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Oh, the one-word named Brunch place. Nothing says “We are a family friendly but style conscious breakfast eatery” like a name that evokes a single breakfast staple: Yolk, Jam, Toast, Orange, and of course the ultimate: Brunch, recently opened in River North. What separates Waffles from this pack? Unlike the above listed establishments, which all serve the full range of breakfast items, Waffles pretty much sticks to the promise it makes in its name: this place specializes in Waffles, Waffles of all shapes and sizes with all kinds of toppings.
They do have a small collection of non-waffle based items — you could get an omelet here, or, I imagine, the two eggs, bacon, and hash brown breakfast that boring people seem unable to live withou — but seriously, when in Rome, order waffles.
We tried three variations, which ranged from the inexplicable to the sublime. The short rib and cheddar waffle, which called out to me from the menu as a siren calling out to Odyseuss, was a big dissappointment. The braised short ribs themselves were quite tasty, if a touch on the dry side, but the cheddar was severely lacking; instead of the gluttonous pile of melted cheese I had hoped for, the dish was garnished with a few stray crumbs of cheese — not even proper shreds but literally little crumbs. The waffle itself was supposedly cheddar infused — again, bitter disappointment. Visions of the breakfast equivalent of Cheddar Bay biscuits danced in my head, but I must say there was no discernible cheddar taste.
Another savory waffle combo, the house variation on eggs benedict, was greeted with much more success. Two waffles topped with pork carnitas, nicely poached eggs, and hollandaise — the key to success here was the use of sweet waffles as the base, which took this from what might have been a mundane but palatable benedict to the level of iconic item, the best sweet-savory waffle combo since chicken and waffles.
Still, our hands down favorite was the over indulgent breakfast-as-dessert Red Velvet waffle. Visually stunning, bright red waffle battered, cooked to cakety-crispety perfection, liberally dolloped with an unholy hybrid of cream cheese and whipped cream, and a sugary macerated red fruit jam. I generally count myself amongst Red Velvet haters, perhaps having sampled one too many uninspired RV cupcakes, but this was the proof of concept my taste center had been waiting for.
I pretty much don’t recommend visiting the South Loop, but in case you wake up one day and find you live in one of those horrible plain vanilla high rises around 14th street, you could do worse for breakfast.Waffles. 1400 S Michigan Chicago, IL 60605. (312) 854-8572. Open daily 8am-3pm. $18-22 per person.
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Every chef I know swears by this place and its no wonder. It’s one of the only restaurants in town that serves legitimately spicy food (insert obligatory shout out to Khan BBQ, Xni-Pec and Sticky Rice).
It’s mandatory to start out with a bowl of the extra spicy soup. Add in a handful of the Szechuan pepper spiked cabbage and you’ll be sweating within a few bites. The particularly bite of the Szechuan pepper is irresistible, a dry heat that tickles the back of the throat and sends you back for more before the pain of the first bite has subsided. In terms of raw heat, it’s a few notches below the habanero or thai bird, but definitely not for the faint of heart.
The pepper shines again in the restaurant’s signature dish, a spicy chicken hot pot. Over time, and many meals at venerable establishments such as Sun Wah, I have come to appreciate the Chinese technique of butchering poultry. Unlike the Western method, in which the goal is to separate as much meat from the bone as possible, Chinese chefs tend to cut directly across the bone, insuring a little shard in most every bite. It makes for a messy experience, but what is lost in convenience is made up for in flavor, with the earthy and rich flavors of bone and marrow adding an added dimension to each bite. This is showcased well in the bubbling hot pot, where piping hot bits of fried chicken float in a broth of chili pepper and scallion, each steaming bite a harbinger of severe but well earned heartburn to come.
One of the standard dishes we use as a basis of comparison amongst Chinese restaurants is Ma Po Tofu. Typically, my favorite thing about this dish is the addition of ground pork to the tofu base, a delightfully delicious slap in the face to tofu chomping vegans. Lao Szechuan’s version actually is vegetarian, but they are forgiven, as the silky smooth tofu becomes yet another vehicle for spicy pepper infused broth. The final touch is a generous scoop of toasted rice powder on top, adding depth and soul to the dish; this exactly the kind of thing that can sustain you through a dreary Chicago winter.
The service at Lao Szechuan is pretty much par for the course in Chinatown; I would appreciate a few more concessions to gaijin-style dining, such as regular water refills, but with few enough options in town for true chili-heads, I’m willing to suffer regular long lines and somewhat inattentive service for a few tongue tingling bites of true Szechuan cuisine.
Finally, a word about dumplings: try the pork dumplings here, they are nothing special but they are oh-so-special in that they are exactly right, the perfect size with a perfectly spiced dense pork meatball in the center, pefectly steamed and perfectly pan fried to just the right level of char on the outside.
Lao Szechuan 2172 South Archer Avenue Chicago, IL 60616. (312) 326-5040. Open daily from 11am to midnight. Reservations accepted for large parties. $15-20/person.
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SCHWA: legendary restaurant or urban legend? Through a connection at work, we were able to secure a notoriously rare reservation at Michael Carlson’s storefront restaurant in Wicker Park/Bucktown (and not the nice part with strollers; the real part, with the K-Mart). When we arrived, what we saw was the sign to the left — we had been warned to expect this, however, so we were unphased. We left our card under the door and went on to a perfectly delicious meal at nearby Taxim. We were surprised when Seth from SCHWA called me that same night and offered to have me back for dinner anytime.
Honestly, we did not expect the restaurant to be open when we returned on Thursday either. Rumours had been swirling — Carlson and crew had moved to LA, Carlson was in rehab and the restaurant was closed indefinitely, Carlson was recovering from knee surgery and strung out on painkillers. Even though the restaurant had called twice to confirm our reservation, it was not until we pushed the door open and exchanged the crisp September air on Ashland Ave. for the cozy, cooly lit confines of Schwa that we were certain a meal was forthcoming. And what a meal it was.
First, let’s dispense with formalities — that’s certainly how SCHWA does it. There is no service, per se, no waiter who takes your order or caters to your every urbane need. You are greeted at the door by a cheerful, slightly tipsy Seth Carlson, the chef’s brother, he asks if you are allergic to anything, and then they feed you. The same three guys who are cooking the food in the semi-open kitchen, holding the back door open with their foot so the immersion blender doesn’t make too much noise in the dining room, are the guys who bring out each course, briefly describe the flavors and give a quick instruction on how to eat — “ONE BITE, NO FORK!”. Seth provides new silverware with each course, keeps water topped off, and constantly checks to make sure you are enjoying yourself — before confidently asserting towards the end of the meal that yeah, he knows his brother can cook. And that’s pretty much it — four or five guys, drinking, maybe doing some whip-its, and cooking insanely good food, then sharing it with you.
Here’s what we ate. The menu advertised 9 courses but with little extras here and there it was more like 12. There is no need for commentary; this was easily one of the best meals of my life, every single dish was good and several were mind-blowing.
Amuse: Gooseberry, leaves still attached, dipped in yogurt, anise hysop foam
Peekytoe Crab Salad, pink peppercorns, guava gel, shaved white asparagus
Potato soup, crispy potato skins, chive puree, bacon, sour cream <—–inspired, according to chef Josh, by the Wendy’s potato bar
Quail egg ravioli, white truffle, parmesan
Tortelloni, creamy cheese filling, crab apple, celery-black truffle broth
Fish Roe, fried in a zeppole or beignet, violet foam, and passionfruit jello made with more fish roe — this was the least appetizing course on the menu, but ended up being my favorite, with the high degree of difficulty and insane creativity
Hamachi sashimi, sweet maple cream, ground Creminelli calabrese salami, ginger <—- a completely bizarre flavor combination, this kept getting better and better the more we ate, truly memorable
Rabbit loin, rabbit rillette, savory bread pudding, strawberry jam, honey <—– served in a small bowl, set inside a large bowl. The large bowl was filled with fresh picked mint, and Seth poured steaming hot water over the mint at the table, creating an incredible aroma. The mint mingled with the potent strawberry was the perfect kiss goodbye to summer.
Intermezzo: Turmeric Ice Cream with Mustard Caramel
Lamb eye of loin cooked sous vide, cashew puree, pickled blueberries, and blueberry sauce
Pretzel gougeres filled with warm Chimay cheese
dessert 1: Cherry-covered chocolate <——how the fuck did they do this?
dessert 2: Whiskey and Dr. Pepper — whiskey ice cream, Dr. Pepper gummies, orange gastrique, and a side of Dr. Pepper <——– Seth approaches the table with two glasses and a can of Dr. Pepper and asks, “Do you know what chef’s two favorite flavors are? Cocaine and hookers. But his third and fourth favorite flavors are whiskey and Dr. Pepper.”
The meal was really on another level, words don’t do it justice and it’s just not the environment you would take pictures in. We most impressed by the use of fruit throughout; every single dish had a sweet component, be it guava, strawberry, blueberry, passionfruit, or maple, that really tied the whole meal together and set off every other component.
After the disappointment of our first reservation being canceled and the uncertainty of whether we would ever get to dine here, in the end SCHWA was more than worth the effort and the wait. So keep trying to snag that reso! Good luck.
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What do you do when your overloaded hot dog has gotten too big for its bun? If you’re the wizards of drinky time Mexican food at Big Star, you just get yourself a bigger bun. Nothing short of a bolillo roll can contain the insanity of a bacon wrapped hot dog, surrounded by pinto beans, swimming in salsa, guacamole, mustard, mayonaisse, and onion. How am I supposed to fit this guy in with my usual order of guac, queso fundido, and a bushel of tacos? But that’s my problem.
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Usagi Ya is solid neighborhood spot featuring two beautiful semi-private window boxes for group dining. Fans of lapine samurai Usagi Yojimbo might guess that the name is Japanese for Rabbit House, an apt descriptor for its cozy environs on Sunday, when we gobbled down their Spicy Tuna Tataki (spicy tuna, tempura shrimp, and avocado wrapped in seared tuna), Summer (jalapeno, cilantro, avocado, tuna and yellowtail), Snow Ball (white truffle sauce, white tuna, scallion), and Fire (not pictured, a tempura battered tuna roll in a bath of chili oil) rolls. Really nice sushi, lovingly presented. We love that you order using the sushi checklist cards that are becoming less and less common these days. We also tried one non-sushi appetizer, apparently their house speciality, beef tataki, consisting of very rare thin sliced beef with seaweed and a ponzu sauce. Very simple and really really good, in true Japanese fashion. It was very quiet on a Sunday afternoon, which hardly surprised us, but the stripped down team provided extremely courteous and quick service, and we were able to use a dining coupon by showing them the deal on our smartphone. The space is attractive, with some… interesting …local art displayed on the walls. We’ll have to see it fully lit on a busy night to see how the restaurant measures up to its hidden urban sushi bar promise.
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This weekend we had a chance to get out of the city for a bit when we were invited to a customer appreciation dinner at Dietzler Farms in Elkhorn, WI (I wish I could say that the Ladies actually eat so much Dietzler beef that they had to invite us, but we were really tagging along with our friends in the JDY Meats crew. Thanks Dave and Carrie!) Anticipating a long drive, we loaded up on precious calories at Feed.
After brunch we enjoyed the long drive through Lake and McHenry counties, finally crossing into Wisconsin near Lake Geneva, a quaint Midwestern town if there ever was one. Google Maps only got us to within a few miles of Dietzler, and we had to ask a gas station attendant for help finding “the ‘ol Dietzler place.”
As soon as we arrived we were whisked off to the shooting range. The lovely Michelle Dietzler (who lives in Chicago and handles much of the farm’s sales and distribution) told us we would really be missing out if we didn’t empty a few shells before we started drinking.
Michelle was totally right–even though we hardly hit anything, there’s few better ways to spend a lazy afternoon than on a little target shooting. After unleashing our pent up aggression, we were ready to eat. Unfortunately the juicy Dietzler beef burger with Dunbarton bleu cheddar disappeared into down our gullets too quickly to snap any photographs, but if you’ve ever eaten a Dietzler burger (maybe the famously delicious one Paul Virant’s been putting out at Vie) you know the meat is sweet, tender and most importantly, unmistakably beefy.
After lunch it was time to make friend with some farm animals. Dietzler has two ranching facilities, one in Wisconsin and another in Colorado. There were about 40 animals in the WI herd for our visit, largely consisting of mama cows and calves in the 3-6 month range. Michelle and her brother Bob explained to us that they prefer to harvest animals at around 16 to 18 months, when they have more or less peaked in weight gain but before they’ve started to convert too much muscle mass to fat. That’s how a mostly grass-fed herd like Dietzler’s can produce beef that is both tender and lean.
We’re firm believers that happy animals are tasty animals, and this bunch hardly seemed displeased with their lot in life. The small size of Dietzler’s herd means they can only kill a few animals a year, and as of now, supply for their product outstrips demand. Some chefs, like ex-Carnivale guru Mark Mendez, would love to put Dietzler on their menus but can’t because Dietzler simply can’t produce the hundreds or thousands of ribeyes a week that a huge busy restaurant goes through. Mendez has still been a great supporter of Dietzler, offering their products as a special whenever possible at Carnivale (and his presence at the barbecue suggested he will be continuing that relationship when he and his wife open their rumoured next restaurant in the near future).
We rounded out the day by racing around on John Deere Gators, roasting marshmallows, and trying to fill our lungs with as much fresh farm air as possible. Now that I’ve seen what a fine job the Dietzler family and crew do in running an environmentally and ethically responsible farm, I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for their tasty beef on menus around town. You can also pick up your own every Saturday at the Green City Market, and if you want to visit the farm yourself, City Provisions is hosting a farm dinner on October 2nd. Say hi to Bernie for us!
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Occassionally a craving begins to grow in the Ladies’ belly and we know that no one burger will be able to fill it. When that happens, it’s time to embark on a Burger Quest. Yesterday our quest took us to the brand new M Burger for lunch and old standby Moody’s Pub for dinner.
M Burger occupies a tiny space on Huron that was home not so long ago to the most luxurious dining space in town, the chef’s table at Tru. Now, the quick service M Burger kitchen abuts Tru’s prep space, making for some real cognitive dissonance. After paying for our meal (about eight bucks for a double M burger and a chocolate shake) we stepped to the window to watch the brigade prepare for dinner service at true. While orders for burgers and fries were loudly called out on one side of the kitchen, an army of cooks in pressed whites worked in silence in the other, picking delicate herbs for bouquet garnie. We were amused to see a row of specially made glass serving pieces used for Tru’s signature dish, the caviar staircase, which at a cost of $250 is quite possibly the most expensive restaurant dish in town. We couldn’t help but wonder how Tru’s cooks, many of whom are probably working for free just for a chance to be close to cooking at this level, feel about sharing space with what is, for all intents and purposes, an especially boisterous McDonald’s franchise.
The food, unfortunately, did not deliver. While M burger seems to want to replicate the success of stripped down burger chains like In’N'Out and Five Guys, they fall far short of the mark. The double “M” burger, two patties with bacon, lettuce, onion, cheese, and special sauce, was hastily assembled with an uneven distribution of ingredients. The sandwich was far too salty, the combination of over-seasoned patties and nitrate-rich bacon overpowering any flavor from the veggies or sauce. M Burger does earn points for its chocolate shake, which was thick without being sludgy and pleasantly rich.
An evening book club meeting took us to Edgewater, and we used the opportunity to try out Moody’s Pub, whose burgers and outdoor patio both receive frequents laudits on blogs and in outlets like Chicago Magazine and Time Out. We can vouch for the patio, with it’s urban oasis vibe and gorgeous shade trees, but the burger alone is hardly worth a special trip.
Moody’s, which is after all a pub, offers pub burgers–pretty much the opposite end of the spectrum from M Burger’s thin, fast food patties. We ordered the burger medium and it was cooked just right, but the meat was bland and somewhat dry, so perfect cooking couldn’t save it. It wasn’t a bad burger by any means, but we couldn’t for the life of us figure out what made it any better than the thick burgers offered at any ” bar and grill” in town.
Two burger joints, two dissappointing burgers. Any tips on where to get our next burger fix?