Roka Akor – steak and sushi in Asian-inspired surroundings

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Roka Akor checkerboard wall of wood shingles
Roka Akor checkerboard wall of wood shingles

Beautiful, chic, Asian-inspired decor that coordinates with the top-drawer steak and sushi-inspired menu. That’s Roka Akor, 456 N. Clark St. Ended up going here for an event that didn’t take place and decided to sit down at the bar and take in the ambiance anyway. Loved the sexy, bluesy-jazz music emanating at just the right volume form a clearly quality sound system. Loved the rich texture of the checkerboard of shaved and shiny wooden shingles on the wall and the airy asymmetrical pattern of sturdy beams in the Asian-latticed ceilings. Lots of light from floor-to-ceiling windows. Subtle interior lighting that enhances the trendy-but-comfortable atmosphere.

Roka Akor red-ice-cube cocktail
Roka Akor red-ice-cube cocktail

Pat(rick) Henaghan, who’s not only manager but a master bartender himself, offered to make a sample of one of the cocktails he’d designed for the event that was postponed. Surprising, certainly, to see him putting deep-orangey-red ice cubes in a tall glass. Whoever heard of deep-red ice cubes? Well, Pat explained, these are made from a combination of strawberry and yuzu (Asian fruit) puree that freezes beautifully into a slow-melting ice-pop texture (Popsicle is the brand we adored when we were kids) and gives an amazing shot of color to the vodka/Seville sour orange cocktail he created. This one will be on the regular menu soon – a perfect drink for enjoying in the sun on Roka Akor’s patio.

Roka Akor tempura
Roka Akor tempura

On Pat’s recommendation, tried the vegetable tempura – a generous portion of lightly battered-and-fried slices of carrot, sweet potato, broccoli, zucchini and eggplant served with two amply filled dishes of sauces – one sweeter, one slightly more acidic – both low-sodium and both delicious with the perfectly cooked vegetables. Five- and six-dollar Happy Hour specials are available 5 to 6 pm on the patio and in the lounge; the rest of the Roka Akor menu cries out for further experimentation.

Judging by a short conversation with Dean, who was passing by on his way to a demonstration of menu items for staff members, this seems like a good place to work. Pat even invites staff members to submit drink recipes for the menu – unquestionably a nice way to make people feel recognized and appreciated.
From this limited experience, have to say you’ll likely enjoy your visit and feel much appreciated as a customer, too. Visit them at www.RokaAkor.com.
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5 Think-Spring drink ideas

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A glass of champagne
A glass of champagne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Picture yourself sitting at a small table by a window overlooking a sun-splashed patio crowded with bright spring flowers. A light breeze caresses your face while the sun warms it. Your crisp white napkin is folded in your lap, and your wine glass is sparkling in the light, while you and a friend share a story and laugh about the long-gone threat of winter.

Now, imagine what’s in your glass:
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Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut sparkling cava (~$12 for 750ml and $3 for the mini) – Winemaker’s notes: Crisp, creamy, clean and well-balanced sparkling wine. The fresh palate combines apple, ripe pear and bright citrus with a long finish and a touch of ginger. Comes in that sexy black bottle we all recognize – a big seller in the U.S. for decades – and goes well with almost any food. Statistics show this as the #1 imported sparkling wine in the world.
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Baron Philippe de Rothschild Mouton Cadet Rosé 2015 (~$11) – Winemaker’s notes: The very fresh nose opens on red currant, raspberry and pink grapefruit aromas, followed by cherry and garrigue (an herb mix of the juniper, thyme, rosemary and lavender plants that grow low to the ground in limestone)notes that make the wine aromatically complex. Then when it hits your palate you get freshness, too, along with citrus touches, and a nice lingering finish.
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Perhaps a cucumber and mint cocktail made with vodka and tonic? Get the Prairie Spring Fever recipe here, and read about the organic vodka on Prairie Organic Spirits. Or maybe a combination of tequila, cherry, lime and agave is up your alley. Get the recipe here for The Bass from Maestro Dobel®.
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Whatever you choose to drink, even if you choose to lose the booze with a lovely DRY Sparkling vanilla bean, make sure you’re ready to celebrate spring flowers and sun and life. The time is near.
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Review: 312 Chicago restaurant

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The folks at 312 Chicago know how to cook, for sure, but they also have a sense of humor. They’ve just spent the month of March celebrating their 18th birthday with a special “Get Smoked” 3-course prix fixe dinner for $18.
312 Chicago turns 18
312 Chicago turns 18
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When I asked our server why the “get smoked” thing, he said, “Well, Chicago used to have a law that you couldn’t smoke until you were 18. So we decided since we were turning 18 we’d get smoked! Alas, Chicago changed the law just a couple of weeks ago to say that you can’t smoke now in Chicago until you’re 21.” We all agreed, then, that customers can likely expect another fun opportunity like this again three years from now…

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The wines on their list lean towards the Northern Italian, as does the food, so we asked our server to recommend for us. We were pleased with the suggested Cannonau di Sardegna D.O.C. Riserva. Hearty enough to go with the appetizer and the pasta courses, but not so strong as to overwhelm. According to one wine writer in “The World’s Best Wine under $25,” it “emphasizes ethereal, perfumed aromatics rather than an overt expression of fruit.” Well, okay!
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They did a fabulous job with their “get smoked” menu. Starting with a dish of hot, melty soft, creamy, smoked house-made mozzarella served atop two lightly cooked, peeled slices of delicious fresh-tasting tomato and accompanied by ribbons of fresh, fragrant basil.

Next up was a dish of their house-made fettuccine – tender, delicate and delicious wide noodles – coated with just the right amount of tomato-y Ameritriciana sauce and studded with bits of fried pancetta, and seasoned with a touch of red pepper flakes. Perfect spice. Perfect pasta. Perfect combination. The serving was generous, and the leftovers were delicious again a couple of days later served with sautéed scallops and steamed greens. Mm-mm.

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We were pleasantly surprised when we cut into the third course dessert, “torched chocolate cake with lemon gelato,” a light yet rich-tasting layered confection topped with browned (smoked) meringue that hit just the right note after the meal. The gelato was especially tasty and the caramel sauce was just icing under the cake.
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And then came, compliments of the house, little après-dinner glasses of their house-made Limoncello. Thick and lemony and sweet and a lovely ending to a fresh and pleasant meal. Although the restaurant no longer does regular wine dinners, they are introducing a new feature this year. They will have a bartender serving drinks out on the patio (weather permitting, of course) all summer. The restaurant, attached to the Hotel Allegro, is situated at the corner of LaSalle and Randolph, across from the Townsend Center, so if you’re going to be that area, don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy their food and drink in a comfortable yet elegant atmosphere.
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Celebrate Chicago with chocolate – and laugh with a good book

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Did you know Chicago just celebrated its 179th birthday? Some companies have been with the city for more than half that time – like Fannie May chocolates. From the opening of its first store on LaSalle Street back in 1920, Fannie May has been calling Chicago home for more than 95 years. And now they want to celebrate all that makes life sweet in the Windy City with an exclusive collection of Chicago-themed chocolates. This is the chocolate you and your parents grew up with. It’s still that good.

From caramel-filled milk chocolate pieces to Sea Salt Dark Chocolate bars, and from Milk Chocolate bar with Almonds to Mint Meltaways and Mini Pixies, you’ll find these packaged in handsome boxes and tins that feature cool drawings or photographs of Chicago landmarks. Available online, in stores and at select Hudson News stores in O’Hare and Midway Airports.
If you lean in, will men just look down your blouse?
If you lean in, will men just look down your blouse?

And while you’re enjoying your chocolate (or if you’re into mindfulness, after you’ve savored that single piece), enjoy some on-point funny-but-serious commentary on life for “loud, smart women in turbulent times” with a book of collected essays called “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” by Gina Barreca. She’s written many books and appeared on many television shows. From “Spring Cleaning for the Soul” to “Growing Old Gaudily,” and from the trauma of divorce to the tribulations of marrying an Italian, she writes with humor and verve about the ways women deal with life’s challenges. It’s a book to keep on the shelf (maybe in the bathroom) for reading whenever you’re feeling a little down or just want to smile about some aspect of life.

English: Gina Barreca
English: Gina Barreca (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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Housewares execs love Chicago food and drink

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That time of year has come and gone again. They showed up to rock the marketplace with hordes of new gadgets, appliances, devices and other must-have items on display at the International Housewares Show 2016, held at McCormick Place last week and scheduled for March 18 through 21st, 2017 (mark your calendars). Click to watch the video of 2016 highlights here.
It’s fun to learn that many of the company execs who attend the show regularly here have developed their own favorite food places and activities in Chi-town. We asked a few of them where they like to eat and what they like to do:
Repping Ronco at International Housewares Show
Repping Ronco at International Housewares Show

Eydie Webster EVP Sales & Marketing for Ronco says she loves to eat at Emilio’s for Spanish tapasVolare Ristorante Italiano, Beatrix in Streeterville for just plain good food, and almost anywhere for a Chicago dog . She also likes to walk the Magnificent Mile, have a drink in the Signature Room atop the John Hancock, and listen to music at Buddy Guy’s Legends nightclub (one of our favorite music spots).

Funtastic America at the IHS 2016
Funtastic America at the IHS 2016

Sharon Duncan, Vice President General Manager, Funtastic America says Gene & Geogetti’s Steakhouse and Kitty O’Shea’s at the Hilton downtown are the two that keep them coming back.  And “when we have time, rarely, we take a walk along the lake and make a stop at the Science and Industry Museum.”

Bringing Great Plate items to IHS 2016
Bringing Great Plate items to IHS 2016
Beth Kuehl: Inventor/Owner of Great Plate enjoys Remington’s Chicago classic American grill restaurant, Lockwood Restaurant at the Palmer Hilton and pizza at the Exchequer Pub. In downtown Chicago, once her business is done, she loves shopping, shopping and more shopping, and when she’s not shopping, she’s visiting the Art Museum.

Too bad these execs don’t have time to enjoy a few more of the 8,000 restaurants just in downtown Chicago…

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5 Chicago eateries celebrate Good France on March 21

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Skyscraper in Chicago, N. Michigan Avenue
Skyscraper in Chicago, N. Michigan Avenue (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Only 1000 restaurants around the world have been selected as official participants in the 2016 Gout de France (Good France) celebration of French food artistry – and 5 of them are in Chicago. The Consulate General of France in Chicago has designated  the following restaurants, and you’re invited to indulge in their French delights on March 21.

  1. Chef Martial Noguier welcomes you to Bistronomic840 N Wabash Ave., to try his specially designed menu featuring Lobster Thai Soup and hand-cut squid ink gnocchi with mussels and more. Call (312) 944-8400 to reserve your seats.
  2. Le Bouchon of Chicago, 1958 N Damen. Chefs Jean-Claude and Oliver Poilevey have created this menu featuring a duck egg/black truffle appetizer and blanquette de veau among others. Call (773) 862-6600 for more info and reservations.
  3. At Chez Simo Bistro, 1968 W. Lawrence Ave., Chef José Luis Espino invites you to try the deeply cheesy French onion soup and other French delights on the menu. Call (773) 865-7466 to learn more or make a reservation.
  4. Café des Architectes, 20 E. Chestnut St. Chef Greg Biggers presents his Good France menu featuring truffled gougeres with Moet et Chandon champagne, roasted sea bass and more. Call (312) 324-4063.
  5. Chez Moi, 2100 N. Halsted St. Chef Dominique Tougne features brie en croute with strawberry marmalade and a spring asparagus and goat cheese salad in his Good France menu. Call (773) 871-2100.

So take your choice, call for reservations, then go out and drink a glass of wine while you appreciate the joys of authentic French cuisine in Chicago.

P.S. If you’re curious about the rest of the restaurants around the world, check out the complete Good France international listings here.

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News-now on 7 Chicago food and drink spots

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It’s never a dull day in Chicago for lovers of food and drink. Here are a few tidbits to keep you excited no matter whether spring is really near or not.
The music and the libations are just right at The Lodge Tavern
The music and the libations are just right at The Lodge Tavern
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Lodge Tavern, 21 W. Division St., just celebrated 59 years (that’s five-nine, folks) of serving up good drinks in a warm and friendly atmosphere with a great jukebox playing the hits of whatever decade is your favorite (typically people tend to love the music that was popular when they were teenagers – Town Without Pity, anyone?). Customers in a mixed bag of ages make the place feel homier – think: pubs in England and Ireland – than many a hangout for a single age group. And speaking of drinks, besides the full assortment of beers and liquors they serve up chilled mini black bottles of Freixenet Cordon Negro, one of the world’s most popular cavas (that’s Spanish for champagne/sparkling wine).

ONLY 16 places at the table at Osteria la Madia Chef's dinner
ONLY 16 places at the table at Osteria la Madia Chef’s dinner
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Get upfront and personal with Osteria La Madia‘s Chef/Owner Jonathan Fox and Sous Chef Matt Reidy. Experience a selection of their new Spring dishes in a very intimate setting, 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 15. The Chef’s Table is limited to only 16 guests. The 5-course prix-fixe dinner with wine pairings is $65 plus tax and gratuity. Osteria La Madia is located at 59 W. Grand Ave., Chicago. Get your tickets at Eventbrite or by calling 312-329-0400.

Even if you already have a favorite ramen spot, keep an open mind and try something new this March. Miku Sushi, 4514 N. Lincoln Ave. in Lincoln Square, has two top-flight ramen dishes at only $8 all month (usually $13 and $14). And/or get half-off any of their Lincoln Square Classic Maki and Traditional Maki all month long between 11 am and 6 pm.
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From March 12 to 20, build your own Irish Coffee at THE BAR at Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park, 200 N. Columbus Dr. Choose a hot beverage (espresso, coffee, hot chocolate or tea) and an adult libation (everything from Jameson to Peppermint Schnapps), then either a cool or steamed mixer of milk or flavored syrup and toppings like whipped cream, chocolate syrup, caramel sauce and cinnamon. All for $14.
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Get Smoked with smoky food and drink at 312 Chicago
Get Smoked with smoky food and drink at 312 Chicago

312 Chicago is celebrating its 18th birthday March 21-31, and Chef Luca Corazzina invites you to Get Smoked with a 3-course pre-fixe dinner menu ($18 pp). Optional 2.5 oz smoky cocktail pairing is +$7 per course. Start with warm Smoked Caprese Salad (smoked mozzarella, tomato + basil). Next enjoy Spruce-Smoked Pasta (house-made pasta smoked with spruce branches) served with amatriciana sauce + toasted bread crumbs. And finally Smoked Italia torched chocolate sponge cake, meringue + lemon gelato. Head Bartender Jenn Knott surprises with smoky cocktails like Negroni Smoke (Ardbeg 10 Year, Campari, Punt a Mes and an Orange Peel).

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Crispy-tender red snapper (one side) at Oyster Bah
Crispy-tender red snapper (one side) at Oyster Bah

Had a lovely birthday dinner recently at Oyster Bah, 1962 N. Halsted. Cousin to Shaw’s Crab House, it calls itself an East Coast oyster Mecca in Lincoln Park. Surprise: past the oyster bar and through the dining room there is a an entire wall dedicated to hot sauces – made to complement (almost) everything, from oysters and stuffies to calamari and chowder.

The crab bites were delicious – and they only give you the pieces with straight shells so all you have to do is push, and presto! your big chunk of juicy crabmeat comes right out. The One-Sided Red Snapper was delicious, crispy fried flour coating and super-tender, sweet flesh. I forgot how good red snapper can be! And do not fail to order the only dessert available – the chef’s own coconut cake, served with chocolate sauce. Num. Thanks for the candle, guys.

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The BEST creamed spinach anywhere at Shaw's
The BEST creamed spinach anywhere at Shaw’s

Speaking of Shaw’s Crab House, 21 E. Hubbard, they do a really bang-up job on Mardi Gras. And please note: all the delicious dishes they serve on Fat Tuesday (except for the crawfish boil) are already on the regular menu, so you can order ’em any time. And the only desserts I’ve tasted at Shaw’s have been the mini versions served at the weekend brunch (available on Saturdays, too, now in addition to Sundays). On Fat Tuesday we  took a chance and ordered the full version of a few desserts. Verdict: scrumptious. We decided we’ll have to save room for dessert now every time we go to Shaw’s.

Unbelievably succulent raspberry pie at Shaw's
Unbelievably succulent raspberry pie at Shaw’s
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5 fine Tuscan wines to love

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Vineyard growing in the Italian wine region of...
Vineyard growing in the Italian wine region of Tuscany, home of the Sangiovese-based Vino Nobile di Montepulciano wine. The photo also demonstrates the viticultural technique of clear (or bare) cultivation that leaves bare soil between the vines and rows with no cover crops. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It goes without saying that Tuscany, Italy is one of the world’s finest wine regions. Rich, deep reds dominate the wide array of offerings, including such notable wine regions as ChiantiBrunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, all of which are made primarily with Sangiovese grapes. And while Terlato importers know how to pick great wines from many areas, their Tuscan picks are especially appealing. They recently sent samples of some wines from the vineyards of Cecchi for review. And it’s with pleasure we commend these wines for your consideration.

Sangiovese grapes in a vineyard of Montalcino,...
Sangiovese grapes in a vineyard of Montalcino, Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cecchi was one of the first wineries in Tuscany and has one of the largest vineyard holdings in the area. The Cecchi family has long been a proponent of the Sangiovese grape and was at the forefront of promoting the varietal worldwide. Since 1893, each successive generation of the family has been an integral part of the historical development of Italian wine, bringing the gifts of the grape in less than a century from a peasant’s food to a quintessential domestic brand, known and appreciated throughout the world. Today, Andrea and Cesare Cecchi dedicate themselves to showing the love that’s apparent in their wines, and also expressing that love by respecting the earth with sustainable growing practices and water conservation investments.

Cecchi has a way with Sangiovese
Cecchi has a way with Sangiovese

Cecchi Sangiovese di Toscana 2013 (~$15) is very fresh Tuscany wine fermented only in stainless steel tanks (no oak barrels). It’s a violet-red color with bright aromas of ripe raspberry and red fruits and fruit-forward flavors of raspberry, cranberry and plum. YUM! Perfect with spaghetti, pizza and pasta.

Beautiful Tuscan white
Beautiful Tuscan white

In the white wine category, Cecchi La Mora Vermentino Maremma Toscana 2014 (~$20) makes ideal use of the lightness of the Vermentino grape, in combination with the warmth and specific soils of the sun-drenched Tuscan coast. This lovely pale-straw-colored white wine is fresh and fragrant with yellow flowers and hints of just-crushed summer fruits. Its rich taste, persistent flavor and savory finish make it a joy to drink – even if you’re only dreaming of sun-drenched beaches.

Light the candle on the red-check tablecloth
Light the candle on the red-check tablecloth

A fresh Chianti in the traditional Classico style, Cecchi Chianti Classico 2012  (~$21) is fermented in stainless for a longer period than the Sangiovese, which produces an intensely flavorful wine with a nice acidity and a reassuringly good structure. Great with all traditional Italian dishes. You’ll feel like pulling out your red-checked tablecloth, for sure.

Only the best growing conditions for this wine
Only the best growing conditions for this wine

In the ultra-premium category (read this about wine pricing categories), Cecchi Riserva di Famiglia 2010 (~$41) makes an outstanding Chianti Classico. Like most Riservas, this wine is only produced in vintage years that are deemed to have exceptionally favorable conditions. This vintage, according to the tasting notes, has a complex aromatic quality of dried flowers and spices giving way to hints of earthiness and tobacco. A great one to lay down in your cellar, but lovely right now. And so delicious with anything you can imagine.

Luxury you'll love in a rich red wine
Luxury you’ll love in a rich red wine

In the luxury category, Cecchi Coevo 2011 (~$106) is the kind of wine that makes you glad you’re alive. Andrea and Cesare say, “We have created a wine expressing our concept of elegance, style and quality. We have named it Coevo (contemporary) because it conveys the value of time.” A blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot, each varietal is fermented separately on its own in small tanks. Then the blend is created and aged in oak for 18 months with a further 12 months in the bottle. The wine, a vivid red with deeper hues, has a decisive yet delicate aroma with hints of wild laurel and licorice root. It tastes lively and rich with red fruits and spices intertwined with delicate oak influences. Only 200 cases of this special wine were produced. It’s a gorgeous way to celebrate a fabulous meal or an anniversary or any important occasion. Your taste buds – and your heart – will thank you long after you’ve finished the bottle.

The Terlato Wines website is one of the industry’s easiest to navigate. When you’re in the mood to browse for good wines from your easy chair, just click and browse around.
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