one boy, one girl: taking on Chicago one kitchen at a time

Flower Pots and Deceptive Moscato: Dinner at Letizia’s Fiore

From the outside, Letizia’s Fiore in Logan Square screams everything but Fine Italian Dining with its tacky Christmas lights and flashing “COFFEE” sign. If — despite this — you decide to drop in anyway for a quick drink and snack at the front of house cafe, your worst fears seem confirmed with average coffee and a typically empty front cafe.

Who could blame us for striking it from our memory?


The more obnoxious lettering has been taken down since this photo was snapped, but Christmas lights have gone up. (source)

Flash forward a few months. A coworker brought Letizia’s up during conversation and revealed what is absolutely not apparent from the outside: Letizia’s Fiore does a fine Italian sit-down meal. We remained skeptical, but the endorsement did prompt us to find a free night this past month and we popped inside.

As disappointing as the front of the house seemed on previous visits, the back did have a very different feel. The small space had walls lined with neat rows of terracotta flower pots that made for a homey, welcoming feel and most of the tables were full with a healthy, low volume buzz.

Letizia’s biggest strength lies in its nearly 100% Italian bar. The placemat doubles as a map of Italy with regions and wine selections highlighted, and cocktails come heavy on the vermouth and amaro. Great pairings are even suggested for every dish — a red, a white and a beer — and they come in economic tasting sizes.

In fact, all the wine pricing is hard to beat. They advertise forty bottles under $40 — with everything $20 on Wednesdays — and the pours by the glass never go above $9.50. We particularly found heaven in a 2010 Valle dell’Acate Frappato di Vittoria — a light, fruity white grown in volcanic soil — and a 2010 Colterenzio Moscato Giallo — a curious pour with the classic sugar bomb Moscato nose, but a Reisling-like drier, crisp taste that could never be confused as dessert. The Fellow’s dying to return soon to try the amaro flight.

But the warm feeling of getting a good deal tapered off when we turned to the food. Mostly we were pleased with the quality and taste, but the prices place expectations high enough to ultimately fall short.


The carrot gnocchi. (source)

We started with an order of calamari which were lightly battered and came with a lovely dipping marinara, but a few rubbery pieces led us to wonder if we were getting fresh or frozen. Likewise, the Lady’s gnocchi di carota — carrot gnocchi — was another “almost, but not quite.” The pasta itself was actually potato-free and proudly showed its bright orange color, yet was cooked so well that there was no thick, overpowering carrot edge. It was a clever trick that yielded something very tasty, even if not traditional. Unfortunately, the dish came in a sauce that was too rich and which, in our case, arrived cold and already congealing.

We did have two dishes, though, that hit that Italian food benchmark of simple, yet deliciously elegant. The Fellow’s choice of farfalle alto adige sported handmade bowties topped with smoked speck prosciutto and a butter Parmesan sauce, and the arancini — Sicilian risotto balls filled with a very light sausage — maintained a perfectly dainty bite despite being mostly heavy meat and rice.


The farfalle. (source)

So… is this place a lost gem hidden off the beaten path? Not quite.

Letizia’s got a few great strengths, but spotty service — Did we mention it was nearly 30 minutes from being seating to getting our first drink? — and overreaching prices temper our excitement. Come for the affordable and unusual wine, but be prepared to open that wallet wider if you stay for a meal. Next time we go, we’ll give the downstairs speakeasy a shot and stick to wine and cheese.

Jam Restaurant

In a city already awash with brunch spots, do we need another? How about in Logan Square, a neighborhood already at the critical “hipster”-to-“chicken and waffle” ratio of 2-to-1?

Maybe we don’t need one,… but our recent positive experience at Jam seems to point that another one can’t hurt. And hey, waiting an hour for a table at one of the other spots on the block sucks. At least you won’t have to wait to get in here…

Hold on! What? How long until a table’s ready? Oh jeez… 


This is NOT what it looks like on Sunday morning. Expect another row of tables squeezed in here. (source)

The new spot from Chef Jeffrey Mauro — formerly of Charlie Trotter’s and North Pond — was cramped with a line out the door on the late Sunday morning we stopped by. Jam is cash only and reservation-free, but these do not seem to have slowed business; don’t come expecting a quiet, relaxed morning.

We were lucky enough to skip the line and snag two spots at the bar that had just opened up, but the bar stools were uncomfortable plastic without backs and there were no hooks for hats, coats or scarves. The bar overlooks an exciting open kitchen to the side, but there is little room for servers to put in and pick up drinks without stepping on customers. In an already crowded dining room with us sitting awkwardly on our winter coats and stepping continually on everything else we brought, the bar space was an overall major design fail.

The kitchen, however, didn’t seem particularly phased by the number of guests. They ran a calm, tight ship even as the servers scuttled about and navigated the tiny gaps between chairs. And this is good news, because the yummy, yummy food they were pumping out makes up for some of the restaurant’s other shortcomings.


Nom, nom, nom… (source)

A custard French toast came with macerated and brandied cherries that had the tartness perfectly tempered and was topped by an oh-so-subtle lime whipped cream with peppercorns. The two über-soft slices of bread melted into one and the custard sweetened things enough so that no syrup was needed. (Or offered.) A smokey venison bratwurst made a great off-kilter side.

As good as the French toast was, the Scotch egg was better. The unusual offering covered a warm egg in sausage and breading before deep frying it to perfection. Served atop a frisée salad with some pickled asparagus for a touch of crunch, the melding of such different worlds provided a light, yet hearty meal. This is the sort of dish a restaurant can make a name with.

We can’t say we’re excited for the wait times that we’ll have to endure in the future, but that’s just a reinforcement that others realize how good the food is too. We’ll be back soon, though, to suffer through.

Laughing and Crying at the Kids Table: Childhood at Next

What do you say about a restaurant that has already had so much written in its honor?

Next was Chicago’s most-buzzed about and most-loved restaurant in 2011 and shows little sign of giving up that reign in 2012. A meal there ends up the perfect blend of upscale dining with down-to-earth fun, serving exceptional food, but in an environment that places you at ease. Through the course of the meal, the staff and the kitchen present a light-hearted and effervescent feeling that somehow hides the fact that you are part of a highly-choreographed and demanding act.

Next’s current menu is Childhood. Playful and whimsical, it is a twist on foods we loved as kids, but the meal is evocative rather than carbon-copied. Our last experience at Next was for Paris 1906 and it was traditional French in every way. However, Childhood is Modern. Modern with a capital M. It’s a style embodied by strange cooking techniques, foams, powders, and smells, and while there is inherently a higher level of risk, there is a similarly extreme possibility for reward.


The Fish ‘N Chips is an example of Next’s whimsy. Standing on a beer-battered beach, the balsamic Lady drops her russet potato net into the cucumber sea to pull out a fillet of slow poached Lake Superior Walleye under a Mayer lemon sun.

We were the first table seated at 5:30 on our particular Saturday night and we took about three and a half hours to slowly drool over a ten course meal, dining much longer than any of our neighbors. We asked questions, debated flavors, sipped our wines and refilled the glasses again before ending it all with a personal peak at the kitchen. We had come in this time without reading much about the menu ahead of time and were blown away with many great surprises. What more, really, can you ask from a meal?

One of these novel surprises was Winter Wonderland. A hollowed half-log arrived filled with fragrant smoldering juniper branches that could be smelled a few tables away. On top, a translucent glass plate held a gastronomic forest floor. Polenta rocks abutted a carrot log and an abandoned bale of hay was formed nearby from leeks. Autumn’s fallen leaves of chard lay crisp and dry juxtaposed atop soft decaying mushrooms. The whole scene was then dusted in the first powdery white mushroom snow of the season. This dish is flabbergasting in its rich imagery and suggestion, but equally triumphal judged only on taste. The chard stems are earthy and rich, redolent of beets but better. The whole mushrooms, tender and falling apart, lend a soft seductive flavor instead of a powerful fungal one. It was unexpected and — on some level at least — moving.


The smoldering Winter Wonderland

Or consider the equally entertaining, but utterly dissimilar Hamburger. A deconstructed and smashed up Big Mac homage, this seemingly humble entree succeeded through impeccable imitation. There was a smeared bun paste topped with sesame seeds, a salty ketchup that was unmistakably McDonald’s, and a short rib melt-in-your-mouth “patty.” Somehow each bite conjured up the whole and anyone with Happy Meal memories could connect — instantly, viscerally and primally — with the spirit trapped in the dish.


Looks like a train wreck, but tastes like a Big Mac

This sort of subconscious tapping was the theme at Childhood. The Mac & Cheese was a creamy Parmesan and Manchego wonder with a bevy of garnishes. The Fellow had a flashback of growing up when he bit down on a salami-basil pinwheel and when the Lady tasted nutmeg, a tear nearly formed. Later we had "Foie"sting and Donuts, a savory dessert of caramel and foie gras frosting served on the beater from a hand mixer with a side of fried apple cider dough bites. Maybe we never ate anything that tasted like that that as kids, but who hasn’t asked to lick a beater clean?


"Foie"sting and Donuts

At our Paris 1906 experience, the wines floored us with their complexity and uniqueness. They were extravagant, opulent and downright “Ritz”-y. For Childhood though, the pairings seemed a bit more even keeled; they were solid, but not necessarily adventurous. One of the pairings was bad — a mixed berry and juice cocktail backed by zinfandel that tried a little too hard to be a crappy juice box, — but a couple were laudable like the lovely, yet simple cocktail of Madeira and Luxardo Maraschino served as an aperitif and the sweet, creamy and honeyed Joseph Phelps ice wine with dessert.

The best wine trick of the night, however, came when we were given two glasses and encouraged to pair them to the dishes ourselves. A light and spicy 2006 Caparone Sangiovese turned out to be a favorite of the Lady while the fat, dark fruit-laden 2008 Sarah’s Vineyard Charbono was the pick of the Fellow. Each of us kept our respective glasses filled and smiles upon our faces until we reluctantly gave the bottles back.


The Fellow unpacking his lunchbox.

Our experience at Next again was brilliant. It was an unusual meal, yet one made comfortable and casual by the staff and presentation. Next has become a special spot for the two of us and it is the place against which we — both consciously and unconsciously — compare experiences. It is an example and a luxury, and it sets a high bar to match.

A healthy dinner of cheese, meat, wine and butter: 694 Wine & Spirits

Have you ever been to a restaurant and ordered the butter plate? Do you even realize how awesome a butter plate is? On a recent Saturday, we stopped into 694 Wine and Spirits in Chicago’s River West neighborhood and found out for ourselves.

694 is a wine bar with a well curated and manageable list featuring a dozen or so styles by the glass and a deep selection of bottles. We like variety, so we stuck to the single pours and over six glasses between us, never found a single dud. Each wine was unique and slightly curious or was something we had never encountered.

The Fellow sniffed and sipped a South African Pinotage called The Grinder that oozed smokey and earthy flavors like espresso, chocolate and cloves while the Lady gushed over the silky, lush and surprising light yet complex Chasing Lions Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley. During dessert, we then both marveled at how the pink and slightly effervescent Elio Perrone “Bigaro” Brachetto tasted like a St. Germain elderflower cocktail.


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While sipping all these yummy wines, we began to eat. And eat. And eat. 694 DOES NOT skimp on portions. Not only are the glasses big and the pours deep, but the cheese comes in Trader Joe-sized portions and the salumis arrives as ten slices of rich goodness. If you’ve eaten out for cheese and charcuterie plates before, expect about twice what you’re used to for a comparable price. You won’t hear any complaints from us.

We started with that butter plate mentioned above which featured three different spreads each topped with a different salt. The sheep’s butter with a Hawaiian red sea salt was sweet and creamy while the Maine hand-churned was a bit too rich and generic, saved only by the delightful black salt. However, the true star was a Parmesan butter drizzled with truffle oil and big white sea salt bits that was light, subtle, delicious and melty. Spread over a crusty baguette slice, it was heavenly.


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Our butter was joined by a gritty and paper thin-sliced Gouda, a four year cave-aged cheddar studded with curious funky notes and a rich and deeply creamy Délice de Bourgogne soft. For accoutrements, we were treated to a plate splattered with honey, dried fruits, almonds, olives and quince and for meat we picked a seasonal oregano salumi and the rich culatello.

If you aren’t salivating over this yet, something’s wrong with you. The delicious pairings that we made from this are simply too scandalous to describe and we left well beyond content.

694 Wine is a cozy spot that presents both a great value and unique experience. It makes a perfect relaxing spot for drifting away on a weekend, but is also sure to please an adventurous palate.

Drinking it all in: In Fine Spirits

Like our New York post, this is another preposterously late review. Where does the time go?

Sometime this fall, we popped up to Andersonville to catch dinner and drinks with another couple at In Fine Spirits. These guys do AMAZING things with cocktails, but we found the food menu to be a little behind by comparison.


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On the drinks side, our group found winners in the Blood and Sand, — a classic made here with Isle of Skye Scotch, Cherry Heering and fresh squeezed orange juice, — the Tombigbee, — a highball featuring Koval rye, blueberry and an acidic ginger shrub, — and the I’m Feeling Sinister — a lowball of candied mango-infused mezcal with lime. The cocktail program here is one of the best in the city and succeeds by blending well-crafted classics with inventive originals. They bring in interesting and rare spirits — they are the first we’ve seen in Chicago, for example, to stock the exceptional Snap and Root from Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction in Philadelphia — and even make their own syrups, infusions and liqueurs.

While we were downing these yummy tipples, we turned to the food menu. We had come for dinner, so we focused on the few larger dishes available which didn’t leave a whole lot to choose from. The pasta and polenta that the ladies picked were bland and unimpressive, but the stuffed medjool dates with blue cheese, coppa and balsamic were actually quite satisfying. Both the guys opted for the heartier cowboy sandwich. Featuring a pulled pork and Gouda number with a side of baked pinto beans and a baked egg, this dish also had a sidecar of Buffalo Trace 8 year bourbon from a handpicked In Fine Spirits barrel. We loved the idea, but in practice it was nothing all that special.

When asking around about what makes In Fine Spirits great, we hear about the charcuterie, cheese and flatbreads; maybe we just missed the real treats on the menu. We think it’s clear though that In Fine Spirits shines better as a cocktail joint than a dinner spot, so go here for the drinks. And make it a double!

Butter Smeared on Old Money

Two of our favorite things here at Table for Two are whisky and infographics and we wish we could talk about them at the same time more often.

We recently spied a cheeky illustration on the blog of the great whisky website Whisky For Everyone done by Jessica Hagy of Indexed. (Hagy is also an alumna of the Ohio University Honors Tutorial College just like the Fellow. Go Bobcats!)

Hagy, a whisky novice, was given a dram of Glenfiddich 15 Year (a Distillery Only Batch #11 cask strength bottling) and asked to illustrate her thoughts. While taste, smell and mouthfeel are pretty common senses to comment on with whisky, we’ve never thought to evaluate a glass based on sound or intuition.

(Source: whiskyforeveryone.blogspot.com)

"Drink three to five of these slowly:" Death & Co.

Eeek! It’s been over a month since we visited friends in Brooklyn to celebrate their wedding, but a late review is better than no review at all, right? Our weekend in NYC this fall was a whirlwind, but we did try to maximize our dining plans while still staying on budget.

We had real bagels at Murray’s in Chelsea — which we miss already — and fantastic french toast and Eggs Benedict for brunch at Jane’s in Greenwich Village. (Fantastic may be an understatement. We may go as far as best.) We stopped by trendy Shake Shack near Times Square and we got some quality time in with the bride and groom at The Meatball Shop in Williamsburg on the day after the big day.

But the Fellow came to NYC with a “must-do”: a visit to one of the city’s cocktail Meccas.

It was late on a Sunday night — our last evening in town — when we finally found the time, but thankfully New York never sleeps. After a busy night and a hearty meal at Meatball Shop, we hopped on a subway to the Lower East Side and found the dark door of Death & Co. This bar has been well documented as one of the world’s best for years, even picking up the #3 spot on a recent survey conducted by Drinks International. Luckily, since it was inching on 2am on a Sunday, the place was only about half full, and we got a seat immediately. From what we’ve come to understand, that is pretty rare.


It took us a few minutes of awkwardly standing out front to get this picture in the dark.

We settled into a quiet corner booth and took our time digesting the extensive (and pretty) menu. At a spot like this, you defer to the house. Fresh squeezed, homemade, inventive and expertly crafted… there’s almost no way to go wrong.


Fancy chandelier above our seat!

When we finally decided, the server took our order. The Fellow is a fan of “brown, bitter and stirred,” and was intrigued by the curious mix of single malt Scotch and cream sherry in the Bella Cohen. The Lady, on a recent aquavit kick, picked an adventurous lowball using the curious Scandinavian spirit. But our server broke her heart and 86’ed it; the bar was out of the particular brand of aquavit needed.

Death & Co.’s a classy joint, though. You don’t get to be tops without an informed staff, so the tears were quickly wiped away when the server suggested a similar drink — Midnight Sun — with aquavit, cardamom and grapefruit. How can you turn that down? Yes please!


The Midnight Sun (left) and the Bella Cohen (right).

These two drinks were silky smooth, delicious and just what we expected from a world-class bar like this. Sipping these fine drinks in the lovely little space, we reflected on the trip and our friends and the fun time we had enjoyed. Our wallets and our sleepy selves could only sustain one round, but they proved to be just the right nightcap to our trip. We can’t wait for our next trip there so we can indulge a bit more and dig deeper into their menu. And for anyone else heading that way: don’t hesitate to put this place on your list.

Great wine on the wire: Telegraph Wine Bar

On our walk home, we talked about how neither of us really understands wine. Sure, we know the basics and we can pick a few bottles to enjoy at home, but when we go out and taste that perfect glass, we’re humbled again.

Telegraph gave us that experience.

This new Logan Square wine bar sets a high standard for drinks. The by-the-glass selection is carefully curated but large enough, and the staff knowledgeable and informative. Our server, Matty, seriously knew his stuff and did not hesitate to give us great recommendations after we told him what we liked. Asking for a low-tannin choice and another robust option, he had the perfect pick of a grenache blend for her and a bold Greek for him. Round two was a home-run as well when we paired sweeter wines with desert: a sparkling apple cider and a deep tawny port. The fellow’s inquisitiveness about the bitter chinato even scored him a small taste to end the night.

Tucked away in the quiet back of the restaurant, our drink experience was sublime.


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However, in terms of the food, Telegraph seemed to be overreaching. They face tough competition just on their own block with Longman & Eagle (and their Michelin star) next door and Lula across the street. The menu features complex dishes, but by reaching so high, they tended to fall short. All the dishes we had were enjoyable, but each had something about it that just didn’t jive.

For an appetizer, we tried the veal risotto, but found it overly oily and a bit out of balance with too much meat and too little rice. The lady then picked the Amish chicken (perfect skin and impeccably flavored and seasoned, but without enough of the squash stuffing side) while the fellow had the Vermillion rockfish (OK, but utterly disconnected from the Brussels sprout, pomegranate seed and mascarpone accompaniments). We finished with the vanilla panna cotta which was a little under-firm and curiously served in a water glass, but was topped with scrumptious ginger molasses crumble and roasted apples.

It was a good meal. It was not a great meal.


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A better approach for Telegraph might be a snack or small-bite menu that would compliment the wine. Take the limited cheese plate and charcuterie options and scale them up to a full menu. Drop the first course sandwiches and instead offer bite-size appetizers. Scrap the complexities and pick one-note plates, but done well. We both thought back to WaterShed as an example of how this should work: three dollar selections, each simple, small and tasty.

Telegraph will remain on our go-to list for the revelatory drinking experience, — it’s money well spent to find suggestions and service of this caliber, — but we’re staying cool on the food for the moment until they hit their groove.

Autumn Needs More Apple Brandy

There are few compounds that are more sinful than the applejack of New Jersey. The name has a homely, innocent appearance, but in reality applejack is a particularly powerful and evil spirit. The man who intoxicates himself on bad whisky is sometimes moved to kill his wife and set his house on fire, but the victim of applejack is capable of blowing up a whole town with dynamite and of reciting original poetry to every surviving inhabitant.

– “A Wicked Beverage,” New York Times, April 10, 1894 (source)


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2,500 Miles on a Full Stomach

We recently packed up the car and took the scenic route from Chicago to the Outer Banks, North Carolina via Kentucky and the Smoky Mountains. Along the way, we stopped by the Four Roses Distillery for some quick breakfast bourbon, took in an unexpected night at a horse ranch after a power outage and wrestled back a stolen pair of glasses from the Atlantic.

Oh, and we ate. A lot.


The Tail of the Dragon drive is mostly a wooded cruise through the Smoky Mountains, but it has a couple lovely scenic overlooks like this one

Here’s a rundown of a few of our stops.

Fireside Brewhouse (Greenwood, IN)
Indiana had one chance to shine and it blew it. This suburban Indianapolis stop had shaky service, a relatively unadventurous tap list (“Brewhouse?” Pssssh!) and undercooked (read: RAW) chicken. You can probably see why we skipped the alligator on this menu.

Miss Lily’s Cafe (Townsend, TN)
This recommendation from our Smoky Mountain bed & breakfast hosts is probably among the top spots in the area (except for Blackberry Farm which had no reservation spots left when we called two week prior), but overall it was forgettable. Great fried green tomatoes, but at the end of the day, not a whole lot else to rave about.


This little fellow barely moved from his prayerful position on the back porch during our stay at Chilhowee Mountain Retreat

Chilhowee Mountain Retreat (Maryville, TN)
Easily the best breakfast of our trip, this place has got to be the best B&B in the whole Smoky region; it’s beautiful, quiet, romantic, secluded and on top of a mountain. Our bed & breakfast hosts were ex-Chicagoans and brought a piece of Ina’s (in the West Loop) with them when they moved to the mountains. Lemon rosemary water, a fresh fruit spread with crème fraiche, and a tasty egg and pasta quiche/lasagna (a la Ina) with vodka sauce and bacon filled us up before we set off through the Smokies toward the sea. If you ever find yourself in this neck of Tennessee, you shouldn’t even think twice about booking your stay here. It’s absolutely worth the windy drive up to the mountain top.

Bojangles’ (all over North Carolina)
We’d never heard of this place, and its name was too enticing to pass up. Fast food chicken and biscuits, but the grits are available at breakfast only? How sad. NO-jangles.

Outer Banks Brewing Station (Kill Devil Hills, NC)
We found this great little wind-powered brewery as a lunch spot one afternoon; who knew there would be one in the Outer Banks? They boasted original craft beer (very good) and beer battered chicken (very, very good), but disappointed us on the dry hush puppies that didn’t come with any dipping sauce.


Blue skies with fluffy clouds lingered overhead as we strolled along the battered beach outside our rental house in Duck, NC

Kill Devil Frozen Custard and Beach Fries (Kill Devil Hills, NC)
Just seeing these two words — beach fries — on a sign made us want to stop at this little roadside shack. What the heck are beach fries? Well… ends up they’re just regular hand cut fries, but delicious fries. The custard did not let us down either, calling us back for more later in the week.

Kill Devil Grill (Kill Devil Hills, NC)
Don’t let the old school diner car exterior fool you; this place is seriously good. Fresh as fresh gets, this spot has a vibe that matches how you should feel on the beach: simple, unpretentious and indulged. We had the crab cakes and the halibut in a saffron gravy, and had to hold ourselves back from licking the plate clean. Best dinner of our trip.

Stack ‘Em High Pancake House (Kitty Hawk, NC)
Though strangely branded in a slew of Dr. Seuss copyright infringement, this quick, tasty and simple breakfast spot fills you up for cheap. Get the pancakes (Duh!) but skip the smothered hash browns; they were a bit much.