Chicago’s best bar menus for holiday dining and drinking

Chicago bar menusIt’s no secret that Chicago isn’t lacking for great food or bars. But often, the two are mutually exclusive, no matter what city you’re in. Fortunately, as I discovered on a recent visit, Chicago has a wonderfully eclectic mix of new and established hotspots that manage to combine the best of both worlds. Indulge in boutique bourbon, esoteric microbrews, South Australian Shiraz, or meticulously hand-crafted seasonal cocktails, while savoring bar snacks ranging from pub fare and tacos, to elegant small plates and cheese flights.

Below, my picks for holiday snacking and sipping:

Longman & Eagle
Located in the rapidly gentrifying (but still somewhat seedy) Logan Square, this gastropub has become a hit with food-savvy hipsters for a reason. Besides an awe-inspiring selection of bourbon and other boutique spirits, the food simply rocks. An abbreviated bar menu is available between 3-5pm; expect treats like duck rillettes with cornichons and mustard for five bucks a pop. Dinner hour bar menu standouts on my visit included Slagel Family Farms meatballs with creamy polenta, parsley pesto, and fonduta for just six dollars, and tete du cochon with a sunny side-up duck’s egg, pickled shallot, parsley salad, and 5-spice mustard sauce.

Lovely cocktails like the Blood & Sand (Sheep Dip Scotch, Cherry Heering, Punt e Mes, fresh lemon, and flamed orange oil) or housemade spiced heirloom apple cider with applejack and Gosling’s Rum are a steal at eight dollars compared to downtown prices. For those late nights, avail yourself of Longman’s brand-new, six-room inn upstairs. P.S. The restaurant does brunch, too.

[Photo credit: Laurel Miller]Chicago bar menusSepia
This gorgeous, moody restaurant, housed in an 1890’s former print shop, is located in the Fulton River District, downtown. It’s a sedate, intimate atmosphere in which to enjoy chef Andrew Zimmerman’s whimsical, locally-sourced cuisine and well-crafted seasonal cocktails. There is a full menu with entrees averaging $28, so my friend and I instead parked ourselves at a cozy little table in the Lounge to make a meal of drinks and starters.

Spendy but unforgettable small plates like chicken-fried sweetbreads with green tomato jam and piccalilli ($14), and pan-roasted sea scallops with popcorn grits and crispy ham hock terrine ($16) are deeply satisfying. Cocktails are a bit on the feminine side, but a great French 75 (Hendrick’s Gin, fresh lemon sour, orange bitters, and demi-sec sparkling rosé; $12) or sour cherry Old Fashioned (house-infused sour cherry Old Overholt Rye, mole bitters, muddled orange, and brandied cherries; $12) is hard to pass up,

Big Star
If whiskey and rowdy honky-tonks are your thang, and you don’t want to devastate your bank account, head to this insanely popular Wicker Park taqueria. You’ll have to duke it out with yet more hipsters (like Seattle, where I live, Chicago has a plague, but they usually congregate with good reason) and local cooks and chefs for a seat, but the reward is luscious, three-dollar pork belly tacos (you really can’t go wrong with any of the offerings), queso fundido, great guacamole and chips, and free squeeze bottles of salsa verde on every table. The whiskey menu is truly staggering, featuring 23 selections from Buffalo Trace Distillery, alone, and $3 select shots every night of the week. The beer, tequila, and mezcal menus aren’t too shabby, either.Chicago bar menus

ENO, The Intercontinental
You don’t need to be an oenophile or cheese geek to have fun at this wine bar located off the hotel lobby. The focus is on a changing list of pre-selected wine and cheese flights, arranged by category. Whether you like bubbles, rosé, Rhone Valley, Pinot Noir, or want to concentrate on a featured producer, ENO has something for you, for around $13 to $18.

The staff will also cheerfully help you decide what cheese flights (an amazing bargain at $12, for three cheeses, mostarda, olives, Marcona almonds, baguette, and fruit nut bread) to have with your wine, if you’re so inclined. With selections ranging from semi-soft goat’s milk to aged Spanish sheep cheese or Cheddars, it’s a great way to learn, minus any pretense. There are also daily specials inspired by the local Greenmarket; think milk-braised lamb with mint, or roasted beet salad with Capra Honey goat cheese and pistachios.

Tip: ENO is offering a holiday wine and cheese pairing special through February: a bottle of 2003 Ayer Kupp Reisling and a 13 oz. wheel of award-winning dairy Upland Cheese Company’s (WI) newest release, Rush Creek Reserve, for $45. I tasted this hard-to-find cheese yesterday at the cheese shop where I work, and holy @$%!. It’s a satiny, hammy, unctuously rich washed-rind that is the crack of dairy products.

The Girl & The Goat
It’s irrelevant that this bustling, six-month-old industrial-styled bistro in the West Loop is the baby of Top Chef Season 4 winner Stephanie Izard. She’d be packing them in, regardless, with her rustic, soulful, Mediterranean and Asian-influenced cuisine and down-to-earth philosophy. Izard and her forager work closely with a number of local farms that inspire the ever-changing menu of 30 small plates (10 veg, 10 meat, 10 fish), which practically beg for pairings of wine or beer. Speaking of beer, this is the place for trying out new microbrews by the bottle, or indulging in Three Floyds on tap (an artisan craft brewery from Indiana). If the Chicago bar menuslong bar is full, try the communal table or a seat near the wood-burning oven.

Phoenix Lounge, TheWit Hotel
Open since June, this teeny little mezzanine bar is a great people-watching spot, given the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that surround the lobby of one of Chicago’s quirkiest, hippest hotels, minus the attitude. The location on the Loop and next to the river don’t hurt, either. Phoenix, like the rest of the hotel, sports a retro/Art Nouveau/modernist decor, all black and white and magenta, with etched mirrors and chandeliers. Grab a bar table and watch visitors and locals alike swarm the lobby (popular restaurants cibomatto and State and Lake are also in the hotel, as well as the Roof bar, an epicenter of Chicago nightlife). Despite the high ranking on the coolness meter, TheWit’s staff couldn’t be any nicer or more helpful.

Phoenix is all about short and sweet, with an abbreviated, but thoughtful, wine and cocktail list and bar menu. You can go for an in-house drink (all a steep $13), like Good & Evil (house-infused pancetta vodka, Godiva Liqueur, and cream, if you plan on a very short night), or the more refreshing Elevation (house-infused grapefruit vodka, St. Germain Liqueur, grapefruit juice, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, and ginger ale). Bar snacks such as veal meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce ($10) and tempura rock shrimp with lemon jam and chili aioli ($12) are pricey for what you get, but very tasty, and a great way to celebrate happy hour.

Mercadito
One of the best Bloody Mary’s–here, known as a Bloody Maria–in town can be found at this upscale taqueria chain known for killer cocktails (there are also locations in Miami and New York). Mercadito thoughtfully provides an $18 brunch special labeled as a “hangover cure.” Choose three items from their menu, plus a cocktail. A tall glass of spicy, savory hair of the dog is even better paired with a steaming bowl of posole rojo loaded with barbacoa chicken; huevos rancheros, and juicy tacos al pastor anointed with grilled pineapple and chile de arbol salsa. Your head and stomach will thank you.

Gin class makes a splash at Food & Wine Classic in Aspen

I haven’t always enjoyed gin. A high school encounter with Tanqueray ensured that, for the next 15 years, the mere aroma of juniper left me retching. Then, a few years ago, I discovered a couple of small-batch distilleries that showed me gin can be delicate and floral. Suddenly, I found myself sipping G & T’s, and feeling rather decadent. There’s something about gin-with it’s Dutch, British Colonial, and speakeasy heritage-that makes it more sexy and intriguing than that other clear spirit, vodka. It’s a drink for adventurers, the legendary “Dutch Courage”
that fueled British troops during the Thirty Year War.

So it was with great interest that I attended mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim’s recent “Gin Alley: Lost Cocktails from a Bygone Era” seminar at last month’s Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. This weekend of decadence just celebrated its 28th year; the fact that it takes place in an outdoor paradise seals the deal, for me.

If you think Aspen is out of your budget, there are affordable accommodations in town, including my favorite, the St. Moritz Lodge. There even are also some great campgrounds on Maroon Creek Road-although there’s a logistical challenge after a late night. The same goes for staying in less-pricey, but inconvienient Snowmass.

If you’re attending Food & Wine, with its dozens of seminars, demos, and Grand Tastings, try to arrive a day early to acclimate; Aspen’s base is 8,000 feet, and drinking at altitude can leave you feeling like you were hit by a pile driver. You’ll want to acclimatize anyway: summer in Aspen means spectacular hiking (don’t miss the Maroon Bells; catch a bus to the trailhead from town), fly-fishing, mountain biking, climbing, riding, whitewater rafting, kayaking, and backcountry.

Getting back to gin, I’ve attended Tony’s seminars in the past, and he never disappoints, thanks in part to his down-to-earth demeanor, and engaging personality. He’s the winner of the 2007 Iron Chef America competition with Mario Batali; he also developed the bar programs at Harry Denton’s Starlight Room in San Francisco, and the Bellagio in Las Vegas. He currently runs his own consulting firm, and is the author of a new book, The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails, that draws from his love of classic, pre-Prohibition cocktails.

What’s the difference between bartending and mixology? Explains Tony, “I tend bar; we’re all bartenders in this line of work, and being a mixologist doesn’t make you a better bartender. What makes me a mixologist is my understanding and proficiency in the art and history of the cocktail. It’s not supposed to be pretentious-you want your customers to just enjoy themselves.”

Gin has a long and “checkered past,” says Tony. Bathtub gin was popular during Prohibition (because it was easy to make), and was used in anti-malarial sundowners in tropical British Colonies (it masked the taste of the quinine in the tonic water). Yet gin has been produced since the 1600’s, when the Dutch began distilling a juniper-derived medicinal spirit known as jenever (or genever). It made its way to England, where it was embraced, in part because Dutch Republic ruler William of Orange ascended the British throne during the Glorious Revolution. The resulting “Gin Craze” eventually led to general mayhem and social ills, and exorbitant tariffs were placed on gin. In the U.S., the spirt made its mark following the repeal of the Volstead Act. Says Tony, “All of the true, classic cocktails calling for a white spirit are gin-based. The earliest record I can find of a vodka-based drink is from the 1930’s.”

“Gin Alley” was held at Aspen’s super groovy, ’70’s ski-chalet-style Sky Hotel. As we were seated, we were each handed a milky, frothy Ramos Fizz. Tony’s version is slightly sweet, with a pronounced vanilla essence, and a good head of foam from the egg white. His gin preferences are Beefeater, which has a masculine, spicy profile that cuts the softness of the drink, or Bombay Sapphre. While Tony explained the history of the drink (created in New Orleans, in 1888, by Henry C. Ramos), he broke down its remaining ingredients, which include orange flower water, heavy cream, simple syrup, fresh lemon and lime juice, and a float of seltzer.

Each subsequent cocktail used another style of gin. “There are many different types of gin,” explained Tony. “There’s Dutch genever, Plymouth Gin, London Dry.” Each classification has it’s own characteristics-be it a pronounced juniper flavor; augmentation with spices and citrus, or a more feminine, subtle, flowery style. Tony’s current favorite boutique producers include Bluecoat, and Junipero.

“Think about the style of cocktail you’re making,” he advises. “I love the Negroni, but feel that a strong, junipery gin overpowers it. You want balance. That said, it’s all about your personal taste. Discovering what you like is part of the fun.” For his Corpse Reviver #2, a “hair of the dog, pick-me-up” spiked with absinthe, Lillet, and Cointreau, Tony prefers to use Tanqueray 10. This fresh, citrusy gin derives its name from the 10 different botanicals used in its production.

Tony’s favorite way to convert non-gin drinkers is with the classic Casino Cocktail, itself an adaption of the classic Aviation (it omits difficult-to-find creme de Violette). This refreshing, syrupy concoction is made with Luxardo, a dry, floral Maraschino cherry liqueur, as well as Plymouth gin, lemon juice, and orange bitters. Serve up in a coupe or martini glass, garnished with brandied Maraschino cherries (not the flourescent formaldehyde bombs).

Of course, no gin seminar would be complete without a martini. Tony shared his Iron Chef version, which uses a 4:1 ratio. Add 2 1/2 oz. of gin (whatever your preference) and 3/4 oz. of Noilly-Prat dry vermouth to a large mixing glass, with one large cube of ice. As for shaken, not stirred? “If a drink contains spirit only, stir gently until ice cold. It should be like liquid satin, not frothy.” Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with a large Spanish olive, stuffed with Maytag Blue Cheese.

Don’t overlook the importance of ice. Says Tony, “Twenty-four-percent of a finished drink is water from diluted ice-nothing will screw up a drink faster than bad ice.” Boil bottled water, and freeze it in clean ice cube trays (the bigger, the better) free of eau de freezer funk. If you want to do your part for the environment, substitute good tap water if it’s available.

For travel, I suggest a three-piece cocktail set, which is a nifty little shaker that includes a
built-in strainer, with a removable cap that doubles as a jigger. At your destination, see if there’s a regional distillery, or shop the local farmers market for some fresh produce to add to your cocktail (think muddled basil, mint, citrus, cherries, or berries). Add ice back at your room or campsite: instant gratification.

If you want to catch Tony shaking things up, he does four seminars a year on Crystal Cruises Experiences of Discovery food and wine trips, or check his site for upcoming events. Tony is currently filming a gin documentary for IFC. Shot on location in Holland, England, Italy, and the U.S., the film will tell the story of gin’s history, ingredients, and production process, including its place in the resurgence of the classic cocktail. Release slated for later this year.