Applying the chipotle model to pie @blazepizza

Blaze Pizza Chicago – 227 E Ontario St.

A quick word about Blaze – the new location of the build-your-own pizza fast casual concept opened up in Streeterville just a few weeks ago.   We ended up in that area again and (per usual) in the mood for pizza.  So we stopped in.

You basically order from their preset menu or build your own from the ground up – they top it and throw it in the oven for a few minutes and “bam”, you’ve got your made to order pie.  Prices are reasonable, and the toppings are pretty fresh.

Meat Lovers Pizza - Pepproni, Sausage, Mozzarella

Meat Lovers Pizza – Pepproni, meatballs, Mozzarella

IMG_4303I went with the meat lovers – topped with mozzarella, pepperoni, and meatballs.   The pepperoni had a nice flavor to it, the meatballs were a bit bland.  The downside of the pizza was that it was overloaded with cheese – it made the slice difficult to eat, and made the pizza way too greasy.  The crust/dough was alright, but nothing special.  Cooked well, with a nice burnt edge to it.

Average, but quick.  Service was friendly.  Nothing I’d go out of my way for, but a decent option if you’re: in the area, in the mood for pizza, and don’t want to spend too much. I’d recommend them to go a bit lighter on the cheese.

 

 

 

Fortune Cookie!

Next restaurant – have I set the bar too high?

Next Restaurant – 953 W Fulton Market – Chicago, IL

I’ve been pretty lucky to eat at Next a significant number of times – I have the utmost respect for the Achatz team, and Next continues to push the envelope and it keeps on innovating.   I was even luckier to have the opportunity to buy season tickets this year for a group of menus that sounded much more interesting than last year’s.  I’ve definitely set my expectations quite high for each meal I eat there at this point, and unfortunately, when expectations are set that high, it sets up for a bit of disappointment.  That being said, the Chinese Modern menu at Next was interesting – had some hits and misses – didn’t astound or wow me like some of the previous menus, but was still a solid effort from Dave Beran and his team.

It’s been a bit over a month, and a number of dishes stand out in my mind, and some do not, so I’ll focus on the highlights.

 

Loofah - Chinese Okra

Loofah – Chinese Okra

Pressed Chinese okra with coriander, Szechaun pepper

Pressed Chinese okra with coriander, Szechaun pepper

Taking a page from the Achatz book, the meal starts by involving the centerpiece, a large stalk of Chinese okra pressed into a bowl of tea, seasoned with Chinese spices – an interesting idea and gimmick, but an average start to the meal.

Bamboo Shoot and Lily Bulb

Bamboo Shoot and Lily Bulb

"Dim Sum"

“Dim Sum”

I was torn between expecting a solid performance of a known entity vs. embracing Beran’s expected twist on the traditional.  He came out here with three variations on Dim Sum – the left is a foam congee, the second – a pork mousse “soup dumpling”, and on the right, a scallop dumpling,  The foam congee served over a perfectly cooked pork braise was incredible, the scallop dumpling as well.  The soup dumpling is where I missed the traditional, as it didn’t have that “burst’ of flavor you get with a soup dumpling (or a black truffle explosion)

Monkfish with pickled white asparagus and shaved celery

Monkfish with pickled white asparagus and shaved celery

Coconut with crab, green chil paste

Coconut with crab, green chili paste

The coconut dish was one of my favorites of the evening – quite rich with flavor, refreshing and filling at the same time.  The crab was remarkably meaty, and was balanced perfectly by the subtle sweetness of the coconut, which was amazingly refreshing, making me wish they had saved this dish for later on in the meal.

muslim Skate

Muslim Skate

 

Tingly Squab

“Tingly” Squab

Next up, a take on Chinese street food, squab and skate wing, both heavily spiced, heavy on the peppercorns, heavy on the salt, but in the end, a small bite.

Duck breast

Beef with Broccoli

Beef with Broccoli’

Duck breast

By now, I’m starting to get unusually full for a Next menu, and the next few dishes were extremely rich, but some of the late highlights of the menu.  The Next take on beef with broccoli was interesting – glazed slices of a beef-jerky like preparation (apparently of leftover beef from the Steakhouse menu), the beefy flavor accentuated by the preparation, and some fried broccoli florets which were just alright.  The duck here was perfectly cooked and solid, but the supporting cast left a bit to be desired.

Pulling Threads  sweetbreads course

Pulling Threads sweetbreads course

The last of the savory courses was a bit over the top.  The idea is serving fried sweetbreasds, taro, and bananas, dipped in a more savory caramel-like sauce that hardens after dipping.  The textural component of this dish was fascinating, but the sauce was quite intense and a bit much at that point.

Frozen rice soup

Frozen rice soup

Dragon's Beard Candy

Dragon’s Beard Candy

Finally!  Dessert choices here were pretty solid and not overly powerful in terms of taste.  The frozen rice soup was more refreshing than flavorful, but the freeze dried english peas added a nice subtle flavor.  The dragon’s beard candy, with a light sesame flavor and some floral notes, was one of my favorite Next desserts to date.

Fortune Cookie!

Fortune Cookie!

Of course, the meal ends with a fortune cookie, containing our menus (although it may have been nicer to get actual fortunes.

Service, as alawys with Next was solid – very informative, attentive without being stuffy.  The meal was definitely pretty solid, but didn’t wow me like other meals I’ve had there and at other comparably priced restaurants in the city.  It doesn’t seem like I’m alone in thinking that one of the big gripes about Next is that it started off by billing itself as a reasonably priced fine dining experience, but at this point, it can easily get up to well over $200   I got tickets to Trio and it’ll probably be the last I see of Next for a bit (you know, the whole marriage thing and all).  But I am definitely looking forward to it.

Modern Japanese done great @kaizanchicago

Kai Zan – 2557 W Chicago Avenue, Chicago

You can be a purist, or you can embrace change.  There’s a lot of places that take traditional sushi and other Japanese cuisine and put a modern spin on it, but there’s few that pull it off as well as Kai Zan, a nice spot in West Town that flies a bit under the radar because of it’s location. Places like Japonais and Roka Akor get more buzz because of the chic decor and the River North location, but Kai Zan offers up similar food at similar quality, but at a slightly lower price point.  Add in that it’s BYOB and you can see why it gets the Yelp cred that it gets.  We were able to score a same night reservation around 7pm.  It sounds like they keep to a pretty tight schedule as we were informed we had a little over an hour to eat when we sat down.  That put us off a little right off the bat, but ultimately after that, they never really pushed the issue and we ate without feeling rushed or pressed.

The menu is split into cold and hot appetizers, sushi and rolls, and a few choice robata style entrees, along with a nice selection of seasonal specials.  We got a pretty wide mix of everything, although we were tempted to just go with one of the omakase choices (next time!)

Angry crab - tuna, spicy crab, togarashi

Angry crab – tuna, spicy crab, togarashi

We started with the angry crab roll and medium-thin sliced piece of maguro wrapped around a ball of fresh lump crab meat mixed with a spicy mayo and topped with pankos.  A solid mix and a good way to start the meal.  The tuna was more meaty and tender than fatty and melded nicely with the crab.

Karaage - of course

Karaage – of course

Karaage

Karaage up close and personal

As someone who’s always on the lookout for good fried chicken, karaage is tough to pass up.  While good, this was one of the more forgettable dishes of the meal.  A bit salty on the batter and a bit overcooked.

Hamachi Kama - yum!

Hamachi Kama – yum!

The hamachi kama, taken from the neck/collar of the yellowtail, was the highlight of the meal.  The grilled char gave the cooked fish a nice smokey flavor and the fish itself had a nice meaty texture.  Cooked yellowtail is quite different from the raw hamachi most of us are used to and has a very fishy flavor, almost like mackerel.  The portion size was very generous for the price.  These apparently are in somewhat limited supply so if it’s in stock, I highly recommend grabbing one.

Tako Yaki - bonito, wasabi

Tako Yaki – bonito, wasabi

Like me and karaage, for Sara – if Tako yaki is on the menu, she’s ordering it.  This skewer comes topped with just a touch of wasabi mayo, bonito flakes.  These little fried octopus balls were solid and the bonito flakes, the wasabi mayo, and the touch of teriyaki gave it a nice mix of sweet, salty, and spicy.

A meal isn't complete until there's some pork belly / bacon!

A meal isn’t complete until there’s some pork belly / bacon!

Robata Prawn

Robata Prawn

Feeling like we had to sample a few things from every portion of the menu, we next ordered a few pieces from the grill. First,  the slightly fatty cut of pork belly, served with a small side of kimchi, and the second, a large prawn,which was just a bit undercooked but massive in size.

 

Assorted raw fish

Assorted raw fish

Ama Ebi

Ama Ebi

And the heads to finish it off....

And the heads to finish it off….

To finish the meal off, we moved on to the raw fish portion of the meal.  The salmon was superbly fresh and well cut to a nice thickness, and the escolar simlarly so, although it lacked a bit of the usual crisp, moist bite that bursts when you bite into it.  We ended with a pair of raw ama ebi shrimps – fresh and sweet and followed by the meatiest, most flavorful shrimp heads I’ve ever had.  These almost made the meal in itself.

Thankfully, the meal didn’t necessarily need the extra support from the shrimp heads.  Even before that, there was a number of dishes that put this meal into the upper echelon of Japanese meals I’ve had in Chicago.  I’d put the sushi just a step down from Katsu, but still better than 95% of the joints in Chicago.  And we can’t wait to go back.

 

 

 

The anti-Chick-fil-A succeeds….@leghornchicken

Leghorn Chicken – 959 N Western

Back a few months ago, I had written about Parsons – we had ended up on Parsons bc our initial choice – Leghorn – had not opened yet, to our dismay.  Thankfully, they are now open for business and serving up some pretty solid chicken sammies…the menu is simple, but offers a wide range of choices, and the sides are interesting.

Nashville hot thigh, biscuit

Nashville hot thigh, biscuit

For my first visit (and there will be more – if not only bc I went without Sara, to her disappointment), I went with the nashville hot, thigh, biscuit.  (You get a choice of meat, hot or brined, and choice of starch, along with a list of various toppings).   I kept it simple – wanted to really get a sense of the chicken itself.  The thigh was nicely fried, juicy, with a deep umami flavor and the right amount of slow kick.  Not quite as in your face hot as the spicy chicken from Leghorn’s ultra-conservative, not open on Sundays “competitor”, the Nashville hot had a good spice that left a nice residual burn on the tongue and just a bead or two of sweat by the time I was done with the sandwich.

Fruit and Togarashi

Fruit and Togarashi

My choice of side was the pineapple and mango, topped with a dense helping of togarashi – an interesting mix of flavors that creates a fairly bold salty-sweet contrast.  Don’t think it worked as great as I thought it would, but it’s a solid side choice, and the fruit balanced the spiciness of the sandwich well.

There’s not too much to Leghorn, but they do it solid.  It’s marketed itself well and I think as long as the fried chicken craze has legs (and thighs and breasts), I think Leghorn will be a solid staple for years to come, and the fact that they’re opening just a few blocks from home is a dangerous proposition.

Oh, and btw, love the shoutout to Avon Barksdale, even though I’m only a season in….

 

 

 

 

 

Honeymoon in Kauai – Part POKE!

So if there’s anything we did over and over again on our honeymoon, it was finding new places for poke – rather than include these individually throughout the days, I thought it would be easiest to give a rundown of all the poke we had while we were in Kauai.  And there was a lot. Our first stop was Fish Express on the East side of the island.  No pic unfortunately, but the least impressive of the lot.  We got a small snack of the spicy ahi poke and lomi-lomi.  The ahi was too firm and the chunks a bit large.  The sauce lacked both spice and flavor.  The lomi-lomi, a mixture of chopped tomatoes and salmon was extremely stingy with the salmon and was essentially not much different from pico de gallo.

Hawaiian fried chicken

Hawaiian fried chicken

Pono Market Poke

Pono Market Poke

Our next stop was the best of the lot – in Kap’aa is the Pono market.  The tuna was fresh, tender, and perfectly cut.  The sauce was flavorful, had just a bit of kick and had the right amount of green onion mixed in.  We ended up going back a few days later, and we have one more day here to possibly make another stop.   We also got a taste of their fried chicken – similar to karaage, but just a bit sweeter.

Lau-lau

Lau-lau

Spicy ahi poke bowl

Spicy ahi poke bowl

king crab poke

king crab poke

Our next poke stop (the next day) was next door to Kauai’s Backcountry Adventures – after our innertubing “adventure” – we stopped for some poke and lau-lau – some kalua pork and rice wrapped and steamed in a taro leaf – a solid dish reminiscent of the dim-sum sticky rice.  The poke here was solid – fresh, good sauce, although the crab poke left a bit to be desired.  A perfect stop if you go ziplining or tubing with the KBA.

Ishihara

Ishihara spicy poke

After our 6 mile hike, we stopped in Waimea at the Ishihara market to try out their wares – the spicy poke had a nice added touch of tobiko and had an extremely flavorful sauce.  The fish itself wasn’t as high quality as at Pono, but we were also there quite late in the afternoon, so the pickings might not have been the freshest.  A+ on the sauce, though.

Poke extravaganza!

Poke extravaganza!

Korean Tako Poke - thanks for the rec Frances!

Korean Tako Poke – thanks for the rec Frances!

Our most recent, and possibly last stop on the Kauai poke trail landed us again at Pono Market for the Korean / Kimchee Tako (octopus Poke) – a solid pick, but also stopped at Foodland (yes, foodland, essentially a Hawaiian Jewel for some spicy ahi and salmon wasabi poke.  The Pono Tako poke was awesome – a great choice and one that we probably wouldn’t have gotten if not for the recs from a friend of ours.  The Foodland poke was a bit bland, but suprisingly, the quality of the fish itself was top notch.

One last pono market stop

One last pono market stop

And finally, our last stop before heading to the airport on our last day – I got a nice lunch plate with some spicy tuna poke and lau-lau – steamed pork, wrapped in a taro leaf – a solid meal to end the trip…

More to come…