Blu Aubergine Blog

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Chicago's Ēma and Girl and the Goat

I'm looking back with nostalgia on just a few weeks ago, before the U.S. Presidential elections and the current "politapocalypse" -- to a time when everyone was rooting for the sports. The first week in November was a big week for Chicagoans. The Cubs won the World Series after a 108-year drought for the world champions and fans alike, and the city was on edge in the lead-up to the win. For the celebratory Cubs' parade, record crowds were reported, and they even dyed the Chicago River bright blue in the team's honor. I'm not a baseball fan, but I love a good underdog tale, and the feeling in the city all week was pretty electric (fitting, as I was there doing work with General Electric). I was in the right place at the right time.

Ema dining room 2.jpg

By happenstance, my flight from New York on Halloween evening arrived late, so I missed dinner in my hotel's restaurant and was directed to dine at a new place next door to my hotel, called EMA. I didn't realize until I got there that it's spelled Ēma with a long "e" -- as in the Hebrew word for mother. I asked my server about it and was told that the chef, who is Californian, had traveled around Europe and Israel for volleyball tournaments, and spent time in Israel. 

When I started reading the menu and the wine list, I was surprised and delighted to find some really interesting items, including a Greek cheese from a tiny island I'd just visited in September -- one which I'd never seen on a menu anywhere in the States. Color me impressed! There were also interesting wines from Israel, Sicily, and Greece that I really love but that you don't find too frequently on lists in the U.S., even in top Mediterranean restaurants in Manhattan.

I started off with a glass of Calabrian sparkling rose' (Garruba "Incanto Rosa") and decided to go with my version of comfort food, my culinary happy place: eggplant. They featured a smoky grilled eggplant puree served with warm homemade pita bread, and I could have made a meal out of these two items alone. Or I could have bathed in the eggplant dip! It struck the perfect balance of flavors, with the sweet and smoky eggplant flesh whipped with garlic, plenty of lemon juice, a little yogurt and a generous dusting of sumac for tang and a tart finish. And the warm bread! Suffice it to say I daydream about snacking on this pretty much every day. The next dish I ordered was a tuna crudo with crispy lentils (perhaps my favorite way to enjoy lentils), heirloom tomatoes, avocados, and turmeric. Every restaurant of a certain level seems to have a raw tuna dish on its menu, and many are simply mediocre, which is a shame because it should be illegal to waste good quality fresh tuna on middling preparation. Here, the tuna is lush and rich, and it's got a nice assortment of accompanying textures and flavors so that each bite awakens the palate.

The menu is structured in a way that encourages grazing -- mezze and small plates and portions that allow for ordering multiple dishes -- and so I moved on to a salmon dish and a vegetable dish. The salmon was a beautifully seared 3-ounce piece served in a shallow pasta bowl in green tomato water, with pickled green tomatoes, Michigan peaches, and herbs. It was light, bright, and happened to be perfectly matched to the balmy weather outside -- upper 60s in Chicago on Halloween! Now, what would be relegated to side dish status in most other dining establishments was elevated to a "hot mezze" here.

It's dubbed as "Pan-Roasted Romanesque Cauliflower", which isn't exactly right. It may paint a clearer picture for American audiences of the taste they'll be getting in the dish, but in Rome (hence the "Romanesque"), this is simply BROCCOLI. It is not called "romano" anything, nor is it called "romanesco" which is what so many other restaurant menus dub this veggie. "Romanesco" refers to anything that is Roman or Roman-style, and is not exclusive to cruciferous vegetables. Nomenclature aside, the dish was absolutely delicious. The broccolo romano was tender and seared crispy at its tips. It was served on a shmear of labneh/Greek yogurt, delicious olive oil, and plenty of that delicious tart powdered sumac, which for me is a personal favorite spice. It all came together as more than the sum of its parts, and a dish that is both filling and could double as a main course for a vegetarian. I accompanied my later courses with a hard-to-find Nerello Mascalese in WHITE (it's a red grape), from Terrazze dell'Etna grown in the rich volcanic soil of Sicily's Mt. Etna, a volcano I've visited while it was erupting. Very cool, and a very unusual wine.

My only disappointment was in later finding out that the chef is actually CJ Jacobson, from an early season of Top Chef (when I still watched the show religiously) -- he was always a favorite of mine, both for his cooking chops and his funny, warm personality and capacity to call things as they were. I had chatted with my server there and she'd mentioned that the chef would be happy to meet a fellow chef who'd lived in Italy as I did, and who'd traveled around the Mediterranean as much as I had. I mentioned I was staying next door for work for a few days, and she told me to "swing by some time and have a chat with the Chef"! But I got bogged down with work and I never made the time to stop by again. My mistake.

Speaking of Top Chefs, Season 4 winner (and the first female to snag the top spot) Stephanie Izard has been running a fantastic restaurant since 2010 in the West Loop section of Chicago. The Girl and the Goat, as it's called, offers a truly eclectic menu set up with a grazing-style format (see a trend here?). She hops from southern Europe to Southeast Asia and all over the world map for influences, to (mostly) excellent effect. You can start with items as simple as warm marinated olives, or an umami bomb like pan fried shishito peppers with parmesan, sesame, and miso. My culinary school friend and I went for the green beans, with the encouragement of our server, because it seemed an interesting, slightly Thai treatment of a green veggie we both enjoy. What we got was basically "green bean crack".

This dish was addictive! It's described as being served with a fish sauce vinaigrette and cashews, but to say it tasted of so much more would be a huge understatement. I would have split 3 orders of that dish alone and happily called it a night. But, there was so much more to try.

We moved on to the blue cheese sweet potato peirogies, in honor of the large Polish population in Chicago. This turned out to be the only disappointment of the evening. The peirogies were somehow breaded and fried, so they ate more like a Jamaican beef patty than a Polish dumpling. They were served with a mushroom ragout, mushroom creama (sic?), and fried capers. Frankly, I'm not sure all of the flavors worked as well together as I might have imagined. Not so great. So, we were very happy to move on to our next dish: wood-fired shrimp with a pork and peanut ragout and a cucumber salad.

This was delicious -- and again, echoes of Southeast Asian preparations. I must admit, as a chef and a non-kosher Jew, I am a sucker for the double-traif pairings like a pork-peanut ragout with shrimp. I think the flavors work really well together (and it's somehow more delicious in being somewhat forbidden -- mostly-kosher Jews who go out for Chinese and order the occasional shrimp with lobster sauce know of what I speak). And lots of sour lime and fresh coriander help anything along, in my view. Next up, and to finish our shared world culinary journey, was the extremely rich escargot ravioli.

Yes, each raviolino was filled with a whole escargot, sauced with a tamarind-bacon number, and accented with escarole, celery, and crispy onions. It was over-the-top decadent, French-Italian with an Asian accent, as if some Torinese chef with a sense of humor and a stint in a Hanoi kitchen had dreamt up the dish. It was the perfect ending to tip us over the edge, so that desserts were no longer a possibility. If they HAD been in the picture, however, I might have ordered the "All the Leches" cake, or the caramel corn and malt balls, as the caramel popcorn and "chocolate magic shell" are almost too much to resist. I'd also go for some more daring dishes like anything from the goat menu, or the pastrami-spiced beef heart. But we stuck to slightly safer bets (and the escargot), and left very happy. The service was really friendly and the atmosphere was fun, and 6 years in, still electric. Or maybe it was just that a future Cubs win was in the air...

74 West Illinois Street
Chicago, IL60654
(312) 527.5586

Girl and The Goat
809 West Randolph Street
Chicago, IL60607
(312) 492.6262

ESCAPES: Santa Fe Eats

ESCAPES: Santa Fe Eats

Santa Fe mountains.jpeg

I wanted somewhere different -- at least from what I'm used to. I wanted to get away before my birthday, a brief respite so I could relax, get a little bit of my zen on, and of course, eat well. After a few weeks of internet searches and flight pricing, I realized I'd never been to New Mexico, that I'd always heard how amazing Santa Fe was as a small city, and that I have a dear friend in nearby Albuquerque. Why not?

Loretto inn.jpg

Upon arrival, I quickly realized that I was not in New York City anymore. This landscape was so different, vast, its colors a pastel wash of sky, and earthen umber shades of mountain and desert. On the hour-long drive from the airport to Santa Fe, my friend Michelle and I started to catch up on each other's lives of late, and she briefed me on what to expect of Santa Fe. We arrived at our hotel, The Inn and Spa at Loretto, just before dusk on a Friday. We unpacked in our room and showered and changed for dinner: our first dilemma was where to eat during a busy weekend (there was a sold-out food festival in town, and things were hopping in Santa Fe at this time of year).

We chose a classic, Coyote Cafe, just down the street from our hotel. Chef Mark Miller was the original chef-owner who opened the restaurant back in 1987, and who made a name for gourmet Southwestern cuisine over the course of more than 30 years. He sold the place to his manager and a new chef in 2008 and the kitchen is turning out food as delicious as ever. Once we arrived, a snafu in the reservation system meant our drinks at the bar waiting for our table turned into dinner at the bar -- which we really didn't mind after all. We had lots to talk about over some delicious red wine (Michelle) and a spicy cocktail or two (me), and we enjoyed the bold, delicious flavor combinations like my grilled fiery hot and sweet tiger prawns, served on soft sesame polenta with baby bok choy and Maui pineapple salsa.

The next day we woke up and headed straight for brunch at the famous Cafe Pasqual's. There's usually a wait for a table here, and most definitely on weekends, but we were seated fairly quickly at the large central communal table. It's a social spot and the waiters and waitresses seem to know a majority of the clientele. Upon recommendation, we got egg dishes, including my delicious poached eggs on red chile with fresh corn.

I had been eyeing a lunch special on the menu that sounded so enticing, I'd eventually return during the week to get it: a half sandwich of turkey with thick cut bacon, lettuce, and tomato with a cup of avocado soup and a shredded kale salad. Perfect. After filling up on a great southwestern brunch, we were energized for exploring the town, shopping, and hitting the Georgia O'Keefe Museum, which, as a fan of her art, I've been wanting to visit for many years. It's small but full of some of her most famous pieces, and the short film on her life, narrated by Santa Fe resident Gene Hackman, is informative and beautiful.

And the gift shop is fab! We did some window shopping and some actual shopping around town afterwards, and I struggled to not purchase every gorgeous piece of turquoise jewelry we saw. I knew I'd treat myself to something, but I wanted to "do the rounds" first and see everything I could. I was here for another few days, after all, so I could take my time and scan the stores for the best offerings.

We did, however, make a happy impulse purchase at Chocolate Smith. At this small outpost inside one of the malls lining the main plaza in town, glorious iterations of chocolate with a southwestern kick are on display, and it's really pointless to avoid the temptation. I bought plenty of chocolates and truffles and the usual dark chocolate suspects...but I also purchased plenty of the unique assortment of chocolate barks they create. This includes a very New Mexican dark chocolate-green chile-pistachio bark, and "Mountain Bark" -- a mixed bag of chocolate bark with marinated cherries, coconut, homemade English toffee, white chocolate bits and toasted almonds. They managed to combine everything good in one bark!

We returned to the hotel late afternoon, in time for me to book a relaxing facial at the spa downstairs, which was luxurious and complete with aromatherapeutic oils. We'd booked dinner at the charming Santacafe, a petite dining spot that's a favorite among locals for continental fare using regional ingredients with a Santa Fe twist (which seems to go without saying here). 

A delicious seasonal salad, of arugula, grilled peaches, candied spiced pecans, and crispy fried goat cheese was a great opener, alongside a spicy jalapeno-lime vodka cocktail. A main course of a perfectly-cooked beef fillet with a red wine sauce, haricot vert, and shoestring fries, was a great high-low balance on one plate -- and hit the spot. Drinks after dinner were in order, though places in Santa Fe close much earlier than expected (and certainly wayyy earlier than we were used to in our days hanging out in Manhattan until the wee hours!) -- midnight seemed to be the cut-off point for a majority of spots. But the drinks were delicious, the setting beautiful, and the crowd fun and just rowdy enough at Secreto Lounge at the Hotel St. Francis. It was better that we hit the hay early, anyway.

Sunday morning in Santa Fe was sunny and mild, and we made a beeline to an old breakfast favorite on the plaza, Plaza Cafe. I'd categorize this as a diner-plus, with a large menu that includes all of the diner staples, but really focuses on -- what else? -- Southwestern favorites like breakfast burritos and enchiladas. I decided to go for "Christmas," as it's called in these parts: both green and red chile sauces with my breakfast enchiladas. This also included a warm container of homemade flour tortillas, guac and sour cream, beans, and a side of bacon. I ordered a homemade cactus pear lemonade, a first for me, and out came a gorgeous tall glass of fuchsia-colored citrus deliciousness! What a great way to start our day.

We wandered along the plaza again, and things started to get a little strange. We'd spotted a few random celebrities in restaurants and outside over the weekend, TV actors and the like. But as we were strolling along the plaza looking at local Native American-made jewelry, my friend and I, both tall women, almost literally ran over...Dr. Ruth Westheimer. She was so small, and just as we were trying not to crush her, one of the jewelry makers asked for a photo with her. As this was happening, a thin woman with short salt-and-pepper hair ran up to Dr. Ruth, who was beside us at this point, and screamed "Dr. Ruth!" It was Jamie Lee Curtis. They embraced and my friend and I, wondering what was going on this weekend with the celebrities, asked Dr Ruth, who said there was a health conference in town, and lots of celebrities were in attendance. So there was that. We continued on our way, and I was making mental notes of all of the gorgeous turquoise jewelry I wanted to buy before leaving town.

Sadly, my friend Michelle had to head back to Albuquerque for the start of the work week. And I switched hotels and checked into the swank La Posada Resort and Spa. I had my own little adobe-hut on the property, with a wood burning fireplace and other cozy essentials. What I no longer had was a dining partner, but I was determined to make my solo dining experience an adventure. All I needed was my palate, my camera, and a good book -- I was prepared!


The first night, I decided to head to The Inn at Anasazi's Restaurant, on the ground floor of a cozy Rosewood Resort with a Native American, log cabin-in-the-woods feel (albeit a luxurious log cabin). The staff, to a person, was accommodating and kind, the best sort of place for a solo dining experience. I enjoyed a delicious tamale appetizer with a mole sauce to start off.

The main event was a roasted salmon fillet, done in true southwestern style with a spicy, smoky glaze and served with asparagus, artichokes, and mushrooms. This was accompanied by some delicious pinot noir, and of course my book. But the servers also chatted me up, and upon discovering I was a chef, decided to treat "their own" to a little extra special service, as restaurant industry people are known to do. They sent the chef out to say hello to me, gave me some excellent food and tourist recos for Santa Fe, and just generally made me feel special and welcome.

Dessert was, for me, an obligatory chocolate experience: mousse, ice cream, dark chocolate cookie crumbles and white chocolate and caramel sauces. I left feeling pleasantly full, happy, and taken care of -- exactly what anyone really looks for in a restaurant experience.

The next afternoon, I enjoyed a light lunch at La Casa Sena, a gorgeous outdoor spot in an interior courtyard plaza off the main square. Delicious blue corn muffins with sweet butter and a southwestern grilled chicken salad hit the spot, and it was perfect weather to lounge al fresco and read in the shade. Later that day, I enjoyed some spa treatments back at La Posada's spa. I was even able to sneak in some lounging at the pool in the afternoon sun.  And of course I circled back and checked out some more jewelry shops for some of that gorgeous turquoise sold all over town.

For dinner that night? Geronimo, a well-regarded fine dining establishment on the gallery-lined Canyon Road. This time, I got a few looks from couples out on romantic dinner dates, but I didn't care. I was there to enjoy beautifully-presented dishes like the sushi grade tuna appetizer, served seared and tartare with little buckwheat blini, wasabi, teriyaki, and spicy pepper sauces.

My main course was a house specialty, and falls under the "when in Rome" menu choice category: peppery elk tenderloin with applewood smoked bacon, fork-smashed potatoes, sugar snap peas, and a brandied mushroom sauce. The dish was, I admit, decadent and damned delicious.

I splurged and went for dessert, but kept it to a minimal plate of "mignardises": fruit squares, toffee, truffles, macarons, and brittle. It was a delicate and perfect finish to a rich, languid meal in posh surroundings. It really put me in the mood to go back to the hotel, make a fire in my fireplace, and write. And then, to crawl under the covers with a good book, as the embers of the fire smoldered.  Southwestern solitude: perfection.

The next day was my last in Santa Fe before heading back to Albuquerque, so I was intent on enjoying it. I woke up at La Posada and decided to indulge in breakfast in bed -- or at least in my adobe.  New Mexicans do not mess around with breakfast: I ordered a breakfast burrito with red chile sauce, and it came with beans and potatoes on the side, topped with cheese and lettuce and sour cream for the full burrito experience.

Of course, this was a full on meal that provided me energy for the entire day, so I was good to go tooling around town. It also took a while to digest, so I was *forced* to sit by the pool and catch up on reading some of my favorite magazines in the sun. No complaints.

And I finally decided on the store that had the best selection of turquoise jewelry for me to choose from and purchase (it was a birthday gift to myself). I was sad to learn about so many different varieties of American turquoise that are no longer found in these parts -- many of the pieces used stones that had last been mined in the '60s and '70s. But they were gorgeous, and I went home happy with turquoise of various colors and personalities. I did indulge in a late afternoon snack -- the breakfast burrito effect had started to wear off! -- so I tried a bowl of local New Mexico chili, made with pork and served with a little shredded cheese and some tortilla chips (okay, and a side of queso fundido I may have ordered).

I sat on the upstairs balcony of Thunderbird Bar and Grill on the Plaza, and just people-watched as locals and visitors strolled through the square, and tourists sipped oversized margaritas in the bar around me. It was a little cheesy, but I didn't want to leave Santa Fe without having had the chili experience. It was tasty and hit the spot as the sun set and the high-altitude air cooled, easing into evening. I walked the gorgeous streets of Santa Fe one last time, until I made my way back to La Posada.

The resort's grounds are so beautiful that a leisurely walk around them is a simple pleasure. And, since the next day would be a very early morning, heading back to ABQ, drinks at the hotel bar and a light dinner was just the ticket. It was my first adventure in Santa Fe, but I vowed it would not be my last. And with this thought, I toasted my trip to New Mexico with a glass of its finest sparkling wine. Yes, you read that correctly. And the bubbly? It's delicious.

The Inn and Spa at Loretto

211 Old Santa Fe Trail

(800) 727.5531

La Posada de Santa Fe Resort + Spa

330 East Palace Avenue

(505) 986.0000

Coyote Cafe

132 West Water Street

(505) 983.1615


Cafe Pasqual's

121 Don Gaspar Avenue

(505) 983.9340



231 Washington Avenue 

(505) 984.1788

Chocolate Smith
851A Cerrillos Road
(505) 473-2111

Anasazi Restaurant at Rosewood's The Inn at Anasazi

113 Washington Avenue
(505) 988.3030

724 Canyon Road
(505) 982.1500

La Casa Sena
125 East Palace Avenue
(505) 988.9232

Luminaria Restaurant + Patio
The Inn at Loretto
211 Old Santa Fe Trail
(505) 984.7915

Plaza Cafe
54 Lincoln Avenue
(505) 982.1664

Secreto Lounge in the Hotel St. Francis
210 Don Gaspar Avenue
(505) 983.5700

Thunderbird Bar and Grill on the Plaza
50 Lincoln Avenue
(505) 490.6550

DINING OUT: Grano -- Rome, Italy

Fresh from the process of updating and rewriting the Where to Eat section of the Fodor's Rome Guide 2012, I thought I'd post an expanded and modified (and personalized) review of one of the restaurants I added to the section this year.

GRANO is a contemporary trattoria in a charming piazza around the corner from the Pantheon. Aesthetically, the white walls covered, in parts, with colorful children's drawings, give the main dining room the look of a postmodern architectural schoolhouse. 

The smaller, second dining room with the addition of bookshelves, seems the school's library. And the outdoor deck with large white umbrellas and numerous tables would, in this metaphor, be the playground. On the whole, Grano is a light and lively restaurant, serving tasty food, at not-too-steep prices, to a mostly local crowd. All good things.

The kitchen is not quite chemistry lab, but it does turn out re-invented versions of Italian dishes, both Roman and from other regions up and down the Italian peninsula. For starters, the polpette di brasato con salsa verde are smallish meatballs of the famous piemontese wine-braised beef, here pulled, breaded, and deep fried, served on a slick of bracing green sauce. It's unusual and delicious. And for traditionalists, there are portions of pristine mozzarella di bufala and marinated anchovies served simply on a few leaves of arugula with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. 

A delicious tweak of a Sicilian classic is the octopus antipasto (which could also be a primo): instead of pairing it with chickpeas or canellini beans as is the practice, a grilled baby octopus is placed atop a mound of orzo perlato, a grain -- not the pasta version of orzo -- with a bite that matches the chew of Sicilian polpo (octopus), here rendered tender by a braise before being grilled. The primi here are often standouts, including, when available, a pasta with tiny baby clams paired with asparagi di mare, know in English as sea beans. This is a delicious, fresh-tasting combination that encapsulates the brininess of the sea in every bite. 

Also looking southward -- this time Campania -- is the simple pasta dish of tiny ditalini with a vegetarian "ragu" of sundried tomatoes, Gaeta olives, mozzarella, and basil. As for secondi, they're often less interesting. Porchetta (roasted suckling pig) with rosemary potatoes should be called 'porchetta...che peccato' (what a shame) because serving a so-so version of what can be one of The Greatest Things To Eat On This Planet is a sin.

Ditto the tuna with caponatina: Sicily has some of the most prized fresh tuna on the planet, and caponata is one of the world's great traditional vegetable dishes (trumps ratatouille ANY day). Italians now need to learn how to cook said tuna, and Roman chefs could use some schooling in the ways of making sweet-and-sour eggplant-veggie-heaven the way it's meant to be made. Still, the breaded calamari is perfectly good, and with a side of broccoli or sauteed chicory, it makes a tasty main course.

Desserts here are relatively delicious, even though they don't stray far from Italian standards like tiramisu'. But the atmosphere is so pleasant, it's worth poring over the wine list to find a dessert wine or digestivo you can enjoy with your dining mates. A limoncello, or an amaro, perhaps? I liked the setting so much that I chose to have a recent birthday dinner here, surrounded by a dozen or so dear friends. We lounged and lingered, we ate, drank, and were merry.

And my lovely friends showered me with wine and prosecco and limoncello (my holy trinity?), and lots of gorgeous gifts, like the handmade earrings of breathtaking bronze freshwater pearls and jet I'm modeling in the photo below. And when all was said and done, they managed to find a tasty chocolate dessert into which they lodged a candle. I made my birthday wish -- and although it's bad luck to divulge that wish, I can say that it involves a lot more good food, great friends, and delicious fun in the future.


Piazza Rondanini 53

Roma 00186

+39 (06) 681 92 096