Restaurant Review: Acadia in Chicago where being that difficult diner doesn’t faze

Since my trip to Sweden a couple years ago, I’ve taken to indulging in fine dining, especially if there’s a chef’s tasting menu.

I’ve also started declaring my lactose intolerance to restaurants when asked about dietary restrictions. I’ve half shrugged off my intolerance for many years. Sure, I’ve cut back on some things. I drink my coffee black, I don’t buy ice cream, I leave out cream when cooking recipes that included it. But I eat cheeses by the fistful, slather full butter shamelessly on my baked bread, and love clotted cream on my scones.

I have been inconsistent in declaring my intolerance when dining out. Too often, the substitutions feel rather lame or incomplete. I am especially conflicted when there is a tasting menu option. I want to experience the chef’s style and vision of what a perfect meal is but I’m afraid being that difficult diner results with hastily modified dishes that make seem lacking, then leaving both the chef and diner unsatisfied. I once waited over 45 minutes for a dessert.. only to get basically half the components of a cake in a “deconstructed” dish. Nice try, but, really? Or how about the one time I got a fruit bowl for dessert.. in a two-starred Michelin restaurant.

Man, I always thought my lactose intolerance was just a minor nuisance. That people who have serious nut allergies or gluten intolerance have it worse. Now I’m not so sure. No, I don’t risk death with accidental ingestion so I can’t compare on that score. Do you realize how much butter and cream goes into those restaurant dishes? The hardest was explaining how I can handle certain types of products but not others. Some assume just because I “cheat” a little, I don’t need any modifications, resulting with so much dairy intake that I become miserable for the rest of the time. Others are so flustered and overly worried that they eliminate all dairy completely, giving me disjointed dishes that often lack a decent sauce.

I splurged for a meal at Acadia restaurant, Chicago. Acadia boasts a Michelin star and it proved to be one of my best fine dining experiences. It’s in a rather odd location. The neighborhood seemed nice, but it wasn’t in a particularly busy area. I’m not familiar with the city too much but it’s surrounded by a retirement community, construction, large open parking lot.

Service was great, but the highlight was the food. The staff acknowledged my lactose restriction from the get go. The kitchen made modifications that demonstrated great understanding of my intolerance. The ice cream was put in a separate bowl but still available for me to choose how much I dared to sample. The one dish with a cream-based sauce, the server poured just a drop for me to taste without having too much. But the real thing is at no point did I feel like I was missing out in any part of the food. Each dish was so well composed, so complete and so fulfilling. And it was one of the best balance of portions in a tasting menu that stuffed me without being at the point of feeling ill.

I liked the fact that they didn’t have a printed tasting menu, acknowledging that dishes changed all the time but especially appreciated the fact that they printed one out at the end of the meal for me to take home as a parting gift.

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The menu:

Canapes:
Lobster Roll
Pemaquid Oyster, Caviar, Cream
Pig Heart Tartare
Duck Crouton
Winter Squash Chawanmushi

HAMACHI
red curry, coconut rice, shiso

NEW BEDFORD SCALLOP
parsley root, salsify, orange, matsutake, mastic

BUTTERNUT SQUASH
root beer, hoja santa, black garlic

VETA LA PALMA LUBINA
spaghetti squash, pork belly, green tea milk, soy caramel

VEAL SWEETBREADS
chestnut, creme fraiche, apple, brown butter balsamic

AUSTRALIAN WAGYU
lobster, artichoke, parisian gnocchi, maitake

PRE-DESSERT
pickled fennel sorbet, apricot jam, candied cocoa nibs

CARAMEL APPLE
pumpkin seed, apple sorbet

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Honestly, I don’t know what a good chunk of those words are :) It was just all yummy.

Restaurant Review: Maze Sushi

I believe I have mentioned my goal to sample all the Gordon Ramsay restaurants in London while I am here. As I progress through the list, I’ve mentally ranked all of them in order of preference.

Current king (queen?) of the list is: Maze Sushi. Specifically the sushi bar, which took separate reservations than the Maze Restaurant or Maze Grill.

The ranking might not be particularly fair.. but sushi done well has always had a special place in my heart. If anything, I walk away regretting the years of not knowing and opportunities to visit this place more regularly.

Of first note was the bar. The sushi bar was really an extended addition to what would have been the bar counter itself. Perched in the corner, we had a great view over the bar.. and saw three large glass canisters of some liquid infusion. Intrigued and distracted from the drink menu, we kept guessing what it could be until one of us worked up the curiosity and courage to ask a server. What novel solution. The answer? Maze infuses and makes their own flavoured spirits. How awesome is that? Of course we had to order something that incorporated those ingredients, and fruit martinis all around it was. They were gorgeous, sweet but not overly, flavourful and deceptive. It was tempting to gulp the whole glass down and order a second.

We opted for the Chef’s Menu, as expensive as it was:

Edamame
Salt and pepper soy beans

Kani snow crab
Snow crab flakes, wakame seaweed
pickled wasabi

Sea bass truffle
Sea bass, shiso, ponzu,
truffle oil

Hamachi pecan
Yellowtail, yuzukosho
pecan nut, pecan oil

Sushi platter
California roll
Spicy tuna roll
Seared salmon belly
Hamachi
Tuna
Sea bass
~
Main
Dumpling of lobster,
Tiger prawn and salmon,
Aromatic lemon grass broth
~
Sweet
Strawberry and mint sundae
~
Lemon meringue pie

I had my desserts substituted with sorbet because of my lactose intolerance. Actually, they forgot, so as an apology, we got an additional scoop of sorbet. What a lovely and unexpected gesture.

 The extra bonus wasn’t the sorbet or the consideration. It was the service. We felt truly valued as customers. The restaurant was busy, but Laura, our server, always came back to us with her bouncy enthusiasm and follow up. Her asking how the food was didn’t feel like routine, but a sincere interest in ensuring that we were happy with our plates. At the end of the day, good food is easy to come by, but good service is what keeps us coming back.

Restaurant Review: Foxtrot Oscar

Seriously.. unless you lived just around the corner, I have no idea how anyone would have found this place, Foxtrot Oscar. If it weren’t for the Gordon Ramsay name. Unlike his other restaurants in London that I’ve sampled so far, this one has a small neighborhood gem kind of feel.

The space was narrow. I felt like our party of five were greedy, taking up three tables that jutted out into the center aisle. Yes, aisle, like a plane. On the opposite side of the room, more like an arm’s reach away, were lined with many couple’s table, with a cushioned wall bench running the whole length of the room. It’s date night on this Saturday evening.

The furniture was simple. The accents were minimal, mostly the bold wall colours with the spaces of seat cushions on the bench. Framed photographs hung on the wall, mostly black and white, I believe. I remember finding the one closest to our table confusing because it was of a location unrelated to the restaurant or London, in colour, and seemed disproportionately small compared to the larger frames on the opposite wall. But of the exact subject matter, I have already forgotten.

As a person who rarely eats beef, I found my menu choices limited. The menu is already small, more like a dish of every main protein. The mussels tempted me, but struck me as a main I would normally be able to make on my own. I didn’t need a Ramsay dish to set the bar so high I would be discouraged from cooking it on my own again!

I ordered:
– Pan fried gnocchi with peas, broad beans, sautéed morels, rocket and Parmesan
– Side of buttered spinach
– Dessert… I forgot. Something with salted caramel ice cream.. and fondant? Other than that the honey comb on it is amazing!!!

The gnocchi was amazing. I was afraid of the heavy feeling that comes after a carb-rich dining out meal. But the portion was just perfect.. the balance of the peas and arugula helped prevent the sense of coming down with scurvy. And the gnocchi were crispy! Making it super yummy and a bit different. I had to resist licking my bowl.

Amongst the rest of the table:
– Chilled tomato gazpacho, cucumber and black olive
– Spring pea, broad bean, mint and aged feta salad
– 28 day dry aged 10oz shorthorn sirloin, beer battered onion rings,
horseradish crème fraîche
– Dingly dell pork chop, crushed peas and spiced tomato chutney
– a lot of other gnocchi orders
– Sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream
– Chocolate brownie with milk ice cream
– Various drinks around the table

IMG_0591 IMG_0592

I think its small size makes service confusing. In larger places, the wait staff are assigned zones. Given how small this restaurant is, we seem to be served by every single member of the front of the house staff. Shouldn’t be a big deal but we’ve caught the team in their communication gaps. Each person was extremely gracious and helpful, but as a team, not as cohesive. Which is such a shame, because I couldn’t find a thing to complain about the food.

My Favourite Things: Coffee

I am an American coffee drinker, through and through. I love my drip coffees strong and black. I can’t stand Starbucks for their burnt flavor. I refuse to order Americanos.

Travel has made my keenly aware what my coffee taste is. I had taken it for granted, until I learned the hard way that everyone drinks their coffee differently.

Chains

– Dunkin Donuts. Hands down the best ever. I grew up on DD and I acquired my taste for coffee through DD. Any New Englander knows that you just walk right into any DD shop and order a “regular” coffee. Which is hot, with cream and sugar. But you don’t need to specify all that because they already perfected the blend. None of the yuppified Starbucks “extra shot, soy milk, caramel sauce, three packs of sweet n low,  blah blah blah.” While I was living in Asia, I stocked up by the crate on DD beans whenever I was back in the States. Sadly, the franchises overseas have not replicated the perfect coffee. What a crying shame to the name.

Caribou. I am shocked, in a pleasant way, to see one in Istanbul, Turkey. First encountered in Colorado, I always associate this chain with fresh coffee beans of the hearty West. It is one of the places that don’t drown out the coffee flavor in their espresso mixes

Beans: Oddly, the most memorable beans I’ve had come from the most unexpected. And least accessible for many of us.

Saffron. We bought a couple bags while we were resting in the shade of one of their cafes on a really hot humid day of sightseeing. I am a fan of going to the local coffee shops instead of the chains, but coffee isn’t even that common in Laos. And it was such a fragrant fresh batch I had.

Yemen. Yemenis drink tea these days. But the history of coffee as a drink we know today originated in Yemen. First records of the drink was in the Sufi monasteries in Yemen. Mocha is the name of a major trading port in Yemen. So doing the math, Yemen traders played a vital part in spreading the popularity. I had a friend who was working in Sana’a for a few months and he picked up a kilo of beans for me. When I asked him how much I owed him, he said it was cheaper than the beer I would buy him. Sadly, Yemen is not a destination of choice these days, but it was such a potent pungent bag of beans that I was sad to finish.

Vietnam. Vietnam is a major bean grower in the world’s production of coffee. However, they are not known for their bean quality, often been used in blends as fillers. Their flavor tends to fall flat, and lack in that bitterness I like to jolt me awake. Then my father bought a bag off the street vendor.. and it smelt like rich dark chocolate. The secret? The beans were roasted in butter. Really, how can you beat butter?

Those Neighbourhood Gems: Every place has one of them.. a locally run, independent cafe, that might roast their own or feature a specific coffee source. As a traveler, I just wanted a good cuppa sometimes.. and I always am ecstatic when I finally do, especially if plain black coffee is hard to find.

– San Francisco. How is it possible to pick one out of a city of independent neighborhood businesses? At the end, it all comes down to where you are and what is convenient.

Kitchen & Pantry, London, UK. No matter how I try to time, pace, schedule.. I am always exhausted and thirsty when I walk around Portobello Market in London. There are many local shops to pick from, but I find myself gravitating towads K&P every single time. It’s hard to beat the selection, and the leather couches remind me of home.

Kuppa, Bangkok, Thailand. Sometimes I just want a hiatus from the chaos of a bustling changing modernizing Asian city around me. Walking into Kuppa is like an escape from the concrete high rises, into a contemporary zen, accented with old fashioned burlap sacks used for beans. Ordering plain coffee rewards you with a generous French Press to drink at your leisure.

– Chez Moi. Finally, well, I did out myself as a coffee snob. So what better place to drink it the way I like it than a home? I don’t even have fancy makers.. I have an assortment of them, but I always go back to my reliable drip machine. I tend to buy my beans whole, purchased from all over the world as I try to make a trip to the supermarket wherever I am, and ground a bag at a time.

Restaurant Review: Sher-e-Punjab

Phnom Penh I don’t consider a place of culinary delights. However, the city has its share of surprising options.

Sher-E-Punjab is a narrow little restaurant with a bar in the back as if it was originally built for a pub. It’s not surprising given it’s location right off the riverfront pub crawl. The dark red lighting coming through the glass front certainly doesn’t make it a place people enter based on appearances.

The food is heavenly. Just heavenly. You smell all the spices in the air as soon as you walk in. I’m one to try a different dish every time I revisit a restaurant. This place, I stopped. Nothing I had was ever bad but when one set dish particularly stands out, it would be a crying shame to not have it. It make seem like I exaggerate, but the daal is the best I’ve had outside India. Heck, it’s better than most that I had in India.

Daal. Not a particularly glamous dish, no. Rather plebian. It’s lentils. But I find it is often overcooked, too dry, or not blended well. So, while I love daal, I usually order it as a side dish. Not here. it’s my main and only dish. The nan comes in huge pieces for one order, making it more carbs that I get from a normal bowl of rice.

Maharani and handi are particularly week cooked here. The Maharani is a bit greasier but that gives it a more smooth texture, otherwise the flavour is similar. The depth of flavour is amazing.. even after swallowing, the spices tingle in my mouth. The cute little bucket it comes in is just icing.

All for 5 bucks.

Restaurant Review: Crepes and Co.

As far as my limited knowledge goes, Crepes and Co. the only specialized creperie in town. At least a dedicated one.

Two locations, one very conveniently near where I live. The other deservedly a taxi ride away although one could argue that it is BTS-accessible. The one closer to me, on soi 12, is a little house with patio outdoor sitting that has a garden and a tropic feel to it (yes, we already are in the tropics, but with the mini-palm tree leaves over the head kind of thing).

Three times I’ve been to this restaurant I have yet to repeat an order. I don’t see how anyone can get enough of crepes. I do find that I prefer assembling my own crepes, a popular option. It’s also a fantastic brunch option, coming with either breakfast sets of a crepe, toast, fruit, yogurt or with traditional a la carte items like French toast (seems so wrong…), pancakes or waffles, or toasted breads.

I don’t know how I ever got it in my head I can have only one crepe each meal, leaving a anguishing decision of whether the savory or sweet part of the meal should be honored with a crepe. I finally got over that hump. Three crepes? As long as I’m not stuffed beyond belief, bring it on!

Restaurant Review: Grossi

Firstly, their website ROCKS. They scanned the entire menu with the prices. It’s such a simple thing but a lot of restaurants do not give price ranges. As someone who often plans dinner gatherings in a large city, it is a pain to get restaurant information to prepare the attendees on budget, cuisine style, dress code, etc. When many Italian restaurants in the city tend to posture themselves as fine dining institutions, diners want to know they will need to pay $100 for a meal before they commit. Ok, off the soapbox.

The restaurant is well decorated and set up. Set on the ground floor of the Intercontinental, smack in the middle of the city’s busies intersection. The glass windows made the place feel airy and spacious, yet the well-places display shelves and walls shielded dinners from the view of the congested street and sidewalk. The first thing that struck me was the black and white color pattern. Classy, modern, yet traditional. It make me feel like I walked into a large kitchen.

The menu is surprisingly small, featuring classics. I ordered the special, a pork chop, but found it a bit dry and boring and my attention completely distracted by after this hunk of cheese the waitress was carrying back and forth between other tables ordering cheese. Places like this remind me how I am missing out on some Western delicacies.

The real highlight was the tiramisu. Served in a mug, the tiramisu comes creamy, rich, and light, yet the syrup was distinct without being heavy sugary sweet. I’d go back just for the dessert.