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Posts Tagged ‘restaurant’

A big trend right now is taking simple food and elevating it to gourmet status (witness the rise of the designer hamburger, cupcake, etc.). Beyond individual food items, you can see this happening in the recent obsession with upscale street food of all kinds. To see what all the fuss is about, I checked out a couple of hot spots…

When my friend Mara visited town recently, we hit up Gaztro-Wagon, a new sandwich shop on the north side. The proprietor would like to peddle his wares on the street via a food truck, but Chicago currently doesn’t allow them. While he’s waiting to see if his request to change the rules goes through, he’s holed up in a tiny storefront in Edgewater (be warned: this place is literally a hot spot – meaning, no A/C).

Photo by the Chicago Tribune

The chalkboard offered quite a few options, but Mara and I both ordered the lobster roll, which came piled high with plump bits of lobster tucked into warm naan (all the sandwiches here are actually “naan-wiches”). It had a bit too much mayo for my taste, but I may have been spoiled by the lobster rolls I had on my honeymoon in Maine, where the meat was so good there was really no need for dressing. But make no mistake, this was a tasty roll – I loved the thin slice of pickle which layered in an unexpected flavor. With some plantain chips on the side, I was a happy camper. Since I keep reading about the pork shoulder and wild boar belly, I might have to go back soon with husband in tow…

Next up, I finally visited Xoco, the newest addition to the Rick Bayless empire of Mexican dining. I had been meaning to go for months, and my dad and I actually attempted it once but gave up due to the infamous line to get in. This time, my friend Meryl and I braved the wait time and were rewarded with two delicious tortas. Funnily enough, just as you expect bread and get naan at Gaztro-Wagon, here you expect tortillas and get…bread! But not just any bread – picture the perfect baguette, crusty on the outside with a chewy, soft interior. We shared a garlicky mushroom sandwich with goat cheese, arugula, black beans and salsa, and the daily special which paired mixed greens with ricotta. Both were the perfect example of how great ingredients can up the ante of a simple meal. We also contentedly consumed a side of flawless guac and chips and finished up with cinnamon sugar-studded churros dipped in soft serve ice cream. Though the service was lacking (between ordering at the counter and the many runners responsible for bringing the food out, it seems some things get lost in the fast pace), I would love to return in winter for a cup of the famous hot chocolate…and more tortas.

Photo by Serious Eats

Meals like this are a great reminder that food doesn’t have to be unaffordable or served in fancy surroundings to be gourmet!

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Dear Chicagoans,

I’m about to get a little bossy with you. Bear with me – I promise you’ll be glad you did.

If you get summoned to jury duty at Criminal Court (2650 S. California), do the following:

1) Eat a good breakfast before you hit the road.

2) Don’t panic about being a little late. Things don’t get going right away.

3) Bring a snack, and eat it sometime during the morning hours while you sit reading a good book in a huge, frigid room.

4) When you are released for the lunch break, skip the courthouse cafeteria and Popeye’s Chicken on the corner. Instead, walk a few blocks west on 26th, keeping your eyes out for a colorful mural on the side of a brick building. You’ll notice a few others walking with you who are probably also aware that this neighborhood has great Mexican food, and thus also did their food research when they got their jury summons.

5) Arrive at Taqueria El Miagro, which you know gets 4.5 out of 5 stars on Yelp. Don’t be intimidated by the line – you have an hour and a half. Relax.

6) While in line, enjoy the people watching. The colorful, ultra-casual restaurant has an incredibly diverse clientele.

7) Ignore the obnoxious lady screaming at the bewildered guy behind the counter for not getting her order right.

8 ) Step up to the counter. Breathe in the spicy smells coming from the cafeteria-style service line. Order whatever strikes your fancy. For me, this was:

◊ 1 taco dorado de papa ~ a small, fried tortilla filled with potatoes. Kinda like a very basic samosa, but perfectly flavorful and crispy.

◊ 1 taco de arroz y frijoles ~ an open-faced corn tortilla smothered with refried beans and rice. I requested the additional toppings of avocado, tomato (not really necessary due to the accompanying fresh salsa), peppery cabbage slaw (the clear choice over lettuce), and cheese (“American or fresh?” Um, queso fresco please!)

◊ A sweet Mexican beverage – I chose tamarind, which pretty much tasted like sugar water but was a nice foil to the two dishes above.

◊ And for dessert…1 tamale piña con nuez ~ Open the leaf wrapper to uncover a warm mound of corn masa, subtly sweetened with a honey flavor and studded with pineapple and pecans. This unusual dish may have been my favorite, but it was all so good it’s hard to say.

9) Try to refrain from murmuring “mmm” out loud as you are eating (I may or may not have done this). Revel in the knowledge that the tortillas you just ate were made at the tortilleria next door.

10) Return to the huge, frigid jury room with a full stomach – enough to get you through the grueling questioning by a hotshot lawyer working on a juicy case which will be in all the major newspapers…

Ok, ok…it’s also enough to get you through a few more hours of sitting around until you are dismissed at the end of the day without your panel number ever getting called.

Either way, you ate a really good taco.

Sincerely, Rachel

Photo courtesy of InfoUSA

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Restaurant exploration is one of my favorite activities, but with a student budget it remains a luxury! That’s why it’s great when an event comes along that provides an extra reason to eat out.

In the past month, I have attended two dining events benefiting causes that are important to me.  On April 29, J and I “Dined Out for Life” at Jin Ju in Andersonville, happy in the knowledge that a percentage of our check would be donated to AIDS service organizations. Jin Ju is a favorite restaurant of ours – we love the Korean fare and classy atmosphere enough to ignore the thumping club beats (yes, I admit it, I can be a little curmudgeonly about restaurant music…but that’s another post).

We started with our usual steamed veggie mandoo dumplings, and as usual, the dipping sauce was so good that even the cabbage leaf garnish somehow disappeared. For his entree, J got his favorite bulgogi – beef marinated in soy sauce and sauteed with veggies. I decided to branch out and ordered a couple of appetizers – seaweed and scallion soup in a mussel broth, and tempura vegetables. Sadly, neither was very impressive (the tempura batter was too greasy, and the soup tasted like your basic miso), so next time I’ll go back to bi bim bap or one of the more complex soup entrees.

On to event #2! Last week I went to Wilde in Lakeview with a group of friends in support of marriage equality. Orders ranged from seafood chowder to bison burgers, but I went for the famous mac and cheese – and I was not disappointed. A giant crock of noodles swimming in a creamy cheddar sauce, accented with tomato, caramelized onion, bacon and a garlic crumb crust, all washed down with a cold beer? I’ll be back for more sometime soon, in support of a good cause like…my appetite 🙂

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In what has been dubbed the Oscars of the food world, Tom Colicchio was just named James Beard Outstanding Chef for 2010. The coveted title goes to “a working chef in America whose career has set national industry standards and who has served as an inspiration to other food professionals.” While many know him today as the head judge on Top Chef, his long history in the industry has resulted in an impressive resume of restaurants and cookbooks to his name.

Speaking of cookbooks, “EatingWell Comfort Foods Made Healthy” was nominated for Best Healthy Focus Cookbook. I love EatingWell magazine, and comfort food – so I think I’ll now have to pick up the book! But I digress…

Photo: Bravo website

I was lucky enough to eat at one of Colicchio’s restaurants, Craftbar, during my bachelorette weekend in New York. I’m pretty sure the food was wonderful, but in all honesty I remember more about the experience of having close friends from all different parts of my life sitting around the same table than the meal itself!

While Outstanding Chef gets the most press, the James Beard Award has many more categories (click here for the full list).

Notable Chicago establishments that made the cut:

Alinea won the Outstanding Service award. This cutting-edge restaurant has been on my fantasy list for a while. One day!  (Side note: head chef Grant Achatz was diagnosed with mouth cancer several years ago – how’s that for sad irony? Click here to read a great profile of him and the restaurant).

♦ Mindy Segal of Hot Chocolate was nominated for the fourth year in a row for Outstanding Pastry Chef. While she didn’t win, I’d guess many Chicago sweet-tooths would say the recognition is well-deserved.

♦ In the regional awards, Best Chef in the Great Lakes area went to Koren Grieveson of Avec. I haven’t been there in a while, but I wouldn’t mind some “deluxe” foccacia!

I also have a sudden craving for new episodes of Top Chef…

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J and I love sushi, and admittedly harbor some nostalgia for the many options in Seattle, where even the tiniest hole in the wall is a pretty safe bet for really fresh fish. We’ve found Chitown to be more hit-or-miss in the sushi department, but we’re always game to try a new place. On the advice of friends and solid Yelp reviews, we recently went for the first time to Blue Ocean in Ravenswood/Uptown. Here’s what we found:

Atmosphere

Blue Ocean is located in the ground level of an apartment complex, tucked away behind a coffee shop and a parking lot. This unassuming facade contrasts with the sleek, spacious interior which is filled with bright colors and clean lines.  The tables were nicely spaced (and decorated with a single bamboo shoot in water – lovely), the lighting dim but not dark, the vibe mellow. All in all, a promising start for a date night…

Photo: Blue Ocean website

Service

From the second we walked in, we noticed all the smiling faces. The hostess, waitress, bartender, bus boys – each had a grin and a warm greeting. We were loving the friendliness, and throughout the meal everyone remained attentive and welcoming. This is just a smiley place.

Food and Drink

The pomegranate martini piqued my interest, but I decided I was in the mood for something savory and went for the intriguing “Bonzaitini” which included tomato and olive juices, Absolut Peppar, soy sauce, and a splash of beer. I couldn’t really taste all the flavor complexity I was hoping for, but it was essentially a delicious Bloody Mary in a martini glass with a spicy rim. Works for me!

For our appetizer, we ordered a mixed greens salad topped with sauteed shiitake mushrooms in an orange ponzu sesame oil. The mushrooms were perfectly seasoned with an almost meaty flavor, and the dressing was slightly sweet without being cloying. While at first I wasn’t crazy about the combination of warm mushrooms with greens which weren’t meant to be wilted, the dish was so tasty that after a few bites I didn’t really notice.

We were all set to be wowed with the main attraction, but unfortunately the sushi did not live up to its lead-in. We ordered a few of our favorite rolls (hamachi, spicy tuna, shrimp tempura) as well as some salmon nigiri. Each was certainly edible, but sadly mediocre in flavor. For example, the salmon tasted fresh enough, but it didn’t have that melt-in-your-mouth butterineess you expect from the perfect piece of  sushi-grade fish. The presentation was also lacking – a properly cut sushi roll looks like a little work of art, and the plating here was missing that artistry.

Overall

Enjoy the friendly service over drinks and appetizers, but skip the fish. Our favorite spot for sushi remains Green Tea in Lincoln Park for dine-in, Indie Cafe for take-out…and we can’t wait to try Katsu one day for a special occasion!

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With so many topic ideas jotted down, I had a hard time choosing one for my first official post! Eventually I figured that there’s no better place to start than with some thoughts on a food that almost everyone likes: PIZZA.

One of the great things about pizza is the variety that it offers. You can find a great slice anywhere from the lowliest storefront to the most upper-crust (!) restaurant. I am personally pretty picky when it comes to pizza, so without further ado here are some winners I have come across in my search for the perfect pie:

Best At-Home Recipe

A great way to experiment with pizza flavors is to pick up a ready-made crust, throw on some toppings, and see what happens. But if time allows, there’s really no substitute for homemade dough. For an anniversary meal for my parents, we recently cooked up some mushroom pizzas so delicious that my husband has never quite forgiven my sister’s dog for taking an unauthorized taste! The rest of this delicious meal included roasted shrimp and orzo risotto…for the pizza recipe and full menu click here.

Shiitake and Chanterelle Pizzas with Goat Cheese from Bon Appetit

Best Frozen

Frozen pizza makes a great on-the-go meal, and the good news is grocery stores are loaded with options. The bad news: well, most are pretty bad. I found my favorite in a surprising location – Target! Their grocery brand, Archer Farms, makes wood-fired pizzas imported from Italy that will cost you less than 5 bucks! I think the best is the Four Cheese (mozzarella, Pecorino Romano, Asiago, and parm). The cheese blend has a nice tangy taste and the thin crust crisps nicely in the oven without getting too crackery (is that a word?).

When we’re in a rush, we serve these pizzas with a simple green salad or salted edamame, and my husband keeps a jar of pepperoncini in the fridge for garnish (tip: before serving these tasty little peppers, spear them with a fork over the jar to let the juices run out. Otherwise once you get them on your plate you end up with soggy pizza crust)!

Another tasty flavor!

Best Slice Shop

I have great memories of grabbing a piece of pizza either before or after a long night out in college – those were the days! Antonio’s in Providence serves up some really creative slices: my friend Kris swore by the tortellini pizza, which came scattered with little pasta pillows! My favorite was the white pizza, which features a simple blend of four cheeses, no sauce.

Some of the many options at Antonio's, courtesy of Lou P. on Yelp

Best Junk Food

I have a confession to make. Once in a blue moon, I get a hankering for Domino’s. It may be nostalgia for the days of chowing down while studying for math tests in my friend Abby’s kitchen, or it might be because of the greasy garlic bread sticks (which actually taste much better than the pizza). Whatever the reason, I guess I’ll have to file it under “so bad it’s good”…at least until you order it and realize you don’t want to eat it again for a long time.

Domino’s has recently made a big deal out of their revamped recipe, and funnily enough when I tried it, it tasted…pretty much the same. Same cardboard crust, same overly sweet tomato base. But for those late-night cravings, I recommend the hand-tossed crust with a side of artery-clogging garlic dipping sauce.

Photo by Serious Eats

Best Restaurant

From Domino’s to the specialty restaurant, I have to give this one to Spacca Napoli in Chicago. However, I haven’t actually been there in a few years, so I might have to brave the crowds soon to make sure it’s as delicious as I remember it. They specialize in Neapolitan-style pizza (cooked in a wood-burning oven with a very thin center and puffy outer crust).

Fun fact: what we now know as the classic Margarita Pizza originated in 1889 as a creation by a baker in Naples to honor the visit of Italian Queen Margherita. The queen loved the flavors of tomato, mozzarella, and basil (which reflect the red, white, and green of the Italian flag) so much that it became a national favorite, and some say that’s how pizza as we know it was born!

Margherita Pizza, Spacca Napoli

Also in Chicago, I have yet to try Great Lake, a 14-seat joint whose Mortadella pie was recently named Best Pizza in America by GQ. In the name of research, I think I’ll have to check it out…stay tuned!

Best Delivery

This one’s a no-brainer. I have never found more delicious delivery pizzas than those brought to your door by Pagliacci in Seattle. The original cheese is excellent, but I also love some of the ones that feature an olive oil base, like the Pesto Primo or my all-time favorite, the AGOG Primo (Fontina and mozzarella cheeses, roasted garlic, mushrooms, fresh tomatoes, goat cheese, parsley and Kalamata olives). Pagliacci also makes the effort to be green by using compostable packaging, so environmentally-conscious Seattleites can feel good about their purchase for more than its deliciousness!

AGOG Primo, Pagliacci

In conclusion…

By now you may have noticed a distinct bias in the type of pizza crust I prefer. Yes, that’s right, despite being a Chicago girl…I am not a fan of deep dish. But that’s what comments are for: please share your favorite pizzas (deep dish or otherwise) in any of the categories above!

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