What To Eat/Do/Make on Valentine’s Day in Chicago

Vintage_Valentine_02

Valentine’s Day is two short weeks away and most people have their reservations made and flowers picked out. But for those of you who are looking for something different here are some fun things that anyone can enjoy.

Make

Image via foursided

Image via foursided

How fun is this? Make your own Valentine’s Piñata Bar! Twosided’s Valentine’s Piñata Bar let’s you pick your a piñata and candy to make a gift anyone will appreciate. I might even gift myself one.

Deca Restaurant Whoopie Pies

Image via decarestaurant

Make some Whoopie pies with this cooking class at Deca restaurant on February 14th & 15th.   For more information and reservations check out their website.

Eat

tart cherry orecchiette

Why not skip all the restaurant hassle and make a meal at home? Meez Meals has your back delivering pre-chopped and pre-measured ingredients. The special Valentine’s Day menu includes orecchiette with tart cherry alfredo and arugula risotto. Available to order from Feb. 2 – 7 for a Feb. 10 delivery

Do

Image via oldtownschool.org

Image via oldtownschool.org

Get your dance on at Global Dance Party at Old Town School of Music with Yuyo Verde. Yuyo Verde is a Tango-based band of Argentinian and American musicians.

Lincoln Park Conservatory

Talk a walk among orchids and palms for free at the Lincoln Park Conservatory. It’s cold outside so stepping inside the warm conservatory will feel like stepping into an exotic locale.

Image via ticketfly.com

Image via ticketfly.com

St. Valentine’s Day Massacree at The Hideout. This year’s lineup are honky tonk heartbreakers featuring tributes to Patsy Cline. So there might be a tear in your beer but you’ll be in good company at the Hideout. Fri, February 14, 2014 10:00 PM – $10.00

If your just not feeling it at all Timeout has a list of Anti–Valentine’s Day movies.

Rustic Italian at Balena – Lincoln Park, Chicago

Balena Dining Room

From the moment we walked in Balena it was perfect. The high ceiling with wood beams and big round lights give Balena an open and warm feel. Decor elements like the custom leather bar, wood block floor, old-timey cabinets, cutting board style tables, red leather folding chairs and Italian tile in greens blues and cream give Balena a rustic Italian feel.

My favorite design element was the fragments of neon lights covering the north wall of the main dining room. Bright yellow neon over faint writing against the cream-colored wall. Wondering what the story was behind it I asked the hostess and she let me know it spelled out “Fra Mani” meaning between the hands (more or less). This was reference to the homemade pasta and to give a retro Italian movie theater feel to the restaurant.

Check out my bite-sized, one-minute episode to get a peek inside!

Balena Fra Mani NeonBalena Table

The attention to detail extends to the menu where Chef Chris Pandel (named Chef of the Year in the 2012 Eater Awards) offers a bread program, bitters mixology and homemade pasta.

Bitters mixolgy you say? “…exploration of amaro and the bitters from countries surrounding Italy as the basis of our mixology.” The drinks are numbered one through ten based on the level of bitter. My Manlino no3 (Aperol, Bombay, fresh sour, soda) was delicious and refreshing.

Balena Manlino no3

Our server Garren provided excellent service, always there when we needed her but never hovering. With only two people we could not order everything we wanted so she helped us narrow it down. She suggested a wine to accompany the lamb pappardelle and I. Fell.In.Love.  I enjoy wine but I rarely “love” it and so when I mentioned it to Garren she wrote the name down for me. She also told me about an app called Delectable that tells you where you can buy the wine. All you have to do is take a picture of the label and they will  let you know where you can buy it. My new love is a fruit forward Fratelli Revello Barbera d’Alba 2012 and available online.

The cured meat plate was three salami’s with distinct flavors and served with some that famous bread program bread. The meat-eater in the party liked the salami but was really impressed with the bread and subsequently ate it all before I got to try it. That’s saying something because he usually leaves the bread and focuses on the meat.

Balena Cured Meat

Cured Meat: Gin & Juice with Orange, Stagberry & Blueberry, Red Wine & Garlic

I ordered the Tuscan KaleCaesar Salad” with tonnato, sardines, and croutons. I called this the “Never Ending Kale Salad” because although I kept eating and eating it appeared I didn’t make a dent. This is a very well done take on Caesar salad with lemon tang in the dressing, real chunks of sardines and crispy croutons. Great dish to share.

Balena Tuscan Kale Caesar

My favorite dish of the night: Pappardelle, Lamb Sugo, Castelveltrano, Orange, Pecorino di Fossa. The dish was surprisingly light and the star was the pasta itself. The pappardelle was cooked al dente and absorbed the flavors beautifully.  I’m having a moment with Castelveltrano olives so this just added to my enjoyment of the dish.

Balena Pappardelle

The Canestri, Pork Ragu and Porcini mushrooms was a heartier dish given the richness of the ragu and mushrooms. It’s the perfect winter pasta.

Balena Canestri Pork Ragu

Making room for dessert we had the Vanilla Gelato Sundae , Chocolate Chip Cookie, Malt Chocolate Sauce, “Toasted Milk”. No picture of this but you can see this delicious dessert in my video.

My next trip here will include at least one of their pizzas! Balena is across from Steppenwolf Theater and next to The Royal George Theater  so they are great for pre theater dining.

Brunch @ Perennial Virant – Lincoln Park

Sunday’s are always good for sitting outside and enjoying a Bloody Mary and some brunch. I decided to check out Perennial Virant in Lincoln Park because every time I pass by the patio is packed and everyone always looks like they are having fun.

If you don’t mind a crowd this is the place to be on Sunday…check out my video to see the food and restaurant. (Sorry, it was a bit windy when I filmed!)

Housemade Sausage: two eggs cooked your way, homefries with cheese curds, toast…cheese curds were amazing! And I’ve had some good cheese curds in my days in Madison, Wisconsin.

3-Egg Skillet: roasted broccoli, mushrooms, onions, capriko cheese…left us wishing there was more.

Bloody Mary: Nice and spicy

 

Private Cupcake Tasting At Swirlz

I met Pam (one of the owners of Swirlz) at a Glossed and Found event earlier this summer and naturally the conversation turned to food. When I found out she was apart of Swirlz I asked her a million questions about her cupcakes. The creative process that Swirlz goes through (over 500 flavors and counting) is very interesting. They encourage all their staff members to actively come up and share their ideas. I thought I was dreaming when Pam invited me to a private tasting for some new flavors they were putting together with Pinnacle Vodka!

I set up a time to come in with Jamie, manager of Social Media and Events, and anxiously awaited the tasting. I “managed” to find a friend to come with me and we headed to the Lincoln Park shop. Warm and inviting is how I would describe the vibe just like Pam and Jamie.

Jamie walked us through the Swirlz history (Chicago’s oldest “All Cupcake” shop) and how the day-to-day operations run. Over 90% of the ingredients are made in-house and on site fresh daily. They make morning deliveries to Whole Foods as well as catered events. Making the cupcakes fresh daily ensures you won’t get a dried out product that I am sure you have experienced before. Using quality ingredients keeps the cakes from tasting greasy or too heavy. They also have at least one gluten-free option every day.

Jamie gave us A LOT of cupcakes to try. They were all exceptionally good but I am going to focus on my favorites. Swirlz does the staples as well or better than everyone else: red velvet and vanilla. But they also do their unique creations even better so if you want something different this is your place.

Banana NutellaGluten-free banana cake, layer of Nutella (chocolate-hazelnut), Nutella buttercream (chocolate-hazelnut). What can I say, obviously anything with Nutella is going to be good but this exceeded my expectations. Luscious (I hate the word moist so I won’t be using that) and creamy. You won’t go wrong with this one.

Limoncello – This was my favorite cupcake of the bunch. I am a Limoncello fan but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a good cupcake. This was heaven. The lemon curd inside was mixed with the vodka and there was a hint of vodka in the frosting. After I took my first bite I said to my friend that it almost tasted light. The lemon was refreshing almost lemon zesty. I’m pretty sure I could have eaten about 5 of them (they were mini-cupcakes!). I still think about that cupcake to this day.

Cherry Chip – Pinnacle vodka creation, cherries soaked in vodka, need I say more? This was a veeery close second to the Limoncello. There was the perfect balance of vodka, sweetness and tartness of the cherries.

Drumstick – Malted buttermilk cake,  layer of chocolate peanut crunch, vanilla buttercream  dipped in praline chocolate glaze. This cupcake was not apart of the tasting but Jamie brought after he found out this was the first cupcake I had at Swirlz. When I am in the mood for chocolate this is the go-to cupcake. It’s the Swirlz take on the drumstick ice-cream cone and it just may be better than the real thing. Crunchy outside before you hit the buttercream and cake.

A huge thank you for their time and hospitality to Pam and Jamie. Swirlz hosts tastings so go and try for yourself, you won’t regret it!

Cheap(er) Eats For Those on A College Student’s Budget in Chicago

I’m pleased to introduce Nicole Adams. She currently works with Westwood College and enjoys designing, writing and of course eating.  She is Alicia Tastes Life first guest blogger! 

Cheap(er) Eats For Those on A College Student’s Budget

–on behalf of Nicole Adams of Westwood College

Chicago is a big city with a diverse population. As immigrants from all over the world have arrived at the Windy City, they’ve brought their various culinary traditions with them. Chicago college students and residents, therefore, have a lot of opportunities when it comes to affordable ethnic dining.  It’s nice to actually take advantage of the idea of “a little goes a long way”.  Perhaps, you can spend your remaining budget on a special night out at Blackbird, or a nice slow food establishment.  In the meantime, the question remains, where can I find the best food in town for the best price?  I have chosen an array of cuisines and neighborhoods.  Here are just a few spots you shouldn’t miss if you’re looking for a hip, cost efficient place to dine.

Image via city-data.com

If your palette longs for red pasta sauce or grilled calamari, consider Lucia’s on North Avenue. Lucia and Dominick, the friendly owners of this long-established Italian Restaurant, have managed to keep this gem a neighborhood go-to. The options are endless.  When it comes to take out, they are very fast and efficient.  This Italian eatery has it’s own deli; so don’t hesitate to order a fresh made sandwich or custom salad (most under $10).  If you do decide to cozy up and eat in the dining room, be sure to note the BYOB option and no corking fee.  I would recommend pairing your own wine from home with the Artichoke Ravioli.

Image via farm4.staticflickr.com

Sultan’s Market is another idea of a generously priced, yet tasty, place to throw down some George Washington’s.  For only $2, you can order the Baked Spinach Pie or Grandma Zarifa’s Lentil Soup.  Of course, Hummus and Curry Basmati Rice are also great items on this Mediterranean inspired menu, but one of the biggest perks is having small and large portion options.  The ingredients are flavorful and taste is authentic.  Sultan’s Market has been in Wicker Park for years, and they have recently added a new location in Lincoln Park.

Image via city-data.com

Saving the “latest for last”, it’s not easy to fight the craving for fast late night tacos. Wicker Park’s standing tradition of a 2AM Flash Taco had to make it to this post.  As the previous statement implies, it’s obvious that this is where you would most likely spend the latter part of your evening.  Flash Taco originated when two Mexican immigrants began selling delicious tacos in Humboldt Park from an ice chest.  Flash built on this idea and tradition that his ambitious parents started and Flash Taco has become the perfect place to get filling, satisfying food.  Most items are under $6, and the Steak Burrito or Chili Relleno tacos are the way to go.  Don’t forget to order a horchata to sip on while you wait.

Hopefully these suggestions will meet any time crunch and budget on your next cheap eat outing. Another suggestion, that I’ve recently found useful for finding deals on good food, is the Scout Mob app.  You can download to any Smartphone and is available and free to Chicago subscribers.  The site most recently featured 50% off Lalibela Ethiopian restaurant in Edgewater.  If you need your olive tapenade fix, there’s a 50% off deal for Atomix Coffee in the Ukrainian Village.  The deals change, but the app is nice to have as a reference when trying to meet the right match, on any occasion, for your taste buds.

2 Sparrows – Foie Gras Pop Tarts & Tator Tots

2 Sparrows in Lincoln Park is best described as high-end comfort food serving breakfast and lunch. For those of you that have been to Nightwood, 2 Sparrows is like her sophisticated younger sister in college. Serious focus on food but very laid back, fun and if you feel like it, they make it easy for you to get liquored up in the middle of the day by providing an ample list of mouth-watering cocktails (I did not partake so can’t review but the drink menu looked really good). It is also on the louder side. Get there early as wait times can be long.

The donuts and their take on pop tarts are what I kept hearing this place is known for. The donuts did look very appetizing but probably best shared if you have more than 2 people. I was with just one friend so we decided to go for the apple/lemon thyme icing pop tart. Served fresh and piping hot it was like an apple strudel. The icing was a nice complement and did not overpower the tart. If you are someone who loves and can stomach rich food then I say go for the foie gras and cherry compote pop tart.

I had the Belly Sandwich – biscuit, pork belly, sunny side egg, pickled onions and tots. The best part of the sandwich was the biscuit. Rich, flakey and fresh. The best part of the meal was the tots. When I saw there were only four tots I thought that was a bit odd and would not be enough. However, these tots are bigger than any tots I have had and a lot richer. Four was PLENTY. They are extra crispy on the outside and nice and soft on the inside. Next time here I will be getting a side of tots no matter what I order (I am thinking it will be the Cuban: sourdough, pulled pork, pork belly, mustard, gruyere, house made pickles, sans the pork belly).

The other order was the Grilled Cheese – fresh goat cheese, gruyere, irish cheddar with an added egg. I tried a bite and one word came to my mind, amazing.  I was transported to a Parisian Bistro. Rich, buttery bread and warm slightly tangy goat cheese and who doesn’t like a fried egg?

Go for the rich comfort food and laid back atmosphere. There is a small bar so if you can skip the wait for a table and belly up for breakfast/lunch there.  They will be hosting dinners now and then with the next on January 20th. Is a Great Lakes Beer Dinner with 5 courses paired with 5 beers. The cost is $60 per person plus tax and gratuity. You can reserve by calling the restaurant.