While wandering around Chicago’s River North district, I ended up at the Cantina Laredo. I didn’t know at the time, but it’s actually a large national chain. Regardless, their food was delicious. We had them make their “top shelf guacamole” (pictured above) for us, and it was fresh and spicy — just what we wanted.
I also ordered a mango margarita (above), which was delicious — not too sweet, not too strong — and the Enchiladas de Avocado (below). I never would have thought to put avocados and artichokes together in an enchilada, but it was incredible! Of course, nothing was as incredible as the dessert.
For dessert, we ordered the churros, which came with strawberries and a delicious chocolate-y, caramel-y, Grand Marnier-y sauce. Oh. My. Goodness. These churros were … I don’t even have words. Crispy and fresh on the outside, warm and melty on the inside. Cinnamon and sugar dusting the outside and sticking to your fingertips. I wanted to lick the plate when they were all gone. Seriously.
I ended up at The Purple Pig when I went to Chicago last month, and it was the happiest culinary surprise! All I wanted was something light and delicious, and that’s exactly what I got. I sat outside on their cute patio, at one of their oversized communal tables. It may have been mid-March, but it was also in the mid-80s and it was the ideal day for patio dining. I ordered one of the smears (I have now forgotten which one, although I remember it being sweet and delicious…pictured above), the marinated olives (which came with some really yummy pickled veggies…pictured below) to start.
Then I ordered the best, and most surprising, dish of all: the Salt Roasted Beets with Whipped Goat Cheese & Pistacio Vinaigrette (below). It was amazing. This was a delightful find, and if you find yourself in Chicago, just north of the Chicago River along the Magnificent Mile, be sure to stop in at The Purple Pig for “cheese, wine, and swine” (as their subtitle proclaims)!
Zen Cha Tea Salon in Columbus, Ohio’s Short North district is one of the best places to go on a snowy winter day. It’s warm and steamy inside, and the staff is always helpful and friendly. It seems that every time I visit Zen Cha I’m offered a free sample of the day’s featured tea, complete with a brief but illuminating explanation of its flavor and benefits. I usually linger for a few hours working, socializing, or both, and the staff is always pleasant and nice. They never try to hurry me along, and appear to be quite happy to host me for as long as I stay.
The tea selection at Zen Cha is hard to beat. They have Chinese, Japanese, Indian, French, and English teas (And more!) and a delightfully creative menu to complement this selection. I’m a fan of their hazelnut chai, personally, and get it almost every time I’m there.
This time, I also ordered the Earl Grey Apple Brie sandwich (above), which comes with tea-infused apples, cinnamon, cranberry compote, walnuts, and lettuce. It was absolutely incredible: warm, sweet & savory, and flavorful without being overpowering.
For dessert, I split the Tea Cookies (a set of 2 for $2.50, pictured above) with a friend. We got 1 lavender cookie and 1 chai cookie, and they were well worth the small cost.
It’s taken me a few years, but I finally made it out to Third & Hollywood in Grandview, Ohio. As soon as I walked in, I loved the place. The lights were dimmed, and the warm glow of candlelight and rich woods gave the place a romantic and cozy feel. The classic lounge music (c. 1940) also contributed to the great ambiance. Good thing I was there on a date with my husband! We started our order with an order of the Cheddar Herb Biscuits (pictured above), which were indescribably delicious. My mouth is watering just remembering them. You can see the light layer of melted butter on top of these biscuits, and the flavoring was just heavenly.
I also ordered a house-made ginger ale, and while the bar service was on the slow side, the drink was well worth it. It had a pronounced ginger flavor that managed to still be mild, and had a nice sweetness to it that kept the drink from being too dry. For my entree, I ordered the Hollywood Burger (a fairly standard cheeseburger), but I had them substitute their house-made veggie patty to make it a vegetarian dish. They were happy to do this for me and automatically subbed in the bell peppers for the fries (not something I’d asked for or necessarily wanted, but it was okay because the burger was soooo good). I know some Columbus locals will probably get mad at me for saying this, but their veggie patty was even better than the one they make at the Northstar Cafe (and that one’s pretty damn hard to beat). I’m not sure if it was the perfect amount of smoky flavoring from being cooked over an open flame (I’m assuming) or what, but that veggie patty is amazing. It looked so much like meat I made my non-veg husband take a bite first, and when I tasted it I was blown away by the texture and the complete lack of crumbliness. I’ll be back, I can tell you that much.
I met up with a good friend at Milk & Honey Tapas in downtown Santa Barbara, California, and the entire dining experience was a pleasant surprise. Our waitress was helpful and enthusiastic, and the place has got some great ambiance. Candlelight, contemporary furniture, interesting stone and wood textures on the walls, and bright red pillows to add a splash of color (and comfort!) to it all. I was in love at first sight…and then I saw the menu. Oh, the menu! There’s an entire page dedicated to vegetarian options (11 of ’em, and with 22 non-veg options, that makes the vegetarian choices an entire 1/3 of the menu!), and they all looked amazing. Not to mention their fun and funky names! I ended up going with the Nutty Goat (pictured above), which consisted of multigrain crackers accompanied by a goat cheese, orange basil cranberry sauce, candied pecan, and honey spread served warm. OMG. So good! (Apologies for the graininess of the above photo — the romantic atmosphere translated to dim lighting that I was unwilling to disturb with my ridiculously bright flash.) I couldn’t walk away without dessert, so my friend and I split the Amor y Chocolate (pictured below), which was basically a warm and rich “molten” chocolate cake with fresh raspberries and whipped cream. Just writing this, I wish I could go back. Too bad it’s almost 2500 miles away….
I don’t even know where to begin with San Francisco’s Fly Bar & Restaurant. I went to their Sutter location with a small group of friends, and it was a good experience. First off, the restaurant is really cute — they have some really interesting mirror and bottle cap wall-art, they have some great exposed brick walls, and their menu is really creative. We ordered the Hummus & Tapenade plate (pictured at bottom) to start, and our server was more than willing to bring us extra pita bread at no extra charge when we ran out. For my entree, I ordered the Southwestern Pizza (pictured above) which comes topped with black beans, corn, roasted red peppers, onions, pepperjack cheese, and cilantro. It was surprisingly light, even with all of those toppings, and the flavoring was really nice. Finally, for dessert I just couldn’t resist the homemake chocolate chip cookies (served warm) and glass of milk (pictured here). Overall, it was a delicious meal with friendly service and a nice atmosphere.
The food at Trastevere, an Italian restaurant in the heart of Santa Monica’s famous Third Street Promenade, is a true delight. The ambiance is romantic (table candles, white table cloths, a patio where you can dine under the starry LA sky), the service was prompt and friendly, and the location simply can’t be beat. In the above picture you can see the Pomodoro e Mozzarella Bruschette. The tomatoes were amazingly fresh, the mozzarella was cut down to the perfect size (sometimes it’s too big on these kinds of dishes, and other times it’s scant), and the basil was so flavorful it may as well have been plucked right off of the plant immediately before we ate it. I also have to mention the complimentary bread (which was nice and fluffy, served warm). Usually, complimentary bread is nothing to write home about, but Trastevere’s bread is so good. And surprisingly enough, it’s served up with a tantalizing olive tapenade that makes my mouth water just to remember it. I could probably just eat this bread and tapenade all day (if the rest of the food wasn’t so damn delicious).
For the main course, I ordered the Ricotta e Spinaci Pizza (below). Now, usually I’m not a fan of cooked spinach, but I thought I’ve give it a whirl. Let me tell you, I wasn’t disappointed! This pizza (which doesn’t have marinara sauce) was so light, and it managed to walk that fine line between substantially-doughy and thin-and-crispy, resulting in a nice crispiness on the outer edges of the crust without any sogginess or heaviness in the rest of the dough. It was a culinary experience I’d love to repeat.
The Big Easy in Raleigh, North Carolina, was a pleasant little place that I stumbled upon shortly after checking into my hotel just down the street. The atmosphere was really low-key, and the facility was nicely adorned with New Orleanian decor. This 3 Cheese and Spinach Ravioli, doused in gorgonzola cream sauce, was rich tasting while managing (somehow) to be light. It was the perfect lunch for a day of exploring the city.
I ended up at the Laughing Seed Café somewhat haphazardly as I wandered around downtown Asheville, North Carolina. It was one of the best mistakes I’ve ever had. The service was friendly and quick, and the ambiance was cozy and romantic.
The beverage pictured above is their Freaky Tiki smoothie: a delightful concoction composed of strawberries, coconut milk, pineapple juice, mango, and lime. I downed it in no time, it was so good!
For the main course, I had the Low Country Rollups — tofu BBQ wrapped in whole wheat tortillas and drizzled with house-made tahini-mustard sauce. On the side you can see the brown rice and “southern slaw” that come with this amazing dish. I couldn’t finish the entire thing, but I sure tried! It was sooooo good, and I’m glad I got to experience “Carolina barbecue” while I was in the area. When in Rome….
To wrap things up, my husband and I split this dark cherry and chocolate chip cookie. It was a hearty cookie, and went perfectly with the Earl Grey tea I ordered. I can’t emphasize enough what an amazing dining experience the Laughing Seed was. At the end of a very long, tiring day, this little restaurant was a haven of warmth and great food. If you’re ever in Asheville, you have got to go to this place!
I’m a sucker for olives, and boy does Marcella’s Ristorante have the perfect appetizer for me! Just look at this iron serving dish filled with several different varieties of olives, warmed up and covered in flavorful herbs and olive oil.
This is a great way to start a meal off, and I was not disappointed when my meal came. I ordered the eggplant parmesan, and it was cooked very well. The eggplant was still firm (I hate it when it gets all mushy from being overcooked…or worse yet, unfrozen and reheated), and the flavors were really nice.
And the dessert. Oh, the dessert. Tiramisu. One of my favorite desserts…this one was pretty good. Not the best I’ve ever had (a bit firm and non-cake-like for my taste), but it was also gone before 5 minutes had transpired. So I’m not really complaining, but trying to explain how this tiramisu was a little different than others I’ve had.
The atmosphere at Marcella’s was really fantastic. Very romantic. High quality and speed of service. Candlelit. Nicely decorated. All of the things I love most in a date-restaurant. If you like Italian food and a little bit of romance, this is a great place to go.
I had to start with a photograph of the interior of the Elevator Brewery and Draught Haus because it’s so beautiful inside. The building is a historical landmark, built in the late 1800s as a billiards hall and maintained to near-pristine detail in the decades since. That being said, I have to comment on the food, because it was gooooood. So I’ll start with the free bread:
This homemade multi-grain bread was hearty and light. It’s served with an herb butter that makes for a nice topping, adding scrumptious flavor to the simple “dish.” And the appetizer…
…ARANCINI! Oh how I love these delicious dumplings (if that’s the right word). They were made perfectly (warm and moist on the inside, crispy and breaded on the outside. They were lying in a pool of rich cream sauce, with a small dish of house-made marinara to accompany them.
For dinner I had a relatively simple salad. This is where the restaurant’s shortcomings come into play: their menu was relatively limited when it came to vegetarian options. Of course, I say that while knowing full well that there was supposed to be a dessert order at the end of this meal, but I was far too full to even consider placing such an order. So with the robust serving of bread, the perfect appetizer, and this light salad with pine nuts (one of my faces!) and a mustard vinaigrette (really tasty, and I don’t even like mustard!) I’d say vegetarian options or no, Elevator is a great place to go on a date!
Photo by Anne Jansen
By far the best culinary experience I had in New Orleans, the Napoleon House is housed in a building that is nearly two-and-a-quarter centuries old. Their menu selection was varied, offering everything from New Orleans’ famous Po’ Boy sandwiches and Muffaletta to Cheese Plates (pictured above) and other light dishes, this was my favorite restaurant in the Paris of the South.
Photo by Anne Jansen
I liked it so much I even tried a sip of their house-recommended drink, the Pimms Cup — a refreshing treat of Pimms (a British gin-like liquor), lemonade, a splash of lemon-lime soda, and a cucumber garnish. In addition to being pretty, this drink was strangely refreshing — and this comes from a girl who doesn’t like the taste of alcohol. That says a lot.
But the best part about the Napoleon House is its character. As I mentioned earlier, this place is oozing character from every pore, and that truly made the experience. If you are in the French Quarter, you definitely need to stop by the Napoleon House, even if it’s just for a snack.
Photo by Anne Jansen