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.