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May 2011 Archives

Vosges Haut Chocolat owner Katrina Markoff, who scours the globe for the exotic chiles and berries that flavor her pricey, decadent truffles, is launching a not-so-haute brand of chocolates.

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The Chicago entrepreneur, who opened her first shop 13 years ago in her 20s, was at the Sweets and Snacks Expo at McCormick Place Tuesday showing off her Americana-accented Wild Ophelia line of chocolate bars that she says is aimed at "drug stores to truck stops to big-box."

In fact, the Wild Ophelia bars -- which will cost anywhere from $2.97 to $4.99, depending on the retailer -- won't even be sold in Vosges stores.

Vosges truffles are laced with ingredients like Krug champagne, aged Italian balsamic vinegar and black Hawaiian sea salt.

Wild Ophelia bars, by contrast, contain dried cherries from Michigan, chunks of Georgia peaches and beef jerky from Wyoming. Yes, kids, there is a beef jerky chocolate bar.

"A lot of times when you see 'Americana,' it's more kitsch," Markoff said. "We wanted this to feel hand-done . . . but fun, fashionable."

The bars are packaged in recycled paperboard. There are five flavors in the line: Beef Jerky, Hickory Smoked Almond, New Orleans Chili, Southern Hibiscus Peach and Sweet Cherry Pecan.

Check out the chocolates here.

Julie Scianna opened her Frankfort bakery and cafe because, she says, "I just wanted a place for my kids to eat."

But it wasn't that simple.

Scianna has celiac disease. When she started her business, one of her four kids tested positive for the gene. Since then, the rest of them have, too. 5-22_Lachat_gluten_1.jpg

Scianna (at right, with chef Andrew Hebda) opened OMG It's Gluten Free last February. Her signature items include lasagna, pizza and baked goods -- foods that are particularly hard to come by for celiacs, and which also suffer from not tasting all that good in gluten-free form.

Growth in her business has been rapid; her products are in 20 retail outlets, including Whole Foods and Sunset Foods. The numbers of celiac sufferers nationwide also is rising -- about 1 to 2 percent of the population, and "we know that figure is doubling every 20 years," says Carol Shilson, executive director of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center. (Also worth noting: Between 95 to 96 percent of those with the disease don't even know they have it. And, the number of people with a gluten insensitivity is four to five times that of those with celiac.)

At the National Restaurant Association's annual show, which ran through Tuesday at McCormick Place, Scianna was drumming up business for the new wholesale end of her business. She recently expanded her kitchen to accommodate production, which will include her lasagna, pizza, three cookie varieties, four muffins, brownies and cookie dough.

Scianna is in talks to provide Levy Restaurants and Little Miss Muffin, both based in Chicago, with gluten-free products, as well as a certain extremely famous amusement park not in Chicago.

[photo by Jean Lachat~Sun-Times]

Smoked olive oil doesn't sound quite right and in fact, "tasted strange for a couple of years," admitted Brenda Chatelain.

Chatelain's husband, Al Hartman, developed the idea as so many inventors do: "It was 3 in the morning and I couldn't sleep," he said.

But after four years of tweaking, the Napa Valley couple says they've got it right. They have a patent pending on the process, which Chatelain says smokes the oil without exposure to heat, light or air. And they're at the annual National Restaurant Association Hotel-Motel Show (ending today at McCormick Place), sampling their three varieties of smoked olive oils -- which don't taste at all strange.

The oils, made in California, are ideal for finishing or marinating, rather than cooking. Their best-selling Sonoma variety is all satiny smooth on the tongue; Chatelain offered me a tiny hunk of bread dipped in the oil. I tasted it and immediately wanted a loaf of bread and a dipping bowl. The Napa has a brighter finish, good drizzled over pasta or vegetables, Chatelain suggested. And the Santa Fe has that bit of heat that tickles the back of your throat, thanks to chile de arbol.

The oils already have gotten a bump from celeb chef Tyler Florence, who uses them at his restaurants and has offered a testimonial, which Hartman and Chatelain are gladly using all over their promotional materials, and from Williams-Sonoma, which carries the original Sonoma variety nationally in its stores. A 200-millileter bottle costs $26 ($24 online).

The couple isn't done smoking. They have a smoked brown sugar that should be on the market in two months.

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11_3_COPY_CENT_1948_1.A1300.jpg [The Irv Kupcinet-era Pump Room. | Sun-Times file photo]

Hotelier Ian Schrager, who bought the historic Ambassador East Hotel last April, announced his plans for the hotel -- to be called Public -- and its famed Pump Room on Tuesday, promising a "new breed of hotel" and a restaurant that will "still Chicago's beloved restaurant, but better."

He's bringing in New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who will rehaul the Pump Room in the spirit of his ABC Kitchen -- "reasonably priced, delicious favorites in a relaxed, comfortable environment" with a farm-to-table vibe, a press release said. Vongerichten and Schrager have been interviewing chefs to run the kitchen; they plan to choose a Chicago chef, spokeswoman Jill Katz said. "That's their goal - keep it Chicago," she said.

The clubby, old Hollywood feel that so many associate with the old Pump Room won't be completely wiped clean. In the evening, the restaurant's bar will turn into a supper club, serving small plates, "exotic cocktails" and music.

The hotel at 1301 N. State will have a soft opening in late September and will be up and running by early October, Katz said.

"We are trying not to be hip, we are in fact anti-hip, and therefore by definition, we are," Schrager says in the release.

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[Bloody Mary beef straws -- but, of course. | photos by Keith Hale~Sun-Times]

You can usually find the better (or at least quirkier) stories along the outer edges of the McCormick Place floor at the National Restaurant Association's annual show.

That's where the little guys are, the ones hawking their products thought up during sleepless nights and upon which they're staking just about everything.

That's where Ben Hirko of Coralville, Iowa was. Hirko is creator of Benny's Bloody Mary Beef Straw, a beef snack stick with a hollowed-out center.

Use the straw to sip your Bloody Mary. When you're done with your drink, you're left with a juicy beef snack.

"In Austin, there's a place that puts a whole bacon strip in your Bloody Mary," said Hirko, a former bartender.

A few booths down, in the same aisle, stood Jack Milan, a Boston caterer.

Milan's product, Edibles by Jack, are edible spoons (spoon-shaped crackers, really) that mimic the ones used for hors d'oeuvres at fancy parties.

"I've always been frustrated by the concept of porcelain spoons," said Milan. "People just take them or they break. I thought, 'This is stupid. We're losing so many spoons.' "

Milan says he came up with his edible spoon idea 15 years ago, and has been using them for his catering company for that long. He's only just now sharing the idea with the world (or ideally, the world's caterers, hotels, country clubs and so on).

The spoons come in 10 flavors, both savory and sweet, and they're not just for hors d'ouvres. "One of my signatures is crème brulee on a chocolate spoon," said Milan.

Hirko's beef straws aren't on the market yet; his website isn't even active. It'll all be ready in July, he says.

He seems to be in good shape. While we spoke, up walked Steve Wald, senior director of new products for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "Bloody Mary beef sticks? Who thought of that?" he asked.

Hirko grinned. The two men shook hands, and Wald thrust his business card forward. "If you need an extra opinion or advice, feel free ...," Wald said, before walking away.

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[Edible spoons, from the mind of a Boston caterer.]

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The National Restaurant Association's annual show, with its aromas of greasy pizza and fried everything, is an unlikely launching pad for a collection of serviceware heretofore seen only at Alinea, the accolade-laden Chicago restaurant owned by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas.

But there was the badge-wearing Kokonas on Saturday, the show's opening day, working the crowd at a prominent corner of the Steelite International booth.

The six porcelain serving pieces in the collection were designed for specific dishes at Alinea by Martin Kastner, with whom Achatz and Kokonas collaborated when opening their newest restaurant and bar, Next and Aviary.

Kastner has partnered with Steelite, a Pennsylvania company that will manufacture the pieces on a much larger scale -- but for restaurants, not for home use.

Several stainless steel pieces will be released in the fall, followed by glassware currently being used at Aviary -- up to 25 or 30 pieces by the end of the year, Kokonas said.

"It's difficult to let go of certain aspects," said Kastner, who works out of his Crucial Detail studio on the Near West Side. "I don't have the ability to inspect every piece."

But, said Kokonas, who calls Kaster "persnickety," "The quality of these is the same as what Martin was doing."

What will most certainly be different is how others restaurants use the sculpturally striking pieces. Kokonas says a hotel in Las Vegas ordered 500 of the pronged cork presenters, and is using them as taco holders.

Recently, Kokonas saw a photo in a newspaper article of the same contraption being used by a chef -- to hold his cigarette.

On a related note: Because of the show, Next and Aviary are open tonight (Monday is usually an off day for both). On Saturday morning, Kokonas posted a notice on Facebook for 22 Monday night tables at Next; they were sold out in eight seconds, he said.

brunobest-WKP-1231-18.jpg How 'bout that view? [photo by John J. Kim~Sun-Times]

The view seems to be the only thing left untouched at NoMI during its five-month renovation.

The 7th-floor restaurant at the swank Park Hyatt is on track to re-open on June 3 with a new name (just barely -- NoMI Kitchen), a new attitude (no more tablecloths, no more Dale Chihuly chandeliers -- in plain sight, anyway; they are Chihulys, after all), a new color scheme, a new, open kitchen with Molteni stove -- and a new culinary team.

Joining executive chef Ryan LaRoche, 32, will be pastry chef Meg Galus, 32, most recently of the Sofitel, and chef de cuisine Sean Pharr, 30, whose resume includes Fat Cat in Uptown, Osteria Via Stato and Fred's at Barney's.

It's a reunion of sorts for the three chefs, who all cut their teeth in the kitchen at Tru, LaRoche as sous chef, Pharr on the fish station and Galus in pastry.

"You get into a role like this, and there's so much change going on in the restaurant with the menus and my position that I felt I really needed to surround myself with people I knew and trusted," says LaRoche, who had been chef de cuisine at NoMI for the past two years.

The menu has been much expanded with a focus on "ingredients rather than technique," LaRoche says. "More about the food than what 50 things can I do with a carrot." The pricing will be "not as astronomical as before," he says. "Approachable," says Lynne Bredfeldt, Park Hyatt's public relations director.

The sushi bar will offer more shellfish and ceviche in addition to the pristine sushi diners came to expect of the old NoMI.

LaRoche is particularly excited about two new categories on the menu: "Simply Prepared," with plates such as a New York strip with roasted tomatoes, and "For the Table" -- as in, a whole lobe of Hudson Valley foie gras for the table.

"I'm not sure if anybody's doing that [whole foie preparation] in the city," he says. "We'll do a prime, bone-in, dry-aged beef for the table, poached whole chicken for the table. That's how people want to eat now. The fine-dining dollar has changed dramatically." (Note: You still can expect that foie to cost you a pretty penny.)

In November, when we first reported on the overhaul, NoMI was celebrating its one Michelin star. Going forward, LaRoche says, the restaurant still has stars in its sight -- but it's taking the longer view.

"We fully intend on keeping our Michelin star, however, we want a busy restaurant and happy customers," he says.


The doughnuts, it's been established, are out in force. But the snow cones and popsicles aren't far behind.

Melissa Yen, creator of Jo Snow Syrups, will be setting up shop at several farmers markets starting in June with her Japanese hand-cranked ice shaver (below) and syrups inspired by the markets.

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She'll sell snow cones ($3) -- think blackberry lavender -- and a Taiwanese dessert called bao bing, shaved ice topped with her syrups, sweet red beans and condensed milk.

If you've never partaken in the colorful, delicious tradition of Asian shaved ice desserts, you're in for a treat; it's been too long since I've had halo-halo, the Filipino version loaded with jackfruit, young coconut and other fruits. Yen's bao bing will range from $5 to $6, depending on the ingredients.

Yen will be at the Lincoln Square market on Thursdays, the Forest Park market on Fridays and Logan Square on Sundays. She also will sell her syrups at the Andersonville market every third Wednesday.

Also at the Andersonville and Lincoln Square markets, and giving helado vendors a run for their money, will be Salted Caramel's Ginna Haravon, who will be offering chocolate mole pudding pops and Thai mango yogurt pops, as well as inspired ice cups (watermelon coriander, lemon-rasberry-goat cheese). Haravon, who built her company around a bag of bacon bourbon caramel corn, also will sell at the Park Ridge and Jefferson Park markets.

Her pops and ices will sell for between $3.50 and $4.

DirtyBettyPressPhoto.jpg [photo courtesy Cookie Bar]

The Cookie Bar in Lincoln Park is getting into the doughnut game.

On Wednesday, its one-year anniversary, the bakery at 2475 N. Lincoln will begin selling doughnuts -- 10 varieties daily, baked not fried -- in a pop-up format under the name Dirty Betty's.

Unlike the River North sensation Doughnut Vault, with its unpredictable hours and tweets like "3 glazed left, 350 people in line," Dirty Betty's will keep regular hours.

So, from 7 to 10 a.m. weekdays, the Cookie Bar (as Dirty Bety's) will sell only doughnuts, then close up shop until 1 p.m., when it re-opens selling its cookies and any doughnuts left over from the morning, says co-owner Joe Bova. The bakery is open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., offering all its carb-laden goodness.

Bova and co-owner Jeff Steinberg are fully aware and enamored of the doughnut-as-trend. (Even Scott Harris of the Francesca's empire has a doughnut shop in the works for Bucktown.) "We fell for it years ago in Portland and Seattle," Bova says.

The Cookie Bar's spin: slightly healthier doughnuts. Or, at least, doughnuts minus the hydrogenated oils and other unnatural stuff. Flavors will include Nutella-glazed banana, blueberry with lemon glaze and ginger-Key lime. They'll sell for between $2 and $2.25 a piece.

Who's Betty? She was a character Bova developed in his former life, as an animator in Los Angeles, for a project that never got off the ground.

"Our slogan is 'Dirty Betty's, Good Clean Fun,' " he says.

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[Expect a lot more people than this at the Green City Market barbecue.| Photo by Jean Lachat]

Ahh, sun. It is the second jacketless day for me, and it is lurvely. But if skeptical you remains unconvinced that spring really, truly has sprung, here's another sign: Tickets for the annual Green City Market chefs' barbecue are on sale now.

The alfresco event at the south end of Lincoln Park has grown immensely since its inception 11 years ago. Tickets back then were something like 25 bucks. Now, they're $100, and there are crowds. But there also is really delicious food and ample opportunities for chef-spotting, if you're into that sort of thing.

The barbecue is from 5:30 to 8 p.m. July 21. Tickets are on sale at brownpapertickets.com and at the market itself, which runs Wednesdays and Saturdays. (For our full guide to area farmers markets, click here.) Worth noting: Tickets won't be sold at the door.

It was Rich Melman's night.

The Lettuce Entertain You honcho, a finalist for a prestigious James Beard Foundation award since at least 2005, finally shrugged off Susan Lucci Syndrome and snagged the honor of Outstanding Restaurateur. The awards, the culinary world's Oscars, were presented at an awards ceremony in New York.

Alas, none of the other Chicago nominees came home a winner, not even in the category of best chef of the Great Lakes region, in which four of the five finalists were from Chicago. Instead, that honor went to Alex Young of Zingerman's Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Chicago nominees included Blackbird's Paul Kahan in the outstanding chef category; Blackbird's pastry chef Patrick Fahy and Mindy Segal of Hot Chocolate, both nominated for outstanding pastry chef, and Stephanie Izard, whose popular West Loop restaurant Girl & the Goat was up for the title of the nation's best new restaurant.

7-1_hale_treysongz_5585.jpg There will be no shortage of pizza at the Taste. | photo by Keith Hale

When it comes to the food -- because it's about the food, dammit -- Taste of Chicago, now under the auspices of the Chicago Park District, won't seem much different this year than in years past. There will be Eli's cheesecake and Harry Caray's fried dough and Robinson's Ribs and more than enough pizza and Americanized Thai and Chinese food to go around.

But there are 12 new vendors this year. Among them: Chinatown favorite Lao Sze Chuan, which will offer dry chili chicken, salt and pepper pork ribs, crispy shrimp in lemon sauce, vegetable fried rice and spring rolls, and the Parrot Cage inside the South Shore Cultural Center, run by Washburne culinary students, which will offer turkey meatloaf, gumbo, seafood salad and red velvet cupcakes.

Another newbie, the Fudge Pot, 1532 N. Wells, looks to be filling the void left by Aunt Diana's Old Fashioned Fudge -- the Riverside shop and other suburban vendors were kicked to the curb last year because of the city's policy that all vendors be located in Chicago -- by offering chocolate-dipped frozen bananas and strawberries.

The other new vendors are:

Alhambra Palace, 1240 W. Randolph, serving falafel and other Middle Eastern fare; Banana Leaf, 1948 E. 79th, with jerk wings and lamb chops and blackened tilapia; Beggars Pizza, 310 S. Clinton; Chicago Sweet Connection Bakery, 5569 N. Northwest, with something called Atomic Cake, among other sweets; Loving Hut, 5812 N. Broadway, offering the even more inriguingly named Home Run Ball, described as a "fried vegetable textured protein with a sweet and spicy sauce"; Ryba's Fudge Shops, 600 E. Gand, offering fudge, caramel apples and more chocolate-covered strawberries; Smoke Daddy, 1804 W. Division, with pulled pork and chicken; Starfuit Café, 2142 N. Halsted, with frozen kefir, and Texas de Brazil, 51 E. Ohio, serving lots of meat.

Six restaurants dropped out: Doreen's Pizzeria, Las Tablas, Shokolad Pastry and Café, Summer Noodle and Rice, Tamarind and the Grill on the Alley.

The Taste runs from June 24 to July 3. Food tickets are 12 for $8. As always, admission is free.

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[photo by Rich Hein~Sun-Times]

Geoff Rhyne is going back home (almost).

Rhyne ended his stint last week as chef at SugarToad in Naperville and, on Friday, was on the road, passing through the mountains of Tennessee on his way to Charleston, S.C.

The Georgia native says he is reuniting with mentor Mike Lata at FIG in Charleston, which like SugarToad keeps local, sustainable foods as its focus. He'll be working with Lata on a new, yet unnamed project as well.

Rhyne was among the chefs I talked to for this week's cover story on memories of their moms' cooking. Hearing about his Southern upbringing, which he says was "about as stereotypical as you can get," it's no wonder he's headed back that way. Home, as it were.

Rhyne was weaned on "fresh biscuits, big cast iron pans, collard greens." He spent summers on his grandparents' farm in Ellaville, Georgia, a one-stoplight town, picking pecans and sneaking the crusty top off his G-Mama's pound cake.

That recipe (actually his great-grandmother's) is in a book compiled for him by his mom of generations-old family recipes; he carries the book with him like Linus does his blanket. It was the source of many dishes at SugarToad, and will serve the same purpose in his new gig.

Rhyne kindly shared with us the pound cake recipe, which you'll see on Wednesday, along with several other recipes from chefs' moms. Consider it a parting gift from Rhyne -- and comfort food at its best.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

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

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