Chicago Chef Morel & Ramp Romp

Chefs flock to Chicago not only for its cutting-edge culinary scene, but for the city’s diverse neighborhood cuisines. Inspiration lies in every corner of the city: carnitas from Pilsen, downtown fine dining, a gourmet hot dog from the Northside. Essentially any type of cuisine can be found in Chicago’s city limits, and culinary exploration is unlimited. The only thing that Chicago is really missing (besides its fair share of warm months) is a true green space.  Of course, Lake Michigan offers some solace from city life, but when chefs crave some inspiration from nature, they travel up the shore to Harbor Country, Michigan, roughly an hour away from the city.

The First Annual “Chicago Chefs’ Morel and Ramp Romp” recently offered some hardworking Chicago chefs the opportunity to kick back, relax, and mingle with the culinary-minded. This locavore-centric retreat was thoughtfully coordinated by Adam Seger of Hum Spirits, wine distributor Beverly Malen, Drew and Lauron Turnipseed of Two Turnips catering and consulting, Rachel Collins of Collins Caviar, and Scott and Kristen Sullivan of Greenbush Brewing Company. Participating chefs (including Spiaggia’s Executive Chef Sarah Grueneberg and Prosecco’s Executive Chef Mark Sparacino) spent the day in Baroda, Michigan foraging for morel mushrooms and picking fresh ramps, touring local wineries and eating roasted pig prepared by Rob Leavitt of Chicago’s Mado Restaurant. Winemaker Mike de Schaaf poured tastings from Hickory Creek, one of the premier wineries found along Lake Michigan’s eastern shore. The day’s events held a mood of earthy spontaneity and peacefulness, as well as revealing Harbor Country’s culinary aspirations and resources, which perhaps deserve more attention than granted previously.

Adam Seger muddling ingredients for a cocktail made with Hum Spirits.

Rachel Collins serving Michigan caviar on fresh blinis.

Chicago chefs embark on a morel and ramp hunt.

Morel mushrooms-what a find!

Picking local rapini from Michigan fields.

Chicag0 wine distributor Beverly Malen munches on just-picked rapini.

Roasted pig prepared by Adam Leavitt of Mado Restaurant.

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La cuisine de Montréal

Montreal is a foodie’s city: jam-packed full of bars and “restos,” bistros focusing on comfort food, cafes, boulangeries and patisseries. My sister joked that our weekend trip together would be a “culinary odyssey,” and we did not falter in our task of making pilgrimages to some of Montreal’s most well-known spots. Our cozy, artist-run guest house was located in the Plateau District, so upon our arrival we chose a nearby restaurant and  set out to nosh at Bagel, Etc.

Montreal bagels, like New York bagels, were brought to the city by Jewish immigrants and remain a staple today. The Montreal bagel is typically hand-made and wood-fired,  and is smaller, sweeter, and denser than its New York sibling. Bagel, Etc. was a funky and friendly place, and our lox and bagels served with fried potatoes hit the spot for brunch.

Bagel Etc., Montreal.

Lox and Bagel, Bagel Etc., Montreal.

Two of Montreal’s oldest bagel institutions are St. Viateur Bagel and Fairm0unt Bagel. Both are a bit touristy, with lines stretching out of the small storefronts and cameras flashing towards the wood-burning ovens and annoyed bagel-makers. Fairmount Bagel has been operating since 1949 and offers more bagel options than St. Viateur, which only serves the original sesame or poppy seed variety. A chocolate chip bagel from Fairmount was a nice breakfast paired with a Cafe au Lait from a neighboring cafe. Despite the kitsch factor, a trip to St. Viateur or Fairmount Bagel is worth a trip!

Fairmount Bagel, Montreal.

Chocolate Chip Bagel and Cafe au Lait, Montreal.

Of course, Montreal offers more than just bagels. There are fantastic microbreweries like Dieu de Ciel, which serves a unique variety of beer (hibiscus brew!). Do your best to masquerade as a nonchalant, hipster local while taking in the mounted ostrich heads and sipping absinthe at Bily Kun. Take a break from heavy gastropub fare by exploring restaurants in Chinatown or some of Montreal’s excellent Thai restaurants.

We had our first taste of Québécois cuisine at Au Pied de Cochon, a restaurant that’s certainly not for dieters or finicky eaters. Housed in a narrow, bright space, Au Pied is rustic (serving blood sausage, head cheese, picked tongue, and the ever-so-romantic Pig’s Head for Two) but trendy. Both our waiter and the menu had a “figure it out on your own” vibe; no explanations are provided on the menu. We avoided the cryptic “Duck in a Can” and “Happy Pork Chop” and went straight for the blissful section of the menu devoted entirely to Foie Gras. My ongoing soliloquy to goose liver gained a few verses:

Oh, fried foie gras cubes, thou art quite freaky/

Your liquid center spilled down my sister’s cheeky.

Foie gras tart, buttery and flaky/

I’ll reincarnate as a goose, maybe.

Our dinner at L’Express, on the chic Rue St. Denis, was the quintessential French bistro experience. We ate our meal at the bar and translated the handwritten menu. Spicy cornichons and grainy mustard were served with our hot french baguette, and the wine list highlighted reasonably priced, French wines. Mais oui, we ordered the marrow bone appetizer: sinfully delicious hunks of bone marrow with crunchy toasts and coarse sea salt. Two dainty women who sat next to us at the bar stared with an interesting combination of horror and lust as my sister and I navigated the hot bones to reveal their treasure of gelatinous, meaty goodness.  A gorgeous salad of greens and duck confit and a simple spaghetti with mushrooms finished our spectacular meal.

L’Express, Montreal.

Marrow Bone Appetizer, L’Express.

Salad with Duck Confit, L’Express, Montreal.

Spaghetti with Mushrooms, L’Express, Montreal.

Montreal has an easygoing, young and vibrant vibe.  Given the weak dollar, a visit to Montreal is not the bargain it used to be…but with only a two hour flight from Chicago, it’s a lot closer than Paris!

The New Reality

Remember that scene in The Matrix, where Cypher is eating a steak in virtual reality? “…I know this steak doesn’t exist,” Cypher admits. “I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.”

Some fine dining restaurants, in my experience, can feel very false and quite Matrix-like. Servers concentrate intently on preventing any crumbs from touching your table, overworked food intimidates even adventurous diners, and techno, mellow mood music restricts the atmosphere and makes you feel like the experience of paying a lot of money at the XYZ Fine Dining Restaurant should be one of the more serious moments of your life.

L2O is one of Chicago’s stunning, elegant, yet somewhat Matrix-y restaurants. Partnered with Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants,  celebrated chef Laurent Gras presents seafood at its very best. Dining options include a four course prix- fixe menu ($110), a ten-course “luxury” tasting menu ($245), and a twelve-course seasonal tasting menu ($165). Housed in Lincoln Park’s ethereal, opulently appointed Belden-Stratford Hotel, L2O’s sleek interior (designed by Chicago-based Dirk Denison Architects) offers a dramatic, intense contrast to it’s exterior. Glass panels, stainless steel cable screens and coral installations divide the main dining room. Servers in tight, matching black suits discretely push small serving carts among the Macassar ebony tables and white leather chairs.

After opening the giant, heavy restaurant door (that closed silently and ominously behind us), Mr. F and I were warmly greeted by a stylish, slight man. “We’re just thrilled you could join us tonight,” he crowed. Odd, Matrix moments ensued: a gorgeous redheaded bus-woman insisted on walking me up a steep ramp to the restroom; smooth yet loud techno beats undulated through the space; obvious tourists tried their best to keep up table manners and appearances. Thankfully, the cool bubble burst when our server (who predictably resembled Trinity from the Matrix) brought us our first amouse-bouche. A small lobster claw, served over a dollop of citrus marmalade, was topped with a delicate crystallized mint leaf.  A perfect bite and preview of a beautiful meal to come.

We ordered the four-course prix-fixe menu, and each chose courses from a selection of raw, warm, and main courses. While waiting for our first course, I noticed the way light reflected off of tables and water glasses, creating patterns on the ceiling like we were looking up from the ocean floor. Intentional Matrix trickery? Probably, but it was a lovely effect. Our appetizers arrived in heavy, white earthenware. For Mr. F: Medai (Japanese butterfish) with ume (Chinese plum), and fried garlic. For me, just seared Hamachi (yellow tail) with Chimchuri, topped with a tangle of potato string. Each was complex in flavor but delicately presented…no overworked dishes here.

Courses continued with Foie Gras served with raspberry, white balsamic vinegar, and a hint of ginger (definitely the low point of our meal as it was extremely sweet). Kampachi (sustainable Hawaiian yellowtail) teriyaki with salsa verde and tempura vegetables was thoughtful but not completely fabulous.

All courses paired excellently with a Pinot Noir selected with the help of L2O’s sommelier. Wine service was just as impeccable as the dinner service; with the aid of a swift cart, the sommelier uncorked the bottle with ease, sampled some first himself (an interesting touch) and even stuck around to help Mr. F order an appertif at the end of our meal. Our entrees were the high point of the evening. My halibut, paired with pea, ramp, arugula dumpling, and bacon butter was basically holy. I could drink a mug of bacon butter every night before bed (maybe that would help my insomnia). Mr. F’s deconstructed green curry with tai snapper was perfect; items could be eaten separately or combined for a true curry taste.

Desserts (grand marnier souffle and raspberry sorbet) were good but not extraordinary.  L2O is the perfect choice for a special occasion, or for an excuse to unplug yourself from your own reality. Push your shoulders back, follow the redhead to the bathroom, drink your bacon butter and enjoy.

L20

No Flash Photography Permitted (hence my eerie photos)

N Lincoln Park W
Chicago, IL 60614
www.l2orestaurant.com

Wanderlust: Montreal

My sister and I traveled to Montreal over Easter weekend. What a beautiful, artistic, interesting city! Montreal’s neighborhoods remind me of both Chicago and New York, but the French influence was inescapable. We truly felt as though we were visiting Europe for the weekend instead of Canada. After just a two hour flight from Chicago, we stepped into a city full of brasseries, boulangeries, très chic people and peppered with the twinkly French language.  Speaking French is not necessary for survival in Montreal; most seem to understand some English. Arriving equipped with a few essential French phrases is extremely helpful, bien sur.

Suggestions for a weekend in Montreal:

  • Save your Canadian dollars and stay in a guest house to get the true neighborhood vibe of Montreal
  • Avoid Vieux-Montreal (the old city)….it is boring and touristy
  • Climb to the highest point in the city, in a park designed by Frederick Olmsted
  • Take the train to Marche Atwater (this is where your French will come in handy)
  • Stick to Saint Denis Street for amazing boutiques, cafes and restaurants
  • Leave your GPS at home and use a map. Get ready to walk, walk, walk through the Plateau Mont Royal, Saint-Laurent Blvd, and other neighborhoods that flow into one another.
  • Follow my restaurant suggestions….coming soon!

Mount Royal.

Outskirts of Chinatown, Montreal.

Le Chat, Montreal.

Chinatown, Montreal.

Girl in the Trees, Montreal.

Lost Kid.

Graffiti, Montreal.

Comme ci, comme ca.

Saint Denis, Montreal.

I need your number.

Plateau District, Montreal.

Jaune.

Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal.

Sex and small cars.

Vieux-Montreal.

Montreal boy.

Henri Julien + Saint-Louis.

Chinatown, Montreal.

First Impressions

Sometimes, you just know. You meet someone on a blind date for the first time and know it just won’t work out. You walk into an apartment you’re thinking of renting and the weird energy of the place makes you turn right around and leave. You arrive for your reservations at a restaurant, sit down, look at the menu and take in the ambiance, get up and exit.

That’s right, I said it. I feel that sometimes, it’s totally acceptable to walk out of a restaurant BEFORE you’ve ordered anything, based solely on first impression. Judgment and discretion should be used, of course. I wouldn’t walk out of Alinea or Tru, but I also know that they are two of the top restaurants in Chicago.  If you embark upon a new restaurant, willing to spend your hard-earned money on typically overpriced food, why sit and suffer if you know you won’t enjoy the experience?

The other night, Aaron and I decided to try Fonda del Mar, which recently relocated from Logan Square to Lincoln Square. I’d been meaning to try this Mexican Seafood spot for a while, and was excited to cross it off my list. From the exterior, FDM didn’t look that inviting. The space is a 70’s style, squat brick building with cubed, block glass windows (the kind normally found in bathrooms!). We walked in, and I shuddered. How can a place look like an open cafeteria, and yet make me feel so claustrophobic at the same time? We sat at our table and I took in the view of the rickety tables and glum patrons sitting under fluorescent lights. I looked at my husband, and we got the hell outta there.


Julia Was Right

I am not a fan of whiney people. I also have no tolerance for martyrs or the self-flagellating. As such, I definitely had a problem with Julie Powell’s new memoir, Cleaving: A Story of Meat, Marriage and Obsession. I thought her first book, Julie and Julia, was a fairly good, light read based on a project that I could see myself trying: cooking my way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Granted, the movie was disappointing: Amy Adams and her bad haircut may have given the most wooden performance of her career, and Meryl  Streep THEBESTACTRESSOFALLTIME was just so muppety as Julia Child.

Julie and Julia, Sony Pictures.

The blah movie notwithstanding, I was rooting for Julie Powell, a fellow blogger, a person just like me who hated her day job and was interested in food and writing. A person just like me whose blog catapulted her out of her mundane life. I wasn’t bothered by her unapologetic narcissism or her chatty blog style, even when Julia Child refused to endorse the ‘stunt’ project and said “I don’t think she’s [Powell] a serious cook.” That said, I found her new book, Cleaving, one of the most unpleasant reads of my life.

Here’s the gist of the book: just as Powell finished writing Julie and Julia, she started having an affair with an old college boyfriend, “D”. Her husband finds out about the affair, but Powell decides that she doesn’t want to stop diddling D and nevertheless wants to remain married. Powell and her husband each dole out their  share of misery and abuse. Everything turns terrible, and Powell flees to an upstate New York butchery to work out her aggression by chopping up animals.

The butchery is meant to be therapeutic, of course, and  we’re steered to believe the memoir is mostly about Powell’s apprenticeship with master butchers. But really, the book turns out to be about how incredibly amazing her affair was, how incredibly devious Powell is, and how marvelously flawed she reveals herself to be. Through all the explicit descriptions of how mind-blowing the sex is with D, Powell’s regret or shame is hard to locate. The reader starts to think: “That poor, idiot husband.”

Basically, my main issue with this memoir boils down to this: why would any one care? It’s easy to trick your reader after writing a feel-good, gooey Julia Child book into basically reading your personal journal. But where is the contrition? What’s the point? It’s basically tell, tell, tell. Tell  about how you like being slapped around, the dirty texting, your propensity as a stalker, your desperation after D breaks up with you, your resentment of the fact that most people would feel guilty in your situation.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe it’s more than acceptable to write about your dishonest, regrettable past in memoir form. But to come out on top, some sort of reflection about past mistakes is appreciated. Powell takes the opposite approach and just brags her way through one crappy action after another. She lacks an internal perspective; she not only offers her husband no respect, but her readers. In one part of the book, Powell describes how a fan approaches her on the street, gushes about loving her work,  and mistakes “D” for her husband. Powell goes along with the ruse.

I almost laugh in dizzy relief, right in the woman’s face. I must look completely dazed, with hectic eyes and a plastered-on smile. D’s no wild-eyed rebel, doesn’t race hot rods or start fistfights in bars or snort lines off strippers’ asses … (much … that I know of). But he has a way of, with just a sly smile, a tiny lie, making me feel gleefully wild. I am trembling; I can’t wait to get him home.

Oh, gag. What comes through in the book is this moment really was hilarious to Powell, and this sort of devious behavior really made D irresistible. The main theme of the book rang clear: she knew she should feel bad, but she didn’t.

In a response to the overwhelming criticism received for Cleaving, Powell defends herself (albeit in a self-indulgent, victim-y way) to Slate Magazine, saying that if you don’t like this book,  it says more about you than it does about the book.  I’m sure that escaping the dippy foodie book genre was liberating for Powell, as she was trying to be daring as a writer. I get the feeling, though, that she got more out of her liberation than her readers will.

Kentucky Fried Olives

The South is really not that bad. Seriously. It’s the home of bourbon,  horses, grits, and strange expressions. I planned a weekend getaway for my husband’s birthday to the Kentucky bourbon trail. While brown alcohol is not exactly my thing, I knew he’d enjoy it and I’d enjoy the escape from Chicago’s dreary and never ending winter.

Horse Country, Versailles, KY

We began our adventure in Louisville, a surprisingly beautiful and sophisticated city.  The 21c Museum Hotel doubles as a contemporary art museum, and its playful, eclectic design carries through the hotel and restaurant. Red penguins are the main motif of the space, and interactive art dots hallways and corners.

21c Museum Hotel, Louisville, KY

Housed inside the hotel, the restaurant Proof on Main has been featured in Bon Appetit, Food and Wine Magazine, and was named as one of “Best New Restaurants 2006” by Esquire.  Proof on Main was developed by Louisville philanthropists and art collectors, and  focuses on Italian cuisine laced with Southern influences. A nightly special of rabbit stew served over Parmesan polenta was not as fabulous as our server promised and raved; the entire dish tasted like bitter parsley and the shredded rabbit was simply not seasoned correctly. An appetizer of Ndjua toast with melted lardo, fleur de sel and fried oregano was sinfully fattening and wonderful. Proof’s wine list, named by Food and Wine Magazine in 2006 “as one of America’s 50 most amazing wine experiences” and most recently given the Wine Spectator 2007 and 2008 “Award of Excellence,” was both accessible and eclectic.

Proof on Main, Louisville,  KY

One of the best things about our dinner at Proof on Main was the delicious bread served both table side and incorporated into our appetizers. Once we were told the bread came from Blue Dog Bakery, we added a visit to the next day’s agenda. Louisville restaurant critic Robin Garr writes that “one of the best culinary happenings in Louisville in the last decade was the arrival of Blue Dog bread and its expert baker, Bob Hancock.”

Blue Dog Bakery, Louisville, KY

Blue Dog focuses on its bakery, but also runs a small cafe that’s open for breakfast and lunch. The cafe’s simple decor, open spaces and large windows creates an inviting yet noisy space. The breakfast menu was a bit limited but our choices were delicious. We drank our lattes and watched the Southern kids flop around the restaurant, and dreamed about simpler lives outside of the city.

Egg Sandwich, Blue Dog Bakery, Louisville, KY

Poached Eggs with Prosciutto, Blue Dog Bakery, Louisville, KY