Category Archives: parties

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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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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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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3 Sicilian wines under $20 for holiday meals

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It’s never too early to start thinking about wines you might like to serve with your holiday meals. The selection is endless, certainly, but recommendations can help you hone down the list of possibles. Based on some recent complimentary review tastings, here are three we can recommend for various occasions, including various upcoming holidays. Two Sicilian whites and one red:
Donnafugata Lighea - unique Zibibbo grape wine
Donnafugata Lighea – unique Zibibbo grape wine

Lighea 2016 Sicilia DOC Donnafugata. This is a truly unique taste in white wines. It’s made of Zibibbo grapes (also known as Muscat of Alexandria), and the vines are grown in hollows on low bush vines (notorious for lower yields than traditional). This vintage was grown in a relatively dry season with weather that wasn’t overly hot, so the winemakers were able to focus on the quality of the grapes without worrying about quantity. Lighea has a brilliant straw color with greenish tints, a nose of classic notes of orange blossom, saturn peaches and Mediterranean scrub. The aromas reflect exactly what you’ll taste on the palate along with a fresh mineral vein – and that’s why this unusual combination produces such a unique flavor. Delicious as an aperitif and good with first courses like seafood or a light soup. SRP ~$15-20.

Donnafugata SurSur - light and lovely Grillo white
Donnafugata SurSur – light and lovely Grillo white

SurSur 2016 Sicilia DOC Donnafugata. Made from the ubiquitous Sicilian grape, Grillo, this white wine has a fresh and fruity character and a bouquet of peaches, elderflowers and rosemary – so there’s a hint of savory that makes it lovely with seafood, vegetables and baked sturdy fish. Open it when you’re ready to serve and pour into medium-size tulip glasses to get the most out of the fruity aromas and the brilliant straw yellow color. Even the label, with its painting of a young girl running through the grass, makes you feel like you’re there with her, “listening to a thousand Sur Sur” (it means crickets). Nice value for an apertif at SRP ~$13.

Donnafugata Sedara red with Nero d'Avola and many other grapes
Donnafugata Sedara red with Nero d’Avola and many other grapes

Sedàra 2015 Sicilia DOC Donnafugata. Another of Sicily’s classic grapes, Nero d’Avola, is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and other grapes here and crafted into a quality red wine suitable for everyday enjoyment or favorite family occasions. The dark berries and slight spice notes come out in a pleasantly dusky quality that makes this wine good for pairing with rich foods like barbequed meats, pizza, or even seared tuna or roast turkey. A complex, structured red that benefits from letting it breathe a while before you drink. SRP ~$15.

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Thrillist puts on its first annual event in Chicago

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Thrillist is the group from New York that’s spreading its tongue-in-cheek attitude via daily email letters full of articles. They came to Chicago a couple of years ago, and now they’ve decided to start giving parties and inviting local restaurants to participate. They did the first one recent here, and they did a great job. Some of Chicago’s finest restaurants participated (Joe’s Seafood, Chicago Q, Wildfire, etc.).

Tip: Just because there’s a long line doesn’t mean that place has better food. It’s just as likely that the staffers aren’t handling their jobs as efficiently as other stands.

One of the fun things about this event was the central area where people could play games – like giant-size Jango sticks, beanbag toss, etc. Great idea to have something to do besides drink and eat. Makes it feel even more like a party.

And the facility – an old factory in West Loop – was very cool. Besides the dynamite skylight, the bathrooms were the bomb! Go, Thrillist. We look forward to your next event.

Thrillist party bathroom
Thrillist party bathroom
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Jake Melnick’s kicks a** on Chicago’s BBQ scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be advised, come hungry and leave your diet behind. And if you want a little more nutrition, they’ve got salads. And brick oven pizzas.
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And, oh, yeah. sweet potato fries.
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Bulletin…this just in. In case you have room for dessert – or that’s really what you want anyway – they’ve got some kick-a** items in that category, too:
  • Fried Oreos. The classic cookie, pancake battered and fried, then served over vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce. – $6.95
  • Warm Apple Pie Skillet. Fresh-baked old-fashioned apple pie with vanilla ice cream. – $6.95
  • Chocolate Chip Cookie Skillet Sundae – a giant warm chocolate chip cookie with vanilla ice cream, warm fudge and whipped cream. – $6.95
  • NEW! Jake’s Carnival Fries:house-made funnel cake strings tossed in powdered sugar, topped with vanilla ice cream, strawberries and caramel sauce with whipped cream and sprinkles. $7.95
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Cafe Brauer – good food, cocktails and great views

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English: Cafe Brauer also called South Pond Re...
English: Cafe Brauer also called South Pond Refectory is a National Historic Place in Lincoln Park Chicago. It is currently run by the Lincoln Park Zoological Society (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lincoln Park has a number of interesting places to eat, and I just discovered the pleasure of one of those – the patio at Cafe Brauer. Delicious American food specialties, served by warm and friendly people, and a small selection of wines, craft beers and cocktails designed to satisfy most of us. One menu item promises fresh vegetables from Green City Market, one of the city of Chicago’s markets that sets up every Wednesday and Saturday nearly across the street on Stockton Blvd. This is a marriage made in heaven.

I love the fact that the patio  sits right next to the Nature Boardwalk that meanders through a nature preserve. Watch people walk their dogs, ride their bikes, enjoy the scenery. Or bring your own dog – the restaurant welcomes dogs on the patio.
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English: Lincoln Park South Pond and Lincoln P...
English: Lincoln Park South Pond and Lincoln Park Zoo Nature Boardwalk in Chicago (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Entrance to the Nature Boardwalk is right off the patio. You can walk all the way around its half-mile perimeter as it wends through a 14-acre nature preserve. It’s a closed pathway, so you can trust that your bicycling or dog-walking grandchild or friend will definitely find her way back to you. No way to get lost. Being in “the wild” in the middle of the city without being worried you’ll get lost. Can’t wait to bring my granddaughter here.

Mallard duck pairs occasionally break the still waters of the pond next to the patio. It’s an incredibly peaceful and calming environment. Bird song everywhere. People walking.

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Fried chicken with french fries
Fried chicken with french fries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Cafe Brauer patio is the site of many weddings, school and corporate events. The staff are highly experienced at providing buffets full of tasty all-American foods like buttermilk fried chicken (delicious!). The regular menu offers big plates to share – calamari, wings, guac and salsa, or steak chili nachos. Then there are soups and salads, plus paninis, burgers – including turkey and black bean and classic sandwiches, all served with fries. Sides are interesting – side salad,  Parmesan fries, waffle-battered sweet potato fries with maple-vinegar aioli, mac & cheese, and stir-fried Green City Market vegetablea, all priced at $4.95, but if you order them with a sandwich they’re only two bucks. Desserts are $5.95 and include Brownie Sundae, Blueberry Crisp, and Cookie Skillet with ice cream. Hungry yet?

Basically, Cafe Brauer has just about anything your heart could desire. They even play upbeat music at just the right decibel level – cheers the atmosphere and lightens the spirit.

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If you hop the bus through Lincoln Park, you can catch either the 156 or the 151 down Stockton Blvd. There are several stops you can get off at; the first stop for the zoo on the southbound 151 is at Webster. The next stop, Armitage, lets you off close to Cafe Brauer.
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Hours for the patio are 11 to 9pm Monday through Friday and 8:30 to 9pm on weekends. Obviously, Café Brauer has been around quite a while, but it sure feels nice to discover this charming option. BTW, they have free Wi-Fi, and if the restaurant is not busy, you are welcome to sit and enjoy as long as you like. So delightful. Thank you, Chicago. Another reason to love our city.
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Maggiano’s does brunch Italian-style

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Maggiano’s, 516 N. Clark St., a long-time favorite in Chicago along with 51 other locations across the nation, is now doing brunch. Their creative series of Benedicts ($14-$15) is available seven days a week until 3pm, and the extended menu with pancakes, frittatas, and more is available Saturdays and Sundays from 11 to 3pm.

Why brunch, you ask? Because there’s no longer any doubt that brunch in America has become a special occasion in its own right, and Maggiano’s is all about helping you make your occasions special. They now open at 11 on weekends to satisfy your brunch cravings with their own unique take on traditional brunch features and a few surprises of their own. Naturally, because libations are a critical component of the good brunch, order your favorite Bloody Mary – Italian-style with a distinctive Maggiano’s flavor –  mimosa or peach Bellini. The full bar selection – from champagne to whiskey – is available if you prefer your drinks unmixed.

Maggiano’s was recently voted top allergy-friendly chain by Allergy Eats, and in a massive consumer survey by Restaurant Business, was voted the nation’s #1 favorite special event venue and one of the top 5 favorite chain venues in the country. So it’s a good bet there is something for every one.
When you order brunch at Maggiano’s, the first thing that appears in front of you is a light-crumbed orange streusel cake coated in an orange-flavored sugar glaze to amuse your bouche while you look over the menu. One of the star items on the extended brunch menu is the Lemon Ricotta Pancakes ($14.95). When Executive Chef Josh Rodriguez demoed this, we watched him fold whipped egg whites in to lighten the batter that also includes freshly grated lemon zest, egg yolks and vanilla bean paste. Chef uses an ice cream scoop to portion the batter and smush each cake down. Cooked 4 minutes on each side, they come out super-light and ready for you to go crazy with the whipped cream, blueberries, and syrup.

Another these-carbs-are-so-worth-it! dish is the Crème brûlée French toast. Made with cranberry-raisin bread, it’s got the creamy, rich flavor of the restaurant’s house-made Crème brûlée mix and is another great way to enjoy helpings of strawberries, blueberries, whipped cream and syrup.

Maggiano's fresh veggie frittata
Maggiano’s fresh veggie frittata

Veggie frittata features smoked Gouda, spinach, mushrooms – fresh flavors, softly finished eggs – served with crisp Vesuvio potatoes. You can also choose from the can’t-eat-anymore Italian breakfast of three eggs with ham, bacon and Italian sausage plus potatoes.

How about the Maggiano’s special Chicken & Waffles where the fried chicken is breaded in the same batter as the waffles are made from? Didn’t get to try that one, but it’s on my brunch bucket list.
Alright. The king of all brunch dishes is the Benedict, right? How do you make a bad one of these gloriously rich creations? If you’ve got your Hollandaise under control, your muffins are nicely toasted, and your ingredients are fresh, it’s hard to fail. But it takes some work to get original with it. Maggiano’s has managed it by putting together a few unique combinations.
  • Meatball Benedict – surprising combination. Nice tomato chunk balances richness of egg yolk and Hollandaise with the flavor of the sturdy beefy meatball. The Italian woman at our table – who, of course, makes her own meatballs – couldn’t stop talking about how much she appreciated how these meatballs worked with the Benedict formula. Hey, if an Italian approves…
  • The Chicken Francese Benedict takes a popular item from the regular Maggiano’s dinner menu – lightly breaded chicken that’s fried and served with arugula – and turns it into a house-made Benedict special.
  • The regular Eggs Benedict is served with a uniquely flavored ham made locally and shipped in from Wisconsin – Nueske’s, which also makes the thick, juicy bacon served at brunch.
  • Crab cake Benedict – nice combo. A pleasantly standard crab cake mixture blends well with the Hollandaise and egg yolk.

All Benedicts are served with house-made crispy Vesuvio potatoes – a deliciously salty preparation that was slightly undercooked on this occasion. If you’re a stickler for thoroughly cooked-through potatoes, make sure to ask your server to tell the chef to make them extra crispy.

Everything on all of Maggiano’s menus is made from scratch to order. If you’ve got any food issues, the chef will always come to your table to determine what they are: allergies, celiac, etc., with a view to designing and custom making your food for you. They make sure you’re safe by using completely separate equipment to cook your meal.
The Maggiano’s Clark St. location has been there for 25 years. It’s a dark-wood-paneled cozy spot perfect for dates, family dinners and special occasions. Patrons can reserve private dining space in the Wine Cellar below the main restaurant or around the corner in the beautiful separate building that sports graciously carpeted wide stairways and wood paneling and the warm welcoming service you can always expect at Maggiano’s. Call for reservations and go enjoy brunch at an Italian Chicago institution.
And don’t forget the Make-a-Wish special dessert and the Chef’s guilt-free pasta dishes (less than 600 calories each). And P.S. – their lasagna is DELICIOUS. They often give you an extra portion to take home when you order their pasta. Chances are really good that you will leave full and happy.
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Cooking live lobster – an adventure story

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Lobster by Fabio delivers seafood. We were happy to be invited recently to review a sample of their wares. The large box – overnight from Maine – arrived on the morning of the day we’d agreed on for delivery. Nice that we didn’t have to wait all day for it.
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What we were not prepared for, however, was the fact that their product is alive when it comes to the door. Even though we’ve tried lots of challenging dishes over the years, the truth is, we’d never cooked live mussels or – gulp – live lobsters. Today’s the day, guys.
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Fabio seafood cooking instructions
Fabio seafood cooking instructions

Having read over the years probably dozens of recipes for cooking mussels, this part doesn’t feel too intimidating. Fortunately, the single printed sheet that comes in the box contains straightforward, simple instructions for preparation. The next challenge is that we don’t have on hand the scallions specified for the mussel-poaching broth. After briefly considering it, we reject the idea of going to the grocery store. Thinking first that we’ll go to the trusty Internet for help, we remember our handy-dandy little mini Julia Child cookbook, Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom. Naturally, she comes through for us once more. We luckily do have on hand the shallots and garlic she calls for – sauté them in butter, she says. Oh, good, we think. That sounds really good. So now it’s time to punt.

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We open the insulated box to see what’s in it. Underneath the layer of still-solid ice packs, the net bag of mussels looks easy enough to handle. The live lobsters – nestling in the dark, tight-fitting cardboard slots and trying to wave their rubber-banded claws about – look a great deal less so. Did I mention we never cooked live lobsters before? Oh, yeah. Gulp.
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After some discussion about the humaneness of cooking live lobster I urge my granddaughter to stop looking at them; we don’t want to make friends with them. She mentions again that she just ate an entire lobster a mere two nights earlier when her mom took her to Shaw’s for their annual Christmas lobster dinner. I tell her I’ll be glad to take hints from her on the most efficient ways to eat this seafood. She assures me – with all the finesse of a confident, experienced 9-year-old – she’s happy to instruct me.
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We first review Internet instructions for determining whether a mussel is dead or alive. We are reminded that if the mussel is open when it’s not cooked, that’s a bad thing. However, we also learn that we can tap the shell on the sink and if it then closes, that means it’s alive and okay to cook and eat. Dutifully we go through the bag and end up discarding about 10 mussels before cooking. I decide afterwards we could probably have tried cooking them and seeing what happened. But being newbies, we didn’t know how much leeway to give the little shell guys, so the percentage we deemed inedible was probably not typical with Fabio’s service.
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Live mussels cooked in buttery broth
Live mussels cooked in buttery broth

Ok. We bring the shallot-and-garlic-infused buttery chicken broth and white wine mixture to a gentle simmer, throw in the mussels and cover the giant skillet. Five minutes later our black bivalves are open and ready to eat. We dish those into a big serving bowl to wait while we tackle the giant clawed crustaceans next. First adding the provided bag of sea salt and seaweed to a couple of inches of water in the bottom of our biggest pot, we then set the steamer rack on top of that. Bring it to a roaring boil, the instructions say, so we do.

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Next step: put the lobsters in the steamer. There’s no way we’re removing the rubber bands from the claws until after these guys expire. Using a pair of tongs with some trepidation, we lift one out of the box and plunge it headfirst into the steaming cauldron. Same with number two and slam the lid on. It says cook exactly 14 minutes, opening the pot and rearranging the lobsters at the halfway point. Okay. So far, so good.
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Open is good
Open is good

Next, toast some bread and melt some butter for dipping. We’re getting excited now. Set out the big white china plates, napkins, silverware and wine glasses. I’d earlier gotten the big, fancy white serving dish down from above the cabinets and washed the accumulated dust and grease off – don’t often use serving dishes this big – so that’s ready to hold the two lobsters. We sit down with gusto to enjoy our mussels, and they are very good indeed. Dip bread in the broth. Num. We dispatch a lion’s share of the pile in under 14 minutes.

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Lobster by Fabio - fabulous!
Lobster by Fabio – fabulous!

The timer goes off. Open the pot. Wow, those lobsters are now an intensely bright orange-y red. Transfer to platter. Sit down. Realize we haven’t yet located the cracker. Get up and scrounge through every drawer. No dice. Think fast. Get the pliers out of the tool – aka junk – drawer and sit down. She starts with the legs. Demonstrates the technique for squeezing them with the cracking implement – whatever – and sucking the meat out. I try one but then can’t wait and go straight to a claw.

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Pliers work in a pinch
Pliers work in a pinch

Luckily, the pliers work fairly well for this delicate operation. As I crack along the edge, the succulent claw meat begins to peek out. Eventually, to my surprise, I get the beautiful claw out in practically a single piece. Dip in the puddle of rich, melted unsalted butter. Nibble. Close my eyes, the better to savor. How good it tastes! Is it the effort we put into it, or does this lobster really taste like the best I’ve ever had? We’re each wearing an oven glove to hold the shells so we don’t get stabbed as we wrestle the meat out – a technique we recommend for proper-techniqueanyone eating lobster at home. Companion cook/young lady and I continue attacking our plates with enthusiasm, the shell bits pile up, and then we’re both ready to eat the tail. She explains how you tear off and discard the main part of the body with its green goo – “unless you like that part.” And we both eat every last bite of the tails on our big, juicy one-and-a-half-pounders from Lobster by Fabio.

Wild-caught. Fresh from Maine. Sustainably grown. Flown and delivered overnight to your door. Utterly delicious. Do not hesitate to order some whenever you’re ready to do the honors. Bravo, Fabio!
P.S. Upon roaming around on their website the next day, I stumbled on a small section that explained how to kill lobsters humanely. You put them in the freezer for two hours and then plunge a knife in the back of their heads before you place them in the steam bath. So you might want to make sure there’s room in your freezer (these guys are big) before you order. Sorry, lobsters – but thank you for your wonderful meat! And thank you, Chef Fabio Viviani.
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7 wines under $20 for the 2016 holidays

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Recent tastings from wide-flung areas of the world have yielded a fresh list of possibilities for your holiday edification and enjoyment. Consider one of these under-$20 selections for your holiday celebrations.
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California’s Little Black Dress label
We love it when wineries come up with fun names for their brands. Take, for example, the label  “Little Black Dress” (LBD). Stirs up visions of sexy intrigue or at least something elegant, doesn’t it? Recently sampled a couple of their reds and enjoyed them.
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1. Diva Red. Winemaker notes: Decadent notes of dark plum, cocoa and caramel leading to a finish accented by hints of cinnamon and chocolate-dipped strawberries. We found it a pleasant medium-bodied red blend that sits comfortably on the palate, works pleasantly on the nose and goes nicely with food of many kinds. Well worth a try at SRP ~$8.
2. Little Black Dress Cabernet Sauvignon. Consider this value-priced rich red for your everyday wine. Winemaker notes:   Rich aromas of dark berries and toasted oak, a hint of vanilla spice and a lasting finish. Again, well worth trying at an SRP of ~$10.
 
 
Nero d’Avola elegance from Sicilia DOC
Speaking of “little black,” consider the Nero d’Avola grape –  indigenous to Sicily. For centuries Sicily has been a benchmark for the global wine market and this grape variety is an icon of Sicilian enology. Today a new generation of winemakers have lifted the “little black grape” to new heights of elegance and drinkability.
Saia - Nero d'Avola
Saia – Nero d’Avola

3. Nero d’Avola Feudo Maccari Saia 2011 Sicilia DOC. This Saia has lush, deep aromas and flavors of dark and sour red cherries, spearmint, spice and oak. Palate flavors are velvety, plush, and concentrated, balanced by fine acidity and ripe, sweet tannins, before a long finish. A superb match for full-flavored meats and game, especially stews and roasts. Saia, like all these wines, balances freshness with the ability to evolve over time. SRP ~$20

 
Naked Moon wine shines
Naked Moon wine shines

Lovely Pinot Grigio from Northern Italy
4. Luna Nuda (Naked Moon) Pinot Grigio Vigneti delle Dolomiti IGT 2015. Born in the perfect-for-Pinot-Grigio clay soils atop the saw-tooth ridges, snow-capped peaks, and alpine meadows studded with glittering waterfalls in Alto Adige, this wine of straw-yellow with green lusters brings rich aromas of fruits like pears and apples. Well-balanced and structured, the taste is dry and smooth with a pleasing minerality. Perfect for pairing with lighter foods and fresh-water fish. At 12.5% alc., this is a sturdy white wine that makes a nice aperitif, too. SRP ~$15

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JaM Cellars “breakfast” trio of wines
Butter, Toast and Jam sounds like a breakfast menu, but it’s actually the names of three different wines – one red and two whites – that come from JaM Cellars. These are a cut above your everyday house wines and guaranteed to make you and your guests feel special. Perfect to go with your Thanksgiving or other holiday meals. JaM Cellars wines are available nationwide and through the website at http://www.jamcellars.com.
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5. 2015 Butter Chardonnay offers ripe, stone fruit and baked-lemon aromas and is cold fermented to rich creaminess, aged in a blend of oak giving this wine a lovely, long, vanilla finish. 14.89% Alc. by vol. SRP ~$15
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6. 2014 JaM Cabernet Sauvignon has soft, dark berries and plums on the nose and palate, and is aged in new oak to smooth and round the wine, adding a touch of vanilla. 15.1% Alc. by vol. SRP ~$20
JaM Cellars - toasting with Toast
JaM Cellars – toasting with Toast

BONUS: Non-vintage (NV) Toast Sparkling, made with traditional méthode Champenoise techniques, offers juicy aromas of honeydew, white peach and orange blossom followed by tastes of tropical pineapple and honeydew combined with a light toastiness. It’s light at 12.5% Alc. and, okay, at $24.99 a little over the headline-promise of $20/bottle. But we didn’t count it in the original 7, so think of it as a bonus recommendation.

South African sparkling wine
Did you know that South Africa is among the many nations that are becoming producers of respectable wines these days? Had a chance recently to review a couple of sparklings from that region. One in particular seemed a worthy addition to a list of decent possibles for holiday meals – or any time you’re in the mood for some bubbles.
7. Boschendal Pinot Noir Chardonnay Brut NV. This sparkling wine, made with Methode Cap Classique (South Africa’s version of the traditional Champagne method) is a clear golden color with a fine effervescence. Aromas of fresh lemon fruits along with a creamy flavor make it a pleasant, value-priced bubbly that’s more complex than many similarly priced Proseccos and will make an equally nice accompaniment to lighter foods and even desserts. SRP ~$11

Have fun with these!

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