Monday 10 August 2009

Eating my way around Chicago

I’m back from Chicago and feeling a little jet lagged but it is completely worth it. I have never had such a new, exciting and foodie trip. There was just so much to see and do and such a wide variety of food to try. I was a little nervous before I left but I met up with my friend T, who lives in Chicago, and he did a great job of showing me the sites and secrets of the city. Chicago had so much to offer a completely obsessed foodie such as myself, and below I have detailed some of the best foodie finds I discovered. I was astounded at the variety of cuisines and ingredients available, even things we can get here in the UK were offered with greater choice in the US. For example we can get cream cheese in plain, low fat and herb varieties; in the US they have plain, low fat, non fat, raspberry, herb, almond, honey, spiced apple, cinnamon swirl and chocolate varieties!! Plus most of the restaurants are open almost 24hrs a day so if you ever fancy sushi at 3am in the morning, it shouldn’t be too hard to find – it’s just incredible!

Café Selmarie
I was staying near Lincoln Square which is a quiet street lined with a great selection of restaurants, cafes, bars and specialist shops. Selmarie is a café located right in the centre. They provide a selection of light meals and snacks but it is their wonderful selection of cakes and pastries that drew my attention. On entering the café my eye was instantly drawn to the red velvet cupcakes, a cupcake I have heard much about yet had never tried. It seemed the perfect selection for my first cupcake in America. For anyone who doesn’t know, a red velvet cupcake comprises of a chocolate cake tinted red, topped with a cream cheese frosting. The cupcake looked very attractive with its swirl of cream cheese frosting and pretty red flower. The cake was nicely textured with a good reddy-brown colour. The crumb was a little dry but it was quite late at night when I visited, so it had probably dried out a bit during the day. It had just the right amount of cream cheese frosting which was thick and creamy with a tangy fresh taste. I thought the little red flower on top was a nice touch too.
Price: $2.25
Location: Café Selmarie in Lincoln Square

Hershey’s Store
While exploring downtown we hunted out a Hershey’s store which sells a wide selection of Hershey’s goodies including kisses, bars, enormous bottles of chocolate syrup and an assortment of peanut butter cups. Check out the size of the syrup bottles and giant kisses compared to the coffee mugs at the left-hand side – they’re enormous!
The shop also contained a bakery selling giant peanut butter cup cookies, brownies studded with kisses and assorted cupcakes. I love Hershey’s peanut butter cups and so couldn’t resist a chocolate cupcake topped a mound of peanut butter frosting and a mini peanut butter cup. They came in two sized but I got the smaller one and shared it with T. There was almost as much frosting as cake but I was pleased to find it wasn’t too rich or sweet and wonderfully peanutty. The chocolate cupcake was chocolaty and moist and the mini peanut cup was yummy – you needed a big bite to fit it all in – open wide! I also got a couple of bags on cinnamon chips, I have been huinting for these for months.
Price: $1.75
Location: Hershey’s shop on North Michigan Avenue

Sweet Mandy B’s
This was a lovely cupcake and cookie shop with a little seating area inside that you could sit at and watch the workers in the bake baking cupcakes while munching a sweet treat. It had a lovely atmosphere and I loved how you could watch the staff making cupcakes, it really confirmed that everything was freshly made. We weren’t all that hungry when we visited as we’d just had lunch, so T and I shared a banana pudding, another America treat I had been longing to try. It consisted of a thick banana flavoured custard style ‘pudding’ layered with fresh banana and vanilla wafers. The pudding was thick and creamy and very comforting. Not unlike a trifle with its fruit and wafer layers. They also sold some fab looking pies, tarts, bars and cookies.
Price: around $3
Location: Sweet Mandy B’s on West Webster Avenue

T and I happened upon this place by accident while on my way home after an evening out. We went over to investigate and tried the door but they were closed. We began to turn away when the door was opened by one of the staff. We asked if we could have a look inside and take some photos and they agreed. Most of the shelves had been cleared away but there were still a few cupcakes on stands and while I was taking photo T explained that I had a blog and was visiting from the UK. They had a great selection of some more interesting flavoured cupcakes including some gluten free options and ones suitable for vegans. They also sold T-shirts and I loved their little badges with the phrase “cupcakes make people happy” I couldn’t agree more and bought one which is now attached to my bag for all to see. The staff were so friendly even though it was after hours and as we were leaving they presented us with a free red velvet cupcake each!! It was a little squatter and wider than a normal cupcake, but this meant it was easier to eat both cake and frosting in one bite. The cake was so light and moist and the cream cheese topping perfectly creamy and sweet. The cupcakes were a little more pricy but totally worth it - my favourite cupcake shop all visit.
Price: $3-3.50 each
Location: Swirls on West Belden Avenue

This place looks a little dated from the outside but they sold a fantastic selection of cookies and some simply enormous cupcakes. I tried some of the Mexican wedding cookies and they were wonderfully short and buttery, just melted in the mouth and studded with finely ground pecans and covered in a dusting of icing sugar. The perfect dainty cookie. I loved how they decorated their cupcakes to look like flowers, a bit different to the usual swirl style. They were very tender and freshly baked tasting. Everything was very reasonably priced. They also sold a wide selection of sweet and savoury breads and pastries. A great find.
Price: Various but very reasonable
Location: Dinkles on North Lincoln Avenue

The Cheesecake Factory
Set in a hollow at the base of the John Hancock Building is The Cheesecake Factory. This place looks a little like something you might expect to see in a Flintstones film, swooping lines, rustic colours and very funky. It is THE place to go for cheesecake downtown. They have a café where you can have a sit down lunch before enjoying a slice of cheesecake, or a fast track take away cheesecake counter located just inside the doors. Even if you don’t like cheesecake this place is worth a visit just to goggle at the fantastic variety and flavour combinations of cheesecake available. The price is a little expensive, but the slices are very generous and the wonderfulness of the cheesecake makes it completely worth it. I had been told about this place and actually walked for an hour to reach it (I got a little lost on the way) and so felt nothing but pure indulgent pleasure at wolfing down a giant slice by myself. I was sorely tempted by the carrot cake cheesecake – vanilla cheesecake studded with real carrot cake and covered in chopped nuts, but chose instead the Oreo cheesecake for a true American experience. This consisted of an Oreo cookie crust, creamy vanilla cheesecake layered with Oreo cookies and topped with a large swirl of sweetened cream. I got mine to take away and it was served with another enormous swirl of cream – talk about over the top – but wow it was soooo good.
Price: $7 per slice for takeaway
Location: The Cheesecake Factory in various locations & North Michigan Avenue

Eli’s Cheesecake World Tour
Situated a little way outside of the city is Eli’s Cheesecake World, which is a genuine commercial cheesecake factory, complete with an on site café and shop. At 1pm, most days, they are open to the public for factory tours. The tour starts with a meet and greet and a little history about Eli’s cheesecake before everyone dons very attractive hairnets and enters the factory where you get to watch first hand as a team of people create magnificent looking cheesecakes. They were working on tiramisu and caramel banana cheesecakes while I was there – they looked so good. We also got to watch as an employee showed us how they finished off and decorated the cheesecakes, with each of us being allowed to pick a topping to decorate it with. Make sure you are paying attention throughout the tour as one lucky person won the cheesecake at the end of the tour, unfortunately it wasn’t me. We all then went back to the café area where we were treated to a complementary slice of cheesecake. I chose the snicker cheesecake – vanilla cheesecake with caramel and peanuts, while T had the turtle cheesecake – caramel cheesecake with pecans, caramel and chocolate, both delicious and very creamy. You can also buy extra slices or whole cheesecakes to take away with you and they had a great variety. The key lime cheesecake looked particularly good.
Price: $3 for tour includes a slice of cheesecake
Location: Eli's Cheesecake World in West Forest Preserve Drive

El Trigal Bakery
This bakery is Mexican inspired and was a great find. They had stacks of freshly baked pastries and sweet and savoury filled buns, very cheaply priced considering the quality. I got a pineapple jam filled pastry which comprised of a sweet yeasted dough and a yummy sticky pineapple jam filling.
Price: $0.80
Location: El Trigal Bakery on West Montrose Avenue

WOW this place is amazing! We happened upon this place by accident. It’s an ice cream store with a difference. You choose a fresh yoghurt or liquid ice cream base, add the flavour and colour of your choice along with any number of add-ins you wish. This mixture is then poured into the bowl of a specially adapted mixer, the beaters are started and then liquid nitrogen is sprayed into the bowl from overhead pipes, freezing your ice cream concoction instantly! It was amazing to watch and produced the smoothest creamiest ice cream imaginable! You certainly couldn’t get any fresher than this and all custom made – so cool!
Price: around $4
Location: i-Cream on North Milwaukee Avenue

International House of Pancakes (IHOP)
As the name suggests this chain sells an amazing selection of pancakes, waffles, crepes and breakfast savories set in a traditional American diner style. T and I went here for lunch on my last day and I got ridiculously excited upon seeing the menu – such a lot of indulgent choices – it was so hard to choose. In the end I went with whole-wheat oat, almond and walnut pancakes accompanied by cinnamon spiced apples and a swirl of cream. They came accompanied by a selection of four syrups for you to drizzle over yourself, just in case they weren’t indulgent enough!I was presented with a plate of four HUGE pancakes, each one was about the size of a saucer. I only managed about half but they tasted so so good, fluffy, nutty, spicy and drizzled in blueberry syrup mmmmm. It makes me smile just to think of them. A must try for anyone in the area, plus they are open 24hrs so you’ve no excuse not to visit. Just make sure you have a big appetite when you go.
Price: $5-$9
Location: IHOP & many locations

Other good things to do in the city include:
A trip up the Sears Tower. Now called the Willis Tower. It’s the tallest building in Chicago and visitors can visit the skydeck top floor for fantastic panoramic views of the city. They also have glass floored and walled balconies that extend out into the air. It’s quite thrilling stepping out onto one seemingly unsupported. Very long queues but worth the wait.

Navy Pier for good views of Lake Michigan, some fun souvenirs, boat tours and a good selection of food stands for lunch.

Don’t forget to enjoy a slice of Chicago deep dish pizza and when they say deep they mean deep. Imagine a deep quiche, only with pizza dough instead of pastry and then its absolutely crammed full of pizza toppings. It comes in HUGE slices, you’d be pushed to manage two, each slice is a meal in itself. I’m longing to try and recreate it. I was impressed with Lou Malnati’s Pizza.

The Art Institute of Chicago for some paintings, sculptures and soaking up some past and present artwork.

A visit to a local theatre is always fun and if you get there in the early evening you might get some last minute tickets. I got to see William Petersen (from CSI) in a play called Blackbird.

The Water Tower Place for a bit of up market retail therapy. Shops include Macys, Bloomindales and Williams Sonoma.

Lincoln Park Zoo is also well worth a visit. They have a fantastic collection of animals set around a large park. There is even a farmyard secrtion where you can go and watch the cows being milked or pet some goats. Plus its free!

The Bean sculpture in Millennium Park. A giant silver bean shaped sculpture that reflects the sky line around it. You can also walk underneath it which creates some very weird and wonderful photos as images of yourself bounce of the walls.

I had such a fantastic time in Chicago, I saw and ate so much and yet there was still lots more to do. I’m longing to go back – I didn’t have enough meal times to eat everything!


Jen said...

Glad you had a good time! We loved Chicago too and can't wait to go back. I'll have to put some of the places you visited on my list as well. We made it to the Hershey Store and Navy Pier. Loved Shedd Aquarium too!

The Caked Crusader said...

Sounds like a terrific holiday - I am drooling over all the wonderful photos.
Welcome home!

Simones Kitchen said...

Wow Katie... It looks like you had a loooot of Glad to hear you had a great time. Chicago is on my list of cities to visit for the next time when we are in the US. It's amazing how many different things you can find in the supermarkets there indeed! (and imagine that the selection in the UK tends to be bigger then the selection in Holland, so for me it's even more of a paradise!)

Nic said...

Oh wow!!!
What a fabulous place for a visit, this is a great post and everything does seem bigger over there. Swirls looks great, who can't resist a cupcake?

Johanna GGG said...

great trip, great write up and fantastic food - will look forward to seeing how this trip inspires your cooking - was glad to see pizza at the end as worried you only ate sweet food :-)

Anonymous said...

Wow! I hope to use this as a guide if I ever get to visit Chicago. Thank you! Anna

Breaked Ants said...

i have recipes 4 muffins -----post a photo of me and il send them

Abitofafoodie said...

Wow - looks like you had a fantastic time. And so many gorgeous goodies - I don't think I could be let loose in a cheesecake factory...!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

Now this is my kind of tour. Bakeries and cake shops and Chicago pizza which I loved! You look like you had a ball-thanks for sharing it!