Best Bites, Chicago

Best Bites: Gumbo, étoufée, and po’boy, Heaven on Seven

Bayou etoufee, Heaven on Seven

Bayou étoufee (special) with crawfish, crab, and shrimp

Heaven on Seven has been one of my Chicago dining blind spots: a classic that I’ve somehow never managed to visit. It’s a boisterous Cajun restaurant tucked away on the seventh floor of a Loop high-rise (you even have to sign-in with a charming doorman before getting on the elevator). We visited the week of Fat Tuesday, so Mardi Gras decorations were in high gear and we were both given a string of beads upon arrival, but I have a feeling it still feels like a party all year around.

Heaven on Seven interior

Restaurant interior, with Mardi Gras decorations covering a wall of hot sauces

One of the many specials was a bayou étoufée with three kinds of seafood: crab, crawfish, and shrimp. The trio was a great sampling of shellfish flavor, stewed together in a rich gravy and served over rice. We also shared the catfish po’boy, a mammoth sandwich loaded with catfish, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and honey-jalapeño dressing. What really made it was the way the bread was toasted with butter and herbs.

Fried catfish po'boy, Heaven on Seven

Fried catfish po’boy with coleslaw

All entrees come with gumbo, soup, or salad, but it’s easy to see why pretty much everyone gets the gumbo. Chicken, andouille sausage, and the smoky depth of a black roux came together for a thick and satisfying soup – with a warm jalapeño corn muffin to round it out with sweetness.

Gumbo, Heaven on Seven

Gumbo with a jalapeño-cheddar corn muffin

The details: Heaven on Seven, 111 N. Wabash, Chicago.

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Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week 2018: Dinner at Split-Rail (Seinfeld and Friends)

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2018, held January 26–February 8. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage from 2013–2018.

Rye Toast, Split-Rail

Rye Toast with beet-cured salmon, beet cream cheese, and dill (Seinfeld, “The Rye,” Season 7, Episode 11)

Best Bite: Chef Zoe Schor built a tradition of themed Restaurant Week menus in past years at her previous restaurant, Ada Street: female chefs in 2014 and famous last meals in 2015. So she continued the tradition at Split-Rail this year with two five-course menu options: one inspired by Seinfeld, the other inspired by Friends. We shared both sets of dishes, and most of my favorites were on the Seinfeld side – especially luscious beet-cured salmon atop rye toast (to commemorate the episode when Jerry stole a loaf of marbled rye from an elderly woman). On the Friends side, I really liked the winter squash tartlet, inspired by an episode where “tartlet” is repeated over and over by a chef under the influence during Monica’s job interview with him. It was almost like a mini pumpkin pie, but more savory with creme fraiche and pumpkin seeds.

Winter squash tartlet, Split-Rail

Winter Squash Tartlet with creme fraiche and toasted pepitas (Friends, “The One With the Stoned Guy,” Season 1, Episode 15

The Butter Shave, Split-Rail

The Butter Shave cocktail with dark rum, butterscotch, and baking spices (Seinfeld, “The Butter Shave”, Season 9, Episode 1)

Other notes: The theme extended all the way to the cocktails, with a spin on hot buttered rum to represent the Seinfeld episode where Kramer shaved his face with butter. And it’s not a Seinfeld dinner without a Soup Nazi reference, so we had to try the crab bisque, which had a pleasantly high proportion of crabmeat to broth. So there was, indeed, soup for us.

Crab bisque, Split-Rail

Crab bisque with oyster crackers (Seinfeld, “The Soup Nazi,” Season 7, Episode 6

The details: Split-Rail, 2500 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago.

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Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week 2018: Dinner at Boka

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2018, held January 26–February 8. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage from 2013–2018.

Heirloom carrots, Boka

Heirloom carrots with sesame, buttermilk, and dates

Roasted chicken,  Boka

Roasted chicken with rutabaga, cabbage, and banyuls

Best Bite: I first visited Boka during Restaurant Week 2011 (before I even started this blog!), so a return visit was well overdue. I was excited to finally try the roasted chicken that’s been a mainstay of the menu ever since Chef Lee Wolen took the helm. It was possibly the most perfectly juicy slice of chicken I’ve ever eaten. The roasted carrots were also at just the right doneness, with a buttermilk dressing and lots of sesame.

Banana dessert, Boka

Banana dessert with chocolate, creme fraîche cake, and speculoos

Other notes: The banana dessert was anchored by speculoos (cookie butter), a combination that reminded me of this Stan’s donut – but elevated with a beautiful presentation of shaved dark chocolate, cubes of sponge cake, and banana ice cream. And the technical expertise required for the slow-poached egg nestled in dense cavatelli and parmesan was truly impressive.

Slow poached egg, Boka

Slow poached egg with cavatelli, butternut squash, and parmesan

The details: Boka, 1729 N. Halsted St., Chicago.

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Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week 2018: Dinner at Willow Room

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2018, held January 26–February 8. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage from 2013–2018.

Squash soup, Willow Room

Squash soup with Dark Matter espresso-roasted squash, brown butter, and chipotle creme

Best Bite: The squash soup was the most innovative dish of our meal at this cozy Lincoln Park spot. The brown butter, espresso, and squash came together to create a silky soup, with extra warmth from the chipotle.

Beef tartare tartine, Willow Room

Beef tartare tartine with shallot, caper, yolk, herbs, and parmesan

Other notes: My other favorite dish was actually from the same course as the soup: the beef tartare on toast, which had tons of salty and sour notes from pickles, capers, and parmesan. It was also fun to see muddy buddies (aka puppy chow) used as the topping for a chocolate pudding dessert – but because we were celebrating a birthday, I was too focused on the candle-blowing to snap a photo!

The details: Willow Room, 1800 N. Halsted St., Chicago.

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Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week 2018: Brunch at Barrio

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2018, held January 26–February 8. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage from 2013–2018.

Churro French toast, Barrio

Churro French toast with dragon fruit, grilled pineapple, and horchata whipped cream

Best Bite: Barrio introduced me to a brunch combination I’d never thought possible: churro French toast. Cinnamon-laced churros were layered together like bread pudding, then dipped and griddled like French toast. The dragonfruit and grilled pineapple accompaniments made it even more tropical and exotic.

Adobo fried rice, Barrio

Adobo fried rice with crispy pork belly and a fried egg

Other notes: The savory side of brunch was also satisfying, with especially crispy pork belly and scallions dotting egg-topped fried rice. The festive drink menu (including a rumchata-espresso-soft serve concoction) was well worth exploring as well.

The details: Barrio, 65 W. Kinzie St., Chicago.

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Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week 2018: Dinner at Frontera Grill

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2018, held January 26–February 8. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage from 2013–2018.

Skate wing milanesa, Frontera Grill

Skate wing milanesa with crunchy-coated New England skate wing, limey serrano mayo, pickled onions, ensaladita, and garlicky black beans

Best Bite: If I see skate on a menu, I’ll usually order it (see also: Mexique). This crunch-coated version with lime mayo and pickled onions was still perfect for tucking into tortillas – though I wasn’t surprised that Mexican master-chef Rick Bayless would even make humble tacos high-end.

Sopecitos rancheros, Frontera Grill

Sopecitos rancheros with crispy corn masa “boats,” braised beef chuck filling, roasted tomato-serrano sauce, avocado, and Mexican cincho cheese

Other notes: I loved the masa boat appetizer with beef, tomato sauce, and tiny hunks of avocado. And the cleverly named Dos, Tres, Cuatro dessert didn’t just include tres leches (three milks), but also two kinds of nuts and four kinds of chocolate in a s’mores-like presentation.

Dos, Tres, Cuatro cake, Frontera Grill

Dos, Tres, Cuatro cake with dos candied nuts (candied almonds and pecans), tres leches, cuatro chocolates (chocolate-infused tres leches cake, chocolate cookie, caramelized cocoa nibs, hot fudge)

The details: Frontera Grill, 445 N. Clark St., Chicago.

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Best Bites, Chicago

2017 in Review: 20 more of Chicago’s Best Bites

Like last year, I’ve chosen 20 more Chicago dishes and drinks – some old favorites, some new discoveries – that I didn’t have the chance to blog about in 2017. View year-end recaps from 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.

Burrata, Forbidden Root

Burrata with strawberries, malt crumble, pink peppercorns, mint, basil, and toast, Forbidden Root

BRUNCH:

Best spin on a egg

Scotch egg, River Roast

Scotch egg with pickled mustard seed, River Roast

We ordered this appetizer almost as an afterthought, but all the textures – tiny pickled mustard seeds, crunchy battered sausage, and a perfectly runny egg – made it memorable. It was even better accompanied by live blues performers on the riverside patio on a warm September day.

Most unique breakfast sandwich

Torta with chorizo verde, Quiote

Torta with chorizo verde, green chile aioli, and xni pek on a lobster roll, Quiote

The chorizo verde is now a mainstay of Quiote’s dinner menu, but over the summer it showed up as an egg-topped breakfast sausage. The meat itself was so flavorful that I could have easily eaten it on its own, but having it safely ensconced in a soft lobster roll made it more delicious.

Most indulgent dim sum

Baonuts with chocolate, Duck Duck Goat

Baonuts, Duck Duck Goat

At the end of a dim sum feast at Stephanie Izard’s Chinese eatery, we couldn’t help but order this donut-bao hybrid. The crackly, not-too-sweet topping gave way to rich chocolate filling; I did not regret ordering it.

MAINS:

Most nutrient-packed bowl

Cadillac curry bowl, Left Coast

Cadillac curry bowl with brown rice, garnet yams, green beans, madras curry sauce, pickled sultanas, green onion, basil, mint, and toasted coconut, Left Coast

Left Coast’s menu is brimming with healthy, veggie-centric options, but I’ve stuck with this curry bowl every time. From the green beans and yams all the way to the toasted coconut, every component comes together well.

Tried-and-true pizza

'Nduja pizza, Coalfire

‘Nduja pizza with mozzarella, ​sauce, ​berkshire ​sausage, ​‘nduja-infused ​whipped ​ricotta, ​cherry ​bomb ​pepper, Coalfire

If anyone mentions Coalfire, ‘nduja (a spicy, spreadable sausage) is the first pizza I recommend (and so does most of the Chicago food media). Sausage comes in two forms: one is sliced thin, and the other is whipped into the ricotta mounds. Fresh from the coal-burning oven, it’s pretty much a foolproof pick.

Most comforting beer pairing

CB&J, Hopleaf

CB&J with house-made cashew butter, fig jam, and raclette cheese on sourdough, pan-fried, with Stilton mac-&-cheese and house-made potato chips, Hopleaf

Hopleaf in Andersonville is world-renowned for its encyclopedic beer list, but they definitely don’t cut corners on the food. The CB&J is an especially comprehensive pairing, with three kinds of comfort in one dish: a cross between grilled cheese and PB&J (raclette cheese in addition to cashew butter and fig jam), crunchy chips, and mac & cheese (made cheffier with Stilton). I’d trust it to soak up any brew.

Best fancy burger

Appalachian Spring burger, Butcher & the Burger

Appalachian Spring burger with pesto, caramelized ramps, tomato, mushroom, and truffle Swiss, Butcher & the Burger

You know it’s really spring when ramps start appearing on every menu, and Butcher & the Burger was no exception. I’m usually overwhelmed by all their options, so ordering this special was a no-brainer. It was a winning combination of truffle-pesto-onion goodness.

Best not-so-fancy burger

Cheeseburger and chocolate shake, Small Cheval

Cheeseburger and chocolate shake with Fernet, Small Cheval

Small Cheval keeps it simple with a slightly more portable version of the famous Au Cheval burger, complete with griddled patties, American cheese, and house-made pickled. I also added fernet to my chocolate shake for an extra licorice-y kick.

SIDES AND SNACKS:

Summeriest vegetable dish

Heirloom tomato with burrata and lime granita, Cold Storage

Heirloom tomato with burrata and lime granita, Cold Storage

We snacked at seafood bar Cold Storage as a prelude to dinner at adjacent Swift & Sons, and this dish was a perfect pairing with our oysters. The sweet corn and cool lime granita set off the juicy tomato and soft burrata beautifully.

Best use of goat

Goat liver mousse, Girl & the Goat

Goat liver mousse with picked veggies and crumpets, Girl & the Goat

My rule when dining at Girl & the Goat is to always order one goat dish (and one bread, and at least one from each of the standard menu sections…but that’s another story). The mousse was almost mesmerizing in its silkiness atop warm crumpets, with a nice variety of pickled vegetables as palate cleansers.

Most addictive snack

Gochugaru chile popcorn, Forbidden Root

Gochugaru chile popcorn with coconut oil, Forbidden Root

Along with the strawberry-and-pistachio-studded burrata dish at the top of this post, this popcorn stole the show at West Town brewery Forbidden Root. Maybe it was the coconut oil, maybe it was the specific type of chiles (the same ones as the Korean hot sauce that’s used in bibimbap and other dishes); either way, this popcorn was outrageously good.

Best hybrid appetizer

Buffalo chicken waffle cone, Brickhouse Tavern

Buffalo chicken waffle cone with buffalo chicken bites, bleu cheese crumbles, chives, and ranch dip, Brickhouse Tavern

The second-floor terrace of Brickhouse Tavern overlooks Park at Wrigley (the new development next to Wrigley Field), so it was the perfect perch after a July Cubs game. This was the most creative (and successful) buffalo chicken format I’ve seen yet.

Concession stand stunner

Pulled pork nachos, Lillie's Q at United Center

Pulled pork nachos topped with house made beans, pulled pork, smoky BBQ sauce, pickled jalapenos, sour cream, and chopped green onions, Lillie’s Q at United Center (Sections 206 and 330)

Most of Chicago’s stadium food has been getting an upgrade in recent years, and I was especially pleased to find a Lillie’s Q outpost at a recent Blackhawks game. The pulled pork nachos put those standard cheese cups to shame, with plenty of pulled pork, sauce, green onions, and even BBQ beans.

DRINKS:

Best atmosphere-matching cocktail

Coconut negroni, Boleo

Coconut negroni with coconut-washed kappa pisco, campari, and sweet vermouth, Boleo

Boleo occupies a colorful rooftop space on the 15th floor of the Kimpton Gray hotel. This subtly coconut negroni was an ideal sipper as I gazed at blue sky and tall buildings (and wished I could take home the gorgeous glass).

Closest drink to a vacation

Pina colada, Mahalo

Pina colada, Mahalo

Mahalo is the closest you can come to a Hawaiian escape without leaving Wicker Park. This piña colada was a refreshing treat on the surfboard-adorned rooftop.

Best boozy milkshake

Peach cobbler shake with rum, The Roost

Peach Dreams shake with vanilla milkshake, homemade peach cobbler, and white rum, The Roost

As much as we love the fried chicken at The Roost (a very popular catering pop-up at the office), our group may have come to brunch at the Irving Park Road location primarily for this shake. I’ve had the peach cobbler as a side before, but it really is dreamy when whirled into vanilla ice cream and spiked with rum.

SWEETS:

Sweetest surprise

Orange blossom cheesecake, Beatnik

Orange blossom cheesecake with candied pistachios, shredded phyllo dough, honey syrup, blackberries, and dried apricots, Beatnik

Beatnik was the most Instagrammable restaurant interior of 2017, with its bold fabrics and exquisite chandeliers. Food-wise, while we expected all the globally inspired cocktails and snacks to be on point, this dessert was what shocked our entire party. The cake itself was delicate and citrus-y, and the shredded phyllo worked even better than a crust.

Most nostalgic dessert

Lunchbox pie, Bang Bang Pie Shop

Lunchbox pie with peanut butter pastry cream, strawberry-blueberry jam, candied peanuts, and potato chips, Bang Bang Pie Shop

Anything PB&J is a winner in my book, so I was thrilled to see this pie special. The potato chips were a nice final touch on an already nostalgic slice.

Most novel treat

S'mores and red velvet churros, Bodega

S’mores and red velvet churros, La Bodega at Barrio

River North newcomer Barrio also opened a neighboring upscale bodega that specializes in fancy churros. I chose the red velvet and s’mores varieties, both warmed and drizzled in chocolate, and let’s just say there will be more churro stops in my future.

The $0 three-peat

Talenti cinnamon peach biscuit gelato, free in Millennium Park

Talenti cinnamon peach biscuit gelato, free in Millennium Park

Talenti ran a free gelato promotion at three movie nights in Millennium Park this summer, and (somewhat coincidentally) those were the three I attended. This flavor ended up in my hands the first time, and I sought it out thereafter because the cinnamon and peach were so perfect for summer. And the price of $0 made it especially satisfying!

Thanks for reading in 2017, and looking forward to another delicious year!

The details: River Roast, 315 N. LaSalle St.; Quiote, 2456 N. California Ave.; Duck Duck Goat, 857 W. Fulton Market; Left Coast, 717 N. Wells; Coalfire, 3707 N. Southport Ave.; Butcher & the Burger, 1021 W. Armitage Ave.; Hopleaf, 5148 N. Clark St.; Small Cheval, 1732 N. Milwaukee Ave.; Girl & the Goat, 809 W. Randolph St.; Cold Storage, 1000 W. Fulton Market; Forbidden Root, 1746 W. Chicago Ave.; Brickhouse Tavern, 3647 N. Clark St.; Lillie’s Q (300-Level) at United Center (Sections 206 and 330), 1901 W. Madison St.; Boleo, 122 W. Monroe St.; Mahalo, 1501 N. Milwaukee Ave.; The Roost, 1467 W. Irving Park Rd.; Beatnik, 1604 W. Chicago Ave.; Bang Bang Pie Shop, 2051 N. California Ave.; La Bodega at Barrio, 65 W. Kinzie St.; all Chicago.

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Travel Eats

Travel Eats: An autumn weekend in Nashville

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Whipped feta, Butcher & Bee

Whipped feta with fermented honey, cracked black pepper, and pita, Butcher & Bee

In the fall, I spent a long weekend in Nashville with a girlfriend. We were there to celebrate another friend’s wedding – which had incredible culinary offerings of its own, I might add – but also managed to sample a lot of other local offerings.

I have to begin with Butcher & Bee, where their brunch menu was possibly the most enticing and creative one I saw all year. I absolutely couldn’t get over the whipped feta appetizer, with a pool of fermented honey and a healthy dusting of black pepper. It was deceptively simple at first glance, but the feta spread was so outrageously good with the blistered pita bread that I’m sure I’ll be recalling it for years to come.

Delicata squash, Butcher & Bee

Delicata squash with farro, goat cheese, herbs, and sunny-side egg, Butcher & Bee

I was also impressed by the most beautiful presentation of delicata squash I’ve seen at any meal, much less brunch. From the lacy fried egg to nutty farro to juicy pomegranate seeds, it was a lovely, still-light dish. For balance, the breakfast sandwich biscuit put us back into richer territory. A fluffy biscuit was slathered with more whipped feta (!), plus egg and maple-sage sausage. It was a classic done very well.

B & B biscuit, Butcher & Bee

B & B biscuit with whipped feta, honey butter, maple-sage sausage, and soft scrambled egg, Butcher & Bee

Pimento cheese, Husk

Pimento cheese with pickled serrano peppers and benne wafers, Husk

And because I had loved Husk so much while visiting Charleston four years ago, I knew I had to check out the Nashville location. I first made sure we ordered the pimento cheese in some form, as chef Sean Brock is known for it. Here, it was hidden underneath a tunnel of seedy crackers, but still as good as I’d remembered.

My favorite dish, though, turned out to be the crab rice. Amidst so many different textures, the buttery crab flavor still shone through in the best way.

Ol' Fuskie crab rice, Husk

Ol’ Fuskie crab rice, Husk

Duck confit, Husk

Duck confit with beets buried with ash, malabar spinach, and shiso, Husk

Another highlight was the duck confit and its ash-buried beets (it sounds strange, but worked). And for dessert, we had the most adorable popsicle, almost like a Creamsicle but with melon and a hint of crunch.

Cantaloupe popsicle, Husk

Cantaloupe popsicle with Brewster oat granola and wood sorrel, Husk

Meat-and-three with fried chicken, mac-n-cheese, and collard greens, Arnold's Country Kitchen

Meat-and-three with fried chicken, mac-n-cheese, and collard greens, Arnold’s Country Kitchen

Nashville is also known for the classic meat-and-three (a meat main course with three side dishes). For that, we went straight to Arnold’s, the top recommendation from a coworker who grew up in the area. We arrived right at opening, to avoid the long lunchtime lines, and weren’t disappointed by the extra-fresh-and-crispy fried chicken, creamy mac-n-cheese, and vinegary greens. And I couldn’t pass up a comforting slice of strawberry pie with a mile-high blanket of whipped cream on top.

Strawberry pie, Arnold's Country Kitchen

Strawberry pie, Arnold’s Country Kitchen

Cookie dough doughnut, , Five Daughters Bakery

“100-layer” cookie dough doughnut, Five Daughters Bakery

Since we were staying in East Nashville, it was convenient to explore the up-and-coming food scene there. We happened upon Five Daughters Bakery, and saw that their version of a cronut (croissant-donut hybrid) claimed to have 100 layers. I didn’t count them, but did conclude that putting a smear of cookie dough on top of any donut is a brilliant idea. In that same category of hybrid indulgences was the waffle grilled cheese at The Terminal Café (I’m hopeful that Chicago will catch up to this idea soon).

Waffle grilled cheese with avocado, The Terminal Cafe

Waffle grilled cheese with avocado, The Terminal Cafe

Looking Up, Talking Down cocktail, Pinewood Social

Looking Up, Talking Down cocktail with Chattanooga bourbon, lemon, amaro montenegro, apricot, ginger, and mint, Pinewood Social

I was excited to briefly check out Pinewood Social, an airy all-day venue with novelties such as bowling lines and a pool. While we didn’t stay for those activities, it was still worth it to sip this cocktail, a julep variation with added depth from amaro and ginger.

Iced bourbon vanilla latte, Barista Parlor

Iced bourbon vanilla latte, Barista Parlor

It was warm enough to still crave caffeine over ice, so I found two delicious versions: the iced bourbon vanilla latte at Barista Parlor, a gorgeous converted garage space; and the salted maple pecan cold brew at The Trailer Perk, an adorable mobile shop parked inside the Nashville Farmers Market.

Salted maple pecan cold brew, The Trailer Perk

Salted maple pecan cold brew, The Trailer Perk

Golden Milk latte, Ugly Mugs

Golden Milk latte with espresso, vanilla, turmeric, cayenne, black pepper, cinnamon, and steamed milk, Ugly Mugs

One last trend worth mentioning was turmeric – the golden-hued powder is becoming increasingly popular for its health benefits, so it kept popping up everywhere we went. I tried it in a latte with other warm spices at Ugly Mugs, then in a cooler at Café Roze; both were flavorful and somehow cleansing. I have to say, too, that having that vibrant cooler alongside (really good) avocado toast, all on top of a millennial pink table, felt like the most Instagram-worthy moment of 2017.

Avocado hummus toast and turmeric cooler, Café Roze

Avocado hummus toast with grilled bread, pepitas, and aleppo, and turmeric cooler, Café Roze

The details: Butcher & Bee, 902 Main St.; Husk Nashville, 37 Rutledge St.; The Terminal Cafe, 733 Porter Rd.; Five Daughters Bakery, 1900 Eastland Ave.; Pinewood Social, 33 Peabody St.; Barista Parlor, 519B Gallatin Ave.; Ugly Mugs, 1886 Eastland Ave.; The Trailer Perk at Nashville Farmers’ Market, 900 Rosa L. Parks Blvd.; Arnold’s Country Kitchen, 605 8th Ave S.; Cafe Roze.

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Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Birthday dinner at Le Cirque, Las Vegas

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Signature chocolate ball with birthday candle

Signature chocolate ball with birthday candle


In the midst of a week of celebratory Las Vegas dining, I knew that I wanted dinner on my actual birthday to feel extra special. I’d always heard about Le Cirque’s legacy in New York over the decades, and it just felt right to go classic French for this milestone birthday.

I’m happy to report that from the moment we walked into the restaurant, our party was treated in a way that befit such a special occasion. The whimsical and strikingly colorful “circus tent” ceiling set an appropriately celebratory tone, and the window beside our table afforded a view of the famous Bellagio fountains, making the whole thing just a bit more magical.

Circus tent ceiling

Circus tent ceiling

Egg amuse-bouche with lemon mousse and carrot mousse

Egg amuse-bouche with lemon mousse and carrot mousse

The whimsy continued with the amuse-bouche: a hollowed-out egg was refilled with lemon mousse and a dollop of carrot mousse, both tinted and shaped to resemble the egg’s original contents. It was a delightful way to start the meal.

I ordered the escargots as my appetizer, and was pleased to see that Le Cirque’s version went far beyond the typical garlic butter bath. The bowl was filled with so many textures: tomato confit, crispy croutons, tender greens; and, of course, lots of snails and butter for a hearty and aromatic dish.

Escargots with burgundy snails in black garlic herb butter, croutons, tomato confit, and licorice ‘salad’

Escargots with burgundy snails in black garlic herb butter, croutons, tomato confit, and licorice ‘salad’

Foie gras poêlé with St. Germain flambeed foie gras, tapioca, and elderflower gastrique

Foie gras poêlé with St. Germain flambeed foie gras, tapioca, and elderflower gastrique

Thankfully, a dining companion ordered the foie gras starter instead, so I was more than happy to sample a few bites of one of my favorite foods. The crunchy texture of puffed rice and grains on top, together with the sweet floral sauce pooled underneath, made this version really stand out.

For my entrée, I stayed classic with roast chicken, mushrooms, potatoes, and asparagus. Everything was expertly executed – especially the near-silky chicken – and the foie gras sauce gave it another touch of luxury.

Le poulet rôti with roasted organic chicken, asparagus, hedgehog mushrooms, roasted baby potatoes, and foie gras sauce

Le poulet rôti with roasted organic chicken, asparagus, hedgehog mushrooms, roasted baby potatoes, and foie gras sauce

Chocolate ball with praline mousse, white chocolate ice cream, hazelnut caramel crunch, chocolate sauce

Chocolate ball with praline mousse, white chocolate ice cream, hazelnut caramel crunch, chocolate sauce

When it came time for dessert, I was given an option: either the chocolate ball that the rest of the table had ordered, or an off-menu soufflé. I couldn’t pass up the quintessential demonstration of culinary technique that is the soufflé, so I chose that. However, due to a mix-up in the kitchen, I ended up with both desserts! For the chocolate ball, melted chocolate was heated to a precise temperature and poured over the ice cream-filled ball, causing it to gradually crack in a way was completely mesmerizing. The hot-and-cold contrast with a bit of praline crunch was absolute chocolate paradise.

Then, the sky-high chocolate soufflé arrived, and again I was transfixed by the skill of the pastry chefs. There are so many things that can go wrong with a soufflé, and even the best ones can still fall quickly, so tasting its airy, chocolate-y magic bite after bite left a lasting impression.

Chocolate soufflé

Chocolate soufflé

We were each sent on our way with a red leather box that had a housemade truffle tucked inside each of its two drawers. Weeks later, one glance at the box and my mind is right back to re-living this extraordinary meal.

Take-home truffles

Take-home truffles

The details: Le Cirque at Bellagio, 3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas.

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Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Eating & drinking on the Las Vegas Strip

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Interior flowers, Buffet at Wynn

Interior flowers, The Buffet at Wynn

To celebrate my 30th birthday, I gathered some of my closest girlfriends and made my first-ever trip to Las Vegas. I took advantage of my full week there by sampling cuisine from several of the world-class resorts and elsewhere on the Strip, plus a few stops downtown.

I knew I couldn’t go to Vegas without experiencing a buffet, and chose the Wynn for both food quality and overall aesthetics. As you can see above, it was a jaw-dropping floral wonderland. Amidst the overwhelming selection (mini-baskets of fish and chips! Tuna poké and dumplings! Mini-skillets of shrimp and grits! So many hand-carved meats!), my favorite station was the made-to-order latkes, which were served either reuben-style (corned beef and sauerkraut) or with smoked salmon, capers, lemon, and chive sour cream (my selection; it was exceptional). And on top of all that, there’s a full room dedicated to dessert, complete with a spinning gelato wheel. It was a true midday feast.

Made-to-order smoked salmon latke station, The Buffet at Wynn

Made-to-order smoked salmon latke station, The Buffet at Wynn

ork belly bun with hoisin, scallion, and cucumber, Momofuku

Pork belly bun with hoisin, scallion, and cucumber, Momofuku

Momofuku was high on my to-do list, since I’ve still never been to the original New York location. It made the most sense to visit during Social Hour, a resort-wide happy hour at the Cosmopolitan. I had to try the pork bun, the now-iconic dish that laid the foundation for Chef David Chang’s culinary empire. From soft bun to rich pork to simple sauce and garnish, it definitely lived up to its reputation. I was also wowed by the chilled noodles that were coated in a spicy sauce and piled with a satisfying combination of basil, sausage, and candied cashew.

Chilled spicy noodles with Sichuan sausage, Thai basil, and candied cashew, Momofuku

Chilled spicy noodles with Sichuan sausage, Thai basil, and candied cashew, Momofuku

Quesadilla chicharron with housemade chicharron, queso menonita, and salsa cinco chiles, China Poblano

Quesadilla chicharron with housemade chicharron, queso menonita, and salsa cinco chiles, China Poblano

Another Social Hour standout was China Poblano, Chef José Andrés’ colorful fusion of Mexican and Chinese flavors. I went with one dish from each cuisine, and while I enjoyed the messy, red-sauced pork bun, tucking a crunchy chicharron into a melty quesadilla was the truly genius move.

Rou Jia Mo street sandwich with red-braised pork belly, cilantro, and scallion, China Poblano

Rou Jia Mo street sandwich with red-braised pork belly, cilantro, and scallion, China Poblano

Roasted bone marrow with rioja-braised shallot marmalade, Beauty & Essex

Roasted bone marrow with rioja-braised shallot marmalade, Beauty & Essex

And because I apparently couldn’t get enough of the Cosmopolitan’s restaurant selection, I also dined at Beauty & Essex, whose dining room is hidden behind a pawn shop facade with jewelry and fancy guitars. The bone marrow was flawless, with wine-braised shallot marmalade to smear onto strips of toast along with the marrow itself. The tuna poké wonton tacos were bright and refreshing (not to mention adorably served).

Tuna poke wonton tacos with chiffonade cilantro, radish, and wasabi kewpie, Beauty & Essex

Tuna poke wonton tacos with chiffonade cilantro, radish, and wasabi kewpie, Beauty & Essex

My first meal of the trip was at Mesa Grill, Chef Bobby Flay’s high-end Mexican restaurant at Caesar’s Palace. The pork tenderloin was some of the best pork I’ve ever had, a perfect medium with sweet and spicy sauces, and the pecan-buttered tamale on the side was an excellent take on sweet potato. I couldn’t help but think that the blue and yellow corn muffin in the bread basket looked familiar – and then realized it was from when I dined at the original New York location way back in 2008.

New Mexican spice-rubbed pork tenderloin with bourbon-ancho chile sauce and sweet potato tamale with crushed pecan butter, Mesa Grill

New Mexican spice-rubbed pork tenderloin with bourbon-ancho chile sauce and sweet potato tamale with crushed pecan butter, Mesa Grill

The Royale with Cheese burger, with robiola cheese, caramelized onions, grilled treviso, and parmesan-mascarpone cream, B&B Burger & Beer

The Royale with Cheese burger, with robiola cheese, caramelized onions, grilled treviso, and parmesan-mascarpone cream, B&B Burger & Beer

At the Venetian, we loved the canal-side view from the patio at B&B Burger & Beer (the B’s are for Mario Batali and Joe Bastanich). The burger itself was rich and extra cheesy, with nice bitter contrast from grilled treviso (a variety of radicchio).

Todd English’s Olives at the Bellagio was well-suited for a late dinner after our daytrip to the Grand Canyon’s west rim (unimaginably vast and beautiful, by the way). Both the fig-prosciutto and smoked salmon flatbreads had a ton of flavor, and also kept well as leftovers the next day.

Smoked salmon and fig & prosciutto flatbreads, Todd English’s Olives

Smoked salmon and fig & prosciutto flatbreads, Todd English’s Olives

Pub chopped salad with grilled chicken, salami, shrimp, chickpeas, cherry tomatoes, white cheddar, pretzel crisp, and apple cider vinaigrette, Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill

Pub chopped salad with grilled chicken, salami, shrimp, chickpeas, cherry tomatoes, white cheddar, pretzel crisp, and apple cider vinaigrette, Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill

Gordon Ramsay is another celebrity chef with a solid presence in Vegas, so decided to fit his pub into the agenda. The pub chopped salad was a pleasant surprise, especially considering its long list of potentially disparate ingredients (shrimp, pretzel crisp, chickpeas, salami, white cheddar, and more).

For the opposite of a salad, we made an obligatory trip to In-N-Out, the West Coast burger chain with a cult following. The not-so-secret animal-style fries with cheese, grilled onions, and burger spread did indeed hit the spot.

Animal-style fries, In-N-Out

Animal-style fries, In-N-Out

Crack Pie soft serve with sprinkles, Milk Bar

Crack Pie soft serve with sprinkles, Milk Bar

On the sweeter side, I made sure to stop at Milk Bar, which is affiliated with and right next to Momofuku. Their signature Crack Pie (gooey butter cake with oat crust) was available in soft-serve form, and it did manage to capture the same level of decadence.

I also sampled the gelato at Jean Philippe Patisserie, a Bellagio shop that’s best known for boasting what they claim to be the world’s largest chocolate fountain. A few of the floor-to-ceiling glass shelves and flowing chocolate are shown in the background below.

Cappuccino gelato, Jean Philippe Patisserie

Cappuccino gelato, Jean Philippe Patisserie

Whip It cocktail with Dole whip, Island Time Floats Tiki Bar

Whip It cocktail with Dole whip, Island Time Floats Tiki Bar

And of course, you can’t spend a week in 100-plus degree desert temperatures without a few frozen drinks. I knew that Island Time was a rare purveyor of famed Dole Whip (pineapple soft serve), so I stopped by one sweltering evening for their citrusy Whip It cocktail. Though I’ve never seen anything melt so fast, it was just right for the heat.

With its multiple locations along the Strip, Fat Tuesday is the main supplier of the comically large frozen drinks that many people tote from place to place. I ordered a blend of the bellini and pina colada flavors of frozen daiquiri – both tasty and not as saccharine as you’d expect – and split it among personalized cups made as souvenirs for my friends.

Frozen bellini and pina colada daiquiri, Fat Tuesday

Frozen bellini and pina colada daiquiri, Fat Tuesday

Veal parmigiana, Battista’s Hole in the Wall

Veal parmigiana, Battista’s Hole in the Wall

One night, we went old-school Italian at Battista’s Hole in the Wall, a place that’s been around since 1970. It kept coming up in my dining research, possibly because meals are such a bargain. The generously portioned entrees all include soup or salad, garlic bread, cappuccino (which was closer to hot chocolate), and unlimited carafes of house wine. My veal parmesan was the red-sauce classic I was hoping for, and fit right into the endearingly kitschy atmosphere.

I also made sure to visit the downtown area to experience a bit of Old Vegas, and was delighted to find a hidden craft brewery gem among the glitter and grit of Fremont Street. The coffee kolsch was especially good, and reminded me a lot of a Portland brew that I’ve wanted to re-discover ever since.

Morning Joe coffee kolsch, Banger Brewing

Morning Joe coffee kolsch, Banger Brewing

Al pastor taco and carne flautas, Pinches Tacos

Al pastor taco and carne flautas, Pinches Tacos

While downtown, I explored the Downtown Container Park, continuing the trend of converting old shipping containers into shops and eateries. I’d heard that Pinches Tacos was the place to go, and both the tacos and flautas delivered. I also really enjoyed my coconut cold brew at The Black Cup Coffee Co. stand – it gave me the boost I needed to continue my delicious adventures.

Coconut cold brew, The Black Cup Coffee Co.

Coconut cold brew, The Black Cup Coffee Co.

The details: The Buffet at Wynn, 3131 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; Todd English’s Olives and Jean Philippe Patisserie at Bellagio, 3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; Mesa Grill and Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill at Caesars Palace, 3570 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; Beauty & Essex, China Poblano, Milk Bar, and Momofuku at Cosmopolitan, 3708 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; B&B Burger & Beer at Venetian, 3355 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; Fat Tuesday at Grand Canal Shoppes, 3377 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; Island Time Floats Tiki Bar at Grand Bazaar Shops, 3631 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; In-N-Out Burger at Linq, 3535 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; The Black Cup Coffee Co. and Pinches Tacos at Downtown Container Park, 707 Fremont St.; Banger Brewing, 450 Fremont St.; Battista’s Hole in the Wall, 4041 Linq Ln.; all Las Vegas, Nevada.

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