Chicago Delicious Events

An Alinea birthday dinner

Salon interior, Alinea

It’s a question I get a lot: what’s the best meal you’ve ever had? And for 12 years, my answer has been dinner at Alinea. When I dined there in August 2011, I was in my early days of living in Chicago and immersing myself in restaurant culture post-culinary school. Even nabbing a reservation for our group of 4 was next to impossible. Back then, you had to call their reservation line on the first day of the month, over and over, in hopes of getting through. I remember vividly that I was on a CTA bus while calling, and when I finally heard a voice on the other side, I practically leapt off the bus (well before my stop, but I didn’t care). I hadn’t started the blog yet, but reflected a bit on the experience as part of my musings on tasting menus. Each of the 18 courses brought a different kind of surprise and delight, and I remember being enchanted from start to finish.

Alinea is world renowned, and is one of just 14 restaurants in the U.S. to earn 3 Michelin stars. And for my birthday this year, I was fortunate enough to go for a second time. Here are my reflections on the Salon experience.

Nacre | Osetra caviar, mussel, lychee
Nacre | Osetra, mussel, lychee

The meal began with caviar, served with a pearl spoon in an iridescent, bubbled dish whose imprint in your hand mimicked the texture of the caviar. The creamy layer hiding underneath was sweetened with lychee and was a delicious contrast to the salty caviar. A glass of bubbly completed the opulent start.

Auberdines | eggplant, rye, butter, herbs
Auberdines | eggplant, rye, butter, herbs

The vegetable dish, apted named auberdines, starred eggplant that treated to expertly mimic a oil-soaked sardine, then laid atop buttered rye toast with plenty of bright herbs.

Squeaker | potpourri, blueberry, foie gras, aigre-doux
Squeaker | potpourri, blueberry, foie gras, aigre-doux

In my first visit years ago, the herbal centerpiece was interactive: we were given scissors to cut off sprigs as garnishes for a salad in a later course. So this time, I knew that the golden swan on the table, only holding a dried bouquet at first glance, would probably come into play later on. Sure enough, it was rearranged on its lace doily for a couple of courses before a server reached inside and pulled out a bag of two biscuits, then small jars of foie gras spread and blueberry jam to go with the squab. The agre-doux (sweet and sour sauce) was an excellent accompaniment.

Jameed, to be used as a garnish for the wagyu short rib dish
Jameed, a fermented, dried yogurt to be used as a garnish for the Wagyu short rib dish

The red meat course was just as impressive this time as last. Wagyu short rib was dusted with jameed, a salty, dried yogurt from Jordan that first appeared on the table as an orb under a glass cloche.

Jacob's Ladder | pomegranate, plum, jameed
Jacob’s Ladder | pomegranate, plum, jameed

Two of the courses were the same as last time. Both “hot potato” and “truffle explosion” are Alinea classics, so while I knew what to expect from each, it was fun to be reunited.

Two of the desserts were also familiar, not added to the menu until after my first visit, but very much associated with the restaurant in recent years. As soon as the grey silicone cloth was draped over our table, I knew a Jackson Pollock-style, eat-the mess-off-the-table dessert was still in the rotation. This iteration celebrated the flavors of a banana split, with several sauces, cherry fudge, brown butter nougat, waffle cone, pineapple “right-side-up” cake, and liquid nitrogen banana ice cream. It was truly so delightful to eat, with a slightly different bite every time I dragged my spoon across the table.

Paint | flavors of a banana split
Paint | flavors of a banana split

And the birthday-appropriate green apple balloon, the other now-famous dessert, showed up shortly after. It was meant to be kissed to inhale the helium, and then you could proceed to eat the sticky taffy and string. The whole process really had us laughing. If there was a test for eating it gracefully, I’d say I failed.

Special birthday course
Special birthday course

For the final birthday touch, the smoke from my birthday candle was captured in a glass, with a cake-and-frosting soda poured in and topped off with rosé. I was impressed by the attention to detail in the service, as the commemorative soda bottle had my correct birthday written on the tag, seemingly from a sly conversation at the host stand before we were seated.

Deep down, I knew it wouldn’t be possible to recapture the unprecedented magic of my visit 12 years ago. This time, it was more the little moments of conceptual creativity and magnificent technique that added up to a very memorable birthday experience.

The details: Alinea, 1723 N Halsted St., Chicago.

Delicious Events

A uniquely nostalgic spring meal at Txa Txa Supper Club

Apertivo with house fermented aquavit, cucumber, and fennel
Apertivo with house fermented aquavit, cucumber, and fennel, from our table in the front window

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.

Spring(-ish) tea sandwiches with milk bread, cucumber, watercress, cream cheese, and anchovy; crispy spam, pineapple mostarda, and nori; pumpernickel, egg salad, and za'atar
Spring(-ish) tea sandwiches with milk bread, cucumber, watercress, cream cheese, and anchovy; crispy spam, pineapple mostarda, and nori; pumpernickel, egg salad, and za’atar

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.

Fennel and walnut soup with apple, turmeric, black vinegar, and crispy leeks
Fennel and walnut soup with apple, turmeric, black vinegar, and crispy leeks
Poached white asparagus with smoked parnsip, watercress, marcona almond, caper dus, and cured egg yolk
Poached white asparagus with smoked parnsip, watercress, marcona almond, caper dust, and cured egg yolk

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.

Squid ink ravioli with beet, ricotta, lemongrass, and coconut
Squid ink ravioli with beet, ricotta, lemongrass, and coconut
Pistachio and pandan ice cream with vanilla-poached sungolds, rose water, and white chocolate
Pistachio and pandan ice cream with vanilla-poached sungolds, rose water, and white chocolate

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.

Txa Txa facade

The details: Supper Club at Txa Txa Club, address provided at booking.

Delicious Events Food for Thought

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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Delicious Events

Delicious Event: Tour & fruit brandy cocktails at Rhine Hall Distillery

Pear brandy cocktail, Rhine Hall Distillery
Liquid Diet cocktail with pear brandy, muddled arugula, lemon, simple syrup, and black pepper bitters

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.

Holstein copper pot still
The Holstein copper pot still where all of Rhine Hall’s brandy is distilled

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.

Plum brandy cocktail, Rhine Hall Distillery
Golden Afternoon cocktail with plum brandy, honey lavender syrup, and lemon

The details: Rhine Hall Distillery, 2010 W. Fulton St., Chicago.

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Delicious Events

Delicious Event: Joy the Baker Over Easy demo & book signing

Mini ham and bourbon-peach jam biscuits from Joy the Baker Over Easy cookbook
Mini ham and bourbon-peach jam biscuits from Joy the Baker Over Easy cookbook

Joy Wilson started Joy the Baker in 2008, one of the very first food blogs I started reading regularly, so it was surreal to finally meet Joy in person. Her blog has been a go-to resource for any manner of baked goods (especially cookies) and savory dishes (her summery peach tomato mozzarella crostini were captured in my very early Instagram days). Her pancake recipes also never disappoint, including the peanut-butter-bacon-banana pancakes that showed up on this blog a few years back.

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.

Joy the Baker cooking demo
Joy assembling the biscuit sandwiches during the demo

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.

Over Easy cookbook signed by Joy
My cookbook, signed by Joy, plus a donut Joy the Baker patch

The details: Joy the Baker at Read It & Eat, 2142 N. Halsted St., Chicago.

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Delicious Events

Delicious Event: Pok Pok Thai pop-up supper club in Chicago

Pok Pok pop-up table setting
Loft-style space with long wooden tables, set with fork and spoon atop Thai paper placemats

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.

Chef Andy Ricker in the kitchen
Chef Andy Ricker overseeing the plated first course

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.

Welcome cocktail and pinball machine, Pok Pok pop-up
Welcome cocktail of Letherbee gin, pineapple, lemon, tamarind vinegar, Letherbee absinthe brun, chili tincture, and mint, with a pinball machine backdrop

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.

Naam pit with crudites, Pok Pok
Naam pit: naam phrik of grilled tomatoes, green chiles, green onions, and peanuts, served with herbs and crudité

Khang phong fritters, Pok Pok pop-up
Khang phong: green papaya, lemongrass, chile, and shallot fritters

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.

Phak kad ko salad, Pok Pok pop-up
Phak kad ko: yu choy salad with black sesame oil, phrik kaliang, naam phrik thua, shallots, peanuts, and pork cracklings

Khao som rice balls, Pok Pok pop-up
Khao som: rice balls flavored with turmeric and tomatoes, and topped with fried garlic

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.

Thai jelly beer slushy, Pok Pok pop-up
Thai jelly beer, a supercooled beer slushy

Kaeng hang leh pork belly curry, Pok Pok pop-up
Kaeng hang leh: pork belly and shoulder curry with tamarind and ginger

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.

Khao sen ko rice vermicelli, Pok Pok pop-up
Khao sen ko: rice vermicelli with fried garlic oil, chile powder, cilantro, green onion, and lime juice

Khai oop egg curry, Pok Pok pop-up
Khai oop: tai yai boiled egg curry

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.

Coconut cream dessert and coffee cocktail, Pok Pok pop-up
Dessert of warm coconut cream with palm sugar, sago pearls, and bananas; dessert cocktail with cold brewed coffee, coconut, condensed milk, Letherbee fernet, and mint

View more coverage of Land and Sea Dept. restaurants.

The details: From Good Stock by Land and Sea Dept., 3124 W. Carroll, Chicago.

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Delicious Events

Delicious Event: Beer Under Glass 2015, Garfield Park Conservatory

DryHop beer, Beer Under Glass at Garfield Park Conservatory
DryHop’s Violet Beauregarde in my tasting glass

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

Yellow umbrellas, Beer Under Glass at Garfield Park Conservatory
Yellow umbrellas and bright spring colors made this a breathtaking room

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

5 Rabbit Paletas, Beer Under Glass at Garfield Park Conservatory
5 Rabbit’s Paletas beer poured from a cart to mimic their popsicle inspiration

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

Koi pond, Beer Under Glass at Garfield Park Conservatory
This might be my favorite spot in the conservatory: the koi pond.

Spring tulips, Beer Under Glass at Garfield Park Conservatory
The tulips in the outside areas were even more beautiful in the rain

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

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

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Delicious Events

Delicious Event: Fundraising dinner & demo by Rick Bayless at Prairie Fruits Farm

The guacamole Bayless made during his demo, with apples, fennel, and thyme
The seasonal guacamole with apples, fennel, and thyme that Chef Rick Bayless made during his cooking demo

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.

Chef Rick Bayless preparing guacamole and margaritas in his cooking demo before the meal
Chef Bayless preparing guacamole and margaritas in his cooking demo before the meal

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.

Windmill on the farm
Windmill on the farm

Cute goats (whose milk makes incredible cheese!)
Cute goats (whose milk makes incredible cheese!)

A chicken on the farm
A chicken on the farm

Appetizer bite of apple slice and tomato salad with roasted garlic-padron pepper vinaigrette and chives
Cocktail hour bite of apple slice and tomato salad with roasted garlic-padron pepper vinaigrette and chives

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.

Masa boat with braised chard, caramelized onions, Prairie Fruits Farm feta, and salsa verde
Masa boat with braised chard, caramelized onions, Prairie Fruits Farm feta, and salsa verde

Heirloom tomato salad with lime-marinated albacore tuna, Prairie Fruits Farm goat milk yogurt, tomato water gelatina, and pickled baby onions
Heirloom tomato salad with lime-marinated albacore tuna, Prairie Fruits Farm goat milk yogurt, tomato water gelatina, and pickled baby onions

Roasted pork loin with mole poblano, smoky green beans, and tamales stuffed with Prairie Fruits Farm fresh chevre
Roasted pork loin with mole poblano, smoky green beans, and tamales stuffed with Prairie Fruits Farm fresh chevre

Pastel de tres leches with pear liqueur, Prairie Fruits Farm Eldon cheese, pears, walnuts, crema, and herbs
Pastel de tres leches with pear liqueur, Prairie Fruits Farm Eldon cheese, pears, walnuts, crema, and herbs

The details: Prairie Fruits Farm, 4410 N. Lincoln Ave., Champaign;

Delicious Events

Delicious (and adorable) event: guest-speaking and cupcake-tasting with second graders

Discussing each cupcake flavor with the class
Discussing each cupcake flavor with the class

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.

Showing my blog to the class – this was when I asked "who's had octopus before?"
Showing my blog to the class – this was when an octopus photo came up, and I asked “have any of you ever eaten octopus?”

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!

Four kinds of cupcakes: chocolate decadence, cake batter, cookies 'n' cream, and cookie monster
Four kinds of cupcakes: chocolate decadence, cake batter, cookies ‘n’ cream, and cookie monster

Tasting worksheet for students to draw, describe, and rate each cupcake
Tasting worksheet for students to draw, describe, and rate each cupcake

Thanks to Ms. Ardam for taking all the photos!

Delicious Events

Delicious event: Middlewest magazine launch // making its pea pâté recipe

Middlewest pea pâté: magazine page & my version
Middlewest pea pâté: as shown in the magazine & my version

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.

Middlewest magazines and totebags
Middlewest magazines and totebags

Served at the event: editor David Tamarkin's coffee cake (featured in the magazine) and pourover coffee from Gaslight
Served at the event: editor David Tamarkin’s coffee cake (one of the recipes in the magazine) and pourover coffee from Gaslight Coffee Roasters

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.

Toasting the fennel seeds
Toasting the fennel seeds

Peas chillin' in the ice bath
Peas chillin’ in the ice bath

Whirling it together in the food processor
Whirling it together in the food processor

Middlewest pea pâté and roasted radishes
Pea pâté and roasted radishes

The details: For this and other recipes, buy the magazine’s first issue here.