The French Laundry

It is elusive, often chased for entire careers. Most will not attain it. Those that do, champions. I’m talking about that coveted third Michelin Star. For the past couple years, I just didn’t understand. The difference between one and two stars, in my amateur opinion, is minute, with little that distinguishes them. It got me thinking, what does it take to get a third star?

We live in a city with one three-star Michelin restaurant, but I just haven’t made the effort to dine there*. So for the past few years, the third star has been a mystery. It took a trip to San Francisco to get me to a what might be the pinnacle of my dining experiences. By now, you should know I’m talking about The French Laundry.

The French Laundry

Believe the hype. Thomas Keller is the man. He has a vision, and he has the skill to execute it to perfection. It is exceptional cuisine, with distinctive dishes, using superlative ingredients. It is, as defined by Michelin, worth a special journey.

It is expected when dining at such an establishment that the diner places their experience in the hands of the creators; and so my wife and I did, while also supplementing courses throughout the evening.

There were classics like the Salmon Tartare Cornets, and Oysters and Pearls, and it makes sense why these are timeless icons; executed to perfection, delicious beyond words.

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But what really took our breaths away were supplements. Carnaroli Risotto Biologico, with parmesan nuage and shaved black winter truffles. We had no idea what we were getting into with this supplement. The following conversation occurred when truffle service began.

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“Am I supposed to say stop?” she asked.

“I highly suggest you don’t,” replied the captain.

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It was ridiculous, to say the least, at the amount of truffles on this dish. Was it necessary? The old me would have said no, in part because I was not fond of fungus. But now it most certainly was necessary because I now know that one can never have enough truffles (a little pretentious of me, no?).

But really, the Laundry is about more than truffles and caviar. It’s about seasonality, freshness. and some damn good cooking.

The menu continued to wow with sauteed fillet of Mediterranean lubina (a European sea bass) with pickled vegetables, butter-poached Maine lobster fricassee, poularde (young, fattened hen) with a piperade, 49-day dry-aged beef served with TFL-grown greens, and more. The savory dishes were unlike anything I’ve ever had, with flavor combinations and ingredients I have not thought of before.

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Following the savories was a series of exceptional sweets, including a play on a root beer float (with star ruby grapefruit instead), a passion fruit swiss roll, and a bakewell tart with a rome beauty apple compote.

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At the end of the day, did it answer the question “Was it worth the special journey?” In short, yes. If you are lucky, persistent, or a little bit of both, TFL is definitely worth the trip. It’s one of those “When am I ever going to have the opportunity to do this again?” type of meals that needs no other justification. The level of the cuisine is almost unrivaled, with service and location that are truly impeccable. Three stars indeed.

-gary c.

*Alinea review to come ;)

Farewell, 2012

As we start off the New Year and inch towards the first anniversary of The Taste Buds, I’d like to give one final sendoff to 2012—a year filled with countless culinary adventures. The latter half of the year saw a flurry of new restaurant openings, several of which I had the opportunity to try. Stephanie Izard’s long-awaited diner, Little Goat, finally debuted to much fanfare. Half café and half diner, the restaurant was as impressive as advertised. The menu spans breakfast, lunch and dinner with enough options to satisfy even the pickiest of eaters. On my visit, I tried the goat chili and fried chicken along with a smoked pork and toffee crunch milkshake. They were Izard’s refined spin on comfort food classics and for the most part, they succeeded (a little aggressive with the salt). I can’t wait to go back and try the rest of the menu. Elsewhere, Alpana Singh’s gorgeous Boarding House is also off to a hot start. The entire restaurant is housed in a multi-story building that includes a cellar. The interior is stunning,, with enormous chandeliers made up of wine bottles and glasses hanging over the space. As for the food, the double bone-in pork chop and hazelnut-crusted short rib were both solid, tender entrees. And of course if you’re a wine lover you’ll feel right at home with the wine list selected by Singh, who’s a master sommelier.

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Back in the West Loop, Thai Deng’s Embeya was another solid opening. The chef took his Vietnamese background and integrated it with French technique for a fresh take on Asian fusion. You can read Gary’s take of the pop-up preview dinner here, but as for me the garlic chicken was an unquestioned winner, which came as a pleasant surprise since I usually don’t have high expectations for chicken dishes. The dinosaur bones-sized tamarind ribs were just as good—juicy and fall-off-the-bone tender. If you can impress my mother with Asian cuisine, then I guess you’re doing something right.

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And as if the area wasn’t crowded enough with restaurants, Bill Kim’s bellyQ and the hot Latin American spot La Sirena Clandestina also found room for residency. BellyQ’s Korean barbecue wasn’t particularly memorable, but the huckleberry soft serve ice cream turned out to be one of my favorite desserts of the year. On the other hand, La Sirena Clanedstina turned out quality dish after dish with the standout being the whole red snapper. It was definitely an experience that ended up being worthy of the buzz.

Of course, no recap would be complete without the mention of brunch. Several new places offered a stellar brunch selection. Nearly everything from the Trenchermen was superb, starting with the decor and feel of being on a classic boat. The wooden space sits below ground level and screams vintage and vaguely steampunk. On my two visits, the food was excellent, from the pickled tots and pretzel cinnamon roll to the pad thai and ‘potato basket,’ shaved potato puree in a basket form with gravy, chorizo mole sausage and an egg on top. It’s a dish I would gladly eat for breakfast every day if I could. At the Carriage House, Mark Steuer brought the lowcountry cuisine of South Carolina to Chicago and the new brunch menu is full of what you’d expect. Johnnycakes, grits, cornbread and chicken and waffles were some of the items I tried, with the chicken and waffles being one of the best I’ve had. I eagerly anticipate returning soon so that I can try the lowcountry boil…

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Which brings me to my last spot, Next. It’s not a new restaurant in the traditional sense, but every time we go it’s a new experience. And with the very first post on The Taste Buds being our meal during the Childhood menu, I thought it was only fitting to end the year with Next as well. Coming off the somewhat disappointing Sicily menu, my expectations were a bit tempered this time around. Fortunately, Next delivered on all accounts this time with a meal that was wholly satisfying and thankfully not too heavy. Without going into a course-by-course description, the dishes were for the most part simple yet outstanding. A few of my favorites included a corn husk soup that incorporated elements of scent into the course; sashimi so good I’ll probably never have anything like it again on this side of the Pacific; a scenic ‘Japanese maple forest’ with several shrimp bites that were a real visual and flavorful treat; and a grilled ayu filet with the body fried to a crisp. In short, the meal was a display of what Next is capable of and one of the reasons we decided to renew our season tickets for 2013.

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With another year in the books (I’m starting to feel old), I look forward to whatever comes across my plate in 2013. Some stuff we’ve already got planned (I hear Gary’s visiting a certain Thomas Keller restaurant soon…) but a good majority of our outings will certainly be impromptu because hey, we enjoy eating and that’s what we do. And after writing this recap and looking back over a year’s worth of posts, it’s possible we might eat out a little TOO much. But probably not.

Genus Chenopodium: goosefoot

Before I read about everything that is Chicago food culture, my go-to reference for “good” restaurants, like many others, was the Zagat Restaurant Guide. For years, the top restaurant in that book was Les Nomades. The man at the reigns of this classic French restaurant was chef Chris Nugent. This talented young chef took this classic French restaurant to the top of the Zagat ratings (ahead of some little known restaurant named Alinea), four-star reviews, along with countless other accolades…and then he left.

But for what?

goosefoot

Located in Lincoln Square, goosefoot is hidden on a block of grocery stores, pizza restaurants, and sandwich shops. Who would have expected a fine dining restaurant to rest on this busy street? Chef and Mrs. Nugent, that’s who.

This quaint byob is currently serving some the finest cuisine in the city. The menus are crated based on seasonality, and chef Nugent said he shops for ingredients every morning, “so some things are on the menu one day and are modified or completely off the next.” A trendy approach to menus, as many other chefs are doing similarly.

Upon arriving, we are greeted by chef’s wife, Nina, who takes our wine and begins explaining the menu. One note to highlight: the menu is plantable. That is, she suggested putting it into a pot and watering it when we got home. Curious and intriguing, however the menu lies in a drawer instead. What came after the explanation and poured wine was a series of perfectly executed dishes.

In three words, the menu was light, sophisticated, and non-pretentious. Our meal started with a scallop dish, highlighted by lobster, licorice root and curry. The scallop was cooked perfectly, and the curry accented the seafood nicely. This dish set the tone for the evening, and showed that chef Nugent was not playing around.

lobster / scallop / licorice root / curry

Other notable dishes included a corn and potato soup with truffle essence. Absolutely delicious, with my only critique coming at the amount of salt (a little too much). The arctic char served with maitake, english peas, and espelette was plentiful in portion size, and was as exquisite as it was beautifully plated. Nugent also served a duck breast with beluga lentils, ginger and compressed apple, an interesting combination of flavors.

DSC01952duck breast / beluga lentil / ginger / compressed applegoosefoot / trumpet royalsarctic char / maitake / english pea / espelette

The meal concluded with a few desserts, introducing the chocolatier in chef Nugent. Pumpkin, coffee bean, and citrus were the center of attention for one dessert. With my dislike for pumpkin, I tried the dessert and wound up eating it all. A second dessert focused on hazelnut, various chocolates, caramel and coconut. Eloquently plated, and masterfully executed, this was the perfect way to end the meal.

pumpkin / coffee / cassia / citrushazelnut / chocolate / caramel corn / coconut

Chef Nugent showed us the kitchen, which is as narrow as a hallway, and explained that with goosefoot, he is now able to do everything he wants with his cooking. He explained that his past experiences (Les Nomades, Prairie, MK) taught him to refine his palate, and to focus on producing a sophisticated dish.

As we sat finishing our wine, we had an open discussion about our experience. Much of the table agreed that this was up there in top meals, and that Nugent deserved (at least) one Michelin star*. It is amazing, really, that a thirty-four seat restaurant take out the juggernaut known as Next to hold the title of Best New Restaurant 2012. But you know what? Chef Nugent deserves it.

gc

*We dined prior to the Michelin Guide’s release.

The Bird Bird Bird, the Bird is the Word

If I were put on death row and given one last meal, there’d be about a half-second of thought before my answer: fried chicken. It’s so simple, yet it remains one of my favorite foods and guilty pleasures (I could probably eat Popeye’s once a week for the rest of my life). Face it, no matter how you feel about chicken (bland and boring), it’s exponentially better when it’s greased up in fat and oil. Here in Chicago, numerous places fry up a mean bird such as the ever-popular Harold’s Chicken Shack, Asian-style Crisp, and even high-end places like Table Fifty-Two. But perhaps one of the most overlooked spots is Big Jones and its Boarding House Lunch. For fried chicken lovers, there’s not a better deal around.

Available Mondays through Fridays, the Boarding House Lunch features a hearty, family-style meal of fried chicken, biscuits and cornbread, mashed potatoes and gravy, red beans & rice, collard greens and snickerdoodles for dessert. The best part? It’s only $16 per person but does require that the whole table participate, although there can be as few as two people. So I was thrilled when my friend suggested we drop in for lunch. I was not disappointed.

Big Jones focuses on Southern heirloom cooking using fresh, sustainable ingredients. They serve a fantastic brunch on the weekends but on this afternoon, and most others I presume, it looked like most of the restaurant was there for the Boarding House Lunch. We placed our order and proceeded to wait, and wait, and wait. Their site proclaims that it has been set up to get you in and out in under an hour but that clearly was not happening. We stared hungrily as other tables got their food before us while we only had cornbread to tide us over. When it finally arrived, it was glorious.

Each person got a piece of leg, wing, thigh and breast as well as ample portions of the sides. The chicken was cooked using Edna Lewis’s classic recipe in fresh leaf lard with butter and a ham hock, in a cast iron kettle. Golden brown, juicy and succulent, this was fried chicken nirvana. The sides were equally impressive although the collard greens went untouched because we’re gluttonous animals who have no room for greens in our meal. And when we were done, there was still plenty of food left to take home.

 

Now in a food-induced coma, there was still one more course left to go—dessert. Snickerdoodles were brought to the table and provided the perfect sweet ending to a rich and filling lunch. For $16 a person, you’d be hard pressed to find a better deal in town. It’s Southern cooking done right and I couldn’t ask for much more. I only hope the Boarding House Lunch stays under the radar so there’s plenty of chicken left for me.

The End of an Era: Trotter’s

Today must be the most bittersweet day in Charlie Trotter’s life: he’s packing his knives, closing his eponymous restaurant, and starting his life as a graduate student. But as one journey ends, another begins, so is the cycle of life. Countless media outlets have been talking about his life, professional career, and next steps.

Me? Well, let’s just start back at the beginning..

Let me backtrack about, oh, almost a decade. There we were, Jeffy and I, at Lincoln Park High School, but a block away from 816 West Armitage Avenue. There he was, Trotter, Principal for the Day, as he was many times before. The man was great, spending time in our school and giving back to the community. He was known for inviting students for a free meal at his restaurant, one that Jeffy had the opportunity to experience many moons ago…and I’m still green with envy because I never got my invite.

Then, with the blink of an eye, the announcement: Trotter’s is closing. I went twenty-five years without dining there. It took a closing announcement to finally get me there, and the wife and I (yay, we finally got married!) were pretty excited to experience what we assumed would be one of the most influential meals of our lives.

Assumed.

We arrived at Trotter’s, and never having been there, I was intrigued by its design. It is really a home, gutted and staged as a restaurant. Walking through the dining areas brought thoughts of Old Money, something that I will never have. In all honesty, it felt a little dated, with loose wallpaper and dim, yellow lights. I figured they weren’t concerned with buildings and grounds because they’d be closing soon. So I brushed it off.

We sat and were greeted by our server, who explained the two menu options and available beverages. The four of us (my wife, another friend, Jeffy, and I) sat for quite some time, waiting for our service team to come back to take our meal and drink orders (NA pairings for the table, and a glass of reisling for myself and the opening courses). After maybe ten minutes, our service team came back and we ordered. Finally, our meal was about to begin.

I’ll give it to him, Trotter was an innovator. But in today’s booming Chicago food scene, he’s slipped a little. This meal was dubbed “The Last Supper,” because it was the last meal my wife and I had together as unmarried people. We wanted something grand, so the menu seemed perfect. Three of us ordered the Grand Menu, which seemed very earthy and organic. My wife, however, has a more particular taste, one that excludes game and red meats. The kitchen was very good at accommodating their menu, creating a completely different one for her. Much kudos.

Here’s where it gets a little interesting…

Minutes go by, and I’m talking like twenty, before we see our service team again. Diners seated after us already have food. On our tables? Butter.

Tempted by hunger, I almost ate the butter. But lucky for us, someone comes by with a bread roll. The four of us devoured it. But really, it was bread, and we wanted something else.

The bread guy noticed that we licked our plates clean and brought another type of bread. The four of us stared at each other, unsure of what was happening. Then we ate this other bread. We must have tried a half-dozen rolls. Is this normal for Trotter’s? Hmm..

Happy to be at Trotter’s, but confused out of our minds, we sat for nearly twenty minutes between courses. At first we thought “Maybe this is how Old Money-fine dining is…” But really, a four hour meal could have easily been shortened to two and a half.

The food itself was okay, with only one dish that truly shone bright: hamachi + green tomato juice + kalamata olives + avocado sorbet. An interesting dish, indeed. Maybe it was the olives, which I am not too fond of. Maybe it was the avocado sorbet. Something about this dish literally made me stop, chew slowly, and think about what I was eating. Other than that, much of the menu, which was broken into thirds (seafood, meat, dessert) was, with all due respect, forgettable…and it really upsets me.

Our service team seemed to be more concerned with people that appeared to be more, how do I say this correctly, mature than us. To their defense, we are mid-twenty-somethings that look more like we are in our late-teens and early twenties, but really, service is service. It should be delivered equally across the board. My wife’s drinks, particularly water, were filled a whopping one time during our four hour dinner. We could not flag anybody down for a glass of anything.

Maybe I set the bar too high. But was it really that high? Trotter was the place to cook. It was the place to stage. It was the place to learn what it takes to work in a successful kitchen. It is the place that brings us some of our favorite chefs in this city, and cities across the globe.

Do I regret going to Trotter’s? The answer is two-fold. No, because it’s still Charlie-freakin-Trotter’s. It’s the birthplace of legends. Yes, because I think I went at the wrong time. Maybe it would have been different a year ago, five years ago. I have a feeling that during its prime, this place was crazy. Progressive beyond its years.

Yes, Charlie Trotter’s is closing. But all across the world, we can experience what it is, was, and will be through the people that this man taught. Thanks, CT.

gc

Kitty Corner That Is Kuma’s: Growl Or Just Meow?


With Chicago so loaded with burger joints, would one of the original burger places that helped put Chicago on the burger food map live up to it’s astounding hype?

Well, that is what I am here to talk about: my experience at Kuma’s Corner. First off, Kuma’s has received wide praise for their heavy metal inspired burgers, decor, drinks and service. It has been featured on many of the local outlets and a spot on Diner’s Drive-Ins and Dives. Even an old acquaintance of mine, Chicago/Lockport native and self-proclaimed “Best In The World” pro wrestler C.M. Punk tweeted me, “Eat at Kuma’s dude”.

So eat at Kuma’s I did. I endured the 45 minute drive to the Northside in 92 degree heat. I outlasted the 2-hour-long wait. I wrestled with the stress of my parked car being smashed and totaled while I waited for my table. Yes, my parked car was totaled – all for what people claim is the best burger in Chicago or maybe even the Midwest. After filing out the police report and arguing with the lady that smashed my car, I finally got a table and sat down. My goodness, finally having a seat felt good. Our server took our order as I stepped out of the restaurant for a moment and the fellow Taste Buds ordered me the Kuma Burger.

OVERTIME!

Jesus, I am too exhausted for another period of play. We are informed that we have to wait nearly an hour for our food to arrive. We ordered some craft sodas to help pass the time by. “Death to corporations” seems to be the motto here, along with “hipsters enter through the back”. Kuma’s refuses to serve corporate beer and soda. All the beverages are craft, and it is one of the most complicated, yet, exquisite line up. This is a burger bar that rides against the grain with their in-your-face attitude and rebel against what the media shoves down your throat swagger. Though the menu boasts burgers named after some of the most iconic heavy metal bands (Slayer, Metallica and Black Sabbath – to name a few), the music they play overhead is that of local favorites I hear from time to time. But all that aside, where is my food? it has been over an hour.

DOUBLE OVERTIME!

Oh my Gods and Deities. Our server came to our table with an apologetic smirk on her cute face to let us know that our order slip was dropped in the fryer and it will be another 20 minutes or so before they bring out our food because it wasn’t made, but they will expedite it. “Am I being punk’d?” I asked. Maybe I was being C.M. Punked. Who knows at this point. I lost my car, lost my time, lost my patience, lost my appetite, and pretty sure I lost my mind.

After 20 minutes of mental pain and anguish, our food arrived. I was too exhausted to be excited. I was ready to just take it to go. I sat and looked at my burger for a moment and my appetite came back. This burger was huge. It’s thick cut bacon and cheese with fried egg glory, all on top of a medium-rare thick ground chuck patty. I survived my own Trail of Tears to get here, and this was my moment to enjoy. I have suffered so much for this not to be good. I took one bite, and in an instant, all was forgotten. All was forgotten, and most importantly, all was forgiven. This is as good as everyone claims. Over hyped? Not at all. For about $12, you get this huge metal-head burger with fries that are so good, I can confidently call it one of the best burger meals I have ever had.

Owner Enrique Smith has something special here. If you haven’t tried Kuma’s, I highly suggest you put it on your priority list and allow the allotted time required to enjoy.

And lastly, thank you to the wonderful staff that was very compassionate for my totaled car and the giving us free drinks to make us feel better.

- Jais

Next: Sicily, Hampered By Its Success

In the ever-changing food industry, there are almost no restaurants that face the challenges that Next takes on every few months. Restaurants may change up dishes on their menus every now and then but very rarely do we see a complete overhaul as frequently as they do at Next. It’s a wonderful concept that really allows Dave Beran and his staff to showcase their culinary creativity, and encourages diners to keep coming back to try something new each time. And come back they do. More than a year since it’s opened, tickets to Next are still some of the hottest around town and with such hype comes great expectations. Unfortunately, sometimes you can end up with a good meal that still falls short of its potential.

Having had the pleasure of dining at every menu so far, I was really excited to see what was in store for us. Coming off a fascinating elBulli run that had the team at Next recreating dishes from the famous Spanish restaurant, Sicily was a chance for them to go back to doing their own thing with their own sense of style. Beran and Grant Achatz actually flew out to Italy to do some research and the menu is the brainchild of their efforts. For this outing, the theme was a more rustic, family-style meal and that was evident from the moment we sat down. We were given hand-written letters in sealed envelopes that explained what was to come.

 

Our opening few courses were passed antipasti bites, which included caponata that was scooped up by some tasty panelle, arancini, and some roasted artichokes. The arancini, fried balls of saffron risotto, were my favorite. They were stuffed with lamb’s tongue and served with a burnt tomato sauce that hit the spot. I’m actually salivating just thinking about it. The blackened roasted artichokes were charred to a crisp and a bit more interesting to eat since we had to unleash our inner savages and use our hands for the most part because the spoons just weren’t cutting it. It was a nice little exercise and the starters were enjoyable, albeit lacking that big wow that’s been in previous meals.

 

 

The pasta dishes followed, starting with bucatini topped with pieces of bottarga (sun-dried fish roe flakes). I would’ve been happily satisfied with just this one pasta dish alone had it not been proceeded by something even better. The gemelli con sarde was a savory and sweet surprise—twisted pasta with pine nuts and a piece of sardine draped on top. I’ve never been a big sardines fan, nor do I really enjoy any kind of sweetness mixed with savory flavors, but this dish was a true standout and my favorite of the evening.

 

The big hitters were up next: a swordfish fillet over mint-basil pesto was large enough for the table to share. The fish was moist, fresh as could be and the sauce gave it that extra something that separated it from anything you might find at another restaurant. As if that wasn’t enough, the fish was followed by an even bigger piece of braised pork shoulder smothered in a tomato sauce. The pork was tender and flavorful but sadly I was reaching my breaking point and had slowed down considerably. And while it was good, it was missing that little oomph of comparable dishes like the pressed duck on the Paris menu. Accompanying the main courses were vegetables—zucchini and asparagus with saffron-tomato-chili vinaigrette—that were great compliments to the rich and hearty plates. Capping it all off was a granita di arrance rosse, a blood orange treat similar to Italian ice that was light and refreshing after several heavy dishes.

 

 

As we all sat there full from the meal, one of the servers presented us with a whole marzipan cassata cake which was then taken away so that it could be cut into slices. In its place came a tray full of sweets: sesame-honey cookies, strawberry-filled fried ravioli and mini-cannoli. The cookie was decent and I felt like I’d had it many times in my life, while the ravioli and cannoli were more delectable. They were good enough to give me the second wind I needed to plow through the very sweet slice of cake that was eventually brought to us and end the night on a sugar high.

 

 

Looking back, I now realize that it’s very difficult to objectively review a meal at Next because it will always be compared to the menus that came before it. On its own merits, Sicily was a fine family feast that most people would not be disappointed with, myself included. It’s only when you judge it against past efforts do you start to feel let down. It’s no secret that The Taste Buds have an affinity for Next (we’ve written about it three times now) but out of the five menus Beran and his staff have created, I’d rank Sicily fourth. That’s not a true indication of its quality and it’s probably not fair to evaluate Next this way, but that’s the fate they’ve resigned themselves to with this concept. The potential was there for a meal that could’ve been extraordinary given the theme, and in the end it was still a great experience with only a few minor nitpicks. It’s just that the bar has now been raised with each iteration expected to top the previous. If you can go in with an open mind, there’s no doubt you’ll have a fantastic time. I just hope I can take that approach on my next trip in September for the Kyoto menu.