Friday, February 13, 2015

Tuesday at Trenchermen

February tends to be a dull month- it's cold, dark and a bit dreary when compared to the rest of the year.  In Chicago, we make the most of it and schedule the esteemed Chicago Restaurant Week to cheer residents and visitors during their winter hibernation.  This year, Trenchermen left me completely rejuvenated, restoring my spirits just in time to be crushed by the horribly frigid temperatures displayed the rest of the week.  

When I read that Trenchermen formerly served as the Luxor Turkish Bath House, I was intrigued.  Fairly unfamiliar with such bath houses, my wild imagination conjured images inspired by one of my favorite Nancy Drew novels, The Mysterious Mannequin, where Nancy flies to Turkey and is met with a culture so rich she falls in love with the country.  At dinner, I asked my friend Will what he knew about them (quick background, he is one of the smartest and most internationally-informed individuals I have ever met).  He admitted that Turkish bath houses remind him of the mafia movies where naked, older men sit around and make sketchy "business" deals.  This image fits in with the previous clientele in the 1930's, mainly Chicago politicians, but I think I prefer my Nancy Drew depiction...

The interior of the restaurant is both unique and fascinating.  From the authentic brick wall to the rope lamp hanging in the southwest corner, the restaurant is an interesting mix of rustic and sophistication.  Think lumberjack cabin and black-tie venue fusion.  Sounds impossible? Trenchermen makes it happen and pulls it off with flawless execution.

Now for the food.. the Restaurant Week menu features four courses with a variety of options for diners with dietary restrictions and select food preferences.  For the first course, I chose the wagyu beef tartare which consisted of toasted pumpernickel bread served with beef tartare, slightly hinted with olive.  It was absolutely exquisite and hands-down the best beef tartare I've had in Chicago.

I went with the gnocchi for the second course and was not disappointed.  The tender pork belly was served with kimchi bolognese with nori added for a bit of color. The dish was seasoned with a hint of shiso, an Asian plant of the mint family. The gnocchi was quite possibly my favorite dish of the night although the next course proved to be an excellent challenger.  My third and main course was the soupe de poisson which combined octopus, white fish and steamed mussels in a creamy rouille sauce.  The dish was absolutely exceptional and altogether quenched my Norwegian love of fresh seafood. Everyone knows you can't claim Norwegian heritage if you don't enjoy fish, although my father's disdain for lutefisk has always made me question that saying..

For dessert, I chose the dark chocolate brulee served with a side of Macadamia nut ice cream.  Although not on the menu available online, this dish was the perfect ending to a fantastic meal. The bitterness of the dark chocolate combined well with the slight saltiness of the Macadamia. Overall, I was extremely impressed with each of the four courses and would definitely recommend Trenchermen to anyone looking for an elegant, upscale dinner in Chicago.

As they say in Turkish, it's "iyi yemek" (good food).

Until next meal,
Mary

First Course: Wagyu Beef Tartare


Second Course: Gnocchi


Main Course: Soupe de Poisson


Dessert: Dark Chocolate Brulee








Saturday, December 27, 2014

The New York Sensational 7

I thought I'd try something different stylistically for my blog and give you a run down of the top 7 places from my amazing adventure in New York this past week.  I even went ahead and included a short review, a rating (out of 5 stars) and a description on who to take there.  Enjoy!

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CAFE LALO (☆)

With a pretty interior & chic lighting scheme, there is no doubt in anyone's mind why Cafe Lalo was chosen to be part of the classic movie, 'You've Got Mail'.  The twinkling Christmas lights adorning trees outside and the wide array of treats displayed in the counter are enticing to any passing pedestrians.  I went with the espresso chip milkshake with chocolate syrup and was not disappointed.  Still not up to par with the Med's milkshakes but an acceptable substitute if you are in New York.  Overall, it's the perfect place to end a date or catch up with great friends.  Make sure to check the schedule for when there is live music as well!

 WHO TO BRING HERE: friends & family who have seen 'You've Got Mail'; any date who has a sweet tooth

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SERENDIPITY 3 (☆)

Home to the famous 'Frrrozen Hot Chocolate' that in my opinion was over-rated and over-hyped.  My friend correctly defined it as a mediocre Starbuck's frappacino minus the caffeine.  Opt instead for the Coward's Portion of the Banana Split which was absolutely phenomenal.  There will be a long wait no matter when you go so come prepared to kill time in either Dylan's Candy Bar or Bloomingdale's down the street.  All dishes come in huge portions which is always nice so be prepared to share.  Once you see the interior you will understand why celebrities like Andy Warhol & Lana del Rey love to visit this place!

WHO TO BRING HERE:  movie fanatic friends; younger female crowd; out-of-town visitors who are in NYC for the first time

Coward's Portion of the Banana Split

Frrrozen Hot Chocolate

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NOBU FIFTY SEVEN (☆)

Japanese fusion restaurants are trending on the restaurant scene and it's easy to understand why! Nobu Fifty Seven has a classy interior, attentive staff and a fabulous menu.  The Black Cod with Miso was the perfect combination of mild cod flavor and sweet hints of miso paste.  Japanese miso is high in nutritional value; a single serving contains multiple essential vitamins, minerals and proteins.  The Yellow-Tail and Salmon tacos were spicy enough to draw interest from the taste buds but not too spicy to distract from the original flavorings of the fish.  My personal favorite, the Rock Shrimp Tempura with Creamy Spicy sauce, was absolutely fantastic and I would definitely order it again.  The restaurant also has a great list of desserts & I would recommend both the Pistachio Kabosu Yuzu and the Banana Soy Toban.

WHO TO BRING HERE: business clients; family; special occasions


Yellow-Tail & Salmon Tacos

Banana Soy Toban

Pistachio Kabosu Yuzu

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LEVAIN BAKERY (☆)

Waiting 45 minutes for a single cookie at first seems like a ridiculous thing to do on a cold Saturday afternoon.  But it is slightly less ridiculous if you are visiting the famous Levain Bakery on the Upper West Side.  My friend raved about the thick, moist cookies here and I was eager to try one.  The line stretched down the street but we had the new Taylor Swift album to keep us amused as we slowly froze to numbness.  Oddly enough, Taylor herself is a huge fan of Levain Bakery.  Once inside, we were enchanted by the strong aromas of chocolate, cinnamon and freshly baked bread.  Although originally toying with the idea of oatmeal raisin, I opted for the Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Chip.  The cookie was the size of a scone but with an impeccable softness and a crunchy composition that is unmatched by any cookie I have consumed before.  Definitely worth the wait if you are in town.

WHO TO BRING HERE: friends who you can make idle conversation with during the wait
(PS: Look at the menu before you go to smooth out the process & wait time) 

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OTTOMANELLI CAFE ()

It is no secret that my favorite places to blog about are hole-in-the-wall restaurants that serve amazing food at extremely low prices.  Most of these restaurants are recommended to me through friends and I continue the cycle by writing about them.  Ottomanelli Cafe is a little Italian restaurant on the Upper East side that would be easy to overlook.  It is slightly below ground and its exterior is underwhelming.  My friend Emily had bragged on a place where a passer-by would potentially question the restaurant's legitimacy and health rating.  Needless to say, I was intrigued.

I can now say without a doubt that this is one of New York's best Italian restaurants.  We each had the Spaghetti Bolognese and I've never had a better rendition of this traditional dish.  The sauce was both creamy and meaty but with the perfect dash of fresh Italian spices.  The food is served with complimentary garlic bread that is top-notch and never-ending.  We split the Fried Calamari appetizer which came out freshly fried, hot and tender.  Ottomanelli's is also BYOB so customers don't break their bank on drinks and can bring their own bottle of wine instead.  Overall, the pricing was extremely reasonable and you can make several meals out of one entree.  

WHO TO BRING HERE: friends, family, anyone who enjoys phenomenal Italian food

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JACOB'S PICKLES ()

Need a hip new brunch place on the Upper West Side? Definitely check out Jacob's Pickles and be prepared to wait because chances are, five other people were thinking the same thing.  There may be a long wait time but the food here is definitely worth it.  A little bit different than the traditional chicken & waffles, the chicken + pancakes is a must-order here.  It comes with a HUGE portion of freshly-fried chicken with soft, savory pancakes.  The service here is very friendly and the interior reminded me of a hipster lumberjacks cabin.  The perfect place to brunch with friends!!
WHO TO BRING HERE: friends who brunch

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SMÖRGÅS CHEF at SCANDINAVIA HOUSE (☆)

If you are at all interested in Scandinavian food, this place is a MUST visit.  Located on the first-floor of the Scandinavia House, this restaurant has everything that I love.  I had the Norwegian Gravlaks Smørrebrød, a traditional open-faced rye sandwich with scrambled eggs and fresh laks.  The smørrebrød was accompanied by a potato salad and fresh greens salad.  For beverages, the House has a wide variety of lingonberry-flavored drinks ranging from mimosas to soda.  The coffee here is also strong and the perfect accompaniment to any meal.  (Norwegians are one of the top consumers of coffee world-wide)  The gift shop is nearby and has a multitude of Scandinavian goodies to take home as gifts or dessert.  If you have extra time before or after the meal, check out the free art exhibit on the Third Floor.  When I was there, it featured Icelandic artists and the modern landscape.  

WHO TO BRING HERE: family, friends, dates
(Tip- make reservations in advance for busy times)

Norwegian Gravlaks Smørrebrød

A Great Place to Brunch


Third Floor Exhibit

Friday, December 19, 2014

GT Fish & Oyster

"He was a bold man that first ate an oyster." 
~ Jonathan Swift
~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~

I love my friend Matt but I have to be honest, sometimes he is unpredictable in his decision-making.  For example, he invited me to his house in Wisconsin to spend the weekend with his family last Mother’s Day but forgot to tell his mother I was coming..  And if that was not embarrassing enough, he sat there silently while I struggled to explain who I was (Matt’s friend from school) to his mother who was either (a) excited that Matt brought home what she assumed was his new girlfriend or (b) horrified that she now had a guest staying in her house for the weekend without any notice.   Needless to say, when I found out that he was in charge of planning a dinner for the entire senior class of his fraternity, I was a bit skeptical.  And my skepticism was not fueled by lack of trust; I completely trust and consider him one of my dearest and closest male friends on campus.  He just has a track-record of some interesting and unusual situations. 

I have to admit that I was wrong and he exceeded any expectations that I, or any other guest at the dinner for that matter, had prior to the event.

GT Fish & Oyster is one of Chicago’s greatest restaurants, specializing in fresh seafood that is famous among the Chicago cuisine community.  The restaurant has a classy interior and is perfect for celebrations and special occasions.  This dinner was my first visit to GT and I doubt it’ll be my last.  The food and atmosphere were spectacular and set the perfect tone before another great jazz night.  We were seated in a private room which was wonderful for such an intimate gathering.  As we walked in, we were led behind the kitchen and down a back staircase to a secluded and cozy dining area where our tables were tastefully decorated and set with beautifully printed place-cards.  The meal featured 11 courses which included a wide array of appetizers, sides and desserts.  The dishes were mostly seafood- tuna, shrimp, crab, oysters from both coasts of the United States- although there were also pork sliders that were hearty and delicious.  When the first course of oysters were served, most diners looked anxiously around to model the perfect way to eat them.  I was definitely one of these diners..

Overall, the dinner was an absolute success which was only enhanced by the friendly service and amazing location of GT Fish & Oyster.  I would definitely recommend it for your next special occasion- the staff goes above and beyond to make your experience as personal as possible.

Cheers to you Matt.

Mary


Decadent Dark Chocolate Mousse with Raspberry Sorbet


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Deep Thoughts About Deep-Dish

"I wish you'd stop being useless and start being pizza"

Deep-dish pizza in itself is a work of art.  It's therapeutic powers cause Chicago-natives and bread-lovers alike to rejoice in the numerous locations of great deep-dish pizza in the White City.  When an individual relocates into a new city, it's important for them to grasp certain local traditions.  Nothing says "Welcome to Chicago" more than crime, hockey & deep-dish.  Blackhawks games and pizza have been going hand-in-hand since peanut butter and jelly.  A bit of an exaggeration...but if you visit Pequod's Pizzeria in Lincoln Park during a Hawks game, you will completely understand what I mean. It is, of course, the official Blackhawks bar of Chicago.

Pequod's is rumored to be home of the "world's best pepperoni pizza" and I dragged my favorite pepperoni pizza-connoisseur for dinner to evaluate the claim.  His verdict? One of the best pepperoni pizzas he has tried in Chicago but still unclear whether it deserves the ranking of #1.  Most of our complaints weren't about the food, mostly service and atmosphere.  The decor inside is very sporty and fun, perfect for the typical Lincoln Park crowd.  The restaurant is very loud and lively so probably not the best place to take young children or older adults.  The building is absolutely ginormous so make sure you follow the hostess closely when she is showing you to your table.  Otherwise you might get lost and never make it out...

They don't take reservations but you can call ahead and be put on the 'priority' list.  I would definitely recommend doing so because it saved us an hour on our wait time.  The service was lackluster: the waitress took a long time to take our order and bring out our food and the pizza-cutter guy was frantic and careless.  He accidentally cut a slice in half and gave my friend the half-slice while everyone else got a full slice.  Needless to say, she was not too pleased.

Overall, Pequod's is a traditional deep-dish pizza restaurant with fantastic food at a reasonable price.  However, it also comes with a long wait, questionable service and a very loud atmosphere.  Perfect for a patient, hungry & die-hard Blackhawks fan but maybe not Mary of Miles, Menus & Mary.

Until next slice,
Mary  

Half Pepperoni/Half Hawaiian with Bell Peppers


After dinner treat: Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream
Featuring; Rum Ball & Middle West Whiskey Eggnog

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Fabulous Fondue

"Fondue is a lot like weed, at a party everyone hangs out by the pot" 

 Cheese fondue- classy, elegant and the perfect party-pleaser.  After researching recipes on Pinterest & receiving step-by-step instructions from my French uncle (my father rolled his eyes at the amount of wine that he recommended), I was ready for the challenge.  Three bottles of wine, a couple pounds of cheese & the finest assortment of vegetables, French bread and sausages that can be purchased in the great state of Indiana.      

The baguettes were sliced to the perfect thickness, vegetables roasted in the optimal proportion of balsamic vinegar and olive oil,  and the sausages cooked to... (well, my friend Ian cooked them so they were a little raw inside).  I even had my mother's vintage fondue set with color-coded skewers.  The remaining French bread slices were toasted in the oven and topped with homemade bruschetta, providing a fantastic option for any cheese-averse guests.

I was mainly concerned with lighting of the burner but luckily my friend Ian took care of this task.  The pyromaniac-gene from my father must have skipped my generation and I wasn't feeling adventurous enough to hold sole-responsibility for lighting the entire apartment building on fire. 
(That would be our neighbors...) 

The final task was the melting of the cheese and the warming of the wine.  Our entire apartment soon smelled like white wine, swiss & gruyere cheese, and Nutella from the frosting on the cupcakes my other roommate prepared.  To be honest, it smelled a little like what I imagine heaven to smell like.

There is an old proverb:
"Cheese, wine, and friends must be old to be good."  
I guess I am too young to know whether this is true or not but I can assure you that my party was still a success.  But then again Charles Dickens did say, "To a young heart, everything is fun."

Until next time,
Mary

The Spread

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Another Broken Egg

"All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast." 
~ John Gunther

A strong cup of coffee in the morning is an ideal way to begin any early morning and no cup of coffee is more satisfying than the classic French roast that my dad brews when I am home in Indianapolis.  It seems like during the holiday season, we get so caught up in our tasks, our to-do lists and our commitments that we temporarily take for granted all of the wonderful and special people around us.  As we prepare for the Christmas season, we must all take a second and recognize just how thankful we are to have loving and selfless people in our lives who have shaped us into passionate and unique citizens of the world.

I am very blessed to have such a strong and close-knit relationship with my grandfather.  He is the reason I adore cooking so much and most of my earliest food memories are watching him prepare family dinners.  My grandparents' house is always filled with assorted chocolates, pretzel rods and caramel candies which always seem to be discovered by my father and brother before every meal.  It seems fitting that the Norwegian word for grandfather is bestefar, as he is one of my best friends and role models.

My grandfather and I are fortunate to have many opportunities to chat on the phone about life, future plans and new recipes.  A couple weeks before I was scheduled to come home for the first time in several months, he raved about a new breakfast establishment just north of Indianapolis.  A place called Another Broken Egg, a smaller chain that featured Indianapolis-unique elements in their Indiana location.  I almost drooled on my phone as he described their rendition of Eggs Benedict with fresh crab.  We decided that my first order of business upon my arrival would be a brunch date for just the two of us.  Just an adoring granddaughter and her wise grandfather.

He adventured out into the world of seafood for breakfast and ordered the Shrimp 'n Grits.  Both of us are huge fans of cocktail shrimp and always have been.  He still teases me for my minor obsession with shrimp growing up and unfortunately, I had trouble pronouncing 'shrimp' until the age of 6 and called them 'slimp' to my family's amusement.  The dish featured a sautéed mix of shrimp, Andouille sausage, red bell peppers and green onions.  The mixture was cooked in a low country reduction sauce with a spicy kick which paired well with the creaminess of the cheese topping the grits.  The fresh vegetables provided a lighter element to the heaviness of the cheesy grits and the entire dish reminded him of New Orleans.  The Shrimp 'n Grits is served with crispy, garlic French bread; perfect for dipping in any leftover sauce or cheese.

I chose the Crabcakes Cavallo which features a crab-inspired rendition of my favorite breakfast dish- Eggs Benedict.  A crispy English muffin is topped with two sizable crab cakes and two perfectly poached eggs.  Adorning the eggs are an Andouille infused hollandaise sauce, chopped green onions and fresh red bell peppers.   The dish is served with fantastically crunchy & salty breakfast potatoes which compliment the savoriness of the crab cakes.  Probably my favorite breakfast dish in Indianapolis yet!

Overall, Another Broken Egg is an excellent breakfast or brunch choice in Indianapolis and I intend on revisiting whenever I am home.  Splendid food and fascinating company, this brunch was one of the highlights of my Thanksgiving weekend.

Mary

PS: Love you Grandpa!
(He's the #1 fan of this blog)    

Crabcakes Cavallo


Shrimp 'n Grits




Sunday, November 9, 2014

Litehouse Whole Food Grill

Visiting local farmers markets and shopping locally takes time and energy, two things that most of us lack. When our calendars and schedules become busy, often the first item sacrificed is our commitment to consuming sustainable foods. A new Hyde Park restaurant is attempting to solve this problem. Providing local, fresh ingredients at a reasonable price, Litehouse Whole Food Grill is cornering the market in “healthy fast food” and is uplifting the Hyde Park community in the process.

I accidentally stumbled upon Litehouse this summer and have been obsessed with their food and their mission ever since. Established by Hyde Park residents, the restaurant focuses on community outreach in addition to providing remarkable food. The menu encompasses all eating styles, so whether you are vegetarian, meat-loving, gluten-free or vegan you’re sure to have plenty of options. Most dishes are even customizable, allowing you to choose your toppings, main ingredients and dressings. Diners can create their own wrap, burrito, salad, taco or even pizza and tailor it to their specific dietary concerns or culinary preferences. Unlike some restaurants, there is no additional charge for any of the toppings besides guacamole, which means that vegetable-lovers like me can fit as many into a burrito as possible. All ingredients are locally grown, natural and hormone-free, providing a quick, sustainable meal that brings a smile to your face every time. My personal favorite is the Cranberry Chicken Salad, which I typically order as a wrap in a spinach tortilla. It combines the natural sweetness of candied walnuts and dried cranberries with the strong flavors of feta cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. The chicken is all-natural and prepared lean with minimal oil. Although they are not the healthiest items on the menu, the fried green tomatoes and sweet potato fries are also amazing and perfect to share. The tomatoes are served with a special house dipping sauce (ranch mixed with hot sauce) and the sweet potato fries are perfectly dusted with cinnamon.

The interior and atmosphere of Litehouse Whole Food Grill is just as community-focused as its creators. From the University of Chicago student discount to the pizzas named after Hyde Park residents and places, the restaurant honors the neighborhood in which it is based. Restaurant décor showcases local artists, from the colorful countertops to the eclectic artwork on the walls, and a mix of music selections and friendly staff completes the dining experience and draws repeat customers. As a quick note, be aware that the hours of operation here are a bit unusual: the restaurant closes Friday night and reopens Saturday night in honor of the Sabbath.

Finding delicious, healthy food that is both quick and reasonably priced is a hard task to accomplish.
One must typically sacrifice either time or money to maintain a balanced, sustainable diet. Litehouse
Whole Food Grill, however, has managed to achieve the seemingly impossible: provide locally sourced, hormone-free meals for the busy and picky eater. A pioneer in the “healthy fast food” era, this restaurant is a must for anyone visiting Hyde Park.

Mary

Fried Green Tomatoes

Cranberry Chicken Salad as a Wrap

PC: Aneesa Sonawalla
Aneesa accompanied me on my most recent trip and took all these lovely photos! My article & her photos will be featured in the upcoming fall quarter edition of Nonpareil, the UChicago food magazine.