Friday, October 13, 2017

Tavern on Little Fort or The Big Game

The Slow and Savory Review

For a sports fan in Chicago, autumn can be the most stressful time of year. Are The Bears going to ever find a halfway decent quarterback? Just how many injured players can The Blackhawks put on the ice before everything falls apart? Is there a second part to the Curse of the Billy Goat that means The Cubs will be in the playoffs for the next century, but will kill all of their fans by playing insanely stressful games? These are all questions Brandy never used to waste any of her brain cells thinking about ("Those brain cells are reserved for killing with alcohol, by God!" as she says), but now that she's been in Chicago for over a decade, they are the things constantly at the forefront of her mind.

"Maybe it's because I brunch every Sunday morning and I have inadvertently absorbed all this sports nonsense," Brandy was saying to her good friend Bailey one day, "You know, the televisions are always on at the bars and such, so I must be subconsciously acquiring information from them while I sip my mimosas." "It's hard to live in a city like this and not become a sports fan of some kind," said Bailey, "Speaking of which, there's four different games I need to catch that are about to start. Would you like to come watch with me?" "Well..." "And grab some brunch?" "I suppose I could be persuaded."

They ended up at Tavern on Little Fort, a comfy Bavarian style bar in the heart of North Center. The dark woods that covered the inside of the bar gave the place a warm and familiar feeling, but Brandy was glad to see that they also had a beer garden and a sidewalk patio for those diners who desired a little more light. Though Brandy usually prefers to stay indoors, Bailey convinced her to take a table on the patio where they could still keep an eye the various games being broadcast on the televisions inside. The trick was that alongside the Chicago games, Tavern on Little Fort is actually a Hawkeyes, Raiders, and St. Louis Cardinals bar, so a variety of teams and sports were being shone.

Though the mimosa and bloody mary bar were tempting, they decided to start things off with a pair of cocktails from the regular menu: Bailey got the RBC Spritzer, which was a mix of a honey scented cider and a sauvignon blanc, while Brandy went with the Mimosa After Dark, which came with a splash of passion fruit liqueur along with orange juice and champagne. Brandy rather liked the additional flavor, which gave the drink a pungent yet enjoyable fruitiness. Bailey felt her spritzer was a little more heavy on the wine and sort of watered down the taste of the cider (as an admitted cider snob, it was the addition of the cider that had peeked her interest in the first place).

For their appetizer course, they picked out a couple of easy-to-munch dishes that wouldn't get too messy if they dropped bits of them down their fronts when they had to suddenly turn their attentions to the games. Firstly, there was the Fried Brussels Sprouts, adorned with bacon, smoked almonds, and cranberries. Brandy was pretty taken with these flavorful little morsels, which were crispy, crunchy, smokey, and sweet all at once. Bailey only had eyes for the Loaded Tater Tots; a pile of freshly made golden nuggets topped with crumbled chorizo, chihuahua cheese, tons of green onions, and a drizzle of crème fraîche. The result was an indulgent mountain of deliciousness, held together by some really well made tots that were crunchy on the outside, but like mashed potatoes on the inside. Bailey especially enjoyed the flavor of the chorizo, which had a good spicy kick that helped cut through all the richness and starchiness.

For her entree, Bailey chose the Brunch Schnitzel. The massive slab of breaded pork came topped with a fried egg and a healthy portion of smoked potatoes and pickled red onion. She was very happy with how juicy the pork was on the inside as well as the well flavored potatoes and onions, which stood up to the meat quite well. "I'd say that I could eat this every day, but if I did, I'd be as big as one of those line backers," she giggled, mostly to herself, as Brandy was enraptured by a play happening in the baseball game she was keeping an eye on.

When not distracted by the game, Brandy was munching on her Breakfast Burger. She realized after one bite that she had actually tasted this burger before, at Tavern on Little Fort's sister restaurant Commonwealth Tavern, but it was just as tasty as she remembered. The patty had been made with brisket and bacon, which gave it a wonderful smokey under current, and the fresh made bread and butter pickles lifted the whole thing with a little tangy sweetness. "I didn't even mean to order the same burger I had back at the beginning of the year, but goodness, am I glad I did! Do you see how perfectly that egg on top was cooked? It's certainly the MVP of the whole meal."

Brandy and Bailey eventually tottered away from Tavern on Little Fort with full tummies and a touch of stress induced indigestion from watching their respective teams make things a little too exciting. The service had been very relaxed, an accomplishment for a place that was actually quite busy and a little under staffed. There could not have been a better menu to enjoy a game with and the prices were fair enough to enable a couple of extra rounds of drinks should any games go into over time. "I suppose I have to accept that I am a bonafide sports fan now," Brandy sighed. "Is that such a bad thing?" Bailey chided her. "No, but it's hard for a former athlete like myself to just sit back and watch others compete." "You were an athlete?" "Of course. Competitive eating is a valid sport, isn't it?"

The writers of this blog were invited by the restaurant to dine free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

The Short and Sweet Review

Friday, October 6, 2017

Festival Recap: Chicago Gourmet 2017

There is a reason that Brandy so eagerly anticipates the end of September every year, and it might not be what you think it is. "Most people count down the days until the beginning of fall so they can get their hands on a pumpkin spice latte," she muses, "But for me, it's all about the countdown to what I refer to as 'Foodie Christmas.'" Yes, the biggest food festival of the year has once again come and gone, and although this year's attendees had to deal with record heat, there was no putting a damper on the party. Chicago Gourmet was celebrating a decade of existence and did so with a bang, adding all sorts of new events leading up to the big weekend while theming everything on the idea of decadence (or Decade-ance... get it?).

Having attended seven out of the ten festivals, Brandy has developed a pretty good strategy for getting through the day in the most efficient way possible, which she would like to share with all of her readers so that they can more easily prepare for future festivals.

Rule Number One: Hit the ground running. Brandy always makes sure she hasn't eaten anything for at least twelve hours before the festival so that she can be sure she has enough room for all the deliciousness. Once in the gate, she immediately made a beeline for the Four Corners Tavern tent, which was serving a selection of dishes, desserts, and cocktails from their collection of restaurants (with an emphasis on their newest venture, Brickhouse Tavern, which recently opened just outside of Wrigley Field). This tent is always ready to go right as the festival opens, while others are still in prep mode. Brandy was able to quickly grab up some savory fry bread, a buffalo tuna cone, some boozy rainbow jello push pops, an adorable unicorn donut hole, and a Moscow Mule, all while others were still consulting their maps.

Rule Number Two: Eat on the go. Once she had a handful of goodies, it was time to find another tent to line up for. Veterans of the festival will often go straight for the Supreme Lobster tent, as it tends to accumulate the longest lines, but Brandy prefers to make her way around the perimeter of the festival first, as those tents tend to run low of food more quickly. Brandy headed for the Mariano's tasting pavilion, and just as she finished up her previous haul, she was ready to collect delicious items for her next round. The K-Pop Fun Time Wieners with "kim-cheeeeze" whiz from the Duck Inn were a definite favorite from this group.

Rule Number Three: Know who your friends are. The beginning of the day is the most important part, because it sets the pace for everything else. If one fills up too quickly, they'll be sluggish for the rest of the day, but if one goes too slowly, they risk being too full by the time the second session comes around. Brandy likes to review the locations of restaurants she knows she loves and plan her stops accordingly so as to waste as little time as possible. Honey Butter Fried Chicken is always going to be a great option, so she headed in the direction of their tent and got the bonus of a delicious hot dog from Bar Lupo, topped with bolognese, giardiniera, and ricotta, as well as a braised short rib slider with tomato jam and truffle aioli from Pearl Brasserie.

Rule Number Four: If you don't love it, don't finish it. Pacing is key, especially when some of the restaurants seem to be trying to out do each other with portion sizes. Brandy spotted Marchesa serving a mini bowl of steamed mussels, which on first glance seemed like a lot of food, but was actually a manageable size once one had removed all the meat from the shells. She greatly admired the bravery of serving mussels at an event such as this one, where the temptation is to present a perfect one bite dish.

Rule Number Five: Take breaks and stay hydrated. There are plenty of oases to be found outside of the more obvious seating areas. 8 Hospitality offered some bar tables and chairs along with cocktails and a truffle and pheasant pie. Counter Culture Coffee had created a pop up cafe, where they were offering everything from cups of cold brew to shots of espresso to give attendees a much needed boost of energy. Thermador had set up a comfy lounge area, offering people pieces of bacon dipped in either chocolate or caramel as a quick snack. Patron had the most impressive spot, right in the middle of the festival, where bartenders were slinging a variety of tequila cocktails.

Rule Number Six: Wait to get sweets until you're almost full. With most of the dishes at Chicago Gourmet being savory, a sweet treat can make quite a difference to one's overwhelmed palate. After sampling a slightly sweet braised beef brisket with sweet potato puree, pickled slaw, and apple jam from Promontory, Brandy found herself craving things with even more sweetness, so she headed to the desserts pavilion. There she found Bittersweet Pastry shop serving up butterscotch brownies, Bang Bang Pie handing out cups of fresh blueberry crisp, and Beacon Tavern presenting a beautiful hazelnut and chocolate layered cake.

Rule Number Seven: Hit the demos before you hit the wall. As Brandy does most years, she headed to the main stage demos while the tents transitioned from the first to the second sessions. Comfortably seated, she watched as Stephanie Izard and Sarah Grueneberg teamed up to make dumplings and pasta (with some assistance from Billy Dec), followed by Art Smith and Lorena Garcia exuding their sass and charm with some Southern/Latin fusion food.

Rule Number Eight: Find the most creative and refreshing dishes to finish out the day with. The second session can be the most challenging part of the day as fatigue sets in and the alcohol starts to seep into the blood stream, but finding new and exciting things can help keep the mind sharp. Brandy really loved her visit to the vegetarian themed tent, where Filini was serving up a gnocci with butternut squash and brown sage butter and Baptiste and Bottle offered a delicata squash with escarole, apple mostarda, and a chili seed romesco. Across the lawn, there was a fried sweetbread from Osteria Langhe, something one wouldn't normally expect to see at such an event, but a welcome surprise. Stings (Brandy's newly discovered go to for ramen) presented a wonderfully refreshing cucumber salad, which was a blessing of a palate cleanser after a day of snacking of such rich fair.

It certainly was a celebration of decadence at this year's Chicago Gourmet, but with her game plan at the ready, Brandy once again survived a long but exuberant day of food and drink. "It's a good thing they only do this once a year," she sighed as she headed out of the park, "I don't know if I could survive doing this even six months apart."

Don't forget, lots more pictures from the festival are available for browsing on our Facebook page!

The writers of this blog were given free admission to this event in order to facilitate the writing of this post.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Tea Time with Brandy: XXL Icons from La Maison Du Chocolat

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Brandy is a self diagnosed chocoholic. Though her mouth is almost entirely filled with sweet teeth, she does have discerning tastes when it comes to chocolate and how to experience it. "You can't just be biting and chewing away like a heathen," she says, "One has to nibble and savor. Let the chocolate coat the tongue. Experience all parts of it, from the texture to the complex flavors. I've never been one of those people who can taste oak and summer fruits and such in a glass of wine, but I most certainly could be a chocolate sommelier."

The XXL POMME D’AMOUR chocolate, meant to evoke a caramel apple

In fact, Brandy's one criticism of most high end chocolates is that there is never enough of them. "You get one little blissful bite of heaven and it's gone. Now, I understand that too much of a good thing can spoil the experience, but sometimes you just want that one bite to be a little less ephemeral. "It's the difference between a song and an opera," as Brandy likes to put it. 

The entire XXL Icons collection

This is exactly why Brandy was so excited to hear about the XXL Icon collection from La Maison du Chocolat. The infamous Parisian based chocolatier will be celebrating its 40th anniversary this October by releasing six classic and modern favorite flavors in extra large sizes. Each chocolate is about four times the size of a typical piece, making the high quality chocolate shell and sumptuous fillings even more indulgent. They are so special, in fact, that each one comes individually packaged in its own metallic box, as if it were a precious piece of jewelry. 

The XXL NÉROLI chocolate, filled with a strawberry and orange scented dark chocolate ganache

The flavors range from milk and dark chocolate ganaches to luxurious fruity fancies to crisp and delicate pralines. Since each chocolate is over a quarter of a pound, just one is decadent enough to satisfy even the most ravenous sweet tooth (though they're so flavorful and so skillfully made that someone like Brandy might be tempted to have more than one per sitting).

The XXL DENTELLE chocolate, scented with hazelnut and dotted with delicately crispy crepe pieces

The XXL Icons collection will be available online at the La Maison du Chocolat store and in their boutiques on October 11th. Rest assured that Brandy will be waking up especially early that day to make sure she can snag as many of these limited edition chocolately treasures as she can get her virtual hands on.

The XXL BOHÈME chocolate, a dream for milk chocolate fans

The writers of this blog were sent products free of charge in order to facilitate the writing of this post. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

Food News: Meet Michelle Bernstein at Macy's State Street!

NoteThe writers of this blog have been compensated by Everywhere Agency for the information contained in this post, but the opinions stated were not influenced.

The unseasonable warmth in Chicago has Brandy feeling a little confused as to exactly what city she's in lately. "I could swear I live in the Midwest, but every time I go outside, I suddenly start wondering if I accidentally moved to Miami." Her confusion grew recently when she discovered that one of Miami's favorite chefs, Michelle Bernstein, was going to be making an appearance at Macys on State Street on Friday October 6th at noon as part of their free Culinary Council live demo series

The James Beard Award winning chef will be bringing her unique culinary perspective to the Culinary Council demo kitchen on the 7th floor of Macys on State as she prepares some of her signature recipes, which have been inspired by her Jewish and Latin heritage, while telling stories from her legendary cooking career and offering invaluable cooking advice. The gathered crowd will also have the opportunity to taste her creations as she prepares them live. After the demo has ended, they'll be able to meet Chef Bernstein down on the lower level of Macys (in the kitchen wares section) and if they make a purchase of $35 or more, they'll get a $10 Macys gift card and a copy of Chef Michelle's cookbook, Cuisine A Latina, which they can even get personally autographed! 

"Whatever it is city I'm currently living in, I wouldn't want to miss something like this," said Brandy.

To join Brandy on October 6th, for the free demo and tasting, simply RSVP here 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Strings Ramen or Spinning Strands of Gold

The Slow and Savory Review

Record heat waves are nothing to Brandy now that she has set her mind to fall mode. "I don't care what the thermometer says. It is September, for goodness sake, and I'm ready for hot beverages and hot soups," said Brandy, "But I refuse to eat or drink anything pumpkin flavored until October. People tasting pumpkin before October are morally bankrupt." On the receiving end of her rant about the climbing temperatures verses the desire for fall foods was her good friend Brocco. "You know, in Japan, there's this philosophy that if it's hot outside, you should eat hots foods because it will cause your body to try and cool itself off even more," he pointed out as he wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead, "So you can still have your hot drinks and such even though its warm, and they might even help you feel better!" "That does it then," Brandy proclaimed, "You and I are going to go have something hot for brunch. Something that warms the body and the soul."

They headed to the newly opened Strings in Lakeview. This little outpost near the Belmont train station boasted the same lineup of richly flavored broths and handmade noodles as the original Chinatown restaurant, but with plenty of exclusive new additions to the menu. The decor really did evoke the feeling of a ramen shop in Tokyo, with bright and unique lighting all around, high and minimalistic tables, and lanterns hanging from the industrial inspired ceiling.

Brocco and Brandy started off with some steamed Chicken Gyoza and a bowl of Yuzu Miso Salmon Sunomono. The gyoza were just the thing to peek one's appetite for the meal to come. Their interior was wonderfully juicy and tender with just a hint of spice, while the outer skin remained bouncy and supple. The Sunumono was actually quite refreshing, being served over a bed of shaved cucumber and other vegetables and dressed with sweet vinegar. Brocco really loved the succulent fish, which tasted as fresh as though it had been caught that day. Brandy enjoyed the softly sweet flavor from the yuzu miso and thought that the tender chunks of fish were going to make for perfect palate cleansers in between sip of their ramen, which hit the table almost immediately after the starters did.

Brocoo had gone with the Kuro Buta Tonkotsu Ramen, which matched a creamy pork bone broth with sesame seeds, wood ear mushrooms, green onions, a soy sauce marinated egg, and thick slices of fatty pork belly. Diving straight in with his chop sticks, Brocco discovered the tangle of noodles lying just under the surface and pulled up a mouthful-sized portion, then proceeded to slurp them up without abandon. "Young man!" Brandy scolded him. "No, it's ok!" he protested, "You're supposed to slurp your noodles. It shows that you're enjoying them and it cools them off enough to eat straight away. You don't want your noodles to sit too long in the broth, or the texture won't be right." As these noodles had been made fresh, they had an exceptionally wonderful texture with just enough chew to them. Brocco found that the broth in his ramen was actually a bit lighter than he had expected it to be, but it was still deeply flavorful and well seasoned. It wasn't long before he was lifting the bowl to his mouth so that he could slurp every last bit.

Brandy went with the Premium Miso Ramen, which came adorned with corn, spicy ground pork, clams, bean sprouts, red onions, lots of garlic, and a couple slices of filet mignon. "I've never seen ramen served with steak before!" Brocco exclaimed in surprise. Brandy was amazed by just how tender the meat was, and even though it was surrounded by a lot of very strong flavors, its true beefiness still shone through. The miso broth was soft on the tongue and not too salty, but Brandy thought it tasted particularly good with the addition of the fresh garlic. After her first bite of golden, chewy noodles, she found it difficult to stop eating and very soon, her chop sticks were coming up out of the broth empty. Luckily, Strings offers Kae Dama, which is an extra order of noodles, meant to be used with one's broth once the original noodles had been finished off, and Brandy happily took advantage of the service in order to sop up every last bit of her bowl.

Finally, the pair finished off their meal with a couple sweet bites: a Tiramisu cup and a little piece of Sasa Dango. The Tiramisu was amazingly creamy and smooth with a good hit of coffee flavor. "Not what I would expect in a ramen restaurant, but it's rather tasty!" said Brandy. "Funnily enough, tiramisu is a pretty popular dessert in Japan," said Brocco. The Sasa dango was a lovely dumpling, made from sweet rice flour with a sweetened red bean paste center, all wrapped up in bamboo leaf and steamed. Both Brandy and Brocco very much enjoyed the chewy little bite, which made for the perfect end to their meal.

Brandy really appreciated String's adherence to Japanese tradition while making efforts to modernize and customize their selections. The food came to the tables incredibly fast, which is also a fairly common practice in traditional ramen houses, but there still had been an effort put in to present the dishes in a very pleasing way. The prices were also very reasonable considering the quality and time put into the food (only a single item on the menu topped $20). Stepping back out into the sweltering heat, Brocco turned to Brandy and asked, "Well? Did it work? Do you feel any cooler?" "No," said Brandy, "We better go back inside and keep eating ramen until it stops feeling like the inside of an oven out here."

The writers of this blog were invited by the restaurant to dine free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

The Short and Sweet Review

Friday, September 15, 2017

Dinner at Trattoria Gianni

"I've still got a bit of residual stress and tension about on my person from the move that I can't quite seem to shake," Brandy told her friend Starr one day. "It's so nice outside right now with fall creeping in. We should get out for some dinner and fresh air. That'll help you feel better," said Starr. "Patios are over rated," grumbled Brandy, "Jammed into a tiny table on a sidewalk with thirty other people while tree flotsam falls onto your plate and a dog does it's business just feet away? No thank you!" "Oh, come on, there's some really nice patios in the city! You just have to look for them!" "At my age, I'm done looking for things. I'm ready to be shown the way." "Well, in that case, I'll just show you to a patio that I think will meet with your approval." "No thank you." "There will be pasta." "Well... alright then."

Starr took Brandy along to Trattoria Gianni, The venerable Italian stalwart situated on Halsted in the midst of some of the Chicago's best theaters. The restaurant was soon to be celebrating its 30th birthday, a gigantic accomplishment in a city which sees even Michelin starred establishments closing after a few years. Importing many of their ingredients straight from Italy and preparing everything in house, Trattoria Gianni has kept alive a tradition of classic Italian food that warms the heart as well as filling the belly.

Starr and Brandy took their seats on the newly revamped patio, which had plenty of lush greenery and twinkling lights, but a blocked off view of the street, making it feel more like a private garden. There were even space heaters scattered around the space, ready to warm diners in case the notoriously fickle Chicago weather were to make a turn towards the chilly. The ladies ordered a few drinks to sip while they perused the menu (some rose for Brandy and a lemony cocktail for Starr), but little did they know what the night was about to bring them, because Gianni Delisi himself was making his way over to their table.

Relying on Gianni's recommendations heavily, Starr and Brandy sampled a trio of signature appetizers; beef carpaccio, bruchetta with fresh burrata cheese, and some arancini. Though the beef was stunningly tender and flavorful and the burrata was pure creamy decadence, the arancini had Starr and Brandy's rapt attention with its perfectly crisped exterior, beautifully scented saffron rice interior, and bits of peas and cheese hiding within.

Next, Gianni brought out a sampling of some of the restaurant's finest pasta dishes. Starr really enjoyed the Conchiglie del Mercante, which consisted of shell shaped pasta, some slightly spicy Italian sausage, and lots of mushrooms and peas. Brandy immediately zeroed in on the Gnocchi della Nonna. The perfectly soft and pillowy little ricotta clouds came served with a bright and herby tomato sauce, making these gnocci just the thing to please a cheese lover such as Brandy. Lastly, they sampled the Rigatoni alla Nocerina, coated in a light and creamy sauce with bit of sun dried tomato, mushrooms, and plenty of garlic.

Not stopping there, they cleansed their palates with a special salad of red and golden beets, arugula, blue cheese, and a citrus scented dressing. The earthy, peppery, and zingy flavors were just the thing to give their taste buds a second wind.

A plate of Braciole found its way to the table, making the ladies grown both with delight and trepidation at having to find the room for it in their ever expanding stomachs. The thinly cut beef encased a creamy filling of cheese, raisins, breadcrumbs, and pine nuts and came accompanied by some sauted spinach, crisped sage, grilled onions, and mushrooms, making for a deeply flavorful and skillfully put together dish.

Lastly, a perfect little panna cotta was presented to the table. Starr and Brandy made a valiant effort to devour every last creamy, silky, smooth spoonful, but their ultimate failure to consume every last bite earned them a little side eye from their smirking waitress.

When they had arrived, the sun had still been high in the sky, but by the time they were ready to leave, the twinkling lights all around the patio had come alive, like little fairies dancing in the early autumnal air. "I don't think I can move," Brandy sighed. "How many glasses of rose did you have?" Starr asked. "One! What you see before you now is not a woman drunk on wine, but a woman drunk on the love of fantastic Italian food. There is no spirit in existence that will ever make me feel as contented as a good plate of pasta will."

And legend has it that Starr and Brandy are still sitting at that table on Gianni's patio to this day, guts busted, waiting for a time when they will once again feel hungry.

The writers of this blog were invited to dine at the restaurant free of charge in order to facilitate the writing of this post.