Category Archives: fine dining

Antinori embraces Cabernet Sauvignon for Italian wines

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The Antinori family believes in tradition – and innovation, too. They introduced the Cabernet grape to Italy, in a spot where many other grape varieties can’t grow, and began experimenting with blending Cabernet with Italian grapes. The resulting wines have been exceptional, and now they are spreading the word.

Copyright Jeff Schear 2014 All Right Reserved
Alessia and Niccolo share their passion for Antinori wines

She’s tall and slender, full of energy, and passionate about her mission. She is Alessia, the youngest daughter in the Antinori vintner family – the winemaker who travels the world alone and with her father, Marchesi. The family is the 26th generation to grow wines in Italy and now in Napa Valley. Together they imbibe lessons from cultures on several continents, the better to enrich their own winemaking wisdom. Alessia and her two sisters work closely with their father to manage the three Antinori wine estates in Italy and in America.

Alessia’s shoulder length, softly wavy brown hair moves in time to her graceful arm movements as she nods to emphasize her words. She is introducing five of the Antinori wines to a group of 60 people in Chicago. The Antinori wines being introduced are all made with some percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, for that is the theme of the evening: The Antinori Family’s Fascination with Cabernet around the World. Each wine has a subtle complexity along with delicacy and elegance in its blending. Several of them (see list below) are extraordinarily subtle and refined on the palate, especially the only-made-in-exceptional-years 2011 Solaia Toscana, made from grapes grown in a small southwest-facing vineyard next to their Tignanello vineyard in the Chianti Classico area of Italy.

Copyright Jeff Schear 2014 All Right Reserved
Only in exceptional years – Solaia Toscana

As Niccolo Maltinti, U.S. Commercial Director and Brand Ambassador, said about this Solaia, “This is not a Sophia-Loren-type wine. It’s one of the most elegant wines, but with a backbone. You want to spend time with it and discover it slowly.” He said the poor, rocky soil here, “makes Cabernet Sauvignon grapes speak with an Italian accent.”

Alessia speaks warmly about the commitment to quality and the passion with which her family has been making wines for 600 years. She says these family values are transmitted seamlessly from generation to generation. Since her great-grandmother was American, her family has always felt a pull towards the United States – so it only made sense when her father visited Napa Valley that he would fall in love. He promptly bought 500 acres, built himself a home (an American style home built by an Italian architect) and went to work creating their estate vineyards.

Copyright Jeff Schear 2014 All Right Reserved
Coco Pazzo’s fabulous venison ravioli with black truffle and wine reduction

The Cabernet event, held in the Florentine Room of the J.W. Marriott Chicago, paired a number of Antinori wines with fabulous Italian food creations, among them osso bucco with saffron risotto, braised lamb lasagna, and from Coco Pazzo, handmade venison ravioli with black truffle and wine reduction.

Copyright Jeff Schear 2014 All Right Reserved
Alessia’s – and my! – favorite il Bruciato

Alessia gives away her secret – the wine she drinks every day at home is their il Bruciato, a full-bodied red made of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 15% Syrah. It’s wonderfully red and deep and pairs perfectly with many types of foods. And I was pleased to learn that the wine I liked so much that evening – and had to go back for more of – turned out to be her favorite, il Bruciato.

Barry Devine, the wine manager at Fleming’s Steakhouse in Lincolnshire, said he already carries several Antinori estate wines. He considers “Guado al Tasso Il Bruciato, the second label of the winery, and the Tormaresca Neprica (a blend of Negroamaro, Primativo, and Cabernet Sauvignon) fine examples of elegant wines at great value.” He said another great wine and great value is their Villa Antinori Toscana (Sangiovese, Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah blend). In addition to being “great values, these wines are good representatives of their respective areas,” Barry said, and generally score in the 90 point range in respected wine publications.

I asked Alessia a little about herself. She said realized when she was a teenager that she had a choice of where to go in life. Her father never forced her to go into the business, she said. But when she asked her father if she should go for art history or go to Milan to learn winemaking, he unhesitatingly said, “Go to Milan!” Though she knows she could have done something else, she loves the profession she has committed her life to.

Copyright Jeff Schear 2014 All Right Reserved
Alessia, sharing her enthusiasm

When asked if it was unusual today for women to be winemakers, she said, “No, not today. But 20 years ago when I started, I was one of only two women in a class with 30 guys.“

She spoke of how being a family-owned winery makes a difference. I asked her to elaborate. “How our family succeeded – it takes humility, open-mindedness, culture, passion, and curiosity. With the family transmitting the culture and commitment from generation to generation, it assures a continuing sense of responsibility. Otherwise people change, and they don’t have the same commitment.” She spoke of how pleasant it is to be involved with nature. “It took 26 generations to build this company,” she said. “It can take only one moment to destroy it. Everything depends on how you behave, how you transmit the values and ideals to the future generations.“ These values are natural in a family-owned wine business, said Alessia, but they must be tended constantly. “When I speak at events like this, that’s how I show my passion.”

On promoting their wines: “My father was a pioneer in the 1970s in discovering new areas, and in Italy we went to other cities to bring our wines and to promote wine drinking in general.” About traveling alone to India and Asia she said, “It was very challenging. I learned about their traditions, culture – very similar to ours – their religious commitments, history, and ancient culture. Also, no one knew me; I could be myself as a person.”

What about here in the US? “I learned about the huge market potential of the U.S., and that everyone focuses on the main cities. In the 50s and 60s it was more about whiskey and beer in the US. There is a huge revolution here, enormous. In Napa Valley we learned a great deal about using Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.”

Alessia’s favorite everyday Antinori wine, il Bruciato, is available at Binny’s and sold in Eataly by the glass.

Antinori Cabernet wines:

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Go North to Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Michigan

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Ever been to Northern Michigan? I just went there for the first time recently, and I can tell you it’s beautiful country. It’s a delightful place to escape from Chicago’s intensity for a bit. Happily, there’s a cool resort – owned and operated by the Chippewa and Ottawa Indian tribes – near Traverse City that’s got everything you need for a real retreat. It’s called Grand Traverse Resort & Spa.

Three golf courses – all respectably difficult – grace the property. The outdoor pool has its own food service (in season). The fully equipped health club is huge – 100,000 square feet – and includes five beautifully maintained indoor tennis courts, two indoor pools and two hot tubs open early to late, a full fitness center with machines, weights and classes, and a childcare center called the Cub House.

Also, on premises you have three restaurants (read about Aerie here) and a whole little avenue of shopping pleasures. MudPie offers delightful gifts and fun fashions and accessories. Dylan’s Candy Bar has a host of sweet treats and fun little gifts for kids. Tumbleweeds carries toys and games for kids of all ages. Plus there’s an American Spoon shop with fabulously creative jams, sauces, and more.

Plus, you can always visit the Turtle Creek Casino down the road if you’re one who enjoys gambling. Plus you can visit nearby National Forests – Huron-Manistee, sample good food in Traverse City (Amical), visit lighthouses and wineries. You will not be bored.

By the way, this part of Michigan is about to receive millions of dollars for repair and resurfacing highways and byways. So if you’ve ever been in this area and run into some difficult traffic or roads, you should find smoother sailing soon.

Don’t take the highway up there. Rather take the scenic route up Route 31 (the trip is seven-ish hours) and stop in one or two of the little lakeside towns (starting from closest to Traverse City): Frankfort, Manistee, Ludington, Muskegon and Saugatuck are all charming places to get a meal or a drink. Crowded in the summer, but still fun to see even off-season.

It was my first time in Northern Michigan – and I’m hoping I’ll be back again soon.

 

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Lovely restaurant in Northern Michigan resort

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I love to feel welcome and elegant when I travel. The restaurant on the 16th floor of the tower at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa made me feel just that way on a recent visit. Called Aerie, it surely is – an airy delight. Graceful panels of ceiling-to-floor, white, lacy fabric separate the space informally. A wall of curvy booths offers cozy accommodations for small parties. The space was completely redone in 2007 by Simeone Deary Design Group of Chicago.

Walls of glass – 360 degrees around – let in the view of Lake Michigan bays and expansive Northern Michigan woodlands. And bathe patrons in the rays of the setting sun when the hour is right.

The evening we arrived for dinner it was still early, so the place was flooded with bright sunshine – too bright for comfort at many tables. Our host was gracious about letting us walk around to find a table with a little shade – and we were delighted to find a perfect spot.

We studied the menu over cocktails and asked for our server’s recommendations. As soon as we ordered, an amuse bouche arrived consisting of two tiny cups of rich lobster bisque drizzled with vanilla chorizo oil and fresh squeezed lime juice and topped with lime zest and micro greens. What a tempting way to introduce a new soup being added to the menu.

GT scallop appCheyenne, our server, had highly recommended the scallops, so we ordered the scallop appetizer. The julienned vegetables were crisp and delicious, the scallops tender and full of flavor. The sauce – well, we had to ask for bread so we could soak it all up.  She told us she was bringing us bread with the next course, but we couldn’t wait.

For main courses we had a fish and a steak entree, respectively. Nicely cooked – fish moist, steak done to order, my broccoli rabe, crisp – though my side mash and sauce were not favorites.

GT fish

GT steak

 

 

 

 

For dessert we studied the complex creations on offer and decided we just wanted some ice cream. Cheyenne consulted the chef and, eh, voilá, he kindly agreed to our request. Out came a delightful presentation of three different flavored scoops plus a small helping of pot de creme (each from one of the desserts on the menu) on a beautiful, crisply white four-section serving plate. We were thrilled – and loved the combination of flavors. We are hoping they’ll put this on their menu for future visits!

GT ice cream dessert

We were pleased with the wine recommendations and delighted with our experience. Cheyenne was attentive and friendly throughout. It was also fun to learn that one of the new Sous Chefs in the kitchen here, Nick Battista, worked with legendary Chef Charlie Trotter at his eponymous restaurant in Chicago before its untimely closing.

More about Chef de Cuisine William Matthews (Chef Bill) and stories about his culinary domain in another article.  Oh, and the wonderful spa, too.

When you next visit Traverse City for golf or gambling or whatever, treat yourself to a magnificent view and a good meal at Aerie in the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa.  A pleasant 7 hours from Chicago via Route 31 up the coast – and much prettier than the highway. Don’t use Google Maps’ directions; call the Resort at 800.236.1577 for nicer alternatives.

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Eataly lets you taste your olive oil before you buy

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English: Olives in olive oil.
English: Olives in olive oil. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Making olive oil is an intense labor of love in Italy. Some even call their olive oils their children. So how are we mere-mortal, non-olive-oil-making folks to know what to buy?

The selection at all-things-Italian Eataly, 43 E. Ohio is, as they say, humongous. Happily, Eataly has an on-site oliologist (olive oil expert) who knows her way around – and will gladly show you your way around, too. Which means, you get to have a private tasting before you buy. A few more quick tips from Gabriella Gentile, Guest Relations Supervisor and Olive Oil Specialist:

You don’t need to know anything special before you taste. The olio expert will ask about the profiles of oils you think you might like, and will then select a few for you to try.

Traditionally you are advised to chew a small slice of apple (Granny Smith is good) or small piece of bread between tastings, but you’d have to bring (or buy) your own in Eataly.

Optimum numbers for a single tasting are three oils and up to five. Italy’s Northern, Central, and Southern regions each have a distinct flavor profile. Tasting three to five oils should give you a good understanding of what region and type of oil you prefer.

Olive oil from Imperia in Liguria, Italy.
Olive oil from Imperia in Liguria, Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before you go and get your tasting, it might be fun to read what Eataly’s NYC oliologist has to say about choosing olive oils in this interview on SeriousEats.com. He’s the guy who trained all six olio experts in our Chicago store. The point is olive oil, just like wine, is a reflection of its terroir (where it’s grown), which olives it’s composed of, and how those olives are harvested and processed. The many varieties come with widely different tastes and aromas.

Another way to choose is to look for brands that have won awards. Veronafiere, another organization dedicated to promoting all things Italian, also gives other countries a chance to compete in the world of olive oils. They just put out the winning names of the top 9 olive oils in the Southern Hemisphere and a few honorable mentions.

So you should be ready with this background to go forth and follow your nose to a great olive oil – for cooking, drizzling or dipping. Be ready to shell out some bucks; good olive oils are not cheap. But Ms. Gentile says everyone should be able to walk out of Eataly with a bottle they love in a price range they’re comfortable with.

 

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Top-drawer dinner special at David Burke’s Primehouse

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How do you judge the excellence of a steakhouse? Quality of the meat, certainly. The sides matter, of course. But in some cases, more than the food sets one place above another – ambience, wine pairings and service.

That’s where David Burke’s Primehouse, located in The James Hotel at 616 N. Rush St. , stands out. If all the wait staff are as knowledgeable and attentive as was Bryan, our server on a recent visit, this place gets nearly five stars. Plus the wines they paired with our food were truly exceptional. The first one, for example, was a blend of their own vintages that rated a solid four stars.

Primehouse occasionally offers a prix fixe menu with wine pairings at an attractive price compared to ordering a la carte. Once you review the regular menu and look at what you would have been paying, you realize just how attractive the package is.

At any rate, the Primehouse folks select the menu to showcase some of their most popular items. The appetizer, Surf & Turf Dumplings, takes the prize for imaginative use of ordinary ingredients. Two little dumplings – really, deep-fried dough-covered-fillings-on-a-stick – come out beautifully displayed on a pair of square pristine-white plates – set off brilliantly by the restaurant’s subtle mood lighting.

And then comes the taste. Layer upon layer of flavor jumps out as you bite into each dumpling – one made with lobster and roasted lemon chutney, and the other with meltingly tender beef short rib meat seasoned with pickled red onion and spicy mustard. The dish was reminiscent of the finely wrought, multi-layered-flavors in certain Asian delicacies but with a distinctly North American weight to it.

Next came an arugula salad full of almost-bacony flavor from the house-smoked-over-applewood truffle tomatoes, set off with pine nuts and coated lightly with a creamy goat cheese fondue. Nice combo. Especially enjoyed the slight bitterness of the greens with the creamy smoothness of the dressing.

We were taken aback when Bryan delivered the next plate. Three very large chunks of seared, rare ahi tuna sat atop a vegetable mix consisting of preserved fennel, bell peppers, black olives and a few green beans. A more than generous serving of an intriguing combination, though not a favorite for either of us.

Next, the piece de resistance. The auxiliary server arrived with a large char-grilled steak. Bryan was concerned that it might be overdone (we’d requested one serving medium rare and one medium well). We appreciated that he asked to have it taken back so the chef could confirm it was properly cooked to order. While we waited, Bryan explained this is their most popular steak – the bone-in 55-day dry-aged ribeye, and that it hangs in their own dry-aging smokehouse for that many days before it’s sent to the grill.

The steak came back from the kitchen confirmed, and the auxiliary server carved it for us, first in half, and then in slices, giving each of us pieces that conformed to our wished-for doneness. Sides included an aluminum basket of French Fries seasoned with truffle oil and melted Asiago cheese, and a generous helping of Roasted Mushrooms seasoned with shallots, sherry vinegar and herbs and served in a sizzling oval skillet.  While none of these dishes reached beyond good, they were nicely prepared and flavorful.

Throughout the meal both Bryan and the sommelier kept us in generous tastes of the selected paired fine wines. Bryan was also kind enough to write out the list of wines for us:

  • Palette Pinot Noir 2013 (Primehouse’s own blend for sale by request at $75/bottle) – exceptional
  • William Fevre Chablis 2012 – a beautifully balanced, un-oaky Chardonnay
  • Sanford Chardonnay 2013 – Santa Barbara
  • Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – Napa Valley – exceptional

Finally, a composed dessert called Coconut & Mango. Coconut cake, mango semifreddo (softly frozen custard), mango mojito sorbet, and key lime chia seed gelee. Delicious flavors artfully arranged in a plate-size carnival of color variations, textures and shapes and served with a respectable Italian Moscato, this was a winner.

I’ll be back when this fabulous special is available again.

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Making wine – it’s all about science, art and love

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SG_Mike_Trujillo2Tall, fit and handsome. Silver-tinged sideburns. Relaxed, warm and friendly. Mike Trujillo is the face ofSequoia Grove Winery—and the heart behind its unique wines. He exudes the same classic aura as the Sequoia Grove (SG) wines he personally oversees. It’s nice to meet a winemaker in person—and a cool way to identify great wines.

Sequioa Grove Winery, created under the guidance of legendary Napa consultant Andre Tchelistcheff, nestles in a stand of redwoods in Napa Valley and has been creating wines since 1982 when Mike first joined the effort. Now the estate has truly flowered under his leadership as president and head winemaker.

A master winemaker in the making
Mike comes by his winemaking talent naturally. Having grown up helping his father on their 3000-acre farm in Colorado, he learned at an early age about how soil, climate, pests and critters affect living, growing plants. He first started out in college in an engineering program, so it never occurred to him he’d end up applying all his hard-earned farming knowledge to the fine art of winemaking. Now, 31 years after a fateful road trip, he’s taking Sequoia Grove estate wines to new heights.

It all started one day when Mike and some buddies were on a break from college. During a road trip to Napa Valley destiny intervened when they were asked to help out in the cellar at Sequoia Grove where they were visiting. Out in the vineyards and living the life, Mike caught the wine bug—bad and, as it turns out, permanently.

Working closely with Tchelistcheff and the owner, Mike paid close attention as they refined Sequoia Grove’s cabernets and chardonnays. Later he worked for a time on the Domaine Carneros estate. Realizing he was in the business for life, Mike enrolled at the University of California at Davis to study winemaking in that extension program. He says winemaking uses all the skills he developed both in farming and in engineering—planning and executing irrigation and designing and laying out the vineyards being among the biggest challenges.

Thinking big from the start, Mike launched his career by creating Karl Lawrence – his own brand of Cabernet wine. He was using SG facilities and building a following. Then in 2001 when the founder of SG retired and the Kopf family partners took over ownership, they recruited Mike to head the operation. His first goal was to incorporate some of the more modern approaches to winemaking. His dream was to make SG wines bigger, not in the sense of higher alcohol content but of being more expressive of their place of origin, the Rutherford Bench region of Napa Valley.

Secrets of a master winemaker
You couldn’t ask for a better location than the soil of Rutherford and its micro-climate—what time of day the sun shines on the grapes, for example, and how the ocean affects them. So Mike spent the first few years upgrading the quality of the grapes. “You’ve got to have great grapes to make great wine,” he said. He had acres replanted within a quarter mile of the winery, and he used the first new fruit from the Sequoia Grove vineyards in the Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 vintage. He also uses grapes from a few select trusted growers nearby, such as Gary Morisoli, Beckstoffer Vineyards, Healy Vineyards, Stagecoach Vineyards, and a few more. Mike said, “At Sequoia Grove, we concentrate on putting the bling in the bottle—and that starts in the vineyards.”

Then there’s the precise moment of picking. Do the grapes have that certain something? Only a well-developed instinct can tell you when they’re right, and long experience deepens and broadens your knowledge. How tightly are the grapes clinging to the vines? When you shake the vines, how many grapes fall off? What do you do when it rains all season, or when an overwhelming influx of some insect or critter attacks your vines? The best answers aren’t always the stuff you learn in school.

Next steps in the winemaking are crushing and pressing the fruit, skins and pulp, to create the must. Then fermentation, clarifying, aging and bottling. Takes a lot of experience to know when the flavor, aroma and color are perfect for your intended wine—tasting is essential at every step.

And then there’s blending. Mike drew a simple arc and talked about how it’s done (see photo). If there’s a flavor in a wine that’s too strong—represented by spikes rising above the arc—it can be fixed by blending with other wines. But when something is missing in a wine—some element falls below the curve—it’s generally too late by this stage. Those kinds of weaknesses need to have been “fixed” by getting it right from the start, from soil to grapes to must and so on.

Re-imagining chardonnay
One of Mike’s goals was to produce a unique Chardonnay. “I wanted to make a more food complementary wine,” Mike said. His aim was to create a wine that “doesn’t bombard you with butter and oak flavors before you get to the food.” Instead he describes his 2009 vintage Carneros Chardonnay as establishing a “true partnership with the gourmet food you love to eat.” With just a tiny touch of the sharpness of, for example, a sauvignon blanc, this lovely wine sits easy on the palate, gently inviting you to relax and enjoy the warm, soft, full flavor with your lobster or scallops. And since this Chardonnay comprises only 8% of their production, it’s a special find.

Making the most of Cabernet Sauvignon
Mike’s next goal was to work his magic on the grape this area of Napa is famed for—Cabernet Sauvignon. With contributions of several types of grapes from several Rutherford vineyards—Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot—Mike makes a wine that is artfully blended each year and aged to produce the flavor and approachability you’ll find in all their Cabernets.

While the Rutherford area of Napa is well-known for fine Cabernet wines like Silver Oak, SG’s signature Napa Valley Cabernet continues to make its own high mark in the world of fine wines. Their 2009 vintage was a truly beautiful wine, and they made just over 17,000 cases for worldwide distribution, so we’re talking a comparative treasure. You can get it at Chicago Cut Steakhouse and other fine Chicago restaurants (see ***list below).

A breakthrough in fine red wine
After a few years at the helm, Mike decided it was time to step way out of the box and create a wine that broke the rules. He selected the finest lots of a given vintage of Cabernet and then blended those with primarily Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Not quite enough Cabernet to be called a Cabernet (requires 75%), the new wine needed a name of its own. So Mike picked it: Cambium. The 2008 vintage is a wine that’s impossibly complex and rich. You just want to let it caress your senses long after each sip—I’ve never had a wine before that kept talking to me all the way down. Yet it pairs beautifully with the prime aged beef and sweet, rich crab meat served at Chicago Cut—and works fabulously with their Bearnaise butter sauce and lightly sautéed fresh spinach, too.

Mike works with Molly Hill, his fellow SG winemaker, each year to create these deeply flavored, complex and satisfying wines. And when he’s not tasting and tweaking—or training his daughter Sophia, age 7 (see photo) in the fine points of wine blending—Mike happily works with fellow winemakers and vintners in the area to foster the mission of the Rutherford Dust Society. Their goal is to promote only the highest quality in grapes and in wines and to strengthen people’s connection with the soil and land of Rutherford that’s so uniquely suited to these pursuits.

If you haven’t tried a really special wine in a while, you can’t go wrong with one of these Sequoia Grove beauties. And if you’re visiting Napa Valley, Mike says Sequoia Grove is a really laid back place. Don’t hesitate to stop by.
***Failing a trip to Rutherford, you can get some SG wines in the Chicago area at the fine restaurants listed below.

Chicago locations:

Hugo’s, 1024 N. Rush St.
Chicago Yacht Club, 400 E. Monroe St.
Chicago Cut Steakhouse, 300 N. Lasalle St.
Rosebud on Rush, 55 E. Superior St.
Rosebud Prime, 1 S. Dearborn St.
Levy Restaurants, 1901 W. Madison St.
Gibsons Steak House, 1028 N. Rush St.
Sunda, 110 W. Illinois St.
Shulas Steak House, 301 E. North Water St.
Socca, 3301 N. Clark St.
Signature Room, 875 N. Michigan Ave.
Capitol Grill, 633 N. St. Clair St.

Suburban locations:

Bastas, Peoria Heights
Clubhouse, Oak Brook
Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse, Des Plaines
Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse, Oak Brook
Glen Oaks Country Club, Glen Ellyn
Riverside Golf Club, Riverside
Potters Place, Naperville
Mecenat, Western Springs

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Creative cuisine at Ceres Table

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Update: Ceres Table is now located at 3124 N. Broadway Street.

Ceres TableCeres Table, 4882 North Clark Street, is located in a modern new building that sits across the street from some very quiet neighbors—a cemetery. It was raining the night we went so we couldn’t take advantage of their charming outdoor sidewalk space lit with tiny white lights on the tree growing through the sidewalk.

It’s off the beaten path for sure. Who knew that a truly gourmet Italian restaurant could be found in a far north corridor of Chicago? But since I’d already been impressed with the creative specials at Ceres Table, when a colleague reported having had an exceptional dining experience I was very pleased to get there for dinner one evening.

The décor is austere. Nice materials in clean lines, with no tablecloths or curtains—perhaps designed to help diners focus on the food. As the menu tells us, Ceres, the Roman goddess of the harvest (and also of mother love), was reputedly born in Sicily, like Giuseppe Scurato, the owner and chef at Ceres Table. We were happy to meet the chef very briefly after our hostess/server had seated us.

The menu here is clearly a reflection of its chef’s inspirations. Just a single example of an appetizer—squash blossoms, battered and fried and stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies—lets you know you’re not dealing with a typical red-sauce Italian restaurant. How about saffron rice balls stuffed with braised goat, peas and taleggio cheese? A strictly Italian cheese made using a technique called smear ripening—a unique method also used with a French favorite of mine, port du salut—I find just reading about taleggio cheese makes me want to go back and try that appetizer. And that’s true of any number of other unique dishes we didn’t have a chance to try that night.

We are assuredly not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.

Our server explained the menu—appetizers on the left, main courses on the right. Partway down the left side I found my appetizer of choice: shrimp crudo, made with laughing bird shrimp (environmentally friendly crustaceans recommended in a NY Times article) marinated—rather like a ceviche—in a citrus vinaigrette with clementines, hot peppers, celery leaves and fennel. The dish was served down the center of a beautiful rectangular plate and was deliciously refreshing.

My companion started with the seafood salad, a mixture of unique fruits of the sea that were cooked just until firm, not toughened, and included shrimp, mussels, claims, seppia (cuttlefish—a favorite in Italy), and baby octopus, all seasoned with parsley pesto and lemon. This dish is all about the seafood, so the seasoning definitely takes a subordinate place. We ordered a Malbec from Argentina that was decently priced and very good, though perhaps a little heavy for the dishes we chose.

Our main courses arrived in good time. But we were surprised, while waiting, to hear our server describing to the table next to us some specials of the evening that we hadn’t heard about, including fresh green beans which I’d have loved to try had I known. As we hadn’t felt particularly welcomed when we first arrived, this extra omission made us feel a little left out. Yet my companion, who’d eaten here a few weeks previously, reported having had excellent and attentive service, so your experience may depend on the night you go.

My friend ordered the grilled quail which came marinated and grilled. The quail—with those little tiny bones!—was tasty but a touch overdone. She really enjoyed the small serving of panzanella salad—a salad made out of bread!—that came with it.

My main course, the seafood mixed grill, was a standout. A generous slab of meaty swordfish had an ever-so-slightly rubbery texture but great taste. The accompanying seppia and gulf prawns were delightfully seasoned, had a bit of spice, and were perfectly cooked. The sambuca roasted potato slices were positively mouth-watering. The frisee (chicory) leaves on top made a just-right, crunchy-bitter complement to the succulent seafood and potatoes. The chef came out to check on us during our main courses—I only hope someday he’ll share how he prepares this dish!

We were excited about the dessert menu and had a hard time choosing. My friend, a die-hard devotee of raspberries and chocolate, chose the ice cream sandwich. Described as chocolate cookies and raspberry ice cream with hot fudge and chocolate chips, the two dainty sandwiches were filled with vanilla ice cream with real raspberries. Everything tasted good, but the chocolate cookies were frozen almost too hard to cut through. The suggested pairing of Prosecco di Valdobbiadene was a perfect complement.

When I saw “corn cake” on the menu my curiosity got the better of me. I’ve always loved good corn bread that was a little sweet, so I thought I couldn’t go wrong with this. The corn cake was, indeed, sweet but also meltingly tender, rich and fine-crumbed. It was served with dribbles of cilantro oil—a taste I thought might be overwhelming but was instead very subtle—and with several puffs of caramel popcorn tossed on the plate. Very original. I enjoyed every bite and scraped the plate to get the last taste. The suggested pairing of Niepoort 20-year-old port put the whole experience over the top.

  1. Examiner.com, Barbara Payne, http://www.examiner.com/lady-boomer-in-chicago/indulge-yourself-at-ceres-table-restaurant
  2. Wikipedia, Taleggio cheese, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taleggio_cheese
  3. New York Times, Florence Fabricant, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/11/dining/11shrimp.html
  4. Wikipedia, Cuttlefish, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuttlefish
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Quay Restaurant – riverside dining and drinks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phone: 312.981.8400,  Email: info@quaychicago.com

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

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

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

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