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APRIL 01, 2007
Achatz Handmade Pie Co.

Fourberry Some things are just too good to not talk about and Achatz Handmade Pie Co. pies fall into that category. Created in a converted barn in Michigan, the all-natural pies are crafted with locally grown fresh fruit (never canned), pure cream from cows not injected with the potentially carcinogenic rBGH, rich butter, pure vanilla and other wonderful ingredients that come naturally from the earth. I first discovered the Michigan Four Berry Pie at Whole Foods in Chicago last year and my partner Drew and I brought it to a dinner party. This pie was one of the most indulgent, delectable desserts any of us had ever eaten (and believe me, we've eaten plenty) that four of us polished off the entire thing. Made with fresh blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and cherries and finished off with a crumb topping made with pure butter, oats, brown sugar, cinnamon and unbleached flour, this pie is pure heavenly insanity. I've yet to have one of their cream pies, but I see one entering my life in the near future. But what started with pies has blossomed into a full-on bakery featuring quiche, streusel, cheesecake, cookies, banana bread and more. If you're in the Chicago, Cleveland or Detroit areas, I recommend hunting these down. Achatz has five stores -- and also sell their pies online. [Side note: one thing I find interesting is that the family's last name is the same as the famed Chicago chef Grant Achatz who owns the award-winning restaurant Alinea -- coincidence? I think not as a quick Wikipedia search says young Grant worked in his parents' restaurant in Michigan. Prior to opening the pie company, the Achatz's owned a successful restaurant ... in Michigan. If they are related it's good to see that great cooking runs in the family.]

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MARCH 22, 2007
Cosme Palacio y Hermanos Rioja 2004

Cosme I was shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that this bottle of 2004 Rioja -- the Cosme Palacio y Hermanos -- was made from 100% Tempranillo grapes. I've had a couple bottles in the past of that varietal that I just didn't like. I guess it was the wine because I absolutely love this bottle. For a wine that's under $12 it is loaded with vibrant flavors and incredible aromas. The wine is sensual and alluring, inviting to numerous senses with its lush blackberry, cherry and plum flavors and just the slightest hint of pepper. It has a nice medium body making it easy to drink alone or with a variety of food. We had it with a melange of grilled meats: honey-glazed chicken, pepper-encrusted filet and andouille chicken sausage as well as some greens and roasted potatoes. From a quick search online, it seems like this bottle is available throughout the US and Europe -- and for good reason: it's a lovely, inexpensive wine that drinks well with a variety of food. And it was a Wine Spectator Daily Pick last September with a score of 86.

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FEBRUARY 08, 2007
Capogiro Gelato

Capo2 Despite the temps hovering around zero in Chicago, I'm still able to reach inside my freezer and pull out a pint of ice cream. Why? Because inside it's not just ordinary ice cream. It's gelato. Not just any gelato, but Capogiro Gelato of Philadelphia. This is truly some of the best, creamiest gelato I've had outside of Italy (and it's been so long since I've been there that I don't even know that it counts anymore). SG HQ received a package of six pints of unique and interesting flavors that when eaten alone or combined together gives your tastebuds an otherworldly rush. While Capogiro makes traditional gelato flavors like pistacchio, espresso and stracciatella (chocolate chip), it's when they get creative that shows why they're the best. Anyone can make a pint of gelato, but when you're eating any of the following flavors, you'll feel like heaven came down and greeted you on earth -- with spoon in hand: Meyer Lemon w/Vodka; Honey Truffled Caramel; Cinnamon; Burnt Sugar; Sweet Potato w/Pecan Praline; Cioccolato Scuro (dark, dark, dark!) ... gjroijkjl;kj (sorry, I started to drool on the keyboard).

Capogiro is sold mainly in the Northeast is available in one store, Bouffe, in Chicago. However, you can always buy it online directly through the website. And while it may never seem like it's going to be warm again (don't worry, it's coming), you'll be happy that when the temps to start to climb back up that you're all set with a few pints of Capogiro in the freezer.

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JANUARY 21, 2007
The Waverly Inn & Garden

WaverlyA few years ago, my friends lived on Bank Street between 4th and Waverly in Greenwich Village. I loved visiting because they had a great apartment in a perfect location and I had my own room and bathroom, which is generally unheard of when staying with friends in Manhattan. Upon my first visit to this spot back in late 2002, my friends took me to a quaint little place, Ye Waverly Inn, one-half block up on the corner of Bank and Waverly. This spot, which we called Ye Olde Waverly Inn (the addition of the "Olde" just seemed appropriate), was rustic, charming, genuine and hearkened back to the Village's more Colonial era (ok, maybe more Civil War, but it definitely has a historic feeling). The building itself is a brownstone from 1844 and the restaurant/inn dates back to the 1920s.

About 1.5 years ago, Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter bought the property with some others and it has caused quite a stir among the glitterati of New York. The space has unofficially been open for a couple of months, but to get in you either have to know the chef's cell phone or get through to Sir Carter at his office - not necessarily an easy task unless you're well connected. A fair number of locals have cozied up to the staff and therefore get in as well. Last week, while in New York, I had to kill time between an appointment and meeting friends for dinner in Chelsea at Trestle (which was amazing, btw) and started wandering downtown. As I walked down 7th Ave and turned on to Greenwich, I realized where I was and said, "ah, I'll check out the Waverly."

Continue reading "The Waverly Inn & Garden" »

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DECEMBER 11, 2006
Vosges Barely Baked Cookies

Cookies Who doesn't like a great cookie? I'm always on the hunt for the perfect chocolate chip cookie and I think the search can finally end. Growing up, people who lived in my hometown were spoiled by Carol's Cookies -- an independent bake shop (she started baking the cookies out of her kitchen before a local gourmet grocery picked them up). I thought Carol's were the be all end all to cookiedom: all natural, half-pound bundles of yumminess in a variety of flavors.

But then I discovered that Vosges Haut-Chocolat, the high-end Chicago-based Chocolatier, partnered with Carol to create Vosges Barely Baked Cookies -- five flavors of scrumptious, eclectic ingredients based on Carol's unique and incredible recipe.

I sampled -- and loved -- four of the five: Bianca (Vosges Bianca cocoa -- lavender, Australian lemon myrtle, white chocolate -- and fresh coconut), Red Fire (red fire dark chocolate chunks -- ancho and chipotle chili peppers, Ceylon cinnamon -- with cocoa powder), Naga (sweet Indian curry powder, milk chocolate chunks made from Woolloomooloo chips: macadamia nut, hemp seed, coconut plus pumpkin purée and fresh coconut) and Costa Rican (single origin Costa Rican dark chocolate chunks made of 64% cacao).

It's hard to pick a favorite, but being that I'm always scouting the perfect chocolate chip cookie, I'd have to go with the Costa Rican. While $5.50 might seem extravagent for a cookie, you'd better believe you're getting your money's worth. Just don't eat the whole thing at once -- you'll be disappointed when it's gone.

Order Vosges Barely-Baked Cookies online and be sure to visit Carol's Cookies, too, but wait until after the holidays as they are swamped with current orders. You can also buy Carol's Cookies in many spots around the country.

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NOVEMBER 29, 2006
Hitachino Nest White Ale

Whiteale A Belgian white ale ... from Japan? Oh yes, and it's really good. Today at lunch at Shaw's Crab House in Chicago (where I had some of the freshest crab cakes, a hearty lobster roll and rich New England clam chowder), I felt myself craving a beer. Looking through the list, nothing really tempted me until I landed on the Hitachino Nest White Ale. What's this? The waitress had never seen it before and quickly left for the bar. Returning with three glasses, she poured a little in each for us all to taste -- including herself. Apparently it's a new beer for the restaurant -- and as far as I know for the U.S. I'm a big fan of Hoegaarden so I wasn't expecting much from this, despite the great label with the little owl. But as soon as the beer hit my lips, I tasted the sweet, orange and lemon flavor typical of a white beer and was immediately pleased. Hitachino is brewed at the Kiuchi Brewery (about 1.5 hours outside of Tokyo via bullet train) and is distributed in the States by B.United International. The brewery has nine other Hitachino Nest beers, including Weizen, Sweet Stout, Pale Ale and Japanese Classic Ale, as well a line of Sake  (Kikusakari) and  Shouchu (traditional Japanese distilled spirit with high alcohol content). Kiuchi Brewery was founded in 1823, has won numerous international awards and will soon launch a wine segment.

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NOVEMBER 17, 2006
Chateau St Jean Cinq Cepages

Cinq_bottle Today I had a one-on-one lunch and wine tasting with Chateau St. Jean winemaker Margo Van Staaveren (ok, it was a one-on-two -- the winery's wonderful publicist, Jennifer Scott, joined us as well). Over sushi, swordfish and steak at NoMi at the Park Hyatt Chicago we tasted the three most recent vintages of Cinq Cépages, the winery's crown jewel. Cinq Cépages, which means the Five Varieties, comprises the five grapes that make up the base of this Bordeaux-like Cabernet blend: Cabernet (75%), Merlot (10%-11%), Malbec (7%-8%), Cabernet Franc (3%-4%) and Petit Verdot (2%). Margo has been with Chateau St. Jean for 26 years and has been head winemaker since 2003 -- and she definitely knows what she's talking about.

After explaining how each grape affects the wine in its own way ("the Cab defines the vintage" "Merlot softens the blend" "Cab Franc adds a subtle elegance" "Malbec is always a friend to a wine maker" "Petit Verdot adds just the right amount of dustiness") we decided it was time to put it all to the test.

The '01 was just right. You definitely got the jamminess from it but it was layered with the perfect amount of tannins that it left just the slightest hint of dryness in your mouth. But more than that, a few minutes after taking a sip, you realize a familiar flavor lingering on your tongue and then it hit me: clove and nutmeg. How apropos for a blistery late autumn day in Chicago while sipping wine staring out a window seven stories above Michigan Avenue and looking out onto the lake?

The '03 is just coming into its own. It's still a young wine, but Margo said that these wines can reach their climax after 10 years and cited both the 1990 and '93 holding up well, but that "not all vintages are created equal."

After lunch, Margo lead a wine seminar for about 50 people in hotel's Grand Salon. I popped down with Jennifer for a few minutes and tasted the winery's 2004 Robert Young Vineyard Chardonnay, which was surprisingly not very oakey or buttery for a Sonoma Chard but offered up some really nice citrus and tropical fruit. But the real treat was getting to taste the 1996 and 1999 Cinq Cépages vintages. The '99 was a little big and tannic for me -- it made me want to have a large cooked steak to soak up the wine, but the '96 was perfection in a glass. After gushing about the wine, Jennifer told me that Wine Spectator rated it the No. 1 wine in the world when it was released in 1999. It was big, lush and jammy and left just the slightest dryness on the tongue. The cherry-filled bouquet opened up to some beautiful bright dark berries.

Unfortunately I had to take off, but not before realizing that it's days like this reaffirm why I love what I do.

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NOVEMBER 15, 2006
Terry's Toffee

Main2 After 20 years of working in the non-profit arena, Terry Opalek, realizing how much he loved his grandmother's classic toffee recipe, decided to make a major career move. Now, a few years into his venture, Terry's Toffee offers some of the most incomparable flavors that will whisk you back to your childhood. Launched three years ago out of his home, Terry now sports 15 flavors of the most mouthwatering toffee blended in a great storefront in Chicago's West Town neighborhood and supplies about 80 stores across the US. His candies are a perfect gift for any occasion, especially the upcoming winter holidays.

I stopped by to visit Terry last week and, having sampled his toffees in the past, was amazed at the growth of the selection. Favorites definitely include the Chai-cago Spice (with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger and other spices dipped in dark chocolate); Peppermint Pistachio Crunch; Mazel ToffeeLogo2_1 (nut-free toffee and matzo surrounded by decadent milk chocolate) and of course the two most important: McCall's Classic (named for Terry's grandmother -- this is what toffee was meant to taste like) and Terry's Signature (a variation of his grandmother's recipe featuring stunning tinted cocoa butter to showcase various designs). Terry, who works alongside his life partner, Michael, also offers great biscotti in three flavors as well as six flavors of homemade rich ice cream.

And due to being featured in the Academy Awards gift baskets for the last two years Terry now claims the likes of Hillary Swank, Lenny Kravitz, Outkast, Sean Hayes, Penelope Cruz, Jennifer Garner and many others as loyal fans.

Are you ready to join the ranks? Place your holiday orders now.

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NOVEMBER 13, 2006
La Granacha Cotes du Rhone Villages '04

Lagrancha There's nothing like discovering a great bottle of wine, especially when you only pay about $10 for it. Every few weeks, I like to pop into the Wine Discount Center and see what gems I can find. A couple of weeks ago while browsing the Cotes du Rhone corner, I focused in on a bottle that grabbed my attention: La Grancha. There was something about the label that I liked and when I inquired about the wine, the guy at the store didn't hesitate when he basically told me to just buy it.

So when we cracked it open at a friend's house for dinner, everyone was equally thrilled about it. The wine has a deep purple color with a full nose of cherry and chocolate. It's made from 80% old vine Syrah and 20% old vine Grenache, is super full bodied and is reminiscent of a bold Zinfandel with strong raisin flavor and some excellent spice. La Granacha is perfect for sitting around a table at a dinner party or kickin back in front of a fire.

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NOVEMBER 03, 2006
Dom Perignon '96 Rose Debuts at Chicago's Palmolive Bldg.

Dp_ros_1996 Dom Perignon debuted their Rosé Vintage 1996 last night at a splashy, well-heeled event in a spacious apartment at the rehabbed Palmolive Building in Chicago. The event was a trip through the decades with Dom supported by various fashion and cultural icons and products in different rooms, including dresses from Givenchy and Chanel, vintage Missoni bags, art by Karl Lagerfeld and Norma Kamali sneaker pumps.

And the space itself, in the converted 1929 art deco masterpiece -- the Palmolive Building, known for its architectural advancements, housing Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Good Housekeeping magazines in the '30s and beyond, for being the former HQ of Palmolive and Playboy from 1965 to 1989 -- was stunning, with top-of-the-line finishes and jaw-dropping views of Lake Michigan, Lake Shore Drive and the Loop, with a current price tag of just under $6 million.

Following a $135 million renovation in 2002, the building is now home to some of Chicago's most exclusive residences (it's reported that Vince VaughnPalm1 and Jennifer Aniston bought the penthouse comprising the top three floors of the building). Back in the day, the Palmolive was heralded, not only for its stunning decor, but also for breaking away from the densely populated, slightly polluted Loop. When it was built, the building was the first skyscraper north of Downtown and was the tallest in the area. Today, it's dwarfed by the Hancock Building (see image below).

But the night was really about the bubbly -- and sip it we did. We were first treated to apps and many glasses of Dom '98. Shortly thereafter, when the halls of the suite were full, the big reveal took place. Dozens of bottles of the '96 Rosé were carried out in a grand, cylindrical ice structure by two men. Then all we heard was popping and liquid flowing.

The nose was earthy and smoky, the color a vibrant pink with a metallic glow and the taste ... simply divine. For people who think a rosé is light, sweet and fruity hasn't had a good rosé in awhile. This Palm3 vintage, created by blending old vine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, was so silky that it slipped across my tongue, leaving behind bold strawberry and subtle hints of vanilla.

The Dom '96 Rosé is not for the casual night out. At $400 a bottle, definitely celebrate something massive -- and realize that when you toast, you're toasting with something really special.

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