Friday, May 15, 2009

Aja Steak in Chicago: Great New Steak Concept (Chicago Area Restaurant Review No. 98)

The newest entrant to Chicago's steakhouse scene is Aja Steak in the edgy Hotel Dana, which is in the River North area of Chicago. This definitely is not your father's steakhouse, it is very modern, with unpainted concrete and exposed ductwork and no leather booths. Even though there are many other things (like sushi) on the menu here besides steak, we thought the steak was among the best we've had.

We started with, for a change of pace, mixed drinks rather than wine. Lisa had an almond pear blossom, which had amaretto and pear absolut and a slice of pear. It really tasted like almonds and pears and was not overly strong, so Lisa liked it a lot and ordered a second. Steve had the sake sangria, which really tasted just like regular sangria and was quite good. The first food was a kimchee amuse bouche, which basically was spicy cabbage and sesame cucumbers. We both loved the cucumbers and found the cabbage a bit too spicy. On the other hand, it is the only time either of us can recall eating cabbage in our adult lives (or, for Steve, at any time).

For appetizers, we split the beef carpaccio and the chicken skewers (which had a fancy name but were still skewers). Both were excellent. The carpaccio was a little different from what we're used to, as it tasted almost smoked, but it had good flavor and was served with some crunchy stuff that set it off well. The chicken on the skewers was very tender, juicy and tasty.

Our salads were not so good. Steve's wedge was the oddest he's had, as it was topped with some sort of meat that could have been pork or beef and, in any event, was not too good, the lettuce was fairly wilted and drowned in indeterminate vile dressing. Obviously, it wasn't one of his favorites. Lisa's pear and gorgonzola was a bit better; but, for her taste, did not have enough gorgonzola and had too much vinegar flavor in the dressing.

For a change, the best part of this steakhouse was actually the steak. We split the porterhouse for two. It was cooked a perfect medium rare and had enough charcoal for Steve and not too much for Lisa. We really liked the taste of both the New York side and the filet side, as both were full of flavor. This dish alone made us want to come back (preferably to sit outside if we can avoid the bugs and if the weather actually ever gets warm).

We weren't that hungry, having eaten so much steak, so we decided to share the cheese plate rather than getting traditional desserts. There were three cheeses, accompanied by various fruits and nuts and lots of toast. The first cheese, which seemed to be a light colored cheddar, tasted store bought and not particularly interesting. The second, which may have been a goat cheese, as it was creamy, had a nice flavor, and we both enjoyed it. The bleu cheese was okay, and not too strong for Lisa, but it was not among the best that Steve has had (and he is a great fan of bleu cheese). When we go back, we probably will try desserts instead, and skip the salads.

The bathrooms were both very clean and nice, with attractive fixtures and floors, and the fancy new high powered hand dryers. However, the faucets were difficult to turn on and required almost a full turn to shut off (think of those germs -- and no towels to use for the shut off).

Dinner for two with 3 mixed drinks but one shared dessert was $260, which sounds expensive, but was, in our view, worth it for the steak alone. The restaurant would have rated higher if any of its other dishes were equally inspired.

One tip if you want a quiet dinner, go early, because the restaurant becomes very noisy as it fills up, which happened about 7:45 on a Friday night.

Our ratings for Aja Steak, 660 N. State, Chicago, Illinois:

7.5 of 10 Steak Knives; 2.5 of 3 Bathroom Brushes


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Crofton on Wells: Good Food in Spartan Surroundings (Chicago Area Restaurant Review No. 97)

A long time ago, we decided to try Crofton on Wells, which has always gotten high marks from various restaurant reviewers. We really liked the food, although the surroundings kind of detracted from the total experience. This was particularly so because, despite the restaurant being almost empty when we arrived, we were seated close to the window on a cold night and the hostess would not move us to the back.

We started with a bottle of Radio Couteau Zinfandel. We found this a bit tart, but not unpleasant. The amuse bouche was a cheese puff, which we liked a lot. Our appetizer was a cheese plate. We found the goat and cheddar cheeses unexceptional. We both loved the Brie, which was very smooth, and Steve loved the bleu cheese, though Lisa thought it a bit strong. We both ordered the baby green and warm goat cheese salad, which we liked, especially the goat cheese. The dressing tasted tangy, but not overly so.

Lisa ordered beef tenderloin for an entree. It was perfectly cooked and had a lot of flavor. Steve's veal was a bit tough, but did taste good. We ordered a side dish of carrots (trying to be healthy for a change) and they were extremely good and crisp, prompting us to vow that we would order more vegetables in the future (which we have not really done) (but we should). We also liked the Yukon mashed potatoes.

For dessert, Steve had the tangerine pana cotta, which was really good except for the tangerine. Steve always likes custard-like dishes, but often does not like the fruit that comes with, because it is fruit, so don't blame the tangerines. Lisa had the rocky road, which sounded perfect, as it was advertised as including devil's food cake, chocolate mousse, and bittersweet chocolate ice cream, but the expresso flavor of the dish was overpowering (and Lisa does not like coffee, other than when a slight amount is present to bring out the dark chocolate flavor, the only proper function for coffee).

While the surroundings of Crofton on Wells are somewhat spartan, it did have a soothing dark decor with nice plants, so if it were not so cold we might have been bigger fans. However, for a restaurant that serves this type of complex food, one would expect more attention to decor. The bathrooms were very small, but clean, and the Women's was cold; thus they were somewhat in keeping with the rest of the restaurant's atmosphere.

Dinner for two, with a bottle of semi-expensive wine, was $350. With wine by the glass, it would have been about $270. While this is somewhat high, we did think the food was very good.

Our ratings for Crofton on Wells, 535 N. Wells, Chicago, Illinois:

7.5 of 10 Steak Knives; 2 of 3 Bathroom Brushes.


Rox City Grill in St. Charles: A Disappointing Experience (Chicago Area Restaurant Review No. 96)

We felt like taking a walk along the Fox River (though the weather turned out to be a bit cool despite it being May), so Steve checked and found Rox City Grill in St. Charles. We have not had much luck with restaurants in the Fox River area, even though we love cities like Geneva and (sort of) St. Charles. And Rox City Grill was no exception.

Steve was excited to try this restaurant because it advertised that its executive chef was a veteran of Charlie Trotter's. The restaurant is in a very nice old hotel with quaint elevators and a nice lobby. Rox City Grill is somewhat incongrous in this location because its ambience struck us an attempt to be modern to the extreme. The tables are a bit too close together and the room is rather loud, particularly when the electric guitars start playing.

Decor aside, the food here was not up to the hype. We started with wine by the glass. Lisa had a Daniel Hill Pinot Noir which was a bit tart for her taste. Steve ordered Four Sisters Shiraz (which Lisa considered because she liked the name). Steve found this very dense and almost bitter.

The appetizers were the best (by far) part of the meal. We had the lobster martini, which included wasabi mashed potatoes. The lobster was very fresh and tasty and the wasabi added just enough flavor without overpowering the dish. Edemame added some crunchiness. We also had the ahi tuna. The tuna was seared medium rare and had an excellent flavor. We also loved the warm bread. It tasted flaky and fluffy, and Steve ate a lot of it. We'd like to comment on the salads we ordered, but we are still waiting for them. The server simply forgot, and we didn't realize that (as the service was generally very slow) until our entrees arrived.

We thought the entrees were very bad. Lisa's short ribs were tough, tasteless, and totally overcooked to the point of being rather leathery. The wasabi mashed potatoes that came with it were good, and are about all she ate. Steve's lamb was too rare (almost raw) and wholly without flavor. (But he did finish it.)

Desserts also were uninspired. Steve had the lemon curd with some type of crunchy accompaniment that looked like shredded wheat. The curd and raspberry sauce were not terrible but it is certainly not something Steve would have again. Lisa ordered the pot de creme, billed as dense chocolate custard with mandarin orange slices. As a whole, the dessert was far too sweet for her, and too watery, and the oranges tasted canned rather than fresh. In what may be a first for her with a chocolate dessert, she ate about 1/8 of it, despite being hungry from having had no salad and not eating more than a couple bites of the leathery short ribs.

The bathrooms, which were in the hotel (which we liked) were very nice. Both were very clean, although the Men's was a bit too small and plain to merit a perfect rating. The Women's had marble sink counters and stalls that were more like rooms because they had wood doors, which Lisa likes.

The total bill for two, with wine by the glass and without salad, was $145. This seemed a bit high to us considering it is for one less course than we usually have and considering the (lack of) quality. Rox City Grill seems to be getting somewhat of a positive vibe, so you may hear about it and be tempted to go. Take it from us, and save yourself the long drive.

Our ratings for Rox City Grill, 100 W. Main, St. Charles, Illinois:

4 of 10 Steak Knives; 2.5 of 3 Bathroom Brushes


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Erie Cafe: If You Like Charcoal (Chicago Area Restaurant Review No. 95)

Erie Cafe is one of Steve's favorite steak restaurants, largly because the steaks are so charcoaled it looks like they just came out of a five-alarm fire, yet they are still perfect inside. It seems as if men like this type of heavy charcoal a bit more than women, which is why Erie Cafe's clientele is about 90% male. The atmosphere reflects this, as Erie has leather clubby furniture and lots of dark wood.

We started with a glass each of Rosenblum Zinfandel, which is our default Zinfandel, as it is fruity and smooth enough for both of us. Our appetizer was a shrimp cocktail. This dish was acceptable, but not special, as the shrimp were somewhat small and had a slight fishy taste. The cocktail sauce saved the dish, as it tasted fresh and a little spicy, which is what we like. Salads were plain -- chopped up lettuce, a slice of tomato, and dressing. Again, the dressing made the salad better, as it was a nice tangy Italian.

As usual at this restaurant, Steve really liked his bone-in ribeye because of the charcoaling and it was cooked a perfect medium-rare and had a lot of flavor. The T-bone here is actually Steve's favorite, but he thought he would try the ribeye because it looked good on someone else's plate. It was not quite as good as the T-bone, but he still found it excellent. Lisa had the prime rib. It was perfectly cooked, but she didn't think it had a lot of flavor. Continuing on the theme of this restaurant, which is basic, the entrees are accompanied by cottage fries, which we both liked a lot.

Steve passed on dessert because the ribeye was very big. But since Lisa did not eat that much of her prime rib, she still had room for spumoni. It was a bit too frozen solid, but still tasted great.

The bathrooms were in keeping with the rest of the experience. No frills, but very clean.

Steve thinks the Erie Cafe is an underappreciated gem on the Chicago steakhouse scene and highly recommends it to anyone who likes heavily charcoaled meat. Lisa is not as excited about it, as she likes a little less charcoal, but she always enjoys going there.

Our total bill with wine by the glass was $150, which is not bad for a city steakhouse.

Our ratings for Erie Cafe, 536 W. Erie, Chicago:

7.5 of 10 Steak Knives 2 of 3 Bathroom Brushes


Sunday, April 5, 2009

Capital Grille - Solid Steak in Nice Surroundings (Chicago Area Restaurant Review No. 94).

On a recent Sunday evening, Steve picked Lisa up from O'Hare after she had been away on a weekend family visit. It was somewhat late, so we decided to go to a nearby restaurant. We had already tried the McCormick & Schmick location at the new Inter-Continental hotel in Rosemont, and it had been pretty good, so we decided this time to try its sister steak restaurant, the most recent Capital Grille location. Capital Grille is known for its dry aged steaks, which is a type of aging that makes the meet juicier. Lisa had really liked her previous experience with dry aged beef, so we were looking forward to giving this restaurant a try.

The location is brand new, so it is all very spotless and fresh. Additionally, everyone was quite friendly, from the hostess to the knowledgeable server and even the manager.

We started with wine by the glass. Lisa had a glass of the Malbec, which she found a bit tart. Steve had the Bourdeaux, which sounded good, but which tasted very dense. For an appetizer, we shared the smoked salmon. We really liked this dish, as well as the rather unusual creme fraiche-type sauce which accompanied
it. The salmon was particularly fresh tasting.

Next, Steve had the wedge salad and Lisa had the lobster bisque. Lisa really loved the bisque, although the lobster was a bit fishy. Steve's wedge was just ok, particularly since the tomatoes were not very fresh.

Our rating for Capital Grille would have been higher, but the steak was not quite up to top levels. Since only the porterhouse and ribeye (not the filet) were dry-aged, both of us had the porterhouse. It was cooked a perfect medium rare, and Lisa thought it had just the right amount of charcoal flavoring (Steve thought not quite enough but he likes heavy charcoal), but both of us thought the filet side was excelleent while the sirloin side was not so good. it was quite tough and only tasted good right by the bone. We can't understand why they just don't offer a dry aged bone-in filet, which would no doubt be great.

It was late, and the desserts actually looked somewhat pedestrian, so believe it or not we passed.

The bathrooms were extremely clean and pleasant. The only problem was that the sink water was on the cool side.

All in all, we liked the dining experience, but given the mixed result on the actual steak, which is of course why people would go to a place like this, we can't put this in our top tier of steak restaurants.

Dinner for two, with wine by the glass and no dessert was $210, which is a bit high given the problem with the sirloin side of the porterhouse.

Our ratings for Capital Grille 5340 N. River Road, Rosemont

7 of 10 Steak Knives 2.5 of 3 Bathroom Brushes


La Petite Folie - Worn But Usable (Chicago Area Restaurant Review No. 93)

Steve convinced Lisa to see a play version of a movie she was lukewarm about, called Wait Until Dark. The play, which was pretty bad, was at a theatre in Hyde Park, and La Petite Folie, which Steve had read about on numerous occasions was less than a mile away, so we decided to go there before the show. Overall, this was a nice dining experience, although some of the non-culinary elements left something to be desired.

When we came, we were the first ones in the restaurant, and the service was very attentive. We did notice, however, that while the restaurant seemed very authentically French, the carpet was worn and had a slight mildewy smell.

We started with a bottle of Le Bon Pasteur Pomerol. We always like wine from the Pomerol region, but this was probably the best bottle we've had. It was very light and drinkable, and had an excellent bouquet. Our first food course was the appetizers. Lisa had the lobster, which consisted of warm lobster claws taken out of the shell. She really liked this dish, although we both thought the lobster tasted a bit fishy. Steve loved his onion tart, which had a great cheese filling.

Salads were not much to look at, but were quite interesting. Lisa's field greens came with pieces of grapefruit and corn kernels, as well as the traditional greens. She liked the variety although overall the salad was only average. Steve had the corsican salad which was very purple, since most of it was cut up beets and radishes, which were not bad, and Steve really enjoyed the cheese in the salad.

Our entrees were mixed. Lisa really liked the salmon, which was a thick and tasty cut, that she ranked among the best she's ever had. Steve had a taste and also liked it alot. Steve's rack of lamb was less thrilling; it tasted a bit gamey. However, the accompanying potatoes were excellent.

The service really started to decline after the entree, largely because the restaurant filled up and there seemed to be only 3 servers for about 25 tables. As a result, we waited almost an hour between the entree and the dessert (good thing we actually enjoy each other's company). When the dessert did come, the experience was again mixed. Lisa liked her chocolate bombe, which was an outer shell of dark chocolate, with chocolate ice cream inside and chocolate cake on the bottom. She thought the chocolate was good because it was sufficiently dark, and she liked the ice cream as well. Steve's pear crepes left something to be desired although, in fairness, Steve hates pears. So why would he order this -- for the cinammon ice cream, which was really quite good.

The bathrooms were nice. Each was a well appointed (although not fancy) single, that was very clean. However, the men's room was rather cold, and it took a long time for the sink water to warm up (although, unlike with some restaurant bathrooms, there was eventually hot water here).

Since there is basically nothing in the way of good restaurants in Hyde Park, this is definitely the place to go if you are going to the theatre or a concert there, or visiting junior at U of C. However, while La Petite Folie is good, the entire experience was less than stellar, and didn't live up to some of the glowing reviews Steve had seen.

Dinner for 2 with an expensive bottle of wine was $300, so would have been more like $200 with wine by the glass. That is about right for the quality of the food.

Our ratings for La Peitie Folie, 1504 E. 55th Street, Chicago:

7 of 10 Berets 2.5 of 3 Bathroom Brushes


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Restaurant Michael: Great Food But Stepford Setting (Chicago Area Restaurant Review No. 92)

We hadn't tried a new restaurant for a while, so after consulting we picked Restaurant Michael in Winnetka because the menu items included a cheese course and interesting appetizers. The food exceeded our expectations (which our readers know is hard to do). Nonetheless, we probably wouldn't go here again because we didn't enjoy the experience overall. The evening started well enough when a man who looked like he might have been the chef/owner came out to greet us as we pulled into the parking lot. The first thing we noticed about the restaurant, however, was that even though the website referred to the dress as casual, the least dressy patrons were still, for the most part, wearing sport coats or suits (for the women, add pearls) straight out of the Brooks Brothers catalogue.

Next, we both noticed how cold the restaurant was, even though it was a semi-warm day for March in Chicago. Unfortunately, we were seated at the table closest to the door and most in line with the cold air sweeping in. Nonetheless, when we asked for a different table, as there were many empty ones, we were told a change wasn't possible. (All the tables did fill later, but the more vehement complainers offered the table next to ours were moved.) The other issue with the tables was that the one we were at was one of four that felt as if they were afterthought auxiliary tables, such as those you'd stick kids at for a big family gathering, stuck in front of more cozy booths, and pushed very close together. Those who have read our blog from the beginning know that we usually don't take decor and atmosphere much into account, but here it really colored our experience, which is particularly unfortunate since the food was quite good. The experience was not helped for us by the fact that all the patrons looked they had roman numerals after their names and the wait staff was a bit unfriendly overall (though not just to those of us who do not have numerals after our names).

Our amuse bouche were cheese puffs, which were light with a creamy cheese filling and which we really loved. For a change of pace, we ordered a bottle of Croatian Zlatan Zinfandel. This could have been problematic since, unbeknownst to us, this is a dry red, and we generally don't like dry wine. But it turned out that this one had a nice bouquet and was not overly tart. For appetizers, Steve ordered the smoked salmon. It was good but not great, largly because it came with something a bit sweeter than the creme fraiche we normally like with smoked salmon. Steve really liked the toast accompaniment, however. Lisa ordered the pate plate, which included pate, sausage and mousse as well as olives and tiny dill pickles. She loved the sausage, olives and pickles (especially the pickles which were crunchy and had a strong dill flavor). The rest she didn't like as much, but she's not that big a pate fan and ordered it mainly to try something different.

The salads were average. Steve had the salade nicoise, which he found interesting albeit a bit too tangy for his taste. He particularly didn't like the egg at the top. Lisa had the baby field greens salad with Roquefort cheese, walnuts and pears. It was a bit heavy on the pears and the cheese was a bit strong for her, but it was an interesting mix of flavors.

The entrees were where the dinner really began to shine. Lisa had the beef tenderloin and short rib combination. The short rib was excellent, with great flavor, cooked medium rare, and extremely tender. This was the first time she really understood why Steve so often orders short rib if it's available. Steve also thought it was some of the best short rib he's ever had. The beef tenderloin was excellent as well, cooked perfectly and full of flavor. Steve ordered the guinea hen and duck combination. The hen was heavenly -- with a perfect flavor and perfect spices -- and the duck was good but not great, a bit rare for his taste and also a bit too moist. We also loved the whipped potatoes that the servers spooned onto our plates after serving the entrees. The potatoes were very smooth and buttery.

Dessert was also a highlight. Lisa had the chocolate trio. The flourless chocolate cake was dark, rich and dense. The pudding was dark chocolate with whipped cream, and the souffle was dark as well without the eggy taste Lisa usually dislikes in souffles. Steve had the cheese course. He liked all the cheeses, but only the goat cheese, which Lisa also loved, was particularly noteworthy. The dessert amuse bouche, served in a little takeout bag, was two very dark chocolate cookies, which Lisa thought were fantastic (Steve donated his).

The bathrooms were both singles and were very nice. Both smelled like an antique store at Christmastime (a cinammon spicy smell). The Women's was nicely decorated, including with drawings of fancy red shoes and red purses. The Men's Room was also nice and both were very clean. But both were far too cold, which prevented them from obtaining a perfect rating.

Dinner for two, with a bottle of wine, was a very reasonable $230 for four courses, no less, and would have been only $180 with wine by the glass. The food here is so good and the price so reasonable given the quality that we might normally have rated Restaurant Michael much higher. But the atmosphere, the attitude and homogenous Stepford-like clientele really make it hard for us to fully recommend the place or to want to go back.

Our ratings for Restaurant Michael, 64 Green Bay Road, Winnetka, Illinois:

7.5 of 10 Steak Knives; 2.5 of 3 Bathroom Brushes