Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Urban Belly - A great strip mall find

Urban Belly is a new "Foody" restaurant opened by a veteran from Le Lan (named Zagat's top Asian Restaurant 2008) that focuses on a limited menu, knows what it does well, is BYOB, and has a stark yet friendly feel with long tables. These sharing tables encourage the sharing of at least your libations, if not your food. We did share our meals and enjoyed them with a couple of brought beers. This could be a new template for a whole new way of dining in these troubled times.

The big question you have on entering and settling is, should you be paying $11-$13 for a noodle dish, $7-$9 for rice dishes, and $7-$8 for dumplings in this strip-mall setting? The answers from our recent experience are yes, yes, and a qualified yes.

On a recent trip we entered for a late lunch and were greeted by the superb wait staff / cashier lady. From the front counter you can see right into the small kitchen, and heading the troops was the chef and co-owner Bill Kim.

The menu holds a mere handful of selections from each of the three primary areas (mentioned above) plus several side dishes. We had the pleasure of sharing #9 Phat Rice, which is a sampling of all three rices #6,7,and 8. The combination included a succulent short rib beef and scallion portion, smoky and soft pork belly and pineapple, and refreshing organic pea shoots and Thai basil. We also had #14 Asian egg noodles stir fried with spicy garlic chili, Tofu, and Chinese Eggplant, with just the right hotness level with subtly toothsome noodles. We had no room for a dumpling order, but trust they are as carefully prepared.

As other diners were enjoying their selections, we felt compelled to savor every last morsel of our lovelies. Lunch was uncrowded and unhuried. The spicy noodles paired well with a final beloved bottle of New Glarus Imperial Weizen from last summer.

Note that the neighboring store is a laundromat, and that parking is not allowed on that side of the lot. Not a big issue. Overall, an A rating for this surprisingly nice and relaxed high end noodle haven, an oasis in a strip mall!!

Comments from the host blogger and guest MrQuartetman.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Recent Evolution of Chicagoland Beer Retailing

Here is a 30 thousand foot view of the beer retailing market. Why the review now? It's important to know how far beer retailing has come, and where it's going. The continued growth and increasing share of micro-brewed beer depends on a healthy retail environment. And much of the retail improvement has come over the past 2-3 years.

Witness these observations:

- Most Whole Foods stores now have good multi-pack and single bottle beer lineups, including 6 drafts at the Grill at the new Sauganash location
- Lush Wine & Spirits, with two locations, Drinks over Dearborn, and In Fine Spirits are all new in the past 2 years, and are similarly small shops which stock primarily singles of hard to find micros, and some vintage ones too.
- The re-birth of Armanetti's on Lincoln (and the others still in the chain), now a much better location for micros.
- The growth and commitment of Binny's, which has hired some of the best beer experts in the city, capped by the giant selection and tasting bar at the new South Loop location.
- Archer Liquors has become a major internet retailer.
- Even local grocery stores have stepped up to the plate.

This commitment has incentivized brewers across the board to responded to and fill this growing demand. Now we have new bottles coming from Flossmoor Station, Metropolitan, Half Acre, and a renewed commitment to specialty bombers by Goose Island. We have many more varieties of high quality Belgian beers now. We have drawn distribution interest from major West Coast players like Lost Abbey/Port Brewing and even a Wisconsin brewer (Tyranena).

Bars have upped their lists as well, witness the growth in the bars qualifying as beer destinations for Chicago as defined by Beer Advocate.

These are good times indeed, and the perishable nature of beer will keep supply and demand in check. It's much easier now to get the style and precise beer you want. Much easier to find a single of that beer for tasting. Much easier to compare prices across the internet sites of the predominant retailers. And much easier to find it close to your home or office.

We have one of the best markets environments for the purchase of beer. It's all due to the changing demand of the Chicagoland beer drinker - keep those microbrews coming.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

It's All Over Except for the Shouting

Our very own Great Lakes Brewing News, available in print at most beer bars and brewpubs, recently hosted the "National IPA Championship" at various venues around the Midwest and Northeast. I'm guessing New York City falls into the Great Lakes area definition, as that is where the final taste-off was held. The full bracket layout with results is here.

I note that both craft brewers and brewpubs were represented. As many of the brewpubs don't have bottle production, we'll never see them here. They probably had the advantage vs. the commercial production entries since they could produce a "one-off" version of their best try. Indeed, the winner was from a brewpub, Laurelwood Brewing Company, Portland, OR.

Laurelwood was the only brewpub in the "final four" - the others included Tyranena's Bitter Woman, a favorite of mine from Wisconsin, Big Sky's Big Sky IPA, and Rogue's Yellow Snow IPA. Happily all these are more or less available in the greater Chicagoland market. Find them if you can and if you love hoppy beer.

I find that IPA's are a good gateway beer for novices. There are few ball breakers in this style, rather just good spicy beers, with solid malt backbones, usually around 6% or less alcohol by volume. Other locals to seek out include the highly loved Two Hearted from Bells, Dark Horse IPA, and Arcadia's India Pale Ale. all from our neighbors in Michigan. And of course Goose Island makes a very good one, it just wasn't in this competition.

Note: the Title of this blog entry is a "shout out" to my late friend Steve Wlodarczyk whom I got the saying from (usually a reference to a disputed competition or tragedy) and was a great lover of beer. The next one's for you Steve.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Rare Beers Get Another Friend in the Market

Lust Wine and Spirits has of yet no website (a blog only), two locations (one in Roscoe Village and one near UIC in University Village), and a focus on wine, with a sophisticated owner (the Twisted Spoke guys) is a rare and good / great beer retail location in Chicagoland. MrQuartetman and I paid a visit to the University Village location in early March, and despite a mere one cooler of beer, they have an excellent beer lady (we met her) and some nice rare selections.

The shop holds tens of wines, lots of good ones, and a long wooden bar with wine selections and one beer tap (out when we were there), and a quite small footprint overall.

According to the beer lady this is the go to place for Goose Island's rare bottles. It may be the only place that has bombers of Extremely Naughty Goose, and it's no wonder it's only here, at $30 per bottle. Mr. Hall (Goose owner) apparently asked them to sell it as a rarity (to pay for the new website?). It is a great ale, but too pricy for us. Try this rarity at Goose Clybourn, currently on tap for no more than $7.

They also have Hitachino's Commemorative Ale, Poperings Hommel ale, Sam Adam's Double Bock, and several more rare singles, no sixpacks here, no macros. Most bottles were fairly priced considering the rarity.

This place joins West Lakeview Liquors as among the few retail locations in Chicagoland where you can find unique and even well "aged" beers.

We recently ran into Sam's Clybourn beer buyer recently and noted that they carry some rarities, like the 2002 Aventinus, a wheat dopplebock, which the maker ages in it's own mountain cellars. So in a pinch you can now find a few places around the city to pick up a well aged beer. Not all beers hold up well over time, they usually must be bottle conditioned (live yeast still in the bottle) and higher alcohol (usually above 8% by volume). Bottle conditioned Ales that are well aged can be spectacular.

I would site one I had recently as the beer of the year so far, a 2003 version of Bare Trees, a wheatwine (reviewed in detail at the link by dOb, the guy who brought it to the tasting, thank you man) made by Two Brothers. Sublime.

Good to see these stores know that some beers age as well as most wines. Great to have them around and I hope they keep up with more well aged beers.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Nice Spot on a Golf Course?

Yes, the Wilmette Public Golf Club off Lake Ave. has a totally rebuilt clubhouse with a hoppin' dinner location. It serves as the 19th hole for golfers but it's much more than that.

We went on a Friday with neighbors who know one of the serving staff. That helps this review for sure, but the food was very well done. Seafood or Fish fry platters for all, and all were enjoyed. A nice starter salad, plus full plate (two options) with each entree make this a bagain meal around $12 per head. Now on top of that they have decent taps, including Sam Adams, Fat Tire, and Anchor Steam. A big full menu beyond the Friday fish specials, from sandwiches to steaks. For the food and atmosphere, a B+ and considering the value in a A's for sure. The beer list could use more micros, but not a bad selection considering.

Great for families or couples going out, the only complaint is that the crowd is older, no teens or 20's here. Well we weren't looking for a disco anyway. Much fun and good value food to be had.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Update on the Craft Beer Segment by the WSJ

From today's WSJ, paper of the American Dream, craft beer is doing well, even in tough times. Included are comments by the Metropolitan folks, our newest makers of craft beer (mostly lagers which is fine with me).

Friday, March 6, 2009

Lagers to Love, There are More Than a Few Out There

I don't submit for all of these monthly blogging Sessions built around a theme, but #25 is dear to my heart, entitled Love Lagers. As the host The Beer Nut describes it,

"It's the world's most popular style of beer and can be found in abundance in almost every corner of the globe. For millions of people the word "beer" denotes a cold, fizzy, yellow drink -- one which is rarely spoken of among those for whom beer is a hobby or, indeed, a way of life."
I was until quite recently a lager basher. After joining the ale revolution several years ago thanks to mrquartetman, I fell in love with these top fermenting beauties for their aromas, complexities, higher alcohol (gotten over that), and overall wonderful tastes. Ale, after all, was the original beer; weak ones were used in place of food, and were safer than water, by Middle Age folks, both adult and kids, of old Europe.

It was the German's in the 19th century who figured out how to brew with bottom feeding yeast, at colder temperatures, and lagered these brews, or stored them for aging and smoothness. Good beer, well made, then bastardized by the Americans who adopted the German style, if not the purity laws. Lagers were responsible for pushing ales out of America. With the bastardization of adjuncts (corn, rice, etc.) added, our beers became proverbial piss water. So what if people wanted clear beer, this is not champagne folks, although some are starting to push that way.

Well thankfully, home brewing came back in 1978 (thanks Mr. Carter) and ales returned. Many of the thriving micro-brewers who now produce tens of thousands of barrels annually started as homebrewers. American craft brewers, now to mention many homebrewers, have picked up the Lager mantle and are now producing some of the best in the world. In particular, one of my favorite brewers, New Glarus, seems to have the best handle on lager styles. Witness their recent unplugged release of Bohemian Lager. A Lager I can love. The smell and taste are best described by a fellow Chicagoan blogger I know:
The smell is crisp and clean but with a of a balance of aromatic hops and malts. Clean crackery/biscuity and light toffee/caramel malt sweetness intermingles with grassy/floral and semi-spicy noble hoppiness that add a good little bite. I even get some light lemony accents in the smell when I take deep whiffs. If this were a bit more pungent it would smell really amazing.

The taste is even better than the smell. Very bright, crisp, clean, and most importantly - balanced. Crackery/doughy, light toffee, and pale/pils malt sweetness does an intricate and delicate dance with great spicy/floral/grassy hop flavor and bitterness with a seemingly light-oak character. More lightly lemony notes come out as it open up. It has such a great clean profile but still lots of intricate flavors, which I find most pilsners/lagers lack for my tastes.
Yes, this is a lager anyone could love, take that AB and Miller!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Bug Up My Ass

The recent Coors marketing ploy has been bugging me for months now. Since when did Coors become the "Banquet Beer". Marketing goofiness aside, this is no banquet beer with current plethora of wonderful micros out there, over 1,500 US makers at last count. Coors is a regular C- rated American Adjunct Lager, according to Beer Advocate. I remember it as a near-mythical beast, nearly impossible to acquire in the Midwest, it was supposed to be well worth it for the lucky few who were able to lay their hands on some. And I did, at least the 3.2% abv version allowed for under 18 folks on a near mythical trip to the mountains.

It was the summer of 1975, prior to senior year in high school, my close friends and I made a June trip out to Colorado to climb the mountains. We had a drive-away (one way) car, which you could get as a 17yr old in those days (not anymore I believe). The four of us shared driving, made it from suburban Chicagoland to Denver in just over 20 hours. We had heard of the legendary Coors, but had never seen it.

We went straight for the town of Estes Park, not stopping for anything as we had precise reservations for camp sites. We hiked the dusty, barren Rocky Mountain National Park for 7 days, drinking only water from the streams. Over the week we came to appreciate the value of water, and possible beer filled our dreams at 10,000 feet. Once we came down dusty and worn out, we found a store that had the 3.2 Coors. I still question why we didn't seek it out before the hike, maybe we thought we'd never actually go up. Anyway, after surviving on tasty but plain water for 7 days, this 3.25 stuff tasted like the proverbial mothers milk, absolutely fabulous!! And it didn't seem to have the graininess or mouth puckering bitterness, and maybe it was a bit sweeter and smoother than the Schlitz or Old Milwaukee or Blatz we were used to. Sucking down 2-3 in the first half hour off the mountains seemed very normal.

Now at normal elevation, I can't bring myself to purchase Coors, certainly not a six pack, maybe a tall boy if I sought it out. I know it would be a disappointment, after close to 35 years how could it be otherwise.

I recently had the Schlitz 60's recipe on draft, it wasn't bad. Maybe the Coors back then was better, I suppose we'll never know. In any event I can't go back, and I don't want to, nor do I feel I have time enough to test every old favorite out there, there are too many full flavored ales and lagers to write home about now, but maybe the Banquet Beer deserves another shot. I will always think of it as the mountain beer, and a refreshing one at that.