Wednesday, August 29, 2012

franco (3) - st. louis, mo
1535 south 8th street
st. louis, mo 63104

while i have never been thrilled with a meal at franco, my two lunches and one dinner there have all been very solid meals at a reasonable price point. with the majority of our dining money now going to fund our frequent trips to chicago (and the occasional st. louis favorites) i really assumed that with three visits now behind us there would never be a need to dine at franco again. luckily for the restaurant i had at one point signed up for their email list and received an email detailing a special dinner that sounded too good to pass up. the event was a collaboration between franco and st. louis based brewery 4 hands featuring six courses paired with beer for just $65 per person. i was immediately sold on the deal and extended an invitation to my parents and brother to join carrie and i for what would hopefully be a terrific meal.
foie gras mousse, grapefruit marmalade, toasted brioche
prussia berliner weisse

to get things started we were served an amuse of foie gras mousse on crisp brioche with a grapefruit marmalade. the most prominent flavor here was of sweetened grapefruit, however the smack of the liver did shine through in some bites. this offering was a success for me and the prussia berliner weisse proved to be an excellent companion for the dish with its sour notes working well with the marmalade.

notes from the brewery - the name prussia originates from frederick the great. frederick was trained to brew this very delicate style of beer and later became the king of prussia. our interpretation of the berliner weisse style is very traditional. prussia pours a hazy straw hue with a nice clean tart finish. enjoy alone or with flavored syrup.

fried pig head, poached egg, arugula, grain mustard
single speed session

for the meal's first proper course we have fried pig head with a poached egg, arugula, and grain mustard. upon breaking open the quivering egg and having a taste i was met with disappointment as it was quite cold. i next sampled the pig head and luckily it was of proper temperature and was very enjoyable with its perfectly crisp exterior giving way to savory meat within. as for the grain mustard, i was about halfway done with the dish before i tasted it in a single potent bite but then did not detect its flavor again.

notes from the brewery - our american blonde ale is brewed with elderflower, red wheat, and three different varieties of hops. elderflower adds a soft floral element that accentuates the red wheat. single speed pours straw in color with floral undertones.

roasted pork belly, english pea smash, caramelized white chocolate
reprise centennial red

and now for the show stopper...roasted pork belly with english pea smash and white chocolate. when i first read the email regarding this dinner it was this dish that peaked my interest as i was curious as to how the white chocolate would be used. expecting something more subtle, i was surprised when this dish arrived and the white chocolate was very prevalent and every bit as rich and sweet as you would expect if it was served in a dessert. mixed with the rich and fatty pork belly this was a real treat and was elevated even further by the mint in the pea smash which added another layer of nuance. without question this was the best course of the evening and would not seem out of place at a restaurant much nicer than franco.

notes from the brewery -  the centennial hop is the centerpiece of our american red ale. reprise pushes the limits of a single hop with an amazing bouquet and stunning bitterness all the way through. the citrus character provides an experience you will want to repeat. reprise is crimson in color with aromas of citrus fruit and biscuit malt.

duck two ways: confit of leg, ipa-blood orange sauce, seared breast a l'orange, tokyo turnips, crispy skin
divided sky rye ipa

while not in the same ballpark as the pork belly, the duck a l'orange with confit leg and tokyo turnips was for the most part a solid dish as both duck components were well prepared and flavorful. my only issue was with the sauce, which was huge in portion and very sweet on the tongue, masking the duck's natural taste considerably instead of just complimenting it. i will say, however, that the divided sky rye ipa paired with this course worked well to cut the sweetness of the orange sauce.

notes from the brewery - this beer brings together tow of our favorite ingredients; hops and rye - serious hops up front provide a pungent, floral, and citrus character. we use centennial, columbus, and cascades in this hop lovers dream. the rye provides a slightly spicy flavor and a full mouth-feel. divided sky pours straw in color with notes of tangerine, grapefruit, and pine. drink fresh!

leg of lamb, blackberry-cuvee ange demi, confit fingerling potatoes, baby carrots
cuvee ange

next up was the most anticipated beer of the evening, the yet to be released cuvee ange. described as a dark saison, this brew has been aged in french wine bottles with raspberries and blackberries. this beer did not dissapoint, with huge berry notes on the nose and a taste that almost perfectly mirrored the scent. the lamb offering this beer was served with unfortunately fell short as my piece was tough and rather dry. the potatoes and carrots were both fine but did not make up for the sub-par lamb. i did enjoy the demi the meat was plated with, but that is little surprise as it was made with the excellent cuvee ange.

notes from the brewery - cuvee ange was inspired by the french oak wine barrels we used for this project that once housed all french wine varietals. fermented with wild yeast and aged in a combination of cabernet, merlot, and grenache barrels with raspberries and blackberries, cuvee ange is a fruity, tart, complex ale. cuvee ange pours a bright rose with aromas of fruit, funk, and wood.

malted brown sugar ice cream, hazelnut-candied bacon, dark chocolate truffle
cast iron oatmeal brown

for the majority of our table, the meals final course, a dessert made with malted brown sugar ice cream, hazelnut-candied bacon, and dark chocolate truffle, was a disaster. for starters, the ice cream arrived at the table almost completely melted. next was the bacon, something i actually enjoyed but the rest of the family did not. although presenting the bacon as a whole strip leads to a more dramatic dish visually, it was a sticky mess and was next to impossible to eat without using your hands. flavor wise it was actually quite tasty in my opinion, and i even ate some of carrie's. next up was the truffle which was deemed too bitter by my brother but i thought it worked quite well with the ice cream and perfectly mirrored the flavors of the oatmeal brown ale. overall, i liked the flavors of the dessert, but i think if the ice cream had arrived solid and the bacon had been more subtle (smaller portion and broken into bits perhaps)  it would have worked better for the rest of the family.

notes from the brewery - his is one monster of a brown ale! we use an obnoxious amount of chocolate malt and roasted barley to give this beer a cask iron backbone. our oatmeal brown pours a dark mahogany with aromas of dark chocolate and coffee.

given my dish descriptions above, it is obvious that my feelings regarding this meal are certainly mixed. most of the issues i had with the food were not in conception, but rather execution, with ice cold eggs, over cooked lamb, and melted ice cream being the most severe offenses. had this been a normal meal rather than an event dinner, there would be no excuse for these problems, and it is likely that some of the plates would have been sent back. i am pretty confident in saying that the root of the problem is that the kitchen at franco is simply not used to simultaneously serving the same dish to roughly 35 diners. problems aside, each dish had at least one solid component and the pork belly course was a true flash of greatness. while i would not consider the dinner to be a success overall, i do not regret going as the price point was very reasonable and it was fun to get to try all of the different beers. i will definitely be on the lookout for the cuvee ange in the future!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

farmhaus (3) - st. louis, mo
3257 ivanhoe avenue
st. louis, mo 63139

after neglecting farmhaus for over a year despite the success of our first meal there, carrie and i decided to make our long overdue return to chef kevin willmann's acclaimed restaurant.
cocktails to begin.

hack-attack - the big o ginger liqueur, camus cognac, sparkling white wine

all i see is gold - house infused peach vodka, o'fallon wheach beer, ginger ale, mint
our first dish was the summer salad, made with grilled corn, okra, sweet peppers, cucumbers, roasted beets, zucchini, squash, hearts of palm, grilled eggplant, heirloom tomatoes, baetje farms fresh goat’s milk cheese, muscat vin, and lavash. the salad was first presented in a jar with the large lavash crisp on top before being dumped onto the plate by our server. this was mostly a great salad with each ingredient being fresh and tasty. i particularly enjoyed the tomatoes and the red peppers. unfortunately the salad was marred somewhat by a chemically bitter flavor experienced in a few bites.
next up was a dish i knew i had to try the second i saw the description. here we have the heuvo ranchero which was described on the menu as a local farm egg with house chorizo, fire roasted tomatillo sauce, and crema. although i was a bit surprised when the dish arrived at the table as it was not quite what i was expecting, this turned out to be the dish of the night. basically a riff on scotch egg, this was a boiled egg coated with chorizo and fried.
following the egg was berkshire porchetta served on steamed buns with cabbage kimchi. this was actually my first time eating kimchi and while i wouldn't say that i disliked it i will certainly approach it with caution in the future as its potency was a bit much for me after a few small bites. as for the buns and porchetta...decent but not overly exciting.
moving on to larger plates, i went for the dry aged ribeye grilled over a slow fire with smashed sweet and yukon gold potatoes, corn, and a house made steak sauce. when our server was initially explaining the menu to us he noted that the ribeye was a full sized entree rather than a "small plate" like the rest of the menu. even after the warning i was surprised at the size of the steak when the plate was set before me. while i did enjoy the ribeye, it was a quick reminder of why i no longer have much interest in steakhouses as it was simply too much of the same thing. if i could go back in time i would have ordered two more small plates instead.
carrie's entree was one of chef willmann's always present menu staples, the bacon wrapped meatloaf with sweet and yukon gold smashed potatoes, sous vide pearl onions, and a tomato-merlot reduction.
pecan pie with root beer ice cream. this was a very solid dessert with the pie being stellar and the ice cream encompassing the very essence of root beer.
lastly was a corn cake with popcorn ice cream and a white chocolate crunch bar. although the popcorn ice cream was not as successful as the root beer offering this was still a nice dessert with my favorite component being the white chocolate crunch bar.

overall, this was a good meal but did not quite live up to the memory of our first visit. aside from the desserts, the only dish that really excited me was the riff on the scotch egg. i am very confident that we could have constructed a better meal had we ordered differently, but it would have meant repeating dishes that we had on our first visit (nachos, breakfast, escolar). i am sure we will be back to farmhaus for both dinner and to try another blue plate lunch, but honestly there are several other places i would rather revisit first.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

great lake - chicago, il

1477 west balmoral avenue
chicago, il 60640

located in andersonville right around the corner from big jones, great lake pizza is a place i have been trying to get to for some time now. owned by husband and wife team nick lessins and lydia esparza, great lake is a true labor of love. every pizza served at great lake is made by the hands of lessins and virtually every ingredient is sourced from local farmers and suppliers for optimal quality and freshness. however, being that the restaurant is open just four days a week (dinner only), has a twelve seat dining room, and is located in an area that is not conducive to reach via public transportation, it has been bypassed over and over again in lieu of places that are more convenient to visit and serve more than just pizza. this time around i was determined to fit great lake into our busy dining schedule, and decided that stopping at the restaurant immediately prior to hitting the road back to st. louis was the most logical course of action. while there is little argument that the pizza is anything less than incredible (gq magazine named it #1 in america and grant achatz has praised it), much had been made about the long wait times, price of the pizzas, and the supposed curt attitudes of the proprietors. with just a 3.5 star rating on yelp and a plethora of viscous reviews, i approached our meal with excitement but also a bit of trepidation.
carrie and i arrived at the small storefront at around 4:40pm and kept an eye on the door from a bench down the street. as 5pm grew nearer we noticed a pair of women standing in front of the restaurant and at that point rose from our seats and waited behind them directly outside of great lake. we were soon joined by a few other people and a make shift line was formed. at 5pm on the head the doors opened and we were greeted by lydia and welcomed inside. we were given one of the only two two-tops in the restaurant and received menus and water right away. consisting of a pair of salads and three different pizzas (each with their own set of addable toppings), the menu at great lake is bare bones to say the least, making the focus of the restaurant quite clear. aside from a ginger ale offering, no drinks aside from water are available, however patrons are encouraged to byob with a $3 per person "disposal fee" being imposed. with the dining area at capacity and the phone ringing incessantly for carryout our order for a single pie was placed minutes after our arrival.
arriving piping hot after about 35 minutes, our selection was the #1 made with sauce from eden foods organic tomatoes, wsdc dante lamb sheep's milk cheese, mission extra virgin olive oil, ground tellicherry black pepper, and grey sea salt. we also opted to add both housemade chorizo and henry's farm garlic to the pie. after waiting a minute or two for the pizza to cool down i took my first bite and am happy to say that it was everything that i hoped for. the crust was an absolute work of art being crisp on the outside with a wonderfully chewy interior and subtlety charred flavor. for the toppings, the sheep's milk cheese was fairly mild with just a hint of kick while the chorizo packed a great spicy punch. coming in at $34 with our added toppings, this was easily the most expensive pizza i have ever had, but it was certainly worth every penny as it ranks right up there with andolini's in tulsa as the best pizza i can ever remember having.

based on my experience, i can say that with the exception of no public restroom being offered, any complaints about great lake are completely unwarranted. carrie and i were treated with nothing but kindness from the staff and we did not witness anyone else being spoken to in an unwelcoming manner. i ended my review of big jones by stating that if i lived in andersonville i would have a hard time staying away from the restaurant. my feelings toward great lake mirror that same sentiment and i am truly envious of those who live in neighborhoods with such strong restaurants. ever since this trip, carrie has been looking online at apartments in andersonville...
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topolobampo (2) - chicago, il
445 north clark street
chicago, il 60654

i am going to keep this post brief, but for those interested in a full write up please see my post from our february 2011 meal here. this meal was certainly as good as if not better than our first experience at topolo and i can honestly say that there is no doubt we will be back as in my opinion there is no better venue for lunch in chicago.
this time we were seated in the front area of the dining room at a corner table. this was much nicer than the table we had in the back last time although i was surprised at how close together the tables were. i honestly wonder how the restaurant handles seating when overweight patrons show up...
white peach basil margarita - cazadores blanco tequila, cointreau, white peach, fresh-squeezed lime juice, basil syrup, salt

esmoki - wahaka joven espadin mezcal, aperol, passion fruit, fresh-squeezed lime juice, organic cane syrup, housemade orange bitters, burnt orange
complimentary house made chips and guacamole
huevo motuleno, estilo topolobampo - slow-poached egg, rustic tomato salsa, black & white beans with epazote, crispy plantain, garden peas
sopa azteca - dark broth flavored with pasilla, grilled chicken, avocado, meadow valley farm hand-made jack cheese, thick cream, crisp tortilla strips
templeton rye "manhattan" - templeton rye, carpano antica, orange peel, agave nectar
borrego en mole negro - wood-grilled crawford farm lamb leg, classic oaxacan black mole (chilhuacle chiles and 28 other ingredients), corn husk-steamed chipil tamal, unctuous black bean, smoky green beans
carne asada "brava" - serrano-marinated grass-fed tall grass flank steak, salsa huevona (hand-crushed, grill-roasted tomatoes, jalapeƱos), grilled knob onions and sweet corn tamales with crema & fresh cheese
churritos y chocolate - warm cinnamon sugar fritter, bittersweet chocolate crema, piloncillo-canela ice cream, crisp chocolate mousse, klug farm blackberries in mezcal