Thursday, June 27, 2013

Drinks | Press Tea

After work on Wednesday, Marcus and I finally made it to Press Tea, a teahouse that has relocated from the Lower East Side to the West Village last month. I passed by the old location on Ludlow many times, saying that I had to make it there sometime, so I'm glad I can finally say I've been, even if it was at its spankin' new location.

Press Tea sees itself as "more than a café" -- rather "a concept that combines global flavors with New York style." What I find most fascinating and notable about Press Tea, and how it differentiates itself from the usual teahouse, is that its method of brewing tea is quite "revolutionary" in ensuring the "greatest possible experience by combining the techniques of espresso with gourmet tea." Instead of steeping tea bags or brewing with loose leaves, its tea baristas uses "a unique press system that compresses finely ground tea leaves into espresso-like shots" -- something they informally refer to as tea-spresso, an approach that "maximizes the flavor of its teas, adding a velvety finish and rich colors to the already innovative blends." These highly concentrated tea shots result in a "smoother, crisper, cleaner tea that has more body and zero acidity or bitterness."

I can go on and on in explaining this, but you won't know what I mean until you finally taste and sip some pressed tea from here -- you'll be a convert for sure.

The tea blends found at here are exclusive (you won't find them anywhere else but here) as they are sourced from all over the world by the founders of Press Tea.


The interiors of the newly designed and recently relocated teahouse hope to emulate a "Victorian-era Parisian tea salon for the modern day."


Love this pillow! :)

With it being an incredibly humid day and all, I went for the Mango Rooibos, an iced press tea from the "Featured Beverages" offerings that evening. I don't normally like red tea -- I typically find it to be bland and watery with an unwelcome after taste -- but this one proved to be so very different. You can definitely perceive the difference as a result of the pressed preparation for the teas here -- highly concentrated, rich and smooth, as well as velvet in texture, all the while tasting the true flavors of a solid red tea. The flavor shot of mango added a balanced fruitiness to the iced beverage, the perfect solace from those sticky summer evenings.

Marcus tried the other two featured iced press teas -- Passion Fruit Green and Peach Black. The resulting concentration, texture, and consistency were just as lovely as those for the Rooibos, all highlighting the flavors characteristic of each tea blend. Out of all the flavor shots, I think the mango is the strongest (sweet with a little tang), followed by passion fruit (tangy), and then peach (lightly sweet). The recommended combination of flavors with a given blend were spot on, too, all blended well with the thoroughly pressed and brewed teas.

As I was taking shots of the interior, a gentleman came up to me and asked if I was a food blogger, which kind of caught me off guard, but it turned out he is one of the owners of Press Tea just checking to see if Marcus and I were doing well (which we were) and to tell us more about Press Tea, its preparation technique, and its tea blends (which we were happy to hear about). He was very really welcoming and knowledgeable, so it was great to interact with one of the masterminds behind the shop -- added a nice personal touch to our experience.

Findings: However brief our visit was at Press Tea, it has certainly made a lasting impression with me, one that will encourage not only subsequent visits but frequent ones, too. I don't doubt that Marcus and I will become regulars here and make it a personal haunt of ours very soon. The quality of the tea blends and the meticulous care taken by the tea baristas in the shop's innovative pressed preparation will win over both tea lovers and skeptics just the same. There's no stained water here -- only legit cups of beautifully brewed blends of well-curated source and origin. Plus, there's a whole side of the menu we haven't even had a chance to explore namely the miniature pastries (baked in-house and infused with actual tea leaves) and the hot beverages (for me, the teappuccinos). Glad I can rest easy knowing that NYC now has a teahouse that takes its preparation quite seriously. So watch out, Press Tea -- you've got a new loyalist on your hands! :P

Price point: $4.50-4.90 for each iced press tea with a flavor shot.

--June 26, 2013

Press Tea
167 7th Avenue South
New York, NY 10014

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Wanderlust | Chicago

During my trip to Illinois earlier this month, I stopped in Chicago for a little over 24 hours for some eating, drinking, and touristy things. So here's a summary of what I ate, what I drank and sipped, and what I saw during my brief time in town -- essentially a little guide of sorts for those wondering what's good in the Windy City.

My mom and I took a train in from the Illinois surbubs into Chicago Union Station, where we briefly walked around to see The Great Hall, the transportation hub's ornate, Beaux-Arts inspired waiting area which boasts a 110'-high atrium capped by a large barrel-vaulted skylight. Gorgeous, gorgeous architecture!

In between getting to my airbnb apartment and our early lunch reservation, {1} we stopped into Bow Truss Coffee Roasters (another fantastic recommendation from Alice) in River North for coffee and tea. I loved {4,5} the paraphernalia of recreational sports -- you know, the kind of equipment you'd find at a youth sleep-away camp -- {3,5,6} as well as the industrial furniture sprinkled throughout the space. While I had a nicely steeped cup of black tea, {2} my mom had a cappuccino which used its house espresso blend called Foundation. This espresso has both "toffee and caramel notes along with a zest of lime lingering in the finish," which my mom really loved so much that we bought some to take home. Plus, can't help a little love for a latté heart.

Coffee at Bow Truss was followed by a delightful lunch at GT Fish & Oyster (see review here) down the block. Different portions of well-crafted plates are available to order for lunch (the clam chowder pictured above was eye-opening), along with a half dozen oyster varieties from both the East and West coasts. Noteworthy things to definitely order include the Prince Edward Island mussels in a rich roasted tomato sauce and anything off of the lemonade beverage menu (available spiked, too).

SAM_0074 SAM_0076
After lunch, my mom and I took a nice stroll into the heart of Chicago to visit the John Hancock Observatory (now called 360 CHICAGO), located on the 95th floor of the iconic John Hancock Center on Michigan Avenue.

The observatory spans the entire 95th floor with 360 degrees of captivating Chicago skyline to go around. Seen here is Navy Pier that spans out into Lake Michigan.

And of course, more skyscraper and concrete jungles, including the (in)famous Willis Tower (formerly and best known as the Sears Tower).

Untitled Untitled
One of my favorite things to do whenever I'm in Chicago is to make a visit to The Art Institute of Chicago and to its "new" annex, The Modern Wing, designed by architect Renzo Piano. I've enjoyed every exhibit that I've been to here, particularly the ones that revolve around Impressionism and Modern Art.

If you haven't noticed already, Chicago is pretty big for its architecture (rightfully so). To the north of The Art Institute is Millenium Park, which houses the Jay Pritzker Pavilion designed by architect Frank Gehry. There are plenty of outdoor concerts that play throughout the year here, but when there aren't, passersby can enjoy the atmosphere and lounge around on the grass.

Created by Anish Kapoor, The Cloud Gate (informally also known as The Bean) also sits inside Millenium Park and is also my top haunt whenever I'm in Chicago. I've seen it several times before, but I never tire of walking around it, under it, and through it.

And of course, I have several portraits like these, but it's nice to document each visit as the sky looks different each and every time.

Later that evening, I met up with Andrew for dinner at Blackbird (see review here), where the cuisine redefines modern classics in the kitchen of Chef Paul Kahan. Along its lovely courses on the menu (the roasted foie gras is exquisite), the wine/beer list and cocktail offerings are great.

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If you are looking for an eye-opening adventure in the land of cocktails and spirits, you must go to The Aviary (see review here). The Aviary will easily become part (if it hasn't already! :P) of the authentic Chicago experience for foodie and drink enthusiasts alike -- it is completely unlike most cocktail bars and lounges that it'll leave quite an impression with you going forward. The gadgetry alone should be enough to pique your curiosity.

Then the next morning, I made my second attempt to get to {1,3Doughnut Vault early enough before it closes shop once all the doughnuts are sold out (I went around 1 PM the afternoon before, when they had already been cleared out -- the shop closes once its inventory of baked goods is cleared out). Oh, and remember, it's a cash-only establishment!

{5} On weekdays, the shop opens at 8:30 AM, but when I arrived a bit after 8 AM, the line was already wrapping around the block. I guess Cronuts aren't the only things that warrant early beelines. {3,7} The windows and interior of the bakery's broom-closet sized space was reminiscent of an old time bank vault meets Western saloon, with the glitzy antiques and vintage crystal chandelier. Once it hit 8:30, the line moved really quickly, so it's no drawn out wait like you'd normally find in NYC. By the time it was my turn to order, I wanted to order all of the flavors, but with my eyes being bigger than my stomach, I decided against that, leaving me to narrow it down to two of the tenured flavors -- {4} buttermilk old fashioned and {5} chocolate glazed. Let me just say this now -- Doughnut Plant's varieties in New York City pales with the buttermilk old fashioned from Doughnut Vault. It had loosely firm density to it, like a really good pound cake, with the perfect, rich lacquer of buttermilk glaze. The chocolate glazed was a different consistency altogether -- the right combination of chocolatey and sprinkly glaze with an airy puff of dough that collapses right onto your palate as you take a bite in. No trip to Chicago will be complete without a doughnut from Doughnut Vault -- just get there early enough to nab a few to share!

For my last culinary mission during this visit to Chicago , I made my way over to Avondale for {1Hot Doug's, the (in)famous "sausage superstore and encased meat emporium" seen on many television programs like No Reservations and on many foodie must lists for Chi-town.

Hot Doug's
{4} The hot dog joint opens at 10:30 AM daily, but even at 10 AM on that very Friday, there was already a queue of hungry individuals waiting for the doors to open. {3,8}The interiors are backdropped with bold, primary colors and are decked out with the most random hot dog/encased meat trinkets all along the walls. {6}There's the regular menu of offerings (e.g., a Chicago dog, a corn dog, etc.) and {7}the menu of specials, for which Hot Doug's is most famous, particularly the most talked about items -- {5} the foie gras dog and {2} the duck fat fries (only available on Fridays and Saturdays).

HD foie
Of course, I made sure to order the foie gras and Sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse, and fleur de sel as well as the duck fat fries -- the richest combination of things you can ever eat at a hot dog joint, for sure. The foie gras on top were thick cuts of terrine topped with fleur de sel.

Other Recommendations from Past Visits
  • MK Restaurant (see photos here): Solid fine dining experience if you're looking for some good American fare.
  • Frederick C. Robie House (see photos here) and self-guided walking tours in Oak Park: For you architecture junkies out there, especially if you're a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright. Prairie-style galore!
  • Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise (see photos here): One of the best tours I've ever had the pleasure of enjoying. Super informative docents and the visual experience of experiencing the Windy City along the Chicago River from a whole other perspective. Much of Chicago's history can be told through its skyline, and this is a great way to learn about it.
  • *Alinea (see reviews here and here): Had two unforgettable meals here of the Modernist cuisine persuasion. Mind-blowing doesn't begin to describe it.
  • *Filini (see review here): Housed inside the beautifully built Aqua Tower within a Radisson Blu hotel, you will find some bright Italian cuisine here in a very modern setting.
  • The Bristol (see review here): A great farm-to-table find of a restaurant.

Price point: $3 for each cappuccino at Bow Truss Coffee Roasters; $18 per person for admission to the John Hancock Observatory; $23 per person for admission to The Art Institute of Chicago; $3 for each doughnut at Doughnut Vault; $10 for each hot dog and $3.50 for duck fat fries at Hot Doug's.

--June 6-7, 2013

The Great Hall
Chicago Union Station
500 West Jackson Boulevard
Chicago, IL 60661

*Bow Truss Coffee Roasters (River North)
406 North Wells Street
Chicago, IL 60654

*GT Fish & Oyster
 531 North Wells Street
Chicago, IL 60654

*360 CHICAGO (fka John Hancock Observatory)
John Hancock Center
875 North Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611

*The Art Institute of Chicago (+ The Modern Wing)
111 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60603

The Cloud Gate + Jay Pritzker Pavilion + Lurie Garden
*Millenium Park
201 East Randolph Street
Chicago, IL, 60601

619 West Randolph Street
Chicago, IL 60661

*The Aviary
955 West Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607

*Doughnut Vault
400 North Franklin Street
Chicago, IL 60654

*Hot Doug's
3324 North California Avenue
Chicago, IL 60618

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Dinner | Blackbird

Before our transporting experience at The Aviary later that evening, Andrew and I had dinner reservations at Blackbird, a well-seasoned restaurant in the West Loop of Chicago.

Blackbird 01
Blackbird, the name of the restaurant, comes from merlot (French for "little blackbird"), French slang for the grape variety of merlot. It first opened its doors in 1997 as a modern fine-dining establishment headed by Chef Paul Kahan as executive chef. The team behind Blackbird continue to "push boundaries defining modern classics using simple, local, farm-fresh ingredients and cutting edge culinary technology to create a menu both highly creative and utterly approachable. Since its opening, Chef Kahan has won two James Beard awards (Best Chef of the Midwest in 2004 and more recently Outstanding Chef in 2013).

As one of Chicago's well-renowned chefs, Chef Kazan is "passionately season, unconventionally creative, and dedicated to the inspiration of classical cuisine" not only at Blackbird but at other acclaimed restaurants here like avec, The Publican, and Big Star. Growing up right here in Chicago, he was influenced by his father who had owned a delicatessen and a smokehouse, where he had helped out a lot as a young kid. After "a brief post-college stint as a computer scientist," he took his first real kitchen job at Chef Erwin Drechsler's Metropolis, where he found his true calling during his 15-year tenure there. He continued to work there and at the now-shuttered Erwin, finally moving onto Topolobampo under Chef Rick Bayless before opening Blackbird and his other restaurants.

Donnie Madia, one of Blackbird's partners, and designer Thomas Schlesser "crafted a unique atmosphere of urban chic" and incoroporated "sharp minimal design elements with expanses of white space and mahogany red oak complemented by a stainless steel open kitchen." This design earned the restaurant another James Beard Award for Best Restaurant Design and Design Graphics in 2004.

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Artisan bread and dill butter.

To start, I had a cocktail called the Blackbird Orange (rings like Clockwork Orange!) which had Murphy's Law riesling, Pierre Ferrand dry curacao, Imbue vermouth, orange juice, and bitters. This drink was quite orange-happy and danced lightly in sweetness with a denser composition than I've typically had, but I actually found that to work very well here. It was very nectar-like, similar to cocktails that incorporate ginger beer in them, plus I can't say that I've often had cocktails that use a wine like riesling in it. So I was very happy with this choice!

Andrew had the Three Floyds "Jinx-Proof" lager from Munster, Indiana. He said he had been familiar with the brewery that makes it (pretty local). It was a solid choice for him as well because of its light body and crisp finish.

The amuse was a smoked fish (herring?) which was in a delicate, warm broth topped with a gelée of sort (I think a fruit?). Though the fine details escape me now, it was quite good.

Andrew started with the roasted foie gras with kohlrabi, white grape, black sesame, and shiitake broth. A tiny disclaimer that this was Andrew's first time ever having foie gras. I am happy to report that he has been well indoctrinated to becoming a fellow lover of this French delicacy. It was warm, savory, and melty with that classic French pairing with grapes as well as a little modern twist of Asian influences with kohlrabi (great addition of texture), black sesame (some dry earthiness), and shiitake broth (additional intensity of flavor). This fusion of East and West created a really made this dish stand out from a lot of foie gras dishes I've had in the past. Very well done!

I had the hamachi tartare with sprouted lentils, cured rhubarb, spicy marrow, and chickweed. Overall, I wasn't too impressed with this dish. I expected the tartare to be a little bit more chopped up and easier to eat -- the large filet pieces made that challenging. The composition in flavor seemed confusing -- perhaps many of the ingredients were unfamiliar to me -- and didn't offer anything meaningful to note.

Andrew and I also opted for an additional starter course to share, one that was highly recommended by our waiter -- tempura soft shell crab with rye berries, cucumber, puntarelle, and white pepper cream cheese. With soft shell crabs being right in season, this dish proved to be an instant winner, especially as the tempura batter was just enough to coat the shells for a loose, fried crunch. The white pepper cream cheese served as an original take on the usual tartar sauce with a little spice and creaminess. It was a nice course to beckon summer our way.

Blackbird 05
For his main course, Andrew had the dry-aged striploin with mustard greens, horseradish caramel,
and granny smith apple-onion purée along with a 2009 cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley produced by Round Pound. The striploin was nice with a medium rare center, and the horseradish caramel wasn't as biting as it had initially sounded -- it had an unusually satisfying blend to create a sweet yet light mustard. Pair this with the Round Pound cab and you're all set to go.

I had the aged duck breast with broccoli, potato granola, sesame, and raisin cream as my main course, along with a 2009 bourgogne (i.e., burgundy) produced by Xavier Monnot from the Monthelie region of France. The duck was incredibly succulent and tender, with its earthiness underscored by the broccoli and accompanying potato granola salad. The raisin cream added a touch of savory sweetness to the medium rare slices of thick duck breast. It was just the right portion for the main course, where I enjoyed it down to the very last bite.

Blackbird 07
Andrew has a weakness for cheesecake desserts, so it was no surprise that he opted for the goat cheese cheesecake with cajeta ice cream, burnt grapefruit, and avocado. It is worth noting the inclusion of unconventional dessert ingredients like goat cheese and avocado and how it somehow complemented each other quite well here. As cajeta is a Mexican confection of thickened syrup usually made of sweetened caramelized milk, it seems as if Chef Kahan was creating a cheesecake inspired by Mexican ingredients like cajeta, avocado, and grapefruit (i.e., citrus) -- another instance of merging traditional and modern cuisines together.

Blackbird 06
I had the bittersweet chocolate torte with burnt honey ice cream, tangerine marmalade, toasted sesame, and cumin. In essence, the flavors in this dessert very much reminded me of an orange flavored Milano cookie from Pepperidge Farm, only spiced with what you would typically find in Mediterranean/Indian cuisine (tangerine, toasted seasme, and cumin). The addition of cumin made the dessert really pop, jumping from a simply bittersweet chocolate cake to something with a bit more depth, even earthy.

Findings: Our three-course dinner at Blackbird was very enjoyable -- a real treat of a dinner menu to dive into, for sure. I wish we had more time to commit to the chef's tasting of ten courses (but alas, The Aviary was really great, too), but Andrew and I made do with the time we had, ending up with some really memorable dishes like the roasted foie gras, the soft-shell crab, and the originally inspired desserts. As such it is no surprise that Chef Paul Kahan was awarded the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef this year. Additionally, the service was delightful -- our server was particularly patient and helpful with guiding us through the menu, lacing it with some of his personal recommendations for which we were really grateful. So if you're looking for a solid three-course dinner during a visit to Chi-town, Blackbird will surely be a fantastic choice with its very approachable menu with some daring twists that don't deviate too far from the average American palate.

Thanks again to Andrew for joining me in this fabulous meal!

Price point: $18-22 for each appetizer, $40-42 for each entrée, $11 for each dessert, $12 for each cocktail, $8 for each beer, $15-18 for each glass of wine.

--June 6, 2013

619 West Randolph Street
Chicago, IL 60661

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Drinks | The Aviary

While I was in town over in Chicago, I made plans with Andrew (one of my oldest and dearest friends -- since the third grade!) for dinner and drinks. Though I was very excited to have an opportunity to catch up with him (after playing a long game of meet-up tag during his visit back home to NYC/Tri-State area), I was really, really excited to be able to do so at The Aviary, the ever-elusive cocktail bar dreamed up by Chef Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas of Alinea fame.

Andrew had been before for a work-organized event, so I was happy to be going with a more seasoned patron. What had concerned me, however, was how difficult it actually was to get a reservation. I had no idea what that would be like, given that Aviary's website isn't too explicit on the process at the time, whereby the only information divulged was (1) that there are a limited amount of reservations daily at 6/8/10 PM; (2) that you can e-mail all reservation requests via e-mail; and (3) that there is a random selection process for reservations once requests are received. There was no indication on how far in advanced you could make reservations or when you would be notified of a confirmed reservation (the site still says that you'll be "contacted by 4 PM on the day of the reservation"). As you can gather, this made me really uneasy. So I figured I should just e-mail them and see what they say about my reservation request -- I really didn't have anything to lose by trying, especially since it was a little over a month before my visit. If anything, I'd be more informed on the process for next time. And I am really glad I did, too, seeing as I got a response a few hours later, saying that I had a table reserved on the night of Thursday, June 6 at 8:30 PM (huzzah!). A caveat is that all reservations have a fifteen-minute grace period (mine being 8:45 PM) before the table is released to those who may be in line. What a relief!

Aviary 03
Andrew and I arrived about fifteen minutes before our reservation, but we were seated shortly after we arrived. The entrance way lead through the standing lounge area which has a direct view of the cocktail laboratory (that's what I call it, at least) through a bird-caged wall (homage to its name) where the chef's kitchen table is located to serve a 10-course cocktail tasting menu (about $165 per person) for parties of two or four.

The Aviary aims to "give the same attention to detail to cocktails and service as a four-star restaurant would do its cuisine and experience." This is made possible because its bartenders are trained as chefs; the produce and herbs used are "carefully sourced and procured fresh daily"; the "name/branding of the spirit mixed is less important than its actual flavor"; and the drinks are "made quickly and consistently in a state-of-the-art drink kitchen in an environment which honors both innovation and traditions."

Aviary 04
Inside the seating area of The Aviary. I wanted to kick myself for not bringing a spare battery for my camera because it had died earlier in the day, forcing me to resort to my iPhone for documentation. I apologize for the grainy photographs, but I guess a smartphone camera is better than no camera at all! :P

Aviary 01
The menu cover at The Aviary, a subtle hat-tip to its moniker with different silhouettes of soaring birds.

Aviary 02
Menu contents that evening. Notice the description of spirits used are kept very general (pretty much to one word).

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The cocktail amuse given to us was a miniature slushie made using rhubarb, Aperol, and gin, resulting in a chilling, herbaceous, and sweetly fresh introduction to what was to come. As you will shortly come to see, The Aviary not only trains its bartenders as chefs, it even has a dedicated "ice chef" that creates all sorts of frozen goodies -- over twenty varieties/kinds -- to be stored in an exclusive ice room. Takes cocktail bar to a whole other level, for sure!

Aviary 06
My first drink (left) was The Luau which was described as containing pineapple, matcha, chartreuse, and gin. The "science" behind it was actually green tea ice with micro-cilantro mixed in, all poured over with pineapple-infused gin and chartreuse. The pour-over resulted in the ice melting into the drink to the ideal temperature for enjoyment. It was unlike any gin drink I'd ever had -- it was like a little tropical party in my glass.

Andrew had Avenue which had passionfruit sorbet, grenadine, calvados (an apple brandy), and bourbon -- essentially The Aviary's take on a bourbon sour. Anything mixed with bourbon is pretty much guaranteed to be a very strong, spiritful drink, and Avenue was no exception. But even with the sharp notes of bourbon, the drink is well-rounded out with a tangy sweetness from the passionfruit, grenadine, and apple brandy. A lovely sipping drink, indeed.

Aviary 07
The much anticipated cocktail for me, however, was my second one (which I also shared with Andrew) called Tropic Thunder which had wild lime, hibiscus, pineapple, and tequila infusing together in this beautiful apparatus, The Porthole. The beautiful infusion vessel was designed by Crucial Detail's Martin Kastner (the in-house serviceware designer of Alinea/Next/The Aviary) as a solution for "fast infusions" (i.e., "cocktails evolving during the course of time it takes to serve them"). Essentially, what The Aviary was looking for was "a window into another world, space, and time," and as such, for Mr. Kastner, the image of the submarine porthole in Karel Zeman's 1958 movie The Fabulous World of Jules Verne came to mind, inspiring the ultimate design direction. Additionally, the given cocktail that is infused and served using the Porthole at The Aviary changes every season -- Tropic Thunder was the vessel's current concoction.

Initially, Tropic Thunder was very intensely carried by the intensity of tequila, but as time went on, the second pour was a more subdued, delicate, and thoroughly infused for a more relaxed beverage for the duration of the pours. Plus, the sheer aesthetic appeal was enough to awe and impress without even tasting a drop of what was contained. Now I know the next gadget I want in my kitchen, thanks to an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign which raised a little over twenty-five times Mr. Kastner's fundraising goal!

Andrew wanted to make sure I didn't miss one of the drinks on the menu, which was fittingly referred to as In the Rocks (second edition). What arrived was a solid orb of ice inside a rocks glass.

Aviary 08
Involved in this drink was another notably original gadget that needed to be used to put the finishing touches on the drink to become ready to be served. Attached to this circular metal ring was an elastic band spanning and stretched over its diameter with a cylindrical steel washer running through, emulating a contemporary slingshot. As it turns out, slingshot didn't deviate much from the intended use of this serviceware. As our server held down the metal ring over the drink's glass, she asked Andrew to pull the washer back (like a slingshot), aim at the center of the ice orb, and let go.

Aviary 09
The result is a broken orb of ice -- "a shattered ice balloon" -- from which contents of an Old Fashioned (in this case, the second edition contained benedictine, vermouth, cognac, and rye) spills into the glass, thus the name "In" the Rocks is quite appropriate. With this cocktail, you ultimately get an Old Fashioned, formerly in the rocks, now on the rocks. Strong and spiritous like Avenue, In the Rocks had an icy, more chilled temperature to it, adding another layer to be enjoyed upon sipping. If anything, this drink is certainly great for the theatrical aspect of it (who doesn't like the sound of  elegantly broken of ice?) if you're already a lover of the Old Fashioned.

Andrew and me enjoying our drinks at The Aviary.

Findings: Just like how I felt with my visit to The Columbia Room in DC, my visit to The Aviary was nonpareil to any cocktail experience I've had before. In the spirit of Alinea's constant push for innovation, The Aviary follows behind the same footsteps of its older sibling, only in the arena of crafted cocktails. The same attention to detail and composition is apparent in its offering of unique and unparalleled beverages, and the same minimalist, greyscale chromatics for the interior is done up, too. The gorgeous serviceware created by Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail is undoubtedly an important part of the awesome experience at The Aviary. Most notably for us was the Porthole, which captures the bold beauty of infused cocktails visually and its change over time. I'm more adventurous in atmospheres like this one -- here, I tried drinks that I wouldn't normally order at a more traditional cocktail bar (where I usually stay pretty close to my comfort zone and usual favorites), and I'm thankful for the courage that the menu at The Aviary inspires in me.

I can gladly report that The Aviary is one of those places that can and will easily become part of the authentic Chicago experience for foodie and drink enthusiasts alike -- it really is unlike most cocktail bars and lounges that it'll leave quite an impression with you going forward. I know at least for me, this visit will go down as one of my top cocktail experiences I've ever had. Now, the key to getting into The Aviary is trying make reservations as early as you can -- a month or so in advance -- so that way your choice of date/time will have a better chance/flexibility to be more easily reserved. If time weren't a factor for my visit, I would've enjoyed a reservation for the 10-course cocktail pairing at the chef's kitchen table. Guess why there's always a next time in store! :) A visit to Chicago most certainly needs a detour here!

Thanks again to Andrew for being my partner in crime that evening -- so nice to catch up over these curiosity piquing drinks!

Price point: $18-22 for each a la carte cocktail.

--June 6, 2013

The Aviary
955 West Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607

Monday, June 17, 2013

Lunch | GT Fish & Oyster

Last week, I went on holiday to Chicago to visit my godfamily to celebrate Laura (my godsister) and her graduation from high school. During our time in the suburbs of Illinois, my mom and I made a little escape one day to visit the Windy City.

For our first meal, I took my mom out for lunch at GT Fish & Oyster, a handy recommendation that I gratuitously got from Alice!

Located in the River North neighborhood of Chicago, GT Fish & Oyster is headed by Chef Giuseppe Tentori who aims "to redefine the American seafood restaurant." The restaurant opened in March 2011 with "a menu that is half traditional and half modern in an everchanging small plates format" which includes a rotating mix of East and West coast oysters and a wide variety of fish-centric dishes.

Designed by 555 International, GT Fish & Oyster's restaurant concept "draws inspiration from Chef Tenotori's distinct contrast of traditional and non-traditional items on the menu by merging new and old elements." These elements include rustic details of an old fisherman's cottage and combining them with the more sophisticated elements of a sleek yacht. The sentiment of "stepping into an elegant state room with a casual and relaxed atmosphere of the deck of the boat" is conveyed with this dichotomy.

The sleek bar at GT Fish & Oyster.

One of the dining areas inside.

Chef Tentori grew up helping out on his grandmother's farm in a small town outside of Milan, Italy, where he later pursued and completed his culinary studies at Antica Osteria la Rampina at nineteen years old. Shortly after, he was invited to work at Chef Gabriel Viti's restaurant in Highland Park, Illinois and later at The Metropolitan in Salt Lake City, Utah. With his experience in these two restaurant, Chef Tentori returned back to Chicago and began to work at the iconic Charlie Trotter's for the next two years. Then, in 2008, he accepted two positions at the Boka Restaurant Group -- as a partner here and also as executive chef at the eponymous restaurant. This eventually led to the newly launched restaurant concept, GT Fish & Oyster, in 2011 for which is he both the executive chef and partner.

What's really great about the beverage menu at GT Fish & Oyster is that they have a lemonade menu with four unique variations on the drink as well as the option for spiking it.

My mom had the Rayleigh Scatter with blueberry, lavender, and lemon, while I had The OG Johnny with strawberry, lemon, and ginger beer. The Rayleigh Scatter was a little less sweet but still very refreshing (perfect for my mom's not-too-sweet palate). I loved The OG Johnny as the ginger beer put a really interesting kick to the drink along with the sweet and tart strawberries.

My mom and I shared a half dozen oysters (three varieties) served with housemade cucumber cocktail sauce and ponzu mignonette Staring at six o'clock:
  • *Caraquette (East, New Brunswick): This was medium-sized and delicate with a salty and sweet finish. Recommended by our server, the Caraquette had the most fascinating taste -- an interesting duality of saltiness and sweetness which truly combines the best of both East and West oysters. Loved these!
  • Sun Hollow (Hood Canal, Washington): This was medium-sized with a slight salty but clean finish. These were pretty good as well -- decent plumpness and a smooth taste.
  • *Mirada (West, Washington): Small-sized and plump with a light brine and a sweet and clean finish. These are very similar to Kumamotos, the easy bivalve favorite, so we were sure to enjoy these.

We also had the Baja shrimp bruschetta with avocado, toasted pistachio, and grapefruit. Minus a little saltiness in some bites, I absolutely loved this dish. The combination of the shrimp with the topped ingredients created a buttery, toasty, and tart medley of flavors which served really well as our initial bites of food at GT Fish. Although it was slightly oversalted, the composition of this dish was perfect.

I also wanted to try the clam chowder with Neuske's bacon and housemade oyster crackers. Served in a clamp-lidded jar, the clam chowder was just amazing -- it was super chunky with lots of tender potatoes, whole and chopped clams, and bits of celery. The consistency, even with the delicious chunky bits, was silky and not at all heavy with too much cream. The perfect, eight-ounce serving to sample over small-plate driven lunch. The oyster crackers were nice but on the saltier side, so the soup was still quite enjoyable without them. A smaller version of the soup also is available with a half sandwich special, so this soup is really worth trying!!

My mom and I shared a pork belly slider with kimchi and peanuts. It was the ideal size just to get a taste of it. The kimchi was well seasoned, and the pork was pretty good. While this dish didn't stand out like the others did (and wasn't one of my favorites), it's a tiny but fun deviation from the seafood-driven dishes if you're looking for that.

For our last plate, we tried the Prince Edward Island mussels with roasted tomato, basil, and ciabatta. This was a major showstopper, especially as it was the "largest" small plate we had to share and thus more filling. It was great to see a mussels dish that was not the usual French-inspired, white-wine-butter-and-lemon sauce. Don't get me wrong -- that combination with mussels is obviously divine, consistently safe, and not at all fussy, but can also be perceived as unoriginal or uninspired in a sea of other innovative flavor compositions on a given menu. So the Italian influences from Chef Tentori's roots beamed boldy with this roasted tomato sauce for the mussels. It was zesty and dense with an intense flavor of garlic and EVOO -- the roastedness of the tomatoes really added so much more character to ths sauce, bringing out the inherent, otherwise subtle sweetness of the garden fruit. The dark, iridescent bivalves just swallowed up every bit in its pillowy, plump interior (can't go wrong with the rich variety from Prince Edward Island). Plus, the grilled ciabatta (nicely brushed with some EVOO, too) made it easy to soak up the roasted sauce, punctuating our meal oh-so-pleasantly.

Findings: My mom and I had a wonderful lunch at GT Fish & Oyster. The waitstaff was incredibly helpful in guiding us through the menu (plus recommending us some kickass varieties of oysters), and the lunch portion-sizes were great for light sharing in a variety of dishes (instead of just the usual three-course deal). The quality of ingredients and composition of flavor are of high caliber in a relaxed setting, making GT Fish & Oyster ideal for occasions on both sides of the spectrum -- a casual, enjoyable meal or a business one. Plus, how can you dislike a place that has a separate lemonade beverage menu?! Yup, my point exactly.

Thanks again to Alice for this awesome recommendation!

Price point: $4-14 for each cold/hot plate, $5 for each lemonade, $2.75-3 for each oyster.

--June 6, 2013

GT Fish & Oyster
 531 North Wells Street
Chicago, IL 60654


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