Wined and Dined

I’ve spent more of my professional years being the “vendor”. So, those few times being the “client” have stuck in my memory. About ten years before my trip to China where I was treated like a big shot, I got my first taste of “bribery” while working at my first major industry gig in the city. After impressing management as part of the night crew, I was asked to fill a specific role during the day, beta testing a new asset management software. There’s a long story there unrelated to food, so I’ll skip to the good stuff.

During the next six months, the software maker’s sales rep would come out for meetings from Minnesota, sometimes staying in Chicago a couple days. Sometimes we went out for pretty impressive lunches at a stretch of local upscale restaurants located along Randolph, west of Halsted. What was even more impressive were the dinners. Since the sales rep had nothing to do but hang out in his hotel room, he’d often request someone to hang out with him on his dime to kill time, and I jumped at the chance. Some of the memorable dishes from those meals included martinis and steaks at Jilly’s, a warm watercress salad at Marche’s, and a chocolate mousse-like dessert with gold fleck that looked like modern art on my plate (can’t remember if that was at Tocque’s or Vivo’s, but both were awesome places.) Discovering live jazz at the Back Room after Jilly’s was an added bonus.

As much as I don’t miss the corporate world, I do remember fondly those awesome meals, and the best part was they were all free!

Having those experiences, and the many others since, have made me sometimes dream of being a food critic and visiting new places and trying new things. Maybe I’ll find myself in that position someday, or at the very least, in a position of being courted for my business. For now, I explore as much as reason and budget allows. There are merits to both sides. So long as the experience is memorable and the company enjoyable, I’m not really picky. Enjoy!

It’s Phuh, not Phoh.


When it comes to your standard Asian restaurant, and I say Asian, because so many offer more than just Chinese, the formula is a simple one. Familiar recipes with generous portions served quickly and reasonably priced. Very few places screw that up, so there’s comfort in the consistency.

Tonight, I visited Lotus Terrace in Naperville. The food alone was near the upper end of expectations with a few really yummy standouts, such as the satay and the steamed quiche on the Trio Delight. Yet, the reason I enjoyed it so much and want to endorse it is the service. Our server was enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the food and eager to answer our questions. It helped us to better understand our options and to start thinking about trying new things in the future beyond our standards.

I can go anywhere for “Chinese”, but I usually only go back to the places that offer a memorable dining experience. I look forward to trying this place again, armed with the hope that this visit wasn’t a fluke. Maybe next time I’ll even try a Vietnamese dish. Enjoy!

Blog Sharing

Had the pleasure of serving a repeat guest tonight at work. Kirsten was visiting with her friend, Tisha, to celebrate Tisha’s new job. Kirsten remembered me from a previous visit, both for my great service and the fact that I’m well-versed on all things gluten free where I work. She’s the one who told me about Canyon Bakehouse, which I’ve yet to try, but as soon as I do, I’ll post a review.

Since I’d last seen her, we’ve both started blogs. Hers is specifically about “Sharing healthy, gluten-free, dairy-free, kid-friendly recipes with simple ingredients and easy to read instructions.” Check it out for tons of great recipes, and if you subscribe, tell her I sent you. Enjoy!

Cooking with Wine

One of the coolest things about my current employer is the nature of the cuisine and it’s strong relationship to wine. None of the restaurants I’d worked at previously offered the quality and diversity our menu does. I’ve already gleaned a lot about cooking by building relationships with the executive kitchen managers, aka the chefs.

Tonight, the restaurant hosted an event for its wine club members called, “Cooking with Wine.” Because I work there, I don’t get to go to these events, but I’m always trying to hang around to see what I can pick up, because the menus for these events are specialty dishes served exclusively to the attendees. What set tonight apart was the inclusion of a demonstration by one of our chefs. Afterwards, I picked his brain for some takeaways from his presentation.

He cooks chicken with vermouth, much like his french grandfather did. He said it’s like white wine only with higher alcohol content and longer shelf life. He reiterated what we’ve often heard from the company’s chief winemaker and head chef, that one should never cook with wine one won’t drink. Specialized wines like Marsala and Madeira are an exception. He talked about deglazing, and the reasons to use stainless steel pans rather than non-stick. One tip he offered for entertaining was to cook the pasta the day before and simply heat it up when the sauce is ready. He might have had more to offer if I hadn’t needed to get back out to my tables, but that was plenty. I appreciated his willingness to take the time to share the tidbits with me. I look forward to picking up some vermouth to keep on hand just in case. Now I just have to remember to ask if he prefers sweet or dry… Enjoy!

Big fish in a small pond

Celebrated my first anniversary tonight with my lovely wife, Catherine, by going downtown to see “Big Fish: The Musical”. We hadn’t had any specific plans for dinner, so I decided to continue one of her longstanding traditions and visit Ronny’s Steakhouse in Chicago before the show. She gave me fair warning about what to expect, in terms of the food, and I wouldn’t at all say she was inaccurate. The 10-ounce steak offered maybe 5 ounces of edible meat. The roasted corn, while tasty, was cold. The baked potato drowned in the generic cheese sauce. Honestly, the food was cheap and tasted like it. However, it reminded me of a very important truth about dining experiences.

You see, sometimes, we all go back to a place for something other than the quality of the food. The pickiest of my friends have visited numerous average local establishments frequently, purely for the nostalgia factor. Because, when a place means something to its patrons, it has the potential to transcend its own mediocrity. Enjoy!

Hi Honey, have you eaten?

To this day, I still joke that those were the first five words out of my grandma’s mouth whenever I came in the door. I lived with her for a few years right out of high school, but even before then, I can remember many an evening with her standing by the stove stirring pots and opening the oven to check on holiday meals. Or even Sunday meals. Many times, after church, we’d stop by the grandparents for authentic chorizo and eggs and refried beans. I firmly believe my partiality to corn tortillas is a direct result of her cooking.

My earliest exposure to the notion of food culture came from those visits. While my mom had integrated Mexican cooking into her repertoire, at Grandma’s it was all Mexican, all the time. Yet that didn’t mean it was nothing but tacos. There was hearty meat and potato picadillo, quesadillas with chihuahua cheese, gazpacho, fideo soup, and so many more unique food and beverage options. Even when the holidays were filled with traditional American fare like turkey and stuffing, the table was accented with tasty tamales, chicken mole, and rompope. ¡Muy delicioso! Enjoy!

I do so love to share!

Tonight I got a chance to share my love of food with two new guests sitting in my section. Talking them through the options they were considering, and in some cases offering better choices based on their input, I helped them achieve a truly great dining experience. In doing so, I sparked a deeper conversation about past food adventures.

When the gentleman described visiting Baja California and enjoying amazing seafood tacos purchased for a pittance from a shack on the beach, it reminded me how some of the best meals come from the most unexpected places, and are usually served up by the most passionate people. These aren’t always people who are passionate about food specifically, but about life in general. My mom used to say about her great cooking was that her secret ingredient was TLC. Like that surfer in Mexico who only opened the shack when the waves weren’t worth tackling, her passion wasn’t so much for the food as the joy of sharing. That’s why I love to talk about food, because I love to share the good things in life with anyone who will let me. Enjoy!

Almost Heavenly Convenience Store Fare

As I’ve gotten older, my snack preferences have gravitated away from candy and cookies to goods with a little more substance. Most convenience stores offer hot, salty meat and bread options or soggy, cheaply made sandwich options. Few of these are palatable at best. The one exception I’ve found locally is 7-Eleven.

Taking a more serious, deli-quality approach to their pre-packaged food, 7-Eleven offers some delightful sandwiches with clearly marked freshness dates to ensure fresher, drier bread, lettuce with little to no wilt, and moist meats and cheeses. My current favorite is their Smoked Turkey and Jack Cheese on Cracked Wheat with Southwest Mayo. The toppings are generous and the flavor is tangy, making it a real treat to enjoy late at night. Price is reasonable for a healthy alternative to a burger or burrito. Plus, unlike a trip thru a late night drive thru, the sandwich is ready to go when I walk in. Enjoy!

I love being right!

One of the great things about having such a strong connection with food is that I’m really good at making suggestions to others. This knack is surprisingly helpful at my current job as a server. The joy on my guests’ faces when taking a chance on something I’ve suggested, pushing them out of their menu comfort zones, is particularly rewarding for both parties. That’s why I worked my way through experiencing the entire menu over the course of my first three months working at the Hawk. I wanted to be able to speak openly and honestly about the food.

Because I think a lot people don’t try new things due to fear. It’s scary to put unfamiliar edibles in one’s mouth, to gamble hard earned money on food that is priced beyond nourishment, to put one’s faith in another person’s likes and dislikes. Dining for any reason other than survival becomes an exercise in trust and a quest to satisfy one’s own particular preferences. That makes the job I do so very important to so many people.

Not everyone appreciates the role of server in the workplace, and this holds true on both sides of the apron. This person certainly does. So does this person. The latter is especially committed to preaching the message of respect for the profession. He is committed to speaking on the subject as part of his role as an ambassador of food and wine. Having attended classes he’s conducted for Cooper’s Hawk, I’ve taken up the cause and practice what I preach, by striving to be the best server I can. That includes knowing the food and wine we offer and speaking about it confidently. So if I say something is my favorite and that I’ve eaten it repeatedly, give it a shot. You may not like it, but at least you’ll know it didn’t kill me… yet. Enjoy!


A tribute to a Rockin’ joint.

A few years ago, my friend, Vojn, finally realized his dream of owning his own fast food restaurant. He first broached the subject with me while working for one of the chains, either Noodles or the Belly, I can’t remember which. A former San Francisco native, he was convinced he could bring California-style mexican to Chicago. Having lived here most of my life, I thought he was in for a rude awakening, but his success taught me an important lesson. No matter how crowded the field is, a great dining experience will always stand out.