Sunday, February 27, 2011

Francesca's (Nella) Pizzeria Napoletana


Location: 2423 N Clark St.
Cost: Probably around $15 per person

I know that since I'm a blogger and all it's expected of me to be at least moderately technologically savvy. For the most part though I've been able to scoot along on the shoulders of some helpful friends. My buddies Matt Mcnamara and Josh Finkle are basically the brains behind anything tricky on the site. On top of that, my friend Kate handles most advice with relation to social media (especially twitter). It's not that I don't know how to use twitter. It's a pretty full proof system. It's just that I don't always know how to do it well (using the proper symbols, fitting within the character limit, not annoying people, etc).

So far be it from me to know what the heck anyone was talking about when my friend Felicia invited me to a Tweet Up. I think the easiest way to explain it is that it's the equivalent of a facebook event but on twitter. Felicia writes the blog Pizza Lover Chicago and arranged a pizza making and tasting event at Francesca's Pizzeria Napoletana. So Ricky and I hopped in the car and went just north of Clark and Fullerton for some pizza.

The restaurant is wide open with plenty of tables and a partially open kitchen centered around a large brick oven. We were placed in the back party room but were all over the place because most of us spent at least a little time making pizza. The servers and Chef Alfredo were very hospitable, and I'd hope that on a regular evening you'd be treated just as kindly. The best part of the night was when Ricky got called on to get in the kitchen. What made it even better was that one of the fellow attendees kept calling him Prince Harry because of their striking resemblance. You be the judge.

Chef Ricky

The event was a free tasting, but if you were to normally go there, a slightly larger than personal pizza would run you right around $12. Appetizers and salads are in the ballpark of $7. It's a pretty sweet deal to split a salad and a pizza for two. They also have nice daily specials like $0.25 beers with a pizza on Mondays and salad, pizza, and dessert on Tuesday's for $19.

The Food
It was tricky tasting all of the pizzas considering that some were cooked by our party with the assistance of Chef Alfredo. I tried to only take pictures of the "officially" made ones. Most of the crusts were crispy but not like a cracker. The occasional one was a bit soggy. The most impressive thing to me was that the dough smelled amazing. I got to try the Margherita, Vesuvio, Quattro Formaggi, and the Funghi e Salsiccia. The Vesuvio was split almost into two half calzones one with mozzarella, ricotta, and salami, and the other with mushrooms, artichokes, and mozzarella. I'd never had anything like it before, but when you fold it over it made for one hell of a bite. The Margherita was heavy on the basil like it should be, and the San Marzano tomato sauce was delicious. It may have been the style, but I would've liked a bit more sauce since it was so tasty. I thought the Funghi e Salsiccia would have had more mushrooms based on the name, but looking back there wasn't really too much more room on the smaller slice I had. The Quattro Formaggi was well balanced between the four cheeses (mozzarella, gorgonzola, ementhal, and caciotta dolce) and was my clear favorite. It may be a bit oily if that's something you typically avoid, but if not then I'd go for it.

The Margherita

Funghi e Salsiccia

The Vesuvio

The Quattro Formaggi

The name says it all in that the point is Napoli style pizza. I've never been to Italy, but the people who had were swearing that it was just like what you get at all the pizza shops right when you hop off the train in Naples. The ingredients were fresh and used in proper and interesting flavor combinations. It's pretty reasonably priced, and I left with a few dishes in mind that will make me return sooner rather than later. I'm not giving it a Pearl rating because it wasn't a very traditional way to experience the restaurant, and I don't think it'd be fair. I'd like to extend a special thanks to Felicia for hosting.

Nella Pizzeria Napoletana on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Chicago's Dog House

Location: 816 W. Fullerton
Cost: $6 per person

When big tests approach, it's often tough for me to find time to get somewhere to review. Last weekend I was on somewhat of a studying "roll" when my buddy Specs called to see if he could come hang out for a little while. I suggested we grab a quick bite, and we ended up deciding that hot dogs would be a good way to go. I didn't want to go very far away, so we went over to Lincoln and Fullerton to try out Chicago's Dog House. This happened to be right down the road from the Professor's new apartment, so he joined us as well.

Chicago's Dog House is a pretty simple looking operation with a small counter, two booths, and some counter seats. At the same time that it's a simple setup, they're doing some not so simple things with the dogs. They've got a variety of funkier options like gourmet sausages and dogs with interesting toppings as well as traditional options.

The food took a tiny bit longer than it might at most hot dog operations, but this was because our food was being prepared upon ordering (mostly the frips). The dogs were around $3 or less and frips were around $2. You can get a combo with a drink for $5.50.

The Food
Specs ordered two Chicago style dogs (without tomatoes), and Cheese Frips; the Professor ordered a Mayor Daley hot dog and Frips; and I got a Chicago style dog, a German Shepherd, and Frips. The Mayor Daley was a hot dog with Irish cheddar, smokey dijon, and caramelized onions. I'd know more about the flavor but the professor wolfed it down pretty quickly. The German Shepherd had sauerkraut, grilled onions, and swiss cheese. I'm not the biggest sauerkraut fan (and it probably goes better with sausages than hot dogs), but the dog was well balanced and the onions came through with a strong and sweet flavor. The Chicago dogs had every proper topping in the right proportion and were some of the better ones I've had so far. In general all of the dogs had a nice snap to the casing as well. Now I guess the frips need some explanation. Basically they take a roto-rooter of sorts and push a potato through. You end up with a string of circular potato slices. They fry up rather inconsistently, but that was part of what made them so good. The dish came out with a combination of crispy bites and somewhat soggier ones that had more potato flavor.

The Chicago Style Dog

The Mayor Daley

The German Shepherd

The Cheese Frips

 The Professor and his Frips

Chicago's Dog House may not make the list of famous spots in the city like Weiner Circle or Gene and Jude's. It also may not get mentioned when talking about funky dog spots like Hot Doug's or Franks 'N' Dawgs. That doesn't mean that it's not a solid place. The dogs are well cooked, well topped, and reasonably priced. The frips are an interesting take too. Based on location it also basically renders America's Dog (in Lincoln Park) obsolete. I'm giving Chicago's Dog House 4 out of 5 Pearls.

Chicago's Dog House on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 21, 2011


Location: 2652 N Halsted
Cost: $16 per person

My friend Kate and I were debating about places to get a bite the other day. We were up in the air between a few Thai places, a brewpub or two, and a few middle eastern places. We finally decided on this Lebanese place in Lincoln Park, Fattoush. I'd just seen it on Check Please the week before, and it gave me a hankering.

The restaurant is pretty small, seating only about 40 at a time. There's an upstairs area with a smattering of tables, and a few pillow filled areas where you can sit around a thin tin table. We opted for one of the pillow seating options, and just so happened to get seated next to some good buddies of mine (Dicky, Matt, Scotty, and Brad). They were on their way to Park West for a concert and stopped here for dinner first. I think when we got there it was perfect timing. They take reservations, and you should probably make one for a weekend dinner.

The service was really friendly and almost a cooperative effort. The food came at a leisurely pace which was great since that's what we asked of the waiter. With all the small dishes coming our way, they did a good job of clearing empty plates and glasses too.

The food was very reasonably priced. Most appetizers were around $5, the combo entree platter (for two) was $22, and the desserts were $3. The portions were solid for the price, and it was BYOB. It should also be mentioned that most of the menu is gluten free.

The Food
We started the meal off with some Hummus and Batata Harra (spicy fried potatoes). The hummus was delicious. I really liked how it had some texture, wasn't overly creamy, and was topped with a tasty olive oil. The Batata Harra was topped with a delicious spicy garlic sauce, but I wish there was more sauce. There was one moment when we needed to clear table space and tossed the last few potatoes in with the hummus. Now, I don't know how many of you have ever dipped your french fries in a frosty, but it's basically fast food heaven. This was the Lebanese version of that.

 Brad with the Batata Harra

 The Hummus

For the entree we got the combo platter including the Kafta Kebab, Kalayeh, Shish Tawouk. It was also served with rice, lentils, and a veggie combo of onions, broccoli, and sweet potato. The Kafta Kebab had a ton of flavor. My favorite of the three was the Kalayeh which was a sliced beef stewed in a tomato sauce. It was fantastically tender. The Shish Tawouk (grilled spicy chicken) had an interesting spice profile, but I definitely preferred the beef dishes. It was a nice relief to get properly cooked veggies and potatoes instead of the overly mushy mess you might get at other restaurants. The rice and lentils were on the plainer side, but they were topped with crispy onions and raisins that combined for some nice flavor and texture.

 The Combo Platter

For dessert we got some Baklava, Rice Pudding, and Maamoul. The baklava was made with cashews and served in small cylinders rather than cubes. The rice pudding was topped with nuts and pomegranate seeds to shake things up a bit. My favorite here was the Maamoul (a date filled cookie). I'm not sure how I enjoyed a gluten free cookie this much, but I really did.

The Baklava

The Maamoul

 The Rice Pudding

Fattoush is full of bold flavors in a great atmosphere made for bringing a few bottles of wine and hanging out with friends all night long. When the bill came I was impressed with how much food we got for our money. It's also nice to eat at a place that prides itself on gluten free without feeling like you're eating chemically altered bread products all night. I'm giving Fattoush 3.5 out of 5 Pearls.

Fattoush Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Jake Melnick's Corner Tap

Location: 41 E. Superior St.
Cost: $12 per person

First of all, it's been a really long time since my last post (all time long I believe), and I'm sorry about that. I was out of town for my cousin's bar mitzvah (he did great by the way). So not only was I out of town, but my sister and I were given large amounts of leftovers which I've been trying to eat through over the past week. Well I broke the eat out drought for my buddy Dave's birthday. We had quite the med school crew assembled (Dave, Mike, Rabbi Kaufman, Mark, Joe, Steve, and P-Ty), and the plan was dinner followed by a Blackhawks victory. We decided to go to Jake Melnick's.

The seating at Jake Melnick's is an assortment of raised bar tables as well as booths. We didn't need a reservation on a Wednesday night, but it may be helpful at busier times. They've got a bunch of TVs, not a ton, but it'd still be a good place to watch a game with some solid food.

Our server was excellent. We told her that we were in a hurry to get in and out and to the game. We also asked her to split up the check among a large party. She never missed a step, and drinks stayed full the whole time.

The cost is what I've come to expect with burgers, wings, and fries for a little over $10. They had a solid deal with the burger of the month and a beer for $12. The portions are gigantic with excessive amounts of fries (in a good way).

The Food
Everyone got some sandwich or another. Mark got the Jake's Smokin' Que Burger, Dave got the Steak Sandwich, Joe got the half slab of ribs, Mike got the Pulled Pork Sandwich, Steve and Kaufman got the Country Fried Burger, P-Ty got the Turkey Burger, I went for the Buffalo Chicken Sandwich, and we split an order of Buffalo Wings for the table.

The Spicy Buffalo Wings

The Steak Sandwich

The Country Fried Burger

The Buffalo Chicken Sandwich

The Half Slab of Ribs

The Pulled Pork Sandwich

The Turkey Burger

 The Smokin' Que Burger

The Smokin' Que Burger was wrapped in bacon and topped with pulled pork, and Mark said it was the most ridiculously delicious burger. Dave liked the Steak Sandwich a lot. Joe went to town on the ribs which were plenty heavy on the sauce. Mike's had the Pulled Pork Sandwich a bunch of times, and he said it was as good as ever. Kaufman and Steve got the Country Fried Burger (chicken fried burger, on texas toast, fried egg, cheddar cheese, bacon, and sausage gravy) mostly because it had the deal with the beer for $12. It may have been a little overkill in that it literally may have taken years off of their life. It reminded me of the Horseshoe (popular dish in Springfield, IL), and looked like it could satisfy most anyone's gluttony. The Buffalo Chicken Sandwich was crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, and coated in a spicy sauce. For the most part though, they're famous for the wings, and I can see why. They're breaded like the ones at Hooters which is much harder to come by than you might think. They've got a variety of sauces, but the spicy sauce has a good kick without giving me the spicy hiccups. Everything came with fries as well. These fries were hand cut and delicious. They weren't soggy at all or over salted, and there were a ton of them. They may have just been my favorite part of the meal.

On wings alone there's a ton to say about Jake Melnick's. Throw on a variety of burgers, solid bar sandwiches, and a pretty good list of on tap beers and you've got somewhere to hang your hat. I originally wrote about Jake Melnick's in my post for CBS on Chicago's Best Chicken Joints, and I'm glad I did. I'm giving them 4 out of 5 Pearls.

Jake Melnick's Corner Tap on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Paris Club

Location:  59 W. Hubbard

Last Saturday night I was graciously granted the opportunity to attend a practice party for Lettuce Entertain You's newest restaurant to be, Paris Club. You probably remember the previous LEYE restaurant in this location (right next to Hub 51), Brasserie Joe. This was my first experience of this sort with LEYE, but basically it was a run through for the restaurant before they actually open (on February 9th). It reminded me of when Chipotle opened on Green St. in Champaign and they had a day where you could get free burritos so they could practice and train the staff, but you know... with class. I already had dinner plans with my friend Sammi, so I just called off our previous reservations and we headed into the heart of River North.

Paris Club has two large rooms, one with a bar style, and the other with a dining room appeal. They also have an upstairs lounge with a retractable roof of sorts for when this garbage weather passes by. They take reservations, and by the looks of the place, location, and flavor of the food, I suggest you make one. We were sat in one of the raised tables in the bar area.

Our service was fantastic, and we needed it. By that I mean that there was a bunch on the menu we had questions about, and our waitress answered anything we could throw at her. The menu is mostly small plate, and the food kind of comes at you as soon as it's ready.

One great thing about Paris Club is that you can basically spend as much money as you want to. The small plates were generously portioned, and they have all different types of options. Some of the dishes that you could easily share over a few drinks run from $5-8. They also have steak dishes in the upper $20 range, but what was impressive to me was that most of their main fish selections were in the $15 range which is way more than reasonable.

The Food
The first item we ordered was the Duck Roulade. The plate came with bread, spicy mustard, and miniature pickles to make yourself little bites out of. The Roulade was delicious with almost a duck salami appeal. The next dish was the Toast with Drippings. I was really hesitant about this one, thinking it'd be some gravy poured over french bread, but it ended up being one of our favorites. It was the same soft on the inside, crispy on the outside french bread that came with the roulade, but this had a crock pot of jus and almost pulled short rib inside. It was savory, and the bread soaked up the jus nicely. The last small plate we ordered was the French Onion Fondue. This was basically a cheese heavy french onion soup with the bread on the side for dipping. They'd already won me over on the bread, but this fondue was fantastic. The cheese was at perfect state between solid and melted so as not to string too much when dishing it out.

The Duck Roulade

The Drippings and Toast

 The French Onion Fondue

The first of our larger dishes that came out was the Beef Short Rib Bourguignon. It was served with pearl onions, carrots, green beans, and was covered in a reduced red wine sauce. It fell apart the second you touched it, and the horseradish sauce on the side was a nice compliment. Then we got the Black Bass Armandine. It was a little on the salty side for me, but I'm sure they'll get that kink fixed before opening. The fish was perfectly cooked and was served over a scrumptious bed of brussels sprouts. After that we got the Duck Leg Confit. As someone who loves duck, I was very impressed. The skin was crispy, and the inside was moist. Finally we got the Steak Frittes. The steak was prepared nicely with a red center and a crisp sear on the exterior. The fries were good, but the real highlight was the green oily dipping sauce that they came with. The only flaw with this dish was that it was served last, and we were already pretty full when it came.

The Beef Short Rib Bourguignon

The Black Bass Armandine

 The Duck Leg Confit

 The Steak Frittes

Paris Club has a wide variety of options. For the tentative they've got steak and mac n cheese. For the adventurous they've got a variety of pates, pigs feet, and escargot. If you want a larger dining experience you're covered, and if you want a drink and some small plates you'll be all set too. Again, I don't think it'd be fair for me to give a Pearl rating on this one (being a complimentary event and all), but I was very impressed and will definitely be back soon.

Paris Club on Urbanspoon

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Burger Bar

Location: 1578 N. Clybourn
Cost: $17 per person

When I moved to Lincoln Park over a year ago, the area that I referred to as The Crate and Barrel Triangle looked pretty different than it does today. First of all, the Filthy Libertine is now closed which means that I won't be coming home at 2 AM to any bar fights on my block. Next, Apple came to town. In one swift motion there was a new hipster magnet that also sells computers that weigh less than 3 lbs right near my place. On top of that they renovated the red line stop. Even more so this resulted in the closing of Bacci Pizza's location at the train stop. This may seem like a big hit to late night food, but ultimately there are less paper plates, pizza crusts, and piles of vomit on the street nearby. Finally, two new restaurants have opened up nearby. One of which just so happens to be cranking out some pretty tasty burgers. I'd been meaning to go for a while, but it took my friend Amanda demanding we go to finally get me out there. So last week Amanda, our friend Ashley, Schneider, and I braved the cold 2 block walk and had a feast at Burger Bar.

There are two large rooms at Burger Bar. One has lots of raised tables and a lengthy bar, while the other has a bunch of booths and low tops. Parking isn't very ideal in the area, but they do have some kind of valet service (I don't think it's free... we walked). It's also right next to the red line, so you can probably avoid driving. We didn't have a reservation and didn't need one. If you do have to wait, the bar has a decent beer selection to tide you over.

The server was a pretty cool guy with a hearty beard and a terrible towel in his back pocket. He had good suggestions and was pretty attentive. The deal of the day was pretty much any burger and a beer for $15. Otherwise you can build your own burger with a huge variety of add ons for around $9. It's a pretty standard burger price, and the portions are well worth it.

The Food
We would've gotten an appetizer, but we'd heard that the burgers were plenty of food to the point where it wasn't necessary. Ashley built her own Turkey Burger, Amanda built her own Cheeseburger, Schneider went for the Wild Bill, and I built my own burger. Ashley really seemed to like her turkey burger and chose to top it with a nice helping of banana peppers. The Wild Bill was grass fed bison burger with a tomato chutney and arugula on a pretzel roll. Schneider loved it, and it was gone in maybe 5 minutes. I topped my burger with roasted peppers, banana peppers, onion strings, and urban sauce (some mix of mayo, ketchup, and mustard). It was cooked a perfect medium rare, the sauce was nice, and of course I loved the onion strings. Schneider got the Sweet Potato fries, Amanda and Ashley got the Regular Fries, and I tried the Homemade Chips. The sweet potato fries had a pretty natural appeal and weren't doctored by any large amounts of batter or sugar. The regular fries were a bit strange. They weren't soggy or crispy or necessarily in between. I can't really place it, but they were delicious. The chips were good, but I'd get the sweet potato fries next time.

The Build Your Own Burger
(Onion Strings, Roasted Peppers, Banana Peppers, Sauteed Mushrooms, Urban Sauce)
The Build Your Own Turkey Burger
(Lettuce, Tomato, Jalapenos, Banana Peppers) 

The Build Your Own Cheesburger
(Avocado, Red Onions, and Lettuce) 

The Wild Bill

Now occasionally if someone sees me take a picture of the food they try to butter me up with a free dessert or something. This time, however, it was the irresistible charm of Jeff Schneider that led to a pair of free Pecan Brittle Milk Shakes. They were experimenting with them a bit, and we were happy to be guinea pigs. The brittle came in hefty chunks, and it was an excellent way to finish off the meal.

He will haunt your dreams!

 The Pecan Brittle Milk Shake

I feel like when I was growing up, for the most part when I got a burger it was at some restaurant with lots of options and just very good burgers. Now there's clearly a blooming trend in the city of places that exclusively do burgers. It almost makes you feel like you can't get a regular burger at any other kind of restaurant. Well Burger Bar is no exception to this trend, and accordingly they're cranking out some excellent burgers with a variety of toppings from the pure to the practically insane (not that they're putting mac n cheese waffles on anything like The Fifty/50). I'm giving Burger Bar 4 out of 5 Pearls.

Burger Bar on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Chowdah Fest

There may be a blizzard outside, but my stomach is chock full of piping hot CHOWDAH! That's right, Monday night the Columbia Yacht Club held its first annual Chowdah Fest to raise funds for the Sea Scouts Youth Sailing Program, and Kate and I went there to cover the event.

I'd never been to the Columbia Yacht Club before, but the event was literally on a docked yacht on the lake near Randolph. We took public transportation to get there, but the closest we could get was State and Randolph. That meant that we had to walk a significant amount directly eastward toward the lake. The snow hadn't necessarily started on Monday night, but it was about as cold and windy as could be. By the time we got there, we were frozen solid and ready to dig in to some chowder. The event was divided into two rooms filled with chefs serving up their different spins on chowder. There were also a few drink vendors including Goose Island and Great Lakes Brewing interspersed among the chowder booths.

The Food
I figured it'd be best to show you some of the brightest spots of the evening.

The first chowder we tried was from The Drake Hotel's Cape Cod Room. It was runner-up for fan favorite, and there were no tricks to this guy. Heavy on the clams, well spiced, and just straight up classic was the style of this chowder that had been made the same way for years at The Drake.

After that we tried the chowder of Chef Julius Russell who used a gluten free mushroom broth and replaced the traditional potatoes with chickpeas.

Then we were blown away by the fan favorite chowder from Nana. This was actually an oyster chowder that was topped with a scrumptious fried oyster and had an awesome acidic kick from some preserved lemons.

Fox and Obel was next on our tour with one of my personal favorites. It had a hearty crouton, tons of clams, and a sinfully creamy base.

After heading upstairs we went straight to the Shaw's booth. This Chicago seafood king from Lettuce Entertain You  showed up big with a silky base and a very classic chowder.

One of my most anticipated bowls of the night was that from Guiseppe Tentori, the chef at Boka, who will soon be opening GT Fish and Oyster. The highlight of this one was a prosciutto powder that was dusted over the top to give the chowder an unmatched savory appeal.

With a little room left in our stomachs we went to what ended up being my favorite chowder of the night from Dirk's Fish. The broth had a very natural appeal, feeling almost as if you were drinking juices straight from the clams. It really warmed the bones.

I don't know how anyone wouldn't love this event. When it comes around next year make sure you get out to support the Sea Scouts Youth Sailing Program. I literally ate chowder until I could eat no more. At one point we were hoping the blizzard would start during the event. That way we'd be trapped on a boat with nothing but beer, bread, chowder, and some of the most interesting culinary minds in the city. Hopefully these pictures and descriptions will help keep you warm through the storm.