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.

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Two Month Anniversary celebration at #katsuchicago

Katsu – 2651 Peterson Avenue – Chicago, IL

So Sara and I made it to 2 months!   And we’re still in love, after celebrating our real 2 month anniversary by cooking a wonderful meal of jja jjang myun and sous vide duck breast at home (yes, kind of all over the place), we decided to really kick it up and head up north to Katsu for some sushi.

Katsu may not be on your radar, and it’s sometimes hard to convince a city-dweller to head so far north for something that you can pretty much find every few blocks now – the first time we went, we are also dubiously skeptical.  But hands down, Katsu is the best sushi in Chicago. It’s been a staple up north for close to 30 years now, and chef Katsu himself, approaching 70 soon, fully admits he’s not slowing down – he’s a great personable guide to your sushi journey when you sit at the sushi bar.  Which we did, next to a nice gentleman who had just celebrated his 50th anniverssary – so Sara and I have a bit of work to do…

But back to the food, if you ask Zagat what the highest rated restaurant for food is in Chicago, Katsu is at the top, in the elite group of restaurants rated 29, such as the Achatz/Kokonas duo Alinea and Next, as well as Goosefoot (Vie and Bien Trucha are also 29’s but out in the burbs).   Having been to all four of those, I’d give Alinea the nod over Katsu, but I’d be willing to say that Katsu bests both Goosefoot and Next on the food-front.  The best way to describe it would be to see the movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” – now Katsu is probably no Jiro, and I’d be willing to bet that the sushi in Tokyo is a step above what we’re getting here, but it’s the closest thing you’ll get in Chicago to a sushi chef who cares about his craft as much as chef Katsu does.

If you go, I’d recommend getting a spot at the sushi bar – that’s what we did, getting the slightly cheaper (still $120) four course sushi omakase (there’s a similar priced sashimi omakase).  There is a $160 six course meal that adds in the chawanmushi dish that we split, along with both the sushi / sashimi plates.

Mackerel appetizer

Mackerel appetizer

We started with our waiter’s recommendation – a mackerel appetizer with unbelievably buttery, soft, finely chopped mackerel mixed with sliced scallions and minced ginger, a bunch of shredded daikon for a bit of refreshment.  A nice palate cleanser before the extravaganza set the stage for what was to come.  The presentation, like most dishes here, was stunning.

monkfish Liver

monkfish Liver

Tuna tartare

Tuna tartare

For the first course of the omakase, you get a choice of the tuna tartare or the monkfish liver – thankfully, since there’s two of us, we were able to split one of each.  The monkfish liver, soft and creamy in texture like a rich foie was served around beautiful rods of shiso jelly and topped with minced radish.  The tuna tartare is made from finely chopped toro, the mixed in quail egg just adding to the richness.

Lemony flounder!

Lemony flounder!

The next dish is Japanese comfort food at its best.  A perfectly soft almost poached flounder filet with a soft moist breadiness on the “crust”, served in a lightly lemon-tinged broth thick broth.  One of the more memorable dishes here – simple but perfeclty executed.

Tempura

Tempura

The tempura here is probably the least unique part of the meal here at Katsu, but it’s still a solid plate of lightly battered and fried vegetables.  What makes the tempura at Katsu different though is the choices and the freshness of the vegetables is clearly evident through the crispness.  Choices that night were enoki mushroom, lotus root, a fairly spicy shishito pepper, squash blossom(!), shiso leaf, purslane, and a filet of Japanese whitefish (accompanied by a nice little sheet explaining what purslane is and the proposed health benefits of it).

Chawanmushi...

Chawanmushi…

....with unagi inside

….with unagi inside

Back to Japanese comfort food, I felt like I had to try the chawanmushi here, and it did not disappoint.  A perfectly soft egg custard, nice texture, with a healthy portion of unagi cooked underneath, along with a few pieces of edamame and mushrooms, all mixing to give this dish a great mix of textures and flavors.

Sushi Plate!

Sushi Plate!

IMG_4958 IMG_4959 IMG_4960Finally, we get to the highlight of the meal – the nigiri course!   15 gorgeous pieces of a wide selection of the freshest fish you’ll probably find in the Chicagoland area and possibly the midwest.   Most of the pieces are garnished with an ingredient that complements the bite well and each piece is an extremely generous portion that makes it fairly difficult to take each down in one bite.

As instructed by Chef Katsu we started with the oyster, a kumamoto oyster from the Pacific Northwest, BC I believe.  After that we went straight from left to right.

Fresh yellowtail flown in directly from Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, King salmon from Boston, topped with salmon roe and gold leaf, crisp, refreshing super white toro from Maine, topped with winter truffle, a creamy buttery squid.

Then, Sara’s favorite – sweet shrimp, also from Boston, with a massive fried Shrimp head (not quite as meaty as the one we had a few weeks ago at Kai Zan).  More ground toro followed amazingly fresh uni from Seattle, leaving the scallop, and the finale, a mackerel with a thinly shaved piece of seaweed that tempered the fishiness of the mackerel perfectly.

Katsu’s a bit of a hike up in Lincolnwood for us folks that live downtown, but in the end, a half hour drive is not that far travel for exceptional sushi.  The cost is a bit steep, so it’s definitely more of a special occasion spot, but cost is on par with most of the non-Alinea finer restaurants in the city, and you could definitely have a reasonably sized smaller meal off the omakase for under $100.   A 5 star experience all around.

 

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The week of small plates Japanese @SUMIrobata

Bone-in Lamb Chop!

Bone-in Lamb Chop!

Sumi Robata Bar – 702 N Wells Street, Chicago, IL

Sara and I had been to Sumi Robata almost a year ago around when it opened.  I had always been a fan of the food at Japonais and was impressed with Sumi when it opened, but for it took us awhile to get back there.  And I’m glad we did – it’s a solid meal, albeit a bit overpriced based on portion sizes.

As you walk in, you’re greeted by chef Gene Kato running the robata grill and a sous chef putting together a number of other dishes at the robata bar in the middle of a small room.  Decor is minimalistic and modern with traditional elements.  This time, we got a prime seat right at the robata bar, where we could observe a lot of the dishes coming together.  The menu itself is split up into hot and cold appetizers, and the per skewer robata grill selections.  Service is friendly and helps guide you in terms of how much to order, as it can always be difficult to tell with a menu like this.   Anyways, on to the food…

Salt-cured cucumber

Salt-cured cucumber

Chilled Tofu with ponzu sauce, salmon roe, shitakes, crispy ginger

Chilled Tofu with ponzu sauce, salmon roe, shitakes, crispy ginger

We started healthy – going with two chilled appetizers – the first a sliced salt-cured cucumber that had just a touch of pickled flavor to it – nice and crisp, but not overly vinegary, and the togarshi sprinkled on top gave it just the right amount of spice.  The salt-cure itself keeps the flavor of the cucumber and for some reason, reminded me of the pickles at Katz’s in NYC….mmmmmm….

The tofu dish was artfully presented and wonderfully done.  The tofu mixed with the ponzu had a chawanmushi-like custard texture to it with a rich flavor that was balanced nicely by the saltiness of the ikura.  Almost a definite must have if you go.

Soft-shell crab Karaage

Soft-shell crab Karaage

While I was tempted to get the chicken karaage (per usual), a soft-shell crab karaage appetizer caught our eye instead.  Just coming into season, the crab was fresh and perfectly fried with a subtly soy flavor and a minimal excess of salt in the batter.   The sauce itself looked quite thin, but was a thick, molasses-like sweet and sour sauce that was a bit overpowering.  In the end, the crab itself didn’t really need any extra sauce.

Chicken soup

Chicken soup

For some reason, I was in a soup mood, and the chicken soup was pretty much the only option.  The broth itself was nice and thin, not overly rich, and the bit of shishito and grilled mochi adds some texture.  Overall, not much to write home about here though.

At this point, we move on to the robata portion of the evening.  Most portions here are intended for a single person, but they can usually be shared if you just want a bite or two.

Shishito Peppers

Shishito Peppers

Salmon robata

Salmon robata

The shishitos are a nice option for sharing – the peppers having a nice char, smoky flavor that works well.  The salmon was perfectly cooked, nice and tender and gently brushed with a smooth teriyaki sauce that complemented the salmon nicely.  Didn’t get much of the grill char flavor, but something pretty simple if that’s what you’re looking for.

Beef Tsukune Slider

Beef Tsukune Slider

Shrimp Robata

Shrimp Robata

Sara got a beef tsukune slider and was nice enough to let me have a bite.  The bun is similar to a Chinese bao dough, but softer and more tender.  The tsukune itself has great flavor and has the consistency of a Middle Eastern lamb kabob.  The shrimp / prawn is huge (for a shrimp…ha) – gently charred by the grill

Robata tea-smoked duck breast with tare sauce

Robata tea-smoked duck breast with tare sauce

Bone-in Lamb Chop!

Bone-in Lamb Chop!

Robata Chicken Thighs

Robata Chicken Thighs

I’m a huge duck fan, and this duck was pretty decent – the meat itself didn’t have enough natural flavor and the duck was just a touch overcooked.

The bone-in lamb chop is a highlight – a nice cut of lamb that’s cut to a perfect thickness for the robata grill.  Chef Kato grills this one perfectly, a nice medium rare with a perfect char on the outside.

The chicken thighs are also a highlight the skin nice a crispy balancing with the tenderness of the thigh.  The skin is heavily seasoned and a bit salty for some tastes, but I myself am a big fan.

Prices at Sumi are pretty reasonable (robata servings are each around $4 and the appetizers are about $5-15 depending on what you get), and the service is friendly and knowledgeable.  There’s a good variety and portions for each are a bit small, but sizeable enough for two.