Friday, February 24, 2017

Dinner at Davanti Enoteca and Mia Francesca

Other than brunch, there is no other cuisine that gets Bunny and Brandy as excited as classic Italian fair. "It's all about the freshest ingredients, the thoughtful preparations, and the amazing skills needed in the kitchen!" fawns Bunny. "Not to mention the pasta, the cheeses, and the wines," echoes Brandy. Indeed, in Bunny and Brandy's opinions, there's no better way to spend an evening than in deep conversation with friends over several courses and a few glasses of some sort of beverage or other. It is long nights such as this, spent sipping wine and sampling many a Tuscan or Sicilian or Roman dish late into the pre-dawn hours, that originally forced Bunny and Brandy to become such frequent brunchers in the first place!

Because of their collective love of Italian food, a few recent events at Davanti Enoteca and Mia Francesca caught the eye of Bunny and Brandy. Firstly, Davanti Enoteca was hosting a series of wine dinners, designed specifically to show off some more interesting varieties of Italian wine along side specially created dishes in their signature rustic Italian style. Each dinner included six courses, complete with wine pairings for each course for $65 (a real steal in Bunny's opinion). Luckily, Bunny just happened to be passing through Chicago on the very night one of these dinners was being held, so she stopped into the Little Italy location for a night of food, drink, and new friends.

Dinner at Davanti Enoteca was as extraordinarily rich and diverse affair. The first course consisted of two amazingly flavorful crostinis (one topped with riccota, tomato, and basil and the other topped with chicken liver mousse, roasted beets, and a cherry mostarda), which was paired with a bright and dry prosecco. Next came a beautiful bowl of seafood in a spicy tomato broth. Bunny positively adored every bite of this bold and flavorful dish, even using the charred bread served on the side to sop up every last drop. This dish was paired with a really unique 2012 Scarbolo Pinot Grigio Ramato XL, which had a beautiful rosy color so intense (from the extended skin contact of the grapes placed in stainless steal barrels) that Bunny immediately ordered a set of luggage in the same shade. Then, things lightened up with a citrus scented salad with grapefruit segments, candied hazelnuts, and a meyer lemon vinaigrette, which was matched with a fruity 2015 Pala I Fiori Vermentino from Sardinia. Rich flavors returned in the next course, which consisted of a short rib stuffed angnolotti in a porcini demi-glaze with cave aged pecorino cheese. The Vietti Barbera d'Asti Tre Vigne 2014 it was paired with held it's own with a red berry flavor and a dry, smooth finish. The last savory course was a perfectly roasted lamb loin accompanied by roasted root vegetables and a mint salsa, The lamb was paired with a 2012 Aglianico del Vulture Synthesi, which had notes of dark fruits and licorice, matching well of the herbaceous salsa. Finally, the meal concluded with an extraordinary espresso caramel torte, which was more luxurious cream than anything, and went perfectly with a sweet and light 2005 Vin Santo del Chianti Classico that Bunny could have continued to sip happily for the rest of her life.

Brandy, on the other hand, was more intrigued by Mia Francesca, who were celebrating their 25th anniversary at their original Clark street location with a special month long throwback menu from when they first opened in 1992 (in fact, on February 27th, Mia Francesca's is even throwing back their prices to what they were in 1992). This neighborhood staple had long been a favorite of Brandy's, so she was curious to see how their ever changing menu of seasonal Italian favorites looked all those years ago. "At my age, 25 years is simply a blip on the timeline," she said as she sipped a pre-dinner Old Fashioned, "But in restaurant years, 25 years ago was practically the stone age!" She decided to start off her meal with a plate of Beef Carpaccio, which came lightly dressed in capers, mushrooms, lemon juice, diced tomatoes, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese. The delicacy of this dish delighted Brandy, as no one flavor over took the salty and savory beef, which had been sliced impossibly thin. Next, she picked out a classic favorite of hers, a Caparase Salad. "I'm not really a huge fan of raw tomatoes for one reason or another," she mused, "But whatever tomatoes they use at Mia Francesca are consistently tasty and never watery. I'm amazed by them every single time." She followed that up with a plate of Linguine all'Arlecchino, a pasta dish jam packed with shrimp, scallops, clams, and garlic in a slightly spiced tomato sauce. The fresh pasta combined with the perfectly cooked seafood was certainly filling enough to be an entree for most normal people, but Brandy was determined to have a real Italian style feast, so she then ordered the Vitello Sassi; veal medallions in a brandy sauce with artichokes and wild mushrooms, which was so impossibly tender and flavorful that she practically moaned after each bite. Finally, Brandy ended her meal with a slice of decadent and rich Tiramisu, accompanied by a really unique creme style limoncello from Chicago Distillery.

Bunny and Brandy compared notes on their individual Italian indulgences, and proceeded to argue about who had the most extravagant and delicious meal. "There's only one way to settle this," said Brandy after several hours of pointing and counter pointing. "And we both know what that way is," said Bunny, raising her eyebrow, threateningly. "We'll have to go back to both restaurants for brunch!" they pronounced in unison.

The writers of this blog were invited to dine at the restaurants mentioned in order to facilitate the writing of this post.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Postcards from Bunny: Mr. Brown's Lounge Brunch Preview

Bunny has spent the first part of 2017 literally half way across the world in Australia. The odd joy of lazing on a beach in early February has been quite a treat for her and she was reluctant to give up the warmth and sun. "I do miss Chicago... to a certain extent," she commented while sipping on a fruity cocktail, "But it's hard to convince one's self to go back to freezing temperatures and cloudy skies when one has grown used to the southern hemisphere." Never the less, Bunny knew it was time to head back to the Windy City, if only briefly, as her pale Anglican skin was nearing its maximum amount of pigmentation.

But once Bunny returned to her home away from home, she was awestruck to find that the usually slushy streets hadn't seen a flake of snow in over 60 days and that the temperatures were nearing record highs. "Why didn't you tell me Chicago was in the middle of a heatwave?" Bunny angrily texted Brandy. "I don't control the weather, dear," Brandy replied, "Not since that incident at NASA in the 60's. How was I supposed to know that was the button that released the weather balloons?" With the discovery that Chicago was feeling positively tropical in the middle of what should have been the harshest time of year, Bunny suddenly found herself craving the cuisine of warmer climates. Luckily, Mr. Brown's Lounge inside the Hard Rock Hotel was having a preview of their brand new Jamaican inspired brunch. "If the entire city of Chicago has decided to take a vacation from the late winter weather, then who am I to resist it?" she reasoned with herself.

Upon entering the sunny ground level restaurant, Bunny was immediately handed a Passion Fruit Belini, which was as bright and refreshing as it was colorful. There was also a Sorrel Rum Punch being served, which had a gorgeous red color as well as a fruity and slightly herbacious flavor. Bunny actually quite enjoyed the punch, finding it to be one of those dangerous types of drinks that was so drinkable that one hardly noticed just how many of them were being consumed over the course of the meal.

Next came some little bites of signature menu items. The Island Style Mac and Cheese was a thick and creamy concoction that didn't stray too far from the American classic, except that it had a bit of a red pepper kick. The Plantain Porridge was a bit more of a pleasant surprise with it's subtly sweet flavor, though it was closer to a smoothie texture than what Bunny was used to seeing in a porridge. Then there was a little taste of the Ackee and Saltfish which, as Bunny was told, was the national dish of Jamaica, consisting of the custard-like tropical fruit combined with buttery salted fish, sauted red and green peppers, onions, and a traditional Jamaica mixed of leafy greens called Calaloo. This was truly a new experience for Bunny, who was surprised to find that the ackee bared a striking resemblance (both physically and in flavor) to scrambled eggs!

Moving on to some more full sized samples, Bunny tried some of the Steak Hash, which came served with a fried egg, crisped potatoes, more peppers and onions, chimichurri, cheese sauce, and a touch of Mr. Brown's signature jerk sauce. This may have been Bunny's favorite dish of the morning, as the tender steak had the perfect amount of kick to it from the jerk sauce, but the creamy cheese and the assertive chimichurri made for excellent compliments. In turn, the Jerk Omelet also combined a recognizable American breakfast staple with just enough Jamaican flavor to make it really unique, as did the Jerk Chicken and Waffles. Finally ending on something sweet, Bunny sampled the Coconut Pancakes, which were simple enough, but when combined with a bite of perfectly caramelized plantains, they became a Caribbean delight!

Having indulged herself as thoroughly as possible on such a unique menu, Bunny waddled out of Mr. Brown's with a smile on her face and a Peter Tosh song in her head. "Now let's see... is 60 degrees appropriate beach weather?" she wondered to herself. "Well, I suppose it is for Chicago! Those polar plunge fellows are certainly going to have an easy time of things this year!"

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

Friday, February 10, 2017

Commonwealth Tavern or Sometimes You Wanna Go...

The Slow and Savory Review

Brandy has always held a rather idealistic torch for the type of neighborhood joint where the bartenders have one's favorite drink ready before one has even had a chance to sit down. "I know the traditional old corner pub is all but a romantic fantasy in this day and age," she says, "But wouldn't it be lovely to have those kinds of places again? The ones where regulars have their own seats and whole neighborhoods gather together to watch a big game or toast the season? Ah, those were the days." "Did those days ever really exist though?" asked her friend Bernais Bamboo, who had been listening to Brandy ramble for a good five minutes. "Yes indeed they did!" Brandy chastised her, "Why I remember a time when you were thought to be the village weirdo if you weren't down the pub every night at six o'clock. The pub was where everything in the community got done! Now with all the texting and social anxiety and alcoholism about, it seems like those days are gone for good." "But there's still quite a few good bars around. And they have much better food than they used to, let me tell you!" To this, Brandy had to concede the argument, and in doing so, she allowed Bernais to pick a brunch destination to further prove her point.

In order to give Brandy the kind of cozy neighborhood pub experience she was craving, Bernais took her to Commonwealth Tavern, a friendly little spot in the heart of Roscoe Village. The interior layout was open and spread out, making for a very comfortable vibe that didn't put patrons right on top of each other. A few bar games here and a few televisions there made the place instantly feel like it wanted its patrons to have a good long visit.

Though the Make Your Own Bloody Mary and Mimosa Bar looked promising with lots of juices, mixes, and fixings, Brandy opted for a cup of Uncommon Hot Chocolate, which had been spiked with a cinnamon whiskey. The warm, indulgent drink was just the thing for a blustery and grey morning and Brandy took great delight in sipping it all throughout the meal. Bernais, who was expecting her first child, politely asked the bartender to mix her up a fruity mock-tail, and she was delighted to be handed a muddled mint and strawberry beverage. "That's how you can tell a bartender knows their stuff," said Brandy, "Anyone who can create something this delicious on the fly without using any alcohol gets a gold star in my book."

They then started off their meal with a lighter option, the Mixed Green Salad, which had much more exciting ingredients than its name implied. The bed of peppery greens came accompanied by sweet roasted beets, crunchy chunks of jicama, a sprinkling of fried pecans, and a ginger lime dressing, to which Brandy and Bernais added some grilled chicken. The serving staff sweetly split the salad in two so that both ladies could enjoy their fair share, which they very much appreciated. It certainly had a nice mix of textures between the nuts and various veggies, and while it had a fresh flavor, the salad was actually quite hearty and filling. "Seems like the kind of thing that would taste even better when eaten on a patio in the sunshine," Bernais commented.

Next, they moved on to a slightly less healthy option; a plate of the signature Nachos. This impressive pile of house made chips came slathered in a beer cheese sauce, salsa verde, crema, and was augmented with braised pork and a host of pickled vegetables. Brandy was mightily impressed with the chips themselves, which had an almost buttery flavor and an excellent crunch. The salsa verde packed quite a bit of spice, but could be easily avoided should one not be capsaicin inclined, like Bernais. The pickled nature of the vegetables also lent quite a nice tang, while the tender pork contributed its own injection of smokey flavor.

Bernais picked the BELT (a BLT with an egg added) for her entree. The L portion of the sandwich had been replaced by arugula, while the T portion was represented by a thick slice of fried green tomato, which Bernais thought was a stroke of genius. The bacon, while substantial, didn't over power anything else, making for a rather well balanced bite. Bernais especially liked the herb mayonnaise, which helped to keep some of the otherwise rich flavors in check with a subtle freshness.

Brandy picked the Breakfast Burger, the center piece of which was a patty made from 70% brisket and 30% bacon. Right from the start, Brandy could actually taste the bacon, which made it one of the more distinctive breakfast burger's she's had to date. The "tavern sauce" on the burger had a lovely mustardy flavor to it, which combined rather well with the sweet and sour pickle slices, and the addition of some deep fried onions made for an excellent contrast in texture to the soft brioche bun. "I have to say that I do rather enjoy having my bacon inside the burger rather than topping it," said Brandy, "It's an entirely different experience, and yet a familiar flavor. A lovely surprise!"

As Bernais and Brandy snacked away on the remaining nachos and some excellent thin cut fries, Brandy casually watched the rest of the bar. Every table was filled with smiling groups, all of them happily chattering away or breaking off to visit the Make-Your-Own station, and though the televisions were playing a rather important game, most people seemed too engrossed in their conversations to pay much attention. The friendly servers hopped from table to table, taking the time to make knowledgeable recommendations for the first time visitors, yet kept pace with the busy flow of brunch time service. "You know, this does seem like the sort of place one could grow very accustomed to," said Brandy. "You think you might become a regular, eh?" asked Bernais. "Sadly, in order for this to be my new corner pub, I'd have to actually live around the corner from here, which I don't. But, if I could pick it up tomorrow and move it to my corner, I certainly would consider it!"

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

The Short and Sweet Review

Friday, February 3, 2017

Cafe des Architectes or An American Bruncher in Paris

The Slow and Savory Review

Restaurant Week in Chicago is always one of the most exciting times of the year for foodies of the Windy City, but this time Brandy has taken a special interest. That is because this year, in addition to offering special dinner and lunch menus at discounted prices, some restaurants have added brunch to their Restaurant Week rosters! Indeed a whole slew of Brandy's favorites and wish list place holders have chucked their hats into the ring with $22 deals specifically designed for brunch connoisseurs like herself. "My only issue is that these deals are only good for two weekends! That's only four brunches at best!" Brandy fretted as she reviewed the long list of participating establishments.

Turning to her friend Starr for advice, Brandy soon zeroed in on Cafe des Architectes, the traditional French bistro inside the Sofitel downtown. "I've always been skeptical of hotel restaurants," Brandy admitted to her friend, "because they didn't used to have the greatest reputation when it came to brunch services. Powdered eggs, tasteless waffles, burnt coffee...even the nicest of places used to put as little effort into brunch as possible, it seemed." Starr's assurance that Brandy's fears were very much unfounded (as well as outdated) made the decision final.

Tucked into the front corner of the hotel lobby, Cafe des Architectes had recently undergone a redesign to bring more color and light into the space. With a clean palate of creams and silvers brought to life with pops of rich reds and purples, Brandy found the interior to be rather classic and chic without seeming too stuffy.

Drinks were soon ordered and brought to the table: a Raspberry Mojito for Starr and a cocktail called the St Tropez for Brandy. Starr's mojito was a simple mix of fresh berries, line juice, ginger ale, rum, and mint, but it packed quite a punch of flavor. It was a little on the bitter side, but Starr put that down to the off season raspberries. Brandy's drink was a combination of grapefruit juice, citrus flavored vodka, ginger ale, and a splash of orange liqueur. She found it quite refreshing with a flavor not unlike a Greyhound, but with the lovely addition of effervescence. It did have a slight bitterness to it, but Brandy didn't mind it at all.

Next, the table was presented with two specials of the house to start off the meal: a basket of freshly baked goodies and some fruit and yogurt. The basket of breads contained flaky and light croissants, both of the chocolate and the classic variety, mini baguettes, and astonishingly tender sweet buns dotted with succulent raisins, which the ladies had to stop themselves from inhaling, lest they should spoil the rest of their meal. Brandy was pleased to see that extra care had been taken with the preparation and presentation of the simple fruit bowl and yogurt parfait, dishes that almost all other restaurants would disregard. The parfait had been topped with some fresh berries, with macerated berries hid underneath a layer of light and crunchy cinnamon scented granola, while the fruit on the side consisted of some fresh strawberries and grapefruit segments in a vanilla syrup. "How genius to add a touch of vanilla to a simple little fruit bowl, " Brandy commented, approvingly.

Following their light first course, Brandy and Starr indulged in one of the signatures of the restaurant, a charcuterie plate composed of items from the restaurant's Chestnut Provisions program. Everything, from the cave aged cheeses to the cured salumi, the whole grain mustard, the pickled onions, and the fruit jam was made right there in house using only local and seasonal ingredients. Brandy took a special liking to the rich and earthy mushroom salumi as well as all three of the complex cheeses. Even the slices of miniature brioche that accompanied the plate were an absolute delight.

For their main course, Brandy and Starr sampled some egg dishes, namely a mushroom and cheese omelette and the Smoked Salmon Pastrami Benedict. The omelette, Brandy was pleased to find, had a good denseness to it, with plenty of mushroom flavor and a good nutty cheese at its center. The benedict had a base of lightly toasted brioche along with the delicate fish, some peppery greens, and a very rich hollandaise. Brandy loved the subtle smoky flavor of the salmon when combined with the greens, and that the bread perfectly sopped up every drop of the yolk from the flawlessly poached egg. "Their standard benedict is part of the Restaurant Week brunch special," Starr pointed out to Brandy, "along with that fruit you liked so much and some of their fresh juices." "Well, that is quite a well thought out deal then, I should think!" Brandy exclaimed. "Sweet and savory in one go. What else could one ask for?"

Speaking of sweets, Brandy and Starr ended their meal with a pair of sugary indulgences, namely the Brioche French Toast and the Buttermilk Pancakes. Though seemingly simple dishes, they had once again had a lot of thought and care put into them, reminding Brandy of why items like these have become such staples of the brunch table. The pancakes, though unassuming on the plate, had a brilliant tang to them from the buttermilk, and a slight chewiness that she really enjoyed. "It's rare these days that I find a plate of plain pancakes that I could finish off all by myself. These are magnificent!" Brandy gushed. The French toast was admirable with its softness and eggy flavor, and even the spiced and candied pecans on top gave it a little variety of texture, but it didn't quite measure up to just how unexpectedly delicious the pancakes were.

Brandy was quite pleased with everything at Cafe Des Architectes, but she especially took enjoyment in the attention to detail paid to even the smallest of of things on the menu. "That is truly the height of quality food, when even something as simple as a fruit plate or a pancake has been given a gravitas equal to that of a more complicated entree," as Brandy put it. "Uggh," Starr moaned as they stood up from their table, "I think we just ate a few too many carbs. I need a nap!" "Nonsense!" Brandy admonished her, "We have three more brunches to get to! Restaurant Week doesn't last forever, you know!"

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

The Short and Sweet Review