Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Recently, we spent a very chilly weekend in Chicago, hanging out with old and dear friends and exploring the neighborhoods of the city’s north side. Here are the culinary highlights of the weekend.

Lunch on Friday was enjoyed at Cozy Noodle & Rice, a quirky Thai café in the Lakeview/Wrigleyville neighborhood. It is the kind of place that thrifty people like me are always hoping to find—a snug little spot with plenty of character and delicious, cheap food. Decorated from ceiling to floor with toy robots, vintage trinkets and Route 66 signs (yet not omitting the obligatory waving Lucky Cat statue…do Asians just emerge from the womb grasping these things in their little hands?), Cozy provided the perfect refuge from the city’s below-freezing wind chill. (Note Below: The PEZ motif in the restroom of Cozy Noodle and Rice)

My friend, Sarah, and I ordered off of the lunch specials menu: Pad Thai and Pad Woon Sen. Both were tasty, plentiful of portion, and at $4.99 each they still came with a choice of spring roll, baby egg roll or cucumber salad. I also ordered a bowl of spicy Tom Kar, a coconut soup flavored with galangal and lime and packed with straw mushrooms, tomatoes and other vegetables.

After walking off our lunch, we set out on what is apparently Sarah’s ongoing quest to find the city’s best cupcakes (Note: I deeply respect someone who would take on such a noble quest). Although we tried an offering from the homey Swedish Bakery in Andersonville, the clear cupcake winner of the day was Swirlz in Lincoln Park. They do it rich—copious amounts of butter in both the cake and the not-so-sweet frosting. Are they the best I’ve ever had? No. I like my frosting with a little less butter and a little more sugar. I also prefer a lighter crumb to my cake. But with flavors like Banana Nutella and Bittersweet Chocolate (chocolate cake with a layer of ganache peeking out from underneath the chocolate buttercream frosting), they were almost worth the $3.50 per cupcake price tag.

The next day we went exploring again, perusing Roscoe Village, Lincoln Square, Lakeview and Evanston, this time with our husbands in tow. We enjoyed a predictably unremarkable lunch at an Evanston Irish pub, but really lived it up on Saturday night for dinner at Otom in the Warehouse/meatpacking District.

Otom is the sister restaurant (and next door neighbor) of Moto, which is the place for experimental cuisine in Chicago at the moment. Otom’s menu places a fun spin on traditional comfort foods—no anti-griddles or a test tubes here. But it was a great experience; the waiters were attentive and charming, and the food was rich without being over the top. Among the culinary standouts: truffled macaroni and cheese, oxtail stew, and the pork chop, which was served with bacon-sage dumplings, tangy red cabbage and apples. Dessert was also nodworthy—flourless chocolate cake garnished with candied hazelnuts and crispy fried tarragon leaves with a blood orange sorbet. The dessert, along with the pork chop dish, both had the right mix of components on the plate (flavors and textures) that would allow for that perfect bite.

It was a great weekend—many thanks to Mike and Sarah for their hospitality and stellar company.

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