Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sola - Chicago - What a great place!

As a fuss for my birthday, my wife and I pick somewhere sort out of our sphere for my dinner. This year, we picked Sola, in Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. I have to confess that our niece used to serve there and raved about it, but we never got the time to go when she was working there. What a big mistake for us. It is a great semi casual place with wonderful servers, wonderful drinks, more wonderful food and overall a really enjoyable experience. I strongly recommend that people try it.

They have a great bar and wine list. We opted more for pre-dinner drinks than wine because of the weather and the distance. I had the drink of the month which is the Absent Minded which has Bulleit bourbon, housemade sweet potato -caramel syrup, ginger ale, absenthe, and lemon. Absolutely perfect. Powerful, but perfect. We started with the artichoke fritters which where a great start. I had the tuna which I found to be perfectly done and like almost all the items, a sort of Californian, Hawaiian, Asian twist. My wife had the Ocean Trout. The dish was great, but the fish was a little strong for her tastes and almost a little strong for mine. On the other hand, the presentation and the taste was wonderful. Son 1.0 had Lamb Chops. They looked great, but I don't eat meat, and I was seriously disappointed to not be able to try. Sometimes I put my chef hat on and nibble to see how it was done etc.

For dessert, I ordered one of the items that has a featured ingredient which in December was Chestnuts. I had the Apple-Chestnut Crepe with rum - cider sabayon, vanilla crème fraiche ice cream. Very nice finish.

The service was top notch. The room is tasteful and mildly hip. The layout was well conceived. The clientèle ranged from the tragically hip to older folk (older than me). I saw men in jackets to t-shirts.

The only connection to Naperville is that it isn't that far to find outstanding, independent restaurants doing outstanding food. Darn shame, Naperville attracts the chains and the look-alikes.

Try Sola, 3868 N Lincoln Ave. You will need reservations. They even have valet for we who don't live in the city. I want to go back and will try soon .

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Grumpy Bulldog Bar-Downtown Naperville

Last night as a fling, we decided to go to the hotbed of over priced chain restaurants in downtown Naperville and go to the Grumpy Bulldog. Located on Jackson, next to Tango replaced the Red Door.

The location is small and is basically a bar, but with the twist that they have a huge selection of beers on tap and bottled. We both like craft beers and were surprised to see the huge list for a little place. They have a decent kitchen and we enjoyed the evening. I hope as a cute independent place that they can survive.

OK, this is a great place to play pin the tail on the beer menu and see what you get. They have those almost beers like Millers and what ever, but you can see that this place is about craft beers. I saw a decent back bar as well. We had four different beers last night, Shiner Cheer, Left Hand Milk Stout, Magic Hat #9 and a Unibroue Brewery (this in a bottle). All were good, or good enough to talk about and enjoy.

We had the Fish Wrap and the Eggplant Parmesan sandwich. I love Eggplant Parmesan sandwiches and hold all competitors to a little joint in the Loop that closed, Rosie's. This was very good. The marinara sauce was very good. If it came from GFS, I'd be shocked. The fish wrap was well done and very tasty. The choice of sides made it easy to not just get fries.

The server we had was very knowledgeable about the beers and made it fun.

My complaints are few. The noise was a little loud even for a football game (nice TVs). I think the menu is an evolving thing based on changes from the web page to the real menu so adding a Veggie Burger would be nice as well as maybe another veggie option.

I judge a place, even a joint like this by will I come back, will I tell anyone else and finally who will I bring back. We will be back, I plan on telling my neighbors because I think they might like a place like this and finally when our kids come into town around the holidays, we will all come in.

Not a dress up place, not fancy. My only thing I might say is I'm sorry it isn't located closer or at least someplace easier to get to. But frankly, it is places like this that make me believe that the wasteland of downtown Naperville can be recovered.

And I love the name. Check this one out.

Web page is

Monday, November 16, 2009

What Makes a Great Restaurant?

Every so often, I wonder why I like some place that no one else seems to like. I used to assume it was personal taste or my quirky views on things. But there are some places I really like that fly under the radar. So why do I like these?

Of course, the food. If the food isn't at the level I assume for a place, then the deal is off. You can have exquisite settings, wonderful service, but ok food, I'm not going to like it.

Next is the service. From the moment I hit the front door, I want to feel like I'm being welcomed. Both family type dining or fancy. I don't expect a family place to be expecting me, but I want someone to greet me with a real smile and a welcoming greeting. I want a server to say hi, like they mean it. I want people to be polite and smile and not interrupt etc.

I want a clean place. It doesn't have to be scrubbed down and polished bright, but if I go into a Burger King, I really want to be clean enough to eat there. And clean enough to go to the bathroom. I've been in pretty nice restaurants that needed to have someone from the staff go in there and clean it thoroughly, please.

This isn't too much to ask, but frankly, few places do this. I guess training isn't what restaurants spend money on. Or the management is well trained either or just doesn't get it. I don't really want much, I just want to feel like I'm at someone's home.

Monday, November 9, 2009

100 things restaurant staffers shouldn't do

I ran across this blog at the New York Times a few days ago and loved it. There are a number of so so basic items and a few odd balls, but they add up to great ideas. The link to the first 50 is while the second half is at The
comments after these are also as odd as some of the comments. Some of my favorites are

18. Know before approaching a table who has ordered what. Do not ask, “Who’s having the shrimp?”

98. Do not wear too much makeup or jewelry. You know you have too much jewelry when it jingles and/or draws comments.

Every owner, manager and server should read these and do these. These apply to casual dining, family dining and finer dining. If a fine dining restaurant needs these, it has already probably failed.

I would add my own ideas. One of which is: dress your servers like you want the diners to be dressed. Never have your diners better dressed than the servers (Francesca's?). Also have your management dressed better than your staff.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

When is a restraurant a Chain Restaurant

There is probably a definition in the business as to what is a chain restaurant, but I've thought about this a lot lately. We have a number of multi-location restaurants in Naperville, because we have dollars and diners. Some of these multi-locatoin restaurants are here because we have diners that are into the name not the food. Most of these are chains in m definition. I look at the control of the restaurant and especially the ability of an executive chef to manage a restaurant well. Can the executive chef of Ted's Montana Grill manage the quality of the food at the Naperville and Bolingbrook locations to the exacting tastes of the executive chef's I know. No, not from some corporate headquarters. He or she might wander through a few times a year look around and make a comment or two to improve the restaurant. But the exec in this case is setting an image, not judging every plate that leaves the restaurant. I remember being in the kitchen of a nice restaurant where the chef or his sous-chef saw every plate that left his kitchen and they also looked at most of the plates that came back to see what people left.

So what about the interlopers that come from Chicago? Most to me are chains since there is no way the chef can come in every day and check on things, let alone be there during many services.

And frankly, quality revolves around the fact the executive chef will watch every plate carefully for everything from presentation to cleanliness as well as watching that sauces are not too thick or thin and that portions are controlled etc. Most restaurants have someone, usually called chef du cusine, which means assistant executive chef whose job it is to run the restaurant. But you are paying for the executives reputation.

My ideal chef is Rick Bayless. This guy is a god to me because he didn't open a restaurant in Las Vegas and New York and Miami, but three in a row. He Controls the restaurant. When yo ugo there you know he was actively involved in the menu, prep and presentation.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

City Meat Market closed

The only reason I know that City Meat Market is closed because I read it in the Sun. And it appears that a lot of people found out from the Sun. Hmmmm. The old fogies are lamenting the loss of yet another Naperville landmark, but let's face it, it closed years ago when it was sold and he moved from downtown to Cress Creek. That was the kiss of death. So that leaves Casey's as the place to buy meats. I haven't tried Whole Foods, but frankly I can't see how they have a real butcher in there. There might be a few others, but I use Casey's if I need meat.

City Meat left downtown because (Shock) the rents were going up. And so that space is now a shoe shop. I think an upscale shop that never seems to have a lot of traffic. But the closing of City Meat reflects a changing Naperville and one that I think may have changed too much. I'm not someone who can sit back and chew the fat about the old days in downtown Naperville. I've only lived here for about 30 years. I remember Ceebee's Grocery and a few other nuggets, but old downtown Naperville was catering to that crowd that lived in Old Naperville. And times have changed, but did they have to change so much that the stores and restaurants are boring?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Tipping, I've changed my mind

First, I think serving is one of the hardest jobs. No wait, good serving is one of the hardest jobs I know. Having seen the very best and the very worst at all levels of restaurants as well as doing a little serving myself, I appreciate the work.

The problem is tipping. My niece is a server and very good one. I asked her for advice since she has served at nicer to very nice Chicago restaurants. She said everyone tips 20% or more. I was dumbfounded. 20%? I was a 15% off the food price.

So here is the rub. Some servers expect 20% of the total bill including the tax. Others are expecting 15% of the total. Some of us are not willing to pay a tip on tax, that is dumb. But as I get older, 15% is tough to figure in my head.

Also 15% (or 20%) is really for excellent service. Excellent, not almost excellent or I would have if the kitchen hadn't screwed up excellent. It is for the whole package. If the kitchen is screwing up orders and you are taking the heat, find another job or scream at the kitchen manager. It isn't my problem.

So my new approach is to look at the bill and figure about 20% of the total (or so). On a great server, I'll make sure and round up. On an good server, I'll go to the easiest number and for a bad server, I'm still willing to start deducting for style points.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Search for Salt

One of the big lessons taught in cooking schools is salt. Yup, that lowly NaCl. I'm amazed at the reaction to salt. Once in Soups and Sauces class at cooking school, we made some soup. I tasted it before presenting it to the Chef/Instructor and thought it wasn't too bad. "Needs more salt" she replied. So I took it back and added some salt. Oh my what a difference, so again I presented it to the Chef and she said "Needs more salt". I mildly protested, but went back and added some salt to pan. It was 100% better. So again I presented the dish and she said "It really needs more salt, really". I really protested, but did as Chef wanted and added more salt. Oh Man was she right. The dish exploded with taste and not just salt. When I presented it again, she said, "See...".

So if there are all these good chefs, then why don't they know how to salt? I can see in a nursing home or retirement home (ok not really). We went to a well known restaurant in Wheaton that closed some time ago by two brothers. I'm sure you know who. The food was well good, but it needed salt. But no salt was at the table. Given what I know now, they probably thought that only a philistine would salt this great food. Well, this philistine has tasted perfectly done food and this wasn't it. It needed salt. I've salted the salsa at Front Street Cantina once and added my lime from a beer. That needed salt too. I realize that the 'great chefs' know how to salt (yeah right), but the line cooks who are the work horses of the restaurants and are great cooks may not have the 'talent' the chefs do.

Put salt on the table. It isn't a slight to your abilities and can be important to a great experience.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Downtown Restaurants or why I don't go

Naperville has a lively night life and is getting more restaurants and bars. Or rather bars and a few restaurants. But the restaurants aren't that good. Here is how to be successful in downtown Naperville. First, design a bar that appeals to 21-30 crowd. Remember the 30-50 guys who would like to be 21-30 will also go because well, they still think they can cruise the bar scene and pick up 21 year old women (yeah right). Because this is Naperville, it should have loud music, funny-fancy drinks and women. Even if you have to import them. This brings in the single guys. Since Naperville has liquor licenses that discourage a bar, you need to add food. And you need a certain percentage to qualify for the next level up, which is cheaper and easier to get. The more you can disguise your bar as a restaurant the better so add grill to your name. It would help if you were a 'famous' place from Chicago so people would think it is trendy to go.

The choice of food is a wide-enough menu to get people to buy a sandwich or even a meal. Remember a percentage of your take has to be in food to qualify for a different level of license.

The best way to make money from restaurants in Naperville is to own the building and rent it out. This way, the only people who can afford the rent would be cookie cutter corporate restaurants who can use a formula to be successful and can factor in the rising rents as one more part of the equation and price the drinks accordingly. Sort of the McDonald's approach to bars and restaurants. Yes, this works, but it is boring. How many appletini's can one stand?

Don't get me wrong, I do like Bar Louie's although I'd rather go to Bolingbrook than face Naperville traffic. But the glut of bars posing as restaurants just don't do it for me.

This is my opinion. If you are a 25 year old guy who is looking to go pick up chicks and needs a bar scene, so be it. But look at the price of that fancy drink you are nursing. Look at the decor and service. Watch everyone yelling over the music to talk. If this is fun, I guess I never knew what fun was.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Veg Harvest Restaurant

Last week, my wife and I went to try Indian Harvest's newest restaurant spin-off, Veg Harvest. Naperville has remarkably good Indian restaurants and I love Indian food. If you like Indian food, especially South Indian and street style food, then Veg Harvest is a winner. I like Indian Harvest, but this is a vegetarian only restaurant. This is also different because of the addition of chaats and other street fare, something you don't find in a lot of Indian restaurants. We had the Samosa Chaat, which is a samosa topped with an Indian 'chili'. Next we had Butter Masala Dosai and Navratan Korma. The Dosai was about 14" wide and filled with a great potato mixture. The Navratan Korma would have been a hit in any other restaurant, but here it was our third choice. We ordered too much. The Samosa Chaat and Dosai would have been enough for two people. So order wisely.

The service was very good. Indian Harvest does have good service and here is no exception. They kept water glasses filled and were attentive to our table.

This is relatively a new place and is closed on Tuesday. They do not have a liquor license. The sign outside is still Indian Harvest (this is the previous place before they moved across the street).

When I think about what was wrong with the restaurant, I don't have much to say. For a mid-level Indian restaurant, it is extremely good. All I want is good food, good service and a nice atmosphere. If I want fancy, I'll go to India House in Oakbrook. But this is a great place to get a excellent Indian food.

When we go to a new place, the thing that tells us we like it is when we are planning on the next visit, before we are done with the first. It doesn't happen all that often. Half way through the dinner, we were ready to come back. The other thing that tells us we liked it is when we see who we should tell or bring.

This is a winner.

Who am I and why should I write this blog

First let me introduce myself. I'm a 55 year old guy who loves food. I'm also a trained chef and have worked in restaurants, so I know a little about food and what it takes to make food. I also live in Naperville, IL and have opinions about what is going on here. Naperville is the 6th largest city in Illinois and when you combine Aurora and Naperville, it becomes the second largest area. That is a lot of people and a lot of opportunities.

Unfortunately, Naperville sort of fails us all. Because of greed and Naperville's willingness to accept drek, we have a downtown that attracts boring cookie cutter restaurants that cater to the college kids rather than to the food.

I should also state that there are good places in Naperville. I also believe that it doesn't have to be fine dining either. I happen to like places like Dino's and Portillo's for fast food. I like Buonaro's for casual dining as well. I don't need too crowded, too loud, too high priced dining.

My opinions are mine and mine alone. I don't accept anything from anyone. And I hope to call 'em the way I see them.