Since the fall of 2009, I have been traipsing, tasting and touring the great city of Chicago. I have wined and dined with an aim to eat right from Andersonville to Lakeview, the Pilsen and all around the Loop. I can't possibly remember every location or each bite, but I know that I've had Polish near Midway; French by Maude, One Sixtyblue, Bistro Margot, Bistro Campagne, Red Rooster, Bistro 110, Kith and even Kin; Burger at Paramount, the Counter, Kumas, DMK and among Five Guys; Vegan with Karyn both cooked and just raw; all of Rick Bayless; had to "Go 4 Food" in Chinatown; went from farm to table with a Girl and a Goat, at a Gilt Bar, Nightwood and The Publican; watched the chefs at Avec and Davanti Enoteca; learned to fly at Blackbird and Bluebird; picked pasta at Tocco, Coco Pazzo, Spiaggia's, Rasta Pasta, Terragusto, Roseangelis and Francesca's; did prix fixe at Sola and Moto; ate with chopsticks all over town from iNG, Urban Belly, New Tokyo, Sunda, Joy's, Jeannie's, Pingpong, Shanghai Terrace to Le Colonial; loved Lou and Gino and Spacca Napoli pizza; got whimsical with Graham Elliot; pie and home brew at Piece and Nella Pizzeria; fell in love at Great Lakes; noshed on Chicago hot dogs and lobster rolls at Fish Bar; cruised the Mediterranean in Greektown, Casbah Cafe and A La Turka; chicken pot pie where ever I could find it; Hot Chocolate, a Green Zebra, Toast, Orange and a taste at the Kitchen; tried Rockit, Table Fifty-Two, The Drawing Room, Hugo's Frog Bar, Belly Shack, Carnivale and MK; tapas at Cafe Iberico and Cafe Ba Ba Reba; met Fred's at Barneys; south of the border at Big Star, Mi Tierra, Zapatista, Cesars, Cafe El Tapatio, Chilam Balam and even Chipotle, or New Mexican at Abiquiu Cafe; Indian at Marigold, Standard India and Hemas; Fat buns at Ann Sathers; cheese with my wine at Webster's, the D.O.C., The Tasting Room, Bin, Bin 36, Volo, 404, Eno, the Purple Pig and sipped champagne at Pops; BBQ at Chicago q, Smoque and Chicken Hut; bellied up to the bar at Jacks, the Gage, Schubas, Cooper's, Minibar, Mystic Celtic and Wilde; meat at ZED451, veggies at Spring, cold queso at Bandera and brunch at Gemini Bistro; hearty at Hearty and HB; BYOB'd when we could and we can't remember the rest!
While I dined around for fun, my other objective during this two year quest was to eat right. And now that I'm trading my residence in the City of Big Shoulders for an apartment in the Big Apple, it's time to give a final answer to the question: can you eat right around Chicago?
The answer is...yes, but only sort of. Chicago is packed with marvelous cuisine with amazing chefs cooking up remarkable food. And I feel strongly that if you're going dine at their establishment and spend the $$$, you should eat what they are best at creating, the way they created it. So, I'm not ever going to advocate trying to change a chef's recommendation to suit your diet, unless you're at a restaurant where your dinner was cooked, not prepared (you know what I mean) or if you have a dietary restriction. I know that's hard to hear from a dietitian, but if you want a dish drastically changed, then you may want to make it at home. Problem is, many chefs are making mouthwatering meals that are delicious, but high calorie and heavy in fat without being nutrient dense or very creative. To my dismay, sometimes it's like they're not even trying, just tossing in more butter. But rather than skip the top dishes across the country or request grilled chicken everywhere you go, here is what I - a person that dines out for dinner not just for special, wants to taste the tastiest menu options, is determined to remain a healthy body weight - has to say for you to eat right around:
Ever look at the main course options on a menu and cringe at how massive they sound? Think to yourself, "is this for the week, or just this meal?" I do. In fact, I frequently find the side dishes more appealing and less overwhelming. After all, instead of a side of a cow or a pork's butt, I'd rather have a side of vegetable fabulousness; I want a nutrient-rich mouthful, not a fried, fattening gut full. In a recent visit to the amazingly awesome Gilt Bar on 230 W Kinzie St, I did just that - ordered it all on the side. It proved that I could eat right (with a few watch outs), enjoy an assortment of tastes and pack in a variety of nutrients.
I dream of sitting in a piazza, sipping Prosecco, eating a fresh Neapolitan-style pizza with a fork and knife (yes, my dream includes an uncut pizza that I eat from the center out with a fork and knife). I'm remarkably comfortable in the heat of the late day sun and I don't have a care in the world. The summer breeze makes me feel fine. If I'm dining like this, in a piazza, then I must be on holiday (sounds more luxurious than vacation). A girl can dream and a Chicagoan can easily find a bit of this Italian bliss in their backyard. One of my many favorite Chicago locales for a summer's afternoon pizza and Prosecco is Spacca Napoli Pizzeria on Sunnyside and Ravenswood. Chicago Magazine agrees as Spacca Napoli is 15 on the July 2010 Best 25 Top Pies in Town. Following an 11 mile run on Saturday, we took our weary wings to this authentic, friendly Ravenswood neighborhood gem. We capped the day with my favorite gelato from Paciugo Gelato in Lakeview. Benissimo!
It may be my New England roots, but whatever the case, I believe that lobster is an integral part of summer. Throw in an ocean view and I can almost tolerate sun and heat (almost). Because I live in the lovely lakeside city, Chicago, each year, I head home to the east coast for my seaside fix. This year, my summer lovin' had me a blast at a new place: The Market Restaurant on Lobster Cove in Gloucester, MA (and check out this link to their blog for gorgeous pics and detailed bios). Recently opened by Nico Monday and Amelia O'Reilly from the brilliant and organic-acclaimed, Alice Waters', Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA, this adorable duo brought their friends and family (and my sister) to the east coast to create amazing meals with local produce and sensational seafood. Oh my, lobster and farm-fresh by the sea - can you stand it?!?!
Salads don't have to be boring and drab. In fact, they can make a tasty, nutritious meal, especially during the warm summer months. I think you should trust me on this because if you've been following my dietary habits, I'm not a salad pusher. I need a colorful, exciting salad made with a ton of veggies and interesting flavors, not just a pile of iceberg lettuce, chicken pieces and cucumber slices, to call it a meal. In fact, I think that it can be a disappointing diet disaster when its bland in color, smothered in cheese, bacon, croutons and bad tasting dressing. Fortunately, there is a way to do salad well with a variety of fresh veggies, unexpected flavors, bright tastes and herb-rich, spicy vegetable oil based dressings (not a creamy mess of saturated fat). I recently enjoyed a salad at John's Place in their comfy, neighborhood, outdoor space. Check it out and maybe you'll get an idea to spice up your own salad at home or at your next dining stop!
Last night, we headed to the Lower West Side of Chicago, called Pilsen, for a farm-to-table, mind-blowing dinner at Nightwood Restaurant. I had very high nutrition hopes and great food expectations. So many restaurants leave me feeling lovelorn; I desperately wanted Nightwood (with its dance club sounding name) to be the one. Like I was considering a prospective mate, they had everything I was looking for. A menu that is updated daily, based on season and availability, makes the knees of my bees weak. When they boast simplicity, I imagine varied and colorful, hand-cut veggies, fresh herbs and robust, unpretentious flavors so that you make that m-m-m-m-m-m face with each bite. I fantasize about a nutrient dense, farm-fresh meal with the perfect wine pairing and all the vegetables I can eat...finished with a delicious dessert that can't be skipped. After this birthday dinner for Mitch, I have very little to say about Nightwood Restaurant except: I think I'm in love.
When you're dining at Topolobampo and you choose the tasting menu, you may be challenged to Eat Right with Ease if you lick your plates. If you taste, rather than clean, then Rick offers a variety of foods that will provide you a nutrient-rich dining experience. If you choose to skip the tasting menu, then you can Eat Right with Ease at Topolobampo because there are many non-fried, vegetable rich, mild and spicy options for you to enjoy a la carte!
Tomatoes and pasta, pizza and beer, tomato soup and grilled cheese, tofu and vegetables, cereal and milk, almonds and dates, chicken and pot pie, wine and cheese - all simple, culinary partnerships that I adore. With the latter in mind and an aim to eat right, I enjoyed an evening out at the Tasting Room in Chicago's West Loop. There are many wine bars speckled around Chicago and I have a special fondness for a few of them, including the Tasting Room (as well as Eno at the InterContinental on N Michigan Ave). Believe it or not, I do believe that you can eat right around wine and cheese. On the heels of my Tasting Room taste, I thought I'd share what I look for in a delicious, somewhat nutritious wine and cheese experience.
As I gazed adoringly at one of the most delicious plates of Fettucine Verde Bolognese that I've ever spun around my fork at La Vela Ristorante in Manhattan, a question my sister posed occurred to me. She asked me if I go out alone when I travel for work. I said, oh yes. I'd never waste my trip, money or calories on room service - and speaking of which - we all know that a club sandwich is the only good room service item anyway. It also occurred to me that I try to make the most of any work trip if I can find the time and the location is right. Fortunately, I often have conferences or meetings that allow for a few hours here and there, and put me in desirable locations. So, for those of you (and there are many, many of you) that find yourself solo on the road, I have some thoughts on traveling alone. Not really advice, because I can't claim to be an expert traveler (yet), but just some anecdotes from an average traveler.
For several years now, work has taken me to NYC, so whenever I went east, I would squeeze in a cream puff run to a Japanese bakery chain called, Beard Papa's. As luck would have it, in late 2009, Papa brought their love to Chicago's loop on the pedway level of Block 37, Suite
on 108 N. State.
It may seem like bearded papas have little to do with the most decadent, delicious, puffy, creamy, delightful handfuls of the tastes dreams are made of, but, whatever the name, Beard Papa's cream puffs are amazing. (According to Metromix, it is named after the owner's grandfather's beard.)
I love Beard Papa's puffs for the pleasure it provides, but as a dietitian, I am very fond of its modest calorie contribution. If you choose the traditional cream puff, it will cost you a mere 220 calories, 13 grams of fat and 7 grams of sugar. While a chocolate dipped is offered, the bare naked cream puff is perfect, just the way it is.
I know. The word, hearty rarely implies, "low-fat", "light", "low calorie", "veggie-rich". Actually, I'm pretty sure it conjures images and mouthfuls of warm, yummy, comfort foods, just like Mom used to make, and smother in gravy. Yes, it makes me hungry too. That's why I had to taste what the Food Network famed partners, Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, were serving at their Chicago restaurant, Hearty. Can you eat right and hearty?
Like I said, I am scared of prix fixe menus, therefore Chicago's Restaurant Week makes me nervous. I also rarely dine on Michigan Ave., so I figured I'd kill two birds with one stone (such a violent adage) and dine at Cafe Spiaggia at 980 Michigan Ave. during Chicago's Restaurant Week. Given that I my menu picks were fixed, was I able to eat right?
I've decided that Chicago's Restaurant Week isn't a fair way to
determine if a restaurant provides eat right options. I've also
decided that it is a good way to enjoy an expensive meal at a
discounted rate, but it might not highlight the most amazing culinary creations on the menu.
Spiaggia earns an Eat Right Rating of Eat Right with Options. Although the prix fixe items were right off their usual menu, I
think I'd have to choose my own meal to know for sure.
I love being escorted to my table, assessing the area like I'm buying a house - looking for quiet neighbors, great view, comfortable weather.
Yes, I'd love water - tap please.
I love cloth napkins.
I love opening the menu for the first time, evaluating it for the tastes I crave, knowing that I can choose anything I want.
I love contemplating the wine and when the server has a suggestion and describes it with descriptors that are meaningful, not just "fruity" or "dry".
I love the anticipation - will the server be personable, will we love the specials, will I remember my meal, will we comment on the way out, "that was the best meal we've had in a longtime".
I love that you have to look right at your dinner mate when you talk and because of this intimacy, you learn so much about each other and solve so many of the world's problems (but only if the food is good).
I love that the size of the table matters to me and that I like to look out the window, rather than into the restaurant.
I love it when the server truly loves food and respects time rather than being too rushed or moving too slowly. I love it when they tell you that you should try this, or that they don't think that is all that - and you can tell that they mean it. And I love it when they're right and you share a look that says, "wow, that was a little bit of heaven in my mouth".
I love it when the food makes me proclaim, "holy shit, you have to taste this," or "this is just stupid," or "I think the Chef loves me," or "AMAZING!" or when I can't say anything at all because I'm weeping.
I love dining out for these reasons, and so many more.
Therefore, it is with a heavy heart and abashment that I confess: I am scared of Chicago's restaurant week and I'm scared of prix fixe menus.
I had a lovely Tom Kha Kai soup (sometimes called, Tom Kha Gui) for dinner last night. Although I wasn't inspired enough to talk about the restaurant, it did get me thinking about coconuts. I've noticed that coconuts have been getting more attention in the past few years; such as questions about the fat in coconut oil or milk, and coconut water as a beverage. And I've been asked, "what's the difference between coconut water and milk, and are they good for me?". Here are my answers...
I frequently order meatless meals at restaurants. It makes me very happy when a chef does veggies right - full of flavor, cooked with care and creatively combined. Because of this, I know it's possible to serve a gorgeous, fulfilling, memorable vegetarian meal. In fact, I will go so far as to say that some of the loveliest meals I've eaten have been rich in vegetables and poor on meat. Given my adoration for vegetables, I was eager to dine at one of Chicago's few vegetarian and typically venerated restaurants. I was so looking forward to it! I had heard so many good things about this local establishment that I was salivating at the mere thought of the farm-fresh, seasonal, expertly-crafted vegetarian fare. Who would do vegetarian better than an acclaimed vegetarian restaurant, right? Who would be more creative, seasonal, sustainable, diverse, cutting-edge and skilled at preparing delicacies with vegetables??? I'll tell you who...chefs at other restaurants.
My experience at this vegetarian restaurant was just OK. It was not the amazing, veggie-tale experience that I dreamed of as a dietitian. Maybe my hopes were too high...I wanted a place that would turn any meat-eater on...make Mitch fall in-love...exude creativity and culinary amazement. It just didn't. Here are my comments:
I remember when my family switched from Sunday morning doughnuts from Purity Supreme to these large, shiny, rings of chewy, dough-love served fresh from the oven from this hole in the wall called, Bagel Alley in Nashua, NH (it had just opened and it was wickedgood). Bagel Alley is still a hometown favorite, serving up bagels the size of your face to carb-lovers across Nash-Vegas, New Hamm-shah.
I moved from Nashua in 1990 and ended up in Chicago in the summer of 2009 by way of Durham, NH - Boulder, CO - Albuquerque, NM - Columbus, OH - Arlington, MA (no, I'm not running from the law). I have chomped on some great bagels over the years, albeit not daily, but with the same fervor and adoration as I did as a Spring Street Junior High and NHS student. The roll-with-a-hole at Beatniks Bagels in Boulder, Wolfe's Bagels in Albuquerque and Bagel World in Salem, MA deserve a nod, but my bagel love started in "The Best Place to Live in America" (1987 & 1997). And now I seek a suitable ring of yeasted wheat dough in Chicago. My favorite so far is The Bagel on Broadway for it's entire diner (below), but I am looking for recommendations.
Before I head to the diner part, you should be aware that bagels bring in anywhere from 200-500 calories per serving depending on their size. If a 123 gram bagel has about 350 calories, barenaked, then I estimate that a Bagel Alley-sized bagel is a light 600 calories without a bit of spread. Hey, they're wicked good - live free or die - but remember that when having a bagel (have one once a month or once per week, but not daily).
Perfect for a group or party, the Colombian-style steakhouse is a fun and spirited option for a night out with a bunch of people. I visited one of the Chicago options called, Las Tablas Colombian Steakhouse this past week (not on my Meatless Monday, of course). If your group of friends decides to take up one of their large tables, will you be able to eat right?
I am frequently asked, "what's your favorite diet and nutrition book?". And I have an answer, but I have more than one, and the list continues to change. There have several released in the past year that I think are top-notch and worth your Amazon bucks.
When considering my favorite diet and nutrition books, there are a few things I consider first:
Before I thumb through the pages, I check the author's credentials. A diet book should be written by a nutrition expert - a registered dietitian - just like if you were having a plumbing issue, you wouldn't call an electrician and you don't let your dog groomer highlight your hair.
I also want it to be an easy, but enjoyable read. I'm not looking for a textbook, rather a fun, well-written book that gives consumers new ideas and tools they can use.
That brings me to the last important point - it must provide recommendations that make sense and are easy to achieve. I want tips, solutions and meal-making ideas - something you can take straight to the grocery store and get results!
So here is a brief list of my current favorite diet and nutrition books. I've included some for everyone: overall health, healthy planet/healthy body, men seeking flat bellies, restaurant enthusiasts, weight loss and sports nutrition!
With the Le Cordon Bleu Challenge slated for tomorrow night (it's not too late to get tickets!) at the venerated Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago, I was able to "sit down" (via email) with the Vice President of Academic Affairs and Student Services, Chef Marshall Shafkowitz, to get his POV on healthy dining out, teaching today's chefs, pork belly and his Chicago favorites. He includes some great insights that we can take to the menu - like how much we order or what to ask about the food being offered. He also assures us that chefs receive training in nutrition, but reminds us that we are the keepers of our food choices when we sit down to dine.
Here is more detail about what he had to say in response to my burning questions and some not-so-serious gripes (e.g., pork belly and butter, ha-ha). I've bolded the statements I really like and find useful.
Did you know that removing meat from your diet just ONCE PER WEEK can help reduce your risk of chronic disease - you know, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and even cancer? And, it reduces your impact on the environment by reducing your "carbon footprint" by saving water and fossil fuel. I've decided to join the brigade led by the non-profit initiative, Meatless Monday, in coordination with Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health and encourage you to join me!
To get your Meatless Monday started, here are some ideas for dinner tonight!
Please note, I haven't made my way to Karyn's yet (the vegetarian hot spot in Chicago) but stay tuned...
In honor of the recent engagement of our friends, Susanne and Evan, we dined at Duchamp on 2118 N Damen in Bucktown. It's a comfortable place, lots of wood, fine lines, unpretentious service and for the warmer months, seats about 100 on their side patio. Like so many popular Chicago restaurants, Duchamp's reviews focus on their top notch burger or their drippy, indulgent delicacies, so I was concerned about their eat right options. But thankfully, Duchamp achieved an Eat Right Rating of Eat Right with Options...or at least some.