When it was decided that both Chris and I would be going to Chicago to see my friends and their new baby just one week before his (Chris) birthday, I decided I would take him out to dinner while we were there, sort of a double duty trip.
I started researching potential restaurants on Chowhound and Metromix and even looked at the Chicago Reader’s site. I don’t eat red meat and Chris is often lamenting this fact and making a big to-do of the few times he gets steak or a hamburger (outside of McD’s), as if my lack of cow in the house keeps him from ordering it whenever we go out. That Paleo Diet guy says you shouldn’t eat it more than a few times a month anyway. But, as it was his birthday, my first ideas included steakhouses such as Pete Miller’s. I knew my friends had gone there, Tarik is a big steak fan, and they liked it very much. I also considered places that we’d never see in mid-Michigan like Alinea. I quickly narrowed my search to the Evanston/ North Shore area. Eventually, I narrowed it down to Va Pensiero, Quince or Pete Miller’s Steakhouse as a backup in the event of reservation issues. Even though we stayed in the same building as Va Pensiero, I ended up choosing Quince because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to limit myself at Va Pensiero. Looking at their menu, I easily found at least one item from every course (including soup and salad) that I wanted to try. Quince also sounded amazing but with a more limited menu, I thought I could better control myself. And the final factor was seeing that Quince’s chef would be participating in Evanston’s Autumn Harvest celebrating local, organic, sustainable food production.
Quince is located on the main floor of the Homestead Inn, another 1920s era building like the Margarita Inn, tucked away on a quiet residential street just 2 blocks from the downtown area. However, the Homestead was designed to be a family hotel from the start. Currently, the Inn operates both daily accomodation and longer-term housing, an attractive option for frequent visitors to Northwestern University.
Quince uses OpenTable.com for on-line reservations. I originally requested 8pm but they did not have anything available so I decided later would be better and set our reservation for 8:45. On the form, you can send a special message to the restaurant; I noted that it was Chris’s birthday.
On Saturday, we decided to walk over to the restaurant as it was only about 1/2 mile away. We were delayed leaving the hotel because we needed a parking pass for the car and the clerk was a bit odd (in a different way than the previous night’s clerk). So we were about 10 minutes past our reservation time but no one else was waiting for a table when we arrived. I think you could safely walk in after 8:30 and have little to no wait.
I was a little concerned the hostess was going to seat us in one of 2 small booths right by the front door in, essentially, a hallway between the kitchen and large dining room. Fortunately, we were ushered in to the terrace room, the smaller of the two dining areas. Unfortunately, we were in the same room as a large party of 12-15 people. Its a small room and this group took up over half the space. I don’t think the group had any effect on our level of service but it was a little loud and not quite as romantic as I might have hoped.
As we had shared a bottle of wine with my friends earlier in the evening, Chris decided to stick with soda for dinner. Quince has a huge wine list, organized by size (glass, split, bottle) then by region. The half-bottle option worked out quite well for me – I was able to get a wine that worked with all courses of my dinner but not have to drink a whole bottle by myself. Of course, this did mean Chris and I had to decide on our entrees before I ordered the wine. We had each narrowed our choices down to the same 3 options: the roasted chicken, the duck or the yellowtail snapper.
I was assigned the fish entree so I chose the Lynmar Quail Hill Chardonnay (2005, Russian River Valley). A 91-pointer from Wine Spectator, I found the wine to be smooth with just a little oak but not too mineral-ly either; I don’t like wines that make your teeth taste like rocks (too much mineral).
But before the entrees, we ordered appetizers. Quince is known, perhaps even famous for, their sweetbreads so I convinced Chris to order that, even though he didn’t know what it was. The sweetbreads were served over a bed of roasted corn and topped with an “Asian-kind of” sauce or glaze (that statement is from Chris, the menu on-line is different than we had Saturday). For the record, sweetbreads are the thymus glands from a cow or pig and sometimes the pancreas. They were crispy on the outside and soft but not gooey on the inside, like a perfectly seared marshmallow.
Sweetbreads are listed on the Omnivore’s Hundred. Last week, when I completed my list, I put a line through them because I didn’t think I’d ever take a bite of sweetbreads. Turns out I was wrong. If Chris has his way, he’ll be eating them again. In fact, he half-joked about ordering another plate right then!
On Chowhound, there were numerous references to the story of the sweetbreads at Quince. The rumor is that the chef doesn’t like them but the owner insists they stay on the menu. I asked and its true. Apparently the chef’s issue is they are a pain to prepare. The owner also has certain wines that must be kept in stock at all times.
On the other side (my side), I ordered the greens to start. Otherwise known as a salad, Quince’s version was romaine and a few gourmet greens tossed with peanuts, goat cheese and a house-made vinaigrette. It was good but maybe not $8 for romaine lettuce good. And I thought they should have tossed the salad better, most of my dressing was on one side of the salad.
While we waited for our starters and periodically throughout the meal, staff came around with a basket of bread slices. From my reading, the selection varies. On this night, they had sourdough or multi-grain. Although it did keep us from stuffing ourselves mindlessly with bread, something we both would surely have regretted when the dessert menu came around, I thought it a little odd they just didn’t leave a basket on the table.
On to the entrees
As I alluded to earlier, I was assigned the fish dish: yellowtail snapper served over forbidden black rice with basil cream and red onions. The plate used to serve this dish was very cool and I wish I’d had my camera. The square dish was deep with flared sides, higher in the back than the front. I wish I had a plate like this when I was a kid and my grandma used to stick her fork over “for just a little bite.” Other than the plating, I was kind of ambivalent about the snapper. I briefly regretted not getting the duck but then I remembered that I didn’t like fava beans anyhow. And then I would have needed to order a glass of Chianti too. After I took my first bite, I all regrets were wiped away. The fish was seared crispy on the outside but still moist on the inside. The basil cream and forbidden rice combined nicely in to a slightly sweet sauce that countered the red onions really well.
Chris, after suggesting (a-hem) that I get the fish, ordered the chicken for himself. The small chicken breast was served atop a bed of very garlicky spinach. Very garlicky. Tucked in a small copper pot on the plate was the true gem of the dish: potatoes crema topped with sauteed mushrooms. The potatoes were so creamy, we first thought it was a cream gravy. I was allowed a bite. The flavors were well-balanced and the potatoes helped to tone down the garlic in the spinach. Some would probably fell there was too much garlic but we love the stuff.
La Dolce Vita
So far, Quince was batting 3 for 4 and now it was dessert time. On the menu were blueberry doughnuts, a “chocolate bar”, an assortment of fancy ice creams & sorbets plus Peanut Butter Cookies. Or, if you didn’t want sweet so much, you could get a cheese plate.
I think cheese plates are really cool. I could eat one as an appetizer, a meal or a dessert. I decided to get the cheese plate tonight and Chris, after being told the Peanut Butter Cookies take 20 minutes because they are made from scratch, “reluctantly” ordered them. The 20 minute break was actually perfect as we could digest our meals thus far.
For my cheese plate, I selected 3 cheeses (at $10/3): Crave Bros. “Les Freres”, Sweet Grass “Asher Blue” and Amanteigado “Cardus.” Along with my selections, I was served thin sliced multi-grain bread, pickled watermelon (really really good!), stewed fig, housemade blueberry jam and some nuts to accent the cheeses.
I’ll start with the Crave Bros. “Les Freres”, a goat & cow cheese from Wisconsin. Since coming home, I’ve looked on-line for more info about this cheese. It was described as having an earthy, fruity flavor on sight. I’d say it was way more on the earthy dirt side. I wouldn’t order this one again. I could really only handle it with a bit of fruit topping, the watermelon in particular. Chris really didn’t like it. I won’t repeat what he said.
I will give props to the Crave Brothers for their method of clean, renewable energy production (click on Digester System on the site).
Okay, next up “Asher Blue” from Georgia’s Sweet Grass Dairy. This is a cow’s milk cheese that is obviously, a blue cheese. Blue cheeses are made by adding Penicillium cultures to create the pockets of blue-gray mold (the good kind of mold). It occurs to me that if I’m allergic to penicillin as I recently discovered, that perhaps I shouldn’t eat blue cheese. But I rationalized that its probably a different kind of penicillin and I was going to eat it anyway. This particular variety was rich and not overly salty with a mildly tangy aftertaste. I found it tasted good on its own but went really well with the nuts and stewed figs.
Last and my favorite of the night was “Cardus” from Amanteigado in Portugal. I couldn’t find a website for a particular cheesemaker (in English, who knows what I found in Portuguese). I did learn, at 365 Cheeses, that Amanteigado translates to buttered up. And this was definitely a creamy buttery cheese. Mild and spreadable, you really could smear this on a bit of toast like butter. But the flavor goes well beyond butter in to a rich, creamy garden. This cheese also went well with the nuts and the pickled watermelon but I liked it all by itself best.
While I’m experimenting with cheese combinations, Chris was in heaven with his PB cookies. Nestled between two fresh, warm cookies (topped with sugar) was a scoop of peanut butter sorbet. The sorbet sounded a little strange at first. In fact, he almost skipped it because of the sorbet. But that whole fresh baked thing changed his mind. And it was a very good thing. The sorbet was smooth and definitely full of peanut butter flavor. I’ve had and enjoyed peanut butter ice cream. This was better because it wasn’t quite so heavy. Served with the cookie sandwich: fresh made strawberry jam. I did manage to grab a bite before the sorbet melted away.
At this point, we were thoroughly stuffed, I was feeling the wine and really done thinking about food. Remember how I mentioned including the fact that this was Chris’s birthday dinner in the reservation? With the bill:
There was a silver bowl laden with homemade chocolate truffles on the plate too. We had them boxed up since neither of us could eat another bite. Okay, we did each have one then and there but the rest were boxed up and made for quite a delicious snack on Sunday’s car ride back to the real world.
Aside from a a few minor issues with the salad and our table location, this was a pretty fantastic meal. Everything was fresh, prepared well and beautifully presented. Our multiple servers were attentive but not intrusive nor impatient and our main waitress happily answered my questions about the sweetbreads story. Not surprisingly, this was an expensive meal and a rare treat. Even if we lived closer, I can’t imagine Quince being a more than once or twice a year thing, if that. It was suberb cuisine but Chicago is filled with places I’d love to try just once. A very big plus for us on this night: the dress code is very casual. At one point Chris asked why I didn’t take us to Charlie Trotter’s, since I talk about it a lot. Besides the decidedly higher price tag, Charlie Trotter’s requires weeks in advance reservations and has a jacket-required dress code.
Website with menus (the menu was slightly different than presented here but the main themes were the same)
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday: 5:30 to 9:30, Friday: 5:30 to 10
Saturday: 5 to 10, Sunday: 5 to 9
Location: in The Homestead Inn 1625 Hinman, Evanston, IL
Reservations available at 847-570-8400 or via OpenTable.com, casual dress, smoke-free of course, parking is valet or sometimes difficult to find streetside.
If you go, consider the special tasting menu (just ask the staff) or maybe reserving the kitchen table. If you sit in the kitchen you can watch your meal be prepared by the youngest kitchen staff I have ever seen (check the website for pictures).
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