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Tasty morsels about Chicago's food scene

April 2010 Archives

While we're on the subject of "Top Chef," past and present, masters and ... non-masters:

Tune in to "At Martha's Table," Martha Stewart's radio show on Sirius, at 3 p.m. May 5. Rick Bayless is dropping by to make Mexican paella, a guacamole bar with help-yourself toppings and margaritas. We'd love to watch them making the latter -- maybe Bayless will pull a Mindy Segal and get Martha on the path to loopy with his margaritas.

And on May 6 and 7, the rolling "Top Chef: The Tour" stops in Chicago. Head over to 505 N. Michigan, outside the Intercontinental Hotel, to meet a few of the sixth-season cheftestants, taste some food, try your hand at a Top Chef-themed putting green and other stuff.

Tony Mantuano, you are our only hope.

Last night's episode of Top Chef Masters featured Rick Tramonto, the third and final Chicago cheftestant. And when we say featured, we mean prominently -- Tramonto got so much airtime, we were sure he was headed to the finals. NUP_137200_0674.jpg

He had some crazy competition, though. And when we say crazy, we mean in a good way (Debbie Gold of the American in Kansas City, goofy and sweet as can be) and crazy in an unflattering, off-kilter, stealthy, just under the surface kind of way (Toronto's Susur Lee, a self-described "chef gypsy" and a "ninja"). Rounding out the mix: the level-headed, totally cool Jody Adams and and Maria Hines.

The episode was just odd. The quickfire challenge was to create a "perfectly styled fruit plate." (Guest judge was Chicago's own Stephen Hamilton, whom we featured this week). The twist -- the winner would clinch one of the two finalist spots left.

Tramonto oozed confidence (some might say smugness) throughout. He was sure he nailed it with his fruit and herb shooters, tarted up with a Versace cup and "culinary inspirational" cards. But it was Adams' not-quite-cooked through fig and walnut tart that prevailed. See? Just odd.

For the elimination challenge, the chefs were to modernize the family dinner for the cast and crew of ABC's "Modern Family." Tramonto was psyched -- he watches the show with his kids. (We were psyched -- we watch the show after putting the kids to bed!) And we must say: there wasn't one dish that didn't make us hungry. Tramonto's white beans, sausage and escarole was homey enough, but he kept trumping the truffle oil in the dish, which the judges, sadly, couldn't detect. The judges thought there was too much heat to satisfy all taste buds in Lee's roast chicken with curry. And yet, in the end, it was Lee with the record-breaking 19 and a half stars.

Mantuano, it's up to you.

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For those of you who read today's story on Stephen Hamilton and wonder what he does with all the food he gets from clients...

The food that is cooked, handled and primped for the camera gets tossed. Extras that go untouched -- and there often is quite a bit, since clients send food by the case lot -- are donated to food pantries. Staffers sometime take home food that doesn't fit within the strict guidelines for pantry donations. And the rest gets tossed.

"There's a lot of waste in this business," admits Hamilton, who is developing a charity portion of his business as a centralized way to donate extra food.

Want more behind the scenes? Check out his Who's Hungry blog, chronicling a day in his life and offering recipes, video clips and more photography advice.

And here's a taste of Hamilton's appearance on tonight's "Top Chef Masters":

Hey you, with the camera - stop pissing off the chefs. Take your camera back home for dinner, and enter our inaugural Sun-Times food photo contest!

We want to see your best food photos, shots you've taken of food you've cooked, photos that are going to make us hungry. Submit up to three photos at suntimes.com/win by May 12, for a chance to win a behind-the-scenes session with Chicago culinary photographer Stephen Hamilton (four runners-up will get some pretty sweet cookbooks).

Chances are, you've seen Hamilton's work without knowing it. He's shot for McDonald's, Starbucks, Quaker and Kraft. He'll be our judge for the contest, and having spent some time with him in his West Fulton studio, we can attest that the guy is the master at food porn.

A little trivia: Who came up with that phrase anyway?

"Julia Child -- that's what I always heard," Hamilton says.

We couldn't confirm that with Julia, obviously, but the first reference we could find to 'food porn' comes not from within the cooking or restaurant worlds, but from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The food police, if you will. The nutrition watchdog group has published a column called Food Porn in its Nutrition Action Healthletter since 1974, in which it pits a processed or packaged food against a nutritious one.

Executive director Michael Jacobson takes credit for coining the term.

"I think we were probably just figuring how we could lampoon junk foods and put it in Nutrition Action," he said. "And it's long been our readers' favorite part of the newsletter."

Speaking of junk food, that's another of Jacobson's phrases, "if you believe Wikipedia," he says. "I know historians have tried to track down the first use of the term and found those words coming out of my mouth or pen, but I suspect those words have been widely bandied about informally for a while. 'Empty calories' has also been attributed to me."

These days, "food porn" is playfully bandied about as a reference to impossibly luscious photos of food. Fish purveyor extraordinaire Carl Galvan posts links to "fish porn" all the time on his Twitter feed. But in Jacobson's world, the phrase still suggests what it always has -- "foods that are obscene, just shameful to have in the marketplace."

And the best restaurant in North America is....

Alinea.

S.Pellegrino's annual list of the world's 50 best restaurants was released Monday, and the Lincoln Park restaurant was the only Chicago restaurant to make it. It moved up the rankings from 10 to 7, and was given the distinction of best North American restaurant. Kudos to chef Grant Achatz and team.

The other U.S. restaurants cracking the top 50 are: Daniel (8), Per Se (10), Le Bernardin (15), Momofuku Ssam Bar (26), the French Laundry (32), wd-50 (45) and Eleven Madison Park (50). All are in New York except French Laundry, which is in Yountville, Calif.

The best in the world? Noma in Denmark. The Chicago connection? This kid from Deerfield is staging there this summer.

Bison, the new bacon?

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Is bison the new bacon? Or lamb?

OK, maybe not - but it's on Wrigley Field's menu this season, in the form of a bison meatball sandwich (not just any bison, but bison from the Wyoming ranch of the Ricketts family, who own the Cubs, thankyouverymuch).

And it's the centerpiece of a new restaurant at Brookfield Zoo, the Bison Prairie Grill. The restaurant is a permanent addition that will compliment the zoo's new Great Bear Wilderness exhibit (also permanent), where six bison will reside, along with grizzly bears, bald eagles, wolves and other grand animals straight out of the pages of your 3rd-grade history book.

On the menu at Bison Prairie Grill: bison burgers and Navajo tacos with bison chili, along with more predictable fare, including Vienna Beef hot dogs, portobello sandwiches and flatbread pizzas.

We've already made know our affection for bison. Its meat is as tasty as beef but markedly lower in fat, cholesterol and calories than beef, pork and chicken.

And how can you not root for bison, which at one time, numbered in the tens of millions? The animal was nearly extinct by the late 19th century, but efforts in recent years to preserve and grow the population are paying off. To save bison, we need to eat bison. Trust us - it's not that hard a sell.

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Speaking of 30th anniversaries, Heaven on Seven, 111 N. Wabash, turned 30 this year. I know -- I didn't realize it had been that long, either.

You'd think that kind of tenure would make the restaurant official. But here's what really does it: Heaven on Seven is no longer just a tenant. The restaurant had been renting its 7th-floor space in the Garland Building all these years, but after the building went condo a few years ago, owner Jimmy Bannos finally bit and bought the space.

"The legacy will continue," Bannos says.

How to celebrate? Through May, Bannos is setting the price of all entrees at the original Wabash location at $7.77.

They're ba-ack.

Last night's episode of Top Chef Masters was all about personality and pub grub, with the six returning chefs from last season, including Chicago's own Graham Elliot Bowles.

With Frenchman Ludo Lefebvre, who just can't calm down, twitchy seafood genius Rick Moonen and Jonathan Waxman, who we've decided is even more Zen than Rick Bayless, in the mix -- not to mention Bowles' charming performance last time around -- we knew this was going to be entertaining. TOP CHEF_ MASTERS.jpg

The quickfire challenge was pure product placement -- create a dish that compliments a Stoli cocktail for the judges, three of the "Real Housewives of Orange County." Cringe. "I don't really eat red meat, so I'm not the best judge," said one housewife, after trying Ludo's pork chop. With that kind of crowd and Bowles' kind of dish -- black cod crudo -- you knew he was screwed.

The elimination challenge was to reinvent traditional pub dishes. Bowles went out on a limb choosing steak and kidney pie; Ludo whined because he wanted to do fish and chips and so did Moonen, and then Ludo whined some more.

In the end, the judges wanted more of Bowles' kidneys, and Waxman and Moonen, the elder statesmen of the group, advanced.

But Bowles, of course, left us with charmed, the best moment being this lil exchange with his TV frenemy, WD-50's Wylie Dufresne, as they both picked at food in the kitchen:

Dufresne: "Your a professional grazer. I like that."
Bowles: "I didnt get this body by being judicious with my grazing."

By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes:

On Friday, at WhiskyFest in the Hyatt Regency, 151 E. Wacker, Compass Box's U.S. brand ambassador Robin Robinson will accept an award on behalf of John Glaser, the company's founder and whisky-maker. 2010's Malt Advocate Scotch Whisky: Blend of the Year Award is being given to Compass Box for The Peat Monster, a smoky, sultry blend.

If you're ever lucky enough to attend a whisky-blending workshop led by Robinson, then you'll discover that he knows his booze and his business - and while it may be bad form to tap another person's whisky barrel, it's fine to tap a good resource for knowledge.

What's Robinson's advice on choosing whiskies for specific settings? There are no fast rules. As Robinson observes, "Things like this are subjective." He is, however, willing to give some tips and recommendations. Here are the results of a sippable Q&A:

As an aperitif:
You're looking for something lower in alcohol, around 40 percent, with notes of light malt, citrus, honey and toffee. Consider bottles from the Speyside District or the Highlands.

Grill-side, to go with a slab of meat:
High spiciness is what you're after. "There are some wonderful Highland whiskies," Robinson says, "that have some nice spicy notes. I'd also recommend something that has a bit of peatiness to it, because that matches up very well, but nothing with overly heavy peat." (Trivia note: peat is measured in parts per million.) Look for bottles from the Isle of Islay. Pressed for specific recommendations, Robinson suggests Springbank, Oban and Compass Box's Spice Tree.

With chocolate:
"Surprisingly, peaty whiskies work quite well with chocolate," Robinson says. "Laphroaig and chocolate is superb." So do some of the larger, more full-bodied Speysides; Robinson recommends Aberlour a'bunadh. Go Irish, with Clontarf or Connemara. Want something different? Compass Box makes Orangerie, an orange-infused whisky. Your guests will never expect that - and it's gorgeous.

The other day, a reader called me, all pissy because he was in the middle of reading our cover story on sustainable seafood. The story directed him to turn to page 3A. Except he could find no 3A, only page 3.

And before I could get all the words out -- that there was indeed a page 3A -- the annoyed reader hung up.

So... let me get all the words out:

As much as I know that that wraparound Jewel ad is the most annoying thing ever, please know, dear readers, that that ad is what largely pays for the food section.

And please know that every week, the cover story 'jumps' to that page 3A, the inside back page of that wraparound ad.

There are all sorts of production issues I won't get into here, which, much to my chagrin, prohibit us from numbering that page differently -- page 7, say, which seems the most logical thing.

I make this plea especially because today's cover story is one you need to read. It's an amazing story you won't find anywhere else, about a woman you've never heard of. You will be blown away.

Road trip report: Cleveland

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It's interesting that while Chicago Bull Joakim Noah and I were in Cleveland, Ohio at the same time this past weekend, we had somewhat different experiences there and were left with contrasting opinions of the city and its scene. (I was there to watch my White Sox and pick up some Bertman's Ball Park Mustard. In doing so, I discovered that Cleveland is quite the diamond in the rough for foodies -- the Food Network is always finding a new brunch spot, sandwich shop or organic restaurant tell the world about.)

While I did not arrive via private jet and did not have buckets of disposable income at my disposal like other Chicagoans who spent the weekend in Cleveland, I can report that if you expend a small amount of effort -- working the computer searches, talking to natives, asking for directions from hotel staff -- you can have a decent time there, as you can just about anywhere. I don't know what Joakim's requirements are for a fun weekend in a city that's not your hometown (apparently winning an important basketball game isn't among them), but for me, a nice coffee house, a good Italian restaurant, a neat neighborhood to walk around in and a friendly brunch spot make any place welcoming and worth visiting.

The starting point was Erie Island Coffee, a spot on a narrow, almost hidden block downtown that is also home to the House of Blues, and a few restaurants and bars. It's a smallish, though clean, friendly and bright cafe, with locally produced art on the walls, free Wi-fi (great news for those whose hotels charge $15 and up for the privilege of being able to access your e-mail from the room you're paying $150, $200 or more a night for), tasty pastries, a few breakfast sandwiches and salads and panini. You can flip through magazines or local papers there, or make inquiries about area restaurants.

From there you prepare yourself for a treat by heading to Cleveland's Little Italy, a vibrant area, teeming with life on its streets and an abundance of restaurants to choose from. If you don't have a reservation, you can pick your dining spot the old fashioned way, by just walking around and stopping in the place that seems most to your liking from the crowd, the decor, and in some instances, the menu in the window. Such was how we found La Dolce Vita, and the result was sweet indeed. This laidback but impressive and upscale spot takes up the space of three storefronts, and on the Saturday night we were there the crowd ranged from college-aged to senior citizens with their children, to middle-aged folks dressed up for a fancy dinner, and there were a few hipsters in skinny jeans hanging out at the bar to keep things real. The food and experience overall, though, was unreal. From the professional, attentive yet friendly and unaffected service to the appetizers through dessert, nearly everything was perfect and each dish inspired wide-eyed groans of ecstasy at the table. Highlights included the generously sized veal meatballs, the Mediterraneo pizza with eggplant, zucchini, roasted red peppers and mozzarella, the chicken wrapped in prosciutto atop a bed of gorgonzola risotto, the tiramisu and a generously poured chianti. All this while the movie that La Dolce Vita takes its name from was playing on one of the restaurant's walls.

And what better way to let the meal settle than to take in the neighborhood with a leisurely walk around the block, perhaps stopping in the neighborhood smoke shop for a cigar or some cigarettes?

For brunch (or lunch or dinner), Grumpy's, in Cleveland's Tremont area, will leave you anything but. An 80-seat spot with walls filled with photos courtesy of the Cleveland Photographic Society and a menu that is on the spicy side, Grumpy's is a lively place even on weekend mornings but the overall vibe was one that is friendly and relaxed and the food, along the same lines, was comforting with a bit of spice. Highlights here were the jambalaya omelette -- chicken, ham, andouille sausage, shrimp and rice in creole sauce and cheese, the homemade corned beef hash, the biscuits and sausage gravy and the cajun home fries that come with m any of the brunch items. The place is a little kitschy, with its mismatched coffee cups and all, but the food was a hit, which is something that our White Sox (not to mention those Bulls) provided so little of that weekend.

Just goes to prove that if you spend less time bitching about the dearth of fun places to hang out at in a different city, and look around, you just might find someplace new and have some good memories when you look back on your trip.

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Story and photos by guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes:

Think you're over romance? Then stay away from Spiaggia's chef. It is easy to fall in love with Tony Mantuano's love of Italy.

Spiaggia, 980 N. Michigan, opened 26 years ago, on Friday the 13th. According to Mantuano, 13 is a lucky number in Italy. Spiaggia's longevity has less to do with luck than with talent, intelligence and a passion that increases when it is shared.

Spiaggia's crew celebrated the anniversary with a crowd of admirers at the James Beard House in New York City. Asked about Spiaggia's success, Mantuano was swift to give the credit away: design, fashion, food, wine, service - all inspired by Italy. "We love all things Italian. It continues to inspire us, after 26 years," he says.

Don't imagine a quarter of a century of long-distance romance. Over the past few decades, Mantuano spent time in many regions. As he put it, "Where haven't I been?"

Every Spiaggia generation has visited Italy. At last week's Beard House dinner, Spiaggia's general manager Jason Goldsmith stood in for the sommelier, who was . . . you know where. Sarah Grueneberg became executive chef a year ago. Since then, she's been to Italy twice.

Mantuano enjoyed Grueneberg's joy. "Having worked there, and now having Sarah go back to those places that I worked at, 27 years ago, and seeing her fall in love with those people . . . and now it's the children of the people that I worked with who are in the kitchen -- and Sarah is the next generation, falling in love with Italian cuisine from the next generation from the people that I learned from." It's all about heritage.

Last year, the Mantuanos went to Molise, where they were celebrated as ambassadors of Italian culture. the piazza, there was a feast in their honor. "It was one of the greatest experiences ever," the chef said.

It was obvious that, for Mantuano, every moment - including the present one - was the greatest ever. Life was that good. IMG_0748-check-list.jpg

His air of convivial relaxation was infectious. Even the Beard House kitchen had a laid-back atmosphere. It was almost unnatural. At 3 o'clock, Jason Goldsmith (the manager standing in for the sommelier) walked through the kitchen and muttered, "Oh, it's way too clean in here."

Order and Mantuano reigned.

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(Photo by Brian Jackson/Sun-Times)

It's never too early to get excited about the Taste of Chicago (or miffed, depending on how you look at the city's decision to ban suburban food vendors, including longtime fave Aunt Diana's of frozen chocolate-covered banana fame).

Today through Thursday, take in deals at more than 40 restaurants that will be participating in the Taste. It's the 30th anniversary of the food fest, so specials are all hinged to the year 1980 or the number 30 in some form -- $19.80 prix fixe menus, 30 percent off, etc. Think of it as Restaurant Week -- or weeks, since we can't seem to stick to just one week -- all over again.

Some of the deals are kind of eh -- a dozen free pierogies, a $3 value, with a $30 purchase at Kasia's Deli doesn't exactly scream celebration -- but we're loving Robinson's #1 Ribs' offering, a half slab of ribs, cole slaw, a roll and fries or beans for the 1980s price of six bucks!

Check out all the specials, and print the coupon, which you'll need when you order, at tasteofchicago.us.

Spend any amount of time with Sable chef Heather Terhune (right), and you just want to knock off for the rest of the afternoon and go get some ice cream. Or some fried dough. Or both. 3-30-10_podgo_chef_4.jpg

We had a ball watching Terhune make funnel cakes for today's At the Chef's Table column. Not only because, well, we're talking powdered sugar-covered fried dough, or because she makes it look sooo easy (and it actually is pretty easy, but even the chef admits "it's kind of a pain to fry to order).

Simply: Terhune is a riot. A few swirls of batter was all it took to get her reminiscing about her childhood and many a summer spent at the Iowa State Fair, "the best state fair anywhere," she declared.

"They've got pork chops on a stick. And the Maid-Rite sandwich, this loose meat sandwich. Corn dogs, dipped right there," Terhune told us. "It's really more about the food than anything."

We'll say. Take a look-see (isn't that what they say in Iowa?) at the food roster for this year's fair. Whatever Funtastick Pork on-a-stick is, we want to know. (Yes, that's Garrison Keillor below, at the Iowa State Fair, but with a pork-chop-on-a-stick.)

Having grown up in Kansas ourselves, where they do say, 'look-see', we can only speak for the freak show that was the Kansas State Fair; we don't remember much about the food, but we do remember the Viking boat ride and the godawful Zipper. So, please, tell us -- have you been to the Iowa State Fair? And how's the food?

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Don't fear the fish

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A few tidbits that didn't make it into today's cover story on choosing sustainable seafood, which writer Lisa Shames so deftly points out is never cut and dry:

The Shedd Aquarium's next Right Bite dinner is from 6 to 9 p.m. May 5 at Uncommon Ground, 1401 W. Devon. If it doesn't snow (ba-dum-bum!), the evening will begin with hors d'oeuvres and wine on the rooftop garden and follow with dinner, dessert and much insight from Shedd horticulturist Christine Nye. Diners will get eco-friendly garden tool kits. The cost of the dinner is $75. Call (312) 692-3206 or e-mail adults@sheddaquarium.org.

And that beaut pictured above? That's a red scorpion fish from northern New Zealand. We went the tamer route with the photos we ended up running in print, but this photo by S-T photographer Jean Lachat, taken at Supreme Lobster in Villa Park, is too fantastic not to share.

Diver-caught scorpion fish is a perfect example of an underutilized species, says Supreme Lobster's Carl Galvan, a font of information about this sort of stuff and the go-to guy for a good number of chefs around town. Ugly? Maybe, but "it's a really sexy fish. It looks scary from a civilian point-of-view, but when you get a chef looking at it, they get all giddy and excited," Galvan says.

His recent scorpion fish customers include Perennial's Ryan Poli and, just this morning, Eve's Troy Graves. "Anytime [Galvan] calls something sexy, you've gotta be intrigued," says Graves, who has planned a scorpion fish tartare with coconut lemongrass creme brulee as an appetizer special for the next few days.

Phillip Foss of Lockwood also has blogged about scorpion fish's integral role in bouillabaisse. Foss, of course, is the same guy who's been having his way with Asian carp lately. But that's another story entirely; listen to him tell some of that story here.

Foodie the iPhone app debuted four months ago (the brainchild of Chicago food writer Ari Bendersky and his business partner and digital strategist, Matt Marcus), and it was a good idea from the start -- a way for diners to book tables at some of the city's most popular restaurants AND get daily specials and little dining perks (a free dessert here, a discounted prix fixe there) exclusive to Foodie users.

Good turned to great this week, as Foodie has launched a Web site, making those 'exclusive' deals available free to the masses now, not just iPhone users (the app costs $1.99). More than 60 restaurants (Graham Elliot, Spiaggia, Lula Café, and so on) offer deals through Foodie.

Speaking of iPhone apps, Vienna Beef has gone viral, too, with a Vienna beef hot dog locator app. Users can zero in on the closest purveyors in their zip code. It gets better: They also can play hot dog cop, flagging hot dog stands that are "No Ketchup" violators, a release states.

The Vienna iphone app is free and available at itunes.com/appstore or here.

The sweetening of Chicago continues.

We love the idea of the one-day pastry market highlighting some of the city's talented, little-guy bakers that Logan Square Kitchen has hosted twice now this year.

Now, from Chicago food bloggers comes a blogger bake sale from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday at Smash Cake, 2961 N. Lincoln.

Proffering their scones, cookies, cupcakes and more will be bloggers Maris Callahan of In Good Taste and Jaclyn Kolber of Foodie Reflections, as well as folks from Foiled Cupcakes and Kudos Kookies.

All of this is part of the annual Share our Strength Great American Bake Sale. Proceeds go to Share our Strength's No Kid Hungry program, aimed at eradicating childhood hunger.

The third annual Chicago Gourmet isn't until September, but organizers are counting on early birds hungry for the worm.

Tickets for the two-day eating fest in Millenium Park went on sale last week at a discount -- $90 a day, or $175 for both days. Regular ticket prices are $150 and $250, respectively, so it's quite a deal.

Put on by the Illinois Restaurant Association, the event will feature more than 80 chefs and sommeliers.

All the familiar big-name toques will be cooking (Bayless, Bannos, Tramonto and so on) as well as local treasures you don't usually see at these foodie events, including Tony Hu of the burgeoning Chinatown empire that began with Lao Sze Chuan, fishmonger Dirk Fucik and Terry's Toffee owners Terry Opalek and Michael Frontier.

Besides food booths, there will be cooking demonstrations, seminars and book signings, but all of those details are still being hammered out since, well, we're talking September.
Chicago Gourmet will be Sept. 25 and 26.

For more details or for early-registration tickets, go to chicagogourmet.org.

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A belated congratulations to Blackbird's Mike Sheerin (above), who on Tuesday was named one of Food and Wine magazine's Best New Chefs for 2010. (Kudos, too, in a six degrees sort of way to Missy Robbins, formerly of Spiaggia and now of New York's A Voce, and John Shields, formerly of Alinea and now of Town House in rural Virginia.)

In other chef notes, catch Vermilion chef Maneet Chauhan on the Food Network's "Iron Chef America" at 8 tonight. She battles Iron Chef Morimoto.

And keep your "Top Chef Masters" high going by heading to Marcus Samuelsson's viewing party at 8 p.m. April 14 at the rooftop C-View lounge in the Affinia Hotel, 166 E. Superior. The New York-based chef will be there -- which must mean he did pretty well on the episode.

Top Chef Masters Season Two is officially underway, and it started on exactly the right note, with Spiaggia's Tony Mantuano as victor! Well, one-half victor, anyway, with L.A.'s Susan Feniger making up the other half of the winning team. We knew there was a good reason for Mantuano's viewing party tonight at his Mag Mile restaurant, other than to, uh, watch him on a big screen.

The show started off, as usual, with a bang: the old junk food quickfire challenge, using foods procured at a gas station.

Mantuano was in a group of six that also included L.A.'s Govind Armstrong, Ana Sortun of Cambridge, Mass., Jimmy Bradley of New York and Seattle's Jerry Traunfeld. The chefs were paired up, which meant two of them would advance.

Sortun and Traunfeld seemed to be the early leaders, producing a sophisticated-looking crispy rice cake with 'clamesco' sauce (thanks, Clamato juice). Mantuano and Feniger went sweet -- and safe -- with maple bread pudding and caramelized bananas. And Armstrong and Bradley just went scary, with a shockingly orange Flamin' Hot Cheetos mac 'n' cheese and grilled Slim Jims.

Lucky for Mantuano and Feniger, the judges -- the post-punk band the Bravery -- also had a sweet tooth, and gave their dish the top score. Which brings us to this revelation: Mantuano is way hip! Upon learning that the Bravery were the judges, the 56-year-old chef revealed to the cameras that the band is on his iPod.

On to the elimination challenge: cook a romantic dish for 30 couples on their first date. Mantuano smiles and says, "If I can make the President and First Lady happy on their date night, I can make first-time daters happy." Aha! He invoked Obama, as we'd also predicted.

But he was right. While Govind just got grumpier and grumpier, both Mantuano and Feniger seemed to float, all million-watt smiles as they won the judges over with black pepper shrimp and scallops and taleggio pasta with mushrooms and truffles. "An intense experience," said judge and British food critic Jay Rayner.

Right on.

A killer of a sandwich

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[540 cal, 32g fat, 1380mg sodium]
Really, KFC? Really?

The Food Network is looking for more hapless cooks for its second season of "Worst Cooks in America," a sort of culinary boot camp starring chef Anne Burrell (a k a, that chick who takes hair style tips from Guy Fieri).

So if you have zero cooking skills but really, truly want to learn how, head to the April 17 casting call at the Affinia Chicago Hotel, 166 E. Superior. It runs from 9 a.m. To 3 p.m.

"We are looking for the types who are always asked to 'just bring the napkins' to the potluck dinner, the ones who consider scrambling an egg overwhelming, people who over-season, under-season, over-cook, under-cook or just plain never set foot in the kitchen," a press release reads.

For more details, go to worstcookscasting.com.

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Happy Birthday, Twinkie.

The iconic snack cake is 80 today, which means we can run these bits of useless but charming trivia:

The original Twinkie was filled with banana cream, but the recipe was tweaked in the '40s because of a banana shortage.

James Dewar, a manager at Continental Baking Company's Hostess bakery in Schiller Park, invented the Twinkie. He called it that after seeing a billboard advertising Twinkle Toes Shoes.

Back in Dewar's day, Twinkies were two for a nickel.

Also, this gives us an excuse to run arguably the finest piece of Twinkie journalism by our own Zay N. Smith, whose prose was largely what drew us to want to work at this paper lo so many years ago. (Smith left the Sun-Times last year.)

Smith's column, after the jump, ran on April 4, 1996 under the headline, "Twinkie Experiment Goes up in Smoke."

Tony Mantuano is going all Final Four with the April 7 premiere of "Top Chef Masters."

Mantuano is throwing a viewing party from 9 to 11 p.m. that evening in the private dining rooms at Spiaggia, 980 N. Michigan, and he's letting fellow chef-testant Susan Feniger in on the fun -- via Skype. She'll be talking from her Los Angeles restaurant, Street.

The restaurant sent an email blast out at 10:30 11:30 a.m. today about the $20-a-head party (that's right, $20). Phones were off the hook within 15 minutes. The event is officially sold out, spokesman David Semanoff told us just a few minutes ago.

The 100 lucky guests get to nibble antipasti, cheese, sweets and a dish that Mantuano made during the premiere episode (details of which are being held under lock and key, of course).

The $20 donation will go to Feeding America, the charity Mantuano has chosen to compete for on the show.

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Janet Rausa Fuller

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

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