Best Bite: I was instantly taken with this duo of pint-sized lobster rolls – large enough for the full toasted bun experience, but small enough for a high lobster-to-bun ratio. The piping hot fries paired with the cool, chive-studded lobster were almost enough to transport me to a seaside seafood shack.
Other notes: The miniature theme continued into dessert, and my dainty portion of key lime pie was just the right citrusy finish to our rich lunch.
Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.
Well, a lot has changed since my last post. I got engaged, took a year off from blogging to plan a wedding, and am now happily married! This also means I’ve become Hillary Weller rather than Hillary Proctor, but the blog name will remain the same for now.
We just returned from 10 days in Hawaii for our honeymoon, so that seemed a fitting return to blogging. We split our time between two Hawaiian islands: Kauai and Oahu. On Kauai, we covered the majority of the island; for Oahu, we stayed primarily in the Waikiki Beach area of Honolulu. This was my first time setting foot anywhere in the state, so I was anxious to try the source of all the Hawaiian flavors I’d enjoyed from afar.
I’ll start with my favorite dish of the trip. It was one that came highly recommended at Eggs ‘n Things, a beloved Honolulu breakfast spot: macadamia nut pancakes. 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. That time, I ordered a slight variation (banana in the pancakes and macadamia on top) and they were still just as stellar. I also happily took home a bottle of the coconut syrup.
We had a favorite breakfast spot in Kauai, too. A lovely bakery happened to be conveniently located across the road from where we were staying, so we tried a few of their pastry selections. Both the mango muffin and the roasted pineapple croissant-scone hybrid showcased the fruit flavors of the island.
Another morning dish I’d been anxious to try was the açai bowl, a surfer favorite that’s anchored by an açai berry frozen yogurt-style base, then layered with granola and fresh fruit. At Little Fish Coffee on Kauai, our bowl boasted peanut butter and chocolate chips in addition to the fruit and granola. It was the rich fuel we needed for the rest of the day’s adventures. In Waikiki, we sought out the bowl at Island Vintage Coffee. The açai and granola were delicious, but the sweet local banana and fragrant Hawaiian honey were what really shined.
While we’re on the sweet side of things, let’s talk shave (not shaved!) ice, a traditional frozen treat in Hawaii with all kinds of variations. We went back to Island Vintage for their Pink Island, whose ice mound had half strawberry syrup and half super-refreshing lychee mint syrup, plus mochi, lychee boba, fresh strawberry, and condensed milk to top it off. At Uncle’s on Kauai, they served shave snow, where the creaminess and fruit flavor was already incorporated into the ice before shaving. After adding a haupia (coconut) cream top, I couldn’t help but slurp up every bite.
To be sure, Hawaii wasn’t short on frozen treats – from classic soft-serve pineapple Dole whip to ice cream served in an adorable “hang loose” cone to a sky-high Hula Pie enjoyed along the Waikiki beachfront at Duke’s, our collective sweet tooth remained sated.
We tried a lot of savory Hawaiian favorites as well. At Lava Lava Beach Club on Kauai, we had loco moco, traditionally a burger patty with egg, rice, and gravy, and in this case with a mountain of fried onions and a delicious patty blend of beef and sweet Portuguese sausage. That meal was extra memorable because we looked up from our beachfront table and spotted a whale in the distance! Later, we also tried a classic, no-fuss plate lunch with freshly-fried chicken katsu, sticky white rice, and macaroni salad.
Our most theatrical dining experience by far was at the Smith Family Garden Luau on Kauai. Our evening began with a tram ride around the property, then we had time to explore the lush grounds on foot. Next, we witnessed the imu ceremony, in which a whole-roasted, leaf-wrapped Kalua pig is carefully removed from its earthen oven.
From there, it was time to enjoy a mai tai and the full buffet. This was my chance to try poi, a starchy Hawaiian staple that’s polarizing among visitors. Unfortunately, I had to agree with the naysayers: even when paired with the meat, the poi retained an unpleasant flavor, and its paste-like texture only made matters worse. But there were plenty of other dishes to enjoy, like the mahimahi, purple yams, lomi salmon, and of course the pig, whose smoke-kissed flavor was in a class of its own. Dinner was also accompanied by live Hawaiian music and a hula lesson.
Finally, we moved to the amphitheater for the stage show, featuring dances and rituals that represent many of Hawaii’s cultural influences (plus some impressive pyrotechnics). The whole experience was as seamless and well-choreographed as a Disney enterprise – it was undoubtedly a highlight of our trip.
Seafood was another top priority during our time in Hawaii. I had the chance to enjoy poke in two forms, one on each island. At Shaka Poke, a tucked-away gem in one of Waikiki’s shopping malls, hunks of salmon and ahi tuna came dressed in spicy mayo with seaweed and avocado. It was the ideal humble meal to eat on the beach, especially with a view of the resort skyline and Diamond Head at dusk. On Kauai, Sam’s Ocean View used tuna poke to adorn wonton chip nachos, alongside avocado, spicy aioli, and plenty of black sesame. It was the kind of snack you can’t stop eating.
The most eclectic fish I tried during the trip was moonfish at Mahina & Sun’s in Honolulu. The fish itself was dense and held up to the mixture of Mediterranean flavors in the rest of the dish – lots of fennel, olive, sumac, and lightly pickled cucumber, plus grilled flatbread to sop it all up.
On our second night in Honolulu, we joined the throngs of people in line for Marukame Udon. The wait was very much worth it for tender, hand-pulled udon noodles in a rich curry broth. Between picking up your noodle bowl and getting to the cash register, you could select tempura items and other appetizers buffet-style, so I took that as an opportunity to try spam musubi (seared slice of spam over rice with a seaweed wrapper, like nigiri). It was easy to see why it’s such a popular Hawaiian snack.
Our last dinner of the trip was at Senia, Honolulu’s buzziest fine-dining restaurant. There was a lot to love on the menu; the ahi brioche and citrus-cured hamachi both celebrated Hawaiian flavors in a creative and beautiful way.
It was certainly a special introduction to Hawaii for me…but exploring the cuisine of the islands we didn’t visit seems like a very good excuse to return!
Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.
I’ve been staying extra busy the past few months (apologies, blog readers!) with a new role at work, and that role took me to our Bay Area offices for a week. While it was a pretty packed schedule, I still fit in some quality meals.
The night I arrived in San Francisco, I made a beeline for the Mission, a neighborhood that I knew from experience was great for dining. Foreign Cinema stood out for its sleek open-air dining space with string lights and a movie projected on the back wall. The food was also excellent – from a Catalonian noodle dish, brimming with four kinds of seafood and a buttery cumin sauce, to smoky, mole-slathered calamari with lime and tortilla chips.
Dottie’s True Blue Cafe is a comfort food classic that had come highly recommended by friends, so I made sure to stop for brunch. I arrived just before it opened, and a line had already formed, as is typical, but the short wait was worth it. I went for the frittata special, a mammoth plate of eggs stuffed with some of my favorite ingredients (avocado, corn, feta), plus a side of crispy cornbread with pepper jelly. While I was far too full to try any of the bakery offerings during my visit, I managed to bring a small loaf of Dottie’s signature coffee cake back to Chicago (and was very glad I did).
Another landmark I finally tried this trip was Mission Chinese Food, chef Danny Bowien’s trail-blazing take on Chinese cuisine that opened in the Mission nearly ten years ago, and now has locations elsewhere. Of the dishes I tried, the Westlake lamb dumplings stood out for their balance of tangy sauce, crispy wonton wrapper, and lots of fresh dill.
One unexpected dining success came at Hogwash, a craft-beer-and-sausage spot in Union Square. While I first chose the Burnin’ Brock sausage sandwich almost solely for its fried avocado, the rest of the spicy, crunchy flavors came together exceptionally well for one of the most satisfying bites of the trip.
And I did still fit in a few sweet indulgences, starting with Tartine Manufactory, the recent restaurant offshoot of legendary Tartine Bakery. I went with a fairly simple sundae – strawberry and vanilla swirl soft-serve, colorful sprinkles, and candied almonds – but it was elevated just enough to feel special.
Bi-Rite, another favorite from past trips, has both a market and an ice cream shop on the same block. Rather than waiting in the long ice cream line, I picked up an ice cream sandwich (and a few other edible souvenirs) from the market. After a ride home to thaw, the rich coffee ice cream melted into the crumbly brown sugar cookies to the point that it might as well have been fresh from the shop.
Speaking of coffee, there are a wealth of great roasters in San Francisco, but one of the stalwarts is Blue Bottle, so I felt very fortunate to have a shop within walking distance of my hotel. Their latte really is worth savoring.
Heaven on Seven has been one of my Chicago dining blind spots: a classic that I’ve somehow never managed to visit. It’s a boisterous Cajun restaurant tucked away on the seventh floor of a Loop high-rise (you even have to sign-in with a charming doorman before getting on the elevator). We visited the week of Fat Tuesday, so Mardi Gras decorations were in high gear and we were both given a string of beads upon arrival, but I have a feeling it still feels like a party all year around.
One of the many specials was a bayou étoufée with three kinds of seafood: crab, crawfish, and shrimp. The trio was a great sampling of shellfish flavor, stewed together in a rich gravy and served over rice. We also shared the catfish po’boy, a mammoth sandwich loaded with catfish, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and honey-jalapeño dressing. What really made it was the way the bread was toasted with butter and herbs.
All entrees come with gumbo, soup, or salad, but it’s easy to see why pretty much everyone gets the gumbo. Chicken, andouille sausage, and the smoky depth of a black roux came together for a thick and satisfying soup – with a warm jalapeño corn muffin to round it out with sweetness.
Best Bite: Chef Zoe Schor built a tradition of themed Restaurant Week menus in past years at her previous restaurant, Ada Street: female chefs in 2014 and famous last meals in 2015. So she continued the tradition at Split-Rail this year with two five-course menu options: one inspired by Seinfeld, the other inspired by Friends. We shared both sets of dishes, and most of my favorites were on the Seinfeld side – especially luscious beet-cured salmon atop rye toast (to commemorate the episode when Jerry stole a loaf of marbled rye from an elderly woman). On the Friends side, I really liked the winter squash tartlet, inspired by an episode where “tartlet” is repeated over and over by a chef under the influence during Monica’s job interview with him. It was almost like a mini pumpkin pie, but more savory with creme fraiche and pumpkin seeds.
Other notes: The theme extended all the way to the cocktails, with a spin on hot buttered rum to represent the Seinfeld episode where Kramer shaved his face with butter. And it’s not a Seinfeld dinner without a Soup Nazi reference, so we had to try the crab bisque, which had a pleasantly high proportion of crabmeat to broth. So there was, indeed, soup for us.
The details:Split-Rail, 2500 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago.
Best Bite: I first visited Boka during Restaurant Week 2011 (before I even started this blog!), so a return visit was well overdue. I was excited to finally try the roasted chicken that’s been a mainstay of the menu ever since Chef Lee Wolen took the helm. It was possibly the most perfectly juicy slice of chicken I’ve ever eaten. The roasted carrots were also at just the right doneness, with a buttermilk dressing and lots of sesame.
Other notes: The banana dessert was anchored by speculoos (cookie butter), a combination that reminded me of this Stan’s donut – but elevated with a beautiful presentation of shaved dark chocolate, cubes of sponge cake, and banana ice cream. And the technical expertise required for the slow-poached egg nestled in dense cavatelli and parmesan was truly impressive.
Best Bite: The squash soup was the most innovative dish of our meal at this cozy Lincoln Park spot. The brown butter, espresso, and squash came together to create a silky soup, with extra warmth from the chipotle.
Other notes: My other favorite dish was actually from the same course as the soup: the beef tartare on toast, which had tons of salty and sour notes from pickles, capers, and parmesan. It was also fun to see muddy buddies (aka puppy chow) used as the topping for a chocolate pudding dessert – but because we were celebrating a birthday, I was too focused on the candle-blowing to snap a photo!
Best Bite: Barrio introduced me to a brunch combination I’d never thought possible: churro French toast. Cinnamon-laced churros were layered together like bread pudding, then dipped and griddled like French toast. The dragonfruit and grilled pineapple accompaniments made it even more tropical and exotic.
Other notes: The savory side of brunch was also satisfying, with especially crispy pork belly and scallions dotting egg-topped fried rice. The festive drink menu (including a rumchata-espresso-soft serve concoction) was well worth exploring as well.
Best Bite: If I see skate on a menu, I’ll usually order it (see also: Mexique). This crunch-coated version with lime mayo and pickled onions was still perfect for tucking into tortillas – though I wasn’t surprised that Mexican master-chef Rick Bayless would even make humble tacos high-end.
Other notes: I loved the masa boat appetizer with beef, tomato sauce, and tiny hunks of avocado. And the cleverly named Dos, Tres, Cuatro dessert didn’t just include tres leches (three milks), but also two kinds of nuts and four kinds of chocolate in a s’mores-like presentation.
Like last year, I’ve chosen 20 more Chicago dishes and drinks – some old favorites, some new discoveries – that I didn’t have the chance to blog about in 2017. View year-end recaps from 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.
Best spin on a egg
We ordered this appetizer almost as an afterthought, but all the textures – tiny pickled mustard seeds, crunchy battered sausage, and a perfectly runny egg – made it memorable. It was even better accompanied by live blues performers on the riverside patio on a warm September day.
Most unique breakfast sandwich
The chorizo verde is now a mainstay of Quiote’s dinner menu, but over the summer it showed up as an egg-topped breakfast sausage. The meat itself was so flavorful that I could have easily eaten it on its own, but having it safely ensconced in a soft lobster roll made it more delicious.
Most indulgent dim sum
At the end of a dim sum feast at Stephanie Izard’s Chinese eatery, we couldn’t help but order this donut-bao hybrid. The crackly, not-too-sweet topping gave way to rich chocolate filling; I did not regret ordering it.
Most nutrient-packed bowl
Left Coast’s menu is brimming with healthy, veggie-centric options, but I’ve stuck with this curry bowl every time. From the green beans and yams all the way to the toasted coconut, every component comes together well.
If anyone mentions Coalfire, ‘nduja (a spicy, spreadable sausage) is the first pizza I recommend (and so does most of the Chicago food media). Sausage comes in two forms: one is sliced thin, and the other is whipped into the ricotta mounds. Fresh from the coal-burning oven, it’s pretty much a foolproof pick.
Most comforting beer pairing
Hopleaf in Andersonville is world-renowned for its encyclopedic beer list, but they definitely don’t cut corners on the food. The CB&J is an especially comprehensive pairing, with three kinds of comfort in one dish: a cross between grilled cheese and PB&J (raclette cheese in addition to cashew butter and fig jam), crunchy chips, and mac & cheese (made cheffier with Stilton). I’d trust it to soak up any brew.
Best fancy burger
You know it’s really spring when ramps start appearing on every menu, and Butcher & the Burger was no exception. I’m usually overwhelmed by all their options, so ordering this special was a no-brainer. It was a winning combination of truffle-pesto-onion goodness.
Best not-so-fancy burger
Small Cheval keeps it simple with a slightly more portable version of the famous Au Cheval burger, complete with griddled patties, American cheese, and house-made pickled. I also added fernet to my chocolate shake for an extra licorice-y kick.
SIDES AND SNACKS:
Summeriest vegetable dish
We snacked at seafood bar Cold Storage as a prelude to dinner at adjacent Swift & Sons, and this dish was a perfect pairing with our oysters. The sweet corn and cool lime granita set off the juicy tomato and soft burrata beautifully.
Best use of goat
My rule when dining at Girl & the Goat is to always order one goat dish (and one bread, and at least one from each of the standard menu sections…but that’s another story). The mousse was almost mesmerizing in its silkiness atop warm crumpets, with a nice variety of pickled vegetables as palate cleansers.
Most addictive snack
Along with the strawberry-and-pistachio-studded burrata dish at the top of this post, this popcorn stole the show at West Town brewery Forbidden Root. Maybe it was the coconut oil, maybe it was the specific type of chiles (the same ones as the Korean hot sauce that’s used in bibimbap and other dishes); either way, this popcorn was outrageously good.
Best hybrid appetizer
The second-floor terrace of Brickhouse Tavern overlooks Park at Wrigley (the new development next to Wrigley Field), so it was the perfect perch after a July Cubs game. This was the most creative (and successful) buffalo chicken format I’ve seen yet.
Concession stand stunner
Most of Chicago’s stadium food has been getting an upgrade in recent years, and I was especially pleased to find a Lillie’s Q outpost at a recent Blackhawks game. The pulled pork nachos put those standard cheese cups to shame, with plenty of pulled pork, sauce, green onions, and even BBQ beans.
Best atmosphere-matching cocktail
Boleo occupies a colorful rooftop space on the 15th floor of the Kimpton Gray hotel. This subtly coconut negroni was an ideal sipper as I gazed at blue sky and tall buildings (and wished I could take home the gorgeous glass).
Closest drink to a vacation
Mahalo is the closest you can come to a Hawaiian escape without leaving Wicker Park. This piña colada was a refreshing treat on the surfboard-adorned rooftop.
Best boozy milkshake
As much as we love the fried chicken at The Roost (a very popular catering pop-up at the office), our group may have come to brunch at the Irving Park Road location primarily for this shake. I’ve had the peach cobbler as a side before, but it really is dreamy when whirled into vanilla ice cream and spiked with rum.
Beatnik was the most Instagrammable restaurant interior of 2017, with its bold fabrics and exquisite chandeliers. Food-wise, while we expected all the globally inspired cocktails and snacks to be on point, this dessert was what shocked our entire party. The cake itself was delicate and citrus-y, and the shredded phyllo worked even better than a crust.
Most nostalgic dessert
Anything PB&J is a winner in my book, so I was thrilled to see this pie special. The potato chips were a nice final touch on an already nostalgic slice.
Most novel treat
River North newcomer Barrio also opened a neighboring upscale bodega that specializes in fancy churros. I chose the red velvet and s’mores varieties, both warmed and drizzled in chocolate, and let’s just say there will be more churro stops in my future.
The $0 three-peat
Talenti ran a free gelato promotion at three movie nights in Millennium Park this summer, and (somewhat coincidentally) those were the three I attended. This flavor ended up in my hands the first time, and I sought it out thereafter because the cinnamon and peach were so perfect for summer. And the price of $0 made it especially satisfying!
Thanks for reading in 2017, and looking forward to another delicious year!