Best Bite: The best part of going to a tapas restaurant is getting to spread the meal across many dishes, and Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba’s Spanish brunch offering was no different. With four of us participating in Restaurant Week, we sampled six breakfast-y plates and three desserts. For my best bite, I’m torn between either the Marcona almond-flecked Nutella that came with the waffles, or the toasted Cubano-style breakfast sandwich with braised pork and mustard sauce.
Other notes: I was glad to see paella factor into the morning menu, made even better after mixing in the poached egg; same with the twist of using Spanish jamón in eggs Benedict. Included in the menu price was a glass of sangria, a mimosa, or a trip to the DIY Bloody Mary bar, all of which definitely bumped up the value. This was technically a Restaurant Week repeat for me – I first went for lunch way back in 2013, when I was apparently just as impressed with the value (and the use of Marcona almonds).
Best Bite: I usually don’t pick a Restaurant Week destination because of a cheeseburger, but I’ve been intrigued by The Loyalist’s version ever since it dethroned Au Cheval’s legendary burger a couple of years ago, according to Bon Appetit. Nicknamed the “dirty burg,” it’s an appropriately indulgent affair: the patties are a blend of short rib, chuck, and bacon, and they’re smothered with caramelized onion, thin-sliced pickles, and cheese that oozes over the side of the bun. Considering the richness, two burgers were plenty to share between three of us. Accompanying the plentiful crispy fries were two great dipping options: extra-garlicky aioli and, our group’s surprise favorite, pickling liquid.
Other notes: While I’m usually satisfied with any creamy butterscotch dessert, this pot de creme was particularly lovely with its salted streusel and dollop of sweet cream. We also made it time to take advantage of some happy hour cocktail specials from our cozy corner booth, and even peeked upstairs at The Loyalist’s upscale tasting menu counterpart, Smyth.
Best Bite: Galit has drawn crowds and received national attention for its modern take on Middle Eastern food, so I was thrilled to snag an elusive Saturday reservation, especially during Restaurant Week. Our dinner was all about texture, perhaps best demonstrated in the kale tabouli. Snappy apples and pepitas mingled with dressed kale and soft roasted squash, all showered with nutritional yeast (an ingredient that’s on the rise as part of the shift toward plant-based diets).
Other notes: I loved mixing and matching all the spreads, dips, and salads, collectively referred to as salatim in Israeli cuisine. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be the sweet-and-smoky ezme with tomatoes and walnuts. Even the seemingly familiar dishes deserved every superlative: the hummus was outrageously smooth and luscious, crowned with olive oil and herb-tahini sauce, and the warm pita’s blistered outside and fluffy inside made it the perfect vehicle for dipping.
Altogether, the four colorful courses were a substantial amount of food for our party of three (even including seamless accommodation of my friend’s dietary restriction), so I’d consider it an especially good value for Restaurant Week.
Best Bite: I was instantly taken with this duo of pint-sized lobster rolls – large enough for the full toasted bun experience, but small enough for a high lobster-to-bun ratio. The piping hot fries paired with the cool, chive-studded lobster were almost enough to transport me to a seaside seafood shack.
Other notes: The miniature theme continued into dessert, and my dainty portion of key lime pie was just the right citrusy finish to our rich lunch.
Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.
Well, a lot has changed since my last post. I got engaged, took a year off from blogging to plan a wedding, and am now happily married! This also means I’ve become Hillary Weller rather than Hillary Proctor, but the blog name will remain the same for now.
We just returned from 10 days in Hawaii for our honeymoon, so that seemed a fitting return to blogging. We split our time between two Hawaiian islands: Kauai and Oahu. On Kauai, we covered the majority of the island; for Oahu, we stayed primarily in the Waikiki Beach area of Honolulu. This was my first time setting foot anywhere in the state, so I was anxious to try the source of all the Hawaiian flavors I’d enjoyed from afar.
I’ll start with my favorite dish of the trip. It was one that came highly recommended at Eggs ‘n Things, a beloved Honolulu breakfast spot: macadamia nut pancakes. The nut-studded cakes were unbelievably fluffy underneath their griddled exterior, and the addition of fresh pineapple and the restaurant’s signature coconut syrup made them truly remarkable. I loved these pancakes so much that they merited a repeat visit: we went back for our last meal before heading to the airport to fly home. That time, I ordered a slight variation (banana in the pancakes and macadamia on top) and they were still just as stellar. I also happily took home a bottle of the coconut syrup.
We had a favorite breakfast spot in Kauai, too. A lovely bakery happened to be conveniently located across the road from where we were staying, so we tried a few of their pastry selections. Both the mango muffin and the roasted pineapple croissant-scone hybrid showcased the fruit flavors of the island.
Another morning dish I’d been anxious to try was the açai bowl, a surfer favorite that’s anchored by an açai berry frozen yogurt-style base, then layered with granola and fresh fruit. At Little Fish Coffee on Kauai, our bowl boasted peanut butter and chocolate chips in addition to the fruit and granola. It was the rich fuel we needed for the rest of the day’s adventures. In Waikiki, we sought out the bowl at Island Vintage Coffee. The açai and granola were delicious, but the sweet local banana and fragrant Hawaiian honey were what really shined.
While we’re on the sweet side of things, let’s talk shave (not shaved!) ice, a traditional frozen treat in Hawaii with all kinds of variations. We went back to Island Vintage for their Pink Island, whose ice mound had half strawberry syrup and half super-refreshing lychee mint syrup, plus mochi, lychee boba, fresh strawberry, and condensed milk to top it off. At Uncle’s on Kauai, they served shave snow, where the creaminess and fruit flavor was already incorporated into the ice before shaving. After adding a haupia (coconut) cream top, I couldn’t help but slurp up every bite.
To be sure, Hawaii wasn’t short on frozen treats – from classic soft-serve pineapple Dole whip to ice cream served in an adorable “hang loose” cone to a sky-high Hula Pie enjoyed along the Waikiki beachfront at Duke’s, our collective sweet tooth remained sated.
We tried a lot of savory Hawaiian favorites as well. At Lava Lava Beach Club on Kauai, we had loco moco, traditionally a burger patty with egg, rice, and gravy, and in this case with a mountain of fried onions and a delicious patty blend of beef and sweet Portuguese sausage. That meal was extra memorable because we looked up from our beachfront table and spotted a whale in the distance! Later, we also tried a classic, no-fuss plate lunch with freshly-fried chicken katsu, sticky white rice, and macaroni salad.
Our most theatrical dining experience by far was at the Smith Family Garden Luau on Kauai. Our evening began with a tram ride around the property, then we had time to explore the lush grounds on foot. Next, we witnessed the imu ceremony, in which a whole-roasted, leaf-wrapped Kalua pig is carefully removed from its earthen oven.
From there, it was time to enjoy a mai tai and the full buffet. This was my chance to try poi, a starchy Hawaiian staple that’s polarizing among visitors. Unfortunately, I had to agree with the naysayers: even when paired with the meat, the poi retained an unpleasant flavor, and its paste-like texture only made matters worse. But there were plenty of other dishes to enjoy, like the mahimahi, purple yams, lomi salmon, and of course the pig, whose smoke-kissed flavor was in a class of its own. Dinner was also accompanied by live Hawaiian music and a hula lesson.
Finally, we moved to the amphitheater for the stage show, featuring dances and rituals that represent many of Hawaii’s cultural influences (plus some impressive pyrotechnics). The whole experience was as seamless and well-choreographed as a Disney enterprise – it was undoubtedly a highlight of our trip.
Seafood was another top priority during our time in Hawaii. I had the chance to enjoy poke in two forms, one on each island. At Shaka Poke, a tucked-away gem in one of Waikiki’s shopping malls, hunks of salmon and ahi tuna came dressed in spicy mayo with seaweed and avocado. It was the ideal humble meal to eat on the beach, especially with a view of the resort skyline and Diamond Head at dusk. On Kauai, Sam’s Ocean View used tuna poke to adorn wonton chip nachos, alongside avocado, spicy aioli, and plenty of black sesame. It was the kind of snack you can’t stop eating.
The most eclectic fish I tried during the trip was moonfish at Mahina & Sun’s in Honolulu. The fish itself was dense and held up to the mixture of Mediterranean flavors in the rest of the dish – lots of fennel, olive, sumac, and lightly pickled cucumber, plus grilled flatbread to sop it all up.
On our second night in Honolulu, we joined the throngs of people in line for Marukame Udon. The wait was very much worth it for tender, hand-pulled udon noodles in a rich curry broth. Between picking up your noodle bowl and getting to the cash register, you could select tempura items and other appetizers buffet-style, so I took that as an opportunity to try spam musubi (seared slice of spam over rice with a seaweed wrapper, like nigiri). It was easy to see why it’s such a popular Hawaiian snack.
Our last dinner of the trip was at Senia, Honolulu’s buzziest fine-dining restaurant. There was a lot to love on the menu; the ahi brioche and citrus-cured hamachi both celebrated Hawaiian flavors in a creative and beautiful way.
It was certainly a special introduction to Hawaii for me…but exploring the cuisine of the islands we didn’t visit seems like a very good excuse to return!
Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.
Catalonian Fideus with scallops, prawn, clams, local cod, tomato, saffron, spinach, English peas, and cumin sauce, Foreign Cinema
I’ve been staying extra busy the past few months (apologies, blog readers!) with a new role at work, and that role took me to our Bay Area offices for a week. While it was a pretty packed schedule, I still fit in some quality meals.
The night I arrived in San Francisco, I made a beeline for the Mission, a neighborhood that I knew from experience was great for dining. Foreign Cinema stood out for its sleek open-air dining space with string lights and a movie projected on the back wall. The food was also excellent – from a Catalonian noodle dish, brimming with four kinds of seafood and a buttery cumin sauce, to smoky, mole-slathered calamari with lime and tortilla chips.
Avocado, tomato, jalapeño, corn, scallion, and feta frittata with cornbread and potatoes, Dottie’s True Blue Cafe
Dottie’s True Blue Cafe is a comfort food classic that had come highly recommended by friends, so I made sure to stop for brunch. I arrived just before it opened, and a line had already formed, as is typical, but the short wait was worth it. I went for the frittata special, a mammoth plate of eggs stuffed with some of my favorite ingredients (avocado, corn, feta), plus a side of crispy cornbread with pepper jelly. While I was far too full to try any of the bakery offerings during my visit, I managed to bring a small loaf of Dottie’s signature coffee cake back to Chicago (and was very glad I did).
Another landmark I finally tried this trip was Mission Chinese Food, chef Danny Bowien’s trail-blazing take on Chinese cuisine that opened in the Mission nearly ten years ago, and now has locations elsewhere. Of the dishes I tried, the Westlake lamb dumplings stood out for their balance of tangy sauce, crispy wonton wrapper, and lots of fresh dill.
Westlake lamb dumplings with tzatziki, ma la vinaigrette, and peanut, Mission Chinese Food
Burnin’ Brock sausage sandwich with chicken habanero sausage, harissa aioli, fried avocado, pickled cabbage, fresh fennel, and apple, with Moonlight Death & Taxes black lager, Hogwash
One unexpected dining success came at Hogwash, a craft-beer-and-sausage spot in Union Square. While I first chose the Burnin’ Brock sausage sandwich almost solely for its fried avocado, the rest of the spicy, crunchy flavors came together exceptionally well for one of the most satisfying bites of the trip.
And I did still fit in a few sweet indulgences, starting with Tartine Manufactory, the recent restaurant offshoot of legendary Tartine Bakery. I went with a fairly simple sundae – strawberry and vanilla swirl soft-serve, colorful sprinkles, and candied almonds – but it was elevated just enough to feel special.
Sundae with vanilla bean and strawberry sorbet swirl, candied almond, and sprinkles, Tartine Manufactory
Coffee Toffee ice cream sandwich with brown sugar cookies and Ritual coffee, Bi-Rite Market
Bi-Rite, another favorite from past trips, has both a market and an ice cream shop on the same block. Rather than waiting in the long ice cream line, I picked up an ice cream sandwich (and a few other edible souvenirs) from the market. After a ride home to thaw, the rich coffee ice cream melted into the crumbly brown sugar cookies to the point that it might as well have been fresh from the shop.
Speaking of coffee, there are a wealth of great roasters in San Francisco, but one of the stalwarts is Blue Bottle, so I felt very fortunate to have a shop within walking distance of my hotel. Their latte really is worth savoring.
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.
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 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.
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 with creme fraiche and toasted pepitas (Friends, “The One With the Stoned Guy,” Season 1, Episode 15
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 with oyster crackers (Seinfeld, “The Soup Nazi,” Season 7, Episode 6
The details:Split-Rail, 2500 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago.
Heirloom carrots with sesame, buttermilk, and dates
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 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 with cavatelli, butternut squash, and parmesan
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 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!