Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Restaurant Week: Green Zebra

This year's restaurant week began with a trip to the Green Zebra (I'm not sure if it actually requires the definite article, but I like the idea of there actually being a physical, green quadruped). It is supposed to be pretty cool, a place that focuses mainly on grains and produce (with the occasional foray into meatdom).

On our first go we walked past the place because they didn't have a sign posted outside (which was of a piece with the rest of their ambiance), but on the second try we managed to get into the door. We waited for a few minutes as the hostess ignored us and did something or another about three feet away, which was kind of irritating.

Post-hostess, the service was great. The inside was very cool--everything was themed without being gimmicky. The walls were painted various shades of green, with moss paintings hung on the wall. Lights under a series of ferns created plant-patterned shadows on the ceiling, which I thought was a cool effect.

After all the buildup, the food was a little disappointing. We went for the restaurant pre-fixe menu and shared all of the dishes (with the exception of the root vegetable pot pie). The bread(kind of) was popcorn dusted with unevenly with cocoa powder and some sort of spice. It was weird.

After that, I started with the Zingerman's Burrata with crushed almond pesto, red quinoa, and a black pepper/crème fraîche cracker. This dish reminded me almost of sushi, with the mild, cold cheese standing in place of the fish. To contrast there was a crunch of almonds and quinoa (my first time having quinoa) and a cracker.

Suddenly realized these pictures make the portions look bigger than they were. I should've included a reference. Seriously, they were small.

The other option for the first course was the crispy sweet potato dumplings served with salsify purée, blood orange, and toasted black sesame. Every little element on the plate had it's own purpose, and all went together beautifully, but there was just a little something missing.

Maybe it was the teeny tiny portions they served. Understandable, and plenty of food for a female of my size. Matt, who has about a foot on me, was less happy. Regardless, if you couldn't scoop enough of small puddle of puree onto your oh-so-chic skinny fork, it detracted significantly from the dish.

The second course consisted of a carrot-coconut soup (probably my favorite dish of the evening) and celery root and potato croquettes. The soup was served with what I thought was ginger, and what Matt thought was pineapple, and what turned out to be Jicama and a cilantro foam. It was pleasantly spicy and has sweet notes from the coconut and carrot to balance it out. I didn't get any of the cilantro.

A note on foam: at this point it time, foam on any dish may seem to many people to be overly pretentious, but when it was first introduced by Ferran Adria in the nineties, it was a unique and innovative way to introduce flavor to a dish without weighing it down. GZ's food is vegetarian, however, and doesn't include a lot of fats or oils, so what was the point of the foam? It would have been better to just have some sort of sauce or cream, something that would have made the meal a little more substantial overall.

The croquettes I also thought were very good. They were served with smoked black walnuts, picked onions, and a pea tendril salad. The walnuts added a nice smokiness to the dish (understandably), the salad a nice crunch, and the pickled onions an awesomeness. Seriously, they were great. They were pickled in what I believe what red wine vinegar and were wonderfully acidic and crunchy. My only complaint was there were maybe three or four small slivers of them.

The third course consisted of sage spaetzle and sunchoke risotto. The risotto was very good, just creamy and buttery and delicious. The spaetzle didn't have enough sage at all and suffered from the same issue as a lot of the other dishes--what few samples of the flavor elements(roasted cauliflower, crispy kale, almonds, brown butter) there were were hard to get on your skinny fork at once.

For dessert we had a Chocolate Pavé with crème fraîche ice cream, peanuts, and sea salt as well as a Meyer Lemon Tart with toasted meringue, orange tuille, and I think a few dots of some cherry reduction. I was a little baffled by the pavé. It tasted a lot like a reses peanut butter cup (so of course it was good) but I had a hard time placing it with the philosophy of the restaurant, which supposedly celebrates "purity of ingredients." A technique heavy dish does not do so. Replace the crème fraîche ice cream with vanilla and the entire dessert would be completely unremarkable. Matt liked the lemon tart (I didn't think it was lemony enough) but I thought it faced the same problem that the pave did. How are a meringue and a tart a celebration of the ingredients?

For a place that is supposedly produce-focused and charges high prices for small portions, I was expecting something a little less forgettable. The most recent news clippings posted on the website are from 2008 and the head chef apparently has some other projects going on, so I get the feeling that maybe GZ has fallen by the wayside. In GZ's defense, we were eating off a pre fixe menu in a period where I'm sure they get a lot of unpleasant customers looking for a deal. Plus it's the middle of February in Chicago, a hard time for any restaurant to source ingredients. I might be inclined to visit again (in the summer), to see if I had a better experience.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Blueberry Muffins!

I made them. With orange zest briefly cooked in the milk to release some of the delicious orangey flavors, 5/6 the amount of sugar I needed, and no vanilla. Note: use the correct amount of sugar and vanilla. It's totally worth it. Also, the berries are starting to look good again. I'm so excited for spring!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Frontera Grill

If you ever ask yourself which people run out after a Top Chef episode and buy up all of the products they were pushing, well, wonder no more. They're suckers like me. I tend to avoid the non-food related items, but if you were a guest chef on last week's episode I will happily go out of my way to pay you twenty dollars for a sandwich and artisan soda. As you might imagine, this has led to some disappointments food-wise. Despite this fact, I have wanted to eat at Rick Bayless’s (guest judge/Top Chef Masters season one winner) restaurants for a long time. They are, from least to most expensive: Xoco, Frontera Grill, and Topolobambo and all feature Mexican cuisine. Because of my folks, I had the opportunity to dine at Frontera this past Thursday.

Everything I ate there was absolutely delicious.

We started with drinks and since it was a Mexican restaurant I had to have a margarita. In this case, a blood orange margarita with a sugared rim, made with Cointreau (orange liquer), blanco tequila, blood orange juice, and lime juice, which was great (I like the sweet drinks). The regular margaritas were also good, although a bit tart. They mixed them right in front of you, using lime halves to cap the cocktail shakers. I also tried some of the Marisol, a Belgian style wheat beer brewed by Goose Island specially for Frontera. It was fruity, so again, my kind of drink.

Next came the guacamole and chips. Not a particularly challenging dish, but they used really fresh ingredients; tomatoes onions, avocado, lime, which were tasty. The fresh chips were warm,crunchy, and very pleasantly flavored with lime (enough to taste it without being overpowering--usually I don’t like lime tortilla chips). It was also beautifully presented with two slices of watermelon radish stuck at slight angles to the vertical.

For my entree I ordered a couple of the snacks. I couldn't decide on a meal, partially because a lot of things looked good and partially because I couldn't understand a lot of the menu. I'll translate/explain as I go, mostly for my own benefit. The tamales de elote were sweet corn tamales served with crema, cheese (I think queso fresco), wood-grilled poblano chilles, and onions. By themselves the tamales were very sweet, but the crema and queso fresco cut that sweetness while the spice from the peppers provided a nice balance. It was served on banana leaves, in which the tamales were cooked I think, and covered with a sprig of cilantro. I wish the cilantro was chopped and sprinkled in stead of just plopped on top; as it was I just pushed it to the side and did without.

Fun facts: According to google translate, elote means cob. Which is confusing, because I thought it would mean corn, but of course maíz means corn, so whatever. Anyway, corn is traditionally served with limes in traditional Mexican cuisine. The chemicals in the lime (citric acid, you would think) combine with the chemicals in the corn to produce niacin, or vitamin B3, that the body can then absorb. When explorers brought corn, a new world crop, back to Europe, they neglected to bring this tradition with them. During times of famine, poor Italians would subsist almost entirely on corn in the form of polenta and would suffer from vitamin B3 deficiencies as a result. One of the symptoms, skin lesions, led to the conditions name: pellagra or "sour skin."

I also ordered the sopes rancheros, which consisted of crispy corn masa (corn meal dough) boats, savory shredded beef, roasted tomato, avocado, and homemade fresh cheese (queso fresco? I'm not sure why they didn't specify). Although I think the flavors were less unusual here, I like the sopes better than the tamales. Otherwise, I don't have a lot of intelligent things to add. They were tasty. There you go.

I tried a little bit of almost everyone else's dinner. The falda asada "brava" had spicy serrano-marinated grass-fed Tall Grass flank steak, which was beautifully cooked and subtly flavored with lime. It was also served with grilled knob onions, which surprised me because their only flavor came from the onions themselves (which were served tied in a knot) and the char from the grill. Wasn't my favorite, but still kind of interesting. The enchiladas de mole poblano were good. I couldn't taste as much because of the spice (I'm wimpy when it comes to spicy things) and I didn't really know what to think because I had never tried mole before. The only one I ate that made me wish I had ordered it was the puerco en clemole castellano, a Grill-roasted Gunthorp(the farm) Duroc(the type of pig) pork loin served with nutty mole (ancho & pasilla chiles, pecans, hazelnuts, pine nuts, spices, avocado leaves) and a bunch of other stuff. I only had a bite of the pork, but if I could eat all of it and nothing else it would be worth it. Finally, someone ordered the Thursday special, chiles rellenos, a souffle-battered stuffed chile. I didn't try it, but it looked about as nice as chiles rellenos can. I think it's inevitably kind of an ugly dish. At any rate, the person who ordered it enjoyed it.

For dessert (yay!) budin de platano y paw paw. Breaking that down: budin-a bread pudding, in this case made with brioche; platanto-plantain, although it was served with bananas(?); paw paw--papayas; covered with cajete (goat-milk caramel), caramelized bananas, and candied pecans; served with Mexican vanilla ice cream (although the menu said white chocolate) and a salty crumble. What surprised us all was how light this dish was. I could have eaten it in its entirety all by myself and not have felt like I wanted to explode. My favorite part was the salty-sweet combination of the ice cream, which had this great punch of vanilla, and the crumble.

What surprised me most about the meal was that nothing was greasy in the slightest, a first for Mexican food in my experience (which, to be fair, is somewhat limited). I think that's what really made the meal so great--not just that everything was tasty, but also that for me it expanded what this particular cuisine could be. Some of the dishes I ate I had never heard of, or had only heard of and never had the opportunity to eat, or had eaten elsewhere and disliked. Everything was beautifully presented, expertly cooked, and uniquely, undeniably, Mexican. I can't wait to go again.

A note on service and decor: The service was very good. They added an extra seat last-minute (mine!) for which I was very grateful. Our waiter had this crazy moustache with waxed and twirled ends, so that every time he talked the points of his moustache moved up and down in unison. It made him look like the villain in an Italian opera. He was knowledgeable about the food, made suggestions without being pushy, and was generally accommodating and positive. Everyone from him to the busboys provided the perfect amount of service--they there when you wanted them to be and gone when you didn't. The atmosphere was nice enough. It was a lot like your run-of-the-mill Mexican restaurants if in place of cactus pinatas they had actual art from Mexico. Some of it was quite interesting and beautiful.