Custom House

August 30 2012 - 1:00 PM

I’m always confused as to why Chicago’s theater district has a booming theater scene and a not so booming food scene to go with it. It has never been harder to find a good restaurant in Chicago in that particular area that isn’t a fast food chain. There are certainly the old stand-bys like the Walnut room, which for the price offers pretty decent white tablecloth fare – often highlighting signature dishes from TV celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless and Ming Tsai.

However, this particular theater night I was in the mood for something different. Since my show was playing at the Auditorium on Congress, I decided to try Custom House, which was a long overdue visit.  I was very excited by their pre-theater, three course, price fixed menu, which the hostess reviewed with me over the phone before I made our reservation.  For 46 dollars there were ample options of all courses – appetizer, entrée, side and desert.  All items are also on the menu individually for about 30 dollars per entrée.

The restaurant itself is great, with huge light filled windows and big, spongy cream-colored booths you could sit in comfortably for hours. And the service for a pre-theater meal was perfect – they kept track of the time and politely moved us along with our meal.

I started with the escarole salad with Romano and macadamia nuts. There’s really not much more to say about it than that – it was uninspired and a bit disappointing.

Next came the halibut in a creamed corn sauce. I chose it because of my memories of the most amazing creamed corn puree with pink slices of duck that I had last week at MK. This creamed corn presentation did not live up to that, but was still pleasant if maybe a bit salty. Accompanying the halibut were clams, shallots, bacon and sliced truffles. It sounds amazing, but while it was good, it was not amazing. My dining partner then informed me that meat is what the Custom House is known for, so I felt like I chose incorrectly. My tasting came with a side of baby carrots that were beautiful with orange yellow and purple carrots in light butter. We also ordered a side of scalloped potatoes that were sinfully delicious – I have no idea what was in them but I’m sure cream is on the top of the list. I also got a prosciutto and cucumber salad with cucumber sorbet that was very creative in presentation and flavor.

A refreshing lemon cheesecake with blueberry compote completed the tasting. We also ordered a chocolate desert that could best be described as a fudge brownie topped with chocolate mouse covered in chocolate sauce and marshmallow fluff. Both outstanding.

For seasonal, American cuisine I would go back to Custom House before the theater. Next time I’m getting the steak or the veal cheeks, or the ox tail.


Moto Avocado Video

August 28 2012 - 9:10 PM

Here’s a cool video from Moto. What do you think an “avocado” would really be from Chef Cantu?


Stone Enjoy By 9/21/12 Takes Over Chicago

August 27 2012 - 9:42 PM

IPA’s are like stories.  I love them but everybody’s got one, and not enough folks are all that good at crafting them.  A good story that’s brewing in Chicago is the arrival of Stone Brewing’s Enjoy By 9/21/12 IPA, an IPA so fresh, so meticulously crafted, that if you don’t drink it by that particular date, it’ll turn to genuine undrinkable swill at the break of dawn on 9/22.   Well, not exactly.  But you’ll miss its peak quality if you wait too long.  Of course, that’s the case with any IPA, since those beers are so heavily dependent on their excessive hops’ fleeting aromas and flavors.  So, this latest blend of hops from Stone’s cauldron may just be a huge marketing ploy.  If so, it’s quite a campaign, as they even allow you to vote on having 9/21/12 come to your town next.  You can find a full write-up on the beer and a bit about the marketing campaign here at the beer blog.

By the way, I should add that the beer is worth any amount of hype surrounding it.  It might perhaps be Stone’s best ever offering.  That’s for you to decide.   All I know is that a buddy of mine who’s a rep for a big-time Colorado brewery and I taxied 2 miles to get one of these on draft.   We both agreed that it might, perhaps, be the best beer of anyone’s we’ve had all year.  But it comes at a 9.4% price, so drink sparingly.  Another friend of mine joked that the beer should be called Enjoy By 12/21/12, invoking the Mayan apocalypse.  Good one.  But I responded that it takes the final 3 months to overcome this monster beer’s effects.

– M. Sheppard

Farm & Garden

Organic Gardening How-To

August 24 2012 - 1:00 PM

It’s a pretty straightforward demo from Scott Meyer, editor of Organic Gardening magazine.
Thanks to Urbanbelly via Twitter.

Kitchen & Gadgets

All-Clad's "Emeril" Non-stick Pans

August 23 2012 - 1:15 PM

I have little faith in Teflon, so I decided to go for an 8″ and a 10″ Emeril non-stick pan. I’ve had them four years, and in that time, the 10″ has completely lost it’s non-stick-ness. I know what I did. I left it on a high-flame. Well, actually, I think my wife did it.

It made me rethink the non-stick thing. I only have two non stick pans, and the 8″ is for eggs. I break out the 10″ when I want more eggs. In my huff, I called about the “lifetime warranty.” Of course, no dice–I used it over high-heat.

Which makes me wonder why All-Clad makes a non-stick line. Considering how easy it is to overheat a pan on a decent gas stove, wouldn’t it make sense to use it as a component to a cookset? I’m not complaining about non-stick pans. But non-stick sets… aside from the fact you can’t get a good deglaze out of a non-stick. Wouldn’t you end up ruining those expensive pans? I mean, they make a non-stick wok. No high heat with a wok?

In any case, on my trip to Chef’s Catalog, the benefits and singular characteristics of the Scanpans were extoled. They are non-stick, not teflon, dishwasher safe and steel utensil safe (both teflon no-nos) and, even with the chintzy-looking handle, are oven safe to 500º.

They do have that heat plate on the bottom, and the handle sure is ugly, but it would be an indestruco-pan! It’s also a 9″ and change pan. It would go with the 8″ and the replacement 10″ Emeril I got at TJMaxx for $29.99.

I love TJMaxx, but make sure to look at those seconds on cookware. As long as they aren’t obviously messed up or won’t lay flat. That’s a doozie.


Orange - Sunday Brunch

August 22 2012 - 1:45 PM

After seeing a line in front of Orange last week, we were up a bit earlier this week and arrived moments before the line started. In a review of La Taché, I mentioned it was nothing like the typical busy morning brunch spot. Orange is that busy morning brunch spot. If we arrived five minutes later, we would have split. There is really no room for people to wait inside, and it’s extremely hot or cold outside, depending on the season.

But luck had it, and we were seated relatively quickly and, amidst periodic blender whizzing, we got to our food. They serve Frushi, which they show you. I thought it was a cute breakfast amuse but no. It’s a tease and they want $3 or $2.50 for it… Don’t remember exactly. You get a piece of pineapple tied up with a floss thin strand of something that I couldn’t taste and some rice and fruit maki piece that was very tasty and a pseudo sushi… watermelon not tuna that was also interesting. Worth the dough but would have rocked as a quick freebie. I tried the orange flavored coffee but did not like it. My fellow eater however did like it. It’s nice that they give you a little pot of coffee. But when you have orange flavored stuff it tends to taint the regular too… in any case it was still strong and good.

I ordered the eggs benedict, capresi style, which meant English muffin, farmer’s mozzerella, tomato and hollandaise with basil. I enjoyed it but found the eggs just a bit undercooked instead of somewhat runny they were completely runny. The tomato wedges were okay, but it was missing something. Maybe a fresh leaf of basil would separate the white egg, white cheese and off white hollandaise… It was all mixed together, but tasted great.

The Chai french toast stuffed with mascarpone was good too. My first taste was an end and I wasn’t impressed. It tasted like bread pudding but I realized I missed out on the stuffing. Man it was good. My fellow eater never gets stuff to go, but did in this case and proceeded to eat it in mere hours.

The juice bar is neat, and you can pick your juices. They blend everything fresh. They have that frushi thing. They’re on Clark and Belmont, and can get crowded. The food’s good. They did say on the menu that they don’t custom make omelets, and one should go to a place with “Golden” or “Nugget” in the name. But then they have the BK Omelet – build it your way. I would recommend trying the omelets on the menu. That’s what I would try, if I can get a table again.

3231 N. Clark St.
Map It!

Home Cooking

Red Mole: Five Hours of Love

August 21 2012 - 1:30 PM

Mae West says, “Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.”

I’m trying to think of other instances where you trade hours of toil and effort for moments of enjoyment. We wait in line for a roller coaster ride…that might be the best “bang for your buck” example. You work all week for the weekend…that’s trite. I think cooking is a good example, but in reality, the time it takes to make that pain-in-the-ass recipe seems to be half the reward. Especially when it comes to mole.

The sauce is notoriously time consuming and needs constant stirring, mixing, blending, searing, straining and so on. The instructions break down into two parts for most of the process. It dirties every kitchen utensil you have, and smokes up your entire house. My dog went into convulsions, which brought my wife to hysterics and they both had to go outside. It was kind of funny.

This is the second time that I’ve made this type of sauce. It might be the only dish where I follow a recipe. The first time I started to cook a couple of hours before guests arrived and we were all good and loaded by the time it was ready to eat…sometime around 10 p.m. But it was really tasty.

This time I tried a more traditional recipe. Raisins instead of apricots and almonds instead of pine nuts (I think it was pine nuts). I used Lugar dark chocolate and unfortunately used white sugar instead of Mexican sugar since I couldn’t find it (even at La Unica).

In a nutshell you have two mixes – one is the dried peppers, seeded and stemmed. Fried and then rehydrated. Then pureed. Then strained (big pain). Then the puree is fried and darkened.

This happens while you throw the tomatillos under the broiler, roast sesame seeds, and then add them together with
almonds, raisins, salt, pepper, cloves, anise and cinnamon. Puree that, then strain it (again, big pain).

Then you mix the two sauces together and cook until they get really pasty. Then add your water (in my case 12 cups- you go mole, you go big). Then you simmer for at least 45 minutes.

It doesn’t sound like much, but seeding and stemming and frying about 50+ peppers is a pain. And that’s only step one.

But I can say the dark, nut-brown lard is incredibly nice compared to the white stuff, and that there’s nothing so savory as the aroma of mulato peppers being fried up…except maybe the dried pasillas still oily on the inside.

The mole turned out great, but it certainly didn’t reflect the amount of effort. It’s a sauce and, unfortunately, America is all about the protein. A tablespoon or two of mole doesn’t do it. It’s a soup people. Think of it as a cheese sauce. The chicken is a vehicle… The chicken is there as a utensil to drench in sauce.

I don’t know who exactly says this but I think I’ve heard it before… the hardest things to do are the things most worth doing.


Oval – Structured Vodka

August 20 2012 - 12:45 PM

Oval I read about structured vodka online a few weeks ago. It sounded good…a reknowned homeopathic scientist, Valery Sorokin, has determined a way to build vodka where the alcohol is surrounded by water. This results in “the soft clean taste of pure water” as the first thing you taste.

I love the idea. The more I read the better it sounds. The process has been reinterpreted by this guy who is not only a nuclear physicist, but he spends his day job as the Deputy Director of GEOSCAN, an agency that monitors global disasters and crises… this man is like a Tom Clancy character who, on the side, is out to save vodka.

Now let me say that I felt the pricepoint, packaging, uniqueness of the message and the scientific explanation of the product are all compelling. So much so that my semi-blind tasting pitts it against Belvedere and Chopin… two steady super-premium favorites. I would like to have included Ketel One and Finlandia, the former as a frame of reference as it’s my martini vodka and the latter as a stellar vodka that sits just below top-shelf, in my opinion. But since I don’t have a cabinet filled with vodka, I’m making do… and frankly three vodkas are enough for my tasting purposes. I did leave out my flavored Skyy and my homemade flavored vodkas.

Bring it on! Chopin is potato vodka, Belvedere is rye and Oval is grain. I’m not sure which grain. The two Polish vodkas are 80 proof while the Austrian Oval is 84 proof. It has something to do with the structuring. It only works at 48, 84 and 112 proofs. While Oval is an award-winning vodka, it’s for the design of the packaging, not the flavor.

The first sip of a vodka should be soft but not like water… I don’t know if I buy the word ‘soft’ quite that way. It’s a far more ‘neutral’ sensation than soft. It gives way to the initial ‘alcohol’ bite that all vodkas have. That bite comes so quick that non-vodka drinkers do miss that initial flat feel. Oval has more bite than the other two. Belvedere has the least. It’s pertinent to note that vodka drinkers appreciate that bite, and the extreme softness the super-premiums tend to go after is not always desired.

I feel that, especially when mixed, vodka presence is demanded. Which might be while I do like Ketel One with a twist. The finish is the other big telling area for vodka, but the time in between is what initially gave me pause with Oval. It stays bigger on your palate than the other two. It’s sweeter and has a nice rich character that leads to a bigger finish. It is a bit higher on the percentage so it might mean some spice in the throat, but really not much. I will try this alongside Finlandia and Ketel later to see how different it might be. Keep in mind that, while it’s a higher price than Finlandia, I do consider Fin to taste beyond where it prices out.

Expecting Oval to be as soft and delicate as Belvedere is going to disappoint. But for a fuller experience it delivers. Going back to it I find myself appreciating it’s sweetness, spice and bigger finish. Going back to Chopin I am amazed at how mild it is.

These tastes are all straight. One reason I don’t order either of these super-premiums in cocktails is that I find they get lost. I also enjoy the mix of tonic with a fuller vodka. Oval would be a welome mixer. I’m out to get a bottle of Ketel… next up a head-to-head martini contest. I might have a new favorite martini vodka. I should invite some friends over.

News & Features

Le –Official– Diner en Blanc on Friday

August 19 2012 - 3:34 PM

There has been an event in Paris called Dinner en Blanc for the past 25 years. It just so happens that there’s a similar event, Chicago In White, this year. They seem to be nearly the same and for that reason, I’m wondering how there isn’t a big lawsuit going on. While there are similarities, there are also big differences. The routine’s pretty similar, same color etc. But they’re not identical. The venue, the night, and most importantly, especially if you want to do it right, the option for wine. Diner en Blanc allows you to buy a voucher (or two… or three) to redeem for a bottle when you arrive. There is no BYOB. Chicago In White, no booze. Also you can’t beat the authenticity– Diner en Blanc did it first and has done it longer and by signing up you can get . ChicagoFoodies was approached to help Diner en Blanc with this year’s event. Seems like it fits the foodie theme, no? So we chatted with Roger, who’s the lead organizer, and got the scoop.

From the wine arrangements to Chef Tony Mantuano’s custom picnic baskets, it should be a fantastic way to spend Friday. Considering the venue’s still a secret, you are all in for a pleasant surprise. Get your tickets HERE while you still can.

–Josh Brusin


Ghareeb Nawaz - Awesome Cheap Eats!

August 19 2012 - 9:25 AM

Ghareeb Nawaz literally means “sustainer of the poor.” In the search for good cheap eats that’s a good sign. It’s just West of Ridge on Devon and there’s usually a line waiting for nan. It’s basically a Pakistani taqueria. The food’s great and cheap but the trade-off is the dining room. For take-out it can’t be beat. Instead of dropping $50 for dinner further West on Devon, $15 is more than enough to splurge for dinner… for four. We usually get takeout and this time our order was goofed. It worked out however. Instead of chana masala – chick peas in a fantastic sweet and spicy sauce, which I had last time and was the reason to return, I found gyros paratha in the bag.  Having periodically heard my wife’s hankering for “the wind” (Windy City Gyros), I gave her (after a few bites) the combination  of gyros and onions in a curry sauce wrapped in
paratha and served with yogurt. I think she said she liked it better than the wind…! It’s different. It has more spice to it and
the paratha is a limper and oilier bread. It’s the perfect after barfood. The perfect after bar food. (yes, I said it twice). Nawaz is 24hr!

The frontier chicken was boneless, shredded chicken that also tasted good and went well with the plain rice. I would go for a boneless
chicken biryani next time. It was very similar without the saffron and other wonderful spices. I saw a couple of cups of chai being served as
I was leaving. Next time.

The proprietor is very nice and answered a few questions about the menu. There are pictures of some dishes as well as several menu boards that are redundant but if you sort of know what’s what you should have no problems.

They also serve nehari, halwa puri, basically everything. Dishes run from $4 to $2… chana masala is $2,  nan is $0.50, rice is a buck. It explains the line…

Ghareeb Nawaz
2032 W. Devon
Map It!