Category Archives: fine dining

What is “rich” food?

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Taste of the Danforth
Grilling makes most meats taste richer. Taste of the Danforth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richness. How do we experience that in regard to food? What does it mean to say a food is rich? The dictionary says the word relates to a multitude of qualities besides possessions (wealth). Something rich is said to “have high value or quality, or to be well-supplied or endowed.” How about a food rich in history? Potatoes, for example. The seven-year-long Great Famine in Ireland in 1845. Or tomatoes – carried from South America in the late 16th century to all parts of the world and once thought to be highly poisonous.

But, no, that’s not what we mean when we say a food is rich. Perhaps the grapes are rich – have high quality and thus can produce the best wines. Yeah, but that’s more about the qualities of the grapes and not so much about taste, which is what we’re mainly talking about in a cookbook (which I happen to be working on and which inspired this post).

The dictionary goes on. “Magnificently impressive, synonym: sumptuous.” Oh, yeah, I can see that applied to a lot of dishes – Beef Wellington (filet of beef wrapped in pastry), anyone? Or “vivid and deep in color.” Yes, a rich red tomato. A deep, rich browned crust on your ribeye. Okay, we’re getting there.

Merriam Webster continues, “having a strong fragrance.” Yes! Think about fresh-baked bread. About the aroma of pot roast on a cold winter’s night. Rich, for sure. Here’s one: “having abundant plant nutrients.” Okay, although we do use the phrase rich in nutrition – and perhaps strict vegans might use it in that sense – vitamins are not usually what we’re thinking of when we speak of the richness of a meal. Here’s one: “highly seasoned, fatty, oily, or sweet.” Indeed, this meaning is often used pejoratively – “That’s too rich for my blood,” someone will say of a dish loaded with butter or sugar or one sitting in a pool of rich wine reduction.

English: Crème brûlée prepared using a torch.
These are BIG dishes of lush creme brulee – but the browned-sugar coating isn’t rich enough yet.

And the last few from the dictionary: “high in some component” – again, this leads us to think of non-taste-related phenomena such as, for example, cholesterol, though we could use it to refer simply to taste itself. I like the mystery and subtlety of this definition: “meaningful, significant.” Yes. I can feel this one when I speak of a meal that is rich – including taste and sensation but layered perhaps with some emotion like love, happiness, contentedness. Another one, “lush” seems suitable for rich, silky, creamy foods like ice cream or crème brûlée.

And finally, “pure or nearly pure” could refer to the intensity of a single flavor, as in soup base that is rich with beef flavor or a dessert composed of several items (e.g., crust, filling and topping), all flavored with lime, or with vanilla.
And then there’s umami, the so-called “fifth taste.” Discovered after centuries of belief that there were only the classic four: salt, sweet, sour and bitter.  Umami is defined generally as “savory, related to lip-smacking, rich tasting.” How about some triple-cream brie cheese? Surprisingly, people of good will today still disagree as to whether umami is a legitimate classification. But why not? It fits. It’s a concept missing from the other four, so it makes sense as a category. But I doubt it will ever have the rich, multilayered connotations of the “r” term. I mean, “rich” even feels umami on your tongue, doesn’t it?
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Holiday gift guide for baby boomers – 4 edible ideas

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As Baby Boomers, we mostly feel like we don’t need any more “stuff,” yet we still might like to buy presents for friends or relatives who are in the same boat. What to do if you simply must buy something?

For people who have everything, or simply don’t want or need anything else, giving a food-related gift is just the ticket to express your gratitude, appreciation or love. Truly, you can’t go wrong with food. It’s dear to the hearts of every one of us – especially at this time of year… “ ) Here are a few ideas to consider.

OpenTable Gift Card

Let 'em dine and think of you!
Let ’em dine and think of you!

No, you don’t eat it, but this instant-gratification gift gets your giftee into a place she’d will want to eat. OpenTable Gift cards let you or the recipient personalize the gift precisely to taste – you pick her favorite restaurant or let her make the choice. Ideal for foodie friends and relatives who love new dining experiences. When you purchase an OpenTable gift card (available in denominations starting at $10), pick from the list of 180 restaurants in and around Chicago – or if she lives elsewhere, pick from more than 2,000 restaurants in 30-plus cities. The gift arrives via e-mail, and your giftee can either print it out and redeem it at the restaurant (good any hours the place is open), Or she can just show it to the server on her mobile device. The full amount of the gift is deducted from her final bill (remember to tip on the original amount!). Talk about convenience, and no fees – every penny of your gift counts.

Choose from several nice designs and put in a short or long personalized message. Then either send it right away – I love that it comes instantly into her inbox – or set the specific date you want it to arrive. And the fact that you can just carry it on your cell phone or tablet makes it super convenient – no coupons to forget or misplace. Every year OpenTable is becoming a bigger and better player in the food/restaurant space; this gift card idea beats the generic gift card all to heck.

Mrs. Prindable’s chocolate and caramel confections

Crisp apples, gooey chocolate and caramel
Crisp apples, gooey chocolate and caramel

If you love caramel apples, try one of these beauties. Mrs. Prindable’s uses deliciously crisp fresh apples and coats them with thick, softly chewy caramel and nuts, or stripes them with caramel and dark and milk chocolate, and decorates them to fit the season – e.g., beautiful Christmas or Hannukah trimmings. Their Chicago-style nut-and-chocolate-covered toffee makes a timeless, seasonless gift. You can order basketsful of Mrs. Prindable’s chocolate and caramel goodies of any size, starting at $29.99. Even if you’re watching the budget this year, you can still surprise your giftee with a box of four chocolate-covered caramels for $5.99 or a pack of three chocolate-and-caramel-covered pretzels for $7.99 – though if you don’t want to pay shipping [$10.99 for that $5.99 item), you can pick up your order in Mrs. Prindable’s Factory Store, 7425 Croname Rd in Niles. While you’re there, check out the dark or milk chocolate Nut Clusters, the Truffles and the endless combinations of boxed delights. These goodies are beautifully packaged in beribboned packets and boxes. The apples I tried arrive still cold from refrigeration, so don’t worry they won’t hold up with shipping.

GODIVA chocolates

GODIVA - synonymous with luxury
GODIVA – synonymous with luxury

The name speaks for itself. Visit one of the Chicago-area GODIVA boutiques (three in downtown alone) or order online. Below are a few to consider for a sublime holiday indulgence:

  • Holiday Ballotin ($50 – 36 pcs) – The GODIVA signature assortment of classic Belgian chocolates (caramels, ganaches and pralines) presented in the gold box tied with a red ribbon.
  • Limited Edition Holiday Chocolates & Truffles Collection ($50 – 12 pcs) – All-time favorites mixed with limited edition holiday chocolates and truffles like Gingerbread, Eggnog and Raspberry Linzer Torte.
  • Signature Truffle Gift Box ($50 – 24 pcs) – Select from the full truffle line, adorned with a red ribbon.
  • Hot Cocoa Gift Set ($20 – 12 pkts) – GODIVA cocoa packets (three milk, three dark and three caramel).

Amy’s Candy Bar – Candy made by a trained French pastry chef

Bly a pastry-maker turned candy artist
By a pastry-maker turned candy artist

Just in time for the holidays, Hyde Park welcomes a pop-up Amy’s Candy Bar store, 1546 E. 55th St., to go with the original Lincoln Square location, 4704 N. Damen Ave. Hand-crafted confections at the new store include Orangettes (dark-chocolate dipped orange peel), almond toffee covered in dark chocolate and sea salt, meringues, and signature caramels dipped in dark chocolate and sprinkled with a new variety of gourmet salts.

Storeowner Amy Hansen graduated from the French Pastry School and trained under renowned chocolatiers Regis Bouet and Lionel Clement. Her handmade treats are made with premium ingredients including European-style butter, organic cream, Madagascar vanilla, Belgium chocolate, and fresh fruit purees. The OMG Bar – hazelnut praline sandwiched between salted caramel and milk chocolate ganache – had Food & Wine Magazine hailing Hansen as a “candy making genius,” and named hers one of the five best candy stores in the country.

Amy’s Candy Bar in the Hyde Park Shopping Center (612.269.0970) is open Tuesday-Sunday from 11-7. Lincoln Square is open Monday, 3-7, Tuesday-Saturday, 11-8 and Sunday, 11-6. For more info, visit amyscandybar.com.

 

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Eating out Thanksgiving Chicago 2014

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English: Oven roasted turkey, common fare for ...
English: Oven roasted turkey, common fare for Christmas and Thanksgiving celebrations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lots of people don’t like to cook, let alone put the Herculean effort in to cook a traditional American Thanksgiving feast. I used to spend days preparing – and oh, how we loved to enjoy! These days, my son-in-law does most of the work (we travel to Cleveland), while I usually sous-chef the carrots and green beans and hand-strip the fresh herbs from their stems for his delicious stuffing.

In case you aren’t up for cooking and aren’t going to a house where someone is, here are a few places you can go to get your Thanksgiving eating game on:

  • Brasserie by LM, 800 S. Michigan, is offering a $35 prix fixe menu, available on Thanksgiving Day only. The menu includes a choice of appetizer, entrée, side dish and dessert. Here’s the mouth-watering menu:

Appetizer – Roasted Chestnut Soup (truffle oil and chives) OR Bitter Green Salad (escarole, radicchio, frisee, bleu cheese, pomegranate pom vin)

Entrees
Roasted Turkey Roulade – stuffed with chestnuts and collard greens with sweet potato mash and turkey gravy OR
Fried Ham Steak – bacon and Brussel sprout hash OR
Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto – sautéed whitefish, pecan and sage brown butter

Sides – Green Bean Casserole OR Buttermilk Biscuits OR Turkey Stuffing with Cranberry Sauce
Desserts – Apple & Cranberry Cobbler OR Pumpkin Pie OR Cheese Plate

  • Troquet River North, 111 W. Huron in the Felix Hotel, is offering a holiday themed special with a French twist. Their Roasted Turkey Sandwich is topped with cranberry compote and Brussel Sprout slaw and is served on a croissant alongside hand-cut sweet potato frites ($14). The special will be available Monday, November 24 through Sunday, November 30.
  • The Brixton, 5420 N. Clark St., closed Thanksgiving Day, has a special on Tuesday, November 25; Wednesday, November, 26 and Friday, November 28, Chef Kevin McMullen’s Confit Turkey Leg is served with cranberry aioli, house stuffing and fried sage ($9).
  • Maxwell’s at the Club, 500 N. Kingsbury St. inside the East Bank Club, offers traditional Thanksgiving dinner from 1 to 7 pm. Reservations are a must. Parking lot available. Check out my review. If their other food is any indication, you’ll very likely enjoy your holiday vittles here.

 

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Sapori Trattoria – a Lincoln Park/Lakeview gem

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It’s a pleasure to dine at a restaurant where the food, the service and the ambiance come together seamlessly to make a memorable evening. And that’s just what happened recently at Sapori Trattoria, 2701 N. Halsted, close to the border of Lincoln Park and Lakeview. Our party of four arrived at 5 pm for an early dinner and were delighted to feel immediately warm and welcome on a cold Saturday night.

Needing time to study the many Italian-named dishes on the menu, a couple of us found the house Cabernet Sauvignon (Fox Brook 2005) was quite good and made a nice pre-dinner cocktail at a very reasonable $6.50 a glass.

Besides the regular menu items you can find online, the evening’s menu carried an entire column full of “Featured Items” from starters to multiple pasta entrees (including the pumpkin ravioli one of us ultimately ordered), and a number of meat dishes (including Vitello Osso Bucco and the Duck Leg Confit).

Shortly after we sat down, a tray of bread arrived – excellent flavor, with moist crumb and crispy crust. I’d noticed a small bottle of olive oil and a dish of grated fresh Parmesan cheese, but when I (a die-hard butter fan) asked for some, a dish promptly arrived with two large, cold, unsalted slabs thereof. A heaven-sent version of my go-to restaurant indulgence!

We shared one order of bruschetta ($6.95) around the table. A generous portion of homemade mozzarella cheese – freshly made, light and tender – was surrounded by shavings of prosciutto and chunks of marinated tomato on toasted slices of that lusty, crusty Italian bread. Another person ordered the Caesar salad – a plateful of crisp, crunchy romaine and some very good homemade croutons, all lightly coated with owner/Executive Chef Antonio Barbanente’s own delicately seasoned dressing – delicious but perhaps slightly overpriced for the quantity at $7.95.

It was rough going choosing our main courses; almost everything on the menu had its appeal. Ted, our server, answered our many questions – including whether the pasta is house-made (it is, except penne). He patiently explained the differences in various dishes and told us which were the most popular.

We finally settled on our selections. The Maple Leaf Farms Duck Leg ($25.95) was a classic duck confit preparation – salt-cured for two days and slow-roasted in its own fat, served with sweet potato strings and 48-hour duck gravy. The Cappellacci di Zucca ($21.99), pumpkin-stuffed ravioli in a burnt butter sauce with butternut squash, sage and pine nuts, was declared a winner. Vitello Paesana ($26.99), tender veal scallopini sauteed with artichokes and cherry tomatoes in a savory delicate wine sauce, was a hit, too. We all approved our samples from a side of homemade pasta – oil and garlic caressing every noodle in a nest of rich-tasting, homemade egg-dough linguine.

My entree was a huge chunk of perfectly pan-seared Chilean sea bass ($28.99) served in an aromatic sauce with lightly steamed fresh spinach, finished with roasted tomatoes, oyster mushrooms, and beautifully tender-inside, lightly crispy-on-the-edges chunks of roasted potato. Potatoes are another of the items by which I judge a restaurant – for example, undercooked is a disaster – and these more than passed muster. The only off note was finding a couple of gristly pieces underneath the fish. Homemade pasta with seafood? I simply had to try some. Ted graciously accommodated my request for half an order of Spaghetti alla Scoglio ($23.99). This lovely dish consisted of a generous helping of seasoned seafood (clam, mussel, shrimp and scallop), cooked juste á point and served on a bed of homemade egg spaghetti. The spaghetti was delicious on its own, but it was also enveloped in a mellow and flavorful sauce – the menu says the pasta is “sautéed in marinara.” Okay. The best marinara I remember tasting in a long time. And since I feel the same way after having eaten the leftovers for breakfast, I know it wasn’t just the wine and the company that made it taste so good!

Ambiance is wonderful at Sapori. I’m a sucker for tiny white lights, and here, just the right number of these Italian standbys pinpoint the overall subtle lighting (notice how dark all the pics are!). The place is built into what must have originally been someone’s home – certainly not a restaurant. Outside the small main dining area – which has two levels, thus adding to the sense of coziness and privacy – you’ll encounter a charming rabbit warren of hallways and small rooms tucked away in cozy corners, with extra doors in surprising places. A tiny bar graces the main dining area off the street entrance, and dinner is also served in what is probably another honeycomb of rooms we didn’t go up to see on the second floor. Ted said total capacity is about 250 – a surprise, given the intimate feel of the place, although a regular diner there tells me the noise level gets uncomfortably high at prime times.

Service was friendly, warm and professional. When one of our party complained to Ted after a first taste that the salt-cured duck was too salty, he apologized for not having explained the best process for consuming this dish – interspersing bites with the sweet potato accompaniment. He acknowledged he should have given this advice upon delivering the plate. Then, a minute after Ted left, the maitre d’ arrived to also apologize and offer to replace the dish with something else. Hard to ask for more than that. Later in the evening Chef Antonio came to our table and smiled as we expressed our enthusiasm.

The tiramisu dessert ($6.99) had a decidedly light touch. Crowned with a foam of whipped cream, the ladyfinger layers were lusciously fluffy. Delicious indeed, though I usually like mine a bit heavier – more custard and a tad more rum-coffee flavoring. Panna cotta ($6.99) was super-rich with cream and chocolate-hazelnut flavor. Though I didn’t love the slightly gelatin-y mouth feel of the dish, the drizzle of thin, dark chocolatey sauce on top was a definite enhancement.

Open every day at 4:30, Sapori Trattoria has been here since 2001. Where the heck have I been?

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4 white and 1 red Italian wines – Romagna Heart of Italy

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English: location of Emilia-Romagna in Italy
English: location of Emilia-Romagna in Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They’ve been growing grapes and making fine wines in Romagna in Italy since the time of the Roman Empire. All the wines from this area are DOC (Controlled Designation of Origin) or DOCG (Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin) – designations granted only to the best certified quality wines in Italy.  Romagna produces about 20 million bottles of this certified wine and exports 35% of it to other countries.

Romagna is known for its deep, dark Sangiovese reds and many white wines – from dry to aged dessert types. Since most of the winemakers are very small, they needed to band together to promote themselves. So 250 small winemakers and 200 partner wineries worked to form Consorzio Vini di Romagna. They brought some of their fine wines to Chicago recently during the Simply Italian Great Wines tour 2014.  Below are four of their white wines and one red I recommend:

Whites

Romagna Italian whites and Sangioveses
Romagna Italian whites and Sangiovese reds – part of the Simply Italian Great Wines tour

4 stars Romagna Albana DOCG Secco Progetto I 2013 – from Leone Conti Societa’ Agricola. Lovely white wine, dry and warm with aromas of yellow fruit, golden apple skin, wet rocks, oak and vanilla. Good with starters, first courses of fish and roasted white meats. Four stars and a great value at ~$15. This wine won over a Sauterne in a blind taste test.

4 stars – Romagna Albana DOCG Secco I Croppi 2013 – from Celli SNC di Sirri & Casadei Societa’ Agricola.  Rich, round, fresh, elegant with aromas of yellow pulp fruit and scents of apricot and melon. Four stars and another great value at ~$15. Good with noodles, grilled fish and white meats.

4 stars – Romagna Albana DOCG Secco Alba Della Torre 2013 – from La Sabbiona S.S. Azienda Agricola. Dry, warm and harmonious, with a finish of burnt almond. This is a beautiful wine with intense fruity and floral notes and a whiff of peaches. Another great value at ~$15. Good for starters, fish, especially grilled fish, but really it would go well with your whole meal.

5-star beauty – Romagna Albana DOCG Passito 2010 – from Bissoni Raffaella Alessandra Azienda Agricola.  Creamy, slightly sweet, but rich and complex, with persistent tannins and aromas of apricot, dried figs, almonds, ripe dates and scents of rich fruit and spice mixtures. It’s a dessert wine, so go ahead and splurge at $45 retail. Serve it with almond pastries, and/or mature Pecorino or blue cheeses with honey or jam.

One red I recommend is the Romagna Sangiovese Doc Superiore Riserva Nonno Rico 2010 from Azienda Agricola Alessandro Morini “Poderi Morini.” Delicately soft, smooth and fresh with notes of thyme and oregano along with scents of plum, cherry, vanilla and licorice with a finish of ripe rose. Doesn’t it just make your mouth water? A good value at ~$20. Serve with filet of beef or other rich meats.

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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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