Saturday, January 7, 2012

Northdown Cafe and Taproom: A Plaid Shirt Never Tasted So Good

Before children, the Mister and I made a decision to try one new restaurant a week.  That, as it turned out, was overly ambitious even without a toddler and a newborn, so our weekly endeavor became a “special occasion” endeavor.  And like any upstanding hipster living in Chicago, we only wanted to go to a place that met the following criteria:

1.     Great beers on tap
2.     Socially conscious (in both business practices and food preparation)
3.     Cool, but not trendy-no lines, no overly publicized chef, no amuse-bouche
4.     Within walking distance-this is the one that really draws us in. 

All the Mister had to say was “reclaimed wood” and I was lacing up my Justin’s. Northdown CafĂ© and Tap is like entering a mod-industrial rural farmhouse cum retro eatery; a few tables up in the front room, more in the back, the two rooms divided by a nice selection of pinball machines which, as a World Cup Soccer wizard in my previous life, is dear to my heart.  The propaganda sign declaring “If Attack Comes” incites a dystopian warning, so the presence of handlebar-mustached and suspendered bartenders stationed below offer a kindly dash of steampunk relief.

The food at Northdown is downright tasty.  With a comfort food focus, ingredients are fresh but used in identifiable ways.  The Short Stout-braised short ribs on Ciabatta-is more than satisfying, tomato soup is nicely seasoned and pairs well with the sourdough grilled cheese, and while neither of us have ever ordered it, the deep-fried Compact Turkey Dinner-all the fixin’s rolled up into a ball and battered until crisp-appears to be hipster-grade feel good food (and probably an amazing hangover cure). 

On the “Food Trends That Have Grown Tiresome” list, Northdown manages to avoid #5: the long reading of the daily specials-they are nicely handwritten on a board by the door, #26: the “gourmet burger”: the Mister thinks they are deliciously unfussy, #42 the cupcake-you really can’t compete with ten homemade pies of the day, and while they try hard to be as local and sustainable as can be, it isn’t overly advertised and to be honest, a server has never used those words.  So refreshing.

The fact that this is the only restaurant of its kind that is within walking distance to our humble home is the first reason why we keep going back.  But without meeting our other criteria-the quality of the food, service, atmosphere-we wouldn’t have made it a regular haunt.  Add to that the fact that they have a small but amazing selection of vegetarian and vegan dishes (not to mention the daily pie specials sometimes into the double digits and the butter of the day), Northdown has established itself as our go-to both on date nights, when meeting friends and even entertaining our parents from the suburbs out yonder.

Northdown is kid friendly, with a changing table in the women's room and a wait staff who is happy to put in an order right when you sit down.  Or, as with our children, happy to clean up the crumbs on the floor when we leave.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Tuman's: Too many beers and only one baby


Tuman's is  on our way home from work and a good place to stop for a couple of beers.  At the intersection of Chicago and Leavitt, it's nicely centralized for the work happy hour crowd, though that crowd is usually just myself, the mister, Babycakes, the guy who performed our marriage and the guy who wished he had performed our marriage.

When we got there the other day, the waitress brought over menus and asked if we needed a high chair.  It was quiet, some good music playing softly and only two other people in there-at 4:00 pm on a Friday.  I'm sure it got more crowded later, but it's a pretty good deal for us with Babycakes.

I had a couple of Guinness, the mister had a seasonal Ale that he said tasted like England.  The drinks were served with a smile.

We didn't eat here, and the menu is pretty much just pub food, but all in all, if you're on Chicago Avenue and you want a place that has Guinness and PBR and Bell's (the hipster identification trifecta), this is a good choice.

Cornerstone Cafe: they've cornered my diner market


I drove past Cornerstone Cafe for years on my way to work, but didn't live in the neighborhood.  I had (have) a hard time venturing away from my neighborhood since 1.  I don't like to drive, 2. I never have money for parking, 3. The first two reasons.  And plus  I was a Golden Nugget Girl.  But when we moved farther south I found myself with no Golden Nugget nearby, since the one on Western/Elston is dark and dingy and the parking lot only holds 4 cars.

Enter into Cornerstone Cafe.  It is an anti-hipster hipster's dream.  No long waits, no servers wearing non-prescription glasses, no attitude.  Everyone in the place, including the manager, is terrific.

The diner is small and triangular, but they get you right in.  The help is friendly and quite accommodating.  They offered us a high chair and there was a changing table in the women's restroom.  In fact, there were quite a number of children in there.  They have great specials and really fantastic diner food as well as some other specialities.  The mister LOVED his sandwich and though Babycakes still doesn't eat food food, she had fun in the high chair watching everyone.

There is easy parking on Elston Avenue (pay box).  They take cash and credit.

Two Eggs My Way
Reuben Sandwich
2 coffees

Total: 24.00

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Cumin: Spice is Nice. But not great.


When we entered, I was immediately taken back to my college days in Iowa City when me and my (insert hippie boyfriend here) would roll out of bed and make our way to Masala for the buffet at 11:30 am sharp. No football tailgating here.  The aroma, the fogged up windows, the tablecloths-I really thought I had struck Indian pay dirt only minutes away from my home. The place is modern-much more so than any place you'll find on Devon or even Belmont or Halsted.  It felt a little like the Nepalese version of Coast.  Would it be as good? Hmmmm.  Sad face.  This place was only average in the end.  We were hoping for better since our other favorite places aren't in our neighborhood (Essence of India in Lincoln Square, Tiffin on Devon and Klay Oven on Orleans). However, in an area where there is NO Indian food, this is a tasty option.

You have been served:

By........?????  There were four waiters that I could see.  One sat us, one asked if we wanted the buffet, one took our drink order but then we were abandoned by all of them and I had to ask the busboy to grab the mister's beer off of the bar that had been sitting there for ten minutes.  It was the busboy who filled our water, took our plates and brought our check, but somehow I doubt it was him who received the tip.  My question is: with all of those people working, and the customers essentially getting their own food at the buffet, what are they doing?  Granted, there was what seemed to be a liquor representative teaching how to make drinks or something along those lines, so I will give them that.  I will say, though, that bad service can be forgiven if the food is great.  But it wasn't.

Notable Potables:

I had Masala tea, a homemade spiced tea that I was informed would take a while to make in the back.  I got very excited at this because my dear friend's Mama Ji had made me tea in that manner several times and each was delicious.  Ten minutes later, a different waiter brought out a tiny little teacup with some lukewarm, blandly spiced tea.  For three dollars.

The mister had a Kingfisher, a good, dependable beer.  But again, there was the 10 minute rule for waiting.


Well, buffets are always amazing, I think.  And I love Indian food so much that I can honestly say I have really only experienced bad food once(Standard India Restaurant: beware!).  This food was above average, but certainly not great.  We did receive fresh naan to our table and piled our plates with food. For my first course, I had rice, papadum that was nicely crisped and not too oily and pakoras.  I garnished these with selections from their salad bar, and found both the tamarind and coriander chutneys to be delicious.  For my entree I had Palak Paneer and Aloo Ra Simi.  The palak was spiced well, and was creamy rather than watery.  The paneer was good sized, too.  The aloo was also pretty darn good, had a mixture of vegetables in it and appeared to be made without cream, though I don't know if it was vegan. The palak paneer is indeed on the regular menu, but I did not see aloo ra simi or papadum.

The mister had the same but also had his standard Chicken Tikka Masala and some tandoori chicken.  He thought the Chicken Tikka was slightly bland and the tandoori chicken dry.  It LOOKED good, but really, it didn't deliver.


They brought a high chair right away and cleared a space at the table for Babycakes.  Both the men's and women's restroom have a changing table.  While there is no kids menu, there are lots of vegetable dishes and if you aren't eating the buffet, you can request that a meal be made less spicy.  She slept the whole time and didn't eat (she doesn't have teeth yet!)

We dined at 1:30 pm on a Wednesday.  There was a steady stream of customers coming in, including two other families with toddler-aged children.


2 Lunch Buffet: 22.00
1 Masala Tea: 3.00
1 small Kingfisher: 6:00

Total with tax: 34.26

Friday, November 19, 2010

Owen & Engine: hand pulled with a binky, please.


If you've ever been to England, or more specifically, to a tiny pub in a tiny town, one-half of this place is like that. I hope, hope, hope that this doesn't become a scene. Yes, I want them to succeed, but I want it to be my secret. A couch in front of a fireplace: I can't really ask for more. I am in infinite search of a fireplace during the winter months and I think I have found my new hang out.

The ground level is nicely done up with a ton of attention to detail. Wood tables and bars, leather chairs, clean lines, warm atmosphere. There is a long bar and maybe a half dozen tables and was just beginning to get jumping around 6 pm on a Tuesday.

We were directed upstairs and had the level to ourselves. There's maybe a dozen or so tables up there, so reservations are recommended if you really want to go on a Friday or Saturday night. Our table overlooked the Showcase Theaters there on Western, which is an armpit of humanity, but that was balanced by the incredible service, attention to detail and, of course, the roaring fire.

You Have Been Served:

Our waiter, John, was extremely helpful and knowledgable and sported the requisite intellectual glasses and facial hair to guarantee this place as a hipster locale. He seemed happy to accommodate for Babycakes any way possible and welcomed conversation. On that note, it did kind of feel like we were really back in England.

Notable Potables:

I started with a Ruddles County Ale. Served with a nice head, near room temperature, quite tasty. I asked for something "not too hoppy" (save that for the mister), and was presented with a deep amber ale that went down nicely. It was a little strong, so I asked for a half-pint when I finished it-and they accommodated! Not many places stateside serve you half-pints. Ah, the excess of America.

The mister had a draught Abbot Ale-- a go-to, but felt that the temperature was much too cold. He commented that if he were going to have another one, he would order it immediately and let it sit to bring the temp up. But he instead joined me with the Ruddles.


We knew that we were both going to order the fish and chips. How can you not? Two GIGANTIC pieces of Haddock, flown in daily from New England (from what we understood, caught by a father and put on a plane to be picked up by the son at O'Hare later that same day), perfectly battered and fried, sitting atop mushy peas-a combination of smashed peas, pea puree and creme fraiche. Delicious homemade chips, served in a Wells Bombardier pint glass, seasoned and a ramekin of English mayonnaise for dipping. No ketchup here, nor is there any needed!

The fish was delicious, the fries absurdly delicious. Both of us could only finish off one of the pieces and were told that the fish turns out nicely if taken home and put in the oven.

My only wish: more mushy peas! Had the waiter not appeared when he did, I would have licked the plate.


There was no changing station in the bathrooms upstairs, but I just used the couch. I don't know that I would do that if there were other patrons eating dinner, so I would suggest to them that one gets installed (there's room). A lap change is fine until a certain age, but again, you don't want your neighbor looking at the dirty diaper and back at their smashed peas.

They had high chairs and brought one out. No kids menu, but possible alternatives are the cheddar mashed potatoes or bubble and squeak, a potato/vegetable pancake.

We ate from 5-6 and were the only patrons in the upstairs-perfect for having Babycakes with us.

Total Bill:

2 Fish n Chips: 30.00
Half-Pint Ruddles: 5.00
2 Full Pint Ruddles: 14.00
1 Abbot Ale: 7.00

Total with Tax: 59.15