2728 W. Armitage Ave.
Howard’s Wine Cellar
1244 W. Belmont
Rating: Five stars
Being a foodie can occasionally be something of a burden. It is all too easy to get jaded, to stop finding pleasure in perfectly serviceable meals, because they aren’t new enough or innovative enough. One can forget that doing something simple and well is actually proof of skill in the kitchen. After all, ask almost any chef or restaurant critic the mark of a great cook, and they will tell you roasted chicken is the ultimate test. And while I try not to be a food snob, I do occasionally have to check myself, reminding my inner-critic that underseasoned is better than overseasoned, easily fixed with a salt shaker, and not a personal affront. Likewise, when a more upscale place bandies around effete adjectives and food “philosophies,” I have to hold myself in check, hoping the food is as good as the marketing vocabulary.
Chicago is an amazing place to be an unabashed foodie, with an enormous range of fabulous restaurants old and new, in every possible ethnic variation, and at every level of cuisine from the most basic one-step-up-from-home-cookin’ to places like Alinea and other multiple starred restaurants that always make the “best in the world” lists. We have fantastic places to buy exceptional ingredients for playing with in our own kitchens, and terrific takeout for those nights when dirtying pots seems impossible to imagine.
When a new place starts to get a buzz around it, I often cringe, since often “hot” just means “expensive, with foams” or “famous people have been spotted there.” I don’t necessarily need everything deconstructed or molecularly gastronimied, as much as I enjoy those conventions in the right hands. I’m as passionate about the best simple bowl of pasta (Buona Terra) and corned beef sandwich (Manny’s Deli) as I am about fancy multi-course meals. I get as excited about the newest greasy spoon that is doing amazing omelettes and hash browns as I do about the hot new wunderchef. Often more.
Lucky for me, by the time I heard about Bonsoiree, the new BYOB in my neighborhood specializing in five- to thirteen-course tasting menus, it was from people whose palates I trusted, eliminating any of my usual skepticism. So when these same people snagged a reservation for a party of eight, and invited my boyfriend and myself to join them, we jumped at the chance.
Bonsoiree is located in a small unobtrusive space on West Armitage Avenue, just east of California. I must have driven by it a hundred times and never noticed it. They do two seatings of up to twenty-eight people, one at 6 p.m. and one at 8:30. The menu changes seasonally, and is posted ahead of time on the website for patrons to peruse to see if the current offerings are to everyone’s taste, and they are quick to accommodate special needs of diners with food restrictions. The room is tiny, the tables simply set with white linen and basic flatware.
The food, quite simply, is spectacular.
We began with an amuse bouche of raw Hamachi, served over a simple seaweed salad with house-pickled radishes. Not being a fan of seafood, mine was served with crispy lotus root subbing in for the fish, with delicious results. The second course was a simple salad of roasted red and golden beets, with endive and Treviso, roasted pears, pomegranate-charred tomato vinaigrette and a tiny cranberry fritter. The beets were perfectly cooked, the dressing subtly smoky and tart, balancing the crispy fritter. The next course was scallop and peekytoe crab motoyaki, a preparation which has the seafood suspended in a rich Ponzu aioli, served with a bruleed top in a large scallop shell. My dish replaced the seafood with duck confit, and frankly, it was one of the best single mouthfuls of food I have ever experienced. The silky aioli was subtly spiced, and a perfect foil for the meaty duck. Around me, the seafood version disappeared quickly, with exclamations of delight, so I feel confident that it was equally delicious.
A clear veal and coffee consommé was hand served from a French press coffeepot, into large wide bowls of sautéed wild mushrooms, a potato and chive dumpling, and a small nugget of bittersweet chocolate ganache. The flavors were complex and yet comforting, and while many people chose to eat the chocolate in one bite, I allowed mine to melt into the soup, and loved the depth of flavor it added. Following that was small slice of perfectly rare venison loin was nestled on top of a small portion of blackberry risotto and blackberry and blueberry coulis, the meat velvety and slightly gamy, the risotto perfectly al dente.
The next course was probably the only one that failed somewhat for me, in part because of the exceptional dishes which preceded it. A slice of roasted Barramundi was paired with an artichoke croquette and candied Brussels sprouts. The fish was well cooked, and moist, but not a terrific match with the croquette, which had decent flavor and an excellent crisp crust, but a somewhat watery texture. I am an enormous fan of brussel sprouts in general, but the “candying” process did them a disservice. However our disappointment was very short lived, as the next course was a showstopper. A pairing of braised rabbit in a Riesling beurre blanc, and braised oxtail with a bone marrow smoked tomato compote, served with crispy sage gnocchi. The rabbit and oxtail were both extraordinary in flavor and texture, the gnocchi were crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside with excellent flavor, and the smoked tomato sauce heightened the entire plate.
Their version of a cheese course, a gruyere fondue with a gooseberry beignet for dipping was playful and tasty, and the desert course of blood orange frozen yogurt over a chestnut pudding was a lovely tart and light ending to a decadent meal.
The evening was guided by the knowledgeable staff, who explained dishes with calm precision, and kept wine and water glasses filled almost by magic. As a BYOB, you have total control over wine pairings, which is terrific for anyone who is a connoisseur. And if you aren’t, never fear. Go see Howard Silverman at Howard’s Wine Cellar at 1244 West Belmont. Howard will find you the perfect bottles for the current menu in your price range, and probably a few extra bottles for your home collection at the same time.
I couldn’t stop raving about the meal to everyone, and as a result, several of my friends (including my personal trainer) have been to dine there since. And every one of them has reported back to me that their evenings were as special as mine had been. Most did the five course menu, so far none of us have indulged in the expansive thirteen course option, but it is on my list to do one of these days!
And while it is a very ‘foodie’ experience, the food stands on its own in a way that is not in the least alienating to someone who might not be as passionate about culinary arts, but just appreciates a terrific meal. It would be a wonderful place for a special occasion, or a way to make a non-occasion special. I can guarantee it will stay on my radar, and as the menus change seasonally, I am anticipating a return as soon as the spring menu is in play.
Yours in good taste,
NOSH of the Week: As we head into Passover, the foodiest of foodie holidays, try my new favorite pesach cookies! These almond macaroons are one of the easiest things I can make, and are completely addictive. I hope you will try them, and wish you a very happy holiday!
Chewy Almond Macaroons
1 (7-ounce) tube pure almond paste (not marzipan; about 3/4 cup)
1 cup granulated sugar
Pinch of Kosher salt
2 large egg whites, left at room temperature for at least 30 minutes
Preheat oven to 300°F and place racks in the upper and lower thirds of your oven. Line two large sheet pans with parchment paper.
Pulse almond paste, sugar and salt in a food processor until broken up, then add egg whites and puree until smooth. Transfer batter to pastry bag fitted with a 3/8-inch tip and pipe 3/4-inch rounds (1/3 inch high) about 1-inch apart in pans. Dip a fingertip in water and gently tamp down any peaks.
Bake, rotating and switching position of pans halfway through, until golden and puffed, 15 to 18 minutes.
Let cookies cool almost completely in their pans. Once cool, they’re much easier to cleanly remove from the parchment. You can make them into sandwich cookies but spreading some jam (I used raspberry) between them or ganache (3 ounces of semi-sweet chips melted with 1 to 2 tablespoons of cream, then left to thicken a bit would be enough to sandwich the whole batch).
Cookies can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for a day or two or frozen up to one month.
Nosh Food Read of the Week: Toast by Nigel Slater