Chicago, IL

Cafe Spiaggia (


May 7, 2010: Our first stop in the windy city was Cafe Spiaggia, an Italian restaurant located at 980 North Michigan Avenue. Cafe Spiaggia is a more casual version of their upper scale restaurant next door, Spiaggia - the only 4 star Italian restaurant in Chicago and where in 2008, the Obamas spent their anniversary.  Tony Mantuano, the executive chef at Spiaggia and Cafe Spiaggia, is a contestant on Season's 2 Top Chef Masters that premiered in April 2010.   

All planes from DC to Chicago were delayed so Amy and I were late for our 8:45 pm reservation. Maria, another friend of ours, had flown to Chicago earlier in the day and arrived at the restaurant early.  She let the hostess know we were going to be late and the restaurant staff was very accommodating with pushing our reservation back until we arrived. We literally came from the airport to the restaurant with no time beforehand to freshen up at the hotel. The Cafe's website says casual dress is permitted; however, I felt slightly underdressed in jeans.   
First, I must say the service was truly incredible. Rick, our waiter (see picture below), attended to our every need.  He picked up very quickly on the fact that we were knowledgeable about food and wine. He is a full time law student and normally only works Saturdays, but had picked up an extra Friday shift.  This worked out perfectly for us and we were lucky to have had him as our server. Rick gave us great wine and food recommendations.  He was also very kind to give us many other restaurant suggestions to try during our stay in Chicago.

We decided to do a tapas style event and order several things on the menu to share between the three of us.  We started with the crudo, an Ahi tuna tartar with olives, capers, and rice beans.  The tuna was very fresh; the olives and capers added a depth of flavor to the dish; and the rice beans were a very interesting addition. We felt this dish was very good but could have been slightly more flavorful - Amy suggested that a dash of lemon juice might brighten up the flavor a bit.
The sarde, the house cured sardines on crostini with salsa verde and shaved fennel, was one of our favorites of the evening.  I almost wish I had ordered my own because after I tasted it, I didn't want to share.  The sarde had the perfect mixture of salt and olive oil and the salsa verde was a perfect touch to the dish.  Sardines, by the way, are the best source of coenzyme Q10.
Next up was the primi piatti - the pasta.  We ordered two pastas, the perciatelle and the handcrafted gnocchi.  The perciatelle, a thin hollow pasta with La Quercia guanciale, onions, garlic, basil, and Calabrian peppers, was "OMG" awesome.  The pasta was cooked perfectly "al dente." The Calabrian peppers, a spicy little red pepper, added a perfect "kick" to the dish.
Rick convinced us to order the hand crafted potato gnocchi with wild boar ragu and Parmigiana Reggiano.  He said they were the most tender potato gnocchi he's ever had.  The gnocchi were very good and tender; however, they were not the most tender gnocchi Amy and I have ever had. Rick obviously has never been to Palena in Washington, DC which has the most tender, melt-in-your mouth gnocchi.
For our secondi, We ordered the Trota (another one of Rick's recommendations) - wood roasted golden trout with artichoke hearts, carmelized shallots, and new potatoes.  The dish was supposed to come with Tuscan beans but Amy requested that they leave them out. The chef was happy to accommodate her request. The trout was very good; however, it was difficult to eat one bite which encompassed all the elements of the dish. The dish was very beautifully presented.  The picture below doesn't do the dish's beauty justice. 
The service was truly phenomenal. My only criticism is that the two pastas (i primi piatti) and the trota (il secondo) were brought to our table at the same time. I would have preferred that the trota be served after the pasta.
For dessert we ordered the bomboloni - Italian style doughnuts with grappa di Moscato zabaglione.  The bomboloni were very delicious; however, the chocolate sauce was slightly overpowering for the sugar-coated doughnuts. 
Compliments of the restaurant, Rick brought us a trio of gelati and sorbetti - red raspberry and pistachio gelati and the pineapple basil sorbet.  The gelato and sorbet were out of this world delicious.  The pineapple basil sorbet was the overall favorite of the table. Maria thought it tasted like a spa.
Finally, for the wine we had the Paolo Scavino Rosso Vino da Tavola. This wine was a deep, ruby-red color with hints of currant, cherry, mocha, pepper, and smoke.  It had good acidity, easy on the tannins and a long finish.  We also had the 2007 Barberi d'Asti Tre Vigne. This wine had red cherry fruit up front, good acidity, with smooth tannins.
Final Note: Cafe Spiaggia is a definite must if you are ever in Chicago.  I hope to one day try the more upscale restaurant, Spiaggia.


Gino's East versus Giordano's Pizza

Gino's East (
May 9, 2010:  The big question on all of our minds was who makes the best deep dish Chicago-style pizza.  Every chance we got, we asked native Chicagoans this question.  We narrowed it down to our "final four" - Pizzeria Uno, Gino's East, Lou Malnatis, and Giordano's. After much discussion, we crossed Lou Malnatis and Pizzeria Uno off the list. For some reason (and I can't really remember why) we agreed that we didn't want to try Lou Malnatis even though it had been featured on the Food Network and Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations.  Since Pizzeria Unos are all over DC and we had eaten there before, that one was out - which left us with Gino's East or Giordano's.  
Although Gino's East won the popular vote when polling all the cab drivers we encountered in Chicago, Giordano's won the electoral vote among the hotel staff. If you believe Wikipedia, the original Gino's East opened in 1966, by two taxi drivers, Sam Levine and Fred Bartoli, and a friend, George Laverde - so our polling participants' opinions may have been slightly skewed and not as random a population as we would have liked.  Amy made the decision since her stay in Chicago was shorter than Maria's and my stay - after all we had the whole week to try Giordano's.  She decided to go with the popular vote and chose Gino's East. 
We went early for lunch to beat the Mother's Day's crowds and decided to try the original Gino's East on 633 North Wells Street.  In the restaurant, the graffiti-filled walls were certainly a sight to see and of course, we couldn't leave without leaving our own etchings on the wall.

Now to the food - we first ordered the family size tossed salad which was very unremarkable.  It reminded me of the salads you get at Olive Garden (and yes I've eaten at Olive Garden!).  The only positive thing I can say about this salad is that it fulfilled one serving in the vegetable group.
For the pizza, we ordered one of their medium specialty pizzas -half with crumbled sausage and  half with onions, green peppers, mushrooms, and pepperoni - to share between the three of us. The pizzas are cooked to order and we waited approximately 30 to 40 minutes for our pizza. It was well worth the wait.  The pizza had an interesting cornmeal crust and came with layers of cheese, toppings and sauce, which was very tasty. Crushed red pepper at the table adds a nice spice to the sauce - so don't forget to sprinkle some on your piece. 
The pizza is so good that you can't eat just one piece.  A word of warning, resist that urge - the pizza is extremely heavy and two pieces can easily push you over the edge.  We each had two pieces and none of us wanted to eat the rest of the day -but of course we did eat later that day (see the Purple Pig and Mercat a la Planxa). After all, we were in Chicago.
Giordano's Pizza (
May 11, 2010:  Maria and I decided to check out Giordano's Pizzeria one evening after a long day of work meetings (we didn't just come to Chicago to eat). We were lucky to have a Giordano's one block from our hotel.  We ordered exactly the same thing at Giordano's as we ordered at Gino's East. We were determined to resolve the debate over whose pizza is better.  
As you can see in the picture below, Giordano's pizza looked like Gino's East's identical twin. But we all know even identical twins are not the same.  Giordano's pizza lacked the personality in the flavor of Gino's East pizza. The pizza toppings were just as heavy but the sauce was not tasty and actually quite bland. The crust was a typical pizza dough and lacked the distinctive cornmeal flavor of Gino's crust.  
Once again, and trust me on this - resist the urge to have two pieces. I, once again, had two pieces and regretted it later that evening.
It was unanimous, Maria and I agreed that Gino's East wins the pizza debate.

Hot Doug's

May 8, 2010 - "There are no two finer words in the English language than encased meats, my friends."  This is the saying you'll see as you enter Hot Doug's, Chicago's encased meats emporium and sausage superstore, located on 3324 N. California Ave in the Avondale neighborhood.  
We were told that we absolutely could not leave Chicago without going to Hot Doug's. We decided to make this our first stop of the day.  It was a little out of the way from our downtown hotel so we took a taxi to get there (approximately a $15 taxi ride). Hot Doug's opens at 10:30 am. We arrived at 10:00 am hoping to beat the crowds but the line was already 40 people deep.  
It took us approximately one hour to get inside the door of the store/restaurant.  Inside we placed our order with the owner, Doug Sohn, who typically works the counter. It was clear to all of us that Doug loves his job and is good with people. Despite the long lines and wait, the crowd and  general restaurant atmosphere was very friendly, and so was Doug! I even met a fellow WVU Mountaineer fan while standing in line (an 80 year old woman, living in Morgantown, who was visiting her daughter for Mother's Day). The hour long wait -which went by very fast- was definitely well worth the food experience.

Hot Doug's features a very unique and diverse menu of hot dogs.  The menu changes daily and includes the traditional style Chicago dog to foie gras and sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse and fleur de sel, to "Frankie, Five Angels, Pentangelli," one of my favorites of the day.
Our first decision was which dogs to order and our second was how we wanted them cooked. We decided to order 4 dogs to share between the three of us and chose the grilled then fried cooking method.  We ordered the traditional Chicago-style dog, topped with the usual pickles, mustard, tomatoes, sport peppers, and celery salt. I actually didn't taste this one but Amy and Maria both agreed that this was one of their favorites of the four dogs we ordered that morning.
Next, we ordered the Smoked Portuguese Linguica with Saffron Rouille and Queso Iberico. This was the overall favorite of the day.  This one was very juicy, firm, and had a nice crunch from the casing that typically comes with grilled dogs.  The saffron rouille and Iberico cheese were the perfect accompaniments.
The dog below is the "Frankie, Five Angels, Pentangelli. The Italian sausage was spicy and very good but it wasn't as good as my father's.  My father's is slightly more spicy and less fatty than Hot Doug's.  Also, if I would have had my choice I would have put less toppings on it so as not to mask the flavors of the Italian sausage.  My final thought about this dog - I'm a huge Godfathe 1 fan and I think they should have kept its name as the "Luca Brasi" or "Virgil, the Turk" Sollozzo.  
We could not leave without trying the foie gras and sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse and fleur de sel.  While standing in line, we learned that the city of Chicago banned foie gras in 2006 because its making constituted cruelty to animals (the ducks are fattened by force feeding). During the ban, Hot Doug's continued to serve the foie gras and was eventually fined. The ban was repealed and the foie gras dog was brought back into the rotating menu lineup.  The foie gras dog was awesome. The foie gras itself had very distinct smooth flavors and a creamy texture.
Finally, we ordered the restaurant's specialty french fries, which are cooked in duck fat. These shoestring fries were crunchy and good. Since I like my fries thick, I didn't think these fries were as good as the thick duck fat-fried fries served at the Blue Duck Tavern in Washington, DC.
Final thought - You can not visit Chicago without going to Hot Doug's. It is well worth the trip and an experience you won't soon forget.


MK The Restaurant


May 8, 2010 - I have to admit, I was beginning to feel a bit like a power player. For the second night in a row, the Executive Chef joined us at our table to say hello. We figure it's Cheryl’s unabashed promotion of her website ( which is facilitating the visits-but it could also be the universally friendly service we have received since touching down in the Windy City.
While the table side stop from MK's Executive Chef, Erick Williams, was a real treat, it was the food his kitchen served which really made the evening.
I had made our reservations at MK with a bit of hand-wringing -Chicago has many great restaurants and I really wanted to choose something special. I had narrowed the decision down to MK and North Pond, a former warming shack on the lake at Lincoln Park, after my visit to to read their Chicago restaurant reviews and my quick glance at the two menus. The opportunity to choose from an a la carte menu (and the pommes frites with truffle cream!) led me to pick MK. We were not disappointed. 
The meal opened with a small tasting of cured wild salmon paired with golden raisins, chopped pistachios, mini-frisee, and a light dressing of pistachio oil, lemon, and sea salt. This three bite amuse bouche set the tone for the entire evening of beautifully prepared food and timely service. 

With any new restaurant I really want to try as many dishes as possible. Luckily, Cheryl and Maria agree with this philosophy so we decided to have a round of shared appetizers, followed by a salad course, and then our entrees. We started with pan seared potato gnocchi, prawns, and the fries I mentioned earlier. 
The potato gnocchi were pan seared creating a slightly chewy texture, which paired nicely with the artichoke slivers.  The dish was topped with a fried egg -the broken yolk combined nicely with parmigiano reggiano cheese to sauce the gnocchi.  Egg-topped dishes appear to be "all the rage" in Chicago as almost every menu featured an item topped with a fried egg.  
The prawns were delicious, big, and sweet with a nice crunch on the outside.  We also enjoyed the spring pea and pea shoot salad which lined the plate although I noticed it was hard to eat a bite with all of the components together. We devoured the shrimp first and then slowly ate the pea salad.  
Our last starter was the aforementioned pommes frites with truffle cream.  I have a particular weakness for truffles, and the cream sauce had a strong truffle flavor.  The fries were good but it was the sauce that made the dish.  
We then transitioned with a salad and soup course.  Maria and I each had a simple arugula salad with fennel, pine nuts, and lemony vinaigrette.  The salad was topped with a wedge of Humboldt Fog goat cheese.  
Cheryl had the lobster and pea soup which our waiter took care to note was served at room temperature.  It was a bright vibrant green color and the flavor matched.  
For entrees, we took cues from the wait staff and I think we chose well.  Cheryl had a lovely rabbit duo - a leg and loin from Michigan’s Swan Creek Farm.  It was paired with a parley root galette, which resembled a really fancy potato pancake.  Fava beans and roasted carrots completed the flavor profile.    
As a Midwesterner, I tend to lean to meat dishes as a normal course and was not steered wrong with the veal t-bone.  The meat was juicy with a nice crust—a real solid entrĂ©e.  It was served with broccolini and peppercorn pan sauce.  My only quibble with the dish, the plating was very simple compared with my companion’s plates.  
Maria had the tuna with mashed potatoes, shitake mushrooms and a red wine sauce.  I was really impressed with how well the pairings went with the tuna because I don’t believe I have ever had fish paired with mashed potatoes.  For all of the entrees we chose to have the meats cooked to the chef's recommended temperature.  A slight miss - the tuna was not as rare as Maria had hoped (or as rare as the tuna that was delivered to tables nearby).  
As you can imagine, we weren’t very hungry for dessert after so many great courses.  I don't have a huge sweet tooth and I always suggest sharing dessert because it's my least favorite part of the meal, however, at MK, the pastry chef has assembled a beautiful list of desserts.  The list read more like an appetizer menu with great care taken to really create cohesive innovative dishes rather than just tossing a piece of cake on a plate.  
Cheryl’s ice cream and cookie plate was really amazing—dulce de leche, caramelized honey, and carrot cake ice cream flavors and a variety of small cookies. Cheryl really liked the bite sized peanut butter cookie!
I had the brioche sugar donuts with chocolate accompaniments and dulce de leche ice cream.  
Maria’s rhubarb plate complete with a rhubarb tart, anise-flavored sabayon cream, and a rhubarb soda was the most inventive and beautiful.
With regard to the wine, we thought the glasses used to serve wine by the glass were disappointing--many establishments provide inferior glasses when a bottle is not ordered. However, our wait staff was very happy to accommodate our request for better glassware when we ordered our second glasses of wine.  I also thought given the quality, creativity, and care that went into the food, the restaurant could have offered a more robust wine by the glass list.  Many diners are opting to try different styles of wine throughout their meal rather than ordering an entire bottle. Unfortunately, many restaurants have not upgraded their menus to account for this.  
Our meal ended with one last treat - with our bill, the staff presented a small plate of shortbread cookies, strawberry gelees and cocoa nib brittle. 

Mercat a la Planxa

May 9, 2010 -  It was our last day for the three of us to experience Chicago restaurants together - Amy was flying back to DC on the 6:30 am flight the next day. We decided to do a "quasi" progressive dinner - two restaurants in one evening to complete our dining experience. Mercat a la Planxa was our second stop for the evening (our first stop - The Purple Pig). We thought we would end our Chicago food adventure trip with a true Catalan tapas experience.   
Amy and Maria chose this restaurant. Amy had eaten in one of Jose Garces' six restaurants in Philadelphia, and Maria was impressed that he won "the Next Iron Chef" 2010 competition. I must be honest, I actually had never heard of him but it didn't take much arm twisting for me. We were off to try Jose's only restaurant in Chicago, Mercat a la Planxa. By the way, "mercat" means market in Catalan and "planxa" refers to tapas prepared on an iron griddle from the Catalan region of Spain.
Upon entering the restaurant, we were escorted up a spiral staircase into a very open, sunken, dining room.  The dining area was dark, the music was pulsating, and the restaurant had an interesting night club-like feel. I was impressed with the scene and I wanted to start dancing immediately.  I loved its design and open kitchen - I had a perfect view of the kitchen. 

Since we arrived in Chicago, I can say that the service had been exceptional. This was true until we arrived at Mercat a la Planxa. I'm not sure what issues the wait staff was having that evening but our waiter didn't have the same enthusiasm as the other wait staff we encountered during our Chicago stay. 
Compliments of the restaurant, the waiter brought us the house made tomato bread. The bread was grilled and topped with a chunky tomato, garlic, basil sauce. The tomato bread was one of my favorites at this restaurant; however, Amy and Maria like Jaleo's (in DC) more simple version of tomato bread better.
We then had the difficult task of choosing what we wanted next. We had already eaten several little dishes at our first stop, the Purple Pig, so Maria suggested a light fare. We decided to try the diver scallops a la planxa. The scallops were tender and truly grilled to perfection. It was another favorite of the evening.
Next up, we shared the patatas bravas. Jose Garces gets a 10 out of 10 for innovativeness and creativity.  These weren't your normal deep fried potatoes with aioli - Jose's Garces created a patatas bravas that consisted of deep fried mash potatoes with a spicy paprika aioli. Although I like the tangy aioli and sweet spicy tomato sauce that accompanies Jaleo's (in DC) patatas bravas better, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Jose Garces' version.
We decided to order the Muscovy (from Mexico and Central and South America) duck breast with duck confit and yes, a foie gras crepe. In addition to the "fried egg" rage, foie gras was another menu rage in Chicago. The duck breast was very delicious, tender, and melted in your mouth.
Finally, we ordered the Catalan-style charred green onions. These were very tasty; however, they were extremely chewy and I felt like I was going to choke on them. I ate a couple and then had to stop for fear I might not live through the meal.  The green onions were served with an almond sauce that we all agreed was very tasty and the best part of the dish.
Final note: I wasn't "wowed" by this restaurant. Perhaps this was because we weren't all that hungry when we sat down to order or we just didn't make great choices.  Despite this, I would try this restaurant again. Next time; however, it will be my first stop of the evening.  I absolutely loved the restaurant's nightclub and festive atmosphere.

The Bristol

May 13, 2010 - It was our last night in Chicago and some folks from our EIG group, Solly, who was our EIG coach, and his son and daughter, who live in Chicago, decided to have dinner together at the Bristol, located at 2152 North Damen Avenue.  Solly's son, Elliott, recommended the restaurant.  Based on a few conversations with Elliott, it was clear to me that Elliott is as much a foodie as me or more. He knew exactly where to take us for our final meal. 
Keeping with our "pig" theme  - while in Chicago, we seem to have ordered and eaten every part of the pig - we ordered the head cheese. I had heard of head cheese, but had never tasted it before and didn't exactly know what it was. Head cheese, I've learned since my trip, is a jellied loaf made from chopped and boiled parts of a pig's feet, head, and sometimes tongue and heart. I am so glad I didn't know this before I tasted it for the first time.  I think the description itself would have influenced me to not even try it.  I did try it and I didn't like it, despite not knowing the description beforehand.  The closest food that I can liken it to is bologna - but more of a cubed version with a weird taste. I'm not a huge fan of bologna either.
Next we ordered something a little more normal, the monkey bread with sea salt and dill butter.  The monkey bread was tender and delicious and the dill butter combined nicely with the salted rolls.

We also ordered the duck fat fries, house ketchup and garlic aioli. They were probably the best duck fat fries I had while in Chicago. These fries were crispy and a little thicker than the shoestring variety that I had earlier in the week at Hot Doug's.
Next we shared the bone marrow, served with shallot jam, and toast. Although Bristol's bone marrow tasted somewhat buttery, it had a hard jelly like texture. We had ordered bone marrow earlier in the week at the Purple Pig and it's texture was very buttery and smooth.
Maria and I decided to share an order of the potato gnocchi.  I must confess, that I don't remember much about the gnocchi except that they were tender.  I've had gnocchi at many different restaurants. It's one of the ways I compare and rank restaurants in my mind.  I think because I can't remember anything distinctive about this gnocchi dish tells me a lot about it.  They were very good but there was nothing truly memorable about them - I still distinctly remember Michael Chiarello's ricotta gnocchi at his restaurant in Yountville and the potato gnocchi at Palena, a Washington DC restaurant - they are forever burned in my memory.
Finally, we ordered the pig's tail. Now  we can talk about a memorable dish. This was absolutely phenomenal. This dish alone was well worth any cab ride to get to this restaurant.  The meat was incredibly tender and tasty and literally melted in your mouth like butter. I can say without reservation that this was the best dish I had during my whole culinary adventure in Chicago.
Final note:  I would definitely rank this restaurant among the top 3 of the restaurants that I went to while in Chicago.  If you go, you must try the pig's tail if it is still available on their menu.

The Purple Pig

May 9, 2010 - I recently read an article quoting a West Coast chef who says a real chef does not need pork fat to produce good food.  If that is your personal philosophy, you should skip The Purple Pig.  It’s a pork emporium--bacon, sausage, and pork fat heaven awaits those who enter its hallowed halls.  Tempting would be an understatement.
It was the last night of our restaurant weekend in Chicago.  I was heading back at 6 a.m. the next morning and wanted to end my Chicago food weekend on a high note!   There were too many remaining restaurants to choose from so we went with the “progressive dinner,” a frequent approach Cheryl and I use to try out new places.  A glass of wine, a few appetizers to share and then it’s off to the next place for another round.  Let me just say, it’s a lot more fun than the sorority week version! 

We decided to hit The Purple Pig first.  It felt like (and sounded like) half of Chicago had the same thought.  The small restaurant is very casual in feel—cramped communal tables abound and it was noisy, noisy, noisy!  Luckily, as soon as we walked in, we were able to find three seats.  It took a few minutes, but once we had the wait staff’s attention, we were able to quickly order glasses of wine and a round of appetizers. 
Honestly, the individual glasses of wine were not particularly remarkable, but the breadth of the wine by the glass list and the nice glassware provided an option for all drinkers.  The food, however, was very memorable.  I think I have a fairly adventurous palate, but random animal parts are still a bit outside the box for me.  Nonetheless, we dug right in when the fried pig’s ear arrived.  The pig’s ear was sliced into small slivers and then fried with kale and pickled peppers and topped with a fried egg.  I have to admit—it was good.  But that may have been because I “decided” to pretend they were onion rings. 
The other new item for me was the roasted bone marrow served with an herb salad and toasted sourdough bread.  We scooped the bone marrow out and smeared it onto the bread rounds.  Tasted like crostini drowned in olive oil—the herb salad really added a bright note cutting through the heavy fat flavor. 
One more meat dish—milk braised pork shoulder cooked a la plancha (on a griddle) with some mashed potatoes.  The meat was very tender but I was surprised that the cooking method did not add any crunch to the dish.  With the mashed potatoes it was good, but the least interesting dish of the night.  
We rounded out the menu with a vegetable, fried baby artichokes with lemon.  I really liked the dish, although the lemon juice was a bit overpowering on the artichokes on the top of the dish.
There were more than a handful of other dishes I would love to try at The Purple Pig. In particular, their charcuterie and “smears,” their term for potted meats and cheese spreads looked amazing.  If I find myself in Chicago in the near future look for me on one of their barstools--it’s an experience I am looking forward to repeating.  Bring on the bacon!