Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Bag of crisps & eggs and grilled octopus & housemade spam, Bottlefork

Grilled octopus and housemade spam, Bottlefork

Grilled octopus and housemade spam with brussels sprout kim chee and sugar snap peas

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: A friend suggested Bottlefork for a long-overdue get-together, and we were able to duck in early on a weeknight. I was excited to be able to order Goose Island’s Devon Ave. Pale Ale on draft, an addictive limited release that’s brewed with chai tea, cardamom, and other Indian spices. Out of all the small plates we shared, the grilled octopus was my favorite. Tender octopus and well-spiced cubes of housemade spam – which thankfully bore little resemblance to its canned counterpart – soaked up a funky, acidic sauce that also contained sugar snap peas and fermented brussels sprouts. The eclectic combination of ingredients kept me going back for another spicy, vinegary bite.

Bag of crisps and eggs, Bottlefork

“Bag” of crisps and eggs with malt vinegar powder

The biggest surprise, though, was the first bite of the meal, which was listed on the menu as “Bag” of Crisps and Eggs. The seemingly unnecessary quotation marks actually hinted at the unconventional tableside preparation: the server arrived with a small brown bag full of chips and a soft-poached egg in a separate container; he then slid the egg into the bag, shook the bag vigorously, and poured the bag’s contents out onto a plate. What looked like just a pile of soggy, glossy potato chips turned out to be incredibly delicious. Somehow, the mixture of egg, potato, and zingy malt vinegar powder made the not-so-crispy texture work in the dish’s favor.

The details: Bottlefork, 441 N. Clark St., Chicago.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Waffle cone with brambleberry crisp & Bangkok peanut, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams

Brambleberry crisp and Bangkok peanut ice cream, Jeni's

Waffle cone with brambleberry crisp ice cream, Bangkok peanut ice cream, and salty graham gravel

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Based in Columbus, Ohio, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams is one of the most highly regarded artisanal ice cream brands in the country. Although the Chicago scoop shop has been open on Southport since last fall, I hadn’t visited until this past weekend – but what better day than the Fourth of July to partake in the rich American tradition of ice-cream eating? It was pretty thrilling to see all the creative, seasonal varieties I’d long admired in pints to instead be available for sampling, with an employee eager to describe the nuances of each flavor in nearly the same kind of detail that a sommelier would use in describing a wine. I was very pleased with the two flavors I chose for my waffle cone: the brambleberry crisp was laced with juicy blackberry jam and oat streusel, while the Bangkok peanut mimicked savory pad Thai and curry via accents of toasted coconut and cayenne. Together, they formed a complex, frozen version of a peanut butter and jelly, topped off with salty graham gravel for even more crunch. Jeni’s has officially joined Black Dog Gelato atop of my list of favorite creamy treats.

The details: Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, 3404 N. Southport Ave., Chicago.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Highlights from an 11-course tasting with wine pairings, Acadia

Caviar, Acadia

Siberian Osetra caviar with black garlic, eggplant, and chive flowers; pairing: 2002 Pierre Moncuit Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, Champagne

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: This post is a little overdue, since the occasion for this special meal was Father’s Day, but the stunning presentations and nuanced flavors are still fresh in my mind. We opted for the tasting menu with wine pairings and thus were able to see the full range of technique from Chef Ryan McCaskey.

Mini lobster rolls, Acadia

Mini lobster rolls on a bed of moss

We began with several snacks, including truly adorable miniature lobster rolls whose buns were made of pâte à choux (the foundation for cream puffs, and a staple of any pastry school curriculum). It was also a fun way of alluding to the full-size lobster rolls for which Acadia is lauded. Before we transitioned into the first course, Chef came out to our table to deliver their signature biscuits with butter and sea salt. He greeted us warmly, and also settled a friendly dispute between my dad and me over the origin of the flatware (I was right; it was French!). 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.

Yellowfin tuna, Acadia

Yellow fin tuna with smoked lardo, toasted hijiki mayonnaise, and turnip dashi

The yellowfin tuna course arrived as what was essentially a deconstructed spicy tuna roll, if you subtracted the rice and added miso soup. Light and clean, it was a nice segue into the vegetable course that followed. That dish showcased asparagus – purple, green, white, and French varieties – with richness from truffle and egg yolk, plus an incredibly crisp Italian white wine to go with it.

Asparagus, Acadia

Asparagus with green sorrel, chamomile, truffle, egg yolk, and brioche; pairing: 2013 Cascina Chicco, Anterisio, Arneis, Roero, Piedmont, Italy

Lobster cappuccino, Acadia

Lobster cappuccino with sherry bisque, chanterelle, and truffle espuma; pairing: 2012 Sans Liege “Cotes-du-Coast,” Rhone-style blend, Central Coast, California

The lobster cappuccino was one of my favorite courses, its luxurious foam and umami-rich broth served in a dainty teacup. This course also had the most interesting white wine pairing of the evening: a Rhone-style California blend with a round sweetness that was a perfect counterpart to the sherry and lobster. Another seafood standout was the lubina, a mild whitefish joined by clams, fennel, and pungent chorizo powder for a bouillabaisse effect.

Lubina, Acadia

Lubina with canellini bean, manila clam, castelvertrano olive, fennel, and catalan broth; pairing: 2012 Pedres “Thilbas,” Vermentino di Gallura, Sardinia, Italy

Bone marrow, Acadia

Bone marrow with peeky toe crab, veal cheeks, and textures; pairing: 2011 Wineck-Schlossberg, Grand Cru Riesling, Alsace, France

I was excited to see a bone marrow course, and was impressed by how it stood out from other marrow preparations I’ve had in the past. Served in a pristine white bone, the dish was a study in sharply contrasting layers: jerky-like veal at the bottom, shredded crab in the middle, and fatty marrow on top. We then paused for a dense, herb-flecked miniature waffle as another intermezzo.

Herb waffles, Acadia

Herb waffles with butter, sea salt, and chive blossoms

Smoked ribeye, Acadia

Smoked ribeye with pickled wild onion, green garlic, morel condiment, and beef jus; pairing: 2008 Andrew Will, “Champoux Vineyard,” Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills, Washington

By the time we got to the beef course, the petite portion of smoked ribeye (cooked to a flawless medium-rare) was as satisfying as a full meal of steak and potatoes. This dish felt the most classic, even down to the fantastic Cabernet pairing. After the steak, I was still eagerly anticipating the foie gras course, since I ate the best foie of my life on my only other visit to Acadia nearly six months earlier. While I do have to admit I liked January’s preparation better overall, this one struck the same kind of balance between the foie and an array of aromatic (celery and fennel), fruity (strawberry and rhubarb), and sweet (white chocolate) accompaniments, paired with bitter aperol to cut through all the sweetness.

Foie gras, Acadia

Foie gras torchon with celery, white chocolate, strawberry, rhubarb, fennel, and black olive; pairing: Aperol Spritz

Miel, Acadia

Miel with citrus, honey, and huckleberry; pairing: 2007 Domaine de L’Ancienne Cure, Monbazillac, France

Finally, it was on to the desserts. A dome of not-too-sweet Japanese cheesecake with honey and berries was creamy and citrusy, while a nutty profiterole with banana and chocolate became even warmer and more comforting as I sipped the cinnamon-leaning amaro paired with it. All in all, one of my favorite meals in Chicago so far, and well worth keeping in mind for any special occasion.

Profiterole, Acadia

Profiterole with black walnut, banana, and hot chocolate; pairing: Cardamaro, Amaro, Italy

The details: Acadia, 1639 S. Wabash Ave., Chicago.

Best Bites, Lists

List: From coffee to cocktails, seven of my favorite sips lately

It’s finally summertime in Chicago, so I’ve got beverages on the brain. Here’s a round-up of a few recent favorites.

Rum cocktail, Homestead on the Roof

With bursts of blueberry, thyme, and lemon, plus lots of ice, this rum-based cocktail was frothy and refreshing.

Rum cocktail, Homestead on the Roof

Rum cocktail with blueberry-thyme, housemade falernum, lemon, and angostura – alongside Homestead’s always-stellar bread basket

Homestead on the Roof, 1924 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago.

Cortado, Intelligentsia Logan Square

Once you order this off-menu beverage that combines espresso and milk in perfect balance, you’ll never go back (and, to be honest, this is also what you order if you want to impress a barista!). It was perfect to sip slowly as I lost myself in a great book.

Cortado, Intelligentsia Coffee Logan Square

Cortado on the sidewalk patio, accompanied by my latest read, “The Goldfinch”

Intelligentsia Coffee, 2642 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.

Mango-orange-kiwi juice with honey, Meli Cafe

I fell in love with this unique tropical juice combination and the added silky sweetness from the honey.

Mango, orange, and kiwi juice with honey, Meli Cafe

Mango, orange, and kiwi juice with honey

Meli Cafe, 540 N. Wells St., Chicago.

Masala chai latte, Reno

I’ve sung Reno’s praises before, but this spicy chai became my new go-to for camping out to get a couple hours of work done.

Masala chai latte, Reno

Masala chai latte

Reno, 2607 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago.

Blood orange Radler, The Radler

This beer cocktail screamed summer, from its fiery orange color to its citrusy, fizzy, and thoroughly thirst-quenching character.

Blood orange Radler, The Radler

Blood orange Radler with Ayinger Brau Weisse and blood orange soda

The Radler, 2375 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.

Dark Matter Chocolate City draft iced coffee, Longman & Eagle

While there’s no actual chocolate in this draft iced coffee, the cocoa notes and bold, fruity complexity make it the dreamiest of morning beverages, especially outside on the patio with a splash of cream.

Dark Matter Chocolate City draft iced coffee, Longman and Eagle

Dark Matter Chocolate City draft iced coffee (on the patio, of course!)

Longman & Eagle, 2657 N Kedzie Ave., Chicago.

Hot chocolate, La Colombe

Dark, rich hot chocolate is always a treat, but even more so in such a beautifully intricate cup and saucer.

Hot chocolate, La Colombe

Hot chocolate

La Colombe, 1552 N. Damen Ave., Chicago.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Salt-crusted branzino, grilled ramps & more, Nico Osteria

Grilled octopus fettunta, Nico Osteria

Grilled octopus fettunta with favetta, grapefruit, and preserved lemon

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Nico has been near the top of my list since it opened late last year, having already earned local and national accolades that are now becoming routine for Paul Kahan’s restaurants. We began the evening on the patio facing bustling Rush Street and snacked on a grilled octopus fettunta (Nico’s term for grilled bread with toppings, much like bruschetta) that was bejeweled by grapefruit and preserved lemon for double the acidity. It was lovely alongside my Venus in Furs cocktail, smoky and refreshing on such a muggy evening.

Venus in Furs cocktail, Nico Osteria

Venus in Furs cocktail with aperol, mezcal, velvet falernum, lime juice, and campari, on the Nico patio

Before we knew it, a thunderstorm had set in and we were quickly moved inside to the bar. It wasn’t long before a pristine whole branzino arrived, salt-crusted and studded with tender forest mushrooms and sweet zante currants. The fish was buttery and perfectly flaky, although it’s worth noting that Gold Coast prices make it expensive enough to be more of a special-occasion centerpiece. And on the side, a tangle of grilled ramps reminded me why their short season is so cherished. Their mild onion flavor melted beautifully into the salt-cod crema, with crunch from almonds and lingering char from the grill.

Salt-crusted branzino and grilled ramps, Nico Osteria

Salt-crusted branzino with forest mushrooms and zante currants; grilled ramps with salt cod crema and almonds

And we couldn’t skip dessert – not when pastry chef Amanda Rockman is hailed as one of the city’s best and is responsible for such masterpieces as Balena’s gelato sundaes. While I loved the affogato – espresso poured over cardamom-sweet cream gelato for a “dirty chai” effect – I was even more impressed by the Nico torte. It was like eating all the best lemon desserts at the same time: the crusty bottom of the cake with lemon filling soaked inside evoked a lemon bar, but together with the poppyseed gelato, it transformed into a muffin; add in the pickled blueberries and lemon curd on the plate, and it became a summer parfait. The Nico torte changes seasonally, so I’ll have to return for more variations.

Nico torte, Nico Osteria

Nico torte with lemon, pickled blueberry, ginger, and citrus poppyseed gelato

The details: Nico Osteria, 1015 N. Rush St., Chicago.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Spring pea tart and First Base cocktail, The Dawson

Spring pea tart, The Dawson

Spring pea tart with fromage blanc mousse, garden salad, and almond cracker

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Spring peas rank right up there with ramps on the list of spring ingredients I look forward to most, so I jumped at the chance to eat them in tart form on my first visit to The Dawson in River West. The frosty tart layered almond, fromage blanc, and peas into a creamy orb, brightened up by lemon and mint. It was topped with more spring favorites – fava beans, radish, pea shoots – to form a stunningly fresh starter.

First Base cocktail, The Dawson

First Base cocktail with Reyka vodka, white port, white grape, St. Germain, Bittermens Boston Bittahs, and lemon

To drink, I had the First Base, one of the newest additions to the cocktail menu. I rarely order drinks made with vodka, but there was something about the combination of port, St. Germain, and white grape that intrigued me. The drink was crisp, clean, and a little sweet, reminiscent of a boozy frozen grape. It paired well with the chilled tart. The Dawson also boasts a large enclosed patio, with wooden trellises, intricate tile, and even a fireplace centerpiece. Sadly, however, the weather didn’t cooperate, so we had to gaze longingly through the windows. I’ll definitely be back on a warmer evening to nab a seat out there.

The details: The Dawson, 730 W. Grand Ave., Chicago.

Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, San Francisco

Travel Eats documents my food adventures outside of Chicago.

Bay Bridge, San Francisco

My waterfront view of the Bay Bridge while happily savoring my market breakfast

I took a quick trip to Northern California this past weekend for a friend’s wedding in the Sonoma Valley. The venue, Cline Cellars, was idyllic wine country at its finest, with an abundance of Californian bites and excellent wine straight from the source. However, this post is about the most food-focused part of my weekend: a morning spent at San Francisco’s iconic Ferry Building. Between the indoor artisanal food vendors and the outdoor farmers market stalls that ensconced the building, I was one-hundred percent in my element. As luscious produce and gourmet goods stretched before me in every direction, I practically skipped from row to row, barely able to keep myself from trying one of everything. Below is the best of my market bounty.

Albacore tuna sandwich, Ferry Building Farmers Market

Albacore tuna sandwich with roasted golden beets, toasted walnuts, and pickled onion from San Francisco Lox Sandwich at Cap’n Mike’s Holy Smoke

Apache apricots and Brooks cherries, Frog Hollow Farm

Apache apricots and Brooks cherries, both incredibly tasty organic varieties from Frog Hollow Farm that I snacked on the rest of the weekend

Cinnamon bun biscuit, Biscuit Bender

Cinnamon bun biscuit (yes, it was as good as it sounds) from Biscuit Bender‘s adorably decorated stall inside the building

Can't leave the Ferry Building without Blue Bottle coffee

Can’t leave the Ferry Building without a café au lait from Blue Bottle Coffee Co., whose lines often snake around the market

A view of the Ferry Building Farmers Market from the back

A view of the market stalls and live music from the back of the building

The details: Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, held Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Smoked trout sandwich, The Winchester

Smoked trout sandwich, The Winchester

Smoked trout sandwich with fennel, mascarpone, honey, and lavender

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Simplicity reigns at the Winchester, a neighborhood café that opened a few months ago on the street of the same name. As I perused the clean, uncomplicated menu, the smoked trout sandwich jumped out immediately. What stood out most within the first few bites was the textural contrast of the trout, its crispy skin and flaky flesh intermingling in a way almost reminiscent of sardines. The other aromatic components – fennel, mascarpone, honey, and lavender – lent a sweet and floral complexity, joining the trout inside plump bread that fell somewhere between a pretzel roll and a split-top bun. I also love that this photo captures the sunlight through the window, because the natural light streaming into the airy, minimalist space was what made the atmosphere especially lovely during my lunch.

The details: The Winchester, 1001 N. Winchester, Chicago.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: pulled pork, pickles two ways, and moonshine, Lillie’s Q

Fried pickles and kool-aid pickles, Lillie's Q

Pickles two ways: beer-battered with ranch, and marinated in cherry kool-aid

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: The stakes were a little higher than usual at this recent meal: I was challenged to prove to a skeptical Memphian that there’s good barbecue to be found in Chicago. With my reputation on the line, I had faith that two restaurants in particular would meet the lofty standards of someone who hails from a BBQ capital: Lillie’s Q and Smoque (which will be phase two). After our party secured a window table at Lillie’s, we started with two preparations of pickles. The fried pickles came in substantial beer-battered slices – they almost looked more like fried oysters – alongside a thin ranch dipping sauce. While they were a solid snack, what really earned the seal of Southern authenticity was the jar of fiery red kool-aid pickles, sweet from a cherry kool-aid marinade and spicy on the finish. As conversation turned to tales of childhood nostalgia, I knew we were already on the right track.

Pulled pork and collard greens, Lillie's Q

Half-pound of pulled pork (pre-sauce) and collard greens with ham hock

The real test, of course, was the meat. The half-pound portion of pulled pork was as smoky and perfect on its own as I’d remembered, but I couldn’t resist splashing bites with almost every one of the diverse sauces (it also reminded me to replenish my own fridge, where I consistently stock either the Smoky or Carolina retail varieties). My generous side of greens provided a welcome vinegary contrast, and the potent moonshine cocktails were a fitting libation. I’m proud (and relieved) to report that Lillie’s Q passed the test, so my credibility remains intact.

Moonshine, Lillie's Q

A few variations on moonshine: blueberry, apple pie, and just neat

The details: Lillie’s Q, 1856 W. North Ave., Chicago.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Open-faced breakfast burger, Grange Hall Burger Bar

Open-faced breakfast burger, Grange Hall Burger Bar

Open-faced breakfast burger with grass-fed beef burger, cinnamon-raisin french toast, canadian and applewood bacon, maple syrup, sharp cheddar, and sunny-side-up egg

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: I’ve blogged about my sweet-savory brunch dilemma before, and it remains my most difficult decision on any morning menu. So if there’s a dish that combines both in one, you can bet I’ll be ordering it. Only available on the weekend Farmer’s Breakfast menu, this open-faced burger immediately reminded me of a gourmet, locally sourced, next-level McGriddle (in a good way, of course). It packs three kinds of meat – canadian bacon, applewood bacon, and the grass-fed beef patty – plus cheddar and an chive-flecked egg, all atop a slice of syrup-soaked cinnamon-raisin french toast. While it’s certainly decadent, the portion is still manageable and satisfied every brunch craving at once. The setting is just as pleasant: from the cheery red door flanked by fresh tulips to the farm-themed decor throughout the restaurant, I felt right at home.

Grange Hall Burger Bar entrance

A weathered red door and fresh tulips at the entrance set off the farm décor

The details: Grange Hall Burger Bar, 844 W. Randolph St., Chicago.