Travel Eats: An unforgettable Alaskan adventure

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Salmon, Glacier Brewhouse
Alaska alder grilled salmon with lemon garlic vermouth butter, alder grilled potatoes, asparagus, baby tomatoes, and avocado lime verde, Glacier Brewhouse

I’d always heard that Alaska was in a class of its own, but experiencing the vast landscape and beauty during a recent 10-day family vacation was far beyond what I had pictured. We explored the southern part of the state using nearly every form of transportation: bus, plane, boat, train, raft (and probably others I’m forgetting!) – and I loved sampling local fare along the way.

Of course, Alaskan salmon is famous the world over, so I sought it out at a few different restaurants. The best version was at Glacier Brewhouse in Anchorage, grilled over alder wood and perfectly cooked to retain its deep pink color. The Brewhouse is also known for its calamari, which came in possibly the largest segments I’ve ever seen and had a double-jalapeño kick in the form of slices and spiked aioli. I’d go back and order both again.

Calamari, Glacier Brewhouse
“Simply the best” buttermilk battered calamari with jalapeño lime aïoli and jalapeño chips, Glacier Brewhouse
AK king crab roll, Karstens Public House
AK king crab roll, Karstens Public House

Seafood was available pretty much wherever we went, so I made sure to try other varieties as well. The king crab roll at Karstens Public House, near Denali National Park, let its local crab shine with just enough creaminess to hold it together. Fish tacos were also common, often with halibut; I enjoyed a rockfish version with avocado crema at Seasalt in the coastal town of Seward.

Rockfish tacos, Seasalt
Rockfish tacos, Seasalt
Bowl of smoked salmon chowder, Humpy's
Bowl of smoked salmon chowder with in-house smoked salmon crumbles and dill, Humpy’s

Humpy’s is a long-time institution in Anchorage, and I was pleasantly surprised that the quality of the food belied the dive-bar vibe. The just-thick-enough salmon chowder had a generous topping of house-smoked salmon and loads of dill. I also adored the crabby patty melt, which fused a garlicky crab-cake patty with lots of melty cheese and other burger toppings for a remarkable result.

Crabby patty melt, Humpy's
Crabby patty melt with Alaska king crab blended with fresh herbs and breadcrumbs, deep-fried and topped with cheddar & American cheese and garlic aioli, Humpy’s
Caribou meatloaf, Base Camp Bistro
House-made caribou meatloaf with mashed potatoes and roasted veggies, Base Camp Bistro

Another dining goal for our time in Alaska was trying the game meats that are much more commonly available there. The most successful dish was a mouthwatering caribou meatloaf with sticky glaze in Talkeetna (that my husband ordered and that I regret not stealing even more bites of).

Meatloaf and Golden Dall beer, 49th State Brewing Company
Bacon-wrapped buffalo meatloaf with Smōk lager demi-glace, onion strings, and smashed potatoes; and Golden Dall Belgian tripel

I also indulged in a bacon-wrapped buffalo meatloaf at 49th State Brewing, well-dressed with onion strings and an umami-rich demi-glace. I paired it with what ended up being a favorite beer of the trip: the Golden Dall Belgian tripel (with its own signature glass), named after the mythical sheep that’s said to reign over nearby Denali. Also, in the background, their draft cream soda packed with local blueberries was an excellent zero-proof option.

49th State’s most award-winning beer is the Smōk, which was sold out on draft but available to-go, and the delightfully smoky flavor was even more enjoyable while perched on our hotel balcony during one of the 20+ hours of sunlight this time of year.

49th State Smōk lager on the balcony
49th State Brewing Company Smōk lager, enjoyed on the balcony in view of the mountains
Aloha Escape pizza with reindeer sausage, Moose's Tooth
Aloha Escape pizza with added reindeer sausage, Moose’s Tooth

I also had the chance to get a little creative with pizza toppings and added reindeer sausage to a Hawaiian-style pizza at Moose’s Tooth in Anchorage, known to have the best pizza in Alaska. I also tried their apple ale, one of several beers brewed at their onsite brewery Broken Tooth, and I loved the punch of apple flavor without the typical sweetness of cider. Their namesake canned root beer was also worth seeking out whenever we saw it on other menus.

Arctic Apple Ale, Moose's Tooth
Broken Tooth Hard Apple Ale, Moose’s Tooth
Coffee stout, Girdwood Brewing
Hippy Speedball coffee stout, Girdwood Brewing

Our local brewery trend continued with the memorable Girdwood Brewing. Their proximity to the Alyeska resort informed the ski theme, complete with a chair lift on the wall and as part of the outdoor seating. Their coffee stout was bold yet easy-drinking, and since we visited at dinner time, we also made a stop at the on-site food truck for savory and sweet crepes. My basil pesto crepe with bacon really did transport me to France, to match the après-ski atmosphere.

Basil pesto crepe with bacon, Crepes de Paris food truck
Basil pesto crepe with bacon, Crepes de Paris food truck at Girdwood Brewing
Alaskan White beer at Sockeye Saloon
Alaskan White ale, Sockeye Saloon

While we didn’t visit them directly, Alaskan was the most common brewer we saw, and this can of white ale was particularly memorable. It marked our visit to the Sockeye Saloon, the only bar in the tiny town of King Salmon – so tiny that the airport called the bar directly to see if our party of 18 was there, and to tell us our plane back to Anchorage was departing early and that we needed to walk next door to the airport immediately!

That was actually the Fourth of July, when we spent the day at Katmai National Park and entered the habitat of more than 2,000 brown bears. We had a bit of a close encounter with a bear that was mere feet away on the trail (and famously known as 747 in the park for his enormous size), so the buffet lunch at Brooks Lodge was especially satisfying and well-deserved as we recovered from the rather frightening event.

4th of July buffet lunch at Brooks Lodge, Katmai National Park
4th of July buffet lunch (right after our bear encounter!) at Brooks Lodge in Katmai National Park
Glacier margarita aboard the Spirit of Adventure
Glacier margarita (actually made with ice from the Holgate Glacier!) while aboard the Spirit of Adventure touring Kenai Fjords National Park

We also made memorable toasts in a few surprising locations. While on a boat ride through Kenai Fjords National Park, the crew harvested ice deposited by the Holgate Glacier (the main attraction on our all-day tour) and used chunks in festive margaritas. Another day, about 90 minutes into a float trip down the Placer River (also glacier-adjacent), our guide magically pulled out a thermos and cocoa mix, and we got to enjoy exceptionally scenic hot chocolate right then and there on the raft.

Hot chocolate while floating along the Placer River
A very scenic hot chocolate, provided by our rafting guide while floating along the Placer River
Raspberry fritter and dirty chai, Alpine Cafe and Bakery
Raspberry fritter and dirty chai (enjoyed during one of the many hours on our tour bus), Alpine Cafe and Bakery

Alaska isn’t without its baked goods, and the two best were at bakeries in the Girdwood ski area. At Alpine Cafe and Bakery, the raspberry fritter was airy and packed with fruit; meanwhile The Bake Shop’s famously large sweet roll had fluffy, citrusy inner layers with almonds and glaze on a crispy top.

Sweet roll, The Bake Shop
Sweet roll with lemon glaze and almonds at The Bake Shop
Fruits of the Forest pie and Alaskan birch sundae, Wilderness Express dome car on Denali Star train
Fruits of the Forest pie with apples, rhubarb, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries, and Alaskan birch sundae with organic Alaskan birch syrup and birch almond brittle crumble, aboard the Wilderness Express train

One last pair of standout desserts came aboard the Alaska Railroad train to Denali. We were seated in the Wilderness Express dome car, with sweeping views of the scenery, and our trip included lunch in the lower-level dining area. We couldn’t choose between the two desserts, and I’m very glad we ended up with both. The pie, gooey with five different fruits, and the sundae with local birch syrup (which tasted like a mix of caramel and maple, and immediately made the list for souvenir purchases) and brittle crumble, both matched the extra-special atmosphere of the entire ride.

Finally, on the last day of the trip, I had the chance to stop at one of the ubiquitous drive-up coffee shacks I saw throughout the state (the drive-up part is especially useful during the colder months, I hear). My coconut mocha, with real milk chocolate stirred in, was a luscious morning treat.

Coconut milk chocolate mocha, Black Bear Coffee Company
Coconut milk chocolate mocha, Black Bear Coffee Company

The details: Moose’s Tooth, 3300 Old Seward Hwy., Anchorage; Brooks Lodge at Katmai National Park & Preserve, King Salmon; Sockeye Saloon, Mile 15 on Alaska Peninsula Hwy., King Salmon; Alpine Cafe and Bakery,  1 Alyeska Hwy., Girdwood; The Bake Shop, 194 Olympic Mountain Loop, Girdwood; Girdwood Brewing and Crepes de Paris food truck, 2700 Alyeska Hwy., Girdwood; Spirit of Adventure boat with Major Marine Tours, Seward; Seasalt, 133 Fourth Ave., Seward; Placer River Float with Chugach Adventures, Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop; Base Camp Bistro at Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, 23601 S. Talkeetna Spur Rd., Talkeetna; Wilderness Express dining room on Alaska Railroad Denali Star train; 49th State Brewing Company, Mile 248.4 Parks Hwy., Healy; Karsten’s Public House at McKinley Chalet Resort, 238.9 Parks Hwy., Denali Park; Glacier Brewhouse, 737 W 5th Ave., Anchorage; Black Bear Coffee Company, 4300 Forrest Rd., Anchorage; Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse, 610 W 6th Ave., Anchorage; all Alaska.

Travel Eats: A long-awaited vacation in San Diego

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

We had originally scheduled this trip to celebrate our first anniversary in April 2020, but we all know how that timing turned out! More than a year later, we were even more grateful for a substantial change of scenery and the ability to travel across the country now that we were fully vaccinated. I enjoyed finally visiting a city I’d always heard so much about and the variety of cuisines available.

SD rock crab, Ironside Fish & Oyster
SD rock crab with coconut curry rice, drawn butter, and toasted bread, Ironside Fish & Oyster

Of course, my top priority was fresh seafood, and Ironside Fish & Oyster in Little Italy didn’t disappoint. The local rock crab was beautifully served with fragrant, creamy coconut curry rice in the cavity. The extra effort to dig out the sweet meat for a dunk in the drawn butter was definitely worth it. My other half also experienced a revelatory dish: chowder fries (exactly what it sounds like). I’m now tempted to recreate this combination at other restaurants, regardless of the confused looks that might ensue.

Chowder fries, Ironside Fish & Oyster
Chowder fries with clam, bacon, and potato, Ironside Fish & Oyster
Ironside Fish & Oyster cauliflower
“Honey walnut” cauliflower with tempura cauliflower, fermented sweet chili sauce, watermelon radish, and cilantro, Ironside Fish & Oyster

The tempura cauliflower with a zippy chili sauce was a welcome veggie addition to our meal. I also sampled a couple of briny oysters (with especially pungent horseradish!), washed down with a Buenaveza salt & lime lager from local Stone Brewing.

Oysters, Ironside Fish & Oyster
King’s Tide and Nautilus oysters on the half shell with mignonette and horseradish, Ironside Fish & Oyster

The grand seafood finale came in our last dinner of the trip at C Level: a platter with salmon tartare, Old Bay-rubbed shrimp, an ahi tuna-crab salad-mango salsa tower, and a half-dozen oysters. It was decadent and refreshing, with so many of my favorite ocean flavors. C Level’s sherry-topped lobster bisque was also top-notch. Besides the food, the main draw of this restaurant on Harbor Island was the sweeping skyline views, which made the experience even more special.

Seafood platter, C Level
Seafood platter with a half-dozen oysters, a half-pound Old Bay peel & eat shrimp, a mini ahi stack with crab and mango salsa, and salmon tartare with taro chips, C Level
Lobster bisque, C Level
Island Prime’s lobster bisque with butter-poached lobster, sherry, and brioche croutons, C Level

We also saw great views at Pier Cafe, a waterfront restaurant in Seaport Village. The crab cake appetizer made an excellent snack after lots of exploring, especially when paired with a gingery happy hour cocktail with strawberry, basil, and mint.

Crab cakes, Pier Cafe
Crab cakes with seared blue crab, roasted corn pico, jalapeño remoulade, and bed of greens, Pier Cafe
Strawberry Bay Breeze cocktail, Pier Cafe
Strawberry Bay Breeze happy hour cocktail with spiced rum, strawberry puree, fresh mint & basil, and ginger beer float, Pier Cafe

Another San Diego food priority was Mexican cuisine, so I was happy to discover a family-owned taco shop a short walk from our hotel that served breakfast burritos. The savory chorizo, egg, potato, salsa, and cheese were well-blended and tightly wrapped in the tortilla. Just half of this hefty burrito was the perfect fuel for a day at the renowned San Diego Zoo.

Rancho breakfast burrito, Lucy's Taco Shop
Rancho breakfast burrito with chorizo, potato, salsa fresca, egg, and cheese wrapped in a flour tortilla with salsa verde, Lucy’s Taco Shop

And continuing with the outrageously-topped-fries theme, we sampled tsunami fries from Lolita’s, which featured both carne asada and shrimp as meaty toppings, as well as cabbage- and pico-laden fish tacos.

Fish tacos and tsunami fries, Lolita's Mexican Food
Tsunami fries with carne asada, grilled shrimp, guacamole, sour cream, cheddar and cotija cheese, and two fish tacos with grilled basa fillet, cabbage, salsa Mexicana, and salsa blanca on soft corn tortilla, Lolita’s Mexican Food

Our most captivating restaurant experience of the trip was at Morning Glory, a popular brunch spot in Little Italy with an opulent, pink-washed interior and tons of fun details (like the champagne vending machine across from our table). I went with the cheesy khachapuri and the coconutty Irish coffee, and both hit the spot for high-end brunch fare.

Khachapuri and Irish coffee, Morning Glory
Khachapuri with mozzarella, feta, olive oil, egg, butter, and bacon, and Irish coffee with Irish whiskey, coffee, coconut butter, and vanilla cream, Morning Glory

The best bites of the meal, though, were the fluffy Japanese-style soufflé pancakes – sky-high, custardy cakes paired with syrup and not-too-sweet whipped cream. They were a unique kind of delicious, and I can see why they’re a best-seller.

Souffle pancakes, Morning Glory
Soufflé pancakes with butter, uncut pure maple syrup, and whipped cream, Morning Glory

We’d also heard great things about the exquisite creations at Extraordinary Desserts, and after a lot of gazing through the glass display case, we chose a slice of cake decked out with rose petals and pink and white chocolate shavings, hinting at the guava mousse, strawberries, and Kirsch-infused vanilla layers inside. A celebration-worthy slice, to be sure.

Shangri-La cake slice, Extraordinary Desserts
Slice of Shangri-La cake with white chocolate mousse, guava mousse, fresh strawberries, whipped cream, and Kirsch-infused vanilla cake, Extraordinary Desserts
Chocolate gooey brownie and salted, malted cookie dough ice cream, Salt & Straw
Split scoop of chocolate gooey brownie ice cream and salted, malted cookie dough ice cream, Salt & Straw

We rounded out our dessert experience with ice cream from Salt & Straw, a scoop shop I’d visited in its original Portland location many years ago, but has since expanded to more West Coast cities. The salted, malted cookie dough flavor lived up to its name, pleasantly salty with a ribbon of rich malted fudge.

I was also very happy to stumble across charming Daniel’s Coffee, a tiny stand inside the colorful Spanish Village Art Center in Balboa Park near the zoo. My iced dirty chai was one of the best I’ve had.

Iced dirty chai, Daniel's Coffee
Iced dirty chai, Daniel’s Coffee in Spanish Village Art Center

One last gem came when we took the ferry over to Coronado Island. Clayton’s Coffee Shop was an endearing kitschy retro diner with bottomless “great diner coffee,” a massive menu, and a walk-up window slinging pie and milkshakes. My caprese-inspired avocado toast, while requiring a little construction, was a great mix of California flavors, and the side of creamed corn (that I amped up with some shakes of Tapatio hot sauce that seems to be ubiquitous in Southern California) was classic and comforting.

Avocado toast, creamed corn, and coffee, Clayton's Coffee Shop
Avocado toast with tomatoes, mozzarella, olive oil, and herbs, with homemade creamed corn and “bottomless cup of great diner coffee,” Clayton’s Coffee Shop

The details: Morning Glory, 550 W Date St.; Pier Cafe, 885 W Harbor Dr.;  Ironside Fish & Oyster, 1654 India St.; Lucy’s Taco Shop, 109 W C St., Suite D; Daniel’s Coffee, 1770 Village Place; Lolita’s Mexican Food, 202 Park Blvd.; Salt & Straw, 1670 India St.; Extraordinary Desserts, 1430 Union St.; C Level, 880 Harbor Island Dr.; all San Diego; Clayton’s Coffee Shop, 979 Orange Ave., Coronado.

Chicago Restaurant Week 2021: Brunch at Scratchboard Kitchen

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2021, held March 19–April 4. To browse past Restaurant Week coverage between 2013 and 2020, click here.

Chicken biscuit sandwich, Scratchboard Kitchen
Fried chicken biscuit sandwich with pimiento cheese and picked red onion on a ranch biscuit

Best Bite: I’m thrilled to finally post about Scratchboard Kitchen, which has quickly emerged as a favorite of mine in the year they’ve been open in downtown Arlington Heights (even amidst all the pandemic pivots). Their Restaurant Week brunch menu was a chance to enjoy both savory and sweet, plus a well-balanced Bloody Mary to start. The chicken biscuit sandwich, with pimento cheese and pickled onions, was cheffy comfort food at its finest.

Winter citrus toast, Scratchboard Kitchen
Citrus toast with mascarpone, citrus, fennel, pollen, and pistachio
Scratchboard Bloody Mary, Scratchboard Kitchen
Scratchboard Bloody Mary with scratch-made mix and premium vodka

Other notes: The strikingly pretty citrus toast was also a hit, dusted with fennel pollen and pistachios with a layer of creamy mascarpone underneath. The ever-rotating pastries here are always delicious, and these were no exception: a lovely apricot pop tart and banana-chocolate mini loaf with a layer of toasted coconut. The sun started shining onto our patio table shortly after they arrived, which ended the meal on an even higher note.

Banana chocolate mini loaf and apricot pop tart, Scratchboard Kitchen
Banana, chocolate, and coconut mini loaf and apricot pop tart with caramelized honey icing

The details: Scratchboard Kitchen, 5 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights.

Chicago Restaurant Week 2021: Dinner at Gaijin

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2021, held March 19–April 4. To browse past Restaurant Week coverage between 2013 and 2020, click here.

Shrimp okonomiyaki, Gaijin
Osaka-style okonomiyaki with tempura fried shrimp, corn, creole butter, arare, and udon

Best Bite: Esteemed Chicago chef Paul Virant opened Gaijin in 2019 as Chicago’s first restaurant dedicated to okonomiyaki, a Japanese savory pancake. I was excited to make my first visit during Restaurant Week, when five Osaka-style versions were available as part of the four-course menu. Our group of three chose shrimp, octopus, and pork to share, each topped with “dancing” bonito flakes and kept perfectly warm on the teppan griddle built into our table. I loved all three: the tempura shrimp and corn with caramelized udon noodles, the sweet-and-salty octopus with crispy rice, and the breakfast-leaning pork with bacon and a fried egg. The flavor combinations and textural contrasts, all anchored by the cabbage-studded pancake base, were ones I’d go back for again and again.

Octopus okonomiyaki, Gaijin
Osaka-style okonomiyaki with octopus, hot sauce, honey gastrique, bonito, and crispy rice
Veggie yakisoba, Gaijin
Veggie yakisoba with spinach, mushrooms, sweet corn, cabbage, scallions, carrots, sauce, and sesame

Other notes: The yakisoba in the second course was a delicious tangle of well-cooked vegetables and umami-coated noodles. And I loved the mochi donut, reminiscent of funnel cake but with chewiness from the rice flour, and topped with a coconut and pandan leaf glaze. This also happened to be the best Restaurant Week value I’ve seen in a long time: four generous courses at the lower-tier dinner price.

Pandan-coconut mochi donut, Gaijin
Pandan-coconut mochi donut

The details: Gaijin, 950 W. Lake St., Chicago.

Chicago Restaurant Week 2021: Dinner at Girl & the Goat

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2021, held March 19–April 4. To browse past Restaurant Week coverage between 2013 and 2020, click here.

Wood oven shrimp and Gotham Greens salad, Girl & the Goat
Wood oven shrimp & Gotham Greens salad with avocado, pomelo, pickled veggies, quinoa crunch, and limey-herby dressing, Girl & the Goat

Best Bite: This year, Girl & the Goat participated in Restaurant Week for the first time in its almost 11-year history. As I went through the revolving door and took in the restaurant’s trademark wood-burning scent, I felt a range of emotions as I considered what one of my very favorite restaurants, and so many others, had gone through in the past year.

Roasted oysters, Girl & the Goat
Roasted Bosu oysters with yuzu-harissa butter, shio kombu, and finger lime, Girl & the Goat

But on to the food itself: of the 7 shared dishes, the most unique were the roasted oysters, with yuzu punch and gentle heat from the harissa; the wood-oven shrimp with quinoa crunch that elevated a well-balanced salad; and the dessert, a crumb cake served with caramel whipped cream, citrus marmalade, and cheesy ice cream in Stephanie Izard’s characteristically savory dessert style.

Buttery cheesy cake, Girl & the Goat
Buttery cheesy cake with citrus marmalade, Montamore ice cream, and caramel whip, Girl & the Goat

Other notes: The menu also involved some of the classics, like the green beans (still my favorite green beans anywhere) and the goat liver mousse (this time with brioche instead of crumpets). I’d had the crispy short ribs last summer as carryout, but they were even better this time around, fork-tender with bright bursts of grapefruit mingling with creamy avocado, herbs, and chiles.

Crispy beef short ribs, Girl & the Goat
Crispy beef short ribs with avocado and ruby red grapefruit chermoula, Girl & the Goat

The details: Girl & the Goat,  809 W. Randolph St.Chicago.

Travel Eats: A summer getaway to Door County, Wisconsin

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Cherry tree at Seaquist Orchards
Door County’s claim to fame: cherries

We’d faced the fact that there would be no “normal” vacations in 2020, but after months of quarantine, we were desperate for a change of scenery. Door County emerged as our chosen weekend getaway destination for its reasonably close proximity, well-regarded food (especially its cherries!), and peaceful waterfront views to soothe the anxieties of this season. As a disclaimer, we ate exclusively outdoors at restaurants with distanced tables and mask policies.

Blackened Baileys Harbor Fish Company Lake Michigan whitefish, New Orleans-style with spicy Cajun compound butter, au gratin potatoes, and asparagus, Harbor Fish Market & Grille
Blackened Baileys Harbor Fish Company Lake Michigan whitefish, New Orleans-style with spicy Cajun compound butter, au gratin potatoes, and asparagus, Harbor Fish Market & Grille

We were first-timers to Door County, but quickly saw why the area is called the Cape Cod of the Midwest: each town along the peninsula had its own coastal personality, and there was plentiful fresh seafood. At Harbor Fish Market in Bailey’s Harbor, along the shore of Lake Michigan, flaky local whitefish came beautifully blackened with spicy layers of seasoning and compound butter.

The lobster roll at Boathouse on the Bay came highly recommended by friends whose Door County visit barely missed overlapping with ours. It was a solid recommendation, with sizable pieces of lobster that were lightly dressed enough to shine on their own. And the same buttery split-top bun was also used for the hulking Wisconsin bratwurst my husband ordered, to his delight. Our waterfront view added to the East Coast-style experience.

East Coast-style lobster roll on a split-top New England bun, Boathouse on the Bay
East Coast-style lobster roll on a split-top New England bun, Boathouse on the Bay
Lobster & andouille hush puppies with chipotle aioli, The Fireside
Lobster & andouille hush puppies with chipotle aioli (and a Spotted Cow beer), The Fireside

In Egg Harbor, we found unexpectedly creative Cajun-inspired cuisine at The Fireside. We started with hush puppies, richly studded with both andouille and lobster, then finished with a zingy aioli. My fried alligator tacos were topped with a flavorful Southwest-Asian fusion of corn relish, lemongrass, and chili sauce, and the side of grits was ultra-creamy from lots of goat cheese. And because it was our first meal after crossing into Wisconsin, I couldn’t help but pair it with the beloved Spotted Cow beer from New Glarus.

Alligator tacos with cajun fried gator, lemongrass slaw, chili sauce, roasted corn & black bean relish, and a side of goat cheese grits, The Fireside
Alligator tacos with cajun fried gator, lemongrass slaw, chili sauce, roasted corn & black bean relish, and a side of goat cheese grits, The Fireside
Door County cherry pancakes, egg, ham, Old Post Office
Door County cherry pancakes with an egg and hearthstone ham, Old Post Office Restaurant

I was excited for opportunities to sample the ubiquitous local cherries. At breakfast, that meant fluffy cherry pancakes at the charming Old Post Office Restaurant, aptly named for the building’s usage in the early 1900s. As a bonus, our outdoor table afforded a lovely view of the water in Ephraim, our favorite of the towns for its scenery.

Another morning, in Fish Creek, I started the day with perhaps the best vegetarian breakfast sandwich I’ve had. Between two slices of ciabatta were a whopping nine layers of roasted veggies, sauces, cheese, and a jammy egg – complex and delicious.

Veg Out sandwich with house-baked ciabatta, guacamole, feta cheese, tomatoes, roasted sweet potato, pickled onions, Blue Horse sandwich sauce, farm fresh egg, Wisconsin cheddar cheese, and roasted red peppers, Blue Horse Beach Cafe
Veg Out sandwich with house-baked ciabatta, guacamole, feta cheese, tomatoes, roasted sweet potato, pickled onions, Blue Horse sandwich sauce, farm fresh egg, Wisconsin cheddar cheese, and roasted red peppers, Blue Horse Beach Cafe

Another sandwich success was the tuna melt at Stone Harbor in Sturgeon Bay, our last stop of the weekend. The melty Wisconsin cheddar and generously toasted bread made it a fine example of the comfort food classic.

Tuna salad sandwich with Wisconsin cheddar cheese and grilled on wheat bread, Stone Harbor Restaurant
Tuna salad sandwich with Wisconsin cheddar cheese and grilled on wheat bread, Stone Harbor Restaurant
Shortcake crumble sundae with salty, sweet shortcake crumbles, vanilla frozen custard, Door County strawberry compote & fresh whipped cream, Not Licked Yet
Shortcake crumble sundae with salty, sweet shortcake crumbles, vanilla frozen custard, Door County strawberry compote & fresh whipped cream, Not Licked Yet

And like any good getaway destination, there were plenty of sweets. We savored our shortcake crumble sundae with local strawberry compote at Not Licked Yet, a frozen custard shop that’s been in Fish Creek for nearly 40 years. We’d also heard excellent things about the pies at Sweetie Pies and the goat’s milk gelato at Door County Creamery, so planned ahead to save our slices until we could pair the two together. It was absolutely worth the wait.

Three-berry pie, Sweetie Pies; salted caramel and roasted almond and fig gelato, Door County Creamery
To-go slice of three-berry pie, Sweetie Pies; salted caramel and roasted almond and fig gelato, Door County Creamery

The details: The Fireside Restaurant, 7755 Hwy. 42, Egg Harbor; Blue Horse Beach Cafe, 4113 Main St., Fish Creek; Not Licked Yet, 4054 Main St., Fish Creek; Sweetie Pies, 9016 Hwy. 42, Fish Creek; Harbor Fish Market & Grille, 8080 Hwy. 57, Baileys Harbor; Old Post Office Restaurant, 10040 Water St., Ephraim; Door County Creamery, 10653 N Bay Shore Dr., Sister Bay; Boathouse on the Bay, 10716 N Bay Shore Dr., Sister Bay; Stone Harbor Restaurant, 107 N First Ave., Sturgeon Bay (all Wisconsin).

Restaurant reflections in the time of Covid-19

Homemade pasta yia yia from Lula Cafe
My own homemade pasta yia yia, the closest thing to dining at Lula Cafe right now

It’s May 2020, and my most anticipated restaurant experience this month was a Zoom virtual meeting.

I cooked along with Lula Cafe chef Jason Hammel as he demonstrated how to make the restaurant’s famous pasta yia yia. I ordered it for the first time five years ago and it’s been an all-time favorite ever since. As I put it back then, the combination of feta, cinnamon, brown butter, and garlic is the purest form of pasta magic. As much fun as it was to learn to make a dish that has such a special place in my heart, and as heartwarming as it was to see a screen full of more than 100 other Lula devotees and staff members, I couldn’t help but reflect on our current reality. Will we ever gather and dine the same way again?

I join so many others in mourning the uncertain future of restaurants as we navigate the Covid-19 pandemic. I’ve done my best to compartmentalize, to focus on supporting through takeout and delivery, as we stay at home week after week. But there’s no way around it: I deeply miss dining out and cannot conceive of the fact that it may never be quite the same. Restaurants have always felt like safe havens to me, so the current necessity to approach them with fear and caution is heartbreaking.

Combing through years of blog posts has brought back so many memories of meals that were significant not only for the food, but for what they represented in that time of my life. I’m sharing some favorite moments below (in no particular order) as a reminder that meaningful dining experiences go far beyond the plate and utensils, and with the hope for new innovations that inspire the same kind of awe and joy.

Birthday dinner at Le Cirque, Las Vegas. “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.”

Any dinner at Girl & the Goat, Chicago. “And then the salmon, which you ordered partially because the server told you the fish was flown in from New Zealand and partially because you can’t believe that salmon could really work with strawberry and beef and peanut and yogurt, could it? But of course it does, all of the distinct components tangled together in the best way. And then there’s the chicken. You’ve come to expect at this point that it will be unlike any chicken dish you’ve had before, especially since the server explained it would be brined to order, glazed with maple-y goodness, and baked in the wood-fire oven. And indeed, you can’t stop talking about how good this chicken is, not to mention the soft, buttery naan and remarkable ramp goddess dressing that come with it. You’ll order dessert without question.”

Four-course brunch at Beast, Portland. “The prix fixe menu that’s posted outside the door is your first glimpse of what you’ll be eating…the staff treated us 24 or so diners with the utmost care, ushering us in right at 10 a.m. and meticulously plating each course in the open kitchen that comprised nearly half of the intimate space. In the other half, two large communal tables were filled by a collection of food-lovers from all over the country… it was just a delight to [share] the experience with people who wanted to soak it in the same way, iPhone-photo-snapping and all.”

Omakase at Shiro’s Sushi, Seattle. “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.”

11-course tasting with wine pairings at Acadia, Chicago. “Soon after, the first course appeared in a shimmering bowl, complete with a pearl spoon that matched the opalescent oyster shell in the center. Hints of black garlic, chive, and eggplant added bite and depth to the salty caviar within the shell. After seeing plating that was so beautifully in tune with the glitzy champagne-and-caviar theme, we knew we were in for a treat.”

Honeymoon pancakes at Eggs ‘n Things, Honolulu. “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.”

Croissant at Pierre Hermé, Paris. “[We spent three days] in Paris at peak springtime bloom. Brilliantly colored flowers seemed to show up everywhere we looked, and I have to believe that made the food taste even better…Isaphan is the patisserie’s best-known flavor combination: rose, raspberry, and lychee, and the croissant version infused those flavors into the filling, glaze, and candied petals on top. It was so uniquely delicious that I was genuinely forlorn about taking the last bite.

Five-course tasting at Forest Avenue, Dublin“I knew that my last weekend in Dublin had to include a special meal, and after a little research, Forest Avenue fit all the criteria: seasonal and locally sourced Irish cuisine, tasting menu format, reasonable price. But this restaurant was even more of a gem than I ever expected. I stayed impressed through the entire dinner, including an especially dreamy pasta course with buttery, truffle-scented agnolotti and Jerusalem artichoke.”

Momotaro tartare at Momotaro, Chicago. “Not only was the three-floor Japanese-styled interior completely stunning, but every dish was beautiful in its composition and purity of flavor… 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.”

Tiki cocktails at Lost Lake, Chicago. “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…makes tiki drinks that are just so, so good.”

For more on how to help restaurants, check out the resources below.

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Chicago Restaurant Week 2020: Brunch at Café Ba-Ba-Reeba

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2020, held January 24–February 9. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse previous Restaurant Week coverage from 2013–2018.

Cubano bocadillo, buttermilk waffle, and citrus French toast, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!
“Spanish Cubano” bocadillo with braised pork shoulder, mustard aioli, and housemade English muffin; buttermilk waffle with Marcona almond Nutella and bananas; and citrus French toast with goat cheese butter, honey, and berries

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.

Sausage fried paella rice and jamon serrano eggs benedict, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!
Sausage fried paella rice with poached egg; and jamón serrano eggs Benedict with hollandaise and housemade English muffin

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).

The details: Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba, 2024 N. Halsted St.Chicago.

Chicago Restaurant Week 2020: Dinner at The Loyalist

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2020, held January 24–February 9. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse previous Restaurant Week coverage from 2013–2018.

The Loyalist cheeseburger with onion 3 ways and fries, The Loyalist
The Loyalist cheeseburger with onion 3 ways and fries

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.

Butterscotch pot de creme, The Loyalist
Butterscotch pot de creme

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.

The details: The Loyalist, 177 N. Ada St.Chicago.

Chicago Restaurant Week 2020: Dinner at Galit

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2020, held January 24–February 9. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse previous Restaurant Week coverage from 2013–2018.

Mezze of carrots with cuminy-orange glaze, Bulgarian feta, hazelnut duqqa; kale tabouli with pepitas, delicata squash, apples, garlicky-lemony (with nutritional yeast), Galit
Mezze of carrots with cuminy-orange glaze, Bulgarian feta, hazelnut duqqa; kale tabouli with pepitas, delicata squash, apples, garlicky-lemony (with nutritional yeast)

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).

Salatim of labneh with hyssop, sumac, and sesame; cipollini onions a la Grecque with coriander and Bulgarian feta; ezme with Turkish tomatoes and peppers, walnuts, chives, and hot garlic; pumpkin terahi with urfa bieber, cumin, garlic, nigella, and cilantro; pickles (Yemeite, Bulgarian, Israeli); masabacha hummus with chickpeas, herby tehina, and aleppo; plus pita and crudités, Galit
Salatim of labneh with hyssop, sumac, and sesame; cipollini onions a la Grecque with coriander and Bulgarian feta; ezme with Turkish tomatoes and peppers, walnuts, chives, and hot garlic; pumpkin terahi with urfa bieber, cumin, garlic, nigella, and cilantro; pickles (Yemeite, Bulgarian, Israeli); masabacha hummus with chickpeas, herby tehina, and aleppo; plus pita and crudités

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.

The details: Galit, 2429 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.