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

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

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Greening of Luxury Hotels

Multi-star hotels have a well-deserved reputation for pampering guests, offering numerous perks and all sorts of luxuries. But many of these come at an environmental cost. While some pricey hotels have spurned the concept of greening, claiming that guests don’t want to give up anything during a stay at a deluxe hotel, others embrace it, discovering that guests have responded positively—as has their bottom line.

The sins of hotels are manifold. Changing bed and bath linens daily for hundreds of rooms and washing them uses resources and produces detergent-laced water that has to be subsequently treated or ends up in local waterways—or in the case of Midwest hotels, as far away as the Gulf of Mexico.

While plenty of hotels no longer launder room linens every day (if they actually follow the practice, since in my experience even if you follow the prescribed procedure for reusing bath linens, housekeeping staff usually wash them, anyway), leading hotels have realized that in order to be truly green, they need to do much more. Two hotels, the Hotel InterContinental on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile and the St. Julien in Boulder, Colorado, strive to be green leaders for the hotel industry and have found numerous other ways to be more earth-friendly.

For starters, converting light bulbs to low energy using CFLs can save bundles of energy, while reducing utility costs. At the St. Julien, the replacement of the hotel’s bulbs resulted in a 48,000 kilowatt reduction in energy use. As of July, 2008, similar efforts at the InterContinental’s resulted in the savings of nearly 8,000 kilowatt hours of energy and water-saving efforts resulted in an 81,000 gallon reduction in water use.

In addition to more predictable approaches such as less frequent bed linen changes and the use of recycled plastic, the hotels uses earth friendly paints and cleaners. And if that weren’t commendable enough, the St. Julien donates its worn or frayed bath and bed linens to nearby animal shelters—a green initiative that’s popular with animal-lovers and the eco-conscious, as well as many a Boulder area cat and dog.

Meanwhile, the hotels’ restaurants have also pursued environmentally-friendly policies. The St. Julien’s restaurant works with local farmers and food artisans whenever possible, while the InterContinental’s wine, cheese and chocolate restaurant and tasting bar offers many award-winning local cheeses.

It’s not surprising that a new wave of green hotels have a lot of other things going for them. Check out the web sites for both hotels here:

In the end, green efforts are for naught if a stay at a deluxe hotel isn’t posh-feeling. These hotels, as well as others found here:, prove that it’s easy—and can feel posh—to be green.

First Class Flight: Paul Kahan’s Blackbird

It’s difficult to believe that maverick chef Paul Kahan’s cherished Blackbird is now a full nine-years-old. I clearly recall the months after its opening, the buzz about its flavorful, inspired cuisine and the refined, minimalist dining salon. The restaurant became a destination for foodies from across the country, receiving accolades from scores of food and travel magazines and organizations.

To get a jump on the restaurant’s tenth birthday, I checked in on the West Loop institution to see if its food had changed as little as the sophisticated décor which catches my eye each time I pass by.

To start our evening, my friends and I visited neighboring Avec, the über popular wine bar cum restaurant that vaguely resembles a sauna and is co-owned by Kahan. Enjoying a variety of rosés and devouring a stellar bruschetta of arugula, cheese and pesto, we then walked thirty feet to the west, finding ourselves in the soft white, hallowed dining room of Blackbird.

Once upon a time, appetizers were designed to tease the palette, to clear the path for subsequent courses featuring entrées which were considered the meal’s coup de grâce. Appetizers today could easily stand on their own, particularly those offered at Blackbird. The charcuterie plate ($13), featuring game bird terrine, a smoked guanciale sausage so tasty it could make a meat-loving diner cry, and pear mostarda, provoked feeding frenzy-like behavior. We also savored the crispy veal sweetbreads which were delectable, if rich ($13). Kahan’s menus are seasonal, and therefore appetizers change constantly, though a mussel soup with white fish, saffron and garlic is a standard, as well as unconventional, but flavorful salads and suckling pig.

When I spoke with Kahan a few days after my meal, he exclaimed that he “loves pork”, and his fondness for the meat is reflected in the menu. While vegetarians might receive short shrift, meat-lovers can find a promise of fulfillment in the extensive starter and entrée menus (there’s even a dessert item garnished with a crispy piece of bacon.) Albeit cholesterol-laden, the classic pork belly, prepared with sweet corn beignets, chanterelles, celery root and maple Dijon vinaigrette, possess as much satisfying, well-rounded flavor as a $30 dish should.

While the fried leg of rabbit I had came on the heels of the aforementioned tasty appetizers, I found myself up to the task of polishing off the dish, particularly slices of slow-roasted loin which were tender and succulent. Accompanied by a corn panisse, tangy fresh huckleberries, and baby cabbage, the dish is a knockout.

For those with a hankering for redder meats, viable options exist, notably a well-executed venison dish. Featuring locally-sourced loin, spot-on venison slices were seared to tender perfection, nearly melting in my mouth. Thoughtfully partnered with pickled plums, mushrooms and caramelized shallots, the dish paired wonderfully with a 2003 Beckman Santa Ynez Valley Estate Syrah ($48). Meat lovers can also savor veal tenderloin with veal sausage and lamb t-bones with crispy sweetbreads ($36 each).

Kahan also offers crispy Idaho rainbow trout ($29) and California sturgeon ($32), as well as Girmaud Farms guinea hen with garlic, lemon and cipolini ($29). We had one dish, however, that failed to impress. The Alaskan halibut, prepared with tomatoes, banana peppers, beans and pinenut agridoux, was on the bland side. But after talking to Kahan, I learned the dish is targeted for adjustment, and given his tendency to mix up the menu as seasonal offerings come and go, the dish is likely to have already been transformed by the time you’re reading this.

Given Kahan’s professed fondness for pork, vegetarians might wonder if there’s anything for them. While selections are limited, vegetable and potato turnovers with saffron-tomato yogurt, kohlrabi, cherry tomatoes, arugula and sweet corn and basil, are hardly run of the mill, along with a few seafood dishes and meat-less appetizers.

Desserts by Tara Lane, while not quite as exciting as entrées, deliver equal amounts of flavor, being well worth the $10 charged for each. The decadent, cream-laden pot de crème, the thickest, richest version I’ve ever drained into my maw, nearly got the best of me. In the end, I couldn’t finish the generously-sized, creamy concoction, but awoke the next morning wishing I had the remaining half.

Other standouts include an apple cake and fritters with saba and candied pine nut ice cream and an inspired milk chocolate semifreddo with sweet waffles, the aforementioned slice of bacon, and an über-tasty ball of hazelnut butter which must be savored to be believed.

For those not hip to the current goings-on in the world of cheese, American artisanal cheeses have been receiving honors at competitions. Kahan carries some tasty selections, including perhaps the creamiest, purest-tasting goat’s milk cheese I’ve ever savored—a semi-soft from Pairie Fruit Farm in downstate Champaign. Other artisanal selections include a cow’s milk, a raw goat’s milk from Vermont, and an organic raw goat’s milk from Wisconsin. One selection runs $6, while a tasty sample of five can be had for $14.

Recognized for its fine selection of wines, Blackbird boasts a sizable offering of French wines, with a smaller but significant collection from the West Coast. Ranging in price from around $30 to nearly $500, the restaurant also carries reasonably priced bottles such as an ’02 Westerly Vineyards Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($41) or a jammy Renwood Amador County Zinfandel ($34). True to its French underpinnings, the restaurant offers an extensive selection of armagnacs and cognacs, ranging in price from $8 to $25 for a snifter of Martell XO Supreme.

Rounding out the apertif/digestif menu are ports, a few grappas, brandies, calvados, sherry, Madeira, and dessert wines, including a splurge-worthy ’83 Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes that runs $425 for a 375 milliliter bottle. (For a somewhat more budget-conscious celebration, there’s the ’97 Chateau Guiraud 1er Cru Sauternes for $115.)

Approaching its tenth year, Blackbird continues to dazzle with expertly-matched and inspired sauces, ingredients, entrées, spices and flavors. His menu and cooking style rooted in classic French cooking, Kahan provides sometimes whimsical and nearly always inspired takes on classic dishes, while creating some new ones.

One of the Midwest’s leaders when it comes to sourcing ingredients locally, Kahan has created a nightmare for his bookkeeper who subsequently has to track accounts for over 200 purveyors, most local. The result is ultra-fresh ingredients, unique and artisanal cheeses, meats and produce, most sourced within a hundred miles or so of the city.

Finding fault with Kahan’s proferrings and the entire Blackbird experience offers a bit of a challenge. While some complain that the restaurant is somewhat parsimonious with the portions it doles out, I subscribe to the philosophy that satisfaction and satiation stem from high quality ingredients and winning flavors—not from quantity. And for these reasons, I find Blackbird to be everything a fine restaurant ought to be.

Rum Comes of Age

“There’s naught, no doubt, so much the spirit calms as rum…” Lord Byron

Now that I’m past the age of 40, I’m much less thrilled with the idea of aging than I was at say, 16. However, there are notable exceptions and some things that might actually improve with the accumulation of years. Rum is one of these.

If you’ve raised an eyebrow or chuckled after reading that last bit, you’ve yet to discover one of the fastest growing, fascinating sectors in the world of spirits: aged rums.

The Original American Spirit

With the possible exception of root beer, no beverage’s history is more closely intertwined with that of the United States’ as rum. Originally distilled by New England Yankees and quaffed by colonists up and down the Eastern Seaboard, rum served as the spirit of choice long before the first grape vine had sunk its roots into Napa’s soil or corn lined Bourbon County’s hillsides. When settlers poured over the Appalachians, discovering the fertile American midlands, fields of grain flourished and corn, rye and barley-based whiskey replaced rum as our the spirit of choice. As the mid-section of the country was plowed, planted and settled, so ended America’s first love affair with rum.

A century or so later, our country’s second affair with rum began. Led by a thirsty and adventurous Hemingway, the Rat Pack and an emerging jet-set, Americans re-discovered the spirit of their colonial ancestors, this go-round imbued with a decidedly Caribbean flavor, though. Oster blenders across the country worked overtime churning up Daiquiris, Piña Coladas and Mai Tai’s—all laced with the white and dark rums of Latin America and the Caribbean—while more serious cocktail connoisseurs savored Cuba Libres, Mojitos or Zombies.

When Cuba fell under Castro’s spell and the jet-set discovered the French Riviera, however, rum went the way of the celebrated Tiki Bar. To generalize a bit, Americans turned to beer in the 70’s, wine in the 80’s, vodka in the 90’s, and seemingly, rum, tequila and bourbon in the current decade. And that brings us to America’s current passion for rums white, dark and aged. Fueled by an itch for spirits with more flavor than vodka and inspired by sun-dappled trips to the Caribbean and Latin America, Americans have again turned to the mainstay and first-born of our national liquor cabinet.

An Oldie, But Goodie

While rum may have returned Stateside, Frank, Sammy and the rest of the Pack might not recognize the rums we’re sipping today.

According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, rum sales bumped up a considerable 6.1% in 2004—and more noticeably, sales of premium and super premium brands (read, aged) have increased 10% in volume. Beverage behemoth Bacardi, which launched its aged Bacardi 8 right around the millennium, has recently seen a surge in sales of the brand. In this, our third love affair with rum, we’re going after those brands that offer the most distinct and complex flavors, and spending more in our pursuit of them.

While aged rums have been around for, well, ages, a mere handful of Americans, mostly spirit aficionados, adventurous travelers and distillers themselves, had sampled the stuff until a handful of years ago. In the late 90’s, José Gómez, Bacardi’s master blender, helped create one of the first mass-produced aged rums, offering with his Bacardi 8 what until that time only the Bacardi family and the company’s distillers had enjoyed.

Created by storing rums distilled from molasses or the juice from sugar cane in charred oak barrels, aged rums come to maturation from about three to twenty-four years. The longer the rum ages, of course, the more it can take on the flavor of its cask. The rums’ heady flavor profiles can be complex and creamy and redolent of vanilla, oak, caramel, or orange.

Before aged rums hit the market, the spirit’s flavor was almost consistently overwhelmed by coconut milk, pineapple juice or Coke. With the arrival of these newest, old rums, producers, bartenders and spirit aficionados were now pleading with rum drinkers to savor the flavor—not to bury it in a tidal wave of tropical fruit. Like the one-time grade school kid who’s favorite drink is no longer Kool-Aid, premium producers started sharing with consumers what they’d discovered—rum can taste damn good.

No Mix-up Here

Unlike their younger brethren, aged rums are crafted for sipping neat, with a splash of water, or an ice cube or two. As with other complex spirits such as cognac, scotch or bourbon, the flavors of aged rum are diminished—or compromised—when a beverage with any flavor is mixed with them. Unlike purveyors and connoisseurs of other aged spirits, though, rum blenders, distillers, and purveyors adopt a much more laid back attitude about mixing an aged rum. While they may not recommend that you mix an aged rum with Coke, in the words of Gómez, “People should drink rum as they like: with Coke, with juice, with whatever tastes good.” Since it’s made with quality rum, he explains, “They’re really going to enjoy that drink no matter what.”

And some restaurants even seem to encourage mixing. When I first explored aged rums in 1999, distillers, restaurateurs and bartenders alike cringed at the thought of cocktails created with aged rums. A half-dozen years later, though, a perusal of local restaurant cocktail menus tells a different story. Adopting an approach similar to bars serving premium tequila cocktails, aged rum devotees have decided that if the ballast for a cocktail is comprised of a fine aged rum, then whatever is mixed into it had better be of similar pedigree.

At Nacional 27, as at other spots around town, luxe cocktails are the latest trend. While the industrial age which generated so much wealth for Chicagoans is long over—and the dot com bubble has recently burst—diners at a handful of local restaurants think nothing of shoveling out wads of dough for cocktails that might just as well be named for Gatsby. Nacional’s Cocktails Reservado list, created by cocktail wunderkind Adam Seger, includes a Cask 23 Mojito mixed with the usual ingredients, but fueled by a decidedly tasty Pyrat 40 Year Old Rum—one of Seger’s favorites. At 25 bucks a pop, the Cask 23 gives the ubiquitous Mojito a pricey, but swanky makeover.

Further afield—and for only a short time longer—Mitchell’s Fish Market in Glenview serves a rich and traditional hot-butter rum, laced with brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, vanilla, and butter, of course.

Flights of Fancy

If you’ve gotten this far, you may be wondering where to dip a toe (er, finger?) into the world of rum. Doing so has never been easier, thanks to that winning concept borrowed from the world of wine: flights. Increasingly, bars and restaurants around the city offer rum flights. The originator, Mambo Grill, still offers the most rums, seventy, and four different flights, the most expensive featuring four aged rums consisting of harder to find selections assembled during owner Susan Frasca’s travels around the Caribbean and Latin America. Some are distilled in petite batches and poured into hand-numbered bottles, while others are distilled and aged in larger batches for distribution around the world.

River North mainstay Nacional 27, which carries an impressive 21 aged rums, offers a flight of the über tasty, less common Rhum St. James distilled in Martinique. Rums from this French territory, like the spirits from its Gallic motherland, conform to stricter guidelines than others, namely that they be made directly from sugar cane and not molasses—the more common, less costly and easier production method. The flavorsome result can be savored in a flight of three different rums of varying ages or a second which features three different 15-year-olds.

Adobo Grill’s two locations also offer samples of three rums, including the stellar 23-year Ron Zacapa Centenario Reserva from Guatemala, an 8-year El Dorado and a 5-year Ten Cane Rum. Meanwhile, Sofitel Hotel guests can sip a three-rum flight consisting of plantation rums from Barbados (1991), Trinidad (1993) and Guyana (1990) at Le Bar.

A Rum of One’s Own

Finally, while hopping about the city and suburbs sampling rare and tasty rums offers satisfaction, nothing quells a thirst for premium rum like a visit to Binny’s. The liquor super store boasts enormous quantities of rums, including rare and flavor-packed selections such as a $237 Pyrat from Anguilla for subdued sipping or a bottle of a $20 Guatemalan Ron Botran, created from virgin cane honey and aged in white oak bourbon casks for twelve years. As David Soto, former Sam’s Spirits Specialist and spirit enthusiast explains, most aged rums run between $15-60, making them a far better deal than cognacs or Scotches.

“Aged rums are an excellent value,” he tells me. “You can get a wonderful bottle of aged rum like a silky, cognac-like Santa Teresa from Guatemala for under $40. For a Scotch drinker used to paying $200 or $300, aged rum is a really good deal.”

And saving money at the liquor store means you’ll have more money to spend on luxe rum cocktails. In short, you can have your aged rum and drink it, too.

Nacional 27, 325 W Huron; Chicago; 312.664.2727

Mitchell’s Fish Market, 2601 Navy Boulevard, Glenview; 847-729-3663

Mambo Grill, 412 N Clark; Chicago; 312.467.9797

Adobo Grill, 1610 N Wells; Chicago; 312.266.7999 &

2005 W Division St, Chicago; 773.252.9990

Le Bar, 20 E Chestnut; Chicago; 312.324.4000

Binny’s, 213 W Grand; Chicago; 312.332.0012

Star Bright: Taco Honky Tonk Channels Urban Hipster

Paul Kahan can do no wrong. Teaming up with night-spot meister Terry Alexander, the Pied Piper of savory meats transformed a former garage bar/parking lot beer garden into a den of hipness & good eats.

Casual, minimalist, sceney & surprisingly small, the restaurant emphasizes simple Mexican food with culinary flourishes such as spit-roasted al pastor minced with slivers of pineapple. The fish tostada and pork belly taco, while perhaps less evolved, are no less tasty.

Housed in the former location of Pontiac Cafe, Big Star offers a wee one-page menu that's short on selection, but big on flavor. Vegetarians beware: options are few, but equally tasty. (Interestingly, while food options are minimal, bourbon & tequila menus run pages.)

And the cocktails? Shaken, stirred, and mixed to perfection--and all are a bargain-priced $7. I'm a sucker for a fine Old Fashioned and the one served here is served neat and mixed with Old Weller House. Fine artisan beers such as Matilda on tap are as eagerly poured as cheap, nearly colorless swill from the Big Brewers.

A curious combination of high and low brow, the space is as minimalist as Blackbird, but custom designed, smooth and boxy booths channel urban sophistication--not anything remotely honky tonk.

Constantly crowded and more bar than restaurant, Big Star offers palate-pleasing, inexpensive food, expertly-mixed cocktails, and a pleasant scene.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Big Time Flavors in Small Batch Bourbons

If local bars are any indication, a growing number of Chicagoans are turning the vodka corner and re-discovering a quintessentially American spirit—bourbon. Not just any bourbons, though. Like the handcrafted wines and micro-brew beers that came before them, small batch bourbons have redefined the bourbon selections of a growing number of Americans.

These days, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that any spirit other than vodka exists. While I enjoy an occasional Cosmopolitan, sometimes I prefer a drink made with liquor packing a heavier flavor punch. After all, vodka is judged on its smoothness and relative lack of flavor, which makes it ideal for mixing, but hardly the spirit of choice if you’re in the mood for a cocktail with backbone.

Moreover, given that the dollar has all the heft of say a feather duster, prices for popular European spirits have grown increasingly higher and the time has never been more ideal for seeking spirits distilled a little closer to home. Though our runaway love affair with vodka hardly seems to be waning, small batch bourbons represent a welcome addition to the contemporary pantheon of popular spirits.

A Little Bourbon Background

Like the renowned thoroughbred horses, bourbons largely spring from Kentucky where they were first distilled in the late 1700’s. Bourbon County, in the central Bluegrass Region, served as the principal embarkation point for liquor headed down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans (winding up in Bourbon Street bars and points beyond). Barrels departing the county, stamped with its name, resulted in whiskies from the area being referred to as bourbons. Today, bourbon doesn’t have to originate in its namesake county, but must meet certain criteria.

For starters, bourbon must be made with primarily corn and aged for a minimum of two years in new, white oak barrels that have been charred. To create the spirit, distillers employ the sour mash method in which backset from a previous distillation is used. The backset gives each bourbon batch relatively consistent flavor, a process not dissimilar to using starter when making sourdough bread.

Virgin oak barrels, a requisite for production, remain pricey and hardly the sort of thing you find stocked at Home Depot. Requiring time, care and skill, barrel-making contributes significantly to the overall cost of bourbon.

In the 1970’s, bourbon fizzled, a trend that continued for nearly two decades. In 1988, Booker Noe, grandson of legendary Jim Beam, released Booker’s True Barrel, the first small batch bourbon. Bottled straight from the barrel and intended for friends and family, the spirit was made available worldwide within a few short years, uncorking the small batch bourbon renaissance.

Within a few years, Knob Creek and Maker’s Mark established themselves as the largest “small batch” brands by creating mellow, smooth, flavored bourbons. Other smaller distillers set up shop, most in Kentucky, and began producing even smaller batches. Names such as Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s, Van Winkle, and ever-smaller brands joined Knob Creek and Maker’s Mark on bar shelves.

Not Your Grandpa’s (or Grandma’s) Bourbon

If there’s a ground zero for small batch bourbon in the city, it is decidedly Delilah’s, a North Side institution. While house-spun rock may not at first seem the ideal match for bourbon-sipping, this Lincoln Avenue watering hole has earned a national reputation for its selection of around 50 bourbons and its small batch-savvy owner. If a few thimblefuls of bourbon are your limit, owner Mike Miller recommends a jigger of the extremely rare Jimmy Russell Tribute which runs $16 per shot. For those with budding bourbon tastebuds, sample Delilah’s house brand 10-year made by Van Winkle for a more economical $6 per shot.

While many small batcher’s pack enough flavor to be drunk neat, flavorful options abound. In the Gold Coast, urban-slick Syn offers five options and a Matt-hattan, a top drawer version of the classic mixed with Woodford Reserve ($9). Syn co-owner Scott Smith has seen an uptick in small batch sales and Woodford is currently the club’s top-seller. At nearby hang Elm Street Liquors, patrons can savor the Debutante—Knob Creek, grapefruit juice, honey, and Laurent-Perrier Demi-Sec. In Wicker Park, Rodan updates a classic with its Ginger Julep ($5.50) concocted with ginger tea, bourbon and a mint leaf. At the Bungalow Lounge on west Belmont, specials concocted with bourbon include mint juleps, Manhattans and bourbon ball martinis—all created with Woodford Reserve.

Bourbon as Apertif

Getting into the spirit, restaurants have begun stocking small batch bourbons. Just off Michigan Avenue, tony Tru leads the pack with its house brand bourbon created with Woodford Reserve—which offers custom barrels and bottling. A few blocks away, Sofitel’s Le Bar offers a handful of small batcher’s, as does nearby Allen’s, which offers five, including a 16 year A. R. Hirsch, the ideal apertif before sitting down to a meal of the restaurant’s renowned venison or other game specials.

Given the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Lawry’s recently hosted a special dinner. Consisting of four courses paired with complementary bourbons, the menu took inspiration from the early explorers’ favorite spirit. In their honor, diners sipped Basil Hayden’s, Makers Mark, Booker’s True Barrel, and a jigger of smooth Woodford Reserve, paired with apricot and cherry bread pudding with a—you guessed it—bourbon sauce.

A Bourbon of One’s Own

For a bourbon-lover, there is perhaps no better city than Chicago. Given the relative proximity of bourbon country and our fondness for the brown spirit, Chicago has an edge on New York and L.A. when it comes to appreciating this essentially American spirit.

If you live in Chicago, acquiring small batch bourbon hardly demands the effort exhibited by early fans Lewis and Clark. Modern sippers merely need visit a local watering hole, restaurant or liquor store. And I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to visit a super store, it’s not going to be Costco—but Sam’s or Binny’s which boast some of the most extensive bourbon selections in the country.

My discussions with bourbon aficionados, representatives and producers yielded a few clear conclusions. While Knob Creek and Maker’s Mark came across as clear leaders in the larger batch bourbon category, I now know the small batcher’s I plan to pick up or order while out. Van Winkle bourbons, though somewhat rare, represent obvious favorites. And Ridgemont Reserve 1792—while hardly the price of a six-pack—represents a clear value in comparison to some of the truly micro brands, such as the wickedly-tasty and uber-rare Black Maple Hill, that run between $80 and $225 a bottle.

Bourbon serves as antidote to higher priced imported spirits affected by the anemic dollar. So the next time you experience price-induced vertigo when liquor-shopping, head for the bourbon aisle. Along with distinguished pedigree and more reasonable prices, you’ll enjoy rich brown color, smooth, vaguely-sweet, and assuredly flavor-packed bourbon.

Though I didn’t discover any organic bourbons while researching this story, I did learn that the spirit is an entirely natural product, its sole ingredients consisting of grain, water, yeast and whatever bleeds into it from the barrel oak during aging. Unlike a fine cabernet, though, bourbon doesn’t age in the bottle. Once the spirit has left the barrel, its flavor profile has reached full maturity. So when you buy a bottle, drink up.

American Journal: Luxury Reaches New Heights-Chicago's Trump Tower

In the American city most famed for its architecture, it’s no easy feat to create a new landmark. However, Chicago’s 92-story Trump Tower has already created a stir in the city that invented the skyscraper, attracting movie stars, jet setters and fans of architecture.

American tycoon Donald Trump wanted to create a new sort of hotel, eschewing the decadence and über-opulence of the sort he was known for previously. With his children, Donald Junior, Ivanka and Eric, the patriarch launched a new brand of hotel, combining a more modern approach to luxury with an urbane, contemporary sensibility.

Set just steps from the city’s famed Michigan Avenue, with its foundation nestled in a riverbed and its midsection reflecting some of the city’s most beloved architecture, the new tower looks like an exclamation point on the city’s dramatic skyline.

Trump, who favors hyperbole, might have it right when he claims that the hotel is the best situated of any in the city, and perhaps the world. Most of the hotel’s 339 rooms (which start at $475/night) boast impressive vistas, but those facing east enjoy exhilarating, vertigo-inducing views of the river and Aegean-blue Lake Michigan, as well as the intricate tops of some of the city’s handsomest early skyscrapers.

Rooms are larger on average than at any other hotel, boasting 10-foot ceilings which lend them a loft-like, decidedly urban feel. Kitchenettes can be found in even standard rooms, offering deluxe appliances, including stoves, refrigerators, espresso makers, and dishwashers. Fine crystal and china are housed in custom cabinetry, making breakfast in bed or a glass of wine at sunset a refined occasion.

Spa rooms, the first of their sort anywhere, offer easy access to the hotel’s sublime spa and have been decorated with a lighter palate and stocked with health-centric amenities. An adjacent workout room offers views that will take your breath away if your workout doesn’t.

While it might be tempting to never leave your room, plenty of other attractions beckon elsewhere in the hotel and beyond.

If your room doesn’t have one of the coveted east views, then head to the 16th floor bar or acclaimed restaurant, Sixteen. Within the past ten years or so, Chicagoans have rediscovered the rooftop terrace, figuring that a lofty perch allows them a closer peek at their revered architecture. In the summer of 2009, the hotel’s lounge and dining terraces openend, offering jaw-dropping, close-up views of the 3-story tall clock of the Wrigley Building and the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower.

If you’re interested in sampling the desserts enjoyed by the American president and his guests, head to the restaurant where pastries are created by a former White House chef. If pastries alone do not a meal make, no worries: Chef Frank Brunacci serves innovative cuisine which has already garnered praise and multiple stars. Focusing on local and artisanal ingredients, Brunacci whips up a stellar tasting menu which can be paired with a fetching array of wines.

The restaurant boasts an impressive selection of harder to find bottles of premium American wines. Without boarding a plane and heading four hours west to the country’s renowned Napa Valley or Oregon, it would be impossible to find such an expansive collection of American wines.

The tower provides easy access to the lakefront, Michigan Avenue’s famed shopping district and Millennium Park. For an early morning jog or stroll, nothing compares with Chicago’s lakefront path which wends its way for dozens of miles through woods, prairies, beaches, marinas and the museum campus.

The hotel’s Robert Prohaska claims there’s no other property like the Trump. Originally slated to be built in Dubai, the ultra-luxe, thoughtfully designed hotel and condominium tower offers its signature attaché service, which can arrange for anything from obtaining souvenirs to having a chef come to your room to cook dinner. Housed in a sleek, glass-clad, sinuous tower that reflects views of the river and sublime skyline surrounding it, the hotel is as dazzling as the twice-weekly, summertime fireworks set off just a few blocks away.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Gods of Venice

The Gods of Venice is Alan J. Shannon's first novel. A travel, food and spirit writer based in Chicago, Shannon has long been intrigued with Italy and history, as well as a good tale.

Throughout its history, enchanting and mysterious Venice has attracted seekers. Some travel to the city to experience its storied charms, while others look for something else. The Gods of Venice is the story of vastly different seekers whose lives unexpectedly intersect over six decades in a city shrouded in mystery.

In the Venice of pre-WWII, Constanza, a talented baker, and her husband Piero Agostino, a glass blower, are blessed with a daughter, Breva. She is the love of their life until the waters of Venice snatch her from them. Bereaved, their lives are lost to them.

In present-day Venice, Claudia Baggi, the diffident daughter of a countess, and Louis Howard, an unemployed expatriate from Chicago, have become good friends in the last year. Together, they concoct a plot that will allow Claudia to remain in Venice instead of returning home with her pious and controlling mother, Countess Baggi. Claudia and Louis restore a crumbling palazzo and convert it into a hotel. But the burning of the old La Fenice opera house triggers a series of unforeseeable events.

In this saga of love and redemption, Claudia, Louis, Constanza, Piero, and the Countess come to realize that rebirth is possible from the ashes of devastation.

Order on-line at Powells, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon, or, ask your library to order it. Support your local, independent bookstore, when possible.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Mining for Mollusks in Chicago

As an insolvent University of Mississippi student, one of my fondest memories was Friday afternoons when a battered truck would arrive at my favorite Oxford bar, disgorging a load of fifty-cent oysters fresh from the Gulf (the perfect complement to fifty cent beer).

My friends and I would stake out a booth and wait for the oyster shucker to work his magic before presenting a tray of gleaming split oysters hunkered down in a bed of white ice. These days—though far from the ocean—I needn’t wait for a battered oyster truck—or for Friday.

While oysters appear daily in various forms on the menus of countless Midwestern restaurants, not one of these marvelous-tasting mollusks is remotely native. So how is it that these fragile marine savories appear in fresh and flavorful form on all of these heartland tables?

A Little Oyster History

The story begins at the approach of the 20th century with the establishment of the city’s first oyster restaurant, the Rector House, which acquired oysters from a Long Island Sound supplier whose name became synonymous with high-quality oysters around the country—the Blue Point Oyster Company. Eventually, the waters of Long Island Sound could no longer support oyster beds; however, the Blue Point name stuck and is currently used to describe oysters reminiscent of those originally supplied by Blue Point. Chicagoans developed a taste for the plump and firm ocean goodies as oyster farms sprouted up and down the eastern and western coastlines.

Flash forward nearly a century to the establishment of Shaw’s Crab House in 1984. Shaw’s is ground zero for oysters in the Midwest, and one of the principal purveyors of the mollusks in the country. As this urban institution nears its 20th anniversary, its oyster sales are approaching the eight million mark—nearly an oyster for each resident of the Chicago area.

Oyster Talk

Going directly to the source, I contacted Tod Barber, Shaw’s partner and oyster enthusiast. Barber and his partners man the helm of one of the most successful seafood restaurants in the world—and this more than a thousand miles from the nearest salt water. During our hour-long conversation, he reveals a passion for oysters nearly as deep and swirling as the sea in which his beloved oysters are found.

When asked to explain the popularity of oysters in Chicago, Barber provides the conventional explanation that oysters are plump, meaty morsels with a distinctive, salty flavor that no other seafood can duplicate. However, when he responds to a question about why he enjoys the oyster business in Chicago, his reply is less predictable.

“The best thing about Chicago is O’Hare,” he enthuses. “I can serve oysters from British Columbia or New England within 18 hours of their being pulled from their beds.” (Mollusks are ordered and received within an 18 to 24 hour timeframe and travel packed in ice, but are never frozen.)

Other tricks exist to ensure that oysters endure their long flights as pristine as the moment they were roused from their briny little seabeds. In order to prevent their essential freshness and flavor-preserving juices (a/k/a liquor) from escaping, oysters must be transported on their backs—never on their sides. While these layers of mindless mollusks aren’t demanding massages or an in-flight movie, they do require a little extra leg—er, shell room.

If Shaw’s relies on oysters from the northern oceans, Heaven on Seven’s Jimmy Bannos looks south to the generations’ old farms of Louisiana. New Orleans oyster supplier Val Sevin works primarily with small-time farmers whose harvest goes from a Louisiana bed to a Heaven on Seven table overnight—not bad for a leg-less, wing-less mollusk. Sevin—like Shaw’s Barber—credits O’Hare and FedEx for this amazing feat.

Davis Street Fishmarket in Evanston also acquires its oysters from across the world. Sporting one of the largest after-work oyster bars in the region, Davis Street’s busy crew of oyster shuckers recently prepared 210 of the specimens for one diner who polished them off in just over an hour. Thanks to the wonder of overnight delivery, though, the restaurant’s stocks were replenished within a day.

Myths & Mollusks

There’s a myth to match many unusual foods, and oysters are no exception. While I won’t attempt to dispel their legendary aphrodisiac qualities, I don’t mind discrediting the culinary myth that the shellfish should be eaten only in months with an “R” in them, effectively barring the summer months when split oysters beckon invitingly from a bed of ice. From May to August, when ocean waters warm and oysters spawn, the mollusks turn soft and creamy—instead of being firm—and restaurants and suppliers begin looking for oysters from cooler, northern waters. But you needn’t eschew an oyster just because summer has made its reluctant return to the Midwest.

While the most popular preparations for oysters are raw on the half shell and Rockefeller, other preparations are creeping onto restaurant menus. Randolph Street sushi salon Starfish features a fresh oyster in sake ponzu sauce served with a quail egg, while Shaw’s offers its highly edible oyster biscuits (see recipe below). Further afield, Wicker Park’s Zen parlor Ohba offers a caviar-crowned oyster bathed in a tomato sake broth and served on a bed of seaweed while multi-starred Tru features a chilled sunchoke velouté with curried oyster.

On occasion I miss my carefree school days when fifty cent beers and fifty cent oysters rounded out a week’s simple existence. But then I can’t help feeling pity for anyone, anywhere, who can’t get a fresh oyster any day of the week. And like Tod Barber and Val Sevin, I thank God for O’Hare and its oyster pipeline.
  • Shaw’s Crab House, 21 E. Hubbard St., Chicago; 312.527.2722
  • Heaven on Seven, 600 N. Michigan Ave, Chicago (and other locations); 312.280.7774
  • Davis Street Fishmarket, 501 Davis St; Evanston, IL; 847.869.3474
  • Starfish, 802 W. Randolph St., Chicago; 312.997.2433
  • Ohba, 2049 W. Division St., Chicago; 773.772.2727
  • Tru, 676 N. St. Clair St., Chicago; 312.202.0001

Shaw’s Oyster Biscuits

Yield: 24 2½" biscuits

4 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup grated Jarlsberg cheese
3 cups heavy whipping cream
24 small shucked oysters
½ cup chopped steamed spinach
1 teaspoon fennel seeds

Sift together dry ingredients. Add ½ cup of Jarlsberg. Add whipping cream until just combined. Let dough sit 15 minutes before rolling. Roll to 1/8" thickness. Cut 48 2½" pieces with a cookie cutter.

Place a dab of spinach and cheese on each biscuit and top with an oyster. Seal with top layer of biscuit, brush with cream and sprinkle with fennel seeds. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes.
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