Friday, July 31, 2009

Hot Doug's, The Art of Pizza, Vanille Patisserie, Chicago IL

While the "Chicago Steakhouse" holds some significance, ask most persons what they think of when they hear the phrase "Chicago Style" and you get pizza and hot dogs or hot dogs and pizza - simple "common" American comfort foods served in a very distinctive style and not really obtainable in their authentic form anywhere else in the US. After an early morning breakfast at the Bongo Room and meeting up with my family near the Art Museum the next stops on our list were two of Chicago's more unique places to order the city's staple specialties - Hot Doug's and The Art of Pizza.

Having heard that Doug's frequently generates a 1-2 hour line shortly after opening we decided to check out the hot dog scene first - arriving at 11:00am (only 30 minutes after opening) this proved to be a good call as the line was already 30 persons deep (a far cry from the 60+ waiting when we left.) Waiting in line all we heard was locals discussing how it was "totally worth it" and raving about previous experiences with Doug's specialty encased meats and (Friday and Saturday only) Duck Fat Fries. Chatting with the friendly crowd our 45 minute wait brushed by and we soon found ourselves standing in front of the big board of common and not-so-common choices.

Kitschy décor aplenty and Doug himself managing the register we approached and placed our orders – each of which was “approved” by Doug who, despite the lines, was personable and pleasant telling us about some of his button collection and making suggestions on whether each choice should be fried or broiled – heck, he didn’t even laugh at my mother’s request for a “plain hotdog” – but I certainly did. Taking our seats and listening to the radio we filled our sodas and waited about 10 minutes before our orders arrived.

Starting first with my aunt’s and mother’s boring orders – namely a plain hotdog and duck fat fries for my mother and an Elvis (Polish Sausage with tomato and onion) for my aunt. Additionally ordered by my aunt as a more adventurous option was the Teuben of Corned Beef Sausage with Russian Dressing, Saurkraut, Swiss Cheese. As I do not consume beef I did not taste any of these options but all three were noted to be “awesome” by the ladies and the duck fat fries were quite good with their crispy exterior giving way to a soft and fluffy center – while not as good as Michael Mina’s signature fries I think this was likely more due to the lack of designer ketchups than the actual fries.

The next duo of dogs, ordered by my sister – an absolute hater of hotdogs in general and a naysayer walking into the experience – was the Spicy Thai Chicken Sausage with Thai Peanut Sauce and Toasted Coconut and the Saucisson Alsacienne of Bacon Sausage with Creme Fraiche, Caramelized Onions, Double Cream Brie. First digging into the Thai option both my sister and myself were very impressed by the subtle nuances encased in the meat – namely a great degree of heat that was tempered well by the creaminess of the peanut butter and coconut fats. While not exactly “authentic Thai” or an “authentic hotdog,” I liked the encased meat more than either.

The second selection, entitled a bacon sausage was decidedly more fatty than the chicken sausage and reminded me more of jowl bacon or porkbelly than a true piece of bacon. Akin to Chang’s pork buns at Momofuku in texture the fatty pork’s saltiness paired well with the sour crème fraiche while the savory and pungent onions proved an excellent foil to the sweet and hearty helping of brie. While my sister wasn’t particularly thrilled with the texture of this option, I found it to be quite excellent and gladly helped her out with finishing the dog.

For my options, two dogs were selected – namely the Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Aioli, Foie Gras Mousse, Sel Gris and the Smoked Shrimp and Pork Sausage with Cajun Remoulade and Goat Cheese. Beginning with the Shrimp/Pork option I was instantly struck by the impressive manner in which the pig and the shrimp worked together – smoky and well blended in texture the dish was further enhanced by the remoulade and hefty helping of goat cheese which created an almost gumbo flavor with a bit of heat and a whole lot of savory saltiness.

The final item – the piece de resistance for myself – was indeed the Foie Dog; not since The Bazaar’s Foie Cotton Candy with Corn Nuts had I seen a more obscure way to use the most decadent of all foods. Presented as a sizable piece of terrine atop a sublime duck sausage with the classical flavors of sauternes built right in the dish was put even further over the top by the addition of crunchy grey salt and a creamy and aromatic truffle cream aioli. At $9 the sausage certainly wasn’t cheap, but it was oh-so-worth it.

With tax, tip, and drinks the family ended up walking out of Doug’s full, happy, and smiling for less than $15 a person – something I don’t think we ever expected from “a hotdog joint.” Kitschy décor (check out the bathrooms,) an incredible down-to-earth owner, and top notch food. Having waited in lines for other “hype” restaurants in many other cities I can definitely say Hot Doug’s lives up to the substantial hype. Perhaps the two best words in the English language are indeed “Encased meats” – provided those meats are of the quality of Doug’s!

Following our gluttony at Doug’s, I had Pizza on my mind – alas my dining companions were stuffed and holding out for dessert. Never one to let the appetites of other stop me from my culinary adventures my plans went on undeterred – a stop at The Art of Pizza was programmed into the GPS and off we went. Arriving toward the middle of lunch hour I was surprised at the lack of cars surrounding the small strip mall, but glad that our wait would be short.

Walking into Art’s I was instantly struck by the heavy scents of tomato, pepper, and butter in the air – exactly like a pizza joint should smell. Approaching the counter I was…I guess the word is “greeted” but a sullen looking young man who acted as though it was a great inconvenience to tell me which pizzas were available by the slice. Listening to the options I decided on a slice of deep dish Art’s Special which was plated and handed to me without further warming and without as much as a smile - $3.25 please.

Making my way to the table I must admit the décor left a lot to be desired - but thankfully the pizza did not. Thick, hefty, and absolutely loaded with fresh toppings the sausage, onion, mushroom and green pepper special had just the right amount of toppings versus cheese, a wonderful buttery and crisp crust, and the best pizza sauce I’ve tasted in many moons. Starting with a fork and knife then later proceeding to pick the slice up and eat it by hand I was amazed how the crust was able to support the heft yet how delicate it was in the mouth. While the pizza could’ve stood to be a little warmer, the flavor certainly topped Giordano’s or Pizzapapolis (Chicago and Detroit, respectively, and my only previous Chicago-style experiences) and rivaled the famous Lou Malnati’s with Butter Crust that I had two days later.

The final stop on our lunch foodie tour on the Northwest side of Chicago was dessert – specifically dessert from a place I was recommended by a fellow foodie – Vanille patisserie. Purportedly sporting “the best Macarons in the city” and “amazing Entremets” I had to admit I went in with high expectations. Arriving around 1:00pm three of us hopped out while my mother circled the block (for lack of parking) and browsed the selections. While I must admit I was perplexed by the fact that a box of 8 Macarons cost more than 8 individually selected cookies everything did look very appealing and we emerged with 7 individual macarons, two entremets, and a chocolate croissant. Service was adequate but I have to say I was put off by the server’s smug attitude as we asked about the various entremets.

Beginning first with the cookies that were shared by myself and my mother, our selections entailed Coffee x2, Chocolate x2, Lemongrass Strawberry, Yuzu, and Coconut. Beginning with the chocolate, I was glad I did as the macaron was quite terrible – more a brownie in texture than the traditional crackling shell with fluffy interior. Following this the selections were definitively better with the Lemongrass Strawberry and Coffee being particularly memorable with their jam and cream fillings, respectively, and perfect shell with pillowy interior. While certainly not as good as La Maison, Pistachia Vera, or Bouchon these were certainly high quality cookies prepared with good technique.

Admittedly quite full at this point my sampling of the additional items was somewhat limited – one bite of the chocolate croissant was enough as the pastry itself was largely forgettable and the chocolate ganache although good was far from that loading the versions at Payard or Bouchon. The entremets, on the other hand, proved quite delicious and actually well priced for the quality. Selected by my sister, the bar of caramel with vanilla pound cake and lemon filling surrounded by chocolate was quite delicious – the lemon particularly was well thought out and added just a slight amount of sour to the otherwise incredibly sweet and smooth dish. My aunt’s option, a buttery pastry topped with a creamy peanut butter ganache and coated in a chocolate lacquer was also quite good but certainly not as complex as the other dish – like a haute-peanut butter cup with a buttery crust.

All in all I can’t say I was overwhelmed with Vanille, especially given the attitude of the service and the strict lack of parking. Competent and well prepared overall, nothing about the shop wowed me on the level of experiences elsewhere and I can’t really imagine a reason I’d return unless I lived in Chicago. Overall my macarons were a nice end to great foodie tour – but for the priced I’d have opted for another dog at Doug’s.

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