This week’s Best Bite: Pecorino cake, caviar brioche, shrimp toast & more, Sink|Swim

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.

Shrimp toast, Sink|Swim
Shrimp toast with n’duja, radish, avocado, MSG aioli, greens, and lemon

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Sink|Swim is the second venture from the proprietors behind Scofflaw – widely considered one of Chicago’s very best bars – and is conveniently located on the same block. While I expected to be impressed by the menu, especially because of its focus on seafood, these dishes represented some of the most intriguing culinary concepts I’ve seen lately.

Take the shrimp toast, for example: instead of the individual-shrimp-atop-bread that you’d expect, the shrimp is mixed into spicy n’duja sausage to form a spread for toasted brioche (for more details, read Chicago magazine’s playful review). And who can say no to a mini umbrella? I also couldn’t get enough of the beef and oyster tartare, a combination I hadn’t seen before. Scooping the doubly delicious meat onto a crispy chip, together with the horseradish and pickled onion, felt almost like a deconstructed deli sandwich.

Beef & oyster tartare, Sink|Swim
Beef & oyster tartare with malt chips and horseradish
Pecorino cake, Sink|Swim
Pecorino cake with whipped honey crémeux, grapefruit, pistachio, and cappelletti

I’m always interested in savory desserts, and this pecorino cake fell into the “where has this been all my life?” category. The nutty cheese came through just enough in the dense cake itself, balanced by a swipe of honey-kissed cream, a generous dusting of pistachio, and an assertive kick from the grapefruit. Pecorino also made an appearance in the charred broccoli, joining furikake seasoning and creamy sauce for a completely unique (yet still comforting) flavor profile.

Charred broccoli, Sink|Swim
Charred broccoli with furikake, whey soubise, and pecorino
Caviar|brioche and Esplanade Swizzle, Sink|Swim
Caviar|brioche with onion caramel, smoked roe, and cured egg – plus an Esplanade Swizzle with El Peloton mezcal, amontillado sherry, lime, ginger, and Lucky falernum

But perhaps the most surprising snack was the caviar dish. The tiny rounds of brioche were soaked in onion caramel, then topped with smoked roe and shavings of cured egg yolk. Part breakfast (think eggs, smoky bacon, and biscuits with honey) and part luxury appetizer (it’s caviar after all), it was an entirely original, bite-sized treat.

Sailor, Sink|Swim
Sailor on the wall, in keeping with the nautical theme (he also makes an appearance on the website)

The details: Sink|Swim, 3213 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago.

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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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This week’s Best Bite: Alice Fay draft cocktail, Tippling Hall

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.

Alice Fay draft cocktail, Tippling Hall
Alice Fay draft cocktail with Finlandia vodka, pecan-brown sugar syrup, lemon, and Old Style lager

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: On my first visit to Tippling Hall, I was immediately intrigued by (and I’ll admit, skeptical of) a draft cocktail that featured Old Style beer, and it turned out to be so fun and memorable that I planned another group outing there partially so that I could order this drink again. The Old Style lager flavor is immediately detectable, but is then mellowed and complemented by lemon, vodka, and pecan-brown sugar syrup. It’s a strange sensation to describe, but this refined cocktail immediately transported me to the sun-drenched bleachers at a summer Cubs game. The salty rim and sticky-sweet pecan brittle garnish, which my friend described as the best brittle she’d ever had, not only enhanced the nutty notes from the syrup, but also further evoked the ballpark spirit.

The details: Tippling Hall, 646 N. Franklin St., Chicago.

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This week’s Best Bite: Tomato tartare, wagyu beef tongue, mackerel & more, Momotaro

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.

Gyutan, Momotaro
Gyutan with imperial wagyu beef tongue, karashi, and smoked peppercorn

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: The timing for this post seemed appropriate, as Chicago magazine announced this week that Momotaro is this year’s Best New Restaurant. Based on my first meal there, I tend to agree. Not only was the three-floor Japanese-styled interior completely stunning, but every dish was beautiful in its composition and purity of flavor. Grilled over hot coals, the skewered wagyu beef tongue was undoubtedly the first preparation of tongue that I’d ever truly enjoyed. The tender, peppery meat was just fatty enough, brightened by dabs of hot mustard and a squeeze of the liberally seasoned yuzu wedge. 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.

Momotaro tartare, Momotaro
Momotaro tartare with Japanese sweet tomato, Maui onion, and shiso
Aji yakusugi, Momotaro
Aji yakusugi with smoked jack mackerel and 1,000 year old cypress

Momataro flies its fish in from Tokyo, so we couldn’t leave without trying some nigiri. The jack mackerel was dramatically presented, the bowl uncovered to reveal smoking pieces of what the menu claimed was 1,000-year-old cypress bark – really, how often does your meal involve an ingredient that’s a thousand years old? The fish itself was lovely, its smoky flavor gentle and woodsy. The beautifully simplicity extended through to dessert, where tiny green peaches and cooling peach sorbet were buried in a bed of almond crumble. Maybe I just love peach, but there was something about that dessert that kept me raving about it long after the last bite.

Waka momo dessert, Momotaro
Waka momo dessert with green peach, almond crumble, and momo sorbet

The details: Momotaro, 820 W. Lake St., Chicago.

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This week’s Best Bite: Staff meal of greens, bread, butter & soft boiled egg, Cellar Door Provisions

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.

Buttered bread, Cellar Door Provisions
Buttered bread ready to dip into the soft boiled egg

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: With a limited menu of seasonal breakfast and lunch specials and a small selection of artful pastries that routinely sells out before noon, Cellar Door Provisions is tightly focused in its craft. Since I knew I wanted to try the much-lauded bread, I went with the Staff Meal, a no-frills breakfast of greens, bread, butter, and soft boiled egg. This was no ordinary bread and butter, however. The bread itself had a dark crust and airy crumb – the best of both textural worlds – and the egg-sized, salt-flecked quenelle of butter was plenty to smear into every nook of both thick slices. Dipping the bread into the yolk of the soft boiled egg was even more satisfying, and peppery bites of lightly dressed greens helped break up the richness. The whole meal had an understated elegance that was so refreshing.

Staff meal, Cellar Door Provisions
Staff meal of greens, bread, butter, and soft boiled egg

The details: Cellar Door Provisions, 3025 W. Diversey Ave., Chicago.

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This week’s Best Bite: Ripples on an Evaporated Lake and Pool Rules cocktails, Lost Lake

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.

Ripples on an Evaporated Lake and Pool Rules, Lost Lake
Ripples on an Evaporated Lake, with aged Panama rum, aged Trinidad rum, coffee, coconut, and amaro; and Pool Rules, with bourbon whiskey, aged guyana, rum, lemon, curaçao, cinnamon, allspice, vanilla, and angostura bitters

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: I’ve been to Lost Lake at least five times since it opened in mid-January – officially enough to deem it my new favorite bar in Chicago. As fortunate as I am to live within walking distance, 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, who left Three Dots and Dash for this new venture, makes tiki drinks that are just so, so good.

It was difficult to pick two favorites from a menu that has so many creative options, but these two repeatedly stood out. Ripples on an Evaporated Lake fused four things I love to drink: coffee, rum, coconut, and amaro. In each sip, the coffee and rum hit my palate first, the flavors quickly progressing from sweet to bitter on the finish. The mint and coffee beans were a nice touch as garnishes. Meanwhile, Pool Rules, in its adorable fish-shaped glass, was more bourbon-forward. The rum and bourbon both fell into balance with citrus, bitters, vanilla, allspice, and cinnamon for a complex yet easy-drinking cocktail.

The details: Lost Lake, 3154 W. Diversey Ave., Chicago.

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This week’s Best Bite: Smoked fish sandwich, Fahlstrom’s Fresh Fish Market

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.

Smoked fish sandwich, Fahlstrom's Fresh Fish Market
Smoked fish sandwich with duck trap smoked trout spread, three types of thin-sliced smoked fish, thin-sliced capicola ham, capers, cider-vinegar dressing on a toasted french roll

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Because the menu at Fahlstrom’s Fresh Fish Market in Lakeview is nearly endless, I only concentrated on the Sea Sandwiches section during my first visit. I was intrigued by the idea of so many kinds of smoked fish on the same sandwich – four, including the smoked trout spread – and my server confirmed that it was a favorite. I was awed by how well everything in the sandwich worked together, the smoky fish mingling with capicola, sweet cider-vinegar dressing, capers, and lettuce on toasty french bread. The flavor profile even reminded me a little of the bacon-trout-slaw combination on my favorite bagel sandwich. It was the kind of sandwich you wish every deli would offer, all the way down to the house potato pancake and dill pickle on the side.

The details: Fahlstrom’s Fresh Fish Market, 1258 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.

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Chicago Restaurant Week 2015: Dinner at TWO

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2015, held January 30–February 12. Check out recaps from 2014 and 2013, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage.

TWO Dinner

Honey ricotta cheesecake, TWO
Honey ricotta cheesecake with macerated blueberries and chantilly cream

Best Bite: I’ve wanted to try the seasonal American cuisine at TWO during Restaurant Week for years now, so it made a beyond pleasant ending to this year’s dining festivities. A seemingly unassuming cheesecake dessert was the meal’s biggest surprise. The graham cracker crust, honeyed filling, and juicy blueberries brought back vivid memories of the cheesecake bars of my childhood – but just more refined and even more delicious. I also appreciated the complexity of the crouton garnish on the cauliflower bisque, a platform for bacon, mushrooms, and ricotta to stay afloat in the silky soup.

Roasted cauliflower bisque, TWO
Roasted cauliflower bisque with homemade bacon, cured mushrooms, and ricotta crouton

Other notes: The diamond-marked pork chop came in two thick, generous slices, and pairing it with roasted potatoes and mustard-pepper sauce felt thoroughly Midwestern (in a good way, of course). We also enjoyed a bottle of wine with our meal, an 2010 Italian white blend from Luna del Feldi that was specially discounted as part of the Restaurant Week menu. There was something about the natural-hued interior that made the room feel warm and familiar.

Pork kalbi loin chop, TWO
Berkshire pork kalbi loin chop with roasted Yukon gold potatoes and black pepper mustard sauce

The details: TWO, 1132 W. Grand Ave., Chicago.

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Chicago Restaurant Week 2015: Dinner at Tanta

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2015, held January 30–February 12. Check out recaps from 2014 and 2013, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage.

Tanta Dinner

Cebiche clasico, Tanta
Cebiche clasico with mahi mahi, red onions, cilantro, habenero, and natural leche de tigre

Best Bite: Between this meal and my previous visit, I’ve really fallen in love with Tanta’s take on Peruvian cuisine. An eclectic set of culinary influences – Japanese, Spanish, Chinese, French – make for an irresistible mix of flavors and ingredients. The classic mahi mahi cebiche was bright and balanced with additional unique texture from the hominy. The alfajor dessert also might have been the best I ate during Restaurant Week this year. I couldn’t get enough of the dulce de leche and hot chocolate sauce together.

Alfajor, Tanta
Alfajor with shortbread cookies, lucuma dulce de leche, hot chocolate sauce, and vanilla bean ice cream

Other notes: Many of Tanta’s cocktails involve pisco, the national spirit of Peru, and they are not to be missed. This pisco punch exploded with cinnamon and lime, and I was immediately transported to warmer climates. The basket of plantain chips was also a great bread basket substitute.

Pisco punch and plantain chips, Tanta
Pisco punch with porton mosto verde pisco, zucca,
lime, cinnamon, and cusquena beer, plus a basket of plantain chips

The details: Tanta, 118 W. Grand Ave., Chicago.

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Chicago Restaurant Week 2015: Dinner at Big Jones

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2015, held January 30–February 12. Check out recaps from 2014 and 2013, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage.

Big Jones Dinner

Alligator and andouille sauce piquant, Big Jones
Alligator and andouille sauce piquant with Louisiana gator tail and house-made andouille simmered in a piquant red sauce, served with popcorn rice

Best Bite: I went into this Louisiana Mardi Gras–themed menu knowing I wanted to order the gator tail as my main course, and it exceeded my expectations. Tender pieces of alligator and andouille sausage swam in a fiery red sauce, right at that heat level where you’re acutely aware of the intensity of the spices, but aren’t slowed down or overwhelmed by them.

Skillet cheddar cornbread, Big Jones
Skillet cheddar cornbread with Hook’s cheddar, jalapeños, and scallions

Other notes: The second-course skillets of golden cornbread were a hit with the whole group, irresistibly augmented by cheddar, scallions, jalapeños, and plenty of butter. It was fun to have a classic Mardi Gras king cake as dessert, too – colored sugar and all. Our party of seven was seated at a table right in the window, which made it feel like an extra-special feast.

The details: Big Jones, 5347 N. Clark St., Chicago.

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