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 😉

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.

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

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

Not So Little One: Embeya [Preview]

The Chicago food scene has been buzzing. Rumor was that chef Laurent Gras (formerly L20) was coming back to Chicago for twenty-four hours. But for what?

embeya

Chef Thai Dang (formerly L20, RIA) and Attila Gyulai (previously Director of Operations at the Elysian) have partnered together to create what has been missing in Chicago: progressive Asian cuisine. Most associate Asian cuisine with a lax environment, decor, staff, and…food. So when I heard about Embeya, and received word that I would have the opportunity to preview it, I honestly did not know what to expect. There was mention that the evening would be semi-formal, but to “dress up if [we’d] like.” Hmm…

Embeya, it is a new restaurant that opens in a few weeks along Randolph Street. So where does chef Laurent fit into the equation? He left Chicago for New York CIty in November 2010, but has come back to Chicago for one night. July 11, 2012 was the day that master and protégé reunited. It was the day that a dream became reality.

The Embeya team consists of chef Thai, Attila Gyulai, beverage director Danielle Pizzutillo, and sommelier Griffin Lawler. As beverage director, Danielle has developed a number of very fresh drinks to accompany many of the dishes, or something to sip on after a long day at work. We had the opportunity to try the Gin (shown: sake, yuzu, and ginger with cured rhubarb skewer) and the Rum (grenadine, lime, and pineapple with foam and cherry dust). Sommelier Griffin Lawler explained that the wine list at Embeya is Riesling-focused due to the nature of the cuisine that chef has prepared. Wines that were offered during this pop-up were from all over the globe, ranging from Germany to Japan to Spain and Slovenia. The summery, sweet, and acidic flavors of the cocktails and wine definitely set the tone for the type of meal that was to come.

While drinks were sipped, canapes were passed. The three for the evening included chef’s take on banh mi (shown), an almond crusted shrimp dumpling, and an oyster served with rhubarb and lemongrass.

The meal itself was divided in two: personal portions and family style. Among the first few plates were a Kona Kampachi, with charred cherries and cucumber, and the interactively plated Scallops in the shell, with garlic noodles and summer vegetables…on a bed of fire.

   

What chef Thai has done with Embeya is create a menu that highlights local ingredients of southeast Asia. He appeals to the masses with things like a green papaya salad that could rival those found in Vietnam and Thailand, or a wagyu cooked so perfectly that my anti-red-meat fiancée ate every single piece and wanted more. Chef also introduces unfamiliar flavors in dishes like bone marrow stuffed squid, dover sole cooked in banana leaf, and braised bamboo with royal trumpets and maitake mushrooms.

    

But as odd as it may sound, the fried rice was really one of my favorite dishes of the night. Described by chef Thai as “simple, with no protein” the rice was seasoned very lightly, and was the absolute perfect complement to the intense flavors of the southeast.

Chef Thai concluded this dinner with a spread of jackfruit, dragon fruit, lychee, rambutan, and longan, all fruits native to southeast Asia. Many of us were not aware of proper technique to eating these exotic fruits, so chef demonstrated how to unveil each fruit’s hidden treasures. Chef also prepared a mango sticky rice dish that I wish I was currently eating, and a tofu custard with citrus creme.

   

The Embeya experience already rivals many of Chicago’s finest establishments. There is no doubt that it is what was missing in this town. And while many were excited to have three-star Michelin chef Laurent back in town, the show definitely belonged to the “little one.” Chef Thai’s dream has become a reality. July 11, 2012 was not only the day that a master and protégé reunited; it was the day that the protégé became the master.

To chef Thai Dang, chef Laurent Gras, the entire Embeya family, and Ari Bendersky at Eater Chicago, thank you for this wonderful opportunity.

gary c.

The New EL Stop

It started off as a project all about balls. Meatyballs, to be precise. In a city with strict policies against cooking on food trucks, chef Phillip Foss quickly realized that he had a restaurant license. “The Ball Cave,” as the staff knew it, was the cooking space for the Meatyballs Mobile, Foss’ short-lived food truck project, and had enough space to comfortably seat eighteen. The idea of a restaurant evolved into one of the year’s hottest dining experiences.

EL Ideas, which stands for “elevated ideas in cuisine and dining,” is (currently) the collaborative baby of chef Foss, former-EL chef Andrew Brochu (now at Graham Elliot), recently-nominated Eater Young Gun Kevin McMullen, and Scott Manley. The trio constructs their weekly menus based on seasonality, oh, and their creative minds. The beauty of EL is that they are constantly challenging themselves and pushing the envelop to create delicious and thought-provoking cuisine. To categorize EL Ideas as New American cuisine is not fair as it puts a limit to their creativity. Progressive cuisine would be more appropriate, though because of the amount of thought and energy put into each dish, there really isn’t an adjective to describe EL. It’s just cooking, done to perfection.

In Chicago’s food scene, there is some negative energy out there with new reservation procedures *cough*Next*cough*. The nice thing about EL is that it sticks to the basics: email or call them. Someone will answer. Check their website to see if there are short notice cancellations. You might be able to snag a table sooner, rather than later. That’s what happened for me. I emailed for a table that was posted for a week away. Twenty-four hours later, I received an email saying that the table was mine.

Simple, right?

EL Ideas is in the middle of nowhere. Really. Driving past downtown, past UIC, west of the West Loop, west of the Medical District. There is literally nothing around the place…except the FBI – Chicago Office and the Cook County Juvenile Court. But hey, never judge a book by its cover, right? The perfect idiom for this place.

The dining space is small. Tables are either two- or four-tops, seating a total of eighteen lucky diners a night. White tablecloths line the rectangular tables, as perfectly weighted and designed utensils rest atop a folded cloth napkin. Cold steel shines in the kitchen. Walking around is encouraged, and one would notice all of the cooking machinery, each chefs’ mise, and hand-drawn pictures from chef Foss’ daughters.

                       

Was I there to check out the kitchen? Well, yes, but really I was there to eat. Wine was poured (BYOB) as diners entered, and a pre-dinner toast was raised for a few birthdays, my fiancee’s included. A nice, intimate touch to the evening.

But the reason many venture to the 14th Street building is the cuisine. Perfectly executed cuisine. Our menu consisted of fourteen thoughtful plates and drinks. There was ossetra caviar, a well-crafted fruit cup with squid and lychee foam, a potato soup with inspiration deeply rooted in the Foss daughters dipping french fries in ice cream (I thought I was the only one that did this! A suggestion, as discussed with chef McMullen: try dipping them in a Wendy’s Frosty instead), smoked sturgeon with hearts (of palm) and made with love(age), and sweetbreads complemented by daikon, soba and miso.

          

          

Something unique about EL Ideas is the way the staff interacts with the guests. Because each dish is the unique creation of an individual, each chef discussed the story and inspiration behind his dish as the course came out of the kitchen. You don’t get that type of interaction at many other restaurants.

What’s even more unique is the experience of plating a course. My fiancee and I had the opportunity to plate the final dessert course for all eighteen guests. Of course a plate was modeled for us, but we still sprinkled our creativity on the dessert. That type of experience is something very memorable, something that she and I will never forget.

I suppose this is where I say it: EL Ideas ranks in the top two dining experiences in my short twenty-five years. I am quite excited to see how EL Ideas evolves its cuisine and as a restaurant. Another visit (or dozen) is in line. I shall return (with another growler in hand…maybe some harder stuff too). Cya soon, gentlemen.

gc

Go Nuts for Doughnuts

In a big city like Chicago, food trends come and go. One that’s stuck around, though, is the cupcake. In a major food market, this delectable treat reigns supreme. But one sweet treat that is making a huge imprint on the city, and nation for that matter, is the doughnut. The once forgotten go-to breakfast snack is making a comeback in a Dunkin’ Donut world.

I had the opportunity to visit two doughnut shops…on the same day…within thirty minutes of each other. It was one of those “I’m feeling like a fatty and I don’t care who knows.”

The first stop on the trip was Food & Wine‘s recently-minted America’s Best Doughnut shop, The Doughnut Vault. Located around the Merchandise Mart el stop, this ridiculously small shop draws an equally ridiculous crowd (Mark Pallman’s video depicts just the type of regular crowd the DV draws). But really, doughnuts? I’m not going to lie: I was a skeptic. However, it’s hard to argue with the product that they’re dishing out. Doughnuts the size of both of your hands put together, some as big as your head; it’s absurd. On this joyous occasion, I got three of the staples (two of each, because, ya know, I’m a fatty): buttermilk old fashioned, vanilla glazed, and chocolate glazed. Just look at them for a second.

Imagine how stupid these taste. I mean really now. These things blow what I considered doughnuts out of the water. Sorry America, I’m no longer running on Dunkin’. Out of the three that I tried, the one that truly shined bright, and not taking anything away from the other two, was the buttermilk old fashioned. But that’s just one opinion out of thousands.

Could this journey get any better? Yes. With bacon.

You know that saying, “everything is better with bacon?” Someone at Do-Rite Donuts must be living by this mantra, because what Do-Rite is doing right is making bacon doughnuts. But let me rewind for a moment. Located in the Loop just off of State and Randolph is an inconspicuous little shop that recently got a sign (I walked by it a half-dozen times…no pun intended). Welcomed by the sight of doughnuts, I was slightly overwhelmed. I honestly didn’t know what to get…until I saw bacon. There comes a point in a person’s life when they realize that they can’t live without something. It could be a person, animal, or in my case (sorry hun), food. This maple-glazed doughnut rocks the doughnut world, and very few can compare. But let’s not take anything away from the others. The buttermilk old fashioned and PBJ were legit contenders, too.

So in a major metropolis where food trends come and go, where do these two shops stand in the doughnut world? At the top. But with the ebb and flow of today’s food culture, you never know. If you’re wondering which shop was better, I suggest you do what I did and buy a half dozen of each. You’ll love it, but your waistline might not.

To end, can someone tell me why people spell it “doughnut” and “donut?” Some food for thought.

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Recap: Baconfest 2012

Is there anything more perfect than a festival dedicated to arguably the greatest food ever? The answer, my friends, is no. And what is this illustrious food that I am referring to, you may ask? Bacon. Yes, you know you love it.

Baconfest Chicago is the creation of Michael Griggs, Andre Vonbaconvitch (seriously?), and Seth Zurer, and to these three gentlemen I thank, and ask that they pay for any medical expenses that may occur as a result of this yearly event. It was said that there would be over 1300 people attending this event, and Jeffy and I happened to be among the first one hundred VIP entrants. For one hour, we had the opportunity to mingle with the fifty-five restaurants (dinner service) and chefs.

Among the fifty-five eateries was the highly anticipated restaurant Trenchermen.  We had a brief opportunity to chat with the Sheerin brothers about their North Avenue eatery. “We’re about six weeks out from opening” said chef Patrick Sheerin. He proceeded to describe their offering for the evening, a bacon kimchi mortadella, pickle aioli and bacon tater tots.

Top Chefs were well represented, and their baconized dishes were all so different, and all so good. Season four champ Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat) cooked up a bacon soup topped with a smoked foam. This season’s runner-up Sarah Grueneberg (Cafe/ Spiaggia) was slinging wild cherry smoked bacon, cheddar gnudi (think gnocci) with spring ramps. Also from the most recent season, chef Heather Terhune and the folks at Sable offered applewood-smoked bacon pretzels with a cheddar-bacon jam dip so good that I would literally drink it.

   

With over a thousand bacon lovers in attendance, we had the opportunity to spark up a few conversations with local foodies. When asked about favorites, there were an overwhelming number of votes for three dishes: mini-whiskey bacon pops, bacon three ways (porchetta ravioli, crispy panchetta chip, and warm bacon vinaigrette), and braised pork belly with whitefish brandade, spring peas, and pickled green garlic. Jessica Oloroso (Black Dog Gelato) has created one of the best gelato desserts ever in the mini-whiskey bacon pops. These delectable treats are dipped in chocolate and generously coated with bacon. Jason Paskewitz and the team at Gemini Bistro (and Rustic House) whipped up the one, truly balanced dish in their bacon three ways. What made this dish (it was a three in one) so perfect was the balancing agent: vinegar. It was the much-needed acid in what was an overly-fatty and salty night. The Vie team behind chef Nathan Sears whipped up a very simple looking, but flavorful dish composed of a thinly sliced piece of braised pork belly. But what made it truly divine was the whitefish brandade.

   

But at the end of the day, the most interesting and fun dish, and I use the term lightly, came from chef Derek Simcik and my new favorite guys at Atwood Cafe. Their focus was the same as everybody else, bacon. But what this crew put together was a trip to the Wonka Factory. Titled “Willy Wonka meets Bacon – an array of Wonka-inspired candies done with bacon,” this really wasn’t a dish at all. It was a candy store, and children walked up, took disposable spoons and took scoopfuls of various pixie dust and, wait for it, bacon Pop Rocks. The stuff was like crack, and I stopped by to get my fix not once, but twice. On the second trip, though, the guys offered up a whole stash of the Pop Rocks concoction. Jealous?

     

We didn’t actually eat for the last thirty minutes. Jeffy and I were on the floor of the UIC Forum, having a stroke. Three hours. Twenty-one courses. It was heaven. But the best part about Baconfest is that it donates a significant portion of its proceeds to the Greater Chicago Food Depository. So while eating pounds of bacon, feel good about yourself because the money you dished out goes to a great cause.

It’s bittersweet now that the event is over. So until next year, BF..well not really, because I’ve got some bacon in the fridge.

Here are some other pics for your drooling pleasures.

            

gc