Nagrant Finds Elizabeth's Potential Brilliant; Pang Finds Filipino Comforts at Joy & James

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Photo: Sky Full of Bacon

Michael Nagrant only gives Elizabeth two stars for now, but "I see everything as possible, even four stars. Someday. Just not yet." Some things are unbalanced, like the "tyranny of cinnamon found in a shooter of apple pie, which tasted like thin apple juice and in a glass of cider-spiced loup de mer and sunchoke. The fish was cooked well, but the cinnamon made everything taste like a pack of Big Red." But other things are magically original: "Silky cubes of Hamachi are ringed by fizzy, fermented leeks and painted with funky fish sauce caramel. A tender tail of lobster is nestled in a crispy curl of brioche and coated in a velvety liver sauce and plated on a rusty bit of slate rock." In the end, "I have seen idiosyncratic chefs, uncompromising cooks and original thinkers, but I have rarely experienced every one of those traits in one person like I do in Regan. She is brilliant." [Sun-Times]

In Chicago Social, Nagrant says "the question isnt whether Sixteen is great. It is. The real question is: How great is it?" There's no question in his mind that the Trump empire has put the resources into making it a top-class dining environment, and he says they've succeeded: "[Chef Thomas] Lents, too, has started to cook in a unique style... One of his snack courses, sweet and salty lemon-pepper Parmesan popcorn served inside a hollowed corn husk, is fun and tasty. Id happily pay 10 bucks for a bucket at the local Cineplex... Lents melting turbot, swimming in a pumpkin oil dotted butter wine reduction sauce strewn with salsify and cut with a bit of mustard acid, is rich and comforting. The dishs pumpkin perfume is an original invocation of a Midwestern autumn." Though he finds the room conservative, he says "When youre eye level with the flying buttresses of the Tribune Tower and the ivory clock tower of the Wrigley Building, you dont really care whats in the room. No other restaurant in Chicago, not even Everest, has as majestic a vista." [CS]

Filipino food is one of the most overlooked ethnic cuisines in Chicago, so how cool is it that both major papers have now run full reviews of Filipino restaurants? Michael Nagrant reviewed Isla Pilipina some weeks back, and now Kevin Pang looks at the semi-incognito Joy & James Cafe on west Lawrence, whose sign advertises "fried chicken" but is less up front about Filipino home cooking: "Tapsilog, from the silog menu (eggs and rice), is three components: fried beef slices, two over-easy eggs, garlic fried rice ($5.50). But gather the ingredients onto one spoon and that yolk-shellacked combination becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The crispy beef, marinated in soy sauce overnight, contains more garlic per cubic inch than any protein matter in existence. If this description resonates (and I described with zero exaggeration), then you'll find this rice plate a knockout, clean and decisive. Wouldn't have the same impact, of course, if they had plastered "TAPSILOG" on 10-foot-wide outdoor signage, but, hey, anything to catch my eye." [Tribune]

Mike Sula says the Carriage House's lowcountry Southern menu is "divided into "traditional" and "reimagined" columns, distinctions that in some cases are meaningless." The result can be dishes like the sous-vide chicken thighs with sweet potato hot sauce and bread and butter pickles "The dish would be terrific if it had some balance, but as is it belongs on the dessert menu more than anywhere else." Other dishes achieve just the right balance of savory and sweet, but surprisingly for a coastal restaurant, "I had trouble with most of the seafood I tried at Carriage House. On one occasion a grouper fillet set amid some otherwise winning purple cape beans with collards and apple-fennel slaw was tough and overcooked, and so were the shrimp and clams in the iconic low-country boil." Still, when compared with chef Mark Steuer's first restaurant, the reliable but conventional The Bedford, "Carriage House is, at the moment, loud and boisterous in the best way... He isn't just latching onto the flavor of the day, nor is he stuck in a joyless marriage to the past. It should be fun to watch him take things forward." [Reader]

Sula also checks out one of Tony Hu's new places, Lao Ma La, devoted to street food featuring the tingly heat of Sichuan peppercorn: "As you might expect, with a concentration on ma la, it's a bit of a challenge to build a multidimensional meal, though if you stray into the soups, appetizers and snacks, you can find more variety in generous portions. A big bowl of tender, cold poached pork belly in a sweetish, spicy sauce with a ton of garlic provides something of a relief from the onslaught, as does the Chengdu-style noodle saladwheat noodles tossed with crunchy crushed peanuts. These in particular are hefty portions, and hovering in the $5-$6 range, are very student friendly (the demographic much of the new Chinatown seems to cater to)." [Reader]

Marly Schuman at Chicago Foodies doesn't love the big barn that BellyQ is, but she does love the food: "The goat milk feta and rice noodle pancake (pictured) is unlike anything Id ever tasted. Kind of a scallion pancake meets quiche, although that doesnt really do it justice. The sweet soy sauce is a perfect pairing... In the end, you cant really put your finger on anything youve eaten. Is it some type of fusion cuisine, or is it just Bill Kim?"
[Chicago Foodies]

Our reviews of Elizabeth and Kai Zan are here.