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.