Tag Archives: chicago

Foodie Penpal from Chicagoland!


This month’s Foodie Penpal box came from Ashley of My Cats and I (Cooking) in Chi. When I found out that Ashley was from Chicago, I told her that if she could somehow ship some hot fries from Pops for Champagne, that my husband would be forever grateful. 😉

From our email exchanges, Ashley and I found that we have a lot in common. We both love trying new restaurants and admit that we dine out more often than our waistlines and wallets can handle. She even gave me some recommendations for new restaurants to try the next time we travel to or through Chicagoland. I also found another person who doesn’t like a ton of bacon in dishes like me! {I seriously thought I was the only one with all the blank stares I get when I mention that.}

So what was in the box? Well, let’s just take a look:


Ashley dubbed this a Reduced Guilt package!

Skinny Pop Popcorn – Mmm. No artificial anything! This stuff is good and coated with just the right amount of salt. “Popped Skinny in the USA,” the company hails from Chicago.

Trader Joe’s Mini Milk Chocolate Bars – For my chocolate fix. It was 90+ degrees in the Midwest when our boxes went out this month. I didn’t think about this until moments after I shipped my FPP recipient’s box! I worried about melted chocolate all over her goodies! I quickly sent her a warning/apology email. Soon after, I received an email from Ashley stating that she had included some chocolate, not thinking about the hot weather and hoped it wouldn’t be all over the box. {See how much alike we are?!} It was nothing the refrigerator couldn’t fix! These separately-wrapped 100 calories bars are heaven.

Trader Joe’s Reduced Guilt Brownie Mix – This one makes me laugh. Whenever a Foodie Penpal {you are assigned to new people every month} asks me about my preferences and if I am okay with homemade or baked goods, I explain that I like both healthy and indulgent treats because I believe that any food can be part of a healthy diet as long as it is in moderation. Then I add, “That being said, when it comes to baked goods, if you send me a brownie, I’ll eat it. But if you send me a plate of brownies, I’ll probably eat those in one sitting, too.” Moderation is tough for me when it comes to baked goods. It’s why I don’t usually bake. So, then, why did Ashley send these to me?

Because you can use the mix to make ONE BROWNIE AT A TIME!

Genius. In fact, I’ve since dumped the mix into a jar with the {simple} directions on top, so I can make myself my own hot brownie anytime. YAY!


Wonderful Pistachios {single serving pack} – Nuts are one of my favorite snacks. And I still think I might be the only one on the planet that can’t stop laughing at this Crackin’ Gangnam Style pistachio commercial. 😉

Also included was, as she mentioned in her note, one of Ashley’s favorite breakfast recipes for Blueberry Banana Pie Overnight Oats along with the Pecan Praline Granola and Chia Seeds needed in the recipe. I just had to make it!


Sooo good. I only made half the recipe at a time and it came out just fine. Since then, I’ve also eaten the granola as cereal with banana or peaches added. And do you know how long I’ve been meaning to buy and try out chia seeds?! Now I’m just looking for some more fun recipes and uses for them.

None of those items have I previously picked up at Trader Joe’s. And I may have even passed them by in the future if Ashley hadn’t introduced them to me!

Thank you, Ashley for a not only wonderful and tasty, but also thoughtful package.

I loved {and am still loving} it!

Thinking you want to become a Foodie Penpal? You don’t even need to be a blogger to do it! Here’s how:

1. Sign up by the 4th of the month that you want to participate.

2. On the 5th of the month, you are assigned a Foodie Penpal.

3. You communicate with your penpal about any food allergies or preferences, as well as where to ship the package.

4. By the 15th of the month, send $15 worth of food to your penpal that may include homemade goodies, local treats or just some of your favorite discoveries that you want to share! The box must also contain something handwritten.

5. You’ll receive a package from another Foodie Penpal, who was assigned to you.

6. If you are like me, you squeal with delight when your package arrives.

7. You enjoy said goodies, which you may have never known about otherwise.

8. If you are a blogger, you post about the package you received on the last day of the month – Reveal Day! {If you are not a blogger, you do not need to do anything, but thank your Penpal, of course! However, if your Penpal does blog, you can choose to write a guest post, if you so wish.}

What are your favorite recipes for/uses of chia seeds?


Naha – Chicago, IL


After a wonderful experience at Pops for Champagne, we walked over to Naha, just four blocks away for my birthday dinner. We were happy knowing that we wouldn’t have to worry about not having reservations thanks to the staff at Pops!

When we arrived, we headed straight to the bar, our favorite place to dine. There was no one seated there at the time, but the dining room was hopping!

We ordered some drinks to start, me keeping with the bubbly theme:

Sparkling Valipolicella – a bubbly I haven’t knowingly had before

Our bartender was busy, busy creating a number of different cocktails from scratch. Boy could he move! He just didn’t have much time to chat. So after placing our orders we noshed on some excellent bread:

bread with what I think was a fennel butter

I decided that I really did want to try an order of those oysters the manager at Pops kept raving about. Of course he loved them because they were topped with a Champagne sorbet. So why wouldn’t I? He also mentioned some special type of baby tomatoes. I was in! I assured Rob that I’d get just one order, not dozens and dozens, even if they were good. There were just too many menu items to try and just one night.

This picture doesn’t do these beauties justice!

Naha is one of those places that changes its menu based on what is available and in season. You know I love that! Looking back at the their menu now, the oysters are described this way:

French Kiss Oysters from New Brunswick with a Sorbet of Champagne Vinegar and Celery Marmalade

I can’t be sure that those ingredients are exactly what I had, but I can tell you that they were the best oysters I’ve ever had. They had such a complex range of flavors that didn’t mask the flavor of the oysters, but rather, heightened them. Exquisite. I can see how a bottle of Champagne and dozens of these later, one could be quite happy.

After we ordered, Rob asked another guy who started helping behind the bar:

“Are you Michael?”

Instead, another guy around the corner answered:

“No. I am. I was wondering when you guys were going to show up!”

He chatted briefly, but he had a few group dinners to tend to and oversee. He said he’d come and have a drink with us later.

While we were waiting for our main dishes, the bartender brought each of us one of these:

Corn Soup

“Compliments of Michael,” he said.

Wait a minute… What? We weren’t expecting this! What a special surprise. I took the first spoonful. Mmm… The fresh corn flavors really shined through in this velvety-textured soup. And the portion size in these little cups was just right. It was the perfect amuse-bouche before our entrées.

I ordered another “Starter” menu item as my entrée. You know how I have a weakness for scallops:

Perfectly seared…

These may have been some of the best scallops I’ve ever had, too. Although, when anyone serves me a scallop that is fresh, perfectly seared, and having more creativity than being wrapped in bacon, I’m happy. Furthermore, while I’ve experienced flavor complexities in wine, I didn’t realize there could be so many flavor complexities in one dish! Each bite made my palate sing a new tune. And again, I can’t be sure if this was the exact combination of ingredients I had in my scallops, but the current Naha menu describes their scallops as such:

Hand-Harvested Scallops from Barnegat Light roasted with Vanilla Bean, Citrus and Spices, Caramelized Belgian Endive, Ruby Red Grapefruit, Candied Lemon and Mint

I definitely tasted that candied lemon!

Of course, Rob had to try Naha’s Burger, which was listed as one of Serious Eats’ Top 15 Burgers in Chicago. There is no reason a burger guy wouldn’t!

Naha Burger & Fries

I believe you have to be at the bar to order this burger. It’s only on the bar menu and is described as such:

Our Famous Half Pound and Wood-Grilled Angus Beef Burger on a Housemade Sea Salt Crusted Ciabatta Bun with Stone Ground Mustard, Glazed Onions and Hand-Cut Idaho Potato Fries

choice of Artisan Cheese, Kurobuta Pork Belly, Mushrooms and/or Slab Bacon for an additional charge

Rob added a smoked cheddar of some sort that was highly recommended by the bartender. I thought he added bacon, but today he tells me that he got the pork belly. I was surprised! Rob is not usually a fan.

And he loved this burger. He said it was exceptional and that it’s probably a Top 10 Burger for him. I took a bite and could immediately tell that the meat was high quality. I love how Naha lists where they get all of their meats on their website. In fact, if you go to their menus, each dish will link you to the source!

Sure it may have been a bit expensive as far as burgers go, but it was much more worth it than the $20 burger we shared at Forepaugh’s in St. Paul a few months ago.

And it’s not even fair for us to talk about the fries. They were very good. But Rob just had his best fries ever over at Pops. How could anything compare? If he hadn’t, he could have made a much fairer assessment.

The Dessert:

Since oysters and scallops are a rather a light dinner, I decided that there was no way that I was passing up dessert at this place. As I took a look at the menu again, I knew it was going to be difficult for me to choose. I seriously wanted one of everything. And I really mean that. I would not have hesitated if someone told me to get anyparticular dessert on that menu. That’s why I asked the bartender what is favorite was and when he replied, “The Custard Cake,” I spouted, “Done.” It was the only way I could make up my mind.

While we were waiting for the preparation of our desserts, our bartender came over with two glasses of wine and said:

“Compliments of Michael: A dessert wine to go with your dessert.”

Sweet! Literally. As I may or may not have mentioned in a Wine Wednesday post, your dessert wine should always be sweeter than the dessert itself. Otherwise, the wine will taste bitter after you bite into your sweet treat. So the Moscato d’Asti that was sent over, paired nicely. Thanks, Michael!

Custard Cake

Oh Dear Lord, this is what dreams are made of. Could any dessert be so delectable? Every single one of my courses had such complex flavors! And when I say complex, I mean that a new flavor hits your palate at every single bite. Here is the site’s current description:

Gateau Basque Custard Cake, Olive Oil Ice Cream, Red Velvet Apricots, Soft Polenta, Sherry Vinegar

This time, I know that my version was a bit different. As you can see, there is a beautiful fig {no apricots} on my plate above. Oh how I love figs! And that custard cake is really something made from heaven.


Oh who am I kidding. I could never do this thing justice. I should just “Basque” in the memory… And that olive oil ice cream? Luscious. I drug my fork into different pieces of the dessert with each bite to get a wide variety of combinations and flavors. The portion size was perfect. I walked away from this dinner feeling content, not full or stuffed. This was one of the most enjoyable dinners I’ve ever had and it was all about quality, not quantity.

I actually think Rob had a hard time choosing a dessert, too, but in the end opted for a Blueberry Tart:

More than just a Blueberry Tart

This was every bit as good as it looks. And yes, that is popcorn on the plate. This was like three or four desserts in one. There we go with the complex flavors again! It’s no longer on the menu, so I don’t have a description of the {possible} ingredients. But I can tell you that Rob finished his plate.

As we finished our dessert wine, Michael, who is a young, very laid-back kinda guy, sat and chatted with us about restaurants, Chicago and the world in general. Who takes the time to do that?! Michael did.

When we woke at the hotel the next morning, Rob turned over to spoon me and said:

“I had the best dream last night. I dreamt that we went to this Champagne place that had the best fries I’ve ever had in my life. Then the manager called over to an awesome restaurant and told the owner to take care of us. We enjoyed dinner at that restaurant where we finished with a dessert so good it was silly.”

I went along with it and responded:

“Baby, that really did happen.”

I could hear the smile in his voice as he snuggled a little closer:

“I know.”

That magical birthday evening is what dreams are made of…



Pops for Champagne – Chicago, IL


After a day wandering Chicago, I was still contemplating what we were going to do for my birthday dinner.

I was most intrigued by a restaurant called Naha. I had found it somehow by clicking around online. It had also popped up in my inbox by Serious Eats as a restaurant with one of the “Best Burgers in Chicago”. Although it was my birthday, I still wanted to make sure there was something on the menu Rob could have and enjoy. I also read that Naha’s Chef Carrie Nahabedian was a James Beard Award Winner.

But what was most important was that there were so many things on the menu that I wanted to try!

Still, I had not set up reservations anywhere. I know that’s not the best idea for dinner out at a nice restaurant in Chicago. When this happens at home, our plan is usually to go to a restaurant right when it opens and snag a seat at the bar.

However, after our nap and a few birthday phone calls {one being from my dad indicating that he was going to visit us one weekend/aka come for Rob’s birthday surprise party}, we didn’t get out the door until probably 6:30.

And I still wanted to stop at that place I found on our trek to the hotel: Pops for Champagne. {Fitting for Wine Wednesday, don’t you think?} So we headed off in that direction.

I don’t think Rob was too happy when we walked in the door and they asked him to take off his hat. It was packed and there would be a wait if we wanted a table. However, I spotted the last two open seats at the bar.

We pulled up to the bar as Rob fixed his disheveled hair and perused the drink menu. While there are so many different Champagnes {oh gosh, I’m just giddy thinking about it!} on the list, I knew I couldn’t talk Rob into a bottle of bubbly before finding our dinner destination, so I suggested we order a couple of Champagne cocktails.

Sparkling Cocktail List

There were too many I wanted to try, but finally I settled. And do you think three weeks later I can remember what we tried? Must be a sign of old age.

Carrie’s Sparkling Cocktail – Start Wearing Purple, I think

Rob’s Sparkling Cocktail – Corcorvado, I think

When asked if we’d like to peruse their menu, I said, “Why not?” Knowing Rob just wanted to get the hell out of the a place he had just exclaimed was “Probably the most expensive place in Chicago,” I knew that looking at the menu was just to pass the time while enjoying our cocktails. {Wine was $12 – $17 per glass, cocktails $10 – $14.} I knew we’d be dining elsewhere.

But instead, he asked me if I was interested in trying a Snack.

“Hmm… What are you thinking?” I said.

{I knew he had something in mind.}

Two things under the Snack Menu caught his eye:

Frites Garlic-truffle-brown butter, jalapeño aioli, ketchup  – $6
Tempura Wisconsin Cheese Curds Harissa romesco, ranch – $6

I told him to go ahead and choose one. I know, I know, it was my birthday. I’m sure I’m that annoying girl who always says, “I don’t care. You pick.” Or at least it seems that way. Truth be told, if I *really* do care or have a preference, I will tell you! In those rare instances when I can make up my mind, I’m not too shy to let you know.

After much debate – okay, not really – Rob chose the fries.

One of the other reasons why we often sit at the bar for dinner is that we like to strike up a conversation with the bartender, if possible. However, after being served, the bartenders were too busy attending to the other people swigging Champagne patrons to linger and chat with us, which is completely understandable.

Then the fries arrived. And the heavens parted.

Frites of the Gods

They were beyond excellent, if that is possible.

Rob dubbed these the best fries he’s ever had. It was then that our bartender, I believe his name was Greg, came over and asked how they were.

Rob went on and on about the fries… that we were from Minnesota and that these were worth a plane ticket down to Chi-town. Greg started to tell us how the chef prepared the fries. They are all fresh cut and boiled before they are fried. He said that was the “secret” to them. For me, the fries stood well on their own, the truffle butter gave them great flavor. The fancy sauces on the side were just an afterthought, that maybe even cluttered the dish with too many flavors. I tried each one, but then left them alone.

Greg asked where we were planning on dining that night and when we mentioned that we didn’t have reservations, but were considering Naha. He said, “Oh, we know those guys there! We love that place. You’ll really enjoy it.”

When Greg gave us our bill, he came back and said, “Don’t leave just yet. Our manager knows the owner over there. He’s making a call to get you hooked up.”

Wait a minute…


In retrospect, I keep thinking of these things:

  • We didn’t ask for them to do that!
  • They didn’t know us from any guy off the street.
  • I don’t even think that Rob mentioned that it was my birthday.
  • He just knew that we wanted to go there and we only had one night in Chicago.

Wow. This blows Minnesota Nice out of the water!

Within minutes, the Manager of Pops for Champagne came over and introduced himself. He gave us his card and said how wonderful a place Naha was. In fact, he had just dined there the previous night and spent $200 on himself alone because he kept ordering dozens of oysters. {This might scare some people away, but I had a look at the menu and the prices seemed reasonable for a nice restaurant in a big city. I wasn’t planning on ordering dozens of oysters and expensive Champagne anyway.}

Then he said that he contacted Naha and the owner, Michael, was going to be expecting us. He talked with us a while and I just kept thinking… “Wow! We’re getting into a restaurant with a James Beard-Award-Winning Chef without reservations and the menu looks amazing.”  We no longer had to think about nor worry what we were going to do for dinner.

We walked out the door arm-in-arm with smiles on our faces to begin the four block walk over to Naha…

Come back tomorrow to hear about our dinner!


Birthdays & Chicago


This weekend was a weekend of birthdays!

My friend Jen was celebrating hers, but was gracious enough to let me commandeer her special day in order to throw my husband a surprise 40th birthday party! His birthday isn’t until Thanksgiving Day {not exactly the best day for a birthday for someone allergic to poultry}, but he had *requested* a surprise party.


I just laughed and told him I couldn’t throw him one since he asked for one! I’d have to wait to throw him one on his 42nd or something, when he’d actually be surprised.

Instead, I threw him an “Only 40 days until your 40th!” surprise party. This just happened to land on Jen’s birthday. So we had double reason to celebrate.

And he was surprised!



So you may be wondering when I’m finally going to recap our Ireland vacation. Well, here is the beginning…


Our travel package to Ireland included round trip airfare via Aer Lingus from Chicago to Dublin. Since Rob had never been to Chicago before, I suggested we go a day early and spend the night.

That day just so happened to be my birthday!

Our early morning flight got us in Chicago at about 8:30 am. For only $2.25 each, we took the “L” {elevated train} from O’Hare Airport into downtown Chicago and arrived in under an hour. A cab was estimated around $50-$60 whereas a shuttle clocked in at $26 a piece. Navigating the “L” was not only a lot less expensive, but very easy. Instead of changing lines to get to the closest stop to our hotel, we decided to get off the train. It was a lovely day for a 20-minute morning walk. And since we both packed light, it wasn’t too big of a deal.

On our walk in, I spotted a place called Pops for Champagne. I was giggly with delight. By the looks of it, I assumed this was a Champagne Bar. I made note of the location. Wouldn’t it be a great place for a pre-dinner birthday drink? While I do prefer red wine above all, I am quite fond of the bubbly. It’s hard to get Rob to share a bottle with me or even go to a place like this. So, it being my birthday, I knew this would be my best chance.

We dropped our luggage off at the hotel and ventured out into the city, walking to and strolling along Navy Pier. Then we stopped for some lunch at Gino’s East Pizzeria.

Deep Dish: Cheese and Famous Sausage small (4 slices)

To my best recollection, this is the first time I tried pizza Chicago-style! Layered with the cheese on the bottom, then the toppings and sauce on the top, it’s not your typical pie. We choose this one because both Rob and I are fond of sausage. Furthermore, Duff Goldman, Celebrity Chef on the Food Network, raved over the sausage disk on this particular pizza on The Best Thing I Ever Ate.  So there was no other option, really.

The pizza takes about 45 minutes to make and the claim is that it is worth the wait.

Our Verdict?

Rob wasn’t a big fan of the crust and, of course, this Little Miss Wisconsin Girl thought it needed more cheese. I thought the sausage was a little bland, too. Yet it was cool to experience a true Chicago Deep Dish Pizza at a legendary pizza joint.


After lunch we happened upon Elephant & Castle Pub and decided to stop for a couple of pints. There were a lot of choices of English brews on tap that we don’t find back at home!

Fullers ESB for Rob

Fuller’s London Porter for me

We ended up chatting with the manager of the pub and learned he was from Ireland. After mentioning that we’d be making a trek to his homeland the following day, he made a list of his favorite pubs in Dublin for us!

What a way to start a trip!

After a few pints, we went back to the hotel to check-in and for a much needed cat-nap after the late-night packing, early morning flight and walking the city.

Rob and I have a birthday dinner tradition. I had solicited advice on where to dine in Chicago in this post and had a few places in mind. I mapped them out to make sure they were in walking distance or easily accessible by train. However, I did not set up reservations anywhere. I know that’s not the best idea for dinner out at a nice restaurant in Chicago.

Come back tomorrow to hear about the magical evening we had on my birthday and where we ended up dining…

What’s your favorite style of pizza?