Sunday, December 30, 2007

Caramel Pecan Buche de Noel

Can you believe Christmas is already over? I had so much to do this year the week before that I really waited until the last minute to do all my shopping. Still, the way the holiday fell this year I somehow felt like I had more time prior to Christmas day than other years. We drove back to Cincinnati Saturday morning and I started baking pretty much from the moment I arrived. I made double and triple batches of all my favorite cookies and was contemplating whether or not to just leave it at that. 
Since I finished all my shopping Sunday, I decided I had enough time to attempt something a bit more ambitious: a buche de noel (that's yule log, for those of you who have long forgotten your high school French). I think I made one of these many years ago, but it had definitely been awhile. I was inspired by this recipe to make it a flavored log, and boy was it worth it. This recipe was pretty time-consuming start to finish, and I definitely had a freak out moment while making the frosting because it took way longer than the recipe instructed to set, but the end result was so worth it. I think the meringue mushrooms made the entire thing--so realistic, don't you think? Then I got really fancy and smushed up some gummy drops and cut out leaves and petals to make an edible pointsettia garnish.

Our dinner Christmas night was so rich, but everyone managed to eat a lovely hunk of log, drizzled with some caramel sauce and accompanied by none other than Graeter's butter pecan ice cream. 

And now, we diet.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Pork and Bean Chili

It was finally chili weather this weekend! A couple of cooler days put us in the mood to make chili for friends coming over for a party on Sunday afternoon. I thought this chili was delicious the first time around, but even better as leftovers tonight. Though pretty much all our party guests felt a little sick after leaving our house, I blame that on the ginormous bowl of guacamole, taco pie, chips and pumpkin bars I made. Or it could be the fact that while this recipe called for 1 pound of pork Peter actually used 8, even though all other ingredients were only tripled. Regardless, it was tasty stuff and I'd definitely make it again.

I'd like to dedicate this recipe to Eunice, who like me loves all things containing beans.

Ingredients:
3 Tb olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
2 medium celery stalks, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, chopped

1 pound pork sirloin, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 1/2-inch dice
Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp dried oregano, crumbled
1/8 tsp ground sage
1 cup beef broth
1 14 1/2-oz can peeled tomatoes (undrained, and we used the fire roasted kind)

2 15-ounce white (cannellini) beans, drained and rinsed

Accompaniments:
Grated cheddar and/or Monterey Jack cheese
Chopped fresh cilantro

Directions:
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in heavy large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add onion, carrots, celery and garlic and cook until tender, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in heavy large skillet over high heat. Pat pork dry. Add to skillet, season with salt and pepper and cook until browned, stirring frequently, approximately 6 minutes.

Add pork to vegetables. Blend in chili, cumin, oregano and sage and stir 3 minutes. Add broth to skillet and bring to boil, scraping up any browned bits. Stir into pork mixture. Add tomatoes with liquid and bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until pork is tender, stirring occasionally, approximately 1 hour.

Add beans to mixture and stir until heated through. Spoon into bowls and top as desired with accompaniments.

Serves: 2 to 4 (or an army, should you happen to use 8 pounds of pork instead of the prescribed 1)

Recipe adapted from Epicurious.com

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Tru

I didn't have overly high hopes for Tru. Sure, it's one of the so-called "great" Chicago restaurants but I'd heard from several people I know that it was overpriced, pretentious, and not worth the time and money. After our pretty perfect meal to celebrate our second anniversary last night I couldn't disagree more.

Despite calling a month prior, the earliest reservation put us at 9:45 pm. We took long, late afternoon naps to prepare to make sure we could fully appreciate the experience. We walked in through the lounge that's filled with lots of cool art of various sorts. The dining room is a large room with exquisitely high ceilings and the windows covered with soft white curtains. Given the late hour I expected the place to be clearing out but every table was filled and several parties were seated AFTER we were.

This place is all about the little details and they get major points from me in this area. A tiny stool just to store my purse for the evening (available for purchase online, of course). Customized menus printed to wish us a happy anniversary. The choice between white or black cloth napkins depending on what suits your outfit. Service timed such that everything happens in a synchronized fashion, from the unveiling of each course to the simple pouring of water.

We opted to try two of the tasting "collections." Peter chose the Chef's Market Collection and I went with the more seasonal Autumn Collection. Each featured nine courses, not including small extras like a delightful amuse bouche of tomato gelee and unlimited bread in three varieties. We both enjoyed nearly every course, and noted that the portion sizes were considerably larger than those we received at Charlie Trotter's. Highlights from my meal were the red and yellow beets, the almond-poached poussin (wow, this was stellar) and the homemade tagliatelli. Peter enjoyed the sashimi (it came with an unbelievable white soy sauce that had hints of pineapple) and the whipped salt cod, which I tried to eat as much of as he'd let me.

Both menus ended with a cheese course and dessert. The cheese cart featured three glorious rows of cheese separated into groupings based on the type of milk they were made of: cow, goat and sheep. We each chose three different selections and enjoyed the accompaniments of fruit and nut bread, fresh figs, apple chutney and champagne grapes. Our desserts were good but not great. I've had better sticky toffee pudding (one of my faves) but Peter's cherry coupe was a nice and light option. Each came accompanied by a homemade root beer float and were served with the painted plate pictured above wishing us a happy 2nd anniversary. Just when we thought we couldn't hold another bite, another cart of mignardises arrived at our table and we enjoyed a selection of tiny sweets including blackberry gelee, peanut butter fudge, pistachio toffee and homemade lollipops.

We didn't see a formal wine pairing option on the menu but did have the knowledgeable sommelier guide us to an extremely nice bottle of 2003 Savennieres, what I'd call an 'interesting' Loire valley chenin blanc. Its gorgeous honey color and taste to match made it the perfect complement to our courses across the board. As I'd never heard of the wine I asked our server to please write the name down for me. To my surprise and delight he went a step beyond and carefully removed the label off the bottle, taped it to a Tru notecard, and presented it to me at the end of our meal. Our other parting gifts included copies of our customized menus and an adorable mini loaf of pumpkin bread.

I found the service to be perfectly friendly and not overbearing. All in all, a truly lovely evening and way to spend an evening. Two years into our marriage I couldn't feel luckier to be married to a wonderful man and living in a city with such phenomenal food.

------------------------
The damage: at $545 including gratuity it was just shy of what we spent at Trotter's, but we felt like the overall experience was worth much more.

Food: 4 3/4 out of 5 forks - excellent, and you won't leave hungry.

Romance: 4 3/4 out of 5 kisses - maybe we were just in exceedingly good moods, but it was pretty darned romantical!

Watch out for: the length of your meal. Ours took 4 hours so it was after 1 am when we finally left! Just be sure to get up and walk around a few times to keep the blood flowing in your legs, and you'll have fun checking out the super cool sinks in the bathroom.

Tru
676 N. St. Clair
Chicago, IL 60614
(312) 202-0001
www.trurestaurant.com

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A Perfect Fall Weekend

What a weekend! We were blessed with phenomenal weather in Chicago this weekend and I managed to talk my parents and sister into driving up here Friday for a rather spontaneous visit filled with food and fun.

After a delicious dinner on Friday at Piazza Bella on Roscoe, we decided to head north to Lake Geneva, WI Saturday morning. The Brat Stop is right there off route 50, so of course I had to take them to this classic where we all enjoyed fried cheese curds, brats, hot dogs and German potato salad. Next we stopped at the Apple Holler (thank you Libby for the recommendation!) where we picked our own 1/2-bushel of apples from the acres and acres of orchards they had. We carefully followed our apple picking map and wandered until we found Cortland, Macoun, Fuji and Golden Delicious apples to pick. The next question is, what on earth am I going to do with all these apples?

We spent the night at a resort called The Abbey and ate seafood at local favorite Popeye's. It was on the drive back this morning that we found the real highlight of the trip: an enormous pumpkin patch that had just opened for picking! It wasn't all that crowded and all you do is you drive your car up the hill through the patch, stop on the side of the path, then go in the field and gather all the pumpkins and gourds your car can hold. It's only $60 for a whole car full! Had we known this we surely would have brought a bigger car.

This was seriously fun. Check us out!














Caution: do not attempt to pick pumpkins in a skirt and flip flops. The patches are full of prickles and bugs.

We had such a great time. This place even offered raspberry picking across the street, but our car was a little full for that by the time we had shifted around every piece of luggage to accommodate the pumpkins.

I loved having my family here and I'm sad they've now headed back to Cincy. But luckily I have a little creature to keep me company...if Peter were in town he would kill me. Doesn't little Hammy look adorable?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Pumpkin Bar Goodness

The plethora of fun Halloween stuff that's appeared at Target really got me in a fall mood this past weekend and inspired me to make a pumpkin dessert. Oh, and the fact that we had accumulated so many heavy cans in our cabinet's lazy susan that it actually cracked in half and we're now trying to eat all the soup, salsa, chili and other miscellaneous canned goods we can.

Anyway, this dessert isn't fancy, but it was scrumptious. The frosting, with a combination of butter and cream cheese, was the perfect balance with the moist cake. I added far more spice than the recipe called for to kick it up a notch. My version of the recipe is below.

Cake Ingredients:
4 large eggs
1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
15-oz can pumpkin
2 cups AP flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda

Icing Ingredients:
8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup (8 Tb) butter or margarine, softened
2 cups sifted powdered sugar, sifted (one of the few times it's critical to sift)
1 tsp vanilla

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Using an electric mixer at medium speed, combine the eggs, sugar, oil and pumpkin until light and fluffy. Add all dry ingredients to the pumpkin mixture and mix at low speed until thoroughly combined and the batter is smooth. Spread batter into a greased 13" x 10" baking pan and bake for 30 minutes. Let cool completely before frosting.

To make the icing: Combine the cream cheese and butter in a medium bowl with an electric mixer until smooth. Add the powdered sugar and mix at low speed until combined. Stir in the vanilla and mix again. Spread on cooled bars. Cut into individual servings.

Yield: about 20 squares

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Adventures in Smoking

We have literally used our smoker one time. It was back in Cincinnati and the voltage required to keep the thing on blew a fuse in my 125-year old house. It's sat idle for several years, but for some reason Peter was inspired to do Texas barbecue brisket this weekend. Here's the start of the adventure.


video

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Best Berry Cake

I don't know if my co-workers were just inflating my ego or not (it worked, regardless) but this mixed berry cake was a pretty huge hit at the office on Monday. It was really a very simple recipe, so here goes:

Ingredients:
2 sticks of butter, softened
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
4 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
1 cup milk
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
3 to 4 cups mixed berries of your choice (I used blue, black and a few straw)
1 cup heavy whipping cream
4 oz. mascarpone
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 cup powdered sugar

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray your Mary Ann pan with pan spray (I like the kind with flour in it for baking). Beat the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add 1 1/2 cups of sugar and beat another 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping the sides of the bowl occasionally. Add the vanilla, salt and baking powder. Now add the milk and flour in small increments, beginning and ending with the flour. Do not overbeat the mixture. Pour batter into the pan and gently tap the pan on the counter to smooth it and get rid of any air bubbles. Bake for 40 minutes, until golden brown on the top and edges. Cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes and then remove from pan and let cool 1 hour.

While the cake is baking, place berries in a bowl with 1/2 cup sugar, stir, and let macerate in the refrigerator while the cake bakes and cools.

Beat the whipping cream until soft peaks form. Stir in mascarpone, vanilla and powdered sugar.

Drain the berry mixture into a bowl so you have just the juice. Paint the juice on the top of the indentation using a pastry brush. Top with the whipped mascarpone and finally top with the berry mixture. Garnish with mint if desired.

Serves: 12

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Berry Licious Mary Ann Cake

I promise to post the recipe for this loveliness tomorrow, but until then I just couldn't resist showing off the cake I made this evening. I haven't baked anything in so long, and all the beautiful fruit at the market coupled with the fact that I found this awesome cake pan I'd never used inspired this creation. It's called a "Mary Ann" cake pan (don't ask me where that comes from), and what makes it so unique is the indentation it has all around the top/bottom--perfect to hold for all sorts of fillings when the cake is done and inverted. I made mine with a traditional golden pound cake and topped it with a mascarpone chantilly cream and of course the macerated berries. I was really happy with the way the mascarpone gave the whipped cream a bit more substance so it really held its shape. This cake was tasty. Tasty enough that it needs to go with me to work tomorrow so I'm not tempted to eat the rest of it.

Do you like the quenelle of whipped cream, powdered sugar and fresh mint accompaniments? Here's a pic of the unfinished cake so you can see what I mean about the pan:



I'm trying to get better at my food photography, but it's tough with a point and shoot digital.

Stay posted for the recipe!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Auf Weidersehen, German Food!

I've just returned from a pretty glorious trip to Europe in which I was lucky enough to visit a bit of both Austria and Germany. We spent most of our time in teeny tiny farming towns in the Alps, and if we hadn't been traveling with native Germans I don't think we would have gotten very far. There were few to no Americans and even the English of most people we encountered was pretty limited. If you'd like to see and read more about the trip, click here to check out my photo blog.

As much fun as we had, I'm not sure I'm going to be ready to have German food again for a long, long time. With the exception of the odd pizza or spaghetti here and there it was nonstop schnitzel (with a variety of sauce types), frites, red cabbage, goulash and beer.

Here's sort of what the typical dinner looked like. Don't even try to ask me what those circular potato things are. And get your mind out of the gutter! But it didn't all look like this. Below are three of our top choices.



These "frites" were a favorite. They count as a food group, right? Yeah, they're basically french fries, but they're served piping hot with plenty of salt, and a ketchup that I found to be less sweet and more tomato-y than American ketchup.





Second, the "schneeballen" we found in the super-charming, medieval city of Rothenburg. These are sliced pieces of dough fried up in "snowball" shape and flavored with everything under the sun. I had one filled with hazelnut cream and coated in frosting. Deelish.



And last, but certainly not least, I have a new favorite beer drink: the Radler (pronounced Rahd-lur). It's basically just the town's locally brewed beer mixed with about a quarter Sprite, but who would've thought that such a simple mixture could be so refreshing? The perfect antidote to the 95-degree weather we had. I'll be recreating this drink on my deck here in Chicago in the very near future.

No, German food isn't quite up at the same level of French or Italian, but I'd still be hard pressed to find a more satisfying appetizer than a tall glass of beer and a salty, crispy plate of frites at the end of the day.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Bacon Pinto Beans

If you know me well, you know that I pretty much absolutely adore beans. Of any sort really, I'm not too picky. In fact, good old cans of refried beans as a surefire hangover cure when nothing else sounds good. Those lovely legumes are a huge part of my diet so I'm always eager to try new recipes, and this one is really a winner. I love and often enjoy Betsy Beans but if you want something a little fresh and spicy with just the right amount of smoky flavor, try these sometime soon. Peter had 3 helpings they were so good. Maybe that's the reason his stomach hurt Saturday night? Beans, beans, the magical fruit...

Don't let the ingredient list scare you. Especially if you live in Chicago I promise you can find them in the Mexican section of your local Dominick's or Jewel

Ingredients:
4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut in small pieces
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped (use your mini Cuisinart so your hands don't get sticky)
1/2 15-oz. can of fire-roasted tomatoes
2 15-oz. cans pinto beans, with juices
2 canned pickled jalapenos
salt
1/2 cup chopped cilantro (optional)
Queso Fresco or Queso Anejo (optional)

Directions:
1. Cook bacon in large stock pot over medium heat until crispy. Be sure to breathe in all those wonderful bacon smells and let them permeate your house.
2. Add chopped garlic and let saute until just golden brown and not burned.
3. Add the 1/2 can of tomatoes. Be careful, as they'll bubble up when you add them to the rendered bacon fat. Cook for about 5 minutes.
4. Add the canned beans, with all the juices intact.
5. Take the pickled jalapenos from the can and remove the stems. Cut them in half and rinse out the seeds and white membrane (they contain the heat, or capsaicin).
6.Turn heat to medium low and simmer as 15 minutes or as long as you need to get the rest of your meal complete, making sure to stir every now and then so they don't stick or dry out.
7. Just before serving, stir in the chopped cilantro if you like so it stays a bright, vibrant green. Add salt to taste.
8. For an extra special added bonus, top with a sprinkling of crumbled Queso Anejo. It's salty stuff, sort of the consistency of feta cheese, so you might not want to add extra salt if you plan to use the cheese.

Adapted from Mexican Everyday by Rick Bayless

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Mexican Fiesta!















I know, I know, it's been a little while since my last post. After a few weeks of eating out (I'll blog about them soon, I promise) and several "grab and growl" meals at home, we finally decided to make a night of it and cook a real meal. Since it's Saturday we went all out and pretty quickly settled on Mexican food as our theme. We were lucky enough to receive a great book recently: Mexican Everyday by none other than legend Rick Bayless. You're probably familiar with Bayless and his locally popular and nationally recognized Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, but this was my first time trying any of his recipes myself.

Some cookbooks, especially those by famous chefs, look nice but lack a lot in execution, unless you're a professional chef with access to things like glace de viand, truffles and foie gras. This book however lived up to our expectations. Each recipe we chose had excellent, detailed instructions and clearly had been thoroughly tested in a home kitchen. The descriptions and variations helped us adjust each recipe to our particular tastes (spicy vs. mild) and avaible ingredients (canned fire-roasted tomatoes vs. fresh). And one of my favorite features of any cookbook, it has lots of full-color pictures to accompany the recipes throughout, not just a small sampling pasted together in one section.

Here's what we chose to make:
Rustic Roasted Tomato Salsa
Guacamole with Blue Chips
Quick Cowboy Beans
Ancho Chile Flank Steak

We were going to have an upside down cherry cake too, but after all the above and several passion fruit margaritas courtesy of a mix given to us by Shelley Heinen, we quickly determined that we should hold off on dessert until tomorrow.

Everything was delicious. Sitting on the deck and sipping our margaritas in the gorgeous weather, I couldn't help but think that this was really the most perfect date night possible. It was made only slighly more un-romantic by the fact that Peter ate so much of the delicious food that his stomach started to hurt.

I'll share our twists on some of the recipes this week, but I highly recommend you buy this cookbook if you don't already have it.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Crunchy Slaw

Due to popular request, here's the recipe for my mom's Crunchy Slaw. Yet another staple at family gatherings, just like Betsy Beans this one couldn't be easier to toss together on hot summer days.

Ingredients:
16 oz. broccoli slaw
5 green onions, sliced
2 3 oz. packages of ramen noodles, any flavor, seasoning packet reserved
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup sugar
3 Tb vinegar

Directions:

1. Mix slaw, onions and noodles, broken up into pieces, with seeds and almonds.
2. Mix together all liquid ingredients and ramen noodle seasoning packet.
3. Just before serving, toss slaw with dressing.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Betsy's Baked Beans with Bacon

In my family these are really just known as "Betsy Beans" and they're a staple at almost every cookout/party/outdoor gathering between Memorial Day and Labor Day. I wish I could take credit for them, but really they're originally the work of my mom's friend Betsy, hence the ultra creative name. They're a super yummy combination of all kinds of beans mixed together, combined with various flavorings and topped off with, what else, bacon. I made them for our first ever rooftop deck cookout and they were a huge hit. So to all you Lincoln Park Zoo 10K'ers, this one's for you! I even used turkey bacon and halved the sugar in the recipe to stay true to Team Skinny.

Ingredients:
1/2 lb. bacon, cooked and crumbled
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup ketchup
1/4 cup barbecue sauce
2 Tb prepared mustard
2 Tb molasses
3/4 tsp chili powder
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
16 oz. can kidney beans, drained
16 oz. can butter beans, drained
28 oz. can pork 'n beans

Directions:
Combine above ingredients and blend well. Cover casserole and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Uncover and bake 15 minutes more. Can be held, covered, in low oven for 1 hour.

Note: this is a great recipe to double - it fits nicely in a 9x13 party-friendly Pyrex dish

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Round-up: Lazy Writing or Too Much Dining?

Written by Peter

As someone who’s written for pay for many, many years, I know the value of the “round-up”—a valued chestnut in any writer’s toolkit. A “round-up” allows a writer to avoid delving too deeply into any given subject, providing instead the ability to create a pastiche of impressions or convey short little nuggets of information. You’ve all seen and read countless of these puppies: “10 New Boutiques With the Best Beads,” “5 Toe-Tapping Tapas Bars,” “8 Mystery Novels From Florida Writers.” These kinds of pieces allow any writer worth his or her salt to go on auto-pilot.

In this case, however, it’s all about wading through volume. We eat out a lot. A whole lot. And if we reviewed every restaurant, writing reviews would be all we’d do. Hence, the round-up below. Perhaps instead of the headline above, maybe we should call this one: “Receipts Found When Cleaning out My Wallet.”

Landmark Grill + Lounge
This is our kind of place. Beautiful woods, soaring ceilings, a killer wine list, good-looking clientele (present company included, of course) and, most important, great food. This restaurant really deserves its own review, but, well, you read the introduction. Some highlights: The lobster bisque was smoky and deep, not as creamy and rich as its traditional preparation. Although I do love the cream-soaked decadence of classic bisque, this update was a welcome change. The pork chop was even better and ranks now as the tastiest I’ve ever ordered (an honor previously held by Jean-Ro Bistro). It came barbequed with a light glaze, served on top of white corn grits. The salt of the chop and the sauce dripped to mix with the grits, creating a delightfully salty stew. The chop was brined then cooked to perfection and although Angie doubted my ability to eat the entire portion, I yet again showed her why I may have a future in eating competitions. A final highlight (this is a round-up, remember?) was our shared goat-cheese ravioli. I’ve become a big fan of English peas and this dish featured those in a big way. The raviolis, soaked in a parmesan soup of sorts, threw together some big flavors and with a few more on the plate, would have made for a satisfying entrée. 1633 N. Halstead St. 312.587.1600.
www.landmarkgrill.net

Las Palmas
We eat a lot of food from south of the border. And be it burritos from the Burrito House at the corner of Lincoln and Addison or guacamole from Lalo’s, we almost always love what we have. Las Palmas was no exception, but offered something extra in an atmosphere that was both visually stimulating and fun. We stopped in at this Bucktown location after jewelry shopping. Angie’s been on a jewelry buying kick lately, and she received word that one of her favorite designers was having a sale. So we hopped in the car, found a hell of a parking spot and walked to the boutique. After buying a few items, we kicked around the neighborhood, in a conscious attempt to avoid the piles of work waiting for us at home. It was Cinco de Mayo and a few of the tequila lounges were already in a festive mood, and the streets were clogging with young families and urban hipsters. And us. We were going to stop into Piece for a few slices of pizza, but when we passed this place, we just turned right in. Burnt orange walls. Large paintings (we sat underneath El Diablo) and ducts wrapped to look like palm trees greeted us. The restaurant is large; we, however, sat in the smaller and funkier front room. It was too early (by our standards) for tequila or anything alcoholic so we had a couple of juice blends. Angie had “agua fresca,” a mix of strawberries that was not as thick as a smoothie and much more interesting. As is our custom, we had the guacamole mixed tableside and our server was fun and friendly as she prepped one of our favorite foods. The salsa that accompanied it was deep brown and smoky, which is how I prefer it. Our entrees were tasty, although non-transcendent. Presentation, however, elevated them above standard fare. Each items was given its own space on the rectangular plate, a far cry from the usual “ingredients soup” that some plates become. 1835 W. North Ave., 773. 289.4991.
www.laspalmaschicago.net

King Crab
Is it a bar? Is it a restaurant? After three bloody marys, who cares? We stopped in here after an event at the Steppenwolf theater (to see Grant Achatz no less) and didn’t expect a whole lot. And that’s fine. Who says every time a fork passes our lips it needs to transport us somewhere…like Alinea? This place serves food as you’d find it on the east coast: pulled from the sea and set on your plate unadorned. I had a fish sandwich and it…it…filled me up. Angie’s seafood salad disappointed her. It featured less than fresh greens covered in just a few meager shrimp and crab bits. But what I would recommend here are the Bloody Marys. Served with a skewer of shrimp and a lot of booze, they more than make up for any culinary shortcomings. 1816 N. Halstead. 312.280.8990.
www.kingcrabrestaurant.com

Brownstone Tavern & Grill
Yet another fine find within walking distance of our house, perched on a busy corner between of Lincoln between Addison and Irving Park. Angie and I set out for a walk on a warm evening, became hungry and voila, we found ourselves standing in front of the Brownstone. We opted for a table outside and found ourselves within a classic mix of north-side types: young families with kids running around the tables enjoying the warm evening, people with dogs sitting quietly and waiting for scraps and handsome couples…oh, wait, that’s Angie and me. The food is a solid cut above bar variety. We shared the Reuben rolls, lightly fried little dumplings stuffed with corned beef and sauerkraut and, of course, tangy thousand island dipping sauce. My chicken tortilla soup was rich and red, and as the sun was dropping along with the temperatures, just what I needed to keep warm. Angie had the seared salmon. This was served in a cold cerviche and provided a spicy counterpoint to the sedate salmon. We’ll be back here often, as this place has proved that not all of our dining-out options need to take us a few blocks south to Roscoe Street. 3937 N. Lincoln Ave. 773.528.3700. Look up the restaurant at www.metromix.com.

Wishbone
Paula Deen would love this place. If she were funkier and urbanier (yeah, it’s a word—look it up). Southern cooking with a city twist is what this place is all about. And yep, it’s yet another swell place we can walk to. The first thing you notice when you walk in is how big the place is, especially for this part of town. There’s fun art on the walls (a couple of pieces we may buy, actually) and fun people in the booths and tables. Everyone seems to be in a good mood here, and why not? The sun streams through the two walls of windows and the food comes fast and filling. It was the brunch hour when Angie and I stopped in, fresh from a good walk around the neighborhood. In my battle between lunch and breakfast, I decided to stay on the middle path: I ordered the North Carolina crab cakes. The two small cakes were more crab than breading and dipping each bite in the hollandaise sauce side made for a bite so rich that I was afraid Angie would give me the “you’re fat” look. (She did, ultimately, but only when I suggested we split an order of bacon.) A big corn muffin and cheese grits rounded out my plate. How can it get more southern than that? (I suppose a mint julep would have made it so, but we had more walking to do.) Angie went with red beans and rice with a side of apple sausage. It was as good as it sounds; again, one of those dishes from which a diner doesn’t demand too much, just some solid filling-upedness. (Yep, that too is a word.) This was our second meal here (we cured our New Year’s Day hangovers here months back); it’s a fave of ours and I’m sure we’ll wander by and in many more times. 3300 N. Lincoln Ave. 773.549. 4105.
www.wishbonechicago.com

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Online Restaurant Reviews

I recently added a new feature to this blog: content feeds. See it there, down on the right side of the page? It automatically populates with content according to food-related keywords I've set up. So this morning I saw a link to an article about online restaurant reviews from MarketWatch. Apparently these reviews people keep posting are pretty powerful things, and are increasingly on the radar of more progressive restaurant owners. This article caught my eye for a few reasons. First, simply because it elevates online reviews, something about which I'm obviously intensely interested. Review sites like Zagat and Yelp leave a lot to be desired, in my opinion. The typically pithy review with short snippets of content doesn't do much for me, and there always seem to be equal parts of over the top good and bad review, always leaving a question of whose opinion to really trust.

The other reason this morning's article caught my eye is because it mentions a review of Kaze (read my review here), the sushi restaurant in our neighborhood that's near and dear to my heart. We love this place because it's so close to us, so much so that I recommended a review of it on WTTW's popular "Check, Please" show. And now, a confessional story. When we first moved here last summer I found and instantly loved Check, Please. I went to check out their Web site and filled out the form to be on the show, only to find out that 20,000 people enter to be on! I put it out of my mind until I got an email from the show's producer about 6 weeks ago, saying he liked my entry and was considering me for the new season. I even had a phone interview with another member of the show's production team, and told her why I love Kaze and would love to be part of the show. I was THRILLED to even be called. Everyone in the office watches! And I'd love to meet the very accomplished Kalpana Singh! I hesitated to write about the experience here on the blog, hoping I'd have a great success story to tell you readers about how I was going to be on the show, but alas alack I've heard nothing. It's been long enough that I think I'm finally going to have to admit that I'm not going to have my five minutes of fame. Well, it was exciting to think about while it lasted.

So for the time being I'm going to keep up my reviews here on the site for all to enjoy. Maybe I'll get the opportunity to share with a wider audience sometime in the future, but for now my reviews will remain a fun hobby. Thank you to those of you who are regular readers (my site tracking tells me that 30% of you are return visitors!) and please let me know how you think I'm doing!

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Gluttony at the Food Marketing Show

We've just spent a gloriously excessive day at this year's Food Marketing Institute tradeshow. Sure, it was a nice day outside and we could've spent it doing something healthy and active, but our friend, colleague and blog reader George Rafeedie gave us free passes to the show. So, being the foodies we are we really couldn't pass up the opportunity.

I've been to many a tradeshow in my b-to-b marketing days, but this was by far the biggest and best I've encountered. As we walked through the hall entrance our eyes grew large as a booth staffer immediately offered taquito bites and two flavors of margarita. Luckily we hadn't eat breakfast, which gave us all the more room in our stomachs to fill up on all the delights being generously handed out. George had tried to paint a picture of the amount of food we'd encounter, but I still wasn't prepared for the scale of all there was to eat. Kraft's booth was far and away the best: full-size hot dogs, grilled cheese made with their new premium cheese, CPK pizza, sauteed shrimp and tortilla wraps were just a few things we sampled. The Pillsbury section of the General Mills booth lured us with crustless PB&Js, 7-layer bars and Toll-House cookies. We kept moving through the bigger booths to the smaller ones in back where we found just as many samples including pad thai, fish cakes, beef jerky and pasta sauces galore. It was here that we encountered the worst thing we ate all day: peanut brittle made with overly smoky bacon. We passed through both the Miller and Bud booths without sampling, but if we'd wanted to we absolutely could have sat at the cocktail tables in either one and drank beer to our hearts content, all served by scantily clad female bartenders. Just when I thought I couldn't hold any more, I was tempted by some pomegranate and chocolate chip gelato that was truly amazing and managed to find room to stuff down a bit of Reese's new "Whipped" candy bar that has 40% less fat (oh, thank goodness, because we were really watching what we ate today).

We took a break and decided to cross into the next hall where our passes allowed us to enter the "Fancy Food Show." We soon realized we'd entered heaven, and that we surely should've started our day in this hall and not the other. In this hall we ate cheese, cheese and more cheese, not to mention countless salsas, mustards, sauces, crackers, jams and jellies. Wait, I forgot all the cookies, fudge, dried fruit and the petit fours I couldn't pass up. It all just looked so incredibly good. We even ran into a friend of a friend who operates a cheese importing company from Cincinnati, called Cheese from Britain, and enjoyed a cheddar bleu combination as well as an unbelievably good costwald. I know, it sounds like a lot of cheese. Not since the day in culinary school when I was forced to eat 23 cheeses in succession for a palate education class have I eaten so much cheese all at once. We went down one aisle to find the "Italian Marketplace" where there was the most amazing selection of olives and other antipasti I've ever seen. Despite feeling semi-nauseous at this point, I managed to scarf down enormous green olives stuffed with provolone and roquefort and salami stuffed with mozzarella. It was around this time that Peter turned to me and said, "I think I'm sweating." We were quite the sight, moaning and holding our stomachs in pain, yet pressing on down row after row. Did I mention the mango creme brulee and aloe water? We meandered back to the entrance by way of the produce section, amused by the machine that was cleaning and sorting potatoes, and another that cleaned lemons.

We left the fancy food show and took a short break in the space between the two halls, spreading out on the carpeted floor trying not to throw up. I was pretty much ready to leave at this point, but Peter got his second wind and despite my protests insisted we go back to the first hall. We were pickier our second time around but still managed to eat more pizza, some Diet Coke Plus (now, with vitamins and minerals!), Italian sausage, another crustless PB&J, and some of Campbell's new low sodium soup (to which my reaction was, 'this needs salt'). At this point I had really reached my limit and even Peter started to lose his ability to fill up on any more. So, with tired feet and uncomfortably full stomachs we made our way back to the car, vowing not to eat again all day.

Last week I entered our office's Biggest Loser weight loss challenge. Before today I was even starting to feel like I was maybe doing okay and possibly going to lose a pound or two by weigh in time tomorrow. But after today I think it's safe to say that the scale tomorrow will move in the opposite direction--maybe I can get a bye this week?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Frasca

For my friend and colleague George, I'll try to keep this posting a bit on the shorter side. Maybe that way I can update it more often!

Peter and I found yet another fantastic restaurant right in our neighborhood this week: Frasca. I've walked by it countless times and had heard great things about it from my friend Libby, so on a cold, rainy night in April I was pretty excited when I walked into this cozy spot. Libby was right: with its flickering votives, large wood-burning oven, and warm wood throughout, this place definitely has a romantic feel. We were seated at a large booth and greeted with a friendly smile.

The first thing our server offered was a paper menu called "The Farmer's Table." Much like a sushi menu in which you check off the rolls you'd like, this featured various bruschetta options as well as meat and cheese selections, sort of like a create-your-own antipasto. You have the option to choose individual items or choose 5 items for $15--what a bargain! We chose 2 types of bruschetta, 2 meats and 1 cheese. Everything was delicious, but the standout was the brie and green apple bruschetta that our waiter highly recommended. The brie was perfectly ripe and super buttery, the perfect complement to the acidity of the green apple, finished with a drizzle of honey and a sprinkling of pepper. Wow. This one I'm going to try to recreate at home.

Though I had every intention of ordering the Tuscan Chicken as my entree, our waiter very kindly let us know that it was BOGO pizza night. 2 pizzas for the price of one? Again, what a bargain! Peter really tried to convince me that we should order both the chicken AND the BOGO pizza so we could take an entire pizza home and keep it for snacking, I eventually won the argument and we settled on just the pizzas.

I ordered the prosciutto pizza and Peter went with shrimp and Italian bacon. Though we were already pleasantly full from our Farmer's Table, our eyes widened when our pizzas were set before us. Mine was piled with large, overlapping slices of prosciutto and topped with a large pile of arugula in the center that had been dressed in a light vinaigrette. It was fantastic. Though prosciutto has a tendency to be too salty, the combination of the peppery greens with the meat (oh, and the mozzarella, of course) was delightful. If I had to offer one criticism, it would be that it was just a bit difficult to eat, as the greens kept sliding off. Peter loved his pizza so much that he very nearly wouldn't trade me a slice of mine for his creamy, cheesy and gooey concoction. We both loved the crispy crust with its smoky, grilled flavor.

The best part of this meal is that our bill came to only $34 total. For this amount of food at this quality, we'll absolutely be back soon.

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The damage: that's right, only $34

Food: 4 1/2 forks - all delicious, and I can't wait to come back and sample more of the menu

Romance: 4 1/2 kisses - flickering candlelight is flattering

Watch out for: seriously, the only thing I can come up with is that my pizza was hard to eat

Frasca Pizzeria and Wine Bar
3358 North Paulina
Chicago, IL 60657
773.248.5222

Friday, April 06, 2007

Slim's - Fufu and Cracklin'

Ah, Easter weekend. The perfect time to take a much-needed visit back home to Cincinnati to visit friends and enjoy a good meal or two. Ever since the list of 2007's Top 25 restaurants came out several weeks ago I've been wanting to get in town and knock a few more I haven't visited off the list. My friend Laura has been my tried and true partner for many such dining occasions--each time the new issue comes out she calls me and reads through the entire list over the phone and we talk about where to go next. I was delighted that this weekend both Laura and my friend Julie (yup, same one from our Volo excursion) were free for dinner to try out the much-publicized Slim's for the first time.

The first thing we learned is that Slim's is only open Thursday through Sunday. When Laura called on Wednesday she was greeted by a voice mail directing to leave her reservation request after the beep, and advising that they couldn't guarantee anything since they stay open only until the food runs out. Interesting, slightly strange, and inspiring in that we rushed to get to the place earlier than we'd usually eat for fear they might actually run out of food and send us home hungry.

We walked in to a mostly empty restaurant to find ourselves in a warm, comfortable, eclectic room dominated by yellow walls and warm wood. There were two of the "community" tables I've read about and while they looked interesting and inviting we opted for a four-top on the upper level. Locally produced art adorns the walls and bowls of fresh produce line the windowsill. Though it wasn't crowded when we entered (we did arrive on the very early side), we were soon joined by several other patrons.

Laura had learned that Slim's is a BYOB so she and Julie came prepared with a bottle of pinot grigio each, thereby making me a slacker and a mooch. We all admitted to not having much experience with a BYOB, but after this one I know I for one will seek them out. What could be better? You bring your own wine and they provide the opener and glasses. Slim's doesn't even have a corkage fee so in the end you get great wine of your choosing without the annoying 200% markup you usually get in restaurant wine. But the best part is that we had spoons the size of shovels that let us spoon ice cubes into our wine glasses (don’t laugh—we know we’re classy chicks).

Our server presented us with menus (handwritten, which to me indicated freshness and a frequent change of menu items) and a basket of what had to be homemade bread to start. As we gnawed on the three different types of bread (sweet bread with a salt and pepper crust, distinctly orange jalapeno bread and cornbread), we ran through the menu and tried to decide what to eat. If our server hadn't been there, we'd have been lost. Everything on the menu sounds interesting, but the descriptions weren't terribly helpful. Smoky fufu? As in little bunny? Mofongo pequeno? But our server patiently answered all our questions and carefully described all the dishes, offering up his suggestions in the process with words that clearly indicated that he truly loves food.

We each ordered different starters and entrees and sat back to enjoy our wine, trying not to stuff ourselves with bread. Once the first round of dishes arrived we shared and critiqued each one and determined they rated in the following order: 1) mofongo pequeno (spicy shrimp), 2) asapao de pollo (like a chicken gumbo) and 3) salad with shiitake mushrooms. The mofongo was great: two large shrimp covered in a spicy cocktail sauce sit inside a cup made of sweet bread with crisp greens in a mustardy vinaigrette on the side. We were off to a promising start.

Then came our entrees. I don't know why, because I never do, but for some reason I ordered the vegetarian entree, which was a tamale with black beans and salsa. Though the presentation was impressive, as it was served in a black hexagonal bowl that seemed to be filled with delicious delights, in actuality I thought it was bland and uninteresting. The tamale was just cooked cornmeal with a few lonely mushrooms inside, and the beans lacked seasoning. I should have gone with my gut on this one. Laura ordered the pork tenderloin that she tasted and promptly declared that it tasted "floral." I took a bite and had to agree. Not terrible, but the "floral" taste of lavender and herbs just wasn’t that particularly appealing to our palettes. Julie had wisely ordered what the server had told us was his favorite: braised pork belly with fufu. It sounds strange and even a little bit gross, I know, but this dish was great. Turns out fufu is a combination of mashed plantains and bacon chunks that's a little piece of heaven. And the pork belly was tender and meaty and coated with a crust of cracklin’, that crispy crunchy skin that coats the meat (it’s the same cut of meat as bacon). Laura and I basically pouted our way through the rest of the meal, bitter that we hadn’t ordered that yummy and delicious belly.

We were pretty full of both food and wine at this point, but I felt the need to sample at least one dessert. We chose the Oatmeal Sundae, a large oatmeal cookie topped with ice cream. Maybe I was still bitter about not ordering the pork belly, but I found the cookie to be so overcooked and hard that it was difficult to eat and a little burned tasting. The good thing is that I don’t think in the end we were charged for it.

Slim's bills itself as a restaurant dedicated to "real comfortable food." I'd wholeheartedly agree with that classification. Slim's isn't trying to be something it's not and is clearly just out to serve good, honest food four nights a week. I think their location in Northside keeps more people from eating there more frequently, but if Honey and others in the area can be successful and keep drawing people to the neighborhood they'll likely overcome this challenge.

As for Laura and Julie, we're now on a mission to cross off the others in the Top 25 we haven’t visited before the end of the year. With hard work and empty stomachs I think we'll get there.

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The damage: just over $30 per person, which we all agreed was a steal

Food: 3 out of 5 forks, though if Laura and I had chosen more wisely and ordered the pork belly, this might've scored 4 forks.

Romance: 2 out of 5 kisses - it just seems like a restaurant better suited to either a girls night or night out with a group of friends

Watch out for: the vegetarian tamales - bland and disappointing all around

Slim’s
4046 Hamilton Avenue
Cincinnati, Ohio
513.681.6500

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Kaze





This city has some great sushi. Since we've moved here we've really enjoyed how much fresher and more available great sushi is, and Kaze, yet another restaurant just a few steps away from us, is a great example of this.

Kaze's Web site calls its offering "traditional" sushi preparation, but one thing I've been struck by on every occasion we've dined there is just how unique and interesting their combinations and ingredients are. When I first passed this tiny restaurant while strolling down Roscoe I thought it was just another carry-out fast food type of sushi place, but how wrong I was. You enter the door to find a serene, minimally decorated and mostly white room that seems to be so trendy right now. But far from being sterile, the atmosphere is warm and welcoming, in part because it's so darn small--there can't be more than 25 tables or so. The flowers that decorate the exhibition sushi bar are perfectly and precisely chosen and placed at regular intervals along the counter. I wonder if they get these at that adorable floral shop down the street I've been meaning to go into?

And the service is equally welcoming. Whether it's a weeknight after work or a fancy night out, we've never felt out of place or inappropriately attired and have always been treated extremely well by our servers. Both times we've gone we've had appetizers and sushi, though the restaurant offers several selections of Japanese entrees that look enticing. For appetizers, I have to rave for a minute about the Carrot Soup Peter ordered on our last visit. I'm highly suspicious of carrot soup as it usually just tastes like mushy baby food to me. And when Peter's small dish of soup arrived in what looked like an espresso cup, I didn't have high hopes. But as soon as I tasted the rich, slightly spicy and smoky soup I wanted more. Not to mention that there was a substantial chunk of crab floating on top. What a great way to warm up the palette. On another visit we had the Sweet Potato Soup, another creamy, delicious, warming creation that features (shhh, don't tell) just a hint of foie gras garnish.

We've sample various rolls (makimono), the best of which have been the caterpillar, soft-shell crab and whatever the special roll of the day is. Far from rolls you get at your local grocery store, these rolls are the freshest and most delicate I've tasted. We had the special last time we went, which featured ahi tuna spiced with jalapeno, and though it was good the taste wasn't as strong as we'd have liked. A colleague told me that the best thing to do here is go in, sit at the sushi counter and just ask them to create whatever specials they feel like. Sitting at the counter and watching the precision of the cuts and skill with which the chefs created the rolls, I could believe that pretty much anything they made would taste fantastic.

Though I've seen it on the menu we've never tried the tasting menu. It changes seasonally and looks delicious, and one night soon I'm sure we'll partake. Apart from this seasonal menu, there's a prix fixe tasting menu offered each Tuesday night. It's a bit pricey at $45 per person, but keep in mind that the price includes both sake and wine tastings. I'm also looking forward to enjoying the outdoor patio now that spring seems to finally have sprung.

Loyal readers will know of my obsession for dessert. Based on our server's recommendation we went with the Black Sesame Flan. This dessert was so unique from anything I've tasted before that I don't know that my description can truly do it justice. The flan was in the center of the plate but surrounded by a green soup of tapioca-like pearls that appeared to have sesame seeds in the center. The really cool thing about this dessert was really its texture, and we quickly lapped up every last bite trying to figure out just what it was and how it was made. It was light and fruity, slightly reminiscent of a lychee, and was the perfect ending to a meal that doesn't leave you feeling guilty for partaking. I'd probably need to sample it again to really describe it better. Or maybe next time I'll try the dessert sample to get a variety of Chef Macku's favorites? Now that sounds heavenly.

In short, Kaze is yet another reason I'm so glad we moved to Chicago. I know I'm going to be surprised and delighted with delicious, fresh food each time. It's the perfect night out to relax during the week or on weekends. And while sitting at the sushi bar is a fun and interactive way to enjoy the restaurant, it's equally good for a romantic night out or an evening with friends. Sure Japonais is more of the "it" place to hang out and be seen, but to enjoy Japanese cuisine that's at least as good if not better in a much more friendly environment, head to Kaze, right here in the Village.

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The damage: depends on what you get, but about $50 per person with tip and a glass of wine each

Food: 5 out of 5 forks - seriously, I think this is some of the best sushi I've ever had (sorry to Beluga in Cincinnati--I still really like yours too)

Romance: 4 1/2 out of 5 kisses - I think this would be great for a first date (sit at the counter) or a fiftieth (go for a 2-top by the window). The lovely floral arrangements and candlelight make for quite a nice atmosphere and most importantly it's not too loud to enjoy a nice conversation

Watch out for: the crowd! There have a been a few times we've noticed a pretty long wait and have had to go elsewhere, so do yourself a favor and call ahead--it's worth it

Kaze
2032 W. Roscoe Street
Chicago, IL 60618
773.327.4860

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Dining on Captiva Island, FL

I'd like to formally apologize for the delay since my last posting, but for the past week plus we've spent a lovely week on Captiva Island, Florida. For those who aren't familiar with the place, it's located on the southwestern (Gulf) side of Florida, about an hour or so away from the Ft. Myers airport, and after Hurricane Charley basically connected to the better known Sanibel Island. Some describe it as sleepy, but that all depends on your point of view. It doesn't have the hopping nightlife of Daytona or even Tampa, but here's a sampling of some of what you can enjoy: biking, shelling, walking, swimming, tennis, golf, boating, shopping, fishing, kayaking, gator watching, sand castle building and birding. And yes, the islands were hit hard by Charley 2 1/2 years ago, but they've made a striking recovery and with the exception of some mangroves and pine trees, everything is just as beautiful as it ever was. It's a piece of heaven, in my opinion, and just the respite from our busy work lives that we needed.

So while I can't report on any Chicago or Cincinnati restaurant news today, what I can share with you are some of the favorite dishes and restaurants we enjoyed this week, just in case you're ever lucky enough to find yourself on the islands.

The Mucky Duck
- the food is just okay, but this is known as THE place the place to catch a Corona and sunset - this is the kind of island where people actually clap for a great sunset.

The Bubble Room - known for 3-hour+ waits for dinner, we've found a way around this in recent years by getting take out of their two best dishes: the creamy, cheesy, garlicky warm Bubble Bread and a sampling of their enormous slices of cake (get them early in your trip so you can enjoy for many days). Though you'll be tempted by over a dozen cake varieties, don't go without trying the Orange Crunch Cake. The layers of yellow cake with cinnamon and almonds between are topped with orange cream cheese icing. The "Bubble Scout" who cut our cake deemed this dessert to be too sweet, but I disagree--it's perfect as it is and sells out every night, so you know it's great.

Keylime Bistro
- service isn't their strong point, but you're on island time, right? Who's in a hurry? I've only eaten here for breakfast and lunch, both of which offer a range of choices. I've heard dinner is great as well. You'll often be treated to live music, most frequently of the Jimmy Buffet/James Taylor sort.

Sunset Grill - for dinner, this is our favorite of favorites. The service is friendly and welcoming, yet a notch above food-wise the typical casual fare of most island restaurants. The presentation is outstanding and everything we've had was delicious. This trip we had exquisite escargot, seared scallops with lobster risotto, and tender osso buco.

The Lazy Flamingo - there are two of these on Sanibel, and we like the one closer to the causeway. Looks are deceiving here. Though it appears to be nothing more than a typical sports bar, the seafood couldn't be fresher and service is fast and friendly. We enjoyed the grouper sandwiches and the 4-hour old stone crab claws with mustard sauce. Oh, and we polished off a lovely slice of key lime pie.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

An Afternoon with Grant Achatz

I've never felt so much like a foodie as I did earlier this month. I got an email one Friday morning that notified me that Grant Achatz (of Alinea fame) and Michael Ruhlman would be discussing "The Making of a Chef" at the Steppenwolf Theater. No, we haven't yet made it to Alinea to use our gift certificate, but ever since Gourmet magazine's Ruth Reichl named it the best restaurant in America I've been following the restaurant and Grant's career. And Ruhlman's book The Making of a Chef is one of the driving forces that caused me to want to attend culinary school. So when I learned about this event I just had to have tickets. Devoted readers and friends will kindly remember how starstruck I get in the presence of celebrities, and to be this close to two celebrities (at least to me) made me giddy.

This might be a good time to pause for a moment to comment on the fact that Mr. Achatz managed to pull in a crowd of over 400 avid foodies, all gathered and paying money simply to be in his presence and hear his thoughts on food and how he got to where he is. Undoubtedly the audience was full of fellow foodies and kitchen professionals (the pre-show conversation eavesdropping was fantastic), but we had to wonder if this kind of crowd would have paid money for such an event even 5 years ago.

It's no small task that he's accomplished all he has in a mere 32 years. He's worked at some of the best kitchens in the country: Trotter's, French Laundry, Trio. He spoke most fondly about his time at FL, clearly a life-changing experience. It was here that under the tutelage of one Thomas Keller that Grant says he gained a mastery and appreciation of the "basics." But when he visited the often cited "El Bulli" restaurant in Spain for a week-long stage, he knew he had to break out of the FL kitchen for a brave new world of an entirely innovative type of food. Though he detests the word, some have termed this cuisine "molecular gastronomy."

It's strange stuff, really truly. If you haven't heard about this phenomenon, it's food unlike any other you've seen or tasted before: a single bite of food perched on an antenna; a spritzer that you squirt in your mouth that contains the essence of shrimp; foams and gelees aplenty; solids suspended in liquids. Interesting, of course, but my main concern about all this cuisine de science has been about how utterly un-filling and un-satisfying I perceive it must be. Food that doesn't require a utensil? My fear is that it's all in the clever, coy and innovative presentation and not about taste.

If you haven't guessed yet, I'm skeptical of this new type of cuisine that Achatz is spearheading in the United States. Could Grant convince me otherwise? We've had a gift certificate for Alinea we've yet to use, but I'm looking forward to it soon.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Adesso

The first week of March and I was quite depressed to find that snow and ice were still accumulating on the ground last week. But this weekend the warm temperatures and sunshine finally broke through and the neighborhood was abuzz with adults, kids and pets everywhere. Peter and I headed out this morning (well, it was really this afterNOON given the spring forward time change) for a long walk to take in the fresh air and finally log some miles by foot around our new condo.

We headed straight down Addison towards Wrigley, then made our way south on Broadway. Having come over 2 miles and not eating before we departed, by that time we'd worked up a pretty mighty appetite. Luckily this stretch of Broadway in the Lakeview/Wrigleyville/Boystown area is chock full of restaurants, cafes, grocery stores and other food options. After window shopping several restaurant menus we settled on Adesso, a tiny spot that lured us with its compact yet yummy-looking menu of pancakes and egg dishes. This small spot can't have more than 20 tables, and we were lucky enough to score one right in the window so we could easily people watch and comment on passersby (one of our favorite pastimes).

The menu was small, but Peter is convinced (and I agree) that a small menu means each item is going to be better because it gets more attention from the chefs. There are several egg dish options, each with a twist from the ordinary. Eggs Benedict is served on polenta, eggs are poached in marinara sauce, and the eggs and bacon comes topped with pea puree. Peter chose the Eggs Romana (the one topped with pea puree) and I opted for the more traditional Adesso Salmone, described as a plate with smoked salmon and its traditional accoutrements like capers and egg. Our coffee was good and strong and gave us just the extra jolt we needed to feel more awake as we waited for our food.

We only had time to comment on a half dozen or so dogs and their owners strolling by before our food arrived. Peter's plate looked fantastic: two large pieces of toast covered with thick, wide strips of bacon, over easy eggs, topped with that green pea puree we'd been so curious about, and accompanied by a creamy potato gratin. My plate was lovely, but not quite the portion size my empty stomach was hoping for. Neatly arranged around the perimeter of my plate I had six perfectly cut piece of very thin toast (no crusts), red onion marmalade, grated egg yolk, grated egg white, capers, and mascarpone cream cheese. In the center of the plate was a small pile of strips of smoked salmon. Both our meals were delicious, even if I would've been more satisfied with a slightly larger amount of everything on my plate. I proceeded to make appetizer bites of all the elements on my plate, being careful to divide each one as equally as possible so as not to be left with toast and nary a caper in sight.

All in all, this was a great little brunch spot that allowed us to eat a great meal for a very reasonable price and still have plenty of time to enjoy the sunshine. I'd love to come back for dinner sometime soon to see what other offerings are on the menu.

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The damage: about $25 total, including tip, which we considered a steal.

Food: 3 of 5 forks - good (not great), with some nice menu items to make it unique and memorable.

Romance: 3 out 5 kisses - It was daytime and a bit loud, though I can imagine this place would be pretty romantic during the evening

Watch out for: some of the tables can be a bit close to one another, especially the two-tops

Adesso
3332 N. Broadway
Chicago, IL
60657
(773) 868-1516

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Peter's Votes for Best of Cincinnati

Here are Peter's picks:

Best Overall Restaurant: Boca
Best New Restaurant: Chez T's
Best First Date Restaurant: Boca
Best Restaurant with a View: The Chart House
Best Restaurant with Live Music: Dee Felice
Best Asian (Not Chinese): Bangkok Bistro
Best Bagels: no place in Cincinnati
Best Bakery: Busken's
Best Barbeque: Bar-b-que Review
Best Breakfast: Price Hill Chili
Best Burgers: Arthur's
Best Burritos/Wraps: Don Pablo's
Best Business Lunch: Palomino
Best Cheap Eats: Chez T
Best Chef: Jim Demaree
Best Chili (Chain): Gold Star
Best Chili (Non-Chain): The Tea Room
Best Chinese: Szechuan Wok in Silverton
Best Coffeehouse: Starbucks
Best Deli: Dilly Deli
Best Desserts: The Bonbonerie
Best Italian: Nicola's
Best Mexican: Don Pablo's
Best Outdoor Dining: Chez Nora
Best Pizza (chain): Papa John's
Best Pizza (non-chain): Dewey's
Best Salads: Dewey's
Best Sandwiches: Jersey Mike's
Best Seafood: McCormick & Schmick's
Best Steaks: Jag's
Best Sunday Brunch: Grand Finale
Best Sushi: Beluga
Best Takeout: Bangkok Bistro
Best Waitstaff: Kenwood Skyline
Best Wings: Buffalo Wild Wings

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Angie's Best of Cincinnati

I learned that it's the time of year for Citybeat voting so I'm going to offer up my favorites here. Hopefully Peter will weigh in with his choices in the next few days.

Best Overall Restaurant: Boca
Best New Restaurant: Nectar
Best First Date Restaurant: Boca
Best Restaurant with a View: The Charthouse
Best Restaurant with Live Music: Allyn's
Best Asian (Not Chinese): Lemongrass
Best Bagels: Marx
Best Bakery: The Bonbonerie
Best Barbeque: Walt's
Best Breakfast: The Echo
Best Burgers: Zip's
Best Burritos/Wraps: Chipotle
Best Business Lunch: Jean-Ro Bistro
Best Cheap Eats: Arthur's
Best Chef: Jean Robert de Cavel
Best Chili (Chain): Skyline
Best Chili (Non-Chain): JK's in Madeira
Best Chinese: Szechuan Wok in Silverton
Best Coffeehouse: Awakenings
Best Deli: Dilly Deli
Best Desserts: The Bonbonerie
Best Italian: Nicola's
Best Mexican: El Coyote
Best Outdoor Dining: Ferrari's
Best Pizza (chain): LaRosa's
Best Pizza (non-chain): Dewey's
Best Salads: First Watch
Best Sandwiches: Dilly Deli
Best Seafood: Trio
Best Steaks: The Precinct
Best Sunday Brunch: Teller's
Best Sushi: Beluga
Best Takeout: Bangkok Bistro
Best Waitstaff: Kenwood Skyline
Best Wings: I don't eat them

Another Cincinnati Restaurant Blog!

Wow! I was pleasantly surprised this morning to discover that there's another Cincy restaurant blog on the scene. While I could view this as competition, and had previously prided myself on maintaining the only blog dedicated to this topic, I'm actually glad that the city's dining is growing enough for two blogs. I'm even happier that this blog links to ours and have returned the favor!

So, David Moriarty, I'm going to rely on you to help keep me posted on the restaurant scene there between visits back home. I don't necessarily agree with your assessment of Aqua, but hands down agree that the best pizza in town can be found at Dewey's. My favorite is the Edgar Allen Poe, which I always have to get on just half so Peter can steer clear of the olives he so detests.

Welcome!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Volo Restaurant Wine Bar

Volo is yet another reason I love, love, love living in Roscoe Village. When Julie, one of my best friends from Cincinnati came to visit this weekend, I felt the need to take her to a good Chicago restaurant and show off our new city. She'd eaten at Boystown's XO the night before with another friend and went on about the meal, the wine and the atmosphere, and truthfully I felt a little pressure to make my restaurant choice equally as good.

Peter chose to stay in and let us have some "girl time," so we ventured out towards Roscoe Street ready to catch up, drink wine and of course enjoy some good food. I hoped Volo wouldn't let me down. We were seated right away near the front window. The space is small, for sure, but we settled into our cozy spot right away. We spent some time reading our menus, pondering what exactly to get. There's a list of food down the left side and a limited choice of four or five wine flights on the right. At first confused, I eventually realized that the symbols next to each food item were coded to match the flights (yup, I'm a smart one). After discussing what sounded good to each of us we realized that the Pinot Noir flight was the right one for us. We ordered four plates and a flight each and were on our way.

The wine proved to be the only thing we were served that looked the way I thought it would. Our server first brought out the calamari, stuffed with shrimp and andouille sausage. I know it's a bit ignorant of me, but when I read calamari on a menu I've come to automatically expect piles of the stuff on a plate or in a bowl, generally fried or grilled. This was neither, but was instead a single tube that had been stuffed with the seafood mix and stood upright in a row, on a stripe of leek fondue and another stripe of creole sauce. It was delicious and I was secretly glad when Julie left both me with two extra pieces with which to soak up the sauce still on the plate. At the same time as the calamari our waiter brought us a goat cheese, bacon and mushroom pizza. Heavenly. Not your average pizza in the slightest, the three wedges of crust appeared to be almost fried, and this cracker-crisp crust was the perfect base for the creamy goat cheese, thick slices of crunchy bacon and sauteed mushrooms. There was even a dash of red pepper flakes sprinkled on top (my fave) that lended the perfect amount of kick. Thus far, we were very happy with our choices.

Our second two courses were good but fell a bit flat. The white bean and escarole dish I'd hoped would be a thick spread with some nice flatbread arrived as just a somewhat bland soup (clearly I missed the word "soup" somehere on the menu). Julie had adventurously ordered the duck confit, never having had duck before. I expected it to be off the bone and sprinkled on top of the lettuce, but it arrived in full bone-in form that we had to pick off. I'm not normally a big fan of the strong, oily meat of duck, but this was pretty tasty. The crisp skin on top melted in our mouths and were a nice balance with the red wine jus and spiced greens.

As for the wine, our three tastings were good but not great. The first, a Burgundy, was described as "soft." We agreed, but also thought that it was so soft it lacked body and was pretty forgettable. The second, and Pinot from New Zealand, was our clear favorite and the perfect match with the duck. Too bad I was thirsty enough to have consumed most of it before we made it to the second set of courses! The third wine we both agreed was just plain bad. Our waiter instructed us that the wine listed on the menu had been replaced by one the chef found to be better, but we both winced at the cough syrupy taste and floral bouquet. I powered through and finished my glass (well, it would be wasteful not to, right?) but Julie left hers half un-drunk. Instead of ordering dessert, we each had one more glass of the gem from New Zealand.

All in all we had a lovely evening. The service was friendly but not overbearing and the atmosphere was hip and stylish but not in an overly trendy way. I read on their web site that they have a "loungy backyard" so now I've got yet another reason I'm counting down the days until warm weather is here again. And with reasonable prices and several special wine and food tasting events each week you can bet I'll bring Peter here to experience Volo in the very near future.

I'll admit that I was more than a little pleased when Julie declared that our meal had been better than XO.
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The damage: about $50 each for a wine flight plus several small courses

Food: 4 of 5 forks - I can still taste that delicious pizza and its fantastic combination of flavors.

Romance: 4 out 5 kisses - I can't wait to bring Peter back to enjoy a romantic, candlelit meal, especially now that I know they have a relaxing patio in back.

Watch out for: the fact that you might not enjoy all the wines chosen for you in your flight.

Volo Restaurant Wine Bar
2008 West Roscoe
Chicago, IL 60618
Phone (773) 348-4600

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Valentine Sugar Cookies


Here's a great, easy recipe for cutout sugar cookies. I'll admit that I actually intended on making a recipe that used both eggs and cream cheese, but when I opened up my parents' fridge to find we had neither of those, I opted for this recipe instead. These cookies were crisp and buttery, and much more of a crunchy shortbread than a soft and chewy sugar cookie. They were particularly delicious with the frosting and red hot and sprinkles adornments most artfully applied by my sister and grandmother!


Ingredients:
2 sticks butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup powdered sugar
1 Tb milk
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Directions:
1. Place butter in the bowl of an electric mixer and with paddle attachment beat until creamy.
2. Add all remaining ingredients and mix until smooth dough just begins to form.
3. Divide dough in half. Place on plastic wrap and cover and refrigerate at least one hour or until firm.
4. Roll out dough to 1/4"-1/2" thickness (I like mine thicker). Using cookie cutters dipped in flour or powdered sugar cut desired shapes. Place on lightly greased cookie sheet. These don't spread or rise much, so you can put them quite close together.
5. Bake at 325 degrees for 10-12 minutes until very lightly browned.
6. Remove from oven and let rest on cookie sheet for one minute before placing on cooling racks. Decorate as desired.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Mom's Famous Marinated Flank Steak

I always love coming home for a visit, and for quite awhile now Sunday night dinners at home are a tradition when we're all in the same location. This recipe for marinated flank steak goes down in the Fischer family as one of our all-time favorite meals. No matter the time of year or occasion, when anyone is asked what they would like when we're having a special dinner, time and time again we request this dish. We've made it so many times we've perfected it, but until this evening I hadn't asked from where the recipe originally hailed. It turns out that when my parents first married 35+ years ago and went to dinner at my father's sister's house, she made this especially for my mom in place of the fish she made for everyone else, knowing that my mother pretty much detests things from the sea beyond shellfish. Tonight, our flank steak was accompanied by Mom's award-winning Caesar salad (sorry, that one will have to stay a family secret for now), asparagus, and fluffy potato casserole tinted pink in honor of our belated Valentine's Day celebration. It was as delicious as always, seared to perfection on the grill for a crispy crust and melt-in-your mouth tender on the inside with just the right balance of salty and sweet. If you're lucky enough to have leftovers, try them on a sandwich between two pieces of sturdy white bread and a healthy amount of mayo. Enjoy!

Ingredients:
1 bottle (10 oz) soy sauce
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 Tb lemon juice
1/4 cup bourbon
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 cups water
2 large flank steaks

Directions:
Pour all ingredients into large Tupperware or pyrex dish. Place meat in, cover, and refrigerate all day, turning several times to cover all sides.

Get the grill as hot as you can. Place meat on grill for 2 minutes on each side, making sure to get a nice crusty sear on the outside. Once seared, close grill cover and bake meat for an additional 10 minutes or until desired doneness. Remove from grill and let rest 5 to 10 minutes. Cut on an angle into thin slices and serve.

Serves: 6 to 8 people.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Paulina Pot Pies

Anyone who lives in the Midwest right now knows how snowy and cold the weather has been this week. So when we were socked with a fairly significant snow and wind storm yesterday, we refrained from driving and took the El in to work. The El is great, and we were truly excited to move to a city with a decent public transportation system. But shortly after we moved in our nearest El stop closed for renovations for a year, leaving us to trek 10 blocks to the next stop. All of which is fine except on days that are as cold and snowy as yesterday. I started my walk from the station home and made it about halfway home yesterday, toes frozen and snow-covered, when I had to take a break. The closest thing that caught my eye was the Paulina Meat Market, a place we’ve driven by countless times but never been in.

I walked in to find a large, open market atmosphere filled with cases of fresh and frozen food, produce and dry goods. What I didn’t even realize was that this meat market is often cited as the top in the city—how lucky are we that it’s within just a short walk of our door? I love Roscoe Village more every day. Chilled to the bone I thought about what would taste good once I finally made it home. While several things looked appealing: roast beef, barbeque pork tenderloin, raviolis, I finally settled on individual chicken pot pies. They remind me of my childhood, as they’re one of three meals (pizza, mac ‘n cheese are the other two) we cycled through when my parents went out and left us with a babysitter. As I peeled off my gloves to pay for the food, the older gentleman behind the counter told me just how much I was going to enjoy these pot pies. He mentioned twice the fact that everything in them except the pastry was homemade, and that they even roasted the chickens themselves to make the filling.

Delighted with my purchase and eager to get home and get warm, I braved the rest of the walk home and immediately turned on the oven. One hour and 400 degrees later, our pot pies were ready. They were golden brown on top and the pastry had puffed above the rim of the container (don’t open your oven once you put it in—that’s the secret here). Peter and I sat down with the latest episode of American Idol, prepared to enjoy the comforting food. The pot pies were delicious. The pastry was light and flaky and covered not just the top, but also the bottom and sides of the dish. It was crispy, not soggy, and was filled with creamy chicken filling that also contained carrots, potatoes, red and green peppers and mushrooms. About halfway through Peter stopped, turned to me, and said (with utter seriousness), “I don’t want my pot pie to end.” He was adorable, and he was right. It was an absolutely perfect meal, and at $7 each, it was an exceptional value. Regardless of whether it’s snowing or whether I happen to be walking by on my way home from the train, I know I’ll stop in at the Paulina Meat Market again to partake of their delicious prepared foods.

Paulina Meat Market
3501 N. Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60657
773.248.6272
www.paulinameatmarket.com

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

From Ambria to Weber Grill. And a Whole Lot In-between.

Note: This post was written by first-time blog author Peter Blocksom!

Ambria. Terragusto. Kitch’n. Weber Grill. Singha. Su Casa. Vong's Thai Kitchen. Shaw's Crab House. Giardano's. Big Bowl. Robey's. CPK. Lalo's. Cafe Ba-Ba-Reba. Kaze. The Melting Pot. Brasserie Jo. Pizzeria Due. Rockits. Brazzaz. The House of Blues. Ruth Chris' Steak House. Quartino. Toast. Fogo de Chao. Japonais. Piazza Bella. The Black Rock. Park Grill. McCormick & Schmick’s. Naha. Ben Pao. Keefer's. Flatwater Grill. Rosebud. Carmine's. El Tinajon. Scoozi. Coobah. Riojah.

These--and dozens of others--are places that you'll most likely never read about here. (With the probable and notable exception of the absolutely perfect Ambria. Okay, and Kaze and Riojah, too. ) It's not that each of these restaurants had not their charms and reasons to write home about. It's just that, well, we got a little overwhelmed.

Now that we're cozily settled in to our condo our first few months in Chicago seem a distant memory. We’re a long way from El maps. From the confusion found at those 10-way intersections. And, thank God, far from our viewing of more than 100 properties before finding the one.

Before we were settled, we'd spent about 90 days in a state of nomadicism, moving from corporate apartment to hotel to corporate apartment and back again, interspersed with about 20 trips back and forth to Cincinnati. And each one of those days found us eating out at least one meal per. And we don't eat breakfast and take more lunches at our desks than not. See my point? We ate out for at least 75 dinners. That's a lot of reviews to write and with all our new-city responsibilities, something had to give.

But we don't want to short-shrift some of the wonderful places we've found in our first six months. You've read about some. Here are some quick-hit impressions on some others. In no particular order, of course.

Quartino. Always packed, yet always fast, Italian tapas are the thing here. Order a bunch and the servers bring whatever's ready whenever it's ready. Fantastic bruschettas and cheese are what we get here. And wine and meatballs, too.

Kitsch’n. A short two blocks from our house, we stopped in one night because it was the only place still open. If you remember the 70s, you'll be right at home in the decor. Blow off your diet and chow down on the Twinkie tiramisu. Yeah, you read that right. Twinkie.

Kaze. Another walking-distance restaurant, this is spare but elegant spot serves up the best sushi I've ever eaten. Imaginative ingredients and one-of-a-kind sauces are the specialty. I think we'll go again soon and you'll be treated to a real review.

Piazza Bella. We love this place. Cozy, neighborhoody, full of Roscoe village families. The food is traditional Italian. And in my book, that means absolutely delicious. This is another place we've been several times.

Japonais. High-end sushi and high-end celebrities. Although I admit to liking the sushi at Kaze a bit more, this place screams swanky. The night after we dined there with a dozen or so work colleagues, we heard Oprah and Jennifer Aniston stopped by.

Lalo's. A lot like Don Pablos, but better. Every entrée comes with tortilla soup. Get the guacamole and watch it made tableside. Huge portions for small money.

Terragusto. When picking our condo, we picked right. This is another excellent spot just a short stroll away. Choose from a small menu that’s kept that way to ensure only the freshest of foods are served. Try to sit at the pasta-making table in the front window and watch the bustle on busy Addison St.

Now that we’re sufficiently settled, I think the blog will make a come back. So whether it’s a guide to all that’s good to eat on Roscoe Street, or one-off looks at the places we’re chowing, be sure to stay tuned.