Colonization has led to some amazing culinary stepchildren. Granted, foreign occupations rarely come to an end peacefully, but just look at some of the results: you can find world-class Indian food in London, authentic Portuguese bread in Goa, along India’s West coast and in Vietnam, there is always that reminder of French colonization: the banh mi sandwich. In one of the best mash-ups of two disparate countries that have almost nothing in common geographically (or agriculturally, for that matter), this French-Vietnamese hybrid combines the wonderful texture and aroma of a great French baguette, albeit a few inches thicker than the narrow ones you’ll see in Paris, and stuffs it with Southeast Asian ingredients like cilantro, green chilies (in the form of jalapeños) and tart, pickled daikon radish. The proteins are equally intriguing: headcheese, lemongrass pork and tofu are a few of my favorites. Ba Le has practically cornered the market in Uptown for great banh mi – the bakery cranks out thousands every week – but Nhu Lan Bakery, on the Western fringe of Lincoln Square, is no slouch. Their bread is baked on the premises everyday, and their fillings are vibrant and equally fresh.
I can respect a barkeep who squeezes his/her own fresh lime and grapefruit juice. I can also appreciate the judicious use of bourbon or rye, Campari and Peychaud’s bitters; a well-shaken egg white is a wonderful way to add froth without compromising flavor. Bradley Bolt has brought all of these seemingly disparate ingredients together, to form the “house” cocktail at Bar DeVille, one of Ukie Village’s hidden gems. Know of another great cocktail in town? Let me know. I’m always game for some “research.”
I usually just go for the pizza, or maybe a sandwich; I’ve even come to love the powdered sugar-dusted coffeecake. But for some reason, the gelato at Labriola Bakery and Cafe in the Oak Brook Promenade is also worth noting. On a recent visit, they had a few tempting flavors. You know, the usual stracciatella (chocolate chip) or nocciola (hazelnut), and there’s nothing wrong with those. But we were encouraged to try one of their relatively new flavors – Belgian cookie. What I thought was going to be a sugar bomb, turned out to be an almond-y creamy treat on a warm, late Spring afternoon. Mangia!
While every other new restaurant in Chicago lately features either tacos, burgers or Neapolitan pizza, it’s refreshing (albeit, quite a bit more expensive) to see Henri trying to bring back the era of luxe dining, in a room where you can actually have a conversation with your dining companion(s). Chef Dirk Flanigan – who still oversees The Gage next door – is flexing his French skills, in both technique and ingredients, and one of the menu’s stars seems to be the steak tartar. I’ve been seeing this assemblage of raw beef, seasoned with capers, a little egg yolk and accompanied by toast or chips, at a number of places recently, including Duchamp and Leopold. But the version at Henri is simply splendid. If you are going to splurge a little, and you need your red meat quota, this is the dish to get.
Thanks to the fine folks at Vosges, and nearly every County Fair in the Midwest, chocolate-covered bacon is no longer seen as a bizarre love child of bittersweet and smoky. The combo is seen almost as frequently as brandade or arancini, and bridges the gap between sweet and savory, especially at the breakfast table. At Kanela Breakfast Club, in a space that used to house the first Orange in Lake View (where Top Chef competitor Dale Levitski cut his teeth), a couple of Greek guys have reinvigorated the morning meal, by offering their own version of chocolate-covered bacon waffles, accented with a bit of bacon “dust.”
Note: in the video, I refer to them as Kanela’s, but in truth, there is no apostrophe “s.” Apologies on the premature pluralization.
Visiting the Hopleaf in Andersonville is an education (and appreciation) in the nuance and complexity of Belgian beer. With more than 100 by the glass, Michael Roper has assembled a list that can humbly be described as mind-bogglingly impressive. But don’t rule out the food.
A few years ago, Roper installed a kitchen, with a menu that matches up extremely well with all kinds of beer. His go-to dish, though, is the moules frites – steamed mussels with crispy, Belgian-style french fries (and a requisite side of garlicky aioli). They come steamed either in a Belgian white ale, or a “style of the day.” An order for one will cost $12; orders for two, $21.