Tuesday, September 28, 2010

James Denton Hosts Desperate Housewives at Harry Caray’s

I’ve wanted to go on a trip with my mom for awhile and was waiting for just the right opportunity to come along. That happened this weekend and it all began with dinner at Harry Caray’s Tavern on Navy Pier and a Desperate Housewives premiere party with hunky James Denton (a.k.a. Mike Delfino).

It was my first trip to any Harry Caray’s so before the festivities even began we sampled some drinks and food.  The drink menu is extensive, including a large selection of beer and wine by the glass, as well as some signature cocktails.  We started with something sweet with Mom sipping Egon’s Ecto Cooler, a combination of Effen Black Cherry Vodka, Midori, Pineapple Juice, Crème de Cocoa and club soda that she said tasted like a bubbly fruit punch. I went for Levin’s Howling Wolf, a mix of Hpnotiq Liqueur, Malibu Rum and Pineapple Juice.

The food menu at Harry Caray’s Tavern really has something for everyone, whether you are looking to snack or have a full meal.  We started with the Spinach Artichoke Dip, which was very creamy and full of veggies, served with tortilla chips, a perfect complement to the sweet drinks.  We declared it a meat night for dinner and – with a little help from waiter Nick, who is hoping to follow James Denton’s footsteps and go from waiter to television star – Mom got the rib eye and I had the Holy Cow! Burger with cheddar cheese and sautéed mushrooms on an egg bun.  It was tender and juicy, as was Mom’s steak, and I really enjoyed the Roasted Vegetable Pasta Salad on the side.

Desperate Housewives: The Complete Sixth SeasonJames Denton is a part owner at this Harry Caray's, part of a chain of restaurants he was once a waiter at.  He invited his friends and fans to join him for the seventh season opener of Desperate Housewives.  Denton was a perfect host, giving us tidbits between commercials -- it was not well-received when Ricardo Antonio Chavira (Carlos)  walked onto set for the first time this year without his infamous goatee;  Doug Savant (Tom) wasn’t moving around much because he had been recovering from a knee replacement -- and dolling out  lots of swag, including signed hats, tee shirts, aprons and even scripts.

Between dinner and the show, we got to hang out with James Denton a bit and I asked him what his favorite Harry Caray’s meal was.  “The Buffalo Calamari is really good.  It’s not fried, it’s sort of grilled with a hot chicken wing sauce so it’s really spicy.  It’s really great.”  Denton also gave his support to the pizzas and burgers at Harry Caray’s, but couldn’t comment on the desserts, “I’m not a dessert guy.  I honestly can say I haven’t even looked at the dessert menu here.  It’s so off limits for me with my job.  I never know when I have to take my shirt off in front of a few million people, but when Housewives is over, I will have the dessert menu memorized!”

Of course, you need to wash down the calamari with something, so what does the Desperate Housewives star choose?  “There’s a drink on the menu called the ‘Delfino,’ which is my very own.  They made a ‘Delfino’ without consulting me and it was really girly -- they might as well put an umbrella in it – it was a bunch of fruit. We re-did it with Gentleman Jack, because I’m a Tennessee Redneck, sweet vermouth and a little bit of this (Canton) Ginger Liqueur, which sounds weird, but it’s really good.  I am a beer guy, I rarely drink liquor,” Denton said as he held his Corona.  “This is Corona Light, because I really need anything light, but I do mix it up.”

Fortunately, I’m not expected to take my shirt off in front of millions so I enjoyed sharing the Chocolate Chip Cookie Sundae Skillet with Mom. I also took Denton’s suggestion and washed it down with a “Delfino,” strong enough to make a plumber proud but sweet enough for me. 

While in Chicago, Mom and I also went to the Art Institute (my first time and definitely not my last) and stayed at The Palmer House Hilton, which was so wonderful it deserves much more than a paragraph here.  Come back for all the lavish details….

P.S. If you miss James Denton when you’re down at Harry Caray’s Tavern, you can catch him and on the cover of Where? Chicago this month.

Above: Mom with Desperate Housewives star James Denton.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Back to Vodka, with Firefly and Van Gogh

When I did my story on flavored vodka a few months ago, there were a few that arrived too late to be included.  I figured I’d give my readers (and myself) a little vodka break while I anxiously stared at two very different brands with unique offerings – Firefly and Van Gogh.  The day finally came when I sat down with the bottles and my daughter/photographer/favorite fellow taster. 

Sam was more than willing to help me with the Firefly tastings.  She has been a fan of the brand since 2008, when Jim Irvin and Scott Newitt decided to combine their love of Sweet Tea and vodka into a spirit like none other.  It all started in South Carolina, where it is still made today. I’m not exactly sure why I never did end up in front of a glass (I do like Sweet Tea and, obviously, vodka), but when I was contacted by their PR rep asking if I wanted some samples, I couldn’t say yes fast enough.

The Van Gogh story and flavors are very different.  The vodka is produced in Holland, fittingly named after the Dutch painter.  It is produced by the Royal Dirkzwager Distillery, a family owned business that has been passed down since 1879.  The vodka they make is also much different than that of Firefly.  There’s no tea, but there is Double Espresso, as well as dessert-like flavors (which you can get in an 10 pack of assorted flavors) and some of the straight stuff.

We started with the Firefly.  Sam was already a big fan of the straight and I could see why.  I could see how it’s gained popularity with iced tea or lemonade.  Their Mint Tea was also a great bet for that purpose.  It was true to mint tea flavor, without being overpowering.  The Lemon Tea was tasty and could work very well with Seven Up or Sprite and the Sweet Tea Bourbon was a unique flavor that brought me back to my American Whisky Tour.   I can’t say that either of us really liked the Raspberry Tea, but the Peach Tea made up for it.  If you are looking for something a bit different than the straight Firefly, their Peach Tea is a winner no matter what you do – or don’t add to it.

After the Firefly (and a food and water break), we were ready for the sweet Van Gogh treats. We started with the straight stuff.  Van Gogh Blue is new vodka that is made from a combination of wheat grown in Holland, Germany and France. It is made in small batches with the idea of creating premium vodka that is very smooth.  They have definitely succeeded.  I thought it was one of the smoothest I have tasted and I could do it on the rocks, or mixed with tonic or cranberry juice.

From Van Gogh Blue, we had some Dutch Caramel which was as good as it sounds.  Neither of us liked the Coconut, which is unusual because it is one of my favorite flavors, but this one didn’t quite hit the mark.  All was forgiven, though, when we tasted the Dutch Chocolate.  This is truly chocolate and I’d have no problem drinking it on the rocks without a mixer.  The same could be said for the Double Espresso.  It was just delicious, with a strong coffee taste.

Even though I don’t think Firefly is going to substitute my occasional afternoon pick me Sweet Tea, I’m definitely envisioning livening up my glass at a barbecue, or any other outdoor event.  As for Van Gogh, I’ve only scratched the surface of their flavors. There are 22 at the moment and I’m sure there are more to come.  I guess I have my work cut out for me, though I’m not too sure about the Banana.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Hotel Elysée, A Bit of Paris in New York

While I was in New York City for Taste of Tennis, a yearly charity event that features top chefs and top players, I had the pleasure of spending a night at the Hotel Elysée.   It was my first experience at an HK Hotel, a chain of boutique properties in Manhattan that consistently receive the top ratings on Trip Advisor.

Hotel Elysée was a perfect preview of my upcoming trip to France.  Everything about the hotel, including the dedication to artwork, flowers, food and drink, screams European.  My room, full of quaint furniture, had a beautiful balcony.  If I didn't let my eyes wonder past the cute table and chairs to the Manhattan skyline, I could have easily believed I was in Paris!

Beyond the rooms and the attentive staff, you will find special touches at the Hotel Elysée that I’ve never seen offered without extra charge at a hotel in New York City.  For example, the high speed internet is free of cost.  Guests are given a complimentary evening reception on weekdays and breakfast in the Club Room for every day of their stay.

The Club Room reminds me of a few executive lounges I had enjoyed in Europe, but this is open to all guests.  The “cocktail hour” included wines, Prosecco, cheeses and crudités, plus an assortment of coffee and tea for those who didn’t wish to imbibe.  Breakfast is also very European, with a large assortment of fruit, bagels, muffins, scones and cereal.  As long as I was in the right atmosphere, I had my favorite French breakfast --  pain au chocolat (a chocolate croissant), yogurt and fruit.  Cookies, fruit and coffee and tea are available in the Club Room all day long for the guests to enjoy.

Hotel Elysée is not a large hotel so there’s no gym on the premises, but they do offer complimentary passes to the nearby New York Sports Club at Park Avenue.  Also within walking distance of the hotel is Central Park, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall and the famed Fifth Avenue shopping district.  There is a 24 hour concierge and a multi-lingual staff to help guide you to wherever you want to go.  While I was there I saw travelers from all over the world, many of whom were repeat visitors.

The Hotel Elysée has been named “Best Small New York Hotel” by Travel & Leisure Magazine.   Despite all the awards and amenities, rooms are very reasonable by New York City standards.  They also offer a selection of packages that change throughout the year, including “Christmas i n New York,” “Picnic in the Park” and “Happy Halloween.” Visit their website for details.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

U.S. Open is about Food, Spirits and Tennis

After a preview tasting of some of the new offerings and more than two weeks of eating many other items, I think I’m well-qualified to talk about what there is to eat and drink at the U.S. Open.

I know it’s supposed to be about the biggest sporting event in the United States, and you will never get me to say tennis isn’t important, but attending the U.S. Open is about the entire experience.  The experience here is about “cooks” like Executive Chef Mike Lockard, Spiaggia Chef Tony Mantuano, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, Border Grill Chef Susan Feniger, Carmen the Restaurant Chef Carmen Gonzalez, RM Seafood Chef Rick Moonen and New York’s infamous Jonathan Waxman, winner of the 2010 US Open Master Chef Charity Competition.

The new chefs and additional offerings by Levy Restaurants have transferred into some great dishes.  The South Plaza Café, which still offers the great Panini’s, now also has an assortment of other menu items.  I hear (I’m allergic so I didn’t try it) the Lobster Roll is delicious and the Pulled Pork Sandwich with mango slaw is great, if you like a little spice.  I was also impressed with the pulled pork and other barbecue choices in the new Southern BBQ place in the food court. 

One big addition to the Food Court at the Open has been the Stonyfield Farm.  I can’t say enough about this concession (especially since they are also supplying the press room) that offers healthy sandwiches, yogurt (frozen and in parfaits) and even a delicious Gazpacho Soup.  Also in the healthy offerings – and who would have ever qualified Ben & Jerry’s as healthy(?) --  one of America’s favorite ice cream brands has added a selection of smoothies that are fat free or low fat, many of which are under 250 calories (I tried one each day during the first week’s heat wave).

If you want to head into a restaurant, but don’t want to break the bank, I’d suggest the new Patio Café.  There wasn’t even a wait when I was there for a delicious, reasonably priced Chicken Pesto Sandwich that came with cold water (and your choice of drinks) and waiter service.  ACES, now serving sushi, Champions and the Open Club are still around with some new menu items, and the Mojito Restaurant & Bar has added a Squash Blossom Quesadilla to their menu.

While you are checking out some of the new food and drinks, don’t forget about some of the great offerings that have been at the Open for years.  I’m a big fan of the Chicken Tacos at Fresca Mexicana, which are a bargain since they give you enough meat and tortillas for four tacos.  Inside of Louie Armstrong Stadium, you will find a stand filled with stuffed pretzels (cream cheese is incredible).  The Cuppa Spotta has always had fresh fruit available and a fruit and nut bar that is quite satisfying.   And you can never go wrong with the New Dehli Spice Café.

Drinks are available for every taste at the Open.  The Heineken Red Star Café has beer cocktails and frozen drinks.  The Wine Bars have a selection of offerings (and even offer small plates of food this year).  And last, but certainly not least, the Grey Goose booths (located throughout the grounds) and Grey Goose Bar are still serving their very popular U.S. Open Signature Drink , the Honey Deuce-Grey Goose Vodka, lemonade and Chambord  raspberry liqueur, topped with frozen honeydew melon balls.  

If you are looking for some place to stay cool and quench your thirst at the same time, there are two more options.  The new Heineken Lounge by the main entrance not only offers beer, but also has great couches and Belgium waffles.  The Overlook is a “over” the food court in 2010.  This area, sponsored by the new Cosmopolitan Las Vegas Hotel, has a full bar and a menu of food.

Tickets are still available for the U.S. Open so you can taste and watch it for yourself.  If you can’t get there this year, be sure to put it on your schedule for 2011 – whether it’s for the food, the drink, the tennis, or all three.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Last Finger Lakes Visits

The winding roads and beautiful lakes of this area don’t ever seem to end and one of them led me to Shaw Vineyards.  Steve Shaw grew up in this region so winemaking was a natural transition for him.  In stark contrast to nearly every other place I had seen, the set up here is very simple, in a barn, with a tasting table surrounded by art (for sale) by a friend of Shaw’s.   His winemaking ideas are unconventional as well and they led him to branch off from a partnership to his own place.  Among the methods he employs are wind power and geothermal energy to run his Europress, which gently de-stems and turns grapes rather than following the usual crushing process. 

Shaw’s other point of note in winemaking is patience and you will find many more aged wines here than on the racks of some of his neighbors.  We tasted a selection that included his newest release, a perfect 2007 Riesling  to a 2004 Chardonnay that showed the strong pepper and vanilla from 24 months in old French oak to a 2003 Pinot Noir that was lighter than most with a good combination of fruity strawberry and dry spice.

Yet another scenic drive led to the Finger Lakes Distilling Company, where owner Brian McKenzie (whose partner is the unrelated Thomas McKenzie) took me through his plant where I was surprised to find quite a collection of spirits that included vodka, gin, whisky, rye, grappa and liquers.  I have to admit I was impressed with just about everything there, with the Seneca Drums Gin, a grape base that is lighter on juniper than most, but filled with other interesting flavors like cucumber and anise, a favorite.  I also thought the Pear Brandy, made from local Bartlett pears was very good and had a nice mix of sweet and spice.

Fruit-based liqueurs are a popular option at Finger Lakes Distilling and there are four options here: Casis, Raspberry, Cherry and Blueberry.  I liked them all, with the Cherry, a tart and sweet combination, a slight favorite.  Also worth a try is the Maplejack Liqueur, an apple brandy sweetened with maple syrup, but more like whisky than a sweet liqueur.

My last tasting opportunity in Finger Lakes included both food and wine as both are specialties at Red Newt Bistro and Cellars.   The Whitings, winemaker David and Chef Debra, have put together enough to please any palate here.   I started with their infamous Blue Newt White, which was as good as had been described to me.   It paired perfectly with the Duck Confit Springs Rolls, filled with basmati rice, plums and plum ginger in a ginger garlic dipping sauce.  For dinner I had the Local Free Range Pork Chop, a tender meat filled with peaches, prosciutto and spinach, served in a creamy white wine peach sauce.  I had this with a wheatberry-filled rice and it was just incredible. 

Also on the menu was items like Grilled Beef Tenderloin wrapped in bacon in a shitake red wine sauce, which I was told melted in the mouth like butter, and a Stuffed Eggplant with brown and red rice, split peas, shitake mushrooms, onions  and curried tomato sauce, a choice I almost picked.  The menu at Red Newt changes every few week, but it looks like they make sure there are choices for everyone.  I didn’t have any room left for dessert, but I did follow the recommendation of the recommendation of Teresa from Finger Lakes Wine Country and finished the meal with  the Circle Riesling.

I drove through the Finger Lakes for the last time into a quick tour through the town of Corning before heading to my Hilton Garden Inn, Elmira. It was quite a jam-packed trip that I will be reflecting back on in more detail about a place I definitely expect to return.  In the meantime, I’ll just have to reminisce about those beautiful grapes with a bottle of one of the great Finger Lakes wines.