BYOB at Lips Asian Bistro


Last Friday was my wife's birthday and I wanted to make plans to go somewhere new.  I wanted to be creative but nothing as crazy as "Date Night".  We both like foreign films, so I figured a trip up Southport to the Music Box was in order.  Now all I had to do was pick a restaurant.  My wife has been craving sushi since we found out she was pregnant last year and I discovered a little place called Lips Asian Bistro & Sushi Bar.


I made reservations a few days earlier and since the place is BYOB ($1 corkage per person), I needed a good wine to bring.  I decided on 2008 Gouguenheim Torrontés, a small craft wine made at high altitude in Argentina, available under $10.  Torrontés is a celebrated grape in Argentina, brought over by missionaries, and a great varietal for sushi- fresh zippy citrus fruit accompanied by crisp acidity and floral scents. 


 Traffic wasn't too bad for a Friday and parking on Southport was sparse, but available ($1.25/hour).  We purchased our tickets to the show "Pranzo di Ferragosto" (Mid-August Lunch) and walked down to Lips.  It was still before 7pm, so the restaurant was not busy yet and we had the pick of seats.  There is a sushi bar to the right, a small bar in the back and seating in the front and left side of the restaurant.  Upon seating we were presented with menus and specials and the waitress opened our wine.  Now it was time to decide on our maki rolls and sashimi (sushi pieces without rice), though they do have Japanese cold and hot appetizers and dinner entrees like ribeye steak, rack of lamb, bass, teriyaki and noodle dishes and Korean pork.  As usual when it comes to sushi, we decided to overeat, and ordered three rolls- Rainbow (California covered with tuna, salmon, yellowtail, and shrimp), Dragon (shrimp tempura covered with avocado and eel) and Strawberry (white tuna, tempura crunch and hot sauce topped with spicy tuna and strawberries) along with sashimi pieces. 


We enjoyed conversation, miso soup and our wine, which was varietally correct in being fresh, citrusy, floral with a hint of honey.  The sushi came to the table promptly with beautiful presentation.  The three rolls were lined up next to eachother on a large plate and our piece orders were individually plated and garnished, as usual, with pickled ginger and wasabi.  The sushi tasted even better than it looked- the rolls were packed with fresh fish and tasty mayos and sauces.  Even though I love eel, the Strawberry maki was my favorite- a perfect combination of spicy fish, sweet fruit and salty eel sauce.  The sashimi was a great value, two pieces per order, and the special maki was priced between $10-14.  This was an excellent meal with excellent value- our bill was still under $75.  No room left for dessert- we ate so much sushi we thought we were going to swim out of there!


Walking around we saw many sights like blocks full of greystone buildings, boutiques, bars and restaurants.  After a while our sweet tooth kicked in and we stumbled across a bakery called Sensational Bites.  They have unbelievable cupcakes (peanut butter, caramel, red velvet, etc), awesome brownies (mint, coconut, peanut butter, etc), pies, cakes and good coffee.  We ordered some for there and to go, and they cut our orders and plated them.  A great sweets bakery that every neighborhood needs.


The movie was the end of our date night and turned out to be very good.  A man named Gianni, who lives in Rome at home with his mama, is talked into taking care of a few friend's mothers in exchange for payment and favors.  Gianni is a very good cook who loves his wine and entertaining, which ends up being a convenient combination later in the movie. 


I recommend all our stops from that evening and you can copycat the date if you want- your companion will not be disappointed- let me know how it goes!


BYOB at Park Grill

One of the best places to visit for locals and tourists in the city is Millenium Park.  There's so much to see and do, from the Jay Pritzker Pavillion to the Cloud Gate (the Bean!), that can be enjoyed by families, loners, couples, etc.  This spot holds a special place in my heart because I proposed to my wife on the Ice Rink just over 3 years ago (obviously she said YES!). 

I also enjoy visiting the Park Grill, a cozy spot you can relax with good food, drink and a view of the rink.  We also ate there just after my wedding proposal and have sat in the same booth every visit.  I recently found out there is no corkage fee on Sundays and Mondays, making it a great BYOB spot on those days!

We decided to go to the Park Grill for dinner this past Sunday for our 2nd anniversary dinner.  So we called a babysitter for Liljana, grabbed a bottle of wine and headed out.  We normally have Dom Perignon for our anniversary drink, but I mistakenly forgot to stock a bottle, so it was time to dig into the stash.  Since Blagica was in the mood for red wine, I decided on Colgin Cellars Cariad, a Bordeaux style blend from Napa Valley comprised mainly of Cabernet Sauvignon, with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.  It's not an easy wine to find (I bought mine from a liquidation sale), but you could try to get on their ordering list, though it's running 3 years behind!

The Park Grill was steady as always.  They have a very good menu featuring local fruits, vegetables, pork, beef and chicken, along with wild caught fish.  Service is very knowledgable and attentive, though they seemed thinly stretched as it took around ten minutes before we were initially greeted by our server.  They feature a very good cocktail list, beer selection and bar menu, along with $5 food & drink choices in the bar area every Thursday from 5pm-close.  Their wine list is a bit pedestrian, with many of your usual suspects, but I see alot of value choices like Newton Chardonnay ($50), Babich Sauvignon Blanc ($39), Peter Lehmann Shiraz ($36), and Chateau Labat Haut Medoc ($48).

All in all, another satisfying experience, made even better with our own wine.  Make sure to take advantage of their Sunday/Monday BYOB and enjoy the Millenium Park fun!

BYOB at Honky Tonk BBQ

 After a long day of moving couches with my brother, we were up for a big meal.  I've been meaning to try Honky Tonk BBQ in Pilsen, and since I live closeby, we were on our way.  Being on 18th Street, there was ample parking, and their entrance is definitely an eye catcher- a single door ensconced in red and yellow paint, flames, and bright light.  I had a feeling we were in for a meaty experience!

We immediately walked in on their carryout area, and I started to salivate with the smell of spicy barbeque.  They have seating in three rooms: a dining room with local paintings, a bar area with booths and live music, and there are a couple of booths near the entrance. 

Another great feature is they are BYOB- but you better hurry because they have applied for their liquor license!  We brought some Bohemia lager, a Mexican beer with a slight malty, hoppy flavor, and a lightness to not overpower the barbeque.  Your waitress will bring an opener and icebucket as soon as you are ready to start cracking them open! 

Next we were onto the food.  We decided on the Sampler Platter: half slab of ribs, half BBQ chicken, pulled pork, beef brisket, a hot link, 2 corn muffins, cole slaw and baked beans.  We also wanted to start with something, so the waitress talked us into their chili mac- this was actually our favorite!  The chili was thick, flavorful and beefy, with beans, tomatoes, and even some deliciously smokey beef brisket mixed in.  It was topped off with mac & cheese- curly pastas coated with sharp and tangy cheese sauce.  We loved it.  Not soon after, our combo came out.  We were in for a big meaty treat as we could sample all that they had to offer.  We could pair them with three housemade sauces: a garlic sauce, a tangy sauce, and sweet sauce.  I like to mix the garlic and tangy together.  The chicken was moist, but the dark meat was undercooked.  This can be tricky, as white and dark meat are better at different temperatures.  The hot link was excellent- a smokey, spicy sausage with crisp skin and porky presence.  Both the pulled pork and beef brisket were slightly smokey, tender, and full of flavor.  The ribs were a bit disappointing, as they were really dry and clinging to the bones, but the dry rub was really nice- the perfect blend of spice and flavor, though I like to make my home rub with a touch of sweetness.  I really liked the taste of the baked beans, as they had pork rich flavor, and the touch of sweetness I was looking for.  Overall, I think their barbeque is quite good, and I would like to give their ribs another chance.

I really want to go out and check out their space on the weekend when it's rockin' out to some honky tonk.  It looks awful cozy and I'll bet it's a great time!  Also, I think I came to the right place, as one of my old friends left his mark- Guy Fieri.  I will be sure to look for Honky Tonk featured on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives- it's great to see so many Chicago joints on Guy's radar.  Make sure to grab your kids, bibs, and boots for a smokey BBQ time!

The ChillinJoy: Portable Wine Chiller from Chicago's Very Own

Potereks & ChillnJoyWhile strolling through the Windy City Wine Festival last month, I met Chris & Christin Poterek, co-founders of ChillinJoy.  I do get a bit excited when I see new wine gadgets, so I decided to investigate.

ChillinJoy is a portable wine chiller, capable of keeping any 750ml bottle cold for hours.  This allows you to enjoy picnics, concerts (Ravinia!), BYO restaurants, or a trip to the beach, while keeping a favorite bottle of wine at the temperature you like it: nice and cold.  You can also use it for just sitting in front of the TV, now with no trips back and forth to the fridge.

Chris & Christin are both from Chicago, and invented the ChillinJoy.  They love wine and enjoying it outdoors, so they sought out an invention to keep their bottles cool.  They both have participated in the Triathlon, and decided to use their wet suits stuffed with ice packs to keep a bottle cold.  Success! 

I recently received a sample ChillinJoy from the Potereks to try out.  IMG_1593The ChillinJoy is made with neoprene, and comes with three small ice packs.  I decided to use it with one of my favorite whites, Grgich Hills Chardonnay.  The wine was stored in my Cuisinart at a constant temperature of 57IMG_1595 degrees Farenheit, a great temperature for a fuller bodied white wine.  I added the ice packs to the ChillinJoy's storage pouches, and inserted the bottle.  I zipped up the top, which has a cutout sized perfectly to fit the neck of the bottle, leaving it exposed for pouring.  The ChillinJoy not only kept the wine at a cool temperature for hours, but also brought the temperature down after a while.  Since I keep my reds stored around 60 degrees, and drink them that way too, I would suggest using this for white and red transportation.  One thing the ChillinJoy does not do is a great job of chilling a room temperature wine- this takes about an hour.

IMG_1596This is the ideal travel companion, as it not only comes with a shoulder strap, but contains two small side pockets, which easily fit a corkscrew and stopper.  I will be taking this to all of my BYO and future picnic and Ravinia excursions.  If you get a chance, order yourself one.  It costs $24.99, which includes shipping, and comes in blue or green.  When you are sipping some chilled wine at your favorite BYO restaurant, you will be happy you did.

Check back and tell me what you think of your ChillinJoy.


(Top photo courtesy of Chilled Portable Products)

BYOB at Caro Mio

WCWG outside of Caro MioThis past Wednesday, my wife and I teamed up with Chris and Kristina Caruso of Vine Times Chicago for a BYOB evening at Caro Mio Italian Restaurant in Lincoln Square.  We found ample inexpensive meter parking just across the street, and walked into a quaint and cozy little dining room.  We were then given water, which is served in pint glasses (great for holding alot of water), a carafe of water for the table, and menus.  Stemware was then presented, and it was time to open the wines!

For our Italian dinner, we both brought Super Tuscans from the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany.  Super Tuscans are great wines made in Tuscany which rebel against Italian wine classification laws.  Wines from this region are traditionally made from Sangiovese, along with a blend of other local grapes (mostly white wine grapes).  They have a history dating back about 40 years, when the head of the Antinori family created one of the first.  Piero AntinoriTignanello wanted to add Bordeaux varietals to the mix, enhancing the body, texture, flavor, and aromatics to Italy's #1 varietal.  His creation, and my wine choice for the evening, was Tignanello.  I brought the 2001 vintage (retails around $85), a blend of 85% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Cabernet Franc.  I love this wine, as it has a great soil and barnyard aroma, mixed with ripe dark cherry, worn leather, and oak on the palate.  There was also small hints of tobacco and chocolate, which proved the complexity of the wine.  The tannins were supple and smooth, making it great with any food, especially Italian.

FlaccianelloChris brought 1997 Fontodi Flaccianello della Pieve (retails around $70), made from single vineyard, 100% Sangiovese.  It has been produced since 1981 by the Manetti family.  This wine is weighty and big, with larger tannins, dark cherry and plum aroma and flavor, along with some cedar and rich earth.  It is a perfect partner for meat dishes and heavy sauces.

As far as the food is concerned, the menu has tons of options: fresh salads and soups, homemade pastas, veal, chicken, beef, and fish.  We went with a couple of fresh mozzarella dishes to start, one with green beans, and the other a classic caprese.  The mozzarella seemed local, as it was harder textured than the imported soft, rich version.  The green beans were large and delicious, especially when topped with the balsalmic vinegar.  The tomatoes were thick, but a touch less than ripe.  Both a good choice to accompany the bright acidity of the wines.

For dinner, everyone chose homemade pasta (most dishes priced around $20), which is hard to resist when offered.  I went with rigatoni bolognese topped with chicken parmesan- an odd combination, but great for meat lovers.  The dish was large enough to easily feed two, and needless to say, I had leftovers.  All of the pasta was cooked al dente, and tasted fresh, with unbelievable doughy, chewy flavor.  The bolognese sauce had a tomato tang accompanying the soft, salty ground meat.  All of this combined with tender chicken and melted mozzarella was outrageous!  My wife chose the porcini ravioli with chicken, which was an earthy, creamy blend of four monster ravioli and chicken breast topped with a creamy porcini sauce, which could double as a tasty soup.  I know the Caruso's loved their food as well, because we found ourselves doing more chewing, and less talking!

We left no room for dessert, but I will be back to try the tiramisu and more fresh pasta.  I highly recommend this spot, and hope you enjoy the food and BYOB experience as much as us.  Feel free to comment about your experience!Bottigliero/Caruso BYOB at Caro Mio

BYOB at The Grocery Bistro

m_f419a51a8c51453c9f7ca5adc5c80e97[1]A few weeks ago, after hearing so many good things about The Grocery Bistro, I made a reservation with my wife, and headed out to 804 W. Washington.  It is just west of Halsted, in the vicinity of both Greektown and Randolph Street.  After easily finding street parking just in front, we walked past their outdoor patio and inside.

We were greeted by a hostess and brought promptly to our seats.  There is a large communal seating table in the center, with smaller tables meant for two against the wall.  Against the opposite wall, you will see the chalkboard menu.  It is very cozy, and well decorated.  It falls in line with a new trend in the restaurant business- Bring Your Own Botte(s) (BYOB) and communal seating.  Smaller spaces can be used to fit more people, cutting the owner's rent cost, allowing them to pass it on to the guests.  The BYOB also allows guests to enjoy their favorite beverages at a reasonable cost, while the owner saves himself the initial opening costs that come with liquor licenses and inventory.

Staete%20Landt%202005%20Pinot%20Noir[1]Since they are BYOB, I brought a bottle of 2005 Staete Landt Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand.   I figured that it would give us the flexibility to go with either meat or fish.  It is an excellent bottle of wine with a pretty, floral smell accompanied by a hint of spice and licorice.  The taste was of rich red berries and peppery spices, with an extremely long finish.  They charge $5 corkage for a first bottle, $10 for each subsequent bottle.  If you forget to bring it with, Perman Wine Selections is located just next door.

After receiving our menus, we were informed that since we arrived before 7pm, we were eligible to try a three course dinner for $25 each.  That included our choice of a shared plate, entree, and dessert.  The price is available Monday thru Thursday from 5 to 7 pm, and has since risen to $29, with certain choices costing up to $5 more.  I went with the onion tart, lamb chops, and PB & J brioche, while my wife went with the potato leek soup, whitefish, and chocolate monte cristo. 

Our first course arrived after waiting about 35 minutes- way too long for any course, let alone the first.  But the food turned out great.  My onion tart was made with carmelized sweet onions, surrounded by flaky delicious phyllo dough, and drizzled with truffle oil- the best I've had.  I was told that Chef Andre Christopher's mother made them fresh every morning.  My wife enjoyed her soup, and it was very tasty.  It seems the vegetarian dishes were a natural for the place, since the chef was, in fact, a vegetarian.

Not long after we were done, our main courses arrived.  My chili crusted lamb chops came with yogurt cream spinach and curried cous cous.  The sides meshed well with the lamb and spices, but the meat seemed a bit lower quality, as it was chewy and somewhat dry.  Overall, a decent dish for the price.  My wife's whitefish was flavorful and flaky, and came with string beans and was topped with a delicious lemon butter sauce.  If she did not want to take some of it home, I would've eaten it all!

Dessert was unbelievable, even being a spoof on popular lunch sandwiches.  My PB & J was creamy and sweet, with soft, melt in our mouth brioche that was toasted on the outside.  My wife's monte cristo was soft brioche with an egg crust, stuffed with a layer of chocolate, and accompanied by a sweet raspberry dipping sauce.  They were both amazing.

Besides the long first course wait, the service was good, informative, and unobtrusive.  Our waters were constantly filled, but our server was a bit hard to get when we needed him- he seemed stretched a little thin due to the amount of tables in his station.  This didn't bother us, as it allowed us to have a good time and not feel rushed.

grocerybistroboycott[1]Since our visit, much has happened at The Grocery Bistro.  Chef Christopher has left, after not being paid for nine weeks, and is going up north to open Little Bucharest Bistro with owner Branko Podrumedic.  It will be opening in the old Continental Cafe spot, and we should be expecting great Romanian food with a bit of the Chef's twist.  The Chef's parents are also staging a boycott of  The Grocery Bistro, as I have heard they were vendors, and have gone unpaid as well.  Their van is parked in front with all details listed.  This also leaves alot of question marks with the cuisine, as the owner has now promoted sous chef, Monica Walters.  My favorite dessert sandwiches are gone, along with a few starters, but the entrees seem the same.  Let's hope Chef and owner can resolve their differences, and that both new places can give us great food.

Overall, the ambience is great, and the food is definitely worth a visit, especially if you go with the early prix fixe.  I will definitely be going back to check out the revised menu.

BYOB at Urban Belly

It's birthday week for my wife, and we kicked it off with a trip to Urban Belly.  It is a small restaurant on the north side of Chicago (3053 N. California), located in a small strip mall, bookshelved by a landromat and a dry cleaner.  The space is small, but minimalist, with four large communal dining tables, track lighting, and Chinese and Indonesian decor.  Now on to the food.

The menu is a creation of Chef Bill Kim, formerly of Ben Pao, Charlie Trotter's, Le Lan, and co-owner of Soul.  It is comprised of dumplings, fried rice, and noodle dishes.  The service is unorthodox, but very efficient.  When you enter, I would recommend finding a spot at one of the communal tables.  Then, take a look at the menu, and figure what you'd like.  You can then go up to the counter and order from Chef Kim, and pay at the register.  Utensils and water are at a centrally located service station, so fill up with the H2O and chopsticks and grab a seat- the food comes rolling out rapidly!

The place is BYOB, and for the cuisine, if you don't go with beer (which is perfect), I recommend Alsatian varietal (Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Muscat) white wine from almost any global region would work.  They have the rich fruit, stone mineral, and slight spice flavors to mingle with the exotic flavoring of the food.  I went with Ponzi Pinot Gris from Willamette Valley, Oregon.  It is a great match because of the bright acidity and creamy pear and apple fruit.  Retails for $11.99.

We shared two dumpling dishes: the Lamb and Brandy, and the Asian Squash and Bacon.  The squash dumplings were amazing, as the soft and sweet squash jelled with the salty bacon and mandarin slices.  The lamb had great flavor, but was served over edamame, which was difficult to eat, as it was covered in sauce.  I would recommend either podding the beans, or serving them sans sauce.  We also shared the Short Rib and Scallion fried rice and the Scallop and Soba noodle.  The short rib was full of flavor, but it would've been nice to have a knife to cut for sharing (knives are not included with the utensils).  And the noodle dishes are huge and full rich broth.  They are fun to eat and more fun to share.  I also took an order of Pork Bolognese Udon noodles home and ate it for lunch the following day.  It is a dish not to be missed- it had both ground and diced pork, mushrooms, and black beans, with a ginger and cilantro slightly spicy sauce.

For dessert we decided to stop by Margie's Candies, alive and kicking on the corner of Armitage and Western for over 80 years.  They serve sodas, shakes, and sundaes, along with a limited sandwich menu.  The sundaes are absolute decadence- we shared a turtle split.  Three scoops of ice cream with bananas topped with whipped cream, nuts, and photocaramel, accompanied by a large serving of hot fudge.  It definitely has a light price tag- $6.50 including tax.  I highly recommend it as a great dessert date stop.  I also recommend hitting the gym the next day after an evening like this!