Monday, February 28, 2011

Restaurant Week 2011: Naha, Sepia, Cafe Spiaggia

This year, I finally participated in Chicago Restaurant Week. When Matt and I returned to Chicago on Tuesday, after spending the long weekend with my folks in Ohio, we were looking forward to our reservations. On Wednesday, we went to Naha for lunch. We arrived before the doors opened at 11:30 AM, but we didn’t have to wait in the cold for long before they let the growing crowd in. It was my first time at Naha. They seated us right away, and near the window, where plenty of light shone in, despite the overcast skies. The Restaurant Week options all sounded wonderful, and they really provided a nice variety of options. We skipped the wine (it was the middle of the work day, after all), and I ordered the simple salad, white fish with shrimp, and this banana dessert (whose name I couldn’t properly pronounce, let alone spell).

I loved my salad. It had plenty of crunchy beat pieces, colorful radish discs, and a nice mix of greens under a light, sweet dressing. Honestly, aside from dessert, it was my favorite part of the meal. The white fish was good, but there was something sort of licorice-y about the shrimp. I enjoyed the dish, but I wasn’t blown away.

By the time dessert arrived, we were staring anxiously at the clock. It really took forever for us to get each course, and we had to get back to work. A couple at a nearby table complained to the waiter, who replied that he was getting the food out as fast as he could. Granted, the restaurant was full, but an hour and a half for lunch? Seems excessive. Plus, I was freezing next to the window, so I felt a greater sense of urgency to wrap things up.

It’s a good thing the dessert was awesome. The dish had bananas sliced long-ways, on top of a flaky pastry with a crispy caramelized top layer, on top of some kind of custard or mousse. It had a hint of salty flavor to it, which added just the right kick. After that, it was a dash back to the office.

On Friday, we headed to Sepia for lunch. The atmosphere there is really warm. I’d describe the restaurant as having a kind of cozy eccentricity. I loved the classic chandeliers wrapped in modern cylindrical casings hanging from the ceiling. Our waiter was very welcoming—much more so than our waiter at Naha. Sepia’s Restaurant Week menu was a bit slimmer than Naha’s, however, so we decided to order from the regular menu. Matt ordered the trout, via recommendation, and I, for some reason, thought that the Cubano (a sandwich I would usually never order) with fried plantains sounded awesome.

My sandwich was, in fact, exactly as tasty as I hoped it would be. It had some kind of pickles on top of the ham that made a nice combination with the mustard. And I tore through the plantains (I love plantains). Matt’s trout, however, was amazing (I bit more of a specialty dish than my Cubano, I'd say). We were both quite satisfied with our choices. Plus, we finished lunch in just under an hour.

We wrapped up our Restaurant Week eats with Saturday dinner at Café Spiaggia. Now, I liked the atmosphere here, but our seat wasn’t great. It was the first table as you entered the dining area. We sat facing a window, which would overlook Michigan Ave., if it weren’t for a low roof directly outside the window obscuring the view. Basically, we had a lovely view of the cold drizzle falling outside. And it was chilly at that table. I repeatedly pulled my cardigan tighter around me, and Matt told me he was freezing through the whole meal.

The food, however, was excellent. First, the bread they bring to the table is delicious. I’m a total sucker for bread and olive oil. Theirs had a nice salty, cheesy light crust on top, with a little rosemary in the center. And there were large triangular crisps that were like crunchy parmesan heaven (I had to restrain myself to save room for dinner).

We stuck to the Restaurant Week menu, except for a couple of cheese plates for starters. Both of our cheese plates were tasty, but I highly recommend the buffalo mozzarella. As part of Restaurant Week, you get a little bit of each Cicchetti offering. I enjoyed the kale and the nuts, but steered clear of the olives (LOVE olive oil, but not olives). We both went with the Zucca (roasted winter squash, arugula, candied walnuts, and alpine cheese) plate for the next course, and I never realized how much I like squash. It was really delicious.

For our main courses, Matt ordered the cappellacci, and I had the wild boar gnocchi. I adore gnocchi, but if you’re choosing between the two, I’d go with the cappellacci. The dish is a little smaller, and lighter. With all of the food, the wild boar gnocchi was just a little too much for me.

For Restaurant Week dessert, you get to choose three flavors of gelato and/or sorbet. Matt went with espresso, chocolate, and chocolate hazelnut. The difference between the chocolate and the chocolate hazelnut was slight. I went with a cinnamon milk gelato, grapefruit sorbet, and mint gelato. I loved the cinnamon milk flavor—it tasted faintly like chai ice cream. I also enjoyed the grapefruit sorbet. The mint gelato tasted like chewing on mint leaves, to me, and was just a bit too strong. If only for two of the three flavors, I was excited that the dessert portions were quite generous.

We enjoyed our food at Café Spiaggia, but were quite happy to bundle up in our coats as we headed out the door.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my first Chicago Restaurant Week, and I’m still quite stuffed.

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