Oh, Katsu. How I love you.

Dinner last night at Katsu reminded me how wonderful the restaurant is. We sat at the sushi bar, and had a lovely chat with Katsu. He’s run the restaurant on Peterson for 22 years now. That’s quite a run for a Chicago sushi restaurant. Here’s a peek inside the best sushi place in town.

Chef Katsu at work

Last night, Chef Katsu was garnishing all the nigiri with daikon leaves. I didn’t realize they were so minty. My son loved it, and immediately asked if we can grow daikon in our garden. That’s my research project for the day. Here’s a closer look at that sushi platter, which Chef Katsu garnished with flecks of gold.

Sushi platter at Katsu

The Dirt

Box Number One, at the back of my house. Square foot garden #2, along my garage, on top of the sidewalk.

 

At long last, after many weeks of toil, construction, dirt-mixing and planting, here are my raised bed gardens. It’s official: I am an urban farmer. 

The second square foot garden, along my garage, on top of a sidewalk.

 

I’ve faced a few surprises. First, mixing a bunch of dirt is hard, in terms of the physical effort. Don’t let the books fool you. And then, the agonizing part: waiting for seeds to sprout. In my case, the subject of much staring, worrying, and even blaming wonton, seed-eating birds has been the situation with my peas. I planted eight. I have two sprouts. 

When do I give up and plant a few more? What’s the right timeframe? How do I fend off the marauding robins and squirrels who are the likely culprits of my struggling pea crop? I’ll be thinking about all of this for a few more days. 

Two peas sprouting in a square. Where are the other two?

 

The lettuce, on the other hand, is marching on. Don’t know what’s going on with the head lettuce, but the leaf lettuce is a great source of hope for me. 

Lettuce sprouting!

My 10 favorite Chicago restaurants now

Eating is one of the best things that you can do in Chicago. From Alinea to Wolfy’s, there is fantastic food at every price point in this city. Here are my favorites today, in no particular order. (All restaurant names are hyperlinks that connect to full location details)

SCHWA
Schwa is Chicago eating personified: daring, avant-garde, gritty, delicious, urban. There is no front-of-house staff here; the chefs serve every dish themselves. It’s a tiny restaurant in a nondescript location. And yet, Chef Michael Carlson’s food has been well-documented. My favorite article is one that appeared in GQ, that chronicles his struggle with the stress of becoming a truly great chef. Many have photographed their meals at Schwa; my friend Anthony has some of the best photos here. I’ve eaten here many times, and my favorite dish among mighty contenders is a simple quail’s egg ravioli in brown butter. The food ranges from the unexpected (road kill—you have to see it to get it) to the sublime (Hendrick’s Gin deconstructed, one of my favorite appetizers). Reservations are nearly impossible to get, but well worth the effort, and this is a BYO restaurant. Call to inquire about the menu & match your wines to your meal.

HEMAS KITCHEN
Guess what? Hema’s Kitchen really is Hema’s kitchen. Hema is a delightful woman who serves delicious food. She has two locations now: one on Devon, the heart of the Indian community in Chicago, and one in Lincoln Park. There are moments when nothing but Hema’s Sag Paneer will satisfy my cravings for spicy food. My personal favorites on the menu are the Sag Paneer, Chicken Tikka Masala, and Bindhi Masala. I think this is one of the best take-out spots around, although you can eat there, too.

SMOQUE
This is hands-down the best barbeque in Chicago. It is to die for. It’s southeastern barbeque, vinegar-based, and true to its name it is indeed quite smoky. I can’t bring myself to order anything but the pulled pork because I just love it that much. All the side dishes here are scrumptious, too; I particularly like their cole slaw. It’s a crowded, busy place, but worth the wait in line.

DOUBLE LI
(see full details on earlier blog post below)
Since I recently wrote about this restaurant at length, I won’t say more. This is the best Chinese restaurant in Chicago, and it’s sited in the heart of Chicago’s Chinatown on Cermak. Simply great food, at great prices. This is another BYO restaurant.

MOTO
I am a self-professed foodie who grew up loving the Jetsons, so I was destined to adore Moto. Your dishes here may be freeze-dried, or dehydrated, or smoking because they’ve been freeze-dried and then dropped into hot liquid. You will eat things that don’t seem to make any sense. And you will reel from how delicious each and every bite is. Chef Homaru Cantu’s experiments in molecular gastronomy are sure to delight any foodie, and may put off people who are not interested in taking a few risks. The cocktails here equal the menu in their innovative nature and delicious flavor. And as an added bonus: chef Cantu is a genuinely nice guy, who loves food, and thrives on taking risks. What’s not to love?

KATSU
I am a sushi lover, and have eaten at all the hot sushi restaurants in the city. Katsu is not trendy, nor particularly hot. It’s just the best sushi in Chicago. The fish is delicious, and the chef is outstanding. My son nearly bankrupts me each time we eat here; he cannot get enough of their nigiri. If you too love sushi, you should make the trek to Katsu. You’ll be delighted.

SOL DE MEXICO
I am a big fan of Rick Bayless, and am enormously grateful to him for educating a cadre of Mexican-born chefs in the art of running a restaurant. While I love Chef Bayless’ food, I hate how trendy and popular his restaurants have become. I seek out the restaurants that his colleagues open, and I’ve found them unfailingly delicious. Sol de Mexico is one such restaurant, and chef Clementina Flores (Bayless’ one-time nanny, believe it or not) serves some of the best Mexican food in the city. All the dishes here are exquisite, and once again, make it worth the trek to the far west side of the city.

PUBLICAN
My husband proposed to me at one of Paul Kahan’s restaurants, Blackbird, so his restaurant ventures always have special significance for us. When we ran into Paul a few years ago, he told us he was about to open a new place, which he described as “a shrine to the trifecta of beer, oysters and pork.” He had us at “pork.” The restaurant became Publican, and we do indeed love it. We particularly love sitting in the section of Michael, their beer sommelier, who has introduced us to some particularly divine food and beer pairings. This is not light food, but it is indeed delicious food. If you love the trifecta, you should go.

GREAT LAKE
The only bad thing about Great Lake is that the food critic for Esquire Magazine recently named it the best pizza in the country. Combine that with the fact that it’s a pizza joint that probably seats 20, and you have a traffic problem. The thing is: the critic was right. Our favorite was the Taleggio mushroom, but a close second (with mouth-watering ingredients) was the smoked bacon, crème fraiche, onion & chive. The owners are a husband-and-wife team, one of whom was an architect who worked with our good friend, Joe. So we found the service absolutely delightful—how could we not? Others complain that it isn’t attentive. I think they’re missing the point. This place is all about one thing: damn fine pizza. Go there if that’s what you desire.

UNCOMMON GROUND

My reason for loving Uncommon Ground right now is not their delicious food. Don’t get me wrong: the food is indeed delicious. But the reason it’s one of my favorites now is that they are on the cutting-edge of urban farming. At their Devon location, they grow their own produce on the roof of the restaurant. And on weekends, they host a farmer’s market. That’s the kind of food culture I’d like to see fostered in this city, and my hat is off to Uncommon Ground for getting it going. As an added bonus, it’s one of my very favorite breakfast/brunch/lunch spots in the city. Their stout potato soup is just spectacular, too.

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The Chicago Climate Action Plan: you can be a part of it

The City of Chicago has launched a Chicago Action Climate Plan that includes a multitude of ways for Chicagoans to join together in making Chicago the most environmentally friendly city in the world. Programs target individuals and organizations alike; there’s a way for every Chicagoan to take part. Check it out, and join!

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The Garden Plan II

This is the second of my two square foot gardens, which I'll build & plant this year.

 

The truth about my backyard is simple: it’s not glamorous. When we first moved into our place, we had a yard. It didn’t have any flowers, bushes, or plants. In fact, it didn’t even have grass. It did, however, have lots of crabgrass. Oh, and a fence that the previous owners’ Pit Bulls had gnawed through. There was that.     

In any event, in the four years that we’ve lived in our place, we’ve done lots of work… but you can’t necessarily tell. Unless, of course, you knew it when the previous owners were here.     

This is a long way of getting to my point: my yard still isn’t lovely. Or even actually pretty. But here’s what we do have: a yard. And full sun. And too much concrete. But square foot gardening is helping me in this regard: I can build a raised bed over my hideous sidewalk, next to my unnecessarily large garage. So there you have it. While I look forward to a day when I can talk about the aesthetics of my back yard, right now, I’m hoping I can get it to offer a crop, and maybe, just maybe, look okay-ish. That’s where I am now. 

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The Garden Plan

Here’s the plan for the first of two square foot gardens I will build this year. If you’ve done a Square Foot Garden in the past yourself, I’d love any comments or feedback.  

This is the first of two raised beds I'll be making.

 

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Yes, I Made a Spreadsheet

This schedule notes when everything should be planted, and what I'll plant from seed vs. seedling

 

Gardening is overwhelming for a newbie. I’m determined to plant a full crop of veggies, but it’s my first shot. So I did the only thing I knew to do to get myself organized: I made a spreadsheet. So there it is.

Actually, the first thing I did was make a whole planting plan at gardeners.com. Then I consulted my friend John, who has a few years of square foot gardening under his belt. Then, I futzed with my plan for a few more days, and ultimately, settled on seeds. I picked some seeds up at Gethsemane, a local garden shop, and ordered the rest from Baker Creek, whose catalog is stunning, for the record.

So: with a garden plan, and packets of seeds, and my two handy garden reference books: I boiled it all down to a planting schedule spreadsheet. If you’re in Chicago, this may actually come in handy. In hopes that someone else can take advantage of my obsession, here it is. The following link offers a pdf of the spreadsheet above.

GardenPlan2010

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