Saturday, June 18, 2011

m.henrietta, Chicago IL

Seeing as vacation was too short – as it almost invariably always is – our final day in Chicago would be restricted to only breakfast before beginning the drive back to Toledo and with my plans including a return to Columbus after dropping mother and aunt off I knew I wanted something hearty to last me through the day – a desire I had little doubt would be fulfilled by m.henrietta, the sister restaurant of one of my favorite brunches of all time. Featuring the same concept as its older sibling (local, seasonal, fresh, and organic) but reportedly with shorter lines and plenty of inexpensive/free parking just off the Loyola campus our arrival at m.henrietta would be surprisingly early despite my long morning run and just as promised we walked through the front door to find the restaurant approximately 1/2 full at 8:30am.

With the sun shining through large picture windows and the space decorated quite similarly to its North Clark sibling we were greeted shortly after entering the restaurant by a young woman who invited us to taste some samples – a blueberry poppyseed muffin and a slice of chocolate pound cake both still warm and tasty – prior to being led to our table where another young lady named Katie would take over again welcoming us and subsequently filling waters while handing us menus and taking drink orders. With mannerisms a bit rushed as it appeared she was the only server currently staffing the dining room we were invited to “take our time – and check out the bakery case” as she stepped away.

With the menu largely similar to that at m.henry yet featuring several seasonal variations it would not take us long to decide on our selections and despite the staffing issues Katie would return within moments carrying two coffees – a nutty blend by Metropolis – plus my aunt’s orange juice and when told we were ready to order she smiled stating “all the best stuff – great choices” before again returning to the front and subsequently returning less than ten minutes later with not only the first of many perfectly timed coffee refills, but also with a small order of the house-signature “amazing breakfast bread pudding” – a dish we’d experienced once prior at m.henry but this time perhaps even better with the brioche more dense and buttery, the custard sweeter, and the compliment of fruit a bit less overwhelming of the notes of cinnamon and vanilla.

Making short work of the bread pudding and with the restaurant now beginning to fill up our primary plates would arrive perhaps twenty-five minutes after we entered the restaurant and with each of us opting for sweets over savories the selections were exactly what I’d hoped for beginning first with my aunt’s selection of the daily special “Peach Blueberry French Toast,” a two-slice stack of thick cut golden brioche with a lovely exterior crunch and custard soft interior stuffed with (and subsequently topped with) warm peaches, whole blueberries, vanilla crème, brown sugar, and toasted oats that was every bit as good as the bread pudding and perhaps even better given the textural variation created by the oats.

Unable to get enough of the henry/henrietta family brioche and ever a fan of lemon in all forms my mother’s selection for the morning was another French Toast that would prove every bit as lovely as my aunt’s, but this time lacking the oats and instead described as “Lemon raspberry brioche french toast” served with two slices of dense and crispy Applewood smoked bacon. With the bread this time stacked three high and dusted in powdered sugar plus a dollop of warm house made lemon curd and sweet raspberry coulis I have to admit that although I am not a fan of lemon in general I quite liked the mildness of this presentation while my mother deemed it her favorite breakfast of the trip by far.

With the French Toast as good as our previous visit my selection for the morning would be a seasonal variation of another dish we’d tasted before – the appropriately named “bliss cakes,” this time presented as two light and fluffy hotcakes layered with warm blackberries, vanilla mascarpone cream and topped similarly to my aunt’s French Toast with a brown sugar and oat crust with the whole stack floating in a pool of sweetened blackberry reduction that negated any need for syrup but instead left me wishing for one more cake or perhaps a slice of that brioche to soak up every last drop.

With the restaurant now full (and a few more servers circulating) Katie again returned to clear our plates and asking us if there was anything else we’d like I requested a “to go” cup for my coffee along with the check – a wish that was happily granted and with the bill paid we made our way to the streets less than fifty minutes after entering m.henrietta all the happier for having visited and wishing for the umpteenth time that a place even half this good existed in Northwest or Central Ohio.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Avenues, Chicago IL

For my last dinner on this trip to Chicago the choice came down to Graham Elliot, Ria, or Avenues – not a bad one in the bunch from what I’d been told, but with one standing far above the others amongst the palates I tend to trust and with rumors swirling (and subsequently confirmed) that Chef Curtis Duffy would soon be leaving The Peninsula to open his own restaurant I figured now was as good a time as ever to see what was happening at Avenues.

Having already mentioned Duffy I have to admit I’m not really sure why it had taken me so long to visit Avenues given my frequent trips to the Windy City. A former chef at Alinea well known for his ability to work modern (“molecular?”) technique into his classical training I’d always been curious as to what was going on in the kitchen just off North Michigan Avenue, but between the confounded website menu and other great dining options in Chicago I always found myself compelled to look elsewhere until now, dining alone and with the option to sit at a Chef’s counter peering directly into the open kitchen where Duffy doesn’t so much cook, but rather directs like a maestro and educates like a professor.

With reservations made well in advance it was a bit of a surprise to me when I arrived at the Peninsula and found that I actually had to ascend to the lobby and subsequently the seventh floor to visit the restaurant, but never one to stay at high end hotels when I’d rather spend my money on high end dining I must note that outside of the rare exception The Peninsula Chicago proved to be one of the most classy and well adorned hotels I have ever seen. With polished marble abound and gilded fixtures gleaming at each turn I made my way past the famous “Lobby at The Peninsula Chocolate Bar” (complete with full jazz quintet) to the door of Avenues just moments early for my 7:00pm reservation and greeted by a young woman who greeted me by name (perhaps I was the only party of one that evening?) I was led swiftly to the otherwise empty chef’s counter – to a seat perhaps 5 feet from Duffy and even closer to the rest of his team.

With the swivel-top high-backed stool soft and supple beneath me and a counter of polished marble topped first with a bronze mat and then an artistic waxed menu featuring a photograph of one of Duffy’s previous creations before me it would be mere seconds before one of my three person team of servers would arrive to offer water (still or sparkling) and a menu of wines and cocktails. Deciding that a place with such unique presentations would likely do something equally interesting with their cocktails I decided to take a look and within seconds was left to decide between which of three sounded best – a rarity to say the least – and in the end a decision that a surprise comp at meal’s end for unknown reasons save for perhaps my praise for Duffy’s talents at meals end (and chuckling at his ongoing banter with the sommelier about pressure from management to “push the wine pairings” – an issue he was clearly a tad disgruntled about throughout the meal.)

With the menu explained – chef’s tasting, vegetarian tasting, or any/all of the choices available ALC – and a small modification requested (no beef for the main course) ordering was a breeze and with greetings by a number of the chefs as they did their work plus an invitation to ask questions about any dish or technique it would be a short wait before things would begin – first with the aforementioned cocktail, a glass entitled “Toblerone” and without exaggerating a drink that tasted almost identical to the celebrated candy bar with notes of thick cream and honey muffling the almond and coffee tones of a blend of Frangelico, Bailey’s, and Kahlua.

Sitting back and sipping my drink while browsing the dining room – a fairly dull but well spaced area with floor to ceiling windows, chandeliers, and flowers – I was a bit surprised that Avenues sat half-empty during prime dining hours on a Friday, especially with reservations near impossible to nab at other spots in Chicago’s upper echelon of dining, but given the economy and the packed Lobby I can only note that perhaps it was for the better as the server to diner ratio was seemingly one to one and throughout the evening I was never for want for anything from water to dish descriptions to conversation from my servers or the men and women in the kitchen – as a matter of fact I was even offered magazines to read while I waited between courses; an offer that was appreciated albeit largely unnecessary given the action before me.

With servers circulating and each station churning out beautiful plate after beautiful plate my first taste of Duffy’s cuisine would arrive in the form of an amuse bouche every bit the size and complexity of any of the proper plates – a dish described as “Uni – Rhubarb, Licorice, Pea Puree” Beginning first with the urchin tongue the plate began with briny sweetness quickly balanced by green “Peas” that were actually liquid nitrogen frozen pea puree slightly muted by bitter notes that harkened faintly of licorice. With strands of poached rhubarb adding a fibrous component to the dish and a shrimp chip providing some crunch this plate would prove a sign of things to come with each of the subsequent presentations displaying a great degree of manipulation, nuance, and character yet at the same time superior sourcing, balance, and technique.

Moving next to the tasting menu proper, the first course of the night is perhaps Chef Duffy’s most famous – a layered dish titled “Alaskan King Crab – Golden Brook Trout Roe, Kalamansi, Lemon Mint” with so many textures and flavors that it really must be experienced to be understood. Deliverd with the roe, mint, and other creams and textures atop a sugar chip with the supple crab, more roe, and refreshing cucumber broth below the diner is instructed to crack the chip and “explore” the dish – a great suggestion as truly no two bites are alike with some sweet, some briny, and all entirely delicious.

With the first course now a lovely memory on my palate the next item to arrive at my table was the first of a number of “bread pairings” served with an ornately sculptured plate of Cows Butter and Black Salt, Olive Oil Emulsion with Mixed Herbs and Fleur de Sel and Olive Oil Emulsion with Meyer Lemon with white Balsamic. Beginning first with “bolillo bread” – a bread something like a whole grain baguette with a crunchy exterior and open crumb I can only say that while this bread lacked in flavor and complexity compared to later offerings it did prove to be the best for highlighting each of the spreads – both the butter and the herbal olive oil excellent while the lemon emulsion was a bit too potent for my tastes.

Moving forward and with courses arriving uniformly just about ten minutes after completion of the prior dish “Cortez Bay Scallops – Romaine Marmalade, White Poppy, Nasturtium” arrived first as a collection of bright and bold colors only to be completed tableside by the addition of the white poppy broth. With the scallops nearly raw yet sweet and smooth the most impressive aspect of this dish for me was again the balance – specifically that of the clean romaine lettuce notes punctuated by peppery nasturtium.

Moving on to the next course I was given two choices for my bread pairing – both relatively straightforward but both archetypes of their respective genre – a dense butter roll and a fluffy salty pretzel roll, both excellent on their own but all the more so with a spread of extra butter and sea salt.

Having declined the beef main I’d heard Chef Duffy relay my order to the kitchen with two specific differences compared to the other tastings ordered that evening and as it turns out the two differences proved to be two separate courses meant to replace the beef – the first of which was my third course, an item from the vegetarian menu that would prove to be the best dish in an evening of great dishes. Titled “Chestnut – Perigord Truffle, Quince, Garden Herbs” and served in a hand-blown double glass vessel looking quite like the start of a potted plant this amazing dish featured a creamy chestnut pudding at its base topped with large chunks of summer truffle, small micro herbs, and cubes of quince gelee. Ornate and again focused on multiple textures and flavors the dish was subsequently finished with shaved truffle powder and a mildly acidic vinaigrette just prior to service and with the flavors all melding into a sweet earthy porridge it was the scent of this dish that thrilled me the most – the scent of truffles that met you a good two feet away and perfumed the palate with each bite.

Course four was another of Duffy’s more famous dishes, a service entitled “Grains, Seeds, Nuts” and featuring no less than six variations of those ingredients including a ‘veil’ of toasted Amaranth and Herbs paired with roasted sunflower seeds, sultana raisins, hazelnut-oil powder and sunflower blossoms resting atop a blend of texturally complex barley, quinoa and chopped hazelnuts. Again presented with a broth added tableside, this time ‘sunflower seed tea’ the aroma was something like a fresh field during summer in Ohio while the tastes and textures were light, complex, and lightly sweet.

Progressing towards heavier proteins my next dish would feature “Hamachi – Lardo, Yuzu, Rainbow Chard” but that limited list of ingredients told nothing of the story of this dish – my second favorite of the night and one of the best fish preparations I’ve ever tasted. With the tender hamachi first grilled and then topped with a drape of melting lardo before rainbow chard and balls of yuzu were added the smoky centerpiece of this dish was further complimented with a dollop of carrot froth, sliced kumquats, grilled morels, poached rhubarb, and a buleed cardamom marshmallow all adding a significant degree of variability to individual bites. It was sweet, it was smoky, it was savory, and although complex (perhaps even ‘fussy’) nothing on the plate seemed extraneous or out of place with each component contributing to the overall effect.

With compliments flowing forth after the fish my bread pairing for the last savory arrived in the form of half of a whole wheat waffle topped Lime salt – a tasty bite to be sure, though I’m uncertain as to how it ‘paired’ with either the beef on the tasting menu or my final savory, a fowl-fortified dish from the vegetarian tasting.

Entitled “Hatomugi – Duck Confit, Artichoke, Idiazabal, Oxalis” and again finished tableside – this time with almond milk broth my sixth course was explained to me as an heirloom grass soup and like the previous grain and seed based dish it was sublime. Beginning first with the Hatomugi – it was toothsome like cooked barley (something I eat on a nearly daily basis at home) but with a more grainy/herbal flavor that melded beautifully with the smoked cheese and smooth almond milk. With the base set and the duck adding its characteristic gamey flavor the addition of a touch of acid from both the oxalis and fibrous artichokes simply served to bring everything to a peak on the palate.

With my plates now cleared the palate cleanser for the evening would arrive on a branch described as “Sudachi – Togarashi, Nepitella Mint” and instructed to consume it in a single bite I did as I was told with the spheriphication bursting into a wash of spice, sour, and sweet all at once with the final effect being something like a citrus tinted apple.

With the dining room now winding down and cleanup beginning at the prep-stations I was impressed to see that Chef Duffy also oversaw the preparation and plating of both desserts at Avenues, though given his predilection for sweetness in his savories perhaps I should not have been. Utilizing a technique I’d admittedly seen once prior – at Los Angeles’ Providence – the first sweet course of the evening was titled “Coconut – Pineapple, Freeze Dried Saffron, Vietnamese Balm” and with a capsule filled with pineapple jus bursting on light pressure from my spoon this dish wowed first in visual effect and later in flavor as the icy coconut capsule and pineapple broth formed a tropical backdrop to caramelized bananas and roasted cashews with top-notes of minty citrus and saffron filling the sinuses.

A somewhat typical American in my love of chocolate based desserts I was excited to see the second dessert of the evening arrive in the form of “Sambirano Valley Chocolate – Brown Butter, Mandarin, Stevia” and I was even more pleased on tasting it as it proved to be even more texturally interesting than its predecessor. Clearly unwilling to settle for subtle presentations, this dessert centered on dense ‘noodles’ of chocolate ganache traversing the long plate and intermingling first with hazelnut cake and freeze-dried mandarin orange, then frozen blood orange sorbet followed by sliced citrus and chocolate cake, and finally flaked stevia and huckleberries – a veritable roller coaster ride that served not only to keep the presentation interesting, but also to highlight the myriad nuances of the chocolate.

With desserts finished and the hour now just past 10:15 my final bites of the evening would arrive as yet another exploration of chocolates – this time “Chocolates from 3 countries” including Venezuela, Ecuador, and Madagascar. With each entirely unique I meant to ask if any had been used to form the previous dessert course as the Madagascar particularly had a lovely floral bouquet that seemed similar while the Venezuelan bite leaned more towards lighter caramel tones.

With the bill in hand Chef Duffy made his way over to chat for a bit and thanked me for coming in – a humble man and very appreciative of my compliments for a great meal it was here that he noted the cocktail was on the house and thanking him again the bill was paid with the cocktail price added to the tip as a thanks for the great food and lovely service. With a copy of the menu gathered and bid farewell by the team (both in the kitchen and the front of the house) I made my way back out to the lobby where the chocolate bar was still hopping and met my family outside the hotel to tell them what they had just missed out on – a meal that blew “NEXT” out of the water and rivals L2o (under Gras) and Alinea for best in the city with a Chef every bit as capable as his pedigree would suggest…a chef whose next venture will not take me nearly as long to visit.

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.