You tell me. What do we do? Excellent food, reasonable prices, no room to move, too loud for ordinary conversation (across a two-top, no less), and pleasant but slow service. Thats my dilemma having eaten at Tweet last night with the Lovely Dining Companion (LDC).
We arrived about ten minutes early for our 7 pm reservation and were seated right away. Before we could even make it to the table, the effects of cramped quarters set in. LDC couldnt even make it to the far side of our table in her coat without taking the risk of knocking over all the glassware. The table to my left was eight inches away, no more. The table on the right, perhaps twelve inches. This is not a place for claustrophobics. Even walking down the single aisle to get to the table took a while because there is really only enough room for one person at a time. Between the party seated next to us, which had also just arrived, the servers and busboys, and earlier diners departing, it took over five minutes just to be seated.
Once in place, our waiter arrived promptly and introduced us to the menu and the restaurant. The menu, he said, changes daily, hence he would not be giving us any daily specials-they were all on the menu. We were both pleased that he was friendly and gave us his complete attention. A single page sheet offered a soup (french onion), three intriguing salads, and six small plates, all of which ran in the $6 - $10 range, emphasis at the lower end. Whether it was the luck of the draw, intentional, or otherwise, there was a decided French emphasis in the appetizers: croque monsieur, duck confit sandwich (!), mussels, and frogs legs. There were also two different cheese plates (something, I confess, I could have been much more interested in as a dessert than an appetizer).
We settled on haloumi, made by pan-searing Cyprus cheese and serving it on a do-it-yourself plate together with grilled ciabatta (bread), a fig-onion relish, and oil-cured black olives. The intense sweetness of the relish mated nicely with the salty bite of the cheese; the olives, though delicious, were too few in number to have a significant effect on the taste. All in all, a real change of pace that we both enjoyed (we split the dish).
(For the terminally curious, haloumi is actually the name of a semi-hard sheep's milk cheese made in Cyprus. It can be used many ways, though my research shows that frying is common. If you're really curious, there's a link below to a very interesting site discussing it.)
The entrée selection also leaned Gaul-ward. In addition to a New York strip and a pork chop, choices included poulet veronique, a duck breast, boeuf bourguignon, Rounding out the choices were an eggplant involtini (sliced, roasted, and stuffed). Prices ranged from $15 for the beef burgundy to $23 for the steak.
Our appetizer arrived in good time and, as might be gathered from the description, did not take long to consume. We were, therefore, a bit surprised when dinner didnt arrive until more than an hour after our initial arrivalperhaps 45 minutes after we had completed the appetizer. The restaurant was about half to two-thirds full. Our entrees were not, I would have thought, exceptionally time-consuming: LDC ordered the bouillabaisse and I had the pork chop. The long wait allowed us time to eavesdrop on others, admire the surroundings (a bit dark albeit without being gloomy; opposing walls are covered with a variety of interesting art on one side and extremely large mirrors), and to listen to the music.
At one point, I recall commenting that the music was undoubtedly loud because otherwise the conversation would have drowned it out. There are no soft surfaces in Tweet. Hard floor, hard walls, hard ceiling. There is nothing to muffle or absorb sound and I got increasingly tired of having to concentrate so hard on what my wife was saying when she was sitting only two feet away from me.
Her bouillabaisse came with a generous portion of clams, mussels, shrimp, and blue cod. The bouillabaisse also included fennel, potatoes, garlic, and tomatoes all in the appropriately rich saffron-enriched sauce. LDC has a low tolerance for spiciness and asked if the bouillabaisse would be too hot. Though she was told no quite unequivocally, she nevertheless found it spicy to her taste. (In fairness, LDC is quite sensitive and I would imagine that the great majority of diners would not consider this bouillabaisse spicy.) The big surprise here was the portion size. It was adequate for my wife but she is quite small at 5 and 100 pounds. She didnt complain that there was too little, but did comment that she thought most people would not have had enough. I, for one, dont think that I would have been as satisfied as she was with the portion.
As to the dish itself, although the seafood was ample, the blue cod seemed to be in short supply. I should also point out, as she has, that when she had the bourride at Pili Pili a few weeks ago, the portion was not only larger but was served, as expected, with a generous helping of rouille and the requisite hunks of crusty bread. Neither rouille nor bread (beyond what was in the bread basket) were in evidence at Tweet.
My pork chop was roasted, served with an herb stuffing, swiss chard, and a very sweet thyme-maple glaze. I loved it. The meat was trimmed beautifully, cooked precisely, and simply delicious. I thought that the glaze worked well not only with the pork chop, but with the stuffing and the swiss chard, which was a good thing since the glaze covered the whole plate. Again, however, equal time obliges me to report that LDC found the glaze too sweet. Though she enjoyed her taste of the chop, she found the glaze so sweet as to be off-putting. I did everything but lick my plate. The entrees were $19 each-eminently reasonable (if not better). Both were beautifully presented and both my wife and I greatly enjoyed our food. We also ordered the two available side dishes: she had the sauteed baby spinach with poached garlic; I ordered the mixed mushrooms in a cognac cream sauce. Both, at $6 each, were excellent.
A word on the new wine list. (For those who havent been in a while, please note: Tweet is no longer BYOB.) I did NOT examine it for bottles. LDC does not drink alcohol so I am becoming an expert of the by the glass portion of wine lists in Chicago. There were about four each of white and red. Again, reflecting the menu itself, the prices are somewhere between reasonable and downright inexpensive ($4.50 to 10, if memory serves). But I found nothing that interested me. I was willing to consider both reds and whites but was disappointed to discover nothing that even remotely interested or impressed me. One could, in fairness, say that this reflects more on me than on the wine list-but I was disappointed to find nothing that even tempted me.
The dessert menu, though not large (seven items), is inventive and we both found it quite tempting. Again, prices are eminently reasonable: a tray of assorted petit fours that is said to serve 2-4, costs $12, two kinds of gelati at $4 each, and the other desserts ranged from $5 - $7. There is a vanilla bean creme brulee (with shortbread cookies and Amarena cherries), a peanut butter mousse with peanut brittle and other things (sorry I cant recall the details) and red velvet cake with toasted pecan cream cheese frosting. (We saw it displayed on our way outits three layers must have stood a good seven or eight inches high!) The on-line dessert menu includes the two American artisanal cheese plates, one a selection of three cheeses ($12) and one of four ($15). The cheeses are not identified. Unfortunately, I do not recall seeing the cheese plates on the dessert menu. Only listed as appetizers, so I didnt realize that they were available.
LDC had dulce de leche gelato: in a word, exquisite. Extraordinarily flavorful and just scrumptious in every way. I chose a warm cranberry-hazelnut financier (think of a timbale, only sweet) with vanilla bean gelato and Grand Marnier-orange caramel. Not too sweet, with a side of sweetened cranberries beautifully done. I am not a huge vanilla fan but my LDC pronounced the vanilla bean gelato as impressive as the dulce de leche, very vanilla-y. Coffee, for those who are interested, is from Intelligentsia and, as expected, excellent. Again, however, and to our surprise, there was a relatively long and unexplained delay (fifteen minutes or more) between ordering the desserts and receiving them.
Our issues are three: unexplained delays (our waiter came by at one point, wholly umprompted by us, to assure us that the entrees were, indeed, on their way) in a house that was never completely full; dismayingly cramped quarters; and-worst of all-the noise. As I noted at the top of this review, it was difficult to carry on a conversation; not only was it absolutely necessary to speak loudly, it was difficult to hear your table companion even across a small two-top. Because everyone there must raise his or her voice, the small space quickly becomes noisy and simple conversation becomes a chore. Add music and an otherwise enjoyable room with excellent food becomes an experience neither of us is eager to repeat. Could we order our entrees to go?
As we waited to leave (the traffic problem again), the friendly maitre d told us about Tweets website (www.tweet.biz), their e-mail newsletter, and engaged us both in a very pleasant conversation. Then, as he turned to seat a new table, the woman who returned with our coats made sure that we had our treat to take home: two generously sized chocolate-chip brownie that was dense and chewy, very excellent in the words of the LDC.
I will, I suspect, continue to be torn. The food was excellent and very reasonably priced. The menu (and this comment goes for both the dinner menu and the dessert menu), while not large, is varied and virtually every dish is intriguing for its preparation or its accompaniments or both. The side dishes, as noted, were both excellent, though we were both disappointed not to have more than two choices. Service was attentive. But the noise level and the cramped feel made for a far less than enjoyable dinner. Perhaps circumstances are better during the week. But its a shame for such truly wonderful food to be handicapped by circumstances that are so relatively easy to change. Weve decided that we need to drop by for brunch on a weekend to see how that goes, but for now, dinner will be elsewhere.
P.S. For those who have never been, Tweet is cash only.
P.P.S. Also noted as we prepared to leave: there is a elevated area in the front window that holds two tables (a la Dellwood Pickle, for those who remember). Plenty of room up there and , because it is effectively isolated from the rest of the restaurant, I imagine that it is much quieter up there. Definitely a place to request next time.
5020 N. Sheridan Road
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