Saturday, December 20, 2008

Marcus Samuelsson: The man behind C-House has a lot on his plate, but he still likes to peel carrots.

Chef Marcus Samuelsson does it all. He cooks, he writes, he teaches, he paints. And he still finds time for soccer on Sundays. Dividing most of his time between New York and Sweden, Samuelsson recently paid a visit to his Chicago restaurant, C-House, where I had the opportunity to catch up with him over a cup of coffee.

Just in town long enough to host a wine dinner with Brian Duncan of Bin 36 and a signing of his 2006 book, The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa, Samuelsson didn't seem jet-lagged at all. He wanted to reintroduce the James Beard Award-winning book (for Best International Cookbook) because he thinks African cooking should be more approachable. He says that not enough people are familiar with African cuisine and seeks to change that. He refers to the text's accessibility in terms of conversation. "It's what you and I are doing right now," he explains, "We're creating this dialogue."

C-House and Samuelsson are just as approachable as the recipes in the book. "I want people to feel comfortable coming here in their jeans and still be able to enjoy a good meal," he says. It doesn't take more than a quick glance around the room to see that everyone here does indeed fit that description. The crowd includes everyone from denim-and-t-shirt types to young professionals sporting the expected attire. Whether they're curled up in the restaurant's sleek, cushioned banquettes or parked with the morning paper at C-House's communal table, the space's understated interior provides a perfect backdrop for each guest.

Before opening C-House, his first Chicago—and first American—venture, Samuelsson sampled a wide variety of the city's culinary offerings. It was chefs like Charlie Trotter, Takashi Yagihashi and Rick Bayless, combined with authentic ethnic spots (like Uptown's smattering of Ethiopian joints) that served as fuel for C-House. But Samuelsson's greatest culinary influence goes back to his grandmother's Scandinavian roots. "She made everything from scratch," he says with a smile, "even her own liquor." He went on to explain that, in Sweden, his grandmother's dishes were quite literally referred to as "poor man's cooking." Peasant food, however, is far from what you get at C-House. Even the simple dishes here arrive looking like a page pulled from Gourmet magazine, which, incidentally, recently featured Samuelsson.

The lauded chef has also appeared in other national publications like USA Today, Food & Wine and Bon Appetit and at 37, is the youngest to ever receive two three-star reviews from the New York Times. Flattering and extensive as his resume may be, those successes don't add up to Samuelsson's biggest achievement, which he says is continuing to be able to work, especially in the midst of a stressed economy. When he first left for New York to apprentice at Aquavit in 1991, he had little more than $300 in his pocket.

But passion, skill and an eye for aesthetics quickly turned that $300 into a priceless experience. With three restaurants, three cookbooks, a line of cooking tools and a television show under his toque, Samuelsson is still as humble as his grandmother's Scandinavian recipes. "I love cooking. I even like peeling carrots," he says and explains that there's a certain joy envisioning the end result as a beautiful carrot soup.

Samuelsson's attention to detail from start to finish might have something to do with his affinity for painting. "It makes you think about positive and negative space," he says, as he reaches over for my notepad and pen. He begins to draw a diagram. Something similar to a brainstorming session—an outline that brought me back to my old writing classes with charts of plots, themes and motifs. But, unlike the ever-changing subjects in my own scratchpad, the main element of Samuelsson's diagram always begins with flavor. From there he extends three separate branches: one for texture, another for the season and then one more for fish/seafood. The flavor tree then expands to a myriad of subtopics, all working together to form one plated masterpiece.

When he's not busy crafting new dishes, instructing courses all over the world and revising recipes, Samuelsson hikes it to the local soccer field, where he says the energy and adrenaline of the game is similar to that rush you get in the kitchen. "The pulse of being on a team is similar to the pulse in the kitchen. It's an energy that's hard to translate."

This article was first published on Centerstage.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Fancy Foodstuffs: Shop like a snob and get your groceries at these upscale shops.

Growing up in a small Michigan town, my options for artisan products and gourmet foodstuffs were limited, and by limited I mean non-existent. The closest thing to a Whole Foods was the corner market, where gourmet meant adding top-grade beef to a box of Kraft mac 'n' cheese. Sure, the produce in that town was always fresh, thanks to its plentiful pastures. But, honestly, what good are fresh fruits and veggies without the proper accoutrements? Needless to say, I haven't had a problem finding high-quality foods in Chicago, thanks to high-quality (and, ok, high-priced) grocery stores like these.

Southport Grocery and Cafe
I have a serious peanut butter addiction and this upscale shop is where I get my fix. We're not just talking about some ol' jar of Skippy or Jif, mind you—and like any good drug, this one doesn't come cheap. One jar of P.B. Loco costs about $8, but I promise you it's worth every last dime. It comes in a variety of flavors including dark chocolate, coco-banana, Asian curry spice and cookie dough. But the best, by far, is the white chocolate raspberry. Slather it on bread and skip the jam or lick it straight from the spoon to fully appreciate its sweet, fruity flavor. My shopping at Southport doesn't stop with peanut butter, either. The place always has a fully stocked pastry case with a bevy of made-from-scratch goodies like cookies, brownies and Southport's "infamous" chocolate and vanilla cupcakes. In addition to its market madness, the place also has a full functioning cafe, where guests can grab made-to-order salads, sandwiches and seasonal entrees. When the place is packed, grab your Intelligentsia coffee to go and do a little shopping in Southport's swanky boutiques. That is, assuming you haven't already dropped all your dough on chef-worthy foodstuffs.

Goddess and Grocer (Bucktown)
I stopped in here once hoping to grab a quick birthday gift for a friend. I thought it might be a challenge, considering said friend doesn't drink and a good portion of the shop is devoted to wine and imported brews. But it didn't take long to find a shelf stocked with handcrafted chocolate bars, homemade pastries and off-the-cuff greeting cards. Putting together the perfect gourmet gift basket here was far easier than picking a wine for myself. That's not to say that the selection is huge (the shop itself is teensy), but the offerings are top-notch. The Goddess and Grocer also has a case stocked with prepared salads, sandwiches and other culinary concoctions, making it a popular grab 'n' go lunch spot for locals and workers at nearby businesses.

I've never had a pleasant time shopping at Pastoral. But something about the place keeps me coming back. That would be the little black cans of Persian Feta from Yarra Valley Dairy, Australia. I know what you're thinking—really, cheese from a can? The last time my dairy came from metal was after losing the better part of my judgment in college. But this isn't the kind of canned stuff that you spray on a cracker. This one gets cracked open to reveal a creamy mess of cheese, herbs and oil—perfect for spreading on a watercress cracker, but just as delicious straight from the spoon. Wincing at the feta's hefty price (about $14) won't get you any points with the staff, either. So just suck it up, grab the cheese and buy your wine elsewhere.

Fox & Obel
This is the first time I've been to a market where valet parking was an option. It threw me off at first, but then I found out it was free, so long as I bought something from the place. Somehow that made it OK, or at least it made me feel like I was getting my money's worth. This isn't a shop that I frequent because I live as far north as geographically possible in this city. But, if I lived downtown and had Donald Trump's bank account, I'd be a regular here. In all seriousness, there are plenty of affordable options at Fox & Obel, just not if you're looking to buy something by the pound, like an entire duck, for example. Think of it as an upscale Whole Foods—the setup is quite similar, with separate patisserie, meat and seafood counters. Samples are abundant and a cafe for noshing on your purchased goods is located in the back corner.

This article was first published on Centerstage in a slightly different form.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Carnivale's complete holiday dessert menu

If it were ever appropriate to describe a place as “sexy,” Carnivale could be compared to the likes of the glamorous Angelina Jolie or perhaps a modern day Marylin Monroe. Yes, if Carnivale were a woman, she would surely be a Hollywood It Girl. And recently, she’s gotten a sweet makeover with a brand new holiday dessert menu, crafted by Executive Chef Mark Mendez.

Carnivale’s complete holiday dessert menu:
Tres leches: Blueberry tres leches cake, blueberry jam, blueberry syrup, basil cream, $7

Flan: Cuban coffee flan, white chocolate cream with Partida reposado tequila, caramel corn, $5

Carnivale ice cream cake: Mango, guava and pistachio ice cream, chocolate ganache, pineapple, raspberry and mint sauces, $8

Brownie: Chocolate brownie, dulce de leche ice cream, $6

Pineapple split: Coconut, chocolate and pineapple ice cream, hot fudge, buñuelos, maraschino cherries, $7

Churros: Spanish fried doughnuts, chocolate and dulce de leche sauces, $6

This article was first published on

Forget wine, bring your hostess a banana cream pie

There’s nothing quite like receiving a nice bottle of wine when hosting a party. The go-to gift leaves little room for complaint and offers a lasting impression.

But no mater how appreciative your gracious hostess might seem when receiving the bottle, she’s likely more bored than anything over your predictablity: Seriously? I slaved over a hot oven for something that took you two minutes to pick out?

You can easily turn those two minutes into a far more thoughtful hostess gift with Fulton’s On The River banana cream pies to-go. The made-to-order dessert is a creamy confection of banana filling in a flaky peanut butter crust, topped with caramel sauce and caramelized bananas. Each pie serves 10 and comes with an attached recipe card from Executive Chef Scot Wegener, so your hostess can give it a whirl when she’s not so strapped for time. And at $25 per pie, you can still bring that bottle of wine.

This article was first published on
Photo: Fulton's banana cream pie, courtesy of XA

Study spaces: Gear up for the dreaded week of finals and hit the books at one of these java-fueled joints.

With final exams just around the corner, you'll need a place to stay alert while you work. These spots may not be as distraction-free as the local library, but they do offer plenty of space for books, laptops and sleep-deprived students.

Cafe Avanti
Cafe Avanti gets an A-plus for being at the top of its class in nearly all coffeehouse categories. Unlike those java shops that provide guests with a timed Wi-Fi card, internet access at this place is completely open and unlimited. That said, you're bound to see the same regular faces frequenting the place and holing up here for hours. But Cafe Avanti's friendly staff doesn't mind at all; in fact, they've grown quite fond of their hardworking patrons and treat them like old friends, striking up conversation the minute they walk through the door. In addition to stocking beans from Chicago's local Coffee and Tea Exchange, Cafe Avanti gets extra credit for its select choice of Bleeding Heart Bakery scones and teacakes. You'll also find a small menu of lunchtime favorites including sandwiches, salads and soups. During the warmer months, a spacious sidewalk cafe provides extra seating.

Dollop Coffee Co.
Despite its quiet Buena Park location, Dollop Coffee is anything but secret. And after waiting around for a table to clear, you'll certainly wish it was. Mismatched tables and chairs provide space for studying and quiet conversation, while a number of tattered sofas (which look as if they were found on the roadside) create an ideal spot for group meetings. A cooler stocked with bottled beverages and a pastry case full of Alliance Bakery cupcakes offer a quick sugar-jolt, and pack twice the punch when paired with one of Dollop's espresso-infused drinks. The shop swears by Metropolis coffee beans and also sells a few select blends by the pound. And if you're up for heading a little farther north, you can get your java straight from the source with our next pick.

Metropolis Coffee Co.
Located just two blocks east of the Granville Red Line station, Metropolis is always packed with commuters in need of caffeine. The place is also a favorite with nearby Loyola students, which often poses a challenge for seating; that's saying a lot for a shop that has three full-size sitting rooms. Pre-packaged sandwiches and salads offer a healthful pick-me-up, while pastries and sweet granola from Milk and Honey Cafe provide a temporary sugar-high (just the thing you'll need to plow through an evening of theory and criticism).

Bourgeois Pig
If the pretentious moniker hasn't already tipped you off to the intellectual crowd that hangs out here, the cafe's floor-to-ceiling book-lined walls should tell all. With its close proximity to DePaul, the multi-level space is nearly always packed with students and disheveled, elbow patch-clad professors. Your chances of scoring seating in The Pig's main room are slim, but a quick trip up a flight of creaking stairs will lead you to an unofficial study den, where the students look as if they've never seen daylight. Bourgeois Pig could be in the running for valedictorian if it weren't for the pay-as-you-go Wi-Fi. But until it's free, we'll forget that the economy is in a rut and continue to splurge on the delicious coffee drinks and sandiwches like the Catcher in the Rye (a Reuben).

Fixx Coffee Bar
It's a good thing that Fixx Coffee Bar isn't any closer to Bourgeois Pig, as the place would pose some serious competition. Appealing also to the DePaul demographic, Fixx offers a full menu of study essentials like free Wi-Fi, spacious tables and an abundance of outlets. And then there are the heavy, java-filled mugs. Fixx stocks beans from Chicago's local Coffee and Tea Exchange and always has a regular and flavored blend brewing. Next to Metropolis, its one of the largest coffee shops we've come across and almost always has an open table. The food here isn't anything to write home about, but plates filled with fresh veggies, pita and hummus are just enough brain food to keep you cranking out those research papers.

This article was first published on Centerstage.
Photo: Students at Metropolis Coffee Co., Stacy Warden

Kid-friendly feasts: Give the leftovers a rest and feed the family at one of these Chicago restaurants.

Feeding the whole family without cooking all day can be a serious challenge in this city. Sure, we've got some of the best restaurants and most lauded chefs in the nation, but they typically have an unofficial child ban. So instead of pleasing your palate with seasonal and local fare, you end up stuffing your face with greasy fries and reheated burgers at TGI Friday's or the next nearby chain. Because, let's face it, those national spots always have crayons and menus made for coloring. But no matter how much you love $5 frozen margaritas and microwaved spinach dip, it's time to try something new. After scouring the city for family-friendly spots, this is what we found.

Wishbone (Lakeview)
This Lakeview restaurant thrives from the nearby families who frequently visit. One thing that keeps them coming back is Wishbone's extensive kids' menu. With 15 items to choose from (and that's not even including side dishes), the little ones can be just as discerning with their dinner selections as mom and dad. For breakfast, your little angels can choose from frog toast, plain or fruit pancakes and sausage or bacon biscuits, among others. Lunch and dinner options offer just as many choices, with popular items like cheeseburgers, Muenster cheese quesadillas and four-cheese mac 'n' cheese. Wishbone also encourages the kids to branch out and try something from the adult menu, and invites the little ones to eat for free every Tuesday night.

Curio Cafe
If you've got a mini-gourmand running around the house, put his little palate to the test at Curio Cafe. Rather than your run-of-the-mill child choices like French fries, mac 'n' cheese and hot dogs, this place boasts a kids' menu designed with adults in mind. Mini-pancakes with whipped cream, gilled peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, berry banana yogurt and fruit with peanut butter dip are just a few items on that list. In addition to offering the tykes a gourmet experience, Curio Cafe keeps them entertained with toys and a "magic" chalkboard. After the meal is over, treat your little chef to a selection of Yummy Earth organic candy.

Brandy's (multiple locations)
The little ones get an entire menu for themselves here, featuring all their favorites from hot dogs and cheeseburgers to grilled cheese and chicken nuggets. Brandy's also makes a scaled-down version of its popular gyro, so the kids can emulate mom and dad's affinity for Greek fare. Both versions of Brandy's gyro are prepared with toasted pita and stuffed with seasoned meat, tomato, onion and tzatziki sauce, $7.65. All kids meals are served with fries and a small drink, prices range from $3.99 to $4.95.

@spot cafe
Kingsbury Park has seen an influx of families over the past couple years, but many of its nearby River North restaurants haven't. And they probably won't now that @spot Cafe is in the 'hood. The neighborhood coffeehouse and eatery is plenty kid-friendly with its collection of toys and games. The interior is even decked out with a sectioned-off space for little Suzie and her pals. While the kids enjoy @spot's play-area, mom and dad can cozy up in one of the cafe's work-nooks, complete with laptop outlets and free wi-fi. The cafe's upscale menu isn't as kid-friendly as the space itself, but it's never too early to push your epicurean ways on the little ones. Gourmet paninis like turkey pesto, BLT deluxe and tuna melt are good for sharing and a selection of seasonal salads provide a healthy out. Herb and cream cheese-stuffed pretzels are a fun pick for the kids and, for an extra $2, they come complete with a cup of soup. If little Suzie and Johnny play nice, you can treat 'em to a vanilla buttercream cupcake or one of @spot's chocolate-dipped sweets.

Uncle Julio's Hacienda
If you must succumb to the almighty chain, do it at Uncle Julio's. Kids 12 and under can relish in five of the restaurant's favorite dishes including nachos, enchiladas, crispy tacos, "kidsadillas" and fajitas. Finicky types will do well with the nino nachos, a simple preparation of four chips with their choice of cheese or cheese and beans. If they haven't yet eaten their daily dose of protein, the crispy taco with beef or chicken will take care of that. And if your little angels prefer a softer shell, Uncle Julio's will switch it out at no extra cost. When all else fails, go for the restaurant's version of the grilled cheese sandwich. This Mexican-twist on the American classic melts yellow cheese between flour tortilla triangles, making it a surefire finger food. There won't be any messes with this one, unless little Johnny has already developed a hankering for hot sauce.

This article was first published on Centerstage.
Photo: Wishbone in Lakeview, Stacy Warden

Savoring Chicago's South Side: Spend a day filling up on soulful selections down south.

Chicago's South Side, once a breeding ground for all manner of artists—novelist Upton Sinclair, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, gospel singer Thomas A. Dorsey and bluesman Muddy Waters, to name a few—is now a harvest town for some of Chicago's best cooks. And when it comes to comfort food, the area can only be matched by the deepest southern states. If you only have one day to experience it all, here's our menu:

Breakfast: 5 Loaves Eatery
You'll need some early morning sustenance to kick off your adventure, so this recently re-opened restaurant should be first on your itinerary. You'll find plenty of breakfast favorites here, from stacks of buttermilk pancakes to southern-style grits. Even the simple staples stand out. Take for example, the restaurant's oatmeal, served with a heaping spoonful of brown sugar, a hefty pour of cream, a fistful of raisins and a side of toast. 5 Loaves also has a few uncommon breakfast items, like the popular turkey cristo with American and Swiss cheeses. Not only is the thing battered and fried with powdered sugar, but it also comes out with a side of honey; talk about a sweet sandwich. The French toast platter, served alongside two eggs (any way you like 'em), meat and potatoes, is another crowd-pleaser. If you can swing it, stop in on a Soulful Sunday. That's when they do it family-style with a smorgasboard of meat, fish, veggies, candied yams, mac n' cheese, beans n' rice, coleslaw and homemade cornbread, all you can eat for $12.95.

Lunch: Soul Vegetarian East
Comfort food typically means some combination of meat and potatoes, especially during the Midwest's temperamental winters. Soul Vegetarian East, however, is changing all that with hearty vegan and vegetarian-friendly dishes like barbecue-slathered sandwiches, stir-fried tofu and baskets brimming with battered mushrooms, battered cauliflower and seasoned fries. Be sure to balance out all those collard greens with a side of the restaurant's grilled cornbread. And, no matter how stuffed silly you are after entrees, don't skip out on a thick slice of the lemon meringue pie.

Dinner: Harold's Chicken Shack
It would be a near crime to head over to the South Side without a visit to this historic Chicago staple. Since its opening in 1950, Harold's has branched out and now has a smattering of other locations, but there's something to be said for getting the stuff straight from the source. The standard here is a half or quarter chicken (white or dark, it's your call), fries, bread, coleslaw and a side of Harold's hot sauce. If you're feelin' edgy, go for the livers and gizzards. Harold's also serves shrimp (fried, of course), and catfish. You may end up eating your greasy goodies near the curb, as the place has limited seating, but there are a few tables and a counter for noshing. This Washington Park spot is also close to the University of Chicago, so you can check out the campus while you're in the area.

Dessert: Original Rainbow Cone
There's always room for ice cream, especially the quirky kind that comes from this landmark spot. The Original Rainbow Cone doesn't bother with all the modern fluff and fancy stuff (read: mix-ins and commercial jingles) like many chain spots. And it doesn't need to, because the signature flavors here are sweet enough to stand alone. They also stand quite well when stacked layer-to-layer in the famous Rainbow Cone, which includes chocolate, pistachio, strawberry and Palmer House (a cherry-nut mix) ice creams, and a scoop of orange sherbet for good, fruity measure. The shop also has a couple featured flavors to tempt your inner-child-- bubble gum or cookie dough, anyone? More mature types will appreciate decadent choices like black walnut, New York vanilla and butter pecan. Be sure to head over before the snow hits; Rainbow operates on a seasonal basis.

This article was first published on Centerstage in a slightly different form.
Photo: Original Rainbow Cone, Stacy Warden.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Beer-battered bliss: Nothing screams comfort like a heaping plate of fried cod.

You don't have to hail from the Emerald Isle to enjoy a heaping plate of fish and chips. But you might have to hail a cab after noshing on the stuff at these beer-crazed pubs.

Duke of Perth
Next to its sweeping list of scotch, the made-from-scratch fish and chips is the main draw here. Especially on Wednesdays and Fridays when the pub offers an all-you-can-eat special. And special it is with the Duke's select choice of cod fried in Tennant's Lager beer batter, served alongside peas and chips with malt vinegar. Not only is it one of the tastiest fish 'n' chip choices Chicago has to offer, but at $9.50, it's one of the cheapest. Duke of Perth is also one of the few pubs left in the city that has yet to give way to sports-streaming TV's, or any TV's, for that matter. Keeping in line with its lack of cultural distractions, the small space encourages socializing with strangers and making new friends. If all that chatter isn't doing the trick, offer up a strip of your fish; you'll be a guaranteed hit.

Chief O'Neill's
This classy little North Side joint boasts an entire menu of traditional Emerald Isle dishes, but it's the restaurant's signature fish and chips that puts the rest of its regional fare to shame. While it's not quite as cheap as Duke of Perth's ($11.95 vs. $9.95), it's certainly on par with its preparation. Chief O'Neill's choice of Atlantic cod gets dipped in the restaurant's homemade beer batter, fried until golden brown and served up with coleslaw and steak-cut fries. And as if there weren't already enough cod competition with the Duke, Chief O'Neill's also offers an all-you-can-eat fish 'n' chips deal on Fridays. On top of that, the restaurant features the fried stuff on its Sunday brunch menu, which just might put this one in the lead.

Wilde Bar and Restaurant
Bookish types will fall hard for this culinary tribute to the Irish author, playwright and poet. The restaurant's heaping basket of fish and chips is as much of a nod to Wilde as its full-functioning library and crackling fireplace. Dipped and fried in a Bass Ale batter, the Atlantic cod gets served with chips, slaw and a small tin ramekin of tartar sauce, $14.95. Finicky foodies may find Wilde's coating a bit too thick, but it holds the flaky fish together well and draws on the cod's mild flavors.

Grafton Pub & Grill
You may want to order more than one basket of fish and chips to soak up the many pints of beer you're bound to drink here. With imports from Germany, Quebec and Holland and domestics from local breweries like Two Brothers and Goose Island, it's damned near impossible to settle for just one bottle. And Grafton's fish and chips brings out the best in all of the pub's brews. Perhaps that has a little something to do with its beer-batter coating, though it could also be the homemade tartar sauce-simple and nearly as satisfying as the fish itself. Grafton's fish 'n' chips plate comes with the standard fries and slaw, $11.95.

Celtic Knot Public House
This European-themed pub in Evanston is the ideal spot for those who just want a little bit of fish 'n' chips, along with a little bit of everything else. Celtic Knot's dinner entree, the Celtic Collection, allows its patrons to sample the restaurant's lamb stew, fish 'n' chips and corned beef cabbage, $13.95. If that doesn't strike your fancy, look to the pub menu, where fish and chips can be ordered on its own for $11.99. Even the kids can revel in their own plate of fish fingers and chips for just $5. Unlike the cod used in our other picks, you never know what you'll get at Celtic Knot, as the restaurant changes its variety to reflect the freshest available ingredients.

This article was first published on Centerstage.
Photo: Fish n' chips at Wilde's Bar and Restaurant, Stacy Warden.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Uni in abundance: From shooters to sushi rolls, these restaurants serve sea urchin up right.

For those who don't speak fluent sushi, uni is the Japanese name for a sea urchin's edible bits. Unfortunately, those bits aren't very pretty, nor are the creamy, tongue-like textures. But what it lacks in aesthetics, uni more than makes up for in flavor. If you're not put-off by its hideous appearance and strange consistency, you'll appreciate these sushi spots that do it right. And if you are one to judge based on looks, well, it's time to branch out.

This Uptown sushi spot seems a strange fit amongst the downtrodden homes and shops in its low-key laidback surroundings. It's strikingly similar to the way uni comes off when presented alongside its less-sought-after kin (e.g. the crab-stuffed California roll). And the sea urchin puts all other dishes to shame here when it's served as a shooter. The oversize shot glass, filled with sake, uni and a quail egg makes for quite the fancy treat, and fancy treats don't come cheap. But even at seven bucks a pop, it's worth ordering up a couple of these exotic delicacies.

Usagi Ya
This Wicker Park eatery knows that its loyal sushi lovers expect nothing but the best. That's why the restaurant uses the highest quality (Grade A) uni in all four of its glorious, sea urchin-inspired selections. You can be sure that it's the good stuff by checking for a bold yellow color, a firm (as firm as a creamy tongue can be) texture and just a sweet tinge of mild citrus. Adventurous types should start with Usagi Ya's classic uni shooter, prepared with Ponzu, quail egg and chili sauce. From there, you'll have your pick of uni sashimi, ika (squid) with uni and fish eggs and an uni custard with uni, scallop shitake mushrooms in a custard sauce.

Oysy, which means "delicious" in Japanese, holds true to its tasty moniker with its nigiri-style preparation of fresh uni. The bottom layer of hand-pressed rice in this one ends up bringing a good balance to the uni's creamy consistency. The rice bed also makes it terribly tempting to dip into the customary soy sauce/wasabi mixture, but before you go there, try the stuff on its own. This is, after all, the only way to truly appreciate the sweet (and slightly briny) flavor of Oysy's uni.

Bob San
It's a good idea to call ahead here on busy nights, as it's not uncommon for popular sushi spots like Bob San to sell out of uni. Should you find yourself in such a conundrum, opt instead for the chef's special tiger eyes, a serving of squid wrapped around smoked salmon, or go for another of his creations with the hamachi sashimi jalapeno, served with citrus soy dressing, $14.95 and $16.95 respectively. Not that these dishes (or any, for that matter) are proper substitutes for uni, but they'll keep your tongue and tummy pleased until you can pay a return visit. When you are in luck, and Bob San's uni is in high supply, try the restaurant's ika uni ae, a squid dish mixed with sea urchin and cucumber, $16.95. You can also appreciate the stuff in all its strange glory by ordering a few sashimi-style pieces ala carte, $3.50 each.

Some sushi lovers will tell you that uni is an aphrodisiac. Those are probably the same Japanese-cuisine fiends who are getting their fix from this sexy, swanky River North locale. Bring a date and park it at the sushi bar, where you can order the restaurant's thinly sliced raw squid and cucumbers in a creamy sea urchin sauce. For the main course, try the surf and turf with Japanese herb gratin lobster and seared filet mignon with a creamy (almost like a reduction) uni butter. Japonais also serves nigiri and sashimi-style uni.

This article was first published on Centerstage.
Photo: Uni shooters at Agami, Stacy Warden.

Cabaret makes a comeback: Classic cabaret meets modern-day Chicago.

Before Liza Minelli hit the stage in fishnets, green fingernails and fake lashes, Chicago was brimming with Broadway acts and burlesque shows. But after reaching its peak during Prohibition, the once-popular stage performances went cold with the repeal. Over the past few years, however, cabaret has made a comeback in these local haunts.

Blue Bayou
Skip the movies at Southport's Music Box and head across the street for a live show instead. The New Orleans-inspired Blue Bayou Bar and Grill hosts a French Quarter burlesque show every Thursday night, starring local cabaret queen Michelle L'Amour. The show kicks off around 10:30 p.m. when L'Amour slips into a scandalous striptease number on the venue's signature bar-top stage. The free performance allows you to put your money where your mouth is with the restaurant's Cajun and Creole-tinged menu, featuring Louisiana favorites like lump crab cakes and classic jambalaya. And if you're lucky enough to catch the lady's garter, Blue Bayou will buy you a congratulatory tipple.

3160 Owner Jim Flint has turned this popular Lakeview spot into a nonstop cabaret, and the acts just keep getting better. Local showstoppers, including a few nationally known names, take the stage Wednesday through Sunday. Velvet curtains, theatrical lighting and several disco balls provide a classic cabaret backdrop in the venue's rich brown interior. The space also houses a number of cocktail tables, a jukebox with over 100 selections, an antique-style bar and a baby grand piano that serves as a focal point. Flint's handpicked lineup of high-energy performers provides a familiar mix of music and comedy, while his drink list offers a fun mix of classic and contemporary concoctions. And since there's no cover, you can splurge on the booze.

Davenport's Piano Bar & Cabaret
It's not enough that Wicker Park has already laid claim to saucy, sought-after spots like Violet Hour, Debonair Social Club and Flat Iron. The neighborhood also claims one of the city's most notable cabaret joints. Davenport's Piano Bar and Cabaret hosts a number of theatrical acts, but it's Fridays and Saturdays with Daryl Nitz and George Howe (or Mr. Entertainment and Mr. Music) that captivate the club's trendy crowd. The duo has been performing together for eight years now and for the low price of a CTA bus ride, you can catch their cabaret-style "Experience." Part of that experience includes audience participation, piano requests, comedic relief and music ranging from pop hits to jazz numbers. Additionally, Davenport's Piano Bar and Cabaret, in conjunction with the Chicago Cabaret Professionals, will host a special holiday performance this year. The show takes place Monday, December 1 and Tuesday, December 2 at 7:30 p.m.; proceeds from the evening will benefit Teen Living Programs and Save The Children.

Kit Kat Lounge and Supper Club
This modern-day supper club attracts a diverse crowd of Broadway-lovin' babes and theater junkies. A regular lineup of female impersonators including Madame X, Traci Ross, Angelica Love Ross, Candi Stratton and Kathryn Cole entertain guests with lip-synching skills and swaying hips. Kit Kat's drink list, boasting over 70 cocktails, are almost as entertaining as its glitzy divas. Try the kitty's dream with vodka, orange and cream or the Peggy Lee martini with vodka, orange, banana liqueur and cranberry.

Drury Lane Water Tower Place
OK, so it's not the type of place to sit back and sling drinks, but there are plenty of those places nearby. After taking a quick hiatus from Chicago's bustling theater scene, this historic downtown space is back in full swing with a monthly cabaret concert series. Performances take place on Mondays and tickets typically run around $25. A full crew of Chicago Cabaret Professionals-including performers, producers, writers, directors, composers and lyricists-reel in herds of locals and a handful of tourists, too. The series currently runs through December, and with any hope, will live on long after.

This article was first published on Centerstage.
Photo: Cabaret performer Michelle L'Amour, courtesy of Blue Bayou.

Chicago's culinary queens: The city's top female chefs redefine a woman's place in the kitchen.

Charlie Trotter, Rick Bayless, Art Smith, Grant Achatz—the names of Chicago's most lauded chefs are instantly recognizable, and also noticeably masculine. But as Stephanie Izard's win on last season's "Top Chef" showed, our kitchens are full of talented women, too. Before cheering on another Chicago girl—Between Boutique Cafe and Lounge's Radhika Desai—this season, we interviewed some of the city's best female chefs (and one mixologist) to get an idea of what it's like to compete with the big boys.

Judy Contino, Bittersweet
Self-taught pastry chef Judy Contino never worked in a bakery before opening her own. Sixteen years later, Contino says she receives many compliments from guests, telling her that Bittersweet is just as pristine as it was in the beginning. She's got her strong work ethic and mostly female staff to thank for that. The dessert diva says she thinks that more women choose pastry over other culinary disciplines because it allows so much room for creativity. In Contino's case, however, pastry chose her. Before opening Bittersweet, she spent time at Ambria, where she wanted to start cooking, but says that she couldn't because during that time, "they kept the girls in pastry." She may not have mastered the hot line, but Contino has set Chicago's standard for pastry with Bittersweet.

Carol Wallack, sola
Carol Wallack has never had a problem competing against men in the kitchen; she comes from the male-dominated surfing world, after all. But she did initially have reservations about opening Sola. "I never wanted to own a restaurant," says the chef, who moved here from the West Coast to be closer to her family. But after running Lakeview's Deleece with her sister, Lynne, for several years, Wallack decided it was time to strike out on her own. So she took her self-taught, Hawaiian-tinged talents to North Center, where she continues to cook with seasonal and local products. Currently, Wallack has two other women in the kitchen with her; an assistant sous chef and a line cook. She believes that it's especially important in a male-dominated industry to create opportunities for women, but says that the real key to culinary success is "putting your nose to the grindstone."

Mindy Segal, Hot Chocolate
Hot Chocolate Chef and Owner Mindy Segal draws inspiration from the seasons, which explains why she hasn't been afraid to make changes to her concept. "Hot Chocolate is no longer a dessert-focused restaurant," says Segal, who oversees both the sweet and savory sides of the menu. Her priorities are still centered on matching decadent desserts with Hot Chocolate's main fare, but she's also taken an interest in other pairings, like beer and cheese. Segal always had aspirations of opening her own place and says that she was fortunate to have three notable chefs (Erwin Drechsler, Charlie Trotter and Michael Kornick) support her through the endeavor. She says that getting noticed in the culinary world has nothing to do with being male or female: "If you're good at what you do, it doesn't matter—the proof is in the pudding."

Carrie Nahabedian, Naha
Chef Carrie Nahabedian makes it clear that strong ties in the family lead to even stronger influences in the kitchen. Next to owning a business that she loves, the 2008 James Beard Award-winning chef (best chef in the Great Lakes region) says that sharing Naha with her cousin Michael trumps all of her other accomplishments. "The traveling and the awards, they're great— but they're just benefits," says Nahabedian. "We get to employ great people who are like-minded and share our same strong family value," she adds. Two of those great people are Nahabedian's sisters, who handle Naha's finances and business. It's those strong family ties and loyal patrons (many of whom she greets by name) that keep Nahabedian at Chicago's culinary forefront.

Bridget Albert, Southern Wine and Spirits
Southern Wine and Spirits Master Mixologist Bridget Albert comes from a long line of cocktail slingin' dames. Thanks to their imbibing influences, Albert has been a driving force in reviving Chicago's haute cocktail couture. "Once I jumped behind the bar (14 years ago) I never left," she says. Albert began studying all of the classics and still continues to study weekly, "If you don't think there's anything left to learn, it's time to get out of your profession." Countless hours of studying finally paid off in 2005 when Albert was chosen as the first female from the states ever to compete in the Bacardi Martini Grand Prix, where she took second place. Albert says that she tries to make being a woman in a male-dominated profession a non-issue. "If you love what you do and you push yourself, you can strive in any industry—male or female."

This article was first published in the Chicago Sun-Times. Photo: Bittersweet Chef/Owner Judy Contino, courtesy of Clifton Henry for Centerstage.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Distraction-free drinking

I used to wait tables at a local Italian joint. The place is no longer open and I can't help thinking its closing had a little something to do with the two always-on flat-screens slung above the bar. The number-one complaint I received during my table-waiting days was always in regard to those pesky TVs, which cranked out an endless stream of outdated music videos. Inspired by those patrons who preferred to focus on their meals rather than Sheryl Crow's mug, I set out to find a few Chicago spots without screens.

Violet Hour
Distractions are a thing of the past at this new-age speakeasy. Violet Hour takes its lack of televisions to the extreme by tacking on a no-standing, no-cell phone policy. And then there are sleek, teal, high-backed chairs that dull the sounds of surrounding chatter. Focusing on your company and cocktails here is easy, unless you're parked at the bar—as you should be, if it's your first time. Watching Violet Hour's mixologists in action is a must. These guys are the real deal with their to-the-count shakes, stoic expressions, the ability to make everything you've never heard of and the genius to put new spins on your favorites. Oh, and did I mention that they do it all on the fly, in strapping suspenders?

California Clipper
There's plenty of fun to be had at this classic cocktail lounge, none of which involves the playoffs or bad B-sides. Fridays and Saturdays reel in local music junkies with live entertainment from bands like The Hoyle Brothers, Fulton County Line and The Blue Line Riders. Mondays are especially interactive (and competitive) with Clipper Bingo, beginning at 9:30 p.m. If you're lucky, you might even win a trinket-stuffed "Bag of Crap", straight from Uncle Fun, whose fine goods are purportedly "designed to restore the whimsical nature with which you arrived on this planet."

Duke of Perth
Should Duke of Perth ever decide to install a telly, its loyal patrons likely wouldn't notice. They'd be far too busy downing whiskey and noshing on European fare. The pub's extensive malt list alone makes for solid reading material and its trio of Glens is more than enough to keep you entertained all night. The chill crowd of regulars and authentic Scottish vibe has made the Duke a Lakeview staple for more than fifteen years. Though it seems the real draw here isn't in the whiskey, beer or atmosphere so much as it is the fish and chips. And you can have all you want of the pub's favorite dish on Wednesdays and Fridays during the all-you-can-eat special.

Hopleaf couldn't place a television in its intricately crafted bar if it tried, because there'd be no room for it. The restaurant's walls are already stacked and lined with bottles upon bottles of Belgium brews, and that's about all it takes to keep the crowd here pleased. It doesn't hurt that the food is just as good as the beer. Start with the popular mussels and then move on to something extremely unhealthy with the CB n' J (that's cashew butter) or sink your chomps into the restaurant's steak and frites.

Long Room
If Long Room isn't already on your list of favorite Chicago bars, you've clearly never been. But that's OK, there's no finger-pointing here; it's not the easiest to find. Here's a quick tip for next time, though: look for Popeye's on the corner of Irving Park and Ashland. You might even want to stop in and grab a small tub of death, as Long Room doesn't have a kitchen. It does, however, have frequent visits from Chicago's beloved tamale guys. It's also got a stellar rotating selection of beers on tap and local, imported and domestic brews by the bottle. The crowd here is a mix of young professionals and seasoned cats. A photo booth in the bar's back room is the closest thing to a TV you'll find.

This article was first published on Centerstagechicago in a slightly different form
Photo courtesy of Violet Hour

Sticky toffee pudding at Fiddlehead Cafe

Recently, my fiance treated me to dinner at Fiddlhead Cafe-- his favorite Lincoln Square spot. The place had been on my list of must-eats for a while, and had I known I was missing out on one of the sweetest desserts on Chicago's North Side, it would have taken top priority.

After cooing over a bowl of steamed mussels with chorizo, veggies, wild rice and saffron broth ($11) and a cheese plate with one of my hard-to-find favorites from Yarra Valley Dairy, Australia ($3.50-$27) we probably should’ve called it quits. But, rare are the times that I dine out and skip dessert—one glance at a sugar-fueled menu usually does me in, and the list at Fiddlehead Café was no exception.

Choosing between the restaurant’s chocolate-fudge ganache cake, Tahitian vanilla bean crème brulee, apple-rum-caramel tart and tres leches cake was quite possibly the most difficult decision my guy and I have made together. Seriously, finding our apartment and choosing our wedding location was easier than settling on one of Fiddlhead’s desserts.

Bearing in mind that this was one of his favorite frequented spots, I agreed to his recommendation of the homemade sticky toffee pudding with Guinness ice cream ($7). When I tasted the Irish-inspired treat, I remembered that it was our discriminating palates that initially brought us together. I was falling in love again, but this time it was with Fiddlhead’s seductively sweet dessert menu.

This article was first published on
Photo: Fiddlehead Cafe's sticky toffee pudding, Stacy Warden.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Chicago restaurants celebrate National Pumpkin Cheesecake Day

Celebrate Fall with a slice of pumpkin cheesecake at one of these local spots.

Birch River Grill is serving pumpkin cheesecake, dusted with cinnamon and topped with caramel sauce and whipped cream, $6.

Eli's couldn't settle on just one pumpkin cheesecake, so instead the shop sells four variations. The first is a classic concoction, baked on an all-butter shortbread cookie crust. Then there's a richer version with pumpkin mousse, and another topped with pecan streusel and caramel. The most fitting for the season, though, is Eli's pumpkin caramel Halloween cheesecake, covered in crunchy walnuts and decorated with a sweet caramel spider web, $33-$52.

Dine's pumpkin cheesecake comes in the form of a tart, complete with candied pumpkin ice cream and cinnamon-chocolate sauce, $6.

Blu Coral shows up Chicago with its New York-style cheesecake, infused with pumpkin and spices, $7.

This article was first published on
Photo courtesy of Eli's Cheesecake.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Gluten-free Halloween cookies

Halloween is a busy time for Lisa Albertson of Deerfields Bakery, who has been whipping up pumpkin-decorated sugar cookies for her loyal patrons. These aren't just any ol' sugar cookies, though. Albertson uses a gluten-free recipe to produce the delicate, melt-on-your-tongue pastry.

The treats are topped with a simple orange icing-- made with nothing but water, powdered sugar, orange extract and natural color. Pumpkins are a popular choice, but Albertson has also thrown a few other ghoulish inspirations into the mix. Each cookie comes in its own 2-ounce package for just $2.29.

This article was first published on
Photo courtesy of Kurman Communications.

Eat and drink pink

You don't have to strap on a fancy three-piece or have a wallet brimming with Benjamins to do a good deed. At least not when these local bars and restaurants are offering such charitable deals, all in honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Martini Park: American Cancer Society
Martini Park's homespun cotton candy makes it easy to donate. The sticky-sweet treat might look like your average carny fluff, but this sugary pink concoction is a far cry from what you'd find at a festival booth. A portion of each cotton candy sale will benefit the American Cancer Society. The American Cancer Society will also be hosting its five-mile "Making Strides Against Breast Cancer" walk at Lawrence and the Lakefront on October 19, festivities begin at 8:30 a.m.

sola: Lynn Sage Breast Cancer Foundation
All October long, guests dining at Sola will have the option of tacking on one dollar (or more) to their bill; the extra cash will benefit the Lynn Sage Breast Cancer Foundation. Chef Carol Wallack's seasonal menu highlights Asian pears-which are high in fiber and natural vitamins-this month, so you'll be benefiting your own health while you're at it.

More Cupcakes: Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation
Patty Rothman of MORE has enough couture cupcakes to always be in vogue, but that doesn't stop her from making, well, more. In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness month, Rothman and her crew will be serving a limited "Hope MORE" cupcake with a white velvet base, topped with pink buttercream frosting and pink white chocolate curls. A portion of the "Hope MORE" cupcake sales will benefit the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, the world's largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists.

Blue Water Grill: Bright Pink
Blue Water Grill is whipping up a sparkling pink grapefruit parfait this month. The layered dessert starts with a bottom of champagne gelee with suspended grapes, following that is a layer of sugar-tossed grapefruit segments. Next comes champagne foam with a quenelle of grapefruit sorbet. It all gets finished with a heaping of confetti (read: candied grapefruit peel). The parfait costs $10 and 75 percent of that will be donated to Bright Pink, a resource for young women who are at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer.

Nuts on Clark (Water Tower Place): Network of Strength of Illinois
Stop in Nuts on Clark and grab a bag of the shop's specialty Poppin' Pink Kettlecorn. A portion of sales from the pink chocolate-coated treat will benefit the Network of Strength of Illinois. The promotion runs through October 31.

David Burke's Primehouse: Bright Pink
This Near North Side restaurant will be offering its signature cake-in-a-can with a pink twist. The pink velvet pastry is baked to order and served in a tin alongside a jar of cream cheese frosting and chocolate-covered beaters. The dessert is $24 and serves 4 to 6 guests, $5 from every cake-in-a-can purchase will benefit Bright Pink.

This article was first published on Centerstage
Photo courtesy of Shakir Akbari.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

One of everything, please: Miniature desserts at Cafe Ba Ba Reeba

I like tapas for a reason. And it's not the eclectic range of Spanish-inspired fare that reels me. Nor is it the span of spices, meats and artisan cheeses that I know I can always count on at a decent tapas joint.

What pulls me to these sharing-friendly spots is the scaled-down portions; when I eat tapas, I know that I can single-handedly down two or three platefuls of food and not have to undo the top button. The small serving size allows me to revel in a little bit of everything, which is especially great given my indecisive nature. There's just no room for entree envy when everything is made for sharing.

My tapas-love grew tenfold after dessert at Lincoln Park's Cafe Ba Ba Reeba. The restaurant's menu ranges in fruity choices like blueberry goat cheese flan, cherry bread pudding and mango sorbet, to more decadent selections like truffle chocolate cake, butterscotch custard cream and a caramel marcona almond tart, $2.75 each.

Never has it been an easy feat choosing from a trailing list of sugar-shackled treats. Typically I'm that girl standing in front of the pastry case with her mouth all agape and brows scrunched in utter disappointment that she can't order one of everything. But at Cafe Ba Ba Reeba, I can pick as many bite-sized sweets as I like (the list tops out at 9) without a wince of sweet-tooth shame.

This article was first published on

Friday, September 12, 2008

Chicago barista gets crafty in the kitchen

"Homemade banana-nut bread, just $3 a slice," barista Heidi Houchen announced as she carried out a baking pan, straight from Cafe Avanti's oven. The buttery aroma was enough allure in itself, but I knew I'd be safe from the gluten-heavy temptation, so long as I didn't get a good look (out of sight, out of mind-- right?).

And then Houchen walked over with a fork, "would you like to try some homemade banana-nut bread?" she asked, "we've got a little slice up at the counter." her killer smile was a bit more than I could take. And because it's about as hard for me to resist the persuasion of a pretty girl, as it is to say no to a well-made pastry, I nodded and took the fork. With a guilt-ridden gut, I made my way toward the best banana-nut bread I've had since living back home, where my own mother used to bake her own from-scratch-recipe in old coffee canisters.

A few bites, I asked Houchen about the bread and she informed me that the sweet treat has some serious family history. She went on to talk about growing up on a dairy farm in Iowa, where her mornings were spent churning butter and milking cows. "The banana-nut bread is an old Johanningmeier (Houchen's maiden name) favorite," she said. "When I called my mom for the recipe this morning, she was actually out milking the calves."

I made sure to let Houchen know that she'd foiled my gluten-free diet, to which she later replied, "you sure you don't want some more?"

This article was first published on

Monday, September 1, 2008

Prix-Fixe for Penny Pinchers

The often-mispronounced prix-fixe concept is popular for a reason: You get to taste several items on upscale menus teeming with appealing choices, and you leave feeling just right, thanks to the scaled-down portions. That is, if you can afford it. Many prix-fixe menus can run well over $100, leaving the average diner out of luck. Fortunately, some neighborhood spots have found a way to keep it cheap; these restaurants offer multi-course meals for under $35.

May Street Market
This tucked-away restaurant in West Town offers a full three-course meal every single night of the week for just $32. May Street Market's menu changes seasonally to reflect the freshest ingredients. Currently the fixed menu boasts plenty of fresh, summery foods like Sangria Summer Salad with peaches, berries and oranges. You can choose from three entrees including the Yukon Gold potato gnocchi, grilled organic pork chop or glazed Maine salmon. The most difficult part might be deciding between desserts. The strawberry shortcake with chantilly cream is a refreshing summer treat, but the Market's flight of cupcakes, including chocolate with peanut butter icing, lavender vanilla with Earl Grey icing and carrot with orange ginger icing is just too good to pass up.

La Donna
At $19.95, this just might be the cheapest three-course meal in the city. Every Wednesday night, La Donna gives its guests a chance to pick three items (appetizer, entree and dessert) straight from its regular menu. This is no easy task when the restaurant offers an entire book of traditional Italian fare. If you're not sure where to start, try the gorgonzola-stuffed mushrooms or opt for a classic caprese salad. Once you've whetted your appetite, it's time to move on to La Donna's rustic pasta dishes. Risotto is one of the more popular dishes here and La Donna offers three different takes on the stuff. We recommend the Risotto Della Donna with butternut squash, goat cheese and fresh sage (regular price, $18.95). Other essential entrees include breaded-pork chops, veal medallions and tilapia filets.

A longtime favorite with Lakeview locals, Deleece serves its loyal patrons a steal of a meal every Monday and Tuesday night. For just $20 you get a full three-course dinner, complete with options. The restaurant provides a little something for every palate with its selection of meat, fish and veggie dishes. Past entrees have highlighted grilled salmon with avocado and jasmine rice, basil-ginger chicken with goat cheese and stuffed peppers with sweet corn, chihuahua cheese and refried beans. Deleece's sister restaurant, Shochu, also offers a prix-fixe deal on Wednesdays and Sundays for the same price. Meals to look forward to at this Japanese-inspired restaurant include teriyaki chicken with asparagus and jasmine rice and New York steak with fingerling potatoes.

Leave it to the French to do prix-fixe right. This classic brasserie can make the worst Monday better with its three-course special. For $28.95 you get full reign of Marche's regular dinner menu. The meal includes any appetizer or salad, one entree and a dessert. The special is also available Wednesday evenings. In addition to its twice-per-week dinner deal, Marche offers a fixed lunch all week long for $18.95.

Lula Cafe
Lula's idea of a good meal is one that comes straight from the farm. Stop in to this Logan Square spot on a Monday night when the restaurant cooks up a three-course, farm-inspired meal. The fixed menu is $28 per person and includes the standard appetizer, entree and dessert. Because Lula's menu changes so frequently, you never know what you're going to get. Past prix-fixe menus have included marinated cucumbers and chioggia beets in red wine vinaigrette, lamb meatballs with borlotti beans and eggplant-pepper caponata. Desserts have been just as seasonally sweet with treats like the blackberry linzer torte, prepared with candied walnuts and ice cream. Entrees from the restaurant's regular menu range from $16 to $25.

Chef of Sola, Carol Wallack, likes to get crafty with her prix-fixe dishes. Every month Wallack highlights a new ingredient by incorporating it into each course on her $30 menu. Currently, she's crazy about peaches and she's serving them up in a baby arugula salad and a blueberry and peach tart. Wallack is always looking for innovative ways to use new ingredients. If you let her know your favorite, you just might see it featured on one of her upcoming menus. Sola's prix-fixe special is available Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

This article first appeared on Centerstage.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bleeding Heart Bakery: DIY cupcakes

Last month I mentioned Bleeding Heart Bakery teacakes at Cafe Avanti and how ridiculously delicious they were. I still haven't had a chance to make it over to Bleeding Heart, but I did get to try one of its vegan cupcakes on Friday night when the punk minded pastry crew partnered up with GOOD Magazine for an event at Salvage One.

Housed within Salvage One's dimly lit, lofty space were plenty of local vendors selling samples of their decidedly green products. A number of them had great things to offer, like the cashew spread and caraway crackers from The Balanced Kitchen and organic juices from Crust. But none could compete with Bleeding Heart's DIY cupcake station. The bakery brought in over 200 of the things and charged guests $2 to decorate their own.

Toppings included vanilla or chocolate (both vegan safe) frosting, homemade marshmallows, carob chips, chocolate-chip cookie crumbs and sprinkles. I grabbed a chocolate cupcake with vanilla frosting and gave it a few hearty spoonfuls of cookie crumbs and carob chips. It was easily one of the best cupcakes I've tried in a while, I even entertained the idea of giving up meat. Thankfully I came back to my senses once my plate was empty.

This article was first published on

Monday, August 25, 2008

Early bird specials in Chicago

Even though I've been out of school for a year, I still can't break the ridiculous sleeping schedule I developed during those credit-heavy semesters. The midterms and 15-page research papers that once kept me up all night have been replaced by writing projects and deadlines. What's worse is being jolted by my internal alarm clock around 5 a.m. each day. Fed up with the fact that most coffee shops don't even open until 7 or 8 a.m., I scoured a few spots where I would, at the very least, be guaranteed a hot cup of Joe and a cheap plate of food. Here's what I found.

Golden House Restaurant & Pancake House
It's the kind of place you picture Tom Waits kickin' back with a lukewarm coffee and a cigarette. But this couldn't have been the joint Waits had in mind when he penned "Nighthawks at the Diner," as Golden House closes well before the sun goes down. Had he been an early bird though, Waits probably would've ordered up the restaurant's famous Four Deuces breakfast special. The dish includes two servings of a Midwesterner's morning favorites: pancakes, eggs, bacon and sausage, $4.95. Golden House also offers an early morning special for non-meat eaters with its signature potato pancakes served with your choice of applesauce or sour cream, $3.95.

Broadway Grill
This corner joint in Uptown serves breakfast all day and night, but stop in before 11 a.m. and you'll get the real deal. The specials here come in two's or three's, depending on your appetite. When you've got a bottomless pit, opt for the magic number: three eggs, three sausages, three strips of bacon and three fluffy pancakes, $5.95. For a dollar and a hunger pang less, you can get all of the above in sets of two.

Holiday Grill & Bar
It takes a true meat-and-potatoes lover to start the day with a grilled pork chop. Add eggs, toast and hashbrowns into the mix and you may find yourself curled back up in bed, sleeping off a food coma. But it's hard not to take advantage of the dish when it doesn't cost you a dime over $7. If you want to keep it a little cheaper and a little less meaty, go for the Three Deuces: pancakes, eggs and your choice of bacon or sausage. Breakfast specials run Monday through Saturday starting at 6 a.m. Additionally, Holiday Grill & Bar offers free wi-fi and a sidewalk cafe during the warmer months.

Steak 'n' Egger
This is another salute to the early morning meat-lovin' crowd. Steak 'n Egger's big breakfast special is none other than the restaurant's signature ribeye steak with three eggs, crispy hashbrowns and toast, $6.75. The restaurant is open 24 hours.

Sunshine Restaurant
My only regret with Sunshine Restaurant is not learning about it sooner. To think of how many nail-biting, foot-tapping aggravating times I've had waited for nearby breakfast joints to open their padlocked doors, when I could've already been slingin' back the black stuff and munching on French toast. Starting at 5 a.m., the local diner offers six hearty breakfast specials, all under $5. Sunshine also understands how hard life can be before that first cup of coffee; that's why the diner's itemized list of specials makes your morning hassle-free. Simply point to one of the numbers one through six and voila! Instant (well, almost) gratification. Specials include cereal, French toast, pancakes, bacon, eggs and sausage.

Golden Nugget (Lincoln Park)
This one reminds me of an all-night diner I used to frequent back home. I'd bring along a stack of books and drown myself in bottomless cups of black coffee until the caffeine completely lost its effect. The 24-hour Golden Nugget on North Clark Street offers a similar luxury, but it also has something my old hangout didn't: three cheap (and strangely named) breakfast specials. But you have to get here between the hours of 6 a.m. and 11 a.m. to take full advantage of the Bonanza (two pancakes), the Champ (waffles) or the Chef (French toast). Each special is $5.99 and comes with two eggs (any style) and your choice of bacon or sausage.

This article first appeared on

Monday, August 18, 2008

Chicago's best beans

Ask any local where to find Chicago’s best cup of coffee and, by default, they’ll point you toward the nearest Intelligentsia. Ask this over-caffeinated redhead and she’ll lead you straight to to the good stuff at Metropolis in Rogers Park. She’ll probably even tag along just to see the sheer joy on your face as you sip the roaster’s freshly roasted and brewed Mocha Java. Unlike Intelligentsia, Metropolis doesn’t have a string of its own shops throughout the city, but it does ship to and stock a number of north side spots. Check out these quirky cafes where the baristas are brewin’ it right.

Dollop Coffee Co. in Buena Park
Pair your cup o’ Joe with a carrot cupcake at this study hot-spot.

Flourish Bakery Cafe in Historic Bryn Mawr
This 1950’s diner is too cute for its own good– and the pastries here are too tempting for your own good.

M. Henry in Edgewater
Brioche French toast. Need I say more?

Sweet Collective in Lincoln Square
Three powerful pastry ladies run this north side shop.

This article first appeared on The Whole 9.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Beer floats at Sheffield's

This one is for all my beer people. Be honest, how many times have you waved away a restaurant's dessert menu just to splurge, instead, on another round? I've been guilty of this a few times-- but, I usually end up pairing my beer with a chocolaty treat.

Turns out I'm not the only one slinging back brews with sugar-shackled confections. Sheffield's beer dudes, Brian and Phil, like to put ice cream in theirs. They're so excited about these flavor combinations that the guys are hosting a beer float tasting this Wednesday in the bar's back room. For $15 you'll get a flight of four craft brews, each complete with a different flavored ice cream. The event starts at 7 p.m.

This article first appeared on

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Chicago's best northside dives

For each swanky see-and-be-seen Chicago nightclub, there’s a jukebox playin’, bourbon-slingin’ dive just around the corner. When I don’t feel like prancing around in pumps and slinky dresses, I throw on some tattered jeans and head to these neighborhood joints, where I know I can chug at least three beers for the price of one fanciful martini.

Carol’s Pub has live country-western music on the weekends and the crowd here isn’t afraid to show its two-steppin’ roots. The bar is open until 5 a.m. and folks of all ages and races flock to Carol’s after midnight, when things really start to liven up.

The smoking ban has been in full swing since January, but you can still puff away on Edgewater Lounge’s outdoor patio. Recently, the pub’s beer prices increased, but the laid-back atmosphere is still unbeatable. Edgewater Lounge also has a full menu.

Baskets of popcorn at Kitty Moon are always stale, but they’re also always free. The bar hosts live music throughout the week and its jukebox song selection is second to none.

If there’s one place that can turn an epically awful day into a fleeting thing of the past, it’s the Long Room. The bartenders here know their brews and they don’t get pissy when you ask for recommendations. You won’t find any food at the Long Room, but the tamale guys make their rounds after 10 p.m.

Simon’s Tavern is a great spot to wait out long lines at the nearby Hopleaf. Sure, the beer selection doesn’t even begin to rival its Beglian-fueled neighbor, but Simon’s quick service makes up for that.

This article first appeared on
The Whole 9.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Chicago's Signature Lounge

I finally made it over to Chicago's Signature Lounge in the John Hancock building on Tuesday night. After an ear-popping elevator ride to the 96th floor, I stepped inside and was surprised to see plenty of martini-swilling tourists decked out in cargo shorts and flip-flops. I guess I've just always had this impression of the place being so swank as to require some type of dress code. Part of me felt a notch above the gaping tourists in my flowy skirt and arch-killing heels, while the other part wished I had thrown a pair of flats in my bag for the walk home. At least the tourists were using good, commonsense.

It was around 8 p.m. and my drinking companion and I arrived just before a line formed behind us. We were seated in the middle of the room, among a cluster of other tables full of people vying for window seats. My friend noticed that a couple with a killer corner view was about to leave, so we staked out their table and avoided making eye contact with the waitress.

About fifteen minutes later the coveted spot was ours. Well, it was ours if you don't count the camera-toting tourists hovered over us at every angle. One guy even pulled out a tripod and did a full shoot of his fiance while she struck seductive poses near the window. The John Hancock building may be known as the observatory for its brilliant cityscape view, but the real observations here begin with the people inside.

Not even Signature Room's boisterous crowd could compete with my perfect view of the sunset, though. Tack on my carefully-crafted dirty martini with hand-stuffed blue cheese olives (three, for good luck) and the noise around me was instantly dulled.