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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!


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