Saturday, August 20, 2011

balsan - chicago, il
11 east walton street
chicago, il 60611

housed within the beautiful and extremely accommodating elysian hotel in the gold coast area, brunch at balsan was our choice for our final meal of another highly successful chicago food trip. for just $19 per diner, balsan offers a wonderful array of meats, cheeses, pastries, and spreads along with a choice of entree. after reviewing some of our other options and wanting a place that accepted reservations to avoid waiting, balsan seemed like our best bet.

a pair of bubbly cocktails got things going on the right foot with a classic mimosa for carrie and wonderfully tart "lime and thyme" for me.

as promised, our meal began with a lovely tray of savory meats and cheeses along with some scones, madelines, french bread, and a quartet of delicious spreads including a house made hazelnut-chocolate offering and a wonderfully smooth butter. digging in quickly, carrie and i devoured the entire assortment in no time.

for my entree, i went for the farm eggs served sunny side up with crispy fingerling potatoes and an amazingly sweet maple bourbon sausage. everything on the plate was excellent with the sausage being the standout. my only wish was for another link or two!

carrie selected the wild mushrooms and eggs which featured poached eggs, grits, and salsa verde. this was another wonderful plate that actually trumped mine, with the smooth grits and woodsy mushrooms being enhanced by just the right amount of heat from the salsa. luckily the portion was quite generous, and i was allowed several bites.

for brunch, balsan served its purpose quite well, and exceeded my expectations. they also offer both lunch and dinner, and although the brunch was great, i doubt we will be back for either as there are just too many other amazing restaurants in chicago left to try. as we were walking out, we peeked into ria, the michelin two star restaurant on the same floor as balsan. being very striking visually and possessing a menu that reads quite well, i hope to work a visit to the elsysian's crown jewel into a trip in the hopefully near future!
Balsan on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 19, 2011

avenues - chicago, il
108 east superior street
chicago, il 60611

it took three tries, but carrie and i finally got our table at avenues. located on the fifth floor of the penninsula hotel, the restaurant was fully booked during our trip in april and closed for renovations when we were in chicago in july. after missing out on our last two trips we were originally planning to wait until the fall or winter to finally dine at avenues. however, once we heard that chef curtis duffy was going to be leaving avenues in september to open his own place, we made the necessary arrangements to make sure we got in before duffy left for good.

with an open exhibition kitchen that used to be run by chef graham elliot, avenues has always been known for its modern cuisine, and what chef duffy (former sous chef at alinea ) is doing is certainly that. the restaurant received two michelin stars under duffy in the guide's inaugural chicago edition, and has been given much praise by food critics and bloggers alike.

as i mentioned above, avenues has an open exhibition style kitchen complete with a chef's counter where diners can experience first hand how the amazing dishes come together. carrie and i talked about requesting seating at the chef's counter, but after some debate decided against it so that we could have a more intimate experience just the two of us. as much as i value quality time with my wife, this turned out to be a bit of a mistake as the main dining room was fairly bland visually, and was so dark that my pictures turned out horribly.

two menus were offered, a standard eight course option along with an equally long vegetarian menu. we of course went for the standard tasting, but did add one extra course from the vegetable menu. before ordering however, we were met with an impressive champagne cart with three offerings. we happily partook and even though the price for a glass was fairly steep, starting the meal off with some bubbles was wonderful. additionally, with help from the lovely sommelier, we selected a nice savennieres that worked quite well with the food.

after confirming our desire for the standard protein tasting with one extra course added in, we were promptly served an amuse bouche of sea urchin with caviar, pea puree, rhubarb, and a few other components. flavor wise, this was everything a amuse should be, as it really set the tone for what was to come. the sweet urchin was balanced out nicely by the pea puree, which was actually frozen with liquid nitrogen and then formed into balls to resemble actual peas. this was easily the largest amuse i have ever been served, and probably the most successful.

alaskan king crab - golden brook trout roe, kalamansi, lemon mint

the first of our eight courses was one of chef duffy's signature dishes, and my most anticipated course of the meal. being amongst the most visually stunning dishes i have experienced, this offering was served in a glass with orange trout roe along with some creams and mint resting on top of a thin sugar disc. beneath the sugar lay alaskan king crab, more trout roe, and a mint cucumber soup. we were instructed to smash the sugar disc with our spoon to let all the ingredients meld together. this was an unbelievable combination of textures and flavors, with elements of sweetness, acidity, and cool mint contrasting against each other but yet somehow working together at the same time. add to this the briny roe popping, and you truly have a dish unlike any other.

 after our first course, the first of the evenings bread was brought to the table. all four offerings are pictured above, however instead of letting us chose from a tray a few times throughout the meal, avenues does a bread pairing where they bring a specific bread dependent on the next course. personally, i did not really care for this method, as i didn't really see how any of the breads paired with any of the courses, and it only allowed for one piece of each bread per diner. the breads were a pretzel roll with black lava salt , a scone, a whole wheat waffle, and a final offering that i cannot recall. served with the bread was a trio of spreads - a cow's milk butter with black salt and two olive oil emulsions with herbs and meyer lemon respectively. the lemon was lovely on the scone, but the cow's milk butter was the winner for me on all of the other breads.

cortez bay scallops - romaine marmalade, white poppy, nasturtium

moving on to dish number two, we have several deliciously sweet barely cooked scallops finished table side with a white poppy broth. while the profile of the dish was predominantly sweet, the nasturtium (essentially watercress) added a bit of spice to the fray.

hatomugi - idiazabal, marigold, oxalis

although there was nothing unpleasant about the hatomugi (a type of grain) course, it was definitely my least favorite course of the meal, and the details have been lost in my memory.

grains, seeds, nuts - amaranth veil, sultans, sunflower

knowing that this was another one of chef duffy's signature dishes, i elected to add this course from the vegetable tasting menu to our meal. although this was another grain based course, it fared much better than the hatomugi. the dish was an interesting mixture of a variety of grain, sunflower seeds, raisins, and a few other components.

hamachi - lardo, yuzu, rainbow chard

getting back to the proteins, dish number five was the richest fish preparation i have ever had. topped with a thin layer of lardo, the grilled hamachi possessed a bold smokey flavor unlike any other white fish i have ever had. for good measure, the plate also featured yuzu, carrot froth, and some morel mushrooms.

wagyu beef ribeye - smoked coconut, white shoyu, african blue basil

dish number six was another excellent but somewhat frustrating dish. the rich wagyu ribeye was incredible on its own, and melding it with the other flavors on the plate masked its natural flavors. i wished there was a vegetable or something else on the plate i could have used to experienced all the other components so i could fully enjoy the wagyu by itself. thinking back now, maybe i should have used the whole wheat waffle that was paired with this course.

sudachi - togarashi, nepitella mint

presnted on a wooden branch, our palate cleanser was a phenomonal burst of sweet and sour flavors inside a togarashi candy shell. while i was a bit surprised that the palate cleanser was considered one of the eight courses on the menu, but i guess the rather large amuse makes up for it.

white peach - kaffir lime, taleggio, lemon verbena

our first dessert course was an interesting blend of sweetness, acidity, and savor with the presence of tellaggio cheese making the dish a standout.

liquid chocolate - sassafras, cherry, fennel blooms

our final dessert was a frozen cylinder of chocolate with a liquid center plated with some cherries and flavors of sassafras and fennel. my memory is fading me a bit on this one, but it was definitely excellent.

with a trio of rich chocolates bringing our meal to a close, carrie and i settled the bill, collected our menu signed by chef duffy, and elected to walk back to our hotel in order to enjoy the beautiful chicago night. chatting about the meal we had just expierenced, we both agreed that although the two grain courses may not have been our cup of tea, we were both thrilled with our meal, which at its high points included some of the best bites of food i have ever had the privledge of tasting. while the future of avenues is up in the air, i cannot wait until chef duffy gets his own restaurnt open, and i wish him the best of luck achieving that third michelin star he is chasing.

Avenues on Urbanspoon

grahamwich - chicago, il

615 north state street
chicago, il 60654

after a disappointing cardinals loss in the 10th inning at wrigley field, carrie and i needed a snack prior to our dinner at avenues a few hours later. wanting something inexpensive, quick, and casual, we chose grahamwich, located less than a five minute walk from our hotel. grahamwich is the brainchild of top chef masters contestant graham elliot, and we hoped that it would be on par with our experiences at some of chicago's other big chef's casual concepts (xoco and big star).

walking in at around 5pm, we found the nicely decorated sandwich shop void of any other customers. we had seen the menu online previously, and needed little time looking at the menu board to make a final decision. we opted to take our food to go, but for those wanting to dine in, note that there is not much seating inside grahamwich, and most of the seating is at a single communal table. also take into consideration that grahamwich is cash only, but there is an atm inside.

after the short walk back to the wit hotel, we dug into our sandwich. we decided to split the wagyu beef, which was grainy mustard, baby arugula, yukon potato, onion rings, and served on a pretzel roll. upon unwrapping the sandwich, i was surprised at the amount of mustard that had been slathered on, but was relatively unfazed due to sheer hunger. upon taking my first bite, i was hit with disappointment. the mustard completely dominated my palate, and any flavors from the beef were completely masked. not only that, but the amount of potatoes and onion rings on the sandwich was unacceptably low. the only saving grace was the pretzel roll, which i really enjoyed. as a whole, the sandwich was not awful, but it was disappointing given its cost and the name attached to it.

faring even worse than the sandwich was the g'wich popcorn with grated parmesean, chopped chives, sea salt, cracked pepper, and truffle oil. while the flavors were good, the popcorn was far from warm, and fairly soggy. we also each opted for a specialty soda. i went with the orange ginger and carrie had the vanilla kola. both were definitely a step above your standard coke or pepsi product, but neither wowed either of us.

coming in at about twenty three dollars total for one sandwich, cold popcorn, and two sodas, i was not satisfied with my experience at grahamwich. i obviously have no issue paying for high prices for amazing food, but what we were served at grahamwich was far from amazing, and simply wasn't worth the cost. i am still looking forward to trying graham elliot's eponymous restaurant on a future chicago food trip, but feel that chef elliot needs to step up his game at grahamwich.
Grahamwich on Urbanspoon

the bongo room - chicago, il
1152 south wabash avenue
chicago, il 60605

with two locations in the chicago area, the bongo room has been a staple in the breakfast/brunch scene for many years. the bongo room is known for their sinfully decadent dessert-esque pancake and french toast creations, and has been on my must try list for some time.

arriving at the wabash location a few hours before we were to see the cardinals play the cubs at wrigley field, we were seated right away in the almost full restaurant. browsing the menu as well as a lengthy listing of specials, carrie and i knew narrowing down our choices would be difficult. once i realized ordering single pancakes was an option, things became a bit easier, and we opted to share one savory choice along with three single pancakes.

for the savory plate, we chose the chorizo, potato, avocado and queso fresco cheese omelet from the specials menu. served with a side of salsa, hash browns, and an english muffin, this was an amazing offering. the perfect egg omelet was bursting with spicy chorizo and huge chunks of creamy avocado, and made for one of the best savory breakfast plates i have had in some time.

however, it was the dessert pancakes that brought us in the door, and they did not disappoint in the slightest. pictured above is the orange-ricotta hotcake with fresh strawberries and ginersnap brown sugar butter. Definitely the lightest of our pancake trio, this was carrie's favorite. the gingersnap brown sugar butter was the highlight for me.

next up, and my personal favorite, was the white chocolate and caramel covered pretzel pancake with crushed pretzel, white chocolate, and buttery caramel. this pancake was the heaviest of the three, and was an exercise in absolute decadence. i loved how the crushed pretzel added an additional degree of texture to the fray.

finally, our least favorite of the three was the still quite formidable red velvet chocolatey cocoa hotcake topped with warm vanilla creme and toasted walnuts. being only slightly less rich than the white chocolate caramel cake, i was already in sugar overload by the time i got to it, and between carrie and i we were unable to finish it. it is hard to describe, but the red velvet cake had a distinctly different texture to it than the other two cakes.

i went into the bongo room with the approach that i wanted to try as many items as possible, and while i did achieve that goal, i would do things differently on a return visit as i ended up a bit overwhelmed. as much as i enjoyed the omelet, what makes the bongo room unique is their pancake and french toast selection, and they are so rich that trying to mix several of them with a savory dish first thing in the morning is a tall task for someone who doesn't usually eat much for breakfast. with that said, next time i plan to go a bit later in the day and focus on the sweets!
Bongo Room on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 18, 2011

the aviary - chicago, il
953-955 west fulton market
chicago, il 60607

after a fantastic dinner at everest, carrie and i directed our cab driver to the fulton market area for something a bit more modern. located right around the corner from moto and next restaurant, our destination was chef grant achatz of alinea's cocktail lounge called the aviary. having opened just a few months back, the aviary is exactly what you might expect in a cocktail bar from alinea's mastermind, featuring classic drinks re-imagined along with some totally unique completely original ideas.

arriving around 11:30, we had some trouble finding the unmarked door, which is actually around the corner from moto and next instead of next door like i had pictured. we were pleased to find that there was no wait to be seated, and we were led past the caged cocktail kitchen to a high backed seating area. the vibe inside the aviary is dark and sexy, and the crowd was well dressed and refined. while there is no formal dress code at the aviary, i would definitely recommend looking sharp.

shortly after being seated, we were presented with an amuse bouche of a spicy watermelon bite that we were instructed to down like a shot. the amuse was served on the same small pedestal used at alinea to present the edible cocktails. sweet at first but finishing with a distinct rush of heat, the watermelon cube was a nice start to our experience.

after downing the watermelon, our server explained the menu to us. there was a three course prix fixe menu available where one option is selected from columns of light drinks, complex drinks, and sweet drinks. there is also an a la carte menu available. in addition to drinks, the aviary offers a selection of "bites" to snack on. they must be ordered in sets of three, and are literally just a single bite each. although the prix fixe menu sounded like a great way to go, i noticed that the two drinks i was most interested in trying were only available a la carte, so we went that route instead.

my first drink was called "in the rocks", and was an interactive experience. essentially an "old fashioned", the drink was made with demerara, angostura, and bourbon, and arrived inside a frozen sphere of ice. with a slingshot-esque contraption being placed over the drink, i was instructed to pull back the metal ring attached to a rubber band to break open the ice that was holding the drink. breaking open the drink yielded a much louder and more satisfying cracking sound than i expected, and made an old school cocktail interesting again. i wonder what don draper would think?

carrie's first choice was the rooibos, described on the menu as lavender, almond, vanilla, and gin. we were both surprised and a bit disappointed when the drink was brought to the table as we were unaware that it was served warm. a quick google search of the word rooibos later taught us that rooibos is in fact a type of herbal tea, hence the warm presentation done table side. while this was absolutely delicious, we probably would have gone a different route has we realize this was a warm beverage. for more on the roobios, here is a youtube video.

arriving with the first round of drinks was our selection of bites. on top we have brioche with chocolate, smoked salt, and vanilla. carrie ate this one, and was instructed to put the entire thing in her mouth as it was  filled with vanilla cream and could be very messy. on the bottom right we have wagyu with smoked paprika, pumpkin seed, and yogurt. the most expensive of the bites at a hefty $6, this cube of beef was pure decadence. finally, the bite on the bottom left is foie gras with plum, gingerbread, and charred onion. this final bite was also incredible, with the smooth and savory foie pairing wonderfully with the firm gingerbread disc it sat upon.

next up on the cocktail front for me was the blueberry, made with verjus, sweet vermouth, and rye. this drink was served in a very unique vessel filled with blueberries, strawberries, orange peal, and a few other ingredients. given a tiny glass to drink from so the majority of the drink could remain in the vessel soaking up juices for as long as possible, this offering grew deeper in both flavor and color with each pour.

carrie's second and final drink of the evening was the hurricane, listed as passion fruit, cranberry, seven layers, rums. initially presented in a tall glass without ice to show the seven different layers of the drink "stacked" on top of each other, the beverage was then poured into an ice filled glass table side. while the few sips of the drink i had were indeed tasty, i was not overly impressed with this one.

although insanely expensive for a total of four drinks and three bites of food (four if you count the amuse), i cannot wait to return to the aviary. although two of the drinks didn't blow us away, i think it was a result of us being a little uninformed when ordering, and i would most definitely go for the prix fixe option next time.
The Aviary on Urbanspoon