Windy City Al Fresco Dining

The sun is peaking out, the city looks alot more green and the temperatures are rising.  That means it’s time for Dining Al Fresco!  Having a few drinks and a good meal outdoors is what makes for great times and memories, and it’s hard to find a better city than Chicago for outdoor dining.  So many great restaurants, bars and lounges to choose from with scenic patio views, haute cuisine, excellent wine lists and craft cocktails.  Here's a few of the best I've picked out for you:

  • The Purple Pig.  Just set to open a large patio overlooking Illinois Street and Michigan Avenue, this self proclaimed “Cheese, Swine & Wine” spot is a hit.  Many small plates including sardines, cured meats, smears and pork are spattered on the menu and great for sharing.  Wash it all down with one of their craft beer selections or pick something from their wine list.  You just can’t go wrong! 

  • Piccolo Sogno.  Not only do they have one of the best patios in the city, but the food and all Italian wine list are also amazing.  Start with some Prosecco and antipasti and enjoy the weather.

  • Chicago Riverwalk.  One of the best vantage points of towering buildings, architechture and the Chicago River is on our Riverwalk.  It opens on May 31st and features great seating and even better dining: Cyrano’s Cafe & Wine Bar, Friendship on the River, Lagniappe Cajun Creole Joynt and O’Brien’s Riverwalk Cafe.

  • Riva.  Head to Navy Pier and enjoy the best views of Lake Michigan, the Ferris Wheel and some great steak and seafood. You might even catch some fireworks at this Phil Stefani Signature Restaurant.

  • Shanghai Terrace.  Enjoy authentic Cantonese Dim Sum and cocktails at the Peninsula Hotel.  This East Asian inspired terrace is a great place to enjoy Chicago's Magnificent Mile.

  • Zapatista.  Fine Mexican cuisine, cerveza, margaritas and an awesome view of the South Loop on Wabash is more than enough satisfy you on any day this summer.  Hard to beat the fish tacos and an ice cold Modelo.

  • Athena.  Authentic Greek cuisine shared outdoors in a garden with a fountain on Halsted.  Nuff said?  Opa!

  • Palmer Place.  One of my favorite suburban spots (La Grange) with one of the best patios in Chicagoland.  A true Bier Garten with over 175 beers from around the world and some good old American food to boot.

Dining in Chicago can be so adventurous and relaxing at the same time. Be sure to let me know what your favorite spots are- myself and my readers would love to hear it!

We aren’t shying away from drink choices as I have a few recommendations for spring and summer as well.  The temperature is a bit cooler in the spring (between 45-75 degree F), so beer with weight like IPAs or Bocks are good, and both red and white wines can be enjoyed.  Try these out: Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, Sprecher Mai Bock, Casa Lapostolle Sauvignon Blanc, Lange Estate Pinot Noir and Yangarra Old Vine Grenache.  For summer, I love Pilseners and Wheat beers, and mostly white wines like Pinot Gris/Grigio and dry Riesling.  Try these:  Allagash White, Trumer Pils, Big Fire Pinot Gris, Ca' Montini L'Aristocratico Pinot Grigio and Ch. Ste. Michelle Eroica Riesling.  Hope you enjoy these tips and have a great summer on the patio!

13th Annual Grand Chefs Gala

So every year in Chicago, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF) gathers the city's best chefs together to create their signature dishes at the Fairmont Hotel's Grand Chefs Gala.  The chefs are also honored with the Jean Banchet Awards for Culinary Excellence- the only Chicago-based awards for culinary arts and expertise.  For a charitable donation you can enjoy not only the awards, but also cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, a silent auction, a three course meal, dessert buffet and dancing.  The 2010 event was held on Friday, January 29, and though I was unable to attend, Windy City Wine Guy was able to send it's first guest writer!

J'nai Gaither is a food and wine afficionado who experiences new and fabulous restaurants and wine tastings on a frequent basis.  Her goal within 2 years is to own land in Argentina and make wine on her own personal vineyard.  She aspires to be able to play golf and drink wine all day!  This past year she has served of the Gala Committee of the Grand Chefs Gala for Cystic Fibrosis and continues to involve herself in the exhilarating realm of Chicago's culinary landscape. 

Here is a bit about her experience at the Gala in her words:

The Fairmont Chicago and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation held the 13th annual Grand Chefs Gala  on January 29, 2010. The black tie Grand Chefs Gala is a fabulous event which also simultaneously holds the Jean Banchet Awards for Culinary Excellence. The event began with a cocktail hour in an upstairs ballroom of the beautiful Fairmont Hotel. Over 30 chefs set up tables and cooking stations to offer guests hors d'ouevres to introduce them to the tastes of their respective restaurants, and to whet their appetite for the three course dinner to follow. Food at the cooking stations ranged from the relatively simple (i.e. “sushi” roll made up of all fruit from Bistro Dragon), to the downright exotic (i.e. veal heart with frisee and truffle oil). But it's obvious you'd get that depth of range at a prestigious culinary event!

 The bars, of course, served glasses of some of the best wine around, and because the theme of this year's event was Green for Life, they served signature “Greentinis”--yummy green drinks made of Agave nectar, lime juice, limeade, and club soda. The drinks were festive and apropos for the occasion. Also apropos for the occasion was the décor. Again, because the theme was Green for Life, each table's centerpiece was a floral/foliage piece of twisted branches and recycled paper flowers which seemed to grow organically from the table. The stage that the emcees shared also reflected the green theme  of  tree branches and flowers. Green foliage danced along the walls, ceiling and tables thanks to a projector which helped to set the scene. It was a truly a beautiful setting for this event to take place.

 ***Cystic Fibrosis mainly affects the respiratory system, and clean, or “green” air would help make those affected with CF breathe easier. This is one of the reasons why the theme was “Green for Life.” In other ways, we tried to make the event as “green” as possible. All programs and menus were printed on recycled paper; we cut down on the use of paper used for the event by sending out electronic invites to the “chef's social” and save-the-dates. An environmentalist would've been proud.

 Since the Gala was all about the food, check out the three course menu. The soup course was very interesting. It was a creamy porcini mushroom and smoked barley soup. Yes, it was slightly “creamy” but I would also say it was almost paste-like. It wasn't a turn off, however. The color and texture both fit in with the green theme. One might say its look was akin to a mud paste, but it was very good, nonetheless. The salad course was even better than the soup! Had some of my favorite elements in a salad—fresh, green leaves and sweet, delicious fruits. The salad was comprised of arugula, fennel, apples and pomegranates with mandarin orange and vanilla vinaigrette. Now, the entree was the best of all—garlic and parsley crusted filet mignon with cassoulet stew, and baby carrots and leaks poached with olive oil and mustard demi-glace. When you're at a food event to honor culinary creativity, you're going to experience some of the best food around! What a yummy food adventure—and just in three short courses!

 So, what were the categories, and who won the Jean Banchet awards?

Best Catering Co: Blue Plate

Best Sommelier: Scott Tyree of Sepia

Rising Chef: Michael Sheerin of Blackbird

Rising Pastry Chef: Stephanie Prida of Blackbird

Best Neighborhood Restaurant: Piccolo Sogno

Best Fine Dining: Paul Virant of Vie

Celebrity Pastry Chef: Cindy Schuman of Sepia

Celebrity Chef: Rick Bayless

People's Choice Award: Curtis Duffy of Avenues

It was an honor to have Jean Banchet himself, who often doesn't make it to the Gala, introduce the distribution of the awards.

 ***Some of the live auction highlights included a trip to the Canadian Rockies with stays at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler and Fairmont Banff Springs; shopping and cooking with Chef Brad Parsons of the Fairmont Chicago. Since we're in a recession, many of the auction items unfortunately didn't receive the price at which they were valued, so the auctioneer switched to Dutch auction, in which the asking price is thrown out first, but instead of increasing in price, if no one wants to pay asking, the auctioneer asks for lower pricing.

 The night ended on a sweet note.  Dessert stations were set up outside of the ballroom by acclaimed pastry chefs such as Sarah's Pastries & Candies; blood orange/champagne gelato from Via Gelato; homemade caramels from Katherine Anne's pastries, etc. The food was abundant at the Grand Chefs Gala and some of our culinary favorites were on display at this food museum, so to speak. All in all, a successful night which helped to raise approximately $300,000 for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Windy City Wine Guy and readers, thank J'nai for her insight into one of Chicago's greatest culinary events.  She seems to be on her way to reaching great heights in the culinary and wine scene.  I would encourage anyone else who would like to share their views to contact me ( as a fresh enthusiastic outlook to the wine scene is always welcome!

Chicago Gourmet Food Festival 2009

Chicago GourmetChicago Gourmet is on the way- a food and wine festival taking place on September 26 & 27 in Millenium Park.  This is just its second annual occurrence, and it will be a celebration of our city's culinary culture and history, highlighted by Chicago's best chefs and restaurants.  Also, hundreds of wines, local sommeliers, and wine experts will be onhand for tastings and seminars.

Many Chicago personalities like Mayor Daley will be in attendance, along with Chicago's favorite chefs: Rick Bayless (winner of Top Chef Masters) of Frontera Grill, Jose Garces of Mercat a la Planxa, John Coletta of Quartino, Dirk Flanigan of The Gage, Marcus Samuelsson of C-House, Tony Priolo of Piccolo Sogno, Stephanie Izard (Top Chef winner) of The Drunken Goat, and lots of other local greats.

Awesome food is not the only think on the menu, as wines from Robert Mondavi, Mionetto (one of my favorite sparkling wine producers), and Gaja Wines presented by Gaia Gaja, will be there for tasting, along with famed importer and producer, Anthony Terlato of Terlato Wines International, and his amazing portfolio featured at the Festival's largest tent.

Tickets can be purchased beforehand for $150 for a single day, or $250 for the two day weekend.  There are also upgrades for those who don't mind spending extra, such as Grand Cru tastings for $175 featuring some of the finest wines in the world presented by Master Sommeliers.  Here is a little hint to avoid the ticket price, which may be worth your while: Chicago Dine Around.  Starting now through September 27, if you dine at five different restaurants using their special prix-fixe menu, and attach each receipt to the Chicago Gourmet Dine Around Passport (available at all participating restaurants), you will be eligible for a free one day pass to the Festival.

Make sure to plan ahead and get in on Chicago's greatest food and wine event!

Piccolo Sogno: The Little Dream

IMG_1222Since last summer, I had been meaning to take a trip to one of Chicago's best new restaurants, Piccolo Sogno.  Many accolades, including Chicago's best outdoor dining, have been given in such a short amount of time.  My wife and I were finally on our way to enjoy some Italian food!

Piccolo Sogno means "small dream" in Italian- a vision created by co-owners Chef Tony Priolo and Ciro Longobardo.  The space is very smart, located on the southwest corner of Halsted and Grand.  We entered from a small valet controlled parking lot (free for lunch, $6 for dinner).  After we were greeted at the host stand, we were escorted past the busy wall bar, around the corner to our table.  The room is painted lively blue, with intimate tables bookended by an open kitchen and the entrance to the outdoor patio.  We were presented with our menus and the wine list, and we dove into our studies.

Now for a bit of background.  I worked with both Tony and Ciro at Coco Pazzo Restaurant for three years.  It was there I saw Tony grow into a great chef, with his many trips to Italy, working, learning, and creating natural, authentic, and fabulous Italian cuisine.  His winning staple is Italian imported food and ingredients accompanied by local meat and produce.  Ciro was a very likeable and professional General Manager and host, who I always shared a great connection with: he grew up where my family emmigrated from, Napoli.

It didn't take long for Tony to stop by the table for a visit.  We talked about his new restaurant, our current happenings, and old times.  Even though he was busy running the line in the kitchen, he seemed to make his way to almost every table to chat with guests.

The wine list is very impressive- an all Italian selection of over 400 bottles.  You can find values from all over "the boot", with some of the most moderate restaurant pricing in town.  From classic lighter styles like Valpolicella, Barbera, and Piedirosso, to the heavy hitters like Barolo, Amarone, Brunello, SuperTuscans, and Aglianico.  Glass pours were numerous- over 40 choices, ranging from $4 on up.  I really wanted to start with the sparkling Aspirinio, a wine I've only tried once at A16 in San Francisco, but it was off the list.  So we started with a sparkling Pinot Nero rosé from Veneto, which was crisp and fruity.  We later moved to a bottle of 2006 Maculan Brentino, a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, also from Veneto.  This wine worked well through our meal, as it had supple tannins, floral notes, and rich dark fruit.  The long flavor winded down with a bit of oak.  A steal at $38.

Now for the meal.  We were immediately presented with an amuse-bouche of truffled potato croquets and soft house-made breads.  We wanted to share many items, so we could experience most of the menu.  To start off, we had to try the pizza napoletana style- thin crust, cooked in a wood burning stone oven, topped with fresh ingredients.  Verdict: this is as close as you can come to Napoli in Chicago.  The thin, crisp and doughy crust was topped with fresh cheese, olive oil, and arugula.  We also had the Burrata con Culatello- thinly sliced prosciutto topped with Burrata, a cheese from Puglia made from mozzarella and cream.  The combo of the melt in your mouth salty pork with the creamy cheese is amazing.

IMG_1214Next, we went with the Insalata Barbabietole, which came out in gorgeous presentation.  Locally grown beets topped with shaved fennel, greens, and ricotta, surrounded by citrus oil.  This was a pleasant, clean, and delicious salad.  We also had the Griglia Mista, a mix of grilled seafood surrounding greens.  There was not much seafood, and the baby octopus was a bit scorched, but the calamari was crisp with light char and big sea flavor.

For pasta, we split the Gnocchi di Spinaci, small spinach and potato dumplings in a sauce of herbs, sundried tomatoes, IMG_1215and mushrooms.  The care in the house-made pasta was evident, as they were soft and subtle with each flavor hint.  The sauce was so fresh, I could not help but scoop every drop up with bread.

IMG_1219For our secondo piatto, we went with the Porchetta alla Romana.  This is a very authentic and simple dish from Lazio, of pork rolled in olive oil and herbs, wrapped with Pancetta, and wood roasted.  It was sliced, accompanied by roast potatoes, and topped with pan drippings.  The smell was so intensely delicious, we received comments from the table next to us, commending us on our selection!  The palate matched the bouquet- rich and flavorful. 

IMG_1221On to the sweets.  For chocolate lovers, go for the Torta con Gianduia.  It is a warm flourless chocolate cake, with an oozing center, accompanied by hazelnut ice cream.  The Millefoglie, IMG_1220meaning "thousand leaves", is a multi-layered puff pastry, encasing a chocolate chip custard- almost tastes like cookie dough.  This is a "do not miss" dessert!

I highly recommend coursing your meal at this restaurant.  You will be able to experience all the authenticity they have to offer.  Also, the food quality to price ratio leaves the consumer in a huge winning situation.  This spot will be pleasing Chicagoans and tourists for years to come!