There's something in the fall air...and it smells like roasting pumpkins. Let's do some pumpkin-spotting, shall we?
Sweet potato gnudi with crispy kale and spiced pumpkin seeds are on Blackbird's updated menu, which gets in the fall spirit with cocktails like the Mrs. Crabtree (Macchu Pisco, sparkling wine, crab-apple shrub, thyme, Bitter Truth Creole Bitters) and desserts like anise-poached pears with caramelized milk ice cream, chewy honey cake and black tea.
The October cupcake of the month at Magnolia Bakery is Pumpkin Pecan: pumpkin cake with maple cream-cheese icing topped with toasted pecans.
On October 30, Green Zebra restaurant will host a $38, four-course meal in which each course features pumpkin.
Cafe Selmarie's baked-goods case is going pumpkin-crazy, with rotating pumpkin treats, such as pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin cupcakes and a "single serving pie in a pumpkin."
Drinkable pumpkin is happening at Barrio Urban Taqueria, where the Pumpkin Margarita contains silver tequila, orange liqueur, pumpkin puree and cinnamon, topped with whipped cream and garnished with a cinnamon stick and graham cracker–crusted rim.
R.J. Grunts is rolling out its Pumpkin Pie Milkshake: homemade pumpkin pie filling, vanilla ice cream and a generous dollop of whipped cream.
Never one to miss a wild-game opportunity, Frontier is serving a bacon-wrapped elk chop with mashed pumpkin, pickled brussel sprouts and house beef bacon.
Last but not least, in the pages of this week's Time Out, you'll see Red Door's baked goat cheese with slow-roasted apples, spiced pumpkin seeds, pumpkin brioche and a drizzle of apple-cider gastrique.
Check out more pumpkin dishes in Time Out Chicago Kids. In other words, good luck going out this month and not eating a pumpkin!
The big food news from our office this week is about a certain five-star experience I had at the Lobby in the Peninsula Hotel. Crucial to that experience was the chicken. I've met a lot of chickens I've loved (see my ode to the Bavette's chicken here, and my general ode to all chickens here), but in the Lobby's chicken, I may have met the city's most supreme.
But is this really Chicago's best chicken? Or does this chicken belong to New York?
As I mention in the review, the Lobby's chicken looks strikingly like the chicken served at New York's Nomad. At both restaurants, the chickens have skin that's so dark it's almost black. At both restaurants, the chicken's cavity is stuffed with a bouquet of herbs. And at both restaurants, the chicken is served in waves: First, it is shown off to the table. Then, it's carved in the kitchen. The breast arrives first; the dark meat is pulled, tossed with a sauce, and presented in a small crock a few minutes later.
There's a logical explanation for why these chickens are so similar: The Nomad is the second restaurant from the Eleven Madison Park folks, and the Lobby's chef, Lee Wolen, worked as a sous chef at Eleven Madison Park for several years. But are the chickens indeed the same?
To investigate, I asked Jordana Rothman, the food editor at our sister magazine Time Out New York. Just last week, Rothman put the Nomad's chicken on the cover of TONY's 100 Best Things We Ate issue—so I knew she was familiar with the bird. I asked her to describe it for me.
"In short order the chicken for two at Nomad became a visual icon," she told me. (I know she's right, because even a Chicagoan like me was aware of Nomad's legendary chicken, which is why when I saw a similar bird show up at The Lobby, my heart fluttered—yes, fluttered—with excitement.) "The skin is cracklin'-crispy, the breast is served with truffles and pomme puree; the dark meat shredded in a crock with brown butter, more truffles and morels."
Crispy skin sounds familiar. The rest? Not so much. The Lobby's chicken is served with roasted apples and squash; the dark meat is tossed with cream and chives. Maybe most striking, the Nomad chicken's skin is stuffed with "the rich man's triumvirate of truffle, foie gras and brioche," as Rothman put it. Meanwhile, the Lobby's is stuffed with brioche and butter.
So technically, the chickens are not the same. In fact, they probably taste pretty different, the Nomad's version woodsy, the Lobby's a little sweeter.
But are these the same birds in spirit?
I asked chef Wolen about it. I told him I noticed the similarities, and wondered if this was straight from Nomad's handbook. For the matter, I asked, is anything else on the Lobby's menu from the Nomad/Eleven Madison Park handbook?
The answer to the latter question was "no." As for the first question, Wolen responded that he was never at the Nomad, but that when he was at Eleven Madison Park they put out a duck in much the same fashion. "That's why you work other places—to learn," he said. "It's a great dish, why would I change it?"
Of course, he did change it—not just the ingredients but also the price. The Lobby's chicken for two is $55; The Nomad's is $79. Conclusion: Chicago wins again!
Yesterday, I stepped into my safe place frequent lunch destination, Protein Bar, to discover that the store had stopped promoting the summer Baja salad (very good, by the way) and had set up a new poster, this one advertising something called a Pump-Quinoa Treat. Name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but, well, it's a blended drink featuring pumpkin and pumpkin spice.
My mind flashed to the weekend's biggest news: Pumpkin spice latté shortage at Starbucks!!! I would taste the Pump-Quinoa Treat and see whether it could possibly be a replacement in case Chicago becomes the next site of the pumpkin-spice latté shortage!!!
One problem: I've never had, nor had the desire to have, a pumpkin spice latté. Another problem: The Protein Bar version is iced, whereas, judging from the WSJ haikus (my main point of reference re: pumpkin-spice lattés, sorry), the appeal of the pumpkin-spice latté at Starbucks is its steaming, warm, gentle entrée into fall. These severe limitations withstanding, I proceeded, today, with the taste test.
So: the facts. The Pump-Quinoa comes in 12-ounce ($4.79) and 20-ounce ($5.79) sizes. I went with the 12-ounce, which has 210 calories, 18g protein, 3.5g fat, 28g carbohydrates, 20g sugar and 2g fiber. You must also choose a milk (I went with soy), protein (also soy) and free boost (I did multivitamin). As described on the Protein Bar blog, the drink consists of puréed pumpkin blended with pepitas, pumpkin spice and quinoa.
The Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latté, per Starbucks's website, is "signature espresso blended with the unmistakable spices of fall—cinnamon, nutmeg and clove—smooth with steamed milk and topped with delectably sweetened whipped cream." A 12-ounce version (made with soy milk and no whipped cream*) cost me $4.15 with tax and contains 240 calories, 9g protein, 4g fat, 41g carbohydrates, 37g sugar and less than 1g fiber. Worse for you than the Protein Bar version, but not by a huge stretch. Also, to be fair to the Pump-Quinoa, I ordered it iced, which apparently is fairly common and, per the barista's approval, "not weird."
Okay, first of all, these both sound terrible. Ordering one at Protein Bar, where there are literally dozens of menu items I love, was pure self-denial. Like most protein-enriched shakes, it's chalky on the tongue. Unlike most protein shakes, it has quinoa and pepitas ground into it, which gives it a chewy thickness. Yet all in all, it wasn't bad. As I sipped it while walking around the corner to Starbucks, I began to enjoy it.
Then, after learning multiple interesting things about Starbucks—you can pay with your phone?—I had a sip of the iced pumpkin-spiced latte. Compared to the Protein Bar shake, which I was still holding in my left hand, it was thin, watery and—most worrisomely—tasted nothing like pumpkin! Was there, I thought, actually a pumpkin-spice syrup shortage happening in our midst? Had they forgotten to put the mysterious cinnamon/nutmeg/clove gel into my drink? Judging from the drink's bright orange color, they had not.
I switched back to the Protein Bar shake but—yuck—after the Starbucks pumpkin-spice latté, it tasted less like a surprisingly thick shake and more like dense, liquified food. I strolled through the Loop, Pump-Quinoa in one hand, Pumpkin Spice Latté in another. I was beguiled and ashamed, but I knew that somehow, I had lost, and the pumpkin blended treats had won.
*Out of some weird sense of embarrassment, I was going to pretend that I ordered this drink without whipped cream. When adding the photo to the post, I realized this would be impossible, but in the interest of calorie comparison, I will leave the "facts" as is.
Last night, Next reached out to its small country of Facebook fans to elicit suggestions for future menus. As always with user-generated Internet initiatives, this brought out a wealth of cogent, thoughtful responses. Below, the ten best worst, unhelpful ideas for Next's next menu, from the 651 current comments:
10. Anywhere in the world AFTER tickets
9. Food of the OREGON TRAIL
8. I apologize if someone already said this, but Hot Pockets.
7. I have an amazing idea...Message me as I already have dinner parties with this theme...
6. Pretty sure there is no Harold's #78 - so build it at Next
5. Snakes on a Plate
4. The life of a caterpillar from beginning stages to building cocoon to butterfly.
3. Anything from one particular commenter, whose menu schemes include: "The Solar System" (One course for every planet bookended by a sun and moon course) and "Human Development" (One course for each stage of human psycho-social development).
2. I know my vegetarian girlfriend would appreciate a few more veg friendly menus.
1. I would be tremendously excited to get my invite. I signed up on the website almost two year ago and yet to receive any sort of table/reservations options.
Erling Wu-Bower, 29, was named chef de cuisine of Avec in late August, shortly after Koren Grieveson and One-Off Hospitality parted ways. The chef, who put in years as an executive sous chef at the Publican and Publican Quality Meats, has been keeping his head down—and not talking to the press—ever since. But earlier this week he took an hour to drink some tea, eat some cookies and tell me about the challenges of taking over a well-loved menu. This is a lightly edited but still rambling version of our interview, which was Wu-Bower's first with the press since moving into his new role; a shorter version will run in the magazine in our October 18 issue.
So we’re in week three now?
Week four, to the day.
Has taking on Avec been a career goal for you?
Was it a goal? Avec is my favorite restaurant in the city. And I think that it’s a great honor that they came to me. It’s very rare that a chef gets to come back to where they started, and where I started is literally—I come here to eat more than any restaurant in the city. I mean there’s maybe two or three other restaurants. I love this place. I really care about this place. I’ve cared about this place as a customer. I‘ve cared about this place as a cook. [Wu-Bower worked under Grieveson at Avec in 2005.] The chance to come back is exciting and more than anything, it’s an honor that they would ask me to come.
Were you surprised when they asked you?
Yeah, certainly, I was certainly surprised.
Describe that conversation for me.
This week tickets went on sale for our next Dining & Libation Society event, and it's something of a trip. A Culinary Journey Through the Meekong Delta at Saigon Sisters is, well, exactly what it sounds like: a five-course meal, with each course rooted in an area along the Meekong river in Southwestern Vietnam. Not sure what such a meal would look like? The menu should clue you in:
Fish fritter on sugar cane | nam prik jam
Drink: Sparkling Sake
Jaew (Laotian salsa) | Laab (minced duck salad) | Sticky Rice
Drink: Beer Lao
Laksa (Curry turmeric fish soup with vermicelli) | Crispy Rice
Fourth Course (shared family style)
Fried whole fish | sweet spicy tamarind
Tofu Ragu with stuffed mushrooms
Thit Heo Kho (5 spice caramel pork) | Pickled Vegetables
Drink: Pinot Noir
Fifth Course (Dessert)
Tofu blancmange | cured mango and lime
Drink: Vietnamese coffee or tea
More information—and tickets ($78, all inclusive)—can be found on our Dining & Libation Society website, dlschicago.com
This year, [TOC Food Editor] David Tamarkin and I had the opportunity to collaborate with Matti Bunzl, the Artistic Director of the Chicago Humanities Festival, on a food-focused slate of events for this year's fest. We just got word that two of the three events are already sold out, but—don't cry—we have a secret stash of tickets that we saved for TOC readers. Fill out the form below, selecting which program you're interested in attending, and cross your fingers; we'll randomly select 10 names for each program and hook the lucky winners up with a pair of tickets. The three programs are:
Adam Gopnik: The Table Comes First [Sold out]
Sunday, October 21, noon–1pm, at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts
New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik discusses the evolution of eating with Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg.
Grant Achatz and the Culinary Cutting-Edge [Sold out]
Sunday, November 4, 10–11am, at Francis W. Parker School
The mastermind behind Alinea, Next and the Aviary will discuss his culinary and aesthetic vision with Madeleine Grynsztejn, Pritzker Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
The United States of Chocolate
Sunday, November 4, noon–1pm, at Francis W. Paker School
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Askinosie chocolate factory in Springfield, Missouri, and to meet its founder, Shawn Askinosie, whose committment to chocolate—both in terms of taste and ethics—is extraordinary. He will be speaking along with Katrina Markoff, the founder of Vosges.
Click here to enter!
I always have the best of intentions when it comes to Chicago Gourmet, last weekend’s massive food and wine fest at Millennium Park. There’s so much drink and food (and the emphasis of drink is intentional) that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. To avoid missing a favorite wine, spirit or chef, one should really plan the day accordingly.
But, alas, the best of intentions don’t always work out, so once again I wandered the park in search of treats and surprises. In some ways, this served me well. If you don’t know what you’re going to get after waiting in a long line, and you’re rewarded with a perfectly-spiced, refreshing green papaya salad with beef jerky from chef Thai Dang of Embeya, it’s all worthwhile. But if you’re craving sweets and keep seeing people walking around holding a stick with a rich, chocolate brownie cube and a toasted marshmallow square on top, the quest to find the s’more-like treat can be maddening.
A funny thing has happened to Chicago Gourmet since it was first put on in Millennium Park a few years ago: The main event—two days of wine, chef demos, wine, restaurant samplings and more wine—has taken a back seat to what is essentially the kick-off party, the Hamburger Hop. Located on the rooftop of the Harris Theater, the Hop takes a handful of chefs (this year Dirk Flanigan, Kevin Hickey and Matt Troost are among them), hands them some beef and a grill, and commands them to start cooking. The result: Enough hamburgers to feed the entire Midwest. Those with tickets to this year's Hop (they sold out almost immediately) were lucky enough to try any burger they wanted. The rest of us will live vicariously through these photos, which comes with its own reward: The absence of heartburn.
A couple weeks ago, Glazed and Infused started promoting a party they're throwing at their West Loop shop tomorrow. The all-day affair is going to feature a DJ. And doughnut samples. And apple cider. And it's all to celebrate Glazed and Infused's fall flavors.
Fall flavors! The hell? Since when do doughnut shops release entirely new menus each season?
Answer: Since right now.
(Yes haters, I know, Doughnut Vault has special doughnuts every day. This is different.)
The new fall menu (posted in full below) is organized just like the previous menu, with doughnuts falling into the categories "raised," "cake," "specialty" and "premium." Fans of the vanilla bean glazed, maple-bacon long John or crème brûlée can relax—those doughnuts are sticking around. All the others? Gone. But with apple fritters, pumpkin old fashioneds and carrot cake doughnuts on the new menu, I doubt you'll miss them.