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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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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).

 

 

Applying the chipotle model to pie @blazepizza

Blaze Pizza Chicago – 227 E Ontario St.

A quick word about Blaze – the new location of the build-your-own pizza fast casual concept opened up in Streeterville just a few weeks ago.   We ended up in that area again and (per usual) in the mood for pizza.  So we stopped in.

You basically order from their preset menu or build your own from the ground up – they top it and throw it in the oven for a few minutes and “bam”, you’ve got your made to order pie.  Prices are reasonable, and the toppings are pretty fresh.

Meat Lovers Pizza - Pepproni, Sausage, Mozzarella

Meat Lovers Pizza – Pepproni, meatballs, Mozzarella

IMG_4303I went with the meat lovers – topped with mozzarella, pepperoni, and meatballs.   The pepperoni had a nice flavor to it, the meatballs were a bit bland.  The downside of the pizza was that it was overloaded with cheese – it made the slice difficult to eat, and made the pizza way too greasy.  The crust/dough was alright, but nothing special.  Cooked well, with a nice burnt edge to it.

Average, but quick.  Service was friendly.  Nothing I’d go out of my way for, but a decent option if you’re: in the area, in the mood for pizza, and don’t want to spend too much. I’d recommend them to go a bit lighter on the cheese.

 

 

 

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.