During the Simpsons’ long run, there have been numerous questions and speculations about what state Springfield is in. A few years back, creator Matt Groening revealed that Homer’s hometown was inspired by Springfield, Oregon, a city about 100 miles south of Groening’s hometown of Portland. There are, however, a number of references in the show to suggest that this iconic town could in fact be anywhere in the continental U.S. For this reason, I may push the envelope even further and suggest that Springfield may not even been a Springfield and may, in fact, be Greenfield, Indiana. Although I don’t have a lot of evidence to back this claim, note the following:
The words Springfield and Greenfield could easily be mistaken for each other in a conversation
In the show, Shelbyville is Springfield’s hated neighbour. There is a Shelbyville 18 miles south of Greenfield.
In the Simpsons movie, Homer befriends a pig which assumes the personas of both Spider Pig and Harry Plopper. There is also an iconic pig in Greenfield. Although I’m not sure of its name, it graces the sign of “The Mug”, a roadside drive-in restaurant on Apple Street.
On my way from Cincinnati to Indianapolis I stopped in Greenfield to try out the Mug. A few years back, it replaced the Frosted Mug, a family business around for 5 decades. The change in ownership maintained the small town feel complete with a drive-in option and plenty of outside seating. The difference now is what the owners call farm to curb; meaning most of the meat is single sourced from the Tyner Pond farm and anything else comes from local sources.
At the request of my daughter, we drove into the parking lot and awaited the car side service. A few minutes later a friendly guy showed up and took our order. Shortly after, he apologized and said he’d be back in a minute. He proceeded to run into the restaurant, came out with a bag, hopped in a car and sped down the street, presumably to do a delivery. This action was reminiscent of Homer screeching away in a car in the background after forgetting a birthday, once again reminding me that my hunch may be right. A few minutes later, a different staff member arrived with the grub.
I went with the original burger for just shy of $5 and teamed it up with some fries in a combo. I finished it off with a brewed root beer. The burger was simple and a reminder that things were good long before the days of patties being slathered in aioli or topped with pulled pork or dare I say it…..a fried egg.
As part of the order we also had the mac and cheese ($1.25), coleslaw ($1.50) and the bacon and sweet bowl for $2.50. The first two are self-explanatory. The last is a bacon topped bowl of corn salad flavoured with a bit of leek. It’s one of the few instances in my mid-west dining experiences where I can honestly say the portion size was small (thus the equally small prices). That said, it was more than enough and pretty decent. Although not the best mac and cheese I have had, it held its own. The slaw was good but the corn salad stood out as the winner. Maybe it was the nostalgia of eating corn in Indiana couple with the fine pork of Tyner Pond that made it even better.
Speaking of sweet corn, I had a chat with the incredible staff after and was tempted with their famous 16% milk fat ice cream. The richness of the fat combined with the sweetness of the corn was plain addictive and an ideal finish to a roadside experience.
In the farm to table concept, simplicity is sometimes lost among the pickled ramps and broiled beef cheeks. The farm to curb concept of the mug maintains the commitment to proximal provisions without the convolution of the latest food trends. Single source meat and local dairy highlight a menu that demonstrates that simple and classic can be just as exciting as trendy. Add the old school car side service and it makes for a good outing. Between the delivery guy’s screeching tires and a possible Harry Plopper sighting you may buy into my theory that Green/Springfield may be smack dab in America’s heartland.
Cincinnati has long been ignored as one of America’s culinary destinations, especially in the area of finer dining. Sure, there’s Jeff Ruby and he acclaimed steakhouses but other than that most of the regional foods are more pedestrian in nature and include chili, goetta (a German inspired spiced meat patty containing oats) and grilled cheese via Shark Tank. They are perennially shunned in the annual James Beard awards mostly due to the fact that they are in the same regional category as Chicago. Take 2016 for example. Of the 20 James Beard semifinalists for the Great Lakes region, 11 were from Chicago compared to one in Cincinnati. As for the finalists, all 5 hail from the Windy city.
The lone wolf in Cincinnati was Jose Salazar. Salazar isn’t your typical hometown boy. He’s originally from Columbia and after coming to the states, developed a passion for cooking, schooled in New York (and was two blocks away from the twin towers when the 9/11 attacks occurred) and ended up working with icons including Geoffrey Zakarian and Thomas Keller. He decided he wanted a quieter life and moved to the Queen City. Since then, he has opened a handful of restaurants including Mita’s ( the tapas restaurant he was nominated for) and Salazar, his first endeavor which celebrates the Over the Rhine region of Cincinnati. Given the simplicity of the menu and the fact I was with my daughter, I opted for the latter.
Salazar has a modest but pretty interior highlighted by a large bar, brick walls and tiled floors which seems characteristic of the OTR region. We were quickly greeted by a waitress and I started with a Kentucky Penny cocktail, mainly because it is bourbon based and shares my last name (hey…it’s the closest I’ll ever get to a namesake cocktail so I gotta love a little). Made with maple, lemon, bitters and topped with ale, it was a shandyish but punchy concoction which I quite enjoyed given the abnormally warm weather.
There’s a handful of nibbles on the menus so we indulged in some brussels finished in a yuzu aoli. They were crispy, fantastic and gave me an idea of how to use my bottle of yuzu vinegar at home moving forward.
My daughter went with the burger and I chose the sandwich special which was egg salad served with gravlax. I found it kind of funny that the salmon played second fiddle to the egg but the combination was quite delicious, especially with the toasted bread it was served on. The farm green salad was a pleasant side. The burger was solid even when dumbed down by my daughter’s cheese omission and medium-well patty. The thick bacon and “special sauce” were both spot-on.
Egg and Gravlax Sandwich
We ended the meal with a dessert which fused three American favorites; sweet potato pie, donuts and smores. The sweet potato donuts served with chocolate, graham and marshmallow. The earthy and naturally sweet flavour of the potato was a terrific medium for the sweeter accompaniments and the fact they were served hot out of the flyer was bonus.
Jose Salazar and his namesake restaurant prove there is more to Cincinnati than chili and goetta. It’s modest and economical menu delivered on taste and value without a whole lotta pretension. Even though the Queen City’s culinary scene will likely always live in the shadows of Chicago’s, Salazar growing empire is a reminder that, unlike the Bengals and Nick Lachey, there is hope in Cincinnati after all.
I suppose if you have the last name Wahlberg, it makes sense that you throw your at into the burger business, especially where you are backed by two pop culture icons who have graced the big and small screen as well as the music business for 25 years.
Wahlburgers recently opened its first Toronto franchise along side the SOHO hotel on Blue Jays Way. I immediately thought a few things when I entered the place for the first time:
This place is pretty big.
What a hideous shade of green.
Why are the staff acting like I’m in a Parkdale eatery instead of a downtown tourist trap? A black shirt or a cardigan should not make one better than me.
I was seated quickly and ordered a pint. At this point I realized it’s quite hard to get a pint from the burger based joint and be able to watch a tv at the same time. The adhere to a list of local brews on tap and also feature the Wahlbrewski North which is brewed on contract by a local brewery. The price range is $7-7.50. I really had no interest in the $12 adult cocktails (although I will give them credit for using clamato instead of tomato juice in their Caesars..it looks like they did their homework). Their $15 adult frappes look sickly sweet and look as if they would appeal to teens with fake IDs and those who feel comfortable drinking as many calories as they are about to eat (what the hell is whipped cream liquor anyway).
The menu is mainly burgers with the typical sides (salads and fries) but you can also get a portobello burger, a sandwich made of turkey with all the fixings and typical offerings off a kid’s menu if necessary. I ordered the BBQ bacon burger with the sauce in the side. In addition I ordered a side of famous Wahl sauce which is normally served with some of the other burgers on the menu. As a side, we split the fries and an order of tater tots.
While you’re waiting you can watch a montage to the Wahlberg brothers (Donny, Mark and the other guy) on a loop (including new and old footage and plenty of references to the A&E show) which runs on the televisons in strategic positions set throughout the restaurant. Otherwise, you can also read the wordle-like large poster which lists all of Mark’s movies in the event it’s a trivia question or a dinner party conversation starter sometime in the future.
The burger was decent. The patty was not overcooked although I would have been happy if it was closer to medium. The bun/patty ratio was good. I enjoyed both sauces but was glad I didn’t ask for either directly on the burger since I think a little too much would have cut into the taste of the burger overall. The clothespin was a bit woody….but probably better than the fries (see below).
The sides were horrible. The “naturally cut” fried clearly didn’t mean freshly cut and the tater tots were “just like I remember them”…over salted and greasy potato sponges. Given the fries I get can get at other joints for about the same price, these were an embarrassment at $3.50 each.
I will be interested to see the fate of Wahlburgers in Toronto. It has a bit of an identity crisis. I mean, where else can you grab a $7.50 pint to go with your slice of government cheese? Despite the celebrity endorsement, it sill likely be more geared toward a sports fan than it will a patron of the SOHO itself. It’s saving grace may the fact you can get a decent burger at a decent price in a place where dad can have a beer, mom can ogle Marky Mark’s abs and the kids can eat hot dogs and shitty french fries (I swear as long as there’s ketchup there’s no such thing as a bad fry to a child) and wonder why they can’t have a $15 drink called blueberry pie…all at a location within walking distance of a Jays game. Otherwise the tricky parking and popularity of numerous other burger joints in the area may make it an ongoing struggle.
Personally, I I think I could replicate my experience at Wahlburgers with a green sharpie highlighter, a pound of decent ground beef, a Kraft single, a bag of McCain fries or tater tots and a toaster oven; all while watching Muchmusic retro while I talk to my annoying hipster cousin on speaker phone.
With other burger joints like Burger’s Priest, P & L burger and other options like Hero and Five Guys in town, I think this new kid will get knocked off the block pretty quick.
Despite all the eateries in Toronto, I have to visit Richmond Station at least once a year. In fact, I like to brag about it so I usually bring a RSV (that would be a Richmond Station Virgin) to try things out. On this occasion, it was a lunch visit with a colleague of mine from Alberta who was in town for the weekend.
There are a couple of things I’ve concluded about Richmond station. First, I don’t like sitting in the bottom part. It’s a little too congested, you get the constant aggravation of people coming and going and I’d much rather watch the performance in the kitchen versus that of the bar. Second, I always get excited about the chalk board specials which are daily whimsical creations from the creative mind of Carl Heinrich. They have a small but solid menu which regularly changes but always includes oysters and the Stn. Burger.
We got there on the heels of the lunch rush so we still could benefit from the $19 prix fixe menu, featuring a lobster bisque as the starter and a braised veal sandwich. I’ve had the bisque here before so I highly recommended it to my lunch mate. As for myself, I had my eye on the burger and matched his bisque with the mushroom consomme. Served with a soft boiled egg and seasoned with sesame. I might almost suggest it was undersalted but this is coming from a guy whose definition of consomme for 20 years was something that came out of a red and white can. Piercing the egg to release the saltiness of the yolk helped.
The stn. burger remains one of Toronto’s best (as well as one of the more expensive). The patty is designed for medium-rare to medium which allows for great moisture and flavour. Without the need to mask the meat with an abundance of toppings, the burger is simply served with aged cheddar and a few other fixings beside a heap of delicious fries and a ramekin of aioli (I’m not an aioli guy so I’ll take the fifth). I don’t get the beet chutney which is served more like a garnish than a palate pleasing partner. Nonetheless, it’s a delicious burger that remains in the conversation for best in the city.
At Richmond station, dessert is not an afterthought. Available as a $5 add-on to the prix fixe menu, it evolves with as much as a cutting edge mentality as the menu itself. Take “movie snacks” for example. If memory serves, it’s a combination of chocolate cake, almond brittle, cola wafers, popcorn ice cream and twizzler puree (a clever mix of cranberry and Pernod). Smart, stunning and delicious.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Richmond station since it opened shortly after Carl Heinrich won Top Chef Canada 2. The convenient location (unless you’re trying to park), casual environment, great service (including the fact they take reservations) and a small but relevant menu (enhanced by daily inspired chalk board creations) makes for a great dining experience. The biggest issue may be the fact that your favorite dishes disappear and get replaced by a sunchoke, a chestnut or whatever new culinary trend that emerged. That said, I don’t doubt that anything new would be as tasty as it’s predecessors. Don’t take it from me… at time of posting it was number 1 on tripadvisor. I guess I’m not the only one deflowering RSVs.
Parts and Labour’s offspring, P &L burger, was in part due to its performance on Burger Wars, in which it beat out rivals Burger’s Priest and Dangerous Dan’s to claim supremacy. It opened its doors recently near Queen and Spadina, only a few doors down from Burger’s Priest and in an area with an ever increasing number of fast/snack food options. Upon entry, I was greeted by a young lady with modern enthusiasm who quickly took my order. Fifteen minutes later, almost to the second, my number was called and I proceeded to the counter. The cook was as cool as his facial hair and engaged me in a very pleasant conversation about the weather, cycling and growing up in Windsor, Ontario…a far cry from the less than enjoyable service I often receive from other places in the area.
Let’s do a quick historical recount of the evolution of the burger culture in the United States. It would be hard to argue that the Big Mac is not one of the most iconic and recognizable food on earth. In fact, economic models use the cost of a Big Mac to standardize the state of the economy across the globe. The brilliance of the Big Mac lies partially in the use of a secret sauce to add some tanginess to the other layers of flavours one would associate with a burger. The Big Mac was “invented” by a Pittsburgh franchisee in 1967 who developed it to compete with the Big Boy (developed circa 1937), the flagship burger of the restaurant of the same name. The Big Boy is a three layered burger, served on a sesame bun with all the fixings including a special sauce (sound familiar?). Once a presence throughout the United States, Big Boy still exists although primarily within the state lines of Michigan although a few still exist in Ohio and California.
What struck me the minute I tried the deluxe was the fact that I was eating a hipster Big Mac. It had most of the components with an extra emphasis on the the huge beef patty, which was cooked a juicy medium-well. The P&L sauce was an excellent condiment and resembled the special sauce that made the Big Mac famous. The cheese was melted nicely and crispy bacon pieces lined the thick patty. It was a big, sloppy and delicious mess. Consuming it did make me wonder why too many other burger places haven’t made an effort to mimic one of America’s favorite and most recognizable foodstuffs. As far as the sides, I found the fries rather soggy and the slaw unappealing in both colour and taste.
Not only did Big Boy invent the saucy burger, I argue they invented the hipster. I mean, look at the mascot:
1. He wears checkered clothing.
2. He has a clean side part and a a flip in the front.
3. He is wearing light blue shoes.
4. He has that “I’m cool because I’m about to eat a burger” look on his face.
Now McDonald’s stole the Big Mac concept but alienated the hipster concept and instead introduced Ronald McDonald in 1963. The famous clown (which apparently has 96% recognition in the USA), was created by Willard Scott (yes…the same Willard Scott who gained fame as a Today show weatherman). Since then, there have been eight actors who have portrayed the famous clown and none of them have worn, plaid, plastic rimmed glasses or parted their hair to the side.
P&L has created a DELICIOUS burger which competes for the best under $10 in Toronto. The sauce is the key, adding a tangy cut through the richness of the thick beef patty and accompanying melted Amercian cheese and bacon. The bun is terrific and the condiments are as harmonious as the Big Mac song itself. The fries were soggy and the slaw was unremarkable. You’re likely in for about a 15 minute wait but I think it’s worth it (after all some people in Toronto have no issue waiting hours for a stool tucked in the corner of a popular snack bar). Now that I’ve read a bit about burger history I realize that in fact the classic sandwich is the perfect food for the modern day hipster; you can dress like Big Boy and act like a clown.
Sometimes naming a restaurant takes days or weeks of careful deliberation. Sometimes a name is just obvious. I mean, if you want to open a burger place in the Ottawa neighbourhood of Hintonburg, you really only have one choice; Hintonburger. Now this makes me wonder what other burgers concepts would have obvious names:
1. Spielburgers- Splashy burgers with great stories and specials effects including the Jaws, Ketchup Me if you Can, the Hamistad and the Empire of the Bun.
2. Samburgers- Featuring the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatball Sub and the Brooklyn Nine-Nine (the traditional burger for under $10). Noticeable absence of any reference on the menu to “That’s my Boy” or “Grown-ups 2”.
3. Wahlburgers- The Wahlburg brothers make even more money by creating a Boston burger empire complete with a reality show featuring Mark’s abs and Donnie’s…..intellect (complete with that pensive look he gets when he’s trying to crack a case on Blue Bloods). Oh wait, that’s been done already.
Hintonburger is housed in an old Kentucky Fried Chicken (in the days before it was shortened to KFC, the Colonel was not a cartoon character and Taco Bell was nowhere in sight). I opened the gold coloured door with the faded handle and entered the small quarters, noticing the only relic of KFC was a crudely painted picture of a red and white bucket sunk halfway in the ground on the far wall. I walked straight ahead to the tiny square hallow which served as the order window. It only made sense to order the Hintonburger combo, complete with fries and a drink for $11.75. The signature burger is 6 oz of meat served with bacon, cheese and signature BBQ sauce and was served with fresh cut fries.
It was pretty busy but we managed to get a seat while we waited the 15 minutes for the food to arrive. In the meantime, I couldn’t help but people watch. The place contained everything from a group of hipsters (what are they called anyway? A herd? hover? A host? A harrass? A hedge? A horde?)*. There was also an old couple that I thought I saw on a grey power commercial once and a table of four guys on lunch break who wore matching uniforms with the reflective outdoor jackets and whose combined weight was slightly more than a Fiat 500.
*- The group terms refer to antelopes/bison, trout, sparrows, horses, herons and gnats respectively. A horde of hipsters…I kinda like that.
The burger arrived in the standard red and white checkered paper. The bacon was abundant, the cheese was melted and the burger was a nice, consistent thickness. It was a wonderful crust which not only flavoured the patty but protected the moisture of the inside. The BBQ sauce was tasty and not overbearing, a cardinal sin of many burgers. The bun had a hard time keeping this messy concoction together. I enjoyed the fries. They were thick and crunchy although a few were a little overdone.
Hintonburger has all the hallmarks of a modern burger bar; cramped quarters, a wait time indicative of a made-to-order burger, a rainbow of patrons and tasty fresh cut fries. It also adds a number of other menu items for non-burger aficionados including pogos, chicken strips, hot dogs and even a couple of vegetarian items. In the end, it’s middle of the pack (or kettle or troubling or parliament) in both taste, price and value which still means it’s pretty good. It sure as hell beats a brood of dirty bird from Scott’s Chicken Villa.
My final day in Chicago was a race to see how many DDDs I could hit before my 2 pm flight. After a strategic session with a map, I determined a route that would allow me to hit three; two within walking distance and one on the way to O’Hare.
Having spent most of my time in Chicago on either the Magnificant Mile, the convention centre or West Randolph, it was nice to get off the beaten path a bit. My first stop was the White Palace Grill. Opened in 1939, this place is the traditional 24 hour American diner. It has all the classics, from eggs to waffles to Mexican breakfast platters. I sat at the counter and joined the show as one of the many cast and characters of the Chicago scene. A very pleasant waitress quickly came to my rescue, offering me the large menu and a newspaper which I much appreciated. It’s amazing how out of touch one falls when stuck in a conference for 4 or 5 days. I scanned the menu and ordered a coffee, some strawberry banana french toast with a side of bacon and some grits to try.
The banter in the place was primarily focused on the Hawks Stanley cup win the night before. People were walking in and out proudly donning T-shirts and jerseys. There seems to be a trend among couples to walk around Chicago wearing matching shirts…it’s rather endearing. I was rather amused when another waitress checked in to start working. I think her name was “Happy” or something like that. If so, the name fit her personality and I quite enjoyed listening to the conversations and laughter that erupted during my breakfast.
Without much of a wait, breakfast arrived. The strawberry sauce was on the side, so some assembly was required. It was classic french toast with classic toppings. I love grits and I wasn’t disappointment by the Palace’s butter laden offering.
White Palace grill is an all American 24 hour diner. It has all the attributes of a good experience; good food, good service and good decor. Although it may not top the Zagat guide, it’s a place where you eat lots and leave feeling happy, happy, happy.
Verdict: 4 Guyz
Stop number two was Panzanno’s Italian Market which was about a 10 minute walk from White Palace. During this time, I got to admire some of Chicago’s downtown architecture from afar while walking over the West Roosevelt bridge. The bridge itself is quite interesting. I snapped a pic of one of the numerous icons which lined the street. I did a quick internet search to find out the meaning of these depictions but came up empty.
Despite the name, I wouldn’t call Panozzo’s a market. True, they sell a small array of pastas and Italian staples, but the main attraction is the deli and take out sandwiches. There are a few “old school favorites” but the signatures are the crescentine sandwiches. Like the name suggests, they are crescent shaped sandwiches stuffed with all sorts of delicious fare.
I ordered two sandwiches to go; the porchetta crescentine and the meatball sandwich. It was hot as hell outside, so I was also drawn to the ice cream freezer which was sporting an array of Zarlengo’s Gelato. There was an article hanging on the wall touting the frozen treats, so I grabbed a Rum and Raisin for the walk back to the mile. It was smooth and creamy with lots of raisins and lots of rum flavour filled the cup.
I like when thought is put into things, even simple things. Sometimes the difference between a good sandwich and a great sandwich is one ingredient. There is always the opportunity to push the boundaries just a little and I feel Panozzo’s does that. Both sandwiches were delicious. I think the pickled fennel and chilis in the porchetta and meatball respectively added enough to make these sandwiches stand out. The bread was fresh and the fillings were ample.
Although the decor is a little barren and the vibe a little flat the sandwiches were delicious. The offering of Zalengo’s at Panozzo’s is another example of the comradery that exists between restaurants and other vendors in Chicago. Like Metropolis coffee and Graham Elliot’s eateries, it’s a win-win and refreshing concept.
Verdict- 4 Guyz
After I devoured the gelato I walked through the park, took a few pictures of Soldier field from afar, made a wish in a fountain, admired some more Chicago architecture and got soaked in a short but intense downpour. I did a quick change into some dry clothes, repacked, hailed a cab and proceeded to my third DDD of the day, Kuma’s Corner, which is located on the way to O’Hare.
Kuma’s corner prides itself on a fantastic concept; the fusion of burgers and head banging metal. This is not a superficial claim. Everything from the decor to the staff to the name of the burgers scream the theme. I see metal this way….stubborn and abrasive on the outside but with a core of justice and determination in the middle. Take their beer philosophy for example. One may attribute the “No Bud and Miller” philosophy to a pretentious and elitist attitude. Consider the possible lyric:
“Drink no Bud, drink no Miller,
I’m a commercial lager killer.”
Sounds a little nasty, but the foundation in rooted in supporting the small guy, a concept as important to the brewing industry as it is for food. To this point, I started with a Three Floyd’s Robert the Bruce Scottish ale on tap and was later hypnotized by a bottle of Apocalypse Cow housed within one of the the many bar fridges and brewed by the same Indiana brewery. Although it came with a $20 charge, it was a fantastic IPA . Rich and citrusy, almost sour and intensely hoppy , it was a wonderful complement to the burger.
The menu itself is burger-centric with a spattering of bar food available as well. The three guys beside me were indulging on an order of mac and cheese which looked divine (mind you when does mac and cheese not look divine). There are almost 20 burgers available, each with a combination of standard and not so standard toppings such as avacodo, smoky and spicy cheeses, wing sauce, poached pears and yes, a fried egg. I went Ozzy and ordered the Black Sabbath burger which was a patty seasoned with blackening seasoning, spicy jack, chili and red onion. I chose a salad as the side which turned out to be pretty good. My colleague went with the burger of the month which in this case was the Stranglehold, an 8 oz buffalo patty garnished with aged cheddar, arugula and habanero mustard.
There’s a whole lotta burger. The bun was delicious and the toppings worked well together. I had a nibble of my colleagues bison burger which hit the mark as well. If anything, I wish there was a little more liberty to choose the wellness of the burger because a patty cooked medium would have been over the top. Instead, the patty was a bit on the dry side although far from inedible.
Kuma’s concept is a fun one. I may have seemed out of place hauling a week’s worth of luggage into this tiny joint and sitting among biker types and foodies who were embryos or twinkles in their father’s eyes when the majority of the metal playing in the background came out. Needless to say, I received the same rugged yet considerate service despite the fact I don’t sport a tattoo, two inch spacers or a permanent chip on my shoulder. The food was good, the gimmick works and the beer selection was amazing.
The first line of Metallica’s Fuel is “Gimme fuel, gimme fire, gimme that which I desire”. Big burgers, plenty of local beer and whisky on tap do just that.
There has been much anticipation over the opening of The Beverley, a boutique hotel on Queen just west of university, Ever since leaving Hawthorne earlier in the year, Chef Eric Wood’s twitter account has counted down to the opening of the inn which features a restaurant and rooftop patio. I decided to give it a whirl despite the fact it still seems to be in the soft opening phase.
I was greeted outside by a smiling young lady who asked if I wanted some lunch. It was a little later in the day so seating was ample. I was seated at a shaky table adjacent to the bar. Almost immediately a friendly waitress dressed in black came by and asked me if I wanted a drink. There are choices from a snug list of new and traditional cocktails featuring no alcohol in particular. There’s cognac, bourbon, rye, gin, vodka, tequila, rum and pimm’s. There’s even sangria. I went “Old School” with a Pimm’s cup 335 selling, like most of the other cocktails on the menu, for $12. It was well done. As I was sipping away, it was apparent I was crashing a meeting with many of the hotel’s stakeholders (no worries, I had no inclination to listen in and heard nothing other than the occasional bellow of laughter). Shortly after, one of the gents got up and walked toward me in the bar area. For a second I pictured a scene from the Sopranos and figured he may throw me out ass over tea kettle. Well….not really. Instead, he gave me one of those “uncle Fred at Christmas” shots in the arm and said “get the burger”. Shortly after well…I ordered the burger.
Before the burger, however, I ordered the caesar salad which is something I rarely do. What intrigued me, however, was the fact it was made with dinosaur kale instead of romaine lettuce (although I suspect it was in fact baby kale). It was a good size and served with asiago cheese, smoked tomato chips and rye croutons. It like a traditional Caesar salad except was a little less crispy because of the kale. That said, the flavour was better and the risk of sogginess was missing. The tomato chips were amazing and adequately dobbleganged the traditional bacon. One suggestion (in my best Obi Wan-Kenobi voice): USE THE LEMON. One squirt of the wedge gave it the acid needed to cut through the sulphur of the kale.
At first I misread the description of the burger to say “pickled watermelon” instead of “pickle and watermelon”. One I noticed my error..well it didn’t matter because I ordered it anyway. I’ve told a few people since and they look at me like I’m a nuts. Well, it worked. Unlike a lot of other burgers, the patty was seasoned very well. It was a tad tough to eat given the large watermelon and pickle slices and the latter was the prominent taste, What made the watermelon work was it’s contrast against the tangy cheese (Guernsey is great on a burger) in both taste and texture. In the end, I pictured it as a juicy monstrosity in which the act of biting would squeeze Bordelaise sauce out of the patty like a sponge, forcing it to drip down my hands with mudpuddle messiness . Instead, it was a bit overdone, so I missed out on the adventure although it tasted damn good, The fries made me wonder if Eric’s recent trip to the West Coast had an influence on the menu. Kennebec fries are a staple out there and in my opinion, truly make the best fries. They also had a shot of crispy garlic chips but surprisingly were not served with any sort of dipping sauce. A house ketchup is available with the starter order, so I’m not sure if the omission with the burger was an oversight or planned that way. I actually think the house ketchup would have helped the burger too. Hey, it makes me wonder if the Bordelaise sauce would of worked on the side as an au jus for the fries as well.
Dessert seems to be a work in progress. There is no menu as of yet, but the kind waitress provided me with three options: a choice of two homemade ice creams (orange szechuan and malted barley), a couple of in house popsicles (I think pineapple jalapeno was one) and a smores dessert. With no concept of portion size or price, I asked if I could sample both types of ice cream. She said she would check with the kitchen. A few minutes later she returned with a defeated look on her face and informed me it was not possible because the ice cream was proportioned when prepared. A little perplexed, I opted for the orange Szechuan and realized I would have to satisfy my craving for malted barley over a pint later in the day. The ice cream was fantastic. It had the texture of silk, a rich taste but not an overwhelming heaviness. The brownie was decent but wasn’t needed because it wasn’t as good as the ice cream itself.
Eric Wood is a chef who, in my opinion, is very friendly and open with his customers. He comments on blogs, answers tweets and is not afraid to make recommendations for other restaurants among other things. His new endevour is a little boutique mixed with a hint of hipster, sprinkled with a bit of West coast and dusted with a scent of his old gig at Hawthorne. It’s boutique in that it delves into cuisine which is veggie-centric and focuses on choices that include raw and gluten free dishes. The kennebec fries are very west coast. With his Hawthorne exodus, he brought the “4 Play for lunch” concept (app, salad, main, dessert) for $16. Both the drink and food menus have no defined focus which I find highly acceptable in an environment which has been populated with ramen, snack food and bourbon or tequila bars. That said, it’s far from a traditional menu as indicated by a watermelon topped burger and steak and potatoes made with beef cheeks. It will be interesting to see how this pans out. Will the menu be sophisticated enough to attract a boutique hotel crowd and yet be hip enough to draw in the curmudgeon foodies, especially given the fact they tend to stray away from pretty decor and gravitate toward tiny rooms that look like their parent’s basement apartment or a janitor’s broom closet? Maybe the rooftop will become the foodie haven as it appears to be focused on grilled meats a la izakaya (although it’s still Paleo I suppose). This paradox even resonates with the waitstaff. I saw a couple of staff drop in with back-size tattoos, presumably only to jump into sheer black dresses and assume an old school service model free of angst and pretension. Bravo!
In the end, I think the menu hiccups are growing pains associated with any new franchise. A tweak of the burger, a little ketchup with the fries and an extra scoop of ice cream would make me a happy boy. I know I can say this knowing that next time I drop by, the shot in the arm won’t turn into a punch in the face from anybody from the board of directors, especially uncle Fred.
The early morning humidity didn’t stop me from taking a 30 minute walk to West Randolph, an interesting stretch known for an array of restaurants of all shapes and sizes. After the first wave of high end places (including a few touting Michelin stars), you hit a block of empty, spray-painted buildings, cut in half by a highway running underneath. Shorty after, the street becomes vibrant again, filled with microbreweries and eateries slapped with celebrity names like Graham Elliot.
The apex of this West Randolph landscape is a cute spinning goat overlooking the street. This was destination number one.
Stop #1- The Little Goat Diner
This Stephanie Izard spin-off offers a bit more versatility than the flagship Girl and the Goat. You can grab a quick breakfast, feast on a hearty dinner and everything in between. You can buy of loaf of bread or drink on the roof. This particular visit was of the breakfast variety. It was about half full and we were seated quickly at a booth. The place had a definite diner vibe. I felt like John Travolta in Pulp fiction. The waiters and waitresses were current and hip and bad-ass despite donning trendy yet old school diner uniforms. There’s something about raven tattoos and dainty dresses that works for me. Coffee flowed, served with smiles and poured from old school pots into mugs stamped with that cute, smiling goat.
The menu is equally dichotomous. One can simply grab bacon and eggs or venture into the creative realm of a number of more exotic options. I didn’t come to Chicago to eat standard fare, so I did what any warm-blooded Irish dude would do; I ordered spaghetti. Presented like a cross between a seafood pasta and an omelette, it was boldly flavoured and sat in a delicious broth. I asked for some hot sauce and was offered a housemade smoky chipotle and an apricot flavoured option which had a little more bite. Both were delicious although I feel the former more suited for the dish. It’s not for everybody, but I’d shelve the home fries any day to dig into this seafood medley.
My colleague went for the bull’ s eye french toast, a crafty demonstration of Korea meets chicken and waffles meets toad in the hole. The sweet dueled with the savory in every bite to create a stimulating battlefield on the tongue. Underneath the chicken, two slightly overcooked eggs stared up from the comfort of the thick brioche. In the end, the savory prevailed, so don’t order it if you need to satisfy your sweet tooth. Otherwise, It’s delicious.
My Take: With so many choices, I’ll have to come back whether it be breakfast, lunch, dinner or sucking back drinks on the rooftop. It’s full of innovation and choices that only makes sense when you read them on a menu. Plus, I enjoy feeling like a Chicago gangster as I sip coffee in an old school diner surrounded by tattooed staff and riffraff such as myself. Don’t expect diner prices, however. It’s not a cheap, unless you come for the experience and settle for one of the daily breakfast specials.
Stop #2– Naha
A lunch appointment kept me downtown for a trip to Naha, a Michelin star restaurant with a bit of a middle eastern flare. It’s spacious and modest, reminiscent of a Moroccan villa. The waitstaff were courteous, although many were wearing these oddly large uniforms that just didn’t seem to fit. A full lunch menu is offered in what seemed to be Chicago fashion: a prix fixe menu for $22. After consuming the Little Goat breakfast earlier that day, I was sort of hoping for Blackbird type portions sizes to save the embarrassment of the ramifications of overindulgence. When asked if I wanted a beverage, I found that the beer selection was quite lame…..a bit of a cardinal sin in the heart of the craft brew craze which consumes the Midwest.
I started with the cannelloni which was stuffed with housemade ricotta and garnished with snap peas, jerusalem artichokes and a bit of fregola (small pasta balls). Nothing like some pasta on pasta action. It was a very delicate, had great texture contrast and fresh flavour….an ideal lunchtime starter.
For the main, I opted for the sea loup de mer (sea bass) which wasn’t much bigger than the starter. It appeared to be a twist on a bagna cauda( a dip with strong Mediterranean flavours) which served as a salad dressing on romaine lettuce instead of being served in the typical vessel. The fish was a bit dry and the flavours reminded me of a well-disguised ceasar salad. It was a little bit of a yawn.
My colleague opted for a mezze (ie sampler) of Mediterranean goodies which included hummus, babaganoush, string cheese, spiced beef etc. It offered a true experience minus the salt water smell one might experience if eating the same thing in the homeland itself (I don’t think the smell off of Lake Michigan could mimic…even if the windows were open).
The dessert menu incorporated concepts from this side of the ocean, ignoring the expected tiramisu and baklava and replacing with American classics such as ice cream, malt and caramel corn. I went with the sundae, served with with porter ice cream topped with a crackling chocolate topping and a bit of European infusion with the use of toasted hazelnuts and a couple of triangles of nutella panini. The other choice at the table was a chocolate pave with the aforementioned sprinkles of Americana and a gold leaf as a tribute to capitalism. Both were a fitting end to a meal. There were no surprises…just well constructed and executed desserts which would be deemed delicious by anybody on the either side of the ocean.
My Take: Naha offers a well-executed lunch by fusing strong Mediterranean flavours and techniques with beloved elements of Americana. For the most part, the execution was on the mark and the portion sizes were acceptable, at least for lunch. The North American inspired desserts were the star, an irony for a place whose concepts are rooted in elements of the Middle East. The meal was well paced, the service was decent and the decor was spacious and fresh.
Stop #3– Billy Goat Tavern
Between the Billy Goat curse and the famed SNL appearance, it’s a foregone conclusion that one has to drop by this tavern during a trip to Chicago (especially on the heels of a visit to Wrigley). I won’t go into the details of the curse (you can look it up on the website, wikipedia etc.) but it involves a goat and a bunch of men….enough said.
Basically, it’s a place with the burgers, coke, beer and a spattering of other snack foods. The walls are plastered with faded newspaper articles and signed pictures and accolades from generations past. The grey-haired bartender looks like he’s won a trivia contest or two in his time and courteous staff pan the floors looking for empty steins to refill.
I ordered a burger for three bucks and change and a beer for about the same. The thin, pre-made patty is served on an oversized bun. The condiment station has the standard toppings, although I found the onions two ways rather intriguing. You could choose finally diced or thick (and I mean thick) rings. I loaded up with a pile of pickles as well. It was exactly was I expected and exactly what I wanted; a burger which brought me back to the days when it didn’t cost twenty bucks and wasn’t served with pineapple, mango, fried egg, short rib, pulled pork, bone marrow, avocado or housemade BBQ sauce. It’s just a freaking $3 burger.
Neither the burger nor the beer will win any culinary awards, but I consider the $6 cost the price of admission for a small bite of Chicago history.
Stop #4- Topolobampo
I’ve been eying Rick Bayless’ Michelin star Topolobampo even since I ate tortilla soup at his place in the airport a couple of years ago. Plus, I’ve been mesmerized by his soothing voice while watching “Mexico: One plate at a time” and even attempted one of his moles as well as a short rib recipe, both with good success and a lot of sweat. I routed for him on Top Chef Masters and follow him on twitter. Ya..maybe it’s manlove but I was longing to experience Mexican in an environment other than the numerous taquerias which have appeared throughout Toronto.
Showing up was like entering a busy Mexican market…buzzing people all over place and busy servers navigating nachos and guacamole through the streaming crowds. I was very loud and I wondering how I would hear myself think I was went to the desk to check in. I was greeted by two gentlemen who barely looked twenty; dressed in bright colours, trendy ties and the look of either a beachfront Tommy model or a member of One Direction. They confirmed the reservation I had 4 months before and we were notified of the token short wait as they got the table ready. With the announcement, I was prepared to deal with the abundant noise that was in store for the evening. Instead, a magic door open and we were whisked into a room with half the decibels of the waiting area. We were seated, the door was shut and it felt as if we were transformed in to a secret VIP space. Water was immediately served in large, heavy blue glasses and the night began, but that’s another story…..
Driving down a highway, I see deer jumping, wild turkeys frolicking in farmer’s field’s and large billboards features perfectly constructed burgers which are attractively stacked like luxury seafront condos. Succumbing to temptation, I will on occasion pull over and roll the dice on the possibility that some burger, somewhere will even slightly resemble the imagery posted roadside. Instead, I feel like William D-FENS Foster (played by Michael Douglas in the 1993 movie Falling Down) in the fictional Whammy Burger:
“See, this is what I’m talkin’ about. Turn around. Look at that. Do you see what I mean. It’s, it’s plump, it’s juicy, it’s three inches thick. Now, look at this sorry, miserable, squashed thing. Can anybody tell me what’s wrong with this picture? Anybody? Anybody at all.”
The only difference is I’m not carrying a gun or wearing a short sleeve shirt and tie.
I had expected to be fooled by the propaganda of Tomahawk BBQ, which has been featured on both Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and You Gotta Eat Here. Around since the 20’s, it promises meat as organic and the leaping deer themselves. It features big breakfasts and great burgers. After what was a hellish cab ride over the wrong Vancouver bridge, I arrived and was seated at the bar (picture an old school diner with round stools and formica counters). I turned around to see two gents eating a breakfast (which I later determined to be the mixed grill-Nine generous slices of Yukon style bacon, two country fresh eggs, fried or scrambled, two slices of Klondike toast, organic hamburger patty, aged cheddar cheese, wiener, onions and fresh sautéed mushrooms) served on a plate the size of a hubcap. Despite this temptation, I had to have a burger.
It was difficult choosing from the 15 choices, but I settled on the Skookum Chief Burger (Onions, lettuce, organic ground beef patty, Yukon bacon, egg, aged cheddar cheese, wiener, tomato, and Tomahawk special sauce). I prepared myself for internal rage as I patiently waited for the arrival of another substandard burger. I was, however, occupied by the “It’s B.C For Me” fact-filled placemat complete with sketches of Canadian legends, facts and stories including bears, igloos and whales living in Hudson bay.
The burger arrived as a tower of truth. Each ingredient was evident and identifiable. Even the minor details, from the toasting of the homemade bun to the angles of the cheese to the liberal yet not overabundant use of sauce, made this a billboard burger which ended up tasting exactly like it looked.
Insanity dictated dessert, so I opted for banana cream pie. Was it as good as it looked? Pretty damn close.
The food lives up to the legend. The decor is a mix of aboriginal artifacts, a candy shop and mildly cheesy souvenir store. The service, at least the day I was there, was exactly what I expected; they weren’t wearing suits and shining bar glasses with sheepskin bar cloths but instead they were hard working people whose moods mirror the people sitting in front of them. I like sincere service in whatever form it comes in…just ask William D-FENS Foster:
“Why am I calling you by your first names? I don’t even know you. I still call my boss “Mister”, and I’ve been working for him for seven years, but all of a sudden I walk in here and I’m calling you Rick and Sheila like we’re in some kind of AA meeting… I don’t want to be your buddy, Rick. I just want some breakfast”.