Category Archives: Chicago food and drink

Susana Balbo performs wine magic in Mendoza, Argentina

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Susana Balbo rosé
Susana Balbo rosé
BenMarco Cabernet Sauvignon
BenMarco Cabernet Sauvignon

Susana Balbo turns the rich terroirs of Mendoza, Argentina, into her personal palate for creating fine wines of all varieties. From whites and rosés to reds, these wines are made with deft yet powerful touches that make them standout choices for entertaining, gifting or simply enjoying at home. Try some of these for your next party – wherever it might take place.

Susana Balbo Signature Rosé 2018. 60% Malbec and 40% Pinot Noir. Almost impossibly luscious. Hard to believe it’s a rose – but then roses have become all the rage these days. And this one is right up there with the nicest. Elegant salmon color with a delicate nose of floral with aromas of strawberry and cherry. Fresh, juicy acidity pairs with strawberry and red currant flavors.Nicely balanced and well structured. Great by itself or paired with smoked salmon, Asian food, grilled white meats and hard cheeses.

Susana Balbo Signature Brioso White Blend 2017. 45% Semillon, 30% Torrontes, 25% Sauvignon Blanc.Aged 4 months in first-use French oak barrels and 40% second-use. Floral and citrus aromas with hints of resh grass, white fruits and orange. Tastes of flowers, fresh and fruity, combine beautifully with the smooth oak ageing. Persistent finish with nice minerality. Great potential for aging. Pair with fish, rabbit, Asian food and hot sauces. Very nice.

Susana Balbo Signature Brioso 2016. 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Cabernet Franc, 16% Malbec, 7% Petit Verdot. Deep, bright ruby red in color, this wine has strong tannins with its sweet red and black fruit and subtle oak flavors. Aged 15 months in 100% new French oak barrels. The elegant florality of Cabernet gets additional flavor and complexity from the other grapes. Fine and fresh finish with excellent ageing potential. Serve with beef, pork, lamb, squab, quail and duck. Highly enjoyable.

Under Susana Balbo’s sister (brother?) label, BenMarco, come these delicious options:

BenMarco Cabernet Sauvignon 2016. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 11 months in 100% second-use French oak. Grown in the rich, alluvial soils in Los Arboles, Uco Valley. the grapes gives this wine a rich concentration along with its floral notes. On the palate, black fruits, black pepper and cassis balance with fine-grained tannins. Serve with beef, sausages, veal, rabbit, medium-strong cheeses and meat pasta sauces. Utterly delicious!

BenMarco Expresivo 2016. 75% Malbec, 25% Cabernet Franc. Aged 14 months in 100% new French oak barrels. Chalky alluvial soils in Gualtailary, Uco Valley, where BenMarco grows these grapes, yield a wine with deep, bright ruby color and notes of chalk, earth, floral, peppercorn and tree fruits. Ultrfine tannins and great ageability. Enjoy with grilled meat, veal, medium-strong cheese and spicy sauces. Wonderful wine.

BenMarco Malbec 2016. 100% Malbec. 11 months in second-use French oak. Grown in sandy loam and rocky soils, the grapes must struggle and thus assure the complexity of this wine with aromas of fresh black fruits and hints of violets. Great balance with fine tannins and just enough acidity to lift the wine and add to the length of the finish. Complements beef, sausages, spiced or grilled pork, medium-strong cheese and meat-based pasta sauces. Excellent!

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Anthony Walkenhorst shows Chicago new Kim Crawford wines

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Kim Crawford is renowned for Sauvignon Blanc wines that are reliably excellent – and that taste very much like each other – from vintage to vintage. That’s unusual in the wine world. Most vintages change according to the vagaries of the weather. Kim Crawford’s secret is blending – and going on blending – until each vintage tastes enough like the last one to give consumers a sense of comfort and familiarity.

Kim Crawford's Anthony Walkenhorst in Chicago at Pacific Standard Time
Kim Crawford’s Anthony Walkenhorst in Chicago at Pacific Standard Time

Chief Winemaker Anthony Walkenhorst, a tall, handsome , slender young man with striking blue eyes, was already a seasoned winemaker when he joined the Kim Crawford team in 2005 and began working side by side with the founders to learn to capture the essence of the brand. Now, he shapes the brand’s unique style of wines while living by its unwavering philosophy about making wine. Read more about Anthony below.***

On a recent visit to Chicago, Anthony sampled the newest vintage of the classic Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc 2018. Rich and juicy acidity with a hint of tropical pineapple, this vintage, like all of KC’s SVs, requires lots of blending in order to reach the KC classic profile. This one retails for ~$17.99

On the same visit, Anthony introduced a new Reserve version of the brand’s top selling varietal: Kim Crawford Signature Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2017 from the Marlborough region of New Zealand. Made with grapes grown from a certain small area in the vineyard where the market vegetables used to grow. The ground is flat and at a lower elevation and as a result, the wine has big aromatics. It’s a crisp, very minerally wine. STP ~$24.99

Another notable expression among the wines he brought to Chicago recently was the Kim Crawford Chardonnay 2017. 100% Chardonnay Alc 13.3% Consider this creamy, unoaked (although he says they’ve officially stopped using that term) wine that pairs nicely with almost anything light. Its second fermentation is what gives it the creamy mouthfeel. SRP ~$16.99.

Any of these Kim Crawford beauties would make a lovely hostess gift for your next dinner with friends!

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***Anthony’s journey to becoming Kim Crawford’s chief winemaker befits the unique flavor and rebellious nature that’s ingrained in the brand’s DNA. As Anthony puts it, “Being a winemaker allows me to combine creativity and growing, which I love. I was hooked from the beginning.” An attitude that Kim Crawford couldn’t agree with more.

Anthony received his First Class Honors Bachelor of Agricultural Science Degree from the highly esteemed University of Adelaide in Southern Australia. In a quest to immerse himself in every aspect of wine after his studies, Anthony traveled the vintage trail to partake in harvests from Australia to Napa Valley.

That spring, the stars aligned and a spot at Kim Crawford Winery opened, one which Anthony jumped on. This was not only the chance to work with one of his idols, but with the famous Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc grape at the same time. After his first batch won the Sauvignon Blanc Trophy at the Year New Zealand Wine Awards, everyone agreed, it was a match made in heaven.
Like his mentor Kim Crawford before him, Anthony immerses himself in the entire winemaking process from the harvest to the blending to ensure every bottle is as good as his first batch.

Tasting through the wines with the guy who made them is always a delight. In this case, the service and food at Pacific Standard Time  (here’s ChicagoMag’s lively review) were excellent, and Anthony was a warm and friendly host. Born and raised in Australia, he moved to New Zealand when he became part of the Kim Crawford team and is now the face of the company around the world.

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Association President tells passionate story of Sonoma County Winegrowers

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Map of Sonoma County wine region
Map of Sonoma County wine region

California was the original US player in the global wine market. And now individual regions, just as in France, have become stars on their own. Everyone knows about Napa Valley. And everyone has heard of Sonoma – in fact, many say the two in the same breath, “Napa-Sonoma” to describe the richest wine terroirs in the state. And lately, Sonoma County – roughly 1700 square miles that is home to about half a million people – is taking pride of place as a truly innovative leader in the wine world.

Sustainability is a question on everyone’s mind, especially in these days of increasing global warming, and Sonoma County Winegrowers are behind that concept in spirit and in fact, in no small measure because of their trade association president. This dynamic woman, Karissa Kruse, came to Chicago recently to talk about the exciting news going on in their region.

Karissa Kruse in her vineyard mode
Karissa Kruse in her vineyard mode

Kruse is a petite blonde beauty with the education, experience and passion to make her the ideal flag carrier for Sonoma County Wine Growers. She used to be a Chicagoan and still loves to visit, but has now gone completely over to the California wine country lifestyle. She is passionate about helping the members of her association become more effective at sustainable growing and helping make wine an even more powerful force for good in the world.

Hosting a group of trade and media at a beautiful semi-private dining space at GT Prime Steakhouse, the trade president glowed as she talked about the exciting initiatives she’s helped spearhead on behalf of Sonoma County Wine Growers. One of those is the move to have every single vineyard in Sonoma County be certified a sustainable growth vineyard by 2019. This will be the first entire region to be certified in the United States and possibly in the world. Sustainable farming requires a commitment – of faith and of resources – to make it happen and keep it going. Kruse was a driving force in getting the wine growers to understand how critical it is to make that commitment in spite of what might appear to be insurmountable obstacles like cost.

Many compliments to the serving staff and the culinary team at GT Prime steakhouse where Sonoma Winegrowers presented their wines with a carefully curated selection of dishes. The Dutton Estate 2017 Kylie’s Cuvee Sauvignon Blanc from the Russian River area (just grapefruity enough, yet much smoother than a typical New Zealand SV), and the sustainably grown Lynmar Estate 2016 Quail Hill Chardonnary were delectable with all the first course choices, which included Tuna Tartare, House Gem Salad (strawberries, snap peas, manchdgo) and a Kale Salad with sweet cherry tomatoes, brioche croutons and white anchovies).

The second course choices were Prme Beef Tenderloin, Halibut with lobster, fennel and corn, or Roasted Green Circle Chicken Breast with chipotle buttermilk, cucumber and onion rings. Along with the entree GT offered shared sides of Shishito & corn with parmesan sauce, lime and paprika, French-style mashed potatoes with chives and olio verde, and Brussels Sprouts with maple butter, prosciutto and peppercorn. All this was paired with two Sonoma reds.

The final course, a lovely selection of cheeses from Michigan, Wisconsin and France, was beautifully complemented by the Ridge 2016 Pagani Ranch Zinfandel.

Altogether, an uplifting evening of California Sonoma winemaker passion and energy shared with winelovers in Chicago – another perfect pairing.

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Stemmari has sexy ways with Nero d’Avola

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Lucio showcases Stemmari wines in Chicago
Stemmari wines in Chicago

Stemmari is one of the premier wine brands in Sicily today. And their winemaker Lucio Matricardi, PhD, came to Chicago recently to share some of the exciting new ways he is using Sicily’s indigenous Nero d’Avola grape to make powerful wines, including Stemmari’s new creation, Hedonis Riserva Sicilia DOC 2015.

Tall and handsome, with the quintessential charm for which Italian men are famous, Lucio revealed some of the secrets of the work he is doing for Stemmari. Speaking to a group of members of Chicago’s trade and media at Fig & Olive’s delightful semi-private dining space, Lucio explained that Nero d’Avola, the single most important grape in Sicily – grown on 50,000 acres of the island – is quite different from those associated with areas like Tuscany – e.g., Sangiovese, Italy’s biggest-selling grape and the principal ingredient in Chianti Classico. Lucio explained that the Nero d’Avola grape suffers in the dry wind conditions of Sicilian vineyards and then expresses itself with vigor.

Stemmari’s basic Nero d’Avola 2016 vintage is deep red with violet pinpoints and has a bouquet of wild strawberries in the forest with hints of currants and pomegranate. The flavor is fruity, soft and velvety. And the Nero d’Avola grape takes very well to blending. For example, Lucio makes a wonderfully rich and structured wine called Cantodoro. He brought along samples of the 2015 vintage of this blend of 80% Nero d’Avola and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon (~$16). He says adding Cab grapes grown in the same soil as the Nero d’Avola complements and gives muscle or backbone to the Nero d’Avola. In this case, the Cab mix gives a deliciously full and structured mouth feel, flavor and finish. Lucio makes many a fresh and elegant wine for Stemmari, including a Pinot Grigio, a mango-and-papaya scented Grillo (another extremely popular Sicilian grape that Stemmari brought back to prominence for its floral, fruit and nut flavors with a hint of salinity ~$10), a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Pinot Noir, a Moscato, a lovely, fresh and fragrant Rosé Terre Siciliane IGT (~$10) – the 2017 is perfect with food, even spicy meats.

Hedonis Riserva beauty
Hedonis Riserva beauty

And introducing one of his most impressive accomplishments, Lucio presented the new Riserva that artfully combines the strengths of both Nero d’Avola and Cabernet sauvignon grapes – Stemmari Hedonis Riserva 2015 (~$50). Winemaker notes:

Color: Intense ruby red with hints of violet. The resulting aromatic profile of Hedonis is a bountiful and deeply complex expression with hints of dried red fruits, anise and sweet spices, notes of almond, vanilla and tobacco resulting from aging in wood. There is a profound structure on the palate along with a velvety and juicy attack, finishing with soft and sweet tannins.

This  premium red blend is a showstopper in the Italian red category.

And while we’re at it, let us not forget to compliment the serving staff and the culinary team at Fig & Olive where Stemmari held this lovely introduction of its wines. Delicious bites and warm, gracious service all round.

Affordable wines that complement your meals and showcase for you the unique beauty of the Sicilian marriage of soil and vine. Perfect for gift giving or treating yourself anytime.

Follow @StemmariWine and use hashtags #LiveSicilianly, #PursueHedonis.

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Reviews: 2 food-related products

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We are sometimes offered samples in the hope we’ll review them, so we try to accept samples of only products we think our readers might be interested in. They’re usually food and drink, but sometimes they’re simply related to food and drink, like today’s products (occasionally they’re even more random than that). One is a floss-bristled toothbrush that’s also antimicrobial. The other is a new type of food storage container we are pretty excited about called Wellslock. We wrote about these once already but thought they were worth mentioning again.

Doctorr Plotka's flossing-bristle toothbrush
Doctorr Plotka’s flossing-bristle toothbrush

Doctor Plotka’s Mouthwatchers is a group promoting the toothbrush invented by a dentist that has flossing bristles that clean better on and around your teeth. Those bristles are also infused with silver which they say makes them naturally antimicrobial – meaning they eliminate 99% of bacteria that grows on bristles between uses. The net effect for users of the new brush, according to their marketing department, is an opportunity to have better overall health by not reintroducing harmful bacteria into your body via your toothbrush. They couldn’t direct us to any scientific studies backing this up or any way for the consumer to see it in action, so feel free to take this claim with a grain of salt.

But those flossing bristles do seem to clean teeth better than any of the brushes we’ve been using lately – grocery-store varieties and the ones that come free from the dentist. We like the feel of this brush when it’s cleaning – it seems more thorough than most toothbrushes these days that are being made with fewer and fewer bristles. The Doctor Plotka’s brush bristles are also made of polyester, which they say will outlast the nylon ones on most traditional brushes. Can’t say for sure on that because we haven’t been using this one long enough, but we did learn something new. Their marketing materials note that your toothbrush durability is based on times you brush. SO, if you only brush once a day, yours should last six months instead of three!

We are fans. And if you try it yourself, they offer a 100% guarantee that if you don’t like it, you get your money back. You can get ’em in a two-pack on Amazon for $9.99.

Wellslock comes in cool sizes
Wellslock comes in cool sizes

As for Wellslock, these containers boast a double-snap tab that, in one move, creates a watertight seal that really works. And the plastic of the containers themselves (not the lids) is nearly crystal clear, like glass, so you don’t have to guess what’s inside. We particularly appreciate that they come in some unusual sizes – for example, one deep enough to accommodate a big avocado with just a small section removed (normally something we’re not able to fit into a plastic container and have to put in a plastic bag), or a big chunk of fresh orange or of red onion or any clunky piece of fruit or veggie. We use one for our cut lemons and limes, which we tend to have always on hand. Once you’ve identified a size that fits something you regularly use and/or refrigerate, you may, like us, tend to want to re-use that one for the same thing each time. It’s like buying one of those containers-made-just-for-half-an-onion, except it doesn’t have to be for that. It’s nice having options!

We enthusiastically recommend these Wellslock containers. Safe for dishwasher, microwave and freezer. Start with the smaller 14-piece mixed-size Wellslock storage set ($27.47 on Amazon). Try ’em in the bathroom, or sewing room, or craft room, or kitchen, and see where your imagination takes you. P.S. The taupe-tinted lids look classy.

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Interview: Joe Dela Pena of Warm Belly Bakery

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Christmas is not quite yet a dim memory, but you’ve got a whole new year ahead to get acquainted with a new kind of treat. If “dough” is your favorite cookie flavor, we’ve got great news. You’ll never have to be without your kind of cookies again now that Joe Dela Pena is gracing Chicago with two locations of his Warm Belly Bakery (1148 W. Monroe in West Loop, and 2472 N. Clark in Lincoln Park).

Cookie dough is where Joe, founder and owner of Warm Belly Bakery, started his dream. Despite his scientist-parents’ propensity to serve up very good chocolate chip cookies made from rolls of Nestlé Toll House Morsels’ dough, Joe the kid – and later the grownup – dreamed of eating cookies of all kinds that tasted as good as that dough. He began experimenting to find a cookie recipe that yielded cookies as close to the texture of cookie dough as possible without being mushy or raw-egg risky. And now Joe’s dream is already blossoming beyond his expectations. We met with him at his West Loop cookie café recently to talk about how it all got started.

Joe is the picture of a warm, caring guy. His kindness and self-deprecating humor shine out from his tall, substantial frame, which he describes laughingly as “Body by Cookies.” His West Loop space is a great place for a small, private meeting – cozy and inviting with tables and chairs, benches and walls full of art that’s custom-designed for Warm Belly, including a giant painting of the company’s cookie-belly logo.

Joe’s mom had taught him some Filipino baking techniques growing up, but his soul kept calling out for more, so he continued messing around in the kitchen. While still in college, Joe promised cookie rewards to investors as a way to drive funding for his 5K run for cancer – and was surprised when people contributed thousands of dollars. More than he bargained for, having to bake all those cookies – after he came home from work. He was amazed to find that people continued, after the race, giving more money for the cause just so they could get more cookies. It occurred to him then. Maybe there’s something going on here. A business hadn’t been on Joe’s radar, but…

Joe met his business partner at the gym where they both worked out. And the rest, as they say, is history. From locations in the trendy West Loop and recently a storefront in Lincoln Park, to a handy dandy food truck, vendor participation at Chicago Gourmet, and baking champion on Food Network, it looks like just the beginning. “We are where we are today from a combination of sweat and hard work and luck,” said Joe. The Warm Belly concept has become so popular that franchise companies are already after Joe to work with them. “We’re not there yet, though,” he said. “Things have got to be repeatedly successful and then proven to be replicable before we think about going there.” The new Lincoln Park location is a great start.

Joe’s heart was in his original profession of teaching English to high school kids. He remembers loving Shakespeare from an early age because of a book that printed Shakespeare’s English on one side and a modern English interpretation on the other. He said he learned pretty quickly how to interpret the language himself and as a result realized just how cool Shakespeare’s stories really were, even in modern times. His other passion was coaching kids in tennis. Many of his former students remember him fondly – we heard about him from one of his coachees Meredith, now a talented young physical therapist in Lincoln Park – one of the many who kept urging Joe to open a spot in Lincoln Park.

Reading nook for kids - and parents - Warm Belly West Loop
Reading nook for kids – and parents – Warm Belly West Loop

Now Joe’s humbly grateful to be mentioned in the same breath as some of Chicago’s finest chefs, and very happy that his new profession as Warm Belly cookie guru gives him lots of opportunities to interact with kids. Several schools near the West Loop location send a steady supply of young customers in for after-school treats, and parents become regular customers for birthday and other party orders. Joe makes sure when they come in the store, it’s more than cookies that keep them happy. The mantel over the fireplace – right under the Warm Belly custom-painted logo pic – is loaded with books for all ages to enjoy. “The array is always changing,” said Joe. “Occasionally a kid ends up walking out with one. Sometimes people bring in a new one.”

The office and kitchen for Warm Belly is next door in the rare-and-antique-car building owned by Joe’s business partner. Joe was kind enough to give us a look at his showroom-clean-and-organized storage and baking spaces and at the amazing array of flavorings, colors and add-ins that inspire him. Gives you a strong sense of how much imagination and care go into these cookies.

But nothing prepares you for the actual taste. On first sample, you may think, oh, these are pretty good. But then the magic sneaks up on you, and you find yourself irresistibly drawn to take another bite. And another. And if you’re not really careful, it’s shockingly easy to consume the entire quarter-pounder cookie at a sitting, particularly if you were hungry. We have had this issue with every flavor we’ve sampled. We leave it to you to make up your own WBB playlist of favorites. Uh, by the way, they deliver these addictive cookies via several popular services. Use Postmates to get them from the Lincoln Park location.

The array of flavors grows and changes on a regular basis – from the S’Mores cookies that won him the Food Network competition and the dozens of other flavors that rotate in and out, to the several that are fixtures of the store (PB&J, Double Chocolate Chip, etc.). One of our favorites is the beautiful purple Ube cookie flavored with a bean-like plant that’s indigenous to the Philippines where Joe’s family is from. We love that it’s topped with a lovely swirl of not-too-sweet lavender frosting that coordinates beautifully with the purple dough. Num! Check out the whole Warm Belly menu here.

Warm Belly tub o' cookies
Warm Belly tub o’ cookies

And by the way, we highly recommend you get at least your first batch in one of the WBB tins. The tin makes a perfect storage container – just the right amount of seal and breathability to properly preserve the slightly crunchy exteriors and cookie-dough-ish interiors of these giant treats. And of course, it’s infinitely refillable.

Not meant for those who like their cookies thin and crisp but, for anyone who loves cookie dough or soft, chewy cookies with a slight crunch on the outside, these are the bomb. Don’t say we didn’t warn you…

Follow Joe on Instagram @thejoedelapena and follow the cookies @warmbellybakery.

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

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

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

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

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

American Heritage chocolate bark
American Heritage chocolate bark

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

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

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

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Bobby’s adds upscale dining in Lincoln Park

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

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

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

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

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

Bobby's scallop appetizer
Bobby’s scallop appetizer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broken Brisket sandwich - irresistible
Broken Brisket sandwich – irresistible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Champagne Maison Henriot glorious with pasta!

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

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

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

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

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

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