Author Archives: George

Next Restaurant: A Tour of Thailand

Man… I have never had such a hard time giving someone my money. Let’s just say I was 1 of the 14,000 people who tried to buy 1 of the 2000 tables offered online for the July-September Tour of Thailand Dining Concept at Next. I fought off repeated log-offs, a slow server, and 30 minutes of page refreshing to finally obtain a late table for Kate’s birthday.

Ok… so let me tell you a little about how this works because if you’re like me, you may not have realized how truly time consuming it may be to obtain a table at Next.  Let’s see… Where to begin…

The Concept:

So what’s Next?  It’s a restaurant concept opened 4 months ago by Chef Grant Achatz of the Michelin 3 starrred restaurant Alinea.  Next creates a menu and atmosphere based on a type of cuisine and then changes it every three months. Their most recent menu: A Tour of Thailand could not have been more different than their last menu, Paris 1906.  Perhaps even more interesting than their revolving menus, or should I say frustrating, is their reservation system.  All reservations are made online through their website and are nonrefundable.  A  person can buy a 2, 4, or 6 person table with or without a wine pairings sold at a certain time slot.  It’s essentially the same idea as buying a concert ticket.  Your online purchase includes meal, drinks, tax and tip and at the end of the dinner you can leave with no expenses left to pay.  It’s quite a revolutionary concept for reservations and dining in general.

The Process:

Tickets for your evening meal are sold in advance for the three month dining concept and are released about a week before the new menu.  The tickets released are an estimate of how many tables they can serve for the next three months and most recently sold out within an hour of the release.  You have to have some patience as the online sale is a lot like ticketmaster and you can get logged off if you’re not quite quick enough.

We missed the initial sale for the first menu Paris, 1906 Escoffier at the Ritz, so I anxiously awaited a facebook status update for same day tables.  The same day tables are announced via facebook midday, when the restaurant believes they have enough ingredients and staff to handle a few more tables.  So how does one balance both Next facebook status updates and kidney function?  I signed up to receive facebook updates for Next via text message. However, each time the text arrived for the Paris concept, I was either in between something at work, in a location with no internet service, or driving.  A couple of times I may have franticly swerved my car to the side of the road to hastily send my prewritten email response in hopes we would be selected.  Unfortunately, someone always beat me to the table and we set our hopes on The Tour of Thailand concept.

The Atmosphere: 

We arrived in the Meat Packing District, found a parking spot and meandered to the old Fulton Lounge site on the corner of Fulton and Sangamon.  We checked in and waited outside on the ample sidewalk to be beckoned in for our meal.  After about 15 minutes, we entered the intimate industrial appearing dining room.  It was bustling with a diverse group of guests, Chicagoans, those from out-of-state, or international travelers, many of which, like Kate, had their SLR in hand.  The large and speedy wait staff added to the high intensity atmosphere.

The Food:

Our first course was Thai street food.  A Thai newspaper was laid out across the table and our first course of drinks were served in plastic cups.  The course was composed of a sweet roasted banana, a prawn cake, sweet shrimp, fermented sausage, and a steamed bun with green curry. The roasted banana was delicious with pickled shallots and cilantro blossoms.  Our favorite item was the steamed bun with green curry.

Tom Yum Soup

Following our street food course, the newspaper table cloth was removed and a blue traditional table cloth was placed.  A white bowl of pork belly, tomato and ginger was placed in front of us followed by a server who poured hot and sour broth into the bowl.  The flavors of the soup were instantly familiar: Tom Yum Soup!  The broth was certainly sour and not overwhelming spicy until Kate bit into a red hot Thai Chili and took the next 15 minutes to recover.  With half of her lips tingling from the capsaicin she declared she would only be operating at 95% the rest of the meal. But given that the meal was nonrefundable… she had no choice but to continue on.

Caramel Catfish

The next two courses were served family style with three classic thai condiments and rice served in bamboo like basket.  First up,  was the catfish in caramel sauce with celery and coriander root served on a metallic dish shaped like a fish over a hot burning coal.  The sauce is essentially made by caramelizing sugar down into a thick sauce, a classic Thai and Vietnamese sauce.  While the sauce was good, it wasn’t as intense as the catfish dishes I’ve had on Argyle Street.  Following the fish, was beef cheek in a panang curry sauce.  It’s basically their take on beef panag, a Thai staple.  The curry was very fresh and the flavors were well developed but didn’t pack the burn your bowels type heat that I’m accostumed to in Thai curries.  The Thai curries I enjoy the most usually leave me sweating profusely as I try to towel off the sweat before anyone notices.

Following the savory courses, we received a juice of watermelon and lemongrass which was quite refreshing.  The dessert was two whole cracked coconuts served over a smoking coconut husk. The coconuts were split in half to reveal a dessert of coconut, corn, egg, and licorice.  The other half of the shell was used as a bowl to serve coconut sorbet.  This was Kate’s favorite dish of the night.  My guess is because it allowed her thai-chili induced injury from earlier in the evening to finally heal.

Dessert

Our Thoughts:

Obviously, this is not your typical Thai neighborhood joint.  But, with that being said the food here carried authentic Thai flavors with a certain elevation of ingredient and presentation.  The flavors were clean and refined, and the ingredients were of the best quality.  As for their service, all of their staff were quite knowledgeable and seemed to really enjoy explaining all aspects of the menu.  Someone even stopped by to ask our opinion of the heat level and actually offered to bring us out a spicy side to add to our table.  Our only suggestion for any of you still trying to snag a same day table is to definitely opt in for the non-alcoholic pairings which are an assortment perfectly mixed juices!

Next Restaurant  | 953 W Fulton Market | Chicago, IL 60608 |

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A Last Minute Venture: Perennial Virant

Oh no. We made this reservation two months ago and passed up Bulls playoff tickets for our much awaited dinner at Schwa with our good friend who was in town for the weekend.  Four hours before our dinner time, our friend’s plane landed only to find out that the kitchen was out of order at Schwa and all reservations were canceled for the evening.  What to do?  Fortunately, Kate thought of Perennial and its exciting makeover involving the Michelin starred chef from Vie, Paul Virant, and quickly snagged a late reservation to save the night… well not totally… the Bulls still managed to get eliminated from the playoffs during our dinner.

The Atmosphere:

Perennial Virant is located across from The Lincoln Park on Clark Street.   The dining room had a very comfortable and casual feel with two long communal wood tables surrounded by more intimate booths.  While we are not the biggest fans of communal dining, these tables were spaced out well enough to make our dining experience very comfortable.  The modern yet rustic look made us feel like we were in a nice spacious neighborhood lounge rather than a fine dining establishment.

The Food:

There are two basic options:  the 37 dollar 3 course price fixe with 2 options each course or the small plates option similar to the menu at the Girl and the Goat, another restaurant owned by the Boka Restaurant Group.  The small plates get progressively larger but never large enough to constitute an individual portion.  Since there were four of us, we chose a few small plates to share.  Our first plate was the Carnaroli Rice with local Brunkow Cheese Curds.  The dish looked beautiful and had a nice texture to it but could have used a little more salt or pepper for my taste.  This was followed by the Slagel Family Farm Pork Shoulder which was quite tasty but didn’t carry the falling off bone texture you typically expect with pork shoulder as it was compressed into a pork patty of sorts.  The Wisconsin Morrels in Milk Jam were the highlight of the meal.  They were extremely fresh and delicious!

Carnaroli Rice Cake

We also enjoyed the perfectly seared scallops and the flavorful Rabbit Ballotine, although Kate opted out on the bunny.  We tried the Chicken Fried Steak(beef provided by Wisconsin based Dietzler Farms), but we just couldn’t get into it like we had hoped as the crust wasn’t quite sufficient for the amount of meat it covered.

Sea Scallops

Our Thoughts:

Considering that this restaurant had only opened four days before our meal, the kitchen and service did an outstanding job!  The dishes were all very seasonal and composed of  fresh local items, many of which were supplied by the farmers that regularly attend the Green City Market across the street in the park. Paul Virant certainly lives up to his reputation of using fresh, local ingredients.  However, the portions of the shared plates were not much more that tapas size despite carrying a price tag of 8-27 dollars.  Overall, we enjoyed our time a Perennial Virant, but will most likely try the prix-fixe menu on our next visit.

Perennial Virant | 1800 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago IL 60614  | 312.981.7070

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An Interesting Evening @ Schwa

Oh no.  Oh no no no!  They hung up… Ah man… Hello? I was just about to give them my name… when suddenly…  silence!  Now, I wouldn’t have been so concerned about this, but I had been calling randomly for a reservation for oh say… the past six months.  Yes,  I had been calling since November and had not been able to get a hold of anyone, until today.  So for the next 20 minutes straight, I called Schwa until someone picked up, again.  I frantically started to explain my situation when the man on the other end said, “Sorry dude, somebody kicked out the phone jack”  He took my name, and with that, my reservation was complete.  Three weeks later we made our way to Schwa, for a 9 course tasting menu.

schwa

The Atmosphere:

From the outside its difficult to imagine a restaurant exists behind the dark facade and grafitied black door.  Any passerby may think it’s just another restaurant that didn’t make it, until you pull open the door and walk inside.  The small space is dimly lit which paired well with the blaring rap music that played throughout the night.  The place and the people are chill, so wear what you want, bring your own booze and chat it up with your server, who just so happens to be a Michelin starred chef.

The Food:

The food is a reflection of the atmosphere: intriguing and unpretentious but presented in a sophisticated and upscale manner.  Chef Michael Carlson’s diverse culinary influences are on display on the menu with elements of Italian and modern molecular techniques scattered throughout.  A few of our favorites included a baked potato soup, which was a great deconstruction on the classic with all the toppings, a sweet passionfruit gelee with salty steelhead fish roe, and his amazing, signature quail egg raviolo in truffle butter.  The most surprising dish of the evening was a dish called smores, which instead of marshmallows and chocolate happened to be a beef mole served with a side of campfire smoke.

Our Thoughts:

We were in a serious funk when we walked into Schwa… but at some point during the night we went from crabby to carefree.  The relaxed lounge like atmosphere put us at ease while the chefs served the food and found the time to tell us about their creations.  It was a true interactive experience, but not for those looking for a subdued environment. We’d go back in a second… if only they’d pick up the phone!

Schwa | 1466 North Ashland Avenue | Chicago, IL 60622 | (773) 252-1466

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The Perfect Cup of Coffee

When Kate graciously accepted my proposal to get married, my mind immediately jumped to the next obvious place… the gift registry… more specifically a gift registry at William Sonoma that would allow me to request those odd kitchen gadgets that I had long coveted but never had the reason to actually purchase.  While we had a perfectly reasonable Cuisinart Coffee Maker already, I had been suspiciously eyeing our machine each morning as to whether it was actually heating our coffee enough.  I grew up in a household where coffee was not quite done until it could actually cause a third degree burn.  With this in mind, our first request on our registry was a new, sexier, 100% stainless steel Cuisinart with a large steel thermal carafe.  I figured how you go wrong with all that shiny steel…

Single Origin Coffee Beans

Little did I know that the average coffee machine only heats water to about 160 degrees, 40 degree below the proper extraction temperature for coffee of 200 degrees.  When our new upgraded Cuisinart Coffee Machine arrived, I found that my coffee was even colder than the previous machine.  How could this be??? And thus began my search for the perfect cup of coffee.

In my extensive research of home coffee brewing, I found that I am not the only coffee obsessed person out there, as my wife had claimed, and that there were a number of websites dedicated to this very topic.  The majority of home machines while convenient and loaded with interesting buttons and features simply are incapable to achieving the ideal brew temperature of 195-205 degrees.  These machines utilize an aluminum heating element that does not achieve this level of heat in the 6 minutes it takes to properly brew a cup of coffee.  According to the tests conducted by America’s Test Kitchen, the only machine on the market to successfully achieve this brew temperature is the Technivorm Moccamaster which utilizes a copper heating element.  So off we went to William Sonoma, with our week old upgraded Cuisinart in hand fully prepared to trade it in for the $300 Technivorm.  Needless to say, my wife, who is not really a coffee enthusiast, was not too pleased with yet another trip to William Sonoma for yet another coffee machine.  Once in the store, we were impressed with temperature of coffee that the Technivorm produced but startled by the amount of plastic used to construct the machine.  Suddenly, thoughts of BPA and other dangerous chemicals leaching into our coffee as hot water rested in its plastic reservoir started racing through our minds.  Unfortunately, we left the store without any coffee machine in hand.

So what to do…  Should I spend money at Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts every morning?  Or could there be another option?  Fortunately for me, I shared my story with a barrista at Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago who understood my concerns and had the perfect solution… The Pourover Method.

The Pour Over Method: Hario Ceramic Dripper

It’s really quite simple.  First you buy a $30 Hario ceramic funnel, a few paper coffee filters, and a temperature controlled electric kettle.  You prepare your mis-en-place of sorts…  the coffee filter is placed inside the ceramic funnel which is then placed atop your favorite mug or travel mug in our case and our freshly ground coffee sits nearby.  Next you heat your water to 200 degress and pour 2-3 ounces of water over the paper lined funnel to prewash the filter and provide some heat to the ceramic filter and your mug.  The next integral step, which I have been known to forget at times, is to remove the water from your prewash from your mug.  You then load your funnel with coffee grounds (the general rule is 3 tablespoons per 9 ounces of water), place it over your mug of choice and slowly pour the remainder of the water over your coffee.  The whole process takes about 5-6 minutes. (Intelligentsia actually has an iPhone app to take you through the process.)   The result:  The perfect cup of coffee that is both hot and delicious!

 

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Our Trip to the Sausage Superstore

Hot Doug's The Sausage Super Store

Hot Doug’s The Sausage Super Store

It takes a lot for a straight man to rave about another man’s sausages, but Hot Doug’s renowned Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium meets and exceeds all the national hype.  Hot Doug’s gourmet sausage shop has received praise from my stomach to Anthony Bourdain and even the New York Times.  Last week, we decided to check it out again.

We drove on a cold December day to this hot dog mecca on the north side only to be greeted by a  long line when we attempted to enter.  We clearly were not the only ones craving a lunchtime dog and after a few minutes waiting outside we were upgraded to the line inside.  Yes!   And I’m going to go ahead and call this cash-only establishment a truly unique place.  Doug himself was taking orders at the cash register and even though the line was winding out the door, he was still super friendly.  As we were directed to the next available table, we noticed the phrase painted on the wall, “There are no two finer words in the English language than ‘encased meats,’ my friend.”  I can’t say that I disagree and by the looks of it, neither can his patrons.

The Atmosphere:

It’s a casual neighborhood spot on California and Roscoe in Chicago, with miscellaneous hot dog paraphernalia adorning the walls(i.e. a sausage timeline or photo of Britney Spears dog in hand) Now this isn’t your typical hot dog stand so expect a wider range of prices ranging from $1.75 – $9.00 per dog/sausage.

The Menu:

Hot Doug’s is a sausage lover’s heaven.  Doug has encased just about every kind of meat conceivable from rattlesnake to duck.  Your standard hot dog and bratwurst are fixtures on the menu along with other more uncommon sausages like andouille and dare I say it a veggie dog.  Yes, you heard me right, a veggie dog.  It was a vegetarian who actually first recommended Hot Doug’s to me.  These standard features all have creative names like the Salma Hayek mighty, mighty, mighty hot andouille sausage.  However, it’s the gourmet sausages that truly define this unique sausage experience, and you have a lot to choose from.  Doug has a daily special list of about 10 sausages that change at random every 10-12 days.  And although you can order your typical chicago-style dog, the rest of these condiments aren’t your usual chicago fare.  Foie gras, brie cheese, peach mayonaise, and truffled aioli are condiments typically reserved for a slightly pretensious gourmet restaurant but here they pair perfectly with each sausage .  Of course no hot dog is complete without fries.  Hot Doug’s fries are excellent, but for a real treat try the fries on Saturday’s and Sundays when they are fried in duck fat (the tastiest form of fat fat according to french culinary standards).

Foie Gras Dog1

We satisfied our hot dog craving with the following three sausages:

1. Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Aioli, Foie Gras Mousse and Sel Gris

2. The Spicy Jerk Pork Sausage with Spicy White Peach Mayonnaise, Creme de Brie Cheese and Roasted Plantains

3.  The Paul Kelly(aka bratwurst)

Each sausage had its own complexity of flavor starting from the seasoned meat, further amplified by the condiments.  My mouth was overwhelmed with flavor from the rich foie gras and earthy truffle aioli.  It was the most decadent bite of food I have had in recent memory.  The spicy pork sausage was equally impressive complimented nicely by brie cheese and sweet fried plantains.  Katie loved it.  Need I say more?

Our Thoughts:

Everyone should go there.  Now.  No seriously, leave work early(they close at 4), grab some cash and head on over there.  Ok. wait… check their website first(they may be off on holiday) then leave.   Also, try a special.  Katie was hesitant but now she too believes in their special sausages.

Hot Dougs | 3324 N California Chicago IL 60618 | 773-279-9550

Additional Reviews at Urban Spoon

Hot Doug's on Urbanspoon

 

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