Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hamachi Sushi Bar

Location: 2801 W Howard
Cost: About $30 per person (but like all sushi restaurants it really depends on what you get)

There is a paucity of kosher restaurants in the Chicago land area. My kosher friends are always complaining about this and comparing us to NYC where they have tons of options. Back when I was hired to do some freelance stuff for CBS Chicago, they asked me to write a top 10 list of kosher places, and I reluctantly turned in a not so critical list of 7 places. Well things are moving in the right direction, and I was lucky enough to get invited to try out a new sushi place on the north side, Hamachi. I was joined by some friends of mine, Josh, Amanda, and Jodi.

Logistics
Hamachi is right on the corner of Howard and California. I thought it was a bit of a schlep, but I saw some Northwestern med students there who said they often make the trip from the city. The restaurant has a casual feel with a crowd of teenagers and businessmen sitting at adjacent tables. It takes on an 'L' shape around the sushi bar. We went on a Monday and the place was packed by the time we left. There's plenty of street parking nearby.

I thought it was a bit odd that there was no background music, but that might be from religious observances. The staff was friendly and quick. As we were invited, the meal was comped, but the prices are on par with most sushi places. Specialty rolls are in the low teens and normal rolls are sub $10.

The Food
Our meal started with a bowl of what was pretty standard miso soup, but given how cold it was outside, it really hit the spot. They also brought out an appetizer bento box. This included a variety of tempura, some salmon sashimi, and fried zucchini and eggplant topped with tuna tartare. It was a bit out there for sushi restaurant appetizers, but everything was clean with strong flavors. It was a creative way to get the ball rolling.

The Salmon Sashimi

 The Zucchini Tempura

 The Deep Fried Rice

The Miso Soup

After that, they brought out a huge platter featuring some of their better rolls and sashimi. Starting with the sashimi, they had multiple types of both tuna and salmon. The seared and pepper crusted tuna and the smoked salmon were unique and flavorful. Our rolls included the Blue Man Group, the Hamachi Dragon, and the Black Dragon. Although Jodi was afraid of the decorative blue crunch on the Blue Man Group, the white tuna came through strongly. The black dragon was sweet, and the taste of the faux shrimp wasn't too far off. The hamachi dragon packed a kick from the jalapeno mayo. I think it's worth pointing out, that although they had quite a bit of topping and eccentricity, it was much more controlled than in my last review when I was so harshly critical of Sushi Kushi.

The Sushi Platter

 The Blue Man Group

 The Black Dragon

 More Salmon Sashimi

 The Tuna Sashimi

For dessert we had a tempura ice cream dish. It was what I'd like to think the Japanese version of a funnel cake would be. Given that most sushi restaurants serve things like pineapple for dessert, I never go in thinking that I'll have some interesting ice cream dish, but this was a pleasant surprise.

The Tempura Ice Cream

Overall
I was excited to find a sushi restaurant that holds up to if not exceeds many of its non-kosher contemporaries. The prices were reasonable, the creativity was within reason, and the fish was high quality. Go check it out for yourself.

Hamachi Sushi Bar  on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 28, 2013

Little Market

Location: 10 E Delaware
Cost: About $40 per person

There's this group of guys I'm friends with. I'm tempted to say that they're way cooler than me, but I think it would be more accurate to say that their trendier. These are the dudes that have a membership to some specialty barbershop and always exclude the Professor from events like Blazer Shopping Day. Plus, despite my attempts to eat at cheaper and more ethnic restaurants lately, they're always trying to get me out to places that have just opened. Most recently Sam, Marc, Michael, and Adam got me to join them at Little Market American Brasserie.

Logistics
Little Market is attached to the Talbott Hotel although they had didn't have any connection built in yet. The dining room has a variety of tables and booths surrounded by tile walls and a rather fancy looking bar. The place was packed, and I suggest you make a reservation. I'd also recommend not driving if you can avoid it since parking is such a pain in that part of town. It's also worth noting that since the restaurant and the hotel aren't connected yet, people had to walk outside in the rain to go to the hotel bathroom.


So the waitress and manager pitched the place to us with a focus on small plates, saying that we should get a bunch of small options and large options with the goal of sharing everything. Our waitress was very knowledgeable about the drink and food items available, but the whole concept was messed up. You can't serve a full hamburger or grilled cheese sandwich and expect it to be a reasonable thing to share amongst a group. In fact, if you look at the menu, it would be perfectly split into an appetizer and entree section (but that's not cool these days). The cost is a bit up there with the smaller dishes and sandwiches around $13 and the larger plates at $20.

The Food
 We got a round of drinks to start. They were selling their house made sodas pretty hard, so I got Blood Orange and Cinnamon and Bourbon. It was weak and sugary, but I'm not usually one to go heavy on the mixers.

The Blood Orange and Cinnamon Soda with Bourbon

It didn't take long for our first small plates to come out, the Deviled Eggs, Pull Apart Bread, and the Short Rib Poutine. The eggs were salty, creamy, and had a some great crunch from the parmesan crisps across the top. I expected big things out of the poutine, especially since it had its own section of the menu. The chunks of short rib were tender but some of our cheese curds weren't warm enough and I could've gone for thicker gravy and more of it.

The Poutine

 The Pull Apart Bread

 The Deviled Eggs

The next three dishes were the Mushrooms on Toast, the Gnocchi, and the Pasta Puttanesca. The M on T was one of my favorite dishes. It was very rich and the shallot marmalade brought a sweet presence to the dish. The gnocchi was made from semolina, and while the texture was spot on, the saltiness was overpowering. The puttanesca had plenty of shrimp and a nice al dente pasta. There were some capers which I was a fan of, but I could tell the rest of my crew wasn't into.

The Gnocchi

 The Mushrooms on Toast

 The Pasta Puttanesca

The big dishes all came out next including the Burger, the Grilled Cheese, the Mac n' Cheese, and the Beef Short Rib. Like I was saying above, the two sandwiches were a nightmare to share. The burger was cooked properly and the homemade pickles were the strongest variable to the standard dish. The grilled cheese had an egg, some bacon, and sriracha sauce which turned into a delicious mess. The mac was in shell form (so not really mac) and the sauce had the perfect thickness. The short rib was extra tender, but the sauce didn't pack much flavor.

 The Mac n' Cheese

 The Burger

 The Grilled Cheese

 The Short Rib

For dessert we tried the Apple Almond Tart, the Hazelnut Crisp, and the Black Bottom Sundae. The tart was my favorite and was way too buttery. The crisp was too difficult to break up to enjoy. I thought the sundae was kind of boring until I got to the brownie on the bottom.

The Black Bottom Sundae

 The Hazelnut Crisp

 The Apple Tart

Overall
Clearly I felt mislead by the attempt at the small plate concept, and I thought a bunch of the food was hit and miss. My favorite dishes were the Mushrooms on Toast and the Grilled Cheese. Otherwise I'm not so sure. I'm giving Little Market 2.5 Pearls.

Little Market Brasserie on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Avec

Location: 615 W Randolph
Cost: About $50 per person

Google analytics is fun to play around with. It lets me track all kinds of information on JEC. On the surface, it tells me how many visits a day I get, but I can also see where people are checking out my blog from. Interestingly enough, each post is good for a bunch of hits in Arizona. That's because my old roommate Steve and his current roommate (and an old high school buddy of mine) Mike read pretty much every post. I'm not sure if it's home sickness or dental school boredom, but something makes them follow pretty closely (and g-d knows it's not my writing). For three years now, Mike has been telling me to go eat at Avec. He tosses in his opinion on places I've been in the meantime, but he always steers the conversation back to the necessity that I try his favorite restaurant. Well, I finally got around to it the other night with my friend Arif.

Logistics
One of the things that kept me from Avec for so long was the prospect of waiting forever. They don't take reservations, don't have much room, and always have a huge crowd. With some random good fortune, Arif and I got sat at the bar right in front of the prep station the second we walked in. We got to see pretty much every dish and talk to the chefs about each one.

Although we were at the bar, our service was excellent. Plus, we got to taste a few things that the cooks were generous enough to toss our way. Now I always thought the cost would be much higher than it was. We ordered 4 small plates, 1 large plate, and a bunch of drinks which came to around $100. We could've easily had less food too and not spent as much. The small plate portions are totally reasonable to share with a group of 2-4. I know that it can be tempting to bring a crew to a popular place like this, but I'd strongly recommend limiting the size of your group.

The Food
They always say at these small plate restaurants that you get your food as it's prepared, but we had the added bonus of seeing everything come straight out of the oven (or off the pan or whatever). Our first dish was the Burrata with braised mushrooms, onions, and eggplant. The cheese was smokey with a salty sauce. The eggplant stood out most to me, and the loaf of bread the cooks tossed our way to soak up the remnants of the sauce really hit the spot.

The Burrata

Next up was the Hanger Steak with feta, artichokes, and persimmons. Just like pretty much everyone else these days, I'll gladly eat anything with persimmons. On top of that, the meat was on the rarer side of medium rare (aka perfect). The salad on top added this subtle acidity to the savory steak in what made for quite the combo.

The Hanger Steak

To keep the heavy hitters rolling, they brought out the Chicken Thigh with bomba rice, red kuris squash, and apples. The chicken had a great crisp with a moist center. The rice had an excellent crisp from the edges of the pan. This was probably my favorite dish of the night.

 The Chicken Thigh

The next dish was probably the strangest of the night, the Squid Amatriciana. It came out as sort of a tomato based squid noodle casserole. The sauce was rich and the fennel aioli smoothed it over even more.

 The Squid

The last of the main dishes was our large plate order, the Wood Fired Pizza with sardines, sausage, and mint. The sardines were plentiful and strong. Atop the chewy yet crispy crust, they left just enough room for the spicy sausage crumbles. The mint may have been a bit strong for me at times, but overall it was a great pizza.

 The Wood Fired Pizza

For dessert we had the Chocolate Hazelnut Bread Pudding with coffee gelato. It had this orange drizzle of sorts across the top that overpowered the rest of the somewhat simple flavors in the dish. I wasn't really a fan, but in all fairness, the chef told us to get pretty much everything else on the menu.

The Chocolate Hazelnut Bread Pudding

Overall
I was pretty full after the third small plate, but we kept ordering anyways because everything was just so delicious. There are a ton of small plate menus out there, but Avec shows how it should be done. Logistically, the wait is a pain, but if you get lucky or plan accordingly you're in for a treat. I'm giving them a Pearl Necklace, 5 out of 5.


Avec on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 21, 2013

Crosby's Kitchen

Location: 3455 N Southport
Cost: Around $30 per person

I've brought this up plenty of times, but there are certain media outlets that my dad loves to get his food "news" from. He's always been a fan of the Hungry Hound, and since he's the only person I know that watches CLTV, he has grown accustomed to their food shows too. He's a fan of print media too. In addition to a subscription to Victoria's Secret, he's also an adamant reader of Chicago Magazine. A few months back they came out with a list of their 50 best sandwiches. He's been using that list relativley exclusively for restaurant recommendations ever since. That's how we ended up at Crosby's Kitchen.

Logistics
Despite being after the new year, Crosby's Kitchen still had plenty of holiday cheer to go around. In general, it felt like a cozy neighborhood bar, and despite the crowd of local families, it wasn't too loud. We sat in one of their large booths lining the window, but most of my attention was drawn to the bowl games on TV. We didn't need the reservation we had, but the seating isn't that extensive if you go on a non-sunday night.

Our waiter was attentive, quick, and put up with a handful of corny jokes from my dad. The portions were large and the cost was a little more than what I thought with most entrees in the upper teens.

The Food
To get the ball rolling we went with the Chili and the Iron Skillet Cornbread. The chili was warm, hearty, and perfect for how bitterly cold it was outside. The cornbread was moist inside with a great crisp on the edge of the pan. Not that it needed any, but the butter on the side was sweet, whipped, and made my mom cringe every time my dad and I put too much on our bread.

The Chili 

 The Iron Skillet Cornbread

 For our entrees my mom got the Sashimi Tuna Salad, my dad got the Wild Mushroom Meatloaf, and I got the Rotisserie Chicken. My mom seemed happy enough with the salad, but I got a much better feel for the other dishes. Now for those of you that have been subjected to my cooking, you'll know that two of my specialty dishes are meatloaf and roasted chicken. That being said, these were good, but not as good as mine. The chicken was juicy with a subtle crisp to the skin. The meatloaf was a bit stiff though. There was tons of earthy mushroom flavor though.

 The Sashimi Tuna Salad

 The Rotisserie Chicken

 The Wild Mushroom Meatloaf

For dessert we got the Key Lime Pie and the Carrot Cake. I was hoping for more texture to the pie crust, but it came out a little gooey. The filling was tangy and sweet though. The carrot cake was a warm base for tons of cream cheese frosting.

The Carrot Cake

 The Key Lime Pie

Overall
The second I walked into Crosby's Kitchen, I got this warm feeling of a cozy neighborhood spot. The food fit the feel as well. I'll stick to my chicken and meatloaf, but not all of you are privy to my cooking in the same way that Ricky and JR are. I'm giving them 3 out of 5 Pearls.


Crosby's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 18, 2013

Sushi Kushi San3

Location: 281 West Townline Road, Vernon Hills
Cost: About $35 per person

I don't know if you remember the first time you were introduced to the idea of sushi, but I sure do. It was in an episode of my favorite childhood TV show, Doug (see S01E08). You see, Doug had this goofy, yet hip, grandma who was visiting town. More or less, in the process of Doug learning that his grandma was cool, he also learns to eat sushi with her. Oddly enough, we always had to beg my grandma to come have sushi with us when I was a kid (and she would always get the cooked junk anyways).

So I've been to a whole bunch of north suburban sushi places. There are all these gigantic specialty rolls an excessive yet decorative amount of spicy mayo. The other day I saw this documentary called Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which focuses on this sushi master who has devoted his life to the art of proper sushi preparation (in turn he's also "ruined" his sons lives, but that's just my interpretation), and all I could think about the whole time is how dissapointed he'd be in what we eat. The point I want to make is that this type of sushi has run amok in the north suburbs of Chicago. There is a place for spicy sauce and interesting preparation, but some places overdo it. The most recent perpetrator was Sushi Kushi San3.

Logistics
Sushi Kushi San3 is part of a group of restaurants, this one just so happening to be pretty close to the house I grew up in. They've got a decent sized dining room with a lengthy sushi bar. The room is well lit, and there are plenty of pictures of the different rolls so that you can get a good idea of what you're ordering. In fact, many people would get up from their seats to go to a wall in the middle where they post a list of the daily specials (it was kind of weird). The crowd was eclectic. We had a nice group of bikers roll in as we were walking out. It was neat to see a doo-rag at the sushi bar.

As far as service went, it was a team effort that dropped the ball. We had one waitress that was overworked, and one teenage boy who seemed like his parents were forcing him to work there against his will. The soup came out after all of the sushi, and we had a bunch of other peoples' food end up on our table only to have us send it back. The cost was what you'd expect with most specialty rolls running into the mid teens and the basic stuff floating just under $10.

The Food
The best part of the meal by far was the Brittled Tuna appetizer. It was basically a plate full of tuna, pickled cucumber, avocado, and tempura flakes. For $10 it was a really hefty portion of tuna. I would probably go back and just order two of those next time.

The Brittled Tuna

Next came our sushi rolls. Honestly, I usually go back to the website when I'm writing my posts to help myself figure out exactly what we ordered, but the menu online doesn't list the sushi rolls. It doesn't really matter because they were relatively incomprehensible. I think it was the turtle roll and the dragon something or other. That's not to say that there wasn't a nice combination of flavors between the fish and the sweet and spicy sauces. Still, one of the plates was basically drizzled in enough sauce to make it into a soup with makimono dumplings. One pointer is to get the rolls made with black rice. The textural addition is a nice change of pace.


 Note: In case this isn't clear, the whole center of the plate is sauce, and the rolls are on the perimeter.

Lastly came our Tempura Udon Soup and Shrimp Fried Rice. The broth was standard, and the noodles had a pleasant, chewy texture. The tempura showing was the poorest I've ever seen (1 small shrimp, 2 sweet potatoes slices, and 3 green beans). By the time we got to the fried rice, the earth of my tongue had been salted. My parents seemed to like it a lot, but I couldn't really tell.

The Udon Soup

 The Tempura (how plentiful)!

 The Shrimp Fried Rice

Overall
Maybe I'm being a little harsh, or maybe places like Macku and Roka Akor have ruined other sushi for me. Sticking to my ways of comparing it to other places in the same class, I'd say that Sushi Kushi San3 is a little better than Sushi Thai (right down the road), but not enough for a bump in rating. I'm giving it 2.5 out of 5 Pearls.


Sushi Kushi San3 on Urbanspoon