Best Bites, Chicago

This week’s Best Bite: Everything wings, stuffed cabbage, and ice cold noodles, Mott St.

Everything wings glazed with soy, jaggery and dried chilis, tossed with sesame, poppy seed, fried shallots, and served with tzatziki

Everything wings glazed with soy, jaggery and dried chilis, tossed with sesame, poppy seed, fried shallots, and served with tzatziki

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Mott St. is the second venture from Chef Edward Kim and his team, whose first restaurant, Ruxbin, earned a nod from Bon Appétit as one of the 10 best new restaurants in the country (I had a killer clambake there two years ago). When I heard that Mott St. would have more of a night market vibe, I was definitely in – and our meal delivered, one dish after another in a parade of intriguing, unexpected flavors. The everything wings had drawn comparison to the huge, sticky ones at Pok Pok, which I tasted in February, but I found them to be entirely different. These chicken wings seriously tasted like an everything bagel (hence the name), with a slightly sweet glaze and generous dusting of sesame and poppy seeds, plus subtle heat from the chilis. The bagel comparison drew even stronger when you added the creamy, dill-heavy tzatziki dipping sauce. As with most good wings: messy to eat, but worth it.

The theme continued with the stuffed cabbage, which surprisingly recalled comforting lasagna from the very first bite – just lasagna that was layered with zingy kimchi, crispy rice, and pork instead of ricotta and red sauce. The flavors married especially well in this dish, everything extra-seasoned by the kimchi broth at the bottom. And as our server enthusiastically promised, the ice cold noodles made a lovely palate cleanser after the rest of the savory dishes. Between the chilly temperature and mellow flavors, it was an incredibly clean dish, with the tender beef and quail egg adding just enough richness.

Napa kimchi cabbage rolls stuffed with pork butt and sticky rice, pan-seared and boiled in kimchi broth

Napa kimchi cabbage rolls stuffed with pork butt and sticky rice, pan-seared and boiled in kimchi broth

Ice cold noodles, with buckwheat noodles, beef brisket, and turnip top kimchi broth

Ice cold noodles, with buckwheat noodles, beef brisket, and turnip top kimchi broth

The details: Mott St., 1401 N Ashland Ave., Chicago.

Standard
Best Bites, Chicago

This week’s Best Bite: Squash blossoms, green beans, salmon, chicken (and everything else), Girl & the Goat

Skuna Bay salmon with braised peanut, strawberry, chimichurri, spiced beef, and shallot yogurt

Skuna Bay salmon with braised peanut, strawberry, chimichurri, spiced beef, and shallot yogurt

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Just under three years ago, you would have found me constantly refreshing OpenTable.com, waiting for the restaurant page to first become available so that I could make a reservation for the night of my birthday at Girl & the Goat, the much-anticipated restaurant by Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard (in case she isn’t a household name for you already) that was finally going to open. That dinner remains one of my all-time favorites in Chicago: experiencing all her outlandishly flavorful food for the first time, sipping surprise birthday champagne, and getting to chat with Chef Steph herself at the end of the meal. So could future visits live up to that first one? My answer this weekend was a resounding yes.

You know your meal is off to a great start when you’re spreading coffee butter onto warm bread and drizzling blueberry vinaigrette on top. And then you bite into a squash blossom rangoon, a fleeting seasonal jewel that’s stuffed with creamy crab and fried in airy tempura batter. And then you’re chowing down on what you immediately know are among the best green bean and cauliflower dishes in existence, each with layers of salty and spicy and sweet, and then savory empanadas filled with the tender goat meat that’s incorporated into enough dishes to merit its own menu section. And then the salmon, which you ordered partially because the server told you the fish was flown in from New Zealand and partially because you can’t believe that salmon could really work with strawberry and beef and peanut and yogurt, could it? But of course it does, all of the distinct components tangled together in the best way. And then there’s the chicken. You’ve come to expect at this point that it will be unlike any chicken dish you’ve had before, especially since the server explained it would be brined to order, glazed with maple-y goodness, and baked in the wood-fire oven. And indeed, you can’t stop talking about how good this chicken is, not to mention the soft, buttery naan and remarkable ramp goddess dressing that come with it. You’ll order dessert without question.

I think you get the point here. The service is outstanding, the atmosphere feels special yet free from pretension, and all the little details come together for ultimate consistency. So set a date 6–8 weeks in advance, make a reservation, and get ready for a meal to remember.

Squash blossom rangoon with crab, chive yogurt, and toasted almonds

Squash blossom rangoon with crab, chive yogurt, and toasted almonds

Sauteed green beans with fish sauce vinaigrette and cashews

Sauteed green beans with fish sauce vinaigrette and cashews

Goat empanadas with romesco and radish-endive slaw

Goat empanadas with romesco and radish-endive slaw

Wood-fired Walter's chicken with asparagus, rhubarb, and "ramp goddess" dressing

Wood-fired Walter’s chicken with asparagus, rhubarb, and “ramp goddess” dressing

The Lake Effect cocktail with Journeyman rye, F.E.W. gin, Koval chrysanthemum honey liqueur, and lemon

The Lake Effect cocktail with Journeyman rye, F.E.W. gin, Koval chrysanthemum honey liqueur, and lemon

The details: Girl & the Goat, 809 W Randolph St., Chicago

Standard
Best Bites, Chicago

This week’s Best Bite: Maple pancakes from Jam and shrimp & grits from Carriage House

Maple pancakes with meyer lemon custard, sugar, citrus, Jam

Maple pancakes with meyer lemon custard, Indian sugar brûlée & citrus rind conserve, Jam

Shrimp, grits, gravy & tasso, Carriage House

Shrimp, grits, hunter gravy & tasso, Carriage House

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: I had two excellent brunch dishes this week, and they were different enough – apart from their color scheme, apparently – that it was too difficult to choose a favorite. On the sweeter side, these citrusy pancakes from Jam were like a light lemon crème brûlée with a maple foundation from the cake itself. The toasty sugar and candied rind added great crunch…and don’t even get me started on the bacon-sausage I ordered on the side (that’s right: sausage made from bacon). I think I liked these even better than the decadent chocolate ones I featured from last year – and I also promise that Jam has more than just pancakes!

On the savory side, these shrimp and grits from Carriage House, which I first visited during Restaurant Week, were just the classic I was hoping for. The head-on shrimp were nicely cooked, the grits were creamy, and the gravy didn’t skimp on smoky, meaty flavor. I was also satisfied with the portion size, especially since we couldn’t pass up a little skillet cornbread on the side (I still can’t figure out their secret, but it is delicious).

I fight the sweet vs. savory battle on every brunch menu. Savory usually wins, so I’m glad that in this case, I can call it a tie.

The details: Jam, 3057 W Logan Blvd., Chicago; Carriage House, 1700 W Division St., Chicago.

Standard
Best Bites, Chicago

This week’s Best Bite: Potstickers, pickles, noodles & more, Fat Rice

Trio of pickles: ginger lime cauliflower, sichuan eggplant, and Charlie's peanuts

Trio of pickles: Charlie’s peanuts, sichuan eggplant, and ginger lime cauliflower

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: I’d been anxious to try this restaurant for months now, totally intrigued by the idea of blending Portuguese, Macau, and other global street-food influences, and further convinced by the owners’ other ventures – much-lauded underground dinners and irresistibly delicious nuts that are beloved at my neighborhood farmers’ market. Perhaps predictably at this point, I was so blown away by the whole meal that I couldn’t pick just one best bite. I loved my cocktail, sweetened by vanilla and tamarind with a licorice kick from star anise. I loved the colorful trio of pickles, giving eggplant, peanuts, and cauliflower a new sweet-and-sour character. I loved the potstickers, with an eye-catching lattice of crispy dough still holding them together on the plate, and the silky, spicy pumpkin soup. There was enough going on in the fat noodles and Portuguese chicken to keep my palate constantly engaged, and the serradura dessert’s dreamy guava-banana layers made for spoonful after spoonful of happiness.

We did pass on the eponymous fat rice dish, which can be ordered as a prix-fixe meal with soup, vegetable, and dessert, so I already have a built-in excuse to go back. If you go, plan to arrive as close to the 6 p.m. opening time as possible (or even join the line that forms beforehand) to avoid long waits in the already crowded space.

Callan Club, with rum, tamarind, vanilla, and star anise

Callan Club, with rum, tamarind, vanilla, and star anise

Pumpkin soup with tofu, mushrooms, fried bread, and calamansi pickle

Pumpkin soup with tofu, mushrooms, fried bread, and calamansi pickle

Pork and shrimp potstickers

Pork and shrimp potstickers

Fat noodle with X.O. sauce

Fat noodle with X.O. sauce

Portuguese chicken with mussels, mild curry, parrano, coconut, and chorizo

Portuguese chicken with mussels, mild curry, parrano, coconut, and chorizo

Serradura dessert, with guava, banana, sweet cream, and cookie crumb

Serradura dessert, with guava, banana, sweet cream, and cookie crumb

The details: Fat Rice, 2957 W Diversey Ave., Chicago.

Standard
Best Bites, Chicago

This week’s Best Bite: Cauliflower pizza and gelato sundaes, Balena

Pizza with cauliflower, garlic crema, burrata, anchoïade

Pizza with cauliflower, garlic crema, burrata, anchoïade

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: I’m still daydreaming about an all-around outstanding dinner at Balena last night, in celebration of my roommate’s birthday, and could only narrow it down to these three favorite dishes. First, the pizza. The Neapolitan crust had the right amount of chew, and I loved the combination of garlicky cauliflower, gooey burrata (I admit, I’m a sucker for burrata), zingy preserved lemon, and underlying umami from the anchovy spread. But check out what’s on the plate underneath the pie: house-made Calabrian chili oil. Not only to add a little heat, but also to flavor those last topping-less bites of blistered crust? Game-changer. We made sure to request a to-go cup of chili oil to use on our leftover slices.

And then, there were the composed gelato sundaes. We had two – one of which came compliments of the kitchen with a birthday candle – and swooned over them both. The pistachio sundae was clean and unique, with delicate burnt orange. The rich, salty chocolate sundae, topped with peanut butter crumbles and the pastry chef’s version of “Magic Shell”, was making its menu debut that night; I have a feeling it’s not going anywhere. Each sundae also included a killer nougat candy component.

My new goal is to pair my next visit with a show at the Steppenwolf, right across the street.

Pistachio-orange gelato sundae

Pistachio-orange gelato sundae

Chocolate-peanut butter gelato sundae

Chocolate-peanut butter gelato sundae with “magic shell”

The details: Balena, 1633 N Halsted St., Chicago.

Standard
Best Bites, Chicago

2012 Best Bite #30: Bagel sandwich, Nightwood

Each day in December, I’m celebrating my best bites (and sips) in 2012, posted in chronological order.

Bagel sandwich

Bagel sandwich

Why it’s a Best Bite: OK, I know this is my second bagel-related post this week, sorry. I just didn’t realize that you could consistently crave a dish you’ve only had once, but this bagel sandwich kept calling to me all year until I finally had it again right before heading home for the holidays. This is one of the very few items that Nightwood keeps on its seasonal brunch menu every Sunday, which I support wholeheartedly. Really, this sandwich has everything. It’s anchored by smoked trout cream cheese, mustardy slaw, and greens, then topped with the thick bacon and over-easy egg that breakfast dreams are made of. The three round tots and ketchup on the side are a satisfying bonus between bites of sandwich.

The details: Nightwood, 2119 S Halsted St., Chicago.

Standard
Best Bites, Chicago

2012 Best Bite #29: Tea-smoked duck breast, Belly Q

Each day in December, I’m celebrating my best bites (and sips) in 2012, posted in chronological order.

Tea-smoked duck breast with steamed buns

Tea-smoked duck breast with steamed buns

Why it’s a Best Bite: As a huge fan of Bill Kim’s other two restaurants, Urban Belly and Belly Shack, I knew his newest and largest would be just as special. I enjoyed every dish during my meal there a few weeks ago (don’t miss the doughnuts for dessert!), but this duck entree really showed boldness and finesse. Cooked to perfection, the smoky duck fit right in between familiar Asian barbecue and haute cuisine, and the pillowy steamed buns that came on the side were a delightful foil to the rich duck.

The details: Belly Q, 1400 W Randolph St., Chicago.

Standard
Best Bites, Chicago

2012 Best Bite #26: Pumpkin french toast, Lula Cafe

Each day in December, I’m celebrating my best bites (and sips) in 2012, posted in chronological order.

Pumpkin french toast

Pumpkin french toast

Why it’s a Best Bite: I feel very fortunate that Lula is the closest restaurant to my apartment, and that I have enjoyed so many wonderful dishes there in the past year. I chose to highlight this french toast because it exemplifies what I can always expect from brunch (or any other meal) there: the season’s best sustainable ingredients prepared with consistent, exacting technique. The brioche took on more of a bread pudding consistency, crunchy on top and custard-soaked inside, which made the chantilly cream on top all the more decadent. With cranberry jam for acidity, pumpkin seed granola for crunch, and of course, the bed of sweet pumpkin underneath the toast, this dish screamed fall in the best way.

The details: Lula Cafe, 2537 N Kedzie Ave., Chicago.

Standard
Best Bites, Chicago

2012 Best Bite #21: Ice cream sandwich, Owen & Engine

Each day in December, I’m celebrating my best bites (and sips) in 2012, posted in chronological order.

Ice cream sandwich

Ice cream sandwich

Why it’s a Best Bite: When our group stopped in one weeknight for drinks and dessert, we decided on this ice cream sandwich for its light, summery flavors. The blondie was an ideal vehicle for the citrusy semifreddo and jammy peaches, with an added crunch of almond in each bite. This dessert was even better washed down with an O&E Pimm’s Cup, one of my favorite drinks in the city.

The details: Owen & Engine, 2700 N Western Ave., Chicago.

Standard
Best Bites, Chicago

2012 Best Bite #17: Fried bologna sandwich, Au Cheval

Each day in December, I’m celebrating my best bites (and sips) in 2012, posted in chronological order.

Fried bologna sandwich

Fried bologna sandwich

Why it’s a Best Bite: Of all the nostalgic diner food that Au Cheval reimagines and refines on its menu, this bologna sandwich has probably captured the most attention around the city, and for good reason. The bologna is made from mortadella that’s cured in-house and griddled, then piled onto brioche with gooey melted cheese. This well-executed and supremely delicious sandwich is definitely best shared, even though things might get a little messy.

The details: Au Cheval, 800 W Randolph St., Chicago.

Standard