Category Archives: parties

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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Chicago Loop welcomes The Kimpton Gray Hotel

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Cool seat in the Kimpton Gray Hotel lobby
Cool seat in the Kimpton Gray Hotel lobby

The Kimpton Gray Hotel, 122 W. Monroe St. at LaSalle, is the newest upscale lodging option in the heart of the Chicago Loop’s legal and financial district. Located on the second floor, the lobby – known as “The Living Room” – welcomes guests with coffee, tea and muffins in the morning and wine and cheese receptions each evening. Naturally, the Wi-Fi is free. The huge arched windows, framed with floor-to-ceiling black velvet draperies with gold headers, let in natural light and spotlight views of bustling Monroe and LaSalle Streets.

Just off the lobby guests can join locals for lunch, dinner, drinks and more in the bar and restaurant Vol. 39, so named because it refers to the legal volumes that fill the bookcases surrounding the eating area. Handsome lighting and luxurious seating arrangements are perfect for intimate meetings, whether business or pleasure.
The new hotel is the dramatic result of a complete rehabilitation of the former New York Life Insurance building, originally built in 1894. A sweeping marble staircase leads from the entrance to the second floor lobby – graced with the sound of a jazz quartet at the grand opening. Many of the hallways in the 15 floors are still lined with the original marble. At the grand opening designers made dramatic use of lighting – electric, multi-colored, candles, spots and more – to showcase decorations and finishes. A large section of the meeting room space was strikingly decorated with candles and complementary yet completely different items to hold candles and flowers.
The elegant modern bar at Steadfast
The elegant modern bar at Steadfast

Besides Volume 39, guests and locals can select breakfast, lunch or dinner available at Steadfast, the restaurant and bar located at 120 W. Monroe and situated within the main floor of The Kimpton Gray. Its menus offer unique items like duck liver mousse crostini and a laminated brioche sandwich with Serano ham, Manchego, quail egg and caviar.

Check out unique menu items at Steadfast
Check out unique menu items at Steadfast

The presidential suite was beautifully appointed with sleek modern fixtures in a gray/white/black theme and was, well, presidential in its grandeur – easy to picture a president relaxing there. Other size rooms and suites were equally handsome though somewhat smaller, of course. On the 15th floor the rooftop restaurant/bar BOLEO offers a menu with a South American flair and a comfortable place to take in some unique views of downtown. The grand opening featured a hot-tempo video/DJ combo and soulful trumpet by Kafele playing along.

Kafele playing hot licks in the cleared-out dining space of Boleo
Kafele playing hot licks in the cleared-out dining space of Boleo
Elegant. Understated. Service-oriented. Kimpton always does a great job. And now The Gray is a new top pick among the Chicago Loop’s eat-drink-and-stay choices.
Even the powder rooms are cool at The Kimpton Gray Hotel
Even the powder rooms are cool at The Kimpton Gray Hotel
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3 Chicago spots for wine or beer dinners

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Wildfire wine dinner place settings
Wildfire wine dinner place settings

Ever been to a wine dinner? They go on around the city all the time, yet can be quite different. Naturally, the featured wines are important. And, of course, the chef-inspired menu is critical. One of the best we’ve run across for consistently good menus and consistently generous pours is Wildfire’s wine dinners, 159 W. Erie in downtown Chicago.

Their most recent one, held in late July in Wildfire’s private party room, featured selections from Cambria Estate Vineyards including a lovely “Tepusquet Vineyard” Viognier 2014 served with creative appetizers – watermelon tuna tartare with sriracha mayo on an herb cracker and grilled plump shrimp “lollipops” to dip in spicy passionfruit sauce.

Next came a generous cut of grilled white sturgeon in a rose-colored peach-butter sauce paired with Cambria’s “Benchbreak” Chardonnay 2014, a light, unoaked white with notes of tropical fruits. Delicious. And compliments to the chef on his handling of meats – the mustard-crusted beef tenderloin practically melted in your mouth.  We urge you to give Wildfire a try next time they do a wine dinner, usually priced ~$80 to $90 plus tax and tip. They do one almost every month, except for August when they’re doing a beer dinner and holiday months November and December). Check out the Joel Gott wine dinner coming up September 20.

Da Vinci Restaurant, 1732 N. Halsted, is another restaurant that does slightly more affordable (~$50 +tt) but also highly enjoyable wine dinners. Coming up August 10 with Zito wines look for antipasti, pasta – in this case, penne with zucchini, tomato, goat cheese stuffed zucchini flower) – secondo, and dessert. The restaurant itself is broken into multiple cozy dining areas and the wine dinner usually takes place in one of those that fits the number of guests. Friendly service, nice lighting, comfortable ambiance.

And for those who love their beer, aptly named Goose Island Brewery, 1800 N. Clybourn, this summer got rid of its wine & spirits license to become a strictly beer restaurant. Besides carrying a really large assortment of all types of beers, from stouts to ales to lagers, they worked hard on expanding what you can do with beer. Imagine drinking a “bocktail” with your brunch. Choose from a Sofie Mimosa (Sofie lager and orange juice), a Michalada (tomato juice, lime, cayenne, celery salt and SPF), a Peach Wit Shandy (lemon juice, peach syrup, Willow St. Wit) or a Beer-rita (lime & organge juice infused with cilantro & jalapeno, All Purpose IPA).  The servers are well-versed in their listings and can help you figure out what you might like. Serving lunch, brunch, pub fare, burgers, greens and soup and more.

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5 cool brunch places in Chicago

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English: Both the largest and the meatiest blo...
English: Both the largest and the meatiest bloody mary I’ve ever had. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chicagoans take their brunch very seriously, so it’s no surprise that one of the city’s prolific hospitality firms, Four Corners Tavern Group, is behind some of the most playful and delectable offerings. Their brunch menus offer creative fare and superior service in relaxed, yet lively surroundings. From music to munchies, you’re bound to find something to love in one of these neighborhood concepts.

 

Benchmark (1510 N Wells) in Old Town retracts the patio roof when the weather’s right. Their brunch goes for $35 per person with a $15 unlimited mimosa package (served Saturdays 10am to 2pm) features all-you-can-eat food stations like a carving station, plates of smoked brisket, the famed Doughnut Vault tower, a seafood tower, a sinfully-sweet waffle bar; and a build-your-own Bloody Mary bar

Hurry on out to Gaslight Bar & Grille’s (2450 N Clark) rustic beer garden with communal tables. Only until September 30 they’ve got brunch specials on offer the first Saturday and Sunday of each month (11 am to 2pm) and include Chicken & Waffles with organic honey, Nueske’s bacon and fresh fruit ($10), Biscuit Sliders with scrambled egg, cheese and a side of tater tots ($9), a Mimosa package ($10); Bloody Marys ($8); and Trop Bombs ($5).

WestEnd (1326 W Madison) puts out brunch in an expansive sports bar atmosphere. Feast on $10 brunch specials like Chorizo Sloppy Joe with Texas toast, poached egg, cilantro, avocado and a side of house chips and French Toast Sticks served with whipped cream, powdered sugar, bourbon pale syrup and Fireball-infused crème anglaise. Build-your-own Moscow Mule Bar ($10); unlimited mimosa package ($15); and cheeky beverages such as the insta-worthy Cupcake Shot ($5) out on one of the two dog-friendly sidewalk cafes or inside the new, enhanced game room.

Fremont (15 W Illinois).  Think Vegas with this version of Sin City’s legendary over-the-top buffet ($35 per person with a $15 unlimited mimosa package). The distinct social dining experience can take you well into the night if you so desre. DJs spin top hits throughout the bi-level, sleek and chic space with retractable roof. Every Saturday and Sunday, from 10am, reservations recommended. The unlimited assortment includes carving station, Doughnut Vault tower, omelet station, seafood tower, waffle bar with extravagant accoutrements, and a DIY Bloody Mary bar with fun surprises,

Weekend brunch at SteakBar
Weekend brunch at SteakBar

SteakBar (1500 N Wells). This dining-to-nightlife hotspot, introduced brunch service every Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. until 3pm. Elevated breakfast options include:

  • Steak & Eggs with succulent skirt steak, roasted tomato and sunny side up eggs ($20)
  • Scramble made from farm eggs, crème fraiche, avocado and chives, served aside Texas toast ($11)
  • Avocado Toast, a popular choice with crushed avocado, cherry tomatoes and radish atop toasted multigrain ($11).
  • Unlimited mimosa package ($15) is also available with purchase of a dish.
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Lose the booze redux – DRY sparkling and Naked Mind book

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We wrote recently about Dry January, a UK-originated movement to abstain from alcohol for the entire first month of the year. Interesting idea. But for a lot of wine, beer and spirit lovers, the lack of serious and sophisticated alternatives to booze can be a big barrier to even considering such a radical idea.
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DRY sparkling Lavender in 750ml bottle
DRY sparkling Lavender in 750ml bottle

A newcomer to the market, DRY Soda, is helping eliminate this problem with a new concept in beverages. DRY sparkling soda is a bubbly non-alcoholic option that contains a small amount of natural cane sugar along with some unusual and complex flavorings. They’re satisfying, perhaps because the natural sugar replaces some of the sugar you would normally get in alcohol, and don’t make you feel deprived because you’re not drinking booze. Because the blend of sugar and acidity is balanced – just as winemakers do with dry wines, balancing sweetness and sharpness – the flavors are appealing on their own, go great with food, and also mix beautifully with juices, champagne, wines, vodka or other spirits.

DRY Blood Orange in 750ml bottle
DRY Blood Orange in 750ml bottle

Pick from unique flavors like rhubarb, ginger, blood orange, vanilla bean and lavender that go beyond the club soda idea by contributing their own refreshing fizzy flavors to whatever cocktail – or mocktail – you build. The blood orange has a distinctive fresh-orange-y taste without being overly sweet. While we’re not usually fans of cherry-flavored anything, the DRY Rainier cherry sparkler tasted good with a balance of just-a-touch of fresh-dark-cherry flavor and not too much sweetness. We particularly liked the vanilla bean – smooth, aromatic like real vanilla, and with perfectly balanced flavor. Delicious on its own and almost good enough to sub for dessert!

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Ingredients include filtered, carbonated water, pure cane sugar, natural flavorings and phosphoric acid (used to give a sharp, acidic twist to the flavor of many colas and other carbonated drinks).
DRY Vanilla Bean is a 4-pack of 12 oz bottles
DRY Vanilla Bean is a 4-pack of 12 oz bottles

DRY offers recipes that help you cut out some alcohol: “No Champagne, No Gain” makes a nice alternative to a traditional champagne toast. “Holiday Trail” mixes vanilla bean DRY, orgeat syrup (a sweet almond/orange blossom concoction – here’s how to make your own orgeat) and bourbon. Mix pureed strawberries and vanilla bean DRY in a “Caliberry Spritzer.” Or just pair and enjoy these drinks with your meals.

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DRY comes in elegant tall cans and in 355ml or 750ml bottles. In Chicago find DRY at select Jewel and Target stores as well as a few other outlets like Plum Market. Use their Web site’s handy “Find DRY” locator by inputting your zip code. But you may want to call ahead, because some places don’t have it or have only limited quantities in stock.
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And if you’d seriously like to consider losing the booze altogether, check out the book The Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness & Change Your Life by Anne Grace.  Raised in a shack with no running water, she became a hugely successful C-level marketing exec who started drinking gradually and eventually found herself drinking way more and enjoying it way less.
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The book talks about how people are afraid to even ask the question, “Am I drinking too much?” because it might mean they have a problem. Try reading this book instead of stealthily checking online at night to see if you’re drinking too much. For some who read it, the most powerful message may be the straight talk about how negatively heavy drinking affects both the present and the future of one’s children. But it’s also a clear-eyed look at the negative effects on anyone.
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Read a story on her website about a high-functioning, successful business man who, after stopping alcohol for only a few days, discovered dramatic positive changes in his feelings about his wife, his children and himself.  He was more patient and felt more connected; it’s a strong statement. On that same page, in return for your email address, you can download the first 40 pages of the book for free.
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Want to lose the booze? New sparkling drink options

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Heard about the “Dry January” campaign in the UK? The idea is to go a month with no alcohol and see how you feel. Some data indicate people tend to drink less, then, over the following six months. Others say there’s no evidence it changes anything.
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A recent book, This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness & Change Your Life, by Annie Grace, talks about an intelligent way to change your mind about how much you drink. Her approach, which explains our unconscious bias in favor of drinking and also brims with facts about the extraordinary dangers of alcohol – like it’s literally poison (ethanol) and that it is progressively addictive to anyone who drinks it, not just to so-called “alcoholics” – is based on the highly praised work of Dr. John Sarno in helping people rid themselves of chronic back and other pain.
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Those who choose to forego alcohol or indulge only sparingly have always been hampered by a lack of sophisticated drink alternatives. Club soda with a lime is okay, but it gets boring fast. Most flavored club sodas have a distinctly unpleasant metallic and fake taste. And some diet soda sweeteners are under severe scrutiny. So what’s a non- or light-imbiber to do?
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The fruit juice/sweetened variety and the organic-only sparkling option
The fruit juice/sweetened variety and the organic-only sparkling option
A newcomer to the market known as Cascade Ice Water sparkling beverages sent some samples recently. The brand comes in 30 lightly carbonated flavors, all of which are sodium, sugar, caffeine and gluten free. The zero-calorie flavored sparkling variety is made with 1% fruit juice and, honestly, we would love to know how they manage to make the aroma of fresh apples greet your nose when you open the McIntosh Apple. Seriously, it’s reminiscent of standing in the cellar-temperature apple shack we used to trek out to every October in Cleveland, Ohio to see the magnificent fall colors and buy apples.
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And how do they get the Strawberry-Orange-Mango to smell and taste like that when the only fruit-related ingredient is pear juice? These guys clearly have some blending magic tricks under their cloaks. By the way, if you’re still drinking red wine, mix some into that Strawberry-Orange-Mango water and you’ve got yourself instant sangria.
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The flavors in this line are lightly sweetened with sucralose, an artificial sweetener considered safe by the FDA. We found it refreshing, not too sweet and at the same time affording some unique flavor sensations. And then we happily realized we’d consumed no sugar or caffeine and hadn’t been dosed with aspartame (said to contribute to cancer, stroke and other risks).
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Another variety of Cascade Ice is its zero-calorie organic sparkling fruit waters. These are lightly carbonated and contain no sugar, caffeine or artificial sweeteners of any kind. Ingredients in the organic waters include only purified water, carbonation and essences from fruit oils and extracts. We were truly surprised and delighted by the clean, fresh, non-fake taste of the flavors of the samples of this variety. Talk about healthy alternatives!
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Cascade Ice’s zero-calorie fruit sparkling waters are made with small amounts of various fruit juices as well as a few traditional long-name ingredients like potassium benzoate (a preservative) and artificial colors. The zero-cal organic water comes in a multitude of mixed fruit flavors like blueberry-acai-pomegranate, coconut-mango, pink grapefruit, raspberry lemonade and 15 others, but keep in mind, these are not sweet. They’re nice-flavored sparkling waters made with organic fruit essences.
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Zevia - sweetened only with all-natural stevia
Zevia – sweetened only with all-natural stevia

And if you want a regular soda that’s just sweet and fizzy without any artificial sweeteners, check out Zevia, soda sweetened with all-natural stevia. It comes in a bunch of flavors. The only ones we’ve tried were black cherry and ginger ale. The black cherry was too strong and too sweet for us, but we like the ginger ale for just plain sipping.

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Two red wines and a unique spirit to spark your holidays

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Parties, feasts, holidays and more celebrations. It’s always good to have something special to enjoy before, with or after your meal – especially this time of year. Below are a few ideas we highly recommend.

Elegant dry Nero d'Avola Morgante Sicilia DOC
Elegant dry Nero d’Avola Morgante Sicilia DOC

A beautiful wine from Sicily is sure to please the dry-red-wine-loving souls with a place in your heart or your holiday plans.  I was recently able to sample Morgante and Mandrarossa, two delightful wines from Sicily with Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) designations. These two fine dry red DOC wines make perfect complements to meals, at home or eating out in a restaurant. The Mandrarossa is fresher (more acidic) and the Morgante smoother and deeper. Read more about these two Sicilia DOC wines here.

Nero d'Avola dry red Mandrarossa Sicilia DOC
Nero d’Avola dry red Mandrarossa Sicilia DOC

Whatever wine you choose from Sicily, make sure it has the DOC label so you know it’s made with the careful growing conditions and the attention to detail that are required to earn that designation. Read more at http://winesofsicily.com/.

Look for the DOC label on all your wines from Sicily
Look for the DOC label on all your wines from Sicily

 

 

 

And how about something truly unique? We’re hearing more and more about this spirit distilled from Peru’s national spirit, Pisco. Portón is an even finer distillation of that spirit into a colorless brandy that mixes beautifully with rich drinks like eggnog and/or gives a shot of sweet complexity to other creamy spirits such as SomruS or Irish cream liqueurs.

Pisco Porton makes a fabulous holiday libation
Pisco Porton makes a fabulous holiday libation

Pisco can boast what only a handful of other spirits enjoy: a Denomination of Origin. That means all pisco must be made in vineyards along the south western coast of Peru and must be distilled from any of eight specific aromatic and non-aromatic grape varietals under the strictest of guidelines. Just for fun this holiday, try making this elegant creamy recipe: CASPIROLETA with Pisco Portón.

 

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Last-minute SuperBowl food and drink ideas

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SuperBowl Sunday is reputedly one of the biggest television viewing days of the year in the United States. I’m guessing that might depend on which teams are playing and how big the rivalry is (Wikipedia gives interesting biggest-TV-audience stats here).

And for sure, this is also a day people tend to say the hell with the diet. So whether you’re making stuff at home, or heading out to let someone else do the cooking and cleanup, here are a few last-minute ideas for your enjoyment and edification.

Like to keep the dirty dishes to a minimum on SuperBowl Sunday? Try Nuvino wine in portable PreservPak pouches. Comes in Chardonnay, Malbec, Red Blend, and Sauvignon Blanc. If you don’t drink ’em all up at the party, they’ll keep fresh up to 18 months. Just think of all the glasses you won’t have to wash.

If you like to make your own finger foods for the party, here’s a new product, Just Mayo, that lets you make healthier versions of your favorite Super Bowl dishes. It’s non-GMO, gluten-free, soy free, dairy-free, lactose-free, and cholesterol-free product and comes in sriracha, chipotle, and garlic spreads (burger toppers, anyone?). You can get it at Safeway, Whole Foods Market, Walmart, and select Costco locations. Recipes at http://www.hamptoncreek.com/just-mayo/recipes/

A few quick notes on SuperBowl specials around town:

  • Commonwealth Tavern, 2000 W. Roscoe St., has brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. with $6 bloody marys and $12 mimosas. $5 stadium cups, $15 Miller and Coors buckets, $4 Tecate cans, $5 Lagunitas drafts, and $10 themed food specials created by Chef Donny Farrell. Hold your spot ahead 773.697.7956.

  • Compass Bar, 433 W. Diversey offers a $10 Super Bowl Chili Frito Pizza along with 200 different beers plus line cards and prize giveaways each quarter.

  • Lottie’s, 1925 W. Cortland, has a Half-Time Competition. Kick a field goal to win a $250 prize. Meanwhile enjoy the game on multiple screens, drink up $4 Jameson, $15 Miller and Coors buckets, and dig in to a $15 party platter (14-inch cheese pizza and bucket of wings and tots).

  • LM Restaurant Group:
    Brasserie by LM, 800 S. Michigan Ave. Bratwurst with Fries and a Miller Lite $10
    Troquet River North, 111 W. Huron. Troquet Burger with Fries and a Miller Lite $10

  • MAK,1924 W. Division has BOGO wangs on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 1. Crispy fried with a sweet and spicy sauce, get in all sizes, to go, dine-in & delivery.

  • ROCKS Northcenter, 4138 N. Lincoln, and ROCKS Lakeview, 3463 N. Broadway, $20 Bud Light Towers + 50¢ Wings. Plus discounts, raffles and giveaways.
  • The Pony, 1638 W. Belmont, has a free Jameson’s half-time competition – kick a field goal to win a $250 prize. Deals on Jameson, beer buckets and a $15 Punxsutawney party platter (16-inch Clydesdale grilled cheese plus wings and tots).
  • Tavern on Little Fort, 4128 N. Lincoln, has a Chili Cook-off starting at 3 pm, with judging at half-time. Prizes are as follows: $200 cash (1st place), grill set (2nd place) and Coleman picnic chairs (3rd place). Bring your own crock-pot with your best chili. Ten bucks buys any patron a “judgeship” and the right to enjoy chili samples, wings, sausage, dips, chips, and veggies. $3 domestic specials, $5 microbrew drafts, $4 well drinks and $4 Fireball shots.

 

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