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Disappointments

I have had a string of disappointing meals lately. Not horrible food or terrible service, just meals that were not as good as I had hoped or expected. I usually focus on the successful dining experiences that I am lucky enough to have. In between those, there are plenty of mundane evenings out. Quick runs through chain restaurants for an easy, on-the-go type supper, or a stop at someone’s favorite local hangout for a burger and a beer. There are also a few truly bad meals that I won’t waste the keystrokes to write about. What I am talking about here are restaurants that come with excellent recommendations and then turn out to be less than stellar.

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The most recent was last night at Tremont’s Fahrenheit. Ask me what my favorite “special occasion” restaurant in that neighborhood is and I will automatically say Fahrenheit. It has been my go-to spot for entertaining out of town guests for years. I have had some incredible dinners there. Last night, after a stop at the weather-challenged Tremont Farmers Market, Tony and I headed up the street for some Happy Hour bar snacks. The bar at this Tremont standard bearer is a narrow space to the right of the front door. It offers about a dozen seats at the bar, plus 4 hightop deuces set against the windows looking out onto the street. Arty pendant lamps cast a warm glow over the coppery tabletops. The service is friendly and thoughtful.
The menu is limited, but offers up some good values. It’s standard bar fare, including pizza, burgers, hot dogs and cocktails. We chose the Butternut Squash Pizza, the Vietnamese Chicken Springrolls and the Chicken & Waffles. The Springrolls came up first, two of them cut a sharp angle, served with a couple of Boston lettuce leaves, a sweet chile dipping sauce and a sharp cucumber salad. The filling was perfectly seasoned, the crust shatteringly crisp and the sauce and salad a nice counterpoint to the heat. My first question was, “Why only two lettuce leaves, when there were four pieces of springroll?”
Next up was the Butternut Squash Pizza. This was topped with a few leaves of spinach, some cubes of squash, a couple of crumbles of goat cheese and a thick layer of melted mozzarella. The pie was dominated by two things: the pale crust and the flabby mozzarella. The few toppings scattered across this wan looking surface could not compete with the pedestrian base. I am not one who wants the “Ultimate Supreme” pizza with 25 toppings. I am of the “less is more” school of pizza making, but the sad qualities of the basic canvas overwhelmed the otherwise delicious toppings.
Our final choice of Chicken and Waffles was well executed. We were presented with a tower of waffles, topped with three beautifully cooked chicken tenders. The whole thing was drizzled with truffle honey and presented on a platter lined with a paper printed with the Fahrenheit logo. My main quibble with this dish was that some of the edges of the waffles were burned. While each part was delicious, we decided that chicken and waffles was exactly that…fried chicken served with waffles. I also wondered why the name of the restaurant had to be presented to me again on my plate. It seemed a little too corporate for my taste.
All in all, it was a nice evening. Our bartender took good care of us; the food was hot and fresh; the portions were good sized; the price was certainly right (all of this , plus a bottle of Dortmunder Gold, came to $27). Unfortunately, there was nothing that made me perk up and say WOW! There was nothing that made me want to hurry back for Happy Hour, either.

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I was also underwhelmed by a group outing to Quince in Olmsted Falls a few weeks ago. Aside from the setting in a tooth-achingly sweet, old fashioned “railroad junction” development, the room is a triumph of minimalism. Glossy wooden tables and large windows make for a clean, uncluttered space. The placement of the bar on the second floor makes the bar service a little clunky, but keeps the dining room calmer. The service is friendly and helpful, if not completely professional. The plates and platters themselves were many and varied. Between three courses for four people, we didn’t see one piece of porcelain twice. (What a nightmare for the dishwasher!)
The menu, sadly, is overly ambitious. First off, it is quite large for such a plain setting. There are some fifteen starters, plus three more that were read off to us as specials. The entree list totaled eighteen choices, not counting the three verbal additions. Add to this the fact that any half-portion of salad can be added to any entree for just $3.50 and the eyes start to glaze over. Admittedly, my most memorable restaurant meals of all time have been in rooms where there is little or no choice (think Chez Panisse or Per Se). If have agreed to eat somewhere, I would like to think that I trust the chef enough to make choices for what I should eat that evening. A menu this large makes me doubt the ability of the kitchen to pull all of these dishes off successfully. Which things are really good, and which are just okay? What is the chef’s favorite dish…the one he is most proud of? That’s what I want to know going in.
Virtually every dish sounded good in the beginning, but then each took a turn for the worse further down the menu description. In some cases, there were unlikely pairings; mostly, it was a case of just too many things going on.
For example, an “unsprung sushi roll” of tuna and vegetables was made confusing with the inclusion of tomato, watermelon and papaya. A spinach salad was perked up with the counterpoint of sweet peaches and salty prosciutto, but the brie on top left us scratching our heads. My entree of shrimp & scallop tortellini, summer vegetable sauté and brandy lobster reduction, was a muddled mess on the plate. The “tortellini” were gigantic purses, properly seasoned but unevenly cooked. The vegetables had been overcooked to the point of mushiness, with no real texture and no distinct flavors. The brandy and lobster notes were completely lost in the mix. There were also edamame in with my saute, which seemed out of place. Many of the preparations include sort of beans or legumes, in addition to whatever the center of the plate protein is. Some other examples from the menu: Stuffed chicken, cavatelli, pesto and white beans; Orecchiette, meatballs, tomato, gorgonzola and green beans; Saffron pasta, pork bolognese, portobellos and white beans. In my opinion, this renders each of these dishes much too heavy.
My fellow diners had similar complaints about their meals. The portions were also huge. Each of us had at least one carryout container for leftovers and few of our plates were really finished. I wish the kitchen would just pull back a little and focus in on a few good, simple dishes. I am not afraid of fusion cooking or unusual combinations. I have eaten out enough in my life to understand creativity and new things. I was disappointed that Quince could not just relax and trust that simple does not mean uninviting. I have eaten this chef’s cooking before and loved it. I hope he can take a cue from the decor and lighten up in the kitchen.

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There are other examples, but I think I have made my point. It’s painful to write about these disappointments. I am a big supporter of the Cleveland restaurant scene. I try to eat out locally as much as possible. Sometimes, though, I am much more impressed by a happy hour at the Tremont Tap House, a burger at the B Spot or a sundae at the Honey Hut than I am by a complicated, overwrought dinner. Maybe it’s me or maybe it’s the restaurants I am choosing. All in all, I love eating around town. In the future, I’ll stick to writing about the meals that impress me the most.

Where have all the muses gone?

I feel I have lost touch with my inner muse.  The force that drove me here for the last five months seems to have dried up, temporarily.  I have a stack of books calling to me.  Some of them are even about writing!  The summer has been action packed with all the canning and lots of wonderful travel…and more to come.  Looming in the future is also a birthday, one of those years that ends with a zero.  The point being, I’ve had lots of distractions drawing my attention away from this outpost on the innernetz.  I don’t doubt that I’ll come back to this.  I am not going to do the lame “blogger’s apology,” either.  I still feel this is the key to the next chapter in my life.  The pleasure I garner from the hours spent writing has not diminished.  Even writing about not being able to write brings satisfaction!

There are a couple of longer-form pieces brewing on the back burner.  I add to them in bits and pieces as the time allows.  I am doing some dining that deserves written reviews…we’ll see if I get to that.  Mostly I am just trying to enjoy being busy, remembering that when the snow and ice come I will once again have time enough to tap on these keys.

The Baker’s Magic Hour

2:00 in the afternoon and she’s been on her feet for 10 hours at this point. The coffee and malformed croissant she nabbed off the tray at opening some seven hours ago are long gone, having given up their energy for the morning production. She now faces a prep list of some length. Alone in the kitchen, she pauses to eat. She mindlessly nibbles on a bowl of salad. She spares the washing of the fork by pinching the greens with her bare fingers. She stares into the empty space around her. She tears at pieces of a rough brown loaf and dips them in a small bowl of olive oil left from dressing the focaccia. She is awaiting the second (or third) wind that she’ll need to get through the remainder of the day.

“Are you sure you don’t want us to stay?” asked her coworkers an hour ago. She insisted she would be fine, that she only wanted to get a few things prepped for the morning. There was levain to feed; two cookie doughs to measure out and mix up; one more turn on the croissant dough was required; then the cleaning at the end. Good God, she thought, I’ll be here two more hours! Better get started.

With the dish man gone, she carefully reuses measuring cups and spatulas. Earlier in the day, with the whole scene humming along, people are almost reckless with their use of utensils. The parsimony of the late day is a welcome respite from that frenzy. One worker, one project at a time. There can be found, once again, the joy and the zen that brought her to these ovens in the first place.

The pull of the pile of bills waiting in the office falls away. The thought of writing next week’s schedule takes a backseat to the magic of flour and water in the bowl. There are only the few ingredients before her and the alchemy that heat and time and mixing can bring to them. The point of the business is solely the second word in the name: Bakery. All the other expectations can be set aside for now…for this magic hour in the kitchen.

Gibson’s Steakhouse, Rosemont, IL

Dinner last night at Gibson’s Steakhouse was a classic, grownup evening out. Our 7:30 pm reservation had us entering into a room packed to the rafters with diners and waiters and busboys. We wended our way through the closely spaced tables to the somewhat less crowded, enclosed porch that runs along the outside of the restaurant. Tucked into a corner, we had a great vantage point for viewing the scene without being stuck in the middle of the traffic flow. It was just the first of many lucky breaks we had in our night. The sum of these, added into the Gibson’s experience, made for a truly memorable evening.

The room has the look of an old school steakhouse, through and through. Rich, dark woods, lots of low-wattage, indirect lighting and row upon row of celebrity headshots (“Loved the steak! All my best, Don Rickles”) work to make the place feel like it’s been there forever. The fact that it actually exists in a suburban convention center hotel needs to be overcome. Once you are ensconced in your seat with a martini in front of you and a whie-coated waiter at your elbow, it’s easy to lose yourself in the fantasy.

The tables are topped with two tablecloths, an open, black-and-white plaid overlaid with traditional white. Small, shaded lamps and a shaker of Gibson’s private label Seasoned Salt stand sentinel at table’s edge. Dark wood blinds at the window added to the supper club feel. Plain white napkins and no nonsense flatware complete the scene. No flowers and no frou-frou: we are here for steak.

Our server was clearly a veteran of many years on the job. She was personable, warm and friendly while maintaining a calm, professional aspect at all times. She made us feel that we were the only table she was waiting on, or at least the only one she really cared about. She used our first interaction to not only get our drink orders, but to gauge our intentions for the evening. Were we in a hurry? Was our appointment together for business or pleasure? Were we just going to order, eat and leave, or were we in it for the long haul? She figured out right away that we planned on making a night of it, that we had no further agenda than the menus we had in front of us.

The menu offers very few surprises. The appetizers are the typical roster: oysters, shrimp or lobster cocktail, an avocado stuffed with crabmeat, chopped chicken liver and home cured salmon. There are steaks, about a dozen of them. A variety of fish entrees, crab legs and lobster tails, pork or lamb or veal chops, a whole roasted chicken and a few sandwiches round out the choices. The classic sides include the biggest twice-baked potato we’d ever seen; sauteed or creamed spinach; broccoli or asparagus with hollandaise; mashed or hash brown potatoes; and sauteed mushrooms. This is not an adventurous menu…but who comes to a steakhouse for adventure?

We ordered martinis all around and worked on a game plan for our meal. While we were working things out, our server came by with a platter of raw steaks to explain our options. She explained about the different cuts, the various sizes and which were her favorites. We discussed with her what we wanted to eat and she made recommendations to help us out. We ended up with a perfect mix of steak, seafood and sides.

After an appropriate interval, the starters arrived, Six briny fresh Delaware Bay oysters, presented in a pewter seashell, beached on a bed of ice, sang the song of the sea. A perfectly ripe avocado half came brimming with jumbo lump crabmeat. Spicy lobster cocktail contained perfectly sweet, perfectly cooked chunks of claw and tail meat resting on a thick slab of tomato. Even a simple salad of slice beefsteak tomato and Vidalia onion, topped with chunks of blue cheese, did not disappoint. We plowed right through these plates, ordered a second round of cocktails and settled in to wait for our steaks.

The beef here is USDA Prime, aged for 35 days and cooked in an infrared broiler at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. This means every cut comes out with a beautiful char crust on the outside, even when it’s ordered rare. There are no pale, wan steaks here. Three of us ordered W.R.’s Chicago cut, which translates to a bone-in ribeye. Clocking in at 19 ounces, this is one serious piece of beef. We ordered it rare, medium rare and medium and it came out cooked three distinct ways, exactly matching the descriptions our server had given us. We were thrilled with these. They were tender and packed with beefy goodness. An order of sauteed filet medallions, served with broccoli, was also a winner. Bowls of grated horseradish and creamy horseradish sauce were all we needed to complete the picture. Except for the sides!

The side dishes here almost stole the show. With the exception of a dish of peeled asparagus with hollandaise that was merely delicious, the rest of them rocked. The double baked potato easily weighed a pound and a half. It was creamy, savory and molten with cheddar. An innocuous looking bowl of creamed spinach ended up being one of our favorites of the night. The best of all was an oval dish of hash browns. These had been sauteed to a golden turn on a griddle and then baked in their porcelain vessel until they were crispy and crunchy and exploding with flavor. We fought over the last of these, wishing we had ordered two dishes.

While we were plowing through our steaks, we saw an absolutely enormous dessert sail by. We flagged down our server, who told us that this was their special chocolate cake. She also told us what we had seen was the last piece in the house. She recommended the strawberry shortcake and we asked her to set one aside for us. After finishing what we could of our entrees, we had the leftovers packed to go and sat back for a rest. The shortcake arrived soon there after. The biscuit itself was a perfect mix of textures and flavors. There were crunchy edges; a tender center that soaked up all the strawberry juices; just enough sweetness to let you know it was dessert; even a hint of salt to make it interesting. There was a massive pile of strawberries involved, too, some between the layers and the rest ladled over the top. A crown of whipped cream adorned the peak. Altogether, this was the size of an eight inch, double layer cake. Remarkably, we managed to completely decimate it.

We had spent some three hours at the table. We had gotten to know our server pretty well. Turns out she grew up just a short hop from one our fellow diners. We were completely stuffed and still had enough leftovers for steak sandwiches the next day. (They thoughtfully packed up some of that creamy horseradish with our steaks.) The jazz trio in the bar just behind us was really getting into it and this point. Were it not for a fast-approaching food coma, we would have stayed in the bar and had a nightcap. Even at 11:00 pm, the room showed no signs of slowing down.

Gibson’s is located at 5464 North River Road in Rosemont, IL. They can be reached at (847) 928-9900 or online at http://www.gibsonssteakhouse.com. Additional locations downtown on Rush Street (the original) and in Oakbrook offer a similar menu and experience, and all three are open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

Lolita’s Happy Hour

All day long I was dreaming about those brussels sprouts. The last time I ate them, it was snow and bluster and gray. The opposite today, with blue skies laden with clouds straight out of a Dutch Masters’ painting, had me thinking more of tomatoes and zucchini and peaches. At my lunchbreak, I dutifully feasted on those things, scented with fresh basil and fine olive oil. When I was released from work, I headed directly to Lolita to scratch my itch.

These crispy, salty gems have haunted me since I ate them last winter. I ate other things that day. I had a milky, light ricotta spread with perfectly grilled slices of baguette. Topped with a trickle of olive oil and a pinch of sea salt, it was simply milk, solidified. I splurged on paper thin slivers of La Quercia prosciutto, the Acorn Edition. This melt-in-your-mouth indulgence did, in fact, taste faintly of the acorns on which the pig had gorged himself before making the supreme sacrifice. (Warning to swine everywhere: If they start feeding you acorns, watch your back.) There was even sticky toffee pudding, warm and oozing and satisfying.

What I remember most from that afternoon, though, were the brussels sprouts. These babies had been fried. No boiling or steaming here! Cut into quarters, the edges had turned crispy and brown. They had been tossed with walnuts, capers, parsley and anchovy.  I was not disappointed tonight. They were just as outrageously flavorful as I remembered. These are NOT your Grandma’s brussels sprouts. They are a grownup, citified, 21st century vegetable. They are reason enough to stop in at Lolita. I also snacked on a dozen mussels, cooked off with chorizo, sliced garlic and wine, presented in a miniature cocotte. A wee basket of french rolls came alongside for sopping up all those juices. These bivalves offered the protein I needed to make a “balanced” meal, but really they were just an excuse to order the sprouts.

These items are all part of the Happy Hour menu. Available only at the bar in the early and late shoulders of the evening, the menu is small but well-tuned. In addition to the above mussels and brussels, there is a chickpea spread which has since replaced the ricotta. There is a half order of mac and cheese with rosemary and chicken, as well as the famous Lolita (Lola) Burger. This is on the menu at all of Chef Symon’s venues. It starts with a hefty beef patty and adds pickled onions, cheddar cheese, bacon and a fried egg. During Happy Hour, it’s an astonishing five dollars! (Each of the HH menu items is just five bucks.) There are cocktail specials, too, all at $2, $4, and $5. The full Lolita menu is also available at the bar, if you want to round things out with a pizza or add on a dessert. The service was friendly and low-key. My fellow barmates all seemed to be enjoying themselves, too, with our main topic of conversation being the food in front of us. My hour there certainly made me happy!

Summer’s Heat and the Changing Seasons

I was laying in the hot bed last night, trying to decide whether the heat is better or worse than the cold. Lawn mowing versus snow shoveling is one piece of it. Cars that have sat out in the weather, another. I’m not sure what the final answer is. It seems we’re always wishing for the opposite season. As they shift, from summer’s verdant greens to autumn’s dazzling golds to winter’s blazing whites to spring’s riotous rainbow of color, I hear myself say, again and again, that what I do like is the changing of the seasons. I appreciate that we live in a temperate climate where the world will always look completely different six months from now.

I believe that having to live with one kind of weather–any kind of weather–would bore me to tears. There is the sense of hope when the first snowdrops and crocus poke out their heads. There is the satisfaction that comes from harvesting fruit from the backyard. There is the breathtaking beauty of our towering maple dressed in October’s red robes. There is even some love for the first, pure snow that follows.

So, as bitterly as I may complain about the heat, what keeps me going is the knowledge that in three months there will be the first threat of frost. It will be time to replace the car’s sunshade with a snowbrush. I’ll need to put away the shorts and pull out the sweaters. And so on and so on and so on.

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