Thursday, September 30, 2004

More Fun Down River -- Jolietathon II

There are all sorts of pleasures in eating experiences. There is the canoodle with your honey; a meals made special from the libations alongside; high rollin' steak with buddies in Vegas; a work dinner closing a big project. Walking into lone restaurant on an industrial stretch of Roosevelt and finding the best restaurant in Chicagoland means something as does a multi-course degustation. Still, I find special pleasure, as I noted the other day, in sitting down with a bunch of likeminded folks and ordering for all of you, a few steak sandwiches, extra garlic butterine, and a side of relishes. Anyone can have a good meal, but hounding is about having it all at the table. Follow a very special Mexican meal with steaks coated in garlic butter. It is possible.

We had it all last week in another adventure down river from Chicago: hand made caramels and caramel apples from Dan's, very special chicken legs in green mole and beef with green tomato at Ameer Tapatio and steak sammy's, extra butterine (and three relishes) at Merichka's. I would say that the scenery along IL Route 83 alongside the Des Plaines River is suprisingly, gorgeously, bluff-y, and the food in and near Joliet is well worth the schlep.

I am incapable of heading toward Joliet without stopping at Honey Fluff Donut's, especially as they have a special of $3.50 for a dozen donuts after 2 PM. I negotiated hard to include a portion or apple fritters, the LTH house treat it seems, in my dozen. We settled on 8 "real" donuts and 2 fritters. Unfortunately, these donuts tasted like they were priced to go, not a showcase at all. My donut stop put me behind schedule, and my pleasure in taking the slow way, put me even further behind. I missed entirely Dan's Candy, benefiting, however, from Dickson's proxy purchases and SteveZ's pictures.

Dan's Candy:

I would say of Dan's, great caramel apples, great plain caramels, so-so caramel with nuts. For whatever reason, the caramels with nuts had a distracting chemicalish flavor.

On to Ameer Tapatio. As much pleasure as Ameer Tapatio gave me, I could not avoid some frustration. After the house-made salsas, after the salad, after the guisado of beef and fresh green tomato, after the 12th plate of home made tortillas, but during the wonderfully complex green mole, it boiled over. How could any summary of Mexican restaurants in Chicagoland, as Chicago Magazine recently attempted, skip this place. Sure, there was no lavish tequillas menu, and I do not think any of the workers knew Rick Bayless, but this place should be included. First of all, it is no secret at this point. Mugs did the hard work, finding this gem amongst the strip malls on the road out to the prison. It has been written about often on Chowhound and LTHForum. Second, it is truly fine Mexican food. You do not walk into a strip mall restaurant and normally expect a mole composed of about 10 ingredients including romaine lettuce, radish greens, pumpkin seeds and tomatillo's. And at that same dinner to have another sauce made with the linguistically similar but very different (botany speaking) green tomato. I am sorry. My anger at Dennis Wheaton diminished ever so slightly, my pleasure.

Here's the res entomado (beef in a sauce of green tomatoes)

And the chicken legs in green mole

We moved quickly upon the closure of Ameer Tapatio to Merichka's. I s'pose at one point, Merichka's was roadhouse in the mold of the late Horwath's, but like Horwath's, it is now surrounded by development. Merichka's menu of steaks, relishes, cracker baskets and $3 mixed drinks remains very old school. The house specialty at Merichka's is butterine, a mixture, we think, of butter, margarine, and fresh garlic. As much butterine as you can handle glistens the bread on the house steak sandwich. You can also get a hamburger done butterine style, which of course we did. Steak dinners come with relishes, but we had to order them on the side. Pickled beets, kidney beans and cottage cheese, the always amazing ReneG amazed me by downing a good portion of that cottage cheese with his steak sammy. I did not notice if doused it in butterine. We dispersed quickly back up river.

Sorry, I do not have the addresses handy.
My Friend Guido

If you were in high school, in Chicago's North Shore circa 1980, you were amazed to find that one Hollywood movie spoke directly at you. Your life was Risky Business. Even if you never played choo-choo with a hooker on the milk run of the, well it was not called the Red Line back then, you related to this movie. Fretting about colleges, your fall-back school, padding your resume with dumb activities in pursuit thereof; maxing out your parent's stereo (although me and my friends liked to make the glass shake with Led Zepplin's Dazed and Confused, not Bob Segar); raiding the bar and otherwise seeing what could be done while they still trusted you. Of course, we were never chased by a killer pimp named Guido instead of studying for a trig exam, in my all time favorite moment from the film. But now, I have my own Guido.

I just adore Club Lago. If it is not the coolest restaurant in Chicago, it is in the top five. I mentioned to Aaron D, who I dined with yesterday, that it was imperative that the city of Chicago landmark the entire interior of Club Lago. From the wooden booths, to the tile floor to the giant ugly heater, no place could be designed this perfect any more. At times, I have followed the lead of JeffB and John M with the Executive Salad. The dish that conjures up Larry Tate and three martini lunches in my mind. It is an ideal combination of saline treats. It has, however, one huge flaw. It is too tiny for my appetite, yet too expensive for my tight wallet. In other words, I could eat two, but I would never do that. So, lately, I have been searching the menu for other treats. "Old School", an infrequent Chowhound poster who eats at Club Lago nearly daily, once pushed the yankee pot roast. I made the mistake one day of trying to insert roast beef for pot roast, and now I am pretty much scared of meat and gravy at Club Lago. I could do what Old School does, compose my own dish--it is a treasure to see him in action there, "make me the veal the way I like it, with the garlic.." Maybe, though, I will stick with the Guido.

Like most things Club Lago, I am following in the footsteps of giants (as C2 might say), and it was Andy O'Neil who I first saw with Guido. Unlike me, Andy does not dissect his meal while he eats it, preferring instead to enjoy a range of discussion. Yet the look on his face convinced me to meet Guido soon. You ever go into a good Italian sammy shop, say La Milanase or JC Bombacigno's with total indecision. What appeals today. They all sound good. Well, if you are having one of those days, head over to Club Lago. The Guido combines meatballs and Italian beef and sausage and grilled onions and sweet peppers (and a nice giardinari if you ask). All of this gets smashed between two slices of D'Amato's long bread. In fact the use of D'Amato's bread would be enough of a reason to eat this sandwich, but this Italian wedding feast on a bun is pretty special regardless. Some of the component parts were better than others, the meatballs were especially good, the beef no Johnnie's, but like a lot of things in life, the sum was greater than its parts.

Me and Guido get along quite well these days.

Club Lago
331 W. Superior St
Chicago, IL
(312) 951-2849

Monday, September 27, 2004

Yes, No, Depends on the Question -- Arun's

I'm gonna give away a good key bit from my forthcoming and now past due report on last week's Joliet-athon. It was how, but for Chowhound/LTH, could one sit down in a restaurant AFTER a big meal, and do this: order (for six) 2 steak sandwiches, extra garlic butterine, and side of relishes. How many of us longed to do things like that for ages? DougK famously noted, it took finding our tribe. Which gets me to Arun's.

It was my birthday dinner, and I could essentially pick any spot, from the most humble and favored skinny hot dog at Gene and Judes to Rick and Gale's grand tasting collections at Tru. I chose Arun's. And I choose Arun's not that much on my longing for its version of Royal Thai (or what ever they consider their food), but I choose Arun's as fodder. JustJoan, the baker, warned me against going. I told her I wanted to go. I wanted to go to because I felt that someone who likes to proclaim all sorts of things about Chicago dining should have some understanding of the full range. Moreover, as someone who has specifically proclaimed on Thai dining, I felt I wanted a meal at Arun's for balance (just as I seek one day to go to Monsoon or Vermillion for comparison). Arun's was a birthday present to myself, something to write about. What an expensive folly.

The questions about Arun's stand twofold: is it worth the price and is it the most spectacular Thai food in Chicago. As one of my favorite blogs would say, sadly, no! With no irony, I can say, the only one bite was good (one bite salad). They served up food both astoundingly pedestrian and astoundingly mediocre. Nothing sums up our meal like a plate of not very good pad Thai. The kitchen entirely composes the meal, and what you get seems a bit of a crapshoot. For instance, they did not provide us oyster pancakes or crabcakes that other tables received, but were, of course, privy to the pad Thai. They do ask about spice preference, and we said very hot. They said Thai hot, and we said yes. A few of the dishes got exceedingly hot, Zim hot, from very ample use of Thai chile peppers, but in these cases, the balance in the dishes was so off, that it just hurt the mouth. To pile on, their method of serving the entrees family style resulted in dishes being cold by the time we got to them. And, sadly no, we did not leave wowed by the desserts. I would say that I had a very nice bottle of Sancerre, tasting like the best grapefruit juice imaginable. It highly complemented the meal, but then again I could bring my own Sancerre, for a fraction of the price, to Spoon or Thai Avenue, and get a good meal along side.

Here's the play by play:

Unlike anything else in its pricepoint (that I know of), Arun's does not open with an amuse, a little freebie to impress. Right down to business here. Right down to business with an especially un-impressive first course, a skewer of tempura vegetables, all neatly cut in matching squares, on top of a salad with a Thai fish cake. Both my wife and I went for the tempura first, thinking eat fried hot. Instantly, the greasy batter, hardly light tempura, put us off. I can tell you that the vegetables included Japanese sweet potato but I stopped eating the tempura too soon to remember all the other vegetables. The fish cake was OK, no better or no worse than any fish cake around town, with the same gummy texture that comes from working the fish to death before frying. With the fish cake, Arun's blew its first chance to step above the genre. Could not you see a skilled chef taking the idea of Thai fish cake and lightening it up, mixing in chunks of fish and otherwise keeping the dish true but in a way better? Under the fish cake was a salad of very fine greens and a few bits of Asian long beans, but the kitchen made a dressing essentially from the bottled chile sauce associated with Thai grilled chicken. This was not the first time during the evening that a bottled sauce would serve as the main condiment.

Next, we had pike fish, grilled with a heavy hand of salt and pepper alongside a small serving of sauted greens and bean sprouts, a few Thai chiles perking up the vegetables. In my many crusades of late, I seek more use of freshwater fish, so I should be happy here, but as the old joke goes, did you like it, no and the portions were small too. I thought the again too much grease marred, but the portion was too small to really appreciate the light flavor of the pike. They sauteed the baby-baby spinach well.

We followed with one bite, one bite salad. Here finally, Arun's justified if every, every so slightly, their higher price. The one bite salad, a mix of dried coconut, shrimp and stuff came on a real betel leaf unlike Spoon Thai's dish which comes on lettuce. The betel leaf numbs the mouth. It is cool to loose sensation in your mouth for about 60 seconds, but while the Condiment Queen had no quibble with this dish, I gotta say it missed some of the zing of Spoon's. Spoon uses bits of lime, and the lime peel included gives the dish a dose of bitterness that makes the dish so much more. Arun's was good.

I've already discussed the pad Thai.

After the pad Thai, we got another normal Thai dish, glass noodle salad. It got upscaled by a big shrimp, although we had just had a big shrimp on the pad Thai, so the gesture seemed meaningless. With this dish they really went to town with the chile peppers, but the dish lacked lime, sugar and fish sauce like most Thai salads. Therefore, the chiles just bombarded your tongue with no assistance. A really lousy dish.

Our final appetizer was a dumpling filled with more shrimp, a bit of chicken and a nut or two, like a piece of dim sum. I s'pose we were to be impressed by the tapioca pearl wrapper, but like I say, I've had better dim sum. Underneath the dumpling was a thin schmear of bottled chile sauce.

As I noted above, entrees come family style. Three plates looking very beautiful and a small bowl of rice. I believe these entrees were the exact same as what JeffB had when he reported about Arun's on Chowhound, which says something too, no?: red snapper with crisp seaweed and bottled sauce, chicken in a yellow curry and beef mussaman curry, and a lobster (and more) shrimp medley. The soft texture of the beef, advertised as tenderloin, but I believe flanken appealed and the quality of the lobster was high, but the dishes had just no substance. Like I said above, they were further marred by being cold after a while.

We got two desserts, the first mango with sticky rice, the second a small ball of coconut sorbet. Ms. VI believed that the mango/rice came with a sauce of melted lime sherbert. I just kept on commenting how it was so much less satisfying than the one I had a month or so ago at Thai Aree which benefited so much from the mysterious seeds.

The meal rather ends abruptly after those two small desserts. Anything else they ask, and then shoo you along. It is probably meaningless to say at this point that I was less than impressed with the service and the praised decor. Sure, they removed all the plates quickly and get you supplied always with fresh forks and knives, but the service also was a conveyor belt, just a bunch of younger kids (including someone I know from another Thai restaurant), rushing plates to and fro. There was little sense of being taken care of. There is a lot of pretty paintings, but the small side room where we found ourselves sitting felt like in the extra room where a few tables were unfolded when too many people showed up.

As we were leaving, I noticed a printed menu on the hostess's stand. I asked if we could have it. Well, we could not have that one we were told. It was for Charlie Trotter who was coming in with a few media friends, but they'd make us a copy. She also offered to e-mail me a copy which I accepted. But if I was mad about our nearly $300 meal (with wine) up until that point, well the idea of Trotter and the media soon swooning, well that just got me madder. And of course, I noticed, Charlie was not getting the pad Thai. Still, I'd rather take him to Spoon.

4156 N. Kedzie Ave
Chicago, IL
(773) 539-1909