Category Archives: Chicago food and drink

Jake Melnick’s kicks a** on Chicago’s BBQ scene

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You know how sometimes when you walk in a place – air-conditioned and comfortable-like – on a hot day, you feel so grateful you decide to set a spell. That’s how it feels to walk into Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap, 41 E. Superior. Don’t let the address fool you. It’s a quick and easy walk from Michigan Ave., sitting nearly katty-corner to  The Peninsula Hotel.
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Helpful classifications on Jake's beer menu
Helpful classifications on Jake’s beer menu

The lighting is a mixture of behind-the-bar, overhead (subtle) and twinkle lights; the effect is warm and cozy – even the tiny lights lining the panels of the dark wood ceiling are a warm orange-y shade. The music is upbeat, and the mood is laid-back party. With a big selection of beers, craft and otherwise, plus a selected list of decent wines and a full bar, you can get anything you want to slake your thirst and/or complement your food. Remember, the keynotes here are ‘barbeque’ and ‘fried.’

Jake's Street fries accompaniments - practically a full meal
Jake’s Street fries accompaniments – practically a full meal

Jake’s signature Street Fries are amazing. Served with half a dozen condiments, from creamy, rich cheese sauce, sriracha and jalapeños to pulled pork, delicious chunky guacamole and chopped cilantro, they’re skin-on, just-crispy-enough French fries. You can get them with everything dumped on top or with everything on the side so you can customize your taste experience. The cilantro and guac combo is excellent – even sans fries. Dip some fries in the cheese sauce and top with fresh chopped jalapeño – scrumptious.

The pickles tend to slide out of the breading, but the flavor is great
The pickles tend to slide out of the breading, but the flavor is great

The deep-fried pickles are cut in long, thin whole-pickle slices rather than chips or spears so you get plenty of the delicious breading in every salty, savory bite – which you can further enhance by dipping in a little tub of Ranch dressing. The hand-cut BBQ potato chips are crunchy and gently-BBQ-seasoned. Topped with a sprinkle of blue cheese and chopped scallions and served with a light blue cheese dressing, these were the only items that didn’t quite live up to expectations.

Jake's French fries - skin-on and crispy
Jake’s French fries – skin-on and crispy

Order the pulled pork sliders, served with a huge pile of French fries, so you can have the chance to try all three of Jake’s signature sauces – Carolina (vinegar-based), Georgia (mustardy and delicious) and traditional BBQ flavors – one on each of three mini egg buns full of sweet, juicy pulled pork that’s smoked right on the premises. They smoke all their meats here – brisket, chicken, ribs and more.

Jake Melnick’s has been servin’ up good BBQ in Chicago for 15 years now. Even as I write I’m still dipping fries in the cheese sauce and scarfing up the rest of the jalapeños. Great place to hang with a group of friends or bring the family. With a choice of so many signature sauces for almost everything, ketchup on the fries seems like overkill – but at Jake’s, you make the call.
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Monthly specials at Jake Melnick's
Monthly specials at Jake Melnick’s

And don’t forget the wings, burgers and sides – and the monthly specials. August specials are: 1) Jake’s jumbo crispy Charred Orange Bourbon Maple chicken wings served with rosemary Ranch dressing $13.95, 2) Burger al Pastor (pork marinated with red choke paste, fresh herbs & citrus, grilled and topped with roasted Serrano aioli, grilled pineapple, onions & shredded lettuce, served with fries) $15.95, 3) Mac Daddy Mac n Cheese Pizza Mac (crispy pizza dough with house-made pizza sauce, Jake’s creamy Mac, cheddar cheese, local Makowski hot link & green onion) $11.95; and 4) Jake the Ripper Makowski hot link wrapped in bacon, served on a sausage roll & topped with grilled onions, fresh pico de gallo & chipotle-lime cream) $12.95.

Be advised, come hungry and leave your diet behind. And if you want a little more nutrition, they’ve got salads. And brick oven pizzas.
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And, oh, yeah. sweet potato fries.
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Bulletin…this just in. In case you have room for dessert – or that’s really what you want anyway – they’ve got some kick-a** items in that category, too:
  • Fried Oreos. The classic cookie, pancake battered and fried, then served over vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce. – $6.95
  • Warm Apple Pie Skillet. Fresh-baked old-fashioned apple pie with vanilla ice cream. – $6.95
  • Chocolate Chip Cookie Skillet Sundae – a giant warm chocolate chip cookie with vanilla ice cream, warm fudge and whipped cream. – $6.95
  • NEW! Jake’s Carnival Fries:house-made funnel cake strings tossed in powdered sugar, topped with vanilla ice cream, strawberries and caramel sauce with whipped cream and sprinkles. $7.95
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T&B Grill – taco/burger ambrosia in Albany Park

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Don’t drive or walk too fast down the 3600 block of Lawrence Ave. or you may miss the opportunity to enjoy some exceptional food in an unlikely location in Albany Park. T&B Grill, 3658 W. Lawrence, is a delight – but shouldn’t be a surprise since it’s getting nearly 5-star overall ratings on Facebook and Yelp.

Ambrosio Mancines, Chef/Proprietor, brings his passion for good food together with his experiences in the culinary world and his desire to be of service to hungry and discerning customers. All of this comes out in the form of a unique menu that features very tasty tacos, burgers, fries, appetizers, and desserts. Who would think: Tiramisu on the menu with shrimp tacos? Who would imagine a bison burger with truffle fries and a chocolate soufflé for dessert ? How about tortillas handmade with cilantro and jalapeño? Think house-made ketchup with a touch of chipotle, and sweet potato fries with a crisp-crunchy touch of sugar on the outside. Nearly everything here is made from scratch and obviously with tons of love. And the mixing of the cuisines is intentional – Bon Appetit looks for just such originality in its “best new restaurant” category. We believe T&B belongs there this year!

Value for your dollar is exceptional at T&B. The menu offers mini burgers – variously topped with anything from bacon or cheese to caramelized onions and/or a small fried egg – that can be had with fries for a mere $5. The colorful and flavorful tacos – generously filled with duck, shrimp, steak, grilled veggies and so on – are on the menu at $3.50. This kind of pricing is hard to beat anywhere in Chicago – except maybe at an occasional happy hour – and it’s even more amazing when you realize the food is of such high quality.

We tried several of the burger types and loved them, except for the black bean burger which seemed to have too much flour in the mix. Otherwise, all versions were very good, cooked to order, and served on delicious buns. In fact we, who are normally in the habit of taking half the bun off our burgers, didn’t want to do it here. Just too good.

While you eat and drink – BYOB whatever you like, or even choose to mix with any of several house-made cocktail mixes – enjoy the unique and original artwork adorning the walls. In fact, Ambrosio recently engaged a local artist, Manuel “MATR” Macias, to paint a giant mural on the outside wall of the restaurant on the Lawndale Ave. side. Coming soon, it will make it nice calling card for vehicle and pedestrian traffic coming from the west side.

The French fries are hand cut, skin-on and cooked with just enough crispiness on the edges. The variety of choices – four appetizers, seven types of burgers, seven types of tacos,  four types of french fries and four different desserts plus seasonal ice cream – gives you a sense that you can have something new every visit. Visit here for more information on T&B Grill and LOTS of gorgeous professional photos of the food.
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And make no mistake. You will want to come back. This place is worth the trip, even if you don’t live in the area. We were impressed with the value and love that it’s also BYOB. Congratulations, Ambrosio and manager Omar Contreros. Great job. Have already put the word out to friends and neighbors. We can’t wait to come back.
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Drink, dine and do good NOW on #CharlieTrotterDays

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Celebrate Charlie Trotter Days – Today through Sunday Aug. 20, 2017. Dine in one of these restaurants in Chicago – and others across the country. When you enjoy one of their Trotter-inspired dishes, portions of the proceeds on each item will benefit
@TrotterProject, an effort to inspire and encourage young chefs.

Participating Chicago restaurants include:

What a perfect excuse to indulge yourself and family or friends at one of these excellent establishments. It’s always nice to know that when you’re spending money, you’re also helping young folks who are reaching for the stars.
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Share this with everyone you know! Sponsors and all their social media tags are listed below:
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The Trotter Project
Instagram: @thetrotterproject
Twitter: @TrotterProject
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The Peninsula Hotel
Instagram: @thepeninsulachi
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Woodford Reserve
Instagram: @woodfordreserve
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GreenRiver
Instagram: @greenriverchi
Twitter: @greenriverchi
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Otto Mezzo
Instagram: @ottomezzobar
Facebook: Otto Mezzo Bar
Twitter: @OttoMezzoBar
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United Airlines
Instagram: @united
Facebook: United
Twitter: @united
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7 exciting news bytes on food and beverage products

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The food and beverage manufacturing industry is forever innovating. And like any other industry, some ideas  work and some fizzle. Below are seven new products that you’ll want to know about. Even if you never imbibe in or consume them, you’ll have some fun bits to talk about at cocktail parties.
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1. Stubbs Barbeque seasonings. We have seldom found bottled versions of barbecue sauce that spoke to us. They either lacked spice or simply had no finesse. Perhaps too much high fructose corn syrup. Or too much or not enough of something else. Having recently dined at the BBQ Supply’s monthly Friday night wine dinner and been so impressed with the barbecue sauce that we wanted to drink it from the plate, we weren’t sure what to expect when we received review samples of a Texas barbecue sauce in a bottle.
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Stubbs makes BBQ sauces, marinades, rubs and more
Stubbs makes BBQ sauces, marinades, rubs and more

Happily, surprise and delight is what we felt upon tasting it. Stubbs Legendary Barbeque Sauce is the brand, and we don’t blame them for calling it legendary. Born and made in Austin, Texas, this line of seasonings and sauces delivers serious flavor created with authentic ingredients and processes. The Stubbs Original BBQ Sauce is the bomb – tangy tomato, vinegar, molasses and black pepper brewed up together to make one mouth-watering baste or dip for almost any meat or poultry. The Stubbs rubs make fantastic pre-grill treatments. And we also loved putting a little pile on a plate and dipping individual bites of our already-grilled pork loin in it. And check out the marinades (mixes and bottled versions) and the hot pepper sauce line, including Spicy Texas Peach and Dr. Pepper flavors!

Stubbs’ Original bottled is the the first bottled barbeque sauce that makes us want to apply it often and drink the leftovers off the plate. Available in Chicago at Hy-Vee, Jewel-Osco, Kroger, Meijer, Roundy’s, Schnuck’s, Spartan Nash, Super Target, SuperValu, Walmart and Whole Foods.
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Rogue's cold brew IPA
Rogue’s cold brew IPA

2. Beer and coffee together? Sounds weird but intriguing. Well, Rogue’s Cold Brew IPA, just such an Oregon roasted, brewed and blended combo, is now available nationwide in 12oz cans, 22oz bottles and on draft. Footage on the creation of Cold Brew IPA can be found here. Cold Brew IPA can be found near you with Rogue’s Beer Finder. For more information about the Revolution, visit rogue.com.

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Master of Mixes frozen pina colada - one of many
Master of Mixes frozen pina colada – one of many

3. Mixology Pro by Master of Mixes. And wouldn’t you love to be able to make your own professional-quality cocktails without having to buy dozens of exotic ingredients and bottles of special liqueurs and mixers?  This company has a full line of pre-mixed mixers that each require you only to add spirits and ice. We love the idea of this one: Loaded Bloody Mary Mix. It gives your Bloody Mary drink a kick with horseradish, cracked black pepper and diced jalapenos, all brightened with the garden flavors of cucumber, celery and citrus. Mmmm. Don’t you want one right now? Turn it into a Bull Shot by adding tequila instead of vodka. Or a Queen Mary by using gin and garnishing with salt and cucumbers. Seems like the stuff ought to taste pretty delicious all on its own, too. Check them all out at Mixology Pro by Master of Mixes.

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Riondo Prosecco split
Riondo Prosecco split

4. And while we’re talking about libations, consider Riondo’s Prosecco Spago Nero (meaning ‘black string’ from the closures still sometimes used). This lovely Frizzante – semi-sparkling – wine is great for barbeques and picnics this late summer/early fall. Everyone loves a sparkling wine, and part of the beauty of Prosecco is that it has a lower alcohol content than traditional bubblies. Friends and family can indulge without worrying about consuming too much, especially on those hot, humid dog days. Riondo’s Prosecco is slightly dry yet fruity flavor with aromas of Golden Delicious apples, pears and acacia blossoms, and a crisp, clean finish.

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A perfect brunch drink on its own, or use it to mix up a slightly fizzy cocktail like the Aperitivo Spritz.  Just fill a wine glass with ice. Add 2oz Riondo Prosecco, 1¼ oz. Italian bitter orange aperitif liqueur, and a splash of soda water. Stir and garnish with orange wedge. Serve anytime you want an Italian flair to your party or your meal. And here’s one to brighten your brunch: Mimosa Slushy. Make by mixing in a baking pan 1 cup orange juice, 2 oz. triple sec , and 2 cups Riondo Prosecco. Freeze for at least six hours. Scrape frozen mixture into flaky crystals with a fork. Fill wine glass with slushy. Garnish with mint leaves, and top with additional Prosecco. Clink glasses and say, “Saluti!” so everyone can feel like they’re relaxing on a piazza in Rome.
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Slammers snacks by Go Gourmet
Slammers snacks by Go Gourmet

5. Slammers by Go Gourmet. Blends are all the rage these days (for sure in our kitchen), and Go Gourmet is coming up with some pretty tasty combinations. Serious nutrition with good flavor and no added sugars, packed in a squeezable, disposable pouch. Their new AMPED line is the latest addition to Slammers Superfood Snacks. My 10-year-old granddaughter says these are A-OK. One blend is made of organic strawberries, organic sweet cherries, chia, apple and purple carrots. What an easy way to get 480 mg of omega 3s into your grandkids. But don’t stop there. If you like smoothies, these make great additions because of both flavor and nutrition.

BTW, the caps on Slammers are recycleable, but they haven’t yet been able to develop the technology to make the pouches so. Good to know they’re working on it, though.
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Beetology makes fabulous cocktails & great smoothies
Beetology makes fabulous cocktails & great smoothies

6. Beetology by Kayco is a line of beet juice-cum-other-stuff refrigerated drinks. Calories: 100 to an 8.45oz bottle, which seems a little high, but the sugars are all-natural from the juices. And think of the incredible nutrition you’re imbibing. Each bottle is at least 1/3 pure beet juice.

Plus, all five varieties are 100% non-GMO, U.S.D.A. Certified Organic, and Certified Fair Trade. The 100% juice blends contain no preservatives, additives, artificial colors, or flavors. They are also non-soy, non-dairy, and certified kosher. Plus, none of the juices are from concentrates – just natural juice. What more could anyone ask for?
Flavor, of course.  And these deliver – yummalicious on their own and, wow, do they make some knockout cocktails and mocktails. Consider Beetology’s Beets + Berry flavor. Splash in some vodka or some Jumbie Coconut Splash rum (num!), or skip the alcohol and fizz it with ginger ale or soda water. Check out all the Beetology flavors. Serve with lots of ice and you’ll have your guests guessing all night as to what’s in their delicious drinks.
Oh, and try this: pour a few ounces of your favorite Beetology flavor over ice and top up with item #4 in this list – Riondo Prosecco. Luscious brunch cocktail. And a few ounces of one of their combos can really intensify the flavor and sweetness and up the nutrition of a morning smoothie. These juices are a new regular in our fridge.
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#StarbucksRefreshers coconut water and juice combos
#StarbucksRefreshers coconut water and juice combos

7. #StarbucksRefreshers. Delicious, slightly carbonated canned drinks that consist of coconut water (said to be super-hydrating) and various fruit juices from concentrates like black-cherry-limeade or peach-passion-fruit. There is some sugar added and a few ingredients we can’t pronounce, and each can contains a limited amount (40-55mg) of caffeine from unroasted green coffee beans (compared to 100 for an average brewed cup). Some debate on the topic, but if you’re a Starbucks fan, these could be a bit healthier and a step toward less sugar than some of the coffee concoctions.

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Happy belated National Scotch Day!

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Even though National Scotch Day was July 27, it’s never too late to share news about this legendary drink. Whether you’re a Scotch devotee or an occasional imbiber, pretend today is National Scotch Day and read on.
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Spirit of Place book coverWe received a beautiful book a while ago about Scotland’s distilleries. Called Spirit of Place, it was written by Charles MacLean with gorgeous photos by Lara Platman and Allan MacDonald. This coffee-table-worthy book tells stories of the many dedicated professionals who spend their lives producing unique expressions of this venerable drink. My daughter backpacked through Europe and Africa some years ago, and she said Scotland was the most beautiful country in all her travels. If you love Scotch whisky and you can’t visit there yourself, this book will bring you to the people and the places of 50 of Scotland’s great distilleries in a way that only beautiful pictures and heartfelt words can. $35.55 on Amazon.
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For some, Scotch is an acquired taste; the heavy peat-and-smoke flavors of some expressions can put newbies off. Even some Scotch aficionados like a less-smoky spirit. But either way, you can look forward to refining your own taste buds as you try out the many, many types of Scotch available.
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Old Pulteney 12 year old
Old Pulteney 12 year old

We were pleased to receive recently a review sample of Old Pulteney 12 Year Old Scotch Whisky. This brand is matured in hand-selected American ex­‐bourbon casks. Over the years, the casks gently absorb the northern sea breeze, giving the whisky its smooth, complex flavors and coastal characteristics. The combination of the exposed maritime environment and traditional distillation methods create a malt described by a leading whisky writer as ‘unashamedly excellent.’ (SRP, $45)

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We liked the different categories they suggest to characterize each whisky. For example, the above Old Pulteney 12-year-old is shown as (rookie, traditional, sailor, honey). Many of the terms were derived from the heritage of each brand. For example, the maritime heritage is at the heart of Old Pulteney whiskies and they’ve long embraced the sea as a source of inspiration. The brand is actively committed to celebrating the achievements of maritime communities and individuals who share their passion for the ocean. See several other impressive Scotches described below:
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Speyburn 10 year old
Speyburn 10 year old

Speyburn 10YO (rookie, traditional, golfer, honey)
Speyburn 10 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky (SRP, $30) offers a classic Speyside experience with its medium-bodied, delicate and fruity character with a long, smooth finish. Always a favorite, it’s no surprise that the Speyburn 10 was awarded a gold medal in The Scotch Whisky Masters competition from The Spirits Business in 2016. Consistent quality and outstanding reviews (like the 93 points Wine Enthusiast awarded the selection) make this a go-to selection for next National Scotch Day and every day.

Speyburn Arranta
Speyburn Arranta

Speyburn Arranta Casks (rookie, traditional, hunter, spicy)
The limited release Speyburn Arranta Casks (SRP, $40) is a 2016 International Spirits Challenge Gold Medal winner.  Wine Enthusiast chose Arranta Casks as one of their Top 100 Spirits of 2015 awarding the selection 93 points and a “Best Buy” designation. Arranta (meaning “bold”, “daring” and “intrepid” in Scottish Gaelic) is unique for its exclusive use of first fill American Oak ex-bourbon casks and draws its rich color and full-bodied, bold flavor from the quality and character of the air-dried wood.

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Old Pulteney Navigator (rookie, bold, sailor)
Old Pulteney Navigator was created to celebrate the sailing community and commemorate the 2013-14 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. Only 3,000 bottles are available in the United States of this one-time release. Aged in a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, Navigator delivers a rich, balanced flavor showcasing the nuances of the distillery character. The 46% ABV allows the salty, citrus notes to shine through. (SRP, $55)

Stroma Liqueur
Stroma Liqueur

Stroma Liqueur (rookie, bold, sailor, spicy)
Stroma Liqueur is a careful blend of malt whiskies from Old Pulteney’s multi-award winning portfolio. Bottled at 35% ABV, its smooth, sweet taste has robust and rugged undertones and a warm and comforting finish. Every aspect of Old Pulteney’s latest release is designed to embody the intrigue, craft and history of the brand’s seafaring roots. Stroma’s unique bottle features an embossed image of crashing waves and it is packaged in striking black and gold – with a foil neck tag, which includes the brand’s story and tasting notes. (SRP, $34.99)

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Balblair
Balblair

Balblair 2005 (aficionado, indulgent, collector, citrus)
Only a handful of American oak, ex-bourbon casks laid down in 2005 were selected by Distillery Manager John MacDonald to form this classic Balblair expression. Light, fruity and refereshing, this classic Vntage embodies Balblair’s house style. (SRP, $65)

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anCnoc 12YO (rookie, bold, design lover, honey)
The anCnoc 12 Year Old is renowned the world over. Known as a must-have in any whisky drinker’s collection, it’s light and yet complex. Smooth yet challenging. And each twist and turn delivers a surprise. Sweet to start with an appetizing fruitiness and a long smooth finish. Light yet complex, smooth yet challenging. This is a dram that has something for everyone. (SRP, $50)
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Patio pleasures at Trattoria Gianni

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Trattoria Gianni's charming enclosed patio
Trattoria Gianni’s charming enclosed patio
Sitting on a block of Halsted in Lincoln Park that’s also home to high-flying successes like Alinea and Boka can be a challenge for any restaurant. Trattoria Gianni, 1711 N. Halsted, takes it on as a comfortable Italian oasis that has the distinct summer advantage of a large, enclosed, charmingly decorated patio.
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On a recent press visit we sampled some of the restaurant’s signature dishes. Rice balls that were tender inside and deep-fried just enough to give a hint of crunch on the outside. Meatballs made with pork and veal. Pasta veggie primavera. Italian-dressed romaine and tomato salad with Italian bread. Italian food, filling and plentiful.

Prices are reasonable, and this is an ideal place to come before or after the theater – Steppenwolf Theatre is across the street down the block. Be forewarned that the air conditioning works much better in the front section of the restaurant; the hot day we were there it was uncomfortably warm in the back section. But if it’s a nice day, don’t hesitate to take advantage of the patio. This patio is beside the restaurant – not stuck out on the sidewalk as so many are these days – and runs the length of the building, so it’s roomy. A glass door opening to the patio allows servers a clear view of tables and easy access to patrons. Sadly, it was raining the day we visited so we didn’t get to experience it personally, but I can picture us enjoying some wine or a summer cocktail among the flowers and the twinkling lights.

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Greek wines make a splash in Chicago

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City Winery noshes for Greek wines
City Winery noshes for Greek wines

Remember retsina from the 60s and 70s? It was the only name most Americans associated with Greek wines back then – and it wasn’t usually a pleasant link. But this year, the Wines of Greece brought a collection of winemakers and wines to City WInery in Chicago’s West Loop that dramatically changed a lot of people’s opinions about Greek winemaking.

For one thing, Greek winemakers have picked up on many trends in global winemaking – and have even begun growing and blending with classic grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Their wines tend to be fresh and acidic, but many are making wines that hold up well to aging even as long as a decade. What a difference a few years can make.
In terms of white wines, our favorite new grape from Greece is Assyrtiko. Lovely and so flexible in terms of the types of wines that can be made from it, many delicious with no other blend, but many others beautiful with various combinations of Chardonnay or Sauvignon blanc and other grapes indigenous to Greece

In the red category, a favorite new Greek grape is Agiorgitiko (ah-jor-git-ee-ko). Be sure to pronounce it correctly – as one of the reps explained to someone who asked, if Americans can learn to pronounce Gewurtztraminer, they can learn to pronounce Greek grape names! This grape, too, makes some lovely wines on its own or in blends with indigenous Greek grapes like Kydonitsa, Moschofilero and Xinomavro.

City Winery spread for Greek wines
City Winery spread for Greek wines

We were more than pleasantly surprised at the quality of the wines at this event. It was a unique  educational opportunity to experience the viniculure of a country that has not previously been known for fine wines. Since my daughter lived in Greece for almost a year while on her world tour back in the late 90s, it’s an extra special  pleasure to see how far the country has come in creating delicious wines. You’ll need to consult with your wine vendor or Binny’s to see about getting particular wines through the importers. Here are a few that stood out at the tasting:

Tsantali Rapsani Reserve Red 2012. ***** This vineyard is in northern Greece, near Italian vineyards that grow Barolo. Grapes: Xinomavro, Krassato, Stavroto. Imported by Fantis Imports, Inc.

Domaine Costa Lazaridi Amethystos White 2016. ***** Grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Assyrtiko. Serve this 5-star lovely with seafood or grilled fish. Imported by Nestor Imports, Inc.

Argyros Estate Atlantis White 2016. ***** Grapes: Assyrtiko, Ahtiri, Aidani. This blend contains 90% Assyrtiko yet takes on just the right subtleties with the small addition of 5% of each of the other grapes. Imported by Athenee Importers.

Wine Art Estate Idisma Drios Assyrtiko 2016. ***** Grapes: Assyrtiko only. Compare this to a dry Riesling and enjoy the same ways.

Lantides Winery Nemea Lantides 2012. ***** Grapes: Agiorgitiko only. This wine can be aged up to 10 years. It’s excellent for an aperitif. The winery grows 60-70% of its own grapes and buys the rest from trusted sources. Imported by Dionysos Imports.

Greek Wine Cellars GWC Santorini 2016. ***** Grapes: Assyrtiko only. Grown from really earthy old vines. Volcanic soils and the nightly sea mist mineralize this wine. Imported by Fotis & Son Imports.

Domaine Hatzimichalis Estate Hatzimichalis Lefkos White 2016. **** Grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Malagousia, Robota. This vineyard is located one hour north of Athens. Serve this white with grilled chicken, fresh salads or pork. Imported by Fantis Imports.

Bairaktaris Winery Old Monolithos Red 2012. **** Grapes: Agiorgitiko only. This wine is the epitome of old-world winemaking and the commitment to making wines that taste of their place. Pair with pork, steak, burger, or aged yellow cheese.

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Food news you can use

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 One of our favorite things to do is to taste-test new and interesting food products for this blog. We were recently invited to try out products from Just Spices,  Peter & Pat’s Pierogies and molly&drew®. Now we’ve got a couple of new ideas for cooking at home and for gifts for other cooks. Below are some thoughts.
  1. Just Spices is a German company that makes a series of flavorful seasoning powders, some spicy, some sweeter (like the new berry flavoring for yogurt) that are USDA organic and “sourced with love.”
     The one for barbecue popcorn is a surprise – it gives your evening popcorn a barbecue flavor that doesn’t hit you like a ton of bricks, like many BBQ seasonings do. Especially if you pop your popcorn in coconut oil – so delicious – you don’t want to overwhelm it with spice. This BBQ seasoning is delicate yet definite enough to make your mouth pay attention.

     The Just Spices Mexican seasoning is transformative. Now an avocado-studded taco salad – minus the beans and the meat – can be pretty delicious with just romaine, cilantro, red onion and salsa, topped with thickened 2% Greek yogurt (lower fat and calories than sour cream) and lots of fresh lime juice. Add a few drops of Habanero sauce and you’re good to go. But then, if you add a quarter teaspoon of the Just Spices Mexican seasoning, that same dish puts you on the sun-soaked hacienda of an elegant Mexican resort. And you immediately want to order a margarita with your salad. Even if it’s 8:30 AM. We also added it to our turkey meatballs and to the tomatoes we cooked ’em in and really enjoyed the whole thing.
     Go try some of these. They just introduced 20 new flavors, too. You won’t go wrong buying one of their boxed sets as a gift for a hostess or friend who enjoys cooking but isn’t fanatical about making their own seasoning. These provide a shortcut that any non-professional cook – and maybe some professionals, too – will appreciate. Each individual package is 100 milliliters and priced from $5.99 to $7.99. Available online only at www.justspices.com/

  2. Peter & Pat's Pierogies make an easy dinner entree
    Peter & Pat’s Pierogies make an easy dinner entree

    Peter & Pat Pierogies. And how about some low-fat, low-cholesteraol all-natural pierogies to back up – or be – your dinner entree? Peter & Pat love traditional Eastern European food so much they built it into a thriving catering business over the past 20 years. The most popular dish on their menu is the pierogies. In fact, theirs has become one of the top-selling pierogie brands in the United States. It’s been so successful they’ve now officially launched in Costco locations across the Midwest.
     We can personally vouch for the flavor and filling ability of the 4-cheese-and-potato version they sent to test – delicious mix of creamy mashed potatoes with Cheddar, farmers, Parmesan and Swiss cheeses. Yet only 240 calories for four pierogies – not bad for so much creamy, cheesy goodness. Frozen bags of 4 pounds – that’s a lotta pierogies (65 per bag – 12 servings) – for $9.99 at Costco.

  3. molly&drew Mug Cake mixes and beer mixes are fun and easy
    molly&drew Mug Cake mixes and beer mixes are fun and easy

    molly&drew® Single Serve Mug Cake Kits come in four flavors include, Ooey Gooey Chocolate, Chocolate Sea Salt Caramel, Chocolate Raspberry Cheesecake, and Chocolate Candy Cane. Just add water, microwave for 90 seconds and ditch the need to mess up the kitchen. Fast, easy dessert for one or two. Top with whipped cream to make it more decadent.
    molly&drew® also craft their own beer breads and beer cakes that let you blend your favorite beer into ready-to-go mixes. Try the beer bread for appetizers, main dishes, sides and desserts. There’s a cake mix, too, which we sampled – fun to make a cake with beer. We did, however, find the sizable dose of almond extract in the Amore Amoretto flavor somewhat overpowering. We left the cakes sit out for a day and the almond flavor diminished a bit. Still, what a fun – and EASY – idea for sharing with family and friends for brunches, barbeques, dinners, parties, sporting events and more.

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The Symington family of fine port wines

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Charles Symington in the vineyard
Charles Symington in the vineyard

Interestingly, port wines often do not state vintage years. Instead, when a wine is particularly good one year, it is “declared” a vintage after it’s been bottled. Because differences in weather are unpredictable every year, only great years can command a declaration. It is always an exercise in self-restraint for port winemakers to decide which years deserve to be declared.

Rupert Symington checking the grapes
Rupert Symington checking the grapes

Some of the biggest names in port from the Douro Valley are all owned by the Symington Family Estates. Cousins Rupert and Charles Symington came to Chicago recently to introduce their exciting 2015 vintages and showcase a few of their older premium offerings.

 They brought four of their renowned name brands and presented the 2015 vintage along with carefully selected  older vintages of the same brand. It was a fascinating horizontal and vertical tasting exercise that highlighted the differences between young port wines and mature. It very clearly showed how aging in the bottle changes and deepens the complexity and flavor in a fine ruby port.
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Cockburn's vintage port 2015 label
Cockburn’s vintage port 2015 label

Our favorite among all was the Cockburn’s 2015 Vintage Port, its bicentenary vintage. The Symingtons purchased Cockburn’s from the  company that had been operating it since the family sold it in the 1950s – to the detriment, they believed, of the fine brand. “We wanted to bring back the spirit of Cockburn’s,” said Rupert. So they organized a tasting of some of the very oldest Cockburn’s vintages – from 1912, 1920 and so on. They knew, then, what their goal would be to engineer the re-birth of the Cockburn excellence. Their 2015 has lush aromas and flavors of maraschino and black cherry that eventually turn into Kirsch-like flavors. Rupert described it as “tropical jungle.” The 2011 vintage port is a perfect example of this super-refined structure and power of the Cockburn port profile: dark, brooding, powerful.

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The Symingtons offered a couple of observations about grapes: Touriga Franca is like Merlot – softer, forgiving, aromatic. Cabernet is more like Touriga Nacional – dark and needs softening.
Port goes through three phases: 1) young, fresh and full of fruit flavor; 2) after 10 to 15 years the port starts to mature and begins to get that raisiny flavor; and 3) 20-30 years when the port loses some of its intense, deep color and becomes much more subtle as it approaches serious maturity.
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Vintage port is made with extraordinary grapes. Then they add a colorless brandy with a 20% level of alcohol. The brandy gradually gets absorbed into the port and basically disappears, and then the wines darken up. A simple fact: it takes 7 liters of wine to make one liter of brandy– which is how they do it in Spain.
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Graham’s Stone Terraces Vintage Port 2015 was lovely. Made from tiny grapes, it has been declared a vintage. Shows very concentrated fruit and a pure expression on the nose. Slight tropical notes, Only 345 cases made.
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Six Grapes is a Grahams brand of port that uses the same grapes as Dow’s port. When Dow’s declares a vintage, the next best barrels go into Six Grapes bottles. When there is no declaration, the best grapes of all go into the Six Grapes brand. You get the finest quality at a much lower price with Graham’s Six Grapes.
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Their Quinta do Vesuvio winery does not declare – it bottles. The wines are velvety and sweeter with lots of fruit aromas. Sweetness makes it smoother on the palate. All Vesuvio vintages are trodden by foot. producers are so consistently exceptional that they simply call it a vintage almost every year.
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Dow’s rounded out the selection of pairs – themselves very nice, slightly drier wines. Quinta del Senhora da Ribeira has had almost ideal climate for growing port grapes. All their wines are velvety. Floral tones from the Touriga Franca, resin and spicy flavors from the Nacional along with some tar and smoke
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Cooper’s Hawk Winery intros new rosé wine

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Cooper's Hawk rosé made from Pinot Noir grapes
Cooper’s Hawk rosé made from Pinot Noir grapes

Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurants runs a wine club that takes a unique approach to the concept. It invites wine club members to parties several times a year to introduce the company’s newly released wines and refresh members’ appreciation of other available wines. One such recent party, held in the lovely outdoor-and-indoor event space at Ignite Glass Studios, 401 N. Armour St., and entitled “An Evening with Tyler Florence and Cooper’s Hawk,” got members together for a gourmet dinner and to introduce a new rosé wine from Cooper’s Hawk.

The star of the event and the evening was Tyler Florence, one of the top chefs on the Food Network. He demonstrated his unique recipe for fried chicken – a multi-step affair that features buttermilk and lots of chopped fresh herbs. Three hundred and fifty guests enjoyed hors d’ouevres and dinner, sipping Cooper’s Hawk wines while they watched the man himself on stage and an overhead video screen showing his work surface.  The recipe is here, but be forewarned. This recipe is a labor of love, so don’t take it on unless you have the time and patience. Wine club members received a cookbook with more of his really fattening but scrumptious-sounding Southern recipes. Entitled “Family, Friends and Weekends – Volume II” it’s a small hardbound square book with mouth-watering photographs and just a couple dozen recipes, all of which are guaranteed to put on at least 3 pounds.
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Cooper’s Hawk is known for making excellent wines and operating a series of restaurants that serve really good food, and which are the only places you can buy their proprietary wine varietals and blends. In the Chicago area they have locations in . We wrote last year about an incredible wine they made called, Collaboration, a fabulous red blend made in collaboration with Buena Vista Winery. The president of Cooper’s Hawk says their keyword is always collaboration.
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The roomful of Cooper’s Hawk wine club members seemed like a cheerful, eclectic group. The wine club just might be a good place to make friends with people who love food and wine as much as you do. The cost of the wine club varies depending on how many bottles you want a month, whether you want to pick them up or get them shipped, etc., and includes a newsletter and invitations to the several member events that go on each year. Details here.
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In this day and age of wireless connecting – and electronic distancing – this wine club seems like a brilliant idea. The company’s regular collaborations with other winemakers, restaurateurs, media, and lots of ordinary people, bring people together in face-to-face encounters that provide a refreshing alternative to the status quo. What a concept. Visit one of the ten Cooper’s Hawk winery/restaurants around the Chicago area and see if this makes sense for you.
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