Monday, October 22, 2012

Disgusting Donut Day

It was going to be epic. A dream come true. Seven doughnuts in one night of bacchanalian proportions of hedonism and glory. Puffy yeast rounds of dough, sparkling in a thin crystalline encasement of sugar glaze awaited me after a long, arduous, and ongoing journey as I chased two dragons: hitting a weight I hadn't been since middle school and bingeing on pastry.

Nearly two and a half years ago, I decided I needed to lose some weight. Then two years ago, I decided to take it a step further and revamp my entire lifestyle. Goddamnit, I was going to be HEALTHY.

Although I eat gluttonously and deliciously, it hasn't been as much of a challenge to kick my own ass. Working out every day is actually a luxury, and getting up earlier in the morning means I start my workday energized and positively. It also ensures that I wash my hair. And counting calories means that I now consume higher quality foods, and can strategize to eat higher quantities of things I want without gaining a pound.

As usual, I digress. I just thought it'd be nice to say that even though it's been a long, tough struggle to get to 115 pounds, it can be done with the right attitude and that it's been totally worth it.

I decided a year ago to reward myself when I hit my original goal weight of 125 pounds, which I hadn't thought likely since that was my average high school weight. I was content to be 130 pounds, but figured, Eh, what the hell -- may as well set an unrealistic goal to keep me motivated. My reward was going to be Disgusting Donut Day.

This was the plan:

  1. Go to Dunkin' Donuts.
  2. Pick up seven Glazed Donuts and bring them home.
  3. Take off pants.
  4. Open current book.
  5. Enjoy more doughnuts than I've eaten in one sitting in my life.
Wonder of wonders, I hit 125 pounds. So of course, with my self-competitive nature, I said to myself, Self, that wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be. Let's step it up. We haven't earned it yet.

The new goal became 115. 

It took several more months just to get under 120, since at just below 19% body fat, there wasn't much more left to go. But get there, I did, finally coming in at juuuuust 115 and change and 17% body fat (interval and strength training WORK!). I was in the best shape of my life, and I was ready to feast.

However, being that I hit my mark in early fall, the produce harvest was too much to resist and I put off DDD in favor of farm-fresh food. My weight came back up to a healthier 117 and I was determined to stabilize there. But lo and behold, I hit it again last weekend! And with Boy out of town for business, I decided it was time.

First, I want to award big ups to the Dunkin Donuts on Sunrise Highway in Bohemia. I very rarely equate customer service with any kind of chain, even if it is independently owned, but this shop wows me every time. Fresh donuts, baked on premises, and outstanding, often EXEMPLARY customer service every time I visit. 

I wanted DDD to be done right, so I called them up and asked when the next fresh batch was coming out, because damnit, it was going to be WORTH it. Their response was to give them a time and they'd make me a fresh batch and have it boxed and ready when I came in. BAM. That's customer service. Donuts to order?! Yes, PLEASE!

They were beautiful. Slightly shiny, beautifully puffed, and looking as pristine and virginal as anything I've ever seen, I no longer had any doubts about the wisdom of my decision. Plus, it was less calories than my other options (a full Grandma pie from Gio's, the most delicious Grandma pie EVER; a whole strawberry shortcake; an entire rainbow cookie cake from Manhattan Sweets; or a bucket of Popeye's fried chicken -- which, with my low-fat lifestyle change, may have legitimately made me sick). 

I executed steps 1, 2, and 4 of my DDD plan (I was already in stretchy yoga pants and it was cold ...) and got ready. I broke into the first donut with my teeth, the thin layer of sugar glaze crackling slightly like a pane of glass, the dough yielding slightly, softly. It was FUCKING GLORIOUS.

I continued, breaking into my chocolate-frosted "dessert donut" (DDD was dinner, by the way) in the middle, since I was afraid I wouldn't make it.

However, my fears were unfounded. As disgusting and abhorrent as friends and family found the concept of eating seven doughnuts in one sitting was, it was actually highly anticlimactic. The challenge aspect just wasn't there. I took my time savoring each and every one, not rushing a single bite, and yet, it took me just about 31 minutes for every crumb of my reward to be gone. And I was still hungry.

I was incredibly sad (still am, to tell you the truth), that this was not difficult. I like a good challenge. I like being brought to the edge of sickness, whether it's from running too far, doing vinyasa yoga in too hot of a room, hitting heavy bags in kickboxing until I feel like I'm about to puke or my knuckles are bleeding, or eating enough cashews that my tongue feels like it's shriveled like a slug in my mouth. I am a person of extremes. 

And believe it or not, DDD was not an extreme. Not even close. I finished and felt great, my only regret being the fact that it was all over and over too soon. I mean, granted, I was sad that when I weighed myself the next morning, I had put a whopping five pounds back on (apparently, I can't metabolize sugary stuff?) ... but then I stopped being stressed after a 5.5 mile run and 90-minute yoga class and lost half of that bloat.

So the question now is: what next? What ridonkulous reward should I grant myself for maintaining this weight steadily, getting to a 115 trending weight, or hitting an unrealistic (and unhealthy?) 110? Or should I call DDD a wash and start over another day on one of the drawing board options?

I'm not sure where the decision process will end up, but one thing is for certain. I know for a fact now, that seven is not my limit. I am a vengeful doughnut goddess, and I can eat them ALL.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Falling, Yet Again

There are some restaurants that I have torrid affairs with. Hasty, hot passion. A short-lived infatuation that burns at the spark, and fizzles when something shinier and newer comes to the forefront of my consciousness.

Although it's fun to philander like this from time to time, nothing beats a restaurant romance that's in it for the long haul. A place that continues to remind you how beautiful a simple, uncomplicated love can be, and how fresh a relationship can remain with a few well-timed, strategic surprises.

(Patio, formal photo taken from their website)
For me, that restaurant is Verace in Islip, a lovely, modern Italian restaurant that I fall more and more in love with every time I have the pleasure of dining there.

Metropolitan swank, with a gorgeous outdoor patio and a minimalist, contemporary water feature running a clean long line through the space, the sophisticated ambience of Verace is immediately impressive. A well-considered space that serves as an introduction to the food is a staple of any Bohlsen Restaurant Group endeavor (Teller's and Prime being some of the more stunning examples of environment), and Verace's is exactly that. Hip, high-end, rich in detail but not trying too hard. Perfect.

For such an Italian island, you'd think that clean, pure Italian food can be found on any street. Great pizza certainly can. But at Verace, as its name implies, it's true Italian and not the bastardized Italian that Long Islanders have come to believe to be authentic, that is served. Prosciutto di Parma, speck, and porchetta fredi. Fig marmellata served alongside creamy burrata mozzarella, intriguing ricotta salata, and luxurious crescienza. And, the very best thing of all? House-made pasta. Boom. Done.

The simplicity of spaghetti with meatballs becomes a dream come true in its authentic form, clean San Marzano tomato sauce with fresh basil shredded atop perfectly al dente pasta that has the slightly soft egginess of pasta just rolled. The most humble, simple of Italian dishes becomes something of wonder in its simplicity and purity.

However, it wasn't this children's classic and traditional standby that brought me to Verace tonight. It was the First Taste of Fall menu.

A celebration of fresh, seasonal food, this inventive menu is a delight for even the most curmudgeon opponents of autumn. For someone who relishes the feel of crisp air with every breath, burrowing deep into hooded college sweatshirts, and the satisfying sound of zipping up a riding boot ... well, it's nothing short of glorious.

Creamy burrata mozzarella, perfectly seasoned and salted.
I quickly made reservations for this limited menu's debut, and was disappointed to have to wait 20 minutes for my reserved table to be cleared (but not as disappointed as I was in the surly service provided by the apathetic blonde). However, as a frequent visitor and Yelp Elite member, the manager was quick to send his apologies to this nondescript couple in jeans (us ... since it's only as casual or formal as you decide to make your night, one of the many appealing features of the restaurant) ... AND send a beautiful amuse bouche of luscious caprese salad to our table. Long wait forgotten!

Fungi can do no wrong when executed this well.
Anyway, we were already super excited about our meal, and had pored over the menu prior to coming in. The appetizers were already a head-scratcher, with such delicious options that made an un-premeditated ordering unimaginable. Light pumpkin and crumbled sausage ultra-thin crust pizza with warm ricotta, baked red onions, and fresh baby arugula. Beautifully pillowy fresh gnocchi, tossed with abandon in a light, herb-infused vermouth sauce with thick-cut, pan-seared pancetta and adorable little chanterelles. Cream of oyster and shittake mushroom soup, pureed with a healthy dollop of truffle oil and accented with chopped chives.
Flame-baked thin-crust pizza.

We decided, Why decide? And chose them all.

As a main course, scallops with asparagus puree and lemon zest sounded light and season-appropriate. Veal, beef, and mortadella ravioli with mascarpone cheese in a sage butter sauce would have been appealing if not for the mortadella. But the veal cheeks braised in a Mission fig demi glace with sweet carrots won the day for Boy, and I couldn't resist the call of butternut squash and spinach lasagna ... especially when I passed by the fired oven and saw the cheese melting on cast-iron skillets of hefty slices.
Meat is never done justice with iPhone flash.

The braised cheeks were impossibly tender, with only a delicate smattering of carrots and a whole roasted fig to round out the simply presented plate. The flavor was balanced and sweet and savory all at once.

My butternut squash and spinach lasagna, however, was a study in luxury.  Calorie counting was clearly out of the question tonight, with the heavy gnocchi leading the path to sin. Fresh spinach was nestled into whipped ricotta, sandwiched between wavy layers of lasagna noodles. Perfectly uniform cubes of roasted butternut squash peeked out of every cut, the light scent of nutmeg steaming out from under the crisp melted cheese. A thick cream sauce of Asiago, parmesan, and shallots made the entire thing a rich, heady mess. Now, I rarely ever choose to go primarily vegetarian in prix fixes, but this was one instance where value of doing so was never questioned.
You never even miss the meat.

One would think dessert might be anticlimactic after all that cream, pancetta, cheese, gourd, and mushrooms, but the classic candied apple looked pretty awesome. However, the pumpkin cheesecake on a pecan crumb crust with hand-whipped cream, a smattering of cinnamon, and a candied pecan garnish was really the cherry on top. Luscious and creamy, and far richer than their usual more grainy ricotta cheesecake, the pumpkin flavor was subtle, it was absolutely perfect.

I was wowed by Verace the first time I went there. I'm wowed every time I go for my classic favorites. But more impressively, I'm wowed by their adventurousness, their special menus that continue to pleasantly surprise, and the consistently excellent service from the night manager, who rewards Yelpers and is the epitome of professional hospitality. For these reasons and more to come, I'm sure, my love for Verace will continue to grow with the years.

Dense, doughy-soft gnocchi.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Once And Again/Onsen Again

I'll admit it: I'm not a "real" sushi-lover. When it comes to raw fish, I'm a big faker. I liked the cooked stuff, the crab, the kani, shrimp, lobster, and of course, anything tempura-ed. Texturally, raw fish bothers me. Culturally, it was really hard for me to even consider salads a meal, since the Chinese tend not to do cold. So when I say that I love a sushi place, bear in mind that I'm talking about artistry in flavor balance and presentation with a limited, non-specialty ingredients, which to me, means an even tougher audience.

I went to Onsen Sushi in Oakdale this past week with Boy. He'd had a rough workweek, and very often, Japanese food is the cure-all. We'd gone there before when they'd first opened, and were not impressed. The simple rolls we'd ordered were average, and the rice was spread out unevenly. Presentation was nonexistent, and the place was a ghost town. However, to be fair, it was 9 PM and they were only days into their establishment.

But as the Yelp reviews continued to rack up, designating this hole-in-the-wall of a boring strip mall one of the highest user-generated rankings on the powerful site, we figured, eh, it was worth another try. And so we tried ... and were glad we did.

The tiny dining room was half-full, which is not too shabby for a pocket-sized hidden spot in a shopping center in a "secret" suburb on the South Shore (by that, I mean there's no little village, so very little through-traffic). I was skeptical when a large, creepy roach-type bug scuttled past me, which I asked a staff member to remove.

Having lived in New Orleans for many years, where Jacques himself of the renowned Jacques-imo's smashed a palmetto bug (read: giant flying roach) on the wall next to me using the Croc off his foot, then continued the conversation with our table like it was no big deal, I wasn't as freaked out like others might have been. A little, but not a lot.

Anyway, the place itself looked pretty pristine, and the sushi bar was spotless, so we stayed. Whatever.

Boy ordered the shumai appetizer because we remember the gyoza being pretty nondescript, typical of the frozen bag gyozas you can get at any self-respecting Asian supermarket. The shumai started out pretty okay, but I'm not a fan of Japanese shrimp dumplings. I don't like the squish and the aftertaste.

Double squish.
An amuse bouche was sent to every table (which is always a bonus), consisting of white tuna wrapped around some salmon with a cream sauce drizzle. Although I don't do raw, the white tuna was actually nice and firm in texture, and I didn't mind it. I may have even liked it, with its mild sweetness and toothsome feel. The salmon? Not so much. Again, squishhh.

The showstoppers, though, were the specialty rolls we ordered. I was originally incredibly torn between a Bento box or salmon teriyaki entree (I'd been craving salmon for a week) or the inventive specialty rolls, which was what Boy was in the mood for. Big portions with steaming plates of thick teriyaki sauced meats wafted their aromas past me, and I was sorely tempted. But after watching plates of beautifully presented sushi pass us by, I knew that if I didn't get to partake in those fancy-ass rolls, I'd be sad and regretful ... or eat Boy's meal and my own.

So, we decided to roll together.

Clockwise from left: Tiger, Futo Maki, Carissa, 2012
Futo Maki
The cheapest roll we ordered, this is on their regular menu for a mere $5.50. Only five pieces come in an order, but they're pretty overstuffed, with crab stick, the sweet egg, cucumbers, various types of tart and sweet Japanese pickles, and carrots, with seaweed on the outside to hold it all in. Clean, simple flavors were made interesting by the addition of the pickles, and in all, it tasted refreshing, like a palate-cleansing roll.

Tiger Roll
Also always available on their main menu, this roll was a study in contrasts, with a rich, creamy sweet mango sauce and avocado meeting the purer elements of shrimp and spicy lobster. This was a fun roll to eat, with its play on sweetness and lightness, and although it looks like four giant pieces, there are eight pieces to the order.

2012 Roll
From their Sushi Specials handwritten menu, this roll was a big, giant WOW. If this is what 2012 tastes like, I'm happy to stay in this year. Spicy crab mixed with tempura crunchies topped avocado and shrimp hugged in rice and bound by seaweed. The foundation roll was quickly tempura battered and fried before the crispy crab salad was garnished, and the whole thing was presented resting on truffled eel sauce. TRUFFLED EEL SAUCE! Two awesome things coming together in a stroke of genius! Why didn't anyone think of this before? So much umami happened in my mouth with this roll. The flavor was absolutely delicious, and amidst all the fried-ness, nothing was greasy or cloying with the taste of oil. What a treat--my stomach positively grumbles just thinking about it.

Carissa Roll
A decadent surf and turf combo, this roll was outstanding. Incredibly complex and adventurous, but anchored by the velvety earthiness of seared medium rare thin-sliced steak, this roll covered the spectrum in taste, texture, and excitement. The crunch of tempura-fried lobster in the middle! The even harder crunch of crushed wasabi peas on top of the steak! The creaminess of avocado! The tang of creamy wasabi sauce! The greenery of steamed asparagus! Plus, appearances are deceiving with this roll -- the order was broken up into eight perfectly bite-sized pieces. Between the 2012 and the Carissa alone, Boy and I felt vindicated for his rough week, and no longer cared HOW many bugs we encountered.

Although the specialty rolls were kind of expensive ($15), they were all filling and included fanciful elements to create exciting taste experiences that were worth it. Granted, we got disgusting later that night with 3 cups of Auntie Anne's pretzel nuggets from the mall split between the two of us (yes, we're gross), but it was the specialty rolls that brought those big grins to our faces. Located only five minutes from home, we'll definitely be back again. Next time, the teriyaki!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Brunchemian Rhapsody

Bad pun, I know. But it's time I address my crippling preoccupation with brunch, a subject of much fantasy since my trip to Chicago. They do it right up in Chi-town, with fresh-squeezed juices, Metropolis coffee, massive, fluffy pancakes covered in all kinds of good things, French-toasted bread pudding (!!! So much genius in only four words!!!), and fat sausages from the heartland. *Sigh.* It is a happy place, this land of brunch.

I've been trying to replicate this happiness on Long Island, and although the results have been mostly positive, nothing has come close to Pauline's and m. henrietta in the Windy City.

Before I talk about my LI adventures in brunching, allow me to get all hot and bothered about both of these brunches that so blew my mind.

The scene: Outdoors, with trees rustling in the breeze, train tracks elevated above the street across from the cozy corner the restaurant is located on, and the chirp of songbirds echoing through the brownstoned residential neighborhood.

The stars: FAT, FAT pancakes, made with heavy whipping cream, unbleached flour, raw brown sugar, and Mexican vanilla, topped with a layer of confectioner's sugar and a side of hot maple syrup. So fluffy, so flavorful, elevating pancakes to a height they had never achieved before. And as if that weren't enough, the French Toast Bread Pudding brought two of the most heavenly carb-laden, sweet bread items together and married them in a ceremony of sugar cane goodness. They were a little too sweet for Boy, but not for me. Moist, medium-density bread pudding laced with apples, raisins, apricots, and other pieces of God's candy, it was then dipped in French toast batter, fried, and topped with thick, freshly whipped cream and fresh strawberries, which were ending their peak season when I was there. The strawberry rhubarb jam, which was perfectly balanced, was an absolute delight. I et ALL of that, and then tried my friend Kristen's homefries (which were also delicious).

The future: Their omelettes have five eggs. FIVE EGGS! I'd probably get the same things I got the first time, but the French Toast does sound pretty ridic. "Six thick slices dipped in eggs, heavy cream, vanilla, cinnamon and orange zest, topped with powdered sugar, whipped cream and fresh strawberries." The symphony writes itself.

m. henrietta
The scene: Cozy, indoor locale with scents of farm-fresh produce wafting through a whimsical but contemporary setting. Clean, airy, and soul-liftingly bright with natural sunlight, the outdoors was brought indoors through the color scheme, ingredients, and the cheerful colors that decorated every plate to leave the kitchen. All sunshine and happiness.

The stars: The Blackberry Blisscakes were a must-try for me, crusted in brown sugar and whole oats. Warm blackberries and its tart accompanying compote kept the pancakes from being too sweet, while the vanilla mascarpone cream rendered syrup completely unnecessary. The pancakes were so light (other than the crust), that it eventually dissolved into a soggy purple mess, but it was good while it lasted. The Breakfast Bread Pudding, made with egg custard, brioche, and vanilla was a bit too sweet and overwhelming, and waaaay too wet, but it was a great idea in theory. Save this for dessert, and not an entree! The Lemon Crab and Shrimp Cake Benedict was a study in fresh, green flavors made elegantly rich, and the chorizo scramble with fresh corn, salsa verde, queso fresco, and fried plantains, was hearty and fabulous.

The future: Lemon Raspberry Brioche French Toast sounds like an incredible combination of lemon curd and raspberry coulis, and I'd love to try their regular hotcakes, just to see. The Rustic Peasant Quiche sounds like an ideal lunchy-brunch choice, filled with asparagus, sauteed leeks, applewood bacon, Lorraine Swiss cheese, and gruyere, with a side of lovely local greens in a light dressing. I saw this pass by a few times and had food envy.

Now for Long Island ...

Maureen's Kitchen
The scene: Cows, cows, and more cows. Cramped, bustling, with every square foot filled with people, while every square non-physical inch flooded with wafting scents of sausage, frying butter, and warm syrup. Lines out the door at all times for this cash-only breakfast joint. Oh, and cows. So many cows.

The stars: Fluffy buttermilk pancakes that are rich and are as fabulously delicious and satisfying in their classic renditions as their more adventurous ones. I most recently tried the almond and orange special, with toasted almonds and orange juice and marmalade mixed right into the batter. A little too orangey, which got tiresome after a while, since the flavor got too cluttered. The Reuben was ridiculous, though, and the Famous Baked Oatmeal is like bread pudding with oats. Apples and raisins plump up in the baking, and the addition of the side of hot milk create a richness that turns the combination into a luscious treat.

The future: Pancakes and more pancakes! Although, next time I try one of their fancy pancakes, I'll also get a short stack of the classics. The best I've tried on Long Island, but still doesn't hold a candle to Pauline's.

Grey Horse Restaurant
The scene: A beautiful grey Victorian in lovely residential Bayport, only steps away from a small (and I mean small) farm. Restored dark wood floors and a homey layout with just enough sunlight streaming through the parklike grounds to imagine being at home in a house in the Hamptons.

The stars: Well, the coffee was great, and I had the Brown Butter Waffles, which came with more butter and maple syrup. It was good, but not a lot of food, and the homemade sausage was a little funky -- definitely not your average breakfast sausage spice blend. The Croque Madame that Boy had wasn't authentic French style, and the medium egg was overcooked; very little egg ran down when it was cut into. However, the side salad was really excellent, with fresh field greens and an incredibly light vinaigrette that was perfect for the summer morning we spent there. This was really delicious.

The future: I wouldn't come here for brunch again, I don't think, only because the portions were so small. I'd definitely finish up with a cup of coffee, and maybe get the Croque Monsiuer for lunch or something. If I were to have brunch, I'd try the Whole Wheat Flapjacks, which the server said was not as good as the Brown Butter Waffle, but I just wasn't impressed by it. I do want to love this place, because of the refined New American style and locally sourced ingredients. It's just a little restrained, but nice if you want to feel fancy and high-end.

Cafe Joelle
The scene: Reminiscent of the small restaurants that line Magazine Street in New Orleans, tin-tile ceilings and all, this Main Street restaurant is a lovely, quiet, and understated little restaurant.

The stars: The Belgian waffle was good, and I got the pecans and apples on the side. Warm syrup was served, too, and although it was all tasty, a waffle is usually just a waffle. (I think I have to stop getting waffles at these Long Island places, and stick to waffles in Vermont.) It was inexpensive and satisfying, but nothing too special. The Eggs Benedict were perfect, however, and the quiche with a light salad seemed really nice, and a healthy portion. Fat, giant sausages accompany.

The future: I can't fairly judge this place until I get the pancakes, so that'll be next.

Milk and Sugar Cafe
The scene: An absolutely adorable picture of Victorian excess, with parlor chairs and coffee table dining, wing chairs, and all kinds of rustic trim that bring to mind a lovely dollhouse.

The stars: Honestly, there weren't any, aside from their rather remarkable coffee and authentic cafe au lait. The ambience is far better than the food itself. The catering at The Victorian Room, their affiliate across the street, is excellent, but the brunch buffet was sad and disappointing, and certainly not worth the money.

The future: Pass. And I think I'm over them for dessert, too, since they're provided by a food supplier and not baked locally or in-house. Sad about that.

Cornucopia's Noshery
The scene: Set on Main Street in Amityville, this little homey place is small and quaint, specializing in locally sourced and organic foods.

The stars: Apparently, Cornucopia's Noshery is well known for its pancakes, but they don't look that fluffy from the pictures on Yelp. They also look a little burnt in every instance. I ordered a frittata when I was there, and it was good but small. I just wasn't wowed.

The future: Meh. It's kind of far and not impressive.

The following are places I really want to check out for brunch, but haven't gotten around to.

The scene: In King's Park, an area I'm not to familiar with, the pictures make the place look very simple and clean.

The future: As another locavore-focused organic-preferred place, I'm interested in checking it out, although the selections aren't as high-end and inventive as the gold standard that is brunch in Chicago. I'd like to get a taste of the "Light as a Cloud" ricotta pancakes with mixed berries, or the honey and nut pancakes, if that didn't sound so calorie-laden. The omelettes are self-reportedly "overstuffed," but that will remain to be seen. However, the eggs are local free-range.

La Tavola
The scene: I love this restaurant as it is, which is why I'm eager to try them out for brunch. Lovely outdoor patio dining with a rustic, classic upscale Italian interior.

The future: It's frittata time when I come visit here, because it'd be silly to go to an Italian restaurant for brunch and not try and Italian brunch classic. Theirs is with zucchini, prosciutto, grilled red onion, and goat cheese, for now, since their offerings are pretty seasonal, which I also love. Thick-cut French toast with strawberry jam and cannoli cream sounds like it could be a good choice, as well, but during the winter, it turns into something with vanilla, I believe. I'm looking forward to see what they choose to do in the coming months.

Bistro 25
The scene: I've been writing a lot about this place lately, but it truly is one of my favorites in the neighborhood. Modern, simple, and comfortable, this Hamptons-contemporary interior with the small dining room is intimate without feeling crowded, and always quiet and upscale in an understated fashion.

The future: Everything I've ever had here has been excellent, so I can only imagine that their super-cheap brunch is, too. $15 buys you a meal plus two alcoholic beverages (so you're kind of getting the meal for free?), but the food options sound as upscale as everything else on their menu. I already know the pork belly is superb, and so the Pork Belly and Poached Eggs promises to be tasty. Challah Bread French Toast is probably also great, since it comes with maple butter, and I always love a good quiche.

The scene: Upscale Italian, the ambience for the Greenlawn location is refined and classy -- not dissimilar to La Tavola. I was here for a really fantastic dinner a year or so ago, but haven't tried the Port Jefferson location. I'd assume the feel is similar.

The future: Nothing sounds bad about a Cranberry Nut French Toast with Apricot Butter. However, I don't know how long this will be on the menu, either, since they are also a seasonal restaurant, which means fresh, fresh, fresh creations! The other selections as of right now are kind of standard for upscale brunches, but the dinners there are spectacular.

Mill Pond House
The scene: Privileged North Shore waterfront dining. I haven't had the pleasure of eating here yet, but I've heard really great things and I've seen the magical view.

The future: I love when things I love are put together, because then it's just a love-food-smang. This may very well be the case when I read "Creme Brulee French Toast." Brioche, berries, and brulee -- finally, something that sounds like the standard I'm trying to find. And although it may be a lowly sandwich, the Warm Prosciutto and Fried Egg with basil aioli and arugula are calling my name as well. Will sweet or savory take the day? Hopefully, we'll find out this fall!

The scene: Unknown. The pictures and description make it sound kind of NYC SoHo eclectic, i.e. trendily old-school?

The future: I've read good things, and keep hearing that the coffee is really great. I'm a bit saddened that there's a $1.50 charge for real maple syrup (but then again, Maureen's Kitchen has that, too, which means we get the high fructose crap automatically), but inventions like Whole Wheat Peach and Raspberry Pancakes or Whole Wheat Apple and Blackberry Pancakes may make it moot in any significant quantity. The Sweet Potato and Honey Butter one sounds like a great fall combo, too, and I'd be interested in experimenting with that. The French Toasts are also pretty rich sounding, such as Graham Cracker with peanut butter, banana, and caramel (I'm a little confused about this one, to be honest), and the Apple Strudel French Toast (although it doesn't sound like a French-toasted apple strudel, if that's what you're looking for.) Nice omelette combos, too, but I'm into carbs right now.

The Cookroom
The scene: Divey old-school diner setting, in what used to be ... well, an old-school, Airstream trailer-looking diner.

The future: First, thank you to Erin Battaglia for mentioning this place to me so I could add it to this master list. Biscuits and sausage gravy sound like a delicious way to clog up your arteries, and with the cold weather almost upon us, a Chili and Cheddar omelette may not come amiss. According to photos on Yelp, most of the oversized, creative omelette creations come with cheese hearts melted on the top, which is a really cute touch. However, if carbs are winning the day, the pancakes look pretty kickass (read: giant and fluffy), and all are dusted with cinnamon and confectioner's sugar. Apple cinnamon sounds great, as do the Oaty Oats. And apple-stuffed cinnamon raisin French toast? Interesting ... Usually, I don't go for the cinnamon raisin because it's made with thin slices of manufactured bread, but the combination sounds unique. Another item that caught my eye was the Baked Oatmeal stuffed with craisins, apples, and raisins and served with yogurt. Someone looking to give ol' Mo a run for her money, eh?

Glen's Dinette
The scene: Old-school diner.

The future: In Babylon Village, people flock to this place, so it must be decent if appearances are deceiving. But honestly, I don't think I'll be trying it. It's really basic, and they use supermarket ingredients and boast about it, like Pepperidge Farm bread. I mean, really?

JT's Corner Cafe
The scene: Ugly strip mall. However, the menu shows promise of redeeming this dubious setting.

The future: Almond Pear French Toast, anyone? Grilled pears and warm pear syrup. A long list of Benedicts also follow, although the pancake list is lacking.

So ... that's my list so far of places to tackle in my search for a Chicago-style brunch on Long Island. I let some of the standards off this because a) now I'm tired of typing and b) some places suck ass. Wish me luck, or a visit back to the Windy City soon to scratch this itch that has been plaguing me since my taste in July -- because I'm very seriously contemplating going there again for a weekend, just to brunch it up.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Laborless Labor Day

Happy awesome semi-random three-day weekend in September! Having a long weekend is one of the best kickoffs my favorite season could possibly have, and we welcomed autumn with a kick-ass itinerary of activities.

Our yard sale BBQ was a good time with great peeps, but my Ginger-Lime Teriyaki Chicken Kebabs were not what stole the show for this weekend food-wise. On actual Labor Day, after lounging around for hours, wondering what to do, what to eat, and how to go about these things, we finally hopped in the convertible in search of pie.

Now let me explain the culture of pie on Long Island real quick: everybody knows that the best pies come from "Out East." It doesn't matter as much how far out east, whether Manorville or Montauk -- only that the fruit that fills it comes from one of our lauded family-owned orchards and farms that grow seasonal goods in great bounty. Homemade jams, jellies, cheeses of all sorts attract many, but the showstoppers are the "grandma's recipe" pies that have been baked to oversized, crusty excellence generation after generation.

Usually, we just head in a general easterly direction until we find a farm (not difficult), but a designation as "Best of Long Island" by Long Island Press (a magazine I've had the privilege of writing for before) lent us a sense of exact direction. To Briermere Farms we went!

It was a beautiful day for cruising with the top down (the novelty on the new car hasn't yet worn off!) -- mid-70s and with only a slight trace of clouds. A scenic drive toward the North Fork wine country brought us through Long Island's iconic flat farmlands and a rush of greenery and fresh air. Past the Tanger Outlets, we arrived at the farm.

Bustling with activity, this lively farmstand is known for its pies and baked goods. Touting a "baked from scratch" attitude with ingredients sourced straight from the farm (Honeycrisp, Galas, Empires and more!), we were excited by the rainbow of beautiful, fresh produce that covered the front stand. It was simply rollicking with people running in and out, and we knew it was bound to be good.
Crunch, crunch, with a fine crisp

Our goal was apple pie, but we were sorely tempted by the Blackberry Apple version and interested in the Apple Rhubarb. However, the classic favorite won over, with the Dutch/crumb rendition (still hot from the oven!) as the winner over the double-crust faction of our household (me).

An elevated crown of brown, sugar-butter crumb rose over the sweet apple filling, with an air pocket between the apples and top crust, creating a collapsible dome that protected the finely-ground "crisp" of the apple crisp pie. The apples were a little bit on the mushier side (I prefer firmer) and I was disappointed by the lack of presence the bottom crust had, especially since Boy's last pie excursion brought home an apple pie that was as buttery rich on the bottom as it was thickly crusted with large crumbles as it was on top.

However, it was still delicious, and you could definitely taste the freshness. You could TELL that the ingredients were natural, and the sweetness was a natural one, born of sugar and apples, and not the cloying flavors of artificial preservatives and added sugars.

Look at the size of this thing!
As known for pies as Briermere Farms is, I truly believe it was the cookies that stole the show. Boy couldn't resist getting a giant chocolate chip pecan cookie, and after a few smuggled bites, taken after a brief scuffle, I had to get one of my own. Calorie count be damned; that cookie was GOOD!

Slightly crisp on the outside with chopped pecans throughout, subtly adding an earthy aroma to the sweet, buttery flavors of the cookie, it was hands down the best chocolate chip cookie I've ever had. The chips were still slightly warm, and generously dispersed throughout. Cinnamon and brown sugar sparkled through the layers of the cookie, every crumb offering the slight give of freshly baked, moist, baked-to-the-exact-second cookie perfection. OUTSTANDING.

The best part? This oversized treat was a mere $1.75 (no tax), and the apple pie with the crisp crust was only $16 (also no tax). Which was why when I heard a carful of loud New Jerseyans complain, "This is just another tourist trap," Boy and I were very confused. But then we saw their plates and realized, Ohhhhh, they must not understand that cookies at Long Island bakeries are easily $2-3 each. The produce wasn't unreasonable either! In fact, it was comparable to organic prices, and in some cases, less than Whole Foods rates.

Beautiful sear, with flavors reminiscent of Cochon in New Orleans
That wasn't the end of our lovely day, though. We went back to Bistro 25 in Sayville, a perfect fall restaurant destination with their elegantly hearty flavors and reasonable portions, for dinner to take advantage of what will probably be the last few weeks of their $19 and under special lobster menu.

We started with the braised pork belly appetizer, with pickled shallots and an apple demi-glace atop a small dollop of corn pudding. A perfect execution of New American technique and balance, the richness of the apple demi played off the slightly sweet but tangy pickled shallots, which the corn pudding offset with a more robust, buttery flavor reminiscent of Louisiana stone-ground grits. The pork belly was tender with a seared top layer of fat that created interest in terms of texture and flavor. Spot-on.

Gorgeous arugula salad, a great palate-cleanser
The arugula salad, which sounded so simple on the menu, was a refreshing delight as well. I could have scarfed down a bucket of the green stuff. The lemon vinaigrette was absolutely perfect, and the finely chopped red onion gave the peppery baby arugula a fresh burst, along with the grape tomatoes. A generous portion of shaved parmesan cheese brought it all back with a nutty finish, and the whole thing just came together flawlessly.

We both ordered the Lobster Risotto with chopped asparagus and corn, topped with frizzled leeks -- all things we love. The asparagus was delicious, perfectly cooked, and tender, since it was diced from the thinner, younger stalks rather than the bulky, woody ones that are super-sized. The corn added a fresh sweet element to the creamy, parmesan-and-butter-loaded al dente risotto, and the Maine lobster chunks were generous. I had four claws alone in my dish, and Boy couldn't even finish his bowl since it was so rich and filling. The only thing I'd change would be to chop the frizzled leeks into shorter strands, since everything else was bite-sized after you cut up the giant lobster pieces.

In all, an outstanding, perfect end to what was a beautiful and awesome summer.

It all just keeps getting better and better, doesn't it?

Happy fall!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Under $25 at Bistro 25

After one visit, this hidden away gem fast became my favorite go-to affordable restaurant for New American casual fine dining. With every dish and every bottle of wine from their fairly sizeable list under $25, Bistro 25 is an absolute treat, where upscale taste combines with great value.

Truffled Mac and Cheese
Service is definitely high-end but intimate, with presentation that is worthy of a New York City restaurant rather than a quiet corner of a quaint little village. The maple roasted butternut squash soup was to die for, creamy, rich, and poured piping hot into your bowl over lovely creme fraiche (seasonal), and the lobster bisque is rich and satisfying.

Mushroom Risotto
The small plates are pretty generous portions, especially the Truffled Mac and Cheese (a combination of smoked gouda, cheddar, and parmesan) and the chock-ful of mushroom risotto. Super rich and heavy, ideal for a winter starter in the cozy atmosphere of this homey Hamptons-style restaurant. The Smoked Mozzarella Ricotta Fritters, balls of fresh, flavorful cheese in a fresh sweet tomato sauce is also fabulous, and the braised pork belly with pickled shallots, corn pudding, and an apple demi-glace will be the next new thing I try.
Smoked Ricotta Mozzarella Fritters

They used to serve a rather fabulous salad with beets, frisee, asparagus, and goat cheese, but it seems to be off the menu now. Instead, it appears that a few of the ingredients were substituted as an updated Sweet and Sour Salad with lardons and a pickled egg.

Beet, Pear, Frisee and Asparagus Salad
The portions are not whopping, but again, neither are the prices. They're more portions are more nutrition-guideline sizes rather than Supersize Me Americanized plates, and packed with sophisticated yet robust flavor that fills you up to a healthy point without feeling disgusting. For instance, the brandy peppercorned Steak Frite is only 10 ounces, and although you wish there was more just to keep the taste going, you're glad you have room to share a dessert. The salmon, atop a creamy, perfect risotto and topped with fried leeks, is also an ideal size (although the new menu doesn't have it anymore, either ...). The Burgundy-Braised Short Ribs, served with whipped horseradish potatoes, are also worth a try, with a subtle richness that's perfect for the coming fall.

A new addition to the menu that sound particularly exciting is the Duck Cassoulet (duck confit, andouille sausage, white beans and spaetzle), which for $18 sounds like a particularly good bargain. 

Steak Sandwich
For sandwiches, the Shrimp Po'Boy isn't exactly authentic, but unlike the disappointing impostor at Bobbi-Que, it's actually tasty on its own merit. The steak sandwich is satisfying, with a generous portion of gruyere melted all over a hot, crusty baguette. Again, you'd wish there was a little more steak, but you'll forgive the size once you dig into the perfectly medium meat and dip into the fragrant au jus. Also, you'll be surprised at how tender the steak is--I certainly was.

Carrot Cake Bread Pudding
Now dessert. Definitely worth digging into here. The Carrot Cake Bread Pudding is an incredibly inventive feature, and well executed, served with delicious thin shortbread wafers and a dab of cream cheese ice cream. It's not daunting, and the taste packs a punch. Not too sweet, with an extra-moist, dense, cake texture, it's a very interesting spin. The Lemon Blackberry Tarte Tatin is kind of blah after the excitement of the bread pudding, and also pales next to the sweet and creamy Creme Brulee.

I also can't wait to try the brunch here. The simple fact that they offer 2 brunch cocktails on their already low-priced prix fixe menu ($15, I think?) is highly attractive, and they have nice, refined spins on classic offerings. 

Overall, I love, love, LOVE this place, and just writing about it has inspired a text to the hubby to try the summer lobster menu offerings before the season's out. You can't beat 4 lobster dinner options for UNDER $20!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Horse of a Different Color

The Tanger Outlets in Riverhead are a great outing destination for the summer. The long highway ride there gives you a reason to cruise with the top down or sunroof open, and the massive selection of designer shops is a spender's paradise. Newly added are furniture outlets to stores like Restoration Hardware, Pottery Barn, and West Elm, which brings me to why I was out there in the first place.

The couch of contention.
We're redecorating our living room, because obviously, changing our form of seating means that the rest of the room no longer matches and I hate everything. Apparently, this is a normal visceral response (the depression and dislike of everything in the house). I've been assured that shopping will help me push through the hatred of said house and its "outdated" (but not really, when I think with the logical part of my brain) furnishings, and so shopping I went with one of my creative genius friends, Liz, who -- awesome for me! -- also happens to be a full-time and immensely talented interior designer.

After some serious power-shopping, which I emerged empty-handed from, to her great chagrin ("Accessories! You need accessories! And pillows!"), sustenance was needed. I hightailed it to my Yelp app and found a $20 for $40 deal to the Dark Horse Restaurant on Main Street, which boasted gluten-free friendliness (which doesn't apply to me; I just think that's extra friendly. Plus, brioche bread instead of wheat flour bread is just plain exciting).

My first impression was that the name didn't fit. I thought it'd be dark. I'm not totally sure why, but I think it may have been just because of the name of the place. Instead, it was painted a goldenrod yellow with large windows, welcoming black banquette seating (don't walk into them -- I did and skinned my knee, like a dingus), and was bright and modern.

A really impressively elegant New American/Eclectic menu made up the offerings, and although it looks like a relatively short list of offerings, it's clear that quality trumps quantity over here. There just isn't a need for a longer menu--it was more than challenging to make a few selections from the list of options. Everything sounded splendid, from salads to apps to entrees.

Eye-catchers in the starters section included the North Fork Salad (baby spinach, sauteed mushrooms, bacon dressing), bison paté (whaaaat?!), and "Good Ground" New England-style clam chowder. The available entrees made decision-making even more of a challenge, with refined classics like short ribs with house-made pickled onions and smashed potatoes (pickled things are apparently very "in/hipster" right now), duck two ways (breast and confit with blackberry brandy with creamed spinach and almond rice), white bean and white pumpkin ragout, lentil and potato stew, and (dum-da-duuuum!) bison ground steak or Piedmontese beef burger on brioche with hand-cut fries and BBQ sauce.

What to do, what to do? Apparently, ask a whole lot of questions of the first-day waiter who was helping us. After torturing him in the friendliest of manners, I finally decided to start with a cup of grilled shrimp bisque and to order the Brasserie Salad topped with duck confit (only a $5 charge -- the meat add-ons to the salad are SHOCKINGLY reasonably priced, as are the salads themselves). Liz ordered the pork loin with blood orange demiglace.

The soup was astonishingly good. It was richly creamy without being overwhelming. There was a little separation in the soup, but the taste was smooth and comforting with hints of tomato, sweet shrimp, and a nice green flavor that came from the fresh scallions diced on top. Subtle and satisfying, in a nutshell.

The salad was excellent as well. A now-classic combination of baby greens, Gorgonzola chunks, and candied walnuts, this salad benefitted from the addition of sweet, ripe Fuji apple slices and diced beets. I had the dijon-laced French dressing on the side, but used a minimal amount because of the robustness of the rest of the ingredients in the salad. Everything tasted fresh and clean, which was the perfect foil to the rich flavors of the meaty duck confit, a crisp treat for the meat purist. Just a hint of salt was the ideal accent for duck, letting the meat itself steal the show.

The pork loin that Liz got was outstanding. Twice the size of the normal pork loin, this was no mere slices or medallions. This thing was cut like a filet, and seared like one, too. There are few things more satisfying than feeling the slight resistance of a crunch on a thick slice of meat. But one of the things that IS more satisfying than that is when you put that beautifully cooked piece of meat in your mouth and it turns out to be divine.

The blood orange demi wasn't overly sweet, perfectly balanced, and the viscosity of the sauce was enough to grip on to each bite without being actually thick. The grilled zucchini (veggie of the day) was a simple preparation (lightly grilled, very lightly touched with salt), but the lemon-buttered grilled corn on the cob is enough to turn you into an animal, bursting broken kernels off the cob as you tear into the sweetness of fresh-picked, height-of-the-season, local Long Island corn. I didn't even try the roasted potatoes, so distracted was I by the corn.

Although we were in a rush and service was unhurried, we figured there was no harm in taking a peek at the dessert menu. We ordered the ice cream-topped blondie, which turned into a blondie soup of caramel sauce. The tower of whipped cream was nice, but with everything else souping on the plate, we felt a bit ridiculous as we caught ourselves pushing pieces of the dessert into it to get blondie crumbles (yes, the blondie itself melted, too) on the spoon. The peanut butter brittle accents were nice, but not necessary. Off to the side, they were forgotten.

We left feeling satisfied, but not sick or stuffed. The portions were great -- generous without being gluttonous -- and the flavors were so incredibly clean without being overly simple. Preparations were light but refined, and the prices were totally reasonable. Our food bill came to only about $25 or so for two people. I can't wait to go back there with Boy and try some of the other stuff on the menu. After all, I think I may need a few decorative accessories after all ... ;)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Eater's Remorse: Meat Masquerading as Steak

Most of the time, Groupon/Newsday Daily Deal/Amazon Local/Living Social/Doubletake Deals is a fantastic way to get to know your new local restaurants, become acquainted with hidden favorites, explore a different neighborhood's offerings, or afford that fancy dinner at the place up the road you've always wanted to try.

Sometimes, they are reasons for anger. 

I had a Newsday Daily Deal for Pace's Steakhouse, an old-fashioned steakhouse that firmly fit into the category of "fancy dinner I've always meant to experience." Unfortunately, it didn't live up to that expectation. 

In two words? Overrated and overpriced. As an old-fashioned steakhouse, the expectation is that the beef should be so flavorful, rich, and delicious as to stand on its own. Literally. A la carte, on a plate, and no less satisfying in its minimalism and simplicity. 

This is simply not the case at Pace's. Although advertised as "prime" steak (which, by the way, is a lie at most joints, considering that only 1% of the beef out of the Midwest is categorized with this label), insider verification had previously informed us that the meat is sometimes purchased in bulk from a supermarket supplier. However, I was willing to dismiss this as hearsay and try it for myself.

I ordered a filet, which is usually the golden standard for pure red flavor. It was a little undercooked, which is forgivable. But what was NOT forgivable what the blandness of the meat. I haven't salted a steakhouse steak in years, having formed a habit/expectation that all proper steakhouses season or marinate them to a chef's standards before serving the meat. For me to reach for the saltshaker was a travesty. There was no seasoning on the steak at all. It wasn't aged, wasn't marinated, wasn't charred--wasn't anything other than a plain hunk of just-okay meat. 

Although it's usually a nice bonus to get little extras on your plate to accompany your very expensive chunk of beef, there are some garnishes that just cheapens the experience. Like things that you can get out of a frozen food or Sysco box. Things like wide bar-food onion rings. Potato chips fried in blah oil. Yeah, that's the shit they garnished my filet mignon with. The polenta cake was fine, but seriously? Frozen onion rings?

My husband got the Friday Lobster Bake special, which sounded like a massive amount of food, which is great. But again, it was a plate that just said, "blah, blah, blahhhh BORING." In a flat "Buellerrr" voice. Steamed lobster is steamed lobster, so whatever. Same with corn on a cob, and clams and mussels. But the potatoes were boiled in mere water, and the burnt "roasted" chicken (literally, skin burnt to a crisp) had no flavor other than generic "chicken." Not even a hint of salt. The ribs were okay, but a little soggy.

Well, we attempted a dessert anyway, even though the bread that came at the beginning of the table was dry, the cornbread had a chunk taken out of it, and our meals were on the meh-er side of meh. We figured chocolate chip brownie sundaes always sound good, and how do you screw up a chocolate chip brownie sundae? 

You microwave it. You microwave the SHIT out of it. 

It was sliced in half and I'd requested the ice cream on the side (not homemade, btw), and they zapped that thing into holy hell. The corners were so hard they were inedible. Like Swanson Hungry Man brownie hard, and equally "flavorful." The middle was kind of warm, but everywhere else was awful.

The waiter asked how it was. I told him it was clearly microwaved and not very good, because at this point, I was horribly disappointed that my date night dinner sucked so badly and cost so much. 

Also, you're forced to valet park. I hate being forced to valet park. You spend a couple more bucks extra for someone else to drive your car and mess with your settings. Plus, there's construction on 347, so do NOT drive a low-riding car; the shoulder is crazy steep and will scrape up your car.

Save yourself the trouble, though. Go to an ACTUAL steakhouse if you're going to spend $37 a steak.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Chi-Town Musings

Best. Birthday. Weekend. EVER!

I went to visit the Baby Sis last weekend, courtesy of Boy, who did it up rather nicely with a lovely room at the 4.5 star+ Hotel Palomar in the River North area of Chicago and several rather ridiculous meals all over this mid-western destination city. Led by Baby Sis (whose yearlong residence qualifies her as a legit Illinoisian now), her boy Carlos (a delightful teddy bear), and accompanied by Baby Sis's childhood friend and Boy, plus my awesome former sorority sister and newly Chicagoan Kristin, this was definitely an accidental group vacation for the books.

I haven't been there since a two-day detour on a road trip during college, but this weekend led me to a few realizations ... some which have me super-stoked to go back, and others that I'm finding to be universal truths.

Reasons to go to Chicago:

They are very, very serious about brunch in Chicago. Not only are brunch menus readily available at the nice restaurants throughout the downtown area (the Loop, Streeterville, River North, Magnificent Mile, Old Town, and Lincoln Park -- which I can't help but spell "Linkin" in my head), but also in the more out of the way spots. Edgewater's m. henrietta (40 minutes away on the CTA's Red Line) almost brought me to tears. Their seasonally influenced menu, beautiful farm-to-table inspired platings, lusciously balanced New American flavors, and custom-blend dark roast Metropolis coffee (the equivalent of New Orleans' PJ's coffee, the local premier coffee roasters) was one of the most delightful experiences I've ever had in any meal. Pauline's was another fair contender, but more on brunch in a separate post.

They are simply everywhere. It was a delightful surprise during my morning runs to stumble on massive congregations of purveyors of baked goods and farm-fresh produce, glistening from the morning dew. Andersonville, a more local destination, and Lincoln Park's Green City Market are big draws, but I bumped into a big on right in Old Town as well. People on bikes with baskets of crunchy bread for tortas (which, I found out, is a Mexican sandwich ... not a cake or a tart lol) and the healthiest-looking vegetables I've ever seen and dog-owners with leashes in one hand and a reusable shopping bag full of pies and richly hued fruits in the other. If I lived here, I'd live here every weekend.

An active lifestyle is the norm here. With 18 miles of unspoiled lakefront trails off Lake Shore Drive, there's good reason. Although Illinois and Chicago are frequently cited for obesity, there is nearly no evidence of it here along the water. Six-packs and tans, panting dogs and Spandexed cyclists filled the wide, even-planed track as I ran past beaches, beachfront restaurants, and big steps that also serve as seats. With gorgeous, wide expanses of green space like Millenium Park and Grant Park, plus smaller parks interspersed along the liberating Lakefront Trail, there is no shortage of opportunities to get active and stay stimulated. Plus, I was excited to learn that all summer long, free outdoor yoga, kickboxing, pilates, zumba (less excited about this, though), and other classes are offered to anyone that wants to go. Pretty damn awesome.

Music! Food! Art! Dance! More music! There is absolutely no shortage of summer goings-on in Chi-Town. We went for Taste of Chicago (obviously), but in one weekend alone, there were at LEAST four different festivals to join in on. We had a hard time trying to get to anything else while trying to fulfill all the criteria for the quintessential Chicago experience. Chinatown was hosting their annual Asian celebration, the Chinatown Summer Fair. Indie music was happening at the Pitchfork Music Festival. Art installations were going on in the streets all over the place. There is just no end of public congregation, all in the spirit of food, fun, and culture.

Made up of small, easily navigable (the grid system in Chicago is insanely well-planned) neighborhoods, all with their own distinctive flairs and characteristics, there's no end of things to look at in this city. Due to the Great Chicago Fire, which destroyed a third of the entire city's valuation over 2,000 acres, much of the architecture and design of the city reflects a more contemporary aesthetic, highlighting "originality rather than antiquity." Because of this, all of the neighborhoods are unique, and most are remarkably awash in vibrant, life-affirming green.

Good eating is a given in any major metropolitan city. However, in the heartland of agriculture, where the surrounding states are covered in cornfields (Indiana) and dairy farms (Wisconsin), it only makes sense that it is exceptional here. Our hotel is the home of Sable restaurant, headed by talented Top Chef cheftestant (and major bitch) Heather Terhune. Her victim of the season, Beverly Kim, is also based here, at the aria restaurant in the Fairmont. And don't forget Top Chef winner Stephanie Izzard of the Girl and Goat (good luck getting into her restaurant, though). Plus, Graham Elliot and master chef Rick Bayless make this city their home base, but again, your reservations need to be made well in advance -- I'm talkin' months. (Cheat tip: Grahamwich and XOCO, both downtown, are a cheap, fast, no-reservations way to check out their flavors. Bam.)

Now for the truths:

There's a fine line between local/regional chain and tourist trap. I found this out when I set out to sample the city's most famous "deep-dish" pizza at Lou Malnati's (original location) and their well-known Italian Beef Sandwich at a suburban post of Portillo's. Both were the most disappointing meals I had in the city, but like the Chicago-style hot dog, both had to have been tried JUST IN CASE it was as good as that damn dog.

Parking fees add up here, as in most major cities. Hotel taxes will rape you. We were surprised by a whopping 28% tax on our hotel stay, which sucked and made it a doubly good thing that we didn't pay full price for a nightly rate.

... Because we certainly couldn't find it. We went all the way to Greektown to try to find an old-school, gangster-style steakhouse, but they don't really advertise the historical mobster ones as such, making it hard to seek an authentic, old-timey experience. Even with two local guides in tow, it was a challenge, especially at a reasonable price point. There were a few downtown, but they smacked of tourist traps and expensive hotel-owned formulas.

All of that being said, this recent trip was definitely a winner, and I can't wait to go back. Flights from NY to Chicago are mad cheap -- down to $107 round-trip in September. With a two-hour travel time, this is a kickass weekend getaway. Do it for the brunches, the Polish sausage with all the Chicago fixin's, the weather, the lakeviews, the fireworks on the Navy Pier, the museums, and to just chill on a rooftop overlooking one of the world's most famous skylines.