Category Archives: brunch

Wine wisdom from Matt Crafton of luxury Chateau Montelena wines

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Chateau Montelena comes to Chicago at Maple & Ash
Chateau Montelena comes to Chicago at Maple & Ash

Some wineries bring their wines to market via huge gatherings of trade and media reps, complete with educational seminars, panel presentations, slide shows, and so on. With luxury producers like Chateau Montelena, it’s more usual to showcase their wares by serving them in the conditions for which they’re designed – small groups that encourage conversation and allow the wines to reveal their true beauty over a shared meal of delicious food.

Winemaker Matt Crafton talks about Chateau Montelena
Winemaker Matt Crafton talks about Chateau Montelena

That’s the approach Matt Crafton, chief winemaker at Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley, takes when he brings a curated selection of his wines to a city. He works with local executive chefs to pair their creations and his with a deft and definitive touch. In Chicago recently, he worked with chefs at Maple & Ash, 8 W. Maple, to construct a menu ideally suited to the wines – perfect pairings for the luxury whites and reds he brought to represent the best of the Chateau’s small-production vineyard.

Crafton, who says he enjoys having his 7-, 5- and 1-year-old kids follow him around the vineyard, often checks his smartphone, even when he’s out of town, to see how the vines are faring. The winery has sensors all over the vineyard that constantly send stats about water levels to his phone. Those numbers tell him when the vines are being stressed – even before the leaves begin to show physical signs such as curling or turning – so that he can order countermeasures if needed.

Over a meal of meticulously paired and perfectly prepared dishes created by the chefs at avec Restaurant, 615 W. Randolph, Crafton generously shared a few of his thoughts and insights about wine in general and Chateau Montelena in particular.

Special points of his wine wisdom:

  • Be on the watch. The Bordeaux wine region in France has recently been spraying its vines with copper sulfate in order to control a mildew infestation. This is not good for the soil long term – and thus for the wines.
  • Food for thought: Seven percent of the entire human population is left-handed. In the wine making business, the share is forty percent.
  • Labeling a wine – or anything – “organic” is nearly meaningless in our current state of affairs. There are simply too few controls. Sustainable growing is, instead, the ideal for which we all should be striving.
  • Wine is a delicate custom expression of each terroir – and naturally varies according to the year’s weather and soil conditions. If you’re looking for the same experience every year in your beverage, drink beer.
  • When you want to age a wine, you’ll get a better result with 1.5-liter bottles than the usual 750 ml size. Why? Because with the same cork, you get twice the volume, which slows down the process.
  • Using an aerator is good, but it cannot remotely compare to actually aging a wine. Oak and grape skins contribute tannins. Cement and clay hold oxygen while keeping the fruit fresh. Aerators just add ambient air.
  • American oak is looser-grained and can contribute flavors like coconut, dill and vanilla. French oak is more subtle. Spanish wines, for example, use a lot of American oak and tend to have a vanilla aroma.
  • If you the big Italian red wines like Barolo but find yourself not enjoying somewhat lesser Italian reds, it may be you are not consuming them along with food – the experience for which they are specifically made.
Beautiful - Montelena Estate Cab 2005
Beautiful – Montelena Estate Cab 2005

Special points about Chateau Montelena:

  • Chateau Montelena was one of the California wineries that came crashing onto the world stage with the famous “Judgment of Paris” back in the 70s when Napa Valley wines, red and white, received top honors over France’s finest – as decided by French judges doing blind tastings.
  • Chateau Montelena sets aside 5 to 10% of every vintage of Chardonnay and Cabernet each year and cellars it so that customers who cannot or choose not to age a bottle on their own will be able five years hence to purchase one that shows off how well that vintage has aged in the bottle.
  • Their Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (SRP ~$65), typically blended with Merlot or sometimes Cabernet Franc – is made to be approachable when young.
  • Their Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet (SRP ~$175) is never blended with Merlot – because they don’t grow those grapes on the estate –  but sometimes with Petit Verdot. This gem takes time to reach its peak and will open up much more after a longer time in the bottle.
  • The estate consists of 100 acres behind the Chateau and is partly situated on two mountain ranges that each contribute a different kind of soil – one of volcanic ash and the other mineral-rich from having been under the sea.

Crafton said he likes to bring Chateau Montelena to others around the country in order to demonstrate what their values are. “We take our wines very seriously,” Crafton said. “But we try not to take ourselves too seriously. After all, it [making wine] is about making people happy.”

Some of the luxury wines he brought to Chicago included:

Happily, when you’re looking for that special wine you want to save for the future or that special wine you want to drink to celebrate a momentous or even just a festive occasion, you can frequently find Chateau Montelena wines at Binny’s, Mariano’s, and many small wine shops and restaurants in and around Chicago.

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Loire Valley Wines refresh and delight

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Spring to Loire 2019 Chicago at J. Parker Atrium
Spring to Loire 2019 Chicago at J. Parker Atrium

Want a wine that evokes gloriously fresh surroundings? The wines of the Loire Valley bring to mind a range of pleasant springs and mountain streams as well as gentle sun, lazy breezes and relaxed days. They come in a myriad styles – from dry to sweet and everything in between – and in all price ranges.

Jamel Freeman presents Spring to Loire seminars
Jamel Freeman presents Spring to Loire seminars

Recently, Jamel A. Freeman, wine director at the Bellemore Chicago, presented seminars at Spring to Loire 2019 in Chicago – facts, figures and stories about these lovely wines. He explained that Loire Valley wines are best known for crisp, dry, white wines, notably Sauvignon Blanc and aromatic Chenin Blancs. yet they also produce fruity red wines from Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes as well as earthy red wines from Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Not to mention their selection of dry and off-dry rosé, elegant sparklings and luscious sweet wines. All are known to be:

  • Moderate alcohol, refreshing acidity and minerality that make them ideal for pairing with foods.
  • Pure expressions of varietal and terroir unmasked by oak.
  • Excellent value.
Jamel presented three separate seminars. One on the Diversity of LV wines. A second on the Sauvignons of LV. And a third on LV sparklings. He also shared additional interesting facts and figures about Loire Valley and about wines in general. Herewith a few tidbits:
  • The balance of acid and fruit is a good indicator of how well a wine will continue to develop in the bottle – like a fruit ripening, a wine may be high in acid to begin with and then become  mellower and sweeter as it ages.
  • Loire Valley:
    • Is France’s #1 producer of white wines, and the #2 producer of rosés.
    • Is the #1 region for the number of AOC sparkling wines
    • Is the 3rd largest vineyard in France.
    • Has 51 appellations and denominations
    • Produces 320 million bottles per year.
  • Ever notice how Prosecco seems to go flat quickly? That’s because it’s produced by the bulk method. Loire Valley and other sparklings produced by methode traditionale are fermented a second time in the bottle – which results in longer-lasting bubbles.
  • Stress to vines develops complexity. Higher elevation means more acidity and more minerality.
  • Vouvray – which has become almost a generic name for sparklings from Loire Valley – is half as bubbly as champagne, but creamier than Cremant.
  • Chenin Blanc grapes are more aromatic than Charadonnay, but Chardonnay can be more easily manipulated because of its less powerful aromas.
Most of the wines Jamel presented are available at Binny’s. A few of the excellent wines showcased at the program are listed below. For more information about Loire Valley wines visit www.loirevalleywine.com/.
Sparklings
  • Vouvray NV, Domaine VIgneau-Chevreau. A sparkling with lots of flint, minerality. 100% Chenin Blanc from 25 year old grapes. Just delicious! SRP ~$23-26.
  • Jean-Francois Merieau Vouvray 2012. 80% Chenin Blanc, 20% Sauvignon Blanc. Seashell minerality and a nose of floral notes and white peaches. SRP ~$19.
Whites
  • Vincent Grall Sancerre 2017. This wine is the benchmark for Sauvignon Blanc in Loire Valley. Aged in oak or acadia wood. SRP ~$26.
  • Domaine Paul Buisse Touraine 2017. 100% Sauvignon Blanc. A lovely value-priced white with seashell minerality on the palate; sage, bell pepper and crushed chalk aromas SRP ~$13.
  • Vignobles Gibault Touraine-Chenonceaux 2017. 100% Sauvgnon Blanc. Long, slow fermentation pulls out the aromatics, and this wine features rich notes of pears. ~$21
  • Henry Pelle Menetou-Salon 2017. 100% Sauvignon Blanc. A nose of organic white peach blossoms, yellow apple flesh. Rich tasting white. SRP ~$23.
Reds
  • Sancerre 2016 Joseph Mellot. 100% Pinot Noir. Complex with a long finish. Similar in characteristics to Northern side of Burgundy.

Be sure to look for our next post on pairing Loire Valley wines with flowers!!

Any way you look at it, you’re almost guaranteed to have an enjoyable wine when you choose from the broad selection of Loire Valley Wines.
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River Roast chef freely shares expertise

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RIver Roast Executive Chef Cedric Harden
RIver Roast Executive Chef Cedric Harden

Surprised and delighted to learn that River Roast, 315 N. LaSalle St., offers cooking classes. Well, more like cooking demos because you get to watch rather than participate. Besides the beautiful and eclectic decorations in the space, the great view of the river and the delicious foods you get to eat, one of the most positive things about these sessions is the fact that you get to ask River Roast Executive Chef Cedric Harden any cooking question you want (preferably related to the dish he’s preparing right in front of you – when you sit at the bar, which we highly recommend), and he gives you the straight dope  from his extensive professional experience.

Chef team Cedric and Eric
Chef team Cedric and Eric

Attending a recent class felt like the most fun you can have in downtown Chicago on a regular Saturday afternoon. That day Chef Eric Lees, Chef de Cuisine at Spiaggia, a sister restaurant in the Levy Group of fine establishments, was on hand to assist. He and Chef Cedric put on a truly down-to-earth demonstration of what it’s like to invent and to execute an original dish.

Chef's beautifully imagined surprise appetizer
Chef’s beautifully imagined surprise appetizer

It was pure pleasure watching the construction of the spring greens salad at this Cooking with Spring Ingredients session. Oh, and before the first course, the chef surprised us with an appetizer that wasn’t on the menu – a lovely concoction of salumi slices, wedges of fresh fig, and fresh arugula nestled atop a creamy puddle of locally made burrata. Delicious. Back to the spring salad. Have you heard of using shaved raw asparagus along with steamed asparagus tips together in a salad? It’s a cool idea that works very well, especially when dressed with a lovely handmade Green Goddess dressing. The freshness of all the flavors and the whole combination made all the students’ tongues happy. And that was just a single one of the many interesting ideas and tricks the chef gave his guests. He shared his knowledge generously, from talking about where to learn knife skills to explaining why and how to salt the water for pasta (you’ll be shocked to hear what he suggests!).

River Roast cooking class's fabulous chicken entree with rich pan sauce
River Roast cooking class’s fabulous chicken entree with rich pan sauce

Included in the price (~$65) you’ll be served a number of small cocktails/wines throughout the class. Just enough to give a pleasant buzz on a sunny Saturday afternoon. But it’ll undoubtedly work just as well on a cloudy one.

The winter series of cooking demos is finished now, and we are eagerly awaiting word on the new series. This is one of the most delightful ways to spend a Saturday afternoon that we can imagine. A bit of spirits, a lot of delicious food, and a generous helping of professional knowledge – a win-win in anybody’s book. Have already told friends about how much fun this was, and we can’t wait to get the new schedule.

 

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Broken Barrel Bar – new chef-driven sports bar in Lincoln Park

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You’ve heard of Chicago beef sandwiches. You’ve heard about the Philly cheese steak. Now prepare yourself for the sandwich that combines the best of both and takes it all to a new level. It’s called The Broken Brisket Dip sandwich (more on this below), and the only place you can find it is at the Broken Barrel Bar, 2548 N. Southport. It’s just one of the resident chef’s innovative ideas for bringing good old every day bar food to new heights – and making gluten-free and vegetarian souls smile.

The Broken Barrel Bar is a brand new Lincoln Park spot that promises to become a favorite destination for those who love to eat, drink and watch sports. Owner Luke Johnson of Wine Not Hospitality said making people feel comfortable is what it’s all about. From the extra-large, well-padded U-shaped booths inside, to the stepped natural-wood booths and stadium seating in the outdoor space, the arrangements are perfect for big parties, yet relaxed for smaller groups and couples. Another thing Luke does to enhance the bar’s spacious yet cozy ambiance is partner with local artists to create whimsical wall art. The whole restaurant/bar is ideal for large groups – family, friends, or work pals – to hang out together. Game day, let’s-get-crazy day, or just relaxing time, you and your whole gang will feel welcome.

Broken Brisket sandwich - irresistible
Broken Brisket sandwich – irresistible

Broken Barrel Chef Bryant Anderson is all about presenting his unique take on smoked meats and pickled accompaniments that lift the barbecue bar a notch beyond the ordinary. That Broken Brisket Dip sandwich is stuffed to overflowing with perfectly tender chunks of pot roasted beef (not paper-thin slices) studded with tiny pepper slices in the house-made giardiniera and sitting atop of a generous layer of cheese melted onto both sides of a good-sized hunk of Italian-style bread. All of that is bathed lightly in the chef’s smoked meat juices and served with a side dish of same for dipping. And, oh, you’re going to wanna dip. I mean, I seldom eat beef – and almost never Chicago’s Italian style beef because that razor-thin-sliced meat’s too dry for my taste once it’s reheated in the sauce – and yet I nearly finished this big sandwich. And I made sure I took home the small chunk I had left, too. It was delicious even straight out of the refrigerator the next day.

Delictable, piquant lamb tacos - irresistible
Delictable, piquant lamb tacos – irresistible

Another standout sandwich is the Guajillo Lamb taco – guajillo-pepper-marinated hickory-smoked lamb shoulder chunks, served in warm corn tortillas and topped with house-made, sweetly pickled red onions and dollops of super creamy, just-sharp-enough goat cheese. Again, though I’m neither a lamb nor a taco aficionado, this sandwich was mouth-wateringly good. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit I ate this whole thing, too.

Some of the sides are right up there, as well. The crinkle-cut sweet potato fries ($4) actually taste like and have the mouth-feel of real sweet potatoes; my companion could not stop eating them. The medium thin regular French fries ($5) are nicely browned and not greasy – and I AM a French fry aficionado. Chef says since Lincoln Park has a high percentage of vegetarians, they’ve chosen to honor that eating style by offering dishes like the Nachos, interlaced with roasted brussels sprout leaves, pickled onions, pickled radishes – all house-made – plus jalapeños and a jalapeño cheddar sauce on top of the sprinkled cheese. We had asked for the sauce on the side, but the dish would have come together better with it on top – and with even more of it, ‘cuz it was good!

Then there’s a selection of wings – gluten-free, by the way, because they are fried crispy but not breaded – that come with your choice of dry rub or several unique BBQ sauces: Buffalo, Garlic Buffalo, Honey Habanero, Chili Maple, Sticky Curry, Hell Raiser Hot, or their biggest prize winner, Bourbon BBQ. Try these with a side of Mac & Cheese with smoked cheddar and two toppings ($15), Fried Plantains, a Cheesy Cauliflower Gratin ($6 – could have used a bit more cheese intensity), or a side of nicely roasted Brussels Sprouts ($6).

Oh, yeah - whipped cream and deep-fried yeasty dough puffs!
Oh, yeah – whipped cream and deep-fried yeasty dough puffs!

The mini donut dessert was exceptional. Freshly made, hot-out-of-the-fryer donut puffs, placed in a pretty circle around a dish and interspersed with puffs of whipped cream, all drizzled with chocolate sauce and served with a dish of house-made triple berry sauce in the middle. Big enough for two and irresistible – even if you’ve already chowed down on your main dishes.

The wine list is a truly carefully curated selection that includes a couple of whites, a single Cabernet, a single Tempranillo, Malbec and so on. These are obviously well chosen to appeal to a range of discerning palates, and the ones we tasted were more than satisfactory. Wine glass prices range from $9 up. Well chosen, delicious wines. And for beer lovers of tappers, tall boys and bottles, you’ve got choices. And of course, there is a full bar and a nice selection of custom cocktails.

I suspect that if I lived in walking distance, this place would become a regular haunt. It’s so friendly and cozy, even with the dozens of TV screens that will keep you company even if you’re alone. And which, by the way the night we were there, we noticed they kept turned down until the Chicago Cubs (next year!) game came on. Go here and get your game on. Drink and eat. A nice example of the best in Food and Drink in Chicago.

P.S. They start serving weekend brunch on Saturday November 3! Check these options out:

  • SMOKED LAMB BENEDICT. Fresh baked biscuits, slow-smoked lamb shoulder, creamy hollandaise sauce, two over easy eggs, maple-sriracha drizzle & micro cilantro $14. OMG, that lamb from the tacos is FABulous.
  • HANGOVER BREAKFAST SANDWICH. Hickory brisket, fried egg, Merkts cheddar, arugula, chipotle mayo, crispy onions, toasted pretzel bun, choice of side $13. Oh, my. It’s lunchtime as I write and I think I need one of these right now.
  • CROISSANT FRENCH TOAST. Orange-buttermilk batter, homemade triple berry sauce, fresh croissant, whipped cream $12. Dessert for breakfast!!!
  • And what’s brunch without the booze?! Broken Barrel Bar will be pouring their house-blended BLOODY MARY, served with Hank’s Vodka and chef-pickled vegetables $9. Or try “WE’LL TAKE A BOTTLE”  – a bottle of bubbles with fresh orange juice $30.

 

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Victory Tap heats up South Loop food scene

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Dark wood surroundings. Unique architectural touches. Multiple inviting private spaces. They’re all a big part of what goes on at Victory Tap,  1416 S. Michigan Ave., in Chicago’s South Loop., along a booming section of the street where new condos are going up at  rapid clip. The ambiance is comfortable and classy, and the food is the star. Chef Joe Farina brings his years of experience in venerable Chicago Italian kitchens like Rosebud to this new incarnation of Italian-cum-fine dining establishment.

Victory Tap bread plate
Victory Tap bread plate

You start with a plate of mixed bread items, all of which are tempting enough to get you full before the main course arrives – crusty, chewy Italian bread, chunks of pizza and more with a plate of olive oil or fresh, cold butter, as you desire.

Perfezionare polpette - with ricotta side
Perfezionare polpette – with ricotta side

Joe’s Mama’s meatballs are a star item on the menu. Pronounced by my meatball aficionado companion as utterly divine. Big, fluffy spheres studded with bright fresh parsley, these gems come in Chef Joe Farina’s unique marinara sauce and are fit for Italian royalty. We started with an order of these meatballs and loved that they were served with a big scoop of olive-oil-enhanced, whipped ricotta cheese on the side. These tender, juicy meatballs in the succulent marinara sauce make a delicious and satisfying main course, even without a helping of one of Victory Tap’s housemade pastas, of which there are many varieties.

In fact, the meatballs are so good the restaurant has decided to take them on the road so you can buy them even closer to home. Our server Bobby shared his enthusiasm for Victory Tap, Chef Farina and the food and told us he is the one who will be marketing the meatballs to  major retail outlets like Mariano’s and other private and chain establishments. Look for them soon nearby.

Baconfest winner - agnolooti with sage and brown butter
Baconfest winner – agnolooti with sage and brown butter

We also to tried the agnolotti pasta that won the first-ever-given People’s Choice award at the Chicago Bacon Fest 2018. Delicious hand-shaped pasta filled with ricotta and Parmesan and topped with a rich, sage-infused browned butter sauce and sprinkled with thick chunks of cooked bacon. Rich and delicious, even the leftovers reheated in the microwave next day.

Almond-crusted sea bass
Almond-crusted sea bass

The housemade pastas, from linguine and lasagna to shells, ravioli and cavatelli, let you mix with shrimp, sausage, clam sauce, creamy vodka sauce and more. Items on the extensive Italian-inspired menu can be paired with any of the restaurant’s carefully selected wines. Plus diners can choose from plenty of not-just-Italian dishes, including a generous selection of daily specials. On our visit, the almond-crusted sea bass daily special was a winner. Served perfectly broiled atop a bed of lightly steamed fresh spinach, it was bathed in a delicately tangy, citrus-perfumed lemon butter sauce that perfectly tied together the flavors of the fish, the spinach and the warm cherry tomato garnish. Oh, and they sell Armand’s pizza in thin crust and pan versions.

Ricotta cheesecake
Ricotta cheesecake

The desserts we tried were excellent. Ricotta cheesecake was light yet rich, quite different and less fat. Served with whipped cream and a beautifully cut fresh strawberry garnish in a rich graham cracker crust. Tiramisu had a thick layer of  angelically light and creamy mascarpone with a perfect dusting of cocoa, all atop the coffee-enhanced cake.

Handsome private dining/party spaces
Handsome private dining/party spaces

The restaurant is known for its catering and for convenient packages for private dining/parties. Upstair are several beautiful, dark-wood spaces that feel like you could be in someone’s very elegant home. Great food, beautiful surroundings. A winning combination for sure. Restrooms are on the second floor, too, and there is an elevator located conveniently under the staircase, so no issues for partygoers or restaurant patrons who don’t want to deal with stairs.

This is a place where you can feel at home, appreciate the service and enjoy the food over and over. We’ll be back soon.

Look for Joe's Mama's Meatballs in your grocer soon!
Look for Joe’s Mama’s Meatballs in your grocer soon!
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Mago Grill & Cantina – delicious discovery in South Loop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was one of our favorite recent restaurant meals  – and so surprising for a weekday lunch. Felt like a 4-star dinner. Mago Grill & Cantina is well worth a trip for its creative approach to blending cuisines and its commendable attention to the details of execution that take dishes several notches above the usual.
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Mago Grill & Cantina is located at 1010 S. Delano Court East. The place is a breeze to get to. CTA buses and trains are a short walk away. And if you drive, no need to fight downtown traffic hassles. Take Lake Shore Drive to Roosevelt or the Dan Ryan and pull right in. The shopping mall has ample underground parking – no need to stress on that score either. Go here. We will be back with friends very soon to try more dishes on the menu.
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Whisky and 5 fun Chicago holiday events 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bourbon on Division – way more than a late night haven

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Bourbon on Division bar
Bourbon on Division bar

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

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

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

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

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Celebrate Charlie Trotter Days – Today through Sunday Aug. 20, 2017. Dine in one of these restaurants in Chicago – and others across the country. When you enjoy one of their Trotter-inspired dishes, portions of the proceeds on each item will benefit
@TrotterProject, an effort to inspire and encourage young chefs.

Participating Chicago restaurants include:

What a perfect excuse to indulge yourself and family or friends at one of these excellent establishments. It’s always nice to know that when you’re spending money, you’re also helping young folks who are reaching for the stars.
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Share this with everyone you know! Sponsors and all their social media tags are listed below:
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The Trotter Project
Instagram: @thetrotterproject
Twitter: @TrotterProject
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The Peninsula Hotel
Instagram: @thepeninsulachi
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Woodford Reserve
Instagram: @woodfordreserve
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GreenRiver
Instagram: @greenriverchi
Twitter: @greenriverchi
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Otto Mezzo
Instagram: @ottomezzobar
Facebook: Otto Mezzo Bar
Twitter: @OttoMezzoBar
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United Airlines
Instagram: @united
Facebook: United
Twitter: @united
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