Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Round-up: Lazy Writing or Too Much Dining?

Written by Peter

As someone who’s written for pay for many, many years, I know the value of the “round-up”—a valued chestnut in any writer’s toolkit. A “round-up” allows a writer to avoid delving too deeply into any given subject, providing instead the ability to create a pastiche of impressions or convey short little nuggets of information. You’ve all seen and read countless of these puppies: “10 New Boutiques With the Best Beads,” “5 Toe-Tapping Tapas Bars,” “8 Mystery Novels From Florida Writers.” These kinds of pieces allow any writer worth his or her salt to go on auto-pilot.

In this case, however, it’s all about wading through volume. We eat out a lot. A whole lot. And if we reviewed every restaurant, writing reviews would be all we’d do. Hence, the round-up below. Perhaps instead of the headline above, maybe we should call this one: “Receipts Found When Cleaning out My Wallet.”

Landmark Grill + Lounge
This is our kind of place. Beautiful woods, soaring ceilings, a killer wine list, good-looking clientele (present company included, of course) and, most important, great food. This restaurant really deserves its own review, but, well, you read the introduction. Some highlights: The lobster bisque was smoky and deep, not as creamy and rich as its traditional preparation. Although I do love the cream-soaked decadence of classic bisque, this update was a welcome change. The pork chop was even better and ranks now as the tastiest I’ve ever ordered (an honor previously held by Jean-Ro Bistro). It came barbequed with a light glaze, served on top of white corn grits. The salt of the chop and the sauce dripped to mix with the grits, creating a delightfully salty stew. The chop was brined then cooked to perfection and although Angie doubted my ability to eat the entire portion, I yet again showed her why I may have a future in eating competitions. A final highlight (this is a round-up, remember?) was our shared goat-cheese ravioli. I’ve become a big fan of English peas and this dish featured those in a big way. The raviolis, soaked in a parmesan soup of sorts, threw together some big flavors and with a few more on the plate, would have made for a satisfying entrĂ©e. 1633 N. Halstead St. 312.587.1600.

Las Palmas
We eat a lot of food from south of the border. And be it burritos from the Burrito House at the corner of Lincoln and Addison or guacamole from Lalo’s, we almost always love what we have. Las Palmas was no exception, but offered something extra in an atmosphere that was both visually stimulating and fun. We stopped in at this Bucktown location after jewelry shopping. Angie’s been on a jewelry buying kick lately, and she received word that one of her favorite designers was having a sale. So we hopped in the car, found a hell of a parking spot and walked to the boutique. After buying a few items, we kicked around the neighborhood, in a conscious attempt to avoid the piles of work waiting for us at home. It was Cinco de Mayo and a few of the tequila lounges were already in a festive mood, and the streets were clogging with young families and urban hipsters. And us. We were going to stop into Piece for a few slices of pizza, but when we passed this place, we just turned right in. Burnt orange walls. Large paintings (we sat underneath El Diablo) and ducts wrapped to look like palm trees greeted us. The restaurant is large; we, however, sat in the smaller and funkier front room. It was too early (by our standards) for tequila or anything alcoholic so we had a couple of juice blends. Angie had “agua fresca,” a mix of strawberries that was not as thick as a smoothie and much more interesting. As is our custom, we had the guacamole mixed tableside and our server was fun and friendly as she prepped one of our favorite foods. The salsa that accompanied it was deep brown and smoky, which is how I prefer it. Our entrees were tasty, although non-transcendent. Presentation, however, elevated them above standard fare. Each items was given its own space on the rectangular plate, a far cry from the usual “ingredients soup” that some plates become. 1835 W. North Ave., 773. 289.4991.

King Crab
Is it a bar? Is it a restaurant? After three bloody marys, who cares? We stopped in here after an event at the Steppenwolf theater (to see Grant Achatz no less) and didn’t expect a whole lot. And that’s fine. Who says every time a fork passes our lips it needs to transport us somewhere…like Alinea? This place serves food as you’d find it on the east coast: pulled from the sea and set on your plate unadorned. I had a fish sandwich and it…it…filled me up. Angie’s seafood salad disappointed her. It featured less than fresh greens covered in just a few meager shrimp and crab bits. But what I would recommend here are the Bloody Marys. Served with a skewer of shrimp and a lot of booze, they more than make up for any culinary shortcomings. 1816 N. Halstead. 312.280.8990.

Brownstone Tavern & Grill
Yet another fine find within walking distance of our house, perched on a busy corner between of Lincoln between Addison and Irving Park. Angie and I set out for a walk on a warm evening, became hungry and voila, we found ourselves standing in front of the Brownstone. We opted for a table outside and found ourselves within a classic mix of north-side types: young families with kids running around the tables enjoying the warm evening, people with dogs sitting quietly and waiting for scraps and handsome couples…oh, wait, that’s Angie and me. The food is a solid cut above bar variety. We shared the Reuben rolls, lightly fried little dumplings stuffed with corned beef and sauerkraut and, of course, tangy thousand island dipping sauce. My chicken tortilla soup was rich and red, and as the sun was dropping along with the temperatures, just what I needed to keep warm. Angie had the seared salmon. This was served in a cold cerviche and provided a spicy counterpoint to the sedate salmon. We’ll be back here often, as this place has proved that not all of our dining-out options need to take us a few blocks south to Roscoe Street. 3937 N. Lincoln Ave. 773.528.3700. Look up the restaurant at

Paula Deen would love this place. If she were funkier and urbanier (yeah, it’s a word—look it up). Southern cooking with a city twist is what this place is all about. And yep, it’s yet another swell place we can walk to. The first thing you notice when you walk in is how big the place is, especially for this part of town. There’s fun art on the walls (a couple of pieces we may buy, actually) and fun people in the booths and tables. Everyone seems to be in a good mood here, and why not? The sun streams through the two walls of windows and the food comes fast and filling. It was the brunch hour when Angie and I stopped in, fresh from a good walk around the neighborhood. In my battle between lunch and breakfast, I decided to stay on the middle path: I ordered the North Carolina crab cakes. The two small cakes were more crab than breading and dipping each bite in the hollandaise sauce side made for a bite so rich that I was afraid Angie would give me the “you’re fat” look. (She did, ultimately, but only when I suggested we split an order of bacon.) A big corn muffin and cheese grits rounded out my plate. How can it get more southern than that? (I suppose a mint julep would have made it so, but we had more walking to do.) Angie went with red beans and rice with a side of apple sausage. It was as good as it sounds; again, one of those dishes from which a diner doesn’t demand too much, just some solid filling-upedness. (Yep, that too is a word.) This was our second meal here (we cured our New Year’s Day hangovers here months back); it’s a fave of ours and I’m sure we’ll wander by and in many more times. 3300 N. Lincoln Ave. 773.549. 4105.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Online Restaurant Reviews

I recently added a new feature to this blog: content feeds. See it there, down on the right side of the page? It automatically populates with content according to food-related keywords I've set up. So this morning I saw a link to an article about online restaurant reviews from MarketWatch. Apparently these reviews people keep posting are pretty powerful things, and are increasingly on the radar of more progressive restaurant owners. This article caught my eye for a few reasons. First, simply because it elevates online reviews, something about which I'm obviously intensely interested. Review sites like Zagat and Yelp leave a lot to be desired, in my opinion. The typically pithy review with short snippets of content doesn't do much for me, and there always seem to be equal parts of over the top good and bad review, always leaving a question of whose opinion to really trust.

The other reason this morning's article caught my eye is because it mentions a review of Kaze (read my review here), the sushi restaurant in our neighborhood that's near and dear to my heart. We love this place because it's so close to us, so much so that I recommended a review of it on WTTW's popular "Check, Please" show. And now, a confessional story. When we first moved here last summer I found and instantly loved Check, Please. I went to check out their Web site and filled out the form to be on the show, only to find out that 20,000 people enter to be on! I put it out of my mind until I got an email from the show's producer about 6 weeks ago, saying he liked my entry and was considering me for the new season. I even had a phone interview with another member of the show's production team, and told her why I love Kaze and would love to be part of the show. I was THRILLED to even be called. Everyone in the office watches! And I'd love to meet the very accomplished Kalpana Singh! I hesitated to write about the experience here on the blog, hoping I'd have a great success story to tell you readers about how I was going to be on the show, but alas alack I've heard nothing. It's been long enough that I think I'm finally going to have to admit that I'm not going to have my five minutes of fame. Well, it was exciting to think about while it lasted.

So for the time being I'm going to keep up my reviews here on the site for all to enjoy. Maybe I'll get the opportunity to share with a wider audience sometime in the future, but for now my reviews will remain a fun hobby. Thank you to those of you who are regular readers (my site tracking tells me that 30% of you are return visitors!) and please let me know how you think I'm doing!

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Gluttony at the Food Marketing Show

We've just spent a gloriously excessive day at this year's Food Marketing Institute tradeshow. Sure, it was a nice day outside and we could've spent it doing something healthy and active, but our friend, colleague and blog reader George Rafeedie gave us free passes to the show. So, being the foodies we are we really couldn't pass up the opportunity.

I've been to many a tradeshow in my b-to-b marketing days, but this was by far the biggest and best I've encountered. As we walked through the hall entrance our eyes grew large as a booth staffer immediately offered taquito bites and two flavors of margarita. Luckily we hadn't eat breakfast, which gave us all the more room in our stomachs to fill up on all the delights being generously handed out. George had tried to paint a picture of the amount of food we'd encounter, but I still wasn't prepared for the scale of all there was to eat. Kraft's booth was far and away the best: full-size hot dogs, grilled cheese made with their new premium cheese, CPK pizza, sauteed shrimp and tortilla wraps were just a few things we sampled. The Pillsbury section of the General Mills booth lured us with crustless PB&Js, 7-layer bars and Toll-House cookies. We kept moving through the bigger booths to the smaller ones in back where we found just as many samples including pad thai, fish cakes, beef jerky and pasta sauces galore. It was here that we encountered the worst thing we ate all day: peanut brittle made with overly smoky bacon. We passed through both the Miller and Bud booths without sampling, but if we'd wanted to we absolutely could have sat at the cocktail tables in either one and drank beer to our hearts content, all served by scantily clad female bartenders. Just when I thought I couldn't hold any more, I was tempted by some pomegranate and chocolate chip gelato that was truly amazing and managed to find room to stuff down a bit of Reese's new "Whipped" candy bar that has 40% less fat (oh, thank goodness, because we were really watching what we ate today).

We took a break and decided to cross into the next hall where our passes allowed us to enter the "Fancy Food Show." We soon realized we'd entered heaven, and that we surely should've started our day in this hall and not the other. In this hall we ate cheese, cheese and more cheese, not to mention countless salsas, mustards, sauces, crackers, jams and jellies. Wait, I forgot all the cookies, fudge, dried fruit and the petit fours I couldn't pass up. It all just looked so incredibly good. We even ran into a friend of a friend who operates a cheese importing company from Cincinnati, called Cheese from Britain, and enjoyed a cheddar bleu combination as well as an unbelievably good costwald. I know, it sounds like a lot of cheese. Not since the day in culinary school when I was forced to eat 23 cheeses in succession for a palate education class have I eaten so much cheese all at once. We went down one aisle to find the "Italian Marketplace" where there was the most amazing selection of olives and other antipasti I've ever seen. Despite feeling semi-nauseous at this point, I managed to scarf down enormous green olives stuffed with provolone and roquefort and salami stuffed with mozzarella. It was around this time that Peter turned to me and said, "I think I'm sweating." We were quite the sight, moaning and holding our stomachs in pain, yet pressing on down row after row. Did I mention the mango creme brulee and aloe water? We meandered back to the entrance by way of the produce section, amused by the machine that was cleaning and sorting potatoes, and another that cleaned lemons.

We left the fancy food show and took a short break in the space between the two halls, spreading out on the carpeted floor trying not to throw up. I was pretty much ready to leave at this point, but Peter got his second wind and despite my protests insisted we go back to the first hall. We were pickier our second time around but still managed to eat more pizza, some Diet Coke Plus (now, with vitamins and minerals!), Italian sausage, another crustless PB&J, and some of Campbell's new low sodium soup (to which my reaction was, 'this needs salt'). At this point I had really reached my limit and even Peter started to lose his ability to fill up on any more. So, with tired feet and uncomfortably full stomachs we made our way back to the car, vowing not to eat again all day.

Last week I entered our office's Biggest Loser weight loss challenge. Before today I was even starting to feel like I was maybe doing okay and possibly going to lose a pound or two by weigh in time tomorrow. But after today I think it's safe to say that the scale tomorrow will move in the opposite direction--maybe I can get a bye this week?