Category Archives: bar food

Chicago meets Mullan Road Cellars at Swift and Sons

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Dennis Cakebread for Mullan Road Cellars
Dennis Cakebread for Mullan Road Cellars

It’s unusual to find a winemaker – someone whose name is already associated with a justly famous brand – setting out to create another completely different brand. But Dennis Cakebread, long associated with his namesake wine brand Cakebread Cellars, came to Chicago recently to introduce and promote his new wine brand, Mullan Road Cellars out of the Columbia Valley, WA area.

Dennis undertook to showcase his new products at hot new restaurant location, Swift and Sons, 1000 W. Fulton Market in West Loop. This Boka Group affiliate undertook to open for lunch – they don’t usually – to help Dennis Cakebread showcase his new wines along with a few from Cakebread. Dennis takes a warm and folksy approach to touting his products; it was a pleasure hearing his stories about the winemaking life.
The Cakebread Chardonnay a 2014, a 4-star beauty, went perfectly with the butter-poached king crab leg set off with a dribble of miso sauce and a slice of preserved lemon.
Then came a couple of slices of roast chicken – gorgeously succulent and tender – with succotash and bacon lardons, served with an extraordinarily lovely Pinot Noir from Cakebread. We give a rare 5-star rating to this Two Creeks Pinot Noir 2014. The wine is available retail at around $40 and, for the times you choose to spend that much for a bottle of wine, this would be a great one to invest in.
Mullan Road Cellars red blends 2012 and 2013
Mullan Road Cellars red blends 2012 and 2013

Next, a narrow but thick slice of medium-rare, firm-textured rib roast came out accompanied by chanterelle mushrooms in a bordelaise sauce. For this course Dennis presented two Mullan Road Cellars reds blends, from 2012 and 2013. Their typical  blend is composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  The 2012 was delightful; Wine Spectator gives it 90. The 2013 tasted somewhat tart at first, but smoothed out after it breathed for a while. It’s certainly a wine worth watching. Both vintages are on the market at a retail price of around $45, give or take.

Those who stayed to sample the Blackbottom Pudding dessert – multiple layers of black cocoa crumble, baked dark chocolate mousse, milk chocolate pudding and white chocolate sorbet – raved about it afterwards. From the description, that dessert alone sounds like enough incentive for another trip to Swift & Sons.
Mullan Road Cellars’ biggest distribution for export so far is in Canada, with the Caribean second in line, then Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. Look for more from this brand. And Swift and Sons did a stellar job with the pairings to create a memorable occasion.
Swift and Sons beautiful private dining area
Swift and Sons beautiful private dining area

P.S. Might want to try the bar, too. Cold Storage, attached to the Swift and Sons’ space, offers appetizers, entrees, and a nice-looking seafood station along with a full bar.

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Last-minute SuperBowl food and drink ideas

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SuperBowl Sunday is reputedly one of the biggest television viewing days of the year in the United States. I’m guessing that might depend on which teams are playing and how big the rivalry is (Wikipedia gives interesting biggest-TV-audience stats here).

And for sure, this is also a day people tend to say the hell with the diet. So whether you’re making stuff at home, or heading out to let someone else do the cooking and cleanup, here are a few last-minute ideas for your enjoyment and edification.

Like to keep the dirty dishes to a minimum on SuperBowl Sunday? Try Nuvino wine in portable PreservPak pouches. Comes in Chardonnay, Malbec, Red Blend, and Sauvignon Blanc. If you don’t drink ’em all up at the party, they’ll keep fresh up to 18 months. Just think of all the glasses you won’t have to wash.

If you like to make your own finger foods for the party, here’s a new product, Just Mayo, that lets you make healthier versions of your favorite Super Bowl dishes. It’s non-GMO, gluten-free, soy free, dairy-free, lactose-free, and cholesterol-free product and comes in sriracha, chipotle, and garlic spreads (burger toppers, anyone?). You can get it at Safeway, Whole Foods Market, Walmart, and select Costco locations. Recipes at http://www.hamptoncreek.com/just-mayo/recipes/

A few quick notes on SuperBowl specials around town:

  • Commonwealth Tavern, 2000 W. Roscoe St., has brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. with $6 bloody marys and $12 mimosas. $5 stadium cups, $15 Miller and Coors buckets, $4 Tecate cans, $5 Lagunitas drafts, and $10 themed food specials created by Chef Donny Farrell. Hold your spot ahead 773.697.7956.

  • Compass Bar, 433 W. Diversey offers a $10 Super Bowl Chili Frito Pizza along with 200 different beers plus line cards and prize giveaways each quarter.

  • Lottie’s, 1925 W. Cortland, has a Half-Time Competition. Kick a field goal to win a $250 prize. Meanwhile enjoy the game on multiple screens, drink up $4 Jameson, $15 Miller and Coors buckets, and dig in to a $15 party platter (14-inch cheese pizza and bucket of wings and tots).

  • LM Restaurant Group:
    Brasserie by LM, 800 S. Michigan Ave. Bratwurst with Fries and a Miller Lite $10
    Troquet River North, 111 W. Huron. Troquet Burger with Fries and a Miller Lite $10

  • MAK,1924 W. Division has BOGO wangs on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 1. Crispy fried with a sweet and spicy sauce, get in all sizes, to go, dine-in & delivery.

  • ROCKS Northcenter, 4138 N. Lincoln, and ROCKS Lakeview, 3463 N. Broadway, $20 Bud Light Towers + 50¢ Wings. Plus discounts, raffles and giveaways.
  • The Pony, 1638 W. Belmont, has a free Jameson’s half-time competition – kick a field goal to win a $250 prize. Deals on Jameson, beer buckets and a $15 Punxsutawney party platter (16-inch Clydesdale grilled cheese plus wings and tots).
  • Tavern on Little Fort, 4128 N. Lincoln, has a Chili Cook-off starting at 3 pm, with judging at half-time. Prizes are as follows: $200 cash (1st place), grill set (2nd place) and Coleman picnic chairs (3rd place). Bring your own crock-pot with your best chili. Ten bucks buys any patron a “judgeship” and the right to enjoy chili samples, wings, sausage, dips, chips, and veggies. $3 domestic specials, $5 microbrew drafts, $4 well drinks and $4 Fireball shots.

 

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National Hot Sauce Day – comparing hot sauces

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There are thousands of varieties of hot sauce
There are thousands of varieties of hot sauce (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I became a fan of hot sauce late in life and am still a complete lightweight. But I got introduced a few years ago when I read a fascinating book called The Raw and the Cooked, by and about gourmand author Jim Harrison, who carried his own bottles of hot sauce with him everywhere he went.

I loved the book so much—and was so impressed with his passion for food and his ability to express it—I thought I’d try imitating the guy’s habit. Tried using some of his favorite, the original Cholula brand, at a Mexican restaurant and wasn’t thrilled. I figured maybe I’d like a different flavor, so I bought a bottle of Cholula chipotle-flavored hot sauce. It’s still sitting half-used on my shelf after several years. Just didn’t like the flavor or the way it so markedly changed the taste of my dish.
Then I learned from a Bon Appetit recipe for Bloody Marys about another type of hot sauce known as sriracha. Found it at the store, liked what I tasted. Looked for more ideas for using it—found dozens posted online by heavy duty fans of the stuff. And then I tried a recipe that has made this bright red sauce that comes in a Christmas-green-nozzle-top bottle a staple in my kitchen.

Here’s the recipe: Buy some sriracha. Put some sour cream in a dish. Start stirring in sriracha until the cream turns a lovely light orange-ish color—the darker the color, the spicier the dip. Now dip something in it—sliced cucumbers, steamed green beans or cauliflower, celery sticks, Doritos, potato chips, almost anything your heart desires. If you like spicy, there’s no way you won’t agree this is a heavenly way to dip. I’ve since switched to using 2% Greek yogurt for the sour cream and now feel quite virtuous that I’m taking in protein, calcium and “live yogurt cultures” at the same time I’m chowing down joyfully for my tastebuds. Mix with salsa for a nice switch. Use it on sandwiches or dip plain chicken in it. In case you prefer more sophisticated uses, here are some other popular ways to use sriracha.

 Now, the news is I’ve found another one I like a lot. It’s called Tabanero hot sauce (the name is a combination of habanero, as in peppers, and Tabasco, the little spot in Mexico that grows peppers so well). But this is definitely NOT your grandmother’s Tabasco sauce. Its recipe sounds more like a real sauce—with carrots and onions, key lime juice, agave nectar, as well as habanero peppers, garlic salt, grapefruit seed extract and salt—labeled as all natural ingredients. I tried the medium-to-hot variety and it wasn’t too spicy for me. I was actually dipping my finger in it and tasting it all by itself. It has a clean, fresh taste and tastes like food.
And guess what? There’s no vinegar in it. I’ve just conducted a completely unscientific taste test with Tabanero, Cholula and sriracha. I now realize that part of why I don’t like the Cholula is the heavy vinegary taste—even though I like the taste of vinegar on its own. And lo and behold, the ingredients in Tabasco, too, are precisely: vinegar, red peppers and salt. Sriracha does have some vinegar, but it’s listed as the fifth ingredient and doesn’t overwhelm the chili flavor.
Okay, there is room in my heart and in my kitchen for two favorite hot sauces. I will probably never buy another bottle of Cholula (though it comes in many flavors and is very popular with Mexican food) or Tabasco (sorry, guys). Tabanero will be my new go-to sauce for Bloody Marys, but it might also get a turn in the yogurt dip once in a while. I’ll probably alternate Tabanero and sriracha for spicing up regular dishes that need a kick.
You can find sriracha hot chili sauce in most grocery stores and even in Targets with grocery areas. Get your bottle of Tabanero hot sauce ASAP—at this moment there are no retail outlets in Chicago (did you know there are such things as specialty hot sauce stores??), but you can order online. Then spice it up for National Hot Sauce Day–and keep your mouth and heart warmed up the rest of the year.
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What is “rich” food?

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Taste of the Danforth
Grilling makes most meats taste richer. Taste of the Danforth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richness. How do we experience that in regard to food? What does it mean to say a food is rich? The dictionary says the word relates to a multitude of qualities besides possessions (wealth). Something rich is said to “have high value or quality, or to be well-supplied or endowed.” How about a food rich in history? Potatoes, for example. The seven-year-long Great Famine in Ireland in 1845. Or tomatoes – carried from South America in the late 16th century to all parts of the world and once thought to be highly poisonous.

But, no, that’s not what we mean when we say a food is rich. Perhaps the grapes are rich – have high quality and thus can produce the best wines. Yeah, but that’s more about the qualities of the grapes and not so much about taste, which is what we’re mainly talking about in a cookbook (which I happen to be working on and which inspired this post).

The dictionary goes on. “Magnificently impressive, synonym: sumptuous.” Oh, yeah, I can see that applied to a lot of dishes – Beef Wellington (filet of beef wrapped in pastry), anyone? Or “vivid and deep in color.” Yes, a rich red tomato. A deep, rich browned crust on your ribeye. Okay, we’re getting there.

Merriam Webster continues, “having a strong fragrance.” Yes! Think about fresh-baked bread. About the aroma of pot roast on a cold winter’s night. Rich, for sure. Here’s one: “having abundant plant nutrients.” Okay, although we do use the phrase rich in nutrition – and perhaps strict vegans might use it in that sense – vitamins are not usually what we’re thinking of when we speak of the richness of a meal. Here’s one: “highly seasoned, fatty, oily, or sweet.” Indeed, this meaning is often used pejoratively – “That’s too rich for my blood,” someone will say of a dish loaded with butter or sugar or one sitting in a pool of rich wine reduction.

English: Crème brûlée prepared using a torch.
These are BIG dishes of lush creme brulee – but the browned-sugar coating isn’t rich enough yet.

And the last few from the dictionary: “high in some component” – again, this leads us to think of non-taste-related phenomena such as, for example, cholesterol, though we could use it to refer simply to taste itself. I like the mystery and subtlety of this definition: “meaningful, significant.” Yes. I can feel this one when I speak of a meal that is rich – including taste and sensation but layered perhaps with some emotion like love, happiness, contentedness. Another one, “lush” seems suitable for rich, silky, creamy foods like ice cream or crème brûlée.

And finally, “pure or nearly pure” could refer to the intensity of a single flavor, as in soup base that is rich with beef flavor or a dessert composed of several items (e.g., crust, filling and topping), all flavored with lime, or with vanilla.
And then there’s umami, the so-called “fifth taste.” Discovered after centuries of belief that there were only the classic four: salt, sweet, sour and bitter.  Umami is defined generally as “savory, related to lip-smacking, rich tasting.” How about some triple-cream brie cheese? Surprisingly, people of good will today still disagree as to whether umami is a legitimate classification. But why not? It fits. It’s a concept missing from the other four, so it makes sense as a category. But I doubt it will ever have the rich, multilayered connotations of the “r” term. I mean, “rich” even feels umami on your tongue, doesn’t it?
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Early 2015 restaurant news – burgers, soup, salumi and more

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Acadia's new featured wagyu beef 'shroom burger
Acadia’s new featured wagyu beef ‘shroom burger

Acadia, 1639 S. Wabash in the South Loop, recently launched a new version of the Acadia Burger, one of the bar menu’s most popular items. The 6-ounce wagyu, brisket and chuck burger, created by Chef Ryan McCaskey, is topped with a mushroom ragout and Gruyere Grand Cru cheese and served on a sesame bun. It’s served with pickled cauliflower and hand-cut fries seasoned with house-made lemon pepper seasoning (containing over 20 ingredients) and foie gras butter. Sounds like a fascinating combination – and the fries look cooked just right.

The previous version, based on Burger King’s Stacker, was recognized as one of Chicago’s best burgers by Thrillist, TimeOut Chicago, Zagat and others. Acadia expects the new version to be just as well-loved. McCaskey said the new version “was inspired by my family eating at Hardee’s on the way to my grandmother’s house in Iowa as a kid.” Clearly, the wagyu beef and Gruyere cheese alone push it several notches beyond the inspiration. To inspire yourself, check it out at http://www.acadiachicago.com/.

Quartino's house-made salumi
Quartino’s house-made salumi

Quartino Ristorante & Wine Bar, 626 N. State St., invites you to help celebrate its 9th anniversary on Tuesday, January 6 at its Annual Wine Bash. From 7 to 9 pm, $25 at the door gets you samples of some of Quartino’s most popular regional Italian food and wine specialties like pizza, Chef Coletta’s house-made salumi, Polenta Fries, Veal Meatballs, and more. To drink, either rosso or bianco Antica wines or the restaurant’s famous White Peach Bellini (Prosecco and house-made white peach puree).

“The evening will highlight many of the items that have been on our menu since day one in 2005,” says Executive Chef John Coletta, “and that are still some of our customers’ favorite dishes.” Head up to the second floor when you get there (social media #LateOnState).

Kanela Breakfast Club’s loukoumades

Kanela Breakfast Club (locations in Old Town, Lakeview and Wicker Park) welcomes power breakfast meetings with free wi-fi and complimentary parking .  NATIONAL SOUP MONTH – all month any guest who donates a canned soup or non-perishable food item will receive a complimentary order of Kanela’s signature Loukoumades (Greek doughnut, lemon honey syrup and toasted walnuts). Donations will be made to a local food pantry. Not valid with any other offer or promotion, one per person.

National Blueberry Pancake Day – Wed. January 28. Every order of Kanela’s signature blueberry pancakes comes with a free first cup of Julius Meinl coffee. One per person.

 

Compass Bar, 433 W. Diversey in Lincoln Park, is now serving brunch Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Brunch items range in price from $3 to $11 and features items like the breakfast pizza,

Bloody Mary with Rhinelander Lager

classic breakfast, omelettes, French toast and more. $6 mimosas and $8 bloody marys made with CH Distillery Peppercorn Vodka. Pair with a 3 ounce Rhinelander Lager bottle for an additional $2. The complete menu is available HERE. The Compass regular menu specializes in wood-fired pizzas and beer lovers choose from 180 bottled and 20 draft options.

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Meat and Whiskey go good! The Publican and George Dickel team up

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George Dickel knows how to make whiskey. Several kinds – from un-aged No. 1 white as an aperitif to rich pre-, during- and after-dinner-style whiskies No. 8, No. 12 and Barrel Select – make great pairings with almost any type of food. In a brilliant partnership with The Publican Restaurant, 837 W. Fulton Market – a popular Chicago restaurant that really knows how to do meat – Dickel and chefs put together a fabulous dinner of meat and booze. Gotta tell ya’ I am surprised at how well these whiskies go with a multitude of dishes.

Notable items at the sample dinner included a gorgeously puffed-up, cheese-encrusted pork rind appetizer that’d knock your socks off compared to the ordinary version, and a beautifully moist and tender cut of pale-pink pork wrapped in fat, roasted and served atop a bed of crisply cooked cabbage and other vegetables. That meat was exquisite, and the vegetables perfectly cooked to bring out their best flavor. A side dish of roasted root vegetables had a nice tang but needed an extra 20 minutes in the oven. Still, the pork was an impressive dish among several others just as delicious. No. 12 and Barrel Select whiskies stood out as exceptionally smooth, flavorful and made powerfully nice accents to the meats.

It’s not easy picking out good whiskies unless you’re a connoisseur and spend a good chunk of time tasting and taking notes. I didn’t love the white version (a little harsh I thought but that’s just my taste). However, I can recommend the other hearty, Dickel made-in-America varieties for all whiskey lovers – see if there is one you might want to add to your list of faves.

English: Image of the George Dickel distillery...
English: Image of the George Dickel distillery in Cascade Hollow, Tennessee. Taken by ProhibitOnions, 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

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Butcher’s Tap – sports bar that shows you the love

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The Butcher’s Tap opened recently at 3553 N. Southport. According to co-owner Bob Dalton, “We’ve revived this location (a former butcher shop) and given it a whole lot of TLC.” Gorgeous butcher-block tabletops that look freshly made line up to form a cozy, warmly lit seating area opposite the long bar. Lots of twinkly lights join with the multiple sports-centered flat screens to illuminate the place – it’s a sports-bar-lover’s paradise. And one thing I found extremely cool – they have a DJ who monitors the screens and puts on rockin’ music the second the advertising starts. Good games with great music instead of commercials? I’m on board.

Drinks range from barrel-tapped wines ($8 a glass) and bottles (a small but nice selection from $25 to $60) to hand-crafted cocktails like the Ravenswood Old Fashioned and Iced and Spiced Moonshine, and a big selection of beers, lagers, ales, stouts, and so on (many on tap). If you’re more in the mood for shots or liquor on the rocks, their selection is respectable and worth sampling.

The food is also a big attraction here. In addition to their hormone- and antibiotic-free, grass-fed burgers, they’ve got signature sandwiches made with hand-sliced deli meats (from Smoking Goose, Dietz & Watson and Ferndale Farm) and off-the-block cheese like Saxon’s Big Ed Gouda, Decatur Dairy Havarti and lots more. PLUS, they offer an array of select and seasonal choices of cured meats and cheeses. The night we visited these included South Sider Cider (pork & Venison, brewed cider), Elk-for-heavens-sake (with dried blueberries and New Day Mead), Capriole Goat cheese (said to be the best in the nation), and Red Dragon English cheddar with whole grain mustard and ale (fabulous taste – I couldn’t stop eating it), among others. Their cheese plate goes for $14 and feeds two generously as an appetizer. Good value. And you can make your own burger by picking a protein and adding your own toppings (burgers go for $10 to $13 and include fries or a picnic side (see below).

Butcher's Tap - comfort food in a friendly atmosphere
Butcher’s Tap – comfort food in a friendly atmosphere

Butchers beef n friesThese guys love local. Butcher’s Tap consults on its cheeses with reps from Forge and Foster. The cheese board comes with nuts, crackers and spreads plus a little cup of scrumptious apricot jam that’s made in house. Sandwiches come on crusty multigrain, brioche and other breads from Upper Crust Bakery, and the cured meats come from the Smoking Goose in Indiana. Their French fries are made with real, honest-to-goodness fresh potatoes. They’re salty and crispy and delicious, and you can get an order for 3 bucks – nice. They make their own fried chicken by soaking chicken for 12 hours in beer batter and then hand-frying it for you (Cajun or classic). My companion said the chicken in her sandwich was a little dry and the breading looked slightly burned, but I’m sure they’ll get that under control as they fine-tune their processes. We both thought the mac & cheese could have used a little more oomph – more cheese or something. But again, this place is clearly out to show you the love, so we think any missed notes will soon be addressed. Other sides include onion rings ($4), elotes corn (grilled with a creamy sauce, $3), pasta salad ($4), potato salad ($4), and city slaw ($4).

Don’t miss a chance to enjoy the comfortable, friendly atmosphere and the good food at The Butcher’s Tap when you’re near the Southport corridor. This place could vie for one of my favorite “I need some love” – and food – stopovers.

 

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Eating out Thanksgiving Chicago 2014

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English: Oven roasted turkey, common fare for ...
English: Oven roasted turkey, common fare for Christmas and Thanksgiving celebrations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lots of people don’t like to cook, let alone put the Herculean effort in to cook a traditional American Thanksgiving feast. I used to spend days preparing – and oh, how we loved to enjoy! These days, my son-in-law does most of the work (we travel to Cleveland), while I usually sous-chef the carrots and green beans and hand-strip the fresh herbs from their stems for his delicious stuffing.

In case you aren’t up for cooking and aren’t going to a house where someone is, here are a few places you can go to get your Thanksgiving eating game on:

  • Brasserie by LM, 800 S. Michigan, is offering a $35 prix fixe menu, available on Thanksgiving Day only. The menu includes a choice of appetizer, entrée, side dish and dessert. Here’s the mouth-watering menu:

Appetizer – Roasted Chestnut Soup (truffle oil and chives) OR Bitter Green Salad (escarole, radicchio, frisee, bleu cheese, pomegranate pom vin)

Entrees
Roasted Turkey Roulade – stuffed with chestnuts and collard greens with sweet potato mash and turkey gravy OR
Fried Ham Steak – bacon and Brussel sprout hash OR
Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto – sautéed whitefish, pecan and sage brown butter

Sides – Green Bean Casserole OR Buttermilk Biscuits OR Turkey Stuffing with Cranberry Sauce
Desserts – Apple & Cranberry Cobbler OR Pumpkin Pie OR Cheese Plate

  • Troquet River North, 111 W. Huron in the Felix Hotel, is offering a holiday themed special with a French twist. Their Roasted Turkey Sandwich is topped with cranberry compote and Brussel Sprout slaw and is served on a croissant alongside hand-cut sweet potato frites ($14). The special will be available Monday, November 24 through Sunday, November 30.
  • The Brixton, 5420 N. Clark St., closed Thanksgiving Day, has a special on Tuesday, November 25; Wednesday, November, 26 and Friday, November 28, Chef Kevin McMullen’s Confit Turkey Leg is served with cranberry aioli, house stuffing and fried sage ($9).
  • Maxwell’s at the Club, 500 N. Kingsbury St. inside the East Bank Club, offers traditional Thanksgiving dinner from 1 to 7 pm. Reservations are a must. Parking lot available. Check out my review. If their other food is any indication, you’ll very likely enjoy your holiday vittles here.

 

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Sapori Trattoria – a Lincoln Park/Lakeview gem

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It’s a pleasure to dine at a restaurant where the food, the service and the ambiance come together seamlessly to make a memorable evening. And that’s just what happened recently at Sapori Trattoria, 2701 N. Halsted, close to the border of Lincoln Park and Lakeview. Our party of four arrived at 5 pm for an early dinner and were delighted to feel immediately warm and welcome on a cold Saturday night.

Needing time to study the many Italian-named dishes on the menu, a couple of us found the house Cabernet Sauvignon (Fox Brook 2005) was quite good and made a nice pre-dinner cocktail at a very reasonable $6.50 a glass.

Besides the regular menu items you can find online, the evening’s menu carried an entire column full of “Featured Items” from starters to multiple pasta entrees (including the pumpkin ravioli one of us ultimately ordered), and a number of meat dishes (including Vitello Osso Bucco and the Duck Leg Confit).

Shortly after we sat down, a tray of bread arrived – excellent flavor, with moist crumb and crispy crust. I’d noticed a small bottle of olive oil and a dish of grated fresh Parmesan cheese, but when I (a die-hard butter fan) asked for some, a dish promptly arrived with two large, cold, unsalted slabs thereof. A heaven-sent version of my go-to restaurant indulgence!

We shared one order of bruschetta ($6.95) around the table. A generous portion of homemade mozzarella cheese – freshly made, light and tender – was surrounded by shavings of prosciutto and chunks of marinated tomato on toasted slices of that lusty, crusty Italian bread. Another person ordered the Caesar salad – a plateful of crisp, crunchy romaine and some very good homemade croutons, all lightly coated with owner/Executive Chef Antonio Barbanente’s own delicately seasoned dressing – delicious but perhaps slightly overpriced for the quantity at $7.95.

It was rough going choosing our main courses; almost everything on the menu had its appeal. Ted, our server, answered our many questions – including whether the pasta is house-made (it is, except penne). He patiently explained the differences in various dishes and told us which were the most popular.

We finally settled on our selections. The Maple Leaf Farms Duck Leg ($25.95) was a classic duck confit preparation – salt-cured for two days and slow-roasted in its own fat, served with sweet potato strings and 48-hour duck gravy. The Cappellacci di Zucca ($21.99), pumpkin-stuffed ravioli in a burnt butter sauce with butternut squash, sage and pine nuts, was declared a winner. Vitello Paesana ($26.99), tender veal scallopini sauteed with artichokes and cherry tomatoes in a savory delicate wine sauce, was a hit, too. We all approved our samples from a side of homemade pasta – oil and garlic caressing every noodle in a nest of rich-tasting, homemade egg-dough linguine.

My entree was a huge chunk of perfectly pan-seared Chilean sea bass ($28.99) served in an aromatic sauce with lightly steamed fresh spinach, finished with roasted tomatoes, oyster mushrooms, and beautifully tender-inside, lightly crispy-on-the-edges chunks of roasted potato. Potatoes are another of the items by which I judge a restaurant – for example, undercooked is a disaster – and these more than passed muster. The only off note was finding a couple of gristly pieces underneath the fish. Homemade pasta with seafood? I simply had to try some. Ted graciously accommodated my request for half an order of Spaghetti alla Scoglio ($23.99). This lovely dish consisted of a generous helping of seasoned seafood (clam, mussel, shrimp and scallop), cooked juste á point and served on a bed of homemade egg spaghetti. The spaghetti was delicious on its own, but it was also enveloped in a mellow and flavorful sauce – the menu says the pasta is “sautéed in marinara.” Okay. The best marinara I remember tasting in a long time. And since I feel the same way after having eaten the leftovers for breakfast, I know it wasn’t just the wine and the company that made it taste so good!

Ambiance is wonderful at Sapori. I’m a sucker for tiny white lights, and here, just the right number of these Italian standbys pinpoint the overall subtle lighting (notice how dark all the pics are!). The place is built into what must have originally been someone’s home – certainly not a restaurant. Outside the small main dining area – which has two levels, thus adding to the sense of coziness and privacy – you’ll encounter a charming rabbit warren of hallways and small rooms tucked away in cozy corners, with extra doors in surprising places. A tiny bar graces the main dining area off the street entrance, and dinner is also served in what is probably another honeycomb of rooms we didn’t go up to see on the second floor. Ted said total capacity is about 250 – a surprise, given the intimate feel of the place, although a regular diner there tells me the noise level gets uncomfortably high at prime times.

Service was friendly, warm and professional. When one of our party complained to Ted after a first taste that the salt-cured duck was too salty, he apologized for not having explained the best process for consuming this dish – interspersing bites with the sweet potato accompaniment. He acknowledged he should have given this advice upon delivering the plate. Then, a minute after Ted left, the maitre d’ arrived to also apologize and offer to replace the dish with something else. Hard to ask for more than that. Later in the evening Chef Antonio came to our table and smiled as we expressed our enthusiasm.

The tiramisu dessert ($6.99) had a decidedly light touch. Crowned with a foam of whipped cream, the ladyfinger layers were lusciously fluffy. Delicious indeed, though I usually like mine a bit heavier – more custard and a tad more rum-coffee flavoring. Panna cotta ($6.99) was super-rich with cream and chocolate-hazelnut flavor. Though I didn’t love the slightly gelatin-y mouth feel of the dish, the drizzle of thin, dark chocolatey sauce on top was a definite enhancement.

Open every day at 4:30, Sapori Trattoria has been here since 2001. Where the heck have I been?

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Cool tips n tricks for Halloween at home – plus a dozen Chicago Halloween parties

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Nadia G tells it like it is for Halloween parties
Nadia G tells it like it is for Halloween parties

Nadia G., the popular Food Network show host, was writing comedy at an early age, has moved up fast in the world of TV and happily offers her own take on how to “do” Halloween right. Following are her top party ideas and Halloween recipes that will make your party the hot spot Halloween favorite.

  1. Try decorating your buffet with genuine old stuff – like broken dolls you find at a thrift store. Headless,  armless, blackened eyes, whatever.
  2. Present your party spread on a bloodstained tablecloth! Get your hands on a white sheet and have some gruesome fun staining it with theatrical blood handprints and splatters!
  3. Lighting is everything, so replace your crummy lightbulbs with red ones, and light lots of black candles to create a spooky (and sexy) ambiance.
  4. Fill a surgical glove with water and freeze, use this creepy
    Nadia's "severed hand" looks great in a Witches Brew cocktail punch
    Nadia’s “severed hand” looks great in a Witches Brew cocktail punch – See recipe below

    “severed hand” to cool your punch bowl!

  5. Stay away from generic “scary” props like cheesy spiderwebs.
    Try: blood red roses, mice, pictures of Phil Spector… Use your imagination!
  6. Finished planning your party and playlist? Try making some  of Nadia’s coffin-shaped grilled cheese sandwiches for the buffet. And then check out all her other Spooky Recipes!

Find out more about celebrity chef Nadia G.

And here’s where to buy cool Halloween costumes.

Jack-o-lantern
Jack-o-lantern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

BUT, if you’re just not in the mood to throw your own bash, here are a few tips for outside Halloween fun in Chicago:

  • From pub crawls to boat cruises or just regular Halloween parties at bars, check out EventBrite’s listing.
  • Consider the masks-mandatory (you can buy one at the door) upscale Halloween bash going on at the just-opened River North SHAY nightclub, 222 W. Ontario.
  • Bar Takito, 201 N. Morgan St. (at Lake) in the West Loop celebrates Halloween. Special $5 menu including $5 margaritas and food items will be available to any guest wearing a costume on Friday, October 31 and Saturday, November 1. Try their Sangre Del Toro (or “Blood of the Bull”) cocktail.
  • Newport Bar & Grill, 1344 W. Newport in Lakeview, hosts a Halloween costume party Friday October 31. A $500 cash prize for the “Best Group Costume” – $200 cash for “Best Individual Costume”. The bar will feature a live DJ all night long and offer $4 Craft Drafts, $4 Fireball shots, $5 Three Olive cocktails and $5 Bacardi bombs. An optional $20 package will be available from 9 p.m. – 12 a.m.
  • Masked Halloween wine tasting –  Taste eight different varietals and wine a prize for guessing the most correct. WineBar at Plum Market, Inside Plum Market Old Town, 1233 N. Wells St.
  • Quartino Ristorante & Wine Bar, 626 N. State St., is putting on its traditional Halloween Wine Bash on Thursday, October 30, 7 to 9 pm. $25 gets you a selection of beer, wine and delicious Italian-with-the-Quartino-touch fare, along with music and (of course) a Halloween costume contest!
  • Bar on Buena, 910 W. Buena, EVIL TWIN DEVIL’S NIGHT EVIL COSTUME BASH on Thursday, October 30th (Devil’s Night!). 7pm – til ?? – a night of frightening flicks, macabre music, spooky spirits. Prizes for the most evil costumes include VIP Blackhawks tickets, BOB Gift Certificates, Beer Swag and more.
  • Chicago Q, 1160 N. Dearborn St., an upscale barbeque place with a gorgeous wood-paneled bar, gets in the Halloween spirit, this October 31 with the Spooky q Potion cocktail ($12 – Bourbon, Cinnamon Simple Syrup and Apple Cider served on the rocks with a gummy worm garnish).
  • Plymouth Restaurant & Bar, 327 S. Plymouth Court,  on Friday, October 31, serves up a complimentary buffet full of Swamp Dip and Cheesy Freddy Fingers. Wash it down with Blue Moon pints for $4.00 and Pama Pomegranate Martinis for $5.00, and The Scary Night drink special for $5.00. Costumes encouraged.

*Spooky Halloween cocktails include Witches Brew punch:

Witches Brew

  • 4 oz. Once Upon a Vine® Fairest Chardonnay
  • 2 oz. Pear nectar
  • 1 oz. Lime juice
  • .5 oz. Simple syrup
  • 3 Sprigs of thyme

Directions: Shake ingredients in a cocktail shaker and strain into a chilled glass.

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