Nestled on a quiet street in River North is a boisterous restaurant with white awnings, instantly recognizable by the fleet of Benzes parked outside. With a focus on "coastal fare," The Hampton Social opened in late June, and since that time, has garnered quite a crowd of lobster and cocktail enthusiasts.
With its open patio, white wooden furniture, and soft-toned color palette, the restaurant replicates coastal charm well. It's quaint, and the patrons are dutifully monochromatic. The menu offers wood-fired pizza, an abundant selection of lobster (lobster rolls, lobster salad, lobster tails), and a few non-seafood options (Amish chicken, burger). A few months ago, owner Brad Parker raised eyebrows when he said the menu would "be geared towards a woman's palate." Though honestly, I found nothing particularly offensive, except for the comments of my table neighbors (Is burrata an animal?!). The term's brand differentiation, right?
Más is a modern Mexican restaurant in the West Loop, serving "upscale" tacos with lots of toppings. People are finicky about their tacos, and since its opening, the restaurant has reworked its menu quite a few times. Attracted by its sleek décor, I recently dined there to make my own judgments.
The guacamole at más is fresh and filled with jalapenos, and the accompanying root chips are an interesting (though brittle) twist on traditional tortilla chips. For the "ceviche", order the cola amarilla (yellowtail, sweet potato, chile de arbol ponzu sauce), an untraditional twist that looks and tastes more like spicy sashimi. Like many other items on the menu, the dish is Asian-influenced and quite delicious.
I first dined at Bohemian House in River North last year, and my overwhelmingly positive experience with the food and service inspired me to return again. Which was unfortunate, since my recent experience showcased a water-downed menu with lackluster execution.
The appetizer knackwurst sausage was decent--nothing overwhelming exciting or memorable--but I wouldn't get it again. The salt and vinegar chips were surprisingly good--sour, salty, and just a whiff of bacon smoke all over. Hidden underneath kale, the Chicken Paprikash with yogaball-sized dumplings--or grilled chicken in thick paprika roux--tasted like muddled disappointment. Either the sauce or the chicken lacked salt and acid, though I really couldn't tell which one.
Whether you're a tourist or snow-beleaguered veteran of Chicago, everyone appreciates a great steakhouse, especially in a city that inspired Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.
With a stunning view of the river, Chicago Cut provides an elevated dining experience, complete with tuxedoed waiters, handsome patrons, and a masculine interior. The restaurant has its own dry-aging locker, in-house butchers cutting up USDA Prime beef, and sophisticated broilers that can cook a lot of steak really quickly. Chicago Cut also adores its celebrity diners and updates its website regularly with pictures of movie stars and rock stars.
Located right off the West Fulton restaurant row is a discreetly signed restaurant with an artsy interior and bohemian vibe. Aptly named Fulton Market Kitchen, this New American restaurant features a diverse menu with disparate global influences. I suggest ordering generously from the Appetizer category--for the seafood lover, there are the bay scallops and sweetbreads with pea shoots and fried lemon slices, or grilled octopus with pickled cauliflower. "Two Tails" (crispy pig tail with poached lobster tail) is an interesting twist on surf and turf, although the squash puree and glazed parsnips underlying the dish seemed to be the real stars.
When it comes down to it, there are only two characteristics absolutely crucial to a restaurant's success: impeccable food and flawless hospitality. Liquid nitrogen and modern décor won't negate an absent server or lukewarm entrees lathered in salt and grease. The perfect restaurant experience is a fluid symphony of chaotic elements, and if not executed perfectly, the diner will remember (and write about) every flat note.
As such, Dolce Italian in Chicago is an ensemble worth your time. Its sister restaurant in Miami recently won first place on Bravo's new show Best New Restaurant, and for good reason. The series' first season, hosted by Tom Colicchio, featured 16 restaurants competing against each other on best dish, décor, service, and overall concept. Dolce won for its hospitality and consistently beautiful food.
The vibrant strip of Clark Street between Foster Avenue and Victoria Street has become something of a restaurant row over the last few years. Restaurants continue to move into this hip downtown section of Andersonville and make the question, "Where are we going to eat?" something of a conundrum. Not to fear, there's a new addition to the neighborhood that will surely become your new favorite.
Pork Shoppe, the Michelin rated restaurant (2011-2014), recently expanded from their Avondale location to Andersonville. They bring their handcrafted, slow cooked meats ranging from Carolina style pulled pork, Memphis dry rubbed ribs and Texas beef brisket and their own signature smoked pork belly pastrami.
Nestled within a cluster of upscale hotels in Downtown, The Local Chicago is a patriotic sort of restaurant. No sleek-font signage or melodic backdrop music--instead, there are wood panels, flags, and star-bedazzled plates that belong in the Civil War era. The menu reflects the ambiance and inspires comfort and familiarity.
Nestled adjacent to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, Tortoise Club is a masculine, mahogany-paneled restaurant with an old-school vibe. It's where Ron Swanson could sit alone under the dim lights, eating steak and drinking a couple of glasses (bottles?) of bourbon. In addition to classic steakhouse fare, the restaurant also offers unusual American twists like pheasant pie with foie gras, wild boar Bolognese, and bourbon barrel meatloaf. The menu also contains rare sightings for the nostalgic diner, including oysters Rockefeller, creamed spinach, and baked crab dip.
Nearly every culture has a version of fried sweetened dough. Look doughnuts up on Wikipedia and you'll find a 15,000 word treatise describing doughnuts from across the globe.
Here in America--and specifically in Chicago--we have been doing a comprehensive exploration of the vast donut macrocosm in recent years. From the classic: old fashioned; cruller; long john to the exotic: milk chocolate pudding with a raspberry glaze and milk crumble; maple glazed and pretzel; lemon pistachio old fashioned--we have run the gamut of donut varities here in our fair city. Witness: wonut, cronut, dossaaint; donut ice cream sandwich; donut burgers...the list goes on and on.
So, imagine my delight to learn of a new donut collaboration with a unique flavor profile. Firecakes Donuts has teamed up with Kool-Aid to launch their new Cherry Kool-Aid Donut. And to celebrate, the local chain welcomed a visit from the favorite iconic childhood mascot, The Kool-Aid Man, to their local shop and a food truck stop on Friday morning.
Furious Spoon opened about two months ago in Wicker Park after a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $35,000. Spearheaded by Michelin-star chef Shin Thompson, the restaurant has a simple menu--four distinct ramen bowls with a slew of customizable toppings that include pickled mushrooms and apple chili sauce. The sides are minimal--some pickles, beef brisket rice bowl, and harumaki (fried vegetable spring roll). None of the sides were particularly outstanding or memorable, so I'd save your money for the ramen toppings, especially the smoky and delectable chashu pork belly.
Nestled on the corner of Southport and Irving, somewhere near Wrigley Field, is a low-key neighborhood restaurant with upscale taste. Named directly after the intersection, Southport & Irving (SIP) serves new American cuisine with a whimsical historical theme.
The food has a feel somewhere between upscale and rustic. The offerings are familiar and hearty, but composed and complex enough to remind you that you couldn't make it at home. The menu--ordered from smaller to larger portions-- is succinct, with familiar global flairs like chimmichurri and kimchi. The lack of additional headers and subtitles (small plates, shared plates, large plates, mini plates) was refreshing, as the menu assumed I was perfectly capable to deciding whether to share my food or not.
Make room in your belly for one more contender in Chicago's ramen explosion. Strings Ramen, the traditional Japanese-style ramen hall in Chinatown with a serious fan base, opened a second location in Lincoln Park this week and their game is tight.
You can expect the same handmade noodles and regional Japanese broth specialties Strings is known for, but with new ostrich, crab, and mushroom toppings and five levels of spiciness in the Shoyu broth (levels four and five require you to sign a waiver) that are exclusive to the Lincoln Park location.
Confession: I've never been to Glenn's Diner, despite my soft spot for both seafood and Guy Fieri. (Bear with me here.) However, although Glenn's Diner lives on in spite of the departure of its namesake leader, Glenn Fahlstrom, I think I've found my new go-to place for seafood and I'm not looking back. Fahlstrom's Fresh Fish Market, the new Lakeview-based incarnation of Glenn's, is all chalkboard specials and low-key nostalgia -- not to mention, delicious heaping plates of food.
I grew up visiting my grandparents in Cape Cod and have become very familiar with the humble seafood shack over the years: pastel paintings of seashells on the walls, sticky blue tabletops, Styrofoam cups of chowder. And of course, most ubiquitously: the seafood platter. Fahlstrom's may be lacking in paintings of shore-washed sailboats, but the generous plates of flaky fish with salted potatoes have little to apologize for. I tried the Ritz-crusted grouper and found it refreshingly simple: no ceremonious plating, just the chance for the fish to speak for itself.
It's both a good and bad thing that The Promontory is in Hyde Park -- good because the latest project from the folks behind Longman & Eagle is helping contribute to the University of Chicago's growing Harper Court project, bad because a majority of Chicagoans will likely not make the trek out there to experience it.
Located weirdly behind an Akira, The Promontory takes a cue from its sister venue Dusek's with a live music hall, continuing what I hope is a growing trend of blending dining with entertainment. The space is visually appealing with floor to ceiling windows and a greenhouse touch, and it's attracting the same in the people visiting it. Don't go there in your Sunday casual, unless your Sunday casual is J. Crew.
The menu, a collaboration of Executive Chef Jared Wentworth and Chef de Cuisine Matt Sliwinski, is driven around the kitchen's open hearth -- think elevated campfire preparation and a kitchen that is not afraid to cook like our ancestors did, straight over an open fire with flames licking at their forearms.
Leghorn is fast food--but not. You may be able to get a paper-wrapped chicken sandwich in under five minutes, but you can take all other assumptions you have about fast food and shove it. That's what Leghorn Chicken and their new River North outpost, Leghorn Cafe, suggest--with a smile, of course.
The Element Collective (Old Town Social, Nellcôte) and their "socially-conscious chicken" endeavor first opened March 2014 in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood, where they have since been encouraging loud music, sustainable kitchens, and being open on Sundays. Presenting their menu as a sort of choose-your-own-adventure (chicken edition), Leghorn offers a choice of thigh or breast meat, Nashville hot or pickle-brined on a housemade biscuit or bun. What could be better? Well, putting an egg on it, obviously. Enter Leghorn Cafe.
Located on Lasalle and Ohio, Leghorn Cafe introduces the humble biscuit and egg sandwich, with your choice of a few flashy options: bacon, ham, maple-sage sausage, or some devilish combination thereof. This is clearly a nod to the Egg McMuffin, in every sense from the packaging to the butter-oozing biscuit. Sides include cheddar tots, a yogurt parfait, local "donut of the day" (!) and as much Sumpton Coffee as you can handle (!!!). The location itself is comfy and bright, with choices of bar seats or booths--cozy but not cramped. After breakfast ends at 10:30, the menu switches back to the classic Leghorn offerings you're already familiar with.
Whether you're grabbing food on your commute to work or lingering over your chicken sandwich, Leghorn's worth checking out. Skipping Chik-fil-a has never been this easy.
Leghorn Cafe is located at 600 N. Lasalle. Second picture from Element Collective.
Despite being a hodgepodge of concepts, Commonwealth Tavern serves strong dishes with surprisingly delicious flavors. Unlike most sport bars where burgers and fried items dominate the menu, Commonwealth also serves entrees designed to please the sophisticated palate.
The menu is fairly standard for a sports restaurant--wings, nachos, burgers, and other fried delectables. But I suggest bypassing all that and opt for the shared plates, including roasted squash with pickled ricotta and jagerwurst with sauerkraut and sourdough. The smoked chicken--with pumpkin butter and French lentils--isn't a bad place to start. The wood smoke used to infuse the chicken was truly magical--the potent notes of fresh char melded perfectly with the strong sour gastrique that coated the lentils and kale. The crispy pork shank exhibited the same balance and freshness of flavor, though the apple and fennel farro reminded me of an odd cinnamon oatmeal.
"I was attracted to the stove flame, but my grandmother pushed me back. It was dangerous. But how could something so delicious come from such a dangerous thing?" Chef Guillermo Campos Moreno details the origins of his love for cooking, a journey which would later include a peyote-inspired "spiritual" awakening in the desert, a 7-month solo trip through Mexico, a brief stint at Michelin star restaurant Oud Sluis, and elaborate meals for corrupt Mexican politicians.
Now, Chef Guillermo helms the kitchen at Kokopelli, a Wicker Park-based taqueria born from a food truck in Tijuana, San Diego's sister-city. The eclectic food truck was featured on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmerman, and his concept eventually caught the eye of several investors in Chicago. True to its Tijuana roots, the restaurant specializes in seafood and colorful salsas, though there are plenty of warm-blooded and vegetarian options. Kokopelli's signature chargrilled tortillas are crunchier than the familiar soft shells, and while people like both hard-fried and soft shells, some find pseudo-crisp tortillas morally disconcerting.
Like it or not we are a whisper away from the holiday season. It is an exciting time and within the next few weeks anything that sits still long enough will be wrapped in a string of lights and accented with tinsel. Several holiday traditions are about to spring into action, and if you're from a family like mine, the first hints of Christmas mean only one thing: the cookies are coming! The cookies are indeed coming and this year the Chicago Tribune's famed holiday cookie contest has them coming at us like never before.
For the last 25 years, the Good Eating section of the Chicago Tribune has hosted a nationwide holiday cookie contest drawing entries from home bakers looking to share their favorite family recipe--and the story behind it. Only a handful of the very best recipes are selected for publication each year, but this year winning recipes from past have been gathered into a new cookbook: Holiday Cookies: Prize-winning Family Recipes from the Chicago Tribune.
From the childhood tragedy that couldn't help but form his behavior traits, to the opening night of what will become a Michelin two-star restaurant, the odyssey of Chicago uber chef Curtis Duffy is showcased in the new documentary For Grace.
Over the course of 40 months, Tribune writer Kevin Pang and his filmmaking partner, Mark Helenowski, developed a trust with Duffy and Co as they documented the birth of his restaurant, Grace. That relationship allowed them to keenly portray the sacrifice needed to attain Duffy's single-minded ambition of having the best dining room in the country.
The last time I was in California, a visit to the regional chain Umami Burger was on my vacation bucket list. Sometimes it's hard to be a food tourist, especially when it requires putting pressure on your hosts to end up in San Francisco's Marina neighborhood, a ritzy, indifferent enclave full of shops selling nothing you need or can afford. Getting past the long wait, the severe wood-paneled interior, and the order taken down on an iPad (worthy of a Liz Lemon-grade eyeroll), I brought my bags of pricey takeout to my host's car for eating while on the road that day. As the car lurched up Fillmore Street, one of the steepest streets in the city (an experience that normally would make my flat land-loving self very anxious and miserable), I chewed slowly on my burger, quietly savoring my lunch and completely unaware of my surroundings. You have no idea how good this burger is.
Fast forward to nearly two years later, with today's opening of Umami Burger on a busy corner in Wicker Park, surrounded on all sides by bars and other eateries. Unlike most burger places in Chicago, Umami's stark, modern décor has no flat-screen TVs or banners proclaiming that indeed, this IS the place to watch Michigan State games each weekend. They don't have a kids menu, and the stereo blasts The Smiths as you eat. You are in a burger place whose logo, rather than the red-haired clown in the jumpsuit and a gaggle of burglars, purple creatures and oddball mayors, is a lone hamburger bun curled into a subtle, alluring smirk.
Oakbrook Center doesn't exactly conjure up images of glitzy city life or classy fine dining, but El Tapeo (originating from the Spanish term "Vamos de tapeo") recently opened in hotel Le Méridien, and I was eager to eat anywhere but the Cheesecake Factory.
Executed by Chef Franco Diaz (The Drake Hotel, Peninsula Hotel Chicago), the restaurant's menu consists of mostly tapas, sprinkled with a few larger entrees that can also be easily shared. My party and I began with the Selección de Embutidos (selection of shaved ibérico, serrano, chorizo, and fuet), followed by Carne Asada (waygu skirt steak, arugula, manchego and piquillo pepper), and Cordero (grilled adobo lamb loin shops). Our vegetable tapas included patatas bravas and setas (wild mushrooms). We finished with a roasted pineapple empanada and a dense chocolate tart topped with chocolate croquants.
If you jump, it's a good thing to have a parachute, which is a fitting name for one of Chicago's newest restaurant openings of the same moniker, fitting because the story leading up to it isn't without a bit of turbulence.
Parachute is the first ground-up project from husband-and-wife team Beverly Kim and John Clark, and the second venture for the couple as independent proprietors following in the footsteps of Bonsoiree, the Logan Square spot that they took over (and abruptly closed) after Kim's departure from Aria. Coming off a popular reality television show without a restaurant deal (Top Chef fans will recall that Kim was only a few episodes away from winning the show's ninth season) and then taking over a Michelin-starred restaurant can't be an easy follow-up. So, if there were a story of a restaurant that symbolized the American way of not giving up on dreams, Parachute might be a good example, as they opened earlier this summer with the help of bank and family loans, as well as a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $20,000.
I have a restaurant fantasy that looks like what would happen if Cirque du Soleil, Vegas and Miami got together in a River North hotel lobby, with guests hand-picked out of a contemporary Great Gatsby movie -- shows on the hour, shadowbox dancers, passed champagne, perfect small bites of things on lollipop sticks and silver spoons -- what Untitled might be if it wore designer clothing, kept a clean shave and liked electronica music.
Which brings me to the newly opened mfk, which is nothing of the above, and yet everything similar in sensory appeal and experience -- a place that comes along so quietly and unassuming that reminds us what dining and gastronomy is really about.
The motto at Max's Wine Dive--"Fried Chicken and Champagne?... Why the Hell Not?!"--can be offputting to a Southerner like me. Fried chicken is spiritually linked to cold beer or Dr. Pepper, not some sparkling wine that one sips during an awkward dinner party.
Nonetheless, I found myself dining at this Wicker Park joint, nestled within a long stretch of restaurants along Milwaukee Ave. The menu geography at Max's Wine Dive is somewhat scattered, with small and large plates alongside "for-sharing" and "main" seasonal dishes crafted by executive chef Jessica Brumleve. The food is marketed as "upscale comfort," which is fairly accurate in the sense that much of the menu is deep-fried but gilded with "heirloom tomato confit" or "black truffle aioli".
Hotel dining has always seemed like the pinnacle of luxury to me-- perhaps a direct result of my parents denying a younger me any opportunity to order room service, ever. Therefore, I jumped at the invitation to sample a sneak peak of the new summer menu at the Four Seasons Chicago's flagship restaurant Allium.
Located on the 7th floor of this sweeping hotel, Allium is all luscious elegance and modern refinement-- not to mention delightfully generous with its armchairs and plush carpeting. On the current menu one can find the tried-and-true standards-- a house burger, a roasted chicken for two-- but alongside these favorites are some surprises, such as a Chicago-style hot dog and a cheese lavosh, an Armenian-style flatbread.
However, newcomer Executive Chef Steven Wambach, previously head chef at Epic, is eager to put his own spin on the menu and show off some of the hits of summer. In the sun-drenched private events room, cooks busily garnished bites of tuna with artichoke aioli and shaved truffle, white asparagus gazpacho with cucumber and Marcona almonds, and pork rillette toasts with foie gras and caviar. (See! Pinnacle of luxury. I was not wrong.) I have a soft spot for hors d'oeuvres and the attempt to capture so many different elements in a single perfect bite-- crunch, creaminess, freshness, salt, acid-- and Chef Wambach carried this off exceptionally well. In all of the bites, one could taste the brightness of summer ingredients side-by-side with the comforting familiarity of Midwestern flavors. The Chef himself returned periodically to the dining area to speak with guests and assist with plating.
Most people associate Indonesia with ornate Buddhist temples in Eat, Pray, Love, or if they're particularly world-savvy, as the country with the highest Muslim population. But Indonesian food typically draws a blank -- Rice? Fish? Spicy stuff, right?
Until last year, I didn't know Indonesian cuisine existed as a unique entity. Unfamiliar dishes like sambal and gado gado seemed too exotic (even for me), and the lack of Indonesian restaurants in Chicago fueled my general apathy towards the cuisine. Many dining experiences later, I've discovered that Indonesian food is a wonderfully confusing amalgamation of flavors and textures; it's Thai food on crack, Korean banchan on steroids, a genuine mutt of Southeast Asian cuisine.
When Robert Haynes and Henry Prendergast were envisioning the concept for Logan Square's Analogue, the new "casual" departure from what the two were previously executing at Violet Hour, they wanted a take on a regional cuisine. Enter friend and breakthrough chef Alfredo Nogueira, a New Orleans native who moonlighted briefly at Rootstock and ran several pop-up dinners before landing the audition. Cajun/Creole is the quintessential of regional cuisine-- shaped by the people, culture and local ingredients. Nogueira, who is only industry and self-trained, apparently was very convincing.
I once had a (poorly-grounded, but beloved) theory that stated for every three miles traveled outside Chicago city limits, restaurant quality decreased by one point on a 1-10 scale. Every mile bid adieu to lobster and oysters and greeted Macaroni Grill and Chili's with open arms. So by the time you hit Bolingbrook, the fanciest entrée available for dinner was steak with grilled asparagus.
Despite my unyielding bias towards skyscrapers and crazy taxi drivers, I've recently come to appreciate various food gems in the suburbs, especially ethnic restaurants (as immigrants bring along their culinary customs when moving into the suburbs). But occasionally, you'll stumble upon a good ol' American joint in the middle of Nowheresville and that's exactly what happened at The Lucky Monk, a beer-centric restaurant located in South Barrington.
While most of Chicago approaches Sunday thinking about brunch, mK wants you to consider thinking about the meal after that -- supper.
To celebrate their 15th year in business, mK recently launched a new Sunday Supper Series, a three-course casual yet fine dining meal for $30/person or $60/couple crafted around seasonal ingredients and set in their updated lounge.
Upon invite, I skipped the regular Bloody Mary and made plans for their Sunday Supper.
The atmosphere at mK is chic, classy and calm and even on a busy night for Chicago Chef Week, I didn't feel overwhelmed. The waiter took notice of my dinner companion cozied up in a black leather lounge chair.
"You see this gentleman, here," he said, "see how relaxed he is? He sums up everything we're trying to do with Sunday Supper. You sit back and relax, we bring the food. The only thing you need to stress about is what wine to pair with it."
Despite the occasional Olive Garden and Red Lobster fix, I tend to avoid suburban restaurants. Suburbia doesn't necessarily exude elevated or exciting cuisine, but after a long hiking trip near the Des Plaines River, my hungry self decided to give Tuscany in Wheeling a shot.
Tuscany's normal menu consists of predictable pastas and pizzas, but their chef menu contains more "adventurous" options. My party and I began with prosciutto e stracchino (prosciutto, creamy Italian cheese, fig mostarda, fried bread), grigliata mista mare (grilled shrimp, calamari, octopus, marinated borlotti beans), and a burrata appetizer with pesto crostini and balsamic tomatoes. We split grilled duck breast and veal cheese ravioli for our main course, and a cannoli and pecan fruit tart for dessert.
Friday night in River North is a calling for all young professionals to strut about Downtown in 4-inch stilettos and expensive peacoats to find the best restaurants before hitting the clubs. I was not one of these young professionals, but I was observing them from my second-floor table at Epic, a posh lounge and restaurant on West Hubbard.
Like most new American restaurants, Epic serves your typical tartares, pastas, salads, and meaty entrees. For dinner, my party and I began with the seared foie gras with buttermilk doughnut holes, bone marrow, and parmesan gnocchi with lamb sausage. We also shared the grilled swordfish and braised short ribs before finishing with a lime tartlet.
When I lamented Pinch Spice Market closing its physical store on Milwaukee just south of Western & Armitage, I didn't realize they would become even closer neighbors by appearing every other Sunday at the Logan Square Indoor Winter Farmer's Market. And when I heard they had a new spice blend called Salty Toast Crack Magic Popcorn Dust, I knew I had to have it. My router is named "unicorn palace," after all...
I digress. My partner got one of those Whirley Pop popcorn makers for Christmas a couple of years ago, and we've made popcorn pretty regularly ever since, as we should -- it makes great popcorn inexcusably easy to make. We normally do butter and some kind of hot sauce (Co-Op or Sriracha), occasionally some cheese, rarely any of our myriad spices in the cabinet. We still use about 1/3 stick of melted butter, but since getting the Salty Toast Crack Magic Popcorn Dust, we haven't used anything else. It's pretty much what it sounds like: a good dose of salt, cinnamon, sugar, and the surprise ingredient -- dried orange peel! It was $5-ish for a small tin, and I'd say we use just under a tablespoon per batch of popcorn.
I've had luck with other spice blends I've purchased from Pinch as well. I recently made some honey roasted almonds spiced with their Ethiopian Berbere, and a leftover custom blend, Surrett Singapore Spice, was excellent on some broiled salmon.
Authentic Szechuan cuisine is masochistic -- it makes you sweat, makes you cry, makes you beg for sweet, sweet mercy (possibly even a couple bowel movements later). You leave the experience contemplating the fragility of mankind, yet you find yourself both mentally and physiologically stronger. If you order cashew shrimp or spring rolls at a Szechuan place, shame on you. If you order a dish not swimming in freshly chopped garlic, cilantro, Chinese celery, and numbing peppercorns, may the gods above have mercy on your feeble soul.
Chicago's classic Szechuan joint is Lao Sze Chuan, but Chengdu Impression in Lincoln Park cooks wonderfully authentic food, if you know what to order. (Plus, I trust Mike Sula on Asian-food related matters.) To preface, my family is from the Szechuan province, meaning my grandfather still makes his own chili condiments by frying up green peppers in his 50-year-old wok.
If you live anywhere near Rogers Park, then you know how important it is when a new restaurant moves into the neighborhood. For many years your friends and neighbors living on the way far North Side have subsisted with very few restaurant options. Taking a walk through the hood lately, though, it's easy to see that's changing.
The latest addition to Rogers Park's growing culinary selections is the highly anticipated Bullhead Cantina. The whiskey and taco bar, owned by Francisco "Paco" Ruiz, opened its first location in 2012 in Humboldt Park. The Cantina, revered for its atypical taco selection, opened its second location at 1406 W. Morse Avenue on Valentine's Day.
Frontier in West Town is aptly named. Merriam-Webster defines frontier as "a new field for exploitative or developmental activity" and that's exactly what Chef Brian Jupiter ("Jup") accomplishes at his restaurant. His winter menu features exotic proteins normally found in the wilderness, and his recipes push the boundaries of culinary excellence. Dishes featuring alpaca, boar, venison, elk, and rabbit may seem pretentious (maybe even obnoxious), but the concept is based on Southern comfort food and presented in a relatively traditional fashion.
For dinner, my party and I shared crawfish and shrimp hushpuppies with blue crab tartar sauce, a kale and apple salad (urban till chives, dried mulberries, candied apricot kernels, jamon, goat cheese), alpaca sausage (with pumpernickel bread, bourbon onion jam, caraway kraut, and house giardinera), elk shepherd's pie, fried chicken with honey glaze, alligator scaloppini (with cheddar gnocchi and tomato buerre blanc), and cauliflower with hazelnuts and goat cheese.
There are certain Christmases in which the presents are slightly mediocre, the dinner ham is a bit salty, and the tree is haphazardly decorated with ornaments you purchased on sale last year. That's how I felt about the Super Bowl this year.
And unfortunately, that contributed to my general disappointment at Woodie's Flat. This Old Town joint serves typical bar food--burgers, wings, tacos, and the like, but I found the lack of non-burger/sandwich entrees somewhat dissatisfying. A roasted chicken plate or flatbread option would certainly spruce up the menu. Their appetizer special--soggies (jack, cheddar, and herb parmesan cheese in hoagie bun with warm jus)--also tasted like a wet pizza.
When my Texan friends unwisely decided to visit me during the polar vortex and found Chicago blanketed in a swathe of soul-crushing ice, they were inconsolable. Dashed were their hopes of ice-skating at Millennium Park, taking selfies at the Bean, and walking along the Mag Mile munching on Garrett's popcorn. After a morose trip to the Art Museum, they vetoed deep dish for dinner and suggested what every comfort-seeking Texan resorts to: steak.
Chicago features a wide range of fantastic steakhouses, including David Burke's, Mastro's, and Mike Ditkas, but we decided upon III Forks, a relatively discreet restaurant near Millennium Park. The architectural duality between wood and glass throughout the restaurant made it feel quite spacious, and although I wanted to dine on the rooftop, I was content being next to the fireplace.
Cicchetti is an Italian word for a snack or a small bite. In Venice, there is a great tradition of stopping by the local bacaro (Ventian tavern) for a glass of wine and cicchetti, exquisitely-made small plates. It is from this tradition that the new Streeterville restaurant, Cicchetti, was born.
Upon entering Cicchetti, the newest effort from one of the chefs from Trencherman, Michael Sheerin, the first word that enters the mind is warm. The bar and the main entry exude warmth. From the dark-stained timber beam construction to the modernist aesthetic to the backlit bar, the space emanates both charm and sophistication with a tip of the hat to innovation. These themes carry through to the bar menu, the hors d'oeuvres, the main plates and the incredibly interesting desserts by up-and-coming pastry chef Sarah Jordan (formerly of Boka and GT Fish & Oyster, Jordan was named one of the best new pastry chefs by Food and Wine Magazine in 2013).
The bar menu is full of interesting and varied spirits, including a long list of grappas (or fruit brandy) and an extensive list of gins, whiskeys and ryes. The wine list is similarly long and lively.
Whenever I frequent sport bars, I expect three things: 1) delicious beer and delicious food, 2) hot servers, and 3) 500-inch flat-screens as far as the eye can see. Chicago has no shortage of such places, so naturally I ended up at one on a weekend visit to Wicker Park.
Conceptually, Fatpour is no different than any other beer-centric restaurant. But what differentiates it is its two-story glass keg cooler, a cerulean chamber glowing like an alien-breeding pod in the center of the restaurant. Their extensive booze menu accompanies a respectable selection of burgers, wood-fired pizzas, fried cheese curds and other caloric-but-oh-so-delicious gut bombers. The menu is even color-coded with suggestions for the indecisive.
As much as I enjoy seafood crudos and 4 oz filet mignons, I remain a unsophisticated diner at heart. I prefer eating without silverware, I have an unhealthy affinity for fries, and I enjoy stuffing my face in front of massive television screens. So it was just a matter of time before I stumbled upon the Fifty/50, a low-key sports bar in Ukrainian Village.
The business progeny of Greg Mohr and Scott Weiner, the Fifty/50's menu revolves around the trifecta of atherosclerosis: smoked foods, fried foods, and sandwiches. The restaurant features a creative selection of burgers, and their chicken wings were voted the Best in Chicago by WGN, CBS, and Redeye.
Throughout this month, Drive-Thru staffers will be writing about their favorite bars and restaurants to celebrate the holiday, as so much of the holiday is not the day itself, but the days that come before -- the places you end up at after a holiday party, a day of errands and shopping, or just to hide away from the shorter days and colder weather.
When the cold weather season comes around, all I want to do is drink. Don't get the wrong idea--I'm talkin' all sorts of drinks, from gold-hued tea to frothy cappuccinos to belly-warming beers to velvety hot chocolate. It's kind of my thing. However, although all of these beverages regularly inspire something festive in me, there are certain bars and cafes that just seem a little more in their element during the holiday season--places that fully embrace the coziness, the over-indulgence, and (because it's an essential part of it, too) the delightfully kitschy vibes of the holiday season. Here are some of my favorites.
Dollop Coffee and Tea Multiple locations, but this review is specifically for the Uptown location, 4181 N Clarendon Ave.
This café is on the complete other side of town from where I live. I have to take a convoluted series of buses to get there, and it usually takes me upwards of 45 minutes to arrive. However, despite the fact that I've only been there a precious handful of times, I still consider this place my coffee shop. Home base. I first went there about a year ago, in the thick of winter, for a writing MeetUp group where I knew no one. I got lost on the way there. A wayward car sped past me and spattered sludge all over my new coat. But when I walked in the door, after the fog on my glasses had subsided, I felt like I'd found my happy place. This place brews Metropolis coffee, sells Hoosier Mama pie slices, and has the means to satisfy pretty much any snacking need. Gather your spoils and head to the back of the café--there, down a few steps, you will find the coziest room in existence, practically designed to accommodate the lengthy process of writing out your holiday wish list.
The Map Room 1949 N. Hoyne
"A travelers' tavern." This warm, inviting bar is a proper bar, no small plates or mixologists, no blaring music or dainty décor--a dying breed, it sometimes seems? Let's certainly hope not, for there are few better places than the local tavern to get properly imbibed as snow falls outside the window and regulars nosh on pretzel sticks at the bar. Opened in 1992, the Map Room boats an impressive list of draft beers (including, of course, some international players) and a dose of wanderlust: topographical maps line the walls and book shelves are stocked with previous issues of National Geographic. Think rich wooden accents, cable-knit sweaters, and a dash of adventurers' spirit. The bar features nightly specials and even hosts their own "Beer School" on select nights, where local brewers come speak about beer and how to enjoy it like a pro.
The Green Eye Lounge 2403 W Homer St (under the Blue Line Western stop)
All of the character of a dive bar without the seediness. A pretty standard spot for a solid night of drinking: nice extensive draft list featuring plenty of craft beers, wall space available for local artwork, and a strong following of regulars. However, during the holiday season, I like my bars lit up with the otherworldly glow of oversized Christmas-themed lawn ornaments-- and hopefully you do too. The Green Eye takes the art of holiday decorating with all of the seriousness of a suburban dad trying to out-spirit the Joneses. As a "Home Alone" marathon whiles away the hours til Christmas on TV, drink your brew in the company of scarf-sporting penguins, beer mug-shaped Christmas lights, and a fake fireplace mounted upon the wall. If there's any place that will make you willing to brave 1 degree weather for a hearty drink--it's gotta be this one.
When La Grande Vie (LGV) first opened, I left the restaurant fuming in an Orc-like rage. After waiting half an hour for the appetizer and another half for the waiter to refill my water, I paid and walked out before the entrée arrived. So when I returned to LGV a year later with friends, I was possibly (though unconsciously) resentful.
Nonetheless, the restaurant suited our needs for a low-key venue with good cocktails, and LGV was right off the bustles of Michigan Avenue. (We were the only diners, which I particularly liked as it gave me an excuse to be obnoxiously loud.) As we pored over the menu, I was surprised that within the span of two days, it had consolidated into a list consisting only of small-plates, the sandwiches, soups, and entrees completely eliminated. It was probably a budget call, but I was still disappointed that they had removed the poutine and medley of sides.
Have you ever wanted to host a dinner party in your home, but not worry about the actual cooking or cleaning up after? Perhaps you've wanted a personal chef for a special night but haven't known where to start? Enter Kitchensurfing.com - bringing you chefs with vision and talent, for whatever reason you might need one.
My partner and I picked a date, invited 8 friends over, pushed together our dining room and office tables, and gave them our list of food restrictions (pescatarian, coconut allergy). In our case, the Kitchensurfing team picked our chef, and they could not have made a more perfect choice. I communicated with Chef Carlos Dalisay via the Kitchensurfing website, and he came up with menu ideas and we narrowed things down; we also discussed what my kitchen did or didn't have, and what he could expect. I warned him it was vintage Chicago (no dishwasher, no counter space other than our Costco stainless steel island we bought for a song), and that we didn't have 10 matching plates or bowls (he said he would bring his own). While Chef Carlos has a regular gig as a chef de partie (sushi chef) at a steak house in the city, he definitely has his own personal style, and this side hustle is a fantastic way to showcase his talent.
On the day of the dinner, Chef Carlos and his team showed up about an hour before our agreed upon dinner time, as he'd done a large amount of prep work at his own home; they surveyed the kitchen they had to work with, got set up, and got to work. Friends trickled in with bottles of wine, and we hung out in the living/dining room area with my polite-as-she's-capable-of-being-in-the-presence-of-fish dog. All the humans were welcome to peek in on the action when they wanted, and before long it was dinner time.
Photos of the prep and dinner after the jump, courtesy of Belen Aquino.
It's no secret that I'm intolerant to the gluten-free lifestyle, but after being challenged to explore its positive aspects, I begrudgingly accepted the challenge. After all, I'm a socially conscious individual, and November is Gluten-Free Diet Awareness Month (in addition to being National American Indian & Alaska Native Heritage Month). Although celiac disease afflicts only 1% of the American population, most follow the diet because denying thyself of pasta seems totally and utterly reasonable. In any case, gluten-free dining has become a major trend, with low- and high-end restaurants offering some form of a special menu.
So during a weekend in downtown Chicago, my gluten-avoiding companion suggested dinner at Siena Tavern. I'm generally wary of celebrity-endorsed, media-hyped restaurants, but if I was going to eat gluten-free, why the hell not? So there I was, ordering Waygu beef tartare, smoked mozzarella, and grilled octopus for appetizers. For the entrées, I painfully bypassed the gnocchi and pizza, instead ordering pork chops (with caramelized Brussels sprouts and whipped potato) and a roasted rack of lamb (with chiodini mushrooms, swiss chard, and pomegranate agro dolce).
If you live in Chicago, then surely you know that you're supposed to do Brunch at Southport Grocery and Café. With items like brisket & gravy (house-smoked brisket gravy on a homemade buttermilk biscuit topped with two fried eggs) and bread pudding pancakes, (pancakes made of gooey bread pudding topped with cinnamon-sugar butter & vanilla anglaise) how could you not? I'd like to let everyone in on a little secret. Southport Grocery also serves dinner twice a week and you should definitely figure out how to get there to enjoy it.
The restaurant, located in the popular Southport Corridor neighborhood at 3552 North Southport, is celebrating their 10th anniversary by offering their trademark comfort food for dinner on Thursday and Friday evenings from 5 to 10 pm.
I visited Southport Grocery recently to sample a few of their new dinner offerings and was not disappointed. The meal began with an apple salad, lobster bisque and a green bean poutine. If I had to pick a favorite of these three I would go with the apple salad. It was a wonderful mix of flavors. The thinly sliced apples combined with pickled pears, kale, peppered pecans, vintage Gouda and smoked onion marmalade (which you can buy in the grocery) was a dream.
Nouveau Tavern, the new Cajun/Creole concept to join River North, opened softly recently in preparation for an official Halloween opening. As a Cajun, you can imagine that I damn near crapped myself when I saw the below interior attached to the phrase Cajun/Creole -- these type of places only happen to me when I've had too many cosmos and am wearing four inch heels.
The first thing you'll notice about Nouveau Tavern is the interior. They can thank D+K Architects, (Enclave, Cuvee and District) for transforming a former sushi space into something that borders on a Chicago nightclub and a swampy, dirty south lounge. The atmosphere is sexy yet mellow with a design palette that's a little bit of Mardi Gras, a little bit of voodoo and a lot of see and be seen. Which may be the biggest thing Nouveau has going for them right now.
After my first look through Paula Haney's The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie: Recipes, Techniques, and Wisdom from the Hoosier Mama Pie Company with Allison Scott (Agate, $30) I wanted to send her an urgent email. "There's been some sort of error," I would write. "You've listed your key recipes. How to make your dough, what flour to buy, how to knead it, what apples to use...you're going to go under, Paula! Recall the book immediately!" I echoed this sentiment to Haney herself in person a few weeks later while standing at a kitchen workspace in her small West Town shop. Her attention was divided between chatting with me and rolling out dough to meet the next day's mountain of orders to properly answer, but she seemed unfazed by my advice. Weeks after the book's release, Haney and crew were working well beyond closing; as her husband and their young twins stopped by for a quick hello, Haney continued rolling out crust after crust as she talked excitedly about the upcoming second Hoosier Mama location in Evanston. Even if the secrets were spilled, Haney's plate remains quite full.
A pastry chef who had graced the kitchens of 312 Chicago, One Sixty Blue and Evanston's Trio, Haney found herself daydreaming of getting back to the simpler things and opening a pie shop. Just pie and coffee, but also a place that took the craft seriously and put as much effort into a slice of Lemon Chess as the creations she was churning out at Trio, alongside her colleague Grant Achatz. On Hoosier Mama's opening day in 2009, the line went out the door of the small shop, and she quickly sold out of her wares. Apparently Haney wasn't the only one who took pie seriously.
I know food snobs who only dine in artisanal, local restaurants, avoiding the commercialized homogeneity of Chili's and Starbucks. But as far as my conscience gives a shit (which is very little), a tasty meal with great service supersedes any internal moral distress. So last week, in an expected episode of carnivorous frenzy, I embarked on a steakhouse feast at Sullivan's Steakhouse in Downtown Chicago.
Sullivan's Steakhouse is part of Del Frisco's Restaurant Group, a Texas-based company with 35 high-end restaurants across 19 states. The Chicago restaurant recently underwent several innovations that opened up the space, including a partially-exposed kitchen that overlooks the dining area.
There are 3 important elements of a delicious chicken wing: a flavorful exterior, sweet juicy meat, and the ability to induce excessive finger-licking. And my brunch experience at the Public House on State Street met all three criteria with a resounding hallelujah.
You see, with the start of college football, I wasn't feeling the same old sausage omelet, mimosa, burger with fries. I sure didn't want a fucking quinoa and arugula salad. In the spirit of Famous Jameis, I ordered an enormous brunch worthy of twenty NCAA titles.
The website is nothing more than a ticket management system. Facebook only gives you brief glimpses of what you can expect with announcements that have nothing to do with the food and everything to do with logistics. In short, it's the opposite of what any restaurant usually does when it comes to marketing their brand online. Yet it works. It's Next Restaurant -- the baby of Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas led by executive chef, Dave Beran.
When my phone buzzed one Friday night with an invitation to go to the Vegan menu with reserve wine pairings, my response was an expletive followed by many exclamation points.
Like going on a first date, I was filled with expectation. Was this going to be the best meal I would ever have? Would it change my perceptions about food, my palate, or my love for cooking? Would I be blown away by cookery magic? Would I want to have Dave Beran's babies?
I walked in with my companions for our 9:30pm reservation, and we didn't even need to go through the formalities to get seated. Apparently, they were waiting for us. This was going to be the beginning of what I would experience to be a well-oiled machine that would make any operational manager giddy like a schoolgirl. Timed seatings, 19 courses with wine pairings and a full house, all without hiccups. Genius.
We sat at our table with this interesting centerpiece that we were told would be part of our meal. (Of course it would.) There was also a square glass filled with water with a floating candle. Surely, this was also going to be a part of the meal as well . . .
Absinthe is the Sweeney Todd of liquors: complex, misunderstood, and seductively dangerous. Distilled from three primary ingredients (anise, fennel, and wormwood), this green-fairy drink was maligned by the temperance movement and other liquor competitors as a psychoactive drug containing a dangerous substance called thujone. By the time scientists disproved such shenanigans, most countries (including the US) had banned it. But thanks to a little something called human perseverance, absinthe quickly made its way back onto the shelves of bars across the world. In fact, one of the largest collection of absinthe in the United States resides within a discreet restaurant in Chicago's hipster Wicker Park neighborhood: the Savoy.
If there's any reason for you to go to Jellyfish outside of seeing what new executive chef Jason Im (Bar Charlie, A Mano) has done to the menu, it should be to dine in the glass atrium while sipping on one of Daniel Finnigan's (Wave, Michael Jordan's Steak House) beautifully crafted drinks, preferably at 7pm on a summer evening.
If there's something else you should also do, it is to try all eight of Finnigan's cocktails. I only made my way through the Lyons Mane -- a refreshing yet character-filled blend of Partida Blanco Tequila, Thai chiles, lime, Solerno blood orange and lemongrass, and the Thai Beet Triangle (pictured) -- roasted beet puree, mint, Thai basil, blood orange liquor and balsamic crema. If my first two were any indication of future experiences, I wanted to see more.
You may have heard that Hot Doug's: The Book is not a cookbook. This is not true. There are two recipes. One is the basic template of a hot dog (bun, dog, condiments). The other is for how to make the most celebrated encased meat emporium in the world.
It begins with an origin story. Hot Doug's the store, grew out of a conversation owner Doug Sohn had with Paul Kelly, a colleague in the publishing company he then worked at, about whether there was such a thing as a bad hot dog (verdict: yes) and what could cause such an abomination.
The conversation turned into a lunch club that scoured the area for the best hot dogs, which were graded and critiqued and served, unwittingly, as the market research for what would become Hot Doug's. Readers are introduced to the members of Hot Dog Club, who each tells his or her own part of the origin story.
I like restaurants where it's OK to eat solo. I like settling into a bar stool, I like anchoring my book to the countertop so I can read hands-free, I like coffee served in a vessel that straddles the subtle line between "cup" and "bowl." I like poring over a menu and imagining every item: its flavors, its plating, how it would look being swept from the open kitchen to the wooden mosaic of a tabletop. I like the anticipation -- especially when you know it's gonna be good -- fueled by bottomless refills of aforementioned coffee. This is the brunch/lunch experience at Endgrain, and it's delightful.
This new Roscoe Village spot, opened and operated by sibling duo Enoch and Caleb Simpson, has been on the receiving end of flurries of press--most of which heralds Enoch's signature donuts as the newest heroes of Chicago's donut scene. To me, this was exciting, but ultimately misleading: Endgrain features some standout donuts, sure; but don't let the full brunch menu stand by in supporting role. Chef Enoch is also a master of biscuit sandwiches, weaving creativity through the stronghold of tradition, as exemplified in his marbled rye biscuit topped with caraway seeds and piled high with smoked trout.
I'm a sucker for pretty recipe books. I don't buy all of the ones I think I want, but I do check out a lot of cookbooks from the library. Enough of them that my favorite librarian asks me to tell her if I think a book is worth a read.
I also am a sucker for things that are attractively designed and locally made. So when I heard that David Tamarkin (formerly a food writer and restaurant reviewer for Time Out Chicago) was spearheading the creation of Middlewest, I was intrigued. And since I assumed that I'd never get the chance to peruse one in person at a book store before purchasing, and since the annual subscription price was only $18, I figured I would take the plunge and splurge on some oversized recipe cards that I assumed would be attractive and inspirational if nothing else.
Wicker Park's Hash has all of the ingredients for brunch success: an inventive menu centered around a breakfast favorite, comfy prices, and a lot of local flavor.
Their namesake offerings, a selection of six different hash brown-centric plates, come in two different sizes and draw inspiration from the neighborhood's eclectic population: the "Ukie" features pork sausage and kraut, while the "Humboldt" includes fried plantain and a choice of chorizo or meatless "soyrizo." This is the sort of thoughtfulness that I find inspiring and exciting in menu planning: while sometimes I eat out to escape my surroundings (e.g. sushi in the Midwest; I dig it frequently), I have a special place in my heart for restaurants that successfully embrace their location and its roots--especially in a city as densely diverse as Chicago.
The restaurant space itself is open and homey, full of retro patterns and natural light that encourage lingering over your cup of coffee (Dark Matter, one of my local favorites). The easily-customizable menu sprawls across the back wall in chalk script, and counter service is--in my experience--quick and friendly. Delivery is also available!
It was halfway into my first Wobble Stopper, the official bloody mary of Baconfest 2013 (official maybe because it had a strip of bacon as a garnish in it?), when the proverbial Eddie Murphy Delirious "Ice Cream" (NSFW) moment happened -- a bacon lover, a faulty toothpick, the plummet of fried pork to UIC Pavilion floor death. Somehow I was the only witness to the party foul. He saw me watching, I saw the hesitation. We both looked down at the casualty, feeling his bacon pain. "You were debating that moment, weren't you?" He was, he admitted. In the five-second rule world, he would've been fine. "But all these people," he lamented.
Lesson Number 1: The bacon lover, as defined in the official published Bacon Manifesto, treasures bacon in all of its forms. Even on the floor.
With bloody mary in tow, I started my journey at Carnivale with their spicy bacon medianoche (a popular late night Cuban sandwich). The bacon was just right, the bread perfectly fresh baked the night before, the cole slaw pickeled with a touch of savory unfamiliar to cole slaws. My hangover from the previous night was already starting to feel better. I shoved another piece of bacon morsel in my mouth and headed to Northcenter's Browntrout for their bacon risotto. It was light and salty with a touch of citrus; a perfect, elegant bite at an otherwise grub fest.
The John Hancock Building is basically Chicago's answer to the Eiffel Tower, with all of the same reasons for renown: it's a landmark seen across the city boasting spectacular views and a swanky restaurant at the top. However, in the past said restaurant -- the Signature Room on the 95th, so named for its roost 95 floors above ground -- has delivered more impressively on window seats rather than on actual menu fare. The Signature Room celebrates its 20th anniversary this summer and has marked the occasion with the addition of a new executive chef: Rosalia Barron, previously of Frontera Grill and NAHA -- the Signature Room's first female chef. I was invited to come sample some of the new offerings.
"This is better than Big Star!" I didn't expect to hear this upon my first visit to Takito, a self-described"modern taco" joint that recently opened its doors for business on Division St. Chicago, and especially the Wicker Park neighborhood, has recently become so saturated with taco options lately that it was difficult not to approach Takito with a healthy amount of skepticism. Better than Big Star? Not likely. However, a few bites into Takito's own pork belly offering, one of my dining partners vocalized what we'd all been thinking: this place is really, really good.
Outfitted with plenty of space for large and small parties alike and featuring a gorgeous open kitchen, Takito fits in comfortably with the vibrant atmosphere of Division St (and will hopefully help to make the area more of a dining destination instead of just one long bar strip).
Of course, Executive Chef David Dworshak (previously at Carnivale) is a bit of a veteran of the Latin American dining scene. Here, he focuses his energy on crafting the details that set Takito apart from other high-end taco restaurants: ingredients sourced from Midwestern purveyors such as Three Sisters Garden and Maple Creeks Farm, unexpected flavor combinations such as Brunkow cheese, roasted peanuts and date chutney; and upscale plates such as the delicious Suzuki Bass Ceviche, which resembled a take on Mexican sashimi.
Besides the inspired, fresh-tasting tacos, a huge standout was the salsa flight: served with light, nutty-tasting masa crackers, salsas arrived in shades of vibrant colors and outstanding flavors. My personal favorite was the Chile de Árbol Cucumber, which delivered a tangy, bright flavor heavy on the cucumber. At $5 per flight, this is definitely one of must-haves of the menu.
My one regret? Not trying any of the drinks, crafted by beverage director Adam Weber. And, ok, I spent a buck or two more than I usually feel comfortable doling out on tacos. However, Takito certainly proved its staying power during my visit: perhaps not as trendy as Big Star or as quirky as Antique Tacos, Takito gracefully straddles the line between upscale and inviting. Takito Kitchen is located at 2013 W Division St Chicago, IL 60622. Hours are 5:00 pm - 2:00 am weekly; closed on Mondays. All photos taken from the Takito Kitchen website.
When I was around 10, I went through a (long) phase where I refused to eat anything normal 10-year-olds ate. Burgers? No. Birthday cake? Hell no. Pizza? Not unless it has fancy toppings on it, so basically, no. When I was first introduced to barbeque chicken pizza, it felt like it arrived accompanied by choirs of singing angels, not to mention the relieved sighs of my parents -- no marinara sauce, no spicy meat products, plenty of cheese and sticky sweet chicken. But childhood memory can be a bitch -- for a long time, no real BBQ chicken pie has lived up to mistily shrouded recollections of picky 10-year-old eater bliss.
Until I tried the Knife and Forker at the new Homeslice Wheel House, Lincoln Park's grown-up refuge from the college-student inundated pizza and beer scene. And McGee's and those snobs at the Local Option had best watch their backs. Homeslice's version is like the Platonic form of barbeque chicken pizza: shredded chicken bolstered with spicy pepperoni, dark sweet barbeque sauce and finely sliced red onion for just a touch of acidity, draped with perfectly blistered cheddar, mozarella and provolone. This, with 12 beers on tap and a cocktail menu! My childhood heart be still, my grown-up liver rejoice.
Friday night I took advantage of a borrowed car and made my way to Jewel. Of course, a grocery store is not Studio 54, but in those quiet hours when the rest of the world is at home watching Dateline NBC marathons (lots of duped and presumed dead women, amirite?), I made a beeline for the frozen foods aisle, and there it was: Ben and Jerry's Liz Lemon frozen Greek yogurt, which is a lemon yogurt with a blueberry and lavender swirl. Yes, it's a delicious homage to Lemon and her creator Tina Fey (who cut her comedy chops here in Chicago whilst folding towels at the YMCA), sweet yet sour, creamy yet cold--but it is a missed opportunity for those of us who were hoping to see a dark chocolate-flecked Night Cheese-cake. Blerg.
You probably can't say the word charcuterie in Chicago and not utter Jared Van Camp in the same sentence. He is, after all, the first chef in Chicago certified to dry-cure salami in-house, which he displays proudly at his flagship restaurant, Old Town Social. While this may not come as something that warrants caring about, being able to dry-cure your own meat in-house apparently is a feat within itself thanks to the Health Department.
Earlier this year, Van Camp released a new menu at OTS focusing less on the swine and more on a broader and lighter fare that could accompany all food types, including vegan and gluten free. New selections include smoked trout brandade, a raw kale salad, a selection of bite sized tacos and a spicy lamb burger.
The tacos were good -- not great, not bad -- rectified by homemade may-or-may-not-glow-in-the-dark hot sauce. The paté didn't disappoint either, and a future visit to the Ritz made it obvious why Van Camp carries the Sausage King title. Overall, the menu still leverages the old OTS vibe and thankfully he kept the Pork Belly Rueben. I've done more drinking than eating at OTS so I'm not one to say whether the food has changed dramatically. The addition of lighter fare, however, is a smart move but a visit to OTS without trying his house-cured fare is just sacrilegious so don't skimp on this part. They don't disappoint on beer selections either, offering a range of IPA's that would light up any pale ale fan's night. If you're lucky to get Amy, you're in for a night of nostalgic story swapping and beer education. Oh, and go on a Wednesday for a taste of local live music.
A friend and I planned a visit to Oiistar for a Wednesday night dinner. I met up with him at the door. "I'm not feeling it," he said immediately. "It's like a club in there. Too noisy." I glanced through the window to assess the interior: full, but not packed. Atmospheric, minimalist decor with lots of woody accents. Classic cartoons projected onto a far wall. The word "trendy" came, almost instantaneously, to mind.
But this being Wicker Park, and Oiistar being one of the newest additions to a specific trend set -- fusion cusine gastropubs -- I decided that my friend's fear was just symptomatic.
There's a tiny neighborhood joint in West Rogers Park that plays Israeli music and has waiters wearing kippahs serving a clientele made up of mostly devout Jews. The only thing that looks out of place is the food: sushi. This is Hamachi Sushi Bar, Chicago's first and only kosher sushi restaurant.
The interiors are simple and minimal to the point of almost being clinical -- which is pretty much the opposite of how I'd describe most of the food. The Spicy Seafood soup was the exception. I started my meal with this bland miso soup that had a scant amount of faux crab and shrimp meat. It left me yearning for more flavor.
And flavor I got!
Every starter I tried, from Crispy Rice (a toasty rice bar topped with spicy tuna and pineapple salsa) to Crunch Shrimp (deep fried faux shrimp, spicy tuna covered with a yellow pepper sauce, mixed greens and picked cucumber), was overwhelmingly salty, vinegar-y and sweet at the same time.
It seems that the Wicker Park restaurant formula these days involves trading in the standard black apron for woodsmithing aprons and flannel, and making sure your staff dons an appropriate amount of facial hair while creating a cocktail list with ingredients that you nor your guests will ever be able to decipher (is that some type of fly fishing tackle in my drink and seriously, why does every drink need a bitter in it?) Making sure the people behind those aprons are attractive isn't a bad idea, either. Carriage House perfects at its Wicker Park location, a hop, skip and a jump from its big sister The Bedford.
The films ranged from simple documentaries shot with basic equipment (Fish Fry Night Milwaukee) to more complex psychological films that wove together narration and animation (Bon Appetit). The sequence of movies shown on Friday was served like a full course meal, from appetizer to dessert. We started with Mickle's Pickles, a hysterical documentary about a small town pickle maker who makes national and international news after his pickle decoration goes missing, and ended with Mama Sugar's Sweet Potato Cobbler, a food-porn flick (there were groans in the audience) focused on the decadence of making a decadent double-crusted sweet potato pie.
Chicago is a city steeped in tradition and history, a town full of allegiance to memories and what we love. Whether you grew up in Chicago or not, once you live here you have those first places you visit in the city that, for the most part, remain favorites. It's the type of city with pride where you'll find multiple generations eating the same food, shopping at the same stores, and cheering on the same teams for years to come. This week in the Dog Show, we visit one of those family institutions on the West Side, Jimmy's Red Hots.
The formerly unmarked space on 2745 W. Armitage Ave. was being used as a kitchen to make decadent truffles and caramels, sold online and at Chicago's farmers markets for the past two years. The business' founder, Katherine Duncan, decided it was time to open a storefront after receiving calls from customers asking her how late she was open. One woman drove all the way from the suburbs wanting to buy truffles, only to discover there wasn't a shop. "Chocolate is an impulse buy; you don't think to buy it in advance," said Duncan, who grew up learning how to make confections with an "overachieving mom who made everything from scratch."
Ever since Longman and Eagle won its first Michelin star two years ago, it has become one of the destination spots for Logan Square. Hidden by a drab blue facade on a quiet street corner, it has managed to turn itself to a successful brand. After all the fuss that has gone on for the past two years, I had greater than average expectations walking in on a recent Saturday night; if L&E was all it was cracked up to be, I needed to be wowed.
It was less hipster-y than marketed (unless casual preppy is the new hipster?) but the crowd seemed like a nice blend and the bar was inviting, which is where the goodness started while I joined my group, who were already an hour into their wait (L&E doesn't take reservations). I'm one of those "surprise me" type of drink orderers. The bartender running the show didn't miss a beat, asking me whether or not I liked my drinks sweet, savory, herbaceous, refreshing, sour, etc. It's a line I'm sure that he uses on everyone, but I'm a sucker for well-executed lines. Refreshing and herbaceous, ding ding. I mention cucumber and his eyes sparkle -- he has to run down to the basement for this one. Somebody call home; I was in love (maybe we could lodge our wedding guests in the hotel upstairs). Minutes later, a cucumber caipiroska (freshly muddled cucumber, vodka, lime juice and simple syrup similar to a caipirinha but with vodka) landed into my hands. In this mixologist crazed time, I've had better drinks, but their attention to detail was kicking the night off to a good start.
Since our last column, Lisa White and I weren't able to make our schedules match in order to visit one of the hot dog joints on our list, so we opted to dine separately. Lisa took the high dining road, visiting fine dining restaurant Allium, while I went the more plebeian route. How'd we fare? Read on, hot dog lovers!
After a long absence, The Dog Show has returned! Every other week, we'll be exploring Chicago's many hot dog stands, checking out their Chicago-style hot dogs as well as other treats.
To mark the column's return, Lisa White and Andrew Huff visited Susie's Drive-Thru, a classic Mayfair spot that's been pleasing people for 38 years. Set on an odd-shaped lot at 4126 W. Montrose Ave., just west of Elston, it's mostly oriented toward eating in your car -- there are two drive-thru windows and ample parking, while inside there's but a narrow counter along the windows. A couple of picnic tables are set up outside.
The menu is surprisingly long for a hot dog stand. In addition to the standard encased meats, burgers and gyros, there are also all sorts of combinations of menu items -- seemingly anything may be topped with anything else, resulting in such oddities as the hot dogs wrapped in gyro meat, burgers served like reubens, and just about anything on top of cheese fries. Apparently being stuck in tight quarters from noon to midnight every day inspires a good amount of experimentation.
Smoked salmon with cauliflower puree, pickled onion, fried caper, poppy seed, and blis roe
When Andersonville's In Fine Spirits made the transition earlier this year to Premise, I wasn't sure which incarnation to applaud--the warmly lit, accessible space that once served small plates and cocktails, or what it turned into: a much pricier, higher-end operation that clearly jumped on the northbound Red Line somewhere downtown in search of a new home. Is Andersonville ready for River North?
Living in Lincoln Square, one hardly wants for formidable dining options within easy walking distance -- but in the last few years since I've moved to the neighborhood, Italian cuisine seems to be missing a truly worthy representative in the area. Trattoria Trullo and La Bocca Della Verita, both on Lincoln Avenue, are both flatly fine options -- nothing fancy, nothing taste-bud numbingly amazing, but nothing that tastes like its major components couldn't have come out of a freezer either. Just solidly mediocre. And while the area boasts some outstanding pizza (Spacca Napoli what up!), sometimes you just want a bowl of noodles and red sauce -- and have it not taste like something you (or Chef Boyardee) put together on your own stove.
Due Lire opened on Lincoln a year or so ago, offering a classic Italian mix of appertivo, small plates, pastas, and mains, and while it took me a while to finally visit, I will gladly return when the pasta-craving strikes from now on. While the staff wavers a bit between charming and aggressive, and both dining room and back patio are cozy but nothing to write home about, the food is gorgeous.
This past Sunday, I went to brunch with a good friend to the appropriately named Porkchop.
The restaurant is located in the busy West Loop area that is Randolph Street. I'm guessing that because it was around noon, there was no traffic on the generally crowded street. That was great, because the restaurant was not busy at all and my friend and I could actually relax and not feel rushed. I'm sure that's understandable if you've been to Sunday brunch here in Chicago.
I was in a breakfast mood, she was in a lunch mood. So, I had strawberry French toast with strawberry butter -- yay -- and she had a slab of ribs.
We both enjoyed our meal -- my soft french toast, her "fall of the bone" ribs. Head on over to 941 W. Randolph St. and give Porkchop a try. I doubt you'll regret it.
They've done it again! Grubstreet New York has released their list of 50 places to eat, one in every state. This is to entice travel for the upcoming summer. Cajun Connection in Utica, near Starved Rock, made the list. If you're broke like I am or just don't feel like going anywhere outside of the city, just watch "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" on the Food Network.
When you're lucky enough to score a reservation at EL Ideas, it feels almost mandatory to write about the experience, so write about it I will. It's no exaggeration to say this was in the top ten dining experiences of my 46 years. I'll also hazard a statement that the food isn't the (main) reason to go.
That's not to say the food isn't magnificent. It is. From an opening course combining crab, Ossetra caviar, lychee, lemongrass, and freeze-dried strawberry, to the finale -- a variation on a root beer float -- every dish was a reason to celebrate functioning taste buds and incisors to chew with. Would I be lying if I said I'd never had a food experience that ranks as high? Maybe. My single meal at Alinea (justified after collecting a check from a freelance job that just about killed me), a recent haddock curry at Owen & Engine, and a late-July vanilla soft-serve at the Dairy Bar outside Rockland, Maine, rivaled my favorite dishes of the night. But that's mighty high praise, and I don't dole it out lightly.
The disintegration of the fourth wall is what sets the EL Ideas experience apart from any other exciting meal of your life. It's a reason to opt for EL over Schwa, Moto, or most of the underground dining options on your radar. It's an incentive to skip the two fancy date nights, six trips to Kuma's, or dozen visits to the local taqueria and save those dollars for EL instead.
Opening up in the Flat Iron building on the southwest corner of North, Damen, and Milwaukee, the Storefront Company made its debut earlier this month looking to make its name as a mainstay at the fast moving corners in the heart of Bucktown-Wicker Park.
Last weekend, I was invited to check out the self-claimed "farm cuisine | modern cooking" spot which has the feel of a modern California bistro. Stark black and white decor is softened by sectioned banquets, modern exposed lighting and attentive service. Brought to you by the folks behind Debonair Social Club, a dance party-no tell hall just around the corner, Chef Bryan Moscatello holds the reigns in the kitchen, and while new to Chicago, he's no stranger to the back of the house. He received Food & Wine's best new chef in 2003 and since then has been Executive Chef at Stir Food Group, receiving "Top Table" from Bon Appetit.
Storefront holds a lot of promise, considering they've got the folks who know how to bring the party, and a chef who has cooked and starred around the country, but as newbies to the Chicago game, I think we need a bit more.
Fish Bar owner, chef Michael Kornick (of MK, DMK Burger Bar), gave you a gift, Chicago. It's called the SatchmoPo' Boy and it demands that you eat it. Delicately fried shrimp and crawfish, roasted garlic aioli, butter pickles and lettuce on perfectly toasted bread, all crying out, "Eat us! We're delicious!"
Wash it down with a Cinnamon Toast: Sailor Jerry-spiced rum and hot apple cider, served in a mason jar with a cinnamon-sugar coated rim.
Fish Bar is located at 2956 North Sheffield and is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:30am to 12am.
Imagine Big Star and your favorite, neighborhood dive bar had an unassuming, yet delicious restaurant-baby. Their cash-only love child, touting, among other things, tacos and whiskey, is Bullhead Cantina. Having recently opened in Humboldt Park (1143 N California), this place is off to a great start-- offering a comprehensive selection of whiskey, beer and tasty, tasty food.
When you order their tacos (as you should), make sure to try the grilled tilapia, glazed with bourbon and tamarind and the pastor, marinated and served with grilled pineapple, pickled cabbage and cucumbers. Their tacos are served with homemade corn tortillas and made-to-order salsas.
Rumor has it, they'll also be hosting the occasional live show. Keep an eye on this place-- great things to come.
Grange Hall Burger Bar (844 W Randolph), is a Rockwell painting. It's charming and simple. It's Grandma's prairie barn-- a kitsch dream, touting a farm-to-table ethic, an homage to family farmers and husbandry. Johnny Cash and Hank Williams croon over the speakers and long, communal tables are set with mismatched cloth napkins. Attention to detail is definitely paid here as every item plays a part-- from the cucumber/lemon water to the bar, balanced over old wooden dressers. Angela and Chris Lee, owners of De Cero and Sushi Wabi, truly know how to set a scene. And now, the scene is open for lunch, Tuesday through Friday starting at 11am, with dinner service, Tuesday through Saturday, from 3pm to 10pm. They also offer a Farmer's breakfast Saturdays and Sundays from 9am to 1pm.
The plaid-clad staff is warm and friendly, happy to bring out your local, grass-fed beef burger out on a cafeteria lunch tray, accompanied with cups of ketchup, mustard, mayo and house-made sweet pickle, with options for additional toppings. They also serve a house-ground turkey thigh burger with sage and white onion, and a vegetarian wild rice and sauteed vegetable burger on a toasted house-made bun (gluten-free option available). But, you're there for the beef, which you won't be able to put down due to its tasty factor, and because it's so juicy it may fall apart. You're also there for the many flavors of Faygo, the only soda they carry, and for the Farmhouse chili fries, which you will inevitably order. And when you do, you'll be given a choice of a few local cheeses-- go with the bleu. Your waiter will come to your table to follow up as you, mouth full, are unable to respond and, with Han Solo's confidence, he'll just say, "I know."
They have no doubts about their house-churned ice cream. The rosemary pecan ice cream is strong and clean, incredibly light and not overly sweet. They also have seasonal pies, which they change up monthly-- this month's pie is chocolate pudding pie, and come March, they'll be serving key lime.
Seriously, this place couldn't be more wholesome. Tasty and comforting, worth checking out.
I don't know if anyone else has noticed, but it's cold out. To walk in the doors of Yusho, teeth chattering, to instantly be hugged by the warmth coming from the grill? Off to a good start.
Without a reservation, we are led to a booth, taking note of the decor as both modern and rustic, kitschy but clean -- chunky wood, right angles and chenille-upholstered seating my brother in law -- to my surprise -- swoons over for near 10 minutes. Their decor and "environment" are a vision of the wife of owner and chef Matthias Merges' (respected and seasoned chef, formerly executive chef at Charlie Trotter's), Rachel Crowl, and Julie Fisher, her partner and co-owner of FCStudio.
We're bringing a majorly late recap of this episode to you after a long holiday week(end)(-ish). It's like a gift you waited a long time to open--like a coffee mug from your boss?
The episode picks up in the "Top Chef" schoolyard, as all the cheftestants react to the double elimination of Nyesha and Dakota. The camera pans to a relieved but battered-looking Heather (who nearly met her 86-ing) as her rival Beverly dodders on about karma and its power--okay, thanks for the foreshadowing, Captain Obvious. The energy in the room turns to glee when it's revealed that the show is going to Austin. The chefs get into their product-placed Toyota Siennas to skip town.
The Quickfire challenge is a dish dictated by directions tweeted by fans of the show; the chefs begin with the mere direction of cooking with bacon, but after adding in a hash component and a randomly chosen ingredient selected by another contestant (sriracha, maple syrup, etc.) the resulting dishes look about as appetizing as a Barbie doll with all its hair cut off. Paul, who plays up his Austin roots, wins $10k and upped street cred with his trio of clams, asparagus, blackberry and bacon.
The cheftestants retreat to a bar for drinks and a surprise concert by--naturally!--Patti LaBelle, who sings a few bars of her calling card "Lady Marmalade" for the room. Padma introduces LaBelle as the next guest judge for the episode's elimination challenge--a "tribute dinner" for the person(s) who taught the chefs how to cook. The chefs return to Whole Paycheck and scramble for ingredients as they plot their meals--things with adobo, fish, short ribs, sausage, etc. The door to Heather's obvious elimination begins to creak open as she voices concerns that the beef she chose for her stroganoff is not the quality needed. The judges give nice shout-outs to Sarah's cabbage, Beverly's short ribs, and Ed's bibimbap. Sarah walks away with the win; good work, I like her.
It was a Great Lakes Letdown with the bottom three: Graysons's mammoth, supper club-esqe portion of fatty steak got gripes ("But that's how we eat in Wisconsin!" she earnestly responds), Ohioan PrettyChris's salmon was coated in gross albumin and his vegetables were overseasoned, and Heather's dish was all kinds of mess; the judges even got in a straight-faced Beverly comparison/dig when chastising Heather for not using a pressure cooker while prepping her dish. Aw, snap! Metaphors everywhere.
As the dismissed Heather walked in after her elimination, Sarah let out a gasp as the fallen chef said "Don't be upset, it was a crucial mistake..." and begins the hugging and platitude-filled exit speech. Beverly cracks a half-smile, satisfied as she later concludes that Heather's attitude--particularly towards Beverly herself, exemplified by a little montage of Heather's barbs--earned her firing. The triangulation is strong with this episode: even Nyesha was patting herself on the back in the Last Chance Kitchen episode that followed TC for defeating Heather. True, Heather was grinning--even giggling--as she walked into the Last Chance Thunderdome, realizing that her skills would be given a second chance. In a voiceover, an irritated Nyesha vows to "wipe the smile off [Heather's] face." When you're in the drama--the raised verbal pitchforks, the tense interactions with coworkers or friends who are clearly The Problem--it's a defining moment when justice is served and the bully exits the stage. But when you're merely watching it from afar, you're merely waiting for the monster's replacement. It will happen, I'm sure. Stay tuned.
Now that we're in the final stretches of the year, here are a few of the best things that were eaten (or sipped) by the Drive-Thru staff.
I was quite smitten with the Tour of Thailand menu at Next--especially the beef cheek curry. As skeptical as I am of popular places, the dish was so elegant and clean that I can't bring myself to order curry anywhere else. Ever again.
Another thing that comes to mind is the appetizer pizza bread at Sabatino's. I've eaten at this place a million times in the last year as it's become a go-to birthday and special occasion destination for my circle. While most of the menu items are simply decent (and even unspectacular), the small slices of marinara and melted cheese on Italian bread that land on your table before you've even ordered make what's to come of your meal seem as if you've landed a seat at the city's best spaghetti joint.
Let's see what others had to say.
Laura Sant: A very hungover brunch at the Bedford - duck confit gravy over grits and one of those amazing bloody marys with kimchee. Best hangover cure ever!
Alan Lake: I've narrowed it down to three: the fresh hearts of palm salad with pink peppercorn vinaigrette at Davanti Enoteca, which is surprising to me, as I've worked with fresh hearts of palm quite a bit - but this simple presentation was close to flawless, and I'd never expect it at this restaurant. Then there's the Tom Yam Beef Ball & Tender Soup at Aroy Thai - a perfect balance of sour, spicy and rich. Lastly, the crispy tripe taco and cibolittas (grilled baby spring onions) from the charola at La Chaparrita, drenched in their avocado salsa.
Andie Thomalla: Finding a transcendent version of a familiar foodstuff is one of my favorite eating experiences -- and this year I was lucky enough to stumble across several homey dishes with stratospheric flavors: the garlic bread at Fish Bar (the oysters were super as well, but this simple side with its creamy center, crispy edges, and featherweight down of parmesan cheese stole the entire meal). The fries at Three Aces smothered in a deeply flavorful Bolognese sauce (the ultimate hangover food?), rich, funky-yet-sweet Gruyere donuts on the dessert menu at Longman & Eagle. And just in case anyone was wondering, the browned butter gnocchi at A Tavola are as simple as they ever have been - and still the absolute best in the city.
Sometimes it's the ingredient itself that stands out, as with the Burrata appetizer at Spacca Napoli - it's just cheese, with a few pieces of griddled bread, a drizzle of olive oil, and a pinch of sea salt. And yet it's so, so much more than just cheese. And finally, at the other end of the spectrum are the mechanically precise, carefully plated, and seemingly scientifically balanced dishes that stick with you because they're so very out of the ordinary. Like, for example, the Baja shrimp bruschetta at GT Fish and Oyster, where cilantro, grapefruit and toasted pistachio give the avocado and shrimp lightness you never knew they had. Or the foie gras torchon at LM, the world's best use of negative space on a plate, where the distance between accompaniments, like a summery strawberry basil compote and autumnal red onion confit, feels like a literal breath of fresh air. Whew. Cheers to eating up 2012!
Andrew Huff: Best cocktail: "Bitter" at The Aviary. Partly for the floor show -- the highball glass is brought to the table atop a smoldering chunk of bourbon barrel, holding in a dose of smoke, which adds its flavor to the drink once it's poured in -- and partly for the drink's smokey-sweet bitterness. I had it in the depths of summer heat, but could imagine how comforting it would be in the cold winter months.
Most memorable dessert: Chimney cake from Chimney Cake Island. Crispy and light and a lot of fun to eat.
Most interesting crash and burn: The Black Sheep was open barely three months, and what a bizarre couple months it was. After getting mixed reviews for its contemporary menu, Chef-owner James Toland took to social media to attack critics (while claiming his account had been "hacked"), lost a partner and fired his chefs, and suffered two staff walkouts before abruptly shutting the doors. Cinnamon and I had a great meal there, then watched in horror and fascination as the drama unfolded.
From its bare-bones website, I was getting a definite basement bar vibe from the new Highball Lounge, located above Orange on the western edge of River North -- utilitarian bar, basic U-shaped booths, nothing much else. As with the proverbial book and cover, however, you can't necessarily judge a bar by its website. While the lounge has been technically open since November, I stopped by for a reception last week and was pleasantly surprised by the intimate but playful space.
The long, lean lounge has a speakeasy feel to it (enhanced in part by the lack of street-level signage -- the ambiguity is intentional for the time being, according to manager Anthony Williams, but a banner and lit sign are on their way), all low lights and 60's-inspired decor, with a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over Clark Street lending an openness to the space. The menu is true to the bar's name, primarily focused on the highball, with such spirit-and-mixer favorites as the Moscow Mule, Pimm's Cup, and the Mai Tai, the last being delightfully sweet and sour, a burnished golden color (none of that pink, "MTV Spring Break" nonsense, thank you) and garnished with a garden's worth of bright mint.
Tucked beneath the billowing balconies of the Aqua Building, the Hotel Radison quietly opened up a new dining spot for their hotel patrons, corporate types of the Aon Tower, and the occasional architecture-geek tourist. With latte grey banquets, eggplant purple booths and pearly white table tops, Filini is draped in stark 21st century decor that somehow manages to provide the perfect backdrop for its warm country Italian cuisine. I was invited by Filini to see what Chef Christian Fantoni, who hails from Northern Italy, was working with and judging by the courses that I preferred on the menu, it shows.
I slid into our five-foot-high backed booth and immediately felt oblivious to the world, or at least, to the rest of the restaurant. In fact, throughout the meal I kept feeling like I was sliding in and out of the hotel-ness of the place, mostly out.
I started with the burrata appetizer, and although we had to get through a bit of rougher cheese to get through to those sweet, creamy insides, it came nicely garnished with arugula, crisp cherry tomatoes, and slippery red peppers. The ribolatta, a so-called Tuscan bean soup with ham, sadly came with neither ham nor beans, more reminiscent of my mom's plain veggie soup.
Chef has a nice selection of Bruschettes which come in pairs, reasonably topped above a crostini. I opted for the Ceci, which came decked with arugula, wrinkly black olives, roasted red bell pepper, one big shave of Parmesan and anchovies. It was salty, crisp and you could actually bite it, without the remaining ingredients toppling onto your plate; a feat I find most bruschettes fail to achieve.
But really, the best way to judge an Italian restaurant rests in one question. Do you make your own pastas? I know this is a corporate place and all, but can any self-respecting Italian serve factory-made pasta? The answer irrefutably should be no. Fantoni's pastas were toothsome, appropriately dressed and fantastic. Properly piled papardelle arrived with a dark wild boar ragu, and only after poking around the dish for a solid 10 minutes did I discover what gave it that iconic depth: the pasta had been laced with cocoa powder. The garganelli, tossed in a mascarpone and white truffle sauce with salty prosciutto and fresh radicchio, was a well-balanced sweet and salty bite. I dared not venture into their secondi part of the menu, since I felt perfectly sated with pasta, but if I had, the olive oil-poached halibut with brussel sprouts, wild mushrooms and macadamia nuts would have been a good bet.
I finished with the Torta, a ricotta and mascarpone Italian cheesecake accompanied by pistachio gelato and candied fruits. After the heavy creaminess of the pasta, it was perhaps a bit heavy, but worth it.
Filini doesn't have the authenticity of some other fine spots in Chicago, but when you're chained to corporate suppliers, how can your arugula -ased dish be as good as one that uses local farms? Despite my wishing it wasn't so, Filini is a hotel restaurant, but one that is pursuing cuisine in an honest, authentic way. It also has a very charming bar, which if you sit nearer to the windows, and away from the two, very out-of-place flat screen TVs, it would be a great spot for an after dinner drink. Their bar menu is replete with wood-fired pizzas and a few star selections from the dinner menu.
Filini, Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel, Chicago
221 North Columbus Drive
"Quemo." You hear it echo throughout the kitchen, over and over at all times. Translated into English, it means "I burn," an astute word to encompass the chefs that pass through the hallowed ground of El Bulli. Regarded by many as the best restaurant in the world, the little inn in the hill is the focus of the documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, showing at the Siskel Film Center until December 1st.
The movie opens with chef Ferran Adrià testing out an unusual product that perfectly sums up the magical whimsy through innovation that Adrià and his team attempt to capture with all their work. Numerous books (and bloggers) have captured the experience of eating at El Bulli, and many a famous chef have recounted their stagiaires time in El Bulli, including Chicago wunderkind Grant Achatz. But with El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, the audience gets to witness the exploratory science and almost manic obsession that Adrià and his chefs de cuisine exude during the six months working in their lab in Barcelona while the restaurant is closed for their off season. The chefs spend each day exploring new taste, textures, and generally ripping apart each item of food. At one point there are notes detailing how one type of fruit behaves when deconstructed every way possible: boiled, roasted, frozen, pureed, etc.
This Saturday welcomed Time Out Chicago and West Town Chamber of Commerce's Food Truck Social. I got there a little later than I originally planned, but the timing actually turned out rather perfect. It was a cool and breezy night, the ideal atmosphere to squeeze in one last street fare event before the dog days of summer are officially over for the season. Getting there later in the evening meant a surprising amount of vendors were either sold out or had already closed up shop (even though the event was still going strong for another couple of hours). To me, that just meant I had a more selective amount of options. With a playground of food trucks at my disposal, it made the decision of which one to try incredibly easy. If you were open and had a line, I was making a beeline for you.
As the end of summer looms on the horizon (noooo, look away! White shoes forever!), it seems an appropriate time to reflect upon some of the other summer drinking options... You know the ones. The kinds you find in a cooler at a friend of a friend's backyard get together when you arrive hours after the peak of the party has faded and all the good beers have been finished off. The kinds you find on the "seasonal specials" menus of bars that are really not terribly interested in offering seasonal specials. And in the case of MGD 64 Lemonade, the kinds that have been not only discontinued but recalled by their parent brewer and now only exist in keg form in a few select (?) joints around town. That's right, gentle reader, I drink them for you. And I have learned some things.
First off, do not drink MGD 64 Lemonade. Just don't. Unless you're missing the cloying, plastic taste of Crystal Light in your light beer. Maybe if Miller had gone with a regular, full calorie shandy concoction, things might have turned out better -- but when you try to add lemonade or lemon soda to a beer capped at 64 calories, you have to get creative. And creative, in this case, means adding lemon "flavor" and sucralose. And not even Splenda -- some off-brand, unnamed version of sucralose. The first sip is not bad -- it doesn't really taste like anything. Just weak, beer-esque, lemon-ish sweet water. But the in the second and following, the weird-science sweetness gets increasingly more oppressive. At 2.8% ABV, it's not even going to get you drunk enough to not care about how it tastes. A good, old-fashioned Miller Lite will be kinder and more quenching for your summer drinking purposes, or even, and I can't believe I'm saying this, a Mike's Hard Lemonade (5.2% ABV). Pinky swear.
Anheuser-Busch seems to have fared better than Miller Coors in the flavored, summery beer category. Bud Light Lime (4.2% ABV) is pretty drinkable -- sort of like a blander version of a pre-dressed Corona...Light. The lime flavor isn't nearly as chemical as in the MGD 64 Lemonade. But the best/least-chemical option of all might be Bud Light Gold Wheat (4.1% ABV). An improvement on regular Bud Lite, it still doesn't measure up to even a more mass-produced wheat beer, like Blue Moon (a Miller product). But it delivers the (featherweight) citrus-coriander one-two punch of better, smaller batch beers, drinks easily, and won't leave you wrinkling your nose and wondering what they hell you just put in your mouth. At a late party or limited bar, sometimes that's all you can ask for.
Another deviation from shandy-land in this week's entry! Still not an IPA for you hop-heads out there, sorry. But this is an interesting one -- I'd never had (or heard of -- not an expert here, guys, I just like drinking beer in the summer...and fall and winter and spring) Schmaltz Brewing Company until I came across their Coney Island Albino Python, a "white lager brewed with spices" in the cooler at Rootstock earlier this week. I usually gravitate more towards draft beers in the summer for some reason, but wasn't feeling the two options on tap, and decided to give this bottle a try. My first thought was, oooh! cool label! And my second thought was, this beer is TALL. At 22 oz. (and only $9!) and 6% ABV, this is a beer for the seriously parched. Not too heavy, not too cloudy, it departs from the typical summer white beers in its earthy, almost grassy flavor profile. No hibiscus flowers or lemon slices here, thank you. Albino Python is brewed with, yes, orange peel, but also ginger and crushed fennel (I'm assuming seeds, not stalks, but who knows), which gives it a spiciness more on the dark and sour side than the sweet. You may feel a bit dirty when you order this drink out loud, as I did, but it's worth the faint blush, and goes very well with fries at the bar.
Rootstock never disappoints, in either its beer selection or menu. I also tried a sip of the Brauerei Hirt Hirter Privat Pils (a 5.2% pilsner), which was exactly my usual taste in summer beers, all crispness and bright with a hint of lemon sweetness; and one of the draft selections (which now I can't recall! I didn't take notes! See, sooo not a professional) which was incredibly layered in flavor -- just like Rootstock's food. The cheese and charcuterie plate is always a good call, with current features like rabbit rillette, a chicken liver pate crowned with pink peppercorns, barely-solid bloomy Kunik cheese, and tangy Sofia goat's cheese from Indiana. And small plates can either be shared, like the fat, doughy, pizza-ish "crusts," or hoarded all to yourself, like suckling pig with tomatoes, peaches, and sweet corn.
After a long afternoon of repeatedly refreshing my browser several weeks ago to get into Next's ticket system, my tenacity paid off last night. Enjoy.
Street snacks: roasted banana, prawn cake, sweet shrimp and garlic, fermented sausage, and steamed bun. The banana packed flavor, and the shrimp was wrapped in a mint leaf that set the stage for an incredible meal.
Hot and sour broth, pork belly, tomato, ginger. The chunks of pork belly were like little treasure chests of flavor. Good stuff.
Chili, shallot, garlic, salted duck egg, green mango, white radish pickles. This is where things got dicey for me, as it was full of heat and spice landmines. The chili sauce and radish pickles were the high points.
Catfish, caramel sauce, celery, coriander root. I expected much more from this dish, given the flavors. Next!
As promised, this week's beer is slightly off the beaten track of wits and wheats. Revolution Brewing's Coup d'Etat is a French-style saison dry ale packing 7% ABV -- not a beer for gulping down quickly as you stagger into the bar from your un-air conditioned apartment. Saison pale ales were initially developed farmhouse by farmhouse as a quenching end-of-day reward for farmhands during the harvest season, and Coup d'Etat drinks likes this sort of pedigree would suggest -- it's a spicy, rich beer for lingering over, and with a toasty, caramelized flavor palate that feels more like August than the citrus and flowers of June. Still totally refreshing, but a very different character than both the shandies and summer IPAs out there.
And worth waiting for. Which you will do, at Revolution. The year-old-ish Logan Square brewer still commands a 40 minute wait on a weeknight, unless you can sneak in at the bar. (It'll be interesting to see if the opening of their new upstairs lounge ameliorates or exacerbates this.) But like all good things, the wait is worth it. Coup d'Etat is merely one among many top-notch beers (the summery Rosa, infused with hibiscus petals and orange peels, would have been my first choice, but they were sold out that night -- I just can't help myself with these fruity botanicals, it seems), and the food is excellent, from an entree-sized burrata topped salad, to generous piles of mussels, to a wide range of traditional and creative flatbreads. French farmhands would toast their approve, I imagine.
Observant readers may have noticed a pattern at this point in the summer beers I've been highlighting -- they tend to be of the wheat or wit variety, sweeter over bitter, crisp and fruity, not too hoppy. Next week, I swear, I'll break the pattern (if I can find something I like that breaks the pattern...). For now, though, let's spend some time with Belgian import Blanche de Bruxelles, a beer strikingly similar to a pulpy lemonade in appearance, and wholly refreshing when the air is warm and the late-afternoon sun is slanting across the table. Light, mellow, ever so slightly sweet with a nice orange peel scent, you could be forgiven for thinking you are, in fact, drinking lemonade. Lemonade with 4.5% ABV -- also known as, the dream.
I first encountered this beer at Avec in bottle form, which is acceptable because of the somewhat hilarious little peeing fountain boy depicted on the label. (Yes, I am a 12 year old boy.) However, Blanche de Bruxelles really shines on draft, and particularly in the mason jar glasses at Fish Bar, which allow for a few inches of lacy foam to develop on top. It's also available on tap at Fork and smallbar (Fullerton) -- but unlike Fish Bar, neither of those establishments have what may be the best oysters in town, and what is undoubtedly the best garlic bread in the galaxy. The long, thin baguette slice comes doused in enough butter to almost give it an eggy, custard-like consistency, studded with garlic and crowned with a subtle lattice of parmesan. Order two. Order four! And order some Blanche de Bruxelles for a fresh complement to such decadence. Win!
I don't know if this happens to you, but my beer cravings get INTENSE during the summer months. I'll be riding along in an un-air conditioned Red Line car or walking along a particularly bright patch of River North sidewalk and BAM! I require liquid refreshment! (I also saw Thor a few weeks ago, which may partially explain the force of these sudden desires.) Such was the case yesterday at Trader Joe's -- after picking out the starches and cheeses that would best complement my CSA bounty (scapes in the house!), I desperately needed a six-pack as well, and New Belgium Somersault was in the right place at the right time.
And a good thing too. A slightly higher ABV (5.2%), slightly sweeter seasonal replacement for Skinny Dip, Somersault is a quenching, not overly complex but not simply sweet and fruity summer beer. It has a velvety, mouth-filling feel with a slightly caramelized scent, an assertive dose of hops, and a lingering citrus crispness. A perfect 75 degree day, backyard beer. And no, it's not a Chicago or even Illinois beer (though its cousin Fat Tire does seem to get an awful lot of play on the taps around town) but it does make for a nice Jewel or TJ's supermarket purchase, and might be just the beer to cut through all the smoky meatiness of the 6 Points BBQ Fest this weekend. And look at that label! How delightfully disorienting!
Whenever I travel, I try to get out of eating hotel restaurant food to get the real local flavor--which means I've walked several miles in blazing San Antonio heat (and in work-related business casual) for barbecue, driven off the interstate (many times) for a green river, and suffered through pizza of a certain Midwestern city to get the legit experience.
So when Roots, which is the first place in town to serve Quad Cities-style pizza, opened in the East Village, I had to sample it. I've driven through the group of cities that line the Iowa and Illinois border countless times, but am usually too distracted by the massive, intimidating Mississippi River bridge to stop and sample the food.
There's an awful lot of history crammed into a glass of Zephyr, the new collaborative brew from Lagunitas, the Publican, and Big Star. Brewed in the historic steam beer tradition (without refrigeration), it's evocative of both Prohibition and the California gold rush -- appropriate, given its West Coast roots. The name Zephyr, too, recalls the Amtrak Zephyr line, which runs from Chicago to San Francisco -- or perhaps the Pioneer Zephyr train, which sits at the Museum of Science and Industry. Also, it tastes pretty good.
Not quite as fruity or as lingeringly hoppy as an IPA, Zephyr is a good balance of bitter and quenching. A good beer for a hot summer day (like this week's), when you want to cool of with something that tastes distinctly like, well, beer. Correction, when you want to cool off, with beer, and get a little toasted. At 7.2% abv, it will bliss you out pretty quickly -- particularly if consumed on a sunny patio, or in the warm, bright garage space at Big Star. The wonderfully composed, transcendent tacos de panza there, by the way, seem like they were designed to complement Zephyr -- not the other way around.
As of this past Monday, you can add Zephyr to your summer drinking list at any Chicago bar with a Lagunitas account. Only 500 barrels of the stuff were made, and only 200 of those were shipped along to us in Chicago, so when it's gone, it's gone.
"I'm sure she'll be here any minute," I muttered nervously to the desk clerk at Belly Shack. A new friend and I had made brunch plans, and even though she was a fashionable fifteen minutes overdue, I was getting worried. I've eaten alone in restaurants before, but not without reading material to keep me company. I had left my book at home that day--and to get exercise, I walked the mile distance to the restaurant. In crappy flip-flops. Gulping down a second glass of ice water, I decided to brave the weirdness of eating without accompaniment and ordered the special sandwich of the day--a short rib and sausage number with Chihuahua cheese and mushrooms ($10). The braised meat was in a mildly spiced sauce that was almost like a dense ragu, and blanketed with soft microgreens (to keep it healthy, right?); this robust, well-made sandwich was truly one of the best I've eaten in a long time. I also ordered the Vietnamese cinnamon and caramel soft serve; the flavor immediately brought back the memory of a favorite cookie from childhood. Delicious stuff. When I got home, my friend had called about our missed date, and apologized for her forgetfulness. I told her not to worry; I was in good company the whole time.
The Bedford, the much-awaited new venture from chef Mark Steuer (most recently, the executive sous chef at The Gage; he also worked his magic at Hot Chocolate for five years), is a restaurant in one of the least-likely of settings — the lower level of an old bank. Housed in the former MB Bank building in Wicker Park, the 6,500 square foot space takes a stunning set of cues from its former life. During a soft opening last night where Twitter "key" contest winners won the chance to "unlock the vault" and enjoy a complimentary preview menu and abbreviated cocktail list, I was lucky enough to sample some of The Bedford's fare.
Bathed in a warm glow of candlelight and softly lit ceiling sconces, patrons were shuttled first into the lounge, which is nestled amongst comfortable arm chairs and couches in the bank's old safety deposit vault. The two vault doors and metal day gates are set open, but the ornate beauty of the dials and bolts are mesmerizing to those of us used to banking at the rather blah bank branches of today. The candles glint wonderfully off the hundreds of deposit boxes as well as the vault's ceiling, all covered in the same patterned copper. A wall of boxes is left open for diners to see the original red metal safety deposit boxes still lying within while they sit and chat comfortably.
Heather Shouse traveled the country eating street food, all so you could know where to go next time you're in the mood for street meat or Korean tacos or trailer-fried doughnuts. Her book, Food Trucks: Dispatches & Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels, surveys the food truck culture in LA, Portland, Austin, New York, DC and other hot spots both well known and less so. Chicago is in there too, of course, with the acknowledgment that current regulations mean that most of our local trucks violate her own rule that all the trucks included in the book make their food on the truck. "Hopefully by the time you read this you can add these to that list," she optimistically writes.
The book saw its official release Tuesday, and the regulations still stand. But the turnout for Shouse's book signing and "food truck summit" at Goose Island's Clybourn brewpub was strong despite the rain, and the enthusiasm for the clutch of trucks crowded into the parking lot showed that Chicago is ready whenever the City gets around to making it easier to eat curbside.
It's not new, it's not flashy, but my oh my does The Brown Sack make some great food.
I'd never been to The Brown Sack until they moved to their new spot at Belden & Central Park. From the outside the shop is cute and unassuming, and not much flashier inside featuring the menu on a large chalkboard with specials on a card at the counter. The best way to keep up with their specials is actually on facebook, where they post almost daily.
Slow-Roasted Pork Sandwich - the meat is very herbal (their online menu says thyme, I could've sworn I tasted rosemary), and is topped with their apple-ginger cole-slaw, which is also an excellent bet for a side dish.
Corned Beef Reuben - not greasy, and somehow none of the ingredients slipped out as I was eating this! Oh, and it was classically delicious.
Pasta Salad (side) - pick this over the potato salad; it's got the exact right amount of creamy dressing, with small bits of carrot and onion that stick to the curly noodles so you get some in every bite.
I also got the Spicy Pork Pozole last time I was there, which was on special. If I had my say, it would be a regular item on their menu, because it was amazing - enough pork to get a piece in every bite, but in perfect fat matchstick-size pieces; just enough heat as you were eating it, but not enough to linger for more than a few seconds after each bite; rich broth; tender yet firm pieces of hominy.
I have yet to get a shake because I've only been so far when it's been cool out, but I've totally got my eye on the Oreo. Although with Nutella and Nutmeg shakes popping up as specials lately, you never know...
-The Brown Sack, 3581 W. Belden, 773.661.0675 for carry-out or delivery
I know many who are awaiting the launch of The Southern's travelling Mac'n'Cheese Truck which should be out and about sometime in the next two weeks. I decided to go try their mac'n'cheese in person to see if it really was worth getting a truck of its own, and i have to say that it is. I'm a huge fan of mac'n'cheese, and while I think mine is durn tasty, this one trumps me. It's creamy and a very complex flavor. I swore there was meat in the dish (even though this video on Feast says otherwise) because it was so complex (and part of me still hopes they use bacon fat to make their roux, because I hate being wrong), the shells were cooked perfectly and held a deliciously large quantity of the cheese sauce that was creamy, rich, and without a pasty texture (like some sauces with a roux base can have).
Not only was it good enough that I've thought about it several times since our last visit, but it is good enough that I see myself playing hooky for part of the day just to go track down the truck. Which won't be hard to miss. It's a bit more cartoony than I would have imagined, but I'll forgive that since there is a cast-iron skillet on the van.
Only one month remains till pitchers and catchers report for spring training. While nearly every player nowadays stays in shape throughout the off-season, there are always a few out-of-shape surprises that show up to camp. The Dodgers were less than enthused a few years back when the Fat Andruw Jones came to play. Recent Sox departee Bobby Jenks, beloved by some, derided by others, would often appear in Arizona a bit bigger than anyone had remembered from the previous fall.
Taking a cue from the Jones and Jenks training regime, and knowing many more beefs await at the ballpark this season, the quest for the ultimate Italian Beef in Chicago has resumed. Getting back into proper beef build requires some familiarity at first, like playing short toss before throwing off a mound. As one of the original beef stands of lore, Al's Beef in Little Italy seemed a sure bet to get back into peak beef-eating form.
Seeing as how one competing chef is from our fair city (Dale Levistki of Sprout) and several competitors are from the rad season that was filmed in our fair city (Richard Blais, Spike, Antonia), it seems worth spending a few moments to reflect on this week's Top Chef All Stars episode and apologize for missing the first episode until remembering I'd DVRd it this past weekend. Whoops. Assuming it takes you one second to read a long, rambling sentence or two, here are five seconds on Episode 2:
Dale Levitski is...kind of a jerk! Referring to a natural history museum cavewoman as a stuffed analogue to a fellow-cheftestant, trash-talking hyper kids (who he just gave sugar to! What do you expect to happen?!), and generally being surly and bitchy -- all of which does, however, make for some fine television.
Dale Talde thought Joe Jonas was a maybe a trendy pastry chef. Win.
Episode 1 featured liquid nitrogen-aided mustard ice cream (on the quickfire winning Chicago-style deconstructed hot dog, natch), and this week featured an entire vat of the stuff being used to solidify marshmallows, or...something. Ten bucks says by season's end a cheftestant accidentally immerses a limb in liquid nitrogen and sees it shatter when they're pushed to the floor in the mad rush to the fridge after the fateful words, "Your time starts...now!" (like this!).
And *spoiler alert* of course Jen, one of the consensus favorites to go far this season, went down in weird, fidgety, defensive flames -- channeling Spike, showing her true crazy-ass colors, or just the effects of a 24-hour run with way too much sugar and way too little sleep. You be the judge.
Old-Fashioned Donuts on Michigan and 112th, in the heart of Roseland(photo credit unkown)
Strolling up to Old Fashioned Donuts on the Far South Side immediately fills one up with a sense of nostalgia. It doesn't matter if you spent your entire childhood frequenting the no-frills storefront or if it's your first time there, as the simple sight of large tubs of dough being spilled, spun and rolled out in the large glass windows evokes that sense of youthful excitement in knowing a special treat is coming your way. The fritters, about as big as a hub cap, have a perfect not-too-sweet, not-too-sticky texture, and are filled with chunks of warm apples nestled inside its moist dough. Truly impossible to finish in one serving, the fritters somehow get even better when left to sit and settle. It's almost beyond mere description. The fritters from Old-Fashioned become more than donuts, they become institutions.
Yes, it's possible to get this lofty about an apple fritter this good. Go Far South Side and stock up for the season.
Seeking a Mexican sit-down meal? Sulking all weekend after disrupting the cosmos Friday night, I was most certainly in the mood for a self-proclaimed "Mex-Mex"-style meal. Opposed to the more traditional taquería customary to the area, Nuevo Leon offers contemporary décor, an intimate amount of tables and booths, and an empty bar (they haven't yet nailed their alcohol license down yet, so it's BYOB).
"Are you a vegetarian?" the charming waitress quickly asks. "Yes, are you?"
"Well..." I hesitate. "Yes...yes I am. Anything you can recommend?"
"Well, I personally like the Flautitas de Queso Panela because they're bursting with flavor, and vegetarian food is often so bland... and then there's the veggie quesadillas."
"Oh, that sounds good."
"Yeah, it's good, and it's cheap," she says with a nervous laugh.
Under the crepuscular gloom, I realize how much I like the atmosphere here. The low lighting is ideal for a date, but not for a man eating alone with a book to keep him company. Everyone else here is voraciously eating, so when I hear the little bell ring from the kitchen I know it's my time to chow.
"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not eaten well."
If Scott Harris of the Francesca family wanted my attention, he had it by opening the menu to this delightful phrase. I'm readily adopting his headliner as my life motto, and voraciously scanning the menu.
Davanti Enoteca is the newest addition to the Mia Francesca's family: a take on rustic Italian food, made available by seasonal Midwest ingredients and made intriguing without being regionally specific. Typically, you think Mia Francesca's and you think mounds of pasta with meaty sauces. Not so at Davanti. The menu reads like the farm-to-table craze that we've all seen before: pork belly, varying bruchetta, farm eggs, meat from Mint Creek and Slagel and yet, something feels different here. Savory ragu roasts are paired with airy light mascarpone polenta and spread on a board at table side. Pizza with leek and mushroom is drizzled with truffle oil and the sharpest taleggio I've ever had. The Uovo, daily made large-style ravioli pasta with ricotta and spinach piped around the edge, egg yolk in the center and served in a sage butter sauce, sits lightly in your mouth.
Jonathan Beatty, who helped open Purple Pig is overseeing the menu as executive chef. And weekly Saturday night specials means he can play with seasonality and ingredients of his choice. The back of the restaurant doubles as a wine boutique. Rather than a traditional wine menu, Davanti allows patrons to buy wine at the boutique at commercial prices and then charges a $7 corking fee. To be honest, I can't tell you how nice it was to drink a glass of wine from a $30 bottle of wine and actually have it cost $30, rather than the standard 2-3 times as much.
The crowd is a good mix of locals and rapidly increasing by those of us being tempted back down to Taylor Street after a long hiatus. The decor is a cozy mix of re-purposed wood, spaghetti western posters, found farming equipment and Chianti chandeliers; the back boutique section feels as if you're sitting in some Italian baron's country wine cave. Harris is working on two new projects in the area and is hoping to re-establish Little Italy to it's former glory, and more. If these others are half as lovable as Davanti, I'll be hitting up T Street once a week.
For a newbie restaurant, Davanti has it all figured out. The food is approachable, the prices affordable, and the staff affable. I'll be headed back next week in order to keep my thinking, loving and sleeping in shape.
Another food festival is behind us, and after the double-whammy of food coma and hangover has cleared (and nooooo, it didn't take a full 24 hours, some of us just have day jobs, jeeeez), it's time to look back on some of the highlights (and disappointments) of this year's Chicago Gourmet. The prevailing complaint, echoed in both the fog of overheard conversation as well as in the specific comments of my new coffee-line friends Aaron and Mary Beth: not enough food! As with years past, the booze outweighed the bites, which can get dangerous when we're talking consumption by actual weight. As new friend Mary Beth noted, "A lot of old ladies in the bathroom seemed like they were really having a hard time with that much alcohol." Yikes, not good for the old ladies (a not-insignificant demographic for C.G.), and not particularly more good for the folks who shelled out upwards of $90 for an extended meal. More thoughts on the ups, downs, and possible old-lady pleasing next steps for Chicago Gourmet...
Gluten-sensitive Chicagoans have new reason to rejoice. Last week, proprietor Jorge Flores opened Cassava in the heart of Lakeview, a spacious, four-table cafe with a focus on gluten-free baked goods made with flour of the eponymous vegetable.
Cassava, also known as yuca or manioc, is a shrub native to South America, and myriad preparations of its root are especially common in cuisines of South America and Africa. In the U.S., cassava is often consumed in the form of tapioca.
The focus of the new Lakeview cafe is cassava bread, prepared as walnut-sized "rolls." "Snack cakes" would be a more accurate description, for the bread is a far cry from the common dinner carb. Fresh from the oven on my visit, the cassava snacks had a very thin, biscuit-like crust and dense, chewy and sticky inside. Think Japanese mochi made from glutinous rice flour.
The "original" flavor cassava bread tasted like a salted autumn butter. Decadent as is, I couldn't imagine sullying it with the Nutella or fruit preserves offered on the cafe menu. The jalapeño and white cheddar bread was equally enjoyable with its tinge of heat, while olive and feta proved a delicate and addictive combination. Deliciously aromatic, the sun-dried tomato and basil was the boldest of the bread flavors. The rolls cost $2.95 to $3.25 for four and can be purchased frozen in bags of 24 to take home and heat up.
I've always been wary of restauranthype. Like going to see the summer movie everyone's been buzzing about, I find lower expectations (or ideally, a lack of expectations) tend to enhance my final enjoyment -- as with the "Going the Distance," for example. Rarely, the hype turns out to be warranted -- the food (or characterization) really is as good as you keep overhearing, and the expectant excitement of your fellow diners or audience members only seems to sharpen your own experience, magnifying everything you feel and mirroring it on the faces of everyone else in the room. Like "Inception." Or better yet, since I'm not a movie critic, like new West Town sushi and izakaya joint Arami.
Two trips in two weeks and the full effect of what is unquestionably the best sushi in the West Town area (and yes, I'm including both Coast and Mirai in that estimation) has yet to fade into the dissatisfied haze of a fleeting fad. Even upon reflection, it seriously is that good. Let's move on to some spoilers...
Waiting on the California Blue Line platform can be a drag, but it gives me an opportunity to look at how the Logan Square neighborhood is changing. A few summers ago, a nondescript and ramshackle building was razed, and in its place grew the Logan Bar and Grill. My favorite corner grocery, which was always good for frozen plantains and reasonable milk prices, closed and gave way to a corporate bank branch. But a closed laundromat underneath the tracks stayed closed for a long stretch until a flurry of construction produced the Boiler Room, an industrial-themed bar and pizza place that fits well into the new face of the neighborhood. But is the food good?
Back in July, having recently made a trip to one of the country's barbeque capitals (Austin), my boyfriend Paul and I were looking forward to trying Lillie's Q, former Tru and Avenues sous chef Charlie McKenna's new place on North Avenue. The menu borrows mostly from southern-style, east-of-the-Mississippi BBQ -- Carolina, Memphis, Alabama.
The star of the Texas BBQ scene, brisket, was nowhere to be found on the menu. Instead, it features pulled pork, pulled chicken, and tri-trip, all of which are also available in sandwich form, as well as a quarter chicken smoked in McKenna's 15-ingredient Carolina Dirt rub and baby back ribs.
We went the day before the July 29 opening to try the menu as well as its craft beers and specialty drinks made with Virginia Lightning corn whiskey (aka: moonshine). Not everything on the menu was available for the preview -- including its fried pickles (blast!) or the non-Q items like shrimp and grits.
Sure, it was Happy Hour. And, yes, it was Friday. But neither of those circumstantial details diminishes the potency of El Jardin's margaritas. I've had some strong margaritas this summer, most memorably at Cesar's, another Lakeview institution, but El Jardin's went over-the-top to easily take the lead in The Happy Margarita Summer Project's Most Obliterating category.
Let's not mistake Most Obliterating with Best Tasting. They're not bad -- certainly tasty enough to go down without a fight -- but not particularly well balanced. But if what you want is a tequila buzz, you'll get it after just one of El Jardin's generous Classic Margaritas ($9), thanks to the healthy dose of Jose Cuervo Gold Tequila.
Since it was Friday, I ordered a second, this time venturing into unknown territory with the Margarita Swirl, a frozen margarita topped with sangria. I hear Uncle Julio's also serves up a pretty brain-numbing swirl, but I can't say I'm compelled to order another, despite that they are so potent I couldn't even finish mine. I'm just not into the flavor of red wine mixed with tequila mixed with a whole bunch of sugar.
Finally, I should note that we went to El Jardin Restaurant at 3335 N. Clark St., not El Jardin Cafe at 3401 N. Clark St. (El Jardin Cafe is on the corner, El Jardin Restaurant has the nice patio in the back.) Same family, different owners, according to our waitress. So does this mean I have to go to El Jardin, too?
The hubby and I took a mini-vacation to Evanston on Sunday, packing a picnic lunch from Piatto Pronto in Andersonville -- the Milano sub for him, packed with the requisite Italian meats, and the Sardinia salad for me, a hearty but healthy combination of artichokes, canellini beans, chickpeas, roasted peppers, green olives and shaved grana padano cheese, all on a bed of spinach. After feasting at the beach, we decided to take a stroll around downtown Evanston. And like our cat hearing the siren song of the tuna can popping open, we found ourselves drawn to That Little Mexican Cafe for a mid-afternoon margarita.
We lucked out: On Sundays, TLMC's standard marg is just $4, a real deal, especially considering that (drum roll, please!) ... These are the new top contenders in the Happy Margarita Summer Project.
Not only were the margaritas perfectly balanced -- which for me means a bit on the tart side, with enough tequila so that I can taste it, but not so much that it burns going down -- they were also consistent from the first round to the third. This has not been true elsewhere.
And they were served up by Jorge, the best bartender I've met so far on this summer long sojourn to find the best margarita in Chicago.
Paddy Long's is a fairly unassuming, Irish-inflected Lincoln Park bar with a well-priced international beer selection (charmingly chalked onto the bar's blackboard in approximations of the draught beers' brand fonts). Delirium Tremens and Lindeman's Framboise are both on tap. A Manchester United tin plaque is on the wall. And in the upper left cornice of the bar, a creepy plastic pig mask almost blends into the pleasantly low lighting. But don't be fooled -- pig is big at Paddy Long's.
As previously reported, Paddy Long's is hosting Friday and Saturday pig roasts all summer long, $22 for all you can eat of pork and sides -- less if you have a Groupon or Baconfest promo in hand. The low-key, casual set-up reminded me of the Map Room's International Night dinners, but without the mad scramble at the bar to earn your plate by stamping your ticket and gulping down your beer before the food is dished out. I prefer to scramble for the food and then eat and drink at my own pace. (Also the guy behind the food table doesn't yell at you, unlike the Map Room.) More on the food itself...
These days your luck is about as rare as a five star Lohan flick. You just left work late for the third day in a row because your boss conveniently asked you to revise that Excel spreadsheet at 5:01pm and to top it off the zipper on your bag fittingly broke spilling your belongings on the 'L' platform only to reveal to the world that yes, you're reading Twilight (for at least the third time judging by the worn out cover).
Before you dial 1-888-YOUR-CTA to complain that your headed-north train is delayed just to let your rage out on an innocent customer service representative, gather your things (the Team Edward shirt can come too), re-swipe your CTA card and head straight to Cafe 676, 676 North Michigan Ave., at the Omni Hotel.
Just steps away from tourist packed Magnificent Mile, Cafe 676 is an unassuming, farm-to-table venture from the mind of Chef Daven Wardynski. Practicing and preaching sustainable and organic cooking, the cafe's menu features local fare using ingredients from around the Midwest as well as Wardynski's own rooftop garden.
On a cloudy evening last week at US Cellular Field, the beefs were beckoning like a White Sox call to victory. Just as the Sox had been nearly perfect at home of late, the beefs that call US Cellular Field home as well are nearly impossible to beat. As with most foodstuffs ordered at ballgames, beefs are best ordered earlier in the game than later, and by doing so, one can brace themselves for moments of beefed-out bliss in between Alexei Ramirez and Omar Vizquel web gems.
With beef in hand, it is impossible not to note how the softness of the roll, which cradles the perfectly sauced and sliced piles of Vienna Beef, sets the sandwich apart as beyond standard. A healthy heaping of hot giardiniera slathered over the sandwich lends an interesting texture to the interplay between the juiciness of the beef to the spiciness of the peppers to the moistness of the roll. The entire affair is an well-balanced mix of beef-to-juice-to-spice-to roll, and the net effect is that the Italian Beef courtesy of the food stand in Section 544 becomes something of an Archetypal Beef: the beef of all beefs.
Of course, the classiest way to enjoy your Sox Beef is to pair it up with a glass of White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper's Coopernet red wine. A "10" out of "10".
"That's her!" I pointed and whispered, as if I were afraid she could hear me. There was obviously no way that chef Stephanie Izard could hear me over the racket of clanking dishes, hissing burners, and shouting chefs at her new, much-anticipated restaurant, Girl & the Goat, right in the heart of the Randolph Street restaurant scene. And she was pretty focused on whatever she was doing anyway -- she didn't move from her spot right outside the kitchen, just open enough to provide a good show to any customers eating in the restaurant (some lucky patrons get to sit at a table directly facing the kitchen so they can watch Izard all night long).
As the first female winner of "Top Chef" (fittingly, during its season set in Chicago), young Izard seems to have done well for herself. Nine days into the opening, when I went with my fellow foodie friend, Heather, the only available reservation for two on a Wednesday night was 9:15pm. We barely had to wait more than three minutes before we were seated.
Exposed brick, wood pillars, and dim lighting give the large interior a rustic but funky feel, kind of like a ski lodge. The tables, made of butcher blocks, are set minimally -- the napkin is wrapped in a cardboard napkin ring illustrated with a cartoon billy goat. Despite Izard's celebrity, the restaurant feels homey and comfortable.
Our server, casually dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans -- the "uniform" -- came up to us and leaned down. "I'll be your third tonight," he quipped.
Ever since Day One of this project, fans of El Cid on Kedzie in Logan Square have been imploring me and my research partner, Claire, to sip margaritas on the restaurant's spacious backyard patio. "It's like being in Mexico," they said, "and these margaritas are the best in the city." So on Friday we arranged to meet a group of friends right after work to grab a plum patio spot in the prime of margarita-drinking season.
Now this, my friends, is how you drink margaritas: Gather a nice-sized group of buddies and nab a spot in the sun, order a couple of pitchers, snack on some food, order another couple of pitchers, and when everyone has had their fill, say "adios" for the evening. Margaritas are not the sort of drink that promotes bar hopping; on the contrary, a good margarita simply makes you want to sit and savor the company.
El Cid's patio captures this vibe perfectly. While we were unable to fully enjoy its charms due to a pesky severe thunderstorm that shooed us to the upstairs lounge at around 7 p.m., we didn't let that stop us from enjoying these fantastic margaritas -- which, fans will be pleased to know, are now our top contenders.
What makes these margaritas so special is that their balance tips in favor of tart lime and good tequila, with just the right amount of sweetness to make them very, very drinkable. The classic margarita was so good not one person at the table decided to deviate with a frozen or flavored version. We did order both individual drinks and pitchers and noticed a slightly stronger hit of tequila in the former, at least for the first round of drinks. The second, third and, uh, subsequent rounds of pitchers seemed to have more tequila (no, really!) (Side note: I think I'm starting to become immune to tequila hangovers. I feel great today!)
For the salt fiends among us: Claire and I really like El Cid's salt. Big, crunchy salt crystals can detract from an otherwise delicious margarita. El Cid uses a finer grain than some of their competitors, which we think "seasons" the glass perfectly.
We all enjoyed the food, especially the burrito suiza, which is my Logan Square friend's "usual." The chicken sope, which I chose at the suggestion of my friend's daughter Serra, was generous and delicious.
In sum, El Cid took the lead last night, edging out former frontrunner Zocalo, and setting up some stiff competition for the remaining contenders, which include De Cero, Adobo Grill, Frontera, Twisted Lizard, Los Mananitas, Salud, Garcia's, Blue Agave, El Jardin, Mundial Cocina Mestiza, May St. Cafe -- and who else?
By the way, it's starting to become clear to us that this little project may creep into the fall. So many margaritas, so little time ...
Okay, it's a silly name. Small e, dot in the middle--not everything has to feel Web 2.0 to be appealing, especially when it's going in your mouth instead of before your eyes, okay?? But silly name aside, e.leaven delivers great food in an easy-on-the-eyes atmosphere for breakfast and lunch in River North. Best-known perhaps, for its bagels, a light also deserves to shine on the chic little deli's sandwiches. Because they're awesome--from a recent monster short rib sandwich (with grilled shishito peppers giving it heat and an almost chocolate-y carmelized touch of sweetness) to what may be the city's best BLT thanks to some goat cheese and perfectly grilled bread, lunch at e.leaven is both hearty (even hefty...) and a step up from your average downtown meat-and-cheese stacker.
Yes, I've been to Perry's, and Manny's, and while e.leaven isn't quite doing the sandwich-as-big-as-your-head or so-authentic-your-Jewish-grandma-would-be-proud route, I would argue that they still deserve a spot in the pantheon. What they do better than anyone is marry Old World deli faves with incredibly fresh and interesting ingredients. No soggy, dressing soaked salads here, cole slaw or otherwise, on your sandwich or your plate! Every bite I've taken there has been perfectly fresh and wonderfully textured--sometimes a deli pitfall. During their recent one-year anniversary celebration, they featured an entire menu of Siracha specials, opening their culinary arms wide to embrace sweet and spicy along with rich and salty. (They also make some of the best cookies I've had in a long while.) What's more, you can keep track of them and their daily specials through their Twitter feed. And if you're working in River North and longing for a better lunchtime option in the $6-$9 range, I think you should.
Given the Mardi Gras beads dangling from wall sconces and a voodoo mask hanging by the order counter, even if you didn't know that Mac & Min's serves N'awlins-style food, then you'd probably guess pretty quickly. Housed in what used to be Jerry's Sandwiches' West Loop location, Mac & Min's offers a much less overwhelming selection of meat/seafood-and-bread concoctions -- namely po' boys and muffalettas, offered in quarter (muffalettas only), half, and whole sizes. The Jerry's quality (and enormous sandwich size) remains: the joint is owned by the same people, husband-and-wife duo Mark Bires and Mindy Friedler.
With a small outdoor patio, the restaurant, which opened July 5, could fit a good-sized lunch crowd, probably about 40-50 people. I went on a Saturday around noon with my boyfriend, Paul; and our friend Heather, and we decided to eat indoors for some quality air-conditioning time. Brass-band music and New Orleans jazz played over the speakers -- fitting, since the "Mac" half of the restaurant's name refers to NOLA music legend Malcolm John "Mac" Rebennack, or "Dr. John."
I knew what I was going to get as soon as I walked in and saw the menu above the order counter, but thanks to my indecisiveness, I wavered between some kind of fried-seafood po' boy and the muffaletta -- ham, mortadella, hot capicola, and salami, served with olive relish and provolone. I finally decided on the voodoo fried-shrimp po' boy (what I thought I'd get), served with all the fixings, including a side of refreshing mayo-based remoulade. "Voodoo" means that the shrimp is drenched in buffalo sauce, pretty much impossible for me to resist.
Walking into new West Town BYOB Ruxbin feels like joining an intimate carnival. Designed by Alter Ego Form, the space is a menagerie of warm hues and salvaged materials. Everything seems turned upside down in the name of whimsy, from the ceiling papered with cookbook pages to upholstered Eames-style chairs on wooden legs and benches backed with recycled seat belts. This is a grown-up playground--where influences of Korean, Mexican and French cuisines meet and mingle--to a soundtrack of Radiohead and Band of Horses, no less. But don't call this food fusion, Chef Edward Kim has said.
To start, K -Town Empanadas arrived at our table piping hot and were each the size of my hand. Ruxbin's name for these savory pastries suggested to me attitude worthy of the hippest street food that Chicago's food truck proponents could imagine. But dressed with a chimichurri crème fraiche flecked with dried red chili flakes, the empanadas more closely resembled the white, red and green Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cakes of my youth.
Acting on a reader's tip, the beef convoy made it down to Chickie's in Little Village for a hot beef this past week. Having heard of Chickie's beef supremacy for some time, it is was nice to finally test those claims. The standalone beef stand on 28th and Pulaski beckons like an old drive-in, and the calls of "Juicy hot!" and "Sweet, no dip" being yelled from the register to the grill are like a beef whistle calling you home.
More importantly, the beef here doesn't disappoint. This is a compact sandwich expertly wrapped and filled with thinly sliced, shredded Scala beef and carefully dipped -- but not slathered -- in succulent juices. What really sets Chickie's beef apart though is the large slices of fresh hot peppers that lay atop the beef and add a spicy texture to the beef's juiciness. Truly, a first-class beef.
Last Thursday a few friends and I got the night -- and my vacation -- rolling with an after-hours event, after which the Happy Margarita Summer Project made an unplanned stop at Flaco's Tacos in Printer's Row. The HMSP's rules were flouted. Prior drinks skewed our powers of perception. Thus, the "Extra" on today's Flaco's Tacos review. If I make it back under proper circumstances before summer's end, I'll be sure to update this post.
For now, I've got to give Flaco's props for serving strong, cheap, decent frozen margaritas and really solid food in a casual, friendly South Loop setting. This place is all about bang for your buck. For just over a 10-spot, I had a frozen lime margarita with salt, a tilapia taco with chipotle crema and slaw, and a decent skirt steak taco. Our table shared a basket of excellent, if slightly greasy chips that were the perfect foil to those margaritas. The guacamole is good, as were the tangy tomatillo-based salsa and the smoky red guajillo salsa.
As for the margaritas, they're frozen, so they're obviously made with a mix. But for $4.50 (or $3 if you're smart and come on Mondays, when glasses of sangria are also $3), this baby is as easy on your budget as it is rough on your tolerance. My group sat in the window seat for a couple of hours working on two margaritas apiece, and the entire group agreed Flaco's doesn't skimp on the tequila. In short, I'll definitely keep Flaco's Tacos in mind next time I want to meet a friend after work, and you should, too: It's counter service, so you'll save on the standard 20 percent tip, and they're open until midnight on weeknights.
Now, because I'm on vacation this week, the plan is to head to the lakefront tomorrow to test the theory that margaritas always taste better on the beach. Can you guess where I'm headed? Keep your fingers crossed the rain holds out!
If you're going to emblazon "The Killer Margaritas" above your restaurant's entrance in hot pink and lime green fluorescent lights - and use Killermargaritas.com as your URL - then you better serve up some seriously damn good margaritas. In my experience, it's truth in advertising at Cesar's on Clark bear Belmont. The Killer Margaritas have capped off or kicked off several memorable events in my nine years in Chicago, including the afternoon my husband and I ran into then-Gov. Blagojevich - or Rod, as my husband greeted him - on our way from Cesar's to Wrigley Field. But that's a story for another day; today, we focus on the margaritas.
My co-conspirators met me at Cesar's at around 6 p.m., and I had a case of the Mondays, even though it was already Tuesday going on Wednesday. So we decided to divide and conquer: Claire ordered the standard margarita, lime on the rocks with salt, and I chose frozen guava, no salt. That way, we'd each only drink one (albeit one jumbo, which is Cesar's medium, a hefty puppy at 26 ounces for $10.) Per our standard rules, we both tasted the regular margarita first, then the flavored; Claire made an unorthodox but understandable request to stir the standard margarita and resample, after which we compared the following notes:
"I'm hungry. Let's get a taco." - Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Reservoir Dogs.
Growing up occasionally my sisters and I would get excited because it was "Taco Night!"
Mom would breakout the yellow Ortega box (replete with pre-fried shells, a packet of mildly spiced meat seasoning, and taco sauce), pan fry some ground beef, add the spice packet, stuff the mostly salty/slightly spicy beef into the shells, and top them with the taco sauce, some cheese, chopped tomatoes and shredded lettuce. It was an exercise in removing all the ethnic influence (and flavor) from one of the greatest ethnic dishes ever created.
Is there any other sandwich that typifies Chicago as much as the Italian beef? Are there any words more poetic than saying "Sweet Hot Dipped Combo" to your friendly sandwich-maker?
We're going to be on the prowl for the best Beef in the city, visiting as many joints as we possibly can to find that perfect mixture of giardiniera to bread texture to meat juices to... well, overflowing beef.
Recently, as the above photo attests to, we paid a visit to Fontano's Subs on Jackson in the Loop to begin our journey.There was a definite disconnect between the juiciness of the beef and the sogginess of the soft Italian bread, most likely interrupted by the mistakenly placed piece of mozzarella cheese on the bottom of the roll. Beefs should be free to stew in their juices, allowed to destroy the roll it sits on in the process. No cheese please! The beef itself seemed just a tad on the cold side, and could have used a little more kick or time to "cook in its own natural juices" as Fontano's menu states.
I don't usually have a negative enough experience in a restaurant that I feel the need to immediately run home, fire up the computer and write about it. I also don't usually eat out at two locations in a single evening. So when my evening this past Friday started with one of the most appalling customer service experiences I've ever had, hitting another restaurant on the way back to complete my rage-filled write-up wasn't my first instinct. Thankfully, it saved my evening and restored a little of the faith I still stubbornly have in the institution of dining service. Riva v. Masu, after the fold.
Wicker Park is a neighborhood dense with restaurants but short on cuisines from South Asia. It was therefore with much anticipation that I recently visited Cumin, which opened last month in the heart of Hipsterdom. With an open, rectangular space, elegant in the simplicity of its decor, this new eatery offers an extensive menu of traditional Nepalese and Indian fare.
We focused much of our meal on the Nepalese section of the menu given the relative rarity of this cuisine in Chicago. Had I eaten Cumin's Chicken Momo, or steamed dumplings, as they usually are--as inexpensive street food in Nepal or Tibet--I might have been perfectly satisfied. But as an appetizer at a white-tablecloth restaurant, the momo were plump but too heavy, enveloped in dough that was too thick and had a reheated, rubbery texture.
Kim Severson's journey from slinging pizza at a Little Caesar's in Michigan to writing about food for the New York Times was full of the struggles that most successful people only speak of in private moments on a therapist's couch--an addiction to alcohol that started in her teenage years, difficulties with coming out as a lesbian, and finding her place in a profession dominated by legendaries--several of whom she befriends and is mentored by in her new memoir Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life (Riverhead, $25.95).
Severson has a self-deprecating charm that cleverly frames her retellings of traipsing around New York's Greenmarket with Alice Waters, who comes to Severson's Brooklyn home to make lunch and to her hostess' horror, the famous chef and advocate is greeted by the smell of chicken nuggets and french fries cooking in the toaster oven. Severson endlessly compares herself with Ruth Reichl, and finds that even the glamorous, storied editor of the departed Gourmet magazine, who once famously gave LeCirque a controversial three-star review for their snobby service, has her own personal demons. Severson also tells the heartwarming story of the late chef and author Edna Lewis, whose legendary cooking deemed her "the Julia Child of the South," and Scott Peacock, a fellow chef who at 47 years her junior was a loving caretaker who boiled her coffee each morning and put her to bed each night in her final days.
That's the rating that a student of 826 Chicago gave to Hot Doug's on a recent review visit. Several students had to wait in line, in the rain, choose an encased meat product with duck fat fries and write a review about it. And these reviews are quite possibly some of the best and most entertaining food reviews you've read all year. Overall, the reviewers loved Hot Doug's and they loved The Doug Factor.
If you still haven't made it to Big Star -- Paul Kahan's tacos-and-whiskey joint in the revamped Pontiac Cafe space on Damen near Wicker Park (the park) in Wicker Park (the neighborhood) -- the vast, sun-drenched outdoor patio is beckoning you this summer.
People-watching here is guaranteed to put you in a good mood, thanks to the wonderfully eclectic mix of adorable hipster families, sexy singles on the prowl, and puppy-toting dudes just happening by. Chef Kahan's tacos look like modest portions but the rich fillings will get ya, so go easy -- if for no other reason than to save plenty of room for the guacamole, which is arguably the best dish on the menu.
Now, I didn't come for tacos or whiskey. My friend Claire and I gathered some girlfriends together last Friday for one reason: Round Two of the Happy Margarita Summer Project.
Navy Pier is Illinois's number one tourist destination; home of Chicago Public Radio, Chicago Children's Museum and Chicago Shakespeare Theater; hub of summer lakefront activities, from bikes to Segway tours to sight-seeing helium balloons... and it is also sometimes a frustrating place to find yourself when hunger strikes.
The debate may rage about whether the Pier is worthy of its touristic magnetism -- I happen to content it's a dead-end mall with little to see (once you take in the skyline view, which can be impressive if it's not too hazy) and less to do. But millions of visitors each year, particularly visible now as the mercury creeps up the thermometer, clearly disagree. And you should know I'm jaded -- I work on Navy Pier. And I worked on Navy Pier when I was fresh out of college. And sometimes, by God, Fun-Maze and IMAX be damned, you just want a good meal out there a quarter mile into Lake Michigan! Well I'm here to tell you, before you let your Sea-Dawg boat cruise Groupon expire, that it is possible to eat well out on the Pier, if you know what to expect, where to look, and don't object to setting foot back on proper land. That's right -- I'm reviewing eating out on Navy Pier. You can thank me after you recover from your Ferris-wheel sunburn.
Most of the places I eat these days are of the small plates, upscale, gastropub sort of persuasion. (Probably because most places these days are of that persuasion.) Which means I get two things when I go out to dinner: cheese, and an ever-increasing probability of contracting gout. But let's focus on the former. I'm not sure who invented the magic that is the modern cheese board -- probably the French. Bless them.
For me, the sheer multiplicity of it all is just exciting, and so sensual: combinations of blocks, smears and slabs of cheese in every imaginable texture, flavor, odor and origin. Chalky Fleur de Marquis sheep's milk from France with a juniper-terroir rind? Meet gooey, sumptuous, ultra-funky creamy gorgonzola--and voila! Fast friends. Cheese can stand on its own. (Cheese can stand alone, in fact, heigh ho the merry-o.) But what makes the cheese plate is as much the surrounding constellation of spreads, breads, jams, hams, fruits, nuts, pickles, and adorably delicate micro-salads as the main dairy protein itself. And this, to me, is where it gets really interesting. Let's take a few cases in point, shall we? (After the jump...)
Though it's not yet officially summer, this weekend's near-perfect weather convinced my friend Claire and me it was the right time to kick off our Happy Margarita Summer Project 2010. You, dear reader, are invited along as we tour Chicago's Mexican restaurants in search of the city's best margaritas.
How does one get to work on such a fun project? asked one of my Twitter followers. Well, friends, this is the sort of project one assigns to oneself. Lest you think we're a couple of amateurs, though, we've developed both categories and standards to which we plan to adhere as strictly as possible. (Disclaimer: We will be drinking margaritas.)
About the categories: We acknowledge that flavored, frozen margaritas have their place (who wouldn't enjoy a frozen strawberry margarita while lounging poolside?), but we realize they cannot be compared with the standard margarita. Likewise, some establishments aim to get you hammered, while others' raison d'etre is to encourage you to sip, savor, and appreciate the finer things in life. Thus, we've established four awards categories:
1508 W. 47th St. Store Hours:
Monday-Friday 9am - 8pm
Saturday 9am - 8pm
Sunday 10am - 7pm
I remember when Aldi hit the Chicago grocery scene in the '80s with their low price shtick and moms all through my neighborhood were raving about it. But back then Jewel and Dominick's was affordable to shop, so being caught on the block with an Aldi bag screamed -- generic foods! And you could bet that none of your friends were coming over for your mom's dinner.
Today, shopping at Aldi is just plain common sense. However, I bet during in my future ventures to various Aldi in Chicago will revel different characteristics of this chain store. The 47th street store just screams utilitarian. You aren't going to get anything fancy. Heck, I would be surprised if you get anything beyond the "showing-up-for-work" effort here. If I ever wanted to experience what a North Korean grocery store is like, this is close enough.
Again, food for the American masses involve copious amounts of carbohydrates. After struggling to find 25 cents for a cart, I walked the gauntlet of diet death. Potato chips. Pasta. Processed foods. Arrrgh, this place is providing dysfunctional eating at its best.
But their commercials would have you believe you're actually having a "magical" experience. (Note the "warning" they have in the beginning of the jingle.)
Super Mas Market
1424 W. 47th Street
Neighborhood: New City (Back of the Yards)
Hours: 7am to 9pm every day; Kitchen 8am to 8pm
This place is Clorox clean.
And truth be told, I was a little worried. From the festive music, to the expansive lunch counter and bright lighting, I thought I had encountered some sort of mirage on the South Side. But later I found out it's only been open since the last week of February.
Think of community when you go in here. From the soccer supply store just to the right of the entrance to the café and community bank and auto insurance chain, they seem to want to cover all the needs of a customer or compete with larger chains. Either way, this isn't a place to get in and out. So, if you're looking for the full shebang of Mexican ingredients and have the time for a trip then this is the place to hit up. In fact, the first visit, offered up a little surprise -- fresh mint leaves. And I did a little dance in the aisle since I found them just in time for my summer fruit salad. (See below for recipe)
Bottom line is this place is a fat factory. OK, that's my opinion. As you enter the store, sale items are well stocked by the door and they usually are condiments, an over-processed grain of some sort and canned goods. It's beginning to click for me why I should shop more consciously. I'm not exactly on the "organic" hype wagon, but I do agree one needs to eat well to maintain health.
Here's a video clip from an Oprah show about making food choices at the store.
Most often when looking for vegetarian food on the Far North Side, I've opted for one of the Ethiopian options on Broadway. This propensity at least somewhat explains why I never ate at Alice & Friends, the cozy-seeming vegetarian cafe just a few blocks south of my usual stops.
Last summer, Alice & Friends came under new management and got a major face-lift. The Edgwater eatery joined Loving Hut, the international chain of not-for-profit pan-Asian vegan restaurants founded by Vietnamese-born spiritual guru and entrepreneur Supreme Master Ching Hai.
Loving Hut restaurants can be found in 19 countries, with 25 locations in the US alone, but each location maintains its own menu. The Chicago location, roughly triple the size of Alice & Friends, much brighter and with Supreme Master Ching Hai's teachings scripted on the walls, continues to serve the former restaurant's menu with a few additions.
There is no shortage of places to explore the art of the cocktail near the Magnificent Mile and River North.
The Bar at the Peninsula (108 E. Superior St.) is a must-visit for locals and visitors alike looking for classic cocktails in a hushed setting that is opulent yet comfortable. A few blocks north, The Drawing Room's (937 N. Rush St.) cool and understated luxury is a most pleasant surprise given both its location adjacent to a nightclub and its edgy, masterful cocktails. Restaurant Graham Elliot's (217 W. Huron St.) eclectic and sophisticated drink program is delivered with impressive consistency in the convivial River North space. Add to these options Sable Kitchen & Bar, which opened last month.
Sable boasts Hollywood glamor, but the character of the space is more modern and sleek, except for the unfortunate flat-screen televisions and digital fireplace. Jacques Bezuidenhout and Mike Ryan are at the helm, and the cocktail menu unfolds like a narrative that both teases and admonishes.
3418 S. Halsted St.
Mon to Fri 9 to 9
Sat 10 to 9
Sun 10 to 7
Think of "Cheers" when you enter this place. Yes, come in here enough and they will know your name. This place is over 100 years old (seriously) and has no sign of slowing down. I'm reminded of the old A&P chain when I go in here but it has no green stamps or the ubiquitous coffee mill at the register to grind your Eight O'Clock coffee beans. (But they do carry ground Eight O' Clock in hazelnut no less).
However, they probably will move within the next year or so. The Chicago Public Library has plans to expand south and they are in the way.
Two weeks ago, the popular East Village brunch spot Jam started serving dinner. The new offerings, like their breakfast and lunch menus, are playful yet refined, classic and evolving. Exotic Hawaiian Walu Sashimi with fennel seed lavash, radish and ginger currently share the à la carte bill with more familiar dishes such as Amish Chicken with truffled Pecorino risotto, English Peas and Maitake mushrooms. Evening visitors to Jam also have the option of a changing four-course tasting menu, in which I partook recently.
To start, Asparagus Soup proved a warm-up both literally on this blustery April day and figuratively in terms of the tasting menu overall. The smooth vegetable purée poured over an assemblage of asparagus tips and ribbons, prosciutto chips and pieces of lemon made for a handsome start to the meal, but ultimately the components proved too disparate. The purée was under-salted and made the bursts of lemon found therein too bright. The prosciutto added welcome textural contrast but not much else.
I've been a bad writer recently. Which, in my particular case, means mostly that I've been a bad eater recently. With long hours at my office, little energy in the kitchen and, after finishing my taxes this past week, less cash on hand, eating out has become a recent luxury. Ham sandwiches, yogurts and granola bars have been more of the recent norm than a new dish on Lula's menu or special charcuterie option at Old Town Social (or getting a table after a reasonable wait at Revolution Brewing -- still unsuccessful!) However, a recent business trip has taken me to the westernmost reaches of our fine state, and while there has been little time for much more than work there has, blessedly, been eating out! Should you find yourself across the river from Iowa and looking for a bite, I feel I can now advise your gustatory tour of at least one of the four Quad Cities with a smidgen of authority and the warm glow of an impending food coma.
To be accurate, I had one roasted marrow bone: a vaguely volcanic-looking 7" bone standing upright, red onion jam heaped on on top (with more jam on the side, next to a small pile of sea salt). Ask for extra napkins--it's a messy, greasy trial scraping the golden-yellow fatty marrow out of the bone with an extra-long spoon, and when the dish first comes out, the bone is almost too hot to touch. Much like foie gras, marrow tastes like the delicious, delicious fat that it is, though with an extra metallic ping due to the high iron content; the tangy onion jam mellows this and adds a juicy, savory element. You get a few pieces of crisp sourdough that hold up to the marrow fairly well, but unless you load those pieces down, you'll be eating marrow from the spoon and possibly trying to suck it from the bone.
And there's nothing wrong with that.
At $9, it's a well-priced choice if you manage to get a seat at the still-hopping Longman & Eagle (my advice: show up before 6 and be willing to sit at the bar). A fair warning: if you order this while sitting at the bar, prepare for a charmingly bawdy torrent of bone-related banter with your server. Ordering one of their delicious Yuzu toddies will facilitate the process.
The longstanding hype over Revolution Brewing, Chicago's newest locally-centered brewpub from the folks behind Handlebar, may have you, like me, clamoring to experience their selection of hand-crafted, clenched-fisted beers and upscale eats. In fact, this effect seems to be widespread enough among Logan Squarians, foodies and beeries that the place has been jam-packed since they opened a week or so ago, and February is no month for waiting 90-plus minutes outside until a table opens. So after shuffling around on the sidewalk with your shoulders drawn up to your ears for warmth and your stomach making unconscionable threats for everyone around you to hear, perhaps an alternative is in order.
This summer Uncommon Ground (1401 W. Devon) officially cut the ribbon on its rooftop farm. The first certified organic urban rooftop farm in the nation, it hosted a kick-off party for one of the nation's newest sustainable beers: Goose Island's Green Line Pale Ale
Several regional breweries across the United States have taken steps to reduce the environmental impact (I'm looking at New Belgium Brewing and Sierra Nevada among others), and here in Chicago, Goose Island looks to be leading the way. Taking time to study the environmental footprint of their brewing, Goose Island commissioned a study from the Chicago Manufacturing Center on the production impact of a keg of 312 Urban Wheat Ale. The results of that study can be found here.
What this study provides is a target against which more sustainable ales (like the Green Line) can be measured. So what makes the Green Line Pale Ale some much more "green"? Glad you asked!
February is National Snack Food Month. While the occasion may inspire cravings of crunchy, salty, chewy or sweet noshes available in 100-calorie denominations, I am exploiting this month to explore slightly more substantive fare--what I refer to as refined small plates or dressed-up bar snacks.
Last week for snack time, I ventured to Balsan, the more casual of the new Elysian Hotel's two restaurants. The menu consists of a small but seemingly thoughtful selection of charcuterie and cheese, seafood from the raw bar, small and large plates, items from their wood-fired oven and sides.
Seated at the long, gleaming white bar, we ordered the foie gras torchon and duck rillettes to start. What we were served was one of the most handsome charcuterie arrangements I have seen--deconstructed and minimalistic, the serving at Balsan reminded me that there can be more to charcuterie than neatly ordering preserved meats on a wood board.
The stretch of Clark Street just north of Belmont Avenue might be called International Restaurant Row. Over two blocks, one can peruse the menus of establishments serving French-Italian, Indian, Japanese, Moroccan and Thai food. I traveled to this sliver of Lakeview recently to eat from the continent of Africa.
To describe the cuisine served at Bolat as "pan-African" seems unfair; there is nothing cursory about the cooking here. We started with fried yam accompanied by three dipping sauces. Served hot and crispy, the yam was the perfect vehicle for the creamy and piquant peanut sauce, zippy yet nuanced fried pepper dip and black sauce punctuated by some serious smoke. Jerk chicken drumsticks were tangy and verdant over mounds of soothing coconut rice. Ayamshe, a stew made of fish stock, tender, roasted goat with charred bits, hunks of tripe and melon seeds, sung mildly sour notes with an impressive crescendo of heat.
Mezé is a new small-plate restaurant serving up an eclectic group of dishes inspired by cuisines from the Mediterranean, Caribbean, Asia, and the Americas. At first glance, I was worried that the menu was too eclectic, too many different styles - but it's the eclectic nature of Mezé that gives it it's charm. The global sampling of flavors is what sets it a part from other small-plate restaurants. And, the menu isn't as opposing as I initially thought - it has several repeating ingredients - red pepper, chipotle, and goat cheese to name a few - that help tie all the various styles together.
Prior to joining Mezé, the executive chef spent twenty-five years at the Ritz Carlton and his expertise shows in the dishes - they are flavorful and mostly unique. I say mostly because there are a couple items that felt too familiar, specifically the potato dishes. The Greek pommes frites and Papas Bravas didn't have that take-it-up-a-notch taste. I've had fries with feta before and while the signature chipotle alioli made the beef sliders, well more than a mini burger, the alioli couldn't help the uninspired roasted potatoes. But those dishes are the exception to the overall fantastic selection I sampled. A few personal favorites - the peppercorn beef with gorgonzola, the pepper-crusted tuna, and the goat cheese and tomato tart. The beef was tender and served with plenty of sauce and crostinis - this dish felt like home, it was comforting without feeling familiar. The gorganzola cheese gave the dish just the right amount of salt. The pepper-crusted tuna is served on a crispy wonton with a wasbai cream. This tuna plate is well balanced and light and would have paired nicely with a crisp white wine. Without a doubt, my favorite dish overall was the goat cheese and tomato tart. Wow-zah! This creamy cheese tart is served over a tomato and basil sauce with crusty bread. I could probably live off this tart forever.
There's a newish burger joint in Evanston called, Edzo's (1571 Sherman Ave.). It actually opened a few months ago, but I decided to give it some time to get the kinks worked out before writing a review. It's gotten a lot of glowing and informative articles extolling the virtues of a regular burger joint where the owner cared enough to grind the meat daily and cut french fries daily.
Old Town tapas restaurant Eivissa unveiled last month a new menu with the arrival of Chef Jorge Miranda. Updated offerings reflect a more straightforward approach to classic and new tapas. Largely gone are the modern flourishes employed Eivissa's original chef and Miranda's former mentor at Las Palmas, Dudley Nieto.
Named after the lively Spanish island, Eivissa still boasts extensive menus of cold and hot tapas, pintxos (think rustic hors d'oeuvres), cazuelas (slow-cooked casseroles), cured meats, paellas, flatbreads, Spanish wine and sangria. The restaurant recently invited Gapers Block for a visit.
I love gruyère cheese so much that if I was told I couldn't have it again, I don't think I could go on living. So when I discovered that the Wit Hotel restaurant State & Lake was serving macaroni and cheese with gruyère, I had to taste it. Made with cavatelli pasta, gruyère and cheddar cheeses, and topped with seasoned bread crumbs, this mac 'n cheese is second to none. Listed on the menu as a side (I am not sure why because it could be a main course) this creamy, scoop of heaven is served up in a cast iron ramekin and priced at only $6. This macaroni is worth a special trip to the Loop and a total lunch-time deal.
Local cheesecake purveyor Eli's has made a special edition Banana chocolate cheesecake to commemorate the Cirque du Soleil show Banana Shpeel (which closes today, so get there if you can). But even if you can't get to the show, consider the cheesecake: creamy banana, a ripple of caramel running through it, and a topping of fine, cookie-like chocolate. Cirque du Soleil is a spectacle, but the cheesecake will blow your hair back even more.
The Purple Pig, the latest venture by Chefs Scott Harris of Mia Francesca and Jimmy Bannos, Jr., and Jimmy Bannos, Sr., of Heaven on Seven, opens in the heart of the Magnificent Mile today. House-cured charcuterie and small and large Mediterranean-inspired plates make up the core of the menu served in the casual 70-seat space. The Purple Pig team welcomed family and friends to feast last night, a soft opening upon which I was lucky enough to stumble.
To start, house-marinated olives were gorgeous and rich, and the pickled carrots and onions with which they were served were crisp and bright. Salt-roasted beets with whipped goat cheese and pistachio vinaigrette were conventional though under-dressed.
The highlight of the antipasti we sampled were the freshly fried pork fat almonds with garlic and rosemary. Restaurants like The Bristol, Mado and The Publican have introduced to Chicago much porky deliciousness. If too late for this year, I can already see The Purple Pig's non-vegetarian nuts on "best of 2010" lists--a snack worthy of a cult following, for sure.
American-Chinese restaurants are as much a part of the modern American city as bus stops and currency exchanges. Chicago has no shortage of these neighborhood fixtures offering dishes like egg foo young and Kung Pao chicken for dine-in, take-out and sometimes delivery. With food prepared quickly and entrees often under $10, these establishments seem as relevant as ever.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Mon Lung Restaurant in East Village filled a steady stream of dine-in and take-out orders of crab rangoon and fried rice. Add the murky tank of giant goldfish, television above the doorway silently broadcasting football, packets of sweet-and-sour sauce on the tables and neighborhood "regulars" seated in the cozy, vinyl-upholstered booths, and Mon Lung felt like the quintessential American-Chinese restaurant. Only the food was better than this mise-en-scène.
Vosges Haut Chocolat released a new line of chocolate bars last week inspired by and made exclusively for Chicago café chain Argo Tea. The new parfums, as the company calls its flavor infusions, are taken from Argo Tea's Signature drink menu and include Chai, Green Tea Ginger Twist and Tea Sangria.
In recent years, confectioners and tea purveyors alike have married chocolate and tea with zeal. The two ancient foodstuffs, after all, share exotic and old world roots as well as possible health benefits linked to the antioxidants contained in dark chocolate and black and green teas.
When I saw the inside of LM Le Restaurant, I thought for sure I had been taken back to a series of miserable jobs I've held that required traveling a few times each year to staff conventions. Tired from running between meeting rooms for 10 hours straight and ravenous, I would take the path of least resistance and hit up the hotel restaurant, which always had a ridiculous name ("The Fountain Room," "Fontinas"), to quietly eat a $20 cheeseburger and let my swollen feet return to their normal shape. LM's interior--high-backed leather seats, deep orange-hued curtains, white tablecloths and interesting, high-end plates and flatware--made me think I was in for an overpriced, forgettable meal. I'm glad to report that I was schooled.
I visited for brunch one Sunday, and my friend and I were seated immediately. The small menu meant easy pickings on our order of an omelette and eggs Benedict--although we had a very hard deliberation between the sourdough pancakes with elderberry preserves, the Croque Monsieur, or the cheeseburger/fried egg combo. Each of us received a croissant and small pots of preserves (yum), which went down well with the Julius Meinl French press coffee at our sides.
Both of our dishes were great--I especially loved the breakfast potatoes, which were a small row of coin-sized and deeply browned spuds. LM takes great care with their food, and the portions were larger than I had expected with French fare. The service was great, the prices affordable, and the back of LM--which boasts a high-ceilinged patio that come summer, should be packed with customers--was a treat to visit and something to look forward to visiting again.
4539 N. Lincoln
Serves brunch and dinner.
Just a few last thoughts on eating Halloween this year, before the candy corn goes totally stale... Intrepid DT Editor Robyn Nisi clued me into dinner at Lula Café for what has become an annual tradition -- dressing up the entire establishment as another restaurant. This year, Lula briefly closed for zombification on Halloween, only to re-open to immediately lengthy lines as a spooky version of Hot Doug's -- real-life Doug Sohn included, chained to a desk at the front of the line to take orders. The illusion was so complete I had to ask our slightly decaying waitress if the entire Hot Doug's crew had been locked in the walk-in and forced to whip up a service of specialty dogs (or pay the price! or something...). But the entire menu was planned and executed in-house, with Doug's approval before he agreed to lend his name and t-shirts to the staff.
I don't know why hot dogs are my favorite food. Putting Freudian analysis aside, these cylindrical encased meats have been invading my food dreams from a very young age. Growing up in and around Chicago has only fueled this insane love for hot dogs because here it's almost a cultural staple. If you're getting a hot dog in Chicago, it's comprised of a poppy seed bun, one all-beef hot dog (usually Vienna Beef), yellow mustard, chopped raw white onions, green relish (the more abnormal the color the better), tomato wedges, sports peppers, a dash of celery salt, and a pickle on top to seal the deal. When I've taken out-of-staters to my favorite hot dog joints and shown them this amazing meal, they've usually shirked away in pure fear. Hot dogs shouldn't be feared as that strange mystery meat at sporting events and family cook-outs. They're a culinary delicacy that can be dressed up or down for the occasion. In Chicago, it's usually the latter. I say embrace this culinary piece of heaven, and learn the best places to go in the process.
The Dog Show is something for hot dog aficionados and casual eaters alike to find and experience Chicago standards in the art of hot dogs as well as fresh new finds. Though the Chicago hot dog has a standard build there are plenty of restaurants in the area that add their own flair to it. The Dog Show isn't all about finding the best Chicago style hot dog, though that is an added bonus. We're ready to try any encased meat on a bun that's been concocted in the Chicagoland area. Since Chicago has more hot dog stands than McDonalds, Wendys and Burger Kings combined, there is more than enough fodder to explore and sift through. Twice a month I'll dive into the dish that started as a simple meal for poverty-stricken locals during the Depression and evolved into a cultural icon.
I made it over to Market, a restaurant that doesn't know what it wants to be when it grows up. The place is a combination of a sports bar full of flat-screens with a separate dining area that looks very modern and high-end. The food, however, is a dimension unto itself--not because it's bold or memorable, but because it's served in the weirdest contraptions that not even the most serious of psychedelic drug users could have conceived.
I ordered "The Answer," one of the strangest names for a steak sandwich (or "sandwedge," as Market's menu faux-cleverly refers to them). The actual sandwich itself was served on a wooden cutting board. The fries that accompanied it were in a European-style cone that was stuck into a wrought iron stand (similar to what you suspend bananas from to avoid ripeness) that arced over the sandwich, with small ramekins of ketchup and aioli set into side bars that made me think this was a fuck swing for side dishes. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw another diner eating a pasta dish--a little grater that would have fit perfectly in a Cabbage Patch Doll's kitchen also hung on a device similar to the hardship that my fries were enduring, comically waiting to cover her rigatoni with a snowstorm of parmesan.
I spent a good half of my meal trying to get through several tough, rubbery chunks of skirt steak before I finally gave up and asked for a take-home container. To their credit, Market has awesome take-home containers.
Things got even weirder when dessert for the group of us in attendance was wheeled out--in a small grocery cart filled with caramel and cheese corn, and topped with a small aquarium-sized dollop of cotton candy. While the cart's wheels made for easy passing of the mountain of pure sugar that we were all giddily eating, I still came back to the same questions: who makes miniature grocery carts that double as serving dishes? Why all the visual fuss over the average-tasting food? Why did the bar, restaurant and food have such a huge disconnect? The silent cab ride home provided little guidance, my leftover Answer getting colder by the minute.
It may be October in Chicago, but the time is always right to for this girl try out a new spot for ice cream. Especially when that spot features high-tech, liquid-nitrogen-spewing equipment, and a list of about 60 options for flavors, mix-ins, and toppings combined to make whatever creation you can dream up - all at Wicker Park's iCream.
When I first heard about Taste of Chicago many years ago, I envisioned it as big block party where you could just meander from fancy restaurant to restaurant and sample their best dishes. Probably on tiny forks. And that it would all be free. Obviously, neither the real Taste or its younger, more upscale cousin Chicago Gourmet quite achieve that dream. But in its second year, Chicago Gourmet seems to better evoke the feeling of that festival in my head than the Taste has ever managed. With an improved lay-out and better selection of food (even though drink was still more heavily represented), the Pritzker Pavilion was transformed into an open pasture for gourmet grazing, from the tone set by the complimentary wine glass at the door to the security check for pilfered booze on the way out.
More thoughts on this year's event after the jump.
When I stuck my nose in the door of the yet unopened Paciugo a couple of weeks ago, the manager made me a wager I couldn't refuse. After telling him I had indeed tried the ice-cream alternative before, in Italy, he bet me a years' worth of free gelato that his product would be better than any I had tasted in the old country. Wednesday, the cafe opened, and I finally got to take him up on it.
The space itself is pleasant, bright, and open; however, seating is limited, so don't be surprised if you have to take your gelato to go. Taste widely and freely; the friendly and enthusiastic servers didn't seem to mind.
Traditional Italian flavors--Bacio (hazelnut), Stracciatella (Chocolate Chip), and Tiramisu--delight, but don't ignore the less obviously appetizing. Vanilla Lavender Chocolate Chip was a surprise favorite, and Pepe Nero proves that black pepper and olive oil (!) are more versatile ingredients than I could have ever imagined.
Paciugo prides itself on its all natural family recipes, small batches, and premium ingredients, and even offers pamphlets with nutrition information at the counter. And, with prices in line with most traditional ice cream shops ($5 for a large with FIVE flavors), the smoother, lighter and more airy gelato could easily become an addiction. For the genuine experience, do like the Italians do and make it a daily afternoon snack.
That's the assessment my husband and I gave to the students who prepared and served us a fabulous dinner this week at Kendall College. I won a gift certificate to the Dining Room at a recent benefit, and we decided to visit to celebrate our anniversary. We expected it to be good; actually, it was fantastic.
The Dining Room offers a prix fixe three-course meal for $29 Tuesday through Thursday evenings, when school is in session. The menu was full of choices - about 10 different appetizers and salads, seven entrees, and about as many desserts. We didn't hold back; we each ordered our prix fixe options and then chose three extra starters and one extra entrée. Before you judge, understand we had a $200 gift certificate that had to be used all at once. And to answer your next question, no, we didn't even come close to hitting the mark. With tax, our three appetizers, two salads, three entrees, two desserts, two San Pellegrinos, one tea, and one espresso cost - get ready for this -- $132.
However, volume alone doesn't equal value. We could tell we were in for a great tasting meal from the moment our starters arrived. Hubby ordered roasted bone marrow with oxtail marmalade. We took turns liberally spreading the marrow and marmalade on the toasted porcini-orange brioche and sprinkling it with the sea salt that accompanied it. Spread, bite, moan, repeat. We also tried the bay scallops with chive gnocchi, which were well-prepared. My favorite appetizer, though, was the pan roasted perch with cauliflower puree and crispy guancale (pig cheek, i.e., fancy bacon.) Read all about it after the jump.
Earlier this year, I attended a donut party where I ate possibly the best donut ever--a simple chocolate-glazed cake number from Bridgeport Bakery. I knew that Bridgeport Bakery deserved an in-person visit, but I knew that the long trip I'd have to take on there on CTA would put me in a foul mood that no cruller could lessen.
Last week, I had to take a houseguest to Midway early in the morning using a car rented from my car-share program. Traffic was lighter than I expected, so after seeing her off, I knew I'd have time to kill before returning the car. Wow. Rather than turn back onto Cicero for the drive home, I slowly snaked up Archer Avenue, bound for the promised land.
Sometimes the most interesting part of a meal is the company. The conversation with friends, the revelations between courses, the camaraderie of the table... They're important ingredients for a good meal out. Trattoria Isabella, located low in a passel of high rises just west of the pavement delta where Milwaukee bottoms out into Wacker Drive, relies on these ingredients perhaps more than most restaurants. More after the jump.
Bacon and maple syrup, two great tastes that taste great together -- at the breakfast table, anyway. How are they when combined into a sucker? I found out this week when I tried Das Foods' "Man Bait" maple-bacon lollipop.
OK, so I'm a little late to this, but as the city gears up for BaconFest, I figured now's a good a time as any. And despite my love for bacon, I've been gun-shy about bacon-flavored candies, in large part due to my disappointment in other offerings. The bacon flavor in most is underwhelming, or else doesn't play well with the other flavors. (Do not under any circumstances order bacon mints. They're seriously vile.) But this being a home-grown product, I gave it a try.
First off, the wrapper. What's up with "Man Bait"? Are women not interested in bacon? Seems to me bacon is universal, but whatever. Taking off the wrapper, you're confronted with a translucent sucker studded with bubbles and bits of bacon. A quick whiff and you smell smoke and a little maple sweetness.
That smokiness is what's at the forefront on first taste. I'm not sure if Das Foods used liquid smoke or some other flavorant, but it seems clear that it's not connected to the bacon itself. It gives way eventually to a mild maple syrup flavor and then finally a hint of bacon. At first I was concerned that the bacon was rendered flavorless by the manufacturing process, but it turned out I just hadn't melted the sugar enough to get to any of it yet. Once I did, it was tasty, though still mild. The savory balances nicely with the sweet for a fairly positive overall flavor.
Unfortunately, adding bits of bacon to the lollipop resulted in a gritty texture -- once the bacon is exposed, it feels like the sucker is covered in sand. Yummy, eventually chewy sand, but sand nonetheless. That's likely to turn a lot of people off.
The maple-bacon lollipop is a novelty and nothing more. It doesn't pack that much of a bacon wallop, so it won't satisfy a bacon craving. But it doesn't veer into tragedy, either. If you have bacon-loving friends and want to plan ahead for your next party, these are a good bet.
Jam, a 30-seat breakfast & lunch joint at 935 N Damen, is only in its second weekend, but there's already a steady wait for a table during brunch prime time. Perhaps this is because it fills a void left by the dearly-departed, maybe-going-to-open-again-on-Fulton-someday dodo; also, in this population-dense stretch of the East Village, the brunch options are sparse if you're not on Chicago or Division. While these are good reasons for the place to be packed right now, I have bad news for anyone hoping to roll in and be seated promptly at 10 a.m. on a Sunday: the food is great as well.
After a pleasant wait in the courtyard Jam shares with Sweet Cakes Bakery, we were led into the restaurant. The space may be better decorated than it is designed. The color palette is a mix of ice blue, lime green, and dark brown, with clear acrylic chairs and delightfully funky wall lights, but the kitchen seems to be split in two, with much of the cooking going on in the dining area. This is fun to watch, but it meant the air conditioning was pretty useless, as the doors were all open to prevent the dining area from being too smoky. I'm interested to see how that will be dealt with come winter.
The open kitchen allowed me to confirm that there were some new-restaurant jitters going on, especially when I dined by myself a second time. Both of my visits to Jam featured somewhat long wait times. The second time, I was one of six people there, and I watched the cook and front-of-house manager prepare what must've been the first oatmeal of the day. During the prep, there were mild queries about where the brown sugar, honey, butter, and appropriate serving piece to hold these accompaniments were. Once Jam has been open a bit longer, I'm guessing they'll know where there brown sugar is.
Last weekend I had the pleasure of going to Eivissa, a tapas restaurant in Old Town, with some friends for a late dinner. My friend, Esther, is half Spanish and I was excited to go to a tapas restaurant with her.
While we waited for a table outside to open up, we sat at the bar and had sangria. The inside of the restaurant is beautiful and really cozy - rich colors, high ceilings, very cool décor. I ordered the préssec, a white sangria with lavender essence and peach, and it was really refreshing - perfect for the warm summer night.
When our table was ready, we moved outside to the somewhat cramped patio and started with a cheese plate, which was definitely my favorite part of the meal. We sampled three cheeses - enough for two or three people - for $11, which seems like a pretty decent deal to me.
After devouring the cheese, we ordered a few tapas plates - all were pretty good, though small (Esther told us that when you order tapas in Spain, each plate is overflowing with food). To finish we ordered two desserts - both of which were delicious.
Overall, I'd say that Eivissa is a great place for good atmosphere (I'd recommend sitting inside), good drinks and good food. I wish we had tried one of the cured meat plates - the neighboring table ordered one and it looked pretty great. The prices were a little steep for the amount of food served on each dish, but there are certain dishes that are well worth it. Our waitress did a great job recommending items on the menu so I would suggest asking for your server's input.
It's economical, ecological, and environmentally-friendly. In many cases, it's downright delicious. And there is a chance that you could die. This seems to be the main thesis of the new "field-to-kitchen guide," Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States, by Joe McFarland and Gregory M. Mueller.
HarvesTime Foods could be one of the best kept secrets on the north side. It's like the Millennium Falcon. From the outside it doesn't look like much. The awning is torn and a bit sun-faded. The LCD sign's functionality is sometimes spotty. The building is coated in a stark whitewash in a neighborhood where one side of the street is rundown and the other is neo-gentrified. So at first glance, purchasing even canned food from this market may make you cringe a bit and wonder if you're taking your life into your own hands.
Even though fans of Lula Cafe are heading down to the restaurant's newest southward incarnation, Pilsen's Nightwood, DT staffer Andie and I sat down to dinner tonight at Lula for a bite of what made this restaurant so good in the first place, and weren't disappointed.
We started off with a spinach salad with baby fennel, egg, grilled spring onions, and romesco; the dish was a bit small for the $10 cost, but the tradeoff of quality ingredients was obvious. Lula's gone a bit crazy with plating sauces in a bold, paint stroke-like motion at the base of dishes--the look of both the salad and seafood appetizer that we ordered reminded me of a very cool t-shirt that I used to wear in the 80s. But I liked the 80s, right?
Last week, my husband and I went to the May Street Market to take advantage of the Yelp Eats' prix fixe menu--a three-course meal for $25. As is often the case with these promos, we had to ask for the "Yelp menu," but our waiter was gracious when asked. The selection was intriguing: choosing one each from the two appetizers, four entrees and two desserts was a marginally agonizing affair though we did come out of it in one piece. I chose yellow corn veloute, smoked spring chicken and ice cream flight, my hubby fried green tomato, smoked scallops and cupcake flight.
They were all very tasty, but what stood out was the use of aromatics, unexpected and delightful. Almost every dish had a hidden perfumy surprise or two. My corn veloute (cream corn soup) was scented with orange rind, while the asparagus that came with the smoked chicken had sneaky bits of fresh mint that provided a nice contrast to the earthy, green sweetness of the asparagus. (I took mental note to steal that technique.) The refreshing mint paired surprisingly well with the meaty mushrooms (porcini?) in the same dish. Mint and mushrooms--who knew? My husband's smoked scallops sat on a bed of curried couscous, which, in itself, isn't anything new, but a little drizzle of orange-based sauce lifted the couscous to an aromatic heaven. Desserts didn't disappoint, either; my husband's cupcake flight included one that paired lavender cake with earl grey (I think) butter cream. Yum.
It was early on a Tuesday, so we shared the roomy "bistro" area with only a handful of other groups. Late afternoon sun cast a nice, warm glow on our table by the windows, while the bar sank in comforting semidarkness in the back. Toward the end of our meal, as the afternoon sun gave way to growing cloud cover, staff dimmed the lights and distributed votive candles. We watched the flickering dance of the tiny flame for a while after the meal, sipping coffee. It was a thoroughly relaxing evening with great food--we'll definitely be back.
If you missed the Yelp Eats, don't despair: May Street Market has practically extended the deal. $25 three-course dinner is available Monday through Wednesday for the time being (our waiter didn't know how long). According to him, these three days of the week will also be BYOB nights, meaning no cork fee for wines you bring in.
May Street Market
1132 W. Grand Avenue
With a grey and drizzly Memorial Day in our rearview mirrors, the official backyard -- or back deck alley, sidewalk, whathaveyou -- barbecue season is upon us. And sure, you could simply pull out the Weber and grill up some hotdogs and hamburgers. But if you really want to impress your friends, take it to the next level and start smoking -- meats, that is.
Being on bed rest for 23 hours a day has really put a damper on my ability to prepare healthy meals for myself. Therefore, I'm feeling particularly glad that I recently learned about The Stock Option, a local soup delivery service. I've been enjoying the soups at home, but I may continue to use the service once I go back to work.
Every day, owner Jack Price (a former insurance salesman who began The Stock Option when the recession started taking a toll on his old line of work) prepares a soup of the day, using lots of fresh produce and organic ingredients. Customers email or call before 10 a.m. for lunch delivery or before 2 p.m. for a dinner delivery. You receive 16 oz. of soup, along with bread and sometimes other garnishes, for $6 (which also covers taxes and delivery).
This week, many Chicago restaurants may have a little extra going on in their wine offerings thanks to Riesling Week. While it may not be much more than a PR move to train the spotlight on German, Austrian and Alsatian wines just when spring is beckoning oenophiles towards Pinot Grigios and Sauvignon blancs, and everyone else towards Memorial Day Miller Lites, Riesling Week couldn't have come at a better time. The first few perfect days of spring, a participating restaurant on my way home from work...patio seating. Sold.
Located in the Affinia hotel, C-House specializes in imaginative seafood and features a nicely tiered menu of bites from the bar, appetizers, entrees, and sides -- all of which work in endless combinations to appease big and little hungers, sushi-enthusiasts and anti-raw stalwarts alike. And many of which work really nicely with the sweetness of their featured Riesling flight. Our server noted that rather than pairing each wine with a course, the chef rather intended all three to be tasted with everything we ate to see how the different flavors played off each other with each individual sip. It certainly took the concern out of ordering. We tried various combinations of bites and apps, standouts being the crab salad (wrapped up in paper thin slices of apple to create something resembling more of a candy than a summer salad), lobster club sandwich, and the seemingly grilled and freeze-dried corn kernels that accompany the very popular yellowtail fish tacos.
The wines were a relatively dry 2006 Keller Riesling Trocken from Rheinhessen, Germany; a sticky sweet 2007 Monchoff, Robert Eymael, also German and with a sweet and tart punch that made me think of mead; and a 2004 Schloss Lieser, Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Spatlese, which was the most balanced of the three, though try ordering another one of those after you've had a few. A classic, dessert-friendly Riesling which went really nicely with the tartness of the fish tacos' pickled onions, the buttery richness of the lobster and yellowtail, and the sweetness of the crab salad. Bites at C-House start at $4, and the wine flight runs $22 through the end of this week. Zum Wohl!
When I last made it to New York City, I had a culinary check-off list of places I wanted to visit. My top priority was Magnolia Bakery, whose mention in Sex and the City (and later, Lazy Sunday) catapaulted the small storefront to fame. When I got to the building, I was melting from the summer heat; the last thing I really wanted to do was step inside, as the tiny bakery was packed with tourists waiting for staff to finish frosting more of Magnolia's picture-perfect cupcakes, but I had a goal. When I finally did taste the cupcake, I thought its huge roof of frosting had a nice butter- and vanilla-laden taste, but the actual cake was a dry, flavorless disappointment. As I threw the remainder into a garbage can, I quietly suspected that the cake had been baked several days (weeks?) before. Meh.
Shoddy cake has been to blame for a lot of my cupcake experiences. It seems like a lot of bakers put more of the heavy lifting into the frosting and little into the base--senseless, as this is a cupcake (not a cupfrosting, tee hee). But the cupcake itself has a lot to live up to--after all, it's a subset of a grander item that's the centerpiece of graduation parties and wedding receptions, and if portion control or the pretty daintiness of a cupcake is to be its calling card, it better be a worthy representative.
Since moving to Chicago a year and a half ago, I have come to love Middle Eastern food and jump at any chance to further explore the cuisine. After hearing friends rave about Maza for months, I finally got around to trying it out. This was my first time trying Lebanese food and I was thrilled with the helpful service and the ease of sampling many of the items on the menu.
The restaurant is very small cozy and I immediately felt the day's tension melt away as I got settled into our candle-lit table and had a sip of the Lebanese wine that was waiting for us. The owner of the restaurant, Joe, greeted us immediately and brought us menus. It must have been obvious that we were a bit overwhelmed because he didn't hesitate to offer suggestions for first-time Lebanese diners.
At the owner's suggestion we ordered the maza (similar to tapas, maza is an array of small dishes) for two and, though we knew it would be a lot of food, were shocked when 26 little plates came out from the kitchen. First though, was the lentil soup and it may have been one of the best cups of soup I've ever had. It was the perfect way to start the evening.
Friendship Chinese, that is. This past Tuesday night I entered the bustling Logan Square restaurant (2830 North Milwaukee) to take advantage of one of the neighborhood's (hell, city's) best-kept secrets: everything on Friendship's menu, from the simple fried rice ($10) to the high-end (and delicious) Hong Kong Steak ($22), is a mere $8.95. Yes, $8.95. I enjoyed their champagne lemon chicken and gawked at the dishes being served around me (a curry-lime salmon, the bird's nest of vegetables and fish) and making mental notes for my next visit, which will likely be...on a Tuesday.
I dream of vegan restaurants that hold their own against non-veg restaurants. My latest inherently biased vegan recommendation goes to Delicious Cafe in North Center. They're an adorable cafe with classic Chicago style "tin" ceilings, chalkboard menus, a back patio coming soon, and a floor of simple large plywood-esque squares laid on a grid angled some 45 degrees with the walls. Delicious has quite smooth coffee, from soy lattes to drip to slow brews. You can sip yours on the couch at the window by the coffee table with an old-school globe of our illustrious planet, or at a window counter or one of several small cafe tables.
My friend looked at my slice of cake, and then said something like, "it looks so fluffy. That's hard with vegan." The humming sounds that soon followed from her mouth suggested a great enjoyment in the cake. Chocolate frosting and strawberries combined with a creamy wet feel like custard, and separated three layers of tender, moist yellow cake. More chocolate frosting topped the slice, underneath chocolate chip-shaped frosting droplets.
A couple of weeks ago some friends, Rob and Jess, were visiting from London and we were on a mission to introduce them to everything Chicago. They had been here before a few years ago but somehow didn't have a chance to try Chicago-style pizza. I usually prefer thin crust myself, but I do love Art of Pizza's deep dish. On their last night in Chicago, we ordered a pizza to go and took it over to The Ashland.
A few nights before we found ourselves at Tony's Burritos for some late night eats and Rob ordered two burritos, saying while he was in America he wanted to eat a lot of dirty American food, like Americans. So when we told him we were getting pizzas he told us, half joking, that he wanted his own pie - piled high with meat. When we got to the bar with our pizzas (a meat lovers for Rob and a veggie pizza for the rest of us) and opened the box, they couldn't believe how thick it was. Rob immediately took out a one pound coin and stood it up vertically next to the pizza and took at least a dozen pictures to show everyone in London how thick the pizza really is.
When I was in London last fall, we stayed with these friends, Rob and Jess, and there was a pizza joint just down the street from their house called "Chicago Pizza." They're no strangers to pizza but after just one bite, Rob exclaimed that he had never had pizza before this. After just two pieces, Rob was stuffed and we told him he was falling into a pizza coma. From his spot on the couch at The Ashland he laughed and said, "I like that, a pizza coma."
The Cheeseburger Show made its debut yesterday on CLTV, starring Tribune writer Kevin Pang and a cavalcade of Chicago food and cultural celebrities, from Q101 DJ Electra to chefs Homaro Cantu and Doug Sohn to "Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me" host Peter Sagal, all talking about one of America's favorite foods: the cheeseburger. Episode 1 is now available online.
The show immediately brought to mind the Chicago Burger Project, a long-running blog whose mission has been to try every burger (as well as fries and shakes) on Time Out Chicago's 2007 list of the city's best burgers. They've been plowing through as time and bellies allow, veering off-mission occasionally to try more recent additions to the burger scene. So I got in touch with one of the CBP co-founders, Nathaniel Grotte, for his thoughts on the Cheeseburger Show.
A couple of things I have to call out:
- Pang praised the "sharp tang" of American cheese at Top-Notch. The cheese is either sharp or American, but not both.
- I assume that the (albeit unspoken) conceit of this show is that Kevin Pang's on a quest to find great burgers, which is what people always assume that the Chicago Burger Project is about, when, in fact, it's actually about making fun of Time Out Chicago. It's my belief that really good burgers make for kind of boring analyses, but bad ones can be very entertaining (see the "rollercoaster of flavor" at Riverview Tavern). It's my hope that Pang runs across some real duds and gives people hell about it, because that's good television.
Overall, though, Grotte enjoyed the first episode and said he'd tune in again. I agree -- it's fun and funny, and bound to stay interesting, especially if Pang's net is wide enough to cover some of the more colorful places in the suburbs as well as the city. Keep an eye on his progress by following the "burger yeti" on Twitter.
Ipsento is a quality coffee shop. That is their goal. That is what they effuse. I stopped into Ipsento on a rainy night with my friend Leah. I had come here once before last summer and had a pleasant enough experience. But after reading on their website that ownership has changed as of April 4th and they intend to give all profits back to the community, I was intrigued.
This living room-esque coffee shop is soul stroking. The décor is mostly found and second-hand objects giving the small space a feeling of familiarity. When you walk in the front door you are greeted with a coffee-roasting machine. That is because the new owners, the Coffee Ambassadors, are a direct-trade coffee roaster, which is actually a step above fair trade coffee. After talking with the barista I learned that their vision goes far beyond just supplying direct trade coffee to Bucktown residents. They want to be a place of community, sustainability and mutual learning. The vision is formidable. But some may argue that a vision is not enough. To that I say, have their soy chai latte! This chai latte is by far the best I've had in Chicago. I rejoiced after the first sip, literally yelling about how wonderful it was across the quaint coffee shop to the next customer at the counter. My friend had a sip and concurred that there was something unique in my mug. Soon after, I realized it tasted like a cup of campfire and all the good sentiments that go along with a campfire. It was one of those drinks that after the second sip I was already sad thinking about the last.
Currently, Ipsento is in its budding elementary stages. Run by a group of young people they welcome the input of community members. This place breathes creativity, tasty flavors and community engagement. Come spring, they hope to be serving mostly local foods from farmer's markets. Stay tuned. I believe this is the beginning of something beautiful.
Ipsento Coffee House, 2035 N. Western Ave., 773.517.4123
Rural food in India seems simple and lean. Chutney Joe's, an instruct-them-how-to-assemble-your-meal-at-the-counter type of place, just South of the Loop, doesn't claim to be rural food so far as I know, but it does remind me of that. Their Web site indicates an interest in wanting to change from "Americanized Indian food," and the chickpea masala held especially true to this on my visit. The flavors could be tighter and more mingled, but the essence feels refreshingly simple and lean.
The garbanzo masala, as they call it, isn't oil-laden like so many that I've had eating out in Chicago. It feels brothy, light and simple, and the sauce softly warmed and soothed the lining of my mouth. The chickpeas resisted my bite at first, and then crumpled without hesitation. The gobi potatoes, or cauliflower and potatoes, didn't include diced potatoes, as the online menu suggests, but instead whole, skinned, oval-shaped potatoes, as I probably would have preferred anyway. These potatoes were tender and firm, with a soft touch of oil. The cauliflower still held a bit of its snap. If you "create a meal" of it, like I did, you get your choice of basmati rice or one flat bread. I chose a soft, tender and nicely textured whole wheat flatbread that "should" be vegan, I was told (the other bread options had dairy). Other items are clearly identified as vegan on the menu, and they offer non-vegetarian and other vegetarian items, as well.
Tell me that your veggie sandwich is vegan and has homemade cashew butter, and you've probably got my attention. Tell me that you plan to have vegan scones made in Evanston and baking fresh in your oven on the weekends, and I'll be back. Tell me you threw in some potato salad - it's vegan, you tell me - as you hand me my takeout, and I've already written the start of this review in my head. Birchwood Kitchen opened today with all of this in a quaint storefront on the quieter side of Wicker Park - on North Avenue, a few blocks west of Damen. The feel is warm and accessible: nicely finished wood floors, wood tables, a brick wall, windows visible front and back, and a glass display case with bowls of potato salad, green beens, olives, fruit salad and some meats in front of the open kitchen. They're into local products, including Metropolis Coffee and Co-op Image hot sauce for sale. I left with two of these cashew butter veggie sandwiches for my friend Jessica and I, who continues the story.
Tell me that you'll pick me up a sandwich when I'm exhausted after a mediocre work out, and I'm there. I arrived at Chris' home after a quick shower with a big appetite. First I cracked open a Goose Island reserve beer, and next I unveiled the "Vegetable" sandwich. A veggie sandwich tends to be pretty standard across the board. This experience was unique. The menu describes it as "spiced cashew butter, carrot, cucumber, pickled red onion, sprouts" on multi grain bread. The perks of the sandwich were the cashew butter, pickled red onion and multi grain bread. The cashew butter was dolloped on generously. The tinge of sweetness from the butter effused the veggies and created a multi-dimensional sandwich. The pickled onions gave the package its kick. Chris commented that the onions were what made the sandwich "so funky." I agree. They gave the sandwich funk, in a good way. James Brown funk. The bitter pickled flavor coupled with the sweet cashew butter couched in a hearty bread were what made the sandwich for me. I think it would have fared slightly better without the carrots - they were a bit too thick and cumbersome in the otherwise light, fanciful sandwich. Tell me they have replaced the carrots with tomatoes, and it may become a staple.
Birchwood Kitchen, 2211 W. North Ave., (773) 276-2100
(in the space formerly occupied by Cold Comfort)
Formerly the 27th Ward's local Chicago Public Library branch, and even more recently closed and vacant for ages, Branch 27 has brought new life to the corner of Chicago and Nobel with a buzzing contemporary American restaurant in a lovely typographically inflected space. The latest from what seems to be a fathomless pool of Rockit and Empire Liquors alumni, Branch 27 feels a bit more mature than some of its cousin establishments, and brings a new sense of balance to the ever-expanding Chicago Avenue dining scene. And you can be sure no one will shush you in the building's newest incarnation -- the prevailing mood seems to be celebratory and the place will be crowded, if this past weekend is any indication.
More thoughts on an opening week meal after the jump...
I recently had the perfect Sunday. It began with a cozy skype conversation with a friend in Hungary (and yes, I was); followed by a homemade brunch; wandered into thrift stores on Milwaukee Ave. and culminated in a late lunch. This perfect late lunch was at Letizia's Natural Bakery (2144 W. Division St.).
As I stood in line waiting to order I found myself torn over whether to go with the creamy Tomato Basil Soup or the Bella Capri (A "Grilled Baguette, Fresh Baby Mozzerella, Ripe Tomatoes, with Homemade Basil Pesto"). My friend, Johanna, saved me from my conundrum: "Why don't we split both?" The food was delivered to our table in the sun. It glistened. First: the soup. We each took a spoon, dipped it into the frothy tomato bisque and lifted it to our mouths. I looked over at Johanna and it seemed she was equally moved by the experience. We smiled coyly and lifted our hands to high five in celebration of the flavor. At about the fifth bite (but who was counting?), Johanna said, "I think this may be the best tomato soup I've ever had." I agreed.
Next: the sandwich. This was no ordinary sandwich. The baguette was crispy and tender; the kind of bread that resists your first attempt on breaking through, but eventually gives way and fills your mouth with supreme satisfaction. The fresh ingredients complemented one another to perfection. One might think having both a tomato basil soup and tomato and basil on the sandwich would be overwhelming, but the flavors maintained their distinctness. Once again we took a bite and were forced to clasp hands. Mind you, I do not high five over just any meal. This meal had it all: a great ambiance, a sparkling sun, an enthusiastic eating partner, an affordable price and a delicious bounty of flavors. Some may give it five stars, I give it two high fives!
Fuel, opening officially this Wednesday in the old Blend space on Division, is sleek and pretty, but like a teenager sneaking a joy ride with daddy's vintage wheels, doesn't seem entirely sure where it wants to go. Pulling a double-shift as a coffee shop by day, loungey bar by night, Fuel seems to be trying to be all things to all people who might be strolling through east Wicker Park. High-gloss molded plastic tables and chairs evoke a kind of 50's car hop feel, as do the converted gas pumps showing off the liquid goods, while plasma screens and a DJ booth are as contemporary as the baffling but still unchecked upscale sports bar trend. (Hub 51, I'm looking at you.) An online menu promises such luxe libations as an Apple Cucumber mojito and Lavazza espresso infused cocktail, though no drink list was available or even mentioned when I visited. No beers are on tap, and $5 or more for a beer always makes me cringe when Gold Star or Rainbo are but a hop, skip and a sip away.
While I always appreciate a bar with a food menu, the eats at Fuel seemed only half baked. Unremarkable but nicely sized fried chicken sliders come three to a plate, an awkward number to share, served with a single slice of tomato, leaf of lettuce, pickle slice and dab of coleslaw on the side. Guacamole is remarkably flavorful, studded with tomato and jalepenos, but served with the most bland and industrial tortilla chips I've seen since my central Wisconsin school lunch nachos. Crispy crab wontons boast a creative filling favoring vegetables and crab to cream cheese, with a bright lime note against the sweet and saltiness. But an unbalanced sticky-sweet chili sauce and undercooked dough make for an uninspiring appetizer overall.
In the end, the unadventurous food didn't much live up to the sleeker surroundings, expect perhaps in its unevenness. Fuel is new, and I remain optimistic about all coffee-shop openings in the neighborhood -- particularly those that can spike their espresso with other bar offerings. But as it is, Fuel seems like it could use a better-focused and thought out tune-up to really make it.
Seeing The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, the DCA Theater's newest production, was an endurance test for me, as I had to sit for a very long time to watch a cast of actors sweat out the everyday violence of living in Israel and the West Bank while cooking fragrant dishes onstage, which kept my attention but gradually made my thoughts turn to my next meal.
The play had a very bare set design, with a small kitchen setup (complete with prep space, a working sink and a few hot plates) serving as a main area of action. The cast skillfully played mutiple roles in a series of short scenes: a retired teacher and her beer-loving husband trying to live out their golden years in East Jerusalem while shootings take place at their front gate; a hummus maker who uses illegally procured tahini for his wares; a falafel shop that is briefly under siege when a well-meaning but naive customer leaves his backpack on a table, inciting a bomb scare; a gay couple who still tries to enjoy the city nightlife despite the heavy security, and a former New Yorker whose friends can't understand why she stayed, even after her husband is killed.
Every character has a sad story to tell about the ongoing violence, so tears are often shed and many moments are tense throughout the performance. Their devotion to food, however, brings a lot of levity to the play. They still have to eat, despite the horrors of the past and the equally grave predictions for the future, and they eat quite well: I was smitten with a humourous monologue that describes the recipe for hummus, and a mother making a pressed casserole of vine leaves, rice and vegetables for a family dinner.
The play runs over a bit, with a few unnecessary new stories being woven in during the second act: as time dragged on, I found myself getting hungry and losing focus, much to my embarassment. The play is based on real stories and interviews--here I was, watching people recount stories of car bombings and dead children while the smell of falafel and cooking casseroles lit up the background. I felt a little manipulated and unsure of the take-away message. Surely it can't be to chow down while the world falls apart.
The play runs until April 5 at the DCA Storefront Theater at 66 East Randolph. Ticket price is $15-23.
Nothing makes my day quite like a chocolate vegan cupcake. Except, perhaps, when my roommate is kind enough to surprise me with one. She had tasted a sample from Swirlz Cupcakes yesterday at Whole Foods at North and Sheffield, through staffers wearing shirts lettered with the word "happy," which quite accurately described how I felt while tasting their work -- and seems to sum up the sound of Swirlz Cupcake's website.
"It's not like you'd say they're good for being vegan. They're just good." My roommate emphasized "good." The cake is moist and a tag fudgy, and the frosting is thick and creamy, with just the right amount of sweetness to affirm that you're eating a treat, without feeling like you're eating anything too sweet. Swirlz Cupcakes, 705 W. Belden. 773-404-CAKE.
The first time I met Unibroue cultural attaché Jim Javenkoski was the first time I had Éphémère, a beer that instantly became one of my favorites. I've since gone on to try and enjoy almost everything the Québécois brewery makes. Their Belgian-style, malt- and spice-forward beers are a lovely contrast to the resinous, floral quality of hop-monster brews, and I prefer to pair maltier beers with most winter meals. Therefore, I was excited to spend Thursday evening with Mr. Javenkoski (previously the subject of a Drive-Thru feature) at C-House's beer dinner, the first Unibroue dinner where beer was used in the preparation of every dish. I showed up because of Unibroue, but by the end of the evening, I had also been charmed by the food.
One of my colleague is a venerable veteran of bread making, with more than 20 years under his belt, during which time, rumor goes, he hasn't bought a single loaf of bread. Since I discovered the fun of bread making (and also the fact that he was a closet bread maker), we've been spending good ten minutes every Monday morning discussing what we'd done in the bread department in the preceding weekend. And we steal a few minutes here and there during the week, too, talking about bread. During a recent chat, he told me about an improbable bread recipe he saw on PBS. He called it "Jacques Pépin's pot bread."
"I just don't see how it can be any good," my colleagues added, "it defies all that I know about bread."
I didn't set out to attend the Greater Chicago Food Depository's First Annual "Soup Off" and write a piece about it. No, indeed. I headed over to Custom House this snowy afternoon to enjoy a handful of soup samples by renowned Chicago chefs and support a good cause in the process.
But I was so overcome not just by the quality of the eight soups on offer, not just by the perfectly idyllic space Custom House provided for such an event, not just by the general good nature of the crowd, but also by the generous portions and the unmatched graciousness of chef/host Shawn McClain, that I felt compelled to put a few thoughts down on paper.
The first rule of going to lunch during restaurant week: don't show up early, at least if you have the first reservation of the day. I showed up a few minutes early at Naha to find my dining companion already hiding from the rain under the small awning; by the time they opened the doors, ten or eleven patrons were alternately crowding under the awning and glaring desperately at the indifferent staff inside the restaurant.
Once we managed to get inside and were seated next to the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on Clark Street, things took a turn for the better.
I chose the late winter squash soup from the $22, three-course Restaurant Week Menu; the texture was perfectly smooth, with sweet spaghetti squash that melted in my mouth and a nice accent of crunchy green pumpkin seeds. My companion James, a former line chef, was just as satisfied with his house-cured arctic char.
The team behind Northside Bar & Grill, Streetside, Danny's and the Logan Bar & Grill opened Simone's Bar in Pilsen this past weekend. We stopped in Monday night to try the food and check out the completely rehabbed building. The space is enormous, with booth seating, a long horseshoe bar, and a gallery space in back that will be joining the Pilsen 2nd Fridays art walks. The interior is inspired by recycled objects and architectural remnants -- and there are some nice touches like the bar-top made from an old bowling alley lane -- but overall the space seemed a bit cluttered and overly-calculated.
I look forward to trying the black bean & banana empanadas and the potato, Parmesan & rosemary pizza in the future, but we were hungry for a heartier meal. I ordered the vegan burger, which is made in house with quinoa and black beans. The patty was bland, and was just barely saved by spicy mustard and the blue cheese I had ordered on top. My companion enjoyed his regular burger. The fries, a mix of sweet potato and baking potato, were excellent. The dessert list includes the delicious tres leches cake from Kristoffer's and local Black Dog gelato -- a nice touch.
The one thing that will likely bring me back (besides the fact that it is within stumbling distance of my house) is the beer menu -- Rotating Bells, Dark Horse and Three Floyds handles, $2.50 PBR tall boys, Two Brothers Cane & Ebel, New Holland Dragon's Milk, and Dogfish Head 90 Minute bottles.
A review of Simone's seems to beg a comparison to the Skylark, so here it is: The prices are about the same and the service is good at both establishments. If you are looking for a low-key bar, a great burger or a fresh, seasonal salad in Pilsen, I'd still direct you to the Skylark. But, if you are looking for a good beer menu, Simone's might have a bit more to offer.
This is not a picture of a cupcake from Sugar Bliss, the recently opened Loop designer cupcake joint in the shadow of the Wabash 'L'. I tried to photograph one of their cakes, but when I set the top-heavy thing down, it promptly rolled over, its sickly sweet frosting gluing it with curious strength to the unfortunate top of my Ikea knock-off tulip table.
The above, instead, is a picture of a cupcake from More Cupcakes, the upscale Gold Coast bakery currently suing a former staffer for allegedly ignoring a non-compete agreement and going to work for Sugar Bliss. I have two words for More: Don't worry.
On Tuesday, March 3, Crain's Chicago Business and "Check, Please!" will host a party at Texas de Brazil to videotape people from all over Chicago talking about their favorite spots to meet for a business breakfast, lunch or dinner. Crain's will post a selection of these segments to its web site, ChicagoBusiness.com.
The party isn't a free-for-all, though. You must register here, and the deciders will let you know if you're in.
Vosges Chocolate recently introduced a new line of organic, single-origin chocolate bars. Each bar comes in at a steep $8.50 (a buck over a regular Vosges chocolate bar), but this is chocolate worth splurging on.
The five new flavors are: Dominica Noir, Dominica Lait, Peanut Butter Bonbon, Enchanted Mushroom, and Habana.
While I usually prefer dark chocolates, I was very impressed with the Dominica Lait. The chocolate was smooth and rich with a nutty, raisin-y flavor. This chocolate would make an excellent addition to a cheese and fruit course.
I was really excited to try the Enchanted Mushroom, a bar of dark chocolate with reishi mushrooms and walnuts. It was nice, but rather uneventful. The mushroom flavor was barely noticeable and the result was simply a high-quality chocolate bar with walnuts. --Not necessarily a bad thing, but not what I was hoping for.
The Habana bar was my favorite of the bunch. The milk chocolate was perfectly suited to the crunchy, salty plantains. If you are looking for a unique Valentine's Day treat, this would be an excellent choice.
Walking past Piccolo in the middle of winter makes me long for summer days and gelato. I was recently reminded that this charming establishment has plenty to offer patrons in the colder months as well. The menu boasts panini, Italian subs, soups & salads, and bruschetta -- all made to order with fresh ingredients. (The black forest ham panino with Gruyere and tomato is pictured above with an artichoke heart salad.)
They deliver to the surrounding area and you can place your orders online. (The cafe has a much better design than their website.) The menu lists several vegetarian options and they are also accommodating to vegans. Read Chris Brunn's post on the topic here.
Last week I had a rare craving for Thai food so I went to Duck Walk - a Thai restaurant right around the corner from my apartment. It's hard to believe that I walked by this place without a second thought for more than a year and a half. Thai food has never really been my thing, but Duck Walk certainly is.
I can never, ever resist pot stickers so we started out with an order of six - they were a little doughy but still pretty good. For the entrees I had the Pad Khee Mao and my boyfriend ordered the Goey See Me. Both dishes were full of flavor, fresh ingredients and had a little spice to them (both were pretty mild but they have a fantastic spicy sauce you can use to spice it up). Added bonus: BYOB.
Beyond the delicious food, the service is great and it is conveniently located a few steps away from Belmont el stop. The food is also incredibly cheap - we got an appetizer and two entrees for just $20! Duck Walk has a very warm, cozy atmosphere - with just a few tables the restaurant can fill up quickly. Don't be discouraged if it's busy when you get there - the tables seem to clear up pretty quickly. And, if you don't feel like waiting you can always get takeout.
Last weekend, Merge scribe and local blog diva Jasmine Davila and I headed to the Macy's State Street seventh-floor food court to sample the popular-but-pricey Marc Burger (Yelp link) that recently set up shop there. After two Angus burgers, two frozen custards, and fleeing for our lives before a phalanx of fast-approaching snow plows later that afternoon, we concur: the burgers are alarmingly expensive. But oh, so nom-nommy good.
Not long after turning Cincinnati Jamie onto the Asian hot wings of doom during a visit to Pilsen's Take Me Out one tornadic night last summer, he turned around and clued me into Argyle Street's venerable Sun Wah (see here for Facebook group). Super-flavorful, super-cheap Beijing Duck that can feed three people? Ditch that third person and come with me, I'm sold.
I grew up ice skating on frozen flooded soccer fields and baseball diamonds, where the ice got rougher and more dangerous as the winter drew on -- unless a neighbor or Park District employee thought to revisit the rink with a hose. I don't know that this tradition continues, though I wouldn't be surprised if liability and insurance concerns have made these hand-crafted rinks unfortunate casualties of a more concerned sporting population... Skating in Millennium Park, for obvious reasons, doesn't feel exactly the same as the remembered experiences of my youth. The glow of shining Christmas lights and the sky high faces of the Crown Fountain, the sweeping city scape, and, well, an awful lot more people make for a decidedly more urban experience. But the delightful and terrifying feeling of those first tentative, flailing moments on newly glassed ice is exactly as I remember it. (Here, there's a zamboni to keep that feeling coming back, no neighbors needed.)
And enjoying a hot, ever-so-slightly greasy meal after skating -- well, why stop with tradition on the ice? Michigan Avenue offers slightly more upscale after-skating food and drink options than a dubiously boiled bratwurst served by the local middle school hockey club booster association (located at the counter between the skate sharpener and WWF wrestling video game). The earthy but haute comfort food at The Gage, or slightly more classic American fare at the Park Grill may beckon, but why not wander down to Pizano's Pizza. You either already know this place, or have walked past it a hundred times. If you're in the latter category, stop by for some of the best thin-crust pizza around -- buttery, biscuit-y and deeply flavorful. Make it a great end to a good night of skating, and you may find yourself crafting a new tradition on the spot.
Chickpea, West Town's new middle eastern restaurant, moved into the former space of The Bleeding Heart Bakery in November. While it may be a rough time to embark on a new business, owner Jerry Suqi knows the ropes. With Narcisse, La Pomme Rouge and Sugar under his belt, Suqi hopes to share his mother Amni's traditional cooking with this latest venture.
The space is bright and airy, with Arabic movie posters and advertisements decorating the walls. The prices are modest and the menu offers plenty for meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans alike. The dinner menu also includes daily "Mama's Specials" like Koosa Mihshee and Mussakhkhan.
Seven dollars bought me a beautifully presented lentil soup ($3) and a falafel sandwich ($4). The service was excellent and the food was simple, tasty and satisfying.
West Town was in need of a restaurant to temper the plentiful bar food and fast food options in the area. Chickpea delivers serving high-quality middle eastern fare at reasonable prices.
2018 W Chicago Ave.
Chicago, IL 60622
Monday - Sunday, 11am to 10pm
If there's a time and place for a tropical drink big enough for four, served in a pearlescent porcelain conch shell with giant straws, January in Chicago is it.
The aptly named Rum Giggle arrived at our table near the end of the recent media dinner for Chicago's newly-opened Trader Vic's, 1030 N. State St. Three years ago, the city's previous incarnation of the famous tiki bar and restaurant, then-located at the Palmer House Hilton, closed its doors. For those who never made it there, the Rum Giggle sums up the Trader Vic's experience: festive and sophisticated, but with just the right touch of camp.
Read about Trader Vic's behemoth cocktail menu after the jump.
On New Years Day, a few of my friends and I decided to go out for a holiday brunch. After calling several bars in the Lakeview area and after being let down many times, O'Donovan's (2100 W. Irving Park Rd.) came to the rescue with a brunch special. Let me break it down for you: Multiple varieties of soup and salad, dinosaur-shaped chicken fingers, mac 'n cheese bites, biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, potatoes, scrambled eggs, beans, mini corn dogs, sausage, bacon, mini quiche, French toast, two types of pasta, veggie tray and sloppy joes. That was the first set of tables.
Move across the room to find every kind of fruit imaginable, yogurt, granola (amazing!), muffins, bagels, build your own omelet station, ham and roast beef (freshly carved), waffles (made-to-order), marshmallows, whipped cream. This all topped off with a fountain of chocolate.
I'm sure I'm forgetting a few items but this covers most of it - besides, what else could you ask for? This brunch special takes place every Sunday from 10 a.m. - 2 p.m.; all you can eat for $13.95. I highly recommend checking it out.
Swings to sit on, a sign promising unattended children an espresso and a free puppy, and vegan and non-vegan cupcakes in a bright and playful storefront full of board game players is Molly's Cupcakes on a Saturday night. I took the vegan chocolate cupcake with chocolate frosting - slightly fudgy with a soft, velvety topping - and a cup of decaf Intelligentsia so I wouldn't zip about into the night. I sat at the marble or marble-like counter, snapped a photo through the mirror in front of me, and chatted with a friend, being excited about just having stopped in at Dutch Bike Co. Chicago and the Lincoln Park Conservatory. 2536 N. Clark St., (773) 883-7220. Bus: 22 Clark, 36 Broadway.
A group of friends was going for brunch and invited me along. I immediately said yes, then asked the biggest question of all: "Where are we going?" The answer would make me darken the door of a restaurant I had hoped to never visit again: the Riverside Cafe.
Back in August, I made my first-ever visit to Ohio's Queen City, Cincinnati. Much to my surprise, I was completely blown away by the place--and especially by the chili. I can still picture the shocked look on Cincinnati Jamie's face as I scarfed down five-way after coney seemingly (okay, literally) at every Skyline and Gold Star chili parlor that we passed for three days. It wasn't until I got back to the Windy City that I discovered our one, lonely, yet exceedingly authentic Queen City chili joint. Dear Cinner's in Lincoln Square: you own me now.
A year ago, I was excited when the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant empire opened the third outlet of their modest Wow Bao Chinese (oh, excuse me, "Asian") bun chain at the corner of State and Lake, a five-minute walk from my house. Before they came to me, I'd often walk over at their postage-stamp-sized Mag Mile location at Water Tower Place for some barbeque pork buns and "homemade" ginger ale. I'm glad my walk is shorter now. If only the prices were more reasonable for some of the most popular items on the menu, the place would be perfect. For now, my advice is simple: hold the rice.
My German last name hides the fact that I'm a second generation Italian-American on my mother's side. And growing up, Christmas was usually spent with my mom's side of the family -- which meant meant Christmas Eve was far more important, celebration-wise than Christmas Day. Oh sure, we got our presents from Santa on the 25th, but Christmas Eve dinner was the highlight of the holiday season.
The dinner was always centered around lots of seafood; only later did I learn that it was a variation on the Feast of Seven Fishes, a traditional Italian Christmas Eve meal. By my count, we had at least that many: anchovies mixed into the breading on the stuffed artichokes; oysters Rockefeller; shrimp cocktail; fried calamari and smelts; and spaghetti with a gravy containing lobster, calamari, fresh cod (or other white fish) and baccalà (salt cod). Add to that antipasti, deviled eggs, salad, broccoli (always overcooked), scalloped potatoes, Italian sausage simmered in marinara, and whatever other dishes my grandmother, mother and aunts decided to make, and you've got quite a meal.
My favorite neighborhood restaurant I wouldn't wish on anyone. Well, at least not on the weekend. That's because Emerald Loop, the Vaughan Hospitality Irish pub on the ground floor of downtown Chicago's Jeweler's Building, is a little bit like Sybil. Just when you're ready to sing her praises, she dishes out something completely unexpected. And at times, awful.
A friend of mine has been raving about the breakfast at a Guatemalan restaurant, El Tinajon (2054 W Roscoe St.), in Roscoe Village for months now. A couple of weeks ago he took a few of us there to check it out. Chips and salsa for breakfast? This place won my heart immediately.
Back up a second - I started with a cup of coffee and let me tell you, it was the best coffee I've had since I was in Mexico some seven or eight years ago. Dark, smooth and with a hint of cinnamon - I think I had about seven cups. Accompanying the coffee (and on the house) was a glass of warm rice milk - fantastic!
For breakfast I had a delicious combination of tortilla chips, eggs, onions, salsa , cheese and black beans. These breakfast nachos have become my new favorite breakfast. For those who like more traditional breakfast food El Tinajon also offers pancakes, steak and egss and a variety of omelets.
The service was really great and the prices were pretty reasonable. If you're up for an unconventional breakfast, definitely check it out.
Brasserie Jo has been a culinary nemesis of mine for several years. Ever since first visiting Lettuce Entertain You's take on French casual dining for a sorely disappointing birthday dinner (things started well with a duck confit flatbread and hit an unpleasant wall with the Alsatian choucroute, a bland and boring house specialty), Jo has been on my list. Not the good list. I haven't had many bad meals in Chicago -- at least, not many from establishments where I'd been expecting better, and maybe I've taken it personally. But in a city where eating well can be so effortless, I feel like my disappointment has merit.
So I haven't been back. For over three years. I'm not great with second chances. And just recently, I got a notice about Brasserie Jo's new menu, unveiled at the beginning of November, and featuring such additions as striped bass with artichokes and a classic sounding braised calf's liver. I thought maybe things had changed. Maybe it was time to forgive and forget and forage on. Maybe I'd judged too harshly, too quickly. Or maybe not. More details on a reconciliation meal and the final verdict, after the fold.
If you've ever had to go to a reception in a church social hall following a mass or religious service, the idea of what constitutes a "refreshment" can boggle the mind. In my past, I've downed my fill of generic orange drink and bland grocery store donuts, and have perused the plastic trays of SuperValu brand vanilla sandwich cookies, heavily sighing, plate in hand, unrefreshed.
Things changed for me tonight as I entered the basement social hall after attending mass. Greeting me was what I always wanted to see in those drudgery-filled first Sundays of the month at Saint Robert's church in my hometown: plate after plate of cookies from Northlake's Ancona Bakery.
Ancona's is the kind of old school Italian bakery that specializes in the sweets that are familiar to an Italian-American: biscotti covered in chocolate and a dusting of pistachio nuts, lemon-covered taralli, crescents dotted with cherries, amaretti, coconut macaroons, crunchy sesame-covered cookies, and almond shortbread quickly disappeared off the tables over the course of an hour. The bakery also specializes in cannoli, breads and wedding cakes. Ancona's has been in business since 1937, a family-owned business that thrived in the city's west side at Chicago and Hamlin until a 1992 move to the suburbs. Sure, Northlake's a far hike from the city, but the product is worth the drive.
25 East North Avenue, Northlake
As food prices rise, more and more people are moving away from organic products and farmers' markets. But, according to a panel of seasoned organic-food experts at last weekend's Family Farmed Expo, there are ways to save money while still eating fresh, healthy foods.
Among the panelists were Lisa Kivirist, who runs Inn Serendipity, a sustainable, eco-friendly bed & breakfast near Monroe, Wisconsin. She said that she and her husband came to their farmstead 12 years ago with a roll of quarters, a roll of duct tape and a Rodale guide to farming, and they've learned to live richly off of the land around them. Laura Bruzas, founder and editor of the newsletter Healthy Dining Chicago was on hand, as were author and educator Bret Beall, from GOD-DESS lifestyle services, and moderator Irv Cernauskas, from grocery-delivery service Irv & Shelly's Fresh Picks.
After reading the heaps of praise bestowed on Avondale's Urban Belly (3053 North California), I made it over there this past weekend. While I'm a lukewarm fan of Asian cuisine, I was not disappointed by my meal. I started off with the Chinese eggplant in Thai basil, which on its own was a little tangy for my taste (the addition of rice from another dish helped dilute the Eggplant's bite). The dumplings with Asian squash and bacon were just so-so (and bordering on "meh"), but the pork and cilantro version was an absolute knockout -- a a dense little bundle of meaty goodness). The short rib and scallion rice dish also blew my hair back -- a small pile of spicy, sweet short ribs drizzled with crunchy fried onions and scallions atop a heap of rice.
Service was fast for a Sunday morning, the sparse, wooden interior is beautiful (I thought I was in an upscale place straight out of San Francisco when I walked in), and the prices were acceptable for the most part, although the $11-13 range for the noodle dishes seemed a little high. While Avondale seems like the last place you'd expect to get competent cuisine of this persuasion, if you get to Urban Belly and are dismayed by the wait, head over to -- and I'm not kidding -- Stadium West Lounge at 3188 North Elston; the bar has been renamed the Dragon Lady Lounge (although the signage outside hasn't been updated), and serves Korean delicacies such as bi-bim-bop and dumplings. Who knew?
Everyday we eat and if we're lucky, we eat well. If not, a pity. But when we eat exceedingly well as I just did, that's another story entirely. I have a hope that by documenting this phenomena so close to experiencing it, i'll be able to prolong the magic of the moment. Or at least get back to it by rereading this.
I've eaten there now about half a dozen times. It's always excellent, but somehow today it was even better than excellent. It just got to me on so many levels. Smell to start with. Primitive senses coursing through my body upon opening the door.
Brain synapses instantly flood my reptilian psyche, saying "me likey"!!!
Visually, a working class family-run storefront. There's thousands throughout Chicagoland and I'm certain that within a few, greatness resides. Maybe few and far between, but some of them have got it going on. That's part of the game. Searching for and ocassionally finding that ellusive, near unobtainable thing. Or quoting Guisspe Verdi "the pursuit of joys untasted".
Yes, it's Top Chef time again. Though with New York playing host this year and only one Chicago cheftestant, I already feel like some of the magic is gone. The never-ending cavalcade of Glad products, the ever-shifting landscape of Tom Colicchio's facial hair, Padma and her seductive temptress ways... And this year, self-proclaimed "Team Rainbow" has taken weeks of exciting guesswork off our hands. At least the food still looks as good, if not better, than ever.
Disclaimer: When an over-critical, hypersensitive chef (like myself) eats at a restaurant, it's hard to put that on the back burner (pardon the pun). While you can take the chef out of the kitchen it's harder to take the kitchen out of the chef. Imperceptible missteps which mean little or nothing to the uninitiated civilian can be elevated to deal breakers por moi.
One pea under the mattress ruins my sleep and makes me a tough customer. Not in a cruel or contemptuous way towards wait staff (very tacky), but most often as an aside to my dining companions.
For instance, I know how much the diver scallops cost by the each and the price of the starch, vegetables and sauce that may accompany them. I know when caramelized onion actually is caramelized or, all too often, simply sautéed trying to pass. Or the difference between wild mushrooms (foraged) and exotic mushrooms (cultivated) -- my particular nemesis and cross to bear.
A menu typo means negligence. A menu description that reads one way and a plate that delivers another is either an insult to the consumer's intelligence, proof of the chef's ignorance or a diabolical plot to cheat the patron.
In a home, I'm quite different, but not, alas, in a restaurant. In a word, I'm one picky bastard when I eat out. My friends, critics all, humor or ignore me. But this perspective can be useful here in this arena, that of food critic.
When asked if I'd be interested in reviewing Eve, I jumped at the opportunity. While I'd heard some good things about Chef Troy Graves, Meritage and Tallulah, I had no firsthand knowledge. That was about to change.
When I decamped from New York to the Windy City almost six years ago I did so with love, instantly going native on many things including food. Except for Italian beefs. Local friends still don't believe me when I try to explain neither Gothamites nor most other Americans grow up eating the juicy bovine wonders. They're a peculiarly Chicagoan palate-pleaser.
Until this year, you couldn't get me to touch one of the soggy sandwiches with a plastic-wrapped ten-foot pole (with or without a wet-nap). Then pastry-chef Chris dragged me to Johnnie's Beef in near-west suburban Elmwood Park and much like my relationship with the flat shores of Lake Michigan, it was love at first sight. Well, bite really.
I work in River North and my lunch options are scarce. Luckily for me, Mr. Beef (666 N. Orleans St.) is just around the corner. I've honestly never had anything except the Italian Beef and I don't think that will change in the near future. Definitely the best Italian Beef I've had in Chicago - shaved meat, lots of peppers (hot and sweet) and incredibly juicy. And, it's cheap. If you're in the neighborhood, check it out. Downfalls: Really messy (nothing a few napkins can't fix) and cash only.
It is just my luck that an excellent new bar moves into Logan Square just when I move out. Though, if the brains behind the Whistler had it their way, the establishment might have opened months ago.
In Chicago, the build-out of a business needs to be complete before the city will begin inspections and issue business, tavern, or alcohol licenses. After such an enormous personal investment, I can't imagine the horror of being denied such permits. A misguided Logan Square resident convinced dozens upon dozens of neighbors to sign a petition to block the bar, claiming it would be an unsavory addition to the neighborhood.
Thanks to some legal representation and lots of door-knocking, the owners (who also happen to be Logan Square residents) convinced the community to give them the go-ahead. After just a few weeks, business is going well. The low-lights, blue hues, church pews, and wood bar create a stylish watering hole. The space is small, but the outdoor patio can increase capacity in more forgiving weather. The bar doubles as a no-cover music venue for live music (Sunday - Wednesday) and DJs (Thursday - Saturday).
The cocktail menu changes seasonally. When I visited we sampled the Rosemary Gin & Tonic, Hibiscus Sour, and Sazerac. All were delicious and offered at the very reasonable price of $8. The bottled beer menu includes selections from craft breweries like Bell's and Great Lakes and -- perhaps best of all -- they also stock $2 Pabst cans.
2421 N Milwaukee Ave
(between Fullerton Ave & Richmond St)
I had strolled into Blind Faith looking for a treat and was pretty sure of my selection once I saw the display case, but it was too easy bait. I asked for help, and the cashier steered me another way. A certain vegan cappuccino brownie was looking right at me from behind the glass. A whole troop of them were there, all in formation on a tray, and all luring me over with the thick chocolate bases that I imagined to be luscious, fudgy experiences. Each also had a lighter-looking layer, both in color and density, which must have been the cappuccino. This made me think of some ultimate creaminess, under a topping of a thick, soft chocolate. Still, I doubted the brownie, perhaps because I had now loaded it with enormous expectations that would be hard to fulfill.
I asked the cashier for help. Shall I get the vegan cappuccino brownie or the vegan peanut butter chocolate cake? He wasn't shy about his preference for the cake. But what was the vegan cappuccino brownie like? I don't think he answered that follow-up question directly, but expressed that in his opinion the vegan peanut butter chocolate cake was the best of all the vegan options. Perhaps he was right, but I left wondering about the other vegan treats. There's a thick round dessert labeled vegan chocolate mousse, vegan chocolate cake, a vegan vanilla cupcake that is a toasty looking cupcake topped with swirls of chocolate frosting, a vegan chocolate cupcake with plenty of white frosting, and vegan cornbread. Of course, there are plenty of non-vegan choices, too. But I have my focus.
The Fixx Coffee Bar represents everything I love about coffee shops. Great drinks and food, cozy atmosphere and good music - it is truly a neighborhood cafe. Everyone seems very comfortable doing their thing, whether it be reading, working, playing games or visiting with friends, Located at 3053 N. Sheffield, Fixx offers free wi-fi, open mic nights and a cup of coffee that won't break the bank.
This charming memoir captures Julia Child's first impressions of France and the joyful adventures she found in her adopted homeland.
Child was first introduced to France in 1948 when she moved to Paris with her husband and Foreign Service Officer, Paul. The book follows Child through the early days of the Cordon Bleu, the intense creative process that ultimately bore Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and the cultural differences between French and United States cooks during the '50s.
This book is a highly recommended companion for these bountiful fall days.
As was noted in Merge earlier this week, Potbelly has introduced a new sandwich, the Clubby, to compete with the extra meat options at Quizno's and Subway. The Clubby contains ham, turkey, bacon, provolone cheese and ranch dressing, which is 30 percent more meat than Potbelly's other sandwiches. But how does it stack up compared with what most people would consider Potbelly's previously "biggest" sandwich, the Wreck? Here's a side-by-side comparison, with the Clubby on the right:
You can see that there's more meat (primarily turkey) for a meatier sandwich. But unlike the adding extra meat to a Subway or Quizno's sub, the flavor balance of the Clubby isn't thrown off -- it remains a well balanced bite. And it's not so much larger than I felt stuffed and bloated after eating it, which is a good thing for office workers in fear of falling asleep at their desks from food coma.
The Clubby is $5.39, compared with $4.19 for Potbelly's other sandwiches, but if you skip the chips, you'll hardly notice the price difference -- or the extra calories.
Ethel's Chocolates is offering a limited edition box of tea infused chocolates. The warm combination of silky chocolate with spicy teas creates a decadent seasonal treat. The box includes: Earl Grey, Citrus, Spiced Chai, Sweet Rose, Jasmine, and Tropical Green. The Earl Grey flavor was the favorite in our house. A box of 24 retails for $32. At over a buck a chocolate, the collection is a bit pricey, but the flavors will be a fun change of pace for chocolate lovers.
Sauces are the cornerstone of my culinary experience, both at home and when eating out. I appreciate a good sauce when I come across it, savoring it, letting it do its job while at the same time, I'm trying to figure out what it's made of.
In my fridge, the door shelves are stacked with sauces of all kinds. Hot sauces, Asian cooking sauces, dressings, bases, you name it, I'll have it.
Recently, two bottles of Country Bob's All Purpose Sauce found their way to me. I'd never heard of it before though the bottle looked familiar. I'm sure, nestled amongst the dozens of bottles that line grocery shelves, this sauce sat, incognito, its more flashy and designed bottles shouting for my attention instead.
Chicago might have its fill of cupcake places, but a new one opened this past weekend that offers a new version of the precious treats. More, located in the Gold Coast (1 East Delaware), offers a compelling array of both sweet and savory cupcakes. A few Drive-Thru staffers recently met at More, which is located in a tiny space nestled next to a Starbucks (how fitting). The stark interior of More looks more like the set of a Kraftwerk music video than a bake shop, but the offerings are colorful. We were smitten with a BLT cupcake, whose Ranch dressing frosting was dusted with a slice of Heirloom tomato and microgreens. The Madras Curry cupcake was a delicious experience, with its goat cheese frosting and blackberry topping.
More's menu offers a greater number of sweet cupcakes, but only a few of them really shone, notably their Salted Caramel, Pink Grapefruit and Peach Barbecue. More also sells decent versions of a Red Velvet, carrot/ginger and a molten chocolate cupcake for the less adventurous consumer. Pastry genius Gale Gand collaborated with owner Patty Rothman to develop More's recipes, and the products are obviously interesting and attractive. The store's real mastery is in the unexpected flavors of their savory offerings, so don't overlook the other side of the flavor coin when you visit--but you won't be disappointed either way.
When I moved into my apartment about a year ago, I immediately noticed a small restaurant called Mellos on the corner of Clark and Dickens. It stuck out like a sore thumb in the shiny, pretty Lincoln Park neighborhood - florescent lights, bright signs and a slightly run-down building. I suppose, being new to the area, this is partly why I had low expectations; I didn't know any better. Yet, I was drawn to it - how could I not be?
Having frequented Mellos multiple times in the past year, I'm happy to tell you that my initial skepticism was unwarranted. It's a refreshing break from the upscale, trendy restaurants that populate the LP. I have tried a lot of things on the menu - pizza puffs, burgers and fries and Italian beef, all of them worth stopping in for, but most of the time I go straight for the gyro.
With plenty of moist meat, slices of onion and wedges of tomato topped with delicious tzatziki all wrapped in warm pita bread, the gyro has truly won my heart. Mellos has too, the staff is very friendly and the food is cheap. If you're in search of good, greasy food at a neighborhood joint, definitely check it out.
The building at the corner of Diversey and Rockwell has housed a few short-lived restaurants. The location is easy to overlook, as it's close to a noisy, litter-strewn I-90 overpass and also on a street that is frequently jammed with traffic. While it's not pictured as the perfect spot for a quiet meal, Kayla's Ristorante, the building's current tenant, provides what I was looking for in a mid-week dinner: dimmed lighting and decently priced Italian food.
We each ordered a lemonade (tangy or sweet for $2) and decided to split four of the small dishes. We started with the house made pickled vegetables for $4 and the baby potato salad in spicy mustard and bleu cheese for $4.
The pickle plate contained some wonderful pickled okra, a nice medium-spiced kimchi, and pickled daikon radish that we found so over-powering that we didn't finish it. The potato salad balanced the bold flavors of bleu cheese and mustard well. I am going to try to recreate this pleasing combination at home.
Many of the chocolatiers were based in the Chicago-area. These entrepreneurial individuals ranged from professionally trained chefs to a suburban mother of five. Click through to see more photos of the event and to hear about our favorite selections.
Some restaurants are like Sybil: some people love them, others aren't fans and it's confusing to try and figure them out. A recent client lunch in Wicker Park gave me the chance to try and get to the bottom of the love/hate relationship many of my friends have with the hipster hood's Italian eatery, Francesca's Forno.
For a chain restaurant to locate in the middle of indie-oriented Wicker Park is a brave move. (There are 14 other "Francesca's Family" restaurants across Chicagoland, mostly in the suburbs). The most worrisome advance comment I had heard about the place came from a local who told me, "I'm never impressed, but my husband loves the place. I asked him why once. He said because he was full." But Yelpers seem to like the food, so I knew there had to be a middle ground somewhere. Perhaps the place was just a contradiction in terms?
My clients were 45 minutes late, so there was much time to peruse the sizable lunch menu. It seemed am ambitious list of selections for a Noontime meal, with no fewer than 43 items to choose from among cold and warm anitipasti, pastas, pizzas, grilled paninne, and cheese-and-meat pairings. For a moment, I flashed on the opening of every episode of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.
There are two kinds of New York City pizza: the good kind; and the kind my mother warned me about during my Queensborough childhood. They're both authentic. Trouble is, oftentimes in the Chicago area, eateries settle for serving up the latter. On an accidental road trip today, I sampled the best and the worst Gotham-style pizza on offer in Chicagoland.
My foodie friend, Jamie, and I had intended to end up at the Botanic Garden in Glencoe. Ninety-degree weather in the northern suburbs had us ditch that plan fast. We opted for a North Shore lunch, instead. I had been meaning to try the lately much-ballyhooed New York-style pizza at Highland Park's recently opened New York Slices and Jamie, a recent Cincinnati expat, had never had the experience of a good Gotham slice. So we pulled up the pizzeria's Yelp listing, pointed our iPhone Google Map apps to it and off we went.
The press on the place promised a pizzeria experience like I had grown up with: floppy thin crust pies; garlic knots; black-and-white cookies; and Marino's Italian Ices, complete with their cute little wooden tongue depresser-shaped spoons. Walking in, the place looked like home. Pre-cooked slices sitting behind a glass counter shield, waiting for the order to be warmed up.
You'd think, being a fan of all three, that Bloody Marys would be right up my alley. Wrong. I've been on a hunt for the past four years to find a Bloody Mary that I actually like. Every three or four months I'll order one, only to be disappointed (and completely baffled - I SHOULD like these). I was about to come to terms with the fact that I just don't like the combination of the three when I found myself ordering a Bloody Mary at The Globe Pub.
Some friends and I frequent The Globe Pub on Saturday mornings to watch English Premier League football. That particular morning, I couldn't bring myself to drink a Carlsberg so I decided to give Bloody Marys one more shot. For the first time in four years I was not let down. Just enough spice and the perfect combination of tomato juice and vodka. Garnished with a lemon, lime and two green olives this cocktail has renewed my faith in the popular hangover remedy. The food at The Globe is pretty great too. And the football - don't forget the football.
The Globe Pub
1934 W. Irving Park Rd.
How far is too far for a restaurant? Five miles? Ten? Twenty? How about 90?
I'm a lazy ass who generally wants her kibble within easy reach of her lair. (This is why I usually end up eating at the just-passable Thai restaurant on the corner after a busy day.) But when it comes to barbecue, I travel far. Way too far. Ninety miles.
I know Orange on Harrison's claims to fame are its delicately constructed rice-and-fruit sushi ("Frushi", pictured) and weekly pancake flights: four mounds of mini-pancakes smothered in a pun of flavors. (This week's schtick, French Dessert toppings: tarte tartin sauteed apples; baba au rhum rum syrup; au'chocolat chocolate ganache and napoleon sweetened ricotta and strawberry anglaise).
I prefer my morning sugar infused in a cup or three of strong coffee. So usually when I hit my favorite downtown brunch palace, I go for the savory side of the menu. At my second of two visits to the eatery this week, the waitress pegged me from my pleading request. "You've been coming here since before we changed cooks, right?"
Right, but I didn't know about the change. A year ago, a staffer told me the eatery was trying to save money by metering butter out only to those who asked for it.
Since then, whenever I've ordered a grilled cheese (my favorite: mild melted white cheddar and mozzarella gluing together two pieces of earthy marbled Rye, zested up with tomato and bacon), or on my rare sweet-tooth mornings, the popular French Toast Kabobs (honey-drizzled coconut French toast and fruit on skewers), I've layed on the begging for an adequate amount of butter to be applied to my meal's griddle of origin. It's long been the only way to make Orange on Harrison's grilled creations more palatable than chewing on cardboard.
The perfect pizza. It seems everyone has one. And those who don't are on a quest to find one. I had mine in St. Paul before I moved to Chicago. I could (and sometimes did) eat it multiple times a day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.When I moved to Chicago, I embraced the deep-dish pizza. And I like it, I really do. But I missed the thin-crust perfection I had enjoyed so much in Minnesota.
Last weekend I found myself standing in front of Angela's Burrito Style and Café Luigi on Clark Street in Lincoln Park. When the group chose Café Luigi, I reluctantly followed, trying to imagine the taste of chicken tacos from Angela's (delicious).
Much to my surprise, Café Luigi serves the best pizza I've had in Chicago and reminds me exactly of the pizza I used to look forward to when visiting my good friend is Boston. I'll admit, the sight of lukewarm pizza sitting under lights and then re-heated took me awhile to get used to. But these guys know what they're doing. Thin crust, amazing sauce, plenty of cheese and just the right amount of grease.
Added bonus: a slice of cheese pizza is less than $3.
Seeking a northern escape from downtown Air & Water Show crowds, foodie partner-in-crime Jamie and I found ourselves at Andersonville's Algerian crepe joint, Icosium Kafe. Opened in spring 2007 as the second outpost of the eatery's mother ship down the street in Lincoln Park, Drive-Thru first dropped in last November and found the place to plate up some out-of-the-ordinary crepe creations.
More used to the thickly sauced, velvety goodness found inside French- or Québécois-style crepes, I reserved judgment for the vegetable-heavy Algerian variety I was about to experience. The menu offers more than half-a-dozen savory and sweet crepes all for under $10.
Shikago, the chic Asian restaurant on the first floor of 190 S. La Salle, opened around this time last year to overwhelmingly positive reviews from serious amateurs and semi-serious professionals alike. I admit, I drank Kool Aid (not literally -- I think I drank water and black tea) and was happy to count it among my favorite downtown eats, even if I didn't get there as often as I would have liked.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. My most recent trip, after a long absence, was one of the most disappointing lunch experiences I've had in the Loop in a really long time. And yes, that includes a stop at The Great Steak and Potato.
The dining room was still cool and dark, and seemed full of happy lunch-goers, so perhaps I'm judging too harshly the wrong section of the restaurant. But the take-out counter was a train wreck. One harried cook was rushing to fulfill an order for a cranky woman who claimed to have placed an order for pick-up 20 minutes ago, as two bored-looking sushi chefs looked on and tried not to get involved. When another kitchen denizen finally materialized to lend a hand, I was skipped in line, despite standing patiently for 15 minutes. A small tantrum got me service, but only after I'd seen the original cook scoop out short ribs from one of Cranky Lady's to-go bento boxes, replace them in their deli case bin, and sub in some barbeque pork. It may not be a health code violation, but come on dude, at least do it out of sight. If the food had been worth this irritation, I probably wouldn't be complaining. But the tofu tomato and cucumber was all water with little flavor, and the spinach salad (which totally looked like seaweed salad, and how would anyone be the wiser, as nothing in the case is labeled) tasted like a dirty dish sponge. Yeeegh. At least the smoky barbeque pork, sticky with an almost chocolate-y five-spice glaze, was still delicious. But I don't know if it was enough for me to consider going back. What a disappointment.
Now that my heart is no longer aflutter and my breathing has returned to normal, I'm clear-headed enough to write about the encased meat sandwich that lured me to Hot Doug's on Friday. Kevin Haas won Time Out Chicago's contest to have his hot dog made and sold at Hot Doug's. It admittedly wasn't the sandwich I voted for, but I was delighted to try it anyway. I love the concept of combining a variety of different ethnic cuisines into one meal. And it almost works really well. But only almost.
The chorizo sausage is one of the best I've had. It packs a lot of flavor and spice in each bite, and it's not so greasy that you end up with orange juice running down your chin which was nice. Fat may add flavor, but too much fat flattens the flavor and ruins the taste. The spiciness of the chorizo was expected and enjoyable for the first couple of bites, but the spice of the sausage combined with the chili mustard quickly became overpowering and drowned out the flavors of the Asian pear chutney and the paneer. Which was a shame, because the chutney was heavenly and made only better by the chili mustard. The paneer was fried, which I hoped would add a little flavor to an otherwise bland, but soothing, cheese. Unfortunately, the paneer was cold when it was placed on top of the sausage, and served in large chunks, so they mostly fell off while I was eating. If the cheese had been in smaller pieces, so they stayed on top of the sandwich, or if the cheese had been soft and melty so it stuck to the sausage, I think the paneer would have provided the cooling sensation that it provides in many Indian dishes.
So while I had a very, very enjoyable lunch and would even end up ordering this sandwich again, I'd probably split it with someone because by the end of the sandwich all I tasted was the chorizo. Thankfully the ingestion of duck fat fries (which are so amazingly good) provided enough grease to counteract some of the spice so I could eat without sniffling while sitting just a few feet from Anthony Bourdain. Maybe I'm not done swooning after all.
I'm still in that post-adolescent, pre-"adult" space where, full-disclosure, free food is a major motivational force. So the prospect of a media dinner at Devon Seafood Grill (not to be confused with Devahhhn the street, but rather pronounced after the British seaport) was tempting. But tempered with skepticism. I've walked past the place since it's opened, but have always allowed myself to assume the worst about it. So close to the Mag Mile, so bright and trendy looking -- I assumed it had to be Cheesecake Factory with fish. Which was unappealing on a couple different levels. But the gratuity got the better of me, and I signed on to cover the event. Not to spoil the ending, but I was dead wrong, and Devon is in fact a great alternative to other tourist-trapping Gold Coast restaurants, and probably deserves more tourist and local attention than it currently gets. More details below the fold.
When Urban Cafe, a new breakfast-lunch-and-dinner spot, opened down the block from our apartment at 1467 W. Irving Park a couple of weeks ago, my husband and I were thrilled. We love our neighborhood, but the lack of a coffee-and-eggs joint within walking distance has been a bummer on Saturday mornings, especially since we had great options like S&G and Wishbone near our old place.
Urban Cafe is a sunny spot with a friendly owner. We've visited twice, the first time on a weekday for to-go coffees and the most decadent chocolate ganache brownie I've ever had. I told my husband that if he is ever in the dog house with me, he'll have a much better chance of getting out if he gets me one of those brownies.
I have a serious love/hate relationship with the Armitage #73 bus. It travels near a lot of places I regularly visit, so I end up taking it often; however, it is irritatingly undependable.
During my last trip on the #73, I saw Calvin's BBQ, which is nestled on the corner of Stave and Armitage in a rather cute, dainty little building. I had read some promising reviews of the place in other publications, so I decided I needed to make a visit. I called my adventurous pal C and made a date to get some BBQ.
Calvin's has a nice back patio, where we sat among a small but steady stream of customers. We were given menus. We studied and made our choices (the cheeseburger for me, as I had heard glowing reviews, and the BBQ chicken sandwich for her). We waited. Many minutes passed. Finally, the unsmiling counter clerk who was doing double duty as a waitress came out and took our orders. She gave us one plastic cup of water. Just one. Perhaps Calvin's has a commitment to eco-friendly service. In the way that life works, what seemed like a million #73 buses floated past us in both directions.
I want to say that the food was memorable, but all C and I concluded was that Calvin's food was painfully average. My cheeseburger was pretty large and certainly passable; if I had cooked it on my electric kitchen grill at home, I'd be impressed with myself, but it wasn't particularly flavorful. C likened her sandwich to something she would have eaten in a school cafeteria. The location is great, the prices reasonable, but Calvin's wasn't as tasty as I had hoped. C and I parted ways, and I began to walk home, sated but a little unsatisfied, and hoping to digest the meal that was settling in my stomach like a lead weight. A bus passed, but I didn't chase it.
In these lean times, I like to brew my own coffee at home to save some change. However, the process can be trickier in the summer when what I really want is iced coffee. Here are some tips I've picked up along the way:
First, the guys at Intelligentsia's Randolph Street location tell me that my brewing method is perfect: I just make a pot of coffee like I always do, nice and strong. They recommend avoiding darker roasts, which don't taste as good on ice.
Once the coffee is ready, I pour a big glass and stick it in the freezer. By the time I'm finished showering, the coffee isn't exactly cold, but it's not piping hot, either. I fill my thermos with ice cubes made from coffee leftover from the previous day, and then pour in my chilled coffee and a spot of half and half.
Lately, I've been sweetening the brew with a homemade almond simple syrup. I bring one-third of a cup of water and one-third of a cup of sugar to a boil, then let it simmer for just a couple of minutes until the sugar dissolves completely. I take the pot off the heat and stir in a bit of almond flavoring to taste.
Incidentally, Intelligentsia's new summer drink, GG's Horchata -- rice milk, espresso, simple syrup and a dash of cinnamon -- is a refreshing change of pace on days when I don't feel like firing up my pot at home.
I walked in toward a line of people wrapping away from the counter at Freshii, and then I was led into place by one of many helpful greeters. I was about to taste creamy tahini sauce over steamy brown basmati rice. She asked me if this was my first time. It was. She had stepped back and pulled a clipboard with an order form from on or near a wall. Three sections on the paper were calling out to be completed, plus a spot for my initials in two boxes in the upper left corner. This was a task that I thought that I could certainly accomplish with no real effort, but I was wrong.
Just as I'd breezed through the first part of Step 1, the order form illuded me like a surprise question on a high school final exam. I'd wanted a bowl - not a salad, salad-wrap or soup. That much I knew. But I had no idea what to write in the "type" section next to "chef designed." I could skip down to Step 2 and choose my own toppings, but this is not what I'd come in for. I'd seen something on their online menu that looked good. My helpful greeter was still here, and dashed off to bring me a large, glossy menu with the listings. She was like a temporary personal assistant, filling in the rest of the form for me when I couldn't fend for myself. A check in Step 3 went for chili powder, another check for tahini sauce, and "regular" got circled to indicate I didn't want to deviate from the standard amount of sauce. Soft tender avocado chunks made me a fan of the Power House bowl immediately, as did the optional chili powder, but they could have mixed the sauce more to distribute it evenly throughout the rice, tofu, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, tomatoes and red onions. It was perfect on top, and it all tasted super fresh, but the sauce wasn't plentiful towards the bottom. Maybe I just needed to check the box for "heavy" sauce, and then try to mix it myself without overflowing the tight constraints of the little box it came in.
I handed my form to someone at one end of the counter, strolled in line to the other side to pay, and then waited for my initials to be called. I'd chosen a bag of spicy salt and peppered crinkle cut Kettle Chips and a bag of dark chocolate covered coffee beans from an extensive selection of chips, fruit, popcorn, Cliff bars and licorice.
Outside, a band played as I sat at a patio table aside the lawn out front at 311 S. Wacker and gazed up at the Sears Tower next door. The music continues through the summer Wednesdays from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Here's the plan, from building management: July 2 - Mr. Blotto; July 9 - Maryann and the Professors; July 16 - Diver; July 23 - Goodfoot; July 30 - Waterhouse; August 6 - Jack Straw; August 13 - Angel in the Solar System; August 20 - Gareth Woods Band; August 27 - Lynn Jordan & the Shivers.
If, when you when you walk into a new restaurant on a weekday evening, Rick Tramonto is sitting in the window enjoying his dinner...chances are it's going to be a decent meal. Of course, if you have poor eyesight and do not immediately notice Mr. Tramonto in the softly lit confines of Mado, (or even have lingering doubts over the strenuous but whispered protests of your all-but pointing and waving dining companions) you are probably still going to have a more than decent eating experience.
With its exposed brick, wood and gleaming stone appointments, and excellent locally sourced, clean and simple Italian cuisine, Mado is edging fine, trattoria-style dining ever further north on Milwaukee. More details on a great meal, after the fold.
Sirène has a beautiful deep emerald hue. The aroma boasts a very pungent anise, with some citrus and pine notes. The highly herbal flavor is spicy and well-balanced. It tastes delicious neat, but is also refreshing in the traditional "La Louche" style. Mix 3 parts very cold distilled water with 1 part absinthe (or alternatively, add 3 ice cubes to your absinthe for a slow transformation). The absinthe will mellow slightly, allowing you to better taste the myriad herbal flavors. It will also take on a beautiful opalescence as it clouds.
You won't experience any of the purported psychoactive effects, but at 60% ABV you could easily get quite drunk.
According to chef partner Kevin Dusinski, the addition of the brunch menu to Roy's downtown outpost was to take advantage of the Sunday morning traffic created by the church across the street. Or at least, that was the plan until the church closed. (Okay, to be fair, the Holy Name Cathedral isn't exactly closed, but seems to have shut its doors on State Street during its $8 million renovation campaign.) As the Sunday morning plans of me and many others like me more often include opening a menu than a hymnal, however, I doubt Roy's will have any trouble bringing in the brunch traffic with their Hawaiian inflected takes on weekend morning favorites, and a prix-fixe menu that can be upgraded from three courses (at $26.95) to three courses plus bottomless mimosas ($38.95). Bottomless. Without bottom. Think about it. More deliciousness after the fold.
We join Bravo in the middle of the Iongest recap in history. It has a countdown!
Three Drive-Thruers are better than one. Lori, Robyn and Andie bring you: the Top Chef finale. Oh, the pressure, the heat, the memory montage of our favorite moments this season (Stephanie’s shaking hands, Lisa’s rice debacle... sorry, debacles). At least the final three cheftestants get breakfast while contemplating their impending fate – mmm, Richard’s eggs smell good! But he doesn’t think Lisa should win.
The remaining Top Chef Chicago episodes may no longer be taking place in our fair city, with only one more show remaining after tonight before a new winner is crowned, but Stephanie Izard is still representing the Chi down Puerto Rico way -- and representing how flushed and uncomfortable Midwesterners look in the tropics. Work that rosy glow, sister! This week the Top Chef kitchen, more exponentially more cramped and sweaty than ever before, sizzled, sneered, and ultimately surprised in a little episode I like to call "There Will be Pigs." Oh yes, here come the meat sweats.
The heat is ON in the Top Chef kitchen, as was the pressure for me to invade someone's home and steal their cable to tune in last night. With only one more elimination before the final four take off for Puerto Rico, the tension was sizzling on set -- and what better way to characterize the bloody battle that is American reality television, than carving up giant hunks of red meat. Aw yeah, America, Top Chef takes out its butcher knives and throws down at the pass of one of Chicago's own. Better late than never, here's your recap.
Ed. Note: Mucho spoilers lie ahead, my friend. You've been warned!
It’s down to six chefs in the Ikea-furnished Lakeview house … three with an actual future on the show, one hanging by the skin of his ego (Spike) and two surly backstabbers, one of which will surely be packing his or her knives within the viewing hour.
But first, it’s the Quickfire Challenge. At the crack of dawn. This week there’s no time for shots of the chefs brushing their teeth and mourning the loss of last week’s loser. Tom Colicchio tiptoes into the house at 5:45 am, and gets the sleepy chefs out of bed so they can go to Lou Mitchell’s to fry some eggs.
My husband and I visited friends in Indianapolis last weekend and, frankly, we didn't expect to find anything of culinary note. I grew up in Indiana. Sweet corn season aside, it's not exactly an epicurean epicenter.
But we stumbled upon a little gem that I'm going to share with the throngs of people headed south for the Indy 500 this weekend: snag an outdoor table at the Brugge Brasserie and order the fries.
Another brisk morning at the Green City Market! If you weren't one of the shivery shoppers strolling Lincoln Park in your parka, you missed even more yumminess than last week. Here are some of the highlights from this week's shopping trip:
Red oakleaf lettuce and McCullars' onions from Kinnickinnick Farms
Apple cinnamon pies from Bennison's Bakery in Evanston
Newcomer Heritage Prairie Market's delicate green garlic and plump pea shoots
Nest-laid eggs and pasture-farmed chicken from Genesis Farms
Brunkow Cheese's raw milk products and heavenly grilled cheese
Spigarello, gray shallots and cavolo nero from Green Acres
And everyone's rhubarb!
Strawberries will be coming to the market soon. So, what's your strawberry-rhubarb pie/buckle/crumble/bar recipe?
Ada's is a familiar lunch spot for many East Loop cube-dwellers, who stop in for decidedly straightforward and affordable takes on diner classics, such as matzo ball soup and the turkey club. Worker bees in the know hit up the joint's 14 Karat Lounge (14 S. Wabash) after hours, to get all that Ada's menu has to offer, plus some of that sweet, sweet nectar.
On a recent visit, I wanted my nectar extra sweet, so I ordered a mai tai. Paired with my usual veggie omelette from Ada's menu, it made for a grown-up twist on a.m. OJ and eggs. The ability to order breakfast for dinner with a tropical drink cocktail isn't all the 14 Karat Lounge has going for it. An unpretentious crowd, baskets of buttery popcorn on every table, and perhaps the most enthusiastic, hardest-working bartender in the Loop give the place a special lustre. My only suggestion is that they turn down the music a couple of notches to make the lounge a less deafening option for friends who want to catch up after work over a drink.
We dashed for ice cream: espresso Oreo, strawberry and vanilla chocolate chip - all vegan. Two friends and I had just finished dinner using veggies from Green City, when we realized we needed a treat. One of them called. How late are you open, he asked? 9 p.m. We were soon walking down North Avenue, wandering if fast enough. A few traffic lights slowed us down. Some 21 minutes remaining ticked down to ten. We were those last minute customers, but the staff gladly obliged. The cones were vegan. I took the sugar cone - the one I remember loving from childhood indulgences two and three scoops deep. He momentarily left for the cone, and then returned telling me that he'd double-checked to make sure it was vegan - so nice. Each of us took a different flavor. I sampled all three before deciding. The vanilla chocolate chip tasted the fullest to me, with a nice round flavor. All were smooth, and the espresso had a nice coffee flavor. The strawberry was the scooper-man's fav, he enthusiastically told us. Most importantly, each of us liked our flavor the best. My two pals had planned to work out, and they did. I walked with them to their gym. Cardio was next up after dinner and vegan ice cream. Just Indulge, 1755 W. North Ave., (773) 486-6680.
Thus far Top Chef has served Bears fans, Lincoln Square block partiers, and Second City players. Could the CPD really be that far behind? (Upcoming episode suggestions, before we run out of time and end up in the islands: snacks on the CTA, actually gourmet Garrett's, and some foie-gras carryout delivered to Alderman Joe Moore. Zing!) My personal programming aside, the majority of Chicago's policemen and women probably do deserve a good meal and a PR pat on the collective back in a year where less than their finest have hogged the spotlight. And nothing says "appreciation" like a microwavable meal. Mmm mmm good.
Today marked the re-opening of the Green City Market in Lincoln Park. Scores of Chicagoans braved the threat of morning rain to check out this season's early bounty.
Fave farms such as Kinnickinick, Nichols and Green Acres were heavy on greens, including fresh watercress, beet greens and lettuce mixes, as well as herbs from garlic chives to spearmint. Some fun finds included breakfast radishes, garlic greens and rapini.
There are eight chefs left in the running for big money from the makers of Glad products, a spread in Food & Wine magazine and other name-brand prizes (including the name Top Chef). Antonia notes that this is the first time since the series started that there are the same number of women and men this far along in the competition. All the chefs are getting tenser, but they’re also getting closer. In the opening moments of the show, Spike and Andrew share a hug of sadness over Mark’s departure, until the mood shifts suddenly to joy, because Andrew gets to take over Mark’s spot next to Spike’s hat-festooned bed.
Then it’s on to the reality element of this fantasy show, starting with the Quickfire challenge. This time, Padma says, the chefs will have to tackle a challenge from last season: the relay race. And the judges are going to up the ante. The winner of the Quickfire challenge will no longer get immunity.
Editor's Note: Spoilers here, spoilers everywhere...you've been warned.
Thus far on Top Chef, we've seen tempers aplenty, back stories galore, and ever-inflating food budgets. Not to mention some really hateful hats, touching and just plain weird moments of homoeroticism, and that awesome pocket smoker contraption. So it's been a pretty well-rounded season. But this evening's episode achieved a new richness by adding some unexpected components. Namely, children (and the ticking of some surprising biological clocks), tears, and a ten dollar bill. Not to mention Art Smith, and Uncle Ben. Like you'd expect that combination. Leave it to Padma to befuddle you with product placement and yank on the ol' heartstrings at the same time. Saucy.
Editor's/Pirate's Note: Our Top Chef recaps are candid. Here be spoilers, arrgh!
Let us be very clear: I am not a vegetarian. I am a bacon-loving, steak-charring, carnivorous foie gras advocate if ever there was one. I'm hard pressed to cook anything that doesn't get an extra protein kick from an animal. And it should go without saying I'm about as far from a vegan as a puma. But I've been eating at the new Veggie Bite location on Milwaukee kind of a lot lately. And I'm kind of into it.
I'd like to think I came into Veggie Bite biased, but evenly on both the pros and cons. I'd read some seriously mixed reviews, but also heard some excited interest from among my vegetarian friends. Yes, it's a fully vegan restaurant bringing some pretty restricted dining options down to the average hungry hoi polloi, but at the end of the day, it's just fast food, so how good can it really be? With these qualifiers in the back of my mind, I've now tried Veggie Bite's cheeseburger, cheese fries, nachos, and chicken nuggets, and had tastes of their wrap and milkshakes. (Of course, "cheese," "burger," "chicken," and "milk" are all theoretical terms in this context). For fast food, it's not bad in the slightest. The nachos and cheese fries come slathered in something called Golden Sauce, which does a fair job resembling the barely-dairy cheese sauce at a regular fast food stop. The fake chicken in the nuggets was just as good, if not better, than what I've been avoiding eating at McDonald's for years -- and no troubling, unexpected shards of rock-hard unidentified chicken substance (which are why I'd stopped eating regular nuggets in the first place). I was really impressed with the burger as well, which had the flavor and texture of a single patty nailed -- Golden Sauce replaced the requisite slice of melted American, but it worked. The shakes may be on the sweet side, but they avoid that melted ice cream taste that I always associate with Tofutti.
Granted, there are problems with the service (it's slooooowwwww, my goodness, and on my second visit, my chix-free nuggets seemed to break the deep-fryer and force the folks in line behind me to rethink their dinner options), and the Milwaukee outpost looks like it could be a kindergarten classroom in its free time. But for a fairly cheap snack or dinner on the fly, I'll certainly consider Veggie Bite among my options from now on. Way to go, vegetarians -- you may be onto something.
Week seven on Top Chef: There are ten chefs remaining, and as Andrew points out, it’s a bit uglier in the house, at least in the boys’ part of the house, now that Ryan has been sent home. And, as Antonia notes, there’s no more room for error. Not that there ever was. But mostly what week seven means is that Spike dons a seventh hat.
The opening moments, normally spent with the cheftestants as they relax at home, are very brief. The chefs climb out from under their brightly colored Ikea duvets on their Ikea bunkbeds, somberly button their Top Chef coats and head to the kitchen for the Quickfire Challenge.
Editor's Note: FYI, this recap is as open and honest as your current relationship. Here be spoilers!
Soy Organic market in Pilsen and the fast food spot called Feed in Humboldt Park were both fun stops on last night's scouting for this year's Veggie Bike and Dine, an event I co-organize as a disclosure. One can get non-veg items at both places, but they're also quite vegan friendly. Soy Organic, a small, friendly grocery on the corner of 19th Street and Paulina in Pilsen, has tubs full of bulk grains, nuts and dried beans, small bags of dried fruit, Swad brand of Indian products, and, my favorite among a couple grocery aisles, meatless soy chorizo in the refrigerated section a vegan version of that spicy pork sausage. It should fry up brilliantly on a hot pan in it's own oil. Throw some tortilla pieces or corn chips in the pan, maybe some crumbled tofu, and you could be reflecting visions of chilaquiles. Oh, and Soy Organic is starting up their smoothie machine quite soon, using real fruit.
Hours later, Feed, on Chicago at California, took care of us with good counter service. Our two orders of our fried okra were vegan they made a special effort to check batter-coated in small, round nuggets. Ditto for the hand cut sweet potato and regular fries, tender spinach, succotash, coleslaw, beet salad, and juicy fried green tomatoes with a super light batter. Yes, they're all side orders, but combined, they're a meal for four people who just pedaled many miles. Sure, we did have some snacks from Soy Organic earlier. Call them tapas if you need convincing that you can make a meal out of such pieces. Two of my companions put tunes on the old chrome jukebox playing vinyl. We had decided to go in after one of us, a scout if you will, went inside to check on its vegan options. This person emerged with a plate of a few sweet potato fries, as a sample. I was hooked.
Bravo studiously started this week's Top Chef with a reminder of last week's Springer-esque tensions in the Stew Room, complete with bleeps and chair-tossing. Lest we forget amidst the fancy food vocabulary and Padma's reluctance to just down that last glass of wine and get indecent with Tom (it takes so little to achieve class these days), this is reality TV. A lesson seemingly beyond the grasp of some cheftestants who seemed to be vying for their own celebrity afternoon gab show this week, and embraced all too completely by Mark, Spike, and a bottle of Mr. Bubble. Hold onto your hats and helmets, as Top Chef storms Soldier Field and puts legions of flatbed-truck foodies and grill masters to shame.
Editor's Note: Our recaps are as honest as FactCheck.org. Here be spoilers!
Life Vegan is the North Side's echo of the famed Soul Veg, the masters of vegan soul food in Chicago, and a South Side beacon for many vegans. Tucked into a storefront on a quiet street in Evanston, it's a short walk from the Purple Line, and a refreshing journey for me onto unfamiliar streets. Life, as they seem to call themselves, stood out with sincerely gracious service and a smiling sous chef. My gyros spread out on a pita that took most of the plate. I poured all of the accompanying sauce over the crispy slices of the fake meat. My dining companion's jerk wrap held plain tofu cubes slathered with intensely savory spices. My salad came with a garlic and nutritional yeast dressing that I couldn't get enough of, my potato wedges with a thick BBQ sauce. You can get the sandwich without these extras for a few dollars less. 1601 Simpson St., Evanston. (847) 869-6379. El: Purple to Foster (in Evanston), and then walk about 12 minutes one block north, and then west on Simpson to 1601.
Starfruit opened in Wicker Park today and offered free samples of their new products. Starfruit is owned by Lifeway Foods, which is based in Morton Grove, IL. They offer frozen kefir in plain and pomegranate ($3 -$5), parfaits ($4 - $7) and smoothies ($4 - $7). The 24 topping options ($1 for the first and 50 cents for any additional) range from simple fruits to Vosges chocloate bacon bar bits and Milk & Honey granola. (The small frozen pomegranate with kiwi pictured above would cost you $4).
The shop is bright and colorful and they will offer both front and back outdoor seating in the coming weeks. I'm a fan of Lifeway's kefirs and the frozen pomegranate did not disappoint. It was subtly sweet with a nice texture that could almost make you believe you were eating a creamier dairy. The staff members were not particularly helpful, most notably when a confused middle-aged man inquired about the Brazilian gogi berry topping, but all in all this seems like a great establishment for the summer Wicker Park crowd.
Juicy Wine Company, the wine bar/retail store that brought Chicago the butter and salt flight (Tournevent goat-milk butter topped with red Hawaiian sea salt, Vermont Butter and Cheese Company's cultured butter with Black Cyprus sea salt and a Parmagiano-Reggiano butter from Emilia-Romagna topped with truffle salt), now offers Saturday and Sunday brunch.
During the work week, Juicy carries an appealing assortment of cheese, cured meats, and other delights served in tasting portions. The wine list suits wine geeks and novices alike; $15 is added to the price of any bottle in order to experience your purchase on-premise.
In my mind, Spacca Napoli could have made up tonight for one bad review. But what do I know; this was my first visit. Our server graciously stepped us through some of the antipasti, listing ingredient after ingredient when we dropped the vegan word. They cook the eggplant in oil, no butter and top it with good, fresh basil. She told us how the truffle focaccia, which turned out to be a complete treat, and not on the menu, came without any cheese. I wanted to eat those slices continuously, like a child binge eating after sneaking into a closed chocolate store. Instead, my rational side surfaced, and it told me that I could wait, until my pizza came, to overeat just a bit. A sauce of San Marzano tomatoes, blended with salt, made the marinara pizza brilliantly savory, so much that it felt a touch silky. I think I sensed a crispy bit of rich garlic, definitely basil leaves, and with no cheese by default. It's this vegan's dream for a pizza shop to decide for itself to leave off the cheese on a few selections that hold their own without it.
To anyone who has had a bad time here (and all those who love the place), I'll tell you that service was so tops tonight that one of my dining partners strongly argued that it would be unfair not to give props to our server by name. Maybe you will find that Spacca Napoli has completely turned around and improved. Or perhaps you should just ask for Meredith. 1769 W. Sunnyside. (773) 878-2420. El: Brown Line to Montrose. Bus: 50 Damen, 78 Montrose.
This week’s episode of Top Chef was one of the tensest ones yet. The chefs were visited by Ming Tsai, from the restaurant Blue Ginger in Boston. As soon as Padma introduced him, the cameras zoomed in on Lisa, whose background is in Asian food. “I’m all grins,” she said. Moments later, the chefs are blindfolded and asked to identify the higher-quality chocolate, caviar, maple syrup and saki.
Editor's Note: Our recaps are as thorough as your high school transcript. Here be spoilers!
I stopped into Dinkel's (3329 North Lincoln) his morning while waiting for my brunch dates. I used to spend a lot of time on this block a few years ago, and nothing has really changed, especially at Dinkel's. The interior is old school and the selection has not changed in years, notably because with its popularity, Dinkel's doesn't have to innovate.
I think of Dinkel's as the Toyota Corolla of baked goods: dependable and affordable. Not sexy but attractive. Today was no different. I walked in, and after my number was called (because it's just that good) I got a donut and coffee. Looking around, I saw that chocolate-glazed were nowhere to be found; the counter clerk took a plain donut in the back and fully dunked it into a vat of excellent warm chocolate frosting. I'm also fond of their decorated cookies, and loved the elephant that I also took home. Yummy.
Top Chef! Chiffonade technique! Movies! Drama! Lights, camera and action descended upon the cheftestants this week in more than the usual literal fashion when Richard Roeper (who I once body-checked on my way into Movies in the Park – sorry dude), Aisha Tyler, and a full table of other unknown judge-guests descended upon the Gallery 37 kitchen for a film-inspired feast this week. And unlike the other chef-centric reality show premiering this week, the Top Cookies managed to make a white chocolate inflected wasabi garnish not only appealing, but downright Oscar-worthy. Gordon Ramsay, eat your heart out.
Editor's Note: No stone is unturned in our recaps. Here be spoilers!
The term “gastropub” refers to a pub that offers high quality food, which aims to go a step above traditional “pub grub.” Gastropubs tend to be genuine old pubs that have been overhauled, yet retain the character of a traditional English pub. The furnishings are simple, and the food is usually Modern European. The prices, though moderate for the type of dishes being served, are higher than what you might expect for a typical pub.
The current gastropub trend started in England in 1991 and came stateside in 2004 via The Spotted Pig, located in New York City’s West Village. Although I’ve never been to TSP, I’ve read nothing but positive reviews; a meal at TSP is on the itinerary of my next trip to NYC. The gastropub formula has apparently been a huge success for Chef April Bloomfield, bringing acclaim from national critics, two Michelin stars, and a string of imitators.
One such imitator hoping to jump on the gastropub bandwagon is The Bluebird, located in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood. A friend and I ventured out last weekend to enjoy each other’s company, some wine, and hopefully unique yet relatively inexpensive pub food. Bluebird is long and narrow with a front room dominated by the bar and a back room solely for dining. Tables are lined neatly along a banquette that runs most of the length of the building. Lighting is low, brick is exposed, the waiters were rocking hip frames and weird haircuts, blah blah blah. I’m sure you can imagine the rest.
I made the trip over to Milk and Honey (1920 West Division) this past Saturday for brunch, and am still scratching my head over the experience. In a normal restaurant, I can handle putting my name on a list and waiting until my table is ready. But Milk and Honey is a place whose popularity really can't handle its precious seating concept, at least on the weekends; I waited over twenty minutes in the line to order, which curled around the restaurant, then at least another twenty minutes standing like a schmuck cooped up in the corner, watching the lucky ones who ordered before me eat their food and hoping my silent "Finish your panini and split, Andy and Laura" ESP-ish beams would clear up some of the issues. It didn't.
In the first moments of this week’s Top Chef, Jennifer and Zoi (obligatory shot of lesbian bunk bed cuddling) give a shout out to all the ladies in professional kitchens and express the hope for some serious double X chromosome representation in the finals. This refreshingly realistic girl power moment is immediately followed by a shot of Andrew and Spike, the man-child Dopplegangers, chest wrestling and towel-snapping like two pre-teens at summer camp. The dichotomy sets something of a tone for a week where teamwork and confidence, while laudable, are nothing when your food just doesn’t taste good. Best watch your backs, boys.
Editor's Note: No stone is unturned in our recaps. Here be spoilers!
When asked by Food & Wine Magazine about his most memorable meal, Paul Virant, Executive Chef of Vie in Western Springs, answered, “Recently, my wife and I ate at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. I have to rank it at the top. Everything was so simple, it was all about the ingredients and the technique. It was kind of a dream.” It makes sense that Chicago’s latest golden boy, who has been touted for his seasonal cuisine, admires Alice Waters, the original pioneer of sustainable agriculture and rustic, no-frills food.
Virant has an impressive resume to say the least; highlights include stints at Charlie Trotter’s, Ambria, Everest, and Blackbird. Last year, Virant was named one of the Best New Chefs by Food & Wine. He was Chicago Magazine’s Best New Chef of 2005 and has received three stars from Chicago’s culinary Grand Poobah, Phil Vettel. So naturally, if everyone else in the freaking country loves Virant and Vie so much, I should too. Right? Well, I didn’t. There. I said it!
Transmission Editor Anne Holub submitted this review of Andersonville's new Great Lake Pizzeria.
Last night, I had the good fortune of enjoying an amazing meal at one of the newest pizza joints to open up in Andersonville, called Great Lake. The little storefront shop, which offers carry-out or dine-in at their single eight-person table, is just off Clark on Balmoral, and is in real danger of being my new favorite neighborhood haunt. It's a simple restaurant, making a thin crusted, quality ingredient driven, lovingly baked pizza that's a wonderful addition to Chicago's growing roster of pizza masters.
The shop, which sells a few dozen gourmet dry goods, teas, coffees (along with a few locally made screen-printed cards), features just four pizzas on its menu — but oh, you hardly need more than that. Last night, I opted to sit at their extremely welcoming table with a couple of friends while we BYOB-ed a bottle of wine and made acquaintances with my new favorite Italian meat, sopressata. This pizza (#2 on their menu) included the delightfully complex sopressata, fresh mozzarella, olive oil and imported sea salt, along with a fresh tomato puree from a farm in Wisconsin. Our second selection, pizza #4 on the menu, included smoked bacon from Kentucky (infused with a rich smokey flavor that I could feel across my whole mouth with every bite) crème fraiche, onion and fresh sage, along with a generous grind of tellicherry black pepper.
The pizzas we opted to wait to try (not for lack of salivating, but merely for lack of room in our stomachs) include a tantalizingly simple combination of tomato puree, fresh mozzarella and marjoram (pizza #1) and pizza #3, which features cremini mushrooms and wine-cured goat cheese. Believe you me, I will eat these pizzas someday soon, and they will be delicious.
Great Lake pizza is open from 3pm to 9pm Wed-Fri, 1pm to 9pm Sat, and 1pm to 7pm Sun. You can call in your order to 773-334-9270 or stop in at 1477 W. Balmoral Ave.
This week on Top Chef, the chefs spent some time in Lincoln Park. For the Quickfire Challenge, they were taken to the Green City Market and left with instructions that each could use only five ingredients to make a dish. All of them seemed into shopping at the market except Dale, a chef from Chicago who works at Buddakan in New York City. He turned his nose up because he wasn’t sure if the meat there was truly the freshest meat available. Mark, the chef from New Zealand, left his bag of lettuce at the table where he bought it, and realized it after the chefs were told their shopping time was up. But he just smiled and said, “That’s a bummer.”
Editor's Note: We leave nothing out in our recaps. Here be spoilers!
If you caught Wednesday night’s earlier reality offerings, the ousting of Amis (rhymes with “anus”) from America’s Next Top Model and Syesha’s dangerously close call with the displeasure of the cell-voting populace on American Idol would have been a strong portend of thing yet to come to the headband-clad in TV land. If only the fates had been more kind to poor Nimma and her 21st century take on shrimp scampi – but alas, the curse of the fugtastic headband held sway over all channels, and the sweet and slightly antisocial Southerner was the first contestant lopped off on the Top Chef chopping block this season. Her cauliflower flan-turned-puree did indeed look like baby food, though, and proved apparently even more unappetizing than carnival-barker-turned-gourmand Erik’s vomitous Mexi-Souflee. Maybe the headband wasn’t entirely to blame.
I joined two friends for dinner at Ravenswood's Caro Mio (1827 W. Wilson) this past weekend, which was my first visit. Will I go back? The reasons why: the food is excellent, authentic Italian. I had a very delicious tortelloni di pollo ($15) that was a nice blend of pasta, chicken, parmesan, eggplant and white wine. The portion was pretty generous (enough for a side dish-sized leftover the next day), and the presentation was nice. One friend had the tri-colored rotolo ($16) a ricotta and pasta concoction that wasn't the most challenging dish on the menu but suited a vegetarian diner well, and another ordered the agnelotti rossini ($17), half-moon pastas stuffed with ricotta and topped with a creamy tomato sauce with prosciutto and peas which he fawned over until the plate was practically licked clean. The menu doesn't take any big risks in ingredients or preparation, but you will definitely like what you order. Caro Mio has a pretty low-key atmosphere and decor and is also BYOB, which easily makes it a solid go-to neighborhood restaurant.
It's evident that the food is good. Very good. But the reasons why not to go back loom a bit larger for me: the entree prices are expensive, starting at $14; for a cheapskate like me (and an Italian cheapskate at that), I don't think I would easily return unless I was celebrating some significant event. I also had major beef with the service, which was inexplicably and frustratingly slow, given that the restaurant was less than half-full of diners. My friends and I were hungry coming in the door, and it took almost twenty minutes to get a few glasses of water and a basket of bread, which we ate like we had just landed on Ellis Island after being stuck in a boat for five weeks. So, this place has my recommendation for serving delicious food, but be prepared for some bumps in service along the way.
Since Masouleh opened its door in early February, the tiny Persian restaurant has seen a steady stream of customers--and that's not a surprise.
Masouleh's opening was a welcome surprise in a mostly Mexican stretch of Clark street in Rogers Park. Since its burgundy-colored awning had appeared, we'd waited for its opening with anticipation. Having a place of "fine Persian cuisine with a northern twist," as the sign said, within a walking distance from home seemed fantastic. So, when it opened, we virtually rushed in.
best breakfasts in America," and Chicago is represented by the original Lou Mitchell's on West Jackson.
It’s not because the hostesses ply those waiting for a booth with warm homemade doughnut holes. And it’s definitely not the gratis stewed prunes that appear on the table just after you sit down. No, what elevates this Greek-run West Loop diner above the rest is its authenticity, evident in the faithful execution of founder Uncle Lou’s simple cooking. Long before culinary integrity became a restaurant-industry branding tool, Lou Mitchell’s was baking its own bread and using only double-yolk eggs for its masterfully prepared omelets—which are served right in the skillets in which they were cooked.
I gotta admit, Lou Mitchell's is very good. But the best in Chicago? I suppose that depends on what you're after for breakfast (note that it's not the best brunch in America). Someone really into pancakes might go for Original Pancake House first; others might favor the cinnamon rolls at Ann Sather or the gritty atmosphere of the White Palace Grill. I personally am a big fan of Wishbone's biscuits and gravy (though for my waistline, maybe I shouldn't be.)
So, what's your vote for the best breakfast in Chicago?
Saturday evening, on their way home from their weekly Thai grocery shopping excursion to Lawrence and Broadway, our married friends Steve and Pat popped by for a visit. It didn't take long before our conversation turned to food, and before we knew it - despite that Pat was still finishing her bubble tea - we were all piling into their car for an impromptu excursion to Super H Mart in Naperville.
Super H Mart was a blast - a kimchi bar! pea shoots! mangosteen! five-dollar-per-pound beef tenderloin! However, the authentic Chinese dinner we ate at Tong's Village (1239 E. Ogden Ave., in Naperville, in the very same strip mall as Super H Mart), made battling the traffic on I-290 well worth it.
A serene and mellow atmosphere, the humming murmur of conversation intermingled with soothing indie folk rock playing in the background, this could only be one place — the new Uncommon Ground in Edgewater.
Located at the corner of Devon and Glenwood, the new Uncommon Ground finds itself in the same corner as an ominously blinking police light. Apparently, owners Michael and Helen Cameron aren't deterred by the reputation of crime in the area. Although it was a Monday evening, the place was far from empty; by 8pm it was buzzing with patrons. Hip but casual, this is not a place to see and be seen, as the décor and design — mostly squares and rectangles, exposed brick, luxuriously long leather booths, and earth artwork (nature scenes in wooden frames) is far more interesting to look at than what people are wearing or doing.
The key at Uncommon Ground is cozy. My boyfriend and I were seated right next to a blazing fire; on an evening of blistering winds and rain this was startlingly appropriate. Candles burned brightly on the wooden tabletops all around us. Uncommon Ground is a good place for a conversation with an old friend, or a gathering of pals. I wouldn't say it's necessarily romantic, but socially inviting, yes. The demographic was varied, reflecting the diversity of the neighborhood: a few students, thirtysomethings, gay couples, even two cops on a break were enjoying the laid-back atmosphere.
I fried up oat and nut burger patties with friends tonight. I bought the Tuscan Burger Mix after chewing through the sample-filled aisles at Green Grocer Chicago (whose store opening Drive-Thru mentioned this week) with Sara. An owner, Cassie Green, whose business card gives her the humbling title of "Owner/Head Stockgirl," excitedly showed me their "vegan shelf." The key to these patties - at least for us - was a hot cast iron pan filled with a thin layer of peanut oil. It sealed the soft, tender oatmeal inside with a crispy, hard outside that went brilliantly with the side of kale my roommate tossed around with lemon juice and garlic gomasio, and a side of polenta. After preparing the burger mix on the stovetop, we thought it was too wet to roll into a log and cut, as the instructions suggested. Instead, we hand-formed patties and dropped them into our pan of hot oil. I might try a bit less water next time, but they turned out quite tasty.
On Friday night, I made a long overdue pilgrimage to one of Chicago's most well-known blues clubs, Kingston Mines. It's been years since my last visit, but I still find myself rhapsodizing to friends about their chicken wings -- and I don't even like wings. In fact, these are the only wings I've ever tried that I actually enjoy eating.
Where food and music were concerned, on Friday, this class Chicago joint didn't disappoint. I'll get to that in a moment. But first, dear reader, I hope you'll indulge me in a short rant about the disrespect with which I was treated by the club's resident curmudgeon.
I was reading the San Francisco Chronicle a few weeks ago and came across a neat story about a Northwestern University art professor who held a seminar to talk about his Iraqi-Jewish heritage and make the foods of his childhood. The seminar, called Enemy Kitchen, was also an opportunity for the audience to talk about their perspectives on the war and the impact it has had on culture. The professor, Michael Rakowitz, will be bringing Enemy Kitchen to the Hyde Park Art Center this Sunday from 5-7pm, as part of the companion exhibit Consuming War which ends January 20 at the Center. Reservations are required. Click here to register.
My hubby and I did some holiday returns this weekend, and all of those overheated stores and long lines made us hungry. I had dinner plans with a friend, so I just wanted a snack. He hadn't eaten all day, so he wanted something more substantial. To further complicate matters, we were in Old Town, where few options exist besides overpriced bar food and really overpriced fine dining. That's why we were pleasantly surprised when we stumbled upon Old Jerusalem.
I don't know why I've never noticed the place before; it's been a fixture since '76. No matter. I'm glad we found it this weekend. I ordered the combination vegetarian entree, knowing Brian would power down my leftovers. The platter had generous helpings of hummus, tebouleh, and Jerusalem salad; the most delicious and exquisitely smoky baba ganouj I've ever tasted; and three perfectly crispy, piping hot falafil. Brian ordered the shawirma sandwich. The beef and lamb shawirma was tender and, notably, not over seasoned. Plus, the pita was so stuffed with meat and the works that we marveled at how it maintained its structural integrity.
Service was polite and prompt. Despite my dinner plans, I decided it would be worth it to sample Old Jerusalem's sweets. The harisa, a traditional Middle Eastern dessert made mainly of semolina, burst with flavor. Interestingly, the cake was soaked in a milk and honey syrup, as opposed to the more traditional citrus-spiked simple syrup. I like it Old Jerusalem-style, and I'll definitely make a return visit to try the kinafa, which features ricotta cheese, and the baklawa.
Zagat Survey has chosen the top 11 restaurants of the year based on cost, service and decor. It is an interesting mix with only two establishments hitting close to home. All of the restaurants scored a 29 out of a possible 30 points. Has anyone dined at these restaurants?
Those interested in getting a first-hand look at this new establishment should check out the offer posted on Chicagoist for this weekend.
Connoisseur is located at 1041 W. Grand, a wise choice just off the blue line. The unassuming building was flanked by a doorman who welcomed me out of the cold into their cozy space where I met several courteous individuals involved in the project. Juliana Angel, the Wine Program Director, brought me the Alfredo Roca Pinot Noir, Medoza 2005 ($10/35), the Morgadio Rias Baixas, Albariono 2006 ($12/40) and the Bollinger Special Cuvee ($120).
Samples of their menu offerings were also available. Of note were the Crawfish Rolls: Spicy sushi rolls with ginger and plum sauce ($12), Lobster and Chile Ceviche: Lobster ceviche with grapefruit, hearts of palm, cilantro and key lime ($16), Grilled Asparagus: Marinated, grilled asparagus with toasted walnut and gorgonzola ($11) and truly luscious Sweet Potato Soup ($8). Dan Deaton, the Executive Chef, would like the menu to push his guests to try something new, while still making them feel comfortable.
Connoisseur is a nice addition to the higher end market, providing a refined environment for conversation, a small meal and a glass of wine from their thoughtful selection. Connoisseur felt refreshingly unpretentious to me, but I do wonder if the type of patron who frequents such an establishment might desire more glitz from their surroundings. A few small changes could give the space a more upscale feeling and I believe that Connoisseur will have to make them in order to compete in the luxury market.
1041 W. Grand Ave.
Hours: Tues.-Fri. 5pm-2am, Sat. 2pm-3am and Sun. 2pm-2am
When I began working in West Town a few months ago, I quickly fell in love with Fiore's Deli. Access to a corner store where I can buy ripe avocados, Vitamin Water, high-quality Italian pantry items and homemade tiramisu has certainly improved my life. Their deli counter always has a surprisingly steady stream of customers given their residential location, but until recently I had not tasted any of their offerings.
The first snow this week was by all accounts a fairly gentle introduction to winter, however I still felt unreasonably interested in moving slowly and staying warm. The two-block walk to Fiore's for a hot sandwich proved to be the perfect quick lunch. The scrambled eggs were rich and creamy, dotted with hearty slices of cooked green and red bell peppers. The sandwich is served on Italian bread and comes in three different sizes. I ordered the 7-inch for $4.50. Not a bad deal for a truly comforting meal.
Fiore's Domestic Import Deli
2258 W. Erie
Chances are, you've tasted Metropolis coffee. It's now served at many Chicago restaurants and coffeeshops. But maybe you haven't made the trek up to Granville to the Metropolis Cafe. Yes, it gets crowded with Loyola students and local residents, but there's a reason for that. The coffee is always hot and fresh, and the food is pretty good as well.
This guest review comes from reader Rosamund Miller. If you'd like to submit a review of your own, please email it to email@example.com.
I love Chinese food. Growing up in San Francisco, I ate a lot of it. Much to my mother's surprise and delight, my generally picky 6-year-old self had no trouble putting away a carton of ma pao tofu, mu shu pork or even scaly, mysteriously delicious chicken feet at dim sum. After a number of years in the culturally and culinary different Midwest, I've come to the conclusion there are four kinds of Chinese restaurants: really bad dives, really good dives, high-end places with average food, and the excellent but at times elusive middle. The middle has great food and surroundings to match. You can go for a nice dinner with visiting relatives or collapse into fried noodles at the end of a long night. Prices are reasonable. The food is the main priority, but atmosphere isn't too far behind.
My fiancée and I took the South Shore train home to visit our parents in the ‘burbs this weekend, and we got lucky: my Mom and Dad are Food Network junkies, and they decided to drive our car-free butts back to the city so they could get a taste of Smoque, recently featured on TV’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
I'd love a kitchen like the one on the set of The Cook at Goodman Theatre. It's large enough for a truckload of friends to gather. A long counter top table has room enough to lay out ingredients for a feast, and a pot rack above holds enough pots to cook one with. A retro oven and refrigerator tuck into a long square tiled counter in the background. A vastly over-sized fume hood completes the room's greatness. The performance is quite touching. It explores the personal joys and sacrifices of a wealthy family's cook as she struggles to maintain the house after the Cuban revolution. You get a recipe, too. The playwright, Eduardo Mechado, co-authors a book on exile and identity that seems to compliment the play in Tastes Like Cuba. Chicago Public Radio's Eight Forty-Eight discussed the play which runs through Nov. 18.
Not too long ago, I scored a copy of Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food to add to my small collection of cookbooks. The pages are understated, adorned with sketches of vegetables, herbs and meat. The recipes seem basic at first glance; Waters gives instructions on grilling vegetables and preparing a chicken broth. But with recipes such as Pork Shoulder Braised with Dried Chiles and Persimmon and Pomegranate Salad, Waters asserts that simple food does not mean bland food.
It's that time of year again. The time where everything pumpkin-related seems to come out of the woodwork just in time for the cold weather. From the old classics (muffins, pies, cookies, coffee drinks) to the new ones (ravioli, bisques, risottos, beers, pizza)...I love them all. There's something about the sweet pumpkin spice that makes the impending winter weather seem a bit more tolerable.
I recently had the pleasure of discovering a new pumpkin delicacy--the Pumpkin Spice Cake doughnut from Krispy Kreme. Perfectly spiced with just the right amount of glaze, it's a melt-in-your-mouth treat that's bound to become a new fall classic. Yum.
When I'm trying to see if a restaurant is worth the travel and expense, I head to LTH Forum to see if any of their dedicated posters has written about the place in question. If you aren't familiar, this website forum is a great resource for finding (and posting) restaurant reviews in and outside of the city, as well as a place to talk about recipes and, well, food. Their annual "Great Neighborhood Restaurants" award recipient list was released today, with over 20 new additions to the elite group, (predictably) among them Smoque and Kuma's Corner, as well as some little-known places that are sure to become highly sought after as a result of LTH Forum's recommendation (similar to the "Check Please! Effect").
In my never-ending quest to find new coffee shops, I tend to rely on many different sources, word of mouth, the Internet and sometimes dumb luck, as was the case with Sweet Bean and More.
I first noticed a sign in a window almost six months ago about this new addition to the Lakeview neighborhood and made note of it in one of many notebooks since lost. Recently, I drove by on a whim, and, lo and behold, people milling about and patio furniture outside signaled that they were open. Lucky for me it was their first day open and worth the wait. Situated below the newly-constructed Diversey Station condo complex at 1855 W. Diversey Pkwy, Sweet Bean is one of the most elegant shops I’ve seen of late, very comfortable and inviting with rust and gold wall treatments, hand-laid tile accents and a gorgeous wood and marble bar. This new offering just begs for people to sit and enjoy the day, and with plenty of outdoor seating for the warm months and free wi-fi, who could blame you? Sweet Bean serves Chicago’s own Metropolis coffee and espresso as well as a nice variety of baked goods both savory and sweet.
Sweet Bean offers a breakfast daily until 10:30am, the open-face sandwich on French bread with mushroom, red onion, feta and scrambled egg, as well as a variety of salads and sandwiches all decently priced around $8. All of the sandwiches and salads are prepared in-house to order. Sweet Bean is also offering a weekend brunch from 8am to 2pm with a special, elegant menu.
Sweet Bean and More is open daily 6am to 8pm Monday through Friday and 7am to 8pm Saturday and Sunday. It is located at 1855 W. Diversey Pkwy. (773) 857-3100
I have never eaten a pannekoeken, but I'm familiar with the Dutch dish, which is a thin, large hybrid of a crepe and pancake that can be topped with savory or sweet items. I realized that very few restaurants in the city actually sell pannekoeken, so when Pannekoeken Cafe opened in Lincoln Square (4757 N. Western) I was all over it.
Julius Meinl has been one of my favorite bakery/coffee shop in Chicago. Their European-style cakes are always fantastic (excellent on the palate, beautiful on the eyes), and the airy interior always makes me feel as if I were on a trip in Europe. Only nice bike ride away in Lakeview, but everything about the coffee shop puts me in the splendor of faraway continent. Furthermore, Meinl is a special place for me--it was where I met my partner for the first time.
So it pains me to say that I've been a little worried about the operation there. It's not the food quality that I'm concerned about; it's the service that seems to get especially iffy at weekend peek hours.
I would almost rather say Shikago was a mere blip on the Chicago dining radar, nothing worth checking out, nothing to see here, move along. If for no other reason than a mediocre review would keep it as airily open and quiet as it was today. It just wouldn't be true, though.
Located at 190 South LaSalle in a building that would be worth visiting even if there wasn't a great new Loop lunch spot on the first floor (gold-leaf vaulted ceilings! beautifully patterned marble floor! air conditioning!) Shikago might have a silly name, but the food is seriously prepared, and seriously worth it. Once you get past the confusion of telling someone you're going to eat there ("I'm going to Shikago." "Dude, you're in Chicago."), bring them along -- it's well worth the trip. Juicy details below the fold.
After spotting my post about Half Acre Beer Company in Merge, the fledgling brewery contacted me to offer a taste so I could judge for myself how well they make their product. I accepted, and a few days later their point man, Gabriel Magliaro, stopped in the office with six-pack in hand and ready to chat.
Half Acre has been under development for about a year and a half, Magliaro said, and just started selling last week. The company is based on the West Side, but the beer itself is brewed by a contract brewer in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, a common strategy for small, start-up beer brands. Half Acre hopes to one day brew beer themselves here in the city.
Their first beer, a lager, is available primarily in Wicker Park and Bucktown; you can find it at the Charlston, Pint, Jerry's 2 and Bacino's, and in six-packs at the 7-11 on Damen and the Always Open on Milwaukee. They hope to expand to the rest of the city and beyond very soon (it's in the hands of their distributors).
So, what does it taste like? For a lager, it's surprisingly complex, far from the flimsy, watery Budweiser, the number-one selling lager in America. The beer has a dark amber color with a little cloudiness, and a somewhat bitter-tart aroma. I tasted a big orange-blossom note floating on top of a rich caramel flavor that provided depth to stand up to food, but not so much that it can't be drunk on its own. Very effervescent, with a nice balance of yeasty tartness and hoppy bitterness. This is definitely a beer worth seeking out.
Let me preface this by saying, I'm not a club person. I'm a bar person. A cheese fries and PBR on tap person. A low-enough volume to hear my friends talking person. So it was probably inevitable that I would not be swept off my feet by Plan B, a new snack-drink-and-shake-it shack just north of the Milwaukee six points. But let me just say for the record: swept, I was not.
Plan B Kitchen and Bar puns on being your second-choice destination if the other WickerParkclubs are too packed, though the name also has a sort of icky morning-after birth control resonance to it. The place's promises fancy drinks (alcoholic snow cones? shut up!) and an interesting but accessible menu ("lollipop" chicken wings, chocolate fondue), but the website, with its pumping club soundtrack and shimmying Flash-based bartendress, is kind of indicative of the entire experience of the place: clever and attractive enough on the surface, but disappointingly shallow and just a touch sad when you dig a little deeper. More thoughts below the fold.
The only way to start a birthday is with a special meal, which is why I hauled my cookies this morning up north to Andersonville to ring in a new year with friends at M. Henry. As usual, this place did not disappoint.
Over the weekend, Centerstage's Misty Tosh raved about Mazza Barbeque, a new spot along Devon Avenue. Her review confirmed my opinion of the restaurant and the food: it's a worthy second choice for diners not able to get into Bhabi's or Hema's, and has the potential to become a destination itself.
I stopped in by myself a few weeks ago (it's not far from my home, and I was bacheloring it for the night), shortly after Mazza opened in a space formerly occupied by a sketchy looking cafe. I was the first customer of the night, as far as I could tell; the waiter seemed almost surprised to see me. He handed me a menu, which promised Indian, Pakistani and Uzbek cuisine. Like Tosh, I'd be hard-pressed to identify the specific Uzbek dishes, but no matter.
If cheese was a hip commodity of the youth culture, like, say, rock and roll, Northern California’s Cypress Grove Chevre would be the Sub Pop Records of the genre. (Just follow me here.)
Adapting and growing since its conception in 1983, the secluded dairy farm first caught on with aficionados and industry types who were taken with the quality and flavors of their offerings in, what was at the time, a sparsely populated goat cheese market. As America’s taste for goat cheese exploded through the 1990’s, Cypress Grove’s reputation for providing fresh, innovative and downright tasty goat cheeses grew. These days, as goat cheese has become less of a novelty and more a regular item on our shopping lists, the dairy has become legendary for maintaining the high quality of their signature cheeses and for the constant innovation and experimentation with new creations. (See a dim parallel with the Seattle record label there?)
While enjoying excellent seats at Wrigley Field on Monday, I was obligated to indulge in some gameday grub. I gleefully put back a few vapid Bud Lites and stuffed my face with a couple of brats that looked and tasted like they arrived to the ballpark in someone’s back pocket. But it’s all about tradition at ball games and if I hadn’t gone for the Bud Lite and hot dogs, it woulda been Old Style and peanuts. So, price aside, I had no complaints… especially since we split well before the Cubs’ inevitable collapse.
It wasn’t until later, at the Hopleaf Bar in Andersonville, that I had the opportunity to right the evening’s previous culinary wrongs. Still being a bit full from the doggies, I kept it light by ordering the famed muscles mussels appetizer and a pint of De Koninck Bolleke ale. The slightly fruity, slightly malty, crisp brew was an excellent foil for the succulent, nautical sweetness of the Hopleaf’s mussels.
Recently, I spotted a post on LTHForum about a relatively unknown Filipino place in Niles: Cid’s Ma Mon Luk. According to the post, there used to be about five places called Ma Mon Luk in Manila, all named after a legendary Chinese school teacher who started selling soup on the street to win the hand of a pretty girl. His soup was so good, he eventually opened a restaurant, gained great wealth... and an enduring legend. Yeah, he got the girl, too.
Knowing almost nothing about food of the Philippines, I hastened over to an unprepossessing shopping mall and found Cid’s almost empty on a Saturday night. Apparently, Filipino chow has yet to catch on.
This is somewhat challenging food, and we did have one dish — binagoongang barboy — which we found too unpleasant to eat (it was pretty much chunks of pig fat in what seemed a blood-based broth). That dish, however, was the exception.
My far and away favorite dish was the lechon kawali, a type of roasted pork that’s probably 50/50 meat and fat (i.e., really tasty). “Lechon” is the porcine equivalent of veal, and this delicious young meat hardly requires any help to enjoy, but just in case, Cid’s serves it with traditional liver-based dipping sauce. I had to stop myself from eating my recommended caloric intake for two days in one sitting.
We sucked down a number of unknown sea creatures in a coconut broth as well as in a fajitas-type sizzling platter (shown). There was stuff in there I’d never seen before: parts of blackish squid, what seemed to be octo-parts, and chunks of aquatic beings that I just could not identify. Like I said, this can be challenging chow, but we liked this and just about every other dish we had.
Cid’s seems an excellent place to introduce yourself to food of the Philippines, which is not commonly found in Chicago — just watch out for the binagoongang barboy.
Cid’s Ma Mon Luk
9182 Golf Rd., Niles
Sure, there are lots of Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, but it turns out that almost all of them of them (like the vast majority of Chinese restaurants in the US) serve Cantonese food. Now I'd never disparage Cantonese cuisine, which can serve up some real delights, but its the spicy Sichuan dishes that really capture my heart, so I've always been a little disappointed with Chinatown here in Chicago... that is, until a friend told me about Lao Sze Chaun.
So Addicted, a coffee shop that I pass by on a regular basis, had never enticed me enough to pop in. There are a number of great neighborhood cafés in Lincoln Square, and I wasn't looking to add to my coffee repetoire. Then, I read this review a few weeks ago and decided to stop by. I went in on a Sunday morning, with the New York Times and a taste for a savory breakfast. I was initially disappointed by how cold it was inside (both literally and figuratively—the décor could use some work), but then the owner's contagious smile and exceptional friendliness gave me the proverbial warm fuzzy feeling inside. She also had on a mix of French hip hop and Yves Montand, which made me nostalgic for the country I've never visited.
Although a flavor shot comes for free with any coffee order (score!), I passed on it and ordered a plain single latté. The latté was smooth and milky and served in a dainty coffee cup. So Addicted serves Illy coffee (delicious Italian espresso) and the owner is French, which means you can be assured a consistently good cup.
When our croissants came out, warm and flaky, I got a little misty eyed. This is what happens when I'm overwhelmed by the goodness of what I'm about to eat. The croissants are about the size of my foot (a women's seven). They are perfect little golden pillows that make you wonder how the French got to be such food geniuses. What the filling lacks (they could use a little more cheese and slightly less ham), the croissant makes up for in savory, buttery bites of pure bliss.
The biggest downside of this place is its location. It's located just north of Lawrence Ave, on the east side of Damen (facing west), and the CVS and condo building across the street blocks the store front from getting any sunshine. When the weather is as beautiful as it has been, it can be a major deterrent to wanting to hang out there. However, when it's rainy and dreary anyway, some caffeine, free wireless and the large rack of guilty pleasure magazines (People, Us Weekly, etc.) could be the perfect way to spend the afternoon.
So Addicted is located at 4805 N. Damen Ave. (just north of Lawrence).
These "underground dining experiences" are being held this time around in a stylish loft space near Archer and Ashland. We got there a little early on Friday, so we got to watch the last bits of set-up as 48 place settings were laid out and ingredients for the appetizer and entrée were broken down. As guests filtered in, the room became much noisier, and it was clear that several large groups had made this their Friday night plan. We brought just one bottle of wine, but some brought one for each course, making us wonder if we should run to a liquor store (the one bottle turned out to be just fine, especially since we'd be driving home).
I'm pretty certain that what I'm about to say will make some people mad.
So, after having lived across the street from Pizza D.O.C. for the past year (and within a few blocks for the past four), I finally made the trek across Lawrence Avenue to dine there for the first time. And you know what? Spacca Napoli has nothing on this place! I know that Spacca Napoli is the darling of the Chicago food world and all, but my experience there was so disappointing I can't imagine ever returning. I was rather excited when I first learned about it and invited two friends to dinner within weeks of its opening. However, all three of us were sorely disappointed. Sure, our food tasted fine. But that's all. Just fine. And we all commented on the blah-ness of the décor. We felt like we were eating some generic Italian chain. The nail in the coffin was our server. What a jerk! My friend asked for a pizza cutter to cut his pizza. Although I didn't think a pizza cutter was necessary, his request wasn't completely unreasonable. Our waiter scoffed, looked down his nose at him, and replied with a tone that intended to shame my friend. "These knives are special pizza-cutting knives flown in from Italy." I nearly stood up and said, "Oh yeah? Well these fists are special jerk-punching fists flown in from Yousuckistan." Instead, I looked down at my meal as if we had all been scolded.
"Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whaleboat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests." (Moby-Dick, Ch. 27) In reference to Stubb the second mate of the Pequod, and for whom Stubbs Coffee is apparently named after, Starbuck was the first mate, I love a bit of literary reference in the shops I visit, not to mention the subtle jab.
Stubbs is a nice quiet shop that’s a refreshing change to the other reference from the same book. Decently priced drinks, beans supplied by local roasters Fratelli Coffee, the coffee was quite smooth and flavorful for the medium roast I had. They feature a line of sodas from Filberts Flavors, also a Chicago brand, as well as some of the other sodas you may have seen at other independent coffee shops. Stubbs offers fresh made sandwiches, the Texas toast grilled cheese with cheddar & pepper jack is a good bet, as well as other light fare including pastries from Bennison's Bakery in Evanston. Stubbs also offers free Wi Fi, so it’s a nice place to chill and get some work done.
Stubbs Coffee is a welcome addition to the Chicago coffee shop landscape and will put a smile on your face, even if you don’t smoke a pipe like second mate Stubb.
Stubbs Coffee is located at 3827 N. Lincoln Ave.; Phone (773) 477-9840; Hours: 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Save for a very few places, I have a general distaste for restaurants that serve explicitly vegetarian and/or vegan foods. It's not that I dislike this kind of food; it's quite the opposite. I can count on one hand the amount of times I've bought meat in the past year. What I don't like about these establishments is how oxymoronic the food they tend to serve is. Vegan ribs and vegetarian "meat" loaf send me running in the opposite direction.
When my husband suggested we go to a Korean vegan restaurant last week, I was hesitant, but I was hungry and indecisive, so I agreed. The way Amitubul could put the vegetables in back in vegetarian with dishes such as the Tibetan High Noon (a vegetable medley "steam stir-fried" with noodles and an interesting curry sauce) and Chop Chae Bop (sweet potato noodles with assorted mushrooms and mixed veggies), and a cup of ginger tea with a kick that nearly knocked me out of my diner-style booth, I soon forgot the odd décor and thanked Buddha for the omition on the menu of any kind of vegetable protein smothered in barbecue sauce.
Despite claims that no oil is used in the preparation of their food (the steam stir-fry), the amount of sodium in Amitubul's "all-organic homemade sauces" is questionable (there has got to be a catch with vegetables so extraordinarily fulfilling), the food is so fresh and vibrant and colorful that I'm convinced it cancels out any adverse effects. Seriously, my food was so delicious that I began to crave my leftovers no more than 15 minutes after we left the restaurant, leaving me to wonder what kind of addictive substances are used in "Zen meditation cooking energy." No matter. As long as Amitubul keeps serving food this tasty, I'll ignore my skepticism and use my normal old mental energy to plan my next visit.
Tucked into the back of a small parking lot on the south side of Lawrence, near California, is the Korean restaurant Han Bat. Its austerity makes it easy to miss, and even if you happen to stop and peek in, you might be put off by the coldness of the decor and the almost nonexistence of a menu. You'd be remiss to leave, though, and miss Han Bat's specialty -- and, in fact, the only dish on their menu -- the Korean soup seolleongtang.
We visited Han Bat Saturday night. When we sat down, we looked at the options available to us. Seolleongtang is a very basic soup at its root: a milky broth containing glassy noodles and some kind of beef. Every bowl starts with this blueprint. But you are given one option: which type of beef you want in it. Pretty much the whole cow is available: tongue, spleen, tendon, tripe, intestine or plain old brisket. This was our first time, so we stuck with the brisket.
I've had to run to catch up with it, but I'm jumping on the "People Who Write About Food Who Are Excited About Smoque BBQ" Bandwagon. Having spent many years in San Antonio and Austin, Texas and many more near the Virginia-North Carolina border, I feel as if I have a thing or two to say about barbecue, and what I want to say right now is that a barbecue joint with a manifesto ain't jokin' around.
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