Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Fried giardiniera, Parts and Labor

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.

Fried giardiniera, Parts and Labor

Fried giardiniera with sriracha mayo

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: I first visited Parts and Labor a little over two years ago, right after it opened in Logan Square, and I’ve been going back for this unique side dish ever since. Originally, I was just intrigued: giardiniera can only come one way, right? What would a fried version even be like? Turns out, the tempura-like batter adds a fluffy layer of crust that’s masterfully offset by the vinegar-soaked vegetables. It’s spicy, especially after a dip in the sriracha mayo on the side, and is a wonderful reinvention of a humble Chicago condiment.

The details: Parts and Labor, 2700 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Cameo Kirby cocktail and beef tartare, Cherry Circle Room

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.

Cameo Kirby cocktail, Cherry Circle Room

Cameo Kirby cocktail with gin, dry vermouth, raspberry, lime, and egg white

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: The Chicago Athletic Association Hotel reopened earlier this summer after extensive renovations, and it’s emerged as the dining and drinking wonderland that Michigan Avenue never knew it needed. When the Shake Shack on the first floor isn’t even the main attraction, you know you’re in for an experience.

Go upstairs, wander through the impeccably styled lobby and down a hallway paneled with the same chocolate-hued wood that’s prominent throughout the space, and you’ll find what has to be the classiest game room in Chicago. Try not to get distracted by the billiards, shuffleboard, checkers, or even the full bocce court, and walk all the way back until you reach the double doors that lead to the Cherry Circle Room. With inviting leather booths, warm lighting, and a strikingly elegant bar, this restaurant has mastered the turn-of-the-century speakeasy vibe that can so easily feel forced elsewhere. But it’s not surprising coming from the Land and Sea Dept. group – I’ve blogged about projects of theirs (Longman & Eagle, Lost Lake, Parson’s) a combined eight times, so I guess you could say I’m partial.

So back to that bar, where I chose the gin-based Cameo Kirby to sip while waiting for our table. It stayed completely balanced between fruity and dry, and was deliciously frothy from the egg white. A simple and delicate drink, for sure, but also probably one of my favorite drinks of the year.

Beef tartare, Cherry Circle Room

Beef tartare with chili, quail egg, aged gouda, and salsa verde

The beef tartare came recommended by the bartender, and seemed like the right kind of throwback dish for the setting. The luxurious creaminess of the quail egg combined with the punchy, herbaceous salsa verde brought the savory mixture together. We spread the tartare on thick slices of grilled bread, whose char added a cooked dimension to the otherwise uncooked beef. Our main courses were just as good, but the tartare definitely set the tone for the rest of the meal.

And your visit to the hotel isn’t complete without a cocktail at Cindy’s, whose 13th floor rooftop boasts what is unquestionably my new favorite view of Millennium Park. Order the rose-petaled “We’ll Always Have Paris,” , lean up against the glass, and soak it all in, whether by day…

…or by night.

The details: Cherry Circle Room and Cindy’s at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, 12 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago.

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.