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Restaurant Review: Chalkboard

Let’s make this one a mostly wordless post, shall we? I’ll caption the photos so you know what we’re eating, but you don’t really need much description. (Please don’t take this as a sign that I’m about to become a regular Wordless Wednesday kind of girl. Cause I probably won’t.)

In short? The service was outstanding and the food was amazing. We will definitely be back to Chalkboard soon. Possibly for their Fried Chicken & All-You-Can-Drink Champagne Wednesday night special. Want to join us?

I attempt to make my hair look nice by drying it in pin curls. Result? It lies even flatter than when I do nothing. I redeem myself somewhat by wearing a shirt that Julia loves, putting on a skirt (no pockets! Oh, the sacrifices I make…), and going so far as to apply lip gloss.

Julia looks super cute in this skirt she literally made in the three hours before we walked out the door for dinner. She laments not having enough time to add… pockets. Which means it’s a night of purse-carrying for both of us. Well, one of us (me) – because we are good at sharing. Or, as we call it, “Will you carry the purse? I don’t want to.”

Private Dining. It’s what happens when you make your Friday night reservation at an old lady time like 5:30pm. Yep.
Finally using the toasting glasses we planned to use at our wedding. They are really, really nice. Also – heavy.
And? The bubbly was quite good, amazing since we generally find champagne to be too bitter for our tastes. [It was Pierre Delize blanc de blancs, if you’re wondering. We’re told it can be purchased locally at Lush. UPDATE: I was thrilled to discover it is also carried by our neighborhood grocery store, Devon Market (on Devon, just east of Clark St. in Rogers Park) – and for a very reasonable $9.99!]

Chicken Liver Pate, with Toasted Brioche and an assortment of complimentary flavors – white beans, onions, mustard, radish, olives.

Watermelon Salad with grapes, crème fraîche, and some kind of little flowers.

Seared Scallops with vanilla sauce and olives.

Duck breast with Tzatziki sauce and fries.

Hangar steak with white beans and pesto.

 
HAPPY. MARRIED. PEOPLE.
(who happen to be eating chocolate chip cookie dough eggroll with chocolate ice cream.)

Tru

Hi friends! Today we have a special treat. Perhaps you remember the other day, when I was babysitting so Keely and her husband P.J. could go out for a fancy birthday dinner? Maybe you recall that they went to Tru? Which I have heard nothing but lovely things about and desperately want to check out? (As soon as I win the lottery…?)

Well. Keely is taking a break from her lollygagging today to tell us about all the lovely things they ate. Please go get a napkin or something to catch the impending drool, and then read on.

The other night, I had the completely overwhelming thrill of dining at Tru. (For the second time, mind you. The whelm has not yet ceased.)
We do not often indulge in four hundred dollar meals – not on a Sunday, at least. However we were in the possession of – as we also were when we last dined there – a few American Express gift cards racked up from copious overspending at places like Cermak Produce and Target. (My husband P.J. and I have decided that this is the best use of our AmEx points, as airline travel remains too pricey and I already own more Hammacher Schlemmer than anyone really needs.)
Plus, it was my birthday. And nothing says the big 3-1 like dining at one of the nation’s top restaurants. 
We were seated at 8pm and, for the parents of a toddler, felt very grown up indeed. We were immediately presented with our choice of napkin. (That’s right, a color choice. From a tray.) Even though this wasn’t my first rodeo, I choked and chose a white napkin. Even though my dress was black. Thankfully, no fibers embarrassed me.
I treated myself to a glass of absolutely stellar Riesling (did I mention that I’m five months and change pregnant? Judge not. For it really was a good glass of wine). P.J. had the same. At this point we were simply stoked to be sitting at a quiet table and not dicing anyone’s food.
And then they brought us each a fluffy little puff of baked cheese. Just ‘cause. And it was good.
Moments later we were presented with an amuse-bouche (literally translated to: say that with a straight face) of cucumber lemongrass gelee with a decadent soup surrounding it. [Cindy’s Note: actually it literally means “amuse the mouth” and is intended to be a pre-meal palate tease of the snooty French variety.] I love to start my supper with a shot glass- always have. Also, “cucumber” was the word of the day at Tru. (When I informed my sister of this, she asked if I had to yell every time something was brought over, a la Pee Wee’s Playhouse. No.)
Then the bread course! We had our choice between pumpernickel, challah, something really puffy (I’m such a stickler for details) and asiago flatbreads. So we took one of each. Here’s an example of how good the bread was: when we had finished our various carbs, P.J. began picking up crumbs from the tablecloth, one by one. I reminded him that the servers carried table scrapers for that express purpose. He held up a breadcrumb and told me that he wanted to put them in his pocket. 
We decided on the three course prix fixe option (and my menu even had ‘Happy Birthday, Keely’ artfully faded behind that evening’s selections). [Cindy’s Note: True story. I saw it. It was lovely. And I said hey should have asked the chef to autograph it.] Here is what I chose: duck confit and foie gras ravioli in some sort of awesomesauce reduction, Maine lobster with madras curry and roasted cauliflower, and a passion fruit mousse with lime, coconut, and dark chocolate. And here is what P.J. ordered: bay scallops on organic polenta with truffles and bacon, the prime beef ribeye with foie gras and wild mushrooms, and an apple beignet with vanilla ice cream.
I realize we had more than our fair share of foie gras. I have guilt over this. I do. Not a lot, but enough.
The appetizers were really, really good. We didn’t speak a word until they were finished, other than, “Oh, did you want a bite?”
My lobster came on a plate with built-in waves. (I really dig that kind of synchronicity.) The roasted cauliflower came on a bed of pureed cauliflower- and while I’m not usually a huge puree kinda gal (again, we have a little kid and she’s the captain of that ship), I wanted to suck it down with a straw. P.J.’s prime rib and foie gras were incredibly tender, but the surprise standout of that meal was the whipped pudding-like potato with curls of saffron. He said it was the ultimate comfort food times a thousand. I said it felt like my mouth was getting a hug. 
At the end of the first two courses, we were given a teensy cup of cucumber (ah!!!) foam with vanilla and most likely eight other pivotal ingredients that enhanced the cuke. But all I could remember to type is cucumber and vanilla. (I am not their target demographic.) 
Then the mousse came. And it was…exactly as awesome as you’d expect something with those ingredients to be. P.J.’s beignet was light as air, covered a slice of tart green apple, and accompanied by a dish of churned vanilla bean ice cream. We were happy campers.
Then they surprised me with the cutest and bitsiest individual confetti cake I’d ever seen, with a birthday frosting greeting swirled on the plate. (And I never know what to do with the dessert-y words. It seems wrong to mash it up, but it’s downright sinful to leave anything on a dessert plate. So I licked it. Kidding. Kind of.)
And of course, once we had finished our individual bites of heaven, a cart appeared at our table. We were offered little plates of truffles, bon bons and tiny pastel pastries – as many as we wanted. (They SAID.) I chose a rose petal macaroon, a blackberry jam truffle, and a dollop of light lemon meringue custard in a dark chocolate shell. P.J. chose the same, minus the rose, plus a small rum cake. (I called him an old man. But to be fair, it was really good. Obviously.) I think our favorite were the lemon ones, but we certainly weren’t going to kick the other ones off the table anytime soon.
We enjoyed these with a fruity sunset tea and a cappuccino, respectively, and marveled at how much we were able to put away. Also how long we were able to sit nicely at a table without running around the kitchen for various things. 
Our meal ended with a last truffle apiece – dark chocolate with gold leaf, filled with a chilled bitter almond cream. [Cindy’s Note: It’s entirely unfair that I have to read about this concoction without having one available to me for the eating. Someone please remedy this, STAT.] We were advised to take it in one bite, or it would explode into a puddle of uselessness. (My words, not his.) However, despite how gently I [thought I] picked it up, mine cracked and threatened to spill all over the table, my teacup, and my pregnant belly. So I did what any rational diner would do: I shoved it into my mouth and immediately drank the filling from the saucer. And stole P.J.’s spoon to slurp up the rest from the truffle plate. Graceful.
As we exited Tru, we were each handed a small cherry sponge cake wrapped in foil for a take home treat.
I love this place.
I also love the two married ladies who pinch hit babysat for our kiddo that evening and facilitated one of the best meals I’ll ever consume. What say we meet up there for the next big decadent event? [Cindy’s Note: YES!]
Just lemme score some more AmEx points, first. [Cindy’s Note: See above, re: lottery winning.]
 
Thanks Keely! People, if you enjoyed this post, you will LOVE hearing from Keely three(ish) times a week over at the Lollygag Blog. So please go visit and then come back here. Preferably bearing truffles.

The Secret’s in the Sauce

Actually, that’s a lie. The secret is high-quality, fresh ingredients. (Like the Papa John’s commercials say, “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza.” And, well, they are better than some. But still not especially great.) I like to keep my pizzas simple and fresh, which means I don’t put too many different things on and I try to get the best ingredients I can. Because I know you want these pizzas at your house, today I’m sharing recipes.

A disclaimer: I was in a terribly, crabby-ass mood yesterday, and pretty mad that I had to make dinner at all, let alone think about taking any pictures of it. So. I didn’t. And it doesn’t look great cold in the refrigerated foil packs I stored it in. So you will have to use your imaginations to picture what the Mediterranean & French (see my favorite toppings, below) pizzas I made last night looked like…

So, let’s start with the DOUGH. Here’s what you’ll need:
(this recipe taken from America’s Test Kitchen book Baking Illustrated, which everyone should own. It’s full of delicious science.)

1/2 cup warm water (about 110 degrees)*
1 packet or 2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 1/4 cups water at room temperature
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups flour (bread flour is better if you have it, but I never do, and it’s always fine)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Extra olive oil for coating the bowl
Extra flour for kneading

*If you don’t have a thermometer or you’re too lazy to use one (but, really, you’re making pizza from scratch so, come on, you are not too lazy…) you can stick your finger in to test it. It should be pretty warm but not scalding. Warmer than a baby’s bath, but not quite as warm as your shower. Hot enough to wash dishes in but not as hot as your tap will go.

1. Sprinkle yeast into the warm water. Do it slowly so each little bit has a chance to get wet. Stir gently if you must to do so. Let sit for 5 minutes while you gather the rest of the ingredients and get your mixer out.

2. Using paddle attachment on the lowest speed setting, combine salt and flour in the bowl of your standing mixer.

3. Once yeast is starting to bubble and smell yeasty, add room temperature water and olive oil to it and stir.

4. Again with mixer on the lowest speed, slowly pour yeast/water/oil mixture into the dry ingredients. When it starts to form a cohesive mass, switch to the dough hook. Let the mixer do all the work, and in about 5 more minutes the dough will be smooth and elastic.

5. Brush the inside of a large bowl with olive oil. Form dough into a ball and put it in the bowl, turning it over once to cover it in oil. Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel and set in a warmish place (65-70 degrees). Let rise until doubled in size, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

(Now is a good time to go make your sauce and prep all your toppings. You’ll also want to put a baking stone in your oven, if you have one, and preheat to 500 or as hot as it goes. The secret to awesome pizza is a really hot oven, so do this sooner rather than later. I preheat my oven for a full hour.)

6. Get two pieces of parchment paper just larger than pizza size ready. We’ll use those to keep the pizza from sticking to the baking stone and for ease of getting it in and out of the oven. Divide the dough into two pieces. Roll each into a ball. Now, you’re going to shape this into a proper pizza crust. I like to make flatten the ball into a disc first. Then I make fists with both hands and put the dough on top of them. Then kinda punch in the general direction of the ceiling as you rotate the dough in a circle. It will thin and spread out. Keep going until it’s just about pizza-sized. If your ambitious, you can actually toss it in the air. It’s not that hard – really – and it’s super fun. Plus, you know, it helps the dough spread out. Then put it down on the parchment paper and press it the rest of the way into a circle. About 1″ from the edge, go ahead and press extra deep so that the edge rolls up and forms that rounded crust you’re looking for. (I realize now that this step really, really wants pictures. Next time. Promise.)

7. Almost done! Brush the crust with a little bit of olive oil, then use a fork to poke lots of holes all over the middle part. (Don’t put any holes in the outer crust edge.) Spread a thin layer of sauce (or not, if you like more) and then add your toppings. I recommend putting non-cheese toppings on first, and then covering them with the cheese. You can do it how you like, but note that putting any fresh herbs and greens (spinach, etc.) under the cheese will keep them from wilting and drying out as it bakes.

8. Using a pizza peel (ha! right, like you have one. I don’t.) or a rimless baking sheet (that’s more like it), transfer the pizza on its parchment paper to the baking stone. Parchment paper is oven-safe; it will turn brown while it cooks. DO NOT USE WAX PAPER. It will melt. If you don’t have parchment, sprinkle your prep surface and the baking stone with a thin layer of cornmeal to prevent sticking.

9. Bake until cheese is browned, about 10 minutes. Yep, that’s all it takes when your oven is good and hot. Using the baking sheet or pizza peel, transfer pizza and parchment to a cutting board.

10. Slice and serve with a big glass of wine!

Onto the SAUCE!
Admittedly, I cheated last night because I was grumpy, and I used a jar of tomato-basil marinara instead of whipping up my own. And seeing how long this post is already, I think I’ll save homemade sauce for another day.
Moving on…

Some of my favorite pizza TOPPINGS are:

Mediterranean
Lamb – ground, pre-cook until it’s about halfway done; I like to shape it into tiny balls
Feta – fresh from the deli is the way to go
Red Onion
Oregano

French
Ham – I get deli ham and ask for one or two super-thick slices, and then I cube it
Gruyère – shred directly onto pizza
Shallots – yum! I love shallots on lots of things, and pizza is no exception
Thyme

Traditional Margherita
Tomato (sliced) – I prefer Roma, but if you have access to garden fresh tomatoes of any kind, definitely use those!
Basil – fresh, whole leaf, not the stuff you sprinkle from a jar. It makes a HUGE difference!
Mozzarella – best fresh from the deli, still in the liquid, rather than the little ‘gourmet’ packaged kind

Veggie Lovers – you can use any veggies you like; here are some suggestions
Spinach – I like baby spinach for this
Artichoke Hearts
Tomatoes
Arugula – sounds weird, tastes good
Bell peppers
Mushrooms – I hate mushrooms and I pick them off, but other people seem to enjoy them.
Fresh Herbs – whatever you have on hand; oregano, basil, thyme, and parsley are all good

Hawaiian
Ham – I like Canadian bacon style or deli ham
Pineapple – I like the rings as opposed to chunks, you can make a pretty pattern with them on your pie

I want to talk about Bread.

I don’t think I can adequately tell you in writing how much I love bread. I like just about any kind of bread, be it in loaf, bagel, biscuit, or roll form. (Um, except sourdough. I have always, always hated that.) When I was a kid, my sister and I used to make this whole wheat bread from a kids cookbook on a fairly regular basis, and the entire loaf would often be consumed before it had finished cooling. Maybe the bread love is genetic.

Anyway… I’ve been wanting to start making bread again lately (especially after that pizza last month), so I set out with a recipe for Four-hour French baguettes. That’s a measly four hours, including all the rising time.

Loaves proofing.

It was very simple to make. After mixing flour, salt, yeast, and water (seriously, that’s ALL the ingredients… think about that next time you read the label on your bread from the store) together, kneading, and letting it rise for a bit, I shaped it into baguettes (above) and let them rise a little longer.

Bread baking.

During this last rise, I preheated the oven with a baking stone for the bread, and a pan of water on the rack underneath. The water is supposed to create steam which is supposed to help make your crust nice and, well, crusty. I don’t feel like I did a great job with the first batch on the steam part.

Finished Baguettes

But they tasted amazing anyway. I ate a whole baguette in about 5 minutes. Granted, they were not that big, but I was hoping they’d last for at least a few days…

Yum!

But, as I mentioned earlier, I LOVE bread. So… I had to make a second batch the same day. I decided they didn’t look as nice and golden as they do in the store, so to fix that problem I added a simple egg white wash before putting them in the oven, and then a second coat about halfway through the baking time.

Bread with Egg Wash

Now that looks like a bakery-worthy crust! (Though I clearly still need to work on the scoring.)