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Long Report – Riccardo, Hai Yen, Publican, Hot Chocolate, Phoenix, Salpicon, Gage

Niki in Dayton | Sep 9, 200901:11 PM

First of all, thanks so much, Chi-hounds. Your advice and recommendations combined made our recent visit a memorable one.

A death in the family forced cancellation of a business trip, but non-refundable tickets to see Million Dollar Quartet at the Apollo provided an impetus to come to town afterwards for a long weekend. We had 5:00 pm reservations on Thursday for Riccardo Trattoria, and arrived punctually, to be told politely that they were “not quite ready”. Ms. Chow was correct – I already felt like I was in Italy! We strolled down the street and window shopped, then returned at 5:15 to be seated. We were the first patrons in the restaurant, and were able to spend a bit of time chatting with our knowledgeable waiter as well as FOH staff (all of whom appeared related; again, a very Italian atmosphere). Antipasti were the tuna Carpaccio and the fried zucchini blossoms. Both were good, but my preference is to use ricotta or another, non-stringy cheese to stuff the blossoms. We then ordered half portions of two pastas; veal ragu with home-made pappardelle, and penne with chicken livers. Both were excellent. We shared the pheasant for our main course, and had no room for anything but espresso after the great meal. I’m an Italian wine aficionado and was pleased with their by-the-glass selection.

Friday, we walked around near our hotel for a while and bought some Garrets popcorn. Loved both the caramel with cashews and the cheese and caramel mixture. Later we rode our bicycles up the Lakefront trail to Lincoln Park. After exploring for a while, we ended up at Hai Yen on Clark for lunch. This is a really nice space, very clean and Asian. It was a lovely sunny day, and the sliding glass doors were open, so we were able to eat “outside”. Shrimp wrapped in sesame beef (Tom Cuon Thit Nuong) was our first course, then we shared an order of the steamed rice crepes filled with ground shrimp and wood ear mushrooms (Banh Uot Thit Nuong). We were still a bit hungry, so ordered the Banh Xeo (fried rice crepe with shrimp, bean sprouts, lettuce, etc.). I thought we had decent Vietnamese here in Dayton, but this was much more sophisticated.

We had 5:30 reservations for Publican, the only time available when we rescheduled. My DH was really looking forward to the pork rinds. I tried one, and while it was the best pork rind I’ve tried, it didn’t convert me. He happily consumed the rest, though. Next, we shared a small plate of white anchovies with potatoes and rosemary, served chilled. It was nicely presented, and very tasty. The star of the night, however, was the pork belly. This was perfect….even DH thought it far better than the pork rinds. The frites were good, too, although we passed on the egg accompaniment.

Later Friday evening we visited Hot Chocolate, without a reservation. We got there about 9:30 and they were slammed. They said it would be quite a while for a table, but we were welcome to have dessert in the lounge. The lounge is the front of the space, and has low benches and small tables. We shared the Chocolate Number 1 dessert (a chocolate soufflé with salted caramel ice cream). DH agreed the dessert was wonderful, but he hated the small table and the bench seating. If we return again, it will be with a reservation and at a table.

Saturday morning we rode our bikes down to Chinatown. We happened by the Phoenix, and I remembered it as the Chicago board favorite for dim sum (the recommendations were luke-warm, but Dayton has NO dim-sum). Timing is everything, and we arrived just before the masses of families descended upon the place. We enjoyed most of the dim-sum we ordered, and thought the service was pretty good (the hostess stopped by several times to ask if we had any questions or wanted some particular item; she even found egg custard tarts for us after one of the cart ladies told us “not ready”).

We spent the afternoon at Jazz Fest but were too full from brunch to consume anything but liquids. The wine bar area with comfy seating is a nice touch, though. We ended up making reservations at Salpicon for dinner so we could explore the Old Town neighborhood. DH started with an anejo tequila flight; I was impressed that it was served in Reidel tequila tasting glasses. I had a margarita, which was properly prepared. We shared the flores de calabaza (squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese and epazote, served with poblano cream sauce), and the enchiladites oaxaquenas,(small chicken enchiladas with classic black mole). We shared the codornices en salsa de chile con miel, (garlic marinated grilled quail served in a sauce of anchos, garlic, and onions), for our entrée. For dessert, we chose the cinnamon crepe filled with raspberries and mangos, and topped with goat milk caramel. I think this might have been the best dessert I’ve ever had….all of the flavors just sang together.

We made reservations for the Gage for Sunday brunch before leaving town. The home-made corned beef hash was really, really good, and the traditional Irish breakfast was also delicious. Unfortunately, their espresso machine was down, but stuff happens (and we’d already had coffee, unlike the very unhappy guy sitting behind us who REALLY wanted an espresso). The Gage was close to our hotel (the Palmer House) so we’d stopped in on Thursday evening and tried the chicken livers with a night cap; we really liked the place and would go back anytime. Good vibe, great food….which really sums up our overall impression of this particular trip to Chicago! Thanks again, folks.

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