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 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'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.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Anniversary Dinner with Mayor Daley

As of today it's been 20 years since Mayor Daley took office as the benevolent dictator of our metropolis. Holy crap is right, Chicagoist. In honor of this occasion, perhaps you could celebrate by going to Gibson's and asking for "the Mayor's table." This of course will not get you a decent table at all, but one near the kitchen that the wait staff refers to this way to appease demanding jerks who walk in with no reservation. Gibson's was old school Daley.

For new school Daley, skip that and go to Santorini in Greek Town where he's reportedly been trying to lay off the red meat in favor of pasta, seafood, and olive oil. Don't forget to order an Old Fashioned before dinner though. You don't want to go too crazy with the healthy. For the evening's entertainment, you'll want to get yourself to the Lyric Opera. Which production? Faust, naturally.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Bravo Duchamp!!

Michael Taus' wife, Annette, just announced to her Facebook peeps (including moi) that Duchamp won the Time Out Chicago Critic's Pick Award tonight.

Go, Duchamp, go!! And congratulations to Michael... who makes the best damn veggie chili ever, by the way.

Recipe: Shrimp and Corn Chowder

Lately when I get home, I can barely string together a sentence, much less practice my knife skills on a rutabaga. It's in these moments, as the only cook in the house, that I take a deep breath, open the fridge and let a calm acceptance take over as I channel my inner Nigella. Usually the food gods answer with some sort of inspiration or another that'll require minimal effort on my part. Friday night it was this comforting soup that managed to remind me that even though it was bitterly cold and ugly outside by April's standards, spring is in fact lurking quietly and stubbornly in our midst. It's partially inspired by Nigella's corn chowder, and partially by my favorite salmon chowder recipe. And the best part is that it was literally ready in 10 minutes flat.

Shrimp and Corn Chowder

14-oz can light evaporated milk
14-oz can sweet corn
1 cup veggie broth
small handful parsley
2 scallions
8-10 large shrimp, shelled
dash cayenne pepper
dash ground chipotle
garlic powder, salt, pepper

In a large sauce pan, warm the evaporated milk over medium heat and add the broth. In a food processor, add the corn, scallions, and parsley and blitz together into...well, a slurry, really. Scrape the corn mixture into the broth and stir well as it heats through. Add the cayenne, garlic powder, chipotle, salt and pepper to taste. Once it gets hot, add the shrimp and let them cook through until opaque.

Serve with tortilla chips.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Chicago Cocktails for Advanced Drinkers

Two items of innovative cocktail brilliance were just put on the menu last night at Tavern at the Park downtown:

- The 20-Sixtini honors Mayor Daley's ultimate obsession and the IOC's visit to our city this week for the city's 2016 Olympics bid. It's a blend of mandarin vodka, vanilla-infused simple syrup, Blue Moon and ginger beer. Fruity, tangy and surprisingly delicious. A little steep at $13, but it's a Chicago-sized serving and some proceeds support the city's bid funding (i.e. pothole-filling, police).

- Cloudgate, the drink, will run you $199. At that price, what's in it (Grey Goose vodka, champagne) is not the point. What's served with it, however, is an Elsa Peretti Bean pendant necklace from Tiffany in sterling silver. While Peretti's spitting-image design predates our gloriously jumbo-sized, iconic Anish Kapoor sculpture - Cloudgate - across the street in Millennium Park, it couldn't be a more fitting trinket to celebrate our city with your nice wife who enjoys bling. Nicely done, Tavern. Nicely done.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

What's Going Down in the Next 60 Days

So here's the deal. I've been working on the capital campaign to build the Art Institute's new Modern Wing for well over a year, which means I'm a tired, cranky woman who writes about food to distract myself from the myopic focus, insomnia and general pissiness that such a massive undertaking requires. Despite that, we are a mere four weeks away from one of the proudest and most painful moments of my career - the two-week marathon of opening events that will damn near kill me and most of my colleagues. Twenty-four events in 22 days, to be exact. I'm telling you this because I'm just not sure how much love I'll be able to lavish on the Dirty Dish pages over the next two months. I will try my level best.

On the bright side, the art tribe loves beautiful food, and it's a big part of the Modern Wing's many amazing celebrations, not to mention Tony Mantuano's new restaurant that will reside permanently on its third floor. Many foodie details are under wraps that I'm verboten to share. But I promise I will when I can.

Deal? Deal.

xoxo, E.

Review: Red Rooster

I went to Red Rooster in Lincoln Park this weekend with my husband and some out-of-town family guests. It's a tiny, wood-paneled place that feels like a hole-in-the-wall secret in Europe. A little dusty, it definitely hasn't changed in decades - perfect for dinner on a rainy night...or perhaps for when you're shagging your philosophy professor who reads you Proust in bed. The food is old fashioned but delicious, and it's remarkably cheap for the quality. My sauteed skate wing was bathing in a rich caper sauce, with buttery fingerling potatoes. There were multiple raves for the duck confit at the table. Desserts are equally rich and generous. The creme brulee was served in an unsually large glass bowl, and my vanilla mousse with fresh berries was amazing and bottomless. A very nice dinner value if you're after a low-key, simple atmosphere.

Red Rooster Wine Bar & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Elitist Stamp of Approval

For my lunch-time diversion, I took Time Out New York's food snob quiz. No news bulletin here, but this was the verdict.......

Your Score: 69

Sorry to break it to you, but you’re a Bona Fide Foodie Elitist. Looks like your love of fancy foods has given you a bit of a tude, hasn’t it? Go sit in the corner with your shad roe.

Oui, TONY, oui. Je suis also une big art snob as well. Fortunately, I giddily embrace all species of dog and mutt, enjoy a rowdy weekend in Vegas, and can fishtale a pickup truck on dirt without spinning out. One has to be balanced, bien sur.