Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sugar Toad

We went to the highly respected restaurant, Sugar Toad, in Naperville, in Naperville? Frankly, it was very very good and I would recommend it, but as I look back at other fine dining experiences, it was good and bordered on great.

First the food. Restaurants should know that if the service is fabulous and the room was awesome, but the food sucks, people will not come back. The food was fabulous. It was not froo-froo fussy with foams and whips and weird combinations of tastes to make it a gastronomic experience. However, it was visually stunning, beautifully prepared, complimentary flavors that were at times unique, and perfectly flavored and salted. We had the four course tasting menu and had the chef do a pescadarian (fish and veggies) menu. First we are fish eaters, no meat and I love to see what happens when we ask. The kitchen handled it with glee it seems. We did ask to have the beet salad included in as one of the courses, since in looking at the menu, it was one we both were very interested in. It was a hit.

The service was very good, but I kept finding them being a beat off the timing of the meal. The room was not full and yet the timing wasn't perfect. It may be the kitchen, but I really know the staff and the expeditor is more responsible for the timing of the courses than the kitchen.

The room is smaller than I expected with more bar than dining room. The Arista Hotel, where the restaurant is located, is one of those fancy chic-type places. Lots of modern looking design, light on inviting. There was a huge meeting across the lobby from the restaurant and there was a roar from it that carried across the lobby through the front door and down into the dining room. This isn't the restaurant's fault, but either close your doors or better sound proofing in the front of the room or something, because I don't like to have to raise my voice to talk across the table. The room also had a mural that covered what looked like a potential area for the restaurant. As I looked at it, it looked interesting, but the more I thought about it, it looked out of place. A white wall would have looked better.

Our meal was about $250 with tax and tip. Yup, it was expensive. And the big question is would I go again? Yes. And I recommend it to someone who likes interesting food. It is not a steak and potatoes place. It is not Charlie Trotters (thank god). I think Chef Sneed (now a consultant) and the Chef de Cuisine Rhyne do a great job of finding a balance between creating simple and elegance.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A food trip to San Francisco and Berkeley CA

I know this is about Naperville, but sometimes describing paradise is more important than telling people why they live in a wasteland of food.

My wife had to go out for business and her son lives in Berkeley. So this is a great opportunity to see SF as well as spend a little time with Son 1.0 and of course eat. Through a friend who seemed to like to eat, we found a place the first full day we were there. This for me was after a very long day of walking all over Northern San Francisco. I've never seen a place where every hill is up, except when you have to go to the top of the up, and there are two or three downs and ups. We ate at a small place called "Swell". It was a modern seafood type place with a slightly Asian flair. Featuring both raw and cooked seafood, and of course I tried as much as I could. Nothing bad. See the menu at http://www.swellsf.com.

The next night was also in San Francisco and I wanted to try Chinatown. I'm not sure where Son 1.0 found it, but it was different. We tried Lucky Creation. This is a little different than most in that it is a vegetarian restaurant. We tried "chicken" in curry sauce (very very good), Sliced "Pork" with vegetables and a clay pot vegetable dish. A little funky in the decor, but frankly we ate a lot and spent about $50 for three with two beers, pot stickers and another appetizer.

The next night we moved to Berkeley and were now off the company dime for one person. Friday night was a treat. The Cheese Board Collective was to be closed on Saturday (May Day!) and tonight's pizza was corn, mozzarella and feta cheese, cilantro and red onions. Because of the occasion, we invited the starving student/friends of Son 1.0 to come out. They brought beer (they know good beer here) and ate on the Do Not Use The Meridian area between the two halves of the street. When we arrived there were 20-40 people in line, when we left there were 40 to 50 people in line and it was moving. If you don't know about the Cheese Board, it is a collective (no bosses, everyone is a part owner) that has been doing bread and pizza for 40 years. They have the best (I mean the best) cheese case I've ever seen both in quantity and quality of cheeses. A food trip to Berkeley requires a trip to the Cheese Board. Here is a link.

The next night was on our own and so we went to "Bistro Liaison", just on the edge of the "Gourmet Ghetto". It is crowded, with great decor. Yelpers (who I read and make fun of them) seemed to think it was ok. I liked it as did my wife. We had no reservations, but we got into a small table in the corner quickly. We were asked to free up the table by 7:30 and although we did, there was no one waiting. The food was quite good. I had Trout Almandine, while Joette had the fish special which was Ling Cod. Again all very good, a bit expensive, but we were there to enjoy. A link to Bistro Liaison is here.

Our final day started at "La Note", which is my favorite place. Excellent breakfast food on a superb back patio. Light and fluffy eggs. Perfect. If I could steal a restaurant and move it to Naperville, this is my first choice. Here is its link.

Our final restaurant was also an old favorite, The restaurant is an Indian restaurant named Ajanta. It is listed as Alice Water's favorite places and I can see why. We love Indian cooking and are spoiled by the wonderful and underused Indian places in Naperville. But every time we go to the Bay area, we like to stop in here. Very good food with the right amount of oil and heat. If you are interested, follow this link.

Overall, the food in San Francisco and Berkeley area is outstanding. Everything from Alice Water's Chez Panisse to Thai takeaway hole in the wall.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Alinea named top US restaurant

One of Chicago's 'top' restaurants, Alinea, has been named as the top American restaurant by the top 50 restaurants in the world. NOMA, from Copenhagen, was first. The reason I'm telling you this is so that you will know and you will know not to go there. I've never been, nor will I go. Alinea is known for its "Molecular Gastronomy". Makes you want to go just for that! Molecular Gastronomy based on rethinking the science of cooking and reviewing all the myths etc about cooking and food. This part I like. The part that Alinea is involved with is the reinvention of food. I like food. Real food. I do not want to go to have a "PB&J" which is a peeled grape (with stem) covered in peanut butter and then wrapped in a thin brioche. Maybe 10 of these, but at Alinea there is one perfect on a plate. Grant Achatz, who is the chef, worked under our own Charlie Trotter and taken the food to a new plane of existance. At one point, he took a hot dog and pulverized it and captured the vapor. You squirt the vapor into your mouth with a bite of brioche and probably some foam of condiments and you have a Chicago hot dog.

Lots of foams and freezing of stuff you might not think about freezing. One article said he and his wife went and spent $750. His wife can't remember ever chewing. After then left, they went to a hot dog stand.

If you have too much money and are willing to eat foams, a lot of suspended spoons over a broth, frozen items that probably aren't meant to be eaten frozen, items on antennas etc etc.

In respect, I understand what Achatz is doing. He is asking people to reconsider the food they eat by altering what you see and how you taste it. I am impressed with his and his staff's ability. I don't necessarily have to have a plate of food with protein, veg, starch. I happen to like tastings, but I do believe that food should be eaten and if I eat at a restaurant (and spend a few hundred), I would be relatively full.

I am probably a heathen and an outcast for those thoughts. But I hope this trend towards tastings and molecular gastronomy will fade and chefs can get back to making real food again.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Cheap Eats - Eggsperience, Naperville

This is a local chain of breakfast/lunch places in the Chicago area with one recently opening up in Naperville (75th near route 59, near Whole Foods). Ok it is a breakfast place. But it isn't pretentious or too loud, not too fancy, not too hip, not too cheap looking. We like it and think most people would. The decor is wake me up yellow. If I want fancy restaurant, I can pay for fancy restaurant. This is just right for a morning. Service is very good and food came out fast, again one more important thing with breakfast. The food is very good and the mix of items is pretty basic, but nicely handled. My wife wanted something a little different on the menu and they said sure. I like that in a quick, fast place.

My only downside is the coffee. It seemed strong, like very strong. Like too strong for me. If I wanted espresso, I can order it (which they have). They give you a pot (again I like that) and a carafe of water (gotta like that too). The first pot smelled burnt to me, like it was overcooked. We complained and the server brought us another pot. It was ok, but so strong. She said they do have really strong coffee. The next visit we just didn't order coffee, but that was afternoon. I'm not sure what to do the next time.

This is a keeper. Quick, casual, not too loud (we could sit in our booth and talk normally even with a full house). Food is great, service is great and fast. And it is breakfast. We haven't tried it for lunch but it looked pretty good on the menu.

Here is there web site: http://www.eggsperiencecafe.com/

Monday, March 15, 2010

Pizza Fusion-Naperville Closed?!?

I just read in the Naperville Sun that the Pizza Fusion on 75th Street closed. I'm a little shocked because I thought the food was very good, it had a good hook (organic, gluten free etc), a great location, pretty interior and adequate parking. So why did it close. We were there about a month ago and it was packed on a Friday or Saturday night. It wasn't a big space and probably that was a problem, but frankly it looked like it would do well.

It is one thing to say that a hook like being organic and all might not work in Naperville. But thereshould be enough people that will go for that. Naperville isn't a very trendy eating city (OK, it isn't trendy at all). The important point to me was although it was a nice hook, but the food was very good. I have a taste for a PF pizza right now.

So I doubt it was for lack of business or a bad location. I can only assume either Naperville can't really support a place like this or some bad business management. It is too bad, it was a cute, fun restaurant with good food. I'll miss it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Mon Ami Gabi-almost a great restraurant

For Valentine's Day weekend, we decided on going to Mon Ami Gabi. This is located in OakBrook Center Mall near Cheesecake Factory. Mon Ami Gabi is a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant and I'm not a big fan of them. And I finally figured out why. I'm aware that this is truly a "Chain Restaurant" but we had seen it in Las Vegas and we both wondered about it. And so I had issues when we got there because it is a Lettuce Entertain You place. So we made reservations through Open Table.

We were going to a concert that evening so we had early reservations. Now being early is both good and bad. In this case it was neither because I don't think they are ever quite ready and they are big enough to be as ready as they can be.

As I said, we had reservations and this is in the mall area. We walked in and the reservation was ready (it was 4:30, it should be). I always check out the people. There were people who came here to eat and some who just done shopping. I don't care, but the shoppers are walk in people. We were shown to a two person table right next to a wall and on the other side of it was a wait station. And the restaurant is 1/3 full. We stopped and had to ask for another table and got the next one. It was acceptable. But here is my problem. When someone comes in with a reservation, shouldn't you give them a decent table? The tables we were at should be for walk ins only.

The restaurant kind of looks like a Paris restaurant (I assume). It has the trappings etc. The menu is pretty French and was a pretty good menu. Not a fancy menu, but a nice selections of meats, seafood, sandwiches etc. Again it is a mall restaurant. The service was very good. He seemed qualified and seemed to know the menu. And overall the food and service were pretty good.

By the way, the wine menu was predominately French wines. And a pretty good selection and price. This sort of surprised me since French wines don't always sell that well in this area in my opinion and I certainly didn't expect it here. That was a nice surprise.

It finally hit me where I was. I was eating at a Photocopy of a French Restaurant. And if you take a photocopy of a photo, you get blurring around the edges. It isn't as sharp or as crisp. And that is what this and many copies of restaurants are, not as sharp or crisp as the original.

When we left, the usual question is would you go back. Both of us agreed that if we were in the Oak Brook area and were interested in spending a little more on dinner, but would like a nicer dinner, this is a good place. We would try it again, but we wouldn't go out of our way to go all the way to Oak Brook just to eat there.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Why I hate Yelp and Restaurant Reviews

People go out to eat for a lot of different reasons. Yes, everyone needs to eat, but people go out because they want to impress a date, impress a client, because the name is hot, to be seen or see people, because the chef was voted #1 in what ever her specialty, the room is visually cool and sometimes because the food is good. I go to restaurants differently than most I guess and although I look at Yelp or those sites, I usually take most of them with a skeptical eye. First most people yelp to show off. And you can show off by nit picking a place rather than saying, it was good. I've seen 'reviews' that make me wonder if the restaurant had changed owners, servers, chefs and decor since the last time I was there. And rarely do the 'reviewers' say much that doesn't really reflect back on them.

I know restaurants have bad days. And depending on the place, I can excuse some mistakes etc. My tolerance for mistakes depends on the price and the hoity-toityness of the place. I expected Le Francais to be 0 mistakes, it wasn't when the Lachowicz brothers owned it (and ruined it). I also expect any simple mistakes to be corrected and if necessary something to counter the mistakes, like a dessert etc.

But the yelpers like to show off. Like the people that notice the shadow of a boom mike in a movie or which way the tie of the guy behind the actors moves in different shots. No one really cares about some of the minutia that these people pick on.

But I do read them. Usually only to see if the same issues are raised by multiple people. If a number of people say their reservation was delayed a hour, then the restaurant has a problem. If one person says their table wasn't ready for a hour, that may be a situation that the restaurant couldn't fix.

So the point of this is to not accept what an anonymous poster writes. Heck, I barely accept the recommendations of friends, because what they like is certainly not what I like. Francesca's is a good example. I really dislike the chain, but I have a friend who adores it. But I know we are looking at the situation from two very different points of view.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Distinctive Cork - Pricy but worth it

I saw an item on Facebook about an event and it happened my wife was working from home and I asked if she wanted to go to Distinctive Cork. We've been a number of times and like it, and so we went. I forget about Distinctive Cork and I'm always sorry I do each time we go.

This isn't a neighborhood joint. It is a classy wine bar and restaurant. If you want a crowded, noisy place where the food is just adequate, but you are paying for a well known name, then you won't like it. But if you are looking for a relatively romantic place with a fabulous wine list (all by the glass!!!) with a very nice menu, then this is it. It isn't cheap, but the value of the wine and food are spot on.

The Distinctive Cork is located on Gartner off of Washington in the Naperville Plaza Shopping Center (Casey's and Trader Joe's). They do lunch, but I've never been there. They open for dinner at 5pm. They make a wonderful Cheese tray and pair that with a flight tasting and it is the start of a great evening. They have music on select Fridays and Saturdays. Check out their web page at www.distinctivecork.com.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A quick run down of places

This is sort of a quick run down of places I might like to write about in the future. If you have any other ideas, let me know. These are in no particular order.

Miller's Lombard Ale House (Near Yorktown Mall, other side of Butterfield). A great casual place. Great food, cold beer and Sports on TV. It reminds me a little of Smokey Bones. Lots of seafood on the menu. I like it.

Meson Sabika-Naperville. I really like it best during the spring, summer and warmer fall days. The focus has changed over the years to a wedding place and I think that detracted from the place. But it still is a nice place to go on a summer evening.

Ram Restaurant-Schaumburg. I love this place. It has a micro brewery on premises and the food is excellent. They make the best calamari we've ever had. Of course, not as good as the Indianapolis location (Gencon and all).

Traverso's-Naperville. I feel it always is missing it's mark. The food is ... good, but something is missing. Not sure what it is, but I'll think about it.

Maciano's-Aurora on Eola. I shouldn't write about this. It is too good. Small, loud, limited tables. Excellent pasta and pizza. Well worth a short drive. Locations in North Aurora, Streamwood, Plano, Elgin and two in Rockford. This is a small locally owned group and frankly a great place.

Pizza Fusion-Naperville. It's hip to be green, but it great when the food is worth being green. Not a normal type pizza place, but I like it a lot.

That's a short list, but a good Sunday morning activity. Let me know if you agree or disagree or have a favorite to talk about.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Olive Tap-Downers Grove

Last weekend we were wandering around and happened through downtown Downers Grove. I noticed a new(er) store on the south end of town called "Olive Tap". We went in and found a cool little store that sells Olive Oil! All kinds of olive oil as well as balsamic vinegars. There were about a number of different olive oils, such as the organic Tunisian olive oil we purchased as well as infused oils. The balsamics were also very cool. I think there were two or so 'normal' balsamics and then a bunch of flavored balsamics. We bought a very nice heavy balsamic that we tried that night with a good hearty cheese. It was heaven. I also liked the red apple balsamic, but thought two was a good start. There are other goodies in the store and is a great stop.

The store is located at 5151 Main St. Downer Grove and is located down the street from Bally Doyles. I understand they are moving around the corner to 5143 Mochel Dr. in the Spring. They are a part of a three stores, one in Long Grove and the other in Medina OH. The web page is at www.theolivetap.com.

I expect we will be back soon. I can see a small collection of their bottles in my future.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cafe Buonaro's-Back with Gusto

I love Cafe Buonaro's. I point to it about what makes a great restaurant great. Ron Buonaro was one of the finest restaurateurs I've ever met in both how he approached the restaurant, his life and his community. His passing left a great hole in Naperville. When Ron passed away, I worried about Cafe Buonaro's. But change is the only thing that is constant especially for restaurants. I'm very pleased to say that Cafe Buonaro's appears to be alive and well. It is like going home to go in there.

If you haven't been to Buonaro's, here is the layout. It is in 5th Avenue Station towards the Loomis side. It is tucked in the corner of the building but a large sign is over the best doorway. They use the natural brick of the building as the dominant decor, but it still has that Taylor Street look to it. There are no menus just a number of wipe boards with the appetizers, entrees and wines. There is a wine list on the table to see more detail.

The food is old school Italian. Good old school Italian. When Ron passed away, my fear was the food would go downhill without a steady hand in the kitchen. Mama Buonaro (Regina) had the sense to rehire a former chef back. The food is still wonderful. I taste some differences from the past, but the basics are there and it is worth it.

We were there a few weeks ago and my wife had the Baked Spaghetti. This seems lighter than it did before, but still delicious. This is a perennial favorite to us. I had the scallops with roasted red peppers and spinach over pasta and a broth. The red peppers balanced well with the scallops. I had over 12 scallops in the bowl, not bad for $21 or so. The Baked Spaghetti is about $14.

The service is always been good. When Ron was sick, I could tell, their hearts weren't there, but now that it has been a year, they seem to be back in the groove.

This is a strong recommendation from me. It is good old fashion red sauce kind of place. They are very independent and so much better than any Rosebud or such. Give it a try.