Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Monday, August 9, 2010

Carrabba's (for the Love of Brian and Cindy)

HIS . . .
Ah, I think it’s safe to say we’ve all heard the common refrain “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” right? I firmly believe that’s a solid rule to live by in pretty much every area of life except for food. Seriously, how often do you have a dining experience (formal or informal) where you leave pleasantly surprised relative to what your expectations were beforehand. I’m not saying it never happens but there are generally few surprises when it comes to food… However, that’s exactly what happened recently when the wife and I had dinner with friends at Carrabba’s.

With several locations across the U.S., Carrabba’s looks every bit the part of an Italian-American restaurant chain in the vain of Olive Garden. Don’t get it twisted, there’s nothing wrong with Italian American or Olive Garden, to a lesser degree if we’re in the mood, but our taste buds have grown the past few years to where we appreciate more regional Italian fare. Imagine what our expectations were when we stopped in for dinner on a beautiful summer night recently. Promoting itself as an “Italian Grill,” Carrabba’s is more Sunday dinner at grandma’s house masquerading as a chain restaurant.

With all dishes made from scratch, they start you out with what any casual dining restaurant worth its salt does well – BREAD. They take soft, fresh, out-of-the-oven Italian bread and elevate it by placing a spoonful of a surprisingly tasty herb mixture on a small white saucer, drowning it with olive oil stopping right before it runs onto to the table. No words are needed from this point as instincts kick in and everyone’s bathing their bread in this stuff - it just feels like the right thing to do.

In the middle of gorging ourselves on bread, we decide to order an entrée as an appetizer - dinner with friends who long for food as much as you do is called culinary chemistry – so we decide on Spiedino Di Mare: Shrimp and sea scallops coated with Italian breadcrumbs which are then grilled and topped with lemon butter sauce. I was skeptical about their ability to execute breaded and grilled seafood but, again, I was very surprised. Both the scallops and shrimp were fresh, cooked perfectly, and not overwhelmed by what was a delicious lemon butter sauce that was also good for bread dipping (yes, I was still eating bread at this point.)

As for my real entrée, I ordered “The Bryan” which is a hybrid of the Sirloin Marsala and “Chicken Bryan” (boneless/skinless chicken breast topped with goat cheese, sundried tomatoes and a basil lemon butter sauce.) And since the “I’m watching my fat and caloric intake” train left the station a long time ago, I put all my chips in and chose garlic mashed potatoes. Besides, who really expects dinner at grandma’s house to be low-fat; not me. Having said that, I don’t even want to know what’s in the potatoes but I know besides garlic, one of the primary ingredients starts with “b” and ends with “utter” and I was okay with that because they were smooth and good.

Make no mistake, the sirloin wasn’t steak-house quality beef but compensated for that by being well cooked (mine was medium) and flavorful thanks to a solid marsala although my favorite was the “Chicken Bryan.” The chicken breast was cooked perfectly and I love goat cheese and pretty much anything with sun-dried tomatoes so nuff said there. Also, another surprise is the flavor that Carraba’s wood-burning oven imparts to the food - even to my wife’s spinach. It also serves as a nice focal point to their open kitchen but aside from that, the rest of the décor typifies what I would expect from a chain with an Italian family-style theme but I don’t think Carrabba’s tries to be much more than good food with excellent service and on this night, they delivered on both.

I give Carrabba’s “A lot of Love!”

HERS . . .
Trust has to be earned, right? If trust is at the crux of any good relationship, then why is it so hard for Marcus and I to trust our friends culinary recommendations? Short answer: We’ve been burned so many times—spent big money on bad food; took long drives for longer lasting disappointments. Who to trust?

This is why when our friends, Cindy & Brian, first professed their love of Carrabba’s I was not drinking the kool-aid (which was immediately downgraded to Tang when I heard Carrabba’s was “a chain.”)

A chain, you want moi to go to “a chain.” That could put my foodie status in jeopardy!

BUT . . . for good times with good friends we were more than willing to gnaw on mediocre eats and smile graciously.

ENTER the Rembert’s and Hofstra’s into Carrabba’s. Cindy and Brian eager to share their favorite place with us, and we were eager for good conversations, not really good food.

Nice ambience, not bad for “a chain.” Wood burning oven, not bad for “a chain.”

Matt, the poor waiter, was about to earn his stripes. Two skeptical, self-professed foodies and two Carrabba veterans who know and can recite the menu by heart were no match for Matt’s patience and poise, um--not bad service for “a chain.”

My evening refrain continues with a twist once Matt appears with a loaf of crusty top Italian bread served with herbs, cheese and olive oil---um, really good for a chain. So good in fact that Matt had to keep the bread coming and coming and somehow a bowl of buttery alfredo sauce appeared for the purpose of dipping the bread into. Do foodies do alfredo sauce with bread? They should!

(Above: Is Brian praying to the Carrabba God? Multiply this bread PLEASE!)
Brian remembered a seafood dish with lightly breaded scallops and shrimp with lemon butter. Butter you say---bring it on, Matt! Well cooked seafood--done extremely well for a chain. Am I being converted here?

A good Mediterranean salad came with the meal, but a spoon full of Brian’s soup proved to be the best choice with its essence of Italian sausage.

Out came my Chicken Trio, I couldn’t make up my mind—okay, and the smell emanating from the plate did not scream chain. It screamed straight from the wood oven with love.

The trio of Chicken Bryan, Chicken Marsala, and Pollo Rosa Maria looked the part, too. The Chicken Bryan was juicy and complemented by its topping of goat cheese and sundried tomatoes not to mention the lemony butter sauce it sat in. The Chicken Marsala had the best taste of the wood burning oven which married well with the woody taste of the mushrooms. My favorite was the Pollo Rosa Maria. Pork, chicken and butter together on one plate. The chicken was stuffed with fontina cheese and prosciutto topped with mushrooms sitting in that same lemony butter sauce.

( Above: Chicken Marsala, the Hofstra’s Money Meal!)

A chain, you want moi to go to a chain? Okay, as long as Cindy and Brian come along—good food and good conversation--- Trust earned!

Carrabba’s has earned . . . A Lot of Love!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The WAIT is almost OVER!!!!

I’ve made my list and checked it twice; okay, maybe I’ve checked it more like 500 times, but who’s counting. Who can count when I’m dizzied with excitement? To think in just mere hours, RESTAURANT WEEK COMETH! It’s almost too much to bear. Restaurant Week Chicago is almost here! Do you hear the hallelujah chorus?

I’ve waited for this my whole life for this; okay, maybe just a year, but it seems like a lifetime for this week to finally arrive. The culinary elite (over 160 restaurants) have crafted their menus, set their prices, and I feel like a kid awaiting Christmas. Too many choices, too little time, so many calories!!!!!! Oh yeah!

Confused? What is this restaurant week of which I speak? Here is the 411: For one week in Chicago (other major cities have restaurant weeks at different times,) restaurants agree to offer a three course prix fix lunch and/or dinner menu ($22 lunch; $32 dinner.) The restaurant offerings are diverse and the “limited” menus, in most instances, give diners an opportunity to select from a few menu samplings. This is a great way to “try-out” a new restaurant. Last year, we fell head over heels for the dry-aged steaks at David Burke’s and that cheddar cheese apple pie with salted caramel ice cream—um, um, good. This is not a slacker show either. Some of the best restaurants in Chicago are participating: Blackbird, The Capital Grille, Carnivale, Frontera Grille/Topolobampo (the Top Chef Master, Rick Bayless’ award winning restaurants), Lawry’s, Mercadito’s, and many more!!!! If you plan on going, make your reservations NOW!

With so many GREAT restaurants, I’ve done a lot of research; okay, maybe I’ve stalked a few chefs’ blogs, websites and yelp reviews, but all in the name of my love for their food. It has been a hard process to whittle down my list. Marcus and I have had to show restraint and allow for each others selections. Luckily, we were in agreement on where to go, or it could have been a show down or foodie war –ugly, yes, very ugly!

You heard right—our choiceS. We’d be fools to let a week of culinary nirvana pass with a meager visit to one restaurant. We are going for the gusto: four visits to four different restaurants! We’ve been prepping for this all year watching our diets and working out hard with this carrot (or better yet a chocolate peanut butter terrine from One Sixty Blue) dangling over our heads.

Do you have any suggestions on where we should go? Here is the link to the Restaurant week site www.choosechicago.com/eatitup Give us your opinion.

We can’t wait to share our experiences with you.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

TREATing Ourselves

His . . .

Happy New Year! The holidays are always bittersweet for me. I love (for the most part) time with family and the additional days off work, but I can’t stand the commercialism associated with the season. I’m to the point where I want to start as many non-traditional traditions as I can to make sure my family and I don’t get caught up in the madness of the season. This year I talked the wife into a non-traditional Christmas dinner - for us anyway – and the stipulations were no turkey, ham, potato salad . . . I also talked the wife into letting me make a Beef Wellington (shout out to the lovely Judy Fiala for inspiring me to make it.) Even if you’re a messy cook like me, you can’t help but feel rich when making a Beef Wellington. I thought it was solid even though the pastry could have been rolled tighter around the tenderloin and the beef was slightly overcooked but the latter was more to appease friends and family whom we’ve yet to convince that beef is better enjoyed when it’s cooked medium but I digress. My self-critique notwithstanding I will be making Beef Wellington again in the not too distant future and pictures are provided for your viewing pleasure – I felt like a proud papa! Okay, enough about the Holidays, on to my next dining conquest (see below)……

I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago and with the exception of a two-year stay in Boston (and some exceptional seafood), I’ve lived in Illinois all of my life and until a few years ago I always considered myself to be one of those “I’ll live in the Chicago-land area my entire life” kind of people. However, some sort of psychological switch has gone off recently that’s given me an extremely low tolerance for snow storms, wind-chill, institutionalized government corruption and high taxes – guess I’m just kind of anal that way. So, the next logical question is, “why do you continue to live here?” Well, besides family, one of the primary reasons is food. There are few cities in this country that are as densely populated with such a diverse offering of restaurants as Chicago. Seriously, I incorporate food into all of my travels and outside of San Francisco and New York I’ve yet to encounter a city whose culinary offerings measure up to Chi-town’s which brings me to a recent dining experience.

The wife and I recently took an hour long drive that featured typical Chicago weather – man, the things we’ll do for food -and stopped in to Treat; a restaurant on the Northwest side of the city that serves “contemporary American cuisine with Indian influences”. Located at the end of a residential block in a quaint, non-descript building with an equally understated interior design, Treat feels like a large studio apartment with seating arranged in a way that makes the dining area feel bigger than it actually is. It immediately passed my initial customer service test as we were greeted and seated quickly. We had done a little research on the place beforehand, so it didn’t take us long to decide on two appetizers as we find they tend to be a good barometer for a restaurant. Our first appetizer was the sea scallops served on top of leeks (I love leeks!) and potatoes with a curried yogurt crème. It’s difficult to put into words how strongly I feel about scallops and leeks ,and I was excited at how simply the dish was presented as to allow the ingredients to stand on their own and with that we dove right in. The scallops were sweet and cooked perfectly but seasoned a bit too aggressively. I enjoyed the contrasting texture of the potatoes that resembled miniature home fries but I was slightly disappointed that the leeks and curried yogurt crème sauce didn’t stand out more. Next was the calamari which was very tender with a nice breading and a spicy Harissa aioli dipping sauce that was different but on point.
It wasn’t as easy to choose an entrée, but we ultimately decided to share the curried gnocchi as we were intrigued by the ingredients (spinach, golden raisins, and fennel in a Garam Masala crème sauce) not to mention we wanted to save room for dessert. The gnocchi was cooked well but I was underwhelmed with the dish overall. The Garam Masala crème sauce was bland and while I liked the idea of incorporating the various ingredients none of the flavors stood out and it would have benefited from some contrast in textures and flavors. So that brings me to dessert and I have to preface what you’ll read next by emphasizing how comfortable I am in my manhood while underscoring the love I have and sacrifices (in this case to my image) I am willing to make for food. Keisha selects the passion fruit crème brulee and I order the………uh, umm, well, the, err, spotted dick with tart cherries – okay, there, I typed it. Hey, blame our neighbors across the Atlantic for the name and just in case you’re wondering (as was I) the “spotted” part refers to the raisins and currants traditionally found in the dough and the word “dick' (did I just type that?) is an English word for pudding so I think this makes me a victim of circumstance and a heroic figure for having the courage to do what many men before me wanted to but simply failed to pull the trigger. Okay, that makes me feel a little better. Anyway, calling it a pudding is almost as confusing as the rest of the name since it’s really a miniature cake and Treat executed it well serving it with vanilla bean ice cream. I am going to stop here for obvious reasons . . . hopefully my wife gives a little more detail in her review. Speaking of my lovely wife, outside of the weird consistency, I enjoyed her passion fruit creme brulee. It passed the eye and taste test and I like when a dish actually delivers on the primary flavor/ingredient in its description.

Although there were certain aspects of my dining experience that left something to be desired, I will likely make a return visit to Treat but I’ll try the lamb burger next time along with another order of the calamari and I just may keep my dessert choice to myself!

Some Love

Hers . . .

Holiday madness abounds, but date night is like the Holy Grail in the Rembert household. It is precious and cannot be moved. Its power is miraculous and centers us.

So, even in the midst of a week of gloriously cold Chicago weather, we treated ourselves. Every pun intended—we went to Treat, an Indian-American fusion restaurant in Chicago.

Marcus and I fancy ourselves culinary explorers ready to probe all the rich cultures of food available to us; that being said we are Indian food newbie’s. I’ve only tried samosas (deep fried stuffed pastries filled with a mix of vegetables and meat.) I formed neither a reverence nor aversion for them. With limited exposure to the cuisine, our trip to Treat would truly be a culinary adventure.

Treats operative word –minimalism. Clean, neat and small describe the restaurant in a nutshell. The maximum capacity of the restaurant was 38 . . . wow! I appreciated that even in those close quarters the tables were not too close for comfort.

The nerds that we are, we’d previewed the menu online (several times,) and without a huddle Marcus called the plays like an expert quarterback. He rattled off deep fried calamari and scallops with speed, precision and authority. I love a man who takes charge—especially when he’s my man talking food!

Nothing Indian about calamari and scallops, right? Really, it was the accoutrements that provided the essence of India. The calamari was accompanied by a harissa aioli and carrot parsley salad. Delightful, perfectly cooked calamari (hard to find) with a batter that provided a buttery, addictive crust. The salt level was a bit aggressive, but the harissa aioli forgave all. I want to bathe in the aioli with its hint of heat that slowly crept up on me.

Allow me to digress a bit here--my experience at Treat really underscored for me how difficult fusion cooking can be. Fusion cooking, the melding of two different types of cuisines, requires a deft hand since food should evoke memories/sensations/experiences seamlessly. What a challenging task---to meld without being mundane. If the calamari and harissa melded, the scallops and company mundaned.

The scallops were served with a yogurt crème curry sauce, potatoes and leeks. The dish made an arrival befitting the cover of (the now defunct) Gourmet magazine. The scallops seared to perfection on the outside and delicate and translucent on the inside. Confused? What about the mundane thing—scallops mundane? Yes, perfectly cooked but mundane. Where was that harissa aioli? I needed something to elevate the dish (besides more salt,) and none of the accompaniments provided fused the flavors together. Disappointing because the dish sounded like harmony on a plate but nothing really sang in my mouth.

It is really a test of our marriage every time Marcus and I dine out because we typically share each course, so we are forced to over-communicate and be ultra considerate of one another (Who gets the last bite? Who gets to do the ordering?) It’s all about negotiation, but we would not have it any other way—C’est la vie!

For our main course, we shared curried gnocchi with garam marsala cream, spinach, gingered raisins, roasted fennel and mint. Definitely not worthy of a magazine cover shot, the dish looked less than appetizing, but looks can be deceiving. The gnocchi was too stiff for my liking and the sauce off in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. Some may like this fusion dish . . . it reminded me of samosas (neither reverence nor aversion.)

Onto dessert, when I saw passion fruit crème brulee, how could I resist two of my favorites: the sweetness of the passion fruit and the smoothness of creamy custard? Marcus and I broke from tradition and ordered separate desserts. The dessert menu screamed delish and we wanted it all! Marcus ordered---I’ll let him tell you what he ordered. . . . My dessert looked divine with its caramel colored layer of torched sugar. I gave it a perfunctory poke. Alas, I broke the glittery golden exterior of sugary goodness ready to lap up a silky custard with a hefty helping of the candy-like shell --- only to break into a runny pudding wasteland (with a decent flavor) WHY?!!!

Far from the picture perfect ending I hoped for but even at the end of the meal I knew I would dream of the calamari and the harrriiisssaaa aioli!!!!!

Even in my dreams, Treat lived up to its name. I give Treat A Lot of Love.