Piccolo Sogno

The gorgeous patio at Piccolo Sogno makes it a worthwhile visit for lunch or dinner, if not for the excellent food. The patio at Piccolo Sogno is arguably one of the top alfresco dining spots in Chicago during the summer especially when it consistently gets voted for best patio dining among the Chicago dining media. The charming patio is filled with summer flowers and shady trees. Green leaves are in abundance and they set the perfect mood for lovely summer day or evening with Italian food and wine. The flowers in the patio change constantly throughout the summer which makes it a nice view treat if one was there more than once in summer. When we were there in June, fully blossomed hydrangeas in rich white and blue set the tone at the patio. We returned again in July and were greeted with tall ornamental grasses.

A daily special that is not on the menu is the antipasti platter which is something that we cannot we do without every time we are at Piccolo Sogno. The wide array of antipasti are laid out and displayed on a table located right next to the kitchen, but not out of view from the diners. In addition to the platters of grilled vegetables, there is a whole slab of prosciutto sitting on the meat slicer. When a table orders the antipasti platter, the server would pick out each variety of antipasti while placing it on the serving plate so that each order has a little bit of everything. The antipasti platter typically comes with a generous serving of sliced prosciutto, black and green olives, aged cheese, chickpeas, grilled vegetables consisting of asparagus, rutabaga, red peppers, artichokes, shallots, eggplant, and brussel sprouts.

The beef carpaccio that came arugula and shaved aged cheese was a light and somewhat refreshing dish, again perfect for the summer.

Piccolo Sogno offers the option of ordering half a portion of the pasta dishes which really is quite a terrific idea so that we will have more room for other items on the menu. We tried the pappardalle con polpettine which was very delicious and it came with wide egg noodles served with spicy lamb meatballs, pine nuts, golden raisins, eggplant ragu, roasted peppers, and green onions.

We don't frequently see seared ahi tuna at Italian restaurants but Piccolo Sogno clearly went beyond what expectations for this dish. The ahi tuna was perfectly rare inside and very tender, served on a bed of green peas and artichokes.

It is very telling about how Piccolo Sogno's rustic food is very much appreciated from the fact that the tables are always filled at anytime during the evenings. Even when summer has come to pass and the patio is closed for the season, the dining room is never empty throughout the year. Advanced reservations are recommended for this local gem.

We just sat back and relaxed, enjoying the warm and breezy summer evening with white wine and very good Italian food. Those are good times in summer.

Piccolo Sogno
464 North Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60642

2011 Best Alfresco Dining, Chicago Reader
2010 TimeOut Best Urban Oasis Award
2009 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence
2009 TimeOut Best Urban Oasis Award


Manchester United in Chicago

Soldier Field

Few weeks ago Chicago Fire met with Manchester United in a friendly soccer match at the Soldier Field. Thanks to B and L, we got excellent seats with an equally excellent view. A loyal fan of Manchester United, T couldn't be happier sitting three rows from the field. We were at the section closest to one of the goal boxes and as luck would have it, we were seated near the goal box where all the scored goals happened.

It was no surprise how everyone expected the match results to turn out even before the game began, but still the atmosphere and supporters for both Chicago Fire and Manchester United were stronger than ever. Despite facing a professional team like Manchester United, credit also needs to be given Chicago Fire on their performance during the game. They handled it well with a good amount of ball possession time. Chicago Fire commanded the first half with one goal but Manchester United struck back with three goals during the second half, giving the Red Devils a 3-1 win.


Park and Anderson

De Gea

Sir Alex Ferguson






Girl & The Goat

We are just two blocks away from Girl & The Goat but it is far from being merely a neighborhood joint for us since neighborhoods joints are generally places that people can just do a walk-in and easily get a table for dinner. Girl & The Goat is different. It is a destination place. Opened in the summer of 2010 it shows no signs of slowing down. Getting reservations are difficult (but certainly not impossible) and some pre-planning is required since even if you tried to make a dinner reservation two weeks prior to the day, you would probably be left with the least wanted time slots e.g. 4:30pm for dinner. Diners could try and do a walk-in but they would be probably be looking at about an hour and a half wait for a table. Prior to our recent second visit to Girl & Goat, we made a dinner reservation two months early and managed to snag a 6:30pm table. We thought those two months would not pass soon enough but it did. Here's a tip (if you did not already know it): plan ahead and make advance reservations. It is worth it.

What is the fanfare about surrounding Girl & The Goat? Stephanie Izard is no stranger to the food community and dining industry in Chicago and in the country. As if coming away as the winner of Top Chef 2008 was not impressive enough, she earned the title Best New Chef for 2011 by Food & Wine. Shortly after Girl & the Goat opened, it was featured on the New York Times as being the "tasty reason" to visit Chicago.

Girl & The Goat is not just a random name Stephanie Izard decided to name the restaurant. Izard is said to be the French word for a type of mountain goat. Interestingly, Stephanie Izard had never cooked goat meat until she opened Girl & The Goat. Staying true the restaurant theme, the back of the menus are printed with the image of the signature goat. The rustic environment, excellent foods, and fun atmosphere combine to give this place appeal. We stepped into the restaurant at 6:30pm and it was already bustling with all tables filled. As we were led to our table, the aroma from the open kitchen made us hungry. Stephanie Izard is generally always standing at the front of the kitchen expediting the process so do not be surprised to see her there. It is difficult to apply a strict category of the type of cuisine served at Girl & The Goat. The menu is evenly divided between seafood, meat, and vegetable and it could be seemingly American but the constantly changing menu has items that use ingredients inspired by Asian or European cuisine.

The drinks list has quite a good variety of micro brew beers to choose from. Wines by the bottle also come in a good price range. Our affordable bottle of Gouguenheim Malbec was pleasing to the palate and the mild fruity flavor made it a very enjoyable drink with food.

Everyone who has been to Girl & The Goat talks about the sauteed green beans. Believe what they say about it. It may seem strange because green beans have generally been an underrated type of vegetable in restaurants but thanks to Girl & The Goat, there is a revival of green beans. Sauteed with fish sauce vinaigrette and cashews, the green beans were bursting with intense flavor. While the idea of fish sauce may put off some people, there is not a slightest hint of fishiness in the dish. Commonly used in Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, fish sauce is used to give dishes the umami flavor and it did just that in the resulting and amazing sauteed green beans.

The goat carpaccio was topped with very different tasting ingredients that resulted in a wonderful combination of flavors from those various bits of topping. The thinly sliced goat loin were fresh and pure in taste and the meat came dressed with tongue-olive vinaigrette and smoked roe. The figs and salsify crisps were a wonderful addition.

The smoked goat rilette empanadas were served on a piece of wooden board and the empanadas came with tuna aoili, celery, and tomato salad. The pastry crust of the empanadas were perfect and the goat rilette filling was still warm when we bit into the empanadas. Nothing beats eating stuffed pastry when still warm.

We really liked that the escargot ravioli stayed true to its name and form. Inside each ravioli pocket was a piece of whole escargot. Without any unnecessary added ingredients to the ravioli filling that could be a distraction to the escargot, the simplicity of each ravioli that was filled with just a whole escargot inside allowed us to taste and appreciate the escargot itself. Tiny bits of chopped bacon as well as a concocted tamarind-miso sauce complemented the ravioli well.

Easily one of our top favorite dishes is the skewered lamb's heart with spiced black mission figs and charred tomatoes. The texture of the heart meat was right on and the dish was prepared slightly under medium since heart meat has a tendency to become hard in texture when overcooked. We love how restaurants today are not afraid to embrace cooking with seemingly unconventional animal parts that may be part of the everyday food culture in other parts of the world.

If there is another part of our meal that I still think about it, it is the pork fat doughnuts we had for dessert. I asked our server about the preparation and was told that pork fat is added to the batter and then the doughnuts are fried. The resulting square-shaped pillow doughnuts were fluffy, light, and airy. I loved it so much I told T we had to return to Girl & The Goat soon even if it meant just grabbing a drink at the bar and getting an order of these doughnuts. The doughnuts sat on a layer of honey yoghurt and also in the dessert bowl were caramelized figs, lemony eggplant, and ham streusel. While the accompaniments do not sound very conventional (and that's what we love about Girl & The Goat), the marriage of flavors and textures of the entire dessert was very well executed.

Until our next meal at Girl & The Goat, here's getting down to some pre-planning and making an advance reservation perhaps for dinner two months down the road.

Word is out that Stephanie Izard has plans to open The Little Goat which will be an old school diner but with a contemporary twist. The diner will just be steps away from Girl & The Goat.

Girl & The Goat
809 West Randolph Street
Chicago, IL

2011 Food & Wine Best New Chef
2011 James Beard Nominee Best New Restaurant
2011 Michelin Guide Bib Gourmand
2011 Time Out Chef of the Year
2008 Top Chef Winner


Soft and Chewy Peanut Butter Cookies

T and I always feel like we have hit the jackpot when either of us successfully convinces the other person that a certain type of food that may be a favorite for one of us but is totally not favored by the other can taste good. And in fact it can be more than just good. A story which we still talk about today is how he convinced me that eggplant can taste good. T absolutely loves eggplant and I really do not, or at least I did not. I blame it on the previous times I had eaten overcooked-until-mushy eggplant when I was young. That was where we had conflicting ideas when it came to grocery shopping or making dinner at home. He lamented that he never got to cook and eat eggplant at home since we eat the same food at home. One day a few months back I felt like being nice and said, Alright we can have eggplant at home. I'll eat it. I promise. And he made the best grilled eggplant dish ever. All he did in response was grin and shook his head with the I-told-you-so look.


A few days ago when I announced that I was going to make some peanut butter cookies, T said umm I don't really like peanut butter cookies. I said, What? But you love peanut butter! How can you not like peanut butter cookies? He replied, Yeah, I love peanut butter but I don't like peanut butter cookies. And I was on a mission to make him a convert.

I came home from work one evening to hear T tell me, by the way I had some of those peanut butter cookies on the kitchen counter... they were so good.

There, mission accomplished. These peanut butter cookies did it.

Note: Many peanut butter cookie recipes call for smooth peanut butter but I always use crunchy peanut butter because I like having the little nuts in the cookies.

Inspired by David Lebovitz's Peanut Butter Cookies. Makes about 36 cookies.

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup crunchy peanut butter
1 large egg, room temperature

1. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

2. Using an electric mixer with the paddle attachment set on medium speed, beat together the butter, granulated and brown sugars, and peanut butter until just smooth. Beat in the egg.  Add in the flour mixture and mix until well combined and dough comes together.

3. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, or at least for 2 hours. The longer the rest time for the dough, the better the ingredients can meld together so that the cookies will be soft and chewy upon baking.

4. Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

5. Pinching off pieces of dough, roll them into balls about 1 inch in size. Place each ball 3 inches apart from each other on the baking sheets. When the baking sheets are filled, use the back of the tines of a fork to slightly flatten each ball while making a crosshatch pattern.

6. Bake the cookies, while rotating the baking sheets midway through baking, for 9 minutes. The cookies should begin to brown at the edges but the centers still look a little uncooked. Removing the cookies from the oven before they look done will make them stay soft and chewy after they have cooled to room temperature.

7. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets until they become firm enough to handle. Use a spatula to transfer the cookies to a cooling rack.


Next, Tour of Thailand

Yes, someone got it right. Grant Achatz did. 

To preface this, sometime back I wrote about the highly anticipated restaurant, Next, that opened in Chicago by the genius Chef Grant Achatz along with his business partner Nick Kokonas. As the name suggests, Next embraces the bold move of featuring an evolving menu every 3 months with each next menu featuring a different cuisine or city at a different time line. Next said goodbye to its Paris 1906 debut menu, which we were lucky to score tickets for, and now the bravely unafraid Grant Achatz takes a totally different turn and delves into what had once been an unfamiliar territory to him in the kitchen and presents Tour of Thailand. Grant's inspiration on thinking-outside-the-box makes him who he is today and also brought his other Chicago restaurant, Alinea, to the rank of being #1 restaurant in North America and the #6 best restaurant in the world. And now, Next restaurant dominates food conversations and food news sites.

Not afraid to be experimental, Next has also reinvented the entire system of restaurant dining where diners purchase tickets for their meal. Tickets are sold only in tables for parties of 2, 4 and 6, with the latter being the kitchen table. From an economics perspective, this is quite an ingenius way of dealing with the nightmares of no-show reservations.

The ticket frenzy did not end at their Paris 1906 debut menu. In fact, on the day tickets were released for the current Tour of Thailand menu people were glued to their computers and hitting the refresh button for what may had seemed like a million times (thanks to the server overload) to purchase the tickets. On the day of the ticket release, we were in Las Vegas and were both on our iPhones trying to purchase our tickets. The 3G connection was slow and even by obsessively refreshing our Safari browsers we were not successful. The page eventually told us that tickets were sold. That was 1 1/2 hours from the time of ticket release. We were bummed. Later, it was revealed on Next's Facebook page that there were only 2,000 tickets for sale and based on the webpage statistics 16,000 people tried to purchase tickets. For the 14,000 disappointed people, Next announced that for the current menu they would try to release Same Night Tickets on most days, if available, as they wanted to give everyone a chance. The first three times we were not successful in getting same night tickets. The fourth time's the charm. Next responded to say they have a table for us that night.

The food and alcoholic pairings clearly did not disappoint and every dish that was brought out was excellent based on Next's interpretation on Thai cuisine. What impressed us the most, though, was how closely the execution of the entire meal mirrored and reflected the Thai culture. Growing up in Southeast Asia with many similarities to Thai culture, T and I had the advantage of drawing connections to the little details presented to us throughout the meal that could have been gone unnoticed if we were not familiar with the culture. Our meal was fantastic but if there was one aspect of our experience from Next's Tour of Thailand that we appreciated the most, it would be the opportunity for us to experience what we grew up being familiar with.


Tour of Thailand
Next's exploration and interpretation of Thai cuisine

Tour of Thailand begins with what is usually associated with street food. We were seated at the table; it was bare except or a thin stack of folded Thai newspapers that sat on the center of the table. The server opened up the newspaper and used it to line the table. Black plastic spoons and pink paper napkins were brought out.

1. Roasted banana, prawn cake, sweet shrimp, fermented sausage, steamed bun
Paired with cocktail punch made from Batavia Arrack (Indonesian rum made from sugar cane), sparkling rose, guava, mango, papaya

The roasted bananas were served with its skin still intact and using our hands we folded the ends of the skin downwards to enjoy the banana. Topped with marigold flower petals, fresno chilli slices, and shallots, the natural sweetness from the banana was quite a delight to start off the meal.

The fermented sausage was made from pork shoulder and then mixed with galangal and peanut, and then topped with grilled scallion. The sausage was definitely a pleaser. The prawn cake (not pictured), made from a combination of white pepper, coriander, and lime zest, had the right amount of crisp and crunch to it.

The raw sweet shrimp was delicately placed on a fresh mint leaf and served with garlic and lime juice with just the right amount without turning the shrimp into ceviche. The mini steamed buns were filled with beech mushrooms and green curry. The buns were soft just like how they should be although the filling did not stand out to make an impression.

After the street platter, the newspapers used to line the table were removed making way for a red table runner to adorn the table. We moved on from street food to a more formal dinner presentation.

2. Tom Yum Soup
Paired with cocktail made from London dry gin, chrysanthemum, lemongrass, and lychee juice

The cocktail concoction was a perfect combination of flavors. At every sip, we noticed the individual flavors of each ingredient without the flavors getting meshed up into one confusing cocktail. My favorite part of this cocktail was the noticeable flavor of freshly brewed chrysanthemum tea. It brought back memories of drinking homemade brewed tea made from pretty chrysanthemum flowers.

The tom yum soup was made from pork-based hot and sour broth. Steering away from the conventional, Next's form of protein for the tom yum soup was caramelized pork belly. The soup bowls filled with pork belly, heirloom tomato, ginger, and Thai bird's eye chilli were brought to the table and the broth was poured into the bowls at the table. The broth was light in nature and at first sip it gave the impression that it was a little too light in flavor but as we continued drinking the soup, the flavor of the soup started to build up.

3. Nam Prik Pao, Salted Duck Egg, and Rice

And the consumption of rice begins here. One thing worth noting was how much we appreciated that we were given a dinner spoon and fork to eat rice with, instead of just a fork. In Southeast Asia, it is common practice for people to eat rice with a dinner spoon and fork. The food goes on the dinner spoon and into the mouth; the fork is used to push the food onto the spoon. At Thai restaurants in the US, usually only a fork is given (and/or chopsticks) which means that the fork is used to "spoon" rice into the mouth. The only other types of spoons we have generally seen used in Thai restaurants in the US are soup spoons and serving spoons.

I can't think of a better way to introduce Thai cuisine than with nam prik pao, a thick chilli paste made with chilli, shallots, garlic, and fish sauce. Nam prik pao is said to be quite a quintessential feature in Thai cuisine. The flavor was intense from the combination of all the ingredients that went into it. The fish sauce definitely made its presence known in the chilli paste and yet without being overpowering in order not to overshadow the flavors of the rest of the ingredients. Nam prik pao is usually used with cooking other food items but it is commonly eaten as it is with plain white rice because of the rich flavor it carries. I found that half a teaspoon of the chilli paste with a spoonful of rice was enough to experience the complex and intense marriage of flavors.

The salted duck egg came in a form of almost-pureed savory egg custard. Though we have some familiarity with eating salted duck egg in Chinese cuisine and not Thai, this dish showcased an interesting and creative way of adding green mango and white radish to the dish. The less intense and more mellow taste of the duck egg was an excellent contrast to the intense nam prik pao.

We had two options to increase the heat of the nam prik pao and salted duck egg if we wished to. In fact, the spicier it was, the better it was for us. Brought along to the table were a petite dish of finely chopped Thai bird's eye chilli and another petite dish of blended chilli and garlic. Freshly chopped Thai bird's eye chilli as well as the blended chilli and garlic are both common supplements to increase the heat in Southeast Asian cuisine.

The pickled watermelon and papaya is also another popular form of salad usually eaten as a side and as a palate teaser.

4. Braised Catfish
Paired with white wine Itsas Mendi Hondarrabi Zuri, Bizkaiko Txakolina, Spain 2010

When the charcoal burner was brought out to the table to be used as a stand for the fish platter, it brought back fond memories of eating fish in restaurants in Southeast Asia. A very common and authentic way for restaurants serving fish in Southeast Asia is to let the fish platter sit on the burner so that the fish will remain warm throughout the meal. We were impressed that Next caught on with this traditional practice during the dinner presentation.

The catfish was braised in caramel sauce, coriander root, and celery. The fish was tender at every bite without being overly delicate. Another common practice in Southeast Asia which Next played out during the fish presentation was that the server helped dish out some fish from the serving platter onto our rice plates. I am not sure what is it about fish but generally servers restaurants in Southeast Asia do not dish out the food from the serving platters for diners but fish is the exception. The server holds a spoon and fork with the same hand and position both utensils so that they can function like a pair of thongs (some good finger dexterity would be helpful!). Next caught on to that practice too. Our server at Next held both spoon and fork with one hand so that they became a pair of pseudo-thongs and dished out the fish for us onto our rice plates. We were impressed by these little details that are so reflective of the culture.

And of course, just like the true Asian way of going through a dinner meal, more rice was brought out with the catfish.

5. Beef Panang Curry
Paired with microbrew Half Acre, Horizon Ale, Chicago, IL

Next's attempt to reflecting the essence and culture of Southeast Asian dining was shown once again here. The beef panang curry (and more rice) was brought out when we were midway enjoying the catfish. What some people might have thought as a kitchen slip-up for bringing the next dish out before the first dish is finished, we thought it was intentional on Next's part. We wanted to shout, Yes, this is how it is supposed to be like! A common practice at restaurants in Southeast Asia is that the dishes, enjoyed family-style, are brought out from the kitchen as when they are ready. This allows the early dish to be enjoyed by itself for a little bit before the next few dishes are gradually and individually brought out to the table so that all the dishes at the table can finally be eaten together.

Served in a beautiful copper pot, the beef cheek panang curry was prepared with peanuts, nutmeg, and kaffir lime. The beef cheeks were incredibly tender and the curry, though thick, was not too heavy.

6. Fruit "palate cleanser" consomme

After a rich and flavorful meal, we were served a drink made from watermelon and lemongrass which was very much needed as we transitioned to dessert. 

7. Coconut Dessert
Paired with Planta Passito di Noto, Moscato, Italy 2009

The whole coconuts with the husk still attached were brought out on a wooden platter and we were asked to slowly open up the top part of the coconut. Inside were various ingredients of coconut, egg yolk sweet noodle, licorice, and corn with the latter prepared with liquid nitrogen. When the "lid" of the coconut was removed, a generous scoop of coconut sorbet was placed on it. The taste of the sorbet stayed true to the pure taste of coconut juice without any distracting flavors. With each spoonful of sorbet into my mouth, it felt like I was tasting real coconut juice but in sorbet form.

8. Dragon Fruit
Paired with a shot of Banks "5 Island" Rum

Before the dragon fruit made its appearance, a stalk of fresh and sweet smelling rose was brought to the table. We were encouraged to sniff the rose petals before delving into the dragon fruit. The surface of the fruit was scented with rose syrup which gave a sweet character to the dragon fruit.

9. Thai Iced Tea

As an end to our Thai meal, this was our favorite part of the night: drinking the iced tea out of clear plastic bags. Next once again presents one of the most distinct feature of the culture. Sipping the tea through a straw from the clear plastic bag, it brought back memories of the days when we were in elementary school drinking soda or iced tea out of these plastic bags at the school cafeteria. We still like to indulge in this unique little practice when visiting Southeast Asia and buying drinks from local stalls. Sadly though, many drinks establishments are gradually doing away with serving drinks in these plastic bags and are moving on to paper cups. When the table beside us at Next received their iced tea in the plastic bags, we overheard one of the guys saying to his friends, "They have this in Singapore too". Ah hah, someone else also understood the connection with the Southeast Asian culture.

The iced tea was made from brewed rooibos tea mixed with palm sugar and milk. Ending the meal with another piece of what we grew up with i.e. drinking out of a plastic bag was priceless.

There are people who will come away with the thought of why pay more for Next's Tour of Thailand when you can get decent Thai food for xx amount at xx. I think this takes away the whole point of experiencing both Thai cuisine and culture. We have our favorite local Thai restaurants that we frequent in Chicago but often the authenticity of the culture has gotten lost for the purpose of being accommodating to the majority of diners. Thus, what makes Next's Tour of Thailand special is that it offers something that the other Thai restaurants do not. Next incorporates the essence and authenticity of the little cultural details throughout the dinner presentation. Aside from learning to incorporate the complexities of flavors in Thai food, Next has proved that it researched on what makes Thai culture the way it is and then successfully incorporating it into the dinner presentation, no matter how seemingly trivial but important it is.

T and I left Next that night feeling lucky that as someone who understands the Southeast Asian culture, we had the advantage of being able to draw connections and make little observations throughout our meal on how closely Next reflected the culture. We enjoyed the well executed food but being able to experience the essence of the culture was the highlight of the night.

Grant Achatz and his executive chef Dave Beran clearly got it right. Here's looking forward to what may come next.

953 West Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607

2011 Time Magazine 100 Most Influential People
2011 TimeOut Magazine 5 Stars for Next
2011 3 Michelin Stars Chef 
2008 James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef 
2007 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Great Lakes
2003 James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef
2002 Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chefs