Friday, January 30, 2009

No Sushi for Lucca

The New York Times just ran a quick little article about how the town of Lucca, located in Tuscany, has banned non-Italian food from its historic center. This is the town that my grandfather's family hails from, which I visited a few years ago with some friends who have since opened a bed and breakfast there. Lucca is a tiny little medieval walled city that you can bike across in about 3 minutes, if you know your way through the labyrinth of streets. As cosmopolitan as I am, I do think a Wendy's or sushi joint would sort of ruin it. Before Lucca, I thought that dark, handsome men in Armani suits riding around on bicycles were a Tuscan travel legend. Until one rolled up to me in front of a leather shop and offered me a gelato. Imagine how conflicted I was about turning down that offer.

Go Sammy!! WOOT!

Sam Kass is cooking the Obama's meals in DC officially, under White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford....hopefully not literally. He has the pedigree you would expect from any Obama pick, i.e. University of Chicago undergrad degree, Michelin-approved training in Europe, and then at the lovley little Avec in the West Loop, before becoming a private chef.

I thought I didn't care about this. But now that a Chicagoan is in the First Kitchen, I'm plenty happy to root for the hometeam one more time. Between the Cubs and Blago, we need to bask in all the sunshine we can get.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Eat, Pray, Love Author in Chicago

Elizabeth Gilbert will be giving a lecture and booksigning at the rather massive Auditorium Theatre in Chicago on March 9th. Tickets just went on sale. She's the author of Eat, Pray, Love, one my favorite books in a while, which documents her long and winding trip through Italy (eat), India (pray), Bali (love) after a soul-crushing divorce. Here's a quote:

Just for a few months of one’s life, is it so awful to travel through time with no greater ambition than to find the next lovely meal? Or to learn how to speak a language for no higher purpose than it pleases your ear to hear it? Or to nap in a garden, in a patch of sunlight, in the middle of the day, right next to your favorite fountain? And then to do it again the next

I'm pretty sure you know where I stand on that.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Nigella Complex

I've been stuck at home with a cold for the past two days. Aside from cleaning out all the cabinets in my kitchen, home office, and bathroom, I've watched about three hours of Nigella Lawson's Express series on YouTube. I don't watch the Food Network or much else on TV, but I had seen her on Oprah and knew I liked her. But after seeing this, holy hell, I think she's fantastic. Ahhh...that we could all be a famous, triple-threat kitchen bombshell with a charm-your-pants-off accent.

The recipe I'm lusting to try as soon as my sinuses give me back my tastebuds: Caramel Croissant Pudding. As in a croissant bread pudding. With caramel. All warm, and gloppy, and sweetly delicious.

Did I mention I adore her?

Taos Ashram Chai Tea

I spent one blissful summer during college living in dramatic Taos, NM, where the mountains are steep and the food is lovingly made by hippies. My favorite place was the Neem Karoli Baba Ashram, where there was always music, flowers, chai, chanting, and a fragrant meal just around the corner - usually served up in one of those giant 10 gallon stockpots you see in movies. I was 20. I didn't have anything to worry about, and neither did anyone else at the ashram, where the kitchen is considered a sacred space.

That was my first encounter with chai tea, which I loved immediately and have been happy to see eventually fill the menus of every barista joint in the nation, even if the mix they use isn't quite the same. The ashram's recipe is from India, and it's far superior. The warming qualities of the ginger, cardamon, and cinnamon are perfect for the middle of winter. It makes three quarts to serve a crowd, or just to last a little while in the fridge:

Maharaji's Taos Ashram Chai

2 quarts water
3 oz fresh ginger, grated
1 tbsp cardamon, crushed
1 cinnamon stick
2-3 black peppercorns
1/4-1/3 cup loose black tea (depending on strength, Assam is ideal)
1/4-1/2 cup sugar (depending on how sweet you like it)
1 quart milk or soy milk

Boil the water with the ginger, cardamon, cinnamon, and peppercorns for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the loose tea leaves. Let steep for five to seven minutes. Add the sugar and milk. Bring to just barely to a boil, and then strain out the spices before enjoying.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Start Your Engines: Restaurant Week List Released

The complete list has been posted for Chicago's Restaurant Week. The participants are offering special prix-fixe lunches for $22 and dinners for $32 during February 20-27.

There are some great new places to try on the list (Prosecco, Farmerie 58), as well as some solid favorites (Le Lan, Brasserie Jo, Le Colonial). If you want a weekend reservation during February 20-22, be quick like a bunny.

To kick it off, we're headed for a weekend lunch at Farmerie, which sounds fantastic.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Dirt Cheap Cookware: Not an Urban Myth

My mother is a born domestic goddess, and I'm accepting that she's always right about anything around the house. She has a serious addiction to serving pieces (at last count, there are 20+ sets of dishes in her giagantimo kitchen), some of which she told me she just found at Marshall's.

To which I replied: ugh. Discount department stores are so much bloody work. Urban life is stressful enough. I need to conserve my shopping resources for things like shoes. And handbags.

Saturday, though, I popped up to their store on Belmont after woefully striking out downstairs in the DSW (no riding boots for me). It was in true form: squeeky escalator, screaming kids, shelves crammed with crap. But then there it was, next to a collection of Le Creuset, a $16 Wolfgang Puck Bistro Elite 2-quart saucepan. Score. I've used it twice and ran it through the dishwasher. So far, it's a thing of bargain beauty.

Ecstasy at MOMA of the Non-Art Variety

When I think back over the past few months, the holidays included, there's one meal that keeps haunting my memory. I co-hosted a group of people in New York on an art tour in October, and we ate well. Very well. But it's always the surprise-and-delight factor when I'm traveling that ingrains a food experience in my memory. The one on this trip happened to occur in the Museum of Modern Art's Cafe 2, where our group of 25 was served a dozen or so small-plate items.

The one among them that I'm still swooning over was a simple cranberry, brie, and walnut panini. How could this be so good? The cranberry was in the form of a sweetened sauce. The walnuts were chopped coarsely and there weren't too many to overpower it. The brie, was melted. Gooey. Oh God. The bread was pressed and toasty, with the whole shebang sliced and served in long, elegant slices - each roughly the size of a large biscotti. How good were they? I skipped dessert to have more.

I. Skipped. Dessert.

That's serious.

I've been resisting urge to buy a panini press after coming to terms with the limited space in my cupboards. But like I said. You don't argue with the food gods.

My Birthday Tiramisu Trifle

My handsome, wizened husband celebrated his 40th birthday last spring, which we marked with a lavish private dinner with friends and family at the exceptional NoMi. It was a big, glittering, memorable night... And so was the check. So when my birthday rolled around a few weeks later, I decided to invite our peeps over for a mellow tapas take-out party at home. It wouldn't break the bank and I still wouldn't have to lift a finger. Except for one critical element: the cake. This, I figured, was the perfect chance to make the birthday confection of my dreams.

Funny thing. When I thought about my ultimate mid-thirties birthday cake fantasy, just one word kept calling: TIRAMISU. Trifle style. Flavored with orange. Ok, that's seven words, and it isn't even a cake. But inspiration takes artistic license sometimes. You don't argue with the food gods.

So here it is. My multi-layered birthday opus that requires no actual baking, and you make it a day ahead. It drew a few gasps on the first bite. And not all of them were even from me.

Tiramisu Trifle with Orange

1 1/2 cups coffee - divided
6 egg yolks at room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup Cointreau (you can use brandy or another liqueur) - divided
17 oz. mascarpone cheese
30 ladyfingers
semisweet chocolate square or chocolate leaves
confectioner's sugar

Whisk the yolks and sugar with an electric mixer, using the whisk attachment, on high for five minutes until they get thick and yellow. Lower to medium speed, and add a 1/4 cup of the Cointreau, 1/4 cup of coffee, and all the mascarpone. Mix until the texture is smooth and heavenly.

Combine the rest of the Cointreau and the 1 1/4 cup coffee in a shallow bowl. Dip 1 side of each ladyfinger in the liquid and line the bottom of a tall glass bowl with them. Pour a layer of the cream mix on top and spread evenly. Repeat, alternating cookies with the cream mixture until you have 4-6 layers, depending on the diameter of your bowl.

Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 8 hours. Before serving, decorate with chocolate leaves or sprinkle with shaved chocolate (heavily) and confectioner's sugar (lightly) on top.

Birthday candles optional. Champagne or sparkling Moscato is pretty much mandatory though.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Best Vegan Pizza Ever at Vella

There's a great little cafe named Vella just up the street from us on Western Ave., and I couldn't be happier that they've started serving a dinner menu of gourmet pizzas three nights a week. (You can see my review of them on UrbanSpoon.)

Their vegan Everything but Meat pizza is so fantastic, my husband brought home two of them yesterday and I spent time trying to figure out its magic. Here's what I think is on it:
  • Caramelized onion - this makes up the richness of the flavor base, since there's no pasta sauce, cheese or meat on it. The onions are thick and gooey, smeared on the light crust.
  • Roasted garlic - mixed into the onion base.
  • Olive tapenade with basil - this is the most mysterious mix. It's heavy on the basil and light on the olives, and it's finely chopped and dotted all around the pizza.
  • Cremini mushrooms - these are sliced really thin so that the edges get a little crispy under the heat of the oven.
  • Roasted plum tomatoes - not sure where they're getting these, or if they make them ahead, but WOW are they packed with flavor and delicious.
  • Spinach
  • Basil leaves

So now I can start experimenting in the kitchen.

Heartbreaker: Marshall Field's, I Still Miss You

I have a friend named Pernilla who lived in Chicago several years before returning to Sweden. The last time she visited, she dropped into my hands a tall, sleek bag filled with tea. When I opened it to smell the contents, the heavenly mix of oranges, black tea and floral notes met my happy nose - a lot like the smell of pannetone. It was so beautiful, I emailed her later to make sure it was actually tea. "Yes, it's tea! So don't smoke it!" she replied. The bag label simply read Nordiska Kompaniet Seden, the Nordic Company of Sweden. This department store in Stockholm opened in 1902 and reminds me very much of Chicago's beloved Marshall Field's, taken over by Macy's in 2006.

Field's holds a special place in the hearts of Chicagoans. My husband and I lived across the street for over year, connected via the underground pedway so that I didn't even have to put on a coat to visit. I arrived in the basement, where tea, chocolate, coffee, cookbooks, and other gourmet goodies made perfect gifts like the one Pernilla gave me. Upstairs, the store's Culinary Council of Chicago-made celebrity chefs offered cooking classes; the Walnut Room served signature comfort food in a glorious old world setting; the Frango Cafe served killer sundaes topped with Frango mints; and one of the best food courts in the city prepared quick, elegant lunches on the fly. In between nibbles, you could visit the Paris Flea Market, the apothecary or even the enormous bridal salon where I bought my wedding dress.

Macy's has tried to retain some of Field's specialness, and even kept most of those elements. But the products have become more generic, and the store has lost some character. The Macy's name took over the same day I picked up my wedding dress, and I fought through the protesters (yes, protesters!) to get inside, hoping that Macy's wouldn't actually change it too much. When I got in, I literally saw a bad sign: a tower of Field's official cookbooks stacked in the corner and marked down 40%. You can find a copy on Amazon.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Getting to Schwa

After reading yet another superlative-filled article about Michael Carlson's revolutionary food, I've decided to suck it up and try to get a reservation at his restaurant, Schwa. (The most recent ode to his chops is a six-page interview in GQ.) Why am I telling you this? He runs the tiny 26-seat place in my neighborhood like a pirate ship. No wait staff, no reservations system, all BYO. To get in you call.... and call, and call. He's the only one who ever answers the phone, and that's only when he's feeling like it. He's basically a brilliantly talented guy with an eccentric and unstable past, so my career in the art world has prepared me well for the task.

I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Elusive Violet Hour

"The best new bar in America"
"One of the best bars in the world"
"Chicago's cocktail mecca"

This is the crazy press that the Violet Hour in my neighborhood has been getting for well over a year. Toby Maloney is the mastermind behind this swank little speakeasy-inspired lounge that took over the space left behind by my beloved Del Toro tapas restaurant. With French Directory style interiors and a literary name, how could I not love it? Clearly, c'est pour moi.

Problem is, even after all this time, there was still a line when we tried to get in last Saturday. At 9:30 p.m. (practically noon in bar-time). In the 10 degree cold. Sigh.

The next best thing is watching Tobes (I'm sure he'll let me call him this one day) on YouTube. He's done a series of how-to videos that are so homespun it's cute.

Ode to the Lunch Buddy

Sociologists know that food-sharing is one of the stickiest glues that binds us together. What do we do on a date? We eat. How do we "meet the parents"? We go to dinner. How do we bond with our infants? Milk. Weddings? A ceremony, followed by 30 linear feet of food. Owl monkies and bottlenosed dolphins have their own versions.

I'm grateful for all of my mammalian food-sharing activity, but where can it be more sorely needed than at work? We spend the most central 40+ hours of our week there, many of them stressful and annoying. Being able to relax long enough to eat a sandwich with a friend is one of life's great joys, but the true lunch buddy can be a tough find when most people just snarf something at their desk while emailing or, um, blogging. (Crunch. Crunch.)

Some people have a romantic soul mate, I have a lunch soul mate named Jill. We worked on the same team at my museum for three years. I'd go to her (much bigger) office, and she'd pull out of her mini-fridge whatever her delightful husband Henry had made for us that morning. Pizza with caramelized onions and goat cheese? Yes please. Salmon chowder? Yum. Sauteed garlic shrimp pasta? Ooooo. Neither of us eat red meat or poultry, so it was a perfect match, and the conversation was equally as excellent.

Sadly, Jill left the museum two years ago. I moved into her old office, and we still email each other about food, books, and Fonzie jokes. Usually at lunchtime. Below is a recipe that Henry would have made for us:

Coconut Shrimp with a Tamarind Ginger Sauce

For sauce

1 teaspoon tamarind concentrate*

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2/3 cup mayonnaise

1 1/2 tablespoons mild honey

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon finely grated peeled fresh ginger

1/4 teaspoon salt

For shrimp

4 cups sweetened flaked coconut (10 oz) 

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup beer (not dark)

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cayenne

1 large egg

6 cups vegetable oil

48 medium shrimp (1 1/2 lb), peeled, leaving tail and first segment of shell intact, and, if desired, deveined

Special equipment: a deep-fat thermometer 

Make sauce: 
Whisk tamarind concentrate into lime juice in a small bowl until dissolved. Stir in remaining sauce ingredients and chill, covered.

Prepare shrimp: 
Coarsely chop coconut and transfer half to a shallow soup bowl or pie plate. Whisk together flour, beer, baking soda, salt, cayenne, and egg in a small bowl until smooth. Heat oil in a 4- to 6-quart deep heavy pot over moderately high heat until it registers 350°F on thermometer.

While oil is heating, coat shrimp: 
Hold 1 shrimp by tail and dip into batter, letting excess drip off, then dredge in coconut, coating completely and pressing gently to help adhere. Transfer to a plate and coat remaining shrimp in same manner, adding remaining coconut to bowl as needed.

Fry shrimp in oil in batches of 8, turning once, until golden, about 1 minute. Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain and season lightly with salt. Skim any coconut from oil and return oil to 350°F between batches.

Serve shrimp with sauce.

Tamarind ginger sauce can be made 6 hours ahead and chilled, covered. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Menu Library of Congress

On the odd little website Collectible Meals, you can thumb through a library of menus from historical meals of note. For example, I'm sure Mr. President would be interested to know that Abraham Lincoln had veal, venison, and poultry at his 2nd inaugural ball. Patsy Cline's wake? Ham, ham sandwiches, and scrambled eggs with bacon. Fan of pork, I guess.

Most seem pretty predictible. Elvis ate grits with Natalie Wood. Grace Kelly just had a salad when she told her b.f.f. that she was going to be a Princess. My favorite so far is this one:

Barbra Streisand...with Omar Sharif: During the filming of the movie Funny Girl, Streisand and Sharif held many "script conferences" in Shariff's hotel suite.

Dom Perignon

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

New Mexican Green Chile, Goat Cheese & Corn Gratin

I developed this recipe as a side dish for a New Mexican-themed Christmas dinner several years back. The authentic flavor of it hits the spot whenever I get homesick, but the goat cheese cools the heat enough to please my non-native dinner guests. Roasted green chile from Hatch, NM, (or as my sister calls it, Defcon-5 nuclear sunshine) is always best. You can order it frozen or fresh from places like this. Avoid canned.

1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup onion, chopped
1 cup green bell pepper, diced
1 cup red bell pepper, diced
salt and pepper
kernels from 4 ears of corn
2-3 green chiles, roasted, peeled and chopped (less if hot)
1 tsp cumin
1/3 cup goat cheese
3/4 cup skim milk
1/4 nonfat dry milk
1 tbsp flour
3 eggs

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a large skillet, saute the onion in olive oil until transparent. Add bell peppers, season with salt and pepper, and saute about 5 minutes. Add half of the corn, and all of the green chile and cumin. Saute until tender and remove from heat. Stir in the goat cheese until melted and well blended. Scrape this mix into an oven-safe gratin dish.

In a food processor, combine the milk, dry milk, flour, remaning corn and eggs. Season with salt and pour over the veggie mix in the gratin dish. Bake about 25 minutes, until golden across the top. Serves 4-6.

Can-Do Foodie Stud of the Month: Tom Colicchio

Tom Colicchio - of head-shaving, swagger-walking, steak-searing Top Chef fame - used his formidable forearms to Heimlich a savory morsel from Joan Nathan's trachea last night, thus saving her James-Beard-award-winning life. The dramatic deed went down in DC at the Art.Food.Hope event, where foodie VIPs cavorted with government VIPs "for the children" under the graces of aspiring White House chef, Alice Waters.

That Colicchio. He gets it done.

I myself am a survivor of a prime rib incident that nearly 86'd me at 13. While my parents freaked, our dinner guest calmly got up and did the dislodging. Everyone should know how to perform it on adults and children, just in case you need to be a hero like Mr. Craft Steak.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Get Thee a Valentine's Reservation

I checked a few restaurants for Valentine's Day dinner reservations this morning, figuring that since the 14th falls on a Saturday, the best places would be especially competitive. I was surprised that our first pick, which is a fairly large place, had already booked up everything from 7:00 to 9:00 more than a month out. Start dialing (or clicking) now if you don't want to end up at Fat Willy's Rib Shack.

Gettin' Fizzy with It

Eisenhower said that, "Some people want Champagne and caviar when they should have beer and hot dogs." Point taken, especially in light of recent subprime events. The problem is, I won't go anywhere near beer and hot dogs. Maybe a Chimay on the rare occasion, but a hot dog? Not with my last buck-fifty.

Among the whole globe of varietals to discover, there are plenty of alternatives to Champagne that can delight for much, much less. In Chicago, you do all you can to get through the snowbound doldrums of a long winter, making a stash of affordable sparkling wine justifiable at least from Thanksgiving through Valentine's Day. Here's what we stock in our wine 'fridge:

Cava - Spain's answer to Champagne seems to have fully hit the mainstream. I took a few bottles to a holiday office party last month and it was inhaled without pause. It's the closest in flavor profile to the big "C," with doughy, yeasty notes accompanied by lots of peach and melon.

Prosecco - Italy's lesser-known sparkler in the US is definitely catching on. Most upper end restaurants I've been to are offering one or two on their sparkling wine-by-the-glass menus, especially in the summer when its dry, minerality, balanced with great fruit, is so refreshing.

Sparkling Rose - it's pink, it's bubbly...what's not to love? I've had great sparkling rose blends from several places, most notably Australia and Spain. In most cases, they've been surprisingly dry and just as versatile as Champagne, Cava, and Prosecco.

Sparkling Moscato - aka Asti Moscato...A fruity, floral dessert wine that's the equivalent of a Dior party dress. Light, frothy, totally delicious. We served one at our wedding three years ago and people still ask about it. I brought a few bottles to the same office party, and the label was thoroughly investigated by many both before and after it was drained to the last drop.

Sparkling Shiraz - Those Aussies. You can always count on them for two things: 1) "Pants-off fun," as they call it, and 2) a serious commitment to delivering the perfect fruit bomb. Is it weird to drink dark, fizzy wine? Yes. I was entirely skeptical...until someone said the magic words: "It's designed for chocolate." Then I tried and loved its weighty, smooth richness, capped with froth. Grab some truffles and party down.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Pasta Voodoo: Super Easy, Flavorful Sauce

I love nerds. And the ones at America's Test Kitchen write the greatest cookbooks -- every recipe they tackle is an OCD quest for perfection and technical insight. When I have time, I follow them to the letter, and it always, always delivers. Otherwise, I glean the insight and just improvise the rest...which is more useful because it means I'm really learning something.

Their Pasta with Garden Vegetable Sauce was too boring to catch my eye for a while. But I had a bunch of veggies that were on the verge last month, and it was a way to use them up without resorting to Veggie Chili and three days of heartburn. The insight for the recipe surprised me because it's so useful and so simple: you can make a really flavorful, light sauce with browned tomato paste and broth. The jazz version goes something like....

1. Get your water going for 1/2 lbs. of pasta.

2. Gather olive oil, tomato paste, onions/garlic/shallots, broth, some "hard" veggies like carrots/red bells, some soft veggies like halved cherry tomatoes/zucchini/shrooms, and some green stuff like basil/parsley/arugula. Whatever's at hand usually works just fine.

3. Saute the soft veggies for about 2 minutes. You want the tomatoes just wilt. Set aside.

4. Saute the hard veggies with the onions for 5+ minutes. Stir in 3 tbsp of tomato paste well and let it brown a few minutes. Add a cup of broth and stir it again, scraping the bottom of the pan until it makes a sauce. Let it thicken a little and season it.

5. Cook and drain the pasta. Add to it the soft veggies and the saucy mix, then add in the chopped greens. Blend it all well and serve topped with a shredded hard cheese or goat cheese.

The sauce coats the pasta with a nice rich flavor that still lets all those lovely veggies shine. Since you're relying on browning to give you the flavor here, a stainless surface gives you the best fond. But I've used my trusty All-Clad non-stick twice and have been really happy with the results.

It's nice versatile dish that'll help make up for the some of the sins of the holidays.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Biz Ideas for Foodie Trust Fund Babies

I have fetishes for a few things, obviously, but New York City isn't one of them. It's a wonderful place for a visit to see some jazz and a great play over a weekend, but I'll never wish I lived there. I do however keep a running mental list of ideas that I wish Chicago would import:

24-hour cheap French bistros like French Roast (this, I lament regularly)
Asian tapas
Japanese pastry shops (to be fair, I think there's only one in NYC)
Zabar's grocery store
Produce markets in the neighborhoods (we need more, Mr. Daley)

The pizza and bagels leave me indifferent. Shoot me. But the above? Oh yes, yes, please.

Citywide Prix-Fixe Deals, Deals, Deals

With restaurants hurting, tourism down, and a delightful -20F breeze in the air, you can bet Chicago's winter foodie fests are going to show you the fois gras to get your love this year.

The Chicago Originals restaurant group steps up first with their 2nd Annual Originals Restaurant Week during January 25 - February 6. Each place will offer a special 3-course menu priced at $24.09 for lunch and $29.09 for dinner. Guests will have choices for each course.

There are a lot of Frenchies on the list. I've put (*) by the places that I think are definitely worth a visit:

Bella Bacino's
Cafe Bernard*
Cafe Central
Cafe Matou*
Cyrano's Bistrot & Wine Bar
Dinotto Ristorante*
El Nuevo Mexicano
Hemmingway's Bistro
Kiki's Bistro*
Mundial Cocina Mestiza
Sweets & Savories
Trattoria Roma*

Next will be the city's offical Restaurant Week coming up February 20-27, which will include more than 130 restaurants offering $22 prix-fixe lunches and $32 prix-fixe dinners.

Secret Boho Happiness in DC

It's only Saturday a.m., and media coverage on the Inauguration has hit overkill already. I just finished a NYT article that gives a near minute-by-minute recount of Michelle Obama's birthday dinner at Equinox in DC last night. Oi. Vay. (Risotto cakes and steak, by the way.)

Washington expects 2 million by Tuesday, and I have several friends on their way or just arriving. DC feels like a second (or third?) home since I used to travel there for work a lot -- and it holds one of my most favorite secret places anywhere: The Tabard Inn in DuPont Circle. The Tabard is a maze of three Colonial-era brownstones cobbled together bohemian style, plus a tiny restaurant that turns out gorgeous food. There are no TVs in the funky rooms (personal faves: #5 and #35). You can literally get lost in the crooked labyrinth of hallways. And the living room that doubles as the restaurant waiting area is usually crammed with a mix of loud people drinking Pinot before a blazing fire. Bill Clinton was a fan. I miss it just thinking about it.

As a bonus, the 'hood is cool, some of the best Modernist works in the US reside in the Philips Collection a stone's throw away, and all the other free museums are two stops over on the Metro. It's travel perfection.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Group Hug Time

So. Confession.

Half the reason I started this blog is to hold myself to my goal of passing the Society of Wine Educator's first level wine certification exam. I started studying for it in September. (Austrialia is so my bitch right now.)

I tend to get excited about all kinds of things, but have trouble following through with big ideas about them when I realize it's still going to require showing up to work every day and clubbing dust bunnies at home on the usual schedule. I think braniac diva Susan Sontag called the tendency "sipping from a thousand straws." But then, she was "an author, filmmaker, philosopher, literary theorist, and political activist," so she kind of made the multiplicity work for her.

The other half of the reason for the blog is that my husband told me no, I really should start a one that features dirty wine reviews.


Argentina has been coming into its own for a while, but the past six months it's developed into a full-blown recession darling. American travel there is way, way up as the Euro continues to kick our tushes in the EU, and their Malbec has emerged as a rock star alternative to much pricier Cabernet Sauvignons. The Mendoza region in particular is churning out so many great, big, sexy reds, they've earned Wine Enthusiast's Wine Region of the Year award. All the attention may bring prices up a bit, but there should still be plenty of room for a great deal on a full-bodied number that you can afford in multiples. Two big faves:

2006 Marraso El Caballo Antiguo Malbec, Argentina, $9: Deep, ripe fruit with cherry, cocoa, and vanilla. This is a solid weeknight wine that I've paired with pizzas and pastas.

2006 Susana Balbo, Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina, $26: I haven't instantly loved a wine this much in a while. It's the full package, with tons of black and blue fruit, violets, chocolate, toasted vanilla and a little twinge of mint. Meeeow. A Cab this good would be nearly double the cash.

Swing by Just Grapes for them.

Aigre Who?

You know you've fallen for a place when you can't wait to go back there. I feel that way about Aigre Doux (AHG-ra DO), which is one of the most under-hyped restaurants in the city. Husband-and-wife team Mohammad Islam and Malika Ameen have crafted an understated, inviting space right across from the Merchandise Mart that focuses on turning out spectacular food. Every course I had of my meal there was both surpring and stellar, which included a coconut crusted whitefish that balanced the delicate Asian earthiness of shiitake mushrooms with green mango. It's a truly excellent little place.

Aigre Doux Restaurant and Bakery on Urbanspoon

Today in WTF

Ages ago, I spent a year waiting tables in the restaurant of a high-end club where fine dining was the norm. You see all versions of appalling when you work at any restaurant, but the eyebrows shoot up especially fast in places that have orchids in the foyer and a maitre d' who actually makes eye contact. For any diner who barks out for another Long Island iced tea with his carpaccio, you can bet your sweet cheeks there's a line of waiters shooting one another looks around the corner, as are the people at most tables within earshot. You just don't want to be that guy.

You also don't want to be the schmo taking pictures of your entire 24-course meal at Alinea for your food blog. (And I mean EVER.) After trolling through three sites today that did just that, it's clear this happens often enough in America's temple of molecular gastronomy that a discreet pat-down of guests before seating might be nice. What can I say to these dorks except that they're not only entirely missing the point of the experience, they're totally annoying the crap out of the other lovely people in the room who get it.

So now it makes perfect sense why Greg Achatz published a cookbook that's impossible to use. To get a few losers to put their iPhones away.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Heartbreaker: Sweet Thang, RIP

Zoiks. I just learned that Sweet Thang in the 'hood closed. Sigh. I remember my first time buy Jenn this insanely decadent torte for her birthday. A tres suave fella manning the counter asked in a heavy accent, "Bonjour, mademoiselle." (Pause. Grin. Blink.) "And what... may I geet for you?" Note to the local French Chamber of Commerce: French charm + American customer service = definite upsell to the yuppie lady customer. Once I got myself back up off the floor, I ordered said cake, plus some almond croissants the size of American footballs. The ensuing hour was delightful, indeed.

Alas, no more. Apparently chef Bernard Runo decided to focus on making money with his wedding cake business. And some shady guy bought the name and opened a faux thang in Roscoe Village with shoddy pastery. Ptoo, I say. Ptoo!

This is only topped by the quick and cruel demise of Del Toro around the corner - unquestionably The One That Got Away.

Spoon Me

In a world filled with Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter friends, the UrbanSpoon site seems so inevitable. So why fight it? It's a great place to swap zingers with your other foodie friends. My theory is that it's way more accurate than Zagat or Metromix at gauging the unfiltered buzz factor for any given place. (Notwithstanding, I'm sure Alpana's career is safe.)

My inner geek especially marvels at all stats that the Spoon's computer brain is capable of giving us:

  • The most popular Chicago restaurant is itty bitty, crazy noisy Avec.
  • The Brazilian steakhouse concept (and the cardiology business) is safe in Chicago, with two spots on the top ten.
  • Plenty of folks are hanging on to their jobs and mortgages long enough to put Alinea at #5

You can find me there as DirtyDish.

Your Village or Mine?

Suze Ormann is a pretty slick mama, so when she told me before Christmas to re-think gift giving for our Merry Recession this year, I came up with an idea. What if used all those hours I've whiled away on for more than just divulging upsetting family secrets at dinner? Inspiration: I could research the wine from my family's Italian villages of origin and give bottles as gifts. Instant family terroir, if you will.

And it worked! Well...mostly. My dad's family is a cinch. They're from Abruzzo, the poor, still relativley undiscovered region west of Rome that's churning out some stellar Montepulciano d'Abruzzo lately - it's recession gold. On mom's side, it turns out the wines from around Lucca in Tuscany are, well, a fave of the Vatican's for centuries. Just try to get your paws on a bottle of that stuff (picturing the pope's wine cellar....mamma mia). So I improvised with a Tuscan red blend from a winemaker that owns several vineyards in the region.

I even gave everyone maps and the village's history of wine making along with the bottles. A hit indeed. If you're ever up for a little help with a similar project, ring me up. I'll research and source the wines for you.

Speaking of Chocolate Infusions...

Clearly we suffer from a dearth of ways to get our daily chocolate. As such, our friends the French have figured out how to infuse it with some bodacious black tea, and then spiced things up a bit for that little extra exotic kick. All of Kusmi's teas are pretty gorgeous inside and out, but this Spicy Chocolate one is something special among them.

My friend Dar is a legit Francophile, meaning she can actually speak some of language. Me, I'm more of a poser (poseur?) because I'm just too lazy. Nonetheless, when she sent me a tin of this after her trip to Paris, I nearly wept tears of joie de vivre. I keep it at work to cheer up bleh winter afternoons.

Unspeakable Acts Inspired by the Portuguese

Unsure about dessert wine, and definitely put off by the scary dark stuff in the Port aisle? Rosenblum's Desiree is to Port what oral sex is to an affectionate gesture. (If you flunked analogies on the SAT, just suffice it to say you want some. Real. Bad.) This decadent little bombshell isn't for shy types. It's pretty much dessert unto itself, with a heady zinfandel that's been blended with two Portuguese varietals and then, um, infused with chocolate essence. That's right Virginia, actual chocolate. In the bottle. With the wine. And don't worry. What sounds like a potentially tacky idea is executed to elegant, lovely, gorgeously balanced perfection. I don't know who's idea this was, but I kind of want to make out with them every time I have it.

You can find it at Just Grapes on Washington St.