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.

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