My New Favorite Place for Food, Drink and Jazz

Family friends recently opened a lovely jazz club on the Northwest Side of Chicago, featuring great food and live jazz Wednesday through Saturday. They’re closed on Sundays except for private parties.

The Playroom is located at 7958 W. Belmont, across from Guerin Prep High School, between Harlem and Cumberland Avenues. It’s a beautiful long room, with a bar along one side, tables and high tops along the other wall, and a small stage in the back. The decor is subdued, tasteful and comfortable. The service is neighborhood friendly and efficient.

Among my favorites are the pasta dishes, especially Pasta Josephine, named after the wife of one of the co-owners. They make a great pizza, wonderful appetizers, and filet of beef sliders that are to die for (excuse the pun from a dying chef).

Best of all, it’s a great place to hang out for middle-aged adults who appreciate good food, drink and music.  One no longer needs to deal with traffic and the Gen-Xers at the hot spots in Lincoln Park, Bucktown, Lakeview, Old Town and Rush Street.

Food, Glorious Food

Well, my appetite is slowly returning and I’m starting to enjoy food again. Not sure how long it will last.

The doctor doesn’t care what I eat, as long as I’m consuming calories. Fat without guilt! That’s true joy.

Leukemia, Chemotherapy and Food

I knew this was gonna be a rough ride about three days into the first chemo treatment. Almost everything began to taste metallic. For a food lover, it’s very disappointing. Imagine your favorite foods tasting like aluminum foil.

But as a chef, it’s one of the most unnerving things I’ve had to deal with. No matter what I put in my mouth, it didn’t taste like it was supposed to. Luckily I discovered that honey-roasted peanuts, Italian bread and mozzarella cheese tasted just fine. Fortunately, this episode lasted only six weeks and I manage to lose 18 pounds.

Now that the chemo is done, the medications I take to stave off infection (my likely killer) make me queasy. The anti-nausea meds help, but after 51 years, I’ve finally lost my appetite.

I tried watching cooking shows, reading food blogs, eating my mother’s homemade cookies, paging through cooking magazines, and using herbal appetite enhancers. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

Culinary Abuse?

I cook for a number of singles, couples and families who enjoy great food and are willing to try new dishes.  Unfortunately,  I also cook for clients who will not, under any circumstances, try any food other than what is familiar to them.

When I meet with a new client, we discuss their likes and dislikes so that I can custom-design a menu for them. Some clients have such a long “dislike” list that it’s easier to ask them what they DO like.

What I’ve learned from my nearly seven years as a personal chef is that many people were culinarily abused as children, and that has permanently colored their attitudes about  food.

What constitutes culinary abuse?

* Forcing  children to clean their plates, regardless of the portion sizes or their appetites.

* Sending children to bed without dinner as punishment.

* Using dinner time to discuss difficult issues or to dole out punishment.

* Serving only canned fruits and vegetables. No wonder so many people dislike spinach and asparagus. They’ve never eaten the real stuff.

* Relying on high-sodium, preservative-laden “convenience” products like Hamburger Helper, bottled salad dressings, rice and pasta mixes, etc.

* Serving the same  meals week after week after week. One client will not eat succotash or anything with lima beans because canned succotash was the only side dish she was served as a child.

* Lying to children about what they’re eating. My mother once tried to pass off beef liver and onions as minute steaks. My grandmother told me that all mushrooms are poisonous, and fish eat whatever we flush down the toilet.

* Calling a trip to the local fast-food drive-thru  a meal.

* Assuming their child won’t like something because the parents don’t.

* Telling children, especially young girls, that they’re too fat when they’re not.

* Telling children that they’re too thin and should eat more.

* Keeping unhealthy snacks in the  house.  Cookies, chips, candy,  sugared sodas,  and fruit juices have their place as occasional treats, not regular after-school snacks.

* Using food as a pacifier. “Here, eat this cookie, it will make you feel better.”

* Making different dishes for different family members for the same meal.

It’s time to stop the abuse!

The Garden of my Youth

My favorite harbinger of spring, the Park Ridge Farmer’s Market, opened a couple weeks ago.

Because it’s so early in the season, the majority of the vendors were selling seedlings, potted plants and garden starter kits. I wistfully remembered the vegetable and herb garden I had planted in my parents’ backyard some 20 years ago.  I originally planted basil to feed my pesto addiction, and then beefsteak tomatoes because I simply could not stand the perfect-looking but flavorless imposters found in the supermarkets. That successful five-foot by five-foot plot  in the first year led to a five by ten plot the second year, adding plum and cherry tomatoes as well as parsley to the basil and beefsteaks. Somehow by the third year, my little garden grew to 5 by 20 with all the usual suspects, plus cucumbers, bell peppers, zucchini and strawberries.

I learned a lot during those years. Rabbits love strawberries. Clay is very difficult to rototill. A single zucchini can quadruple in size overnight while its plant grows to invade the next block. That porous black fabric really does prevent weeds. Cucumbers have nasty barbs on them that will draw blood. Cilantro and bell peppers will NOT grow for me, no matter how much loving care I provide. Making sauce with real homegrown tomatoes is a labor of love, with a strong emphasis on labor. Pesto will freeze very well provided all you use is basil, garlic and olive oil, adding the pinenuts and cheese right before serving.

With my father’s help watering, weeding and rototilling, I had quite the little victory garden. When my mother asked why I didn’t grow flowers, I told her that if I am going to do all of this work in the dirt, I wanted to be able to eat the rewards. While flowers are pretty, they’re not as tasty as a homegrown tomato topped with fresh pesto sauce.

In autumn, 1994, I bought a condo. Two of the selling points were the extra-large kitchen and large west-facing balcony. The following spring, I decided to do some container gardening on my 25 by 8 foot balcony. A few herbs and some grape and plum tomatoes were the extent of my motivation. But, due to my corporate job, I traveled too much to really tend to those pots properly. Eventually I gave up, leaving a tangle of dried out stems and leaves. The gardener in me died in 1995. The corporate job ended in 2000.

Since then, I have the time to plant and raise herbs and vegetables, but those pots sit unused in the corner of my balcony, filled with 12-year-old potting soil and the remains of the roots of my last container garden. Each Saturday morning, I stare wistfully at the tomato seedlings at the market and think, “maybe next year.”

A Quick Trip to NYC

I hadn’t been to New York since January, 2002. My husband needed to attend  a week-long CIO (Chief Information Officer) conference there in September, and he offered to fly me in for a four-day weekend to celebrate our seventh wedding anniversary.

We stayed in Midtown at Flatotel, a nice boutique property with large (for NYC)  comfortable rooms.  The location was ideal…just blocks from Central Park, Rockefeller Center, Carnegie Hall and MOMA.

New York is among my favorite food cities (along with Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco and  Las Vegas. My only complaint when visiting these cities is, “So many restaurants, so little time!” Like any chef (or foodie, for that matter), planning was key. I began my research a couple months before the trip and narrowed down my restaurant choices from hundreds to less than fifty.

The only disappointment was being unable to get reservations at Mario Batali’s Babbo on any of the nights we were there. But, we managed to have enjoyable meals and snacks over the four-day sojourn.

We covered a lot of ethnic dining territory on this trip…..Greek, Spanish, Chinese, Jamaican, Jewish and of course, Italian.

New York’s street food is legendary…cheap, high-quality, and quick. Alas, wearing Invisalign braces put the kibosh on the street food for me, with the exception of a Jamaican street cart around the corner from our hotel. Called the Jamaican Dutchy, it served rice and peas, Ting and meat patties, with akee and saltfish for breakfast. The meat patty was average, but it brought back great memories of our various trips to Jamaica.

Any trip to New York means two essential stops: Katz’s Deli and John’s Pizza. Katz’s is frozen in time, no different from my first experience there in 1982, and subsequent trips in the 1990s and 2000. The corned beef on rye with brown mustard was everything a corned beef sandwich should be…..somewhat fatty, rich with flavor, served with garlic pickles and attitude.

We walked off lunch by strolling through Little Italy, where vendors were setting up the food booths along Mulberry Street for the annual Feast of San Gennaro. Again, those damn Invisalign braces thwarted any attempt at sampling the street food. Jay, however,  found a booth selling deep-fried Twinkies.  He had always wanted to try one, and he did. It was simply a Twinkie on a stick, dipped into pancake batter and deep-fried. He enjoyed it but won’t repeat the experience. I tried not to gag.

John’s, with locations in the Village, Times Square and the Upper East Side, is my favorite NYC pizza haunt. This time  we visited the Upper East Side location after walking across the width of Central Park on a cool, sunny Saturday afternoon. We were delayed crossing Fifth Avenue for almost 45 minutes by a German-American parade. But we managed to get to John’s for a mid-afternoon proscuitto pizza and a couple beers. Crisp crust from the wood-burning brick oven and the perfect balance of cheese, sauce and proscuitto. My idea of NY pizza heaven.

Spanish was tapas and paella at Sangria 46 near Times Square. A charming restaurant with a lovely back patio decorated in bright colors. The staff was efficient and friendly. The paella was good, not great, but the mussels in the paella were outstanding.

Greek was Avra Estiatorio on East 48th Street. It was a last-minute selection for the one night we hadn’t made dinner reservations. The food was fine, but having been spoiled by all the great Greek restaurants in Chicago, I was not very impressed. We started with fried calamari served with  tzasiki, and an order of grilled sardines, followed by black sea bass and grilled lamb chops. For dessert, a respectable baklava and a bowl of sweetened Greek yogurt. Again, everything was cooked properly and delicious, but certainly not outstanding or memorable.

There was a trip down to Chinatown for dim sum. Dim Sum Go Go on East Broadway was highly rated, so we ventured downtown on the subway, only to get lost by my confusing Broadway with East Broadway. A mile-long hike later, we found the small place, waited 10 minutes for a table, walked upstairs to our tiny table and started ordering. With no cart service, everything comes piping hot from the kitchen when it’s ready. The dim sum was very good…fresh, hot, well-prepared. It didn’t rise to the level of Yank Sing, my favorite dim sum house in San Francisco, but it certainly hit the spot. Afterwards, we wandered around and stopped at a Chinese bakery for winter melon cakes.

The highlight of the trip was dinner at Convivio, a southern Italian restaurant with a kitchen run by Chef Michael White. The dining room was gorgeous and the service excellent. Our starters were cannelini beans with fatback in a tomato broth, and a caprese salad with fresh mozzarella made on premised, micr-basil and heirloom tomatoes. Both were light but loaded with flavor.

We split a bowl of mind-blowing pasta…a fusilli with carravaccio fonduta poured over the top. Rich and unctous, with the fusilli done perfectly al dente and the fonduta as smooth as silk.

My entree was a mixed grill of sweet fennel sausage (house-made), pork belly, roasted zucchini and heirloom tomatoes. I’ve learned through the years to not only appreciate, but also enjoy fatty meats, and pork belly is one of the most flavorful and texturally pleasing of the bunch. The outside was crisy and caramlized while the inside was full of flavor.

Jay enjoyed the braised shortribs in tomato ragu with broccolini. The meat was full of flavor and fall-off-the-bone tender.

Desserts were memorable. I enjoyed a Sicilian chocolate and ricotta layer cake while Jay had the mascarpone with figs, paied with a cordial called Amaro.

We were hoping for a Nathan’s hot dog at LaGuardia, but apparently they closed down the hot dog stand there. Not a great loss, as Chicago is one of the great hot dog cities of the world.

Chocolate

I love chocolate. Chocolate sustains me during difficult times. Chocolate calms me during menopausal mood swings. It is my drug of choice.

To my mind, there is no better ending to a meal than some sort of chocolate.

Here are my favorites, in no particular order:

Dove Dark Chocolate Promises: These are my every-day addiction. Rich, creamy, not too sweet. I eat three of these per night. I simply pop one into my mouth and let it melt.

Frango Mints: While I continue to mourn the passing of Marshall Fields, and have not stepped foot into Macy’s since they’ve taken over the Fields’ stores, I still long for the original Frango Mints. Clean minty flavor enhancing the chocolate, not too sweet, with a certain saltiness that provides a balance I’ve not found in other chocolate mints.

Candinas Chocolates: My guiltiest pleasure. Markus Candinas is a Wisconsin chocolatier who trained in Europe. He makes the best chocolates I’ve ever had. Located in Verona, a small town outside of Madison, Wisconsin, my in-laws introduced me to these wonderful tidbits of bliss. He has recently opened a shop on the Capitol Square in Madison.   http://www.candinas.com