Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Northdown Café and Taproom: A Plaid Shirt has Never Tasted So Good By: Laura

Laura Young is an English teacher from Roscoe Village. Her favorite type of food is Indian cuisine and her favorite dish is either Malai Kofta from Essence of India or Chile Relleno from El Tapatio. Laura enjoys dining out for three main reasons: it gets her dressed and out of the house with other grown-ups, ambiance is part of the enjoyment, and there is nothing to clean up at home.

Before children, the Mister and I made a decision to try one new restaurant a week. That, as it turned out, was overly ambitious even without a toddler and a newborn, so our weekly endeavor became a “special occasion” endeavor. Like any upstanding hipster living in Chicago, we only wanted to go to a place that met the following criteria:

• Great beers on tap
• Socially conscious (in both business practices and food preparation)
• Cool, but not trendy-no lines, no overly publicized chef, no amuse-bouche
• Within walking distance-this is the one that really draws us in.

All the Mister had to say was “reclaimed wood” and I was lacing up my Justin’s. Northdown Café and Tap is like entering a mod-industrial rural farmhouse cum retro eatery; a few tables up in the front room, more in the back, the two rooms divided by a nice selection of pinball machines which, as a World Cup Soccer wizard in my previous life, is dear to my heart. The propaganda sign declaring “If Attack Comes” incites a dystopian warning, so the presence of handlebar-mustached and suspendered bartenders stationed below offer a kindly dash of steampunk relief.

The food at Northdown is downright tasty. With a comfort food focus, ingredients are fresh and used in identifiable ways. The Short Stout-braised short ribs on Ciabatta is more than satisfying, and the tomato soup is nicely seasoned and pairs well with the sourdough grilled cheese. While neither of us have ever ordered it, the deep-fried Compact Turkey Dinner-all the fixin’s rolled up into a ball and battered until crisp-appears to be hipster-grade feel good food (and probably an amazing hangover cure).

On the “Food Trends That Have Grown Tiresome” list, Northdown manages to avoid #5: the long reading of the daily specials-they are nicely handwritten on a board by the door, #26: the “gourmet burger”: the Mister thinks they are deliciously unfussy, #42 the cupcake-you really can’t compete with ten homemade pies of the day, and while they try hard to be as local and sustainable as can be, it isn’t overly advertised and to be honest, a server has never used those words. So refreshing.

The fact that this is the only restaurant of its kind that is within walking distance to our humble home is the first reason why we keep going back. But without meeting our other criteria-the quality of the food, service, atmosphere-we wouldn’t have made it a regular haunt. Add to that the fact that they have a small, but amazing selection of vegetarian and vegan dishes (not to mention the daily pie specials sometimes into the double digits and the butter of the day), Northdown has established itself as our go-to both on date nights, when meeting friends, and even entertaining our parents from the suburbs out yonder.

Northdown Cafe and Taproom
3244 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 697-7578

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Frontier: By Maggie

Maggie is a special education teacher who enjoys going out to eat, being with friends, crafting, and riding her scooter. Maggie considers a restaurant worthwhile if it has delicious and interesting flavors delivered with consistency. She also appreciates a restaurant that has inventive and thoughtful vegetarian dishes. One of the reasons Maggie watches Check, Please! is to encourage her to leave her neighborhood and try new places.

I recently headed south on Milwaukee and ended up at Frontier, the former Corosh spot. I’ve found myself there multiple times; meeting friends for drinks, stopping by with my boyfriend on my way home for one more IPA, going and leaving because there is a ridiculous wait for a table (and a bar-stool?- not a chance).
The space is cool. There is a great outdoor patio with a bar, TV, and huge fireplace. There is ample seating outside, which makes the restaurant much more accessible to the crowd. Inside there are tables that line the long bar and restaurant, with an additional area above the main room. The music is a combination of great alternative and indie rock that transitions into typical bar tunes as the night wears on. The décor is rustic yet comfortable, showing off lots of wood, stone, and cool metal.
I must admit that the large stuffed bear and frequent delivery of full roasted pigs to tables is a bit off putting, seeing as I am a vegetarian. This is precisely the reason why going there for the food and drinks makes Frontier all the more special.

They have a beer selection big enough to meet any hipster or beer connoisseur’s needs; one of my favorites is the Avery IPA in a can. There is also a decent wine selection given the bar-type atmosphere. On my most recent visit, I ordered the fried green tomato sandwich. While it is one of the only purely vegetarian dishes on the menu, hats off to Frontier for making it outstanding. It is on a delicious, long bun topped with a caponata, arugula,and goat cheese. The fresh green tomato is perfectly seasoned and fried. The balance between the tomato and toppings is perfect and all feel necessary and right to create this amazing sandwich.
All sandwiches come with a side, rather a huge basket of fries that are obviously homemade and fresh. While my stomach said “stop eating, you are full” my taste buds won and I finished my whole sandwich. I had plenty of fries left and could have definitely shared my order with someone else.

I would recommend Frontier, for the unassuming cool spot that it is. It is comfortable and unpretentious, while clearly having become a“scene”. The food and beer are great and the price is right.

1072 N. Milwaukee Ave
Chicago, IL 60642

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Taxim By: Steve

Steve lives in Highland Park and enjoys cooking, photography and even hitting the slopes skiing in the winter. He says because he enjoys cooking so much he truly appreciates going out to restaurants and experiencing the creations of a great chef. If you asked him what the best ingredients are for a perfect meal, he would say love and care.
We and another couple had dinner at Taxim last night, a restaurant in the vibrant Wicker Park area. The restaurant is a single storefront space with only a blackboard on the sidewalk and a small sign next to the door to announce its presence. You walk in by a small bar area, and the restaurant space itself is a series of copper topped tables with wooden benches on the wall sides decorated with a variety of throw pillows of different designs and colors. The ceilings are very high, giving the room a pleasant sense of openness.

Corey, our waiter, was very knowledgeable about the menu, which was very helpful since Taxim is not your average Greek restaurant, but shows influences from Cyprus, Turkey, and other parts of the eastern Mediterranean. We started with roasted red and yellow beets served with wilted Swiss chard, counterbalanced by a garlic walnut skordalia (a puree of the walnuts and garlic with Greek olive oil), and a nice feta triangle. Another small plate was a leek pie made with phyllo dough, goat feta, dill and lemon. Green lentils cooked in olive oil and water, served with a balsamic reduction and a triangle of sheep’s feta and semolina pita bites was delicious as well. Baby okra with fresh coriander, tossed with olive oil and thinly sliced pieces of sun-dried tomatoes was a hit with 3 out of the 4 of us, with my wife not so keen on the taste of the okra. There was no greasy or slimy feel to the baby okra, and although the sun-dried tomatoes were too salty by themselves, they countered the need for seasoning of the okra. The only miss on the appetizers was the average and uninspired roasted eggplant variation on baba ghanoush.

Main plates are a good sized portion, and we shared four entrées. We had two orders of the excellent duck gyro, roasted duck breast, and leg meat served wrapped in “Pontian” satz bread with a mint yogurt sauce, and duck fat french fries. The oven roasted whole sea bass was perfectly cooked, and deboned at tableside, served with nicely sautéed dandelion greens. I ordered the fish gyro, a roasted sea bream served in the same satz bread, but with a tahini sauce. I found the bream to be fishy smelling, and excessively salted, and could not recommend it.

We had no room to sample the desserts, but they did look interesting. The wine list is a very extensive introduction to Greek white, reds and a few roses. We had a very nice Santorini Assyritko, full of fruit with a good acid balance.

I would recommend Taxim to experience a more varied Greek culinary excursion.

1558 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chicago, IL 60622
(773) 252-1558

Thursday, January 19, 2012

I just can't get enough of Graziano's: By John Newman

John is a teacher that enjoys all different types of food. You can bet that when he's not playing softball he is out on the town looking for a fantastic food experience. For John dining out is all about good food and not worrying about being seen. As many would agree, he says his favorite part about dining out is that you don't have to spend hours on recipes and most importantly on the cleanup.

Whether I have a craving for an overwhelming portion of chicken parmesan or the city’s tastiest bowl of bottomless salad, Graziano’s is the place I go to satiate my hunger.  For more than ten years, Graziano’s Brick Oven Pizza has sent me home with doggy bag after doggy bag of Italian classics.  Good for lunch or dinner, alone, with my wife, or with a large group of family and friends, the exposed brick walls, accessible seating options, and friendly service keep me coming back…… for the food!

A typical meal for me begins with an appetizer and is followed by the best house salad in the Chicagoland area, a portion sized entrée I never finish, a glass of wine or cocktail, and dessert.  Staples in my rotation for appetizers are the polenta, bruschetta, or often one of the dozen or so specialty pizzettes. When available the skirt steak polenta, often a daily special, takes the crown. House salad is always next, and bottomless. 

If only stopping by for lunch, the Italian Turkey Sandwich gets the job done. Dinner, however, requires a bit more heavy lifting. Although I do not have an allergy and don’t pretend I am on a diet, I like the option of gluten free or low-carb dishes to keep my wife happy. If we ever have children, or just decide to borrow my niece, I know I can count on Graziano’s to keep them full and entertained, giving kids the chance to watch their pizzas cook in the wood burning oven. 

In the city of big shoulders and waistbands, the best options are the Tuscan brick chicken (chicken breast and balsamic marinade with roasted potatoes), chicken parmesan, or bowtie pasta with vodka sauce (rich and creamy). If you are looking for something with a little more kick, try the penne arrabiatta (spicy tomato sauce and a few red pepper flakes) with an oversized meatball.

And what would a nice Italian dinner be without dessert?  The profiteroles are outstanding, but don’t be afraid to dig into a messy sundae, piece of tiramisu, or grab an espresso from the bar. And when leaving with tomorrow’s lunch feel free to grab a root beer barrel for me.  

5960 West Touhy Ave.
Niles, IL 60741
(847) 647-4096

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Quality Cuisine and Cultural Reminiscence By: Colton Gigot

Colton is a free lance writer and a spice merchant. You can bet that when he's not writing he's checking out Chicago's restaurant scene. Colton says his favorite restaurants are the ones that can cook up a unique and meatier dish in a fun and interesting setting.

Anybody who has had the opportunity to spend time in Argentina would likely agree that it would take an exceptionally unobservant individual to pass through the colorful Boca district of Buenos Aires without taking away a lasting impression of its unique food, drink, and dance. Argentina boasts one of the world’s most perfect marriages of culture and cuisine, and there is perhaps no place in the country where that marriage is more wholly and elegantly manifest than La Boca.  A meal here – be it as modest as a helping of empanadas or as involved as a full-on asado – is a rare and privileging experience for any traveler, but those with a strong appetite for fine art and displays of culture will find a trip to this sector of the Argentine capital particularly rewarding. Meandering stone walks, a peppering of tango dancers and street musicians, and the brilliant pastel facades of old-world tanguerías await those who can muster the means to explore La Boca for themselves.

Of course, for those who haven’t the time or budget for an escape to Argentina, a local alternative exists in Lincoln Park’s Caminito Argentinian Grill, which offers authentic and, by-and-large, reasonably priced Argentine cuisine without sacrificing the culinary and cultural flare that makes La Boca a premier destination for travelers and foodies alike.

Situated in a cozy, sub-street level nook on Halsted, Caminito offers little in the way of conspicuousness, so first-time patrons should keep an eye out for the logoed awning, as the basement entrance can be easily overlooked. Those who find their way inside will be met with an environment that is soft and unassuming, intimate but not overbearing. Scattered about the restaurant are various candle-lit wall-hangings and pastel-infused murals alluding to the landmarks and culture of Buenos Aires – most notably, La Boca. We were seated in the relatively close-quartered front end of the restaurant, but a delicate lighting scheme and the accompaniment of various Argentine tangos afforded a comfortable sense of privacy and a hospitable touch that was only compounded by Caminito’s professional wait staff.

Within moments of arriving we were seated and met by our waiter, who emerged with menus in hand and armed with a corkscrew to tap our wine. Caminito, it should be noted, is a BYOB establishment, so diners who expect to supplement their meal with a drink will want to avoid arriving empty-handed. We had on-hand an Argentinian Malbec, a hearty red widely known as a compliment to beef steaks and other red meats. With our bottle uncorked, we were provided a plate of complimentary fresh bread and chimichurri sauce to snack on as we reviewed the menu, although our decision had been pretty well made in advance. With two years having passed since my last wine-and-dine in Argentina, I had come to Caminito in search of something closely resembling an authentic Argentine asado, and the parillada para dos personas ($48) was just that.

Similar in many respects to an American barbecue, an asado consists of various cuts of meat, cooked on a grilling-rack over an open flame, although a notable difference is the use of wood chips as a heating element rather than charcoal. Often considered the quintessential Argentinian dish (if, in fact, Argentina’s diverse cuisine can be so far reduced), there are few methods of preparing a beef steak that will yield as potent a flavor as the asado. Of course, vegetarians and those who aren’t in the mood for, or especially fond of, meat needn’t worry. Argentina’s heavy Italian influence means that many of Caminito’s menu options, from pizzas to pastas, should be satisfying and safe, even for the non-meat eater. That said, we had come craving a full-blown asado, and our expectations were wholly fulfilled when, on the heels of a beef empanada appetizer ($6), our entrée finally arrived.

Caminito’s parillada para dos personas (or, grill for two persons) includes a pair of short ribs and chorizo sausages, sweet breads, a large flank steak, and a sampling of traditional blood sausage, all served, still sizzling, on a portable, heated griddle. While the quality of each of these cuts can’t and shouldn’t be overlooked, those with finickier palates may want to sample a smaller portion of the blood sausage before diving in, as most Americans will find that, despite its familiar appearance, this is an acquired taste. On the other hand, whereas many may be turned off by the sweet breads, or molleja, upon learning of their glandular origins, this Argentinian delicacy both looks inviting on the plate – more so, in fact, than the heavy and dark blood sausage – and boasts a surprisingly agreeable texture and flavor, even for the untrained palate. The remaining samples – the chorizo, short ribs, and flank steak – should be significantly less testing for the newcomer to Argentinian cuisine, as these cuts are commonplace here in the United States, and most will be familiar with them.  My dining-partner took to the chorizo, a simple, yet pleasantly spicy sausage, and I was particularly beguiled by the thick-cut flank steak and short ribs, which retained the wholesome, wood-smoked flavor that characterizes a well-executed asado.

After devouring as much of our plates-full of meat as we felt possible and, in turn, being devoured by Caminito’s generous portion-sizes, we asked for our check and, of course, a box (we weren’t going to let a bite go to waste), paid our dues, and headed home, knowing that this wouldn’t be the last we saw of Caminito. Indeed, with such a diverse menu, a dining room rife with cultural allusions, and a staff that exudes a sense of hospitality, a return trip to Caminito is all but inevitable.  I left feeling satisfied and fulfilled, reminded of what makes Argentina’s culture and cuisine some of the world’s best. 

So, for those who have been to Argentina and experienced La Boca for themselves, or for those who haven’t but are interested in romantic and culturally informative dining experience, you owe it to yourselves – and your significant other – to reserve a table at Caminito Argentinian Grill. 

Caminito Argentinian Grill 
1629 North Halsted
Chicago, IL 60614

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pannenkoeken Cafe By: Jerry Weber

Jerry Weber is a Senior Contract Buyer from New Lenox. He is an ultimate Check, Please! fan as Jerry says he's watched every single episode over our 11 season history. While it can be an expensive hobby, Jerry loves checking out as many of the Check, Please! reviewed restaurant as he can. He even created his own Check, Please! database to help him find the perfect dining spot for any occasion.

It's a cool Sunday morning and my wife and I are driving our oldest son back up to his college. We swing by and pick up our oldest daughter who lives up in the Lincoln Square area. We all agree on heading over to Pannenkoeken Cafe for breakfast. My wife and daughter have been raving about this place for a while. They have wanted to take us there, so we decide to go.

Well the place is tiny, even by Chicago breakfast standards. There are only seven tables. They also have one bathroom, so this place is small. We are told there will be a 40 minute wait. So we decide to wander around the Lincoln Square area. Pannenkoeken will call us on our cell phone when a table opens. Well 45 minutes go by and no call. So we head back over to Pannenkoeken. We wait another 20 minutes or so (65 minutes in total) before we get a table. Boy I really hope the food is good in this place!

I order the quality Bacon and Cheese Pannenkoeken (a Dutch pancake) with an extra of quality Sausage. There is also a quality Sausage and Cheese Pannenkoeken, which I could add quality Bacon too, but it costs more. The cheese is Havarti, some of the creamiest and smoothest cheese I have ever had. I also saw a Chocolate Banana Pannenkoeken that includes hazelnuts and whipped cream that sounds totally good but probably way too fattening.

My wife and daughter both ordered the Sausage, Mushroom, and Cheese (again Havarti) Pannenkoeken. My son ordered a Belgian Waffle. He also ordered a side of bacon, he usually does.  Well everyone loved their orders. I; of course, sampled everyone's and would have to agree they were all quite tasty. The thin Dutch pancakes were very good. The price for all four of us, including drinks was around $44 dollars.

The only negatives from our experience besides the incredible wait was Pannenkoeken only takes cash (and the ATM was broken), we think they forgot the side of bacon my son ordered as we had to remind them and even then it took a while to get to us. The plates did take some time to get to us after we ordered (again there are only seven tables) and I would agree with my son that his chocolate milk did taste real funky.

So do we recommend Pannenkoeken for their thin and tasty Dutch pancakes, YES, but be prepared to wait!

Pannenkoeken Cafe
4757 North Western 
Chicago, IL 60625

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Most Memorable Experience at Al Bawadi: Jessica Johnson

Jessica is a writer living in Logan Square. She loves dining out and trying new restaurants to experience the culinary creativity in Chicago. Jessica says she's so dedicated to good food that she would be willing to drive all the way to the East Coast for one of her favorite foods, lobster. You can always count on Jessica to be watching Check, Please! as she proclaims that food belongs to ordinary people since everyone can enjoy it!

The other day, a friend and I went to eat at Al Bawadi, a Mediterranean restaurant in Bridgeview, IL. The restaurant is located along a busy road, lined by an endless stretch of strip malls. Despite initial impressions, the suburb is unique; Bridgeview boasts a growing Muslim population, a large community mosque, and many Arab-run businesses. 

I heard about Al Bawadi from a cab driver. A few weeks ago, my flight landed in Chicago at an hour in which I would normally be deep in REM sleep. Yet, I woke up enough to engage in a friendly argument about the best hummus in Chicago (I consider myself somewhat of a hummus aficionado). I said Salam was the best; he said Al-Bawadi. He was persistent. Ever since that late night discussion, the idea of a superior hummus has remained in my mind like a glowing garbanzo bean third eye.

We arrived early, on the second to last day of Ramadan. The restaurant was quiet, with mostly open tables from which to choose. We sat at a table that was reserved for women too shy to eat in public, or for women forbidden to eat in public. When a woman in a burqa comes to eat, the staff drapes a tapestry over the table, so the women can eat in their own private, dim light.

We asked for liquor, which was probably a tacky faux pas at best, and totally offensive at worst. To our credit, the menu proudly served “cocktails.” I just assumed that they might carry stronger cocktails than those fit for an eleven year old. We ended up ordering a mixed fruit drink sans liquor, served with a pistachio sprinkle and fluff of whip cream.

Without really looking at the menu, I ordered hummus, baba ganoush, and a broiled tilapia with saffron rice. Immediately, we were given warm pita, a platter of eggplant/ pepper/ tomato spread, spicy pickled veggies, and fried pita strips in za'atar (za'atar is a spice mix made of oregano, marjoram, thyme, salt, toasted sesame seeds, and sumac), a sort of a Middle-Eastern amuse-bouche. Everything was fantastic; prickling the senses and salivary glands; preparing the tongue and belly for the next stage of the meal.

I was so excited when the hummus and baba ganoush arrived. The hummus had so much tahini, it was dry as the desert. A food imagined in and necessitated by the desert. The baba ganoush was mixed heavily with yogurt, tahini, and sprinkled with sumac. The baba ganoush was light, white, and slightly sour. Both were covered with a generous amount of olive oil, and were absolute, unparalleled perfection.

We had to ask our server to wrap our fish to go. She said, “But you have hardly eaten anything!” Unfortunately, there was room for nothing else. I was in a state of peak satisfaction from the two appetizers.

I will return to this faraway restaurant again and again. Al Bawadi has truly the best hummus in the Chicago-land area. 

Al Bawadi
7216 W 87th Street
Bridgeview, IL 60455

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Rocco's Little Italy keeps me coming back: Patti Mullen

Patti is an administrative assistant that lives in Frankfort. She loves going out to Italian restaurants and says her favorite dish is the Baked Spinach Ravioli from Rocco's Little Italy. Patti says she knows her food as her friends are always asking her for restaurant recommendations on her train ride to work.

Our favorite place to share good food with friends is Rocco’s Little Italy. Each table has the olive oil and parmesan cheese for dipping the basket of bread while sipping a fragrant merlot.  Our perfect beginning to the meal is a bowl of homemade pasta fagioli that warms the soul, or the house “garbage” salad tossed with gorgonzola which pairs perfectly with garlic bread for sopping up the tangy house Italian dressing.  My favorite entrée is the house specialty of baked spinach ravioli in gorgonzola sauce.  The spinach ravioli comes to the table smothered in a gooey delicious gorgonzola sauce browned on top being after being baked.  My husband’s favorite dish is blackened pork chops, which are blackened to perfection, and accompanied with silky garlic mashed potatoes and strips of grilled zucchini.

A sweet tooth begs to order the mouth-watering tiramisu or for something less heavy, any of the sorbets, which are each served in their own piece of fruit.

The Greco family is well known in the restaurant business, and Rocco has superbly followed in his legendary father’s footsteps. The wait staff is knowledgeable, and always happy to make a recommendation. You absolutely cannot go wrong at Rocco’s. 

Rocco's Little Italy
7907 West 159th St.
Tinley Park, IL 60477
(708) 444-8259

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