Chicago Restaurant Week

It’s Chicago Restaurant Week! Chicago Restaurant Week is actually almost two weeks (January 25 – February 4). It’s a great way to try out some new restaurants and at each restaurant, try a few more dishes than you might normally order a la carte. The restaurants usually have a $22 fixed menu for lunch, and a $33 or $44 fixed menu for dinner. After much analysis on what fixed menus were actually deals (surprisingly, for a lot of them, you just break even or even worse, lose money), I settled on a few spots:

Embeya

For lunch on Monday, I headed into Embeya which is located in the West Loop. I really need to try more of the restaurants here! No trouble at all getting a table during lunch time, and it seemed like a nice place to have a business lunch.

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For the first course, I chose the grilled beef jerky with red curry squash and pickled golden raisins. Grilled beef jerky apparently just means strips of steak, but that’s fine by me. I ate the entire thing, golden raisins and all, and it was delicious – my only complaint is that it was a little too sweet.

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For the second course, I ordered the chicken thigh with market beans, XO, and green olives. Yummy! This was also pretty soy sauce sweet like the beef jerky, but less so, which was good. The chicken was cooked perfectly, and I liked the XO even though after looking it up, I’m still not sure what it is.

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The dessert was a cacao nib brownie with hazelnut meringue, pickled beets, and smoked chocolate ice cream. The pickled beets on top were weird – I took them off. Everything else was your standard delicious dessert.

According to Embeya’s website, this lunch was worth $9 (beef jerky) + $15 (chicken thigh) + probably $7 (dessert) = $31, so not bad! After I ate here, I saw it on Thrillist’s list of Best Restaurants in Chicago Right Now, which made me proud of myself for picking it. If you know me, you know I love lists. Anyway, also on the list was…

Intro

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I made a reservation for me and my friend Tom for Tuesday night at Intro in the Belden Stratford hotel in Lincoln Park. The Tuesday night reservation was literally the only time available during restaurant week, so I jumped on it.

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For the first course, I chose the Vietnamese Chicken Soup with lemongrass, ginger, and shaved vegetables. It was okay… nothing special. When I thought Vietnamese, I thought of pho, but it didn’t have the same taste and both the soup and chicken were pretty bland.

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When the plate for my main course was set in front of me, I immediately thought, “Aw, crap.” I sent this picture to my friends and one said, “Those look like some nice snacks.” This was billed as Flat Iron Steak or “Beef and Broccoli,” which I suppose it was, but it was pretty misleading as their website has a picture of a similar steak of a much more substantial size. Nothing special to this steak either.

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For the dessert, I chose the Hazelnut Cake which was perfectly fine.

This meal was worth $8.95 (soup) + $29.95 (steak) + probably $7-ish (dessert) = $45.90, and this was one of the $44 dinners, so this was not a good deal at all. We should’ve ordered from the restaurant menu for one person, and then ordered a la carte for the other person, like our waiter suggested. But, at least I can say that I’ve been to the place, right?

Bistronomic

Tom and I also made reservations for Bistronomic, near the Water Tower, for lunch on Saturday. Bistronomic is one of the only restaurants with a totally separate menu for restaurant week – each of the choices on the fixed menu was a recipe from Julia Child’s famous recipe book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

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My pick for the appetizers were the PEI Black Mussels Marinieres with scallions, thyme, and chardonnay. I was pleasantly surprised at how many mussels there were – I think at least 20. They were good and weren’t gritty at all.

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Next was the beef bourguignon with bacon lardons, handmade linguini pasta, and beaujolais wine reduction. I was skeptical when I saw it, but it was delicious.

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For dessert I had a caramel almond souffle. I don’t think I could have eaten any more than they gave – it had a weird consistency that made it unappetizing. I had a bite of Tom’s clafouti aux piores, which was terrible. It tasted like nothing.

Since this was a special menu, I’m not sure how much it was worth, but I felt like it was a good deal. The only bad thing was that I was still pretty hungry after the meal! Might have something to do with not eating anything for breakfast before, though.

Chicken and Andouille Gumbo

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Isn’t that picture beautiful!? I got a Le Creuset griddle for Christmas last year but returned it for store credit and never ended up getting something else with it until recently. In its place, I got a Le Creuset 4.5-quart dutch oven in Lapis. So exciting! I feel like I made a huge life decision – I’m going to be stuck with this color forever.

The first thing I decided to make was this gumbo recipe, sent to me by my friend Isaac with a ton of tweaks (e.g. add garlic, use Tony’s). I’ve never made gumbo before – it was pretty labor intensive (30 minutes straight of stirring the roux!), but worth it at the end. It’s best to prep all of your veggies & meats the day before so that you aren’t spending like 5 hours making this in one day. I made this for my family the day before Thanksgiving and they really liked it; my sister made it at her football tailgate the next Saturday too. The recipe says 4 pounds of chicken thighs, but you could easily use 2-3 pounds – 4 pounds was a lot of meat.

Ingredients:
– 1 tablespoon plus ½ cup vegetable oil
– 1 pound andouille sausage, cut crosswise ½-inch thick pieces
– 4 pounds chicken thighs, skin removed
– 1 cup all-purpose flour
– 2 cups chopped onions
– 1 cup chopped celery
– 1 cup chopped bell peppers
– 5 cloves garlic, minced
– 3 bay leaves
– 9 cups unsalted chicken stock
– ½ cup chopped green onions
– 2 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves
– paprika
– black pepper
– cayenne pepper
– Tony’s seasoning
– white rice

Directions:
1. Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Add sausage and cook until well browned, about 8 minutes. Remove the sausage with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Set aside.
2. Season the chicken with paprika, black pepper, cayenne, and Tony’s.
3. Add the chicken in batches to the fat remaining in the pan. Cook over medium-high heat until well browned, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pan and let cool.
4. Combine the remaining ½ cup oil and the flour in the same Dutch oven over medium heat. Cook, stirring slowly and constantly for 25 to 30 minutes, to make a dark brown roux, the color of chocolate.
5. Add the onions, celery, bell peppers, and garlic and cook, stirring, until wilted, 4 to 5 minutes.
6. Add the reserved sausage and bay leaves, stir, and cook for 2 minutes.
7. Stirring, slowly add the chicken stock, and cook, stirring, until well combined.
8. Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, uncovered and stirring occasionally, for 1 hour.
9. Add the reserved chicken to the pot and simmer for 1½ hours.
10. Skim off any fat that rises to the surface.
11. Using a slotted spoon, remove the chicken thighs from the gumbo and shred the chicken meat.
12. Return the meat to the gumbo and stir in the green onions and parsley.
13. Spoon rice into the bottom of deep bowls and ladle the gumbo on top.

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Stockholm

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My friend Rachel had the opportunity to travel to Sweden for work, so obviously, I met up with her in Stockholm for a weekend! There are some pros to traveling alone, but this was definitely a nice change from all the solo trips I’ve been doing. I have always wanted to visit Sweden since it’s home to IKEA, H&M, and many of my favorite hockey players.

I landed, took the Arlanda Express into the city, dropped my stuff off at the hotel, and immediately headed over to the Icebar to meet Rachel and her coworker. I had read in many places that they only let people in 45 minutes at a time so I was really rushing to get there at 10:30… and then got there and realized that wouldn’t be a problem at all. There was no one there! We walked right up, were outfitted with this huge cape with attached mittens, and went in – there were probably like 10 other people in there, max. Included in the price of admission was one drink, and I ended up picking some gross tasting vodka with lingonberries. The whole experience was probably not worth it, although it made for a great Instagram picture.

In the last year I have had way more coffee than I would like to admit. I probably have a coffee at least every other day now! Sweden is a great place to drink coffee, as drinking coffee is part of Sweden’s culture. “Fika” means “to have coffee” and every day, Swedes take a break and have coffee or tea and something to eat. There are even official fika times during the workday at Swedish companies. After checking out the Vasa Museum and walking through two H&Ms literally across the street from each other to see if there were any differences (there weren’t), Rachel and I stopped into Vete-Katten to fika.

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Along with my latte, I ordered a kanelbullar, a Swedish cinnamon bun. Unfortunately, it photographs WAY better than it looks. It’s actually quite dry, and I had one at another place with the same experience, so they’re probably all like that. Of course, these are probably how they should be and not loaded with tons of sugar and goo and things that are bad for you like they are in America.

For dinner, we were lazy and wanted to eat somewhere close to our hotel. Luckily, Bla Dorren was the closest place to us but also pretty highly rated with traditional Swedish food, which we wanted to try.

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First, we ordered a plate with four different types of pickled raw herring. I… was not a fan of any of them. One was mustard based, one was tomato based, and then I think a couple were just plain pickled, but all of them were just not very appetizing to me. At least I tried it though, right?

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However, I liked the elk meatballs! Of course we had to try some Swedish meatballs while we were in Sweden, and they came with a side of lingonberries (Sweden’s national fruit). We split this plate and it was enough for us. The seasoning on the meat was great and it kind of felt like eating Thanksgiving dinner.

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For our last meal, we wanted something fast and inexpensive and ended up at this pizza place. We didn’t want to go the traditional pepperoni route, and asked for something “Swedish” so they told us to order this pizza with steak, onions, mushrooms, and bearnaise sauce. It was actually pretty good!

The thing about food in Sweden is that it’s a little expensive! I got an orange juice and a kanelbullar for breakfast and it showed up as $8.77 on my credit card statement. The raw herring plate was $11. Looking back on it now, it doesn’t seem that expensive, but the extra $2 or $3 here and there adds up!

Afternoon Tea

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After 7 months of working in London, I finally did an afternoon tea today. And it was AMAZING. I actually tried to do it a Sunday last month, but had no reservation – big mistake! I walked over to The Langham hoping they had some walk-in availability, but no luck… then I called The Wolseley, who said they did walk-ins, but when I was already seated it was 2:30, I realized they start serving afternoon tea at 3:30.

This time, I decided to do it with a little more advance planning (the day before). It was still hard to find a reservation for the time I wanted, and I even got this email from The Sanderson, which has a pretty cool afternoon tea based on Alice in Wonderland:

Hi Jessica,

The first available Saturday is the 19th of December and the first available Sunday is the 8th of November. Weekdays are less busy.

It’s OCTOBER 10TH. Crazy. Anyway, I was able to get a spot at 12:30 pm at The Rosebery in the Mandarin Orange Hotel – I figured if I was going to be paying so much, I’d stuff my face for lunch.

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The inside is very nice; the room has a lot of natural light and there are pillows on every chair, which are very comfy. I was seated and then it was explained that there was a list of teas I could try from, and I could switch between any of the teas I wanted. The sandwiches and pastries would come out come out first, and then the scones, and everything was all you can eat. YES!

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I started out with a darjeeling second flush tea – apparently “second flush” means it’s harvested in June. It tasted like tea. Later on, I switched to a lychee strawberry green tea, which was kind of interesting. I couldn’t really taste the lychee but I could definitely taste the strawberry.

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First the sandwiches came out – these were really good (although they were basically just regular sandwiches). Here’s what they were:

– slow roasted organic chicken and buttered corn
– smoked salmon tartar with creme fraiche and dill
– cotswold egg and mustard cress
– cucumber and cream cheese
– Portland crab and crayfish with asparagus on nori bread
– Wildshire cured ham and heritage tomatoes

My favorite was probably the ham one, and my least favorite was definitely the cucumber and cream cheese – too cream cheesy.

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The pastries were pretty good although I decided to prioritize the sandwiches over the pastries. From left to right:

– The Pan Charm – green tea and lemon choux bun
– Imagination Pie – strawberry mousse and clotted cream cremeux
– In the Clouds – blackberry, lemon, and vanilla entremet
– Blackbeard’s Cannonball – milk chocolate mousse with caramelized banana
– Mermaid Macaron – vanilla yogurt ganache

I found it hilarious that these desserts had proper names. I finished the green tea thing and the macaron, and they were all good enough to finish eating if I weren’t so full at this point.

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The black velvet cake (chocolate and ginger) and The Jolly Rodger (pineapple and coconut) were just ok – I actually preferred the black velvet one without the icing (it was really easy to take off).

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I was so full by the time the scones came out, so I only ate half of one. I don’t think I really missed out much though, they were basically just dense biscuits (like American biscuits, not British cookie “biscuits”). One was plain and one had golden raisins.

In the end, I ate 14 tiny sandwiches, two pastries, half of three pastries, two cakes, and half a scone. I’d say it’s definitely worth it for the experience, but not for the food, since it was £48 plus a service charge – it’s almost embarrassing to admit that I paid this much for this. Sitting next to me was a group of 6 posh, attractive 30-something Londoners; I can only hope that at that point in my life I’d be ok with doing the occasional afternoon tea to catch up with my friends!

Lisbon

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Lisbon = seafood and I love it! I honestly knew nothing about Lisbon before I arrived, but one thing I did do before going was listen to some Rick Steves podcasts about Portugal. There was one focused on just food, so I was definitely excited to try some seafood. If you’re ever walking around alone in Europe, I highly recommend downloading Rick Steves’ app and listening to the tracks about wherever you are. Great way to pass the time as you go from place to place and learn more about different attractions, cuisines, and cultures.

I got to Lisbon on Friday night, and took my time getting to dinner – I had a place in mind, but I read on TripAdvisor that there are always lines. Sure enough, when I reached Cervejaria Ramiro at 10:30 pm, there was a line of about 20 people! Luckily they were all a part of one big group, and I was seated within 10 minutes. I didn’t find this out until later but “cervejaria” basically means beer hall, which explains the rowdiness of the whole place.

They give you an iPad with a menu that has pictures on it, which is pretty helpful. The prices are listed in grams, which I had no frame of reference for, but when I said the 3 things I wanted, the waiter said I should get small sizes for all of them.

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I ordered shrimp with garlic, crab, and giant tiger prawns. The shrimp with garlic was delicious and came in this butter sauce that was great for dipping everything else in. Everything tasted really fresh! The crab is served as all of the legs and claws, but then they mix some crab meat with some stuff (I really have no way to describe this) and put it in the shell. It was… interesting. I wasn’t really sure what I should or shouldn’t have been eating in there, although I’m sure it was all fine. One travesty is that I didn’t eat the crab meat in the legs. I was a) too full, and b) given this hammer that you can see in the top left – I’m used to being given a crab cracker and felt really awkward using the hammer even with all the noise in the place.

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At Gambrinus, here’s some sole with a lemon butter sauce that I paid way too much for for lunch on Sunday.

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Portugal’s national dish is bacalhau, or salt cod, even though it’s all from Norway. They say there are 365 ways to prepare it. At Restaurante Carmo, I just got one of the most popular variations – bacalhau a bras, which is made of cod, rice, scrambled eggs, onions, and black olives. I was expecting just a piece of fish with the vegetables on the side, so this was a nice surprise! I liked it, although I wasn’t too sure how much cod vs. onions there really were in it.

Not to be outdone, pork is also very popular in Portugal. Also at Carmo, I had some pata negra:

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This was sooo good. The ham is from pigs who are only fed acorns or grains, or a mix of both (not sure which one this was) which changes the flavor and quality of the meat.

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On Saturday night, I ate at Joao do Grao, which was a little too touristy. It’s never good when the menu comes in 10 different languages. I ordered carne de porco alentejana – fried pork with clams. When this came out, I was a little worried because of the fries. Yes, the fries sucked but the rest was pretty good. This was actually my first time eating clams! Not bad.

The one thing that Lisbon is REALLY famous for is pastel de nata, a pastry made with eggs. When I read about them and saw pictures, I thought, “hmm, these sound like dan tats,” which are Chinese egg tarts that you eat at the end of dim sum. I read that the Belem district, about 25 minutes away by bus from central Lisbon, is the best place to get them, so I made the trek over there.

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In Belem, they’re so special that they’re called pasteis de belem, which is also the name of the bakery. This place was insane! There was a line out the door, but it moved pretty fast. When I took a bite of them, I thought, “hmm, these taste like dan tats.” I looked up dan tat online, and basically the only places where these are popular are Portugal and Hong Kong/Macau! Weird but cool. But makes sense, when you realize that Macau used to be a colony of Portugal. The more you know.

I do think these were slightly better than dan tats though; they were sweeter. Usually I don’t like dan tats enough to make it to the end of one. Also the cup is made of puff pastry and while the cup in dan tats are usually more dense, flour based.

One thing to note as you eat through Lisbon is that they will always put down a basket of bread on your table – this is not free! You can refuse it or just not touch it and they won’t put it on your bill, but if you do eat it, it costs a euro or two. I definitely broke down on this a time or two.

Hattie B’s Hot Chicken

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My friends and I just took a weekend trip to Nashville, and no trip to Nashville is complete without a meal of hot chicken!

Saturday night, after our pedal tavern (a really fun activity that I recommend doing in Nashville!), we headed over to Midtown to Hattie B’s. Hattie B’s had been recommended to us by several people and looked to be THE place to get hot chicken, so we wanted to do it right.

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We arrived at around 7:30 pm and there was a line out the door. The wait wasn’t too bad – probably 20 or 30 minutes. Inside, we ordered at the counter where the questions we answered were basically “how much chicken do you want?” and “how hot do you want it?” We sat outside in the patio area which had a bunch of metal benches and TVs playing college football.

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I ordered the large white plate, a plate of two breasts and two wings, with sides of pimento mac & cheese and baked beans. The sides were okay – the mac & cheese was a little too soupy but the pimento was a nice touch; the beans were fine with a little bit of sweetness but not too much. The chicken was amazing!! Since I’m a wimp who completely contradicts her Louisiana upbringing, I got no heat with my chicken. The breading was perfectly crispy and still tasty without any spiciness at all. I also had sweet tea, which was very good. My one mistake was that the large plate was way too much for me and a small plate would’ve been just fine.

There are six heat levels – Southern (no heat), Mild, Medium, Hot, Damn Hot, and Shut the Cluck Up. A couple of my friends got their chicken with the Damn Hot heat – big mistake!

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Karan said that Damn Hot was spicier than Blazin’ at Buffalo Wild Wings, which is their spiciest sauce. Rachel tried a bit of his chicken and said it burned her mouth. Finally, Greg said that the first 5 seconds after eating the chicken are amazing, but then it hits you and you’re like, “Why did I bite into this?” Everyone who got Medium said it was hotter than they expected, and everyone who was conservative and got Mild said they were happy with their choice. You’ve been warned!

Duck & Waffle

I follow a few London food accounts on Instagram and one place that is featured frequently is Duck & Waffle. Then I did a little bit of research and found out that it’s 1) London’s highest restaurant, at 40 floors, and is 2) open 24 hours. Of course, I am all about superlatives and decided I had to go.

Booking online is easy through their website, but not as easy when booking the night before! When I first looked, the only table for the next day was at 5:00 am (I seriously considered it). Luckily, when I woke up the next morning there was a table open at the perfectly reasonable time of 8:30 pm.

That night, I hopped on the Central Line, got off at the Liverpool Street station, and walked 5 minutes to the Heron Tower, where I was greeted by a very nice “bouncer” who checked if I had a reservation. Good thing Google came in handy to prepare me for this when I was searching the day before for “duck and waffle no reservation.” Then I took a quick glass elevator ride to the 39th floor, walked through Sushi Samba, and climbed one last floor to my destination.

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I was promptly seated at window table facing the north with a nice view of The City (the neighborhood) and Tottenham Hotspur’s football stadium in the distance. The atmosphere was hip, trendy, and a little too dimly lit for my taste.

I ordered the BBQ spiced crispy pig ears and of course, the namesake duck & waffle. The pig ears (didn’t think about them being pig ears when I ate them) came in a brown paper bag and were a great appetizer! They were sugary, salty, crunchy, and not too filling for the rest of the meal.

Then came the main course: a crispy duck confit leg with a fried duck egg and mustard maple syrup. This dish lived up to my high expectations! The slightly salty duck was the perfect complement to the sweetness of the syrup. I don’t usually like eating things together (e.g. I’m not a fan of fruit salad) but it was the best when I was able to gather a piece of duck, a bit of egg, and a square of waffle and cover the bite with syrup.

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The only thing I would change about my experience is the time I went! Next time I’ll go during the day, when I’ll be able to see more of the impressive London skyline.