Sweet salvation

One of my favorite desserts, the humble brownie. Lusciously rich, walnut-studded cakey, fudgy goodness… for chocoholics, it doesn’t get much better than this.

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Did you know — this sweet treat hails from Chicago? It originated at the historic Palmer House Hilton in the downtown Loop, created by Bertha Hilton to be served at the 1893 World’s Fair.

After you’re done gawking at the hotel’s gorgeous frescoed lobby, you can still order up a brownie made according to Bertha’s original recipe at the on-site Lockwood restaurant. (The secret ingredient? Apricot preserves.)

I got to enjoy a taste of the genuine article during a Windy City media tour a year ago as part of the Palmer House’s “History is Hott” tour, and still occasionally daydream about it.

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Inspired to try whipping up a batch at home? Good news, you can find the recipe HERE:

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Windy City wow

Move over this little piggy, there’s a new porker in town.

Our local babysitters extraordinaire/lovely neighbors/surrogate grandparents down the street offered to take the toddler overnight so hubby and I could sneak off for a quick trip to Chicago. Hubby had to go up there to pick up his new passport and also had an Expedia credit burning a whole in his virtual pocket, so we decided to make a night of it.

After some deliberation, we booked a room at Hotel 71, right on the river at Wacker and Wabash. A competent and comfortable choice. The hotel looks mod and hipster from the outside and in the lobby, but the rooms are sumptuously furnished with subdued upscale pieces and neutral décor. We stayed on the 16th floor with an impressive view of the river and bridges below. Nice. The orange-scented bath products are worth mentioning as well, they smelled yummy enough to make your mouth water. Our only (very minor) complaints were that the water in the shower and bath wasn’t as hot as we would have liked, and there was some noise in the morning from what sounded like construction going on next door. Other than that, the location was ideal and we agreed we’d definitely stay here again.

Chicago is foodie heaven for someone like me, and the choices are dizzying. For dinner, we’d already pre-scouted thanks to recommendations from a friend who used to live there (thanks, Renate!) The Purple Pig looked fun from the get-go, and has been rated one of the top 10 new restaurants in the country by Bon Appetit. Good enough for me.

To get to the Purple Pig proper, you enter under a metal archway off Michigan Avenue and walk back along a sidewalk to the restaurant itself. The place offers indoor and outdoor (heated) seating, but it’s not large. We ended up sitting across from each other at a long indoor table, elbow to elbow with fellow diners. Fortunately, the high ceilings and the acoustics help keep the noise at a somewhat manageable level (much better than, say, Napolese…), but it still felt intimate and cozy with lots of light wood and a huge wall of glass-fronted wine racks.

Our server was really on top of his game and somehow managed to keep our whole table and then some buzzing and well taken care of. The wine list is huge and overwhelming; I finally just closed it and told our server what I liked. I don’t even know exactly what he brought me, but it was a light, fruity, fragrant red just like I’d asked for. Hubby was pleased with his glass as well, a more assertive red with distinctive jammy but not sweet flavors.

The Purple Pig advertises “cheese, wine and swine,” and that’s pretty accurate. The menu is full of Mediterranean-tinged, small-plate tapas goodies. Now, I’m usually not all that crazy about tapas because I would usually rather eat a full serving of one thing I really like than a few bites each of half a dozen different dishes. Plus, I don’t like sharing my food. Tonight, though, this was somehow perfect. It was terribly difficult to make choices because so many things sounded tempting. The fact that hubby hates seafood helped narrow options down somewhat, as did obvious items like pig’s ears and tails that we both agreed were not personally appealing. We subtly tried to check out what our fellow diners were eating for inspiration; not difficult considering our quarters were so close, we could have just reached over and eaten off their plates.

We started with two dishes from the fried portion of the menu – breaded chorizo-stuffed olives with a lemony mayonnaise underneath, and proscuitto bread balls that came with a mild tomato sauce. I was a little surprised we only got five smallish pieces with each, but the flavors were so bold and vibrant, that was really all we needed. The savory green olives were good, but the proscuitto balls were AWESOME, a steaming-hot hush puppyish concoction with a crispy browned outer crust. The tomato sauce was a little bland, but a great complementary foil for the much saltier bread balls.

Next up was a sharable plate of mixed green salad with slivered pieces of asparagus, crushed hazelnuts and a citrusy vinaigrette dressing. Light, lovely and a refreshing way to cleanse our palates after the fried treats. We’d already started perusing the menu again by this point, looking for other items to order. The cured meats and cheeses are always a hit with both of us, but we looked beyond to the “smears,” a series of spreadable offerings delivered with slices of crusty brioche or Italian peasant bread. Hubby fought for the whipped feta with sliced cucumbers, but I lobbied hard for the eggplant caponata with goat cheese and won.

The serving size of the smear was pretty substantial – five slices of bread, each slathered with soft goat cheese that made a just-right base for the messy but delicious caponata. The chunky eggplant spread was like a sweet-and-spicy chutney with a nice vinegary tang and plump golden raisins (no onion, thank God!)

Hubby had his eye on the chicken thigh kebabs with fried smashed potatoes and tzatziki or the Jimmy’s housemade Greek sausage with rapini and grapes from the larger-portion “la plancha” selections, but let himself be swayed by the server’s suggestion to try the pork blade steak instead. And again, props to the server – this was fantastic, and something we never would have ordered of our own volition. The steak was a thin but generous piece of meat that had been brined in a salt solution, then quick grilled on both sides and topped with a little honey, arugula and parmesan cheese. A sweet and salty masterpiece. There were a few fatty bits here and there that we spit out, but the meat for the most part was tender and delicious. And underneath was what I thought at first glimpse to be sliced tomatoes, but was actually something called “ ‘Njuda,” a soft spreadable form of salami.

By the time we polished off the pork steak, we were starting to feel pleasantly full. The desserts were intriguing, especially the olive oil soft-serve ice cream, but we decided not to overstuff ourselves and went straight to the check. We were fully expecting a bill of at least $100, and were surprised and even a little shocked that our total was only $71. VERY fair considering the amount of quality of food and wine we enjoyed.

If you’re in Chicago and looking for a fun, scrumptious, pseudo-communal dining experience, pay a visit to the Purple Pig. I wish, wish, wish we would have taken a camera in with us. However, you can get a gander at the menu, the décor and some of the dishes for yourself at www.thepurplepigchicago.com. You’re welcome.

Incidentally, after the Purple Pig, we had a drink at the Redhead Piano Bar, then ended up at Blue Chicago. A colorful evening, to say the least.

The Purple Pig on Urbanspoon

Table for one

I don’t know why so many people, especially women, have such a hangup about dining alone. In this day and age of empowered women, there should be no stigma about a single lady enjoying a nice dinner or lunch by herself. So why does one still exist??

Last month, I enjoyed a few days on my own in Chicago. My husband had been away for work most of November and felt he owed me a little “me time,” an offer I gladly took him up on. I spent two days downtown, sightseeing, reading, just walking around, sleeping in and enjoying some great food. While some of my female friends expressed jealousy at my short-term escape, a few others said “Oh, sounds like fun, but I could never do that.”

My question is – why the heck not?? I suppose being single and living alone for nearly a decade before I got married at age 35 conditioned me to be comfortable in my own company. Nearly all of my friends married and had kids long before I did, so I grew accustomed to them not being able to drop everything on a whim to come meet me for a spontaneous (or even planned) drink, meal or movie. Therefore, I got to the point where if I wanted to do something and no one was available to join me, it became a matter of either going alone or sitting home seething because I was missing out on something I’d really wanted to do. I became quite adept at solo dining, even taking in the occasional concert or trip as well, and I grew to relish and enjoy it.

So, in Chicago, I decided to treat myself to a really posh meal on my last night there. I had originally planned on a juicy steak, but changed gears at the last minute and opted for Italian. I asked the concierge at my hotel for a recommendation – somewhere I wouldn’t feel like a sore thumb without a companion, but somewhere I could partake in a great meal and a glass of wine. I took his suggestion and caught a cab to a place called La Madia.

La Madia was a little trendier than I usually go in for, but classy and the staff made me feel welcome, not like a social outcast. I was seated at a two-top near the window with a view of the gas fireplace and bustling bar scene. True to the concierge’s word, I didn’t see any couples on dates, just happy hour groups and a few Sex-and-the-City-style duos and trios of single women out for drinks, apps and gossip.

The server made it his mission to keep an eye on me and keep me happy, making recommendations and checking on me just frequently enough to see how I was doing (more often than his other busier tables, I might add). The wine he suggested was fabulous, and the gnocchi with sausage and spinach in a brown butter sauce divine. The dessert was the high point of the meal, though – some kind of outrageously rich chocolate cake that was sweet but not too sweet, dusted with powdered sugar and topped with crushed pistachios. All in all, a lovely dining experience. I happily paid my bill, tipped big and left feeling on top of the world.

Here’s the thing about dining out alone – it forces you to slow down, take a deep breath, and just be in the moment. No one’s asking you to cut up their meat or converse about how you spent your day. It’s uninterrupted, quality you time, and really, couldn’t we all use a little more of that?!? If you can resist the urge to crack open a book or magazine, it makes for excellent people watching and eavesdropping opportunities as well.

My tips to pull off a successful solo restaurant visit: Firstly, dress well. There’s a aura of mystery surrounding women who dine alone and like it. Let people wonder what your story is… are you a foreign expatriate in town on business? Perhaps a food critic? An up-and-coming television star eager for a few incognito minutes away from your entourage? Just don’t wear sunglasses indoors. Unless you’re in Los Angeles, which is the only place you might possibly be able to get away with it.

Adjust your attitude. It’s all about confidence. If you look and act like a pathetic loser who has to eat alone because you have no friends and no life, that’s what people will think you are! Suck it up and embrace a short respite of solitude, for God’s sake! Are you telling me your husband and kids can’t live without you for an hour or two, and vice versa??? Come on! Get over yourself!

Work the situation to your advantage. Sometimes it may even buy you some special treatment… you don’t have to be overly friendly, just smile and act coy. I ate dinner alone at the hotel bar my first night in Chicago, and the bartenders swung me an extra-full glass of wine and plied me with free snacks the whole time I was sitting there.

So I issue a challenge to bold women everywhere – demand a free night from your significant other, throw on a dress and some lipstick and take yourself out on a dinner date sometime soon. Scared? So what! It’s good to do things that scare you sometimes, just to prove you can. Pick somewhere nice, don’t just slum it at a fast-food place, wolfing down fries as fast as you can to get the experience over with. Slow down, unwind and sit with yourself for an hour or two over a delicious meal and a drink. And don’t skip dessert. Do it! Tell ’em I sent you…

La Madia:   http://www.dinelamadia.com/