2015 | chicago foodie girl


Chicago Eats: Pork Shoppe

Welcome to the latest edition of the Monthly Brunchgasm (and the final post of the year!). Obviously, I've mostly sucked at keeping up with this series, as I haven't published a Brunchgasm review since March. In my defense, we did take a few months off when Diana was in the midst of her moving process; also, we have been to a few places that I never got around to writing about (see also: the massive grading pile and/or a general case of laziness). Regardless, I only ended up with four posts... maybe next year we'll work on hitting bimonthly Brunchgasm status rather than quarterly status. ;-)

For our final Brunchgasm visit of the year, Diana and I decided to pay a visit to one of the newest restaurants in my 'hood: Pork Shoppe. After establishing itself as a must-visit BBQ joint in Avondale, Pork Shoppe finally opened their second shop in a space on the northern end of Andersonville that once housed the short-lived Kingfisher. Not only is it exciting to finally have a new restaurant in that space (as it's been empty for several years), but also, until Pork Shoppe, there was a sad lack of BBQ offerings in the immediate area.



Chicago Eats: Seasons 52 Winter Menu

Shortly after Seasons 52 opened in Schaumburg back in 2010, Diana and I just happened to stumble upon the grill and wine bar after an epic day of shoe shopping (I'm pretty sure we were five shoe stores in by the time we both cried for sustenance). Desperate for a place to rest our weary feet, fill our empty stomachs, and knock back a cocktail (or four) while admiring our fab new shoe finds, we drove past the sprawling mall complex and found ourselves at the entrance of the brand spanking new Seasons 52. From our very first round of appetizers (one of their delicious flatbreads paired with an order of green tea edamame), we were hooked. The restaurant quickly became our suburban go-to and as soon as other locations began to pop up in the Chicago-area, we made it our business to wine and dine our way through them all.

While the restaurant chain has transitioned away from part of their original concept (all menu items had a strict 475 calorie limit), the chefs at Seasons maintain their focus on offering healthy, seasonal dishes using rustic cooking techniques such as brick-oven roasting and open-fire grilling over oak and mesquite. Although there are new menu items that are definitely on the more indulgent end of the spectrum (e.g. the oh-so-delicious lobster pappardelle), the bulk of the offerings are still on the lighter side.

Being Seasons 52 superfans, Diana and I were recently invited to stop by the downtown Chicago location to sample some of the new items gracing their winter menu. We kicked off our lunch with a round of cocktails; Diana chose the perfectly balanced Bourbon Berry Bramble, made with Maker's Mark Bourbon, St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur, fresh raspberries, blackberries & lime...



Recent Foodie Finds

Happy Monday! I hope everyone had a fantastic weekend! I've officially been on winter break for just over a week now and needless to say, I've enjoyed every moment of it. I've spent the last few days cramming in all sorts of winter/Christmas-y fun, including a wonderful performance of The Nutcracker by the Joffrey Ballet with Mario & friends, as well as an all-day foodie extravaganza with Diana that started out with a visit to Christkindlmarket and ended with a tour through some of the stalls at Latinicity (so much awesomeness!). Mario and I are also headed to Star Wars: The Force Awakens later today; we're both crazy excited to finally see the next chapter (especially Mario, who's had an almost lifelong love affair with SW).

Along with having all sorts of fun, consuming obscene amounts of cookies, and generally pretending that I don't have to plan for the next semester (that part needs to come to an end very soon - boo!), I've also been slowly making some changes to the blog in preparation for a upcoming major overhaul. While I'm going to leave the big design elements to a professional (as what I want far exceeds my design skills/knowledge), there are a few small adjustments I'm working on, including the rollout of some new categories. Longtime readers may remember my regular Monday Foodie Porn series - that has now morphed into Recent Foodie Finds, which will incorporate not only restaurant finds, but also foodie-related products. Yay! My blog is definitely overdue for an overhaul and I'm excited to finally get the process started.

Here are a few of my recent foodie finds (follow me on Instagram for even more!)...

Fannie May Holiday Collection Keepsake Box: Mario grew up in Chicago and has been obsessed with Fannie May chocolates (especially Pixies!) for as long as he can remember. So of course, he was so excited to dive into our special holiday collection delivery featuring the best of Fannie May chocolates. We both agreed that while chocolates are fab any time of the year, there's definitely something special about breaking into a box of Chicago-themed favorites during the holidays.



Recipe: Double Chocolate Peppermint Crunch Cookies

Happy December! I hope everyone is having a fab month... obviously, I'm a bit behind the times, as we're already halfway through the month and this is my first appearance. As always, the first two weeks of December flew by in a blur of portfolios, conferences, and grading; the moment I submitted final grades, I immediately switched to shopping and baking mode. Woo-hoo! I've already been to two foodie-centric holiday parties (including a nontraditional and totally fantastic blogger party at the Chinatown food court) and later this week I'm looking forward to a day exploring the Christkindlmarket with Diana, as well as a performance of The Nutcracker with Mario. While we're currently snow-less and enjoying an unseasonably warm month (which I refuse to complain about), it's definitely starting to feel like Christmas!

As I mentioned, I've been in serious baking mode over the last week or so... okay, let's be honest; I've also been in serious cookie eating mode (it is the Eating Season after all - my friend swears it should have some sort of national holiday designation!). My first order of business during the Eating Season? One of my favorite annual traditions: The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap! TGFBCS is the brainchild of two lovely bloggers. The concept is simple: they match you up with three other food bloggers, you bake and send a dozen cookies to each of your matches, and your matches do the same for you. Not only is there all sorts of cookie awesomeness, but also, the event supports a great cause (read more about it here). Check out the awesome cookies I got from my matches (hence, the eating part of the Eating Season):

Dark & White Chocolate Shortbread Cookies topped with pistachios, cranberries & sugar crystals from Michele @ Bacon Fatte



Recipe: Grilled Lamb Chops with Mustard BBQ Sauce

Now that the weather has finally cooled down (well, it's more than just cooled down - we're actually expecting our first snowfall of the season later tonight!), I've once again taken up regular residence in my kitchen. As much as I always enjoy my mini cooking break during the hotter months (less cooking = more time for checking out fab new restaurants!), I'm always eager to get back into the kitchen and taste test all of the new recipes I've spent the summer collecting.

One of those recipes I've been eagerly waiting to try out is from none other than Chicago favorite Jeff Mauro, aka the Sandwich King. Diana and I had the opportunity to see Jeff in action at Chicago Gourmet a few years ago and we both walked away with a newfound appreciation for his cooking (that man knows his stuff!)... we may also each have a bit of a secret crush on him, but that's another story. ;-)



Chicago Eats: The Local Chicago

As much as I try to keep up with new restaurants, I have to admit that The Local Chicago is one of those places that has consistently flown under my radar ever since its opening in 2012. However, with a recent change in chef and updates to the menu, the restaurant has been getting a new round of buzz... which finally made its way to my little corner of the world! A sister restaurant to the popular Chicago Cut Steakhouse, The Local offers a little slice of rustic America with a modern twist right in the heart of the city.

Located just off of the Mag Mile inside the Hilton Suites Hotel, the restaurant has Americana theme and a menu filled with updated comfort food to match its homey decor, as well as appeal to city diners looking for a simple, yet still sophisticated experience. While I'm definitely not someone who would typically intentionally seek out a restaurant that focuses on traditional dishes, as I'm far more apt to gravitate toward a modern sushi joint or tiny neighborhood taqueria, I have to say there's something refreshing about an unpretentious spot that offers good ol' American classics (especially when those classics include some delicious mac & cheese!).

Not only does The Local offer regional favorites, but it also sources the bulk of its ingredients from familiar Midwestern vendors (Slagel Family Farm, Local Folks Food, Crystal Valley Farms); in addition, they offer exclusive beers from Chicago favorites Two Brothers Brewing and Revolution Brewery on tap, as well as an extensive wine list worthy of its posh neighborhood location.



Chicago Eats: Pump Room

You may remember that I paid my first visit to Pump Room earlier this year and fell hard for their fabulous decor, delicious drinks, and absolutely amazing salmon rolls (seriously, they're a game changer!). As I mentioned in my last post, Pump Room is one of those iconic Chicago restaurants that was once known as much for its legendary celebrity connections as for the food they served. Located in the same neighborhood as the original Playboy Mansion, the first iteration of the restaurant served as the former stomping grounds for likes of Natalie Wood, Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra (he had his own booth!), and yes, even the Hefners. Back in the day, it was the place to be. Thanks to a total transformation in 2011 that updated everything from the physical space to the menu, Pump Room is most definitely still the place to be (although sadly, the restaurant of today is decidedly less star-studded).

While a few of Pump Room's original menu items from the Golden Age remain, much of the current menu was recreated by Jean-Gorges' Vongerichten of the highly successful ABC Kitchen during the renovations. Based on the bites I sampled during my spring visit, I knew I absolutely needed to get back over there for more, so of course, I was thrilled when Ashley and I were both recently invited to stop in to try the famed Jean-Georges Icon Menu. We donned our party shoes, grabbed a few of our girlfriends, and met up for what would turn out to be an absolutely epic meal!

A few of the many legends to dine at Pump Room



Recent Foodie Finds

Happy Monday! I hope everyone had a fantastic weekend! Mine was one of those rare fall weekends in which I didn't have to spend a ton of time grading; rather, it contained the perfect balance of fun girl time (which included my first visit to the Tortoise Club, a little retail therapy, a few too many of the yummy raspberry mojitos at Biaggi's), and quality time with Mario and our DVR (current TV obsessions: the final seasons of Downton Abbey & Top Model and Ladies of London)

I have to say I was a bit shocked when I checked my calendar last night and realized that this coming weekend is the end of October - what happened to my favorite month?! I swear we were just celebrating my birthday (near the beginning of the month) only a week or so ago. Along with realizing that we're about to crash right into holiday season craziness very soon, I also realized that I hadn't done a round-up of restaurant visits/events in months. I guess between grading stacks of essays (we're right in the middle of the busiest part of the semester) and gallivanting through the city, I've neglected to actually write about my adventures. Then again, it is quite hard to type when you're busy using your hands to shovel delicious food into your mouth. ;-)

Here are a few of my recent foodie highlights (follow me on Instagram for even more!)...

Cookie Fries from The Cookie Joint. Really, how freaking cute are these cookie fries and dipping sauces?! Besides being completely adorable, they're also delicious - I particularly love the confetti cookies with marshmallow dipping sauce.



Chicago Gourmet 2015

Chicago Gourmet: we came, we saw, we conquered ate ourselves into a food coma. The eighth annual festival (aka the biggest and most spectacular culinary event of the year) took place in Millennium Park the last weekend of September, and for the third year in a row, Diana and I were lucky to join 13,000 of our closest foodie friends for a trip to culinary heaven!

As per usual, the day was filled with endless food and drink samples, seminars, cooking demos, and book signings that included over 200 chefs and 190 restaurants. While the weather was slightly uncooperative for a good chunk of the day, we still managed to have a fantastic time... I mean really, how can you not have a good time when you're surrounded by some of the best chefs in the industry, delicious food, and gallons of wine?!



Chicago Eats: Butcher & the Burger

While Chicago may be mostly known as a hot dog city, it's actually saturated with just as many awesome burger offerings. As you already know by now, I love a good burger and have made it my personal mission to discover the best of the best in the city. During my quest thus far, I found one of the most well-known and lauded burger joints to be quite a fat disappointment (although I am willing to give it another chance), while some of the smaller, most off-the-radar places have ended up being my favorites. 

After months of drooling over their burger pics on Instagram, Diana and I finally made our way over to Lincoln Park on a sunny Saturday morning to check out the most recent addition to my must-try burger list, Butcher & the Burger. Based on some solid recommendations, I went in with high hopes for a really good burger... what I didn't expect was to discover my new burger nirvana. As I mentioned on Instagram shortly after our visit, not only can I honestly say my burger was one of the best I've had all year, but also, it was so delicious that it has firmly earned a spot on my top 10 burgers in the entire city! 

Open wide! 


Snap Kitchen #21DaysforGood

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have recently noticed a flurry of activity surrounding the #21DaysforGood campaign via Snap Kitchen (and if you're not following me, well, head on over and press that follow button!). For the last fourteen days, I’ve been a part of this awesome campaign/competition centered on cultivating healthy eating habits, goal setting, and raising awareness for a lovely group of non-profits.

During the last two weeks (seven more days to go!), I’ve worked closely with the dietitians and other cheerleaders at Snap to meet my diet and lifestyle goals through a combination of healthy eating and tracking. At the beginning of the process, I set my sights on primarily adapting an overall healthier eating plan. Coming off from my summer of fabulous foodie fun, I’ve been stuck in a bit of a rut while when not in food blogger mode. During the weekdays, I typically swing by Starbucks for breakfast on my way to work (I leave quite early and don't have the energy or time to sit down for breakfast), eat portable, but boring and not necessarily the most nutritious frozen meals for lunch, and then sit down to leftovers from the weekend for dinner. While I usually enjoy cooking, lately I’ve been uninspired and really overwhelmed at the idea of planning out meals for the week; I’ve mostly only been cooking rather spontaneously, which doesn’t always bode well with my schedule. Along with getting out of my foodie rut, I also decided it was time to get back to eating a set number of calories each day. While I abhor calorie counting, I know that I need to do it regularly, as I can easily fall off track and head into "eat all the foods!" mode if I'm not paying close attention.

Thanks to the meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two snacks!) I’ve received from Snap, I’ve already been able to reprogram my weekday eating; while I definitely still indulge in food blogger events during the weekend, I’ve been able to stick to my set 1800 calories per day during the week thus far. Along with sticking to a set amount of calories (which I got away from during the summer), I've also highly enjoyed the variety of foods I've been eating through my Snap meals. I'm a creature of habit and tend to eat the exact same foods over and over (especially when I don't have a lot of time to plan). The great variety is really what has kept me interested and motivated to stay on track! Seeing as the food from Snap is prepackaged, I didn’t have to shift my process too much, as I’m all about convenience during the work week. However, this prepackaged food is *so* much better than what I was typically eating for lunch - not only is it nutritionally balanced, but also it’s quite tasty. I guess that’s why Snap’s motto is "fast food for foodies," right?! Finally, while my goal wasn’t necessarily a number on the scale (although that’s definitely part of the long-term plan), I’m happy to say that I’ve easily dropped 8 lbs in the last two weeks! Out of all of my goals, shifting my eating habits back to the healthier end of the spectrum was definitely the most important and I’m super happy with my progress thus far.

As many benefits as I've reaped so far, the #21DaysforGood campaign isn’t just for my own good - it’s also about competing for $3000 to be gifted to a charity of my choice by spreading awareness and good cheer about my experiences with Snap Kitchen. I’m competing for Felines & Canines, a wonderful neighborhood no-kill animal shelter dedicated to providing a safe and loving shelter to abandoned, injured, abused and neglected animals until their permanent adoptive home is found. They are a fantastic organization who could really benefit from some love (along with some cold, hard cash!).

You can see more on Twitter, but here's a bit of what I've been eating during my challenge so far...

Here's what 1800 calories worth of food looks like - perfectly packaged and ready to go!



Chicago Eats: Mid-Autumn Festival at Shanghai Terrace

One of the most important festivals on the Chinese calendar (second only to Chinese New Year) is the Mid-Autumn Festival. The annual event, which falls on September 27 this year, celebrates the harvest time and the biggest, brightest moon of the year. While the festival dates back centuries from the tradition of worshiping the Goddess of the Moon and celebrating the harvest, the modern-day version is more about reuniting with family and close friends to view the moon, drink tea, and nosh on delicious mooncakes by the light of lanterns.

Ever since I first learned about the festival from a group of wonderful Chinese exchange students I had in a class years ago, I've longed to travel to China during September (along with it being one of the most important festivals, it's also one of the most beautiful). As much as I would just love to pick up and head over to China to celebrate, it's just not in the cards at the moment (I will get there one day though!). In the meantime, I'm all about finding alternatives that don't involve crossing an ocean, so of course, I was thrilled when the good folks at the Peninsula Hotel invited me to join them for a media preview of their six-course Mid-Autumn Festival dinner at their fine-dining Chinese restaurant Shanghai Terrace.

You may recall that I stopped by the Peninsula over the summer to indulge in their amazing Bastille Day menu. Seeing as that meal was one of the best of the entire summer (and a few of the dishes are even on my overall top picks of the entire year!), you can bet that I had extremely high expectations for the meal. I'm happy to say that Shanghai Terrace met all of my expectations and then some - the space was gorgeous, the food was delicious, and through everything from the intimate setting to the delectable mooncakes, it really felt like they had captured the essence of the Mid-Autumn Festival.



noosa yoghurt: unlike any other!

This may come as a bit of a surprise, but I've had a love/hate (mostly hate) relationship with yogurt for the majority of my adult life. I know, I know. Could I have picked something any *less* controversial in which to have a crazy back and forth relationship? It's a quick and easy meal/snack, it's full of health benefits, it's extremely versatile, and there are a bazillion different flavor options... what's there not to love about yogurt, right?! Well, no matter how many times over the years I've tried to trick myself into loving it, realistically, I've just never been into the taste or texture (it always seemed to be too bitter and/or too runny)… until that wonderful day last year in which the fabulous noosa® yoghurt came into my life. *cue singing angels and tinkly bells*

Last fall, Diana told me that I absolutely had to try their pumpkin yoghurt because it was the most amazing stuff ever. While I admit  I was slightly skeptical, I trusted her opinion (plus, pumpkin!), so I dutifully drove to the store and picked up a single container of their pumpkin variety. Let me just say that that single container of yoghurt changed my life. It was so different than any other I had ever tried... maybe because it's Australian-style yoghurt and not just yogurt or maybe it's because it's rich, smooth, and strikes that absolutely perfect balance between sweet and tart. As I realized that day, noosa® yoghurt really is a product that is unlike any other.

noosa® in the big city!



Chicago Food + Wine Festival

A few weeks ago, Diana and I headed down to Lincoln Park for the very first iteration of the Chicago version of the Food + Wine Festival. The brainchild of Charlie Jones (founding partner of C3 Presents), acclaimed chef Tim Love, and Christina Grdovic (publisher of Food & Wine magazine), this popular festival has made its way around the country... and they finally decided to make all of the Midwestern foodies' dreams come true with its Chicago debut. It's about time, right?!

While Diana I definitely chose the wrong day to attend weather-wise (it was pouring rain for a good chunk of our day), we still managed to have a fantastic time! The layout was easy to navigate with plenty of room for some awesome vendor displays, there was an abundance of good food and drinks with over 90 wine, spirit, and food exhibitors, and the chef demos were on point. While I do still love my Chicago Gourmet festival, Food + Wine had a very different vibe - it was far more laid back and offered more opportunity to take your time and enjoy each vendor. I also have to admit that it was nice to not have to wait in the soul-crushing lines CG can attract (the attendee level was approximately half the size of CG).



Chicago Eats: Taste of Hawaii at Roy's

After coming across an extensive profile of Chef Roy Yamaguchi (which included a rave review of his restaurants) in a magazine way back in 2004, I knew his Hawaiian-inspired Roy's Chicago was exactly where I wanted to spend my birthday that year. That night, Mario and I both fell hard for the delicious array of seafood options (particularly the Misoyaki Butterfish and Roasted Macadamia Nut Crusted Mahi Mahi), fun cocktails, and indulgent desserts. Over ten years later (just an aside: how can 2004 possibly be over ten years ago?! We're barely out of the '90s in my mind!), Roy's has become one of my staple restaurants - I've been back for countless birthday celebrations (Diana and I have a yearly tradition that involves a massive food orgy at Roy's during her birthday month), random nights out, and even cooking classes! So of course, when the good folks at Roy's invited me to stop by to check out their newest Taste of Hawaii Prix Fixe menu, I immediately grabbed Mario, jumped in the car, and headed down to River North to get my nosh on! 

As a firm believer in that every good dinner starts with a round of fabulous cocktails rule, I kicked off the evening with the 1988The first Roy's was opened in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1988 and this fantastic cocktail pays tribute to their original location. Made with Finlandia Grapefruit, SOHO Lychee & Patron Citronge, and served with a lychee garnish, this tart and tangy cocktail is not only my favorite on the menu at Roy's, but it's also one of my favorites of all-time! 



Chicago Eats: Summer Aperitivo at Fig & Olive

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to join a group of my favorite blogger babes for a little al fresco dining at one of my favorite restaurants, Fig & Olive. While I have to admit that I'm not always a fan of taking my meals outside (I'm such a heat and humidity wimp!), it was one of those perfect late summer nights in which the scorching heat had faded away with the afternoon hours and the patio was bathed in gorgeous soft light. Yes, as much as I can be a grump about spending too much time outside during the summer, even I have to admit that Fig & Olive's lovely ivy-lined patio is really the ideal setting for an aperitivo hour filled with fresh cocktails and yummy bites.

Open in Chicago since last summer, Fig & Olive showcases the cuisine of the coastal Mediterranean regions of France, Italy, and Spain. The concept behind the restaurant is to offer diners a unique space with an open-exhibition kitchen, an expansive lounge area, and plenty of natural light that captures the essence of the French Riviera. As a nod to their name, the restaurant utilizes over thirty of its own signature olive oils in lieu of butter in their savory dishes; additionally, there are multiple fig offerings on the menu all year long (their figs are grown especially for them in California!).

Before heading out onto the patio, I just had to stop by the atrium/bar area to admire the gorgeous towering two-story olive tree.



The Great American Lobster Fest

Navy Pier: home to the giant Ferris wheel, oodles of delicious popcorn and ice cream options, the gorgeous stained glass museum and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, approximately a bazillion tourists... and The Great American Lobster Fest. Yes, you read that correctly: a lobster fest in the middle of one of the most unlikely locations, aka the lobster-less Midwest. Okay, so we're not exactly lobster city (we have that tiny lack of ocean problem), but we are known for our fantastic food festivals... and thanks to the wonders of NESC and overnight shipping from the East coast, we're able to join in on the excitement with our very own festival dedicated to the oh-so-delicious crustacean.

The two-day festival returned to Navy Pier for its second go around the same weekend as the Air and Water Show. As the majority of the fest took place outside, it was the perfect location for those looking to escape the beach crowds, but still have a great view of the show. Admission to the main outside festival area was free of charge and included ample opportunities to stuff yourself silly with numerous seafood options (lobster tacos! lobster mac & cheese!), work off the calories playing carnival games, and chase away the pain of loosing at said games whilst chilling in the beer garden. As much excitement as was happening outside, Diana and I were most interested in what was taking place inside the iconic Navy Pier Grand Ballroom: live music, libations, and lobster dinners!


Suburban Eats: Koi Fine Asian Cuisine

Way back in the day, I made my first pilgrimage up to the quaint, yet still bustling northern suburb of Evanston in the middle of one of those horrible January record-breaking freezing spells. I had been on my first date with Mario only a few days before and seeing as he was so charming, I agreed to brave the cold and head up to his neck of the woods to meet up with him again (yes, I was already totally smitten). Having only been in Illinois for a little over five months, I barely knew the city, much less the suburbs, but in the months to follow I would soon come to think of Evanston as my second home. Sixteen years later, I still have a special place in my heart for the suburb, namely because it held such a prominent role in the beginning stages of our relationship; however, in more recent years, it has also morphed into one of my foodie destination spots. Surprisingly, as many fantastic restaurants as there are in Chicago, a few of my all-time favorites can actually be found just across the city line. So of course, when Koi invited Ashley and me up to Evanston to sample their newest sushi offerings, I knew it was meant to be! 

As has been well-documented on this blog, I am a straight-up sushi fiend, so it should come as no surprise that I actually paid my first visit to Koi shortly after they opened back in 2004. However, due to a combination of factors (Mario moved back to the city with me, which decreased my time spent in Evanston, and I discovered that our new neighborhood was just teeming with so many awesome sushi options), I hadn't managed to make my way back up to the restaurant in over ten years. Nevertheless, as soon as Ashely and I walked into Koi, I knew I was in for a whole new experience, as the decor and menu were quite different from when they first opened their doors. Situated in the heart of Evanston's downtown area, Koi offers a modern, cozy atmosphere with beautiful floor-to-ceiling windows that spill out onto the busy Davis Street - a seat next to the windows is perfect for people like me who love a good people-watching session with their meal!



Chicago Eats: Bastille Day at Pierrot Gourmet

During my summer of foodie fun, I visited a multitude of restaurants serving up all types of cuisines. I noshed my way through the fast-casual sandwich and sushi market, devoured gourmet ice cream cone after cone, sipped on some of the most divine cocktails in locations with spectacular views of the city, and happily slurped my way through the best oyster offerings in the Midwest. Needless to say, I had a wonderful summer filled with fabulous experiences - I consumed countless amazing meals with friends and even added a few new restaurants to my favorites list. Now, I'm not trying to gloat or rub it in, but rather, I want to emphasize exactly how much good food I encountered, so you know that when I say today that my meal at Pierrot Gourmet was one of the best I had all summer, it must have been something *very* special.

Last month, I made my way down to the swanky Peninsula Hotel and met up with Ashley to preview Pierrot Gourmet's Bastille Day menu, along with some bites from their regular menu. Seeing as it was one of the hottest days of the summer, I have to admit that I was super grumpy and really wasn't prepared to love Pierrot Gourmet as much as I did... and let me just say that I didn't just love it, I LOVED it. Yes, in fact, I had such a wonderful experience, thanks to the combination of delicious dish after dish and the lovely staff and service, that I'm actually reduced to typing in all caps to proclaim my love. That alone should tell you that I really mean business. ;-)

 The lovely European-style café is filled with farmhouse-inspired decor, including the cutest little details tucked away on ledges in every corner. Despite being in a tourist-heavy location, it still manages to feel like a charming, cozy bistro in the middle of Paris.



Chicago Eats: LYFE Kitchen

Now that my summer of foodie fun is officially at an end, it's time to finally start thinking about getting back on track with some healthier eating. I will admit that I threw caution to the wind this summer and ate my way through the city with little thought of calories or gym visits (yes, it was a fabulous few months!); however, the day has come in which it's not only time for me to reinstate my 5:00AM wake-up call, but also to shift my eating habits from the luxurious and indulgent end of the spectrum back to the simple and healthy, but still satisfying and convenient, end. Thankfully, I discovered just in time that the amazing LYFE Kitchen can help to make that transition a little easier!

Open in since 2011, the California-based chain swooped into the Windy City in 2013 and quickly established itself as an authority on upscale fast-casual healthy eating. The intention behind LYFE ("love your food every day") is to provide diners with delicious scratch-made, low-calorie cuisine at a reasonable price point; in order to keep costs down without sacrificing quality, LYFE relies on close relationships with local farms and innovative technology. The company uses a computerized ordering, cooking, and delivery systems based on software programs which divide orders into separate elements that are sent to different stations according to their relative cooking times. Platers then assemble the final products and deliver them to tables via a GPS tracking system - it's really an efficient (and very cool!) system.

After hearing all sorts of buzz about their newly added summery appetizers and Skinny Cocktails (just because we're trying to eat healthier doesn't mean we're willing to leave our cocktails behind!), Ashley and I had to pop into the newest location of LYFE in Streeterville to check out what they have to offer. As soon as we walked in, we were greeted by a fragrant vertical garden of fresh herbs, gorgeous floor to ceiling windows, and plenty of natural mixed woods. Based on the look of LYFE Kitchen alone, we knew immediately that we were in for an awesome experience!



Chicago Eats: Fillini

As you might imagine, my restaurants-to-visit list is impossibly, ridiculously long. It's filled with everything from tiny cafés in my neighborhood that I still haven't managed to make it to in the five years we've lived in our apartment all the way up to big-ticket places, such as Alinea. In between the two ends is a veritable smorgasbord of eateries that span every type of cuisine and price point in the city and beyond. As I declared this summer to be my season of saying yes to whatever came my way, I've managed to make a nice dent in my long list, the latest being one that has been sitting there for the last few years: the modern Italian Filini Bar and Restaurant (it's also most likely one of the last big blogger events during my summer of fun, as I head back to school next week... wah wah).

Nestled into the stunning Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel in the chic Lakeshore East neighborhood, Filini offers globally inspired Italian cuisine in an elegant, slightly eclectic, and totally welcoming environment. Now I know many people tend to avoid hotel restaurants because while the cocktail list may be fantastic, the food is mostly an afterthought. This is not the case at all at Filini; Chef Carolina Diaz has created an impressive seasonally-inspired menu (with locally sourced ingredients) that makes this restaurant worthy of a spot on everyone's must-visit restaurant list. Her dishes are designed with the idea in mind that the best ingredients should be served in the simplest of forms (a core in Italian cooking) - she strives to stay as true as possible to traditional Italian techniques, but with a contemporary, local twist.

We kicked off our evening of Savory Summer tastings with a surprisingly delicious cocktail: the Beet 17, made with Vida Mezcal, lemon juice, agave nectar, and beet syrup. Beets have always been one of those vegetables I could take or leave, but this smokey, sweet, and refreshing mixture hit all the right spots!



Chicago Eats: Epic Burger

Happy Monday! I hope everyone had a fab weekend! Mario and I spent most of the weekend hibernating on the north side of the city, far away from the downtown drunk and maddening Lolla crowds (as much as we both love live shows, we've adopted a bit of a get off my lawn/old fogey attitude about large crowds). However, we did manage to venture out for a bit to run a few errands and then promptly rewarded ourselves for dealing with the ridiculous traffic with a visit to one of our favorite burger joints. Epic Burger recently introduced the newest addition to their menu and after hearing rave reviews from several trusted burger buddies, we just had to see what the buzz was all about... all in the name of blog research, of course.

As I've mentioned before, I'm not a big red meat eater; after my ten-year stint as a vegetarian and then pescetarian, red meat was the last protein I added back into my diet and the one I was the most hesitant about consuming. In the years since then, I've actually come to appreciate a really good burger; however, I can still be very picky about my meat. As I typically only indulge a few times a month, I obviously want the best - and this is why I've come to love Epic Burger. Open since 2008, the original concept behind the restaurant was simple: to give people an opportunity to eat non-processed, all-natural food at a reasonable price (because we all still want the best for our dollar, right?!). Epic's emphasis is on humanely raised and hormone-free beef, which definitely gives them a leg up over many other fast-food burger joints. Their "A More Mindful Burger" approach even extends beyond their beef offerings, as their chicken sandwiches, turkey burgers, and portobello mushroom sandwiches are also all-natural and additive-free (and totally delicious!).



Travel Eats: Jodi's Italian Ice Factory

Earlier this year, a small family-run business in Northwest Indiana contacted Diana and me via Instagram to invite us down for a tasting of their Italian ice. They explained that they had been around for just under a year and while they were a small operation, they had big plans for expansion and an unbeatable range of fresh and unique flavors that would keep us coming back for more. While Diana and I are no strangers to the sweet treat, we're always up for trying new places and we're also big fans of mini foodie road trips (she is the best road trip partner ever!), so we packed a cooler, jumped in her car, and headed down to Hammond, Indiana to check out Jodi's Italian Ice Factory. Little did we know back then that we take the same trip numerous times during the following six months because we just had to return again and again to stock up on our favorite flavors... yes, it really is that good!

Jodi's Italian Ice Factory has now been in business for just about a year and a half and has already opened two more locations, one in Whiting and another in Schererville, thanks to the heavy demand for their delicious treats. Owned and run by the tight-knit Tillman family, Jodi's is one of the few places in the region serving authentic Philly-style "water ice," which is characterized by its smooth and soft texture (unlike shaved ice, it's made by the same process used for ice cream). Introduced to the East Coast by Italian immigrants who wanted to recreate the granita served in their homeland, the treat was a childhood favorite of former Philadelphia dweller/owner Brian Tillman. Owner/wife Jodi wears the chef's hat and is often the face you'll see behind the counter at the Hammond location (sons Jesse and Corey also work to manage the three stores). While the classic lemon is always on the menu, Jodi rotates flavors depending on what's in season (her products are all-natural and made without stabilizers or preservatives). She also takes flavor requests from customers and works tirelessly to perfect each creation - those requests have led to some of their most popular flavors, including one of my favorites, Swedish Fish!



Chicago Eats: Luke's Lobster

Back before my daily commute involved an almost two-hour trek out to the northwest 'burbs, I spent seven years of my life working in the Loop (and as much as I love my current job, I have to say that I sure do miss that quick train ride downtown!). While my fellow Loop colleagues and I always enjoyed the summertime arrival of food trucks, farmers markets, and festivals, we spent most of the year lamenting the lack of casual, but still high quality grab-n-go lunch spots in the area. It was absolutely saturated with fast food and fine dining, but if you weren't looking to grab a greasy burger or to plop down $50 for lunch, you were usually SOL.

Of course, now that I don't work in the Loop anymore, a few fantastic new places have suddenly popped up in that area - and I have to say that I totally jealous! Why did they wait so long?! The newest spot to join the Loop is Maine-based seafood shack (well, as shack-like as you can get in the middle of Chicago!), Luke's Lobster. The east coast fast-casual seafood restaurant opened its first Midwestern and tenth overall location this past May and has been garnering rave reviews for their simple and flavorful selection lobster, shrimp, and crab. Being sworn lobster roll-lovers and former frustrated Loop lunchers, Ashley and I just had to scuttle over to the new hot spot to see if it really does live up to the hype.

The small storefront's design is simple and meant to evoke a New England seafood shack with its barn wood lines, salvaged buoys, and cutesy Maine-themed paraphernalia.



Chicago Eats: Red Velvet Sprinkles Sundaes

Now that the summer weather has officially taken over the city (we've left my beloved 60/70° temps and moved into the consistent 80/90° range), I've spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about ice cream. I'll take a scoop of ice cream with my oatmeal, a side of ice cream with my favorite summer strawberry salad, and a bowl of ice cream for dessert. Oh, do I want sprinkles with that? Yes, please and thank you. So it should come as no surprise when Sprinkles Cupcakes invited Ashley and me into their kitchen to learn how to make their signature cupcake ice cream sundaes, I may have done a little dance of five-year-old-hopped-up-on-birthday-cake happiness around my living room. Cupcakes and ice cream?! Oh hell yes!



Chicago Eats: freestyle food + drink

As I mentioned a few posts ago, Chicagoans have hardcore love for a good patio session. After months of being cooped up (Chiberia is real, ya'll!), we're all ready to throw off our winter gear, don our cutest sandals, and swarm the nearest restaurant to achieve what is lovingly referred to our first patio boner of the season (so gross, but so true). Thankfully, the city is absolutely teeming with patios from which to choose. In many neighborhoods, one can walk out their door and stumble right into an entire block of al fresco dining options: sidewalk seating that offers optimal people watching, patios with outdoor fireplaces, hidden beer gardens, rooftop decks with a view, places with picnic-style seating and retractable tented roofs, and even those that welcome our four-legged furry friends. With so many options, the tricky part is finding a restaurant patio that offers the amenities you want and delicious food/drinks (because a good hangout spot is not just all about the patio, right?).

Recently, Ashley and I were invited to stop by freestyle food + drink to discover if their patio has what it takes to please a pair of foodies (one who has a bit of a sun aversion) with an adorable little pug in tow. Located on the first floor of the Dana Hotel, the low-key, but still sophisticated space offers a sidewalk view of the busy River North neighborhood, along with a menu filled with shareable plates that offer global twists on classic American flavors. Personally, I'm always a fan of menus that boast shareable plates (as you get to try a wider variety of options) and I was pleased to see that while the patio was filled with plenty of sunshine, it was also surrounded by a nice amount of greenery that offered a perfect touch of shade.



Recipe: Spicy Sriracha Meatballs

Happy Monday! I hope everyone had a fantastic weekend! After spending just about every night out with friends and tackling my seemingly unending to-do list during the daytime hours, I indulged in some much-needed R & R by parking myself on the couch next to Mario for most of the weekend. We managed to clear off almost all of our DVR'd shows, including our newest reality show obsession, Player Gets Played - it's sooooo terrible, but it's also crazy addictive!

I also managed to get in some cooking time before the heat wave hit - ugh, we were having such a lovely mild summer until this weekend! Longtime readers may recall that I often switch into no-cook summer mode, where the focus is on putting together quality meals that don't require turning on the oven (this is primarily due to the lack of AC in the kitchen/living room area). Thankfully, it stayed cooler just long enough for me to try out a fab new meatball recipe starring a brand spanking new product I received in my Red Gold Tomatoes summer goodie pack: Sriracha Ketchup. Yes, there is such a thing as Sriracha Ketchup and yes, it is just as awesome as it sounds!



Chicago Eats: Crīo

People often ask where I eat when I'm not in food blogger mode. Well, the truth is I'm almost always in food blogger mode these days... even when I force myself to go to a restaurant sans camera, I still end up mentally composing food photo after photo (I can't help myself!). However, there are a few special restaurants I go to so frequently that I actually do manage to slip out of blogger mode at some point (especially after a cocktail or two ;-)). Some of these restaurants are neighborhood favorites, some come with a heavy dash of nostalgia, and others are new favorites I've discovered via my awesome foodie group. To me, these restaurants strike the perfect balance of food, ambiance, and service; despite all of the choices in the city, they keep me coming back for more above all others. One of these restaurants (and the newest addition to my list!) is Crīo, a Latin-inspired hidden gem along the sleepy stretch of Clybourn Ave in Lincoln Park.

Open since 2014, Crīo quickly established itself as one of my favorites after a fantastic birthday dinner I shared with a few foodie friends. Since then, I've had the opportunity to dine at Crīo numerous times and even befriend some of the amazing staff along the way. It's one of those restaurants that keeps me coming back for more, thanks to the combination of the atmosphere (it's both edgy and homey), the attention paid to detail in everything from the artwork on the walls to the garnishes on the plate, and of course, the fantastic food.



Travel Guide: Potawatomi Hotel & Casino

As many of you already know, I have a soft spot in my heart for Wisconsin. I spent my undergraduate years at a tiny liberal arts school in the middle of the state and spent as much of my free time as possible traveling to my two Wisconsin city loves: Madison and Milwaukee (while I loved my school and got a fantastic education, it wasn't exactly the epicenter of culture). I fell in love with both cities and considered moving to one or the other once I finished with school, but that all changed after my student teaching semester in Chicago. I realized then that I loved the even bigger city life too much to return to Wisconsin; however, all these years later both cities still hold a special place in my heart. So of course when Potawatomi Hotel & Casino invited Diana and me up to Milwaukee for a special dinner at their award-winning steakhouse and a stay at their fab new hotel, I jumped at the chance to revisit one of my old loves and discover all that has changed since I left the land of delicious cheese.



Taste of Chicago Giveaway!

As you may recall, I have mixed feelings about Taste of Chicago. On one hand, it's the city's biggest food festival of the year, and as a self-proclaimed taster of all things (as long as they don't involve broccoli), it seems like the Taste would be right up my alley, right?! After all, what foodie wouldn't love spending an afternoon immersing herself in a veritable feast of Chicago delights? However, it's what's on the other hand (e.g. horrendous crowds, annoying people who love using their SUV-sized strollers as weapons, the inevitable heat/humidity) that often gives me pause. Every year, I fight the mental battle of whether or not to attend... and just about every year, it's the food-lovin' part of me (combined with a good ol' dose of FOMO) that finally wins.

This year, rather than heading down to the Taste and aimlessly wandering from booth to booth, I'm pairing up Humana and using their Healthier Choices guide to make my way through the festival. As an eight-year sponsor of Taste, Humana is showcasing its commitment to lifelong well-being for all Chicagoans by providing the Humana Healthier Choices Rewards Program - an interactive experience that rewards attendees for partaking in fun activities and trying Humana Healthier Choices, a physician reviewed listing of appetizers, entrees, and desserts all under 500 calories!



Chicago Eats: Hit the Dec!

Welcome to July, aka the party month of the summer! Actually, I think July may just be the ultimate party month of the entire year. While October offers oodles of fall fun and December is filled with back-to-back holiday events, July is a nonstop parade of happiness with its themed get-togethers, fireworks, BBQs, beach bashes, patio gatherings, and one very special perk afforded to those of us who live in the city: dining amongst the skyscrapers. Chicagoans have mad love for rooftop decks (quite possibly because the city is buried under three feet of snow for most of the year); I have to admit that I didn't completely understand the frenzy surrounding rooftop dining until I was here for a few years, and now I can't get enough! While we all love a good patio session, I have to say there is something very special about dining on the rooftop during a beautiful summer sunset with a fruity cocktail in hand.

Chicago offers numerous rooftop dining options from which to choose; recently, I was lucky to join a group of my fellow food bloggers at one of the most popular choices: The dec Rooftop Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton. The scenic hotspot, perched twelve stories above the Mag Mile, features a mixologist-driven cocktail list and lovely cityscape views. Of course, as we all know, a good hangout spot is not just all about the fabulous view and drinks, right? A restaurant is only as good as its food (although the cocktails definitely help!). Well, as I discovered during my three-hour tour through their summer menu, The dec is one of those spots that has it all: fabulous food, booze, and views!



Icing Class at Magnolia Bakery

Last week, Diana and I were invited to join a group of bloggers for a cake icing class at the fabulous Magnolia Bakery. As you may recall, we used to have a monthly cooking class date, but after our schedules started getting a bit too complicated to keep up, we had to take a step back. While we no longer have our regular commitment, our love of trying new foodie classes hasn't faded... especially when the class involves heaps of delicious buttercream icing at one of our favorite bakeries in the city!

While I consider myself to be a professional consumer of confections, I'm far from a pro when it comes to the decorating end. I'm one of those people who love to bake, but kind of dreads the decorating side - not because I don't want my sugary delights to look good, but more because I'm totally OCD about it and drive myself crazy trying to achieve perfection (see: the cake ball craziness). Honestly, I'd rather just dump a load of sprinkles on my baked goods and be done with it. However, I know that part of my craziness comes from the fact that I really don't know what I'm doing when it comes to decorating; I know how to make something taste good, but not always how to make it look good. This is why classes like those at Magnolia are perfect for me - I love having someone show me exactly what to do in a low-pressure situation (i.e. if you mess it up, you have someone there to show you the best way to fix it!).

Magnolia offers a variety of icing classes; our two-hour class was focused specifically on how to create their signature rosette cakes. The class included step-by-step instructions on everything involved in cake decorating from the best way to fill the pastry bags to choosing the correct tips and assembling cake layers.



Chicago Eats: Miku Sushi

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Mario and I are sushi fiends. From paper-thin cuts of sashimi (yes, I know that's not really sushi per se, but humor me here) to fusion rolls stuffed with cream cheese, we are always up for sampling from every end of the spectrum. During the last fifteen years, we have eaten our way through numerous sushi spots in the city and suburbs; we definitely have our favorites, but we're always up for giving new restaurants a try. So of course, we were excited to discover that the space that once housed Lincoln Square's renowned (and personal neighborhood favorite) Tank Sushi is now home to the newly renovated Miku Sushi.

Miku Sushi is the brainchild of husband and wife pair Stanley Liem and Sara Katekaew, who actually met while working at Tank Sushi in 2008. Katekaew spent a decade as Tank's general manager and Liem was a onetime waiter who left Tank in 2011, pursuing his dream of opening his own restaurant. Eventually, the duo married and opened a second spot, a popular Thai restaurant in Chinatown. Shortly after Tank finally closed its doors (and briefly housed the quickly shuttered Laughing Bird), the owners offered the pair the opportunity to purchase the space and implement their own vision of upscale sushi in the very same spot where they first connected seven years ago.



Chicago Eats: Pump Room Spring Bites

Pump Room is one of those iconic Chicago restaurants that was once known as much for its legendary celebrity connections as for the food they served. Located in the same neighborhood as the original Playboy Mansion, the first iteration of the restaurant served as the former stomping grounds for likes of Natalie Wood, Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra (he had his own booth!), and yes, even the Hefners. Back in the day, it was the place to be.

While the 2015 version of the restaurant (Pump Room 2.0?) is decidedly less star-studded, it is still the place to be. Nestled in the chic Public Chicago (formerly the Ambassador East), the modern space would probably be unrecognizable to those who roamed its halls during the Golden Age. The bones of the original hotel remain (evident in the gorgeous molding and elaborate chandeliers), but its 2011 facelift transformed it from the cozy relic your grandparents loved to the uber cool restaurant du jour. Along with the physical transformation, the restaurant also received a menu makeover; while a few of Pump Room's original menu items remain, much of the menu was recreated by Jean-Gorges' Vongerichten of the highly successful ABC Kitchen.

Having never stepped foot in Pump Room (of yesteryear or today), of course, I was pumped (ha!) to check out both the new space and the new menu as soon as WCBC announced its latest Seasonal Bites & Cocktails event would take place at the famed restaurant. 

Before heading up to the gorgeous private outdoor space, I just had to stop by the dining room for a quick tour. The room is dominated by the sleek network of lights dubbed "The Constellation." I think it's fairly well established that I have a thing for fun lighting fixtures and can't stop photographing them, so it's probably a good thing that our event took place outside.



Recent Foodie Finds

Happy Monday! I hope everyone is having a fantastic spring/almost summer! I have officially been on summer break for a month now and needless to say, I've enjoyed every moment of it (well, minus that day I had a mild case of food poisoning). After a semester of saying no to event after event (mostly due to my early hours and long commute), I've spent the last month saying yes to practically every opportunity that came my way. Thus far, I've visited sixteen new restaurants (hence my string of restaurant review posts), took two fab mini trips to Wisconsin and Indiana with my favorite foodie partner (more on this soon!), fell hard for a new steampunk-themed arcade (FTW is seriously awesome!), went on a mini sushi tour of the city with Mario, and discovered my new favorite ice cream flavor (*swoon*). Whew! Summer break sure is exhausting! ;-)

As per usual, I've spent the first part of my break pretending as though I don't actually have any work responsibilities (it's all middle of the week brunches, DVR catch-up sessions, day drinking, and pleasure reading); however, it's officially time to stop pretending that I don't have to do anything over the summer, as I am about to start the first of two grad classes I need to complete before the start of the fall semester (boo!). I have to say that while I do love my job, I have enjoyed my faux life of leisure this summer even more than either of the last two, mainly due to the number of yeses I've thrown out to the universe. 

Here are a few of my recent foodie highlights (follow me on Instagram for even more!)...

Dizzy Pua'a from Three Dots and a Dash James Beard Awards Tiki Time Luau: Appleton VX, scotch, Aperol, passion fruit, lemon & tiki bitters. Wooooooo... this is one intense little drink! If you haven't yet been to Three Dots, what are you waiting for?! It's such a fun little place and the drinks are crazy good. Pro tip: go early (it tends to fill up quickly) and definitely try the Dead Reckoning!



NRA Show 2015 Food & Drink Highlights

Last month, over 2,000 vendors and 63,000 attendees from all 50 states and 100+ countries descended upon McCormick Place for the largest gathering of restaurant, foodservice, and lodging professionals in the world. Intended as a meeting space for industry experts and foodies of all levels, the National Restaurant Association's annual event allows vendors to showcase their products, as well as attendees to learn all about the latest hot-button issues and trends in the food and beverage industry. This year's four-day whirlwind was filled with Michelin-starred chef demonstrations, Food Network personalities, foodie tech startups, piles of gorgeous table settings, enough alcohol to keep the city in stock for the next year, an awesome Donut Robot, and of course, food, food, and more food!

For years, I had heard all about the show from various friends in the industry, but this was the first time I'd actually been able to jump into the action myself. I didn't want to tackle the massive show alone (it's always more fun when you have a favorite foodie partner!), so I grabbed Diana and headed down to the premier food event of the year with little idea of what we were really getting ourselves into. Yes, we tried to make a tentative plan, but realistically, we had no clue what we were doing - the second we walked into McCormick Place, all of our ideas flew out of our heads as we were bombarded with shiny lights, delicious food smells, and numerous passionate, friendly vendors.

While our first experience at the event was definitely overwhelming and exhausting, it was also exhilarating. Diana and I have been to some huge festivals and trade shows in the past, but never one that catered exclusively to those in the food industry; not only did this show eclipse all others in size but also it was such a cool experience to be amongst those in all areas of foodiedom. Typically, we're amongst the crowd that loves to eat. While that crowd was definitely well-represented, we also were amongst those on the manufacturing and production ends, as well as the service end - it really offered us a new perspective on the industry!

Here are some of our favorite eats/drinks from our day of fabulous foodie fun...

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