Thursday, November 18, 2010

Intoxicating Vanilla

One of my favorite childhood memories was watching my mother bake. And perhaps even more enjoyable were the scents that wafted out of the kitchen. Sometimes my mom allowed one of us kids to help her with some simple task, such as pouring a spoonful or two of vanilla extract into whatever batter she was mixing.

Even as a child, the scent of that vanilla was intoxicating. The simple act of unscrewing the cap on the dark brown bottle released its heady perfume. I’d been tempted to drink the stuff, so appealing was its smell, but either my mother talked me out of it or I was suspicious of its dark, syrup-like appearance.

These days, I’m still tempted to drink the stuff—or to eat a vanilla bean whole—but I no longer find the stuff suspect whether it’s in solid or liquid form. All that matters is that it be pure.

Like so many other things, Americans are discovering that pure foods have more flavor than their artificial counterparts. Some years ago, many a prudent baker might have eschewed pricey pure vanilla for its cheaper, imitation counterpart. Well, not any longer.

And there are options available today that weren’t widely available even a dozen years ago. When I was a kid, only vanilla extract was available. Currently, you can find dried beans from any of the four spots vanilla is grown: Mexico, Madagascar, Indonesia and Tahiti. Vanilla from the former two is considered superior, while that from the latter two is generally weaker in flavor and fruitier. For an aromatic and flavor-packed addition to a dessert, whole beans can be shaved or ground over ice cream, cake, fruit or added to whipped cream for an aromatic and flavorful addition.

The story of vanilla reads like an epic novel, with idiosyncratic aristocrats, an enterprising slave, bandits, tycoons, Aztec kings and simple farmers. Vanilla, which originated in Mexico, is grown successfully in only a few areas of the world. Produced from the dried pods of a flowering orchid vine, vanilla is as difficult to cultivate as it is tasty. For an enlightening read on the history of vanilla, check out Tim Ecott’s Vanilla.

If you’d like to get some pure vanilla extract or beans, you can find them at many grocery stores. And some of the premium extracts, such as Nielsen-Massey’s (one of the largest purveyors of pure vanilla and located in suburban Chicago) can be found at Williams-Sonoma or on-line. Another good source is the Spice House or many Whole Foods locations.

While vanilla is one of the priciest flavorings in the world, most people involved in the business of growing, buying and selling the beans aren’t making much money. One of the reasons vanilla is so costly is because each flower must be hand pollinated, a tedious and intensive task which is largely performed by farmers who live a simple existence. It’s the painstaking process of growing, drying and shipping this extraordinary, flavorful bean that makes it so expensive—but ultimately worth it.

Photos Courtesy Vanilla-Trade



Monday, August 23, 2010

Want the Largest Farmer's Market in America? Head to Madison.

Most people think the largest farmer’s market is somewhere in California. Or perhaps New York City. But it’s not.

The largest farmer’s market sits in the center of the country, smack dab in the middle of one of its most interesting cities: Madison, Wisconsin.

And the setting actually makes sense because the Dane County Farmer’s Market is surrounded by the largest concentration of organic farms in the country which means there’s plenty of tasty produce and food products from which to choose.

But small scale and organic farmers aren’t the only vendors filling the wide sidewalks that circle Wisconsin’s towering capitol building (which is just a few feet shorter than the U.S. Capitol after which it was modeled). Hmong and Swedish farmers, venison and grass-fed beef vendors, and dozens of other food producers fill the block.

Held on Saturdays from April through November (when it’s much reduced in size and moves indoors), the market boasts over 300 vendors, with around 150 participating during the weekly market.

Farmers markets have become so trendy that some less authentic versions and, well, unsavory vendors have gotten into the game. (Telltale signs?—bananas, out of season fruits and veggies, or perfectly packaged items.) Thankfully, Madison’s farmer’s market prohibits re-selling. If it’s for sale at the market, then it was grown or made in Wisconsin.

Market days resemble a giant outdoor party more than a market. Corn on the cob, tacos, pad thai, gyros, and many other prepared foods can be purchased from food carts. Sometimes there’s even beer (this is Wisconsin, after all.)

While foodies might swoon or stumble given the incredible array of fresh produce, flowers and locally-crafted food, they just need to be sure to follow one rule: move counter-clockwise.

That’s right. Given the enormous flow of pedestrian traffic at this mega-market, everyone walks around the Capitol Square in a counter-clockwise direction.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Rift Valley’s Otherworldly Soda Lakes: Recreating an Out of Africa Experience

There’s a singular moment in the mid 80’s movie Out of Africa that’s always stuck with me. I'm not certain if Karen Blixen ever really did it, if she and Denys Finch Hatton flew a small plane over a shallow African lake thronged with brilliant pink flamingos, but this memorable bit of moviemaking made me hunger for a similar experience.

On my first trip to Kenya, I vowed to duplicate the trip. But with little time and no idea how to arrange such a trip, I had to rely on memories of the movie and my imagination.

On my second trip, though, my cousin Dan arranged for a plane to fly friends and me to the lake—though he made it clear that he found the movie sappy and stupid.

Lakes Bogoria and Nakuru—shallow soda lakes that serve as a wading pool for literally millions of lesser and greater pink flamingos—sit in the middle of the Great Rift Valley, the birthplace of man that cuts vertically and deeply across eastern Africa. The lakes can be reached via treacherous “roads” from Nairobi, but for purposes of recreating the movie scene, I needed to visit via plane.

In this former British colony, pilots for hire are seemingly as plentiful as wildebeests on the Serengeti. The country’s pilots are part Han Solo, part Indiana Jones. Some will take you on a deluxe tour, a roller coaster ride in the sky, with the great plains, Rift Valley, or coastal beaches of Kenya spread beneath you. I was interested in doing a flyover of Lake Bogoria, where the locals told me that upwards of two million flamingos were congregating and feeding on the abundant algae that grow in the alkaline-rich soda lakes. (It’s funny how Kenyans seem to know about these things: the weather on the coast, whether elephants are around and in which lake the highly social flamingos are congregating).

Dan made arrangements with a Tropic Air pilot named Buddy who was of broad grin, leathery skin, and a winning beer gut that barely fit beneath the plane's steering wheel.

Immediately after take-off, Buddy banked the plane and we passed directly over a perturbed herd of dusty elephants which pointed their trunks toward the sky. Instead of gaining altitude, we stayed low to the ground—probably between 50 and 100 feet. Heading west across grassy, acacia-dotted plains, I watched small herds of goats scatter. Zebra, giraffe, impala and ostrich raced across the grasslands below, stirring up clouds of red dust.

The windows remained open, allowing the grassy rich smell of the equatorial highlands to sweep through the plane.

Buddy steered the plane into a near dive as we head into a deep, narrow gorge that took us all the way down to the bottom of the Rift. I feared for my life, wondering if one of the strong currents racing down the gorge would smash us into one of the rock walls, but he rode the waves as if he were surfing.

Nothing prepared me for my first glimpse of Lake Bogoria. At first, the light-colored band along the edges nearest appeared to be beaches, but as we flew closer, small bands of white along the lakeshore became large swaths of pulsating, flying and wading pink birds.

In every direction there was activity. Birds wading, birds swimming, birds flying toward the center of the lake, birds flying toward shore, birds congregating on shore and birds scurrying in all directions—all a vibrant pink that contrasted sharply with the bleached out, dun color of the desert-like, volcanic ridges that cupped the lakes. Just a few million Greater and Lesser Flamingos, an occasional eagle, and our small plane—oh, and as I was to find out, some swifts.

As we glided along the shoreline, peering at the vista below, there was a sudden thud on the right wing. I waited for us to begin falling from the sky.

“Never had that happen before,” Buddy casually remarked. “That was a swift.”

Once I was assured we weren’t going to plunge to the ground, I was able to enjoy the ride again.

We followed the shore line of the cigar-shaped lake to its southern terminus and then Buddy banked the plane toward the eastern shore which was packed with more of the brightly colored birds. Here, sulfurous fumes from the springs and geysers far below crept through the cabin while rivulets of steam rose from the black volcanic rock. Flamingos flew in every direction and glided above the dark waters of the lake with wingspans that seemed as wide as our plane’s.

Flanking the lake’s eastern shore, the rocky, serrate escarpment that rises abruptly from the dark waters of Bogoria forms the arid, western extent of the mythical Aberdares (where Hemingway and the Price of Wales hunted) and resembles a lunar landscape.

We circle the lake a few times, but I never tired of watching the birds and the spectacle they created en masse: the unreal splotches of muted and dusty pink from a distance, and the constantly-moving, pulsating blobs and clusters of vibrant rose, cerise, and coral directly below us.

I struggled to compare the spectacle to something familiar, to some experience or something I’d seen somewhere. Sure it was familiar to me from the scene in Out of Africa that brought me there, after all. But as if often the case with movies, even an image projected onto a surface 35 feet wide and drenched in color can’t adequately capture the feel and look of the real thing.

You might be tempted to think of the lake as a giant bee hive—albeit occupied by giant pink, graceful birds—but, as we rode the air currents above the primeval body of water, I decided it resembled a school of tropical fish as much as the skies above a busy airport. In the end, I realized that such a spectacle of nature can’t really be compared to some fish or an airport. The lake really can’t be compared to anything at all.

When Buddy dropped my friends and me back at the airstrip, it was as if the movie had ended and the house lights had been raised. I was still trying to digest what I’d seen as the plane buzzed us before heading off to the south and Nairobi.

Though my feet were planted firmly on the red Kenyan soil, I felt as if I were still flying.

Details: Tropic Air pilots can pick you up at or near most Kenyan ranches and resorts (really, anywhere with an airstrip). http://www.tropicairkenya.com/

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Never Mind the Hype, Café Deux Magots Worth a Visit

Every city has its overrun tourist destinations. New York has the Empire State, Rome the Colosseum, and Sydney its opera house. And after these iconic sites exist a bunch of next-tier, but often similarly-overrun spots. While many travelers choose to avoid such attractions, some find enough authenticity in the spots to make them worth a visit.

Paris’ Café Deux Magots, one of the City of Light’s famous and historic cafés, is just such a place.

During a recent reading of Julia Child's biography, I was reminded of the Latin Quarter standby. Like the famous American chef, I consider the Left Bank café a favorite.

Child, who visited the café on her first Saturday in Paris, admired the morning sun striking the chimneypots of the city’s grand apartment houses while she and her husband ate buttery croissants and drank café complet.

Many tourists visit the institution for its history: Hemingway, Sartre, and hundreds of writers, artists, poets and glitterati sipped a coffee, wine or beer at one of the small wooden tables in the high ceilinged rooms indoors—under the sage gaze of two Eastern Magi statues—or al fresco at one of the even tinier sidewalk tables in traditional wicker café chairs.

Deux Magots has changed little since it opened in 1914, though its prices no longer allow for many struggling artists to visit. If you balk at paying inflated prices for breakfast, consider that your check includes entry to a historic destination as well an amusement park ride for adults. And unlike the rides at Six Flags, the experience here lasts as long as you’d like—you can sit at your table and sip your coffee or wine for twenty minutes or two hours.

And then there’s the food—the incomparable croissants and baguettes, the pastries, the eggs, but most of all, the coffee. Order it plain, as an espresso, au lait or a cappuccino and whatever you sip will rock your world.

Café-sitting in the Left Bank offers manifold pleasures. The world comes to Paris but the city seemingly could care less as its citizens ebb and flow along its streets like colorful, ever-shifting tides. Sure, you might see a movie star stroll past, but the real pleasure is observing life.

Sip a flavorful coffee and catch a glimpse of a dead ringer for Catherine Deneuve being led by three French bulldogs on the sidewalk and suddenly, eighteen euro for a continental breakfast seems a bargain.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Outdoor Dining Never Dull in Chicago


Chicagoans like to cram twelve months of outdoor living into four or five months. Is it any wonder we have so many spots to sip a drink or nosh al fresco? Here are some of my favorites (Let me know yours in the comments section below.)

For arguably the most impressive views in town (with lofty prices to match), Trump Tower’s Terrace offers close up and personal views of the upper reaches of a few of Chicago’s most famous landmarks—Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building. Views of the river, lake and fireworks (on Wednesdays and Saturdays) aren’t bad either.

Closer to the ground, it’s tough to beat Piccolo Sogno which has one of the most verdant, idyllic dining decks anywhere. Barely out of the Loop, this fine Italian dining restaurant is hardly your typical red sauce joint. The other night I took a friend from New York City here and she was so smitten with its pastoral charms that her allegiance to her native city seemed to falter.

For a more casual Italian option, grab a table at Enoteca Roma which serves Roman style pizza, pastas and other standbys featured at traditional Eternal City eateries. Division Street, with its ultra-wide sidewalks and effervescent pedestrian scene, is an ideal setting for this casual spot which offers both an expansive café and a private courtyard in back.

For scenesters, Sushi Samba Rio’s rooftop aerie offers music, crowds, music, views and tasty, unconventional food that merges Japanese cuisine and sushi with the culinary traditions of South America.

Not to be outdone, newbie Epic boasts the largest rooftop spot in the city—and perhaps even the world. Smartly designed, cavernous rooms offer agreeable indoor spaces in which to spend some time, but the rooftop which seems as large as a football field is where the action is during the summer months.

Finally, the concrete, cacophonous sidewalk café scene at Matchbox offers perfection in a cocktail glass and plenty of urban grit. Handcrafted cocktails were a mainstay here long before the term was coined, so look for expertly mixed classics and no-nonsense bartenders.

Okay, so these are some of my favorites, what are yours?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Yes, Good Restaurants Do Exist in Venice

Venice has notoriously bad restaurants.

With a constant stream of day-tripping and itinerant tourists, restaurants in this storied city can serve plenty of bad food without ever having to suffer the consequences. From uninspired, greasy pizza to bland ravioli, Venetian restaurants serve up fare better suited to an Olive Garden than the Veneto.

This sad state of affairs becomes downright dismal when you consider the wealth of incredible seafood and produce available within an hour’s gondola ride in any direction.

The good news is that there are a handful of restaurants hidden down twisting viali or on side streets that serve up fare that measures up to the city’s history, architecture and charm.

Tucked in the historic shipbuilders’ quarter which sits far from tourist-thronged Piazza San Marco, Corte Sconta serves succulent seafood in a fetching setting. So one night last summer nine of my family members and I set off in search of the spot.

“With such a large party I recommend that we bring you some of each of tonight’s specials,” our server explained. “And that way you get to try some of everything.”

Following our waiter’s suggestion meant that we avoided having to agonize over which of the fresh, seasonal dishes to order. Simply put, we got them all.

Our server also suggested a local pinot grigio. After a few bottles found their way to our table and glasses of the tasty stuff were poured, a parade of dishes began to appear from the kitchen.

For starters, there were some of the sweetest, most delicately flavored clams I’ve ever tasted. After these, platters of shellfish—shrimp, langoustines, crawfish and who-knows-what—arrived.

There was risotto. And steamed spider crabs which created quite a clamor. After that—or was it before?—platters of tender tuna carpaccio flavored with balsamic landed at either end of our table. Somewhere in the mix there was polenta, too. At least I think so. To tell the truth, I sort of lost track of all the different items that came and went.

Imagine our surprise, then—after this surfeit of seafood—when platters of freshly-roasted and sautéed fish showed up. Large platters.

We were all full, not to mention satisfied, but none of us could bear to see the beautiful fish wasted or to miss out on tasting what was meant to be the highlight of the dinner. And while it nearly hurt me, I tried each of the three different fish that were offered, and each was tender, fresh and full of flavor.

Corte Sconta would likely be popular if it served even average food. From the simple charms of the dining room to the elegantly subdued feel of the courtyard, the restaurant is as visually appealing as the city that surrounds it.

But most important, the restaurant offers food and an experience that’s as impressive and unique as the city itself.

Reservations are essential. In high season, call at least a few weeks in advance. For other restaurants in Italy with a traditional approach to dining, click here.

Trattoria Corte Sconta
Castello 3886, Calle del Pestrin (Arsenale)
Venezia, Italia
tel 0415227024 fax 0415227513
corte.sconta@yahoo.it

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

RIP, Maple Tree Inn's Convivial Charlie Orr


RIP, Charlie Orr, a Chicago treasure. This is a piece I wrote for the Sun-Times Group's Elite Magazine in April 2009.
Convivial Cajun from a Culinary Artist: Charlie Orr’s Maple Tree Inn
In Japan, if a citizen makes an especially important contribution to society or culture, that citizen is often designated a national living treasure. It’s a pity that America—and Chicago, in particular—doesn’t designate our own cultural and culinary gems as civic treasures because we’ve been blessed with so many.
In our neck of the woods, an easy inductee would be Charlie Orr whose Maple Tree Inn has been serving up sublime, full-flavored Cajun food for over 30 years. The effusive, jovial Orr is like a pied piper of good eating and good living, leading his family, friends and fans of the restaurant along a bucolic path of savory delights. A bon vivant, Orr appears to derive as much pleasure from cooking, eating and living as he does sharing his joy and inspiring others.
So how did a Chicago native begin cooking Cajun food so many miles from its origins in Louisiana’s bayous and the quaint rues of New Orleans—and this years before Paul Prudhomme and other Big Easy chefs made the cuisine as seemingly familiar to Americans as hot dogs?
The story is as meandering and full of happenstance as the Louisiana bayous themselves.
In 1975, Orr decided to take over a restaurant at 107th and Western. For five years, the self-trained chef and restaurateur played hopscotch across an imaginary culinary map of the world, with stops in southern and northern Italy, France and different spots in our own country. While experimenting with different cuisines and learning how to cook via videotaped shows of Julia Childs and trial and error, Orr finally stumbled on the cuisine for which he had an affinity.
Suffering the morning after a New Year’s Eve celebration, Orr wanted to find some menudo, Mexico’s unofficial hangover cure. Instead, he heard local TV reporter Warner Saunders mention red eye gravy which intrigued him. Venturing to the local library, he was pointed to a cookbook of classic Louisiana recipes by a helpful librarian who looked at him with a sly grin, he explains.
“What’s a big white guy like you want with a recipe for red eye gravy?” the librarian, who happened to be a Mississippi native, asked.
Little did she realize the instrumental role she would play in helping Orr find his raison d'être. Orr claims he read the cookbook in about four hours, turning to his wife when he’d finished.
“I think I found it,” he told her. “What I’ve been looking for.”
And within two weeks, Maple Tree Inn was serving Cajun food.
From gumbo to blackened chicken, the restaurant’s menu grew, ebbing and flowing as Orr explored and experimented. A Renaissance man, the novice Cajun chef endlessly digested experiences (oftentimes literally) and information which were ultimately used in the restaurant. Travels to southern France a few decades ago resulted in the creation of fixed price menus, while years worth of restaurant reviews by William Grimes of the New York Times emphasized the importance of customer service.
Currently, Orr keeps abreast of dining trends, incorporating many of his discoveries onto the menu, but giving them a decidedly Cajun spin. Pork belly, a recently popular “rediscovered” food which appears on many a Chicago restaurant’s menu, is spice-rubbed, while the Italian classic arancini, basically petite rice balls stuffed with cheese or meat, are created with etoufee risotto and crawfish. Shanks from small pigs are brined, smoked, and served plain or with a barbeque sauce glaze.
The tireless chef continues to create new dishes. Though he’s been improvising, creating and perfecting food for thirty-four years, the now full-blown, seasoned Cajun chef hungers to create the next perfect dish. Recently Orr has been working on a stuffed pork belly filled with sausage meat and creole spices. Having tried numerous versions of the dish, the perfectionist still hasn’t nailed it. But he’s in no hurry.
“It’s getting closer,” he explains. “But I’m not frantic. What we’re doing now is good.”
Maple Tree Inn has its so-called critics. The menu is ever evolving, so a sublime dish a diner experiences on one visit may not be prepared again for a year—or ever. And the restaurant is unforgiving when it comes to diners discovering that Cajun food can be flavored with unfamiliar spices or be just too hot: refunds or re-orders for either of these reasons are generally a no-go. Ever reasonable, Orr offers a compromise.
“I encourage diners to try a dish if they’re not sure. We always offer a taste.” But once a diner orders a dish, it’s theirs (unless, of course, the dish was not properly prepared—a rarity at the institution).
Orr’s passion for food is duplicated or at least mirrored when it comes to eating’s perfect and essential complement, drinking. Beer is probably as essential to Cajun food as spice, and spicy food very nearly demands a refreshing beer to cleanse, sooth and invigorate the palate. And so it is that the Inn offers an impressive 26 beers on tap, and nary a one from the big name brewers which the outspoken chef refers to as, well, something to do with a horse…
While the Maple Tree Inn emphasizes beer over wine, it does offer some special cocktails, such as a not-so traditional New Orleans hurricane made with real juices (and not a mix), a Creole Voodoo Zombie concocted with juices and three rums, and a madras mixed with mango rum, and orange and cranberry juices. A decent selection of well-priced wines is also available.
Orr also carries a social conscience into his restaurant, serving fair trade coffee and using many pure or all-natural products.
“It’s been a labor of love,” he says of his 34 years of cooking and hosting satisfied diners at the Maple Tree Inn.
Responding to an article he’d read that revealed that eighty percent of Americans don’t like their jobs, Orr marvels. Waxing philosophical with shades of the political, Orr theorizes that “if more people did the jobs they love to do, the country wouldn’t be in the shape it’s in.”
To him, making money isn’t the point. “I’m happy and content…it was never about the money.”
Does the current recession worry Orr, who is watching as other restaurants struggle with their bottom lines? Not really. The upbeat, restaurateur has created a number of recession-busting meals.
The first? An old fashioned Blue Plate special. Served on Wednesday and Thursday nights, the $14.95 special includes a choice of soup (Cajun or seafood gumbo or shrimp bisque), one of two entrées (which vary), peanut slaw, smothered okra and bread pudding with whiskey sauce. On the same nights, the restaurant offers BBQ ribs and fries for a mere $12.95 (dine in, only). And then there’s the French-inspired, nightly $22 fixed price meal of an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert.
“I want to make it easy for people to save a couple bucks and eat out,” he says.
Visitors to the restaurant are likely to see the jovial chef who likes to check in with his customers—albeit for brief moments and only when the kitchen experiences a lull.
“I’ve always believed you have to get out and see people,” he insists. “You can’t stay holed up in kitchen.”
Orr can’t stress enough what to him is the most important aspect of his life’s passion and pastime.
“The big goal is to make sure when someone walks through the door that they know we’re happy they decided to dine here.”
And whether you talk to Orr over the phone or over a table full of Cajun food, or you never even meet him but simply channel him through his well-executed Louisiana cuisine, you’ll undoubtedly feel wanted—and want to return. And you won’t be alone. After all, the Maple Tree Inn hasn’t opened its doors to Chicago metro area residents for 34 years without serving top-notch food and making diners feel welcome.
“It’s a passion,” Orr reminds me.
But I’d already figured that out.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Chicago's Nightwood Rocks

I can’t decide which is more impressive at Chicago’s Nightwood—the food or the woodwork. Seriously, I haven’t seen such impressive millwork since touring a Venetian palace last summer. From coffered ceilings to paneled walls in the bathrooms, this Pilsen restaurant not so subtly celebrates craftsmen—and that’s before you’ve even encountered the farm-centric menu and its celebration of food artisans both near and far.

Thankfully, the same level of attention is paid to food and drink as was devoted to the restaurant’s design.

Case in point: a stellar and thoughtful cocktail menu which shouldn’t be overlooked. For starters, the boozy American Beauty is made pretty by Hendricks gin, chartreuse, lemon and prosecco and the outstanding signature Old Fashioned is fueled by Bulleit bourbon, burnt orange syrup, brandied cherries and Wisconsin bitters.

I come from a well-established line of finicky Old Fashioned drinkers, so I can be a bit particular about this cocktail. I had no cause to be concerned, though, as the version here was lip-smacking good. The Sazerac, concocted with Jim Beam rye, Pernod, and bitters, was equally tasty and might just be my new favorite. (Note to bourbon lovers: Bet you can’t have just one.)

Starters and main courses reflect largely Midwestern foodstuffs and produce, with a smattering of ingredients from further afield.

Perhaps the best dish on my first visit was the seemingly humble Iroquois cornmeal served with gruyere, olive oil, a poached egg, herbs & mizuna. An eccentric choice for the main ingredient of a dinner entrée, the little-known cornmeal has a story of its own which was told in a recent New York Times piece.

But a good tale goes only so far—particularly in a restaurant—and the best thing about the cornmeal dish was its taste. Even a carnivorous dining companion proclaimed it “delicious.”

Artisan cornmeal is hardly the only item on the menu worthy of attention, though.

Friends and I also devoured deep fried Michigan smelts with green garlic mayonnaise—a dish that cured me of my ambivalence toward our local, freshwater version of sardines.

And speaking of green garlic, ‘tis the season to savor this milder, less bitter version of my favorite allium. As long as green garlic is available, there’s no telling where it’ll pop up on the menu. But if the ephemeral item is there and you count it as a favorite, order whatever dish it’s in.

Some other winning items?—Locally-sourced spit-roasted chicken with cornbread, dates, pecans and kale; Wisconsin trout, a mainstay at Lula, served with black beans, crème fraiche and pickled onions; and, Lake Superior whitefish with hominy, turnip greens, butter and herbs.

Not everything is local—shrimp and a few other seafood fly in from more distant destinations than neighboring states. But I haven’t tasted one dish that wasn’t well-executed and swirling with flavors.

House-made pastas such as vermicelli with, um, green garlic pesto and duck liver cavatelli with bacon, escarole, olive oil and sheep’s cheese rocked my world, but will likely evolve into something different next week or next month.

Food here is done so exceptionally well that skipping any course amounts to serious self-deprivation.

Friends and I scarfed down a serving of caramel bread pudding with vanilla anglaise—the best version of this insipid, frequently dull dessert I think I’ve ever shoveled in my maw. In fact, each dessert I tried was a Lilliputian, lyrical masterpiece of flavor and pastry artistry.

When designing the restaurant, co-owners Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds ensured it offered delights for our other senses, too.

The cellar and its communal table channels a subterranean Tyrolean beer hall. And a slick, private patio with a fireplace for cool nights offers a tempting alternative to the smart, inviting rooms of the restaurant.

Whether you eat indoors our out, though, you can count on well-executed dishes that bear the mark of chefs and servers that know what they’re doing.

From innovative dishes to deeply grained and glowing wood paneling, Nightwood rocks.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Down-to-Earth Idea at Lofty Everest

There’s probably never been a better time than the present to visit Chicago’s top-rated restaurants. Given the economy, even the best restaurants have made some changes—all designed to get us into their dining rooms.

At Everest, tucked into a lofty perch on the fortieth floor of a pink granite tower adjacent to the Board of Trade, Chef Joho is encouraging wine lovers to look to their own collections and choose a prized bottle to bring to the award-winning restaurant.

Joho’s “Cellar Celebration” affords diners the unique opportunity to dust off a favorite vintage 21 years or older, enjoy a custom-designed course to complement the wine, and learn about the wine’s history from wine director David Johnston.

“In this economy, many of our guests have been looking to gems in their own cellars rather than adding to their collections,” Joho said. "They have stories around the wines they've acquired, and we're looking to enhance that story by creating a custom course that complements that rare bottle."



What if you don’t have a fine vintage wine to bring to the award-winning restaurant?

Visit anyway.

The Midwest, with some of the most fertile farmland in the world, serves as breadbasket and produce bonanza while being rich with artisan food producers. Everest takes advantage of its location, sourcing plenty of ingredients from nearby farms and suppliers, and what it can’t find locally it imports from France, including a diverse and rare selection of Alsatian wines—the largest collection in the world.

While the cuisine served in the hushed, thickly carpeted salons is decidedly haute, Chef Joho ensures that dishes reflect his own style and approach. Oversize tables set far apart offer privacy and a feeling of spaciousness that’s amplified by the stellar views of the glittering skyline and surrounding neighborhoods.

Offering a menu reminiscent of the finest Michelin-rated restaurants in France, Chef Joho creates well-executed meals such as filet of veal tenderloin with a fennel crust or pork cheeks with poached veal tongue. First courses and entrées—often inspired by Joho’s native Alsace—are frequently sourced from fine local, small-scale producers. The menu, as with all fine restaurants, is seasonal and, therefore, ever-changing.

For example, one locally-sourced dessert, a Michigan cherry compote with pistachio glacée, joined standard finishing course selections such as a chocolate or Grand Marnier soufflé and a selection of award-winning Midwest cheeses (the delectable soufflé should be ordered upon arrival).

For a relative bargain, sample Chef Joho’s refined cuisine by trying the pre-theater three-course menu at 5:00 on weekdays and 5:30 on Saturdays.

"Cellar Celebration" is available Tuesday through Thursday—one bottle per table. Reservations are required at least 48 hours in advance and you’ll need to let them know which vintage bottle (21 years or older) you’re bringing. There’s no corkage fee.

For questions or reservations, call Everest at 312-663-8920.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Little Known Costa Rican Road—One of the World’s Most Beautiful Drives?

Since that first Model T came off the assembly line a century ago, we’ve sought out scenic drives. Some of the roads we’ve created have become world-famous for their charms and views. There’s the vertigo-inducing route from Nice to Monte Carlo and Maui’s Road to Hana, and hundreds of others—all destinations in and of themselves.

I’d like to nominate an obscure road that’s little known, but offers stunning views, natural charms, and expansive views of a lake, mountains and an active volcano: Costa Rica’s Lake Arenal Road.

Forming a half-loop around a 33-square-mile lake, the beguiling road and pastoral countryside through which it passes are becoming destinations. This in a country that boasts plenty of other flashier attractions such as rain forests, beaches, cloud forests and eco-resorts.

Linking the fabled cloud forest of Monteverde and monolithic Arenal, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, the road passes through a few sleepy villages, primeval rain forest, tidy farms, and verdant pastureland.

I first drove the meandering road in 1997, and upon each return—and turn—I find the route to be as scenic and inspiring as I’d remembered. And perhaps it gets even better with each passing year. While there are growing signs of discovery, with larger hotels sprouting on the lake’s southern shore and small housing developments popping up on its northern shore, the lake and the area surrounding it remain sleepy and full of both rustic beauty and cultivated charm.

A growing number of small restaurants and cafés have been built to capitalize on the inspiring, idyllic views and sublime air. Built with terraces overhanging hillsides which plunge toward the lake or open-air second-floors, the restaurants and cafés are difficult to resist. As I pass through I’m driven to stop and sit, sip a beer, coffee or fresh juice.

Arenal sits at 1800 feet which minimizes the tropical heat. And given the nearby mountains and Caribbean trade winds, the air is alive, creating an aerial playground for hawks and eagles and giving motion to stands of massive, emerald trees.

Windsurfers gather at the southwest part of the lake. Far above them on grassy hills, giant windmills generate clean energy for the area. Tree limbs, masses of electric-colored bougainvillea and ginger flowers nod and sway in the constant breeze.

There are no traffic jams, neon or stop signs. The place brings me back to somnolent summer days of childhood, when minutes felt as long as hours and time came close to standing still. Maybe vacations are designed to recapture the somnolence and quietude of those long-ago vacations or perhaps summer afternoons. Days stretch into eternity and there’s always a breeze and birdsong in the mornings.

The air here is sweet and fresh, redolent of the humid rainforest, sun-baked earth and grass. When I drove the road this past February, workers were grooming its shoulder and adding a fragrant whiff of fresh-cut grass to an already heady mélange of scents.

The area around the lake is the sort of place that is dream-like and you don’t even need to squint to visualize it. That's probably a good thing, since squinting and driving on such a curvy, undulating road isn’t exactly safe. And this road, albeit much improved in the past few years, still contains plenty of potholes and gravelly spots, so drive with one eye on the views and the other just beyond your dashboard.

Ideally, you should drive this route in a convertible, but these are hard to come by in a country with roads that sometimes more closely resemble rock-strewn riverbeds than paved highways. At the very least, though, you’ll want to unroll car windows—all the better to enjoy the sights, breezes and smells of one of the most beautiful drives in the world.

For non-luxe accommodations, but killer volcano & lake views & an Eden-like setting, check out the nearby Arenal Observatory Lodge which is a 30-minute drive from the eastern end of Lake Arenal.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Papa Drank Daiquiris?

As a child and during college, I associated a rum daiquiri with elderly ladies suffering from a chronic sweet tooth. My maternal grandmother, a faded beauty with a mole on her cheek, sipped cocktails of all sorts, but used to grow animated when my father broke out the blender and a bottle of rum. Cooing like the most contented of babies, she downed daiquiris like a marathoner guzzling water at the finish line.

And I was left with an impression of the daiquiri that I figured was about as indelible and profound as the Grand Canyon: daiquiris and rum drinks were for sissies.

In short, the 70’s and the blender were not good for rum drinks.

Flash forward to four years ago when my view of the cocktail changed during a remarkable, eye-opening visit to Bacardi’s rum distillery in Puerto Rico.

Imagine my surprise when I learned from one of Bacardi’s spirit-makers that Papa (a/k/a Ernest) Hemingway enjoyed a daiquiri now and then during his sojourns in Cuba. Papa, the man’s man, the macho American writer who wrote eloquently of war, smoking, drinking, running from bulls and being gored to death by a bull on a warm, sunny afternoon? You mean, that guy? He liked daiquiris?

“That’s right,” the Bacardi rum blender assured me.

After a behind the scenes tour and a sampling of some of the same vintage rum Hemingway had sipped, I succumbed to the urging of the Bacardi master and under the sweeping, contemporary canopy of the visitor center’s outdoor bar, I was poured a classic daiquiri. Made with rum, lime juice, a bit of sugar, and ice, the drink actually tastes like rum. You see, as explained to me by Bacardi’s blender and a number of rum aficionados, the problem with a lot of ice and blended drinks in particular is that too much ice freezes the taste buds.

And frozen taste buds make a nuanced or uniquely flavored rum taste bland. With ice shaved or crushed, as in a classic daiquiri, the flavor of the rum shines through and dances across the palate. Really.

And given the impressive variety and quality of rums available, why order this storied spirit in a cocktail that masks its flavor?

A classic daiquiri offers a boatload of flavors, while a blended drink offers numbness.

If you’d like to actually taste the rum in your drink, order a classic daiquiri. Papa enjoyed them, and you can, too.

Where to find a classic daiquiri? A handful of bars & restaurants offer them, most during warm weather months, but you can always find one at New Orleans’ Commander’s Palace or the Bacardi visitor’s center outside San Juan, Puerto Rico. For a recipe, check out In the Land of Cocktails by Ti and Lally Brennan.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sweetest Pour-Over

It seems that every decade or so we re-discover some aspect of coffee. Forty years ago we learned that grinding beans made for a more flavorful cup of java. And since then we've come to appreciate espresso, cappuccino, French press and small batch coffee. So what's the latest revelation for this freshly minted decade?

Pour-over.

Pour-over? You mean, taking hot water and pouring it over a filter loaded with freshly-ground coffee?

That’s right.

After a four-decade voyage through the multi-faceted and increasingly complex world of coffee, we’re realizing that sometimes the simplest approach is the best. And the pour-over couldn’t be simpler: grind beans and place in a filter suspended over a carafe, boil water, and pour water over the ground beans.

See, coffee machines can diminish flavor, so the more straight forward your approach to brewing coffee, the tastier and fresher the resulting beverage.

In Chicago, standard-bearer Intelligentsia has converted its buzzing Loop café into a frenetic but highly functioning pour-over zone. Instead of brewing giant vats of java, baristas prepare dozens of cups of fresh coffee via pour-over.

Of course, it helps when the coffee you’re serving is award winning, and Intelligentsia’s no slouch when it comes to sourcing and roasting the tastiest beans on the planet.

And while I’m tempted to give the rapidly growing West Side roaster credit for being the first in the city to offer pour-over, credit goes to Asado on Irving Park Road, according to Intelligentsia’s Todd Burbo.

“But their coffee’s not as good,” he’s careful to add.

Interestingly, Starbuck’s and other spots with less coffee cred plan to follow Intelligentsia’s lead, though none appears likely to fully convert from vats to the more labor-intensive pour-over model. (For more info, check out this recent Seattle Times article.)

If you’re in the Loop or even if you’re not, a stop at the Chicago chain’s Old School café in the historic Monadnock Building is worth a trip—even if you eschew a pour-over for one of the best cappuccinos this side of the Appian Way.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Twenty years ago it wasn't so easy to find a blood orange in the U.S. If they were grown in the States at all, they certainly didn't make their way into grocery stores.

In Europe, it was a different story. When citrus season arrived (basically, December through April), blood oranges overflowed in street markets in Paris and green grocers in Italy.

I had my first taste of one of these unusually sweet, tangy fruits while staying at a youth hostel in Brussels in 1986. Ruby-colored, pinkish or sometimes flecked with scarlet, these sweet flavor bombs taste a little like strawberries. And I couldn't get enough of them. My friend and traveling companion Maura mocked my new-found obsession with a cartoon that documented my fondness for patisseries--and blood oranges, my new accessory. (While the bag of oranges in the drawing is no exaggeration, I DID NOT dress in plaid shorts or tropical print shirts.)


Growing up, I couldn't be bothered to peel oranges, but suddenly, no amount of clawing and peeling was too much effort to get at the flesh of this fragrant, flavorful citrus.

These days it's a different story and blood oranges are grown in California and can be found in many grocery stores. As with anything else, though, they vary in quality. I begin buying them around Christmastime and stop when they turn mealy and flavorless around late March or early April. So there's still time--look for these sweet gems in your grocery store or in dishes served in restaurants such as Logan Square's Lula.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Not All Coffee Created Equal


The first time I visited Europe I could have cared less about the coffee. My friend Coco stomped and sighed if the rest of us took too long to decide on a breakfast spot, so anxious was she to get her fix.

But a few years later, I'd developed a taste for the stuff myself. And
now, a decade or two after, I'm a full-on junkie. Only, I'm possibly worse than Coco because I'm extremely picky about what I drink. I don't want flavorings, and I don't want milk or sugar--I crave the flavor of coffee (well, and perhaps the caffeine holds some small attraction...)

Similar to wine, the flavor a coffee bean possesses is a result of work, terroir and skill. And a lack of any can result in the equivalent of jug wine.

Fortunately, Chicago boasts one of the country's premier coffee roasters--Intelligentsia. Carefully sourcing its beans and engaging in fair trade practices, the company is perhaps what Starbuck's set out to be.

The small company has well-trained barristas that actually pull shots of espresso and steam milk--unlike Starbuck's which years ago replaced its manual espresso machines with robo-machines that create soulless and ill-crafted coffee drinks.

Starbuck's once invested in training, ensuring that baristas knew the difference between a latte and cappuccino and how to craft perfect drinks. But once the drive for profit outweighed the drive to create a fine product, the chain sacrificed its coffee cred. Which works for me, because Intelligentsia hopped in to fill the city's fine coffee void and created cafes that have more character and even better coffee.

From offering some of the finest and most expensive beans in the world, to boasting championship-winning baristas, Intelligentsia takes coffee seriously.

In fact, recently, the company began offering coffee brewed with a Chemex® coffee-maker. A non-electric, hourglass shaped glass vessel, Chemex® creates coffee that's tasty, pure and flavorful. And the baristas at Intelligentsia swear by them.

While Intelligentsia has only a few locations in the city, including its Old World, classic cafe in the historic Monadnock Building which served as inspiration for the cafe in The Gods of Venice, its coffees are carried in some of the city's best restaurants as well as Whole Foods. And the company also does a booming on-line business.

Finally, because we midwesterners are so generous-minded, the West Side company even shared its sublime approach to coffee with our West Coast brothers and sisters by opening shops in L.A.--proving that California is not the source of all things tasty and sublime.





Photos courtesy Todd Burbo.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Chicago's Chefs: Green Olympians?


Everyone knows that on St. Patty’s Day we dye the river green in Chicago, but a more profound and lasting greening has also taken place over the past decade. Led by a growing number of chefs and foodies, the greening of our city’s restaurants seems as likely to become as pervasive as dandelions, if not much tastier.

And while the City of Big Shoulders wasn't awarded the 2016 Olympics, it’s a forgone conclusion that the city boasts perhaps the most winning team of eco-minded chefs in the country, if not the world.

A Glimmer of Green

Not that long ago it seemed that organic or sustainably-produced food conjured up images of eating gnarled produce, worm-bitten greens, and grains that you’d hesitate to feed your pet pony. So how did we get to a point where restaurants and chefs that emphasize local, green and sustainable appear to be as popular as Oprah when she arrived in town a few dozen years ago?

While the movement toward locally produced, green and sustainable likely started with Alice Waters in California, it didn’t take long for Chicago chefs to take up the torch in the Midwest. With a more abundant water supply and richer soils, it seems only natural that the region would return its attention toward its rich agricultural heritage.

One of the earliest was Rick Bayless who turned his back on mass-produced foods, opting instead to seek out unusual ingredients, recipes and preparations.

Like Bayless, many Chicago chefs began supporting the Green City Market, which features local farmers and food artisans. And while it could be debated which came first, the market or chefs establishing relationships with nearby farmers, the result was clear: Chicago chefs began working with local farms and food artisans, many participating in the Green City Market or other farmer’s markets, to source their salad greens, fruits, vegetables, eggs, and cheeses.

The Local Advantage

So what was—and remain—the advantages of sourcing foods locally and in a sustainable fashion? When it comes to fresh, the closer you can source the food item the better. When basil is in season in the Midwest, for example, you can bet it tastes fresher, lasts longer, and has a more complex and intense taste and aroma than the same herb that’s shipped here from California.

As water shortages become more common, as evidenced recently in California’s Central Valley, the fact that the Midwest can sustainably produce food will only become more relevant.

While some might complain about our winters, it’s our climate—and a few thousand years of prairie buildup—that make our region so ideal for growing food. Many parts of the country wouldn’t be able to support a viable agriculture industry without vast amounts of water that arrive through irrigation. And transporting water often involves expending energy, not to mention disruption of ecosystems that might like to hold onto the water.

In the Midwest, droughts are rare if not nonexistent. Our raucous summer thunderstorms and rainy springs do the work of massive irrigation structures, dams, and sprinkler systems in drier climates. Water comes naturally to the Midwest, and that’s an advantage that’s difficult to beat.

In addition, shipping food great distances oftentimes leaves a considerable carbon footprint. Finally, by not supporting local farmers and purveyors, we rob ourselves of a critical aspect of any society—the ability to feed ourselves and to support the presence and evolution of food and cuisine as a part of our culture.

The March of the Green Olympians

But let’s get back to talking about other green leaders in Chicago, and how their green approaches translate into better eating.

One of the first and most fervently committed to operating a green restaurant is North Pond’s Bruce Sherman who has run the kitchen at the Lincoln Park restaurant since 1999. Whether locally-sourced corn-on-the-cob for soup or quail with fennel, Sherman takes pains to support local farmers and producers. To the chef, finding producers and artisans that take special care with their craft results in superior and exceptional products, many of them recently harvested or produced.

As with many other green chefs, Sherman is constantly adjusting his menu to react to the seasonal availability of products and produce. Every farmer and producer with whom the Chicago native works receives credit—on the restaurant’s menu and on its website.

In addition to seeking out sustainable seafood from the far corners of the earth, Sherman steps just outside the restaurant kitchen’s door for fresh herbs from a large garden or just beyond to the Green City Market, one of the largest organic and sustainable farmer’s markets in the country.

In Logan Square, Lula Café owners Amalea Tshilds and Jason Hammel have been actively working with and promoting local farms and their fare since at least 2004. In the spring of that year, the forward-thinking restaurant began hosting its now-popular farm dinners on Monday nights. Featuring often more adventurous specials and a bargain prix fixe menu, the painstakingly created dinners rely heavily on seasonal ingredients from local farms. For info on past and upcoming farm dinners, check out http://www.lulawinefun.blogspot.com/

Even more elevated restaurants such as Trump Tower’s Sixteen have caught onto the trend. Chef Frank Brunacci sources eggs, pork and lamb from Slagel Farms, just south of the city. Eye-popping sunrise views in the restaurant’s lofty dining room come with eggs that are literally farm fresh.

According to Brunacci, “Buying local makes sense. Not only does it minimize shipping costs, but more importantly, supports quality products and our neighbors who take such great pains to provide them.”

A more recent arrival, The Bristol in Bucktown, emphasizes an Old World or yesteryear approach of using nearly every part of the animals it features on its menu. Resulting in less waste and fresher and better-tasting dishes, the approach is being picked up by other restaurants such as the Publican.

"Like any chef worth his or her salt in Chicago today, we're serving organic and locally-grown food as much as humanly possible," says chef/owner Chris Pandel.

For Evanston’s Michael Altenberg, one green restaurant isn’t enough. After turning Bistro Campagne in Lincoln Square into a virtually organic restaurant, the chef opened a second restaurant in Wicker Park. CRUST, the first third party certified organic restaurant in the city, prides itself on its thin pizzas that are easy on the environment, good for organic producers and tasty for those lucky enough to savor them.

While both restaurants offer sustainable fare and have the same owner, that’s about as much as they share in common. Bistro Campagne evokes a classic Parisian bistro, albeit with many ingredients sourced locally, and boasts quaint gardens that provide a tangible tie to the countryside from which Altenberg sources many of his organic ingredients.

In addition to organic produce, the kitchen uses grass-fed beef from Bill Kurtis’ Tallgrass™, which is not only a more sustainable way to raise cattle, but also produces beef that’s lower in fat and healthier. Think of it this way: a corn-fed cattle operation demands fields of corn which are typically fertilized and doused with pesticides. In the Midwest, these fertilizers and pesticides run through our waterways to the Mississippi River and directly into the Gulf of Mexico where they help create an enormous dead zone.

So eating grass-fed beef not only reduces your likelihood of heart disease, but can have far-reaching effects for wildlife and fishermen over a thousand miles away.

Even wunderkinds such as Paul Kahan of Publican pursues a greener agenda. Like The Bristol’s Pandel, Kahan uses the “whole animal” approach to slaughter, and is well-known for his handcrafted sausages and encased meats.

To support local brewers, The Publican hosts monthly beer dinners on the last Sunday of each month. Featuring Midwestern breweries such as Great Lakes and New Holland, the dinners include a four-course, family-style menu designed to complement selected brews.

Comforting Conclusions

And leave it to Michigan Avenue to ensure that green desserts don’t receive short shrift. The Hotel InterContinental’s ENO boasts an impressive array of award-winning local cheeses, but the buzz recently has focused on the restaurant’s selection of chocolates by Madison, Wisconsin’s Gail Ambrosius. There are some products that many of us just have to have, and for me, one of those is chocolate. While the fertile soils of the Midwest can produce many things, they can’t sustain cacao trees. And so, obtaining chocolate from afar is necessary. But not all chocolate producers are equal—in terms of taste, quality and impact on the earth—and that’s where Gail comes in handy.

With an ever-evolving array of chocolates sourced, fairly traded and crafted by Ambrosius, ENO offers guilt-free, sweet delectables that clearly reveal the superior quality of hand-made, artisan foods.

If you need further evidence that green, local and sustainable are more than mere buzzwords or a passing trend, I encourage you to visit Chicago’s Green City Market held on Wednesdays and Saturdays, or visit any of the aforementioned restaurants. To me, seeing is believing—as is tasting—and savoring the sweetness of just-ripe Michigan peaches in a cobbler or the leanness of a cut of grass-fed beef is all the proof I need that green, local and sustainable are better tasting.

And if you don’t believe me, could so many award-winning chefs be wrong?

Photo: Smoked Rushing Waters Trout, The Publican, Photo Credit Grant Kessler Photography

 

About Me

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I write about food, travel & dining, as well as related topics. My first novel, The Gods of Venice, can be found on BarnesAndNoble.com & nearly everywhere else. My second novel, The Last American Buffalo, is available on Amazon. Follow me on Twitter or become a fan of The Gods of Venice on Facebook.
Alan J. Shannon Copyright © 2010