Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Greek Islands

Location: 200 S Halsted
Cost: About $30 per person

My cousin Ben was in town the other week and gave me a call to meet him and a friend for dinner. You may remember Ben from my meal at Bertucci's Corner. The quick rundown is that he lives in Milwaukee but grew up around here and often comes back for business. He has an authority on some old school places throughout the city that have become somewhat hidden treasures. This time though we went with an obvious choice in Greek Town. It's a pretty tough call where to go eat when you hit the corner of Adams and Halsted considering that there are 4 or 5 restaurants serving up pretty similar food, and they all have a decent rep depending on who you ask. Well his call was Greek Islands, and after a long day at NMH I hopped on the 121 and met up with them for dinner.

Note: this spot also came heavily recommended by many of my readers. I hope those of you that suggested it are not upset with me for going without you.

Logistics
This restaurant is huge. Because Ben had to go back to Milwaukee that night, we got to dinner at 5:30 when the place was empty. We had the choice of what seemed like four different dining areas. By the time we left at 7:30 there was a moderate wait, so I'd suggest making a reservation even on the weeknights. They have free parking if you're looking to drive.

Our service was just alright, especially considering that we had what seemed like two waiters and four bus boys. It took a while to track down someone when we needed something, but on the other hand, our food came out very quickly. We all went for the family style dinner which was somewhere around $20 per person. In general though, you can get appetizers for around $6 and entrees for around $15. I can't speak to the portions on regular menu items, but I thought our deal was pretty sweet. We all left stuffed, and none of us are lightweights by any means.

The Food
We got the ball rolling with an order of Saganaki, Taramosalata, and Gyros. I've never had an order of saganaki I didn't like. The taramosalata (greek "caviar") had a salty taste with just enough fishiness. The gyros came out a little cold but had a really nice herb rub and exterior crisp. After those plates they brought out a Greek Salad which had pretty fresh veggies, but it was so heavily dressed it was hard to eat.

The Saganaki

The Taramosalata

 The Gyros Platter

The Greek Salad

For our main course they brought out Dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), Spanikopita (spinach pie), Roasted Lamb, Chicken Kebabs, and a side of potatoes and rice. I like the meat inside the dolmades, but it was topped in this egg-lemon sauce that was a little thick and off-putting. The spanikopita was flaky exteriorly with a creamy spinach interior. It's the best one I've had since going to the Marietta Diner. The lamb was tender, moist, and loaded with flavor. If it wasn't so rich, I would've inhaled it one slice at a time. The chicken kebabs were juicy and came with some nicely grilled peppers.

The Dolmades

The Spanikopita

The Chicken Kebabs

 The Roasted Lamb

For dessert they brought out this platter with Baklava, Galaktoburiko (creamy custard in phyllo dough), and Karidopita (walnut cake). I wasn't impressed by any of these. The baklava was difficult to chew through and was too flaky. The Karidopita was dry. I did like the Galaktoburiko though which was sweet, cool, and had interesting textures that you could chew through.

 The Dessert Platter
(front and center is the Galaktoburiko, the big thing in the middle is the Karidopita)

Overall
Greek Islands is great for large groups and small parties. They've got tons of space and a really large variety of options. I think the food was mostly above average, but there's definitely a mantra of extra oil and a little sloppiness that permeates most of the dishes. I'd like to go back and try out some of the fish dishes, but from what I had, I'm giving them 3 out of 5 Pearls.


Greek Islands on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Chizakaya

Location: 3056 N Lincoln
Cost: About $25 per person

When someone asks me where they should go eat I often have trouble offering up recommendations. A lot of people don't have any criteria whatsoever and just think I'll have some magic list of restaurants serving free food with no wait that makes your taste buds scream. Mostly I just say I don't know. Well this comes into play a bit with my friend Josh when we eat out together. I had plans with him and Lonnie the other weekend, and none of us really had any preferences. My usual attempt to create some sort of pseudo criteria starts by asking someone what their favorite restaurant is. The problem is that Josh and Lonnie's favorite place is P.F. Changs (and that wasn't about to make for a good post). In times like these I then revert to this laundry list of places I have and call a whole bunch to see where we might get into the easiest. Alphabetically, Chizakaya won out with this method.

Logistics
Chizakaya serves up Japanese pub food in a medium sized store front in Lakeview. When we first walked up, we thought it was closed, but really we were just some of the only patrons at the time (and the front is pretty dimly lit). They take reservations, and we had one (but it wasn't really necessary). Street parking is also pretty easy in that part of town.

Our service was pretty key because the menu was pretty unfamiliar to us. It helped that the restaurant wasn't too busy, but the waitress took plenty of time to explain things to us. The menu has plenty of Japanese words mixed in with a mini dictionary on the back page. This proved to be a pretty freaking obnoxious way of getting the item description across.

The cost was very reasonable. Small plates ranged from $3-12, and they had bowls of ramen for around $12. Each item was just enough for the three of us to split. They also have a good selection of sake (including some flight options) for moderate prices.

Note: Thankfully the place got really busy by the time our food came. I hate that weird feeling you get when you eat in an empty restaurant.

The Food
They coursed things out for us, but I'm not sure on the structure really. So, group one of our food included Black Edamame, Wild Mushrooms, and some dish that I can best describe as Octopus Fish Balls. The edamame had an interesting, almost musty flavor, that put a twist on something I'm pretty used to getting. The mushrooms all had a nice flavor and each brought a different texture to the dish. The octopus was our least favorite dish of the night. It took us a long time to figure out what it was, and when we got it, it was moving. They had some thinly sliced topping that moved in a wave-like motion because of the residual heat from the dish (we thought it was alive at first and were kind of freaked out to try it). Really though it had a mushy texture and bland flavor.

The Black Edamame

The Wild Mushrooms

 The Octopus Fish Balls

Next we got Chicken Skin and Waygu Beef Skewers, the Short Ribs, the Fried Chicken Livers, and the Unagi Donburi (eel rice bowl). The skewers were fantastic, and if we were hungrier we would've gotten more. They were $3 an order, and I suggest if you go that you get at least one or two of these per person. The short ribs came in a large bowl that could've served five. The sauce reminded me of something that might come on swedish meatballs which was delicious once I got used to it. The meat could really have used some sort of exterior crisp. The chicken livers were my favorite item of the night. They were crispy, creamy, sweet, and savory all at the same time. I love chicken livers in general, but this may be one of my favorite presentations so far. The eel was very standard with a sauce that was sweet but not overpowering.

The Fried Chicken Livers

The Chicken Skin and Waygu Beef Skewers

The Short Ribs

 The Unagi

After that we split a bowl of Chicken Ramen. The broth had a nice spiciness to it with lots of hearty chunks of pulled chicken, but I really liked the marinated egg.

 The Chicken Ramen

Finally for dessert we ordered the Honey Toast and the Mochi Balls (I can never pronounce these correctly). The Honey Toast was very interesting. It was like a piece of slightly burnt toast topped with tres leches ice cream and a rum honey sauce. I was digging it, but I don't think Lonnie cared too much for it. The mochi were sesame flavored with a chocolate sauce. Honestly, I was expecting something like what you get from the frozen section at Trader Joes (soft dough filled with ice cream). This was more like a Japanese beignet. It was alright, but the fried dough was too dense.

The Honey Toast

The Mochi

Overall
The menu is definitely a fun one at Chizakaya, that is until you have to translate every other word. I liked the skewers and the fried chicken livers a lot (basically the items that will kill you the quickest). From there the items were a spectrum of above average to slightly disturbing. Really it boils down to a good sake menu and variety of small plates you may not have seen before. I'm giving them 3 out of 5 Pearls.


Chizakaya on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 21, 2011

Hopleaf

Location: 5148 N Clark
Cost: $30 per person

I've wanted to go to Hopleaf for a really long time. Considering how many beer snobs I have for friends, you'd think this would be an easy task, but things just kept getting in the way. Finally, I was able to lock down my friends Arif and KVG to dinner plans. With empty bellies and good intentions we took the short trip north to Andersonville.

Logistics
Everything I'd read ahead of time said that Hopleaf was some logistic nightmare, but that's not how we found it. We had a 45 minute wait on a Saturday night at 8PM. This was plenty of time for us to put down a round and start on the second. If you don't know already, they have one of the best beer lists in town. There were multiple places to sit and drink while waiting for tables too (we chose the downstairs bar).

We got sat in this little upstairs area that was a little quieter than the rest of the bustling restaurant. Our server was efficient, but I thought she could've given better guidance through the menu. The cost was pretty variable. They have sandwiches around $10 and entrees from $15-25. Portions were large enough to make these low prices look even better.

The Food
We got things started with a set of their famous Mussels. The waitress sold us on the ham and navy bean version instead of the belgian style which was a huge mistake. The beans were grainy and dry, and I didn't think the ham added much of anything. The message here is to go for the classic mussels. They came with some great fries though. They were a little soggy and had a fantastic aioli sauce for dipping. Our other appetizer was the Rabbit Confit Salad which had a nice savory quality and would've been a great dish if the greens weren't so mushy.

The Rabbit Confit Salad

The Mussels with Ham and Navy Beans

 The French Fries (came with the Mussels)

For the main course KVG got the Pork Chop, Arif got the Brisket Sandwich, and I got the Duck Leg Confit. Each dish was a big hit, but I think the brisket sandwich went over the best with everyone. My duck had a really crispy skin and was served over a bed of lentils and roasted veggies. The brisket was nicely marbled throughout and was prepared on the rarer side of things. KVG really loved her pork chop, but neither Arif nor I tried it.

The Pork Chop

The Brisket Sandwich

 The Duck Leg Confit

For dessert we got the bread pudding. It was a little more substantial than any of us were expecting. By that I mean it was a little too dense for our taste, but it was a reasonable texture that others might find to be just fine. It had just the right amount of sweetness, and the cold creamy topping went well with the warm bread.

The Bread Pudding

Overall
I usually take issue with hipster locales, but I'll let this one slide. First of all, the beer selection is really expansive at Hopleaf (and it's not too pricey). The food was pretty superb, and I really want to go back and get the Belgian style mussels. You could easily get one of their many delicious sandwiches, an appetizer, and a few beers for around $30. I'm giving them 4 out of 5 Pearls.


Hopleaf on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Brown Sack

Location: 3581 W Belden
Cost: About $12 per person

It's been a long time since I'd gotten food with my buddy DWeiss. He lives out in Logan Square and usually has some excuse as to why he can't meet me for a meal (i.e. I'm getting too swole at the gym, My tummy hurts, I lost my favorite bandanna and can't leave the house without it, Raffe ate my car keys). So Jeremy and I decided we'd make the trip out to him for lunch last weekend. DWeiss loves this one sandwich place out there, so we met him at The Brown Sack.

Logistics
The Brown Sack is a little wooden shack amidst a whole bunch of residential buildings in Logan Square. They are CASH ONLY. It's one big room with a counter and a few tables. The place is decked out with more jam band posters than Scotty and the Professor's apartments combined. They had a crappy little TV showing the football games, but mostly this just added to the feel of the place. I don't think you have to worry about waiting too long here.

It's an order at the counter operation where you take a number and a seat. The cost of everything is pretty reasonable. The sandwiches were anywhere from $6-9, and milkshakes were $4. The portions were fair but not gigantic or anything. It was a shame that they were out of a few of their specials by the time we got there.

Note: they also deliver to much of the north side of the city.

The Food
DWeiss got the BLAST (bacon, lettuce, avocado, shrimp, and tomato), Jeremy got the Cajun Po-Boy, and I got the Meatball Sub. The BLAST was really something. The bread was nicely toasted, and the creaminess of the avocado balanced well with the snap of shrimp and crisp of bacon. It came with a side of Cole Slaw which was closer to a cabbage heavy waldorf salad. It was creamy and sweet, and probably one of the better slaws I've had in a while. The Po-Boy had spiced turkey and ham with a romaine slaw. It definitely packed a punch, but the spices complimented each other well. It was so good that Jeremy wouldn't shut up about it for a week. My meatball sub was pretty good. It was really really heavy on the meat which was flavorful and savory. I would've liked more sauce. The potato salad it came with was pretty bland, so I'd definitely say to get the slaw for your side. I also ordered a chocolate milk shake that was thick and delicious. It wasn't as thick as the one at Superdawg, but the texture was just right so that I couldn't chug it.

The Meatball Sub

The Potato Salad

The Cajun Po-Boy

The Cole Slaw

 The BLAST

The Chocolate Milkshake

Overall
Besides a few hiccups the meal was practically perfect. The BLAST and the Cajun Po-Boy were really strong sandwiches. The coleslaw and milkshake made for some great accompaniments. I don't think I'd keep trekking to Logan Square, but now that I know they deliver, I think this will be my go to sandwich spot. I'm giving them 4.5 out of 5 Pearls.


Brown Sack on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Chicago Q

Location: 1160 N Dearborn
Cost: About $25 per person

It may be pretty clear to you guys that there are some recurring "characters" so to speak on JEC. After reading a few of my posts, my friend Ashley realized she's related to one of them, Dr. Keith. It was quickly decided that we needed to grab a meal together and revel in the funny set of circumstances that connected us all. I sent a whole list of places we could try out that fit our criteria (location based and casual). Somehow the three of us ended up at Chicago Q.

Logistics
Chicago Q is kiddie corner to the Viagra Triangle in the Gold Coast. The whole place has a very interesting setup that looks like some nice house. There are a variety of rooms and seating options including a bar in front and two floors of dining room in the back. We made a reservation which was pretty much essential. The restaurant was super loud which made for some tough conversation.

Our server was very efficient, and our water glasses never got past the halfway mark. It was strange how quickly our food came out (like 10 minutes after ordering). The cost is a little up there if you get the ribs. Slabs of those range from $25-35. The waiter was going for the hard sale on the competition style ribs, but for $35 I think it's unreasonable. You can definitely get cheap enough options though because the sandwiches are around $12.

The Food
Each table gets a bowl of sweet and sour pickles and bbq chips. We loved these. I practically filled up on these before any of our other food came out (not that that stopped me in the least).

The Sweet and Sour Pickles

 The BBQ Chips

For the main course Ashley got the Pulled Chicken Sandwich, Dr. Keith got the Smoked Salmon Salad, and I got the St. Louis Ribs. Ashley liked her chicken, and it came with this huge side of coleslaw. The slaw was creamy and had a nice crunch. The salmon salad had roasted beets and candied walnuts. The salmon had a really nice smokey flavor which was balanced well with the sweetness of the other ingredients. Dr. Keith also ordered a side of the Kobe Brisket Baked Beans. The sauce was extra thick and the chunks of brisket were generous. I was pretty impressed with the amount of meat on my ribs. It didn't come off the bone as easily as some places like Twin Anchors, but you didn't have to gnaw too heavily either. They were moderately juicy, and the end pieces had a nice crisp (the center ribs were a bit mushy though). I got the cornbread which came out in this gigantic hunk. It was a little dry but had a nice flavor. One thought around the whole table was that the sauces were lacking. They brought out a plate of sauces including tomato based, spicy, vinegar, and mustard. Both the chicken and ribs came without too much sauce, and we didn't really find any of them that great. I guess I liked the spicy sauce the most.

The Pulled Chicken Sandwich

The Smoked Salmon Salad

The St. Louis Ribs

 The Kobe Brisket Baked Beans

Overall
Chicago Q has some pretty solid food. The table snacks and the ribs stood out to me. It's a bit overpriced, but considering the part of town, it's probably still a good deal. They have some work to do in the sauce department (and I'm one of those guys that basically drinks the sauce). I'm giving them 3.5 out of 5 Pearls.


Chicago Q on Urbanspoon

Toro

Location: 2546 N Clark
Cost: About $30 per person

We've got some neighbors back in Buffalo Grove that are very on top of the Chicago food scene to say the least. The Waitz family always has some excellent suggestions for me to try out. It seems like they're consistently a step ahead of me when it comes to trying out new places. Still, they read JEC pretty frequently (possibly to see if they've missed somewhere?). Well, of all the suggestions they had, they kept throwing out Toro Sushi. Erin's a pretty regular customer and offered to take me there to show me what it's all about.

Logistics
This place is difficult logistically. It's really tiny with seating for maybe 30 at a time. We got there at 6:30 on a Thursday and sat down immediately. If we'd shown up 20 minutes later we would've had to wait for an hour or so. They do a nice job of letting you leave your number so that they can just call your cell when the table's ready. That way you can always hit up some bar nearby while you wait if you'd like. It really seems like the wait gets out of hand on the weekends though. The key is to go early or just set aside a whole lot of time to wait.

Our service was good, and the chef even gave me a knuckle pound when we were leaving (I think that's kind of his thing). They restaurant is BYOB without any corkage fee. They have an interesting policy limiting tables to one bottle of wine or a six pack of beer. Erin was saying that's because people sit around at their table and drink too long after dining when there's a huge line. I think this policy would also do a nice job of curtailing certain roommates of mine after they've gone to a pre-dinner happy hour or two.

The cost is interesting. If you get standard sushi fare it's something like $6-8 per maki, $6 per hand roll, and $3-6 for nigiri or sashimi. They have a huge list of specialty rolls that range from $8-16 which seems like the main attraction. I guess it's a pretty average sushi cost.

The Food
We got things going with some Edamame, and the chef sent over a Miso Soup of sorts with large, crispy tofu chunks. The soup was a nice spin on a standard dish texturally. From there we ordered a bunch of specialty rolls including the Awesome Roll, the Kamikaze Roll, the Sunny Roll, and the Rock N' Roll. The Kamikaze was a nice spin on a spicy tuna roll with sunflower seeds for texture and some fattier white fish tossed in there as well. It came with what was almost a fish "slaw" topping that was really tasty. The Sunny had a mango, avocado, and salmon wrapping that contained the salmon and crab filling well. The Rock N' Roll was a glorified eel roll with some roe and avocado added in. It had a really pleasant sweetness from the unagi sauce, and the roe added an interesting saltiness to the dish. The Awesome roll was a mistake. It was a spider roll on roids. It was wrapped in cooked salmon, tuna, or egg with a dollop of blue cheese on top. The blue cheese was an interesting idea, but it really messed things up in my mouth. Once we scraped that off, the remaining pieces were pretty good. They had huge amounts of fried soft shell crab.

The Kamikaze

The Sunny

The Rock N' Roll

The Awesome

 The Crispy Tofu Miso Soup

Edamame

Overall
Toro has a cool BYOB setting and a menu stocked with crazy variations on your standard maki dishes. I absolutely loved all of the rolls we had except for the Awesome roll. It's a challenge to eat at because of the huge crowds and limited seating, but if you go at an off hour you'll be fine. I'm giving them 4 out of 5 Pearls.


Toro Sushi on Urbanspoon