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"A gourmet who thinks of calories is like a tart who looks at her watch." - James Beard


Saturday, January 5, 2013

Detour - Chicago Part 1

Over the holidays we took a trip to Chicago for Matt's birthday.  It was our 3rd time visiting.  It's just a 6 hour drive from home and we love the city!  Shopping is fantastic.  There's so much to see and do.  And the food!  The food is incredible!

Day One:

Our first stop is always on the road. Kalamazoo is the halfway point between home and Chicago.  Michigan has a wonderful beer scene and Bell's Brewery is one of the best in North America.  They have a great little restaurant called the Eccentric Cafe where you can get a terrific lunch and some tasty beer.  They also have a General Store to purchase their beer, along with brewing ingredients and equipment and swag.  We grabbed some fancy beer and headed back on the road.

Once in Chicago we made one more stop at Binny's Beverage Depot.  We usually go to the downtown location but this time we went to Lincoln Park and it was tremendous!  Huge selection of beer, liquor and wine.  Matt bought dozens of interesting beers and I got some Champagne and French sparkling wine for a ridiculous price (they had samples in every aisle!).  I also bought a bottle of interesting tequila and some delicious margarita mix.  Most of this was to bring home but we did consume some in the hotel room as well.  

Next we checked into our hotel, the Amalfi Hotel Chicago.  This was our first time staying here but the whole trip was planned around a great deal we found.  Chicago hotels are often deeply discounted on weekends and this was no exception.  The Amalfi is in a fantastic location on Kinzie Street, just a block from the river and two blocks from the Magnificent Mile.  It was easy to walk to restaurants, shopping and sights.  It also had a wonderful reception each evening with free (!) cocktails and snacks, plus a free continental breakfast each morning.  It was a great place to stay.  

Our first evening we hadn't planned dinner but we knew the Slurping Turtle was close by and wanted to check it out.  Chef Takashi was one of our favourite contestants on Top Chef Masters and we lucked out that he actually popped in to his little soup restaurant while we were there!    

We were seated at a communal table and had a great server who explained the menu.  I'd planned to get ramen but my top choice, Tan Tan Men, turned out to be quite spicy so Matt ordered it instead and I ordered an amazing lobster and crab maki roll and shared a bit of the soup.  Our friends ordered another ramen, Tonkotsu, a traditional pork noodle soup, as well as some sashimi and it was incredible too.  We also had bacon-wrapped asparagus and the most delicious Brussels sprouts in history.  This place is amazing.  I'd love to return for lunch where they have a great looking bento box special.

Day Two:  

Today walked to Millennium Park where we visited the Art Institute of Chicago.  

The collection is pretty amazing and we spent several hours there before heading to Macy's on State Street for shopping.  This Macy's is 7 floors in a beautiful, old building. We had a quick lunch (beer & nachos) at the sports bar at Macy's, then shopped all afternoon.

One of the things we love in Chicago is the amazing Mexican food.  It always astounds me that there's such a huge Mexican population so close to where we live but we can barely get decent Mexican food in our area.

Tonight, dinner at Frontera Grill.  We'd eaten here once before and loved it.  Chef Rick Bayless makes amazing Mexican food at his Chicago restaurants.  They have a limited number of reservations available for Frontera Grill (Toplobampo, the more upscale sister restaurant next door does take reservations).  We managed to secure a reservation months in advance to celebrate the night before Matt's birthday at his favourite restaurant.  

We were seated right away and ordered cocktails.  I had JJ's Elixir: Fig-infused Riverboat rye whiskey, cinnamon agave, fresh lime, Scrump's hard cider. Matt ordered a Fernet-Pear Mojito: D'Aristi rum, Fernet Branca, pear, fresh mint, lime, cane syrup.  We also tried the Oaxacan Gold: Wahaka Joven Espadin mezcal, wood-grilled pineapple, Mexican vanilla, fresh lime.  

For appetizers we all wanted some ceviche. We'd tried it before at Frontera and loved it. We ordered Yucatecan Ceviche: Steamed Mexican blue shrimp & calamari, lime, orange, habanero, avocado, jicama, cucumber & cilantro with tortilla chips, plus Jícama Street Snack: Jicama, cucumber, pineapple, fresh lime and crushed guajillo chile, plus Stuffed Jalapeños: Sweet-sour jalapeños stuffed with Veracruz-style chicken picadillo (tomatoes, capers, olives, herbs), cilantro crema, peashoots and añejo cheese.

All of this should have been enough but then we had a little mix up.  We ordered a half-sized oyster and ceviche platter but were served the full version.  We ate it anyway and the oysters were incredible, but it was way too much food for four people.  And we hadn't even had entrées yet! This is a dozen oysters plus two large tuna ceviche.  

I don't know if I've ever ordered oysters before but now it's all I want all the time.  They were so delicious.  

For our mains, the birthday boy had Duck in Pasilla-Huitlacoche Sauce: Red chile-rubbed Gunthorp duck breast, dark sauce of pasilla & local huitlacoche. Corn husk-steamed tamales studded with sweet corn, smoky green beans, cheese chicharron.
He loves duck and loved this.  A beautiful, complex sauce. 

We've been impressed both times we visited this restaurant at how helpful and professional they are about nut allergies. I was thrilled to hear they had two nut-free moles on the menu.  I wanted to order something Matt could try too. I asked for a recommendation and ordered Chicken in Mole de Calabaza: Garlic-marinated chicken breast, red kuri squash mole, roasted local sweet potatoes & beets, watercress salad.  The chicken was beautifully tender and the sauce was delicious.  Tortillas were served alongside which I shared with Matt for his duck.  

One of our friends ordered Red Chile Meatball Tacos: Classic little Mexican pork meatballs, guajillo chile sauce, braised kale, crispy onions, queso de cincho.

Our other friend ordered the daily special of Chipotle-glazed Gunthorp Farm pork back ribs. Tangy cabbage & black beans. We had a taste of the ribs and they were spicy and delicious.

We don't commonly order dessert when we eat out but they brought Matt a nice little sorbet.  We also ordered boozy coffees and got some lovely tequila complements of the house. 

It was a great way to spend a special day and it's not even Matt's actual birthday yet!  Tune in next time for our last day in Chicago.  

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