Friday, October 28, 2011

naha - chicago, il
500 north clark street
chicago, il 60654

after sleeping in and missing the breakfast we had planned, our first meal of our only day in the city proper during this trip was lunch at chef carrie nahabedian's restaurant naha. located across the street from rick bayless' restaurant empire, the cuisine at naha is described as american with mediterranean influences. naha was inducted into the fine dining hall of fame in 2009, and was awarded a michelin star in the 2011 guide.

after a quick cab ride from wrigleyville, my wife carrie and i arrived hungry and ready to eat about ten minutes early for our 1:30 reservation. with our coats checked, we were shown to our table that provided us with a view of the bustling city streets. the ambiance at naha is clean and bright, and perfectly mixes elegance with contemporary flair.

bread arrived with a nice salted butter bearing the restaurants logo. three types of bread were served, wheat, italian, and golden raisin. all three were great with my preference being the italian.

coming in at a hefty $18, one of our first courses was barnegat light scallops roasted with vanilla bean, citrus and spices, with la quercia organic prosciutto, butter crunch lettuce, bartlett pear, candied citrus rind and mint. luckily, this offering proved to be well worth its cost. while the scallops were sweet and delicious on their own, they were stunning when mixing with the salty prosciutto. it was hard to switch plates with carrie halfway through as this was one of the best scallop dishes i have had in some time.


fortunately, i forgot all about the scallops after one bite of our second starter. above is the cannelloni of butternut squash and mascarpone cheese with lacquered kurobata pork belly, spaghetti squash, swiss chard,  and apple cider reduction. as with the scallops, this dish had a nice sweet and savory interplay going on, and picking a favorite of the two would really depend on my current mood. 

after polishing off another basket of bread, our main entrees arrived. my choice was the braised pork shank served off the bone and accompanied by 3 sister's garden white corn polenta, roasted brussels sprouts, rapini, and golden chanterelles. this was definitely a successful choice for me, as each item on the plate pulled its own weight and came together to form a wonderful entree. this dish (along with a dish at fixe a week prior) confirmed the fact that i do in fact like brussels sprouts, something i found absolutely vile as a child.

carrie's entree was the great lakes whitefish "in a Garden" with wheatberries, roasted pears, poached cranberries, crisp bacon shards, and smoked onion-horseradish vinaigrette. i was only able to have a bite or two of this, and from what i sampled, it was another success with clear flavors and perfectly cooked fish

moving along to dessert, we were present with an impressive menu boasting roughly eight excellent sounding choices along with an interesting list of cheeses. after much debate, i finally selected the gateau basque, which was a custard cake plated with olive oil ice cream, late summer poached figs, and balsamic syrup. proving an excellent choice, the cake wonderfully gooey on the inside and tasted amazing. what really made this dish a standout however was the olive oil ice cream and balsamic syrup, as both added a truly unique element.

carrie ordered the breton butter sable with vanilla crème brulee, huckleberries, greek yogurt ice cream and candied lemon. i did not try this dessert, but carrie reports that it was excellent.

overall, naha lived up to my expectations on all fronts, and was certainly as good (if not better) as the other upscale lunches we have had in chicago (topolobampo, blackbird, sepia, cafe spiaggia). it is obvious that chef nahabedian is worthy of the accolades see has achieved, and i am very glad that we were able to dine at her restaurant.

NAHA on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

vie - western springs, il
4471 lawn avenue
western springs, il 60558

located about forty minutes outside of chicago, vie is a one star michelin restaurant run by chef/owner paul virant. a culinary institute of america graduate, virant spent time in the kitchens of charlie trotters, ambria, blackbird, and everest before opening vie in 2004. having been named to gayot's list of america's top forty restaurants in both 2010 and 2011, vie is a place that has had my attention for some time now. unfortunately, due to its location and the fact that we normally take either the train or the megabus to chicago for both convenience and cost and always stay right down town, a visit to the restaurant never really seemed practical. this trip, however, was different as we decided to drive our new hybrid car and stay outside the city to help keep the cost down, thus making a meal at vie a logical decision in terms of location and price.

arrving at vie a few minutes before our 8pm reservation, carrie and i had no trouble parking with plenty of spots being available on both the street and in a lot across from the restaurant. from the outside, vie is very unassuming with its dark tinted glass and simple awning with the word vie being spelled in all lowercase letters. inside, vie is much larger then i had pictured and is surprisingly modern in design given its location and style of food.

after being seated in the main dining area of the restaurant which was basically full, our server dropped by and introduced himself. when i made the reservations a few weeks prior, i alerted the restaurant to the fact that we were planning to partake in the eight course tasting menu instead of ordering al a carte, and asked if a printed copy of the menu could be provided for carrie and i to take home. along with introductions, our server dropped off the requested menus and went over them with us to ensure everything was to our liking.

vie's bread offering is somewhat basic, but the smooth and slightly sweet butter that was served was definitely above average. after a long day of travel much bread was eaten between carrie and i.

with the evenings first wine pour in front of us in the form of full glasses of trocadero champagne, we were served an amuse of roasted sunchokes in a "cherry bomb" vinaigrette with some fennel. a successful starter, the sunchokes were sweet and somewhat nutty while the vinaigrette brought some major acidity to the fray.

for course one, a puck chicken liver mousse was served along with some toast topped with pepper jam. also on the plate were some pickled grapes and some greens. the smooth and creamy mousse was tasty but quite potent, and was most enjoyable when spread on the toast or mixed with the other components of the dish. on its own, however, the mousse was a bit much for our palates.

following the mousse was a course that could have almost been offered as a dessert. above is the long of naples squash beignet with smoked pear butter, butter roasted klug farm pears, pickled kohlrabi, and marinated pumpkin. aside from the pumpkin which didn't really work for me, this was an excellent dish with predominately sweet flavors throughout.

course three was yukon gold potato gnocchi, wilted local spinach, organic creme fraiche, house cured guanciale, lovage, and lemon oil. this was a wonderful dish with the pillows of gnocchi absolutely melting in my mouth and pairing well with the salty jowl bacon and greens. my only complaint about this dish is a complaint i always have when in comes to gnocchi...there is never enough!

the evenings fish course was pan-roasted amaretti coated alaskan halibut with braised spaghetti squash, roasted klug farm apples, shaved white turnips, and werp farm frisee. served with a rich and buttery chardonnay, the halibut was perfect. slightly crisp on the outside and moist and tender within, the fish was complimented well by the apples and veggies.

moving along to one of my favorite proteins, course five arrived in the form of pan-roasted gunthorp farm duck breast with split pea puree, roasted celery root, pickled green cherry tomatoes, wood-grilled onions, and candied ginger duck jus. this was a great dish with the rare duck breast being excellently complimented by the hearty split pea puree which was rich and savory. also excellent were the pickled tomatoes.

as good as the duck, halibut, and gnocchi were, vie saved the best savory for last. shown above is the wood-grilled hawk hills elk loin glazed with an elderberry jus served with nichols farm parsnip puree, roasted sunchokes, and werp farm mustard greens, and a roasted elk and elderberry jus. this was both carrie and i's first encounter with elk, and it was wildly positive. the meat was tender and had a unique flavor that was not really gamy and was maybe even a bit sweet, making it a perfect match for the also sweet parsnip puree.

prarie fruits farm "moonglo" raw goat's milk cheese from champaign, il. was the cheese offering for the night. served with a peach mostardo, the cheese was nutty with a bit of a tang to it.

after the cheese, a fruity palate cleanser was served. i cannot recall the exact flavors at this point, but can say that they served as an effective intermezzo.

for our final bites at vie, we were brought a dense chocolate torte with a delicious popcorn sorbet. this was a great finale with the sorbet perfectly capturing the buttery essence of popcorn and the torte being a textbook example.

after finishing up my coffee and chatting with our server for a bit about chicago's vast dining scene and the michelin guide, carrie and i made our way through the now empty restaurant and across the street to our car. chatting on the short drive to our hotel about the meal we had just experienced, we determined that vie ranks only behind everest and tru on our list of favorite meals at chicago's one star restaurants. everything from the service to the atmosphere to the food at vie was excellent, and given the price point ($140 per person inclusive of wine), i would definitely consider returning to chef virant's suburban restaurant to try another tasting.

Vie on Urbanspoon

urban belly - chicago, il
3053 north california avenue
chicago, il 60618

not two weeks after our previous trip to chicago, carrie and i headed north once again (this time in our new ct200 hybrid) for a one night trip that would include three michelin stars and a visit to the metro theatre to see one of my long standing favorite bands (thrice) play a sold out show with an excellent supporting cast. after breezing through the drive in about five hours, our first stop was chef bill kim's urban belly. kim, who has worked under chicago legend charlie trotter at his eponymous restaurant, opened the fast-casual urban belly in 2009. serving pan-asian cusine, urban belly was named to travel+leisure's list of 2009's best new restaurants, and also received a bibb gourmand award in the 2011 chicago michelin guide.

walking into the empty restaurant just past 4pm on a wednesday, we were quickly greeted by a very enthusiastic young woman who explained the set up to us. at urban belly, you place your order at the counter, pay, and they find a seat at one of the four ten seat communal tables. the menu is made up of four categories (dumplings, rices, noodles, sides) and while no alcoholic beverages are sold, urban belly has a byob policy.  having viewed the menu online prior to our visit, we quickly selected one item from each category, and found a seat at the end of one of the long tables. before i get going on the food, i want to state up front that i am out of my element here. while i do enjoy asian cuisines, i do not have them often enough nor do i really know much about them. this is something i am looking to rectify in the coming months.

first to arrive was the beef short rib and scallion rice. both the rice and meat were tasty enough, but this dish would have been much easier to eat had the short rib meat been cut from the bone prior to being served.

delivered shortly after the rice was the selection i was most excited about. shown above are the lamb and brandy dumplings. these were definitely my favorite part of the meal, with the savory lamb meat and subtle but ever present brandy flavor being a wonderful combination. i could have easily eaten the whole plate myself.

with the dumplings devoured and the plate cleared away, our order of urban belly ramen with shiitake mushrooms, pork belly, and pho broth arrived. while the pork belly was a bit lacking to me (although given the price certainly not bad), the broth was incredible. pho is not something i am very familiar with, and the rich combination of flavors and spices really did it for me.

arriving with the ramen was our side order of wrinkle beans. i had read that these were a must order at urban belly, but found them disappointing. maybe we got a bad batch or something, but carrie and i both found the texture (not enough crunch) and overpowering garlic flavor off putting and only had a few bites each.

writing this review a week after our meal, i am still not sure how to rate my experience. i went in with pretty lofty expectations, and because of that left slightly disapointed. there were some definite highs and lows, but as a whole the food was mostly successful, just not mind blowing. what i can say for sure is that urban belly did open my eyes a bit to some new types of food, and for that i am grateful. i doubt i will find myself at urban belly again as it is a bit out of the way, but i would not rule out a quick bite at bill kim's bucktown eatery belly shack sometime in the future.
Urban Belly on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 16, 2011

north pond - chicago, il
2610 north cannon drive
chicago, il 60614

for our last meal of a trip filled with wonderful meals, we hailed a cab from our hotel and enjoyed the ride along lake michigan before exiting the highway and entering chicago's lincoln park neighborhood. located in the middle of the park itself, our destination was chicago native chef bruce sherman's restaurant north pond. like chefs bayless and kahan (who's restaurant's we dined at the previous day), chef sherman has been recognized by the james beard foundation for his cooking, which is best described as contemporary french/american seasonal cuisine.

after being dropped at the corner of lakeview and deming (2600 n. lakeview), the restaurant was just a one or two minute walk into the park. with our reservation being about ten minutes away, we took our time and enjoyed the beautiful view of the city before making our way into the restaurant.

for sunday brunch, north pond offers a three course prixe fixe menu priced at $33 per person. the wines by the glass list is fairly short, and roughly a half dozen cocktails are offered.

while it looks as though i forgot to note the actual names of the cocktails we had, i do know that mine (left) was made with templeton rye, punt e mes sweet vermouth, campari, and orange bitters. this drink was sweet up front but more bitter on the finish than i would have preferred. carrie's drink, which was served in a wine glass, consisted of el dorado 15yr rum, citrus juices, angostura, rose wine, and falernum.

prior to our first courses, a lovely lemon pound cake was served. excellent in both texture and flavor, no one at the table wasted any time devouring their slice.

listed on the menu as 'celeriac, cranberry', my first course was a warm celeriac pear soup poured table side with a cranberry filled doughnut, candied pecans, and a celery salad. this was a nice first course with the sugar coated doughnut being crisp on the outside and giving way to the cranberry tartness within. the soup was subtly sweet from the pears but the celery flavor was the main taste i got, and it was good on its own or when consumed with the doughnut.

'shrimp, grits' was the choice of both carrie and my brother chris. this was chesapeake spiced gulf shrimp, jalapeno-cheddar grits, celery-pepper relish, and lobster bisque. i was unable to get a bite of this dish, but it was confirmed by both family members that it was fantastic.

for my main course, i selected 'pork,cinamon'. on the plate was grilled pork loin, andouille sausage, boudin noir, french lentils, apples, cipollini onion, and a cinnamon jus. this was an excellent main course with obviously a lot going on. the pork loin, which was the star of the dish for me, was impossibly tender and was fantastic when dipped in the cinnamon jus.

carrie chose 'mushroom, pear' as her main, which featured wild mushroom-uplands cheese quiche, sautéed leeks, red wine-cassis poached pear, and asian greens. being particularly hungry that morning, carrie did not need any help finishing this, so i can only comment on the poached pear i tasted, which was excellent.

'grape, peanut' was my dessert selection, and was a peanut butter pot de crème with jupiter grape jam, toasted brioche, meringue, and caramelized peanuts. this was obviously a bit of a play on a pbj, and as a lover of peanut butter, was right up my alley.

'carrot, ginger', a spiced carrot cake, with cream cheese mousse, gingersnaps, verbena emulsion, and toasted granola, was the dessert choice of both my wife and mother. while stating that it was not what either if them really expected, they both enjoyed the dessert with carrie particularly liking the gingersnap cookies.

as we lingered in the park for a bit enjoying both the weather and view, my family confirmed that i was five for five with my restaurant selections. aside from a cocktail that didn't quite fit my palate, everything i was served at north pond was excellent, and the rest of my family felt the same way. when the michelin guide made its first stop in chicago last year, there were many people that were surprised when north pond was not awarded a star. if chef sherman's dinner service is anything like his brunch, i would not be surprised to see north pond listed as a one star when the 2012 guide drops in a few weeks. 

North Pond on Urbanspoon