Monday, August 29, 2016

Cruz Blanca and Leña Brava

-Grubbing in Chicago
A Rick Bayless 1-2 Punch

Restaurant Row on Randolph recently got even hotter with the addition of not one but two Rick Bayless establishments. I got try both not too long ago and since I did so on the same day I thought I'd share them both here in the same post. They do make for a nice 1-2 punch.

New cervecería from Rick Bayless and his team

Hungry for tacos and in the area we decided to check out Cruz Blanca for some food. For those unaware Cruz Blanca is a brewery first and one that also happens to sell DIY taco plates. It was a nice summer day and the perfect time to sit out on the patio so we walked in and placed our order for the food and paid. After that I walked over to the bar for a beer which wasn't all that big of a deal for me but I do understand why people have pointed out how odd that is. After a short maybe five minute wait our food found us and the number on the table. They offer a small selection of taco plates but still have something for everyone as all food groups (except seafood) are covered. I'd heard good things about the Oaxacan style chorizo and decided to go with that.

Oaxacan style Chorizo

Having never been to Oaxaca the only experience I had with this style of chorizo was in the pic I saw of it. So I knew it was presented in the way it was with large chunks of it still intact rather than mashed down the way more people are used to eating it. Each plate comes with a handful of housemade corn tortillas as well as wood grilled onions and pepper. The latter of which packs some real punch so be careful with that. I thought this was a damn good meal and just about as good as it gets when it comes to beer drinking food.  The chorizo was well seasoned and the smoke from the wood really played out well in the vegetables mixed with the meat in between a tortilla. I'll be back.

Build Your Tacos 

While dining at Cruz Blanca we realized that Lena Brava was going to be opening in a half hour or so. With it being high on my to-try list and without any future reservation in place I thought why not just walk over and get in line to be seated at the bar which is first come, first serve. So with that we we're on our way to having appetizers at Cruz Blanca and an entree next door at Lena Brava.

Baja inspired seafood eatery from Rick Bayless and his team

I think we were maybe the 6th and 7th people in line which all but assured us a seating at the bar upon opening. I think I counted ten seats total but I dont remember exactly what the number was. Lena Brava is the Bayless teams ode to Baja California. The Mexican state that sits on the Pacific coast is one of the country's bigger melting pots when it comes to the food. As soon as you cross the border into Tijuana you enter an area where fire is the preferred way of cooking. Wood Grilled fires are found up and down the coast and more times than not there's some locally caught seafood being grilled over them. Lena Brava takes the best of both worlds when it comes to that seafood with both a fire (wood grilled seafood) and ice (raw seafood) part to the menu. We started with ice.

Ceviche Maki Roll

The guy dining solo next to us ordered the maki roll which I really hadn't thought of getting, until I got a whiff of it. The smell of sushi is one you might not expect to find in a Mexican restaurant but when the Japanese started moving to Baja in the 1920's they brought their diets with them and with that sushi found it's way into the local cuisine. It helps when you got fresh fish right there for you. We may not have any ocean water near us but at this point in time the Bayless team has laid ground and made relationships with the best of the best vendors and this was as fresh as it gets in Chicago.

Cooking with FIRE!

Wood fire cooking has been a big trend going on a few years now. You're seeing more and more restaurants go back to our most primal roots when it comes to food. Fish is obviously big on the menus of wood fried spots and at Lena Brava it's the main attraction. The Tablas portion of the menu consists of a wood grilled striped bass that can be prepared in a variety of ways. They say it feeds two people but considering it comes with what seems like a few meals worth of homemade corn tortillas I think three people could get down on this with some appetizers as well.

Wood Grilled Seabass -  Yucatecan-style tikin xik (achiote, roastedgarlic, spices) with pickled red onions and habanero

My picture doesn't do this dish justice but it was one of the best things I've ate of late. The meat was perfectly punctured with a wonderful smoke aroma that I couldn't stop enjoying. We ate, and then ate, and ate some more. Despite being stuffed I just couldn't stop which is pretty much the sign of a perfect dish. My one and only complaint was more pickled red onions please. Cocktails were great and dessert was an absolute treat paired with a sipper of Mezcal. On top of all this the service here is as good as I've experienced anywhere. In my opinion this might be some of Chef's best work yet.

Sweet Corn, Blueberry - Ultra creamy orange-sweet corn custard, fresh blueberries, and crispy toasted almond meringue

Cruz Blanca
904 W Randolph St
Chicago, IL 60607
(312) 733-1975

Lena Brava
900 W Randolph St
Chicago, IL 60607
(312) 733-1975

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