Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dig In 2011

This past Sunday hubby and I attended the 2nd annual Dig In at White River State Park.  I’m excited that we have gotten to go to Dig In since its inception last year (here’s my post from last year).  I now have a goal of collecting a nice set of Dig In glasses from each year.
I was very impressed to see that the organizers certainly paid attention to how things went last year and made some great improvements.  First of all, last year the food booths were all lined up next to each other and as people walked in, they just started going to the booths in order causing a giant line going out the front entrance.  This year they set up separate little groupings of tents that had 6-9 providers (food and beer/wine samples).  Then if you wanted to purchase a glass or bottle of anything to drink, you went to a central tent to do that.  Last year the beer and wine were sort of crammed into one tent, making it hard to get to some of them.  I was amazed how much better the access to everything was this year (although when it got busy, there were some long lines).  You also got a passport so that you were only supposed to sample things once (with a few bonus samples in case you wanted 2 of something really good).  This was a good way from preventing the same people from repeating certain items too much I guess.  The way the booths were set up, the lines sort of spiraled out from each area too so that two lines didn’t back into each other so much.  They also made a nice attempt to be more eco-friendly using compostable plates and having recycling bins scattered throughout (too bad no one was paying attention to how the bins were labeled). Also, the weather was perfect.  
There were several new chefs preparing food this year, but I was sad to see several that were there last year were not there this year. But I ate a ton of stuff (who needed dinner after all that?) but did not hit everything, so please let me know what I missed if you think there was a standout that I didn’t talk about.  Here were some of my highlights in no particular order:
The crispy pulled pork with braised beans, rendered bacon and pork jus, hickory syrup and pork flavored foam from JW Mariott chef Brendon Cheney.  All of these things were layered and served in a little shot glass.  The pork was tender, but I liked all the other elements mixed in there too (sorry, I already started eating when I thought to take a picture).
The smoked turkey and ginger sausage with blueberry mostarda and root veggie kraut on a bun from Smoking Goose/Goose the Market chef Chris Eley.  I loved the flavor of the sausage although the casing was so firm you couldn’t really bite through it.  We sort of squeezed out the inside and it tasted great.  I also liked the way they wrapped the little bites in a paper wrapper making carrying around a plate or anything else with unnecessary.
The duck and goat cheese dumplings with sweet and sour peach sauce from Brad Gates Catering chef Brad Gates.  The dumpling was tender and the somewhat sweet sauce was great with the goat cheese. There was a nice crunch from some cabbage in there as well.
The “My Dad’s Sweet Corn” chowder from Circle City Sweets chef Roger Hawkins.  I have talked about this soup before and really enjoyed it, but I loved the way they added texture to it by adding some fresh corn kernels and bacon on top (which is exactly what I did last time I bought a quart at the Farmer’s Market—added fresh corn and some crispy prosciutto).
The Gunthrop Farms pork tacos with all the fixins’ from Restaurant Tallent chef Dave Tallent.  The tortillas were grilled, the pork had a nice amount of seasoning and I liked that they let you add as much corn and tomato relish, hot sauce and slaw as you wanted.  It was a tasty little taco.
The Sun King braised duck with arugula, roasted corn poblano and goat cheese crème fraiche with heirloom tomato hot pepper sauce served on flatbread from Indigo Duck chef Joseph Hewett.  I appreciated that even in an outdoor event, the restaurant took the effort to put together a somewhat complicated dish.  The duck was tender and I liked getting a little bit of greens.
The bread pudding with caramel sauce and a bit of whipped cream from Keltie’s Restaurant chef Keltie Sullivan Domina.  Just when I thought I was full, my lovely husband brought me the bread pudding.  The bread was warm and soft and the caramel sauce thick and sweet.  A perfect way to end the food portion of the day.
So these are just a few highlights. I know I personally ate much more this year and I really enjoyed myself—and I think the attendance was up substantially from last year. I even managed to find some Indiana wine that wasn’t too bad (I usually find it too sweet on the whole).  I think the event improved by leaps and bounds from its first year to its second, and I look forward to seeing how it goes next year.  If they were asking my advice, here are a few improvements I would suggest:  Make water available, even if it is for sale.  There was only one place to get water that we could find and it was in the very front of the event near the entrance.  I was with someone who brought her children and finding bottles of water was a bit of a challenge.  Also, because parking near the entrance filled up in the first hour or so, it would be great if they had people checking people in/handing out over 21 bracelets near the zoo bridge entrance as well.  Finally, if they are serious about recycling, they need more of those special recycling bins with the tops that only fit bottles and cans (there were some there I noticed).  Anyhow, those are my 2 cents.

I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts about the event as well as what your favorite things to eat were (or what you thought of the other activities like the speakers).  Did you go last year? Did you see improvements? Come on, let’s hear your thoughts.
Dig In
A Taste of Indiana


Monday, August 29, 2011

Road Trip: Nuevo Leon - Chicago

Asado de Puerco

On our way out of Chicago on our most recent trip, we also stopped to have breakfast at another of our friend’s favorite places, Restaurante Nuevo León.  He had told us how good the Huevos Rancheros were and the homemade flour tortillas.  It was perfect timing for us and an easy stop on the way to the highway (it is located in the Pilsen neighborhood, which is full of many Mexican restaurants).
We were seated right away in this bustling, extremely busy little restaurant.  The servers were nice, although a bit gruff and quick, but after ordering, we were brought the usual chips and salsa (two salsas, a verde that was more roasted and mild, and a hot red salsa) as well as a complimentary sample of their Asado de Puerco (who would have thought you would get an amuse bouche at a little Mexican place where the breakfast entrées average about $5?).  The thinly sliced pork was really good too—it was super flavorful, marinated in an ancho chili sauce and grilled and was served with bits of onion and cilantro, beans and a corn tortilla.  I knew after eating this, we were going to be quite full when we left. I mean, we hadn’t even gotten our meals yet!
For my breakfast, I had the Chilaquiles ($5), which were scrambled eggs, mixed with bits of fried tortilla chips, tomatoes, onions, and jalapenos.  Classic beans and rice on the side.  At first bite, I thought this dish was just okay, but the more I ate it, the more mix of flavors I got and I got addicted to the crispy bits of tortilla mixed in, giving it not just crunch, but a nice bit of corn flavor.   The refried beans were also very good—deep and rich in flavor, they had been cooking awhile.  Our friend told us to order the flour tortillas as well because he thinks they are the best and he is right.  They are superb—little slightly burnt spots from where they were just freshly made.  Some of the best flour tortillas I have had.
Hubby had the Huevos Rancheros ($4) which are 2 eggs cooked over easy and served with a red salsa type sauce (ranchero sauce).  He loved his dish.  The flour tortillas with the perfectly cooked eggs and sauce and more of those beans made for a happy husband. 
This place is great.  I look forward to having this exact meal again on a future trip to Chicago. And after spending a small fortune on a couple of dinners the previous two nights, it was awesome to get out of this place for under $15 including drinks. (And it’s cash only, so make sure you’ve got some in your pocket).
Restaurante Nuevo León
1515 West 18th Street
Chicago, IL  60608

Nuevo Leon on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Mesh: Revisit-- Lunch

I met a friend for lunch the other day at Mesh and was interested to see if their lunch menu was different from the dinner menu.  Lunch is fairly entrée salad and sandwich-heavy with a few larger entrees.  I have eaten at Mesh a couple of times since my last review and have always been fairly impressed with their food.  It isn’t amazing, but seems pretty consistently good.  One other consistent thing I have experienced there unfortunately though, is some serious attitude from some of the people at the host/ess stand.  The last time I was so pissed by the time I left, I didn’t know if I would go back.  Luckily, this time everything went well, even when we asked to be moved into the bar where it wasn’t as dark and freezing as the table we did get (I was a little nervous about asking just because of previous experiences).

Once we got settled in the bar, we had a very enjoyable experience.  Our server was very friendly and when I asked him, “what was better the shrimp po boy ($11) or the…..” he interrupted me to say, “get the po boy, it is the best thing on the menu.”  So there you go. Decision made.  I loved his confidence in his suggestion (you know I hate it when a server says, “well……the xyz is really popular….”) and you know what?  He was right.  Well, I don’t know if it is the best thing on the menu, but I really enjoyed it.  So much that I ate the whole thing and it’s a pretty big sandwich.
I don’t think it is exactly authentic New Orleans style, but when you can do something different, and do it well, that’s okay too.  It was a soft French roll topped with quite a decent amount of fried shrimp.  They were a good medium size for a sandwich. They weren’t so big that they were hard to eat in one bite, but not so little that they got lost in the other flavors.  They were fried in a crispy breading (cornmeal I would say). The sandwich was then topped with shredded romaine lettuce, chopped tomatoes and a red onion relish.  There was also a fair amount of red chili mayo which made it a little messy but nice and moist.  I really liked the added flavor and texture of the tomatoes and the fact that they were chopped small enough that you just got a nice amount of them in every bite.  I love tomatoes but sometimes on sandwiches, you end up biting into it and pulling the whole thing out, you know?  My favorite addition (and I would say the least authentic part probably) was the onion relish.  They were sort of like caramelized and a little pickled at the same time.   Wow, I really liked this sandwich.
I upgraded from the sweet potato chips that came with it to French fries because I remembered liking their fries.  I am not so sure if my memory served me correctly though.  They were the sort of fries that seem a tiny bit battered and then fried. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t hot enough and as usual, I wished for something besides ketchup to dip into (even if it was homemade). 
This was a great lunch, and even with asking to switch tables, I didn’t get a single bit of attitude while I was there.  And the food was great too. It was nice to have it all come together.
Mesh on Mass Ave.
725 Massachusetts Avenue
Indy 46204

Mesh on Mass Avenue on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 22, 2011

Squealers BBQ

Hubby and I have been in the mood for barbecue lately, and now that we have started trying them, we are hoping to go to several in the near future so that we can compare them without forgetting them.  Squealers has been on the list for quite awhile, and recommended a lot, so we thought we would start there.  Several people told me the original location in Mooresville is the best, but is quite a hike for us, so we just went with the one out on West 86th Street.

So we ate a lot of stuff, and I will get to it, but man, the fried biscuits?  Freakin’ awesome.  Seriously, I have been thinking about those biscuits ever since.  They are super light and fluffy inside and fried just right to be a little crispy on the outside.  A teeny bit of sweetness, but not much.  I called them extremely tender, but not as sweet, doughnuts.  I want to go back just for them.
Ok, let's get to the real reason we were at Squealers-- the barbecue.  I ordered the pick 2 sampler platter ($15.50) with their “award winning” pulled pork and the “jumbo” chicken wings.  You also get your choice of 2 sides.  I chose mac and cheese and the Amish potato salad.  Oh, and you get two of those biscuits with apple butter.  Have I mentioned how much I like those things?  They also give you several choices for barbecue sauce. I went with mixed (“smoky sweet” + “smokin’ hot”) on my pork and just the sweet on the wings.  Anyway, my favorite thing meat-wise was definitely the pulled pork.  They give you quite a healthy portion of it and top it with some sauce.  If I had eaten all of it I probably would’ve wanted more sauce, but had enough for the amount of it I ended up eating.  The pork is pretty tender, although not the most tender I have had, and had a moderate smoky flavor on its own.  What I really liked was taking a little bit of it and piling it on a little piece of one of those biscuits.  I thought the sauce was really nice with smoky flavor and a bit of spice, but not too much.  The wings on the other hand were a write-off.  I ate only one just because I needed to taste it, but they were small, dry and blah.  Where they come up with “jumbo” as a descriptor, I do not know.  I do really enjoy barbecue chicken in general and would be interested to try the half smoked chicken and see if it was better.  I really enjoyed the pork, but was not so in love that I wouldn’t venture in another direction next time.  I found the sides kind of average-- I really didn’t like the potato salad and the mac and cheese was fine, but not amazing (although of our sides, it is one I might order again). I am not exactly sure how “Amish” potato salad traditionally made, but after some research, I have found nothing but disagreement on the subject.  This one clearly included a lot of sugar and tasted like it was probably made with a recipe similar to this, although I don’t think it had as many ingredients as this, it seemed mostly just like potatoes and celery in the dressing.  (On the bright side though, while I was looking around, I found this recipe for warm goat cheese potato salad which sounds quite delicious.) The mac and cheese was nice and cheesy, and certainly seemed homemade with actual cheese, and not “cheese product.”
Hubby, on the other hand, had some pretty amazing ribs.  He is the barbecue rib lover in our house and that is his go to item in a barbecue joint.  He ordered the ½ slab of baby back rib dinner ($16.20 with up charge for onion rings).  He got onion rings and cole slaw for his sides.  He declared that these were the best ribs in Indy, and after having a bite of them I agreed.  I wouldn’t exactly call them “fall off the bone” tender because you did actually have to pick them up and bite the meat off, but it came right off the bone when you did.  Absolutely no resistance.  They had a wonderfully smoky taste and were nice and “wet” in the mixed sauce.  The cole slaw, again was too sweet for both of us.  It actually tasted sort of similar to the potato salad (and look at the picture—it looks like mashed potatoes).  The onion rings were good—your basic onion rings, as hubby said, there are really no bad onion rings, only better onion rings, and these were somewhere in the middle. 
We also tried one of the cherry cobblers for dessert (not that we needed one more bit of food). Our server told us they made the cobblers there and they were only $1.95 with an extra $1 for ice cream.  It was okay.  The cherries were from a can and there was so much ice cream on top that the cobbler topping got lost and soft.  I would ask for the ice cream on the side if I got another one.  The service was friendly and efficient and our server checked back several times to make sure we didn’t need more sauce.  The interior is pretty much what you expect—casual.  There are several booths and regular tables.  They also have a full bar.
Hubby really wants to go back to Squealers and get some more ribs, and I want to go back for the biscuits.  But for now, we are setting out to try some other places first and compare them.  Who really has the best barbecue in Indy?  And do any other places do the fried biscuits?  I would love to compare them too!
5515 West 86th Street (another location in Mooresville)
Indy 46268

Squealer's Award Winning Barbecue on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Monon Food Company- Revisit

I stopped back in for lunch at Monon Food Company with a friend the other day because it was super convenient.  After my first visit, I planned a return trip, but this was actually my first time back.  The first thing I noticed when I walked in was that they now do table service, which is something I mentioned in my first review—that I thought that table service would be nicer if you are sitting down to dinner.  However, our service was so slow, by the time I left, I was rethinking that position.
My friend and I shared the Hawaiian fish tacos (because last time someone had recommended them) and the jerk chicken tacos (we had one of each).  (The jerk are $6.95 for 2 and the Hawaiian are $7.49 for 2).  Seriously, these things have only gotten larger since my first visit, and they were quite large then.  Now, you physically cannot eat them like a taco.  They are so overstuffed you pretty much have to eat them with a knife and fork.
I preferred the Hawaiian taco of the two—it was full of shredded tilapia at the bottom, and there was a fair amount of fish.  It was topped with lots of shredded cabbage, Monon barbecue sauce, and mango salsa.  I appreciated there was a little heat in the salsa, but the mango balanced it out.  It also just seemed juicier of the two, because there was a lot of tender fish as well as the sauce.
The Jamaican jerk taco was topped with jerk seasoned chicken, lots of shredded Romaine lettuce and another salsa (it said papaya, but it had just a few pieces of papaya and mostly other things—a fair amount of cucumber if I am not mistaken).  This was really spicy, which is the point of jerk chicken I guess, but the weird thing was when you got down to the meat (you can’t even see it in the picture), it seemed almost like it was mostly seasoning and not very much meat, so the spice really started overwhelming things. This one also seemed overall much drier. To me, it needed some other kind of sauce or something.
The ingredients are exceedingly fresh, and this is a good place to go for a lunch in which you don’t leave feeling bloated and gross.  I would likely get the Hawaiian taco again, but would pass on the jerk flavor.  The most annoying thing was the fact that it was impossible to get our server’s attention. I finally had to flag down another server to ask her to please get ours for us so we could pay and get out of there.  Luckily I was enjoying catching up with a friend who I don’t get to see very often, or I would have been annoyed.  So maybe I was wrong the first time, and maybe for lunch, since people are generally in a bigger hurry, they should go back to counter service.  Or maybe we were just unlucky. Who knows?
Monon Food Company
6420 Cornell Ave.
Indy 46220

Monon Food Company on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 15, 2011

El Sol de Tala

I find Mexican food in this town to be a tough one.  Not that I have tried a lot of places, and still tend to hit the local place by my house frequently because I like their margaritas and chips and honestly, could pass on most of the food, but el Sol de Tala is one of those Indy institutions that has been on my list for awhile. I was actually there once for a large group meal, but hubby had never been, so we decided to finally go together.
It was a Saturday night, and the first thing I noticed was that there was no one in the place. It is quite large in there and there were seriously only probably 4-6 tables full the entire time we were there.  Now I know this place has been around for 32 years (check the sign outside), but I would be a little concerned by this kind of business.  And despite the fact that there was hardly anyone there (or maybe because of it, who knows), the service was a bit gruff.  Our server was quite impatient that it took us awhile to figure out what we wanted.  I am assuming this is because they have a lot of regulars who come in knowing what they want, but who knows.
Anyhow, we did quickly order some guacamole ($7.95) and margaritas because I remember both being good, and they were.  The guac was nice and fresh and chunky.  There were hunks of avocado, diced tomato and white onion as well as cilantro.  And you could really taste the lime in it which I really like.  Sometimes guac doesn’t have enough lime and then it seems flat (although I have also over-limed it before which isn’t good either.  It’s a fine line).  The chips were fine, but nothing special.  They were quite thick and not warm. Tasted pretty much straight out of a bag.  We often get a small pitcher of margaritas at our regular place and split it, but that wasn’t an option here, so we each went with the house “grande” margarita (I think it was around $10).  Holy moly, they weren’t kidding about the whole “grande” thing.  The glass was as big as my head (literally, I have a picture with it completely covering my face) and every time I set it on the glass table top I thought I might crack it.  It was mighty tasty though, and was balanced well—not too sweet, not too tart.  I remember them being strong, and while I wouldn’t call it weak, I didn’t think it was super strong, particularly for the amount we consumed.
We also shared a starter of panuchos ($7.95) as a second appetizer.  These were interesting and I was quite intrigued by the menu description. They were small little corn cakes topped with refried black beans, shredded pork and pickled red onions.   The cakes were set on top of mixed greens and drizzled with a sour cream like sauce.  One of the things I like about this place is the presentation. Much more care is going into it than at your average Mexican place. And I like the slightly unique touches like the pickled red onions (always one of my favorite things) and using refried black beans instead of the typical pintos.  But while there were certain aspects of the dish I liked, there was a TON of the pork and it sort of dominated everything else.  A little less pork and little more of the sour cream would have been good.  And strangely, not only was the pork a bit dry, so were the onions.  They had the right flavor, but the texture was just a bit off. 

We had ordered a fair amount of food at this point, so we decided to split an entrée. We wanted something a little different from your standard enchilada/burrito/taco type stuff (which they also have) so we went with the “bistek ranchero” ($10.95).  This was thinly sliced steak (seemed like ribeye to me) that was sautéed with onions, tomatoes, chilies and jalapenos.  This one had some heat to it for sure. I really appreciated the little side salad of mixed greens with vinaigrette and more of the pickled onions.  They were nice to throw in the tortilla with the meat to cool it down a little.  But the beef was really tender and very well seasoned and we both really enjoyed it.  And it was a decent size for a split.  There were also more of the refried black beans and some rice.  The rice was just ok, nothing special.  Pretty typical Mexican restaurant rice.  But then again, I think there has only been one Mexican restaurant I have ever been where I have loved the rice.
So overall, food-wise, we really enjoyed the margaritas and guacamole (I think it is safe to say it is the best guac I have had in Indy at a restaurant) and the beef entrée was good as well.  I think it is an interesting place—on the outside, it looks somewhat questionable whether it is even open (and the neighborhood is a bit run down), but on the inside it is much larger than you would think and is one of the “nicer” Mexican places in town I think as far as the interior goes.  It was a little sad how empty it was, and like I said, the service, while quite efficient, was quite brusque, but there is more energy in the food than in your average Mexican place.  At our regular haunt I often joke how there are really only like 5-6 ingredients and they just put them in different forms.  This place goes a bit beyond that and adds unique touches that to me demonstrate there’s at least at some point been a chef behind the menu.
Anyway, you know what I want to know next, do you guys have suggestions for Mexican places that blow you away? Or even if they don’t blow you away, at least make you happy?
El Sol de Tala
2444 East Washington Street
Indy  46201

El Sol de Tala Mexican on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Road Trip: Chicago--Avenues

Avenues is set in the upscale Peninsula hotel, where the Chef, Curtis Duffy, was awarded 2 Michelin stars in 2010.  He was previously at Charlie Trotter’s and Alinea before going to Avenues.  So we’re talking an impressive pedigree.  The dining room is quite formal and quiet, tables are spaced a good distance apart and the wine list is literally as big as a phone book.  There are two 8 course tasting menus and that’s it. You choose the vegetarian menu or the non-vegetarian menu (we went non-veg at $135 per person).  Each plate is placed in front of each diner at precisely the same minute. OK, you get the drift—it was the other end of the spectrum from Avec.
The food is also quite the opposite of rustic.  The food here could only be described as quite complex and really, kind of fussy, and visually beautiful.  Now don’t get me wrong, I appreciate complexity in food, but there was so much going on in a lot of these courses, I will certainly struggle to remember probably 2/3 of the ingredients in most of them.  I won’t go through them all in total detail, because that would be a 10 page dissertation.  I am not sure how the kitchen staff keeps track of it all.
Look at the amuse bouche though, it was uni (sea urchin) served with a rhubarb compote and little green orbs that were basically frozen herb essence.  Hubby called them herby dippin’ dots. Beautiful.  And the flavors were good; I particularly liked the rhubarb with the dish. The next course was Alaskan King crab served in a glass with various ingredients—trout roe, lemon mint and lots of other little things—cucumber perhaps? But the whole glass was topped with a transparent sheet of paper thin sugar with a few additional ingredients on top that you cracked through to eat.  Completely lovely. But also probably my least favorite dish of the evening taste-wise. I didn’t care for the sweetness of the sugar.  I did like the salty burst from the fish roe though. And this was the point in the meal where I started to realize that the chef has a thing for exploding orbs in his food.

There was one course called “Grains, Seeds, and Nuts.”  Honestly, I thought this would be my least favorite…Sounded a little earthy crunchy to me.  But it was quite delicious. And it really was a lot of types of those things.  There were macadamia nuts, sunflower seeds and several kinds of grains and seeds, raisins, and a broth made of sunflower essence.  There was some little creamy cube in there that blended in with the broth to give it a little bit or richness.  I know I am still not doing it justice, but it was good. Very good.
There was also a hamachi dish which was just okay, and certainly very complicated, but I just mention it because the little exploding orbs here were tapioca pearls encased in yuzu—so they exploded with the tangy citrus of yuzu.  Interesting, but combined with the fish grilled and covered in lardo (which is basically cured fat) atop chopped rainbow chard with carrots, some sort of green foam (another ingredient forgotten) and some streak of a white creamy something else across the bottom of the plate, it became a little overwhelming.
They did a Wagyu beef dish which brought us back from the edge a bit.  While still somewhat complicated, it seemed a bit more cohesive.  There was quite a generous portion of the beef, which was lovely and rare, and sliced fairly thin.  It was one of the simpler dishes served with some spring onions, some wonderful morels and some mustard seeds (exploding orb theme continues).  There was also a little cylinder of a crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, Yukon gold potato.  I wished I had a couple more of these on the dish.
Our next dish was our first dessert round which we had traded from the veggie menu for the thing that was on ours (which was some sort of pineapple coconut thing which is not my favorite—nor is it hubby’s).  We were so glad we switched. This was one of the best desserts I can remember.  It was a little butter cake layer (very small in proportion to everything else) with a sheep’s milk creamy cheese layer (their take on cheese cake) topped with green strawberries and these wonderful little strawberry flavored meringue chips scattered throughout.  The green strawberries gave that tart kick to the richness of the cheese and the meringues were little treasures to stumble across giving you crunch and sweetness. There was also a dusting of bee pollen on top, giving a teeny bit more texture, although, I can’t say a lot of flavor.  This was spectacular and while somewhat complicated, not over the top.
So the next course (which incidentally, according to the menu, should have been before the desserts started) was our palate cleanser course, which was the ultimate exploding orb.  This was a ball, like the size of a giant gumball, made of white chocolate, but the ball itself was paper thin.  Inside it was filled with a liquid made of sudachi, which is a Japanese Citrus fruit.  You had to put the whole thing in your mouth and bite into it.  It was really sour. Really sour. I am not sure if it just is inherently, or of the combo of the white chocolate with it made it seem even more so, but wow.  Hubby hated this.  This dish actually really pissed him off because rather than cleanse his palate, it kind of ruined his.  Luckily, we just had one more course, a chocolate thing, so we were ok.  Thank goodness we didn’t actually get this before the cheese course or he would have been seriously bummed, because we both enjoyed that one so much.
The service was very professional, and our sommelier was super down to earth and friendly, which I always appreciate.  In fact, for some reason, although we ordered a bottle with dinner, they also brought us several other pairings throughout the dinner that we didn’t order, but very much enjoyed (and didn’t get charged for).  Can’t complain about that.
So you can see how this meal as well as our Avec meal were both mostly good, and completely memorable as dining experiences, which is obviously something that means a lot to me….I can’t say that either one were in the top couple of meals I have had in Chicago, but honestly, I think my favorite things are somewhere in between these two restaurants cuisine-wise.  But I tell you what, neither one of us will forget those sudachi balls….
(ED Note: Chef Curtis Duffy has since left Avenues to open a new venture…we seem to be good at eating somewhere just before the Chef leaves in Chicago…)
The Peninsula Hotel
108 East Superior Street
Chicago, IL  60611

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Amore Pizzeria

One of the great things about this blog, and my connection with all of you guys is the way I can ask for a recommendation somewhere (usually on twitter) and get an answer back really quick.  I also love it when people ask me for help and I can help them (sometimes also with help from you guys).  I usually get a couple of emails a week from people asking for recommendations for some specific occasion or location—often people from out of town.  I love that. Anyway, I am rambling on because the other day I needed to be in Zionsville in the afternoon with my kids and figured it would be a good time to try something new for lunch.  I posted a tweet and after two different people recommended the same place, we set out to find it.  Amore is set in a little strip mall (I sort of expected it to be in downtown Zionsville for some reason) and is your classic New York pizza style set up.  Lots of pies behind a glassed-in counter.  They heat up a slice of whatever you want, and you are good to go.
As I looked over the pies, I thought several of them looked good. I asked about my classic combo, red onions and mushrooms and was told they didn’t have red onions, only white.  And I saw the mushrooms on another pie, and they looked like the same kind I had at Giorgio’s downtown—the ones that looked suspiciously like canned, so I decided to go another direction.  Their version of the margarita ($3.50/ slice) looked really good and different from a lot that you see in that the tomatoes were chopped up and evenly distributed on the pizza (instead of just like one slice on each piece as you commonly see).  There was also a lot of fresh basil sprinkled on top.  So I went with a slice of that, ordered a couple breadsticks ($.65 each) and the cheese slices for my kids ($2.85/slice).  But then, as we were paying for everything, I saw this Greek pizza come out from the back ($3.50/slice).  It looked awesome. I ordered a slice of it too.  Normally that is a lot of pizza for me for lunch, but I couldn’t pass it up. Who knew when I would be back?
As I sat down with the food, I realized I had ordered two flavors of pizza for myself that did not have red sauce on it—which I thought from a review perspective was probably not the best plan, but I also realized that I think I probably do tend to prefer a white sauce or olive oil these days---mainly I think because if I don’t like a pizza it often is because of the sauce.  Anyway, the margarita was good—there was mozzarella and parmesan cheese on top of the crust with the tomatoes and basil and the tomatoes tasted almost like they might be slightly marinated in a very light vinaigrette.  The Greek pizza also had a thin layer of cheese and then was topped with lots of fresh spinach, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives cut in half, garlic and feta cheese sprinkled on top and lightly melted.  It was hard for me to decide which one I liked better, but I probably ended up eating more of the Greek—and would be tempted to order it again. I loved the thick juicy olives. I did try a bite of my daughter’s cheese slice, and a dip into the marinara we got with the breadsticks, and you know, it was a little sweet, which is exactly what I don’t like in a red sauce.  The breadsticks, by the way, were nothing special to me.  (And I am frustrated to see on the menu now that they have garlic knots—I totally would have ordered them if I had seen them. That’s what happens when you are with your kids who are busy spilling their drinks and causing a general ruckus as you are trying to peruse all your options).  The crust on the pizza was good—nice and thin and crispy but with the right amount of bendiness to make it a proper New York style slice (at least in Indiana).  
This place obviously has a loyal customer base—at lunch on a Monday the place was jammed by the time we left.  And it is good pizza (and they have a very large menu of other things).  If it were my neighborhood, it would certainly be in my rotation.  And next time, I’m getting the knuckles. 
And p.s., what else is good in Zionsville? I am keeping a list.
Amore Pizzeria
41 Boone Village
Zionsville, IN 46077

Amore Pizzeria & Ristorante on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Devour Downtown Summer 2011

Tomorrow starts this Summer's Devour Downtown (wow, time flies).  As usual, lots of great downtown restaurants are participating but I am starting to become a little jaded about which places are really a good deal.  So many of them are close to the three courses for $30 price point anyway.  So this week I am going to hit up one of the steakhouses I think--I know they are usually a good deal (and I appreciate the slightly reduced portions).  I do like that there are some new places and ideas this year--Sensu is new to Devour and is actually doing 4 coursesHarry & Izzy's is doing a separate vegetarian option.  Several places are also doing lunch specials.

What are your plans?  Do you still think Devour Downtown is a good deal?  Where are your top choices for dinner (or lunch)?  I want to hear where you plan to go, and how it tastes afterwards.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Road Trip: Avec--Chicago

I recently had two dinners in Chicago that highlighted two ends of the dining spectrum for me.  They were both good and were such a great way for me to really appreciate and analyze two trends in dining and realize that I think maybe my favorite cuisine falls somewhere in between.  But these were both meals that were true dining experiences—the kinds that won’t easily be forgotten.
Our first dinner was at Avec.  If you haven’t heard of Avec, it is a very casual, small place specializing in what I would call rustic, homey food with little twists.  The restaurant is made up of a long bar along one side where you can eat and watch the food being prepared, and a long banquette of about 5 tables on the other side that seat 8-10 people, depending on how much they cram you in.  So it is pretty communal feeling.  Everything in there is wood—the benches, the chairs, the tables, the walls.  Again, keeping with the rustic but with a twist theme in my mind. 
Their menu consists of small and larger plates (think fairly generous tapas).  The one dish that seriously, everyone I have ever known who has been there has told me to get, is the chorizo stuffed dates.  It is one of their signature dishes that is always on the menu.  So, they are dates stuffed with quite spicy chorizo, wrapped in bacon and served in a thick, somewhat spicy tomato sauce.  So they are good, and very, very hearty.  I mean, seriously, that is a lot of slow cooked stuff.  So I am just going to say it, they weren’t my favorite.  There wasn’t anything wrong with them other than they just overwhelmed me with their pure spicy/sweet meatiness (sweet from the dates).  Hubby quite enjoyed them though.  And luckily, at the last minute our server told us we could get a half order (which is 2) which is what we did. Honestly, I couldn’t have eaten more than one.
The next two dishes they brought were the focaccia with Taleggio, Ricotta, herbs and truffle oil ($15) and the Brussels sprouts salad ($10).  Now they brought the focaccia first, but as we were about half way through it (ok, this is one you really need to share with like 4 people although we managed to eat pretty much all of it), they brought the Brussels Sprout salad. I really enjoyed this—it was shaved leaves of the sprouts, with shaved fennel, parmesan, shaved red onion and a brown butter orange vinaigrette.  This was just what I needed, just in time.  I was craving something that was not just purely rich and, as I said, rustic.  Even the bread, while tasty, didn’t have the sort of stinkiness I was hoping for from the Taleggio.  But some of the salad mounded on the bread? Perfect.  I would recommend if you get these 2 things, request them to be brought together.
The last savory dish we had was the pork shoulder with carrots, black rice, and basil pistou ($21), and served in broth.  Now, I really liked this one—it was soooo tender and the black rice gave it a little slightly crunchy texture, and the herby topping the freshness I always crave.  But this thing was huge.  Hubby was in pain because he wanted to eat it all because it was so good, but we were getting so full—and I really wanted to try a sweet.  But seriously, this was one of the “larger” plates and it could have easily fed 4 people, if not more, particularly when you are wanting to try a lot of things.

dessert wines...
So this place is small, heaving with people, and food is just coming out right and left all over the place.  It is boisterous, and although the service was quite good, it was certainly a very homey casual, slightly crazy feel.  The food is mainly very local, and seasonal and well, hearty…rustic.  So  the next night, you could not have gotten a more different meal than the one we had---I will post the review of the second night in the very near future….

615 West Randolph
Chicago, IL  60661

Avec on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 1, 2011

Room Four

I was interested to check out Room Four ever since it had opened, but I hadn’t gotten around to getting there. The thing about this place that sort of surprises me is that it seems like it is flying a little under the radar—as big a deal as the opening of Recess was, it seems like Room Four has just sort of quietly opened, and there hasn’t been a lot of press.  I have mentioned it to several friends-who have all eaten at Recess, and they had no idea what I was talking about.  In case you don’t know either, it is the newest addition to Greg Hardesty’s ventures and is actually accessed through the same door as Recess—instead of going in the front door and turning right, you go left to a new, smaller dining area.  The menu is a la carte, less expensive and they don’t take reservations.  I had heard that it was easy to get in, so we called some friends and asked them to meet us.  Unfortunately even at a fairly early hour (6:30), while they weren’t full, they had no tables for 4 available so we had to wait about a half an hour to be seated.  The tiny room (almost a hallway) is made up completely of tables for 2, which they push together for larger groups.  We did get some wine while we waited, which was nice, but it was a little frustrating that there were several tables for 2 available but not next to each other. (I would’ve happily bought a glass or two of wine for any couple willing to scootch down one table so that we could slip into a table for 4, but hubby wouldn’t let me ask any of them).  My advice though is that you can probably get seated fairly quickly if there are just 2 of you—more than that and you may want to prepare for a wait.
Anyway, we eventually got seated and had already checked out the menu, so right away we ordered several appetizers—the corn fritters ($8), the mixed greens salad ($9) and the quesadilla (which was actually listed as an entrée--$13).  Loved the corn fritters—there were 3 fritters to an order (ok, we had 2 orders) and they were super moist little fritters that tasted wonderfully of sweet corn, with a crisp pan fried edge.  But my favorite part was the topping on them—the menu called it “avocado cous cous caviar.”  It was cous cous mixed into a lightly seasoned avocado spread—sort of a milder guacamole.  I loved the addition of the cous cous. What a unique way to add another texture to what was a very tasty dish.
The salad was also really good too and was a nice thing to have on what was a scorching hot night (and this place can be a little warm even with their blinds drawn) because it was cold.  There were mixed greens topped with sliced roasted shitake mushrooms, thick slices of beautiful ripe tomatoes, jalapenos and a ginger vinaigrette.  I liked this salad because it wasn’t necessarily something I would have put together myself, and the flavors went together really well—it had a bit of Asian taste with the dressing and the shitake mushrooms, but also great sweetness and the right acidity from the tomatoes, and a touch of heat from the jalapenos.  I have always liked the thoughtfulness of flavors in Recess (and other Hardesty restaurant) salads.  This one was certainly no exception.
The quesadilla was also universally enjoyed and devoured quickly (and another one promptly ordered).  It was a crisp tortilla filled with Capriole goat cheese, zucchini slices and black beans.  I have never made a quesadilla with goat cheese and I am pretty sure it will be happening around here soon.  It was so creamy but had that extra depth of flavor that goat cheese has—tangy yet light.  The other ingredients gave it nice weight and the salsa of charred tomatoes, cilantro and chunks of avocado on top were perfect.  I so enjoyed eating all these wonderfully ripe tomatoes…hopefully by the time this post is up I will have a few of my own coming out of my garden.
We also all shared one of each of all the other entrées (ok, so we ordered everything on the menu except the soup because it was like 150 degrees outside, what can I say? That is the benefit of taking other people with you.)  The chicken wings ($13) at Room 4 are some of the best in flavor when it comes to chicken wings.  They are marinated and well seasoned and then deep fried and served on top of a fairly thick pool of blue cheese celery sauce—I really liked the sauce—a ton of blue cheese in it, but it wasn’t a really cold sauce as you usually get with wings, but a room temperature sauce which I liked—gave the wings a little more gourmet feel.  There were little bits of celery in it, instead of your traditional side of celery sticks.  An interesting twist.  And the wings themselves were so hot (as in temperature) we had to wait a bit to eat them.  While I enjoyed them, and have had the pleasure of having them before (although with slightly different seasonings I think), I wouldn’t say they were my favorite thing of the evening.
Their take on “spaghetti and meatballs” ($13) was also a good one.  Normally, I would never order spaghetti and meatballs in any restaurant.  To me, it isn’t exciting or overly interesting and a fairly easy dinner to make at home, so why bother?  Since there were several of us and we were going to share everything, we went ahead and got it.  It was different—more like papardelle and meatball.  There was one large meatball, and the tomato sauce, was a super fresh one with large hunks of fresh ripe tomatoes.  It was lighter than what you think of with spaghetti and meatballs and I enjoyed it because of that.  The meatball was also tender, unlike most meatballs I have had in my life.  Everyone enjoyed it.
The last entrée we had was the gilled cobia ($15) served in a light broth (described as chimichurri butter sauce) with zucchini, French horn mushrooms and kale.  Ok, so this is the one I can speak the least to, because it was the farthest away from me on the table, and I only got about a bite before it was gone.  The fish was very tender, although with a very distinct, slightly fishy taste (I think because the skin was on the fish).  You have to like fish to have liked this—we all did, but it wouldn’t be a dish for someone who likes only very mild fish. It is a little firmer than a lot of other white fish as well.  The veggies with it were wonderful and as I have said before, Chef Hardesty has a way with fish.  It is always cooked properly and with just the right things on the side.  Being served in the buttery sauce also made it even more intensely moist.
Ok, so there was only one dessert.  Of course we had to order it.  They were cookies. Warm homemade cookies made with large hunks of various chocolate-y candy bars.  Seriously, even with as full as I was (and a bit too much wine), I could have eaten several more of these.  I don’t know if they are always on the menu, but I hope so.
So to sum up, this place is such another great addition to the ever-growing group of restaurants in the City that are taking familiar dishes and tweaking them a bit to give it a gourmet spin.  And in the hands of this kitchen, they are doing it with more finesse than most.  The ingredients are impeccable and many of the flavors are complex, but the dishes are approachable and affordable.  I have always loved Recess, but this place will have something to please everyone I think, and I know I cannot wait to return.
Room Four
4907 North College Ave
Indy  46205

Room Four on Urbanspoon