Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Chicago- Vong's Thai Kitchen

I have a hankering for thai food. There's something about the pleasing combination of sour, sweet and spicy that makes my tastebuds delighted. And when in Chicago, I make a point of having a meal at Vong's Thai Kitchen, or VTK, which is one of the many gems of celebrated chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Last year I dined here one evening during the Restaurant Show and listened as my server recommended their Panang Curry. I listened politely of course, but internally did not think they could beat all the great thai eateries of my hometown San Francisco. At the time, I was living above a thai food restaurant that still today is the source of comfort and the best thai food in the city. So, thai curry in Chicago? Thanks but no thanks. Let's just say the server was rather persistent. And it was one of the best thai curries I have ever experienced. In fact, I have been thinking about their panang curry since I left Chicago last year. Before I wax poetic on the dish, let me say a few words about VTK.

There are so many things that this restaurant does right: the decor is unique and intimate, giving an air of being in Southeast Asia, as if eating is the pastime until the monsoon blows over. They have distinctive alcoholic drinks but the star is their non-alcoholic mocktails list as well as a great selection of hot teas. Far too many restaurants underestimate the power of having viable and well thought out alcohol-free alternatives. I drink on occasion, but find I sleep poorly when I do, so am rarely imbibing when on the road for work. Their "mocktails list" included a refreshing pomegranate lemongrass soda that paired excellently with the food.

My colleague C and I had been on our feet for the past 14 hours, gabbing with countless people and working. We were beyond exhausted but I was tenacious insisting that instead of room service, we needed to go to VTK. I'm glad he humored me. By the end of the meal, he was practically cooing. We started with an amuse bouche of daikon and carrot salad that opened up our appetites and woke us up to dinner at 9:45 p.m. For appetizers we tried the Crispy Curry Potstickers filled with a spicy red curry chicken and water chestnuts with a yogurt lime dip that cut the sharp tang of spiciness into a mellowed tone. This was followed by their Warm Asparagus salad with avocado red bell pepper strips and a chili hollandaise, with each bite captivating us, keeping us transfixed. C and I then partook of the infamous Panang Curry and he became silent, which is no small feat.

What makes the Panang Curry exquisite, you ask? For starters the presentation is impressive. A hill of jasmine rice appears to be floating in a sea of red curry sauce flecked with peanut morsels and bright green peas swimming in a red ocean along with shredded chicken. The aroma is pleasing and draws the diner in. But the clincher for me is the texture of the dish- the vegetables are rather al dente, providing a satisfactory crunchiness atypical to most curries without having to load up on a superfluous amount of peanuts used.

For dessert, C ordered the warm passion fruit souffle with passion fruit ice cream at the suggestion of our server, who like my previous experience, had been flawless in his service and suggestions. C drank a cup of Chamomile Citrus tea with his souffle, which paired well rounding out the tang of the dessert with citrus. His souffle was incredible. I originally thought it might be an overload on passion fruit, but it quickly was devoured. I ordered the Chocolate Beignets with Coconut Cream and a cup of Orchid coconut oolong tea. The beignets arrived hot and upon my first bite puncture, dark mildly sweet chocolate oozed out of the middle. The tea's meditative tone drew out the richness of the dessert and I enjoyed the co-mingling of both flavors.

We left full and happy. And at the end of a long day, what better way to say goodnight but in thai?

  • PRICE: $-$$
  • SERVICE: Great
  • GROUP FRIENDLY: Great for groups or one-on-ones
  • COOL QUOTIENT: Absolutely THE chic spot for thai fare.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Chicago- Avec

My foodie friend A recommended we meet at Avec for dinner during my stint in Chicago. Our first conversation when we met a year ago revolved around food and all of the interesting ways A's city is having recess, playtime in the kitchen. What I love about Chicago is the freedom- freedom to experiment and be brash concocting interesting pairings that equates to good celebratory food. Chicago doesn't feel the need to be San Francisco or New York and there is incredible innovation afforded.

Avec is next to its sister restaurant Blackbird, both managed and owned by mover and shaker Chef Paul Kahan. He won the James Beard award for Best Midwest Chef in 2004 and she had aptly described this place as always bustling and bubbling over with activity. This is apparently where all the chefs come to dine- that's not the worst piece of news to find out before supping and coming from the source of an editor at a food magazine, to be believed. Avec is also accomodatingly priced, so it will not break the bank.

The door is hard to find. This was a bit of an obstacle, since it blends into the wall and gives no signs of its egress one way or the other. Once inside, long banquete-style tables line the wall and there is bar seating as well. Since Avec doesn't take reservations and is a rather popular eaterie, we happily made plans for a Monday night supper. Green wine bottles blanket the back wall giving off a sprite soda green caste. The decor is spartan as if to make way for sensational food. And we were not disappointed.

Since small plates are the rage here, we attempted a tasting spree starting with the whipped brandade and the prosciutto salad with grilled peaches and mint. Both were very tasty ways to get the palate revved up. The pairing of the ham and summer fruit complemented one another in this light, decadent salad. Next, we received one of their house specialties of medjool dates stuffed with chorizo, wrapped in smoked bacon and served with a spicy tomato-pepper sauce. The sweet and spicy play off each other well in this feisty dish that rang true with my Chateau Maruine red wine. These dishes came framed in classic white porcelain dishes, showcasing the contrast and play of color and texture of the food. Lastly, they brought out a pork shoulder with lentils in a small dutch oven. The pork was so tender that it fell off the bone and combined well with the lentils which added a creaminess to the dish.

We had saved no room for dessert. At Avec it is all about the food and that is a great thing. Je reviens tout suite!
  • PRICE: $-$$
  • SERVICE: Good
  • GROUP FRIENDLY: Small Group-friendly or one-on-one (as one-on-one as you can get in a banquete).
  • COOL QUOTIENT: Absolutely.