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

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