Monday, October 31, 2011

Barn & Company

Location: 950 W Wrightwood
Cost: About $25 per person

My roommate Specs loves to walk. He's always going on about how people are lazy and don't walk nearly as much as they should. For instance, our other roommate Ricky and him were going to dinner at Shine (0.8 miles away) when Ricky refused to make the oh so distant trek by foot. So the other night we were sitting around and craving some BBQ. I gave Specs a bunch of options, and he chose the one with the seemingly most enjoyable walk. That's how we ended up at Barn & Company.

Barn & Company is restaurant that teeters heavily on the bar side of things, or at least that's the feel you get when you go there. We went on a Friday night around 7 PM and were told that the wait for two would be 30 minutes. We decided to grab a seat at the bar and eat there. They have moderately good TV coverage. They take reservations, but you might need a certain sized group (we didn't try).

Our waitress/bartender was very friendly and efficient, especially considering how busy it was. It was strange though that they didn't have all of the sauces available to us at the time and that they didn't have any strong knives when the ribs came out.

The cost is alright depending on what you get. The appetizers were mostly around $7, my brisket was $11, and Specs' ribs were $20. The portions of meat weren't that huge, but they tried to make up for it by loading up each plate with a grotesque amount of fries. Also, we tried to substitute different side dishes for the fries, but they told us that wasn't an option (which is a total crap policy). So we ended up getting some other sides for $5 each on top of the other stuff.

The Food
We got things rolling with an order of Fried Pickles. For some reason Specs thought this meant potato chips with pickle flavoring, and he was blown away with what actually came out. In general there was too much fried and not enough pickle. If only they'd sliced things a little thicker the dish would've turned out much better.

 The Fried Pickles

Like I said above, for our entrees Specs got the Baby Back Ribs, and I got the Brisket. The ribs did not fall off the bone (the style I prefer), and they were extra smokey. I thought they were too dried out, and the sauce options weren't that great to make up for the dryness. The brisket was horrendous. It was so unbelievably dry, and there were even some people who saw what I ordered and made comments about what a sucker I was for getting the brisket since it's so bad. The french fries were thin cut and nothing special. We also got sides of the Baked Beans and Mac n' Cheese. The beans were well seasoned and had nice chunks of meat mixed in. The mac was creamy and really heavy on the cheese.

The Baby Back Ribs

The Baked Beans and the Mac N' Cheese

 The Brisket

There wasn't a single item that really won me over the whole night, and a bunch of things, exemplified by the brisket, were pretty darn bad. I still think this place is an upgrade over the previous tenant (Grand Central). Clearly they're going for strong smokey flavors, but it comes at a significant cost to the moisture of the meat. At least the walk was pleasant. I'm giving them 1.5 out of 5 Pearls.

Barn & Company on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 28, 2011

Chicago's Home of Chicken and Waffles

Location: 3947 S King Drive
Cost: About $15 per person

The real driving factor to this dining experience came from my buddy Ryan Katz, and here's his version of how things came to be:

A while back I was having a (possibly alcohol ridden) conversation with Jeff about this very blog, when it turned to a concept I have always found intriguing: chicken and waffles. Ever since that time I've been asking him to find a place downtown that serves this, so when he talked me into going early one Saturday morning it was one of the few things I would have gotten out of bed for.

So it was now on me to find some baller place for chicken and waffles. I had just started a month of work at Children's for ENT when Andy (one of the residents) and I got to talking about food. Interestingly, the first place he brought up was Chicago's Home of Chicken and Waffles. Sure enough, a few days later in lecture, my friend Marc Lim mentioned that he lived down the road from this great place for chicken and waffles. Sure enough, it was the same spot. With all of these glowing reviews, I had to check it out. So as Ryan was saying, we went there early one Saturday morning joined by Specs and Marc.

Chicago's Home of Chicken and Waffles is near the corner of Pershing and King which is much farther than I usually schlep for my breakfast. The setting is a bit odd. The waiters are dressed in all black, there is some dim lighting, and smooth jazz fills the background. It could easily be a cocktail lounge if it wasn't for the smell of crackling, fried chicken skin. We didn't have to wait, but as we were heading out it seemed like some people had been there for about a half hour before getting seated.

The service was too good. Our waiter brought extra everything, gave us enough independence, and wouldn't even reach over our plates to pour drinks. The cost is totally reasonable. We all had one of the many variations of  chicken and waffles that were in the $10-12 range.

The Food
The name of this place says it all. Every dish is named after some person who loved a certain variation of chicken and waffles enough that I'm sure they have significant coronary artery disease at this point. Marc and Specs got the Betty Lou (1/2 Chicken and 2 Waffles), I think Ryan got the Saint (1/4 dark Chicken and 2 Waffles), and I got the Aunt Joyce (1/4 dark chicken, waffle, grits, and 2 eggs). It was tough for me to pick a dish out of all of these choices, but since I have an Aunt Joyce, I took this to be a sign. Each bit of that chicken was juicy on the inside, but the skin is really what did me in. It was crispy, well seasoned, and dimpled nicely to give a really superb texture. The waffles were way better than they looked. By that I mean that they're not just oversized eggo waffles, and they really have a nice, soft interior. My eggs were overcooked, but the grits were done well.

The Aunt Joyce

Just some more chicken

 The Grits and Eggs

I think Ryan put it well when he said:

I don't have an extensive background on fried chicken and am normally not a big fan of breakfast food, but this combination was definitely a winner. The chicken was great and the waffle was a nice substitute for a boring old bun. I left feeling completely satisfied, and yet not too full. I can't say that I'd rush back strictly from a health standpoint, but otherwise I would highly recommend it.

I'm giving them 4 out of 5 Pearls.

Chicago's Home of Chicken & Waffles on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ann Sather

Location: 909 W Belmont
Cost: About $12 per person

Some of you may remember my post on a dinner I had at the home of Dr. Keith. Well we needed to meet last week to talk about a research project, but both of us were short on time. We realized that a quick lunch might be our only option. It just so happened that I was working at Children's, and Dr. Keith had a meeting in Lakeview. He suggested we meet in between which is how we ended up at Ann Sather.

Ann Sather is basically a one room breakfast joint on Belmont pretty close to the red line. There's a big window, and the people watching doesn't really get any better. The line for brunch can get out of hand sometimes, but there are a lot of nearby options if you can't wait it out. The lunch service on the other hand runs very quickly and without any wait.

Our server understood we were in a bit of a hurry and was very efficient. The cost is average since most meals run right around $10, but the portions are somewhat out of control. This is especially true if you get the cinnamon rolls.

The Food
Dr. Keith put it this way, "Ann Sather defines being overfed as opposed to overeating voluntarily." Maybe that's because each breakfast dish you order comes with two sides. Dr. Keith got the Biscuits and Gravy, and I had the Salmon and Dill Omelette. For sides I had the cinnamon rolls and a side of fruit. The cinnamon rolls are really what Ann Sather is known for as far as I can tell. I was blown away that the side dish came with two gigantic rolls. It came out before my omelette, and I was full after one of these guys. They were delicious with a warm and gooey center topped by a heavy helping of icing. Dr. Keith really likes the gravy at Ann Sather and was reasonably pleased with his meal. My omelette was fine. It had plenty of salmon, but it was pretty dry.

The Cinnamon Rolls

 The Salmon and Dill Omelette

People often say Ann Sather is a Chicago staple, but I'm not of that camp. Except for the cinnamon rolls, the rest of the menu is pretty average. That's not to say that the place doesn't have some value. Those rolls are really great, and it's worth your time to just get some of them and a cup of coffee. I'm giving Ann Sather 3 out of 5 Pearls.

Ann Sather Cafe on Urbanspoon

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Urban Belly

Location: 3053 N California
Cost: $17 per person

When I was growing up my favorite food in general used to be soup. I would get soup no matter where my family went or what it was like outside. Even in the middle of August when it was 90 plus degrees outside, I'd wolf down that bowl of matzo ball.

Well now it's getting slightly cold outside, and it's at least socially appropriate for me to desire a big bowl of soup. My friend Amber was downtown and wanted to meet up for dinner. After some long deliberation about potential options we ended up picking Urban Belly.

Urban Belly is one large room in Logan Square with four long communal tables. They've got a parking lot right out in front which helps since it's no cake walk to get to. It's BYOB which made any sort of wait seem to fly by. They don't take reservations, but our wait on a Saturday at 7:30 or so was only a half hour. The communal table situation allows for them to get creative with their seating.

Mostly it's a self serve order at the counter operation. You can get your own forks, knives, water, and chop sticks at a central bus boy stand of sorts. We didn't realize this for a few minutes and must've looked like jerks when we asked for place settings. So while we were waiting, there were all these open seats. We asked the hostess why we weren't being seated, and she said the kitchen needed to get caught up on takeout orders. Upon explaining that we'd rather wait and drink while seated, she let us sit down. The point here is that they were flexible.

The cost is pretty cheap, especially in consideration of the portion size. Dumplings were in the $7 range, bowls of noodles and soup were near $12, rice dishes were under $10, and sides were around $4. We basically got one of each category and had excessive amounts leftover.

The Food
The first thing we ordered was the Duck and Pho Spice dumplings. They had a delicate, crunchy wrapping, and it really tasted like duck meat soaked in pho broth. If anything the spices might have been a little strong. Next time, I'm going for the lamb and brandy dumplings (our neighbors got them, and they looked better). After that we got the specialty noodle dish which was Rice Noodles in a coconut curry broth with shrimp and scallops. The broth was sweet but had plenty of substance. There weren't a ton of shrimps or scallops, but the noodles were paper thin and delicious (not good if you reheat them for leftovers though). Then our Phat Rice came out. This was a fried rice dish that combined all of the other rice dishes into one, meaning that we got short rib, pork belly, pineapple, scallions, pea shoots, and Thai basil. This was some of the best fried rice I'd had in some time. The short rib doesn't really meld into the dish since you have to eat it off the bone, but the amount of key ingredients and overall savory quality to the rice made it a really wonderful item. Finally, for our side we ordered the Wrinkle Beans. These green beans were cooked just the right amount so as not to lose all of their crunch. They were clearly the house favorite side dish.

 The Duck and Pho Spice Dumplings

The Specialty Noodle Dish

The Wrinkle Beans

The Phat Rice

I was pleased with everything that came out at Urban Belly. My favorite thing was the Phat Rice, but that's not to say that we didn't slurp up most of that noodle dish. It was a bit of a schlep for me, but it was totally worth it. I already know what I'll order next time because so many other items looked good. I'm giving them 4 out of 5 Pearls.

Urban Belly on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cortland's Garage

Location: 1645 W Cortland
Cost: Typically around $10 per person, but they have $5 burgers on Mondays

For the past two years I've been living above a couple of foodies named Doug and Kelly (see my post on the Girl and the Goat). They recently moved, but before that they shared a bunch of wisdom on their favorite places. Almost all of them were out of my price range, but then they mentioned this burger joint just on the other side of the tracks that they love called Cortland's Garage.

Well my friend Amanda was trying to round up a dinner crew because she decided it had been far too long since we'd gotten together. We were joined by J-ho and Thiel. Now these are 3 pretty tiny girls, but they can all definitely hold their own next to a greasy burger which is why I wasn't afraid to suggest Cortland's (that was meant as a compliment by the way).

The setup is pretty standard for a sports bar. There's a narrow front room with a lengthy bar and a bunch of seating further back as things open up a bit. You won't need a reservation, and I'm pretty sure you can't make one. On Monday nights they have trivia, but it's nothing like State's trivia night, so you can get there right as it starts if you please.

Our server was so nice. She told us it was her first night just after I'd changed my order three times or so because of my chronic indecisiveness. She put up with it well though, but I felt bad. So the deal on Monday's in addition to trivia is $1 off all beers and $5 burgers. These burgers were full sized, and they didn't up charge you for every little thing either.

The Food
We all got the burger special in some form or another. Thiel had the Turkey Burger with bleu cheese, Tiller got a burger with Swiss, I don't remember what exact combo J-ho had (but I'm sure she can comment in on that), and I got a burger with Merkts. We also made sure to vary up our french fries among the regular, sweet potato, Parmesan, and truffle. Thiel said it was the best turkey burger she'd ever had. As far as the regular burgers, we noticed that they were all about one level overcooked (i.e. medium instead of medium rare). The buns were all simple, and the meat was straight up juicy. There was a lot of flavor in each one of these bad boys. I was happy they gave just the right amount of Merkts without overloading it. I thought the fries were all pretty good but clearly nothing you can't get from a frozen bag. Of the three specialties I think the sweet potato were the best.

The Build Your Own Burger with Merkts and Sweet Potato Fries

The Build Your Own Burger with Swiss and Parmesan Fries

The Build Your Own Turkey Burger with Blue Cheese

For some reason we decided to get dessert (notice I didn't blame anyone in particular). They have this one item called the Ice Cream Sandwich. It's basically a waffle sandwich filled with nutella and ice cream. It was really unpleasant. The waffle was clearly frozen since it came out still in that condition making the dish almost inedible. I was really looking forward to a warm, crispy waffle to contrast the cold ice cream and nutella, and yet my dreams were shattered by the Jimmy Dean version of dessert sandwiches.

The Ice Cream Sandwich
(looks deceivingly good doesn't it?)

The burgers carry the meal at Cortland's Garage. Unfortunately they really need to because the other things aren't all that special. The meat was really tasty and juicy, and the toppings were balanced nicely. Besides the slight overcooking and the culminating mistake things were pretty good. I'm giving them 3 out of 5 Pearls.

Cortland's Garage on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Southport Grocery and Cafe

Location: 3552 N Southport
Cost: About $13 per person

So my sister Lisa and Noam having lived in Baltimore for the past little while wanted to stay downtown the Saturday night of their visit to catch up with old friends and such. There was still some more wedding planning to be had, and my parents wanted to meet up for brunch before that all got started. We decided to hit up one of my favorite spots, Southport Grocery.

Southport Grocery is pretty small and very popular. The indoor seating probably fits 30 some people, mostly because prime real estate is being taken up by shelves of specialty goods. They have outdoor seating when it's nice out, and during our visit it was right around 60 degrees outside. We could've sat down outside right away, but of course it was too cold for my mom. Also, there was a group of particularly "sneezy" children climbing all over the tables. The wait for the five of us was about a half hour at 9:30 which is a little tougher than you'll find at a lot of brunch places.

The service was efficient and friendly. A good mark of our server's kindness was that she put up with the woman at the table next to us who had clearly finished her meal some time ago and was continuing to take up a table while reading and drinking coffee. There's a time and a place for this, but it's not at a restaurant with a line building around the corner. The cost was again on par with what you should expect for brunch. Everything was between $8 and $11. Portions weren't grotesquely large, but they got the job done sufficiently.

The Food
The first thing we went for was the Sour Cream Coffee Cake. It was a great dish to split amongst the table and get things started. It was perfectly crumbly and moist with a sweet and sour filling. The warm cake and cool filling were very complimentary.

The Sour Cream Coffee Cake

From there my dad got the Sweet and Savory French Toast, Noam got the Southern Omelette, Lisa got the Hash, and my mom and I each got the Bread Pudding Pancakes. The french toast came topped with smoked ham, swiss, and a healthy helping of syrup. The smokey ham played very nicely on top of the well textured french toast, and the cheese wasn't too heavy. The Omelette had sausage and red onion, but most importantly came with this wonderful jam-filled biscuit on the side. I thought the hash was a bit more like a scrambler because there was such a high proportion of eggs, but that's probably a good problem to have. Lastly, and most importantly, the bread pudding pancakes were amazing. I've had these before, and they are by far my favorite pancake in the city. They were so good that I broke my rule of ordering the same thing as someone else at the table. They have this unbelievably gooey center leaving you with a rather doughy sense. They're topped with a cinnamon butter and custard that bring the perfect amount of sweetness to the dish.

The Bread Pudding Pancakes

The Southern Omelette

 The Hash

I usually go savory for breakfast but not at Southport Grocery. Those pancakes and coffee cake are just so damned good. It can be a bit of a logistical challenge, but it's definitely worth it. I'm giving them a Pearl Necklace, 5 out of 5 pearls.

Southport Grocery & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Old Town Social

Location: 455 W. North Avenue
Cost: About $12 per person

My sister and Noam came in town from Baltimore for a few weeks over the high holidays. The weekend in between they spent a bunch of time downtown planning wedding stuff with my parents. It was made relatively clear that there were already enough opinions in play and that I might want to sit this planning session out. They finished everything up by mid day and wanted to meet up for lunch somewhere. The Illini game had just started, and they were in the Old Town area. I wanted to find a place with good food where we could watch the game and thought Old Town Social fit the necessary criteria.

If you've been to Old Town Social it was probably for some late night drinks and not for brunch. They put up a bunch more bar tables, and they have a handful of large booths. There are a ton of TVs which makes it a great place for watching football or premier league soccer. You don't need a reservation.

Our table had it's own big screen TV, and our service was a team effort. Everyone was very helpful. The food took a little while, but they were apologetic. My family thought it was too loud, but they were just being too curmudgeony. The cost is fair in that it seems like every brunch will run you a little north of $10 these days. The portions were huge too which made the value worthwhile.

The Food
They have a good selection of drinks, and Lisa and Noam went for Bloody Marys. They came with cured meat, cheese, stuffed pepper, and okra for a garnish. It wasn't near the one at Glenn's Diner, but it was still a solid breakfast cocktail.

 The Bloody Mary

For our meals Mom got the Grilled Cheese and Tomato Bisque, Dad got the Breakfast Platter and some Chicken Liver Mousse, Noam got the Eggs Florentine, Lisa got the Pastrami Hash, and I got the Sausage and Waffles. The chicken liver was a nice starter. It was smooth, rich, and topped with a spicy giardinera. The grilled cheese was pretty straight forward, and I thought the bisque was a luke warm. Luckily it was low on the salt which won my mom over. Both the florentine and the hash were pleasant alterations on rather common breakfast dishes. I wasn't particularly impressed with the hollandaise on the florentine or the potatoes in the hash though. The sausages on my plate were gigantic, and the waffles had bacon mixed into the batter. It was well varied texturally and excessively savory. Plus, it was the most oversized dish on the menu.

The Sausage and Waffles

The Grilled Cheese and Tomato Bisque

The Breakfast Platter

The Eggs Florentine

The Pastrami Hash

The Chicken Liver Mousse

Now I know what you're all thinking, "Jeff, Why would you go eat at Old Town Social? The only thing that place is good for is watching Schneider rock out to Party in the USA." Typically, I don't like the food that bars in my area put out for a "hangover" brunch so to speak, but Old Town Social is an exception. They serve up a quality selection of breakfast items with dishes heavy on the meat being their specialty. It's a great place to watch a game too. I'm giving them 3.5 out of 5 Pearls.

Old Town Social on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 10, 2011

Joy's Noodles and Rice

Location: 3257 N Broadway
Cost: $18 per person

I'm not all that great at keeping in touch with old friends, especially when school gets busy. Luckily, one of them usually picks up the slack and organizes some large get together. A week or so ago my friend Faith rounded up the troops. We were going to hit up some new Japanese restaurant but there was this one girl who demanded we wait for her to go, and she couldn't come this time. Still, Plotsky, Ludwig, Ockrim, the Professor, Erika, Faith, Nitz, and I needed somewhere to eat. The Professor suggested we hit up this Thai restaurant called Joy's right next to his new apartment.

Joy's is a two room BYOB place in Lakeview. They take reservations, and I suggest that you make them as the wait can get somewhat lengthy on the weekends. We made reservations for 7:30 and showed up at 7:35 to find out that they had given our table away. They were very rude to us, and we ended up waiting another twenty minutes or so for the table. I believe the industry standard is 15 minutes, and I understand we were late, but there was no reason to treat us poorly.

The server was pretty helpful and quick. The cost was what I'd expect from most Thai restaurants in the city. Almost everything was right around $9. What I didn't appreciate was how they handled the tip. We were a group of 8, and they added 20% to our bill. I expected this in some way, but it would've been more appropriate had a notice been listed on the menu or somewhere in the restaurant. On top of that, they added the tip after tax had been included, another move in poor taste.

The Food
We had a few rounds of entrees including the Spring Rolls, Chicken Satay, and Crab Rangoon. The rangoons were a bit small and overly crispy. The peanut sauce with the spring rolls was delicious. The satay was moist inside with a firm exterior texture. We wolfed these down pretty quickly.

The Spring Rolls

The Chicken Satay

 The Crab Rangoon

Between us we had the Drunken Noodles, the Pork and Broccoli, the Pad See Ew, the Pad Khee Mao, the Pad Thai, the Steamed Vegetables, and the Bamee Noodles. The portions on all of these were plenty, and most of them weren't too oily. My favorites were the Pad Khee Mao and the Drunken Noodles. They did a nice job of not overcooking the vegetables in the dishes. Plotsky was pretty pleased with his Bamee Noodles, and Nitz was a big fan of his BBQ Pork and Broccoli though I didn't try either of these. The general consensus was that the pork dishes were strong. I thought the Pad Thai and Pad See Ew were a bit bland.

The Drunken Noodles

The BBQ Pork and Broccoli

The Pad Khee Mao

The Pad See Ew

The Pad Thai

The Steamed Vegetables

The Bamee Noodles

The food was a little above average at Joy's. A BYOB Thai restaurant isn't so hard to come by in Chicago, so it's a bit hard to win me over. I didn't appreciate how we were treated or the policies they have on billing. Taking it all into consideration, I'm giving them 1.5 out of 5 Pearls.

Joy's Noodles and Rice on Urbanspoon