Archive for the 'Food Writing' Category

Next

Finally, at long last, I have conquered Next! Chef Grant Achatz’s latest foray into the culinary landscape has been just out of reach since it opened, due largely in part to its nearly impossible to obtain tickets which sell out instantly the day they are released for public sale.

Yes, you read that correctly. In order to eat at Next, you have to purchase tickets, which are sold only in sets of two, four, and six, and you  must  either have the time to sit on Next’s website and hit the refresh button innumerable amount of times until your desired date and time is available, or have the fortitude to risk hundreds of dollars on the good faith of some dude from Schaumburg who’s selling his tickets on Craigslist.

I, however, was lucky enough to be invited for my friend K.’s birthday celebration by her boyfriend, who had purchased four tickets. Our dinner was scheduled for two days after I returned from a ten day trip to Poland for a dear friend’s wedding (more on that–and my ungodly consumption of encased meats–in a later post), and I was jet-lagged, sick as a dog, but determined to experience Next nonetheless.

The dilly-yo with Next is that the menu changes every three months, and spans not only cuisines but also time and cultures.  This might not bode well for your average bear, but Grant Achatz is nothing if not completely unique in his willingness to experiment with what diners are willing to consume–and how much they’re willing to spend–on a meal at one of his establishments. He was smart enough to leverage his star status as Alinea’s creator and head chef into this new venture, and had the foresight to predict that regardless of how difficult and complicated the reservation process, people would still be chomping at the bit to get a table at Next.

I can’t say that this urgency on behalf of Next’s clientele doesn’t also have something to do with bragging rights and being able to say “Oh, you haven’t tried the latest menu? Oh, aren’t you cute. Well, you’ll get there someday. Now watch me burn this $100 bill.” If you want to be really annoyed, read the insufferable reviews from “Elite” Yelpers. Example:

“Thai thai thai. Although I MUCH preferred the Paris menu (the duck sauce changed my life, I enjoyed EVERYTHING, and the bev pairings were simply divine), Tour of Thailand was still tasty and mostly worthy of it’s price tag.”

Is that so? Did you MUCH prefer the Paris menu? Were the “bev pairings” simply divine? Poor grammar aside, this review is the reason I have such a love/hate relationship with Yelp. Your “Elite” status does not make your opinion more important than anyone else’s. Also you’re an insufferable douche. Anyhoodle. Where was I?

Next’s first menu was Paris circa 1906, which I unfortunately did not get to experience. Our dinner fell during Next’s Tour of Thailand menu, which was  just so FORTUITOUS for me, as Thai is my absolute hands down favorite Asian cuisine, ever.

Upon arrival, we were seated in a cozy booth and took some time to soak in the atmosphere. Next is housed in the oh-so-trendy Fulton Market restaurant district, and as such does not have a whole lot of space. It’s small, and not terribly brightly lit, but boasts a beautiful, sleek open kitchen at the far end of the space, and from where I sat I was able to peer into the kitchen and see the magical elves hard at work.

First Course: Roasted banana, prawn cake, sweet shrimp, fermented sausage, steamed Asian buns.

This little bite course was highlighted by the Asian buns (heh) which our server jokingly said were sourced from Wow Bao. They are in fact made in house and delicious.

Second Course: Tom Yum soup with pork belly, tomato, and kaffir lime.

Oh holy deliciousness. I am a sucker for Tom Yum soup, and this broth was so goddamn flavorful that I was tempted to ask for a second serving to take home with me. It was so silky and gingery, but tasted light and tangy thanks to the kaffir lime.

Third Course: Salted duck egg with green mango and white radish; pickled fruits and vegetables with basil.

Know how some Italian restaurants serve bread for the table? Next served rice for the table, with a variety of spicy sauces and toppings that we could consumer at our leisure throughout the meal.

Fourth Course: Wild catfish braised in caramel sauce with celery and coriander root.

The presentation of this dish outweighed its actual taste in terms of impressiveness, as the fish platter was served with its own charcoal heating element to ensure the fish stayed warm. It was good fish, tender and flaky and not overly fishy the way some catfish can be, but just seemed like a placeholder dish.

Fifth Course: Braised beef cheek with curry sauce, nutmeg, coconut, and lemongrass.

My favorite dish of the night. The beef cheeks were fall-apart tender and so succulent thanks to the infusion of creamy curry. It was a hearty serving as well, and really could have been a meal all by itself.

Sixth Course: Coconut, corn, egg, licorice. (Note: turn your head to the left.)

This dessert dish arrived in a closed coconut, and we were told to open the top half of the coconut in order to get to the dish. I wasn’t sure what to expect with this, as the ingredients didn’t sound super thrilling. It was superb. Think cold, melty coconut ice cream with flavors of star anise, vanilla, and tapioca.

Seventh Course: Dragonfruit, rosewater.

This was my least favorite course I think, as dragonfruit really has no flavor. Our server brought the fruit halves with an actual rose sprayed with rosewater essence, and told us to smell the rose, then take a shot of the rum that was served alongside the fruit, then scoop a bite out of the fruit. It was all very beautiful-looking, but lacking in sweetness and flavor.

Eighth Course: Roobios tea, palm sugar, milk.

This little send off gets points for its quirky presentation, though it really was just chai tea in a plastic bag that you drink with a straw. I liked it though, and it really rounded out the courses.


I really love a good, long dinner filled with whimsy and amazing flavor combinations and Next did not let me down on that. Our servers (there were a few) were all incredibly enthusiastic and helpful, and explained each dish with relish and pride.

The good thing about Next’s ticketing idea is that it is completely all-inclusive, meaning at the end of the meal there’s no waiting around for the bill, no figuring out tips, none of that peasant business. You simply get up, thank your server, and the host calls you a cab. Everything is included, from the tip to the beverage pairings, so it’s really no muss no fuss on that end.

It’s hard to justify the expense of eating at Next every time the menu changes, but I’ve heard rumors of an El Bulli-esque menu coming up after the current Childhood menu, so I’ll be getting my “refresh” finger ready when that happens.

Hot, Sweaty, and Delicious

Last night, with temps in the 90’s and a heat index well into the danger zone, my friend K., her friend M., and I headed to the Green City Market BBQ in Lincoln Park to pursue the offerings from some of Chicago’s best and well-loved chefs.

The BBQ is essentially a scaled-down version of some of the more heavily attended street food fairs around the city, and boasted offerings from roughly 100 Chicago restaurants, served out of booths that were, more often than not, manned by the headlining chefs themselves. To be sure, the BBQ is pretty much everything Taste of Chicago isn’t, and that’s a good thing. I’ll gladly take a swampy summer evening sippy classy wine and perusing dishes from Paul Kahan, Rick Bayless, and Paul Virant than fried fucking cheesecake on a stick topped with a chocolate-dipped turkey leg. Now, because I was so besieged with sweat and overwhelmed by all my options, I’m not going to give an entire rundown, but here are some highlights:

 First stop, wine tent. Here’s K., casually drinking her wine and being totally casual. We started out with some delightful Sauvignon blanc poured by a friendly man in a sweaty shirt. I kept coming back to him and dropping hints about how stingy every other wine booth was being with their pours and nonchalantly motioning with my empty wine glass. After about the second round of this, sweaty shirt caught on and began filling my glass with glugs, not dribbles.

Oh, then this happened:

 

 

 

 

 

(That’s Stephanie Izard, btw.)

 

 

Also, there was this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, I was that close to Rick Bayless. He was right there alongside his staff, mingling with the hoi polloi and serving up insanely spicy salmon tacs. What a guy.

After that, there was alla this:

And finally, a baby who somehow made his way from the 1940’s:

Now, this wouldn’t be a proper Hungrypants post if there wasn’t at least one thing to bitch about, right? Well, here it is: the goddamn process for throwing out garbage. What should be a simple, one-step procedure (throwing out garbage), Green City Market staff somehow turned into a convoluted and nerve-wracking game of what I can only describe as reverse whack-a-mole. They had each trash disposal station manned by a volunteer wielding a paddle (like the kind you use for playing paddleball but without the ball and string), and three holes: one for compost, one for recycling, and one for “landfill”. I could never get it right. I would hover a hand over the recycling hole, tentatively, only to have the staff member sigh and sharply point to the LANDFILL hole with her paddle, clearly indicating that I was a moron for being unaware that compostable food cannot go into the compost hole, and recyclable plates and forks simply don’t belong in the recycling hole.

On and on this went, all night, staff whacking at our hands with their paddles whenever we approached the trash stations. It was confusing! Doesn’t it all wind up in a landfill? The anxiety of being faced with this sudden and remarkably vague pop quiz regarding my knowledge of the intricacies of trash disposal and sorting was too much for me, so whenever I saw an unguarded station I just threw my shit in the recycling bin. Let them sort it out on the other side, I said. Only God can judge me, I said.

Food-wise, a few trends I noticed were the extensive use of lamb and goat meat, a large number of booths serving tacos; handmade sausages, and a proliferation of sustainable, local, ingredients. Apparently last year it was nothing but pork belly.

I’d say my absolute favorite, standout item of the night was the “adult popsicle” from the Primehouse booth: think frozen, gingery bourbon popsicle in a plastic push-up sleeve, not unlike the Flav-or-ices of our youth. It was tangy, a little spicy, and exactly what you need on a hot-ass night. Upon asking the chef handing the popsicles out what the recipe and freezing process was for these little beauties, we were met with a wink and two words: “elf magic”. I almost believe it.

Adventures in Neighborhood Eating

 

 

Well guys, it’s finally happened. I’ve given up my swinging, Clooney-esque bachelorette lifestyle. B. has made an honest woman out of me and we are living  in shacked-up bliss with our psychotic yet eminently adorable dog, Philippa Middleton (aka Pippa, Pips, Pipsqueak, Pipster, and Omgyoustupiddogstopfreakingbitingme!!!  for short).

With this merging of people comes a merging of STUFF, and now B.’s extensive collection of quality cookware and kitchen gadgets are at my disposal! Does this mean I’ve been using them with any regularity? Of course not. My dreams of honing my sloppy and inept kitchen skills have fallen by the wayside in favor of wiping up dog piddle and avoiding our overly-chatty neighbor and her dog, Merlot. No really, that’s her dog’s name. Merlot. Neighbor lady likey her winey.

Our new kitchen is like, five times the size of both of our old kitchens combined, and it really is fantastic for cooking. We’ve been able to knock off a few pretty impressive meals since we got settled, and I’m proud to say that I have been responsible for almost HALF! I have stockpiled a list of recipes I’ve been dying to try and have managed to create exactly two of them. Baby steps.

I’ve also been exploring  new culinary landscape of my new neighborhood. Previously, I reported to you from Old Town, where I frequented such gems as Marge’s, Twin Anchors (Twanchors for those in the know), Cafe Sushi, Old Jerusalem, and Wells on Wells. My move to northwest Lakeview has put me in immediate proximity to at least three different neighborhoods, including Roscoe Village and North Center, each boasting their own collection of local eateries. My hands-down favorite new place is Frasca. You guys, these people freaking LOVE DOGS. Every time we go in with Pippa, the staff freaks the fuck out, gives her treats, threatens to steal her, and just generally loses their shit over this dog. It’s really great having a place in the neighborhood where the dog isn’t banished to the “outside edge” of a patio, like some places we’ve attempted to dine when we’ve had the dog in tow. It makes a world of difference knowing that we’ll be welcomed as patrons rather than viewed as an imposition. Plus, the food is awesome, they have bottomless mimosas during brunch, and their patio is great for people-watching.

If you’re in the mood for something exotic, there’s Cafe Orchid a mere two blocks from my house. Located on the bustling intersection of Ravenswood, Addison, and Lincoln, Cafe Orchid is a BYOB Turkish restaurant with a charming outdoor patio and reasonable prices. I ate there about a month ago with my friend K., and we were both impressed by the food’s authenticity and layered flavors. For those unfamiliar with Turkish food, think Greek/Mediterranean fare with a little bit of Italy thrown in. Lots of lamb-based dishes with yogurt sauces, plus your usual stuffed grape leaves and babaganoush. Just really good, hearty food.

Over on Roscoe just west of Damen, there’s El Tinajon, a fantastic Guatemalan place. There are very slight variations between Guatemalan and Mexican foods and generally if you’re a fan of Mexican food, you’ll thoroughly enjoy Guatemalan as well. This joint has a nice little outdoor patio and pitchers of strong sangria. I really enjoyed a fish dish wrapped in fragrant leaves (I forget the name of it) and their tres leches cake is out of this WORLD. Rumor has it they have a pretty decent brunch menu as well.

 Speaking of Mexican…El Tapatio on Ashland and Roscoe really gets me going. Their fish tacos are tender and flaky and served in MASSIVE portions. The complimentary chips and salsa are fantastic and the salsa packs a wonderfully hot kick. None of this pansy-ass table salsa here, no sir. You will be sweating after your second or third scoop, and that’s the way I likes it. Also a nice little patio here, and it’s great for large groups who want to get bombed off their enormous (and strong) margarita pitchers.

Coming up, I’ll be attending the Green City Market Chef’s BBQ Benefit this Thursday. There are a lot of amazing chefs from a lot of outstanding restaurants participating in this event, so I’m sure I”ll have a lot of things to say and pictures to share.

Meh & Meh

So, I was supposed to do this “cleanse” thing straight after New Year’s. In my head, I visualized the residue from all the rich, fatty foods I’d indulged in for the past two weeks being flushed out of my body, leaving it pure and clean for 2011. I don’t think I’m cut out for “cleansing” or “dieting” or depriving myself of any food-related whim that may pop into my head.

This cleanse, forwarded on to me by B.’s sister, consisted of a staggering amount of asparagus and cucumbers for snacking, a shitload of green tea, and lean proteins and veggies for meals. It’s really not THAT bad. And it was a two-day cleanse. Who didn’t last a day? THIS gal. Good God. There IS such a thing as too much asparagus, no matter what the pundits say!

It’s like that scene in Inception when JGL asks the Asian dude not to think about elephants. If you’re told, don’t think about elephants, what’s the first thing you think of? Fucking elephants. So this cleanse was like, I was telling myself “don’t eat carbs or sugar or any of that delicious crap” and my mind was all “give me carbs and sugar and nomnomnom I want it”. Long story short, the cleanse is over.

SEGUE

This past Saturday, a dinner with my mom and B. was on the agenda, so I chose a place I’d heard good things about but had yet to experience for myself: Kith & Kin. It’s tucked away in a charming stretch of Lincoln Park, right next to what appeared to be a baseball cap store, selling almost exclusively baseball caps. It was perplexing. I also wasn’t sure what the hell “kith” meant until I looked it up on the restaurant’s website: it means “friends”. Who knew!

True to form, my mom insisted on arriving 30 minutes before our reservation time, citing “snow and having to find parking”. There was no snow, and we found a spot right out front. Sigh. No matter! They sat us cordially and immediately, although we were one of maybe four other tables in the place. The inside space is quite lovely, boasting dark wooden floors and what looks like salvaged or original ornate ceiling tiles. However, it has a bit of an unfinished feel to it, and I noticed patches of unpainted wall and uncovered wires. The servers are all required to wear aprons of differing patterns and materials, which embues the place with a bit of a down-home, farmhouse feel. Our charming server wore a flowered apron and took care to explain how the menu worked (appetizers, shareable small plates, entrees, sides).

There was something weird going on with the staff. Either they were overstaffed or lacking diners, or both, neither of which bodes well for the future of a restaurant. Saturday nights are supposed to be slammed, and even as we were taking off at around 8:30, the tables still hadn’t really filled up all the way. Hence, I observed a great many number of servers leaning against the  bar, chatting and looking bored. This served us well, however, as the service throughout the night was impeccable. Our server anticipated our needs and always seemed to arrive at just the exact moment, offering more bread or wine. She was great. The service was actually better than the food, a rare and unique phenomenon which I’ve experienced only a handful of times.

The menu focuses mainly on contemporary American fare with a twist of French Creole thrown in for good measure. We ordered a foie gras pate served with strawberry preserves and brioche, Bar Harbor mussels served Belgian-style with broth, and my mom went with the blackened tiger shrimp served with smoked cheddar grits. B., also true to form, went with the buttermilk fried chicken thighs accompanied by braised collard greens and gravy. I chose the seared scallops, which came atop a serving of cauliflower “couscous”, and was topped with tomato basil soup.

This all sounds as if it should be fantastic, right? Well, it wasn’t.  It was just….good. It was good. I think perhaps I may be a bit spoiled by FDL and our insistence on quality, but I still feel that this meal could have and should have been better, especially for the price (the resulting check was upwards of $200). The scallops, while sizeable and seared perfectly, tasted a bit off. My mom’s tiger shrimp was tough and apparently “too spicy”. B.’s fried chicken was good. Not great, good. The mussels were passable, and the foie gras appetizer was sweet and cloying, more like a breakfast than anything else.

Honestly, I see so much potential in this place, and it seems as if they have yet to go that one step further that would take the food from just okay to really, really excellent. There was a lack of attention to detail that confused me, especially for a place that presents itself as a conscientious farm-to-plate establishment.

It’s 2011.

Yes it is, and I rang it in in the best way I know how: luxuriously. Behold, my plate full of luxury:

Yes, what you see there is a lobster tail, a filet mignon, truffle mac and cheese (which I made MYSELF thankyouverymuch), champagne risotto with asparagus AND blanched green beans. My dear Lord, it was delicious.

Now, because of my previous promise to myself to start actually getting my hands dirty in the kitchen, I chose to contribute to this New Year’s Eve Meal of Luxury by making truffle mac. Ina’s recipe, of course, because Ina knows what’s up when it comes to cheese and carbs. So, this recipe had shiitake and cremini mushrooms, and Gruyère and sharp cheddar cheeses, garlic breadcrumb topping and just an assortment of all the kinds of buttery delicious things I love to put in my face hole. And it actually turned out pretty well! People claimed it was good and I agreed with them, but vowed next time around I’d take it easy on the breadcrumb topping (and use FRESH breadcrumbs opposed to store-bought) and perhaps mix in a little extra shredded cheese with the crust. It was good, though. Truffly and crunchy and cheesey. I’m also thinking maybe I could, to paraphrase Emeril Lagasse, kick things up a notch by making it a tad spicy.

The rest of NYE weekend was spent playing extreme amounts of Xbox Kinect, competing intensely in track and field events and dance battles. I have never been so sore. Like, the arches of my feet are sore. How does that even happen?? I laughed when the introductory instructions to each game encouraged me to “rest or sit down” if I felt sore, disbelieving that anyone could be so terribly out of shape that they couldn’t even handle a few jumps or volleyball serves or javelin throws while playing a mere video game. I stand super corrected. Moving is still a little difficult on my tight calves and hamstrings and muscles I didn’t even know existed in my back and sides now twinge with every arm movement.

Another highlight of my Holiday Eating Extravaganza was taking B. to Hopleaf for the first time, after seeing TRON LEGACY 3D (must be said in robot voice). He’d never been and after the movie let out, I was in the mood for some warm, rustic, homey food and a good Belgian beer. We made a split second decision and shot over to Hopleaf where we settled in at the bar to wait for a table. We had a few beers, a pot of Belgian-style mussels, and a charcuterie plate with duck liver pate, duck prosciutto, and quail eggs. It was, simply put, perfect.

I hope you all spent your New Years Eves and holidays in the best company possible, as I did, and enjoyed doing whatever it is you enjoy doing the most.

The Giving of the Thanks: Part One

Thursday

B. and I were awakened at 5:45 AM by B.’s sister, A., calling my phone. She was outside my building in a cab with her boyfriend M., well-rested and ready to get on with the day. B. and I were still drunk from the night before, and sound asleep when her call came through. “What? Oh, you’re here? Totally, we’re DEFINITELY NOT ASLEEP and we’ll be down in two minutes!”

Our flight was at 8 AM and we showed up a good hour and a half before the boarding time, which is not wholly unusual for me as I was raised to get to the airport hours before takeoff time. Flight’s at 9 AM? Why not get up at 5? Takeoff scheduled for Wednesday?? Sure, let’s all get there on Monday, you know, just to be on the safe side. Getting to the airport obscenely early is just ingrained in my biological makeup at this point, but B.’s family loves cutting it close. Fortunately, B.’s sister had the foresight to account for any potential mob scene that could be taking place at O’Hare on Thanksgiving morning and got us there in plenty of time.

Around 7 AM, I choked down an Egg McMuffin, figuring I should probably eat something to soak up the booze sloshing around in my stomach. That, combined withe the following series of events is what made me–promptly and without fanfare–eject the contents of my stomach not ten minutes after the plane landed in Louisville, Kentucky. The plane we boarded was tiny; one of those deals where there’s two seats on the righthand side and one on the left and tall people have to stoop and crouch down to get to their seats. My hangover was already starting to kick in as the plane took off; the force of it shoving me back into my seat and sending my head reeling. I tried to ignore it as I flipped listlessly through US magazine, trying super hard to care about what kind of queen Kate Middleton will be and what brand of injectable poison Kim Kardashian uses to keep her face looking so delightfully swollen and mask-like.

B. fell asleep almost immediately, leaving me to struggle alone with my impending nausea and splitting headache. I begged the flight attendant for two glasses of water, loaded with ice, and chugged them in quick succession. Nothing. If anything, the icy cold water was making me feel worse. I breathed a sigh of relief when the PA system bing-bonged and the captain announced we were beginning our descent into Louisville. I gazed out the window at the gray clouds, waiting anxiously for a glimpse of land, thinking that if I could just see the ground I might feel better. Again, not thing. We were lost in the clouds, and staring out a window with nothing to look at was intensifying my headache and doing something weird to my eyes; they felt swollen and unable to focus.  This went on for twenty minutes. Twenty minutes. Then, something really special happened. We hit turbulence. Turbulence in a regular-sized plane, with no hangover, is bad enough but still kinda tolerable. Sickening, jolting, floating and then slamming turbulence in a mini-plane with nausea knocking at your throat is a whole different beast. B. slept soundly as I clutched the armrests, practically white-knuckled, alternating between pleading and praying as I tried desperately to find a place to rest my eyes that wouldn’t exacerbate my sickness.

Finally, mercifully, the clouds broke and I saw the ground, the houses, the blessed runway! At this point, I was sweating and I doing that thing where you’re breathing really carefully and swallowing a lot and just basically trying not to die right there on that plane. We shuffled off the plane and into that horrid funhouse of a hallway that always seems slightly tilted and off-angle, where I pretty much ditched everyone else and booked it to the bathroom.

It’s amazing what a good vomit will do for your spirits isn’t it? I felt loads better but was dreading the next leg of our trip: a three-hour car ride to Greenup, Kentucky. A three-hour car ride with me stuffed in the tiny third-row back seat of a Volvo SUV. A three-hour car ride in a car driven by B.’s dad, who believes firmly that making good time is far more important than slowing down from 75 mph to take those hundreds of turns on curvy country backroads. I honestly can’t believe I made it out of that car alive. We arrived at our destination at around 2pm, shaky and pale and nauseous but ready to indulge in Thanksgiving goodness.

Know what the absolute best hangover cure in the world is? Ale 8 ginger ale. I’d never had it before, and learned that its distribution is limited to very specific parts of Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. It is like a goddamn miracle in a bottle. After a few sips, my stomach felt settled and my head cleared and I finally didn’t feel like curling up under a bed and dying a slow, slow death. I was then taken around the house to be introduced to uncles and aunts and cousins and tiny little babies, all while clutching my bottle of Ale 8 with a death grip. I musta drank me about twelve Ale 8’s.

Gradually, I felt hunger slowly overtake my hangover and realized I hadn’t had a thing to eat since my airport Egg McMuffin earlier that morning. I inspected the growing collection of casserole dishes and bowls and plates that had been placed on the kitchen counter, and was told by B.’s aunt what to expect. There was regular stuffing, oyster stuffing, broccoli and cheese casserole, mashed potatoes with gravy, two kinds of dumplings, ham, turkey, cranberry salad, apples cooked in sugar, baked beans with bacon, and green beans cooked within an inch of their delicious life. Hot fluffy rolls had just been brought out of the oven, and in the dining room there sat an astonishing array of pies. I was ready.

I heaped my plate with steaming stuffings and fluffy mounds of mashed potatoes; slices of turkey and ham and a block of the broccoli casserole. Room was made for two deviled eggs and a roll, a spoonful of dumplings along with a plop of cranberry salad atop the turkey. I was still a bit shaky so I begged off a glass of wine, feeling at this point that a hair of the dog would only serve to worse my already unsteady stomach.

Aside from the ginger ale, I think it’s safe to say that a Thanksgiving feast will work just as well on a hangover. I was satiated almost immediately after my first plate, but went back for more mashed potatoes, this time ladling on the gravy I’d missed the first time around. It was everything you’d want out of a Thanksgiving meal; salty and full of carbs and meat and every sort of comfort food you can dream of. When the meal had petered out, we retired to the den to watch football in a tryptophan haze. I slept sporadically, waking up here and there to snuggle a baby or grab another glass of water.

Around 7 or so, I was about ready for dessert. I was itching to try the chocolate pie I’d seen sitting on the dessert table; it was smooth and creamy-looking with a perfect crust. The pumpkin roll was also tempting me with its ho-ho-like swirls of cream and pumpkin cake. I loaded a plate with a slice of the chocolate pie and a slice of pumpkin roll and retreated back to my spot on the couch. If you’ve never had chocolate pie, readers, then you are missing out on one of the most delightful dessert experiences I’ve ever had. Each bite was soft but slightly dense, infused with chocolate flavor and supported by a flaky, slightly crumbly crust.  The pumpkin roll, iced with frosting and thick as a slice of bread made for a perfect second dessert.

The time came to say our goodbyes for the night, and take off for B.’s cousins house where we’d be staying the weekend.  “Wait til you see breakfast,” everyone kept saying as we were leaving. “Just wait til you see breakfast.”

Beepa da boopa! Boppa de beepa!

That’s my impression of the way Italians talk! Is that rude? Whatever, I have a friend who’s like half Italian so it’s totally cool. Also it’s my way of telling you guys that FDL hit up its first ever Italian restaurant last night! J. sent out an email yesterday to the rest of us, listing all the places we’ve eaten since April of 2009 when this whole project got started. After last night, we’ve been to 17 of Chicago’s finest eateries; running the gamut from chic gastropub to classic Chicago steakhouse. UNreal. I’m so proud!

Last night was the absolute perfect night for a hearty Italian meal, which is precisely what we got at Coco Pazzo. It was cold, it was windy, and Thanksgiving was two days away. We weren’t exactly in the mood for salads, if you catch my drift. Coco Pazzo was J.’s choice, and was decided upon after she had researched and polled and asked around for the best Italian joint in the city. I won’t say this place is the most “authentic”, and the menu is slightly more refined than that of a more rustically-based cuisine. We were seated in a cozy corner of the warmly lit dining room, half-hidden and ensconced by blue velvet curtains. I noticed that our group was pretty much the youngest in the place, save for a family with a kid who was about seven or eight. The rest of the diners were older and finely dressed in suits and business-casuals, chatting quietly over glasses of wine and plates heaped with thinly-sliced prosciutto, olives, and chunks of parmesan.

I think all of us were feeling a bit selfish and decided to forgo our usual sharing of appetizers and entrees, and to be perfectly honest I was slightly relieved that sharing was not required or even encouraged. In general, the sharing of food is something I relish; being able to take a bite of a particularly delicious dish and look around the table, eyes wide, knowing exactly how the rest of the table feels to be enjoying the same experience. Last night though…I just wanted the food all to myself. Bites were had off plates here and there, but our usual free-for-all was more of an every man for himself situation.

It seems to be an established yet unwritten rule of FDL that someone just has to get grilled octopus at some point in the meal. I unselfishly took that burden upon myself and ordered an appetizer of grilled baby octopus served atop a bed of greens, the plate studded with gigantic white beans and fresh olives, served with a thick slice of lemon. J. eyed my plate and made me promise to give her a bite, so unable is she to resist a plate of grilled cephalopod. (Yeah, that’s right. Cephalopod. Look it up.) I requested a smidgen of M.’s duck liver terrine, which was incredibly rich and resembled a cross-section of a giant hot dog in color and shape. Applause to her for finishing the whole slice, which was paired with sweet accompaniments to presumably balance the luxurious texture and taste of the liver. I should mention here that I DID TAKE PICTURES but I used some stupid iPhone app that–for some godforsaken reason–did not SAVE my pictures after taking them. Thanks a lot, Instagram! More like InstaCRAP, am I right?!

Anyhoodle. For awhile now, there has been some deep and insatiable craving inside me for a plate of squid ink pasta. I can’t tell you why, for I’d never actually eaten it, but I kept hearing about it here and there, seeing recipes in cookbooks and magazines…I’ve even gone so far as to poke at a bag of it in the fancy pasta aisle at Treasure Island, wondering what flavor was hidden in those dark and mysterious strands. Lucky me, then, that Coco Pazzo’s menu boasted a squid ink pasta dish served with PEI mussels (also yum), calamari, zucchini, tomatoes, and a chili-infused marinara sauce. I mean, could you just die? Doesn’t that sound heavenly?

I had always imagined that squid ink pasta would somehow be imbued with a fishy, sea-like taste; so inseparable in my mind are the ideas of squid and sea. After my first bite, though, I could tell that the majority of any such flavor came mostly from the mussels and the calamari rather than from the pasta, which by itself tasted salty and even a little bit sweet. I needed no extra salt or pepper, and the only extraneous condiment added to the meal was a light sprinkling of freshly-shaved parmesan. We rounded out our dinner with two bottles of red wine, no dessert. Dessert would just be far too much, we simply couldn’t. I’d say we made out like bandits, seeing as we managed to get out of there without spending over $60 a person. Blammo! Nailed it.

Our next round will be my choice, and I’m hoping to finagle a way in to Grant Achatz’s new spot, Next, which is speculated to open sometime in the next month or so.

Happy Thanksgiving y’all.