Tuesday, September 2

Carnivale University: Margaritas 101

A few weeks ago, I headed to the colorful West Loop restaurant, Carnivale. I'd been to Carnivale several times to eat, but this time I was there to learn to make some cocktails! Carnivale has a series of classes appropriately titled Carnivale University. Each class is offered once per month and allows participants to learn to make delicious latin-fusion cocktails or dishes.

Sauza Line of Tequilas Used in Our Margaritas
The class I attended was Margaritas 101 where we learned the ins and outs of crafting the perfect margarita. Carnivale is a huge restaurant and they make quite a few margaritas! There are as many as seven bars at Carnivale operating at one time so its bartenders are trained to follow recipes to ensure drink consistency across the 30,000 square foot restaurant.

Master Mixologist Daryl Freeman
Carnivale's master mixologist, Daryl Freeman, was our host for the evening and began the class with an overview of the tequila making process. We used Tres Generaciones Silver unaged tequila for our margaritas which happens to be USDA certified organic.

Tres Generaciones Silver Tequila
On each of the tables were all of the ingredients needed to make our own margaritas, along with some small bites to ensure the tequila didn't go straight to our heads! We were also served passed appetizers including mini empanadas, ropa vieja tacos, cheese and charcuterie (this was obviously one of my favorite parts of the evening).

Margarita Ingredients
Daryl demonstrated the process of making Carnivale's signature margarita, then we were given the opportunity to make our own. The recipe was quite simple:

Combine the following in a cocktail shaker:

1.5 oz. tequila
0.5 oz. Combier (or a triple sec of your choice)
2.5 oz. limonada
Shake shake shake & pour over ice!

Shaking My Handcrafted Margarita
The result was a very nice, not overly sweet, margarita! I was impressed with my cocktail-making skills. I even added some lime garnish and a salted rim for good measure.

Carnivale Signature Margarita
Next, we made a white peach margarita. Essentially, the recipe is the same, except for the addition of 0.5 oz. of white peach puree. Everyone repeated the margarita making process until all of us had crafted a nice peachy colored margarita. I was partial to the original margarita because this one was a little sweeter than I personally like. I may or may not have *accidentally* put in too much tequila, so I had to compensate with some extra white peach puree for balance.

White Peach Margarita
I had a great time at Carnivale University--I wish school could always be this fun! If you're interested in attending an upcoming class at Carnivale, check out the schedule on Carnivale's website. They have several courses coming up including a three-course cooking demo, and a bourbon class.

Note: my experience at Carnivale was complimentary; however, the opinions expressed herein are my own.

702 W. Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60661
Carnivale on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 29

Fried Chicken & Champagne...Why the Hell Not?!

Fried Chicken & Champagne
Texas-based MAX's Wine Dive opened in June in Wicker Park, offering "gourmet comfort food" along with a selection of wines. The Chicago location is the first outside of Texas. I was invited in to try out weekend brunch, so my friend Meg and I stopped by during Wicker Park Fest on a Sunday. The restaurant was lively, bright, and open, affording us views of busy Milwaukee Avenue.

View from the Dining Room
What we thought would be a light brunch, ending up being one of the most decadent meals I've had in quite some time.  The staff brought out several tasting portions of dishes including Crunchy Steak and Biscuits, which is essentially chicken fried steak, sausage gravy, and housemade biscuits. This was quite a heavy dish to start off with, but it really hit the spot. I loved the batter on the steak, and the fluffy biscuits.

Crunchy Steak and Biscuits
Next up was a sweet dish, Vanilla Bean French Toast. Thick pieces of Texas toast are smothered in a vanilla bean batter, griddled, and topped with macerated strawberries and Burton's Maplewood Farms syrup. I wish I had thought of Texas toast French toast earlier! It was amazing.

Vanilla Bean French Toast
Continuing on with the sweet dishes was the "healthiest" item of the morning, the Whole Wheat Blueberry Pancakes with lemon curd, blueberries, and almond granola. I don't typically like lemon, but it just worked with the pancakes.

Whole Wheat Blueberry Pancakes
Eggs Benedict is a dish I never order since I'm not a fan of Hollandaise, but the version we tried converted me. The Braised Pork Belly Benedict featured giardianera Hollandaise, and perfectly-poached eggs. The spice was a great combo for the sweet and smoky pork belly. This definitely was a favorite of ours. 

Braised Pork Belly Benedict
If there's one thing MAX's is know for, it's their combination of fried chicken and champagne. While one may be skeptical of such a pairing, I can personally vouch for its awesomeness. We tried two pieces of chicken and I was blown away. The chicken is marinated in a jalapeno buttermilk and fried fresh to order. The meat falls right off the bone with the poke of a fork, and the crispy skin is not drenched in grease. Now I know why MAX's fried chicken is award winning! I loved how the bubbles of the champagne cuts the salty, savory flavor of the chicken too. It just works!

Fried Chicken
Fried Chicken & Champagne
Lastly, we tried the Shrimp & Grits with bacon, scallions, parsley and jalapeno cheese grits, in a butter broth topped with a poached egg. We were quite impressed with the poached egg yet again--it was so damn perfect. The creamy, spicy grits were also fantastic.

Shrimp & Grits
Our brunch was insanely rich and left us not needing to eat for another day. While this may not be food for those on a diet, every item we had would make it easy to justify a "cheat day". I'm now a fried chicken & champagne enthusiast, and I must say, don't knock it 'til you try it!

MAX's also began offering "Saturday Morning Cartoon Brunch" featuring a menu of childhood-inspired dishes, such as pepperoni pizza bagels, the Scooby stack with graham cracker pancakes, chocolate butter and crunchies, and housemade marshmallow sauce, and bacon pancake dippers. They also offer a candy mimosa bar, and a six-person ice cream sundae! Going along with the theme, diners can play retro games such as Hungry, Hungry, Hippos, Connect Four, and Don't Break the Ice, while watching classic cartoons including Scooby Doo, The Flintsones, and Looney Tunes. Talk about a unique brunch option! Cartoon brunch is available every Saturday throughout the summer.

Note: my meal at MAX's Wine Dive was complimentary; however, the opinions expressed herein are my own.

MAX's Wine Dive
1482 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chicago, IL 60622
Max's Wine Dive on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 28

Fast Casual Italian Eats

It's been a year since fast casual Italian eatery, Vapiano, opened in Chicago's Loop. I stopped by when the restaurant first opened, and attended the opening party last August. I got to sample a wide variety of items off the menu, however, since it was a special event, I didn't really get a feel for the way the operations side of things worked.

The restaurant is set up with different stations for pizza, pasta, salads, drinks, and desserts. Essentially, you go around to each station with a card that you tap after ordering. Your order is added to your card and you pay on your way out. It's an easy way to sample a few items, without having to dig out your wallet each time.

I stopped by with my friend Sharon after work one day, and we loaded up our cards with a variety of drinks and dishes.  First, I tried a classic Aperol spritz.

Aperol Spritz
We decided it was best to split a few items so we'd have enough room for all of those carbs! We started with a strawberry spinach salad with goat cheese, red onion, pine nuts, and raspberry maple dressing. It was fresh, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Strawberry Spinach Salad
The second starter we tried was the bruschetta trio. The order came with one basil pesto, one toscana, and one traditional bruschetta. Neither one of us is a fan of olives, which was in the toscana variety, so we preferred the basil pesto kind. Truthfully, there wasn't anything special about the bruschetta, so I probably wouldn't order it again.

Bruschetta Trio
There's an option to create your own pasta dish so we tried a spicy arrabiata sauce, on top of handmade pasta ribbons. I really appreciate how all of the pasta at Vapiano is handmade, but this dish could have been a bit more al dente.

Pasta Arrabiata
We also split the crudo pizza with mozzarella, prosciutto di parma, and parmesan. This was the best thing we had all night. The crust was soft, yet crispy and the prosciutto was quite yummy. While we were in no hurry the night we dined, the pizzas do take a bit of time to cook, which we were warned about by the staff.

Crudo Pizza
Lastly, we saved room for dessert and tried the chocolate mousse, tiramisu, and New York style cheesecake, along with some prosecco. The only dessert that was worthwhile was the chocolate mousse, unfortunately. Everything else tasted as if it had been sitting in the fridge too long. Dessert is kinda my thing, but I probably wouldn't order it again at Vapiano.

Chocolate Mousse & Tiramisu
New York Style Cheesecake
Is Vapiano gourmet Italian? No. Do they try to be? Not really. I'd say it's good for a casual lunch of antipasto and pizza, and it has a very clean and modern atmosphere, but I'm not sure I'd go out of my way to come here for dinner with so many great Italian restaurants in this city.

Note: my meal at Vapiano was complimentary; however, the opinions expressed herein are my own.

44 S. Wabash Ave.
Chicago, IL 60603
Vapiano on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 27

Hot Dog Week Returns!

Every summer, River North sports bar, Bull & Bear, hosts a weeklong hot dog celebration, coinciding with National Hot Dog Day. The celebration features five unique hot dog creations from Chef Andy Gibson, with each creation offered for one day only during the week. This year's theme included inspiration from the Chef's favorite cities and areas of the US, from Cincinnati to California.

The BF and I stopped by Bull & Bear to taste test all five of these diggity dogs, all in the name of food research. Luckily for us, the restaurant offers the "Frank Plank," a sampling platter of all five hot dogs in a mini format which we tried, along with a generous serving of parmesan truffle fries.

Here was this year's round-up from left to right:

  • The Cincinnati "Coney": Spicy beef chili, pickled onion salad, shredded cheddar, mustard, potato bun
  • The Sooo Cali: Bison dog, heirloom tomato and avocado relish, arugula, crispy shallot, lettuce, pesto aioli, ciabatta bun
  • Miami Vice: Turkey dog, mojo braised pork, spicy pickle, mustard aioli, swiss cheese, shredded lettuce, toasted garlic bun
  • The Northern Woods of Wisconsin: Venison dog, fried jalapeno jack cheese curds, caramelized onion, juniper-beer mustard, soft bun
  • New Orleans Po' Boy: Andouille sausage, olive relish, frisee, crispy salami, provolone, remoulade, sesame bun

The Frank Plank
While we anticipated our favorite dog would be The Northern Woods of Wisconsin dog (hellooo fried cheese curds), the clear winner was The Cincinnati "Coney". Why was it our favorite? It had the most flavor, and the hot dog was the best of all five. Sometimes you gotta just stick to tradition.

A close second was The New Orleans Po' Boy. We loved the remoulade and the spicy andouille.

Parmesan Truffle Fries
In addition to the five daily dogs, Bull & Bear also offered the Chicago Style Home Wrecker, a 22-inch kosher hot dog with mustard, relish, onion, tomato, sport peppers, celery salt, and a potato bun. Anyone who finishes this bad boy in one sitting gets a $25 gift card and a "Homewrecker Champion" t-shirt. Are you up for the challenge?

Bull & Bear's hot dog week always proves to be creative and fun and we're looking forward to finding out the theme of next year's celebration!

Note: my meal at Bull & Bear was complimentary; however, the opinions expressed herein are my own.

Bull & Bear
431 N. Wells St.
Chicago, IL 60654
Bull & Bear on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 26

Swanky Spiaggia Lounge

The newly redesigned Italian restaurant, Spiaggia reopened at the end of May. The Chicago classic, which first opened in 1984, got a major aesthetic facelift and has never looked better. The restaurant itself is divided into separate spaces for private events, a main dining room, a cafe, and a lounge. I stopped by the Spiaggia Lounge to check out the new space, and enjoy some drinks and bites.

The lounge is a stunning, smaller space overlooking the main dining room, which has gigantic floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Michigan Avenue and Oak Street. It's the perfect spot for grabbing drinks after work, or enjoying some light appetizers before dinner.

Executive Chef Chris Marchino offers a selection of pastas, meats, and cheeses that pair nicely with a variety of cocktails, Italian wines, and beers.

I need to get me one of these cheese fridges!
One of the cocktails I sampled was Mantuano and the Band Cork, named after Chef/Partner Tony Mantuano. It included Wansas reposado tequila, grapefruit-infused Aperol, Lillet blanc, and prosecco. It even came with a "The Manutano" napkin!

Mantuano and the Band Cork
I also tried the Summer Smash with bourbon, apricot, and mint. It was almost too pretty to drink...almost.

Summer Smash
Spiaggia Lounge is a wonderful option if you're looking to unwind with a drink or two, and you have a passion for good meats and cheeses (who doesn't?). I guarantee the space will make you feel like a million bucks!

Note: my experience at Spiaggia Lounge was complimentary, however, the opinions expressed herein are my own.

Spiaggia Lounge
980 N. Michigan Ave.
Chicago, IL 60611
Spiaggia on Urbanspoon