Friday, June 17, 2011

NAHA, Chicago IL

At NAHA, Chef and owner Carrie Nahabedian cooks in her own kitchen; she does this at both lunch and dinner. She also answers her own e-mails and at least when I called to make reservations she answers her own phones – impressive for a Beard Award Winning Chef in the middle of one of the best eating cities in the country, and all the more so when you consider the fact that her restaurant has been inducted into the Fine Dining Hall of Fame and recently been awarded a Michelin Star. With these things in mind it seems unfortunate that it took me so many visits to the Windy City to finally commit to NAHA, but on our most recent visit I decided to remedy all this and after a morning tour of the Rookery we arrived at the venerable decade old space for a late lunch.

With reservations made months in advance after contacting the restaurant to find out if some dinner menu items could be prepared during lunch service (“Absolutely – but our lunch is excellent as well”) our stop at NAHA would be the first time we would pay for parking during our visit, though a valet of only $8 in downtown Chicago admittedly seemed like a steal. Greeted at the door by the hostess who held the door open as we entered the otherwise empty lobby our reservation was confirmed and without delay we were led to a white tableclothed four-top in the middle of the heavily wooded yet surprisingly “light” feeling room where a number of tables were filled with businessmen engaged in conversations. With well padded chairs pulled out and pushed in as we sat it would be moments before our waiter, William, would arrive to offer beverages and menus plus the description of a couple of daily specials.

With water poured by the ancillary staff and my menu largely decided by my aforementioned requests it would be a few moments before my mother and aunt would make their decisions and having explained to them Chef Nahabedian’s long standing focus on what is local/regional and seasonal choices ranged between classics and summertime specials – all deemed “excellent choices” by William who returned shortly after orders were placed with beverages for my mother and aunt – a house made Passion Fruit Iced Tea and a tart Pink Lemonade that seemed to be kissed with grapefruit, both really quite tasty and refilled frequently throughout the meal along with my water.

Sitting back and enjoying the feel of the room with large windows peering out onto a beautiful Chicago afternoon to our right and remarkable found object paintings to our right it would be a short while before our bread plate would arrive along with a locally sourced salted cow’s butter. With the plate featuring three slices each of Stone Ground Wheat, Rustic Italian, and Golden Raisin Fennel Bread we were told that each option was baked in house and on tasting each was quite impressive and served warm proved quite irresistible, particularly the sweet aromatic flavor of the fluffy fennel offering.

With the restaurant moving at a leisurely pace our first course of the afternoon would arrive approximately half an hour (and two plates of bread) after our seating and with mom and aunt opting for salad and soup respectively the first dish to arrive was “Salad of Beets with Sylvetta Arugula and Great Hill Blue Cheese, Summer Peaches, Cracked Hazelnuts, and Honey Comb Vinaigrette.” With menu titles short on neither words nor descriptors this salad was delivered precisely as titled and with crisp butter arugula serving as the canvas this dish was a flawless balance of earthy beets, intensely sweet peaches, pungent cheese, and crunchy nuts all tinged with a semi-sweet vinaigrette – for collection of minimally manipulated ingredients it was exemplary.

Moving next to my aunt’s soup – one of the daily specials – she received “Creamy Heirloom Tomato Soup with butter croutons, blue cheese, and herbs” a relatively straight forward tomato soup with a velvety texture punctuated by the crunch of the croutons and the melting chunks of cheese that she loved but I found rather pedestrian save for the bites enjoyed with the cheese.

Eschewing the logic of ordering a light appetizer my first course of the afternoon would be one of my requests from the dinner menu and arriving large in both portion and flavor the “Hudson Valley Foie Gras and a "Tarte Tatin" of Golden Delicious Apples, Crimson Raisins and Caramelized Fennel, Quince Jam, Candied Olives and Minus 8 Ice Vinegar” was outstanding. Having had more Hudson Valley Foie than I’d care to admit, this steak was a peerless preparation as the slightly charred exterior gave way to the well prepared interior with minimal pressure from my fork and its pairing with the bread pudding-esque tarte was lovely both in texture and in flavor as the aromatic fennel highlighted some the more savory tones of the liver. Moving past the primary portion of the plate I additionally enjoyed the bitter/sweet interplay of the black olives and the subdued acidity of the vinegar-quince-pan jus reduction as it went nicely with the foie and nearly equally well when soaked up with the house bread.

With another delay of perhaps twenty to twenty five minutes as a group of ten arrived for a celebratory lunch our main courses would once again arrive via our ancillary servers as it appeared William was the only waiter/captain manning the dining room. Beginning first with the selection I did not taste, my aunt’s, her choice was “Our Famous” NAHA “Half Pound” Angus Burger on a Housemade Sea Salt “Crusted” Ciabatta with Stone Ground Mustard, Glazed Onions, and “Hand-Cut” Crisp Idaho Potato Fries with Cabbot clothbound cheddar – a burger she loved and fries that were crisp yet fluffy and perfectly salted to pair with a lovely housemade ketchup.

For my mother’s selection, also from the lunch menu, the Naha BLT of Slow Roasted Bacon, Watercress and Olive Oil Cured Tomatoes on a Whole Grain Pretzel Baton with “Duck Jus” Onion Rings was the plat du jour and while I’ve never been one to be wowed by a BLT it was overall a very good example largely due to the sweetness of the tomatoes and the intense saltiness of both the smoky pork and the dense roll. With the onion rings plated alongside the sandwich I will note that although their texture was excellent – a crisp and flaky exterior giving way to an almost caramelized onion – I personally did not appreciate any duck flavor, though I did appreciate the lovely accompaniment of garlic/basil aioli both on the bites of sandwich I tasted and on the rings.

For my main course I again turned to the dinner menu and at a price of $30 the Lacquered Aged Moulard Duck Breast and Wood-Grilled Ramps, Mountain Huckleberries, Young Turnips and Broccoli Rabe scented with NAHA Prairie Flower Honey and Port was every bit worth the price in size, preparation, and quality. Beginning first with the duck – rosy red flesh, clean and meaty, and medium-crisp skin perfumed with notes of honey – it was quite good and every bit on par with that at NEXT the previous evening, though not as tender as some of the aged breasts I’ve enjoyed on recent trips. Moving on to the accoutrements I will always admit my fondness for sweet protein preparations and this one was no exception with the lovely huckleberries, honey, and port the prevailing flavors over the lighter aromatic undertones of the earthy vegetables – particularly the lovely crispy ramps.

With mother full and aunt nearly so the decision regarding dessert was left up to me and having heard great things about Craig Harzewski’s offerings I figured it would be a shame to miss out and we therefore opted for two choices to be shared around. Told that it would be about fifteen minutes before desserts would arrive we were offered coffee and on declining sat back and waited until our choices would arrive – the first a lovely “Breton Butter Sable with Vanilla Crème Brulee, Blackberry Sorbet, and Lemon Thyme.” An ornate dish to say the least and cleverly presented in a landscape-esque form the brulees themselves were strewn like rock formations around the dish with caramelized sugar laid atop while the sorbet appeared like a crash-landed meteor at 12 o’clock. Centering the plate with the dense and buttery cookie and completing the picture with dollops of lemon-thyme gelatin plus whole blackberries this was essentially a “choose your own adventure” sort of dessert with the best flavors in my opinion being those inclusive of the sable, brulee, and whole blackberries.

For our second dessert, my personal favorite of the duo, “Bittersweet Chocolate Pave with Salted Caramel Peanuts, Milk Chocolate Beignet, and Chocolate Cream” would prove to me a much simpler presentation yet an equally complex taste experience with the dense pave made with “70% Cocoa Amadei” topped with shards of similar and the beignet and mousse formed using a 45% Cocoa whose origins were not named. With the chocolate tones clearly intense, the most impressive aspect of this plate from my vantage was actually the use of the intensely salty peanuts to temper the bitterness of the pave and the buttery crumbles at the plate’s center which tasted quite like the sable from the previous dish.

With the restaurant now empty save for the celebratory table and ours we were asked if there was anything else we’d like and declining the check was brought along with a small plate of mignardises - Chocolate Cheesecake Squares and Mango Gelees, both good though not particularly memorable – and with the bill paid we made our way to the lobby where Michael Nahabedian was sitting at the bar talking with a friend and asked us how we’d enjoyed our afternoon. With pleasantries exchanged and a copy of the menu in hand we next made our way to the already waiting car and within moments were back to seeing the sites of downtown Chicago and happy to have finally experienced yet another example of Chicago’s rich and ever growing list of top notch modestly priced places to dine.

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