Prices are reasonable, and this is an ideal place to come before or after the theater – Steppenwolf Theatre is across the street down the block. Be forewarned that the air conditioning works much better in the front section of the restaurant; the hot day we were there it was uncomfortably warm in the back section. But if it’s a nice day, don’t hesitate to take advantage of the patio. This patio is beside the restaurant – not stuck out on the sidewalk as so many are these days – and runs the length of the building, so it’s roomy. A glass door opening to the patio allows servers a clear view of tables and easy access to patrons. Sadly, it was raining the day we visited so we didn’t get to experience it personally, but I can picture us enjoying some wine or a summer cocktail among the flowers and the twinkling lights.
Lincoln Park has a number of interesting places to eat, and I just discovered the pleasure of one of those – the patio at Cafe Brauer. Delicious American food specialties, served by warm and friendly people, and a small selection of wines, craft beers and cocktails designed to satisfy most of us. One menu item promises fresh vegetables from Green City Market, one of the city of Chicago’s markets that sets up every Wednesday and Saturday nearly across the street on Stockton Blvd. This is a marriage made in heaven.
Entrance to the Nature Boardwalk is right off the patio. You can walk all the way around its half-mile perimeter as it wends through a 14-acre nature preserve. It’s a closed pathway, so you can trust that your bicycling or dog-walking grandchild or friend will definitely find her way back to you. No way to get lost. Being in “the wild” in the middle of the city without being worried you’ll get lost. Can’t wait to bring my granddaughter here.
Mallard duck pairs occasionally break the still waters of the pond next to the patio. It’s an incredibly peaceful and calming environment. Bird song everywhere. People walking.
The Cafe Brauer patio is the site of many weddings, school and corporate events. The staff are highly experienced at providing buffets full of tasty all-American foods like buttermilk fried chicken (delicious!). The regular menu offers big plates to share – calamari, wings, guac and salsa, or steak chili nachos. Then there are soups and salads, plus paninis, burgers – including turkey and black bean and classic sandwiches, all served with fries. Sides are interesting – side salad, Parmesan fries, waffle-battered sweet potato fries with maple-vinegar aioli, mac & cheese, and stir-fried Green City Market vegetablea, all priced at $4.95, but if you order them with a sandwich they’re only two bucks. Desserts are $5.95 and include Brownie Sundae, Blueberry Crisp, and Cookie Skillet with ice cream. Hungry yet?
Basically, Cafe Brauer has just about anything your heart could desire. They even play upbeat music at just the right decibel level – cheers the atmosphere and lightens the spirit.
If you know Trader Todd’s, 3216 N. Sheffield, you may think of it mainly as a karaoke joint with tiki-bar-style drinks and atmosphere. But guess what? They are now doing brunch, and their Executive Chef Mark Hill really knows how to put food on the plate, with here and there his own unique touch to dishes you thought you knew.
For example, ever ordered fried chicken and waffles? It’s always seemed like a stretch to understand what makes the two go together. But Chef Hill has changed that up for many Trader Todd brunch customers. The way he combines these two is totally unique – kind of like eating your main course and your dessert at the same time. The waffle has a sweet crunch, and the chicken comes in chunks bathed in a rich, brown, slightly sweet-spicy jerk sauce sparked with Chef’s own mixture of allspice and peppers and maybe some or all of these: cloves, cinnamon, scallions, nutmeg, thyme, garlic, brown sugar, ginger, and salt. It’s his secret – and it’s a good one.
And lest you wonder about the kitchen’s ability to do standard brunch items up right, check out the lovely omelette, cooked so that the eggs come out tender and moist rather than dry and tough. Get your choice of cheeses and fillings and eat ’em with the kitchen’s house-made fried potato chunks – tender inside and just enough crust on the outside. Delicious.
Or if you’re in the mood for a burger, Trader Todd’s does ’em good. Nice helping of ground beef, grilled and served with whatever toppings your heart desires. And some more of those good fried potato chunks. But don’t stop there. They’ve got Benedicts and sliders and conch cakes, Jerk Chicken and Jerk Pork sandwiches and more. It’s pan-tropical food and drink to make you feel like you’re in the islands. Lots of open-air space, and there’s even a boat you can sit in in the back bar. It’s a faux-island paradise for brunchers to start off a Saturday or Sunday of relaxation.
Why brunch, you ask? Because there’s no longer any doubt that brunch in America has become a special occasion in its own right, and Maggiano’s is all about helping you make your occasions special. They now open at 11 on weekends to satisfy your brunch cravings with their own unique take on traditional brunch features and a few surprises of their own. Naturally, because libations are a critical component of the good brunch, order your favorite Bloody Mary – Italian-style with a distinctive Maggiano’s flavor – mimosa or peach Bellini. The full bar selection – from champagne to whiskey – is available if you prefer your drinks unmixed.
Another these-carbs-are-so-worth-it! dish is the Crème brûlée French toast. Made with cranberry-raisin bread, it’s got the creamy, rich flavor of the restaurant’s house-made Crème brûlée mix and is another great way to enjoy helpings of strawberries, blueberries, whipped cream and syrup.
Veggie frittata features smoked Gouda, spinach, mushrooms – fresh flavors, softly finished eggs – served with crisp Vesuvio potatoes. You can also choose from the can’t-eat-anymore Italian breakfast of three eggs with ham, bacon and Italian sausage plus potatoes.
- Meatball Benedict – surprising combination. Nice tomato chunk balances richness of egg yolk and Hollandaise with the flavor of the sturdy beefy meatball. The Italian woman at our table – who, of course, makes her own meatballs – couldn’t stop talking about how much she appreciated how these meatballs worked with the Benedict formula. Hey, if an Italian approves…
- The Chicken Francese Benedict takes a popular item from the regular Maggiano’s dinner menu – lightly breaded chicken that’s fried and served with arugula – and turns it into a house-made Benedict special.
- The regular Eggs Benedict is served with a uniquely flavored ham made locally and shipped in from Wisconsin – Nueske’s, which also makes the thick, juicy bacon served at brunch.
- Crab cake Benedict – nice combo. A pleasantly standard crab cake mixture blends well with the Hollandaise and egg yolk.
All Benedicts are served with house-made crispy Vesuvio potatoes – a deliciously salty preparation that was slightly undercooked on this occasion. If you’re a stickler for thoroughly cooked-through potatoes, make sure to ask your server to tell the chef to make them extra crispy.
You have until October 30 to take advantage of the deals during a la Carte Chicago, an 11-day food festival that celebrates contemporary French food. Participating restaurants, bakeries and more might be French or simply French-inspired – Shaw’s Crab House is in on it. The important thing is they’re all offering specials during the festival, including prix fixe menus. The fest also includes cooking workshops, tastings, cultural events, and activities for food lovers of all ages.
This is a great opportunity to get out and experience some of the many French-food-loving chefs and restaurants in Chicago. At a preview, guests tasted delicious tuna salad sandwiches on rich tasting French white buns from Chez Moi, 2100 N. Halsted – sandwiches that made us feel like heading over there ASAP. Ridiculously good chocolate hazelnut bars from Chef Martial Noguier at Bistronomic, 840 N. Wabash. Others include Cafe des Architectes, 20 E. Chestnut, Circle City Sweets from Indianapolis for heavens’ sake, and dozens more.
On opening night they had a live band for karaoke. Seriously. If you are a wannabe singer, singing with real musicians behind you and the words in front of you has to be – as the saying goes – the most fun you can have with your clothes on. And on top of that, they serve elevated bar food that includes sharable appetizers, hearty salads, “grabbers” (otherwise known as meat-heavy platters), and an assortment of sides. Chicken Wings come with your choice of house buffalo, shogun sweet chili, Chef Diablo’s habanero or pomegranate BBQ, served with tri-colored carrots, jicama, house made ranch or bleu cheese. Other items: marinated Steakhouse Minis, The 1951 Burger, Queen of Hearts salad, and Jabberwock Angus Sliders. Try starting with Candied Slab Bacon – thick cut, Applewood smoked slab bacon, grilled and glazed with maple syrup.
A sports-friendly bar, with ten large screen TVs, it also serves as a distinctive backdrop for the viewing of any game. Live Band Karaoke on Wednesday evenings beginning at 9pm.
The Kimpton Gray Hotel, 122 W. Monroe St. at LaSalle, is the newest upscale lodging option in the heart of the Chicago Loop’s legal and financial district. Located on the second floor, the lobby – known as “The Living Room” – welcomes guests with coffee, tea and muffins in the morning and wine and cheese receptions each evening. Naturally, the Wi-Fi is free. The huge arched windows, framed with floor-to-ceiling black velvet draperies with gold headers, let in natural light and spotlight views of bustling Monroe and LaSalle Streets.
Besides Volume 39, guests and locals can select breakfast, lunch or dinner available at Steadfast, the restaurant and bar located at 120 W. Monroe and situated within the main floor of The Kimpton Gray. Its menus offer unique items like duck liver mousse crostini and a laminated brioche sandwich with Serano ham, Manchego, quail egg and caviar.
The presidential suite was beautifully appointed with sleek modern fixtures in a gray/white/black theme and was, well, presidential in its grandeur – easy to picture a president relaxing there. Other size rooms and suites were equally handsome though somewhat smaller, of course. On the 15th floor the rooftop restaurant/bar BOLEO offers a menu with a South American flair and a comfortable place to take in some unique views of downtown. The grand opening featured a hot-tempo video/DJ combo and soulful trumpet by Kafele playing along.
Villa Maria winemakers recently invited trade and press to do just that at Chicago’s Tavern on Rush; they organized a comparative tasting of six elegant white wines, only two of which were their own, one French and the rest top-selling American Chardonnays. Just sitting at the table with professional sommeliers and the owner/original winemaker himself, Sir George Fistonich, and listening to Nick Picone, Villa Maria’s current head winemaker, was an educational adventure as well as a tasting treasure.
- Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay 2014 (Napa Valley). Grown in clay soils and aged 1/3 in new oak, this wine shows many layers of flavor and gives taste sensations all around the mouth. California chardonnays are generally heavier than French versions, Nick said. Adjectives for this wine included low-oak, semi-dry, slightly dusty with lots of minerality. He said California wines tend to stay in the 13 plus-or-minus percent alcohol range.
- Rombauer Vineyards Chardonnay 2014 (Carneros). A best-selling wine in this price category. Light, almost translucent with toffee, butterscotch and vanilla notes. It’s aged one-third in American oak, which is rich in lactone, the compound that gives vanilla hints and a slight sweetness, according to the winemaker. This, he said, makes this wine very popular in the U.S. where it’s often served as an aperitif and not with food. Alc 14.5%
- Villa Maria Keltern Vineyard Chardonnay 2014 (Hawkes Bay). They started making this wine in 2002, when it used to be a bigger wine with more oak made of 100% Chardonnay grapes grown in red clay soils in their flagship vineyard. Mature wines now are all fermented with 100% wild yeast. Nine months in French oak barrels; the wine has a hazelnut sweetness from the lees. They make only 500 cases of this for the entire world. You may not be able to buy a bottle of this at your local retailer, but it gives you an idea of the superb quality being produced at Villa Maria. Loved this one – top rating.
- Villa Maria Taylors Pass Vineyards Chardonnay 2011 (Marlborough). This wine is completely different but has a similar fruit ripeness and freshness and acidity like a white burgundy. It’s grown from Malbec vineyard in an area with a big diurnal swing (day to night temperature range) and known for its Sauvignon Blanc. All that gives the wine “a touch of green fruit, a bit of brininess, even a hint of grapefruit. The wild yeasts give it a smoky sulfide taste – like striking a match,” said Nick. “We like that in a burgundy,” Again, only 500 cases of this are made for the world. Ditto on finding this at Binny’s.
- Far Niente Chardonnay 2014 (Napa Valley). This pair is the most expensive of the six wines. Napa has a warmer climate than Carneros, which greatly affects the wines grown in each region. This wine is aged 60% in new French oak, so has a nutty, toasty, buttery flavor, much more subtle and very Burgundian in style. Especially high quality – top rating.
- Joseph Drouhin Meursault 2013 (Burgundy). This one comes from a cooler climate and is grown in slate soils with more minerals. It’s not as rich as some of the others; rather it has high acidity and great freshness with a slightly briny taste of oyster shells. Delicate, slightly lighter, drier, very good for pairing with foods.
These are luxury category wines; suggested retail prices run between $35 and $60. And look for more premium and luxury wines from Villa Maria – like their fabulous Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2009. And in case you fall in love with one or more of their wines and want to learn more, pick up a copy of the book, The Winemaker: George Fistonich and the Villa Maria story. It’s an extraordinary tale of how one visionaory man built a worldwide business that parallelled the growth of the New Zealand wine industry. He’s dedicated all of his energies to the pursuit of excellence in winemaking. And you’re sure to enjoy experiencing the end results with a Villa Maria wine in your glass.
It’s Oyster Fest week, people! Shaw’s Crab House Chicago is making this week a real standout on the calendar with multiple events honoring the king of bivalves, the oyster.
The event started with a sinus-cleansingly-hot wasabi oyster shooter and went on with a tray of oysters on the half shell from various regions of the US. These included the delectable small Olympia oyster from Puget Sound, several with Japanese names (and origins) from both East and West coasts, one from New Brunswick, Canada (very close to the Prince Edward Island known for its mussels) and one large, flat variety from Casco Bay Flats in Maine. The Olympia was a favorite.
Next course was a trio of hot oysters – one baked with leeks and thyme, another gratineed with kale, and a third grilled and covered with a bright green arugula-almond pesto. Meanwhile Cynthia regaled guests with stories of how oysters filter the water in which they live and how their taste is profoundly affected by their environment, somewhat in the way wines are heavily influenced by their terroir. She said in all her years of food writing she’s rarely seen the passion and the partiality of oyster lovers in fans of other food groups.
Seating available inside or out – it was a bit too loud and hot inside we can climbed onto one of the unusually proportioned picnic benches outside (the bench seat is set a little closer-in than average). Rolls of paper towels dot the tables in lieu of napkins. The menu’s interesting, ranging from fresh oysters, Seared Tuna Salad and Head-On Prawn Salad to tacos, sandwiches (including po’boys), entrees, and some smaller items called “Crispy.” I realize only now that the menu did not contain any variety of French fries – and I didn’t even miss them. We really liked the of taste of the wine-of-the-day, Squandra Rosato rosé, and ordered a bottle ($27).
Ordered the seafood special of the day and got two nicely seared, very large scallops served with a little pile of crispy-bacon-lardon-studded Brussels sprouts. Very good. Companion raved about the fried shrimp po’boy ($12) – said it was one of the best sandwiches she’d ever tasted, and the shrimp were entirely ungreasy. A good-sized helping of out-of-the-box-colorful cole slaw was big enough to share.
A favorite for us both was the small plate of Crispy Lemon Rings ($5) served with crispy slivers of onion and slices of jalapeno. Absolutely delicious. The tempura-type breading was barely-there and deep-fried, well, crispy but not greasy. The lemon slices, skin-on, melted into something quite tasty and not at all puckery. This might be a dish I’d want to get with whatever else I order here next time.
And there will be a next time. Soon.