August was HOT! Both for the weather and the food scene in Chicago.
Urban Belly invited me and a few other foodies to check out their new patio at the Wicker Park location. I’m a sucker for patios, so I was excited but equally disappointed when we got rained out. I guess I’m never going to get used to Chicago’s unpredictable weather. But my consolation was all the amazing food and drinks we were treated to indoors. Chef Bill Kim was personally serving up his favorites from the menu including some signature cocktails such as the Mint Matcha Iced Tea, the Hidden Dragon (ginger infused vodka, lime & bubbles) and the Brass Monkey (passion fruit, drinking vinegar, Kirin Ichiban, gin and a beer frozen topper). If you’re not a beer fan like me but have beer-drinking buddies, just hold one of these in your hands and they won’t know the difference! The taste resembled that of a Shandy, but was even tastier.
Platters of food also kept coming out ranging from pescetarian, all-meat to some vegan dishes. The Sweet Potato & Maple potstickers were to die for, fried so perfectly that they didn’t get soggy even after sitting out for awhile. The sweet potato, feta and arugula filling was also so unique. While the Udon noodles with Shrimp, peanuts, toasted garlic and chives was my favorite, the Wheat Berry Bimbimbap was utterly delicious also. Warm wheat berries mixed in with tender tofu, a flavorful kimchi, eggplant, cucumber and avocado. Beautiful presentation and hearty taste. I even saw the meat lovers devouring this dish! There was an Eggplant side, which I kept picking at and is worth mentioning, because the Chinese eggplant marinated in a tangy, sweet and savory sauce along with fresh cilantro and crispy shallots was irresistible.
Just the perfect food for a rainy day and remarkable hospitality from everyone at Urban Belly. Located right next to the Blue Line, the location couldn’t be more perfect for a casual meal or take out. If you have better luck than me, you could eat on their patio!
Around the middle of the month, I attended the fun launch of The Lakewood, a contemporary event space in West Lake District by Paramount Events. The who’s who of Chicago graced this event to check out the space as well as preview wedding dress designer Samantha Sleeper’s new Swan Bridesmaid Collection. The food was unbelievable, and Kehoe Designs outdid themselves with the seating and flower arrangements. The event was glitzy and the space was just perfect!
Many fancy-looking passed hor d’oeuvres reminded me of an afternoon tea party. I don’t always see fish dominating the food scene at events like this, so I was particularly pleased to see at least three kinds of ceviche being served. One that seemed to be especially popular was the Shrimp, Octopus and Crab ceviche with corn caslevtrona, sungold tomato, flageolet bean, lemon parsley, oregano and queso fresco. My drink of choice was their featured cocktail, The Lakewood, which had gin, chartreuse liquor, Orgeat, fresh lime, and mint. These were easy to lose count of. This summer’s obsession for me has been watermelon salad, so I almost squealed in excitement when a tray of compressed watermelon, pistachio, mint, Calamansi and whipped feta was brought out. There was also a Lebanese station that was serving hot pita sandwiches with either lamb or fish skewers. The seared Meagre Kebabs with preserved lemon, garlic and chili oil were in so much demand, I even saw my meat-loving guest choose it for her sandwich. A plethora of unique condiments and hummus were also lined up, such as Harissa and Lemon Tahini. So good!
Dessert was a party in itself; the Cardamom Financiers were almost too good to be true, made with coffee Feuilletine and milk chocolate diplomat. A close second to those were the mini Basil Olive Oil Cakes which were mysteriously tender, appropriately sweet, and with chocolate Cremoso literally dripping from the top. I also consumed a few of these. Not sure if it’s the right etiquette to leave a fancy event like this with your tummy so full, but it was all just too good to pass up. A really well done event where I had a lot of fun!
The next day, I spent my afternoon at a fabulous Food & Wine tasting put together by the Ruca Malen winemakers of Argentina. The tasting was named Andes Kitchen, and was meant to showcase their elegant wines as well as educate guests about the history and philosophy of this boutique winery. The event was held at the Loews Hotel’s The Rural Society restaurant, in their private room. No more than 20 guests sat at a dining table in a cozy room with rustic interiors as they learned about these tasteful, food-friendly wines specially handcrafted using French winemaking techniques.
Although the goal was to pair the wines with foods that were inspired by the cuisine of the indigenous people of Argentina (mostly meat), Chef Corris kindly prepared pescetarian fare for me, and with no concession. In my six-course meal, I ate delicious Branzino with potato and walnuts in a caper sauce, King Crab with charred lemon butter and Malbec syrup, and Salmon in a carrot puree, quinoa, and corn risotto. The one that sealed the deal for me was the Lobster with oven-roasted root vegetables, which also paired the best with the Ruca Malen Reserva Petit Verdot served with it. This was also my favorite wine from the tasting; everything from the color and complexity matched the lobster meat perfectly. The menu had been well-designed to augment the flavors of all wines we were tasting, which in turn did not overshadow the taste of the food. I’ve always said that seafood is especially challenging to pair with wines, but everyone behind the scenes did an exemplary job in making sure my fish paired well with it.
We ended with a beautiful piece of Pastel Dulce, a mini dulce de leche cake with orange sauce and vanilla ice cream, which once again brought out the citrus notes in the Ruca Malen Brut Sparkling Wine we drank. While the food was a true tribute to the Incas who were the first influence to Argentinian food, the wine definitely enhanced the feast. The tasting was such a hit that everyone seemed restless at the end to know where they could get their hands on a bottle of Ruca Malen wine in Chicago. What a great way to spend my Thursday afternoon!
The following day, I stopped by Be Leaf Salads to sample their menu. After indulging the day before, I was happy to have a green meal and get some veggies in. The Be Leaf location in the loop I went to seemed like the perfect lunch spot for office goers. This place is dedicated to salads, anything from composed salads to mixed greens is available here. And even though you can get your salad in a wrap, or order it as a faro or quinoa bowl, there are no other distractions on the menu.
Lots of yummy signature salads with fun names such as the Falafel-osophy and Hail Kale, seemed like popular orders for lunch when I was there. The manager recommended that I try their, Let’s Play Make Be Leaf option and custom-make my salad. Great advice, as I picked all my favorite toppings including an extra serving of their tasty Parmesan crisps and feta cheese. Of course, I chose the smoked salmon as my protein, which was absolutely flavorful! The dressing choices are plenty at Be Leaf and my choice was the Avocado Cucumber Cilantro one. What a creamy blend of condiments and herbs to add a savory essence to my salad. I couldn’t get over how amazingly fresh everything was; it even smelled fresh in the restaurant. Oh and let me not forget to mention their housemade Sprout Green juice which we I had on the side along. Seriously, if you’re craving a salad, there isn’t anything Be Leaf cannot do! This could become my new lunch spot!
The month ended strong with a lovely vegetarian menu tasting at Arami. I always tell people that a pescetarian is basically a vegetarian who eats fish. And I love a good vegetarian meal! So I was looking forward to trying out the menu and all the vegetarian offerings, which are extensive at Arami. My vegetarian friends: fret not, as sushi dinners don’t have to be painful anymore!
Sake was a given but sake is also vegetarian, right? Nigori was the perfect for our meal! We had to Elotes Kakiage for starters and these little grilled corn fritters with Parmesan, shishito, jalapeno, avocado-yuzu and kosho crème fraiche left little to be desired. As complex as they sound, they were simple and airy in taste. The poke for the night was the seared Ahi tuna with Wakame seaweed, Maui, onion and garlic shoyu. The best way to describe this dish is piquant. Bite sized pieces of raw fish, with crunchy pieces of pickled garlic in a spicy-salty sauce. We definitely put a dent in this dish!
From their wide-ranging Yasai (vegetarian maki) section of this menu we tried the Shitake mushroom maki with tofu dressing and the vegan Nira roll (garlic chive) with lemon mayo and avocado. The creamy avocado provided a good texture and some blandness to cut the pungency of the garlic. An all-around tasty roll. The pretty looking Kabocha (sweet potato) which we ordered Nigiri style came with Saikyo miso, white soy, honey and almonds and was also very delicious. For dessert, we tried their featured special- the Chocolate Pie with coconut pudding, whipped cream, shortbread crust, and candied macadamia. All I can say is that every spoonful was was a crunchy, creamy and yummy. I’ve always said I am not an ice cream person, but I’m always up for trying a unique flavor, so we got the Black Sesame ice cream. Holy wow! Creamy and wonderfully nutty! Could make me an ice cream person in a heartbeat!
I was so pleased to see not only a whole menu section dedicated to vegetarians but also without any compromise. Arami’s vegetarian dishes will make you forget about the meat – I can promise you that!