Dinner at East by Northeast.

Two points, before we begin:

Knowing these little facts about me, you would think that I would love East by Northeast, the new Chinese-fusion small-plate-based restaurant in Inman Square, right?

We-ell…

Here’s the thing: I have money issues.  I can easily consider purchasing a $600 pair of great boots because I’ll wear them for six months out of the year for several years to come.  I feel the same way about bags, chairs, and other items meant to last a while**.  With food, I’ll have little problem spending a good amount of money at the market or on a memorable meal; when it comes to a “normal” meal out, though, I want value for dollar.

Am I trying to say that dinner at East by Northeast is expensive?  Of course not; plates average at about $10.  But $10 seems, to me, to be too much to pay for two mini pork belly sandwiches, especially when I’ve eaten two larger, similar sandwiches across the river at Myers + Chang and at Momofukus Noodle and Ssäm — for the pretty much the same price.  I don’t think this makes me stingy though; it just makes me realize I won’t order the pork belly sandwiches at East by Northeast again.

What will I reorder?

The candied pecans ($4.00), for sure, and the celery root/poached chicken/apple salad ($7.00). I’d definitely go back for the pork dumplings with butternut squash ($8.00) and the cilantro-lime soda ($5.00).  If the braised pork with sticky rice ($9.00) and fried shrimp with smoked salt ($6.00) specials were added to the permanent menu, no one would be happier than me.  I’m interested to try one of the delicious-sounding mixed drinks, like the goji-pomegranate cocktail, and order a dish featuring the hand-rolled noodles.  I found the spicy broth in the beef shank noodle soup ($10.00) to be a bit too spicy for my spice-averse taste buds, but the wide noodles were so chewy and lush that I’d skip the meat altogether for the vegetarian version.

See, this is why I feel awful for complaining about price — the food was good.  It was beyond good.  And the service was both speedy and friendly.  And the intimate space is warm and cozy.  And the chef/owner is only twenty-seven!  I’m certain the restaurant will become a neighborhood favorite.

Just… the plates were a bit too small.

East by Northeast
1128 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139
617.876-0286
exnecambridge.com

East by Northeast on Urbanspoon

* Half, but it still counts.
** This doesn’t mean I do it often, but that’s the point.
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A Late Dinner at The Publican.

A sad but true story:  My friend Lara and I lost touch when we went away to college.  We had spent high school sitting a few seats away from each other in more subjects than I’m capable of remembering (I think we were in at least one Global Studies, almost all of our Spanish courses, perhaps every English class…) but I did such a terrible job at maintaining a long-distance friendship that our level of camaraderie dwindled because of it.

Here’s the happy ending though: an e-correspondence has popped up between us.  Since Lara’s finishing up with her Ph.D at the University of Chicago, the moment I knew I was going to be in town I immediately sent her a message detailing our plans.  We decided to meet up for a tour at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Robie House on the university’s campus in Hyde Park and then spend some time catching up before getting to our reservations at The Publican.

the-publican2The Publican is the newest eatery from the team behind Avec and Blackbird, but unlike its predecessors, the focus at this restaurant is on beer.  Had I been drinking that night, I would have started with the Cane + Ebel red rye from Illinois’s own Two Brothers Brewing Company, before moving on to Goose Island‘s Pere Jacques, a Belgian-style ale.  After all, when in Chicago, right?  Massachusetts law makes it tricky for breweries and vineyards to ship product in; the selection at liquor stores can be very limited, so when we travel Keith and I try to take advantage of locally-made drinks.

publican-dining-room1When we walked in the restaurant’s doors, the first thing I noticed was the noise.  The dining room is big and cavernous; sound bounces around the space like a superball.  The second thing I that caught my eye was the space itself.  For one thing, the ceiling is ridiculously high, and from it hangs countless globe-shaped light fixtures.  For another, like at Avec, a majority of the tables are set up family-style; the rest are shuttered away behind mini barn-like doors.  (You can see them in  this picture here, which is from the Publican’s site.)  I was happy to learn that our table was one of the sealed-off; not only did we get a little bit of privacy — the wooden walls are came up past my shoulders, when I was seated — but the three of us were able to have a conversation without shouting at each other, which is always nice.

the-publican-1The Publican is similar to Avec in one more way: the menu encourages sharing.  Our server informed us that three small plates and two larger ones would be more than enough for our little group, so we had a caucus and decided on our choices.  Since we said we were okay with our selections arriving as soon as they were ready, our dinner started with frites ($5.00).

If it were up to me, all meals would begin with frites, so I was thrilled to see them blooming out of a paper cone like a golden bouquet.  I wasn’t disappointed by the fries — they were so warm they all but melted, and the garlicky mayonnaise we requested went fantastically with the crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside frites.  Lucky for Lara and Keith, a member of staff placed the cone on the opposite end of our gated table from where I was seated.  Otherwise, it would have been very likely that I wouldn’t have shared a single stick.

the-publican-2The second plate we received over our barn door was pork belly atop a pool of black-eyed peas and pickled shallots ($16.00).  Lara had never had pork belly before; once we learned this, Keith and I both insisted upon ordering it (though, to be fair, chances are I probably would’ve demanded the belly regardless).  As I watched Lara have her first bite of belly, I realized how badly I wanted her to love it as much as I do.  In my mind, belly of pork is as close as you can get to heaven — while eating, anyway.  I love its tender texture, and the finger of fat that covers the meat is my absolute favorite part of each bite.  My mouth is watering now, many meals later.

the-publican-3Another plate that we three agrees on was the boudin blanc ($15.00), much to my absolute delight.  I love hot dogs and think of sausages as their chicer, equally lovable older sisters, so the thought of passing the boudin up was a devastating one.

Boudin blanc is white since the sausage is made without blood; this one was served atop a small pile of  apple and celeriac.  Orange-infused mustard had been drizzled over it all, resulting in something fantastic.  Each bite was a bit tangy and a somewhat nutty and, as with the frites, I did not want to share at all.  I did, albeit reluctantly.  I still regret it.

the-publican-4I’m just now starting to realize how pigcentric our meal was, especially now that the time has come to discuss the next dish: pork ribs with polenta and a helping of caraway-mint slaw ($20.00).  The ribs were sweet and lovely, and the polenta crisp, but what really got my attention was the minted slaw.  I had never known that I liked slaw until I had the Publican’s version; it had the perfect amount of mint essence.  Sometimes — well, more like oftentimes — I find mint to be one of the most overpowering of aromatic herbs, beating down into submission whatever other flavors might be present.  That was definitely not the case here.

The ribs, briefly, were sweet and meaty, and devoured almost instantaneously.

the-publican-5The three of us wanted to make sure we ordered some sort of vegetable-focused dish, particularly since  we knew we had one more porky plate coming our way.  Once I saw the  sunchoke sformato ($6.00) with pancetta and dill vinaigrette on the menu, I knew which vegetable I would be voting for.  I had tried sunchokes for the first time last spring in Maine and had loved their crunchy sweetness; I wanted to taste that flavor again.  Not only wasn’t I disappointed with the sunchokes, but a small piece of me totally fell in love with the sformato.  Creamy and milky, it added a lush sort of luxury to the earthy vegetables.

the-publican-6Our last plate, a potée, was another meatastic dish, though it didn’t revolve completely around the axis of pork, as it featured a veal cut.  The Publican’s potée was made out of a minced-meat crépinette, a sizable piece of pork tenderloin and a veal breast ($25.00); the three cuts had been simmered with vegetables, and was similar in feeling to a pot-au-feu.  I think of both dishes as comforting, cold-weather food, the sort that is meant to heat you from the inside out — which ultimately, for me, made the potée perfect Chicago food.  No frosty breeze would be able to blow me over, not with this warming my belly.  In fact, when we left the Publican, the temperature had dropped even further, something that made a perverse sort of sense as we were amongst the last of the patrons to gather our coats and slip reluctantly out into the cold.  The truth of the matter is this: I had forgotten about the chilly air outside, and the iced-over puddles lacing the street.  All that was on my mind that night was the food, the company and the conversation, and how the combination of it all filled me with a toasty glow that stood up to an arctic Chicago evening.

The Publican
845 West Fulton Market
Chicago, Illinois 60607
312.733.9555
thepublicanrestaurant.com

Publican on Urbanspoon

A Late Dinner at Avec.

Located in the West Loop, Avec is a popular spot, one that doesn’t take reservations.  For that reason, we thought dropping in later in the night would improve our chances for getting a table for Keith, his friend Dave and myself; we only had to wait about fifteen minutes.

Avec’s menu promotes family-style eating; rather than the traditional appetizer and entrée offerings, the menu is divided into small and large plates.  Two small plates, we were told, equal the size of a large, so we decided on two of each size.

avec-1We started with chorizo-stuffed medjool dates alongside smoked bacon and piquillo pepper-tomato sauce ($9.00); the small earthenware dish it was served in might have been from a tagine, which is fitting as both date and dish are North African.  Its sauce was smoky and sweet, thanks to the roasted peppers; in the end it delivered a sizable hot kick — well, it felt like that to me, spicy sissy that I admittedly am.

Our second small plate was a frisée salad with pan-fried frogs’ legs, prosciutto and fried fennel, all of which were drizzled with a paprika aiöli ($11.00).  I chose this not only because I love frisée, but also because I’ve never had frogs’ legs before, believe it or not.  The legs had been fried to a nice crispiness, and the meat had a subtle fishy flavor that I found really appealing.  Also, it did not taste like chicken.  If anything, there was a chicken-like texture to the meat, but if anything the legs reminded me more of fish than of anything else.  As a whole, the salad was incredibly fresh and light — a nice way to start a meal.

avec-2Though I enjoyed the small plates, the two large plates  we ordered were even more of a hit for me.   First up was bucatini pasta with housemade Italian sausage, neck sauce, tomato, fresh herbs and Reggiano cheese ($16.00).  Even if the rich chunks of meat hadn’t been as appetizing as they were, my favorite part of this still would have been the nutty, chewy noodles.  I could have eaten a plate of these alone; by “alone” I mean both “without any accompaniments,” and “without sharing.”  Dave and Keith are lucky that my sense of propriety prevailed, as I could have easily grabbed the bowl to my chest and charged for the door.

avec-3We followed up the pasta with a flatbread scattered with yet another sausage; this one was a housemade merguez sausage, and its partners on the pizza were white anchovies, feta, roasted garlic purée, chili flakes and fried orange chips ($15.00).  I loved the combination of the citrusy orange, the hot chili and the sweet garlic — it was an exciting mixture of flavors.  The sausage here had a complexity to it as well, and its denseness gave the lighter elements of the flatbread a nice weight.

Now, while I relished my meal, I’ve got to say the following about Avec: if you don’t like people, don’t eat here.  In a way, the restaurant’s layout is like its menu: it is set up to encourage communal dining.  Most patrons are seated at long wooden tables, either on stools or benches; each table seats about eight, so if your party is on the smaller side, chances are you’ll be sharing the table with two or more groups.   We ended up sitting at a very popular table…  meaning we had to get up about three times during the course of our meal to let other diners in and out.  And while you won’t have to worry about anyone trying to eat off your plate, per se, the quarters can be close; Keith did comment at one point that he thought his neighbor would accidentally drink out of his water glass.  It didn’t happen, but it’s easy to see how it might.

Avec
615 West Randolph Street
Chicago, Illinois 60661
312.377.2002
avecrestaurant.com

Avec on Urbanspoon

Back in Town.

Friends, I am exhausted.  During a vacation, I normally like to make sure I’ve not only time to explore a new place but also that I’ve set aside an hour or two to take off my shoes and relax. An ideal schedule for me would be something like a semi-early start with a nice breakfast, followed by checking out an interesting museum exhibit, sitting down to a three o’clock lunch and walking around a picturesque neighborhood; as the day winds down, I love chilling out with a drink before heading out for a late dinner.

This, however, was not a kick-back trip.  Practically the only minutes Keith and I had off of our feet were those that found us riding the El or sitting down before a plate of food — otherwise it was all hustle hustle hustle before falling into bed each night and waking up feeling only partially restored.  Regardless, I had an absolute boatload of fun.  I’ll write more specifically on certain aspects of it, but for now, here’s a highlight reel of sorts:

hot-dougs-avecThursday
Arrived at O’Hare before ten in the morning, tired but excited,  so after a quick Starbucks detour at the baggage claim* (skinny vanilla latte for me, skim chai for Keith), we grabbed a taxi to our hotel on the Gold Coast to check in before flagging another taxi for the ride across the city to Hot Doug’s.  Afterwards we wandered around the area for a bit before sliding into fourth taxi of the day (the first was from our apartment to Logan at 5.30 AM, EST) for a ride to the Water Tower and a chilly walk up and down the Magnificent Mile.  Stopped in Borders to pick up a Frommer’s Guide and take a break from the cold; at some points, I couldn’t feel my face.  My absolute favorite building was the one that houses Bottega Veneta at 800 North Michigan, a charming gem absolutely dwarfed by the more modern Park Hyatt.  Walked back to our hotel, ducking into Barney’s and Jake when we felt too cold.  Later, we met up with Keith’s old friend Dave for a drink at the Hotel Burnham‘s Atwood Café before the three of us flagged a taxi (number five — luckily Chicago cabs are cheap) to take us to Avec in the West Loop.

millenium-park-2Friday
Overslept, but only in the sense that I got up, took a shower, then got back into bed for another two hours.  Does that count as oversleeping?  Regardless, we got off to a late start, only having time to poke around Millenium Park before hailing the first taxi of the day to ferry us to Blackbird for our one o’clock lunch reservations.  Rode the Green Line to Adams/Wabash, the stop for the Art Institute.  We didn’t get tickets to the Munch exhibit but I was excited to see Ivan Albright‘s That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door), which is creepy and sad and evocative and thought-provoking.  Left the musum at exactly closing time, walked across the BP Bridge and along Lake Michigan to Navy Pier — which should be renamed McDonald’s Pier, as everything in sight seemed to be emblazoned with the golden arch logo.  Taxi number two back to the hotel; hung out before dinner at Alinea.  We took the El to North/Clybourn and walked from there to 1723 North Halsted, but afterwards had a taxi called for us; it was almost one AM.

chicago-riverSaturday
Wanted to sleep in but couldn’t — we had prepaid for tickets to take an eleven o’clock tour with the Architecture Foundation (though when we arrived at 224 South Michigan no one even checked).  Traveled amongst the insanity and congestion of Saint Patrick’s Day while making our way downtown.  Didn’t see the river actually get dyed green but saw the end results while we walked with the tour, squinting up at Art Deco buildings.  Avoided stepping into green-tinted vomit.  More walking to the North Wells location of Gino’s East, Dave’s recommendation for deep dish pizza.  Didn’t realize deep dish takes forty-five minutes to make so afterwards hailed a cab to bring us to the Metra, one of the few ways to get to Hyde Park and Frank Lloyd Wright‘s Robie House; had more prepaid tickets for a tour, as well as plans to meet up with my friend Lara, a Ph.D student at the University of Chicago.  After the tour she took us around campus, stopping at the Oriental Institute and Hallowed Grounds, before heading to Hopleaf for a pre-dinner beer (the bartender suggested the Goose Island Matilda and I’m here to tell you it was fantastic) and then over to The Publican for the meal itself.

the-lake-2Sunday
Wake up for brunch at Bistrot Zinc with Dave, his wife Isobel and their daughter Paloma, who just might be the most laid-back, Zen baby in the entire world.  Walked to the Lincoln Park Zoo; the weather had gotten considerably warmer and the ice was audibly thawing.  Heard two lions roar, an incredibly impressive sound, and a jaguar, um, mark his territory (if you get my drift), much to the childrens’ combined delight and disgust.  Dog watched outside the zoo before walking through Old Town to Isobel’s dining recommendation, Adobo Grill.  It was probably our earliest dinner of the year at five o’clock but within a few minutes the restaurant was packed so our timing was perfect.  Dogwatched some more from our seat next to the windows.  Realized haven’t taken a taxi all day.  Walked back to the hotel and packed.

Total number of taxis taken during trip: 9 (including taxi to O’Hare and from Logan on Monday)

* Generally, I like to travel with carry-ons only but since Alinea requests that men wear jackets, we had to not only check Keith’s suit but also pay the additional fee to do so.