Dining and food culture in Chicago

Comfort Me: Mary Nguyen Aregoni of Saigon Sisters

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PhoBy David Hammond

One of my earliest memories is being home from school, sick, slurping soup prepared by my Italian grandmother. As a kid, I thought this soup, pastina, was my grandmother’s invention, made especially for me. The recipe for pastina is simple: chicken broth with lots of garlic and, crucially, little pasta stars (tiny letters of the alphabet will not do!).

As I got older, I came to understand that pastina was a classic cold-flu remedy enjoyed by generations of the young and old…even non-Italians. That realization had no effect upon my belief that this soup was, beyond a doubt, magic.

As my cousin Karen used to say, “Pastina is to be eaten with Kleenex.” This soup is warm and salty, so it opens up the sinuses, relieving pressure and other cold symptoms.

My Aunt Rosemarie confirmed the power of pastina and told me she once “felt her fever break” while eating pastina. “It was very dramatic,” she added, convincingly.

Chicken broth and garlic are, of course, well-known folk cures for the common cold, but even if the pastina had no measurable curative effects, it did, at least comfort me in my illness. Read the rest of this entry »

Liquid Limits: Joining the Juicing Club with Cleanse Culture

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cleanse-culture-signature-cleanseBy Amber Gibson

Like the raw food craze, juicing may have started as a West Coast trend, but it’s gained plenty of traction in Chicago, with companies like Peeled, JuiceRx and BluePrint promising to clean out your internal organs with their colorful concoctions. This spring, Chef Jared Van Camp and Element Collective (the team behind Nellcote, Old Town Social, Leghorn and Kinmont) join the fray, opening cold-pressed juice bar Owen + Alchemy in Logan Square (2355 North Milwaukee).

The newest player on the local cleansing scene is Cleanse Culture, founded by Nicole Kasal, formerly of JuiceRx. Cleanses can be as short as one or two days to as long as a week or more for the deepest cleanse. Standard cleanses are three days and that’s what I tried.

Eating is such a pleasurable part of my life, so I was skeptical and a little nervous to try cleansing. Skipping delectable wine dinners and dessert tastings was painful. But I was very curious as to how I would feel and how my body would respond. Would cleansing feel like deprivation or would I feel energized with radiant skin like models in advertisements would lead me to believe? Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Erick Williams of County Barbeque

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Erick Williams, County Barbecue,  courtesy David Hammond

Erick Williams by David Hammond

By David Hammond

People speak of it fondly, and chefs say they serve it, but what, exactly, is “comfort food”?

The concept of comfort food is uncertain. It varies by geographic location, ethnic heritage and generation. The cherished comfort food of an Eisenhower-era Midwesterner is not going to be the same as the comfort food of an Eastern-European millennial. Some believe comfort food must be something one ate when young, foods that warm the heart with thoughts of family and home. Not surprisingly, many of our comfort foods seem to have been prepared, at least the first time, by our mothers or grandmothers.

Some commonly cited comfort foods—like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and noodle casserole—are all relatively high in fat and carbs, with soft texture and mild seasoning. Are these attributes common to all comfort food? Read the rest of this entry »

Manila Moment? Why Filipino Food Still Flies Under Chicago’s Radar

Filipino, Lakeview, River North, Trends & Essays No Comments »
Pancit canton at Sunda

Pancit canton at Sunda/Photo: Amber Gibson

By Amber Gibson

National food personalities like Andrew Zimmern have touted Filipino cuisine as an emerging  trend, but here in Chicago the scene still seems lacking. While there are several neighborhood Filipino eateries in Chicago, none have a particularly high profile. If Tanta has made Peruvian food mainstream, there’s no trendy River North equivalent for the Pacific island nation. Sunda arguably comes closest, albeit with a Pan-Asian label. However, there are more than a few chefs with Filipino heritage helming restaurants around town. Some of the creative dishes you’re chowing down on at restaurants like The Refinery, E+O, Sunda and Pecking Order have Filipino roots.

Rodelio Aglibot, one of the most prominent Filipino chefs in town, is known for his “new Asian” cuisine. He brought Filipino food into the spotlight when he opened Sunda in 2009. Now, he’s helming the kitchen at E+O in Mount Prospect, where the eclectic menu includes steak, sushi and pizza along with a few Filipino signatures.

Read the rest of this entry »

Savory Santa: Holiday 2013 Foodie Gift Guide

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6 5.6MBZayna Cuffins 2 Zayna CuffinsFor the cheesehead
Pastoral – Celebrate regional cheese and accompaniments with the Best of the Midwest collection ($69.99) featuring goat’s milk, cow’s milk and raw cow’s milk cheeses from Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin. Also included are Potter’s organic crackers and Minnesota honey to drizzle over the selection. 2945 North Broadway, (773)472-4781. shop.pastoralartisan.com

For the dilettante cocktailer
Stu’s – Their Bloody Mary mixology kit ($35) has everything you need to impress your friends at a party, brunch or tailgate. A couple bottles of Stu’s concentrated Bloody Mary mix are accompanied by a fiery ghost pepper sauce since some like it hot. Key lime juice and a sweet corn celery salt rimmer balance out the heat. Pick one up at Binny’s, Plum Market or Anthropologie. stuskitchen.com Read the rest of this entry »

Sugar Freedom: Chef Homaro Cantu and his Magnificent Miracle Berry Obsession

Trends & Essays, West Loop No Comments »
Photo: Michael Silberman

Photo: Michael Silberman

By Amber Gibson

Chef Homaro Cantu can make cheesecake without sugar, fat or cheese. Instead, all he needs is a spoonful of non-fat sour cream, a lemon wedge and a miracle berry tablet. Lemon and sour cream might not sound like dessert, but the miracle of the berry is that it makes these two ingredients taste better than Eli’s Cheesecake.

Cantu, a molecular gastronomer, among other things, has spent more than eight years researching the rare miracle berry, which temporarily makes sour things taste sweet. At a recent cooking class at his Michelin-starred Moto restaurant, he demonstrated to wide-eyed guests how easy miracle berries are to use.

“You just made cheesecake in a split second,” Cantu tells his class of fourteen students, after they diligently squeeze several drops of lemon juice over their servings of non-fat sour cream. After exchanging incredulous looks, one by one each person eats a miracle berry, then tries the sour cream. It’s unanimous. This stuff tastes good. Read the rest of this entry »

Three’s Company: No Such Thing as Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

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Sunday Dinner chef team

Sunday Dinner Club chef team

By Matt Kirouac

Sous chefs are the axle that keep kitchens from falling apart while going 75 mph on the highway. They’re the Abu to the chef’s Aladdin, the Piglet to their Winnie the Pooh, and the Sam to their Frodo. And we KNOW that Frodo would be stranded up shit creek without Sam. The executive chef/sous chef dynamic is a familiar one, and it’s a formula we all understand, at least to some degree. But what about those kitchens that run on two executive chefs? What happens when Sam has to cater to two Frodos? It’s an unsettling thought, but it happens, and sous chefs are forced to acclimate to this unique combination. In Chicago, the two chefs-plus-one sous chef trifecta runs smoothly (for the most part) for the likes of Sunday Dinner Club, Autre Monde Cafe & Spirits, and Trenchermen. Read the rest of this entry »

The People’s Foodie: What Alpana Singh is Learning About Restaurants After “Check, Please!”

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Photo: Anthony Tahlier Photography

Photo: Anthony Tahlier Photography

By Eric Lutz

I should admit, before we proceed, that I was one of the many Chicagoans who dropped their forks in sadness when I learned Alpana Singh was leaving “Check, Please!”—the show she’s hosted for the last ten years—to open her own restaurant.

I’m a professional journalist in my mid-twenties, so you can guess what my annual income is. Suffice it to say, after rent and groceries and gas and a couple nights at the local watering hole, there’s not much left to be a serious foodie. But you didn’t have to be to love watching “Check, Please!”—alongside the four-star restaurants most of us could only dream of affording, there were BYOs and greasy spoons and food trucks much more in the financial wheelhouse of those of us making hourly.

As Singh will tell you, a big part of the show’s populist appeal were the people themselves. Each week, three random Chicagoans got together to talk about their favorite restaurants—that’s going to bring about populism the same way sitting three random movie goers down to review the latest releases at the multiplex would.

But as the knowing yet hugely accessible host, Singh granted the reviewers legitimacy. She gave meaning and weight to the criticisms and compliments the three guests each week served the restaurants. It’s one thing for three regular Chicagoans to sit around and opine about food, but it’s another thing entirely for the youngest woman to ever be a Master Sommelier and the former director of wine and spirits for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and all-around restaurant expert to present those opinions as valid and important and even prescient. Read the rest of this entry »

Life’s Peculiar Recipes: What Chefs Were Before They Were Chefs

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Paul Virant's dream career?

Paul Virant’s dream career?

By Matt Kirouac

When I was young, I wanted to grow up to be a marine biologist, mostly because I assumed it involved swimming in tanks at aquariums and bonding with animals that wouldn’t bite my leg off. Then “Jaws” ruined my life, and I decided I wanted to be a boat salesman, because I would be safe from a watery massacre, yet still sort of involved in marine life. I liked water. So it makes complete sense that I am a writer today. At least there is no threat of sharks. I suppose we all go through drastic changes of job dreams. For some, we aspire to different things at young ages, and others go so far as to pursue different careers before changing tracks down the road. This is true of plenty of chefs, who either dreamed of different careers or actually achieved them before veering down the culinary path.

The Dream Chasers

Joshua Kulp, chef/partner of Sunday Dinner Club and forthcoming Honey Butter Fried Chicken, has seemingly lived the lives of several different people. It’s remarkable that he has already managed to have a full-fledged teaching career, and then shifted to become a chef. His reasoning behind the two seemingly divergent routes makes sense, though. For him, it’s all about making an impact in the world, be it by educating youth or changing people’s perceptions about food. When he was younger, he thought jobs had to make an impact, and he didn’t know he could do this with something creative (e.g. a chef). Though he loved cooking, it wasn’t initially a career option. While attending school in Madison, Wisconsin, he ran a coffee shop using fair trade coffee and local, sustainable products, and he even spent four years in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s patients. This made him realize how important and life-changing one single moment could be. This ideology parlays to cooking, as one special bite can change someone’s thinking about food forever. But first came teaching. Read the rest of this entry »

Drunken Doughnuts: A Homeric Fantasy Comes to Life

Pastry, Trends & Essays No Comments »
Three Aces doughnuts By Matt Kirouac
Who would have thought that Homer Simpson would have been such a trendsetting foodie? Long before hordes first queued up outside Doughnut Vault, the portly yellow cartoon was scarfing doughnuts. Now it looks like he’s ahead of the trend yet again, as more and more doughnut-slingers are pairing doughnuts with booze, and if there’s one thing Homer likes as much as doughnuts, it’s the sauce. With the spate of boozy doughnut desserts around town these days, I have a feeling Homer would feel right at home in Chicago. Gone are the days when doughnuts were viewed solely as coffee companions at breakfast. Now you don’t need to sneak your flask into bakeries! From whiskey to ouzo, doughnuts are getting tipsy all over town.
Boiler Room is a bar that serves pizza and doughnuts. The only way this place could get any better is if Moe Szyslak was on staff. Soft-serve ice cream has been a menu mainstay since opening in 2010, and as the kitchen recently sought to expand their dessert offerings, they wanted something that would supplement the ice cream tastefully. The aptly named “drunkin’ donuts” are four deep-fried dough balls coated with powdered sugar and cinnamon, served with a side of Jameson soft-serve ice cream for dipping. Fried to order, the hot and cold combination, compounded with the bitter bite of the Jameson against the sweet doughnuts, strikes the perfect balance of flavor.  Read the rest of this entry »