Finally… Geneva!

To celebrate my birthday, my wife and I just went to Geneva to explore the highly touted classic small-town downtown. We visited several great stores, such as the well-known “The Little Traveler”, Southwest Trading Company, Mr. Cromwell’s Attic, and the enticing “The Spice House”. The culinary highlights of our trip were two separate visits to All Chocolate Kitchen, and a late lunch at Gratto Italian Tapas.

As we traveled south on the east side of Third Street, we stumbled first across ACK, as it’s also known. Apparently, this place is famous for all the things inside made from chocolate, sugar, and whatnot, such as a life-size astronaut statue, or a giant chocolate tree. According to the website, “The Guinness Book of World Records awarded Chef Roby the World’s Tallest Cooked Sugar Building, the World’s Tallest Chocolate Sculpture and the World’s Longest Candy Cane, in 2013.” There’s a picture of the “building” on one wall. They offer a wide range of items, but since we were just starting out, we opted to try four different truffles. The PBJelly was pretty much what it says, the Black Walnut Cream, and Port were delightful, and their signature cocoa powder dusted french truffle was truly decadent. 

We wandered down to the train station, then back up the other side. The place that most intrigued us during the trip for our main meal was Gratto. (I have no idea why their website is down.) This notion of italian tapas had piqued our curiosity, so we made our way back and were seated inside. It was earlier than we realized so they only gave us the lunch menu. With less selections to choose from, and being a bit overwhelmed by the heat of the day, Cathy and I started by sharing what would prove to be a pretty standard mozzarella caprese salad. I would have preferred a better size ratio between the tomato and mozz slices. These tomato slices were nearly twice the size of the cheese. The fresh basil was generous, but overall, I’ve had better versions of this classic.

Thus, expectations were a bit low for our entrees. We opted for two seafood choices. Cathy ordered a salmon with eggplant, and I opted for a whitefish. I can’t fully remember the description for her dish, but the combination of the topping and the fish was surprisingly good. She also chose the gluten free pasta side, which was spaghetti instead of the usual linguini. The simple evoo-based topping was tasty, but the pasta was a bit underdone. (I’m used to restaurants having trouble getting gluten free pasta cooked properly, so I didn’t hold this against them.)

My whitefish was topped with a brown butter cream sauce with capers, and served with a side of sautéed spinach and a simple linguini with what I think was a spoonful of bruschetta on top. The whitefish was crispy around the edges and tender in the middle. The sauce was delicious. The spinach was perfectly prepared for my tastes, and the linguini, while not standout, complemented perfectly. Overall, we were quite impressed with the entrees.

I casually dropped the hint that it was my birthday to the waiter. If they offer anything special for birthdays, he didn’t seem to know. Service wasn’t standout, but I’m spoiled working at a place with such high service standards, so I don’t expect much from a local operation. I would still recommend checking Gratto’s out, but go after 4pm if you really want to see what the tapas is like. I may go back and find out for myself.

Afterwards, we returned to ACK for truly amazing gelato. I had a seasalt chocolate truffle and Cathy had the Mossy Twig, a minty selection. We finished off with two more port truffles before heading back to the car.

If you’re looking for a great Chicagoland area small-town downtown experience, Geneva has a lot to offer. I plan to return soon. I can’t say if Gratto’s was the best choice for our meal, but it was not a disappointment. As italian restaurants go, I’ve had some better and plenty worse. However, I will probably never go through town again without stopping at All Chocolate Kitchen each and every time. With all the other reasons to make the trip, Geneva is a quaint little town definitely worth visiting, and ACK is the absolute must for every visitor’s to-do list. Enjoy!

Fathers’ Day 2014

This year marks my first Father’s Day and my dad’s 43rd! He wasn’t always perfect, but he was perfectly committed to the position and still is. Thank you, Dad, for everything, and then some. To celebrate, here are some great memories from the last four decades.

My dad was a three-tour vietnam vet. So of course my first memories of him involve looming over me in reprimand as I lay in my crib. To be fair, I deserved it, having thrown my toddler riding toy bike at my parents. I tended to get carried away as a kid.

Growing up in Mexico for many years, my dad’s sport of choice was “futbol”. He shared that love with me many Sundays over the years, teaching me that no matter how good you are at something, there’s always someone better. Until you get big enough and he gets old enough to finally realize you’re wearing him out and it’s time to hang up the cleats. Of course, I’m sure he could still dribble circles around me.

Dad’s devotion to my mom is epic and legendary. While she may have found it annoying that he always deferred to her choice every time we ate out, that same commitment to her happiness and well being serves her very well today.

Dad was always handier with people than things. Decades in car sales have given him a thick book filled with testimonials of his talent for helping people find their own happiness. These days, he’s still trying to figure out his iPhone. In the 80’s, the confounding machine was an unlit furnace that burned off his eyebrows. He doesn’t always handle technology well, but he’s never afraid to keep trying.

I get my work ethic from my dad. He never went very long without a job, whether it was managing shipping companies, delivering pizzas, or working for a chiropractor. (I can still remember the shelving units he built for the doc. In spite of my earlier assessment, he wasn’t that bad with things, either.) He didn’t even get into his current career of car sales until I was thirteen. Yet he never stopped working and doing and trying to provide for his kids and wife.

I rarely “suit up”. I’m more comfortable in jeans and a flannel. I can remember several pictures from the 70’s of my dad sharply dressed in a 3-piece suit. As a kid, Dad kept trying to keep me dressed up. I spent the first three years of high school dressed, as one classmate put it, like something out of a JCPenney catalog. He’s still known as a sharp-dressed man who can rock a fedora any day of the week. We may not have the same fashion sense, but Dad taught me how to iron my own shirts, and to always take pride in my appearance.

Some people thought my dad was too strict. Others thought he was surprisingly lenient. My dad spanked me plenty growing up. He and mom also tried groundings, exercises, writing assignments, and many a stern talking-to. I never felt abused in any way. Even at my most difficult moments during my teen years, I still felt my dad loved me.

Growing up, we moved around. A LOT. When I was 17, mom and dad did some math and figured we’d already moved 34 times. One time in the 70’s we moved into a new apartment and within weeks we were back at our old apartment. That one was totally my fault, but Dad never held a grudge. Through all those moves, he taught me resourcefulness and endurance. Because of this, I “tetris” a moving truck better than anyone I know. I also can handle heat-of-summer and dead-of-winter moves like a pro. All that moving also helped my dad foster in me his same skill with people. I learned how to make friends quickly, and to adapt well to ever-changing circumstances.

Dad always kept it together. There was a moment in seventh grade where my dad was the absolute coolest man on the planet, my super-hero and super-spy. This one takes a little setup. We were renting a house in Homer Glen. We started to have troubles with the landlord and decided to move. Creepy landlord started stalking the house. We loaded up a batch of belongings to take to the new place and he began following us as we drove away. So dad drove straight to the police station in town. We got a police escort out of the house and we never saw that guy again. I still smile when I remember the brilliance of that plan.

I have tons more old memories; too many to share here. He taught me to prefer a well-chopped salad, to not see race, to respect gender and age, to never be afraid to sweat, and to be willing to do whatever it takes to keep your family housed, clothed and fed. Most of all, he showed by example that love is actions and not just words.

So, on this Father’s Day, 2014, I look back to the amazing example that is my Dad, and I look forward to hoping I’m half as good at the job myself. Happy Father’s Day, Dad! I love you!

The Case For Tipping, And Gasp! Against It: A Point/Counterpoint

The Case For Tipping, And Gasp! Against It: A Point/Counterpoint.

The “Case Against…” makes a good point about the idea that gratuity should be earned. I would counter-argue, that if it’s not being earned, you won’t send that message clearly unless you inform management. It’s a pay-it-forward scenario that may collectively improve the industry. If management is unsympathetic, the issue is a bigger one with the overall culture of the establishment. They better have really good wings if you continue to patronize them in spite of the lackluster service.

The “Case For…” is filled with a lot of stereotypical behavior at stereotypical establishments. Not all places are like this. For example, I can’t count on one hand the number of times a chef has yelled at me. I also find this case to be emotional and over the top. There are much better ways to make this argument without “yelling” at the reader.

So, once again, this feels like sensationalism, rather than an honest discussion of a tradition that in entrenched in our society, but may be heading toward an overhaul. Until it does, I’ll keep doing my best to be a great server, and I hope my guests appreciate this. Enjoy!

My 16 Truths: Expanded – No. 7

7. Coupons, rewards, gift certificates, sales, and other discounts, do not impact my service.

This one is a big one. People really seem to have a hard time with this. So let me clarify.

Gratuity is based on the pre-tax, pre-discount bill.

These days, it seems everyone is looking to save big. They’re looking high and low for a deal, a bargain, a great buy, etcetera. In today’s economy, we all want to save money. Thanks to places like Groupon,, and the myriad of reward programs out there trying to clutter our wallets and purses with reward cards, it’s easy to find ways to lower your bill every time you dine out.

This is a good thing. Because it means an increase in people trying new places, and often that leads to, as I heard it at work once, “butts in seats on a Monday night.” I’m all for getting a good value, and I encourage people to look for ways to save money. For the establishments that offer such incentives, the short term revenue loss is far more than offset by the long term revenue gain.

However, people seem clueless to the fact that all these savings come from the business, not the server. The discounts are on the goods, not the services. When you bring in a 25% off coupon, you’ll pay for 75% of everything that is included in the price of the food. However, your server will still provide 100% of the service of a normal meal. So your tip should reflect that.

Sometimes, this will even include special promotions or club perks that may not be reflected on the bill. For example, if the server brought you the free birthday dessert, you won’t see that on the bill. However, the server still gave 100% of the effort to bring you that free sundae for your special day. So take that into account when you’re calculating your gratitude.

In the end, it’s really simple. If the restaurant charged you only $50 for a $100 meal, your server still gave you $100 worth of service. Give them $100 worth of your thanks and you’ll be sure to experience that same level of service again and again. Enjoy!

Okay, that was a practically perfect meal!

We had the pleasure of hosting the O’Neills tonight at our place for dinner. I made the main entrée and dessert, and they brought a salad. We were pleasantly surprised to find the dishes complimented each other perfectly.

First, their salad was amazing. Mixed greens, red onions, carrots, goat cheese, grape tomatoes, almonds (or was it walnuts), mandarin orange wedges, and more I can’t remember, was topped with Kimmie’s homemade triple berry and watermelon vinaigrette. After tearing into our heaping mounds of salad, we moved on to the main course.

For dinner, I experimented even further with a recipe I’d already modified once before. This time, I made what I’m calling, “Meat and Potato Pancakes”. The original recipe, from AllRecipes, can be found here. Previously, I substituted leftover mashed potatoes for the shredded potatoes, using an exchange of 1/2 cup mashed for each potato. I also usually add a couple tablespoons milk to moisten the mashed, since they are usually a bit dried out from having been refrigerated in a less than airtight container. Tonight, because of the guests, I opted to try something else.

I upsized the recipe by half, making a third more, and then added about 3/4 pounds ground beef. The pancakes still held up well, with the beef adding a little more texture and flavor, as well as a nice protein source. The overall flavor is still mild enough to match up well with any toppings you might typically put on potato pancakes. We played with some greek yogurt and some of the goat cheese and both tasted great. The yield was twenty patties, comparable in size to quarter or third pound burger patties.

Dessert was a bookend to the salad, as we topped frozen mixed berries with warmed chocolate sauce. I found this at a booth last Saturday at Uncork Illinois, a local wine festival in Oak Park, Illinois. It truly is a great chocolate sauce!

This was the second time I hosted friends to cook for them. It was another resounding success. The O’Neills left happy, enthusiastically insisting we do this again soon. It was a memorable and educational evening, and it further strengthened my confidence in the kitchen. Feel free to give my version of the recipe and try and let me know what you think. Enjoy!