Wandering Traveler

Stephanie Izard's Little Goat (see Breakfast below)

Stephanie Izard’s Little Goat (see Breakfast below)


Article & Photos by Virginia Mille

My second return to Chicago in 6 months (and 4th trip overall) was a freezing journey, warmed by fantastic friends and family, food and drink. Here are more Chicago standouts and newcomers from late February.

OWEN & ENGINE, Logan Square

Owen & Engine

Perhaps my favorite find this visit is Owen and Engine, a gastropub-esque restaurant/bar marked by Old World British elegance (black leather seating, 18-19th century paintings). Cicerone Elliot Beier (who is working on his master cicerone certification) was one the early cicerones in the world so his beer knowledge and selection (on tap, bottled and hand-pulled – “Real ales on the engine”) is impeccable.

But he’s also handy with the cocktails ($9-10), serving refreshers like Sage Advice (St. George Terroir Gin, lemon, ginger sage syrup, orange flower water, and a couple variations on a classic Pimm’s Cup (a lively one with Pimm’s No.1 Cup, Fentiman’s Rose Lemonade, lemon, pink peppercorn tincture, cucumber, mint, rose water). I was drawn most to the deeply spiced smokiness of The Shrubbery: Monkey Shoulder Scotch, five spice shrub, lemon, Old Fashioned Bitters; and fascinated with the bitter, bright layers of Wounded Swede: Bols Genever, Bonal Quina, Malort (which some call the “most disgusting liquor of all time“), Cherry Heering (cherry liqueur), orange bitters.

Welsh rarebit & pretzel

While I’d return for a full meal, bar food is above-average, whether crispy mole pork rinds ($5) or Virginia peanuts ($3) tossed in Sriracha, Worcestershire and brown sugar. Fondness for the UK treat, Welsh rarebit means whenever I see it on a menu, I order it. Plus it’s divine with beer. O&E’s Welsh rarebit is rich blend of aged cheddar, Worcestershire, horseradish, and Young’s Chocolate Stout. There’s a soft pretzel glazed in mustard and Young’s Chocolate Stout ($6) to dip. I’d be hard pressed not to order this fantastic bar dish every visit. Desserts intrigue with savory notes, like parsnip pot de creme ($8), accented by blood orange sorbet, pistachio financier and parsnip chips.


Entering Table, Donkey & Stick

Understated and minimalist, Table, Donkey & Stick was brand new in my February visit, a modern Germanic-influenced restaurant. The name is derived from a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, emphasized by Grimm’s books, vintage hatchet, and bottles of eaux de vie lining the entrance behind a tree stump host stand. The space is intimate, with a glass-walled, back room illuminated by fireplace and a back garden for warm weather dining.


Service is sincere and thorough, while food encapsulates rustic elegance, still establishing its identity.  House buckwheat bread arrives with a mound of whipped, soft pork butter, while a charcuterie spread, wanderteller ($6 each, 3/$15) offers intriguing bites of schweinekopf (pheasant galantine thinly sliced and smoked with coffee and hazelnut), a savory/sweet bowl of caramel corn chicarrons tossed with sunflower seed oatmeal, and a lovely rabbit terrine accented by caraway and nutmeg with celery seed marmalade.

House pork sausage ($13), served with pork fat pretzel and mustard butter, was a tad dry, but a
celery root salad ($7) made of sunflower and mustard granola in celery mustard vinaigrette, is lively and refreshing. A cheese platter ($5 each, 3/$12) comes with sunflower-oat bread, local honey, candied walnuts, and cheeses like Swiss Heublumen (semi-firm, raw cow with an herb-covered rind), French Tomme de Savoie (cow semi-soft in an aged natural rind, which I’ve often ordered in SF at The Alembic), and a German Chiriboga (raw cow blue, creamy, intense).

Artful veggies

Pan-roasted salmon ($21) over brussels sprouts and turnips may not enthrall but is well-prepared, enlivened by one-year preserved grapefruit and lomo (thinly sliced beef tenderloin). Chocolate pave ($7), cacao nib brittle and tarragon pudding exceeds expectations with tart/sweet cherry preserve ice cream. Finish with a pour of eaux de vie, by the glass or flight, like a Golles flight ($18) of apricot, aged plum, and aged apple brandies. There’s also a solid list of Germanic wines and beers.

Consider Table, Donkey & Stick one to watch.

FRANKS ‘N DAWGS, Lincoln Park

Franks 'N Dawgs in Chicago (see "Wandering Traveler")

Franks ‘N Dawgs: Slammin’ Salmon

One wouldn’t expect the justifiably revered Hot Doug’s to have competition, but they just might in Franks ‘N Dawgs. A similar ethos exists here as at Doug’s: quality sausages and hot dogs ($5.45-11.50) in wacky, decadent combos. Franks ‘N Dawgs walks its own path, serving sausages in buttery, Maine lobster roll-style buns.

My initial favorite is the playfully named Tur-Doggin. Inspired by turducken, it’s a plump turkey date sausage topped with crispy duck confit, slathered in herb garlic aioli, pickled carrots and onion relish. Perfection. Slammin’ Salmon looks better than it tasted. It’s a genius idea though in execution was a bit dry and didn’t pop: a citrus cured salmon dog streaked with herb cream cheese, bagel crisps, fried capers, dill and plump salmon roe. Nonetheless, mouthwatering combos line the menu, like holiday tribute, Pork of July: pork loin-caramelized onion sausage under a mound of house-smoked pulled pork, slaw and cherry bourbon BBQ sauce.


Cemitas Puebla

Cemitas Puebla

Trekking to Mexican neighborhood, Humboldt Park, on a bone-chilling, windy day was quite the effort, but thankfully the end result was authentically gratifying.

Raved about hole-in-the-wall, Cemitas Puebla, serves famed cemitas: sandwiches originating from Puebla, Mexico, akin to but different than a torta, served in a hefty wheel of brioche-like, sesame seed covered bread. Arabe cemitas ($6.50) is filled with spit-roasted pork, avocado, adobo chipotle peppers, chipotle sauce and Oaxacan cheese. But I gravitated toward their corn tortilla tacos ($2.15-2.75), especially carne asada (skirt steak) and arabes (spit-roasted pork).

MANA FOOD BAR, Wicker Park

Potato pancake

Potato pancake

Meat eater that I am, I highly value well done vegetarian food. Though intimate, relaxed Mana Food Bar was heavier on starches than the greens I was hoping for, dishes were well-executed with just enough of a twist to avoid tedium.



There’s sake cocktails, a thoughtful beer list, fresh-squeezed juices ($5) like celery, collard greens, apple, and also smoothies ($8-9), like a thick avocado and pineapple with coconut water. Shaved Brussels sprouts ($4) are perked up in miso mustard, while sharp cheddar mac & cheese ($6/11) is best when one can taste added horseradish and black pepper. Butternut squash ravioli ($8/15) in garlic, arugula, walnuts and Asiago cheese was typical, but a sweet and white potato pancake ($7.25/13.25) comforts doused in apple cranberry chutney and sour cream. Cauliflower and kale in yellow curry ($7.25/13.25) rests over black pepper lentils, brightened by pickled apple, and I always enjoy a classic panzanella/Italian bread salad ($6/11), here it’s cubes of ciabatta tossed with shallots, cherry tomato, cucumber and basil in a red wine garlic vinaigrette.



Queso flameado

Old school and dated in look, it’s the warm welcome of servers and manager Fermin Romero, a historic figure in Chicago’s Mexican nightlife and karaoke scene, that draws you in to Mitad Del Mundo. Decent margaritas ($8 top shelf) are shaken tableside while queso flameado ($7.50), a mound of panela cheese flamed dramatically table side in a splash of alcohol, scooped up with fresh corn tortillas.

Chef Geno Bahena, who worked with Rick Bayless for years, is known for mole, one of my great loves. Though I’ve had better in LA and Oaxaca, dishes like enchiladas de mole rojo ($13.95), a Oaxacan red mole over chicken, or maple leaf duck breast ($14.25) marinated in red-chile adobo mole, are heartwarming.


Shrimp burger

Shrimp burger

With vintage butcher theme in a smoky, narrow space, Butcher & the Burger’s burger ($9.50) sounded divine, wisely made of Q7 Farms grass-fed beef cooked in “umami spice” (garlic, ginger, scallions, sweet soy glaze). Though smothered in wasabi mayo, cheddar and topped with Benton’s Tennessee Mountain smoked bacon on a butter egg bun, the end result was suprisingly bland – and the medium rare I requested was overcooked at medium well. Thereal hit was a shrimp burger ($11), a juicy shrimp patty in black sesame seeds on a pretzel bun, vivid with coconut curry and wasabi mayo. Finish with beignets ($1 each) and Cafe Du Monde chicory coffee.

RoSAL’S, University Village

RoSal's warm interior

RoSal’s warm interior

After extensive research narrowing down old school “red sauce”/American Italian joints to assuage my NJ/NY homesickness, the biggest letdown of this visit was RoSal’s. Entering this neighborhood joint strewn with white lights, ‘80’s artwork and a soundtrack of Martin, Sinatra and Prima, I was ecstatic in its glow. But excitement quickly turned to disappointment with mediocre dishes and sloppy service (case in point: our server sloshed a bunch of sauce on our table when setting down a pasta dish but never cleaned it up).

Best dish at RoSal's

Best dish at RoSal’s: spaghetti & shrimp

Their “famous fried ravioli” ($10.95) didn’t seem fried at all, merely boiled and bland. Beloved classics like lasagne al forno tasted as if made with grocery store pasta, not fresh. Only an overpriced $25 “special” of spaghetti with shrimp exhibited qualities of freshly made noodles. Another one of my American-Italian favorites, veal saltimbocca ($22), layered in prosciutto, melted provolone cheese and marinara sauce, was dry and diminshed. I’m shocked RoSal’s gets a 29 rating for food in Zagat. I’ve certainly had far better in hole-in-the-walls from NJ to SF. With Chicago’s long-standing Italian community, I know they do “red sauce” Italian well. I just hope I find it next time.




When in Evanston, where I went to visit Chicago’s best craft distillery, Few Spirits, one should hit the town’s classic burger joint, Edzo’s. My then boyfriend, now husband, briefly lived in Evanston over a decade ago, and I noticed many of the places we dined are still there. But Edzo’s came along in recent years, fast becoming an institution. I may have had better old school burgers around the country, but theirs is pleasingly straightforward: a 4 oz. griddled burger ($4.75 single, $7 double, $9.75 triple, $3 upgrade to Q7 grass-fed beef) in ketchup, mustard, pickle and onion with cheddar cheese an extra .50 cents. Fries ($5-6) are doused in crave-worthy local nods like Taylor Street fries doused in Italian beef gravy, sweet peppers, and giardiniera (a common Chi-town condiment of vegetables in vinegar), or Buffalo fries smothered in buffalo sauce and blue cheese with celery.

Edzo's burger

Edzo’s burger

The highlight, however, was an off menu milkshake savvy locals know about (thanks to a tip from Master Distiller Paul Hletko at Few Spirits): a speculoos milkshake, that buttery, graham cracker-like European shortcrust biscuit swirled in vanilla ice cream. Sheer goodness.

GULLIVER’S, West Rogers Park



The best part about local deep dish classic, Gulliver’s, is its gaudy interior, a multi-roomed lair of dark woods, excessive lamps and booths, with a 1980’s rustic-flashy glow. The pizza itself nearly dissolves – I went the stuffed route vs. deep dish for even more decadent, cheesy gratification (small – 9″ $11.95; medium – 12″ $15.95; large – 14″ $18.25 plus $1.50-2 for additional toppings). The crust and cheese don’t taste of high quality, preparation is decidedly old school rather than gourmet, but compared to the awful deep dish disappointments I’ve had at legendary pizza joints around Chicago, this was superior aided by atmosphere.


LULA CAFE, Logan Square

Bruleed grapefruit

Bruleed grapefruit

The best breakfast/brunch I’ve ever had in Chicago is easily Lula Café. Though it is certainly hipster, service is not aloof. Despite crowds and long waits, impeccable coffee, brunch cocktails and unique dishes make it a blessedly atypical breakfast. House pastries ($4 each or $10 for all) are mouthwatering. In my recent visit, the trio was Meyer lemon upside-down cake, smoked pecan sticky bun, and a chestnut Mast Bros. chocolate scone.


Almond poppy seed pancakes

Savory cravings are satiated with hot dish of white beans and Toulouse sausage ($12), braised bacon, roasted garlic, and a soft boiled egg, brightened by mustard vinaigrette and bacon fat bread crumbs. Though $9 is a crazy price for 1/2 a grapefruit, I’ve not yet seen one served like this: under a bruleed crust of candied seeds, fennel and spices, accompanied by a mini-cup of buttermilk panna cotta and paper thin rye crisps.

The winning dish was dreamy almond poppy seed griddle cakes ($10), lush with almond liqueur contrasted by tart lemon curd, fresh pear and pomegranate seeds, and an almond crumble. I’d go back just for those pancakes alone.



Kimchi Rueben

Former Top Chef star Stephanie Izard’s newcomer accompanying her still-hot Girl and the Goat restaurant, Little Goat plays the role of all-day diner. A spacious dining room is lined with hefty booths, décor is modern-retro, a tasteful mashup of mid-century lamps and vintage wallpaper.

Our server was hilarious, providing jokes and entertainment while bringing out our Stumptown Coffee. Prices are reasonable considering the massive size of many dishes. Most fell a little short of description, reading more exciting than they tasted, but all was good, whether a giant “ooey gooey Cinnabun” or hash browns in goat cheese. In keeping with the adorable, goat logo, goat cheese and goat milk pop up in numerous dishes.


Brunch at Little Goat

One of my greatest combo cravings (“Elvis” banana, peanut butter, bacon) shows up in Fat Elvis Waffles, which were ruined drowning in bacon maple syrup. Banana and a dreamy whipped peanut butter-butter would have been enough to make it special. Likewise, a parathas burrito of Indian flatbread exploding with sunny side eggs, avocado-bean salad and chili pepper sauce lacked the oomph it should have had from Indian spices.

Being a Reuben fanatic, how could I not order one filled with smoked corned beef, kimchi, sauerkraut, and cheese on a pretzel rye bun? Similar to the kimchi Reuben I had at Alan Wong’s Pineapple Room in Honolulu, it’s apparent kimchi won’t send a Reuben over the top if the pastrami/corned beef and other elements aren’t perfect to begin with. It’s tough to do pastrami right, as countless mediocre versions around the country attest.

Fat Elvis

Fat Elvis

Despite imperfections, the whole package is delightful enough that I’d be tempted to return to Little Goat for breakfast or lunch. Simple joys of coffee and bagels with special schmear (like peanut butter), are available in the adjoining takeout café.


Fritz Pastry

Fritz Pastry

Funky, charming Fritz Pastry’s gluten free baked goods are almost as tasty as those with gluten. Records play as you down donuts with the donut hole stuck into the hole, or non-traditional macarons that are much larger and less vibrantly flavored than the best in France, but in pleasing flavors like passion fruit or whiskey. Or just make a beeline for banapple bread: banana bread dotted with Granny Smith apple chunks.

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:

Wandering Traveler

Deconstructed elements of Chartreuse and monastic beers at The Aviary


Article and photos by Virginia Miller

Few Spirits Distillery, off a driveway in downtown Evanston

My second return to Chicago in 6 months (and 4th trip overall) was a freezing journey, warmed by fantastic friends and family, food and drink. A highlight was visiting funky, small Few Spirits distillery in Evanston with Master Distiller Paul Hletko. In my book, Few is the most exciting distillery to come out of Chicago, both in the gin and whiskey categories, and well worth a visit/tasting for spirits aficionados.

Goose Island (photo: Daniel Stumpf)

On the beer front, Goose Island headquarters are surprisingly commercial in a mall complex, but there are many rare pours on tap, unavailable outside the brewery. Popular Bar Deville might have been a bar I’d recommend with actual vintage bar and classic cocktails, but the screaming, body-to-body din on a weekend ensured I got out of there after one round. I’m sure it’s a far better experience on a weeknight.

Here are more Chicago standouts and newcomers in the bar world.

The AVIARY, West Loop

An evening at The Aviary is more experiential than about a certain drink or the setting. Having written about Aviary this past fall, the most forward-thinking and experimental “bar” in the country (there’s nothing like it overseas either), this time I’ll just share a few photos from my return visit to hint at the culinary and molecular influences (the Achatz touch) on Charles Joly’s ever-fascinating cocktail menu.

Steeping cocktails

Steeping cocktails

Cocktails set alight

A boozy, meaty cocktail drunk from the horn - a pairing for neighboring Next restaurant's "The Hunt", meat-centric menu

A boozy, meaty cocktail drunk from the horn – a pairing for neighboring Next restaurant’s “The Hunt”, meat-centric menu

OWEN & ENGINE, Logan Square

The Shrubbery at O&E

Perhaps my favorite find this visit is Owen and Engine, a gastropub-esque restaurant/bar marked by Old World British elegance (dark woods, gold-framed paintings). Cicerone Elliot Beier (who is working on his master cicerone certification) was one the early cicerones in the world so his beer knowledge and selection (on tap, bottled and hand-pulled – “Real ales on the engine”) is impeccable.

But he’s also handy with the cocktails ($9-10), serving refreshers like Sage Advice (St. George Terroir Gin, lemon, ginger sage syrup, orange flower water, and a couple variations on a classic Pimm’s Cup (a lively one with Pimm’s No.1 Cup, Fentiman’s Rose Lemonade, lemon, pink peppercorn tincture, cucumber, mint, rose water). I was drawn most to the deep spiced smokiness of The Shrubbery: Monkey Shoulder Scotch, five spice shrub, lemon, Old Fashioned Bitters; and fascinated with the bitter, bright layers of Wounded Swede: Bols Genever, Bonal Quina, Malort (which some call the “most disgusting liquor of all time“), Cherry Heering (cherry liqueur), orange bitters.

Welsh rarebit & pretzel

While I’d return for a full meal, bar food is above-average, whether crispy mole pork rinds ($5) or Virginia peanuts ($3) tossed in Sriracha, Worcestershire and brown sugar. Fondness for the UK treat, Welsh rarebit means whenever I see it on a menu, I order it. Plus it’s divine with beer. O&E’s Welsh rarebit is rich blend of aged cheddar, Worcestershire, horseradish, and Young’s Chocolate Stout. There’s a soft pretzel glazed in mustard and Young’s Chocolate Stout ($6) to dip. I’d be hard pressed not to order this fantastic bar dish every visit. Desserts intrigue with savory notes, like parsnip pot de creme ($8), accented by blood orange sorbet, pistachio financier and parsnip chips.

THE SAVOY, Wicker Park

Hamachi crudo

The newer Savoy is an ode to all things seafood and absinthe. I’d happily return to the back bar for coconut red curry mussels ($12) with ginger, lemongrass and kaffir lime or fresh Hamachi crudo ($12) with grilled pineapple in red onion marmalade and sesame chili oil.

Cocktails at the Savoy

It’s a noteworthy bar because of creative cocktails and generous, Euro-centric wine, absinthe, spirits, bottled beer, and French cider lists. Cocktails ($12) are categorized under “Savoy Classics”, like the less common Corpse Reviver # 1 (# 2 is most often seen) mixing Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, Tennyson Absinthe and Leopold’s apple cordial. A section of “Modern Cocktails” intrigues, particularly a tart, herbaceous, umami-laden In Yusho We Trust, a vibrant blend of Bols Genever, Fernet Branca, Greek liqueur Skinos Mastiha, bitter lemon, and a savory crushed nori (seafood) rim. I particularly enjoyed a refreshing Clandestine La Bleue: Clandestine Absinthe, Appel’s lemon cordial, coconut, egg white, ideally contrasted with lemon flake sea salt.


Gypsy jazz

Listening to live gypsy jazz while congregating around a massive, rectangular bar makes for a romantic date night in the historic Wicker Park building housing Trencherman. I didn’t try their food and not all cocktails ($11) enthralled, but I appreciate friendly bar staff and their classic sensibility and simplicity (like the two-ingredient Japanese cocktail of Cognac and orgeat – almond syrup).

Ay, Caramba!

Tona Palomino heads up the bar, known in its 10 month existence for their pine needle-infused Dickel whisky, mixed in a Pioneer cocktail with Campari and citrus. They go the carbonated route with cocktails like Mull It Over (spiced Dolin Blanc vermouth, apple cider, red wine), which came off a bit muddled in flavor. A straightfoward Italian Buck fares better (refreshing, bitter, balanced) with Cynar, lime and ginger beer.

The most interesting was a Valentine’s drink special (as I was there that night), Ay, Caramba! Infusing Angostura 1919 rum with banana, mixed with almond liqueur and fresh nutmeg, it was the ideal dessert: not too sweet, textured, creamy.

BILLY SUNDAY, Logan Square

Drinking at Billy Sunday

Named after the itinerant American baseball player turned preacher, Billy Sunday was the hot (read: mobbed) new Chicago cocktail bar in my recent visit, having just opened one week before. Though still working out kinks, it showed the most promise in its tonics ($10) section with drinks like Kent: navy strength gin holding up nicely to house tonic, lemongrass, allspice and citrus. Against the Bliss is another refresher of Damrack gin, maraschino liqueur, lemon, and rose bitters, delightful with a melting scoop of tart rhubarb sherbet.

Carbonated treats

White dog often bores in a cocktail but works in In Word & Deed, foamy with egg white, sweet with quince, the dry tart of Ransom dry vermouth and finger lime tincture. More delicate than I would have liked, Son of the Crusta maintains a soft bitter from Cocchi Americano, though I wished for more lushness from Armagnac and Welsh nectar, balanced by lemon, rare Palo Cortado sherry, and Tempus Fugit’s fine Abbott’s Bitters. It feels first and foremost like a communal watering hole with the likes of Pisco Punch and snacks such as pigs ears ($7) and an SF trend in recent years (at places like Hog & Rocks, Blackbird): “things in jars” ($5-11), like smoked trout, rye and creme fraiche or duck confit, orange marmalade and oatmeal granola.

SABLE KITCHEN & BAR, Near North Side

Dreamy bacon jam

Though properly tasting through Sable Kitchen and Bar cocktails ($13 each) in my last visit to Chicago a few months ago, I did the rarity for me: returned for drinks from one Chicago’s best bartenders, Mike Ryan, in Kimpton’s Hotel Palomar.

This visit, a couple notable cocktails were Long Road Home (Sutton Brown Label vermouth from SF, Mezcal Vida, agave, lemon), a smoky, bitter refresher, and Eli Wallach (Pueblo Viejo Reposado tequila, Angostura bitters, Green Chartreuse), a spirituous, herbal, clean cocktail. A treat this time around was starters like oozing Wisconsin fried cheese curds ($7/12) in spicy ketchup glaze, and bacon jam and brie cheese on toasted baguettes ($14). I’ve had many a bacon jam, but this one shines, served in a hot, mini-skillet with brie, then slathered over toasted, thick bread.

ACADIA, Near South

Perfect Gins/Tonics/Limes

On a spaced out block of Chicago’s Near South neighborhood is the fine dining restaurant Acadia. The dining menu intrigues though pricey, while its sleek, white bar was a mellow respite on a Saturday night for cocktails from a thoughtful selection of small batch, artisanal spirits from around the globe. Cocktails ($13-14) are grouped in Forager’s and Hunter’s sections, the latter including classics like Whiskey Sours and Pimm’s Cups.

Maine Campfire (L), Rouge (R)

Cocktail ingredients fascinated but in a number of cases, didn’t quite coalesce into a standout whole. The style reminded me of the elegance and ingenuity of Carlo Splendorini’s cocktails at Michael Mina in SF, but not as seamless or memorable. One example is Rouge (meant to imitate a Napa Cabernet, served in a wine glass as Splendorini has often done over the years), it mixes Calvados Chateau du Breuil with essence (whether from tinctures, syrups or the like) of black currant, beet powder, eucalyptus, dill, coconut. I wish I could taste all those notes. Similarly with the smoky Maine Campfire mixes High West Rye, Los Nahuales mezcal, Cocchi Americano, a cedar, juniper, honey elixir and tobacco, juniper, cocoa nib tincture. The creative vision is striking, though I wish for less muted notes.

Acadia cocktails did shine in a lively twist on a classic Paloma: the Posh Paloma of Tequila Ocho Blanco, Combier Pamplemousse Rose and citrus intermingle with achiote, hibiscus, chipotle bitters. The star of the menu is Gins/Tonics/Limes, bringing dynamic flavor and a layered profile of complex Scottish gin, The Botanist, and house lemongrass tonic over kaffir lime and cucumber ice cubes.

BIG STAR, Bucktown

Big Star’s patio

Big Star needs no introduction in Chicago, with rowdy, packed crowds, late night hours and white light strewn front patio. The now common combo of American whiskey and tequila with simple cocktails ($7) like palomas, margaritas and bucks is not rare and noisy throngs are a turn off for those of us who like to savor their drinks with friends and conversation. But Big Star won me over with friendly, tattooed, mustachioed staff, consistently checking in to see how we were doing despite the mobs lining the bar. That alone deserves mention. Plus, a simple whiskey and root beer tastes pretty great at 2am with a greasy bowl of melting hot queso fundido ($8), dotted with chorizo and rajas poblano peppers.

Fascinating dessert delights in popsicle form at The Aviary

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags: ,

Wandering Traveler

Adams & Sangamon Park in the West Loop just a few blocks from The Aviary

Eating Through CHICAGO

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Incredible beer selection from The Aviary's Office (see 11/1/12 issue, "Wandering Traveler")

Last issue we journeyed through six newer cocktail destinations in Chicago – with a little food. This time, its food highlights from my recent Chi-town travels – sometimes with cocktails. Listing stand-out places or dishes, first I recap coffee, tamales and deep dish explorations.

Though Intelligentsia Coffee was launched here in 1995 by San Francisco transplants Doug Zell and Emily Mange, Chicago remains behind major cities in the coffee realm (even NYC, which was quite late to the third wave/quality coffee game, though latching onto it with a vengeance in recent years). I found myself having to drive 2-3 miles out of my way for a decent cup at spots like Edgewater’s neighborhood favorite, Metropolis Coffee, which roasts their own beans, or returning to a go-to of three years ago, Andersonville’s Coffee Studio (serving Intelligentsia) because I couldn’t find better. Chicago has many neighborhoods and downtown hubs needing to grow beyond the Starbucks phase.

Tamales Garibay

While I still haven’t dug as deeply as I’d like into Chicago’s oft-lauded Mexican food, whether hole-in-the-wall or upscale (I’m sorry, but much as I appreciate him as a TV/cookbook chef, I’ve been less-than-enthused with Rick Bayless’ restaurants in visits past), down the street from my brother-in-law’s place in Irving Park, I enjoyed hefty tamales at Tamales Garibay. Whether cheese with jalapeno or chicken mole, Alicia Romero’s tamales aren’t the best I’ve had, but they make a gratifying, cheap meal at under $2 each.

Deep dish at Lou Malnati's

As with any regional cuisine – one of my favorite subjects – when it comes to Chicago’s ubiquitous deep dish pizza, each time I’m here I visit a couple more raved about haunts, hunting for deep dish in the same league as Zachary’s or Little Star back home. Chicago is the source of this dreamy, cheesy interpretation of pizza, after all, but oddly enough I’ve yet to find a pie here remotely comparable to my top two Bay Area haunts, though it must exist.

Falooda at Spinzer

This visit I took in a classic, the original Lou Malnati’s, an atrocious mix of rubbery, cheap-tasting cheese and bland crust, and what had been recommended as a local’s favorite, the better-but-still-fast-food-quality (reheated slices and all) Art of Pizza. I’ve yet to find “my” Chicago deep dish but I will not give up.

SPINZER, West Rogers Park

The most exciting taste this trip was a Pakistani hunter beef sandwich from Spinzer on the dense Pakistani blocks of Devon Avenue. Part of the excitement was never having it before – in fact, it’s a rarity in the US, but West Rogers Park boasts a few sources for the sandwich.


Intrigued by this review in the Chicago Reader, I entered the dingy, humble shop. It was heartwarming witnessing Pakistani families sharing platters of food and kids downing Middle Eastern falooda (or faluda), which I couldn’t resist ordering since I’d never had it, an odd mix of cold vermicelli noodles, basil seeds, jello, tapioca pearls, ice cream and rose syrup.

Unforgettable hunter beef sandwiches

Hunter beef is the Pakistani version of corned beef, essentially a masala-cured brisket. If that doesn’t already make your mouth water, subtle notes of chile, jalapeno, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and garlic infuse the tender meat with complexity. Shredded amidst a crusty baguette, the sandwich is laden with onions, jalapeños, and a generous smear of mayo. Under $5, it’s a generous, garlicky, laden with heat and flavor. I’ve been craving it ever since. San Francisco has a concentrated Pakistani/Indian community, particularly in the Tenderloin. If only a few knowledgeable souls would start serving Hunter beef sandwiches, I’d be oh, so grateful.

RUXBIN, West Town

Ruxbin's cool design

Ruxbin stands out as the most ambitious of my recent Chicago meals. The tiny space exudes personality, a mish-mash of styles: old theater chairs made into lamps, an artistic cookbook showcase lining the wall. Chef Edward Kim’s mix of Asian cuisine and French technique is an East-meets-West ethos that reminds me of home, typical of restaurants in SF and LA. Though a Chicago native, Kim attended NYU, Le Cordon Bleu in Los Angeles, and worked at Thomas Keller’s Per Se, exhibiting influences from the coasts and his Korean roots – a style that is of-the-moment, even comforting, though portions are delicate.

Artful, delicious tuna dish

Using locally-sourced produce when possible, some dishes work better than others but those that did made an impression. Dainty bits of raw tuna ($14) are punctuated with horseradish, zucchini and smoky bonito flakes drizzled in miso-carrot puree and citrus vinaigrette – a beautiful range of flavor. Grilled octopus ($12) alongside fried chickpeas almost surpassed the tuna, earthy with black soybeans, radishes, roasted grapes, and ginger scallion vinaigrette. Roasted, pickled and shaved beets ($12), housemade ricotta and greens, though a common presentation in today’s dining world, was perked up by crispy pistachio praline, pumpernickel, white anchovies, and orange segments.

Lamps made from theater seats

Buttermilk fried quail ($13) with miniscule cubes of watermelon and tomato “salad”, watermelon pickles, basil and mint felt like a pale shadow of other quail dishes I’ve had this year at SF’s incomparable State Bird Provisions, for one, or of other watermelon tomato salads, like the one at Tavernita below. Garlic fries ($5) with chipotle aioli were near perfect and needed filler after small portions, while an entrée of duck breast ($28) was appropriately rare and juicy accompanied by baby greens, shaved fennel, snow peas and orange in a mustard vinaigrette, the crowning glory of the dish being a dessert-like zucchini bread, dissolving dreamily in the mouth.

"Pretzels & beer" for dessert

I’m not used to nicer restaurants being BYOB (surprisingly common in Chicago), so we sadly ate intricate dishes without any wine pairings. House dry lavender and passion fruit sodas ($4) at least assuaged the summer heat outside. A pretzel and beer dessert ($9) took the form of doughnut holes oozing chocolate with a scoop of beer-milk sorbet topped with a pretzel. A pleasing end to an ambitious dinner.

Note: no reservations taken – the space is tiny and waits are long. We arrived 20 minutes before opening at 5:30pm, immediately seated, noticing those right behind us weren’t seated until we left. Also, don’t miss the bathroom. That’s all I will say on that.

ARAMI SUSHI, Ukrainian Village

Arami's retreat-like space

Arami, a retreat-like sushi haven in hip Ukrainian Village, is to date, the best sushi meal I’ve had in Chicago. Prices add up, as at most worthwhile sushi restaurants, but under sloped, blonde wood ceilings punctuated by skylights, with seamless service, silky fish and a solid sake selection, it’s a memorable Chicago meal.

Arami robata

Though there’s donburi and noodle sections, I stuck mostly to fish, enjoying uni shooters ($5), ebi (shrimp) chawanmushi ($8), live hotate (scallop) sashimi ($8) brightened by a spritz of yuzu and Japanese sea salt, a chef’s choice sashimi platter ($35), and one of just a handful of rolls available, like hirame (fluke) and spicy tako (octopus) maki ($13), rolled with ginger in a Fuji apple dressing. Robata (skewered bites from the grill) pleased, such as corn grilled in miso butter with togarashi mayo, or tender tsukune (chicken meatballs – $4) contrasted by pickled pearl onion.


In a few short years, Kuma’s Corner is already a Chi-town institution – self-proclaimed as “harshing our mellow since 2005” (misspelled as “melow” on their website). This big hair, 1980’s-spirited rock bar is a dive serving what many claim to be Chicago’s best burgers (naturally) named after old school metal bands from Megadeth (topped with chorizo, red potato hash, pico de gallo, cayenne avocado cream, tortilla strips) to Black Sabbath (cooked in blackening spice, topped with chili, pepper jack, red onion).

Kuma's Iron Maiden burger

I’m told waits can be long for a burger, but late one night, ‘80’s rock blaring (naturally) while the cooks complimented my retro sundress (necessary on sticky-humid September nights), my medium-rare Iron Maiden burger ($13) arrived quickly. The 10 oz. patty was properly pink and juicy, topped with what felt like over half an avocado, cherry peppers, pepper jack cheese and chipotle mayo. At midnight after a delicate gourmet meal at Ruxbin, it tasted like a hunk of heaven. There’s also a heaping $12 pile of bacon bleu cheese fries.

LONGMAN & EAGLE, Logan Square

Dreamy gougeres

Longman & Eagle is one of those all day hipster gastropubs with a solid cocktail menu (all $8), fine selection of American whiskey (bourbon, rye, corn, wheated – with $12-20 flights of 3), craft beers (12 on draft, including Midwest favorites like Bell’s Oberon and Three Floyds Pride & Joy), and all-around gourmet comfort food from chef Jared Wentworth. Though open all day, they won’t seat you between the lunch and dinner switchover due to staff changes (?), so be prepared to wait at the bar if arriving early.

Cauliflower roasted with lentils, caramelized onion, golden raisins, mango, drizzled in cucumber raita

The hipster gastropub, farm-to-table, whole animal/nose-to-tail approach is old news in cities like my own, so though Longman & Eagle is not unusual, it does what the best gastropubs worldwide do: offers something for everyone, from casual-gourmet food to quality in every drink category. Cocktails ($8) are artisan and straightforward, like The Cut of Jib, a Zaya rum and Noval ruby port base, layered with the fall-spiced notes of Snap liqueur, bright with lime and Tiki bitters, or The Chicagoan, a sweet, boozy, bitter mix of Punt E Mes sweet vermouth and Wild Turkey Rye whiskey with Cynar, Malort, salt, and angostura bitters. A Rye Tai sounds like a great idea with Jim Beam rye, Curacao orange liqueur, Gosling’s Black Seal rum, orgeat (almond liqueur), lime, Angostura bitters and mint with an absinthe rinse, but lacked the hoped-for layers of a perfect Mai Tai (which are hard to come by).

Chanterelle agnolotti

Despite sometimes miniscule portions, pasta dishes are delicately layered, both a chanterelle agnolotti ($12) with corn, pea tendrils, shaved Grana Padano cheese and truffle on top, or ricotta gnudi ($9) accented by cider gel, baby fennel, sweet Cicely (an herbaceous plant in the anise, caraway family) and toasted hazelnuts in a braised cippolini onion vinaigrette with celery froth. Both showcased layers of tastes and textures, despite a fussy number of ingredients. One of the more satisfying, generous entrees was a vegetarian dish of slow roasted cauliflower ($17) over beluga lentils, savory with caramelized onion, sweet with golden raisins and mango, creamy-fresh in cucumber raita. The most memorable bite goes to warm cheese gougeres ($7) oozing Gruyere Mornay, a creamy Béchamel cheese sauce.

Desserts - a highlight at Longman & Eagle

Desserts ($9 each) were consistently interesting. Though wishing I could taste more menthol-laden Fernet in the Fernet Float (made with a house Fernet soda phosphate and chocolate sorbet), a sweet corn churro with vanilla sweet corn pudding exhibited the appropriate contrast from saffron air, dulce de leche and shaved cinnamon. 1987 is a dessert of white chocolate lime “biscuit”, passion fruit mousse and raspberry, the highlight being a dollop of curry frozen yogurt, cool and blissfully intense with curry.

BLACK DOG GELATO, Roscoe Village

Black Dog Gelato

My number one ice cream recommend in Chicago to date is Black Dog Gelato in laid back Roscoe Village. After working on the pastry side at the now defunct Scylla under Top Chef’s Stephanie Izard, Jessica Oloroso sold her gelato and sorbets through restaurants before recently opening her charming shop. Fresh flavors of the day are handwritten on cards attached by clothespins to a line behind the counter, with pleasures such as sesame fig chocolate chip, coffee basil, rosemary Irish cream, Oreo mint, salted peanut, and blueberry French toast. There’s also whiskey gelato bars on a stick, dunked in milk chocolate, rolled in bacon. Sample as many flavors as you can before deciding. It will be a tough decision.


Pleasant House

On Chicago’s crime-ridden South Side, the neighborhood of Bridgeport is a burgeoning mix of artists and hipsters: where gentrifying often seems to begin. On one block, there’s Bridgeport Coffee Company, Maria’s Packaged Goods, a fantastic beer/spirits shop with a back dive bar serving craft cocktails and beer, and quirky Pleasant House Bakery, like a ‘70’s-looking British pie shop meets locally sourced, hipster eatery. You can eat in, take out or bring home pies with cooking instructions (I did all of the above).

While waiting for pies, I enjoyed perusing garden and farming books highlighting Midwest farmers I’m not as familiar with, some of them sources for Pleasant House ingredients. Most importantly, they perfect flaky, buttery pie crust at $7.95 per individual pie, filling enough for one. You can’t go wrong with a classic British steak and ale pie of all-natural beef, ale, carrots, and herbs, or curry chicken Balti pie, but I enjoyed the fresh, green warmth of mushroom kale pie, laden with kale, scallions, white wine, herbs, and Parmesan cheese. Cold pork pie ($10) is an interesting, classic direction to go, gelatinous but not unappealing with cold pork pate and aspic.

Pleasant House also serves Cornish pasties (stuffed with steak and potatoes), fresh salads, buttery mint peas, a Scotch egg, daily changing specials (like bangers, burgers, fish & chips), mashed potatoes, British chips (fries) topped with skirt steak, gravy and aged cheddar. Amen.

TAVERNITA, River North

Tavernita crudo

Tavernita was not quite what I anticipated when exploring the website menu. Partly chosen because of its late weeknight hours and cocktail menu, ideal for flying late into Chicago, it was an oddly clubby, loud dining room, its cool design bordering on slick.

It wasn’t quite the food and cocktail haven I’d hoped for though there were a few highlights. Kegged sangria ($10) disappointed, both in red (Tempranillo, Hennessy VS Cognac, orange, grapefruit, Mallorca melon tea syrup) and white (Albarino, Orujo, peach, orange oil, tarragon). Both felt muddled, more like juicy, indistinct mash-ups. Though I had a similar experience with their barrel aged cocktails, individually made cocktails fared better, particularly a vibrant One-Thumbed Gypsy ($11), a mix of Leblon cachaca, red pepper and saffron syrup, lemon and Moroccan bitters.

Cocktails at Tavernita

While I was disappointed in a weak Coca de Setas ($14.50), flatbread topped with mushrooms, caramelized onions, chevre, herb salad (SF’s Gitane historically has served among the best coca I’ve had), and with overly doused crudo, like Faroe Island salmon ($12.50) in piquillo peppers, olives, charred onions, sherry vinaigrette and marcona almonds, I found Greg’s meatballs ($15), rounds of Wagyu beef and pork in hazelnut romesco sauce, heartwarming.

Tomato y Sandia salad ($11) is an all-too-common gourmet presentation of heirloom tomatoes and compressed watermelon, but I appreciated Tavernita’s presentation. Instead of artfully dotted around the plate as I’ve seen a dozen times before, big chunks of tomatoes and watermelon are cubed and tossed together in a bowl with grilled Gulf shrimp and pickled jalapeno in lemon vinaigrette. Their version was a breezy salad, reinvigorating the combo, evoking late days of Summer.

Unique paella

The most interesting and ambitious dish was a paella special ($20 for a fairly small portion), which changes daily. A twist on the Spanish favorite, the rice was black with squid ink, dotted with cuttlefish, enlivened by lime crema and Fresno chilies. A surprising paella, if perfected it could be superb.


Fabulous Freddie's

Thanks to a tip from Charles Joly at The Aviary, who grew up eating here, I found Fabulous Freddie’s. And Fabulous Freddie’s is fabulous. Locavores and those of us concerned about where our meat comes from will balk at huge portions of meat all under $8 – some items, like a slab of gravy bread filled with shredded roast beef is a mere $1.35. This can’t be good news since it (should) cost far more than that for ingredients.

Nonetheless, this family owned eatery, since 1990, is everything you hope for from this style of food, appropriately capturing the spirit of Chicago’s South Side. Maybe it’s my Jersey past and the number of close friends I’ve had over the years from the South Side, but the senior, Tony Soprano-type guys hanging out here with giant meatball subs and Styrofoam cups full with watermelon and lemon Italian ice, transported me straight to Brooklyn, Hoboken, and other East Coast haunts.

Craving Freddie's breaded steak sandwiches

But this being Chicago, Italian beef is the name of the game, shredded thin and unadorned on a loaf of ciabatta bread. Even a small Italian beef sandwich ($4.85) is big. My heart belonged to their breaded steak sandwich (baby breaded was plenty big enough at $6.25): beef tenderloin breaded and served on loaves doused in sweet-savory marinara sauce. With a storm passing through on an early September afternoon, I sat outside blissfully filling up, then cooling off with Italian ice, breathing in the humid air, transported straight back to my teen years East.

BIG JONES, Andersonville

Fried green tomatoes

Reading Big Jones’ menu online, a relaxed Southern restaurant in the cozy Andersonville neighborhood, I felt as if I’d found my dream restaurant. Detailed descriptions of Low Country dishes, a Southern-specific house charcuterie selection listing spicy tasso ham and Acadian andouille sausage smoked over pecan wood, and a 1933 Boarding House Lunch ($16 per person for multi-courses including biscuits, red beans and rice, and fried chicken cooked according to the great Edna Lewis’s recipe in fresh leaf lard with butter and a ham hock), reminiscent of Mrs. Wilkes‘ in Savannah, made this a must-visit from a long list of possibilities. Clearly, Big Jones has more than a passing interest in and knowledge of Southern food.

Big Jones charcuterie

Granted, I was only able to visit at lunch but my anticipation made it all the more disappointing to find most dishes distant from my Southern favorites. House ginger beer was delightfully ginger-heavy, and they deserve kudos for only serving sustainable seafood and using whole animal butchery, not letting any part of the animal go to waste. But the charcuterie ($5-6 each), even typically flavor-packed boudin rouge, was surprisingly bland, as were limp fried green tomatoes ($8), one-note despite accents of creamy egg salad and pickled shrimp. Gumbo Ya-Ya ($7), failed to gratify despite a dark roux, chicken and sausage.

Big Jones welcoming space

Smothered pork shoulder ($12) fared better, tender and smoky in South Carolina mustard sauce (my favorite BBQ meat and top two for sauce styles). A Beaufort, South Carolina, shrimp burger recipe ($12) with typically vibrant chow-chow, was a dry, while their classic chicken and dumplings recipe from 1920 ($14) was banal in terms of flavor, with minimal dumplings, far from the doughy, hefty beauties my mother used to make from scratch. The menu is a loving, respectful ode to the South and service is heartfelt, making me still want to respect Big Jones.


Michigan raspberry glazed donut

The biggest let down of my recent Chicago meals came at Nightwood in the hipster Pilsen neighborhood on the city’s gritty South Side. Hipster definitely describes this place, renowned for its brunches with typical long waits. I made reservations well in advance, yet that didn’t save us from a cold, blasé host at the door and a table in the back corner by a noisy kitchen. Likewise, popular house doughnuts ($5 each) were not as gratifying as they sounded, whether bacon butterscotch or a Michigan raspberry glazed, white chocolate custard-filled donut topped with cacao nibs  – oh, for more nibs to provide earthy contrast to the too-sweet doughnut.

Spit-roasted animals cheesesteak

A side of Butcher & Larder maple bourbon sausage ($4.50) was juicy and comforting, while a meager portion of Ligurian ravioli ($14) filled with butternut squash, dotted with bacon, amaretti crumbles, pinenuts, Parmesan, in a runny egg and maple butter, though an Italian classic (which I can’t get enough of when in Italy), felt oddly out of place with the rest of the brunch menu. It was “spit-roasted animals” (all locally sourced) – shredded chicken, rabbit and duck – served Philly cheesesteak-style ($14) in a hoagie bun filled with Vickie’s peppers and onions and 8 year cheddar that it made it worth trekking here for. Every element was perfect, from soft-yet-crusty bread to tender meat laden with earthy cheese. I’d order one again in a heartbeat.

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:

Wandering Traveler

Maria’s Packaged Goods’ comfortable back bar in Chicago’s South side

The Latest in CHICAGO Cocktails

Photos & article by Virginia Miller

Murky steeping of the chai cocktail

For years it seemed no one could talk Chicago cocktail bars without the subject centering almost solely around Violet Hour. Though I preferred cocktails and service at the Drawing Room, there wasn’t the selection of artisan cocktail bars three years ago that there is now. The following six places are all new since my last visit to Chicago, all with solid to exemplary drinks. Honorable non-cocktail bar mention goes to Delilah’s, a punk rock dive that gets too noisy and crowded but boasts one of the best whisk(e)y lists around, and also to the unexpected, laid back Northdown Cafe & Taproom with its thoughtfully-selected draft beer list.

Next issue I’ll focus on Chicago restaurants, including cocktails with dinner at Tavernita and Longman & Eagle.

The AVIARY, West Loop

Joly’s Midnight Mary muddled tableside with liquid nitrogen

Chicago chef Grant Achatz’ cocktail bar venture, The Aviary, is truly all that. As the one bar I’ve ever considered flying out for when it opened, it was with excitement I finally visited this September. With the wise choice of Charles Joly (formerly bar manager at my old favorite Chicago cocktail bar, Drawing Room) just hired as The Aviary’s bar manager, I was able to catch an early peek at what he’ll be bringing to the menu.

Much has been said about The Aviary, which, much like Achatz’ already legendary Alinea, is unlike any place in the world, a cutting edge exploration of what is possible in adventurous taste. The neutral-toned room with dramatic, high-back couches is chic though less stuffy (and oddly more club/lounge-like) than I anticipated. Service is extremely knowledgeable and attentive without being overbearing, even if dance club music feels off.

Amuse bouche “shots”

Bartenders work behind a cage-like wall off the bar’s entrance, a well-orchestrated kitchen of bar chefs prepping dishes before you. There is no bar to sit at but rather a standing room area by “the cage” where patrons mingle next to tall tables, though for full enjoyment of drinks, I’d go with the main room.

Aviary’s chic room

An amuse bouche shot of Ramazzotti amaro, pisco, lemon, and Grand Marnier in slushie form confirms this will be no typical bar experience. Surprises include an impressive beer on draft and by bottle list (particularly the full list from the more casual, downstairs, invite-only bar, The Office), including Mikkeller Texas Ranger Chipotle on draft ($12/$6) and Beer Geek Breakfast by bottle ($12/6) or Ommegang’s Art of Darkness ($25 bottle). Spirit flights will cost you ($90-150), but some of the finest American whiskies are featured, like seven Evan Williams Single Barrels from 1996-2002 at $90, the entire Pappy Van Winkle line, from 10-23 years, including the fantastic, rare Rye, at $150, and most impressive, my beloved Parker’s Heritage line ($140), all rare and limited edition: Cask Strength, 27yr, Golden Anniversary (the ultimate), 10 year Wheated, and Cognac Barrel. They also hand-chip ice, a common practice, but not as it’s done here – from a 5 foot by 3 foot massive block.

Celery, from the tasting menu (front), Watermelon (back)

Aviary cocktails are unlike anywhere else – each an experience, hardly conveyed by a list of ingredients. The menu changes seasonally, with Joly fusing a bartender’s eye with what was formerly a chef-created drink menu. At roughly $17-22 a cocktail, or a separate $45 tasting menu allowing three cocktails of your choice, it’s actually a deal compared to some of the world’s best-rated cocktail bars in London and New York where I’ve had average or below $20+ cocktails, overpriced versions of what is often done better for far less. At Aviary, that price delivers one-of-a-kind drinks not replicated elsewhere. I tried the prix fixe and individual cocktails, all fantastic except for one: a surprisingly bland chai cocktail ($21) of St. Germain elderflower, saffron, Olmeca Altos tequila blanco, grapefruit, chai, apricot, bourbon, dramatically presented in a see-through canteen, murky like an undersea experiment.

Smoking stave infuses tequila, amaro, Cognac cocktail

Everything else was a stunner. Watermelon ($17), galangal root and gin intermingle over slowly dissolving Peychaud’s ice balls, imparting a blissful bitterness. A boozy Rob Roy ($19) arrives sealed in a plastic bag filled with lavender air, the air subtly infusing Pedro Ximenez 1985 sherry and Black Bottle scotch: simultaneously bright, refreshing, smoky. The already raved about Midnight Mary # 3 ($20), one of Joly’s first additions to the menu, is worth the hype, calling on the herbaceous, garden side of a Bloody Mary, with skinned cherry tomatoes, basil and aquavit served tableside over muddled, liquid nitrogen basil.

A Rob Roy served in a bag sealed with lavender air

From the prix fixe, each drink chosen was a pleasure, starting with Celery, a lively melange of honeydew, Riesling wine, Green Chartreuse. I moved on to Bitter, the glass served on a piece of smoking barrel stave from Heaven Hill distillery, the smoky, woody aromatics mingling with a lush mixture of Amaro Nonino, Olmeca Altos tequila blanco and VS Cognac poured into the smoked glass. Dessert was likewise unforgettable. Cold Dark Chocolate is served in an angled glass, one side fitted with a menthol ice cube, the drink itself a combination of Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey and oleo sacchrum (a mixture of lemon oils and sugar) topped with warm marcona almond foam. Awakening the mouth with alternating warm and cool notes, the cube releases mint into the chocolate-citrus subtlety of this sexy drink.

Dreamy dessert of cold dark chocolate under warm marcona almond foam with slowly dissolving menthol ice cube

If only I could have tried every cocktail on the fascinating menu, which tasted as good as it looked. No surprise: with the Achatz stamp and his coveted restaurant Next through a door in the middle of the bar, Aviary’s mini-bites (sets of 3; $3-6 each) are almost destination-worthy on their own. Flavors explode and pop, dissolve and open up, whether it be tender Wagyu beef dotted with smoked paprika, pumpkin seed and yogurt, or smoked whitefish vivid with lemon, rye, onion. Foie Gras, rhubarb, lavender and pumpernickel interweave into one brilliant bite, while passion fruit, sable, pastry cream, coffee and mint join forces for dessert.

The Aviary is not only the top possible cocktail and gustatory experience in Chicago, but as forward-thinking and exciting as it gets anywhere in the world.

Aviary bites are packed with surprising layers of flavor

BALENA, Lincoln Park

No. 6 on the bitterness level

Some of the best drinks and bites of this Chicago visit were at what is also one of Bon Appetit’s Top 50 Best New US Restaurants, Balena. From savvy, knowledgeable owner Philip Walters (he and John Ross own Balena and The Bristol), comes a unique cocktail menu (all $11). I’ve not (yet) seen an amari, bitter aperitif cocktail menu rated by bitterness level anywhere else in the world – brilliant idea. Though the bitter profile has been a preferred staple of the San Francisco gourmand’s palate for years, I wish we had such a menu.

On a scale of 1-10, classic, common Negronis and Americano cocktails are rated a five. On the subtle side is Strawberry no. 1, a rosy, pink/red combo of Dimmi, Grey Goose vodka, Fragoli strawberry liqueur, La Marca Prosecco, topped with a wild strawberry – a soft, sweet intro to the bitter. I prefer the still refreshing, slightly bitter, herbaceous treat of Manlino no. 3 using Aperol (the bitter), lemon, lime and soda with St. George’s one-of-a-kind Terroir gin.

Excellent Pina no. 9, vividly bitter with Amaro Sibilla

Sweeter Amaro Montenegro is balanced in the No. 6 with Nolet’s floral gin, Bitter Truth grapefruit bitters and orange peel. I adore Cynar – here it shines, lush and dark, in Dark & Stirred no. 7 with Bitter Truth’s EXR (a bitter herbal liqueur), Benedictine and Angostura bitters. Without intending to be so obvious, my favorites were the most bitter: Pina no. 9 (extremely bitter but elegant Amaro Sibilla mixed with Corzo Reposado tequila, Cointreau, grapefruit and a sage leaf) and Fib no. 10 (Amaro dell Erborista, Ransom Old Tom gin, pink grapefruit and basil). Both are mouth-puckeringly bitter, full of life, yet sophisticated with layered balance.

The most bitter: Fib no. 10

As a restaurant, Balena serves what is an all-too-common menu in San Francisco and other cities: Neapolitan, blistered pizzas, authentic pastas and plates evoking travels in Italy, an extensive all Italian wine list, and a handful of craft beers. Pizzas like the spicy sausage, red onion, tomato, mozzarella pie ($15), or a Tuscan kale “Caesar” ($10), tossed in a dressing laced with tonnato and sardines, are heartwarming and expertly prepared. Besides the cocktail menu, what sets Balena apart is a striking, sexy space with white lights twinkling from vaulted wood ceiling, affable service, and a basket of Peter’s Bread ($6). Impeccable bread is a given, not a rarity in my city, but Chef Peter Becker’s (previously of the Peninsula Chicago and Charlie Trotter’s) breads manage to stand out. Besides crunchy tomato crostini, orange-anise grissini, sage-lavender and carrot multigrain breads, it’s a sweet-sour chocolate cherry sourdough that leaves an impression, a unique interpretation of a prevalent bread. With the excellence of everything tried at Balena, I’m eager to return.


The Firebelly

Since Maria Marszewski’s sons, Ed and Mike, took over her dive bar and liquor store in 2010 (open since 1939, Maria has run the place since 1986), Maria’s Packaged Goods is known among local industry folk as the South Side craft cocktail haven in the up-and-coming Bridgeport neighborhood. It’s also a craft beer lover’s dream with eighteen fascinating beers on draft, with your choice of six available as a flight. A tiny, front liquor store is packed with craft beers and spirits for sale, hand-selected by Ed and Mike.

Maria’s beer, spirits & cocktail haven

The dive bar in back is everything you hope it will be: open all day and late into the night, comfortable, with taxidermy and unpretentious charm. Cocktails are damn good, too. There’s boozy pleasures and classics-driven drinks, while a drink like Firebelly ($9) stays with me long after I leave: Old Fitzgerald bourbon is mixed with blanco tequila infused by neighbor Doc Jones’ with habanero, lime, demerara sugar and cherry bark bitters, garnished with Luxardo Maraschino cherries. Like a glorified Lime Rickey, it’s tart, lively, spicy, sweet with bourbon caramel notes.

SABLE KITCHEN & BAR, Near North Side

Sable’s memorable Short Circuit

Chef-turned-bartender Mike Ryan (he also tended bar at the Violet Hour) makes Sable Kitchen and Bar a shining Chicago cocktail destination in Kimpton’s Hotel Palomar. Sable’s thoughtful, detailed cocktail menu is broken down in themes from aperitifs and martinis to cocktails for “comfort” or :thinking” (all $13). The range and quality easily makes it one of Chicago’s strongest cocktail menus.

Sable, a cocktail lover’s hotel bar

Take, for example, the intensity of Short Circuit, with cachaca, manzanilla sherry and Kalani coconut liqueur, it’s made complex and savory with Bitter End Curry Bitters. I’ve been craving this spicy, clean joy ever since. Another is Speaking in Tongues: my beloved Del Maguey Mezcal Vida is lush with Luxardo Amaro, vivid with lemon and strawberry, spanking fresh but not sweet, the mezcal adding a welcome slatey smokiness.  Going off menu, Ryan served me Scotland Yard, a boozy, bitter, peaty beauty served in a frosted glass of Cynar, Springbank 10yr Scotch and lemon. Whichever direction traveled, I’m delighted with each path.

SCOFFLAW, Logan Square

Scofflaw’s comfy, retro setting

Only open since early spring, Danny Shapiro and crew have already confirmed Scofflaw as Chicago’s gin sanctuary, though you can venture into other spirit territory, too. An amuse bouche of 209 Gin, Gran Classico, lime and Azul reposado tequila makes for a vibrant start with gently bitter finish, while Bols Genever shines in a Weatherby Cocktail of honeybush bitters and Bonal’s Gentiane-Quina with soft quinine bite.

Sipping gin cocktails at Scofflaw

A Chartreuse Swizzle-esque inspiration uses Death’s Door’s fantastic gin with Green Chartreuse, housemade falernum (a spiced syrup of almond, ginger, clove, etc…), Plymouth Sloe Gin, lime, and Peychaud’s bitters, accented by a rosemary sprig and juniper ice sphere. Gin’s herbaceous layers are illuminated in such cocktails, while engaged bartenders keep the vibe chill and refreshing as the drinks.


Barrelhouse Flat’s Victorian-era upstairs lounge

Valuing friendly service in The Barrelhouse Flat‘s casual downstairs bar and particularly upstairs in the Victoriana setting on comfy, velvet couches with a thankfully subdued noise level, cocktails didn’t always hit the mark – and I tasted eight of them amongst family I visited with. An in-depth classic cocktail menu is the way to go, whether a Mint Julep, refreshing on a muggy Chicago summer night, or boozy whiskey-based classics assuaging long winters.

Venturing into the new list ($11) was where the let down came, much as I wanted to try what was distinctive to their bar. CK Dexter Haven, a nod to Cary Grant’s dashing character in one of film’s all-time greatest comedies, The Philadelphia Story, called out to me. Death’s Door gin, Cocchi, jasmine syrup, Cruzan Blackstrap rum, Peychaud’s, honey, lemon, house lemon-yuzu bitters and mint sounded like too many ingredients but I was optimistic it might pull together. The icy muddle lacked focus, too sweet on top, mildly bitter and tasteless throughout.

Barrelhouse creations

On the classics menu, David Embury’s Maxim put things back on track with Rittenhouse rye, Carpano Antica vermouth, creme de cacao and Angostura bitters.

Snacks are playful, like pig face poutine ($13) or ham and tobacco onion deviled eggs ($4 per egg). While sugary cotton candy ($5), changing daily (grape on my visit), isn’t exactly an ideal cocktail pairing, it’s an interactive dessert with friends on couches in the dim, drawing room of Barrelhouse Flat’s romantic upstairs.

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags: ,

Wandering Traveler

CHICAGO, Part Four

Back to Chicago… neighborhood by neighborhood, in a multi-part series, I’ve been covering some haunts during my last visit. Here’s my three previous columns on Chi-town.


A glorious Hot Doug’s spread

Hot Doug’s – So much has already been said about this fairly recent addition to the Chicago dog landscape. I thankfully got to try about 8 dogs here and they were all awesome, though specials change regularly. And they can be wild. Even if you don’t want foie gras on your dog (I did: Foie Gras/Sauternes Duck Sausage is topped with foie gras mousse, truffle aioli, fleur de sel – $9), there’s something for literally everyone. I’m itching to try a new addition to the menu: Jack Daniels/Fennel-smoked Pork Sausage with roasted yellow pepper anchovy sauce, hickory-smoked sweet Swiss cheese – $7.50).

Foie Gras (foreground) & Apple Gouda Sausages (background)

These are goopy, loaded, all-American dogs, not gourmet chi-chi or even European-style sausages, despite some of the ingredients. Whether going international (Spicy Thai Chicken Sausage with Sriracha mustard/seaweed-sesame salad – $7.50), humorous (The Salma Hayek – $4, a “mighty, mighty, mighty hot!” Andouille Sausage, formerly the Madonna, the Raquel Welch, the Ann-Margret…),or straight-up traditional (The Dog – $1.75), the price is reasonable and Doug himself, a welcoming guy… cheerfully patient with the crowds swarming his place.

Hot Doug’s exemplifies what Chicago’s about. Oh, be aware that by 11:30am, even on a weekday, you’ll already be waiting at least 30 minutes to get in. Good thing I made friends with locals in line. And it’s much further out than you think it’s going to be, nowhere near the El. Take a cab or drive.


Nhu Lan Bakery’s Bahn Mi

Nhu Lan Bakery – One of the better Bahn Mi’s ($3.25) I’ve had comes in house-baked French rolls (it was a pleasure watching them brush butter over rolls as they slid them into the oven) at this non-descript hole-in-the-wall (note: that charming, European-looking structure on their website is NOT their building!) I took the El way north to the Lincoln Square area solely for the purpose of trying these babies which intrigued me from a mention in Time Out Chicago. The area is more suburban-looking, with lawns for everyone. And the area is lucky to have such a tasty, cheap meal.


Andersonville’s Coffee Studio

Ann Sather’s famed cinnamon rolls disappoint me, lard-heavy and what exemplified incredible baked goods in the 1970’s but don’t hold up quite as well now… but Andersonville is one of my favorite Chicago ‘hoods. With a Swedish and Norwegian spirit, the family vibe and charming, cafe and shop-lined street recalls my  longtime home of Noe Valley here in SF. But there’s other influences present, characterized in humble spots like Middle East Bakery & Grocery with tasty warm, mini pies (tried Spinach & Feta and Artichoke & Syrian Cheese – $1.75).

•  The Coffee Studio – Probably the best cup of coffee I’ve had in Chicago, it’s Intelligentsia Coffee, which I’ve had prepared well numerous places both in its native Chicago and LA. Coffee Studio does their espressos right with a knock-you-over strength and fine crema on top. It’s housed in a modern, brick-walled storefront next to charming antique and vintage decor shops.

m. henry’s Blackberry Bliss Cakes

•  m. henry – This place is darling, if there ever was a proper time to use the word: an old country storefront modernized with ‘shabby chic’ white wood pieces and gold, lower-case lettering. The back patio is funky, playful and welcoming. The food, however, despite raves as best brunch spot in many circles, is just alright.

It’s definitely a good brunch but upon ordering uber-popular Blackberry Bliss Cakes ($8.95), I suffered sugar-overload from drenched hotcakes in blackberry syrup and vanilla mascarpone cream. I wanted more of that brown sugar oat crust and less of the sopping mess my bottom pancake turned out to be (as my photo clearly displays). Jorge’s Black Bean Cakes & Eggs ($8.75) are decent, with chipotle sour cream, but not particularly memorable. It’s all about the setting.


Vietnamese Coffee, beignets & morning jazz

I stayed in a friend’s incredible loft right in the heart of trendy, hip Bucktown, a mere two blocks from Violet Hour. Disappointment came with mediocre sushi at Coast, and at Rodan, an Asian bistro/bar that intrigued with a brunch menu offering the likes of beignets with Vietnamese coffee (the first bland, the latter lukewarm, too sweet, inauthentic). What I did love at Rodan, however, was a big screen on the back wall playing jazz/big band “music videos” – nice to chill to Ellington as you’re waking up. Too bad the food doesn’t keep up. Sultan’s Market was an affordable little falafel shop and Middle Eastern deli in the ‘hood. Here were my favorites in Bucktown:

•  Violet Hour – The majority of cocktail raves in the city of Chicago center around this refined but youthful bar (refined but for weekend crowds descending rowdy and obnoxious from Illinois or Wisconsin suburbs). It certainly ushered Chicago into the artisanal, classic cocktail realm, though bars like this exist by the dozens in NY or even SF. I find fewer in Chicago of this caliber.

Herbaceous goodness at Violet Hour: Green Chartreuse, Peychaud, Angostura, lemon, lime, pineapple, Velvet Falernum, fresh mint

I visited Violet Hour a couple times (love the name, from a dreamy Bernard DeVoto quote found prominently on their home page). The first was a Friday night with annoyingly long wait, a doorman who let a group of shouting girls who looked about 18 and seemed wasted already, enter ahead of a long line of patient twosomes. Not was I was hoping for at supposedly a classy, cocktailians hang-out. Had it become too popular for its own good? Yes, is one answer to that question. Once we finally entered the graffiti-ed, signless door, we enjoyed our cocktails but Violet Hour fell well below my favorite Chi-town cocktail haven, The Drawing Room.

Thankfully I returned to Violet Hour, for a quiet couple hours at the bar on a Sunday at 5pm. What a difference! I made friends with those sitting next to me, fellow lovers of good food, drink, cities and unexpectedly, literature and poetry. I savored stimulating conversation paired with excellent drink and service… Stephen Cole was a top-notch bartender.

Too dim to get photos of the interior, here is one from www.avclub.com

Generally around $12, my first visit entailed Zarzamora, Wild Turkey 101, Fernet, blackberries, house orange bitters, and Hush & Wonder, a refreshing blast of Matusalem rum, lime, Creme de Violette, grapefruit. It was better the second time around when I let the bartender choose. My favorite was a layered  but unfussy mix of Green Chartreuse, Peychaud, Angostura, lemon, lime, pineapple, Velvet Falernum, fresh mint – herbaceous, grassy, fresh. In tribute to my home, he served a Manhattan with Fernet (SF has long been the highest consumer of this bitter Italian digestif), Carpano, Luxardo cherries.

After this visit, I could warrant the fuss more. It’s still not my favorite bar in the country by any means, but I’m glad I got to experience the skill of its bartenders and the savvy of its regulars. Just go early…

Caramel Stout Milkshake at Hot Chocolate

•  Hot Chocolate – I went for a decadent three-course dessert one night and fell in love. The place is bustling, youthful, but noisy and crowded for my tastes. All was forgotten when I took my first bite of a Dark Chocolate Souffle Tart ($11) with salted caramel ice cream and pretzels. Salty/sweet perfection. Try to finish a sensual, lush dark Hot Chocolate ($6 – with a hint of caramel, or available in white or milk chocolate, with espresso, Mexican chocolate style or over ice – something for everyone!)

A Stout Caramel Milkshake ($6) with cookies mixed the malty taste of stout with ever-present caramel. Divine decadence all around. You’ll see why owner, Mindy Segal, has won multiple Outstanding Pastry Chef nominations at the James Beard Awards.


•  Miko’s Italian Ice – This guy rocks, sitting alone at a humble little window off a tree-lined street, scooping up ice flavors of the day.

I visited three of Chicago’s popular Italian ice spots this last trip but Miko’s was by far my favorite.

A tart, simple Lemon reminds me of East Coast Italian ices and Banana with Chocolate Chips is just fun.


Wandering Traveler

CHICAGO, Part Three

The artistry of Alinea... Pork Belly with cucumber & Thai distilliation in a glass

The artistry of Alinea: Pork Belly with cucumber & Thai distillation in a glass

Back to Chicago (part one here; part two here)… the city remains much as I remember it from earlier visits: gritty, even at its “prettiest”, middle America in a big city/New York-reminiscent package. It doesn’t woo me like San Francisco or New Orleans, nor secure my eternal loyalty as NYC does, but it’s the only real city in the middle, as far as I’m concerned. Here I eat hearty and well, surrounded by locals who are welcoming, rough around the edges, good-hearted. Neighborhood by neighborhood, in a multi-part series, we’ll cover some of my haunts during my last stay.


Cocktails at the amazing Drawing Room

Cocktails at the fabulous Drawing Room with Charles Joly & Tim Lacey

•   The Drawing Room at Le Passage – I’m a huge fan. This is pretty much my favorite cocktail destination in Chicago. Ignore the clubby Le Passage side, check in with the bouncer, and walk downstairs for an underground haven of fine mixology and artistic precision. Charles and Tim are brilliant bartenders: gracious, knowledgeable. Tell them your favorite spirit and let them make you what they will – deliciousness ensues. Or order from a menu full of spirituous pleasure.

•   NoMi – It’s all about the view. I didn’t eat here – it’s a pricey one, well-lauded but with such a high tourist following, I’m not sure how much of it is inflated. I did enjoy picturesque giant windows overlooking the Water Tower and a big city rooftop deck, ideal in the Summer for lingering with a drink.


Stunning Seafood Custard at Alinea

Stunning Seafood Custard

•   Alinea – What can be said that hasn’t already been said about this molecular gastronomy destination and its brilliant, young chef, Grant Achatz? It would be an injustice to try to do a complete review in an already busy list of favorites, and you can certainly read about it everywhere or note its Zagat perfect 29 rating. I will confirm that you’ll pay a fortune (starting at $150 a person). The atmosphere is chic, refined, but not particularly noteworthy (other than a long, empty hall with door that mysteriously opens as you approach). Service is impeccable. As for food, be prepared to taste and see that it is good.

Bubble gum, long pepper, hibiscus, creme fraiche shooters at Alinea

Bubble gum/long pepper/hibiscus/creme fraiche shooters at Alinea

From a smoke covered table enhancing a perfect little square or near rare Waygu beef and its otherworldly partner of  a creamy whipped potato square covered in crispy potato chips, to a lavender pillow that softy deflates under your dish, the effect and spectacle on the table does not overshadow the sheer pleasure of taste. That seafood custard rich with cream, duck, Fall-redolent spices..? Unbelievable. If only I could have one of those hanging, candied bacon strips (crisped in butterscotch, apple and thyme) now.  When dessert is a flavor profile of chocolate, blueberry, tobacco and maple, you know you’re eating from the hands of a genius. Don’t even get me started on the smoking Sweet Potato Popover in bourbon, brown sugar, cinnamon.

Bourgeouis Pig

The Bourgeois Pig

•   Annette’s Homemade Italian Ice – A beloved Italian ice window on a charming, walkable stretch of Armitage. It didn’t hold up to my fave NY Italian ices, nor even to my tops in Chicago (which I’ll tell you about when I get to the Wicker Park ‘hood in a future Wandering Traveler). But on a sticky, humid Chicago day, it cooled me off nicely.  There’s flavors like Pina Colada, Watermelon, Black Cherry and Georgia Peach.

•   Bourgeois Pig – Yes, it’s Rachael Ray recommended (which they advertise via large banner outside), and in a burbs-reminiscent area of Lincoln Park, but this cafe has that boho spirit that inspires one to sit and journal with a house chai or cappuccino. Look for a pig and the Eiffel Tower, head into a weathered, charming brick building, then up creaky stairs to the living room to curl up on a couch or sit by the window and daydream.


Mochatini at Uncommon Lounge

Mochatini at Uncommon Lounge

•   Uncommon Ground has become an institution since 1991, with the original Wrigleyville location just a couple blocks from Wrigley Field. It’s basically an all-things-t0-all-people mix of coffee shop/bar/cafe/art & live music venue/restaurant. I was drawn in on a blazing hot game day for a drink, appreciating the creative sound of their cocktail menu. The vibe is casual cafe, but I have to say service on my visit was well below lackluster. It took forever for anyone to even glance my way, much less talk to me… it seemed there was one guy doing everything from mixing drinks to serving tables to running back to the kitchen. And he appeared none too happy about it. That being said, it’s a mellow place to read or write, they serve their own house coffee (spiked or otherwise), organic everything, and cocktails could be anything from Neal Cassady’s Coffee ($9, madagascar vanilla bean house-infused Jim Beam whiskey, Black Cat double espresso & steamed maple cream), to a desserty-strong  Mochatini (yes, an atrocious name, but sounded intriguing enough to try) made with house-infused Intelligentsia coffee Rain vodka, Omanhene chocolate syrup, cream, served up with chocolate sauce drizzle and coffee beans. They’re far from the best artisanal cocktails around, and it’s not a destination, but if you’re in the area, it’s a good place for a break.

Julius Meinl

Julius Meinl

•   Julius Meinl – Once again, would not mention it as I found each coffee I tasted too sweet or weak, basically not for the coffee connoisseur. But what I did like about this popular Austrian cafe, is that it reminded me of cafes in Austria, with lovely tea sets and coffee trays, red and yellow settees on which to linger with Viennese coffees, teas, jams and pastries.

•   Bobtail – Far from gourmet, incredible SF ice creams like Humphry Slocombe or Bi-Rite, and not comparable to divine old school greats like Mitchell’s, still, what charmed me about Bobtail was the darling, vintage ice cream parlor decor in creams and pinks, striped walls, sundaes piled high. Located in the cool Lakeview neighborhood, flavors like Peanut Butter Chip are playful, but one can’t help but think that flavors like Signature Sunset (merlot with dark chocolate chips – rather bland) or Lakeview Barhopper (Dutch cocoa with Jack Daniels – the latter of which which you could barely taste) could have been excellent in the right hands.

Unbelievably good jerky & Iowa mustard from Paulina's

Unbelievably good house jerky & Iowa mustard from Paulina's Meat Market

•  Paulina Meat Market – Ok, this one pretty much wowed me. Like a bustling, spacious East Coast deli with a clearly Mid-West heart (and hearty portions), this sea of offal, wild game, sausages, turducken and head cheese took me straight to meaty heaven. The house bacon is more fat than meat… and it’s divine. Their fresh, tender jerky? Pretty much the best I’ve ever eaten. I’m dreaming of it now.

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:

Wandering Traveler


“Chicago sounds rough to the maker of verse. One comfort we have – Cincinnati sounds worse.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1880

Avec's box-like dining room

Avec's box-like dining room

Back to Chicago, where my husband once lived for a Summer (part one here). The city remains much as I remember it: gritty, even at it’s “prettiest”, middle America in a big city/New York reminiscent package. It doesn’t woo me like San Francisco or New Orleans, nor secure my eternal loyalty as NYC does, but it’s the only real city in the middle, as far as I’m concerned. Here I eat hearty and well, surrounded by locals who are welcoming, rough around the edges, good-hearted. Neighborhood by neighborhood, in a multi-part series, we’ll cover some of my haunts during a recent stay.


Near where I stayed in South Loop, this area is rife with Chi-town hot spots, including the swarmed duo of Avec and Blackbird next door to each other.

Bourbon Pork Porterhouse at Sepia

Bourbon Pork Porterhouse at Sepia

•   Sepia is what I call the whole package, in a chic, gorgeous 1890’s print shop, retaining cameras and brick walls from those days, with stunning sepia-toned photography on their website, walls, coasters. The whole package is proven by cocktails alone, keeping up with better bars in this town. Sitting in the bar with appetizers and cocktails is a fine way to spend an evening. Maybe you want a New World Old-Fashioned ($11): roasted squash infused 1792 bourbon, ancho-spiced maple syrup, smoked cocoa tincture, muddled orange and brandied cherries? I know I did. Under shimmery chandeliers in the artistic, loft-like space, each course tastes better than the last, from Duck Confit mini-Flatbread ($6) with fig-black pepper jam, to a hefty Bourbon Pork Porterhouse ($26) with cherries & grits.

La Quercia Prosciutto, Ricotta & Peaches Salad

La Quercia Prosciutto, Ricotta & Peaches Salad

•   Avec – It’s been so over-hyped, I was skeptical. Nevermind that I had to go at 4:30pm to avoid the screaming, sardine-packed din and eternal waits witnessed the first night I peeked in. The slick wood box of a space is merely a backdrop for what is known to be ultra-fresh, seasonal food of high quality… kinda like many Bay Area restaurants. I found each dish I tried tasty and lovingly plated (in a reasonable $9-21 range), though not unlike what is highly common where I live. There were a couple missteps: a bright Panzanella (bread) Salad with dried cherries, grilled Vidalia onions, fennel, mustard greens, was missing even a drop of the feta it was purported to have. A picturesque La Quercia Prosciutto plate ($20.5) was loaded with impeccable ricotta and greens, but peaches were actually hard. Hard as a rock. I did not expect this kind of misstep in a place Zagat rates a 27 for food, but maybe I’m spoiled by quality of ingredients in Northern California. Still, this was in late Summer so there’s no excuse for that in a place of this caliber. Only Coffee-braised Pork Ribs ($12) with a bright slaw were addictive and seamless. At least on this visit, it all bordered on greatness but didn’t quite achieve it.

Drinks at Blackbird

Drinks at Blackbird

•   Blackbird – A sister restaurant to Avec (and it’s next door neighbor), this sleek, nearly all-white space could be sterile if it weren’t for thoughtfully placed floral arrangements and gracious staff. I wish I ate a meal here but there wasn’t time. It’s still worth mentioning for its high reputation in Chi-town and as sitting at the bar for drinks was worthwhile. Their cocktails change seasonally ($12 each), and if not the best I’ve tasted, a creative freshness leads the way. Examples from their current menu: December Morn with Hendricks Gin, Luxardo Maraschino, Cherry Brandy, Lime, Egg White.

Egg Nog "3 Leches" at Bombon

Bombon's Egg Nog 3 Leches

•   Bombon Cafe – A playful bakery with pastries, tacos and tortas, I went out of my way to stop in  for their wide range of Mexican cakes and sweets. They’re known for 3 Leches Cake (Tres Leches, more accurately, but, hey – that’s what they call it!) I tasted a number of these moist and delightful mini-cakes. Traditional and Egg Nog were tops, but Pina Colada and Mexican Caramel are fun.


•   Lovely: A Bakeshop is truly that… lovely. A darling, open space, filled with modern art in a homespun, thrift store, country-kitchen spirit, it’s a happy place to sip, what else? Chicago’s own Intelligentsia coffee over a book with delectable baked goods.  Their housemade fruit jams (I like Peach Rhubarb) are worth taking home.


Bar seating at Lovely

Bar seating at Lovely: A Bakeshop

Despite throngs of tourists and massive chain stores, there’s an elegance to the Magnificent Mile. Stopping for local Vosges Truffles is a Chicago treat: Absinthe & Black Pearl (ginger/wasabi/sesame) truffles rock. I remember old days in this area when I’d dine at classic red sauce Italian, Rosebud. This time, I finally made it to Frontera Grill. I actually had my reservation at Topolobampo, where I certainly preferred to go. But, going alone for this meal, I ended up making friends with others waiting in line who invited me to join them. I didn’t realize till after I sat down that it was Frontera, not Topolobampo as they both have the same host desk, just different sides of the restaurant.

Frontera's Appetizer Platter

Frontera's App Platter

Yes, Rick Bayless won Top Chef Masters last year and seems like a sweetheart. I’ve always gleaned from his passion for Mexican food, watching him create lovingly prepared dishes on TV. Maybe I joined in too late in the game, but I found everything from a margarita (I paid more for better tequila) to the appetizer platter to steak tacos, not as good as I expected. All fine, but not memorable. I’ve grown up with such amazing Mexican food in California and this meal did not stand out.

Frontera highlight: perfect Elote

Frontera highlight: perfect Elote

I couldn’t help but feel it bordered on mediocre.  Oddly enough, the highlight was a perfectly grilled, sweet, crisp corn on the cob (Elote) with the traditional mayo and chili elements done tastefully and with a light hand. It was a small side note yet the one part I’d crave again. But… I’ve also had lovely Elote here at home and the meal overall felt like a cranked up chain restaurant with better ingredients. Maybe I should have gone to Topolobampo.

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:

Wandering Traveler


“Hog butcher for the world,
Tool maker, stacker of wheat,
Player with railroads and the nation’s freight handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of big shoulders.”

– Carl Sandburg, “Chicago,” 1916

156Back to Chicago, where my husband once briefly lived, my first visit in nearly a decade. Certainly much has changed, yet the city remains much as I remember it: gritty, even at its “prettiest”; middle America in big city, New York-reminiscent form. No it doesn’t woo me or haunt my dreams, like San Francisco or New Orleans do, nor secure my eternal loyalty like New York, but it’s the one true city in the middle, as far as I’m concerned, and here I eat heartily well, surrounded by locals who are welcoming, rough around the edges, genuine.

Neighborhood by neighborhood, in a multi-part series, we’ll cover some of my favorite haunts during my recent stay.


The first neighborhood I took up residence in, the trek via bus up Michigan Ave before even hitting the El is a long one. I felt somehow far from the city center, central as it is. It was the best locale, however, from which to see the new wing of the Art Institute or classical concerts (Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with full choir) in Millennium Park.

Pimientos de Padron at Mercat

Pimientos de Padron at Mercat a la Planxa

• Pretty truffles and cool gelato on a hot Summer day made Canaday le Chocolatier my favorite little sweet stop in South Loop. Gelatos are simple and candy-sweet, rather than tasting of the freshest of fruit as Italy, or even SF & NY’s best gelatos do. But I found their Pomegranate and Blood Orange tartly playful.

•  A Chicago institution, Manny’s Deli serves one kick-ass Corned Beef Sandwich ($10.95).

•  Mercat a la Planxa is a spacious, chic hotel restaurant right on Michigan Ave, one of the few less touristy restaurants on that stretch. With friendly service, though lackluster sangrias (both I tried were disappointing), the food is authentic and deftly prepared. Catalan-inspired cuisine includes plenty of charcuterie, quesos, tapas, and larger plates. A traditional Pimientos de Padron ($5) satisfied, the fried green peppers perky with salt. A Serrano Ham & Fig Salad ($8) is ultra-fresh spinach greens with salty ham, spiced almonds and sherry vinaigrette. 


A feast at Lao Sze Schuan

A feast at Lao Sze Schuan

•    Lao Sze Chuan came highly recommended as the one place worth going out of the way for in Chinatown. Ideal for a group, we were seated around a large table upstairs in the bustling restaurant, tucked out of the way in this desolate, spread-out part of Chinatown. For not a lot of cash, six of us were fed with plenty of food left over. Being Szechuan cuisine, it was a full blast of spice and heat, especially the famous “Chef’s Special” Dry Chili Chicken, loaded with blazing peppers. That was my favorite dish, along with a mild, but expertly fried Salt & Pepper Squid.  I can’t say I was much excited beyond those two but none of it did me wrong.  Many say it’s hands down the best Szechuan spot in Chicago, along with its sister restaurants.


Cappuccino with a view at Artopolis

Cappuccino at Artopolis

•   Though the staff at Artopolis Bakery & Cafe seem bored out of their minds, it’s a charming spot for European-quality cappuccinos and an Artopita ($7.95) for breakfast or lunch. The stuffed phyllo disk comes warm on your plate from a cafeteria line. Sit preferably upstairs overlooking the street for a quiet respite. I tried the ham and kasseri cheese version: warm, gooey, filling. This is Greektown’s most beloved bakery and a welcome cafe in which to linger (if you don’t mind cheesy Euro dance music playing).

Concerts in Millennium Park

Concerts in Millennium Park

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:

Site Admin | Log out | Theme: Aeros 2.0 by TheBuckmaker.com