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La Carne @ Eataly | Chicago, IL | Mar ’14

26 Mar
  • Address: 43 East Ohio Street
  • Telephone: Tel: 312.521.8700
  • Website: http://www.eataly.com/chicago-la-carne/

It is really quite impressive how successful the Eataly concept, a “disneyland of Italian food“, has been. The idea is to combine a one-stop shop for premium Italian ingredients, with a whole bunch of food outlets showcasing Italian food – an emporium. The Chicago outlet is the second outlet in the US (opened in Dec ’13), after the New York City outlet in 2010. Both joints are co-owned by Mario Batali, and Joe Bastianich (the New York outlet is also co-owned by Lidia Bastianich, a long-time NYC Italian restauranteur). The concept began in Italy but has been a smash hit in the US, reportedly grossing $1700/sq ft in 2012, when even lucrative malls only take in $350-$500/sq ft.

But as Eataly’s second anniversary approaches on Friday, the surprise is that the 58,000-square-foot store has become a phenomenon in the world of retailing and restaurants.

Eataly’s gross revenues for its first calendar year were $70 million, according to Joseph Bastianich and the chef Mario Batali, two of its principal investors.

“That figure was way over their initial projection,” said Malcolm M. Knapp, who heads an independent restaurant consulting firm in New York that bears his name.

Predicted revenues for the second year are $85 million, “a huge figure, $1,700 per square foot per year,” Mr. Knapp said. He compared that to the Cheesecake Factory, one of the nation’s highest-performing restaurant chains, which in recent years has reported about $1,000 a square foot in sales. Even lucrative malls, he added, take in only $350 to $500 a square foot. – NYT

I was hoping on a cold Chicago Saturday to visit the Purple Pig, but got there at the all-too-late time of 1:30pm, and was quoted a wait-time of 1h45m. So the search began for an acceptable alternative. Our first heuristic was Yelp: Eataly popped up, a short walk away, so off we went.

When we entered, there were two storeys. The first level is a supermarket, dedicated to all manner of Italian produce, for the home-cook. The second level was a food court with multiple fenced off areas serving as sit-down restaurants. Among the eateries was a pasta outlet, a snacks outlet, a fish outlet. Facing dizzying wait times for most of them, we settled on the suspiciously half-full La Carne, in a quieter corner of the second floor.

But it turns out they were half-full not because quality as we suspected, but I suspect because most people thought it was a long + pricey sit-down meal, which it wasn’t. The light dishes we had were priced at $15-$25, and we were in and out of there well within 90 minutes.

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Vinegar Pork-Knuckle Dish with Egg (4.25/5)

A well-composed dish. The vinegar pork knuckle with bacon cubes went well with the salad bits, and who can argue with a soft-boiled egg with your bacon cubes?

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Roasted Quail

A spot worth visiting in central Chicago. I wonder if a Spanish mercado concept would quite take off in the US the same way Eataly has. Bourdain certainly thinks that NYC is ready for a world street food-centre. Will we see more successful emporiums of a single cuisine?

Related Links:

XOCO in Chicago is ever-green

10 Mar
  • Address: 449 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654
  • Telephone: (312) 661-1434
  • Price (after tax + tip): $25
  • Rating: 13.5/20
  • Value: 5/5
  • Average Dining Time: 15-60 minutes
  • Style: Casual Mexican
  • Notable: Great hot chocolate

Every time, I’m in Chicago, I stop by XOCO for some casual Mexican food.

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The wood-grilled pork ahogada sandwich, in an onion-y tomato broth. (4/5)

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The chicharrones, dusted with hot sauce and queso. (4.5/5)

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Finished off with an Aztec hot chocolate. (5/5)

One of the casual places well worth packing into any Chicago itinerary.

Grace | Chicago | Mar ’14 | “herbal baroque”

4 Mar
  • Address: 652 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60661
  • Phone:(312) 234-9494
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $241
  • Courses: (9 main/15 total) 1 amuse / 4 bread / 6 savory / 3 dessert / 1 mignardises
  • Price/Main Course: $27
  • Rating: 18.5/20
  • Value: 2/5
  • Dining Time: 133 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 9 minutes
  • Chef: Curtis Duffy (ex: Charlie Trotter’s, Trio, Alinea, Avenues)
  • In own words: “intricately plated food to be consumed in six bites or fewer — just enough before the palate, mentally, becomes numb to the same flavor.” [1]
  • Style: Avant-garde New American
  • Michelin Stars: 2

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Rating: 18.5/20

I knew almost nothing about Grace when I stepped in. I only knew that in the year that they were open since December 2011, Grace has had a meteoric rise, garnering two Michelin stars immediately. This is the restaurant that Chicago expects to be its newest 3-star Michelin restaurant.

Some people have called it “Chicago’s per se”. I think that is a mistake. The dissimilarities with per se are much more striking than the similarities. Firstly, the plating of food. The plating at per se is a style one might call classical, putting the main ingredients front and centre. The plating style at Grace eschews that to put the ingredients by the side; in two piles; even three dimensionally (see the Alaskan king crab). The plating has more in common with the chaos on view at Schwa. Secondly and more substantially on the flavours, make no mistake – Grace is exciting. Licorice, in particular, played a part in 4-5 dishes across the 18 we tried across both Flora and Fauna menus. It was not uncommon to have up to 15 different ingredients in one dish, as the kitchen strived for a very precise effect. Some touches, with the onion in the perigord truffle custard, were sensational and subtle. This paradox – baroque of taste and minimalist of plate – is what drives Grace forward.

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As a diner, you have a choice between two menus. The Flora and the Fauna menu.  The Fauna has the better mains. The Flora has (slightly) better desserts. Beware though: if you’re accustomed to having meat in some measure on your menus, you will likely be dissatisfied with Flora mains, which are much more intellectual-exercise than delicious-plate (a problem I had with vegetarian Kajitsu in New York as well). Strangely, the Flora menu isn’t vegetarian by default, I guess some animal products still find its way into the sauces. Most people, faced with this conundrum, order different menus across the table, so that everyone can try a bit. All kinds of herbs find their way onto both menus, and many of them hail from Asia. A Indian tamarind named kokum, Vietnamese herbs, bold use of licorice: at times it almost seems as if each dish was constructed around a single herb (USUALLY EMPHASISED WITH ALL CAPS). My overall verdict on the menus: each menu features very strong dishes, but they tend to alternate (the 2nd dish on Fauna, the 5th dish on Flora). There is already a 3-star Michelin menu on the table, if we take the strongest dishes of both Flora and Fauna.  The Fauna menu was the one served to me, and so apologies if my descriptions or recollections of the Flora menu are patchy.

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Grace’s dining room is a classy muted bronze in colour. No natural light seeps in, except a brightly-lit kitchen sealed it by glass at the very head of the room. It is the open-kitchen concept that is all the rage today. Both of us were seated facing the kitchen, the metaphor of dining as theatre made explicit. Grace certainly has all the trappings and food to merit a 3-star rating (if the best of both menus are combined). I would be surprised if it doesn’t make it within a couple of years.

Notable Links:

Curtis’ cooking was the sort of intricately plated food to be consumed in six bites or fewer — just enough before the palate, mentally, becomes numb to the same flavor. “You want diners to say, ‘I wish I had one more piece of Wagyu beef, one more piece of salmon,” Curtis said. “You want them to not have just enough of a dish; you want them to crave for one more bite.”

So the plateware, Curtis decided, should act as more than serving vessels and actually enhance the taste of a dish, even if just in the mind. A chestnut puree’s creamy texture might be accentuated, he reasoned, if it was served in a bowl with no edges. He ordered curved bowls from France that resembled overinflated inner tubes.

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What we had:

  1. Amuse: “Log of Delights”
  2. Fauna #1: Chawanmushi: osetra caviar, yuzu, PURPLE SHISO
  3. Flora #1: Salsify: golden char roe, apple, OXALIS
  4. Fauna #2: Alaskan King Crab: kalamansi, cucumber, LEMON BALM
  5. Flora #2: Winter Vegetables: huckleberry, amaranth, TARRAGON
  6. Bread #1
  7. Fauna #3: Scallop: tamarind, smoke, FLAVORS OF LICORICE
  8. Flora #3: Beet: black garlic, apple, RED RIBBON SORREL
  9. Bread #2
  10. Fauna #4: Duck: sunflower, cranberry, MARJORAM
  11. Flora #4: Sweet Potato: picholine, grapefruit, YARROW
  12. Bread #3
  13. Fauna #5: Sweetbreads: ten grains, caperberry, SAGE
  14. Flora #5: Perigord Truffle: crème caramel, sherry, CHIVE
  15. Bread #4
  16. Fauna #6: Miyazaki Beef: romaine, peanut, VIETNAMESE HERBS
  17. Flora #6: Swiss Chard: red wine, elephant garlic, CHERVIL
  18. Fauna #7: Raspberry: lychee, kokum, NASTURTIUM
  19. Flora #7: Buddha’s Hand: passionfruit, brown butter, LEMON BALM
  20. Fauna #8: Pear: black sugar, licorice, LEMON VERBENA
  21. Flora #8: Medjool Date: chartreuse, honey, CELERY
  22. Fauna #9: Chocolate: pineapple, hazelnut, BANANA MINT
  23. Flora #9: Young Coconut: fennel, pistachio, BRONZE FENNEL
  24. Birthday Cake
  25. Mignardises

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Amuse: “Log of Delights”

Quinoa chips, a lemon cup of intensely-lemon-scented(incl. zest and all) cold risotto, candied pineapple, ham with the slight taste of ginseng.

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Fauna #1: Chawanmushi: osetra caviar, yuzu, PURPLE SHISO (4/5)

Chewy “bubble tea” balls in a ham-flavored chawanmushi, with puffed rice, a sprig of seagrapes. Osetra caviar at the center.

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Flora #1: Salsify: golden char roe, apple, OXALIS (4.25/5)

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Fauna #2: Alaskan King Crab: kalamansi, cucumber, LEMON BALM (5/5)

A tremendous dish. This dish alone was worth the entrance fee. King crab and small cubes of cucumber sit at the bottom of the bowl, with calamansi (a particularly tangy and acidic Southeast Asian lime) juice surrounding. A neutral sugar glass holds up the upper deck of ingredients, the including trout roe. To begin the dish, I smashed the upper deck into the lower deck with a spoon. It was all you could have asked from a dish, in both taste and effect. In the effects department: it had 3-dimensionality, interactivity (diner plays the chef), and time-sensitivity. In the taste department, the meaty flavor of king crab was contrasted the small neutral refreshing taste of cucumber, and the sourness of the lime, transformed by the dissolving sugar glass into a dessert-like thin calamansi sauce. The sugar glass was just the right thickness, not too sharp and easily dissolved in the mouth. This dish will haunt my dreams for a long time.

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Flora #2: Winter Vegetables: huckleberry, amaranth, TARRAGON (3.25/5)

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Bread #1: Whole Wheat Croissant, Herbed Butter and Butter

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Fauna #3: Scallop: tamarind, smoke, FLAVORS OF LICORICE (4.5/5)

A whole Maine scallop from Desert Island, with licorice and anise hyssop purees. A coconut custard by the side.

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Flora #3: Beet: black garlic, apple, RED RIBBON SORREL (3.75/5)

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Bread #2: Red Onion and Black Olive Waffle

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Fauna #4: Duck: sunflower, cranberry, MARJORAM (4.75/5)

A duck confit tortellini, with cranberry and an intensely flavored duck-consomme. This was a very complex dish, and everywhere I scooped with my spoon there was new bit of sweet solid stuff which I could not place. Tastes of lemongrass permeated the dish.

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Flora #4: Sweet Potato: picholine, grapefruit, YARROW (3.5/5)

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Bread #3: Rye baguette with sprinkled rye berries

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Fauna #5: Sweetbreads: ten grains, caperberry, SAGE (4.5/5)

Perfectly fried sweetbreads, resting in a pile of multigrain, in a rich jus.

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Flora #5: Perigord Truffle: crème caramel, sherry, CHIVE (5/5)

Another amazing dish of the night. Shaved truffle – still retaining all its crunch unlike some that can taste like cardboard – is put on top of a custard that has the taste of sherry, with caramelised chipolini onions. Little slices of brik (Turkish dough) scattered on top provide textural contrast. Superb. Decadent. Sherry, custard, and the texture of fresh truffle. Divine.

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Bread #4: Pretzel with black lava salt from Hawaii

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Fauna #6: Miyazaki Beef: romaine, peanut, VIETNAMESE HERBS (5/5)

The discovery of Miyazaki” is how this dish was described to me. Miyazaki is perhaps the best beef in Japan, and the highest grade of wagyu. A slice of cured dreamy Miyazaki beef on top of a rice cracker, perfectly rare-cooked Miyazaki beef. Tender and full of fat. With something like fermented turnip undearneath, and various fresh, taut, Vietnamese herbs that evoked some of the street food I had in Saigon. It was paired with a cup of tom yum broth. This had some of the best elements of Southeast Asian cooking: the Indochinese rice cracker, the Vietnamese herbs, the peanuts and tom yum evoking Thailand. Tremendous.

I ate my Miyazaki beef using my rice cracker as a taco. Possibly the most expensive taco I’ve had to date.

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Sorry for the blurriness!

Flora #6: Swiss Chard: red wine, elephant garlic, CHERVIL (3.75/5)

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Fauna #7: Raspberry: lychee, kokum, NASTURTIUM (4.5/5)

A dessert building on the Ispahan-esque base (also see, Restaurant Andre’s version) – raspberry, lychee, strawberry substituting for rose. Strawberry sorbet, dehydrated raspberries, dehydrated lychee. The 4th and 5th wheels were a cylinder of earl grey (one of the trendy tastes in Chicago – I had it all three nights in a row at Schwa + Alinea + Grace) and kokum puree, from an Indian tamarind.

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Flora #7: Buddha’s Hand: passionfruit, brown butter, LEMON BALM (4.5/5)

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Fauna #8: Pear: black sugar, licorice, LEMON VERBENA (4.5/5)

Another good dessert. A dome of (white chocolate?) covers licorice-tinged financiers, and Asian pear ice-cream. The licorice here was a star player, cutting through just pear and butter, and elevating the financiers.

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Flora #8: Medjool Date: chartreuse, honey, CELERY (3.75/5)

I found this a bit one-dimensional, with the starchy sweetness of medjool date overpowering the other ingredients.

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Fauna #9: Chocolate: pineapple, hazelnut, BANANA MINT (4.25/5)

A rooibos-infused goats-milk, strong tasting, into a traditional preparation of chocolate-hazelnut and pineapple.

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Flora #9: Young Coconut: fennel, pistachio, BRONZE FENNEL (5/5)

Amazing, I remember – a cylinder of young coconut pairing with a tart cherry. A cylinder of coconut meringue and pistachio gelato were good, but all it needed was that sensational squiggle of coconut with a tart cherry.

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Birthday Cake

Chocolate ganache, with passionfruit. Mmm.

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Mignardises

Bonbons and apple “tartlets”.

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Memory: Alaskan King Crab; Perigord Truffle Creme Caramel; Miyazaki Beef; Young Coconut

Alinea | Chicago | Feb ’14 | “pack in the plebs”

1 Mar
  • Address: 1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614
  • Phone:(312) 867-0110
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $340
  • Courses: (13 main/13 total) 10 savory / 3 dessert
  • Price/Main Course: $31
  • Rating: 16.5/20
  • Value: 1/5
  • Dining Time: 138 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 10.5 minutes
  • Chef: Mike Bagale
  • Style: molecular
  • Michelin Stars: 3
  • Notable: Widely considered the best restaurant in America from around 2007-2011

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I had waited for two years to dine at Alinea. In 2012 I was denied the opportunity when Alinea suspended taking reservations for two months while they got their new ticketing system set up. In 2013, I had set-up a virtual assistant to watch over Alinea cancellations for the one Wednesday I was back in Chicago (I did my math, about 75% of the time, a Wednesday 2-top or 4-top would be released), but it didn’t happen.

But for my birthday, I managed to snag a 2-top for Friday way in advance. But perhaps I shouldn’t have bothered. What a disappointment. Firstly, the legendary meals lasting 4 hours, with 23 course extravaganzas are long over. Alinea’s hey-day, it seems from browsing food posts on Chowhound and blogs, was 2005-2011. Alinea has streamlined down to 13 courses. (14 if you count the birthday surprise). But a by-product is that meals last about 2 hours, maybe 2.5 hours tops. Considering that I had been royally entertained at Schwa for 3.5 hours the night before at half the cost of Alinea’s top-of-the-line price ($340 per pax), I felt I was just one more diner in a conveyor belt fine-dining experience. You come, and for two hours, are mildly entertained by a parade of Harry Potter dishes. Then you leave and another couple comes take your place. Encapsulating what I felt was the scene before me. A couple from Pittsburgh (Alinea neophytes, like me) had flown in, and taken the wine pairing (probably at 530pm). They were out by 730pm making gushing noises, and at 8pm another identical couple (Alinea neophytes, once again), had flown in, and taken their place at the same table. Quelle horreur! The thought occurred to me: what if this table was turned over three times a night, with 3 identikit mid-30s couples taking their seats again and again? Was this the theatre of the absurd, the Myth of Sisyphus incarnate? Certainly our servers, in serving the same tricks to the four occupied tables on the first floor, seemed to be afflicted by a peculiar type of whimsy without fun.

Secondly, the tables are too close together, strengthening the nagging suspicion that Alinea is now in the pack-in-the-plebs stage of its existence. It doesn’t matter when there’s loud music like Schwa, but in a hushed gastronomic temple vibe like Alinea, the tables can be too uncomfortably close for conversation. (It reminded me of another bad offender, Restaurant Andre in Singapore.) It didn’t afflict our table, but that’s because we were fairly experienced diners – but Alinea has a duty to its neophyte diners too. The two tables to my left were clearly special occasion tables, and they were uncomfortable with the table distance for their whole two hours, and spoke in hushed whispers. I felt for them – more personal space should have been given.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the flavours were too safe. Peruvian food is fine, but if I wanted to eat straight up Peruvian I would go to a Peruvian restaurant. Duck with 60 pairings? I once made the terrible mistake in Prague of seasoning my own steak tartare, which came out a tasteless mingy meat-mash, instead of being a delicious glob of myoglobin. From that fiasco, I learnt that the genius of the chef is in his proportioning the dish just right. So proportioning the seasonings to my own duck came across to me as a gimmick. A orange-sweetbread in the style of Panda Express was simply awful. Deconstructed Indian food remained deconstructed and never came together. The highs were a rambutan and finger-lime (what is it with finger-limes and Chicago? I’ve had them twice in a row, and nowhere else) jelly dish, and the signature hot potato cold potato. But they were few and far between. I came to Alinea because I heard that Grant Achatz was that rarest of chefs, someone who combined the molecular wizardry of Harry Potter food, with a sensitive understanding of flavor combinations. But rare glimpses aside (the rambutan dish), the tastes were big and one-dimensional, rarely emphasising interplay of two or god-forbid, three ingredients. In short, it felt like I was served merely Harry Potter food.

If Alinea continues turning out meals of this quality, it is hard to see how it can maintain three Michelin stars on merit for much longer.

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CHAR ROE: banana, ginger, passion fruit (3.5/5)

Banana cream and passionfruit foam, with roe of char (similar to “ikura”, except ikura is roe of salmon). This was okay, primarily distinguished for the rocking bowl it was served in that thwarted a good picture of it for about 15 seconds.

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SCALLOP: citrus aroma, thirteen textures (3.5/5)

Yuzu, lemon grass and lemon verbena formed the hazy citrus aroma. A very pretty pot and clam shell hid a carbonated ceviche sauce, with Maine diver scallop, and some onions. It was all told, simply Peruvian ceviche with Maine scallop. Not unpleasant, but unspectacular in substance. Maine scallop was more to be applauded for its bare fact of existence on our plates (this year’s Maine scallop catch has been low and some areas have prematurely ended their season by imposing moratoriums) than its taste, which lacked the sweetness of scallops I had recently in Momofuku Ko and Peru’s Maido and tasted more meaty than anything.
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LOBSTER: curry, earl grey, grapefruit (3.5/5)

From Peru to India. A cumin and puffed rice ball; dehydrated yoghurt; curry and carrot puree sauces; grapefruit “caviar”. I, who sang the praises of Schwa the night before in tripling-up lobster, citrus and earl grey, am puzzled by the appearance of earl grey on the menu. I did not taste any earl grey anywhere. Anyway, the deconstructed Indian food dish never came together. I dislike deconstructed dishes which do not in some way proportion the food. Was I meant to mix it all up? But it was too big and there were so many ingredients. Was I to bite each ingredient individually? But where is the harmony?…

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A precursor to a future dish was also set down in front of us.

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EBI: celtuce, caramelized miso, yuzu (3.75/5)

Most memorable for the clean taste of celtuce cubes (something like braised kai-lan, for Southeast Asian readers). Again, pleasant without being mindblowing. The precursor to the next dish was set on fire.

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WAGYU: parsnip, black trumpet, kombu (4.25/5)

A5 wagyu is the highest grade of wagyu obtainable in the United States, it was precooked and for visual efffect roasted in a fire, along with roasted parsnip (tastes like carrot with the texture of ginseng) and a black trumpet puree, with a strip of (mushroom?) leather and (parsnip?) cream. This was not bad. The beef was a bit lukewarm, but I can’t complain given the long period where it was sitting in the fire, pretending to cook while actually cooling down.

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LILY BULB: rambutan, distillation of caviar lime (4.75/5)

The first dish which I enjoyed for its sake alone, this was a palate cleansing dish after the rich wagyu. Slivers of lily bulb (bai he, an occasional ingredient in Cantonese cooking usually used for shrimp or vegetables), with shaved rambutan, and squeezed-out sacs (vesicles) of finger lime, and finger lime jelly, with a distilled syrup of finger lime and ginger. One advantage of using finger-lime, as I understand it, is that its vesicles or “citrus caviar” is easily squeezed out. This dish was vaguely Southeast Asian in provenance, combining the rambutan and lily bulb with the Australian finger lime. Very refreshing.

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SWEETBREADS: orange, ginko nut, mustard (2/5)

“Done in the style of Panda Express” said my server. I would not consider that a compliment. Sweetbreads, fried in the style of Sino-American “orange chicken” (cornstarch, flour, egg), is sat in an orange sauce, with a gingko nut and carrot sauce around the plate. This was uncannily similar to Chinese take-out food. Perhaps this was the intention, but I came to Alinea specifically to eat something unique, not take-out Chinese, and I couldn’t help feeling that a course had been wasted on providing verisimilitude to something I normally take pains to avoid eating. I mean, sure, Alinea can probably make the greatest donner kebab in the world, complete with day-old spit grease, but that doesn’t mean I want to eat a donner kebab at Alinea…

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WOOD EAR: pig ear, allium, black garlic (4/5)

Wood ear, or “mu er” in Chinese is a black fungus that has the texture of jellyfish – very similar to the European fungus jew’s ear. Here it was set with a deep fried pig’s ear (delicious, but can we have more than a single sliver?), and black garlic and onion sauces made savory with parmesan. What was interesting to this Chinese palate was the pig’s ear, which was really expertly fried. At this point of the meal, I sensed a disconnect – perhaps this sort of “world cuisine” could have been mindblowing to someone who had not been eating wood ear and pig’s ear since childhood. Perhaps the novelty of the rambutan dish would have been starker if I wasn’t intimately familiar with all ingredients. The ceviche dish I might have considered top class, if I hadn’t been to Peru the month before, and tried ceviche ten different ways. To this Southeast Asian Chinese diner, Alinea’s Chinese-inspired dishes were solid but not mindblowing. Similarly to a Peruvian traveller, that Peruvian dish would be merely solid.

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HOT POTATO: cold potato, black truffle, butter (4.75/5)

This Alinea signature was luxuriantly rich, a hot sphere of Yukon potato topped with a slice of black truffle and butter and Parmesan cheese, into a cold truffle soup. A pin preserves the temperature of the individual ingredients, before being dropped into the soup. Time-sensitive, and every bit as good as people claim it to be.

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DUCK: ……..?????…………!!!!!!!!!!!!! (4/5)

60 different garnishes for 5 different preparations of duck. I think there was roast, confit, foie gras with a graham cracker base. “Choose your own adventure” with the toppings, the servers advised. As I said above, the genius of the chef is in his proportioning the dish just right. So proportioning the seasonings to my own duck came across to me as a gimmick. All parts were well prepared, but this dish was clearly an effect dish, rather than a tribute to the vision and taste of a single chef.

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PISTACHIO: marscapone, strawberry, black walnut (4.25/5)

A pleasant dish of pistachio gelato, marscapone, lemon gel sphere, Missouri-black-walnut chocolate cake, and dehydrated strawberry marshmallow. Good, solid.

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BALLOON: helium, green apple (5/5)

Hehehe. Finally, an effect dish that is so one-of-a-kind it makes the experience of dining at Alinea worth it! Another Alinea signature – the green apple balloon is filled with Helium and brought to diners anchored to a pin. Diners bring their mouths to the balloon, and gently… kiss it, sucking out the helium and making funny noises. It’s a riot. Also very messy.

Making of Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGMCmbLq2qs

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Birthday Course: Chocolate Ball with Creme Anglaise

Happy birthday A+K!

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MILK CHOCOLATE: pâte sucrée, violet, hazelnut (3.25/5)

Another Alinea signature technique: a dessert is plated on a whole table, covered with a silicon mat. A chef plates it in two minutes. The milk chocolate and frozen milk had a bit of a sour tinge that didn’t appeal to me, though the pate sucrees (very similar to kueh bangkit or Bengawan Solo’s nut pastries, for Southeast Asian readers) was the best part of the dish. Notes on visual effects: The squares come from micro-protrusions in the silicon tablecloth, which the violet syrup would settle into a square if it’s the right viscosity. The colour change of certain squares to blue uses a natural pH indicator, the squares of which are added citric acid, I think.

2014-02-28 23.22.25

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After I returned, I logged onto Chowhound, and through the mass of reviews, I noticed a trend among the sentiments of repeat Alinea diners in the last year: they too concurred that Alinea had been losing a bit of its sparkle:

Sadly you might have noticed a trend there. My first four Alinea dinners remain among my several meals ever but recently I had a fairly disappointing experience. My meal lasted barely over two hours (prior meals were nearly four), service not as attentive or friendly as with prior visits. Also some amateur mistakes were made, such as we were twice asked if we needed a cab, both times said “no” and as we were leaving were informed our cab was waiting (not something you expect from a three Michelin star venue regarded as one of the world’s best). While some of the courses were memorable and phenomenal (loved the scallop course and the corn dessert) and a couple other quite good, a majority of the menu was no different (or only tweaked) from my last visit nearly a year back (and a few unchanged from my first meal there – including a rather boring, uninspired ginger course that is fine once but weak as a repeat and ridiculous the fifth time).

Chef Achatz has been spending less time in house (turning a lot of the creative and executive duties to Chef Bagale), they lost some wonderful front of house staff and Achatz/Kokonas seem as though they have placed expansion of their brand and maximizing profits ahead of customer satisfaction and trying to continue having Alinea evolve and improve. To an extent they seem to be coasting on their reputation and past success (which can only carry you for so long). While I hope this is just a hiccup in Alinea’s lifespan and Achatz and company rise to the challenge and opt to make another push towards Alinea becoming the world’s best restaurant (they certainly have the talent), unfortunately Alinea may be past her prime and Grace very well could become widely regarded as Chicago’s top venue in the not too distant future.

I found my last dining experience at Alinea to be a very poor value – especially if you have dined there within eighteen months and are expecting a significantly different menu rather than a watered down version of what you previously consumed with a handful of new courses interspersed. Several fine dining venues just in Chicago now have better service (Grace and Boka really shine in this area), most undergo significant menu changes seasonally (Grace, Moto, Boka, El Ideas, Sixteen, Elizabeth for example) and Grace and Goosefoot have IMHO better tasting food (with others such as Moto, El Ideas, Schwa, L2O, Boka and Elizabeth serving nearly as good cuisine). All of these venues are less money (some considerably so) and aside from Elizabeth do not require the hassle of non-refundable tickets (and Elizabeth does have some flexibility with regards to tickets sales if a conflict arises).

Alinea is certainly no longer the United States’ best restaurant and unless improvements are made it is no longer head and shoulders above other top tier venues in Chicago. – user Gonzo70 at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/928306#8525639

I hope that this ultimately disappointing visit to Alinea is a hiccup, and the Alinea that stood head-over-shoulders over all other restaurants in Chicago will return. Until then, it is doubtful I will revisit any time soon.

Memory: Lily Bulb with Rambutan, Hot Potato Cold Potato, Green Apple Balloon

Other Notable Links: 

Schwa | Chicago | Feb ’14 | “magic”

28 Feb
  • Address: 1466 N Ashland Ave, Chicago, IL 60622
  • Phone:(773) 252-1466
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $140
  • Courses: (11 main/13 total) 1 amuse / 8 savory / 1 cheese / 2 dessert / 1 mignardise
  • Price/Main Course: $13
  • Rating: 18.5/20
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining Time: 200 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 15.5 minutes
  • Chef: Michael Carlson (ex. Trio, The Fat Duck)
  • Style: Avant-garde
  • Michelin Stars: 1
  • Notable: BYOB; Also, no Front of House staff – the servers are the chefs

Rating: 18.5/20

Memory: The buzz of really loud hip-hop, doing shots with the chef, butter poached lobster, marinated cuttlefish, antelope loin, Chimay Brulee, Root beer float, honeycomb brittle

2014-02-28 02.21.02 A restaurant I remember with great fondness. Here is fine dining with all the pretense stripped out. The front of house is the back of house, with chefs serving you – and they’re always knowledgeable about every dish that they serve. Chefs Joshua and Michael were really friendly, and made me feel at home. The pulsating rap made each table anonymous, in their own drunken revels – this place is BYOB. I enjoyed the casual fine-dining vibe here, carpeted floors and clawed chairs always make me feel a bit uncomfortable and stiff.

Set in a corner of Ashland Avenue that’s almost industrial wasteland, it’s easy to walk past Schwa. The “dining room”, if you want to call it that, is an orange-lit space that’s maybe 80 square meters in area. I knew all of this before I came to Schwa – the only criterion I would use to call my meal a success would be the food they would serve. From the packed dining room (and Schwa is notoriously difficult to get a reservation at), I would say a lot of diners agree – creature comforts are secondary to the food. And what a meal I had.

A tip for getting a reservation: I called around 1pm. Most people claim they have success from 12-4pm. The key is, if the dial-tone goes straight to the message that “the mailbox hasn’t been set-up” instead of ringing about 5 times first, that means someone is on the line. Spam your calls then.

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1. A Night at the Movies (4.25/5)

Sour Cherry Dot (Sourpatch Kid); Pizza Cotton Candy; Inside-Out Nacho; Popcorn Soda

Recreation of a typical movie experience in America – nachos, pizza, gummies, and popcorn, except deconstructed – and remade. Tells of their playful nature. Flavors were remarkably accurate. Gummy was indistinguishable from the real thing, candy floss (another movie food) was well-seasoned with pizza flavor, soda tasted of that buttery popcorn taste, and the nachos were good.

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2. Butternut squash + cantaloupe jelly; Peanut Leaf; Curry Puree + Chocolate Nibs; Gooseberry as Palate Cleanser (4/5)

This was a more experimental dish. I remember the jelly having great flavour, which I originally thought was due to curry, but Josh said it was squash and cantaloupe. I have on my tasting notes “fruity taste of christmas pudding” somewhere on this dish.

2014-02-27 23.17.59 3. (Extra Course) Quail egg ravioli with parmesan shaved black truffle (4.75/5)

A schwa signature, this was served with no spoons. Picking it up with my fingers and downing it in one bite, a rich and luxuriant cream sauce was really delicious. I can see why this is an ever-green on the menu. It says as much about Schwa as it does about me, that I had no qualms greedily tipping the small bowl over my lips to get every lick of that sauce.

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4. Chestnut agnolotti with 3 types of consomme (sweet potato; iberico ham; persimmon) gelatinized into cubes; crispy prosciutto; shaved chestnut (3.5/5)

Agnolotti means little purses in Italian – and they held sweet chestnut puree. I was not the greatest fan of this dish, since I felt this was one of the rare times the flavor combinations were slightly off – the sweetness of chestnut + other two types of sweet gelatin cubes marginally overpowered the ham preparation.

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5. Carbonated pears with Ossetra caviar, white chocolate foam, basil chips in the style of kale chips (4.25/5)

Carbonated pear balls? Why not indeed! It was an odd combination, caviar and carbonated pear, but the white chocolate harmonised the dish with its fat content; and the textural contrast of basil crisps balanced it. But the combination wasn’t as enlightening as the following two dishes.

Afterwards I found out from my copy of Modernist Cuisine how to carbonate fruits. See below*.

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6. Butter poached lobster; lavender bubbles; soy skin “yuba” tuile, oyster mushrooms, orange segments, with earl grey foam; and our best approximation of crumpets – which is actually olive oil cake (5/5)

The conventional pairing of lobster would be with a citrus/mango sauce to provide fruity contrast. But I believe Schwa has provided a playbook to elevating those flavors. The secret is earl grey tea gel, which has the herbal taste that really triangulates between the rich chewiness of lobster and a baseline sweet fruit flavor. A dish of genius.

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7. Marinated cuttlefish, finger lime, a slab of apple ice, sunchoke + lemongrass panna cotta, herbal broth with many herbs (incl. cucumber and fennel) (5/5)

This dish worked on at least two different ways. At the centerpiece is the thumb-sized hard slab of apple-ice. First, it brought out the smooth cucumber and fennel taste from the salty, pungent and oily herbal broth. Second, the cut, marinated cuttlefish and finger lime was seasoned in a way to remind me of Thai papaya salad, Here apple ice was a sucking lozenge, its cool hard sweet apple flavor cutting through the Thai-papaya-style seasoning. Another great dish.

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8. Thanksgiving Dinner (4.5/5)

Sweetbreads crusted and fried, with stuffing puree, mustard grains, foie gras + sweetbread gravy, and mock cranberry sauce (actually pomegranate)

Pleasant, the sweetbreads were expertly (diced and) fried. The foie gras +sweetbread sauce had a nutty taste like peanut. I may have had a greater reaction to this dish if I had had more experience eating Thanksgiving dinners.

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9. Antelope loin, shot down by a sniper, with trail mix crust, pickled pistachio, dried cherry leather and sauce (4.5/5)

The first time I’ve had antelope ever, I think. Michael explained that it was shot from a helicopter by a sniper in Broken Arrow Reserve in Texas 2 days ago. Due to the vigor of the antelope, if it is shot from any closer, the stressed out antelope would presumably attempt to flee, and in its stressed death would go into rigor immediately, making the meat completely unpalatable, hard and dry. This meat was served rare, and what a cut of meat – it was so soft, that it was pliable to the butterknife I was cutting it with (the kitchen gave us a butterknife for that reason presumably). The rest of the accompaniments were secondary – besides being a passable trail mix. I guess I had my first taste of ultra-high-density fast-twitch-reaction-fibre meat!

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10. (Cheese Course) Yeast ice cream, fermented huckleberry watermelon jelly, with Chimay cheese “brulee” (5/5)

Amazing. Chimay cheese below was treated with a creme brulee crust above (how did they do it?), and the funky taste of good bread came from the yeast ice cream. Ostensibly a cheese course, this was a great tribute to beer. Rounded. Completely unique. I miss it already.

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11. Root Beer Float (5/5)

Parsnip icecream with butterscotch shavings, to be dumped in a root beer float

Another amazingly balanced dish. The clean taste of parsnip was an inspired choice to be dumped into root beer – and a whole spoon of butterscotch. I wish I had had a whole mug of this!

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12. Honey Sorbet, yuzu gelee, bee pollen, honeycomb brittle (4.75/5)

I am haunted by the taste of that honeycomb brittle. Salty, sweet, with a lightly burnt taste. The thought occurs to me that if I came to Schwa every month for dessert, I would be a very happy man. The desserts have been absolutely outstanding, zany and off-the-wall, while remaining perfectly balanced and very pleasant.

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13. (Extra Course) A crystal of cold air, then “lemongrass + ginger + ?” snow, and a bit of pee (yellow sauce incl. rutabaga) (4/5)

A common sight in the winter months everywhere is yellow snow (I.e. dog piss) I am glad to report this tasted considerably better than that! This was more of an effect dish – the crystal once popped in the mouth became menthol, and a rush of cold air killed my taste buds, and then shoving saucy snow into my mouth heightened the menthol taste. One of the oldest effects known to me (menthol + cold == more cold), this was evocative of the harsh Chicago winter I was about to step out into shortly.

 

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* APPENDIX. On carbonating fruits. There seem to be two ways to carbonate fruits

A. If you put fruit in a pressure chamber with carbon dioxide, the gas will permeate the skin and dissolve into the juice inside – Modernist Cuisine. vol2 p469.

  1. Chill fruit (The fruit must be ice-cold)
  2. Wet fruit and place in carbonation chamber
  3. Add liquid (optional: adding grape juice to apples with infuse apple with carbonated grape juice)
  4. Charge the chamber.
  5. Carbonate. Hold refrigerated long enough for gas to dissolve into the food
  6. Serve chilled.

B. Carbonating fruits with dry ice MC vol2 p472

  1. Put a layer of crushed dry ice (don’t come into skin contact with it) at the bottom of plastic sealable container (air pressure may cause glass containers to shatter)
  2. Place an insulating layer of paper towels/tea towel on the ice layer (protects fruit from extreme temperature of dry ice)
  3. Place cold fruit on insulating layer. Let it settle for a few minutes so the “steam” pushes out the oxygen in the container
  4. Seal the container.

Avec (revisited) | Chicago| May ’13 | “the joy of small plates”

25 Dec

Address: 615 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL, 60661

Telephone: (312) 377-2002

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One from the vaults. (in preparation for end-of-year belly-gazing lists of my favorite restaurants and my favorite dishes) The best meal I had in Chicago in 2013. While I lived in Chicago in the summer of 2012, Avec was one of my go-to places for casual “fine-dining”. I found the Mediterranean influenced dishes an absolute delight, and I am surprised that it still remains only on the Bib Gourmand list on the Michelin Guide. It deserves a star. The restaurant is exceedingly casual and also doesn’t take reservations, which may be why.

Avec was opened by Paul Kahan in 2003, to partner his existing restaurant Blackbird (next door, and also one of my favorites in Chicago). The opening of the restaurant is exceedingly cramped (one enters by a side door, like Blackbird), leaving little space to manoeuvre between reception and entrance. The place is perpetually crowded, and while waiting outside in the summer is acceptable, in Chicago winter it must become uncomfortable.

My first brief review on this blog was in the last month of Koren Grieveson’s stint as head chef of Avec, who is not currently cooking. The kitchen is now under Chef Erling Wu-Bower. I ate at Avec twice in two days, and had sterling meals both times.

As I’m currently on holiday, and away from my copies of the menu, I will describe dishes impressionistically.

Rating: 16/20

Memory: Wood-fired Squid Amatriciana, alcoholic cherries and Spumoni, the combination of dark chocolate and bergamot, always perfect trout.

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The Famous Avec Stuffed Dates (4.25/5)

I’m still not the biggest fan of these, though I’ve had them numerous times with different people, who rave about them. I think the bacon wrappings outside are too hard and cardboard-like in texture. One improvement I can think of is using the belly-fat of pork, often used in Chinese cooking for dong-bo-rou, cut it into thin-slices, and use that as wrapping instead. To achieve the crunchy texture, carefully blowtorch the fat. That would be how I would improve on these dates.

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Pea Puree Dish (4.5/5)

Very fresh, verdant tasting pea puree. Delicious

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Some Fish (4/5)

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Trout (5/5)

Avec is absolutely killer at Mediterranean seafood. What I remember: perfectly roasted trout, flaky savory skin, juicy inside.

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Wood-fired Squid Amatriciana (5/5)

My favorite dish this time round. A delicious baked-glaze, like a mac-and-cheese, on top of amatriciana that contained pork cheeks (guanciale?) and squid.

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Beet Salad (4/5)

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Whole Roasted Fish (4.5/5)

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Pork Shoulder (3.5/5)

I’ve always found the pork shoulder at Avec to be a bit dry to my tastes. Needs more time in the stew.

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Chocolate Crisps (4.5/5)

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Daily special: Bergamot-Dark-Chocolate Ice Cream (5/5)

mmmm. What an inspired pairing.

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Spumoni (5/5)

Oh, those alcoholic cherries, with the pressed layers of ice cream. I could eat twenty of those dark, intense alcoholic cherries,no problem.

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If on a Chicago summer night a traveller…

Blackbird (revisited) | Chicago | May ’13 | “dessert at one of Chicago’s great restaurants”

25 Dec
  • Address: 619 West Randolph Street, Chicago, IL, 60661
  • Telephone: 312 715 0708
  • Hours: Lunch, Weekdays 1130am-2pm; Dinner, Daily 5-10pm; F, Sat 5-11pm
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $30
  • Courses: (3 main) 1 starter / 1 main / 1 dessert
  • Price/Main Course: $10
  • Rating: 17/20
  • Value: 5/5
  • Average Dining Time: 70 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 23 minutes
  • Chef: David Posey (ex. Alinea)
  • In own words: “a very minimalist plate, which is three or four components.  We try to execute [these components] as best we can. […]  The longer I cook here the more I find that my dishes are simple — a vegetable, a meat, a condiment and a sauce.” [1]
  • Style: Minimalist New American
  • Notable: $22 prix-fixe (pre tax and tip) is one of the best deals in Chicago

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Rating: 16/20

Blackbird is one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago, and an institution in the city, where it has been around for 16 years. It doesn’t look one bit its age; the interior kitchen is clean, uncluttered – modernist in design. Having been there a couple of times in the summer of 2012 (Chef Dave Posey and owner Paul Kahan have created one of the best value prix fixe menus in the city, for $22, demonstrating that great food doesn’t need to be expensive. It was my go-to fine-dining fix in the Loop), on the prix fixe menu I was most impressed by their desserts. Pastry Chef Dana Cree’s desserts are understated, but elegant. I still remember the beads of condensation that accompanied the “Blueberry Buttermilk Affogato with Blackberries and Cinnamon Basil“, a cool-relaxed dessert eaten in an austere dining room – which aesthetically brought to mind Roy Lichtenstein’s Mirror Portrait. (I had visited the (Art Institute of Chicago) ARTIC’s Lichtenstein retrospective a few days before in 2012).

Lichtenstein_Self_Portrait_1978

Roy Lichtenstein, Self Portrait, 1978

The minimalist “cool” aesthetic at Blackbird isn’t all my own imagination:

What are you proudest of here on the menu?
The thing I’m proudest of is something that I don’t think you can find in Chicago and that’s a very minimalist plate, which is three or four components.  We try to execute [these components] as best we can. At lunch right now we have a duck leg confit that comes with roasted broccoli, a raisin puree and potato granola. Four components to a dish — a Michelin one-star dish — is kind of hard for you to find in Chicago if it’s not like a pasta dish at Spiaggia or something. I think that’s what I’m most proud of. And the longer I cook here the more I find that my dishes are simple — a vegetable, a meat, a condiment and a sauce. – Dave Posey

Another favorite dessert, that I had on a later visit in 2012, was a wonderful peanut brittle based dessert. I thus came prepared for the full Blackbird dessert experience, to savor the talent of the pastry crew at the restaurant.

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Plated using the “drowned-arrangement” soup technique

Inspired by a dish at Jacques Maximin’s restaurant Chantecler, Ferran Adrià began in 1985 to serve soups in an unusual style. A shallow soup plate was set with food in a manner that suggested it was a complete dish.Then, just before the diner would tuck in. the waiter would pour in a soup or broth, drowning the food on the plate, ruining its careful composition and arrangement. What appeared to be a dish in its own right was turned into a garnish for the soup. The surprising twist was an early experiment in challenging the assumptions of the diner. – Modernist Cuisine, Vol 1 p. 52 

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Prix Fixe courses, all great elegant food. Their duck confit is ever-reliable. Blackbird’s prix fixe fish main wasn’t that great on the previous times I was there, and I skipped the fish option for the duck.

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Roasted Peanut Ice Cream (4.5/5)

Carrot-barley sponge, honey mousse, pickled carrot, opal basil

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Roasted Rhubarb (4.25/5)

Cardamom Danish, Whipped Delice, Green Almond, Anise Hyssop

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Goat Cheese Cake (4.75/5)

Cajeta Ice Cream, Burnt Grapefruit, Avocado

Delicious. Cajeta is a Mexican thickened syrup made of cows milk, belying the positive Mexican influence that Rick Bayless has brought into the city. Wonderfully complemented by burnt grapefruit and avocado. A decadent thick cheesecake with the funkiness of goat.