Category Archives: Chicago food and drink

Mandrarossa wines shine at Two Restaurant in Chicago

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Mandrarossa wines at Two Restaurant
Mandrarossa wines at Two Restaurant

Sicily is in the business recently of making Americans become increasingly aware of the changes and improvements in Italian winemaking, especially in Sicily since establishing SiciliaDOC, their oversight consortium for quality. This past December Alberto Antonini, long-time consulting winemaker for Sicily’s Mandrarossa Winery, hosted a small group of trade and press at an intimate wine tasting and luncheon at Two Restaurant to showcase some of its excellent wines.

Alberto is among the most influential consultants from Italy with over 20 years’ experience working with some of world’s top wineries. Since Mandrarossa’s inception in 1999, Alberto has worked closely with the winery’s head winemaker and agronomist to identify the top estates within Menfi’s micro terroirs to produce Mandrarossa’s premium line of estate-bottled wines, all imported by Palm Bay.

Mandrarossa Nero D'Avola
Mandrarossa Nero D’Avola
Mandrarossa 100% Grillo
Mandrarossa 100% Grillo

Alberto shared two new expressions from Mandrarossa that represent the deepest level of research and selection to date, “Terre del Sommaco,” a 100% Nero d’Avola grown on limestone soils over 1000 feet asl, and “Bertolino Soprano,” a 100% Grillo grown on limestone soils nearly 500 feet asl. Designated “vini di contrada” or “single territory wines,” these limited production offerings have been crafted to show the purest expression of their respective grape varieties and territories. Additionally, Alberto shared a selection of current releases from Mandrarossa, including expressions of indigenous and international varieties alongside a carefully designed menu.

The wines were paired beautifully with hand-picked courses selected by owner Yamandu Perez and the two chefs at Two Restaurant, a unique eatery situated in West Town at 1132 w. Grand. Its rustic decor and communal tables make for a casual but chic environment in which to enjoy the unique creations that combine American tastes with the many other influences Perez was exposed to during his career –  born in Santiago, Chile; raised in Cuba, France, Uruguay, and Alaska. Having Perez join in the luncheon together with the warmth and friendliness of Alberto and his team made for a very enjoyable experience.

Sun-drenched cleanup after Mandrarossa lunch at Two Restaurant
Sun-drenched cleanup after Mandrarossa lunch at Two Restaurant

If you’ve never been to Two Restaurant, you may want to put it on your to-do list to sample the creations of its two chefs, Executive chef Tom Van Lente and chef de cuisine Kevin Cuddihee. And if you’ve never tasted these lovely wines, you won’t go wrong by giving some of them a try.

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5+ wines to help you wind your way through winter

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Winter is a depressing season for many. But looked at another way, it’s a time full of joy and promise. In the beauty of the magical sky and clouds. The stark beauty of the naked branches braving the wind, sparkling with ice or outlined with pristine snow. And of course, the joys of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. Even if the gray skies get you down sometimes, light some candles, get out your good china, and grace your table with one of the many marvelous wines made to the highest standards, crafted with decades and even centuries of winemaking experience. And who says champagne and bubblies are only for the holidays? Here are a few ideas.

Palmer & co. Brut Reserve
Palmer & co. Brut Reserve
Palmer Brut Reserve and IGT Modus Toscana, both from Palm Bay Importers
Palmer Brut Reserve and IGT Modus Toscana, both from Constellation Brands

Champagne Palmer & Co Brut Reserve NV. This, the vineyard’s flagship expression, is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, including many doses of reserve wines. Four years aging on the lees in a maze of deep, chalky cellars 60 feet below ground gives the wine its refinement and aromatic complexity. Enjoy aromas of citrus, pear, and apricot with notes of hazelnut and buttery brioche. A perfect balance of succulent and substantial depth with a delightful freshness that will help make all your occasions sparkle like it’s the holidays. SRP ~$60.

Ruffino 2016 Modus IGT Toscana. This delicious red blend is from the notable wine-making brand, where they consider the Modus – which in Latin means “method” or “the way” – a contemporary way of expressing Tuscany with this blend of three of the most respected grapes in the world of wine. As a result, you’ll enjoy refined texture and red fruit aromas from the Sangiovese and smoothness and delicate notes of berries and mint from the Merlot, along with structure and elegance from the Cabernet. And it all comes together in a gorgeous, rich, deep color. This is a total winner for us fans of big reds! SRP ~$26.

Chateau Lassegue label
Chateau Lassegue label

Lassègue Saint-Émilion Grand Cru 2011. A classic red beauty. Renowned vigneron Pierre Seillan and his son Nicolas harvest fruit (Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon) from their south by southwest-facing hillside vineyards to produce Lassègue, which has become known for its simple elegance, striking balance and rich complexity. The 2011 is an austere, full vintage, with notes of ripe blackberries and aromas of leather, baking spices and graphite. This polished wine features a velvety softness with silky tannins that move in crescendo towards a pressingly long finish. A classic expression of Saint-Émilion, Lassègue offers both brightness and sophistication to grace your table any time of year. SRP ~$65.

Charles Heiseick brut reserveCharles Heidsieck Brut Reserve. Excellent champagne – a sophisticated blend that incorporates up to 40% Chardonnay and Pinot Noir reserve wines and sports a lively perlage with an elegant and refined palate. The texture, say the winemaker notes, is like “a crisp layer of nougatine on a velvety cream pastry, filled with plump red plums and ripe cherries.” Lush with finishing notes of praline and vanilla. Fabulous! SRP ~$50-60.

Trentodoc Altemasi Brut Millesimato 2013. A beautiful 100% Chardonnay bubbly with a persistent foam of fine bubbles that ‘s made using the traditional Metodo Classico from grapes grown in the Trentino region of Italy. Complex, highly refined nose with luscious fruity notes of citrus and peach. Dry, pleasantly crisp on the palate with a good, well-balanced structure. A nice aperitif and/or an excellent accompaniment to seafood pasta dishes, salmon and lighter white fish. SRP ~$42.

Kosher wines

Yatir Kosher wines for all year long
Yatir Kosher wines for all year long

Yatir is a well-recognized maker of red and white Kosher wines that are just what the doctor ordered for Kosher celebrations. Kosher wines used to be thought of as bad quality, but modern versions that use traditional winemaking techniques have proven that idea a long-gone myth, according to Adam Montefiore, an expert on Israeli wine and Kosher wine, who wrote on the WineFolly blog on the subject of Kosher wine quality and the difference between Mevushal or non-Mevushal (eligible or not to be poured by non-observant Jews and others). It’s a good article for learning what Kosher wine is and isn’t, and exactly what is different about the process. Meanwhile, Yatir makes wines with many traditional grape varieties you’ll recognize. Read their concise descriptions to help you choose one or more from their portfolio: Yatir Syrah, Yatir Amasa Red Blend, Yatir Cabernet Sauvignon, Yatir Forest Red Blend, Yatir Viognier. Watch the little videos with some of the wines, too. Very upbeat music and brief fun discussions with the winemakers! SRPs range from ~$25 to ~$70.

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Zingarelli showcases fine Chianti Classico wines in Chicago

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If you’re old enough, or you watch enough 50s- & 60s-era movies, you may remember Chianti as the generally low-end wine that came in those straw-covered bottles we used to put candles in and let the wax drip down the sides. But over the last several decades, as has happened in other countries like Spain and Argentina, winemaking standards have changed dramatically in some of the vineyards in that region of Italy. In particular, Rocca delle Macìe by Famiglia Zingarelli is turning the Chianti Classico region into the home of some of the best Italian wines you’ll have the pleasure of trying.

Zingarelli team with guest (center)
Zingarelli team with guest (center)

Sergio Zingarelli, estate owner and two-time president of the Chianti Classico Consortium, brought a nice selection of these beauties to Chicago at The Walton Room by Rosebud Restaurants, 188 East Walton. The format was a vertical tasting of Rocca delle Macìe Riserva di Fizzano Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. This historic cru is made from grapes grown in a single vineyard at the Zingarelli family’s Fizzano estate in Castellina in Chianti. The family purchased the Fizzano estate in 1984 and has long produced Riserva di Fizzano according to the strictest standards. Today, Riserva di Fizzano is bottled under the “Gran Selezione” DOCG, Chianti’s highest expression.

Sergio Zingarelli welcoming guests to The Walton Room
Sergio Zingarelli welcoming guests to The Walton Room

The presentation began with a group of six stellar vintages of Riserva di Fizzano: 1995, 1999, 2005, 2011, 2013, and the recently-released 2015. This formal, seated tasting was followed by a luncheon expertly paired with four additional wines from Rocca delle Macìe: Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Riserva and two vintages of Sergio Zingarelli Chianti Classico Gran Selezione – a second example from the Gran Selezione category and the result of a careful, long-term replanting project at the family’s Le Macìe estate. The Walton Room chef’s choices to pair with these wines were perfect foils for some of the richest Italian red wines we’ve ever tried. I’d put the following reds in the upper realms near Super Tuscans and Barolos, so consider some of these when you want to impress your guests who like earthy, deep red wines with their feasts!

Zingarelli vertical tasting
Zingarelli vertical tasting

This vertical tasting of Rocca delle Macìe’s historicu cru wines was inspiring. The wines are made with grapes grown in the Fizzano estate vineyard, which extends across 35 hectares of sandy, pebbly soils that are perfect for intensifying the fragrances and elegance of Sangiovese. Some of our 5-star favorites among these delicious wines:

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Cooper’s Hawk alights in downtown Chicago

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Owner McEnery welcomes trade & press in the new downtown party room
Owner McEnery welcomes trade & press in the new downtown party room

Landing with a great rush of wings, Tim McEnery’s 41st Cooper’s Hawk Winery location has landed in the dramatic, three-story space that used to house Del Frisco’s Steakhouse. After turning down a restrictive contract for the first downtown Chicago location he wanted, and waiting nearly ten years for the right space and terms, McEnery knew when he heard Del Frisco’s was leaving, that the time was right at last. The design incorporates many of the high-end, dramatic features from the original steakhouse and makes a gorgeous venue for celebrations, happy hours, wine tastings, special dinners and private parties,

Cooper's Hawk introduces a new rich steak platter
Cooper’s Hawk introduces a new rich steak platter

At this new Flagship location, CH is doing a few things differently. CH executive chef Matt McMillin has introduced five new dishes to the traditional 110-item, scratch-made-seasonal-ingredients American fusion menu. The new menu items include several mains and a dessert. 1) Shrimp & Scallop Risotto – studded with sweet corn, asparagus, peas, and spinach, and accented with Parmesan and white truffle oil. 2) Miso-Glazed Chilean Sea Bass stands proudly on its own with accompaniments of roasted maitake mushrooms and broccolini with soy lemon butter. 3) Gnocchi Carbonara features pancetta, chicken, sage, and peas in a garlic Parmesan cream sauce. 4) 25-oz prime bone-in ribeye, served with butternut squash and spinach gratin, blistered tomatoes and crispy potatoes (we would’ve liked the potatoes to be a bit crispier). 5) A dessert – Lemon Ice Wine Cheesecake – is an ethereally light dessert served in a toasted Graham cracker crust with macerated berries on top. Lovely. And the night we were there we got to try one of the brand’s go-to desserts: The Cooper’s Hawk Chocolate Cake – a killer dessert made with Valrhona chocolate, hazelnut ganache and vanilla ice cream and topped with a rosebud of whipped cream. SO good. Check out their other desserts here.

CH sommelier opens a bottle of bubbly with a sword
CH sommelier opens a bottle of bubbly with a sword

Besides the new menu items, the Oak St. Location will offer, as they do not in other places, selections of wines from around the world in addition to its own extensive selection. The beverage program is run by Master Sommelier Emily Wines (yes, that’s really her last name), who engages with guests and the brand’s nearly 400,000 Wine Club members to create unique experiences via education, immersive events, collaborative partnerships and curated lifestyle adventures.

Experienced CH General Manager Peter Ayoub comes to shepherd the new location after stints at Esquire Chicago and at the CH Palm Beach Gardens location in Florida.

If you’re a CH member, you’re probably planning your visit already. If you’ve never experienced the CH lifestyle or you just want to have some good food in a relaxed yet glamorous setting, hie thee to Oak St. and immerse thyself.

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Trattoria Gianni – authentic Italian on Halsted

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Trattoria Gianni arancini
Trattoria Gianni arancini

North Halsted Street in Chicago is well known for its excellent restaurants. One long-time spot is Trattoria Gianni, now celebrating 30 years tucked into its cozy space at 1711 and rubbing shoulders comfortably with some of the giant stars in that firmament such as the much-lauded Boka and Alinea.

We were able recently to sample some of Trattoria Gianni’s popular and enticing menu items. We could easily have made a meal with just the appetizers. My experienced restaurant aficionado friend said the tender Arancini Siciliani – deep-fried saffron risotto balls stuffed with Bolognese, peas and scamorza cheese – were excellent. Given her extensive travels around the world, that’s saying something. The rolled eggplant with herb-y goat cheese stuffing was very good, and the tomato sauce light and lovely. Very nice to know that all the pastas and the sauces are hand-made in house. The Rigatoni alla Nocerino, made with sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, olive oil, garlic, basil in a cream sauce, was outstanding.

Trattoria Gianni Salmon au Vini Bianco
Trattoria Gianni Salmon au Vini Bianco

All the other pasta dishes are obviously made with love, many presented with variations of the basic tomato sauce. The meatballs are classic – tender and juicy. The homemade pappardelle and tomato sauce, the seafood pasta (mussels, calamari, octopus, etc.) and several other pasta dishes made for pleasant eating. While the pumpkin ravioli was very nice, the crab-filled version hit an off note for us with the salt-heavy, canned crab in the filling. Pasta dishes range from about $16 to $20.

Trattoria Gianni roast seafood
Trattoria Gianni roast seafood

The restaurant offers whole wheat and gluten free pasta options, and you smaller eaters will be glad to know you can order half-orders of most pastas. Secondi Piatti (main course) options include duck, filet, chicken, pork, and seafood, all served with sides like vegetables, polenta or roasted potatoes, and all priced in the $23+ range.

All the care invested in these dishes, plus the comfortable surroundings, makes this a nice place to relax and indulge in some tasty Italian food and wines. When the weather is nice, remember you can enjoy your meal on the inviting patio, charmingly decorated with flowers and lights. During our visit, the owners were on site and carefully tending to their customers, and the overall service was friendly, efficient and warm. It felt just like what it was – an Italian family taking care of us.

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Unique spirits options to make your holidays shine

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Everyone who imbibes tends to have his/her own favorite spirit, whether they like it straight up, on the rocks, or mixed with some other beverage. There’s something satisfying about pouring a warming treat into a beautiful glass and toasting,  especially during the holidays. Here are a few suggestions to share either with companions around you or just to celebrate on your own.

Root Out Whisky. Yes, this whisky actually tastes like root beer! It’s surprisingly pleasant and easy to drink. Honestly, it’s so root-beer-y that at one point I was tempted to plop a big scoop of vanilla ice cream in the glass! A delicious and unique treat for any spirit lover. Root beer and vanilla flavors added to a 4-year-old Canadian blended whisky. SRP ~$26.

Alacran Tequila is a 100% Weber Blue agave tequila that tastes smooth and delicious on the rocks and or in a cocktail. Mix it with a flavored club soda or another favorite beverage for a simple-to-make cocktail with layered flavor. Alacran Tequila Blanco’s sleek, matte, soft-touch black bottle with the company’s logo makes a handsome, reusable bottle for your liquor cabinet. Priced at $42.00, it’s available nationally and online. Launched in the US in 2011, Alacran Tequila is sold at restaurants, hotels, bars, stores and online and is featured at celebrity and charity events around the world. Consider one of the Alacran products for the tequila fans on your list – black bottle, tequila reposado, tequila anejo, and more.

Four Roses single barrel whiskey
Four Roses single barrel whiskey

Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey is a classic expression with a nose of dried spice, pear, cocoa, vanilla and maple syrup. Sounds luscious, right? It is, indeed. And on the palate look for ripe plum and cherries – robust, full-bodied and mellow with a smooth and delicate but long finish. Straight up. On the rocks. In mixed cocktails. Any way you imbibe it, this is nice stuff. Gold medals and 90+ points in competitions everywhere for the past 10 years. SRP ~$45.

Sazerac, makers of Caribou Crossing Single Barrel
Sazerac, makers of Caribou Crossing Single Barrel

Caribou Crossing Single Barrel Canadian Whisky, the world’s first single barrel Canadian whisky, received a Gold medal at the prestigious 2019 New York World Wine & Spirits Competition. Adhering closely to his exacting standards, world-renowned Master Blender Drew Mayville of Sazerac selects each barrel for its ability to contribute to the whisky’s rich and complex flavor. SRP ~$50. Silver medals were also awarded to Royal Canadian Whisky and High River Canadian Whisky. Full results are published on the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition (NYWSC) website, www.nywscomp.com.

Angel's Envy bourbon - Wine Enthusiast LOVES it!
Angel’s Envy bourbon – Wine Enthusiast LOVES it!

Angels Envy is an excellent cask-strength bourbon finished in a limited number of carefully selected port barrels. This extra step is becoming common for many vintners and distillers to give their products extra depth and complexity, and it works really well. Angels Envy ends up with a slightly different finish each year due to the painstaking selection of barrels. Look for notes on the nose of black tea, apple and honey, toasted oak, ripe banana and apricot, along with toffee, butterscotch, peach, toast and vanilla on the palate. If you can’t identify all these, don’t worry. Just close your eyes and let the complex aromas and flavors penetrate your senses slowly. A delicious way to toast, accompany foods, or finish a meal. It’s available at Binny’s, but check here for where else to find it. SRP ~$50. And while you’re at it, check out their Angel’s Envy Finished Rye – finished in rum barrels.

Freeland spirits gin and whiskey
Freeland spirits gin and whiskey

Freeland Spirits of Oregon is one of the only women-owned-and-operated distilleries, and it’s  an interesting place to visit if you’re in that state near Portland. They offer tours of their distillery, complete with a flight of mini-cocktails. See the equipment they use and learn how they craft their delicious gin and whiskey. Their gin is crafted in small batches using a unique blend of traditional heat distillation along with vacuum distillation, which allows them to use fresh, Pacific Northwest ingredients. Fresh herbal essences of rosemary, mint and crisp cucumber lift the nose. Grapefruit and lemon peel brighten the brisk juniper and bold spice. Pink peppercorn, coriander and star anise mingle with 10 additional dried botanicals in the copper pot still. The description is almost poetical, and the gin is very pleasant, even if you’re not ordinarily a fan of that spirit, some versions of which can be overpowering, especially if, like some of us, you have nightmarish memories of way-overindulging in it once when you were young and foolish. They are always experimenting with finishes, so give it a try. And you might just fall in love with the unique design of the cool bottles they use to send their spirits out into the world. SRP ~$45.

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New fusion spot, Izard wok kit, Hannukah benefit, drink by the fire

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This is the time we all love to get out and appreciate some of our fair city’s great culinary spots and/or the cool products their chefs produce. Here are a few ideas for your consideration.

Grand Trunk Road, 1417 W. Fullerton Ave., is a chic and modern Southeast Asian restaurant named for the ancient road that winds its way through Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Husband and wife owners Chef Behzad Kahn and Basma Arain have invented a cuisine that combines flavors from all four countries to create a menu of dishes unique in Chicago. Dinner highlights range from King Crab Masala Curry with Coconut Milk, Ginger, Tomatoes & Mustard Seeds, Goat Biryani (Rice) with Saffron, Whole Spices, Yogurt & Tomatoes and Podina Lamb Chops with Mint, Yogurt and Chili Flakes. Weekend brunch features inventive dishes like the Aloo Tikki Benedict with Turmeric Hollandaise, Pickled Onion & Micro Watercress and a Lamb Burger topped with a Crispy Fried Egg and Mint Chutney take center stage.

Stephanie Izard, the creative genius behind the magic of Girl & the Goat, Little Goat Diner, Cabra and Duck Duck Goat restaurants. Now she’s teamed up with Made In cookware to bring back the “This Little Goat” kit after it sold out almost immediately after launch in July. Her limited edition collaboration includes recipes, cookware and ingredients that will help home chefs make their very own version of Chef Izard’s dishes. The Little Goat kit ($119) Includes:

  • This Little Goat went to Southeast Asia sauce
  • This Little Goat went to India spice
  • This Little Goat went to Morocco spice
  • 3 recipes from Chef Izard
  • Made In Blue Carbon Steel Wok
  • Carbon Steel Seasoning Wax Kit
Graystone Tavern specials
Graystone Tavern specials

The Graystone Tavern, 3441 N. Sheffield, is hosting a series of happy hours. “8 Crazy Nights” is Chicago’s first and only Hanukkah-themed pop-up bar that will benefit Jewish charities across Chicagoland. Open to the public, the pop-up bar features a winter wonderland of Hanukkah decorations, including over 8,000 blue and white lights and Hanukkah ball lanterns adorning the ceiling, Star of David and dreidel ornaments, lighted menorahs, Mensch on a Bench, a photo booth with Hanukkah props and more. “Happy Hour for a Cause” Schedule:

Perfect way to enjoy a beverage!
Perfect way to enjoy a beverage! Photo credit: Maurice Sahl, Unsplash

And if you’re into drinking/eating in front of a fireplace, TimeOut Chicago has compiled a listing of best bars and restaurants with fireplaces. Their selections range from downtown to Wicker Park to Lakeview and  Edgewater on the north, with a bunch in Logan Square. I didn’t see any on the south side, but thanks, TimeOut!

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Happy surprises in Chicago food and drink

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Ivy Hotel Sky Terrace rooftop
Ivy Hotel Sky Terrace rooftop
Ivy Hotel juicy, meaty BBQ pork belly
Ivy Hotel juicy, meaty BBQ pork belly

The boutique Ivy Hotel‘s cozy Sky Terrace rooftop space at 233 E. Ontario is good for enjoying their delicious drinks and apps outdoors without leaving the hotel. Don’t often find pork belly so crispy and meaty and not-too-fatty.  Oh, and definitely check out their delicious popcorn-batter-coated shrimp!

A Revolution Brewing surprise - a super fresh, creative composed salad
A Revolution Brewing surprise – a super fresh, creative composed salad

Who thinks about a brewery as a place to get delicious food? Surprise! Revolution Brewing, 3340 N. Kedzie Ave., recently put on a wonderful dinner to help Jameson’s Irish Whiskey introduce its newest family members – Jameson Caskmates IPA Edition and Stout Edition. These new editions draw their unique flavors from spending a little vacation in the craft beer casks where Revolution makes some of its favorite beers. And while you’re trying them, you just might fall in love with Revolution’s braised lamb shank with beet risotto!

Lovely matchups with Jameson's Caskmates and Revolution Brewing drafts
Lovely matchups with Jameson’s Caskmates and Revolution Brewing drafts

Jameson’s, the famous Irish whiskey company, is taking a cue from the many wines and spirits that have begun to collaborate with each other to give their creations extra complexity. In the case of whiskey in beer barrels, the whiskey adopts some of the flavor characteristics of the beer that came before it. The Stout Edition adopts flavors of coffee, chocolate and butterscotch from the Stout seasoned barrels and gets a creamier texture from this treatment. Jameson Caskmates IPA Edition shows hints of fresh hops, grapefruit and some sweet herbal notes from the IPA beer barrels in which she finishes. Jameson Caskmates Fist City Pale Ale Edition results from a partnership with the passion of the masters at Revolution Brewing and the Irish soul of Jameson. This whiskey is truly representative of the dedication both companies practice in giving back to their own neighborhoods.

When you imbibe one of the lovely Caskmates, look for the smoothness of Jameson with the malt and citrus notes of the infamous Chicago Pale Ale. Your nose will detect an initial citrus character and some mild notes of honey and sweetness. The taste is full-bodied with hints of hops with both of vanilla and a toasted oak character. Enjoy the long lingering finish as the spices and hops fade slowly, with fruit and toasted oak notes holding out along with the signature Jameson smoothness. Questions? Call the folks at Revolution and they’ll be sure to fill you in.

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5 summer pleasures for home and in Chicago restaurants

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Every nice day in summer is another great excuse to indulge yourself – after you work, do your chores and exercise of course, right? Everywhere you turn in Chicago – and online of course – another opportunity presents itself to help you get creative with your enjoyment. Here are just a few restaurant ideas and home cooking/drinking products to get you rolling:

River Roast is celebrating summer with their weekday happy hour Oysters & Rosé special. Every weekday from 3 to 5 pm enjoy a dozen oysters and bottle of Rose wine for $35. Sit at the bar or along the river soaking in the sun all while enjoying a refreshing summer combo that’s irresistible.

And while you’re dreaming about enjoying the outdoors, think about having friends over – or just treating yourself – and serving something unique and easy: Sangria in cans, the most popular product made by Round Barn Winery, located in the hills of Southwestern Michigan, complete with tasting room. A fizzy, lightly sweet version of the drink beloved by so many in Spain, this Sangria is a nice combination of fruit, dry wine and sweetness. Be aware of the calories, though. A single 12-ounce can packs a whopping 290 calories, so feel free to consider this dessert…

Oh, and if you’ve got your grill out and ready to go, here’s a spice company that puts together some really tasty combos to rub on your meat, poultry and even vegetables. Pereg Natural Foods offers classic blends that are made from fresh, natural, 100% pure spices, bringing more than 100 years of expertise and quality to the table. Get to know some of these Middle Eastern-style secrets when the grill heats up.

Pereg’s Koobah starts with baharat, a ubiquitous Israeli and Mediterranean staple, and then adds warm layers of cinnamon, allspice, rose, nutmeg, and cardamom for a complex finish. It makes an excellent dry rub for grilled or roast lamb, salmon, and chicken, sprinkled into burgers, mixed with hummus, or tossed onto vegetables (particularly corn on the cob and eggplant) before roasting. Use their Kabab seasoning to douse cubes of chicken, beef, or lamb liberally with Pereg’s hearty mash-up (paprika, black pepper, coriander, garlic, and cumin). Thread on skewers with vegetables of your choice, and grill over medium heat until fully cooked. Serve on warm pita bread with tahini and cucumber salad for an authentic version of Israeli street food. And check out their special take on Shawarma and Ras El Hanout plus some sweet mix seasonings.

Casati’s, the family owned, modern Italian restaurant – claiming  designation as home to the “healthiest pizza in Chicago” – offers Pinsa creations, which offer 90% less fat, carbs, and gluten than traditional pizzCasati’s, which is home to a new 42-seat, pet-friendly patio, will also offer 40% off specialty cocktails and wine during lunch. Owned and operated by Italy-native Stefano Casati, and run by Michelin Star Chef Christian Fantoni, Casati’s aims to bring light, fresh, healthy, and authentic tastes of Italy to Chicago’s Lincoln Park.

Carnivale Restaurant, 702 W. Fulton St. Things are heating up outside AND inside at Carnivale, where  talented chefs and mixologists have created a new Lounge menu that features a Charcuterie Tabla, Sliders, Carnivale Mai-Tai, Jackie’s Daiquiri, and much more! Lounge open: Monday – Thursday from 4-10, Friday 4-11, Saturday 5-11, Sunday 5-9. *Every Weekday, enjoy Happy Hour from 4-6:30pm.

Coming soon: more beverage ideas perfect for summer sipping.

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NYT Mark Bittman teams with Peapod – and we all win!

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Chicken cacciatore has always been a big hit with my family. My recipe from years ago is laden with chicken-tomato-onion-pepper-mushroom goodness. Some years after this became a standard that I could make without consulting a cookbook, I developed a skinless, lower-fat version that still knocked everybody’s socks off.

Mark Bittman's latest cookbook
Mark Bittman’s latest cookbook

So I was really curious when I was given a review copy of Mark Bittman’s latest cookbook, Dinner for Everyone: 100 Iconic Dishes Made 3 Ways – Easy, Vegan and Perfect for Company. Think about it. Under the “Pot Roast” heading, he’s got 1) Easy – Pork Tenderloin simmered in peanut sauce; 2) Vegan – Cabbage Pot Roast, first boiled gently til tender, then stuffed with processed steel-cut oats and hazelnuts seasoned with parsley, and braised in a fragrant tomato sauce; and 3) Perfect for Company – Braised Pastrami that you coat with a homemade rub mixture for 7 days, then cook on very low oven heat on a bed of hickory chips, then simmer gently until the meat is super tender.

New York Times food writer Mark Bittman has written a number of cookbooks during his career. And now he’s piggybacking promotion of his latest one onto the work of a reliable Chicago service called Peapod Grocery Delivery, a service we’ve been using for more than a decade. Together, Bittman and Peapod are delivering Bittman’s recipes along with the high quality food you need in order to make the most of his cookbooks. His recipes are top notch. Their meats and vegetables and groceries are excellent quality, and their delivery service is flexible, affordable and dependable. Perfect combo.

Bittman's boozy jackfruit sandwich
Bittman’s boozy jackfruit sandwich

Bittman’s book is extremely easy to use. Beautifully laid out with photos and lots of white space to make it easy on the eyes, it also has some unique photography like the one of a “Boozy BBQ Jackfruit Sandwich.” But now, back to my opening paragraph on cacciatore. Interestingly, Bittman labels this chapter just “Cacciatore.” The three versions he presents include 1) Drumstick Cacciatore, 2) Hearty Vegetable Cacciatore, and 3) Rabbit Cacciatore.

Unique flavors and creative combos in Bittman's chicken cacciatore
Unique flavors and creative combos in Bittman’s chicken cacciatore

The first version thankfully refers to drumsticks from chickens (as opposed to rabbits, quail or some other exotic creature), and boy, does it have a different method. Definitely fewer ingredients and a simpler process than my old standby recipes. Eliminates the onion and peppers completely, but leaves the succulence of garlic and sauteed mushrooms. Suggests different herbs. Adds some heat with chile flakes. But the real killer trick is the sauce – tomato paste and balsamic vinegar.

I was intrigued by this unusual – to me – combination for a sauce. And worried that it would be too thin without any flour or other thickener. Did the browning step – loved his explanation of how to brown chicken without having it stick to the skillet – and then mixed up the sauce. It sure did look thin. Poured it in and finished the cooking – a surprisingly fast total of 30 minutes – and the sauce wasn’t quite as thin now.

Then I tasted. Wow, truly a different experience from a traditional cacciatore recipe. The sauce was rich without being heavy. Piquant. Lightly spicy. The chicken and mushrooms bathed in the garlicky, just-enough-tang juices was a seriously tasty combination. I consumed the entire dish myself over only a couple of days with veggie sides and a glass (or two) of red wine. Num.

His vegan version of cacciatore stars portobello mushrooms and features white wine (or water), red onion, red pepper, olives, potatoes, fava beans and whole tomatoes. This may be my next encounter with Bittman’s expertise. The company-suitable Rabbit Cacciatore has similarities with my traditional recipe, including flour for browning, but it calls for brining the rabbit pieces ahead of time and garnishing with fried capers. Sounds like a winner, but as a former owner for ten years of a lovely pet rabbit, I might have to substitute some other meat protein.

Peapod fresh picks
Peapod fresh picks

We love PeaPod around here. The freshness and quality of their stuff is excellent. Their delivery window options are extensive. The packaging is thorough; keeps all frozen stuff together, all refrigerated, etc. If anything, their packers are almost too thorough  – a single head of garlic doesn’t really need to be in two separate bags.

And if you should, by some chance, run into a quality problem – like a cauliflower with too many brown spots – just pick up the phone. Their customer service is 100% responsive. They will immediately – without asking questions or demanding proof – issue you a refund for the price of that item on your next order. All of this makes shopping a much easier experience than any get-to-the-store, run around and hand-pick every item type of trip. Yes, I know you might say, “Oh, only I can properly pick out my fruit and vegetables, etc.” Yes, I understand. But almost without fail, you will feel like you personally hand-picked the items that show up in your PeaPod insulated grocery boxes. The quality is that good. Prices on many items are, if anything, only slightly higher than, say, Mariano’s, but if you’re watching the budget, do some comparisons. Plus, they regularly offer special deals on delivery fees.

So pick out one of Mark Bittman’s 419 excellent recipes – for yourself, your family, your vegetarian/vegan friends, or when you entertain your boss. – Or make it even easier. In order to get exactly the right ingredients without any stress, order one of Bittman’s meal kits from #PeapodDelivers. Yep, shop from the comfort of your couch and have the ingredients brought right to your door. I’m telling you. You cannot beat it.

Here’s more about Mark Bittman.

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