Stellar Stella

Being a food blogger is really starting to have its perks. The only thing better than making money off of my writing is getting free wine and pizza, which is precisely what I did last week at a chef-run pizza making class at Stella Barra. The public relations rep who emailed me called it a media event. Ego boost? Maybe a little. I even decided to bring my fancy camera instead of my iPhone to look extra official.

Lettuce Entertain You and Chef Jeff Mahin opened Stella Barra in November, just weeks after its shared space restaurant, Summer House Santa Monica. Like Summer, Stella Barra is originally from Los Angeles and Chicagoans are allegedly coining the pizza “California Style”. Although the vibe in Summer House screams California with its bleached wood and wicker, Stella Barra clearly kept Chicago in mind with its dark tables, black leather booths and exposed pipes. A back patio is also awaiting temperatures above 50 degrees. You can bet I will be reserving a spot there come July.

You know when you meet someone and you can just tell that they are genuinely kind and humble? I instantly felt that way about Chef Jeff Mahin. Over red wine and perfectly risen glass jars of pizza dough, Mahin told eight food bloggers (six with unrelated day jobs) about his journey to create the perfect pizza.

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It all started at L20, where Chef Mahin and his business partner, Frances Brennan became friends over freshly baked bread. Fast forward a few years and their pizza idea was piloted. With a butcher paper list of “pizza pros and cons”, the two came together to create what they envisioned as the perfect pizza. Mahin wanted his pizza to have that same warmth and heartiness that was in the bread he baked at L20.

Their recipe seems simple enough; flour, salt and water. The secret is in the flour that they use. Mahin sources it from an independent farmer that combines red and white wheat. The name of the farmer? Therein lies the secret, as Mahin remains sweetly tight lipped about revealing a name.

This conversation transitioned smoothly into the beginning of rolling out our dough and our chef teacher made us all feel like real chefs as he showed us the art of pulling it to the perfect consistency.

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Chef Jeff Mahin schooling bloggers on the art of throwing pizza dough.

With perfect-ish pizza circles intact, Chef handed us wooden pizza peels that we sprinkled with cornmeal before placing our floured dough on top. A base of red or white sauce awaited us at the pizza bar with luxurious toppings like purple kale, house-made sausage and butternut squash.

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Cheesy goodness and house-made sausage

“Any toppings you guys don’t see, we can get you. Just ask!” Mahin busied himself with our pies, making sure we were thoroughly pleased with our options. See what I mean about the kindness?

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Base sauces, red and white

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My pizza before: white base, mushrooms, garlic, caramelized onions, sausage, fresh mozzarella, parmesan

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My pizza after, same toppings.

Our pizzas were placed in 515 degree ovens for 12 minutes. No pizza stone, bricks or wood fire in this place.

“Everyone should have a one inch piece of steel at the bottom of their oven,” Chef Mahin proclaims. “It’s a genius cooking secret that helps everything cook evenly.”

Mahin even admitted that the pizza oven at the original Stella Barra in Los Angeles was purchased at a junkyard for $5,000.

“We are at a point where we have broken knobs from Home Depot stapled on the doors, but we love its integrity.”

The pizza was incredible. A perfect texture with phenomenal flavor. You could feel in the crust the warmth and density of a loaf of fresh baked bread, but in a pizza form. Aside from our own pies, Chef Mahin made us some of Stella Barra’s signature pizzas. My personal favorite was the prosciutto and farm egg. We also tried some of the kitchen’s smoked grapes and burrata, which were both rich, decadent and fresh.

And after we had gorged ourselves with pizza, we were brought homemade cookies from the Jack and Jill bakery that separates (or joins) the two sister restaurants, along with Chef’s favorite dessert, a butterscotch and salted caramel pudding which gave me a new affection for butterscotch, caramel and pudding. Salt and I have been in love for years.

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At the end of the event, I thanked the chef for a fantastic meal and handed him my homemade business card.

“Sarcastic?” Chef chuckled. “How are you going to fit sarcasm into your post about us?”

It took me a minute to answer him appropriately, given my sarcastic temperament.

“I promise. There will be no sarcasm about the caliber of this pizza. I loved everything about it.”

I hope I held true to my word. And three hours later, an empty pizza box rented out space in my garbage can, not a crumb to be seen.

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Bite Me

I have a sufficient amount of nerd in me and have always loved the notion of joining a book club. Even though the idea of it makes me feel that I am officially taking a leap into adulthood, it seems like an appealing concept to read a great book that you can discuss with friends or peers. Some people have babies to make them realize they are actually adults, I just use the Kindle app on my iPad.

When one of my work friends told me about a book club some of the teachers were putting together, I was excited to join and even more excited when I was chosen to pick the second book. I had heard of The Kitchen House over and over again and it came highly recommended by several readers whose opinions I trust. Unfortunately, I could not get past chapter 4.

So, when the club met last Thursday night, I was relieved and mildly embarrassed that only two of the six girls actually finished the book. Two never started it and the other two (one being myself) are hoping to finish it before 2016. And so, with these pitiful statistics, we mutually agreed that our book club will now be a dinner club until further notice.

Bite Cafe has come up on my radar a lot in the last year. I saw it on Check, Please! a few months back and during my brief stint in Bucktown/Logan Square, I had planned to try it out. Though I never got a chance to stop by before my move to River North, I was happy that one of my fellow book club members suggested it for our dinner outing.

It is a relatively small BYOB that focuses on lots of healthy options, like tofu tacos and a housemade veggie burger. We instantaneously ordered the poutine and mussels and fries to share among the table. It was Thursday after all and seeing that it was 6:00 and we eat lunch at 11:15, this was a considerably late dinner for us. We all know there is no possibility of starting a diet on a Thursday anyway.

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Poutine- French fries with bacon gravy, cheese curds and pickled chiles

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Mussels and fries with shallots, garlic, bacon, smoked paprika butter and white wine

For dinner, I chose the falafel sandwich with smoked eggplant and a chickpea, tomato and herb salad and a side of trendy mixed vegetables.  Both were delicious and surprisingly light in comparison to the former appetizers.

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I loved Bite Cafe and definitely would love to go back. The prices were reasonable and the brunch is supposedly out of this world. Though our party did not save room for dessert, the milkshakes and salted brownie sundae looked like winners.  Next time I may just order those for dinner.

Dee Dee’s Ami

Every winter as a child and teenager, I would visit my grandparents  in southern Florida. I have gone back many times as an adult and every time I do, I always find that there is so much nostalgia that surrounds it. Certain restaurants, smells and inside jokes with my brothers undoubtedly surface and it brings me right back to my childhood every time.

One story that my mother loves to tell, took place before I was born. Like every Jew in America, a trip to Florida always involved a night in Miami, where we waited for hours to eat at the infamous Joe’s Stone Crab. My grandmother, Dee Dee, had been referencing going to Miami and my brother overheard. Later on, when my mother mentioned Miami, my brother matter-of-factly said, “It’s not your ami, it’s Dee Dee’s ami.” To this day, every time I hear Miami, that story replays in my head.

Miami has taken on a new meaning for me as an adult. One of my best friends from high school has lived there for years and a trip to Miami now means spending time with her and her new baby and of course, trying the amazing restaurants.

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Prosecco for us, pacifier for Emma

On my most recent visit, the two of us went for drinks on the bay with the baby and to dinner later on just the two of us. Having only one night there, it was difficult to choose a restaurant, but Yardbird Southern Kitchen and Bar came highly recommended and it completely lived up to everything I had heard.

Miami has such an eclectic mix of restaurants and Yardbird’s ambiance is hipster meets Southern belle. Fresh herbs adorn the bar for craft cocktails and intimate tables feel community-like. We spoke with both parties on either side of us.

This particular friend is not particularly adventurous (strike one) does not like to share (strike two) and happens to love ordering everything on the side of her dish (strike three). Basically, she orders a clean plate. Luckily, we found a way to meet in the middle and I convinced her to betray Paleo for the evening…well, a little bit anyway.

The Sunday chicken has had a starring role in my dreams for the last two weeks. Imagine the most perfect roasted chicken taken to another level by an herb and breadcrumb crust rubbed underneath the skin to create a juicy stuffing. Yeah. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

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Slow roasted whole chicken, herb butter breadcrumbs, marble potatoes, roasted garlic, rosemary, thyme, chicken jus

Then there were the buttermilk biscuits. So fluffy, so fresh, hot, doughy. I could keep listing adjectives but you would be better off just making a point to go there.

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The fogginess in this picture is actual biscuit steam

The charred okra, grilled mango salad and chicken liver toast were also delicious and fresh. I did not want this meal to end and even though my list of Miami restaurants to try is growing rapidly, I think I need to give Yardbird a repeat performance.

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Butter lettuce, char-grilled mango, smoked pecans, benne seed vinaigrette

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Chicken liver toast on grilled country bread, cucumber and fresno pepper relish

The chicken and homemade biscuits alone made me wonder what was better, being in 80 degree weather or eating this meal? Either way, I surely was not ready to go home.