In the spirit of the new year, I’ve decided to do Best Bites a little bit differently in 2015. Instead of blogging about whichever bites I happen to come across over the next 11 months or so, I’m going to use this roadmap to guide my culinary adventures. I’ve intentionally kept each category fairly general, but still hope it will help ensure more variety, color, and creativity in my dining plans.
And so I present, in no particular order, 20 foods and 15 drinks that I’ll be documenting in 2015:
1. spirit I’ve never tried before
2. over-the-top tiki drink // Ripples on an Evaporated Lake and Pool Rules cocktails, Lost Lake
3. green/plant-based beverage
4. creative coffee
5. something sour
6. beer cocktail // Alice Fay draft cocktail, Tippling Hall
7. fancy soda
8. liquid dessert // Mango lassi, Pub Royale
9. tea with a twist
10. party punch
12. pickleback shot
13. perfect wine pairing
14. ice cream float
15. smoothie (most likely made with my new Magic Bullet!)
I’ll be updating this post throughout the year as I complete each item on the list, so keep checking back!
Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: When a ramen craving struck me on a snowy afternoon, I popped over to Oiistar, a relatively new Wicker Park spot I’d been eyeing. Bypassing all the tempting varieties of bao, and even the avocado tempura – next time! – I zeroed in on a mussel-centric ramen. Besides at least a dozen plump mussels, the giant bowl also contained an umami-rich seafood broth with chewy noodles, two kinds of onion, and tons of garlic. Moderately spicy chiles also upped the soup’s warmth factor. Happily rotating between slurps of noodles, mussels, and broth, I settled in with a book and soaked up the sounds of the restaurant’s catchy R&B playlist.
The details: Oiistar, 1385 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: After a decade of being dinner-only, Avec launched brunch service last summer – an announcement that made the Chicago food world collectively squeal with delight. While I’ve already blogged about Avec’s legendary stuffed dates, which we ordered almost reflexively, the other stellar brunch plates merited a post of their own. The day’s special was the wood-fired pancake, a velvety stunner cooked in a cast-iron pan and topped with fragrant apple-rosemary compote and mounds of whipped cream. Its Dutch Baby–style texture was unbelievable. Meanwhile, the baked egg dish showed off Avec’s Mediterranean leanings. Its sauce was layered with surprising flavors: chickpeas, roasted peppers of all kinds, and salty feta, all begging to be sopped up with the bread on the side.
Another favorite was the butcher’s steak, probably the most beautiful steak-and-eggs in history. The fried egg was perfect, and the steak, ultra-tender from the marinade, shone even brighter with bold accompaniments of charred radicchio, squash polenta, pesto, parsley, and crunchy pepitas. As hard as it was to see this meal come to a close, the indulgence of the stuffed dates at the beginning was evenly matched by the petite nutter butter squares at its conclusion. Don’t miss these: the peanut butter-chocolate base, subtle feuilletine crunch, smooth ganache, and a sprinkling of sea salt made it the ultimate last bite.
Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Sometimes you just need a really great sandwich, and this past week I found one at a place I hadn’t visited in a while. The Brown Sack is a neighborhood favorite that has managed to stay out of the buzzy Logan Square spotlight, quietly making its superb sandwiches and shakes on a tucked-away residential block. The BLAST sandwich takes a BLT to the next level by throwing in shrimp and avocado – and now that I’ve had it, I don’t think I can ever go back to its three-letter predecessor. This might have to do with my conviction that basically everything is better with avocado; even so, this combination was especially magical. Each bite offered the perfect proportions of cool, creamy, bright, crunchy, and smoky, with nice briny sweetness and texture from the shrimp. And like most great sandwiches, its crucial adhesive was a healthy layer of mayo slathered onto crisp toasted bread. Next time, I might get extravagant and pair it with a shake, but this stacked masterpiece is more than satisfying enough on its own.
Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: On this stiflingly hot July week, it seemed fitting to write about somewhere that’s become a Chicago summer staple: Big Star. More specifically, its patio, with now-famous yellow chairs that people are willing to wait hours to sit in. I went on a weekday evening for the first time in a while, and thankfully was early enough to avoid waiting. I knew I’d get a taco al pastor, my favorite in the city, with caramelized pineapple, juicy pork, and tons of cilantro. But I also thought I’d try something new to quench my thirst on such a hot day, and went for the dulce de leche licuado. It’s listed on the menu as a “milkshake”; it’s really more of a Mexican smoothie, with little pieces of ice rather than the smooth texture of ice cream. But for those of us who crave the sweet-and-salty combination, this drink really hits the spot. There’s lots of salt to balance out the caramel, and it actually worked well with the taco’s pineapple too. Yes, you can also beat the heat with their excellent margaritas (now available in draft pitchers) and micheladas, but it was fun to mix it up with something sweeter.
Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: I ventured over to Masa Azul while on a post-thunderstorm walk one evening, in the mood for a refreshing drink and something sweet to go with it. This was my second visit to Masa Azul, although my very first experience with head bartender Jenny Kessler’s cocktails was at Lula Cafe’s “Violent Hour” Halloween transformation last year. The delicious drink involved mezcal, apple cider, malbec, and serrano pepper, and I’ve jumped at the chance to try more of her imaginative combinations ever since. The Mexican Firing Squad was a nice balance of fruit, fizz, and smooth tequila flavor, and was ideal for sipping out on the sidewalk patio. The miniature round churros, the restaurant’s sole dessert offering, were pleasantly unique, with a soft center and plenty of citrus from the orange zest. I also liked how well the bittersweet chocolate sauce evened out the sugary fried dough. Together, they made a summery drink-dessert pairing that I’d go for again – although with so many interesting options, I doubt I could commit to the same cocktail twice.
The details:Masa Azul, 2901 W Diversey Ave., Chicago.
Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Just under three years ago, you would have found me constantly refreshing OpenTable.com, waiting for the restaurant page to first become available so that I could make a reservation for the night of my birthday at Girl & the Goat, the much-anticipated restaurant by Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard (in case she isn’t a household name for you already) that was finally going to open. That dinner remains one of my all-time favorites in Chicago: experiencing all her outlandishly flavorful food for the first time, sipping surprise birthday champagne, and getting to chat with Chef Steph herself at the end of the meal. So could future visits live up to that first one? My answer this weekend was a resounding yes.
You know your meal is off to a great start when you’re spreading coffee butter onto warm bread and drizzling blueberry vinaigrette on top. And then you bite into a squash blossom rangoon, a fleeting seasonal jewel that’s stuffed with creamy crab and fried in airy tempura batter. And then you’re chowing down on what you immediately know are among the best green bean and cauliflower dishes in existence, each with layers of salty and spicy and sweet, and then savory empanadas filled with the tender goat meat that’s incorporated into enough dishes to merit its own menu section. 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.
I think you get the point here. The service is outstanding, the atmosphere feels special yet free from pretension, and all the little details come together for ultimate consistency. So set a date 6–8 weeks in advance, make a reservation, and get ready for a meal to remember.
Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: As much as I love to eat out at new restaurants, sometimes what really hits the spot is a taste of childhood. These were two of my very favorite family dishes growing up, and I was able to enjoy them both at dinner this past weekend. My grandma’s potato salad recipe is legendary in my family, so much so that a bowl of it was wrapped up for my birthday one year; I only remember asking, “Why is my present so cold?” Without giving too much away, one of the salad’s secrets is pickle juice, which seems to bring together all the flavors and textures of potato, egg, celery, onion, and pickle in a way that I’ve never seen replicated. And then there’s the ribs, which my dad parboils before grilling and coats with seasoning from Rendezvous in Memphis. The balance of dry seasoning and a few layers of sauce gives the ribs a sticky, lacquered finish that’s mouthwatering just to look at, let alone pull off the bone bite by bite. Together, they make the ideal warm-weather meal that oozes with the comforts of home.