Monday, May 30, 2011

Jerry's Sandwiches

Location: 1938 W. Division
Cost: $15 per person

So my sister moved out to Baltimore for her residency last weekend, and a few days before she left, I came over to help her pack up some last minute things. Her place was on the corner of Damen and Division, and nearby there are a lot of great places to eat and drink (and Paradise Cantina). It was only fitting that on move out day we grab a bite to eat at the same place that we went 2 years ago on move in day, Jerry's.

Logistics
Jerry's is a pretty straightforward setup with a few rooms of seating, a bar area, and a street side patio. They are dog friendly when the patio is open which is pretty much the number one criteria for my parents since Minnie is clearly the most important family member. On the right summer day you can end up waiting a little while, but for the most part you can get in no problem. We were there on a Thursday around 7:00 and had no wait.

The service has been hit or miss with the few times I've been to Jerry's. This time around our waitress was a bit inattentive, and it took us some time to get our bill (we ended up flagging down another waiter). As far as the cost goes, it's probably on par with most "intriguing" sandwich places since the average price is slightly above $10. You get two sides with that, and it ends up being plenty of food. They also have a solid beer selection which is of pivotal importance, especially when comparing them to their neighbors who have the audacity to call themselves an "ale house." So I'd say it's slightly pricey, and with the right sandwich and a few beers you can rack up a decent tab.

The Food
I think the biggest strength in the menu is the selection of sandwiches with roast salmon. You end up with this large portion of properly cooked salmon which has then been chilled and served up with a nice balance of toppings. I would've gone this way with my order, but I didn't want to seem too similar to Lisa who got the Alice W. It had roasted salmon, avocado, cucumber, feta, and wasabi mayo on dark rye bread. The salmon came through strongly, and their wasabi mayo (definitely heavier on the mayo than wasabi) didn't overpower anything while giving a spicy kick. Lisa opted for the half sandwich and house salad which was nice in that the salad wasn't just one cucumber slice and a bunch of romaine lettuce. I went for the Charlie C which was pretty much the same sandwich as my sister's but with olive poached tuna rather than roasted salmon. Mine came on multi grain and was pretty good. I liked the salmon better and thought it held up in flavor against the other sandwich components better than the tuna. I got Mac N' Cheese and Barbecue Beans for my sides. I liked that there were multiple bean varieties and that the sauce wasn't too thick. For the mac, I was happy with the really thick and creamy cheese (which would've been a bit much as a whole dish but was good for a side).

The Charlie C with Mac N' Cheese and Barbecue Beans

The Charlie C

 The Alice W

Overall
Jerry's has a monstrous variety of both classic and creative sandwiches. I think the seafood sandwiches are their strong suit, but they prepare lots of their own meats too. I used to think they were the be all end all of sandwich shops, but there are lots of good competitors out there. The point is that pretty much anyone can find what they want at Jerry's, and it'll be done well. I'm giving them 4 out of 5 Pearls.


Jerry's Sandwiches on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Chicago Diner

Location: 3411 N Halsted
Cost: $15 per person

I've always been fascinated by people's dietary habits. That doesn't necessarily mean that I'm understanding of them, just that I'm intrigued. I have no qualms with vegans or vegetarians, but I typically despise any attempt to make mock food items (i.e. tofurkey).

Quick Interjection: I think this distrust and distaste of fake food comes from my many years of celebrating Passover. It's always a big challenge to make seemingly every day food out of kosher for passover ingredients. I've had k for p brownies, cookies, muffins, cakes, and even bread. I don't really understand why there's this need to fill certain food voids. I'd be perfectly happy eating fruit for dessert for 8 days.

For that matter, I don't see the absolute need for there to be fake meat products when people who want to be vegetarian or vegan can get protein sources elsewhere. Does it really have to look like a sausage patty or a chicken nugget I do have to say though that Morningstar Farms has this down pretty well (the taste is great, but it's my absurd set of principles that's the problem). I'm also a little bothered by vegan baking (if you can't use eggs then I don't think I want to know what chemical substitute is holding those gooey brownies together). That being said there are two creative girls in my class that are constantly trying to prove me wrong and have made some really delicious dishes (despite how mysterious the ingredients may be).

After what seemed like weeks of trying, my friend Renee (vegetarian/audiologist) finally got me to head out to one of her favorite spots in the city to change my mind on all this fake meat business. So after a busy day of boards studying we packed up our books and headed north to Lakeview to hit up The Chicago Diner.

Logistics
The diner's set up with a bunch of booths lining one wall, a small counter bar, and a bunch of tables in between. It's not too big of a place, and unfortunately they don't take reservations (it's cool though because the website clearly states "sorry dude"). We went on a Wednesday at 6:30 and got in no problem. I think a few people were waiting when we left.

The waiter was really helpful in our decisions which was really important since I was pretty unfamiliar with all of the choices. They've got a great feel for the nutritional value and source of their food too which is a plus. Almost all of his recommendations were spot on (except for the kale).

The price is alright considering it's more expensive to prepare fake meat than real meat. Most of the main items hovered around $11 with beers and shakes in the $5 range and appetizers near $7. The portions are pretty large as well. One thing to beware of is the inevitable indecisiveness that will come about from any vegetarian or vegan person you're dining with. The way Renee put it was that she's so used to only having one or two options on a regular restaurant menu that she was overwhelmed with choices (I on the other hand was just whelmed).

The Food
We got the ball rolling with an order of the Nachos. They were covered in a smooth guac, seitan chorizo, cheeze (not a misspelling, it's vegan cheese), and large jalapeno chunks. I think seitan can hold up a little flavor wise but that texturally it's not the same as meat. That being said, the chorizo got lost in the other ingredients, but the super fresh veggies came through strongly. With all of the jalapenos it was definitely one of the spicier nacho platters I've had lately.

The Nachos

Next Renee got the "Bacon Cheeseburger," and I got the "Reuben." Essentially I think seitan can be flavored any which way you want, but the texture comes out much closer to bologna. In my Reuben, that came through a bit, but otherwise the sandwich was fantastic (I'd take it over the one I had at Grahamwich for sure). The sauerkraut and dressing were properly proportioned and carried crisp flavors. Renees burger was solid throughout, and I was mostly impressed by how the "bacon" was able to hold it's flavor against the other pseudomeat and toppings. Still I think it'd be nice if it looked more like bacon and less like beggin strips. Renee got the sweet potato fries for her side which I thought were pretty standard. Per the server's suggestion, I went with the flashed greens for my side. I probably shouldn't have gotten this since I'm not the biggest kale fan, but it may be right up someone else's alley.

The Bacon Cheeseburger

 The Reuben

Finally we went for dessert. They make their own peanut butter in house for a bunch of their dishes, but that's not really Renee's cup of tea. Instead we went for the Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Milk Shake. It was amazing. Then I found out it was made without any dairy products, and I was blown away. I was always under the impression that dairy free ice cream was absolutely horrible (thanks Ken's Diner), but this shake changed my mind.

 The Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Milk Shake

Overall
Well they turned a skeptic into a believer. For vegetarians and vegans this place is a must eat. For everyone else, this place is no joke. You may not get real meat or dairy products, but the fantastic preparation carries their food. As someone who'd never had seitan before, I'm glad this is where I got to try it. I'm giving the Chicago Diner 4 out of 5 Pearls.


Chicago Diner on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Opa

Location: 950 Lakeview Parkway, Vernon Hills
Cost: Around $25 per person

A few weekends back it was Noam's birthday, and a request was made to hit up a Greek restaurant. Greek Town has a great selection of places, but we needed to stay in the suburbs to prepare for Lisa's graduation party which was also that weekend. Now I know this place wasn't recommended by Tina Fey or anything like the Athenian Room (just so so by the way), but we (Noam, Lisa, Mom, Dad, Jodi, and I) decided to go to Opa.

Logistics
Opa overlooks Little Bear Lake in Vernon Hills. They've got one gigantic dining room, a few party rooms, and a beautiful patio. It was too bad that the weather was crappy the night we went, otherwise we would've sat outside. The whole place has a very Greek feel with blue and white being the only colors and lots of big columns throughout the dining room. We had a reservation, and it would've been an issue otherwise.

The service was pretty solid. The cost was what I expected. Entrees from the high teens to the mid twenties. Appetizers and salads were around $10.

The Food
We started off with the Opa Salad, Taramosalata (a dip made of cod roe), and of course some Saganaki. The salad was a pretty traditional Greek, nothing too special. The saganaki came out on fire which was cool and all, and I can't remember a fried cheese dish I didn't like. I really liked the Taramosalata. It had the texture of baba ganoush but with a salty fish roe flavor.

The Taramosalata

The Saganaki

 The Opa Salad

For the entrees my mom got the Lamb Chops, Noam go the Dolmathes, Lisa had the Salmon, my dad got some off menu Lamb Flatbread Pizza thing, Jodi had the Chicken Kebab, and I got the Sea Bass. The lamb chops were well seasoned and cooked to a nice medium rare. The dolmathes (grape leaves) were just alright. I thought the beef inside was a little dry. The lamb flatbread pizza was a neat dish, but I didn't like how cracker thin the bread was. The meat was well prepared though, and there was plenty of it. My fish came whole, and the waiter deboned it at the table side. It was flaky and topped with a scrumptious oily dressing. The waiter warned me that he may have missed a few bones, but he ended up missing a whole bunch. After the first few bites with some bones it kind of ruined the dish for me because I was so tentative about each swallow. The common sides were green beans, rice, and sauteed veggies. They were all a little over salted, and the veggies were a bit overcooked and mushy.

The Salmon

The Lamb Chops

The Flatbread Lamb Dish

The Chicken Kebab

The Dolmathes

The Sea Bass

 The Sea Bass
(partially deboned) 

Overall
With all of the great choices in the city I don't think it's worth your time to make the trek all the way to Vernon Hills, but Opa has some solid Greek food. If you're looking for some al fresco dining then this is your place. There were a few road bumps, but some real classics rang through. I'm giving Opa 3 out of 5 Pearls.


Opa Estiatorio on Urbanspoon

Saturday, May 21, 2011

R.J. Grunts

Location: 2056 N Lincoln Park Avenue West
Cost: Normally around $15 per person

A salad bar can be an enticing thing. My roommate Ricky will go somewhere just because the salad bar has good cottage cheese. My good friend Bobby lived off of the salad bar at I.T. for the entirety of undergrad. Well for the last 39 years and 11 months in Lincoln Park, the place with the salad bar (in addition to some excellent burgers, shakes, and fries) has been R.J. Grunts.

I've been to a ton of Lettuce Entertain You restaurants on JEC (mostly due to the excessive amount of gift cards my parents seem to have on them at all times). My favorites so far have been L. Woods, Joe's, and Cafe Ba Ba Reeba (and my least favorite was M Burger). Well for their 40th anniversary, Lettuce Entertain You and their recent James Beard Award winning founder Rich Melman are celebrating with a whole series of deals in the month of June at their first restaurant, R.J. Grunts. They contacted me to give Grunts a try in honor of the anniversary (accordingly there will be no Pearl rating at the end of this post). So last Friday night, the Ericas and Schneider joined me for dinner.

Logistics
R.J. Grunts opened in 1971, and things still look much like they probably did back then. The walls are lined with pictures of women from the 70's (mostly less burly versions of Donna), and there's no shortage of Jim Croce music. The restaurant has a bar area and a contorted dining room of sorts. They keep it pretty dim which tones down the general busy feel of the place, but it also made me look like an idiot when I started taking pics of the food.They take reservations, and sometimes the line gets a little long (nothing awful, but I'd make a reso if you know ahead of time). They're also open till 2 am now if you've got some late night hunger. I think the slogan is something like, "Do you Grunt in the night?" and I'm not sure how to feel about that (but it's probably a solid way to coat an alcohol ridden stomach or just fill a general late night craving).

It was a mild 65 degrees out that day which may seem inconsequential to you all, but based on their deal at Grunts, that's how they determine the price of the soup ($0.65 per bowl). The appetizers are in the $5-8 range. The salad bar is definitely a big draw and is unlimited for $10.95. Most burgers and sandwiches go for around $9. Portions are large, and it's safe to say that we all left feeling uncomfortably full (but you know... in a good way).

The Food
We started things off with an order of the Nachos Nirvana. It was a pretty standard loaded nacho dish and was on the sloppier side of things (that's how it should be). If anything though we ran out of chips before toppings. In retrospect I would've gotten the Buffalo Chicken Nachos.

 The Nachos Nirvana

For the main course Schneider got the Turkey Burger, the Professor got the Gruntburger, Erika Schmidt had the Buffalo Wrap, and I had the Buffalo Chicken Sandwich. Now although this wasn't the Ron Swanson Turkey Burger, Schneider still fell in love. The key here was the sun dried tomato mixed into the turkey meat. The Professor was a big fan of his burger commenting that this was one of his best onion string topped burgers he's ever had. I think Erika was a bit overwhelmed by the buffalo sauce on her wrap, but I didn't share the feeling. My sandwich was soaked in this spicy, buttery deliciousness. For our sides, we all either got Sweet Potato Fries or Cottage Fries. They went for extra crispiness with their Sweet Potato Fries which I thought was a nice change of pace from the "meatier" fries I'd been getting lately.

The Buffalo Chicken Sandwich and Cottage Fries

The Turkey Burger and Sweet Potato Fries

The Gruntburger

The Buffalo Wrap

For dessert we had the Hot Chocolate Chip Cookie with Ice Cream. It's pretty similar to the one they serve at Lou Malnati's, but I think R.J. Grunts gets the win. The cookie was hot, slightly gooey, and big enough for all of us to share.

 The Cookie

I know I made a big deal out of the salad bar and none of us got it. To me most salad bars are the same unless you're at an Argentinian steak house where they're trying to get you to fill up on the non-meat items. The big deal with this one is that it was one of the first in Chicago.

Overall
There's clearly a reason that Grunts has been around for almost 40 years now. I'm a big fan of the 70's music, but it's clearly all about solid sandwiches, burgers, fries, shakes, and one killer cookie dish. Like I said before, there will be no Pearl rating, but it's absolutely worth your time to try it out.

R.J. Grunts on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

5411 Empanadas

Location: Check twitter or their website for new locations daily (this time was in Streeterville).
Cost: Depends how much you want ($2.50 per empanada)

So my friend J-hop has become pretty obsessed with food trucks. She sits a few chairs down from me in lecture and is on twitter a decent amount. Occasionally she leans over and tells me that some truck or other is going to be on campus and that we have to go. I should mention that Maddie sits between us. You'd think she'd be distracted by such conversations, but I guess after sitting next to me she gets used to it. Anyways, I gave J-hop my typical excited yet noncommittal response and went back to paying attention.

So after class I went to the library to study a bit and just so happened to sit at a table near J-hop and our friend Katie. I was getting pretty burned out trying to study right after four hours of lecture, and I ended up goofing around on my computer. Sure enough I got a tweet saying that there were a few empanadas left on the corner of Fairbanks and Superior. That was all we needed. So we packed up our stuff and hustled out of the library for a quick snack from 5411 Empanadas.

Logistics
It's a pretty simple setup that many of you are probably used to now with this food truck thing in full swing. They tweet their location or put up a basic schedule on their website. You follow closely and then drop whatever you're doing to jock for a good spot in line. It's not legal to cook in any of these food trucks yet, so there's always a moderate risk that food will run out. Chalkboard menus have thus become commonplace.

When we got there it was toward the end of the trucks stay (like 12:45). They were out of a bunch of options, but that's to be expected at the time we went. On the other hand, there wasn't a line and we got our scrumptious treats in a matter of seconds.

An empanada is $2.50. I think drinks were $1. It's pretty cheap, but you'd have to get at least 3 empanadas to resemble a meal (at least for me). They charge tax which I think is a little strange at a truck. I feel like even change would be a nice touch for quick exchanges, but that's not how they chose to go.

The Food
So we had limited options (our fault, not theirs), but I tried what I could. I ended up getting a Sweet Corn Empanada and a Caramelized Onion with Parmesan Cheese Empanada. The sweet corn one was a bit plain tasting, but the filling was bursting out the sides. The corn gave a nice textural variety and wasn't overly mushy. The caramelized onion empanada was way better in my opinion. It was on the sweeter side of things with a little savory kick from the cheese. As far as the pastry was concerned, J-hop, Katie, and I were definitely expecting a crispier exterior. This might be from them sitting around in a warmer for a while since they can't cook on sight, but I can't say for sure. Either way, there was enough substance to the dough to counter the creamy fillings.

The Caramelized Onion Empanada

J-hop, Katie, and our Empanadas

Overall
I think how you judge 5411 Empanadas depends a lot on what you expect. I wanted a solid early afternoon snack, and that's what I got. Sweet and savory flavors rang through these bad boys. If I'd gone expecting lunch, I think I would have been left wanting more. It's a quick option for something you don't see every day, and they may just pull up to your street corner in the near future. I'm giving them 3 out of 5 Pearls.

5411: Gourmet Empanadas on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 15, 2011

John's Place

Location: 1200 W. Webster
Cost: Around $10 per person

When I used to wait tables at Egg Harbor back in the day, I got plenty of experience serving Mother's Day brunch. I developed a kind of fear for Mother's Day because I'd always end up serving large parties with tons of little kids. I'm still not that keen on fighting large crowds with my own family in order to get brunch on that special day. Well to make matters worse Tali and Schneider convinced me to stay out late the night before. Either way, the point is that I wasn't too keen on getting up early for this meal.

Our family members from out of town were on their way home, but Mom and Dad were still hanging out in the city. I picked them up, and we met up with Lisa and Noam at John's Place.

Logistics
John's Place is right down the road from my apartment at the corner of Webster and Racine. It's an ideal brunch spot in that if the line is too long, you can go two stores over and grab something at Sweet Mandy B's or Floriole. I'm not saying that you'll face a long line, but if you do, there are good backup plans. We got there around 9:45 AM and got seated immediately (I'd say we beat the crowds I was so fearful of). The restaurant has 2 medium sized rooms with a bar, but we ended up at one of the few patio tables. It was a little chilly but still nice to be outside (until this one angry soccer mom laid on her horn at a biker right as she passed by our table).

The service was pretty good although they could've done a better job refilling water and coffee. The price is similar to most other brunch places throughout the city with items in the $8-10 range.

The Food
Our order was pretty straight forward. Lisa got the Smoked Salmon Scramble, Noam got the Oliver's Scramble, mom got the Challah French Toast, dad got the Chilequiles with Chorizo, and I got the Breakfast Burrito. The portions were universally large, and everyone's eggs were light and fluffy. The French Toast was an excessive portion with a nice light cinnamon flavoring, but I would've liked more textural variety. The Chilequiles was like having breakfast nachos. The tomatilla salsa gave the dish a nice acidity while the chicken chorizo added a spicy kick. I was a fan of my burrito. It was pretty standard with the addition of some roasted poblano peppers. It could've used some more spiciness, but this gave me the chance to quote Stacey King. I thought the potatoes were a bit underdone, but then again I always seem to think that. I also thought it was odd to serve bread with a breakfast burrito, but I'm not one to complain about extra food. On a final food note, I went here with Carrie over a year ago, and she was a huge fan of the Pumpkin Pancakes.

The Oliver's Scramble

The Challah French Toast

The Smoked Salmon Scramble

The Chilequiles with Chicken Chorizo

The Breakfast Burrito

Now I know that brunch doesn't usually come with dessert, but my sister and Noam ran over to Sweet Mandy B's and got us some of their cupcakes to make things a bit more special for Mother's Day. They were delicious, rich, and heavily frosted. My favorite was the Snickerdoodle.
Some Baller Cupcakes

Overall
With a Southwestern add on to a pretty standard brunch menu, John's Place provides a variety of solid options. Nothing really blew me away, but most everything was well prepared. We beat the crowds, and the outdoor seating was pleasant. I'm giving John's Place 3.5 out of 5 Pearls.


John's Place on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 13, 2011

Benny's Chop House

Location: 444 N Wabash Ave.
Cost: Around $70 per person

As I mentioned in my post on Markethouse, Lisa graduated from medical school. A bunch of family came in from out of town to celebrate, and Saturday night the whole gang went out to dinner. They were all staying in the Double Tree in Streeterville, and we wanted to pick somewhere nearby. After some deliberation we ended up at Benny's Chop House.

Logistics
Benny's is an elegant restaurant split into a bar and variety of dining rooms. It's just off the Magnificent Mile, and our table had a nice view. Although the restaurant was busy, our table was off to the side in an ideal location. We felt like we were out of the hustle of the restaurant, but we were still in earshot of the jazz pianist playing in the bar. I'd definitely suggest making a reservation, especially if you have a large group like we did.

From start to finish the service was impeccable. They printed a menu with a nice big "congratulations Lisa" on the top. Multiple members from the staff in addition to our waiter made sure we had everything we needed throughout the meal. Also, my Aunt and Uncle (the wine connoisseurs) were thoroughly entertained by the two sommeliers. They were able to find a selection of rare European wines amongst the expansive selection of quality choices.

The cost is on par with the other high end steakhouses in Chicago. Appetizers in the low teens, fish in the $25 range, and most steaks from $35-50. Sides were all around $5, and desserts were close to $9.

The Food
We started things off with three salads: the Caesar, the Chopped, and the Burrata. The Caesar was lightly dressed with a huge slice of parmesan across the top. The Chopped salad was pretty standard with a sweet dressing. The Burrata was really something interesting. Basically it's a mozzarella like cheese that's thicker on the outside and a bit runny on the inside. It came with roasted peppers and some tomatoes in a balsamic dressing.

The Caesar Salad

The Chopped Salad

 The Burrata Salad

For the main course, many of us went with the recommended item in the Dry Aged, Bone-In, 16 oz New York Strip Steak. My (not so little) little cousin Nathan got a Steak Trio, my cousin Annie got the Broiled Jumbo Whitefish, my aunt got the Salmon Special, my uncle got the Beef Tenderloin, Lisa got the Halibut Special, and my mom got an order of the Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail (mostly with intentions of trying other people's food). The steak was perfectly medium rare with a warm pink center. It had a somewhat "cheesy" taste that I expected with the dry aging. It was juicy, savory, and the best steak I've had in a while. Everyone that ordered it seemed happy as could be, and we all contemplated picking up the bone to gnaw (some of us, who shall remain nameless, went down this road). Nathan devoured his steak in a convincing fashion. Lisa really enjoyed the halibut, but the other two fish dishes were a bit overcooked and dry. My uncle, who has been known to voice his opinion about unappetizing food, had nothing but smiles after polishing off his beef tenderloin.

The Bone In New York Strip Steak

The Steak Trio

The Broiled Jumbo Whitefish

The Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail

The Halibut Special

The Beef Tenderloin

 The Salmon Special

Along with our mains we got a whole slew of sides including the sweet potatoes, the truffle mashed potatoes, the seasoned mushrooms, creamed spinach, and the blue cheese croquettes. The sweet potatoes were simple, properly prepared, and lightly topped with a syrup of sorts. The truffle mashed potatoes had a pungent aroma and delivered on flavor as well. I don't know if I've come across a steakhouse creamed spinach or mushroom order that I didn't like, and this spinach was unique with a hard boiled egg in the center. I think the crowd favorite was the order of blue cheese croquettes, although the cheese was a bit strong for some.

The Seasoned Mushrooms

 The Truffle Mashed Potatoes

Finally for dessert they brought out a gigantic piece of Chocolate Cake for Dr. Pearl. Since that wasn't enough, we also ordered the Key Lime Pie, the House Made Ice Cream, the House Made Sorbet, and the S'more Cheesecake. Also my cousin Daniel got another piece of Cake for his main course (he's quite the trickster). My favorite of these was the Key Lime Pie. The graham cracker crust had the perfect consistency that held on my fork but fell apart immediately when it hit my tongue.

Dr. Lisa Pearl and her Chocolate Cake

The Key Lime Pie

The Home Made Ice Cream

The S'more Cheesecake

 The Home Made Sorbet

Overall
Chicago is seemingly inundated with quality steakhouses. It becomes important to go with whatever steak they say is their signature. At Benny's they go with the Dry Aged, Bone In, NY Strip, and it delivered big time. Salads, side dishes, and desserts were spot on throughout the meal, especially the Burrata, Croquettes, and Key Lime Pie. The fish had some issues, and although you can say people should order steak at a steakhouse, if it's on the menu it says something about the restaurant. Ultimately it was a classy, high quality experience that was neither gimmicky nor over the top like many steakhouses can be. I'm giving Benny's Chop House 4 out of 5 Pearls.


Benny's Chop House on Urbanspoon