The Butcher & Larder

Very recently, I received an email about a chef’s course event at The Butcher & Larder in Chicago’s Noble Square neighbourhood at 1427 W. Willow Street. The event was for Piggy Bank, which is a foundation that was created to gift heritage breed pigs to family farmers in exchange for business plans. Given the ongoing discussions about meats being tainted with growth products and unhealthy additives, support for farmers who want to provide healthier meat products was not a bad idea to support. With a selection of five chefs from different restaurants in Chicago, we had a splendid sampling of dishes to entice the palate.

Coddled Egg

Coddled Egg

The first course was prepared by Chef Sarah Rinkavage of Lula Cafe. This came as a cup of coddled egg highlighted with morel, green garlic, and tessa and topped with a strip of bacon. Although one could scoop out the egg with a spoon, it was better to have use of the accompanying grilled toast as a utensil. A perfect pairing with the coddled egg was a 2013 Kettmeir Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige DOC Winery.

Tongue 'n' Cheek Brewis

Tongue ‘n’ Cheek Brewis

The second course was prepared by Chef Andres Gietzen of Yusho at 2853 N. Kedzie Avenue. Given in name as a Tongue ‘n’ Cheek Brewis, this came as a dish of fried cod tongue, lard poached cod cheek, scrunchion, billy bread, and ramp. This was perhaps the most exotic of all of the dishes on the menu. Tender and with a hint of cod without a heavy taste of muddy cod, it was also still light enough to enjoy to completion and it also paired well with a 2013 Kettmeir Muller Thurgau from Alto Adige D. O. C. Winery.

Braised Lamb Ravioli

Braised Lamb Ravioli

For the fourth course, Chef Christopher Thompson prepared a braised lamb ravioli with house-made ricotta, English peas, mint, lemon, sweetbreads, and belly. The lamb was extremely flavourful, but it had to be enjoyed without indulging any of the sweetbreads and belly simultaneously, lest the flavour of the lamb lose centre stage on the palate. The pairing for this rich dish was a 2010 Lamole di Lamole Gran Selezione Vigneto Campolungo from Chianti Classico DOCG Winery. This worked better with this dish than with fava beans — a nod to “Silence of the Lambs,” and rather fitting also given the filling in the ravioli.

Panzita en Salsa Negra

Panzita en Salsa Negra

The fourth dish was courtesy Chef Andres Padilla of Topolobampo at 445 N. Clark Street. Following the pork theme, this was crispy seared, braised pork belly glazed in sweet and spicy salsa negra — think mole — over Oaxacan black beans with charred cauliflower and garnishes. The gotcha with this dish was the layer of fat atop the pork belly and covered under the tasty salsa negra. The wine that was paired with this dish was a 2011 Lamole di Lamole Chianti Classico Riserva from Chianti Classico DOCG.

Linzer Torte with Bacon Jam

Linzer Torte with Bacon Jam

The finale was a Linzer torte with bacon jam, prepared by Chef Abra Berens of Stock Cafe. For all of the ends of bacon that had been saved from preparations of the courses, they were used for the filling. This was a savoury pie, not a sweet. And there were two strong flavour profiles on the tongue simultaneously, one influenced with sweetness and the other salty. Perhaps a cup of coffee would have cut down some of the bonanza on the palate.

Dry Sparkling Beverage

Dry Sparkling Beverage

One participant in the evening’s event was a representative for Dry Sparkling. Refreshing and bursting with natural flavours, these were reminiscent of sparkling water with flavouring. However, the sparkling aspect of the beverages did not bite at the back of the jaw, which made them a lot more inviting than anticipated. The cucumber flavoured Dry Sparkling beverage is now my favourite and after hearing that they are available at Target and Whole Foods, I shall fill my refrigerator accordingly.

The Butcher & Larder is a local grocery store that offers a lot of organic products, as well as fresh meat products. Being in the meat services makes it understandable that they’d engage involvement in the Piggy Bank, as mentioned earlier. One individual who sat next to me mentioned that they offer lunch, but I’m sure they excel in the products and services that make them a great grocer and butcher shop. Much success to them for their efforts in the clean eating initiative.

The Butcher & Larder Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Half Italian, Half French, 100% Satisfied

With Facebook being a constant in social media, I decided that it was time to establish a presence for Chicago Alphabet Soup via Facebook. I can’t say that I will ever entertain Twitter since the 140 character limitation is not enough for a good stream of consciousness. Tumblr seems to be the new “it” social media tool. Yes, another account to create and another password to have to manage. My short-term memory is already giving me warnings that I need to limit the number of social media outlets that I have signed up for. And my short-term memory works in concert with my ongoing appetite to prompt me when I should deal with things that really matter — like getting my keys and my wallet, and leaving my condo to get something to eat.

Latte

Latte

My neighbourhood of Logan Square is becoming a Wonderland. It seems that almost every month there is some new boutique, cafe, coffee shop, or eatery dotting the landscape. What was once viewed as a shooting gallery — to quote one friend who almost had a theatrical Scarlett O’Hara attack when I told her I was moving to Logan Square — has now become one of the most sought after neighbourhoods in Chicago. But what should I discover this past Sunday but a swanky grocery store and deli. In the stretch of Milwaukee Avenue that is undergoing a renaissance between the Traffic Circle of Doom and Diversey Avenue is Half Italian, at 4653 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Enter and embrace your inner hipster, but also be prepared for quality. Because I was going strictly for something to eat and drink, I did a quick glance of the grocery items just in case there was something that caught my fancy worthy enough for a future purchase. After all of a second, it was all about a latte and — clutch your pearls, your wig or toupee, and even your martini — a BLT. I didn’t just fall off the wagon; I did a proper tuck and roll. For starters, the latte was of the kind that I love, the kind where you can drink it without sugar. The bloke who prepared the cup of wow for me raised his eyebrows when I was outside at one of the tables photographing it. As for the BLT — cue the sound of a chorus dragging out “aaaahhhhhhh” — I don’t know if it was the smokey taste of bacon that made me smile like a dunce, the freshness of the lettuce and tomato, the spicy mayonnaise, the fact that the sandwich was on Italian bread rather than Sunbeam light bread, or the joke I was reading on a friend’s Facebook wall. Half Italian has a new customer and if I keep gaining weight, my jeans that fit comfortably now will become skinny jeans and I’ll fit the hipster mold. No! Reverse, rewind, scratch that.

BLT

BLT

Now, there was no need for me to saunter back to my condo because the day was several notches past ideal. No clouds, no humidity, no heat, a nice breeze, and me not wanting to show any more neighbours my remodeled Stanley Kubrick bathroom. So, I headed to Oak Park to my favourite dessert shop — Sugar-Fixé at 119 N. Marion Street. I had more coffee that required no sugar and a verine. Shall we stop and have a moment of reflection? (Pause) That parfait of chocolate mousse layered with moist brownies and topped with English toffee not only photographed well, but I had to minimize my scooping to smaller nibbles so that I could savour the whole thing slowly. And from somewhere in the background, Isabelle Antena was singing “LaPecheresse a la Ligne.” How fitting. Sitting outside having verine and taking coffee is so European. First, I was Italian (buona) and then I was French (bon). I know that it seems Chicago has decided to get out of the business of cupcake mills and become the land of the most addictive doughnuts, but a plethora of French patisseries in Chicago of the Sugar-Fixé kind would make this city the most populated city in the world. Now that I think of it, Sugar-Fixé has become my de facto landing spot for coffee and dessert that never fail — unless I am going to Julius Meinl for sweets, savouries, and live music.

Verine

Verine

Many people go for long walks on Sunday. Some clog the roads with casual drives, the speed limit being too much for them. Others just keep up mess. I prefer scouting out all the good things to quiet the monster that is affectionately known as my belly. After being half Italian, half French, and 100% satisfied this past Sunday, I will try to continue a tradition of being Pan-ethnic with some other fooderies. Hmm. If people can do pub crawls — and, yes, most crawl literally after endless imbibing — then I can do a gluttony trek. I may be in pain after overindulging, though, but that’s par for the culinary course. And I will post the photos on Facebook, not the ones of me on the floor in tears because I’m too full to sleep and fighting food comatose at the same time.

Half Italian Grocer & Deli on Urbanspoon

Out with the Old, In With the Wow

Please return your seats and your trays to their upright positions. We will be landing shortly.

I have been on and off of airplanes so much during 2011 that there was a point when I knew exactly when the announcement was about to come on. During one of my most recent trips, the announcement was a reminder of me returning a city that I only visit for a few days annually. Jackson, MS, was my destination for a quick escape from Windy Chicago and from London fog. During my years of living in Jackson — so very, very, very long ago — I remembered downtown and two buildings that were blots on the downtown’s landscape. There was the Standard Life building, which is the tallest building in downtown. The other building was the King Edward Hotel. Both buildings, vacant and abandoned for decades, had been nothing more than markers indicating a city that had come to a standstill when the doors to both structures closed for business. Fast forward to 2011 and the King Edward Hotel is now the Hilton Garden Inn that boasts apartments, hotel rooms, and a fabulous restaurant.

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My childhood best friend and I have a ritual. We usually, if not always, catch up with each other the afternoon before I return to Chicago — or destination X — because that is generally the only time I would come outside for any length of time when I am in Jackson. This time we made it a point to get together to clown well before my return north. He had recommended that the restaurant at the Hilton Garden Inn should be a fantastic place for lunch. Having spoken highly of a meal the chef had prepared for some doctors at an event and with me being a food addict, there was no way I was going to turn my nose up at sampling something worthy of a bravo. So it was off to downtown Jackson to see what the transition was from King Edward Hotel to Hilton Garden Inn at 235 W. Capitol Street, and what the kitchen had to place a smile on my face.

Goat Cheese with Pomegranate Syrup

While my friend and I waited for one of my high school classmates and her sister and another of my friend’s high school classmates, we feasted on homemade yeast rolls twisted with fresh spinach and topped with toasted black pepper and butter. Clearly, this was an indicator that all was going to be well in the land. These were not frozen rolls that had been defrosted and placed into the oven for warmth and then garnished with butter and spinach, no. These rolls were so delicious that my friend and I indulged ourselves while we waited for the others. When the others did arrive, that was when we began our venture into Food Wonderland.

Fresh Vegetable Salad

First to the table was a fresh vegetable salad with a pancetta vinaigrette in a balsamic reduction. Being a pescatarian — that being a vegetarian who indulges seafood — the ham in the pancetta vinaigrette simply went down without complaint. I have a feeling that the absence of it may have taken away from the salad. Served in concert with the vegetable salad was a dollop of goat cheese over a pomegranate syrup and topped with black pepper. Goat cheese, to me, has a consistency and a mild hint of cream cheese, so I am always pleased whenever it arrives at the table tempting me to feast on it. Having recently delighted my palate to some baked goat cheese in chunky tomatoes, I knew that the cheese would leave me with a smile. Yes, it did, indeed.

Pumpkin Soup with Shrimp and Spinach

Second to the table was puréed pumpkin soup with a shrimp and spinach. I have always been a fan of sweet potato soup and kale, so I initially had thoughts of the bitter after-taste of pumpkin from pumpkin pie when we were told the ingredients. Very much to my surprise, this was not pumpkin with the bite that gets you at the back of the jaw. Could it have been the addition of the plump shrimp? Could it have been the accent from the spinach? Could it have been that the pumpkin was prepared to satisfaction? I prefer to believe that it was a combination of all three, with the latter being the most outstanding part of the recipe. I could see myself having this tasty soup all through the autumn and never tiring of it.

Curry Turkey with Cilantro on Rice

Third to the table was a roasted turkey breast in a coconut and curry sauce with spiced rice, garnished with fried onions and fresh cilantro. Somewhat reminiscent of Thai food, I was in heaven with each bite. Never mind the fact that the flavours were not having competition, but the roasted turkey — there goes my vegetarianism for the year — was so succulent and juicy that it was hard to keep on the fork. Well, once it went on the tongue, yes, it was hard to keep on the fork. Perfection on a plate and me giving full acknowledgement with every whiff of the delicacy is the best way that I could describe the experience.

Not quite completed, the fourth dish to grace the table was a skirt steak encrusted red fish, accompanied by a cilantro simple syrup. One can never have enough cilantro in his or her dish. Well, I should clean that up and make it personal. I can never have enough cilantro in my food. And I will never have a fit about having my share of any tasty fish placed before me. The only time I winced was when I had gotten to the last few bites and did not want the moment to end. I could have left a bit in honour of those who could not join us. But those individuals were, no doubt, too busy anyway. So I heaved a heavy sigh and finished the last morsels sans any remorse. By now, I was operating in slow motion.

Skirt Steak Crusted Redfish

For dessert there were two desserts — one for those whose diets included meat and one for those whose diets did not. There was a bacon and cinnamon roll bread pudding topped with a Chivas Regal gastrique. I let go of the pescatarian wagon for this one and performed a natural act of eating without shame. My mouth burst with fireworks and flavours. I never would have considered bacon to be an engaging recipe ingredient for any dessert and the bacon was prepared so that you only got a pop of the taste on the first bite and then it became faint after eating the bread pudding. Most restaurants would have a sensation akin to duelling pianos going about the tongue, teeth, and jaws. Not so with this dessert, as it was apparently prepared for just a hint of the bacon while the bread pudding stole the show. For those who were not fans of meat, red meat being at the top of their list, Mississippi mud pie was served. By now, all I could do was look at the dessert and ponder its magic. My language was garbled, my mind was roaming, and once the slurring became painfully evident, photographing the mud pie — with shaky hands — was all that I could muster.

Bread Pudding with Caramelized Bacon

Nick Wallace, who is the executive chef for the restaurant at Hilton Garden Inn, came to our table to welcome us to the restaurant, of which we thanked him profusely for hosting us for a chef’s table lunch. A young man in his early thirties, he employs a “waste not” mantra that adds appeal to his recipes as what may be a garnish in one menu item may be a base in another menu item. And use of local ingredients means freshness in what goes into the culinary works. It was clear from the smells and tastes of what came from the kitchen. While the King Edwards Hotel has relinquished its abandoned status to being an establishment with proper pomp and circumstances, the restaurant shines. Attentive and knowledgeable wait staff and a dynamic chef, well before you complete your meal, chances are you will shout Bravo! If I did not have such British polishing, I would have shouted in the restaurant. However, I waited until I was in the car far, far, away from listening ears.

Mississippi Mud Pie