Thursday, September 4, 2008

Long-Overdue Nibbles - and Zai Jian!

Guess what?!? I'm going to China! Tomorrow! For almost a month! I'm going to eat my body weight in xiaolongbao, and I'm going to love every minute of it. I promise to return with many pictures and much to share, but before I leave, I want to share with you some photos (of varying levels of quality - ranging of course from poor to shamefully awful) of some great meals I had in Chicago before I left. I've been sitting on most of these for a ridiculous amount of time, so my descriptions will clearly suffer, but I enjoyed all three of these meals, and would recommend a visit to any of these establishments in a heartbeat.

The first was a celebratory dinner at May St. Market.

We began with a few appetizers - the Maytag Bleu Cheesecake, which I knew I was ordering before I stepped into the restaurant (and which I dug my fork into so quickly that no picture could be taken) and a special soft shell crab spring roll, which was good, but quite overpriced for what it was, especially compared to the rest of the menu, which is all pretty reasonably priced.

Then came the entrees:

I had the duck breast with couscous and dried fruit (mostly figs as I recall, though this was literally almost three months ago so please bear with me).

The duck was cooked expertly - I am not a duck person, so every other person at the table was completely taken aback when I ordered it, and even more so when I declared that I loved it. It was juicy, meaty, and not overly fatty - the couscous was delicious and the jus pulled it all together beautifully. The bitterness and saltiness of the arugula and pecorino cheese, draped over the rest of the plate, helped tie everything together and bring some lightness to an otherwise rather heavy dish.

My brother and mother ordered the horseradish crusted Alaskan halibut, which was accompanied by a radish and celery leaf salad, horseradish cream, parsnip puree and a celery leaf emulsion (the menu currently says that it is celery leaf emulsion, but I am not completely sure that was the case three months ago, but I'm going to run with it).

I managed to sneak a little taste of this before it was devoured, and it was quite delicious, tender and expertly cooked, with the perfect amount of bite added from the horseradish. They split that and a cioppino, which was filled with great looking seafood, and accompanied by some delicious-looking crusty bread for the-dunkin'. I didn't get a chance to taste this one, but judging from the fact that nothing was left, I feel safe saying that it went over well.

My father and Andrew ordered the steak (can't remember what cut it was), which was accompanied by a sweet glaze, peaches, arugula, a basked of french fries and some homemade ketchup:

The steak was good, I wasn't wowed, but there was certainly nothing wrong with the dish. The ketchup was great, though, fresh and faintly spicy, it put Heinz to shame.

Throughout the meal, we munched on bread with two types of butter, one plain and one a red wine truffle butter.

I found the latter to be strangely delicious, slightly sweet and slightly earthy, and totally awesome.

As far as service went, the waitress was incredibly helpful and made recommendations for each of us. My dad's steak came out cold, and no fuss was made when he sent it back. When reheated, it came back rubbery and dry (as reheated steaks tend to do), so it was sent back once again, and the manager came out and was incredibly gracious and saw to it that everything else was lovely. I would go back in a heartbeat, and I suggest you pay a visit. They have an early evening prix fixe menu, which I believe is offered until 7:30 or 8 every day, and is $32 for three courses, a/k/a a great deal.

May Street Market
1132 W. Grand St. (at May St.)
(312) 421-5547

The next meal I'd like to share was at San Soo Gab San, and was more of an experience than any of the others. I had never had Korean BBQ before (having shunned red meat for a while there was really no draw there for me - am I ever glad those days are behind me).

For those of you who don't know, Korean BBQ is about as interactive a meal as they get. First what seems like 942 tiny plates filled with little bites are brought for the table (called Panchan), which are to be eaten either on their own, or piled into lettuce wraps with the meat, or really, however you desire. That hole you see in the middle of the table becomes the grill once you've placed your order, and you are then handed a giant plate of raw meat, which the designated griller at the table places on the grill and cooks up for the rest of the grateful diners. What this means is that you leave Korean BBQ and smell like the inside of a barbeque. It's just the price you have to pay, and it's worth it.

The arsenal of Panchan:

We had a couple of appetizers, the first of which was a seafood pancake, called, I believe a Pajun, and filled with squid and beef and accompanied by a soy dipping sauce:*

* I could be totally making this up - please inform me if I am wrong.

We also had some Chapche, which are cellophane noodles stir-fried with vegetables and beef:

Both appetizers were alright -nothing really to write home (or you) about, I found the Pajun far too oily - but that's not why you're there anyway - you're there for piles upon piles of meat.

We went for the Kalbi (marinated short ribs) and the Bulgogi (marinated ribeye), both of which are sliced thin to make for quick cooking on the grill. They're brought to the table with lettuce leaves and rice, used to make wraps for easy handling of the meat. The meat was pretty damn good, nothing too crazy or high-quality, but tasty, salty, amazing nonetheless.

Some of us chose to use tidy proportions of rice, meat and panchan to make an easily manageable wrap:

While some went totally crazy and filled their lettuce leaves with reckless disregard of such proportions:

My first experience with Korean BBQ was messy and delicious, and the lingering smell of meat that permeated my body ensured that I was not soon to forget it.

San Soo Gab San
5247 N Western Ave (between Berwyn Ave & Farragut Ave)
(773) 334-1589

The final meal was at Bonsoiree, which I have written about here before. This time, we went for the Special Saturday Underground dinner, the menu for which is sent out to those on the restaurant's mailing list (sign up is at their website, link here and below) usually on Tuesday, disclosing the set meal for the coming Saturday. Having really enjoyed the restaurant the first time I went, I was really looking forward to returning for one of these underground events.

Summer is really a wonderful time to eat at Bonsoiree, since they have an outdoor patio out back that is charmingly reminiscent of a cozy backyard. It was, however, ridiculously dark back there, at times making it impossible for me to see my food, forget snap a photo of it. The BYOB aspect really makes the restaurant an attractive choice for a nice meal as well.

The meal began with an amuse bouche of shrimp in red curry. It appears to have been the same curry that the mussels came in on my first visit, and it was no less delicious this time.

We then were served an heirloom tomato and salsify salad with haricots vert and creamy champagne vinaigrette. The salad was delicious, the tomatoes bursting with flavor, with the vinagrette bringing out the subtleties of flavor, rather than overwhelming it.

The second course was French Onion Soup with Gruyere Baked Bread and Shaved Black Truffle:

It seemed an odd thing to serve in early August, but it was actually delicious. The Baked Bread was a flatbread rolled up with Gruyere inside, and it made a great vessel to dip into the soup. The soup was delicate, not overly cheesy or heavy, which (I guess), made it a bit more appropriate for a warm summer night. Maybe.

Up next was Pork Belly, Lump Crab, Pineapple-Shiso Ham and Star Anise:

The pork belly was cooked fantastically, allowing for a contrast between crispy and lusciously fatty to arise. The pineapple jam went effortlessly with the pork, the sweetness and the texture both serving to heighten the flavors of the pork. The lump crab was fresh and light. The dish seemed a bit disconnected, and though the pineapple jam worked well with both the crab and the pork, it seemed better suited to the pork, and the crab seemed to have less of a role in the overall dish. Not that I'm really complaining, though, it was definitely good.

The main was a Japanese Barbequed Ribeye, with Chestnut Whipped Potato, Peppers in Ponzu, Crispy Parsnip, Mustard Jus and a Special Barbeque Sauce:

The ribeye was cooked to a fantastic medium-rare, and the potatoes were hearty and tasty. The mustard sauce received mixed reviews, but the barbeque sauce was a the clear winner. What couldn't be disputed, though was that the portions were pretty generous, and I couldn't come close to tackling the amount of steak that had been handed to me. Once again, this dish seemed a bit seasonally inappropriate - a shockingly heavy dish to serve on the first Saturday of August.

Oh well, onto dessert - Lotus root custard, cinnamon sorbet and gooseberry coulis:

The custard was awesome - I really liked the hunks of lotus root that were dotted within the creamy mass on the plate. The cinnamon sorbet was amazing, and I found myself craving it for weeks afterwards. Cinnamon ice cream I have had many times before, but I don't think I had ever had cinnamon sorbet before, and it was quite interesting how the force of the cinnamon was able to more clearly come through, not being softened at all by cream. Each bite tasted of cinnamon sugar, and each bite was delicious.

The meal was lovely, and ridiculously filling, and surprisingly autumnal. The course selection and flavorings of many of the courses were a bit odd for a summer evening. In fact many of the flavors, cinnamon, parsnip, chestnut, remind me more of fall than of the dead of summer. It was a delicious meal nonetheless, though not as exciting as the first visit, since I knew what was coming, it reaffirmed that Bonsoiree is indeed a delicious Chicago destination.

Bonsoiree Café and Delicacies
2728 W Armitage (between Fairfield and Washtenaw Aves)
(773) 486-7511