Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thirsty Thursday: Happy Hour in the Loop

TGI Thursday, friends! I could use a glass of wine... and you?

The Chicago Loop is packed with drinking and dining options from a variety of pubs and sports bars to fast casual places perfect for dining on the go to more old school fine dining spots perfect for the pre-theater or business dinner crowd. When I am meeting people after work though, there are a few things that I am looking for: a great drink list, a laidback atmosphere (I don't need to push through a crowded bar after a long day at the office), and some solid menu options for snacking. Today, I am sharing three spots in the Loop that check all of those boxes. Check them out the next time you're headed out for happy hour!


Despite it's prime location right on busy Wacker Drive, Hoyt's Tavern is a surprisingly low key tavern and lounge with great views for people watching and convenient location for travelers as it is in the ground level of the Wyndham Grand Chicago Waterfront (formerly the Hotel 77). Alex and I met up here after work one evening for a few drinks and some food and we were both pleasantly surprised by the menu. The menu focuses on Midwest ingredients and dishes that are traditionally served in this region, slightly elevated.

One such item is the fried cheese curd. Alex and I began our love affair with fried cheese curds once we moved to Chicago a few years ago and have made it a mission to order them anytime we find them on a menu. Hoyt's preparation was particularly good. The white cheddar curds are locally sourced from Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery and were well seasoned and the crispy breading adhered to the curd (don't you just hate when they fall apart on you?). To top it all off, they were served with a deliciously smoky bacon ketchup and I could not get enough of it!

Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery
Ellsworth Cooperative Creamerywere crispy, well seasoned, and the bre

I'm also a sucker for a good cheese and/or charcuterie plate-- especially when a restaurant puts their own signature twist on it. I loved pretty much everything on Hoyt's mixed board (you can also get separate cheese or charcuterie boards here too): Assorted meats from La Quercia (like duck prosciutto!), locally sourced cheeses, pickled veggies, crispy flatbreads, and my favorite part: condiments. I'm a firm believer that condiments can make or break a charcuterie board-- or really, any dish. This board included a delicious grainy mustard and a sweet date and whiskey compote that were super tasty and worked so nicely with the variety of meats and cheeses.
Red wine apple jam, date and whiskey compote

Last, but not least-- a little something sweet. Until this evening, Alex had (gasp) never had monkey bread before so I made sure to order some at Hoyt's. Their monkey bread was sweet and chewy and  served warm with a selection of three different dipping sauces (3 for 3 on dishes with great condiments!): Salted pistachio caramel, mixed berry sauce, and my favorite-- a buttermilk anglaise.
Hoyt's Chicago on Urbanspoon

Rittergut Wine Bar & Social Club

Rittergut is literally a hidden gem in the Loop. When my friend Alexis and I decided to meet up there after work (because we love a good wine flight), it took some time to find this place. Rittergut is tucked quietly into a building on Wacker Drive and opens up on to the Chicago River. Walking in, you feel almost transported into an old European wine cellar from the big modern building lobby you enter to get there. Rittergut serves an amazing selection of international and domestic wines-- from the familiar to the more obscure. The flights are themed-- by type, by region, or by season, and it was a really fun way for us to try some new to us wines. Rittergut is also where I was introduced to one of my new favorites: Lambrusco, a sparkling Italian red wine.

Rittergut also serves up a food menu with a little bit of everything-- small plates, flatbreads, and main plate entrees. Alexis and I decided to share a few snacks while we chatted over wine and started with one of my favorite appetizers: Arancini. At Rittergut these fried risotto balls are served with a fresh tasting San Marzano tomato sauce and a drizzle of flavorful basil pesto oil. I love that arancini are such a perfect mix of cheesy and crispy and gooey and the combination of brightly flavored sauces really balanced out that richness nicely.

We also ordered a charcuterie plate here and were given the option to select our own assortment of meats and cheeses. Talk about overwhelming! We had so much fun perusing the menu and selecting a few favorites and a few new items to try. The highlights for us were definitely the jamon Serrano (with manchego cheese, of course), the stagberry-- and elk salami with blueberries and honey, and a super creamy and funky French blue cheese.
Rittergut on Urbanspoon

Randolph Tavern

Newer to the Loop bar scene, Randolph Tavern has quickly become a popular spot amongst the work, tourist, and theater crowds because of it's uber convenient location (right at the corner of Randolph and Wells), it's huge space, and it's wide variety of food and beverage options. I stopped in for lunch with colleagues on a day that happened to be during one of the big World Cup matches and as you can see in the photo below, Randolph Tavern was the place to be!

The menu here is part Midwestern pub fare and part southern smokehouse/BBQ joint. With that in mind, I decided to order the smoked chicken & avocado tacos. Four tortillas were piled high with tender smoked chicken, generous slices of avocado, a tangy cabbage slaw, and were topped off with Randolph Tavern's sweet and smoky root beer barbecue sauce. It was a perfect lunch and would be the perfect happy hour snack for sharing too!
Randolph Tavern on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What's For Dinner Wednesday: Slow Cooker Jerk Pulled Pork Tacos with Mango Salsa

I know that many of you dog owners out there warned me of this, but I just need to say it: Puppy parenting is hard work. Between a dozen trips in and out of the building to go potty to cleaning up a variety of accidents to midnight barking from the crate and 5 AM wake up calls... the past 10 days have definitely been an experience. And I am just exhausted. God bless you readers with human babies.

It's a good thing that Clery is so darn cute and all in all, a really well behaved puppy. It's also a good thing that I own a slow cooker because I have been relying heavily on it lately. This kitchen appliance can sometimes be the only thing standing between serving a homemade dinner or picking up a takeout pizza on my way home from the office. These jerk pork tacos are a fresh and easy way to make a complete dinner with very little hands on prep time-- you know, so you have time to do other things like pry rocks out of your puppy's mouth or roll a tennis ball his way 35 times in a row.

This recipe is a fun twist on your standard taco night recipe with complex spicy and slightly sweet Caribbean flavors from a variety of spices and a combination of dark rum and apple juice. The pork cooks low and slow all day in the slow cooker and then all you need to do is shred up the pork and assemble your tacos. Topped with an island-inspired salsa of fresh mango and sweet bell peppers, these tacos are both easy and impressive. This pork would also be great on a bun with a sweet slaw or even over rice with roasted veggies and this mango salsa on top.

  • 1/2 Tbs. onion powder
  • 1/2 Tbs. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1 tsp. ground thyme
  • 1 tsp. dry mustard
  • 1 tsp. Kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. smoked or hot paprika
  • 1/4 tsp. cumin
  • 1 tsp. granulated sugar
  • 1/8 tsp. black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1 1/2 lb. pork loin or butt, trimmed
  • 1 Tbs. canola oil
  • 1/2 cup apple juice 
  • 1/2 cup dark spiced rum
  • 1 bay leaf 
  • 1 fresh mango, diced
  • 1/2 cup red bell pepper, diced
  • 1/4 cup red onion, diced
  • 1/2 Tbs. fresh cilantro, chopped
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Small corn tortillas for serving

In a small bowl combine all dry ingredients from onion powder through cayenne pepper. Rub spice mixture all over pork.

Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet or in your slow cooker if you have a multi-function slow cooker. Sear the seasoned pork until browned on all sides.

Place the pork in the slow cooker and pour the apple juice and rum over pork and add bay leaf. Cook on low for 8 hours, turning the pork a few times throughout if possible.

Remove the pork from the slow cooker, shred with two forks, and then add back to the liquid in the slow cooker. Toss to evenly coat.

In a medium bowl, combine mango, bell pepper, onion, cilantro, lime juice, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine.

Top each tortilla with warm pork from the slow cooker and finish with mango salsa. Serve immediately.

Derived from recipe by Mother Thyme.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Tastemaker Top 10 with Cait of Pretty & Fun

The Tastemaker Top 10 is a collection of 10 questions asked by me and answered by some of my favorite bloggers. Here they will tell you a little bit about themselves, their blogs, and of course, their favorite foods and restaurants. I've got fellow Chicago blogger Cait from Pretty & Fun on the blog today. As the name suggests, at Pretty & Fun Cait covers all things lovely in the world of fashion, design, and lifestyle, in general. I'm excited to introduce you to Cait today!

Name: Cait Weingartner

Blog: Pretty & Fun

Location: Chicago, IL

In a few sentences, tell us a little bit about your blog. A lifestyle blog centered around all things pretty and fun, from interior design and fashion to beauty and DIYs.

Now, tell us about your...

1. Favorite meal, food, or cuisine:
Ice cream! Always.

2. Least favorite meal, food, or cuisine: Mushrooms. Blech. I just can't do it.

3. Favorite restaurant in your city: It's impossible to choose just one. Favorites include: brunch at Restaurant Beatrix, lunch at Blue Door Farm Stand, dinner at Gilt Bar and ice cream from Annette's.

4. Favorite restaurant outside of your city:
Jack's Wife Freda in Soho is a must every time I'm in NYC.

5. Favorite guilty pleasure food: Most every type of fast food. I'm guilty of far too many drive-thru runs (Bojangles is a recent favorite!)

6. Favorite ingredient (something you love to cook with, or something you see on a menu and know you have to order): Garlic, lots and lots of garlic. I apologize in advance to anyone who comes in contact with me when I have garlic breath.

7. Favorite kitchen tool, utensil, product, etc.:  This isn't quite a kitchen tool but I'm not sure I could live without my Nespresso Pixie. I start every single day with a latte!

8. Favorite recipe: I make a killer cookie! They're a combination of oatmeal, chocolate chips and peanut butter.

9. Favorite thing about blogging: The community, hands down. Blogging has connected me to so many fantastic people over the past three and a half years and I'm forever grateful.

10. Five favorite blogs/blogs that A Squared readers should know about: Clark & Schiller, 312 Beauty, Charmingly Styled, Evann Clingan and Bows & Sequins

Thanks so much for your thoughts, Cait!

Do you have a blogger that you'd recommend to be featured on the Tastemaker Top 10? Or are you a blogger that would like to participate? Email me at and let me know!

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Perfect Pairing: Bacon-Wrapped Dates & Las Rocas Garnacha

I'm going to let you in on a little secret today: The best appetizer that I know how to make is super simple to prepare, only requires two ingredients, and it wows guests every time I serve it. Ladies and gentlemen, meet bacon-wrapped dates!

There isn't a whole lot to say about this recipe since it is so very simple to make except that it's a perfect combination of sweet and salty in one easy to serve and eat little bite. I tried these for the first time during my first visit to a tapas restaurant years ago and was immediately hooked. Alex loves them so much that we also served them at our wedding cocktail hour. So, when Las Rocas reached out to me to give a bottle of their Spanish Garnacha wine a try, I knew exactly what I wanted to pair it with for an impromptu tapas-inspired cocktail hour at our place!

Not familiar with Garnacha? Well, I wasn't either until recently-- but I am a new fan, for sure! With that in mind, here are 10 things you need to know about Garnacha:

  • Garnacha is the second most planted red wine grape variety in Spain. 
  • Las Rocas Garnacha is grown in the wine region of Calatayud, which covers 5,600 acres and produces approximately 14 million liters (19,000 bottles) of wine each year. 
  • Calatayud is known for its abundance of high elevation Garnacha vineyards— the highest in the entire country. 
  • The bulk of Spain’s Garnacha is planted in the Calatayud, Campo de Borja, and CariƱena regions.
  • As in the case of neighboring Campo de Borja and CariƱena, Garnacha is the dominant grape in Calatayud in terms of area.
  • Garnacha is known by many names depending on region including: Garnacha or Garnatxa in Spain, Grenache in the US and France, and Cannonau in Italy.
  • Garnacha is one of the wine world’s hardest-working, highest-yielding, latest-ripening grapes. It is praised for being resistant to the elements like heat and wind.
  • Garnacha ripens late in the season, so it needs a hot, dry, stony hillside condition to flourish.
  • The taste of Garnacha can be easily altered during the winemaking process and as a result is rarely aged in oak barrels. 
  • Suggested food pairings for Garnacha include: roasted meats, vegetables, ethnic foods, and spicy foods.

Bacon-Wrapped Dates

  • 10 slices center-cut bacon, cut in half
  • 20 dried pitted dates

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and place a wire rack on top.

Wrap a half slice of bacon tightly around each date and place on the wire rack with the loose end of the bacon on the bottom.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until bacon is cooked and crispy.

Optional Ingredients/Preparations:

Bacon-wrapped dates are delicious as is, but if you want to jazz them up a bit I have a few suggestions for additional ingredients to add a little more flavor to this super simple snack.

  • 1/2 cup softened goat cheese
  • 1/2 cup softened blue cheese
  • 20 pecan halves
  • 20 Marcona almonds
Use a small sharp knife to cut a slit lengthwise on each date to create a pocket. Stuff with a little cheese or with a pecan half or almond, wrap with bacon and then continue with baking instructions above.
  • Balsamic reduction-- Drizzle a little balsamic reduction over the cooked dates just before serving for a little tangy sweetness.
  • Roasted red pepper sauce-- Inspired by the preparation at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba in Chicago, I love baking the bacon-wrapped dates for 15 minutes the normal way (see directions above) and then transferring them to a baking dish filled with roasted red pepper sauce to finish baking for 5-10 minutes. It's a great way to add sweet and smoky Spanish flavors to this dish. *My recipe can be found here
Editor's Note: A sample of Las Rocas Garnacha was provided to me at no cost. The opinions expressed herein are my own. Thank you for supporting the brands that support A Squared!

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