"Artichokes, Istanbul" (2005) Photo by
WHAT'S NEW IN CHICAGO?
by John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER: OVELIA by John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: Drier American Rieslings Earn New Respect by John Mariani
WHAT'S NEW IN CHICAGO?
by John Mariani
800 North Michigan Avenue
The antithesis of such assaults on the senses is the serenity of NoMI, which actually opened a few years back but has acquired a new chef, Christophe David (below), who is proving himself one of the most talented in Chicago right now. The expansive, large dining room, with plenty of civilized space between well-set tables and 120 seats, overlooks the Magnificent Mile and Water Tower from the seventh floor of the Park Hyatt Hotel, among the first Hyatts to swing into the deluxe category. NoMI is glamorously decked out with modern artwork and Italian marble sculpture, and the room is very airy and light in feeling, especially during the day when it gets the sun off the Lake. It is, in a word, a civilized but wholly unstuffy place to dine.
You arrive in the swank lounge, then enter the dining room (right), confronted by the sushi bar, which offers a remarkable array of traditional and modern sushi, which may also be ordered at the dining tables. The staff here is among the finest in Chicago, and the winelist is one of the best in the city, especially for French and regional wines that go well with David's food.
I first became familiar with David's cooking at the Grill (now called Pur.Grill) in Paris' Park Hyatt Place Vendôme, which gave to that city a style of American grill fare difficult to find elsewhere. Here in Chicago he has reversed course, bringing a very sure sense of French culinary style to a city with about ten too many grills and steakhouses. So you might begin with fresh pea soup with a goat's cheese foam and a chiffonade of mint, or perhaps white asparagus and morels layered with smoky Virginia ham and parmesan cheese--both first-rate, lightweight appetizers for lunch. Richer and more decadent is David's answer to the city council's imbecile prohibition against foie gras: He uses "foie blond"--chicken livers--whipped into a luscious crème brûlée with truffles and hazelnuts; its approximation to duck or goose foie gras is good enough not to fool anyone but delicious enough to enjoy wholly on its own.
For main courses seafood is well represented by caramelized scallops with crispy sweetbreads and a pea puree, and David (left) does a fine risotto with a good amount of langoustine, braised hearts of palm, and corn. If you prefer meat, I recommend the almond-crusted squab breast with a tangy-sweet ratatouille and tarrgon-scented beurre blanc.
Suzanne Imaz's dessert show all the same degree of finesse in the French way--apricot clafoutis with almond ice cream and sorbet and violet gelée, and a lovely cherry mascarpone cannelloni with chocolate crèmeux and sour cherry sorbet.
The imagination in NoMI's food is not daunting to other Chicago chefs but shows how the execution of certain techniques with real precision can make a great difference in subtlety, texture, and refinement. David now ranks among the best in Chicago, and I hope he stays put forever.
NoMI is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily.
Dinner appetizers run $14-$25, main courses $34-$54.
230 West Kinzie
This River North newcomer near the Merchandise Mart counts two veterans--now a married couple--from the Chicago Ritz-Carlton and Hollywood's Chateau Marmont: Mohammad Islam and Malika Ameen (below), who also run the attached Bakery here. Aigredoux is one of the instant hits for reasons that have to do as much with good food and sheer buzz, a place on everyone's lips as the hot new place to go. When I visited the restaurant was thronged with a fairly young crowd, and the vibes in the dining room were indeed shaking.Quince
Let me get to Islam and Ameen's food first, for it is very good, in a more-or-less Mediterranean mode, starting off with a delicious garlic soup based on a good strong broth that tames the herb down. Having a bakery next door means the bread is not only fresh but artisanal and diverse. Nearing the last days of softshell crabs for the summer, I had to have them here, and they were excellent--fat, snowy white meat beneath a parchment crisp shell, gone in two gobbles. Sweet white asparagus were graced with truffled poached egg, bacon, and a light herb vinaigrette, while the stand-out was risotto al salto, which means "jumping risotto," a kind of crispy pancake with prosciutto and a tangy aïoli. The tomato-mozzarella pizza was pleasing but not particularly special, in a town still lacking in great pizza.
Main courses fared very well within the Mediterranean swing of things, including as fine a piece of swordfish as I've had all year, juicy to the core and full of clean, sweet flavor. Prices across the menu here are extremely reasonable, with the most expensive item a terrific Colorado rack of lamb, beautifully fatted, with truffled grits, fennel, apple, and a fava bean salad.
Desserts, by Ameen, sin in all the best ways, from a truly gooey and irresistible sticky toffee pudding to a delicate panna cotta, and an astonishingly good "chocolate malted" that was actually a malt-infused custard and a hazelnut version of a Kit-Kat bar. very American and marvelous for it.
The winelist is solidly connected to the style of food here, with plenty of good bottles under $50.
Turning to the 80-seat restaurant itself, aside from a low level of lighting from bare bulbs on wires, it's a very handsome room, with a wall of slatted Brazilian rosewood and floors of large cut travertine. But the lack of any soft surfaces and the imposition of blaring, throbbing music makes the atmosphere so intense that despite its wonderful food, Aigredoux is not a wonderful place to be. Having scanned some other local reports of the restaurant, I read that I am not alone in criticizing the noise level here. There was simply no way for me to hear what the waitress or wine director was trying to tell me, and the little conversation I managed with my friends was at shouting level. Believe me, no one has ever asked for a restaurant to be louder, but many complain, both during and after their visits, when restaurants are too loud, so it's something restaurateurs should pay more attention to.
AigreDoux is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., for dinner nightly, and brunch on Sat. & Sun.
Appetizers run $9-$14, entrees $14-$34.
Those who recall with fondness the original Trio, and before that the Cafe Provençal, in a space within The Homestead Hotel out in Evanston will probably be delighted by the way the newest incarnation, Quince, is styled. It's now a softer, more comfortable spot, lighted with candles and a fireplace and a configuration that seems quite a bit like someone's dining room. The slatted wood walls remain for old times' sake.
I love the simplicity of everything at Quince, the restrained style of plate presentation, the effort not to overwhelm you with service or chattiness. Printing the menu on gray paper with gray ink in a candlelit room is not such a hot idea, however, unless your guests all have super-vision.
Chef Mark Hannon (second from left above) comes from a restaurant family: His father ran a seafood restaurant in NYC. His résumé now includes a stint at the highly acclaimed Azul in Miami, and he shows a real flair for food that is built around a few impeccable ingredients, as shown by a dish like lavender-and-honey glazed pork tenderloin with goat's cheese pasta and broccolini, which all comes together in equal parts sweet and savory.
Cold starters are mainly greens, aside from a salmon tartare, while hot appetizers tend to be somewhat heavy, but no less delicious for that. I like the "liver and onions," actually foie gras seared and lavished with roasted shallots, blackberry, and a toasted crostini with bleu cheese. (Evanston, unlike Chicago, has not as yet banned foie gras on menus). Ricotta gnocchi with a cheese crust was pretty tasty, but it certainly didn't need soft grilled bread on the side. Hawaiian sea bass was very good, cuddled against "forbidden black rice," hearts of palm, and a lush basil cream.
By all means consider cheeses for there is a selection of six, in fine condition. Jeffrey Sills did pastry at Trio and has stayed on to do them at Quince with good reason. His desserts include jelly doughnuts, a warm white chocolate bread pudding, and carrot cake with Crackerjack and a cream cheese frosting, with brown sugar ice cream. Time to bring this relic of the Sixties back to the table! It's a great dessert.
Wine directors Joe Ziomek, also a Trio grad and a former sommelier at Alinea, has come back to oversee a winelist of about 200+ labels.
When I visited, Quince was empty by ten P.M., maybe because people had to drive back home to Chicago. And be aware that if you are visiting Quince, it is a $40 taxi ride each way from downtown. Then again, for this quality of food you'd pay a great deal more in Chicago, so you can suck up the difference that way.
open for dinner Tues.-Sun. and for brunch on Sun. Starters run $6-$18,
NEW YORK CORNER
by John Mariani
OVELIA PSISTARIA & BAR
The Greek community of Astoria, Queens, is thriving with more vitality than ever--bakeries, wineshops, cafes, butchers, and plenty of Greek restaurants, most, more or less, of the same stripe with, more or less, the same menu. Ovelia, which opened last year, is quite a bit different in many respects, and for good reason draws a young crowd from the neighborhood and the other boroughs who come for a slightly more modern take on Greek cooking and style.Ovelia is open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner appetizers: $6-$21; Entrees:$11.50-$22.
Happily Ovelia is set on a corner, allowing for two sides of the street to be used for outdoor tables with bright red umbrellas, and on a twilighted midweek evening, I sat there blissfully entertained by the passing parade of Greeks and non-Greeks, all speaking their own languages along with English. The interior dining area seats about 55, a long, streamlined, silvery room with a good bar where they make good, innovative cocktails and carry a very good screed of modern Greek wines.
The restaurant's name refers to a spit on which lamb is roasted, and owners Chris Giannakas and Elias Mandilaras do their personal best to imbue the place with their own gregarious spirit. Giannakas' father John and mother Litsa for years ran a restaurant in
As in most Greek restaurants the mezes are the most tantalizing part of the menu, and they are extensive here. We began with a creamy kafteri, a spicy feta spread, and tarama cod roe, and roasted eggplant, all scooped up with hot pita bread that kept coming fresh from the kitchen every few minutes. The Ovelia salad contains Romaine lettuce, cucumber, tomato and a dressing of olive oil, lemon and roasted, chilled vegetables that had a good crisp crunch to them. Kontosouvli are piping hot marinated and seasoned pork morsels, shaved from the spit, juicy and delicious, with more pitas.
Next came tender octopus braised in red wine vinegar then given a char on the grill. along with housemade sausages. Bifteki Monastiraki came on skewers--ground, seasoned lamb and beef. The moussaka here, layered with
ground beef, eggplant, zucchini, potato, and topped with béchamel was good but far from the creamiest I've had.
Now well into the main courses, we had two plump chicken breasts stuffed with more of the kafteri and splashed with a delightful, creamy ouzo and tomato sauce. A generous platter of six jumbo shrimp, sautéed and then wrapped in roasted eggplant and topped with a hearty tomato sauce and crumbled feta, finished under the broiler to give it a wonderful glaze of feta and slight crisp skin. None of us was mad about the red snapper, which, while hefty at one-and-a-half pounds, was disappointingly fishy tasting that evening.
I always give in when Greek lemon-doused oven-baked sliced potatoes arrive, and Ovelia's are excellent, as was a side of white rice and orzo, and some lovely green broccoli rabe, sautéed with olive oil and garlic.
What wonderful, rich yogurt they serve here--with equally wonderful honey and nuts, served in a fried crêpe shell that only gilded the lily. It was also hard to resist the loukoumades, a form of Greek fried fritters tossed in a not-too-sweet honey syrup. What we did not finish we took home for morning coffee.
The Greek wines we sampled were a sturdy 2005 merlot from Nikos Lazaridis, and a truly remarkable white wine with enormous body yet a delicate floral and fruit flavor, 2004 Vatistas, Petroulianos.
By the time we left Ovelia the street was still teeming with happy people and the music still playing inside. Couples came by for wine and coffee and a late bite to eat. For anyone seeking the soul of the Greek community, a corner table at Ovelia is the best spot I can think of to find it. So if you're in Manhattan or getting off a plane from LGA or JFK, hop on the N Train and you'll be there in a jiff.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
by John Mariani
Drier American Rieslings Earn New Respect
American wineries have not made it easy to love their rieslings because it’s so hard to know exactly what you’re buying. Labels read “white riesling,” “Johannesburg riesling,” “dry riesling,” “semi-dry riesling,” “Late Harvest riesling,” and “eiswein riesling.” In
Nevertheless, the rieslings of
A good riesling is a beautiful wine, with bright tartaric acid levels that keep the wine sharp, and it picks up the specific minerality of its terroir. Riesling vines are very hard and resist frost well but cannot bear intense heat, which make the wines flat-tasting and one-dimensional.
Aldo Sohm, wine director at
I agree completely with Sohm about the rieslings of New York State’s Finger Lakes district, which I find get better every year, not least the pioneering wines of Dr. Konstantin Frank, whose 2006 Dry Riesling ($18) has tantalizing fruit aromas and the levels of acid to keep them bright and long lasting. They are terrific sushi, even spicy Chinese food.
I also recommend other
Riesling flourished on the west coast when 19th century German vintners like Beringer and Charles Krug planted the varietal in
Possibly the best-known West Coast rieslings are those from Château Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, Washington, which last June held a "Riesling Rendezvous" international conference to discuss the latest techniques of riesling viniculture and the distinctions of terroir. The winery’s own rieslings have gotten even better since German vintner Dr. Ernst Loosen joined with Ste. Michelle in 1999 to produce “Eroica” in the coolest terroir of the
Dry and semi-dry rieslings are increasingly versatile with
John Mariani's weekly wine column appears in Bloomberg Muse News, from which this story was adapted. Bloomberg News covers Culture from art, books, and theater to wine, travel, and food on a daily basis, and some of its articles play of the Saturday Bloomberg Radio and TV.
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