Archive for August, 2011

Aviary & Office ~ Chicago, IL

Posted 26 Aug 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Food Alert Trends

Cloudy Grey Chicago

It’s one of those warm comfortable yet rainy evenings when the air is dry enough to evaporate within minutes the droplets that rest on the surface of my lightly moistened blue sport coat. I am in Chicago and the sun is straining to break through the smoky gray clouds just over my head. Out of pure luck and a true comedy of errors I unexpectedly find myself in line just outside of Aviary, Chef Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas’ widely regarded gastro-bar on West Fulton Market. It’s a Saturday night and I am alone surrounded by a group of polished, beautiful people waiting to enter the hippest bar in the country. They have reservations. I do not.


Outside Aviary & Office

It’s a funny story really. A friend and I agree to meet on short notice in Chicago for a quick drive to Iowa for some personal business. He departs his airport at 5:00 pm and I depart my airport at 5:00pm, we assume our arrival times are identical. I land at 6:00 pm and text him to see where he is and find that he hasn’t left yet and is just arriving at his airport. For a split second I am confused then I laugh. Like knuckleheads we both failed to take into consideration the time zone difference between us. His 5:00 pm departure will put him in Chicago at 8:00 pm; I now have two hours of precious time to spare. We both joke via text at our mutual lack of mindfulness. Shortly after he texts me back and asks which airport I landed at, O’Hare or Midway. Of course I am at Midway and he is headed to O’Hare which is 45 minutes to the north. This is getting ridiculous. I agree to grab a rental car and head north to O’Hare to meet him.  Thirty minutes later I am headed out to route 55 on my way to O’Hare when he texts me again, he’s delayed for two hours and wont land until 10:00 in the evening. Now I have just over three hours of found time to kill. Without hesitation I key the address for Aviary into my GPS and head into town (admit it, you would do the same).

The Bird Cage at Aviary

I pull to the curb on West Fulton Market.  Aviary is around here somewhere. There is no sign, nor is there a street number on the building that I can see. The line of people standing in front of an entrance to a brick commercial building at the corner of West Fulton Market and North Morgan Street clues me in.  Walking the wide sidewalk lined with hard plastic seating and neatly trimmed arborvitae, I approach a gentleman keeping watch just in front of the door with a clip board in his hand and a secret service ear piece in his ear. The doorman asks for my name, scanning his reservation list. I give him my name and inform him that I don’t have a reservation. He smiles and radios in to dispatch that he has a single walk-up at the door and departs to speak with the next group of guests. Fifteen minutes later I am inside sitting at a large high-backed upholstered banquette surrounded by the same beautiful people who were waiting outside with me just moments ago.

Cocktail Kitchen

Aviary is dimly lit inside. The interior is sultry, minimalist, and sexy more than romantic. To the right of the entrance is a steel cage with seating on one side and the kitchen on the other, this must be the bird cage. The space is chic, modern, monochromatic, and runs with a steady air of exclusivity and the prices to go with it. Like Alinea, there’s a prix fixe cocktail menu (3 drinks for $45) and drinks sold a la carte. The range of cocktail options is wide, from a classic Margarita with agave, Fresno chili, and rare tequila to a contemporary peach cocktail with maple sap, angostura, white port, and wheat whiskey. Food selections are limited to a list of ten “bites” which are actually small hors d’ oeuvres sold in groups of three (between $3 and $5 each).

A Peek at NEXT

I order the Margarita to get things started and it exceeds my expectations. The balance between the sweet agave and sour lime is contrasted by the time-released heat of the Fresno chili which is encapsulated in ice cubes and blends in as they melt. The more you drink,the less liquid in the glass, the greater the proportion of melting ice, the spicier the drink (how cool is that). And that’s the point. Aviary is an amazing place because it is so well thought out. From the mysterious unmarked exterior to the polished high-end interior, Aviary reflects a deep level of planning and design. The kitchen and cocktail preparation area is unlike any that I have seen right down to the custom stainless work tables and curved drink wells. Innovation is manifest in every corner. I take a few more sips of my drink and set it aside (I have to drive later and need to take it easy).

The Secret Door to Office

After sampling a few “bites” I wrap things up and get ready to leave in an effort to remain conservative with my spending (one problem with Aviary is that it is ridiculously expensive). My server stops over and inquires whether I would like to visit the private, invitation only speak-easy located in the basement. It’s an offer I can refuse. The “Office” is a classic sixteen seat masculine feeling, leather and hard-wood bar and a stark contrast to Aviary. Taking a seat at the bar, I initiate what becomes an hour long discussion with the bar tender while sampling two more cocktails. I order a plate of Oysters (Island Creeks from Duxbury, MA) and they’re served with a plate of six essential oils in small glass bottles with stoppers. The essential oils are a simple innovation that adds tremendous flavor to the oyster without spoiling such a pure, flavorful food.

Island Creek Oysters, Essential Oils

Time running short and my wallet is now empty so I head back up the stairs and out the door. Reflecting on my time at Aviary and the Office it strikes me how well organized, efficient, and profitable this little corner of the culinary world is (including Next which is right next door). It isn’t a secret that running a fine dining restaurant like Alinea isn’t the most efficient way to make money. Aviary, the Office and Next absolutely are. Just as Alinea was a laboratory for Achatz to exercise his culinary genius, my guess is that Aviary, the Office and Next were deeply influenced by Kokonas’ expertise in making money, something he proved as a commodities trader in Chicago. Over the next 24-36 months Achatz and Kokonas will be flush with additional financial resources generated from the successful business model Aviary, Office and Next have become. With all those resources, I wonder what they will come up with next.

The Office Bar


 The Aviary & Office

953 W Fulton Market

Chicago, IL 60607

(312) 867-0110

The Home Port ~ Martha’s Vineyard

Posted 16 Aug 2011 — by S.E.
Category Full Service, Travel, Warms My Heart

You would think that sustainable seafood is a focus on Martha’s Vineyard but it isn’t, at least not to the extent it should be. Some restaurants, more than a few in fact, offer a sustainable choice or two but there are few if any as dedicated to sustainable seafood as The Home Port restaurant in the sleepy little fishing village of Menemsha located on the lower west side of this triangle shaped island. Don’t get me wrong, there are good restaurants on the island and some of them offer a sustainable seafood choice or two but none have integrated sustainable seafood into the operation in a manner that even comes close to The Home Port.

The Home Port Restaurant Back Deck, Menemsha, MA

The Home Port is an institution. In business since 1930, it’s a beloved landmark and family dining destination. Situated just on the eastern side of Menemsha harbor The Home Port faces south west offering deck side diners a view of one of the nicest sunsets on the east coast. My first visit here was twenty years ago and nothing about the restaurant has changed….except the menu.

Dining Room with Blue Glasses

I arrive in a group of four and a smiling college-age server leads us over to a table along the far wall along a bank of windows. She takes a quick beverage order (The Home Port is BYOB) and departs for a few seconds while we settle in. The sun is hanging low over the horizon painting the interior of the restaurant in light orange and yellow. Tables are hard pine and maple as are the walls and trim that compliment solid wooden chairs with just the right patina for a restaurant this old. The flatware and china are simple and you won’t find table linens or cloth napkins here.  This is the type of place where, when eating a lobster, you wear a goofy plastic bib printed with a step-by-step set of instructions for how to eat it (you know the one). No pretension here. Dozens of fish, well preserved by a taxidermist, line an entire wooden wall.  It’s such a wonderful, bright, warm and inviting dining room and I love being here.

Customers Under Taxidermied Fish

For years the Mayhew family (a Vineyard institution in and of themselves) ran The Home Port. More recently, for 32 years until 2009 to be precise, Will Holtham owned and operated the restaurant. Holtham, author of the just released Home Port Cookbook, decided to sell in 2009 and the Town of Chilmark proposed purchasing it for cool $2,000,000 so they could demolish it in the name of progress…a parking lot and public bathrooms. Enter a counter offer from Bob and Sara Nixon, owners of the Menesha and Beach Plum Inns. After a quick vote by the residents of the Town of Chilmark, the Nixon’s saved The Home Port and Holtham was on his way into retirement, cash, recipes and cookbook deal in hand.

Oysters on the Back Deck

After becoming involved with the local Fisherman’s Association Sara announced on May 27th, 2011 that The Home Port would only serve locally caught fish. By locally caught, she means fish that are caught in the coastal waters surrounding the island and landed on local docks.  I love it (go Sarah)! No one on the island is as deeply committed to sustainable seafood as Sarah and Bob and they changed their business model to prove it. This is why I am here.

Server With Specials

My server is back and she presents the table with a medium sized chalk board that lists all the specials for the evening. The Cherry Stones and Little Necks are from Menemsha (delicious), the Oysters are from Katama (exquisite), the Fluke, Bluefish and Squid are from Menemsha too. I order the bluefish with creamed corn just to give it a shot. To my delight, the fish is absolutely delicious and perfectly cooked. Bluefish is great but is has to be perfectly fresh, the fish has no shelf life. It’s best when seared or broiled hot with the skin intact, scales removed, since the flesh cooks quickly and falls apart easily. My fish had the skin intact, was crispy on the top and moist in the middle. Most people think of bluefish as a trash fish but when served correctly like this, it’s wonderful. I also have a taste of the local fluke and, although presented
simply (almost too simply) it too is perfectly cooked and well seasoned if not a bit ugly.

Blue Fish Looking at You

As I said before, The Home Port serves simple food. You won’t find the latest culinary trend or the most outrageous presentations in the world but you will find good and, better yet, local fish served properly cooked and well seasoned. Arrive just before sunset, sit on the back deck, bring your own booze and order one of the local sustainable seafood items. Enjoy!

Sautéed Fluke with Lemon Brown Butter, Kale and Local
Tomatoes, Boiled Potatoes

Broiled Bluefish with Parsley Butter and Local Creamed Corn

Menemsha Sunset

The Home Port Restaurant

512 North Road

Menemsha, MA 02252

(508) 645-2679

Louie’s Back Yard ~ Key West, FL

Posted 08 Aug 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Travel

Pepe’s Restaurant circa 1909

Arriving in Key West, I research the local restaurant scene and make some decisions about where to go. A couple of restaurants attract my interest but, to be honest, I am just as exited to take some time and wander around town having last been here more than five years ago. I like the Key’s, the local pink shrimp, Jimmy Buffet, Ernest Hemingway, and treasure hunter Mel Fisher. The great many free spirits that call the Conch Republic home add texture and because of them Key West always provides for something unusual or unexpected. Stepping out of the steaming hot rental car, I am punched in the face by the humidity and heat. I need a cold drink. That’s how things start in Key West; the heat naturally forces you to find a cold drink and soon enough things are loosened up. Time to find a watering hole and some vittles.

Key West Cuban Coffee Queen

Prior to driving to lunch I roll over to Caroline Street for a Cuban Coffee on ice to accompany me while I drive. The Cuban Coffee Queen serves the best coffee and Panini sandwiches on the island and it’s still early enough for another cup. Plus, the location is nice for a short stroll. There are souvenir shops right next to the Coffee Queen with just the kind of strange, cheap, waste-of-money things that captivate me. Further down on the waterfront huge tarpon roll underneath the docks and perform if you toss some bait into the water.  Right across the street from the queen is Pepe’s restaurant, one of the oldest in Key West. One quick stop for coffee and I am starting to feel settled into a Key West groove and ready to eat.

Coconut Pirates Heads ~ Tourist Trap on Waterfront

Key West has always had good restaurants. On this trip, I am looking for an established place to eat not the most recent or trendiest. It doesn’t take long for me to head to Louie’s Back Yard. In addition to chasing a cold drink and some food, the other reason I am at Louie’s Back Yard is so I can sit on the back deck and soak in the vibe just like Chef Norman Van Aken did back in 1987. I even selected the time of day to approximate Norman’s experience as closely as possible; Norman had his epiphany while sitting on the deck during the morning. You see, Norman Van Aken, a chef who I have admired for more than 25 years and the one, who arguably gave birth to what we recognize as the regional cuisine of south Florida, was the chef at Louie’s Back Yard back in 1987. It was just five years after Pat and Phil Tenney bought the place and renovated it in 1982 that Norman decided to shift his culinary focus to a Nuevo Cuban

Louie’s Back Yard

It didn’t take long or people to notice. Under Van Aken’s watch, a young Charlie Trotter ventured own to the Keys and spent a season in the kitchen earning his stripes in the Conch Republic. Trotter points to this time with Van Aken as critical to his own culinary development and focus. Twenty five years later and I am sitting on the back deck, ice cold beverage in hand, enjoying a light breeze. Although I don’t expect to find anything new or earth shattering at Louie’s or major urban technical cuisine this far into seasonal tourist territory, I know the food is good and the restaurant has made its mark on American regional cuisine.

Louie’s Back Yard Interior

Back in January 2011 the New York Times published a “36 hours in” article on Key West and mentioned Louie’s as a perfect place for a cold cocktail comparing it to an “outdoor Cheers” with a crowd of artists and displaced New Englanders escaping the cold. Today, the deck is nearly empty because it’s so hot but people appear to be enjoying themselves. The view is stunning and service is sound if not slowed a bit because of the heat.  Rather than fuss I order the daily fish special and then screen the menu for the most unusual thing I can find.

Louie’s Back Yard Deck

The special is straight out of Norman Van Aken’s play book consisting of a sautéed Yellow Tail Snapper over grilled peach cous cous with watercress salad. Simply prepared and presented, this dish is correctly cooked and delicious. It is also light as a feather and just the kind of entrée for the weather. The other dish I order is a bid odd but certainly interesting. It consists of two large poached duck eggs drizzled with wasabi hollandaise on toast topped with crab legs. Small round soy pearls are sprinkled over the top of the dish as garnish. This is not a dish Norman would have served nor one that quite fits my image of Louie’s but the draw of modernist cuisine goes far and wide; all the way down to Key West I guess. The Snapper is a winner, the duck eggs are tasty but don’t fit my preconceived notion of Key West cuisine. Still, Louie’s Back Yard remains worth the trip and the traditional dishes on the menu are outstanding. The restaurant is extremely well maintained and is a standout compared to many in Key West and the service crew is dedicated and professional, another unique feature compared to other restaurants in the Keys.

Louie’s Back Yard Bar

It’s just past mid-day now, I am finished eating and wander down to the deck bar and grab a seat in the shade facing the ocean. Although I wonder if Hemingway ever visited this house, I am sure that Van Aken did and that his presence can still be felt here all these years later.


Ciabatta, Dried Cranberry Nut Muffins


Sweet Crab and Duck Eggs Benedict with Wasabi Hollandaise and Soy


Sautéed Yellow Tail Snapper over Grilled Peach Cous Cous with
Watercress Salad


Louie’s Back Yard

700 Waddell Ave

Key West, FL