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.

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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 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.

gc

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.

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

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.