Category Archives: casual dining

Quay Restaurant – riverside dining and drinks

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Quay restaurantYou walk in from the busy street, up a few stairs to the front bar of Quay Restaurant and Lounge. Nice sports bar atmosphere with dozens of televisions in case you get bored or want to watch a game with friends. But if you’re not into that, all the passersby on their way to Navy Pier keep the sidewalk view lively on weekends.

Décor is clean and modern, and then you notice a striking feature—a seemingly endless wall sculpted in wavy ridges that lines the entire left side of the restaurant. Despite occasional interruptions where another texture like, say, a rough-hewn wood beam, breaks the line, the wall carries your eye from the front bar all the way to the mirror at the end of the passage that makes the wall seem even longer.

We asked for the room with a view, so our host led us down the long hall to the quay-side lounge. On the way we passed the dining room. It was low-key with warm subtle lighting emanating from great columns enclosed with diffusing material that looked like bronze-y capiz shell. Tables were arranged with generous space between them, and the atmosphere looked quiet and casually elegant.

Later we noticed a shell theme in the bathroom, too, where floors are inlaid with iridescent white shell-looking tiles—a unique look that, combined with the row of stainless steel sinks lining a mirrored wall, makes you feel you’re in an elegant hotel powder room rather than a restaurant bathroom.

The quay-side lounge sits across the width of the restaurant, looking out onto trees lining a small branch of the Chicago River, and has its own bar. It reminded me of someone’s modern but comfortable back porch—bright with sunlight and airy with open windows (it was one of those gorgeous late-summer days in Chicago). The window view is lined with tables for two, and along the wall are several cozy bright-orange couch-and-table setups that seat two to six people. One of Chicago’s popular architectural boat tours has its landing right at the foot of stairs that come out the back of Quay’s lounge. While we lunched we watched the boat fill up, take off, and return.

In the spirit of coziness we sat in a couch nook. The drink list has a nice selection of decently priced reds and whites, some good ones by the glass, as well as beers and liquors to satisfy almost any taste. The bottle of the Santa Margherita, Alto Pinot Grigio we ordered was beautifully chilled; it tasted of the joys of a warm summer day.

Our waitperson worked hard at opening the bottle using the waiter’s corkscrew—it looked like she might not make it so I suggested she set it down on the couch to steady it. She said, no, we have to learn to do it this way; I practice on all my friends! That was the kind of friendly, relaxed attitude of everyone in the restaurant; yet we got totally professional service throughout our visit.

We trusted our server’s recommendations for appetizers and were not disappointed. We shared an order of the mussels steamed in Chicago’s own 312 Ale—dark, rich broth with lemongrass and chives that we couldn’t get enough of. We dipped the several kinds of bread in it and then asked to keep it on the table to dip our potatoes and more bread in during our meal. The roasted beet salad was simple and good—the light, white vinaigrette dressing went very well with the bitterness of the watercress and arugula and the sweetness of the red onion and beets.

My companion ordered the salmon with smoky beans, bacon and rapini (also known as broccoli rabe or broccolini). The salmon was perfectly cooked; the beans salty and flavorful, a surprisingly nice combination, and the deep green crisp-cooked vegetable had a bitter touch that complimented the richness of the beans.

I ordered the Seafood BLT—it sounded so original. And it was. A generous mixture of little shrimps and scallop and crab chunks, dressed with a pink roasted red pepper mayo that tasted deliciously homemade, was served with bacon on thick slices of toasted brioche. Num. It came with a massive portion of nicely browned though slightly dry French fries that I couldn’t finish. In fact I couldn’t eat all the sandwich either. So I asked for a doggie bag—and ate the remainder for dinner that night.

Since we’d heard that Quay had a fabulous pastry chef, we opted for dessert. After our server gave us a lively and enthusiastic description of each option, we selected the goat cheese cream cheesecake and the Banana Tres Leche cake. My friend enjoyed the dense cake soaked in custard, topped with whipped cream and served with roasted pineapple and a light caramel sauce. But it couldn’t compare to my dessert.

It’s hard to describe how delicious that goat cheese item was—the goat cheese mixture sat in a perfectly rounded mold atop a wafer thin slice of what I think was white chocolate, with homemade peach jam smeared out from one edge in the nouveau cuisine approach to presentation and a line of peach jam topped with almond crumble out from the other edge. Light yet rich, sweet and tart, smooth and crunchy—a feast of contrasting textures and flavors that I will go back for. I secretly wanted to lick my plate clean like I used to do with ice cream when I was a little kid. The baklava straw topping it and the dark Rainier cherries on the side almost seemed like afterthoughts. The dish was a masterpiece even without them.

By the way, the descriptions for each item on the Quay menu are unusually helpful—unlike many menus that leave you wondering what they really mean. And we appreciated the extra “color” our server supplied in her explanations.

Address: 465 E. Illinois. Look for the elegant black awning out on Illinois—Quay is located in the huge red brick building known as the River East Arts Center.

Phone: 312.981.8400,  Email: info@quaychicago.com

Parking: Across the street underground and Quay will validate your ticket so you’ll pay only $10 (for up to four hours).

CTA/walk:  Half a mile from Michigan or catch the CTA bus 29 at Illinois to Navy Pier.

This place is definitely worth a trip—if for the goat cheese cream cheesecake alone!

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How to do a rum tasting – plus top 7 rums

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WMT Interior 1Did you know how varied and complex rum can be? I had just begun to learn this from a small rum tasting session at The WeatherMark Tavern, 1503 S. Michigan. Check out their flyer listing 40 types of rums and describing the amazing flavors you’ll find in various rums.

Then recently I continued my education with some folks from RumForAll. They conducted an educational session at Carmichael’s Chicago Steak House , 1052 W. Monroe, for local bartenders, restaurateurs and press. It’s weird to walk in and see nearly 30 glasses set up for each person!

I didn’t realize that rums are awarded points just like wines. Who knew how complex and fascinating the flavors can be in a rum?

How to do a rum tasting

I learned that tasting rum is similar to tasting wine but slightly different. First, we were instructed to swirl the rum around and stick our noses into the glass to capture the aromas. The RumforAll people had us guess what we detected – a few folks guessed right some of the time. You’ll be surprised when you read some of my notes below at the range of aromas and flavors in these different distillations.

Next, they said, take a tiny sip and rinse it around in your mouth. This prepares your tongue and palate for the full experience. Then you take another sip and let it flow slowly around your mouth. Notice the flavors when it first hits your tongue and then when it gets further back in your mouth and then after you swallow. Like fine wines, some rums can have a long finish that keeps on giving.

Our next step was to guess the brand and the country of origin. A few of the more experienced bartenders in attendance were miraculously accurate on naming the brands. Then the facilitators revealed the correct information for each brand on the screen.

We were moving along at a fairly quick pace so my notes are brief, and the aromas and flavors get a little jumbled together. But I hope the below is a good start for you to begin appreciating the joys of rum as a mixer, a straight drink, or an after-dinner treat. There are a few tips on serving, too, here and there in the notes.

Enjoy!

Standout rums from my tasting:

1. Diplomatico Reserva Exclusive – root beer, brown sugar, honey – dessert in a glass

2. Ron Abuelo 7 year old – light aroma, very complex taste, spices, butter, estate-grown, molasses-based, Panama

3. Appleton Estate Reserve – 95 pts, brown butter, acid finish, black tea, 8 yr blend of both pot and column stills, good for cocktails, swap for cognac in a Sidecar

4. Bacardi 8 – 94 pts, prune, 8 yrs in American oak

5. Don Q Gran Anejo – 93 pts, butterscotch, aged 3-12, bananas foster nose

6. Cruzan Estate Dark – Christmas spices, dark cocoa, woodiness, bourbon oak, highly distilled, Virgin Islands – just coming back to the U.S.

7. Shellback Silver Rum – sweet, vanilla; they also make Spiced Rum

Other interesting rums we tried:

Zacapa Rum 23 Solera – woody, fresh barrels, aged 6-23 in barrels that held bourbon and sherry, Guatemala

10 Cane Rum – mixed production, molasses on back tongue, Trinidad & Tobago

Banks 7 Golden Age – musty, nuts, forest, blend of 23 rums from 7 places

Depaz Blue Cane Rhum Agricole – fruit, spice, vegetal, dates, nutmeg, grassy, salt on back of tongue, serve with one cube and lime or coconut water)

Brugel Especial – extra dry, for mixing or alone with a twist, Dominican Republic

 

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Giordano’s on Rush – real-deal Italian fare

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giordano_pastaGiordano’s downtown, 730 N. Rush, sits on a swanky corner with neighbors, the Peninsula Hotel and RoseBud on Rush. Giordano’s acquits itself proudly in the American tradition of reliably better-than-good, red-sauce Italian fare served in comfortable surroundings.

High ceilings and warm dark-wood paneling feel spacious yet welcoming. A cozy bar sits off to one side in front. Large windows let in plenty of light, even on a gray day like ours started out. Red-checked vinyl tablecloths and generously sized padded booths reinforce the comfy, casual feel. We were there on a weekday at high noon, yet we never felt crowded or rushed.

I was eager to try the calamari appetizer–always a good test of a kitchen. Served in a portion big enough for lunch all by itself, it was battered—like a slightly heavier tempura-type coating—rather than breaded. We got a big pile of the circle pieces topped by a small pile of crispy tentacles, all deep-fried to just a hint of chewiness. I loved the cocktail sauce and lemon, and my companion’s request for marinara brought a whole bowl of steaming sauce. Between us we made short work of the plate.

Service was friendly and competent without being too much. I especially appreciated the server’s careful explanation of how much time each dish would take to bring to the table. In fact, we even changed our individual stuffed pizza order – removed the spinach from it – because she said the dish could take quite a bit longer with any additional filling. Not sure how long lightning-fast-cooking fresh spinach would actually have taken, but happily, the amended order arrived safely within the promised time.

In the matter of timing, Giordano’s takes a page out of the airlines book on setting customer expectations. Being in this prime section of downtown, they undoubtedly get a boatload of people on the clock for lunch and tourists eager to get back to shopping, and some of their prepared-to-order dishes take longer than most people would expect.

For those of you too young to remember, a few decades ago the airlines were constantly being criticized for late arrivals. One day they all got together and said, hey, why don’t we just say we’re going to arrive later? It worked like a charm. People began setting their schedules based on the new, later, stated arrival time, and complaints practically disappeared. These days customers get the occasional thrill of saying, “My plane is getting in early.” Smart thinking, Giordano’s.

My friend ordered his dish of Fettuccini Torino (named after the brother founders’ mother’s birthplace in Italy) with shrimp, and it came with choice of soup or salad, and butter with a loaf of crispy Italian bread. He opted for the green, and the server brought out a generous plateful of just-picked-looking salad at the same time we got our order of individual stuffed pizza. Mmmm. Our order featured a layer of fresh-tasting (as opposed to long-simmered), light, flavorful tomato sauce with just enough garlic atop a generous blob of sweet melty cheese—the website says the cheese includes ricotta, according to the 200-year-old double-crust pizza recipe from a long line of great-grandmoms. Our order was laced with mild Italian sausage and cradled in a not-too-thick, not-too-thin crusty dough bowl. I’ve been a fan of stuffed pizza from The Art of Pizza for the past couple of years, but Giordano’s gives this Chicago standby a different and delightful treatment. I’ll definitely try this for delivery at home next time.

By now the sun had come out and brightened the place without ruining the cozy feeling—an accomplishment in the game of ambiance. And by then my friend was ready to let me taste his fettuccini—tender, nicely cooked shrimp and noodles bathed in a creamy, just-peppery-enough Alfredo sauce. It tasted like they may have used a little non-traditional starch to thicken the sauce, but it was tasty anyway. With the plethora of flavors I was trying, I didn’t think to try the shaker jar of grated cheese sitting in the little “condiment house” on the table to see if it would give the sauce an extra nuance of flavor.

Several pasta dishes on the menu are available in lighter portion sizes. A good thing, too. Because everything here seems to be very generously sized, including the serving of French fries I got with my Hot Chicken Ranch sandwich. I consider French fries another test-though simpler of course—of a kitchen’s prowess. Giordano’s does a nice job—crisp, slightly brown edges, tender inside, not greasy but with just enough salt and crunch to satisfy that I-need-fried-potatoes urge. The sandwich came on the same crispy bread their Italian beef comes on—extra thin crust, light puffy dough inside. It enfolded tender chunks of chicken breast layered with lettuce, red onion and melted provolone. Very tasty even without the ranch dressing I asked for on the side. I saved a big piece of that sandwich and loved it again, straight out of the take-home box, for dinner.

You’ll find a lot of Italian and American standards among the appetizers, salads, pastas, pizzas, and sandwiches on Giordano’s menu. The desserts alone seem worth another trip sometime—tiramisu, cheese cake, and cannoli in addition to ice cream and chocolate cake. Pizzas come stuffed or thin crust in several sizes with lots of topping choices. The pasta choices make you feel you’ve got serious dining options–Chicken Oreganato, baked mostaccioli, eggplant parmesan and that Fettuccini Torino–as well as time-honored spaghetti with marinara or meat sauce.

If you’re like me, you cannot imagine eating pasta or pizza without wine. They don’t mention it on the menu, but fear not–you can enjoy adult beverages with your hearty meal.

Giordano’s has locations all over the Chicago area. A lot of them deliver, too, in their local areas. If you haven’t already, give your local G’s a chance to entertain your tastebuds. For more information and all the locations, visit their website, http://www.giordanos.com/.

1. The Peninsula Hotel, home page

2. RoseBud on Rush, home page

3. Giordano’s, About Us

4. Various reviewers, Yelp, The Art of Pizza reviews

5. Giordano’s, Menu

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