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Wednesday, August 27, 2008


The day: 17th July 2008, Dinner.
The place: 1729 North Halsted, Chicago, Illinois (tel : 312 337-6070).
The venue: Boka
The food: American, fusion.
The drinks: Not a long list, but good selection and price ranges.

Always curious to see if and how our fellow countrymen incorporate our cuisine in their efforts around the world, Boka sounds like an appropriate choice for our second Chicago gourmet experience after Naha. We had read good things about Trotter’s-trained chef Giuseppe Tentori, who is at the helm in Boka’s kitchen.

This is clearly a place that strongly wants to feel ‘cool’: in a trendy Chicago neighborhood full of bars and restaurants, with exposed brickwork inside,

very dark, a bar and lounge area.

The atmosphere is calm and elegant, though, no excessive noise as one might have expected in a cool and ‘youngish’ place. Sulky old fellows that we are, we are too often annoyed by loud and boisterous diners, and we are glad to find some unexpected civilization here. So we can spoil everybody else's dinner with our flash.

On the menu, several interesting proposals. There is a short section with raw fish (e.g. marinated big eye tuna, poki, pickled ginger, watermelon, black sesame ($15). First courses (around the $15 mark) appeal with, for example, Main diver sea scallops, pig’s tail and potato hash, watercress and preserved melon ($14), and mains come in the $25-38 range, for example the roasted pork belly, ginger prune sauce, Israeli cous cous, mizuna carrot slaw ($31).

The bread arrives, from a tray, with a good selection of four varieties (Italian influence?). The pumpernickel appeals particularly.

Our first courses:

- Crispy veal sweetbreads, maitake mushrooms, fava beans, oregano mole ($15)

- Sweet corn soup, crayfish tortellini, paprika leeks ($14).

Let’s begin with the soup. The soup itself is bodily and tasty, but the crayfish taste is nowhere, but nowhere, to be found: is it the material or the preparation to be at fault? The paprika spiciness certainly does not help at all in the search for crayfish flavour, and does not seem a good idea at all. The ‘tortellini’ (not) are very pretty, though their texture is a little perplexing. There aren’t unpleasant flavours in this dish, but they are very muted indeed and there is confusion, no centre. A bit of a disappointing start, we must say.

The sweetbreads are cooked very well, in three ways. Well in two, actually, (fried and grilled) because the third bit, the breaded one, which has a very different (jelly-like) consistency and taste, is in fact…brain. We find the combination sweetbread-brain very persuasive, and the breaded brain itself wonderful in its crispy-soft textural contrast, but we think it should have been advertised. The rest of the plate is a nice accompaniment of refreshing fava beans, seemingly cheesy polenta (we think) with the mushrooms inside, and an intense, dense, sweet and at the same time slightly bitter, oregano mole. A dish of bold flavours, probably too many, but overall successful.

Our choice of mains:

- Angus strip loin, braised shortribs, chanterelle mushrooms, juniper fig sauce, semolina croquette ($38)

- Miso glazed whitefish, spicy Napa cabbage, edamame, tofu, smoked yellow tomato sauce ($28)

The fish is good and cooked well but not so intense in flavour (not as good in itself as the excellent whitefish we had at Naha two days before, for example): once again, is it the fault of the raw material or the preparation? And once again, the spicy ingredients do not help at all, what a strange idea (maybe a Caribbean influence? Maybe they use different fishes, though). All the rest in the dish is individually great. The sauce, which we guess is grilled pepper and tomato, is instead (we had forgotten) the exceedingly good smoked yellow tomato sauce. The edamame brings a consistency contrast, and the tofu…the tofu with a lemony taste, crispy outside and soft inside, is cooked to perfection and something to remember. There you are, this could have been a tofu and edamame vegetarian dish, and it would have been a great dish. It could have been just fish and yellow tomato sauce, and it would have been a great dish. The spicy cabbage (but there were caramelized onions too, we think) would have been a great side dish. But together?

The strips of beef are succulent, tasty, cooked well. And the slow roasted bit is remarkable, softly yielding and intensely flavoured. And what to say of the excellent, great looking and refined cabbage tartare? Then why o why put on top of it those exceedingly salty mushrooms? The polenta is also good, and a good idea to soak up. Because you do want to soak up that fig sauce. The saltiness so upset Woman that she declares the fish dish to be the better one, but Man thinks this dish was better conceived, and that the strongly flavoured beef was better suited than whitefish to withstand the multifarious ‘attacks’ from all other ingredients.

There were also complimentary side dishes, one of diced cucumber and the other of courgettes (they go at $7 on the menu). Here’s the refreshing cucumber:

Finally, our desserts (both at $9):

- Sweet pea and ricotta ravioli, pine nut mint pesto, strawberry sorbet

- Tea smoked chocolate cake, rooibus ice cream, cherry gastrique.

There is a separate pastry chef, Elizabeth Dahl. She produced both the best and (according especially to just one of us) the worst dishe in the evening!

The unsatisfactory one, to Woman’s taste, was the ravioli, too dominated by the sorrel to the point of unpleasantness. Man agrees that the sorrel flavour was bold and dominant, but liked it. Man and Woman however concur that the ricotta lacked flavour, or better it had a herbaceous flavour (hard to believe it just came from the mint – was there sorrel in there too?). The strawberry sorbet was fine.

But the cake was a spectacular dish! Oh, my! The pudding undergoes three treatments, steaming, baking and smoking (the waiter looked shaky on the order but we may guess), and is very soft, filling your palate with strongly aromatic and smoky flavours. And the icecream, what a delight too! Very exotic, unique taste for us (we never tried rooibus) in the creamy consistency. And the cherries seal off this splendid dessert. We end on a high note, thanks chef Dahl, we forgive you the sorrel.

With a bottle of Atalayas Ribera del Duero 2005 ($49), free tap water (in America you can do it even in fine dining places without being frowned upon), and $18.02 tax, the total comes to $180.02, which, thanks to the favourable exchange rate, keeps us inside our usual £100 threshold.

The waiting staff is very professional. The senior waiter who serves us is always able to answer our (many!) enquiries about the (many!) ingredients in the dishes; and the sommelier/manager is VERY serious, going through the prescribed motions of the bottle opening, showing and tasting rite with an unusual elegant formality, despite our modest choice of wine.

As you can see we had extreme ups and extreme downs this evening, sometimes within the same dish! The best thing about Boka’ cuisine is that Prometean sense of unboundedness that one often finds in the New World: nothing is forbidden or impossible: you saw it, Japanese, French, Chinese, Italian, no ingredient in the world (what a range!), no cooking technique, is excluded from the plate. And Chef Tentori (and Dahl) is gifted with technique, personality and creativity in abundance. Some flavours were memorable. What we missed, though, was the balance, the sense of proportion, the elegance and the focus in the dish that we so much appreciate. There is to some extent a cultural clash here, and one might say that this is New World fusion cuisine, take it or leave it. But if top Japanese and Italian cuisine offer clean, elegant dishes firmly centered on the main raw material, and a good French dish is always supremely balanced and focused no matter how rich, why does their fusion need to generate (sometimes) such a holy mess, why does it lead to such strange choices of flavour pairings? We shall leave you with this conundrum. Anyway, if you are in Chicago, it is worth trying Boka.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Naha (Chicago)

The day: 15th July 2008, Dinner.
The place: 500 North Clark St. Chicago IL 60610 USA (tel. 312-321-6242)
The venue: Naha
The food: modern American
The drinks: Short list, with interesting (for us) local offerings.

Trendy Chicago, city of gourmet restaurants, here we come. We are here to stick to our £100 rule and even with a favourable exchange rate, Trotter’s is well out of reach. Spoilt for choice if not for time, we pick Naha in downtown Chicago for our first dinner on our own.

Naha occupies a corner with its wide glass walls. As soon as you get in, two things strikes you: the spacious feeling, and the boisterous noise - so we guess this makes it even ;)

Tables are not too well spaced, but there is plenty of space, so we can at least sit one empty table away from the closest fellow diner (and good for them, as you’ll see…).

The menu is relatively extensive, though to be fair there are more starters than mains on offer. Starters are crowded around the $17 mark, and go from the $10 of Broccoli soup, caramelised broccoli, crème fraiche and slab bacon, slab and ‘griddled’ sandwich of Otter creek Farm’s raw cow’s milk cheddar to the $25 of Hudson Valley Foie gras, summer bing (?) cherries, rhubharb jam, crushed lavender and Vin de glaciere (there were also Lake Ontario smelts lightly fried with lemon, parlsely and ‘salted’ capers at $8, but we suspect this is something you may want with an aperitif). Mains are considerably more expensive, around $30, with the cheapest item being the Cannelloni of swiss chard, mascarpone and orange sungold tomatoes with home made ricotta cheese, sugar snap and English peas, candied onions and flowering thyme, to the $47 for the wood grilled Painted Hill Farm ‘natural’ rib eye of beef and garlic scapes (scapes?) with a gratin of macaroni and Capriolo farm goat cheese, Oxtail red wine sauce and Murray river sea salt.

A plate with three types of bread arrives:

Ok for variety, but rather too chewy, as if it had been stored somewhere airtight, god forbid. Well, anything goes when you are waiting, and wait we did quite a bit – half an hour into being seated, before the food finally hit the table.

And no amuse bouche in sight, just the chewy bread....

At last, here are our starters:

- Gulf of Maine scallops roasted with vanilla beans, citrus and spices, caramelized Belgian endive, ruby red grapefruit and candied rind scented with chocolate mint ($17)

- Simple salad of beautiful local organic field greens with summer nectarines, Prairie fruit farm goat cheese, Nichol’s Farm radishes and fragrant blossoms ($13);

Well, what do you reckon: the salad was indeed quite varied with lots of beautiful greens, but the dominant note was the sweetness of the nectarine and from what felt like balsamic vinegar (but surely if it had been there, it would have been advertised!), with the bit of chevre definitely too small to put up any meaningful fight against the syrupiness engulfing the greens. And way overpriced, by the way.

As for the scallops, here Man and Woman diverge: while Man found that the many ingredients held together well, with provocative, tangy citrus flavours contraposed nicely to the sweet ones, Woman found this dish ill conceived, with too many additional elements overpowering the scallops, in some kind of tale of two dishes, the scallop and the rest. Will the truth be in the middle? Be that as it may, the scallops themselves were good and cooked reasonably well.

Next, we went for :

- Wild Alaskan halibut Riviera style with saffron and olive oil potato pure, rustic ratatatuille and eggplant Babaghanoush, pea shoots, kalamata olive tapenade, candied Meyer lemon and Basil ($36);

- “Purdy Family” Great Lakes whitefish and Maine “Peeky toe” crab with a warm salad of spinach, king trumpet mushrooms, charred spring onions and roasted Jerusalem artichokes, lobster red wine jus ($33)

The Halibut itself was very very good, and cooked in very accomplished way, moist and very flavoursome. But the rest of the plate was an incredible mess: there was everything in it, we won’t list all the ingredients again, just give them another look, don’ t you agree this is far too much, enough for three dishes? To top it off, there were far too much oil and fat dressing these additional elements, making it a very greasy dish. But great halibut.

In terms of excessive ingredients, things were better with the Whitefish: the mushrooms did not do it for us, they were also a little too hard (in case you wonder: yes, we do know what trumpet mushrooms should feel like, these were too hard on the bite), we would have just gone with the spinach and the other vegetables, which were really nice. And the fish, well it was again top class: excellent concentrated flavour, and once more excellent cooking, classically crispy on the skin and pleasantly moist inside.

At this point, accident strikes: a waiter turns a glass of red wine onto Woman’s trousers, and – which is even more painful- on her immaculate white shirt. All the manager can offer in terms of an apology is a card, accompanied by “if it does not come off, we’ll pay for the dry cleaning”. Now, what do you mean “if it doesn’t come off?”: that first we’ve got to give it a go, and then failing that you act as a backup? So do we send the shirt back to you by airmail? Oh, not to worry, a cup with some water comes. A cup with water? To get rid of RED WINE? Oh dear oh dear, perhaps this is the just divine punishment for getting a glass of red with our fish, we were always told not to do it by our mums and dads…

So yes, true, Woman, the sweet tooth in our joint venture, is really quite fobbed off, and would indeed cut it here. But hey, we are here to tell you about this place, so we must plough on. But this means we’ll only have one dessert (they are all $12):

- Rich chocolate “delice” of Hawaian single origin chocolate

Now this is wiping the frown off Woman’s face, as it is pretty fair. On the bottom, imagine a mini chocolate crème brulee in an excellent pastry casing. On top the less enthusing chocolate mousse, but overall it is good. Maybe a bit rich, so good thing we shared one dessert.

Finally, truly excellent petit fours arrive

With two glasses of wine at $9.50 each (the offending glass was replaced), our total bill including taxes came at $144.96. With the current exchange rate, our bill was very reasonable, but consider that we did not get a full bottle of wine, nor two desserts. So we are not sure we would find this good value for money if our salaries where in dollars. But this is central Chicago, baby.

The service was – wine incident apart – slightly clumsy and not too competent on the food and wine, but at least smiling. But (which may be a US custom) the bill arrived unrequested, and nobody asked whether we wanted coffee (we didn’t). Though they are sadly not alone, these guys, too, seem to be very much into comically detailing and ‘promoting’ each and every single ingredient in each plate. To us, this can be quite off putting: for instance, take the description of the salad: “salad of beautiful local organic field greens with summer nectarines, Prairie fruit farm goat cheese, Nichol’s Farm radishes and fragrant blossoms”. Well, do other establishments serve salads of horrible greens with winter nectarines and stale blossoms? Or what is a ‘natural’ rib eye, do other places serve you an engineered one? Are we being nasty and unforgiving? Well, maybe, but the point is that you can have a pretentious sounding menu and not attract any smirks from your customers if you can also present dishes which can hold their own. Here we do not doubt the quality of the ingredients (which was really very high, especially the fish) nor Chef Carrie Nahabedian's technique, rather the contrary: we do have an issue though with the over elaboration of the dishes, the excess of flavours on the plate, the inability to resist the temptation to throw in that little bit more for extra measure, of realising when there is enough there, and you should just let each of your great ingredients be a protagonist, since they obviously can (and if you do not want to hear us ranting on the usual suspects, we also have a very recent example of a restrained and balanced yet creative hand Windsor). In the end, yes, this was an interesting experience, and we ate top notch fish, but just cuisine-wise (and also service-wise to be honest) we are not sure it was enough to call us back for more unless…well, unless they start leaving that marvellous fish alone!


Thursday, August 14, 2008

It doesn't matter rain or shine, it should be in before nine

As you know, Gordon Ramsay has extended his empire to pubs. We have heard mixed reports about one in particular, the Narrow (44 Narrow Street, London E14 8DP, 020 7592 7950), and as it is often on our walking trajectory, we took a closer look.
Nice river location!

But wait a sec...what is that pile of food lying in full sun at the back?
It's their deliveries! Why is nobody picking them up? Tsk, tsk, don't you know, Gordon, that you shouldn't leave milk and dairies in the sun, especially in Summer (OK, what passes for Summer):

And what is that next to the milk?
A bag of pre-cut chips, preserved in water. No wonder some customers were complaining about the quality of the chips! So how about Gordon's sermons on the absolute freshenss of the ingredients? Hope and pray for the staff there he does not know what happens to his deliveries...

Seriously: we go past the joint almost every Saturday morning, and each time it is the same thing. One of those cases when a sunny aspect is not a good thing: surely they could come up with a way to cast some shade?

You know what? We think we'll give this pub a miss: there are probably cheaper pre-cut, water-preserved, sun-baked chips around in London.

(Factual note: we observed the food lying there for 20 minutes starting at 8,30, so the food might have been in before nine after all...We don't know when the deliveries generally arrive, however).


Thursday, August 7, 2008

Chapter One

The day: 26th July 2008, Dinner.
The place: Farnborough Common, Locksbottom Kent BR6 8NF (tel. 01689 854 848)
The venue: Chapter One
The food: modern Anglo-French
The drinks: Good list, good range of prices, mainly French, also by the glass and half bottle.

When you read the address, you think it must be impossibly far. But we trust technology, and indeed it takes us about only 45 minutes to drive there from East London, with the Blackwall tunnel and all. We blindly follow the machine’s instructions, twisting and turning in unknown areas of the great capital, and we finally get to an obviously wealthy and leafy suburb. There is the elegant and very spacious room of Chapter 1. The place is heaving with customers.

We don’t like seating in small square tables a micron away from our neighbours’.

The waiter leads us to a small square table a micron away from our neighbours’.

But…thanks to the wintry wind blowing from a blasting air conditioner – what can we do, we like to be hot in summer-, we are upgraded or downgraded, depending how you see it, to a larger round table in a corner. There is a noisy party in the vicinities, true, but it’s nearing the end, as we guess from the demeanour of some customers…This is the aftermath:

Tables are well appointed, with proper tablecloth in the stark and elegant interior, with white walls. Mind you, ‘ambience’ here is taken perhaps a step too far, and it is dark, so it is not entirely our fault if you cannot see much from the picture.

The menu offers are eight starters to choose from, and as many mains. And for the Italians among you, as is quite common outside Italy you will find “primi” both in the starters (Risotto of girolles and green peas with crème fraiche and parmesan) and the mains (Roast gnocchi with asparagus, pickled girolles, artichokes, rocket and parmesan foam) sections, the difference in position presumably depending on the portion size. The pricing structure is easy, 3 courses for £29.50, however some dishes come with a supplement, e.g. add £3.50 if you want seared diver caught scallops with cod brandade, cauliflower purèe and a light curried veloute’ as starter, or £5.95 for the Poached rump of Welsh black beef, white onion purèe, ragout of salsify, Jersey Royals and foie gras with Bordelaise sauce as a main.

Bread comes in two types, brown or white: there is a ‘bottomless plate’ policy, but to be fair this is nothing to write home about (just to remind you how intolerably picky we are with bread):

We decide to begin with:

- ravioli of lobster and king prawn with spiced white cabbage and a veloute of lobster and cognac (£3.95 supplement);

- Mussel saffron soup with a paysanne of root vegetables

The Mussel and saffron soup was generous, with twelve buttery, juicy mussels floating in a delicate soup. Unfortunately, though, they were not as flavoursome as their appearance and texture suggested: some of the flavour had infused the soup, but the rest might have been evaporated somewhere up in ether; anyhow wherever it was, it was not in our plate. The (parsley) too had suffered a similar fate, and where was the full saffron fragrance? Overall, a pleasant and correct soup, but not wowing.

The lobster and king prawn ravioli was on an altogether different level: quite stupendous, with the sweet, smoky scent and flavour of the cognac issuing a nice punch to this thick, rich, velvety and balanced ravioli bursting with seafood and flavour. Here, too, a little problem though: the “raviolO” ending is not a grammatical mistake, you do indeed get just a single specimen all alone in that whole wide plate…

But hey, no time to linger, the mains are already upon us:

- Poach and roasted quail with foie gras, smoked bacon, braised red cabbage and raisin juice;

- Braised breast of lamb with roast new season Welsh canon, confit garlic, tomato, artichoke and lamb juice

The quail is fantastic, the saltiness and fat of the bacon wrapping exalting the quail and matching perfectly the sweetness from the red cabbage and the raisin reduction. And did we tell you how sumptuous the foie gras was? Of course, with good foie gras it is very hard to go wrong, but this was a classic, a truly excellent dish expressing very robust and clear flavours.

As for the lamb, the breast had been stuffed and was covered in crusty herbs and was unbelievably tasty, while the canon (very tender loin) looked simply roasted and was so tender and moist and succulent. There is a sense in which this is similar in conception to the quail dish: the richness of the meat fat and the sweetness of the accompanying vegetables. A marvellous ‘simple’ dish, harmonious, with deep and memorable flavours, and very beautiful… if you could see it, that is ;).

Finally, the third course of our menu:

- Pave of Valrhona chocolate, sugared pistachio, honey comb and caramelised pear purèe;

- Banoffi pie

Man is a bit resentful of the sugar on the pistachio, muttering that it would be oh so much better to get some good pistachios from Bronte, say, and let them speak unhindered by the sugar. The mousse is just fine. Oh but wait, the pear puree is beautifully intense, surely the best component in the dish. And the dark chocolate “cannolo” with white chocolate stuffing is a serious contender for attention, too.

The Banoffee: the banana-and-toffee bit is nice and served in a parfait kind of form. But the absolute showstopper must be the chocolate ice-cream. Easily one of the best we have ever had. Ever. We cannot swear it was the best, but if perfection exists, this came close to it: it was almost moving. And what more does Man make of this? Who knows, the petit four arrive even before the dessert dishes are taken away. But they are beautiful, have a look:

We skip coffee as usual, so with water at £3.00, a half bottle of white Tamaya Sauvignon blanc 2006 at £9 and half a bottle of Domaine de Coyeaux Cote du Rone, Beaumes de Venise 2003 at £15.50, our overall total came to 101.76 (which includes the optional 12.5% gratuity and the £3.95 supplement for the raviolO), just around our £100 rule.

Service was courteous, correct, but too fast (though we seem to have been unlucky, as the front room line is to offer a relaxed service, as we discover later chatting away with the charming and impressive manager Laurent Gillis). Save for our usual mean nitpicking, we had a great dinner, with top ingredients, skilfully prepared to bring the best out of them. Andrew McLeish is clearly a very accomplished chef who is able to express great personality and deliver direct, potent flavours in his relatively simple (but how much skill in them!) dishes. And he must run his kitchen (a brigade of eleven) like clockwork to serve food of this quality, at this pace, for a large number of covers. To go back to nitpicking for a second…we cannot fail to note that portions, let’s face it, are rather mean. The philosophy reminds us (very vaguely) of places like Arbutus: offer very well executed fine cuisine, and keep the costs down to the minimum by limiting the freebies as much as your customers can tolerate (but unlike Arbutus, here you have proper tablecloths, proper service, petit fours and an elegant ambience), skipping amuse bouche, and above all driving portions down to the minimum. Some items are used repeatedly in the dishes (the roasted gnocchi, the ratte potatoes, the artichokes), and supplements are attached to several dishes. Nevertheless, we did have a splendid time, and, sadly for our waistlines, we have added Chapter One to the short list of those fine establishments that we hope we will be returning to. We suspect the star McLeish lost a couple of years ago will return, too.

(Added on 18 January 2009: Michelin agreed with us - they have just awarded a star to Chapter One)


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