Asian

Legit Chinese outside of Chinatown @Chengduimpression

Chengdu Impression – 2545 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL

Outside of Chinatown, it’s tough to find really good, authentic Chinese food.  Shanghai Terrace does a pretty solid job, but given that it’s in the Peninsula, it’s quite overpriced.  Sun Wah is another classic, but much further north.   Other than those two, the Chinese selections around the city tend to be of the standard takeout variety – good in a pinch, but usually not great.  Enter Chengdu Impression, a fairly new Lincoln Park spot that we checked out just after our honeymoon (yes, my backlog is pretty long).

The menu is quite long, leaving some difficult decisions.   We kept it pretty simple – went with

Scallion Pancake

Scallion Pancake

The scallion pancakes were a bit of the weak point of the meal.  OK, nothing special….

Dry Chili Chicken

Dry Chili Chicken

Steamed veggies

Steamed veggies

For entrees, we got the dry chili chicken and the vegetable 12-delight.  The chicken was great here.  Not quite on par with the Tony Hu version, but very, very solid.  Lightly battered, great amount of spice, and a healthy portion, but solid.  The veggies were pretty standard steamed vegetables, but fresh and not oversaturated.

Soup Dumplings!!

Soup Dumplings!!

The meal ended with a plate of soup dumplings – they came out last, because they take a bit longer to cook, so if you want them, order early or maybe when you sit down, and wait a few minutes once they arrive to let the inside cool down a bit.  A bit sparse on the filling and the dumpling itself was a bit thick, but pretty good nevertheless.

Overall, Chengdu is not quite on the level as most Chinatown restaurants, but it’s a solid substitute if you don’t feel like making the trek out.  Haven’t gotten delivery from them yet, but it seems like their delivery area is pretty wide, making it an option if you’re feeling lazy too.

 

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Two Month Anniversary celebration at #katsuchicago

Katsu – 2651 Peterson Avenue – Chicago, IL

So Sara and I made it to 2 months!   And we’re still in love, after celebrating our real 2 month anniversary by cooking a wonderful meal of jja jjang myun and sous vide duck breast at home (yes, kind of all over the place), we decided to really kick it up and head up north to Katsu for some sushi.

Katsu may not be on your radar, and it’s sometimes hard to convince a city-dweller to head so far north for something that you can pretty much find every few blocks now – the first time we went, we are also dubiously skeptical.  But hands down, Katsu is the best sushi in Chicago. It’s been a staple up north for close to 30 years now, and chef Katsu himself, approaching 70 soon, fully admits he’s not slowing down – he’s a great personable guide to your sushi journey when you sit at the sushi bar.  Which we did, next to a nice gentleman who had just celebrated his 50th anniverssary – so Sara and I have a bit of work to do…

But back to the food, if you ask Zagat what the highest rated restaurant for food is in Chicago, Katsu is at the top, in the elite group of restaurants rated 29, such as the Achatz/Kokonas duo Alinea and Next, as well as Goosefoot (Vie and Bien Trucha are also 29’s but out in the burbs).   Having been to all four of those, I’d give Alinea the nod over Katsu, but I’d be willing to say that Katsu bests both Goosefoot and Next on the food-front.  The best way to describe it would be to see the movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” – now Katsu is probably no Jiro, and I’d be willing to bet that the sushi in Tokyo is a step above what we’re getting here, but it’s the closest thing you’ll get in Chicago to a sushi chef who cares about his craft as much as chef Katsu does.

If you go, I’d recommend getting a spot at the sushi bar – that’s what we did, getting the slightly cheaper (still $120) four course sushi omakase (there’s a similar priced sashimi omakase).  There is a $160 six course meal that adds in the chawanmushi dish that we split, along with both the sushi / sashimi plates.

Mackerel appetizer

Mackerel appetizer

We started with our waiter’s recommendation – a mackerel appetizer with unbelievably buttery, soft, finely chopped mackerel mixed with sliced scallions and minced ginger, a bunch of shredded daikon for a bit of refreshment.  A nice palate cleanser before the extravaganza set the stage for what was to come.  The presentation, like most dishes here, was stunning.

monkfish Liver

monkfish Liver

Tuna tartare

Tuna tartare

For the first course of the omakase, you get a choice of the tuna tartare or the monkfish liver – thankfully, since there’s two of us, we were able to split one of each.  The monkfish liver, soft and creamy in texture like a rich foie was served around beautiful rods of shiso jelly and topped with minced radish.  The tuna tartare is made from finely chopped toro, the mixed in quail egg just adding to the richness.

Lemony flounder!

Lemony flounder!

The next dish is Japanese comfort food at its best.  A perfectly soft almost poached flounder filet with a soft moist breadiness on the “crust”, served in a lightly lemon-tinged broth thick broth.  One of the more memorable dishes here – simple but perfeclty executed.

Tempura

Tempura

The tempura here is probably the least unique part of the meal here at Katsu, but it’s still a solid plate of lightly battered and fried vegetables.  What makes the tempura at Katsu different though is the choices and the freshness of the vegetables is clearly evident through the crispness.  Choices that night were enoki mushroom, lotus root, a fairly spicy shishito pepper, squash blossom(!), shiso leaf, purslane, and a filet of Japanese whitefish (accompanied by a nice little sheet explaining what purslane is and the proposed health benefits of it).

Chawanmushi...

Chawanmushi…

....with unagi inside

….with unagi inside

Back to Japanese comfort food, I felt like I had to try the chawanmushi here, and it did not disappoint.  A perfectly soft egg custard, nice texture, with a healthy portion of unagi cooked underneath, along with a few pieces of edamame and mushrooms, all mixing to give this dish a great mix of textures and flavors.

Sushi Plate!

Sushi Plate!

IMG_4958 IMG_4959 IMG_4960Finally, we get to the highlight of the meal – the nigiri course!   15 gorgeous pieces of a wide selection of the freshest fish you’ll probably find in the Chicagoland area and possibly the midwest.   Most of the pieces are garnished with an ingredient that complements the bite well and each piece is an extremely generous portion that makes it fairly difficult to take each down in one bite.

As instructed by Chef Katsu we started with the oyster, a kumamoto oyster from the Pacific Northwest, BC I believe.  After that we went straight from left to right.

Fresh yellowtail flown in directly from Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, King salmon from Boston, topped with salmon roe and gold leaf, crisp, refreshing super white toro from Maine, topped with winter truffle, a creamy buttery squid.

Then, Sara’s favorite – sweet shrimp, also from Boston, with a massive fried Shrimp head (not quite as meaty as the one we had a few weeks ago at Kai Zan).  More ground toro followed amazingly fresh uni from Seattle, leaving the scallop, and the finale, a mackerel with a thinly shaved piece of seaweed that tempered the fishiness of the mackerel perfectly.

Katsu’s a bit of a hike up in Lincolnwood for us folks that live downtown, but in the end, a half hour drive is not that far travel for exceptional sushi.  The cost is a bit steep, so it’s definitely more of a special occasion spot, but cost is on par with most of the non-Alinea finer restaurants in the city, and you could definitely have a reasonably sized smaller meal off the omakase for under $100.   A 5 star experience all around.

 

The week of small plates Japanese @SUMIrobata

Bone-in Lamb Chop!

Bone-in Lamb Chop!

Sumi Robata Bar – 702 N Wells Street, Chicago, IL

Sara and I had been to Sumi Robata almost a year ago around when it opened.  I had always been a fan of the food at Japonais and was impressed with Sumi when it opened, but for it took us awhile to get back there.  And I’m glad we did – it’s a solid meal, albeit a bit overpriced based on portion sizes.

As you walk in, you’re greeted by chef Gene Kato running the robata grill and a sous chef putting together a number of other dishes at the robata bar in the middle of a small room.  Decor is minimalistic and modern with traditional elements.  This time, we got a prime seat right at the robata bar, where we could observe a lot of the dishes coming together.  The menu itself is split up into hot and cold appetizers, and the per skewer robata grill selections.  Service is friendly and helps guide you in terms of how much to order, as it can always be difficult to tell with a menu like this.   Anyways, on to the food…

Salt-cured cucumber

Salt-cured cucumber

Chilled Tofu with ponzu sauce, salmon roe, shitakes, crispy ginger

Chilled Tofu with ponzu sauce, salmon roe, shitakes, crispy ginger

We started healthy – going with two chilled appetizers – the first a sliced salt-cured cucumber that had just a touch of pickled flavor to it – nice and crisp, but not overly vinegary, and the togarshi sprinkled on top gave it just the right amount of spice.  The salt-cure itself keeps the flavor of the cucumber and for some reason, reminded me of the pickles at Katz’s in NYC….mmmmmm….

The tofu dish was artfully presented and wonderfully done.  The tofu mixed with the ponzu had a chawanmushi-like custard texture to it with a rich flavor that was balanced nicely by the saltiness of the ikura.  Almost a definite must have if you go.

Soft-shell crab Karaage

Soft-shell crab Karaage

While I was tempted to get the chicken karaage (per usual), a soft-shell crab karaage appetizer caught our eye instead.  Just coming into season, the crab was fresh and perfectly fried with a subtly soy flavor and a minimal excess of salt in the batter.   The sauce itself looked quite thin, but was a thick, molasses-like sweet and sour sauce that was a bit overpowering.  In the end, the crab itself didn’t really need any extra sauce.

Chicken soup

Chicken soup

For some reason, I was in a soup mood, and the chicken soup was pretty much the only option.  The broth itself was nice and thin, not overly rich, and the bit of shishito and grilled mochi adds some texture.  Overall, not much to write home about here though.

At this point, we move on to the robata portion of the evening.  Most portions here are intended for a single person, but they can usually be shared if you just want a bite or two.

Shishito Peppers

Shishito Peppers

Salmon robata

Salmon robata

The shishitos are a nice option for sharing – the peppers having a nice char, smoky flavor that works well.  The salmon was perfectly cooked, nice and tender and gently brushed with a smooth teriyaki sauce that complemented the salmon nicely.  Didn’t get much of the grill char flavor, but something pretty simple if that’s what you’re looking for.

Beef Tsukune Slider

Beef Tsukune Slider

Shrimp Robata

Shrimp Robata

Sara got a beef tsukune slider and was nice enough to let me have a bite.  The bun is similar to a Chinese bao dough, but softer and more tender.  The tsukune itself has great flavor and has the consistency of a Middle Eastern lamb kabob.  The shrimp / prawn is huge (for a shrimp…ha) – gently charred by the grill

Robata tea-smoked duck breast with tare sauce

Robata tea-smoked duck breast with tare sauce

Bone-in Lamb Chop!

Bone-in Lamb Chop!

Robata Chicken Thighs

Robata Chicken Thighs

I’m a huge duck fan, and this duck was pretty decent – the meat itself didn’t have enough natural flavor and the duck was just a touch overcooked.

The bone-in lamb chop is a highlight – a nice cut of lamb that’s cut to a perfect thickness for the robata grill.  Chef Kato grills this one perfectly, a nice medium rare with a perfect char on the outside.

The chicken thighs are also a highlight the skin nice a crispy balancing with the tenderness of the thigh.  The skin is heavily seasoned and a bit salty for some tastes, but I myself am a big fan.

Prices at Sumi are pretty reasonable (robata servings are each around $4 and the appetizers are about $5-15 depending on what you get), and the service is friendly and knowledgeable.  There’s a good variety and portions for each are a bit small, but sizeable enough for two.

 

 

 

We love @mottstreetchi

Mott Street – 1401 N Ashland St.

If there’s a place that’s becoming our spot for go to Asian comfort food, it’s Mott Street.  (see my original review at  (http://chohschow.com/2014/02/06/mottstreet) It’s a completely unique spot – nowhere like it in Chicago, and really probably in the midwest.   And I think you’d probably have to search to find something like it even in NYC, LA, or SF.  Edward Kim’s modern take on Asian street food is phenomenal and like it’s sister spot Ruxbin, very reasonably priced for what you’re getting (for the most part).

Sara and I have now hit it up twice in a little over a month.   The first time was jaunt over a few weeks before the wedding to help reduce some stress – the second visit was just this weekend, as she had a friend in town from Louisville, and it seemed like a perfect spot to take an out of towner looking for some good asian food.

There’s a bit of overlap in the dishes we ordered, so I’ll reconcile a little – but also wanted to stress there’s a few dishes that our now our standard go-to’s and highly recommended if you’re headed there for the first time.

Everything Chicken Wings

Everything Chicken Wings

The first of our go-to’s is the everything chicken wings – fairly jumbo, high quality fried full chicken wings dressed in a Kang Poong Gi-influenced sauce, but finished off with some spices simulating the everything bagel.  Just dip it in a bit of the tsaziki sauce served on the side, and it’s a great complement of sweet, heat and cool.   My only complaint is that there’s three wings to an order – tough if you’re in a group of 2 or four, but perfect if there’s three (like we had last night!)

Crab Brain Fried Rice!!

Crab Brain Fried Rice!!

The next go-to is the crab brain fried rice – the dish that seems to get the most press from Mott Street, probably because of the novelty of having crab brains in a dish, even though it’s not really the brains, but more the guts of the crab.  The slimy, creamy texture mixes perfectly with the starch of the rice, and the addition of sprouts and chinese sausage balance the dish perfectly, along with just a bit of lime.

Stuffed Cabbage!!!!

Stuffed Cabbage!!!!

This pic does not do the dish justice, but the stuffed cabbage at Mott Street is definitely on my top 5 dishes in Chicago list.  A healthy heaping of kimchi, braised pork butt, and rice that’s perfectly seared so it gets a crispiness, similar to a plate of dolsot bibimbap.   Plop that on top of an amazing kimchi broth that has a deep buttery taste and texture to it, and you have the perfect mixture.  The spice of the kimchi, the buttery flavor of the broth, the tenderness of the pork, and the texture of the rice all combine to create a perfect mixture of flavors in your mouth.

Brussel Sprouts

Brussel Sprouts

The brussel sprouts dish was solid, but nothing too unique – the lamb pancetta was a bit different, but overall, similar to any brussel sprout and bacon dish you might get elsewhere – a solid side nonetheless.

Duck hearts and strawberries

Duck hearts and strawberries

Duck hearts up close

Duck hearts up close

Lamb Sweetbreads

Lamb Sweetbreads

We got a bit adventurous our second trip around, getting the duck hearts and strawberries, and the lamb sweetbreads.   Both were suprisingly awesome.   The duck hearts had a great meaty texture, and had an underlying duck flavor with a bit more umami, and the strawberries mixed well with the savoriness of the dish.

The sweetbreads were perfectly cooked and prepared in a General Tso’s fashion, but with the peanuts and the Chinese chili peppers, it was more reminiscent of a kung pao dish.  That being said, the sweetbreads for nice and tender, and the sauce not overpowering.  Still, I enjoyed it better than the General Tso sweetbreads at Next!

Whole red snapper

Whole red snapper

For three of us, the whole red snapper seemed like a good fit.  The whole fish is fried in coconut fat and served in a tamarind broth, garnished with lime.  It includes a bowl of brown rice mixed in with plantains.  Served with sesame leaves and two sauces – a spicy house sambal sauce and a nuoc pham, a Vietnamese broth-based sauce with a thick fishy flavor.   The fish was perfectly fried and melted off the bone, making it easy to fillet and eat.  The broth had great coconut flavor and the mixture of sesame leaves, fish, rice, and sambal sauce made a perfect wrap (the nuoc pham was alright, but not a standout).  The rice portion was a bit small, so for a group of 3 or 4, you may want to ask for a second bowl if possible.  Also, for $50 and up, depending on weight, the fish will definitely be one of the less cost-effective dishes on the menu.

Tres Leches!

Tres Leches!

Finally, for dessert, the tres leches is unqiue – it’s less creamy than most tres leches cakes I’ve had, but the addition of coconut milk give it a very unique flavor, and the coconut whipped cream blends in perfectly.  Surprisingly, the coconut flavor in the cake is not overpowering.

From a cost standpoint, methinks Mott Street is affordable, particularly for the quality and the innovation of the food.  You could spend $30-40 a person here and leave fairly comfortable, and $50-60 and be absolutely stuffed (minus drinks, which I didn’t get into to, but the new shave ice drinks are very refreshing, although a bit weak).

 

 

Next restaurant – have I set the bar too high?

Next Restaurant – 953 W Fulton Market – Chicago, IL

I’ve been pretty lucky to eat at Next a significant number of times – I have the utmost respect for the Achatz team, and Next continues to push the envelope and it keeps on innovating.   I was even luckier to have the opportunity to buy season tickets this year for a group of menus that sounded much more interesting than last year’s.  I’ve definitely set my expectations quite high for each meal I eat there at this point, and unfortunately, when expectations are set that high, it sets up for a bit of disappointment.  That being said, the Chinese Modern menu at Next was interesting – had some hits and misses – didn’t astound or wow me like some of the previous menus, but was still a solid effort from Dave Beran and his team.

It’s been a bit over a month, and a number of dishes stand out in my mind, and some do not, so I’ll focus on the highlights.

 

Loofah - Chinese Okra

Loofah – Chinese Okra

Pressed Chinese okra with coriander, Szechaun pepper

Pressed Chinese okra with coriander, Szechaun pepper

Taking a page from the Achatz book, the meal starts by involving the centerpiece, a large stalk of Chinese okra pressed into a bowl of tea, seasoned with Chinese spices – an interesting idea and gimmick, but an average start to the meal.

Bamboo Shoot and Lily Bulb

Bamboo Shoot and Lily Bulb

"Dim Sum"

“Dim Sum”

I was torn between expecting a solid performance of a known entity vs. embracing Beran’s expected twist on the traditional.  He came out here with three variations on Dim Sum – the left is a foam congee, the second – a pork mousse “soup dumpling”, and on the right, a scallop dumpling,  The foam congee served over a perfectly cooked pork braise was incredible, the scallop dumpling as well.  The soup dumpling is where I missed the traditional, as it didn’t have that “burst’ of flavor you get with a soup dumpling (or a black truffle explosion)

Monkfish with pickled white asparagus and shaved celery

Monkfish with pickled white asparagus and shaved celery

Coconut with crab, green chil paste

Coconut with crab, green chili paste

The coconut dish was one of my favorites of the evening – quite rich with flavor, refreshing and filling at the same time.  The crab was remarkably meaty, and was balanced perfectly by the subtle sweetness of the coconut, which was amazingly refreshing, making me wish they had saved this dish for later on in the meal.

muslim Skate

Muslim Skate

 

Tingly Squab

“Tingly” Squab

Next up, a take on Chinese street food, squab and skate wing, both heavily spiced, heavy on the peppercorns, heavy on the salt, but in the end, a small bite.

Duck breast

Beef with Broccoli

Beef with Broccoli’

Duck breast

By now, I’m starting to get unusually full for a Next menu, and the next few dishes were extremely rich, but some of the late highlights of the menu.  The Next take on beef with broccoli was interesting – glazed slices of a beef-jerky like preparation (apparently of leftover beef from the Steakhouse menu), the beefy flavor accentuated by the preparation, and some fried broccoli florets which were just alright.  The duck here was perfectly cooked and solid, but the supporting cast left a bit to be desired.

Pulling Threads  sweetbreads course

Pulling Threads sweetbreads course

The last of the savory courses was a bit over the top.  The idea is serving fried sweetbreasds, taro, and bananas, dipped in a more savory caramel-like sauce that hardens after dipping.  The textural component of this dish was fascinating, but the sauce was quite intense and a bit much at that point.

Frozen rice soup

Frozen rice soup

Dragon's Beard Candy

Dragon’s Beard Candy

Finally!  Dessert choices here were pretty solid and not overly powerful in terms of taste.  The frozen rice soup was more refreshing than flavorful, but the freeze dried english peas added a nice subtle flavor.  The dragon’s beard candy, with a light sesame flavor and some floral notes, was one of my favorite Next desserts to date.

Fortune Cookie!

Fortune Cookie!

Of course, the meal ends with a fortune cookie, containing our menus (although it may have been nicer to get actual fortunes.

Service, as alawys with Next was solid – very informative, attentive without being stuffy.  The meal was definitely pretty solid, but didn’t wow me like other meals I’ve had there and at other comparably priced restaurants in the city.  It doesn’t seem like I’m alone in thinking that one of the big gripes about Next is that it started off by billing itself as a reasonably priced fine dining experience, but at this point, it can easily get up to well over $200   I got tickets to Trio and it’ll probably be the last I see of Next for a bit (you know, the whole marriage thing and all).  But I am definitely looking forward to it.