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

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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

Bâtard

239 West Broadway New York, NY 10013(212) 219-2777batardtribeca.com

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While Batard is French by name, and European by description, the chef is more specifically Austrian and therefore so goes the cuisine, marked by certain dishes such as the off-menu schnitzel and the sizeable number of Austrian wines on the list.

Upon entering, you will be pleasantly surprised by the clean, elegant décor, especially after having seen the rather unassuming façade as you approached. The other surprise you are likely to notice is unfortunately unpleasant. The noise level is quite extreme, which takes a hair away from the romantic setting when you have to shout at your loved one the entire night. #acousticfail

Back on the plus side, the service was very good, without an ounce of pretense from host, to manager, to sommelier to waitress. Now on to the food!

Getting off to a rocky start, I was a bit surprised that there was no amuse bouche at such a high-end restaurant. To be fair, this is not the rocky part, but lumpy for certain. Where it got rocky for me was on the starters. The tete de cochon (pigs head) came as a strong recommendation from our server who made it sound far more interesting than it really was, basically a pork croquette topped with lard and placed over a kohlrabi slaw. The other was the lobster with avocado, fava beans and jicama. It was definitely the better of the two, but nothing I would ever strongly recommend.

Come round two, however, Batard served up a pair of knockouts. The first being the English pea tortellini in a pesto sauce with burrata broken up in such a unique way it almost tasted like ricotta. And the other knockout was the veal tenderloin. So tender you don’t even need teeth to chew it. It just melts in your mouth. And while that alone is noteworthy, the rest of the preparation was equally stupendous. They wrap the veal in a thin, flaky pastry and serve it next to a phenomenal grilled sweetbread and trumpet mushroom, which, upon request, they then douse in a veal jus that’s so sinful you’d have to be an asshole to pass it up. After all, the baby cow’s already dead. Might as well commit.

Come dessert I had my heart set on the caramelized milk bread with brown butter ice cream, having seen a picture (above) of it prior to dining here. But the dessert that stole my heart was the chocolate torte with tiny hazelnut semifreddos- so much better than the milk bread it tasted more like milk toast by comparison to the torte.

So while not entirely flawless, the highs at Batard are such that I can completely understand the hype. And whether or not it wins the James Beard for best new restaurant, it will most certainly be taking home two Ultimates, for veal and chocolate torte.

4 teeth

The Ultimate Sweetbreads

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I’m not sure why, but there is a huge misconception as to what sweetbreads really are. But to clear things up for the misconceived, they are NOT brains. They are glands. Now, I can only imagine that if the thought of them being brains was irksome to you, the whole gland thing didn’t exactly move the ball either, but at least now you know what you’ll be rejecting the next time someone offers them to you.

Animal – Los Angeles, CA

There is virtually no part of the anatomy this place can’t turn into gold. And man do they spin some sweet-ass sweetbreads. The thing I love so much about them is that they don’t overly bread and fry them. So many other restaurants seem like they are trying to hide something as opposed to improve something. Well, Animal gets it. They let just enough of the savory through, and then contrast it with an outer shell of crisp sweetness, so that when you bit into it, the two collide like someone walking along the street with a bar of chocolate and another with a jar of peanut butter (as though anyone has ever done that, ever) and BOOM- Two great tastes in one gland-based dish. Reese’s advertising was so stupid in the 70’s, and yet I still remember it. Scarred for life I suppose.

Dovetail – New York, NY

When dealing with a delicacy that isn’t exactly the foie gras of fine dining, you have to try a little harder to impress. But therein lies the razor’s edge. How much trying can you do before it becomes overdone? Like at The Gander, for example, overdone to the point where they actually miss the point and you taste absolutely nothing of the sweetbreads. Well, I’m not exactly sure what the answer is, but whatever Dovetail is doing is hella right, taking the sauce and batter right up to the very threshold of pomp, without crossing the line. In fact, it’s so good you’ll be all like “foie who?” Assuming you talk like that, which, dare I say, is a bit annoying.

Seasonal

132 W 58th St. New York, NY 10019(212) 957-5550seasonalnyc.com

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While Seasonal is not a runaway success and there are many misses to be had on the menu, the highs are so very high that it’s hard to give it just 3 knives.

First off, the amuse bouche was quite good. A creamy truffle soup that even a Soup Nazi could envy.

The breads, however, were a touch on the dry side- but the spreads they served them with made up for it. One red pepper, one green olive, both delicious.

For the apps, please, please, please listen to me on this one. The sweetbreads are INCREDIBLE! Forget that they are glands for just a second and appreciate them for their complex, sweet- almost fried oyster-like brilliance. It far surpassed every other app on the table, including the lobster with poached egg, which only wishes it could die a quick death and be reincarnated as this sweetbread dish.

As for entrees, the schnitzel comes just like it does at Edi & the Wolf, which is very good, but if you’ve had it there, I urge you to forgo it for the Skate. Yes, fish. Not a big “Austrian” dish, but WOW was it amazing! Layered with rich flavors worthy of a red meat dish.

As for the veal cheeks with spaetzle- skip it. It was the weakest entree at the table.

And as for dessert, while the strudel is good, it pales in comparison to Peter Luger’s, which is easily the best apple strudel in the city. That said, the apple pancakes were very good and the far better choice of the two.

As for service, I thought they were quite good. Friendly and attentive.

Decor is also nice, clean and simple- but it’s the layout itself that is kind of a bummer. First, the place is very narrow and when coupled with a long bar that is probably too big for the space it literally makes it so that there really isn’t a truly “nice” table in the entire restaurant. Even the room in the back is windowless and almost claustrophobic.  Fortunately we were with good company and we weren’t facing the bar, but the fact remains we were basically sitting right on top of it..

So, despite Seasonal’s shortcomings, its longcomings? make it definitely worth a visit. Especially if you’re seeing a show in midtown.

4 teeth

Animal

435 N. Fairfax Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90036 • (323) 782-9225 • animalrestaurant.com

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I think the only way to describe Animal’s menu is “gourmet stoner food.” No joke. Throw everything you know about food out the window should you choose to dine here. The combinations going on in virtually every dish seem like they were thrown together by a crazy man. Crazy like a fox. Because they work like gang busters. Foie gras biscuits with maple gravy? What?! Are you kidding? No- it’s friggin’ genius! As is the steak smothered in parm truffle fondue. Even the bacon brittle for dessert.

The grilled octopus is also amazing, as are the calf brains and the lamb cavatelli. And one bite of the pork belly sliders and you’ll see god. Or whichever deity you worship. Also, one more dessert to add to my list of lovin’, the tres leche is just punch yourself in the face killer. Oh, and the sticky toffee bread pudding aint too shabby either- I guess at this point it’s safe to say that this is my favorite restaurant in LA. And top ten worldwide. Ballsy, I know, but I promise it lives up to the hype.

Also, one of the better selections of wines by the glass (as opposed to bottle) should you be the one driving home afterwards.

P.S. Skip the Poutine. Not sure why people rave about it amidst SO many better dishes.

5 teeth