Shiro's Sushi

Genius is part nature and part nurture. No matter what they’ll tell you, the accident of birth: the raw material is only refined into perfection with the proper effort. But no matter how much effort one puts forth, excellence at the level of the world-class can only be achieved with the proper gifts of nature. And in that respect, Chicago sushi will always be Salieri to the West Coast’s Mozart.

There was a line in Good Will Hunting where the professor says to Will: “There is but a handful of people in the world who can tell the difference between you and me…but I’m one of them.” I don’t presume to be an authority on sushi preparation but when it comes to consumption, I believe my excess to be widely known. I don’t believe it unfair to say that a judge of quality is one who has experienced a fair amount of quantity.

Until one has had uncured king salmon sashimi, I don’t believe that one can profess to have had salmon sashimi at all. In Chicago, the extra day of travel forces most providers to bathe their stock in some form of salt preservative. And here was I thinking sashimi needed to be fresh. I happen to love salt. But I sure know its taste. The salmon in Seattle is truly fresh. Even the cheap places serve it. 

What about the octopus? If I ever am permitted in Korea or Japan, I would love to sample some raw, Oldboy style. But until then, I must consign myself to the undercooked sashimi that Seattle offers. I’ve had raw octopus (but not live) once in my life and that was at an LA place that closed 3 months after opening. Made me wonder what else they served.

I also tried the geoduck sashimi. If you know your clams, you will know that this phallic-looking thing that is indigenous only to the west coast of Canada and the Puget Sound area of the Pacific Northwest. Panopea generosa is extremely long-lived and individuals approaching the century-marker are not uncommon. They have few natural predators with humans, of course, being the worst. China has almost as ravenous an appetite for ‘duck as it does for pig. I have pulled them from the ground while laying on my belly and reaching 3 feet down into muddy, 50-degree water. Because of this, the dismal laws of supply and demand dictate that Geoduck can approach US$150/pound. But this is not a bio-econ-lesson. It is a testimonial that Geoduck sashimi was NOT palatable for me. Before this, there were 2 pieces I didn’t care for much: Uni (sea urchin) and Saba (mackerel). Now there is a third.


And now for the statement that will rule out most wannabes: the rolls were meh. At Shiro’s they are a grudging concession to the hipsters that just LOVE sushi but “…don’t eat any of that raw stuff” (unless, of course, it swims in spicy mayonnaise.) Every roll we had was made with haste and sans imagination. Knowing that this is what makes up most Americans’ idea of sushi, if it purely makes up yours, then you will be disappointed.  Shiro’s effort is put into sashimi, where it belongs. And oh, how amazing the result.

Sushi Dokku

Who of you missed Sushi Wabi? What those people did with rolls made one crave them much more than was logical for that sort of thing. The dragon. The spicy octopus. The scallop. I stumbled upon the restaurant by accident in 1998. One of my very first sushi experiences. And like a heroin junkie, I have been trying to recreate that first high forever since. Ladies and gentlemen, Sushi Dokku is that recreation.

Given our advancing age, the female and I usually spend a Friday evening eating sushi take-out while glued to the projection screen. Long gone are the days of dancing into 4AM at Pasha on a Bandaleros Tuesday. But the quality of sushi falls well into the 90th percentile and given the dramatically reduced cost of eating in, we consider it a wash. Last week was a remarkable exception.

Tucked into a well-worn corner of the Randolph corridor, Sushi Dokku is, perhaps, 2 times the size of Sushi Wabi. This fact aside, all the service troubles that plagued Wabi are in full effect. The pace of dinner can best be described as glacial. But so worth it. The service does the best it can given the chefs’ speed. Even though our server spoke very little English, he delivered what we ordered and was helpful with suggestions. Suggestions are important given that Dokku’s menu is also somewhat larger than its predecessor's.

Why do I keep stressing Sushi Wabi? Because I regard the restaurant as the pinnacle to which modern sushi should aspire. Spicy tuna, for example, was once the receptacle of refuse. The Japanese that brought forth sushi onto this new continent in the early 60s thought it wise to accomplish 2 goals: get rid of sinewy tail-flesh and give the early hipsters something edgy of which to be proud. So they mixed what would have otherwise been garbage with mayonnaise and spicy sauce and PRESTO! One had a whole new dinner entrée. This brilliant tradition continues to this day at places like Naniwa and others where the palefaces are scorned but Sushi Wabi voted an incredible dissent. They used amazing cuts for their rolls. The finest fish-flesh no matter how one ordered it. And Sushi Dokku follows suit. If 2 rounds of servers can be considered proper sourcing, Dokku is 66.66% of Wabi’s DNA. All that’s missing is one partner out of three. I couldn’t taste the gap. And I doubt you will.

Without Wabi, Randolph had a void that was not filled by anything east of Halsted. Into the breach, dear friends, comes Sushi Dokku and, if you have the time, it is amazing.


Visiting a young friend with a terminal affliction can be a very sad affair. Despite the air of health that they exude, you both know that this time might be the last. But unlike the elderly, it’s a very rare young person that gets through four stages of dying to arrive at “acceptance” because too close there lurks that memory of their days of youth and vigor. You probably lost many a young friend in the form restaurants. Their illness was their balance sheet.

Mas serves outstanding tacos and delicious margaritas. The drinks are priced in accordance with the neighborhood and times. Tacos are priced high but not outrageously – if ordered by themselves. So why then must they charge US$3 per tablespoon of salsa? Why $8 for 2 spoons of guacamole? Why not have ANY other condiments available (for free) for those who may not wish to season their entrees so expensively? Some Cholula for duck’s sake! There are 2 possible reasons.

Reason A is the case study of Orange, one of the city’s first hipster breakfast places. They actually had signage posted that distilled their management’s opinion that the customer (you know: that person PAYING THEM) did not know as well as the kitchen what they wanted in an omelet. “If you want to customize an omelet, go to Golden Nugget.” Was seriously on the sign. A dramatic escalation beyond not having salt on the table.

Reason B can be the science of accounting infecting the art of kitchen wizardry. Never minding the science of ingredients and taste and the trendy acts of “deconstructions,” cooking is, at its pinnacle, an art-form. The peak of the profession draws from the science of taste and hopes to channel it into an experience not just to be tasted but to be seen and felt and smelled and perhaps even heard – as in Mr. Achatz’s decompressing aromatic pillows. A mix tape for the senses.

But accounting is an icy science with low regard for anything but bottom lines. It’s why there is an everlasting struggle between the business and the chef when the two concerns are separate. It’s also why when the chef is also business manager, restaurants become defunct at such a staggering clip. Pleasing the customer at all costs can have a very steep cost indeed. And I suspect that the creativity at Mas has been overpowered by accounting.

When we arrived for brunch on Friday, a lone employee was the host, the waiter, bartender and probably even the cook. (He confessed as much.) Only short-term bottom-line analysis can possibly think this is a good idea. We felt so sorry for the polymath employee that we even bit our lips and put on the air of friendliness while service took 3x longer than it should have. Given our propensity for fission in the face of service shortfalls, this represented containment of a high order.

Just like a healthy organism, a healthy service business must find balance between doing everything it can to please the customer and doing so, on average, profitably. One can no more run a healthy restaurant by letting one faction run amok than one can expect to get in shape by working out one muscle group. Although, some dudes at the gym still believe that after 10 years of being fat and working only bench, suddenly, in year 11, they will wake up one morning with a 6-pack. The truth is that nothing in life or in business exists in isolation and the constant struggle between different sides yearning for excellence is very healthy. One can never grow new muscle without first tearing up the old, letting it recover and going it again. Mas, like so many restaurants before it, needs to give its accounting muscles a rest. The food is very strong but the overall experience falls far too short of satisfactory. Having seen the symptoms so many times before, I fear that the next step in the decline is the fall. And the shutters. So if the balance sheet is really terminal, wouldn’t it be great to let the last gasp of a dying kitchen be channeled to the roar of triumph instead of a wheeze of penny-pinching pettiness? 


If, instead of architecture, Howard Roark opened a fine restaurant, he probably would run it exactly as Michael Carlson chooses to run Schwa. And in that vein, is it fitting that a restaurant that grudgingly tolerates its customers be consigned to an exile so permanent from Chicago’s dining mainstream? Perhaps. But not by me. I give Schwa a perfect score.

Dining out at Schwa is a production. Like Apple Store prayer-gatherings, U2 concerts and a dear-departed emporium of encased meat, Schwa is a hallowed ground where the laws of supply and demand are simply put on hold. But if one is prepared to hold one’s tongue and thus one’s long-held food opinions, one can feast on some of dining’s brightest creativity. And so we did.

When a perfect is awarded to something/someone that is clearly lacking, lots of people wish to fight. MS is much more about service than about food. This is true. And the service at Schwa will leave much to be desired…IF one arrives with hopes of four-star dining. But if the reservation process fails to convince one of the error, the dining room surely must. Or no? In my effort of persuasion, please look up one of the 10,000 Mike Tyson training/sparring/fighting videos available online.

Having watched him hit it heavy bag or 6-foot-6 opponent, is it possible to argue that Mr. Tyson isn’t perfect for his role? I suppose. Given the countless benchwarmers who invoke Ali (if only he were younger), or De La Hoya (if only he weighed in), or that guy who grills indoors (if only he lost weight), I am shocked that Mr. Tyson is spoken of with reverence at all. And it’s sad but true that folk who dare not look or sound the part are overlooked with shocking frequency in the books of greatness. I have been guilty of this often and as a result of this experience, will strive to be less so? How about you? Must you learn from your own mistakes or can you learn from those of others?

The menu and the dining pictures are attached. YES...the quail egg ravioli is THAT good. YES, the chocolate dish/container is creative beyond taste. YES, you should bring a bottle for the kitchen. And NO, your trip won’t be a waste.

Our bottle choices are attached as well. Given the occasion (can’t ask for the female’s help – it’s her birthday) and my utter lack of wino-knowledge, I was forced to rely on labels and prices. I wish I could rely on memory but alcohol has a strange way of dealing with those neurons.


In closing, I must write a parable for those who give no care for boxing or Mr. Tyson, or toxic personalities in business. But if you’ve read even one of his great books then you can know: I never had the pleasure of knowing Christopher Hitchens in person. Despite his towering intellect and thesaurus-worth vocabulary, he always struck me as a little bitch. A fact he owned given that his email was: I read, and loved, every word of prose he’d ever written and yet I know that if we ever “hung-out” we would have disliked each other intensely. Schwa is the Hitchens of fine dining. I let this fact deter me for a near decade. May the above serve as argument to persuade you otherwise.

Umami Burger

When it comes to meat slabs between buns, Chicago can be a judge without much mercy. I was a participant in this elitist game we’ve played for near-2 decades. After eating at Umami Burger, I apologize for my behavior, and wish that you’d learn from my mistakes.

In a city filled with meat, Umami Burger is a star that shines quite brightly.  I arrived at UB against my will because, clearly, I am too good for chain-store burgers. When I departed I was full, but no longer of myself. Au Cheval, Kuma’s, In n’ out, and yes…despite their grotesque price increase: Portillo’s. These are the burgers of my life. I wish that I can tell you that Umami pales in comparison. I really want to. But I can’t. If your preferred temperature is rare, you will appreciate the BUB. It’s two patties (or fatties) that taste like they added extra MSG. I can’t remember a burger that I’ve had that’s better. Even though my sample size has been decreased with much advancing age, I used to eat burgers on a daily basis. I know of what I speak.

This will be the shortest review you’ve read from MS in quite a while. Not because I lack vocabulary to describe the wonders that were eaten but because I mostly focus on experience. That part they are still trying to get right. One would think that a chain with many outposts would know to stem the tide of certain growing pains. Perhaps they choose not to. I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence: that two patties joined on a bun and I ate the both with little try and…you should get the truffle fries too. Amazing.


The world’s oldest social medium is the dinner table. Even before humans stumbled upon agriculture, the feast that followed the hunters’ kill enabled social sharing of the necessities of life. Not just of essential nutrients but of the trust and cooperation without which complex society would never have evolved. Now, in a world where most meals are eaten in solitude, bent over our keyboards, a restaurant that trumpets “sharing” and actually means it, is a refreshing change of sensory experience. Gather, Chicago is a top contender.

The first thing that one notices about the neighborhood is the density of restaurants. Lincoln Square must now be the most densely populated stretch in Chicago if one were to extend the definition to sports-bars. But they do serve food and pretty decent food so get off your high-horse. And, because rents have not caught up, the places are quite spacious and nearly every one of them has an outdoor seating area. Given it was Sunday and LS either means a pricey cab or very lengthy train ride, and most importantly: because we completely forgot about German Fest, we drove. Now usually, a mistake of this magnitude is sufficient to delay arrival by an hour, cause massive rage in the driver and equal parts anxiety and fear in the passenger. But, not only did we not even realize that we were heading for the mouth of revelry until we heard the music, we found a rock-star parking spot immediately! For free! Try that in River North.

Seated promptly at our choice of outdoor table, service began with the typical: “Have you dined with us before?” I really do wish that the industry picked a different ice-breaker since in the end, all restaurants work in exactly the same way: 1) order, 2) eat, 3) pay. However, that was the end of the cliché. What followed would so completely exceed our expectations that I have already reconsidered my neighborhood elitism. BTW, the restaurant does offer a special family dinner menu on Sundays with an eye to serving actual families. And quite a few came out. If you are allergic to children you should pick a different day but the families dining there last night seemed to all remember that “parenting” does not get outsourced to the waiter just because the parents have their mouths full. Not a single instance of misbehavior was observed and everyone sat and used their indoor voices. It was almost quaint to see 3 generations sitting next to us, dining out like in a time that’s long-since vanished.

Our favorite from the menu were the Brussels Sprouts. The mix of nuts, cheese and miso flavor improved upon the famous veggie in a manner that I wished I could prolong. When will someone invent a small, edible wiper “blade” that would allow us to politely squeegee out our plates without having to embarrass anyone? A close second was the cured salmon. I like this on its own but the mix of fried egg, burnt toast and cucumber crème fraiche was a huge improvement on what I buy at Costco. Almost tied with the salmon was the Crispy Pork Belly. Cubes of pork and watermelon make for an unusual combination especially when both are generously drizzled with soy glaze. And, BTW, when they say cubes they mean smaller Rubik’s cubes – not the confetti that passes for meat in your shrink-wrapped salads. The reason that the pork does not score higher is that the venerable pig has become a bona fide religion as of late. There is so much competition that a simple mix like the above is too small a plan to stir men’s souls. The dish is absolutely excellent but you can have similar at 15 other places. The other two, you can’t. So there. The only disappointment were the scallops. But I have been increasingly disappointed with them, mainly due to stratospheric prices. Still, even here, Gather gives you four for US$23. Compare that to Balena’s 2 for 27. Finally about the portions: They’re HUGE! Not sharing as in morsels but actually for sharing with 3 or more people – or just 2 gluttonous people. Or 2 adults and two smaller kids. Or…you get the point. As usual, we over-ordered and self-extraction from our chairs was a triceps workout. You have been warned. Wanna sample all the goodies? Make sure to bring a posse. They don’t have to share your DNA. Or a to-go bucket. You’ll still spend less than you would for dinner for 2 at any Gold Coast haunt. Money that you should then spend on after-dinner drinks.


Being a harsh critic shortly after a new opening is akin to punishing a puppy for stumbling over its massive paws. Had I written up mean things about Balena when we first went in 2012, I would now be forced to print my words on 30lb. linen paper and let you watch me eat them. Round 2 was exceptional.

In my long and lovely history of eating to excess, “have you dined with us before?” has been the most consistent opener. But at Balena they open with: “What time is your show tonight?” and it so amused me that I wished the title of this piece could be “Dinner and Show.” Why no “a?” you’ll see. Balena’s proximity to Steppenwolf so highly correlates the two that the waiters themselves assume that if a show is playing, their patrons are watching and they had better get them out in time. And were we glad that they got us out to see this one. But first the food.

While awaiting the female’s arrival, a conspicuous subset of the menu caught the eye: the vermouth tasting. It was there the last time but perhaps my brain had simply lacked the frequency on which it could receive the broadcast. I mean, come on…a VERMOUTH TASTING? Since I was 15 years old I had considered the sight of vermouth from across the room as the perfect amount in a martini. But our server patiently explained that that was all because the vermouth in “the kinds of bars we went to” had all “turned” long ago due to its sparse usage and for this reason tasted like an Arizona sandstorm. He implored that I would need to trust him Omakase style. I did. And I am glad I did. And I wish you would too.

 Since I must complain a little, I will do so about the scallops. The plural is used loosely. Yes there are two. But just two. And for the price of US$27, a grotesque assault on the pocketbook of the working middle class. The rest of the meal was shockingly well-priced for what one gets considering memories of 2012. Balena learned its lesson. I am proud.

The margherita pizza was much larger than we expected despite being warned that it would be larger than we expected. So…let us warn you to expect it to be larger than you expect it to be even after being warned that it would be larger…gawd. Let us stop before we find a linguistic wormhole. I shall say no more about the pizza. Except that it’s really good.

The show? Russian Transport at the Steppenwolf. I found the topic and the accents to be hilarious. Many didn’t. Obviously, the subject matter underlines the worst possible case in immigration where the  transports seem to have a knack for hopping out of the frying pan and directly into the third circle of the Inferno (which is gluttony since you must ask), but, as most things, dealing with the outliers simply makes for better television. And stagecraft.

I found the show amusing for many reasons, not the least of which is because of having grown up in a household where the females all sport the same bizarre shade of purple on their domes as though they all conspire every week to cook up a giant batch of borscht and then dive headfirst into the beet scraps thereby getting done the “cooking” and saving money with the colorist. Russian women are nothing if not industrious.

Anyway, you should see the show. Or any show. But before you do, take care to eat at Balena, skip the scallops but do get the vermouth tasting. Just don’t get as many as I did or you’ll be stumbling over people going to the restroom. 6 times. 

Nico Osteria

Rich parents have a tricky time raising proper children. Not because their wealth intrinsically corrupts, but because of the misguided forces of human correlation. Correlating offspring with themselves, wealthy parents tend to allow the feral beings to tumbleweed through early life because, very likely, they were denied the wilderness themselves. And so it is with hotel restaurants. The hotel is the rich parent and, its overwhelming failure to tighten up the reigns, leads to the certain failure of the child restaurant. I have railed against this scourge quite often. I prepared to do the same with Nico Osteria. But I can’t. Save for their healthy Rush-Street pricing, they are an excellent addition to the street of Dine and Drink.

The location that most recently gave birth to Nico Osteria has gone through so many identities that I joked, 4 years ago, during a month of Spanish-themes, that the staff might walk in to work with “tapas” and walk out with “sushi.” I also expressed doubt about the location’s possible continuance for even the wealthiest of parents (hi Rande Gerber) can grow tired of bailing out their misbehaving children. I regret my cavalier dismissal.

 My only complaint about the restaurant is price. The anemic fish one gets for US$20 is inexcusable, Rush Street or not. “Crudo” means “raw” in Italian and I certainly felt beaten that way. I don’t know why the prices didn’t stop us from ordering 4 crudos. Perhaps they have the supply=demand function figured out quite well. And their wine is priced at a shocking 2x markup. Also excellent.


How about the service? Certainly I could find something there I didn’t like. Unfortunately, I couldn’t. What was, perhaps, a testament to overstaffing, my water glass never went below half-way and not a crumb dropped on the table went without removal. I glanced to the far corner of the bar and saw 11 staffers (I counted…come on, you know I did) standing there looking for empty glasses to fill or crumbs to collect. And I felt, for the first time, that someone other than a techie knows what one must do to buy redundancy. Rich parent that actually invest in their children. I think I love it. If I could afford it, I would come here again.


The chief problem with BYO at large-course dinners is the inevitable (and rapid) descent into total table chaos. As the glasses piled upon glass, keeping track of which vessel contained which pairing was an impossible assignment. This, to say nothing about the different pace of the 4 drinkers. The redeeming quality, of course, is price. Drinking as we did, if the wine were paired up by the restaurant, we could never have escaped without a bill well beyond the painful 4-figures. Still, I was underwhelmed, underfed and out-of-patience.

Goosefoot is named after Chenopodium, a genus of herbaceous flowering plants. Genus! NOT family! Dammit! Why does the staff keep saying family? The “amaranth” family does, in fact, include the goosefoots but the incorrect reversal is no different than saying all rectangles are squares because all squares are rectangles.

You have had geese-feets before. They include some spinaches, Mexican Epazote, Swiss chard, Chioggia beets, and the super-popular quinoa which might be better called a goose-running-shoe based on how fast it sprinted onto every hipster menu ever. Chris and Nina Nugent, chef and proprietors, grow the plants themselves. I suppose a goosefoot fetish is better than the plain foot one.

Despite my opening remark, I cannot say that there was anything on the menu that was bad. Indeed, I was blown away by the savory delight of the second course (shrimp/preserved garlic…), served in an eggshell. The meats were fantastic but wholly insufficient. This 9-course meal borrowed many things from many places. Tru’s synchronized plates? Check. Alinea’s aromatic excess? Check. Contemporary, engaging (and engaged) 4-star service? Check…minus. Because the time between courses was unacceptably long. I know this is the kitchen’s note but it’s service’s echo. One interval stretched over 30 minutes and the average was 15. Our meal took nearly 5 hours – I kid you not. Mrs. Nugent explained that they do not turn tables (which is why getting reservations is so fun) and the seating is for the evening. I’d prefer that be a right and not an obligation. Folk should not have time to get hungry again between courses. Especially given their infinitesimal size. At least we had our wine.  And goosefoots. And, yes, they add amazing value to the meal. So small, yet flavorful. They notably improved on already tasty fare.

The following is in order of the corkage. But in the melee that ensued, no glass was really paired with anything. ‘Twas all a giant free-for-all. I hope you can show more restraint.  

  1. Veuve Clicquot Rose (Champagne)
  2. 2011 Belle Glos Dairyman (Pinot)
  3. 2004 Marcel Deiss (Alsace)
  4. 1986 Château Beychevelle (Bordeaux)
  5. 2003 Parusso Barolo Le Coste-Mosconi (Barolo)

Wild Ginger

“Every earthly thing has a beginning and an end.” Wrote a three-star General in a book on winning warfare. Planning for the end gets one ahead he said. He referred to wars, countries and relations. Not silly, civilian things like restaurants. And yet, given our relatively short time on a very long-lived planet, pets and restaurants are the few things that we outlive routinely. I ate at Wild Ginger in Seattle and was overcome by having outlived so many of my favorites.

It’s hard to quote pop-culture because of its increasing bankruptcy. But there was a scene in The Walking Dead where a character known as “The Governor” (played with repellent brilliance by David Morrissey) performs a monologue about his departed wife. She called him before the apocalypse and he didn’t answer. She didn’t leave a voice mail. “What did she call about?” he muses. If he had known that that was his last chance to speak with her, would he have found the time? What if I knew that on May 2nd, 2009, I would eat at Vong for the last time? Would I have ordered more? Would I have tipped better? I don’t know. 12/16/2010 was my last meal at Opera and 12/30/2010 at Red Light. Any dinner in the West Loop neighborhood usually began with a Mango Martini and tuna appetizer at Red Light. I miss it greatly.

The tuna tatakke at Red Light. The vegetable curry pizza at Vong’s Thai Kitchen. The multi-prepared Duck at Opera. The Chao Tom (shrimp over sugarcane) at Le Colonial. Save for the Rush-street located yet inexpensive Vietnamese, not a single restaurant remains. This is a travesty. In 2009, Elizabeth Gilbert gave a TED talk in which she said that she realizes that her greatest accomplishment may very well be behind her. There is great insight in that statement because it’s so often true with many things and many people. The pop culture name is “one-hit-wonder.” It would be a great shame if Chicago’s best accomplishments in Asian cooking are getting more distant in the rearview.

Anyway, Wild Ginger: there is not a single dish I’ve had here that wasn’t stellar. But the duck is in a category alone. It’s far superior to any I’ve had before or since and I would not be surprised to discover that they sprinkle it with dopamine reuptake inhibitors. If you like the Shrimp/Sugarcane at Le Colonial, you’ll love the lettuce cup here with sea bass. The price, though, you may not. I thought that about the prawns but given how many showed up on the plate, I suppose the average price per prawn was fair. If you recall Red Light and the Mango Martinis…the Mango Daquiri at Wild Ginger is required. I ended up wolfing down so much that I could barely move. This happens every time and can result in an abbreviated evening as we just go home and fall asleep in our clothes since we’re too full to bend over and untie shoes. I do this routinely at steak houses and a place in South Beach called Barton G but this is the only Asian place capable of hitting me in the belt. Trust me, this is saying something.

Seattle is not known for its excellence of service. Although not as bad as LA, Seattle is still West Coast when it comes to energy and speed. Wild Ginger (and Toulouse Petit) is a shining beacon of exception. I cannot recommend Wild Ginger to you more strongly. Eating there will expose you to flavors you may have forgotten existed. You will receive service so exemplary that it alone pulls up Seattle’s dismal average. You will be reminded of a class of Asian restaurant that has all but left Chicago. Perhaps you, like I, will sprinkle your epicurean evening with a few flakes of nostalgia. And, if you had the privilege to know them, great memories of dear departed friends. 


Dear Tru, writing you this letter is a little like telling your female friend that she’s gained some weight. She knows. You know. Everyone knows. It usually makes no difference. But occasionally, the friend wakes up one morning and decides she looks like dough. And begins the gym FOR REAL – not just working out the jaw East Bank style. And when we see her in a month she looks amazing because she didn’t have that far to go. You are that friend and I can only hope that your (rock) bottom is higher than that of most.

You and I started dating in 2000. A mere several months after you emerged out of the Lettuce womb. You are my longest-term relationship. My dinner partners have come and gone but you have still remained. My 4-star go-to. My standby. Like a Minnesota Fats, you had no need to hustle others. You made your living by being consistently excellent, no matter what. Against you, others formed their measures. Sadly, your meter-stick has lost some length throughout the years.

I have always thought your dinners to be like gold and diamonds: they owe their value to their scarcity. Some accused you of theatrics but I believed the theater to be important. The “service” part of food. I enjoyed the synchronized pours and the artistry. Both on the walls and off.  Gone is the Warhol Marilyn because it (probably) belonged to Mr. Tramonto (Unlimited). But the art of the dining room most certainly did not. Why are we seeing its extinction? Did he take the service with him in the divorce?

My favorite part of dinner was always the wait staff. Unlike other 4-stars, Tru had the novel insight that its diners did not necessarily wish to sit for hours at a foodie funeral. And the waiters would engage the patrons at precisely the level of volume and activity that the patrons wanted. No longer. Yesterday, service was distant, unforgiving and slow to join the punch-line. It made me miss the Tru of old.

Ironically, even though the food is the easiest part for 4-stars to get to perfect, you didn’t even do that. Borrowing from Trotter, you underwhelm the appetizers and main courses and then overdo desserts as if it were a zero-sum investment. Like the balding guy who starts to grow a beard thinking the hair below compensates for the lack above. It doesn’t. I hated this behavior about Trotter’s and I was very disappointed with yesterday’s emulation of the same. But I must admit that what I had was excellent. It always is. Especially the cheese. Can we trade a few desserts for a higher cheese allowance? My household spends more on fermented milk than on gasoline. Our car gets 9 miles per gallon so you can imagine the value of this statement. And yet, we had not a single one of the cheeses on the menu. This is an accomplishment we admire. Unfortunately, I bet the menu is not available to mortals.

Anyway, our years are spent chasing Lettuce Entertain You gold status. Once we reach enough to maintain, we look for places to blow the accumulated rewards. I hate to tell you that next year we will look elsewhere. You probably won’t miss us because our spending is a rounding error on your books. It is said that critics are legless men who teach running. But what I would hate to see is a small group of dedicated nomads do to you what groups did to the Holy Roman Empire. I am not ready to move you out of memory and into history. I don’t want to write the first chapter in the Decline and Fall of the Tru-man empire just yet.

Cape Cod Room

Russell Menkes General Manager The Drake Hotel Chicago 140 East Walton St. Chicago IL 60611

Dear Mr. Menkes,

On February 16th, 2013, we attempted to dine at Cape Cod Room. Since my partner worked on Valentine’s Day, we were going to use this as our date-night. It was not to be.

It’s not a crime for a restaurant to be busy. Indeed, there is a fine balance between traffic and desirability. But there is a big difference between organic crowdedness and the false pretense of exclusivity. Think the velvet ropes in LA nightclubs as compared to the healthy bar scene at a well-managed restaurant like Roy’s or anything by Gibson’s group.

Working the host stand was Theodore Daskalopoulos, who, I have since learned, is the general manager of the restaurant. I suppose the only way such a person can remain employed in the business of service is by being boss. He should not be allowed near customers.

Upon arrival, our customary 10 minutes in advance, Mr. Daskalopoulos advised us with dismissiveness: “We’re running a little behind. Have a seat.” Now, I don’t need massaging or false pretenses to niceness. But I still regarded the completely cavalier instruction to “have a seat” as, perhaps, not in the spirit of the service level to which a hotel like The Drake aspires. To say nothing of the fact that “a little behind” is absolutely meaningless. Quantify it and let us decide if we’re staying.

One other couple was already seated. We were the second. There was no more room to sit but Mr. Daskalopoulos proceeded to dismiss 3 additional parties with the same instructions. Sit where? I thought. No one had the courage to enter the completely empty dining area to the immediate right of entry and grab one of those seats. Had this been a regular Saturday, I would have and kicked my feet up. Maybe called Domino’s as obnoxiously as possible – asked the other victims of Mr. Daskalopoulos’ disdain if they wanted anything while they waited. But this was our Valentine’s Day.  I had to be nice which I regret exceedingly because few things on this planet are less pleasurable than being on the receiving end of my rude-restaurant cross-examination. Especially when I have an audience in a similar predicament.

Now Mr. Menkes, I understand fully well that a restaurant like Cape Cod Room is a rounding error on the books of a giant hotel like The Drake. This difference in scale is also why hotel management is almost always professionally trained and why restaurant management so rarely is. It is probably for this reason that the management charged with the hotel sometimes treats the restaurants’ as beneath them. Certainly Mr. Daskalopoulos’ attitude would imply that he is looked down upon by someone in your executive corridors and he takes out his resentment on his customers; who are also your customers. This affects you for two reasons.

First, most interactions between the hotel’s guests and its staff is through the dining establishments. There is little distinction drawn between the experiences in restaurants, especially when exceedingly negative and the overarching impression of the host organism, which is your Hotel. Secondly, by denying guests a viable place to spend their money inside the hotel, you’re just guaranteeing that what little benefit a restaurant does provide will be evaporate to nothing. Look to NoMi for a perfect example of a decade-long march into irrelevance until finally management was kicked out along with the nightclub attitude. Now, it is Michigan Avenue’s most improved player. Don’t you want to be? The solution begins with Mr. Daskalopoulos’ dismissal. And that of his attitude.

We went inland and had a lovely meal at Le Colonial where, even at their busiest, they have treated us better than Mr. Daskalopoulos treated anyone that night. Just thought you should know.


STD Sushi

Good sushi is easy to identify. A good sushi restaurant is not. For better or for worse, both the yummy fish flesh and the places serving it has become commoditized. Although it may seem counterintuitive, I use the ubiquitous Spicy Tuna Roll as my barometer. And STD delivers.

It started out as the repository of wasted flesh. “Why bother?” the Japanese elitists thought. The dumb Americans are adding spicy mayo. They won’t be able to taste anything. Except when cuts get too close to the tail, the white sinews become ubiquitous. Some restaurants had even taken to grinding up the “sushi” so as to help the customer chew what would otherwise serve as dental floss. Tendon floss. Hehehe…gross. But a restaurant that uses quality tuna even though it’s drenched in spicy mayonnaise is a quality cop indeed. STD Sushi is the most remarkable achievement since Sushi Wabi and even Japonais. Below are some must-haves.

  1. H.I.Victory Sashimi – The sushi world is so stuck on rolls that ordering sashimi is so quaint it’s almost retro. However, the sushi chefs at STD have captured a strain of knowledge from a time before the latency and reverse transcribed it into some infectiously beautiful creations that are now a part of the restaurant’s DNA. Don’t try to resist these macro masterpieces. Your defenses will be useless.

  3. Giant Gonorrhea Roll – Its pieces are as soft as gonococci and emit a gentle color-sustaining hue, even in low light. I was infected right away by the spice and burn sensation even though only 20% of men risk infection upon first bite but luckily, more than 60% of women can expect the same.

  5. Spicy Syphilis Sixplosion – soft and gummatous, but bold and flavorful, the Spicy SS harks back to a simpler time, when the flavor was transmitted strictly through the mucous membranes. And what a flavor it is. The early stages may be painless but after a period of latency, the diner’s nose can explode with the heat of 1000 wasabis but the heat doesn’t go away. I am told that the chefs, having studied in Tuskegee, know how to make it stop but refuse – and we must endure.

  7. Herpetic Simplex Skewer – Once infected with their taste, you cannot but help experience persistent and recurring cravings. A craving that can be sated but not cured. Don’t resist the deliciousness. Call all your friends and gorge! Then upload it to YouTube. Guaranteed to go viral.

  9. Crabs Tempura – Crusted crustacean sitting on a bed of lice and curly crab grass, accompanied by a thick white sauce for your dipping pleasure. Not as overwhelming as the others, the Crabs don’t bog you down with craving – they just ping you on occasion. A little itch to let you know they’re there.

And so a new year ushers in a new sushi restaurant. The brief bump on the road to openings will not constrain the determined mouth from partaking of the offering. Sushi is, after all, one of nature’s perfect foods. Whether served naked or with culinary jewelry, there is nothing like the pleasure of that first morsel of gently cool sashimi melting on one’s tongue. What began in the 1960s as an experiment to fill the cargo holds of Japanese airliners is a national phenomenon that seems boundless in its scope. A roll is like a tunnel. And at its end there is no light, no hope for cure. Just darkness. For which we are the vector. 


Richard N. Frank
234 E Colorado Boulevard # 500
Pasadena, CA  91101-2211


Dear Mr. Frank,

On December 17th, I dined at Lawry’s Chicago. Although my Prime Rib sandwich was, as it always is, excellent, I cannot say the same for the salad of my date. Indeed, I even feel discomfort using the term “salad” to describe the horror that was served. It seemed as though what passed for lettuce in Lawry’s Chicago sphere of gravity was a wilted and aged relic with a frozen past. The promised egg was missing and someone thought it wise to make up in seasoning what the entrée lacked in freshness. Much like my own wilting glow and souring scent of youth has forced me to resort to brightly colored outfits, jewelry and oceans of cologne. Yet I have seen McDonald’s hide their disdain for freshness better that Lawry’s did today and at least they don’t charge $10 for their assaults on salad-eating palates.

My complaint is, sadly, twofold. It is exceedingly rare to be served such inedibility anywhere in Chicago. When it happens, I like to monitor the server’s reaction to clearing a full plate. Today, the bus staff cleared the table and took no notice whatsoever. This is bad training. As is the fact that wilted, browning lettuce can make it past a single pair of kitchen eyeballs and down on a paying person’s plate. This kind of carelessness trickles from the top. So, after paying for our luncheon, I asked the hostess for the manager. “Is it important?” I was asked. I would like to think that if I’m asking, clearly I consider it important but alas, there was no manager around. At all. It startled me that a chain as successful as Lawry’s could fail to impress upon a general manager the importance of having supervisors available to customers at all hours they are served. Especially during lunchtime rush on Michigan Avenue. Had I been able to speak about the matter in real-time, this would have gone no further. But since the GM obviously cares so little for his operations I feel this escalation is a favor to a restaurant where I had enjoyed so many prior meals. And hope to in the future.

You see Mr. Frank, Lawry’s, unlike most of Chicago’s temples to carnivorousness, has never cared for their vegetarian clientele quite as much as I believed was business savvy. Go to Gibson’s or Joe’s and order a salad and what comes back is a caricature on a serving platter. For a comparable pittance. They have, unlike Lawry’s, figured out that the flesh-eaters must often dine with those who are still stuck in moral purgatory eating the plant diets of great apes. They don’t understand that all domestic animals are alive for our entertainment or consumption but instead of shunning these poor souls, feed them! And you’ll see more of their dinner partners too! The marginal increase in cost for a head of lettuce is trivial after the supply chain absorbs the cost of the first 100 units. If you promise egg, deliver it! And a few more than 5 tiny croutons (we counted). And…who thought that freezing lettuce was a good idea? Unlike animal protein, water-rich plant membranes do not maintain cellular integrity (or taste) after being pierced with ice crystals. This is why JR Simplot’s process of flash-freezing his potatoes enabled us to become a country of freeze-dried, French-fried tastelessness. Let them be thankful for International Flavors and Fragrances for creating the chemical mirage of flavor. Lawry’s – I held to higher standards.

Mr. Frank, I love your company’s accomplishments almost as much as I loved the food. But the decline in “caring” continues unabated. Please sir, sneak in one day and eat at Lawry’s Chicago’s lunchtime counter. If you proclaim it even passable (C-) I will eat this letter right in front of you. It’s printed on 32 lb. paper so this is not a run-of-the-mill boast. Although it may not be the worst thing for me. They keep telling me I need more fiber in my diet.


Whole Foods

John Mackey
Whole Foods Market, Inc.
550 Bowie Street
Austin, TX 78703-4644

Dear Mr. Mackey,

On the 21st of October, Anno Domini two thousand and twelve, I shopped at your Chicago Gold Coast location. The experience left me incomplete.

I do not regard unreasonable to want a detailed, printed transaction history. I’m not the only one. Indeed, some merchants offer rewards for the omission of receipts. The employees at Whole Foods, however, regard this as a privilege and an encroachment on their time. Today was a startling example.

Attached are two receipts that I wanted reprinted. I cannot see the price column and this would prevent me from properly categorizing the purchases and checking your POS’s tax calculations. The manager who was summoned to assist said: “It’ll take ten minutes” and stood looking at me with the obvious intent of dissuading me from waiting. I replied: “What are you waiting for then?” That was not the reply he was expecting. But away he went – to the customer “service” counter and began to work. In the meantime, I pretended to be in line at a non-functional cash register and thoroughly amused myself as people began to line up behind me. I paid the gentleman back for his disdain with sarcasm and had he gotten any worse, I would have used the only weapon available to customers in this situation: the outdoor voice.

Anyway, I have attached the receipts. I hope you’re as amused as I am. Before you laugh this off, please know that my life is a case study in partially-repressed obsessive compulsion and I NEED these receipts for proper reporting. I bought $84.89 worth of apples in 2012 and can even tell you how much were Fuji versus Red Delicious. Depriving me of this materially affects my quality of life and causes me great stress. Your staff needs to be more understanding of this particular form of mental illness.


Ada Street

In the interest of time savings, I have started taking an instant dislike to certain types of people. Type-As wielding domination even though I’m neither buying nor competing. HR students who still think that using my first name 8 times in every sentence sounds friendly, not creepy. And finally the too-cool-to-be-there butterflies who wear the perma-mask of disappointment and oblige others to entertain them. At Ada Street, they seem to hire all three.

We arrived 15 minutes early for our 8:30 reservation. In the game of disrespect, we never want to be the ones to unsheathe first. Especially with restaurants. I don’t know exactly when the lateness became fashionable. To me, it has always been a stark abomination in the conduct of the affairs of men. I used to blame the ease of mobile-calling with the attitude of: “it’s OK, I’m running late” except, no one even bothers calling. So in my very scientific sample-size, I note that there remain two types of tardy: passive-aggressive and clueless-idiot. Exhibit A: I will make you wait because I think I can and Exhibit B: My parents were divorced and were always skiing up in Aspen so they never taught me manners and I never really had a real job so it’s ok, forgive me for being scatter-brained. Sorry: NO. The world has, long ago, stopped cashing checks for those who just show up. And if one shows up late, one may never (should never) get the cash at all. Or the reservation. Indeed, restaurants have tried to flip the table on the grotesque rudeness of their diners and I and my punctual fellows are collateral damage. Something which Next, and Alinea by proxy have been trying to combat with the pre-paid ticket sale system. It works when demand so greatly exceeds supply. A phone call costs nothing. A ticket costs real money. But not every restaurant warrants a pre-payment. In fact, few do and none of this would be an issue if people just showed up on time and cancelled when they knew they couldn’t.

Anyway, we arrived early. As is the custom at Ada Street, greeting us was a 30 minute wait AND – a glass of whatever they were pouring – that night: sangria. Nice touch. Apology accepted. But at my age and lack of patience, I’d rather pay for what I drink while seated at my table. And despite my having asked 2 hostesses about any possible prognosis, none who ever walked down the lengthy hallway to the dining area was seen again. There must have been a revolving door of them somewhere in the restaurant.

After we were seated and served the drinks we actually wanted things started looking up. In terms of service. The waitress was a refreshing departure from the butterflies about the host stand. I can’t help but think that she was also a departure from the median at Ada Street. The food? Eh. Everything – and I mean everything – was safely mediocre. And we do have a reasonable sample on which to base this conclusion. Green tomatoes, kale, polenta fries (2), squid, octopus, scallops, crispy potatoes, salmon tartare, donuts and many, many drinks. To their credit, things were priced at a mediocre level too. In all, we were safely underwhelmed. I would rather pay a premium to be overwhelmed. It’s why we go out to eat.

Hash House a Go Go

A fearsome apparition was placed on the table before me and for the first time in YEARS I feared defeat by a lunch entrée. This “battle” is akin to playing chicken. You win but you still lose. By all the pork that’s holy, I wish I would have lost. I felt like lethargic crap all day.

The waiter started it. He said he had never seen someone finish more than half of it. What was I supposed to do? The Big O’ Crispy Pork Tenderloin is the Jacksonville of sandwiches. It spread over my plate like Jack-o-ville spreads over north Florida. Wide, thin, and cooked extra crispy, Jacksonville sprawls over 800 square miles to contain a population the size of San Francisco. Likewise, my “tenderloin” wasn’t tender in the least but super-wide, super thin and cooked irreparably tender-free. All the flavor of this sandwich could have fit inside 2 cubic inches of pork belly. But instead, my palate got a long, boring suburban commute across a desolate, parched landscape in pursuit of a scarce garnish. Definitely the triumph of quantity over quality.

I will return to HHAGG. I don’t want to rip on it too badly. Some people like pork this way. Some also like chicken-fried ice cream. Their palate was probably abused as children. It’s not their fault. Their parents were, and many still are, high-caloric idiots. But there are other items I will try including the Man vs. Food favorites. The service was impeccable. Despite his warning that “plates come out as they’re ready” the server took my sarcastic reply in stride like a complete gentleman. I was almost misty-eyed. All should know and share my opinion on the philosophy of “we let your food get cold in front of you instead of timing the kitchen properly.” To HHAGG’s credit, they didn’t let it get too cold. Nor would it have mattered. The time it took me to chew mouthful after dry mouthful of irredeemably fried pork meant that my sandwich was cold inside of the first few bites. Heat flees as a function of surface area and this sandwich was a surface like no other. And yet, temperature changes were neither detraction nor improvement. And like the sight of a palm tree in the desert, I longed for the rare pickle sprinkled coyly through the flatness of my pork. I relished every one. Get it? I relished the pickles?

HHAGG, unlike some other recent meals, announces early and loudly that “we are a non-heat lamp restaurant.” This is their way of telling you about the philosophy of the kitchen being timing-free. I appreciate the twist on words to make this sound better but naturally, with the presence of heat lamps, one is discouraged from timing dishes AT ALL since they can just sit and mutate until the other things are ready. But it’s not cheap. HHAGG, being a chain, sought to save heat lamps * 7 locations * untold kilowatthours etc., etc.. Fine. But stop it with creative excuses. Heat-lamp free? Please. All they’re doing is passing down rudeness to their customer. I’m still never going to start eating until everyone in my party can too and I will always lift my ass slightly off the seat when the females leave the table or return and damn those chair-booths. Neither I nor you should let any amount of modern restaurant philosophy ever encroach upon good manners. That’s what booze is for.

Rustic House

An easy way for a server to inflict shrinkage upon an otherwise robust gratuity is to make the table wait for the first drink and/or the check.  Even those good about the former can have an uncanny tendency to vanish just before the last bite until well after the table has been cleared. Despite these infractions, Rustic House was a highly memorable meal.

We seldom venture north of North or west of Western. There is rarely any need. Upon the first sighting of a backward ballcap my natural human flight or fight response sometimes kicks into both gears. But this evening, at Rustic House, there were no ball caps, front or back. No pre-theater peacocking. Just some honestly outstanding food for a bargain of a price.

We have a semi-monthly dinner with some true fans of the fermented grape. Such fans they are that drinking acceptable quality in the required quantity would quickly push any dinner bill past a private-school tuition. Thus, they roll their own. At RH, the $20 (per BOTTLE!) corkage fee is a little steep. I recall that even Spiaggia charged only a flat fee. I recall this because the waitress there told me that folks eating rich but drinking poor sometimes order the “Coor-kawjé.” I don’t disagree that a fee should be charged. But there is just something scalding about it costing you a Jackson per bottle considering they don’t even pour the wine most of the time (or change glasses unless you change colors). This, along with the delay before the first drink and after the last bite are already on the list of tiny little knit-picking. And just a couple others before I can go on about the wonder of the food. The dining room was PACKED. I am delighted that people are eating out again since the last few years has been a wasteland for new restaurants. But in the back dining room of RH, the tables are packed so tightly that the most two-dimensional of people would not fit comfortably and any encroachment upon the aisle will guarantee a bump (or 20) from speedy bussers. I am not the most jumbo of Chicagoans but I still spent dinner seated with the back of my chair sideways – perpendicular to the table – because there was no way to breathe or move without chair-grinding the nice older lady behind me. She noticed and tried to move her table over without causing the same issue for her party. If she noticed, I wonder why our server didn’t. But our server was thoroughly overwhelmed. I guess they don’t pack it in like this consistently. Finally in the column of infraction: parking. Our dinner reservation was at 7:30. We arrived at 7:15 and left shortly before 10PM. Check is time-stamped 9:49PM. RH has a policy, supposedly printed on the valet sign, that parking costs $12 for 3 hours and 16 thereafter. We were charged the $16. First of all: this is abusive. Gibson’s doesn’t charge so much for so little and we park there all day. Secondly: the valet sign was long gone by the time we left the restaurant. And finally: we did NOT spend 25 minutes gathering our things after the bill. It shines bad light upon a business when a supporting service engages in wholesale theft on top of already overcharging. You expect this at a strip club as they try to soak you for $10 in the “mandatory coat check” but not after 3-star dining. I called Brianne Carden (GM) and informed her of my displeasure. This was done via the vanishing vocal cord – not via email. She said she’d look into it and follow up. Please don’t be shocked when I tell you that she has NOT followed up and if she is looking into anything she’s doing so clandestinely. But, managerial delinquency aside, on to the food!

I have dined at most of Jason Paskewitz’s restaurants since his bold emergence on our scene. His prior efforts have been consistent. They all had decent management, fair service and great food. From this, Rustic house is only a slight improvement if one averages and reduces the scores down to standardized. But we shouldn’t do that. This is why you’re reading the second page of lengthy rant instead of looking briefly for a star rating. Having made it this far, you have the interest and attention span to want to know what’s good, what’s not and what was absolutely worth the trip. The food is always good or great at a Paskewitz location. It’s always his business partners (with emphasis on the business component) who need polish. This was no exception. The food at Rustic House was better than any other place Mr. Paskewitz has cooked.

Rustic House is basically rotisserie house +. Every day (except for Monday since they’re closed) Rustic House features a roto-special. We’re talking pork chops, veal, lamb, duck and prime rib. The chicken is on daily. Having gone on Thursday, the day’s rotisserie was baby suckling pig. There is something about pork prepared this way that never ceases to amaze me. It’s like when Goldman Sachs is ready to release earnings and disclose bonuses and you know they’re going to be big numbers and you think you’re not going to be shocked but you always are. That is always, always how I feel about pork done right. Every bite is better than the last and even though I agreed to share with my friends I just can’t bear to part equitably with my porcine treasure in exchange for a helping of pasta. Pasta? Please. How much pasta can you give me to make up for a mere morsel of that crispy skin and tender flesh?

The pork was the best feature of the evening and, amazingly, the cheapest. For $22 I expected a finger but got a big old fist. People expect to pay more for this kind of treat and it’s refreshing when we don’t. The lamb T-bone was also shockingly well-priced at $28, the salmon filet at $26, and the only item scratching up the thirties was the swordfish at $32. Now I neither wish to foment religious war, nor insult anyone’s palate. I’m glad swordfish exists, appears on menus regularly and is as substantial as a steak for all the pescatarians. But I will only order swordfish if there is nothing else to eat. Like Dyson Vacuums, male jewelry and BMWs – I have nothing against any of these things, nor the people buying them. But they are not for me. Neither is swordfish. But, in its defense, the male half of our double date said the swordfish was the best he’s ever had. Although I cannot tune my palate to this frequency and receive these signals, this guy is an authority on gluttony and you should listen to what he says. If you like swordfish that is. And wear a pinky ring. In your M3 convertible.

In the last 5 years, entrée prices have seen very large deflation. Like the airlines and the 10,000 computer parts merchants on the early Web. People are drawn to entrée prices (the fare, the hard drive) and not until they get to checkout would they see the scam. Airline fees and taxes and other shameless crap that would double the price as advertised. It was the same with online shopping before Amazon became a giant with little tiny stores selling 20 dollar microphones and charging $85 dollars for shipping and HANDLING. I don’t know what kind of “handling” would warrant such terrific gouging but don’t think it can happen through underwear, to say nothing of a monitor. Rustic House and others have a slightly different approach to the same scam. Sure your baby suckling piggy is $22 but a tablespoon of almonds is $5 and 2 jumbo garlic shrimp (although excellent and enough to repel the Kosher vampires) cost $10 and a pot pie (also excellent; we ordered for the table) was a gouge-inducing $19. Don’t forget the $20 corkage (per BOTTLE!) and the $13 martini and before you know it Mr. Businesschef, you’ve made up the money you’ve lost on meats. We also ordered the grilled octopus for $13 which was actually really good and comparatively inexpensive. It was almost par with Parthenon. Those Greeks…I just don’t know how they do it. Their Octopi are stellar.

For dessert we ordered Crème Brulee but I would have rather ordered another Martini. As you know, I prefer my sugars fermented and distilled. So – in conclusion, we had a lovely meal for about $90/pp (remember that we brought our wine). Despite the neutron star density of people, the overwhelmed service, the price gouging of the appetizers, corkage and the little “bonus” the valet decided to give himself, we had a great time and think that you will too. Go on Thursday. Get the baby pig. You’ll thank me.

Au Cheval

When Phil Vettel reviewed RPM he coined the term “Nitropub” to describe the recent trend of selling high-priced appetizers at bars. “Nitro” instead of the conventional “gastro” because he thought it more appropriate for the energy they ooze. Perhaps. They can overload my ears, underload my eyes, and have a Bloody Mary sommelier. They are almost always mediocre. But Au Cheval is slightly better.

I blame Paul Kahan for many sins that I first observed at his establishments. Blackbird for dinner plate microscopy. Avec and later Publican for communal seating. Publican and Big Star for the now endemic: “we bring it out as it’s ready” = inability/unwillingness to manage flow and have one diner either awkwardly sitting with a plate for 10 minutes having it get cold or sitting for 10 minutes at the end of the meal while the other party finishes. Either way, dear management, someone will be sitting awkwardly at one of these two points in the meal so why not just spare us said awkwardness and let the dish that was flamed first sit under the heat lamps? We honestly won’t mind. This policy has infected everyone so thoroughly that Au Cheval (or RPM, and a great number of recent places) doesn’t even bother telling you that stuff will be lobbed onto the table in whatever order they goddam please. I have to stress loudly, past the point of politeness, that WE (not I) will be STARTING with the soup. Bring two spoons. I shouldn’t have to say this. But almost without fail, the plate will arrive with a single spoon leaving me to eat with the glorified coffee stirrer. To their credit, Au Cheval had spoons in their utensil wrap saving me this particular sound-off. And they heard me on the “starting with” which is a rare treat in the ranks of Nitropubs. Hearing anything is a treat I suppose but anyway, I don’t care what Anthony Bourdain says. I love my serving of hot liquid almost as much as my alcoholic one. I want it and I want it first.

Au Cheval is pretty good. It suffers the typical missteps of youth even though Brendan Sodikoff is neither a kid nor inexperienced. He has Gilt, Maude’s and the Doughnut Vault on his resume. With such a thickening portfolio, it would be wise to learn from the mistakes of others as well as their successes. Dinner was good. Not great. The best part of the experience was the Matzah ball soup. Think more e.Leaven’s delicate broth than Manny’s ocean of salted dough. I ordered the 2 pound pork porterhouse on a thick and lovely bone. Why? Because, what did you expect? Restraint? Please. Anyway, when such options do exist, cost 2x more than anything else on the menu ($39), and especially when they are beef or pork or something else not seasonal or perishable, the person ordering damn well expects it to be of excellent quantity, quality and avail itself of the finest preparation. The person who cooked this “porkterhouse” was definitely new to task having perhaps cooked only steaks before. Now, I will be the first to tell you that I prefer pork undercooked. Ditka’s. Hugo’s. Even D. Kelly do (or did) this smashingly. Mind you, the waitress didn’t even ask about the temperature. I presume, because they know better. I also guarantee you that most normal people would have sent this back so fast that a Higgs could have been observed en route. It was absolutely raw in many places, not just by the bone. This despite having been “butterflied” as is common practice when one orders a rock of overcooked carbon for a filet. Again, I love my pork medium-rare. It’s a little creepy but still good when rare but let’s agree to file the black-and-blue preps back in the beef column. Yeah, I ate it anyway. But you probably won’t and what you send back will come back inedible as is always the case when heat is removed and added twice. And, pork of this heft can use a few more seconds at 1200 degrees to help break down the tough gristle and fat that is otherwise uncuttable, unchewable and thus inedible. My two pounds of flesh was nothing of the sort so don’t be very impressed. But there was a sprinkling of Foie Gras bits about the plate so we called it even. They were excellent.

The female had the salmon which was good and well-priced. $18 for a reasonable cut with ample areas of both crispy/burnt and thick, raw. I prefer my salmon with this duality of extremes without having most of the fish fall into the middle class of slightly overdone. This requires a special cut (looks like the graph of a logarithm with a connecting line to x) and a superhot heat source. The fries with egg were very good but fell short of the overwhelming quality and quantity common to most other places charging $9 for the plate. The Bloody Maries that we drank as our Amuse course were truly excellent. I like my mix a little thicker than Branch 27 but thinner than Spoke. But the rim-job here was sensational: thick, cracked black pepper and sea salt. Yum. Well worth the 10 bucks. The martinis however? Unless you give a Gibson’s sized glass, $12 does not belong in Chicago, unless it’s Accounting 101. And $14 for a glass of a $26 bottle of River’s Edge??? That’s retail BTW; restaurants get it cheaper. This is abuse of a high order and you can rest assured that somewhere someone did a breakeven analysis and decided to pad this, not that. I suggest you order the signature drinks. They are worth it.

By the time we got to the gelato I was pretty full and I guess there can indeed be no room left for ice cream if one just got done struggling with a monster porketerhouse, fries, soup, 4 drinks and all the other crap I had that day. The scoops were big and very good. At $6/3 scoops, I’m not overwhelmingly sorry that I didn’t save room for them.

Anyway, if you’re loving the “nitropub” concept you will probably think all of the above to be some bitchy musings. But if you still go out to DINNER and order entrees, you like your food to arrive at the same time as your date’s and you could use a few more lumens in the dining room to properly read the menu then you might be closer to that label than you think.


History is a nightmare from which NoMI has awoken. When hotel restaurants are good, they are very, very good. And when bad, they stink like filet-O-gangrene. A withered limb of a hospitable organism, hanging there forever. Atrophy is, I guess, better than amputee. The rare wanderings-in of guests spike eerie staff motion like the salted twitches of severed frog legs. Few restaurants step back from this lonely, cold abyss. NoMI has – magma coom loud – or something like that.

NoMI opened in 2000 to tremendous fanfare. My own included. The views, the food, the service were all completely stellar. There was no shortage of pretty young things haunting the trendy halls and patios. I was, myself, a lot younger, not much prettier but a whole lot better dressed. Learning from the school of Tru, which opened in 1999, NoMI had a snob factor of zero while engaging with the diners as much or as little as they wanted. The prices, although high, were on par with those of other hotel restaurants. Life was, for a while, sweet. Until the inevitable: artist meets accountant. 2000 predated (slightly) the epoch of the Cheflebrity. And, right or wrong, hotel restaurants were always relatively immune to raving prima donnas. The revenue contribution of the kitchen is typically a rounding error on a giant hotel’s books and since the accountants were always left in charge, the mission of turning a dollar into $1.02 trumped any attempts at the high-end staffing and selective waste whose absence quickly knock a 3-star dinner down to zero. With NoMI it began with sushi.

What the Sam Hill did they know of sushi? Not a damn thing except for how to charge for it. $15 micro-rolls back in 2000? The wannabe economists saw the kick-off of the sushi craze and ordered the kitchen to comply. Except they didn’t actually commit to BEING a sushi restaurant. Or even a Sushi bar like Blue Door at the Delano. After the first or second disappointment no one ever orders sushi again. Sushi is too expensive for a dice-roll, get it? Hahaha! If there ever were a sushi chef, he likely died of boredom. The “apprentices,” whose claim to sushi chefdom was bussing in the kitchen, were all that would remain to drench rice with spicy mayonnaise. Yet, there, on the menu, it’d remain – for a decade – as testament to stubbornness and inability to admit mistakes. NoMI still serves sushi but now, the price is commensurate with quantity and quality. On every level. 

Dinner was outstanding. They sure made the occasion special. After all, I am now of middle-age according to the US Census’ demographic grouping. This entitles me to a little pampering. The female probably requested, and received, the best table in the house. It was a great compromise between viewings of the diners and the avenue below. The waiter was utterly professional and engaging in a perfect balance. There when we need him, gone when we don’t. He didn’t get my joke (or maybe chose not to) about my preferred temperature for pork being medium-rare because: “I’ve never known anyone who came down with a case of trigonometry.” “It’s trichinosis” he corrected me. “Thank you” I said. “I’ve had problems remembering things since going on a roundworm diet.” But anyway, if you were the waiter, you would probably not want to engage with this level of humor either so I don’t blame him. 

The food? The food was of the highest caliber. The only thing not quite worth the price-tag was the ocean platter which contained a half-dozen oysters, several medium stone crab claws, a lobster tail, a lobster claw and assorted Mollusca, including some of the best jumbo shrimp since Hugo’s. All good, none great, except the shrimp. So, if this $75 “appetizer” is going to be the mid-range scrapple, price it at $40 and see people beam with joy. Look to Barton G in South Beach who charges the same for much more. But excepting this one thing, the meal was astonishingly cheap for food we never imagined possible from a kitchen with its burners set so low for so long. NO LONGER! Not a single fish over $30! A true medium-rare pork chop! (Porterhouse they say – more like Pork-ter-house.) A filet cheaper than any you will find on Rush Street and possibly equally as good. Although this verdict will have to wait until the next time. And, at these prices, a next time there shall be. You should look for us. We’re easy to spot. We’re the white, middle-aged couple rockin' the new moist Acuvue contact lenses. Can't miss us.


Patrick Hatton
General Manager
James Hotel Chicago
55 East Ontario
Chicago IL 60611

Dear Mr. Hatton,

I am normally quite fond of hotel restaurants because the professionalism and training on the hospitality side cannot help but percolate to the foodservice side. Hospitality is so investment-heavy and commoditized that making money requires professional management by people with resumes like yours. In the starkest contrast, many restaurants are case studies in inefficient, trial/error management that can leave one wondering how they open in the first place. Having dined at Primehouse for the last time this afternoon, I am left wondering why the professionalism of your hotel has failed to make even the slightest impact on the shameful attitude of Primehouse.

There are two main attitudes in the service business: those that start with YES and those that start with NO. For the latter, look to LA laziness, or, if in Chicago, any place practicing the arts of Billy Dec. Such places act like nightclubs where the burden of getting in or “getting a yes” is on the customer. The reflex answer to all requests is a hearty “no” and having even the smallest one fulfilled is a battle not worth fighting. For YES restaurants, look to Gibson’s group where staff will peel potatoes in front of you if you want the skin in your martini (don’t ask) and substitute anything for anything if they have it in the kitchen. (If they don’t, they’ll get it for next time – just come back!) And we do all the time.

May I offer an approximate transcript that began this afternoon’s Primehouse “experience?”

Hostess: Do you have reservations?

Me: Yes. Under Aloyts.

H: Very good. You are the first to arrive. [I know since the restaurant has 1 party sitting and it’s not my friend.] You can sit here [across from the host-stand] or grab a drink at the bar.

M: I’d rather just sit down.

H: The restaurant isn’t open. It opens in about 10 minutes. [it’s 10:55; I have an 11:00 reservation]

M: What is that table doing?

H: They are having breakfast. [at this point I’m trying not to laugh but no one else sees the absurdity of the ongoing exchange. There are 2 hostesses and 1 server buzzing around the stand.]

M: OK, I see. They’re having breakfast in a closed restaurant. Do you think it’s ok for me to sit down like they are?

H: The lunch service hasn’t started yet.

M: I promise not to order anything until the appointed time. Cross my heart and hope to die. Can I sit down?

H: We don’t know where to seat you.

M: I think I can find an open table.

I think you get the point. I actually asked if they were playing intrigue or politics or just plain playing around but I could not tell through the poker faces common to disdainful hosts if any of this ridiculousness was bubbling through to brain matter or if I was still dealing with the spinal reflex NO. Stimulus-response. Stimulus-NO.

I fully understand the principle of seating complete parties. But giving grief in an empty restaurant for an 11AM lunch? That’s the nightclub thinking. Not the restaurant. How is it possible for these people to interact with your hotel staff on a daily basis and not pick up at least some good service habits? Is the cult of celebrity-chef so strong and the wall between the factions so high that they can actually exist in the same spatial confines in Chicago and behave like they’re working the door at the Mondrian on Sunset? If so Mr. Hatton, then these people are a plague upon your image. A wart upon your nose. The hotel is the CPU but the restaurant is the Operating System. Most interactions are with it.


Next Restaurant is like organized religion. Christian in the sense that you surrender to a higher power. Jewish in that you pay before you go to temple. And like they all, you don’t get to use free will. You go to watch the show – not steer production. But what a marvel the show is.

There is something inherently inspiring about watching true mastery of a craft. Like we discussed before, all chefs are, in their own way, inspired. Creativity is not possible without some sort of inspiration. But to be “inspiring,” to make someone go home wondering “how’d they do that” is a completely different form of excellence. It’s the difference between walking out of a movie and liking it and walking out of a movie wanting to make them yourself. And although lots of people want to work in movies because they’re familiar only with its red carpet and its romance, few doubt that slaving away in kitchens is really quite excruciating. But in as much as I know that people walked out of Jurassic Park and started filming stop-motion with their Super 8, I just plain know that people will go home after their meals at Next and try to “whip something up” themselves.

The menu was, and for a little while will be, Childhood. All the staples of our youthful diets are addressed. The tastes, the smells, the antique lunchboxes. All, of course, done with a little more attention than our mothers who sometimes would forget to remove the wrapper from the slice of American cheese. Or maybe mine just liked pranking me. Anyway, a little orb of PB filled with J kicked off the amuse course and everything that followed truly did remind us of our youth. The Mac and Cheese that everyone now serves – better than anyone now serving it. The chicken noodle and veggie soups. The sweet potato pie. But to go into detail about each is, in my opinion, counterproductive. Of course it’s great. Of course it’s tasty. And, of course it’s clever in a way that few restaurants can ever be – not just due to superior creativity but due to much superior economics. So instead of filling the next paragraph with glowing adjectives, we’d let the pictures do some talking, not spend a whole lot of time on a menu that you probably won’t get to try, and instead focus on the Aviary/Next experience, which, could use quite a bit of polish.

It’s not completely fair to lump Aviary into Next. But it is the de facto Hotel Lobby. The doctor’s waiting room. The curb appeal. They suggest you arrive early and have a drink before having dinner which we gladly did. The nightclub-style entrance was guarded by a nightclub-style bouncer. “We have dinner in 1 hour. Can we go in and have a drink?” This is where we usually say thank you for them holding the door open. But no. An exhaustive inquisition followed – our reservation, time, spellings of names. It was freezing outside. Then, once all the INFO was collected we were asked to stand “here” which is bouncer code for out of the damn way. Luckily there were heat lamps a short distance away. Over 5 minutes go by and the female is shivering and I have 0 patience for waiting in non-lines. “If it’s not happening, tell us and we’ll go somewhere else. Or…let us in. It’s cold and we’re not waiting outside.” And with this, we were “permitted” to wait in the foyer to be seated at a shockingly available seating area. Fail. This is not how one behaves with patrons in Next’s waiting room. One also does not make the patrons ask 3 times for water or make them late to dinner! They had an hour to serve us 3 drinks ($45 prix-fix and EXCELLENT). But I couldn’t even finish my last because we were already 10 min past our reservation. For the number of times we were asked about our reservation NEXT door (get it?) we would have expected them to actually care about the answer. And, of course, you cannot finish a drink from one in the other – even if you’ve closed out. But anyway – enough about the waiting room. To their (small) credit, we didn’t have reservations but it’s not like they were bursting with drinkers.

Next Restaurant is overall a great experience. But for the price, their service sure could use a little polish. Tru demystified 4-star dining with their novel realization that people want to eat well and be festive too. They didn’t want their wait staff acting as though they were at a wake. Theatrics aside, you will get from Tru’s staff exactly what you put in. You want to sit there all morose like your grandma just died? Ok. They’ll leave you alone. But if you want to chat and be merry, they are right there with you. But Next takes the informality to a new low and I’m not sure I like it. The chaos of the dining room is OK when you eat at the bar in Hugo’s but not when you prepay almost $500 for a 4-star meal. I don’t know. I bet I am in the minority since the female didn’t seem to mind.

But we must end on a highly positive note: the wine pairings. Not only were they perfectly complimentary but also unbelievably plentiful. Too much so. They left the bottles on the table! This is dangerous. Who does that with wine? This makes the “pairing” theoretically limited only by courses but can allow for several healthy glasses of any given wine if you drink fast during a course. Drink fast is what we do. This was the best value of the night. Definitely get the wine pairings and skip the 7-flight course at Aviary unless you want to be rolled out.

Dinner at an Achatz restaurant is more “experience” than feeding. It’s art, science and execution all in healthy measures. Their business model makes perfect sense considering the limited supply and onslaught of demand. It works for them. It probably won’t work for many. That’s OK. Just like Apple, BMW and The Soup Nazi – you can buy their stuff if you follow their rules. They know what you want better than you do. You want to give input on the menu? Make decisions? Customize? Change? NO NEXT FOR YOU! NEXT!


Pump Room

I propose extending the science of Epidemiology to apply to restaurants. We could study why good (or bad) experiences occur more frequently in certain areas than in others. We could predict the schizophrenia of Sundas. A rash of Rias. And even the wonderful rebirth of Public House’s Pump Room.

The art of solving nasty problems in one discipline with elegant solutions from another is nothing new. The Black-Scholes option pricing formula was the product of bringing Fischer Black’s scientific expertise to bear on economic problems. Myron Scholes was a finance prof at Stanford and Robert Merton was an economist at Harvard. In the early 70s, options were brand-new and traders were working off of hunches. This made prices highly, highly volatile – almost random. It is not likely that either professor could have distilled the theory and assumptions into the options pricing formula without Black, who, being a physicist, saw almost immediately that what seemed random from above could be described formulaically, a close analogue to Brownian motion. Enter the stochastic differential equations and we have ourselves a whole new arsenal of financial weapons designed to make rich richer and you poorer. But seriously, they lose me at “equation” so if you care, go read further. And if you don’t give a flying flock about interpretations, then just skip to the last paragraph.

Every time I walk into an eatery, I may as well be going for a random walk. This bothers me immensely. I rely on reviews of trusted gluttons. Personal knowledge of the staff. Perhaps the chef, or owners or the managers. None of the aforementioned is worth a bowl of gruel. Sometimes you get exceptional. Sometimes you trip on a dreadful fat tail. But most of the time you end up somewhere in the middle. A pretty standard distribution of experience. But…why can’t we look past our selfish one-off experiences and treat dining as a group affliction with the same series of causations as every other thing in life?

Can we notice that at restaurants attached to a hotel, the skill of professional management on the hotel side tends to percolate down to the dining room? This is because the hotel business is so investment-heavy and commoditized that making money depends on squeezing out inefficiencies to a degree that requires professional education on the subject. Few can afford to learn on the job. Most restaurants, however, are case studies in inefficient operation and for every Gibson’s that can set a wristwatch with consistency there are 1000 Rias that think that the romance of making tonic at the bar will survive the onslaught of a single Thursday night. Anyone who has experienced a Thursday night on Rush street can tell you otherwise and people would rather have their drink than wait ten minutes for something marginally better. And besides, on the 16th round, nobody can tell anything about the vodka, much less the tonic.

Next, there’s the neighborhood. Split 20 meals between the Gold Coast and Hipsterville, and 19 will be better experiences in the former. Why? Staffing. Stereotypes aside, when I am served by a member of the Great Unshowered, more often than not the job is just transitional while he/she finds a less demeaning way to plug the $80k dollar art degree. Transience always equals caring less. Turn-over with such staff is well over 50% and since the shoddy service rarely earns good tips, the bus staff also quits and soon the downward spiral is complete. Since quality bus service is the key differentiator between a good experience and excellent, any restaurant where bussers can’t make a decent living goes to service hell much faster. By contrast, look at some of the city’s greatest service restaurants. I’ve known some staff at Gibson’s Group for the better part of a decade - it’s their job, they accept it and strive to excel at it. The bussers at Vivo and even some other (earlier) KDK Restaurants had worked there since the kitchens opened and earned a very healthy living which was often complimented by a C-note from idiots like me for truly exceptional performance. FYI, I knew the bus staff at Vivo very well and they all had houses and properties for rent – which they likely rented to the armies of the third tactical division of the Royal Bucktown Buffoonery.

So…needless to say our Pump Room experience was stellar. The redesign was great and the food itself was great (not excellent). Service, however, was truly excellent and made up for the rare misstep. I must admit that as a long-time Vong fanatic, I really expected my taste buds to jump onto the plate as they did with staples like the veggie-curry pizza, the spicy pad thai, and the passion fruit soufflé. They did, but not at the level I remember. Notable exception was the pork chop which was served with a green curry salsa that would have made my eyes bug out if not for the quick availability of alcohol to wash away my tongue. To their credit, I was warned. The tomato bisque soup tasted like they used skim milk and the tuna tartare was nowhere in the league of Le Colonial. Having an uncomfortable amount of gristle, it should cost less than its $14 since all it seems to be is a tuna waste receptacle. BUT!!! A Maker’s Mark (neat) only costs $10 which is rare this side of Damen – especially at a Hotel. Pump Room has plenty of affordable wine and lots of clever drinks. On a prior barhop, I ordered a martini made with tobacco juice that the staff prepares themselves. Very very good. This is the kind of thing that deserves a premium price – not pouring Maker’s in a glass. Anyway, I readily admit that my critiques of the experience are more driven by past knowledge of Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s true capacity to please. Any other chef would not be held this much accountable for not giving me an oral orgasm with every mouthful. Whoa, sorry, that sounded really bad.

Chicago Cut

Chicago continues to have as big an appetite for steakhouses as it does for steak itself. Will Chicago Cut make it to the repeat list? Maybe. But not likely. As we’ve covered in the past, the restaurant industry is in the business of food service. Even greasy spoons get the former. It’s the latter that gives everyone more grief. And in most cases, service issues are the direct result of unprofessional management.

Management is a skill. It’s not acquired by being a great server. Or a short-skirt hottie. Or even a great outside salesperson. It is acquired by recognizing, learning from and trying to emulate excellence. And restaurant management has professionals just like any other field. It requires learning and adapting to one’s bosses AND learning and adapting to one’s staff. How many cube dwellers do you know who have been promoted well beyond their competence? Quite a few I imagine. They are the ones who mistake fear for respect and manage through aggression rather than diplomacy. And why should restaurant America be any different from the corporate? Management is recruited from the ranks of server to show that promotion happens from within. To preserve the “bond” between the staffers as if the promotion itself didn’t already sever any ties that may have formed. Unfortunately, it was all too obvious this evening that the management of Chicago Cut was recently promoted into a role for which it was grossly unprepared. But before the bad, the good.

The food, as expected, was terrific. The drinks were healthy but just a bit too pricy and the steaks were just the way we like them. Translation: the way we order them the FIRST time out of the kitchen. I’ve been surprised with how many steakhouses really don’t believe you when you order a steak rare. Anyway, French Onion soup was, at $8, the evening’s greatest value and within a standard deviation of Capital Grille’s. The bone-in filet (cooked rare) did have a fair amount of gristle but enough marbling to balance out the tough parts. And given that the gristle was mostly at the bone, I mostly forgave them. At that price (US$55), mostly.

The prime rib, although cooked to my friend’s desired temperature of medium, looked and smelled delicious. I did not try his steak nor did he try mine because we both consider our respective temperatures misguided. I believe medium to be grossly overcooked and he believes that humans discovered fire for a reason and can barely stand the sight of the bloodbath sloshing on my plate. Anyway, we agree to disagree and keep our mutual mockery at friendly levels but I do try to slurp loudly every dozen bites or so just to remind him of the bloody past from which humanity evolved. Or at least that’s what I gather after watching Quest for Fire. Those guys had it good! They could have used a shower and perhaps a forehead but oh the raw meat that they’d devour! How I wished this evening for prime rib! So much so that I ordered one. My order was not to be.

Prime rib is my favorite cut of meat. I can’t describe the feeling. Maybe if I did better on my SATs I’d have the vocabulary. Especially when rare and dripping in congealing, living juices it is one of humanity’s greatest gifts to itself. When I think of Intelligent Design, I don’t think of ghosts in heaven or planets or galactica like Michael Behe. I think of the domesticated cow. How about that for intelligent? We took a fierce, muscular killing beast and converted it into prime rib, filet mignon, rib eye and hot dogs. What was once 3 tons of murder with 4 legs and 2 horns became bovine passivity. The last auroch to walk the earth circa 1627 would have killed all of Naperville before it would have allowed itself to be milked to say nothing of slaughtered in a cubicle. Humans didn’t beat the fight out of it. They bred it out. Of course, they didn’t know what the devil they were doing when they started inadvertently sexually selecting for passivity around 8000 years ago but hey, we had trial and error on our side. That pretty much sums up most of human endeavor: throw up enough ideas and hope a few stick. Works pretty well when the species’ lifespan is relatively short and they don’t mind copulating on a schedule or with an audience.

As for the problem: there was but one. In a professionally managed restaurant, the staff advises you pre-facto of shortages or outages. BEFORE the decision is made. This requires frequent data interchange and is the foremost task of management. At restaurants managed by inexperience, they don’t seem to catch this point or think it too important. It is. And so, the minutes turned to tens as we waited for our delectable prime rib. Only the rib never came. Instead, the manager arrived to tell me that they had no more rare prime rib. A crime unto itself, and all they had was medium. My misguided friend likes his steak that way so the choice of which of us was having it was clear. The price of the rib: $44. The price of my steak: $55. Guess which price I was charged? This is terrible. When the kitchen runs out of anything – mid-shelf vodka, a desired cut of beef, etc., and the patron must make another selection, the proper charge is the smaller amount of the two. I’m not talking about being out of Veuve and letting someone order Cristal for the lesser price. I mean $11 after making me wait, serving me rejection and then spanking me for the larger sum is just unacceptable. And it’s not like they wouldn’t do it. It just never crossed anyone’s mind. Inexperience is a terrible prison. I hope they soon break out. But for now, I am telling this with a sigh, a month ages and ages hence, that two steaks diverged on a grill and I, ate the one less cook-ed by and that made all the diff-e-rence.


Dear Roy’s Management: in a world where kitchens think their job is to turn a dollar into two by contracting rather than exceeding, where customers are mere commodities – to be consumed and thrown away, you stand in the starkest contrast as a beacon of true excellence.

Few businesses can benefit from economies of scale more than restaurants. The marginal increase in cost for every extra steak you sizzle or tuna you sear is negligible compared to the cost of cooking up the first one. Lots of restaurants shop for scale but in their quest to squeeze the penny, they end up using far more scrapple than they should. Filet Mignon with gristle. Tuna with tendons. This is unacceptable past the price point of an Applebee’s but how many times have we all been seared this way ourselves? At Roy’s, they ONLY use the good stuff and throw the rest away. They can afford it. They train and retain the best staff and buy/build the best software. They even have a CRM component!!! (Customer Relationship Management for you non-nerds; more on that later.) I consider the fact shameful that in the near-decade it’s been open, I have only eaten at Roy’s Chicago 19 times. Barely twice a year and that includes the 4 times that I ate there in 2002 when it was brand new. Looking back, this bothers me.

How much can I praise Roy’s service? Let me count the ways. In late 2002, the server overheard the female proclaiming that her favorite food was French Fries. In her misguided youth, she didn’t even eat fish. So there wasn’t much for her to have at a Hawaiian Fusion restaurant. Or was there? The server interrupted and offered her the following: “We don’t really have fries on the menu Miss,” he apologetically said. “But we do have potatoes and a deep fryer and we could probably swing some fries for you pretty quickly.” We were absolutely stunned. This in the first week of their opening! Compare that to the places that won’t even separate the white from yolk. She had the fries and they were really, really good.

Flash forward 3,169 days, to Saturday, August 27th, 2011. The last time we had tried to have dinner was in mid-June. They made us wait too long and we left. Yeah, yeah, it was only like 20 minutes – I know I have an unreasonably short fuse in this regard and have no patience for 20 minutes of “they’re paying their bill.” It’s called management! Of employees and more importantly: of customers! Buy them a round of drinks – AT THE BAR. See how quickly they will scurry. Anyway, we’re never rude about this – we just give them a 5-minute warning and leave exactly 5 minutes later. In most cases, the cheerleader (hostess) will force a smile and maybe even an “I’m sorry.” And the host at Roy’s did actually seem sorry. But he also made a note of the incident. A note that would come back to greet us 2 months hence.

Dinner was predictable. In its excellence. The canoe for two appetizer is good enough for two but I can easily eat the thing myself. The butterfish was everything I remember at the Sunset Tower and the tuna…oh the tuna. For fear of fomenting more religious war: Roy’s has, without question, the BEST tuna filet I have ever had. I’ve been there 19 times. Someone in the party has always had one. I’ve always tried a piece. It is the BEST! And it’s consistent. Red Light had a tuna appetizer that came close mainly due to sauce and seasoning but nothing close to the quality of the underlying fish-flesh. Even Naniwa occasionally serves us cuts that have been too close to the tail. I do not know how Roy’s does it or how much they throw away to make it work. I don’t even care if they have their own breeding farm in Port Lincoln, Australia. If someone ever asks me where to have the best tuna steak I will always tell them Roy’s.

As we were wrapping up and NOT ordering dessert because we had (as usual) overeaten, the manager stops by to ask how things had been. We think it boilerplate; same as the retail store employees telling you they have more sizes in the back. So we give our boilerplate response: “it was great.” But oh, no…the manager was armed with CRM! And we were not expecting it. He says to us: “I’m glad, because it seems like the last time you were here, it was not so great.” Huh? One doesn’t expect to be made to think on a Saturday night after a dinner. We honestly forgot about June. But Roy’s’ software didn’t. They had a note to tell them exactly what transpired and even though the host was likely history, the database remembered all. We had a bottle of wine subtracted from the bill and a personal note from a manager. Technology had enabled a big chain to behave like a small-town restaurant by keeping data, mining it effectively and putting it to use. I shop at Nordstrom instead of the boutique because they have a no-questions-asked, make-me-happy policy. So why do I turn up my nose at a restaurant for the crime of having more than one location? Roy’s is simply one of Chicago’s brightest stars and has been since pretty much day 1. And on this point, we need to draw a thicker underline and vote with our dollars for restaurants deserving it.

Book Bindery

Having written a dim prospectus on Seattle in the past, I find myself increasingly humbled by its progress. At least in dining terms. The Book Bindery excels in both service and in food. If you can’t make it to Toulouse Petite, go here.

How does one spot a Chicagoan walking through an airport? He’s the guy with jean shorts and a Bears jersey busting under an expansive belly. How does one spot the LA wannabe? He/she is the one wearing canvas shoes and sunglasses indoors. A Seattleite? The woman who shaves her head rather than her armpits. What’s my point? That all cities have a stereotype and crappy service in Seattle is a very honest one. Walk into a coffee shop with 2 baristas engaged in conversation and they will very likely finish the conversation until anyone asks to help you. Could be 5 minutes. Could be longer. And the people are so laid back that they accept it. Imagine the same behavior in a Chicago Loop coffee house. If the staff were not standing at attention the patron might get on the phone to the district manager. In New York there would be 10 types of screaming. But Seattle? The attitude that life’s too short to work in service still prevails. Which is why it’s a delicious pleasure to find another restaurant where staff doesn’t treat their customers as interruptions.

The Book Bindery was exceptional in every way and with every dish. And by the evening’s end we were treated yet again by a relative pittance of a bill. If not for the booze of which we partake freely, the bill would have come to $60 per person. The portions were decent but not obnoxious. The appetizers were actually appetizing in the sense that they didn’t overfill you but they could see a little price reduction. When one charges $12 for gazpacho, even though it’s REALLY good gazpacho, people will instead opt for the steak tartar ($14) which was a very generous portion for the price. However, while the gazpacho is probably pure profit, the steak is a thin-margin commodity. Dear Restaurateurs, make it easy for your diners to choose the bulk-rate and they will. It may not seem rational that you’d lose money by overpricing soup, of all things, but you can and probably will.

The entrees were just as lovely. The Halibut was sweet and buttery and the scallops might have tasted like the sea but they were escorted by some delicious sauce that whispered flavor rather than proclaim it. And the pork? Well, what can I say? It was excellent. It seems like everywhere we go these days, someone has an even more delicious pork dish. The truth is that it’s really hard to screw up pork. But you surely can by overcooking it. BB cooks their medium-RARE!!! Which is how it should be. For the love of all that’s kosher, when will the world follow suit? Everything is irradiated anyway people. And even if it weren’t, when did you last hear of a single case of trigonometry? Or is it trachea? I know it starts with a “T.”

Daily Catch, The

The Daily Catch in Boston’s North End is a case study in word-of-mouth. Absent the ravings of 2 respected fellow gluttons, a glimpse upon the menu, another upon the “dining room” and a final upon the “chef” would have kicked the flight response into full gear. And we would have missed Boston’s finest meal. You shouldn’t.

The “chef” wore a beat-to-hades Chicago Cubs hat – the hat a mere decade or so his junior, a disgusting grill-man outfit and a frown to end all emoticons (for the ASCII challenged: >:( ). The only item missing was an unfiltered, unashed Marlboro hanging from his lips. Oh, did I mention that he was Japanese? Not any one of the seven sons that the current owners spawned. Not Italian. Barely, it seems, even sentient life. And yet, this was the best pasta we have had in quite some time. Some of the best mussels. Great clams. Amazing calamari made better with the batter. And remarkable exhibits of macho Italian men strutting in their matching jumpsuits. Tell me, in the seed of Big Italy that spawned countless Little Italys – was there a peacock that mated with a housewife and produced a viable and fertile offspring satisfying the prerequisite for a whole new species? Did it then send it on a boat over to the new world? Because the old Italians strutting the streets of Rome, and even the ones selling suits in Burberry and Saks are not the same Italians masquerading as caricatures (of themselves) in countless Little Italys.

Although all of the pasta dishes had a Buca-level quantity of garlic, the quality of the pasta was like nothing else we’d had. We’re talking a pasta dish for $12 that would rival Chicago’s Pane Caldo and Spiaggia. Chicagoans do theirs with less of the asexual cloves. But for a lot more of your sexy dollahs. Indeed, you can eat your fill (perhaps even my fill) at Daily Catch and still have enough for some very special room service. Sexy indeed.

Daily Catch is known for calamari. This knowledge they deserve. I’m not sure what kind of oil they use to cook it but even Avocado oil, which smokes north of 500 degrees Fahrenheit, couldn’t produce a crisp so crispy while retaining a chew so chewy. Maybe they flash-freeze their stuff before they fry it – I don’t know – it tasted too fresh; whatever. Mine is not to guess how but rather say what. And this, The Daily Catch, is for sure one of Boston’s tastiest. Go there now. Or you see dis gauy? See dis gaauy? Heesa gonna come-a ovah dere and shove his jumpsuit up your outbox.

A Tavola

Humans have been wasting time with flap-flight for millennia. But there is nothing flappy that would ever fly a human to say nothing of a jumbo-jet. And, for about the same millennia, we’ve been trying to scale great Italian food outside of the household cooking it. We can’t. And we shouldn’t. Exhibit A: A Tavola.

I like the fact that none of you have ever heard about this place. Luckily, no one reads past the Facebook “preview” paragraph. A Tavola, which means “to the table” in Urdu (I think) has survived in an unassuming neighborhood since 1995. That’s like a whole person who can drive. Compare that to the countless fizzles of Hubbard Street that can’t even clear the language phase of adolescence. Eat there and you’ll know why. And then go eat at A Tavola.

It’s so rare to find inspiring Italian. Rarer still to find it in Chicago. Yes: inspiring. Lots of chefs are inspired. But so few send you marching home wondering “How’d they do that?” Chicagoans have big shoulders, big appetites and huge and growing waistlines. We want PAAAAAAsta. TONS of it. Lasagna squares bigger than a Mac Mini and raviolis stuffed thicker than the alderman’s “bonus” envelope. If that is indeed what you want then go to Maggiano’s or Buca’s. If your expense account permits, go to Gene & Georgetti’s and eat all the gristle-flavored cow you can. Or better yet: get bent. I too believe in eating until exhaustion but in doing so at proper venues. Like Portillo’s.

At A Tavola we ordered all of the specials and absolutely loved them all. The sliced mushrooms were outstanding. Most places deal with the fungus’ default dirt flavor through salt or sauce castration. Not here. Their shrooms were significantly smaller than the dinner plates passed off elsewhere as portabella. They needed no disguise to know how flavorful they were even though the sauce was a lovely complement. The gnocchi about which others rave was good. But not THAT good. Instead, try the Pasta Bolognese. Truly excellent. The meaty Bolognese stood out. It reminded me of Tocco’s in that uncanny way. I wonder if the Prime Minister stole the recipe from A Tavola. But as with other statesmen, Bruno is impervious to questions of his past. The world will never know.

The road not taken for the evening was the sliced leg of lamb which was a special. I hope it is again. But being a polite diner (this evening) not long I stood and looked down the menu as long as I could until they were ready to toss me in the undergrowth. I ordered Short Rib and having perhaps the better claim for it was probably grass-fed and wanted wear. ‘Twas a house specialty. I am telling this with a sigh, almost exactly one week hence. That two meals screamed to me and I, took the one more eaten by. Specialty= all the time; special=never before. And two letters make all the difference.

Food, wine, service – all excellent. Even the pre-wine martini was made my way. “We have Kettle One; is that OK?” Is that OK??? Huh. Chef Bocik, Madame Server: your restaurant is a treasure and you just said Shibboleth.


Beware of restaurants who “are” the chef. Nobu. Vong. Takashi. No apostrophe “s.” It’s not their restaurant but rather their embodiment. Rarely do these places live up to the grandeur of the self-opinion. This was no exception but at least it filled our bellies – with a healthy laugh-track.

Takashi haunts a small, 2-story home on the fringe of Whicker Spark, or Whucktown, or whatever the damn neighborhood is called. It’s all hipsterville to me. Into the narrow walls, the management has crammed a fair number of tables and still left room for jumbo-sized Chicagoans. Pretty cool. However, this cluster has created an echo chamber that seems unfit for the type of dining to which Takashi aspires. Think Hub 51’s noise condensed into 1000 square feet.

First the food. For my favorite price of US$69, a diner can enjoy a five-course meal and 1 dessert. Tonight it was: Carpaccio of Big Eye Tuna – EXCELLENT; Ceviche of Shrimp, Squid, Scallops and Octopus – OK; Skate Wing – OK; Pork Belly – Great; Duck over Foie Gras – Good. Wine pairings were an additional $36 and were very healthy pours. Borrowing a play from the book of Tru, the server noticed that the opening glass of champagne was drunk too quickly and brought another “while we wait.” That is service that pays dividends. Overall, the wine pairings average $6/glass. That’s a deal! The food – eh. I really really expected something more. Only a single “excellent” and a “great” seems low for a meal that cost $105 per head. Compare that to iNG – true excellence in every course for a relative pittance. And when I asked for a transcript of the courses, the menu came back autographed. Nice touch Chefs. Thanks for not sending out a headshot as well because then I would have cracked completely up. But it’s not that the evening was without amusement.

Remember the echo chamber? There was a table in the northeast corner of the restaurant which through accident of placement would have made the conversational volume deafening for a normal-sounding person. And the woman who was seated there this evening was anything but. The accident of placement, the hard surfaces, the pitched roof and whatever planetary mumbo-jumbo you believe in all conspired that evening. And when adding to the formula a woman who, common to persons of her size, adopts the philosophy of “life’s a stage,” you quickly get a critical mass in both amplitude and frequency. She was so loud it was funny – but not too funny. She would make what she believed to be a particularly amusing point, begin a low rumble of a cackle which would develop into a high-pitched roar and be punctuated with a triple-foot-stomp. It went: BEAT…BEAT…“JOKE”…Cackle->ROAR…STOMP…STOMP……STOMP. Over and over again. I’m sorry but nothing can be that funny that often. Jay Leno doesn’t have as many laughs in as little time and he’s the master of BEAT…BEAT…JOKE. There was not a single other table that wasn’t following her conversation. They had to. None other was possible. When the party left the other patrons broke out into an ovation to the great embarrassment of the wait staff. Especially considering that the party was a regular. Ouch. This means lot of other people get the treatment. Maybe next time it’ll be you.


I rank communal restaurant seating very high on the scale of annoyance. Higher than men who wear jewelry but lower than Bethenny Frankel. And yet iNG so overwhelmed me with its excellence that I would have sat cheek-to-massive-jowl with Ms. Frankel – while on a date with Mr. T..

iNG’s prices are unbelievably low. The most expensive item on the menu is the delicious shortrib at a no-brainer $24 and it’s HUGE! Think American steakhouse versus Euro-Bistro. For sure 5x the size any other item ever found on a “tasting” menu. I just don’t know how a normal eater can put down this along with 3-4 other dishes so consider yourself warned. Luckily, the gulf between “normal” and the portions I consume is fairly vast. Anyway, most other items hover around $10 but for $45, the party can sample a selection with the quite-gimmicky “tasting by the hour.” Why not just call it a four-course dinner and be done with it? Services are denominated in units of time. Goods are denominated in integers. Massage and lapdance – time. Bag of chips – integer. Dear Management: quit mucking with commonly accepted economic principles. Read other reviews. You’re only hurting yourself.

Now that the complaining is over, let us march onward to the food. The menu itself is folded into origami with a dropper full of miso broth impaled through its center the dropper tip plunged through a square of tofu. Delish. But we expected nothing less from the Chef of Moto and his magnetic flatware. Once the menu is unfolded, the diners can order one of 12 items grouped into four sections of matter's temperature transitions. But we decided on the tasting menu when the server enthusiastically offered to substitute all land-based flesh with the swimming kind on the woman’s portion. Not hard but you’d be surprised how much friction one can get.

First came a tomagoyaki omelet which is basically rolled egg over seaweed but for some reason the red-pepper infused fish eggs made the dish. Not as brutal as the wasabi-infused roe but still spicy enough to make an otherwise bland egg pop. Pun intended. I so do enjoy the popping of all the little fishy embryos with my tongue against my teeth. It makes me feel powerful – in an Idi Amin sort of way. After all, part of His Excellency’s lengthy title was “Lord of the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea” and each time I eat roe I can’t help but think of the genocide I am committing against the unborn swimmers. And isn’t mixing eggs across animal classes bestiality? Wow, Asian dinners can sure be sinful. Which brings us to the most interesting taste of the evening: konbu which was kale and shrooms in a kimchi broth with a poached egg that you’re supposed to “integrate” into the liquid. “Integrate” is the fancy way of saying: mix it in the broth but “Café Latte” means coffee with milk so get off it. I wonder how much trial versus error goes into dishes such as these? Whodathunk that mixing a poached egg into kimchi and broth would taste this good? Clearly Thomas Bowman did. There was an episode of House a few years back when the character began cooking and turned out to be astoundingly good – mainly due to scientific knowledge of human taste and molecular interactions with the tastebuds. Clearly Mr. Bowman is of the school along with Grant Achatz and a few others. Does anyone remember Eric Aubriot of his namesake in Lincoln Park circa 1998? He was the first I’ve tasted of “deconstructions” even though they weren't called that. Weren’t called anything back then –like a coffee with milk until someone wanted to charge more for it. Mr. Aubriot apprenticed with some heavyweights so I’m sure this goes WAY back but to where? And where is he these days?

In any case, back to iNG. The “Japanese barbeque” was the before-mentioned shortribs served with delicious purple yam mash and some very superfluous corn muffins. I know why they were there but cornbread needs to be much sweeter if being served with something this salty. But whadoiknow. I’m no molecular gastro-gnome. I don’t even believe in gnomes or elves or molecules. I do, however, have a cargo-ship’s worth of faith in dessert. And this one didn’t disappoint. We had the waffle which was actually a Boston crème doughnut shaped to look like a waffle and a drizzle of chocolate and banana puree. We wondered why they gave us both the same dessert since usually they let a party sample. Until we tasted it. They gave us two to prevent a certain fight over not sharing. We thank them.

I saw that previous reviews seem to rank iNG lower. I don’t know why. This was, without question, my favorite meal in a long time. Right up there with L2O and before that – the best in ages. It was as though all the flavor and complexity of Moto was made super-duper cheap. After eating as much as we did and as delicious as it was, getting a bill for about 80$/pp felt like stealing it. Remember that the bill included alcohol and we sure do enjoy our liquid course. So – communal tables and delayed seating be damned. This is the best meal for its price you will ever eat.

GT Fish and Oyster

I find it hard to associate with people who don’t eat oysters. And not the pan-fried, grill-seared, sauce-raped variety served in your Lincoln Park college bar. Gimme raw…unadulterated, seawater-dripping living mollusk that would kick me in the throat had it any feet. Alas, today was GT Fish and none of oysters.

We were not tardy to the party but our reservations (9:30 PM on Sat) still took north of 20 minutes beyond time appointed. It’s new, they’re packed – we expected worse. But then, to our major disappointment, we were seated at the very sort of communal table that we all despise. That would have made for displeasure of a high order as the table was several inches taller and about a foot wider than comfortable. Who does this? What possible reason is there to design a table to be not only communal but also uncomfortable? Dear restaurant management: communism of any stripe succeeds only in theory. We hate those damn tables! Stop buying them! And certainly stop using them to seat parties larger than a couple! No one looks forward to screaming over the restaurant’s highly elevated ambient for an hour+. I remarked as much. And get this! To the great surprise of all of us, the hostess offered to reseat us! No open-palm donation to the Colombia College School of Body Piercing necessary. She heard we were upset and took corrective action. All right! The night was looking better. There it would remain for the dinner’s balance but never past the line to greatness. Not even sure the oysters could have saved it.

There was nothing on the menu that fell short of good. Nor did anything fall near excellent. But the prices should reflect good and instead they definitely reflect excellent. The crab cake, the soft-shell crab, mahi tacos and shrimp bruschetta were scratching around close but still just couldn’t make it. Nor is there consensus about which was the best. I really enjoyed the soft-shell crab and mahi taco but I’ve had these elsewhere – better and for less. The black gnocchi was a bitter disappointment since this is an area a chef can shine for free. We are used to being spoiled by the gnocchi of Prosecco and Pane Caldo but this wasn’t even the same orbit. Nor was the Mac and Cheese, that eternal fancy-menu standby made popular by – well, I don’t actually know. We know tots came after Napoleon Dynamite. M/C was probably the result of a rock-star chef getting stoned and searching for munchies in empty cupboards.

I’ll be back to try the oysters with folk who understand this greatest gift of oceans’ giving. But even looking at these prices, I can’t see the fleshy, moist delicious creatures being too far an improvement upon Hugo’s’.

House of Blues Gospel Brunch

Each one of his books has killed him a little more, said Norman Mailer quotably. And each one of these experiences has killed me a little too. Not because I poured into them a limited life’s essence but because I eat and drink to immobility, sampling everything so you don’t have to.

They cooked up some truly truly great fried chicken. Some excellent red rice and beans. Waffles and omelets that left none to be desired and deserts – well, I wish I could have given them a thorough tasting. Perhaps if I had four chambers in my stomach I could have. But then again, the stomach chambers of my cow-gods don’t really accept the salivated product of esophagus in parallel so I’m not sure how this would be advantageous unless one simply assumes that they have bigger serial ports due to their overall bigger size. That kinda makes sense. Anyway, this is irrelevant. I was astounded with just how good buffet brunch was. So good that the most unimaginative and bland thing served was bacon. Wow. That was actually typed and not deleted. That fact carries more weight than the statement itself. My only advice would be to not fill up with the early plates of lunch.

Everyone does it. HOB is no exception. Every single AYCE buffet in the history of dining wants you to fill on cheap and not expensive. Pasta Salad = cheap. Omelets = expensive. Lox = cheap. Carving Station = Expensive. Why else do you think things appear in the order that they do? Do NOT fill up on pasta salad or the heap of bacon or any other damn thing in the communal pots. EXCEPT the fired chicken. This was not given the reverence it deserved. Every piece should have been served in a numbered case. Have you been to Table 52 on Monday night? Art has nothing on this fried chicken. Thick, crispy, delicious batter. Flesh: tender and not even dreamt of overcooked. It peels off the bone as though it were osso buco. And rides down your throat like, well, it depends, or this simile is stillborn. You owe it to yourself to try it. Just not if you’re in line ahead of me.

Of course, now we knew we were coming to an area of discomfort. It was, after all a Gospel Brunch. And Gospel, either way it is defined, is absolutely useless to me. You want to spread the good word of your savior? I’d rather see you spread your legs. You want to sing in my ear while I’m trying to hear the crunch of batter? I’m going to stick my index finger up your nostril until about the second knuckle. If you deprive me of audio I actually wish to hear, I will deprive you of some other inputs and overload them with offense. But knowing that, as social creatures, we often tend to settings with a soundtrack, I cannot knock this one. It’s the HOB and it’s a Gospel Brunch and it reminded me of a set from Glee and you know, I’m one of 2 people I know who feel about music as I do. Clearly it has some merit or you humans would not keep making it. Just as long as you keep making the fried chicken, I don’t really give a veal shank.


As you walk onto the Belden-Stratford, you notice there is something…not…quite…right. There’s a little too much noise over there…somewhere in the corner. Not anything that would have ever been permitted in the days of Ambria. Indeed, the ghosts of Lincoln Park West Past should haunt this place forever. Because it’s the best meal they’ll ever have.

And why wouldn’t it be? Have you some insider information? Well shut the front door. Riverdance survived the swan song (and dance) of Michael Flatley. James Bond spies onward with the rise and setting of 5 stars. And L2O is still, after its chef’s departure, the finest meal most of us will ever have. Ghosts included.

Rarely do the founders make the best businesspeople. It wasn’t the teacher-trio who started Starbucks that built a few stores into a global brand. It wasn’t the McDonald brothers, operational geniuses that they were, that created the foremost icon of America. Nor is a single firm that laid the final mile of DSL copper still in business. The best entrepreneurs very rarely make even adequate managers. The Gateses, Dells and Waltons are few and ever scarcer. And growth in the restaurant business is an exercise in the battle between the artists and accountants. The problem arises when the founder can’t scale up the creativity to accommodate the increase in demand. It is fine to insist that every item leaving kitchens is perfection on a plate but not when this makes for miserable chefs/staff/owners because the misery’s contagious – the customers can tell. We can tell. Trust us.

I would like to talk more about this dining evening the review of which is 2 months in the making. I simply haven’t the vocabulary. Those who know me know that this admission means something. I have vocabulary for most things but not this experience. And I can’t in good faith, hold up any more deserved reviews. All I can tell you is that this was, and still remains, the best meal of my 35 years. Rock-star chef’s departure non-withstanding. For those that must: we had the seasonal tasting menu. This consisted of 3 creatures of the sea, 1 overfed duck liver, a Korean something, a fungus and 2 desserts. And regarding those who may wish to inflict ridicule upon the creatures overfed, know this: all of earth’s biomass survives at our pleasure or consumption. Korea sucks but their food rocks. So do their movies. Anyway, did you just take a breath? 2/3 of the cells you aspirated were fungal and since you’re likely in America, you’re a fat mofo and could use 50% of the two desserts we had. Which were caramelized apple and a grand mariner soufflé. See? Even the Lincoln Parkies know how to feed their drunks to death. After this, despite our good intentions, we went home. Which takes some doing. We really didn’t need that 4th bottle of Sake with our meal but my date said we did and I’ve known her for a little while and would like to keep my head…

In that vein, my woman has never know the pleasure of an oyster. RAW. Until this day. Had there been no more b-day presents (like her paying the tab), I would have assumed this mine. Except, she hated it. She made seem like it was kicking and screaming its way down her gullet. Until I told her that they haven’t the skill of motion. I think I made out fairly well. Don’t you?

Then it was all my fault.

Pho Thit Cho

delicious dog meat brunchOur friction with Vietnam wasn’t born of commies or Koreas but the fact that we consider our best friends they consider lunch. And for the first time, into this taboo breach, comes a place where the palefaces can sample the tastiest of doggies right here on Argyle street. So good, the eponymous bag won’t be needed.

One of the funniest phobias in western travel is going out for some pho and getting dog in place of cow. All silliness aside, canine meat is a rare delicacy in Vietnamese cuisine and carries a steep premium in price. The chances of ordering beef (bo) pho and “accidentally” getting fluffy is about as likely as ordering a Whopper and accidentally getting prime rib. Thit Cho (dog) is clearly marked and mightily expensive. So go occupy your neuroses with equally unlikely things like getting in shape next year. However, if you do wish to push the envelope of taste into this forbidden delicacy, you no longer need to go to north Vietnam.

Other than its name, Pho Thit Cho reveals no clues about the tasty tenderness within the traditional-looking storefront. And as a paleface, you would be hard-pressed to see any mention of your furry friends on the menu. Unless, of course, you ask. In Vietnamese. And then, like choosing the red pill, you are plunged headfirst into a rabbit-hole of pure delight. Today’s special was the Afghan Sheepdog which, due to its mix of Afghan Hound and Belgian Sheepdog, does not carry the same price premium as the purebreds. Even so, if the American Bull Mastiff is Cristal, the Afghan Sheepdog is Veuve which was fine for my novice self. Prices are strangely not displayed for specials so don’t be afraid to ask unless you want to be surprised with a 4-figure bill. Tough economic times have caught many former dog-lovers without sufficient funds to care for larger pets so Pho Thit Cho happily pays the market price for poorly-tended animals, fattens them up and processes them with all respect and ritual due them. The kitchen table offers full view of the preparation but the actual kill is performed elsewhere. I guess America is still too squeamish for that little link in the food chain especially since dogs put up quite a fight – nothing like the bovine passivity we see in all the PETA videos.

Pho Thit Cho means literally: dog soup. When ordering the entire animal (suggested for groups of 4 or more) one can choose to have the paws and jawbone cooked in the broth or wok-seared and served alongside. We opted for the latter and nibbled tasty foot-pad meat with generous pours of rice wine. It’s definitely not for the faint of palate but after 6 shots of 50 proof rice wine, you’ll cherish every morsel you can pick from in between the toes. The jaw meat was not as tender as say, hamachi jaw and if you like your pork ribs falling from the meat you definitely won’t like it. I, however, like to gnaw and work for mine and therefore found myself at home.

If sufficient notice is given, the kitchen can create some lovely dog-blood sausage. This is done by stuffing the blood-brain mixture (something so carefully avoided in a vertebrate’s life) back into the dog’s intestinal lining to create a flavor unlike any other you will ever taste. Pork blood sausage is nothing in comparison. Indeed, when tied off with simmered tendons, the snap of the intestinal casing can release a flavor so intense that whatever praise the dog had lacked in life can easily be given in its final moments in the state of matter. A unique take on “hot dog” to be sure.

In conclusion, dog meat is indeed very good. In either pho-style soup, in sausage or wok-seared. It compares to very rare venison and the torched skin reminded me of lean bacon. Don’t let squeamishness stop you from sampling this delicacy. Remember that all earthly creatures are here for our entertainment or consumption. In Vietnam they live in dog farms. Here, rather than be turned loose to starve on the street, they create human jobs and fill human bellies. And I promise you that after enough rice wine, you won’t give two flocks about it. Instead, the next time your friends ask what you did on Friday night, you’ll tell them you took Fluffy for a Wok.


An interval of 14 months separated our first Tocco dinner from the second. A shameful length of time. Tocco is as good today, well into its twilight, as it was when it was full of youth and life. Go there now, before the kitchen rests in peace.

Comebacks in the biz of restaurants are few and insufficient. Their demise can be quick and sudden or slow and painful. But no matter how slow the end, once the creep of death takes root, almost nothing can steer the ship away from iceberg. Tocco will not be with us very long but instead of singing it a lullaby, you should celebrate by going to have one of the tastiest Italian meals you’ll ever have. It’s not just pasta. For $16 you will enjoy a mound of Antipasta Rustico with piles of prosciutto, walnuts, greens and cheeses. The Margherita pizza is bit below Pane Caldo but only just a bit. And that’s like saying someone is almost as good as Michael Jordan. Not a bad league from which to draw comparison. The fish of the day was sea bass that was so perfect that Tower Bar in West Hollywood could take a lesson in preparation. And the pasta – one of the city’s finest. Homemade delight safely in league with Pane Caldo and Spiaggia. Get the Pappard Bisamzio. You’ll thank me.

Every earthly thing has a beginning and an end. Endings make us feel uncomfortable so we rarely look for signs of them. With humans, we may not notice the hangover that takes two days to fade. Forgive the forehead’s encroachment on a healthy hairline. Not notice the slowing speed of motion, thought and speech. What else but self-delusion can justify driving cars into senility? And so with restaurants, non-essential services are the first cuts. Valet parking and dedicated coat-checks have already seen extinction. Next came acceptance of American Express because the volume simply didn’t justify the extra 1% in service fees. Next on the chopping block will come bar-backs and bus service until finally, the experience becomes as unpleasant for the owners as it is for diners and, the doors close for the last time. Like a star emitting its last photon. But Tocco deserves an encore. Go help make its death a supernova rather implosion. You won’t have to wait for reservations.


The service industry occupies a wide spectrum. Past ineptitude, falls “attitude” where the bartender knows she is inept and shoves it in the face of customers. At Sunda, management is highly skilled at hiring buffoons that can ruin the best of meals.

On this fine eve of Blackout Wednesday, the female wanted to hit Sunda for a few. All seemed quiet on the drinking front and we looked forward to a friendly bar scene at a place where the default is that of crush and never comfort. Friendly. Riiiight.

Someone forgot to tell that evening’s bar-tend duo that the bar was empty. In normal circumstances (and for normal workers) the laws of supply and demand dictate that the smaller number of customers should be treated better in order to maximize tip-profits. Instead, these two put on a symphony of stupid never before seen at such distance from LA. I guess the crispy rice and tuna was not the only thing they imported from the land of lazy. But just a note: the actor attitude, although never forgivable when working, you know, AS A BARTENDER, isn’t even plausible when you’re not all that hot and don’t have the loud obnoxious Margaret Cho personality fat chicks develop to compensate for boys not kissing them in high school.

As we were packing up to leave, I explained to my companion why our presence was cut short. At that moment, a voice from right beside us introduced himself as the Assistant GM. He was not on duty and much like we, just stopped in for a drink. He had overheard the peak of the frustration and offered us some drinks and a profuse apology. We accepted both. And even though he was a nice, disarming guy who at a young age already mastered the art of customer politics, a bar that permits its staff to be rude deliberately and then make sure the customer is fully aware of the intent is no place that will ever see my voluntary pennies. Unless they’re fired from a slingshot.

Pane Caldo

Your presence is irrelevant. If a tree falls in the forest, air is forced away from impact no matter if your eardrums vibrate. And so Pane Caldo remains one of the city’s finest restaurants despite the fact that you have never eaten there and probably never will.

Economics is a dismal science. Ask people with that misspent education (author included) and they’ll probably spew off some happy horse-poopy about supply and demand and equilibrium and production and distribution and Zeus knows what else. It’ll surely be enough syllables to beat the vindaloo out of India. But bet you anything they’ll forget “consumption” which happens to be our special expertise. What do you think “consumer” is for Allah’s sake? Unfortunately, due to low demand for Pane’s tables, (we were, and frequently are, the only party in the restaurant) prices cannot find equilibrium until they reach the level of 4-star dining. Even more unfortunately, the service rarely scrapes beyond 2.5. If you are the only table at the place, you might get 3 but not always. A shame, because if ever there was a case where food outshines the service by 2 standard deviations, it is Pane Caldo.

The margherita pizza tasted like the tomatoes were just plucked down from the vine. If you have ever visited Seattle’s Pike Place Market in the summer and had the guy cut you a slice of freshly-ripe tomato you would know what I mean. Where in Odin’s name did they get them at this time of year? And why is everyone else in Chicago using the same pasty crap they toss on my Subway club? Pane Caldo must have their own greenhouse because the sauce seemed one with the tomatoes but thicker – like a tomato smoothie – hey it’s a fruit after all! The cheese was freshly shorn and baked a few degrees shy of crispy like on a fine bowl of French Onion soup. We devoured it with no regard for the damage boiling tomatoes do to roofs of mouths. It was that good.

Pane’s pasta is divine. There is nothing like it anywhere. Yeah, I’m talking to you La Scarola and Carmine’s fans. Not even at Spiaggia. Pane’s is cooked with the light of Horus and the same tomatoes sliced on ZZa go into the sauce. But don’t feel obligated to stick to red-based sauces. A friend, with insider information, always orders the asparagus tortellini. They make it for her despite its rare appearance on the dinner menu. She ordered it today and sweeter was its taste than all the rivers of milk and honey in the Kingdom of Jehovah.

With a sushi restaurant, a good barometer of quality is the spicy tuna roll. Long the trash receptacle of tuna unfit for consumption, chefs would mix these dregs with spicy mayo and VIOLIN! You have another way to charge 10 dollars! No longer would they throw away the sinews by the tail or the brown stuff sitting out a night. In with the mayo and good as sold! But a good place uses good tuna even though no one can tell through the mayo-spicy goop. Sure, it’s like ordering a Bloody Mary with fine vodka but if we pay for it why should the chef care that we can’t taste for what we’re paying?

And so, at Pane Caldo, the barometer is not the Maggiano mound but the finished plate. They all go back clean. And the inadequacy of all the tables’ bread to mop up the last possible drop of amazing, delectable, orgasmic sauce makes many leave their table manners up on Rush Street. I don’t care. Tomato sauce looks good on my tie. Tastes even better.

Girl and the Goat

Eating here is a lot like going to the doctor. Wait 3 weeks for a time slot, phone-sign 2 affidavit confirmations, arrive early or the space is going standby and you still won’t eat before waiting 40 minutes. I’m too old and cranky to play this game but since play this night I must, I took my zen-pills and so should you.

Summed up in a single phrase: it was worth it. When you go in expecting to wait on-site for your 3-week-old 7:15 PM Thursday night reservation, you don’t really start getting irritated until the hour-mark so unless they completely bungle something you’ll be seated in about 45 minutes. Just don’t go with people with whom you don’t have 45 minutes worth of bar-conversation otherwise you might run out of stuff before dinner. One purgatory couple seemed particularly devoid of topics and was not enjoying the wait at all. Maybe they were saving it for dinner.

Anyway, one more comment before the food: when your demand so greatly exceeds your supply and you don’t want to raise prices, you need to manage expectations. A table “paying” for an hour is not acceptable and a sign of gross mismanagement. When there are 5 parties booked on a given table for the night, you take the sum of reserved minutes, divide by the number of parties and the quotient is the available minutes per party. You inform everyone of their limit BEFORE they sit and this way, no surprise will overtake anyone as they’re being rushed out. If you screw up and make an overlapping reservation you get the party you need vacated a bottle of champagne – AT THE BAR. They’ll high-tail it out real quick. If you have ever eaten at Katana in West Hollywood you would know that this style of management can be institutionalized. You have the table until 8 you’d hear before you’re seated and it didn’t matter who you were in town. You would get a 20-minute warning, then a 10 and then your check and a cleared table. Most got the “hint” but there was no shortage of big boys in black suits around just in case.

On to the meal. What do you expect? It was excellent. The portions were good for sharing amongst 4. The prices were mostly good with 1 or 2 exceptions. The Goat pizza was amazing as were the mussels and the scallops. I LOVED the fat bread even though it cost $4. It didn’t last long. My favorite dish that evening was the Hiramasa Crudo which is a crispy pork belly with yellowtail. Who woulda thunk? But you would be errant in not trying it yourself. I was a little disappointed in the pig face not actually being a pig face with which to gross out our party’s squeamish. Sadly, there were no eyes into which we could stare deeply but just 2 pieces of pig’s jowls. I guess if you wanted make a point of French-kissing your dinner you need to order tongue. Oh well. It was still delicious.

Our service was good and attentive. We were “comped” a beet dish but a stickler member of our party asked if a comp is really a comp if you never ordered it in the first place. Mostly out of anger that I wasn’t the clever devil to make this precious insight, I grumbled that the group’s macro increase in happiness after X than before it made microeconomic terminology irrelevant. Luckily for us, no amount of macro happiness could take away from the micro prices of most dishes. Even charging $15 for a glass of Pinot came out in the value wash. Go here with some other people with whom you don’t mind waiting around a while. If I can take the wait, you can too.


Wal-Mart had it wrong. Instead of greeters, they should have done farewell-bidders. Dessert comes after the meal to leave a sweet taste in one’s mouth. So why do waiters have the uncanny tendency to vanish in the interval 30 seconds pre-first-bite and not rematerialize until 20 minutes after my last?

DBGB served a great meal. The matzoh ball soup was one of the best on record for this humble dining party. Just portioned really poorly. Would it have killed them to give us 3 more ounces of the delectable broth? If you have the stones for it, finish every last drop of yours, touch your finger in the salty rim and run tear-marks down your cheeks. Then come up to the server holding the miniature bowl in both hands and say in your finest British: “Caa’aan I ha’aave sm’moah’ suh?” Just don’t wear rags to dinner as they’ll clash with the $15 martini.

The crab flatbread was a dead heat meaning half the party liked it and half would have rather had another bowl of soup. Thank goodness that juries don’t only have 2 people. But in the vein of honesty: if you are a crab purist, the cooked rarely matches morsels from the shell. So if you’re going to serve it hot, serve it with a strong, non-mayonnaise sauce.

The scallops were excellent and so was the lamb. As were the prices. Or so it seemed on menu-paper. $26 for a lamb loin is indeed cheap until you realize how little of it is served. About 3 bite’s worth. Suddenly the value of a sub-30 dollar entrée in NY evaporates into dreamland. Maybe I never had the dream though. Could be that someone incepted it inside my brain. Something was in the hotel room that morning but it might have been just drunken neuronal misfires. Or bedbugs. Anyway, we know that we Americans are a bunch of piglets and expect our French dinners supersized but there can be found a golden median between Americana and Amouse. Especially when it costs you 9 bucks a bite.

Colicchio and Sons

What began as simply mediocre pulled together very well. Mostly due to service but also to the cheese course.

When dining at this level, patrons expect (and pay for) service. It alone can be the difference between star ratings. What would Tru be without their synchronized pours and friendly waiters? Just a really expensive place to eat good grub. There’s a limit to how good can be a dish but really no ceiling to the overall experience. And Colicchio and Sons pulled it through.

The food was great. Exactly as expected. The $12 mixed greens reminded us of how inferior is the selection available to mere mortals at the grocery store. The salmon was delectable and so fatty that even with the outside crisp, the center was nearly raw. Delicious. As was the lamb loin. Except when I order rare, please give me rare – not medium-rare. I want that center cool. I’m not afraid and neither should be the kitchen. I didn’t send it back because it was still great despite the slightly warmish center.

The service suffered initially but pulled out a grand victory. Our server took her time to get us rolling but once she did, she was perfect. Her demeanor was excellent in the way Tru’s staff’s is excellent. They can sense if you’re in the mood to chat or joke or wish simply to be left alone. Indeed, throughout a meal diners will want each of these things in varying degrees and times. It is uncanny how often servers get it exactly wrong by vanishing when needed and hovering when not. By offering pushy advice AFTER the order has been placed. By acting snobby as if they’re doing you a favor. Indeed, our server not only did none of these but also apologized for the initial delay in her own way. She cut our cheese course so generously that we couldn’t possibly finish it. For people that spend more on cheese per year than gasoline (for an 8MPG vehicle), this is remarkable. And with desert, have the Moscato Asti desert sparkling. So, so good it’ll make you want the bottle.


For someone who routinely tips 20+% of the after-tax subtotal, leaving south of 10 indicates abuse of a high order. And despite its decent breakfast, Jam fell so far in execution that even the food became unmemorable.

Before evisceration, it is polite to mention good. And so we’ll discuss Jam in descending order of performance. The best part about it, without question or hesitation, is the bus staff. Never did the water get within 2 sips of empty. Never was the coffee not refilled. The plates were cleared away quite quickly but not in the manner common to robotic bus persons who rip them out from under you before the fork completely leaves the surface.

The food was pretty good. The eggs we done the way we wanted and the pork was better than expected at a breakfast setting. Some prior diners complained that it was too rare and seem to have lost sleep worrying about trichinosis. These diners would be doing themselves and us a favor by 1.) learning how to spell the parasite and 2.) realizing that all meat these days tends to be irradiated and thus the 3 or 4 US cases last year were caused not by eating little piggies but by hunting and gathering one’s own game. I LOVE rare pork. It’s a sin that most places don’t do it right even if you plead. Ditka’s, dear departed D.Kelly’s and Gibson’s (not always) are the only places I’ve ever had my pork the way it should be cooked and judging by the commentary, this is likely why. You people need to grow up. Sinclair’s Chicago is no longer. In any case, the pork was done just right but it wasn’t done to perfect. Why? It started out a sub-standard cut. Not the juicy chops you see at Ditka’s but something available to mere mortals at Costco. Note to management: you’re charging us $16 for the dish. Use restaurant-grade meat.

The wait-service. Wow. It has been a long time since things have been this bad. Even LA, where the servers can barely bother to look up from their line rehearsals to take your order, did not often fall this short of satisfactory. Giving details is irrelevant. There was no rudeness, no outright attitude, just a comic theater of going through the motions with as little speed as possible. And attention. And caring. The restaurant was busy and the waitress seemed to be covering tables in the front. But during every lengthy stretch of neck-craning in vain attempts to get attention, she didn’t seem to be doing anything other than looking down at notes and talking to co-workers. Waiters and bartenders are skilled at many things but with some, the highest level of rehearsal seems to go to customer-avoidance. They feel you looking at them, they know you want something that it’s their job to get and they still drop their gaze and walk away. Few things piss us off more. We don’t go back to places like that and owners would be doing themselves the highest favor by screening such deft work-dodgers and showing them the door. Ignore the fact we won’t be back. The meal took 1.5 times longer than it should have. In a busy restaurant, time is more than just money.


What kind of business adds tips automatically? 1, Resorts where guests don’t know local customs, 2, Indian restaurants where actual Indians go and 3, places like Elysian where lounge service is so abhorrent that they’d be lucky to see a non-compulsive dime.

The extent to which the experience of 9/25/2010 differed with the past was shocking. Before, Balsan was as busy as Exit on hipster night but still handled our bigish party with the highest level of efficiency without making us feel like we were riding an assembly line. Dinner at Ria, although lonely, was one of the best Rush Street dinners in a long, long time. Service was amazing. Read. But today, the service in the lounge between the restaurant and bar was something out of Candid Camera but no one came jumping out and offering free drinks to make up for the cruel joke.

Many restaurants have silly-seeming rules that have thin operational merits but cause very fat annoyances to customers. “Close out your bar tab before you go. Sorry, we can’t transfer.” No, I’m sorry that your software can’t segregate tips from one section and another. It’s arithmetic, not nuclear physics. “We don’t serve the bar menu in the restaurant.” Then serve it in the bar and I’ll bring it to the table. It’s one business, one database of inventory and one credit-card processing account. It again is not that hard. “We’re done serving breakfast at 11 and it’s 11:15.” I’m very sorry your pots and pans are filled with lunchtime things but I really really think you might have a spare hanging around there somewhere capable of frying eggs. Why not just make me happy? I’m not asking for your kidney. In any case, the lounge was guilty of 1 and a derivative of 2.

We wanted a few drinks in the lounge and maybe one of Balsan’s delicious pizzas. Nope. See excuse #2 above. “But that table has a pizza” we complained. “That table knows the chef” was the response. Indeed, the chef was buzzing around there quite a bit. Would they make an exception for the less-connected hungry? Perhaps. She needed to check with the chef to see if he would grant her permission to carry the dish an extra 25 feet. Wrong answer. Especially when the drinks were not forthcoming.

There are lots of places that believe in what I call “cheerleader management.” This discipline hires model-types to work as hosts while completely and utterly disregarding the actual service component of the business. Walking into the lounge and seeing 4 beautiful hostesses fluttering about without a single order-taking soul in sight is exhibit A in this management philosophy. I expect this from nightclubs and virtually every business in LA but Elysian? Come on. Cheerleader management has a lot in common with communism. Both are products of minds inexperienced in worldly ways. Both cause ridiculous misallocations of resources and eventually bankrupt their believers. I see parallels between the beautiful pristine highways of East Germany (even though they had no cars with which to drive them) and an army of staff none of whom bother helping customers. Why not allocate resources into places they might actually help? Or at least help not piss people off? After the second time a party member asked to place an order we should have just gotten up and went to Luxbar or something. We eventually did BTW, just not before we learned that the wait staff gets 18% despite the depths of their ineptitude. It’s fine I guess. It’s not their fault. Scheduling is the charge of management but when staff makes their tips no matter how pissed people are, the management won’t ever change anything. Great gig while you got it. Your wall won’t crumble till you’re bankrupt.


In this distant enclave of Chicago, where no yuppie feet have ever trodden, stands this testament to fun, drink and all the music you can cram into your earholes.

It might seem a great cruelty to have to pay the Skyway toll but after your first few rounds of $2.75 beers and $3 shots, the toll’s brutality will slowly fade away. The crowd is well-mixed in gender, age and skin complexion but all are here for just two reasons: to drink and absolutely have a blast. It’s contagious.

I hate live music. There, I’ve said it. I have little use for music in general beyond short circuiting my brain during cardio but “live” is an escalation I don’t need. There is absolutely nothing about the experience that is not revolting – from the crowds of sweaty, filthy hipsters to the gut-wrenching volume of mediocrity in both voice and talent. I flee at the first whisper of a sound test. But, being a social animal and prone to functions in settings with a soundtrack, so it goes. At least I get compensated. Nothing makes me feel better than looking down upon those shallow enough to idolize musicians and consider rappers genius. Go for the show, not the music in a manner of speaking. But at Vlado’s things are different.

The show is always in the audience, not on the stage. But here, the crowd is SOOOOOO into dancing and singing and drinking into black-out that there could be an amplified transistor radio on stage and they would still go wild. They’re not elitist jazz-fans “getting” the music and scouring the room for those who aren’t. Nor are they spoiled-rich-kid yuppies bobbing their heads in the corner. This crowd is here to sing and dance and the fever spreads like a yawn in night class. No one here is too cool to move. Nor are the bartenders too busy to serve you even when they are absolutely too busy to serve you. They work faster better harder against the discipline of monopoly of bar. I reward such effort well. But then I got rewarded back! I’m not a regular and still the crazy-busy bartender noticed that her tips were healthy and so my closing round was free. When was the last time they comped your drink at Y-Bar? Toto, we’re not in Chicago anymore – no matter what the GPS says.

Fat Smitty's

The dudes juicing at the health club rarely remember that the roids will only make them look big. To get strong they actually have to lift big and suffer like the rest of us. Fat Smitty’s burger is the roid-head who does 12 sets of forearm curls.

No other time in dining memory has there been so great a chasm between the way a burger looks and the satisfaction it bestows. Or takes away. The Fat Smitty builds us up so high with something looking so delicious and then drowns the tasting center of our brains with large portions of horrendous mediocrity.

The restaurant itself is a novelty – that wore off after one visit. The 5-foot burger in the driveway, the menacing “keep off” signs, the thousands of dollar bills stapled to every surface everywhere all scream: “Look at ME! I’m the most uniquest (sp?) dive-bar ever!” And in that, they have a point. Never before has a burger looked so good and tasted so average. It did not help that the patties were grotesquely overcooked and drowned in not-so-secret ranch dressing. The “Freedom Fries” (yes, there are still people who think this play is cute) are ok but honestly, when they’re cut as large they just don’t cook through as well without making the outside overcooked. The service is downright rude and the fizzy sugar sodas don’t come with refills.

How many strikes is that? Cuz here’s another: you know all those dollar bills stapled to the walls and ceilings and every other damn place? Well, they’ve been there for a while. This means that whereas the average restaurant that has, oh, I don’t know, 4 walls to clean, Fatty’s has 10,000 times the surface area all sitting there catching dust. And releasing it into your food every time someone opens the door or walks quickly to the bathroom. 5-minute rule does not apply to that collection of filth. Is there a 5-year rule?  I don’t imagine the rude relics working there bust out the feather-duster all that often.

Anyway, if you really want to come here, have the clam chowder and watch your friends be disappointed by themselves. Sneak a bite of their patty and you’ll thank me for saving you the blow.

Toulouse Petit

To those who said Seattle can’t do a perfect meal (like the author) Toulouse Petit gives a big four-fingered shocker. And those who still quote the tired grandpa-ism: “do one thing and do it well” TP knocks into the future by excelling in so many places. One could, and should, eat here for a week.

Who is anyone to say that a restaurant must have a narrow specialty just because most do? It’s rarely a lack of imagination or ability but constraints of the real world. Money, space, time and staff are all limiting factors in a restaurant’s ability to redline the chef’s creative engine. So most run at cruising RPMs. Chefs are artists to the core and will, given time and capital, throw 10 thousand things out on the tables and let their customers decide what soars or sinks. Indeed the biggest source of friction in food service is the push outward from the kitchen against the push inward from accounting. Guess who always wins? But Brian Hutmacher, Toulouse Petit’s owner seems to not shed a single tear for accounting’s sake. Enter an owner who has decided that the quest for quality is a higher cause than turning a dollar into 2. Luck is the story of his chef: Eric Donnelly. Tragic that of his accountant.

Who serves Duck Confit for $14? Huge bowls of soup and salads for less than 10? Who remains in the known universe that offers a quality NY Strip for $25? Even Outback charges more inflicting mortal fright upon the Big Mac crowd on “downtown night.” And so, the evening began with apprehension – apprehension that died a first-bite death. The fried-chicken gumbo and French Onion soup could have been, for their pittance of a price, much worse and still scored well on the value scale. Some claim that French Onion Soup should only be served in little fired crock-pots with overflowing cheese. Some also claim that gumbo should be a thick-as-honey stew. These were neither and yet still delicious. Donnelly has an opinion and it isn’t cliché programming. It’s nice to get a unique perspective.

Main-course consisted of Big Easy Jambalaya and Jumbo Barbied Shrimp. The former promised “unapologetic spice” and but needed no apology. Then again, the author orders 5-stars from Mae Phim and pours Habanero Tabasco on eggs. Point is: it’s easy to hide behind heat and TP has no need. The flavor was as terrific as the portion. The shrimp was similarly tasty but not quite on the level of the Ivy. The grits however, were absolutely divine. Just remember that the Ivy will charge you double for a very small improvement and again we’re back to the whole value thing. No matter what you think of the meal, remember that 2 people will waddle out of the restaurant spending less than a C-note.

TP isn’t perfect. Their online menu’s prices don’t always concur with the receipt. Can you say nit-picking? Its bar is slow-to-notice you but nothing compared to most of Seattle. Also, such an affordable meal should not dunk you headfirst into a $12 price for a martini (at least they overfill it). But with prices and options like these, we can afford a little trial-and-error.

All should hope for Toulouse Petit’s success. I am tired of talent being pigeon-holed. Wouldn’t it be great to see Bayless’ roll on sushi or Trotter’s toss on pizza and still have enough to pay your underwater mortgage? Well, they should all send a spy to get a job with Hutmacher and learn how he keeps the prices low, the menu vast and the CPAs out of the damn kitchen.

Big Star

In the universe of margarita, the difference between decency and excellence is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Big Star serves up lightning in a pitcher.

It all starts with good intentions. “Let’s go out for a margarita” someone will propose. Calling the proposed “a margarita” is supposed to imply unary but is actually a bunch of optimistic bull-poopy. No afternoon starting with “A Margarita” ends there. Like those who watch a “little football” the notation is false before the activity begins. And as good as Big Star’s drinks have been no one is going home with one.

And thus, all participants who that afternoon went out for a margarita, wound up with a pitcher down their collective and expanding belt. The few memories that remain are of sweet taste but grainy texture. It did not matter that people had BBQs to hit or birthdays to celebrate. Some had the wherewithal to take the train only to awake well beyond their stop. Others may as well have driven sideways. Still others felt like reversing digestion’s course but could not remember if that had already been accomplished. For reasons obvious only in-the-moment, two porcelain prayers would have simply felt unclean.

The food at Big Star is not predictable. Neither is service – but not because the staff is anything other than hard-working. They just need 2x-3x during summertime because the crowd they squeeze into the outdoor area is simply too big a numerator for such a paltry denominator. But no matter. The margaritas join Matchbox/Silver Palm and The Ivy in Beverly Hills as some of the best this crew has ever had and they put it in a pitcher costing $30. At the Ivy, that’ll buy you 1.79 drinks. With those prices, you won’t be day-drinking and missing any birthday parties. Big Star, however, well…you’ve been warned.

Meli Cafe

Meli’s food was pretty good, its prices pretty cheap and service pretty fast. Grand slam by Greektown standards.

How do you spot a Greek-owned restaurant? Let us count the ways.

  1. The Host – Unlike the pretty, young female things hosting everywhere else, the Greeks have something ancient, something fat or something speaking little English or all of the preceding. Such hires are only made through stupidity or nepotism and I’d never presume the business guys are stupid.

  2. The Design – Nearly every bored suburban house-mommy once walked into Crate and Barrel and heard the call of Decorating. The only person she convinces of her “talent” is her husband. Husband invests in restaurant and forces wife upon his partners. This is why most suburban restaurants (Greektown doesn’t know it’s not a suburb) has mismatched light-fixtures, random tiles on walls, strange art, mismatched chairs, non-standard table heights and no ADA compliance.

  3. The Money – Family handles it. This rule has since relaxed as credit has well outpaced the coin but some places still like the payment bottleneck to be relations. (See the pay-line at Yolk)

Meli is guilty of 1 and 2 but thankfully lets the servers handle 3. And they don’t fall apart at bringing you the check which happens so bizarrely often that one might think it a conspiracy. The food is good. They stuff so many fresh ingredients into their omelets and frittatas that the egg glue holding things together is hopelessly inadequate. Indeed, this creates a vegetable overdose but you can pick things apart and make your own proportions to suit taste and texture preferences. Playing with your food is one of the few fun things still legal in Chicago.

Meli makes a big deal of making their own jams and butters. They’re really good but barely enough to cover 2 pieces of toast much less the 4 that 2 people would be fighting over. It’s not caviar people. Making a big vat of fermented fruit costs only slightly more than making a small one. Give us a jar of your stuff and let us really go to town.

Overall, Meli is good. We wish there comes a day though when Greektown can be measured by Chicago’s standards and not Naperville’s.


Duchamp was a mid-level disappointment. If not for the Yelp Prix Fixe pricing, it would have been a bitter one. The Duchamps of the world should take note that we are all sick of predatorily-priced mediocrity. That’s why its dining room was half-empty on a Saturday.

Great deals are to be had with the Yelp Prix Fixe menu. Like the genius of Miami Spice where one could sample a 4-star kitchen for $35 even though normal pricing would run 5x, Yelp went one step further and mandated $25 for a three-course meal. At Duchamp, said pricing bought you a small-plate (normally priced from 7.95 to 12.95), large plate (13.95-23.95) and a sampling of 3 deserts normally priced $8. Pretty decent. Price, that is. The quality of the meal was anything but. The only good that evening came in the form of white flatbread pizza which was different enough to be good, not great. The “deconstructed” tuna nicoise was unacceptably bland and used the cheapest cuts of the cheapest tuna (tail/ahi). 12 bucks for 4 razor-slices of that with whatever other reconstruction they dribbled on the plate was a giant miss.

The often-photographed Havarti cheeseburger looks pretty, thick and juicy. It very well might be. IF, that is, they didn’t fry it straight to the ninth circle of hell. I specifically ordered rare (rather than medium-rare) knowing that such thickness tends to overcook quite often. The waiter assured me that they know how to do medium-rare perfectly. I should have ordered raw because I was punished with a well-done patty. When something 2.5 inches thick is cooked through, it really really sucks. You and I know this. Why doesn’t the kitchen? Why not send it back? I was hungry and the waiter vanished. Not cool. But the cheese was good. Havarti always is. Is there a less healthy cheese that isn’t triple-cream? I hope not.

On to the final charge in what could be a multi-count indictment: alcohol. Done are the days of charging limbs for martinis. It is absolutely inexcusable. $12.25 is resort-pricing – not that of a mid-range restaurant. And the sly little trick you pulled in pricing was worthy of mention and warning to the unsuspecting. Kettle One costs $1 less than Belvedere on the Duchamp pricing scale. I ordered Kettle One. You were out of Kettle. You offered me Belvedere. I accepted. My first martini cost $11.25 as Kettle does. The next two cost 12.25 as Belvedere does. Not cool again. When a restaurant is out-of-stock the substitute needs to reflect the lowest price, not the highest. Especially when the price is already ridiculous.

Based on Saturday’s experience, Duchamp would be doing Bucktown a favor if, like the eponymous artist, it retired and did something scholarly instead. I hear “endgame” was a fun pursuit for dear Marcel. Duchamp Restaurant should start thinking of one.

Angels and Mariachis

“No, we don’t have any ketchup” said the waitress and with it kicked off one of the most bizarre dining experiences ever recorded in the cumulative 130 years that any of her 4 patrons have been eating solid food.

Before the bad, we discuss the wonderful: The Bloody Maries. They are excellent. Spicy, not too thick (Twisted Spoke), not too watered (Wishbone) but just right. Perfect if you like seizure-inducing spice but supposedly available with a more palatable quantity of capsaicin. The salsa with the complementary chips is similarly grand (and hot) and the guacamole is pretty decent although doesn’t hold a scent-free candle to the likes of Adobo’s. But today, no quantity of good could diffuse the strange. It was as though somewhere in the kitchen-to-the-customer supply chain was a drug-induced short circuit that sparked and burned and fused some information bits together.

In David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly, a scientist’s teleportation vessel can’t figure out what to do with two separate organisms in the chamber and decides to splice the two of them together. Something similar happened today at Angels and Mariachis when someone on the staff fused orders for a veggie omelet and a breakfast burrito without meat and decided to make a veggie omelet and put it inside a tortilla. However, whereas the former was exhibit A in logical efficiency, the latter was exhibit A through Z against a day of food-serving while wasted off one’s buttocks. Luckily for the guilty party, the diners were equally hung-over and made no great effort to underline the gaffe.

Table after table sat in receipt of food and drink while we sat with glazing eyes and watering mouths waiting for correction. In a rare display of chivalry, your author ate not a single mouthful during the entire process. Then, without warning, all staff vanished. Into their breach came the famous cute blonde girl with crack-smoke mom in tow selling Aldi candy packs at 8,000,000% mark-up. One party member who has more cash than comprehension of extinction on behavior immediately offered to buy 2 packs for a total mark-up too large for alcoholic brains. Where was the staff? Were they in on it? Seems so. If their cut is a few million percentage points of mark-up it might be worth it but I doubt it. A restaurant should take care not to let their temporary monopoly on their patron’s wallets open up to street competition no matter how cute the sales agent or how high her mom.

In any case, in the half-hour following order-fusion, one of the diners changed her order to a cheese quesadilla. Thought it might be easier. It was. After it and the corrected veggie omelet arrived and all sat happily working down the hangover, another quesadilla was delivered to the table! Perhaps the kitchen decided to rectify the earlier case of fusion with one of fission! Shoot a neutron into a veggie omelet tortilla and you get TWO cheese quesadillas people! Surely there is science to prove it. Maybe the Large Hadron Collider is being tested out right here in the kitchen of meek and mild-mannered Angels & Mariachis! Go there and find out for yourselves.

P.S.: The waitress did say she would discount the food. She did to the tune of a whopping $4.80. Considering that the fused then fissile meal cost $67.20 (before tax and tip), the discount was a very gracious 7.14%. Gotta love a place that loses whole bytes of information but can still do floating-point multiplication. Drink up!

Hub 51

The dining experience at a place like Hub 51 would be perfectly acceptable if it were consistently better than average. It’s a bar. But they’ve been striving for 4-stars and serving up anywhere from 1 to 3. Today was 3.

Many patrons would agree that unless the price of dinner is about a Subway value meal, consistency is a greater prize than roller-coaster, no matter how high the lumber soars. And Hub 51 has been the ultimate in service bipolarity. One day you might get the best that a bar can offer and another you’ll have to stand up and pound your chest to get attention. One day you’ll get a delightful chicken breast thick and juicy and tomorrow something grade-C edible. I know that there are growing pains. Restaurants, like teenagers, go through a best-forgotten awkward phase where the limbs don’t seem to fit the torso, the voice cracks and the occasional facial blemish escapes the cover-up. This is true of all F&B, especially a space of Hub 51’s size. Only I would have expected the progeny of Melman’s clan to keep the awkward to a minimum. They didn’t. Did sonny shrug off his Dad’s immortal coil to prove he was his own man? If so, we have a classic exhibit in the triumph of pride over experience. One can only wonder how many times Daddy tried to say that service staff’s abilities are NOT inversely proportional to skirt-length.

But whatdoiknow. The place seems to be packed most evenings and even most afternoons at lunchtime. Its price-point is adequate for its location and its food is better (mostly) than Rockit, Howl or Rock Bottom. I only wish they’d have distilled 30 years of daddy’s know-how since they so clearly make mistakes that even Food Life has long ago corrected. If you’re going to be Einstein’s kid, either take advice or go do patent-clerking. You’ll never stand outside the shadow so you might as well be shrewd about it.

Little Branch Cafe

No human endeavor, except computer programming, requires absolute perfection so when it’s served up in an unassuming dining room credit must be given. This cute little spot served it up with force.

Most people wouldn’t notice the razor-thin cuts of meat positioned exactly the same way as though in a photo-op. Most people won’t pay attention to the potatoes all golden-side-up. Wouldn’t underline that the bloody mary is only $8 for a very generous 16 ounces. Or the ingredients of the breakfast burrito layered as though in a 7 layer dip. Perfectly. Indeed, the author almost counted himself amongst “most people” as he sat frustrated that the food took so long to be delivered. It was well worth it. Perfection takes time and does not scale with attendance.

Little Branch Café is an order and sit down type of place like Urth Café in LA. Except where the latter sucks grand old Chimpanzee privates, the former shines. In fairness to Urth, it isn’t as horrible as it is unpredictable. Today you might get stellar and tomorrow just OK and on the weekend (horrible)x10^65536. You’ll wait in a huge line before you’ll know which day you’re getting. But so far, from a personal sample of 2, and the several tales of trusted others, LBC is exactly consistent. Kinda creepy actually if you give it more than a moment’s thought. How is it possible to cook things the exact same way unless you’re an automaton or have had all creative powers removed like from a McDonald’s cheeseburger? This is the reason McD’s stuff tastes exactly the same every time and every place you eat it and most other restaurants have a tough time making the same thing the same way twice. I did notice a tiny nook of Little Branch that was hidden from the prying eyes of diners yet where some sort of cooking/prepping was occurring. What was there? Who was doing it? It looked too small for an assembly line unless it was all being done by a robot. Chilling.

The meal was done and shockingly cheap given the aforementioned. So painful was the urge to peer behind the shallow wall at the presumed source of program-like perfection but remembering well the lessons of the movies, and the horrors that lurk in tiny kitchens, this Dorothy and Toto were content to have a great meal and high-tail it outta there leaving the curtain undisturbed.

Branch 27

Although service can use improvement, Branch 27 has the best deal on Bloody Maries anywhere. And the best chicken-fried pork belly. At least out of my sample population of 1.

5 bucks for a bloody. That’s it. No gimmick. Although I did not look closely enough to see if this pricing was only valid Sunday Brunch. If that’s the regular price, there is little reason to go to Twisted Spoke unless of course you like blaring music and rude staff – while hung-over. Branch 27 also cares about their Veg-Heads in offering a vegetarian skewer with the Bloody. Spoke offers a big middle finger like it does to anyone who doesn’t like anything EXACTLY how they make something. Like say, with egg yolks in the pre-scrambled which always made me wonder: pre-scrambled how long ago?

And now the chicken-fried pork belly. Wow was it delicious. I ordered it because I thought it would give me something to bitch about but the moment I tasted it I knew we had a winner. I can’t wait to try whatever else they decide to chicken-fry. You’re supposed to be able to do anything. Let’s fry up some alcohol!

Lux Bar

One of the greatest things about the Gibson’s management group is reliability. So thorough is their training that it is almost comical to watch as water, bread and appetizers arrive like clockwork in the same order and at the same intervals every time – give or take a few seconds. Items are placed before diners in the same direction: clockwise. Martini-glassed drinks are filled within a half-inch of top which is generous since most restaurateurs long ago discovered a whole inch reduces the drink volume by half. Such foolishness is near unheard-of which is why the sudden deviation from the script at Lux Bar left us scratching our heads – one hour after we were seated.

Luckily, the food was still Lux Bar: upper-middle-class bar food. The Lux Royale with truffle fries was delicious and so was the veggie omelet. But their extremely tardy arrival as well as their incompletion was just strange. Getting food took nearly half an hour and getting water refills took far longer than it did to drink said water. Atypical. The omelet placement was set up with butter and fruit preserves because it comes with toast. No toast ever came. No one found it odd that toast paraphernalia was there sans toast. The burger’s bun was soaked with grease which means that it was sitting on the counter for some time before delivery. Like 15 minutes. If I were less drunk I would have minded. And, of course, the waitress vanished shortly before our first bite only to reappear 10 minutes after our last. An experience that on-script would have taken 30 minutes took 2x. Such surprises are unwelcome given current parking rates.

E. Leaven Food Company

The golden rule could use a modern update: No one likes your kids or your pets so inflict either upon others at your peril. As we walked through the doors into the sounds of screaming offspring we knew this lunch wouldn’t be like the last.

We live in the city for a reason. Chicago expertly keeps out annoying young people and the even more annoying goofs who spawn them by providing the country’s fattest ghettos and leanest schooling. This combination usually keeps out all but the richest children and these too, since their parents are forever skiing in the Alps, rarely go out to restaurants with nanny. Thank whatever gods you believe in for today, E. Leaven was exhibit A in dining with young offspring. Woe be had.

WAAAAAAAAAAA! AUUUUUUUGH! EEEEEEEEEEE! SHAAAAAADUUUUUP! My god. Is there a critical mass for children in the room before the noise reaction becomes self-sustaining and uncontrollable? Why has there not been a study done on this? When we first arrived we were delighted because the restaurant seemed busy and we like when excellence is rewarded but as we surveyed the scene we realized that it only looked busy. The rest of vacant space was occupied by strollers. Singles. Doubles. Everywhere. Was there an ad on Craig’s List for free formula or did someone decide to stage a nurse-in? Nope. Turns out, the owner, or someone who freely passed between both sides of the counter without a uniform owned one of the noisy pests and evidently other breeders hear the sound of crying and feel welcome with their own demented brood.

Waiting was a nightmare. The kids themselves weren’t as bad as the parents who feel that kid-management is a Hollywood production. With a big budget. Of noise. And dirt. And kiss-my-buttocks stares. I was ready for battle when the food came – and tranquility descended. E. Leaven is still excellent. The Matzo Ball Soup is the best I’ve ever had and today the turkey club was terrific too. I’ve had 3 sandwiches here and each was better than the last. But maybe I’m just remembering it that way. Clearly, a roast beef is far superior to a chicken club. Just sayin’. I only wish that those who choose to inflict a fresh mix of their retarded DNA upon the world would take their experiments elsewhere.

Pho Xe Lua

Most pho on Argyle is created equal – within a standard-deviation. What happens post-creation is where things look up or down or just fall flat. Pho Xe Lua fell flatter than the “fashion” on your lady-feet.

It is always odd when waiters, no matter their place of origin, behave bizarrely. Even those who have never worked in the SERVICE industry must be familiar with the golden rule. Empathy is wired into the great apes with whom we diverged mega-millennia ago and I’m pretty sure the waiters all share my human lineage no matter what country they left behind. Sure, there are differences in service expectations between cultures but to believe that our waiter thought nothing wrong with our experience would be asking to believe that he has never ventured outside of his cloistered little world and – I don’t know – ordered a hotdog.  Is it really OK to leave people standing at the host stand in the midst of a relatively empty restaurant before attending to their seating? Is it OK to serve one diner’s meal 10 minutes (no joke) before serving the other? And this wasn’t even that bad. The table next to us had the last diner’s meal come out when the other four were already done. Is it OK to never appear with the bill? To be on “break” when the diner is standing at the register for another 5 minutes? To emerge with soaked hands? Thanks, I guess, for washing them after whatever you were doing.

No, this treatment should not occur anywhere ever. Your customer is not doing you a favor. Maybe this is why Tank has an eternal crowd. They are at least familiar with hospitality and do not make eating there a chore. An assembly-line perhaps but easy all the same.

As an additional note, the experience of those before me has been a good one. Perhaps theirs was a real waiter. Ours wasn't. There is no way anyone who's done this job ever before in life could have possibly performed so poorly. If someone called in sick, we're very sorry for the review. But English-speaking aside (we can always point) we felt like we were waited on by government bureaucrats instead of food-service employees. They were glad to be rid of us and we of them.

Table 52

Most computers of today can’t adjust to the environment. The simplest, like elevators are finite automatons. Receive input – execute. No stop/debug. This is why pressing all the floor buttons is so annoying. Last night, Table 52 was managed by elevators.

Dear Management: we threw you a wild curveball. The party grew from 3 to 4. You spent the evening trying to bunt. When we advise a restaurant of the party’s growth BEFORE walking through the door, the expectation is not merely to avoid sighs and eye-rolls at the host stand. The caliber of restaurant to which you aspire requires you to cope with such affronts pleasantly and expeditiously. To your credit, we were seated right away – at a table with 3 place settings. I sat at the empty setting in a thinly-veiled attempt to underline the need for another. It didn’t work. The setting was simply moved to my table coordinates. I told the host who seated, the waiters who greeted and the bus who moved the place setting that we were a party of 4. I did not do this to show an asymmetry of information. I was hoping to drive home the point that the PARTY_SIZE variable must be incremented (PARTY_SIZE++). But like a program without stop-debug, all my efforts were repulsed. Party member #4 arrived to an empty place setting and the whole evening, every single dish that sets PORTION_COUNT=PARTY_SIZE was sadly served for 3. SLOOOOOOOOOOOWLY. Like a ‘94 Pentium rendering a 3D image.

It must be mentioned that the food was still excellent. We came for Oprah’s favorite fried chicken and now see how Art Smith’s recipe can cause a major weight yo-yo. But even here, the program allowed for no modification. One member of our party requested all dark meat because a study some-where and when concluded its flavor superiority (read: fat content). I’m waiting for the study that concludes the best part of the fish to be its head for the same reason but something about eating eyeballs spooks humans more than seals. Regardless, ILLEGAL OPERATION came back the response to my friend’s request. The program was running and nothing in the universe was going to change it. We did not persist for fear of committing GENERAL ERROR and crashing the restaurant. We don’t know how to reboot a kitchen.


The difference between the witchdoctor/rainmaker of eon past and the urban hipster of modern day is the former knew he was full of scat. How many otherwise intelligent people do you know that honestly believe they start trends and influence fashions? Although Ria never will, here’s to hoping that they do.

You’re common people. No one hides in bushes to document the minutia of your life. No one splashes it on the cover of supermarket tabloids. And no suburban housewife will ever ravage yours to fill the clichéd vacuum of hers. Except for a very few, no one really cares about what you say or do, or how you say or do it. Not even your 1000 Facebook friends. No matter the scope of your trendy genius, you simply lack a sufficient microphone to inflict any sort of influence upon the world. And not just you. Had Max Planck tossed aside a certain crazy manuscript, Einstein may have died a lowly patent clerk. Had a dead monk’s genetic studies remained lost, both Darwin’s and Mendel’s names would have likely been forgotten. It is not until someone influential takes up a cause, a thought or a style that the world gives a flying flock. Unfortunately, with the tiny numbers coming through Elysian’s doors, it is exceedingly likely that their skills will go unnoticed.

That’s a shame. Several things make Ria 4-star material. And several others ding it but these are hotel-related and not the restaurant’s fault. First, there is the service. “Excellent” does not do it justice. Ours this evening was above/beyond anything that we expected. Beyond anything this close to Rush Street. Attentive but not burdensome, conversational but not preachy, humorous but not clowning. Tru-caliber holding the theatrics. Why does so much 4-star dining think that waiters should project elitism? The diners of today want the mood of fun, not funeral.

The food. The consommé was one of the best soups I’ve ever had and for someone almost as passionate about the hot liquid course as the alcoholic one, this remark can carry weight. The special was the Guinea hen. Amazing that something can sound so tame yet unleash a torrent of delight that parallels your first illegal high. It was $40. For a bird. But I can’t describe how worth it. Worth its weight in Epoisses. Speaking of: due to drastic under-serving I stopped ordering cheese courses. I might start again. Comté was the cheese this evening and glorious was its portion. I’m not a fan of Comté but there was too much left over and that whole saying about pizza and sex applies. Besides, Brillat-Savarin said that a meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.

In closing, where on Rush Street can you still get a martini for $10? Where can you get a free round because there wasn’t enough for two glasses? Where is good wine not marked-up 5x? You’d never think it looking at the menu but Ria is affordable if you order well. Yeah, $38 for halibut and $15 for soup seems high but both would have been far more at Everest with far less fun. My great regret is that the restaurant was empty. On Saturday. Unlike genetics papers, menus don’t get prized post mortem. Instead of proper credit as the source of really good ideas, Ria may forever be the hipster who “started” skinny jeans. Or the Asian high-school kid who added to our lexicon. Or the butterfly that flapped its wings and caused the Bangladesh monsoon. Whatever, as long as it’s a monsoon of consommé.

M Burger

Into the breach of burger joints comes Tru with their take on gourmet ground beef patties. It was good cheap and fast. I’ll be back just so I don’t have to elbow through Portillo’s blue-collar cluster. At least if a doc or nurse starts crowding me, I’m pretty sure I can take them.

Carved into an iconic kitchen, M Burger serves a model of simplicity. 3 burger choices, single or double, a veggie and a chicken sandwich, fries shakes and fountain drinks. Inexpensive too. Amazingly, the eponymous M Burger (double) is only 4.49 – a 20 cent premium over the more pedestrian cheeseburger (sans secret sauce and bacon). Fries are 1.99 as is a fountain drink but shakes are a buck more. Not too bad considering Corner Bakery’s pricing for food that is barely edible.

We came for an early dinner around 6 PM and were the first in line. Service was extremely quick and polite and seating intimate. Fat people will find their bodily navigation as comfortable as bulkhead seating on a Southwest flight. As we looked up halfway through the meal we saw a line stretching out the door. These people had a very different experience from ours but I’m sure the food was just as good.

M Burger fills a void in the busy avenues of Hospitalville previously crowded only by Corner Bakery’s ineptitude. Same with the void left by the kitchen table of Tru after people realized that eating in the kitchen of a restaurant was really pretty stupid. But how cool is it to be able to eat for under 10 bucks while peering through the looking-glass into a world of 4-star magic? I’m not sure how many more tasting menus Tru will sell from this other side of haute cuisine, but for many of us there is an intrinsic warmth in having the spotlight’s glow reflected off a star and onto us. No matter how little of it we ourselves deserve. This is why Hollywood is full of personal assistants and hair-stylists – anything to get close. But there is something quaint about having secret sauce drip over you as you watch black-suited waiters conferring with white-suited chefs in the flurry of activity that is four-star dining. We feel like we share the spotlight without paying its dues. Or picking up dry-cleaning.

Outback Steakhouse

Ignore the favorite snobby punch-line. Outback Steakhouse is without question the best $20 steak you’ll ever eat and the best overall value of any chain you’ll ever admit to frequenting.

In times since passed, during the author’s youth, nothing pleased him and workout buddy more than a suicidal lifting session followed by Outback’s caloric overdose. Regrettably, age has withered lifting prowess and the weekly trip became an annual. A higher frequency would morbidly enlarge everything except the muscles. Back then, Outback’s Victoria Filet was the best $14 steak you’d ever eat and even now, with inflation, it’s still the best for $20. The key is to go and eat that alone, without the blooming onions, without the cheddar cheese fries and without the dozen or so James Boag lagers. But that never happens. It’s like ordering a hot fudge sundae and holding the fudge. By the time you’re done with Outback dinner, you will have consumed several days’ and several people’s allowance of sodium, calories, fat and every other damn thing that the doctors tell you not to eat. You will have also paid for it and wondered how things could really be so cheap and why downtown is fleecing you. You’ll return with family but fear that telling others would earn you a spot along the punchline. Screw it. Proclaim with me loudly: I am an Outback fan and shall be ashamed no more!

This fine Monday evening, we made the drive to Skokie where the nearest Outback lies. It was better than ever. On the menu were a half-order of cheddar cheese fries, a French onion soup, a shrimp salad, a Victoria Filet, with blue-cheese crust of course, but luckily no bloomin’ onion. Free bread and salads, 3 drinks and a generous tip rang in at $80. Immobility followed. The steak was as good as anything at Gibson’s and they did not fear the color rare. It was big and red and soft enough to cut with the soup spoon. The quality of the meat has always been consistent but the size and temperature were not. Rare will sometimes get you medium and returning it might get you burnt.  By the time you get your meat the other party will be finished. But that’s a case for training. And the English language. This day, the lottery was won. Everything was perfect. See for yourself.

The pants fit a little tighter so a quick return may not be the best idea but man, there’s still that craving for the bloomin’ onion. Should have had that while we had the chance.


Like its namesake in the plantae kingdom, Perennial has receded for the winter. Let’s hope for its rebirth. Lincoln Park sustains beyond its share of dining mediocrity. No more is needed.

Hotel restaurants exist in a market segment that affords them more than a natural state of business. Travelers will often choose a hotel bar for a quick meal without giving the choice any scrutiny. Even in a city like Chicago in a neighborhood like Lincoln Park, people choose to walk downstairs over walking several blocks regardless of the increased reward of the short trip. Inevitably, as most hotels are professionally managed while most restaurants are not, the professional mentality of turning $1.00 into $1.10 infects the restaurant and quality declines. Judging by earlier reviews, Perennial is an exhibit in the argument.

Brunch was an exercise in average. Average size, taste and temperature was the way of things on Saturday afternoon with service competent but going-through-the-motions. The short rib hash was not at all what was expected. The size of a thick commemorative coin, the line between rib and hash was blurred, then obscured by egg. Sancho’s omelet with poblano peppers should have been spicier and had the peppers not been chemically castrated through excessive heat, it would have been. But there was a lot of sauce on the potatoes which is a common omission of omelet-side preparation. The grilled cheese and tomato soup was average too. How can that be? By serving the soup lukewarm and the “aged cheddar” mild instead of sharp. Bacon was thrown into the cheese for fun but as a porker purist, the company of cheese, tomatoes and Texas toast only takes away from the swine’s delightful flavor. When used on a burger, bacon serves the purpose of crispy salt. In a grilled cheese, the salty sweet-spot is well reached with bacon just a member of the star’s entourage. A waste of divine flavor. And a great shame.

Brunch does not always equate to dinner. Nor dinner to brunch. Publican’s dinner is horribly plain while its brunch is spectacular. But because of the former it took me over 2 years to do the latter at Publican. The inference of mediocrity can be a powerful detractor. Based on brunch, I would certainly not be the first “yay” vote for Perennial dinner.

Table 52

How many restaurants think absolutely nothing of making patrons wait well past time reserved without offering so much as a coat hanger for their comfort? Not Table 52. Tasty, cozy and relatively inexpensive is its summary with service worth 4 stars alone.

We arrived a little before dinner to take in the cozy little scene and have a drink or 10 before stretching our abdominals and doing 3 sets or maybe 3 courses or something like that. The hosts absolutely freaked. Evidently, people don’t come to Table 52 prior to time appointed and this deviation from the norm was unsettling. Immediately, we were ushered out of the narrow hallway and into the bar area 70 inches away. We barely had time to order when another host came to apologize for the delay. Delay? We were 10 minutes early. They have been crazed all day the exquisitely appointed gentleman explained and in recompense, he would offer us the champagne he cradled in his hand for props. Cool we thought. We know how much champagne flights can cost. Well worth whatever delay we had to chew before the food. We sat and enjoyed our wine. All 3 sips.

T-minus 2 minutes before reservation time, we were seated. And so began the most unapologetic fest of gluttony ever recorded on a weeknight……since February……26th. The soup was a mushroom broth with actual mushrooms plentiful throughout and several kinds – not just one. And not cream. That’s easy. Add enough cream to a stool sample and it’ll taste great. The crab cake was a little small for $16 but had virtually no filler. Maybe that’s why it’s so big at other places. Breading has some volume. The pork chop and salmon entrée were good but not spectacular. The pork was overcooked despite a request for medium-rare. Hey, they asked. There is no reason to overcook pork these days as all meat is irradiated. But in kitchens ‘round the world, there still live chefs afraid of seeing a little raw in cuts of swine. A shame. But unlike cow, the snorting ungulate is more forgiving of a little extra heat. The salmon, however, is only forgiving on its edges. Inside, it had better be moist. And it was. But cooked salmon must usually depend on its accompanying sauces and here the dish was plain. But no matter.

It has become common for a fancy kitchen to spin on trashy dishes like mac and cheese or meatloaf. They almost always are the best things on the menu because, let’s be honest: how much improvement do they need? But with their M/C, Table 52 really struck some oil and didn’t even kill the penguins. It wasn’t too greasy or too heavy or too light. You definitely know you’ve been chowing after half a plate of it but the truffle-flavored cheeses seep into your taste buds where they evaporate into your bloodstream and make you high. One type of cheese is caramelized on the outside of the dish a la French Onion Soup. It peels off in strips that dissolve on your tongue like a gooey sacrament. Hellz, if communion tasted this good, I would have converted to Islam or Jehovah’s Judges or whatever the  cannibalistic faith they wanted so long as I got to munch some Jesus every night.

And on this note our evening ended. Never mind that we had 12 layer cake. Never mind that we never got the round of champers we were promised. Nothing could take the taste of mac and cheese communion from our palates.

Purple Pig

Hidden behind office space
In a building so remote
Lies a temple to pigs’ grace
Le couture this is le haute.

A Pig’s tail for 9 dollars
A bread ball for but five
‘Twas good enough to hollars
Or squeal it in pig’s jive.

A pork shoulder was eaten.
Prosciutto bead ball too.
No entrée exceeded
Ten single buckaroo.

But bester than the pricing,
Almost than the food
Was the Bloody Mary spicing
Heaven/Seven lewd.

The Purple Pig had served us
The way that no bar could
An orgy of ungulate
And more liquor than was good.

Go eat now at Purple Pig
Go before the line.
The taste harks back to stockyard days
Chicago knows its swine.

El Paseo

A new floor has been reached even as measured by the shockingly low standards of airport dining. A floor you should experience for yourself at El Paseo Café in terminal 1 of LAX.

Clearly, Valentine’s Day 2010 was a travel day so romantic dinner was at the SouthWest Terminal of LAX. Few cuisines make for better airport dining than Mexican. The same people who domesticated corn and beans and llamas perfected the art of throwing things into an edible wrap at lightning speed as required by antsy travelers. Speed is why one never finds Indian tandoori at the airport but can’t roll a suitcase without plowing into a burrito remnant. Indeed a burrito is perhaps the last thing one would expect to have the capacity for turning out poorly. Like pizza and sex, even when a burrito is bad, it’s still pretty good. But the burrito at El Paseo puts so much distance between itself and good that it’s comical. As a human with what I believe to be a normally evolved sense of disgust, my ability to express its depth was limited by the fear of causing an airport disturbance and getting tossed in with the underwear bombers. But after half of this burrito, my underwear wouldn’t need explosives.

If El Paseo served pizza, it would be a Domino’s and K-mart hybrid. Left to the elements. For a month. And if it served sex, it would be the hooker left uncoupled. At Santa Monica and Wilcox. On Saturday. I can’t explain beyond the above what this monstrosity was like. I simply haven’t the vocabulary.

So please see photographic evidence.

Don’t look too closely for fear of vomit on the keyboard but what the devil is THAT? What passed for guacamole was some sort of avocado paste with tomato roe sprinkled in for wetness. The beans were more drainage from a can than fried or refried anything and the tortilla was less edible than Viva paper towels but much much stronger. And hotter. The entire mess was heated to the temperature of nuclear fusion perhaps out of compassion since burnt tongues taste less. I only wish I burned mine more.

Happy Valentine’s Day dinner sweetheart.


BLD is not cheap. Nor does it blow a menu-sized hole through your taste buds. But it is so consistently good in a land of late-rising mediocrity that it deserves the highest marks by LA measures.

In a city that loves its sleep, finding a breakfast spot that opens before 9 ain’t so easy. But with BLD, (breakfast, lunch, dinner) you get as early a breakfast as you’re willing short of IHOP and hotel cafeterias. Considering that you’re blood-alcohol is probably still illegal, you shouldn’t make it too early.

One of the menu items I can’t seem to do without is the Cuban sandwich. They pile on the pulled pork onto a roll of bread that can more than stand up to all of it. Their fries are thin and crispy but will occasionally throw in a wet and soggy one that we all say we don’t like but secretly love to be surprised with. The sweet pickle I can do without. I prefer salty. But that’s me. I want to try other things but each time I have, I regret not going Cuban. There’s something in that sandwich that rings addictive. I hope it isn’t MSG.

The Huevos Rancheros are amazing. Even in a city where most people working kitchen are from Mexico, BLD excels with its take beyond the scope of others. They are also unafraid to charge for the privilege a cool $13. At that price one may balk but shouldn’t. Nor should one pass by the Cuban’s $18, the most expensive on the menu. Because nothing I have ever had that called itself a Cuban quite compares. I’m not even sure that this is a real Cuban since most sandwiches bearing the description have had variations of deli-meat. This was slowly-cooked pulled pork. Spicy. Amazing.

We caught LA on perhaps its loveliest weekend in a while. We sat outside and wanted to keep our sobriety defeated as thoroughly as the night before. But alas, BLD does not have a liquor license for its great outdoors! A let-down of buzz-killing proportions. The lovely waitress apologized that we were not told up-front and offered to promptly re-seat us on the legal side of drunk. No way. That afternoon, we were heading back to gross Chicago where it would be another 4 months before we could sit outside and not get frostbite. Plenty of time to drink indoors. We kept our spot and drank water. Sober had to come sometime. We sat in sunshine like Senators at fundraising bidding our fleeting intoxication fairy-well with a pound of pork.

The Ivy

Interview Q: Do you have a portfolio?
A: Yes...

Good for you. GTFOut. We hire people to work, not audition.

And because they obviously hire for ability, The Ivy is without question the best restaurant in LA.

The first thing a patron notices while marching to the table is the relative dearth of pretty people wearing aprons. This is four standard deviations distant from every other LA restaurant and doesn’t immediately sink-in. Why would a star-studded cliché of a spot not follow protocol? And after a dozen or so meals, I feel that the Ivy, unlike every other service sister, understands that its business is to get you in, fed, and the hell out in time to seat the next party. This does not happen when the waiters are too busy learning lines to remember orders.

Today, for the first time, things did not go flawlessly. They usually do. 1 for 12. When my Cajun Prime Rib arrived, it was cooked so thoroughly that well-done would be an understatement. I wish I took a picture. How was it ordered? Rare, of course. So here we know for certain that the waiter, chef, and bus person all looked at a “prime rib” half an inch thick and thought nothing of it. Alarms should have been sounding. But, an error is not serious so long as it’s corrected. And correct they did fast and without argument. Prime Rib round two was 2.5 inches thick and rare as I’ve ever seen. How about you? Some would argue that they overcompensated by serving black-and-blue instead of rare (there is a difference) but I won’t. The Cajun crust more than made up the heat that the center lacked. I can’t imagine eating it another way.

Also on the menu was 1 Grilled Shrimp Salad, 1 Artichoke appetizer, and 5 Ivy Margaritas at the cool price of $16.75 EACH. I thought the menu said 13.75 and can’t find an on-line version anywhere. I would have loved to scream bloody murder at these bastards and had I found proof of the margarita’s price differential I would have. But you know what? They make simply the best margarita I have ever sucked up with hunger for another. I looked up their recipe some years ago trying to emulate them and of course, got a lot of hearsay. The combo tasting most like theirs was: 1 part tequila, 2 parts Cointreau, 2 parts fresh lime juice. The one today seemed to have the tequila/Cointreau ratio reversed since it wasn’t as sweet as I remember. Either that or the limes are out of season. Either way, 3 are enough to knock me on my overfed buttocks. Each has 3 shots of 80-proof liquor. Cointreau is sweet but it sure can kick.

Finally, a note about the pricing. If you are on a budget, cross the street to News Café. Or better yet, get bent. The Ivy is a place that understands its market as well as its reality. They are in the business of turning tables and @ 16.75$/drink you’re a lot less likely to sit there sipping past your welcome. They deliver food that is consistently excellent with service that is second to nothing in LA. They also seat you on time which would be impossible had they not found their equilibrium price and gotten demand to equal supply. My sample size is north of 10 and never have I waited more than a few minutes past time reserved. Yes, you need to make a reservation. Yes, even at these price points. So if you want to be a hater, print out all the tales of woe you read in other reviews and eat them instead. Keep the Ivy’s tables free of human refuse so I can eat in peace.


The best part about group dinners is group orders. Usually, a party of 8 at a Tapas place would mean that one could sample 1/2 the menu. But today we sampled 1/2 a pig and were ripped off with no denominator.

As most gimmicks in the restaurant world, table-side swine is heavy on price, light on meat and lax on preparation. If one wants to nibble more than pork, it’s important to dine with a large, sample-friendly party and without the vegetarians, Jews or Muslims. One needs to plan ahead: our party reserved the piglet 3 days in advance. And one needs to pay down the plastic because staring at this snout is going to cost you a car payment.

The newborn table-pig is not a newborn concept. Greektown has been doing it for as long as Halsted crossed Van Buren. But unlike the flesh of nature’s oceans which allows for great variety in the sampling of Snapper, the only ready portion of a porker lies in the loin. And maybe belly. And maybe, if we were in China, the trotters and tail and every other damn thing. But, for the American table, little piggy means little else than 5 pounds of pulled pork. Not bad but how much sloppy pig can one eat? I did more than my fair share but not enough to make it worth $220. However, how cool would it be if the restaurant would send the porker back after its table-side theatrics and proceed to cure some ham, cut some shoulders, braise some ribs and bring back the dinner party a week later for pig-round-2? THAT would make it worth the price!

Sadly, with the way things stand, buying the pig defeats the entire purpose of Tapas dining. Your party would have to seat 15 to make the purchase viable and taste some other dishes. But at that size, you’d be fighting over the single piglet. And if you get two, well, from forth the fatal loins of those two porks, a pair of star-cross’d piglets gave their life; whose misadventured piteous oven-spits doth with their death bury their diner’s appetite.

Mercat is a good restaurant. Go there for tapas. Or suffer the 3-hours’ traffic of pig’s stage.

Urban Belly

At first glance Urban Belly appears like the Corner Bakery of rice and noodles: underserved and overpriced but that's mostly because they make you pay the bill before first bite. It was well worth the $50/2.

For those whose dining world is contained in a 1mi^2 radius from the loop, a journey to 3000s north and west had better mean cheap. Especially for rice and noodles. Overcharge the roundeyes on our own turf but if we travel we expect savings. So when we forked over nearly 50 bucks before taking a single bite and got a deli-style number to stand up at the table, we were naturally concerned. We certainly weren’t at Arun’s. Thank the sun god that the concern wasn’t warranted.

The fried rice must be fried in cream because every gooey mouthful dissolves in the acidic moisture of your tongue and leaves a buttery residue as it slithers down your throat. The best $7 cup of rice I’ve had since Hakkasan. Is it me or is rice a lot more expensive since they mapped its genome and found it more complex than the human? The fowl and fungus dumplings taste almost as good outside as they do inside which rarely happens outside a bakery and the vegetarian Asian Egg noodles are pan-fried before they are immersed giving them that crispy texture on every 4th noodle. The Udon, however, is more like pho with big fat noodles since all the floating fat is still doing backstrokes in my fourth stomach chamber. Chef Kim: you’re supposed to throw away the first batch of broth after you cook your scrapple in it. Besides, where does coriander/sweet chili/lime broth get fat from anyway? I thought Udon broth was clear. Anyway, despite the fact that there was enough cumulative garlic in our dishes to smell back home the food was really pretty good. Even 3 hours later if you catch my draft.

Finally, even though all you social creatures love it, I HATE communal seating. This is why we went at 11AM when no one else was there. If others were, I’m not sure where we would have parked given that 99% of the strip-mall parking seems to be reserved for the laundromat next door. Maybe they have valet. The tables are made of some pretty impressive wood though. The little stools are made of the same and are so heavy that had I done shrugs yesterday, I would have needed help sliding in.

Finally, finally: Dear Chef, unlike aircrafts, mooses, deers and fishes, I’m pretty sure “rices” is not a proper plural. Let’s check that before reprinting the next batch of menus.


Who charges $14 for the “house” pinot? $16 for three pieces of grilled octopus? $18 for a single crab leg? 3 infuriating dollars for 2 ounces of horseradish? The same people who bring out desserts we didn’t order and then charge for them.

Seated 15 minutes late for a 9:30 reservation, we knew that things could have been worse. The bar was packed and the staff had trouble navigating since management thinks patrons shelling out $13.25 for a half-filled martini would appreciate having none of the precious liquid spilled en route and asks the hosts to carry drinks up on a tray. This multiplies seating time by 3X.

We took our time deciding which was no problem at all since our server, Tony, was without a doubt one of the best waiters to ever work in a new and trendy restaurant. He suggested when we needed, pushed items but not too far and delivered nothing but courteous assistance to what would have otherwise simply been a price-abusive dinner. He also never let a drink go empty and never took one away with anything left in it.

Main courses for the evening were mostly good: Smoked Rib Eye, NY Strip, great: Sea Bass and not acceptable for the price: Yellowfin Tuna. Overall, the entire meal was unacceptably overpriced with little dings to insult even the most extravagant of diners. Charging $3 for a bottle-cap of horseradish when the steaks are already in the 40s is abuse of a high order. $18 for a single crab leg cut in two is nothing short of gouging and $14 for the “house” wine is just comical. Dear management: This isn’t a resort. You have not a captive clientele.  

But a manager did seem to care enough to make his rounds at the tables and we told him the truth. We also complimented the waiter as is our practice when deserved. He said he understood. To our delight, out come 2 excellent desserts: a crème brulee and a chocolate/hazelnut ice cream. How about that? The floor manager truly heard what we had to say and was trying to make the pain of Epic pricing hurt a little less. A+ for service – I thought. It was not until the following day that I stood corrected. There, on the bill, were two $10 charges for each of our “free” desserts. Nicely done gentlemen. I’m sure a lot of people won’t ever notice.

Dear Management, a restaurant isn’t an airline serving a unique route and although it may be tempting to invent charges for condiments and coat checks there are 10 thousand places downtown that don’t and never will. They can expect our speedy return whereas you, alas, cannot. Just please don’t charge us a non-returning customer fee.

Showplace Icon

On the menu at ShowPlace Icon were 2 pizzas, 2 sandwiches, 3 appetizers and 3 dimensions of Avatar. The food was good, solid bar-food. And the film was good, solid Cameron excrement. Since the movie was a part of the experience, I cannot properly review the evening without casting some stones.

One of the reasons brew and view is best at bars is because theaters are set up for serial entry and exit, not constant movement. But ShowPlace Icon does the best job it can with its handicap. We dined and took our drinks into the spacious VIP lounge-seating. There was unanimous consent about the pizza but disagreement about Panini. I must report that I liked everything even though half of our party found themselves underwhelmed by the sandwiches. Clearly their expectations were higher than mine. My half of a prosciutto Panini and pizza was better than anything I’ve had at Corner Bakery and for about the same price. Indeed, I was fully expecting the traditional movie theater price-goatse. Personal pizza for $20, amateur martini for $18, soggy fries for $10. You can imagine my surprise when the martini cost $10 and the house-wine $5! None of the entrees were anything out of the neighborhood’s typical price-range. Even the parking was free! For a bar that’s still trying to get its bearings, the table-service was quite efficient. I just cannot complain even though I want to. About the food that is. The movie…

How many times have we seen Avatar? Evil white man rapes and pillages poor defenseless natives until a converted white man sees the light and turns against his people and saves the savages.  At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Emerald Forest, Farewell to the King and even Pocahontas are all DVDs that were At Play in the House of the King (of the world) when he was generating this latest turdlet in his titanic arsenal. But inspiration is one thing. A simple search-and-replace job like with say, oh, I dunno: Dances with Wolves is a whole other matter. I’m not sure about you, but if I handed in Avatar to any of my English profs I would have been expelled for plagiarism. And for using low-caste Hindi words in titles. I guess Kings have a double-standard.

I don’t give a flying rhino about the CGI if the material beneath is a decaying heap of bleeding-hearts and neither should you. If it’s CGI you want go play a 3D video game. With the action all your own, you’re at least guaranteed originality. And if you need to feel guilt about something why not start with the fact that the countless upcoming cults and Facebook pages dedicated to Na’vi and arguments over whether Optimus Prime would be able to take Jake Sully will all be at the expense of doing something useful.

So, with all due haste, go see something at ShowPlace Icon. Just not Avatar. And don’t drink so much that you’ll have to hit the can 5 times during the film and have the irritated sober people try to trip you on your way. But if you do make it, be sure to take off the 3D glasses first. They don’t have the effect you hope for.


For the first time in Bandera’s history, we were served by someone whose opening remark was not “Have you dined with us before?” It could have been all downhill from there.

Many ghosts-of-business-past haunt Bandera’s space and we were certain Bandera would soon be just another apparition. Had we known they had Hillstone Restaurant Group’s money behind it we would not have been so cavalier with the predictions. But financial security has a price and as any seasoned diner will attest, chains like HRG, Grand Lux and McCormick and Schmick have a rigid, corporate feel that removes the distinction from even the wait staff’s appearance and personality. Having worked a block away and eaten at Bandera over 50 times I find it uncanny that I have never had the same server more than once and yet never has the experience deviated in so much as a single variable right down to the opening question. Except today.

Naturally, we wondered what else would be different. The menu was the same. The “soup” was still chicken chili which was not as spicy as we remembered but still delicious. The Veggie Burger was still the same outstanding mish-mash of guilt-free garden gunk that happens to be the best such mess in the city. Even the half-chicken which is the best item on the menu is still there having increased only $1 in 6 years to a budget-bursting $16. I figure that’s an inflation-adjusted 10 bucks. Even ordering it with all white-meat does not incur additional cost (as it does at sister restaurant Houston’s). However, they will get this wrong almost 25% of the time through either waiter omission or kitchen illiteracy. So how does Bandera remain so inexpensive?

We’ve already established that the restaurant must turn-over all of its staff every month or so. Bad even by food-service standards. HRG must really squeeze the hell out of its employees. And today, unlike most work lunches, we ordered drinks. A Bloody Mary costs $9 and contains little more than 2 shots of liquid. The Mimosa contains ice and mostly orange juice but was served in a huge wine glass. Ice with Champagne? Who’s idea was that? Just serve it in a normal flute and skip the fillers.

In all, Bandera is a fine restaurant with a great view of the avenue below it. The food is far better than it needs to be for the price and unless you’re trying to get drunk the meal won’t cost you much. Just be careful asking the staff robots to deviate from script because such curveballs will almost always guarantee a wait.

Urban Farmer

The only way to improve on perfectly-cooked steak is more perfectly-cooked steak. Thus, the steak-tasting at Urban Farmer of Portland was an improvement on excellent.  

Never before did oyster appetizers present me with problems. Until now. In retrospect, I felt that every oyster to have slimed down my throat took away room from a precious bite of steak. Twas sinful leaving behind as much steak as I had but there was simply no more room. For me, this is rare indeed but the “tasting” was not at all what I expected. Instead of tiny morsels littering gigantic plates the dish was simply 4 full portions of meat. None could have been smaller than 8 ounces. Just thinking about it now, I can feel the pressure on my cardiac sphincter (and if you must know, the other one too).  I had not been this full since the Cool Hand Luke inspired eating contest but I just could not stop.

The steak tasting consists of Highland-Oak grass-fed, Brandt Prime and Strawberry Mountain 21-day dry-aged. The Wagyu is an optional $30 add-on to an already $60 entree but who cares? It was one of the best cuts of the elite cow I’ve ever had. Naturally, I devoured it first. The rest were excellent too but nothing compared to the perfectly marbleized Wagyu. Have done with the childish notion of saving the best for last. According to the law of diminishing marginal return, one should always eat the best first. Children don’t know this and for this reason you never see any working as economists. The sheer size of the dish was something straight out of Barton G in South Beach. I was fully expecting a giraffe to come marching through the spacious atrium but thankfully some cheeseballishness is reserved for Miami alone.

There was no room for dessert. Barely any for drinks. At dinner’s-end I sat comatose for fear that any sudden movement would fatigue my muscularis and blow all of my undigested steak, along with my submucosa through an orifice of its own making. I would wind up like the fat dude in Se7en whose sin was gluttony. This night, mine certainly was.


If pigs could fly, Publican would probably catch them, rip out their wings and make a dish so tasty it would send the diner (with late hog) to porcine heaven.

Having encumbered Publican with my presence before, I thought I knew what to expect. Indeed, had it not been for the plethora of reviews calling brunch excellent I would not have even bothered. Dinner was just adequate and there are too few Sunday brunches in a year for plain adequacy. This, however, was nothing of the sort.

Forget what you may know of Blackbird portions. Forget about fancy schmancy. This is a place of pork and beer and love. Love because of those damned communal tables which I despise but everyone else seems to, well, love.

I had the grilled pork shoulder sandwich which was so big that upon first bite, the bread buckled with some contents crashing to the plate. Not to be defeated, I picked up the escaping swine and shoved it right back in the breach from whence it came then palmed the sandwich damning good manners to the pigsty. Nothing escaped again. Nor lasted long. Several partners-in dine had the scrapple with fried eggs which, although good, couldn’t hold a bacon-scented candle to my shoulder. But – what they could do is pierce their eggs and let the yolk seep through the sticky offal scraps like an embryonic reservoir whose placenta burst. I only wish they were pig eggs since this seems too erotic a way to mix the species.

Also worthy of mention are the sides of which we sampled three. The spicy pork rinds were less spicy than dreamy with the gentle taste of ungulate undulating through the airy folds of former flesh. The bacon must have been an inch and a half thick and tasted more like a pork belly than plain old Oscar Meyer crispy salt. The hash browns were – hash browns. A little too greasy for my taste but listen to me, drinking what must be a cup of swine-fat and acting all prejudicial against a greasy vegetable.

Anyway, put on your bacon underwear, stick your boar-bristle hairbrush in your back pocket, go to Publican, eat more than I did, bring your dog back some pig ears and tell the swine-haters to go flock themselves.


The Elysian made no small plans and unquestionably stirred men’s souls. Balsan elevates hotel drinking to a new level of gourmet and if they perform with their food even a fraction as well then we salute them.

We arrived at 7PM for a few drinks and appetizers. We had no reservations and would have been happy anywhere there was room for 5. In the world of trendy hotel bars, such poor planning can be treated 2 ways: Like a club or like a hotel.  The former method involves cavalier disdain or even denied entry (exhibit A: The Mondrian West Hollywood) or the latter (Sunset Tower WeHo) – two polar opposites of one another located in the same neighborhood, on the same strip and presumably competing for the same dollars. Case studies like the Mondrian are few in Chicago but not null (read: W Lakeshore) and if ever there was a hotel to capitalized on its hype and step into snooty shoes the Elysian was it. It didn’t.

The Elysian staff is there to help. Sometimes comically so. A small army of valets rushes your vehicle as you make the elaborate arc around the largest parking courtyard the city has ever seen. For $23/hour they could vacuum it too or something. There is someone waiting to intercept you at the door to help with directions. He/she is not overbearing if you seem to know where you’re going. At Balsan, the hosts sadly informed us that all the tables were, in fact, reserved (none were taken). But the bar was perhaps the better choice. Let us reserve full analysis until after the first full meal but the high-level overview is excellent.

The drinks are priced correctly for Rush Street and perhaps even underpriced. Why? Because they do love them so. I watched as each of the Night/Day Cocktails received 4-5 ingredients and an average 5 minutes of bartender attention. It was great but this certainly won’t scale. 5 more people at the bar would quickly overwhelm the bartenders. To reduce the demand price such drinks at $18 and not 12. The manager told me that they do not use mixers and even make their own tonic. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE, I thought, don’t cheap out on the prep work after the first month. No one is gonna wait 10 minutes for a vodka-tonic.

Independent of my prophesies, what we had we loved. Stay tuned for the full review after we get a chance to eat here.


Whenever a successful restaurant opens location 2, always cringe. For all you know, like Argentinean politicians, Tango Sur could be Nestor tagging-in Cristina’s Folklore. But they came through well enough.

We arrived at 7:15 for an 8PM reservation. Usually we only do a half hour advance but since this evening we picked up an additional couple and did not change the reserved total we figured 45 minutes would be courtesy enough. It was. The host, upon being told of our party’s growth, did not whine, roll his eyes, or gesture as though we had stuck him with a used syringe. All reactions typical of “too-cool-for-thou” restaurants. Instead he pleasantly said that we shall be seated promptly.

So off to the bar we went and ordered a bottle of wine thinking we’d be there a while. We weren’t. 10 minutes before our 8PM reservation time, the host informed us that it was time to close out. Now getting the bartender’s attention became difficult. Then it became comedy. The manager (or someone acting like one) approached me twice suggesting I close out. Time 2nd I told him that I was trying my best after which he closed me out himself and probably kept the tip.

Folklore’s menu is fairly authentic. Surprisingly so. Dishes like tongue and brain were not expected this far west on Division Street and for this reason had to be tried. The sweetbreads were amazing. On par with any I’ve had at MK. The tongue however, although pretty good, fell victim to Bucca syndrome by having so much garlic that breathing on others that evening would have been cruel. It was also served cold. With every bite I could not help but wonder how it would have tasted warm. I even tried to warm it in my mouth but got creeped-out by thoughts of French-kissing.

Had the main courses held up as well this review would have been perfect. But they didn’t. Does Argentina really like their steaks burnt? A great shame indeed. The waiter told me honestly that the only thing they could do rare would be the lamb chops. When you hear advice like this, do yourself a favor: take it and don’t argue. Rare or even medium-rare requires a top-notch cut of meat. Perhaps Argentina orders such cuts but then defaults on the invoices. You want to avoid any question of quality that can be blamed on tradition so be nice to the waiters and they will usually spare you the trouble. All told, the lamb-chops were still overcooked (very slightly) but still good. However, the steak shared by the party-joining couple was unacceptably well-done. To me.

It’s hard to take seriously people who claim to like sushi and then order California Rolls. I’m not sure if I should blame Folklore or Argentina entirely for claiming to like steak – and then burning it to death.

Pho Viet

Our biggest problem with North Vietnam probably wasn’t communism as much as what we consider our best friends they consider lunch. So before you take my advice, know that if Pho Viet served Chihuahua noodle soup, I’d definitely have a bowl.

Luckily, Argyle Street doesn’t serve the “mutton of the earth” as the Mandarins have called it since 500BCE. At least to white people. This spares the beast-lovers from having to travel north of Lincoln Park to protest on broken sidewalks and me from boasting loudly and grossing people out more than I already do. The pho they do serve merely exploits America’s favorite ruminant. And exploit it they do.

If Le Colonial is your only point of reference, the contents of pho around Argyle Street may surprise and/or disgust you. Personally, I have enjoyed too many hot dogs over my lifetime to care much about what I’m eating so long as it tastes good. And the reticulum chamber of the stomach with some hot sauce bites back at me like the snappiest of sausage casings. Submucosa is predictable that way. The tendons are usually so tender from extended cooking that the only muscle fibers they can hold together are made of noodles. I will warn you that they still have enough resistance to stretch down your throat if you eat a gob of them so either practice your gag suppression or pull them apart with chopsticks first. The brisket, flank and “rare” steak (that is never anything but well-done) are all good enough for a soup dish but definitely better in the company of Hoisin and hot sauce. You’re not at Gibson’s. Garnish accordingly. My favorite way to eat pho is to take some broth, chopstick some noodles into it, then take some meat, dip it into a swirl of Hoisin and hot sauce and slurp it all down loudly enough to embarrass your date. If you spoon some mint leaf bonus! If, however, you spoon a raw pepper, good luck with that. But please, even if you like it hot, do not pour hot sauce into your broth before you try it. It’s too delicious on its own.

Pho Viet is well on par with Tank, Pho 777, Pho 888, Pho 666, Pho 911 and whatever else those people own pretending they’re different restaurants. In the back of Viet is a dance floor and karaoke machine begging the question: if sounds of slurping noodles add depth to sing-along incompetence. Yet no amount of noise could deafen me to the quality of the food. Maybe if they had a velvet rope…

DMK Burger Bar

DMK is a case of 3-star service helping out a 1-star kitchen. It takes a lot to make me drive north of North. And for DMK I floored it the whole way. The greater the excitement the louder the disappointment and DMK’s rang in with an air-horn.

Hoping to avoid the wait, we hit lunch at 2PM. Since I usually eat lunch at 11, such delays are a form of medieval torture which I inflict upon myself with the utmost infrequency. But when going to eat a burger by the man who gave us MK River North I would have waited until even 2:30. I am a simple diner and all I wanted for Christmas was the best burger in the whole universe but got instead 2 lumps of coal for that’s what my two thin, horrifically overcooked patties tasted like.

 Now there is a time and a place for thin, well-done burgers. Portillo’s is exhibit A. White Castle exhibit B and so on. And they do a good job. Indeed, if I ordered a Double Cheese at Portillo’s and had someone ask me how I wanted it I’d high-tail it right out the door. It’s just not what one expects. But that is precisely what I expected at DMK for I expected gourmet. What I got instead was a couple of thin, extremely well-done lumps of beef that may as well have been cat food since no flavor (to say nothing of juices) can survive such burning. Do they even bother with Grade-A beef? Why? Save some cash and use grade-C-edible instead. If they’re going to assume we all want our burgers cooked at white phosphorous temperatures who cares what's on the plate? It’ll all taste the same. When someone orders a double a huge improvement would be as simple as making it one patty and cooking it a little less.

The service was much better. The waiters were very nice. All 4 of them, one of whom was none other than Michael Kornick himself.  They all took turns asking us how things were 30 minutes after being seated but not yet having received our food. We would have loved to tell them had it not been premature to render opinion pre-first-bite. After it, everyone vanished as if we had requested more water which (BTW) took 20 minutes, 2 requests and 1 heartfelt plea to be delivered. When it was, it had no ice but was clearly unfiltered. However, I must say that the cheese fries were the most pleasurable things to pass my lips for several weeks. Real cheddar, seasoning and the best potatoes made it so. The Mac and Cheese, however, was OK at best. OK because it’s easy to hide behind bacon bits. Strike number last. I don’t know much about football but am pretty sure that strikes are a bad thing.


The restaurant at the Whiskey is like a beautiful woman who refuses to pluck her unibrow. One irritating little thing, not immediately apparent, is the missing link between the heavenly 70 restaurant virgins and purgatory. And Whiskey has been coping much like women do. She might dye her hair, don some fancy jewelry, even change her name et cetera, et cetera all of which completely miss the problem.

Dear Rande Gerber: your management (or lack thereof) is the only thing holding your restaurant down. You’ve changed everything else, why not change leadership? Change has become so endemic that one day I expect to walk into one type of restaurant at the Sutton Place Hotel and walk out of something completely different. You have great food, the best location and relatively competent and pleasant service. What you clearly lack is someone giving rules and direction to the bewildered herd that is your staff.

No matter how nice a waiter is, it takes a manager to push knowledge from the kitchen to the customer via the waiter. The communication channel should not break down and have to run back to the kitchen for answers. The reason your wait staff never knows what is the day’s soup is because no manager called a meeting where such things are discussed. Why not? We expect this kind of thing from family-run greasy spoons but not from Rush Street and certainly not from you.

This Thanksgiving day, we knew that Whiskey would be open for lunch along with Tavern and perhaps Subway. The choice was simple. Tavern’s food is an abomination. A spat in the face of Rush Street real estate. Subway is, well, Subway. So Whiskey it was and will likely continue to be despite never knowing if our meal will take an hour or a half. We’ve had both and it appears to have no pattern beyond the luck of a dice-roll. The only consistency is the inconsistency. I wish we could punish the Whiskey by not going. But no one would notice. Like Paris Hilton, there is enough money in the background that even if everybody stopped caring, she’d still wake up in 5 years and be rich. And Whiskey will still open for lunch on Thanksgiving Day and be a Gerber bar no matter how few tables are taken. A great shame indeed.

Silver Palm

In Atlas Shrugged, the men of the mind go on strike against the world, relinquishing their positions of power and taking up unassuming tasks like cooking. I am convinced that John Galt cooks for Silver Palm.

Considering the proximity, (well within stumbling distance) many an evening has ended at either Silver Palm or its famous sister: the Matchbox. Unfortunately, by these hours, food is no longer being served and no evening starting at these places ever ends well. But a great shame it is to have a meal at Silver Palm and not dedicate every sober neuron to its memory. So today, I put myself on a 5-martini limit and focused on the food.

The City of Chicago, like most metropolitan babysitters, dealt the Matchbox and the Silver Palm a blow by banning indoor smoking. Not being a ciggy-sucker, I do value coming home and not smelling like an ashtray. But there are some places where the thick cloud of airborne tar is an improvement upon decades of booze and smoke oozing from the crevices. So a newcomer might even be forgiven for inhaling the setting and not indulging his appetite. I hope to change that.

What sort of bar menu proudly boasts a duck club sandwich? Jumbo shrimp? A Triple-pig sandwich with pickled green tomatoes? Or even a deep-fried avocado salad? Most bars would never dream of such items simply because their customers would have nightmares about ordering them. But here, the doubters get a giant middle finger. Success is the best comeback and oh how delicious success is. In the 6 years of its existence, never once have I had anything but perfection grace my plate and never once has dinner for 2 cost more than the price of a Gibson’s entrée. The love of food and attention to detail shine through every meal as though I was sitting in Dagny Taggart’s private rail car with John Galt himself in the kitchen cooking in pots of Rearden metal. My only regret is not remembering every one of them.


There are two types of restaurant management philosophies: wanting to say yes and wanting to say no. Havana Grill wants to scream “yes” at the top of its spacious lungs.

The former Mambo Grill space has come along nicely. Much more muted and stylish, Havana was nearly empty on Thursday evening with 3 or 4 people at the bar and no more than 3 tables in the dining room. A poor turn-out even by recession standards. But the true measure of management is whether the restaurant treats the few patrons it has with the utmost attention rather than pretend its poor attendance is a mark of exclusivity.

Anyone who has tried to order egg whites at Twisted Spoke or make a substitution at Orange understands the “no” philosophy of management. This discipline teaches that we have more than enough business and if you don’t like our menu please make room for those who do. Spoke, Orange, the Soup Nazi and virtually every restaurant in the UK make for exhibits in the first camp. In the second is the Gibson’s family of restaurants, Red Light and now Havana.

The selected appetizer for the evening was chips and guac with the probability of ordering more since we were a party of 3. No more was needed. For $6.95, Havana gives a mountain of chips, 2 different salsas and a healthy heap of guacamole. Great start. Until we ran out of guac while still looking at a slightly smaller chip mountain. The server happily refilled it and didn’t charge us anything. THIS is what service is all about. Do wait staff not realize that nickel-and-diming customers will always reflect poorly on their tip? Whereas this kind of thing could easily double the jar. And this wasn’t all. My two companions, in no mood for giant entrees wished to order from the lunch menu where all the goodies like enchiladas and quesadillas hide. No problem. Happy to accommodate. And we were happy to be accommodated and tip accordingly.

The food itself was a winner for two out of three dishes and even the third was probably a winner save for my personal prejudice against sweet sauces with cheesy dishes. I had the Chiles en Nogadas which were – get this –really spicy! 9 out of 10 chilies will be so oven-neutered that virtually no hints of capsaicin could survive so this was a refreshing little nip. However, that sweet sauce bathing them – I just could not find the complement. But the other two diners loved them and accused me of not being open to variety. Perhaps but much better did I like the portabella quesadillas which were filled with thick, meaty chunks of the venerable fungus, not like most places where they presume that just because the mushroom will be covered in cheese, its own quality does not matter. And the best dish of the evening was the enchiladas. Perfectly seasoned and huge, their great taste made one want to ignore sharing-etiquette and grab larger portions before anyone saw.

Also worthy of praise is the peach daiquiri which was absolutely delicious. It could have been just a little stronger though but then it probably wouldn’t have tasted as good and I would not have had 5 of them. (Yes I would have.) The Mojito, however, was so sweet that drinking it quickly could very well have caused a sugar high which makes for a contradictory effect with booze. And the key lime pie – although not spectacular – was worth every penny of the $4.95 it cost. All told, Havana is a great deal with excellent service. We be come again soon.


Like with nightclubs, amusement parks and Pink’s Hot Dogs, I’m just too old and cranky to stand in line with fellow hungry humans. But after eating at Xoco, I would wait patiently behind the herd.

So badly did I want to rip Xoco apart. Seeing those lines out the door all but wrote the intro for me. IN ALL CAPS. Such a line is a non-starter. So I woke up at an ungodly 10:45 AM and hit lunch by 11:00. I ordered a Cubana sandwich (which I was hoping was the more digestively-affectionate version of a Cubano if you catch my drift) and my partner-in-dine ordered the Jamon but without the Prosciutto. Used to such bizarre order contradictions I said nothing when suddenly the server offered to put the Prosciutto on the side. “Not many Prosciuttos are made in America” she helpfully explained and since I was clearly into eating pig she would be remiss to let me pay for a Jamon and not get the key ingredient. I didn’t want to get into specifics of what was meant by “Made in America” since American Prosciutto is akin to American Champagne so we patiently took our seats and waited for our meals.

And waited. And waited. Could it be that this was the reason behind the line? Most likely. My companion, who was, by this time, a Xoco veteran insisted we order chips and salsa which we completely devoured by the time the sandwiches arrived. But arrive they did and splendid was their sight. And smell. And taste. Both sandwiches had a delicious coating of black bean paste, avocados and cheese. The Cubana had pork loin and bacon while the Jamon was supposed to have the venerable Prosciutto which came instead on a plate. A big plate. With a lot of cuts which made me wonder if the Jamon was typically 5 inches thick. No matter. It was absolutely divine. The payoff was worth the wait. And the $30 tab.

So as much as I regret not being able to shove Xoco down Balyess’ apron like I did with Trotter in his high of price and devoid of taste To Go venture, I stand convinced once more that when Bayless puts his name on something, right down to the mass-produced salsa at the grocery store, we should expect nothing short of excellence. Sir, if I had your autograph, I’d eat that too.


Well-priced, well-located and pretty, Eivissa could have been a contendah but then chemically castrated itself by serving up dish after dish of utter mediocrity. So with heavy hearts and in proper attire, we continue our search for a restaurant to plunge into the breach of upscale in Old Town’s rising sea of sports bars. Caring not how good the food, if we drive up and see a backward ball-cap we’re busting a U back downtown.

Per the usual discipline, we arrived at 8:15 for our 8:30 rezzie and were seated immediately. I know this was the luck of the entrance as the place was full but at Iberico, they would have made us wait 20 minutes even if a table were ready because they can.

Before the bad we must mention the good. Or the great. The Sangria Amnesia is perhaps the best Sangria ever to have passed the author’s unshaven lips and evaporated directly into his brainstem. When they say on the menu that it has a secret kick, they aren’t exaggerating. It’s pricier than the other pitchers but you aren’t going to be having more than one no matter how much you and your date drink or they’ll be putting up chairs around your drooling passed-out faces at closing time. The Amnesia may be fruity and murky and red but surely the “secret kick” is clear as day. Huh huh. Everclear.

Even though the Amnesia was the way to go, we started by ordering the Xampany with bubbliez. Except OOOps! It can’t be ordered in a pitcher. This makes logical sense as a pitcher of sparkle would quickly become dull but say so on the menu! We came here to use our digestive systems, not our cognitive centers and don’t appreciate being made to think logically about cocktail selection.

Had the food struck Tapa gold, (or even bronze) the author being the petty prickly piece of poopy that he is would have still complained about the pitcher but sadly, Eivissa set out to compete for a nugget of gold and came back with a beach full of quartz.  

The best tapa of the evening was Canelon Relleno, which, BTW, is misspelled on the menu! (There is no “ñ” in Relleno, just a regular-old “n” without the tilde.) And even this was just OK. It was strong, which we expect, but the salsa did not complement the seafood. Salsa rarely does. Indeed, it seemed to us that none of the sauces did much for their respective tapas. They even served some spicy mayonnaise with pork loin skewers (pincho moruno). This was such an odd combo that it almost took away from the flavor of the potatos which were the best part of the dish. Luckily you could just remove the mayo gob. The duck breast confit was actually a duck-leg confit despite the menu’s promise. This was supposed to be a substitute for the grilled pork loin (Secreto de Cerdo) which was apparently so secreto that it ran out and forgot to tell anyone to restock. Sorry wait staff, duck does not pig substitute make. The salmon wasn’t bad but overcooked and far too small even for a tapa. It’s meant to be shared so make it big enough to share without microscopic surgery. The asparagus was actually really good but given its salt content, it could have not been anything else. So salty, that I couldn’t even pee to see if it smelled. (Though, the Sangria may have played a dehydrating part.) We didn’t bother with desert but just kept drinking. We wanted out last memory of the place to be a good one.

Hong Kong Delight

As the world’s Chinese restaurants descend into health-consciousness, it is a rare treat indeed to be served up grease, salt and MSG by the handful at a lovely little place called Hong Kong Delight. If this place served salads, you’d sooner get dressing in your face than on the side.

Sure, you can ask to hold all the above-mentioned goodies like the downtown places already assume by default, but why in the world would you? The entire point of this place is to enjoy Chinese food the way they did in the 00s and you did in the 80s. Before you gave a flying rodent bottom about living a long time. Gallons of grease. Woks of cheap meat. Oceans of soy sauce. Yum Yum.

You know how you can you tell that a bag contains a real Philly Cheese Steak sandwich just by looking at the grease-ooze? Well, that’s how you tell a real egg roll as well. And these are huge. More burrito than roll, these deep-fried monsters arrive at your door hot enough to melt your cheap CB2 flatware so watch it. The curry-seasoned Singapore Noodles are briefly fried as well giving them a rare crunchy quality but only on the outside. This is how they’re supposed to be done but so few places bother with the last step probably because they don’t want to clean curry off of their frying pans. Hong Kong Delight doesn’t give a damn. Your meal contains remnants of the last 50 they prepared. I say bonus. The egg-drop soup seems to have more eggs dropped than MSG which is also a rare treat. The reason so few places offer egg-drop soup is because it tastes like absolute chicken-manure without a healthy (or not) handful of the additive but this one is perfect. The only complaint of the evening was the Mongolian Beef which had much more sauce than beef. And those it did were the size of bloated Cheerios. Genghis Kahn would not be pleased.

If you know what to expect, Hong Kong Delight will not disappoint. However, if you are one of these pretentious pee-bags who think themselves allergic to the feeling of Umami, gluten, salt, grease, air, etc., then by all means get your take-out somewhere else. Plenty of places that actually pretend to clean the pots between tofu and pork dishes will be happy to charge you more and give you less. Take that and snort it up both nostrils. Only – I wonder if then it would be Stereosodium Glutamate.


For the last 12 years, Naniwa in River North has had some of the city’s best sashimi and its worst rolls. We always thought this was Bobby-San’s punishment for stupid Americans who thought they liked sushi but were afraid to order it without mayo. Well sir, whatever changed your mind, after more than a decade, we appreciate it.

In their 12 years of existence, Naniwa has come a long way. It has always been common knowledge that a spicy tuna roll was the restaurant’s way of getting rid of fish that didn’t make the cut, so to speak, for an order of sashimi. Belly meat is easy to turn into a delightful order. Often it’s billed as toro and sold for multiples more than regular old maguro. It melts in your mouth and is mostly worth the price. But the closer one gets to the tail of the venerable fish, the more ugly white tendons and sinews one has to cut around to keep the customer from chewing gristle. These precise navigations around unappetizing connective tissue usually makes for pieces far too small to present as stand-alone. So what to do? Being the shrewd economists that the Japanese have always been, they rolled these scraps into the now-famous tuna maki. I have no idea who was the genius that also made it spicy but I tip my hat to him.

In any case, Naniwa used to present spicy tuna rolls with not only the scraps but also, the tendons themselves. They filled it with gobs of spicy mayonnaise hoping we wouldn’t notice. We always did. Nearly all of their rolls used to follow the same discipline. Or lack thereof. It was the greatest disparity in Chicago sushi. How could a restaurant serve A+ sashimi and complement it with rolls that would make for better pet food? Thus, not wishing to be gagged by long fibers of sinew stretching down our throats but unwilling to give up the sashimi, we would routinely order sashimi delivered from Naniwa and rolls from somewhere else. Naturally, this became tedious as it involved 2 disparate arrival times, 2 delivery fees, 2 tips, etc., but the sashimi was worth it. However, in 2009, things began to change.

We first noticed the new spicy tuna roll at a table next to us when we were doing a rare eat-in at Naniwa. It looked great. Unlike the thick orange paste that looked like tuna sausage without casing and was the roll’s typical texture, this one had thick chunks of real tuna with thin layers of spicy mayo between them. Could this be true we wondered? We had to see for ourselves. You can imagine our surprise when that first morsel slid past our tongues and did not bleed out on contact. The pieces we big, fresh and gristle-free. Could it be that, after 12 years of having the city’s worst tuna rolls, the head chef actually noticed? A sushi restaurant that gives the take-home crowd sashimi just as good as that served in the dining room is a rare find. And once found, seldom abandoned. For this reason, 63.98% of my 2009 sushi budget has gone to Naniwa. I only wish it could have happened sooner.

Chicago Curry House

One may image that we felt pangs of guilt eating more food at dinner than some Indian villages do in a week but the only pangs felt this evening were those of some seriously spicy samosas rioting in our mouths.

For less than the price of a single Gibson’s cow slice, 2 people can eat their absolute fill at Chicago Curry House. It is remarkably reasonable and absolutely delicious.

The age-old formula for most Americanized Indian restaurants (read: not on Devon Street) is to bring out the lukewarm and mediocre buffets for lunch and then slightly turn up the quality at dinner while WAY turning up the price. Said formula all but assured the restaurant a healthy lunch crowd and a dinner wasteland. So imagine the refreshment of walking in for dinner and being able to order a large 3-meat combination platter, nan bread, rice and 2 sauce dishes for $18.95, a tandoori platter with chicken and lamb prepared 2 different ways each for $14.95, or a plate of around 8 vegetable dumplings for $7.95.

A big win for Chicago Curry House and an even bigger one for those of us who don’t want to drive 10 miles north for some reasonably-priced Indian.

Maxwell's at the Club

East Bank Club has had a restaurant for 30 years. But only for the last 2 have they given a gosh-darn. They have a web site, they buy advertising, they hire professional wait staff. They actually seem like they care which is strange for a group that banks 70M/yr no matter how bad they are.

When one is as old and rich as Dan Levin and partners, one cares very little indeed about petty things like incline benches or food-service. Why should they when they have morons like the author paying them 2Gs/yr for no reason other than the 5 or 6 days/yr he can use the sun-deck? That’s roughly $400/visit. And with drinks, it’s more like $1000. Not a bad price tag. Hell, if I charged idiots those sums, I wouldn’t give a flying rodent bottom about sillines like exercise equipment or friendly service. I wouldn’t fear the XSport Fitness clubs that manage, for $40/mo to have the best equipment, the largest spaces, the hugest dudes, the best smoothies and free parking. Nah – I’d be old and rich and white and would tell all the haters like me to go elsewhere. And get bent. So one can imagine my surprise when, after a 4 year hiatus, I went to the re-designed restaurant on prime-rib night, ordered one rare, and actually got it that way.

In ages and ages past, the restaurant (which never had a proper name) would routinely run out of its special dinner entrée around 7 PM. This must have been economical because dinner started at 5:30 PM, the geriatric crowd was fed by 6, changing into their yellow pants to go cruising for Russian hookers at Tavern or Jilly’s. The only problem was, for those of us that actually work out, the fact that we’d be roped in for a special and be obligated to swill the regular. This was unacceptable. But with the passing of Hubbard Street Grill there were few options.

As any diner worth his/her sea salt knows: the difference between a 2-star meal and 4 is service. Everyone in Chicago gets their meat from Randolph Street and everything else from Sysco. The difference is made by what is thrown away before being put in front of the hungry, by how a plate is presented, and by how friendly and attentive is the person presenting it. Thus, last night was a home run. Or, by the aforementioned count a triple. But that doesn’t sound as good. Which is why it helps the author of sport metaphor to know what the sam-hill he/she is talking about.

Anyway, we came for prime-rib special and prime-rib special we got. Rare. Like our pre-fire ancestors used to eat. That’s more nostalgic than accurate since fire came before the cow but you get my drift. It was excellent! It was as good as I remember the few times I actually managed to score some before the male-enhancement crowd. It was so good that I didn’t actually have room for desert. For me, this is remarkable.

So – East Bank Club – congratulations. You can add my $120/month to your 70M annual profit margin. Now all you need is a leg sled and we’ll be friends again.


Many things have delusions of grandeur. People may develop a fake accent like Madonna. Swim towels become Sham-wows, computers become Macs, backwards bathrobes become snuggies, and Mexican restaurants become Mercadito.

For who else but the delusionally-grand would charge 2.50 for a table spoon of salsa? $10.50 for a “tasting” of guacamole? Or $19.50 for a chile relleno? Not even Topolobampo. But before the ridicule, let us cover the compliments of which there are several.

The Chile Relleno was less chile and more tortilla attempting with all its might to hold back a torrent of shrimp, scallops, octopus and other swimming delicacies impatiently bursting from under a layer of melted cheese. I was amazed that $19.50 was all it cost. And the green rice casserole, (¡Dios Mio!) redefined comfort food. (Consider the value of such a statement when uttered by someone for whom all Mexican is comfortable.) But it seems that recently, all good meals have an ugly underbelly. And not necessarily the one that comes printed on the bill. We sneaked a peek at ours with drinks.

My Margarita Tradicional was excellent. Absolutely delicious. Why? Beacuse instead of using 2 parts tequila per 1 part Cointreau, they reversed the formula. Sweeeeeet. But not traditional. And not enough. If you’re going to make weak-tasting drinks, the least you can do is over-serve them. My margarita had enough for 3 sips. No joke. How they got non-crushed ice to look so filling I have no idea. Same problem with the wine. The glass could not have had more than 3  ounces worth. For $10 that’s abusive. The one thing I absolutely loved (enough to plagiarize the idea) is the manner of salting the glass. They dip one side of it low into the salt so that if you want some, you have plenty. If not, drink from the other side. I’m amazed I have not seen this done more often.

The guacamole “tasting” consisted of a traditional and a mole covered. For the latter, someone took a traditional and poured some very average sweet, brown liquid over it that had the remarkable consistency of canned black bean emulsion. However, the habenero salsa (which costs $2.50 per tablespoon) was the highlight of the appetizers. Beware. It’ll make even the grossest entrée swim eagerly down your gullet just to put the flames out.

Finally, even though the restaurant stresses that it is a tapas-style menu, they do indeed have entrées. Thus, when a member of a party orders one, bring it WITH the tapa that’s serving as the other entrée and not 10 minutes later. Overall, the meal was a disappointment not in taste but in value. With places like Province and Tocco recently opened, spending over $100 for some good but mostly overpriced Mexican food is not competitive. There was no part of the meal that should not have cost less.

E. Leaven Food Company

Want to be treated like scat while your mouth is stuffed with rubber cuts of lukewarm meat? Go to Katz’s Deli, NY. Want mounds beef to chew on while your wallet is purged of hard-earned monies? Manny’s, Chicago. But if delicious, cheap and fast is more your speed, head straight for E. Leaven Food Company, 54 E. Ontario St., Chicago.

For the price of a single Manny’s Monster, you can get a delicious sandwich or burger, side of chips, bowl of soup and pastry and not risk a coma on your return to work.

Now there will be those who think the comparison unfair and the term “deli” too broad to distinguish both styles of dining. To them I say it’s true. One should not use the umbrella of “burgers and fries” to compare McDonald’s to any such thing they get at Gibson’s. But what if the Gibson’s burger cost LESS than a Big Mac? Would there ever be a reason to drive-through again? Because E. Leaven is gourmet delicious for LESS!

There is nothing on the lunch menu costing more than $10 and only the Nova Lox Platter (breakfast) rang in at a whopping $10.95. So what possible reason would justify paying $16 for a sandwich and another 5 for a grotesque matza-ball bathed in a broth of liquid-sodium? Hangover? $/lb.? Cafeteria-style dining?

For $13 I enjoyed a delicious, gourmet matza-ball soup made of soft, chewy dough that didn’t fall apart when the spoon tapped it AND a baked ham and brie sandwich that had the perfect ratio of both. The breads were freshly-baked, not perpetually stale and the dining room clean and well appointed with a squeeze-bottle of Gulden’s spicy mustard on each table. All that’s missing is folded linen napkins but if the laundry bill pushes the entrée cost another 50c, forget it. Who needs napkins anyway when things taste this good?

It seems that all these years, the world of delis had things wrong. Quantity (rather overdoses) of can-tasting meat were mistaken for quality. Can E. Leaven do for it what Topolobampo did for Mexican? I certainly hope so. It is, by far, the best value of any restaurant so close to Michigan Avenue. I’m loading up before they get lines out the door.


A place that bills itself as THE place to eat before the theater and does not provide parking is committing a gross misrepresentation. Had the meal not otherwise been splendid, this would have been a complaint letter.

So perhaps our 4PM dinner time was a little early. But we were a party of 6 and our show started at 7 so we believe it common courtesey to plan ahead and not rush the staff at every turn. Imagine our surprise when we pulled up and – nothing. No valet eager to drive away our vehicle. Judging by the number of people queued up for the same I don’t think we were alone in our expectations or incredulity. When taking a dinner reservation for 4PM the staff ought to let the party know that there would not be a valet and to make alternate plans. Normally driving is cheaper than round-trip cab fare but not in the theater district. Thanks for wasting $30.

But on to the meal itself.

How many ways are there to ruin Calamari? Pretty much none. Like sex and pizza, even when calamari is bad it’s still pretty good. So how did it come to pass that Petterino’s made their calamari appetizer so good that all others tasted ruined in comparison? Also good was the fried asparagus, the garlic potatoes, soups and of course, the entrées of salmon and steak. Indeed, it has been a long while since I ordered a steak rare and actually got it that way. Yes, I know the risks, no I don’t care. Not to mention, most meat is irradiated anyway so all the stuff your parents taught you is more nostalgia than reality. When I order rare, I mean it. And here, rare was delivered. It was excellent.

It’s a shame that the most memorable part of the meal has to compete with the most memorable irritation of the evening. They really should get a valet.


As we arrived at Tocco at 8:28 PM for our 8:30 reservation, we were told that things would take 20 minutes since they were “waiting” for a few tables. Not a good start. But before we could even take a sip of our first round, we were seated and on our way to the tastiest Italian dinner we’ve had in a while.

 The chef/owner of Tocco is not new on the scene. His Folia restaurant in the market district was one of the most affordable and tasty Italian meals in the city, occupying that rare nook of the Italian spectrum between La Scarola and Spiaggia. And with Tocco, he does it again.

For some reason, Italian restaurants have, over the years, become caricatures of themselves. Giant portions, overdoses of garlic, oceans of tomato sauce, and pasta pasta pasta. Fine-dining Italian was a contradiction in terms for those unfamiliar with the potential of a Spiaggia but even mid-priced restaurants like Topo Gigio kept the caricature alive and pretended to be fancy just by increasing prices. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.

How refreshing it then is to taste some very mainstream Italian dishes and be overwhelmed by their uniqueness. Pizza, ravioli and pasta may not sound like the makings of a memorable meal but Tocco did a truly amazing job with them. The Pomodorini pizza was as good as any Folia did and at budget-busting $16, the most expensive item of the night. It was pretty big though. Enough to stuff 2 normal people, just not us. And speaking of stuffed, the ravioli had a mix of ground seafood including crab, shrimp and probably whatever else was past its prime on refrigerator shelves. But you know what? It was great. When you order a seafood ravioli, you had better expect it to taste mildly fishy and here it only added to the flavor. Despite all this delicacy, the loudest applause must be bestowed upon the Pappard Bisamzio pasta. Steaming hot, it was prepared in a tomato/cream sauce that must have been the best ratio of tomato to cream I’ve ever tasted. Here was one dish that we could have eaten 5 times over but as before mentioned, Maggiano’s was never in the building.

In closing I would like to thank the Tocco management for not gouging their customers on drinks. A Martini these days can cost anywhere from 12 which is somewhat inappropriate, to 18 dollars which is the pinnacle of greed. Points then to a restaurant that still charges $10. It will not be forgotten. Unless, of course, I have a dozen of them.

The Bull and Bear

The best thing about the Bull and Bear is not the creative bull-horn and bear-print logo, nor the under-dressed, over-fed waitresses nor even the beer-tap at the table. It is the consistency and value of its food. Although the table-tap is pretty ingenious and whoever takes the next step by offering table-side catheterization should win a Nobel Prize.

This afternoon, we were treated to an onion soup (the French kind, as the menu helpfully clarifies), a market salad, and the trio of Philly mini-sandwiches (not that mini) for less than the cost of a Gibson’s entrée. And the best part? The soup actually came before the entrees! This is not nit-picky. There have been an uncanny number of meals where the hot-liquid course has either come simultaneously with the main, after it, or not at all. We always say: “we’re going to start with …” to make it as unambiguous as possible without being rude. No matter. Over 50% of meals find the soup timed incorrectly. So points to the big mammal bar for getting it right.

Now, all that remains it to get it great.

Onions should be caramelized before being thrown into the soup and if the croc is not put into a hot oven before coming to the table, the cheese just ends up gooey instead of deliciously burnt. When the soup costs $9 (same as Bistro Zinc) these steps had better be taken.

More than balancing out the soup is the 12oz. bloody mary for $5. Perfectly spicy and with that seasoned salt on the rim that I love to watch people lick at while trying to look sexy. The mini-Phillies were great too and so was the market salad. Only, what the sam-hill is a “market” salad? There’s no market anywhere around here and if there were, I’m not sure its produce would be thawed in time to still be fresh. But overall, the terrific lunch was so filling that I didn’t even need my little tiny 4PM snack of Portillo’s hot dog, beef and fries. A rare bonus.


How does a place remain open for years and years when fewer than 10% of its tables are ever filled and dining room ineptitude can hold its own with LA’s laziest? Several ways:

  1. Brand-showroom – OK with losing money
  2. Money-laundering front
  3. Successful daddy schooling loser sonny

1: brand-showroom works well for Nokia and Levi’s but not too many people go to a restaurant to browse. 2 and 3: it’s kinda hard to launder in the days of credit cards and given how long Kamehachi Old Town has been around, I’d say the offspring are either entrenched or homeless. Whatever. Kamehachi Streeterville is here to stay.

Upon entering the restaurant, one detects a faint trace of a disagreeable odor that seems like a mixture of spoiled fish and industrial cleaning solvent. Not good for a sushi restaurant. Getting seated can take several minutes and having a waiter notice can take multiples more. In all fairness, today, the waiter was prompt, polite and attentive and did an overall excellent job. However, considering that I used to work a block away and spent a fair number of lunches waiting on the waiter I can safely tell you that this experience is atypical.

When Kamehachi Streeterville first opened, getting a sashimi plate could (and did) take 45 minutes+. My party walked out before. Now, getting sashimi, 6 pieces of nigiri and 4 rolls took less than 15. Yes, nothing says PIG like when they slide over the table next to you so everything can fit. For two people. Shut up. The point is that it came, was timely and above all, GOOD! With a major exception. The tuna sashimi sucked great pacific garbage patch.

Dear Kamehachi, when one orders a sashimi plate, please do not think that you will make up in quantity what you lack in quality. Mind you that all I know about this I read in Sushi Economy but the closer a cut gets to the tail, the more of those icky white sinews and tendons one has to chew. Fish gristle is not a good thing. Tuna should melt in your mouth. I looked at the beautiful, deep red cuts of tuna nigiri at the table next to us and drooled. Why not use such cuts with ours? Would this refuse not be better camouflaged in a spicy mayo roll than a sashimi platter? You bring great shame to your family Streeterville-san.

So as not to end on a bad note, the summer rolls with spicy chili oil are the best rolls on the menu (the best of many menus) and shrimp tempura is battered and fried all over not leaving you with a raw tail to swallow like at some places. (Yes, of course I eat the tails and so should you.) And the rest of the sashimi was good too. If this experience is now the norm at Kamehachi Streeterville then I guess I can start coming again. Just get rid of that strange smell.

Captain Nemos

I figure that since I have been old enough to make my own lunch decisions, I have had lunch around 6,500 times. I would not be surprised if 5000 of those lunches would have included one species of sandwich or another. Why then would yet another sandwich move me? Why drive 5 miles for a taste when there’s a Subway on every corner? Well, quite simply, because Mrs. Nemo’s split pea soup and the Captain’s Northern Italian sub is probably the most memorable lunch combination ever. The best cuts of meat, so thin you can see through them, the best bread and the freshest ingredients. There’s never anyone in the place and I honestly do not know how they stay open. So go help out. Just don’t get in line in front of me.  

Fulton Lounge

Q: Who adds $13.61 to $121.00 and gets $134.65? A: Idiots and Fulton Lounge. I’m never surprised at human error given how our classrooms have been hemorrhaging arithmetic for decades but this is a mainstream restaurant-management software program. A glorified calculator designed to remove the necessity of thought from those who spend more time memorizing their lines than helping their customers. How many times have you seen a calculator make a mistake unless you fat-fingered something during data-entry? So what explains this? An error of .04 is far too large to be explained by rounding error no matter how much precision is used to store floating-point decimals. I don’t get it and don’t like it at all.

All the more reason to step up the fight against the practice of bringing a single-line charge slip in lieu of an itemized receipt. No I don’t trust your math. See exhibit A.


If love is stronger in times of cholera then no doubt dinner is tastier in times of swine flu. And recession. Fewer people means fewer hassles. However, someone forgot to scare away Province’s remarkably attractive heap of customers on this fine Saturday evening. The bar hadn’t room to walk and the restaurant was as packed as a Russian moonshine tasting. We arrived 15 minutes before reservation time to grab a few drinks at the bar. Or so we thought. Despite there being 3 bartenders, and not a single un-served soul before us, it still took 8 minutes to place the order and another 4 to get it. I guess 2 glasses of house red is complicated. This worked out well because we were a mere sip or two into the first round when our table beckoned. In the world of reservations, timeliness is godliness.

As I walked across the harvested cork [Is there any other kind?] floor and settled into my recycled leather chair surrounded by LEED certification here and GREEN certification there I was secretly delighting in the fact that all this environmental gobbledygook was balanced by my having driven the 7 blocks to dinner in an 8 mile-per-gallon chariot. Hahahahahaha! Take your GREEN and stick it right up your BROWN.

Anyway, on to the gluttony.

Perhaps Province’s most delightful aspect is its breakdown of portion size. Small, Big and Bigger works for those unable or unwilling to drop 30 bucks on a cut of fish by enabling the order of a halfsie for $12. For caloric potentates like the author, such rationing is divine because now, instead of ordering 2 entrées and splitting a third, he and his date could (and did) order 8 entrées without being overly embarrassed. Nearly all were winners.

The best dish of the evening was the salmon. Burnt on the outside while nearly raw on the inside each bite made me regret not getting the bigger portion. Other winners were in descending order: Shrimp and grits, veggie rice, pork bocadillo, baby octopus, Hamachi sashimi and tortilla soup. The only loser was the oxtail stew of which there was little ox, less tail and a runny liquid that was closer to the stuff in a can of black beans than stew. I did find what I thought to be a microscopic cube of the promised pork belly but it turned out to be gristle. But don’t let me fool you. I still devoured every last drop of the stuff. When 7/8 dishes are perfect, it is unfair to proclaim dinner anything other than success. Table service was excellent too despite the fact that things took their sweet time leaving the kitchen. Though when one orders a cartload of half-portions some delays should be expected.

And the best part? 2 people eating to the point of immobility with 2 glasses of wine each for 100 bucks. In Chicago. In 2009. Believe it. Then go do it. Or I’m going to print out this review 50 times and not recycle it.


This afternoon, a wormhole opened up at Irazu Restaurant and delivered this unsuspecting diner straight to Buca Di Beppo. Now it is unusual indeed for a wormhole to masquerade as a bowl of chicken soup but evidently, adding enough garlic to a bowl of liquid can create strange phenomena. And this wasn’t all. It would appear that the soup pot doubles as the restaurant’s grease trap since there was more of it floating on top than actual ingredients. I guess during these economic times, anything to save a penny is worthwhile.

However, it would be unfair to withhold the positives of which there are many. Not even at Subway can one still get a giant sandwich for $4.95, on great bread and bursting with beef. The burritos are bizarrely good and the empanadas the greatest deal on the menu.

This place has been around for years and you owe it yourself to go the next time a burrito craving strikes you. Just hold the soup and save everyone around you from holding their noses.

Stanton Social

Nearly a decade slithered by since your bitchy author last complained about New York. It was the best of times and it was the worst of times. But now the time comes not to complain but compliment.

Before packing up for the jaunt home, we went to this little place in SoHo for a parting bite. The drinks were strong and the meal tasty which was pretty much what we expected since the bartender was an old friend from Japonais Chicago and the food was well-reviewed by others. The prices were right too. Ordinarily, this level of accomplishment is insufficient to provoke a strong opinion from anyone but the most devoted zealot. Save one item.

That first French Onion Soup Dumpling was the best thing to have ever oozed into my mouth. There, it exploded with a broth so flavorful my eyes rolled back into my pleasured skull and my nose lifted toward the ceiling in search of warmer air to suck over short-circuited taste-buds. It was amazing; as was the rest of it. But just like the second third and fourth orgasm of the evening, the later bites were mere refinements of the first.

If you inexplicably find yourself at 99 Stanton Street NY NY you should probably stop drinking so much but not before you order those French Onion Soup Dumplings and have a loud obnoxious tongue orgasm at the table.

Tequila Chica's

Going out to eat in South Beach for less than the price of a used car is a privilege seldom afforded to those lodging around Collins and Ocean. This is why going to Tequila Chica’s for the farewell lunch was a welcome reprieve. Guacamole for $3 dollars, nachos with the fake movie cheese that we all say we hate but actually crave for $8 and a wonderful beef fajita wrap for $10. One can hardly eat cheaper at Mexican McDonald’s, I mean Chipotle. The only question I have is what do you use to heat your wraps? White Phosphorus? It was so hot that even after a few minutes of waiting, touching it would burn right through your nerve endings and you wouldn’t know what happened until you smelled your burning skin.

With such an intro, one may mistake this for a tale of compliment. Riiight. One of the newest tricks in SoBe is to charge customers for refills of soda, iced tea, coffee, lemonade and other beverages that have traditionally been bottomless. Having fallen victim to this on at least 3 occasions this weekend I began to notice the behavioral pattern that will predict the charge. The glass of soda, tea, etc., will hit bottom and stay there. In the quest of conflict avoidance, the servers will not refill the drink unless nagged. At no time is the extra charge mentioned. At Tequila Chica’s I enjoyed 12 ounces of Coke for 6 dollars. Making the same mistake at the Delano got me 18 ounces of tea for 18 dollars.

I love South Beach.


In years past, never would we have trekked 2 whole miles north of the Delano to some gigantic resort for Chinese food but into the breach of fine-dining Chinese restaurants comes Hakkasan at the Fontainebleau resort, South Beach. If fine-dining Chinese confuses you into contradiction, think more Shanghai Terrace at the Peninsula than the de-ree-verry place with extra MSG.

As we de-cabbed at one of The Fontainebleau’s 4 entrances, we began a lengthy and winding walk to the restaurant that appeared to be so lengthy and winding for no purpose other than to take diners on a tour of the resort. Neat trick. The first time. Next time I’m demanding a golf cart.

The menu was very pretty but vast and confusing. Luckily, Hakkasan, like many other restaurants in Miami, were part of the Miami Spice network thus making selections very easy. And cheap. Relatively. At a place where a noodle dish can cost $40 dollars, 4 healthy appetizer portions of popular items for $35 is a treat. Unluckily for us and luckily for the restaurant, it was a Friday and Fridays mean drinking time. So although our food tab (for 3 people) was around $90, 11 drinks @ $14/drink made all the difference.

I don’t know what to tell you about fine-dining Chinese. I wasn’t convinced at Shanghai Terrace and I’m not convinced here. The only place that exceeded my expectations was Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills but that was not an experience for the squeamish. Does anything justify a $40 plate of noodles? I’m not sure. I bet people asked if anything justified a $50 steak some years back. Clearly the answer was yes. But for now, all hail the Miami Spice tasting concept and may every other city start its own.

Bond Street Sushi

South Beach is not known for its affordability. Apparently, someone noticed and invented the greatest thing since sliced fish on rice: The Miami Spice Menu. For 35 dollars, restaurants offer sample portions of their popular menu items and in return benefit from a combined marketing budget promoting the Miami Spice program. Win/win. At Bond Street, we had edamame, miso, a roll and a sashimi platter for the paltry sum and then added on some rolls we wanted. A lot of rolls. Along with 2 bottles of house sake our bill was still barely scratching $100.

The sushi itself was better than average but not by much. Sashimi is sashimi and unless management is so cheap that they make the chefs use the sinewy tail portions of the tuna, everyone in America pretty much has the same supplier: the Tsukiji market in Tokyo. But I do like to see how creative the rolls are. And they were good. Can’t complain. But if the bill were 2x I’d complain a lot believe you me.

Mastro's Steakhouse

Dear Mastro’s Steakhouse,

On Friday, the 23rd of January, the year of our Lord and Savior Jesus H. Christ, Two Thousand and Nine, we dined at Mastro’s Steakhouse Beverly Hills. Dinner was a symphony of errors. Not for want of service or flavor but management.

If a restaurant chooses to datestamp its menu like an entry in a server log, it should take care to make the date current. My menu stated that it was December 23rd or some such thing giving the impression that the ingredients have been patiently sitting on the counter hoping someone would order them for a month. Yes, intelligent diners will understand that a restaurant does not reprint a menu every day but there is no reason to boldly proclaim the menu’s age unless it’s flattering.

I have, with advancing age and wisdom, begun informing the wait staff of my steak’s preferred temperature rather than giving a blanket term that everyone seems to define at their convenience. The preference is cool red center. Having advised the waiter of this, my steak was still overcooked throughout its majority but there was definitely a portion of the center that managed to evade heat at all. As I relished this morsel I wondered what natural phenomenon could have made this possible.

Inflation happens. Costs increase and having no alternative, people accept it. However, when one charges US$39 for a fine cut of slightly overcooked beef, and has an extensive wine list with bottles in the thousands of dollars, charging US$18 for a martini is beyond explanation. It is simply an assault on alcoholic decency. Mastro’s is a restaurant, not a resort. Even Sunset Tower charges US$15 and one could argue that it is both. Completely unacceptable.

And finally, when one wants to be taken seriously in any field that requires communications such as from the kitchen to the customer by way of the menu, one learns to spell properly. Ask a random sample of people on the street for the spelling of Johnnie Walker’s family of scotches, and one is likely to hear the same mistake 8 out of 10 times. Fix the damn thing before someone does a special titled: Celebrity Restaurants: They’re just like us! They can’t spell either.



Beso Restaurant
Attn: James Vold, GM, Eva Longoria, ???
6350 Hollywood Blvd
Hollywood CA 90028

Dear Mr. Vold,

On Friday, May 9th, in the year of our Lord and Savior, 2008, I dined in your new Hollywood restaurant: Beso and toward the end of dinner, I would have enjoyed nothing more than to present myself to the chef, remove my trousers and force him to Beso my big, hairy ass with a pinch of salt.

It is common for a celebrity to open a restaurant that she “does not want to be one of those celebrity restaurants” only to have it then follow the script as closely as a teleprompter. Naturally, the scene was great. Lots of the requisite pretty people trying their hardest to look casual and fabulously well designed interior trying its hardest not to look ethnic. Who could ask for anything more? From a bar. From a restaurant, one could, and indeed should, ask for a little extra.

We were seated 30 minutes late even though our table was “being set” for at least 15. I assumed that the rage in Hollywood has become hiring bus staff that move like glaciers. But then, my partner in dine was bumped at least a dozen times by various employees who were moving around far too quickly to avoid obstacles and wore the dedicated expression known to waiters (and evidently glacial bus persons) that discourages stupid customer requests such as: “May I have some more water?” Where were these people when we needed a table? They could have bumped other diners clean across the dining room and then reset the table like a champion cup stacker.

Then came the food. How did thou gag me? Let me count the ways:

  • If one charges US$14 for a tablespoon of guacamole, one should probably lace it with illegal narcotics or gold flakes or something. There is no such thing as a U$14 tablespoon of guac. Or was the price in Pesos? Damn. I should have looked.

  • Being white and stupid, I sometimes can’t tell between products of Indian and Mexican DNA. But I can certainly tell between their food. Why serve Nan bread at a Latin-themed restaurant?

  • Grilled shrimp should require neither a cleaver nor a personal crab claw to enjoy. All it should require is a little prep work in the kitchen. Anything else isn’t kosher.

  • Skirt steak is skirt steak. It’s either raw or burnt. When did people start getting the impression that skirt steak was Filet Mignon? I guess when it started costing US$29.

Overall, if I can say one thing to help out your future bloated customers it is this: LAY OFF THE SALT! I seriously thought that I was going to shrivel unless I got some water pronto but, of course, no matter how prominently I placed my empty glass, no one could be bothered to refill it. I looked for salvation in the remnants of the Nan bread which seemed to have (only) 4 spoons full of salt sprinkled on but definitely could have used an intravenous drip after finishing my skirt steak. It may have skirted on many things but covered the old Sodium Chloride as thoroughly as a long denim skirt covers an Orthodox chick.

If I were smarter and more driven, I’d open up a bottled water stand on your sidewalk. Then I’d have the most profitable 9 months in business history.


Dear Japonais,

On January 27th, in the year of our Lord and Savior, 2007, I attempted to have dinner at the restaurant. Being an experienced Japonais diner, I made reservations nearly a month in advance. One would think that such diligence would escalate one’s priority past the walk-in crowd. Maybe last year.

As the clock swept well past reservation time, I checked with the host several times and was told after each one that our table was “paying” which presumably meant that it would be available shortly. After 50 minutes of “paying,” my companion and I gave up on the hope of a fine dinner and decided to eat at the bar. This decision had consequences to which we’ll come back in a paragraph.

Having lived in LA for most of 2006, I have become accustomed to dining room ineptitude. I even forgive most of their infractions just as I would a misbehaving child, contenting myself to an eye-roll and audible sigh. But I hold Japonais to a higher standard. One does not need to be an operations guru to know that a 15 minute delay is uncomfortable but tolerable, 30 is annoying and beyond is simply unacceptable. One also must not blame the table-hoarding patrons as it is not their job to manage flow. When diners are taking their sweet time and reservations are crowding in, suck it up and buy the hoarders a bottle of cheap champagne (at the bar) and watch how quickly they’ll high-tail it out of their seats.

Now, we must re-visit the unfortunate consequences of the bar’s abbreviated menu.

In LA, revelers are limited in their alcoholic intake because of the inevitable drive home. A person can easily pull a Paris Hilton by having a margarita on an empty stomach. Therefore, in Chicago, one is forced to capitalize on the ability to drink to the point of dementia and take a cab home. My companion’s and my alcoholic intake, although impressive, is tempered by the size of the evening’s dinner, however, to limit ourselves this day seemed like a colossal waste of a Saturday night in the city. And so, there we sat, angrily drinking at the bar with nothing but a few rolls to distract our respective digestive systems from metabolizing the free-flow of alcohol. My memory failed somewhere during the fourth bite of the Spicy Mono Roll but I am told that we had gone to several places hence.

As my Sunday fell casualty to Saturday’s hangover, I have no one to blame but you for not keeping my reservation time and interfering with a precise and calculated formula for alcoholism and thus ruining my weekend. Although your food prevents you from making the full descent into restaurant mediocrity, your operations have certainly deployed your landing gear.


Dear Ashton Kutcher,

On Saturday, November 18th, in the year of our Lord and Savior: 2006, I dined at Dolce Enoteca, your Italian/American fusion/fission restaurant/bar. May the good Lord rest my digestive system.

I won’t complain about the moderately bad service. I have been to enough LA restaurants to know that what you people call a service industry is simply legalized aggressive begging by wannabe actors. So it’s OK that our water was refilled sparingly, bus service was non-existent and our second round of drinks shuffled to the table roughly 10 minutes after we finished our meals. I won’t complain about a 20 dollar crab cake appetizer that made up for its tiny size with completely average taste. Nor about the six or seven crab ravioli that couldn’t decide if they wanted to be hot or cold or just plain strong.

But when your bathroom(s) staged an uprising and released a torrent of excrement into the dining room entrance, this pious diner had had his fill. How is it possible that a mere toilet could spew forth a river of waste through an entire restaurant? Or was the toilet a mere agent and an overfed customer the principle? Indeed, the Tigris and Euphrates could never flood with such a return on the gallon. But whereas the former cradled civilization, your floor will now cradle E. Coli. And Cholera. And your competitor’s burritos.

So long. Farewell. Smell you laters.

Green Zebra

Dear Mr. McLain,

On Tuesday, May 18th, in the year of our Lord 2004, I had dinner at your new establishment: Green Zebra. The portions enabled me and my companion to sample as many of the menu items as would ordinarily be impossible outside of a party of 6 and the flavors were worthy of your esteemed reputation as one of the city’‘s finest chefs.

The prices were amazingly reasonable causing me to proclaim the dinner a success, place Green Zebra on my list of gastronomical triumphs and vow a quick return. We couldn’‘t wait for desert! Having been on a cheese-tasting campaign for the last few months, my accomplice and I were intrigued by your selections, many of which we had never had and decided to make them our desert! Them…

Can you imagine the crushing blow of reality when we discovered that 6 US dollars bought but one type of cheese? Based on the pricing structure, 24 US dollars would be required in order to sample every unique and tasty variety. I was mortified.

On May 18th, in the year of our Lord 2004, GOLD closed at 382 US$/oz or 13.474664456 US$/gram. Now I am not sure how many grams constitute a cheese course at Green Zebra but observing the size of previous portions, I can only hope that it is more than 1.781120418 grams. If it is not, Green Zebra values its collection of cheeses (average retail price of which is ~25 US$/lb.) more than gold.

I would hate to imagine the chaos that would ensue if word of such valuations got out. Markets would quickly feel the might of a powerful new commodity next to which precious metals are but a moon-cast shadow. Demand for cheese and other dairy products would skyrocket and roaming gangs of hoodlums would make cattle thievery a profitable profession once more. Amish cheese-producing communes would create a cartel and hold other cheese-industrialized faiths at the mercy of relentless cheese embargos. This is to say nothing of the black-market cheeses that would surface and potentially get eaten before being aged the requisite 60 days.

I can only hope that when asked about what started these horrors you have the decency to say: The Cheese Course at Green Zebra.

Joe's Stone Crab

Dear [Manager],

On January 17th, 2004 I lunched at Joe’s.

Many restaurants can only hope to achieve on their best days the level of service that Joe’s gives on an off one. The food was as exceptional as always and the atmosphere provided nothing but creature comfort.

Then, unfortunately, the bill came. Now normally, I would have just stuck out my credit card with little more than a casual glance at the total, but this time, the server left the receipt (see attached) on the table while he took the order of several other patrons. Because in my youth I have taken far too many accounting classes, I saw the subtotal and the tax and before I could stop myself, added them together and got: 40.99. !!! Whoa! This total agreed with every law of arithmetic since ancient Greece and yet did not agree with the computer-generated sub-total. Where did the extra penny come from? Was it a computer glitch? A quantum fluctuation? The same fuzzy math exposed by Al Gore in his 2000 campaign against our President? Let’s just call it the penny-pinch, or PP (PeePee) for short.

Mr. [Manager], I cannot tell you how much this revelation has changed my life. Now that I have been the victim of peepee, I find myself unable to pay a bill without meticulously checking its arithmetic integrity. No matter the size of the group or its respective level of intoxication, there I sit, carefully adding pennies.

Have you any idea as to the long-term economic consequences of peepee? In order to maintain my own arithmetic acuity, I will drink less and turn tables slower. In my newfound sobriety, I will tip more to the tune of 20% instead of the alcohol-induced 80%+. The people I will tell about this will do the same. Employee turn-over at popular restaurants will increase and so will unemployment in the food service industry thus increasing competition for the most desirable server jobs. With decreased supply, demand will overflow into the upscale ranks of career servers preventing working students from funding their educations and decreasing overall achievement in academia. With more aspiring smart people out of work, America will become less competitive over time and the dollar will continue on a never-ending slide against the Euro affecting the balance of trade and eventually doom American prosperity.

I just hope that when asked about what started these horrors you have the courtesy to say: PeePee at Joe’s.