4 food product reviews: cook, eat, store – enjoy!

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Giving gifts can be a huge challenge. Here are a few products we’ve sampled that you could consider for your kitchen-neatnik pals (Wellslock Storage Containers), your vegan-only circle (Just Sauces) and your chocoholic/sweets friends (American Heritage Chocolate and Dave’s Sweet Tooth Toffee). Or you, if the shoe fits.

Wellslock single-snap storage containers. The container portions are made of a really sturdy, super clear, freezer and microwave safe plastic (but don’t put it in there empty), and their unique locking lid is leak-proof with one double-snap. Took us a bit to figure out how to get the lids off smoothly. Sometimes the closure was so firmly seated that we felt we had to use a sharp knife to pry it open – which we were pretty sure was not the right approach. But once we figured it out, they come off pretty easily. The trick is to push/slide the lid to the opposite side once you release the double-snap closure tab. We love the sizes and shapes these come in – several interesting ones that you don’t typically find in storage containers. One configuration, for example, is perfect for holding two partially cut lemons or limes, or a giant red onion, or a cut avocado, notoriously difficult-fit items. And happily, these actually are airtight, unlike some containers that claim to be but then fail. These are great for storing food items or, really, anything you want to be able to see into the containers to identify. No cloudy plastic to obfuscate the contents. The lids are made of regular somewhat cloudy plastic, but the containers themselves are almost as clear as glass, without the weight or the breakability factors. Don’t know how much scratching will happen over time with using knives and forks in the dishes. So far no sign of that. Prices start at $9.99 for a single large container and then up to $29.99 for the 22-piece set. BPA free, freezer and microwave safe. Great gift for the foodie or crafty types on your gift list.

Just sauces - newly calorie-reduced
Just sauces – newly calorie-reduced

Just Sauces. This collection comes with mayo, Ranch, Chipotle and others. These are lower-calorie, vegan options for dressing salads, fish or whatever. You’ll need to test out the flavors for yourself; opinions seem to vary widely. Our tasters thought the taste and appearance were somewhat artificial (it does contain modified food starch and canola oil – said to be genetically modified), so it doesn’t feel like a “whole food” kind of product. But then, it’s vegan. Many of us meat-poulty-fish-egg-eaters might feel that way about anything vegan. And, just as some Amazon reviewers complained, our samples arrived with imminent expiration dates. This line of products is a great idea but may not yet have thoroughly overcome its birthing pains, but if you’re looking for vegan sauces to spark up your meals, these are a good starting point at a reasonable price ($4.69 and up on Amazon).

American Heritage chocolate bark
American Heritage chocolate bark

American Heritage Chocolate makes old-fashioned chocolate, and the company behind it is the Mars Wrigley Confectionary Company, so you know they know what they’re doing. Yes,  delicious chocolate in grated, chunk and other forms, as well as things with chocolate in them, like hot cocoa and bark and so on. Their downloadable original recipes for both savory and sweet chocolate treats are good to make for your holiday guests, or pass them on to your giftees so they can make the most of your gift of chocolate. The company has even established a historical research grant. Launched in 2013, the Forrest E. Mars, Jr. Chocolate History Research Grant, named after the company’s owner, awards grant funds for projects that investigate/educate the public on the history of chocolate or the chocolate making process from one or more cultural, historic or scientific perspectives. A good reason to gift friends and loved ones with chocolate, especially when it’s artisan-made and you can get 20% off (coupon on their website) from Amazon.

Daves Sweet Tooth December flavor of the month - Dark Chocolate Peppermint
Daves Sweet Tooth December flavor of the month – Dark Chocolate Peppermint

Dave’s Sweet Tooth Toffee comes in a bunch of toothsomely delicious flavors like Butter, Dark Chocolate, Milk Chocolate, Cranberry Pecan, Maple Bourbon Pecan (oh, my!) and more. It’s chewy toffee, not the crispy-break-apart kind you might be thinking of. Like any good toffee, it will stick in your teeth somewhat – that’s part of the pleasure of toffee, right? And you can really taste the cream they use to make it. Num! It comes in jars and in cute pouches or mini-pouches with pictures of jars on them. They even sell a jar of scraps already broken up so you can use it as a topping. Or buy it in big variety tasting packs to hoard for yourself or split up to give to many friends. Pricing starts at $2.99 for a mini-pouch and goes up from there. A sweet-heart something-for-everyone gift for the holidays.

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Bobby’s adds upscale dining in Lincoln Park

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Bobby, Augie and Tim Arifi, owners of Bobby’s Restaurant Group – following in their father’s restaurateur footsteps – have been successful for 6 years already with North Shore hotspots Bobby’s Deerfield and Cafe Lucci in Glenview. Now they’ve opened a second Bobby’s location in the new ELEVATE residential building at 2518 N. Lincoln Ave. When one of the developers – himself a frequent diner at their Deerfield location – sought an elegant restaurant to fill the structure’s main floor, he called on them to create this upscale eatery and bar and thus add to the sophistication of this trendy area.

The restaurant’s two-story wall of glass looks out onto the popular stretch of Lincoln Avenue between Fullerton and Diversey, known for its abundance of friendly, unassuming bars and eateries. The lighting inside the new Bobby’s restaurant is beautifully subtle and inconspicuous yet perfectly highlights the well-spaced tables, the bright original artwork on the walls (including the custom giant portrait of Bobby’s dad) , and the elegant decor of the bar and the dining area. On the left as you enter is a long inviting stretch of comfortable stools along the bar. One large TV screen behind the bartender’s area is kept quiet enough so that diners are not distracted. For drinkers and diners, Bobby’s bar features 150+ wines by the bottle, 30 wines by the glass and 120+ boutique spirits. They keep their wines in a special refrigerated unit that’s set a little colder than usual for reds, so if you like yours at room temperature, order early, or plan to hold the bowl of your glass in your hand for a bit.

The menu, which honors the original restaurant’s signature dishes while adding some designed specifically to appeal to Lincoln Park tastes, is surprisingly eclectic. We received a small plate of bread to munch on while we waited, along with a nice little crock of garlic-paste/butter combo. Our server Milosh was happy to also provide individually wrapped pats of regular butter on request.

Bobby's duck wing appetizer
Bobby’s duck wing appetizer

Appetizers like Smoked and Roasted Duck Wings – surprisingly large bones tipped with savory duck meat that’s bathed in an excellent spicy Thai sauce – vie for attention with traditional items like Mussels in either white wine or tomato broth – meaty morsels delicious with the intensely flavored wine broth reduction.

Bobby's scallop appetizer
Bobby’s scallop appetizer

Be sure to ask for extra bread to soak that up with. Appetizers include several other seafood items like Salmon Pastrami (served with herbed cream cheese and potato pancakes, NUM!), Shrimp Bobby (washed with egg, cooked with lemon, butter, paprika and grilled vegetables) and Scallops (with cauliflower/potato puree), to name a few. You may want to come back multiple times to try them all.

We were pleased to meet Bobby himself when he came out to welcome us and encourage questions, as he did with each table of guests that arrived. He explained that their relationships with their seafood and other suppliers are paramount and that they always order just enough of the best and freshest. They’d rather run out of something than have it left over, he said, so they plan carefully.

The baby Kale and Quinoa Salad came lightly dressed with an understated lemon emulsion that complimented the mix. The Australian lamb chops, prepared in the Greek manner with lemon, garlic and oregano, were spectacular – meltingly tender and cooked precisely medium rare – succulent and perfect, even for my companion who normally prefers well done. Four slender long-bone chops stood stacked dramatically, bone-ends up, over a small heap of Vesuvio-style garlicky roasted potato wedges that were lip-smacking good, even reheated the next day. The vegetable of the day was a combination of carrots cooked al dente and broccoli florets drenched in garlic buttery goodness that went perfectly with the main course. Specials of the day included roasted branzino and swordfish entrees.

Bobby's tiramisu with a twist
Bobby’s tiramisu with a twist

Desserts were inviting. We sampled the Key Lime Pie – a most satisfying layered delight with a just-tart-enough filling and a topping that tasted like a cross between lightly sweetened, beaten egg whites and whipped cream. Deliciously smooth and creamy. The Tiramisu was quite unusual. The intense crosshatch of chocolate and red berry drizzles on top almost overwhelmed the delicate coffee-infused mascarpone fluffiness underneath, but it certainly gave a unique touch to this popular sweet.

The wine selection was excellent. We tried several reds by the glass – Angels and Cowboys red blend from Sonoma, a Priorat blend from Spain, and a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, all of which were delicious in their own ways ($13 and up). Clearly their wine director has taken great care putting this extensive list together.

The night we dined was only about their third week after opening, so we didn’t expect perfection. Luckily, Milosh was very friendly and when he didn’t have an answer for us, he readily went off to find it elsewhere. After the second time he asked if he could remove our bread plates, we inquired if this was a restaurant policy and he said yes. So don’t hesitate to ask, if you prefer to have your bread plates remain.

Bobby’s at ELEVATE is a relaxed yet elegant place to get some rockin’ good food and wine or drinks. Come in your sparkles and furs or your business casual. We look forward to it becoming another  cornerstone of higher-end dining in Lincoln Park.

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Broken Barrel Bar – new chef-driven sports bar in Lincoln Park

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You’ve heard of Chicago beef sandwiches. You’ve heard about the Philly cheese steak. Now prepare yourself for the sandwich that combines the best of both and takes it all to a new level. It’s called The Broken Brisket Dip sandwich (more on this below), and the only place you can find it is at the Broken Barrel Bar, 2548 N. Southport. It’s just one of the resident chef’s innovative ideas for bringing good old every day bar food to new heights – and making gluten-free and vegetarian souls smile.

The Broken Barrel Bar is a brand new Lincoln Park spot that promises to become a favorite destination for those who love to eat, drink and watch sports. Owner Luke Johnson of Wine Not Hospitality said making people feel comfortable is what it’s all about. From the extra-large, well-padded U-shaped booths inside, to the stepped natural-wood booths and stadium seating in the outdoor space, the arrangements are perfect for big parties, yet relaxed for smaller groups and couples. Another thing Luke does to enhance the bar’s spacious yet cozy ambiance is partner with local artists to create whimsical wall art. The whole restaurant/bar is ideal for large groups – family, friends, or work pals – to hang out together. Game day, let’s-get-crazy day, or just relaxing time, you and your whole gang will feel welcome.

Broken Brisket sandwich - irresistible
Broken Brisket sandwich – irresistible

Broken Barrel Chef Bryant Anderson is all about presenting his unique take on smoked meats and pickled accompaniments that lift the barbecue bar a notch beyond the ordinary. That Broken Brisket Dip sandwich is stuffed to overflowing with perfectly tender chunks of pot roasted beef (not paper-thin slices) studded with tiny pepper slices in the house-made giardiniera and sitting atop of a generous layer of cheese melted onto both sides of a good-sized hunk of Italian-style bread. All of that is bathed lightly in the chef’s smoked meat juices and served with a side dish of same for dipping. And, oh, you’re going to wanna dip. I mean, I seldom eat beef – and almost never Chicago’s Italian style beef because that razor-thin-sliced meat’s too dry for my taste once it’s reheated in the sauce – and yet I nearly finished this big sandwich. And I made sure I took home the small chunk I had left, too. It was delicious even straight out of the refrigerator the next day.

Delictable, piquant lamb tacos - irresistible
Delictable, piquant lamb tacos – irresistible

Another standout sandwich is the Guajillo Lamb taco – guajillo-pepper-marinated hickory-smoked lamb shoulder chunks, served in warm corn tortillas and topped with house-made, sweetly pickled red onions and dollops of super creamy, just-sharp-enough goat cheese. Again, though I’m neither a lamb nor a taco aficionado, this sandwich was mouth-wateringly good. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit I ate this whole thing, too.

Some of the sides are right up there, as well. The crinkle-cut sweet potato fries ($4) actually taste like and have the mouth-feel of real sweet potatoes; my companion could not stop eating them. The medium thin regular French fries ($5) are nicely browned and not greasy – and I AM a French fry aficionado. Chef says since Lincoln Park has a high percentage of vegetarians, they’ve chosen to honor that eating style by offering dishes like the Nachos, interlaced with roasted brussels sprout leaves, pickled onions, pickled radishes – all house-made – plus jalapeños and a jalapeño cheddar sauce on top of the sprinkled cheese. We had asked for the sauce on the side, but the dish would have come together better with it on top – and with even more of it, ‘cuz it was good!

Then there’s a selection of wings – gluten-free, by the way, because they are fried crispy but not breaded – that come with your choice of dry rub or several unique BBQ sauces: Buffalo, Garlic Buffalo, Honey Habanero, Chili Maple, Sticky Curry, Hell Raiser Hot, or their biggest prize winner, Bourbon BBQ. Try these with a side of Mac & Cheese with smoked cheddar and two toppings ($15), Fried Plantains, a Cheesy Cauliflower Gratin ($6 – could have used a bit more cheese intensity), or a side of nicely roasted Brussels Sprouts ($6).

Oh, yeah - whipped cream and deep-fried yeasty dough puffs!
Oh, yeah – whipped cream and deep-fried yeasty dough puffs!

The mini donut dessert was exceptional. Freshly made, hot-out-of-the-fryer donut puffs, placed in a pretty circle around a dish and interspersed with puffs of whipped cream, all drizzled with chocolate sauce and served with a dish of house-made triple berry sauce in the middle. Big enough for two and irresistible – even if you’ve already chowed down on your main dishes.

The wine list is a truly carefully curated selection that includes a couple of whites, a single Cabernet, a single Tempranillo, Malbec and so on. These are obviously well chosen to appeal to a range of discerning palates, and the ones we tasted were more than satisfactory. Wine glass prices range from $9 up. Well chosen, delicious wines. And for beer lovers of tappers, tall boys and bottles, you’ve got choices. And of course, there is a full bar and a nice selection of custom cocktails.

I suspect that if I lived in walking distance, this place would become a regular haunt. It’s so friendly and cozy, even with the dozens of TV screens that will keep you company even if you’re alone. And which, by the way the night we were there, we noticed they kept turned down until the Chicago Cubs (next year!) game came on. Go here and get your game on. Drink and eat. A nice example of the best in Food and Drink in Chicago.

P.S. They start serving weekend brunch on Saturday November 3! Check these options out:

  • SMOKED LAMB BENEDICT. Fresh baked biscuits, slow-smoked lamb shoulder, creamy hollandaise sauce, two over easy eggs, maple-sriracha drizzle & micro cilantro $14. OMG, that lamb from the tacos is FABulous.
  • HANGOVER BREAKFAST SANDWICH. Hickory brisket, fried egg, Merkts cheddar, arugula, chipotle mayo, crispy onions, toasted pretzel bun, choice of side $13. Oh, my. It’s lunchtime as I write and I think I need one of these right now.
  • CROISSANT FRENCH TOAST. Orange-buttermilk batter, homemade triple berry sauce, fresh croissant, whipped cream $12. Dessert for breakfast!!!
  • And what’s brunch without the booze?! Broken Barrel Bar will be pouring their house-blended BLOODY MARY, served with Hank’s Vodka and chef-pickled vegetables $9. Or try “WE’LL TAKE A BOTTLE”  – a bottle of bubbles with fresh orange juice $30.

 

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3 lovely bubblies from Gloria Ferrer

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Champagne makers and bubbly makers everywhere are really happy that many of us Americans have begun picking up on the French and European practice of drinking bubbles for every day pleasure instead of reserving those delightful champagnes and sparkling wines just for special occasions. Today we’re featuring three expressions from the caves of Gloria Ferrer priced in the $20-$30 range, any one of which will make you and your guests beam with pleasure as you pair the wine with some of your favorite foods.

Ferrer Sonoma Brut bubbly
Ferrer Sonoma Brut bubbly

Gloria Ferrer, for 600 years a world renowned maker of sparkling and still wines with a history of female leadership, makes multiple expressions of bubblies that combine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes in quite different proportions. Gloria Ferrer’s Sonoma Brut, for example, is made with 86.5% Pinot Noir and 13.5% Chardonnay. The finished wine shows off delicate pear and floral notes backed by toasty almond. On your tongue, you’ll find lively citrus, toast and apple flavors along with a persistent effervescence, a creamy mid-palate and a toasty finish. Pair this lovely bubbly with shellfish, crab, roast chicken or sushi. Seasoning affinities include lemongrass, fennel and white pepper. Serve with hard aged and triple-cream cheeses, maybe with some Meyer lemon compote to round out the cheese course. Alc 12.5% SRP $22.

Gloria Ferrer’s Blanc de Noirs is 91.6% Pinot Noir and 8.4% Chardonnay. It serves up bright strawberry and black cherry aromas with subtle vanilla highlights. Creamy cherry, lemon and cola flavors combined come with a lush palate, lively bubbles and a persistent finish. This wine is outstanding with crab, Thai cuisine, roast pork, quail, foie gras and with semi-sweet desserts. Seasoning affinities include star anise, plum sauce and tarragon. Try pairing it with your cheese course with a triple aged Gouda or other hard aged cheeses with persimmons and hazelnuts. Alc 12.5% SRP $22.

Perfect cheese wine - Ferrer Brut Rose
Perfect cheese wine – Ferrer Brut Rose

Gloria Ferrer’s Brut Rosé is an especially lovely rendition of bubbly. Made with 60% Pinot noir and 40% Chardonnay, it has bright strawberry and Ridge aromas followed by notes of crème brûlée, Meyer lemon and green apple. It feels like a creamy mousse and keeps giving you fruit all the way to the finish where you get a touch of mineral. Pair this lovely wine with anything spicy,  Asian inspired dishes, barbecue pork ribs or grilled seafood. This rosé is outstanding with many varieties of goat cheese served with olives and herbed nuts. Only 2000 cases produced. Alc 12.5% SRP $29. We really love this delicate and delicious bubbly!

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Champagne Maison Henriot glorious with pasta!

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Maison Champagne Henriot has been making beautiful champagnes for generations. The family is still running the winery and making the precious wines with the same care and attention they have always lavished on their creations. Recently the lovely Katie Parker, Regional Sales Director for Henriot Maison in central U.S., brought several expressions of this line of fine champagnes for wine dinner guests to try in combination with chef-paired pasta dishes specially created by the experts at Spiaggia, 980 N. Michigan. Truly a memorable way to enjoy these luscious champagnes and the creative genius of Spiaggia’s culinary team, Chefs Tony Mantuano and Joe Flamm, along with Rachel Lowe, one of only 5 female Master Sommeliers in the world, who manages the restaurant’s extensive wine collection.

Maison Henriot invited the chefs to taste the wines and invent pasta dishes that would showcase how perfectly the various expressions pair with the right pasta. The point is, said Maison Henriot rep Katie Parker, glorious champagnes don’t have to be relegated to only haute cuisine or special occasions. They are equally appropriate with simple, beautifully prepared dishes.

The chefs at Spiaggia, of course, don’t stint on their creativity when designing pasta dishes. Seeing that Spiaggia bills itself a “modern Italian” restaurant, it’s not surprising that some of these items were extraordinary in themselves – and truly magnificent with the paired champagne. A favorite was the Aglio e Olio Agnolotti, a magical creation from the Spiaggia kitchen that fairly dripped creamy richness, both from the filling in the hand-made pasta and the richly aromatic olive oil drizzle, paired with Henriot’s Brut Souverain. This champagne is a classic, elegant expression that’s a mix of 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot noir and 5% Pinot Meunier. Aged a minimum of four years, it shows a nice minerality along with wonderfully lively with notes of white flowers and citrus on the nose. On the palate, brioche and white fruit notes lead to a clean and fresh finish. We so had to close our eyes on this combination!

The Brut Blanc de Blancs is non-vintage but is blended with up to 40% of reserve wine from other excellent years. The mix of 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir and 5% Pinot Meunier is aged a minimum of four years and results in good minerality and fresh bouquet, yet shows full body and power on the palate. Notes of brioche intermingle with quince jelly and acacia honey along with a fresh and wonderfully long finish.

Other expressions include the Brut Rosé, Cuvee 38, and theirt wo vintage 2008 Millésimé champagnes, Brut and Rosé. Champagne Henriot Cellar Master Laurent Fresnet uses no oak in the house’s pure Chardonnay expressions, so if you’re of the no-oak-thank-you persuasion, you’ll find these champagnes highlight all the other wondrous qualities of the grapes. Maison Champagne Henriot continues to do justice to the long revered art of producing fine champagnes. Special occasion or simple pasta, you and your guests will feel rewarded no matter which expression you choose.

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Super cool no-stick MasterPan has kickstarted

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A company called Masterpan is out to change your cooking habits. Their live Kickstarter campaign for the new MasterPan collection began on August 31. And after using the samples we received  for a couple of weeks, we admit to being impressed.

The pans are heavier than you expect for a non-stick pan. Each pan has a large heavy steel disk on the bottom which, when preheated for two minutes, actually distributes the heat across the entire area of the giant square pan. It minimizes cold corners and edges. The nonstick coating seems thicker and sturdier than others we’ve used. And the lid fits all of the pans, so you can steam something for a little bit and then brown it on both the flat surfaces and the grill surfaces.

Masterpan grilled potato wedges
Masterpan grilled potato wedges

One night I decided to challenge the pan to produce some crispy potato wedges. I was delighted to find that five minutes in the microwave for a couple of very large red potatoes got them just soft enough to slice into thick wedges. Then, using an absolute minimum of oil – we use a pump mister for our olive oil – I distributed the wedges around the three sections of the pan. Then I noticed they weren’t quite cooked through, so I put the lid on the pan for five minutes and got them just tender enough. The soft-rubber-edged seal makes the lid fits closely and thus creates a good head of steam to hurry the cooking along.

Took the lid off and continued cooking to end up with crispy potato wedges with those appetizingly brown grill marks on them. Sprinkled half of them with chipotle chili pepper and garlic salt, the other half with just garlic salt, and applied the oil mister a couple more times. Really delicious and crispy and not oily in the least. And I didn’t have to turn the big oven on – a problem in our small kitchen, which heats up outrageously when the oven is on. We are always looking for good ways to avoid that, especially in the summer.

MasterPan breakfast
MasterPan breakfast

Made a beautiful breakfast the last two mornings. Four minutes for a potato in the microwave. Meanwhile, steam as much fresh baby spinach as you can fit into the grill side of the 3-section pan. Throw a few drops of water or olive oil in first, then put the leaves in and cover it. After the potato is squeezably soft, grate it (thin slice the peels, too). Open the skillet lid, remove the spinach to your plate. Mist the 3 sections with olive oil, throw the grated potato in the grill section and one of the flat ones. Cook a few minutes – it will brown delicately – and then break an egg into the third section. You can cover to steam the egg a bit, or you can flip it over. Voila. You have fresh steamed spinach, hash browns and an easy-over egg, all from one pan, in under 10 minutes. This is simplified cooking, people.

Masterpan grilled chicken n veg - more challenging than breakfast
Masterpan grilled chicken n veg – more challenging than breakfast

We love the heaviness, the close-fitting multi-pan lid, the multiple cooking options (grill, flat) and, for a single person living alone, the small divided sections do actually help control portion sizes – as long as you stick to that much. Get yours now during the MasterPan Kickstarter campaign. And, just for fun, here’s their cute promotional video.

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Homewood Suites by Hilton amenities beckon foodies

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It was a stroke of genius for Homewood Suites by Hilton40 E. Grand, to invite Kevin Curry to show Chicago media how to cook his unique dishes easily with their food-friendly amenities, including the full complement of pans and other kitchen utensils available in every Homewood suite in all of their three downtown Chicago locations.

Curry is really fit. You notice immediately upon meeting him how his nicely cut shirt strains over his nicely cut muscles. He operates FitMenCook and part of his mission, since he himself travels  a great deal, is to make up delicious recipes for low calorie, low-cost dishes that you can make with minimal ingredients.

The family-friendly, all-suite Homewood Suites by Hilton are designed for people who want to stay for several days in the city, whether for business or pleasure. The Grand Ave. location has undergone a dramatic re-design in the last few years. It used to be more of the old-fashioned dark green and maroon colors, cozy with lots of walls. Now they have opened up the spaces, removing walls and installing light, modern furnishings along with a wall of glass, so guests can see some of the most iconic buildings in downtown Chicago while relaxing with a glass of wine or a snack at cocktail hour.

And Homewood Suites by Hilton make cooking in your suite, pardon the pun, a piece of cake. One of the most amazing services they offer is the free shopping service. Seriously. You heard right. You make out the list. You give them the list. You relax or work while they go shopping for you. Then, they deliver your items to your suite. Or hold them at the desk if you’re not back yet. How cool is that?

*Consider putting a package of Miracle Noodles (see pic above) on that shopping list. Eating Curry’s recipe for shrimp in avocado -coconut sauce served atop of these almost-no-calorie gems is as close to guilt-free, rich pasta eating as you can get.

All of the rooms have been newly conceived: clean, crisp, and nicely designed. A very pleasant place to come home to when you’re staying in our busy city for several days. Certainly, on the really hot day of the cooking demos, the air conditioning was struggling a bit with 25 observers in a single room. But obviously that shouldn’t be a problem when you book a room with a normal number of occupants!

All of the people who were involved with the event seemed passionately committed to helping guests enjoy their experience in this lovely reimagined 23-story building in the heart of Chicago’s downtown. Consider it for your home-away-home when you’re in town for business or just want to take a break from ordinary life for a few days.

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Riedel wine glasses show size really does matter

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Maximillian Riedel
Maximillian Riedel

Maximillian Riedel, owner of Riedel Glassware in Austria, came to Chicago recently as part of his six-US-cities tour and staged an impressive demonstration of how the size – and shape – of your glass matter immensely to how your wine will taste.

We’ve all heard that wine glass characteristics are critical to gaining the maximum pleasure from each type of wine, but until you’ve actually experienced the difference, you might be skeptical. Attendees at West Loop’s City Winery were eager to see what this master of wineglass making would have to say.

Riedel spoke at length about the purpose of a wineglass, chief among which is to be “the loudspeaker for the wine.” Every group varietal has its own DNA, he said, and only the proper glass will showcase it to its best advantage. He also said Riedel is commissioned by wineries all around the world to create glasses for their particular grape varietal. They’ve fulfilled some heady assignments: Dom Perignon asked Riedel to create a single type of glass for all their wines. Joseph Krug asked for a glass other than a flute for his champagnes. The flute shape promotes the smell of yeast rather than fruit, and thus all champagnes tend to smell the same when served in a flute.

Riedel large wineglasses from 3 lines
Riedel large wineglasses from 3 lines

In regards to global warming, a critical question for winemakers these days, the wine glass makers said they have had to continue to enlarge their  glasses in order to manage the increased intensity of the fruit and the higher alcohol that warmer temperatures are promoting. He said even Norway is beginning to plant grape vines. “As to whether this is a good thing,” he said, “time will tell.”

His company responded when the spirits industry first begin to honor tequila, and then sake, and now the trend is toward brown spirits, mainly in crafted cocktails – honoring the drink with everything from the size of the ice cube to the weight and configuration of the glass. Riedel has created an entire new series of glasses specifically made for various types of spirits and mixed drinks.

Riedel defended the thinness of the company’s glasses by saying this contributes to keeping the beverage longer at the proper serving temperature. When you put a cool or cold liquid into a glass that’s at room temperature, the thicker the glass the more quickly the liquid begins to warm up.

Maximillian decanting onstage
Maximillian decanting onstage

Maximillian is tall, slender, aristocratic and, especially with his delightful Austrian accent, a compelling speaker. He commanded the attention of the audience from the moment he came onstage. He spoke about how his great grandfather invented the first Riedel glasses that changed the way wine makers felt about their beloved beverage. He spoke of how his grandfather, his father and he himself have honored the tradition by continually testing and crafting new and better shapes and configurations to improve the experience of drinking quality wine and other alcoholic beverages.

Riedel wineglass appreciation workshop
Riedel wineglass appreciation workshop

We certainly expected to notice a difference in this demo, but perhaps not as much as we actually did, especially on the white wine. He started the demonstration with wine poured into plastic cups – the type you usually get at outdoor events or crappy bars. Then he reminded everyone to remember that you experience wine in four different ways: 1. The texture. 2. The temperature. 3. The taste. And, 4. The aftertaste [which includes the finish, or how long the flavors stay on the palate ~BP} before instructing us to pour the white wine into the first three glasses to begin.

A few of the tasting tips this master of wineglass architecture shared with attendees:

  • Decant every bottle of wine, even champagne, and for Pinot Noir, it is a must. Aerating wine makes it absorb oxygen which helps it mature – and aging will always improve a wine. For mature wines (10-plus years), decant slowly to avoid sediment.
  • Swirl your wine gently in the glass to continue aerating as you enjoy. The new optic finish (read: ever-so-slightly rippled) inside the new Riedel Performance series increases the surface area inside the glass which further helps aerate the wine.
  • Do not rinse your glass with water between wines. Tap water has its own taste and aroma that can interfere.
  • To properly experience a wine’s aroma, place your nose into the glass and breathe in. On this first sniff you should notice the fruit in the wine, but keep your nose in the glass as you breathe out then in again. The second time you should notice more of the minerality.
  • Throw out your old traditional white wine tulip glasses (and your plastic). I noticed the greatest difference here. White wine in the small traditional-shape glass gave off very little aroma except alcohol. Virtually nothing at all in a plastic cup. Once you pour and swirl it in the much wider and more rounded bowl of the balloon-shaped Riedel Restaurant Oaked Chardonnay glass – designed in 1973 for Italian sommeliers (and in Europe, Riedel said, they use this glass for gin & tonics) – you get the full effect of all aromas: fruit, yeast and oak. He said you end up sort of sucking your wine out of this shape, so that it hits your tongue higher up, thus avoiding the tip of the tongue (see **tip below). But at least as impressive to me was the transformation of the texture, compared to drinking from the original glass. In the new glass the wine comes into its silky and creamy natural state. A real eye-opener.
  • White chocolate goes best with a quality Pinot Noir. He had us chew a piece of it, then sip the wine with the chocolate still melting in our mouths. Nice. [And how we love dark chocolate with Cabernet!]
  • Some of the words Riedel used to describe the way wines can taste/feel – good or bad: thin/heavy/viscose/jammy, rough/smooth/creamy/silky, salty/dry/green/bitter, heavy/light and so on. If you think about it, you’ve probably experienced all of those reactions to a wine at some point, but perhaps, like many of us, were not always quite able to name them. [The magic word for good wine is “balanced” so that no one of these qualities overpowers the others. ~BP]

In case you need additional expert testimony, Robert Parker, the famed wine critic, uses Riedel glassware for his taste testing. And most of Riedel’s business is from home eonophiles rather than restaurants. Only a guess – restaurants are businesses and the cost and relative fragility of these fine Riedel glasses may be a deterrent.

**Riedel said the tip of your tongue is an “acidity bumper” and that this is desirable when you want the acidity to counterbalance the fruit – which is why the unusually shaped Performance Pinot Noir glass is designed specifically to make the wine touch the tip of your tongue immediately. Works beautifully.

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Mason, newest star on the Chicago upscale chophouse scene

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There’s a new contender in town on the Chicago upscale chophouse restaurant scene. Mason, 613 N. Wells St., located at street level in the Found Hotel in River North, has put a lot of effort into getting it right, right from the start. Having just opened last Thursday, they’ve been conducting a massive introduction to the city by holding a series of invitation-only evenings for industry observers and others in the business this week.

The ambiance is first class: dark walls, handsome oil paintings, many subtly lit by individual accent lights, and a different type of beautiful lighting in each part of the room. Each table holds its own shaded lamp, too. Despite a few minor timing issues, the service was very successful. – friendly and helpful – on an evening when all tables were full.

Our server recommended a wine, Balancing Act, a Cabernet that opened up beautifully after decanting, and that turned out to be the perfect pairing with our meal. Even though we ordered some seafood appetizers, the dishes had enough power that the wine worked well.

The menu apears to contain a carefully orchestrated selection of at least one item among apps, soups, salads and entrees designed to appeal to lovers of almost any type of meat, poultry, seafood or vegetarian fare.

In terms of appetizers, you almost couldn’t beat the Spiced Shrimp with parsley and Filipino-Cajun spice ($22). The sauce – wonderfully subtly, spicy, complex, and very lightly thickened – bathed a generous helping of large, whole shrimp, heads on, that were perfectly cooked and absolutely delectable. A couple of slices of deeply grilled crustless but substantial white bread on the side made a perfect way to get every drop of that sauce.

The crabcake – single because it’s really big ($21) – came out nestled in a pool of lobster bouillon and covered in tiny, crispy shreds of sweet potato. My companion, who orders crab cakes everywhere she goes, would have liked the cake to have a bit more crab. The potato crispies were fun, if a tiny bit salty. The kale salad ($12) was exceptionally good. We loved the fact that they mixed different types of greens with the kale – the combination kept the kale from being overwhelming – and the salad was served with just the right amount of a delicious anchovy-mustard vinaigrette dressing.

Mason lamb chops
Mason lamb chops

The lamb chops ($48) were delicious and presented beautifully on the plate. The 25-ounce ribeye steak ($65) had a char on it that was, frankly, amazing, given we’d ordered it – and it was delivered perfectly as ordered – medium rare. The bordelaise sauce option we chose was rich, deep and red-winey. The serving of meat was quite generous, so we ended up taking home a good chunk.

Mason dessert menu
Mason dessert menu

Desserts were creative, from the Creme Brûlée with popcorn custard, peanut biscotti and Cracker Jack dust, to the Banana Toffee Pudding and the truly unique flavors of sorbet. The after-dinner drink menu was a nicely curated selection: two port wines, a Sauternes, and a few other tempting desert wines. Delicious and reasonably priced. Service was a bit slow at times, but in truth, it gave us time to enjoy and digest each course. In the end, our dinner was unusually relaxed.

Many hours of preparation and planning went into this new place. The lighting is exquisite, the dark walls comforting, the beautifully framed antique-style paintings, soothing. All of it together makes a perfect environment in this white tablecloth restaurant which, if the opening nights are any indication, is going to make a serious mark on the scene.

And in case you’re in the mood for more entertainment after dinner, the owners John Terzian and Brian Toll have also introduced the Chicago iteration of their cool LA karaoke bar called Blind Dragon in the basement of the Found Hotel (another location in Scottsdale). What an idea – after a marvelous dinner to continue your evening down the stairs with some Asian-inspired cocktails and some passionate singing!

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5 unique food and drink ideas – 2 snacks, 3 beverages

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We are always looking for new drinks, treats, snacks and desserts that set our tongues a-tingle and our imaginations aflame. Ran into a few such items recently and are happy to report so you can add them to your repertoire if you like.

Chocdates for snacks or dessert
Chocdates for snacks or dessert

Chocodate makes snacks that pair healthy sweets like Arabian dates, almonds and coconut together with a light, soft chocolate layer in individually wrapped little bites you can take with you anywhere. Each treat is 56 calories, and the wrapped goodies have a fairly long shelf life (about a year), which means you won’t have to throw any away if you decide to ration them for your weight’s sake. They come in coconut-chocolate-date, milk or dark or white chocolate, or in a package of assorted. SRP ~$5 for ~3.5 ounces. Tasty, not-too-sweet snack.

Donnafugata Floramundi
Donnafugata Floramundi

Donnafugata has successfully paired a delicious wine with fine art in its Floramundi 2016. It’s a refined Cerasuolo di Vittoria with a flowery soul. Complex, fresh and full-bodied, this red has intriguing aromatic depth and a fruity and flowery bouquet that is pleasantly spicy on the palate. With the 2016 harvest, Donnafugata reached its goal of launching production in Eastern Sicily in the Vittoria area – the only DOCG of Sicily. Made by blending Nero d’Avola (70%) and Frappato (30%), this lovely wine pairs beautifully with first courses and grilled meats. Or try it with red tuna steak, roasted amberjack or other fish baked in the oven, or with gourmet pizzas. The Floramundi label shows the fantastic figure of a woman giving gifts of flowers and fruits. The picture represents a dialogue between two souls: the elegant and sophisticated Floral Liberty, an art style found everywhere in Vittoria, and the tradition of Pupi Siciliani (Sicilian Puppets). SRP ~$30.

Gentleman Jack Tennessee Whiskey
Gentleman Jack Tennessee Whiskey

Gentleman Jack, double-mellowed Tennessee whiskey, from the makers of Jack Daniels. We just missed National Whiskey Sour day (August 25), but a nicely crafted cocktail is just as delicious any other day. So, for your edification, these guys have come up with some excellent sour recipes. Incorporating items like fresh lemon juice, simple syrup and flavors like peach, cucumber, ginger beer, Chambord and more, these four recipes are sure to please any whiskey-cocktail lover. Check ’em out here.

Michelles Maccs are fabulous for Kosher holidays, too!
Michelles Maccs are fabulous for Kosher holidays, too!

Michelle’s Maccs, by FreshBakedNY. These rich, delectable confections bear little resemblance to the typical meringue-disks-with-a-filling most of us know as macaroons. Before she started the business, inventor and former chef/sous chef Michelle Goldberg had been making these for years, both at home and for friends and family in The Hamptons and Manhattan. These eggless, flourless, gluten-free versions consist of an incredibly dense filling of thickly shredded coconut, sugar and, well, who-cares-what-else, all enrobed in a thick layer of Belgian chocolate: Simple White, Simple Dark or Simple Milk chocolate were the initial versions. Then later she added some other flavors that could knock your socks off: Peanut Butter, Chocolate Chocolate, Mango, Salted Caramel, Key Lime, Amarena Cherry, Orange Zest, Espresso and Banana Walnut, all available from the company website. The Pina Colada in white Belgian chocolate is hauntingly habit-forming.

P.S. Mich’s Maccs are not for dieters – each treat has 200+ calories. Delicious, and so rich you can eat just half of one and still feel like you’ve indulged. I had one for breakfast the other day and my mouth didn’t give a darn about nutrition – just love the chewiness of the tightly packed, thick shreds of coconut! These goodies come in boxes of assorted flavors or in little single-flavor tubes of four. Perfect for coffee-and or dessert. Irresistible. They’re calling my name from the refrigerator right now…

Alessandro di Camporeale “Donnata” Nero d’Avola Sicilia DOC 2014. Deep, dark and delicious, this 100% Nero d’Avola wine is light-bodied with ripe cherry and sweet spice on a background of soft, silky flavors. It pairs nicely with rich tomato and cheese pasta dishes as well as with roast poultry and meats. Can’t be sure what price you’ll find it for – we saw online prices ranging from $9 to $20, so search carefully.

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Lovin' how Chicago does it!