Friday, January 9, 2009

Top Toast of 2008

Everyone's doing their "best of 2008" lists this time of year, so I thought I'd throw mine in the mix. Also convenient for me, as I haven't been too diligent about updating in the last... mmm... eight months or so. But that doesn't mean I stopped eating and cooking!
Without further ado, here's my Top Toast of 2008:

10. Homemade Pasta

One of my favorite parts of training for the Chicago marathon was the carbs. Basically, running long distances on a regular basis gives you a good excuse to eat carbs, because you need to build up your glycogen stores to fuel you through the miles ahead. Starting in May, I did long runs every Saturday (and sometimes Friday) morning, which I nearly always proceeded with a healthy carb-rich dinner. Lucky for me, pasta is one of my favorite foods, so that was often my choice - I even learned how to make it from scratch! After a couple of months I've gotten kind of good at it too. Here's a recent homemade meal of Butternut Squash Ravioli with Brown Butter and Sage.

9. Strawberry Shortcake
I was home over the fourth of July this past summer, and my mom made strawberry shortcake. Homemade biscuits. Sweet New Hampshire strawberries, perfectly ripe, in season. Freshly whipped cream - not too sweet. 'Nuff said.

8. Full English Breakfast, Happy Days, London

As far as a full English breakfast goes, it doesn't get more real - or delicious - than this one. Messy scrambled eggs, potatoes, sweet salty beans, grilled mushrooms and tomato, zesty sausages, and buttery toast. No black pudding.
7. Controversial Cupcakes at the Bleeding Heart Cafe

These savory Top Chef inspired creations were quite an experience. While the Wasabi White Chocolate was a kick in the mouth, the Perplexed Green (Curry) Tofu was rather delightful, and the Chicken Stir Fry cupcake was kind of awful but inventive nonetheless.

6. Return to Pataka

My European travels last March took me back through Edinburgh, Scotland, where I enjoyed some of the best Indian food I've ever had at Pataka. Curry is one of the UK's most popular foods - whether sit-down or carry-out (take-away as they say), Indian and Pakistani restaurants easily outnumber all other cuisines in the country. I got my favorite - Chicken Korma. Mmmm.

5. BBQ Chicken Pizza

I've never really been a fan of barbeque sauce - until this year. On a whim, my friend Ian and I picked up the BBQ Chicken Pizza from Homemade Pizza Kitchen (they make it fresh, you bake it), and it was AMAZING. It's essentially a white pizza with mozzarella, thinly sliced red onion, cilantro, and succulent little chunks of chicken, all drizzled with sweet, tangy barbeque sauce. It's all I've purchased from HPK since.
4. Topolobampo

I love it when my parents come to town. First, because since they still live in New Hampshire, I hardly ever see them anymore - it's nice to get some face time. And second, because they take me out to eat. Good places, too. This time around we went to Topolobampo. Mom's always been a fan of Rick Bayless and Frontera Grill, but she'd never been to Topolo, Frontera's fancy sister restaurant. The food was a knockout - wonderfully crafted "dressed up" Mexican, and the tasting menu was a fantastic way to experience it all.

I believe this guacamole served with cucumber and jimica slices may have been inspired by the episode when Rick Bayless guested on Top Chef: Chicago... Richard won the quickfire (thereby getting his dish on the Topolo menu) with a jimica wrapped veggie taco appetizer. The episode aired the night before our meal.
We finished up with Bayless's play on churros - light, crispy Mexican doughnuts served with a rich chocolate dipping sauce.

3. Birthday Dessert at TRU

In celebration of my 25th birthday, Jeanette, Leanne and I decided to check out the dessert tasting menu at TRU, one of Chicago's fanciest, schumanciest restaurants. Dinners here run somewhere around $200 a pop (sans drinks), but the dessert tasting is a slim $35 a person for five courses of pastriatic bliss. The place had a regal, stuffy feel about it, and despite being nearly packed it was surprisingly quiet. The staff were a bit stiff and formal, but our sommelier was really down to earth, and gave us a good deal on a really awesome bottle of dessert wine. The name of course escapes me now, but it was a great pair to all of our courses.

Unfortunately, I wasn't too eager with my camera, but here's a small sample of some of the delights we enjoyed:
A delightful, refreshingly citrusy mini aperitif...
A birthday wish in white chocolate...

And, on your way out the door, they hand you one of these, to "enjoy with your morning coffee". As if to say, "you'll have enough of a food hangover that you'll be needing it". It was a nice bow on a really lovely evening.
2. Stephanie Izard Winning Top Chef: Chicago

Ok, not edible. But still a really exciting moment (and television season) for Chicago foodies - and to top it all off, I got to interview her. Pretty cool. I can't wait until her Wicker Park / West Town restaurant, The Drunken Goat, opens this summer!!

1. Schwa.

I got a lucky seat at the much-sought-after Schwa last spring almost by accident. Considered by many Chicago foodies to be the very best deal for fine dining in all of the city (nine courses for $109 flat - and BYOB), it is nearly impossible to get a reservation. Probably because there are only four guys who work there, plus one helpful girlfriend who occasionally comes in and answers the phone. The brainchild of tortured genius (and Food & Wine Best New Chef) Michael Carlson, Schwa serves eclectic, gastro-molecular creations that challenge the diner just enough, and deliver exciting and unexpected flavors that work. The four chefs do all the cooking, hosting and serving themselves. It's quite an operation to behold, and considering there are only 26 or so seats, it feels like an exclusive dinner party.

Anyway, due to the value and incredible hype, it's incredibly hard to get a reservation. Call the restaurant at any given time, and you'll probably get a message saying that the voicemail box is full. If you're lucky, you'll call at just the right moment and be able to leave a message - which are always returned diligently. And if you're really lucky - like my friend Matt - you'll call at the precise moment when that helpful girlfriend picks up the phone intending to make another call. You'll startle her when you say "hello?" and she's expecting to hear a dial tone instead of a voice. And you'll bite your lip to supress the giant smile when she takes your reservation for just a few weeks away.

But then, what will you do when, just days before your reservation date, the girl you're seeing tells you she doesn't have the time to squeeze you in before starting her residency in Denver? You call me up, of course! And that's how I got my accidental seat at Schwa. But what an excellent twist of fate it was - probably the most etherial and awe-inspiring dining experience I've ever had. Here are a few highlights:

Chimay Beer Cheese Soup with a pretzel puff and mustard rind. Beer + cheese = mmmmm.

Stone crab with banana, celery, and coriander. Sweet, savory, and refreshing.

And finally, pad thai, with jellyfish tentacles subbed for noodles. Surprisingly fantastic.

A delicious 2008, all in all. Let's hope 2009 is even more flavorful.

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