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.

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!

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

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!

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

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

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.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Peter's Super Bowl Meatloaf

Peter's been talking for weeks about how he wanted to make a meatloaf. As far as home cooked comfort food goes, meatloaf ranks at the top of my list. My mom doesn't cook a lot, but when she does one of the dishes we all truly adore is her meatloaf. The cornflakes keep it moist and the spicy ketchup sauce on top adds just the right tangy zing. Peter's version was a little bit different, but pretty darned delicious all the same. It calls for a mix of ground beef, pork and veal, but our local grocery store didn't carry veal so we doubled the amount of pork. One of the best parts about meatloaf is eating the leftovers over the next couple of days, whether reheated or sliced cold and placed between two slices of bread slathered with mayo (I forced Peter to use the light stuff, of course). Peter prefers his on rye bread and topped with red pepper jelly. This made for a darned delicious meal in front of the fire, accompanied by nice cold beers while watching the Super Bowl (even if the Bears did lose).

Peter's Meatloaf (adapted from the New York Cookbook by Molly O'Neill)

1 cup celery, chopped
1 onion, chopped
3 Tb butter
2 pounds ground sirloin
1/2 pound ground veal
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
1/3 cup sour cream
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
pinch of dried thyme
pinch of dried marjoram
salt and pepper to taste
1 egg
1 Tb Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 cups Heinz chili sauce
3 slices bacon

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Oil 2 loaf pans.
2. In a heavy skillet over medium heat, saute the onion and celery in butter until soft. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.
3. Add the meats, parsley, sour cream, bread crumbs, herbs and seasonings to the pan. Whisk the egg and Worcestershire sauce and add to the mixture. Combine the mixture, using a spoon or your hands.
4. Divide loaf into pans. Top with chili sauce and layer top with bacon slices. Bake until cooked through and browned, about 1 hour.

Serves 6 to 8 people.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Shanghai Terrace

For Peter's birthday celebration this year I thought it only fair to let him pick the restaurant. To be completely honest, I was a little disappointed when I found out that he'd chosen Shanghai Terrace in the Peninsula Hotel, a place I'd never even heard of. Chinese cuisine isn't my favorite and the thought of spending a lot on it seemed somehow a contradiction in my mind, but since it wasn't MY birthday I decided to just go with it. And I have to admit, I was pretty pleasantly surprised.

First of all, how can you not love the lobby of the Peninsula? We drive by it literally every single evening on our way home, but we'd only stopped in once to get a drink at The Bar on the 5th floor. The lobby is just gorgeous--so majestic with its high ceilings and view of Michigan Avenue. The restaurant itself is tucked one floor down from the lobby, basically beneath the grand area above. It's not a large place, but the long, narrow, red-hued space takes full advantage of the windows that look out onto sparkling Michigan Avenue. We ate on the later side, so besides three or so other couples, we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

After accepting a glass of champagne (it was a special occasion, right?) we opened our menus to find a not so typical array of Chinese dishes. The first page is all dim sum, or small dishes we chose to eat as appetizers (click here to see my review of one of the top Cincinnati dim sum locations, Pacific Moon Cafe). We selected the Peeky Toe Crab Wontons, the Crystal Lobster Dumplings and the Shrimp Spring Rolls. The wontons were pretty much just like the Crab Rangoons you get anywhere, though a touch more light and delicate. But the dumplings and spring rolls were delightful. Not too filling and not too greasy, which continued to be a theme throughout our meal. Our amuse bouche was even interesting: a pillow of dough resembling the smooth, airy texture of a marshmallow and even with a touch of sweetness, which was served with a duo of sauces including hoisin and sweet chili. Perfect to whet our appetites.

We had a more difficult time selecting our entrees, but Peter finally settled on the Kung Pao Prawns and I chose the Wok Fried Beef Tenderloin. Peter has been on a quest to find good Kung Pao since we moved here, convinced that nothing can beat his all-time favorite from The Szechuan Wok in Silverton (Cincy). Unfortunately, though it cost over three times what it does from your average Chinese neighborhood restaurant, his Kung Pao didn't deliver three times the enjoyment. It was fine, but worth $38? Nah, neither of us thought so. For once my entree proved to be the better choice! My beef was exceedingly tender and was served with a selection of Chinese vegetables in a light brown sauce. I ate every single bit and before I knew it had but a single bite to share with my birthday beloved.

It *was* his birthday, so of course we indulged in dessert. I chose the coconut lychee rice pudding and Peter chose the Steamed Sweet Potato Cake. I was somewhat shockd to find that the rice in my pudding was actually black and the sauce the thinly, superficial sweet of the lychee fruit I like only on occasion. The jackfruit ice cream on top is a taste that's hard to describe - somewhat rubbery in texture the jackfruit tastes to me like a creamy banana. Peter's dessert was less memorable, but still a sweet ending to a delightful night.

Our service throughout was attentive and friendly, even for such an upscale environment. All in all, a lovely, if light, experience certainly worthy of a birthday.

The damage: $200 for two (tip is extra), including 2 drinks each, dim sum, entrees and desserts - a veritble bargain compared to other places we've dined of late

Food: 3 out of 5 forks - good and interesting choices that are a break from the norm, but some are more successful than others

Romance: 4 out of 5 kisses- the red overtones in the room and twinkles of light on Michigan make this a great place to sneak a smooch between courses

Watch out for: the Kung Pao - you're better off trying something you've never heard of and can't get at your neighborhood take-out place

Shanghai Terrace
The Peninsula Hotel
108 E. Superior (at Michigan)