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SEPTEMBER 23, 2009
Chicago Gourmet Chefs Dish on Tastings to Preview Event


With Chicago Gourmet coming up this weekend, local foodies are all a-twitter about the impending gastronomic event. Last year, the site flowed with plenty of wine from around the world, but the food was surprisingly scarce. The focus was misdirected and lots of attendees ended up getting pretty hammered without any food to soak up the wine.

This year's event, taking place in Millennium Park Saturday and Sunday, already seems to be shaping up to rival some of the country's top food and wine weekends, including Aspen's Food & Wine Classic and the South Beach Food & Wine Festival. With nearly every major Chicago chef represented, it seems like it's going to be a culinary orgy.

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SEPTEMBER 16, 2009
Paul Kahan's Honky Tonk Tacos
Whenever the team behind avec and Blackbird kick off a new project, the rumors swirl. Last fall, news broke that the guys—Donnie Madia, Paul Kahan and Eduard Seitan, along with Terry Alexander and Peter Garfield of the Violet Hour—took over the legendary and much-loved Pontiac space in Bucktown. Construction and renovations soon followed and while many hoped the sprawling front patio would emerge for summer, the rehab work is still going on, but is progressing at a steady clip. And the wait is almost over. 

Recently, Time Out Chicago revealed that the still-unnamed spot will focus on tacos. SomethingGlorious just discovered that this new space, which is on target to open in late October barring any issues, will primarily be a bar with a walk-up taqueria (no exterior door, just a window) and will feature about 10 items on the menu, according to Executive Chef Paul Kahan. Kahan, who embarks on a SoCal "research and development" trip this week, said that he was inspired when he "ate something and loved it." The food will focus on al pastor tacos, much in the vein of Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Super Rica Taqueria, of which Kahan is a big fan and says has the best tacos he's ever eaten. While Kahan will pull inspiration from his time working alongside Rick Bayless at Frontera Grill, he wants to experiment with "fun food that tastes good," like eventually having fried chicken and mole—which is something I can definitely get down with.

The overall concept will take people back to Bakersfield, Calif., in the 1950s where people like Merle Haggard and Buck Ownes birthed honky tonk music, where migrant Mexican workers inspired food and where you could get a good, cold beer for $1. The space will have a square center bar and a number of booths, and while the bar will serve vodka, gin and run (only one of each, and I'm happy to report the vodka of choice is Tito's from Austin, Texas), the spirits program, curated by Violet Hour manager Michael Ruble, will focus primarily on tequila, beer and hard-to-find, lesser-known American whiskey (bourbon, rye, etc). Beers will be cheap and will come in both seven- and 12-ounce draft pours, so people can get a quick beer and taco or tostada (maybe even a shot of whiskey) for about $10.

Think the crowds at avec and Publican are crazy? Wait till this joint opens this fall. This will likely become the new hipster Mecca, but instead of it being only a summer spot, the interior allows for hanging throughout the winter. Rack 'em up, boys.

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SEPTEMBER 01, 2009
Dining and Drinking with Gaja


Gaja_gaia I recently had the pleasure of having lunch with Gaia Gaja, daughter and heir to the famed Gaja Wines estate founded in 1859 in Barbaresco, Italy. Gaja wines are first rate and are considered some of the best Barbaresco in the world, consistently rating above 90 points (usually more than 93) from Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator. After tasting a few of their newest releases with Gaia at NoMI restaurant at the Park Hyatt in Chicago, I understand why. Gaia was in the U.S. meeting with various people in the wine trade to help keep the Gaja name flowing. She was a wonderful hostess—engaging, entertaining, funny and incredibly knowledgeable about her family's history and wine.

This wasn't my introduction to Gaja, mind you. I've known about and have had some of their wines in the past. But getting to taste these during a one-on-one lunch with a member of the family was a real treat. Gaia, one of three children to Angelo Gaja (the current owner and innovator), is a fifth-generation wine producer of her family's treasured wines. During a lunch overlooking Chicago and Lake Michigan, Gaia and I tasted through the 2005 Barbaresco, 2004 Rennina and 2004 Sugarille, the last two both from the Gaja's estate in Montalcino, Pieve Santa Restituta. Angelo Gaja acquired this estate, named for the small church located in the heart of the estate, in 1994 to help grow the Gaja name throughout Italy. By adding these two Brunello di Montalcino wines (both 100 percent Sangiovese), they now have bragging rights to even more of the best wines coming from Italy.

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AUGUST 10, 2009
Salute! Raise a Glass to Italian Wines
When many people think of Italian wine they think of Chianti Classico, but truth is, there are about 1,500 grape varieties in Italy--more than any other wine growing area in the world. Some, like Sangiovese (the grape grown in Chianti, which is a region and not a grape), Nebbiolo or Primitivo, are widespread and well known. Others are grown in small batches and produced by mom-and-pop growers who may only make enough wine for themselves and their friends and family.

Learning about Italian wines can be a heady undertaking, but if you grasp the basics, much of what you need to know falls into place. Many of the wines are named for regions or towns where they are produced, like Brunello di Montalcino (which is made of Sangiovese Grosso and grown in Montalcino in Tuscany) or Barbaresco (which comes from the Nebbiolo grape but is produced in the town or Barbaresco in the Piemonte region).

One way to dive into Italian wine is to drink a whole bunch of it. But to have some fun, I thought it could be interesting to compare some Italian wines to others you might be familiar with. I don't mean these are an exact match, but are similar in style and body and give you an idea of what to look for based on what you already like to drink.

TignanelloIf you like a meritage, check out Super Tuscans, which are often blended with Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and other Bordeaux-style grapes (like a meritage). These wines were first produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s after winemakers created wines that didn't fit within the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) or DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) classifications set forth by the Italian wine governance. One winemaker in particular, Piero Antinori, whose family has been producing wine in Tuscany since the 1300s, created the first truly robust Super Tuscan in 1971. This was Tignanello (available at Binny's), and today is considered to be one of the best wines produced in Italy, if not the world. Since then, Super Tuscans, once considered mere table wines, have gained much respect around the world.

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JULY 14, 2009
Irony 2006 Monterey Pinot Noir

Irony_pinotnoir So today being Bastille Day I wanted to do something to honor the storming of the Parisian fortress that was a major turning point in the French revolution in 1790. I had planned to crack open a bottle of French wine, but when I was going through my wine, I grabbed a bottle of Pinot Noir, a delicious Burgundian grape. But in a weird twist (ok, it really wasn't that weird) the bottle I grabbed was from Monterey County in California. Maybe call it ironic?

The Irony 2006 Monterey Pinot Noir may not be from France but it definitely is working to help celebrate the holiday. After sticking it in the fridge for about 20 minutes to bring its temperature down a bit, it took a few minutes to open and when it did, its cherry and raspberry nose was ready to go. This lighter wine is bright, silky and has a long finish with some cherry and chocolate notes. There's a bit of tannin on the tongue, but when paired with some non-smoked gouda on a buttery cracker, it softened up and everything worked really well together.

My partner is grilling homemade turkey burgers mixed with bacon, spinach, onions—and at this point, some sort of surprise. I tried to get it out of him for the purpose of this post, but he wouldn't give it up. Sometimes chefs can be finicky that way. But back to the wine.

I wasn't really too familiar with Irony until I got a couple of bottles a few weeks ago, and I'm really glad they showed up. The winery was started by brothers Chris and Jay Indelicato, whose grandfather planted vineyards back in 1924. The guys grew up working harvest, but their lives took them in a different direction when they got older, until they came back together to launch Irony. This Pinot was sourced from three different vineyards in Monterey: Arroyo Seco, San Lucas and San Bernabe. The grapes went through primary and then malolactic fermentation before being bottled in oak to age for eight months; the wine was then blended to create this vintage.

Check out the Irony website to find out where you can pick up their wine in your area. The suggested retail price is around $16 and, when compared with some French Pinots, it's a steal. This wine can hold its own against some Burgundian wines I've had. I'm looking forward to seeing how it pairs with this turkey burger surprise.

Vive La France!

[Update: the "surprise" was brie baked into the turkey burger. How do you like that? A little French surprise inside my dinner. And the wine was awesome.]

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JULY 08, 2009
Understanding German Riesling: It's Not All Sweet

Big_white_riesling_grapes Riesling is possibly the most misunderstood grape varietal in the wine world, especially when it comes to American palates. Ask your average wine drinker in the U.S. what they think of Riesling and they'll undoubtedly say it's sweet. In many instances they're right. But Riesling runs the gamut from super sweet dessert wines to bone dry bottles that you could even pair with a steak. Riesling, which can show peach, apple and pear notes, pairs with a variety of food from soft cheeses, pork and fish or sushi to spicy Thai dishes and Indian curries and more.

In May, I had a great opportunity to take a trip sponsored by the German Wine Institute to visit German wine-growing regions. Germany has 13 distinct growing regions, with most centered around or near the Rhine river. We spent four full days hitting three of those regions--Rheinhessen, Pfalz and Mosel--and learning all about the diversity of the Riesling grape, and let me tell you, it's diverse. Riesling, like most German wines, are classified by a number of things. With Riesling, the wine can be a kabinett (a more basic wine that tends to be drier), spatlese ("late harvest," and is sweeter), auslese ("select harvest," and even sweeter) and on to beerenauslese (a late harvest dessert wine that tends to be a bit more syrupy and sweet). The quality of the wine and whether it's trocken (dry) or suess (sweet) all depends on where it's grown and how long the grapes remain on the vine. And one of the more impressive qualities of the vineyards, at least in the Mosel region, is that many reside on very steep slopes, giving the grapes better access to sun, wind and other elements that help the them grow and produce more robust, juicy fruit.

Continue reading "Understanding German Riesling: It's Not All Sweet" »

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MAY 12, 2009
Clos de la Siete: A Nontraditional Malbec

Closdelasiete There's no question that Malbec has quickly become a favorite grape of American wine drinkers. The wine these Argentine grapes produce tends to be supple and rounded with soft tannins, allowing it to be drunk alone or with food.

I recently discovered a fantastic wine from Campo Vista Flores (just south of Mendoza, Argentina) that really knocked my socks off. The 2007 Clos de la Siete is predominantly Malbec (48%) but introduces a few other varietals to give it a real punch. The wine came to life by a group of seven Bordeaux winemakers (led by noted wine consultant Michel Rolland) who decided they wouldn't just do a Malbec. So they planted Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon as well and the result is a great bottle.

The wine is, to put it simply, big and bold. The tannins hit your palate just at the right place and leave a hint of earth as the wine goes down. But its dark and ruby hues make way for wonderful blackberry, currant, violet and cherry notes that you'll want to go back to again and again.

Buy it online now for $13.95.

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DECEMBER 18, 2007
Alinea's Grant Achatz Beats Cancer, in Remission

Achatz After undergoing groundbreaking chemo and radiation to help eradicate the cancer of the mount and tongue (officially called stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma) famed and celebrated Chef Grant Achatz of Chicago's Alinea is in remission. I just received this letter from Grant, sent by his publicist:

 "It is with a tremendous sense of gratitude and relief that I have successfully completed my course of therapy at the University of Chicago. It was incredibly important to me to remain as engaged as possible at Alinea while receiving treatment, and during that time I only missed 14 services. I continue to stand committed to innovating fine dining long into the future.

At this time I want to thank everyone at Alinea -- the staff, investors, and patrons of the restaurant have offered their unwavering commitment and support in ways large and small.  The community of restaurants, chefs, and industry professionals who reached out to us was exceptionally gratifying.

Most of all, I must make special mention of doctors Vokes, Blair, and Haraf at the University of Chicago Medical Center, as well as the countless number of medical professionals and support staff there who cared for me.  Where other doctors at prominent institutions saw little hope of a normal life, let alone a cure, these doctors saw an opportunity to think differently, preserve my tongue and taste, and maintain a long term high quality of life. Through the use of a new and rigorous Chemotherapy and Radiation protocol, they were able achieve a full remission while ensuring that the use of invasive surgery on my tongue was not needed. Onward."

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AUGUST 22, 2007
Pocket Shot: Drink Anywhere

Pocketshot Wallet -- check. Cell phone -- check. Gum -- check. Mini pocket of booze -- awww yeah. Alcohol consumption just got easier -- or possibly more dangerous, depending on how you look at it. Pocket Shot, developed by a South African (by way of Sheboygan Falls, Wis.) businessman (who is now back in the US), is a pocket-sized "dose" of alcohol -- vodka, tequila, rum, gin or whiskey -- that you can take camping, biking, fishing, golfing, clubbing -- even on a flight if you're sneaky enough. Actually, since it's so small, the Pocket Shot legally fits inside the small ziploc you're allowed to carry on with your toiletries, but I digress. The product currently is only being sold in California, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Wisconsin. I just got a note from founder Jarry Bachmann letting me know that they're launching in Illinois within the month. In addition to giving you a fun and handy little sack o' drink (each is a 50 ml single-serve of 80 proof alcohol), Pocket Shot's packaging is also eco-friendly, so you can get drunk and babble about saving the planet.

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MAY 17, 2007
Garrett's Popcorn for Everyone

Garrett World famous Garrett's Popcorn is now available for worldwide consumption. The 58-year-old Chicago-based popcorn company, which always has lines out the door and down the street at its downtown locations, has set up shop online. One of Oprah's Favorite Things, this always-fresh popcorn comes in four simple flavors: plain, buttery, CaramelCrisp and CheeseCorn. You can order individual flavors or mix the tins, which come in a variety of sizes. Indulge yourself and get some of Chicago's finest for yourself -- or send someone a great gift. Prices for Garrett's tins start at $20 and go up to $180 (!!!). Start shopping!

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