Tuesday, January 18, 2011


It's funny, the places life takes us. At this time last year, I was hitting my stride as a self-proclaimed food blogger. My BFF and foodie P-I-C (partner in crime), Dish, and I got into the (fattening?) habit of trying new restaurants at least once a week, attended some of the greatest food and wine events in the city, and, really, brought GirlThatEats to life. As the Winter transitioned into the Spring, GirlThatEats transitioned from being a casual hobby to a second job of sorts.

By the time Spring transitioned into Summer, GirlThatEats had become a full time gig. I spent just as much time cruising Chicago's restaurant scene and writing about my incredible experiences as I did working the job that allowed me to afford going out nearly every night (lightly peppered with trips to the gym). During the warmer months, the city, and most certainly it's restaurants, came to life. New establishments were popping up faster than Opentable would let me make a reservation and my already long list of places to try grew faster than my fingers could type.

As Summer transitioned into Fall, my GirlThatEats endeavors fell second to some pretty significant changes in my personal life. First, Dish left me for the sunny AZ desert. Losing one of my best friends AND favorite culinary co-conspirator was a double whammy that left a pretty devastating gap in my social schedule. And though I was able to share my dining experiences with many of my awesome friends & family members, their lives just didn't revolve around eating like mine (or Dish's) did. Around that same time, I decided it was time to leave my long-time job to pursue new career opportunities. Though it was absolutely the right move for me, adjusting to the shift took a lot out of me, and I suffered some pretty severe writer's block.

I decided mid-September to bask in the wonderfulness of my favorite season, decided to sip some apple cider and crunch some leaves under my feet. I decided to take a deep breath and to refocus my life. I also decided that I had been without Dish for way too long, so I convinced her to fly home for the annual Meals on Wheels Celebrity Chef Ball.

Something other-worldly happened to me the weekend she visited. I don't know if it was just having her back in town. I don't know if it was the energy and excitement of the foodie & friends weekend we had planned. I DO know that three short hours after she landed on Friday, October 16, we were dressed to dazzle and ready to dine as we giddily checked in at the Ball, and, for the first time in a long time, I finally felt the same electricity I felt when I attended the same event one year before, back when I was just an aspiring food blogger. It was an electricity I hadn't felt in months and the strenght of its current nearly stopped my heart.

As I hopped from table to table trying delicious dishes and as I mingled with some of my favorite Chefs in the city, I realized that I really, really missed writing about food. I missed the connectedness I had with something I'm so passionate about. I missed being my own version of an adventurer (because anyone who knows me know my idea of an adventure is wearing #4 sunblock instead of #8 while lying on a beach somewhere after a long, brutal Chicago winter).

After Dish left (and after hitting about 7 restaurants in 3 days), I knew it was time to make writing a top priority in my life again. By the time November rolled around, I was back in the habit of visiting new restaurants once a week and documenting my experiences (I promise, those blogs are soon to come!). I met with some awesome editors of a local publication who, get this, actually asked me to write for them! I made it my early New Year's resolution that I was going to commit 150% to making this particular dream a reality, even if I had to do it alone. Nothing could've made me happier than that.

And just then, Fate (and Facebook) tossed me a pretty incredible curve ball. A childhood friend that I had reconnected with(okay, he stalked me out, but that's besides the point) nearly a year before- someone whom I barely knew but knew so well, a person with whom I had been sharing my passion for food with for months- agreed to join me for one of my first "blog" meals in over 6 months. Playfully and fondly dubbed my favorite "new/old", I was excited to finally have someone to share my culinary adventures with, even if only for one night. Cause let's face it, there was a good chance he was going to witness my eating habits and be too grossed out to ever want to dine with me again. Surprisingly, quite the opposite happened. We shared an incredibly delicious meal (I promise, the blog is COMING SOON!) during which he bravely tried some dishes I think were well out of his comfort zone. More than that, though, we shared some pretty amazing conversation and the kind of laughs that made my stomach hurt (or maybe that was all the food?). In fact, he was such an awesome foodie P-I-C (even as a first timer), I let him talk to me about his passion...soccer (I know, I'm nice. What can I say?).

As we freeze our way into February and as Winter transitions into Spring (well, so I hope, anyway), the resolutions I made last Fall are finally coming to fruition. I'm a few weeks out from my first published article, my calendar is booked with lots of reservations for new restaurants to try, GirlThatEats FB & Twitter updates are way more frequent, and the blog is officially back. And, though Dish's place in my (foodie) heart will remain steadfast, I couldn't be more excited to kick off phase two of my GirlThatEats adventures with my favorite "new/old" (and my mom, and my girls, and Wed Night Date Night with Josh, of course). It feels good to be back in the game.

It's funny, the places life takes us.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I have this bad habit of falling in love with a song and listening to it on repeat over and over until I have every line memorized. Sometimes it takes a day, sometimes a few days, but it becomes this sort of obsession I fight to conquer. My poor neighbors are probably so sick of Lykke Li, I wouldn’t be surprised if they ordered 10 extra large pizzas to my house as payback for my obsessive compulsive behaviors.

There are certain instances, though, where repetitive behavior is not only okay, its encouraged. Recently, I discovered my new favorite repeat- Perennial Restaurant in Lincoln Park (1800 N. Lincoln Ave). Though I’ve enjoyed dinner at Perennial on a few occasions, I’d never visited the restaurant for brunch. Last Saturday, while scrolling through my news feed on Facebook, I read that the windows and sliding doors at Perennial would be open on the gorgeous, sunny 75 degree day. Dish and I were scheduled for a 10am Zumba class in the park (check out www.teamifit.com for more information on amazing outdoor classes this summer- its how girlsthateat stay in shape!), so I felt a little guilty proposing the idea of bailing on an 800 calories burned workout for yummy brunch. Apparently, I didn’t feel guilty enough.
Had I known that Executive Chef Ryan Poli was going to fill me to the brim with the most delicious breakfast I had in months, I probably wouldn’t have skipped my workout. Deciding that every item on the menu sounded amazing enough to try (and realizing it was priced well enough to not break the bank), we asked Patrick, Perennial’s incredible manager, if it would be possible to have tasting portions of a few (okay, six) dishes.

A few sips into our Bloody Mary’s, made with a dash of horseradish (and served with a mini High Life back), we were served round 1 of our brunch extraordinaire, Biscuits and Sausage Gravy, served with an over-easy egg. Having spent almost 5 years in the south, I have a soft side for Biscuits and Gravy, so believe me when I say that Chef Poli does gravy good. The consistency was spot on, the sausage was not overwhelming, and the biscuit was fluffy and flavorful, noticeable despite being soaked in gravy and topped with an egg.

Our next course was an omelet duo- the pork belly omelet with mushrooms and cheddar cheese and Sancho’s omelet, served with roasted poblano peppers and chorizo and topped with queso fresco and cilantro cream. Though the pork belly was good, it could never measure up to the rich flavors of the poblano peppers and spicy chorizo. I don’t know who Sancho is, but the man can make a mean omelet. The Spanish flavors were perfectly complimented by the patatas bravas, fresh cut potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce that tasted like they came out of my Puerto Rican grandmother’s kitchen.

Well on our way to full, Chef Poli surprised us with a dish that was so decadent, so elegant, so…beautiful, that calling it a “brunch” dish just didn’t seem to do it justice. Chef Poli’s twist on Eggs Benedict (one of my all time favorite breakfast dishes), is truly in a league of its own- a soft English Muffin topped with a Foie Gras Mousse, Duck Confit, and a supple poached Duck Egg, drizzled in a truffle infused hollandaise sauce. Mouth. Watering. It was, without a doubt, the best Eggs Benedict I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. And, of course, there is a catch- this dish hasn’t officially made the menu…yet. Chef Poli is still experimenting with ingredients, recipes, and prices to make sure that the dish’s decadence doesn’t mean a break-the-bank dollar amount for diners.

We rounded off our excellent breakfast with dessert (because every great meal warrants a great dessert)- a flaky croissant filled with rich, creamy chocolate that made me feel like I could be sitting in a café in Paris. Thankful I wore drawstring pants (and regretful that I skipped out on Zumba), I convinced Dish that we needed to walk off our breakfasts. We left Perennial completely full, completely dazzled, and completely content. I’ve found my new fix, my new favorite, and I will surely be playing this one on repeat for a long time to come.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Sad Song- Opera Restaurant

When I was little, my mom used to tell me not to use the word “hate”. Instead, she requested that I use phrases like “dislike immensely” or “don’t care for”. In 6th grade, my English teacher was big on learning new vocabulary, and I remember being so excited when we learned the word “abhor”. It wasn’t hate, but I felt it effectively communicated the point. All these years later, I try to make it a personal practice to not “hate” things, but sometimes, hating is unavoidable. For example, I hate when people are knowingly rude to one another. I hate when people use the word “retard”. But something I loathe, something that tops my list of pet peeves, is when cab drivers don’t have change.

A few weeks ago, my cousin was in town from Montreal, so Dish and I planned an evening of party hopping and schmoozing to give her a brief glimpse of the city. We enjoyed champagne cocktails at Pops for Champagne and then headed to see a really cool art exhibit at the Renaissance Blackstone Hotel on Michigan Ave. Food ran out early, so we decided to join our family at dinner at Opera (1301 S. Wabash).

If you’re familiar with Chicago, you’re probably realizing by now that the commute from the Renaissance Blackstone to Opera is less than a mile. But on this particularly cold Thursday evening, donning our high heeled boots, there was no way I could’ve happily survived the walk. So we jumped in a cab and made our way to the restaurant. The total cab fare was about $5 and Dish, in her generosity, asked the cab driver for $12 back. He said he had $8 in cash and could give us $2 in quarters, which is, in my opinion, unacceptable. We spent about 5 minutes debating with the driver, arguing that it was his responsibility to have change for his patrons. Eventually, he threw (literally) the $20 bill back at Trish and told us to “get out of his cab, now”. So we did.

We found my family and sat down to a seriously delicious dinner accompanied by equally delicious wine. First, we enjoyed the Malaysian Red Chili Mussels made with Ground Pork, Sambal Olek, and Cilantro. Sambal Olek is a classic Indonesian dish made out of chilies with no other additives (like garlic or spices). The result is a simple, clean taste that adds a ton of heat to the dish without overpowering the other flavors. The three of us girls decided to split the Tempura Golden Shrimp in a Wok-smoked Chili Glaze, Crisp Maine Lobster Spring Rolls with Tropical Fruit and Mango Sauce, and the yummiest Crisp Orange Beef I’ve ever had. The dishes were traditionally themed but had an eclectic flare that we all really enjoyed.

Then, elbow deep in our Orange Beef, the host came over to our table to ask if we had taken a cab to the restaurant. Without much hesitation, we all answered “yes” in unison, thinking maybe we had left something behind. Instead, the host shows the cab driver to our table where he proceeds to ask Trish for her $20 and hands her $12 in return. We were in such shock we didn’t even think to refuse his request and he wound up walking away with 60% tip!

Once the shock dissipated, I was livid. I couldn’t believe that the host didn’t protect the privacy of us guests and that he so willingly brought a perfect stranger over to our table. We brought the matter to the manager’s attention, but here’s the thing; our experience was completely tainted by that point, which is a total shame because the food at Opera rocks. It REALLY does. What’s more- our server was tremendous and the restaurant is super fun, funky and vibrant. I like Opera. A lot. So while I won’t let one experience ruin many enjoyable dinners to come, I’ll always remember Opera as the place where a creepy, inefficient cab driver stalked us and ruined a perfectly pleasant evening.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Welcome to Chicago- Sixteen

It’s not a secret how snobby I am about all things Chicago. As far as I’m concerned, everything in Chicago is generally better. Our pizza is better, our sports teams are better (well, in theory anyway), summers in Chicago can’t be beat. Overall, Chicago is just a better city. Than anywhere. Hands down.

When I found out that Mr. New York himself was building a tower literally in the heart of our beautiful city, I was pissed. Livid. Disgusted. As far as I was concerned, Mr. Trump could take his millions and help some other economy boom because Chicago didn’t need him. After the building went up, my attitude worsened. Situated among some of Chicago’s most prestigious, historic buildings, the all glass façade does nothing to compliment our beautiful city architecture. In fact, I think the building looks pretty phallic and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Mr. Trump purposely erected something that conspicuous smack dab in the middle of our breathtaking skyline.
Overflowing with pride for our city, my mom and I vowed never to step foot in the forsaken building that is Trump Tower. Then, last October, we met Chef Frank Brunacci, the Executive Chef of Sixteen, at the Celebrity Chef Ball. He dazzled us with his Australian accent and buttered us up with his exquisite dish. We literally blocked the table toward the end of the night so that we could finish off the few tasting dishes he had left. He promised us that if we ever decided to step foot into the Trump building, he’d make it worth our while.

It took a lot longer than we expected, but we finally made it to Sixteen a few weeks ago to celebrate my godmother’s birthday (she’d been dying to go and I wanted an excuse to dress up on a Friday night). My parents and I arrived first and, I admit, our jaws dropped. Sixteen is everything I’d expected from a Trump building- classy and sophisticated with a modern twist. An all glass wine cellar lined the walk from the foyer to the main dining room that had the most exquisite panoramic view of the city. Breathtaking. Chicago’s Friday traffic delayed my aunt and uncle, so my parents and I decided to order cocktails at the bar while we waited. The menu impressed me- there aren’t too many places in the city where I can get Jordan by the glass. And for $26 a pop, I was shocked that the wine was served to us warm. Ugly warm. Put an ice cube in the glass warm. ** It left a bad taste in my mouth, literally and figuratively.

The bad taste in my mouth left by warm wine slowly faded away when we sat at our table, which was right against a window that overlooked the River and Mag Mile. I forgot about the warm wine completely by the time Chef Frank visited our table to welcome us to his restaurant. He was candid and funny and had us all very excited for the meal ahead. We started with savory Veal Sweetbreads served with a parsnip puree and bacon and potato hash; Smoked Diver Scallops with a trio of beets and horseradish ravioli, and, my personal favorite, Maine Lobster in a vanilla broth. Ordinarily, you couldn’t pay me to believe that Lobster and vanilla would taste good in the same bite. But this dish was better than good, it was delightful.

It amazed me that I was already starting to feel full considering the portions weren’t huge. I saved enough room to enjoy a delectable Australian Rock Lobster Tortellini served with smoked paprika white bean and chorizo, which I thoroughly enjoyed (but not as much as the lobster and vanilla). I also made a point to try my mom’s Duck Breast with pistachio crusted black rice, warm duck confit salad and pomegranate vinaigrette which was undoubtedly the best duck either of us has ever tried.
The meat was extremely lean and was perfectly complimented by the warm confit and sweetly tart pomegranate vinaigrette.

Desserts at Sixteen are so intricately detailed, they ask that you order them at the beginning of the meal. Had I known how full I’d be, we probably could’ve passed on them completely, but that “I don’t NEED dessert” notion disappeared when Chocolate Cheesecake and Apple Strudel with Honey Ice Cream landed in front of me!
Chef Brunacci made me a believer. I may never love Donald Trump. I may never get over that huge building that impolitely intrudes on Wabash Ave. But I’ll be back to the Trump International Hotel & Tower to visit Sixteen. Again, and again, and again.

** The sommelier recommended a delicious Malbec Cabernet blend for dinner that was served straight out of the wine cellar at a perfect temperature. I think he’ll take our suggestion to chill the reds served at the bar, too.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Safe & Sound....and Scrumptious

I'm not ashamed at all to admit that my life kind of rocks. Lie- it really rocks. I have the coolest family on the planet who support me through everything. I have incredible friends that make me smile every day. I have an awesome job working for 29,000 of the most inspiring individuals with special needs. I have the cutest, fattest, happiest dog in the world who wiggles her butt every time she sees me. I have everything to be thankful for and that makes ranting a little difficult for me. And yet...

As a "foodie", I have a huge life complaint- I have food allergies. And the thing about food allergies is THEY SUCK. In a big way. I've learned to deal with my lactose intolerance but my real problem is that I'm deadly (literally, I've almost died twice) allergic to fish. To make matters worse, unlike most normal people, I'm not allergic to shellfish, but swimming fishies with scales and fins. I'll be honest, it has its perks; I can get away with ordering the $60 lobster tail at family dinner while my brothers opt for the sensible $25 Mahi Mahi. But I know I'm still missing out. I'm the girl who eats California rolls at sushi restaurants while all of her friends are enjoying fresh ahi tuna and salmon. IT SUCKS.

So I was pretty stoked when I heard about Lisa Williams, my new local hero who has devoted her time and energy to creating a foodie life for us allergenistas. A few years ago, Lisa was diagnosed with multiple food allergies and set out on a quest to help others "live the good life with food allergies." Her website, www.lisacooksallergenfree.com, is a godsend to people with food allergies. She posts awesome recipes, local allergen friendly grocers, allergen friendly restaurants, a food allergy restaurant safety sheet, and more. The best part of her enterprise is that she hosts a series of "Safe and Sound" dinners at some of the city's hottest restaurants. Lisa challenges chefs to create menu items free of the major food allergens: wheat, soy, dairy, gluten, tree nuts, eggs, peanuts, fish and shellfish.

Most recently, Lisa's Safe and Sound dinner was at Landmark Grill & Lounge (1633 N. Halsted), sister restaurant to Boka (where she has already hosted a dinner) and Perennial (the location for May's Safe & Sound dinner). Honestly, it was the best $50 I've ever spent (and that includes some pretty fabulous shoes). The price included the amazing culinary stylings of Executive Chef Kurt Guzowski; the hip atmosphere of one of the city's trendiest restaurants; portions that could easily feed a family of 8; sinful dessert from Swirlz Cupcakes; and a goody bag filled to the brim with allergen free foods and information!

For our first course, Chef Kurt dazzled us with a Lamb Rillette with date puree and a Roasted Beet Salad with Balsamic Emulsion, served with gluten-free crackers cooked with pork fat that we couldn't get enough of. Next, we enjoyed tender, juicy wood-roasted chicken and mushrooms in a natural jus and perfectly pink grilled flank steak with cipollini onions. The steak was so delicious I thought I would eat the entire plate, and then they brought our sides of smoked brussel sprouts with bacon and herb roasted fingerling potatoes with truffles. I'm drooling just remembering it.

Despite how pleasantly surprised I was by the elaborate, tasty dinner dishes, I was still incredibly nervous about dessert, which they announced was vegan and gluten free. So, really, can you blame me for freaking out a little bit? And then a plate full of double chocolate, coconut stuffed cupcakes with German chocolate frosting landed in front of me. Seriously, these cupcakes were good. Impossibly good. Lick the inside of the cupcake wrapper, stick-your- tongue-between-the-tines-of-the-fork-to-get-the-last-bit-of-frosting good. Now I'm drooling again (AND I just realized I have a leftover cupcake in my fridge- SCORE!).

Kudos to Chef Kurt for rising to the challenge and creating such a decadent meal free of major food allergens. Many thanks for graciously taking our suggestions to add the gluten free crackers to the menu and I hope to one day see an allergen free pizza become a Landmark staple*. Special thanks to Chef James and Swirlz Cupcakes for such a rockin' dessert (that I can't wait to enjoy again tonight!). Most of all, my deepest gratitude to Lisa for sticking up for us foodies with allergies and for providing us with so many awesome dining options despite our many restrictions. You go, girl!

*If you have food allergies and would like to dine at Landmark, please call in a few days in advance so Chef Kurt can make sure he has enough ingredients to make you a special meal.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Grocery Bistro

I'm frequently asked why I started blogging about my dining experiences. The more times I am asked, the more I realize that the answer to that question has changed in the few months since I started this endeavor. Truth be told, I had never put much thought into becoming a "blogger". I really just enjoyed trying new restaurants around the city and sharing my experiences with friends and family. I used to write some pretty elaborate emails, detailing my dining adventures and making recommendations on everything from awesome hidden gem brunch spots to good-to-bring-clients-to swanky restaurants. I became a personal Zagat of sorts.

I remember sitting at brunch one morning with my parents, brother, and some of my dad's out-of-town colleagues. They asked my parents for dining recommendations and I sort of monopolized the conversation from there, giving detailed accounts of more restaurants than they could possibly visit during their short weekend stay. At one point, my dad looked at me, slightly shocked by my passion, and told me I should start blogging about my experiences.

Now, nearly six months after writing my first blog, my motivation has significantly changed. Though I still love sharing my personal stories, I have a bigger goal- a deeper mission that is my perpetual inspiration- to keep great chefs and great restaurants in Chicago by doing what I love... eating. And while this sounds like a pretty selfless ambition, the truth is, it's not. In fact, I'm a pretty selfish ambassador of the restaurant scene. First of all, I really enjoy bragging about Chicago. I always have, and I'm sure I always will. And let's face it, with Top Chefs, Iron Chefs, and big time culinary award winners, we Chicagoans have a LOT to brag about. But beyond all that, I've realized that some of my favorite memories have been made over girls' night out dinners, Wednesday Night Date Nights, and impromptu sushi that turns into 3 hours of literally life changing conversation. These are things that I am NOT willing to give up, and so I'll do whatever I can to keep getting what I want. I know I'm selfish and honestly, I'm okay with it.

That's why I love Chicago Originals and why I was so eager to support their annual restaurant week in late January. Chicago Originals promotes local dollars staying in local restaurants that support vital local charities. Chicago Originals "believes that a vibrant, independent restaurant community makes our city a better place." I couldn't agree more. To support these local efforts, Dish and I made our dinner reservations last Friday at The Grocery Bistro (804 W. Washington).

The cozy BYOB offered the perfect setting for a snowy night, its communal seating and small bar overlooking the kitchen set the tone for an all food, no fuss experience. Despite our reservation, we had to wait for a table. Normally, that would annoy me, but the Bistro staff was wonderfully attentive, giving us frequent updates on our wait status. A glass of wine and less than 15 minutes later, we settled into our booth and ordered the Charcuterie for Two. Though I could've done without the Foie Gras Tourchon (which tasted to us like a very strange strawberry ice cream) and Pork Pate, the Rabbit Rillette's citrusy kick was delicious and the sweet Mission Fig Mustard coupled perfectly with the salty Duck Prosciutto. The Braised Pork Cheek was extremely tender and flavorful and paired with rich pumpkin polenta and roasted Granny Smith apples- a wonderful combination of flavors. The duck entree special was equally scrumptious, served in an au jus with savory duck confit.

On our second bottle of wine, we were ready to satisfy our sweet tooth with dessert. Unfortunately, this is where we hit the low spot of the evening. The Spiced Donuts tasted as though they were fried with the meats and potatoes, and the Pots de Creme fell way short of our expectations.

Ultimately, Dish & I thoroughly enjoyed our evening at The Grocery Bistro. The neighborhood-y feel, the cozy decor, good food, and mission to keep great restaurants thriving in Chicago make this BYOB a definite must-try. This is why I write.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Purple Pig

I am not a good singer. In fact, my dad often wonders how someone who played the piano for more than 10 years could be so tone deaf. Despite this knowledge, I still like to rock out on occasion. In my car, in the shower, while I'm cleaning and, undeterred by the weird looks I get from colleagues, in my office. Which is why I love American Idol auditions. Partly because I find it a relief to know I'm not the world's worst singer, but partly because I have a serious admiration for the people who audition. Because, for as hard as I may laugh at songs like "Pants on the Ground", I realize it takes a serious amount of courage to face not only Simon, Randy & Kara, but the millions of people tuning in from the comfort (and safety) of their couches. And the warm and fuzzy part of me likes to watch peoples' dreams come true.

I first heard about The Purple Pig (500 N. Michigan Ave) in early October, when I had the tremendous honor of meeting Chefs Jimmy Bannos, Sr. and Jimmy Bannos, Jr. (who partner with Scott Harris of Mia Francesca for this great concept) at the Macy's Celebrity Chef Ball. I listened enthusiastically as Executive Chef Jimmy Jr. spoke excitedly about his ideas for the restaurant and followed up on The Purple Pig's progress regularly (religiously) in anxious anticipation of opening day. This was his "American Idol" audition and I was crossing my fingers for success.

Which is probably why I felt a bit like Kara DioGuardi when I walked into The Purple Pig last Saturday night, my girls in tow(I'm not bitter enough to be Simon and I don't say "Dawg" enough to be Randy). Because, as a diner visiting a new-to-the-scene restaurant for the first time, we are all a little bit like an American Idol judge- hoping for greatness, bracing for failure, and eager to have a hand in crowning "the next big thing." Given the restaurant was just a over a week old, I was amazed at the hour and a half wait and impressed that, within just a few days, this place already had such a strong following. The small but beautiful dining room was so packed it was next to impossible to maneuver our way to the bar to order drinks, but the incredible bartender, Lucas, more than made up for our momentary discomfort. Despite the volume of guests seated at the bar, Lucas stepped out to personally greet us as he explained the wine menu that is arranged geographically. He promised us a minute of his undivided attention to ask any questions we had about the menu, and I appreciated his focus as much as his honesty.

True to her word, an hour and a half later, the hostess seated our group of eight in a tight, but cozy, table with a perfect view of the bustling kitchen. Our group of 8 had a difficult time choosing dishes on the small plates menu, so we were extremely grateful when Chef Bannos agreed to design a Chef's Tasting menu for our group. Round One was a sampling of some of the Antipasti dishes- Shaved Brussel Sprouts with Pecorino and Parmigiano Reggiano; Salt-Roasted Beets served with Whipped Goat Cheese & Pistachio Vinaigrette; Olive-Oil Poached Tuna with Greek Lima Beans; and Butternut Squash with Pumpkin Seeds, Brown Butter & Ricotta Salata. Truthfully, one dish was better than the next and it was so hard to choose a favorite. The Whipped Goat Cheese was soft and so savory; the Butternut Squash was perfectly sweet; and I could eat the Brussel Sprout Salad every day for the rest of my life. It took us, collectively, less than 5 minutes to devour all four dishes, so we were slightly embarrassed when Chef Bannos came out to describe each dish and there was no food left for him to reference.

This was the trend of the evening. Chef Bannos sent out delicious items, from his cured-in house meats (served on a platter shaped like a pig, appropriately enough) and homemade sausage, to Fried Pigs Ears served with kale, marinated cherry peppers and topped with a fried egg (again, served in a pig shaped bowl), to two of the best smears I've ever tasted in my life. The first, a whipped feta with cucumbers, was creamy and flavorful and the kitchen had a hard time keeping up with our demands for more toasted bread (though the Whitebait, deemed the "french fries of the sea" were an equally delicious compliment). The second, a Pork Neck Bone Rillette with Mostarda, Bannos credited to his grandmother, and we all stared googly-eyed at him as he explained the dish as his tribute to Sunday family dinner. He graciously visited our table after each course was served, taking a few minutes to explain each dish and answering our many questions.

As we opened our fourth bottle of wine, we dove into our final course of the evening which included Sepia with Toasted Almonds and Fried Rosemary; Charred Scallions with Romesco Sauce; and Chicken Thigh Kabobs with Fried Smashed Potatoes and Tzatziki, which was hands down my favorite. For a good minute, we held true to our promise of waiting for Chef Bannos to come out to explain the dishes before we ate, but 8 ladies 4 bottles of wine deep were too easily tempted by the fragrant aromas in front of us to wait longer than that.

Despite the long wait, tight quarters, and moderate performance of our server (we cut her a break because she was new and the restaurant was packed, but we did get the wrong bottle of wine), The Purple Pig has quickly become one of my favorite restaurants in the city. The concept is perfect; great wine, wonderful food plated to share and priced exceedingly well, and a cozy space with communal tables, Spanish tile decor and an awesome playlist are the trifecta of an excellent dining experience. If this were an American Idol audition, I'd send Chef Bannos' Purple Pig to Hollywood, 100,000,000%.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

There's No Mystery- Chicago's Restaurants Rank Supreme

In November 2009, Forbes conducted their annual survey of America's Favorite Cities. Millions of people across the country voted for their favorite cities to visit, based on people, nightlife, culture, shopping, quality of life, and, of course, food/dining. It did not come as a surprise to me that Sweet Home Chicago, the 2nd best restaurant city in the country, ranked in the top 10 in all but one of the food/dining categories (big name restaurants-2; ethnic restaurants-3; coffee bars and cafes-8; neighborhood joints-4; farmer's markets-23-which I think is fair considering most Chicagoans can't leave the house from January-April). Acclaimed chefs from around the world are vying for coveted restaurant real estate right here in the windy city, where many restaurants boast James Beard Award winners, Food & Wine Best New Chefs, and our very own Top Chef Master.

As a self-proclaimed "brand ambassador" for Chicago's food scene, I'm not often surprised when I hear such great things about our city's culinary triumphs. I often hear people say, "Wow, that was an incredible meal" and I can't help but think to myself, "Duh, you're in Chicago, baby!" I go into most of my foodventures with high expectations and I'm rarely disappointed. Because I know here in Chicago, we're just that good.

Last night, Collen and I went to Boka (again), and our experience re-affirmed why Chicago is a top restaurant city. First of all, Boka is one of the swankiest, sexiest restaurants I have been to. Ever. White sails canopy the dining room and soft candles line the walls, which are adorned with some of the coolest pieces of artwork I have ever seen. Even the carpeting in the stairway down to the bathroom is soft and plush. It's hard to walk into Boka without feeling just a little sexy.

Secondly, the food is outstanding. Everything that has ever come out of Chef Tentori's kitchen has been mouth-watering, finger-licking good. He rocks. Seriously, he deserves every accolade thrown his way. I have yet to try an entree at Boka because I have this terrible habit of stuffing myself on the awesome appetizers-my favorite being the pork belly. Forget the cool decor, nevermind the awesome service- if Giuseppe Tentori was cooking on a hot plate under the el on Wabash Ave, I'd be there to eat his food (my hunch is that he'd be serving "squab" that day).

Boka's best feature, though, is the exemplary service. Cause let's be serious for a second. As a diner, you could walk into the most gorgeous restaurant and have the most delicious meal of your life, but if the hostess doesn't welcome you and the server is rude, chances are, you're going to call that a "bad" experience. And at Boka, there is no such thing as a bad experience.

Our visit last night was for the monthly "Test your Palate" wine tasting event. Which is free. Yep, you read that right. FREE. AND, they give you a $10 gift certificate to use on dinner when you're done. Seriously, best thing ever (although it's impossibly hard). My girls and I got there early enough to score seats at the bar, and we were lucky we did, because we had the chance to hang out with one of Chicago's rising-star mixologists, Benjamin Schiller, and his wing man, Rob Miezio. Benjamin's creations are not to be missed. As he proved in his recent Mixologist Showdown, he's a force to be reckoned with. We got a sweet sampling of his "Vineyard"- a delightful gin cocktail mixed with homemade blackberry syrup (that Schiller makes on his days off....that's what I call dedication!), malbec reduction, and orange blossom water. VERY delightful. The rest of his masterpieces include drinks like the "Northsider". Not to mention, the man can shake a mean martini. Benjamin and Rob our glasses full and our conversation going for the (many) hours that we sat at the bar. Both incredibly knowledgeable and honest in their recommendations, these gentleman made our wine tasting, and dining, experiences amazing.

We passed our compliments on to Boka's Director of Operations, Ian Goldberg, who graciously accepted our compliments and spent more time than he probably wanted listening to us gush about how much we loved the restaurant. His hospitality was equalled by manager Alex, who was able to find Colleen and I autographed menus that were mysteriously "taken" from us at the Cadillac of Pigs dinner in December.

In an establishment like Boka, run by restaurant gurus like Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm, I shouldn't be surprised to find such incredibly qualified, genuinely friendly (and wonderfully patient with a group of 7 girls drinking lots of wine all night) employees. But last night, I was shocked. My high expectations were profoundly exceeded by managers, bartenders, and servers who went out of their way to make our night extra special, and I can't thank them enough!

Author's Footnote: Special thanks to Adrien, a phenomenal server whose outgoing personality and thick skin have thus far been the highlight of my year.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Here piggy, piggy!

November and December have been the craziest months of my year. In two short months, I moved, completed two insane projects for work, ate my belly full at Thanksgiving dinner, and somehow managed to get my holiday shopping done. CRAZY, I tell ya!

Unfortunately, the craziness meant that there was little time for enjoying the dining scene and less time to blog about it. The craziness also meant I needed something to look forward to, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, which, for me, means an awesome dining experience. Thankfully, my sensational colleague (and friend) Colleen has her finger on the pulse of cool dining events in this magnificent city and found an incredible dining event that could get us through the hustle and bustle of this crazy time of year.

Picture if you will a 6 course dinner, each course paired with a fabulous wine, hosted by some of the city's hottest chefs in one of the most popular restaurants in town. Now imagine that each course was a savory dish using succulent pork as the main ingredient. Admit it, you'd be excited to.

By the time Colleen and I pulled up to Boka for the Cadillac of Pig dinner last night, we were drooling. Literally. The first guests to arrive (fashionably late is so passe), an extremely friendly wait staff greeted us and immediately served us some frosty glasses of Three Floyd's Jinx Proof beer. Brewed right over the boarder in Munster, IN, this light-bodied brew had a crisp finish and was, what we called, "delightful." I took a look around and was mesmerized by how beautifully festive the restaurant looked- poinsettias lined the bar, beautiful candles adorned the wall, and for a minute, I forgot that about the sub zero temps outside.

Since I was starving, I was excited to sit down and get to grubbing on some tasty piggy, piggy. The "Cadillac of Pig", the Mangalitsa pig, is a large (they grow to be 300 lbs!), woolly pig native to Hungary. They are extremely rare- according to our bartender, there are (were?) only six in the entire state. Experts compare the flavor to that of prime beef and, because the pigs are fed wheat, barley and hay (as opposed to the traditional pig diet of corn and soy), eating this decadent piggy is actually good for you!

The Amuse was shaved poached loin with fried capers, which added a fun little crunch that broke up the soft texture of the meat. Chef Giuseppe Tentori from Boka dazzled us with the next dish- head cheese served in the most delicious parsnip puree I've ever tasted. I admit, the idea of eating pig head is pretty gross, but the flavors was great and the Riesling pairing made it an incredible dish. Top Chef Stephanie Izard was a fan favorite with her dish, which I unfortunately did not get to sample (stupid fish allergy). I was exceedingly impressed that the chefs went out of their way to serve me the most flavorful veal cheek over sweet potato puree that I've ever tasted. That dish definitely made up for the fact that I missed out on one of Chef Izard's masterpieces! Next, Chef Paul Virant from the acclaimed Vie Restaurant served up milk braised ham that was easily my favorite dish of the night. Just as I thought the food couldn't get any better, Chef Ryan Poli from Perennial dazzled us with a "pork stew" of sorts that included an awesomely spicy chorizo sausage. All we needed was some bread to dinge up the broth once the meat was gone- I just couldn't get enough!

The dessert, though, is was amazed me the most. Chef Tentori pulled together a Pork Blood Flourless Chocolate Cake paired with blood orange sorbet that was sinful, to say the least. When I first read that dessert would be Pork Blood Flourless Chocolate Cake, my initial reaction was to gag and run for my life. But the GirlThatEats is willing to try anything once, and this was risk with great reward. After 5 courses of pig, I laughed at the idea of dessert....the one bite turned into two, two turned into three, and before I knew it, the whole damn thing was gone and I was licking my spoon, savoring every last bite.

I'm not sure when Chicagoans will be lucky enough to experience such an incredible collaboration of culinary masters as we lucky diners experienced at the Cadillac of Pig event. I am sure, though, that every Chicagoan needs to try out Boka, Perennial, Vie, and The Girl & The Goat (coming to the West Loop this Spring). The holidays can be hectic, so treat yourself to something amazing this season. Enjoy a glass of wine. Indulge in awesome food. And be thankful that you live in such an amazing city!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Goodbye Deep Dish- Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinders Co.

Chicago is famous for many reasons- amazing architecture, die hard sports fans (sticking by our teams that never seem to win), a breathtaking skyline, and, of course, some trademark foods like Italian Beef Sandwiches, Chicago-Style Hot Dogs (hold the ketchup), and some even say that Saganaki originated in Greektown decades ago. But Chicago's claim to culinary fame is in the pizza- legendary deep dish with gooey dough crusts and more cheese than any stomach can digest. Try dining at Lou Malnati's, Giordano's or Gino's East on a Saturday afternoon and you'll quickly realize that guests visiting our fabulous city are desperate to try a slice of heaven.

But tucked away in Lincoln Park, locals (and extremely savvy visitors) know where to find the city's BEST pizza- Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co (2121 N. Clark St). Hidden on the basement floor of a Victorian Era mansion, CPOG's history is rich with more than just delicious food; it served as the lookout for the henchmen responsible for the Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929, captured in the photos hanging in the small foyer of the restaurant.

Established in 1972, CPOG's rustic decor epitomizes the Chicago Pizza Place. Dark wood booths crammed together to maximize the small space, dim lighting, and a small bar offer a cozy setting perfect for a yummy meal. For months, Josh, aka Wednesday Night Date Night, has been on my case about trying CPOG, listing it as one of his favorite restaurants in the entire city. Somehow, he convinced me to leave the comfort of my cozy condo on the coldest night we've had all year, ensuring me that some warm pizza and awesome flat bread would make me feel better about the excessive wind and snow.

He was right. We started with the Mediterranean Bread, pita-like dough covered in cheese and spices that was so big it hung over the edges of the plate. Impossible to eat with utensils, we ripped it apart with our hands and made a mess of our table as we indulged on this light, flavorful bread. I was impressed at how many times the busser came over to wipe up our crumbs because its not every day you get white glove service in a pizza joint.

A creature of habit, Josh ordered his favorite- the Meatball Oven Grinder, a huge Italian loaf stuffed full of meatballs, sauce, cheese and more cheese, topped with Italian spices. The foot long Grinder was delicious, but paled in comparison to the Pizza Pot Pie I devoured. Served in half pound and full pound portions, the made from scratch pie quickly became my favorite way to eat pizza. Goodbye deep dish- hello Pizza Pot Pie! I couldn't decide what part of the dish I loved more, the tripled raised Sicilian dough, the incredible homemade sauce (made with olive oil, fresh garlic, onions, green peppers, and whole plum tomatoes), or the abundance of melted cheese covering the sausage and mushrooms. Wonderfully overwhelmed with the filling pot pie, I followed every bite with an "I can't believe how good this is" or "this is seriously the best pizza I have ever tasted."

I've spent 20something years devoted to the classic Chicago Deep Dish and I don't mind saying that I have converted to being a Pot Pie girl. A few months ago, I wouldn't have believed that there was a better way to eat pizza than a Giordano's stuffed with mushrooms and spinach- well done on the crust, please. After my trip to CPOG, though, I am a believer. And while I still think its important that visitors to our awesome city experience the hype that is Chicago Deep Dish, I encourage locals (and serious pizza enthusiasts) to think outside the pizza box and try something different, delicious, and decidedly Chicago.