Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Dining Out Gene By: Lisa Parro

Lisa Parro is a Public Relations Specialist that is a proud new parent of a baby boy. When she can find a babysitter she loves getting together with her good friends over a delicious meal. She's always looking for new restaurants to try with her friends and turns to Check, Please! as her source for interesting restaurants around town.  

I still think about the goat cheese spinach dip. The fish tacos haunt my dreams. I pine for the three-layer chocolate cake with the longing of an addict. If I would’ve known that was to be my last meal out in a restaurant, I would have slowly savored every bite. I would have snuck another sip of my husband’s beer. But little did I know my son would be born less than 36 hours later, which means my husband and I no longer spend our Friday and Saturday nights exploring new restaurants or relaxing in the comfort of our favorite haunts but instead take turns soothing our newborn while waiting for the pizza delivery guy or grabbing takeout from the local barbecue joint. We’re parents now, our lives turned upside-down with all the joy and craziness that accompanies this new stage in life. 

But now that David Michael is one month old, we wonder if it’s time to introduce him to our shared love of dining out. We refuse to be the red-faced couple hopelessly rocking the screaming baby while clamoring for the check just as dinner is served. Therefore the timing must be perfect; he will have to be fed, changed, and well on his way to dreamland when we embark on our maiden voyage. And we’ll likely take him somewhere close and familiar – likely Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora, where we enjoyed our last meal those four weeks ago. 

Two Brothers Roundhouse is easily our favorite restaurant, and not just because it’s less than two miles from our house. When we moved to Aurora seven years ago, the Roundhouse – which opened as Walter Payton’s Roundhouse in 1996 – was easily the top restaurant in town. Situated in an 1850s limestone trainyard (the name reflects the building’s original use as a spot for locomotives to turn around), the Roundhouse was a microbrewery that housed a multi-level restaurant, bar, comedy club, cigar bar, outdoor entertainment space, banquet facility and a museum honoring Payton. The Payton family eventually disassociated from the facility, signaling the beginning of the end of the restaurant’s glory days. A series of management debacles that led to a bankruptcy filing – coupled with the ensuing decline in the quality of the food and beer – caused my husband and I to scout out a new favorite restaurant about a year ago. 

That’s when we discovered the Two Brothers Tap House, a no-frills restaurant attached to the Two Brothers brewery tucked away in an industrial complex in Warrenville. Despite having no signs advertising the hard-to-find building, the place was packed every weekend – a testament to the quality and variety of the beers and the locally grown, largely organic dinner offerings. So when we heard rumblings earlier this year that Two Brothers was interested in purchasing the Roundhouse, it was like learning our two best friends were getting married. 

We were among the first customers when the newly christened Two Brothers Roundhouse opened this summer. Like the Warrenville location, the Aurora restaurant also features delicious food made with sustainable ingredients and complex, expertly crafted beer. It’s once again packed with patrons every time we visit. The dinner menu includes a wide selection of small plates, including pork belly tacos, skirt steak tacos, vegetarian empanada, chili relleno, and spare rib risotto – all of which I can highly recommend. The only dishes I don’t care for are the marrow toast, which was too greasy for my taste, and the beer carpaccio, which featured too many onions. For dinner entrees, you can’t go wrong with the Roundhouse burger (made from organic beef with a generous helping of adobo sauce), the aforementioned fish tacos, applewood smoked ribs, or the daily fish special. 

Soon, our newly expanded family will return to the Roundhouse. It will be the first step in introducing David Michael to our lifelong love of restaurants. Perhaps he’s already inherited the dining out gene, which my husband got from his parents; I apparently absorbed it through marriage. If so, it won’t be long until he’s inviting us to check out his top spot. I just hope he offers to pick up the check. 

Two Brothers Roundhouse
205 N. Broadway
Aurora, IL 60505
(630) 264-BREW (2739)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Merichka's-The Restaurant That Keeps Me Coming Back Like a Boomerang By: Pam Turlow

Pam is a voice over artist and writer. Her hobbies include traveling, vintage amusement parks, Mid-Century modernism, tarot, and Barbies. Pam dines out not only to delve into an exciting new world of tastes but stimulating all of her senses. She appreciates the smells, tastes, aromas, sounds and "tactile thingies" of each restaurant. South Indian cuisine tops her list of favorite foods.

I love Googie architecture.  If you're not familiar, it's that Mid-century, slightly kitschy form of design that was all the rage in the 1950s.  Full of boomerangs and kidney shapes and starbursts, its height of popularity coincided with interest in space travel and all its trappings: rockets, atomic energy, parabolas, flying saucers.  George Jetson lived in a Googie world.

Designed by original owner Joe Zdralevich, a former graphic designer, the signage outside Merichka's restaurant in south suburban Crest Hill is shaped like a boomerang.  The reasoning: because they wanted customers to keep coming back.  And it's worked now for decades.  Well, the fact that the food is delish and the atmosphere is a homey time capsule dated back to 1957 doesn't hurt matters one iota.

On a typical visit to Merichka's, I usually do the following: venerate the rockin' cool aforementioned boomerang sign, settle in and order a Steak Poor Boy sandwich with garlic butterine, and opt for the dinner, thus availing myself to the double-baked potato that has no business being this incredible, a salad, cracker basket, and the relish tray featuring three cold relishes (just like my Aunt Mary Ann would bring to Sunday dinner at Grandma Pauline's house back in the late 60s, but without the customary argument after the pinochle game).

You'd also do wise to belly up to the vintage bar, pay your respects to the stuffed trophy fish mounted above it, and order a Cuba Libre.  I once ordered a Pink Squirrel - you can do that here and raise absolutely no eyebrows.

As long as Merichka's keeps that boomerang in play, and as long as they have some of the best comfort food in the greater Chicagoland area, I'll keep my Honda Civic-shaped rocket poised and ready for that return blast-off.

604 Theodore Street
Crest Hill, Illinois
(815) 723-9371

Monday, December 12, 2011

Inovasi By: Steve Rheinstrom

Steve lives in Highland Park and enjoys cooking, photography and even hitting the slopes skiing in the winter.  He says because he enjoys cooking so much he truly appreciates going out to restaurants and experiencing the creations of a great chef. If you asked him what the best ingredients are for a perfect meal is he would say love and care.

We had dinner with our friends the W**** at one of my favorite restaurants, Inovasi in Lake Bluff.  A delightful place in an unlikely spot, as Lake Bluff is not know for fine dining, but that has changed since Inovasi arrived 2 ½ years ago.  “Inovasi” means innovation in Indonesian, and it is an apt name for this restaurant.

To give you a flavor for the surroundings, the restaurant is right in the middle of the small town center area of Lake Bluff, east of Sheridan Road off Rt. 176.  You walk into the restaurant in it’s bar area, a nice sized room with an almost Jackson Pollock like, bar counter.  The bartender is first rate, and the assortment of spirits and craft brews are excellent.  The seating areas are divided into 3, a smaller room off the bar, and 2 larger, open spaces with window views of the kitchen as you walk to your table.  The furthest room has a gas fireplace, and there is a touch of prairie style architecture to the moldings on the ceiling.  A picture of Theodore Roosevelt sits above the fireplace, and the menu makes mention of the ideal of conservation and the restaurant’s support of local sustainable organic farms.  The wait staff is uniformly knowledgeable and helpful, and the service is impeccable.

The chef, John des Rosiers, has a local background.  His career started at Gabriel’s in Highwood, and then to training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.  He then worked at Charlie Trotter’s, and returned to climb the ladder at Gabriel’s to the reach the level of chef de cuisine.  He then worked at Bank Lane Bistro in Lake Forest before he opened Inovasi.

This restaurant gives him the stage to create his style of fusion, mixing Asian accents with local ingredients.  This is not fusion restricted to one geographic area, but can reflect Spanish influences, low country Carolina cooking, and many others.  The menu changes with the seasons, reflecting what is best available.  The first time I went to Inovasi, I had rainbow trout served on a piece of cardboard, with a palate of 4 different sauces in a very random and abstract Jackson Pollock painting type of presentation on the shiny side of the cardboard, each of the sauces delicious, and the trout perfectly cooked.  The menu here has enough choices to satisfy my vegetarian daughter, and plenty of meat opinions for the carnivores, as well as fish choices.

On our last visit, we started with “Argyle St” flatbread, with pecans “driftless cheese” and wild huckleberries, sprinkled with herb oil.  Roasted Brussels sprouts were topped with shallot, a local cheese, and a touch of a truffle mayonnaise.  A circle of “El Piconero” goat cheese was mated with a small pillow of polenta and a tomato fondant.  Perfectly fried and lightly breaded calamari was spiced with Spanish chorizo and hints of marcona almonds.  These plates are small portions, designed to be starters, but were enough to share.

For entrées, I had the “fish swimming yesterday” which in my case turned out to be striped sea bass on a bed of julienned carrots with macadamia nuts.  D*** had the “carnivore addition” which was a delightful preparation of pork shoulder with anson mills farro verde, huckleberry vinaigrette, and fennel tops marinated in a variety of spices and presented in a round timbale about 2 ½ inches high.  My wife had dry aged beef sirloin served aside dollops of spicy chocolate (a take on molé) and cheese croutons.  J*** had organic roasted chicken breast on antebellum grits.

Chef des Rosiers constructs the plates elegantly.  The thing to keep in mind is that the “main” plates are still on a small portion concept, but the costs reflect the quality of the ingredients used.  The “fish swimming yesterday” is apt, as the piece of fish is sourced from small family operation fishing boats.  The striped sea bass I had was hand caught the day before in Rhode Island.  There is a Kentucky grilled squab on the menu that I am going to try next time. Add a little extra trust in Chef des Rosiers, and let him pick a tasting menu of 5 courses, that can be tailored around individual’s food allergies/aversions.

I also can't forget that I love burger night, every Tuesday.  They are not the cheapest burgers in town, but they are all very well executed and worthwhile!

28 East Center Ave.
Lake Bluff, IL 60044

Thursday, December 8, 2011

My Most Memorable Experience at Girl & the Goat By: Maggie Schultz

Maggie is an accommodations specialist that lives in Edgebrook. She says she'll go anywhere for good food as long as she can take public transportation or a cheap taxi ride. The three things in her eye that make a good restaurant are quality, creativity, and innovation.

The second time I went to Girl & the Goat was my most memorable experience. They sat my friend and I at the chef’s table and every part of it was amazing. It was a fully sensory experience—from watching the food prepared in front of us, smelling the aromas that flooded out of the kitchen, feeling the heat of the ovens & the texture of the food & tasting it all once it finally arrived.

Our waiter was fantastic—friendly, knowledgeable and helpful; he gave great recommendations on food and drink pairings and never rushed us with our decisions. The chefs in the kitchen were just as friendly—answering our questions about what they were doing and offering advice and recommendations. Everything came out in a timely manner so we were able to enjoy and savor the flavors of each dish.

The menu is diverse but not massive which it made it easy to find different dishes we could both enjoy. We started with the flatbread which came with a soft creamy parmesan butter and savory maple oil but had to be careful to not fill up on it before everything else came out. The green beans (as everyone knows) were incredibly delicious—crunchy and fresh with a rich, tasty fish sauce poured over them. Several times the busboy would try to take them as more food arrived but we refused to part with them until we finished them all. We indulged in the duck fat fries—a tricky side dish as the fries are to die for but could fill you up before you realize it. The shishito peppers were another tasty side dish and the warning of how spicy they can be did not go unfounded. Finally we had the Pig Face—which my friend called “Super Bacon.” The perfectly-cooked pork melted in your mouth and the fried egg on top only added to this incredible indulgence.

Everything about the meal was perfect and the laid back attitude of the staff helped make us feel like we were right at home. We were even fortunate enough to meet the chef, Stephanie Izard, after our meal and she could not have been more humbling and friendly to chat with. Even as we raved about her fantastic green beans, she confided to us that they had been born out of a mistake she had made one night at another restaurant. Whether or not this was true, it was the perfect way to end our dinner.

Girl and the Goat
809 West Randolph Street
Chicago, IL 60607
(312) 492-6262

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Experiencing The Chicago Food & Film Festival By: Sharon Feldman

Sharon Feldman is the Grant Manager at UIC. She enjoys going to the movies, gardening and drawing. As a foodie who is also a Weight Watcher, Sharon thinks it is important to distinguish whether the experience is going to be about food or the social experience prior to dining out. She says when it is all about the food, it is also about the social aspect. However, it can be about the social aspect where the food isn't important. 

It seems my favorite things all begin with “F.”  Two of them are Food and Film, and I was able to get my fill of both at the second annual Chicago Food and Film Festival.

The Food and Film Festival started in NYC several years ago, and came to Chicago for the first time last fall.  The motto of the festival is “taste what you see,” which means that as you view the competitively selected short films about food, you are served a food item that corresponds to what you are watching on the screen. This may be anything from a taste of molasses to a donut to a full sized burger.  Not to mention that before and after each movie screening you are indulged in all sorts of foods and cocktails which match the theme of the event. There were four film screenings held over the weekend of November 18 – 20th, and I had the pleasure of holding an all-access pass.   All events except one were held at Kendall College.

On Friday night, we saw six short films centered around the theme of “Farm to Film to Table.”  These movies showed the passion the farmer brings to his or her product, including the making of small batches of molasses by a Texas couple who uphold a family tradition; and the wonderful Earl Cruze who waxes poetic about making buttermilk.  On Saturday morning, still full from the cocktails,      hor d’oeuvres, meat pies from Pleasant House Bakery*, sweet pies from Hoosier Mama*, buttermilk ice cream, Fannie May’s* new high end chocolates from the night before, we ventured off to the Intelligentsia Coffee* roasting facility for the “Edible Adventure,” where we saw five more films.  This time the focus of the films was on the making of sweet treats, so we were indulged in donuts from The Donut Vault* while watching a film about this new Chicago bakery; and macaroons, while watching a movie about NY macaroon maven Danny Macaroon.  Plus we ate Jarlsberg cheese dip and figs, quiche from Pleasant House, wine from Lush Wine*, and of course, coffee from Intelligentsia.  Saturday night’s movie theme was “The Great Chicago Suck and Suck,” AKA, “Food Porn.”  Oh God, that it was.  An inspired string of films showing the sensual side of food (including a hilarious send up of two cans of tuna having sex, and a mom stressing out when asked by her little girl “what does virgin mean?”) were accompanied by French pastry, a taste of octopus and then followed by a blow out oyster roast with oysters delivered from the low country of South Carolina.  Groaning on Sunday morning, and wearing stretchy clothes, I rolled into the final event, the 2011 Awards Ceremony honoring the best films and director, which had been chosen by audience vote. With eye openers of Irish Coffee and Bloody Mary’s, and another feast, I saw what may have been my favorite film, “How to Make a Turtle Burger,” then yes, got to eat a “Turtle Burger.”

Every effort is made to ensure that what you are eating is the exact product on the screen, and if that is not possible, the recipe recreated.  For example, the buttermilk was transported by Colleen Cruze, and she personally scooped my buttermilk ice cream.  The exact sophisticated ham paté and lemon meringue from a posh Belgium restaurant were re-created for us by the talented chefs at Kendall College.

We schmoozed with many of the film makers, and the subjects of the films, too, as well as the director of the festival, the affable George Motz.    At every level of this event the passion and dedication of all involved was evident. The farmers and food purveyors demonstrated their enthusiasm about their products, which was translated through the craftsmanship and skill of the talented filmmakers who brought them to the screen, which was then brought to us by the visionary producers of the event.  You can be sure that my calendar is marked for the third annual festival next fall.

Food.  Film.  Combined with Fun and Friends. It was Fabulous.


*Note: these are the local stores and restaurants that were mentioned above:

Pleasant House Bakery:  mmmm, lip smacking meat pies like you’ve never had before.  934 West 31st Street, Chicago

Hoosier Mama:  This little sliver of a bakery was featured in a film during last year’s festival.  Grandma didn’t make pies this good. 1618 1/2 Chicago Avenue, Chicago

Fannie May Artisan Chocolate: these are not the turtle peanut clusters you’re used to.  Handmade with high quality chocolate.  Beautiful and decadent. Various locations.

Donut Vault: Fresh hot donuts sold until they run out each day. Get in line. 400 1/2 N Franklin, Chicago, IL

Lush Wine and Spirits: Lush is serious about wine.  Get their help with your selection at three Chicago locations.

Intelligentsia Coffee: Simply awesome coffee.  Sold at several coffee shops and retail outlets around Chicago.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Portage By: Patricia Nicandro

Patricia is a graduate student at DePaul University who enjoys traveling, reading, culinary exploration, and playing sports that don't require much athleticism. If Patricia was forced to choose her favorite kind of food it would be breakfast food with a heavy emphasis on bacon. Patricia may not have a car but she is willing to travel as far as the CTA/Metra tracks will take her in order to reach a good restaurant.
The Portage describes its food as “contemporary southern cuisine,” but I just call it good food.  The chefs cook with what’s in season and, to me, that’s the best and only way to cook.  For instance, on the winter menu one of the dishes that The Portage featured was gnocchi with diced squash, zucchini, sautéed arugula, smashed peas, brown butter sauce, and shaved parmesan.  Normally, I shy away from vegetarian dishes at restaurants because they tend to taste a little on the bland side, but not this dish!  It was perfectly seasoned and the veggies weren’t overcooked or undercooked, which some restaurants tend to do. 

If you’re more of a meat-eater and love comfort food, then I’d stick with staples like the Portage burger and southern fried chicken.  Though these dishes sound common, both are delicious and decadent.  The Portage uses Kobe beef for its juicy burgers; and the fried chicken is boneless, crispy, and has a slight kick to it.  While you may want to scarf down these dishes, don’t forget to save room for dessert.  The Portage makes its own ice cream with very unique flavors, like buttered popcorn and strawberry-goat cheese.  The chefs recently added the sweet polenta cake to their dessert arsenal and it is by far my favorite dessert there.

Cocktails are another must at The Portage.  Though I’ve only stuck with my favorite cocktail there, the Portage Mango Martini, the bar has an abundance of wines, beers, and spirits.  And the bartenders are very knowledgeable and friendly.

The host and servers at The Portage are also extremely friendly and will go to great lengths to ensure that you have a pleasurable dining experience.  They will do their best to seat you where you feel most comfortable; bravely ask the kitchen staff to see if a dish you ordered could be slightly modified; and check-in with you regularly during your meal. 

The interior of The Portage is also a reflection of the food and service – warm and inviting.  But if you’d rather dine al fresco, the restaurant has a lovely patio in the back.                   

All in all, the Portage is a true neighborhood gem in the heart of Portage Park. 

The Portage 
3938 North Central Avenue
Chicago, IL 6063
(773) 853-0779 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Lula Cafe By: Laura Young

Laura Young is an English teacher from Roscoe Village. Her favorite type of food is Indian cuisine and her favorite dish is either Malai Kofta from Essence of India or Chile Relleno from El Tapatio. Laura enjoys dining out for three main reasons: it gets her dressed and out of the house with other grown-ups, ambiance is part of the enjoyment and there is nothing to clean up at home.
When I first moved back to Chicago after a ten-year hiatus, it was bittersweet.  Though I had told my mother I would only come back in a body bag, here I was, single and living in Lincoln Square, a neighborhood thankfully devoid of the vanilla track-everything that I lived in while in Southern California.

I had not ever really experienced “nightlife” or “dating” or “socializing” or being a “hipster” as it were, so when I went on a first date to Lula Café in Logan Square, I was immediately taken by the intimate unique atmosphere, the Radiohead playing in the background, the multitude of thick-rimmed glasses and skinny jeans and ink.  I thought to myself that I had found my home and I didn’t know what had taken me so long to get here.

The boy I was with is long since gone, but my love for Lula’s remains. Yes, there is a long wait and I do suppose it is kind of a scene, but where else can you eat knowing that the food, the service, the farming, the prep are all done in such an impeccable and ethically superior way? Business practices matter much to me, and I have been a fan of “is it local?” long before “is it trendy?" To be able to go out to eat somewhere and know that the food I am ingesting is both good for me and our world? I’ll pay for that. And I’m a picky eater who doesn’t like duck fat, truffle oil, goat cheese or portabella mushrooms. When you couple that with my desire to support local establishments that have good business practices, well, it becomes obvious why I eat at home much of the time.

The last time I was there was with a girlfriend who works in the city, so the Logan Square Blue Line stop across the way means easy access to the restaurant. We shared the chickpea and sweet potato tagine with arugula, cinnamon, harissa, and cous cous, and roasted organic half chicken with olive oil poached fingerling potatoes, garlic spinach, thyme, and pan jus. While we ate, a server came around with samples of a new salad the chef had just come up with, served in chilled spoons with the teeny-tiny lettuce. Later on in the meal, he came back, asking for feedback about the new dish. I’m not certain whether he gave all of the feedback to the chef, but it was a nice gesture. The food was impeccably prepared and delicious, and the wine we had was great, creating the perfect mood for our catch-up dinner as we sat next to the piano, which my girlfriend advised me not to play after we finished off our first bottle.

Lula Café keeps me coming back because I can count on it; it is a restaurant that I often suggest to people, it’s easily accessible by train or car and despite the long lines, does truly meet its hipster reputation.
Lula Cafe
2547 North Kedzie Ave.
Chicago, IL 60647-2655
(773) 489-9554

Monday, November 21, 2011

Noon-O-Kabob By: Susan Klein Bagdade

Susan is an art dealer and an author. She enjoys antiquing and finding vintage costume jewelry. Her favorite kind of food is Mediterranean cuisine. Susan and her husband, Alan, watch Check, Please! together and have even jumped in the car and tried restaurants as soon as the show ended.
I always love to dine at Noon-O-Kabab because of the warm and welcoming atmosphere and the outstanding cuisine. The babaganoush is luxurious and the food is not your standard Middle Eastern/Persian fare.  I always start with the spinach soup (Aash-E-Reshteh).  I even order it on a hot night because it's so good!  This rich and delicious soup is filled with chick peas, lentils, beans and is topped with caramelized onions and yogurt.  There are many kabobs to choose from all perfectly prepared and some amazing Persian delicacies.  I try and order a different entree each time I go to Noon-O-Kabab, so I can really get a sampling of the large and varied menu.  The Persian tea is fragrant and served in a glass. Also, be sure to try the Persian gelato (Bastani).  Go outside your comfort zone and try the fig flavor -- you won't regret it! The fig gelato is both creamy and earthy, but not too sweet.  The gelato flavors change seasonally.  You can also get Lebanese wine by the glass.  It all lends itself to a great and authentic ethnic dining experience.  Go early or expect to wait some time for a table (they don't take reservations), but the wait is worth it!  The staff is friendly, helpful and efficient. They also have a parking lot (although small), but street parking seems to be plentiful. For me, it is the finest Middle Eastern/Persian food in all of Chicago, and I'd like to be having a bowl of that spinach soup right about now!

4651 N. Kedzie Ave.
Chicago, IL 60625
(773) 279-8899

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

La Scarola By: Sharon Feldman

Sharon Feldman is the Grant Manager at UIC. She enjoys going to the movies, gardening and drawing. As a foodie who is also a Weight Watcher, Sharon thinks it is important to distinguish whether the experience is going to be about food or the social experience prior to dining out. She says when it is all about the food, it is also about the social aspect. However, it can be about the social aspect where the food isn't important. 
Ever have a meal you can’t get out of your head?  Maybe at a little out of the way place you found on vacation, and you just keep thinking of how you wish you could get back there?  Well, luckily for me, La Scarola is just blocks away.  But from my brother and nephews, it is an annual pre-camp meal that they look forward to from one summer to the next, when they come to town for a weekend with Aunt Sharon before heading up to Wisconsin.   It’s not just the incredible food that rounds out the memories, but the buzz in the air, the way it just invites you in to its aura.  Woody Allen couldn’t shoot a NY Italian restaurant any more lovingly than this place feels the moment you walk in.

The warm ambiance created by the hip host; the familiar red table cloths on tables pushed so close you practically dine with your neighbors; where, if you’re sitting in the front room, every steaming hot dish practically passes under your nose, and really you can’t believe the size of the portions and how amazing each one looks. If you can tear your eyes away from the food, the people-watching is also a feast.  Some are well healed, others like they just finished up at their Teamsters job. Big groups of guys; business men; families; north side; side south side.  Big hair and jewelry; mullets on women. It all works here. The menu features predictable Italian fare, but it’s done well, with my favorite, oft-overlooked ingredient:  all served piping hot. Food faves: hands down, the veal chop “Gabe,” grilled calamari, eggplant parmesan; pasta fagiole soup. Specials reasonably priced, always with a fresh fish and an interesting pasta in the offing. Caveat: Reservations, especially during peak times, are a suggestion. Patience required.

La Scarola 
721 West Grand
Chicago, IL 60610
(312) 243-1740

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Rocks By: Ashley Streichert

Ashley is a writer and food blogger. Her favorite type of food is Italian cuisine and her favorite dish is Golden Noodles with beef from Joy's in Lakeview. Ashley watches Check, Please! because it shows the experience and value while looking past the hype.
Most restaurant goers have a regular neighborhood spot. I am definitely one of them. Rocks in Lakeview keeps me coming back not one, not two, but multiple times a week. Sure, I know everyone who works there. But I'm not going there just for the social aspect, I love the food and the drinks.

I've been going to Rocks for more than two years. I've tried many of the menu items, and have never been disappointed. They make a strong effort to keep their food original and inventive, while still being approachable. Their food is not your average bar fare.

They have a new burger and beer of the month. I always get excited to try the new menu items, while sticking with my constant favorites. I love the Santa Fe wrap paired with an ice cold Magic Hat #9. Rock's also has an amazing Bloody Mary. They have their own mix, use Bakon vodka, and add a hearty garnish.

Overall, the food and drinks are great. I love the company as well. There is always an inviting crowd and the staff is great as well. If you're looking for the perfect neighborhood spot, that keeps inviting you back, check out Rocks Lakeview.

3463 N. Broadway
Chicago, IL
(773) 472-0493

Friday, November 4, 2011

Mana Food Bar By: Maggie Duplace

Maggie is a special education teacher who enjoys going out to eat, being with friends, crafting and riding her scooter. Maggie considers a restaurant worthwhile if it has delicious and interesting flavors delivered with consistency. She also appreciates a restaurant that has inventive and thoughtful vegetarian dishes. One of the reasons Maggie watches Check, Please! is to encourage her to leave her neighborhood and try new places. 
The restaurant that keeps me coming back is Mana Food Bar. As a vegetarian, I am willing to try anything that doesn't contain any meat or stock in the dish; dairy will do. There are a variety of cold, hot, small, and large plate, sides and drinks to choose from that make me feel like I really have entered a restaurant that actually tries to make vegetarian food outstanding.
The hummus is creamy and smooth, spiked with garlic and is served with an endless supply of pitas and veggies for dipping. Toast points make the perfect spoon for delicious baked goat cheese in spicy marinara. The sliders delight even my carnivorous friends, made of brown rice and mushrooms topped with spicy mayo and served on a sweet little bun. The sweet potato pancakes are one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. It's a pairing of sweet and salty magic topped with a seasonal chutney and fresh cream. A sprinkling of green onion brightens the rich flavor. The small is enough for 1, but I order the large because they are just that good.
Anyone's hand that comes near my plate is swiped away when they reach for a bite- my friends have learned. The cool and natural decor and outside seating make the restaurant a comfortable spot and provides great Wicker Park people watching. Add a glass a wine and I am definitely the happiest vegetarian in the 60622 zip code, maybe even the city. 

Mana Food Bar
1742 West Division Street
Chicago, IL 60622
(773) 342-1742

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Chicago Fire House By: Jahan Kashani


Jahan is an executive assistant who enjoys savory comfort food. Jahan will drink a suggested complimentary wine with her meal but otherwise she chooses water or tea. She is also willing to drive pretty far for quality food; sometimes she takes the two-hour trip to Lake Geneva to get a great meal. She thinks that the food is what eating out is all about. She says great food can come from the scariest looking restaurant. 

It was 2007 when I had to host a regional conference for the company I was working with. I had to set up an exclusive dinner that night for the panel of executives that were attending. I chose to choose a place special to Chicago that was not the same old chain steak house… Where?  Chicago Fire House. I called them handled the logistics of the dinner and attending a menu tasting to make sure our companies guests would be satisfied. That great thing about CFH is that their food is so luxurious but not their setting. It is cozy, warm and comfortable. You’re treated well and fed even better. My experience was so great that I hosted a private party for my family.

My family is easy to please, I can say, Old Country Buffet has my family on their VIP List. Bringing them to CFH was going to be an event. I booked “The Mayor’s Room” which is warm and elegant room containing floor to ceiling mahogany panels with large windows and hardwood floors and created a pre-fixed menu. They were extremely impressed with the environment but excited for the special Chicago Fire House Chilled Seafood Display that included crabmeat, oysters, large cocktail shrimp and plenty of mignonette sauce.  Next was the lobster bisque. Yes, a heavy soup but salads are salads and I wanted them to enjoy drinking the rich smooth savory flavor that CFH creates in the Lobster Bisque. I could bathe in that soup. As that is not possible, I tried my best to enjoy every last drop without bathing the bowel with my tongue.  Main course was varied, lobster for my mother, steak for my father, salmon for my sister-in law and so on. Everything was cooked perfectly. Smelled decadent and tasted flawless. They serve the best quality food and you can taste it.  Lastly, (yes, we Kashani’s had enough room) we opted for cheesecake with the savoriest fresh raspberry sauce. It had a great tartness that did not make the dessert overly sweet. The entire meal was overly satisfying to the point I have started a tradition for myself with Chicago Fire House.

 Every Christmas Eve, I reserve a half-circle booth in the main dining area and treat myself to a great Christmas feast. It is a time for me to reflect on the holiday. Enjoy a meal with someone I care about and spend time reflecting on the past year. I usually dine for three hours. Enjoying each course and watching the other families dine in delight. I am coming up on my 5th Christmas Eve dining experience at CFH and looking very forward to it. I am often asked why I do not choose another place. Simply put, would you sample another grandmother’s pumpkin pie? No, tradition can be spruced up yes, but always stay in the end I prefer to stay with the one who welcomes me home.

Chicago Fire House
1401 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60605-2810
(312) 786-1401

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Perfect Meal By: Christina Tallerico

Christina is a high school Spanish teacher who enjoys cooking, trying new restaurants and going to concerts. She says she is willing to travel as far as she needs to go to eat some delicious food. She has even planned road trips to other states so that she can try new restaurants. Her favorite restaurant is Maya del Sol which will be featured in season 11 of Check, Please!

My best friend and I used to play this game in college where, when we were really hungry, we would discuss where and what we would like to be eating. When given the prompts for the Check. Please! blog, I found it more than appropriate to take my 24-year old self back to those long lost college days and play the “Food Game.” 

 Where to begin? I guess the best place to begin my perfect meal is with location. If I could pick anywhere in the world to eat, it would have to be in an outdoor café in Spain in the early fall where I could enjoy the mild weather and people watch. I spent a semester in a small town in Spain and often find myself longing to get back to the Spanish way of life. The atmosphere of my ideal meal would hands-down have to be that of Maya del Sol, where I could sit on the patio and be part of the fast pace energy and attentive service. 

To start my meal off with, there would be a plethora of fine Italian bread a la Bari bakery in Chicago.  The restaurant would give me several of the crusty end pieces of the bread, which are my absolute favorite. I would start with the Mangaso drink from Maya Del Sol, which consists of mango puree, lime juice, tequila, rum and lined with a chile rim. Later on in the meal I would switch to the Pepinito, which is made of cucumber gin and habanero syrup with a chile rim.

My appetizer of choice would have to be the fried romaine lettuce with lemon and garlic from Danny’s Deli in Melrose Park. It is delicious and tender and makes you think you are eating healthy because you ordered lettuce. 

The entrée of my choosing would have to be the “Lair of the minotaur” burger from Kuma’s. Korner in Logan Square It has to be cooked medium and served piping hot. This burger is served on a pretzel roll and topped with bourbon soaked pears, Brie cheese and caramelized onions. I would obviously finish the entire thing and still be ready to take on the rest of my meal. As a side I would have to say that the deep fried cornbread from Heaven on Seven would take the cake. Served to me hot, crispy on the outside and soft and creamy on the inside I would literally be in Heaven eating every delicious morsel.

My dream meal would be capped off with dessert perfection of course: the Sicilian Iris from the Purple Pig on Michigan Avenue. This decadent and unique dessert is the stuff dreams are made of.  It is deep fried brioche dough filled with chocolate chips and ricotta. Think a cannoli on steroids. And that, readers, is how I would end my perfect meal. If you will excuse me, I am getting hungry…

Maya del Sol 
144 S Oak Park Ave
Oak Park, IL 60302
(708) 358-9800

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Click Your Heels Three Times By: KD King, featured Check, Please! Guest

 KD King is an erotic romance novelist from Hazel Crest. She was a guest on the latest new episode of Check, Please! as she recommended her favorite restaurant Mabovi. KD loved her experience of being on the show and is excited to share her love for Chef Bea's Afro Caribbean creations with all of you.

Say it with me “There’s No Place Like Home, There’s No Place Like Home.” Well unless you decide to stop by Mabovi restaurant. No sparkling red heels needed. Come and bring an empty stomach.
When I first heard of Mabovi it was through one of my women’s groups. We had plans to go and check out the cuisine. At the time Mabovi was in Matteson. Unfortunately, I was busy that day and couldn’t make it. But I made appoint to remember the name so I could check it out on my own. I am familiar with both West African and Caribbean cuisine, so I knew it was a place I wanted to try. I love oxtails. And I grab at any chance to find a place that makes good ones. 

When I finally decided to try the restaurant out, they had moved to their Hazel Crest Location. In fact they had just moved. So it was only a take out window and two small tables pushed against the window. No more than four people could “dine-in” at once. 

I sat and studied the menu trying to figure out what I wanted. That’s what happens when you wait until you are hungry. Well she was baking some bread to take over to the fire department and just pulled some loaves out. 

“Here try this.” Bea, the owner, gave me a fresh baked roll.
I knew then and there this would be a place that would not disappoint. The bread melted in my mouth. Filled with nuts and cranberries it was unlike any roll I had ever had. I know many people are carb addicts. They love bread and the like. I’m not one of those people. But in that moment. I became one. I craved the bread. And I was sure to order an extra piece with my meal. And I have from that day on.
I decided on the curry lamb shank. She recommended it to me. I decided to eat at one of the two tables. I was not prepared for the Fred Flinstone portion of meat on one of the biggest plates I have ever seen served at a restaurant. Curry lamb shank, rice and peas, and steamed cabbage. I ate, and ate, and ate. Then I took the other half home. 
The food was great, but I’ve never felt so welcomed. The owner talked to me, recommended food, we talked about her expansion of the restaurant, and why she moved. I was no longer eating by a window in a small restaurant. I was enjoying a meal at home. It was that experience in addition to the food that had me coming back for more and more and more. And yes her oxtails are delicious.

I finally made it to another event with my women's group at Mabovi. This time she served family style because the group was so large. The food kept coming, the laughter never stopped, she talked to everyone, walked them through, made her special peach tea type concoction and made sure that everyone left full. Well full is an understatement. We were stuffed. Somehow we had managed to eat our weight in food. Afterwards we lingered, relaxed, and sipped tea. That’s when I knew. I could no longer keep this gem to myself. I had to tell everyone about Mabovi. A home away from home. I didn’t have to kill a witch and travel down a road to find Mabovi. Just a hop, skip, and a jump away and I found another home. 

Mabovi African & Caribbean Restaurant
17100 Dixie Highway
Hazel Crest, IL 60429
(708) 206-1900

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Most Memorable Experience at Al's Italian Beef By: Patricia Nicandro

Patricia is a graduate student at DePaul University who enjoys traveling, reading, culinary exploration, and playing sports that don't require much athleticism. If Patricia was forced to choose her favorite kind of food it would be breakfast food with a heavy emphasis on bacon. Patricia may not have a car but she is willing to travel as far as the CTA/Metra tracks will take her in order to reach a good restaurant.

My most memorable experience at a restaurant was going to Al’s Italian Beef on Taylor Street in Chicago’s Little Italy.  I grew up in Bolingbrook, IL, until age 13 and it was always such a treat when my family drove up to Al’s for Italian beef sandwiches with sweet peppers and a bag of fries.  When summer hit, we’d walk across the street to Mario’s Italian Lemonade.  The Italian ice at Mario’s pairs perfectly with the hot sandwiches from Al’s.

Dining at Al’s and Mario’s is so different than what you’d experience in the suburbs.  The food tastes authentic. The beef and “gravy” (similar to au jus) at Al’s packs a lot of flavor and the meat looks real; not like the trimmed lunchmeat you’d see at your typical family-friendly chain restaurant.  The French fries at Al’s are also very fresh with the potato skins still on them. 

Likewise, Mario’s puts chunks of fresh fruit in its Italian ice.  Every other Italian ice I’ve had pales in comparison because they use artificial syrups to flavor the ice. 

The ambiance at these two establishments is very casual, which is also part of their charm.  Mario’s was the first food stand I had ever been to.  And upon my first visit to Al’s, when I was 4 years old, I noticed that there were no tables, just counters.  At that age I was always taught to sit down at the dinner table when you eat, but at Al’s you quickly learn how to eat your Italian beef sandwich standing up.  As I later discovered, this technique is called “The Italian Stance.”

Al’s Italian Beef and Mario’s Italian Lemonade may not be fine-dining restaurants, but you are sure to receive some of the finest food Chicago has to offer.

Al's Italian Beef
1079 West Taylor Street 
Chicago, IL
(312) 226-4017
Mario's Italian Lemonade
1068 West Taylor St
Chicago, IL 60607

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Downtown Family, and the Uptown Cafe By: Gina Witt

Gina is a dental hygienist and food blogger who enjoys running, sewing and fantasy and baseball nerding. Gina is picky about her food and restaurant choices. She says, the must be prepared flavor-fully with care, from scratch and considers herself to be a snob about these requirements. Time is too precious to squander on a mediocre or bad dining experience for this busy mom.

Throughout my life, I’ve occasionally been noticed for my quirky style, but never my expensive taste. I have always earned a look of disdain when, on receiving a compliment on an outfit, I’ve blurted proudly, “It’s second-hand. Two bucks! And I sewed the top!” I admit, I think that good things don’t have to cost a fortune.

Now, I have two kids under the age of three that I love to share meals with. However, I don’t believe in bringing our kids along to fancy restaurants, because I feel that a $32 steak is a waste of money when served with a side of screaming.

My life doesn’t happen at five-star venues. My life happens at the Uptown Café in Arlington Heights.

We can all have fun at the Uptown, and I don’t have to eat something that’s pressed into a nugget shape. The food is fresh and delicious at Uptown, the service is friendly, and the prices are incredible.

The Uptown Café has been owned by a Greek family for decades. Georgia greets us at the door. She is a tall woman with tall hair and a tall personality. She has shown my toddler how to stack the creamers to help keep her amused, or she has fed her jelly off the end of a spoon. She calls her “kukla,” or “doll.” The Uptown staff is always accommodating: crayons and coloring paper, saltines, and a kiddie cup are available promptly at the Uptown. Phew!

The décor is the low-point at the Uptown, but I find it endearing. It includes Miami-style pinks, palm fronds in the upholstery, and frosted glass partitions. Things get even more convoluted with lots of ceramic figurines, and hanging seasonal paper decorations. If you can’t find the warm heart (or at least the kitsch factor) in these types of surroundings, then I would humbly suggest that the Uptown is not for you.

The French fries at the Uptown are some of the very best anywhere, always served hot, with a shattering crunch. Breakfast selections include enormous omelets and perfect pancakes. (The Mickey Mouse pancake is a festival of cherries, sprinkles, and whipped cream so over-the-top that your kid will think it is her birthday.) The sandwiches have ingredients like hand-carved turkey, cranberry mayo, crispy bacon, and always perfect avocado. You will obsess about their chicken salad, or their thick and gooey grilled cheese. Specials never disappoint, whether a burger or an entrée salad. The grilled chicken is incredibly flavorful: my favorite special has been their broccoli, chicken, and cheddar crepe that I have requested specially-made many times.

The prices at Uptown are fast-food low. Our family can eat for just above $20 on real food, creatively prepared, with quality ingredients and fresh produce. I can bring my family to the Uptown, and still leave a hefty tip after my kids trash the immediate area around our table.

I’m happy to admit that the Uptown Café is where my family is right now. And like my family, it is always fresh (and oh, that toddler is a fresh one), comfortingly routine but never boring, just what I wanted, and where I’m always very glad to be.

Oh, and a little tacky and loud sometimes.

Uptown Cafe
24 East Miner Street
Arlington Heights, IL 60004-6012
(847) 398-1720

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Perfect Meal By: Emilie Yount

Emilie is an editor from Andersonville. She loves to read, travel and considers herself a fan of everything Harry Potter. Emilie watches Check, Please! to see how different people view things in different ways. She thinks its interesting to see how the food, especially spicy food, tastes to other customers. Some people may think something is too spicy, but Emilie says, bring it on!
Twist is a restaurant in Chicago in the oddest of areas. When you think of Wrigleyville, you likely imagine 20-somethings stumbling down Clark Street in a drunken haze to the next sports bar that smells of stale beer. In the case of Twist, a plethora of delights are encased in a tiny storefront just near the corner of where Clark intersects with Sheffield. I have been back dozens upon dozens of times to savor in what this quaint tapas restaurant has to offer. It can get super-crowded due to its size, and although I have spotted quite a few first dates there, it isn't ideal in terms of romance. It is, however, an excellent place for a group to converge over an array of red and white sangrias and chat the night away.

Tapas are the best way to get to know the people around you or reconnect with your dinner party. Sharing food allows people to converse and discuss and, of course, allows you the chance to dabble when it comes to your meal. How many times have you ordered an entree that you were unhappy with and spent the majority of the meal eyeballing the lovely entree your dining partner has ordered? Tapas allow you to sample, which means you will be happy with most items, but more than likely, there will be standouts to remember for your next visit.

Twist has a price per plate that can't be beat. I have definitely been to my fair share of tapas places, and there is no silly gimmick here. They have quick service and bring the items out as they become available. You can sit in the front section, which rises upon the rest of the restaurant and looks out onto Sheffield or at the tables that line the restaurant wall. You also have the choice to sit in front of the cook station, which smells like heaven. Some of the items are are continuously stellar are subtly spicy jalapeno gnocchi, the tuna cannelloni stuffed with tuna, asparagus and basil in a white wine vinaigrette and tomato basil sauce, the lobster ravioli with sun-dried tomatoes, stuffed mushrooms roasted with sauteed spinach and Monterey Jack cheese, the beef tenderloin crusted with delicious blue cheese and the Paella Twist, which combines chicken, calamari, mussels and shrimp with saffron rice. I can honestly say I have never had a disappointing visit here. Your options are endless, from cold to hot tapas (veggies, meat, cheese- whatever you are craving) and a full bar selection. People who don't like small spaces need not apply, but I am all about the food. If it's good, I will come back, and in this case, it's great. The sangria selection doesn't hurt, either (red being a mainstay but always in addition to a summer option). If you want to meet up with old friends or meet new ones, this is the place.

3412 North Sheffield
Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 388-2727

Turquoise: A Delicious Gem By: Tom Gull

Tom Gull is a sales manager who enjoys singing, bike riding, travel and of course cooking. Tom thinks that good food, unrushed service, and a knowledgeable wait staff makes a restaurant worth going to. He watches Check, Please! to see how others view the restaurants that he has experienced already.

I was introduced to Turquoise Café by a friend who is Turkish. My initial impression was how clever the name is. In subsequent visits with friends for whom it is their first visit, they too were surprised by the name that points to the cuisine – maybe everyone first thinks of the rare gemstone. 

This was one of the only restaurants I know of where I didn’t know what to expect. I figured the menu would be a cuisine that would be similar to Greek and Middle Eastern restaurants. Greek restaurants to me all taste too similar to each other and Middle Eastern restaurants also seem to be a slight variation on a theme – shawarma and kebaps. I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Sure, there are kebaps and hummus but even these well known dishes took on a flavor all their own. The hummus, when served as an entrée is accompanied by all sorts of vegetables (wild mushrooms, carrots, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, broccoli) each cooked perfectly.  Each dish is unique unto itself. One of the kebaps I’ve tried is served with a reduced pomegranate sauce.

There were a dozen people at my first dinner at Turquoise. We went with a group of twelve who were in Chicago from all parts of the U.S. for a conference. It seemed like most had some food restrictions – gluten-free, dairy free, vegetarian, diabetic. The server was knowledgeable and easily directed everyone to appropriate choices or asked the chef to alter the dishes to accommodate their needs. I do not have any food restrictions so I chose the sampler platter. I try not to overeat but I figured the sampler platter would be a great introduction to the restaurant. It was filled with shrimp, salmon, chicken, beef and scallops all on a delicate bed of rice pilaf. It was so flavorful that I knew I would soon return.

On future visits, our group has been six or fewer persons. Upon a recommendation from the sole male waiter, who will proudly tell you he is not Turkish, but Kurdish, we always order 2 appetizers and one less entrée than the number at the table to share. There is always plenty to eat. The appetizers tend heavily toward seafood (diver scallops, calamari, mussels, salmon carpaccio or vegetarian – think zucchini pancakes, or spreads made from roasted eggplant) all served with delicious warm, homemade bread. At Turquoise, each dish I have tried tastes completely different from the next. Each entrée is served with uniquely perfect sides – rack of lamb with roasted vegetables, braised beef short rib with a creamy polenta, grilled salmon with gnocchi in a light tomato sauce, gorgonzola chicken with roasted red peppers, salt crusted Mediterranean white fish with steamed vegetables.

With the waiter’s recommendation, I have literally had over 50% of their entrees. With each dish, I feel like I am experiencing eating for the first time with new taste buds being awakened.  Unlike many other ethnic restaurants where the moussaka, pasta marinara or Wiener schnitzel all taste the same, the chefs at Turquoise have created a menu where there are no similarities. The accompaniments to each dish are as unique as main dish itself.

Dessert tends to be traditional, offering crème brulee (odd for the region), baklava, gelato and cheesecake but then they surprise you with an almond parfait that is flambéed tableside and drenched with a warm chocolate sauce. Also available is Kazandibi, which according to the menu is a mixture of caramelized butter, sugar and custard served with vanilla ice cream. It is a dense custard but the caramelized top is reminiscent of the flavor of toasted marshmallows.

For the past twenty or so years, I have taken three of my nephews, who are brothers, out to lunch or dinner a few days before Christmas. This tradition began when the oldest was 9 or 10 to give my sister an afternoon to finish her Christmas preparation. Each year, I choose a different ethnic restaurant for our meal. Each year as we get into the car, I ask the boys “why are we doing this?” They respond in unison “so we learn to appreciate other cultures.” As a native Chicagoan, I enjoy taking my friends, visitors, and nephews to the many ethnic neighborhoods that make Chicago a world-class city.  Through the years, we have “visited” Mexico, Guatemala, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, Sweden, Ethiopia, Japan, China, Korea, India, Lithuania, Peru, Russia, and Thailand. As we drive, I give them clues to where we are going and along the way I detour through different neighborhoods to throw them off the track. In 2010, I took my nephews to Turquoise. When the meal was finished, they all proclaimed that it was the best restaurant yet.

Turquoise Restaurant
2147 W.Roscoe
est Chicago, IL 60618
(773) 549-3523

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