Thursday, June 28, 2012

Off the Map: We'll Have a Medium Pizza - We Recommend the Small

Sausage Patty Style Pizza -- Gino's East of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Gino's East of Chicago

And for the first time in Chicago, we get ourselves legitimately tipsy.  And all is then right (well, better) with the world.
Who Needs Valium When You Have Cocktails and Views?
After being thwarted out of drinking at the Hancock Building's Signature Lounge the night before, we realize the flaw in our previous plan: we are day drinkers.  We cannot drink at night, what with all those other boozers crowding up our barstools.  For this reason, we head back to Signature Lounge at 11:30 the following morning, with nary an elevator line to be found.
Cozying up to two seats overlooking the western Chicago skyline, we settle in for a solid two hours of cocktailing it up.

And true to form, we are never happier.
Was That So Hard, Chicago? Just Hand Over the Booze Before Lunchtime, and Nobody Gets Hurt
It is in this jovial state that we stumble back out onto Michigan Avenue to make our way to our final stop of this Best Thing I Ever Ate adventure: Gino's East of Chicago.  Despite the above-80-degree temperatures and hoards of slow walkers, our high altitude alcohol intake keeps us relatively appeased until we actually reach Gino's East.  There, our affability comes to a screeching halt because we spot our most dreaded sight: a line.

What is this, Bubba Gump Shrimp?!
Which Is Our Way of Saying We HATE Lines
While Ginger waits in line and Vodka waits across the street (the sun's vicious rays are to blame), we slowly drag our feet towards the entrance.  Apparently, more people than just us have been sent here to consume Duff Goldman's chosen Best Thing I Ever Ate PIZZA dish, the sausage patty style pizza.  By the time we make it inside (which in reality does not take very long, but we are sans patience), our early morning pastry indulgence has been fully digested and we are ravenous.  Perusing the menu, we settle on one medium-sized pizza, which promises three slices for each of us.  When we relate our choice to our waitress, she looks us up and down and states, "We recommend a small."

Never before have our overeating capabilities been questioned in such a direct way.
This Best Fill Us Up, Or There Will Be Trouble
When we are advised that the pizza will take at least forty-five minutes to cook, we decide that we will certainly die of starvation before then and order a Tuscan Harvest Salad to tide us over.  Unfortunately, said salad comes with the most vile dressing known to man -- it is given the moniker of "raspberry vinaigrette," though in reality, it tastes more like "raspberry chemicals."
There's a Reason Gino's East Is NOT Known For Their Salads
The salad is somewhat improved when we ask for oil and vinegar to substitute for the berry monstrosity, though we are slowly getting tired of waiting for our pizza.

And waiting and waiting.
PS Thanks For Essentially Plopping One Large Apple on Top of Our Greens. Stellar Knife Skills
We are aware that Chicago-style deep dish pizzas take much longer to cook than regular pizzas, but for goodness sake -- over an hour after we have sat down, there is STILL no pizza in front of us (imagine what would have happened had we ordered a medium).
This Is How We Feel, Only Picture the "Hunger" Version
Table after table of diners who had arrived after us receive their pie, and we become increasingly indignant, tapping our fingers and bouncing our knees and greeting the pizza's eventual arrival with next to no fanfare.
Perhaps the Staff Was Too Busy Perfecting Their Graffiti Skills to Actually, You Know, COOK
Our waitress attempts to cut our pie into four slices, which quickly proves to be an impossible endeavor.  Unlike a normal pizza, in which the cheese, sauce, meat, and dough all meld together into one, Gino's is downright falling apart.  The cheese seeps out from the bottom, pulling the sausage patty and sauce along with it, and we are in desperate need of bibs.
A Full Hour and This Is the Best You Came Up With?
Once we get over this foray into messiness, we resign to the fact that the pizza is fairly good (if possibly tastier than we would normally think because only because we are ravenous).
Actually, That's Not "Possible" - It's a Fact
Each of the toppings is plentiful, and though they cannot stick together for the life of them, we have to admit that they are pleasing separately.  Well, except for a couple of things:

The sausage, which has been flattened out like a pancake to fit within the pie rather than crumbled on top, is rather gray in appearance, which is off-putting aesthetically if not in flavor (though considering we also hated the color of the chorizo, perhaps we have a thing against sausage color palates).
Mmm, Nothing Like Gray Meat In the Afternoon
And even worse, we are not a fan of Gino's dough -- it is sunshine yellow and crumbly dry, and while we know they are famous for its distinction, we're failing to see the appeal.
Corn Bread-Colored Crust
And with that, we wrap up our time in Chicago, departing the city a couple of pizzas and hot dogs fatter than we arrived.  And while the city was clearly not a true debacle in flavor, we believe it failed to live up to its outstanding culinary reputation.  Whether this is the fault of poor Food Network choices, passive aggressive waitstaff, or a proliferation of weak cocktails is unclear.

But we're betting our money on the cocktails.

Gino's East of Chicago Sausage Patty Style Pizza: 4 stars

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Off the Map: A Marzipan Frog Does Not a Prince Make

Marzipan -- Swedish Bakery, Chicago, IL
Swedish Bakery

After a long-awaited Chicago success story at Ann Sather, we meander up the street to Swedish Bakery, renewed in our spirits that maybe, just maybe, we have stumbled upon the neighborhood holding true Best Thing I Ever Ate greatness.  With Ted Allen's big win with the cinnamon roll, we are confident that we might have the same luck with his NUTTY choice of the marzipan baked goods.

Minor problem: we kind of hate marzipan.
And Now We Have to Eat a Box Full of It
Another minor problem is that we apparently hate people, too, as when everyone and their mother greets us the minute we walk into Swedish Bakery (in all seriousness, they have at least one employee per slice of marzipan), we are instantly overwhelmed and annoyed.
Who Knew the Swedes Were So "Friendly"?
Approaching the person who seems to be the least eager to serve us, we ask for one slice of the marzipan log and one miniature marzipan frog.
Kermit's Tribe
As this employee gathers our choices in a box, a different one asks us what we would like.

"We ordered already," Vodka assures her.

"Well, what about YOU?  What do YOU want?" she asks Ginger.

Um, lady.  Chill out.
Or It's 1-Star for You, My Pretty, And Your Little Frog, Too
We escape from Swedish Bakery as quickly as possible, box of marzipan goodies and silverware in hand (we have obviously learned our lesson from the "WE NEED SOME SILVERWARE" debacle with our concierge).
No Refrigeration Needed If Consumed Two Minutes Later
Finding a shaded bench a street corner away, we dodge hoards of traffic (how do people cross streets in this town?!) and settle down to eat.
Andersonville Shrubbery
Now, our general gripe with marzipan up until this point is twofold: its main use seems to be to hold complicated cakes together, which would not be such a problem if said marzipan weren't grainy, chewy, and paste-like in texture (not to mention virtually tasteless).  It is therefore with mild reluctance that we bite into the lime green marzipan frog.
It's Not Easy Being Green
Inside, we find a large (some would say "excessive") helping of raspberry cream resting on top of a vanilla cake.  The whole enterprise is coated with the green marzipan, topped with large frosting eyes and a chocolate base.  As we chew through our first bites, we find the whole thing a bit dry, and the marzipan itself is, as we feared, creating a very thick coating around the filling.  The taste of the raspberry inside is rather overpowering, and except for the frosting eyes, we are underwhelmed.
Biology Frog Dissection, Bakery Edition
Thankfully, the marzipan log is an improvement over this Kermit figure, as the coating itself pulls away easily and is much thinner.
This Would Be More Palatable If It Were Finger Food
The deeper we dive into the cake, the more taken we become with the homemade whipped cream and soft vanilla (almost angel food-like) layers that rest inside.
Rule of Thumb: Add Whipped Cream to Everything
In fact, the inside components are so much more pleasing than the outer coating that the marzipan itself is rendered completely irrelevant.
Eating Everything But the Marzipan
In the end, we decide that the one thing Swedish Bakery is lacking is ambiance -- with no cafe tables on which to consume the baked goods (only a sad-looking window counter exists), one would have very little impetus to return for a take-out piece of cake.  Perhaps it is time to do away with at least half of the employees waiting to jump down customers' throats and replace them with a zen-like area for sugary consumption.  Let them eat cake, indeed.

Swedish Bakery's Marzipan: 3 stars

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Off the Map: Honey, Of Course We Have Cinnamon Rolls

Cinnamon Rolls -- Ann Sather, Chicago, IL
Ann Sather

NATO is slowly ruining our lives.

Despite the fact that the conference does not begin for a full 24-hours AFTER we leave Chicago, the city has preemptively shut down the museums, the double-decker bus tours, and, well, almost everything.  Officers toting clubs and bullet-proof vests are stationed outside anywhere we wish to go, and we are slowly becoming disgruntled with the entire situation.
"Land of the Free" Means LET US TAKE A BUS TOUR
As we are on our way to Andersonville to taste Ted Allen's Best Thing I Ever Ate WAKE UP CALL dish, the cinnamon rolls from Ann Sather, Ginger becomes suddenly paranoid that, like the rest of the Chicago province, Ann Sather will be closed.  Therefore, she rings up the establishment, and the following gem of a conversation takes place:

"Hi, are you open today?"
(with obvious diner noise in the background) "Yes...."
"Do you have cinnamon rolls?"
(pause) "Honey, OF COURSE we have cinnamon rolls."
If She Worked at Avec, She Would Have Followed Up This Comment with "Duh"
Ginger hangs up the phone and is greeted by Vodka's mocking laughter.  "You know they're pretty much known for their cinnamon rolls, right?  You essentially just called up Junior's and asked if they had cheesecakes."

"Why didn't you warn me?!" Ginger demands.

"I thought you were just making sure they were open.  I didn't realize you were planning on going into a whole line of questioning."
After All, How Would You Interpret the Phrase, "I'm Going to Call and See If They're Open"?
It is on this idiotic note that we enter Ann Sather's doors, no doubt with figurative "We're the dopes who asked if you served cinnamon rolls" plastered on our foreheads.
Feel Free to Hand Over the Whole Tray
We are escorted to our table and served by just about the only non-passive-aggressive waitress we have encountered so far in Chicago (the only other one being at Walker Brothers Pancake House -- clearly, the genuinely cordial people all work in diner-like establishments).
Meaning They're Probably from New Jersey Originally
As we peruse the menu, we notice that the famous cinnamon rolls are served as a side dish with any of Ann Sather's breakfast entrees.  Actually, they are served as one of two sides.  And even better (worse?), the serving size is two cinnamon rolls.
To Confirm, This Is the Serving Size of a SIDE DISH
So just to add that up, the average Ann Sather customer apparently consumes a full breakfast entree, a side dish, and TWO cinnamon rolls.  We need to move to Chicago stat.
Although Not Really, Because Half the Town Hates Us
In truth, we are somewhat horrified by this lack of portion control (Ginger may or may not have called it "inhumane"), so we ask our waitress what size platter we should order if we only plan on eating the cinnamon rolls.

"Well, that's two," she says, pointing to the next table over, where a family sits around heaping plates of pastry goodness.
Ann Sather: Where Arteries Go to Die
We decide to limit our gluttony and order one roll each, and they arrive hot and laden with white, sticky goo right out of the oven.  Instantly, we are in love.  Unlike their ugly stepsister, the sticky bun, these rolls feature nothing but sugar, dough, and cinnamon for miles without a pesky nut in sight.  Seeping our forks into the middle of the rolls, we gently pull away the brown sugar circumferences which we find inside.  Dipping the forkful into some of the sauce which has seeped over the corners, we taste.

And at last, we have found a 5 star Chicago dish.
At Last Our Love Has Come Along
The cinnamon rolls' dough is a perfect tender texture, the goo warm and pleasing without being overtly sweet, and the cinnamon undertones creep out of each consecutive bite.
Dear Ann Sather, Please Move to NYC
While some such desserts are so overpoweringly sweet that they make our teeth hurt before we are halfway through them, these cinnamon rolls are pretty much perfect.  Were we not against physical labor of all forms, we might have come up with a way to cart a boxful home with us for future consumption.
Is This the Type of Establishment Where Licking One's Plate Is Frowned Upon?
After we pay our massive $8 bill (once again, our desire to leave a good tip renders us incapable of doing math.  It is at such times that we are reminded that it is a miracle we get through life at all), we shuffle out of Ann Sather and onto our next Andersonville location.

And with those cinnamon rolls, Chicago has finally crept its way into 5 star Best Thing I Ever Ate territory.  And we didn't even need a cocktail first.

Ann Sather's Cinnamon Rolls: 5 stars*

*Certifiable Best Thing We Ever Ate

Monday, June 25, 2012

Off the Map: No Free Chips and Salsa? What Kind of Chi-Chi's Is This?!

Carne Asada a la Oxaquena -- Frontera Grill, Chicago, IL
Frontera Grill

Chicago, we love you, but you're bringing us down.
Not Just Because Vodka Keeps Expecting Bernadette Peters to Pop Out of This Painting
Now, we are well aware that Chicago is teaming with food locales worthy of a destination food tour.  Unfortunately, the Food Network stars on Best Thing I Ever Ate don't seem to be aware of any of them.
There's a Whole World Out There, Food Network!
With no offense intended to Phoenix or Philadelphia, the fact that they are currently wiping the floor with Chicago in our rating system seems, in a word, ludicrous.  After all, how could we possibly find a place known for hot dogs and pizza so 1-3 star mediocre?

Well, perhaps because they keep sending us to eat raw garlic, pork rinds, and passive-aggressive dates.
However, if there is one beacon of hope in our Chicago journey, one surefire 5 star restaurant on our mission, we are convinced that Frontera Grill is it.  First of all, Rick Bayless won Top Chef Masters, and you know how we feel about the validity of culinary television shows.  Second of all, Frontera Grill is at the top of the list of any Chicago friend's list of must-dine places.  And third of all, Vodka has been here before, and she fell head over heels in love.  So if any place is going to raise Chicago out of Best Thing I Ever Ate purgatory, it is Frontera Grill, right?

Don't fail us now, Frontera!
Chicago's Last Culinary Hope?
As it happens, we arrive at Frontera a bit disheveled, as we are twelve minutes late for our 9:00pm reservation, and they will only hold our table for fifteen minutes.  The reason we are twelve minutes late is twofold:

1. Avec took a full 90 minutes to serve us a single bowl of dates (shakes fist).
2. We erroneously lost track of time while stuck in the Twilight Zone that is the elevator line for the Hancock Building's Signature Lounge.
Nothing Like Going All the Way to the Signature Lounge ONLY to Go to the Bathroom
After falling over each other to get out of the taxi, we sprint to the hostess stand... and are handed an Olive Garden-style buzzer to alert us when our table is ready.  By this point, we are too utterly exhausted to fully appreciate the ridiculousness of this situation.
Or to Understand Why the Margaritas Are All Coming Out in Martini Glasses
Due to this same tiredness (along with a lingering hint of fullness), it also takes us midway through our meal to realize that Frontera Grill does not provide their patrons with chips and salsa upon being escorted to our table.  In our frugal, chip-loving world, this is a travesty -- after all, even the dumpy Mexican place in Hoboken gave us free chips, and we didn't even buy a meal there.  Instead of our desired appetizer, we are provided with a skimpy bowl of bar nuts, which Ginger consumes out of pure boredom.
Naturally, In Chicago's Continued Desire to Burn Our Faces Off, They Are Spicy
We each order a Topolo margarita, Ginger's with salt, and Vodka's without ("I can't believe you don't get salt on your margaritas.  You put salt on a KUGEL").  Served in a martini glass, they are tasty if sadly unremarkable (or perhaps years of Skinnygirl Margarita consumption have completely altered (read: damaged) our palates).
"What Is This? NATURAL Flavors? Ugh, Bring Back the Chemicals"
For "dinner," we are supposed to consume the carne asada a la oxaquena, as recommended by Alex Guarnaschelli on the FILLED WITH ENVY episode of Best Thing I Ever Ate.
Any Chance This Comes with a Side of Chips?
In truth, we are a bit hesitant about this choice, as we're typically more of, say, enchilada orderers at Mexican joints.  Therefore, we also ask for the mole poblano enchilada, which serves a dual purpose: it allows us to taste Rick Bayless's famous mole, and it provides us with an entree that is more up our alleys.
Only, As It Turns Out, Not Really
When our food is placed in front of us, we say a silent prayer that now, finally, Chicago will reach 5 star Best Thing I Ever Ate status.  We shove aside our skepticism at the honking platter of meat and miniature rolls of brown sauce-smothered chicken in front of us and try to be optimists.

And then our mouths start burning.  Again.  For at least the fifth time in Chicago.

Who knew that Chicago chefs were so intent on burning their customers' faces off?
Perhaps the Constant Red Color Palate Should Start Tipping Us Off
Beginning with Alex Guarnaschelli's choice, the plate features a red chile-marinated (hence the death-by-spice) Creekstone natural black angus rib steak, along with sides of black beans, sweet plantains with homemade crema, and guacamole.
Here's an Idea: Take Away the Steak and Give Us More Than Two Chips
The steak itself, which we have had prepared to medium temperature, is pleasing enough, if a tad on the fatty side.  It is actually difficult to discern the array of other flavors after the intensity of the chile hits our tongues, so we are rendered somewhat apathetic.
Would It Be Declasse to Ask for Some A-1?
Of the sides, the guacamole is our favorite, while the black beans are dripping with reminiscences of Rosa Mexicano.
The Only Kind of 'Mole' We Can Get Behind
No Comment on What This Looks Like (...)
Vodka, predictably, hates the plantains because, well, she hates plantains, and she is convinced that crema cheese always gives her indigestion (and since Ginger is slowly running out of her Pepto tablets, this could turn into a disaster quickly).
Are We Supposed to Be Making Tacos? This Pile of Tortillas Is Confusing Us
What Is Your Purpose?
Overall, the carne asada is good enough, though "We're just not jumping up and down about it" (but to be fair, when do we ever jump up and down?).
Not Exactly a Rave Review In Terms of the Clean-Plate Club
Moving on to the enchiladas, Vodka once again dismisses them on first impact due to the underhanded sweetness of the mole.
Flavors Vodka Hates for Dinner: Raisins, Chocolate, Banana; Flavors Chicago Serves for Dinner: Raisins, Chocolate, Banana
To her, the combination of the savory chicken with the chocolatey sauce is far from ideal (though this complaint is not Frontera Grill's fault -- it is, after all, the whole point of mole).  Ginger finds the combination less off-putting, but once again, she is not overly enthusiastic either.
Someone Send Us Back to Chi-Chi's Where We Belong
For dessert, Ginger orders the frothy hot chocolate (actually, she orders the "hot chocolate," because she refuses to use the word "frothy"), which tastes similar to those whipped up by Jacques Torres (in other words, it tastes like molten dark chocolate, which Vodka, once again, does not enjoy).
Moral of the Story: Vodka Hates Everything
At this point, we are growing frustrated with Chicago -- after all, if Frontera Grill can't reach 5 star-status, what restaurant possibly can?  We are not that picky -- we've given thirty-five Best Thing I Ever Ate dishes 5 stars, for goodness sake!  What could possibly be going so wrong in Chicago?
Besides, Of Course, That They Treat This Lake Like an Ocean
As we near the ends of our margaritas, we believe we have discovered a small part of our problem.  Despite the number of cocktails we have consumed thus far in Chicago, not once have we reached our perfect level of tipsiness.  While we like to keep our wits about us (at least as many wits as we have to begin with), our ideal is to reach the level of drunken merriment when the world seems kinder, the people more tolerable, and the food more delicious.
This Should be 50%-75% Alcohol Is All We're Saying
Therefore, perhaps we should not fault Chicago's dishes for their poor showing at all; instead, maybe the blame lies in their weak, miniature cocktails.

Frontera Grill's Carne Asada a la Oxaquena: 4 stars