Category Archives: Chicago food and drink

6 unique food, drink and product ideas

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It’s fun to experiment sometimes. Below are 6 unique interesting and unique product suggestions – one made with a hitherto mysterious ingredient from Greece, one a Chicago-based candle company that helps young mothers, a line of products all made with cocoa, a lightly sparkling drink sweetened with agave, an energy snack infused with with tea, and a super-thin cracker from Italy.  Try something new for your New Year adventure!

  1. Mastiha is a resin that drips off the bark of the mastiha tree that grows only in Chios, Greece. The Greeks have been harvesting it for thousands of years – since 600 B.C.E. It’s known to have anti-inflammatory properties and is now considered by many to be a super food – used as an ingredient in cosmetics, gum, oils, food, and liquors. It’s even sold in capsules and in powdered form to treat a vast number of conditions. The ELMA brand chios mastic gum comes either sweetened with sugar or sugar-free and contains natural gum mastic and mastic oils. It’s tasty and is said to freshen the breath. Some of the cosmetics made with mastiha include products from the Lira Mystiq line such as Mystiq Illuminating Cleanser and Mystiq Illuminating Polisher for your skin, each of which contains ingredients that are derived from the original mastiha.
  2. Bright Endeavors, based in Chicago, makes clean-burning soy candles that smell lovely and come with your Chicago city skyline imprinted on the cover. What’s more, all the proceeds go to their non-for-profit organization that provides job training for young mothers so they can support their children and participate fully in their communities. They’ve served more than 500 young women so far and show no signs of stopping. If you’re going to buy a candle for someone, this is a terrific opportunity to make your giving extend beyond just the gift itself. @Bright_Endeavors #Chicagocandle.
  3. THE COCOA EXCHANGE™ POD & BEAN makes cocoa-infused products of many types. Cocoa-infused barbeque sauce might be an acquired taste for some, but it certainly is a bold way to stand out from other options. Stone ground cocoa-infused mustard intrigues. Imagine Cheddar Ale cheese dip sparked with a tablespoon of that. Fascinating, eh? Consider some of the other unique sauces: Blackberry Chipotle, Korean Barbeque, Mexican Simmer, and more. It’s great how they have little graphic icons on each jar suggesting what foods the sauce goes well with. If you love cocoa and chocolate and are willing to open your mind, some of these products could be just what your taste buds have been looking for. Check out this amazing recipe for Bacon Ale Cheese Dip for a crowd. Check their website for more cool recipes.
  4. Sipp is a brand new soft drink created by founder Beth Wilson-Parentice when she got downsized out of corporate America. Sparkling and organic, Sipp comes in several unique and delicious flavors. A fabulous mixer with bubbly or all by itself if you’re skipping alcohol. Their website even offers Sipp-with-food pairing ideas that’ll jump start your imagination. At 88 calories per can (100 per bottle) and sweetened with agave, it’s not a low-calorie or sweetener-free option, but it is completely free of chemicals and artificial sweeteners – more and more a big selling point for health-conscious consumers. Check out the Ginger Blossom flavor – ginger, smooth vanilla and lime. Or the Zesty Orange – zesty blood orange, lime and jalapeno. Or Lemon Flower – zesty lemon, elderflower and a touch of aromatic tarragon. Don’t those sound exciting? Based on our sampling for review, that’s just what they are. Bottles (12 oz) and cans (10.5 oz) available at Target and other retailers as well as on Amazon.
  5. TeaSquares – Tea-infused Energy Snacks. A startup company here in Chicago makes these crispy light snacks that promise to provide low-cal nutrition along with a little shot of caffeine to perk you up and help you focus during the day. They’re made with puffed millet, crunchy almonds and fruits infused with tea. Enjoyably light and easy to carry around (except they could get crushed easily in a big, overfilled tote), they come in several nice fruit-combo flavors and are available online.

    Tuscanini packaging
    Tuscanini packaging
  6. Tuscanini Italian Parchment Crackers. Super thin and crispy, these hand-made crackers make a light, crunchy base for appetizers or cheese, and they go beautifully with soups or salads. They are made in Sardinia, Italy, and imported from there by Kayco. Try one of their tasty flavors: Olive Oil,  Rosemary with Olive Oil, or Oregano with Olive Oil. Lower calorie than bread spread with olive oil, but just as satisfying.
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Mago Grill & Cantina – delicious discovery in South Loop

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We were invited to visit here recently after we’d heard about Mago Grill & Cantina‘s fun and creative take on combining traditional Hanukkah dishes with a Mexican flair. The location was a surprise – the sophisticated and beautiful shopping complex called The Roosevelt Collection (off E. Roosevelt Rd., next to the Target store and near Clark St. in the South Loop). But the food surprised us even more – so very, very good.

The space at Mago is expansive. Almost a suburban type ambiance – spacious, modern, colorful. But the food is quite a few levels above what you usually find in a typical suburban establishment.  Perfect for savvy sophisticated millennials, yet totally family friendly. The tables are set far enough apart that you have real privacy for your conversations. Ideal for ladies who lunch and want to shop at a few upscale shops afterwards, or for baby boomers looking to enjoy an excellent meal and some good conversation. The space is open and welcoming enough that almost anyone will feel comfortable.

It was fun perusing the menu – both the Hanukkah specials and the regular items. We greatly enjoyed the homemade taco chips with three types of salsa – mild, medium and really hot (made with sesame seeds). Our server Ageo was most helpful explaining the menu and making suggestions. We tried a few things specifically at his recommendations and they were excellent.

For starters we tried, at our server’s recommendation, the empanadas. Excellent choice. A delicious crust with a great deal more character than most we’ve tasted before. The shrimp empanada was especially flavorful – tasted like shrimp of the highest quality roasted to perfection. Crispy turnovers served with frisee, queso cotija and crema Mexicana, in a choice of ground beef picadillo with chimichurri, chicken tinga with roasted tomato salsa, or tequila shrimp with habanero salsa. And you get to choose one each of two choices. Lovely!
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Mago Camarones en Chile
Mago Camarones en Chile

The Camarones en Chile was nicely roasted shrimp in a savory poblano pepper sauce, served with special chunky mashed potatoes and a huge pile of roasted poblano peppers, all bathed in a succulent brown sauce. Delicious.

Another shot of the beef rib with mole - num!
Another shot of the beef rib with mole – num!
 The short rib – a regular menu item – was dressed up for the Jewish holiday. Tender, richly browned and served with a rich, thick, dark mole sauce and a chunk of grated, seasoned plantain that was fried crisp and tasted amazingly good. As a side, the chef prepared potato latkes and added cilantro to honor Hanukkah and give them a Mexican touch. This dish smelled and tasted so good that my granddaughter came home from school and immediately consumed the leftovers.
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Mago coconut flan
Mago coconut flan

The flan of the week was coconut – incredibly thick and not too sweet and loaded with coconut, drizzled generously with rich caramel sauce and topped with a big beautiful pile of whip cream and a strawberry. It was served in a huge dish dusted with powdered sugar. No problem polishing off this gem all by myself.

This was one of our favorite recent restaurant meals  – and so surprising for a weekday lunch. Felt like a 4-star dinner. Mago Grill & Cantina is well worth a trip for its creative approach to blending cuisines and its commendable attention to the details of execution that take dishes several notches above the usual.
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Mago Grill & Cantina is located at 1010 S. Delano Court East. The place is a breeze to get to. CTA buses and trains are a short walk away. And if you drive, no need to fight downtown traffic hassles. Take Lake Shore Drive to Roosevelt or the Dan Ryan and pull right in. The shopping mall has ample underground parking – no need to stress on that score either. Go here. We will be back with friends very soon to try more dishes on the menu.
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Around the world in 3 wines – Niven Family Wine Estates

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Now’s the time to plan your celebrating and gifting, and here at FoodandDrinkChicago we’re happy to help by pointing out some delicious yet affordable special occasion wines. Happily, Niven Family Wine Estates recently introduced us to three of their wines – each with a completely different and unique character – that are perfect for holiday entertaining or gift giving. Sampling these wines is a bit like tasting around the world without leaving your California armchair. And by the way, check out the Niven Family Wines wine club. Several options for treating yourself or for giving a membership as a gift for wine-loving friends and family.
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Tangent Albarino
Tangent Albarino

Tangent Albariño 2015. The Spanish Albariño grape is the varietal typical of the Rias Baixas region in Galicia. Grown for this wine on the rolling slopes of Edna Valley California, the result here is a lovely, well-balanced white that is SIP™ (Sustainable in Practice) certified sustainably grown. The nearby ocean  ensures cool growing seasons with even climate. “Pure and vibrant with a slight salty characteristic, it starts with Mandarin orange and tangerine on the nose and goes on that way through the finish. A round mouthfeel is balanced by a slightly crisp acid structure.” Delicious as an aperitif and paired with most seafoods and especially with oysters and clams. 13.5% alc. SRP ~$17.

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Niven Zocker
Niven Zocker

Zocker Grüner Veltliner 2015. Zocker is a winery that reflects its name – Zocker being the Austrian word for gamble. It’s the latest endeavor of the Niven Family Wine Estates on their Zocker vineyard in Central Coast California where their veteran French winemaker Christian Roguenant makes unconventional wines exclusively from the white varietal grapes known as Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. This 2015 is rich and round with great acid structure, which some call steely, and with a definite minerality. Slightly earthy, it has a strong white pepper note with flavors of ripe melon and fruit cocktail. A lovely aperitif or a delicious  counterpoint to creamy cheeses or sauces. 13.5% alc. SRP ~$20.

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Niven True Myth
Niven True Myth

True Myth Cabernet Sauvignon 2014. Grown in Paso Robles, the grapes for this classic red fully reflect the region’s characteristic polished aromas – blackberry, cherry and vanilla – and make a rich, smooth yet approachable wine that can age for years in your cellar. Or drink it now and immerse yourself in the flavors of dark red fruits and black currants with hints of pepper, cocoa powder and caramelized oak. A bold wine that’s a worthy accompaniment to red meats and pairs well with smoky and grilled flavors. 14.5% alc. SRP ~$24.

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11 Beautiful Italian wines to warm your holidays

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IEEM #SimplyItalian Tour
IEEM #SimplyItalian Tour

IEEM is an Italian organization that’s helping to improve knowledge and foster greater enjoyment of Italian wines by countries around the world. Their  Simply Italian Great Wines Tour 2017 once again this year brought to Chicago many special wines chosen from a selection of Italy’s multitudinous wine regions. Trade and media attended guided tastings-cum-educational seminars on such wine regions as Moscato d’Asti, Prosecco, Sicily and more, each of which offered glimpses into a broad array of Italy’s offerings. Below are a few of the many lovely ones the #SimplyItalianTour showcased.

 
IEEM Nero d'Avola wines
IEEM Nero d’Avola wines

#SicilianWineArt has become huge business since the country established its Sicilia DOC designation. Two grape varieties – Grillo and Nero d’Avola – are grown exclusively in Sicily and are used to make a wide range of respectively white and red wines. Sicily has 100 days of harvesting every year when you count all the areas where grapes are grown. Colomba Bianca, Sicily’s biggest wine cooperative representing five different wineries, brought to Chicago samples of some of its offerings.

  • Grillo Sicilia DOC Lavi 2016. Hand-harvested 100% Grillo grapes are turned via the Charmat method into a light straw yellow bubbly with intense, complex aromas like white flowers and orange blossoms with a citrus note. On the palate, taste nettle and sage, jasmine and melon. Minerally, crisp and fresh. Delicious with first courses of fish or vegetables and with white meats, tabouleh, mozzarella, anchovies and tomatoes.
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  • Nero d’Avola Sicilia DOC Vitese 2016. Hand-picked and put into small crates during late August/early September, the skins for this organically made wine are macerated at low temperatures for two days to extract the sweet tannins an delicate color. Intensely ruby red – beautifully purple-red – it offers fragrant fruity aromas of red berries (cherry, blackberry) that are also minerally (graphite) and spicy. The tannins and acidity are perfectly balanced within a wine of great structure, smoothness and intensity. Serve it as an aperitif or with mature cheeses, cold cuts and meats of all types. We love this wine *****5 stars.
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  • Nero d’Avola Sicilia DOC Kore 2016. One of Colomba Bianca’s classic red wines, this 100% Nero d’Avola wine is ruby red with purple tinges and unmistakable aromas of prune, cherry and light spice. It’s soft and velvety on the palate with a pleasing structure and a distinct fruitiness that’s also elegant and refined. Serve with typical Sicilian dishes like spaghetti alla norma with eggplant and smoked ricotta. Even more complex and rewarding than the Vitese, these are both excellent choices for your best holiday occasions. *****5 stars.
IEEM Prosecco
IEEM Prosecco

Prosecco DOC wineries included Piera Matellozzo 1899, Masottina, Supmanti Valdo, Barollo, Astoria and more. Here are two standouts from among their samples:

  • Barollo Prosecco Millesimato Extra Dry Treviso DOC 2016. Gorgeous (we gave it 5 stars) wine made from 100% Glera grapes. This small-production (25-30,000 bottles) Prosecco is fragrant with notes of candied citron and acacia flowers, yellow apple, peach and crusty bread.  On the palate it’s dry, soft and fresh with a elegant fruity aftertaste. Perfect as an aperitif or with risottos with vegetables and fish dishes. 11% alc. ~$19. *****5 stars.
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  •  La Marca Prosecco Sparkling DOC, imported by Gallo. Made with 100% Glera, this delicately golden straw yellow Prosecco brings fruity notes and a distinctive floral aroma along with a lively and persistent perlage of full-textured bubbles. The palate is fresh and clean with flavors of ripe lemon, green apple and grapefruit with an agreeable minerality. Well balanced with a light, crisp, refreshing finish. Serve chilled with starters and fish dishes. 11% alc. ****4 stars.
 
Chianti Rufina
IEEM Chianti Rufina

Other Italian wine regions came to introduce Chicago to their wines this year. Consorzio Vino Chianti presented guided tastings of wines from the seven subregions of Chianti – Montalbano, Rufina, Montespertoli, Aretini and others, plus Chianti Classico – all located in Tuscany between the great Italian cities of Firenze (Florence) and Siena. They explained how Chianti DOCG is now requiring bottles to be sealed with traceable labels – an important move to protect the integrity of fine wines from this region. The entire Chianti region has a new focus on quality rather than quantity as had been the case for many decades. A few memorable vintages from the tasting, all coming in at around 14% alcohol:

 
  • Chianti Rufina DOCG Riserva 2013. 95% Sangiovese, 5% blend of three grapes indigenous to the region. A beautiful wine grown on rocky soils and made with traditional wine making processes, including fermenting in steel vats and maturing in big oak barrels for two years and in the bottle three months. Fine, delicate aromas due to late-growing Sangiovese. Perfectly balanced. *****5 stars.
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  • Chianti Colli Fiorentini DOCG Riserva 2013. 90% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. A single-vineyard blend made from grapes grown in mixed soils with riverstones. Grown on old vines with at least 1 meter between the vines. *****5 stars. ~$13.
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  • Chianti Montespertoli DOCG Riserva 2013. 100% Sangiovese. This is a single-vineyard wine that’s light and acidic – the result of planting Sangiovese grapes in a northern exposure. This results in greater structure yet the expression is very well-balanced. 14% alc. ~$25.
 
IEEM Friuli Grave - The Sparkling Life
IEEM Friuli Grave – The Sparkling Life

A third Italian group, Consorzio Vini Friuli Grave, this year brought to Chicago a selection of its DOC sparkling and still wines – “fresh and fun wines,.” Made from grapes grown in Friuli Venezia Giulia, a northeastern area of Italy that’s rich in tradition, colors, aromas and flavors, these wines tend to be lighter, with alcohol content ranging from around 11% to 13%. You’re sure to find something to please anyone within this portfolio. Here are a few they brought here to sample at #TheSparklingLife presentation:

 
  • Spumante Rose Extra Dry “Collevento 921” from Antonutti Vini dal 1921. This delightful sparkling wine belies the old reputation of spumante as overly sweet and syrupy. It’s made with 80% Merlot and 20% Refosco via the Charmat method. The color is bright pink with a bouquet of red berries (raspberry, currant and strawberry) and a light, fine lingering perlage. Its lovely character is due in part to the fact that the Merlot grape never gets overly ripe in the cool weather of this area. Excellent as an aperitif or with appetizers or fish platters (the Italians love their fish!). Priced between $8 and $15 depending on where you get it, it’s perfect for the holidays. 11% alc.
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  • Friuland “Le Bastie” 2011 DOC Friuli Grave by Tenute Tomasella. This small-production (2500 bottles) wine made of 100% Friuli grapes has a creamy texture with great fruit taste. An intense golden-hued straw yellow color, its bouquet is refined yet intense and features a blend of spices and fruit with a hint of vanilla. It’s because they use a process called “friulano” which reduces oxidation in white wines that this wine actually ages well. Priced ~$23, we think it’s worth going into splurge mode. 13% alc.
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  • Sauvignon “Braida Santa Cecilia” 2016 DOC Friuli Grave. Made with 100% Sauvignon A3 clone, this pale yellow white wine takes its name from the Italian meaning “clearing in the forest,” which describes the weather conditions in the northeastern area where they can grow this grape. Unlike the New Zealand Sauvignon blanc – which some Italians describe as smelling like a sweaty sock – the passionfruit, sage and yellow pepper nose of this wine compares more to a Sancerre. This wine is made by Kim Crawford’s husband, who excused himself from making the “Kim Crawford” type of Sauvignon to go renegade and make a new kind of Sauvignon. He calls his highly award-winning winery Pitars so as not to confuse people with the Crawford name. We give his version a solid 5 stars. 12.5% alc.
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Mariano’s makes it easy to help the hungry this holiday season

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Some children looking at a selection of Christ...
Some children looking at a selection of Christmas Cards during the 1910 holiday season. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We all want to help the hungry, especially during the holidays. But many of us don’t know an easy way to do it that won’t cut into our already-jammed schedules full of work and chores and holiday to-dos. But this season, your local Mariano’s is taking the pain out of donating.

Mariano’s is leading a community effort to donate One Million Pounds of food to the Northern Illinois Food Bank and the Greater Chicago Food Depository this December.

That One Million Pounds is equal to about 500 pallets of food –  enough to fill over 25 trailer trucks. YOU can make it happen this December in one of two ways – while you’re shopping for your own household:

  1. Donate non-perishable, non-expired food items at any Mariano’s location. Designated bins will be set up at each store for your contributions. Please, no cleaning supplies or health and beauty items.
  2. Or, even easier, just purchase food donation bags for $1, $5 or $10 at the checkout at all Mariano’s locations

Mariano’s will also be partnering with vendors and with local schools and business to increase donations.

“During this season of giving, we are grateful for Mariano.’s steadfast support in the fight against hunger,” said Kate Maehr, executive director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. “Through the One Million Pounds program, Mariano’s is making it easy for shoppers and vendors to support the Greater Chicago Food Depository and the Northern Illinois Food Bank in our daily work to provide nutritious food, and hope, for our neighbors in need.`

Donate any of the following items: canned proteins (tuna, chicken), peanut butter, canned beans, oatmeal, soup, canned tomatoes/pasta sauce, pasta, rice (brown preferred), dried beans/lentils and mac & cheese. Keep in mind  items must be non-perishable and, if at all possible, low-sodium.

“Together with Greater Chicago Food Depository, we serve more than 1.4 million men, women and children each year,” said Julie Yurko, president and CEO of Northern Illinois Food Bank. “Without partners like Mariano’s and the One Million Pounds program, we simply would not be able to do that and we are so grateful – especially during the holiday season.”

Additional details on the One Million Pounds initiative can be found on Mariano’s FacebookTwitter and website at www.marianos.com. Hashtag: #MarianosMillionPounds and #MyMarianos.

Mariano’s, owned by Roundy’s Supermarkets, Inc., is a wholly owned subsidiary of The Kroger Co.  (NYSE:KR).

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Whisky and 5 fun Chicago holiday events 2017

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We’re on the brink of the holiday season with Thanksgiving only 2 weeks away. The holidays rank high among the many good reasons to break out the fine spirits. And so, of course, now is a grand time to stock up on your preferred whisk(e)y – Scotch, bourbon, et al. – to enjoy in front of the fire or the candles or the television, or whatever strikes your mood that day.
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Some of our favorites include Japanese Hibiki Harmony, beautifully blended, light and layered with flavors from Beam Suntory ($80), Tullamore D.E.W., a delightful and smooth Irish whisky ($44), and Glenfiddich’s array of excellent Scotch whiskies which include, among many others, the Experimental Series with Project XX (twenty), India Pale Ale Cask, finished in ale barrels and great paired with ale – talk about a classy boilermaker! ($70), and its most recent star known as Glenfiddich Winter Storm, 21-year-old Scotch finished in ice wine casks – the heightened candied sweets and oak flavors of Glenfiddich complemented by mouth-watering tropical fruit notes and underlying wine notes ($240).

And see below an opportunity next week to pair some well-known Kentucky whiskey brands with some delicious meats. And then check out a few other fun holiday events coming up.
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Texas de Brazil Churrascaria gets into the spirit with delicious Kentucky Bourbon Dinners offered at their Chicago place at 210 E. Illinois, on Wednesday, November 15 – and at their Schaumburg location on Tuesday, November 14. The special four-bourbon, three-course dining events pair Jim Beam and other whiskey brands with the restaurant’s unique menu, begin at 6:30pm Cost $95 per person, inclusive.
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Guests at the Kentucky Bourbon Dinners will be welcomed with a Maker’s Mark Mango Mint Julep before being invited to experience the salad area which includes over 50 freshly-prepared salads, soups and side dishes to be paired with the Basil Hayden served neat.  The main course includes rodizio-style service of freshly-grilled cuts of meats carved tableside from skewers by costumed gauchos and paired with Knob Creek served neat. And for a truly sweet conclusion to the evening, the Jim Beam Vanilla will be paired with a slice of pecan pie a la mode. Tickets available here.
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Saturday, November 18, 9 to 11am, bring the kids for Breakfast with Santa at both Texas de Brazil locations. The events benefit Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana (RMHC®-CNI).  In Chicago, the fundraiser coincides with the annual BMO Harris Bank Magnificent Mile Lights Festival in its location just steps from the famed boulevard. On the same morning, suburban supporters can dine at the Texas de Brazil at Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg. Special Santa  breakfast menu, children’s entertainment and gifts, and a surprise visit from Santa. Tickets $35 for adults, $20 for children 3-12 years of age, and $3 for those under 3. All children must be accompanied by an adult. Tickets for either location: www.RonaldHouseChicago.org/breakfastwithsanta.
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TrEat Me Fest goodies
TrEat Me Fest goodies

TrEat Me Fest, offers new ways to eat and pamper yourself. Sunday, December 3 (two sessions 11 to 1pm or 1 to 3pm) produced by Social Power Hour is back for a one-day festival at Concord Fifty+Five. Prepare to relax and treat yourself with samples from companies that offer treats, eats, drinks and pampering services. The current vendors included for the ultimate TrEat Yourself are as follows: (more to be announced closer to the event date): Knife & Tine,Bai Drinks, Spiritual Center, Getaround, Your Father’s Toffee, barkTHINS, Essa Dora. $25 ticket gets you samples and two cocktails. Purchase tickets at Eventbrite.

Dovetail Brewery wood and leather crafts for sale
Dovetail Brewery wood and leather crafts for sale
Dovetail Brewery’s Second Annual Holiday Market, Saturday, December 16, 12 to 7pm. Check out craft artisans selling a variety of goods in Dovetail’s upstairs barrelhouse loft (1800 W. Belle Plaine at N. Ravenswood; 773-683-1414). Artisanal goods range from wood and leather to brown soap to original artwork. Shop until you drop, and then take a seat downstairs in the taproom and recharge with any of Dovetail’s highly praised beers including their Holiday Bock. The Holiday Bock is stronger than your typical lager, with a robust malt character, a darker hue and a slight candied-fruit sweetness. Enjoy snacks from the bar and from favorite Chicago food truck Bruges Brothers. In addition, Sausage König will be selling sausage baskets and currywurst.
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Carnivale adds raw bar to its exotic food-drink-music mix

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Invited recently to experience Carnivale, we walked into the large venue at 702 W. Fulton St. in Chicago’s trendy and bustling West Loop. Immediately colorful lights inspired our vision and energetic Latin-fusion music warmed up our party parts. We got the definite feeling we were going to have a good time – and the goal of their staff members seems to be just that: do everything they can to make sure a good time is what you have.

What’s a party without music and live entertainment? At Carnivale scantily clad acrobatic artists perform at strategic locations around the dining area, including a long-blonde-haired mermaid waving her tail while suspended in a net above the tables and painted hard-body entertainers executing feats of skill or gyrating to the music.

The food and wine and cocktails are carefully curated. Our knowledgeable server, Jorge, who is also the restaurant’s sommelier, offered expert guidance in choosing dishes from the dinner menu and beverages that perfectly complemented them.

A new addition to Carnivale’s offerings is its extensive raw bar. Jorge recommended the raw-bar-for-two ($50) – a delightful collection of seafood goodies including poached shrimp, crab claw and half-lobster tail – cooked just right and served with several interesting sauce options in addition to fresh lemon. This dish – possibly one of the best values on the menu – was served dramatically in what looked like a professional toolbox that you open from the middle, the long way, to stepped sides. Nestled in the ice on the bottom were three dishes of Carnivale’s delicious and unique ceviches – generous for two to split. Hard to decide which we liked the best: shrimp,  blue crab, or mixto (shrimp, calamari, octopus and a delicious combination of slightly exotic touches like preserved lemon, sweet potato, cilantro and more).

After such a generous starter, it made sense to split Jorge’s next recommendations: the dry-aged prime ribeye ($49) and Hook’s cheddar potato gratin. Meat was nicely grilled and flavorful, though somewhat chewy, with a succulent wine reduction on the side. The potato gratin made a nice pairing. Good thing to split those, because the dessert Jorge suggested was irresistable – the Chocolate Dome ($9), made with white and dark chocolate mousse, strawberry sorbet and fresh strawberries. It was so visually appealing and so incredibly mouth-watering, most of it was gone before the photo got taken.

Since you can’t eat everything on the menu, when you visit Carnivale be sure to look around at other tables. See if you can spot a cotton candy dessert (complete with housemade caramel corn) or even one of their signature cotton candy cocktails. It’s just one more way to liven the party up. And don’t forget their Latin-inspired fusion brunch on weekends. And by the way, they have lots of space for private events – a great place for companies to put on a party or for you to put one on for friends and loved ones.

Whether you’re in the mood to party, or you want to get into the mood, Carnivale clearly stands ready to turn on party mode at all hours every day of the week. Contact them here for reservations or to find out more.

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Common Threads raises $$ to teach kids nutrition

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You walked into Revel Fulton Market and the aromas were overwhelmingly delicious. The lighting: subtle and kinda sexy. The chefs: infectiously enthusiastic. The wine and drinks flowed freely. And the big stars of the night were the chef-love-inspired dishes.
 Ironic as it may be to have a food-oriented fundraiser for underserved children, it makes perfect sense in a way. Allproceeds from the event support the educational efforts of Common Threads to teach kids better nutrition. Attendees paid either VIP or general admission ticket prices to enjoy samples of food from some of Chicago’s finest – even Michelin starred – restaurants.

How lucky can a donor goer get? Glazed duck breast from Acadia. Succulent, crispy-kale-topped Farro Risotto with the best-tasting and least fatty pork belly ever from The Florentine. From Troquet River North, astonishingly flavorful roasted tiny carrots – not those wooden-tasting “baby” carrots from the grocery store  – sprinkled with crunchy hazelnut-and-herb granola and nestled in a little pouf of Greek yogurt. A delightful spicy pork wonton with crispy toppings from Travelle. And some kick-a** barbecued deviled eggs from III Forks. Num! And the goodies went on and on. Visit here for a complete list of participating restaurants – and 32 good reasons for you to come to the next one!

Congratulations to Common Threads for bringing together so many fine Chicago restaurants to support their wonderful cause – helping kids and families learn to eat more healthfully.
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Understanding Japanese saké

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Japan loves that so many people in the U.S. have become fans of their cuisine. Representatives from Japan and several U.S. Japanese experts agreed to participate in a panel discussion about Japanese cuisine and saké, held at the Japan Information Center this week. Steve Dolinsky of ABC 7 hosted the discussion as part of kickoff week for Chicago Gourmet.

Chilled sake bottles. AND the cans of sake sold in vending machines everywhere in Tokyo
Chilled sake bottles. AND the cans of sake sold in vending machines everywhere in Tokyo

In addition to the panel, several companies presented various iterations of their trademark sakés for tasting. Unlike traditional wines, saké – known as rice wine – is brewed like beer. Aromas, just as with grape-based wines, range from floral to fruity and everywhere in between. Flavors depend on the precise combination of rice, water, koji and yeast, and vary according to profile, some even made of only rice and water. Varieties also change according to how much of the rice hull is polished away before fermenting.

Panelists agreed that the sophistication of saké has grown in tandem with the curiosity of U.S. consumers. The drink has come a very long way since 30 years ago when, if you ordered saké with your dinner, in most Asian restaurants you’d get a stoneware cruet of something – room temp or heated – that was barely drinkable.  Now saké breweries produce dozens of subtly different saké wines.

Kombu - dried kelp used in making dashi broth
Kombu – dried kelp used in making dashi broth

Panelists talked about Japanese cuisine, too, tossing around terms like dashi – a broth made of steeped bonito fish flakes and kombu – a staple of Japanese cooking. They passed around pieces of kombu (dried kelp) so that attendees could feel and smell it. Everyone agreed Asian cooking is healthy, and raising consumption is simply a matter of continuing to educate consumers about saké and Japanese cooking.

Saké comes in multiple categories (list below), and premium sakés should always be served chilled to preserve their aromas:

  • Diaginjo and Ginjo – pair well with light foods and hors d’oeuvres.
  • Honjozo and Junmai – pair with a wide variety of foods, from sashimi to beef.
  • Bold types of saké – pair with heavier, gamier foods like cheese and beef. Bold types may include some Kimoto, Yamahai, Nama (unpasteurized) Genshu and Koshu (aged saké).
  • NIgori (cloudy) saké and sparkling saké
Shohei Shimokawa sampling sake
Shohei Shimokawa sampling sake

Saké is made in hundreds of different breweries. Then like traditional wines, an importer/distributor team must agree to represent the products in the U.S. Importers include some prestigious wine importing firms like Kobrand Wine & Spirits, Terlato Wines International, and many more. Two importers present were Vine Connections – their rep Jonathan Edwards says those Bushido cans of saké (photo at top) will be in Binny’s by next week – and Tenzing Wine and Spirits, the only table  present that offered samples of an unpasteurized version. Saké Boys from Kyushu was pouring samples of their premium saké (photo). Tip: their website includes brief, helpful explanations about the brewing process.

For your next meal of Asian food, talk to an expert in saké so you can experiment with pairing. How about saké and steak, Chicago?

Sake sample bottles
Sake sample bottles
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Bourbon on Division – way more than a late night haven

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Bourbon on Division bar
Bourbon on Division bar

Known for its late-night drinks and menu that make it a popular haven for late-hour denizens of Division Avenue, the recently opened Bourbon on Division restaurant and bar offers a small collection of creative interpretations of Southern-influenced dishes for dinner from 5pm onward, a selection of hand-craft cocktails (many bourbon-based) and a respectable rotating list of bourbons available as either 1.5 or 2-ounce pours ranging in price from $7 to $27. The food menu varies, too, depending on what’s available.

The late-night menu features lots of stomach-filling items – cheese curds, “sloppy” fries with white cheddar Mornay sauce and pork belly, smoked wings (delicious), fried shrimp and fries, chicken barbecue in white sauce with pickles on a brioche bun $11. The burger comes loaded with Dijon, mayo, cheddar, red onion and house pickles. $8. Beef it up with an extra patty for another $4. The bar’s open until 4am and the kitchen until 2am.
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And there are plenty of compelling reasons to come in earlier, namely for delicious dishes you can’t get on the late-night menu. Let’s start with dessert for the heck of it. Pecan pie is just what you think and served with bourbon whip cream. Fruit cobbler very tasty – baked in a tiny skillet with brown sugar streusel and an ovoid of caramel ice cream on top $6 – very tasty. The mint julep Creme Brûlée comes in a huge serving with the sugar crust you expect, except with a different kind of filling – like a mint julep pudding underneath for $7. The chef said he’s still experimenting with this one. The spicy chocolate meringue pie sounded fabulous – cinnamon meringue on a spicy chocolate custard nestled in the house-made crust and served with Berry Coulis. $8. We didn’t get to try this but want to, soon.
From the main menu we first tried the smoked chicken wings ($9). A generous serving of fried-but-not-breaded wings came with a sweet pepper jelly that made a wonderful sauce and with crispy black-eyed peas and garlic chips for a nice crunchy contrast. The carrot salad ($7) features a big heap of shaved smoked carrots mixed with arugula, pistachios and honey lemon vinaigrette, all generously sprinkled with pickled mustard seeds – the whole combo a serious high-nutrition/flavor winner.
The grilled salmon trout (pinker than regular brook trout) was cooked to tender, juicy perfection – the thing was served practically smoking hot and yes, literally, the juices were running from the fish onto the plate – and the roasted spaghetti squash that came with it was succulent and sweet, just browned enough from the roasting. We took a chance on this dish, because neither one of us had had a positive experience with spaghetti squash in the past, but this version was a definite 5-star, as was the entire dish. Absolutely worth the $18 price.
My companion had the chicken and dumplings ($16) which consisted of juicy beer-braised chicken, herbed dumplings frosted with a white cheddar Mornay sauce, pea puree and shaved vegetables. She was particularly pleased that the dish contained dark meat, her favorite. $16.
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Love the spherical cube in the Black Rob cocktail
Love the spherical cube in the Black Rob cocktail

Cocktails are made with care and flare. A few to consider: Methuen’s Bargain ($14, gin based from Ireland), the Black Rob (Scotch based – we loved the hand-made spherical ice cube!), the Sippin’ on Gin and Cider ($12), and the Midnight Campfire (bourbon combined with DiSaronno and other goodies $13). Unique combinations of flavors worth trying. Big list of bourbons, not surprising given the restaurant name, and a nicely curated list of higher quality wines. Prices for wine by the glass range from $8 to $16, so you can choose from a good variety. The restaurant also offers brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 to 5pm.

Our server, Gigi, is well on her way to becoming a full-fledged wine sommelier as well as a whisk(e)y sommelier. She gave us lots of good information and guidance on the menu and the drinks. We were there at 5pm on a Thursday, just as the place opened and were lucky to have her full attention. Eclectic music selections – from bluegrass to country rap and country hard rock – made a lively background. Don’t expect Beethoven here, but do expect good food and interesting drinks.
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