Food

#Foodie Review: Grace (Chicago)

Clearly I love food. Anyone that follows my blog or my tweets on Twitter understand this more than most. I love to eat, I love to dine out, and I love to experience new cuisines and restaurants. I have a low tolerance for bad food and no tolerance for bad service. Of course I can’t write a blog for every restaurant that I visit. So I’ve decided to do a series of comparison reviews. In some, the connection will be obvious. In others, perhaps less so. In the first of the series, I set out to find two restaurants that were of similar quality in food, decor, value, and service albeit different cuisines. In this case, also looking for strikingly different levels of activity and, likely, different levels of competition and long-term success. For the first pairing, I chose two upscale restaurants.

Today I focus on the first of the upscale restaurants, Grace, one of the West Loop’s premier dining establishments. As a comparison, I dined at Acadia and will subsequently do a full review of that South Loop spot.

A tale of two city restaurants … Grace and Acadia

Part 1: Grace

Grace
652 W. Randolph Street
Chicago, IL 60661

Summary: Recommended / Special occasions only.

This is one of the restaurants I have wanted to visit since moving back to Chicago. Everyone has heard of Chef Duffy’s fascinating and tragic history and rise to where he is now. You kind of want this place to thrive. But, this is Chicago, so backstory or not, the food and service must be stellar. And I was impressed. The food was spectacular. It was showy without being too over the top (I don’t really want a pillow on my plate). And I left more satisfied than when I dined at Alinea, albeit less so than L20 or Everest.

FOOD: 5

Very interesting presentations of each course. We all had the menu with meat and lots of it. We loved the heirloom tomato dish with a delicious whirl of sauce.  There was an amazing oyster dish that my friend Sherry thought was superb.  An artichoke dish could have been skipped but the meat dishes were amazing, including both lamb and beef. Wine pairings were good but not great, and I have yet to find a wine guy as good as Dan Pilkey, formerly of Ria. It is perhaps because of him that I find so many not up to par. (Let’s be clear here, I am not an expert and they certainly know more than I do, but the good ones bring you along with them and the wines fit perfectly with the meal.)

When I dine at these showy places, I often worry that the emphasis will be so much on presentation and flare that the food will be bad. Or, that the temperature will be off. That was not the case at Grace, and all of the dishes came out at good temp and high quality.

SERVICE: 4

Service was exceptional and well coordinated, albeit a bit practiced and “obvious”. My friend summarized service as “quite good but a little bumpy given the prices.  Could have been more precise.” I agree. At Les Nomades, service is amazing and the servers are there when you need them and almost invisible when you don’t. Here, and maybe this is more due to newness of the restaurant, the service seemed too much like they practiced and wanted to get it right like a routine. I kind of want them to seem a bit more like they are simply happy to serve us.  Overall, I think service was great. Nothing we needed was ever held back, transitions were smooth, and timing was on point. If I felt they were happy to be hosting us, I would have felt a tad better.

One note: The sommelier, as I mentioned above, was good but not the best. IMHO, she needs to learn to be less intrusive and a bit more nuanced in her interactions with the diners.

DECOR: 5

This is a beautiful, understated, classy establishment. I love the open and airy kitchen with bright woods and colorful spices on display. It’s fun to watch the activity in the kitchen without being overwhelmed by it as can be the case in some restaurants (I sat sweltering in front of the kitchen of Little Goat recently.) The room is small and thus not many patrons. You can have a conversation without screaming or worrying that your neighbor hears every word. Everything is tastefully presented.

VALUE: 3

This is a very very very expensive place. And I knew that of course before dining. It is in line with most places of this style and caliber but I still feel it is pricier than it needs to be. One caveat is that it has been a few years since I dined at Alinea and thus cannot vouch for whether that place and others have also gone up significantly. But, you get what you pay for and Grace is an experience more than a meal.

OVERALL: 4

Grace is a great addition to the West Loop culinary scene and its nice to have another high-end restaurant over there versus in the Gold Coast / River North area. Grace is ideal for a very special date, not business in my opinion. More for celebrating a milestone birthday or anniversary. Given the prices, this clearly could not be a regular dining spot for most people and I personally would not see myself returning anytime soon given the tremendous number of other choices in Chicago, many of them significantly less pricey. That said, the chef’s story, the great food and tasteful decor, and the strong level of service make this highly worth trying if you are a foodie.

Stay tuned for review of Acadia in part 2 of this tale of two city restaurants.

More on the chef >> http://graphics.chicagotribune.com/grace/

Chef Curtis Duffy

Chef Curtis Duffy and Adam Stanley

In relationship with #foodies,

Adam

Adam L. Stanley | ALSWharton Connections

For more reviews, go to my yelp profile here or find me on TripAdvisor with username ALSWharton.

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#Foodie Review: Sumi Robata (Chicago)

Summary: Not recommended / Needs to work on service.

I really really want to like this place. The food was tasty and flavorful. The drinks were innovative, unique, and well presented and cute little bottles. The location, on North Wells in the midst of lots of other great spots, was also appealing. However, something just was not right about the place. Worse, observing the staff and chef, I walked away with the general feeling it will never change. And thus, my initial thinking is that I would not recommend this restaurant. There are simply too many options in Chicago and, in my opinion, restaurants rarely get a second chance. That said, I will be watching to hear of improvements and focus on service to make this good restaurant great.

Sumi Robata
702 N. Wells
Chicago, IL

Sumi Robata Chicken

FOOD: 4

Food at the restaurant would most easily be described as tapas. Japanese tapas. Lots of grilled, some fried, and all very well seasoned items on the menu. Their twitter feed describes it as “A traditional robatayaki from Chef Gene Kato. Sumi, which derives from the Japanese word for charcoal, focuses on the tradition and skill of robata grilling.”

With four or five friends, you can easily sample the entire menu and taste all of the different flavors in foods that are available. The actual variety is a bit misleading, however, as there are several that to me seemed very similar. For instance, there are three or four  chicken dishes on the menu that all are presented quite commonly with very little difference between them. But, let me be clear: I do feel that the food is fantastic and nothing I am saying is meant to take away from the assessment of quality of the food.

SERVICE: 2

Service is the greatest problem with the restaurant and its not simply with the actual server that was assigned to our table. Rather, it was the experience. It was the pace, the timing, the way in which the menu was explained, and the overall experience dining at the restaurant. It felt, frankly, as if I was dining at a very amateur restaurant. A restaurant that was owned by someone who really loves to cook but has never been involved in actually running a restaurant. I felt as if I were participating in a Top Chef competition very early in the season. Lots of businesses started by ambitious entrepreneurs with amazing ideas but needing a little business acumen come to mind.

Back when Chicago was basically a city of steak and potatoes, menus were fairly straight forward. As food options expanded, great servers and hosts find ways to unobtrusively explain the concept to new diners. On my first visit to Girl and the Goat, seemingly eons ago, I keenly recall how the server went through the menu, gave us a sense of how many items to order, and gave us time to process the menu. This was not the case here. This place is kind of tapas style but uniquely so. Because Japanese tapas is a relatively new concept in Chicago it is very important that they explain to patrons what the experience might be like. We had a couple of awkward moments when orders were brought out and not explained. One of my guests waited patiently for her lamb while another enjoyed his plate with two pieces on it. Little did he know that he was eating both the lamb he ordered and the lamb she ordered. They had been combined on one plate. Ok, makes sense, but who knew? If I’m not clear, you understand how I felt at the restaurant!

DECOR: 2

In this area, I am told perhaps I did not experience the best of the restaurant as there is a space downstairs that is roomier. As it stood, the upstairs area reminded me a bit of a Chinese takeout restaurant with a few tables, or a Pret a Manger franchise. Basic wood tables, not much space. Nothing fancy or memorable. As I have said before, however, decor alone would never keep me away from a restaurant. Nor would it keep me from recommending. All other things being equal, however, I prefer a nice ambiance with my good food. And less noise.

VALUE: 3

Based on the good quality of the food, and considering the neighborhood, I would say this place is about average. As long as you know what to order based on your party, you can have a reasonably filling meal for less than $50 per person including a cocktail. Given I know that I could have had the same or better meal at other Chicago restaurants with better service and decor, I’m giving a 3 for value.

OVERALL: 3

I would not recommend this restaurant but would not turn people away from it either. There are too many nice restaurants in Chicago for me to tolerate average, but if I lived in the area and wanted a good, flavorful meal without having to get dressed up or impress anyone, I would certainly visit this place.

In relationship with #foodies,

Adam

Adam L. Stanley | ALSWharton Connections

For more reviews, go to my yelp profile here or find me on TripAdvisor with username ALSWharton.

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ALS

#Foodie Review: TR Napa Valley (Chicago)

Summary: NOT Recommended / Needs overhaul or closure.

This review makes me a bit sad. I really want this place to succeed because Chicago needs more wine and cheese spots. Having just moved back here from London, I was excited to see this spot right across from high-end Oak Street shopping like Prada, Barney’s, and Tod’s. The street and area need more upscale coffee, wine, and “drop-in” dining spots for heavy shoppers (I am not one, but my partner is..). The first time I tried to go to TR, there seemed to be no one working there. I walked in and looked around and there was no one. Odd. The second time I went, we had decent glasses of wine and pitiful service, The third and my final attempt was last week. There was an incredibly friendly young man there who greeted me and brought me wine list and menu. I don’t remember his name but I do know that he was not the owner or sommelier and his knowledge of wine was fairly limited (kind of bad for a wine bar, but forgiven because he was very professional, courteous and friendly). While he tried his level best to make the experience pleasant, I remain hugely unimpressed by this place and suspect it will close.

20130730-172259.jpg

TR Napa Valley
61 E. Oak St
Chicago, IL 60611

The Good. The Bad. 

Good:
– Wine flights are generous pours and well worth it for the price of around $28 for three wines in a flight, about 125 ml each.
– Server guy was friendly if not overly knowledgable about either wine or cheese.

Bad:
– Individual glasses of wine are strangely RIDICULOUS. I mean like prices I saw in London at some of the private clubs like Annabel’s and Arts Club. The least expensive GLASS of wine was $24.
– Apparently only the owner really knows about the wine on offer and he does not seem to be there very often. Or at least, the three times I have tried he was nowhere to be found.
– they served Carr’s table water crackers with cheese, along with fig and other accompaniments that looked like they got them from Jewel’s or Dominick’s. Not to be a snob, but when I go for wine and cheese, I want something a bit more upscale than aisle 3 at the local grocer.
– hasn’t been there for long, but it is already looking dated. The flowers were dried out and looking sad. The paint was chipping.

Predicting this place will close soon unless the owner is independently wealthy and does this just for a hobby. I did hear there is a private club that is “invite only” with costs to rival the best clubs in New York and London. Good luck with that.

In relationship with #foodies,

Adam

Adam L. Stanley | ALSWharton Connections

For more reviews, go to my yelp profile here or find me on TripAdvisor with username ALSWharton.

Follow me on Twitter 
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Or visit me online at http://www.alswharton.com/in

ALS

Collage by Adam L. Stanley

#Foodie Review: L’Anima (London)

photo from lacartes.com

Summary: Highly Recommended / Couples, Business, Special Occasions

How on earth did I not know about this place until I was one week away from taking a (brief?) hiatus from London? I leave to head back to Chicago next month and thought I had tried enough Italian restaurants in London to conclude that Chicago had better ones. Then a friend from the large international insurer with which I was recently associated recommended I try this place, merely minutes from my office on a street of which I had never heard, Snowden.

Thank you Heather!

Walking in to the restaurant, I will admit I was a bit put off. As much as I recognise that I am a “suit”, I try desperately to avoid restaurants full of other suits. And this one almost. Looked as if there was a uniform. Few women, all guys with button down shirts, blue blazers or suit jackets hanging on the back of the chairs. Not kidding. I even found myself taking off my jacket as I sat down to ensure I was conforming. LOL.

L’Anima
1 Snowden Street
Broadgate West
London, EC2A 2DQ

SERVICE: 5
From the entrance to the end, the team here knows service. And I’m not talking “better than typical London” but truly service on par with some of the finer restaurants in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Greeting us were two hostesses who actually smiled as we entered. The quirky sommelier, the attentive, friendly and trendy servers, and the manager were all service oriented and focused on ensuring our experience was exceptional.

Bottom line: The servers were nice and not snobs that make me want to be mean while I should be enjoying my meal. Smiling means a lot and they actually smiled as they helped us.

FOOD: 5
Starter: Charcoal scallops
Exquisite food with fantastic displays, if just a tad spicy for me. (Apparently the norm for the region in Italy that is the focus of the restaurant). I started with charcoal scallops with an uber spicy crust and salted cod on the side. Well prepared and presented on a clam shell, taste and appearance were impressive (but hot). Second course was quid ink cavatelli. YUM!!!!!!! Fantastic and unique, the tiny bean shaped black pasta with the slightly crispy peas and succulent mussels was amazing. My partner had a spring salad followed by Linguine with crab for his second course. I barely got to see what was on his plate before it was completely devoured.

Sea bass mainMy main was a perfectly prepared sea bass that was not too salty as is often the case. It was perfectly seasoned and also the perfect size. With a side of spinach to share between us, and my partner’s Rabbit Siciliana, we were well and truly stuffed by the end of the dinner. Expecting the CS to start gently suggesting we wrap it up as by now it had been two hours, I tried to psyche myself up to dessert. But the team seemed to know just how long to let us sit and digest. Perfect! They kept our wine and water glasses full and just when I felt ready to tackle dessert, the menus arrived. I had the raspberry soufflé with a moscato and my partner had pistachio ice cream with an Espresso Martini. Talk about a sugar rush! Heavenly!

Over all, the food was superb, the sizes good, and the wine pairing suggestion (Nero Di Lupo) was excellent.

DECOR: 5
I liked the fact that the bar is separate, so if anyone wanted to come for a drink they could enjoy cocktails without standing over diners as is the case in so many London restaurants. The dining area was pristine white and quite minimalist, almost uncanny given the mostly business clientele. I expected to see actors and fashionistas sitting in the low white leather chairs. I noted with a chuckle the intensity of the sommelier as he went table to table ensuring there were no wrinkles.

photo from edsmagazine.com

photo from edsmagazine.com

Music was low (enough that we could hear the singer in the bar area just a tad. Amazing vocal chords on that one…) and whilst fairly loud, you were able to have a conversation with those at your table without also participating in the table over’s discussion. Finally, the bathroom was fabulous. Stylish without the gimmicks of soft porn, transparent doors, or the like so many places are now trying to do.

Oh yeah: HUGE kitchen and well designed so you can see it without it being “in your face” or, worse, smokey!

VALUE: 4
I would say this place is certainly not your everyday meal spot. Our bill came to about £240 including four courses, a small side, a reasonably priced bottle of wine, two cocktails, water, coffee, and “optional” but well-earned 12.5% service. Pastas and risottos were quite reasonable, with small or large portion options. Mains ranged from £20-£40 if I recall and nothing seemed ridiculously out of line. I would suggest, however, that a Tasting Menu would have been nice. £75 per person or £100 including wine would have resulted in a bill pretty darn close to what we paid but somehow tasting menus always make you feel better about the bill!

I rate this restaurant against higher end restaurants but must also consider Italian food options in general. And I will admit that L’Anima is knocked down just a notch because I would not typically expect to pay this much for Italian food. Interestingly, the cost was comparable to rather touristy places I tried in Rome and Florence earlier this month.

OVERALL: 5

My meal - 25 June 2013

My meal – 25 June 2013

I am giving L’Anima my first 5 star for an Italian restaurant and thus also naming it my best Italian restaurant in London or Chicago. I highly recommend it for couples, business diners, and special occasions but not for children or the budget conscious. While great for food and exceptionally high standard of service, and a nice environment in which to dine, it is still too expensive for an everyday meal or even a splurge meal for many.

In relationship with #foodies,

Adam

Adam L. Stanley | ALSWharton Connections

For more reviews, go to my yelp profile here or find me on TripAdvisor with username ALSWharton.

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Or visit me online at http://www.alswharton.com/in

ALS

mandarin, chiclen liver and foie gras parfait

#Foodie Review: Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (London)

dinnerbyhestonblumenthal

Summary: Highly Recommended / Special Occasion

Because the food is exquisitely near perfect, decor is fabulous, and service is exceptional, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental for a special occasion. A bit pricey (£30 – £40 for a main; £15 – £20 for a starter) and thus less of a value than somewhere like Avenue or Vivat Bachhus, it still is a much better experience for the money than Galvin La Chapelle. And you will only spend a bit less around the corner at Buddha Bar, an overpriced, overly trendy, good but not great food, disappointment.

I would be more than happy to go to “Dinner” again, with friends or colleagues, and especially to celebrate a special occasion or a visitor from the States. You will love it, I’m certain. Let me know what you think!

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal

Mandarin Oriental
66 Knightsbridge
London, SW1X 7LA
Above photo from restaurant website.

Long Version

FOOD: 5

mandarin, chiclen liver and foie gras parfaitStarters included this amazing Meat Fruit dish, a gastronomic pleasure that looked like an orange but was a chicken liver & foie gras parfait wrapped in a mandarin cream. It tasted as good as it looked.

I had the Rice and Flesh, a saffron rissotto style rice with calf tail and red wine. Our mains were fantastic, starting with my spiced pigeon which paired perfectly with my sommolier recommended 2010 Buio Buio Isola Shiraz. The pigeon, and I will admit I do not often do the rat bird thing, was so well prepaered I didnt even think about Trafalgar Square’s missing flocks once! Tender, juicy, goodness. Two friends had steak, one the ribeye and the other the fillet. Both looked, smelled and tasted exquisite. I tried the Herefore Ribeye and then stole another bite. May come back for that one night. The light eater amongst us had a rather standard cheese tray but shame on him for doing that at this place. (He had a dinner party just before our celebration meal, unfortunately)

tipsy cake

Tipsy Cake (c 1810)

Sides were perfect, including wonderfully prepared, clearly unhealthy, triple cooked chips along with buttered carrots, and finally green beans with shallots. To end the meal, we had coffees and the Tipsy Cake with spit roast pineapple, which was orgasmic. Not one person dining with me was less than blown away by the food from start to finish.

DECOR: 5

Open Kitchen allows you to watch them work.

Open Kitchen

My favorite part of the decor is the fact that the entire kitchen is visible through huge all the way to ceiling windows. Throughout our meal, we watched large pineapples slowly roasting on a spit and a well disciplined kitchen team working their magic. It was actually strange after a while, watching them completely ignore us. I almost thought it was a two-way mirror like in police stations. (too much television).

Dinner by Heston BlumenthalThe colors of the walls and furniture, the unique lighting, and the general ambiance of the restaurant (warm, inviting, comfortable) made this a fantastic place to dine. (As an aside, this was a complete change from the absolute rubbish Mandarin Oriental Bar just outside, which was like a Marriott Courtyard lobby bar. Shamefully boring and shockingly plain in its decor, given this is a Mandarin Oriental.)

SERVICE: 5

Our primary server was Jonas and he was fantastic. But from entering the restaurant, service was perfect. Wine glasses promptly filled, food served on point and well coordinated, and food described exceptionally well. Jonas was patient as my partner kept discussing whether Amber came from the whale’s arse (waste) or his regurgitation. Long story there but clearly the remainder of our party of four had zero interest in this story, though apparently Dinner uses some Ambergris in cooking to add flavour. Ambergris is also an aphrodisiac so not sure if that adds more credence to one side of the debate or not …but I digress. (If interested in finding the conclusion of the debate, click here.)

Service was not pretentious and the staff seemed genuinely interested in our enjoyment of the meal and overall dining experience.

VALUE: 4

Clearly, we did not go to this place with a pretense that we would be getting a cheap meal so I compare its value to a group of restaurants in London with similar options, decor, and reputation, if not with a Michelin star as Dinner received in 2012. A bit pricey (£30 – £40 for a main; £15 – £20 for a starter) and thus less of a value than somewhere like Avenue or Vivat Bachhus, it still is a much better experience for the money than Galvin La Chapelle. And you will only spend a bit less around the corner at Buddha Bar, an overpriced, overly trendy, good but not great food, disappointment.

For those of you in Chicago, I would compare Dinner at Heston Blumenthal to Naha, Takashi, or Sepia more than Everest, Graham Elliott, or Les Nomades. Great food for moderately high prices that one can splurge on occasionally as opposed to ridiculously high priced indulgence that makes you feel guilty for not donating more to your favorite charity immediately after dinner.

Our meal for 4, had one of our friends not eaten beforehand, would have been roughly £400 including service and VAT. That’s steep given we only had 1 bottle of wine with the meal and that it excluded cocktails before dinner at the crappy Mandarin Oriental Bar. Mains were well prepared and presented, but I think you pay for the labour to put together such a presentation. Same food, of course, would be cheaper at most other restaurants. But, for a special occasion, I would suggest this place over Galvin La Chapelle without hesitation.

OVERALL: 5

Because the food is exquisitely near perfect, decor is fabulous, and service is exceptional, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental for a special occasion. It’s pricier than some but not all fine dining spots in London, so the only ding it got from me is in Value (4 out of 5). That said, I would be more than happy to go to “Dinner” again, with friends or colleagues, and especially to celebrate a special occasion. You will love it, I’m certain.

In relationship with #foodies,

Adam

Adam L. Stanley | ALSWharton Connections

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Happy New Year!

Cheers!

#Foodie Review: Avenue (London)

20121119-231119.jpg

Summary: Recommended

Because the food is pretty good, decor is nice, service is really good, and most importantly because it is a darn good value where one meal here will not break the bank for most people, I RECOMMEND Avenue Restaurant and would be more than happy to go there again, with friends or colleagues, if in the neighborhood. Would I go out of my way, likely not. Should you try it out? I think so. Go for it, and let me know what you think!

Avenue Restaurant

7-9 St James’s Street
Mayfair
London
SW1A 1EE
Above photo from Avenue website.

Long Version

FOOD: 3

Before starting our meal, we had a glass of champagne to excite the palate and, well, we had just watched “Skyfall”, the latest instalment of the James Bond 007 franchise. Champagne just seemed right! We enjoyed the champs with some amazing brown bread with nuts that threatened to fill us up before our first course arrived. yum!

20121118-184750.jpgFor my starter, I chose a rather unique dish I actually may try for breakfast one Saturday morning. Wild mushrooms seasoned and sauteed in about a pound of butter were ladled over a heavy chunk of sourdough bread then covered with a slow cooked hen’s egg. While it was a tad salty for my taste, my stomach loved what my heart could later regret. My partner won this round with the venison carpaccio however, which was perfectly prepared, tender and juicy bits of perfection.

By this point, we had a bottle of the house white wine, acceptable yet completely unremarkable. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was.

My main was a simply grilled plaice with prawns and capers on a bed of greens. While the fish was good, I must say it certainly did not wow me. And the prawns were a bit tiny and dry. That said, it was an interesting presentation albeit with only ok execution. My partner again won the round with fish and chips which were devoured before my eyes. “It was ok” was all I was able to get from the other side of the table, but there was no sign food have ever actually been on the plate so I think it must have been better than ok. 20121118-184801.jpg

For dessert, I had to continue in my search for the perfect sticky toffee pudding, having now sampled the treat at at least a half dozen restaurants. My favourite remains that of Fishworks on Marylebone High Street and the Avenue version did nothing to change that. In fact, recalling the pudding at Fishworks reminded me, alas, that I also could have gotten fish of the same quality there as well. I also tried my partner’s Bramley Apple Crumble, also pretty good but not memorable. “It was fine.”

Overall, I must say that the creativity in the meal declined as each course progressed. Appetiser was unique, main was fairly standard, while dessert was just common. That said, for the record I love basic desserts. so bring in the brownies, apple crumbles, and sticky toffee puddings. Just make them spectacular please. 😉

SERVICE: 4

The team here seemed happy to welcome us and the other guests. The place was not very crowded for a Saturday but busy enough to suggest they could handle the larger crowds as well. The host that greeted us was helpful, the server consistent. They were friendly and prompt and able to keep things on track and flowing smoothly. The courses were well timed and our glasses were always filled. Minor annoyance: server asked if we wanted our coffees with dessert and we said hello. Our coffee arrived as we were finishing dessert. Adam pet peeve!

DECOR/AMBIANCE: 4

This restaurant is apparently one of a few owned by the DandD team that I believe is affiliated with the Conran Group, but definitely includes Orrery, one of my favourites yet to be reviewed, and Coq d’Argent. I am a sucker for accent walls, especially when of a warm and vibrant colour. Avenue did not disappoint with a nice red wall with quirky yet subtle (and reasonably priced) artwork hanging. It was a bit loud yet still allowed us to have a decent conversation, get a decent amount of people watching in, and sit relatively comfortably. Privacy was fine and I didn’t feel as if they tried to cram every inch with seating as at Asia de Cuba. And despite the recent trend of restaurants with DJs and blaring lounge music, Avenue was reserved. No disco with dinner!

The restaurant was well suited for the quiet area of Mayfair that is St James and the crowd seemed there for food and service versus to be seen; a welcome change. One miss is that I could not see the chef or kitchen.

VALUE: 5

For reference to those who have not read my other reviews, I have dined at La Chappelle in London and Graham Elliott in Chicago, Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia and Le Bernadin in New York. Yet, my greatest joy comes not from proving world renowned restaurants deserve (or do not deserve) acclaim. Rather, it comes from finding fantastic value restaurants where food is great and value for money worth noting. London provides ample opportunities for this with toptable and other websites always offering discounts.

This meal was booked via toptable.co.uk and I signed up for the 3 courses with half-bottle of wine offer. I reviewed the full menu upon arrival and am confident in my review ratings for regular meals or for those taking on the offer.

I have been excited to spend this year finding contrasting restaurants that offer similar quality food and much better prices. I found one such restaurant in Vivat Bacchus, and now in Avenue. The meal was approximately £100 for two, compared to about 3 to 4 times that much at La Chapelle and it was a bit cheaper than the bill at Balleria, the last restaurant I reviewed. Vivat Bacchus remains the top value for service, food and decor for me thus far in London.

OVERALL: 4

I love great food and great service. Avenue had pretty good food and really good service. I want to know the place in which I dine is attractive and cozy enough for both business dinners or romantic nights out. I would take a date or colleague to Avenue. However, as I eat my way across London’s amazing options for dining, I find myself rarely repeating unless a place is really stellar. Alas, Avenue was good, no attitude, good service and a nice space. But it was not stellar.

Because the food is pretty good, decor is nice, service is really good, and most importantly because it is a darn good value where one meal here will not break the bank for most people, I RECOMMEND Avenue Restaurant and would be more than happy to go there again, with friends or colleagues, if in the neighborhood. Would I go out of my way, likely not. Should you try it out? I think so. Go for it, and let me know what you think!

In relationship with #foodies,

Adam

Adam L. Stanley | ALSWharton Connections

For more reviews, go to my yelp profile here or find me on TripAdvisor with username ALSWharton.

Follow me on Twitter 
Connect with me on Linked In 
“Like” me on Facebook
Or visit me online at http://www.alswharton.com/in

Adam Stanley

Adam Stanley

#Foodie Review: Bellaria Restaurant and Wine Bar (London)

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Bellaria Restaurant and Wine Bar

71 Great Titchfield Street
Fitzrovia
London
W1W 6RB

Overall Verdict: Neutral – Not recommended, but I would not suggest you avoid it.

DECOR: 3
From the other reviews, I surmised that the basement was nice and quaint. I guess that depends on what you prefer. I did not sit down there but I did see the basement when I went to the Gents. overrated would be my conclusion, looking a bit like a dungeon and perhaps causing a mild claustrophic reaction. The upstairs was fine, albeit plain and boring, but the tables were WAY too small. We had to request a table sized for 4 guests to actually fit the starters, mains, and wine we ordered.

FOOD: 3
20120812-122923.jpg I had a calamari and zucchini starter that was quite well prepared and lightly floured. My partner had the crab and passion fruit starter that was bland and boring. And we think they may have forgotten to add the passionfruit. For our mains, we both had the sirloin steak with Parmesan shavings over rocket. The steak was prepared okay. They are a bit to the over side on temperature so if you want medium rare, order rare, as my medium rare was more medium and my partner’s medium looked kind of well done to me. Besides the temperature, I was not impressed by the thin steak nor the lack of flavour. If it were a thicker cut of meat, it likely could have held its own with little seasoning but the thin steak was rather flavourless. Dessert was fantastic for my partner (tiramisu) and acceptable for me (strawberry cheesecake).

SERVICE: 4
Perhaps I expected to be treated like a second class citizen after reading the reviews about discount diners, but I would say that service was pretty good. Very attentive staff, but not overly so. I don’t think they poured our wine after the first pour but our food came hot and things were timed fairy well.

VALUE: 3
Based in the average quality of the food, and considering the Neighborhood, I would say this place is about average. The discounts you can easily get via the reservation sites and dining clubs give you a bit of wiggle room for wine and extras. We spent £125 for two people including the automatic service charge of 10% plus another 3-5% service gratuity we added. This included the red wine of month, a nice Barbera d’Asti, plus two starters, two mains, two sides, and two desserts. Given I know that I could have had the same meal on Marylebone High Street for about the same price without the discount, I’m giving Balleria a 3 for value.

OVERALL: I would not recommend this restaurant but would not turn people away from it either. There are too many nice restaurants in London for me to tolerate average, but if I lived nearby and wanted a quick Italian dinner, I would certainly visit this place.

In relationship with #foodies,

Adam

 

Adam L. Stanley | ALSWharton Connections

Notes: Booked via toptable.co.uk and signed up for 50% off offer (why would I ever choose the “no thanks” offer?). Whenever I book these types of offers, I take the opportunity to try more of the menu and always have a bottle of wine or cocktails. The little card they put on your table when you sit down does make you feel a tad low class, especially if you happen to be on a date. Luckily, I was not! The card stipulates rules for the discount and the items on the menu that are not fully discounted like tuna, sirloin steak, and other specials. Not a big deal, actually, and I’m not sure there would be an easier way to make this clear without the waiter having to actually say it out loud.

In relationship with #foodies,

Adam

Adam L. Stanley | ALSWharton Connections

For more reviews, go to my yelp profile here or find me on TripAdvisor with username ALSWharton.

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Or visit me online at http://www.alswharton.com/in

20120812-122340.jpg

Adam Stanley

#Foodie Review: Bishopsgate Kitchen (London)

Bishopsgate Kitchen
230 Bishopsgate
London EC2M 4QH

Summary: NOT Recommended / Abysmal Service with subpar food.

SHORT VERSION:  I have reviewed DOZENS of restaurants and out of over a hundred reviews, I only have 5 places rated one star. I can only guess the reviewers of this place are either friends of the staff or owner or infrequent diners. Or I was just here on a VERY BAD NIGHT. This place is awful and I would recommend you walk right on by.

Service: 1

The great host that greeted me and took order, a guy that was friendly and fast, seemed to disappear and leave two amateurs on the floor. He left two women who walked around and chatted to the two guys who were hitting on them while ignoring everyone else.
After a half hour of trying to use their butter knife to cut the overlooked steak, one of the servers finally brought me a steak knife.

After ignoring me for the hour I was eating, a different server, the one that was chatting it up with the likely married but ringless diner, came over to ask me if I wanted anything else. Get this: the kitchen was closed by then so if I wanted either of the hot desserts I was plum out of luck. First of all, the fact that the restaurant’s posted closing hour is 10pm and they close the kitchen at exactly 10pm is pretty pathetic. That basically means they should stop accepting patrons at 930 pm latest. Second, if chatty Cathy had actually come over during my meal perhaps she could have gathered my dessert order BEFORE the kitchen closed.

Food: 1

My meal consisted of quite possibly the worst steak I’ve had in a year. I’ve had better steaks at Disney World and strip mall food courts.  Absolutely no flavor and if this is medium, well done must resemble a charcoal briquette. Incredibly bland food. Even the bread was just ok.

Decor: 2

A nice space except whereas I typically enjoy seeing the kitchen, seeing the cook open a container of uncooked food and smell it was less than appealing. One of the cooks approached what looked like a more senior guy and appeared to suspect something was off. The other guy smelled it, looked at it, and smelled again. I was sick wondering if he concluded it was “acceptable”.

Value: 2

Really bad food at moderately expensive prices. Fail.

Overall: 1

I suspect this is the type of place that gets clientele who don’t feel like walking farther than across the street RBS. There are WAY too many restaurants in London to waste time or money on a place like this. In Chicago, this would be one of those places I would predict would be out of business soon. Not sure if here in London a crappy restaurant can survive due simply to convenience of location. Maybe so!

I was looking for my first failure of a restaurant in London and, alas, I’ve found it. Not only do I not recommend this place, I urge you to go out of your way (which really is only about 4 blocks toward Spitalfields) to find a decent meal. Do not go to Bishopsgate Kitchen. It should be closed.

Note: while waiting for my bill, I overheard another guest tell the server he ordered lamb and got tuna. She laughed and he laughed. Interesting. I wouldn’t actually find that funny.

AVOID THIS PLACE.

In relationship with #foodies,

Adam

Adam L. Stanley | ALSWharton Connections

For all reviews, go to my yelp profile here or find me on TripAdvisor with username ALSWharton.

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ALS

#Foodie Review: Vivat Bacchus (London)

Vivat Bacchus

47 Farringdon Street
Holborn
London
EC4A 4LL

Overall Verdict: Highly Recommended

YOU: Have enough money to eat pretty much anywhere in London or other major cities. You love great food, fine wines, and great service and want to know the place in which you dine is attractive and cozy enough for both business dinners or romantic nights out.

OR

YOU: Money is not running over but you want to have a great night out from time to time. You love good food and wine and are proud to say you know some of the best values in town. You want a nice spot without attitude.

OR

YOU: Can only afford to go to one or two “really nice” restaurants a year and have a special someone you wish to take on a romantic date. You want it to be special, memorable, have amazing food, and not completely break the bank.

Message to ALL OF THE ABOVE:

Go. To. Vivat Bacchus. Now. Really.

Long Version:

I actually dined here on Valentine’s Day so am way overdue writing this review.

FOOD: 5

Before starting our meal, we were given a bottle of sparkling wine to excite the palate. Good stuff but the smells in the place were already stirring up my taste buds so the champagne just went straight to my head.

Pan fried scallops paired with Quinta de la Rosa Branco 2010 from Portugal came next, with the first and only hiccup of the night. The wine did not show up at our table until the scallops were almost done. This was the only major show of amateur service though I will get to service later. That said, the scallops were great and we forgave her for getting out of sync with the wine as the next course came.

The main course consisted of Grilled venison cutlets with squash and beetroot gratin. The venison was bone in and this was the first time I ever had it like that. JUICY. FLAVOURFUL. PERFECTION. The sauce complimented the meat splendidly and the venison was prepared to just the right temperature. At this point in the meal, I started checking out the chef and making eye contact. Really, can we be friends? You cook for me, and I will …. Buy the ingredients? Wine? Serenade you and run a bath with rose petals?

For dessert, I had the MOST amazing chocolate trio with a decadently rich torte and a gluttonous stem ginger mousse. It was paired with a Banyuls from Roussilon. This French version of port is absolutely perfect with chocolate and the choice of this bottle was inspired. …. Banyuls Rimage ‘Les Clos de Paulilles’ 2008. … I seriously considered asking the chef to marry me at this point but thought I was way unworthy so decided instead I would just have to become a regular!

SERVICE: 4

The team here seemed happy to welcome us and the other guests. They were friendly and prompt. While there were a few signs of amateur servers, the manager continued to oversee the meal and typically was able to keep things on track and flowing smoothly. The courses were well timed and our glasses were always filled. Even when she screwed up the wine match with the first course, we actually still had water and champagne so were ok.

DECOR/AMBIANCE: 4

This restaurant is apparently one of a few owned by the same team. I am very interested in seeing the others. The layout of this place was quite odd, with a long and narrow column of tables somewhat crammed in like a bowling lane. (yes, I go bowling sometimes). It was a bit loud yet still allowed us to have a decent conversation, get a decent amount of people watching in, and enjoy watching the chef work kitchen magic. It was a unique restaurant that did not follow the format of other restaurants. Rather, it seemed content to be unique, a bit quirky, a bit disorganised, and full of good wines. As is my preference, the open view of the kitchen less the flames and smoke was a nice addition.

VALUE: 5

Having recently dined at La Chappelle in London and Graham Elliott in Chicago, and especially after my Michelin Quest of 2011, I have been excited to spend this year finding contrasting restaurants that offer similar quality food and much better prices. I found one such restaurant n Vivat Bacchus. The meal was approximately £140 for two, compared to about 3 to 4 times that much at La Chapelle.

Would I go to a Michelin starred über expensive fine dining establishment again? Of course! Those places do tend to offer a level of service unparalleled by most places, interesting and innovative cuisine, and enough posterior region kissing to impress your guests without turning them off. But, and I find myself somewhere between person 1 and person 2 above, this is where I would go for a guaranteed good meal at a good price. I have enough money to dine at the finest places but why do that when I can dine at great value spots and donate more to worthy causes? Happy stomach. Happy heart. Happy Adam.

In short, this place is a great value.

OVERALL: 4

I love great food and great service. Vivat Bacchus had great food and good service. I want to know the place in which I dine is attractive and cozy enough for both business dinners or romantic nights out. I would take a date or colleague to Vivat Bacchus. I am proud to say I know some of the best values in Chicago and am excited to build my list for London, my new home. Vivat Bacchus has made that list early in my transition. There is no attitude, they have amazing food and one meal here will not break the bank for most people.

I HIGHLY RECOMMEND Vivat Bacchus and would be more than happy to go there regularly, with friends or colleagues. And I look forward to getting to know the chef. If you are reading this, Chef, you are welcome to come over to my flat anytime. I will provide the wine if you cook! But, no bath. That might be awkward. Smile.

In relationship with #foodies,

Adam

Adam L. Stanley | ALSWharton Connections

For more reviews, go to my yelp profile here or find me on TripAdvisor with username ALSWharton.

Follow me on Twitter 
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Or visit me online at http://www.alswharton.com/in

 

Adam Stanley

Adam Stanley

#Foodie Review: Galvin La Chapelle (London)

galvin-entry

La Chapelle

35 Spital Square,
London, E1 6DY
United Kingdom

Reviewing: La Chapelle Menu Gourmand (£110 per person for tasting menu with seven courses, paired with wine)

Overall Verdict:

RECOMMENDED WITH MINOR RESERVATIONS

So for those of you who were following, I must confess I abandoned somewhat my 2011 quest to dine at all 23 of the Chicago restaurants awarded at least one Michelin star. See all reviews of the list here http://bit.ly/nGR9Vc ….. I was able to review over a dozen of these top spots from Michelin’s guide.

Frankly, I think the Michelin rating system is flawed at best and a fraud if you’re really a cynic. And I know I will get in trouble for that, but I will save that for another post on another day. That said, I was quite bemused when I selected La Chapelle for dinner on the last night of my last stay in London as a “visitor”(1) and found it too was part of a family of restaurants that included Michelin stars. Despite my lack of faith in Michelin’s ability to fairly pick quality restaurants without bias of marketing and fad, I stayed!

As is often our preference, my partner and I decided on the tasting menu, in this case the Menu Gourmand. There is simply no better way to get a sense of a restaurant, sampling what the chef feels are his or her finest delicacies (or what was on sale at the butcher?’ said the cynic). This tasting menu had seven courses ranging from a light lasagna to a meaty pigeon I’m afraid made me think of Trafalgar Square. Including cocktails, deserts and wine pairings, the bill for two of us came to around £350. And overall it was a fine meal.

Long Version:

FOOD – 4/5

Flavourful and well presented, the menu was creative yet filling. Beginning with a lasagne of Dorset crab and cauliflower velouté, we were treated to a gastronomical journey through fish and foul as well as a FANTASTIC but salty risotto of Perigord truffle and Jerusalem artichokes. While a bit salty for my taste, and therefore also bad for my blood pressure, the food wowed me from start to finish. Temperatures were on point, the flow was spectacular (getting heavier each course without extreme jumps), and the wine was perfectly paired. Drawbacks: In addition to slightly salty courses, dessert was awful, like a store bought sponge cake with sour cream on the side and apple compote slathered on top. BONUS – Milan born bartender makes a mean Vodka Martini that allowed me to formally end my day before starting the meal and my evening. I watched and learned from a master.

SERVICE – 4/5

You go to this place for the service and you pay for the service with the fairly exorbitant pricing. But if you don’t want to take a chance with that key client, special date, or the boss, you choose a place like this. The host was pleasant, the managers present but not overbearing and our table constantly attended to. The all-male waitstaff (sadly all too common at these high-end restaurants that seem to feel gender diversity only matters at the host stand) were friendly and prompt. They were not personal at all, though perhaps one or two slipped up and let loose for 10 seconds or so. But they were good. And our food was always hot, glasses full, table clean, etc.
Drawbacks: The explanation of each course got progressively lazier as the night wore on. By the end of the menu, the wine was simply being placed on the table and the courses explained as if we were suddenly at Pizza Express. The place was emptying out and perhaps the team members were tired, but unless you’re going to reduce the cost of a tasting menu for your late night patrons, you must keep it up until you close the doors!

galvin-medDECOR/AMBIANCE 5

The place is beautifully appointed without being gaudy or austentatious. It is vibrant yet quiet enough for a conversation. It is classy but not pretentious. But it is a bit boring and, despite the romantic sound of the name and the very romantic menu, the place is above all a business restaurant. Bankers and bankers, basically. No evident diversity in either gender, age, ethnicity, or professions. And, I will admit here that I am assuming. You’re right, I did not conduct a survey. The entire restaurant might have been full of bohemian artists wearing bespoke suits for the very first time while discussing Occupy Wall Street.

VALUE 3

I love food and I love trying new restaurants, and I am blessed to be able to afford a variety of spots from inexpensive value restaurants to some of the world’s most exclusive and expensive. My value ratings are based on the relevant class of restaurants; a relative rating versus a pure value rating lest all exclusive restaurants would get a 1. Let’s face it, all other things being equal, I would always recommend someone eat a great meal for £50 per person and donate the difference to a local charity. HOWEVER, for a restaurant of this caliber, La Chapelle is appropriately priced on the “border” of too expensive. The tasting menu with wine includes more wine with every course where some have begun pairing one wine with two courses or serving half pours. And you leave feeling well fed. Believe me, I don’t plan to go here again anytime soon, but if looking for a place to splurge for a special occasion, you will likely enjoy this place.

la chapelle menu gourmandOVERALL 4

With consistant service, great food, a charming decor that allows for conversation and interaction whether with two or twelve, I rate La Chapelle a 4 out of 5 and RECOMMEND WITH MINOR RESERVATIONS. If dining with business colleagues, I highly recommend it. If dining out with good friends, going on a date or looking for romance, I would likely suggest somewhere else. The place is somewhat too business oriented due to location. Despite officially being in Spitalfields, you might feel more as if you are on Bishopsgate, the closest main street. So that’s my reservation. I like food and I hate attitude. There are awesome restaurants like RIA in Chicago that are fantastic AND relaxed. I would recommend those types of places first.

In relationship with #foodies,

Adam

In relationship with #foodies,

Adam

Adam L. Stanley | ALSWharton Connections

For more reviews, go to my yelp profile here or find me on TripAdvisor with username ALSWharton.

Follow me on Twitter 
Connect with me on Linked In 
“Like” me on Facebook
Or visit me online at http://www.alswharton.com/in

1) This is my first UK restaurant review here and will hopefully be first of many. I am relocating to London and excited about experiencing more great food, especially Indian, French, and “eclectic European” cuisines. Click here for more on my move.