The Blanchard

1935 N Lincoln Park W. Chicago, IL 60614(872) 829-3971theblanchardchicago.com

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The chef comes from very good pedigree having worked at some of New York’s finest such as The Four Season (RIP), Le Bernadin and the Gotham Bar & Grill. But now he’s making a name for himself in Chi-town, serving up French cuisine with a twist. And some truffles. And foie gras. And sweetbreads.

Starting with the foie gras, this guy obvious loves it (either that or he hates geese), serving so many dishes with it he ran out of names for them and just starting using numbers. For example “Seared Foie Gras #1” and “Seared Foie Gras #2,” of which I had the latter, crusted with black truffles, candied lavender and in a Madiera sauce. And while it sounds transcendent, it was really nothing memorable, especially when compared to the much less sexy sounding foie gras hot dog, which is doggone delectable. Topped with foie gras mustard, coz why not? Onion confit and served on a brioche roll.

Of the rest of the starters the only other one I would recommend would be the scallops, so don’t fall for your waiter’s swooning praise of the Oueff Outhier. The presentation is certainly nice, basically scrambled eggs put back in the shell with vodka infused crème fraiche and caviar on top. It’s good, but the scrambled eggs at Gato in New York and Bar LaGrassa in Minneapolis both trounce the shell out of this dish.

But the most disappointing of all the starters was the sweetbreads with chicken mousse, artichoke puree and bacon fat. Surprisingly bland for something so artery clogging.

The entrée course faired much better with all three being good. Granted I found the filet of sole to be insanely overpriced. It’s sole people. Not soul. But the dish worthy of the most adoration was the rack of lamb, served with a ratatouille tatin, roasted tomato and eggplant caviar all nestled in a natural reduction. So good Shaun the Sheep would wolf it down.

But as the evening went on, things just kept getting better and better, either that or I was getting drunker and drunker. Or perhaps it was something in between. Well, whatever the reason, dessert was the icing on the cake, delivering three winners in the form of a pineapple galette with passion fruit pastry cream, frangipane (almond paste) and a crème fraiche gelato. This was followed by a crepe gateau with Grand Marnier cream and hot fudge. And the cherry on top was an Ultimate crème brulee, of which I am normally not even a huge fan. But I scarfed that thing down like it was the only thing I had eaten in weeks.

Service is very good, other then the oversell on the eggs. And the décor is very nice. Striking that balance between warm and contemporary quite skillfully. And thus rounding things out for a fantastic four.

4 teeth

FIG

232 Meeting St. Charleston, SC 29401 (843) 805-5900eatatfig.com

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Ask anyone south of the Mason-Dixon Line what the best restaurants in Charleston are and you’re likely to hear about FIG, an acronym for Food Is Good. So with gauntlet thrown it was a moral imperative for me to suss out whether or not FIG was all hype, or all that.

Out of the gate, FIG seemed like yet another success story resting on its laurels, doling out bad service with a waitress who gave barely any recommendations to us “out-of-towners,” but then went on and on about half the menu with the local table next to us. But that’s minor compared to the fact that we had to ask to have our plates cleared and to see a dessert menu.

The other cause for concern was the bread. Never a good sign when the bread at a place is a pass. Appears they could learn a thing or two from Husk in terms of bread, service and décor.

But then FIG rallied with a dynamic duo of dishes. The first being the white shrimp appetizer with fennel, chili, raisins and pine nuts. Such a great, light app, yet packed with flavor and texture and nice dose of heat.

The other starter, however, was a bit on the heavier side, a lamb bolognese gnocci made with pillows of outstandingness only bested by Elan, Blue Hill and Bar LaGrassa in terms of flavor, but the dumplings themselves are incomparable.

Then, just when I thought I understood what all the hype was about, back down we went, with two dull-ass entrees. The tile fish with bone marrow and carrots was just too much of the same note and if it didn’t say bone marrow on the menu, I’d defy anyone to say they could actually taste it. And speaking of not tasting things, the suckling pig, while moist, was so bland that I couldn’t even tell where the pig ended and the rice or black-eyed peas began. And even though the dish was loaded with shishito peppers, sadly they did nothing to save the dish, because they were the most flavorless shishitos I’ve ever had, bringing not even an ounce of heat. Such a huge missed opportunity for some much needed heat.

Now deep into the woods of Two Knives-ville, it was looking grim for FIG. But from afar the sticky toffee cake with walnut ice cream (pictured) was lookin’ mighty fine on its way to virtually every table around us. So, when in Rome (or Charleston) go with the flow. And flow it did, right down my pie-hole, capping things off strong at 3 knives.

3 teeth

Via Carota

51 Grove St. New York, NY 10014 •  viacarota.com

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Trying to get lightning to strike twice in the same spot isn’t an adage because it’s false, and while Jody Williams of Buvette fame, certainly has skillz, the proverbial lighting “missed it by that much” (to be read like Maxwell Smart).

The space, like Buvette, is quaint and endearing, with a little more size to its beautiful exposed brick dining room. But unlike Buvette, it is MUCH easier to get a table, especially if you go to dinner on the early-ish side (translation 6/6:30pm). I recommend this not just because it’s easier to get a table, but also because once the dining room fills up, it becomes noisy as all hell, with sound ricocheting off of those brick walls like a son of a bitch.

Speaking of profanity, the other thing that will have you cussing is the painfully slow kitchen. And when it’s that early, and the restaurant isn’t even that full yet, I can’t even begin to imagine how bad it must get once the place is packed. Fortunately they comp’d an extra glass of wine for wifey and I, so the cursing would abate.

The other gripe with service is that their recommendations deserved condemnation. The first of them being the chicken liver crostini, about which she gushed. It is so ho-hum that we left half of it stranded on the plate. For a truly memorable chicken liver dish, be sure to get the off-menu chicken liver pasta at Osteria in Philly. Not exactly down the street from Greenwich Village, but worth the drive nonetheless.

Her other adamant winner was also a bit oversold for my tastes, the homemade gnocci, sauce in a family recipe marinara. Now I don’t want to shit on anyone’s family, but I think running away from home might’ve served the chef wall, because then they might’ve come across some better recipes. For example I’ve got at least three other gnocci’s that blow this away. Try Bar Lagrassa in the Mini Apple and Blue Hill or Elan in the Big one.

Sadly, I can’t only blame the waitress, however, after all, we went rouge on a few choices, like the underwhelming raw artichoke salad. From eyes-dropping on other tables I think the grilled variety would’ve been the better way to go, but I think deep down we were hoping for a dish reminiscent of the one we had at Osteria San Marco in Venice. Not so much. But like any good story, now comes the twist.

Just when all hope was lost, like phoenix from the ashes Via Carote rose, delivering two flavor-packed entrees. The first being the spicy grilled tuna with carona beans, perfectly cooked and far more balanced than any of the previous dishes. The other was a pork braciole, which was touch over cooked, but was such a unique preparation that I forgave it for the overcookage. Rather than a tomato based sauce, they used cream and greens and herbs. Sliced and folded through and through. It’s a hearty portion, so if you’re not famished, I recommend skipping it or skipping the starters.

What you shouldn’t skip however, is the chocolate, hazelnut mousse parfait with roasted hazelnuts, fresh whipped cream and biscotti. This threepeat of winners was such a winning combination it actually managed to raise the Titanic for me.

3 teeth