After two very difficult years for restaurants and dining out, I’m pleased to share an unexpected and unique bright spot recently. Last year, I happened to see a mention of a new underground supper club called Txa Txa (like “cha cha”) Club in Logan Square, my old neighborhood, with experimental menus that changed every month. As they put it, “Supper Club is about creating something dreamy and playful, intentional yet whimsical; for turning the rules inside out, questioning the long-held paradigms of hospitality and reimagining them on our own turf and terms.” I took a closer look at some of the photos and was stunned to realize that the venue, their home, was the very same apartment I lived in for years, first with my roommate and then later on my own. I knew we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have this special dining experience in a place that held countless significant memories.
This month, it worked out to attend one of the twice-monthly dinners. It was a celebration of early spring, with vibrant colors and unexpected hints of sweetness in each dish.
We began with a brightly hued cucumber and aquavit cocktail as we took in the familiar living room surroundings that had been reinvented with plentiful candles, plants, books, and artistic touches. The trio of tea sandwiches made for a fun start, each a twist on the traditional version. My favorite was the spam, elevated by tangy pineapple mostarda.
Next was the soup course, a smooth and herby blend of fennel and walnut, with crispy leeks and apple that balanced each other nicely.
If I had to pick a highlight of the meal, it was the white asparagus salad course. The parsnip puree underneath was smoked using a wok, for gentle sweetness that went beautifully with the mild, first-of-the-season asparagus. The mix of textures and the complexity from the almond, egg, and caper with the smoky puree made it really stand out.
The fourth course also combined unexpected flavors: a squid ink pasta, filled with striking magenta beet-ricotta filling and dressed in a foamy coconut milk with added brininess from fish sauce. So, ravioli with a Southeast Asian flavor profile – creative and delicious.
And finally, a dessert that pushed boundaries by essentially combining ice cream and sungold tomatoes. I was admittedly just a bit skeptical, but the combination of nutty, creamy, floral, and acidic was absolutely a successful note to end on.
This dinner was truly a full-circle moment, and I’m grateful to have been part of the next chapter in a beloved former home.
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’sbest-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.”
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I’d been curious about Rhine Hall’s apple brandy ever since I read about the family-owned distillery opening a few years ago, so it was an easy sell to book a tour of the facility through Groupon. I was surprised to learn that each bottle is made from a single ingredient: 25 (or so) pounds of fruit. Nothing else is added during the distillation process so that the brandy retains the fruit’s aroma and flavor. There were 11 varieties on offer during my visit: apple, oak-aged apple, grappa, oak-aged grappa, plum, oak-aged plum, mango, peach, pear, cherry, and bierschnaps.
Before starting the tour, I tried one of the seasonal cocktails meant to showcase all the different fruit flavors. This one combined the pear brandy with lemon, arugula, and black pepper bitters to a brilliant result. It was so fresh and herbaceous, and the pear flavor shone through as the sweet note in an otherwise savory cocktail.
It was interesting to hear about the full spirit lifecycle: each kind of fruit is delivered in mass quantities from local farms, then pulverized using an industrial chopper. The fruit pulp is then fermented over a multi-month period before it can be distilled, rested, and finally bottled. I could tell that the tight-knit Rhine Hall team is passionate about what they do, and enjoys experimenting to reach the best-possible final product.
After the tour, I tried a different cocktail; this time, plum brandy was paired with lavender, honey, and lots of lemon. I still can’t decide which cocktail I preferred, but they both illustrated how versatile (and tasty) fruit brandy can be.
The event was held at Read It & Eat in Lincoln Park, a culinary bookstore that also holds cooking classes and author demos like this one. Joy was in the middle of a tour to promote her third cookbook, Over Easy, which celebrates all things brunch.
During the demo, Joy showed us mixing methods for butter and buttermilk that would ensure maximum biscuit fluffiness. For the jam, she jazzed up canned peach preserves by adding lemon juice, lemon zest, honey, and bourbon (as you do). Two jam-slathered biscuit halves and a slice of country ham combined for a lovely two-bite sandwich.
Throughout the event, Joy was just as friendly, sharp, and playful as her writing had suggested all these years. When she signed my book, we chatted like we’d known each other a while; she just had a way of making everyone feel at ease (a shared love of good food will often do that). I can’t wait to start trying some of these brunch recipes – first stop: French toast breakfast burritos.
Last night, I attended my first Land and Sea Dept. pop-up dinner with two food-loving friends. We bought tickets for the later of the two seatings held in the group’s East Garfield Park studio space (both sold out within hours).
It was the first of this fall’s From Good Stock supper club series, and featured Chef Andy Ricker preparing the cuisine of the Tai Yai / Shan people in the north of Thailand. Everything was served family-style at communal tables, and I felt very at-home among people who appreciate adventurous food as much as I do.
Ricker is renowned in the food world for the wildly popular Pok Pok Thai restaurants, which opened first in Portland, then expanded to New York and Los Angeles. Pok Pok was at the top of my list when I visited Portland a few years ago, and the chicken wings (and more) did not disappoint.
With a soundtrack of Thai music from the DJ, we opened the evening with a cocktail by Paul McGee (best known for the beloved Lost Lake) that included local Letherbee Gin and one of Pok Pok’s drinking vinegars. It was punchy, fruity, and complex, as McGee’s cocktails always are, and set the tone for the sour-sweet-spicy balance that would persist throughout the meal.
The first course was anchored by a fiery dip of sour tomatoes, peanuts, green onions, and a whole lot of chiles. Of all the accompaniments – cabbage, cucumber, and some more exotic herbs and vegetables – my favorite were the knotted green beans. The spiciness of the dip was right at the edge of my comfort level, but I’d prefer an authentic experience over one tamed for Western palates. Lacey fritters made with shallot and green papaya were a deep-fried foil for the chile-laden dip.
The two components of the second course had the same sort of dynamic: one spicy and super-charged; one meant to absorb the other’s impact. The yu choy salad was a textural explosion of crispy shallots, peanuts, and pork cracklings, plus more of the sour-spicy ingredients from the dip and pungent black sesame oil. The heat of the salad was tempered by rice balls, gently flavored with turmeric and fried garlic. Eating both together was key to this course.
We paired the first two courses with Double Jungle Boogie, a fantastic imperial IPA from local Marz Community Brewing Co. Then the beer got even more creative: each person was presented with a Thai “jelly beer,” a bottle of Singha lager cooled below freezing for a slushy-like effect (explained here by Thrillist). A traditional elephant-carved barrel gently shakes the beer in an ice bath – here’s an Instagram video of the barrel in action. When the beer is opened, the pressure release and temperature change is what creates the slushy consistency.
And, needless to say, such a cold beer was sweet, sweet relief after two spicy courses. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated an icy lager more than I did at that moment.
Then came the third course, whose centerpiece was a luxurious pork belly and shoulder curry. The pork was wonderfully tender and aromatic from just enough five-spice, bathed in a mild-yet-rich broth. Alongside were lightly seasoned, almost creamy rice vermicelli noodles showered with more of the same onions and herbs. The noodles were especially useful in soaking up the leftover pork broth. The course also included a curry of boiled eggs and what a fellow diner described as Thai marinara sauce. Eggs cooked in a tomato-based sauce are a staple of many world cuisines (Israeli shakshuka is the buzziest at the moment), and this version fit right in.
The meal ended the way it began: with a mint-garnished cocktail. This time, cold-brew coffee joined milk, coconut, and Letherbee fernet (a spirit I keep on hand at home) as a sweet and licorice-scented dessert drink. The dessert itself was a bowl of coconut cream, sweetened with palm sugar and dotted with Thai bananas and soft tapioca pearls, which were worlds apart from the larger (and to me, unappealing) bubble tea variety. As a whole, the meal was an unforgettable introduction to ultra-regional flavors that I likely would never have experienced outside of traveling there myself.
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.
Here are my beer tasting notes, in order of sampling:
I was graciously given a ticket to attend a special event at Prairie Fruits Farm back home in Champaign over the weekend. Proceeds from the evening benefited the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, a worthy organization aiming to fight hunger in the area. The special guest was Chef Rick Bayless, who serves the farm’s goat cheese in his restaurants and agreed to appear for both a private cooking demonstration and intimate four-course dinner. Bayless’s commitment to local agriculture has been transformative in the Midwest over the past few decades; in fact, Prairie Fruits Farm itself had received a Frontera Farmer Foundation grant to install its commercial kitchen, so the event was an especially meaningful celebration of that partnership.
For the first part of the afternoon, Bayless demonstrated three seasonal recipes: guacamole, margaritas, and tomato salad using produce from the farm’s own garden – a dish he said he made up when he got there that day. I’ve seen his cooking demos before, but continue to be blown away by how seamlessly he incorporates ingredient information (did you know that it takes a full year for an avocado to mature?) and cooking tips into the actual step-by-step preparation of the dish. Bayless incorporated honey crisp apples, which he admitted were his favorite variety, into both the guacamole and the margarita. For the former, they were joined by fennel and thyme in addition to the avocado, and for the latter, they were blended with habanero before mingling with tequila, apple brandy, and a cinnamon-black pepper-salt rim. Both were lovely departures from their more traditional counterparts, although I will note that the margarita had some serious heat! After the demo, Bayless signed a few cookbooks and then was off to the kitchen to resume prep for the night’s meal. Meanwhile, we guests enjoyed a cocktail hour in the barn before co-owner Wes Jarrell led us on a tour of the farm. It was such a treat to see the adorable goats – and thank them for contributing to such incredible cheese! – as Wes pointed out interesting produce in the garden and shared more of the farm’s history.
Once back at the barn, it was time to eat. As expected, all four courses were a stunning convergence of the seasonal, elegant Mexican cuisine that Bayless does so well and the pure essence of each showcased cheese. The masa boat packed lots of richness and tang into a single starting bite, and the tomato salad held burst after burst of flavor, each component distinct within a bright tomato-centric palette. I was glad to see Bayless incorporate his famous mole into the main course, and the poblano variety underneath the pork loin was mild, but as complex and velvety as ever. I could have eaten that sauce on its own, but when paired with the chèvre-stuffed tamales, I was in heaven. The real show-stopper, though, was the dessert: a “mash-up,” as Bayless put it, of tres leches cake and a classic pear, blue cheese, and walnut salad. It was out-of-the-box and completely successful, perfectly punctuating the meal’s joint spotlight on the flavors of Mexico and the endless potential of farm-fresh cheese.
A few weeks ago, I received an enthusiastic voicemail from a close friend who is a second-grade teacher for Chicago Public Schools. She told me she was starting a unit about persuasive writing and reviews, and had been scrolling through this little blog for inspiration, but then had a better idea: for me to come in person and talk about how to write about food. I agreed to do it, and thus my very first public appearance as a food blogger!
For the first part of my visit, my blog was projected onto the screen in front of three classes of second-graders. As I scrolled through the posts and photos, they asked questions. Lots of questions. “Do you take notes about what you eat?” “How do you decide where to go?” “How can you afford to go to all those places?” “What’s your favorite pizza?” “How do you get the pictures onto the website?” I tried to field them as honestly as possible, which turned out to be a great exercise to reflecting on my process and breaking down what I do into a simpler explanation.
Back in my friend’s classroom, all the students got to taste each of four different kinds of cupcakes from Molly’s Cupcakes, and then had to describe each one on their worksheet. I had a blast going around to each group of desks and hearing about their reactions to the different cupcakes. Their palates were amazingly sophisticated: some students picked up on subtle coffee flavors in the cookies ‘n’ cream cupcake, while others objected that the filling in the cake batter cupcake was too runny and the flavor was off. In our group discussion at the end, one main trend emerged: the ones who liked the chocolate decadence cupcake best liked the cake batter cupcake least, and vice versa. I guess you can chalk it up to the age-old vanilla/chocolate divide. (Side note: try explaining what decadence means in second-grade terms…my first attempt was to use the word “lavish,” but that didn’t really help.)
While I don’t think a full-time career of shaping young minds is in my future, it was rewarding to see the students thoughtfully engage with the activity and get excited about what I was there to share with them. The morning concluded with the whole class swarming around me for a huge group hug, and one student asked if their class would get to be on my blog. I’ll make sure their teacher passes this along!
I’ve been waiting to blog about the final Fête event that I attended a few weeks ago (see previous Fête coverage here and here): the official launch of Middlewest magazine. Middlewest was created by David Tamarkin and Erica Gannett, both formerly of Time Out Chicago and well-known for food writing and photography, respectively. They worked with design team Sonnenzimmer to produce a new kind of food magazine, meant as a complete departure from tradition. Aesthetically, it’s striking: 10 seasonal recipes on 10 double-sided cards, plus a fold out literary supplement, all inside a white envelope. The images of each recipe are intricately layered for a look that’s undeniably unique. At the event, the creators discussed their bold intentions with Middlewest and how the process unfolded with this inaugural issue. It was really interesting to hear how they ended up with the deconstructed look, the three-word recipe headlines, and other features of the final product.
So, when it came time to decide which recipe to make first, this brilliant green pea pâté practically leapt off its artful page. I subbed in sage for tarragon (out of availability and personal preference), but stuck closely to the rest of the recipe: toasting, then grinding the fennel; sweating down the shallots; blanching, then shocking the peas; and carefully processing it all together with garlic and salt. The result was bright, springy, and basically addictive. Turns out peas and fennel are great together! I tried it spread on both toasted baguette and seedy cracker, and served it with roasted radishes. I have a feeling the other Middlewest recipes will be just as successful, and can’t wait to explore more of these seasonal flavor pairings.
The details:For this and other recipes, buy the magazine’s first issue here.
For my second Fête event this weekend, I had the rare chance to tour the Crucial Detail studio, led by designer Martin Kastner. He’s best known for designing breathtaking servingware for chef Grant Achatz’s Alinea, Next, and Aviary. His beautiful vessels are meant to translate Achatz’s innovative cooking techniques into each dish’s aesthetic presentation on the table. In a discussion moderated by Columbia College professor Kevin Henry, Kastner discussed how his work lands at an intersection of food and design.
Kastner grew up in the Czech Republic and started a career as a castle blacksmith. After marrying an American and relocating to her home country, however, he realized he was essentially unemployable (not too many castles here). It was then that he first explored design, wanting to be more personally expressive rather than retracing the creative steps of others. He also ended up helping his wife at a bakery many mornings and was intrigued by dough as a material, which planted a seed in his mind to think more critically about food.
In the late ’90s, Kastner received an email inquiry from Achatz completely out of the blue. Achatz had found Kastner in a web search for designers in the Midwest, which only returned a few dozen sites at the time. Kastner’s first project for Achatz was the Tripod, designed to serve an ice sphere that stood up on three legs when placed on the table, then collapsed into a lollipop-style stick when the diner picked it up. From there, the rest is history. Kastner went on to tell some of the stories behind his designs, many of which I’ve been fortunate enough to experience at Alinea and Aviary.
For example, the Porthole. It’s in use at Aviary and is likely Kastner’s most famous design due to a recent Kickstarter campaign that hit 10,000 orders within its first week. It was designed for a time-based cocktail that infuses ingredients over a longer period, so that with each pour, the drinker should be able to taste and see the difference in the drink. “The goal is to drive behavior,” Kastner said, so that the intended drinking process would be clear enough to the customer to not need further guidance. Interestingly, when the Aviary team first conceived this slow-infused cocktail, they originally envisioned serving it in a teapot, but Kastner suggested that it would be much more effective to have it visible through a sort of window, and to somehow enclose the drink in a marine environment (like a porthole). The vessel got a huge response, and I can attest that it’s a gorgeous, dramatic presentation, as seen in the close-up above.
Also in use at Aviary are trios of Petals (seen at right above). They were designed to serve small bites in multiples, but still leave as small a footprint on the table as possible. They also needed to have the ability to preheat and pre-chill the vessels, since as Kastner put it, “food is a time-based medium.” When I saw the plates hit the table at Aviary, I noticed that they were elegant and multi-leveled, but never considered the amount of space they took up on the table, or their differing temperatures. While I’m sure that lack of awareness was exactly the point – for the experience to be seamless and the focus to remain on the food – it makes it that much more meaningful to know what’s really behind these designs.
Kastner delved into the story of the Antenna as well, which I immediately remembered from my meal at Alinea. The idea came from Kastner’s frustration with the inefficiency and clumsiness of bites being presented on a skewer, but then having a knife and fork alongside the plate too. His solution was this single, streamlined, provocative utensil. “When that lands on the table, people stop talking,” Kastner said. It’s dynamic, since it moves around in the air, and the chef can play with textures, flavors, and sound in a unified way. Most fascinating to me, though, was his explanation that it also allows the chef to have precise control over which part of the dish hits each area of the mouth. Pretty awesome.
“I never expected to be in this culinary freak show that I’m in,” Kastner admitted, laughing, but embraces it as a specialty in which he’s found great success. Kastner stressed that it’s the satisfaction of finding the right solution, both in form and in function, that really keeps him motivated.