Friday, December 21, 2018

Last Minute Chicago Holiday Dining Recommendations

I was invited to dine at the restaurants mentioned free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

As much as I love staying inside the week between Christmas and New Year's, usually snuggled under my down comforter with my dog noisily snoring beside me and a cup of some boozed up hot beverage clasped between my hands, eventually I start to get a little cabin fever. And with this year being unseasonably warm (seriously, Chicago, what the hell? I could go back home to Arizona for 50 degrees in December!), I'm feeling the itch to get out for a few more meals before 2018 ends. So enjoy this quick roundup of some of my recent favorites for brunch, dinner, and everything in between!

Dinner at Le Sud

This French/Mediterranean inspired addition to Roscoe Village has gotten great buzz ever since it opened earlier this year. Me? I like a bit of non pretentious French cuisine, so I was very interested to check it out. The inside is the perfect kind of cozy without being overly cramped and the perfect kind of vintage without feeling artificial. This isn't the kind of place you're going to find Americanized French staples, like onion soup or coq au vin. Instead, you will find things like house made charcuterie, a decadent fois gras tart (that is so perfectly balanced between sweet and savory that it could easily be an appetizer or a dessert), a perfectly simple steak frites, and a very inventive vegetarian seared pumpkin entree with leeks and fregola. Everything here is incredibly thoughtful and uncomplicated, while demonstrating an immense amount of skill and care. Go any night you can, or check out their special service for New Year's Eve.

Dinner at Bobby's Lincoln Park

Bobby's recently opened their first location in the city in hopes of replicating their beloved Deerfield location's success. The menu boasts a lot of meat and seafood focused plates as well as handmade pasta dishes, but the vibe is surprisingly casual. The space is open and airy, a rarity in crowded Lincoln Park, and the service is exceptionally friendly and personable. It's may sound ridiculous, but I was impressed right from the start with the bread service, which came with a simple roasted garlic butter that I would have happily bought a bottle of if they had been selling it. The Shrimp Bobby was an excellent take on a scampi, the Steak Tartar was gloriously delicate (I also mixed that delicious garlic butter into it and by God, it was amazing), and the scallops with cauliflower puree and orange zest were a delight. If you want a little taste of everything Bobby's has, order The Mark Miller, which is a platter of sausage, roasted chicken, tender skirt steak, peppers, and onions. For a lighter (by comparison) plate, the Linguini Nduja is also wonderful, with a rich egg yolk sauce, crisped panchetta, sweet onions, and a little kick of heat.

Brunch The Kitchen

Having dined at The Kitchen a few times, I knew to expect only the best. Of course I wasn't disappointed, and despite some minor Instagram drama (don't ask...), I found myself more impressed than ever before with the inventiveness coming out of The Kitchen's kitchen. Highlights for me included a collection of awesome non-alcoholic cocktails (something I'd love to see more of at other restaurants), a succulent southern style Shrimp and Grits with andouille sausage, an earthy Mushroom Toast with red kale and scrambled eggs, an impossibly creamy yogurt panna cotta with blueberries and housemade granola, and poached eggs with green shakshuka, chickpeas, and toast points. They will actually be serving brunch on Boxing Day (December 26th) from 10:00-3:00 and all day New Year's Day, so if any of this sounds good to you, get on that. Also, they will be featuring an exclusive holiday donut flavor (pst... it's chocolate spice with cranberries and candied ginger!) in addition to their already stellar line up of freshly made pastries.

Tea at Vanille

Taking family to a relaxed tea service is just the kind of tradition I'd like to add to my already packed list of holiday traditions. After all, who can resist tiny sandwiches and delicate tea cups? Vanille Patisserie recently launched a beautiful tea service at their Lakeview and Hyde Park locations, offered at 12, 2, and 4 Mondays through Thursdays. The service consists of as much Benjamin's Tea as you can drink (my personal favorites include the Forest Berry and the Roasted Almond) accompanied by mini sandwiches, scones with a variety of spreads, freshly baked madeleines, Vanille's signature macarons, mini cupcakes, and other delightfully tiny treats. At just $28 a person, I think this might be one of the best tea service deals in town. Pinkie's up!

Brunch at Parley @ Joy District

I think we all know that I have very mixed feelings about brunch buffets, but if you're looking for a spot to drink away your holiday stress with a group of fun loving friends, this might be the place for you. Especially if you have a sweet tooth! The dessert table at Parlay is a little overwhelming with it's donut wall, platters of cereal treats, and legions of layered pudding cups. Fresh pizzas and chaffing dishes with various savory dishes help to balance out the glucose, but I'm tempted to tell you to skip them all together and just go in on the sweets. Calories don't count in December, after all. $50 gets you access to all the food as well as bottomless mimosas in a variety of flavors, but if you STILL haven't uped your insulin levels enough, there's the brunch cocktail menu that features giggle inducing large format cocktails, like the Scumdilyuptious served in a gumball machine with rubber ducky floats, or the Mega Mimosa and the Mega Mule; giant sized versions of the classic cocktails that are perfect for using as selfie props.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Peppermint and Almond Christmas Poke Cake with Nielsen Massey

I received free product from Nielsen Massey in order to facilitate the writing of this post.

Christmas time and baking are pretty synonymous. Who thinks of Christmas time and doesn't conjure up memories of delicately iced sugar cookies, warm gingerbread, or boozy fruit cake? Sometimes on wintery weekends, I start feeling the impulse to just get up a bake. It keeps my hands busy, it keeps me warm, and it gives me something to do while binging Great British Baking Show for hours on end. Well, one of these impulses over took me this past weekend, and it resulted in something I'm actually pretty proud of.

I had a vision, you see. It was of a cake my mom made once, long ago. A sort of yellow sheet cake with icicle-like drips of red and green running through the slices. I don't remember how old I was when she made it, nor do I remember how many times she made it. But the memory of those magically colored squares of cake popped into my head and I decided I wanted to make a Christmas Poke Cake of my own.

Now, because I can't do anything the easy way, I realized I was going to have to improvise a little. Nearly every recipe I found for poke cakes called for boxed cake mix for some reason. Does no one make their own cake mix anymore? I don't know about you, but I like begin able to control the salt levels and types of flour I'm using for my baking recipes. I also didn't want to make a sheet cake because... well... I don't really know why I didn't want to make a sheet cake. So I decided to make it a bundt cake instead. Because bundt cakes are prettier. And more festive. Lastly, I decided not to use pre-flavored gelatin. This was mostly down to the fact that red and green gelatin look great, but don't exactly make a very Christmas-y flavor combo (but if lime and cherry are your idea of Christmas flavors, I'm not judging).

For my Christmas Poke Cake, I wanted to highlight a trio of the best flavorings on earth: Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract, Pure Almond Extract and Pure Peppermint Extract from Nielsen-Massey Vanillas. I've been working with Nielsen-Massey Vanilla's extracts for many years now and it would be a horror to open my cabinet and not find them. It's so great that a family owned company from right here is Illinois has become world renowned for producing such excellent products (seriously, you can even spot their bottles on the contestant's stations in Great British Baking Show!). Obviously, these three extracts in particular play an important role in Christmas baking, which is why they have bundled them all together for super convenient baking supply shopping. The Nielsen-Massey Vanillas Holiday Flavors Bundle is available exclusively on Amazon in 2 oz and 4 oz options.

I started off by using the basic pound cake recipe from Nielsen-Massey Vanilla's website. The only modification I made was to not use the almond extract in the batter. I baked the cake in a bundt cake pan, then let it cool. Once the cake was at room temperature, I used a wooden skewer to create holes down the center and sides of the cake. For the first syrup, I brought 1 cup of water, 1 cup of sugar,and 1 packet of gelatin to a simmer. Once everything was dissolved, I removed the mixed from the heat and added a few drops of red food coloring and 2 teaspoons of the Peppermint extract. I did the same for the second syrup, except with green food coloring and 1 tablespoon of the almond extract.

Now you have to work kind of quickly with this next step. I used plastic pipettes to inject the syrups into the guide holes I'd created with the wooden skewer, making sure the syrup got at least halfway down into the cake. I did one half of the cake with the peppermint syrup and one half with the almond. Once all the holes had been injected, I carefully spooned what was left of the syrup over the top of the cake, making sure the whole top and sides were coated. This will create not only a wash of color around the edges of each slice, but will help to seal the moisture inside your cake and keep it from drying out.

Once I was ready to serve my masterpiece, I covered the whole thing in a dusting of powdered sugar and sliced away! So what are your favorite holiday baking projects? Head on over to my Instagram page and look for the post with the picture of my cake, tell me your must have holiday goodies, and you will have a chance to win a Nielsen-Massey Vanillas Holiday Flavor Bundle of your own! And for more great baking ideas, make sure to follow the hashtag #NiesenMasseyInspires across social media.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Broken Barrel Bar

I was invited to dine at the restaurant free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

Back in the summer, I was first introduced to the meat master that is Chef Bryant Anderson. At the time, he was showing off his evil genius brunch creations at Rackhouse, like the Breakfast Waffle Nachos and a $50 Bloody Mary that came adorned with a barnyard's worth of meat products. Since then, he has opened up Broken Barrel Bar in Lincoln Park, a sports bar focusing on house smoked meats in the same vein as Rackhouse, but with a little more of a cosmopolitan feel.

I had a chance to visit them for dinner service just after they opened, and let me tell you that I have never been more excited to stuff my face with meat. Even their vegetable based dishes were spectacular, like the Brussels Sprout Nachos and the customizable mac and cheese (both of which can have meat added to them), and this might be the only non-Cuban restaurant in the city that offers fried plantains as a side AND a dessert. Their beer collection and menu of simple but delicious cocktails is also pretty impressive.

Needless to say, when I found out Chef Bryant was finally launching brunch at Broken Barrel, I was all over it. His brunch service mainly consists of an abbreviated version of the dinner menu along with five (for now) special dishes, only offered on weekends. I took along my buddy Chris so that I wouldn't have to suffer from the meat sweats alone.

Knowing how amazing Chef Bryant's award winning dry rub wings are, I insisted we start with an order of those accompanied by a selection of their house made sauces. Also, you know, if was Sunday and the Bears were playing, so you gotta have wings! Chris is a bit more adventurous in the spice department, so he was curious to sample the two hottest sauces on the menu; The Hellraiser and the Sex Panther. I had the tiniest taste of the Sex Panther, and while the flavor was actually amazing, the prolonged fire mouth that followed had me staying the hell away. Instead, I went for the Sticky Curry, which is the perfect example of something that is spiced without being spicy.

First up on the brunch dish docket was the Hangover Breakfast Sandwich, which I had already tried as part of Rackhouse's brunch menu. This mammoth stack has a foundation of hickory smoked brisket, topped off with Merkt's Cheddar Cheese, chipotle mayo, a pile of crispy fried onions, and fresh peppery arugula. The thing is, when you call something a "hangover sandwich," you would expect it to be greasy, but this thing is actually quite refined and really well balanced. The brisket is definitely the star of the show, and that sharpness from the cheese and the mayo makes for the best kind of contrast.

Next up was the Breakfast Burrito, which came stuffed with eggs, tomatoes, bacon, black beans, scallions, and cheese. I was pretty into this sucker, which surprised me, because beans are usually a huge turn off for me. But with the sweetness of the marinated tomatoes and the really flavorful bacon, I was actually very happy.

On the lighter side was the Smoked Salmon Plate; a pretty typical presentation of lox accompanied by sliced avocado and toasted English muffins. The really unique aspect here was actually the scrambled eggs, which came stuffed with whipped ricotta and scallions. Honestly, I could have been happy with those eggs alone. The salmon just became a bonus!

No brunch menu is complete without a Benedict, and Chef Bryant's version utilizes his amazing house smoked shredded lamb shoulder, topped with a chipotle hollandaise and a maple/sriracha drizzle. Interestingly, this Benedict came with a fried egg on top instead of a traditional poached egg, which gave it more of a "biscuits and gravy" feel. Still, the lamb is the focus, as it should be, and was absolutely melt in the mouth tender.

Finally, the brunch menu features one dish on the sweet side: the Croissant French Toast. The custard the croissants are dipped in actually has a bit of orange flavoring, which brightens up the naturally buttery pastry. They then smother it in a house made berry sauce (that doubles as a dipping sauce for the donut holes on their dessert menu) and top it all off with a mouth watering vanilla whipped cream. This is the perfect thing to order for the whole table to share in between bites of meatier entrees.

Chef Bryant doesn't seem like the kind of guy who sits still for very long, so I'm sure he will be continuously adding and perfecting the brunch dishes at Broken Barrel for the foreseeable future. After sampling his creations several times now, I cannot wait to see what he comes up with next!

Friday, November 16, 2018

Mad Social

I was invited to dine at the restaurant free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

When I first started this blogging adventure 8 years ago, I remember people asking, "What happens when you run out of places to go?" That was when the Chicago restaurant industry was just beginning to explode, so running out of places to go was an actual possibility. Now, I couldn't get to all the restaurants in Chicago even if I ate out at every single meal for a year, because sadly, that explosion also means that many places close long before I can get to them.

Mad Social has been on my wishlist since the day it opened. The flurry of whimsical, indulgent brunch dishes they premiered with immediately caught my attention, but my dance card was already so booked out that I just never could find a time to go visit them. That time finally arrived last weekend when Starr (who had also been dying to visit Mad Social, but hadn't been able to yet) and I headed to the West Loop, hungry and in need of a few cocktails.

Mad Social was already packed by the time we arrived, attesting to the loyal following it has built over the almost three years it's been open. The decor had a sort of inoffensive industrial feel, with heavy wood furnishings, exposed brick, Edison-esque light bulbs in mason jars, and coat hooks sticking out of the walls (which is actually a pretty clever design touch). Cozy, yet not stifling.

We both started off with a coffee cocktail called the Strange Brew, which consisted of cold brew, walnut bitters, bourbon, and a few other magical ingredients.  I thought it was a nice change of pace from the more expected options (mimosas and bloody mary's), but it was a bit too heavy on the bourbon flavor for Starr's delicate palate.

We split up our meal into two parts.

Part 1: The Short Rib Benedict and the Havarti Mac and Cheese. I cannot say enough good things about the mac and cheese. Not because it was particularly special or mind blowing, but because it contained all of my favorite things: pasta, cheese, corn, mushrooms, crispy brussels sprouts, and a crap ton of calories. The sauce was nice and creamy, though not super cheesy, and I loved the adventure of discovering which delicious nugget each forkful would pick up. In fact, I may have encouraged Starr to take more pictures of the benedict than was necessary as to distract her while I gobbled up half the skillet. As for the benedict, it was definitely one of the most original takes on the dish I've seen in quite a while. Succulent chunks of braised short rib and brussels sprout "kimchi" topped toasted pretzel buns and were slathered in a togarashi spiced hollandaise, making some sort of delicious American/French/Korean/Japanese hybrid creature. The vinegar element from the pickled veggies was a little strong, but actually worked rather well with the rich hollandaise, and I very much liked not having to saw through yet another overly toasted English muffin.

Part 2: The Mad Burger and the Chicken and Waffles. Two things struck me about the burger when it was brought to the table; first was the scent of truffle oil from the fries, which Starr and I were already grabbing off the plate, and second was the "MAD" branding on the top of the bun. And not "branding" in the marketing sense. The bun was LITERALLY branded, as in, with a hot iron. Pointless in the context of flavor, but a fun visual touch, none the less. The burger itself was pretty hefty and had been adorned with a mountain of crispy onions, pickles, melted chihuahua cheese, and a thin slice of pork belly. Oddly, the house made pickles were the strongest flavor, so I could have done with a few less on the burger, but all together, it was a pretty nice flavor and texture combo. The chicken and waffles was a downright show stopper. The entire waffle had been deep fried (they refer to it as a "churro waffle") and came topped with a giant slab of panko encrusted chicken breast and another small piece of pork belly. While I liked the touch of smokiness the pork belly added, I really could have done without it, as the chicken and waffle were already such strong elements. The waffle had a unique crisp texture that matched with the juicy chicken and it's crunchy coating, and a good dousing in maple syrup gave the whole thing the perfect balance of sweet and savory. It's my understanding that they also use these churro waffles to make ice cream sandwiches, which I'm sure is absolutely incredible.

So all in all, I was happy to have finally ticked Mad Social off my list. The food was good, the service perfect, and the atmosphere fun and lively without being obnoxious. I was sad to see that some of the dishes they'd blasted across social media early on had fallen off the menu (they had a decedent looking Monte Cristo sandwich once upon a time that I had been hoping to try), but what is still there is solid and well balanced with lots of international flair to make things exciting and original. I will definitely going back for one of those churro waffle and gelato sandwiches.

Friday, November 9, 2018

SideDoor: Revisit and New Brunch Menu

I was invited to a complimentary tasting event by the restaurant. All opinions are my own.

The last time I visited SideDoor (so named because it is literally on the side of sister restaurant Lawry's The Prime Rib) they had just stopped serving brunch. Not for the day, but seemingly for good. They were still offering a decent weekend lunch menu (that included a delectable short rib poutine), so I made the best of it, but I still would have loved to have seen their take on some brunch standards.

Flash forward to 2018 and SideDoor has finally re-launched their brunch service. Carnivores rejoice! Last weekend I was invited to attend a preview of these new menu items along with some other lovely bloggers and Instagrammers, where we passed dishes back and forth across a big table like it was Thanksgiving. But with phones and cameras.

Picking a cocktail was the most difficult task of the day. I went with the Very Classy Affair because I needed an excuse to put my pinkie in the air and gaze appraisingly through my monocle. The drink was made with coconut whiskey (!), banana liqueur, Aperol, and rum and tasted like a tropical Old Fashioned. A bit Aperol forward for my taste, but still enjoyably smooth.

That's Freddie Mercury on my nail. I'll explain his presence later.
Now, the brunch menu consists of just a handful of dishes, accompanied by a full lunch menu. We got to try all of the brunch items, but also sprinkled in some of the restaurant's standards and top sellers. The standout dish for me was the Horseshoe, a sort of poutine-meets-disco-fries concoction with prime rib, pickled peppers, a fried egg, and cheese sauce. Sloppy, spicy, and meaty; just want you want to cure a hangover. The Biscuits and Gravy were also quite good, having been made with a rich prime rib gravy (sensing a theme here? They really like prime rib!). The ham and cheese omelette was pretty standard, but I really enjoyed the spinach mushroom omelette. Score one for the vegetarians, I guess! Lastly was the singular sweet dish; French toast sticks served with a side of raspberry sauce and chocolate sauce. This is the type of thing you would want to order for the table to share, as it was the perfect respite from all the meat-focused dishes.

A flurry of dishes from the lunch menu then hit the table. Some amazingly fresh oysters, a delicious potato gnocci with apple and pork belly, and a baked mac and cheese with a garlic streusel were gobbled up almost immediately. I also got to try small hunks of the prime rib sandwich (one of my favorite items of the day) and the surprisingly spicy smoked pastrami sandwich. The show stopper, though, was the twice roasted BBQ ribs, which looked like they had been carved out of the belly of a mastodon.

And now the sad part of the story, ladies and gentlemen. I had arrived for brunch early and decided to buy tickets to a showing of Bohiemian Rhapsody at the movie theater around the corner. I excused myself from the event with about 15 minutes to go before show time, thinking they couldn't possibly be bringing out any more food. Much to my chagrin, I discovered later that I had MISSED all the desserts! Ah well. I instead had the sweet, sweet syrup that is Freddie Mercury's voice to satiate me. And now I have a legitimate to return to SideDoor one more time!