EL Ideas

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I just had an amazing meal at EL Ideas, a restaurant that is a cross between Sunday Dinner and Next.  Located in a back alley near Chicago’s Tri Taylor neighborhood, all of the restaurant’s 16 patrons are treated to a view of the kitchen during dinner and are encouraged by the owner, Phillip Foss, to observe and even help cook and plate.  I met Foss when he was operating the his Meatyballs food truck near the Aon center and got chased away by the cops.  He managed to sell us some sandwiches before driving away.  As good as the sandwiches were, the restaurant is far superior.

Our meal consisted of a 14 course dinner that lasted about 2.5 hours.  With 12 savories and 2 desserts, it seemed that each dish kept getting better and better–“no, this is my favorite dish of the night.”  The highlights were grouper served with carrot and kimchi, diced ham drizzled with cheese, foie gras with meyer lemon, and a cream soup with sweetbreads and lobster.  Not only was everything flavorful, but all of the combinations of flavors just worked.

I say a cross between Sunday Dinner and Next because the limited seating requires purchasing a “ticket” and you feel like you are eating at someone’s dinner party.  It is BYOB so bring plenty to drink.  I am definitely going back.

Children, please!

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Having missed out on the initial sales of Next Restaurant’s third menu, Childhood, I spotted a Facebook post that they were releasing additional tickets.  Most of the times available were around 6 p.m. or 9 p.m., and it reminded me of the Cubs single game sales day on the Internet, with the website unable to keep up with demand and seats going really quickly.

Unlike the previous Paris 1906 or Thailand menus, there was no country associated with the cuisine–well, maybe 1980s American.  The theme was a menu that evoked memories of one’s childhood.  Certainly not everyone’s childhood, but coincidentally the menu was something I was able to relate to.

I will run through the 10 course menu, which was matched, optionally, with alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.  It began with a neatly wrapped present.  All kids like getting presents.  This one contained a take on peanut butter and jelly–a ball of peanut butter with jelly inside and fried with a tempura batter.  A creamy chicken noodle soup followed (the noodles themselves were made from chicken extruded into a noodle).  Then there was fish and chips on a plate decorated with a child-like design.  The mac and cheese was well done, with different kinds of macaroni.

The most interesting to the senses was called a “walk in the woods” according to the waiter.  It consisted of a hollowed-out birch log upon which hot stones and juniper branches were placed.  On top of the log was a piece of glass that had various wild mushrooms spread about.  The smell of the juniper wafted about as you ate.  Alinea has/had a similar dish where a huge bowl of juniper branches had a hot stone nestled in the middle that contained a small morsel of meat.  I love mushrooms, and this was the tastiest of the dishes to me.

The last of the savory dishes was a deconstructed cheeseburger, which had a piece of short rib and cheese, served with the bun of a burger ground up into a spread.  I’m a fan of braised short ribs, so this was my second favorite dish.  If you ate the meat with the bread paste, it does taste like a cheeseburger.

The most innovative presentation goes to the lunchbox.  Everyone got a different circa 1980s lunchbox, complete with Thermos.  Mine had some port.  The desserts were a homemade fruit rollup, and an oreo cookie, served in a ziploc baggie.  A handwritten note from mom was a nice touch.  After that was a couple of doughnut holes served with an electric metal beater that had a foie gras frosting dripping from it so you could lick from it just like when you were a kid.  The last was a campfire made from sweet potatoes and served with marshmallows so you could make S’mores.

Some would differ, but the food didn’t match up to the Paris menu.  It was a great dining experience–which is all part of what makes a good meal.  The presentations were as creative and playful as one might find at Moto, and inspired interesting conversation.   Its just that the food itself wasn’t as memorable.  Oh, well.  Hope I get tickets to elBulli!

Tilefish at Luma on Park

The Disney half marathon brought me down to Orlando, so I looked up a friend who knows I like to eat.  We gathered some friends at Luma on Park, which is located in Winter Park, Florida about 30 minutes from Disney.  I think I have found a new favorite fish in tilefish, which is commercially harvested in fisheries around Florida and therefore done in a sustainable way.

I like it for it’s texture, which has meaty, firm flakes and a light, sweet taste akin to shellfish.   I also like black cod/sablefish/butterfish very much, which has a similar texture.

I don’t recall the detailed preparation, but as you can see in the picture, it was served atop a selection of vegetables and a nice, light broth with some farro (a grain).  The fish itself was breaded and pan fried.  I would definitely order it again, and hope to be able to find some in Chicago.

Longman & Eagle

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Another Michelin restaurant review.  Longman & Eagle is a “regional American” restaurant in the Logan Square area, down the street from another gem, Lula Cafe.  A relatively new restaurant, it was fortunate to have scored a Michelin star last year, and has maintained that rating for 2012.

This was my second visit.  I had eaten at the bar before, and had their burger.  That meal was more drinking than eating, as I sampled too many of their great whiskey and bourbon selection and beers.  I noted that I needed to come back because there were so many tasty sounding items on the menu.

On this return trip, I went with a friend who lives in the area.  We had the Buffalo sweetbreads appetizer, venison sausage, and duo foie gras dish.  The sweetbreads (typically the thymus gland of a calf) were fried and covered in a traditional Buffalo wing sauce.   I’ve had the traditional French preparation of sweetbreads, which has them breaded and fried.  This was exactly like that but with Buffalo wing sauce.  It was good and tender, but not so much more special than Buffalo chicken wings.  The venison sausage was very good, served with potato pierogi-like dumplings.  The foie gras dish was a perfectly seared serving with a foie gras flavored milkshake.  Can’t go wrong with foie gras.

My friend had the roast chicken, and I had the “steak and eggs” short ribs with an egg-filled ravioli.  I am a sucker for short ribs, and while this wasn’t the typical slow-cooked, fork tender braised short ribs that I usually encounter, they were very well prepared.  They were boneless and meaty, and I believe were oven roasted and tender and flavorful.  I would definitely order it again if it were on the menu.

Balɐna

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I chanced upon a Facebook or Twitter post for a preview tasting of an upcoming restaurant in Chicago called Balena–which is a collaboration between the Boka Restaurant Group and Chris Pandel, the chef from the Bristol.  Rustic Italian is the theme of the food, and the cocktail menu, courtesy of the Bristol’s Debbi Peek, has an amaro theme.

The setting of this pop-up dinner was Tenzing Wine & Sprits in the West Loop, and a group of about forty people were treated to a five-course meal with wine pairings.  All of the items served are supposed to be on the opening menu.   The stewed tripe soup (a less spicy Italian version of menudo–it even has chickpeas, which were listed by the fancier name, ceci beans) and amaro-infused roasted duck were my favorites.  My least favorite was one of the pasta duos, a orechiette (shells) served with a lemon cream sauce.

As I’ve said in a previous post, I think highly of chef Pandel’s talents.  The Balena menu is off to a good start, and I hope they allow for some of the same daily creativity and menu changes that makes me go back to the Bristol.

Poaching game

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If I were to announce to the world that I had just poached an elk, I would not be surprised if someone from the department of conservation came knocking at my door.  Poaching wild game has to refer to illegally hunting wild animals, doesn’t it?  That’s what I thought until I tried the poached elk at Blackbird one night that was poached in duck fat of all things.

I’ve poached eggs for Eggs Benedict.  I’ve poached salmon in wine or stock.  It wasn’t until I saw a friend poach steaks in butter that I became curious.

The best preparation for a steak is medium rare with a nicely charred crust.  The challenge with game meat (elk, venison/deer) is that there is very little fat to keep the meat moist and tender while cooking.  Overcook it and it becomes tough, chewy, and unpleasant.  Poaching game meat is one way of keeping the meat tender.

How is it done?  I asked my friend and his response was:  sous vide.  That is a little gadget that allows one to precisely maintain the poaching liquid temperature.  I don’t have one of those.  I improvised by vacuum sealing the meat with patties of butter, and then immersing the bag in a pan of water that I monitored with an instant read thermometer.  I tested the process out on a boneless ribeye steak, which I held at 130 degrees for about 35 minutes.  After poaching, I fired up my cast iron skillet and seared both sides to give some color.  It tasted great.

With the elk, I had about a 3 lb. section of the backstrap, which is akin, I believe, to the ribeye on a cow.  I poached it in a similar way, but probably could have cooked it longer than the 35 minutes that I did because it did not appear to be cooked enough.  I had to cook the steaks I sliced a little longer.  Did it taste as good as Blackbird’s?  No, but maybe with a more practice I think I can get it right.

 

Tekka Kama

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A very tasty item that is usually an off menu dish at Japanese restaurants is hamachi kama, which is the neck of the hamachi and usually served grilled.  The neck is saved after the sushi chef is done with the whole fish.  Asians are not deterred by the work one has to go through to get to the luscious meat, which hides in the nooks and crannies of the collar bones.  I know you can ask for it at Mizu.

I was intrigued by a listing for “tuna collar” at the Bristol, one of my favorite restaurants, and was pleasantly surprised to see that it was simply hamachi kama, but with tuna instead of hamachi.  Served with a soy glaze and grilled, the portion was huge, indicating just how much bigger tuna is than yellowtail.  The flavor was a bit richer than your average tuna steak, and better in my opinion.  You also had to pick at the bones to get to all the meat, but it is worth it.