Monday, January 30, 2012

Mad River

Location: 2909 N Sheffield
Cost: Probably around $15 per person, but this was a free tasting.

A friend of mine contacted me because she does PR for a bar called Mad River. I'm usually pretty keen on hitting up restaurants that offer me free tastings of their new menu items, but at first I wasn't all that excited about this one. If you know Mad River you probably think of it as the jam packed DePaul bar with the upstairs that's way too hot. That being said, I didn't realize they even served food and doubted they had anything strong to offer. Then she told me how they revamped their kitchen about six months ago, doing things like pickling veggies in house and switching to grass fed beef. So I figured it was worth a try.

Mad River has a strong sports bar setup. They've got plenty of TV coverage and a lot of seating. You probably won't have to wait too long for a table, and bringing large groups should usually go smoothly. They're a Phillies and a Michigan State bar, but otherwise I don't see any major logistical flaws.

We sat in one of the large booths across from the bar. Our service was spot on throughout the meal although that's probably a little biased in this case. Although the meal was comped, in general the prices are very reasonable. Most appetizers are in the $6-10 range and the entrees all float around $10. Everything is huge too.

The Food
We started things off with three appetizers including the Bavarian Pretzel, the Crab Cakes, and the Jumbo Shrimp. The homemade pretzel was pretty standard, but the grainy mustard that they made from seed was the star of the dish. The crab cakes were lumpy and came over a caper remoulade with a rather peppery arugula salad. The shrimps were served over some toast points with some strong garlic and cilantro flavors.

The Bavarian Pretzel

The Crab Cakes

 The Jumbo Shrimp

Then they brought out three of their burgers. First there was the Irish Cheddar and Chips Burger. This guy was served on an asiago bun and was topped with thick slices of bacon, potato straws, drunken onions (soaked in Edmund Fitzgerald Porter), and Irish cheddar. Then we had the Thai Chicken Burger which was topped with pineapple chutney and some home pickled veggies. Finally, there was the Lamb Burger which was topped with goat cheese and a pistachio olive relish. It had a really strong Greek flavor, and was very texturally balanced with the smooth cheese and crunchy pistachios. They also gave us a huge basket of Truffle Fries with these burgers. The best part of those was the side of aioli sauce for dipping.

The Irish Cheddar and Chips Burger @ 9:00
The Thai Chicken Burger @ 12:00
The Lamb Burger @ 3:00 

 The Truffle Fries

Since we weren't full enough at that point, they brought out some other popular dishes including the Mac n' Cheese, the Korean Tacos, and the Wild Mushroom Pizza Bread. The mac had a crispy parmesan crust and was definitely on the creamier side. The wagyu beef on the tacos was nice and savory, and I was impressed that the kimchi for the tacos was made in house. The pizza bread was much sweeter than I expected (which had something to do with the way the mushrooms were pickled), but in a good way by balancing the smoked gouda and goat cheese.

The Korean Tacos

The Mushroom Pizza Bread

 The Mac n' Cheese

I didn't expect much, but I was really impressed with the meal at Mad River. The amount of effort that went into each dish was probably my biggest surprise. If I had to pick three favorite items they'd be the Crab Cakes, the Lamb Burger, and the Mac n Cheese. Because the meal was comped, there won't be a Pearl rating, but if you say "Jeff Eats Chicago" when you go in, they'll knock $5 off your bill.
Mad River Bar & Grille on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 27, 2012

Cafe Con Leche

Location: 2714 N Milwaukee
Cost: About $9 per person

When a place is named after a food item, they better do a great job with whatever that item is. Chicago's Home of Chicken and Waffles, Bakin & Eggs, and Tamales are all perfect examples of this. Well when I went to Cafe Con Leche and ordered a cafe con leche, I was informed they were out because the steamed milk machine was broken. Imagine going to Soupbox and them being out of soup. Either way, that's how New Years Day brunch with Josh and Lonnie started.

They've got two locations, and we hit up the one in Logan Square. The entrance is through a small order at the counter cafe like setup, and they have a larger room in the back with plenty of seating and a bar. In a typical fashion, there wasn't really anywhere to stand while we waited 40 minutes or so for our table.

The service was sub par throughout the meal. We waited at our table for a good ten minutes before being approached by a waiter. Also, when we finished our meal we waited another good twenty minutes without being offered a check. It wouldn't have been such an issue, but for a place with a lengthy line of hungry customers they sure weren't providing efficient service. The cost was just a bit cheaper than most brunch places out there. Most entrees were in the $7 range. They've got a wide variety of menu items for both breakfast and lunch, and the portion sizes are more than reasonable.

The Food
We were going to get a few of the different coffee drinks, but as I mentioned above, they were heartbreakingly unavailable. Instead we went straight to our food. Lonnie got a straightforward Cheese Omelet, Josh ordered the Hobo Skillet, and I had the Breakfast Burrito. All of our food was very simple. The omelet was fluffy with a hearty amount of cheese. The hobo skillet was a little greasy but each ingredient had a textural crisp without being overcooked. The burrito was creamy and had regular burrito ingredients like rice and beans in addition to the breakfast alterations. Sometimes places put a tortilla around some scrambled eggs, avocados, and sour cream and call it a breakfast burrito, but this is how I'd prefer it be done. The tortilla was toasted nicely as well. The potatoes were not impressive. I asked for mine well done and they were still plenty soft. There was a nice spice rub on them though.

The Cheese Omelet

The Hobo Skillet

 The Breakfast Burrito

Simple ingredients properly prepared was the theme to our brunch at Cafe Con Leche. It was nice to get Mexican breakfast food from a place with more options than huevos rancheros. Still, I can't look past our poor service and my biggest pet peeve, crummy potatoes. I'm giving them 2 out of 5 Pearls.

Cafe Con Leche on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Union Sushi

Location: 230 W Erie
Cost: $25 per person

Some places float around my radar for a long time, especially if they're new and trendy. You've probably noticed from reading enough of my posts that I tend toward more convenient and reasonably priced locations. That being said, I don't usually run to stand still at the newest spot in town. I usually wait for some hype to die down and a trustworthy friend to recommend a spot. Well the other week, my friend Amber was in town shopping with a buddy of hers. She invited Noam and I to join them at a place I consider to fit the previously stated description, Union Sushi.

Union Sushi has a setup that I think caters more to decoration than to function. They've got this moderately sized pillar in the middle of the dining room that breaks things up a bit. We ended up sitting at the sushi bar which was cool in that we could see everything being made, but it didn't really work for our party of four. It kind of reminded me of that Seinfeld episode where other people are already sitting in their booth. You can make reservations, and I'd suggest doing so on the weekends.

One of the big draws to Union Sushi is the Robata Grill at the end of the sushi bar. I was pretty impressed that it cooked things so quickly and at such a high temperature. Mostly though, it was neat how the surrounding glass pane allowed for viewing without letting the heat spread throughout the restaurant.

Our service was quick and efficient, but like I said we were at the sushi bar. All they had to do was pass the food over the counter. The cost was reasonable for some things like the sushi rolls for $8, some of the BBQ items for $4 or so, and the happy hour specials (half off some rolls and appetizers). Still, some things were a bit of a rip with most rolls around $15 and some pricier BBQ items that weren't really very sizable.

The Food
We sat down with 20 minutes or so left in happy hour, so we went right for the specials while they lasted. We got a Shrimp Tempura Roll and some Oysters. The roll was nicely done with an interesting fried exterior of the roll in addition to the shrimp. We got both an east coast and west coast oyster with different sauces and flavorings. In general I'm a bit of an oyster purist, but these were a very refreshing appetizer.

The Oysters

 The Shrimp Tempura Roll

Next we got a bunch of things from the grill including the Beef Filet, the Tongue, the Alligator, and the Whole Squid. The best items were definitely the tongue and the alligator. They were both a bit chewy with a nice crisp from the grill. We also got the special which was a whole Quail over a bed of edamame. It was a little plain for what I expected after seeing some of the other grill items. Some of our edamame were on the grainier side which didn't help too much. I still thought it was a good item once I got over the fact that quail may not have enough meat to make the bones worthwhile.

The Beef Tongue (left) and Alligator (right)

The Beef Filet

The Whole Roasted Quail

The Squid

Then we got some bigger noodle dishes. The Duck Fat Yaki Soba was a nice noodle dish that was plenty rich but was missing salt. The Panko Fried Beef Cheek Curry Udon had some tasty and soft noodles, but the meat and broth weren't anything too special. Specifically, the broth was very thick and a little bland.

The Duck Fat Yaki Soba

 The Panko Fried Beef Cheek Curry Udon

We also got some rolls. My favorite was the Salmon Skin Roll. It had a wonderful crisp which was well complimented by the eel sauce on top. The other rolls we got were the Spicy Tuna Roll with Black Rice, and the Old City Market Roll. I wasn't as wowed by the black rice as my dining fellows, but the tuna was spot on. The Old City Market roll was a combo of tuna, seared salmon, ponzu, and okra. I don't know if the individual items stood out well from one another, but it was a rather flavorful bite.

The Old City Market Roll

The Crispy Salmon Skin Roll

 The Spicy Tuna Roll

I thought the best thing about Union Sushi was how interesting it was. They're for sure not the kind of place with a Dragon roll as the most interesting specialty option. The grill gives a nice mix of small tasting options, and they have somethings you probably haven't tried before in a very approachable preparation. Most of our dishes were well balanced texturally, and a few exceptions were a little bland. I'm giving them 3.5 out of 5 Pearls.

Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar on Urbanspoon
Thanks again to Amber for providing the pictures.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Wholly Frijoles

Location: 3908 W Touhy Ave, Lincolnwood
Cost: About $10 per person

Sometimes there's a perfect storm of circumstances that makes for a great meal. My friend's Sophia and Amy had independently mentioned they wanted to grab lunch, Ali was in town from Denver, Nicki was in town from New Orleans, and Noam was in town from Baltimore. The one thing they all had in common was that they lived in or around Lincolnwood. Per Sophia's recommendation and everyone's enthusiastic response to the suggestion, we all hit up Wholly Frijoles for lunch.

Wholly Frijoles has a pretty straightforward layout in a strip mall style setup. They have very limited parking, but we found something on one of the surrounding streets. They sat us at a rather oversized and yet cramped table in the back (cramped because some of us were jammed against the wall). We were sat immediately for lunch, but I've heard that for dinner this place gets packed. I'm not sure whether or not they take dinner reservations.

The waitress was a bit slow throughout our meal, and the food took longer than it probably should have. I think she was given a few too many tables to cover. They did, however, keep the chips and salsa full the whole time. The cost was rather cheap for the quality and quantity of food it came with. They had quick and easy options like burrito platters for $7, and they had more elegant items like steak and fish in the $15 range. Everything came with a nice bowl of tortilla soup, further sweetening the deal.

The Food
Every dish comes with a choice of Tortilla Soup or Salad which is how we got the ball rolling. The salad had a nice mix of corn and tortilla strips, and was heavily dressed. The soup was hearty, bone warming, and just straight up delicious.

The House Salad

 The Tortilla Soup

The common order at the table was the burrito. Some got it fried while others got it plain. The fried option (I'm not sure why they don't call it a chimichanga) is definitely the way to go. The crispy tortilla shell is fantastic and goes great with the salsa and cream sauce they top it with. The regular burrito is still good, don't get me wrong, but the fried one has better texture, flavor, and presentation. To shake things up, Nicki got the steak. It was prepared to a nice medium rare and topped with cilantro and queso blanco. I decided to go a different way as well with the grilled snapper fajitas. The fish was cooked properly and had a nice little char on the outside. The tangy and savory Mexican rub it came with put the dish over the top.

The Horchata

The Fried Burrito

The Regular Burrito

The Grilled Snapper Fajitas

 The Steak Platter

If you come across someone from Lincolnwood, it's pretty safe to say that they'll be a big fan of Wholly Frijoles, and I can clearly see why. The food is cheap, large, tasty, and looks great when it comes out. It'd probably be worth it just to come here for the soup, but then you'd be missing out on the fried burrito and grilled snapper. I'm giving them 4 out of 5 Pearls.

Wholly Frijoles on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Great Beijing

Location: 6717 N Lincoln Ave.
Cost: About $15 per person

In order to keep a nice balance to JEC, I've realized that it's best to post about every three days. The benefit to this pattern is that it gives everyone a chance to read a post before throwing up something new, and on my end it prevents posting droughts. The one negative is that sometimes I get a huge backup of posts, and this is the largest one so far. Today I will tell you about my Christmas day Chinese dinner.

Like I've explained before, my family, like many members of our tribe, likes to get Chinese food on Christmas. In the past we've typically gone to Phoenix. This year though we had a big crew including my family, the Ockrims, the Levinsons, and Jodi, and the decision was made that Chinatown was too far away. The plan was to hit up Pekin House on Devon Avenue. The word was that they had the best egg rolls in town, but the second we stepped into the place, the general stench was so overpowering that we had to leave. It was now getting late, and we were in a mad scramble to find a place that could take a party of 12. We tried a bunch of places, but everywhere was either too full or already closed. Finally we ended up at Great Beijing.

The setup is pretty simple at Great Beijing. They've got one pretty large dining room with plenty of seating. We had one lengthy table that they slapped together last minute for us. Obviously Christmas day is an exception to a typical night out, but I think you can probably get by without a reservation most of the time. Also, they have plenty of parking.

The service was great considering we had such a large group who had no idea what to order. The waiter gave us plenty of guidance, and our food came out quickly. The cost was exactly what you'd expect at a suburban Chinese restaurant. Entrees were near $10 with appetizers around $6. They had a really good deal on this appetizer combo for $12 that was enough to serve five people or so.

The Food
The first thing we got was some soup. Some people had the Sizzling Rice Soup while others went for the Hot and Sour. Both soups were well done but the broth was a little too thick. We then got the appetizer combo platters which included Short Ribs, Egg Rolls, Pot Stickers, Crab Rangoon, Chicken Wings, and Beef Skewers. It was a great deal with a ton of food. My favorites were the rangoon and the skewers. I thought the other items were relatively average.

The Sizzling Rice Soup

The Hot and Sour Soup

 The Appetizer Combo

From there we got a smorgasbord of items for the whole table to share including the Kung Pao Shrimp, the Vegetable Fried Rice, the Mongolian Beef, the Crispy Beef, the Combo Lo Mein, and the Three Flavored Chaing Mein (not sure on the spelling here). The Shrimp was the first thing I tried and was not spicy enough for the name Kung Pao. The fried rice was really heavy on veggies in a good way, and it had a nice crisp to the rice. Both beef dishes were average in flavor with very savory sauces and nice textures, but it was a big plus that they weren't too greasy. This Chaing Mein was homemade noodles with scallop, shrimp, and zucchini in a black bean curd sauce. The waiter gave me props on ordering his childhood favorite dish, but I don't know if everyone liked it as much as I did. The seafood was well prepared, and the sauce had a nice texture that complimented the tender homemade noodles well.

The Kung Pao Shrimp

The Vegetable Fried Rice

The Mongolian Beef

The Crispy Beef

The Combo Lo Mein

 The Three Flavored Chaing Mein

I've got to give them some mad props for taking our large party on Christmas day at the last minute. In all, I'd say that the food was slightly above average. It's probably too long of a trip to get there for some of you city folk, and I wouldn't necessarily suggest getting a zip car to check it out anytime soon. I'm giving Great Beijing 3 out of 5 Pearls.

Great Beijing on Urbanspoon