Friday, August 31, 2018

Revisit: Kit Kat Lounge

Long long ago in the spring of 2007, I was new to Chicago and was still trying to find my footing. I'd moved here the previous fall with two friends from college and we had all just barely made it out of our first arctic winter. I had a crappy job (which I would be fired from within the month for accidentally exposing a shady real estate investor's sketchy policies), a cheap, but comfortable apartment, and a very small group of friends. My roommates were both from Pennsylvania and were getting really home sick, especially as Easter approached. One decided to go home for the holiday, while the other couldn't afford the trip. "Don't worry," I told her. "I saw a sign on the restaurant down the block about an Easter brunch. You and I are going to go to that and have the best time ever." That restaurant was Kit Kat Lounge and Supper Club, and I had no idea what I had just signed us up for.

My first ever Easter brunch at Kit Kat Lounge, 2007
We walked in Easter morning with no reservation and were lucky to be seated. In those days, Kit Kat wasn't doing a brunch service every week, and this might have only been the first or second time they had done a special service on Easter. They had a prix fix menu that included unlimited mimosas and three courses (biscuits, an entree, and a dessert) at a pretty damn good price. Best of all, they featured numbers by the exquisite Madam X, a showgirl drag queen of the highest order who made all her own costumes and sang all her songs live. Keep in mind, this was before RuPaul's Drag Race transformed the drag scene forever and brought it's history, artistry, and lingo into popular culture, so having brunch at a drag club on a religious holiday seemed very rebellious to us at the time. My poor home sick room mate was infatuated with Madam X, even asking if we could take a picture with her to commemorate our first Easter in Chicago.

For the next ten years, Kit Kat was my go to neighborhood spot. I knew the nightly specials by heart. I knew the martini menu by heart. I knew the performance schedule by heart. I took friends there. I took dates there. I took my mother there. When this blog was launched in 2010, Kit Kat was the subject of one of our very first reviews. That was just at the point where they were beginning to expand their brunch service to include holidays like Halloween and Mother's Day, so things were a little shaky, but I never minded. Mostly because I was usually pretty wasted.

Now, Kit Kat's Sunday brunch is a mainstay of the neighborhood. Every Sunday, you'll find huge groups of girlfriends, boyfriends, families, bridal showers, birthdays, and everything in between flocking to Kit Kat for their perfect mix of entertainment, great food, and amazing cocktails. When I moved out of Lakeview last year, I knew that heading to Kit Kat anytime I wanted was going to be one of the things I would miss most.

That is why I decided to make my triumphant return to Kit Kat this past Sunday. They've recently expanded their menu quite a bit, so I was interested to see what they had in store, as well as revisit some of my old favorites. And of course, I wanted to see what new numbers Madam X had added to her repertoire.

Where as in the past, Kit Kat Lounge had only offered unlimited mimosas with their brunch, they've now expanded the choices to include Bloody Mary martinis, white and red sangria, pink champagne, and vodka spritzers. I'm pretty partial to the sangria myself, but I also had to get one of my old favorites off the martini menu, the Lava Lamp (which is basically a lot of vodka and a Jello shot). I was near to distraught not to see my all time fav cocktail, the Black and White, was no longer listed on the menu. I beg you, Kit Kat. BRING THAT ONE BACK.

My friend and I started off with the Crab Cake Benedict, which has been on their brunch menu since the very beginning. It was still satisfyingly crabby, with a softer texture then a typical New England style crab cake, but they had added a bit of bacon to the top, which gave it a welcome meatiness and a little crunchy contrast.

Next up, a stand by and a new addition to the menu: The Kit Kat Burger and the Korean BBQ Chicken Sandwich, both of which came served with a literal mountain of truffle fries (their fries are outstanding, by the way). Once again, the burger was just how I remembered it: cooked perfectly medium, topped with a thick slab of bacon, a perfectly fried egg, and melted Gruyere cheese. It's nearly impossible to go wrong with this burger. The chicken sandwich was a nice new addition to the line up, with a sweet and tangy flavor that matched nicely with the crunchy slaw and the juicy chicken. It was a little difficult to pick up and eat (especially while trying to hold out a $5 bill to Madam X in my other hand), so eventually, I had to resort to a fork and knife. Still, hoping this one sticks around for a while.

Lastly, we finished off with my personal favorite sweet treat on the menu, the Rice Krispie French Toast. For this dish, they coat their French toast in a layer of puffed rice cereal, then serve it with a tres leches syrup and marinated strawberries. It's not overly complicated, but it's still such a fun take on a classic brunch dish.

As always, Madam X was perfection. She delighted the crowd with several pop diva medleys (Beyonce, Miley, Katy Perry, etc.), which included her signature vocal talents as well as dramatic costume changes. Some Sundays will see her doing an entire show of themed numbers, like ABBA for Mother's Day (Mama Mia... get it?), Rocky Horror on Halloween, or just an entire morning of Lady Gaga to celebrate Mother Monster's birthday and such. Regardless of her set list, she is never a disappointment.

People are often surprised when I recommend the food at Kit Kat, but I cannot remember a time when I got a dish I didn't like. The prices are always more than reasonable (seriously, most bars would be charging upwards of $20 for comparable cocktails, whereas Kit Kat charges $13 for most everything they serve, and has 4 nights per week where all martinis are half price!). Can they get a little crowded? Yes. Is the service a little slow and spotty sometimes? It can be. But in my over a decade acquaintanceship with this restaurant, always come away utterly delighted with my experience there. Also, Madam X? My mom said to tell you hello!

I was invited to dine free of charge by the restaurant, but all opinions are my own.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Step Up Shine and Dine 2018 Recap

Shine and Dine is one of those events I look forward to every single year. Not just because of the stellar food and fun pop up events, but also because it gives me a chance to give back to an important organization like Step Up Women's Network, which works with young girls to open doors for their future. Every year, I am floored by the extraordinary stories of the girls who have been helped by this mentorship program. This year's event was as inspiring as ever.

Attendees getting touchups at Ulta's Beauty Bar

Chef Christine Cikowski of Honey Butter Fried Chicken curated the tasting portion, enlisting more then 25 different restaurants, food services, and beverage companies to bring along their best offerings. Some of my personal favorites were the smoked cauliflower with elote cream presented by the Chef Matt Jergens at The Gwen, and the corn and beef empanadas from Chef Devon Quinn at Eden. The crowd favorite (as evidenced by the perpetual line in front of their table) was definitely Wow Bao, who brought along a variety of their signature steamed buns. This year's program separated the dessert service out to after the main event, which was a nice change of pace. I especially enjoyed Chef Sandra Holl's (Floriole) take on a pavlova with lemon and blueberry, and the uniquely flavored chocolate bars from Chef Meg Galus from Boka Restaurants.

Aside from the the spectacular array of food, it was positively heartwarming to watch a community of men and women come together to celebrate and raise funds for girls of the future. Step Up alumna English Henderson was the special honoree of the night, and her speech, along with that of Chairman Jessica McLaughlin and Step Up CEO Jenni Luke, helped to gear up the crowd for the main portion of the fundraising, securing over $400,000 for another year's worth of programs.

English Henderson, this year' alumna honoree (photo courtesy of Step Up)
Step Up CEO Jenni Luke (photo courtesy of Step Up)

I am always so filled with joy and motivation after an evening with all those amazing girls and women. If you couldn't make it this year, it's never to late to contribute. Make sure to stop by Step Up's website and help another generation of girls connect with the resources to help them succeed.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Summer Loves: Muuna Cottage Cheese, Louis Raison, RIND dried Fruit Snacks

Let it be known that I am about the only person in Chicago who does not like summer. Maybe it's because I grew up in Arizona, where desiring to be outside between the months of June and August was akin to having a death wish. Maybe it's because I am...ahem... a tad over weight, and everyone knows fat people don't do well in sweaty situations. Whatever the case may be, I usually spend the majority of the warmer months inside with the AC blasting.

While in my heat induced exile, I usually start experimenting with recipes and products that can give me a little energy boost to get me through the long humid days. One of my new favorite things is from a company called RIND, which have brought out some rather interesting dried fruit snacks. These snacks (which come in California Kiwi, Tropical, and Orchard blends) are large slices of dried fruits that have their rinds intact. Now, admittedly, their appearance can be a little off putting, mostly because they look a bit more like potpourri then something edible. But these snacks have no added sugar, no sulfates, and no dyes and are GMO free, gluten free, and vegan. All of the fruits (except for the pineapple in the Tropical blend) have been prepared with their skins in tact, giving every piece more fiber and nutritional value then traditional dried fruits. I'm not normally a fan of fresh kiwi, so I was skeptical about the dried version, especially because of the intact skin, but the kiwis ended up being my favorite fruit of the bunch. They were perfectly sweet, tart, chewy, and crunchy and I nearly ate the entire bag in one sitting! The Tropical blend combines the kiwi with pineapple and bittersweet orange, while the Orchard blend is a combination of apples, peaches, and persimmons. I am currently keeping bags of these snacks behind my desk for a quick burst of natural fruit energy and vitamins wherever the mid day lull hits. If you want to give RIND a try, you can pick them up on Amazon!

One of my other recently discovered favorites is Louis Raison ciders. These classic French ciders (or cidres if you want to be fancy) have just launched in Illinois with three varieties: Original Crisp, Organic Dry, and Rouge Délice. Two of my good friends are self professed cider experts, so they are constantly introducing me to new varieties and flavors from all over the world. This being my chance to finally introduce them to something new, I invited them over one night to try the Louis Raison ciders and get their expert opinions. While we all enjoyed all three of them, they both lent towards the Original Crisp as their favorite because of it's bright flavor and caramel-like finish. I have a slightly sweeter palate, so I really liked the Rouge Délice, which was a blush cider with a very clean and slightly floral flavor. The Organic Dry was very light and refreshing with a flavor almost like baked apples or apple pie. I decided to use it to cook up some chicken apple sausages I had in the fridge, and it gave them such a delicious depth! Since this was the least sweet cider, it made for a perfect boiling liquid and also made a great glaze once reduced. I had some pickled red cabbage in the fridge, as well as an onion and garlic jam, which I thought would be perfect as toppings. I also mixed up a mustard cream (whole grain mustard, powdered yellow mustard, sour cream, and a little bit of apple butter). I may never go back to beer brats. These were sweet and savory perfection!

The one thing I do like about summer is going to farmer's markets. I always get inspired by all the fresh produce, meats, and eggs. My usual farmer's market takes place on Sunday mornings, which makes it rather convenient for me to go there to find something for breakfast. A week ago, I ended up with some cremini mushrooms, beautiful heirloom cherry tomatoes, thick cut bacon, and pork breakfast sausage. It wan't until I got home that I realized I had accidentally bought all the fixings for a traditional English breakfast! But me being me, I couldn't simply just fry everything up and be done with it. Oh no! I had also bought two small wedges of very strong cheddars, which gave me the idea to combine all of these delicious ingredients into a massive pot of breakfast mac and cheese.

Pssst... the green one is the Vanilla flavor with some matcha powder mixed in!
Since I was going to be including the pork sausage and the bacon, I didn't want to make a cheese sauce with a lot of butter or milk, because the meat fats would probably cause them to separate and become too greasy. Instead, I decided to use some Muuna Cottage Cheese to bind everything together without adding too much additional fat or liquid. I've been a big fan of Muuna for a while now, especially their individually sized cups which come in a ton of delicious flavors. I even make little cheesecakes with them sometimes!

I started my mac and cheese by cutting up the bacon and sausage into bite sized pieces and browning them in a dutch oven. I then used the fat from the meats to blister the tomatoes and saute the mushrooms. I cooked up some elbow macaroni, then added them to the pot, added the meats back in, then put in all of the cheddar (which I had grated) and two large containers of plain Muuna, then mixed everything together. I baked it at 400 for about 45 minutes, then I added a can of drained baked beans to the top (it's not an English breakfast without baked beans) and cooked the whole thing for another 15 minutes. I served each portion topped with a perfectly poached egg. And voila! English Breakfast Mac and Cheese!

I received some of the products mentioned free of charge from the mentioned companies. All opinions stated are my own.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Brunch at The Craftsman by Two Brothers

I've been watching with great interest over the last few years as Two Brothers Brewing Company grew from a Chicagoland based microbrewery into a nation conquering empire, with not only an army of uniquely crafted beers under their belts, but an amazing coffee line, an artisan spirit collection, and several fine restaurants. I'd been to their flagship restaurant, The Roundhouse, once before when some friends and I attended the Two Brother's Summer Fest, but we didn't really get to sit down and enjoy a proper meal that day (though both the carnival-style food being cooked outside and the buffet offerings inside the complex were amazing). That's why when I was offered the chance to stop into The Craftsman, Two Brother's locally focused craft pub in Naperville,  I jumped at the opportunity, despite the 90 minute drive.

I managed to rope a friend with an actual motor vehicle into driving us out there one Saturday morning. I hadn't been to Naperville in about 10 years, so I was really impressed to see how much change had taken place around the river walk area, with lots of sweet little independent shops and restaurants instead of the chain stores and fast food joints I remembered. The Craftsman itself cuts an imposing figure on the quaint avenue; it's multilevel facade housing not only the restaurant, but also a buzzing coffee shop and a cocktail bar. We were taken up to the second floor of the building and given a cozy seat by the window, where we happily watched a giant group of dogs causing adorable havoc on the patio below as their owners brunched.

I was a little perplexed that the variety of coffee cocktails we saw advertised downstairs in the cafe were not also being offered upstairs, as that seemed to be to be a perfect opportunity for Two Brothers to showcase two of their signature product lines. Instead, we ordered a couple of smoothies, both of which were very fresh tasting and not overly sweet.

Speaking of sweets, we decided to kick things off with a couple of their more sugary options: The French Toast with bananas and coffee rum sauce and the Bacon Waffle with apricot jam. The French Toast was pretty good, though the highlight was definitely the coffee rum sauce (I'm assuming it was made with Two Brother's coffee), which we nearly licked off the plate. I do wish they had brûléed the bananas a little, or maybe cooked them in that awesome sauce, just to dress the dish up a little. The waffle was really fun. Not only did it have bits of bacon mixed into the batter, it came topped with more candied bacon as well as apricot jam. It was light and crisp with a very subtle sweetness. The bacon, though, was some standout stuff. This is going to sound really stupid, but the bacon had a heavy pork flavor to it, rather than a more typically smokey flavor.

Moving onto savory dishes, we picked three to share (mostly because I couldn't decide between two of them). Firstly was the Cuban Benedict, which came with shredded pork, Swiss cheese, mustard hollandaise, and ham on an English muffin. The pork was a nice touch and very tender, so I wasn't really sure if the ham was necessary.  The mustard hollandaise, though, was amazing and turned everything it touched into gold.

Next was the New England Lobster Roll. I'm not normally a huge lobster fan, but a rash of lobster rolls being posted to Instagram had put me in the mood for this summer time favorite. There was a decent amount of lobster meat on the roll, but it had been cut with a bit too much celery for my liking. The bun had actually been toasted and buttered in proper New England style, a step some restaurants sometimes forget.

Lastly was the Butcher's Burger, topped with bacon, tomato, lettuce, onion, and cheddar. This was the perfect kind of pub burger; simple, well put together, well prepared, and recognizable. As an admitted big fan of overly complicated gastro pub burgers, it was actually kind of refreshing to see just as much care and thought put into this classic burger as others put into more outlandish fare.

All in all, we spent a very pleasant afternoon at The Craftsman. Our server was very chipper and sweet despite being saddled with waiting on both the main dining room and the patio. The food was approachable and didn't take a whole lot of crazy twists and turns in an attempt to appeal to passing gourmands. But I do wish Two Brothers had put a bit more of themselves into the menu. Beer battered something would have been nice. Or the aforementioned coffee infused cocktails. Maybe even a beer mimosa, just to remind people of the restaurant's parent company. But I get that the goal may have been to carve out a niche in the dining scene that was more independent. I thought that the modern industrial decor made for a very relaxing atmosphere, and all the prices were extremely reasonable, especially when taking into consideration the quality of the ingredients.  Would I drive 90 minutes to go there for brunch again? Maybe not every weekend. But if I was in the area, it would definitely be on my list of stops to make.

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