Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Macho peas, chicken breast wrap & mango sangria, Nando’s Peri-Peri

This Best Bite is one of the 20 foods and 15 drinks I’ve set out to taste and document in 2015. View the full list to see my plan and progress.

Chicken breast wrap with macho peas and fries, Nando's Peri Peri

Chicken breast wrap with lettuce, sweet chili jam, and yogurt sauce, plus sides of macho peas and Peri chips (fries)

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Nando’s Peri-Peri is an international fast-casual restaurant chain that has an especially fanatical following in the DC metro area, so I was excited to try out one of Chicago’s two new locations. Originating in South Africa, Nando’s serves food that is heavily influenced by African and Portuguese flavors, and is best known for its Portuguese chicken with peri-peri sauce. I was immediately captivated by the colorful decor, with South African art splashed across the walls and rich, earth-toned textures on every available surface. My friend and I requested a window seat just so we could swing in the hanging wicker chairs. They served as the perfect perch for starting on a pitcher of fruit-laden mango sangria while we waited for our food.

Mango sangria, Nando's Peri-Peri

Mango sangria and the swinging wicker chairs in the window

I opted for the chicken breast wrap, which showcased the juicy, well-seasoned chicken, and added pineapple for extra tropical sweetness. The chili jam and yogurt sauce balanced nicely, and the lettuce added necessary crunch. An array of Nando’s-branded sauces were available as condiments, all featuring the signature peri-peri pepper; I liked the garlic and wild herb varieties on my wrap. My favorite part of the meal by far, however, was the side of macho peas, mashed with mint, parsley, and chili. I’m partial to peas in all forms, but this was an especially fresh, green, summery addition to the plate. The combination also reminded me of the Middlewest pea pâté I made (and adored) two years ago. It was good enough to deem it my favorite side dish of the year so far.

The details: Nando’s Peri-Peri, 670 W. Diversey Pkwy., Chicago.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Mango lassi, gobi manchurian, and India hot chicken, Pub Royale

This Best Bite is one of the 20 foods and 15 drinks I’ve set out to taste and document in 2015. View the full list to see my plan and progress.

Mango lassi, Pub Royale

Mango lassi with mango, yoghurt, rum, honey, and bitters

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Pub Royale represents one of the most original restaurant concepts to hit Chicago lately: British-Indian pub fare. I’d heard about the rum-spiked mango lassi from more than one source, and that alone made it a perfectly summery place to dine with my cousins on a recent weeknight. The frosty, creamy lassi was cocktail and dessert in one, with complexity from the tangy yogurt and bitters. I loved snacking on the gobi manchurian – the fried cauliflower tossed in sweet and spicy sauce rivaled the version at Rangoli (my longstanding favorite), and cashews added nice crunch.

Gobi manchurian, Pub Royale

Gobi manchurian with crispy cauliflower, sweet & spicy manchurian sauce, sesame, and cashew

India hot chicken, Pub Royale

India hot chicken with crazy pickles and chewy naan

The India hot chicken was fusion at its best: an Indian-spiced, nearly tandoori-hued version of traditionally Southern fried chicken. The chewy naan bread underneath soaked up all the spices, so it was just as delicious on its own as it was with the chicken. Other dishes not to miss: the buttered paneer (so flavorful that I even dipped fries in the leftover sauce) and a towering, multi-layered British sundae dubbed the Knickerbocker Glory.

Knickerbocker Glory sundae. Pub Royale

Knickerbocker Glory sundae with Oberweis ice cream, banana, strawberry, chocolate, and many more layers

The details: Pub Royale, 2049 W. Division St., Chicago.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Pecorino cake, caviar brioche, shrimp toast & more, Sink|Swim

This Best Bite is one of the 20 foods and 15 drinks I’ve set out to taste and document in 2015. View the full list to see my plan and progress.

Shrimp toast, Sink|Swim

Shrimp toast with n’duja, radish, avocado, MSG aioli, greens, and lemon

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Sink|Swim is the second venture from the proprietors behind Scofflaw – widely considered one of Chicago’s very best bars – and is conveniently located on the same block. While I expected to be impressed by the menu, especially because of its focus on seafood, these dishes represented some of the most intriguing culinary concepts I’ve seen lately.

Take the shrimp toast, for example: instead of the individual-shrimp-atop-bread that you’d expect, the shrimp is mixed into spicy n’duja sausage to form a spread for toasted brioche (for more details, read Chicago magazine’s playful review). And who can say no to a mini umbrella? I also couldn’t get enough of the beef and oyster tartare, a combination I hadn’t seen before. Scooping the doubly delicious meat onto a crispy chip, together with the horseradish and pickled onion, felt almost like a deconstructed deli sandwich.

Beef & oyster tartare, Sink|Swim

Beef & oyster tartare with malt chips and horseradish

Pecorino cake, Sink|Swim

Pecorino cake with whipped honey crémeux, grapefruit, pistachio, and cappelletti

I’m always interested in savory desserts, and this pecorino cake fell into the “where has this been all my life?” category. The nutty cheese came through just enough in the dense cake itself, balanced by a swipe of honey-kissed cream, a generous dusting of pistachio, and an assertive kick from the grapefruit. Pecorino also made an appearance in the charred broccoli, joining furikake seasoning and creamy sauce for a completely unique (yet still comforting) flavor profile.

Charred broccoli, Sink|Swim

Charred broccoli with furikake, whey soubise, and pecorino

Caviar|brioche and Esplanade Swizzle, Sink|Swim

Caviar|brioche with onion caramel, smoked roe, and cured egg – plus an Esplanade Swizzle with El Peloton mezcal, amontillado sherry, lime, ginger, and Lucky falernum

But perhaps the most surprising snack was the caviar dish. The tiny rounds of brioche were soaked in onion caramel, then topped with smoked roe and shavings of cured egg yolk. Part breakfast (think eggs, smoky bacon, and biscuits with honey) and part luxury appetizer (it’s caviar after all), it was an entirely original, bite-sized treat.

Sailor, Sink|Swim

Sailor on the wall, in keeping with the nautical theme (he also makes an appearance on the website)

The details: Sink|Swim, 3213 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago.

Delicious Events

Delicious Event: Beer Under Glass 2015, Garfield Park Conservatory

DryHop beer, Beer Under Glass at Garfield Park Conservatory

DryHop’s Violet Beauregarde in my tasting glass

I’ve wanted to attend Beer Under Glass, the kick-off event for Chicago Craft Beer Week, for basically as long as I’ve lived in Chicago, and finally bought tickets this year. An impressive 98 participating craft breweries, plus a few food vendors, were all scattered through the indoor and outdoor areas of the Garfield Park Conservatory. The event was well-organized and brilliantly combined the visual beauty of the conservatory’s greenery with the complex flavors of unique craft beers.

Yellow umbrellas, Beer Under Glass at Garfield Park Conservatory

Yellow umbrellas and bright spring colors made this a breathtaking room

Here are my beer tasting notes, in order of sampling:

5 Rabbit Paletas, Beer Under Glass at Garfield Park Conservatory

5 Rabbit’s Paletas beer poured from a cart to mimic their popsicle inspiration

Brickstone Brewery | One Night Blonde Session IPA – bright, hoppy start to the night.
Lunar Brewing Co. | Raspberry Cream Ale – juicy and refreshing fruit beer.
Tighthead Brewing Co. | Boxcar Porter – a classic roasted, full-bodied porter.
Vice District Brewing | Habitual Black IPA – the kind of chocolatey, crisp IPA I could drink year-round.
Moody Tongue Brewing Co. | Shocked Apricot Belgian Pale – boldly fruity without being too sweet. I also tried Steeped Emperor’s Lemon Saison, whose lemon flavor was pungent but still refreshing.
Around the Bend Beer Co. | Silk Road American Pale Ale with Galangal – huge fan of the Thai-style flavor profile, and could see this being great with food.
Goose Island Brewery | Fulton Street Blend Coffee Ale – the coffee aroma alone was enough to wake me up! I loved getting a java kick in a lighter ale.
Begyle Brewing | Barrel Aged Neighborly Stout – powerful, delicious stout that was brewed in Koval whiskey barrels.
DryHop Brewers | Violet Beauregarde Lavender & Blueberry Saison – vibrantly colored, and likely the most balanced blueberry beer I’ve had.
Rude Hippo Brewing Co. | The Bee’s Sleaze Honey Steam Ale – easy-drinking ale with honey sweetness at the end.
Temperance Beer Co. | Manhattan Barrel Aged Might Meets Right Stout – a pleasantly boozy imperial stout with all the notes of a manhattan.
5 Rabbit Brewery | Paletas #1 (Guava) – had the bubblegum pink shade and sweet creaminess of its popsicle inspiration.
Empirical Brewery | Gamma-Ray Ginger Wheat – zingy ginger and spices made this the perfect beer to end on.

Koi pond, Beer Under Glass at Garfield Park Conservatory

This might be my favorite spot in the conservatory: the koi pond.

Spring tulips, Beer Under Glass at Garfield Park Conservatory

The tulips in the outside areas were even more beautiful in the rain

Night lighting in the Palm Room, Beer Under Glass at Garfield Park Conservatory

Night lighting in the Palm Room

The details: Beer Under Glass, Garfield Park Conservatory, 300 N. Central Park Ave., Chicago.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Alice Fay draft cocktail, Tippling Hall

This Best Bite is one of the 20 foods and 15 drinks I’ve set out to taste and document in 2015. View the full list to see my plan and progress.

Alice Fay draft cocktail, Tippling Hall

Alice Fay draft cocktail with Finlandia vodka, pecan-brown sugar syrup, lemon, and Old Style lager

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: On my first visit to Tippling Hall, I was immediately intrigued by (and I’ll admit, skeptical of) a draft cocktail that featured Old Style beer, and it turned out to be so fun and memorable that I planned another group outing there partially so that I could order this drink again. The Old Style lager flavor is immediately detectable, but is then mellowed and complemented by lemon, vodka, and pecan-brown sugar syrup. It’s a strange sensation to describe, but this refined cocktail immediately transported me to the sun-drenched bleachers at a summer Cubs game. The salty rim and sticky-sweet pecan brittle garnish, which my friend described as the best brittle she’d ever had, not only enhanced the nutty notes from the syrup, but also further evoked the ballpark spirit.

The details: Tippling Hall, 646 N. Franklin St., Chicago.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Tomato tartare, wagyu beef tongue, mackerel & more, Momotaro

This Best Bite is one of the 20 foods and 15 drinks I’ve set out to taste and document in 2015. View the full list to see my plan and progress.

Gyutan, Momotaro

Gyutan with imperial wagyu beef tongue, karashi, and smoked peppercorn

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: The timing for this post seemed appropriate, as Chicago magazine announced this week that Momotaro is this year’s Best New Restaurant. Based on my first meal there, I tend to agree. Not only was the three-floor Japanese-styled interior completely stunning, but every dish was beautiful in its composition and purity of flavor. Grilled over hot coals, the skewered wagyu beef tongue was undoubtedly the first preparation of tongue that I’d ever truly enjoyed. The tender, peppery meat was just fatty enough, brightened by dabs of hot mustard and a squeeze of the liberally seasoned yuzu wedge. I’d already heard great things about the momotaro (Japanese sweet tomato) tartare, and was indeed blown away by how texturally interesting and umami-rich it was, especially as a fully vegetarian dish. Even on a dauntingly extensive menu, this tartare cemented its place as a must-order on all future visits.

Momotaro tartare, Momotaro

Momotaro tartare with Japanese sweet tomato, Maui onion, and shiso

Aji yakusugi, Momotaro

Aji yakusugi with smoked jack mackerel and 1,000 year old cypress

Momataro flies its fish in from Tokyo, so we couldn’t leave without trying some nigiri. The jack mackerel was dramatically presented, the bowl uncovered to reveal smoking pieces of what the menu claimed was 1,000-year-old cypress bark – really, how often does your meal involve an ingredient that’s a thousand years old? The fish itself was lovely, its smoky flavor gentle and woodsy. The beautifully simplicity extended through to dessert, where tiny green peaches and cooling peach sorbet were buried in a bed of almond crumble. Maybe I just love peach, but there was something about that dessert that kept me raving about it long after the last bite.

Waka momo dessert, Momotaro

Waka momo dessert with green peach, almond crumble, and momo sorbet

The details: Momotaro, 820 W. Lake St., Chicago.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Staff meal of greens, bread, butter & soft boiled egg, Cellar Door Provisions

This Best Bite is one of the 20 foods and 15 drinks I’ve set out to taste and document in 2015. View the full list to see my plan and progress.

Buttered bread, Cellar Door Provisions

Buttered bread ready to dip into the soft boiled egg

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: With a limited menu of seasonal breakfast and lunch specials and a small selection of artful pastries that routinely sells out before noon, Cellar Door Provisions is tightly focused in its craft. Since I knew I wanted to try the much-lauded bread, I went with the Staff Meal, a no-frills breakfast of greens, bread, butter, and soft boiled egg. This was no ordinary bread and butter, however. The bread itself had a dark crust and airy crumb – the best of both textural worlds – and the egg-sized, salt-flecked quenelle of butter was plenty to smear into every nook of both thick slices. Dipping the bread into the yolk of the soft boiled egg was even more satisfying, and peppery bites of lightly dressed greens helped break up the richness. The whole meal had an understated elegance that was so refreshing.

Staff meal, Cellar Door Provisions

Staff meal of greens, bread, butter, and soft boiled egg

The details: Cellar Door Provisions, 3025 W. Diversey Ave., Chicago.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Ripples on an Evaporated Lake and Pool Rules cocktails, Lost Lake

This Best Bite is one of the 20 foods and 15 drinks I’ve set out to taste and document in 2015. View the full list to see my plan and progress.

Ripples on an Evaporated Lake and Pool Rules, Lost Lake

Ripples on an Evaporated Lake, with aged Panama rum, aged Trinidad rum, coffee, coconut, and amaro; and Pool Rules, with bourbon whiskey, aged guyana, rum, lemon, curaçao, cinnamon, allspice, vanilla, and angostura bitters

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: I’ve been to Lost Lake at least five times since it opened in mid-January – officially enough to deem it my new favorite bar in Chicago. As fortunate as I am to live within walking distance, there’s just so much to love about this tropical oasis. Immediately upon stepping inside, you’re effortlessly transported to a warmer, happier place. The interior features leafy wallpaper, thatched bamboo, and stone walls, all of which strike an impressive balance between kitschy and fashionable. The retro island soundtrack hits the same sweet spot. And Paul McGee, who left Three Dots and Dash for this new venture, makes tiki drinks that are just so, so good.

It was difficult to pick two favorites from a menu that has so many creative options, but these two repeatedly stood out. Ripples on an Evaporated Lake fused four things I love to drink: coffee, rum, coconut, and amaro. In each sip, the coffee and rum hit my palate first, the flavors quickly progressing from sweet to bitter on the finish. The mint and coffee beans were a nice touch as garnishes. Meanwhile, Pool Rules, in its adorable fish-shaped glass, was more bourbon-forward. The rum and bourbon both fell into balance with citrus, bitters, vanilla, allspice, and cinnamon for a complex yet easy-drinking cocktail.

The details: Lost Lake, 3154 W. Diversey Ave., Chicago.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Smoked fish sandwich, Fahlstrom’s Fresh Fish Market

This Best Bite is one of the 20 foods and 15 drinks I’ve set out to taste and document in 2015. View the full list to see my plan and progress.

Smoked fish sandwich, Fahlstrom's Fresh Fish Market

Smoked fish sandwich with duck trap smoked trout spread, three types of thin-sliced smoked fish, thin-sliced capicola ham, capers, cider-vinegar dressing on a toasted french roll

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Because the menu at Fahlstrom’s Fresh Fish Market in Lakeview is nearly endless, I only concentrated on the Sea Sandwiches section during my first visit. I was intrigued by the idea of so many kinds of smoked fish on the same sandwich – four, including the smoked trout spread – and my server confirmed that it was a favorite. I was awed by how well everything in the sandwich worked together, the smoky fish mingling with capicola, sweet cider-vinegar dressing, capers, and lettuce on toasty french bread. The flavor profile even reminded me a little of the bacon-trout-slaw combination on my favorite bagel sandwich. It was the kind of sandwich you wish every deli would offer, all the way down to the house potato pancake and dill pickle on the side.

The details: Fahlstrom’s Fresh Fish Market, 1258 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.

Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Three delicious days in Seattle

Travel Eats documents my food adventures outside of Chicago.

Salmon omakase, Shiro's Sushi

Nigiri of salmon three ways during omakase at the Shiro’s Sushi counter

As someone who adores all forms of seafood but has always lived in a land-locked state, I’ve long wanted to check out Seattle’s dining scene. I visited last week and packed three sunny (!!!) days with oysters, coffee, and everything else I’d heard were Seattle specialties. Before I proceed any further, I am happy to report that I ate the best sushi of my life on this trip. My local dining companion put Shiro’s Sushi at the top of our must-eat list; Shiro was a “disciple” of Jiro, as in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and had built something of an institution. We arrived before it opened and stood in line. Two hours and 40 minutes later, we were finally seated at the counter and settled in for omakase, or “chef’s choice.” On it went: red snapper, three cuts of salmon, four cuts of tuna, geoduck (my first time eating it!), king crab leg, octopus, eel that I can only describe as ethereal…and more. The fish was impossibly fresh and masterfully prepared, and the whole experience felt personal and special.

Grilled sardines, the Walrus and the Carpenter

Grilled sardines from the Walrus and the Carpenter

Hama Hama and Blue Pool oysters, the Walrus and the Carpenter

Hama Hama and Blue Pool oysters from the Walrus and the Carpenter

Our other spectacular meal also required a nearly two-hour wait, but as with Shiro’s, it was undoubtedly worth it. The Walrus and the Carpenter is run by Renee Erickson, whose cookbook I received as a Christmas gift from my roommate in anticipation of our trip. Her elegant, contemporary dishes were the ideal way to celebrate the fruits of the sea that are so plentiful in that area. The oysters I tried were exceptional, as were all the other small plates, but the standout sea creatures for me were the grilled sardines. The sardines’ texture was completely incredible, and I couldn’t get over how well the walnut-parsley-shallot topping married with the fish.

Another memorable stop was at Toulouse Petit, a New Orleans-inspired Cajun restaurant that claims to have the “best happy hour menu in the nation.” Both the barbecued shrimp New Orleans and the crawfish beignets with hot pepper jelly were delicious, and just the kind of food to pair with Big Easy-style cocktails. And of course, I couldn’t leave Seattle without a visit to Pike Place Market, whose size and spectacle was even more overwhelming than I expected. After tastes at a few of the fish vendors, I settled on a sizable strip of smoked salmon that was conveniently threaded onto a stick. I savored it as long as possible.

Crawfish beignets and barbecued New Orleans shrimp,  Toulouse Petit

Crawfish beignets and barbecued New Orleans shrimp from Toulouse Petit’s happy hour

Smoked salmon stick, City Fish Co. at Pike Place Market

Smoked salmon on a stick from City Fish Co. at Pike Place Market

Brunch gets its own section, because both the morning meals I had were noteworthy in entirely different ways. I absolutely loved the format at Joule: not only was there a standard menu of creative, Korean-influenced dishes, but the meal also included unlimited trips to an upscale buffet at the front of the restaurant whose theme rotated on a monthly basis – February was Cajun, in honor of Mardi Gras. My favorite bite at Joule was also the most indulgent: a sesame waffle with chicken fried steak (everyone else should take note of this excellent variation on chicken and waffles) and smoked maple syrup. In contrast, the best parts of brunch at Tallulah’s were on the lighter side. My bowl of red quinoa, smoked salmon, avocado, pickled vegetables, greens, and a soft-poached egg was the kind of fresh, energizing breakfast I could eat every day, and the blood orange marmalade on nutty Macrina wheat toast was also lovely in its simplicity.

Chicken fried steak and waffles,  Joule

Chicken fried steak and waffles from brunch at Joule

Macrina toast with blood orange marmalade from brunch at Tallulah's

Macrina toast with blood orange marmalade from brunch at Tallulah’s

Red quinoa bowl, Tallulah's

Red quinoa and smoked salmon bowl from brunch at Tallulah’s

I was just as impressed by Seattle’s beverages, caffeinated and alcoholic alike. The one I was most eager to try was the Dark & Stormy at Rachel’s Ginger Beer, and once I found out you could add vanilla soft serve to make it a float, I was basically in ginger-laced heaven. At local brewery Fremont Brewing, I was more than content with my Dark Star imperial oatmeal stout (and the fact that it was warm enough to drink it outside). Barnacle, adjacent to the Walrus and the Carpenter, was where we spent most of our time waiting for our table, and I loved that a seat at the sleek copper bar also earned you a bowl of Lay’s Classic potato chips to snack on. I’ve been on a black walnut kick lately, so Barnacle’s nocino old fashioned with calvados, walnut liqueur, and nocino amaro was just the kind of strong, silky cocktail I wanted. At Joule, my Sweet Freedom brunch cocktail held a citrusy mix of lime, blood orange and elderflower liqueurs, and makoli – the same fermented Korean rice wine I enjoyed so much at Parachute last fall. I also drank my fair share of coffee and espresso, and it was all top-notch.

Dark & stormy float from Rachel's Ginger Beer

Dark & stormy float from Rachel’s Ginger Beer

Dark Star imperial oatmeal stout, Fremont Brewing

Dark Star imperial oatmeal stout from Fremont Brewing

Nocino old fashioned, Barnacle

Nocino old fashioned from Barnacle

Sweet Freedom cocktail, Joule

Sweet Freedom cocktail from brunch at Joule

Sumatra pourover coffee, Victrola Coffee

Sumatra pourover from Victrola Coffee

Rose, Starbucks

Couldn’t resist the novelty of a glass of wine at ubiquitous Starbucks

Soy latte with "velvet foam" from Uptown Espresso

Soy latte with “velvet foam” from Uptown Espresso

And below are even more miscellaneous best bites from what was surely one of my most delicious trips ever.

Fudge brownie chunk and earl gray ice cream, Molly Moon's

Fudge brownie chunk ice cream with vanilla bean caramel and earl gray ice cream with lemon curd from Molly Moon’s

Spam slider and Pass-O Guava Nectar Hawaiian Sun drink from Marination Station

Spam slider and Pass-O Guava Nectar Hawaiian Sun drink from Marination Station

Beecher's herbed cheese curds

Herbed cheese curds from Beecher’s at Pike Place Market

Cinnamon sugar donuts, Daily Dozen

Cinnamon sugar donuts from Daily Dozen at Pike Place Market

The details: Shiro’s Sushi, 2401 2nd Ave.; The Walrus and the Carpenter and Barnacle, both 4743 Ballard Ave. NW; Toulouse Petit, 601 Queen Anne Ave. N; City Fish Co. at Pike Place Market, 1535 Pike Pl.; Joule, 3506 Stone Way N; Tallulah’s, 550 19th Ave. E; Rachel’s Ginger Beer at Pike Place Market, 1530 Post Alley; Fremont Brewing, 1050 N 34th St.; Victrola Coffee, 310 E. Pike; Uptown Espresso, 525 Queen Anne Ave. N; Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream, 917 E. Pine St.; Marination Station, 1412 Harvard Ave.; Beecher’s Handmade Cheese at Pike Place Market, 1600 Pike Pl.; Daily Dozen Doughnuts at Pike Place Market, 93 Pike St. (all Seattle).