Chicago Sun-Times
Tasty morsels about Chicago's food scene

January 2010 Archives

Blackbird and Sepia cleaned up, you could say, at the 2010 Jean Banchet Awards for Culinary Excellence, announced Friday night at the Fairmont Chicago. Congratulations to them and all the winners:

Best sommelier: Scott Tyree, Sepia
Best rising pastry chef: Stephanie Prida, Blackbird
Best rising chef: Michael Sheerin, Blackbird
Best celebrity pastry chef: Cindy Schuman, Sepia
Best celebrity chef: Rick Bayless, Frontera Grill/Topolobampo/Xoco
Best neighborhood restaurant: Piccolo Sogno, Tony Priolo
Best fine dining: Vie, Paul Virant

Hey, look, it's a yogi foodie fight!

The New York Times looks at the growing overlap between food lovers and yoga lovers, a movement being nudged gently along by David Romanelli, a yoga teacher in regular dude clothes. The article lays out the arguments on both sides of the fence on whether one can indeed have her bacon-wrapped scallops while in eagle pose and eat them, too.

Can't say I feel so up in arms about this whole yoga-dinner movement, which we wrote about in December. Let them get sweaty and then indulge at the table. If it feels good -- and tastes good -- I'm all for it. Yes, yoga has gotten watered down, to say the least, in the last decade, but hasn't everything? Is the Food Network about cooking?

Speaking of tasting good, what follows is Province chef Randy Zweiban's menu for the event, which suit-wearing stiffs that evening will be glad to know will take place behind closed doors in the restaurant's private dining room.

Menu after the jump.


In case you haven't picked up your Sun-Times today (or logged in, or fired up your Kindle, whatever your case may be), it's chock full of food-related reading -- and it isn't even Wednesday!

Item 1: Columnist Esther Cepeda reflects on the demons chasing our nation's overweight kids -- parents whose own diets are loaded with junk foods. The idea came to her while at an elementary school event for honor roll students, where the main course was syrup-drenched French toast sticks.

Item 2: Reporter Stefano Esposito delves into the bastardization of bolognese worldwide, and Italy's campaign to set cooks straight. (Though he may be a redhead with a British accent, Stefano knows his bolognese. His father is Italian - as in, was born in Italy and lives in Italy, and Stefano visits the mother country regularly).

Item 3: The obligatory get-to-know-the-candidates feature -- mini-profiles of the six Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate -- asks corruption-buster David Hoffman and Company, among other things, the tastiest thing they can cook. Hoffman promises a mean linguini with spicy shrimp. Lealan Jones trumps his more vague-sounding "good shrimp pasta," while Cheryle Jackson, smart woman, touts her sweet potato pie. There isn't a bolognese in the bunch.

Dead on Arrival?

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I was intrigued recently to see the transformation of a storefront at Irving and Broadway into a Taco Del Mar restaurant. Founded in 1992 by brothers James and John Schmidt in Seattle, the restaurants emphasize the freshness of their ingredients, have surf shack-like decor and continuing the California Baja theme, feature fish tacos on the menu. Not that we don't already have plenty of little independently-owned Mexican restaurants around here, but this could be an interesting addition to the mix (and fish tacos really intrigue me).

The Chicago location is the first Taco Del Mar in Illinois, but now I wonder if it will open as planned, in light of the news that Taco Del Mar has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

According to the Seattle Times story, "The chain's roughly 225 stores in the U.S., Canada and Guam will continue to operate, and individual Taco Del Mar franchisees are not in bankruptcy. Larry Destro, who has been CEO since May, said he expects to slow growth at the company, which lost $2.8 million between 2006 and 2008."

Amateur pie bakers wanted!

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Pie people like to have each other's backs. They're just good like that.

How else to explain the recent email from Craig Siegelin, husband of pie-baking Paula Haney of Hoosier Mama Pie Company? Haney and Siegelin are on a quest to sponsor a local pie enthusiast who plans on competing in the amateur portion of the National Pie Championships in April in Celebration, Fla.

Wrote Siegelin: "We were thinking we would provide a little cash to help offset some of their traveling expenses. We might also put a donation jar in the pie shop for them since we think our customers are pretty enthusiastic about promoting pie culture. Let us know if you have heard of anyone."

I haven't heard of anyone yet; neither has the Lake Forest-based American Pie Council, which organizes the championships -- but the call is officially out.

Linda Hoskins, the pie council's executive director (honestly, who wouldn't want that title?), was pleased as punch to hear of Haney's and Siegelin's offer. The contest draws about 100 amateur bakers from across the nation, many of them repeat competitors, Hoskins says. The grand prize: $5,000 and a Sears range.

"Oh my gosh, it's like a family," Hoskins says. "It's fierce competition, but very friendly."

While we're on the topic, Saturday is National Pie Day. (For her part, Hoskins will be out and about in the Chicago area, delivering 300 pies to fire stations, police stations and elsewhere.) Go get some pie.

Here's a gem of an idea: The Logan Square Kitchen, a shared-use commercial kitchen and event space at 2333 N. Milwaukee, on Feb. 13 will host a walkaround day o' sweets featuring Chicago's boutique pastry and confection artisans.

Vendors sampling and selling their stuff include Floriole Bakery, a Green City Market fave; Katherine Anne Confections, whose story we first told back in 2006, when she was working at Potbelly and making truffles on the side; and Nice Cream, which sells its small-batch ice creams (Stout N' Brownies, anyone!) at places like Green Grocer Chicago and Provenance.

The event runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It's free. And on Valentine's weekend, no less. How sweet.

A quinoa cooking tip

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Confession: I've never cooked quinoa. But neither did former Food Networker Dave Lieberman until he starting working on his newest book, The 10 Things You Need to Eat -- so I don't feel so bad.

The book, co-written with Lieberman's roommate/New York Times reporter Anahad O'Connor (and profiled in today's Food pages), doesn't break new ground. We know we should be eating greens and fish and tomatoes and berries. But what the book does really well is lay out in laymen's terms why, out of all the supposed superfoods out there, we should be eating more of these 10, and then offer recipes that simply sound good and actually work. To me, that's a good cookbook.

Lieberman did make a quinoa discovery during the recipe testing phase. He found that following directions on the box -- a 1:2 ratio of quinoa to water -- produced a soggy grain every time, which explains why he initially balked at the stuff. One part quinoa to 1 1/4 parts water, however, proved to be the magic ratio, he says.

While we're on the subject, the Atlantic has the first in a two-part piece on quinoa's history as a "cursed crop." It'll make you appreciate this ancient food.

Art & Gaga .jpg

In case you missed this morning's Oprah show, Lady Gaga was in the hot seat. She revealed that she's a "wannabe foodie" and that Winfrey thoughtfully had Art Smith, her former personal chef turned TV chef-superstar in his own right (and a svelter one these days, we might add), cook her the breakfast o' champions: chicken and waffles.

This excerpt (and the photo) courtesy of Harpo Studios:

WINFREY: So tell me, what would people be most surprised to know about you?

GAGA: Most surprised to know about me. Oh, okay. I can tell you.


GAGA: Oprah had a surprise for me. She had Art Smith, a chef, come and cook
for me today, this morning. And I'm the hugest fan and secretly a
wannabe-foodie and I love to cook. So that's something that people don't
know. I'm such a huge fan. He made me chicken and waffles this morning.

WINFREY: Chicken and waffles. I came in the kitchen this morning. There is
fried chicken everywhere.

GAGA: Everywhere, it was amazing.

WINFREY: And I said, you were eating--have you eaten fried chicken already
this morning?

GAGA: Yes. But it was so--I mean, I always have very trying weeks in terms
of my physical schedule. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I'm just
like, oh, gosh, I need to find my soul and he just gave me some soul this
morning. I said I've got soul for Oprah today.

WINFREY: Thank you, Art. Art Smith made breakfast for Gaga.

Chicago's restaurant community is doing its part to help survivors of the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

Among the efforts:
From Monday to Jan. 24, 32 (and counting) area restaurants will offer diners the opportunity to add $1 to their tab. The total collected will be donated to the nonprofit Heartland Alliance, which has set up an emergency fund for quake survivors.

Buy a burger at DMK Burger Bar, 2954 N. Sheffield, between Tuesday and Jan. 24, and 25% of the proceeds will go to the American Red Cross Haitian Relief Fund or Share our Strength. The burger bar also is hosting a raffle ($20 a ticket) to win a month of free burgers. The drawing will be at midnight Jan. 30. Donations will also go toward relief efforts.

Hearty, 3819 N. Broadway, will forward five percent of its gross sales through Saturday to the International Medical Corps, which is assisting Haiti with health care services.

Chef wannabes, are you ready for your closeup?

Fox is holding a casting call Sunday in Naperville for its newest reality show, "MasterChef," starring salty chef Gordon Ramsay.

The show that TV industry insiders are touting as a culinary "American Idol" will aim to help home cooks "develop their cooking skills while being encouraged, mentored and celebrated by the industry's best."

The show is open only to amateurs; no professional chefs allowed. The casting call is from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Sur La Table, 55 S. Main, Naperville. For details, go to or e-mail

Not up for putting your ego on full display? Try your hand at one of these national cooking contests:

-- Take a picture of yourself somewhere in the world with a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth's syrup for the aptly-named "Where in the World is Mrs. Butterworth?" contest. The grand prize: $1,000 plus one year's supply of syrup. Enter by Feb. 28 at

-- Duncan Hines is asking bakers to share their best birthday cake recipe (bonus if you attach a photo of your frosted masterpiece) for a chance to win a Wii system, four cake mixes, four tubs of frosting and $250 to spend on party decorations. Enter by Jan. 30 at

-- And the big one: Pillsbury's Easy Frost No-Fuss Frosting challenge. Send a photo of a homemade baked good you've dressed up using Pillsbury's frosting-in-an aerosol-can. The niftiest entry wins $10,000 and, of course, a year's worth of frosting. Enter by Feb. 5 at

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We know the President is a White Sox fan. And now, the First Lady reveals her loyalties: she's a Dominick's shopper.

And in other White House food-related "news": Iron Chef America used produce doubles, not fruits and vegetables actually plucked from the White House garden, on its much-touted battle starring White House chef Cris Comerford.


Takashi almost bit it on a fry.

That is: Celebrated chef Takashi Yagihashi nearly choked to death on a cold French fry. It was late, he'd just gotten home from work -- his restaurant, Takashi, on Damen -- and he was hungry.

Yagihashi peeked in the fridge and saw some leftovers in a bag. Fast food from his kids, he knew. Just before popping the fries in the microwave, he popped one cold fry in his mouth. It got stuck somewhere along its downward route. Before the chef realized it, he couldn't breathe. He flailed around in the kitchen, the noise prompting his wife to come downstairs and quickly administer the Heimlich maneuver.

Yagihashi told this story to me and Sun-Times photographer John Kim last week, while showing us how to make ozoni, the Japanese soup with mochi for today's section. It's traditionally eaten at New Year's. People, usually elderly folks, die every year in Japan choking on mochi, he told us. Naturally, choking was on his mind.

I always learn something -- make that, plural things -- from the chefs who graciously agree to contribute to our biweekly column, At the Chef's Table. Something else we discovered on our Takashi shoot: the Japanese are most familiar with square mochi (pictured), while Koreans (according to John) eat theirs sliced into rounds, while Filipinos (me) are accustomed to little balls. 01-06-10-kim-ozoni10.jpg

Once, when I was about 6, my mom made a sweet version of ginataan, a coconut milk soup, with ball-shaped mochi. My friend and next-door neighbor Helen, also about 6, came over and ate with us. Little Helen loved the soup; she took in mouthfuls far too big for her body until, whumpf... one of the mochi balls got stuck in her throat. My sisters remember that moment; I must have been too focused on my own bowl to notice (this is just how the story has been told to me all these years). To me, those chewy mochi were -- are -- the best part about ginataan.

Oh and in case you're wondering, Helen's just fine.

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The call came in.

Edna Stewart -- she of the famed soul food restaurant Edna's on the West Side -- is being honored Sunday with her own day, her brother-in-law, Ronald McCommon told me. The event is at Stewart's church, Union Hill Missionary Baptist Church, 600 S. Tripp.

Fantastic news! If only...

Two more calls set the record straight. Stewart is indeed being honored Sunday, along with three other leaders in the African-American community, but for an event celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Congress. Also attending: U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, Ald. Emma Mitts and Ed Smith and a host of other dignitaries.

Stewart is now 71, says her brother, Sam Mitchell Jr. On March 9, her restaurant at 3175 W. Madison turns 44.

In November, Stewart was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It spread to her stomach and lung, McCommon says. "She's going through chemotherapy and doing a hell of a job with it," McCommon says.

"She has good days and bad days," Mitchell says. "But we're hoping she's going to pull through."

Edna is at her restaurant every day.

So Sunday will not be Edna Stewart Day, after all. Which begs the question -- when will it be?

CHEFS CHOICE.jpg Comfort food. It's that time, right?

That overused phrase resonates when you're talking about First Slice, the nonprofit started eight years by chef Mary Ellen Diaz (right).

Diaz, in a nutshell, feeds Chicago's needy. The former North Pond Café chef has been doing this since 2001, first out of a church kitchen, then in her current space at the Lillstreet Art Center on North Ravenswood.

The core of First Slice is its subscriber food program. For $65, you get three meals a week for a family of three; that money helps pay for the same meals for 20 needy individuals. Proceeds from the café on Ravenswood, and from the First Slice foods on sale at Chicago's Downtown Farmstand, also help fund the program.

A few weeks ago, Diaz opened a second café inside the old Pumping Station at 163 E. Pearson.

It's Tourist Central, this new spot. Customers don't know that Diaz once headed the kitchen at North Pond, or that she left a pretty sweet gig at Lettuce Entertain You, or that her nonprofit has recently partnered with the Night Ministry to feed homeless kids on Wednesdays and Fridays (she's hoping to get some kids into her kitchen to learn the ropes). Customers don't know that the end goal of all of this expansion is to start a job-training program.

Customers come in looking for brochures, and pizza. Diaz doesn't mind. "They're more hungry," she says. "It's fine."

Most of Diaz's staff from North Pond have followed her. "That's a cool litle part of this program, too," she says. "And that's why our cooking is really good."

You'll find salads made with local greens and Michigan cherry pie year-round at First Slice Pie Café. Diaz puts up a lot of summer produce, just as she did in her white-tablecloth restaurant days. There's also quiche and cookies. And pizza. You know - comfort food.

Nearly every weekday, a man in tattered clothes stands at the corner of Randolph and Clark in downtown Chicago during the lunch hour, holding up a sign that says "I'm just hungry."

He never says a word, not even last Tuesday when a mouthy jerk exiting the Daley Center courthouse last Tuesday called to him: "Me too! That's why I'm going to go home and have lunch. See ya."

There are lots of words to loosely diagnose the many problems of the "Me too" jerk, but it's not fit for print in a family newspaper blog. But the man with the sign is curiously silent - not consumed and consuming like the worker bees racing around him during a typical Loop noon hour, heading for food courts and griping about their bosses.

I've never seen him ask for a nickel, and I doubt he begged that middle-aged puffy guy to humiliate him on that crowded downtown street corner. There was a time, dating back to the 1700s and 1800s, when the hungry would go door to door in Great Britain seeking out a bite -- a soul cake -- from their neighbors in exchange for the beggar offering a prayer for the dead of their house. It was a precursor to today's Halloween, according to British lore.

It is a reminder to me that I have many fortunes - family, a home, a job and work I love. On Monday, I'll offer him something more than a smile, and definitely something more than soul cake, since I haven't found a recipe. And I'll pray for that soul-less jerk who thinks it's fun to pick on people. He's clearly hungering for something.

It's that time again -- Chicago Restaurant Week. Make that, weeks.

The inaugural Local Tourist Restaurant Week, kicks off today and runs through Friday, offering $25 lunch and $35 dinner menus at 17 restaurants, including one sixtyblue, Hearty and Wave.

The Chicago Originals Restaurant Week, organized by ChicagoOriginals, a group of independent restaurants, starts Monday and goes through Jan. 31. More than 18 restaurants, including Cyrano's Bistrot and Le Titi de Paris, will offer three- and four-course menus for $29.10, and some wines for $29.10.

The most deals, though, are to be found during Chicago Restaurant Week -- the original restaurant week, some might argue, presented by the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau. It runs from Feb. 19 to the 28th. More than 150 restaurants, from super casual P.J. Clarke's to swanky NoMI in the Park Hyatt, will offer three-course lunch and dinner menus for $22 and $32, respectively.

The larger-than-life Pump Room, where everyone from Sinatra to Judy Garland are counted among the celebrity guests, is downsizing. "Like other hotels in the Chicago area we've had to rethink our fine dining experience," Paul Lauritsen, general manager of the Ambassador East, home of the Pump Room, tells the Sun-Times' Dave Hoekstra.

The bar will remain open and feature a lighter bistro menu, but the main dining room will be shuttered except for special occasions.

Watch the line of recalibrating restaurants to continue to grow this year as the economy remains sluggish and even mom and pop cafes wade through how to keep the cash register ringing. This week, Ina Pinkney said her Ina's, 1235 W. Randolph St., decided to suspend dinner service for the winter season.
In an email, Pinkney writes: "We have worked smarter...and have sustained through the economic struggles that hit the hospitality industry so hard. And we want to be stronger when this storm subsides."

While it was a dinner staple, Pinkney says her fried chicken will now be on the breakfast and lunch menu: next to some nice hot crispy waffles, a la Chicago's Home of Chicken and Waffles, 3947 S King Dr. in Chicago.

Interestingly, it's not just the recession, according to the market research NPD Group. The Food Network and other cooking shows have had a profound effect on where Americans dine, research shows.

"People are eating at home more, but they're not cooking at home more," said NPD Group Kim McLynn noting that folks may decide on take-away foods from local restaurants or they get prepared dishes from the supermarket.

Dine out enough and you can get a sense of whether a true team is working to deliver your food. But until I talked with Chef Dan Tucker at Sushisamba Rio I didn't realize that praise for a wonderful duck toban yaki may not echo to the back of the house.

That's why he and other chefs at some of Chicago's higher-end restaurants have made a point of sending food, including some nice Potbelly's sandwiches, to the back of the house as a "thank you" for their hard work. Now the Publican is making it easy for everyday folks like you and me offer a toast to the chefs and other kitchen staff. That's right, you can send a six-pack of beer to the kitchen for making sweetbreads -- mmm thymus glands -- that your grandparents from Luxembourg loved so much.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.



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This page is an archive of entries from January 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

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