Best Bites Chicago

Best Bites: Loaded baked potato gnocchi, chicken nuggets & more, Split-Rail

Loaded baked potato gnocchi with bacon, sour cream, Hook's 5-year cheddar, and crispy potato skin
Loaded baked potato gnocchi with bacon, sour cream, Hook’s 5-year cheddar, and crispy potato skin

I had the chance to talk to Chef Zoë Schor a few years about a female chef-focused Restaurant Week menu and have always been impressed by her food, so when she left Ada Street to open her own restaurant, I knew it would be one to watch. Split-Rail finally opened in June, putting a fresh spin on nostalgic foods of her childhood.

The loaded baked potato gnocchi was a no-brainer, and my favorite take on baked potato since Parachute’s bing bread. It hits the bacon, cheese, chive, and sour cream notes, but the texture of the gnocchi itself – crispy edges, soft interior – is what makes the dish.

Linguine and clams with egg yolk linguine, briny clams, charred leek, and uni butter
Linguine and clams with egg yolk linguine, briny clams, charred leek, and uni butter

I’m glad my dining companions pushed for the linguine and clams, because it ended up being my other favorite dish. It was briny, spicy, lemony, and buttery (uni butter, no less!), with plenty of clams swirled into the rich, eggy pasta.

And then there were the chicken nuggets. The breading was audibly crunchy and perfectly salted, with a grainy honey mustard sauce that had a heavy hit of citrus for extra brightness.

Chicken nuggets with honey-mustard
Chicken nuggets with honey-mustard
The Breakers cocktail with Gamle Ode Dill aquavit, apricot shrub, black pepper, mace, and basil
The Breakers cocktail with Gamle Ode Dill aquavit, apricot shrub, black pepper, mace, and basil

My cocktail, The Breakers, was also a pleasant surprise. The apricot and basil put it in standard summer territory, but adding in the dill aquavit and black pepper made it exceedingly savory. It worked, though, especially with the mustard and chicken nuggets at the start of the meal.

The details: Split-Rail, 2500 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago.

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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Best Bites Chicago

Best Bites: Focaccia French toast & eggs in purgatory, Coda di Volpe

Focaccia french toast, Coda di Volpe
Focaccia french toast with Nutella whipped cream, candied orange syrup, and buffalo butter

Why it’s a Best Bite: I tend to adore Italian-influenced brunch, so this newcomer to the Southport Corridor seemed worthy of a visit. Coda di Volpe excelled equally in the sweet and savory realms, which is not an easy feat. On the sweet side, the focaccia French toast was dense and decadent in the best way. Each substantial slice of focaccia was topped with buffalo’s milk butter and a scoop of Nutella whipped cream, plus candied orange syrup and hazelnuts on the plate as accompaniments. It was a fantastic (and rich) combination of flavors.

Eggs in purgatory and classic bellini, Coda di Volpe
Eggs in Purgatory with baked eggs, spicy tomato, provola, polenta cake, and fennel sausage; and classic bellini with white peach and prosecco

On the savory side, the eggs in purgatory were sizzling in both spiciness and temperature. I loved every part of this dish, from the polenta to the sausage to the baked eggs bathed in tomato sauce. To quench the heat, I sipped a refreshing bellini of prosecco and white peach.

Our table also shared an order of bomboloni with three dipping sauces. The dough itself was slightly less sweet, so the orange, grape, and chocolate sauces were more necesssary for balance.

Bomboloni, Coda di Volpe
Bomboloni with candied orange syrup, chocolate sauce, and concord grape jam

The details: Coda di Volpe, 3335 N. Southport Ave., 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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Chicago Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week 2017: Dinner at de Quay

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2017, held January 27–February 9. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage from 2013-17.

Chicken sate skewer, de Quay
Chicken sate skewer with beef and vegetable nasi goreng, peanut sauce, and traditional condiments
Sauteed shrimp, de Quay
Sautéed shrimp with shittake mushroom-fennel-roasted garlic dumplings, babi pangang beurre blanc, green beans, and pickled hot peppers

Best Bite: De Quay’s combination of Dutch and Indonesian cuisines has intrigued me ever since they opened, so Restaurant Week felt like the right time to try it out. Both entrée options had a lot going on – the marinated, lightly charred chicken skewers came with spicy rice, mild pickles, and two sauces; the pan-seared shrimp were joined by mushroom dumplings, green bean-pickled pepper salad, and a rich panang beurre blanc. They both showcased a broad range of influences, but still came together well.

Brabant roll, de Quay
Brabant roll with pork farce and smoked rookworst with pistachios rolled in puff pastry, with groningen mustard veloute and dried fruit compote

Other notes: The brabant roll was the first-course winner, a decadent appetizer that brought together flaky pastry, smoky pork, dried fruit, and mustard sauce. And while I was jolted at first by the neon green buttercream atop the cocoa cake, it worked nicely with the curried pineapple. We also had the warm housemade stroopwafel with a generous helping of vanilla ice cream on the side, and while humble in appearance, we agreed it was far superior to any stroopwafel we’d ever had.

Nederlands cocoa cake, de Quay
Nederlands cocoa cake with pandan buttercream and curried pineapple compote

The details: de Quay, 2470 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.

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Best Bites Chicago

Ube, mochi, and Chicago-style hot dog bun, The Bakery at Fat Rice

Ube, Bakery at Fat Rice
Ube with purple yam, coconut, and sweet dough

Why it’s a Best Bite: It’s no secret that Fat Rice is a favorite of mine for both dinner and brunch, so I was excited to check out their take on a Macanese bakery. In July, the Fat Rice team opened this daytime pastelaria along with an adjacent, red-lit cocktail lounge called The Ladies’ Room that’s reservations-only.

Birdcage lighting, The Bakery at Fat Rice
Colorful birdcage lighting

I couldn’t help but love the bakery’s decor. From the pastel-painted storefront to the vibrant birdcage light fixtures, color was everywhere – including the pastries. Cracking open my ube bun revealed a yam filling in an almost shocking shade of royal purple. Its texture contrasted nicely with the crispy coconut that formed a golden crown on top.

Anywhere else in the city, you’d expect that a breakfast pastry modeled after a Chicago-style hot dog would just be an overdone novelty, the stuff of downtown tourist traps. But here, they totally pulled it off. The poppy seeds, onion, celery salt, and bright green relish with chunks of Vienna beef hot dog brought me straight to the ballpark, just with a more elaborate bun.

Hot dog bun, Chicago-style, Bakery at Fat Rice
Hot dog bun, Chicago-style, with Vienna beef and classic fixins

I added the mochi almost as an afterthought, since I tend to enjoy it in all forms, and am grateful I did. The stretchy rice-flour exterior was flecked with coconut and then stuffed with peanut, black sesame, and other crunchy seeds. Sweet and salty doesn’t even cover it – this was borderline addictive.

Mochi, Bakery at Fat Rice
Mochi with black sesame, peanut, coconut, and seeds

The details: The Bakery at Fat Rice, 2951 W. Diversey Ave., Chicago.

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Best Bites Chicago

This week’s Best Bite: Fried giardiniera, Parts and Labor

This Best Bite is one of the 20 foods and 15 drinks I’ve set out to taste and document in 2015. View the full list to see my plan and progress.

Fried giardiniera, Parts and Labor
Fried giardiniera with sriracha mayo

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: I first visited Parts and Labor a little over two years ago, right after it opened in Logan Square, and I’ve been going back for this unique side dish ever since. Originally, I was just intrigued: giardiniera can only come one way, right? What would a fried version even be like? Turns out, the tempura-like batter adds a fluffy layer of crust that’s masterfully offset by the vinegar-soaked vegetables. It’s spicy, especially after a dip in the sriracha mayo on the side, and is a wonderful reinvention of a humble Chicago condiment.

The details: Parts and Labor, 2700 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.

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Best Bites Chicago

This week’s Best Bite: Cameo Kirby cocktail and beef tartare, Cherry Circle Room

This Best Bite is one of the 20 foods and 15 drinks I’ve set out to taste and document in 2015. View the full list to see my plan and progress.

Cameo Kirby cocktail, Cherry Circle Room
Cameo Kirby cocktail with gin, dry vermouth, raspberry, lime, and egg white

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: The Chicago Athletic Association Hotel reopened earlier this summer after extensive renovations, and it’s emerged as the dining and drinking wonderland that Michigan Avenue never knew it needed. When the Shake Shack on the first floor isn’t even the main attraction, you know you’re in for an experience.

Go upstairs, wander through the impeccably styled lobby and down a hallway paneled with the same chocolate-hued wood that’s prominent throughout the space, and you’ll find what has to be the classiest game room in Chicago. Try not to get distracted by the billiards, shuffleboard, checkers, or even the full bocce court, and walk all the way back until you reach the double doors that lead to the Cherry Circle Room. With inviting leather booths, warm lighting, and a strikingly elegant bar, this restaurant has mastered the turn-of-the-century speakeasy vibe that can so easily feel forced elsewhere. But it’s not surprising coming from the Land and Sea Dept. group – I’ve blogged about projects of theirs (Longman & Eagle, Lost Lake, Parson’s) a combined eight times, so I guess you could say I’m partial.

So back to that bar, where I chose the gin-based Cameo Kirby to sip while waiting for our table. It stayed completely balanced between fruity and dry, and was deliciously frothy from the egg white. A simple and delicate drink, for sure, but also probably one of my favorite drinks of the year.

Beef tartare, Cherry Circle Room
Beef tartare with chili, quail egg, aged gouda, and salsa verde

The beef tartare came recommended by the bartender, and seemed like the right kind of throwback dish for the setting. The luxurious creaminess of the quail egg combined with the punchy, herbaceous salsa verde brought the savory mixture together. We spread the tartare on thick slices of grilled bread, whose char added a cooked dimension to the otherwise uncooked beef. Our main courses were just as good, but the tartare definitely set the tone for the rest of the meal.

And your visit to the hotel isn’t complete without a cocktail at Cindy’s, whose 13th floor rooftop boasts what is unquestionably my new favorite view of Millennium Park. Order the rose-petaled “We’ll Always Have Paris,” , lean up against the glass, and soak it all in, whether by day…

…or by night.

The details: Cherry Circle Room and Cindy’s at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, 12 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago.

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Best Bites Chicago

This week’s Best Bite: Macho peas, chicken breast wrap & mango sangria, Nando’s Peri-Peri

This Best Bite is one of the 20 foods and 15 drinks I’ve set out to taste and document in 2015. View the full list to see my plan and progress.

Chicken breast wrap with macho peas and fries, Nando's Peri Peri
Chicken breast wrap with lettuce, sweet chili jam, and yogurt sauce, plus sides of macho peas and Peri chips (fries)

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Nando’s Peri-Peri is an international fast-casual restaurant chain that has an especially fanatical following in the DC metro area, so I was excited to try out one of Chicago’s two new locations. Originating in South Africa, Nando’s serves food that is heavily influenced by African and Portuguese flavors, and is best known for its Portuguese chicken with peri-peri sauce. I was immediately captivated by the colorful decor, with South African art splashed across the walls and rich, earth-toned textures on every available surface. My friend and I requested a window seat just so we could swing in the hanging wicker chairs. They served as the perfect perch for starting on a pitcher of fruit-laden mango sangria while we waited for our food.

Mango sangria, Nando's Peri-Peri
Mango sangria and the swinging wicker chairs in the window

I opted for the chicken breast wrap, which showcased the juicy, well-seasoned chicken, and added pineapple for extra tropical sweetness. The chili jam and yogurt sauce balanced nicely, and the lettuce added necessary crunch. An array of Nando’s-branded sauces were available as condiments, all featuring the signature peri-peri pepper; I liked the garlic and wild herb varieties on my wrap. My favorite part of the meal by far, however, was the side of macho peas, mashed with mint, parsley, and chili. I’m partial to peas in all forms, but this was an especially fresh, green, summery addition to the plate. The combination also reminded me of the Middlewest pea pâté I made (and adored) two years ago. It was good enough to deem it my favorite side dish of the year so far.

The details: Nando’s Peri-Peri, 670 W. Diversey Pkwy., Chicago.

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Best Bites Chicago

This week’s Best Bite: Mango lassi, gobi manchurian, and India hot chicken, Pub Royale

This Best Bite is one of the 20 foods and 15 drinks I’ve set out to taste and document in 2015. View the full list to see my plan and progress.

Mango lassi, Pub Royale
Mango lassi with mango, yoghurt, rum, honey, and bitters

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Pub Royale represents one of the most original restaurant concepts to hit Chicago lately: British-Indian pub fare. I’d heard about the rum-spiked mango lassi from more than one source, and that alone made it a perfectly summery place to dine with my cousins on a recent weeknight. The frosty, creamy lassi was cocktail and dessert in one, with complexity from the tangy yogurt and bitters. I loved snacking on the gobi manchurian – the fried cauliflower tossed in sweet and spicy sauce rivaled the version at Rangoli (my longstanding favorite), and cashews added nice crunch.

Gobi manchurian, Pub Royale
Gobi manchurian with crispy cauliflower, sweet & spicy manchurian sauce, sesame, and cashew
India hot chicken, Pub Royale
India hot chicken with crazy pickles and chewy naan

The India hot chicken was fusion at its best: an Indian-spiced, nearly tandoori-hued version of traditionally Southern fried chicken. The chewy naan bread underneath soaked up all the spices, so it was just as delicious on its own as it was with the chicken. Other dishes not to miss: the buttered paneer (so flavorful that I even dipped fries in the leftover sauce) and a towering, multi-layered British sundae dubbed the Knickerbocker Glory.

Knickerbocker Glory sundae. Pub Royale
Knickerbocker Glory sundae with Oberweis ice cream, banana, strawberry, chocolate, and many more layers

The details: Pub Royale, 2049 W. Division St., Chicago.

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