Restaurant Challenge: Hugo’s Frog Bar and Fish House

Holy wow is Hugo’s expensive.  I know, I know, I should expect skyrocketed prices in a touristy place like Viagra Triangle, but this was ridiculous.  $36 for sea bass?  Even when flown in daily, that’s obscene.  $82 for the Fess Parker Syrah?  The bottle is one of my favorites, but let’s get real, it retails for $25.  None of this is to say that the food was not good.  It was.  And there were plenty of healthy options.  But at these prices, I expect much, much more.  Otherwise, you’ll find me at a more reasonably priced restaurant, thank you very much.

Our meal began with fresh oysters, which were very good.  There were three kinds available, so I tried one of each.  Our oyster sampling would have been even more fun (and perhaps worth the price of $2.75 each) had our waiter actually been able to identify which oyster was what when he served them.

Oysters

Because soup came with my meal, I tried the Bookbinder’s Soup, named after the famous Bookbinder’s restaurant in Philadelphia.  Picking this soup was easy – it was the only non-cream based soup on the menu, and, having lived in Philadelphia (and eaten at Bookbinder’s), I was excited to try it.  The soup was quite good.  It had a slightly sweet tomato broth, making it a healthy option, and chunks of white fish.  The sherry served along side the soup, for diners to add to taste, was a nice touch.

Bookbinder's Fish Soup

For dinner I had the seared Hawaiian Yellowfin Tuna.  If you like raw fish – and I do – this is the dish for you.  A thick block of tuna seared only on the very outside, the fish was super fresh and so smooth you could cut it with a spoon.  Also flavorful was the peppery grilled planked whitefish, which we ordered with a baked potato, swapping out the caloric mashed potatoes usually served with it.

Hawaiian Yellowfin Tuna

Grilled Planked Whitefish

Try Hugo’s Frog Bar and Fish House at 1024 N. Rush Street.

Windy City Wine Festival

Set beneath the beautiful backdrop of Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park, the Windy City Wine Festival celebrated a successful seventh year on September 9th and 10th.  When I went on Saturday, the weather could not have been more perfect – a cool late summer night ideal for spending time outside…and sampling wine with friends.

Enjoying the samples at the Windy City Wine Festival

With over 270 wines, there was plenty to chose from, including Fess Parker (one of my favorites), Moet, and Cass Winery.  When the lines became too long and the samples too stingy – the only downsides of the event – we discovered several booths handing out generous portions of creamy cheese samples.   Also great was Saturday night’s band, which played a diverse set of music, including some original songs that were quite good.  I’m looking forward to next year’s Wine Festival, but will plan to go earlier in the evening to avoid some of the lines!

 

 

Restaurant Challenge: Fish Bar

For those of us who have spent time in New England, Fish Bar in Lakeview is like a little slice of Cape Cod heaven.  It is relaxed, uber-unpretentious, and boasts a wide variety of fresh and sustainable fish and seafood.

Nearly half the menu is comprised of raw and grilled selections, meaning eating healthy at Fish Bar could not be easier.  I began with the raw oysters and could taste the fresh saltiness of the ocean as I downed the slimy little mollusks.  Cocktail sauce and horseradish served along side the oysters further enhanced the flavor.

Oysters

Next I tried the calamari, grilled simply in olive oil and with a sprinkling pepper and lemon.  While the preparation was perfect, I was disappointed with the miniature portion of the dish.  For $7, I expect more than just 6 pieces (over $1 per piece), even if Fish Bar’s dishes are supposed to be appetizer size!

Grilled Calamari

The restaurant’s sense of humor is particularly refreshing.  Because seating space is limited (something sure to become an issue when outdoor eating is no longer an option), the menu unapologetically instructs, “Reserve a booth for 3 or 4.  5 or more, go next door.”  Next-door is sister restaurant DMK.  There is also a Frequent Fryer Club, where customers earn 1 point for every dollar spent.  The grand prize, for a mere 100,000 points in one year, is a cholesterol test kit.  That’s 137 PBRs each day for a year.  Better get started!

Try Fish Bar at 2956 N. Sheffield Ave.

Restaurant Challenge: Standard India

I have such mixed feelings about Standard India in Lakeview.  On the one hand, the service was awkward, slow, and plagued with error.  It took an obscenely long time for our appetizer nan to arrive and, when it finally did, it was wrong.  We had requested the nan without butter, usually a simple change and a great way to avoid unnecessary calories, but the nan was drowning in it.  By the time nan without butter did arrive, our food had been served.  Additionally, although the waitress promised that the chana masala dish I ordered for dinner could be served mild, it was painfully hot.

Nan -- Sans Butter

On the other hand, both the waitress and hostess quickly saw the troubles caused by the fire hot chana masala and immediately offered me a new dish or some yogurt.  This was very impressive.  We were also served three complimentary dishes throughout the night – a lentil soup, a lamb dish, and a thick and sweet mango lassi as an after dinner drink.  Free food, particularly good free food, is always a plus.

Chana Masala (Warning: Hot!)

Without a doubt, though, the highlight of the night was my fiancé’s murgh tikka, one of the healthiest options on the menu.  Made by grilling small pieces of skewered chicken breast that have been marinated in spices and yogurt in a very hot Tandoor oven, the dish was flavorful and a definite order again.  I just hope next time the service is better!

Murgh Tikka

Try Standard India at 917 W. Belmont Avenue.

Restaurant Challenge: Al Johnson’s

One of Door County’s most renowned restaurants, Al Johnson’s, certainly heeds the old Gypsy advice, “You gotta have a gimmick.”  The restaurant serves up heavy Swedish food – Swedish pancakes, lingonberries, and Swedish meatballs (think Ikea) – delivered by waiters and waitresses decked out in kitschy costumes.  While the food and décor leave much to be desired, the scenery keeps the tourists coming in droves: goats munching happily on the sodded roof of the restaurant.  And why, might you ask, does something on the roof outside convince people to spend their hard earned cash inside?  I can’t answer that.  But it worked on me.

Goat on the Roof

The most brilliant part of the whole thing is Al Johnson’s online “Goat Cam,” where even back here in Chicago you can check up on these Door County celebrities.  Or, you may just want to go to Door County to see for yourself.  It’s certainly worth the four-hour trip – Door County is stunning.  But maybe skip going inside.

Swedish Meatball Sandwich

Visit the goats at Al Johnson’s in Sister Bay, Door County, or check out the Goat Cam: http://www.aljohnsons.com/goat-cam/

Restaurant Challenge: Fin

Nestled on a quiet corner in Ravenswood, Fin Sushi Bar was still at full capacity on a recent Thursday night at 9 pm.  And with four sushi chefs busily working behind the sushi bar (no drink bar – the restaurant is BYOB), it was clear this kind of crowd was not unusual.  It was also clear why: the sushi at Fin is exceptional and reasonably priced.

Fin’s Chicago Wasabi “special roll” may be my new favorite maki roll.  Made with huge chunks of fresh tuna, salmon, and white fish, spicy (but not killer) wasabi mayo, salty caviar, and crunchy vegetables, I was in sushi heaven as I tried – and failed – to gracefully eat the oversized pieces of delectable maki.  The rainbow roll, also with generous portions of fresh fish, and the sweet tamago nigiri, similarly shinned.

Chicago Wasabi Special Roll

The duck spring roll appetizer, which sounded great on the menu, was the one disappointment of the night.  It was all but impossible to taste the roasted duck through the much too thick rice paper and the puddle of starchy gravy-like plum sauce the rolls were served in.  Next time, I’ll happily stick with the sushi.

Duck Spring Roll

Try Fin at 1742 W. Wilson Ave.

Restaurant Challenge: Demera Ethiopian Restaurant

One of my favorite ethnic cuisines is Ethiopian.  I love the simplicity of the wots, or stews, that come in an array of vegan, vegetarian, and meat options; I love the injera, which tastes a bit like a spongy sourdough; and I love the fact that everything is eaten by hand, using torn pieces of injera to pick up morsels of stew before popping the whole thing into your mouth.

Injera

Because I am an absolute novice when it comes to Ethiopian food, I typically let the waitress guide our order.  At Demera Ethiopian Restaurant in Uptown, this resulted in six different stews served over the injera (along with serving as fork and knife, injera is also used as a kind of tablecloth).  My favorites were the ye-shimbra assa, a spicy chickpea stew with chunks of chickpea patties, the mild ye-beg alicha, with its tender bits of lamb, and the doro wot, a chicken stew served with a drumstick, whole egg, and a feta like cheese.

Ethiopian Dinner

Because of its emphasis on vegetables and beans, and the relatively small amount of oils used in typical recipes, it is actually quite easy to eat well and eat healthy when at an Ethiopian restaurant.  As always, beware of fried food and watch your portions (perhaps the most challenging part of eating at Demera – there’s so much food and it is all so good).  As they say in Amharic, the official working language of Ethiopia, melkam megeb (bon appetite)!

Try Demera Ethiopian Restaurant at 4801 N. Broadway.

Healthy Recipe: Fig Salad

Buying new balsamic vinegar or olive oil is like getting a new toy.  I cannot wait to play with all the fresh new flavors and try out all the different ideas that these seemingly simple ingredients inspire.

Recently, I found two amazing products straight from Italy at Old Town Oil in (you guessed it) Old Town at 1520 N. Wells St.  The first was their fig balsamic vinegar.  The tangy and sweet flavor of the balsamic vinegar was so intense that even a small taste saturated my entire mouth.  The other was their Nocellara olive oil, which was a nutty and versatile extra virgin olive oil with hints of fruit.

Fig Balsamic Vinegar and Nocellara Olive Oil

I was planning a special dinner for my fiancé, and, since he loves figs, I wanted to use both products but highlight the fig balsamic vinegar.  I ended up with this super easy to make fig salad.  I went extra heavy on the balsamic vinegar in the fig dressing because I loved this vinegar so much, but feel free to add more olive oil to thin it out.  I also did not need to use sugar since the fig balsamic vinegar was already naturally so sweet.  But it’s all to personal taste!

Figs

Ingredients

1/3 cup fig balsamic vinegar

2 tbs olive oil

Salt to taste

Fresh ground pepper to taste

Sugar to taste (optional)

4 cups of your favorite lettuce mix (I like spring greens or arugula), rinsed well

5 ripe figs, cut lengthwise

2 tbs feta (I like feta in brine; my favorite is from Trader Joe’s)

2 tbs walnuts

Prep

Wisk together fig balsamic vinegar and olive oil, adding more olive oil to taste.  Salt and pepper to taste.  If necessary, add sugar to taste.

Make sure rinsed lettuce is dry and toss salad with dressing to coat.  Add figs, feta, and walnuts, and serve.

Fig Salad

I served this salad with a freshly baked French baguette and my new olive oil for dipping (the white bread was totally worth the splurge, since it allowed the full flavors of the olive oil to shine through).  I added a dash of salt to the olive oil and some freshly chopped basil, and the result was incredible.  We also discovered the fig salad dressing was delicious for dipping.

Nocellara Olive Oil and French Baguette

Try Old Town Oil at 1520 N. Wells St.

Restaurant Challenge: Socca

Had I asked them to halve the amount of cheese on my thin crust “pizzette,” my meal at Mediterranean inspired Socca in Lakeview would have been healthy and not an unnecessary splurge.  Asking questions about your dish, and requesting minor changes as appropriate, is key, and I blew it.  I think I’ll blame my adorable cousin, who I was with at Socca, for distracting me with such engrossing conversation that I simply forgot to ask details about my order.  But really I was just being lazy.

Not overly hungry, we each ordered a “pizzette” to split (by the way, one is more than enough for an entrée, even if hungry).  I had the funghi, a mushroom pizza with caramelized onions, fennel sausage, and gorgonzola cheese – a lot of gorgonzola cheese.  She had the goat cheese pizza, which had basil pesto, roasted red peppers, and cheese: parmesan, mozzarella, and, of course, goat cheese.

Goat Cheese Pizzette

The pizzettes were good, not great, even with all that extra cheese.  The funghi had a nice kick to it, and the basil pesto from the goat cheese pizza shined through nicely.  But the real reason to go back to Socca is the atmosphere; Socca is nice without being pretentious and the wait staff is happy to let diners linger, particularly over one of their many bottles of wine.  This makes Socca an ideal place for catching up with friends and distracting cousins.  Just remember to halve the cheese.

Funghi Pizzette

Try Socca at 3301 N. Clark St. in Lakeview