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.

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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?

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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.