In my never-ending for pre-rehearsal dining, I wandered about the Sansom Street area. I contemplated Ladder 15, but it was too crowded; I then happened upon Giwa and thought it might be a nice venture, especially since I wanted to redeem Asian food from the recent bad experience at the Pad Thai Shack (just not good pad thai).
The space is tiny, with a handful of tables and a counter area. I scanned the options and chose the buckwheat noodle special, thinking I would be eating healthy since the little description said I would be doing so. I sat at the counter and read, and soon my food was up: a heaping mound of noodles and veggies with little accompaniments of what I think was kimchi and some nut-like things that were probably the cousin to a soy/edamame hybrid. I don’t know.
What I do know is that the noodles were great. They packed a spicy punch, but still had lots of flavor. The noodles also were cooked well, which can sometimes be a problem with buckwheat noodles (they tend to get sticky I find). Adding to the flavor of the meal was just a pleasant and friendly atmosphere: the service was speedy but lovely, so that I didn’t feel stressed but pleased to be there.
Certainly not a life-changing restaurant, but it appears to be dependable and efficient…and tasty and relatively cheap (I think I got out of there under $10). So, add it to the list of options.
Nectar had been a place I had long considered an attractive option, but hadn’t quite found the reason to go there. Certainly the lineage of the place, along with the “Buddakan in the Burbs” description, made it attractive. However, I’d also seen the pricey menu and read some middling reviews, so I hadn’t felt the need to beat down their door.
However, it was my birthday, and we wanted a good place in easy driving distance, so this seemed like a good option. We arrived at the appointed time (done through Open Table, where I included in the notes that it was my birthday) and were seated immediately in the room off the main, expansive room, which was nice, since I could see that room — with the sushi/alcohol bar a main fixture — becoming loud very quickly.
It took me a while, but I think we had two servers — one for drinks and one for food — but I’m not quite sure about that interpretation. Anyway, the first server appeared brusque, but she warmed over time; the other server was serviceable. Overall, the service was fine — nothing fantastic, but nothing was amiss.
We ordered cocktails (Rick’s Beefeater martini and I tried the blood orange martini, which was nothing special) and then set about figuring out what we were going to do with this menu teeming with possibilities. We ultimately decided on sharing the dim sum bento box, as well as a special side of lobster risotto; Rick then went off on his sushi bender, while I tried the crispy duck.
The dim sum bento consisted of an average spring roll, decent mushroom dumplings and quite nice chicken curry dumplings and lovely pork pot sticker dumplings. It was fine, as far as it went, but certainly not transcendent, nor not necessarily worth the $18.
The same largely went for the rest of the meal: fine, but not necessarily worth all the hype or expense. Someone here can do sauces: the risotto was full of flavor, and the crispy duck sat in a sauce that was spicy without being overpowering and relatively rich, but not congealed. The problem for me was in the cooking: my crispy duck was indeed crispy, but tough in parts and slightly undercooked in others, and the risotto had a bit too much of a bite for my tastes (I don’t want my risotto gummy, but not quite as al dente as they were pulling off here…and one might legitimately ask as well what the hell risotto was doing on the menu, but that might be another conversation).
As I intimated, the service was slightly odd — myriad people arriving at various times with various items with varying degrees of pleasantness. They did provide a nice touch by accompanying my ordered mini donuts with their ice cream birthday cake (I’d alerted them in the memo for my Open Table reservation, but have found those memos to be largely unheeded). The desserts were delightful actually, so the evening ended well. However, I just feel like the place wasn’t nearly as good as it thinks it is, but I sort of got the feeling that it didn’t matter to the throngs of people on expense accounts or dates.
In addition to trips to Frontera Grill for brunch and various exercises in Chicago grub, we wanted to get a nice dinner our final night, and I ended up deciding on mk, especially since I could get a table on OpenTable, which I always prefer, since I don’t enjoy talking to people:)
We ended up walking there from our hotel, which was something of a hike, and it was a nice night (we el’d it back, thought that wasn’t necessarily that convenient either). The room is elegantly designed — modern and refined — and though many reviewers had suggested the second floor, the first floor was perfectly fine.
The meal started somewhat slowly, as we were given what I thought was an inordinate amount of time to peruse the menu (which isn’t exactly pages long) and wine list (which is). We did order cocktails relatively quickly, and I fell in love with mine: the Via Soleil, a concoction of prosecco, St. Germain, and vanilla. I can see how for some that drink could be too sweet, but it was a perfect summer cocktail, and a delight.
When we had decided on our food, we got the sommelier to recommend a relatively inexpensive ($36 with a 10% discount) bottle of an Italian white that is not on their online list for some reason, but was perfect.
The meal started with an amuse bouche of a heirloom tomato salad that was light and perfectly seasoned:
Appetizers came next: a selection of oysters for Rick that had individual drops of sauce, instead of the usual mini-buckets of sauce, just so it was just so, and for me a Hudson Valley foie gras torchon, with apricots, pistachio, and a quinoa granola frisee:
This gave me an inkling for what we were in for. The foie gras was decadent of course, but by no means overwhelmingly rich. The accompaniments perfectly suited the foie gras, bringing out fruits and bite that may not have been there otherwise.
Next came the entrees, with Rick opting for a grilled Alaskan halibut special that was perfectly cooked with a fresh sauce of corn, summer squash, tarragon, and grape tomatoes:
I opted for a menu seafood regular: Lake Erie whitefish pan roasted, poached Maine lobster, edamame, radish, scallions, lobster and radish broth:
A generous portion that was nonetheless light given its ingredients, the dish was perfectly seasoned and filled with surprises — from the ways the various vegetables brought out brightness in the whitefish, to the delicate richness of the lobster on its own and then when accompanied by the broth. Seemingly simple, but delightful.
As we ordered our food, I said to the waiter, “Oh, and we’d like…” and he finished saying, “the pommes frites with truffle cream” — obviously, this is the signature side here at mk:
And deservedly so. They were beyond addicting: I might have come close to reaching over to the next table to grab a few more fries; I was very very close to dabbing my finger in the dish to get the last wisps of truffle cream out. Yes, they have made it onto the Hall of Dishes for being basically perfect.
Dessert was fantastic as well: Rick had two cremes brulees (blackberry and vanilla), while I had carrot cake (kinda), composed of ginger cream cheese sorbet, vanilla-carrot puree, brown sugar meringue white chocolate carrot puffs, and brown butter powder:
The plate looks a mess, but this is a deconstructed carrot cake, so it should be. The sorbet was some of the best I’ve had, the puffs were delicate pillows of carroty goodness, and I wish I could have the puree with everything.
The meal lasted a bit longer than it should have as again the checking in and check itself were oddly spaced out. However, the entire experience overall was really very good, and earns mk a spot in the Top 5 for the delicacy of the dishes, the atmosphere, the beverages, and those damn fries.
So, while in Chicago, we did some fine dining — in addition to Frontera Grill and mk, we also hit Marcus Samuelsson’s C-House for lunch, which was fairly meh — but we also did the Chicago classics that everyone hears about: deep-dish pizza and hot dogs.
Initially, we were going to do Lou Malnati’s for pizza, but our travels made it easier for us to go to Giordano’s, which I think was still a good choice. The sauce was flavorful, the ingredients well done, and the crust delightful. And it was huge:
And it had a lot of cheese; this was left on Rick’s plate after his meal:
It was grubbin’ though, and I’m glad we got it.
We also partook of the classic Chicago hot dog, which has piled on top of it myriad ingredients, only a few of which are discernible below, but which include mustard, onions, tomatoes, and a pickle.
Oh, and celery salt of course. It was fine. I mean, a pickle instantly discounts a meal for me, but this one was relatively palatable and gave a nice crunch to the dog. Would I seek this out? Um, no, but it was worth the excursion down that road.
We also had a decent breakfast at a place in Oak Park; we were tripped up by the worst server I’ve had in a while. What’s notable though is this sign:
“Great days start with good breakfasts!” I couldn’t agree more.
One more grubbin’ thing: popcorn, specifically, Garrett Popcorn Shop off Michigan in the Loop (there are tons of locations, but that’s where we had ours). Rick opted for the cheesecorn, which was an aesthetic mistake as he gradually turned into Chester Cheetah or something, while I got the standard with butter. They were both excellent, and I highly recommend them. I got the caramel with cashews, but didn’t eat until the next day, and it was sort of a mess (so, the caramel corn doesn’t keep like another popcorn purveyor of note), but it was still awfully tasty.
So, Chicago as a food town? Very, very good, though I don’t know that I need to do the pizza and hot dog again.