Blackbird

619 W Randolph St. Chicago, IL 60661(312) 715-0708blackbirdrestaurant.com

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The first thing that struck me when I entered Blackbird was that the décor is very white without a morsel of black to be found anywhere, ironically. The other thing I noticed is that while the service is very friendly and knowledgeable about the menu, they are also unbelievably slow, to the point of distraction, taking 40 minutes just to take our order and that was only because I flagged him down. Not even bread or drinks came in this time. And once they did, our waiter dripped the wine all over the table and down the sides of the glass EVERY time he poured it. It was so bad I think I’ve seen less dribbling in the United Center!

Fortunately the wine was good (what was left of it after he dripped most of it on the table) and the Port of Call cocktail is just awesome and it comes with significantly less dripping, unless it’s self-inflicted. Also, I do want to mention that the wine list has some solid, affordable options and the bread was warm and yummy, served with a curried butter.

It was from that point on that Blackbird soared, from a tasty amuse bouche to a trio of incredible appetizers that resoundingly affirmed that this chef de cuisine got game!

The most creative of the three would be the panzanella salad made with sweetbreads and sweet bread. A fun play on words and ingredients, using Hawaiian bread as a sweet counterweight to the savory glands. As was the raspberry vinaigrette. But as good as it was, it was actually the weakest of the three, best by the turnip and foie gras soup. So creamy and rich you should have to pay luxury tax on every spoonful. And my favorite of the three, the endive salad, believe it or not. Served in a stunning bird’s nest (pictured) with a poached egg, crispy potato, basil, pancetta and dijon. Relatively simple, but positively brilliant.

Both entrees I tried were exceptional as well. Completely apples and oranges, but each superb in their own right. The halibut is perfectly cooked and artfully accompanied by peekytoe crab and gooseberries. It was also somehow both decadent (duck fat) and light at the same time. Whereas the beef striploin was a full on savory-palooza, cooked to perfection and surrounded by a wonderful chanterelle moat with additions of quince, horseradish and crispy polenta planks. Masterful!

The only miss of the night was the carrot cake, and by miss I actually mean that it was good, but in comparison to the complimentary eclair and the white chocolate bar I would skip it, because that complimentary duo beats the cream cheese out of that cake 10 times out of 10, and I’ve a HUGE carrot cake fan, so this is saying a lot.

What’s also saying a lot is that not since the Purple Pig have I had a meal this good in Chicago. Granted I haven’t been to Alinea yet, so stay tuned.

4 teeth

The Clocktower

5 Madison Ave. New York, NY 10010(212) 413-4300 • theclocktowernyc.com

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The Clocktower is so damn good, time stands still. From the moment you walk through the door, you are hit by a bar so insanely hip that you almost don’t want to head up the equally stylish spiral staircase. But please do, because b-b-b-b-b-baby you just ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Upstairs, the décor is simply magnificent. Like a grand, ritzy social club with high ceilings, huge rooms and stunning walls covered in a smattering of incredible black and white photography. And while the setting alone goes a long way in making you feel richer than you actually are, so does the staff, from waiters to hosts, you feel catered to like a Russian oligarch.

And that’s not just the booze talking, because I hadn’t even had a drink yet. But once I did, Whoa Nilly! I only tried two of the cocktails but both were excellent. The first going by the name The Cereal Killer, served in an old-fashioned mini milk bottle, complete with a red striped straw. It’s made with bourbon and Cheerios milk. Need I say more?

On the flip side from rich, the other end of the cocktail spectrum is nailed with comparable skill in the refreshingly light, Dill or no Dill. It’s comprised of gin, cucumber, lemon and dill, of course. Speaking of which, I love the touch they add to the glass with a teeny, tiny clothespin on the rim holding a sprig of fresh dill to the brim.

While we’re on the topic of hooch, the wine list is quite impressive as well, although the majority of the options are a bit steep ($200+), but luckily there are some solid affordable options on the list, even if they’re the minority. Like the Prisoner Cabernet blend (Syrah and Zin both play supporting roles) which I only just discovered days earlier. Great wine and an even better deal.

Firing on all cylinders, the food proves to be every bit as exquisite as its surroundings, plated with an architect’s eye, the presentations keep wowing one after the other, as do the bites. The first being the bread and butter, which might very well be an Ultimate, served warm, right out of the oven with a soft churned, salted butter that melts into every nook and cranny, making it a moral imperative to “get it while it’s hot.”

Going four for four on starters is also great way to get into my good graces, as all of them were shades of fabulous. In fact it was like Sophie’s Choice trying to decide which one was the best. The risotto with chanterelles, crispy veal sweetbreads and lemon confit was an Ultimate, so I tend to lean there, but that should take nothing away from the steak tartar au poirve with horseradish cream and charred onions which was superb. As were the pan seared scallops done up with cauliflower, pickled raisins and burnt butter. The native lobster might’ve been the least amazing of the bunch the more I think about it, but only in terms of flavor, because the presentation stole the show, served over ice, still in the tail, then mixed into an apple, mussel and fennel salad.

In terms of entrees, however, the winner was much more cut and dry. The lamb was the runaway champion, slow cooked and served with spiced eggplant and roasted salsify. Such a mastery of flavors on the fork, you have to stand in awe at the artistry. Following the lamb as a distant second would be the halibut with pink peppercorn sauce, seaweed and a carrot puree. And bringing up the rear was the filet mignon, which is a complete missed opportunity in my opinion (although the fries were good). Skip the steaks. There are so many inventive preparations on the menu that truly showcase the chef’s skill, so why would you ever go for something you could just as easily get at a Smith & Wollensky or Morton’s?

Closing strong, the dessert course also delivered yet another Ultimate, the best tart tatin I’ve had since La Goulue closed down (RIP). It’s made with pink lady apples and topped with Madagascar vanilla ice cream and if I could have children with a dessert it would most likely be this one. The other two desserts didn’t fare as well for me, however. I thought the pistachio soufflé with chocolate ice cream sounded amazing, but somehow fell short in execution, tasting less nutty and more chalky than one would hope. And the grapefruit sorbet with hazelnut streusel and fennel marmalade also proved to be better in theory than in practice.

But no place is without its misses and The Clocktower had very few. Surmounting its hype and outshining its next door neighbor Eleven Madison Park. Sure, them’s fightin’ words, but bring it on. I’d be happy to go toe to toe with any dissenting foodies out there who say otherwise. And I’m not just saying that because Clocktower is my new restaurant crush… Okay, that’s exactly why I’m saying it. But so what?

5 teeth

Élan

43 E 20th St. New York, NY 10003 • (646) 682-7105elannyc.com

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When you enter Élan it doesn’t exactly exude much élan with its small bar up front funneling into a narrow hall decorated with a pop art step and repeat mural, which opens up to a somewhat secluded, mid-sized dining area in the back. And while everything is done with a tasteful, modern flair, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the awkwardness of its layout.

The other thing I found distracting was the spotty service. Each course taking way too long just to order, from drinks to starters to mains and dessert, the pacing felt like we were in a car with someone learning to drive a stick shift, bucking back and forth between stop and go. But then the truly bizarre happened… Before pouring our third bottle of wine that I had ordered, the waiter informed me that he had “already tasted it and it was fine” therefore no need to have me taste it. At first I thought he was joking, but when I looked back at him, there was no wink or smile, just the weight of creepiness now hanging in the air.

But don’t count Elan out just yet, because David Waltuck, former chef of Chanterelle (RIP), seems to have carried his gift of gourmet over to Elan. And he doesn’t take much time warming up either, channeling that warmth and infusing it into his seductively, warm pretzel rolls served with Bavarian mustard butter. They are so addictive I could’ve just done two plates of those and a couple of beers and called it a win. But should you manage to muster up the restraint and not fill up on the bread, bully for you, because fortune awaits!

Such treasures being the mushroom, truffle croquettes, which are so wonderfully warm and gooey inside, it’s like an edible womb. It’s also like an Ultimate, because for me, most croquettes aren’t even worthy of mention, usually tasting more like their fried breading than anything else. But mention these I shall, at the tippy top of my lungs.

Also worth shouting about is the crispy ricotta gnocci so skillfully prepared it’s almost unfair that it’s only a starter, because I would’ve happily ordered it as a main. Well, that would’ve been true had I not heard about the off-menu duck burger with foie gras (pictured), which is so devilishly good you owe it to yourself to order one. But be sure to get it “done up,” as if the foie gras and caramelized onions weren’t enough. Yes, “done up” means it’s also topped with a fried egg and bernaise sauce. Sure, your diet is going to hell, but look on the bright side, your mouth is going to heaven. It really is a must. If I recommended it any higher I’d get altitude sickness. In fact, the only burger in the city to best it is Minetta’s Black Label Burger, and that’s some seriously high praise right there people.

Other dishes shined as well, but perhaps not as bright, for example the much hyped sea urchin guacamole was certainly good, but according to the Yelp consensus it was supposed to be “the best thing on the menu” which it surely wasn’t, coming in a distant third even just amongst the starters alone.

Another almost great dish was the raw oysters with an Asian marinade packing a nice ginger kick. The preparation was very good and unique, but fell just shy of greatness due to the mothershucker who left so many shell fragments in the second one I ate that I’m lucky I didn’t crack a tooth.

And of the side dishes, I also found myself really enjoying the Japanese eggplant with honey. They’re not quite up there with the ones at All’onda, but after that duck burger you’re gonna need a veggie or two to stem the guilt and the pea shoots don’t quite cut it on flavor.

In addition to the pea shoots, another side worth passing up (especially if you’re getting the duck burger) would be the duck fat hash browns. I know duck fat is all the rage in potato land these days, but I’ve had way better at Twisted Oak in Tarrytown, NY. Besides, the squashed potatoes that come with the duck burger blow the hash browns away.

Also living in miss-o-potamia would be the foie gras roulades with fig, which proved to be very blah amongst the deep bench of winners, as did the swordfish made with eggplant and a black bean salsa. This dish was the resounding loser of the night. So lackluster it almost makes you question the judgment to keep it on the menu.

As for the desserts, nothing had me doing bell kicks around the dining room, but the clear winner was the berry ice cream sundae, surprisingly enough. The chocolate cheesecake, pumpkin cake and butterscotch pudding all registering a tepid reception from the table.

Let’s not end on a down note, however, because Elan is nothing short of a smashing success, serving up a whopping four Ultimates. Earning it just as many knives as a result.

4 teeth