Amber

Amber Gibson is a food journalist and journalism student at Northwestern University. She has a wicked sweet tooth and her writing has appeared in Time Out Chicago, Plate, The Daily Northwestern, North By Northwestern and Gapers Block.

Nov 102012
 

When a restaurant is located two doors down from Blackbird it’s easy to be overlooked. On Saturday night, Alimentari Osteria was woefully empty while both Blackbird and sister restaurant, Avec, were swarming with people. Why the discrepancy? Was the food so starkly different, or was it a matter of reputation? Blackbird does have a Michelin star, for what that’s worth. And Paul Kahan is a bit of a legend in Chicago.

Bread service

We had our pick of tables, and chose a window-side banquette seat. Toasted bread served with olive tapenade and fresh tomatoes was a nice Italian twist to traditional bread and butter and served almost immediately, so we could nibble as we perused the menu..

Farinata pizza with wild mushrooms and mozzarella

Appetizers were delicious, even yummier than the entrees, as I would later discover. A gluten-free farinata pizza made with chickpea flour and topped with loads of wild mushrooms and mozzarella was the stand out dish of the night. I don’t have any gluten sensitivities and neither did my dining companion, but we both enjoyed the cake-y texture of the chickpea dough, which complemented the robust earthy mushrooms perfectly. This pizza is appetizer size, with a six-inch diameter. Alimentari has several new 12-inch pizzas on the menu too, with six offerings ranging from a Napoli pizza with anchovies to a lamb sausage and bell pepper pie. While I didn’t have the chance to try any of these this time around (my stomach can only handle so much), I saw a cute brick oven on my way to the ladies room that resembles a gigantic apple, and the pies coming out looked so good that I’ll be sure to order one next time.

Grilled calamari with Northern beans and arugula

Grilled calamari served with Northern beans and arugula was another tasty antipasto. The calamari were tender and just the slightest bit chewy, while the light tomato sauce with beans was a great accompaniment.

Seared sea bass

After a great start to the meal, the entrees were rather ordinary. The fish of the day was seared striped bass with a lemon-caper sauce. The fish itself was fresh and tasty, but the mashed potatoes underneath fell flat. Maybe some garlic cloves would have livened up the starch.

Roasted chicken with prosciutto, swiss chard and mozzarella

Roasted organic chicken stuffed with swiss chard, prosciutto and mozzarella was a little more interesting and flavorful. Again, though, the side potatoes, this time roasted, were rather bland.

Panna cotta with raspberry and mint sauce

Desserts, including ice cream and sorbet, are all made in house. We tried the panna cotta, which our waiter insisted had nutella mixed in, although we could only taste vanilla. The cooked cream was topped with raspberry and mint sauces, and was more rigid than I like,  perhaps due to too much gelatin. It did have a nice sweet and creamy flavor though.

Our waiter, Drew, was attentive and pleasant, and the menu shows enough promise that I would return, particularly for an early meal before a show. Randolph St. is overflowing with restaurants, but if you’re looking for somewhere quiet and relaxed for a simple Italian meal, you won’t be disappointed.

 

Alimentari Osteria

621 W. Randolph St.

Chicago, IL 60661

(312) 382-888

Oct 142012
 

You know the drill – stumbling home from a busy day of work or school and starving for dinner, but no matter how creative you get with your condiments and beer, they won’t constitute a meal. Don’t worry. Gone are the days when “quick and easy dinner” means Hot Pockets and Famous Amos. With Meez Meals you really can have 30 minutes meals. Take that, Rachel Ray.

Meez Meals philosophy is healthful, convenient food that you can cook from scratch. They just measure and prep all the ingredients for you, so you can pop everything on the stove when you walk in the door and without worrying that you’re missing a critical ingredient.

All the meals sound delicious and have a good nutritional balance of protein, whole grains and fresh produce. Meez Meals tries to source from local businesses, like Testa Produce and Greco & Sons for produce, Phoenix Bean Products for tofu and Bennison’s Bakery for bread. Every meal is vegetarian, although some meat suggestions for omnivores are included. I’ve been stalking the menu for several weeks (there are five meals to choose from each week) and I haven’t seen one that I wasn’t interested in trying. Nor have I seen any repeats.

Last week, I prepared and devoured two Meez Meals – rotini with caramelized fall vegetables and Mediterranean mushroom tacos – with my roommates.

Ingredients, all labeled and bagged

Lentils took about a half hour to cook, but even in a dazed stupor and trying to do a couple hundred pages of Impressionism reading while cooking, I couldn’t mess up. The directions are easy to follow and there is even a hotline you can call each evening from 5-8 pm if you really get stuck. The only minor imperfection with the meal is that many of the kale leaves were yellowed or black, but there were plenty of vibrant green leaves, so I really couldn’t complain. Portions were huge – what was described as portions for two ended up easily feeding three with plenty to spare.

My first bowl of rotini and lentils. Yes, I went back for seconds.

See? Portions really are huge!

Mediterranean mushroom tacos were perhaps even more delicious, and even quicker to make. It took us less than 15 minutes from when we entered the kitchen to when we were sitting at the table eating our meal. The mushrooms came in a bag with onions and seasoned with rosemary. All we had to do was cook them in a skillet for seven minutes before adding the cannellini beans. Then we quickly toasted our corn tortillas (yay for corn and not flour!) and we were ready to eat another hearty vegetarian meal. The lemon crema made with kalamata olives was divine, and such a pretty lavender color. Sliced almonds were the perfect crunchy final touch.

Mediterranean mushroom taco ingredients

Ordering two meals a week with two servings a meal costs $55. When you consider how convenient the service is, along with the generous portion sizes and how fun it can be to cook with your family, friends or significant other, it seems like a great option for anyone who loves cooking but might not be the most creative or doesn’t always have time to shop for groceries. You are technically cooking from scratch, but with all the prep work done.

Mediterranean mushroom tacos

Ready for your close up?

Meals are delivered each Monday in reusable cooler boxes, and you can order each week, so there is no long-term commitment. So far, Meez Meals has delivered to more than a thousand households in the past two years. If you want to give them a try, mention “Chicago Bites” in the notes when you place your first order for $15 off.

I was invited to try Meez Meals as a member of the media.

Sep 162012
 

Zealous celebrates its 19th anniversary this month with a throwback 5-course degustation menu featuring favorite dishes from over the years.

I had never been to the restaurant before, but thoroughly enjoyed my meal. Both the food and service impressed me. Andrew, our sommelier/waiter, provided excellent wine pairings – perhaps the best I’ve had at a Chicago restaurant. Each wine was served at the proper temperature and service was orchestrated perfectly between wine and food. There was never a lull between courses, yet we never felt rushed. Bread was even offered again as soon as I had finished one roll. I didn’t need any more, but it was a nice touch nevertheless.

Our meal kicked off with a glass of bubbly Gruet Blanc de Noirs from New Mexico and foie gras torchon hidden under a carrot ginger gelee.

Foie gras torchon under carrot ginger gelee

First course was a grilled Loch Duart salmon with freekah, date puree, almond foam and crushed almonds and gremolata under the foam. This was perhaps my favorite course of the evening, and a generous portion of fish for a first course. The salmon was cooked to mid-rare perfection, so the toothsome freekah was a great contrast to the tender fish. The almonds and dates added nice texture and flavor without distracting from the exquisite salmon. Our wine pairing of 2010 Morgadío Albariño Rías Baixas Legado del Conde was smooth, clean and bright. Considering that the last time I had Scottish salmon, at etoile, I got food poisoning, this was exponentially better.

Grilled Loch Duart salmon over freekah

Next, we had a grilled Hudson Valley foie gras. The creamy foie was spread on a crunchy lobster toast in pineapple vinaigrette and paired with Domäne Wachau’s Grüner Veltliner, a dry medium-bodied white.

Foie gras on spicy lobster toast

Our main course was seared duck breast with cornbread, caramelized onion barbecue sauce and black bean corn salsa with blue corn tortilla chips. The duck was incredibly tender with a nice flap of crispy skin, and the salsa was very fresh. It was nice to see a Southwest take on duck when I’m used to either French or Asian preparations.

Seared duck breast with cornbread and salsa

After a simple tropical granita palate cleanser, it was time for dessert. Between the steamed valrhona chocolate currant pudding cake with basil ice cream and the brown butter apple tart with Goldschläger ice cream, the apple tart was my favorite. Perfectly flaky and tart with a sprinkling of cinnamon, and the Goldschläger ice cream was a great accompaniment. I’ve never had Goldschläger before, but after trying the ice cream variation, I think I’ll order some next time I’m out.

Dessert duo: brown butter apple tart and steamed Valrhona chocolate cake

Chef Michael Taus came out to greet us, wearing a baseball cap, and mentioned how frequently he changes the menu. He has a 5-course vegetarian tasting menu available as well at the same price ($85), and even enjoys creating special meals for guests with dietary restrictions. With so many restaurants shuttering after just a few years, it’s incredible that Taus has kept Zealous alive and well for nearly my entire lifetime. It’s a little farther west than I typically wander in River North, but well worth the trek. Street parking is a cinch, and the neighborhood itself is residential and fairly quiet.

Brown butter apple tart with Goldschläger ice cream

Even if you can’t make it in by the end of September to try the “Best of the Best” tasting menu, Zealous is worth visiting. I suspect I’ll be back soon to try the skatewing with pumpkin risotto. That is, if it’s still on the menu. And if it’s not, I know Chef Taus will do his best to whip it up if I ask nicely. All while still tweeting from the kitchen (@Michael_Taus)

Zealous

419 West Superior St.

Chicago, IL 60654

(312) 475-9112

I was invited to Zealous as a member of the media. All food was free.