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.