Monday, June 6, 2011

Alinea: Part 1

Alinea was, without a shadow of a doubt, the best dining experience I have ever had. I loved every single pain-staking detail of the evening and if I were made of money, I'd do it again and again. And then again.

There is a reason that this restaurant is the number one restaurant in the United States -- and number six in the world. The creativity, execution, attention to detail and level of service are flawless.

If the rapture had occurred that Satuday, I'd have been okay with it. As long as it happened after our three-hour, 18-course meal at Alinea. And preferably, after drinks at the Aviary.

If you aren't a complete foodie stalker like me, it's very likely you've walked past Alinea and had no idea that the non-descript exterior houses a world-class fine dining powerhouse. It's next to Boka on Halsted. And there's no sign. There is, however, a tiny sign indicating valet for Alinea. You walk into an unmarked door and through a hallway. And if you've never been, you're still not really sure what you're doing or where you're going.

Then doors open. Automatically. And there's someone there to greet you, as if she's been standing there waiting... just for you. It seems they know everything about you. Because they do. Because making a reservation there is a fairly involved and detailed process. And this is how they manage to get EVERYTHING right. The level of attention to detail in every single aspect of the marathon fine dining experience is astounding.

The space is minimalist without being stark. It's warm and clean and modern -- all at the same time. The room doesn't detract from the food. It's small and intimate without feeling cramped. In short, it's perfect.

The service is completely professional and impeccably polished. But it is not even the slightest bit pretentious. The entire time, I kept thinking of "Speak softly and carry a big stick." Alinea channels the famous Teddy Roosevelt saying in every fiber of its being. The restaurant and its staff have an air of quiet confidence tempered with humility that is undeniably appealing. They are relentlessly seeking the best dining experience possible for their customers -- and are led by a creative genius with an unwavering dedication to his vision. I have infinitely more respect for the true creative genius of Grant Achatz after visiting his original masterpiece.

Each course is a supremely delicious, interesting and beautiful work of art. I liked every one of our 18 courses -- and honestly couldn't imagine saying a negative word about any of them. Alinea blew me away. And I had FUN! Because even though this place has three Michelin stars and could justifiably have a stuffy vibe with a snooty attitude, it doesn't. At all. Alinea knows who it is and doesn't need to put on any airs.

18 courses with impeccably paired wines. Each dish was interesting and delicious enough on its own, but the wine pairings took the meal to a whole new level.

And now, I'll share our dinner in pictures with the descriptions from the menu. Please note that no photos do the works of art that are the courses at Alinea justice. (Especially the ones here that were taken with my phone.) And no words can describe the brilliance and complexity of the combinations of flavors that Chef Achatz has so carefully crafted. The presentation is magnificent, but the meal is sublime.

Because the meal was lengthy, I'm going to split this account into two posts. Thus, without further ado, here's my night in pictures and brief descriptions of our first nine courses:

The first course was called "Steelhead Roe," and is a little soup filled with steelhead roe, described on the menu simply as "dijon, rutabaga, grapefruit." All of those flavors are present and the course is beautiful, balanced and delicious. The dish was accompanied by the evening's first wine pairing, a champagne cocktail, constructed from Pieere Gimonnet Brut with chrysanthemum liqueur and bitters. Even Jeff, who hates champagne, liked this champagne cocktail.

The second course was called "Yuba" and is described simply as "shrimp, miso, togarashi." Yuba refers to the top layer of soy milk when it's been boiled, which they skim and in this case, fry. Then, naturally, they wrap shrimp and delicious spices around it and serve it in a "mayonnaise" for dipping that even I liked. Don't think fried bean curd skin sounds amazing? Alinea will make you think again. The dish was flawless.

Pictured above are courses three, four and five.

Course three was defined simply as "Oyster Leaf" and was described simply as "mignonette." Mignonette describes a sauce that accompanies oysters, typically made from vinegar, pepper and an assortment of herbs. What you see above is an oyster leaf (far right), dressed in mignonette sauce. The leaf was so interesting; it really did have the briney flavor typically associated with oysters -- and it was hard to believe you were actually eating a leaf.

Course four, pictured at center, was aptly called "Scallop" because that's exactly what was hiding in the oyster shell under a froth presumably constructed from "hitachino weizen, old bay." Hitachino Weizen is a Japanese beer that's a Belgian-style white ale and old bay is a classic seafood accompaniment. The scallop was fabulous: fresh and reminiscent of the flavors of the sea. Exactly as seafood should be.

Course five, pictured at far left, was entitled "Razor Clam" and described as "carrot, soy, daikon." You eat a razor clam by opening up the shell and sliding the contents down your throat. In this case, the contents were a perfect razor clam and flavorings from carrot, soy and the Japanese white radish known as daikon. Again, the flavors played perfectly together and the result was remarkably creative and tasty.

Course five is "Urchin" and is described as "green garlic, vanilla, mint." As you may be able to decipher from the image, the urchin itself is in a gel and is served with some flavor friends (including vanilla and a little mint leaf) on a fork. The fork rests on part of a little white orb, which is filled with green garlic soup. As you might have guessed, the dish is like a flavor explosion in your mouth and that's a very good thing.

Course six is "Rabbit" and it's described as "parfait, rillette, consommé." The description is perfect, as is the way that our waiter talked about the dish, which was "rabbit three ways." The image above depicts the first of these three ways: the parfait. It's a rabbit mousse, accompanied by flavors of sage and butternut squash (that'd be the dried orange strip you see), among other flavors and textures. It tastes like a little Thanksgiving parfait, which is unexpected because you'd never think to pair those flavors with a construct -- parfait -- typically associated with dessert. But it works. (At this point, Jeff noted that the food he'd eaten thus far already made Alinea the best meal of his life. This was also the point at which the server removed part of the dish you see above, to reveal why the dish is, in fact, rabbit three ways.)

The next part of this dish was the "rillette." Typically, I'm not a huge fan of rillettes, but as with mayonnaise, this wasn't the case at Alinea. In fact, this may have been my favorite of all of the dishes served that evening. The same flavors are repeated in this phase of the course: savory rabbit, sweet butternut squash and the freshness of sage. However, in this phase, they're accompanied by the depth of the fennel-infused flavor of sausage and the texture is completely different. This really tastes like Thanksgiving, because the sausage adds in the element of something like stuffing. It was delicious. Classic flavors in ways you'd never expect for a result that is beyond anything you'd imagine.

The waiter returned again to remove yet another piece of this dish, revealing a simple, but intensely flavorful rabbit consommé and a large rock used to keep the later two phases of the course warm. The entire construct was so cool, but the flavors let you know that the food itself is the star of the show.

Course seven was "Venison," described as "cherry, cocoa nib and eucalyptus." As you can see above, it's a bit of venison, served on a little metal skewer, and hidden in a pile of eucalyptus leaves. The leaves are coolly fragrant, which nicely offsets the gamey flavor of the venison paired with the sweet cherry and depth of the cocoa nib in the sauce at the bottom of the bowl.

Course eight was "Wild Mushrooms," comprised of "pine, sumac and ramp" according to the menu. Our server said that the goal of this dish was to achieve something akin to the "forest floor." And if the forest floor tasted like this, I'd be eating a lot more of it. The dish had an earthy flavor, but as in all of the courses we'd had so far, each of the elements were perfectly balanced and the overall result was outstanding.

Course nine was a dish that I had been eagerly anticipating ever since I'd seen it featured on The Food Network's "The Best Thing I Ever Ate." It's called "Hot Potato" but it's described as "cold potato, black truffle, butter." And that's because it's both hot potato and cold potato. The hot potato portion is a little ball of well, hot potato, accompanied by a small piece of parmesan cheese, something I believe was a chive and a tiny cube of butter. All of this is on a pin, suspended above a paraffin bowl that contains creamy, truffle-infused cold potato soup. When you pull out the pin, the contents fall into the little bowl and the hot potato mixes with the cold. It's a fabulous mixture of classic flavors paired with unexpected textures and temperatures.

That's it for now, Mega Biters. We're half way through the meal! But there's still lots more creative deliciousness to come! I'll be back with the next nine courses, including one of the best things I ever ate -- dessert at Alinea!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Apologies for the hiatus...

Hello, Mega Biters. I am extremely sorry for my prolonged absence. I have been terrible about writing, but I promise you... I have been eating.

And there will be restaurant recommendations and reviews in the VERY near future.

To name a few:
Owen & Engine
Urban Belly
Table 52

Please be patient; there are rave reviews coming soon!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Silver Palm

I had the pleasure of eating at the storied Silver Palm recently. My concert BFF and former roomie Julie and I stopped in for some drinks after a show (Lil Wayne!) at the United Center. I had been wanting to go here forever. The Silver Palm is named after the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, which is now operated by Amtrak and runs between D.C. and Miami. The coolest part? The dining room is, in fact, a 1947 Budd dining car that sits exactly as it was during its operating days!

Julie was hungry, so we got some food menus. And being that I'm me, I couldn't resist taking a peek. Once I saw the "3 Little Pigs" sandwich, I couldn't resist trying it... even though I wasn't hungry. The consummate food critic and ultimate love of my life, Anthony Bourdain, once declared this meat-tastic concoction at The Silver Palm the greatest sandwich in America. Probably not the healthiest choice at midnight, but... oh well. It was worth it.

Here's what you're getting with the 3 Little Pigs: some smoked ham (all right), some fried pork tenderloin (mmhmm), 2 slices of bacon (I'm listening), 2 fried eggs (!!!) aaaaaaand a whole hell of a lot of gruyere. On a Brioche bun. I mean, that's a whole lot of my favorite things on the same plate. And when you smash them all together and call them a sandwich, I am one happy camper.

If you ate the 3 Little Pigs three days in a row, there's a pretty safe bet that you'd keel over and die from some sort of congestive heart failure directly related to overconsumption of all things Miss Piggy. But there's also a pretty strong chance you'd die happy.

I don't have any pictures because it was 1 AM and once the 3 Little Pigs arrived, there was very little chance I was going to delay sinking my teeth into something Anthony Bourdain loves this much with something crazy like Droid photography. So I will try to do it justice with a written description.

The ham is perfection, adding just the right amount of sweetness to counter all things savory in this dish. The bacon adds a very necessary element of crunch, while the overeasy egg yoke that breaks over the sandwich provides an unprecedentedly silky richness. All. Over. Everything. And then it happens again with egg number two. If that weren't enough, there's the gruyere. My favorite kind of cheese. Just hanging out, upping the decadence ante by about 4,000. The Brioche is fresh and soft and a little on the sweet side, miraculously staying together long enough to serve simultaneously as an impeccable complement to the fillings and their ideal vehicle from table to gullet.

In a word: unbelievable. And that's really all there is to it. Except that it also comes with fries.

But if you're still hungry for more, you can take Bourdain's word for it: watch him take on the 3 Little Pigs with No Reservations. (That makes two of us.)

And if you love pork too much to simply spectate when it comes to this sandwich, step up to the plate at The Silver Palm, located at 768 N. Milwaukee Avenue,right here in Sweet Home Chicago.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

GT Fish and Oyster

I love seafood. A lot. And while Chicago has some pretty tasty seafood, nothing had really knocked my socks off -- in comparison to some places on the east and west coasts. Until now. GT Fish & Oyster swung its doors open in River North on Thursday and changed everything.

Brought to Chicago by the BOKA restaurant group (including such notables as Kevin Boehm) and Top Chef/Girl & The Goat's Stephanie Izard, their newest venture had a lot to live up to -- BOKA, Perennial, Girl & The Goat -- but GT Fish & Oyster does not disappoint.

I was fortunate enough to go with two of my favorite adventuresome foodie friends, Laura and Liz, and we took the seafood-heavy menu by storm. GT Fish & Oyster's menu is dominated by small plates, which are divided into two groups: hot and cold. This does not, however, include the oysters, which are separated into a category all their own. (Check out the current menu and the chef's blog here.)

I arrived a little early and sat down at the bar to enjoy a glass of cava while waiting for two of my favorite redheads to arrive. The service, from the hostesses to the bartender, was friendly and solicitous. I was having a great time already -- all by myself. Soon Laura joined me and we did some great people-watching; there's a lot to see in a new restaurant!

Once Liz arrived and we were seated, we set about the business of trying some of their signature cocktails. Laura and I were both drawn to the Waitlist, a delectable concoction of Grey Goose, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, grapefruit, lime and Peychaud's Bitters. It was perfect. Liz ordered the Clean Break, but ended up with the Highland Daisy. While not what she ordered, the Highland Daisy was breathtakingly beautiful and pretty darn tasty. It's a bright reddish-purple cocktail served with a mint leaf and its ingredients include Oleca Altos Tequila, Mathilda Pear, blackberry syrup and the aforementioned mint. Delightful.

Our server recommended 2-3 small plates per person. We ordered a total of 10. Because, well, why wouldn't we?

On the docket from the "cold" menu: Sunfish Ceviche, Baja Shrimp Bruschetta, BBQ Eel, Lobster Roll.

From the "hot" menu: Stuffed Squid, Clam Chowder, Grilled Mahi Tacos, Fish and Chips, Lobster Macaroni and Cheese and the Alaskan Halibut.

We didn't try anything from the "Oysters" and the "Not Fish" sections because there was too much we were dying to try from just the "Hot" and "Cold"! Next time...

First up was the Sunfish Ceviche, a mix of sunfish, avocado, chimichurri, radish and jicama, served with crispy tostadas on the side. The dish was clearly influenced by the flavors of Mexico -- and I loved it instantly. Great blend of flavors (the sea, chimichurri, spicy radish) and textures (sunfish, creamy avocado and crunchy radish, jicama and tostada). Well-balanced on all counts and truly a joy to eat.
Next was the Baja Shrimp Bruschetta. This bruschetta is beautiful, truly a work of art. (Not that you can tell from my shoddy phone photography below.) What's more is that it tastes as good as it looks. A flavorful combination of shrimp, avocado, grapefruit, toasted pistachio and a sprinkling of cilantro.
And then came the BBQ eel. I'd never had eel that wasn't unagi in the form of a sushi roll or sashimi -- and I have to say that I was equally impressed by the cooked version. GT Fish and Oyster does my favorite form of sushi justice by serving it up BBQ-style atop a delightful potato and octopus salad. Sound strange? It is, a little. But it's a glorious combination of textures and flavors -- the sweet and slightly tangy BBQ is perfectly offset by heat from a hint of wasabi.

Next the waitress brought us the stuffed squid, a dish all three of us had been dying to try. But all three of us were disappointed. After the first three dishes were so incredible -- particularly the somewhat unexpectedly amazing BBQ eel -- we decidedly underwhelmed by the stuffed squid. It lacked the flavor and textural complexity that had been the hallmark of our experience thus far. It could have been great, being that it was fresh squid stuffed with shrimp and chorizo, all sitting on top of a little pile of saffron rice. But unfortunately, the chorizo wasn't spicy enough to provide a foil to the creamy saffron rice and the textures overall were too similar to really pack a punch. Oh well.

Following the stuffed squid, we had the clam chowder. It comes piping hot and sealed in a mason jar. And I will say that without a doubt, this is the best clam chowder I have ever had in my life. It is real CLAM chowder, chock full of clams with more than a delicious hint of smokey bacon on the tail end of each creamy bite. It was fabulous. If you go to GT Fish & Oyster, you MUST try the clam chowder. (They offer it in both 4- and 8-oz portions so people can give it a try no matter how many other dishes they're planning to sample.)

And then came the lobster roll, also known as heaven on a bun. Yes, I ate a lobster roll. ONLY because it wasn't drenched in mayonnaise. Instead, it was an obscene amount of shockingly fresh lobster VERY lightly dressed in a sauce that I'm going to pretend didn't contain any mayonnaise. But the beauty of this sandwich was that it was so fabulous with its perfectly toasted, deliciously buttery bread and impeccable, crispy fried Vidalia onions atop the lobster salad, that I was actually able to forget that there was any mayonnaise involved at all. This never happens. And that means that this is an amazing sandwich. Get it.

Ahh, yes. Just when we were pretty positive things couldn't possibly continue at the amazing pace that they were going, the Alaskan halibut arrived. Halibut is one of my very favorite fish: mild, yet substantial and texturally perfect when it's prepared well. At GT Fish & Oyster, it's served on a little throne of yuzu whipped potatoes and with apples. It's an interesting combination of flavors (the citrus from the yuzu with the sweetness of the apples) and textures (the contrast of the apples with the impeccably prepared halibut). Simply put, it works.

But the best was yet to come: and a big part of that best was their absolutely unparalleled fish and chips. Sweet mother of Jesus, I do not know what's in the batter here, but it is out of this world. And the fish itself refuses to be outdone: it's juicy, piping hot, not fishy, just fresh. Coated in a batter that is buttery and crisp without being overly greasy -- the perfect complement to the fish inside. And it's served with thick fried potato wedges that rival the very best of steak fries. This was one of my two favorite dishes that night, which is quite the achievement because I absolutely ADORED the majority of my meal at GT.

My other favorite dish has to be the lobster mac n cheese. Perhaps you've noticed the increasingly frequent appearance of this dish on menus around the city lately. I know I have. And because there are few things I love more than a) lobster and b) macaroni and cheese, I regularly feel compelled to give this ridiculously decadent side a whirl. GT Fish & Oyster's version blows them ALL out of the water. It's luxe comfort food, brilliantly executed. The lobster and the cream and the cheese take you to a place of richness that borders on insanity -- and then the unassuming sweetness of the English peas cuts through the crazy decadence and grounds the dish. In brilliance. I could not stop eating this. And I was already so full I legitimately feared the possibility of implosion or spontaneous combustion.

Unfortunately, the night ended on the grilled mahi tacos, which were just okay. It's hard to accurately assess them after the previous two dishes. But if I had to choose ordering them again or trying something else, I'd probably go with trying something different. Not the strongest dish on the menu.

Was everything about the meal earth-shattering? No. Was a lot of it pretty damn amazing? Absolutely. And this place is fun! I will be back. In the meantime, I highly recommend trying this place. If you love fish -- or even if you only kind of like it -- you need to try GT Fish & Oyster. It is EXACTLY what the Chicago dining scene needed. Big thanks to Stephanie Izard and the BOKA group for recognizing this and making GT happen -- and perhaps a bigger thanks to Chef Giuseppe Tentori for the awesome execution.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Chicago q

Thank you, food gods, for Chicago q. I love, love, love this barbecue place, located at Dearborn and Division, just steps from another favorite haven of mine. (Cough, Butch McGuire's, cough...)

But seriously. I'll admit that I was skeptical of Chicago q when I first read about it. A barbecue place that was trying to take things upscale? Hmm. In a city that's seen hordes of new BBQ joints in the past year, I may or may not have rolled my eyes at one trying to differentiate itself by getting fancy. Who needs a white table cloth when you're drowning everything you're eating in different kinds of BBQ sauces?

I take back that eyeroll. Chicago q delivers some very delicious barbecue in an atmosphere that is at once stylish, inviting and comfortable. We ended up at Chicago q because it was one of a list of restaurants I suggested for dinner when my good friend, Colette, was in town from San Francisco -- and it was the one place that everyone picked. I am so glad they did.

The first thing I'd like to note is that Chicago q isn't over-the-top upscale, which is a good thing. It's nicer than most barbecue joints, but there are no hand-steamed white linen tablecloths. They do, however, set the tables with cloth napkins. And if you're wearing black, as I was and so often am, they provide you with a black napkin so it doesn't get those little white fuzzies all over your pants! I love this service - and it is just one of many ways that Chicago q seems to cater to their customers in a way that's above and beyond average.

For example, the meal begins with complimentary bowls of homemade pickles and delightfully smoky house-made chips, which we discovered (much to our delight) are endlessly refilled as the meal progresses. Another nice little unexpected extra that serves to make diners smile.

I had read great things about the Hominy Salad at Chicago q, so we ordered two for the group. (Hominy is dried white or yellow corn kernels, from which the hull and the germ have been removed. To provide further context, ground hominy is commonly used to make grits.) In the case of this salad, hominy in its unground form is mixed in with smoked corn, black beans and avocado, then dressed in a tangy and delicious sort of barbecue dressing. The salad was good, but I didn't love it. Realistically, I don't think it has that much to do with the salad itself, but more that I just don't love the texture of hominy that much.

The truly amazing part of the meal was yet to come: the barbecued meats. Most of the ladies at the table, including myself, chose the BBq Flight as their entree. Technically an appetizer, it's comprised of Chicago q's pulled pork, pulled chicken and... wait for it... KOBE BRISKET. That's right. Brisket made from Kobe beef.

Normally, nothing compares to my love of pulled pork. It is my BBQ go-to, but I can't tell you how glad I am that I made the choice to try these three. Prior to Chicago q, I'd just been lukewarm about brisket. It's fine, but not my favorite. That all changed when I tried brisket made from Kobe beef. I loved it. LOVED it.

But I was shocked to find that I loved something else even more: pulled chicken! So much can go wrong with pulled chicken and I've had plenty of super-dry, really bad attempts at this dish. But Chicago q shocked me again with its absolutely incredible pulled chicken. It's perfect. It's juicy and delicious and everything pulled chicken should be. The meat takes on the flavors of any of the three sauces you put on it in a way that few other meats can. (Or if you're like me, you can mix and match to find your favorite blend of sauces -- and it'll take that on, too.)

My least favorite of the three was the pulled pork. It was a little fatty for my taste and kind of a let-down after I was so excited about the two meats I'd originally considered the underdogs of the flight. In the case of my pulled pork, the extra fat wasn't extra flavor -- it was just extra work. As a result, Smoque still has my heart when it comes to my pulled pork obsession.

But the sides also took the meal to another level. The honey butter cornbread is nothing short of outstanding. The bruleed macaroni and cheese was completely amazing. The sides help to make Chicago q comfort food at its best -- they are the perfect complement to a meat-heavy meal.

The service was warm and polished. Throughout the meal, our servers were knowledgeable, attentive and friendly. The only way I could have had a better experience is if I'd had enough room to try one of their fabulous-looking desserts. Definitely recommend Chicago q for some great barbecue with a touch of Gold Coast style.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mastro's Steakhouse

I feel like a traitor saying this, but I have a new favorite steakhouse in Chicago... And it's an import from L.A. It's also a chain. Ugh, that makes me want to throw up a little bit, but it's all true.

The second Ladies Who Love Steak dinner took place at Mastro's and every single thing was amazing. The meal was pricey, but these people take the very Chicago concept of going big or going home to a whole new level. For example, the ladies who love steak also love cocktails, so it made sense to begin our meal with a round. What we didn't realize is that we'd actually be starting the meal with two rounds -- because when our martinis came, they were served with the shaker. And ice aside, that shaker housed another entire martini. Yeah, I needed that extra Classic Mastro's Martini like a hole in the head. But it was delicious.

We decided that we needed some appetizers to soak up our double-sized drinks... STAT. So we ordered the shrimp cocktail and the lump jumbo crab stuffed mushrooms. The shrimp cocktail was served on an elaborate tiered structure, with lots of ice and lemons and random olives -- and something in it was making the top of the tower emit some sort of steam. It was very dramatic and even more delicious. The shrimp were enormous and fresh and perfect.

And then there were the crab-stuffed mushrooms. They were phenomenal. Perfectly cooked, not overly greasy and chocked-full of gigantic pieces of crab. I would eat them every day of my life if I could make them myself. Just awesome.

Moving right along, almost every single person ordered what our waiter cited as the Mastro's specialty: bone-in filet. Most ordered it medium, but Kim -- the mega badass that she is, went ahead and ordered it RARE. Awesome. I have never seen a woman order her steak rare and I am mentally tipping my hat to her as I write this.

However, what I love about Mastro's is that when you say how you'd like your steak done, they confirm that your expectations are in line with their definition of the terms. This is great, because I've definitely ordered my steak medium at places and had it be outright RED in the center or barely pink at others. AND they offer something called "medium-plus," which is slightly better done than medium but not quite medium-well. I mean, I'm a medium girl myself, but that's brilliant.

Multiple people at our table remarked that the steak we ate at Mastro's was the best steak they'd ever eaten. And I'd have to agree. The bone-in filet had more flavor than any filet I've had before -- and it was impeccably seasoned. Simple, flavorful, delicious. Perfectly cooked. I laughed when the waiter asked me if I wanted the 12-ounce or the 18-ounce version and ordered the 12-ounce... But I really honestly believe that this steak was so amazing, that I would have eaten every last bite of the 18-ounce version if I'd ordered it -- and I kind of wished I had. Completely outstanding.

As you can see in the photo above, we also tried a few of the side dishes at Mastro's. We ordered two of their special sides: black truffle macaroni and cheese (unbelievable), their lobster mashed potatoes (completely over-the-top, but awesome) and their classic creamed spinach (pure excellence). The two side specials were crazy rich and impeccably prepared. But the creamed spinach was actually my favorite -- I'm a total sucker for steak with a side of creamed spinach.

But little did we know... the best was yet to come. Dessert at Mastro's is completely unbelievable. We ordered a trio: the Mastro's Signature Warm Butter Cake, the Chocolate Sin Cake and the Crème Brulèe. And to add to the magnificence, the three desserts were served with a large bowl of phenomenal fresh whipped cream.

The crème brulèe was incredible. It was sweet and creamy, with a perfectly caramelized sugary layer on top. Above and beyond, all the way. It seems to be a theme at Mastro's. Predictably, I LOVE it.

The Chocolate Sin cake was rich and decadent, packed to the gills with robust chocolate flavor. It lived up to its name. Anything that tastes that fabulous has to be terrible for you. Who cares? I'd order it again in a heartbeat.

But I am not exaggerating when I say that the Warm Butter Cake is the best dessert I have ever had in my life. It is so wonderful and makes me so happy I hardly know what to do with myself. In fact, it makes me happy just thinking about it.

Mastro's Steakhouse, I'm a firm believer that Chicago has the best restaurant scene in the country. But I have to acknowledge that the presence of this L.A. import has made it infinitely better. I am obsessed. See for yourself at 520 N. Dearborn Street.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Sprinkles Cupcakes

Sprinkles Cupcakes invaded Chicago earlier this year with its cute-as-a-button name and logo. Heralded as one of the originators of the cupcake craze, the cupcake fans in this city went wild when the L.A.-based Sprinkles opened up shop in Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood.

It seemed pretty gutsy to open a store in an already cupcake-crazed -- and arguably, cupcake-saturated -- market, but people seemed to be completely obsessed with the new shop. When I expressed skepticism as to whether Sprinkles would bump my cupcake favorite (Sweet Mandy B's) from my number one spot, I was assured by a Sprinkles fanatic that I'd become a believer after trial. So I was pretty pumped to see for myself what the hype was all about.

It took me a little longer than I'd have liked to investigate. But after spending a lovely afternoon at The Spa on Oak, Kath and I decided to round the corner and stop into Sprinkles for some cupcakes. Predictably, Kath got the Double Chocolate, a Belgian dark chocolate cake with bittersweet chocolate frosting. It was tasty -- definitely an excellent pick for a dark chocolate lover.

Since they didn't have an option for yellow cake and chocolate frosting today, I opted for the Black & White, a Belgian dark chocolate cake with vanilla frosting and chocolate sprinkles. It was a solid cupcake.

But as you may be able to tell, I'm not racing to jump on board the Sprinkles bandwagon. Sprinkles is a nice addition to the robust Chicago cupcake scene. If you're in the neighborhood, stop in and try a few.

But for me, the reigning cupcake queen of Chicago is still Sweet Mandy B's for the following reasons: I prefer Sweet Mandy B's cake-to-frosting ratio (Sprinkles has less frosting) and think that the Sweet Mandy B's frosting itself is better, as I prefer both the consistency and level of sweetness. Sprinkles' vanilla frosting was too sweet for me (even paired with the dark chocolate cake) and while the bittersweet chocolate frosting was good, it still doesn't compare to the chocolate frosting at Sweet Mandy B's.

Sprinkles is good, but as usual -- the advantage goes to my favorite hometown hero: Sweet Mandy B's.