Ladies Who Brunch

Reading Room: Bookish Brunch at Branch 27 by Benjamin
June 14, 2010, 6:45 pm
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After a somewhat blase opening, Noble Square’s Branch 27 has recently been revamped, with new graphics cheekily nodding at the restaurant’s past as a Chicago Public Library branch and chef John Manion’s menu fully embracing every trend in contemporary pub food:  aromatic Southeast Asian flavors, locally-sourced ingredients, and a metric shitload of pork.  The brunch menu leans heavily towards the savory, with pancakes and french toast thrown in seemingly as an afterthought, but that was just fine by us.  While we often get something sweet to share on Sunday mornings, we decided to go with the flow and get a BBQ pulled pork flatbread with pickled red jalapenos and fried eggs.  Is it an unholy alliance of pizza dough and leftovers? Yes.  Was it absolutely delicious, the best thing on our table all morning?  Double yes.

If it has an egg on it, it's for breakfast

We sampled two gravy heavy-dishes, a chicken-fried pork belly with cheese grits and a biscuits and gravy with prawns.  Both looked stunning but were ultimately dissappointing.  The pork belly, certainly the most attention grabbing item on the menu, was simply too much–too fried, too salty, and too fatty.  While it appeals to the inner glutton in all of us, it’s too much of a gut bomb to really please on a Sunday morning.  The biscuits were another intriguing menu item, the usual creamy sausage gravy being subsituted for a shrimp-stock laced gumbo gravy and served with grilled head-on prawns.  The gorgeous plate was sadly served lukewarm, with the gravy showing definite signs of age.  The dish was very bland, with no salt or spice at all, quite the opposite of creole cooking that seems to have inspired it.

Deep Fried Bacon

Needs to be kicked up a notch

We were, however, quite pleased with the Crab Benedict.  Manion eschews the popular crab-cake preparation and uses relatively unadorned, sweet crab meat.  We appreciated this respect for the base ingredient; the high quality crab had more than enough flavor on its own to stand up to the Hollanadaise, and the dish was refreshing and light rather where crab cakes can often be dense and bready.

Simple pleasure

Service was lovely and we were happy to chat with the personable GM–a visit from the manager is always a nice touch, a necessity at dinner but usually skipped over in the rush of brunch.  We sat in the lovely atrium area, surrounded by vintage (or at least faux vintage) books and large leafy plants.  The atrium is only open during brunch, and it’s a lovely room worth requesting.  At dinner, the space is available for private parties of up to 40 people–I would definitely keep this place in mind for an event.  Drinks were stellar all around, very fresh tasting bloody marys with meaty garniture and an especially lovely fresh peach lemonade, very summer-in-a-glass.  While a few items were major misses, we charmed enough to ensure another visit very soon.


Second Chances: XOCO by Benjamin
June 10, 2010, 9:12 pm
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After braving the Saturday afternoon line soon after XOCO opened (1hour and 15 minutes, and the line barely reached outside), the Ladies were hardly impressed. Our cochinita pibil was too small a portion, on hard over baked bread, and without much flavor. The traditional accompaniment for cochinita pibil, bright orange habanero salsa, was unbalanced and too spicy to enjoy (it is supposed to be extremely hot, but this was ludicrous-see Mixteco grill for a far superior example). Hot chocolate was sludgy and mouth puckeringly tanic.

We swore we would not return, but when a craving for Mexican struck in River North and Mercadito looked like too much of a meat market, we were left with little choice. This time, we visited later in the day, which offered major benefits: no line and the availability of steaming caldos in addition to the tortas served all day.

We chose the caldo de carnitas, slow cooked tender pork swimming in a green chile-tomatillo broth with avocado, arugula, and potato masa dumplings. This dish was far better composed than the dissappointing torta from our previous visit. The super fresh, herbaceous, and peppery arugula showed how Mexican food can be enhanced with local ingredients, even in the frigid north, and the dumplings leant the soup a satisfying, rib sticking quality that carried us through the rest of the day.

We still feel XOCO is over priced and its claims of serving authentic Mexico city street food are ridiculous, but we may yet return for a third visit.

Bar Brunch at The Southern by Benjamin
May 20, 2010, 5:14 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

A couple of highlights from the recently revamped restaurant (whoo!) in the former Chaise Lounge space.  I would say their attempts at a vaguely Southern vibe are half-hearted, but then, “The South” is too nebulous a concept to bring thematic cohesion to a restaurant.  The food, like the atmosphere, was pleasant but not particularly authentic or world-shaking.

Laughing Bird Shrimp, Grits, Hot Sauce

Chef Cary Taylor does earn major points for selecting quality ingredients for each plate.  We loved Shrimp and Grits pushed just over the top with grits from Three Sisters in Kankakee and plump blue prawns.  Finished with sweet piquillo peppers and a buttery, spicy sauce, they were a welcome indulgence.

Charleston Benedict

We’ve already established that it’s hard to go wrong with crab cakes at brunch.  The Southern mixes it up with mustard Hollandaise and apple, but we could have used some bolder flavors.

Southern Ma'am

The American South possessed an older and more richly developed food culture than any other region in the country, and it sometimes seems like a wholly indigenous cuisine.  But much of the best Southern cooking is ultimately informed by the Old World, by Africa (by way of the Caribbean), Spain,  and especially in Louisiana, by France.   The Southern Ma’am is kind of a pan-Southern homage to the influence of French cooking, tasso ham and pulled pork wedded to Brioche and Mournay sauce.  A more-thinly sliced brioche would have been welcome, as the thick toast overwhelmed the porky filling, but otherwise an accomplished breakfast sandwich.  I mean, it’s sitting under a runny egg yoke covered in liquefied swiss cheese and bechamel.  While other, more sophisticated diners than I might not be so easily fooled, I must say I will forgive any manner of culinary sin if it’s covered up with melted cheese.

At Home: Shrimp and Cauliflower Stir-Fry by Benjamin
March 17, 2010, 5:55 pm
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A quick Thai inspired dish for weekday lunch

The Ladies have decided we need to shed a few pounds after the extreme over-indulgence in Austin last week, so we’ve adopted a modified South Beach eating regimen, at least for a couple weeks.  Red meat, starchy vegetables, grains and full-fat dairy are out, nourishing colorful veggies and seafood are in.  For a quick, hot lunch today I threw together this simple stir-fry.  When cooking light I always keep in mind the Southeast Asian culinary principle of balancing sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and spicy, so I can get a lot of bold flavor without using a lot of fat.  Here’s a recipe:

1 lb U30 shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/2 head cauliflower florets

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 Tbsp Sambal

2 Tbsp lime juice

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 handful each basil and dill, finely chopped

2 tsp sesame oil

Sprinkling of sesame seeds

Heat a generous drizzle of olive oil, or whatever oil you like to cook with, in a wok.  Add the garlic.  Toss all the remaining ingredients, except the basil and dill, in a large bowl.  Add to the wok.  Cook, tossing frequently, until all the shrimp have gotten an appetizing pink hue.  Add the herbs, give the whole thing a few more tosses, taste a bit, and add more lime juice, sambal, or salt if necessary.  You shouldn’t need any salt, really, because the shrimp have a little natural brininess and there’s salt in the sambal.  Serve in a bowl, or if you don’t give a flip about the carbs, throw it over rice or some chow fun type noodles.

Note:  Sambal is a ubiquitous SE Asian condiment, consisting  mostly of ground chiles and garlic.  You can make your own, but the bottled brands you can buy in  any supermarket these days are pretty good.  You can substitute sriracha, which is a similar sauce with a sugar added and a smoother consistency.  Enjoy!

Encased Meat Diary — SXSW Edition by Benjamin
March 14, 2010, 12:05 am
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For those travelling to Austin for SXSW this week, we strongly recommend a visit to Frank on 4th and Colorado, near the convention center. Each day around a dozen exotic sausages are offered, along with a menu of classic dogs–including the only genuine Chicago dog (that’s 100% Vienna beef with the all-natural casing) in central Texas.

Sausages are stellar but our group really went to town on the sides, including mini-corndogs, Texas caviar, waffle-fry nachos, and bacon-ranch potato salad. If you’re lucky, trucker hat wearin’ owner Northcut might just buy you a beer from their extensive bottle selection.

Long Distance Brunch: South Congress Cafe by Kyle and Benjamin
August 14, 2009, 8:32 pm
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It should hardly come as a surprise that one of the highlights of the Ladies’ recent vacation was the fine brunch we had in Austin’s happenin’ SoCo district.  Located across the Congress Avenue Bridge from the downtown government, business, and entertainment hubs, SoCo was a bit of a skid row  until low rents started to attract vintage and antique dealers, gallerists and trailer restaurant entrepreneurs.  Many Austinites have the same “yeah, it used to be cool before all the yuppies moved in” attitude about SoCo that we Chicagoans have developed for certain neighborhoods (*cough* wickerpark *cough*), but if this is Austin’s prime example of gentrification gone too far, the city’s residents should count themselves among the muy lucky.  The only national chain I saw on the strip was an American Apparel, and though we passed by it 3 or 4 times during our stay, I don’t think I saw one customer in there.  It should be noted that although  young women in Chicago seem to have lost touch with the concept of pants, I did not see one girl in Austin walking around with nothing but a thin pair of leggings between her cameltoe and my enraged eyeballs.

Between visits to Uncommon Objects’ collection of rusted and rustic folk art and furniture and Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds’ massive warehouse of costumes and accessories, we stopped for brunch at South Congress Cafe, part of the Trudy’s mini-empire of boozy breakfast spots.  The place automatically gets major props for serving brunch every day of the week–who wants to fight the bestrollered crowds of 9 to 5ers to eat badly  poached eggs on Sundays anymore, anyways?  The dining room is an impecably designed open space, with tons of light from the stoorefront windows illuminating the tightly set modern tables and lush grey leather booths.  Another giant window in the back allowed a partial view of the bustling kitchen, while the south side of the dining room merged seemlessly with the intimate, granite topped bar.

Austin is a real laid back kind of town, so even in a relatively posh spot like this the staff rocked whatever comfy eclectic outfits they felt like.  We were a little disappointed when we were not waited on by the lanky, bearded Jude Law lookalike, but our waitress proved herself pretty quickly, guiding us threw the menu and helping us narrow down the massive menu to a merely enormous order.

Seafood parfait!!

Seafood parfait!!

We started with a mango mimosa, house squeezed lemonade, and some expertly brewed Kona coffee before digging into a “seafood parfait,” a tart jicama-carrot-shrimp-whitefish ceviche served in a margarita glass with a big scoop of mind-blowing, ferociously spicy guac.  This dish basically set the bar impossibly high for the rest of the meal since it was the best damn thing I’ve eaten in ages.  And then the kitchen wizards at South Congress Cafe jumped over that bar like a big deer over a small fence (yeah, we spent a long time looking through a book of Texas witticisms at the bookshop next door)

Creamy tomato and stilton in a beautiful bowl.

Creamy tomato and stilton in a beautiful bowl.

We ordered two different soups,  tomato stilton and wild boar pozole.  The tomato soup was rich with the smoky flavor of freshly roasted tomatoes, a perfect balance of acid (a sign of quality, in season ‘matoes), and a magic creaminess from the slowly melting sprinkles of sharp stilton.  The boar pozole presented a bit of an existential crisis:  it was an improvement on one of the favorite dishes of my adolescence.  It was like eating Thanksgiving dinner at someone else’s house, tasting the gravy, and realizing that your grandmother may not, in fact, be the best cook in the world.  The stew was darker and earthier than the Northern New Mexico version, an unholy marriage of traditional pozole, Texas chili, and frickin’ WILD BOAR that just devastated my flavor receptors.

Wild boar pozole

Wild boar pozole

South Congress had four options for eggs benedict, all so enticing it was impossible to choose.  With our server’s help we settled on crab cakes benedict, a perennial favorite with a few twists:  The cakes were topped with hunks of freshly baked quiche instead of poached eggs, and the hollandaise was generously spiked with chipotle.  DUDE.  The crabcakes were perfect, about the size of flattened racquetballs, panko-crispy on the outside but all crab inside, with a potent blend of green herbs mixed in.  The quiche soaked up plenty of the smoky sauce, and each bite could be felt to take a few minutes of your life–as all great breakfast food should.  And where most restaurants would consider crab a fine substitute for pork in a benedict, SoCo took it way over the top by adding ribbons of crispy friend prosciutto to this little masterpiece.

Crab cake quiche eggs benedict!  DELICIOUS.

Crab cake quiche eggs benedict! DELICIOUS.

Faced with an impossible list of choices on the rest of the menu (green chile venison meatloaf or french-toasted carrot cake anyone?), I stabbed blindly and came up with the blackened tuna tacos.  My reward was a heaping do-it-yourself taco bar, with chunks of seared prime tuna, pico de gallo served in a corn husk, more of that addictive guac from the first course, a spicy yogurt sauce, and the best refried black beans I’ve ever had.  Two giant, flour tortilla wrapped belly bombs  later, I was ready to insubstantiate into rays of pure light.

Blackened tuna tacos with all the fixin's!

Blackened tuna tacos with all the fixin's!

Yeah this place was for sure that good.

Here’s the breakdown:

8 points (1 for every item that was properly spicy–only a handful of Chicago joints could even get 1 point is this category) -2 (for each of the Crocs worn by a member of the waitstaff) x 50 (for the number of minutes you would have to wait IF YOU WERE MAD LUCKY for a brunch that is not even half as  good at Lula Cafe) /3 (for the number of unnecessary sets of fresh napkins placed under our drinks during the meal) = an even 100 points, or4star


First Bites: Jam by Benjamin
July 30, 2009, 5:45 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

The opening of a new brunch spot in my neighborhood is an event of such import that not even the untimely death of a pop icon or the dividing up of Jon and Kate’s 8 kids can outrank it in the pantheon of Important Summer Events 2009. Jam opened its doors a few weeks ago in the former dodo space on Damen and we wasted no times in sampling their sophisticated breakfast menu.

Although intrepid yelp reviewers (soon to be foursquare junkies, I’m sure) report weekend wait times over an hour, our party of seven was seated right away at noon on a Wednesday. Although the restaurant was starting to fill up a bit throughout our meal, the narrow, 30-seat spot suffered from a problem of the staff outnumbering and crowding the patrons. There were two waiters, two manager types, a busboy, and three cooks all packed around the miniscule display kitchen/pass/host stand/cash register, plus two more prep cooks shuttling back and forth from there to the rear of the restaurant. This made for a jumbled mess of bodies during a slow period and I can only imagine it creates a bit of a nightmare during a rush. Jam needs to take advantage of it’s tiny space and improve efficiency by cutting staff to the bare minimum.

Breakfast amuse bouche? Excellent.

Breakfast amuse bouche? Excellent.

The space itself is cute, with the pleasant hardwood and center-stage kitchen giving the place a real homey feel. The decor definitely lifts a little from the Tallulah/Eve playbook, with linear table arrangements, minimalist mod touches and space expanding mirrors. Lime green placemats seemed out of touch with the rest of the space, as they were the only colored element in the whole room.

On to that most important bit though, the food: we were able to sample most of the breakfast items, and there wasn’t a bad apple in the b(r)unch. The lunch items looked dull by comparison, but who knows what I’ll be craving next time.

Probably the winner for the best dish was the breakfast sandwich. Braised pork cheek, pickled plums, goat cheese, and egg on the most pleasantly crispy, slightly sour ciabatta I’ve tasted. This was also the only item left unfinished by us: unlike some of the other dishes, the portion is huge.

We were certain that the savory crepes would never come together (who wants lamb for breakfast?) but these turned out to be a hit as well, beautifully slow cooked lamb shoulder with tangy herb infused asian pears, swimming in au jus. Incredibly rich, I hope this is revisited in the winter time when it will be even more welcome.

Lamb for breakfast? Oh yes.

Lamb for breakfast? Oh yes.

Eggs Benedict featured thick, melty-fat slabs of pork belly in place of ham or Canadian bacon, and this alone made the dish, although overcooked eggs and a thick, flavorless Hollandaise disappointed. The panini cristo was a delicious play on the Monte Cristo sandwich, with prosciutto, tallegio, and rapini completing a clever Italian take on this French Toast sandwich. All three ingredients were quite salty, however, and the addition of some fruit element (a fig jam perhaps?) would have been welcome.

A little too tiny for the true Benedict connossieur.

A little too tiny for the true Benedict connossieur.

Finally, we shared some malted French Toast, served with fresh whipped cream and some lovely candied berries instead of maple syrup. Very eggy and only lightly cooked, they were perfect on my palate but might seem unfamiliar to many French Toast eaters.

Gooey delicious French toast

Gooey delicious French toast

We’ll be back to Jam after they’ve shaken off some of their freshly opened jitters, but for now, here’s the breakdown:

7 points (for seating 7 right away) – 4 points (for the number of superfluous staff members) + 9 points (estimated number of distinct pork products on menu) + 100 points (because sous chef Mike Noll, formerly of Schwa, is stupid hot) x .665 (the packing fraction for M&M’s, used to easily win any “Guess the Number of M&Ms in this Jar” contest, given the volume of the jar) = 74.48, which we’ll go ahead and say is out of one hundred, so