The boutique Ivy Hotel‘s cozy Sky Terrace rooftop space at 233 E. Ontario is good for enjoying their delicious drinks and apps outdoors without leaving the hotel. Don’t often find pork belly so crispy and meaty and not-too-fatty. Oh, and definitely check out their delicious popcorn-batter-coated shrimp!
Who thinks about a brewery as a place to get delicious food? Surprise! Revolution Brewing, 3340 N. Kedzie Ave., recently put on a wonderful dinner to help Jameson’s Irish Whiskey introduce its newest family members – Jameson Caskmates IPA Edition and Stout Edition. These new editions draw their unique flavors from spending a little vacation in the craft beer casks where Revolution makes some of its favorite beers. And while you’re trying them, you just might fall in love with Revolution’s braised lamb shank with beet risotto!
Jameson’s, the famous Irish whiskey company, is taking a cue from the many wines and spirits that have begun to collaborate with each other to give their creations extra complexity. In the case of whiskey in beer barrels, the whiskey adopts some of the flavor characteristics of the beer that came before it. The Stout Edition adopts flavors of coffee, chocolate and butterscotch from the Stout seasoned barrels and gets a creamier texture from this treatment. Jameson Caskmates IPA Edition shows hints of fresh hops, grapefruit and some sweet herbal notes from the IPA beer barrels in which she finishes. Jameson Caskmates Fist City Pale Ale Edition results from a partnership with the passion of the masters at Revolution Brewing and the Irish soul of Jameson. This whiskey is truly representative of the dedication both companies practice in giving back to their own neighborhoods.
When you imbibe one of the lovely Caskmates, look for the smoothness of Jameson with the malt and citrus notes of the infamous Chicago Pale Ale. Your nose will detect an initial citrus character and some mild notes of honey and sweetness. The taste is full-bodied with hints of hops with both of vanilla and a toasted oak character. Enjoy the long lingering finish as the spices and hops fade slowly, with fruit and toasted oak notes holding out along with the signature Jameson smoothness. Questions? Call the folks at Revolution and they’ll be sure to fill you in.
Every nice day in summer is another great excuse to indulge yourself – after you work, do your chores and exercise of course, right? Everywhere you turn in Chicago – and online of course – another opportunity presents itself to help you get creative with your enjoyment. Here are just a few restaurant ideas and home cooking/drinking products to get you rolling:
River Roastis celebrating summer with their weekday happy hour Oysters & Rosé special. Every weekday from 3 to 5 pm enjoy a dozen oysters and bottle of Rose wine for $35. Sit at the bar or along the river soaking in the sun all while enjoying a refreshing summer combo that’s irresistible.
And while you’re dreaming about enjoying the outdoors, think about having friends over – or just treating yourself – and serving something unique and easy: Sangria in cans, the most popular product made by Round Barn Winery, located in the hills of Southwestern Michigan, complete with tasting room. A fizzy, lightly sweet version of the drink beloved by so many in Spain, this Sangria is a nice combination of fruit, dry wine and sweetness. Be aware of the calories, though. A single 12-ounce can packs a whopping 290 calories, so feel free to consider this dessert…
Oh, and if you’ve got your grill out and ready to go, here’s a spice company that puts together some really tasty combos to rub on your meat, poultry and even vegetables. Pereg Natural Foods offers classic blends that are made from fresh, natural, 100% pure spices, bringing more than 100 years of expertise and quality to the table. Get to know some of these Middle Eastern-style secrets when the grill heats up.
Pereg’s Koobah starts with baharat, a ubiquitous Israeli and Mediterranean staple, and then adds warm layers of cinnamon, allspice, rose, nutmeg, and cardamom for a complex finish. It makes an excellent dry rub for grilled or roast lamb, salmon, and chicken, sprinkled into burgers, mixed with hummus, or tossed onto vegetables (particularly corn on the cob and eggplant) before roasting. Use their Kabab seasoning to douse cubes of chicken, beef, or lamb liberally with Pereg’s hearty mash-up (paprika, black pepper, coriander, garlic, and cumin). Thread on skewers with vegetables of your choice, and grill over medium heat until fully cooked. Serve on warm pita bread with tahini and cucumber salad for an authentic version of Israeli street food. And check out their special take on Shawarma and Ras El Hanout plus some sweet mix seasonings.
Casati’s, the family owned, modern Italian restaurant – claiming designation as home to the “healthiest pizza in Chicago” – offers Pinsa creations, which offer 90% less fat, carbs, and gluten than traditional pizzCasati’s, which is home to a new 42-seat, pet-friendly patio, will also offer 40% off specialty cocktails and wine during lunch. Owned and operated by Italy-native Stefano Casati, and run by Michelin Star Chef Christian Fantoni, Casati’s aims to bring light, fresh, healthy, and authentic tastes of Italy to Chicago’s Lincoln Park.
Carnivale Restaurant, 702 W. Fulton St. Things are heating up outside AND inside at Carnivale, where talented chefs and mixologists have created a new Lounge menu that features a Charcuterie Tabla, Sliders, Carnivale Mai-Tai, Jackie’s Daiquiri, and much more! Lounge open: Monday – Thursday from 4-10, Friday 4-11, Saturday 5-11, Sunday 5-9. *Every Weekday, enjoy Happy Hour from 4-6:30pm.
Coming soon: more beverage ideas perfect for summer sipping.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
From time to time, we are privileged to review food or drink products that interest us. This week we’re happy to introduce you to a brand of all-natural nut butters, a line of slightly exotic seasonings, and a new line of drink-enhancing cordials for mock- or cocktail time. Love to hear your feedback on any of these you decide to try.
Crazy Richard’s Nut Butters are made without the usual oil, added sugar and salt. Our experience was that the peanut butter tastes more like pure nuts than others we’ve tried. The texture seemed a little drier as well. Crazy Richard’s butters come in traditional jars and in single-serve carry-along or lunchbox pouches. Try it in Extra Creamy or Crunchy Peanut Butter, Almond Butter, or Cashew Butter. The new Peanut Powder is convenient for ramping up protein in smoothies, and for baking or cooking. And they’ve just launched their new frozen snack line, Wholly Rollies – Frozen Protein Balls. But if you decide to buy online, be sure to compare prices. We found dramatically different pricing on different sites. For example, Amazon was three times more than Walmart. So do your due diligence.
Pereg Natural Foods makes a wide variety of unique food products. We recently agreed to sample a couple of their distinctively different seasoning blends that work either for sweet or savory. We found both of them complex and pleasurable in their own ways. We used the sweet blend as part of our seasoning in our favorite slow-cooker dessert/breakfast/snack recipe for no-crust pumpkin pie. It gave the dish a slightly exotic touch that went perfectly with the normal pumpkin-pie-spice-mix of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves (or allspice). We also liked it quite a bit mixed with cottage cheese sweetened with a good sprinkling of powdered stevia. What an easy way to have an exotic but healthy dessert without cooking!
The savory mix gave a little mystery to the slow-cooker chicken we rubbed with it. We highly recommend trying these seasonings if you like to give your cooking a little pizzazz without a lot of work – and without a lot of extra sodium and sugar. Pereg hawaij retails for about $5.99. Available at kosher food stores, independents, health food and many chain stores (ACME, Albertsons). And check out some of their other healthy products like pasta made from quinoa. Love that idea!
Sōm Cordialsare hand-crafted with exotic botanicals, tropical fruits, local Oregon berries. They’re called cordials because they’re concentrated. You use them as flavorings to mix zero-proof “mocktails” or to create luxurious regular cocktails without having a closet-full of bottles for special liqueurs. Flavors include Ginger, Cranberry, Tangerine, Oregan Berry, Thai Basil and Pineapple. Conceived and perfected by a chef who loves Thai cuisine. Mix one of these with plain or even flavored sparkling water and you’ve got yourself a complex, layered treat. If you want a kick, they mix beautifully with real spirits, too. We did one with 3 parts raspberry-lime sparkling water, 1 part Tub gin (really good gin, by the way) and 1 part Cranberry. Wow. You’d have thought we had a professional mixologist hiding in the kitchen. Read more here.
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 BrokenBarrel 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 BrokenBarrel 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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We are always looking for new drinks, treats, snacks and desserts that set our tongues a-tingle and our imaginations aflame. Ran into a few such items recently and are happy to report so you can add them to your repertoire if you like.
Chocodate makes snacks that pair healthy sweets like Arabian dates, almonds and coconut together with a light, soft chocolate layer in individually wrapped little bites you can take with you anywhere. Each treat is 56 calories, and the wrapped goodies have a fairly long shelf life (about a year), which means you won’t have to throw any away if you decide to ration them for your weight’s sake. They come in coconut-chocolate-date, milk or dark or white chocolate, or in a package of assorted. SRP ~$5 for ~3.5 ounces. Tasty, not-too-sweet snack.
Donnafugata has successfully paired a delicious wine with fine art in its Floramundi 2016. It’s a refined Cerasuolo di Vittoria with a flowery soul. Complex, fresh and full-bodied, this red has intriguing aromatic depth and a fruity and flowery bouquet that is pleasantly spicy on the palate. With the 2016 harvest, Donnafugata reached its goal of launching production in Eastern Sicily in the Vittoria area – the only DOCG of Sicily. Made by blending Nero d’Avola (70%) and Frappato (30%), this lovely wine pairs beautifully with first courses and grilled meats. Or try it with red tuna steak, roasted amberjack or other fish baked in the oven, or with gourmet pizzas. The Floramundi label shows the fantastic figure of a woman giving gifts of flowers and fruits. The picture represents a dialogue between two souls: the elegant and sophisticated Floral Liberty, an art style found everywhere in Vittoria, and the tradition of Pupi Siciliani (Sicilian Puppets). SRP ~$30.
Gentleman Jack, double-mellowed Tennessee whiskey, from the makers of Jack Daniels. We just missed National Whiskey Sour day (August 25), but a nicely crafted cocktail is just as delicious any other day. So, for your edification, these guys have come up with some excellent sour recipes. Incorporating items like fresh lemon juice, simple syrup and flavors like peach, cucumber, ginger beer, Chambord and more, these four recipes are sure to please any whiskey-cocktail lover. Check ’em out here.
Michelle’s Maccs, by FreshBakedNY. These rich, delectable confections bear little resemblance to the typical meringue-disks-with-a-filling most of us know as macaroons. Before she started the business, inventor and former chef/sous chef Michelle Goldberg had been making these for years, both at home and for friends and family in The Hamptons and Manhattan. These eggless, flourless, gluten-free versions consist of an incredibly dense filling of thickly shredded coconut, sugar and, well, who-cares-what-else, all enrobed in a thick layer of Belgian chocolate: Simple White, Simple Dark or Simple Milk chocolate were the initial versions. Then later she added some other flavors that could knock your socks off: Peanut Butter, Chocolate Chocolate, Mango, Salted Caramel, Key Lime, Amarena Cherry, Orange Zest, Espresso and Banana Walnut, all available from the company website. The Pina Colada in white Belgian chocolate is hauntingly habit-forming.
P.S. Mich’s Maccs are not for dieters – each treat has 200+ calories. Delicious, and so rich you can eat just half of one and still feel like you’ve indulged. I had one for breakfast the other day and my mouth didn’t give a darn about nutrition – just love the chewiness of the tightly packed, thick shreds of coconut! These goodies come in boxes of assorted flavors or in little single-flavor tubes of four. Perfect for coffee-and or dessert. Irresistible. They’re calling my name from the refrigerator right now…
Alessandro di Camporeale “Donnata” Nero d’Avola Sicilia DOC 2014. Deep, dark and delicious, this 100% Nero d’Avola wine is light-bodied with ripe cherry and sweet spice on a background of soft, silky flavors. It pairs nicely with rich tomato and cheese pasta dishes as well as with roast poultry and meats. Can’t be sure what price you’ll find it for – we saw online prices ranging from $9 to $20, so search carefully.
Doesn’t the idea of sitting down to a comforting pasta meal and a glass of deep red wine sound mouth-watering? What if you could do that – at home – in less than 5 minutes?
Well, as we all know, it only takes a minute to open a bottle of wine, and we have a recommendation for you if you love the structure and depth of a bold red wine – Ravage Cabernet Sauvignon. You’ll taste dark, luscious berries rounded out with vanilla and mocha for a beautiful balance of flavors. Color is intense. Feeling could be described as romantic or assertive, depending on your frame of mind. Powerful complement to braised meats; rich and striking on its own. It made us feel like we were in an exotic country. You can buy it in dozens of retail locations in Chicago and elsewhere. And, not surprisingly, it goes beautifully with pasta dishes.
Imagine this: restaurant-quality cooked pasta in a tasty marinara sauce that you can just heat and serve. Yes, it is possible. We were pleased to sample Victoria Chef Collection Penne Marinara and found the pasta cooked to perfection (not mushy or overcooked).
The sauce was delicious, but a little sweet for our taste. They don’t add any sugar, but they do use apple juice concentrate. However, we were pleased to find that adding a tablespoon of ricotta cheese balanced that bit of extra sweetness to our satisfaction. Really surprising to taste this kind of quality from a jar. No refrigeration necessary until after the jar is opened. Victoria Chef Collection’s philosophy is Ingredients Come First™. Their recipes are based on the same ones their founding family brought with them from Italy to Brooklyn. Happily, the list of ingredients has nothing you wouldn’t put in your own pasta sauce. Check out VIctoria’s wide variety of authentic Italian sauces and delicacies.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.