Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Eating & Drinking In Chicago: One Dinner, Three Restaurants

On one evening in Chicago, we decided to do a bit of a restaurant crawl for dinner, visiting three different restaurants, all located within roughly a block or so of each other. Sure, we could have dined at just one place, but as we only had two evenings in Chicago, we wanted to experience as much as possible. The three restaurants were located in the Fulton Market neighborhood, which seems to be filled with many different restaurants, making it easy to walk from spot to spot.

We began our culinary journey at Leña Brava, a Rick Bayless restaurant which specializes in the cuisine of Baja California Norte. What initially intrigued me about this place was their drinks list, which includes over 30 Mexican wines from the Valle de Guadalupe, as well as a huge Mezcal list. In the photo above, you can see some of those Mezcal bottles displayed on one of the walls. I enjoyed a glass of the exquisite Pierde Almas Tobala Mezcal, and was also impressed with one of their cocktails, the delicious Negroni-ish, made with Siete Misterios Doba Yej mezcal, pineapple and cinnamon infused Aperol, and Carpano Antica.

Their Food Menu is essentially broken down into two sections, Ice & Fire, cold and hot dishes, and we chose to concentrate on the Ice section. The Ice sections is broken down into Oysters & Uni, Aguechiles, Ceviches, Cocteles, Laminados, and Salads. Their website states: "Our seafood is sourced from sustainable fisheries and environmentally responsible aquaculture enterprises." That is always an important element to see in a restaurant.

The Uni, Scallion pancakes, Oaxacan Pasilla ($27) is created with West Coast sea urchin, scallion-sesame corn masa pancakes, Oxacan papilla crema, pickled Klug Farm peaches (Szechuan pepper), tobiko, and baby corn. This was tasty, with a nice blend of textures and flavors, from the creamy uni to the slightly crunchy peaches.

From the Aguachiles section, we ordered the Opah Watermelon ($15), Sashimi-grade West Coast Opah in a spicy-watermelon-chiltepin "broth" with savory grilled watermelon, tomatoes, cucamelons, and garlic chive oil. This was the best of the three dishes we ordered, with silky opah, enhanced by the sweetness of the watermelon, with acidity from the tomatoes and a bit of tang from the garlic chive oil.

The Scallop Ceviche Al Pastor ($18) is made from Hudson Canyon diver scallops, a limey ceviche "broth" with flavors of tacos al pastor, crispy chorizo crumble, crunchy jicama & carrots, pineapple, and cilantro. This is definitely a very different ceviche, and the crunchy jicama and carrots just didn't work for me with this dish. Though the flavors were good, it was texturally where this dish failed me, or at least my perceptions of how a ceviche should be.

Our favorite restaurant of the three was clearly Motomaro, an amazing Japanese restaurant that impressed us on so many levels. It is a higher-end restaurant, large and elegant, and we sat at the medium-sized bar. Of course we had to order Sake and the OneTen Purple Yamahai Junmai Ginjo was an excellent choice, a compelling Sake made by a female toji. It was full bodied and crisp, with a mild earthiness and plenty of umami. And it paired very well with the various dishes we ordered.

The food menu is expansive and everything sounds so good that it might be difficult for you to select what you will eat. Based on the four dishes we enjoyed, I don't think you can go wrong with whatever you order. The quality of the food is top-notch, and each dish is carefully and artfully composed and balanced.

The Gyuniku Udon ($18) is made with aged Carlisle family beef, chili beef fat, futo udon, and sesame. The beef is at the bottom of the dish, and came to the top once we mixed up the noodles. The noodles were cooked perfectly, with just the right texture, and the beef was tender and flavorful, with just a touch of spicy heat. Excellent comfort food and a fine start to our visit.

The Live Dungeness Rice ($28) is prepared with dungeness crab, uni, ikura, and split peas. An intriguing melange of textures and flavors, this was another delicious dish with plenty of sweet crab, creamy uni and a bit of green. With each bite, you craved more and more.

Though I'm usually not a big fan of tofu, there have been exceptions. The Age Dashi Tofu ($14), of which I don't have a photo, is created with house tofu, chanterelle mushrooms, and broccoli rabe. The fried tofu was delicious, with a crispy fried coating and a firm tofu texture within, all within an intriguing and flavorful sauce, enhanced by the umami of the mushrooms.

The Simmering Pork Curry Croquettes ($19) is a panko fried rice croquette made with heritage pork. The only minor issue is that the name of the dish indicates multiple croquettes when you actually receive just one. However, it is a large croquette, and reminds me more of a flatter version of  aracini because it is made from rice. A great crunchy exterior, with savory pork within, and a delicious sauce with a great depth of flavor.

Overall, Motomaro receives my highest recommendation. Service was excellent, the food was killer, and their drinks program has plenty of interest.

Our third and final stop was at Duck Duck Goat, part of Chef Stephanie Izard's culinary empire. Duck Duck Goat is stated to be "reasonably authentic Chinese food" and we had to wait a short time before we could get a seat at the bar. By this point, I'd stopped taking photos and was just enjoying the food and drink we ordered.

We started with Jiaozi, beef short rib and bone marrow potstickers, which were incredibly savory, with that powerful tang of bone marrow and plenty of silky short rib. The Pork Fried Rice, made with jasmine and sweet red rice, grilled pork belly and sausage, was certainly much better than the fried rice you find at most Chinese spots. There was a delicious depth of flavor, plenty of tender and delicious pork, and some nice textural elements. My favorite dish of our visit was the Char Siu Bao, a steamed barbecue pork bun, and honestly it was probably the best I've ever tasted. There was plenty of tender pork, bursting with flavor, within the soft and fluffy bun. Great comfort food.

I would like to return to Duck Duck Goat and explore more of their menu. I can easily understand why they get such large crowds, even on a Wednesday evening.

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