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.