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.


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.


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.

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.

A Class of its Own

When you talk about Mexican dining in Chicago, one of the first names that always pops up is Rick Bayless. His cookbooks, food products and television shows have gained him national recognition and numerous accolades, and his modernist approach to cooking has put him at the forefront of Mexican cuisine in the United States. Luckily for us he calls Chicago home and owns three restaurants downtown, all located right next door to one another. There’s XOCO, the casual joint specializing in the best tortas you’ll probably ever have; Frontera Grill, Bayless’ first restaurant; and Topolobampo, one of America’s first fine-dining Mexican establishments when it opened back in the 80s.

Having already been to XOCO and Frontera, I wanted to try the best Bayless had to offer so I went about making reservations to Topolobampo. Even though it’s been open for more than 20 years, it’s still a hot ticket and I had to book roughly three months in advance for a Saturday evening table. Oftentimes, when there’s so much anticipation for a meal, the food rarely lives up to the hype. That was not the case on this night.

Upon arriving at Frontera, we realized that there’s a fine line separating it from Topolobampo—literally. The two share the same space and the only thing dividing the noisy dining room of Frontera from its sister restaurant is a curtain. Whereas Frontera is casual and a bit hectic, Topolobampo is reserved, calm and generally more relaxed. The menu features a changing selection of raw starters, salads and other appetizers, and main entrees. There’s also a choice between a few tasting menus, which are a combination of several courses off the regular menu.

We started with the sashimi Hawaiian yellowfin tuna over guacamole with mango-grapefruit salsa, served in a nice martini glass. It. Was. Unbelievable. The guacamole was understandably the best I’ve ever had, but the tuna just launched the dish into its own stratosphere. Mix in the salsa and you’ve got a flavor combination that I’d eat every day for the rest of my life if I could, mercury levels be damned.

It was difficult to imagine anything that could top our impossibly-hard-to-follow starter course but our entrees were every bit as good. We both opted for the Maine lobster poached in lime-garlic butter, salsa huevona and sweet corn tamales. Quality seafood is a scarcity in the Midwest but this was as good it gets. There are very few things better than lobster and these lobster claws were fresh and delicious, and the spicy salsa gave it the nice kick that I like in all of my food. The tamales contrasted the other components on the plate with a nice hint of sweetness and although I can’t say I have lobster very often, this was certainly my most enjoyable meal with it.

Feeling with very content with ourselves, we pushed on towards dessert. Never one to shy away from the sweets, we went with the chocolate cake with buttercream, strawberries two ways and raw sugar ice cream as well as the olive oil tres leches cake with olive oil ice cream, homemade ricotta and gooey meringue. The tres leches dessert was solid but unspectacular—very sweet with a strong olive oil flavor. It was the torta de chocolate that was the winner of the two; the plating was so pretty it almost felt like a shame to mess it up by eating. Cake, ice cream and strawberries, three of my favorite foods making for a perfect ending to a wonderful meal.

Not to follow Gary’s trend of ranking meals, but all in all I’d have to put Topolobampo as one of the top five meals of my life. From start to finish, the food and service were excellent (and I didn’t even talk about the cocktails, of which the mango mojito I had was also fantastic). Rick Bayless gets a lot of press and it’s easy to see why now—he backs up the talk with his cooking. Topolobampo is an amazing experience because it’s not just the only fine dining Mexican restaurant around; it’s one of Chicago’s finest restaurants, period.

The South Side’s Secret Gem

Sometimes you just know a place is going to be good when it’s confident enough to serve only one thing on the menu. That’s the case with Birrieria Zaragoza, a hidden gem in Archer Heights on the South Side. The family-owned restaurant is a small storefront that specializes in delicious goat, and only goat. More specifically, they serve birria—a slow-cooked Mexican stew made with goat. At Birrieria Zaragoza, they go through approximately 22 young goats in a weekend, cooking and braising them for hours before adding in a tomato-based consommé to be served with homemade tortillas.

I had first heard of the place through a friend and was intrigued enough to make the long trek south to try it out. It’s not often that I wander down past the Loop so it has to be something really special to get me out there. As it turns out, it was well worth it. My friend and I walked in about 20 minutes before closing (I know, I hate to be ‘that guy’ but we lost track of time) and it looked like they were getting ready to call it a day, but the owner John Zaragoza graciously welcomed us in as if we had just entered his home. Since it was our first time there, he took the time to explain the whole menu to us. You’ve got your choice of a small or large plate of birria, birria tacos and birria and cheese quesadillas as well as a side of fire-roasted salsa. They also sell birria to-go by the half pound and an assortment of beverages, of which I had the horchata.

Now I’m no expert on goat but this was some damn fine goat. Similar to lamb but a little beefier, the birria was oh-so-tender and flavorful thanks to the consommé. The Zaragozas were kind enough to give us a side of salsa on the house, which give an extra kick with its spiciness. Put that all together on a tortilla and you have a heavenly combo. I also ordered a quesadilla that was equally tasty when paired with the birria. Even my friend, ever the skeptic, had to admit it was fantastic. If the South Side has more spots flying under the radar like this, you can be sure I’ll be making journeys out there more often.

Michelin Star Worthy

Chicago certainly has no dearth of fine dining options available. While we may not stack up to the New Yorks or Paris’ of the world, we definitely have our fair share of Michelin star restaurants (say, Blackbird). On a recent outing to Sepia, I was reminded of just how fortunate we are to have so many great places to choose from.

Located in the West Loop, just a block away from Blackbird and avec, Sepia is a contemporary American restaurant headed by chef Andrew Zimmerman that has been awarded a Michelin star the past two years. The place itself is small but very comfortable, with only one dining room adorned by racks of wine on the wall. The front of the house also contains a bar area for those stopping in for drinks.

Having never tried sweetbreads, I was intrigued when I saw them on the menu. After listening to a spirited recommendation from the server, I was sold—sweetbreads to start. They were soft and silky, fried and crispy. The thought of eating thymus gland may be off-putting to some, but truthfully the taste is not exceedingly radical from anything we normally eat and I think most people would have little reservations eating them if they didn’t know what they were.

For main courses, I had the flat iron steak while the rest of my table had the sturgeon and apple braised pork shank. My steak was cooked perfectly to medium rare (as all steaks should be), and was accompanied by some mushrooms and fingerling potatoes, as well as some coffee grounds on top. The mix of flavors ended up working well together and the coffee changed things up enough to keep it interesting. There was also a Bearnaise sauce to go alongside it but I completely forgot all about it until the end. As for the sturgeon, the fish was cooked nicely, but that’s about all I can say since it takes a lot for a fish dish to stand out for me. My mother seemed to enjoy it though. The pork shank was fall-off-the-bone tender and had a sweet apple-y flavor.

Capping the meal off was an amazing dessert, a flourless chocolate cake with bitter chocolate mousse and stout ice cream. If you’re a chocolate lover, you’ll be in heaven. And if you’re not a chocolate lover, you’d still be floored by how good this thing was. Paired with the stout ice cream, which was phenomenal on its own, just pushed it into some sort of dessert nirvana.

Seriously it was that good, and the perfect end to a meal that served as a reminder that Chicago’s fine dining scene takes a backseat to no one.

Hearty Brunches

Brunch is one of my absolute favorite things. It’s usually a simple meal but can cure your morning-after ails or just be a good kickstart to the day. I’ve tried countless brunch spots around the city and had some amazing to not-so-great dishes. Regardless, I never pass up an opportunity for brunch and go as often as possible.

It was a lazy Sunday and what better way to start the day than with brunch. After debating among several options, Gary and I finally decided on Hearty Restaurant. One reservation and short drive later, we were there and ready to eat. The menu claims that it’s “comfort revisited” and the dishes definitely reflect that. I went with the Cajun Benedict, two spicy crab cakes with poached eggs, an English muffin and Cajun hollandaise served with homestyle potatoes.

The Benedict was on point, although I wish there would’ve been more crab cake. What really enhanced the meal were our sides—house cut fries with garlic aioli and the grilled bacon sausage. It was as good as it sounds; juicy and sausage like you’ve never had. Gary ordered another comfort food staple, chicken and waffles, while our friend went with the Red Velvet Breakfast Dog. We were all intrigued by the description and to sum it up, it was a corn dog coated in red velvet batter. The chicken and waffles were also a bit different, with a boneless piece of chicken instead of the traditional fried chicken variety.

Perhaps the most amusing part of the meal was the Tang cube mimosas. My friends were each given a glass of Champagne with two small cubes of Tang, yes like the drink you had when you were a little kid. The cube dissolves in the glass and eventually turns the drink orange while giving it a Tang-y kick. It’s a fun twist on the morning cocktail that kind of makes your feel young again along with the cartoons playing on the television. It truly did feel like revisiting comfort as a child.

Continuing on the brunch train, I was in my favorite neighborhood—Lincoln Park—one afternoon and decided to check out one of the newer spots that recently opened, 2 Sparrows. Started by two Charlie Trotter’s veterans, the new joint is a venture into upscale breakfast/lunch, or so it claims. To be honest it seemed like any other regular restaurant to me, but I digress.

As expected, it was a packed house for a Saturday afternoon. After about a half hour wait, we were seated. They have a fair list of morning cocktails and I settled on one whose name escapes me, but was gin based with hints of apricot. For food, I had the belly sandwich, a slab of pork belly and a sunnyside egg between a biscuit, served with tots. I also wanted to order the maple and bacon doughnut but they were out, which bums me out because I’m still getting random cravings for it despite not knowing what it actually tastes like. A foie gras pop tart was also on the menu but is for far braver eaters than me.

Pork belly has become a culinary trend of sorts recently, although I’ve yet to completely grow sick of it. That said, the sandwich was good but nothing to write home about. It was just missing a little something to push it over the top. The egg also made a nice mess of my hands. The accompanying tots were a real treat though. These were the largest tots I’ve ever had, finely shredded and fried. Sadly, I only received four of them and was left wanting more when my plate was finished. Actually, I was left wanting more food, period, at the end of the meal because I was still hungry. The portion sizes aren’t terribly large so you might want to consider ordering a side (tots!) or pastry. If only they hadn’t been out of those doughnuts…

Minor complaints aside, Hearty and 2 Sparrows are both solid places that further reinforced my love for brunch. I heart it, I really do.