Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My New Crush

I'm officially crushing on Chef Novelli from Bravo's reality show Chef Academy, which is one of the only food shows that makes me want to cook even more - ok...just as much as - I want to eat what I'm watching. He's a master with food. He makes basic things extraordinary. And he's so French, it kills me. Sweet Jesus. Men can surf porn online - women have this.

It also doesn't hurt that Novelli's students are on a much more relatable level than the technical stars of Top Chef. Their job is to master the essentials he's teaching them, not create on their own.

Case in point on making the simple extraordinary, this cooking demo on Novelli's pea and mint soup:

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

TA-DAaaa!: Foodie Gift Roundup

Buyin' It

1. Wine Country Gift Baskets: I've been an annual devotee for a few years now. Their baskets are filled with high quality sweets and savories, they ship super-fast, and the wine selection is goes beyond the usual mass-market suspects. Some of their bestsellers even ship for free. I gave my aunt their Classic basket last Christmas. She called me 10 days later to say that it had become the highlight of her kids' and husband's day to decide what to fish out of it for a snack each evening. Perfect for foodies, wine lovers, and snackers.

2. Stonewall Kitchens: My gram sent me a set of amazing jams and infused olive oils from here last week, and the idea is so good, I'm stealing it for my food-centric tribe. They have a huge array of gifts at all price points, including TONS of delish sauces and relishes that your dear ones can pop open and apply to something, or use to zazz up an actual recipe. Great for peeps who love eating, but aren't necessarily trolling the Atlantic Food Channel every day.

3. Whole Foods Baskets: I eyed some really impressive ones at the Lincoln Park store last night. They've got stacks pre-made, but if you have special needs, you can visit the holiday order table up front and they'll assemble one for you. Perfect for food snobs or your vegan friends who wear hemp jumpers.

4. Just Grapes on Washington Ave.: Their wine selection is focused (they're picky about what they stock), special (boutique producers you won't find at Binny's) and moderately-priced. You can order online, and they deliver or ship anywhere. Perfect for wine lovers who know their schtuff.

Makin' It

1. Nigella's Rocky Road Crunch Bars: I'm making these to fill goodie boxes for the neighbors, mostly as an apology for the dog throwing his bouncy toy down our front stairs at 7:00 every Saturday morning. 'Gella's philosophy is to keep it easy, especially for the holidays. Word, girl.

2. Cherries Simmered in Red Wine: These babies are red, festive, sweet, easy, and versatile as all get out. Your recipient can use them on ice cream, pound cake, with creme fraiche, or in a trifle. Or they can just fork them out of the jar like I do. Did I mention they keep forever?

3. Duo of Sugars: If actually cooking or baking makes you want to lie down, how about tossing together some fancy sugar and putting a bow on it? Whole Foods has ideas on their web site, including these. If you can locate dried edible lavender and vanilla bean pods, you too can impress.

Two other morsels of advice: No one beats the Container Store for all manner of festive little receptacles for your food gifts. And avoid Martha's site this season, as it requires a PhD in Crafts...unless it's for decorating your mantel or tablescaping (she completely rocks the casbah at those).

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

So... Whad'ya Eat?!

The Obama Foodorama blog posted the White House's Thanksgiving menu below, which is plenty generous on the Southern-style sides - but Holy Pie, Batman! That's six kinds of pie! Imagine all the leftovers THEY'RE having.

Honey Baked Ham

Cornbread Stuffing
Oyster Stuffing

Macaroni and Cheese
Sweet Potatoes
Mashed Potatoes
Green Bean Casserole

Pumpkin Pie
Banana Cream Pie
Apple Pie
Sweet Potato Pie
Huckleberry Pie
Cherry Pie

Thanksgiving at our house was traditional this year. My sis and I have done some New Mexican themed holiday dinners in the past, from which I've snuck in a dish or two for Thanksgiving. And I'm famous for conjuring up a risotto for any occasion. But since it was just my husband's family visiting this year, I decided to keep the green chile and pasta products mostly out of it.

Everything with an asterisk came from Cooking Fools, which meant I spent four hours cooking, rather than the typical 8-10.

Gravy with Fresh Herbs*

Mushroom and Parmesan Bread-Pudding Style Stuffing
Mashed Maple Sweet Potatoes with Candied Walnuts* (the breakout hit of the show, I think)
Roasted Root Veggies with Garlic and Thyme *

Crushed Cranberry Sauce
Walnut, Orange and Red Onion Salad
Rosemary Ciabatta Rolls

Martha's Pumpkin Cake with Brown Butter Icing

2007 Ehlers Estate Pinot Noir

In preparation, I finally bought all the things from Crate and Barrel and CHEF's that I didn't know to register for when we got married three years ago...Like an army of serving utensils and white ware bowls, a table cloth in a shade of any-season-friendly green, a 12-quart stock pot, and generous latte mugs for guests to endlessly fill with hot tea to warm themselves.

I flaked on the extra candles for the mantel and kept the table almost Quaker in terms of embellishment, but the big fire in the fireplace was all the atmosphere we needed.

All in all, a success. More than anything, I'm learning that successful entertaining means impressing people with as little work as possible so they can enjoy my company as much as the food.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Review: Belly Shack

Kudos to Bill Kim for getting this place opened with lightening speed. The laid back attitude and quick service are just exactly what the neighborhood likes, and while I'm really happy they're here, it isn't amazing yet. Innovative and interesting, definitely. But not amazing. We've just been once so far, early on an already-busy Saturday night. We sat at the big communal table in the middle of the space to compare notes with other patrons, and the consensus was surprisingly consistent: good and interesting, but not great.

My boricua sandwich got all of its flavor from a great sauce served on the side, rather from the plantains (which I couldn't taste), marinated tofu (totally blank soy flavor), or rice. In fact, the rice on the sandwich wasn't successful at all - there's a reason rice sandwiches are rare - it tastes too starchy with the bread and falls out. My husband's lemongrass chicken sandwich was okay, but again, not all that flavorful.

Our generous neighbors offered us wine from their BYOB bottles, something the entire restaurant seemed to be loving too. I passed in favor of dessert - a decent mint soft serve ice cream with chocolate brownie chunks. I had higher hopes for my husband's Vietnamese cinnamon caramel version, but the cinnamon was just barely detectable.

Belly Shack on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Come to Mama

So, I'm pregnant. Thirteen weeks to be exact, which brings me to the glorious, grateful close of my puke-y first trimester. I'll tell you, nothing else I can think of can screw with your appetite so drastically for so long. Some new lessons I've learned on life as a fertile woman:

1. Life without wine really blows. I took an itsy sip of the hubbles' prosecco about a month back and nearly started bawling in my stupid club soda it was so good. Incidentally, my Italian-American mother drank a small glass of wine at Sunday dinners when she was pregnant with me, and I was born a perfectly healthy mostacholi, as she still relishes recalling. Those days are long gone, mi amici. Try this in America now, and well-intentioned people will accost your person for being a brazenly psychotic baby-killer... including my husband.

2. Nausea is straight from hell. The cruel joke is that it's at its absolute worst when you're at your hungriest. It's God's official way of getting back at me for sass-talking to my mother.

3. Sneak attack food aversions are real. I can't pass within 20 feet of a sushi restaurant without shuddering. Pre-pregs, I could eat it daily. My other forms of kryptonite have been any form of raw fish, coffee, peanut butter, meat smells, sometimes chocolate and God help me, my usual endorphin-source of choice, truffle oil.

4. Random and sudden hunger pangs - also real. My husband knows I'm having one when all of a sudden I'm laying on the car horn in the driveway 60 seconds after announcing it's time to mobilize for Chipotle. How LONG does it take him to find pants anyway?

5. Heelllooo, Chipotle.... and Potbelly's. I'm not proud of it, but these are the things I crave when I go out to eat lately. I'll also settle for pretty much any form of pasta, risotto, mac and cheese, or other comfort food. And Jimmy John's? Their scrappy little delivery guys can seriously have a sandwich in your paws (with that guac spread) less than 12 minutes from right now. Imagine the possibilities.

6. Waiters at good restaurants get bitchy when I pass on the alcohol. It ranges from mild puzzlement to openly expressed disapproval. I'm not showing yet, so they don't know what's up, especially since I always urge my husband to order the martini or the split of pinot for himself. I've been thinking maybe I should hand out a pre-printed card with: "In first trimester. Back the f*** off."

7. The joy of a fresh fruit or veggie smoothie never tasted so good. Ahhh....sweet, sweet cool, creamy deliciousness, I love you.

8. Yep, I can justify almost anything I do want to eat. Fish and chips? Giddy up. Mayo on the veggie sub? So much better. Pancakes at brunch? Sha - yes. Four bananas in succession? Try to stop me. With so much out there making me cringe, I'm not about to pass up something that's screaming my name.

9. I will go code blue for the bread basket. Now that I'm in my hormone-induced irritability phase, waiters need to be forewarned that if the bread doesn't hit the table within two minutes of seating, there could be some serious hell to pay. I barely used to even touch the stuff. Now I'm homicidal for it when I show up at a restaurant hungry. And guess what the odds of that are?

10. Fake drinking is an art. My options were to a) suspiciously avoid my horde of wine-chugging friends for three entire months or b) enlist the help of one trustworthy soul to help me fake them out at dinner. How? You and your partner in crime order the same drinks and sit next to each other. You pretend to drink, but swap glasses after a little bit when no one's looking. Your friend, the trooper, will need to consume twice the amount they order. And, yes, you'll need to buy her a really nice Christmas gift to apologize for that hangover.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sleep in on Thanksgiving

Last Thanksgiving I was a crazy woman. Though it's my all-time favorite meal, I was working so many hours, I barely had time to floss much less cook two days for a feast. I pretty much told the Hubbles to plan for a quiet night at home with a burrito. But then the fine geniuses over at Cooking Fools sent me an email I didn't expect: they do pre-ordered Thanksgiving dinners. I just had to call it in ahead, pick it up the night before, and warm it up the day of.

So we invited over some cousins, and I ordered the turkey, sweet potatoes, spinach gratin, bread, and gravy. I made my own favorite stuffing, salad, cranberry sauce and dessert in about two hours, just to keep it feeling homey and yummy. Added wine, and - all done. So easy. Totally, totally delish.

This year's Thanksgiving is seeing a snowball effect. We're already at five people and could go up to seven. I have a far more zen life now....but since I'm spoiled, I emailed Cooking Fools yesterday anyway to ask whether I'd be receiving that magical email again. Nick Faitage, their executive chef/owner assures me that I will. They just haven't worked out all the menu details yet.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Oak Treet

After receiving some sad, sad news about a good friend today (not Mayor Daley or the Olympics...but that didn't help either)... I was in a blue, blue funk this afternoon. Add to that the 50 degree high, blowing wind, and drizzle, and I just needed to get the hell out for some distraction.

So I grabbed a cab and headed to Bloomingdale's, where I knew warm, shiny things would await. Mostly I was just starving to death, so I went straight up to the top floor of 900 N. Michigan and got myself a seat at the Oak Tree. Why do I forget about this place? It's so civilized and lover-ly there. My view of the side of the Hancock Tower and down Michigan Ave. instantly made me remember why I love living here, even in the rain. And then the food.

A pot of hot Orange Dulce tea. A cup of Tuscan Veggie soup. And a gooey, melted cheddar, fig preserve, caramelized onion, and Roquefort cheese sandwich.

Sigh. All better.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Purist's Peach Pie

We recently got back from relaxing at a cottage in Saugatuck, Michigan (Mayberry meets gay rivera) with my family for about a week, and it was blissful as always. Cape Cod cottage? Check. Bike rides to the beach? Check. A healthy squirrel population for the dog to chase? Definitely check.

Add to that our collective excitement to pick something growing off a real tree at one of the U-PICK farms nearby. My mom nixed the idea of Michigan's famous blueberries..."sounds hard, doesn't it?" Which was a damn good thing since the season had just passed. But peaches! Oh, the peaches were beginning to drag their tree branches down to the ground, they were so fully massive and lovely. So six of us accepted what we considered small-ish bags from a farmer and galloped into the early-bloomer Blazing Star rows of his orchard.

Ten minutes later my mother emerged with 30 lbs. of fruit overflowing from two heaving bags. The rest of us plopped our bags onto the scale with hers and snorted in laughter at the digital number that popped up: 69 lbs. Of peaches, people. It's not like you can go put any back. So back to the cottage we went, debating... Pie? Cobbler? Smoothies? My aunt, a former chef, has the most food cred in the family, not to mention actual leadership skills, so she made a sound decision:

We're making pie. And we're keeping it simple.

Back at the cottage, she and my mother (I was on vacation, remember?) assembled eight pies. The ingredients were:

4-5 gigantic peaches, sliced
1/4 cup brown sugar
sprinkle Fruit Fresh
2 pie crusts
egg whites

So, if I need to tell you...We tossed the sliced peaches with the sugar and Fruit Fresh. Then we plopped the mixture into a crust, topped it with the second crust, and brushed that with egg whites before baking or freezing each one.

The point isn't that this is complicated or innovative. The point is that sometimes you simply don't need to mess with the perfection of something like gorgeous freshly picked peaches. Especially when you're on a summer vacation and should really be taking a nap someplace nice, like under a tree.

We ate two of the pies while there - one for breakfast - and the rest are in my freezer, awaiting a chilly fall night or typically sub-artic Chicago winter weekend.

The rest of the peaches we ate fresh or bagged up as gifts for our neighbors, who are still sending me emails about their amazing cobblers.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Swedish Snacks Gone Wild

File this under "imaginative uses for Swedish crispbread." Wonder what they could do with those equally ubiquitous tubes of caviar...

NYC Post Script: The Bar is Waiting

During last year's trip to NYC, I was surprised that several restaurants generously offered a tasting portion of wines sold by the glass before pouring the full serving, a practice that quickly caught on in Chicago. That didn't happen once on our trip this past weekend, which seems a logical enough cost-cutting measure in tougher economic times.

A more revenue-generating trend seems to have replaced the freebie tasting -seating diners with the wine and cocktails menu for a good 15 minutes before delivering the food menu. This happened at two of the higher end restaurants we visited, and was obviously deliberate as I observed the same thing at nearby tables. For drinkers who aren't in a hurry (um, that would be us), it works out well for us and the house. We thoroughly mulled over the libations lists and ordered a round before getting distracted by the food options. I have to think this might drive many impatient New Yorkers insane though.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Wine Makers Update

Don Sritong has returned from California a survivor. He made it through the first round of eliminations as a contestant on PBS' the Wine Makers last weekend. He said his back and knees are killing him, so I'm guessing there was some toiling in the vineyard. He'll be on his way to Rhone soon for the rest of taping. Thankfully, we have the awesome Maggie to hold down the fort at Just Grapes while he's gone.

His audition video for the show is here:

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

NYC - Day 3

Morris-Jumel Mansion (Washington Heights) - George Washington slept here while it was his headquarters in the fall and winter of 1776. He returned 14 years later as president for a dinner party with his cabinet. In attendance were future presidents Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and John Quincy Adams, as well as Alexander Hamilton (who would later be killed by the man of the house - Aaron Burr in our country's most famous duel). I took a pic of the dining room where the victuals went down. And it gave me shivers.

Pierre Hotel (2 E 61st St) - Just for high tea. I've had high tea in Chicago at the Peninsula, Burnham Hotel, and the Drake. This was better. This was three generous, gorgeous tiers of dainty tea sandwich and petit four heaven. Uniformly great food and service in a setting that transports you back to the golden age of 1920s New York. The tea itself was quite nice too. I didn't want it to ever end.

But end it did.

Next time we go: That dinner at Red Cat, a guided tour of the UN, and the second floor of Zabar's for cookware.

NYC - Day 2

Balthazar (80 Spring St) - Large French bistro with a majorly scene-y brunch scene. My scrambled eggs in puff pastry were okay. Pretty, but otherwise nothing spectacular. I'd give the place another shot, but I'm not eager to go back. (A brunch at Bistro Zinc in Chicago is much better.)

Lower East Side Tenement Museum - Don't go on the hottest day of the year, but do go. It gives you new respect for the phrase "turn-of-century immigrant experience," by visiting actual tenement apartments reconstructed to look as they did 100 years ago. Book ahead!

Lolita (266 Broome St) - You know those simple, real, low-key hoodie bars you instantly love? This is one of those. It's right around the corner from the tenement and saved us from passing out in the heat. A nice little list of refreshing summer cocktails for $8.

WD-50 (50 Clinton St) - Just for the famous five-course dessert tasting - we sat at 6:00 pm because a) we're hardcore and b) why not? (As I texted Dar, who proposed the idea the day before, "Dinner later can just be sandwich.") All five courses were excellent. Two were transcendent. Solid dessert wine pairings that offered a few surprises, like a blend from Rhodes, Greece. The staff was surprisingly laid back and fun to chat with.

High Line - This is the new elevated rail line downtown that's been turned into a landscaped public space. I've never seen New Yorkers so chilled out and happy. Chicago will get it's own version sometime in the future on the Bloomingdale Trail, which I happen to live over.

Red Cat - Dinner? Not a sandwich. But we did go light by each ordering the special scallop appetizer instead of an entree, and each of us tried it paired with a different white wine. The wine list here is big and stellar. The place is cute as a button, but all glowy and elegant at the same time - it's style meets substance. The scallops were giant and divine - seared simply over a bed of farm-fresh sauteed veggies. It's at the top of my list to go back for dinner next time. Absolutely loved it.

New York City - Day 1

I'm not surprised to be saying that my trip to NYC this past weekend turned into food tour of NYC. My husband and I went to see my friend Dar, the one who wrote in about stalking the bouchee at La Maison du Chocolat in Manhattan a few months back. And...well...I guess you can see where this is going.

Day 1 - We arrived in the a.m., and with Dar working all day, I just decided to wing it. Temperature around 90 degrees, with humidity above 80%.

Dean & Deluca (Rockefeller) - Late morning caffeination stop. Pricey, but above average.

Tesucher (Rockefeller) - Nabbed a box of four Champagne truffles for later, a tradition my husband started a few years ago. Hoped they wouldn't melt.

Frick Collection (1 E 70th St) - Vermeer, Goya, Rembrandt, Holbein. You can't do better than this for Old Master nirvana.

Le Charlot (19 E 69th St) - I stumbled across this French bistro near the Frick in a pair of painfully adorable peep-toes, famished and hoping it wasn't a blister-induced mirage. We lingered two hours over lunch, smiling at the blasting air conditioning, the abrupt French waiter, and the sublime food. The tuna nicoise was way above average; the giant tiger shrimp was fantastic. We ordered a bottle of rose from Provence. The tart tatin? The best I've ever had. Yes, it's supposed to be small. Yes, it's supposed to be brusque. Order what they tell you to and eat it, Yankee.

Siesta at hotel - with E!'s Top 40 Celebrity Scandals. I still think Eliot Spitzer trumps Bill Clinton for sheer surprise value...

Esca (402 W 42nd St) - All southern Italian seafood, all the time. Chef Dave Pasternack is said to be a consummate fisherman. I pictured him back in the kitchen all salty, gilling a giant carp. By the looks of the menu, that's pretty much what he was doing. There are pages of appetizer and crudo options, followed by long lists of seafood pastas and entrees. The cocktails were excellent, as was the service, but the food fell a little shy of my high expectations.

Followed by a long, warm, nighttime walk back to our hotel in Midtown.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Spring Restaurant on GroupOn Today

Giddyup! Only 14 hours left to get $75 worth of Shawn McClain's amazing seafood fare for $35 on Groupon. Over 800 people have already bought, so the deal is on. Only strings: it expires on February 13th of 2010 and can't be used for New Year's Eve.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Roundup: Graham Elliot, Pig Cheese, and Local Rock Star

1. OMG. Graham Elliot's truffle-Parmesan popcorn deliciousness at Lolla absolutely rocked. Hugely. There was no line at the booth, but that's probably just because they'd already sold out of the lobster corndog. Or perhaps it was because I was one of the few there who, due to my seasoned years, realized that truffle oil trumps drugs and alcohol any day.

Due to said popcorn consumption, my post-concession stand conversation went something like this for a while:

The Hubbles: What's happening over at Perry's again?
Me: Mmmmm....merph-um-wahumf. (crunch crunch crunch)
The Hubbles: Wow, hon. I really wish we could find you a napkin.
Me: Yumph. (crunch crunch)

And thank you Helen at GrubStreet for once again demonstrating that you have my back on these deeply weighty matters.

2. I've been around Greece a bit, and the feta cheese is pretty spectacular. But Whole Foods' store brand (the one with the plain black goat sticker on the front) makes me swoon more than any I can remember eating in Hellas. Last night I was savoring it, and two things occurred to me:

a) Goats aren't chubby, yet their milk turns out lovely cheese.

b) Pigs are extremely chubby, and yet they don't join their barnyard brethren in producing dairy products. So why no pig cheese?

Naturally someone has already explored this on the Interweb. Answer: "Pork cheese" is produced in Mexico and Hungary, and probably other places, but it doesn't taste similar to cow, sheep or goat cheese because the fatty acids in it differ from those animals' milk.
We totally need a Food Mythbusters for this type of thing.

c) Hey, didja see the news down below about Don? Chicago's got one more culinary reality TV rock star.

Go, Don, GO!!!

Oh, the excitement! My good friend Don Sritong, the mind behind Just Grapes on Washington, found out yesterday that he's made the cut for Season 2 of PBS' reality show The Wine Makers! Contestants of the show will fly to the Rhone valley this September to compete for the honor of creating and launching their own wine brand nationwide (presumably stateside rather than in the French market). Season 1 airs this fall.

Don is on his way to California this weekend to start filming the first round of challenges and cuts. As the only person I know who's more competitive than my husband, my money says that he'll show up with all guns blazing. And a killer wardrobe.

Go, Don, go!!!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Lolla Needs Food for Grownups

Lollapalooza descends on Grant Park and my life for the fifth year this weekend, bringing with it a litany of scorchingly great music and the summer weather to match. I realize that I'm at the upper end of the age demographic and all, but I can't help but wonder every time why the food and eating areas are so damned awful. I mean they uniformly bloooooooooow. It's greasy fried food on sticks, Bud Lite, and overflowing trash cans for miles. And because of the size of this thing, it's not like you can pop in and out for a decent bite. It's like the Hotel California that way, without the pink Champagne.

What's funny is that Lolla's otherwise exhaustive website doesn't even mention food anywhere. On the event maps, the very long concession areas are labeled as "Bars/Beverage." I can learn how to Rock, Recycle, and Win a Honda, but there's no way to see which vendors might be on board. The only bright spot is that Whole Foods is a partner this year. Whole Foodies could definitely deliver me from eating the same bad falafel pita sandwich for three days. I hope. I pray. But I will pack Clif bars.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Grab Your Mallets and Your Mouse(s)

I'm stoked about Julie & Julia opening this Friday. Its timing conflict with Lollapalooza means striking a hard bargain with my husband to wedge a viewing in somewhere between Andrew Bird and Jane's Addiction over a sweaty marathon music weekend. But so be it. Madame Streep as Julia Child is simply not to be missed, and I'm absolutely giddy to have a foodie movie to sink my chops into since Ratatouille. (You can only get so much culinary mileage out of animated vermin, even if it comes from the genius pen of Pixar.)

Many of my compatriot bloggers are not however so enthused about Julie Powell's turn of fortune in all this, and we have what's left of the tattered newspaper world to tell us so. I don't mind dissent in the ranks. In fact, among bloggers I think you have to presume a certain constant dull roar of it. Snark is our favorite candy. 

It got me thinking though. Julie & Julia is a two-part story that offers up two heroines. Both are brash, fearless upstarts entering the culinary world during entirely different eras and through entirely different means. How each enters the fray is a fascinating look at how much life and popular culture have changed, but both women have the moxie to search their foodie souls in full public view. And at a minimum, isn't Powell's version of that moxie exactly what all food bloggers share? I hope so.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Proof the Coffee Gods Love Us

I'm still giddy from stumbling into the sweetest little Italian coffee chain ever this weekend in the newly risen and architecturally droolworthy Lakeshore East neighborhood: Caffe RoM - pronounced with a long accent over the "o." Er, like the city.

Imagine a shiny, spanking new, happy place where the menu is straight out of Milan and the design sensibility is one part Vespa, one part Jetsons. SI! SI! SI! Our service was excellent and the coffee had that heavenly smooth, well-rounded flavor that the Italiani do to perfection. Even better, it's a Chicago venture with three locations in the Loop already - the other two are in the Hyatt Center and in the Prudential Building. Am a huge fan. Am cursing recent job decision to ditch the Loop. But, ever the optimist, I took one of their rewards cards anyway.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Blackberry and Orange French Toast Bread Pudding

My 16- and 17-year old nieces flew in from New Mexico for their annual summer visit this week, and having them over is a great excuse to do things like sleep in until 9:00, watch chick flicks, and eat ice cream every day. This morning, they asked for french toast, which I love too, but never enjoy making. Since I've been cleaning up the kitchen several times a day while they're here, I decided to hunt down a baked variation that would be quick and easy to throw together.

I found this strata recipe on Epicurious that I adapted, using blackberries and orange instead of raspberries and lemon, and making the custard a little richer. They were impressed with how beautiful it looked and absoltuely loved it's delicious warming sweetness, and I was amazed how much better I like it than typical french toast.

1/2 cup maple syrup
3/4 loaf of whole grain bread with crust
1 1/2 pints fresh blackberries
6 large eggs
2 cups milk
1 cup half & half
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1/4 teaspoon salt

Heat the oven to 350 degrees, with the rack positioned at the center. Lightly butter a 9 x 13 in. baking dish. Pour the maple syrup into the bottom of the dish - don't worry about evenly coating the surface. Cut the bread up into large cubes and scatter around the bottom with the blackberries.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, half & half, zest, and salt. Pour the custard over the cubes of bread and pop the baking dish into the oven. It'll need to bake 45 to 50 minutes. Look for a nice, puffy golden brown surface with no wet spots in the center. Let cool 5 minutes before dusting with powdered sugar and serving with more drizzled maple syrup on top.

Friday, July 24, 2009

WTH, I Have Readers?

I figured the blogosphere had ditched me a few weeks back when I took a little time out to stop and smell the peonies. Imagine my shock to see my ticker spike with that last post. Hi foodies! I missed you! Even the angry ones! I'm sure my new employer will be thrilled that I've rediscovered my love for monitoring food and wine news all day.

I've left the Loop for a great new organization in the Old Town/Gold Coast area, where I've begun to spoil myself daily with tranquil lunches in the park and in sidewalk cafes. Wells Street is just a hop away, beckoning with smells emanating from the Spice House, Topo Gigio, Bistro Margot, and about a dozen others. Not to mention all the potted herbs sitting outside of the Old Town Garden shop.

Yes, heaven.

On top of all that, the Venetian Wine Cruise is finally here! Just Grapes changed the time to start later in the afternoon, at 4:00 pm. Jump aboard if sipping a trio of sparkling roses on the lake sounds, oh, kind of okay for a Saturday afternoon diversion.

Shaking a Fist at Urban Belly's Bill Kim

Bill, I don't know you, but I'd like to have a chat. I've been on food blogging hiatus for a few weeks while I transition out of a crazy job, exorcise the jumbo-sized stress I've accumulated while there, and get settled into a new workplace. I'm not exactly in a foodie headspace at the moment. But when I read that you bought out Vella to open another Urban Belly on Western, one burning question jumped to mind that I have to ask.

Do you have something against free market capitalism, Bill? Have you BEEN to the rest of Western Ave in that neighborhood? Did you maybe notice that there are like 12 zillion empty storefronts right NEXT to Vella where you could set up shop and compete with our talented friends there? Do you know how happy two great places would make us, Bill?

Ok, that's more than one question. And maybe the Vella babes were dying to get out. I don't know the whole story. All I know is, no more Everything but Meat Pizza with the caramelized onion smeared a quarter-inch thick on that perfect crust. No more scrambled eggs with sweet potato hash. Bloody hell, Bill! It's true, the place is a bone-rattling noise box. And there was that one time the delivery guy dropped our pizza, only to bring us a second one half an hour later with only two ingredients on it. But we worked all that out. Vella is a gem - most importantly our neighborhood's only gem of it's kind - where you can drop in for a quick, unique, delicious meal served by happy people. We do not need to swap it out for something else. We need options, Bill. Options.

It's one of the hardest parts about living in a big city.... getting emotionally attached to a hoodie joint. I mean, I'm still scarred from the loss of Filter's veggie reuben. Excuse me. I need to go find some Kleenex. 

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tonight! Home Chef-fery Class for Like, Peanuts

We're going to the home chef class tonight at 6:00 p.m. that Just Grapes is co-presenting with Soigne Culinary Artistry at the Calphalon Center. Tom McGuinty is going to dazzle us with a cooking demo and new ideas for food and wine pairings that will up our dinner party hosting game. Because frankly, it is a competition.

Oh, and the class fee is only $25. How great is that?

PS - soigne is pronounced (swan yay) and means stylish, elegant, and well-crafted. Now you know.

Hot Love in Roscoe Village

The following is an email I sent to my friend - let's call him Rocky - yesterday after he asked me for restaurant suggestions around Roscoe Village. Besides location, his main criteria was that it "not be too over the top." Here's my answer:
Have a date you're trying to underwhelm? Ah, you romantic bastard.

Hmm...Roscoe Village.

Sola - I have some very picky friends who are in love with this place (www.sola-restaurant.com)

Kaze Sushi - honestly my favorite sushi place ever, we just never get over there (www.kazesushi.com)

Chalkboard - I hear good things - upscale comfort food

A little further away...

Lula Cafe - holy schmoly I love this place. It's kind of got a quirky casual urban hipster atmosphere and the food is freaking KILLER. Love. Gets utterly packed. Def make reservations (www.lulacafe.com).

Happy mating dance.


Monday, June 8, 2009

Speak, Gastronomy

Nabokov gave us Speak, Memory. Hemingway, his Movable Feast. Fisher, her Postcards from the Edge. And Grant Achatz is working on his memoirs, Life, on the Line - at 35. Maybe I'm naively old school about this, but as a fellow Gen X'er, it seems way too early for a career retrospective. Even for the most accomplished among us and even for someone who's had to wrestle with mortality so young. I say save it for Oprah, and then get back to work on the actual line.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Venetian Night as Bacchus Intended

Quick: what do you think when I say "Venetian Night"?

Massive crowds on the lakefront. Sticky weather. Mayor Daley's obsession with replicating European civic delights in the City of Broad Shoulders... All to see a bunch of lucky ducks in
Polo shirts sailing by on 35 lit up vessels from the Yachting Club, as they salute their cocktails to the masses and say, "Cheers, suckers."


But this year, no sir, skipper. Rather than elbowing my way to a patch of grass near the harbor, I'm planning ahead. Actually, Just Grapes did it for me, because they've chartered a boat for a Venetian Night Wine Cruise on July 25th. From 2:00 to 5:00 pm I'll be on the boat working on my tan, with a range of lovely summer wines to taste, great food, and a wine guide. It's $85 all-inclusive, and it's genius. Absolutely can't wait to go.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Terzo @ 20 Days

I'm not quite ready to post any reviews of Terzo Piano yet, having eaten there just twice in its first 20 days of business. We went for dinner with a pair of great friends on Thursday evening though, and here's a quickie recap:

Bubbles: There's no Prosecco on the menu. Pour que?

Smelts: I talked the table into ordering these with a wistful story about my Italian grandfather. They were just ok. Fried perfectly, all lightness and crisp. But not a lot of flavor. The fried lemon slices that accompanied them however are my new favorite weird thing to eat.

Flatbread: The vegetarian flatbread with asparagus, mint and fresh mozzarella? Killer good with a flawless crust. The mint is just such a nice surprise.

Crab sandwich: I ordered this new item on the menu sans bacon. It was solid, but I thought the unbelievably adorable housemade buns overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the crab a little. (Phil Foss at Lockwood knows how to get this balance right. I'm drooling thinking about his salmon sandwich....)

Sesame crusted whitefish: This was the most improved dish I tried since the opening. They've perfected the interplay of textures, and the flavor of the fish was excellent. Nicely done.

Desserts: They were amazing the first week, and they didn't disappoint this time either. The dynamic among the four of us at the table went something like: Sample, swoon. Sample, swoon. Sample, sip, swoon.

Service: Getting better. There was only one long pause in service this time around. I'm sure the lack of work stress and presence of friends with two bottles of wine helped too.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Equipment Detox: Ditching Bad Plastic

We are a nation buried in plastic. So you can imagine the sinking feeling I got when I read up on the toxicity of the stuff, especially considering how much of it leaches out of containers into what we eat and drink everyday. Why care? When you consume plasticizers, the compounds alter your chromosomes which can cause disease and organ dysfunction, especially in our reproductive systems. Since I hardly need any more issues going on there, I've detoxed our kitchen, realizing it's impossible to entirely escape the stuff. Here's what to know.

1. The numbering system for plastic is a valuable way to differentiate between the worst offenders and those that are known to leach out a lot less. The bad guys to chuck are:

#3 - PVC, especially common in plastic wraps and, in my case, dirt cheap picnic ware from Target. Make sure you use a wrap that says "no plasticizers" on the label if you can't find an actual number.

#6 - All styro products, including takeout containers.

#7 - PC, this is a hard plastic that's very common for durable water containers. Pitch that puppy and get yourself a new aluminum one. Sigg makes some lovely versions.

2. The better plastics to look for in the store: #1, 2, 4, 5, and 7-PLA. That last one is actually made from corn and it's starting to pop up in organic store brands. It's the only one of the bunch that's totally safe. If you don't see the PLA attached, it's the bad version of #7.

3. Heat and plastic should never mix. No matter what type it is, it'll leach if you heat it up. This means no plastic in the microwave and no hot takeout containers from the Thai place down the street. Sorry. Don't leave bottled water out in the sun where it can get warm. And do I really need to tell you not to eat frozen entrees? If you really must, transfer it to a glass or ceramic plate before nuking it.

4. If the plastic is cloudy, really old, stained or scratched, pitch it. It's leaching.

5. Meet your old friends, glass, ceramics, waxed paper cartons, and aluminum. They didn't mutate your grandma's DNA and they won't mutate yours.

Wine Tasting Tonight (Pants Optional)

So, we're going to the Wednesday tasting at Just Grapes tonight (560 West Washington), which will focus on some big, bodacious Aussie wines. And you should too! It'll be a particularly good one because the owner Don and his authentically Aussie wife just got back from an extended trip there. Don will have some interesting new goodies to share... not to mention stories of the wine-makers, who can always be counted on for some rollicking "pants-off" fun, as they call it.

Gotta love those Aussies.

Monday, June 1, 2009

David Lebovitz: My Bono

Any 12-step program will tell an addict to avoid their triggers, much less invite them into your home on a live-in basis. This is why I've never allowed myself to purchase an entire box of cake mix for no specific reason or, say, date a pastry chef. Not that I haven't fantasized about those things. (Those 80s commercials about "living in the land of Dairy Queen"? They still haunt me to this day.) I just know that my personal danger zone of no-holds-barred consumption behavior is paved with butter cream frosting, so I only allow myself to indulge in limited doses, preferably with my husband or friends to serve as backup. This is a Category 5 sweet tooth I have, people.

Despite his considerable chops as a nationally-celebrated pastry chef, I'd never heard of David Lebovitz before two days ago. Alice Waters and Chez Panisse? Yes, of course. But David's fame is from two all-dessert cookbooks he wrote after spending years at Panisse, both of which I've averted my eyes from in bookstores to resist taking home in plain brown paper bags and stashing greedily under my bed. This week, however, I was in le mood for some nonfiction foodie reading and saw that The Sweet Life in Paris by Lebovitz is #6 on Amazon's Kindle nonfiction list. Now I'm in awe of this man doing God's work in France as a transplant, and dispatching books and blogs about it. Aside from Paris's art world, which I explored somewhat in my late college years, he's given me the foodie half that I just knew existed - and it's even better than I hoped.

It's been my dream to take a romp through Paris that I've very creatively entitled the "Let's Eat Our Way through Paris Trip." Despite having a willing spouse and knowing two great couples to go whole hog with me on the idea, it's still just a glimmer in my eye, thanks to the recession, the underperforming dollar, and my own career ambitions of late. So. Lebovitz's book has been an excellent substitute. He's not only a witty observer, he opens up his personal life to make his essays feel like the first-hand accounts of a friend, one with a three-dimensional life that just happens to revolve around 5 kilo slabs of chocolate.

Amazed at his description of G. Detou, the pastry-makers paradise he describes in the book, I pounced on his blog online and MON DIEU! found that he leads culinary tours through the city. The one I'm fantasizing about is this Gastronomic Adventure in October, and I swear, if I went he would certainly not need to give me the shorts and fanny pack lecture.

One day, my friend. One day.

(The above photo of G. Detou is by Jason Whittaker.)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Two Quick Friday Observations

1. Lockwood is super-smart for promoting this 20% discount off lunch or dinner when you show them your Art Institute ticket stub, in honor of the Modern Wing opening. If you want formal environs to help recover from your post-art coma, theirs is indeed a lovely and very convenient option. Terzo Piano on the other hand is arty casual.

2. Open two weeks now, Terzo's service staff is definitely still getting its legs. Lunch there has been averaging about 90 minutes - a long time for most of us to escape our typical weekday maelstrom. I'm checking it out for dinner next Thursday to see how the experience varies from mid-day.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Chicago Grilling Season Kickoff

Don't you love it when you invite an eclectic mix of friends over for a super-causal dinner, and everyone just clicks? We did this on Sunday afternoon to officially open grilling season. Despite the fact that the weather was too chilly to lounge on the rooftop deck, it was the easiest, most enjoyable entertaining we've ever done. We kept the menu simple and fresh so that I could relax and enjoy having everyone camped out around the kitchen island, which is where they all usually end up anyway.

The Menu

Grape, Mint and Jalapeno Salsa
Navy Bean Artichoke "Hummus"
Blue Corn Chips
Pitchers of Vodka Lemonade
Grilled Salmon Fillets with Ginger Soy Glaze
Grilled Petit Sirloin Steaks
Red Potato Salad with Gorgonzola
Tossed Green Salad with Mango
Assorted Cookies

Nothing on the menu took more than a few minutes to prepare, except for the steaks - which at succulent 4 inches thick required some serious grilling. The quality of both the salmon and steak (from the previous day's Whole Foods expedition) were AH-MAZ-ING.

The big star of the day however seemed to be the grape salsa, for its unexpected blend of cool sweetness, mint, and heat. Pile that onto a salty chip and YUM!

Grape Mint Salsa
From Southern Living Magazine by way of Epicurious

2 cups green seedless grapes, coarsely chopped
2 cups red seedless grapes, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 whole jalapeƱo pepper, seeded and finely chopped (don't forget your gloves for this part!)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Whole Foods Gives Chicago Big Box Organic

Ah serendipity. After our recent resolve to go all organic, we girded our loins yesterday and headed for the new 75,000 square-foot Whole Foods that just celebrated its grand opening on Wednesday, located on Kingsbury and North Ave. We watched it go up this winter from the terrace of our gym nearby, wondering if it would improve the black hole of congestion that the smaller store caused for so long two blocks north. That it would be a stellar experience inside, I never doubted, but I have to admit this third-largest Whole Foods in the world has exceeded even those expectations.

The parking sitch: Not bad. The 400+ space facility was as full as you'd expect on Memorial Day weekend just after the grand opening (are we nuts, by the way?), but it's designed well enough that you can easily circulate until someone vacates a spot, which only took a couple of minutes.

The first impression: In Broadway parlance, it's a WOW. We entered on the second floor and descended the long escalator into a bright, airy, lofty space bursting with produce, live music, patrons sipping coffee at cafe tables, and people. Lots and lots of people.

Navigation: Maybe it's just the museum geek in me, but I wanted a map with my shopping cart. Looking south, I saw more and more store. It goes on for days. There's a mezzazine level and a diner, not to mention six other eateries tucked into various sections, only a few of which I saw on this visit. The produce section however didn't seem any bigger than the former one, and its still laid out at angles with cramped aisles - maximizing eye appeal but minimizing mobility. From there, the rest of it meanders generously around the big key landmarks, like the impressive Butcher counter and Bakery, which I swear attracted about 300 people with its free tasting stations.

Favorite surprise: Aisle Rage could have set in between Seafood and Dairy if my astute husband hadn't spotted a fellow shopper carrying a glass of beer who informed him that, "This whole store is a bar. You can get drinks at different places and carry them around." He pointed out the beer bar; my honey quickly began hunting for the inevitable wine counterpart. Which he found across from the milk, next to the large wine department. The double-sided Da Vine bar is surprisingly big, with an elevated seating area, knowledgeable staff, and a menu offering some interesting wines-by-the-glass and cheeses. A few steps away, a kid carved up giant wheels of amazingly tangy Parmigiano Reggiano for free samples. Sipping and munching, I relaxed considerably and ticked items off our shopping list. I turned to my husband and said, "Yeah. This is our store. We've come home."

The six remaining eateries are thematic to Chicago's neighborhoods: Wicker Park Subs, Pilsen Taqueria, Taylor Street Pizza, Asian Express, the retro Riverview Diner, and the Chicago Smokehouse and Rotisserie. There's also a lounge area, outdoor tables overlooking the river, and the entryway coffee and beer bar with a live music stage.

Other surprises: The seafood department offers three types of fresh wild salmon. My husband stared in wide-eyed wonder at the endless possibilities of the DIY nut butter station, not to mention the trail mixes possbile in the expanded bulk foods area that's about double the size of the previous one. In every area, selection is vast. I chose from eight kinds of European-style butters and nearly freaked when trying to decided on yogurt.

Customer service: Seriously great. They must be plying the staff with free yoga and aura massages, because we only encountered cheerful, helpful people who never forgot to ask if there was anything else we needed.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Cooking En Feugo

Why is it that whenever I dice jalapenos or other hot peppers for a recipe, it never occurs to me to wear gloves? As a contact lens wearer, I've stood in the bathroom exhausted before bed more than a few nights, squinting my way through a case of Searing Capsaicin Eyeball. Not good. Not good at all.

So I Googled it and naturally found a litany of discussion board strings offering all manner of sage advice for when the usual handwashing has failed. "Soak your hands in bleach." Um, no. Just plain no. "Scrub with a polmace stone." I'm thinking that was meant to be pumice stone, but again, I must decline on the basis that I want to keep my epidermis mostly intact. Being Italian-American, my first inkling was olive oil. I nearly headed in that direction when I saw a post, by a strong speller, who swore that half and half was his miracle cure. I was a little sad to waste any of the sacred dairy combo, but I indeed just bathed my hands in some, and well, wow. About 90% of the burn is gone.

But if you know a better way, please tell.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Climbing on the All-Organic Bus

The confetti has been swept, thousands of Champagne bottles have been recycled (I hope), and the mayor and Rahm-bo have long since left the building. Everyone in my area of the museum has a jumbo-sized opening week excitement hangover, but the new wing and all its inspiring features are, in fact, launched and chugging along nicely. Hordes of visitors are pouring into it for free as I write. Art and handmade pasta for the people! Yes! We! Can!!

It's a given that my brain is fried. But on Sunday, once I consented to peeling myself off the sofa, I walked over to a mirror to confront what 10+ months of monster-truck-sized stress have done to my body. And people, I am fat. Not Biggest Loser fat. Just there's-no-way-in-hell-I'm-going-to-fit-into-last-summer's-pants fat. And last summer? Not exactly a moment to celebrate in my personal journey toward glowing health and fitness.

I've made three decisions about this. 1) It is not going to be my new norm. Noooo, nononono. NO. Change is coming to these hips, America. 2) It's time to put the kibosh on the stress. And 3) I will eat my kind of food to return to a healthy weight. No sense in pretending that I'm going to forgo real food pleasures for, well, anything ever. I'll just have to pace them somewhat more between fresh seasonal produce, whole grains, and...um, something else that my take-out habit has fogged up my brain cells too much to remember.

To brush up on these weighty matters - sorry, couldn't resist - I downloaded Jillian Michaels' new book Master Your Metabolism on my (amazing, awesome, stellar) Kindle. I never watch her show. But I do relish her refreshing talent for honest, sweaty, ass-kicking fitness, and the fact that the book focuses on endocrinology intrigued me greatly.

It has me REELING. Michaels relates how in past years she meticulously consumed 1,200 calories a day and spent over six hours in the gym a week to keep her bod in top form. No shock there. But if she "relaxed" and ramped it up to all of 1,800 calories with the same workouts, she gained 15 lbs. almost immediately. I know dozens of people who can relate to a similar scenario...just none who look like her or have her discipline. An endocrinologist treating one of Michaels' clients eventually tested her and found that literally every major metabolic hormone in her system was totally out of whack - thanks to years of dieting, stress, lack of sleep and consuming processed foods.

And it's that last item that has me reeling. I always knew that processed foods could trigger allergies or lead to long-term health issues like heart disease, and I've minimized them without getting too worked up over it. But I didn't imagine that they could so quickly bring on a vicious cycle of obesity, for one. Or ovarian cysts. Or premature puberty. Or depression. Or any of the other honestly serious immediate dangers triggered by hydrogenated oils, FDA approved preservatives, and additives. In short, if wellness nazis like Jillian Michaels aren't immune from the effects of this toxic junk that's completely taken over our culture, then America, my friends, we are all deeply, truly effed.

Big time.

So I have to believe that this is where Darwinism kicks in, and the smart ones will take the advice to thrive in spite of the overall environment of crap. Which means going all-out, full-stop organic. And breaking up with diet Dr. Pepper and protein bars for good. And learning the entire number system for plastics so I know which ones will alter my DNA if put in my dishwasher. None of which sounds so terribly daunting, but just try to go stand in line at Cosi and order lunch with all this spinning around in your head.

As usual, my friend Dar has a way of just knowing like Yoda. She sent me a package from Zingermans this week as a gift, and when I opened it, I was greeted by a box of Rabitos Royale ...Spanish figs filled with brandy liqueur, dipped in chocolate. No, not diet food. But here's the thing: it wouldn't even occur to the Spanish to fill this unreal little bonbon with toxic crap. In the US, we'd slap an "ALL NATURAL" banner on the front and sell them for 300% markup. But this little darling is exactly the one special treat of my day that won't make me miffed about doubling up on the salads.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Italian Red from Heaven: Marco Donati's Taroldego

My husband and I went to Spiaggia for a quiet brunch today and lingered over a gorgeous meal that I'm going to think about for a long, long time. Aside from the food, which was equal parts artful and soulful, our waiter suggested a little known wine varietal in the US that was absolute love at first sip - taroldego, a red grape from the Alto Adige region in the northern Alps of Italy.

Drinking it brought back one of the sweetest memories I've ever had. About eight years ago, I zipped through Trento's back roads in a Ford Escort with two friends on our way to Venice, and in one of those great unplanned travel moments, we spent the night in Trento. Aside from knowing the incredibly useful fact that it hosted a Vatican council in the 16th century (um, not), I knew nothing about it. We arrived late at night, and all I could tell was that it was tiny, had plenty of medieval charm, and its residents were amused by tourists. We checked into the one pricey hotel because the rest were full. When I woke up the next day and opened the windows on our terrace, I was speechless. It was a bright May morning and had just finished raining. With the air sweet and clean, the misty clouds were still drifting in and out of the incredibly dramatic green peaks surrounding us. We spent the rest of the morning exploring its little nooks and crannies.

While the clean, flinty white wines of Alto have become relatively familiar territory since then, I don't recall ever seeing a red from the area. Today's 2005 Marco Donati teroldego had notes of that same sweet earthiness that I inhaled when I opened our terrace window years ago, which was like music to my nose. Aside from that heady memory, it was filled with bright fruit and a lovely structure similar to a pinot noir, with an unbelievably long finish that made my husband and I both sit quietly and smile.

In this case, Trento's terroir had the same effect on me as the town itself did years ago: a slowing of the senses to appreciate just how beautiful life can be.

The Gage's Swanky Little Neighbor

Last night, as I left the Modern Wing's still-percolating Gala at 9:30, I was hungry for dinner (I didn't sit with the guests for this one). So I popped over to the Gage to order takeout on my way home. While I waited on my caramelized lobster at the bar, the bartender and I chatted about the new restaurant concept that Dirk Flanigan and Billy Lawless have in the works for next door. They're still debating ideas on the menu, but they've settled on creating an intimate four-star experience with a small number of tables and no bar. They're even considering Italian, and are ultimately aspiring to earn Michelin's attention when the rater finally covers Chicago.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Terzo Reservations to Open Next Week

I'm too crazed for words, but here's the news today....

Terzo Piano will begin taking reservations on Monday, May 11th. You may make reservations for parties up to 8 by phone (312 443-8650) or online at www.opentable.com.

The restaurant will hold its grand opening on Saturday, May 16th. It will be open daily for lunch from 11am-3pm, on Thursday evenings until 9pm in the summer (during late hours) and until 8pm the rest of the year.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Update on Terzo Piano

Mama mia, another post about Terzo Piano. (At the risk of being monomaniacal, the Modern Wing is all I'm eating, breathing, or sleeping for the next couple of weeks as we enter the final stretch for the opening festivities, so please humor me.)

Friday afternoon, I walked through the restaurant space with one of my project teams on our way to the Bluhm Family Terrace, and it was clear that Terzo has turned a major corner since my last visit just a week ago. Staff members were unloading and stacking dishes and cookware in the kitchen. Even better, as we emerged into the dining area, there was a collective gasp: the interior architecture is completely finished and it is *gorgeous*. Denison has done a phenomenal job with his usual minimalist restraint, although the pearl-toned mosaic on the bar is a surprising touch of understated glamour. The chairs and other furnishings were just beginning to make their way in, some of them supporting nervous-looking interviewees.

Can't wait! Can't wait!...and I won't have to for very long, because I'm booked for a "rehearsal" lunch there this week.

I've also learned that the restaurant plans to take reservations on Open Table. I have to admit I'm proud yet shocked that AIC has decided to go this way. In the eight years I've worked there, the museum has always been veeeery slow to adopt any form of new technology. It's truly a new day. Naturally, this also means it's going to be all the more competitive to get a reservation for those lunches and once-weekly dinners.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Communalism Taking Over America!

This week, the topic of communal table seating came up a few times with friends in conversations, probably because so many new places like the Bristol, Urban Belly, and the Publican have embraced it. Despite the urban restaurateur's obvious enthusiasm for it (i.e. love for a high mouths per square-foot ratio), the consensus among my incredibly unscientific poll is that at its best, it's tolerable. At its worst, it gives plenty of people a reason not to try a good restaurant.

At Pierrot last week, I was surprised when the waitress squeezed me between two men. They were both young-ish, attractive-ish, and, I'm pretty sure, European-ish. If I were single this would all be very, very good. But mostly I felt like I had just been assigned a middle seat on a plane. All three of the others near me were alone, avoiding eye contact like malaria, and had staked out their table real estate with personal detritus like sunglasses, iPods, books, and mobile devices arranged in a fan formation around their place setting. Those who had the latter were picking them up and clinging to them like life rafts, checking and re-checking for messages in a way that said, "I'm not desperate. People are absolutely dying to get a hold of me."

Time Out Chicago did a pretty good article on communal etiquette last fall. What it doesn't acknowledge is that it's pretty natural to feel awkward in the communal situation when you're dining solo. Introverts and extroverts aside, human food-sharing is a primal behavior that we've been hardwired to use for bonding to others at every stage of life - from breastfeeding to dating to power-lunching. We use food to connect with other humans to get our needs met.

And so there you are, sitting between two total strangers, reeeally hoping they don't want to bond while you have your way peaceably with a tuna salad. The graceful thing to do is, as Time Out suggests, at least acknowledge the humans around you. Time Out suggests making introductions - as in, they want me to voluntarily exchange names with the entire table. I have never once seen this done. I think a simple hello should suffice. Then, if you're not feeling up for a brisk round of networking, reading is always a good strategy to politely say, "Do not disturb." Just make sure your newspaper doesn't turn into a weapon as you turn pages. Or you could make like Oprah and pony up for a Kindle. As Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos was super-quick to point out on Jon Stewart, it's like, totally perfect for reading with one hand.


Hibiscus Cocktails Gone Wild

Papawow (who always cracks me up) posted a Hibiscus Champagne Cocktail recently that looks so wonderful, I found myself wishing the gi-normous megabyte photo was real. P'dubs took the exploration a step further by rolling up his sleeves and walking us through the recipe for making the hibiscus extract. Slurp, delish! I might have thought this was just overachieving and not considered it much further had I not recently had an exceedingly chuggable - ok two exceedingly chuggable - Hibiscus Cobblers at Bluprint with a BFF in the Merchandise Mart two Fridays ago. The experience convinced me that happy hour is in fact just as medicinal as Xanex, and with far fewer side effects. You haven't met the Hibiscus Cobbler? Let me introduce you:

Hibiscus Cobbler

2 oz. gin
dry vermouth
pineapple juice
hibiscus syrup

Now that you're acquainted, I bet you're wondering about the name. A Cobbler cocktail uses a base of wine, sugar, fresh fruit, and ice. The original was the Sherry Cobbler, which was most popular in the late 19th century. (Your silver cocktail shaker with a built-in strainer at home? That's called a Cobbler shaker, but then you probably knew that.) The vermouth is the wine in this case, although I'm guessing it's used in a very small quantity. I tried going back to Blueprint this Friday to bribe the barkeep for the recipe, but they were closed for an event.

Curses! I'll try again soon and will share the bounty.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Friends & Family Discount @ Art Institute

Hello, my lovely readers!

As a thank you for patronizing my foodie boite, I thought I'd pass along a 30% Friends & Family Discount for membership at the Art Institute. This means the typical $80 membership will run you $56. This rate is totally transferable and good until May 31st, so feel free to use the code and send it along to other art lovers.

All levels of membership get these bennies:

  • Free admission to the museum (unlimited visits!)
  • Free admission to special exhibitions (ditto!)
  • Members Only Previews of the Modern Wing next month and to special exhibitions (skip the lines!)
  • Free admission for all member children 18 and under in the member household
  • Access to the Member Lounge (comfy sofas...free coffee)
  • Member-only travel opportunities
  • Access to the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries
  • Exclusive opportunities for Reading between the Lions book club
  • Invitations to member events throughout the year
  • Subscription to the museum’s e-newsletter


  • 10% discount in the Museum Shop and restaurants (including Terzo Piano!)
  • 25% discount on Museum Studies
  • Member Appreciation Days with member-only tours and double discounts
  • Discounts on continuing education courses and membership at the Gene Siskel Film Center
How to do it?

1. Go here to see which membership package you want.
2. Go here to sign up. Use "AICFamily" in the Promotion Code field.
3. Under AIC Staff Referrer enter: "Emilie" (that's me)
4. Await your shiny new membership card in the mail.
I'm testing my new mobile blogging!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Review: Pierrot Gourmet

It's ironic that Pierrot Gourmet is named for the jilted French clown from the Commedia dell'Arte. Because from what I can tell, everyone eating at Pierrot is really happy...and sad clowns are, well, freaky. In a tough work week last week, I decided to take myself out for a couple of nice lunches, and this was the best of the two. I'd forgotten exactly how much I adore this little cafe attached to the Peninsula Hotel. Its sunny, southern French atmosphere is welcoming and charming without being fussy, with three large communal tables down the center and rows of wine and pastries at the fringe. The service is worthy of the hotel that houses it...and the food! Oh, the food! I had the chopped shrimp salad with mangoes and peanut dressing, and it was spectacular. The perfect afternoon lunch to make me forget the relentless flow of emails and messages piling up in my office. I was a little shy of my spot at the communal table until I realized that this is one of the best and busiest of people-watching locations downtown. That, and I could totally ogle the food of my neighbors.

Pierrot Gourmet on Urbanspoon

Friday, April 17, 2009

Terzo Piano Fact Check List

Chicago magazine did a lovely, lovely job of covering the upcoming opening of the Art Institute's Modern Wing - including a sidebar piece by Penny Pollack on its restaurant Terzo Piano. Besides Tony Mantuano, her points, in brief:

1. Dirk Denison designed the restaurant interior? Check. Besides working with Rich Melman and Laurent Gras to design L20, he's a professor of architecture at IIT and a Mies van der Rohe expert. (I also dig him because it was his idea to invite Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to perform in the restored Crown Hall on IIT's campus. He's most certainly cool people.)

2. The Nichols Bridgeway will take pedestrians from Millennium Park to the restaurant level? Check. And it will be awesome.

3. There are no walls, only windows in the restaurant? Um, well, no. There are walls. Not many, but some. You can't see into the kitchen, for one.

4. The glass covered patio is next to an art-filled terrace that overlooks the park? Actually, the patio is part of the terrace. Tables will be near art. Art will be near tables. Even better, no? And the view there, is breathtaking.

5. The lunch menu includes a salad that's an ode to the pea, and cheeses from Iowa and Wisconsin? Check.

6. The dinner menu includes house-made spaghetti? Check. But one important thing bears mention on this point: Dinner will be served just Thursday nights, when the museum is open late.

As of today, reservations for May 16th and thereafter haven't started being accepted yet.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

My First Chicago-Style Dog

Ever since Phil Foss responded to Menupages' street food challenge with the lobster dog at Lockwood, I've been flirting with the idea of ordering it up. I usually make most non-life-altering decisions in about a nanosecond, but I vacillated on this. Maybe it's because I feel so left out of the Symphony in Pig movement, as Dennis Ray Wheaton coined it in Chicago mag this month, that's seduced dozens of chefs at places like Mado and The Publican. These are restaurants where pescatarians like me feel a little like Tracy Flick showing up at an orgy. The cults of Hot Doug's and charcuterie are having such a moment lately, even something as honestly marine as Foss' creation struck me as getting a little bit sucked into the pork vortex.

But, hell, I work a block from Lockwood and literally walk through the Palmer House lobby several times a week. And a girl's gotta eat something other than tuna wraps for lunch. So I parked myself at the bar today fully expecting to order the crab cake sandwich, as I did last time I was there. Except that there is no crab cake sandwich anymore. It's been replaced by the dog. So I ordered it... with truffled chips.

It really is quite good. Not life-changing. But surprisingly rich and delicate at the same time, if not a touch too oozy with more saffron-ginger buerre blanc than it needed. Foss did a great job of honoring all the textures and flavors of the hot dog (if I remember anyway...it's been 15 years or so) using lobster, scallop mousse, leeks, tomatoes, a potato bun and spices. But even if you were oblivious to the provenance in say, a blindfolded, 9 and 1/2 Weeks type situation, it stands on its own as inventive, decadent, comfort food. I don't know anybody who isn't going for that right now. At $18, it's not a recession darling, but I'm not going shame you from enjoying one. Quite the contrary. Despite what the media wants to tell us 24-7, some people have money right now and they're still spending it on things that make them feel good. As were the six other people eating at the bar with me today.

Our waiter mentioned that Potter's, the cocktail lounge at the Palmer House, is offering the dog for half price on Wednesdays. That's nine more bucks for your cocktail kitty.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Santa Fe Must-Do: Flying Star Cafe

If there's one thing - just one solitary entity - that I could have in Chicago from New Mexico where I grew up, it would be a Flying Star Cafe. Jean and Mark Berstein's local chain of up-early, open-late spots in Albuquerque are what I think of as perfect all-around restaurants, and they're the first place I ask to go when I visit home. The food is fresh, organic, stunningly delicious, affordable, and available damn near 24-7. You can breeze in for a quick nosh, a long lingering coffee, a full dinner, or something killer decadent from their extensive bakery. From meatloaf to vegan, caramelized french toast to chopped Cobb, nothing they do is mediocre. It was the site of my first mac-n-gouda orgasm. Enough said.

Best part: They're on the verge of opening a Santa Fe location at the Railyards on May 4th! Which is awesome, because the new Rail Runner Express runs between Albuquerque and Santa Fe in less than 45 minutes. Meaning I can skip the 85 mph drag race on I-25 in favor of relaxing with a nice read, to then hop off the train for a hand-mixed Italian soda and a steaming Buddha Bowl. BLISS.

Oh, and I guess Obama ate at one when he was in town. You have to admit, the man knows his pie.

Ferran Adria's Ice Cream Maker

Liquid nitrogen in the kitchen sounds so NASA to the culinary world, but this video by ForaTV shows us it's really just a very handy sorbet-maker.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Wine for the Innocents

In yet another excuse to write about dogs this afternoon (!), I saw that Alpana posted today about how her Pug, Haruki, loves to sniff newly opened wine. She's stopped just short of letting him have a slurp. Kind of amazing to consider what his canine sense of smell is bound to be able to detect in there, don't you think? I'm sure his nose beats the absolute pants off Robert Parker's. Just imagine if Haruki could spell and had opposable thumbs.

Haruki's appreciation reminds me a little of my friend Don's 9-month old son. Yesterday at brunch, his wine-loving parents showed us how he's already learned to lean in and sniff the bouquet in a glass, imitating his dad's most serious expression while he does it. Pretty awesome. It made me feel slightly less freakish for having grown up in a family so Italian that I was literally enjoying veal cutlets and watered down vino in my highchair.

Et Tu, Atlantic Food?

My closest friends and family know that I daily walk the line that crosses into Crazy Dog Lady territory, but even I think the tsunami of press coverage about Bo the First Portuguese Water Dog is getting out of hand. Marion Nestle of the Atlantic's food blog is chattering about what Bo should find in his food bowl every day. Ah, that the press had its own trainer with a firm hand and some smelly liver to lure them into a nice, calming Sit-Down-Stay.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

My Easter Buffet Playbook

Easter and Mother's Day are the two high-holiest of spring buffet holidays, probably because both are family-centric and fall on Sunday. I don't have kids, live near my family, or go to mass with any regularity, so I can't remember the last time I actually went to an Easter buffet. That will change today when we go with a group of friends, and one 6-month old, to the Ritz Carleton's buffet this afternoon. Such a feat requires a strategy. Here's mine:

1) Reservations are required. This is not a drop-in dining moment, at the five-star hotel buffets in particular. My friend Nicole booked ours a while ago and she's sent email updates to remind us to be on time. She isn't paranoid. I remember managing the Easter reservations at the corporate club where I worked ages ago, and the rule for late-comers was You Snooze, You Lose...or at least get put on stand-by, because we gave your table away after 10 minutes. Nicer restaurants are a good alternative, and there's usually less Darwinism. I just checked Open Table, and plenty of great spots are still open starting at 1:00 today, including Spiaggia, Aigra Doux, Farmerie 58, Brasserie Jo, Graham Elliot, and the Gage.

2) Skip one meal today. Otherwise your're just asking for love handles and acid reflux.

3) Definitely work out twice this weekend. Hard.

4) Do not show up famished. Have a light snack before if necessary.

5) Start with the lighter items - soups, salads, fruit, crepes. Visiting these stations first is always a wise strategy to avoid misery later because it avoids filling up on the heavy stuff too fast.

6) On the second trip, look for something dazzling and enjoy an RDA portion. Then revert back to the lighter stuff if there's any room left. If I have dessert, it'll be fruit-based.

7) Try to keep it down to 2-3 glasses of wine. Today's feast is with our friends who own Just Grapes, so this will pose a challenge since we tend to order bottles by the round with them... It's okay to substitute one specialty cocktail, but just one. After two I'm sauced and my entire playbook goes out the window.

8) Do not hit the couch post-buffet for a couple of hours. Since Chicago's Easters are usually frigid, this usually means window shopping indoors or getting creative.