Lucky us on a Friday Night! @topolochicago

Topolobambo – 449 N Clark Street, Chicago, IL

Usually when we get home on Friday night and neither of us wants to cook, Sara and I are browsing through the Friday night scraps of reservations on Open Table and usually end up with slim pickings….last night, however, there popped open an evening restaurant at a spot that’s been on our list for quite some time- Rick Bayless’s Topolobambo, which just recently got Phil Vettel’s coveted 4-star rating, which he seems to only hand out to Dave Beran for his renditions at Next (although he did recently give 4 stars to the new Spiaggia as well).  Anyways, as big fans of the vastly more affordable Xoco (and Tortas Frontera in Terminal 1 at O’Hare), along with his TV ventures, and Frontera Grill, we were quite excited at the prospect of dining here.  And it did not disappoint.

 

IMG_5092

First off, as we sit down and are handed our menus, another couple gets seated just behind us – and wouldn’t you know it, the man himself sits down right behind us with his wife Deann and later joined by the chef de cuisine.  Sara got a little star-struck and as much as we wanted to, we’re not the type of people who would want to bother him at dinner, even if he’s at his own restaurant (although we thought it would be hilarious if we asked the waiter to drop a bill in front of him, just to see his reaction).

Anyways, you probably just want to hear about the food.  There’s 8 sections of the menu here, and you can choose either 3, 5, or 7 courses to “choose your own adventure”, so to speak (for $55, 90, or $120), or you can go with the recommended “Mexico City 1831″ 7-course menu (also $120), inspired apparently by one of the first Mexican cookbooks published in that year.  I decided on the Mexico City menu, with two substitutions…

Amuse Bouche - melon with lime crema and chili powder

Amuse Bouche – melon with lime crema and chili powder

The amuse was a nice preview of things to come – an interesting mix of flavors, but Far from subtle.  In fact, if there’s one word that I could use to sum up the meal at Topolobambo, it would be “intense”.   The one biter here was a thin square of lemon and a healthy dose of smoky chile powder and a cold lime crema.  The heat here was pretty in your face, but balanced nicely by the lime and the melon.

Halibut Escabeche

Halibut Escabeche

The journey starts with the halibut escabeche, a meaty generous chunk of sashimi-style halibut, bathed in a very strong, sour pineapple vinegar broth.  May be overpowering for some, but I thought it was a nice way to wake you up to start the meal.  Cumin and pepper flavors were apparent and some capers were a crispy way to introduce some texture into the dish.

Roasted Poblano Chile!

Roasted Poblano Chile!

Next was one of the highlights of the night – a roasted poblano chile, stuffed with a healthy dose of trumpet mushrooms, served in a “Nogada” sauce – basically a whipped up mix of got cheese, walnuts, sherry, and scattered with a few pomegranate seeds – the presentation was lovely, but the flavors were incredible.  The chile itself has a heat that creeps up on you, and just as you’re enjoying the meatiness of the mushrooms, then *BAM*, it hits you, so you scoop up a bit of the subtly sweet goat cheese sauce, and it balances everything out.  One of the best things I’ve eaten in awhile….

Smoky Chicken and Sweetbreads

Smoky Chicken and Sweetbreads

Next up is a dish that had an almost Southern feel to it – the chicken itself was bit overcooked and dry, and smokiness was very faint, but the sweetbreads were fantastic – extremely tender and flavor with the right amount of light batter.  The “chutney” had more of a chicken gravy like flavor – the sauce was sprinkled with a few raisins, which were interesting, but for the most part unnecessary.

Venison, eggplant, potato

Venison, eggplant, potato

Carne Asada, foie Gras

Carne Asada, foie Gras

The next dishes were the meat dishes – the first, a rare grilled piece of venison – extremely gamey, with a small piece of eggplant, and a potato torta that featured razor thin slices.   The sauce – a chile pasilla sauce was suprisingly mild, but had a great, smoky flavor.  The carne asada was surprisingly similar, perfectly roasted to a medium rare with a black mole sauce, and served with a wonderfully soft foie gras, some greens and a bit of tamal.

Almond-rice Peach pudding

Almond-rice Peach pudding

Cajeta Chocolate Crepe

Cajeta Chocolate Crepe

Dessert was solid and not overly sweet.

 

Modern Steakhouse done right @RPMsteakCHI

RPM Steak – 66 W Kinzie

When I first heard about RPM Italian’s opening a few years ago, a joint venture between the Melmans and the Rancics, I was dubious to say the least.  I expected the scene to attract a certain type of crowd and scene that’s not really my cup of tea, but I also didn’t expect the food to deliver either.  Surprisingly, though, RPM Italian has become one of our favorite go-to Italian joints – the scene is the scene, but the food is a great range of solidly done classics and interesting modern takes on Italian staples.

When RPM Steak was announced, for some reason, I was equally skeptical.  Maybe a bit less, but wasn’t sure what to expect.  We made it there a few weekends ago, and were again, pleasantly surprised, treated to a stellar meal, so much that we went back a week later when a friend of Sara’s came into town.

Over the two visits, we got a lot of food so I’ll be brief.

Parker House Rolls!!!

Parker House Rolls!!!

The Parker House Rolls are a must get.  They don’t do bread service, so if you want it, you’re stuck paying $8 for the bread.  It seems to be a trend now these days, between paying for bread and ice in drinks, restaurants seem to be nickel and diming us just like the airlines, but these definitely deliver and are worth paying the extra dollars for.  Stunning in presentation, warm, slightly toasty on the outside with a soft, buttery texture on the inside. Served with a slightly salted Nordic butter, these are a hit.

Coal Roasted Crab

Coal Roasted Crab

Charred Toro

Charred Toro

Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail

Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail

For appetizers, we got a good variety.  The slightly charred toro from the raw bar was alright, one of the more lackluster dishes of the night.  The shrimp cocktail was solid and *HUGE* – very meaty and with good flavor.  The coal-roasted crab is another highlight of our visits – nicely cooked and pre-sliced, making it easy to split.  It was gently sauced with a buttery sauce with hints of lime and coriander.  Fantastic.

On to the steaks…which usually is what makes or breaks a steakhouse for me.  Both times, we got pre-sliced steaks.

42oz Tomahawk Wagyu

42oz Tomahawk Wagyu

24 oz Dry Aged Cowboy Chop

24 oz Dry Aged Cowboy Chop

Both were bone-in ribeye – the first, a 42oz tomahawk Wagyu, and the second a 24 oz dry-aged cowboy chop. Now I’m usually a bit partial to the earthier flavor of the dry-aged cuts, so I thought the dry-aged ribeye had a deeper flavor.  I didn’t notice a significant difference in the quality of the meat with the Wagyu, so if you’re looking for an excuse to splurge, I would recommend sticking to the dry-aged cuts.  Precut, it’s easier to split between people, but I prefer to have an uncut steak that keeps the heat in a bit longer.

For sides, we got

The Millionaire's Potato

The Millionaire’s Potato

Hasselbeck Potato

Hasselbeck Potato

Cauliflower Mushroom

Cauliflower Mushroom

Roasted Corn

Roasted Corn

Highlights of the sides were the Hasselbeck potato and the roasted sweet corn.  The Hasselbeck was sliced to a perfect crispy thinness with an appealing presentation, the roasted corn topped with a chipotle lime butter – the lime gave it good hints of flavor without being overpowering.  FInally, the mushrooms were both solid – the first time we picked the hen o’ the woods (not pictured), the second trip the cauliflower mushrooms

Finally, for dessert

Hazelnut Souffle

Hazelnut Souffle

IMG_5069

Baked Alaska

Baked Alaska

For dessert, we got the Hazelnut Souffle – a wonderfully flavored souffle dish, a little thick, but well seasoned.  Unfortunately they removed it from the menu by the time our second visit rolled around, however, there are still a good selection of souffles on the menu.

The second dessert was a baked Alaska that we ordered on both trips.  Between our two visits they decided it would be a good idea to flambe the dessert, adding a nice touch.  Ice cream topped with caramelized merengue is a perfect mix to end the night.

RPm does everything extremely well top to bottom. THe apeetizers, sides, and desserts match up to anywhere in the city.  I felt like the steaks came up just short of my favorites, Mastro’s and David Burke’s Primehouse.  Still it’s a place that is worth checking out and/or going back to.  Get the Parker House Rolls and the Coal-Roasted Crab .  The dry-aged cuts were my preference, particularly the Tomahawk.  Cost is pricey, but not absurdly so.  It’s a steakhouse in River North – you should know what to expect…

Getting the family together @chefping

Chef Ping – 1755 Algonquin Road – Rolling Meadows, IL

If there’s a restaurant I remember going to on a regular basis from my earliest childhood memories – it’s Yu’s Mandarin in Schaumburg, a solid Chinese restaurant that my family has been frequenting since I was about 6 or 7 years old.  I don’t think I’ve had any dish more often than the rainbow fried rice and the kung pao shrimp there.  Alas, about 5 years ago, the owners sold Yu’s and a number of people felt the quality dropped.   I have such a soft spot in my heart for Yu’s that it’s hard for me to tell a huge difference, and I think for the most part the dishes I’ve come to know and love haven’t changed a whole lot.  But thankfully, the former owners opened up Chef Ping shortly after to provide another solid option with an extremely similar menu just right down the street in Rolling Meadows.

Shrimp Toast

Shrimp Toast

Yang Jang Pi

Yang Jang Pi

We started  the meal with an order of shrimp toast and Yang Jang Pi.  The shrimp toast was a bit greasy but had great shrimp flavor and great texture.   Yang Jang Pi is a nice mixture of veggies, egg, and rice noodles that were sharp and a bit chewy – all mixed with a mustard sauce that gives the whole dish a bit of bite.

Tang Soo Yuk

Tang Soo Yuk

Sesame Chicken

Sesame Chicken

Next up is Tang Soo Yuk and sesame chicken.  Tang Soo Yuk is a fried beef dish served in a gooey sweet and sour sauce, not unlike sweet and sour chicken, but served with a bed of fairly colorful and fresh vegetables.   The sesame chicken was a bit overcooked, but had a nice subtle sweet favor.

Jja Jjang Myun

Jja Jjang Myun

Jja Jjang Myun

Jja Jjang Myeun

Finally, a trip to Yu’s or Chef Ping or any similar Chinese/Korean restaurant wouldn’t be complete without Jja Jjang Myeun – a Chinese dish of thick noodles, similar to a thick spaghetti with a black bean sauce that has a great umami flavor – stirred in with some pork, zucchini, and onion, and a heavy dose of garlic.

While I think most people are of the mindset that Chef Ping continues the Yu’s tradition, I’ll always have a soft spot for the original Yu’s, even with the new ownership.  That being said, Chef Ping’s does a solid job providing the same dishes at a simliar quality.

 

 

 

 

Legit Chinese outside of Chinatown @Chengduimpression

Chengdu Impression – 2545 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL

Outside of Chinatown, it’s tough to find really good, authentic Chinese food.  Shanghai Terrace does a pretty solid job, but given that it’s in the Peninsula, it’s quite overpriced.  Sun Wah is another classic, but much further north.   Other than those two, the Chinese selections around the city tend to be of the standard takeout variety – good in a pinch, but usually not great.  Enter Chengdu Impression, a fairly new Lincoln Park spot that we checked out just after our honeymoon (yes, my backlog is pretty long).

The menu is quite long, leaving some difficult decisions.   We kept it pretty simple – went with

Scallion Pancake

Scallion Pancake

The scallion pancakes were a bit of the weak point of the meal.  OK, nothing special….

Dry Chili Chicken

Dry Chili Chicken

Steamed veggies

Steamed veggies

For entrees, we got the dry chili chicken and the vegetable 12-delight.  The chicken was great here.  Not quite on par with the Tony Hu version, but very, very solid.  Lightly battered, great amount of spice, and a healthy portion, but solid.  The veggies were pretty standard steamed vegetables, but fresh and not oversaturated.

Soup Dumplings!!

Soup Dumplings!!

The meal ended with a plate of soup dumplings – they came out last, because they take a bit longer to cook, so if you want them, order early or maybe when you sit down, and wait a few minutes once they arrive to let the inside cool down a bit.  A bit sparse on the filling and the dumpling itself was a bit thick, but pretty good nevertheless.

Overall, Chengdu is not quite on the level as most Chinatown restaurants, but it’s a solid substitute if you don’t feel like making the trek out.  Haven’t gotten delivery from them yet, but it seems like their delivery area is pretty wide, making it an option if you’re feeling lazy too.

 

Solid Rustic Italian @balenachicago

Balena – 1633 N Halsted Street, Chicago

So, I’m trying desperately to catch up on my backlog of restaurants to write about.  Since May, most of free time has been spent wedding planning and in May and June we went out to eat *a lot* because of the wedding planning and finishing up our kitchen remodel.  Thankfully, since we’ve returned, Sara and I have been a bit better about staying in and cooking, and hopefully I’ll be writing a bit about my kitchen exploits as well.  But I digress….

The main reason I wanted to keep this blog is so I could remember details about our meals – not just what we ate, but why we liked or disliked certain dishes – unfortunately, that gets harder when you’re writing about a meal a month or more after eating it.  But that being said, the quick weeknight meal at Balena was a pretty solid and memorable one.

We ordered pretty simply, and the menu at Balena definitely has numerous more adventerous and interesting choices than a tuscan kale salad and a plate of cacio e pepe.

Tuscan Kale Caesar

Tuscan Kale Caesar

Cacio e pepe

Cacio e pepe

But that’s what we got and it was solid.  The kale was fresh and sharp with the right amount of bitterness, and topped with a healthy dollop of fresh parmesan.

The Cacio e pepe is simple, but incredible.   The spaghetti has that perfect al dente texture that you can only get with fresh handmade pasta, and the balance of parmesan and black pepper was absolutely dead-on.   Add on the crispy bread crumbs that crisped up the textural element of the dish, and you have a dish that is simple in its ingredients with a subtle underlying complexity.

Hangar steak with wild greens and grilled trumpet mushrooms

Hangar steak with wild greens and grilled trumpet mushrooms

For an entree, we got the hangar steak – solid, well cooked to an almost perfect medium rare, but overall nothing special.  Dishes like this remind me why I tend to stray towards fresh pasta at places like this.

Balena’s a tough place to order for two as the menu makeup seems to be designed for a party of four or six, but you can still make it work for a couple.  That being said, there are plenty of solid choices – the pastas are definitely the highlight, but the focus on fresh greens and fresh pasta make it a solid Italian option.