Category: Chicago Young Foodie Spots
|February 15, 2013||Posted by jcogswell1 under Chicago Young Foodie Spots, Dinner|
A couple of weekends ago when Tommy was in Chicago, we made a visit to Stephanie Izard’s Little Goat.
If you have been to Izard’s original goat inspired restaurant – Girl and the Goat, you know what an awesome chef she is. She is totally inventive and uses cuts of meat and various ingredients that you don’t normally see on the typical restaurant menu. Things like wood oven roasted pigs’ face, braised beef tongue and green beans in a fish sauce are some of the more popular items on Girl and the Goat’s menu. While you wouldn’t necessarily categorize any of these items as “fine foods,” Stephanie Izard has a way of elevating the ingredients and making them absolutely fabulous.
(this was a few years ago when Girl and the Goat first opened – with Stephanie!)
I have actually learned a lot about Izard’s culinary POV (think lots of local, small farm meats, dairy products and veggies) by reading her cookbook Girl in the Kitchen. Kate gifted me a signed copy (!!!) of this book a couple of weeks ago (best.gift.ever) and it has taken me about that long to get through it. Not only is it full of tons of unique and interesting recipes, but it also has stories interweaved throughout (plus tips on wine pairings, and “ingredient highlights”). After going through it, the book just reinforced my love for all things goat and Stephanie Izard related. The other thing that made me fall in love with her a little more? Experiencing the wonderful food, fun atmosphere and amazing service at Little Goat.
Little Goat, as the name would suggest, is Izard’s more casual restaurant. The restaurant has a diner theme to it and serves many diner classics with a serious Stephanie Izard twist. I thought that the food at Little Goat was the perfect example of how simple comfort food, when done right, can totally constitute a great dining experience.
Tommy and I had a very hard time choosing what to order (most indecisive people on the planet). However as Kate had eaten at Little Goat the day before, she told us one thing that we couldn’t miss was the goat chili.
The chili was filled with tender and flavorful goat meat and was oozing with cheese. The little crouton looking things on top are actually “pizza puffs” which I originally thought was a weird thing to pair with chili, but in typical Goat fashion, worked wonderfully. The chili also had some amazing spices in it; I am pretty sure I detected the standard chili flavors – cumin, chili powder, but I also think there may have been some cinnamon and nutmeg?! It had such complex flavor it was hard to pin point one specific thing.
To go along with our chili, we also ordered some beers. Little Goat has about 15 beers on their beer list – some you have heard of, others are totally unique. Tommy and I both opted to go local (he got a cider from MI and I got a beer made by a couple who micro brew in Chicago) and we really loved what we got.
While I think beer went great with the diner theme and the types of foods we ordered, Little Goat also offers wines, cocktails and a full bar!
After our goat chili, came the main attraction – Fried Chicken and the Pork Belly Pancake. We were hesitant at first to order the fried chicken because it was the most expensive item on them menu (hey at $22, that ain’t bad!) and we didn’t know if we were trying to make the experience “nicer” than it should be. Our waiter dispelled any fears we had and encouraged us to order it, and I am so glad that we did!
This fried chicken was a very generous portion of some of the most tender and flavorful chicken I have ever eaten. My guess is that the chefs soak the chicken in buttermilk for a long time to get it as tender as it was. The breading on this chicken was also out of this world. I feel like maybe there was some sort of salty pork product in it?! It was unlike any breading I have ever eaten and I just loved it. Not a single bite was left on the plate. The chicken also came alongside some creamy and decadent mashed potatoes and a salty gravy. So delicious!
The second dish that we ordered – the pork belly pancake – is included in Little Goat’s “Sammiches” sections of the menu.
This particular “sammich” was a play on scallion pancakes that are traditionally found on Chinese menus. The scallion pancake served as the “bread’ around a beautiful piece of pork belly that was also perfectly seasoned. The fresh cabbage served inside the pancake was also a great textural contrast to the tender pork belly and soft scallion pancake.
After we finished off our entrees, we moved onto dessert. While we were definitely on the full side, we had to try one of the “sundaes” that Little Goat had on the menu. The one that stood out the most was Choco Taco, which was a sundae inspired by a popular ice cream bar.
This.dessert.was.out.of.control. It had the perfect mix of salty and sweet (which in my mind makes for the perfect dessert) thanks to fried tortilla pieces, rich chocolate chunks and sour cream ice cream. Tommy noted that he has never seen me “take charge” of a dish the way I did this one. I probably ate about 3/4 of it and I would take nothing back! It was sooo good.
So as you can tell, I had a great experience at Little Goat. It is an affordable spot that doesn’t compromise on flavors, quality of ingredients or atmosphere. While its a lot more casual and “fun” than a lot of upscale restaurants, this is sort of why I loved it. I felt totally relaxed and like I could just enjoy the food being served to me. One of the other things I loved was the service. Our waiter was not only knowledgeable and helpful about the menu and the food, but he was attentive, funny and so nice. He made the experience better, which I think is the gold standard for service.
I will certainly be back to Little Goat for dinner and breakfast. While they serve breakfast all day along (it is a diner after all!), I wasn’t in the mood for breakfast food at 6 PM. I did see so many things that caught my eye, so I am going to make it a point to go back soon!
|February 4, 2013||Posted by jcogswell1 under Chicago Young Foodie Spots, Lunch|
Tommy was in town visiting this weekend and we enjoyed our time together to the fullest. Per usual, this meant trying out some new restaurants, enjoying some old favorites and eating a lot of delicious tasting food!
One low light of the weekend was Friday night’s dinner at a new Streeterville restaurant called Little Market Brasserie. I didn’t take a single picture while I was there because I did not think that the restaurant warranted an official review on the blog. While the food was decent (we got mushroom toast and the poutine and called it quits), the drinks were delicious (I would recommend the Burning Monk and the Little Market), nothing can make up for the absolutely terrible service that we got.
To give you the highlights – we arrived for our 8:30 reservation and ended up waiting 45 minutes to get a table. The hostess never committed to a time when we asked how long it was going to be and so we stuck around because she kept insisting “it would be soon.” When we finally were seated, we were taken to a drafty corner table that was located right near the window. While the restaurant did buy us a round of drinks to make up for the wait, the terrible service continued while we ordered and waited for our food to arrive. The waiter was completely disengaged and it took forever to get his attention. After the two appetizers, we were so fed up we had to leave.
Luckily, that was the only negative food experience of the weekend! We started fresh again on late Saturday morning with a visit to Xoco, Rick Bayless’ “quick-service café.”
The concept behind Xoco (which translates to “little sister”) is “contemporary expressions of Mexico’s most beloved street food and snacks.” Basically, you come inside and tell the hostess how many people you have in your party. If they have a table available for you, they allow you to order at the counter and the food comes out steaming hot about 10 minutes later. If they don’t have a table available right away, you hang out until one is ready.
I was particularly excited about trying out Xoco because I had heard that its soups were out of this world. And considering it was about 10 degrees out and snowing, soup seemed like the perfect option. In addition to soup, Xoco also offers tortas (sandwiches), salads, starters and pastries. Because I was “doing research for the blog,” I made sure I sampled something from every one of these categories so I could report back!
To start, we took the suggestion of the cashier and ordered Chicharrones, which are Mexican friend pork rinds.
Despite the fact that pork rinds are considered pretty pedestrian food, these chicharrones could not have been further from that. These were perfectly fried and had a crunchy, thick consistency and were smothered in a Tamazule hot sauce (I actually thought it tasted a lot like a more complex Franks hot sauce!), queso, onions and cilantro. I also sprayed mine with lots of fresh lime juice. While the first few bites of these chicharrones did not seem spicy, it was the type of heat that really caught up with you by the end. Tommy and I actually had to take a quick break between eating these and our entrees to get the senses back in our taste buds! Luckily, we also had delicious drinks – margarita for me and an amazing non-alcoholic hibiscus juice for him – to cool off with.
Next up, we ordered the Pepito Torta and the Carnitas Meal-in-a-bowl Caldos, or soup. Both of these were also per the suggestion of the cashier and were absolutely amazing. If there was a lesson in all of this, it is to trust the people who work at Xoco. Or maybe everything is this good?
The Pepito Torta was filled with braised short ribs, caramelized onion, artisan Jack, black beans and pickles jalapenos.
The sandwich was delicious on its own, but with the addition of the tomatillo sauce (which we decided, predictably, was FAR superior to mine!), it was absolutely unbelievable. It had such complex flavors and textures going on – heat from the tomatillo sauce and jalapenos, saltiness from the short rib, creaminess from the cheese. The bread (homemade I am sure) also had a ton of flavor and was the perfect mix between doughy and crunchy. All together, these flavors came together into the perfect sandwich. If you don’t think that you can have fine dining flavors on a sandwich budget, Xoco’s torta’s will prove you wrong.
As for the Carnitas soup, I am not even sure where to begin. Xoco calls their soups “meals-in-a-bowl” and I think that this is just about the perfect descriptor. They are somewhere between an entrée you might find at the best Mexican restaurant you have ever eaten at, a fresh salad full of veggies and a warm spicy bowl of soup!
This particular soup had slow-cooked pork carnitas, potato-masa dumplings, chayote, roasted serrano chili, greens, arugula and avocado. Potato-masa dumplings? Who know such an amazing creation existed. It was sort of like a cross between a gnocchi and a tortilla strip and was so good.
I think that the serrano chili in this dish was actually cooked with the broth? We didn’t find any bits of peppers, so this is what we figured. Plus the broth had incredible spiciness to it that I think was achieved by allowing the chilies to cook into it slowly over a long period of time. Overall, both “main dishes” were absolutely incredible and served as the perfect food on a cold winter day.
And because I am always working for you, I just had to try Xoco’s Churros with Chocolate Sauce.
Tommy and I were first introduced to true authentic churros with chocolate sauce when we traveled to Spain a few years back with my parents and Kate. Ever since then, I have had a hard time finding anything that lived up to those churros, but Xoco finally did it. Not only were the churros covered in the perfect amount of sugar and cinnamon, but the chocolate sauce was rich, not overly sweet, and the perfect complement.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this meal. While it is not as fancy as a traditional “sit down” restaurant, I don’t think that you sacrifice any service or flavor. All of the wait staff worked feverishly and were extremely knowledgeable and friendly. Plus, other than the other Rick Bayless restaurants in Chicago (he owns Frontera Grill and Topolobampo), you will not find better tasting or more authentic Mexican food.
|January 28, 2013||Posted by jcogswell1 under Chicago Young Foodie Spots, Dinner|
Last weekend, Sarah, Kate, Ben and I enjoyed a delicious dinner at Piccolo Sogno, an Italian restaurant located in Chicago’s River West neighborhood.
My family and I have been many times over the years, often in the summer, when we can sit outside and enjoy Piccolo Sogno’s fabulous patio. It is one of the few outdoor dining places that allows you to make reservations, so that is a big plus for a family that really likes to sit outside. We are guilty of forgetting about Piccolo Sogno in the winter mainly because the restaurant isn’t really that close to anything else and we don’t have the patio drawing us in. However, I am happy that we were able to enjoy a great meal there during a cold January night.
Piccolo Sogno has an extensive Italian wine list that features varietals from all over the country. We enjoyed a particularly interesting Pinot Grigio Ramato from the Friuli region (which is located in northeastern Italy) made by a winery called Attems.
A “Ramato” wine is one that is produced with some skin contact, which provides a slight pink hue to the color. The above wine that we drank was in contact with the skins for 12 hours which also added a nice crispness to the wine. Additionally, the wine was pleasantly fruity, but not overly dry and overall, very easy drinking.
To go with our wine, we all enjoyed a couple of appetizers as well. First up was the Insalata Di Pere.
This salad featured chianti poached pears, lots of fresh baby arugula, lemon oil and a generous portion of goat cheese. I only snagged a couple bites of this dish, but really enjoyed it. The original plan was for Sarah and me to split this salad in addition to the Griglia Mista to start, but she didn’t end up enjoying the second dish as much.
This ended up working out well for me because I absolutely adored the Griglia Mista (or mixed grilled seafood). The dish had grilled calamari, shrimp, octopus and was served alongside a lightly dressed arugula salad. I thought that the seafood was cooked to perfection and was really well seasoned, especially with the addition of some fresh squeezed lemon. Sarah found that the seafood had a heavy char taste to it that overpowered the delicateness of the fish. If you like flame broiled food, I think you will love this! If not, be forewarned!
Ben and Kate shared what was advertised as “prosciutto di Parma and melon” (perhaps they enjoyed when I made it for them so much that they wanted more?!), and what they got was really lots of prosciutto and a little bit of melon.
I don’t think either of them was complaining because they both happen to love any pork product, but if you are looking for a piece of melon for every piece of prosciutto, this isn’t quite your dish. I will say that for the $15 price tag on this appetizer, this was an extremely generous portion of prosciutto.
For our entrees, Sarah and I chose to split two dishes again. Piccolo Sogno offers half portions of all of their pastas and risottos, which I really appreciate. They generally serve large portions and I find that it works well if you split one full and one half portion between two people. This is particularly true if one of the dishes is heavy, as was one of the items we ordered: mushroom risotto with shaved black truffle.
As you can see, this dish (which was a nightly special) was fairly large for being a half portion. We figured that because of the truffle and butter and cream that is typically found in risotto, that it would be quite rich. And while it was, this was so tasty, that Sarah and I agreed we could have put down another half!
The other dish we ordered was a full size portion of the Spaghetti Neri “Fruitti Di Mare.”
Not only were there tons of mussels, clams, shrimp and calamari in this dish, which would make anyone happy, but it was also full of seafood flavor, without being “fishy.” I think this can be a hard balance to strike, but thanks to all the fresh seafood that Piccolo Sogno used, this dish definitely worked. The pasta was also perfectly cooked, and not gummy like so many fresh pasta noodles can be. Finally, I thought that Piccolo Sogno achieved the perfect amount of sauciness, whereby the noodles were coated by the sauce and not swimming in it.
Kate also opted for a pasta dish as her entrée. She got the Pappardelle con Cinghiale which was a wide flat pasta mixed with spiced wild boar ragu.
I was able to snag a bite of Kate’s pasta and found it to be really tasty. This is not a dish I would recommend for a warm summer night (although I understand that it is on the menu year round), because it was quite heavy and rich. However, on a cold winter night in Chicago, this would warm anyone right up.
Finally, Ben broke free from the pasta mold and ordered the Half Roasted Duck that came with fennel sausage and farro polenta (this dish was called Anatra Arrosto).
I think Ben (who took the above photos) did a really great job of showcasing just how crispy the skin of the duck was. I feel that if I am going to indulge in any kind of animal skin that it better be really crispy, otherwise its just not worth it. Well this was and it tasted great with the tender duck meat. Plus – farro polenta?!?! What even is that? I am not exactly sure how it is made (perhaps farro ground down into a cornmeal like consistency?), but it was so good! It had the flavor of my beloved farro, but the nice texture, plus pretty presentation, of polenta and it was a great medium to soak up all the tasty sauce!
Finally, we were also able to achieve a pretty rare feat in my family, and that is, we ordered dessert. We typically fill ourselves to the brim with savory items and can’t stomach dessert. However, on this night, we agreed to split a ricotta cheese cake that came with lots of fresh, sugar syrup soaked berries.
This was not your traditional cheesecake and was actually more like a corncake meets cheesecake hybrid which we all quite enjoyed. It had mild sweetness that complemented the tart berries quite well! If I was a talented baker, I would definitely be interested in trying to recreate this.
Overall, we had a wonderful dinner at Piccolo Sogno and I am so happy that Sarah had this place on her winter radar! Sarah, Kate, Ben and I split the meal evenly and the total came out to $70 dollars per person. I thought, while not cheap, that was very reasonable considering the four of us had: two bottles of wine, two glasses of wine, one bourbon (for Ben’s dessert!), one dessert, three appetizers, three and half entrees plus tax and tip. Plus, this restaurant isn’t your typical neighborhood Italian spot – it has a great atmosphere, an extensive wine list and delicious and unique food.
|January 15, 2013||Posted by jcogswell1 under Chicago Young Foodie Spots, Dinner|
Last weekend, my sisters and I headed out to a great Chicago neighborhood French restaurant called Mon Ami Gabi.
Mon Ami Gabi is actually part of a chain of restaurants located in Las Vegas, Oak Brook, IL, Reston VA and Bethesda, MD. And while you wouldn’t necessarily correlate chain restaurants with great neighborhood spots, Mon Ami Gabi is the definitely an exception.
The restaurant is located in a historic Chicago apartment building called the Belden- Stratford. What makes the building historic, aside from its age (it was built in the 1920s) and beautiful façade and architecture is that it is a former hotel that over the years hosted celebrities and dignitaries. The apartments that now fill the building are rumored to be filled with a ton of divorced/separated men, so it is quite the bachelor hangout.
Mon Ami Gabi has been around since the Belden-Stratford was a hotel and throughout the years has been a staple with Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood crowd. I can remember going when I was little and absolutely loving it, however, over the years, my family stopped going with as much frequency. Not because we didn’t like it anymore, but mostly because we have a French restaurant that we love right in our neighborhood and its much easier to go around the corner than it is to jump in a cab!
Despite our love for our local spot, my sister Sarah came up with the idea to go to a special dinner at an old favorite. The food and atmosphere proved to be just as good as I remembered and I will definitely make an effort in the future to put this into the restaurant rotation.
Right when we sat down at Mon Ami Gabi, I knew that I wanted to order a martini to start. Not only does Mon Ami Gabi have a pretty extensive martini menu, but the cozy and dark atmosphere on a cold Chicago night seemed to be the right occasion for one. I opted for the Gabi Martini which was a Grey Goose Martini served straight up with blue cheese stuffed olives.
The blue cheese in these olives was no ordinary blue cheese, it was a rich and creamy (and very French) Roquefort that infused the vodka ever so slightly.
For our appetizers, Kate, Sarah and I opted to split a few dishes that included Sea Scallop Gratinees, Butter Lettuce and Arugula Salad and a special soup dish that featured three of Mon Ami Gabi’s best soups (it was in honor of soup month we were told!).
Originally, we planned to order the salad, soup dish and some oysters, but the waitress quickly suggested that we change our oyster order to the Sea Scallops. We were so happy that she made the suggestion!
The scallops came three to an order and were served piping hot in the form of a gratin (aka topped with lots of melted cheese). Under all the cheese were medium sized scallops along with caramelized fennel, an onion marmalade and mussel cream. This dish was admittedly very rich, which made spitting it the perfect option. The combination of the fennel with the cheese and scallop was absolutely divine and when I go back to Mon Ami Gabi, I will certainly order these again.
The butter lettuce and arugula salad had a lot of potential, but fell a little bit short.
I loved the long, thick strips of parmesan and the “croutons” that you see in the picture were actually made of a chickpea puree and were absolutely delicious. My major gripe with this salad was that it was over dressed. Arugula and butter lettuce wilt with even a little bit extra dressing and so I felt like I missed the crunch that I usually love in a salad. With that said, the flavor of the vinaigrette combined with the peppery arugula, mild butter lettuce, sharp parmesan and mild chickpea croutons worked really well! If I order this salad next time (or if you do!), I will make sure you specify light dressing.
The last appetizer we ordered was a trio of Mon Ami Gabi soups which included a butternut squash, French onion soup and a creamless celery root soup.
The presentation of the soup was so adorable and overall we really liked it. The French onion soup was full of rich beef flavor and topped with lots of melted cheese. My only wish is that it had a bit more salt. The butternut squash soup had a complex flavor thanks to the spices as well as the addition of apple (I think?). The celery root soup was just okay. I love the flavor of celery root, but this seemed to be a watered down version of celery root. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if the soup had reduced and the flavor had intensified a bit more?
For our entrees, Sarah and I opted to go with a couple of fish dishes and Kate chose a classic French-bistro cut steak.
I ordered one of the specialty fish dishes that came highly recommended by our waitress – Salmon en Croute.
Salmon en Croute is a traditional French dish that features a salmon filet wrapped in a thick layer of puff pastry. Mon Ami Gabi’s version also had some thyme and lemon favored rice inside the puff pastry as well. It is actually not very common for me to order salmon at a restaurant because many restaurants served farmed salmon (which I do not like nearly as much as wild) and it is typically a little over cooked for my liking. If I do order it at a restaurant, I make sure to ask whether it is farmed or wild. In this case, our waitress informed us that the salmon was farmed but that it came the Bay of Fundy near Nova Scotia, which apparently has large enough salmon farms that the fish typically taste like wild salmon. I thought that the salmon I got in this dish was not quite as mild as I would have liked, but it was definitely not traditional farmed salmon. Plus, the flavorings in the dish made up for any slight issues there may have been with the fish itself!
Sarah ordered the skate wing (again upon the recommendation of the waitress), which we all absolutely love.
For those of you who don’t know skate wing, it is a firm, but mild fish that is very common in French cooking. Skate is so firm in fact that restaurants used to “punch” sea scallop shaped holes into the raw filet and serve it to guests as if it was scallops. This particular skate wing was cooked perfectly and tasted amazing in a light butter lemon sauce. The spinach and potatoes served alongside were also a nice accompaniment.
Finally, as I said above, Kate ordered steak for her meal. Specifically, Mon Ami Gabi’s Steak Roquefort that came to her medium rare and dripping with a delicious blue cheese sauce.
I was able to eat a few bites of Kate’s steak and it tasted great. Traditionally, bistro steaks are thinner cut and this was no exception. While a big, thick juicy cut of steak can be delicious, I like when it is thin because you get a better seasoning-to-meat ratio. That is, the seasoning on the outside of the steak can be tasted in every bite you eat, whereas I find myself adding salt to a thicker filet or other cut. I also should note that the French fries that were served with the steak were really unique and tasty. They were sort of a cross between a potato chip and French fries in texture and were aggressively salted (which I love!).
We were all so full after our entrees that we passed on dessert. One of the reasons for our fullness was because we ate so much of the delicious, homemade, hot-straight-from-the-oven French bread that I failed to snap a picture of. If I were you, I wouldn’t be shy about asked for an extra baguette when you are there, because it is that good!
Overall, I really enjoyed revisiting Mon Ami Gabi all these years later. I think that the quality of food and service that you get is a really good value for the reasonable prices.