case of trigonometry.” “It’s trichinosis” he corrected me. “Thank you” I said. “I’ve had problems remembering things since going on a roundworm diet.” But anyway, if you were the waiter, you would probably not want to engage with this level of humor either so I don’t blame him. 

The food? The food was of the highest caliber. The only thing not quite worth the price-tag was the ocean platter which contained a half-dozen oysters, several medium stone crab claws, a lobster tail, a lobster claw and assorted Mollusca, including some of the best jumbo shrimp since Hugo’s. All good, none great, except the shrimp. So, if this $75 “appetizer” is going to be the mid-range scrapple, price it at $40 and see people beam with joy. Look to Barton G in South Beach who charges the same for much more. But excepting this one thing, the meal was astonishingly cheap for food we never imagined possible from a kitchen with its burners set so low for so long. NO LONGER! Not a single fish over $30! A true medium-rare pork chop! (Porterhouse they say – more like Pork-ter-house.) A filet cheaper than any you will find on Rush Street and possibly equally as good. Although this verdict will have to wait until the next time. And, at these prices, a next time there shall be. You should look for us. We’re easy to spot. We’re the white, middle-aged couple rockin' the new moist Acuvue contact lenses. Can't miss us.


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Primehouse 2012-02-23

by foodbitch 23. February 2012 13:42

Patrick Hatton
General Manager
James Hotel Chicago
55 East Ontario
Chicago IL 60611

Dear Mr. Hatton,

I am normally quite fond of hotel restaurants because the professionalism and training on the hospitality side cannot help but percolate to the foodservice side. Hospitality is so investment-heavy and commoditized that making money requires professional management by people with resumes like yours. In the starkest contrast, many restaurants are case studies in inefficient, trial/error management that can leave one wondering how they open in the first place. Having dined at Primehouse for the last time this afternoon, I am left wondering why the professionalism of your hotel has failed to make even the slightest impact on the shameful attitude of Primehouse.

There are two main attitudes in the service business: those that start with YES and those that start with NO. For the latter, look to LA laziness, or, if in Chicago, any place practicing the arts of Billy Dec. Such places act like nightclubs where the burden of getting in or “getting a yes” is on the customer. The reflex answer to all requests is a hearty “no” and having even the smallest one fulfilled is a battle not worth fighting. For YES restaurants, look to Gibson’s group where staff will peel potatoes in front of you if you want the skin in your martini (don’t ask) and substitute anything for anything if they have it in the kitchen. (If they don’t, they’ll get it for next time – just come back!) And we do all the time.

May I offer an approximate transcript that began this afternoon’s Primehouse “experience?”

Hostess: Do you have reservations?

Me: Yes. Under Aloyts.

H: Very good. You are the first to arrive. [I know since the restaurant has 1 party sitting and it’s not my friend.] You can sit here [across from the host-stand] or grab a drink at the bar.

M: I’d rather just sit down.

H: The restaurant isn’t open. It opens in about 10 minutes. [it’s 10:55; I have an 11:00 reservation]

M: What is that table doing?

H: They are having breakfast. [at this point I’m trying not to laugh but no one else sees the absurdity of the ongoing exchange. There are 2 hostesses and 1 server buzzing around the stand.]

M: OK, I see. They’re having breakfast in a closed restaurant. Do you think it’s ok for me to sit down like they are?

H: The lunch service hasn’t started yet.

M: I promise not to order anything until the appointed time. Cross my heart and hope to die. Can I sit down?

H: We don’t know where to seat you.

M: I think I can find an open table.

I think you get the point. I actually asked if they were playing intrigue or politics or just plain playing around but I could not tell through the poker faces common to disdainful hosts if any of this ridiculousness was bubbling through to brain matter or if I was still dealing with the spinal reflex NO. Stimulus-response. Stimulus-NO.

I fully understand the principle of seating complete parties. But giving grief in an empty restaurant for an 11AM lunch? That’s the nightclub thinking. Not the restaurant. How is it possible for these people to interact with your hotel staff on a daily basis and not pick up at least some good service habits? Is the cult of celebrity-chef so strong and the wall between the factions so high that they can actually exist in the same spatial confines in Chicago and behave like they’re working the door at the Mondrian on Sunset? If so Mr. Hatton, then these people are a plague upon your image. A wart upon your nose. The hotel is the CPU but the restaurant is the Operating System. Most interactions are with it.

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Next Restaurant 2011-11-17

by foodbitch 17. November 2011 12:45

Next Restaurant is like organized religion. Christian in the sense that you surrender to a higher power. Jewish in that you pay before you go to temple. And like they all, you don’t get to use free will. You go to watch the show – not steer production. But what a marvel the show is.

There is something inherently inspiring about watching true mastery of a craft. Like we discussed before, all chefs are, in their own way, inspired. Creativity is not possible without some sort of inspiration. But to be “inspiring,” to make someone go home wondering “how’d they do that” is a completely different form of excellence. It’s the difference between walking out of a movie and liking it and walking out of a movie wanting to make them yourself. And although lots of people want to work in movies because they’re familiar only with its red carpet and its romance, few doubt that slaving away in kitchens is really quite excruciating. But in as much as I know that people walked out of Jurassic Park and started filming stop-motion with their Super 8, I just plain know that people will go home after their meals at Next and try to “whip something up” themselves.

The menu was, and for a little while will be, Childhood. All the staples of our youthful diets are addressed. The tastes, the smells, the antique lunchboxes. All, of course, done with a little more attention than our mothers who sometimes would forget to remove the wrapper from the slice of American cheese. Or maybe mine just liked pranking me. Anyway, a little orb of PB filled with J kicked off the amuse course and everything that followed truly did remind us of our youth. The Mac and Cheese that everyone now serves – better than anyone now serving it. The chicken noodle and veggie soups. The sweet potato pie. But to go into detail about each is, in my opinion, counterproductive. Of course it’s great. Of course it’s tasty. And, of course it’s clever in a way that few restaurants can ever be – not just due to superior creativity but due to much superior economics. So instead of filling the next paragraph with glowing adjectives, we’d let the pictures do some talking, not spend a whole lot of time on a menu that you probably won’t get to try, and instead focus on the Aviary/Next experience, which, could use quite a bit of polish.

It’s not completely fair to lump Aviary into Next. But it is the de facto Hotel Lobby. The doctor’s waiting room. The curb appeal. They suggest you arrive early and have a drink before having dinner which we gladly did. The nightclub-style entrance was guarded by a nightclub-style bouncer. “We have dinner in 1 hour. Can we go in and have a drink?” This is where we usually say thank you for them holding the door open. But no. An exhaustive inquisition followed – our reservation, time, spellings of names. It was freezing outside. Then, once all the INFO was collected we were asked to stand “here” which is bouncer code for out of the damn way. Luckily there were heat lamps a short distance away. Over 5 minutes go by and the female is shivering and I have 0 patience for waiting in non-lines. “If it’s not happening, tell us and we’ll go somewhere else. Or…let us in. It’s cold and we’re not waiting outside.” And with this, we were “permitted” to wait in the foyer to be seated at a shockingly available seating area. Fail. This is not how one behaves with patrons in Next’s waiting room. One also does not make the patrons ask 3 times for water or make them late to dinner! They had an hour to serve us 3 drinks ($45 prix-fix and EXCELLENT). But I couldn’t even finish my last because we were already 10 min past our reservation. For the number of times we were asked about our reservation NEXT door (get it?) we would have expected them to actually care about the answer. And, of course, you cannot finish a drink from one in the other – even if you’ve closed out. But anyway – enough about the waiting room. To their (small) credit, we didn’t have reservations but it’s not like they were bursting with drinkers.

Next Restaurant is overall a great experience. But for the price, their service sure could use a little polish. Tru demystified 4-star dining with their novel realization that people want to eat well and be festive too. They didn’t want their wait staff acting as though they were at a wake. Theatrics aside, you will get from Tru’s staff exactly what you put in. You want to sit there all morose like your grandma just died? Ok. They’ll leave you alone. But if you want to chat and be merry, they are right there with you.  But Next takes the informality to a new low and I’m not sure I like it. The chaos of the dining room is OK when you eat at the bar in Hugo’s but not when you prepay almost $500 for a 4-star meal. I don’t know. I bet I am in the minority since the female didn’t seem to mind.

But we must end on a highly positive note: the wine pairings. Not only were they perfectly complimentary but also unbelievably plentiful. Too much so. They left the bottles on the table! This is dangerous. Who does that with wine? This makes the “pairing” theoretically limited only by courses but can allow for several healthy glasses of any given wine if you drink fast during a course. Drink fast is what we do. This was the best value of the night. Definitely get the wine pairings and skip the 7-flight course at Aviary unless you want to be rolled out.

Dinner at an Achatz restaurant is more “experience” than feeding. It’s art, science and execution all in healthy measures. Their business model makes perfect sense considering the limited supply and onslaught of demand. It works for them. It probably won’t work for many. That’s OK. Just like Apple, BMW and The Soup Nazi – you can buy their stuff if you follow their rules. They know what you want better than you do. You want to give input on the menu? Make decisions? Customize? Change? NO NEXT FOR YOU! NEXT!

 

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Pump Room 2011-10-08

by foodbitch 8. October 2011 12:29

I propose extending the science of Epidemiology to apply to restaurants. We could study why good (or bad) experiences occur more frequently in certain areas than in others. We could predict the schizophrenia of Sundas. A rash of Rias. And even the wonderful rebirth of Public House’s Pump Room.

The art of solving nasty problems in one discipline with elegant solutions from another is nothing new. The Black-Scholes option pricing formula was the product of bringing Fischer Black’s scientific expertise to bear on economic problems. Myron Scholes was a finance prof at Stanford and Robert Merton was an economist at Harvard. In the early 70s, options were brand-new and traders were working off of hunches. This made prices highly, highly volatile – almost random. It is not likely that either professor could have distilled the theory and assumptions into the options pricing formula without Black, who, being a physicist, saw almost immediately that what seemed random from above could be described formulaically, a close analogue to Brownian motion. Enter the stochastic differential equations and we have ourselves a whole new arsenal of financial weapons designed to make rich richer and you poorer. But seriously, they lose me at “equation” so if you care, go read further. And if you don’t give a flying flock about interpretations, then just skip to the last paragraph.

Every time I walk into an eatery, I may as well be going for a random walk. This bothers me immensely. I rely on reviews of trusted gluttons. Personal knowledge of the staff. Perhaps the chef, or owners or the managers. None of the aforementioned is worth a bowl of gruel. Sometimes you get exceptional. Sometimes you trip on a dreadful fat tail. But most of the time you end up somewhere in the middle. A pretty standard distribution of experience. But…why can’t we look past our selfish one-off experiences and treat dining as a group affliction with the same series of causations as every other thing in life?

Can we notice that at restaurants attached to a hotel, the skill of professional management on the hotel side tends to percolate down to the dining room? This is because the hotel business is so investment-heavy and commoditized that making money depends on squeezing out inefficiencies to a degree that requires professional education on the subject. Few can afford to learn on the job. Most restaurants, however, are case studies in inefficient operation and for every Gibson’s that can set a wristwatch with consistency there are 1000 Rias that think that the romance of making tonic at the bar will survive the onslaught of a single Thursday night. Anyone who has experienced a Thursday night on Rush street can tell you otherwise and people would rather have their drink than wait ten minutes for something marginally better. And besides, on the 16th round, nobody can tell anything about the vodka, much less the tonic.

Next, there’s the neighborhood. Split 20 meals between the Gold Coast and Hipsterville, and 19 will be better experiences in the former. Why? Staffing. Stereotypes aside, when I am served by a member of the Great Unshowered, more often than not the job is just transitional while he/she finds a less demeaning way to plug the $80k dollar art degree.  Transience always equals caring less. Turn-over with such staff is well over 50% and since the shoddy service rarely earns good tips, the bus staff also quits and soon the downward spiral is complete. Since quality bus service is the key differentiator between a good experience and excellent, any restaurant where bussers can’t make a decent living goes to service hell much faster. By contrast, look at some of the city’s greatest service restaurants. I’ve known some staff at Gibson’s Group for the better part of a decade - it’s their job, they accept it and strive to excel at it. The bussers at Vivo and even some other (earlier) KDK Restaurants had worked there since the kitchens opened and earned a very healthy living which was often complimented by a C-note from idiots like me for truly exceptional performance. FYI, I knew the bus staff at Vivo very well and they all had houses and properties for rent – which they likely rented to the armies of the third tactical division of the Royal Bucktown Buffoonery.

So…needless to say our Pump Room experience was stellar. The redesign was great and the food itself was great (not excellent). Service, however, was truly excellent and made up for the rare misstep. I must admit that as a long-time Vong fanatic, I really expected my taste buds to jump onto the plate as they did with staples like the veggie-curry pizza, the spicy pad thai, and the passion fruit soufflé. They did, but not at the level I remember. Notable exception was the pork chop which was served with a green curry salsa that would have made my eyes bug out if not for the quick availability of alcohol to wash away my tongue. To their credit, I was warned. The tomato bisque soup tasted like they used skim milk and the tuna tartare was nowhere in the league of Le Colonial. Having an uncomfortable amount of gristle, it should cost less than its $14 since all it seems to be is a tuna waste receptacle. BUT!!! A Maker’s Mark (neat) only costs $10 which is rare this side of Damen – especially at a Hotel. Pump Room has plenty of affordable wine and lots of clever drinks. On a prior barhop, I ordered a martini made with tobacco juice that the staff prepares themselves. Very very good. This is the kind of thing that deserves a premium price – not pouring Maker’s in a glass. Anyway, I readily admit that my critiques of the experience are more driven by past knowledge of Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s true capacity to please. Any other chef would not be held this much accountable for not giving me an oral orgasm with every mouthful. Whoa, sorry, that sounded really bad.

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Chicago Cut 2011-09-06

by foodbitch 5. September 2011 22:45

Chicago continues to have as big an appetite for steakhouses as it does for steak itself. Will Chicago Cut make it to the repeat list? Maybe. But not likely. As we’ve covered in the past, the restaurant industry is in the business of food service. Even greasy spoons get the former. It’s the latter that gives everyone more grief. And in most cases, service issues are the direct result of unprofessional management.

Management is a skill. It’s not acquired by being a great server. Or a short-skirt hottie. Or even a great outside salesperson. It is acquired by recognizing, learning from and trying to emulate excellence. And restaurant management has professionals just like any other field. It requires learning and adapting to one’s bosses AND learning and adapting to one’s staff. How many cube dwellers do you know who have been promoted well beyond their competence? Quite a few I imagine. They are the ones who mistake fear for respect and manage through aggression rather than diplomacy. And why should restaurant America be any different from the corporate? Management is recruited from the ranks of server to show that promotion happens from within. To preserve the “bond” between the staffers as if the promotion itself didn’t already sever any ties that may have formed. Unfortunately, it was all too obvious this evening that the management of Chicago Cut was recently promoted into a role for which it was grossly unprepared. But before the bad, the good.

The food, as expected, was terrific. The drinks were healthy but just a bit too pricy and the steaks were just the way we like them. Translation: the way we order them the FIRST time out of the kitchen. I’ve been surprised with how many steakhouses really don’t believe you when you order a steak rare.  Anyway, French Onion soup was, at $8, the evening’s greatest value and within a standard deviation of Capital Grille’s. The bone-in filet (cooked rare) did have a fair amount of gristle but enough marbling to balance out the tough parts. And given that the gristle was mostly at the bone, I mostly forgave them. At that price (US$55), mostly.

The prime rib, although cooked to my friend’s desired temperature of medium, looked and smelled delicious. I did not try his steak nor did he try mine because we both consider our respective temperatures misguided. I believe medium to be grossly overcooked and he believes that humans discovered fire for a reason and can barely stand the sight of the bloodbath sloshing on my plate. Anyway, we agree to disagree and keep our mutual mockery at friendly levels but I do try to slurp loudly every dozen bites or so just to remind him of the bloody past from which humanity evolved. Or at least that’s what I gather after watching Quest for Fire. Those guys had it good! They could have used a shower and perhaps a forehead but oh the raw meat that they’d devour! How I wished this evening for prime rib! So much so that I ordered one. My order was not to be.

Prime rib is my favorite cut of meat. I can’t describe the feeling. Maybe if I did better on my SATs I’d have the vocabulary. Especially when rare and dripping in congealing, living juices it is one of humanity’s greatest gifts to itself. When I think of Intelligent Design, I don’t think of ghosts in heaven or planets or galactica like Michael Behe. I think of the domesticated cow. How about that for intelligent? We took a fierce, muscular killing beast and converted it into prime rib, filet mignon, rib eye and hot dogs. What was once 3 tons of murder with 4 legs and 2 horns became bovine passivity. The last auroch to walk the earth circa 1627 would have killed all of Naperville before it would have allowed itself to be milked to say nothing of slaughtered in a cubicle. Humans didn’t beat the fight out of it. They bred it out. Of course, they didn’t know what the devil they were doing when they started inadvertently sexually selecting for passivity around 8000 years ago but hey, we had trial and error on our side. That pretty much sums up most of human endeavor: throw up enough ideas and hope a few stick.  Works pretty well when the species’ lifespan is relatively short and they don’t mind copulating on a schedule or with an audience.

As for the problem: there was but one. In a professionally managed restaurant, the staff advises you pre-facto of shortages or outages. BEFORE the decision is made. This requires frequent data interchange and is the foremost task of management. At restaurants managed by inexperience, they don’t seem to catch this point or think it too important. It is. And so, the minutes turned to tens as we waited for our delectable prime rib. Only the rib never came. Instead, the portly “manager” arrived to tell me that they had no more rare prime rib. A crime unto itself, and all they had was medium. My misguided friend likes his steak that way so the choice of which of us was having it was clear. The price of the rib: $44. The price of my steak: $55. Guess which price I was charged? This is terrible. When the kitchen runs out of anything – mid-shelf vodka, a desired cut of beef, etc., and the patron must make another selection, the proper charge is the smaller amount of the two. I’m not talking about being out of Veuve and letting someone order Cristal for the lesser price. I mean $11 after making me wait, serving me rejection and then spanking me for the larger sum is just unacceptable. And it’s not like they wouldn’t do it. It just never crossed anyone’s mind. Inexperience is a terrible prison. I hope they soon break out. But for now, I am telling this with a sigh, a month ages and ages hence, that two steaks diverged on a grill and I, ate the one less cook-ed by and that made all the diff-e-rence.

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Roys Chicago 2011-08-27

by foodbitch 27. August 2011 13:47

Dear Roy’s Management: in a world where kitchens think their job is to turn a dollar into two by contracting rather than exceeding, where customers are mere commodities – to be consumed and thrown away, you stand in the starkest contrast as a beacon of true excellence.

Few businesses can benefit from economies of scale more than restaurants. The marginal increase in cost for every extra steak you sizzle or tuna you sear is negligible compared to the cost of cooking up the first one. Lots of restaurants shop for scale but in their quest to squeeze the penny, they end up using far more scrapple than they should. Filet Mignon with gristle. Tuna with tendons. This is unacceptable past the price point of an Applebee’s but how many times have we all been seared this way ourselves? At Roy’s, they ONLY use the good stuff and throw the rest away. They can afford it. They train and retain the best staff and buy/build the best software. They even have a CRM component!!! (Customer Relationship Management for you non-nerds; more on that later.) I consider the fact shameful that in the near-decade it’s been open, I have only eaten at Roy’s Chicago 19 times. Barely twice a year and that includes the 4 times that I ate there in 2002 when it was brand new. Looking back, this bothers me.

How much can I praise Roy’s service? Let me count the ways. In late 2002, the server overheard the female proclaiming that her favorite food was French Fries. In her misguided youth, she didn’t even eat fish. So there wasn’t much for her to have at a Hawaiian Fusion restaurant. Or was there? The server interrupted and offered her the following: “We don’t really have fries on the menu Miss,” he apologetically said. “But we do have potatoes and a deep fryer and we could probably swing some fries for you pretty quickly.” We were absolutely stunned. This in the first week of their opening! Compare that to the places that won’t even separate the white from yolk. She had the fries and they were really, really good.

Flash forward 3,169 days, to Saturday, August 27th, 2011. The last time we had tried to have dinner was in mid-June. They made us wait too long and we left. Yeah, yeah, it was only like 20 minutes – I know I have an unreasonably short fuse in this regard and have no patience for 20 minutes of “they’re paying their bill.” It’s called management! Of employees and more importantly: of customers! Buy them a round of drinks – AT THE BAR. See how quickly they will scurry. Anyway, we’re never rude about this – we just give them a 5-minute warning and leave exactly 5 minutes later. In most cases, the cheerleader (hostess) will force a smile and maybe even an “I’m sorry.” And the host at Roy’s did actually seem sorry. But he also made a note of the incident. A note that would come back to greet us 2 months hence.

Dinner was predictable. In its excellence. The canoe for two appetizer is good enough for two but I can easily eat the thing myself. The butterfish was everything I remember at the Sunset Tower and the tuna…oh the tuna. For fear of fomenting more religious war: Roy’s has, without question, the BEST tuna filet I have ever had. I’ve been there 19 times. Someone in the party has always had one. I’ve always tried a piece. It is the BEST! And it’s consistent. Red Light had a tuna appetizer that came close mainly due to sauce and seasoning but nothing close to the quality of the underlying fish-flesh. Even Naniwa occasionally serves us cuts that have been too close to the tail. I do not know how Roy’s does it or how much they throw away to make it work. I don’t even care if they have their own breeding farm in Port Lincoln, Australia. If someone ever asks me where to have the best tuna steak I will always tell them Roy’s.

As we were wrapping up and NOT ordering dessert because we had (as usual) overeaten, the manager stops by to ask how things had been. We think it boilerplate; same as the retail store employees telling you they have more sizes in the back. So we give our boilerplate response: “it was great.” But oh, no…the manager was armed with CRM! And we were not expecting it. He says to us: “I’m glad, because it seems like the last time you were here, it was not so great.” Huh? One doesn’t expect to be made to think on a Saturday night after a dinner. We honestly forgot about June. But Roy’s’ software didn’t. They had a note to tell them exactly what transpired and even though the host was likely history, the database remembered all. We had a bottle of wine subtracted from the bill and a personal note from a manager. Technology had enabled a big chain to behave like a small-town restaurant by keeping data, mining it effectively and putting it to use. I shop at Nordstrom instead of the boutique because they have a no-questions-asked, make-me-happy policy. So why do I turn up my nose at a restaurant for the crime of having more than one location? Roy’s is simply one of Chicago’s brightest stars and has been since pretty much day 1. And on this point, we need to draw a thicker underline and vote with our dollars for restaurants deserving it.

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Book Bindery 2011-08-16

by foodbitch 16. August 2011 18:49

Having written a dim prospectus on Seattle in the past, I find myself increasingly humbled by its progress. At least in dining terms. The Book Bindery excels in both service and in food. If you can’t make it to Toulouse Petite, go here.

How does one spot a Chicagoan walking through an airport? He’s the guy with jean shorts and a Bears jersey busting under an expansive belly. How does one spot the LA wannabe? He/she is the one wearing canvas shoes and sunglasses indoors. A Seattleite? The woman who shaves her head rather than her armpits. What’s my point? That all cities have a stereotype and crappy service in Seattle is a very honest one. Walk into a coffee shop with 2 baristas engaged in conversation and they will very likely finish the conversation until anyone asks to help you. Could be 5 minutes. Could be longer. And the people are so laid back that they accept it. Imagine the same behavior in a Chicago Loop coffee house. If the staff were not standing at attention the patron might get on the phone to the district manager. In New York there would be 10 types of screaming. But Seattle? The attitude that life’s too short to work in service still prevails. Which is why it’s a delicious pleasure to find another restaurant where staff doesn’t treat their customers as interruptions.

The Book Bindery was exceptional in every way and with every dish. And by the evening’s end we were treated yet again by a relative pittance of a bill. If not for the booze of which we partake freely, the bill would have come to $60 per person. The portions were decent but not obnoxious. The appetizers were actually appetizing in the sense that they didn’t overfill you but they could see a little price reduction. When one charges $12 for gazpacho, even though it’s REALLY good gazpacho, people will instead opt for the steak tartar ($14) which was a very generous portion for the price. However, while the gazpacho is probably pure profit, the steak is a thin-margin commodity. Dear Restaurateurs, make it easy for your diners to choose the bulk-rate and they will. It may not seem rational that you’d lose money by overpricing soup, of all things, but you can and probably will.

The entrees were just as lovely. The Halibut was sweet and buttery and the scallops might have tasted like the sea but they were escorted by some delicious sauce that whispered flavor rather than proclaim it. And the pork? Well, what can I say? It was excellent. It seems like everywhere we go these days, someone has an even more delicious pork dish. The truth is that it’s really hard to screw up pork. But you surely can by overcooking it. BB cooks their medium-RARE!!! Which is how it should be. For the love of all that’s kosher, when will the world follow suit? Everything is irradiated anyway people. And even if it weren’t, when did you last hear of a single case of trigonometry? Or is it trachea? I know it starts with a “T.”

 

 

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Daily Catch 2011-06-24

by foodbitch 24. June 2011 12:25

The Daily Catch in Boston’s North End is a case study in word-of-mouth. Absent the ravings of 2 respected fellow gluttons, a glimpse upon the menu, another upon the “dining room” and a final upon the “chef” would have kicked the flight response into full gear. And we would have missed Boston’s finest meal. You shouldn’t.

The “chef” wore a beat-to-hades Chicago Cubs hat – the hat a mere decade or so his junior, a disgusting grill-man outfit and a frown to end all emoticons (for the ASCII challenged: >:( ). The only item missing was an unfiltered, unashed Marlboro hanging from his lips. Oh, did I mention that he was Japanese? Not any one of the seven sons that the current owners spawned. Not Italian. Barely, it seems, even sentient life. And yet, this was the best pasta we have had in quite some time. Some of the best mussels. Great clams. Amazing calamari made better with the batter. And remarkable exhibits of macho Italian men strutting in their matching jumpsuits. Tell me, in the seed of Big Italy that spawned countless Little Italys – was there a peacock that mated with a housewife and produced a viable and fertile offspring satisfying the prerequisite for a whole new species? Did it then send it on a boat over to the new world? Because the old Italians strutting the streets of Rome, and even the ones selling suits in Burberry and Saks are not the same Italians masquerading as caricatures (of themselves) in countless Little Italys.

Although all of the pasta dishes had a Buca-level quantity of garlic, the quality of the pasta was like nothing else we’d had. We’re talking a pasta dish for $12 that would rival Chicago’s Pane Caldo and Spiaggia. Chicagoans do theirs with less of the asexual cloves. But for a lot more of your sexy dollahs. Indeed, you can eat your fill (perhaps even my fill) at Daily Catch and still have enough for some very special room service. Sexy indeed.

Daily Catch is known for calamari. This knowledge they deserve. I’m not sure what kind of oil they use to cook it but even Avocado oil, which smokes north of 500 degrees Fahrenheit, couldn’t produce a crisp so crispy while retaining a chew so chewy. Maybe they flash-freeze their stuff before they fry it – I don’t know – it tasted too fresh; whatever. Mine is not to guess how but rather say what. And this, The Daily Catch, is for sure one of Boston’s tastiest. Go there now. Or you see dis gauy? See dis gaauy? Heesa gonna come-a ovah dere and shove his jumpsuit up your outbox.

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About the author

FB is the CTO of an entertainment company and, these days, writes much more in prose than he ever wrote in code. Which is a good thing. Because people expect quality from code. Meal me: mealschpeal@gmail.com.

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