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.

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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.

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Chicago, Restaurant Week

Restaurant Week 2013: Blackbird and Carriage House

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week, held February 1–10, 2013.

Lunch at Blackbird

Smoked Arctic char appetizer, Blackbird

Smoked Arctic char appetizer, Blackbird

Best Bite: While no dish was less than excellent, I was most wowed by the starter, a superbly delicate piece of smoked Arctic char. I loved the crunch from cauliflower and pear, and just enough meatiness from the tiny dollop of ‘nduja, a type of spreadable salami. It set the tone for the other unique flavor combinations to follow. See full menu.

Other notes: Gorgeous plating, quiet space, surprising main course accompaniments (onion noodles and buttermilk sauce to go with grilled sturgeon), and decadent dessert (an elegant Nutella-banana mash-up) with coffee service.

Chocolate hazelnut bread pudding dessert, Blackbird

Chocolate hazelnut bread pudding dessert, Blackbird

The details: Blackbird, 619 W Randolph St., Chicago.

Dinner at Carriage House

Crispy braised pork shoulder

Crispy braised pork shoulder entree, Carriage House

Best Bite: The entree best showed off the restaurant’s upscale take on low-country cuisine. The melt-in-your-mouth pork shoulder came with a host of balanced companions: smoked plums, pickled peppers, and celery hearts, atop grits and pork jus. With prevalent vinegar to cut through the richness, it was a pleasantly refined Southern dish. See full menu.

Other notes: Outstanding side of skillet cornbread, divine coffee-fudge dipping sauce for the beignets at dessert, tasty (and strong) rum punch, colorful ceramic dishware, and a table in the cozy porch area, with plaid flannel blankets over the chairs and plenty of candles.

Skillet cornbread, Carriage House

Skillet cornbread, Carriage House

The details: Carriage House, 1700 W Division St., Chicago.

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Best Bites, Chicago

This week’s Best Bite: Fat Elvis waffles, Little Goat Diner

Fat Elvis waffles, Little Goat Diner

Fat Elvis waffles, Little Goat Diner

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: I’ll just say it: these waffles were crazy in the best way possible. It was the kind of New Year’s Eve brunch dish that said “2012, let’s send you out with a sweet, bacon-y bang.” The texture of the waffles was just dense enough, the bacon syrup and bananas were indulgent-yet-balanced toppings, and the peanut butter butter simply defied logic with its creaminess. Of course, the waffles were even better washed down with a couple cups of Stumptown Coffee, one of the best roasters around. I could only eat half in one sitting, but it also made for killer leftovers.

Needless to say, I’m already planning my next visit, as my dining partner and I found it very difficult to decide on just one dish from perhaps the most comprehensive, enticing, otherwise mind-boggling diner menu I’ve ever seen. From the food to the décor, mastermind Stephanie Izard nails every detail – just look at the wallpaper! We also stopped into Little Goat Bread, adjacent to the diner, and swooned over the gorgeous bar (espresso by day, liquor by night) and the ingenious idea of mixing Girl & the Goat’s “life-changing” green beans into cream cheese for bagels.

Stumptown coffee, Little Goat Diner

Stumptown coffee, Little Goat Diner

The details: Little Goat Diner, 820 W. Randolph St., Chicago.

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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.

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Best Bites, Chicago

2012 Best Bite #25: Sauerkraut bagel, Trenchermen

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

Sauerkraut bagel

Sauerkraut bagel

Why it’s a Best Bite: Another one of this year’s most anticipated restaurant openings, I was finally able to make it to Trenchermen for brunch with friends who were in town for Northwestern’s homecoming. While most of the dishes were intriguing takes on breakfast, I have a hard time passing up anything bagel-related. The bagel was both steeped and crusted in order to be fully infused with sauerkraut flavor, an impressive feat in itself, and paired nicely with heaping smoked salmon, pickled red onion, and greens. But the real revelation for me was the mustard cream cheese. It was such a logical concept that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen or thought of it before. I’m now inspired to whip up my own with good-quality grainy mustard and use it on bagel sandwiches.

The details: Trenchermen, 2039 W North Ave, Chicago.

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