Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Eye candy.

There is a phase, "you eat with your eyes first." This is the story about the Chicago-based private chefs, Seth and Ryan, who created Nude Dude Food, and their quest to bring this phrase to life. It's also the story of our friend Meg's 40th surprise birthday where the charming duo were our chefs for the evening.

Our elaborate rouse to get Meg to the chef's house for dinner was that she was going to attend an event for the production of The Doppelganger and its cast including Rainn Wilson from The Office. The look on her face was priceless when she was greeted by two men wearing aprons who wished her a happy birthday.

While our party was the chefs' first client dinner in their home, we were treated to a lovely experience from the moment we walked in the door. Their hospitality was truly on par with that of a high-end restaurant yet in a far more relaxed setting complete with candlelight and dinner at their farmhouse table.

The birthday girl with her chefs for the evening:

I'll note that the guys said they could wear their chefs jackets if we preferred and they often do. However, we did not request the chefs jackets. Do you blame us? 

Our menu for the evening.

The Nude Dude Food guys, who are self taught chefs and have been friends since high school, will customize any menu for your event including a variety of special diets. We all brought wine and I brought a 2015 Yamhill Valley Oregon pinot that I found at Vin

Now for the food:

The first bite of the evening was their homemade sourdough bread with herbed butter. If you follow them on social media (and you should) then you've likely seen this. I was super psyched to try it. Plus, check out the butter. If you've traveled with me overseas you know I stock up on European butter for the duration of the trip. I inquired about their starter which is around three years old - making the bread that much better.

Second bite:

The second small bite was crostini with homemade ricotta, roasted brussels and drizzled with honey. This was my second favorite bite of the night. 

The standout:

The aloo samosas were the highlight of the meal. The cilantro/mint chutney and tamarind chutney were bright, fresh and authentic. The samosas were crispy and doughy and I'm wondering if the NDF guys would consider a take out or delivery option. Considering this was a trial run of the samosas, I'd say they hit it out of the park.

Malaysian beef:

Then we had the "Nonya-style" flank steak or grandmother-style in Malaysia. The marinade consisted of oyster sauce, soy, garlic and anise seed and was served with a coconut milk and palm sugar sweet and sour sauce, seasoned with fish sauce.  

 I was dreaming of this the following day. I would have slathered two sourdough slices with the herbed butter added the leftovers of this dish and created a Malaysian beef sandwich. 

Crack shrimp:

Then we were served the crack shrimp served with an Urfa Biber chili remoulade. Named for the unique spice blend that was created by a family friend the chefs. You can buy it here -- which I plan to do soon. Urfa Biber is a Turkish pepper that is left to dry in the sun and covered with plastic wrap at night in order to retain its natural moisture and oil. I hadn't tried this before so I was excited to try something new.

The final course:

We sat at the farmhouse table surrounded by a wall of kitchenware and were served the main course of farro and grilled vegetables and Puerto Rican chicken. The chicken is first dry brined in spices, grilled and also basted with annatto oil. Served with a celery root potato mash and rounded out with a radish and celery root salad. 

The coziness:

We spent most of our evening in their living room sitting on the couches, chatting and drinking wine, as if we were in our own home. I'm a sucker for a good fireplace and loved the mantle decorated with Chicago pride and a dozen or more candles that created a warm ambience for us. 

After the meal was finished, and plates had been cleared, the guys had a glass of wine with us and we got to know our hosts and new friends a bit more. At our request after spying dog bowls, Ryan's two dogs made an appearance to get some attention from the ladies and more importantly, a few bites of the food.

(Photo cred: NDF)

If you're looking for a unique private dining experience, no matter where you are in the country, check out the Nude Dude Food guys. The food is fantastic and you'll be in for a fun evening. 

With any luck we'll book these guys for all of our upcoming birthday dinners. Surprise party or not. 

Your friend,

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Italian Dinner Party.


It's not a secret that I love restaurants. I've loved restaurants even as a baby. My parents love to tell the story about how I just knew I was somewhere special when I was in a restaurant. As a teenager, if there was the mention of going out to dinner - that's what I would be excited about all day. Movies? Nah. Dinner? Yes!

Even now, I skim a menu before arriving. I read travel and food blogs and make reservations weeks in advance. But, a lesser known secret is I often prefer to cook. It's cathartic and if I'm cooking for someone else, I'm tremendously happy.

During my last visit overseas, we were on Italian soil for roughly 48 hours. The highlight of the larger trip, and probably 2017, was visiting our friend Andrea and attending an intimate dinner party at his girlfriend Giorgia's house in a small town of Montegaldella near Padova.

Giorgia, who is in the fashion industry, is a warm and inviting person, from the moment you meet her. Even though we were surrounded by four other native Italian speakers - we felt like we belonged.

For dinner Giorgia prepared a selection of appetizers and pumpkin risotto for the main course. She also served a great deal of wine, Andrea being in the wine industry certainly helped I'm sure. Channeling these moments in Italy, I made risotto last night exactly the way my kind Italian friend does.

I'll warn you, the technique breaks the typical style of how American risotto is made and we (me) hotly debated the use of butter at the end. Andrea, in his thick Italian accent said, "No, Carolina, absolutely no butter! Anyone can make risotto creamy with butter. The trick is to not use butter."

I'm not sure if I was rendered speechless because I haven't been called Carolina since my Italian great grandmother passed away or that butter was banished. Butter makes everything better, I argued quietly in my head. But, I listened. And now, I'll share it with you.

Here are the details:
Olive oil
Two shallots
Garlic. I used one clove.
Butternut squash or pumpkin
Arborio rice. 1.5 cups
Vegetable or chicken stock - I used what I made previously and froze. 4 cups. Heated on the stove.
White wine. Somewhere between 1-1.5 cups
Salt/pepper to taste
Taleggio cheese

The trick to the Italian-style risotto that we had is to heat the olive oil, add the shallots and garlic until they soften. Then add the squash and let it cook down. After a few minutes, add the rice and stir everything together.

This was a departure for me, yet I studied my Italian teachers.

Add the white wine. I used what I had on hand -- a Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc. I'd say a cup is enough. Possibly a scant more.

Once the wine has cooked down, add a ladle or two of warm broth. Stir frequently and repeat until the broth is finished. I ended up using probably five cups.

While the rice is cooking, I heated more olive oil in a pan and added the sage until it was crispy. Allow to dry on a paper towel and I add a tiny bit of salt. Reserve until the end.

Slice the buttery, creamy tallegio.

Once the rice has absorbed all of the broth and it's not crunchy - add the cheese. Stir until it's melted and creamy. To me, this is what the butter adds. I honestly, don't think I'll add butter to my risotto ever again. Ever. And to put it gently, I love butter. I think we're getting serious.

Adding the taleggio just gives the dish added depth that the butter couldn't.

Once the cheese has melted, add the crispy sage on top. As evidenced below, I like a lot of crispy sage.

Back in Italy, and once the risotto was finished, our adorable Italian host served us slices of warm pear and chocolate panettone with a glass of prosecco to cap off our night.

I've had plenty of panettone in my life, but never once warm. The chocolate was ever so slightly melted and the pear was a perfect pairing to the chocolate.

My eyes were fully opened on this trip for a dozen reasons. Two tiny takeaways are: I will only add taleggio to my risotto and I will always serve panettone warm with a bottle of prosecco.

Should you make this, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did in Italy and in Chicago.

Ciao ciao ciao.

Your friend,

Saturday, March 24, 2018

National Cocktail Day.

Hi friends,
National Cocktail Day follows National Puppy Day. And, I think the timing is pretty fitting for this post.

To celebrate the former, I'm sharing four of my favorite cocktails from around the world and around the corner.

1. The Serendipity at The Bar Hemingway. The Ritz, Paris. 

Standing at 30 euro, this drink is a treat. And I think it's worth every euro because the experience wraps a few of my favorite things into one. Here's why:

Serendipity is a favorite word of mine - meaning a happy accident or finding something you needed when you weren't looking - which is how I try to experience my time in Paris and my life in general. When I saw the drink on the menu in the tiny, iconic bar in Paris, I ordered it.

The cocktail, that's a better version of a mojito, has fresh mint, calvados (apple brandy from Normandy), apple juice and champagne (it is Paris after all). I may have purchased a bottle of calvados just to make this drink and sit on my patio during the hot Chicago summer.

But, what I really love about going to The Bar Hemingway is its storied past. F. Scott Fitzgerald had a favorite seat here and the eponymous writer was a regular during his time in Paris.

Fun fact: The menu itself is available for purchase for 5 euro. On our way out, I was gifted two. One is framed and now hangs in my office. I can't say enough about this beautiful spot that we ended up visiting through an act of serendipity itself. If you find yourself in Paris, go to The Bar Hemingway for one drink. Maybe you'll share the same seat as F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway.

À votre santé.

2. The  Bellini at Harry's Bar. Venice. 
When in Venice your visit should include a stop at this national landmark. The classic cocktail served and invented at Harry's Bar is the Bellini with simple white peach puree and topped with prosecco. The small restaurant is a cozy place for a quick drink or a chance to dry off if you've been wandering Venice in the rain like we were. It's also worth noting carpaccio was invented at Harry's Bar as well.


3. The San Martino cocktail. La Storia, Chicago.
You may have seen this cocktail appear before in the blog. It's worth repeating for National Cocktail Day as it remains one of my favorite drinks in Chicago namely in the winter for its depth and booziness. It's a perfect pre-dinner drink at the Michelin-rated restaurant. A perfect evening for me is spent at La Storia with someone I can share stories with, sitting by the window and drinking the San Martinos.

 4. The Franklin Room Old Fashioned. The Franklin Room, Chicago. 
When someone asks me who has the best old fashioned in Chicago, The Franklin Room is my only answer. Their version has Angels Envy rye, Demerara, angostura, orange bitters and cheery bark vanilla bitters. It's great. I only order this when I go. That's what you should do, too.
The other old fashioned to rival The Franklin Room is at Vedge in Philadelphia. And the next time I'm back in my old stomping grounds, I'll go and snap a picture for next year's National Cocktail Day. 

I'm not having a cocktail this evening but when I do, I'll think of the other patients at the ER vet who walked out without their dogs tonight. I'm lucky, my dog is a lover -- of squeaky tennis balls that got her into this mess -- and not a fighter. Well, I guess we both are. She'll be fine and the laceration could have been much, much worse and for that, I'm eternally grateful. If you have a dog, hug yours a bit tighter because every day should be National Puppy Day. It is in my house.

Cheers friends, wherever you are drinking in the world.

Your friend,

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Bad Apple...and a good one, too.

I kept hearing The Bad Apple in the North Center neighborhood of Chicago has the best burger in the city. And there is some fierce competition for that title.

Since my friend Marya and I were at Begyle Brewery nearby, we decided to see what this burger was all about.

We were out celebrating the anniversary of our friendship. There is a bit of a debate between us about when we actually met. According to Marya, we met on March 17, 2017, but we actually met on Feb. 11, 2017, where she was attending my small birthday gathering at Begyle but Marya doesn't recall standing and talking to me at all. So, we celebrated on St. Patrick's Day.

I give Marya a slightly hard time about forgetting this fact. However, I'm not sure if my experience as a new Chicagoan or Old Town resident would be the same without her hilarious antics, infectious laugh or her couch, which has become an extension of my own living room. She's also a pro at Christmas tree removal and she raves about anything I cook, which makes her a great person to have in your corner. And I'm lucky she's in mine.

At The Bad Apple, on the city-wide holiday that is St. Patrick's Day, we were greeted and told there was a 20 minute wait. So we wandered in the direction of the bar. One item to highlight are the roving bartenders who took our beer order even though we weren't close to the bar.

I had the Boulder Shake Chocolate Porter on nitro and Marya had the B.O.M. Triporteur Full Moon.

The walk to The Bad Apple gave us time to decide that we were going to share a burger and the cheese curds - which also came highly recommended.

The cheese curds were fantastic, but I have yet to meet a piece of deep-fried cheese that I didn't love.

Sharing a burger was a short-lived plan.

I settled on the Magic Mushroom Tour burger and Marya had The Fig It Is burger. But, it was a tough decision because all of the burgers sounded great. Other burger toppings included short ribs, peanut butter and truffle vinaigrette just to name a few.

The first thing to catch my eye about the mushroom burger was the English muffin it was served on, which is how my mom serves her burgers. It also had swiss, onions and bacon. The burgers are served with fries however, I opted for a salad. Balance is key here.

Thank goodness for my Orange Theory Fitness workout earlier that morning which allowed me to burn off a fraction of this meal. Again, balance.

Marya's burger was also a standout with its porter, fig and bacon relish, topped with goat cheese and smoked onion. My gastronomic hero polished off her burger and I did not. But, I now have the world's happiest Airedale Terrier who will inhale the contents of this doggy bag.

The burger lived up to all expectations and I'm happy I finally got there. I'll definitely go back to The Bad Apple to try a few other burgers and beers...and possibly dessert.

But, the fun atmosphere at The Bad apple was the best part. We were lucky enough to be there to see Loyola win in the final seconds and advance to the next round of the NCAA tournament. In that moment, everyone in the restaurant was a Loyola fan.

So friends, I hope you have a few good apples in your life that you can bring to The Bad Apple for a great burger and a beer.

Your friend,

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Grey Space.

Grey (British English): is the color between black and white.

It's also so much more than a color.

It's basic yet contemporary.

It's safe yet detached.

It's bold.

It's confusing.

It's the time before a decision is made.

It's the time spent waiting for an answer.

It's the anticipation before a kiss.

It's the moment before you hear big news.

It's the ellipsis of life...and in the grey space, life is beautiful.

There's a lot of grey in my life.

I've painted with it (Sherwin Williams ponder and sensuous grey).

I'm sitting on a grey tufted couch.

In a room with a light grey walls.

My favorite UGGs are grey. (I keep buying the same style. I'm consistent, if nothing else.)

If you stop and look around, there is a lot of grey in the world, too.

On a rainy day, the sky is grey. But that's when you catch a rainbow.

Which is the why I love the grey space I'm in right now...on a few fronts.

I'm learning to sit with the grey space which is where (I'm finding) the magic happens.

You learn who you are.

You learn who's in your corner...or who's not.

Your next step becomes clear.

Your answers are revealed.

Your life presents new opportunities for you.

And once I learned to sit with the bold, calming, strange, disorienting grey space...a rainbow appeared.

So, if you're sitting in the grey, I hope you know a rainbow is on its way.

Maybe even with pot of gold at the end of it.

Your friend, Caroline

Saturday, March 10, 2018

La Storia.

As a Chicago resident, you learn where the best fireplaces are--whatever it takes to brave the sub-zero temperature--and La Storia has one of the best.

I met T one Saturday night for drinks at the cozy bar before dinner.

We both ordered the San Martino cocktail of bourbon, amaro and aperol to take the chill out of our bones as we settled into the evening. Their fireplace warms the soul and small bar that only has a handful of tables and even fewer bar stools. We were lucky to have a spot at the front window where we chatted and watched the world go by. 

La Storia's intimate bar continues to be one of my favorite spots in the city, especially this time of year. I hear their patio is spectacular in the summer. :: Insert day dream about sundresses, sunglasses and drinking mimosas whilst sitting in the sun. :: And back to the cold, harsh reality. Literally. 

We were later seated in the quintessential Chicago-style dining room with heavy wood and red accents. Led by the sommelier we opted for a fantastic super Tuscan that I wish I could remember - because I'd like to buy a case of it. 

For dinner T ordered the caprese salad with heirloom tomatoes that was artistically designed and I had the grilled octopus salad with fennel, sunchoke and sunflower. If I see grilled octopus on any menu, I'm ordering it. Just ask my friends at Osteria in Philadelphia and they'll tell you I always order their octopus salad.

For our pasta course, T had the rigatoni and I ordered the gnocchi. 

Unfortunately for T, I couldn't keep my fork out of the rigatoni. While the gnocchi was ridiculously light and amazing with the truffles and pillowy texture, I preferred the rigatoni for the crispy lamb sausage. 

Capping off the La Storia portion of the evening, we ordered the cannoli and espresso. The espresso was great but I finished my glass of wine for dessert. Although, I might have snagged a bite or two of the pistachio cannoli. 

I'm currently craving the pasta dishes we had and it's highly likely that you'll find me at the bar with a plate of pasta and attempting to find which wine we had, glass by glass, bottle by bottle. 

When you go to La Storia get the San Martino cocktail and any of the pastas. And if you try a pizza, please report back as I've really not met a pizza I don't like. 

Your Friend, Caroline

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Press Room.

The scene: A wintery, cold Chicago where it had just snowed 14 inches. 
The date: Feb. 9. The eve of my birthday. 
The location: The Press Room. 1134 W. Washington Blvd in the West Loop. 

I wasn't going to let a mere dusting affect my birthday celebrations last week. We settled on The Press Room - which had been on our radar. As a writer, the spot has been on my short list because its located in the former home of the Free Methodist Printing House and because it calls itself an intimate wine bar and dining destination.

We walked into the crowded, dimly lit restaurant in the bottom of the old warehouse and cozied into our seats at the bar. We settled on a bottle of the Yves Chaley pinot noir from Burgundy. There are also dozens of wine on this menu that I want to go back and try, including the Textbook Cab. 

We ordered the toast with boquerones which was served with radishes and butter (my favorite appetizer in Paris is radishes with butter so this one had me) and the duck breast atop sweet potato puree and served with braised radishes and beets.

(Photo credit: DF)

The best part of the evening was the dessert -- which is unusual for me to say because I've been known to order a few appetizers as my meal. However, when presented with the option to have the malted creme brûlée with salt flakes and a candle nestled in it, I'm going for it.

We devoured the malty, caramelized dessert and its accompanying glass of port - which was the perfect way to kick off my birthday celebrations.

When I go back to The Press Room, which will likely be soon, I'm going to try the cheese and charcuterie plates, the chicken liver mousse toast, the burrata toast, the roasted carrots and everything they created for that evening in particular.

I'd love to know: What's on your Chicago restaurant list?

Your friend,