Wednesday, November 6, 2013


My kind of food town, Chicago is.  Going a few days early for a family wedding,  we walked and ate our way through town. Our best meal was brunch at cousin-recommended Little Goat, a sister restaurant to the Girl and the Goat, run by Stephanie Izard of Top Chef fame.  We feasted on the  best corned beef hash, bulls-eye French toast (egg cooked in a hole in the center of the toast) with fried chicken, kim chee bacon and eggs, oatmeal, and a terrific gluten-free pineapple muffin  and a fresh and rich cinnabun.  This is a fantastic informal cafe in the West Loop (820 W. Randolph).
Another wonderful dinner was an old stand-by in Greektown, Santorini (Halsted), featuring large portions, freshly made, good service, and a happy vibe.  Excellent appetizers of grilled octopus and a mixed mezes plate whet our appetites for "authentic Greek chicken", shrimp Santorini, pastichio, and fresh fish.  Unfortunately they were out of the daily lamb specials. Must go back.
The best pizza we had was from Lou Malnati's (439 North Wells Street, but many locations) delivered to our room, but still so good.  Great as leftovers too.  My new Chicago pizza favorite was the Chicago Classic with marvelous sausage and a butter crust, rich tomato sauce and a large amount of cheese.  We were also lucky enough to have the rehearsal dinner at a Gino's East, which used to be my favorite Chicago pizza. Their crust has more cornmeal than Lou's but the sausage is less thrilling.
Another old-time Chicago favorite we got to enjoy was Portillo's, sort of a high-class fast food place at 100 W. Ontario.  We had classic Chicago hot dogs and fries and strawberry shortcake.  Also got to try their great Italian beef sandwich.  We had breakfast at the also classic (85 years) Lou Mitchell's (565 W Jackson) which is great to be in, but the food is really not that special. I do appreciate the gratis donut hole as a starter. Eggs and potatoes and corned beef hash, decent but no desire to return.  I did have a great old-fashioned donut at what I guess is an in-spot at 939 W. Armitage and elsewhere, Glazed and Infused.  $2.50 which I think is pretty high for a donut.  The incomparable Stan's in Santa Clara is still under $1.
On a recommendation, we went to Twin Anchors (1655 N. Sedgwick), another 80+ yearer,  for ribs and they were great.  A neighborhood bar visited by Frank Sinatra, which they never let you forget.  Ribs were very tender, sauces very tasty, onion rings and baked beans superb, and service was very special.  A journey from the Loop but well worth it.
Right in the heart of the Loop and very close to the spectacular Millenium Park and the ever-wonderful Chicago Cultural Center (you must go see the Tiffany ceiling), we found Heaven on 7 (111 N. Wabash), a Creole joint with a delicious soft shell crab po'boy, excellent beans and cole slaw, and an amazing variety of hot sauces.  Seemingly hidden on the 7th floor of a small office building, it's definitely worth discovering.
And a classic always worth rediscovering is Frontera Grill, (445 N. Clark) where Rick Bayless offers fabulous Mexican food made with the finest ingredients.  Our brunch included beef and pork tacos, huevos Motulenos (a Yucatan dish), and tortilla soup. I also stopped by XOCO, Bayless's informal branch around the corner for an excellent Mexican hot chocolate and chilaquiles.
Paying homage to Frank Lloyd Wright with a visit to Oak Park, we stopped for lunch at the very decent Delia's Kitchen (1034 W. Lake St) a block and a half from both Unity Temple and the Wright homes on Forest Ave. Great soups of the day (fluffy matza ball and Mideastern lentil), a very generous Cobb salad and turkey sandwich, friendly servers who make you feel welcome, and convenience to the sights make this a great find.
I left Chicago 5 pounds heavier, well-sated, and toddlin' home. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

San Diego Quick Trip

Went for a quick trip to visit my new great-nephew in San Diego.  A little over 2 days and hard decisions about where to eat.  It worked out pretty well.  I used Eater San Diego’s 38 Essential Restaurants as a guide and family recommendations to back them up. My nephew highly recommended Aqui es Texcoco in Chula Vista (1043 Broadway) where we had a lunch feast with out of the ordinary Mexican food.  The main ingredient is lamb, which I don’t see too often on menus at cheap Mexican places. Started with a marvelous lamb broth with hominy followed by 3 lamb tacos (rib meat, grilled,  and cabeza). They were joined by huitlocoche and squash blossom quesadillas and guacamole with cactus. Everything was delicious, altho in last place was the huitlocoche, of which I had very high expectations. The house-made sangria was great too and the service was so welcoming and friendly, I’d happily return any time. 

I managed to fit in one fish taco from Nine Seas/ German Mariscos  taco truck in South Park.  One good- sized piece of fish with just the right amount of coating and served with cabbage and sauce.  Everything is made fresh as you wait so you’ll probably have a little wait. Lime and more sauce are self-serve. And it’s only $1.75.  They have a famous marlin taco for $4 said to be quite large.  I had just finished a decent breakfast at Big Kitchen across the street (3003 Grape) so I could only handle the one taco.  Big Kitchen is a great old hippie place refreshingly un-San Diego with famous breakfasts and lunches.  Their old claim to fame was that Whoopi Goldberg once worked there, but it’s sustained itself on good food at good prices.  Eggs done just right, good bacon, good home fries.  A classic.

Another consistently good breakfast can be had at The Mission.  We had brunch at the Mission Beach original (3795 Mission Blvd.).  The Breakfast Rosemary is just a darn god breakfast, great rosemary potatoes, scrambled eggs, and rosemary toast.  Excellent cinnamon bread toast makes a pleasant meal served with fresh fruit, and the blueberry pancakes are huge and yummy.  Very good hot chocolate.  Close by, in Pacific Beach, we had one ofthe best seafood dinners ever at The Fishery (5040 Cass St). We took advantage of Tuesday Tastings and would go back any Tuesday I’m in San Diego. For $28 plus $12 for wine pairings, you get a 4 course beautifully prepared menu. We adored the first course of fried oysters, the salad of faro with fresh cherries, and the just caught white sea bass.  Each main ingredient has perfect accompaniment, such as tangerine slices with the oysters or a rich mayonnaise with the bass.  Perfect wine pairings, a fresh fruit dessert, and excellent service put this restaurant at the top of our favorites. 

I had high hopes for take-out food from Sab E Lee Thai in Linda Vista (2405 Ulric).  None of the 6 dishes thrilled, although the seafood salad had plenty of seafood and flavor and the papaya salad satisfied. The pad see ewe was mediocre and the catfish larb was mainly spicy.  Combination fried rice was a good foil, but the fried chicken was overcooked.  We had a more satisfying lunch downtown at Lotus Thai (909 Market), where I enjoyed the mas-su-mam beef. It’s pretty close to the new main library, so both are worth checking out once the library opens in September.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

New York Spring

Ah, Spring in New York, 40 degrees, no wait 80 degrees, sunny, no wait, rainy and cold.  But you can always find safe harbor in some great restaurants.  So here are my 2013 munchings:

Pizza: Always have to get a major pizza fix in NY. Best pizza had this trip was at Luzzo’s (211-13 1st Ave.).  I had never heard of it atho it uses a 100 year old coal oven so I think it's been around awhile.  2 of us shared a beautiful salad and a large margherita, Highly rated in Zagat and for good reason.  I returned to Motorino but this time at East Village site (349 E.12th). Their amazing lunch deal of a choice of 4 pizzas and a fresh salad for $12 cannot be beat.  The margherita was totally satisfying, with a nicely crisp crust  and the right proportions of sauce to cheese.  Only disappointment was their recommended pizza wine, which was lightly fruity but bland.  Another new delight was at Don Antonio (309 W. 50th) which has a mother restaurant in Neopolitan ??and known for their Montorano Starita, an individual-sized pie, lightly fried crust with sauce, smoked mozzarella cooked in  a wood-fired oven. A Pontina ?? salad with spring greens, fresh mozzarella and grape tomatoes made another perfect lunch.

Since it’s always important to try new Italian restaurants, we did our duty at Locanda Verde, very famous and hard to get in.  We went early and besides middling service, had some very good food.  The asparagus appetizer was superb with a poached duck? egg blessing the thick and luscious spears. The Locanda salad with dried cherries and speck was delightful. We went with pastas.  I had to order “My Grandmother’s ravioli” , which ended up being nothing that special besides the nostalgic naming. The daily pasta was a spinach noodle with a light pork ragu. A side of roasted carrots with olive, citrus, and yogurt was perfect.

The best dish of the trip was the crispy watercress salad with shrimp, squid, and chicken at SriPraPhai in Woodside, Queens (6413 39th Ave). I’ve never tasted anything like this spicy, flavorful, texturally magnificent dish.  I’ve been trying to find it on Thai menus in the Bay Area without success.  The other outstanding dish was fried soft shell crab topped with chili, garlic and basil. Noodle dishes and curries were fine too, but the first 2 are big winners and worth the long ride to Woodside.  Our other borough dining treat was at Walter’s in Fort Greene, Brooklyn (166 DeKalb), where we feasted on ceviche, fresh fish, excellent fried chicken, superb Brussels sprouts, and key lime pie.  A cool, neighborhood gathering spot.

A day spent at Grounds for Sculpture in southern New Jersey included a great lunch at Rat’s, which offers a 3 course lunch prix fixe for about $25 with good choices for each course.  I had a yummy onion soup and a barley risotto, a nice variation on grains. The hamburger is beautiful and they follow a farm-to-table philosophy. House made gelati were all excellent.  The sculpture park is a delight and worth the hour train trip from NYC.

More Manhattan dinner highlights were: A return trip to the bar at Keen’s (72W.36th) where we shared oysters and their unique and fantastic mutton chop. The Manhattans are nice and strong, the rolls and butter perfect, and it’s a fun scene, reasonably priced.  Modern Korean fare with especially good kimchi was enjoyed at Danji (346 W. 52), an in-spot where we got seated at the bar after a ½ hour wait among young marketing mavens. The excellent bartender with good wine and food advice made it all OK. Spicy yellowtail sashimi, cool and lovely fresh pea soup, chorizo paella were highlights, altho the well-known pork belly sliders have been eclipsed by other restaurants.  Everyone there seems to order them tho.  The best Greek meal I’ve ever had was our dinner at Pylos (128 E 7th)  where everything was prepared perfectly, service was excellent, wines were good, portions large, prices reasonable, and the pita was unbelievable.  The gigante beans  the grilled octopus, and the whole bronzino were of special note.  I wanted to try everything on the menu.

Lunches provided many memorable moments.  The 3-course lunch at Nougatine by Jean-Georges is a fantastic deal at $32.  I paid an $8 supplement for the best foie gras terrine I’ve ever had with a slightly spicy passionfruit meringue on top as my first course.  Sheila had a lovely tuna tartare. Our entrees of roasted black bass and crispy baked chicken showed off the cooking expertise with the main ingredient complemented by perfect preparation and side dishes. Each bite is a pleasure. The famous warm chocolate cake and the vanilla ice cream with rhubarb puree ended almost perfect meals.  We loved our wines by the glass featuring real treasures, especially a pinot gris from Alsace, even though at $17-18, they don’t come cheap.  And we saw Jean-Georges himself.

 A great pastrami sandwich at the classic Katz’s was the expected treat and our visit to the new location of 2nd Avenue Deli (162 E. 33rd) brought us  terrific pastrami and corned beef, as well as matza ball soup. The pickles were better than at Katz’s although I like Katz’s pastrami better. A gift of a small chocolate phosphate made this meal at one of the last full Kosher restaurants special. One of the oldest dim sum parlors in NYC is Nom Wah (13 Doyers St—a fascinating little street) was fun but Bay Area dim sum is better. This is  a no-cart  place where the shrimp dumplings shine.  I finally made it to Dinosaur BBQ in Harlem (700 W125th) but was mildly disappointed by the pulled pork and brisket lunch plate.  Less than I had hoped for. The cole slaw and beans were both very good.

I had a perfect and simple breakfast at Clinton Street Baking Co (4 Clinton) in the Lower East Side.  The buttermilk biscuit sandwich filled with light and fluffy eggs and cheddar with tomato jam accompanied by perfectly crisp hash browns left me so satisfied I gave my thanks to the chef.  Their muffins and cookies are good too. Great cookies were bought at Levain  (167 W. 74). $4 each but huge and even I think worth the price.  Sublime smoked sable and Gaspe nova lox on bagels came from the legendary Russ and Daughters,  and some great bagels from Bergen Bagels in Brooklyn.  We were disappointed in the “legendary” bagels from H&H Midtown Bagels East (1551 2nd Ave),.  Everything cannot be perfect but our 11 days in New York were all in all very fulfilling, enriching, and a little nutritious.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Tastes of Cuba

One doesn’t or shouldn’t go to Cuba for the food. There are too many shortages of great cooking ingredients.  But with the opportunities opening up to allow for private restaurants (paladors), many in converted homes, one can have some pretty wonderful dining experiences.  And it’s always an experience on top of the food.  We recently spent about a week in Santiago de Cuba and Havana and had some memorable meals, along with mediocre buffets and “group” meals. I’ll talk about the highlights.

Santiago is Cuba’s second largest city with 500,000 people but it feels like a small town.  Also, there was extensive damage from Hurricane Sandy so we did not see it as its best. But we had a great meal at Compay Gallo (San German 3), housed in a beautiful Art Deco home with terrazzo floors and a marvelous staircase with no banister, a la Baragan, leading up to the third floor where the restaurant  is.  Service, food, and presentation were great. The most spectacular dish was my appetizer of shrimp cocktail, a generous serving of shrimp and crab with homemade mayonnaise, served on top of a small fishbowl with 2 live goldfish in it. Pictures were taken! My main course of lamb stew was in a thick, rich dark sauce served with rice and malanga, a starchy tuber. Other entrees were well-executed with individual integrity, very Impressive as our group of 8 were the only customers besides 2 couples. I’d go back there.

A pizza and pasta dinner at the Ristorante Italiana la Fontana at the Melia Santiago Hotel (where 5 stars is a real stretch of the imagination) was just fine, nothing special.  The breakfast buffet at the hotel is very good, including a roast pig! A lunch at Restaurante Zunzun (Av. Mandulay 159), in a restored mansion, was like a Rotary banquet meal with satisfactory grilled fish. Although those who got the curry chicken were impressed.

Havana is a marvelous city just waiting for redevelopment to explode and fortunately the restaurant scene has some stars. Our best meal was at Café Laurent (Calle M 257), near the National Hotel, a civic treasure with plumbing that makes its 5-star rating questionable. The 5th floor of an apartment building reached by a temperamental but charming elevator has been turned into a wonderful restaurant. Our lovely and friendly server made us feel special and the fresh mahi mahi done a couple of different ways, salads with real lettuce, tasty ceviche, delicious gazpacho, and a decent albeit small wine list made our group of 7 very happy eaters.  We also had a very nice meal at Dona Eutimia (Callejon del Charro) on an alley near the Cathedral, with some superb appetizers like croquettas and fried fish bites with different sauces.  We expected the paella for 2  to have more varieties of seafood, but the lobster was nice and portion generous. Those who got lobster as an entree had plenty to share. Service and presentation were perfect and everyone had a good time, hoping to share cigars as we left but finding the wind coming through the alley greater than our lighting skills.

Our first tour meal in Havana was at the lovely La Ferminia (av. 5 # 18207), apparently a Castro favorite, where we ate in the beautiful garden next to the beautiful mansion with marble floors and several dining rooms. They feature brochettes with a very good chicken and a nicely flavored but tough beef. And tres leches cake for dessert, all accompanied by a music trio. I recommend it for its beauty. The group also had lunch at La Domenica (O’Reilly #108), a lovely Italian restaurant with decent pizza and spaghetti and accompanying live music. Our final tour celebratory dinner was held at the beautiful Café del Oriente appropriately on the Plaza de San Francisco. The formal dining rooms look like they should be in New Orleans or Charleston, so no reeking of local color.  A nice onion soup was followed by a decent steak and a good flan. We didn’t make it there, but those in our group who went to Palador La Guarida, featured in the film, Strawberries and Chocolate, thought it was fantastic.  So our number 1 choice for the return trip to fascinating, enigmatic, beautiful Cuba.