My Favorite American Restaurants of 2013

Please keep in mind that I have been to select cities throughout the US this year so this list is far from comprehensive.  I have, however, been to enough to warrant a list paying homage to restaurants  which stood out during my travels.

10. Voulas Offshore Cafe– Seattle

This cute, old school diner is not far from the University of Washington’s beautiful campus.  The staff are friendly and courteous. Watching them set up the coffee station for the line of people who couldn’t get there early enough to beat the lines is endearing.  It has a great feel with an amazing biscuits and gravy you wouldn’t expect on the West Coast. The greek omelette was a reflection of good old fashioned family values.

9. Bop ‘n Grill– Chicago

Featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, this joint has burgers and bop plates (essentially rice plates topped with a number of choices). I went with asian flare and tried the umami and kimchi burgers although other unique combinations are available. The deep flavours lovingly punch you in the mouth while filling it with bite after bite of moist, meaty goodness. This ain’t McDonald’s.

8.  Tamale Place– Indianapolis

You wouldn’t expect Indianapolis to be a hotspot for Mexican food but the aptly named Tamale place is amazing.  The passion and care in the preparation of each one is clear with every bite.  If you can, try one of the dessert tamales. The nachos and salsa are brilliant too.  It’s clean but not fancy but with those tamales, it doesn’t need to be.

7. Pastabilities- Syracuse

A pasta lunch set up like a cafeteria in downtown Syracuse doesn’t sound like a top 10 candidate…until you eat there.  The place is always packed for a reason.  First, the food is amazing.  Whether it is the pasta bowl doused in their famous hot tomato oil, the moist and flavourful meatball sub, the freshly made side salads or the delicate but delicious pizza, this place would appeal to anybody from age 1 to 100. Second, the prices are terrific.   It’s open for a more formal sit down dinner at night which I imagine is just as good.

6. Roast– Detroit

Michael Symon offers a fine dining experience in downtown Detroit, especially for the carnivorous at heart. One highlight is the wood fired grill which, despite the volatility and unpredictability of the open flame, produced a fantastic medium rare new york strip. There’s something about slurping bone marrow and eating sweetbreads while watching a pig spin around on a spit that just works for me.  Oh, they have naughty deep fried brussel sprouts too.

5. Union Woodshop– Clarkston (Detroit)

Union woodshop in Clarkston (just north of Detroit) was featured on triple D in the Kid Rock episode. Although somewhat reluctant to take advice from somebody who wears fur coats yet married PETA-happy Pam Anderson, I was excited to try it. My best advice is to act like your parents and show up for dinner when this place opens at 4 pm.  There are two reasons for this.  First, you may have a chance at the sauce laden burnt ends (brisket) which are delicious but when they’re gone, they are gone.  Second, good luck getting a seat after 430 without having to wait an hour. Sorry, no reservations.  It has everything you would expect in a smokehouse and more.  It produced some of the best pulled pork I’ve had in while.  Otherwise, everything from the sauces (try the Chinese Char Siu) to the butterscotch pudding are delicious.  They also have a gluten free menu, pizza and even a steak if you want it. The price is right too.

4. Clarkston Union– Clarkston (Detroit)

Kid Rock also brought Guy down the Road to the Clarkston Union.  Built in an old church, it comes complete with church pews, a bingo board and yes, huge lines.  It sports one of the best craft beer menus in Detroit, offering regional and national brews in taster sizes if you want a variety. It has a gastropub menu with its famous mac and cheese (with or without lobster), sandwiches, burgers with  pot pie and meatloaf specials.  Even the plowshare platter, a delicious array of meat, cheese and veggies is abundant and delicious. This church offers the holy trinity of a great dining experience: Great service, great food and great atmosphere.

3. Lucky’s Cafe– Cleveland

I do not go to Cleveland without going to Lucky’s.  In fact, I think once I went to Cleveland to go to Lucky’s.  Also featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Michael Symon showed up to promote this local gem. It’s all about fresh.  The front is filled with fresh baked goods and the staff is busy picking ingredients out of the garden you see through the window during the summer months. The “biscuits” is one of the best breakfasts I have ever eaten.  From the fluffy cheddar biscuits and eggs to the sensual sausage gravy, it is complete nirvana.  In fact, I awake craving it at times.  In addition, there are great beverages and lovely lunch items like a delicious curried chicken sandwich and a made from scratch Reuben that’s to die for.

2. Topolobampo– Chicago

Rick Bayless is considered one of the best Mexican chefs in North America.  Now I know why.  Once you navigate through the loud and hectic sister restaurant Frontera, doors open and you enter the serenity of Topolobampo.  From the minute you are seated you are treated like royalty.  Hands down the best service I had all year.  The waitstaff part like the red sea when you walk through the front of the kitchen to get to the washroom. The sommelier was informative and not pushy.  Our waiter knew everything about every dish. The menu changes frequently but you can always count on a delicious selection of nouveau Mexican dishes with bold, explosive flavours. Even better is everybody at the table can order what they want without the need to have a complete consensus in order to opt for one of the many tasting menus ranging from vegetarian to one dedicated to mole, Mexico’s most prized dish. Topolobampo is proof that not all eateries run by celebrity chefs are overrated…some are just “increible”!

1. Girl and the Goat– Chicago

Stephanie Izard in many ways has redefined what a great chef is.  Her infectious smile, lovely attitude and commitment to working vigorously within the walls of her two West Randolph restaurants have been rewarded with numerous accolades including a James Beard award.  The menu is a mosaic of tastes and textures which tickles every sense.  Whether it’s the escargot ravioli,  the pig face which gets smothered in egg yolk or the goat belly confit, the attention to detail from both a visual and taste perspective were amazing.  Translating passion to a plate is an art and Izard is Picasso.  I’d tour this gallery anytime.

Chicago: Day 6: White Palace and Black Sabbath

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.

Strawberry Banana French Toast sans strawberry
Strawberry Banana French Toast sans strawberry
Strawberry Banana French Toast
Strawberry Banana French Toast
MMMM...bacon and grits.
MMMM…bacon and grits.

My Take

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

White Palace Grill on Urbanspoon

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.

Porchetta Crescentine
Porchetta Crescentine
Meatball Sandwich
Meatball Sandwich
Zarlengo's Rum and Raisin Gelato
Zarlengo’s Rum and Raisin Gelato

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.

My Take

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

Panozzo's Italian Market. on Urbanspoon

Zarlengo's Soft Serve on Urbanspoon

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.

Kuma's Side Salad
Kuma’s Side Salad
Black Sabbath burger
Black Sabbath burger
Black Sabbath burger..Take 2
Black Sabbath burger..Take 2

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.

My Take

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.

Verdict- 4 Guyz

Kuma's Corner on Urbanspoon

Chicago:Day 5: Nana-nana-nana..I was bopping and hopping all night long

Stop 1– Nana’s

Day 5 was a triple hit of triple D.  After a subway up to Wrigley field a few days earlier, I figured I’d venture past US Cellular field to at least lay eyes on the White Sox home field.  That, and it was on the way to another DDD that was a cab ride from the conference centre.  I shyed  away from hitting up Nana’s on Sunday in an effort to avoid the brunch crowd so I figured a late breakfast/early lunch on Monday would be safer.  It’s a clean breakfast and lunch nook with an open kitchen, small tables and a bar to sit at. I had a chance to talk to the owner who told me the restaurant is dedicated to his mom who, after being diagnosed with diabetes, made radical diet and lifestyle changes which got her off of medications and made her diabetes manageable. The premise is fresh and organic foods served with a Mexican flare.

There are two things which definitely draw me to a dish: I’m always intrigued by traditional dishes which are given a twist and anything that is local and in season.  Today was no exception.  Instead of my normal tendency to fill my veins with sausage and pork gravy, I was drawn to the nanadict, an interesting version of classic eggs benny.  The english muffin is replaced with pupusas, the ham with chorizo and the hollandaise with a poblano cream sauce. The pupusa was a bit bricky and the eggs were poached American style (meaning a little too long). I loved the chorizo, especially with the poblano cream, which was rich and had a fresh flavour with a subtle bite.  A little cilantro on top would have been great, The earthy potatoes and acidic greens added a nice balance to the dish.

Nana's Nanadict
Nana’s Nanadict

The local/seasonal draw was the garlic whistles which were served with a sprinkle of fried cheese. They were tender and delicious. The cheese, a  shot of hot sauce and a squeeze of lemon recommended by the owner blended nicely with the garlic flavour. A great side dish!

Garlic Whistles
Garlic Whistles

My Take

Nana’s is a cute nook featuring breakfast, lunch and dinner rooted in family values and giving back.  They sponsor the Benton House, a local agency  dedicated to reducing hunger in Chicago through diner donations.  The owner is present and proud. The menu has lots of choices, many with Mexican/South American influence  and all based on local and in-house ingredients whenever possible. It’s a feel good place although I imagine too much poblano cream or chorizo may not leave you feeling too good the next day.

Verdict: 4 Guyz

Nana on Urbanspoon


Stop 2– bopNgrill

I got out the cab with a couple of colleagues only to avoid a summertime monsoon by seconds.  With wind blowing and stop signs rattling, I was happy to be in the safe confines of bopNgrill, a DDD featuring burgers and bop plates.  When I watched the show, I could almost smell the sizzling mushrooms through the television screen as Will Song meticulously created Americana with Asian influence.  I was drawn to the umami burger that  was featured on DDD and looked absolutely delicious.  The Philly Bulkogi egg rolls featured on the show are only available on weekends, so that wasn’t an option.   We also split the kimchi burger which featured my fave…a fried egg with bacon, cheese and kimchi. My sense of Smellivision was correct. The delicious smell of earthy mushrooms and truffles in the umami burger radiated throught the air. The burgers were cooked a perfect medium and had a dripiness which required a napkin run or two. They were well balanced and extremely flavourful.   As a matter of fact, after one bite the clouds parted and the weather seemed to clear up.  A coincidence??? I think not.

Kimchi and Umami Burgers
Kimchi and Umami Burgers

Verdict: 5 Guyz

bopNgrill on Urbanspoon

Stop 3- Hopleaf Bar

After bopNgrill, I hopped in a cab and faced a dilemma. I had hopleaf, another DDD pegged for a visit, yet it was game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals in the city poised to win.  Did I want to venture to a place with a ridiculous choice of beer or did I want to settle for bud light and a crowd of drunkards cheering for the Hawks?  Actually, it wasn’t really a dilemma. The day before, the barkeep at Haymarket raved about this place and hell, there may be a TV at Hopleaf so we could at least keep an eye on things.

The cab dropped us at the front door.  After paying the fare, we were stopped by a gent who demanded ID.  My dad and I have a running joke.  He was asked for ID at 42 and I said I’d beat him.  I’m not 42 yet but that fact I was asked on this occasion says I still have a chance.  That said, it’s pretty standard practice in Illinois to ID everybody.  Hopleaf is considered a tavern so nobody under 21 is even allowed in the place.  We seated ourselves in the bar area and examined the multi-page beer menu. . As for a TV…not a chance.  The bar staff looked like the Grateful Dead and the patrons had anything but hockey on their mind.

The beer selection is extensive, ranging from breweries down to the road to hot spots across the USA.  There is also an extensive selection of Belgian and Belgian style brews as well as a few European stragglers as well.

The Snaggletooth Bandana is a great Illinois IPA from Naperville combining a hoppy punch with strong tropical fruit flavours.  I was fortunate to try a Troublesome Gose from Off Color, a Chicago start-up brewery which had it’s official launch at Hopleaf that night. It was a classic wheat beer with medium spice and a refreshing finish.  One can’t go to Chicago without sucking back a Goose Island offering.  In this regard, I opted for a cumbersome pils which hit the spot. With three of us there, there was lots of sipping and sharing but be assured there is not shortage of choices.  The staff are very helpful as well, quick to offer advice, good or bad, regarding any of the pints.  For example, I ordered a pint of a cucumber beer and, at the advise of the bartender,  was offered a sample first and quickly realized a pint was just not feasible.

As for the food, the menu is a concoction of dishes with most made in-house. Since I was already pretty stuffed with the combination of bopNgrill and beer, we ordered a few things to split and stuck with the signatures; mussels with frites ($13), charcuterie trio  (headlined by house made head cheese) ($14) and the the brisket sandwich ($13). As a result of a camera malfunction I don’t have pictures but I can say that each dish was terrific.  The mussels were classically done.  The charcuterie plate was well executed and well thought out. A minor fight between the four os us almost broke out for the last smear of rilette.  I was a bit reluctant about the brisket.  It’s a tough cut to perfect and the fact it wasn’t a smokehouse left me a little suspicious.  My opinion changed with the first bite.  It was delicate and tender and competitive with some of the best briskets I’ve had.

My Take

Great  beer and great food make this a great place despite the lack on television and a less than cozy atmosphere.  The bar has a bit of staleness but doesn’t translate to the food and drink.  The mussels, brisket and charcuterie were amazing. The service is great from a beer recommendation perspective.  Otherwise, you’re on your own.  The bar area doesn’t doesn’t even have a waitress. Plus, you gotta leave the kids at home and bring you ID because if you don’t have it you might as well be 12 because you’re not getting in.  Despite the lack of a TV, two loud waves of screams a minute apart from a sports bar next door told us everything we needed to know.  The Hawks scored twice in the last two minutes to secure the Stanley cup and the party began….

Verdict- 5 Guyz

Hopleaf on Urbanspoon

Chicago:Day 4:Part 2:After a few pints, riding the Goat to the Pinnacle of Food Supremacy

DISCLAIMER: No cows were harmed in the writing of this blog.  The same can’t be said for snails, goats, ducks, pigs, scallops, crabs, lobsters and rubber monkeys however.

There’s culinary comradery in Chicago.  On day one,  I hit Grahamwich and then hopped the transit up to Metropolis to experience the coffee Graham Elliot serves in his establishment.  The same thing exists along West Randolph St.  In addition to a few award winning restaurants, there are a number of pubs, cafes and diners lining the street…and many of them stick together. I read an article with Stephanie Izard’s favorite joints which included the Haymarket pub.  In addition to their own brews and restaurant, they have worked with the Girl and the Goat to  create a few unique pours using rhubarb and other local staples.  I figured in was a good idea to stop in for a pint..or two…or three….before settling in for dinner at the Goat  a couple of hours later.

It’s a good size brewpub with a good size selection and an affinity for sock monkeys. They not only serve their own pints but have a number of guest drafts from a number of small breweries across the USA.  The selection changes often but there will be something for every palate. Better yet, they have 4 ounce tasters available for all beer for as little as $1.50 each. Finally, the staff were EXTREMELY friendly and knowledgeable.  Our barkeep was clear and recommended the right beer for the right person:

From Haymarket’s own creations, we tried the following:

Oscar’s Pardon Dry-Hopped Belgian Pale Ale
Speakerswagon Pilsner- Heavy Pilsner
Buckledown Brewing Fiddlesticks Belgian I.P.A.
Haymarket Ombibulous Double IPA
Mash Made In Heaven
Rubber Monkey
Mathias Imperial IPA

The range was from light and citrusy wheat (Rubber Monkey) to the hardcore Mathias IPA and everything in between.  I was partial to the Buckledown, an IPA with a tasty twist.  It tasted like a spicy wheat beer on steroids.  The Oscar’s was a safe choice for those with less hoppy ambition.

After running the local taps, I asked for bartender for some suggestions from the guest taps. He seemed to light up with a slightly devious smile when I just said “Bring me three of your favorites”.

He answered with the following trio:

Revolution Crystal Hero IPA
Allagash Curieux
Lakefront 25th Anniversary Series #01 – Imperial Stout

The selections were brilliant.  Each was a lesson in aggressive yet satisfying beer variety.  The Crystal IPA had juicy fruit flavours to counter the traditional hoppiness.  The Allagash was a high alcohol beer which bathed in barrels of JIm Beam bourbon for a couple of months.  Finally, the Lakefront Imperial Stout  from Milwaukee was the highlight of the night, It had double digit ABV, a strong stout flavour which was laced with vanilla flavour.

My Take

Whether used as a holding tank while waiting for the Girl and the Goat (hell…why not visit a monkey before you go see a goat) or a stand alone place for a casual dinner , I wouldn’t hesitate to come back if in Chicago again. Although I didn’t try the food, those around me seemed to enjoy it. The menu is filled with pub favorites such as burgers, sandwiches and pizza.  A word of advice..trust the barkeep.  Open your mind to new flavours and take advantage of the 4 oz samples to test new horizons.  Just don’t drive…even 4oz beer catch up to you quickly, especially when some of them approach 10% ABV.  Just a word of advice,,,if the monkeys start talking you should probably stop.

Haymarket Pub & Brewery on Urbanspoon

After the purple pig earlier in the day, I had already experienced an array of carnivorous treats yet I had a long awaited reservation at the Girl and the Goat which I made 4 months prior.  Even since Stephanie Izard’s infectious smile hit Top Chef a few years back, she has received accolades for her Chicago restaurants, most recently winning the James Beard award for best chef in the great lake region.  Having dined at the Little Goat Diner across the street a few days before, I was looking forward to utter (or maybe udder?)  gluttony in this trendy small plate eatery. I checked in an hour before to make sure the time shift on my Microsoft outlook didn’t mess up my timing.  They assured me that my reservation for eight was intact, although they need to know immediately if even one person cancelled so they could make the necessary rearrangements. Hard core!

Luckily all eight showed and we were seated at  a large table with a great view of the kitchen (at least those of us facing the kitchen). Even though it was Sunday, it had the vibe of a Friday night (Stephanie normally takes Sunday off so if you stalk celebrity chefs you may want to consider another night).  The air was filled with a mix of music and the drone of the many voices that populated the other tables.  The menus were handed out and we were given the airline small plate speech, informing us that the V meant vegetable, the F meant fish and the M meant meat and that 2 to three dishes per person would suffice. There was a decent array of beer (eg. three floyds) and a few mainstream wines. We were talked into a eccentric white which I cannot remember the exact name of but according to the receipt it was a smoky Arbois (I think was a Chardonnay mixed with another grape). It was a bit reminiscent of a Gruner.   Given it’s unique taste, it caused  some controversy at the table but I thought it had enough complexity and range to pair well the spectrum of dishes I ate during the evening.  Speaking of food, choosing an array of  plates among 8 people when there are over 25 dishes available is a daunting task, so we agreed on one each and doubling it to ensure enough for the entire table.

There are countless reviews of countless dishes, so I’m doing to try my best to rank the dishes from best to worst. That being said, the whole experience was among the best I’ve had this year.

1. Escargot Ravioli– Yes, the lowly snail vaults to the top of the protein pyramid with this stellar dish infusing tender pasta fused with delicate Asain flavours.

Escargot Ravioli $15
Escargot Ravioli $15

2. Goat Belly Confit with Lobster and Crab– This dish moved me from goat reluctance  to goat indulgence in one bite.  Nothing about mixing goat belly and seafood makes sense until you eat it. I could lick the plate,

Goat Belly with Lobster and Crab
Goat Belly Confit with Lobster and Crab ($19)

3.  Duck tonguesDo chickens have lips?  Who cares because ducks have tongues and they are delicious…snacky and potato chip addictive. Betcha can’t eat just one.

Duck Tongues $16
Duck Tongues $16

4. Wood oven roasted pig faceSounds odd, tastes delicious.  Like bacon and eggs for cool people…or people who think they’re cool.

Wood Roasted Pig Face $16
Wood Roasted Pig Face $16

5. Crispy Baked Ham ShankYou could have served this with mustard, relish and ketchup and it still would have been mind blowing.  That said, the naan,kimchi and sauces elevated this from Sunday roast to trendy feast. Ripping it apart makes you feel like a T-Rex for just a bit.

Baked Crispy Pork Shank $25
Baked Crispy Pork Shank $25

6. Ham Fries- Shoestring fries sprinkled with  smoky and salty intensity.  Could double as porcine crack.

Ham Fries $7
Ham Fries $7

7.  Strawberry Parfait– Just a beautiful and well orchestrated dish.  All flavours and textures combined to produce a symphony of mandible magnificence.

Strawberry Parfait $8
Strawberry Parfait $8

8.  Green Beans– A lesson in what I try to do at home when I make Asian inspired green beans. Simply prepared with fish sauce and cashews.

Sauteed Green Beans $9
Sauteed Green Beans $9

9.  Diver Scallops– Perfectly cooked. I enjoyed them but I wasn’t “shell-shocked” over the flavours.

Diver Scallops $17
Diver Scallops $17

10. Beet Salad– Much better than most of the normal offerings which simply throw a few beets on a plate, add some goat cheese and call it a salad.

Beet Salad
Beet Salad $9

11. Goat Cheese Bavarois– Table majority ruled on this one. Since I’m not a goat cheese fan, I’ll give this dish credit for tasting pretty good.

Goat Cheese Bavarois $8
Goat Cheese Bavarois $8

12. Goat Empanadas– I relished the belly but not the empanandas. That said, I’m not an empananda fan for the most part. Plus, I think 16 bucks for a snack food is a little steep.

Goat Empanadas $16
Goat Empanadas $16

My Take

In the last few years, the goat has gone from a can chewing vagrant to a star, due to both a hilarious cameo on the parody of Taylor Swift’s  “Trouble” and due to the focus as a protein mainstay on the menus of  James Beard award winning chef Stephanie Izard.  It’s a bit ironic you can stare at that cute goat rotating atop the Little Goat diner across the street and devour almost every part of one  at the same time.  Although It sounds a bit morbid, there’s solace in the fact that Stephanie respects the animal (and quite frankly every ingredient she touches).

The environment is hip and loud, the service is professional and smart and the menu is diverse and would make Animal Farm’s Napoleon drop to his knees. I’d recommend a reservation well in advance and try and bring a bigger group to experience as much of the menu as possible.  Listen to the waitstaff and take a chance, especially on the goat dishes and any odd wines recommended by the knowledgeable staff (if anything it will be a discussion point). So will duck tongues….

Girl & the Goat on Urbanspoon

Chicago:Day 3:I needed pork brains to understand the lexicon of Andrew Zimmerman

Stop #1- Carnitas Don Pedro

Earlier in the week, I received an email that was sent to me by a colleague with  a simple question:

Want to check out Carnitas Don Pedro with me? Attached was a link from a recent Globe and Mail article titled “Overheard in Chicago:Three Pork Brain Tacos, please”. Published in May, it was Jacob Richler’s summary of a visit to one of the many “authentic” Mexican cantinas in Chicago. My answer was a resounding yes.

So…a Limey, a Scot and a Jew go to a Carnita joint….

Three of us hopped a cab and took the trek down W 18th Street.  As we approached our destination, I realized it was a far cry from the rich moles, vibrant cocktails and impeccable service I experienced at the equally authentic Topolobampo less than 18 hours earlier. No margaritas, no sommilier, no celebrity chef…just a cold soda and piles of pork served a dozen ways by people who have never had a food network special or  heard of a James Beard nomination.

We navigated through the busy store front (which doubles as a takeout counter) and sat at a modest table topped with napkins and a small, spanish menu.  We shrugged and collectively used our Canadian minds and shallow understanding of French to try and decifer the choices  until the smiling lady came over, smiled and politely pulled the menu out of the napkin holder and turned it over to the english side.  At the same time, plastic bowls of salsa, pickled jalapenos, cilantro and onions were placed on the table along with a paper container of  chicharrones, of as us anglophones say…. “pork rinds”.  They are sort of synonymous with an offering of bread at an Italian dinner. Like a good loaf of Italian bread,  the chicharrones were crunchy when you bit them but melted in your mouth shortly after.  It was kind of a bacon meets bread experience.

Chicharrones
Chicharrones (aka Pork Rinds)
Condiments
Condiments

For the taco choice, we opted for the pork ribs which were simply prepared and presented bone-in. Warm tortilla shells were added to the table and assembly began.  The tortillas were warm, the meat was delicious and well worth any effort needed to dissect the small bones from the tender flesh.

Carnitas (Ribs)
Carnitas (Ribs)
Assembled Taco
Assembled Taco

We ordered the iconic pork brain tacos which were presented in taboo fashion. The brain was wrapped in a hard shell and held together with toothpicks.   The somewhat mushy texture of the filling  justified the crunchy exterior.  The taste was well….interesting.  It had a complexity and oddness synonomous to haggis.  They certainly wouldn’t be for everybody but there was a sinful satisfaction I got out chewing one down.

Pork Brain tacos
Pork Brain tacos

My reason for ordering Menudo soup was threefold.  First, although I didn’t indulge in too many cocktails at Topobambalo the night before, I wanted to see if Menudo, also called hangover soup, would clear up the my slight grogginess.   Second, I have a mild fear of tripe and wanted to see if I could eat something to overcome my phobia. Third, I wanted to convince myself that the word “Menudo” could mean more than the  boy band  (which eventually included Ricky Martin) that plagued my eardrums in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  Although much better than the band, I have to admit I still have a slight disdain for tripe although the broth was a rich adventure in classic Mexican flavours including lime, chili, onion and cilantro.

Good Menudo
Good Menudo
Bad Menudo
Bad Menudo

My Take

Don Pedro’s makes you feel like you’re a member of a surrogate family for the hour you are there. The food is amazing and the staff are friendly, jovial and helpful.  You may get a few odd looks from the locals (afterall, we were the only Caucasians in the place, wearing dress shirts and taking pictures like idiot tourists).  The total bill for three of us was $19, about the same price as bringing a bottle of wine to your mom’s house for a family dinner….and last time I checked, she can’t make carnitas (I don’t even think she knows what they are).

Carnitas Don Pedro on Urbanspoon

Stop #2– Sepia

I chose Sepia for dinner for a number of reasons.  I was entertaining a wine afficianato, trying to appease somebody with a simple palate and make a steak lover happy. In addition, a Michelin star and my curiousity over the cuisine of  Andrew Zimmerman (not Andrew Zimmern), the executuve chef who has received numerous culinary accolades over the past few years didn’t hurt.  My simple palate reference is no disrespect to either the diner or Sepia itself, but the concept of sticking to seasonal, fresh and local food.

Of course, things never work out.  For a number of reasons, my party dwindled from 8 to 5.  Other than the rather snooty hostess nobody seemed to mind.  We were asked to sit at the bar for a few minutes while they rearranged the table.  I grabbed a beer and before we were seated, we were asked to settle the bill…which I found a bit odd since we weren’t leaving.  I was hoping this wasn’t a foreshadowing of the service to come.

Based on the storefront and bar, the dining room was surprisingly large and made the fact that this was a 19th century print shop a little more believable.   The tables were spaced nicely and the noise level was moderate. Our waiter arrived shortly after and took some time to explain the premise of the menu.  When he left, they turned to me and started asking numerous questions about the menu.

Ok….here’s a small rant.  I don’t like the word foodie.  I like food, I think I know food but I don’t consider myself a foodie.   Other people do, however, and ask me to explain everything.  Foodies are like Alex Trebek.  Alex reads out question after question and acts like he actually would know every answer if he didn’t have them in front of his face. He shakes his head and proclaims “Oooo, I’m sorry, the answer is French Polynesia” like you’re a freaking idiot.  Many foodies are self-proclaimed experts who check out the menu in advance so they can look intelligent in front of their guests when they can explain what brandade is. Otherwise, they either do the smartphone check  under the table or excuse themselves to the restroom and pull the google stall search to prepare for the anticipated questions.

I did my best with the barrage of questions (at least I knew what matcha was)  but when the waiter returned he was asked about chermoula, ramps, roman gnocchi, togarashi, artichokes barigoule and bavette (see below for answer key).  Without hesitation, he answered every question without a hitch in a friendly and non-condescending manner.

The amuse bouche was a simple strawberry and a thin fennel slice on top of some soft cheese.  It tasted exactly like it looked but the small piece of fennel gave it a crunch that really worked.

Amuse Bouche
Amuse Bouche

For the appetizer, I opted for the crispy egg (surprise, surprise) atop mushrooms, asparagus and ramps.  The egg was a perfect soft boiled, the batter was crunchy and not greasy and the bed of stew was delicious.  At $15, it should have been a golden egg.

Crispy Soft Cooked Egg
Crispy Soft Cooked Egg

For the entree, I went for the waygu bavette and pastrami with a potato cake served in the middle.  The pastrami was brined nicely and tender to the point where  a knife was unnecessary.  The bavette was cooked medium rare and was seasoned delicately.  Despite the small portion size, the dish was decadent and I actually didn’t finish it.

Bavette and Pastrami
Waygu Bavette and Pastrami

A special shout out goes to the duck fat fried fingerling potatoes. Need I say more???? They tasted like they looked.

Duck Fat Fried Potatoes
Duck Fat Fried Potatoes

For dessert, I opted for the ginger snaps with ricotta, tarragon mustard ice cream, walnuts and honey.  It was  a bit tricky to eat but was presently beautifully and tasted the same.

Gingersnap Dessert
Gingersnap Dessert

The consensus at the table was that the food was top notch.  The winners were the english pea agnolotti starter, the bavette entree  and the malted milk chocolate mousse for dessert.

My Take

Sepia is a true testament  to local, fresh and well prepared food.  Despite the complex menu descriptions, the flavours are surprising simple and can appease all palates.  The service staff is knowledgeable and not condescending.  The meal flowed nicely although it did take a while to put our orders in (partly due to our culinary illiteracy).  The portions are smallish, the prices are highish but good value is there just given the quality of the food. I’ll take french cuisine for $600 Alex.

Glossary

Brandade- an emulsion of salt cod and olive oil

Chermoula-s a marinade used in Algerian, Moroccan  and Tunisian cooking.

Ramps- An early spring vegetbale also called a wild leek.

Roman Gnocchi- Potatoless gnocchi with lots of Parmesan cheese

Artichokes barigoule- artichokes with onions, garlic and carrots and wine

Bavette- bottom sirloin/flank steak

Togarashi- Japanese chili peppers or chili pepper products

Sepia on Urbanspoon

Chicago: Day 1:Black coffee, Blackbird and Friends of Gordon Ramsay

I arrived at Chicago’s infamous O’Hare airport at 7 am.  I ran into a customer on the plane. Upon takeoff, she  kindly offered me her copy of Oprah’s magazine to read  on the plane, so I figured what the hell…I was  going to Chicago and I did learn how to remove a mole with surgery.  When we landed,  we agreed to head into the core together. To my surprise, there wasn’t  a cab to be found. Eventually, one arrived and it was the first of many pristine cabs (yes, I actually enjoyed the cabs in Chicago despite their stop and go and hornophilic nature) I would take during the week.  The drive was slow and I eventually arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel on the magnificent mile.  My room was ready, I dumped my bag and heading for a day of culinary adventure.

Stop 1– Grahamwich

Anybody who knows me is aware I’m a sucker for celebrity chefs.  Graham Elliot’s sandwich shop, Grahamwich, allowed me to experience the fares of the heavy man without the need for a heavy wallet.  Sitting downtown, it offers an arrays of sandwiches with sides including popcorn, chips, pickles and even soft serve ice cream.   It’s a simple joint,  with minimal seating and the trademark GE symbol painted here and there. It also has one of the most annoying songs I have ever heard on a website and no apparent way to turn it off.  The staff resembled Graham himself, with slicked hair and wide-rimmed specs, although few would be able to mimic the speech of expectations related to cutting through the bread of a perfectly toasted sandwich.

I opted for the waldorf chicken sandwich which included grapes, walnuts, gorgonzola and celery for $8.  I threw in a large order of local pickles on the side and a homemade vanilla kola for $3 each.  For good measure, I grabbed a maple bacon Long John which I venture to guess was a product of local bakery Glazed and Infused for $4.

I grabbed my “To Go” pack, hopped on the subway, and jaunted up to Wrigley field to check out the field.  Grabbing a bench outside the park, I dug in.

Wrigley Field
Wrigley Field

The most underrated component of a sandwich is the texture.  This one was a home run!  Each bite was like a great pitching performance and a couple of base hits; the chicken salad that was firm and not soggy and it had perfect walnut and celery crunch and juicy pops of grape.  Delicious! I opened  the cup holding two flavours of pickles (traditonal kosher dill and spicy). Equally delicious.  The drink was subtly sweet and very vanilla flavoured, a polarity that might turn off a soda-pop purists.   All in all, a great lunch by a great park.  I even thought I saw a few tourists scanning the neighbourhood looking for the source of my lunchtime bliss.

Chicken Waldorf Sandwich and Pickles
Chicken Waldorf Sandwich and Pickles

Grahamwich on Urbanspoon

Satisfied, I snapped a few pics and hopped back on the subway and heading up the red line to stop #2.  Along the way, I succumbed to the donut and tore off a quarter.  Anybody that thinks the combination of maple, bacon and donuts works…you’re right! It was sweet and salty and doughy.  Let’s call it an achievement of the donut triple crown….or maybe the Cy Yum award.

Maple Bacon Donut (presumably from Glazed and Infused)
Maple Bacon Donut (presumably from Glazed and Infused)

Stop #2- Metropolis Coffee

There’s a lot of hype about this coffee (it is served at GE’s restaurants after all), so I was hoping the subway ride up would be worth the visit.  I walked past the patio (complete with the classic picture of my favorite bird with a smoke hanging out of his mouth and a caption reading “No Puffin”…come to think of it, how would  a puffin get a cigarette in its mouth to begin with or light it for that matter) and into the rather large interior.  The patrons were like a chess board; all sorts of sizes and shapes.  On the other hand, the staff were similar; young and tattooed and ready to brew.  I grabbed a Chemex (pronounced Chem-ex, not chem-A as some of us Canadians like to say in err) made with a nice Guatemalan bean.  The execution was flawless and allowed 10 minutes or so for friendly banter.  They take their coffee seriously and the final product reflected it. The payment machines  were down, so I got a pat on the back and a “just pay when you leave”. Great coffee, great service, great sign. By the way, I remembered to pay…can’t risk the karma coffee.

Metropolis Coffee
Metropolis Coffee Front Counter

Metropolis Coffee Company on Urbanspoon

Stop #3– BIG and Little’s

Knowing I was in for a late dinner, I figured a mid-afterrnoon snack was in  order.  I decided to take a walk downtown and ended up at my first diner, drive-in and drive of the trip.  BIG and Little’s is the brainchild of Hell’s Kitchen contestant Tony D’Alessandro, who was remembered having  issues with segmenting grapefruit and who’s early and subtle exit was overshadowed by a volcanic blowup by some guy wanting  to punch Ramsey in the face.  Since then, he has found success in this cash only taco/burger/fish shack. It’s like a beach canteen in the middle of the city  minus the seagulls, crying kids and barefoot patrons. The staff were friendly and the service was quick.  I ordered a Big and Little fish taco and al pastor (pork belly).  Both tacos were good although I found too much sauce on the first and not enough rendering on the latter. Otherwise, the fish was cooked perfectly (although it was swimming in a sea of lettuce) and the belly was well seasoned and worked well combined with a few sweet pineapple chunks. The fois gras and fries and fish and chips looked divine, but I was going out for dinner later so I toned down a bit, not knowing of the microscopy-requiring meal to come.

Tacos al pastor and BIG and Little's tacos- $4 and $3.50
Tacos al pastor and BIG and Little’s tacos- $4 and $3.50


Verdict- 3.5 Guyz

BIG & little's on Urbanspoon

Stop #4– Blackbird

I’m going to do a full review in a separate blog, but one of the dangers of Michelin star restaurants is portion size.  In this case, Blackbird could be renamed “Blackbird Food”.  Bitesize frog leg portions, matchbox sized sturgeon and half a chicken wing were highlights of the dishes served.  Although the flavours were nice, the crowded room, average service and the aforementioned small bites left this star shining dimly.  The desserts were good though!

What frog donated these? $16
What frog donated these? $16