The Arboretum of South Barrington: Uncorked from the Heart

The Arboretum of South Barrington is Chicagoland's newest outdoor playground.  You can dine, shop and play in the company of trees and gardens out in the 'burbs.  On Thursday, March 4th, you can also catch a special event: Uncorked from the Heart.  For $40 in advance ($50 at the door) you can experience wines from around the world and cuisine prepared from six Arboretum locations : Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurant, L'Eiffel Bistrot & Creperie, Gold Class Cinemas, Pinstripes, Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, and Acquisitions for the Home.  The evening starts at Pinstripes, an awesome space which features 18 bowling lanes, 10 indoor/outdoor bocce courts, outdoor patio and fireplace, Italian/American food and wine, and blues and jazz bands.  The fun moves from there to the other venues with shuttle service all night long.  Come out and enjoy an awesome suburban wine and food evening!

Chicago Semifinalists for James Beard Awards

The Semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation Awards 2010 have been announced and the list is littered with Chicago establishments and professionals.  It's always exciting to see how well Chicago does with these awards and to bask in the fame that is given to our culinary scene. 

Now for those of you who don't know, the James Beard Awards are a BIG deal.  They've been called "The Oscars of the food world," by Time magazine.  They are named after one of the biggest names in American culinary history, Mr. James Beard.  Mr. Beard was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1903.  His mother ran a boarding house and began an 81 year culinary journey into American food.  He was dubbed "dean of American cookery," by the New York Times.

Now let's get to our Chicago nominees:

The finalists will be announced on March 22nd at the Palace Cafe in New Orleans leading up to the Media Awards presented May 2nd and the James Beard Foundation Awards given out on May 3rd.  Good luck to all Chicago Semifinalists!

Current News: Juicy Wine Company, Drinks Over Dearborn

A whole lot going on with the Chicago wine scene right now (as always!) and here's the latest scoop on two places: Juicy Wine Company and Drinks Over Dearborn.

Juicy is supposedly close to being sold according to co-owner, Rodney Alex.  They've been in operation for about 3 years now on 694 N. Milwaukee Ave., and will be sold to current manager Chris Dunstatter and friend Chip Dudley.  A remodeling is in order, along with a new name, more selections, earlier retail sales (11am) and a parking lot patio.  They will also be applying for a 4am license.  Good luck to the prospective new owners and Rodney on his new venture: a Juicy wine project in Anderson Valley.

As for Drinks Over Dearborn, owner Kyle McHugh is starting his 500 Benjamins or Bust campaign.  The establishment has been open for about 1 year on 650 N. Dearborn, 2nd floor, and due to our current economic instability, is in a bit of their own.  McHugh is seeking 500 customers willing to open an account with at least $100 and is giving the following benefits:

  • 5% discount on merchandise

  • 10% off classes

  • special events/offers for the 500

On February 27th there will also be a live 24 hour webcast telethon featuring Kyle and his wife, along with friends and volunteers performing and manning the phones.  If this works, it will give Drinks Over Dearborn enough operating capital to operate for 6 months and have a real shot at making it past the economic woes.  If not, Kyle has vowed to return the "Benjamin" pledges and close shop on March 5th.  If you are a fan of entrepreneurs and see the value in supporting a small shop which features over 400 hand selected items and classes, then jump in on the fun, lend a hand and your Benjamins!

The Purple Pig Opening on Michigan Avenue: Cheese, Swine & Wine

For all of those interested in good casual food and wine, The Purple Pig will be opening tonight at 500 N. Michigan Ave, just across the street from my old gig, Eno Wine Room.  It looks to be in the perfect location to attract a large afterwork crowd, including those from the Chicago Tribune, NBC 5, National Association of Realtors, as well as conventioners, retailers and shoppers.  It has been in the works for quite some time now, and the collaboration between chef Scott Harris of Mia Francesca and both Jimmy Bannos Junior & Senior of Heaven on Seven has been long awaited.

The menu mainly consists of Mediterranean-style hot and cold antipasti, salads, smears, panini, charcuterie, and cheeses.  Pork is everwhere, in many different forms: pork neck bone, pâté, chorizo, pig's feet, tails and ears, pork shoulder and blade steak.  Olives, seafood, mushrooms, eggs, and vegetables are also highly prevalent in a large variety of differing dishes: Artichokes with salami, clams with rosemary, fried sardines, croquettes, meatballs, prawns, along with 20 different cheeses and 9 cured meats.

I look forward to reviewing their wine and beverage list in the future, which hopefully includes a large selection of Mediterranean and worldly wine, microbrews, and non-alcoholics. 

During opening week, they will be opening at 5 pm, and after January 4, will be open daily at 11:30 am.  They also offer late hours: open until 1 am Monday through Thursday, 2 am Friday and Saturday, and midnight on Sunday.  Check out the eat and drink starting now and into the New Year!

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!

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

Beer and Hearty Belgian Food at Hopleaf Bar

Hopleaf Bar

Just another night of casual dining in Chicago brought my wife and I to Hopleaf Bar on Chicago's North Side, close to the intersection of Foster and Clark.  It was an easy ride down Lake Shore Drive, and we found ample parking before heading in for some Belgian delight.

The entrance places you in a bustling bar, where there is open seating for food and drink.  We headed to the rear of the establishment, where there is a small bi-level dining room, an open kitchen, and an outdoor patio.  We put our names on a seating list, then went back to the bar to grab a drink.  This was my biggest challenge, as there are over 40 beers on draft, along with three meads!  I went for the Dogfish Head (one of my favorite breweries, out of Maryland) Festina Peche, a seasonal Berliner Weisse fermented with peaches.  It was dangerously refreshing, as I could see myself guzzling a six pack in no time, and full of slightly unripened white peach flavor.  The bar was unfortunately out of non-alcoholic beers for my pregant wife, but we were quickly summoned to our table anyway, so on to the food!

We started with the Sausage Plate- a plate full of a variety of organic sausages, bourbon pancetta, and white beans.  It was extremely and I could see myself eating it on a nightly basis.  All the flavor of the sausages with the crunchy pancetta fulfilled my meat lover dream.  I would need a beer with more power, so I moved onto the Surly Brewing Company's Bender, a full oatmeal brown ale.  Moving along, we decided to split entrees- an organic Montreal style brisket, and the CB&J, which was crunchy toasted sour dough bread sandwiching fig jam, house made cashew butter, and morbier cheese.  Both were accompanied by Stilton mac and cheese, along with the french fries and garlic mayonnaise gave us the perfect Euro touch.  The brisket was bright pink, and very tender and flavorful- making the ground mustard almost unnecessary.  The mac and cheese was creamy and had good flavor, but was not quite as rich or as much of a knock-out as I expected.  The CB&J, on the otherhand, was an awesome meadley of tastes, with some sweet fruit, rich nuttiness, and creamy cheesey bliss.  It would easily make for the perfect lunch.

As if all of that was not enough, we went for dessert.  The selection process was fierce, but we went with the apple fritters.  Breaded fried apple slices, topped with powdered sugar, and caramel crème anglaise was what the doctor ordered.  It might have been the most delicious ending to one of my favorite dinners. 

All in all, Hopleaf Bar settled my belief in the fact that Chicago has some of the best casual restaurants in the world.  Small neighborhood spots, like this, are spattered throughout the city, just waiting to please hungry patrons, only to turn you into regulars.  It is going to be hard to turn this guy into a regular, since I love to try all kinds of new spot, but I will be back if I love it!  Expect me back at the Hopleaf.Hopleaf on Clark

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.

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!

Windy City Wine Guy Meets Guy Fieri

img_1210I recently had the pleasure of meeting Guy Fieri of the hit Food Network TV show, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives (also known as DDD).  I was not only excited to see Guy, but also the place he was taping an episode at- The Depot American Diner on the west side.  I have heard great things about this spot, but hadn't yet made my way out to visit.

I am a huge fan of Guy's show because it has foods that make my mouth water, excellent homemade preparations, spots that locals love (some with long traditions), and real chefs with personality and enthusiasm.  Now, alot of the food can appear rather rich (maybe even unhealthy?), but everything in moderation my friends.  I still had a few questions however- how do they pick the restaurants?  How many do they hear about?  How many actually make the cut?  What is Guy's favorite beverage?

First thing I want to say is that Guy is a real guy, a man's man.  He knows how to be funny and entertaining, but also genuine.  It is no secret why he has multiple TV shows- he has a boisterous personality and commands attention.  So img_1213what if he eats foods that would give a cow a coronary?  So what if he wears sunglasses on the back of his head or wears the same clothes your nephew does?  The guy has style.  Did you see his car?!

Listening to Guy talk about the restaurants on DDD gives you a sense of his passion and integrity.  Hundreds of places are submitted to appear on the show, but only 1 out of about 80 make it.  There are many requirements.  It has to be a diner, drive-in or dive.  It has to serve food that people love and rave about- this is how they get Guy's attention in the first place.  Then come the specifics: you have to make a majority of your food homemade and fresh.  This means alot of prep- stocks, sauces, doughs, beans, etc.  Also, it means alot of fresh ingredients.  They may make scale tipping cuisines, but alot of it is natural, and there is also alot of care involved.  He also likes the owners and chefs to have personality- love what you do!

img_1203Now a bit about The Depot.  The place is owned by Robert Nava, former executive chef of img_1204The Signature Room and Hard Rock Hotel.  Robert is originally from the Bronx, where the idea for his delicious egg cream beverages comes from.  The decor is old school diner look- red  leatherette booths and counter seats, old diner photos, all classicly created by Robert and his wife Anamarie.  The place also boasts awesome breakfast, donuts, soups, pot roast sandwich, blue plate specials, and desserts.  Take a short ride west and give this lively spot a try!

img_1209I did get a chance to ask Guy about his beverage likes.  Besides malts and shakes, we don't img_1206normally get to see or hear Guy talk about this subject.  He is a huge wine fan and agrees that it is the best drink with a meal.  But he also loves Pabst Blue Ribbon and Buleit Bourbon.  Those are definitely Guy drinks!

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!

Wine & Food Evolution at The Tasting Room

img_1012It was a leisurely Friday evening out on the town for the Windy City Wine Guy and wife, and we were on our way to The Tasting Room on Randolph.  It is located on the corner of Randolph and Ogden, with free parking in a small lot and plenty of street parking in front.  Randolph Wine Cellars is connected to the two floor Tasting Room, offering retail small production wine, beer, and spirits.  After passing by the storefront, we headed in to begin a tasting adventure.

We decided to check out the second floor and were amazed at both the breathtaking views of downtown and the coziness.  Exposed brick walls, dim romantic lighting, and puffy leather couches littered the hardwood-floored open space.  We were presented with menus, and were given time to look and talk.  We perused the menu, which included cheeses, flatbreads, small plates, fondues, greens, and desserts (including gelato).  After a bit, we decided on a sparkling Blanc de Blancs (Chardonnay) for my wife, Australian riesling for myself, and a Florentine flatbread.  Service was both prompt and unintrusive- we definitely did not feel rushed (other establishments- take note!).  We were also greeted by The Tasting Room Director, Nick Luedde, an old colleague of mine.  He is both a very knowledgeable sommelier and a charismatic host.  We shared a few laughs and then he left us to work the room.

Our flatbread came out, and was accompanied by a few friends: a caprese salad and a cheese plate, courtesy of Nick (all in the photo).  The flatbread had a crisp crust and was very tasty with Drunken Goat cheese, spinach, and carmelized onions.  The caprese salad was built in tower form, with fresh mozzarella stacked over sliced tomato (not as ripe as one would like) and basil.  A combo balsalmic vinegar/truffle oil emulsion was drizzled on the plate, and was absolutely delcious- its syrupy, sweet, truffled flavor led me to wipe the last bit of it from the plate with bread!  Their cheese plate (priced at $25 for five cheeses) was quite an ensemble.  It is presented on in-house, handcrafted cheese boards made from lacquered wooden wine cases (we had one from Chateau la Nerthe).  All five cheeses were delicious and accompanied by four types of artisan bread, roasted cashews, and dried cranberries.  We also tried an olive tapenade, roasted peppers, sundried tomatoes, and fresh green Sicilian olives.  It was a feast which needed only good conversation, time, and more wine!

We had some red next, my wife choosing a Portuguese Toriga Nacional based blend, while I went with my all time favorite Barbera, Rivetti's La Spinetta "Ca' di Pian".  The wine list is impressive, with over 100 wines available by the taste (2oz.), tasting flight (3x 2oz.), or the glass (6oz.), and a huge bottle list.  It is littered with many handcrafted, small batch wine favorites, offering great value for some killer wines.  Don't be afraid to ask your server or Nick for suggestions, because they know their product and won't steer you wrong.

There are also some great weekly and monthly deals to take advantage of.  Every Monday is half priced glass pours, while Tuesdays offer half priced bottles (originally priced under $99).  They also offer a $30 tasting every third Tuesday of the month, featuring 50 wines.  Also, look for their augmented menu, being released Monday, March 2nd.  It will include main course options like tupelo honey-sarsparilla soaked bone on pork loin, southwest seared ahi, air & water (pan seared duck breast and butter poached lobster tail), foie gras smothered grilled NY strip, piave brûléed jumbo sea scallops, grenache braised short rib sous-vide, mesquite kiawe smoked game hen, and pan seared monkfish, all priced between $20-32.  The small plates will spruce up a bit with miso rubbed bershire pork belly, ceviche, bacon wrapped and manchego stuffed dates, and NY strip bruschetta.  I can't wait!

Chef's Table at Nacional 27

There is a great new event revolving in Chicago, and it is called the Chef's Table.  The events allow you to meet local Chicago chefs in a group setting, and taste their creations at an affordable price.  This month, the tasting was being held at Nacional 27, highlighted by five different cocktails (created by mixologist Adam Seger), ceviche, and tapas.

We started with a drink called "The Chadwick", a pomegranate, ginger, chile mojito.  It had nice flavor and the hint of habanero spice was nice.  The drink could use more muddling to be a true mojito as the mint and lime was mostly still intact.  Plus I believe it had too many strong flavor components: mint, ginger, habanero, lime, and pomegranate. 

Next came the "Spice and Ice" along with the ceviche/tapas.  The drink is a mango, ginger, habanero daiquiri with a seven spice rim.  It had a very nice sweet and exotic spicy combo.  The ceviche was a mix of shrimp and scallop, ahi and watermelon, mojito hamachi, and rainbow coctel.  They all had nice acidity to combine with the seafood to "cook".  The tapas were smoked chicken empanadas, which had a light flakey crust and excellent flavor, along with lightly sweet organic agave lamb tacos, and cuban sweet potato/plantain croquetas, which were very soft, but a bit bland.

We then moved onto moved onto my favorite cocktail, the "rosemary fizz".  It was a combo of Indigo Luxe spanish gin, lime, sparkling wine, and a house made rosemary, meyer lemon, sauvignon blanc syrup.  The flavor profile was complex, but meshed well, with citrus, rosemary, great aromatics, and fizz. 

The "smokey corazon" came next as we were all passed passion fruit/pomegranate margaritas with a salt and pepper rim.  The drink had nice tropical flavor, and was later topped with a single village mezcal float.  This mezcal was made from smoked agave and gave the drink a potent punch- maybe a bit too strong was the consensus.

The last drink was a house made almond, lime, and clove liqueur.  It was sticky, sweet, and delicious.  Almost all of the dishes and drinks had spice accompanied by sweet, and might have been a bit too much combined.  The company was great, as I met many of Chicago's best bloggers and techies.  It was a great experience and you can count on the Windy City Wine Guy to attend more Chef's Table events.

Birthday at Spacca Napoli

night1Another birthday is coming up and my wife decided to help me indulge in my heritage with a trip to Spacca Napoli.  They make pizza in the traditional Napoletano style: wheat flour, thin crust, with fresh ingredients cooked in a wood burning oven.  We heard so much about it from friends and reviews, so we took a drive up to try it out.

Almost everyone loves pizza, but you can never truly appreciate it until you have the best, which is made in its 190px-traditional_pizza_from_napoli1home- Napoli.  Very good pizza is made elsewhere, but it's at its best in southern Italy.  On a visit there, I asked "Why?".  Many did mention the wheat, but all said it was the water.  Only natural spring water is used to make the dough.  I will always remember the pizza there, with every establishment making the most perfect crust, amazing sauce, and fresh ingredients.  The picture to the right is of a typical pizza made in Napoli.

Now on to Spacca Napoli.  My wife and I walked in and were seated promptly.  Our server was peppy and announced the specials before retrieving a Peroni for me and some Prosecco for my wife.  Our appetizers were then brought to us- a Bufala Mozzarella salad with ripe red tomatoes and very large leaves of delicious basil drizzled with olive oil, and an Insalata di Mare- calamari, shrimp, and cuttlefish with chopped celery.  The dish was a bit flavorless and not quite as fresh as others I've had.  Our server pressed us about four times for our pizza order (it seems as though they are coached to "turn and burn" the tables), and we finally gave it after ordering a bottle of Cantina del Taburno "Fedelis" Aglianico.  Aglianico is the special red grape of southern Italy.  It can create big bodied, fruity, earthy, long lived tannic wines.  This one was satisfactory with ripe dark plum and espresso flavor accompanied by slightly grippy tannins, but with a medium minus length and finish.  They give small drinking cups with all wine, and while I believe this is taverna style, I also think if you order a bottle you should be given proper stemware. 

oven1Our pizza came out VERY fast- I believe in less than five minutes!  This usually does not bode well, and did not in this case.  The crust was soft and tasty, but had more than a few burn marks, which affected the flavor.  The middle was still a bit rare.  I attribute this to two factors: 1) Pizza not left in long enough, away from the flame, and 2) the sauce.  Tomato sauce should be rich, thick, and deep red.  This was not the case, as it was thin and not very flavorful.  Also, the small amount of basil used was thrown together instead of lovingly place atop the pizza.  Plus, the mushrooms atop my wifes pizza were definitely not quality.  They seemed to be drowned button mushrooms, while I would have used fresh cremini as an ingredient.

On to dessert.  We shared a tiramisu, which had a fluffy sweet mascarpone top over slightly over marinated savoiardi biscuits.  Our bill was brought to us before we could order coffee, but we did anyway.  Overall, we felt Spacca Napoli tries to rush you in for some pizza, and back out.  The dough is quite good, but the making of the pizza along with the ingredients make it fall far short of Napoletano style.  I love the wine list which is almost totally comprised of southern Italian wines.  Whites include Fiano, Greco di Tufo, and Falanghina, while reds of Primitivo, Aglianico, Nero d'Avola, and white and red Lacryma Christi are offered.  If you are in the neighborhood, try it out, but remember there are better options in Chicago.

Park Grill- Drink, Eat, Skate!

parkgrillMillenium Park has held a special place in many people's hearts since the turn of the century.  I have been going there since the beginning to enjoy the views, study while in college, and relax while on work breaks as a waiter.  I remember when most made fun of just about everything in the park, saying how much was spent, the ugly architechture, etc.  But, millions have fallen in love with the entire 2.45 acres of parkland, seen how funny we look in "The Bean", been "spit" at by the Crown Fountain, attended free concerts at the Jay Pritzker Pavillion, and skated for free at the McCormick-Tribune Ice Skating Rink.

There is also a restaurant, The Park Grill, which is a WCWG favorite.  I proposed to my wife on the ice just under two years ago, and we've shared dinner at "our" table numerous times.  Recently, we met up at the bar for appetizers.  The selection is very good- try the pork nachos, tempura shrimp, or crisp calamari.  We really love the Kobe beef burger- it is topped with gorgonzola cheese and comes with killer seasoned fries.

As far as the beverages go, they have a good selection.  Goose Island on tap is in house, along with one of my favorites, Anchor Steam, a San Francisco based brewery.  It has a rich amber color, hoppy yeasty scents, and a bit of citrus and nuttiness on the palate.  The wines are all low to mid range pleasers.  I moved to the Miner Family Viognier, which has fresh peach and apricot flavor, while my wife enjoyed the Babich Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.  She really liked the ripe citrus flavor.  The key to value is to get a "quartino": a 1/4 liter flask (almost 9 oz.), usually about $3 more than the glass pour (6 oz.), and a significantly better value.  The bottle list is comprised of common favorites like A to Z, Elena Walch, Craggy Range, Saintsbury, Guenoc, Luna, and Penfolds.  If you are looking to "bling it up", you may want to look elsewhere, as this list is more geared toward frugal satisfaction.

So make your way down to Millenium Park.  Work up an appetite exploring or skating, then move to the Park Grill for good food and beverage!

Wine Bar at The Walnut Room in Macy's on State

iphoto_dining1During a bit of Christmas shopping, the Windy City Wine Guy and wife made a bit of time to enjoy some wine.  We chose to head to the Marshall Field Co. Building to check out The Wine Bar at the Walnut Room, now run by Macy's.  Being the Saturday before Christmas, the entire street and every building was packed with happy shoppers on both Michigan Avenue and State Street.  We moved up to the 7th floor and the Walnut Room was crowded with eating families and running children.  The Wine Bar is set off to the side- a 36 foot long oak table with communal seating.  We were able to snag a couple of chairs and started reading the menu.

The wine list contains 18 selections by the glass and 87  by the bottle.  They also have 6 different tasting flights.  A tasting flight is a small sampling of multiple items, usually in sets of three.  These flights are usually samples grouped into interesting categories- my wife had their sparkling tour, which included 3 samples of sparkling wine, and I tried the spice tour, 3 samples of bold and spicy red wines.  The flights are poured tableside into small pony glasses- not very optimal for sniffing your wine.  We also decided to munch on their Spanish cheese Sampler, a plate which included Cabrales, Arico, and Manchego cheeses along with bread, nuts, and olives.  They have four different cheese options along with a Valrhona chocolate sampling.

The atmosphere was nice, but did seem a bit like an airport bar in the fact that it was set off to the side and you are surrounded by all of the bustle of the Walnut Room.  There are nice and simple selections for food options and wines by the glass, which includes some favs: Gruet, Catena, and Bon Anno.  The bottle list has lots of variety and value- the prices are not marked up nearly as high as they would be in a restaurant or bar.  I did notice an absence of dessert wines on the list- no Port, Sherry, or late harvest selections.  I would also like to see a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a bit of Alsace, and less typos on the list.

If you are doing some State Street shopping, give it a try.  Share a bottle and some cheese with family or friends and enjoy!

A Napa Must Stop: Taylor's Automatic Refresher

Going from winery to winery in Napa can be a bit draining.  Travel, heat, and wine does make one a bit tired.  Refreshment is just what the doctor calls for, and there is none better than Taylor's Automatic Refresher.

My wife and I found out about this hotspot from Guy Fieri's Diners Drive-ins and Dives on the Food Network.  We decided to dig into a wide array of what they had to offer.  We split an Ahi Burger, which came out medium rare on an egg bun topped with slaw.  Delicious.  We later split a Western Bacon Blue Ring Burger- a large beef patty topped with bacon, BBQ sauce, and an onion ring filled with blue cheese!  The garlic fries were thin and a bit soggy, but the beer batter onion rings are perfect.  You can wash all of this down with California's best shake or a wide array of local wines.  Buon Appetito!

Great Sandwich Shop in St. Helena: Guigni!

Looking for a bite after our Duckhorn tasting, we headed into downtown St. Helena.  The road is lined with small local shops and plenty of street parking.  We entered the W.J. Guigni (pronounced Gween-Yi) Grocery Co. and it was like walking into a time warp!  There were signs from WWII recruiting, Coca-Cola, etc. along with Jaw-Breakers, and antique soda machines.  The deli options were numerous- the sliced breads and rolls were so soft and fresh, local meat and cheese options, and ripe fresh produce- love the tomatoes, sprouts, and avocado (which was so soft it was spread on the bread in place of mayo!).  Bacon is a house favorite (and mine too) along with a house made concoction called "Guigni Juice"- a sandwich vinagrette made with oil and herbs.  You can even take a bottle home.  The place was lively as locals and tourists rushed the counter to place orders.  The helpful, youthful staff put together killer sandwiches while our mouths watered.  We went for some kettle chips and a refreshing Jones Cream Soda- now with the switch to pure cane sugar!  Mmmm- get your Guigni and Jones on!

Wine with Fast Food? Who Knew!

Good healthy eating keeps us vibrant and in shape.  But most people, including the Windy City Wine Guy, love to splurge every once in a while and delve into some fast food.  A good, cold beer always goes well in most instances, but wine can enhance and be affected by fast foods.  I recently read a great article about beer pairings and my brother-in-law sent me an email link on choosing the right wine with fast food.  Now its time for some of my personal favorite pairings..

  1. Pizza.  There are many styles and Chicago has some of the best.  For delivery try Phil's.  This pizza has thinner crust and go for the sausage.  I pair this with Falesco Vitiano ($8.99).  Dining out I love Salerno's on Grand.  A killer spinach ricotta pizza with tangy tomato sauce paired with Mastroberardino's Lacryma Christi Rosso from Campania, Italy- the birthplace of pizza!

  2. Cheeseburger.  Hands down best fast burger in town- Portillo's.  For me it's a double bacon from Ontario and Clark drive thru.  Cabernet Franc, ala Miles' burger and $2.5k/bottle bev choice '61Cheval Blanc in Sideways, and rich Merlot can cut through the grease and cheese and mingle with the flavor.  I choose Colombia Crest Grand Estate Merlot ($8.99).

  3. Breaded Fried Chicken.  Harold's Chicken Shack #62 on Wabash serves great chicken.  The biggest difference between them and the others is chicken is cooked to order in beef/vegetable oil mix for added flavor.  Paired with a yeasty traditional method sparkling wine like Domaine Chandon ($14.99) is fried bready heaven!  Get some okra and watch the hot sauce- those bubbles could flame you up!

  4. Fried Seafood.  Lawrence's Fisheries on Canal is open 24/7 offering anything from the best breaded shrimp to frog legs.  I'm going with a big white here- Yering Station Chardonnay ($11.99).  The slight oak will mingle with breading while the fruit and acidity accompanies cocktail sauce.  Get the breaded mushrooms while you're at it.

  5. Hot Dog and Fries.  It doesn't get much better than Hot Doug's.  Want more substance?  Come on Fridays and Saturadays when the fries are cooked in duck fat!  For the rich fat, go for a Pinot Noir- Buena Vista ($17.99) from Carneros.  The acidity and light tannins will mingle with the fat and goes well with sausage.  The fruitiness will accompany celery salt and mustard.  Bon apetit.

  6. Gyros.  Rodity's in Greektown is great and accessible, but I love Kings and Queens in Berwyn.  I enjoy Penfold's Koonunga Hill Shiraz ($7.99).  Shiraz is perfect for lamb plus the natural acidity will go well with the tomatoes and onions.  The rich tzatziki sauce will mingle with the oaky fruit- make sure to ask for extra on the side please.

  7. BBQ.  The range of sauces used for BBQ food is wide with descriptions of sweet, tangy, zingy, spicy, etc.  Watch the sauce for the pairing.  All the meats are smokey and rich so a full racey white (Cote du Rhone Blanc) or fruity red can go well.  I love The Patio Restaurant on Harlem.  A chicken/rib combo with the juicy and lightly spiced Gascon Malbec ($9.99) is perfect.  Also love Pilsners with BBQ(oops!).

  8. Mexican.  This cuisine can get spicy so you have to watch the pairing even before the hot sauce.  Arturo's Tacos has some of the best and is open 24/7.  I love the al pastor tacos and burritos add avocado is excellent.  They have two sauces: a mild green and spicy red.  For lighter spice pair it up with dry and fruity Bastianich Rosato ($13.99) and hot spice go for sweeter Milat Chenin Blanc ($18).  Sometimes Taco Bell comes into play and I love my Nacho Bellgrande.  Same wines apply- Milat with Fire sauce!

  9. Thai, Chinese, and Indian take-out.  A lot of options in Chicago and I love Ma & I on Michigan Ave.  Spicy Pad Thai dishes paired with Gustave Lorentz Gewurztraminer ($11.49) and it's sweet fruit and light spice are perfect.  This wine pairs well with sweet n sour, curry, and hot dishes from Eastern Asia.  Try Gustave's Pinot Gris and Riesling with the cuisines as well.

  10. Italian Sandwiches.  There are two kind- hot and cold.  Hot sandwiches include beef, sausage, breaded steak and chicken, egg and pepper, and meatball.  Cold sandwiches are deli meat selections.  They can have hot and sweet peppers, cheese, oil, and/or tomato sauce on them.  Hot sandwiches are best at Ricobene's(Breaded Steak), Freddie's(Chicken Parm and Combo), Portillo's(Big Beef), and Panozzo's(Meatball).  Pair any and all of these up with Sangiovese: Caparzo Rosso di Montalcino ($17.99).  Deli sandwiches are best at Fontano's- try the Big "I", add oil, no mayo.  Pairs great with Feudi di San Gregorio Falanghina ($14.79).

 What's your favorite fast food spots and pairings?  Let the Windy City Wine Guy know!

(Image courtesy of Flickr)