Blackbird, Chicago

A few weeks ago G surprised me with a night in the city. We started with a drink at our hotel and then we headed out to Blackbird for dinner. The space is small but relaxed and comfortable. The closely packed tables are covered with white linens and have dark wooden chairs. The back of the restaurant is an open kitchen with a beautiful wooden counter. I did notice that the lighting was fantastic; it offered a lovely glow without being too dim to see the menu or food. Very nicely done!

We were seated near the open kitchen which was nice and a bit quiet from the din of the room. We read over the lovely menu and debated whether to go for go for the tasting menu. We decided that we would just order off of the menu as the tasting menus are always just too much food. Our waitress was friendly, helpful and informative with a nice relaxed style as we debated the various dishes.

I started with the lobster appetizer special with dill, green onions, and rye bread. I was terribly confused by the inclusion of rye bread but it was fantastic! The buttery lobster was nicely complemented by the earthy crunch of the small toasted pieces of rye. G started his meal with the crispy suckling pig with celeriac risotto, granny smith apple, hazelnut, and black truffle. Again it was a wonderful dish with an amazing combination of flavors.

For the main course G had the miso-cured pork belly with salsify, black trumpet mushrooms, buckwheat, and grapefruit. The pork belly was delicious with the just the right amount of fat for it to melt in your mouth. The mushrooms added a wonderful earthiness which was highlighted by the sweet tang of the grapefruit. A great dish! For my main dish I had the grilled wagyu flatiron with charred cabbage, crispy onion, and roasted beef cream. The wagyu was perfectly rare and just melt in your mouth. It was covered with crispy onions which added the ideal crunch. And who would have guessed that charred cabbage could be so incredible. The char has just the perfect bitterness against the sweetness of the beef and onions. It was a truly amazing dish!!

For dessert we shared the warm bittersweet chocolate crémeux, medjool date sherbet, sticky rice, urfa biber, sesame. Again, as was the theme with the appetizers and entrees, it was a wonderful combination of flavors and textures. The sticky rice had a nice creamy texture in combination with the sweetness added by the date. It was a lovely ending to the meal.

I really enjoyed how each dish was an amazing combination of flavors and textures. Overall, it was an amazing meal in a simple, elegant, comfortable space.


Blackbird

blackbirdrestaurant.com‎
619 W Randolph St.
Chicago, IL 60661
312-715-0708

Kai Zan, Chicago

Summer Salad

You know that you are in a big city when you can find amazing food in local neighborhoods and not just downtown. That is most certainly the case in Chicago! About a month ago we headed into the city to see Book of Mormon (side note: absolutely hilarious, if not completely inappropriate!), after the show we went to Kai Zan for dinner. It is a small, 22-seat, Japanese restaurant in Humboldt Park/Ukrainian Village located by a car garage and a tattoo parlor. The small space is simple and elegantly Japanese making for a warm, comfortable environment. The space is separated into intimate spaces with a light, bright wood. The sushi bar and open kitchen is in the center of the restaurant dividing the two lines of booths. The booths are separated by a beautiful wave pattern which is carved out of wood. We had an early reservation and the place was already bustling. We were seated at the sushi bar which allowed us to watch all the action.

The menu includes sushi, noodle dishes, teppan yaki grill dishes (dishes prepared on an iron grill), and kushi-lava rock char-boil (skewered bite-sized dishes). They offer a flexible omakase menu in which you can set your price and the chefs create a tasting menu of the dishes on the menu. After talking to our waiter we opted to select our own dishes from the a la carte menu.

We tried several dishes but I’ll highlight just a few. We started with a special that evening called the “Summer Salad”. It is not a salad in the traditional sense as it was made primarily of raw fish. It was a mixture of tuna, salmon, capers, scallions, shiso, and dressed with a light citrus based dressing. It was a wonderful introduction to the complexity and balance of flavors we would experience in the dishes to come. The salad was an elegant mix of clean, delicate flavors.

The Maguro Pearls was an amazing dish! The small rice spheres are topped with fresh tuna, which is lightly seared, a creamy wasabi sauce and scallions. The tuna is prepared in a mixture of soy sauce, spicy mayo, and chili oil. It results in a beautifully well balanced and flavorful bite of tuna. This may have been my favorite dish of the night.

The Enoki  Bacon is a dish from the kushi-lava rock char boil menu. The lovely golden needle shaped mushrooms are rolled in bacon and quickly grilled. The earthy flavor of the mushrooms was nicely complimented by the salty, smokiness of the bacon. A small bite of incredible flavors!

The Tonkatsu Shiso Age is breaded pork wrapped with shiso leaves. The breading was light and the pork was nicely fried without any greasiness. The light breading nicely brought out the sweetness of the pork. It was served with a homemade tonkatsu sauce that had the traditional salty, sweet combination. It was a wonderful dish but didn’t have the complexity of flavor of the other dishes.

We also tried some sashimi which were masterfully cut and served at the perfect temperature such that the fish simply melt in your mouth. I have come to realize that the temperature at which the fish are served is a critical component in the preparation of sushi and sashimi. We also tried a couple of maki rolls to round out our meal.

We were comfortably full and unsure whether to order dessert, but we opted to share the mango pudding. It was delicious concentrated mango flavor in a smooth, light, creamy pudding. A perfect light ending!

Another wonderful aspect of dining in Chicago is that there are several restaurants which are BYOB (bring your own beverage). Kai Zan is one of these and for a $5 corkage fee you can bring your own wine. So, we were able to bring a bottle of wine from home which we knew we would enjoy and didn’t have to overpay for. The ability to enjoy our own wine was just an added bonus to the wonderful food and flavors offered at Kai Zan. We can’t wait to explore more neighborhood joints with food of this caliber!

Kai Zan
http://www.eatatkaizan.com
2557 W Chicago Ave.
Chicago, IL 60622
773-278-5776

Yamazushi, Durham

I must admit, we have been lucky to enjoy some amazing meals in wonderful locals but I really didn’t expect one of the best meals of my life to be in a nondescript strip mall in Durham.

Yamazushi is located in the Woodcroft Shopping center in Durham. When you step into the restaurant you are immediately transported to restaurant in Japan. As we learnt on our trip to Japan, in traditional eateries the dining area is separated from the entry. When you walk into Yamazushi there is a narrow walkway created by a screen on your left which hides the dining area behind it. At the end of the narrow walk is a small welcoming water fountain.

As we entered, we were greeted warmly by Mayumi, the wife in the husband and wife team that run the restaurant. She immediately knew who we were as they stagger the reservations so that every guest can be welcomed and seated with personal attention. She seated us and explained the kaiseki menu. Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese muticourse dining experience which is rooted in the Buddhist culture.

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Vin Rouge, Durham

One of our new favorite places is Vin Rouge in Durham.  I know, as usual, it took us awhile to ‘discover’ it even after all the wonderful press and reviews.  But, recently we have been there for dinner three times which is quite frequent for us to re-visit a place.  Our first experience with Vin Rouge was brunch a little over a year ago.  While our bunch meals were good, we weren’t wowed and weren’t feeling compelled to go back for dinner.  But, with all of the great great buzz on the place we finally tried it again for dinner in February and had a wonderful experience and have been back a few times since!
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Herons, Cary

To celebrate our anniversary G and I decided to finally check out The Umstead Hotel in Cary.  We made an entire afternoon of it with massages and an afternoon at the spa and then dinner at the nationally recognized Herons.  The entire hotel has a modern, elegant style with muted neutral tones and warm lighting.  This elegance is carried on into the restaurant, Herons.  The walls are covered in a warm wood paneling.  The space is divided into smaller rooms with alcoves holding beautiful large artful pieces which set off the well-designed space.  The large table are well spaced to allow guests to have intimate conversations.  The kitchen is viewable from the dining area for those who would like to see the action.

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Carolina Crossroads, Chapel Hill

The Carolina Inn is a beautiful, historic inn in the center of Chapel Hill on UNC’s campus.  In the summer they have a lovely tradition of ‘Fridays on the Front Porch’ in which they have a local bluegrass band playing outside and offer food and drinks for purchase.  It is such a fun, relaxing afternoon.  I have wanted to go all summer long and between the ridiculous heat, the thunderstorms, and our own travel we finally managed to go a couple of Fridays ago.  We decided to make an evening out of it and enjoy dinner at the inn’s restaurant, Carolina Crossroads.  We headed to the inn around 6:30pm and enjoyed the music for about an hour and then made our way to the restaurant.  It is an intimate, charming space with French country decor.  The light yellow walls are accented by crisp white table clothes and tarheel blue upholstered chairs and banquettes.

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Fairview Dining Room, Durham

The Washington Duke Inn and Golf Club is a beautiful hotel on the Duke University Campus.  The ‘WaDuke’ is where the Fairview Dining Room is located and overlooks the golf course.  The dining room is elegant with a grand piano in the center of the space which is divided by wooden banisters.  The tables are covered with white linens and set with gold rimmed china.  The high back chairs are upholstered in a rich blue with golden emblems.  The tables are set a good distance apart to allow for pleasant conversation at each table.

G and I met one of my dear friends from high school here (what is the probability of two native Coloradans, who graduated together to be living in the Triangle at the same time!?) for an early dinner.  We decided to try the Happy Hour Menu; between 5:30 and 6:30pm daily they offer a $25 three course dinner menu.  After looking at the menu online we noticed that several of the entrée options are offered and the full menu prices were quite expensive.  So, we opted for an earlier reservation to try the Happy Hour menu (the latest reservation they will take for this is 6:15pm).

We settled in and selected a wine from the Barossa Valley in Australia to start.  I started with the shrimp and corn chowder with bacon which was rich and hearty with a perfect combination of sweet shrimp and corn offset by the salt and smokiness of the bacon.  For my entrée I had the lump crab cake which was full of large pieces of crab and complemented with a roasted red pepper and sweet onion relish.  With the happy hour menu they offer a sampling of desserts which was a perfect ending.

Somehow when the three of us get together we manage to cover every topic under the sun chat for hours on end.  This time was no exception, as we did not leave until 9:00pm!  But, at no time did we feel rushed or any pressure to leave.  The servers offered us water long after we finished dinner and asked if we wanted anything else.  The Fairview Dining Room is a perfect option for an elegant evening with delicious food and great conversation!


Fairview Dining Room at Washington Duke Inn and Golf Club
http://www.washingtondukeinn.com/Dining/fairview.asp
3001 Cameron Blvd
Durham,NC27705
919-493-6699