Restaurants

Ginza Restaurant - Terrific!

July 31 2012 - 12:00 PM

Everyone complains that there’s no good ethnic food downtown. RIght on Ohio, just off of Michigan, amidst Uno’s, new concept restaurants and chains-chains-chains there are a couple gems. Every now and then I come across a place that surprises me. I went to Ginza for lunch Monday and loved it but I loved it so much that I had to go back. I mean, chicken katsu and gomae… with miso and green tea… under $10? I’ll give it another shot to see if it was really that good.

It is. Shame on my ignorance of Ginza Fish.

Located next to the Tokyo Hotel on Ohio I’ve never really registered that it was worth trying. From the outside it looks unimpressive. The hotel looks like it’s for Japanese businessmen on the cheap and while that may be the case, just inside is a fantastic, authentic Japanese meal waiting for you. It’s a pretty small restaurant with maybe four tables in the front and eight to ten seats at the sushi bar. The back offers a few more tables. Their bathrooms are nowhere near the pinnacle of perfection.

For comparison, on the north side is a great place called Sunshine Cafe. It’s not swanky either and doesn’t serve sushi but the comfort food is great. The difference here is that we’re smack in the middle of downtown Chicago, they do have sushi, and the comfort food is terrific.

What’s so good about chicken katsu? It’s just breaded chicken. But it was tasty, obviously, and the combo of light meat and dark meat was appreciated. The sweet sauce with the hot paste to mix in was very tasty and there was even some mayo hiding next to the cabbage. The miso was very good. You get a similar miso everywhere and while this one didn’t deviate from what was expected, it had its own flavor. The gomae was awfully good, not as good as Sunshine’s but not the potential horror show I had at Indie Cafe.

My second visit afforded me the curry rice, a Japanese take on an Indian dish. Think sweet and stewey and then hot rather than hot, stewey and sweet. It was really good and easy to eat. In Japanese it’s just called kari (curry- the English brought it over from India, hence the phonetics) and whatever you get it with… Kari Udon (noodles), Kari pan (bread) but it’s mostly served with rice…

The sushi that I’ve been staring at for two meals got the better  of me and I sprung for some fatty tuna. At $8.50, it cost more than the $7.95 lunch special but you get two pieces, they’re fairly large and man, very tasty. I’ll be back after work for some sushi and saki… Otsukaresama!

Ginza Fish
19 E. Ohio St.

Kitchen & Gadgets

French Press vs. Automatic Drip

July 30 2012 - 12:00 PM

I got a taste of this coffee-subscription service, Storyville Coffee. In their marketing materials they focused on, among other things, the benefits of the french press coffeepot. Since I’ve been unhappy with the taste of my Mr. Coffee, I went out and dropped $30 on a Bodum. Apparantly the going rate for a large glass cylinder with a push-top and a handle is no less than $30. I did see an Ikea version (I think it was Ikea) for $15ish, but too little, too late.

The knock against the french press is that the water needs boiling first and then about four minutes of steeping. So coffee in 10 minutes, not quick and there’s no way to set a timer and wake up to it. It also gets cold quickly without a hot plate under it. It also needs a pretty coarse grind or you’re left with settled sludge at the bottom of your cup. Lucky me, I have a microwave and a good coffee grinder. And that means good coffee.

Five minutes in the microwave means water that’s hot enough for me. I put six heaping tablespoons of coarse ground coffee in the eight cup Bodum, filled 4/5ths of the way with water. My pot came with a ridiculous four minute digital timer that clips onto the push-pot’s post that let’s me know when it’s ready.

I find the coffee lighter tasting but not watery. It’s a somewhat fruity flavor that’s very even and not bang-your-head strong or barely-there weak. And the best part is that there’s absolutely no plastic taste at all. I’ve read about over-fresh coffee and the near-crema suds that you get, but my eight o’clock beans gave me a nice molten espresso-head and still tasted good. Not as good as the Storyville coffee, but better than the drip.

–Josh Brusin

Farm & Garden

The Devon Market

July 27 2012 - 10:00 AM

The Devon Market is between Broadway and Clark on Devon and has a terrific variety of produce and general products.
Having lived 2 blocks away from it for close to 4 years it’s taken me a long time to get used to it for more than sundry items. A friend of mine made a great soup from Nigel Slater’s Appetite cookbook. (THAT cookbook is another absolute must and I’ll get to it in detail later).

The recipe called for whole anise, lemongrass, fresh fennel, fish
sauce among other things and I was dying to make it. Dominicks had
nothing. Dried lemongrass, fennel seed, crushed anise.

Devon had it all. They also have dried, semi-dried and fresh peppers…
anchos, poblanos, hungarian wax peppers (listed as banana peppers but
really hot).

For an ensuing stir-fry kick they provided a variety of chinese rice
cooking wines, rice noodles, and Baby Bok-Choy… not the huge unruly
bok-choy. And the produce is beautiful. I have actually on several
occasions used it in photos.

The chicken is safe. I have not tried the lamb brains, cow’s feet,
tripe and myriad other delicacies they stock. Whole shrimp, whole
tilapia, etc. It intially is kind of weird but once you’re used to it
you love it.

They do also carry a ton of Slovakian, Serbian, Hungarian, Mexican,
Thai, uh… almost everything. Miscellaneous items from mason jar lids
for pickling to stone mortar/pestle combos for guacamole.

A secret item is the $8.99 750ml of Moskovskaya Osobaya (the Russian distillery). Apparantly the
original Czarist vodka before Stolichnaya became so popular. It’s made
by Stoli.

1440 West Devon Avenue
Chicago, IL 60626
(773) 338-2572

–Josh Brusin

News & Features

Food Truck Ordinance Passes, 45-1

July 26 2012 - 12:51 AM

For the first time since opening Babycakes food truck, owner Leah Wilcox can now pour syrup on her customer’s pancakes without breaking the law.

Although Wilcox and all other Chicago food truck owners were previously barred from preparing meals aboard their vehicles, the City Council passed an ordinance yesterday permitting on-site food prep. The ordinance, introduced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel last month, also includes mandatory GPS tracking, extended operating hours and designated food truck stands. The ordinance received overwhelming support, and aldermen voted 45-1 to approve the measure, according to the Chicago Tribune.

5411 Empanadas Truck

“You’re obviously not going to get the kind of quality as if it were served fresh,” Wilcox said, in reference to the old food truck restrictions. Wilcox prefers freshly prepared options, both as a chef and a consumer of food truck fare. With on-site cooking now available, she plans to serve up crispy bacon and properly top her hotcakes with syrup, whipped cream and chocolate sauce.

Despite the welcome benefits of promptly prepared dishes and nearly unrestricted operating hours, many food truck owners remain concerned with the law’s more restrictive provisions. For instance, the parking ban within 200 feet of any “retail food establishment” remains in effect. To the dismay of many truck owners already hard pressed to find both legal and lucrative parking locations, truck violation fines will also increase from several hundred dollars to the $1,000-$2,000 range. Trucks can receive these hefty tickets for parking within that 200 foot range.

Wilcox worries this hike in fines will threaten the financial stability of her business. According to Amy Le, owner of DucknRoll truck, some trucks might only make $1,000-$2,000 after a week of sales.

“I’ll be lucky to make [$1,000-$2,000] in a week in the winter time,” Le said. “If I get that ticket, it will completely wipe out my sales and my business.

Le said she understands the City hopes to deter owners from disobeying the laws, but she takes issue with the law in the first place. For instance, she questions the sense of preventing a cupcake truck from parking near a wine bar when neither vendor sells similar goods.

“…They don’t really serve dessert, they just serve cheese and wine,” Le said. “Why shouldn’t you have the ability to park 50 feet next to it? We feel like there’s definitely room for compromise on how many feet they feel is fair. What that number is, I’m not sure.”

My Streets My Eats 200 Foot Mobile Food Ban

The grassroots campaign My Streets My Eats created a map of downtown Chicago that emphasizes the lack of parking options under the 200 foot mobile food ban. Although most of the city blocks seem destined to become food truck deserts, the City hopes to counter such problems with food truck stands. The stand locations will be selected “through an open and collaborative process in each ward by aldermen, the business community, and residents,” according to the City’s press release.

“This is not a perfect ordinance,” said ordinance co-sponsor and first ward alderman Proco Joe Moreno. “But ultimately, it’s fair and realistic,”

While some “traditional” restaurant owners might feel threatened by the expanding food truck industry, others encourage their mobile competitors. Chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill supports Chicago’s food trucks, according to his assistant Jeff Maimon. Pursuing a food truck of his own, however, is not on Bayless’ radar right now. Maimon said the city doesn’t make it easy to operate a truck, and they’re not currently toying with the idea.

To gather proof of the community’s support, Wilcox and Leah joined fellow food truck owners outside Fischman’s Liquors on the northwest side earlier this month. Vendors collected signatures for a petition against the 200 foot ban and GPS tracking provisions. Although the ordinance passed despite protests, the City is aware of the concerns shared among truck owners.

But even in the face of such controversy, the food truck industry is undoubtedly growing. Now that the ordinance has passed, Wilcox expects the number of trucks in Chicago to explode.

The question is how long can they last with these new laws.

–Natalie Krebs

Farm & Garden

Farm & Garden

Drought Aid–Harvest Moon Farms

July 24 2012 - 5:33 PM

Harvest Moon Farms has been a partner and friend to Chicago Foodies over the past several years. The conditions in the Midwest this summer have been difficult, to say the least. Please stay tuned for benefit event info, pray for rain, and look forward to their tomato crop.

Libations

Bum Wine... Trader Joe's Style

July 23 2012 - 9:28 PM

I remember drinking Thunderbird in college. We called it “Dundabud”, in homage to sugary-wine-addled ne’er-do-wells that would kill a bottle, or more, in a sitting – or staggering. That’s when I also realized that MD, affectionately called Mad Dog, actually stood for Mogen David, the lesser known Kosher-cousin to Manischewitz. In any case the oenophile in me opted for jugs of Gallo instead of that chaptalized saccharin. The jugs of Gallo were a movable liquid feast held by the thumb and tipped over your shoulder to drink straight from the bottle. Kerouac would be proud… Cassady too.

Either way, those bottles were only a few bucks. Flash forward 20+ years and I find myself killing 750ml of $3.99 wine. This time though it’s a Sauv Blanc from Green Fin and Trader Joe’s. The popularity of $3 Buck Chuck (Charles Shaw) has resulted in a deluge of cheapo wines. The downside is that very few of them, especially at the $4 price point are worth a purchase. This one grew on me, after several glasses what wouldn’t? Plus it’s made from organic grapes. It’s a far cry from the Night Train.

I’ve been a fan of a few of the base-priced wines- Napa River and Trellis Chardonnays are both VERY oakey but in a way where I’m not entirely turned off. For $4ish they are worth the dough and more satisfying to me than your average 8% Vinho Verde, the effervescent trendy white from Portugal (that’s also only 8% alcohol). A combo of the two will set you up at Millennium Park for even the warmest of evenings. I just find it funny that 20+ years later I still can’t help but kill a bottle.

“My fault, my failure, is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them.”
-Jack Kerouac to Neal Cassady

Farm & Garden

Libations

Letherbee - A Gin for the People

July 21 2012 - 11:51 AM

Brent Engel laments the ethos characterizing some of today’s small distillers that craft immediately implies better, and that better must mean expensive. “Some people wield their product as a moral tool. They say, ‘If you don’t buy it, you’re an asshole.’ But the market is becoming saturated quickly.”

With so many of today’s craft spirits carrying hefty price tags, Engel and partner Miriam Matasar saw an overlooked niche – quality spirits that shine equally well on their own as in cocktails, but priced so that professional bartenders will actually use them.  “If something’s too expensive, you can’t make drinks with it and it ends up on the back wall,” Matasar says. “How do you sell it when you’re pushing house cocktails and everything else?” Engel continues, “I hear bartenders say ‘I bought this because it was made in Milwaukee, but I don’t use it.’ A lot of these craft distilleries aren’t going to last.”

letherbee logo wide

Engel and Matasar met when the two worked at Logan Square’s Lula Café (where Engel still tends bar) and brought that experience on the cocktail front lines to bear in creating Letherbee Gin. Described by its loving parents as “utilitarian,” the spirit is aimed at the bartender’s well, not the back shelf. It’s affordable and versatile, yet decidedly distinctive and it’s developing a ferocious local following.

The duo used their network of industry friends to quickly get Letherbee behind the bar at spots around Logan Square. But before long, love for the gin spread and bottles can now be found as far afield as Premise, Sable, Nightwood and even suburban Standard Market. Derek Alexander, beverage director at Longman & Eagle, explains the reason. “When your staff gets excited about something, it’s easy to sell.”  Longman has crafted two original drinks around the spirit and the Violoet Buck – Letherbee, lime, ginger beer and byrrh —  is especially popular. “It’s our bestselling drink right now,” Alexander says. “We’re going through two cases of Letherbee a week.”

violoet buck and letherbee shot

The Violoet Buck and a nearly empty (Whoops!) shot of Letherbee at Longman & Eagle

Letherbee Gin debuted in April, but it was more than a year in the making. “Brent worked on the recipe every day,” Matasar says, “and I told him he was tweeking it too much.” Indeed, once the new pot still was up and running, Engel made a different 25 gallon batch about once every three days for six or seven months, each at a cost of several hundred dollars a pop. But, it was important to work with realistically-sized productions. “I don’t have a tabletop still and the recipes don’t scale up anyway.”

Engel continues, “The interplay of spices is really interesting. Changes don’t occur linearly. You can add the tiniest amount of something and immediately taste it, but adding a lot might barely make a difference.” As results improved, the new spirit underwent test after test with help from bartenders around the city. “I needed the gin to work in a martini, a gimlet and a gin old fashioned,” Engel says. “If it worked in those three drinks, it was versatile enough for anything.”

The obsession at the heart of it all seems part of Engel’s personality and his dedicated tinkering is colored by his time spent as a musician. “I’m a firm believer that it’s all about the recipe [and not the equipment],” he says. “Look. Jimmy Hendrix can still fucking rock on a shitty guitar. Miles Davis would kill it with the trumpet I have under my bed. It’s about the recipe.”

So, for all this background, what’s the gin taste like? At a sturdy 96 proof, Letherbee is surprisingly smooth. Juniper forward on both the nose and first taste, it has a cooling, green herb vibe hinting at cardamom and faint fennel. Also, somewhat uniquely, the gin is not chill-filtered; adding an ice cube causes a louche, the clouding effect of botanical oils falling out of solution that is commonly associated with absinthe. “It’s a testament to the high level of botanical flavor,” Matasar says, to which Engel simply adds, “I like it.”

While the gin is the immediate focus, there are more Letherbee products to come. A limited edition autumn gin incorporating baking spices like dark clove, allspice and nutmeg is in the works, as is a spring edition poised to be “floral, fruity and ethereal.” They hope to debut an absinthe by Christmas and are even exploring the possibility of a barrel-aged fernet in collaboration with another bartender. “That’s going to be at least as hard as the gin,” Engel admits. “You can’t just use five ingredients. An amaro somehow brings together many flavors, but strikes one note.”

–David McCowan

Restaurants

Unique Dinner: Antiquity–SOLD OUT

July 16 2012 - 11:40 AM

The Chicago Foodies “Unique Dinner Series” was created to give Chicago chefs creative license to take risks that they would not otherwise take at their restaurants. Chefs are challenged to step outside of their own culinary box, resulting in a wildly innovative culinary experience.

The series kicked-off with two sold out dinners- “16 Courses of Black” at MOTO and “A Lifetime of Guilty Pleasures” at iNG. With “Antiquity” Diners will experience 7 courses contrasting archaic dishes with modern interpretations. Custom pairings are included as is tax and gratuity. Seating is promptly at 7:30pm.

This exclusive engagement is limited to a single seating. It will be held Monday July 30th, 7:30PM at Balena 1633 North Halsted.