Monday, November 26, 2007


There’s something really exciting to me about eating at an out-of-the-way restaurant. It makes me feel like I’m in on a delicious secret. I feel as if others dining with me are sharing this sentiment, and I love the sense of community that exists among diners in such a restaurant. Though none of us know each other, we all silently acknowledge that we’re in this secret club together. After eating at a little-known place that I really enjoy, I always face the ultimate dilemma – do I tell rave reviews to everyone I know about it, or do I keep the information to myself to ensure that little community stays that little community? Since starting this blog, I now feel as if I have an affirmative duty to share these little secrets with you. This one, though, is one for which I cannot take full credit. If any of you should try Bonsoiree, please direct all thanks to my friend Allison.

Bonsoiree is in an unassuming spot in Logan Square, a rare storefront on a street of old factories. The casual space stands in spectacular juxtaposition to the culinary art that pours out from its kitchen. All the better though, since there is less hoopla to interfere with the food. Since it is BYOB we entered with three bottles of wine, an Alsatian Pinot Noir, a Pinot Gris from Oregon and a third of which I characteristically neglected to take a picture. It was red, of that much I am sure. Allison and I were the first ones there from our party, and our waiter made conversation with us while we waited. He was fully interested in everything we had to say, and was not just killing time in between serving people. He could tell that we were a couple of ladies that really enjoy our food, and seeing our three bottles of wine, he suggested we try a tasting menu that the chef would tailor to pair with our wines. Characteristically, again, we accepted.

We began with an amuse bouche, an olive tapenade on crackers. It tasted precisely how you would imagine it would. Nothing too special here, but what do you expect from olive tapenade?

Next we were given Prince Edward Island mussels with sweet Thai red curry, crispy rice noodles and a doughy thing. These were nothing short of delicious. My gripe with Thai curry usually is that the coconut milk makes it far too creamy. This, however, was a great consistency. The coconut milk did not overwhelm the taste of the mussels, but served to mute the spiciness of the sauce to an ideal level. The doughy thing was good, but unnecessary. I would have been more than satisfied with just the mussels, but the sauce was so good I used the doughy thing to sop up the curry.

We proceeded on with braised rabbit with oven-dried tomato, gnocchi, chives and the essence of butter. I’m still trying to figure out what the ‘essence of butter’ is, but whatever it is, it’s fantastic. The rabbit cooked nicely, but though it had great flavor, it lacked a bit of depth. The tomato was probably the most delicious thing on the plate though. The oven drying brought out all the flavors of the tomato and allowed the acidity to cry out unapologetically. It made everything else on the plate taste better. The acidity complemented the subtle flavors of the rabbit. The gnocchi appeared to have been pan-fried, which gave them a really good crunch.

Onward, to my favorite dish of the night – a perfectly seared diver scallop with autumn plum medley and organic mâche (from Michigan, as were so many of the things with which we were presented, as was made known to us by our server). The scallop was cooked to perfection, with a visually appealing brown sear and near raw-ness towards the bottom. The autumn plum medley tasted a lot like haroseth, a chunky apple and cinnamon sauce served at the Passover Seder to represent the mortar that the Jews used to build the pyramids. This dish was the epitome of minimalism, when the ingredients are of such high quality, why mess with them? I cut the single scallop into many, many too-small bites just to prolong my experience with it.

We were next presented with sautéed skate with fall mushrooms, corn cake, red pepper –lime coulis and micro greens (from Michigan, in case you were wondering). This skate managed to achieve everything that it possibly could have. There are so many things that can go wrong when cooking skate, but the chef executed this perfectly. The flaked at the touch of the fork, yet had a delicate crunchiness that made it incredibly exciting. The corn cake was not bursting with flavor, but the texture was perfect, and actually had me craving corn muffins a week later. I have not had a corn muffin in maybe nine years, yet this had me yearning for that crunchy, mealy bite. The coulis lent a lovely aesthetic note, but its brightness was not just visual. The sweetness paired nicely with the earthiness of the mushrooms and also served to nicely lighten up the fish. It perked everything on the plate up, without overwhelming any of it. The texture was silken, a great contrast to the crunchiness of the fish and the corn cake.

Then came the lamb. Two chops were plated beside a tortilla-cheese cake with micro greens and what I believe was a port-like sauce, though I would be lying through my teeth if I were to tell you I remember. The lamb was a just-there medium rare. My problem with lamb is that it has the tendency to taste a bit gamey. This was anything but. The simple spices on the chops were just enough to flavor the meat while still allowing the flavor of the lamb itself to come through. The tortilla cake didn’t wow me, but it didn’t need to. The sauce was light, which was necessary five courses in.

On the heels of the lamb was the cheese plate served with dried black mission figs, nuts and chive crackers. We were given two plates for the four of us, which allowed for a more than generous serving for each of us. I don’t quite recall what precisely each of the cheeses was, but I know that at twelve and three were cows milk cheeses, hard at twelve, triple crème at three. Both were great. The rest of the table didn’t like the soft cow’s milk cheese as much as I did, but I’m a sucker for triple crème cheeses. A six was a hard goat’s milk cheese and at nine a triple crème goat cheese. The triple crème goat was my favorite of the bunch, while the rest of the group stuck to their guns and devoured the hard goat. Well, we devoured all of it, but that was the first to go.

I was filled to the brim, but dessert had not yet found its way out onto the table. In the center is a winter vegetable cake crusted in pistachios with yuzu meringue. The deep red surrounding it was a beet frosting. It was accompanied by two pieces of banana bread pudding and what I think were amoretti cookies. Our side of the table was given this plate, which the other side was given an apple pastry thing. I was happy to be where I was. The cake was akin to a carrot cake, but the pistachios really brought it to another level. While the other side of the table thought it was a bit salty, I was gobbling it up. I think it might be a sort of endowment effect, since they liked what they had been given and we liked what we had, but I’m not about to go into individual preference shortcuts right now. What matters is that I don’t usually like cake. While I like the spiciness that usually comes with carrot cake, the cream cheese frosting usually deters me. However, I do like salt, and the spiciness of the cake itself and the saltiness of the pistachios with the muted sweetness of the meringue, it was all there.

Our server kept stopping by throughout the meal to inquire as to how we liked everything. When we left he asked us which dishes we liked the best and whether we had any critiques. He was conversational and inquisitive, but without being abrasive and obnoxious. He was interested in hearing out truthful thoughts, and I feel as if I had let him down with the sparseness of my impressions on my way out the door, especially since we were, by over an hour, the last people there. What could I do though? It was three bottles of wine later than when we got there.

I know it is a usual complaint after a tasting menu that one is still hungry, but I was so far from having that problem. Actually, any chance that problem would arise was obliterated upon consumption of the skate. I don’t know how my male dining companions felt, but Allison and I could barely move. Such delicious, delicious discomfort.

Bonsoiree Café and Delicacies
2728 W Armitage (between Fairfield and Washtenaw Aves)
(773) 486-7511

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Shame on Me

I cannot believe it has taken me this long to write a post about Macaroni and Cheese. I mean, seriously, just take a look at the name of my blog! It should have been the first post – every other post, really – and for this oversight, I apologize.

The truth is, I have had a craving for Macaroni and Cheese for the last month and a half. I try to be healthy, and am usually successful. Mac and Cheese doesn’t really fit too well into that whole nutrition plan. I knew I was going to break down, though - it was just a matter of time. In fact, I bought four different types of cheese in anticipation of such a break down.

There are endless possibilities when it comes to Macaroni and Cheese. Such a simple dish can be taken to gourmet extremes, or kept at the comfort food we all know and love. There are Mac and Cheese shops popping up all over New York, with menus ranging from classic cheddar and American, to gourmet combinations like Gruyere, mushrooms and shrimp.

After discussing my blog a bit at Aria, I mentioned that next on my to-cook list was Macaroni and Cheese. A heated debate ensued. It seems that there are two camps of Mac and Cheesers, the purists and the extremists. The former like their Mac and Cheese made with simply American and cheddar cheeses, while the latter have no issues with finding kale or chard in theirs. I started out arguing for the gourmet camp, since so many of the best foods are those with which we are familiar, but which are revamped or taken to the next level somehow.

However, when my cravings for Macaroni and Cheese, the cravings that I had managed for so long to ignore, resurfaced, I found that I didn’t want any fancy pants ingredients. I didn’t want to mess with it. Despite the fact that I had four types of cheese in my fridge, I went straight for the cheddar. Deep down, I am a Macaroni and Cheese purist.

I think that’s what it is about Macaroni and Cheese. It’s the nostalgia. The dish brings you back to a time when there was no issue whatsoever with eating a giant bowl of buttery noodles covered in a rich, creamy, cheese sauce. That’s why we want Macaroni and Cheese, not because of some newfangled trend, but because it is comfort food in its purest form. And to those with whom I was arguing, particularly my dear friend John, I apologize.

Macaroni and Cheese should be Macaroni and Cheese. Once it is morphed and changed and ‘grown up’ it loses its soul. The bells and whistles detract from the pure, childlike enjoyment of eating such a simple delight. It becomes something totally different, and while I have every intention of making a pasta with kale and with shrimp and with Gruyere and goat cheese, I will not dare to call it Macaroni and Cheese.

Macaroni and Cheese, or more accurately, Rotini and Cheese

2 T butter
2 T flour
4 ounces good cheddar cheese, grated
A couple of slices of American cheese, cut into smaller pieces
1 C milk
1/3 of a pound of pasta*
2 T breadcrumbs
2 T parmigianno cheese, grated

While the pasta is cooking, heat the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. After it melts, sprinkle in the flour and mix it in with the butter with a whisk. Once the flour is combined, let the roux cook for a couple of minutes to allow the flour to cook and get rid of that floury taste, whisking frequently. As the roux is cooking, heat up the milk in a saucepan or in the microwave until it is warm, but do not allow it to boil. Pour the milk into the saucepan and season with whatever you want. I used salt and pepper, some mustard powder and hot sauce.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the cheddar and American cheeses to the milk mixture. Whisk until combined into a thick, cheesy consistency. Adjust the seasonings and cheesiness to your liking. Drain the pasta and add it into the saucepan to coat. Transfer the pasta to a casserole dish and sprinkle the top. Combine the parmigianno cheese with the breadcrumbs and sprinkle on top of the pasta. Bake for 20-30 minutes until the top is golden brown and crispy. Remove and enjoy.

I made this again about a week later and used only salt and pepper to season and skipped the breadcrumb topping. I actually preferred it prepared this way. It allowed the pasta itself to get crispy, instead of just the breadcrumbs, which had also kind of overpowered the flavors of the cheddar and American cheeses.

* OK, so a lot of those measurements are totally fabricated. Truth is, I have no idea how much of most of that stuff I used, but I do know that I used 2 T of flour and butter and a cup of milk. The rest of the stuff is ball parked, but probably not that far off. Use as much pasta as you like, depending on how cheesy you want your pasta to be.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


This was my second time at Aria, which is nested in the Fairmont Hotel on Columbus. Once you get through the revolving doors, though, it doesn't really have the feel of a hotel restaurant. The main dining room plays host to the bar and to a sushi bar. We dined in the back of the restaurant, which is a long, narrow wing off of the main dining area. There is no access to the hotel from this part of the restaurant, so there's no overt signs of being in a hotel back there. Because it is separated from the main room, though, it also lacks some of the ambiance and, dare I say, scene. The fun color scheme from the main dining room is not carried over to this wing and the lights are quite a bit brighter. That's not to say that this part of the restaurant was not inviting, though. The wing is cloaked in warm tones, with mahogany walls and reddish-orange tones throughout the decor.

Aria describes itself as "culturally inspired, comfortably American." The menu itself is pretty interesting, since it goes far past the point of fusion and is essentially just a sampling of dishes from a slew of seemingly unconnected cultures. Menu items run from the middle-eastern inspired, such as marinated lamb kabobs, to Chinese, with duck and lobster chow mein, to Indian, with Punjabi curry. Generally, though it seems to work. We ate from a short menu since it was an event for the Firm, but the options were strikingly diverse. The main course options were salmon with Mediterranean influence, shrimp and chicken pad thai, the aforementioned duck and lobster chow mein with coriander noodles, sweet shoyu and cardamom, along with a 10 ounce steak covered with a red wine demi-glace.

Before our meal we were given baskets of warm naan, accompanied by four sauces.

I cannot fully recall what each of those sauces were, but I know that one was lentil- based, which was very good. There was also a yogurt sauce, a spinach paneer type and I cannot for the life of me remember what that little number on the top left-hand side of that photo was, but I am pretty sure it was curry-based. Either way, naan is delicious and this naan was no different.

Mushroom Soup Your Mother Never Made

This soup was quite good, if slightly over-salted. A friend complained that her soup was a bit oily, but I did my best not to mess with that little pool of oil you can see above. I ate around it, since I had a suspicion that it wasn't necessary in the soup, and it wasn't. The soup was a mix of porcini, chanterelles and morels and was served with the goat cheese toast. The mushrooms for the most part were totally blended into the soup, but there were a number of chunks in there too. Those chunks seems like they were all button mushrooms though- a nice chunk of chanterelle would not have been met negatively. Overall, though the soup was pretty nice, and since my mother has never made mushroom soup in her life (we're not a big cream-based soup family), it had no problem living up to its title.

Garbanzo Dusted Filet of Scottish Salmon with Black Olive Tampenade, Preserved Lemon, Tabouleh, Hummus Sauce and Micro Parsley

Onwards,from American cuisine to on to Mediterranean. I was a little bit disappointed with this dish. The fish sat atop a bed of tabouleh, which very heavy on the cracked wheat but was nonetheless good. This tabouleh was surrounded by the hummus sauce, which tasted, shocker- like hummus but was much thinner. The fish was cooked perfectly, but the olives brought just way too much salt to the rest of the plate and pretty much ruined it for me. The tampenade managed to infiltrate every component of the dish and overwhelmed the whole thing. The dish probably would have stood up quite well in the olive's absence , though. It was perfectly alright though, since I was approaching the level of painful fullness before my main course was even brought to the table. What can I say, I just can't resist the naan.

As if the cultural theme of the meal was not confusing enough, the waiters brought along a few plates of potatoes for the table. I guess this is the "comfortably american" part:

From left to right there were mashed yams with a sauce that I cannot quite put my finger on right now, garlic potatoes gratin and roasted fingerlings with horseradish sauce.

I ate just enough of each to fulfill my food-blogger duty. The gratin potatoes were probably my favorite of the bunch. You usually can do no wrong by me with horseradish, but that sauce just tasted like mayonnaise, with which you can usually do no right by me.

Selection of Homemade Sorbets

The four sorbets you see above are apple cider, concord grape, roasted french butter pear and spiced cranberry orange. The apple cider was probably my favorite. The Concord grape really packed on the flavor and was also delicious. The cranberry orange didn't leave any sort of a lasting impression, while the texture of the pear sorbet was not at all what I expected. It was just a bit creamy, but the flavors were still very good. You really cannot go wrong with pear though, can you?

A general sentiment that I heard echoed up and down the table was that the food as a whole was quite salty. I stole a bit of chow mein from my neighbor to the right, and it was far too salty indeed. There were rave reviews about the steak, though and everyone left the restaurant quite pleased. I do apologize for my spotty recap of this meal. It went down on November 1st, so that was quite a while ago, but school has kept me quite busy this past week.

I've been to Aria twice now, both for Firm events, and have been happy with my food both times. The service is always incredibly nice and accommodating; they let us hang around well beyond the time our tables were cleared even though it was obvious they were waiting for us to go home. Despite the fact that the menu is influenced with by such a variety of cuisine, it is executed on a fairly consistent level.

200 N. Columbus Dr.
(312) 444-9494

Sunday, November 4, 2007

In Praise of Salt

I've never really been one for sweets. Savory was always more my bag. I don't know what it is about salt that just calls out to me. It could be because I'm Jewish, but I'm not going to start getting stereotypical here. I'm often singing the praises of sodium, and when I mentioned to my roommate, Emily, that I was thinking of writing an ode to salt for my next entry, she went ahead and wrote the following:

there once was a shaker of salt
i saw it and couldn't find fault
it made things delish
especially fish
i would not put it in a malt

I couldn't have said it better myself.

I first tasted the salty wonder of anchovies over the summer. They just get a really bad rap, much like Brussels sprouts, which I think, sadly is what took me so long to first give them a chance. I never fell for this with Brussels sprouts, but it was probably a combination of their reputation and my history with fish that kept me away. Their mere existence on a pizzeria menu is puzzling to every child; it's just beyond comprehension to a ten year old to put tiny fish fillets on an otherwise perfect piece of pizza. They're a true grown-up taste. I've grown to really, really like anchovies recently - they have a fantastic salty taste without being briny like clams and oysters. The can impart the perfect amount of salt to a dish without overpowering the rest of the ingredients with their fishiness.

I read a tragic tale not that long ago about a culinary jaunt gone horribly awry. A pot of boiling water was dropped on a foot, a painful burn the result. But the pasta Adam made just looked so good, and the ingredients were so simple and straightforward that I could almost taste it. I felt that his enjoyment was slightly (read: probably fully) compromised by the fact that he had been severely injured by the very pasta he was then supposed to enjoy. Adam himself recognized this bias. You wouldn't ask a woman who had been beaten to be on the very jury that was supposed to decide her attacker's guilt, nor would you want a food critic to review a restaurant whose chef he knew was having an affair with his wife. I think you know what I'm getting at here. So I figured I'd give it a go. The bottom line is that the simplicity of the ingredients in this dish seemed that they would impart the perfect amount of saltiness to balance with the heartiness of the pasta and the chickpeas.

Penne with Anchovies and Chickpeas (adapted from the Amateur Gourmet)

The recipe is incredibly easy, and I took Adam's suggestion to add garlic to the sauce. I just took twelve anchovies, mashed them with some salt and two medium-sized cloves of garlic with a fork. Then I added two small stalks of diced celery and the liquid from the can of chickpeas and the sauce was done. It was easy enough. Once the penne was done cooking, I drained it and put it back in the pot with the sauce, the chickpeas, a decent amount of coarsely ground pepper and some parmigianno regianno cheese. The sauce was a bit too liquidy for my taste though, so I turned the heat back on low and let the sauce cook down and thicken up, stirring pretty often. By the time the sauce was to my liking, the anchovies had disintegrated, as anchovies are wont to do, so I finely chopped another one and sprinkled it with some more grated parmigianno on top of the pasta once it was in my bowl.

When all was said and done, I really enjoyed the dish. Cooking the sauce with the pasta was definitely necessary, since it allowed the sauce to adhere to the pasta. If I hadn't done that, the sauce would have all sat idly at the bottom of the bowl - this way it gave flavor to the pasta. I'm not really sure the celery was necessary, but it didn't offend my palate in any way. The anchovies made their presence known with their salty pop, even though they were no longer visible in the sauce. The chickpeas gave the meal substance and are what ultimately made the small bowl I made for myself incredibly filling. The pasta was hearty without being complex. I would make this again in a heartbeat; it's healthy, fast and incredibly cheap to make. It's also delicious, which doesn't really hurt its case. The ingredients are so straightforward and the dish is seasoned with only salt and pepper, so you know exactly what you're getting. And if you're in the mood for something salty, this should hit the spot.