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January 27, 2005

Chicago Restaurants: A Cornucopia of Tastes

Players:{Paco, John, Jui} and Viren

Prologue: Variety is the Spice of Life

Much to my surprise, Chicago has a wonderful collection of good restaurants of diverse types, cuisines and leanings. I went there expecting meat-n-potatoes food -- ok, very, very good meat-n-potatoes food -- but was pleasantly surprised to see the variety present. Most of the restaurants I went to were in and around downtown, and I've been told I missed out on some great restaurants in the 'burbs.

Act I: Japonais, Japonais, Japonais

Maybe if I say its name thrice, I will be magically transported to it. Japonais is a great contemporary Japanese restaurant in the River North area. The focus there is of course on sushi and especially sashimi. It is here that I've had some of the best sashimi cuts I've had the pleasure of tasting. It's a very popular place and a little on the expensive side, but definitely worth the visit. The decor is great: the main restaurant is divided into two main rooms -- the red room and the green room, each with its own particular style. They also have a bar/lounge downstairs that gives you a good view of the river and is a great place to people watch. A must if you are in Chicago. Try the Chef's special selection.

Act II: Topolobampo: Bayless to the Rescue

Topolobampo is Rick Bayless' upscale restaurant showpiece. Weirdly enough, it is situated inside the Frontera Grill, which is the poorer cousin from across the railway tracks. Having eaten at both the Grill and Topolobampo, I would recommend the latter even with the price difference. When we ate at Topolobampo, not only was the food (which falls into the nouveau Mexican category) great, but we had one of the most knowledgeable and savvy waiters I've ever had. Highly recommended, reserve early.

Act III: Vermillion

An Indian-Latin fusion restaurant in River North. The menu seems a little contrived in order to get Latin and Indian influences in dishes, but the food is good. I liked the decor a lot, but it did not fit with the restaurant cuisine: the decor was very modernist with the walls exhibiting black and white photographs by Indian fashion photographer Farrokh Chothia, and the place is strewn about with red and black leather couches that make you want to lounge before your meal. The menu is split between tapas with a decided Indian flavor and more traditional entrees. I wish that the food had more of a kick to it, but everything was rather subdued, contrary to what you would expect from two of the spiciest cuisines around. The bar makes some of the best mojitos and caiprinhas that I've had the pleasure to get drunk on. Also, do not leave without trying the "Vermilion Hedonism", a wonderful chocolate dessert.

Act IV: Monsoon

Yet another Indian restuarant, this time with an upscale Asian twist. The decor is elaborate, silk curtains, copper-topped bar and framed quotations from eastern philosophers capped by a gigantic silk "chandelier" that looks like an inverted fez. The food is not quite as breathtaking as the decor or the service, but is definitely pleasing to the palate (if not the pocketbook). Like Vermilion, nothing on the menu here is bad. So, be adventurous.

Act V: Mambo Grill

Small, fun restaurant of the Cuban persuasion, with a contemporary twist. Worth going to, especially since it has some wonderful vegetarian items. Their black bean soup is great, and do not leave without trying their unique chipotle chocolate cake. There's usually a good crowd at the bar and the restaurant plays some great music.

Act VI: Sugar: A Dessert Bar

Right around the corner from the Mambo Grill is "Sugar: A Dessert Bar", a bar/lounge that serves desserts and alcohol to go along with the desserts. All the desserts are literary themed: "Hunchbaked of Notre Dame", "Marquis de Sucre", etc and include some unique items including edible plates made of sugar and items that have millet and dates are the main focus. Sugar also has some great cocktails to complement the desserts, as well as some greats liqueurs (ports, cognacs, dessert wines, etc). The decor is wonderful and whimsical, with beehive chandeliers, multi-colored curtains and glass walls. Do not miss going to this place!

Act VII: High Tea

Who would have thought that there would be so many places to partake of high tea in Chicago? Luckily for us, two of them were around the corner from us: Pierrot Gourmet and the Peninsula Hotel. The former is a great little french sidewalk cafe that server coffee, pastries and sandwiches. It was a filling afternoon tea, complete with scones, devonshire clotted cream and finger sandwiches. If you want to go a little upscale, afternoon tea in the lobby of the Peninsula hotel is for you. They have a much better selection of teas and provide the standard selection of scones, clotted cream, finger sandwiches, pastries and souffles. Worth going to. Just plan on not having any dinner. BTW: the Peninsula also hosts a chocolate buffet every Friday and Saturday. Try to make it.

Act VIII: Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe

Aah...my favorite cafe in Chicago -- The Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe. They have a great line of truffles and chocolates, but my reason for going there is their variety of hot cocoas/chocolates. They have a fantastic selection including choco-chai, Mexican, and Mayan. Do try their chocolate desserts as well. They make all their own chocolate and it shows.

Act IX: Chicago Diner

The only all vegetarian diner that I've been to, and frankly I was a bit disappointed. I had one of their salads which, from the ingredients, had a lot of potential, but the practice fell short of its promise. However, their vegan desserts are great. I had the chocolate chip cheesecake and it was pretty good. If you are in Wrigleyville and feel like trying some fun vegetarian food, go here.

Act X: Green Zebra

Lots of promise, lots of hype. This looked like an interesting place to go, since it catered to vegetarians and was supposed to have some great food. Well, it did have wonderful food that was nicely complemented by nice soothing decor. The problem was that the portions were appetizer sized, while the prices were expensive entree sized. Go there, but don't expect to be sated.

Act XI: Flat Top Grill

A better class of mongolian BBQs. Flat top grill has a lot going for it, including good desserts and alcohol. The staff is great and the place is hopping in the evenings.

Act XII: Fogo de Chao

Fogo is a standard Brazilian churrascaria. The meats are wonderfully cooked and the salad bar is plentiful. However, at a price of $50 (without alcohol), there are other places where I would rather go.

January 16, 2005

Ortanique (with a dash of Indebleu): Ethnically Inspired

Players: Dids, Sunit, Rekha, John, and moi

Act I: The need for alcoholic consumption

Well, it wasn't so much the need for alcoholic consumption that brought me to Indebleu, as it was the need to be efficient, garner two birds with one stone, make hay while the sun shines, and other such pithy meaningless phrases. To be specific, it is my wont when driving into DC, to experience as many of its wondrous pleasures as I can while there. Since we were already slated to be in town for dining at Ortanique for DC Restaurant Week (RW), I did wonder out aloud (and by means of email e'en) whether anyone would like to arrive earlier and join me for drinks before the main event. Well, Dids, Sunit and John , having been planning to drive down together felt that they couldn't make it in any earlier due to diverse reasons, including the rather crucial one that John is invariably tardy. So, it fell upon Rekha and me to handle this part of the evening. Given the plethora of chocies available near MCI Center, it is truly a wonder that we managed to decide upon Indebleu so fast. Rekha had initially suggested Poste, but was won over by my description of Indebleu.

We both arrived at Indebleu at around the same time, tho Rekha was already seated at the bar by the time I got there. Given that only 2 weeks had passed since I was last at Indebleu, not much had changed, save that it was more crowded. That didn't distract us from our main task of sampling the wares at the bar. Both of us were trying out different drinks: I had a Kama Sutra and a Spanky while Rekha had a Neontini and some other drink that the fog of alcohol has erased from my mind. In the midst of the imbibing, I felt a sudden need for solid sustenance. Now, I would normally (in my safer, saner, somber-er days) have asked for the appetizer/bar menu. However, having recently resolved to throw caution to the winds, gastronomically speaking, I convinced Rekha that ordering from the dessert menu was the correct choice here. Upon being handed said dessert menu, the very first choice we saw looked intriguing enough that we went for it: Oreo kulfi profiteroles with cardamom hot chocolate (not without much agony and angst since some of the other items looked almost as seductive, especially the (sic) Choco Sutra).

When the dish arrived, it looked scrumptious and pictureque. It consisted of 3 profiteroles, each of which was made up of a scoop of oreo kulfi [1] sandwiched between a small round pastry cake sliced into two. Along with the profiteroles was a small cup of strong hot chocolate flavored with cardamom. The effect was simply sublime.

The Lounge at Indebleu
Above: (Click image for a larger picture)
The Lounge at Indebleu

After polishing off the dessert, we decided to retire to the lounge to finish our drinks. The lounge is done in shades of red and yellow, and is nice and comfy. Just watch out for those $200 table minimums during prime time. Around this time, we realized that it was almost time to make like a tree....and head to dinner.

Act II: The Restaurant

Ortanique
Above: (Click image for a larger picture)
The varied decor at Ortanique

Ortanique was pretty close by, seeing how it is located near Metro Center, and that we went to Indebleu since it was close by. When we got there, the rest of the party were already waiting and so we all went in together. The immediate impression one gets walking into Ortanique is one of warmth and old-fashined aesthetics. Pillars with painted on ortanique vines. A massive red wall with sheer curtains running down its entire length, and a fishtank with a huge projection screen showing a live feed from the fishtank.

We were led to a corner booth which gave us a nice view of the restaurant. Along with the booth, we also inherited one of the most garrulous servers I've ever had. He was fun, had a sense of humor, and gave pretty good service. You can just see him to the left in the picture of Ortanique. He did in fact raise the entire level of the experience with his interactions with our group.

Act III: Decisions

Ortanique
Above: (Click image for a larger picture)
Us, enjoying dinner

For restaurant week, Ortanique had, in its infinite wisdom, decided to forego simplicity and the KISS principle in lieu of complexity and confusion. The normal restuarant menu was annotated to indicate RW items. Double asterisks indicated items that were on the RW menu, items with supplemental charges on the side in parentheses indicated items that could be used in the RW menu for additional money, and the non annotated items weren't available for the RW menu. Sounds kind of simple, except if you were sitting there, trying to understand the servers explain this to you.

Most of Ortanique's menu, as befits its Caribbean roots, is seafood. There was one vegetarian entree (available in the RW menu, too) and some animal dishes, but for the most part, it was fish and various other denizens of the deep. Being 5 people at dinner, we tried to order so as maxmize the potential for sharing and tasting different dishes. We ended up with the mango salad, curried crab cakes, steamed mussels and the ceviche of the day (shrimp) as the appetizers. For the main course, we had the Bahamian black grouper, the Caribbean seared ahi tuna and the Seafood bouillabaisse. There were only two choices for dessert: rum cake and banana bread pudding, and our table ended up with both. All this took much longer than you would think, but eventually we got it all sorted out.

Act IV: Partaking of the Sea

The food arrived pretty fast, though that might just be an effect of the old, hackneyed adage: Time flies when etc., etc. The mango salad, while following an used formula, was well done with a nice blending of the various flavors. The mango in there was green unripe mango, which added a tartness that worked well in the dish. The curried crab cakes were the hit of the table with everyone exclaiming over them. Flavorful with the taste of the crab meat coming through in a distinct fashion. A good start to the evening.

The seared ahi tuna
Above: (Click image for a larger picture)
The tuna entree

As for the main courses, they were uniformly good. The grouper was marinated in teriyaki and sesame oil with a orange and limon liqueur sauce. This was paired with a sweet plantain mash and julienned chayote and carrots. The fish was cooked almost to perfection, tho for some it might have been slightly overdone, and the teriyaki influence while present wasn't overpowering. A very nice combination. The tuna was done right (as asked: rare and medium rare) and the accompaniments seemed secondary to the fish itself. The bouillabaisse was tasty fro mall acounts, though I only tasted the lobster in there. The coconut flavor in there was very evident.

The food so far having sated us, we looked forward to the desserts (my second dessert course for the night). The desserts, when they arrived, looked good with decent-sized portions. The banana bread pudding was a little banana-y and about the only dish, none of us were enthralled with. The rum cake on the other hand was gooood, and made a great end to the meal.

Act V: Conclusion

Ortanique was a good experience. The food was good, and sometimes very good. The jazz band upstairs was inconsistent but added nicely to the ambience. All in all, an enjoyable repast. Our server certainly added to the whole experience with his vibrant personality.

Ratings

Ortanique
Service Fast, Interesting and Fun
Decor Warm and Varied
Food Good seafood with occasional brilliance

Footnotes

  1. Kulfi is the Indian version of ice cream: dense and creamy with strong flavors.

January 12, 2005

Kaz Sushi Bistro: Mediocrity, thy name is ...

Bobby, Susan, Neil, Francois, Corinna and moi

Act I: Restaurant Week Decisions

So, DC Restaurant Week (RW) approaches and I start prodding people to see if anyone is interested in going out to eat. Well, Bobby and Susan are usually up for food, so we sort of decide that that's a good idea, and leave it alone. About a week before RW we start figuring out when we can make it. Bobby's roped in more people, which is cool: the more, the merrier. Of course, getting everyone to agree on a day and a restaurant is nearly impossible. Hence, we get no verdict until Friday to go somewhere on Tuesday, which leaves few options. However, Kaz Sushi Bistro had seatin available on opentable, so that was the decision.

Act II: Getting there is half the fun

As usual, in order to make it to DC is always an adventure. Drive to East Falls, Take the Orange line in to DC and switch lines if needed. In this case, Bobby, Susan, Neil and moi had decided to meet at Dupont for drinks. I, of course, decide that stretching my legs is a good idea and so walk to Dupont from Farragut West. One the way, I get lost (well, not really, but I went a couple of blocks further than I should have), got solicited for money about half a dozen times , stopped for a hot chocolate at Caribou Coffee [1], and got helpful advice from a building security guard on the advisability of carrying umbrellas. After getting to Dupont, we decided to get drinks at Pizzeria Paradiso (Plan A). We walk in and were told that the "bar" is in reality a counter and we shouldn't sit and have drinks there. So, we implemented Plan B, which was to go to the Brickskeller. As usual, the first 3 beers that bobby wanted weren't available (one wasn't even on the menu). So we settled for other choices (Lindeman's Cassis for me, The Raven for Susan, a Sierra for Neil and something in a cool looking bottle for Bob). Of course, we had to quaff the beers down in order to have enough time to walk to Kaz and meet Francois and Corinna there on time.

Act III: The Restaurant

So, we arrive at Kaz, and I was immediately impressed that the restaurant had the sense to have removed the plug-ugly awning that you can see a picture of on their site. Impression #1: good. Moving into the restaurant, we spied the rest of our party already seated at a table and so we made our way there. Now, lest you get the idea that this took some time, desist! The restaurant is small and cozy and thus it took us only about 5 steps to arrive at our table. Having sat down and murmured the customary hellos and nicetoseeyas, I began eyeing the decor. White walls holding melanges of art that were interspersed with cutouts in the wall that held twigs backlit with different brightly colored lighting (this looks much better than my description seems to convey). Impression #3: soothing decor. The place does look like they have put in as many tables as the space can hold. Try not to bang your knees into things while walking around. Impression #4: Cramped space.

Kaz's had a seperate RW menu available. You could choose 1 appetizer (out of 4), 5 "main" dishes (nigiri, rolls, etc) and 1 dessert. After a lot of discussion, all of us went with the RW menu, at least initially. I ordered the grilled baby octopus, 3 rolls and a couple of nigiri, along with the banana tempura. In addition to choosing from the RW menu, Bobby and Francois had to order sake flights (damn alcohol connoisseurs).

Act IV: The Feasting

After a short wait, the appetizers arrived. My baby octopus dish was small (which was expected) but chewy (which wasn't). This seemed especially disappointing after eating Ceiba's grilled octopus salad a couple of weeks ago. Meanwhile, the other appetizers seemed to be doing better. The fried calamari was acceptably cooked though not great, and the mussels were realy good (though I didn't taste any). I was willing to give the restuarant a break seeing as how it was pretty packed for dinner, and hoped the entrees would be better.

The rest of the meal didn't start off any better. It took almost 30 minutes after finishing our appetizers for the main courses to arrive. Our server explained this away by mentioning that the kitchen had to get everyone's order to the table at the same time, thus taking longer. (Of course, no other restaurant is afflicted with this high standard of service. Thus allowing them to get dishes tothe table faster *rolls eyes*). When the dishes finally arrived, we were starving. My main course looked pretty interesting: Salmon and Tuna nigiri, a DC roll, a red pepper and asparagus roll, and a spicy tuna roll. I went pretty conservative with the choices since I like to figure out how well a restaurant does with the standard items, especially a sushi restaurant. Getting 3 rolls was a bit much, but luckily I was starving.

The tuna and salmon pieces were decent. The meat was acceptable but nothing to write home about. I can pretty much echo that sentiment for the 3 rolls as well. I had high hopes for the DC roll, but somehow the flavors in that were pretty subdued. I tried Neil's "fushion" sushi choice of tuna with pesto, which was interesting in that the pesto gave it a zing that simutaneously took away from and added to the taste of the fish, depending upon what you were looking for from it. I think it's something that I would order only for the sheer novelty factor.

The finale came in the form of dessert. My banana tempura was pretty decent. Served with a black rasberry ice-cream. It was interesting and tasted pretty good. Apparently, the green tea tiramisu was really good.

Act V: Conclusion

From the faces of people around the table, everyone seemed to be a mite disappointed with the food. We had expected better from Kaz's. Dessert did seem to partially make up for the mediocrity of the main course, but the overall experience didn't quite live up to our expectations. In Kaz's defense, I should say that we didn't actually try much of the "fushion" (or chef's speciality) items that were on the main menu, mostly due to the choices present in the RW menu.

Ratings

Kaz Sushi Bistro
Service Slow and mediocre
Decor Sudued but interesting
Food Decent sushi but below expectations

Footnotes

  1. Caribou's hot chocolate is even worse than Starbucks, if that's possible. The only thing good about it was that it was hot enough to please on a cool evening.

January 08, 2005

IndeBleu & Ceiba: Dynamic Duo

Players: Dids and moi

Act I: Begin the Beguine

So Dids and I decided to out to dinner in DC the eve before new year's eve. Sorta the precursor to the celebration. I drove up to pick her up from work and then took the Red line into the city. Taking the Metro from the 'burbs into the city is always an interesting experience. While I mostly travel the orange line ("yuppies to the left of us, yuppies to the right of us ..."[1]), taking the western branch of the red line from that far north proved not to be that different. Since we actually had some time, we ventured forth into DC in search of the mythical National Christmas Tree, which from certain angles looks decidedly hunchbacked. Notwithstanding the deformities of said landmark, it still made an impressive sight. One that unfortunately was overshadowed by the blazingly huge yule log fire burning near it (they had forklifts shoving massive logs into the firepit). After appropriate genuflections in the direction of the tree and the fire, we proceeded onwards and eastwards to IndeBlue.

Act II: IndeBleu

Now, there was a lot of talk going on about Indebleu in various circles: the Washington Post has a couple of small pieces mentioning it, there were posts about it on eGullet and a bunch of other mentions including DCist and the DC Socialites. All this intrigued me enough that I wanted to go experience the wonder that was supposed to be IndeBleu. I was hoping that it was measure up favorably to the only other Indian fusion restaurant in this area: Saffron in B'more.

Since we already had reservations at Ceiba for dinner, and were in town much earlier than that, it seemed like a good opportunity to head to IndeBleu for drinks. We headed over there at around 5:15, at which point the bar has just opened and the place was deserted. I didn't mind that since it allowed us to talk with the bartenders (who seemed like fun people to have bartending) and poke our noses around the place.

We managed to cadge a tour from Arjun after one of the bartenders asked him to give us one. The main bar is the first thing you see when you enter IndeBleu: long, sleek and modern. Most of the bottles are hidden behind panels, which is a nice touch. I'm tired of seeing bars displaying all the bottles as if it were something to be proud of. Behind the bar was the lounge, complete with a central sunken area with sorta communal lounge-y seating. If you are eating, you get to head upstairs, where you will encounter the secondary bar, which is smaller, better lit and is right in front of the wine storage. You also, by design, get to pass in front of the kitchen table/booth, which can be rotated to kill tow birds with one stone: to afford the diners a measure of privacy from the people walking past on their way to the main dining rooms, and also to get a view of the chefs at work. Very nice. Walking onwards you arrive at the private dining room, which is suavely decorated in themes of red. This connects to the main dining room (that can also be reached from the stairs near the upstairs bar). All in all, I got the sense that the Bleu people had spent a lot of time and money on the decor of the place and it shows.

Back at the bar, we got to looking at the bar drinks menu (I'm not sure whether I'm allowed to have the image up on the site), which is cleverly done to resemble the Metro map. We ordered the Mangotini (simple but delicious), the Spanky (the crushed rasberries made the drink) and the Truth or Consequences (smooth, tasty and just a little too subtle). There were quite a few other drinks I wanted to try but getting drunk wasn't on the menu. We also ordered food from the lounge menu, which is limited but appropriately so. We got the foie gras sandwich appetizer, which was done nicely but no great shakes. The bartenders were also kind enough to provide us with the dining menu and there were quite a few things that looked tempting and were enough to warrant a second expedition back to Indebleu.

Overall, without having tasted the food, Indebleu seems like a nice concept that destined to be successful: it's got great decor, a nice lounge, a fun bar menu, and menu items that seem a little pretentious (but hopefully live up to their descriptions) and of course, location!

I'm not being particularly descriptive about the decor or food because I'm writing this almost 2 weeks after the event. Maybe a better, fuller review will be forthcoming soon. I wrote another short review of Indeblue at Ortanique (with a dash of Indebleu): Ethnically Inspired

Act IIII: Ceiba

After Indebleu, we walked over to Ceiba, which was chosen partly due to DC Foodies' raving about Ceiba and partly cause I was in a ceviche kind of mood.

The decor at Ceiba, to say the least, is ummm....eclectic. From where we were seated, we could see at least 3 different decor themes, not counting the pink background of the bar. This was all the more apparent after having been at Indebleu. However, all for forgiven and forgotten once the food arrived.

As I seem to be doing frequently of late, we ordered mainly appetizers for the entire meal [2]. We started with the ceviche sampler, which gets you all four ceviches from the appetizer section. Note that this is enough to sample only for two people. If you have more than two, ordering only one smapler is going to be a disappointment. The ceviches themselves ran the range from okay (the grouper) to really good (the shrimp and the bass). Of course my bias towards more flavorful dishes is definitely at play here. I'm not normally a shrimp person, but the shrimp ceviche was particularly well done.

To follow up the ceviches, we had the crab fritters and the octopus salad. The former were mediocre, more heavily fried than I would have liked since it deadened the crab taste. However, the latter was simply awesome. Some of the best octopus I've had in a while, and probably the best non-fried octopus I've ever had. The dish is very well done with other ingredients (cheese and aioli) adding their own flavors to the octopus without detracting from it. This dish alone is worth the visit.

I almost forgot to mention the drinks. Instead of going with instincts and ordering a Caiprinha or a Mojito, I ordered a Yucatan Sunset. It was nice, but not memorable (hence me almost forgetting to mention it).

Act IV: Conclusion

I liked both Ceiba and IndeBleu, but for different reasons obviously. Indebleu has had a lot of thought go into it, from the drink menus to the decor. Not having tasted the food there, the pronouncement on that will have to be postponed. Ceiba on the other hand underwhelmed me with its decor and ambience, but I loved the food.

Ratings

IndeBleu
Service Fast and friendly
Decor Sophisticated and generally well done
Food Opinion withheld, but the drinks were interesting and well-made
Ceiba
Service Friendly and good
Decor Eclectic
Food Wonderful seafood

Footnotes

  1. Says the guy who is writing a review about IndeBleu and Ceiba. Pot, kettle, black.
  2. A couple of weeks ago at Cafe Atlantico, three of us had ordered the entire appetizer section including the appetizer special for the day. This turned out to be an awesome choice.