Pret A Manger Chicago Exclusives

During my first visit to London back in the late '90s, I spent many glorious afternoons wandering around random neighborhoods with no particular plan in mind. I was enthralled by the history, the architecture, the tiny hidden neighborhood pubs, the people, the theatre scene... and of course, the food. As a Midwestern girl who up until that point had only lived in small towns or semi-remote suburbs with little food variety, I fell in love with the vast array of culinary delights. However, I was also a semi-broke college student and always on the go, so sitting down at actual restaurants wasn't always an option for me. Thankfully, I just so happened to stumble upon Pret A Manger during one of my random neighborhood meanderings. I quickly discovered that the fast casual chain offered quality, affordable (and easily portable!) sandwiches, soups, and salads that were perfect for a healthy, filling meal on the go.

Pret A Manger became my to-go stop for a quick meal during my stay in London and I was thrilled when the UK eatery finally expanded into the Midwestern market in 2010. By that point, I had been in Chicago for just over ten years, but my first visit to the newly opened Pret in the Loop took me right back to those lovely afternoons spend wandering around London and spontaneous picnics at neighborhood parks. Of course, as I am a creature of habit, my food choices actually haven't changed much since my early experiences with Pret (I'm a huge fan of the Balsamic Chicken & Avocado Sandwich and the Chicken & Avocado Salad), so I was pleased to be invited to participate in their spring menu tasting featuring their Chicago-exclusive offerings (obviously, I need to be forced out of my comfort zone).

Chicago-exclusive sandwiches: Chicago Super Club and Turkey & Wisconsin Cheddar

 Chicago Super Club: turkey, bacon, and ham, with a mix of fresh and roasted tomatoes, mayo, pepper & crunchy romaine on Pret’s granary bread. This classic and hearty sandwich has a surprisingly sweet bite, thanks to the addition of the roasted tomatoes. I was also impressed that bacon and lettuce managed to stay crispy, despite the fact that they were both nestled up to a bed of juicy tomatoes. 

 Turkey and Wisconsin Cheddar: roasted turkey breast, Wisconsin cheddar, Dijon mustard, tomatoes, romaine, mayo & Pret's seasoning on granary bread. The second of Pret's Chicago-exclusive sandwich options is another classic flavor combination that most definitely stands out from similar fast food options, thanks to the combination of the zesty mustard and sharp cheddar.

Turkey Chili: sautéed antibiotic-free turkey, red kidney beans, bell peppers, braised onions & diced green chilies in a slow-simmered tomato stew with Southwestern spices. Back by popular demand, this high protein/lower sodium chili is loaded with tender chunks of turkey in a sweet tomato base. It's super satisfying on its own, but also pairs perfectly with one of Pret's many salads (I sampled it along with the Chef Salad, which made for a hearty lunch on a particularly blustery afternoon).

Pret's Chef Salad: roasted turkey breast, bacon, avocado, egg, grape tomatoes & mesclun. I wasn't prepared to enjoy this salad as much as I did - not only was this my favorite of the new offerings, but also, I've actually already added it to my regular rotation! This salad is crisp, fresh, and surprisingly filling (considering it's only 290 calories, I wasn't expecting such a substantial salad).

You can sample the new spring menu options at any of Pret A Manger's Chicago locations.

Pret A Manger on Urbanspoon
 Disclosure: I received a complimentary meal to facilitate this post. Review and all opinions are my own.


Artango Bistro

After a stretch of particularly gross weather and heavy/conflicting work schedules, Mario and I recently realized that we hadn't been out on a dinner date together in well over two months. While we're not the couple with a high maintenance date schedule (and in fact, after fifteen years together, Mario is adamantly opposed to referring to nights out as "dates"), we do try to make it a point to go out for dinner together at least a few times a month - not only is a good for us to take a break from our hard-working DVR, but also, we really enjoy exploring the food scene together and discovering new favorites. His willingness to try new things was actually one of the qualities that originally made me fall for him all those years ago. So as soon as I heard about Artango Bistro, a romantic little Argentinian restaurant in the heart of Ravenswood, I knew it was the perfect spot for us to break our dry spell!

Owned by the husband and wife team of tango dance pro Maria Alferov and Buenos Aires-born artist Sebastian Casanova, Artango Bistro offers diners a full-on Latin American experience, complete with flavorful and healthy South American cuisine, one-of-a-kind décor in a romantic, sexy space, and tango lessons. The restaurant actually wasn't even a part of Alferov's original plan - although she was an avid foodie, her focus was on tango (she was once a tango instructor by day who also hosted evening milongas in her Ravenswood studio). However, after meeting her husband (through tango, naturally), the two transformed her studio into the gorgeous, art-filled social club and event space that it is today.

The space is filled with Casanova's beautiful oil paintings, floating chandeliers, and dramatic lighting elements (I was obsessed with the fantastic chandeliers & couldn't stop photographing them!)

I usually don't rave about bread baskets and house salads, but trust me, you don't want to skip over either of these! Both are served with a tangy dressing/dipping sauce that is definitely worth sampling.

 We started off our meal with the Trio De Ceviches: mahi-mahi with passion fruit vinaigrette, tuna with avocado and sesame seeds, and shrimp with red rocoto sauce

Mario and I loved all of the ceviches, as they were so fresh and flavorful, but the mahi mahi was a clear standout for both of us. The passion fruit vinaigrette was so tangy and zesty - it was one of the happiest, brightest little citrusy seafood dishes I've ever had! I would make a return trip to Artango for the ceviche alone!

We paired our ceviche platter with a trio of their Empanadas: beef, ham & cheese, and vegetarian. These handmade baked empanadas were perfectly crispy and packed with flavor - it was actually impossible to choose a favorite!

Lubina Celestial: Chilean sea bass with purple & sweet potatoes in a pineapple-ginger sauce
For our entrées, we decided to take our server's suggestion and split two of their most popular dishes. I am so glad we took his suggestions because I fell head over heels for this amazing sea bass! As with the ceviche, the seafood was incredibly fresh and flavorful. We both loved the sweet/spicy sauce on the fish and the perfectly cooked potatoes.

Malbec Filet Mignon with red & yellow peppers, grilled asparagus, and malbec sauce
I have to admit by the time we got to the second entrée, I was ready to tap out (I was so into the seafood dishes that I forgot to leave room for anything else), but I did manage to sneak in a few bites of this buttery filet. Mario was impressed with the flavor of this steak and was more than happy to pull it over to his side of the table. 

Near the end of our main course, the tango instructors began their lessons at the other end of the room. Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, diners can take advantage of a free beginners tango lesson (advanced lessons are also available on other days/times). For $30, diners get an appetizer, choice of entrée and dessert, as well as the opportunity to participate in the half hour group tango lesson focused on posture, walking, and connection to the music/your partner.

 Even if you don't participate in the group lesson, it's such a cool experience to be there while it's happening - the dancing adds special touch to the ambiance (and the instructors are amazing to watch!).

We ended our meal with an unbelievable Dulce de Leche Crepe. Again, this is one of those dishes that is an absolute must-try! The crepe was so perfect that we finished every bite of it, even though we were both holding our stomachs by the end. ;-)

You can try all of this deliciousness and more at Artango Bistro: 4217 N Ravenswood Ave. The restaurant is BYOB, so bring along your favorite wine and prepare to immerse yourself in a sexy evening of South American food, dance, and culture!

Artango South American Bistro on Urbanspoon
Disclosure: I received a complimentary meal to facilitate this post. Review and all opinions are my own.


Commonwealth Tavern

A few short weeks ago, when the sun was shining brightly (despite the fact that it's technically spring, the sunshine is still a bit of a rarity in these parts), I met up with Ashley at a cozy little tavern in the heart of Roscoe Village. As she mentioned in her post, she was slightly perplexed by the choice of venue - while we're always up for trying new foods, neither of us are really what you would call sports bar people. However, as we quickly discovered, Commonwealth Tavern is way more than your average sports bar; it's a culinary gem that is serving up surprisingly innovative and delicious dishes that go far beyond your standard pub fare. 

While we had poured over the menu before our lunch date (as any good blogger would do), we quickly realized we actually had no idea just how foodie-friendly of a place it really is. The space itself is what you would expect of any good neighborhood sports bar (TVs in abundance, sports memorabilia adorning the walls) with a few cool extra touches, such as the mahogany bar made from reclaimed wood taken from a local bowling alley. However, the space is the only part of Commonwealth that I would associate with other typical Chicago-area pubs. The kitchen is cranking out dishes that are most definitely worthy of notice, particularly their semi-secret off menu burger. The menu is really what ensures that Commonwealth stands out from the rest of the pack.

All of my friends are all avid cocktail aficionados (and a damn fun bunch!), so of course we had to start out by sampling a few of Commonwealth's specialty drinks. I went with the Marching Orders cocktail: Hendrick's gin, basil, grapefruit, lime & soda. *Whew* this baby was smooth, strong, and seriously addictive! 

Ashley chose the Commonwealth Smash: whiskey, blackberries, mint & lemon over crushed ice. I sampled a few sips of her drink and almost fell off my chair - this grown up boozy fruit juice is definitely not for the faint of heart!

Kale Salad with apples, crispy lentils, radishes & tahini sauce
Our first appetizer set the tone for our foodie-tastic meal - we were both blown away by this salad! I know what you're thinking... a kale salad? Really?! Yes, really! This isn't your garden variety sad, soggy kale. The kale is crisp and the addition of the crunchy lentils & rich tahini sauce perfectly complements the greens. I had recently declared to Mario that I was so over kale - this salad single-handedly brought kale right back into my favor.

Mexican-Style Burrata 
The burrata is typically served with peperonata, basil, and pizza oil, but it just to happened that they were out of a few ingredients that day, so the chef improvised and prepared a special version for us. As delicious as the menu version sounds, I can't imagine that it's any better than this (but realistically, I'm sure it's just as fabulous). The spicy peppers and oil added the perfect amount of heat to the mellow, creamy cheese. We gobbled up every bite of this delicious little dish!

Off Menu Burger: 70% brisket & 30% bacon burger, topped with tavern sauce, bread ‘n butter pickles & fried onions on a buttery New England bun
 I knew the moment our waitress told us about this semi-secret burger that I just had to try it - partially because it's not something you can get unless you've heard about it, but also because her blatant partiality and enthusiasm (even my non-red meat eatin' friend was drooling over the description!). All ingredients are made in-house, minus the the bread (which they source from Red Hen) and the effort that's put into this delicious burger really shows.

There's only one restriction when it's comes to ordering this special burger: no modifications. Typically, I would order my burger sans onions and pickles (I'm more of a burger/cheese/lettuce girl), but I'm so glad I didn't (not that I could have anyway!). The sweet, vinegary pickles were the perfect addition to this dense, meaty burger. Now that you know about this fabulous secret burger, there's no excuse for you not to order it... just balance it out with some yummy kale! ;-)

Spinach Falafel served on pita with tzatziki, cucumbers, piparra pepper, feta, pickled onion & mint
To balance out the meat-fest happening on the other side of the table, Ashley ordered our server's favorite vegetarian sandwich. The Mediterranean-inspired sandwich had a lovely flavor (who doesn't love that feta/cucumber/mint combo?!), but it was the texture of the falafel that really made this dish stand out. The crispy on the outside/super moist on the inside falafel had Ashley practically moaning in delight (she's on a mission to eradicate sad vegetarian sandwiches).

 Commonwealth has a variety of daily food and drink specials (Charcuterie Plate Mondays), as well as special events (Wine, Dine and Design Thursdays, Euchre Tuesdays, and Trivia Wednesdays).

You can try all of this deliciousness and more at Commonwealth Tavern: 2000 W. Roscoe St.

Commonwealth Tavern on Urbanspoon
Disclosure: I received a complimentary meal to facilitate this post. Review and all opinions are my own