Friday, August 30, 2013

Shaw's Crab House or A Sea of Choices

The Slow and Savory Review

Variety might be the spice of life, but there can be such a thing as too much choice.  On a recent trip to a high end grocery store, Brandy was utterly amazed to find herself in the condiment isle, starring up a rows and rows of shelves, stocked with hundreds of vinegars, oils, jams, jellies, and other exotic and unidentifiable jars and bottles.  So overwhelmed was she that she ended up filling her basket with anything and everything until it became so heavy that a shop attendant had to carry it to the front for her.  "This is why I should not be trusted with so much variety," she told the clerk at the checkout counter, "I have a problem making choices when everything looks so delicious!"

Perhaps this is why Brandy has usually steered clear of the brunch buffet.  There have been a few of course, some amazing and some not so much, but in general the abundance of foods on offer tends to overwhelm her senses and she ends up with a plate so full that even a squadron of competitive eaters would think twice before tackling it.  Perhaps this is why Brandy decided to enlist the help of Bailey Blue when she was invited to tackle the leviathan that is the all-you-can-eat-brunch buffet at Shaw's Crab House in Schaumberg.  "I have two jobs for you," Brandy told her, "One is to drive us there, as I am currently in the middle of an on-going feud with the Illinois DMV," (we won't go into details, but Brandy seems to think driving without her glasses on to reduce glare is acceptable, while the DMV does not), "And two is to keep me from eating so much that crabs are put on the endangered species list."  "I will do both to the best of my ability," Bailey said, cheerfully.

Shaw's is a slightly massive complex housing three main dining areas: the oyster bar, the lounge, and the dining room.  Each space had its own flare (the oyster bar seemed almost 50's diner like in its design, where as the lounge and dining room had more of a super club feel), yet they all seemed to go together quite nicely.  Brandy and Bailey were given a large booth in the lounge, over looking the bar ("My favorite kind of view," Brandy grinned).  A vibrant young woman approached their table straight away with water and quickly explained the layout of the buffet: the oyster bar played host to all things cold, the dining room featured the hot buffet and the chef's table, and the lounge was home to the coveted dessert table.

To start off the morning, Bailey ordered up a house Bloody Mary, which came with a few choice veggies, a cocktail shrimp, and a beer back.  Bailey remarked that the mix was quite good with an excellent balance between the acidic tomato and the pungent spices.  "A few more of these and I won't need to visit the buffet!" she laughed.

After a quick strategy meeting, Bailey and Brandy decided to make their first trips up for goodies from the oyster bar.  There certainly was a lot of vibrant and delicious looking options to choose from, like several salads, home made rolls and breads, shrimp, oysters, and even sushi.  Bailey singled out the Spicy Tuna roll, which she thought was fresh and perfectly made, while Brandy preferred the Shrimp Tempura roll for the same reasons.  They both absolutely loved the Sweet Potato roll, which had a good hit of both sweetness and saltiness.  The other standout from the cold stuffs were the Seafood Deviled Eggs.  Though a little more like a hard boiled egg with a seafood salad topping, these little devils were creamy, slightly sweet, and very rich.  Brandy also had to try one of the signature crab legs (managing not to kill any fellow patrons with flying bits of shell shrapnel in the process) and found it incredibly sweet, tender, and delicate.

Next was the hot bar, where terrines had been loaded with delicacies like Parmesan Encrusted Halibut, Lobster Mac and Cheese, and Maryland Style Crab Cakes.  The adorable bite sized crab cakes had a rich, buttery flavor, though not as much of a crunch as Brandy would have liked.  The halibut too was buttery and extremely tender with a good thick crust.  Both ladies fawned over the decedent Lobster Mac and Cheese, which had been coated in a creamy brie sauce.  The other surprise favorite was the Fried Shrimp, which were so simple but done so well that it was hard not to love them.

Now finding it increasingly harder to leave their comfortable booth, the next stop was the Chef's Table, housing waffles, French Toast, a plethora of home made jams and sauces, a make your own omelette station, and freshly carved Beef Tenderloin.  Bailey, who was quickly filling up because of her Bloody Mary, chose a simple little waffle, decked out in fresh berries and a Bananas Foster sauce, which she reported with a moan was like, "Heaven in my mouth."  Brandy went with the slightly lighter French Toast, some Brown Sugar Bacon, and a good slice of the beef.  The tenderloin was very supple and cooked to perfection, but the meat Brandy really loved was the bacon, as it had been baked rather than fried, and the sugar had given it a brilliant crunchy crust as well as a nice chew.

Lastly came the desserts, which even though they were full to the brim already, Bailey and Brandy just could not pass up.  Bailey found two of her all time favorites on the table, Mini Key Lime Pies and Chocolate Covered Strawberries.  Like most of the things on offer at Shaw's, these two classics were simple, but done so well that it made one remember a time before overly ambitious chefs decided collectively to spin every dish they prepared.  Brandy went with a trio of creamy treats: the Pot du Creme, the Creme Brulee, and the Chocolate Strata.  The Pot du Creme was a real surprise, as it had an almost coffee like flavor to it rather than a straight chocolate.  Brandy really loved the Chocolate Strata, which had layered thick vanilla cream with rich chocolate sauce and was dotted with crisp chocolate covered puffed rice pieces.

After a lot of moaning and groaning to get out of the booth, Bailey and Brandy were finally able to make their way to the door, quite pleased with their morning of gorging.  Though the price tag for this meal was a bit hefty ($48 a person for the buffet, not including drinks, tax, or gratuity), it was certainly possible to eat enough food to make up for it, especially with how high quality everything was.  "Well, I think there's only one thing we will be capable of doing this afternoon," Brandy said as they waddled to the car.  And with that, they were off to IKEA to test out all of the model beds.

*The writers of this blog were invited by Shaw's Crab House to try the buffet at no cost in return for an honest review.

The Short and Sweet Review
Shaw's Crab House and Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Savoy or A Breath of Fresh Sea Air

The Slow and Savory Review

There was a time long ago when Brandy was younger that she lived in a little seaside town near Calais in France.  There was always something about the smell of salt in the air that she found comforting.  Wherever she was, whether it was walking down the avenue to the market, sitting at the cafe, or simply wandering the pier, admiring all the boats anchored in the harbor, whenever the wind would whip through, carrying with it that briney aroma, Brandy would always have to stop and close her eyes for a moment, letting the sea embrace her senses fully.  To her, that salty wind carried with it greetings from exotic lands and the promise of new adventures in places she still had yet to explore.

With all that Chicago has to offer, the one thing it has never brought Brandy was that same sense of infinite freedom that a gust of salty ocean air once did in that little sea side town.  "The lakefront is all fine and well," she says with a sigh,"It may have sand and waves, driftwood and fish galore, but its just not the same as standing at the edge of a seemingly endless body of water and catching a whiff of the world beyond the shore you're standing on.  Here, all you catch a whiff of is... well, Gary, Indiana."

Longing for something to remind her of the sea, Brandy was delighted to learn about the new brunch menu at The Savoy in Bucktown, an elegant spot that not only specializes in fresh seafood, but also in the finest varieties of absinthe the world has to offer.  "Sounds just like my little cafe in Calais!" she exclaimed, and quickly enlisted her good friend Bailey Blue to join her.

Inside the Savoy was a rather chic interior with an open kitchen at the front and a dark, mysterious bar at the back.  Faux-rust covered iron cages hung around the bare light fixtures, barring a not so subtle resemblance to lobster traps, and thick hemp ropes, woven together into a sort of curtain framed the entrance to the bar at the back, both of which hinted at the fresh seafood on offer.  Brandy and Bailey especially loved the art work that was scattered about the dining room, depicting an ancient looking grand dame with a vicious sneer in various vintage settings.  "They are wonderful pieces, aren't they?" Bailey asked as Brandy continued to stare at one painting in particular, her brows furrowed in concentration.  "Hm?  Oh yes, I suppose they are," Brandy mumbled, "I think I know this woman.  She looks just like the last president of my needle pointing group."

The ladies started off with a couple of cocktails: for Bailey the house Bloody Mary and for Brandy a Passion Fruit Mimosa.  Bailey's eyes grew wide when she was brought the massively intricate Bloody Mary, which was decked out with olives, tomatoes, bacon, herbs, and a freshly shucked oyster on the half shell.  "I might not need an entree after this!" she exclaimed.  Bailey found the drink to be plenty strong with a good kick of spice to offset the tanginess of it.  Though bold for sure, the concoction was still somehow light in texture.  Brandy's mimosa was fresh and clean with a really lovely softness to it and a vibrant ephervensense that is sometimes lost in a mimosa when there is an over balance of juice to champaign.

For her main course Bailey went with the House Cured Salmon Gravlax.  The beautifully presented plate came with piles of goodies to accompany the luscious fish: cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, slivers of red onions, crunchy cauliflower, fried capers, whiped herb cream cheese, and a freshly made rye waffle.  Bailey absolutely loved creating different bites by combining the various elements on the plate to form exciting mixes of textures and flavors.  The waffle had the incredibly sharp flavor of a rye bagel, but with a more airy lightness and none of the chew.  Bailey's favorite part was definitely the delicate salmon, which had the slightest sweetness, blending well with everything else on the plate.

Brandy chose the Crab Cake BLT.  The sandwich was an absolute behemoth, preventing any normal human being (that is, those of us who are incapable of unhinging our jaws) from eating it without the aid of a knife and fork.  The bread was almost English muffin like and had been coated in a tartar sauce like concoction that added a lovely creamy element to everything else.  The innards of the sandwich consisted of a thick slice of heirloom tomato, thin strips of crunchy bacon, a large seared crab cake, and a perfectly fried duck egg.  Brandy was very happy to see that the crab cake was truly the star of the dish (bacon has a tendency to ham it up and steal the spot light) with its fresh, herbaceous flavor and delightfully subtle crunch, originating from panko bread crumbs hidden within the cake itself.  The bright tomato really helped to cut the richness of the egg, bacon, and crab, as did the tangily dressed greens on the side.

To finish off their meal with something sweet, Brandy ordered another cocktail by the name of This Morning's Milk, an ever changing concoction, inspired by childhood's favorite bowls of cereal.  This particular day, the flavor was inspired by Reese's Pieces, a creamy mix of peanut butter and chocolate.  Brandy found the drink to have a very slight, adult minded sweetness to it, with the chocolate coming as more of a cocoa powder hit and the peanut butter manifesting in a nutty aftertaste.

At only $55 for two entrees and three cocktails, The Savoy proved to be not only of fine quality, but also fair pricing.  The service was quick and attentive and the dining room matched the food perfectly, in that it somehow seemed chic without seeming formal.  As they were leaving, Bailey noticed Brandy stopping just for a second and closing her eyes, a slow smile spreading onto her face.  "Something wrong?" Bailey asked.  "Nothing at all dear.  Just smelling the salt in the air," Brandy sighed.

*The writers of this blog were given the items mentioned in this blog post at no charge in exchange for an honest review.

The Short and Sweet Review

The Savoy on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 16, 2013

Little Goat Diner or Curses Shmurses

The Slow and Savory Review

Back in July when Bunny had arrived back in Chicago for a short time, Brandy was determined to take her anywhere she wanted to go.  They spent a day walking around the Lincoln Park Zoo, ooing and ahing at the myriad of animals.  They watched fireworks from the lakefront with a neighborhood's worth of friendly people.  They also went to a Cubs game to partake in that traditional Chicago pastime of  heckling out of town players until the inevitable beating of the home team occurred.

"What about food?  What do you want to eat while you're here?"  Brandy asked Bunny.
"How about the Billy Goat Tavern?"  Bunny said.
"The Billy Goat?  Why would you want to visit that old greasy spoon?  Its for tourists and 20 somethings who have just moved to Chicago to pursue a career in comedy."
"What?  I thought it was owned by a world famous chef!  You know the one from the television program?"
"Oh, no dear, you mean Girl and the Goat," Brandy corrected her.
"Oh, well, goats are goats.  What about Girl and the Goat then?"  Bunny suggested.
Brandy chewed her lower lip and said, "Sure.  Do you have a time machine handy so we can go back six months to make a reservation?"
"For a cheeseburger?!" Bunny scoffed.
"No Bunny, that's... look, let's go to brunch at Little Goat.  It's still run by Stephanie Izard, but its more of a diner style place."
"Little Goat?  My goodness, how many goat themed restaurants are there in Chicago?"
"Six.  There's six.  And we're going to Little Goat."

The inside of Little Goat seemed to be carrying the spirit of an old fashioned diner, yet had dressed it up in a shiney new outfit for the modern age.  The staff were dressed in old fashioned garb that wasn't overly obnoxious and the interior seemed to have just enough little touches of chrome to evoke the idea of kitschiness without giving over to it completely (the kitsch quotient was probably fulfilled by the giant spinning cartoon goat on top of the building).  All of these little touches made the space feel relaxed and casual, a slight of hand that hid the complexity and originality of the menu.

Brandy started with a cocktail called the French Intervention, a zingy mix of grapefruit bitters, fresh lime juice, grenadine, and an agave liquor ("Seems more like a Mexican Intervention to me," Brandy scoffed).  The mix was very refreshing, but a bit heavy on the bitters for Brandy's liking and seemed very small for the price.  "I guess it must be potent," Brandy said, swallowing half the glass in one go.

The Ladies split an order of the Tempura Mashed Potatoes as a starter, mostly just so that they could see what such a dish looked like.  "I don't understand, do they mix the batter into the potatoes?"  Bunny questioned, "Or perhaps they surround a crunchy fritter with the potatoes?  I just can't picture it!"  What came to the table more resembled crab cakes in that they were circular patties with a crunchy looking coating.  Served along side the potatoes was a tangy Asian style BBQ sauce and a cooling ranch that both Bunny and Brandy thought made the otherwise subtly seasoned spuds come alive.  The outside of the cakes were lightly crisp, but gave way easily to the butter soft taters within, making for an oddly familiar mix of textures that was still somehow wholly unique.

For her entree, Bunny chose the decadent sounding Porkbelly Pancakes.  The dish was essentially a stack of savory pancakes flavored with green onions and topped with succulent pulled pork belly and a crunchy Asian slaw.  Bunny found the pancakes to have a nice chewy texture which matched well with crunchy vegetation and soft, melt in your mouth meat.  The only thingy Bunny longed for was a little more sourness from the dressing, which seemed a little on the bland side.

Brandy chose the Bullseye French Toast, a sort of hybrid of a chicken and waffle meets toad in the hole, made with a traditional egg battered bread that had a soft fried egg at its center.  The bread itself (made in house at Little Goat's side bakery) was a sweet onion brioche, which made it a little more savory than any average French toast, and was helped along by a very sweet BBQ flavored maple syrup and tart, fresh strawberries.  The chicken was cut in thick chunks and had a brilliant crunchy coating, though the meat was rather dry on the inside.

Though a bit on the pricey side for a so called diner (but reasonable for the quality ingredients and preparation skills) Bunny seemed quite happy with her trip to Little Goat.  "Chicago seems to want to support Chef Izard in everything she does," she said as Our Ladies gathered up their things, "I wonder if that means they've finally forgiven her for bringing her pet goat to the Cubs game."  "I don't think that's quite right, Bunny," Brandy sighed.

The Short and Sweet Review

Little Goat Diner on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 9, 2013

Postcards from Bunny: Under the Table

Of Our Two Ladies, it should be quite obvious that Bunny has always been the one with her ear to the ground of what is fashionable ("I don't follow fashion, I make it," as Brandy likes to say).  So when Bunny caught wind that a new pop-up restaurant called Under the Table was opening up in Evanston, she begged Brandy to attend.  

"You simply must go!"  Bunny told her, "Pop up restaurants are all the rage!"  
"What the bloody hell is a pop up restaurant?" Brandy inquired.  
"Don't you know?  Its where a group of chefs hire a temporary staff for a temporary space, make up temporary menus, and sell tickets to the event.  Its marvelous!"  
"Sounds a bit flaky to me."
"Not at all.  Its how young chefs these days gain exposure for their food without huge overhead costs while also refining their cuisine and focus grouping their concepts."
"Bunny, have you been watching those fancy cooking shows again?
"Its the only English channel our satellite TV will pick up in Indonesia.  In any case, you are going."
And so Brandy did indeed set off for her first pop up experience.

Under the Table was started by childhood friends Max Mora, Anthony Scardino, and Chikoo Patel with the idea of putting a modernist twist on traditional fine dining.  The event was attended by about 15 other patrons and hosted in a small space at 1307 Chicago Ave.  Though the room wasn't customizable to the owner's liking (there wasn't much to do about the art that had been bolted to the walls or the painfully eclectic chandelier), the atmosphere was set by use of a very talented jazz guitarist, providing live music all throughout the dinner.  
The cocktail and wine list was impressive to say the least, and quite extensive for such a small operation.  The diners seemed to favor the original cocktails by mixologist Josh Novy, who took three very classic drinks and put his own personal spin on them.  "I don't serve cocktails that aren't my own recipe," he proudly declared, and indeed his impressively layered Sidecar and mint infused Pina Colada were most definitely original.  Brandy favored the Smokey Manhattan, in which the cocktail glass was infused with cedar wood smoke before being filled with spirits, making for an incredibly smooth and easily drinkable experience, as well as an rather impressive presentation.
The first course of the night was an Oyster Shooter with some marinated black cherries.  Brandy felt that the slight tartness of the cherries mingled well with the briny oyster and that the textures matched very well, making for a clean, fresh start to the meal.
Next came the Salad, a freshly made buratta cheese served with uni, mushrooms, and radicchio.  Brandy was more than a little sceptical of this mix, but really quite enjoyed the richness of the creamy cheese, the savory uni, and the bitter crispness of the radicchio.  Again, though quite rich, the flavors were light and refreshing.
The best presentation probably came from the third course, a Lobster Roll with Mexican sweet corn and a crisp potato chip, served on a roll infused with charcoal powder, making the bread pitch black.  The lobster itself was amazingly soft and tender, while the corn provided a good punch of salt and an almost butter-nut like flavor.  The unusual roll had a deep, earthy flavor that Brandy rather enjoyed, but its density seemed to over whelm the filing.
Next was the Prime Beef Slider, which came with a maple glazed piece of "spam," foie gras, a soft cooked quail egg, and a bed of blue cheese grits.  Surprisingly, the spam seemed to be the favorite element amongst the crowd, as it added a good cutting sweetness to the rest of the dish.  The foie was beautifully rich and velvety and the grits were nicely textured, but the beef, though of a wonderful quality, seemed to be overshadowed by the rest of the components, and the quail egg simply became an afterthought.
Lastly was the dessert course, a Pistachio Panna Cotta with a medallion of rich caramel and some lavender poached pears.  The panna cotta itself seemed a but soupy and bland, but the caramel was absolutely brilliant, its silky, buttery flavor blending well with the fresh, soft bits of pear and the crunchy nuts.
Brandy was most interested to learn that Under the Table is not only planning more dinners in the future, but also brunches, which she is in full support of.  The hopes for the owners are that they can eventually find a space that will allow them to not only continue their culinary exploration, but also collaborate with local artists and musicians to make a true feast for all the senses.  Diners interesting in attending future Under the Table events can submit their email addresses via their website in order to be alerted when tickets go on sale.

"So?" Bunny inquired of Brandy, "How was it?"
"It was lovely, but I was a little disappointed."
"Really?  Why is that?"
"They didn't serve a single pop-over."
It was a moment before Bunny responded.  "Its called a POP UP restaurant, dear."

*The writers of this blog were invited to dine by the owners of Under the Table at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, August 2, 2013

From the Kitchens of Bunny and Brandy: Cook Au Vin

It should be pretty obvious by this point that Brandy would prefer to have someone else make her brunch for her, but on occasion, she does like to do a bit of experimentation in her own kitchen.  Of course, the down side of this is the the dreaded dishes.  "My hands do not do well in soapy liquid," Brandy often says, "Its not my fault, my family has a genetic allergy to house work."

So it was quite the blessing when Brandy discovered the Sunday Brunch Class at Cook Au Vin, a combination bakery, caterer, and host to a range of gourmet French cuisine cooking classes.  This class seemed to offer everything a brunch aficionado could ask for: an intensive walk through of three delectable courses from accomplished chef Vincent Colombet, as well as the chance to enjoy the fruits of a morning's labour with your fellow classmates at the end, and best of all, no dirty dishes to clean up afterwards!  It was truly an opportunity Brandy could not turn down.

The morning began with the group all pitching in to squeeze some fresh orange juice.  "If you don't want to do much today, you can do this," Chef Vincent told the group.  This turned out to be a great way for the class to get to know one another, as they all gathered to slice citrus and pulverize pulp.  Chef Vincent then started to divvy up the tasks among them, allowing the three courses of the meal to slowly come together.

First there was the French Toast with Red Berry Glaze.  Chef Vincent had chosen a thick and sturdy brioche for the bread and had the class dip the 1 inch thick slices into a typical mix of milk and eggs.  The berry glaze was made by boiling a combination of blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries until all the juices began to mingle, then straining out the pulp and adding a little gelatine to thicken the mixture up.  One very brave member of the group took on the task of whisking this concoction together for what seemed like an hour to make sure that the gelatine was well incorporated, but in the end, all the effort provided the group with one of their favorite elements of the meal.

Next was the Buckwheat Crepes, which were to be filled with some smoked salmon and creme fraiche.  When queried on why he prefered buckwheat flour for his savory crepes, Chef Vincent simply shrugged and said, "Because that's how we do it in France," which became his standard response for why he did most things (he was able to get away with this explanation too, as half the class that day turned out to be fellow Frenchmen).  He instructed the group to combine the thin crepe batter by hand, thus insuring a lump free mixture.  These crepes were made to be a little more thick, almost like a bellini, and the buckwheat seemed to make them a little more chewy than their more delicate counterparts, but the earthiness of them paired very well with the thinly sliced salmon and the rich creme fraiche.

It was about halfway through the class that Chef Vincent turned everyone's attention to a mysterious bin at the end of the
counter.  "It's magic dough," he grinned at them.  When pressed a little further, he cheekily asked them, "Have you heard about Cronuts?"  Brandy was instantly thrown into an almost hypnotic state at the thought.  The infamous Cronut, demonic hybrid of a croissant and a doughnut, thus taking an already decadent, buttery pastry and adding to it's sinfulness by frying it until golden brown.  But Chef Vincent had other plans for his "magic dough."  "We're going to use it instead of English Muffins in the Benedict," he said, causing Brandy to swoon into the crepe batter covered hands of her fellow classmate.  Chef Vincent was then taken by an idea to cover the top of the Cronut dough in the remaining pulp from the red berry glaze before he put the mound into the oven, which was an idea the rest of the class didn't seem too sure about.

For the main course, Chef Vincent walked the class through the making of the perfect Benedict.  First was the lesson in poaching eggs, which he advised doing in a bath of not only water, but vinegar.  When asked how restaurants always present such flawless looking poached eggs, he took up a pairing knife and simply trimmed the edges of the white to make it look more uniform.  The Hollandaise sauce he infused with a little diced shallot as well as the typical lemon juice and butter, which made for a deeper flavor.  Unfortunately, Chef Vincent found the finished Cronuts to be unacceptable for the Benedict, so he toasted up some country bread as a base instead.  The class, however, decided that the Cronuts were pretty darn delectable and decided to portion them out for the meal anyway, dipping pieces of them into the finish red berry glaze.

The class then came together to set the table for their meal, bringing over plates laden with French toast, buckwheat crepes, and poached eggs along with a carafe of orange juice and bowls full of the red berry glaze and Hollandaise sauce.  Together they filled up their plates from the family style set up, joining to dine on the products of their morning's work without abandon.  Experienced foodies and amature cooks alike, this rag tag group of new found friends marveled over what they had accomplished together until their stomachs could no longer handle the bounty.

Needless to say, Brandy very much enjoyed her experience at Cook Au Vin and was quick to peruse the list of other classes, which included lessons on pastry making, bread making, and even classes for little chefs in the making.  Ranging from $65 to $150 a class (including getting to eat all ones hard work) seemed a fair enough price for a few hours of friend making, information sharing, and food consuming.  "Now if only I could employ some of those magical dish washing elves that seem to work here, I'd never leave home," Brandy concluded.

*The writers of this blog were invited by Cook Au Vin to take this class free of charge in exchange for an honest review.