Category Archives: casual dining

NYT Mark Bittman teams with Peapod – and we all win!

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Chicken cacciatore has always been a big hit with my family. My recipe from years ago is laden with chicken-tomato-onion-pepper-mushroom goodness. Some years after this became a standard that I could make without consulting a cookbook, I developed a skinless, lower-fat version that still knocked everybody’s socks off.

Mark Bittman's latest cookbook
Mark Bittman’s latest cookbook

So I was really curious when I was given a review copy of Mark Bittman’s latest cookbook, Dinner for Everyone: 100 Iconic Dishes Made 3 Ways – Easy, Vegan and Perfect for Company. Think about it. Under the “Pot Roast” heading, he’s got 1) Easy – Pork Tenderloin simmered in peanut sauce; 2) Vegan – Cabbage Pot Roast, first boiled gently til tender, then stuffed with processed steel-cut oats and hazelnuts seasoned with parsley, and braised in a fragrant tomato sauce; and 3) Perfect for Company – Braised Pastrami that you coat with a homemade rub mixture for 7 days, then cook on very low oven heat on a bed of hickory chips, then simmer gently until the meat is super tender.

New York Times food writer Mark Bittman has written a number of cookbooks during his career. And now he’s piggybacking promotion of his latest one onto the work of a reliable Chicago service called Peapod Grocery Delivery, a service we’ve been using for more than a decade. Together, Bittman and Peapod are delivering Bittman’s recipes along with the high quality food you need in order to make the most of his cookbooks. His recipes are top notch. Their meats and vegetables and groceries are excellent quality, and their delivery service is flexible, affordable and dependable. Perfect combo.

Bittman's boozy jackfruit sandwich
Bittman’s boozy jackfruit sandwich

Bittman’s book is extremely easy to use. Beautifully laid out with photos and lots of white space to make it easy on the eyes, it also has some unique photography like the one of a “Boozy BBQ Jackfruit Sandwich.” But now, back to my opening paragraph on cacciatore. Interestingly, Bittman labels this chapter just “Cacciatore.” The three versions he presents include 1) Drumstick Cacciatore, 2) Hearty Vegetable Cacciatore, and 3) Rabbit Cacciatore.

Unique flavors and creative combos in Bittman's chicken cacciatore
Unique flavors and creative combos in Bittman’s chicken cacciatore

The first version thankfully refers to drumsticks from chickens (as opposed to rabbits, quail or some other exotic creature), and boy, does it have a different method. Definitely fewer ingredients and a simpler process than my old standby recipes. Eliminates the onion and peppers completely, but leaves the succulence of garlic and sauteed mushrooms. Suggests different herbs. Adds some heat with chile flakes. But the real killer trick is the sauce – tomato paste and balsamic vinegar.

I was intrigued by this unusual – to me – combination for a sauce. And worried that it would be too thin without any flour or other thickener. Did the browning step – loved his explanation of how to brown chicken without having it stick to the skillet – and then mixed up the sauce. It sure did look thin. Poured it in and finished the cooking – a surprisingly fast total of 30 minutes – and the sauce wasn’t quite as thin now.

Then I tasted. Wow, truly a different experience from a traditional cacciatore recipe. The sauce was rich without being heavy. Piquant. Lightly spicy. The chicken and mushrooms bathed in the garlicky, just-enough-tang juices was a seriously tasty combination. I consumed the entire dish myself over only a couple of days with veggie sides and a glass (or two) of red wine. Num.

His vegan version of cacciatore stars portobello mushrooms and features white wine (or water), red onion, red pepper, olives, potatoes, fava beans and whole tomatoes. This may be my next encounter with Bittman’s expertise. The company-suitable Rabbit Cacciatore has similarities with my traditional recipe, including flour for browning, but it calls for brining the rabbit pieces ahead of time and garnishing with fried capers. Sounds like a winner, but as a former owner for ten years of a lovely pet rabbit, I might have to substitute some other meat protein.

Peapod fresh picks
Peapod fresh picks

We love PeaPod around here. The freshness and quality of their stuff is excellent. Their delivery window options are extensive. The packaging is thorough; keeps all frozen stuff together, all refrigerated, etc. If anything, their packers are almost too thorough  – a single head of garlic doesn’t really need to be in two separate bags.

And if you should, by some chance, run into a quality problem – like a cauliflower with too many brown spots – just pick up the phone. Their customer service is 100% responsive. They will immediately – without asking questions or demanding proof – issue you a refund for the price of that item on your next order. All of this makes shopping a much easier experience than any get-to-the-store, run around and hand-pick every item type of trip. Yes, I know you might say, “Oh, only I can properly pick out my fruit and vegetables, etc.” Yes, I understand. But almost without fail, you will feel like you personally hand-picked the items that show up in your PeaPod insulated grocery boxes. The quality is that good. Prices on many items are, if anything, only slightly higher than, say, Mariano’s, but if you’re watching the budget, do some comparisons. Plus, they regularly offer special deals on delivery fees.

So pick out one of Mark Bittman’s 419 excellent recipes – for yourself, your family, your vegetarian/vegan friends, or when you entertain your boss. – Or make it even easier. In order to get exactly the right ingredients without any stress, order one of Bittman’s meal kits from #PeapodDelivers. Yep, shop from the comfort of your couch and have the ingredients brought right to your door. I’m telling you. You cannot beat it.

Here’s more about Mark Bittman.

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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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3 lovely bubblies from Gloria Ferrer

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Champagne makers and bubbly makers everywhere are really happy that many of us Americans have begun picking up on the French and European practice of drinking bubbles for every day pleasure instead of reserving those delightful champagnes and sparkling wines just for special occasions. Today we’re featuring three expressions from the caves of Gloria Ferrer priced in the $20-$30 range, any one of which will make you and your guests beam with pleasure as you pair the wine with some of your favorite foods.

Ferrer Sonoma Brut bubbly
Ferrer Sonoma Brut bubbly

Gloria Ferrer, for 600 years a world renowned maker of sparkling and still wines with a history of female leadership, makes multiple expressions of bubblies that combine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes in quite different proportions. Gloria Ferrer’s Sonoma Brut, for example, is made with 86.5% Pinot Noir and 13.5% Chardonnay. The finished wine shows off delicate pear and floral notes backed by toasty almond. On your tongue, you’ll find lively citrus, toast and apple flavors along with a persistent effervescence, a creamy mid-palate and a toasty finish. Pair this lovely bubbly with shellfish, crab, roast chicken or sushi. Seasoning affinities include lemongrass, fennel and white pepper. Serve with hard aged and triple-cream cheeses, maybe with some Meyer lemon compote to round out the cheese course. Alc 12.5% SRP $22.

Gloria Ferrer’s Blanc de Noirs is 91.6% Pinot Noir and 8.4% Chardonnay. It serves up bright strawberry and black cherry aromas with subtle vanilla highlights. Creamy cherry, lemon and cola flavors combined come with a lush palate, lively bubbles and a persistent finish. This wine is outstanding with crab, Thai cuisine, roast pork, quail, foie gras and with semi-sweet desserts. Seasoning affinities include star anise, plum sauce and tarragon. Try pairing it with your cheese course with a triple aged Gouda or other hard aged cheeses with persimmons and hazelnuts. Alc 12.5% SRP $22.

Perfect cheese wine - Ferrer Brut Rose
Perfect cheese wine – Ferrer Brut Rose

Gloria Ferrer’s Brut Rosé is an especially lovely rendition of bubbly. Made with 60% Pinot noir and 40% Chardonnay, it has bright strawberry and Ridge aromas followed by notes of crème brûlée, Meyer lemon and green apple. It feels like a creamy mousse and keeps giving you fruit all the way to the finish where you get a touch of mineral. Pair this lovely wine with anything spicy,  Asian inspired dishes, barbecue pork ribs or grilled seafood. This rosé is outstanding with many varieties of goat cheese served with olives and herbed nuts. Only 2000 cases produced. Alc 12.5% SRP $29. We really love this delicate and delicious bubbly!

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Super cool no-stick MasterPan has kickstarted

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A company called Masterpan is out to change your cooking habits. Their live Kickstarter campaign for the new MasterPan collection began on August 31. And after using the samples we received  for a couple of weeks, we admit to being impressed.

The pans are heavier than you expect for a non-stick pan. Each pan has a large heavy steel disk on the bottom which, when preheated for two minutes, actually distributes the heat across the entire area of the giant square pan. It minimizes cold corners and edges. The nonstick coating seems thicker and sturdier than others we’ve used. And the lid fits all of the pans, so you can steam something for a little bit and then brown it on both the flat surfaces and the grill surfaces.

Masterpan grilled potato wedges
Masterpan grilled potato wedges

One night I decided to challenge the pan to produce some crispy potato wedges. I was delighted to find that five minutes in the microwave for a couple of very large red potatoes got them just soft enough to slice into thick wedges. Then, using an absolute minimum of oil – we use a pump mister for our olive oil – I distributed the wedges around the three sections of the pan. Then I noticed they weren’t quite cooked through, so I put the lid on the pan for five minutes and got them just tender enough. The soft-rubber-edged seal makes the lid fits closely and thus creates a good head of steam to hurry the cooking along.

Took the lid off and continued cooking to end up with crispy potato wedges with those appetizingly brown grill marks on them. Sprinkled half of them with chipotle chili pepper and garlic salt, the other half with just garlic salt, and applied the oil mister a couple more times. Really delicious and crispy and not oily in the least. And I didn’t have to turn the big oven on – a problem in our small kitchen, which heats up outrageously when the oven is on. We are always looking for good ways to avoid that, especially in the summer.

MasterPan breakfast
MasterPan breakfast

Made a beautiful breakfast the last two mornings. Four minutes for a potato in the microwave. Meanwhile, steam as much fresh baby spinach as you can fit into the grill side of the 3-section pan. Throw a few drops of water or olive oil in first, then put the leaves in and cover it. After the potato is squeezably soft, grate it (thin slice the peels, too). Open the skillet lid, remove the spinach to your plate. Mist the 3 sections with olive oil, throw the grated potato in the grill section and one of the flat ones. Cook a few minutes – it will brown delicately – and then break an egg into the third section. You can cover to steam the egg a bit, or you can flip it over. Voila. You have fresh steamed spinach, hash browns and an easy-over egg, all from one pan, in under 10 minutes. This is simplified cooking, people.

Masterpan grilled chicken n veg - more challenging than breakfast
Masterpan grilled chicken n veg – more challenging than breakfast

We love the heaviness, the close-fitting multi-pan lid, the multiple cooking options (grill, flat) and, for a single person living alone, the small divided sections do actually help control portion sizes – as long as you stick to that much. Get yours now during the MasterPan Kickstarter campaign. And, just for fun, here’s their cute promotional video.

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Homewood Suites by Hilton amenities beckon foodies

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It was a stroke of genius for Homewood Suites by Hilton40 E. Grand, to invite Kevin Curry to show Chicago media how to cook his unique dishes easily with their food-friendly amenities, including the full complement of pans and other kitchen utensils available in every Homewood suite in all of their three downtown Chicago locations.

Curry is really fit. You notice immediately upon meeting him how his nicely cut shirt strains over his nicely cut muscles. He operates FitMenCook and part of his mission, since he himself travels  a great deal, is to make up delicious recipes for low calorie, low-cost dishes that you can make with minimal ingredients.

The family-friendly, all-suite Homewood Suites by Hilton are designed for people who want to stay for several days in the city, whether for business or pleasure. The Grand Ave. location has undergone a dramatic re-design in the last few years. It used to be more of the old-fashioned dark green and maroon colors, cozy with lots of walls. Now they have opened up the spaces, removing walls and installing light, modern furnishings along with a wall of glass, so guests can see some of the most iconic buildings in downtown Chicago while relaxing with a glass of wine or a snack at cocktail hour.

And Homewood Suites by Hilton make cooking in your suite, pardon the pun, a piece of cake. One of the most amazing services they offer is the free shopping service. Seriously. You heard right. You make out the list. You give them the list. You relax or work while they go shopping for you. Then, they deliver your items to your suite. Or hold them at the desk if you’re not back yet. How cool is that?

*Consider putting a package of Miracle Noodles (see pic above) on that shopping list. Eating Curry’s recipe for shrimp in avocado -coconut sauce served atop of these almost-no-calorie gems is as close to guilt-free, rich pasta eating as you can get.

All of the rooms have been newly conceived: clean, crisp, and nicely designed. A very pleasant place to come home to when you’re staying in our busy city for several days. Certainly, on the really hot day of the cooking demos, the air conditioning was struggling a bit with 25 observers in a single room. But obviously that shouldn’t be a problem when you book a room with a normal number of occupants!

All of the people who were involved with the event seemed passionately committed to helping guests enjoy their experience in this lovely reimagined 23-story building in the heart of Chicago’s downtown. Consider it for your home-away-home when you’re in town for business or just want to take a break from ordinary life for a few days.

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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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