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Offal = Awful

I won’t mince words here. The thought of eating offal–i.e. organ meats and other parts of animals–makes me want to hurl and/or run for the nearest exit. I won’t tell you that brains, tripe, eyeballs, hearts or blood in general don’t taste good. It’s just that I don’t want to try them to find out. I start gagging as the thought of something like that crossing my lips seems just wrong. It’s a mental thing with me. I can’t get past what I would be eating. Now, I did make an exception last year when we went to Graham Elliot in Chicago and had the foie gras lollipops. Those were decadent and delicious and I’d eat them again. But I won’t go much further beyond that. Heck, I only recently started enjoying fish.

I felt compelled to write about this when I saw Chris Cosentino win Top Chef Masters recently. Chris’s specialty is offal meat, as evidenced by this website of his. And he made tripe, blood sausage and some other really gross looking dishes on his way to winning it all. A few seasons ago on Top Chef Masters, they also had an episode where the contestants had to make things like tacos out of things like tongue. I’m sorry, but ewwwww. I often look at the judges to see how they react to this stuff. And I think that I could never be a full-fledged food critic because there are foods I won’t touch, much less enjoy, with a ten foot pole.

How about you? How do you feel about offal?

  

Chicago meal #3: Graham Elliot

Mrs. Mike and I walked off our lunch at Frontera Grill by taking a leisurely 90 minute walk from our hotel to the park with the giant reflective bean and then to our final Chicago meal of the weekend, dinner at Graham Elliot. You may know Mr. Elliot, first from Top Chef Masters, and then on the hit Fox show Masterchef, in which Graham is a judge along with Gordon Ramsay and Joe Bastianich.

Elliot, still only in his early 30’s, is known for interesting and exciting cuisine, and when we showed up at his restaurant, the atmosphere from the start was interesting. The music was hip and sort of blaring, almost like it was a nightclub. Then the menus arrived, and the list of items was a bit confusing, but again, extremely interesting.

We decided to go with the tasting menu–which would give us the chance to try small portions of many items from the menu. There were three levels of tasting–and we went with the first one, which they said would take about an hour and a half. There was a mid-level and a top level that was more of an event–but based on how large our lunch was, the smaller tasting menu would be perfect.

The server told us that the chef would bring us a few “extras” that were not listed on the menu, and if we desired, they would also bring us each a foie gras lollipop coated in watermelon Pop Rocks. Now, I’m not adventurous, but this was too weird to pass up.

But first, they brought an “extra”….a shot glass of watermelon consomme with mint and jalapeno oil. Oh, but before that, some popcorn with parmesan and truffle oil. Then came the lollipop–holy crap, that was the first time I’d had foie gras, and it was delicious, something I’d totally eat again. But the Pop Rocks gave it the most amazing contrast–creamy and fatty with popping candy in your mouth. Just crazy but delicious.

Next was the deconstructed Caesar salad–this was the one we had a hard time with–it was creative and cool looking–a nub of romaine with Parmesan, some dressing on the plate, and a brioche twinkie with marscarpone. But it also had a Spanish anchovy on top, and that tasted like it just came out of the ocean. We ate it, but blech! Next was the corn bisque, with lobster, toasted coquito and vanilla essence. This was an interesting contrast in flavors too, and one that totally worked. Yum.

Next up was an extra of “cucumber salad,” which consisted of tiny bits of cucumber with rice wine and sabayon. Pretty good, and it was what they might call a palate cleanser after the creamy soup. Then came the main courses–first the seafood dish, which was crispy seared halibut topped with bacon, leeks and haricot verts (thin green beans). I’m not a big seafood eater, but this was also very good–at least way better than the anchovy! Then it was the meat course–bison loin with an onion ring, baked bean puree and pepper salsa (pictured above)–it was unbelievable.

Then there were a few small dessert items–first, a homemade grape soda; then a flourless chocolate cake with root beer ice cream, port cherry and birch caramel. Wow, that was one of the highlights of our weekend. Finally, there was an extra–a small pistachio and coconut biscotti.

I love trying new and innovative cuisine, and this entire meal was that. If you are in Chicago and feeling adventurous, you have to try Graham Elliot–just make sure to make a reservation well in advance!

  

Chicago meal #2: Frontera Grill

It’s amazing how being away from your kid and pet for a night makes you sleep a few hours later than normal, but that’s what happened this past Saturday. Mrs. Mike and I slept off our Friday night food coma, grabbed some a small breakfast at the bagel shop downstairs in the hotel we were staying at, and then walked around town for a couple hours before arriving at Frontera Grill for our 1pm lunch reservation. If you’re not familiar, Frontera Grill is owned and operated by celebrity chef Rick Bayless, who is a Top Chef Master. And his MO is fresh and creative Mexican food. Even before I tell you what we had, my mouth is watering, the food was that freaking good and quite honestly, the highlight of our trip.

Chef JimFirst, after discussing that maybe we should forgo the alcohol and try to enjoy the food more, Mrs. Mike read in an article posted in the Frontera window that the cocktails are as good as the food. Well, duh. We’ll take two blue agave margaritas, please. You want to talk about fresh tasting, smooth and butt-kicking all at the same time? Man, were those tasty. And by tasty I mean tasty and butt-kicking.

Chef JimThen we shared an apps platter that had the following–cheese quesadillas, which were more like little empanadas; chicken and black bean taquitos; fresh guacamole and chips; tuna ceviche on tortilla chips; and a salad of jicama, pineapple and cucumber dusted with chili powder. Holy freaking crap. The quesadillas were fried pillows of deliciousness. The taquitos were also delicious, but had a semi-interesting flavor we couldn’t pinpoint. The guacamole was fresh and tasty. Even the chips were phenomenal. The ceviche was fresh and not in the least bit fishy, and I must say that even as I must say I don’t really eat or like seafood. But I would eat that again. And the jicama salad was something I’d order even as a meal–the chili powder, I’m sure, was homemade like everything else, and really brought the crisp jicama to life.

Chef JimFor the main course, Mrs. Mike had the sopitos–corn cakes with chorizo, chicken and scrambled eggs with black beans and cheese sauce. The one bite I had was delicious, but I want to tell you that my main course–the huevos vechios (I could not find this item on the menu online and will correct it when I confirm what it was called), was one of the ten best meals I’ve ever had. It was masa corn cakes with poached eggs, chorizo and a poblano cream sauce. It was spicy, and creamy and the eggs were done to perfection; plus, the chorizo was tangy and delicious and a few days later my mouth is still watering.

Chef JimFinally, we closed our meal with a dessert of zucchini donuts with chocolate sauce, cinnamon ice cream, candied zucchini and glazed walnuts. Damn. If that was borderline orgasmic reading it, imagine what it was like eating it. Yeah, it was that good.

Oh, two other things–we saw Bayless when he poked his head out of the kitchen to see what was going on in the restaurant. That was cool. And the homemade hot sauces (made fresh daily) were just unbelievable–especially the habanero one, that was equally tasty and explosive.

You know, when we go back to Chicago and intend to try more restaurants, I think I will insist that we return to Frontera Grill–maybe even for dinner this time if we can get in (I think you have to make reservations for dinner like 2-3 months in advance). And if you go there, you must eat at Frontera or Bayless’ other gem in the same location, Topolobampo. I know we’ll be back and maybe we’ll see you there.

  

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