Tuesday, July 31, 2012

From 2 Sparrows to the Trump

I checked out of The James in Chicago, but there was still more to taste in the city. Breakfast with my Cocktails and Joints Publisher Dale Winespeare was scheduled at 2 Sparrows and I couldn’t wait to check out this unusual spot.

This is a breakfast and lunch only restaurant with the food driven by what’s local, fresh and in season. The owners, Gregory Ellis and Steven Fladung, grew up in Chicago and both bring in a host of restaurant experience that was mostly earned at the famed Charlie Trotters.

In addition to the locally-driven food, 2 Sparrows has a great menu of cocktails, wine, beer and spirits – many of which are from small, regional developers, such as North Shore Distillery and Metropolitan Brewing.

While the food and drink menu does change often, I can tell you we loved what we had. That included Buttermilk Pancakes with honey mascarpone, blueberry and fresh maple syrup; Maple & Bacon Doughnuts; and “Pop Tarts” filled with Nutella and topped with raspberry icing.

Of course, a breakfast like that needs to be washed down with cocktails and there is no shortage of exciting ones here. Our favorites were the 553 (North Shore Gin #6, St. Germain, blueberry, sage and ginger), Split Compliment (Moon Mountain Vodka, cherry, Sombra Mezcal, Sioux City Ginger Beer and lime) and Black Heart 75 (Journeyman Distillery Gin, Santome Prosecco Rose and orange marmalade). While it wasn’t quite my taste, Dale really enjoyed the Bloody Norseman (North Shore Aquavit, House Made Bloody Mary mix, lime, beef jerky and a pickle).

We went from 2 Sparrows to take a look at one of Chicago’s newest accommodations, Hotel Lincoln. This is one of the most unusual hotels I’ve seen, matched by a sister property I had lunch at in Arizona, The Saguaro Scottsdale. It’s a combination of ultra-modern and nostalgic and I look forward to staying there soon. They also have a rooftop bar and lounge with a view that will make you believe you’ve landed in the Caribbean rather than the Midwest.

Dale and I then checked into our rooms at another favorite hotel of mine, the Trump International Chicago.  I had been here once before and the rooms, service and food are as you would expect from a property with the Trump name on it. From the moment you pull into the circular driveway of this massive hotel, you are made to feel like royalty and the management extended my feeling by putting me into a beautiful one bedroom suite with breathtaking views of Chicago from both the bedroom and the living room (also loved the chocolates on the bed with a letter from Donald Trump welcoming me).

I settled in for a bit and soaked up the luxury before Dale and I headed off to lunch at Volare Chicago. It was my first trip to this Italian restaurant and I was very happy that Dario, our waiter, was so helpful with wonderful suggestions. He started us with Insalata D’Anguria, a delicious and unusual combination of watermelon, string beans and dry ricotta in a balsamic reduction. He suggested adding a little truffle oil and that made it just perfect.

For lunch, I had the Fettuccine with Porcini Mushrooms & Veal. It was served in a light cream sauce and just terrific. Dale loved his Grigliato Miste, a mixture of seafood that included scallops, calamari and shrimp with a bit of a blackened taste.

Dessert was just as good as lunch as I had a light and tasty Napoleon while Dale went for the Panna cotta with saffron.

We decided to burn off some calories and walked back to the Trump Hotel. There was a bit of time to get some work done before an evening I had been waiting for as we were having dinner up on The Terrace at Trump International Hotel Chicago, which includes views of Chicago and the fireworks at Navy Pier. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

New Finds and Old Favorites in Chicago

I try to make it in to Chicago as often as possible, but no matter how often I do go there I always seem to find new things. In this case, it wasn’t only the restaurants that were new to me. I was meeting with my publisher, Dale Winespeare, at Cocktails and Joints for the first time.

We checked into our rooms at The James Chicago, a hotel I always loved for its modern comfort. This time they gave me a two bedroom suite, which I settled quickly in before meeting Dale to go to Tavernita, a new restaurant with an exciting new cocktail program.

Tavernita doesn’t just make unusual cocktails for individual customers, they make cocktails for kegs. They also make their own sangrias and sodas, and serve wine on tap. We were lucky enough to get to try a little bit of everything and I was quite impressed.

I liked the Booty Collins, consisting of green tea-infused Absolut Vodka, passion fruit, lemon and cayenne. I also loved the nutty flavor of the Comandante Big Nose with hibiscus-infused Cruzan Rum, macadamia liqueur, falernum, lime and nutmeg.  The Jay & Tay is gin and tonic, in this case Plymouth Gin blended perfectly with a homemade tonic – that contains agave syrup and allspice.

I preferred the Red Sangria (which has some Hennessy Cognac in it) to the white. As for the sodas, the Ginger Chile Ale is a must try, made with fresh ginger, guindilla orange and blossom honey.

We tried a sampling of food, including the Croquettes, little sandwiches filled with ham and cheese, and Greg’s Meatballs, which are made from beef and pork and have a hazelnut romesco sauce which is quite spicy. My favorite food item was the Grilled Queso, with aged cheddar, tomato marmalade and brioche toast. Dale enjoyed the snapper, with artichokes, basil and pine nuts.

We headed back to The James where I met with Jamie to learn more about some of the exciting programs the hotel has going.  She told me about the seasonal menu changes at David Burke’s Primehouse, as well as the Tails in the City program for pets, and the Paul Frank PJ program for kids.  There is also now something at The James I find particularly fascinating, the In-Room Cocktail Experience.

All of the rooms at the hotel now have supplies, including a glass with recipes, to make your own cocktails. For under $30 (not including the liquor), you can receive all the mixings and garnishes for some of your favorite drinks. You can even learn how to make them right with a private mixology lesson.

Dinner was at III Forks, restaurant in the new Lakeshore East neighborhood. This large, modern place was very busy (even during the week), and it’s no wonder with a huge wine list, interesting cocktails and a varied menu that is also filled with great steak options. They also have a rooftop where you can get drinks and snacks, with a breathtaking view of the Chicago Skyline.

Dale started with an amazing crab cake and continued with the Chicken Fried Steak, a dish that he couldn’t possible finish. I had the onion soup and Tenderloin Tips, which were definitely tender and flavorful. We shared some sides, the best of which was the Sweet Potato Hash (I took the leftovers and couldn’t wait to have them the next day) and Six Cheese Potatoes.

It was tough to even think about dessert, but we were glad we sampled the cheesecake and pecan cake before heading back to The James for the night.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Leaving Montauk for Left Coast Kitchen

My daughter Sam spent the night with me in my beachfront condo at the Surf Club in Montauk. In the morning we headed downtown to Mr. John’s Pancake House. It had quite the unusual menu and after some time we decided on an order of ET Pancakes and Stuffed French Toast.

I’ve always been much more of a sweet breakfast eater than a meat one, and this one more than satisfied my sweet tooth. The pancakes were covered in semi-sweet and peanut butter chips and the French Toast was stuffed with cream cheese and covered in apples (a bit rich, but yummy). I knew I would have to add in another workout to make up for this.

Sam had to get to work, but I took my time enjoying the scenery in Montauk and the Hamptons as I headed west to meet up with my friend Melanie. I knew I had another big meal ahead of me so I kept lunch down to a fat free yogurt.

Dinner was at a place I had never been to, but had heard lots of good things about. Left Coast Kitchen in Merrick is as known for their cocktails as their food and is the brainchild of two food and drink lovers, Chris and Heather Randell. I was immediately impressed with the menus for both.

We started with some cocktails, a Pear Millionaire (Grey Goose Vodka, pear simple syrup and St. Germain) and a Morning Wood (Stoli Vanilla Vodka, Kahlua, Frangelico, Bailey’s Irish Cream and Van Gogh Espresso Vodka). They were both great, but loaded with alcohol, so we immediately ordered a Mediterranean Nosh to nibble on while we looked over the menu. It was a perfect combination of some of my favorites – hummus, olive-feta salad, spinach pie, warm pita.

The menu was filled with so many offerings it was hard to know where to start. I always go vegetarian when given the opportunity for creative options and that is definitely the case here. I started with Chopped Bliss (red beets, garden veggies, sun dried fruits, cous cous and goat cheese in sherry vinaigrette). It was so fresh and flavorful I could imagine this as a perfect lunch in itself. My main dish ravioli was also vegetable filled and though it was tasty, I wasn’t sure about the addition of corn.

Melanie had the Colossal Shrimp Cocktail with 2 Alarm Cocktail Sauce and sweet lemon aioli. She said it was delicious, as was her Sesame Crusted Yellow fin Tuna, roasted over Forbidden Risotto Morimoto and served with a sweet and sour asparagus stir fry in a wasabi dressing. The menu also offered a number of meat options (such as Root Beer Glazed Pork Chops) customers were enjoying.

Left Coast Kitchen has an extensive wine menu, but with dinner we tried the New Age Cocktail. It’s basically a combination of sangria and a wine spritzer, made with an Argentinian white (they don’t indicate which one, just that it’s No. 1 in Argentina).  It was quite fruity and one of those dangerous drinks that you keep guzzling down without realizing how many you’ve had.

Deciding which dessert to have was easy as Left Coast Kitchen offers the Tower of Power, which basically translates into one of every childhood favorite you’ve ever had. Despite the explanation from the waitress, I didn’t quite believe what arrived at our table. It was indeed a tower – with layers and layers of treats!

The “tower” included brownies, Fruit Loop cereal bars, yellow cupcakes, white chocolate macadamia cookies, oatmeal raisin cookies, red velvet cupcakes, chocolate chip cookies and Oreo cupcakes. It was topped with cotton candy. Needless to say, we didn’t make a dent in it, but did get quite an audience trying to see how much of it we would eat. Finally, after we had sampled a bit of everything, Melanie decided to take the balance home to bring to her coworkers.

Another fun-filled trip to New York came to an end and I was heading back to the Midwest to get ready for my next Chicago adventure.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Sip and Taste From Montauk to the Hamptons Wine Trail

It was a cloudy and cool morning, but it was nice to wake up to the sounds of the ocean from my condo at the Surf Club in Montauk. I threw some sweats on and took a walk to town, stopping at the Continental Deli for a fresh piece of guavaberry bread and some coffee.

After getting a bit of work done, I drove to Wolffer Estate Winery in Sagaponack. I wanted to see the place and taste their wines, but I also wanted to hear about the newly formed Hamptons Wine Trail.

My daughter Sam met me for a day and we sat down with Winemaker Roman Roth to talk about the nearly five years it took for him – along with the Long Island Wine Council – to have this declared a wine region. He explained how the richer soil than the North Folk holds the water better, making for more elegant wines here.

Wolffer grows 50 acres of grapes on the 170 acre Hampton estate. Roth grows a selection of varietals by being honest about what works in this region. I was impressed with the just bottled 2011 Rosé Wine, a combination of merlot (54%), chardonnay (21%), pinot noir (9%), cabernet sauvignon (8%) and cabernet franc (8%).  It had a light lemon flavor with a bit of minerality, making it a good food friendly summer wine.  

At a higher price point, the 2008 Caya Cabernet Franc (with 15% merlot) has a nose full of fruit thanks very careful hand picking, sorting and cleaning. Behind the fruit is a bit of white and green pepper, as well as some licorice.

We took a walk through the downstairs library, barrel and tank rooms at Wolffer before driving to downtown East Hampton for some fresh mozzarella Paninis at Golden Pear. We needed some sustenance before hitting the next winery, Channing Daughters in Bridgehampton.

Alice Dubin was waiting for us at Channing Daughters and started by telling us about the wineries passion for rosés. They make eight unique ones here as well as a few “oranges.” Under that category I tried the 2011 Ramoto, which got its orange color from skin fermented pinot grigio. It spent eight months in oak – long enough to pick up some extra flavor, but not too long to be on the vanilla side. I could taste the baked apples and dried apricots within what was almost a dry rose.

Also impressive at Channing Daughters was the 2008 Clones, made from 10 clones of Chardonnay grown on Long Island, and the 2008 Channing Daughters Sculpture Garden, a distinct blend of 95% Merlot from the oldest vineyard of its kind on the South Fork and 5% Blaufrankisch.

Another interesting thing I learned about Channing Daughters was that they love to teach about wine and offer a series of tasting seminars so that their customers are more aware about what they are drinking.

The final stop of the day was at a winery I had previously tasted. Duck Walk is a fairly well-known Long Island winery on the North Fork. The location there was twice the size of this one, yet size does not always matter.

Just like at the other two wineries on the Hamptons Wine Trail, Duck Walk used their Water Mill location for specific wines, producing 20 wines at this plant. The other difference is in the visitors the winery gets. I was in agreement with the explanation that people who come to this location are here for the Hamptons experience and happen to discover wine here, while those who go to the North Fork have usually traveled there for the wine experience.

Many of the wines at Duck Walk are light and white, which happens to be my favorite kind. We started with the Southampton White, a non-vintage blend of Cayuga and chardonnay that was filled with grapefruit and similar to Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio.

The 2009 Chardonnay Reserve was very buttery and a little oaky, but not at all smoky, retaining the lightness after eight months in oak.

On the red side, the 2008 Pinot Meunier, a grape that Duck Walk is the only producer on the east coast to make on its own, was a ripe red cherry that I really enjoyed. The 2010 Blueberry Port is just wonderful and must be tasted, as is the 2008 Ice Wine Vidal Blanc, not at all overly sweet, but overflowing with peach and tropical flavors.

Sam and I drove back to the Surf Club to get ready for the Montauk Mixer at South Edison, just down the road from where we were staying. It was nice to meet some of the local business owners and here about the Montauk Music Festival, party boats leaving from the area and the renovation of Navy Beach. We also tasted some interesting food, like the waffles and chicken, but had to save our appetite for a big dinner at Gurney’sInn & Spa.

I think Gurney’s was on Long Island even before I arrived as an 11 year old from the Bronx. Its each location is ideal for a getaway or a meal and the new deck overlooking the beach is a nice add on. Unfortunately, it was a cool night so we didn’t want to spend much time outside, but instead took a window seat.

We started with cocktails and I ordered a Black Cherry Cosmo, with Van Gough Black Cherry Vodka, a splash of triple sec and white cranberry juice. It was very good and went well with the vegetable puree soup. Sam had crab cakes that she said were flavorful.

Both our main courses were excellent. For me it was Goat Cheese Ravioli, with spinach and sundried tomatoes in a truffle cream sauce. Sam had the Bouillabaisse and it was filled to the brim with fresh seafood.

We were both pretty full, but managed to enjoy a few bites of the Montauk Mudd Pie and Gurney’s Cheesecake before heading back to the Surf Club. There was one more Long Island day to come as I began to make my way west. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Back East for More Hamptons and Montauk

The best thing about my gig writing twice weekly for Hamptons Magazine is the opportunity to go explore this area I spent a good part of my teenage years in. Of course, many things have changed since that time, but some things will forever remain the same.

I was on my own for day one so I decided to take a ride all the way to “The End.” Montauk is the end of Long Island, the approx. 100 mile piece of land where the sound is to the north and the ocean is to the south. At the Montauk Light House the island comes to a peak and it’s quite the sight.

Unfortunately, the day was a bit gloomy, but I decided to venture out to the lighthouse and walk on the beach anyway. It had been too many years since I’d been at this spot. I walked the rocky path down to the beach and watched the waves for a while. I have to say that’s one of the things I have missed in the Midwest, not being able to stroll on the beach.

My one bedroom duplex at the Surf Club was just perfect for me. It lacked the frills of a five star resort, but made up for it with a perfect location on the beach. I had a small patio that was just yards from ocean, a bedroom with an ocean view window (there’s nothing like falling asleep to the sound of quiet and waves) and a short walk into downtown Montauk, a quiet beach town.

Dinner was set up at Andrra, a brand new restaurant in East Hampton that overlooks Three Mile Harbor. From what I could see it would be the perfect spot for a sunset on a day that wasn’t so cloudy. I met with their public relations rep, Lindsey, who had already managed to get to this place a few times and loved everything she had.

One of the restaurants partners, Rich Silver, explained that Andrra is Albanian for “the dream.” The other owners are Sami Krasniqi and Noti Krasniqi. Sami is also the restaurant’s executive chef and he makes pita from mom’s recipe (served with parsley garlic butter).

The lounge and restaurant are both upscale, but have a contemporary décor that is very relaxing. The menu is Mediterranean. As with many restaurants on eastern Long Island the menu was mostly seafood, but I still had quite a few options.

I started with a delicious salad of baby red and yellow beets, with tomato and cucumber in yogurt vinaigrette. Lindsey had the Toskan BBQ Shrimp. She raved about them, trying to explain how they are both spicy and sweet at the same time.

For a main course, she had the lamb chops, served with an edamame roasted garlic puree and was thrilled with the choice. I went for the Pappardelle with Braised Beef Barolo. It was a wine braised beef shoulder with root vegetables and shaved parmesan, mixed with the long thick noodles. The combination was excellent and I wished I had someplace to take it home to for leftovers. We also enjoyed flavorful sides of spinach and asparagus.

We were pretty full, but took a while to digest so we could try some dessert. The Key Lime Pie and Warm Flourless Chocolate Cake were definitely worth the wait. Both were fresh and fortunately not too heavy.

I called it a night fairly early as I had a big day ahead of me. It was time to check out the newly designated Hamptons Wine Trail, mingle with some of the locals at South Edison Restaurant, and visit one of the island’s most famous places – Gurney’s Inn and Spa

Sunday, July 8, 2012

From Plymouth to London for a Final Day

When it comes to making the most of the last day of a trip, I’ve never had such a nice balance as the Pernod Ricard team (and Meghan Kelleher from Access PR) put into our “Tale of Two Cities” itinerary. They gave us the best of two worlds – and the best of English gin.

It was nice to be able to sleep in a bit until 8:00, but it was then time to rise for a light breakfast at St. Elizabeth's House and our last tour of Plymouth. We went to Burrator Reservoir, a beautiful location with waterfalls over the dam. We then traveled down to the river, where the Plymouth Gin team had some surprises for us.

We first sampled Classic Pink Gin, which is a combination of Angostino bitters, Plymouth Gin and water. It was very good, though I’m not sure I’d make it my standard morning drink. We did have food, though, to share it with – deliciously fresh English scones with cream and black current jam.

we finished eating we had duck races in the river. I’m proud to say my purple duck came in second and earned me a bottle of Sloe Gin. We were also all given a copy of the Savoy Cocktail Book and said our goodbyes to Plymouth Master Distiller Sean Harrison before heading to the train station.

The trip back to London on the train was a long one, but I did get a bit of work (and sleep) in. When we arrived in the city we were taken to the Zetter Hotel.  This place was the total opposite of The Dukes, which had been small, yet regal. The Zetter was modern with a contemporary décor. I was especially impressed with the vending machines that dispensed cocktails in the form of small bottles of spirits and their coordinated mixers!

After settling in for a bit, we met for drinks at the bar. I stuck with the Beefeater Gin and tonic, before switching to wine with dinner, just upstairs in the hotel’s Bistrot Bruno Loubet.

I started with Beetroot ravioli with a rocket salad, fried breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese. It was quite good and I liked the originality. The same could be said of my Provencale Petite Farcis in a tomato and chickpea sauce. I really enjoyed that and was glad to have a break from the week’s meat.

Dessert was a tough choice as everything on the menu sounded incredible. I ended up ordering the Apple Tart with Crème Fraiche and cinnamon ice cream, but sampled some of the Chocolate Delice with Pistachio Crumble and Olive Oil and Star Anis Pannacotta. Everything was as good as it sounded.

After dinner we went down the block to Zth bar, which showcases the mixology genius of Tony Conigliaro. The décor was as eclectic as the drinks and I think between us we pretty much sampled them all. Some of the standouts were: The Master At Arms with Myers Rum, a port evaporation and homemade grenadine; The Flintlock, Beefeater 24 Gin, gunpowder tea tincture, sugar, Fernet Branca, dandelion and burduck bitters; and my choice, Twinkle, with Wyborowa, elderflower cordial and Perrier Jouët Champagne.

I was the first to leave for the night as I had an early morning flight back home. I said goodbye to my new friends and walked back to the Zeter.

I left the hotel before dawn and flew back business class on American Airlines, so I had eight hours to decompress, catch up on some movies and get ready for the work week at home. It had been quite a trip to England and I was happy to learn so much about the country, Beefeater and Plymouth on this trip.