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This Is How I like to Visit California

Last week I ventured back to one of my favorite of our glorious 50 states, The Golden State of California.  This time, however, I hit the road and toured throughout the Central and Northeastern parts of the state.  This was no ordinary road trip though, this was a culinary adventure with California Dream Eater and Visit California.  I spent 5 days traveling from Sacremento to Lake Tahoe and everywhere in between.  Check out some of my favorite Dream Eats I encountered along the way!  

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Eat Travel Rock TV is HERE!

First off, I want to start by saying how appreciative I am of all the support I've received from all my friends, family, and "supporters" since Chantel (my manager/producer) and I began this crazy project.  No one even knew what the hell Eat Travel Rock TV was, yet you all were on board.  Well now it's here and it's LIVE on my site... Just click HERE for all the available episodes... yet you still may not know what the hell it is.

Eat Travel Rock TV came about from the frustration I had while working on other TV projects, coupled with my desire to put my specific brand on camera.  I've had a vision of a show that fully integrates food, music, and travel in a unique and unexpected way.  There is nothing like it on television, nor the internet (as far as I've seen... those interwebs are a mighty huge place).  Plus I get to be ME!  There are no network constrictions, nor producers/directors who don't share my vision and let me do what I want to do and act how I want to act.  

Here are some examples of who you will meet along this journey:  I interviewed Chase Rice at the Windy City Smokeout (music and food, baby!) I interviewed Love and Theft in Key West, FL (music and travel!) I had Ryan Chiaverini give me a guitar lesson in his home (unexpected music!) and I brought Down With Webster to Fulton Market Kitchen.  We have launched 5 episodes today, and we will be releasing 1 episode each Wednesday.

No two episodes are alike, and I have MANY ideas for the future.  Stay tuned for many bands, musicians, famous chefs, innovative restauranteurs, Chicago athletes, notable personalities etc.  I plan to Eat a ton, Travel a bunch, and constantly rock out... so please join me on this journey.  I truly hope you enjoy this labor of love and I welcome your thoughts, feedback, and requests.  Thank you!!

In Theory.....

I love the unexpected.  Especially when the unexpected is a good thing... or better yet, a delicious thing.  Last week I was taking my new production assistant, Raquel, for a beer to talk "shop".  I thought I'd stop into a friendly watering hole, and by friendly I mean the bartender, Liz, is a close friend and the owner, Joel is a fellow Hawkeye.  For those of you who have been to Theory, you probably think of it as a late night Hubbard Street spot or a bustling sports bar that's an awesome place to catch a game while listening to loud hip-hop (all good things).  This is how I always thought of Theory.... more of an upscale sports bar with typical "bar" food.  Not where I would necessarily go for a great dinner or a unique libation.

So much to my surprise, my casual beer turned into some delicious cocktails and about 10 plates of insanely good food.  Right when I sat down and tried to order us two craft beers, Liz said, "No way girl! You're trying one of these new cocktails...this one is named after me!" Low and behold, we had the "Smashed Lizard", the name rings true because after one of these made with Patron silver, Patron citronage, ginger beer with fresh muddled oranges and limes, you may be a bit smashed.  Then Liz and Joel gave me a menu and when I looked it over I was shocked.  These dishes were not what I was expecting, and NOT typical bar food.  I was also intrigued by the fact that they specialize in BBQ.  How did I not know this?!  They smoke all their own meats, in house, low and slow over hickory smoke.  "Alright Raquel, get ready... we're eatin' good tonight!"  Even though this was her first dining experience with me, she is aware of my reputation, and immediately had a look of concern on her face.  She knew it was about to go down.  But, being the good sport that she is, she happily indulged with me, dish after dish, until we were no longer mobile.

Our first taste was my favorite nacho to date.  I say "nacho" because they are served individually.  Perfectly proportioned little bites of heaven... all on one chip.  Theirs include a spicy fried shrimp, a slice of jalapeno, sour cream, pico de gallo, and oozy melty cheese (not the sparse shredded cheese you see on many nachos)... all finished off with a tasty salsa verde.  One of the reasons why I don't order nachos, even though they are all of my favorite food in one pile, is that you always end up fighting with your friends over the "best" chip or most densely populated area of the pile.  With Theory's nachos... all of your friendships can remain in tact.

Next, was an outstanding mac and cheese, and yes, I consider myself a connoisseur of this soothing comfort food.  Theory's version kicked it up several notches (sorry Emeril) by using spicy Cajun shrimp in the thick creamy cheesy sauce.  Finally a BBQ smorgasbord followed.  I was unprepared for just how good this BBQ was going to be.  I was also unprepared for BBQ pulled pork, tater tot Poutine!! WHATTT???  As if Poutine couldn't get any better with just fries, they had to go and add tater tots!?  It was almost too much flavor and deliciousness in one bowl.  But the glory of their BBQ really shined through in the simple dishes.  The BBQ pulled pork slider was simple, and perfect.  Yes, it's very saucy... but not the kind of saucy where they're trying to cover up or add to the flavor of the meat.  They just have a damn good sauce and like to put a lot on it.  Lastly, the BBQ ribs.  Wow.  These baby-back babies were intense with flavor, not too much sauce, but had one hell of a spicy kick.... which made me happy and thirsty at the same time.  But of course, the cole slaw is right there to help you cool down.

Here are the pros.  I found an amazing River North spot for BBQ.  I now know the place to go when I want a delicious yet casual meal with a good cocktail in my neighborhood.  Here are the cons.  I may have scared my new production assistant away as Raquel was expecting a quick beer and she got a full on BBQ festival.  But hey, if you're gonna work with me, ya gotta keep up!!!  Thanks Theory!

MY Favorite Chicago Burgers

I’ve loved burgers for as long as I can remember.  The seeds of love and trust began to germinate when I was a little girl and my dad would take me and my two younger sisters all over Chicago to fun burger and hot dog spots; Byron's, Plush Pup, Wolfy's, etc.  Of course there were the frequent trips to McDonalds, still a fond and comforting reminder of childhood, but it was the authentic Chicago burger joints that really made an impact.

I can appreciate a fancy gourmet burger just as much as the next foodie, but it’s the tried and true, old fashioned, greasy spoon burgers that are near and dear to my heart.  You also can’t go wrong with a classic Steakhouse burger.  My list below is compiled of many of MY Chicago favorites.  I really tried to stay away from the main stream “favorites” that everyone always talks about. Of course we all love Kuma’s Corner, Au Cheval, etc., but I wanted to bring some new flavor to the table… pun intended.  Here are my favorites, in no particular order.

The Lockdown Bar and Grill- Let’s just say I have a deep Burning Love for this next burger.  The Fat Elvis Burger is all kinds of crazy. First off, for those of you who haven’t graced the space that is the Lockdown, be afraid…be very afraid… in a good way.  DO NOT go on a day you have a migraine; as the incessant blast of heavy/death metal is on a decibel level not known to the common restaurant.  But don’t let the hardcore, blood-curdling tunes and the prison-like atmosphere deter you.  For the Fat Elvis Burger really makes this Jailhouse rock.  If you like dessert for dinner, then pull up a chair, you're gonna be quite happy.  They begin with Grand Marnier sautéed bananas and thick cut smokey bacon and pile it on a juicy black Angus patty that happens to be smothered in PEANUT BUTTER.  The decadence is off the charts.  Even though I ate this when I was already stuffed from about 5 other burgers… I couldn’t stop eating it.  The juxtaposition of the sweet with the salty and the savory was sublime.  Worth EVERY screaming calorie.   1024 N. Western Ave. West Town


West Town Bakery-  A bakery?? Somewhat unlikely for one of my favorite burgers.  Yet this fluffy piece of paradise deserves a top spot on the list.  The West Coast double burger with American cheese and special sauce is curiously reminiscent of my favorite NON-Chicago burger, In N Out Burger.  Pretty much everyone on Earth agrees that it doesn’t get any better than In N Out, so here’s a way to get a souped up version of it right here in Chi Town.  It’s melty deliciousness is off the charts, and it’s soft bakery bun gives it a polished finish many “greasy spoon” burgers lack.  The quality and freshness were incredible. A must try.   1916 W. Chicago Ave. West Town

Dusek’s-  Ahhh the Juicy Lucy.  Even though Pilsen is a bit of a hike, going to Dusek’s for all of their food, but especially their burger, is worth every step of the journey.  Yes, the Juicy Lucy is considered a “Gourmet” burger… but that’s ok.  Any burger that is made of Slagel Farm beef automatically scores major points.  This burger is no exception.  The preparation is  unique yet with a recognizable flavor profile.  The thick “local and sustainable” patty is served with a red onion and bacon marmalade that explodes with flavor.  That, along with an heirloom tomato slice and butter lettuce make this burger deliciously well balanced.  It should also be noted the Juicy Lucy is served with Duck Fat Fries.  Yup… these fries are no joke.  Bacon marmalade and duck fat fries on the same plate? Yes Please!!! 1227 W. 18th St. Pilsen

Centro Ristorante-  I can’t remember a time I’ve EVER had a subpar meal at any of the Rosebud Restaurants.  They’re not only known for their exceptional food, but also their consistency.  Centro is their most recent opening, yet it is a revival of one of their very first Rosebud locations, Centro on Wells. But man, this River North spot knows how to do a a Steakhouse burger.  Their Rosebud Burger on a Butter Bun is perfection.  Don’t you dare get it cooked more than medium rare, as this thick juicy patty doesn’t deserve to be dried out.  The butter bun is soft and scrumptious and it needs no more accoutrements than the simple combo of lettuce, tomato, and ketchup.  One of the best steakhouse burgers I’ve ever had.  6 W. Hubbard St. River North

Chop Shop- This is one of my favorite NEW spots in EVERY aspect.  It’s a kick-ass restaurant, it’s an Italian butcher shop, and also an entertainment/live music venue.  It’s everything I love in one spot! But their burger is wonderful and is already scoring them a ton of buzz.  Once again, simplicity and classicism win over pomp and flash.  Their Butcher Burger is comprised of Slagel Farm beef (yay!!), aged cheddar, and smokey bacon.  Cooked perfectly, perfectly seasoned, and perfectly delicious.  This place will be my second home for sure.  Oh, did I mention their incredible cocktail and craft beer menu??? Yea, definitely will be my second home.   2033 W. North Ave. Wicker Park

Odge’s- From the outside, Odge’s looks like a local graffiti artist had a field day.  Inside… well it’s your typical old school Chicago hot dog/burger stand.  The warm cozy nostalgia takes a back seat to the delicious burger.  Double patty, oozy melted American cheese, grilled onions, ketchup, mustard, on a sesame seed bun.  It was perfect and whisked me back to childhood and everything that is great about regional Chicago casual cuisine.  If you want a solid and traditional burger… no frills, but cooked perfectly… check out Odge’s.  730 N. Damen Ave. Ukranian Village

Portillo’s-  As I said this list is in no particular order.  That being said, the Portillo’s cheeseburger is the one I eat most often, and may have to be my all time favorite numero uno.  I’ve really never found another burger that can stand up to, or top this charbroiled masterpiece.  It’s simple, and it’s perfect in every way.  Lettuce, tomato, mayo, and melty American cheese.  Needs NOTHING else…except maybe the occasional bacon upgrade.  Hats off to you, Portillo’s.  You’ve been curing my hangovers and making me happy for many years past, and I'm sure for many years in the future.  100 W. Ontario St. River North

Dillman’s- Au Cheval has gotten more press for their burger than probably any other food item in  Chicago over the last year.  Yes, the Au Cheval burger is glorious in every way… and wow…that egg.  However, I wanted to give props to another Hogsalt Restaurant Group creation… the Dillman’s burger.  Dillman’s is what you get when you cross a Jewish Deli with Bavette’s.  A dark intimate room that serves one hell of a matzah ball soup…and burger.  Imagine an actual quality version of a Big Mac on steroids.  The towering double patty with “sharp” American cheese with dill pickle and dijonnaise is reminiscent of American’s iconic “I’m lovin it” burger.  Only better, wayyyy better.  It’s delicious and needs its own place in the spot light… apart from it’s famous Au Cheval sibling.  354 W. Hubbard St. River North

Edzo’s- Let’s just say when I met the manager, Thom, at Edzo’s he informed me that he’s eaten at least one burger a day for the last 27 years.  I kid you not.  So it says a great deal that he chose to manage the acclaimed Edzo’s in Lincoln Park.  Now he can satisfy his burger obsession easily, often, and with an amazing product.  Edzo’s does the traditional, old-school burger right.  Fresh, never frozen, tasty thin patty with the traditional toppings, ketchup, mustard, pickle and onion.  The also offer a “Slagel Farm Upgrade” which made me so beyond happy.  It’s not everyday that a fast food burger joint will offer the highest quality, local, sustainable, and “animal friendly” meat. So, I of course, tried the “Spicy Sconnie” burger with the Slagel Farm beef.  It’s made with “ketchipotle sauce”, jalepeno infused Merkt’s cheddar, and grilled onions.  It was spicy, sweet, tangy, and unreal.  Loved every bite.  If I were Thom, I could definitely see eating one of these creations on a daily basis.   2218 N. Lincoln Ave. Lincoln Park

The Wiener’s Circle- Chances are, if you’ve ever been to The Wiener’s Circle, you were likely blackout drunk at 3:30 am.  You also probably remember the screaming insult match you got into with the staff instead of the meal you ordered.  So please allow me to refresh your memory.  I’ve been going to this crazy joint for about 15 years now.  And shockingly, I’ve been there in the broad afternoon daylight…as well as in the dark and ominous twilight hours.  Their charbroiled cheeseburger is out of this world.  I do NOT want to know how it’s made, who is making it, or what the sanitation process is, I put the blinders on for this one .  It’s magic on a bun.  The char flavor with that Merkt’s like sharp cheddar sauce that resembles a neon orange greasy form of crack is sinful.  Literally, i’m sure.  I implore you to try it in the light of day… not only will you remember it, but the staff will go a bit easier on you too.  Tip: Do NOT order the “Chocolate Milkshake”.   2622 N. Clark St. Lincoln Park

Dia De Los Muertos...Rick Bayless Style (2013)

I could barely contain my excitement when I received my invite to the Dia De Muertos event hosted by Negra Modelo.  First of all... everyone who knows me knows I'm OBSESSED with Mexican food.  It's my one consistent craving... a craving which I indulge far too often.  Second, Modelo, and Negra Modelo, in particular, are two of my favorite beers.  NOTHING is better than a delicious authentic taco and a crisp Mexican beer to wash it down.  I've even consumed this combo all over the US, all over Mexico, and even in the Domincan Republic.  Yet this perfect pairing of tacos and tamales with the complex Negra Modelo was made even sweeter because it was direct from super celebrity chef, Rick Bayless. Chef Bayless has become famous for his revered Chicago restaurants, Frontera GrillTopolobambo, and Xoco. He's even surpassed the "restauraneur" title and expanded his brand to include cook books, TV Shows, and his Frontera Foods line of salsas, and sauces.  The event was held at Kendall College and the entire event space was transformed into a gorgeous fall landscape with the mystical Mexican holiday, Dia De Los Muertos, taking center stage. Beautifully painted sugar skulls were everywhere and you actually felt as if you were experiencing this time honored tradition as it was meant to be.

Chef Bayless gave a very involved cooking demonstration that was filled not only with useful tip and recipes, but with stories and occurrences that were near and dear to his heart.  He gave us first hand information as to how Dia De Muertos is experienced and carried out among his friends all over small towns in Mexico.  What we learned was not cookie cutter manufactured info from a Mexican chain restaurant, but the intimate details of a deep and meaningful cultural tradition explained to us through Chicago's best Mexican culture and food liaison.

First he taught us how to "build" a basic salsa and guacamole.  He explained that once we knew the basics, that it's easy and fun to add on and improvise.  For his perfect salsa he started by roasting tomatillos and garlic under a broiler.   Mash it up together in a Molcajete, add chopped WHITE onion (Mexico doesn't even grow yellow onions!), cilantro, and chopped chilies, and salt.  So simple yet complex and delicious.  The guacamole is prepared in a similar way.  He mashes the avocados with a potato masher (he feels it should be called an "avocado masher"), seasons with salt and a HINT of lime, and adds jalepenos, white onion, and cilantro.  Then to spice it up even more and expand upon the classic recipe, he added Tomazula hot sauce (his go-to), crumbled queso cotija, and a ton of chopped chicharron!!!  It was an incredible demo because not only did we learn the basics of these integral mexican dishes, but we learned that even to put the unique Rick Bayless spin on it, isn't as complicated as we might have thought.  He gave very detailed instructions on where to locally purchase every common or distinctive item he used- for instance getting the Chicharron at Carnitas Don Pedro in Pilsen.

We were then invited to partake in the gorgeous buffet spread which showcased some of Rick's favorite authentic Mexican dishes.  My favorite, by far, was the corn tamale.  He described it in detail and said that the crema (fresh sour cream) he used was from a local farm that produced the most fresh and delicious cream he had EVER tasted.  He knew right away it would be the perfect compliment to his tamales.  I had to concur.  The entire dish was perfectly balanced with the fresh sweet corn as well as the tasty masa, the tang of the fresh crema, with the saltiness and spice of the queso cotija and the salsa roja.  I was going to go back for "seconds" (and probably "thirds) but the line was insanely long... clearly the word spread fast as to how incredible they were.

Actually meeting Chef Bayless is definitely a rite of passage for any Chicago foodie.  During our chat he was friendly yet soft spoken and he loved talking about Mexico, of course.  I mentioned to him how we have something in common as both of our shows (His- Mexico- One Plate and a Time, and Mine- Food Junkie: Chicago) are filmed and directed by the same director and crew! He seemed excited to discover this common thread and we discussed how amazing our crew is and how much we love working with them.  I just feel honored to have a strong link to this renowned chef and Chicago's very own super-star of Mexican cuisine.

Overall, the event was a blast and a huge success.  Let me tell ya, Negra Modelo really knows how to throw a party! And being able to drink the fine Mexican beer while eating some of the world's best Mexican food, WHILE hanging with Chef Rick Bayless really made it a night to remember... or should I say, Dia De Muertos to remember?! Buen Provecho todos!!!

*Compensation was provided by Crown Imports via Legacy Marketing Partners. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and are not indicative of the opinions or positions of Crown Imports

Neta NYC: Divinity in Dining (2013)

I know I can be quite enthusiastic about my dining experiences and I tend to ooze a multitude of superlatives, yet sometimes; gushing is appropriate. Sometimes even the loudest of applause doesn't properly commend an experience. Dining at Neta in NYC is one of these occasions. I implore you not to dub me "the boy who cried wolf" , but Neta was truly my favorite dining experience...EVER.

I should have known I was in for a culinary adventure when Nick Kokonas (owner: Alinea, The Aviary, Next), explicitly advised me, "If you're going to New York, go to Neta. Get the Omakase. Period. Do not ask questions." Yessir!!! .... and I didn't ask questions. When Nick gives restaurant advice... you take it.

My best friend of 22 years, Jamie, was my partner in crime and (over)indulgence this evening. Even though she is a long time NYC resident... she knows that when I am in town, I will schlep her to about 5 dining establishments each day... usually ending with pizza at 3am. She has just recently learned to go with my flow, and especially after Neta, she'll continue to.

Neta is located in the West Village and was so inconspicuous that Jamie and I walked up and down 8th street about 6 times because we failed to notice the 12pt Times New Roman font sign on one small window. Finally, once we walked in, the minimalist decor was surprisingly inviting. We were thankfully seated at the bar as we couldn't bear to not watch the master sushi craftsmen at work.

After ordering our Omakase (chef's choice, multi-course, prix fixe menu) and a bottle of dry unfiltered sake, Jamie and I became mesmerized by the energy in the kitchen. We have never seen anything like it. It was a hurried harmony... no one spoke, or rushed or moved out of place. It was like a choreographed dance of the white aprons. The service mirrored this dance. I have only seen service this impeccable and attentive at the finest of fine dining establishments. Yet this wasn't stuffy! The staff was so cool and laid back. Our Japanese server, Hiro, was hilarious and sarcastic. When he'd make us laugh and we'd tell him how funny he was he just said, "I'm not funny, I'm Japanese." Hmmmm....

Oh! There was food too! First course, Kani (crab) and cucumber with a smokey ginger vinaigrette, The fresh lump crab was so sweet and fresh and the smooth smokey finish was a perfect compliment. Great way to prepare our palette. Second course, Cobia crudo with daikon radish and a ginger bonita sauce. The Cobia literally melted in my mouth. The third course was my favorite: Scallops, uni (sea urchin) maitaki mushrooms with fresh lime. It was so buttery and rich, smooth and complex... but the acid of the lime cut through it all and balanced it perfectly. We ate this course while the sounds of Notorious B.I.G. "Juicy" boomed in the background.... how appropriate.

Have you ever had fresh corn and truffle formed in a ball and tempura-ed?? Yea, me either.... but Neta thought this was the perfect accompaniment to the Fugu (blowfish) tempura. Damn, they were spot on. I can't help but recollect a Simpson's episode where Homer eats poisonous Fugu and was informed of his imminent demise. Fortunately, Jamie and I survived our run-in with the notorious fish. Deliciously survived. Mmmmmm Fugu.

The piece de resistance was the best shot of tequila i've had to date. The stereotypical looking mixologist came from behind the sushi bar, where he was strategically stationed, and over to our seats. He had a little platter with 2 sake glasses filled with yuzu and ginger granita and a glass filled with smoked salt. He poured the Tequila Ocho over the savory slushy and added the salt with a squeeze of fresh lime. It was like a tequila slurpee, and it was refreshingly perfect. What made it even more perfect, was that these shots (2 rounds of them) were guzzled to "Satisfy My Soul" by Bob Marley. Neta really had the tunes down. It's as if they knew I was comin' in and they made a playlist just for me. It got a bit silly after multiple shots and a huge bottle of sake, as Jamie and I were dancing in our seats and singing (and rapping) along to the music. Sorry not sorry, Neta.

The sushi platter was a rainbow of variety and flavors and textures. It was it's simplicity that was the most impressive. Every bite was savored, and enjoyed.

Drink for drink, and fish for fish, not only was this the best and most thorough sushi experience I've had, but because of the service, music, decor, and creativity, it was the best overall meal i've had. I cannot WAIT to go back...fortunately, NYC, beckons to me about 3 times each year... in the mean time i'll get a bottle of Tequila Ocho to keep me company :)

Oyster Fest And Lee Brice (2012)

When you think of Oysters, do you also think of Country Music?  No? Well in Chicago, we do.  They go hand in hand just like Shaw’s Crab House and Joe’s Bar go hand in hand.  Last week, these two institutions joined forces to put on one hell of an event in River North.  A massive parking lot was transformed and packed full of 4,000 attendees who were visibly hungry for two things… delicious oysters and live country music. Lettuce Entertain You supplied all types of delectable goodies, but their oysters stole the show.  Actually, the oysters shared the spotlight with County Music star Lee Brice.  I’ve met Lee before and we have a ton of mutual friends, so it was a good ol’ time catching up with him on his tour bus before he took the stage. We got to chat about his recent #1 hit and his coveted CMA Award nomination for Best New Artist.  You can catch the entire interview by clicking here.

The crowd seemed to forget how cold this October night was once Lee commanded the stage.  His bold performance, powerful melodies, and poignant yet fun lyrics captivated the audience.  He rocked through his biggest hits:  Hard To Love, A Woman Like You, Love Like Crazy, as well as the fun-time anthem, Beer.   He also surprised me by performing "Crazy Girl."  This was a recent #1 hit by Eli Young Band and one of my favorite songs because of its haunting beauty… I had no idea that it was Lee who penned it... almost a decade ago for an ex-girlfriend.  The outdoor festivities were immensely successful… but we all know the fun couldn't stop there.  The die-hard music fans retreated back to Joe’s for the after party.  Tyler Farr performed to an exuberant crowd and Lee sneaked back on stage for an impromptu performance of MY REQUEST: More Than A Memory!!  Another painfully gorgeous remnant of his songwriting days… which happened to be a #1 hit for an obscure and up-and-coming artist, Garth Brooks. :-)  It's always a pleasure when Lee or any of his buddies (Jerrod Niemann, Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, Jake Owen) visit Joe's.  They're a blast, yet so down-to-earth and easy going.  Can't wait to see when some of the other guys will be coming back... StayTuned!!

Il Mio Viaggio Di Burrata (My Burrata Tour) (2012)

Ciao Tutti! If you're asking, "What's burrata?" It means one of two things:  Either you're not Italian, or you haven't been out to a notable restaurant in the last year or so.  Burrata (or "buttered" in Italian)  has long been known to my fellow countrymen as a delicious delicacy that can be enjoyed any time of a main course, or as an antipasto.  Fortunately, it has become increasingly popular in the U.S. and is springing up on more menus everyday.  For those of you who don't know exactly what it is, here's a little lesson:  Originating from the Puglia region in Southern Italy, it's a fresh cow's milk (and sometimes buffalo's milk) cheese, and is made in a similar way to fresh mozzarella.  It actually consists of an outer shell of fresh mozzarella and a filling of stracciatella and cream.  Stracciatella is basically the leftover shreds of the cheese curds mixed with a heavy cream.  The fresh mozzarella is formed into a pouch and then filled with the stracciatella mixture and then tied off.  It is HIGHLY perishable and must be eaten within 1-3 days after it's made.  There are some reputable burrata producers in the U.S., however, the best stuff still comes from Puglia, and luckily, its import is becoming more common.

I decided to shoulder a huge burden and go out there and find the best burrata in that my trusty readers wouldn't have to take this miserable task upon themselves.  See how selfless I am??  My arduous and backbreaking journey of burrata eating carried me to 5 different venues...shockingly not all of them were in River North :-).  The first three on my list have outstanding burrata are STRONGLY recommended.  (It's important to note that I've tried burrata at several other venues as well, but these were the most unique and memorable...for various reasons.)

Prosecco, a beautiful and upscale River North Italian spot, really knows how to showcase their burrata.  My sister, Kimberly, and I went in strictly to try the burrata appetizer and had no idea we would end up having such a fulfilling experience.  Upon sitting, they offer their patrons a complimentary glass of Prosecco (how appropriate) and a delicious spread of Sicilian caponata...a great intro.  I mentioned to the manager and server that I was going to be writing about their burrata and how I was really looking forward to it...they told me they actually  feature TWO daily burratas.  I said "Bring 'em on!" and "Kimmy, you better eat for once...don't you dare leave me with two huge piles of cheese."  She happily obliged when she saw what was presented to us.  One burrata had a bit of a Caprese vibe, with basil and a balsamic/olive oil drizzle, yet featured sun-dried tomatoes and prociutto...delicious.  The second variation, their "special", was brilliance on a plate.  The marriage of grilled peaches with pistachios and a honey-balsamic glaze was sublime.  Even Chef Mark Sparacino came to greet us and explain how they import their burrata directly from Puglia twice weekly so it really is the best of the best.  He also noted that their daily special is always made with the freshest fruit of the season and designed to compliment the daily dinner and wine specials.

Many of you know I really can't shut up about RPM Italian, and their burrata is one of the main reasons why. A traditional preparation for burrata, especially as an app, will usually have some greens (likely arugula), some sort of sweet component on toasty grilled bread.  RPM stays true to tradition and serves their incredibly high quality burrata with fresh arugula, a delicious sweet and tangy tomato jam on crusty crostini all topped with a nutty and fragrant olive oil.  It's really a show stopper and how I always start my meals at RPM.

My third restaurant (although I would rate the burrata as "tied" with RPM)  is a bit unexpected as it's NOT an Italian restaurant.  Tavernita does, however, like to incorporate several different Mediterranean influences into it's cuisine... and bringing in the burrata was an excellent choice.  Even though Chef Ryan Poli traveled around and lived in Spain for 2 years, burrata was not something he typically ate while there.  He came up with his "Pan con Burrata" on his own, as he felt burrata was the most luxurious cheese available that would compliment the toasty crostini with the complex sweetness of the tomato marmalade.  A drizzle of Spanish olive oil finishes off this small bite of perfection.  I also love how the dish is already assembled for you...with the perfect ratio of ingredients, as most restaurants require you to mix/build everything yourself.

Gilt Bar was another non-Italian restaurant to have burrata as an appetizer.   The burrata they feature threw me off a bit because it is very non-traditional, yet it intrigued me.  It is served on a colorful bed of smashed peas and mint along with pickled green onions.  The presentation was gorgeous yet I felt the flavor was lacking.  There was a minty sweetness from the peas and the burrata was fresh with great flavor, but it lacked a kick from an acid (such as vinegar or fruit) that should usually accompany the dish.  An interesting concept that didn't fully deliver.

Last on my list is the "Burrata and Sea Urchin" from Nelcotte.  Nelcotte has an eclectic "small plates" menu that gets it right on so many levels (like their milled in-house pizza).  That ain't the case with the burrata.  In order to be fair, I actually went back TWICE to try this case my palette was a bit "off" the first time.  Turns out my palette was just fine... the mixture of the salty/fishy sea urchin with the creamy cheese flavor of the burrata did not work.  In fact it scared me.  Sea urchin is not too big on my list of favorite delicacies to begin with, and to mix it with an Italian cheese like burrata was highly unorthodox.  The burrata itself was a sparse portion which featured more of the "mozzarella shell" and less of the creamy interior mixture.  I can understand and appreciate how they were trying to accomplish a bold flavor profile, but somethings are just not meant to go together.  This is a classic example of why seafood and cheese should usually be kept separate.

If you only have one night out and are just dying to try the best burrata in Chicago, go to Prosecco.  Not only do they have the freshest and  tastiest preparation, but they have a version that changes daily, so you're always in for a pleasant surprise.  If you can actually get a table at RPM Italian or Tavernita, then you must try their burrata as well...some of my favorite dishes in town.  Regardless, whether you're a big fan of this Italian delicacy or a newbie, hopefully you'll get out there and order it for you next meal!  Buon' appetito!!

Foodie Pilgrimage to New Orleans (2012)

This past weekend I took my first ever trip to The Big Easy. It was a long time in the making as I think I've tried every year since I was 21 to head on down to NOLA, the trip just never materialized. Finally, it happened, and the timing of this trip was perfect. It came at a point in my own life where I have been heartily pursuing culinary knowledge, while simultaneously, the city was being recognized as a foodie and culinary Mecca in our country. Travel and Leisure Magazine actually named it the top Foodie city in the U.S. in late 2011. Because of all the hype surrounding it, I knew I would be eating (and drinking...lots of drinking) very well. It also didn't hurt that I was traveling with several foodie masters who make my culinary knowledge look as if it hasn't yet left the Pop-tarts and Spaghettios phase. Among my companions were award winning restauranteurs, chefs, and let's just say I had some good tour guides.

The second I landed I had a big taste for Po'Boys, as this is what I pictured N'awlins food to be. I soon discovered there was so much more to the dining scene than traditional and stereotypical cajun cuisine. It was interesting to discover how most establishments pay homage to the traditional yet expand upon it to make it more contemporary. My first lunch was at a new restaurant called SoBou in the French Quarter. Its bold and quirky design element visually captivated you immediately as you stepped foot in the door. They went the "small plates" route and we tried about 10 different items. They were all so unique and quite delicious. One of my favorites was the Yellowfin Tuna Cone made with pineapple/coconut tuna tartar with a scoop of basil and avocado ice cream. It was awesome and unlike anything I've had. Tuna tartar and ice cream?!?! It worked beautifully. Another cool dish was the Crispy Oyster Taco (oysters appear in EVERYTHING in NOLA). It was made with pineapple ceviche and cajun ghost pepper caviar. The oysters were perfectly fried and popped when you bit into them and the refreshing sweetness of the pineapple counteracted the heat of the ghost peppers. We also had Sticky Pork Belly, Duck and Butternut Beignets, and the Suckling Pig Cuban Sandwich. Everything was delicious and a great first meal for me. However, this was my also my intro to what would become the central theme for our trip... the bizarre world of subpar New Orleans service. This was the first of several times that EVERY single dish we ordered showed up at the same time. We couldn't even fit all the food on our tiny table! This would never happen at Chicago restaurants...with small plates, food should arrive as it's ready. It should be eaten in stages and as a journey... not as an overwhelming downpour.

We all had an incredible experience, however, at Cochon. Chef Donald Links created a "Cajun Southern Cooking" menu and built a trendy, energetic, and visually appealing restaurant around it. Each of his “small plates” dishes was rooted in classic cajun cuisine, yet he put a totally modern interpretation on the preparation and presentation. Every single dish we tried was bold and completely delicious…and I think we had everything on the menu. Some dishes were so good we had to order them in duplicate and triplicate. The standouts were the wood-fired oysters, the crab cake with cucumber buttermilk and English peas, and the fried livers with red pepper jelly on toast…although it’s hard to choose my fave as everything was awesome. Seriously, just look at this menu and tell me that you don’t wanna hop on the next flight down to Loooosiana. And hey, the service was quite alright…

Finally, I had the pleasure of dining at a restaurant I’ve wanted to try for years. Ever since I was 20 years old and starting watching the Food Network, I’ve been a fan of Emeril Lagasse. Even though he can be quite obnoxious with his “BAMs” and “Kick it Up a Notches”, there’s no doubt he’s been a pioneer in his industry and a brilliant chef (and I would argue the first celebrity chef). The food was incredible and the service, for New Orleans, was quite decent. The New Orleans BBQ Shrimp is a classic signature dish of his, and I can see why…we also had the Pasta with smoked mushrooms and house made tasso cream sauce. This might have been one of my favorite dishes of the entire trip. The flavor was beyond complex and the smokiness of the mushrooms and smokiness of the ham went together so sublimely. Even though I have eaten at a couple of Emeril’s other restaurants (in Vegas of course) this one clearly stands out. It’s the original and has proven it has major staying power…a must try if you’re in New Orleans.

I guess I did do a few other things on my trip besides eat...but those activities are just a blur. Actually I can somehow remember a couple drinks I was ecstatic to discover. You have to check out The Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street. It's an OLD (since 1807) dive bar with a rickety old juke box...but they have a bad ass selection of Absinthe. The bartenders are super knowledgeable and can really walk you through different tastes, styles, countries, etc. They do the traditional pour and it was my favorite way to kick off my afternoons and end my evenings (I know that sounds bad...but hey, it was a vacay). The other super classy and fancy drink I discovered is able to be found about every 50 ft up and down Bourbon Street. Just look for one of the places with the frozen rotating slushy machines. They all have their own frozen "Jungle Juice" concoction. It's made with Everclear and even though it tastes like an ICEE, it will have you on your ass after about 5 sips. They serve it in a very luxurious 20 oz styrofoam cup and it's worth every penny of the $9 you spend on it. Shockingly, the hangovers from them are not nearly bad as you would expect.

New Orleans is a special and interesting town, and if you have never can't even begin to picture it's true nature. It's a "must see" at some point in every American's life. The history is rich, the party scene is strong, and the food is world class. I'm thrilled I was able to experience the best of the town and with other people who could really appreciate all that it has to offer. An

Three New Restaurants- Trencherman, Untitled, Pelago (2012)

I've had the pleasure of dining at three new restaurants over the last 10 days. I'm excited I get to combine these three experiences into one review because each establishment was completely unique and stands out so vividly.

Trencherman in Wicker Park (2039 W. North Ave) just opened its doors in the space that used to be Spring... and formerly a Turkish bath house. The decor is striking. For those of you who remember Spring, prepare to be shocked at the complete 180. The large open room is reminiscent of an upscale saloon with rich browns and woods and buttery leather booths. I got to meet both exec chefs... The Sheerin brothers. Michael and Patrick (of Blackbird and The Signature Room prestige, respectively) were delightful, funny, and incredibly helpful while walking us through their creations. The beverage and food menus are not extensive yet very potent and aggressive. My first selection was a drink appropriately called "El Viaje" (The Trip) as it was a delicious blend of Mezcal, pineapple, and Absinthe (my fave).

We moved right down the menu and selected some of the most interesting looking dishes. First, the Scallops- with avgolemono (egg lemon) sauce and asparagus seeds. Enticing indeed. The scallops were cooked perfectly and the Greek touch of the avgolemono was a pleasant surprise. I've never had an asparagus seed before. They look like peas but are bit more hardy with a very bitter taste. Overall a great dish. Next, the Bacon Cured Sweetbreads. Fantastic. Another first for me as I've tried to put off trying sweetbreads as I didn't think cow glands were my thing...but apparently, they are! The sweetbreads were tender and incredibly smokey and the XO sauce gave it a sweet kick that finished it off nicely. One entree which I thought to be too ambitious was the Black Olive and Sesame Crusted Sea Trout served with hummus and roasted beets. I was really hoping for a heavy Mediterranean flavor but the olive crust didn't really deliver what I was hoping. The hummus was great but the trout was a tad fishy. This dish could use some tweaking. The Braised Pork Belly did not disappoint, however. Drizzled with coconut, vanilla, plums, and sorghum- the perfectly crusted pork belly seemed to adopt the flavor of bubble gum which we found out from the chefs was intentional. Sounds weird... tastes amazing. Overall, incredible drinks and a delicious meal.

Untitled is cool as hell. Look closely for a black double door at 111 W. Kinzie, because it's hard to find. This massive 18,000 sf underground venue on one level tries to bring us back to the speakeasy/prohibition era. Decor and lighting are rustic yet beautiful. They boast several themed rooms such as "The Whiskey Room" which has the country's largest collection of American Whiskey, a martini room, and a live entertainment room with a supper club and a huge stage. The menu was supposed to be a modern take on some throw-back prohibition era dishes. I don't quite see that as I can't quite picture flappers in the roaring 20's dining on Pork Belly Confit with Rhubarb Mostarda...but hey, it's a cool shtick. Regardless, the menu is unique and varied. Some of my favorite items which killed it are the Grilled Peach and Arugula Salad with cured Virginia ham and Goat cheese, the Grit Cakes with tomato jam, the Pork Belly Confit, and the Short Rib and Scallop with herb bread pudding.

The absolute standout is the Crispy Squash Blossoms with truffle honey, farmer's cheese, piperade puree. They're lightly breaded and fried and the cheese and corn mixture oozes when you cut into it, and when mixed with the truffle honey... it's like heaven on a plate. Overall it's a small plate menu with a few main courses. The Bison burger with house-made giardinara, tomato marmalade, arugula, and goat cheese was incredibly complex and literally melts in your mouth. This is a great place for a night out with the girls (or boys) or a great place to take a date. They have live music nightly and the amped up energy will make you want to come back again and again.

Pelago is not a brand new restaurant (just over 2 years old) but it's getting a resurgence from all of the heightened activity at the now hot-spot Raffaello Hotel (Drum Bar). It's a small space with only 60 seats inside, but it's gorgeous. The proprietors are a husband-wife duo, Mauro Mafrici (executive chef) and Kimberly Mafrici (interior designer). The service was friendly and attentive, and after some crisp rose champagne, the menu was upon us. Mauro has Northern and Southern Italian roots and his menu reflects as such. He has a very inventive approach to some of the traditional classics. The Polipo alla Griglia con Capponata alla Siciliana (grilled octopus) had a delicious flavor but was slightly undercooked (I had to try it though because it's Sicilian...gotta represent). The restaurant redeemed itself by presenting the most tantalizing array of pastas I've had...maybe ever. The Ravioli di Vitello in Salsa al Pistacchio(veal stuffed ravioli with pistachio cream sauce) was the most exciting dish i've had in a while. The pistachio was understated and the pasta was cooked perfectly 'al dente' and the veal mixture was light and perfectly seasoned. All topped off with a very high quality nutty parmesan. Complimenting it perfectly was the Fettucini with a truffle cream sauce (a special) , and the Maccheroncini al Ragu`D`Agnello (tube shaped pasta with hearty lamb ragu).

For the main course we tried the Coniglio al Forno Con Patate, Tomato e Salvia (roasted rabbit with vegetables and sage). I was ridiculously excited for this dish, yet unfortunately, it didn't quite live up to my expectations. The rabbit was cooked nicely as were the veggies, however the heavy use of sage and rosemary overwhelmed the dish. A warning: This restaurant is VERY pricey. Overall, it was an engaging dining experience that takes you on a delectable tour of Italy...and if you're in the mood for a very expensive tour of Italy...then this restaurant is for you.

I hope my next 10 days prove to be as much of a culinary adventure as my last 10 days... if so, you know I won't be able to shut up about it. Stay tuned!