Gluten… Free, but Not Yet Easy

When I met my wife, she’d been diagnosed with a gluten sensitivity for at least a couple years. Back in 2010, she ate a lot of popcorn, because options were few and far between. Some Asian and Latin cuisine was safe (she just had to watch out for soy sauce), but she hadn’t had a good pizza or burger for a while, at least not without cheating and paying for it later.

Fast forward to the present day and there has been an explosion of support for this affliction. Store shelves already starting to fill up with lots of health food company options are starting to get crowded with name brand support, such as Chex, Bisquick and King Arthur. Even Aldi’s offers some of the most reasonably priced products on the market. Most are even quite good. I emphasize reasonably priced because prices are still generally higher for replicators; products that fake the common uses for wheat.

There is still some room for improvement. Udi’s makes the best sandwich breads we’ve had so far, but the loaf size for their version of a white bread is smaller than a standard loaf. The whole grain loaves can be found in a more traditional size at Costco, so that’s what we usually have on hand, even though the cost is nearly 2.5x the comparable wheat price. Many pizza chains now offer gluten free crusts, but these are stocked frozen and made to order, and almost always only available as a thin crust. I even heard the Labriola Bakery moved their baking kitchen out of their cafe to a separate location so they could clean up and cater to the sensitive with new options and offerings.

However, there are still a few things missing from the alternatives. As long as it remains difficult to replicate the binding behavior of wheat gluten, certain classics remain elusive. Since I share so many of my meals with Cathy, I end up missing out as well. For both of us, I crave a good deep dish pizza, a good burrito, or a hearty italian beef. There are plenty of options out there. I just continue to hope for more, and for better.

Or a cure. That would work, too.

Until then, I’ll keep posting great gluten free finds when I discover them. Enjoy!

My 16 Truths: Expanded – No. 8 through 16

I left this series of expanded posts about half done back in June. It was around the time my wife went back to work after the birth of our first child (who is currently begging for attention in the background behind me as I try to write this.) A lot has happened in the last eight months, and I have decided I would rather focus on other things. So here is a summarized expansion for any remaining points I still feel like expanding.

8. I am your server. I feel I covered this one pretty well. Gratuity is for what i do and how I do it. The check is for everything else. Please don’t let what happens with one impact the other. Just as I would hope to get a good tip for great service even if the meal was bad, I’d expect a bad tip for bad service no matter how good the food was.

9. If you ever visit an establishment where servers rely on gratuity, and you knowingly don’t intend to tip for any reason, you are a thief. I recently learned a little bit about the history of tipping. It became popular in the U.S. during Prohibition, when restaurants took a major hit on profits from the loss of sales of alcohol and decided to make their servers look for income elsewhere because they could no longer afford to pay them. The system is outdated and I’m in full support of it going away. Until it does, there is an unwritten social agreement between establishments who rely on this system to pay their waitstaff and patrons who make use of these businesses. Breaking the agreement is theft. Failing to clarify if the agreement applies is cowardice. Neither is punishable by law, but those with a conscience should keep this in mind. Those without, well, everyone’s gotta eat.

10. I love food. I don’t love all food. People continue to appreciate my candor about food. At the place I work now, we have a dish that I find to be a poorer example of what the kitchen can offer. I always describe it as hit or miss. One recent guest called it fabulous. I explained this to the next guest while giving my usual warning. I came back and she said it was just okay, but that I did warn her. She tipped me just fine, in spite of her disappointment. The point is, tastes are so subjective, but dishonest descriptions would impact my income over the long haul, so I avoid them.

11. Every day I work is a “quality versus quantity” contest. The best example of this is people who don’t crack open the menu for their first 20 minutes at the table, or more. I want to say, “If all you wanted to do was talk, you could have stayed home. You came here to talk with your mouth full. Get to it, already.” I don’t say that. You’re welcome.

12. A great guest experience is extremely important to me. I was raised of a nobler ilk than some. I’m wired to care about others to the point of guilt. I genuinely want others to be happy, because that genuinely makes me happy. I’m reminded of an episode of Friends where Joey challenged Phoebe’s notion that there was ever such a thing as a truly selfless act. In the end, while your joy is great thanks, it is not ALL the thanks I need.

13. Poor tipping or non tipping will have zero impact on improving your experience. I work really hard at giving good service. So when I screw up, I know it I promise it’s not intentional. Yet if all you do is leave a bad tip, you accomplish nothing. No matter what you hoped to communicate with a bad tip, a bad tip does not speak.

14. I have no problem splitting the check for my guests. Splitting checks is a much easier task with the modern computer systems employed by most restaurants. So don’t be afraid to ask them to split it by seat or group of seats or evenly among specific payers.Allow more time for these multiple checks to be processed and don’t try to get too carried away. “Can you split the bottle of wine with her, but I’m paying for part of his appetizer over there.” So annoying. Also, if you’re paying part with cash and part with card, hang on to the cash, have the card(s) run, and then put the cash in the final. It will take away some of the fear that someone is going to forget how much the whole bill is.

15. Bad tipping won’t ruin my day, because I don’t have bad days. The one nice thing about being a good server is that I can usually attribute a bad week to things like the weather or sporting events like the Super Bowl (which is very much not a busy day for my employer.) However, according to a Stanford University study, when factoring what part service plays in the average tip, the difference between good and bad service is only 1%. It doesn’t mean I’ll give worse service, but it does mean I’m less prone to think my service had anything to do with how much I got paid.

16. In the end, my little monologue (unless it goes viral) will have little impact on the world around me. So far, it hasn’t gone viral, as far as I know. So I’m letting go and moving on. Enjoy!

Italio! Like Piada, only closer.

A couple years ago, I visited Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio on a business trip to help open a new Cooper’s Hawk. While there, one of the restaurants I visited was a place called, “Piada“. At the time, I commented in my Facebook check-in that it reminded me of what it would be like to walk into a Chipotle and think to myself, “Actually, what I really wanted was italian.” While their italian “burritos”, aka street wraps, were pretty good, the pasta bowl was the real winner.

So today, I got the chance to try a new local eatery called, “Italio“, In Orland Park, IL. It has nearly everything in common with Piada. There’s the option for a wrap, a pasta bowl, or a salad bowl. There are lots of choices for meats and fresh toppings, several tasty sauces and multiple cheese toppers. My dad and I shared a meatball sampler with the spicy diavolo sauce, and then we each selected our own pasta bowls. I ordered the diced steak for my protein choice, and blended their alfredo and marina sauces. Overall, it was a delightful experience.

In the end, Italio is so similar to Piada that I’m not entirely sure why they aren’t the same company. I’m thrilled to have a place like this within a reasonable distance, and I look forward to visiting Italio again soon. The only thing it didn’t have was Piada’s italian soda tap that offered multiple tasty flavors. Italio does carry little bottles of San Pellegrino’s sparkling blood orange soda, so it’s not a complete loss, but those don’t come with free refills. If you’re ever near a location for either company, stop in for a real treat. If you can make it twice, try the wrap at least once. Otherwise, take my advice and go for the pasta bowl. Vi piace!

Close Quarters Cuisine

Last night my wife and I visited a place called Riganato’s in Geneva, IL. We had been out traveling in the area and thought we’d stop somewhere for Italian. Siri included the place in a list of suggested local establishments so we gave it a try.

The place is one of those old converted houses with lots of charm. A newer establishment that opened in 2012, it’s clean and well appointed decor on the inside instilled confidence for a quality experience, but the cheap looking disposable menus made me wonder what to expect.

The menu offers a mix of Greek and Italian dishes, pizza, burgers and sandwiches. We started out by sharing the Arugula and Mozzarella salad. This is a delightfully tangy salad with large chunks of artichoke hearts, diced tomatoes and mozzarella, and is well proportioned. My wife thought it was a bit overdressed, but I enjoyed cleaning my plate with my bread. We decided to go lighter and cheaper this time. They offer a large selection of gluten free options, so my wife enjoyed a yummy pork sandwich and a side of sautéed garlic spinach. She said the bun was well done, but we can only assume it was store-bought. I had a Manchego and Jalapeño burger with sweet potato fries. The fries were quite good, a bit limper than I’ve had at some places but the outside was still crunchy. The burger was generous and flavorful, offering a medium level of heat. To round out the meal, they offer these little mini dessert options that sounded delightful and are a perfect portion size. For GF there is only a house-made rice pudding, but that and my chocolate cake were great cappers on a pleasantly surprisingly good meal. We fully intend to return there some day soon to try their dinner entrees.

These kinds of places have been some of my favorites over the years. There is a certain charm to dining at a place that used to be a home. The layouts are always intriguing, many with fun twists and turns, and a cozy, lived-in feel. Cafe Isabella’s in Tinley Park has been a favorite for years. There are many of these types of restaurants throughout most major cities and I’ve visited a few in Springfield, MO, Dallas, TX, and San Francisco, CA. There are dozens of these throughout Chicagoland worth exploring, and I’ve enjoyed quite a few. I imagine the appeal of opening restaurants in such properties is based on factors like climate-consistent basements for storage, wiring and piping in place for gas, electric, and plumbing, offices and storage upstairs, built in porches or patios, and the charm of creating the feeling being invited into someone’s home.

Whether it’s your first date, or your first date since the baby was born, consider one of these restaurants for your next dining experience, and unleash your adventurous side. Enjoy!

A Second Helping

On a whim, my wife and I returned to Da Luciano’s, an Italian restaurant in River Grove that caters to the gluten free. Our first visit, back in 2011, was quite enjoyable for both food and atmosphere, and I’ve been promoting the place ever since. This time, the entrees were even better. Cathy had a Pasta Amalfi with mussels and arugula. The arugula perfectly complemented the seafood. I had the Pollo Rosmarino, a chicken and potatoes dish with peppers and spinach, topped with a generously spiced garlic and rosemary olive oil sauce.The house italian gluten free bread has great flavor, but a slightly more biscuity texture. Eating it while it’s hot is best, as is often the case with gluten free breads. Service was adequate and could benefit from better training, but it’s on par with most “mom&pop” eateries. Salads were included and pretty standard. House Montepulciano was tasty but served too warm for my tastes.Overall, I still recommend this place to all my gluten free friends and Cooper’s Hawk guests for an authentic italian experience. Even if you’re not gluten free, they are worth the trip. Enjoy!

Gluten Free Pasta Amalfi

Gluten Free Pasta Amalfi

It’s been awhile…

Often, lately, I’ve taken to using the excuse, “newborn brain” to explain my distractions and forgetfulness. It’s a pretty good one, all things considering. As a result of the changes in routine since the arrival of my firstborn son on April 29th, I just haven’t had as much time to sit down and post. So here’s a quick recap of things that don’t need their own posts.

1. The August Chef’s Recommendation at Cooper’s Hawk, 2 5oz bone-in filet medallions, is some of the best beef I’ve had there to date. The beef was as tender and juicy as anything I could hope for without slow cooking. It’s only available for a limited time so hurry in to try it.

2. Tripp has started to show interest in what I’m eating when I eat in front of him. Won’t be long before he begins his lifelong relationship with food. Still hoping he’s not a picky eater.

3. I’m about fifty pages into Karen McNeill’s The Wine Bible. I’ve only got 800 pages to go! I’ve learned a lot already about wine basics, and had some things clarified for me that I knew before but not as thoroughly. For example, only about 0.4 to 0.8% of the population, mostly severe asthmatics,  are truly allergic to sulfites. According to research by allergists, there’s no link to sulfites and headaches. Sulfites are also found in beer, cocktail mixes, cookies, crackers, pizza crust, flour tortillas, pickles, relishes, salad dressings, olives, vinegar, sugar, shrimp, scallops, dried fruit, and fruit juice, among other foods and beverages.

So that’s all the latest updates. I’ve got another recipe to post, another service-related article to review, and more truths to expand upon. Hope I get to them soon. Enjoy!

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!

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!

The first of many new firsts!

When it comes to food, I’ve already experienced so many firsts in my life: my first ice cream, pizza, steak, sushi, etc. Some were more memorable than others. For example, I still remember, quite vividly, biting into my first sea cucumber in southern China in July 2006. I know there are still firsts to come, such as my first meal during my first trip to Europe or the first time I’ll dine at a famous chef’s restaurant.

However, I’m very excited about the prospect of revisiting my many previous firsts by living vicariously through my newborn son. Each time I share a cherished staple in my diet with him for the first time, I will get a chance to watch the discovery play out on his little face and remember what it was like for me at his age. I can’t wait to introduce him to popcorn, or jello, or “paskeddy”. There is so much food diversity he’ll be able to explore from all over the world, right in our own backyard. I’m a little jealous, thinking about all the cuisines he can explore early on that weren’t even on my radar until my adult years, such as sushi, middle eastern, thai, or peruvian.

In the end, the “first” I most want to be there to share with him, is when he first discovers a passion for food, not just as a consumer, but as a creator as well. I can’t wait for the first time we make something great in the kitchen, together. I might just cry a little when he takes his first bite of something he made and knows that it’s good, not just because Mommy and Daddy said so, but because his own mouth is being more honest with him than ours could ever be. That might be my favorite “first” yet. Enjoy!

A little taste of summer!

I’ve previously mentioned one of my favorite sushi places is Sushi By Chef Soon, located inside Seocho Garden in Lisle, IL. Yesterday, I finally got to share it with my good friend, Martin. I had already experienced it with my other sushi-obsessed friend, so this was long overdue for us.

We arrived for lunch just as they opened. Since it was a Tuesday afternoon, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Chef Soon was there, skillfully preparing our meal. We started with some tasty miso soup. (I enjoy miso soup, but it’s one of those things that is so specific a recipe that few disappoint and fewer impress.) Martin and I both love eel, so we ordered one piece each of the more common fresh water unagi and the less common salt water anago off the ala carte menu. Both were as good as any we’ve had. We asked the server about popular maki, because I couldn’t remember all the great ones I’d had during my last visit. We ended up with three, Ocean Drive, Tropical Island, and a favorite I soon remembered from before, the Summer roll. These are listed under the section, “CHEF SOON’S SIGNATURE MAKI”. We started with the Ocean Drive and Summer rolls and followed with the Tropical Island. Ocean Drive is almost triangular-shaped and tastes amazing, with the distinct freshness of the bell pepper and lime coming through. Tropical Island is also great, with an almost tortilla-like wrapping, that was very fresh tasting as well, and had a noticeable mayo flavor.

Both of the other rolls were delicious. Neither was as mind-blowing as Summer. The presentation of the Summer roll shows off it’s most unique feature; razor-thin slices of lemon top the roll and give it it’s signature zing. It’s the kind of roll that takes you back a bit, slows you down, makes you relish ever chew, the kind of taste sensation that makes you chuckle a little at how good it is. As Martin reacted with exquisite surprise, I knowingly nodded and replied, “I know, right?” I felt a little bad saving my last piece of Summer until we finished the Tropical Island, because I’m sure Martin was jealous watching me savor that last morsel.

I’ve been to enough sushi places to notice a pattern. Some excel at the nigiri (ala carte) while providing adequate maki (rolls), and vice versa. Sushi by Chef Soon is one of the rarer places that excels at both. Martin and I will continue to explore Chicagoland for great sushi, but I’ve officially proven to him now that my current favorite will be hard to beat. Enjoy!