Monday, April 21

Be the Star of Your Own Kitchen with Madison & Rayne

One of the latest ingredient and recipe delivery companies in Chicago is Madison & Rayne. The company was founded by Melanie Mityas and Josh Jones who met at Chicago's Spring Restaurant in 2008 (Josh was the Chef de Cuisine and Melanie was a frequent customer). They both were passionate about good food and wanted to start a service that helped others discover that passion as well. So, what's with the name? Madison and Rayne are the middle names of Melanie's two daughters, and since creating good food for her family was Melanie's inspiration for starting the company, they thought it fit with the brand. Now Madison & Rayne helps novice and expert chefs alike be the star of their own kitchen.

I had the chance to check out what Madison & Rayne had to offer first hand by ordering several meals to be delivered directly to my door. I've tried several services similar to this one, including Peach Dish, and Relished Foods, and was excited to see how they stacked up to the competition.

The ordering process was simple--I went online, selected from a variety of 10 different meal options (including vegetarian options) and selected how many servings per dish I wanted. I loved being able to pick and choose each of the meals that appealed to me. They also are able to accommodate food allergies by excluding or replacing ingredients. New seasonal dishes are added every two weeks, and all orders placed by 5pm on Saturday are delivered the next Tuesday for FREE! Each meal takes between 15 and 30 minutes from start to finish and only requires some standard cooking utensils and pots and pans.

I received my meal delivery with everything packaged nicely in a reusable tote bag.

All ingredients come packaged in a temperature-controlled, reusable bag
Each meal ordered comes with a recipe card that is color coded to match its corresponding ingredients.

Each recipe is color coded to match the labels on your ingredients
All of the ingredients come packaged in reusable containers that you can rinse and return the next time your ingredients are delivered. I love how there is minimal waste!

Everything is packaged in reusable containers 
Before attempting any of the recipes, Melanie and Josh suggest laying out all of your utensils and ingredients, and reading through the recipe card.

Before starting each recipe, you're advised to lay out all of your utensils
Each ingredient is labeled with a letter which corresponds to the order in which it is used in the recipe. They really can't make it any simpler!

I mixed and match two servings of an entree and two servings of a side dish to make a complete meal for the BF and me. For our side dish, I chose the fingerling potatoes with roasted tomatoes, bacon, mustard and herbs. They were super easy to make and everything was pre-cut and seasoned. All I really had to do was combine the ingredients and heat them in a skillet.

Ingredients for the fingerling potatoes
Fingerling potatoes, roasted tomatoes, bacon, mustard, herbs
For our entree, I made tamarind marinated flank steak on top of a salad of limestone bibb lettuce, cucumber, and fresh herbs. This was also quite easy, especially since the steak takes practically no time to cook, and the salad was easy to whip up.

Ingredients for the tamarind marinated flank steak
Flank Steak
Limestone bibb lettuce, cucumber, fresh herbs
Sliced flank steak
Each recipe card also includes fun facts, as well as detailed instructions for plating your dish. If you ever run into any trouble while cooking, they even have a hotline you can call with any questions that come up during the cooking process.

Voila! The finished product
Overall, I valued the convenience of having all of the ingredients pre-chopped and all of the seasonings pre-measured. Some of the other meal services I have tried still require a bit of prep work, but Madison & Rayne takes care of all of that. I also loved being able to select the meals I wanted, without having to worry if the meal being offered that week was something I'd like.

Consider Madison & Rayne the next time you're looking for some kitchen inspiration or want to spice up your dinner routine!

Note: Madison & Rayne provided me with complimentary meals; however, the opinions expressed herein are my own.

Madison & Rayne

Tuesday, April 15

Sosh: Your Social Life Concierge

You know the feeling, you're sitting at home on the weekend knowing you should be out doing something but unsure of what to do and where. It can be daunting sifting through everything out there on the web, especially when you'd rather be binge watching your favorite TV show. Wouldn't it be great if there was an app that did all of the heavy lifting of planning your social life AND tailored it to your specific interests? Well, there is!

Sosh, a website and app backed by the co-founder of Instagram, helps people like you and me explore their city through a list of personalized culinary events, happenings, and restaurants. Sosh launched in Chicago on April 15th after successful launches in San Francisco, New York City, and Seattle. In San Francisco, nearly one in six adults is a Sosh member! Clearly, they're on to something.

So, what sets Sosh apart from other apps and websites? Sosh stays up-to-date on Chicago's hottest trends, unique outings, and exclusive events using a mixture of technology and human curators. Every activity is personally vetted by Sosh's city experts, wth tips from Tastemakers such as Rick Bayless, Stephanie Izard, and Charles Joly.

The app uses a back-end algorithm to recommend things to do based on your personal interests and habits, as well as factors including the weather and time of day. “Sosh isn’t about deals or daily emails. Instead, it’s about sharing wonderful experiences with the people you love. With Sosh on your phone, exploring the world around you becomes both easier and more exciting," adds Rishi Mandal, co-founder and CEO of Sosh.

I had the chance to test out the app during the beta launch and I have to say I was impressed. First of all, the user interface is beautiful and easy to navigate. The photography is detailed and bright and makes it easy to find what you're looking for. The app has a variety of capabilities including a function called Here and Now which shows you restaurants and events near your current location, and What's Hot, which shows the items that are trending for that particular week. 

Pretty much every time you open the app or log on, you're going to have a different and customized experience. If you're not looking for something in particular, you can hit the Explore option to browse a variety of categories including Under $30, Date Night, Get Cultured, and Fit For Foodies. I love how the focus of each listing is on the most unique aspect of the bar, restaurant or event. Instead of simply listing the name of the venue, it highlights the best dishes, cocktails, and other must-trys. Heavy lifting done.

While playing around with the app, I found the culinary events to be super helpful. While I had heard of many of the restaurants featured in the app, there were quite a few really interesting events such as beer dinners and cocktail-making classes that were news to me. I loved skimming through and feeling more in-the-know. There is an endless amount of things to do and explore in Chicago, so you can easily spend hours flipping through and staring at the gorgeous Sosh interface. 

Some of the features I liked most were the bookmark feature which allows you to save items for later and shows you who else has bookmarked the same item, as well as the "I've done this" button which helps the app continue to show you fresh content. Each posting also includes helpful details such as transit info, insider tips, and a brief synopsis, all especially helpful if you're short on time.

Not only can you use the Sosh app while you're on the go, the accompanying website also allows you to search and plan your social outings at home. You can even receive a personalized email full of recommendations for your weekend, which I found helpful for planning ahead.

Check out Sosh online and be sure to download the app, both of which are FREE! Your social life will thank you.

Note: this post was sponsored by Sosh, however, the opinions expressed herein are my own.

Tuesday, April 8

Firestone Walker Beer Dinner at Tokio Pub

Firestone Walker Beer Dinner Menu
While the majority of my dining experiences take place inside Chicago's city limits, every once in awhile I do find myself venturing out into the suburbs. It usually takes a pretty enticing event to drag me out, so when I was invited to check out the monthly beer dinner at Schaumburg's Tokio Pub, I knew I couldn't pass it up.

Tokio Pub is connected to sister Lettuce Entertain You Restaurant, Shaw's Crab House. I had been to the Schaumburg Shaw's back in July for their Grand Crab & Lobster Buffet but this time around I headed to Tokio Pub for some Asian grub. The restaurant specializes in pub cuisine, blended with flavors from Japan and Latin America.

Every last Monday of the month, Tokio Pub collaborates with a national brewery to offer a four course dinner paired with the brewery's beers. The beer dinner for March was paired with beers from Firestone Walker Brewing Company out of Paso Robles, California. I've had a few of their beers, but was excited to try some new offerings.

During the beer dinners, the entire restaurant is closed for the event and everyone is seated at communal tables. My friend Jonathan and I were seated with two other parties who happened to be regulars of Tokio Pub and the beer dinners. Apparently these dinners have quite the following! The vibe during dinner was trendy and lively, thanks to a live DJ who spins during each month's dinner. We also had the pleasure of hearing from Firestone Walker's Brewmaster Matt Brynildson who was in attendance. Matt gave all of us an overview of each beer, which was extremely informative.

We started out with a pour of the DBA (Double Barrel Ale). While amber in color, the beer was light in body and had a nice caramel flavor. It's aged 20% in oak barrels and 80% in stainless steel, hence the name Double Barrel Ale.

Double Barrel Ale
On Mondays, Tokio Pub also offers $5 cocktails so I tried one that sounded quite interesting. The Pub Tea featured citron vodka, St. Germain, mango puree, and China Mist black tea (which happens to be my fave). It had an interesting way of masking the booze in the drink and made for a light and refreshing drink. Jonathan tried the Ginger Mojito which was definitely on the sweeter side.

Pub Tea
Our first course was a grilled spicy calamari salad, with an emphasis on spicy! The salad had no shortage of fresh calamari, as well as Thai chili, lime juice, and lemongrass. It certainly was spicy but I loved the dressing and the lemongrass. The beer pairing was Pivo, a hoppy pilsner. The beer was perfect because the lightness helped cut away at the spice from the salad's dressing.

Grilled Spicy Calamari Salad
The next course was a Japanese pancake of sorts, stuffed with butterflied rock shrimp, seaweed, cabbage, and egg. Sprinkled on top were thin pieces of fish skin that, when heated from the pancake, looked as if they were dancing. Our beer pairing was Union Jack IPA, probably one of Firestone Walker's most well-known beers. The citrus and hops made a great pairing for the sauce on the Japanese pancake.

Rock Shrimp Okonomi-yaki
Our third course was a grilled rib eye steak topped with a sauce made from soy, garlic, sesame, and apple. The steak was served with grilled kabocha pumpkin and crispy kale. I wasn't a huge fan of the steak, but the sauce was pretty delicious. The sweetness of the sauce was great with our beer pairing, Opal farmhouse ale. I had tried this beer recently at Hopleaf and it quickly became one of my new favorites. The beer contains French saison yeast, a hazy appearance from the wheat, and blanc hops which give it that tropical aroma you'd find in a Sauvignon Blanc.

Grilled Rib Eye Steak with Yakiniku Sauce, Kabocha Pumpkin, Kale
Lastly, we ended our meal with a dessert of ricotta cheese sandwiched between puff pastry and topped with strawberries and chocolate sauce. I have to admit I was expecting something a little more exciting for dessert. That being said, the light and airy pastry and rich chocolate sauce paired well with our final beer, Velvet Merlin Oatmeal Stout. I never would have thought I'd love this beer so much but it had a lovely coffee mocha flavor. This beer actually was created from the Brewmaster's homebrew recipe when he was living in Michigan.

Strawberry Pastry with Ricotta and Chocolate
I had a great time sipping on some new brews, enjoying the paired courses, and making some new friends in the process. I even got to leave with a poster from the dinner signed by Chef Naoki Nakashima and Brewmaster Matt Brynildson! 

The April beer dinner will feature four courses paired with beers from New Holland Brewing Company in Holland, Michigan. Head to Tokio Pub's website to check out the menu and make a reservation before the dinner sells out (they typically do!). Tickets are just $35--a steal if you ask me!

Beer Dinner Menu Signed by Chef Naoki Nakashima and Brewmaster Matt Brynildson

Note: My meal at Tokio Pub was complimentary, however, the opinions expressed herein are my own.

Tokio Pub
1900 E. Higgins Road
Schaumburg, IL 60173
Tokio Pub on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 7

Pizza Brunch at Stella Barra

One of Lincoln Park's hottest restaurants is actually three spaces in one. Stella Barra, Summer House, and the makeshift coffee shop in between, are serving up a variety of Californian cuisines. I had already been to Summer House twice, once for dinner and another time when they launched brunch but this time I was headed to try Stella Barra for the first time. I specifically stopped by to check out their brunch menu which they recently launched. Stella Barra is a pizzeria so you may be surprised they have a brunch menu in the first place.

Main Dining Room
I stopped by with my friend Kelsey on a Saturday afternoon to find the building packed with brunchers. Stella Barra was not as crowded as its sister restaurant, but that quickly changed. The ambiance inside Stella Barra is quite the opposite of Summer House. Instead of a white and airy feel of a beach house, Stella Barra had a dark dining room, complete with leather touches, wood, and a more urban and casual feel. The Lettuce Entertain You restaurant serves up 400-500 pizzas each day from its kitchen, which is wide open for your viewing pleasure. Chef Jeff Mahin has perfected the handcrafted dough which uses California-milled flour, filtered water, sea salt, and fresh yeast. He's not messing around!

Open Kitchen
To kick things off, we each ordered drinks off the brunch menu, including the best drink name ever: Coffee Drank and a glass of bubbly prosecco. The Coffee Drank included Dark Matter cold brew coffee, Chairman's Reserve spiced rum, Evan Williams Bourbon, and cream.

Coffee Drank & Prosecco
Stella Barra not only offers artisan pizza, they also feature small plates, handmade pastas, and salads. We started with a serving of prosciutto to snack on while our pizzas cooked. Because each is made to order, we were told it may take a little bit to cook. The prosciutto was tasty, but isn't it always? I was a little disappointed by the lack of picked vegetables that came with it. It definitely could have used a bit of variety.

Since neither one of us had been to Stella Barra before, we decided to order off the brunch menu and the regular menu. Both menus are available on the weekend so there's no shortage of options for everyone in your party. We decided on two pizzas, one from the brunch menu, and another from the regular menu.

The regular pizza was topped with guanciale (pork cheek), smoked caciocavllo cheese, calabrian chiles, and arugula. The guanciale tasted just like bacon and the arugula helped cut away at the spice from the chiles. The red sauce was not overpowering and really helped the ingredients shine. I expected the crust to be crispy on the outside and soft in the middle, and it did not disappoint. The size of the pizzas is perfect for sharing and is cut into eight fairly large pieces.

Guanciale & Roasted Onions Pizza
The brunch pizza we ordered was called the Venice Beach and was topped with egg whites, shaved mushrooms, caramelized onions, gruyere cheese, parsley, smoked bacon, and truffle. As soon as I saw the word truffle on the menu, I knew I wanted try this pizza. All of the brunch pizzas are made with scrambled eggs instead of red sauce, with the option to add only egg whites. This pizza ended up being my favorite because of the amount of flavor. The egg whites made for a light and fluffy texture and the bacon and truffle were a perfect pairing.

Venice Beach Breakfast Pizza
Venice Beach Breakfast Pizza
Though we were stuffed silly with bacon and carbs, we were treated to some of the amazing baked goods from the coffee shop between Stella Barra and Summer House. They always seem to be sold out of the Rice Krispie chocolate chip cookie so I knew I had to try that one when I was told it was available. Kelsey ordered the bacon chocolate chip cookie, but agreed it was no match for the Rice Krispie chocolate chip variety. Lastly, we tried the morning bun, which I had previously tried during brunch at Stella Barra. While it wasn't my favorite, I did enjoy the sweetness and texture.

Morning Bun, Rice Krispie Chocolate Chip Cookie, & Bacon Chocolate Chip Cookie
Bacon Chocolate Chip Cookie
Chocolate Chip Rice Krispie Cookie
Kelsey and I left very full and very satisfied. It's great watching the chefs prepare pizzas in the open kitchen, and the variety of options makes it easy to find a perfect pie. I also love that Stella Barra is so different from Summer House, in terms of aesthetics and menu items, but you can still enjoy the same decadent baked goods in both spaces. I'd recommend a meal at Stella Barra if you're ever in the mood for some out-of-the-ordinary pizza with a dark and urban vibe. Just be sure to save room for dessert!

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

Stella Barra
1954 N. Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60614
Stella Barra Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 2

A More Mindful (Epic) Burger

WARNING: Food porn ahead!

Epic Burger & Fries
While it's safe to say there is no shortage of quick-service burger spots in Chicago, there's one in particular with a goal to create "a more mindful burger." Epic Burger was founded in Chicago in 2008 as a way to introduce people to the idea of eating non-processed, simple food, at a reasonable price. It has seven locations throughout the city and suburbs and prides itself on offering the highest quality non-processed ingredients available. Its menu is simple: a handful of burger and sandwich offerings, sides, and shakes. Though, you can get creative by making your burger a double, or adding fresh avocado, or Wisconsin cheese.

Earlier this year, Epic Burger won Cooking Channel's Best in Chow episode when they came to Chicago in search of the best burger. It beat out burgers from Butcher & the Burger and Rockit Burger Bar to be crowned Best in Chow's Burger Wars champion. The show's host even exclaimed, "If this is what all-natural tastes like then slap me in the face and call me a hippie." Epic Burger's Founder, David Friedman, explained its burgers are the best because of "the all-natural beef and fresh ingredients. Being more mindful about what you're serving to people is key and people can really taste the difference."

Epic Burger Menu
Could people taste the difference? I stopped by Epic Burger's River North location to find out for myself. I arrived just before the Friday lunch rush to get a taste of these mindful burgers. I decided to stray a bit from the burger that won Best in Chow, opting for a single burger on a wheat bun, topped with Wisconsin cheddar and grilled onions. To make my meal complete I tried a side of fries with Epic sauce for dipping, and a skinny peanut butter shake (I had to cut calories somewhere!).

The beef patties are made from pure angus which is never frozen, contains no antibiotics, and is from cows that have been humanely raised. As soon as I took a bite, I could taste a difference. Despite the generous portion of toppings on my burger (pickles, LTO, cheese, Epic Sauce), I could still taste the hearty beef patties. This wasn't your typical Micky D's patty. You could actually tell it was formed out of real meat, not some cookie cutter slab of mystery meat.

Epic Burger & Fries
Epic Burger
The fries at Epic Burger are cut in-house daily, helping give them a fresh, not soggy, texture. I liked the thickness of the fries but felt they needed a little something extra. Perhaps some seasoning salt. I had to see what all of the fuss was about with the Epic Sauce, so I dipped my fries in for a taste. It's essentially a thousand island-type dressing, with a few extra spices thrown in.

Epic Sauce
The peanut butter skinny shake I tried was delicious. I would have never known it had 35% fewer calories than a regular shake. These shakes are made with fat free yogurt, and organic fat free milk. I highly recommend a burger and fries combo with a skinny shake! They also have vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry skinny shakes, as well as the same four flavors available as regular shakes. There is also a selection of smoothies such as the South Beach, with strawberries, orange, and banana, or the Soy Pleasure with blueberries, banana, soy milk, honey, and fat free yogurt.

Peanut Butter Skinny Shake
Epic Burger is a great option for a Loop lunch or a weekend splurge when you're out and about. Its locations across the city make it easy to stop in whenever you're craving a more mindful burger!

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

Epic Burger
7 locations throughout Chicago
Epic Burger on Urbanspoon