River North

Lucky us on a Friday Night! @topolochicago

Topolobambo – 449 N Clark Street, Chicago, IL

Usually when we get home on Friday night and neither of us wants to cook, Sara and I are browsing through the Friday night scraps of reservations on Open Table and usually end up with slim pickings….last night, however, there popped open an evening restaurant at a spot that’s been on our list for quite some time- Rick Bayless’s Topolobambo, which just recently got Phil Vettel’s coveted 4-star rating, which he seems to only hand out to Dave Beran for his renditions at Next (although he did recently give 4 stars to the new Spiaggia as well).  Anyways, as big fans of the vastly more affordable Xoco (and Tortas Frontera in Terminal 1 at O’Hare), along with his TV ventures, and Frontera Grill, we were quite excited at the prospect of dining here.  And it did not disappoint.

 

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First off, as we sit down and are handed our menus, another couple gets seated just behind us – and wouldn’t you know it, the man himself sits down right behind us with his wife Deann and later joined by the chef de cuisine.  Sara got a little star-struck and as much as we wanted to, we’re not the type of people who would want to bother him at dinner, even if he’s at his own restaurant (although we thought it would be hilarious if we asked the waiter to drop a bill in front of him, just to see his reaction).

Anyways, you probably just want to hear about the food.  There’s 8 sections of the menu here, and you can choose either 3, 5, or 7 courses to “choose your own adventure”, so to speak (for $55, 90, or $120), or you can go with the recommended “Mexico City 1831” 7-course menu (also $120), inspired apparently by one of the first Mexican cookbooks published in that year.  I decided on the Mexico City menu, with two substitutions…

Amuse Bouche - melon with lime crema and chili powder

Amuse Bouche – melon with lime crema and chili powder

The amuse was a nice preview of things to come – an interesting mix of flavors, but Far from subtle.  In fact, if there’s one word that I could use to sum up the meal at Topolobambo, it would be “intense”.   The one biter here was a thin square of lemon and a healthy dose of smoky chile powder and a cold lime crema.  The heat here was pretty in your face, but balanced nicely by the lime and the melon.

Halibut Escabeche

Halibut Escabeche

The journey starts with the halibut escabeche, a meaty generous chunk of sashimi-style halibut, bathed in a very strong, sour pineapple vinegar broth.  May be overpowering for some, but I thought it was a nice way to wake you up to start the meal.  Cumin and pepper flavors were apparent and some capers were a crispy way to introduce some texture into the dish.

Roasted Poblano Chile!

Roasted Poblano Chile!

Next was one of the highlights of the night – a roasted poblano chile, stuffed with a healthy dose of trumpet mushrooms, served in a “Nogada” sauce – basically a whipped up mix of got cheese, walnuts, sherry, and scattered with a few pomegranate seeds – the presentation was lovely, but the flavors were incredible.  The chile itself has a heat that creeps up on you, and just as you’re enjoying the meatiness of the mushrooms, then *BAM*, it hits you, so you scoop up a bit of the subtly sweet goat cheese sauce, and it balances everything out.  One of the best things I’ve eaten in awhile….

Smoky Chicken and Sweetbreads

Smoky Chicken and Sweetbreads

Next up is a dish that had an almost Southern feel to it – the chicken itself was bit overcooked and dry, and smokiness was very faint, but the sweetbreads were fantastic – extremely tender and flavor with the right amount of light batter.  The “chutney” had more of a chicken gravy like flavor – the sauce was sprinkled with a few raisins, which were interesting, but for the most part unnecessary.

Venison, eggplant, potato

Venison, eggplant, potato

Carne Asada, foie Gras

Carne Asada, foie Gras

The next dishes were the meat dishes – the first, a rare grilled piece of venison – extremely gamey, with a small piece of eggplant, and a potato torta that featured razor thin slices.   The sauce – a chile pasilla sauce was suprisingly mild, but had a great, smoky flavor.  The carne asada was surprisingly similar, perfectly roasted to a medium rare with a black mole sauce, and served with a wonderfully soft foie gras, some greens and a bit of tamal.

Almond-rice Peach pudding

Almond-rice Peach pudding

Cajeta Chocolate Crepe

Cajeta Chocolate Crepe

Dessert was solid and not overly sweet.

 

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Modern Steakhouse done right @RPMsteakCHI

RPM Steak – 66 W Kinzie

When I first heard about RPM Italian’s opening a few years ago, a joint venture between the Melmans and the Rancics, I was dubious to say the least.  I expected the scene to attract a certain type of crowd and scene that’s not really my cup of tea, but I also didn’t expect the food to deliver either.  Surprisingly, though, RPM Italian has become one of our favorite go-to Italian joints – the scene is the scene, but the food is a great range of solidly done classics and interesting modern takes on Italian staples.

When RPM Steak was announced, for some reason, I was equally skeptical.  Maybe a bit less, but wasn’t sure what to expect.  We made it there a few weekends ago, and were again, pleasantly surprised, treated to a stellar meal, so much that we went back a week later when a friend of Sara’s came into town.

Over the two visits, we got a lot of food so I’ll be brief.

Parker House Rolls!!!

Parker House Rolls!!!

The Parker House Rolls are a must get.  They don’t do bread service, so if you want it, you’re stuck paying $8 for the bread.  It seems to be a trend now these days, between paying for bread and ice in drinks, restaurants seem to be nickel and diming us just like the airlines, but these definitely deliver and are worth paying the extra dollars for.  Stunning in presentation, warm, slightly toasty on the outside with a soft, buttery texture on the inside. Served with a slightly salted Nordic butter, these are a hit.

Coal Roasted Crab

Coal Roasted Crab

Charred Toro

Charred Toro

Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail

Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail

For appetizers, we got a good variety.  The slightly charred toro from the raw bar was alright, one of the more lackluster dishes of the night.  The shrimp cocktail was solid and *HUGE* – very meaty and with good flavor.  The coal-roasted crab is another highlight of our visits – nicely cooked and pre-sliced, making it easy to split.  It was gently sauced with a buttery sauce with hints of lime and coriander.  Fantastic.

On to the steaks…which usually is what makes or breaks a steakhouse for me.  Both times, we got pre-sliced steaks.

42oz Tomahawk Wagyu

42oz Tomahawk Wagyu

24 oz Dry Aged Cowboy Chop

24 oz Dry Aged Cowboy Chop

Both were bone-in ribeye – the first, a 42oz tomahawk Wagyu, and the second a 24 oz dry-aged cowboy chop. Now I’m usually a bit partial to the earthier flavor of the dry-aged cuts, so I thought the dry-aged ribeye had a deeper flavor.  I didn’t notice a significant difference in the quality of the meat with the Wagyu, so if you’re looking for an excuse to splurge, I would recommend sticking to the dry-aged cuts.  Precut, it’s easier to split between people, but I prefer to have an uncut steak that keeps the heat in a bit longer.

For sides, we got

The Millionaire's Potato

The Millionaire’s Potato

Hasselbeck Potato

Hasselbeck Potato

Cauliflower Mushroom

Cauliflower Mushroom

Roasted Corn

Roasted Corn

Highlights of the sides were the Hasselbeck potato and the roasted sweet corn.  The Hasselbeck was sliced to a perfect crispy thinness with an appealing presentation, the roasted corn topped with a chipotle lime butter – the lime gave it good hints of flavor without being overpowering.  FInally, the mushrooms were both solid – the first time we picked the hen o’ the woods (not pictured), the second trip the cauliflower mushrooms

Finally, for dessert

Hazelnut Souffle

Hazelnut Souffle

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Baked Alaska

Baked Alaska

For dessert, we got the Hazelnut Souffle – a wonderfully flavored souffle dish, a little thick, but well seasoned.  Unfortunately they removed it from the menu by the time our second visit rolled around, however, there are still a good selection of souffles on the menu.

The second dessert was a baked Alaska that we ordered on both trips.  Between our two visits they decided it would be a good idea to flambe the dessert, adding a nice touch.  Ice cream topped with caramelized merengue is a perfect mix to end the night.

RPm does everything extremely well top to bottom. THe apeetizers, sides, and desserts match up to anywhere in the city.  I felt like the steaks came up just short of my favorites, Mastro’s and David Burke’s Primehouse.  Still it’s a place that is worth checking out and/or going back to.  Get the Parker House Rolls and the Coal-Roasted Crab .  The dry-aged cuts were my preference, particularly the Tomahawk.  Cost is pricey, but not absurdly so.  It’s a steakhouse in River North – you should know what to expect…

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.

 

 

 

Late thoughts on Wild Cub at the HOB, followed by @RPMitalianchi

RPM Italian – 52 W Illinois

A few years ago, when I heard that Bill and Giuliana Rancic were opening up a LEYE Italian-themed restaurant, I’ll admit, my eyes rolled a bit.  The star power of the couple definitely brought a buzz, and you add in the ability of the Melman family to turn a restaurant into a “see and be seen” place, but for some of their previous works (ala Hub 51 and Paris Club), the food seemed to take a backseat to the ambience and atmosphere.  So, I went into RPM the first time around pretty skeptical.  My first visit completely changed that – the food is well done, the pastas, fresh and handmade, offer a good choice of solidly cooked traditional options and dressed up more unique dishes.  I haven’t tried some of the bigger secondi options yet, but mean to at some point in the future.

So about a month ago (hence the title “late thoughts”, Sara and I checked out Wild Cub at the House of Blues.   Wild Cub, arising out of Nashville with their debut album “Youth” played through the majority of their album, including the album opener “Shapeless”, my album favorite ” Colours, and their rousing ‘hit’ “Thunder Clatter”, the all-ages set lasted about an hour – believe it or not, my first show of 2014 and it was out around 9pm, which was good, because I hadn’t eaten much all day.  Thankfully, seeing a show at the HOB leaves you with a plethora of nearby after-show eats, especially after an all-ages show.  So we headed over to RPM again, looking forward to some excellent fresh-made pasta.

Fritto Misto - calamari, shrimp, red peppers, tomatos

Fritto Misto – calamari, shrimp, red peppers, tomatos

We started with the fritto misto, which ended up being the low point of the meal.  The shellfish aspects were fresh, but just a bit on the greasy side.  A bit disappointing, but thankfully the meal just got better after that.

Beef carpaccio, crispy mushrooms, pecorino

Beef carpaccio, crispy mushrooms, pecorino

It’s not often that I’m in the mood for something like steak tartar or beef carpaccio, but for some reason it sounded enticing.  The beef was perfectly sliced, and the addition of the mushrooms added a nice textural contrast and a balance of flavor that was enhanced even more by the shaved pecorino cheese.  Scattered pieces of arugula gave a nice bite, and overall the extra ingredients didn’t detract from the natural umami of the beef.

Lobster Ravioli....delish

Lobster Ravioli….delish

Taking a bite...

Taking a bite…

Bucatini...sometimes simplicity is the best

Bucatini…sometimes simplicity is the best

So two apps and two pastas was the perfect amount of food for the two of us.  I went with the lobster ravioli, cooked in a spinach-based green shell.  The ravioli was reasonably filled to get in a decent chunk of lobster, mostly claw meat,  The sauce, a light red sauce just adds enough flavor to the ravioli to complement the ravioli.

Sara’s dish, “Mama DePandi’s” Bucatini has become her go-to dish at RPM, and for good reason.  It’s a simple dish – some fresh-made bucatini (a thick, tubular pasta with just the narrow hollow center) tossed with a freshly made pomodoro sauce.  The sweetness of the tomatoes really comes out in the sauce, and it’s perfectly dressed.  Hints of basil and garlic round out the dish nicely.  So while you may be drawn towards some of the more unique sounding dishes on the menu (the squid ink pasta, the english pea risotto), the more traditional pastas have been the best here, IMO (I’ve also had the bolognese, and it was great!)

Tartufo, or just ask for the chocolate ball....

Tartufo, or just ask for the chocolate ball….

Happiness comes in small packages, as long as there's hazelnut gelato inside...

Happiness comes in small packages, as long as there’s hazelnut gelato inside…

Oh, and save room for dessert.  And ask for the “chocolate ball”.  The Tartufo is essentially a solid chocolate core, surrounded by gently flavored hazelnut gelato and held together by a crisp, nutty chocolate shell.  It is the perfect mix of flavors, textures, and temperatures in a dessert.  It’s a good size for a number of people to share.  It is on my list of the best desserts (if not the best) dessert I’ve had in the city (that you can get consistently).

Surprisingly, RPM has turned into less of a scene restaurant than it’s neighbors across the street, but still has a chic vibe.  But it’s the food that stands out and is the highlight of this spot.

 

 

 

Authentic Japanese at #Cocoro Sushi

Cocoro 668 N Wells Street, Chicago, IL

note: I wrote this a few weeks ago when it was still freezing outside.  I haven’t posted in awhile – a lot going on, including a wedding coming up in just a few weeks!  Look forward to more coming soon though!

When temps hit freezing in Chicago in April, you tend to steer towards comfort food.  And for me, high up on that list is a bowl of ramen.  Now we weren’t up for making a trip out to the burbs to Ramen Misoya or Mitsuwa, so our options are a bit limited, but there’s still options – Slurping Turtle and Oiistar for a more modern take.  If you want traditional Japanese cuisine, then there’s not much more authentic than Cocoro.

Cocoro seems to have been a River North fixture for some time, opening in 1996.   Everytime I’ve been, there’s always a handful of native Japanese people – usually a good sign.  The menu runs the gamut of a lot of very traditional and authentic Japanese food – things like Takoyaki, Shabu-shabu, Sukiyaki, and a number of other Japanese dishes that are almost impossible to find elsewhere in the city.  Tonight, we kept it pretty simple…

Chicken Tatsuta-age

Chicken Tatsuta-age

The tatsuta-age had a batter that was a bit soggy, but it was alright – the soy flavor was subtle and would have liked it to be more pronounced.   The portion size was a bit small for the price.

Shoyu Ramen

Shoyu Ramen

The ramen itself was average as well – the broth was pretty light and didn’t carry with it too much flavor.  Not overly salted, though.  The noodles themselves were soft, almost fall apart and probably could’ve been served a little firmer.  The cha-shu pork was solid – just the right amount of fat, and seared perfectly so it cooks just a bit more in the broth.  Nothing special, but a good bowl of ramen.

I’ve had better at Cocoro, and the high point of the restaurant is the variety it carries and the availability of some hard-to-find authentic Japanese dishes.  The execution of some of the more common dishes lacks a bit, but by no means is it bad, and it’s great to have a joint like this right down the street from me.