Backpacking Lebanon in 48 Hours–Beirut, Baalbeck, Jeita, Byblos, Anjar and More

In a bit under 48 hours in Lebanon I’ve managed to hit up Baalbeck, Anjar, Ksara, Jeita, Byblos, Harissa and Beirut. It’s been an odd mix of UNESCO Roman ruins, Christian and Islamic religious complexes, beaches and vineyards, and even a bit of Paris thrown in.

I’m exhausted and sunburnt, and a bit sick of eating humus and pita bread, and to be honest, I found Beirut a bit disappointing–felt a bit soul-less and artificial. But outside of Beirut, who knew there were so many ancient and well preserved Roman ruins in Lebanon? Yes, there were some ok beaches and lots of fresh produce, seafood from the Mediterranean, and even Lebanese vineyards (I had some horrendous wines from Ksara btw), but the real winner for me was the ancient ruins.

In particular, if there was only one site in all of Lebanon I had to recommend, it’d be Baalbeck, one of THE ancient cities of the world. First built by the Phoenicians, then conquered by the Greeks, Romans, and the crusaders, Baalbeck takes the cake for having one of the best preserved roman temples in the world–the Temple of Bacchus, along with stunning remains of the temples of Jupiter and Venus.

The second best thing in Lebanon for me was the Jieta Grotto, which is a huge underground cavern with incredible rock formations and a subterranean lake. It’s advertised as a finalist for one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, and definitely worth a trip out of Beirut and even to Lebanon for, though unfortunately for this post, no photos were permitted.

Overall, if I didn’t have an interest in UNESCO sites and Roman ruins, I might have been very very bored and just gotten even more suntanned here in Beirut while boozing it out on the town–the nightlife here is supposed to be infamous, but for this lone traveler who has lived in Paris, I can definitely say Beirut is no Paris, and while it’s been fun, two days has been more than enough here in Lebanon.

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Once Upon a Table–A Secret Dining Society in Hong Kong

It’s been a spectacularly fruitful time since my last post, with trips to the Icehotel in Sweden, scuba diving in Palau, and even an expedition in Antarctica. I admit, I’ve been a bit lazy in posting, but I’ve decided to FINALLY break the lull with Once Upon a Table, Hong Kong’s version of a secret dining society or supper club–something akin to the pop up dinners of Wolvesmouth, LudoBites, and Pheast in LA.

I admit, anything Michelin in Hong Kong has largely bored me, and the food scene here has been relatively unsatisfying outside of my time exploring the private kitchen scene, but Once Upon a Table caught my eye as something a bit quirky and interesting. Basically, four amateur chefs and a sommelier try to tell stories through the medium of a meal, and a secret list of members gather each time to partake, each time at a different location somewhere in Hong Kong.

My particular visit to Once Upon a Table was centered around the theme of “It’s Riesling Time,” which aimed to demonstrate the ability of riesling to pair with a breadth of dishes, from scallop crudo and fish tacos, to liver pate on gingerbread and cheese. I didn’t quite think all the rieslings paired perfectly, especially with the cheeses, but there were some winners, including my favourite dish of the evening–the homemade riesling pate on freshly baked gingerbread, which was kicked up a notch by a pairing from Alsace.  Overall, kudos on the concept. Kudos on the dishes. And kudos for a good effort in trying to do some interesting pairings and getting a bunch of foodies together to enjoy. For anyone who hasn’t gone yet, you should definitely check it out. Probably catch you there next time!

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Louis Vuitton – Made for Maharajas Cocktail Party Hong Kong

The Louis Vuitton–Made for Maharajas Cocktail Party in Hong Kong is the latest of a series of events I’ve been hitting up recently. The occasion was to meet Dr. Amin Jaffer, author of “Made for Maharajas: A Design Diary of Princely India”, who also curates Asian art at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Of particular interest to me was the food catered by Mandarin Oriental, which I thought did a great job as usual; this time they themed a lot of the food around a princely India theme. Keeping this post short, so ending here, but great event with great food and the usual moneyed Tatler crew. Enjoy the photos.

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Chateau Angelus Wine Tasting with owner Hubert de Bouard de Laforest at Michelin 2 Star Petrus

In line with some recent cool experiences including the opening gala of the Italian Cuisine World Summit, cooking with Michelin 2 Star Italian Chefs Marco Sacco and Claudio Sadler, and wine tasting with Master of Wine Jeannie Cho Lee, I recently had the fortune of attending a Chateau Angelus tasting at restaurant Petrus with Chateau Angelus owner Hubert de Bouard de Laforest.

Petrus has been a haunt of mine over the years and serves up decent, classic Michelin-starred French food in an old-school, slightly stuffy atmosphere at Island Shangri-La in Hong Kong. But this Chateau Angelus wine tasting could have been held at McDonalds or Tsui Wah and I still would have been there. In this particular case, I don’t remember too much about the Petrus meal itself. A bunch of decent dishes, but nothing really memorable except a sangria risotto with red fruit caviar, which tastes a lot better than it sounds, though somewhat out of place for an otherwise standard French menu of the usual truffe noir, champignons des bois, volaille de Bresse, fois gras and veau. Michelin gives it 2 stars, though I personally think it’s one star too many, especially if you compare it to say Michelin 2 starred Amber at Mandarin Oriental.

But in terms of the wines supplied by Hubert de Bouard de Laforest of Chateau Angelus that night, wow, just spectacular. Chateau Angelus for those of you who don’t know, is a Saint-Emilion Premier Grand Gru Classe. Hubert de Bouard de Laforest also acquired La Fleur de Bouard, now the second wine of Chateau Angelus in Pomerol, and Chateau Bellevue, a Saint-Emilion Grand Cru estate. I’ve been doing a lot of wine tastings over the past ten years, but all these were a first for me…and man, what a first.

We started with a Champagne Marguet Pere et Fils Brut Reserve Grand Cru NV (approx. US$50) with our canapes, and then moved onto bottles of Chateau La Fleur de Bouard 2006 & 2005 (approx. US$40 & US$50 per bottle, respectively), Grand Cru Classe 2003, 1995 & 1990 (approx. US$220, US$270 & US$470 per bottle, respectively), and finally a bottle of Chateau Bellevue Grand Cru 2001 (approx. US$60 per bottle), all while being paired with various Petrus dishes. I don’t want to bore you with descriptions of the wines and try to pretend I’m a wine connoisseur by saying the wines were smooth and elegant and that I detected an earthiness with flavours of cassis, anise, tobacco, cocoa, blah, blah, blah…. Let’s just say the wines were awesome and I’d drink them all again, though for my own palate (as well as my wallet), I think the Chateau La Fleur de Bouard and the Chateau Bellevue Grand Cru are an amazing value for money.

While I’m generally not a fan of wines with Asian food (see my previous posting with Master of Wine Jeannie Cho Lee), I think the pairings in this case worked well. The food was helped tremendously by the pairings of Chateaux La Fleur de Bouard, Angelus and Bellevue. And while I honestly don’t remember the food from that night, I still remember the wines, and I’ll definitely be having another round, though probably only of the Chateau La Fleur de Bouard and the Chateau Bellevue until my wallet recovers from my most recent trip out to Scandinavia and the Baltics (who knew Scandinavia is one of the most expensive places on earth?).

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Grandi Marchi Wine Tasting with Jeannie Cho Lee, the First Ever Asian Master of Wine

Being a food blogger has its perks, and one of them was landing a seat at the Grandi Marchi Italian Wine Tasting hosted at the Jockey Club in Hong Kong with Asian Palate’s Jeannie Cho Lee, Master of Wine. Though I can hold my own against a sommelier in any Michelin 3 star restaurant, I’m not a wine expert (not a novice either), and it’s always good to go to wine tastings to learn from those with more sophisticated wine palates.

Jeannie Cho Lee has such a palate. In fact, she is the first Asian woman ever to have achieved a Master of Wine distinction, and she makes her bread and butter off being THE authority on wines for the Asian palate. So for the Grandi Marchi wine tasting, we paired some of Italy’s finest wines with some of Hong Kong’s most traditional Cantonese dishes: wonton soup, steamed fish with soy sauce, roasted duck, and roasted pork.

Basically, Ms. Lee argued that umami from soy along with MSG are nearly universal to Cantonese cuisine and give Cantonese food a distinct flavour that needs to be taken into account when pairing with wines. However, while there were some decent Grandi Marchi wines, including favourites of mine such as Masi and Antinori, the pairing with wonton soup, steamed soy fish, and roasted duck and pork just didn’t work for me.

Perhaps it was because the Jockey Club serves THE WORST Cantonese food in all of Hong Kong and that the food served was nearly inedible. But even if the food had been half decent, generally I’m not a fan of pairing wines with Chinese or Asian cuisine. Don’t get me wrong, I like my wines, just not necessarily with Asian food, and not all the time.

I never really shared in the universal obsession with drinking wines with every meal, and have long been a believer in the wide range of pairing possibilities beyond wines. Call it a matter of personal preference, but I don’t think MSG and umami flavours like soy mix well with the tannins in wines, and there’s a reason why Chinese and other Asian cuisines have traditionally always been paired with tea, beer, and other alcohols such as sake, sochu, etc. Jeannie Cho Lee might be the expert on wines and pairings for the Asian palate, but from the Grandi Marchi Grand Tasting, the best part for me was the wines, but not as pairings, and as for the food, for all you non-Jockey Club members, you’re not missing out on anything.

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Cooking Italian with Michelin 2 Star Chef Claudio Sadler & Vittorio Lucariello

Getting down and dirty with Michelin 2 Star Chef Claudio Sadler to cook a three course Italian meal was just plain awesome. Sadler is one of the big Italian chefs, and I’ve known about him for well over a decade from my earlier days in Milan, Tokyo, and Beijing. So when the opportunity to cook with Sadler as part of the Italian World Cuisine Summit came up, I wasn’t going to pass it by.

Earlier in the week I had done a more tamed down cooking demonstration with Italian Michelin 2 Star Chef Marco Sacco and a bunch of middle-aged housewives, but to actually have Sadler yelling at my incompetence in the industrial kitchens of the Shangri-La in Hong Kong with a full Italian media crew filming was so much more fun.

So on the menu was (1) Pancake (Calzone) Stuffed with Burrata and Turnip Greens, (2) Risotto with Toasted 27-month aged Grana Padano and Powdered Trumpet Mushrooms and (3) White Chocolate Panettone Cake with Fresh Fruit Salad. Seemed simple enough, but after three hours of preparation and cooking, I started to realize that cooking Italian Sadler style was anything but.

As a food blogger and a guy who does an immense amount of eating, it doesn’t take a whole lot of skill. It’s pretty easy to sit back, eat (and drink), and form an opinion on a meal. But to actually see Chef Salder in action prepping and executing each dish helped remind me how talented and accomplished any chef with a Michelin star really is. It takes some real skill to consistently turn out quality dishes one after the next for an entire restaurant.

Eitherway, bottom line, my cooking class with Chef Sadler was informative, fun and tasty, and if you’re ever in Hong Kong and want to hone those Italian culinary skills, know that the Kowloon Shangri-La hosts weekly classes at Restaurant Angelini.

I won’t go into too much detail on the recipes for all the dishes since they’re really long, complicated, and oh so so high in carbs, butter, oil and sugar. But to save myself future tweets @3starbackpacker asking for the recipes, I will share my favourite dish of the class, which was the Pancake (Calzone) stuff with Burrata and Turnip Greens. If you’re not interested in recipes, you can stop reading here.

Otherwise, for those interested in a Sadler recipe and actually going to attempting burrata and turnip green stuffed pancakes, continue reading. For ingredients you’ll need: 100 g all-wheat flour; 80 g flour; 50 g wheat beer; 8 g  fresh yeast; 1 egg; 250 g milk; 3 kg broccoli; 250 g mozzarella cheese; 10 g chopped pepper; 2 garlic cloves; 100 g bacon; 100 g olive oil; 400 g fresh tomato; and salt & pepper to taste.

For preparation, first, mix together the flour, milk, egg, beer and yeast and let the mixture rest 2 hours at room temperature. This will serve as your pancake mixture. For the filling, you will need to clean your broccoli, boil it, let it cool and then chop it into little bits. Separately, cut the bacon into fine strips, and then degrease in a frying pan together with garlic. Combine the garlic and bacon with your broccoli, and then add in diced mozzarella cheese, chopped pepper, salt and pepper. As an additional step, sauté a clove of garlic, add fresh tomatoes and cook for 20 minutes. Season to taste and throw into mixture.

For the cooking part, preheat a pan and grease with olive oil. Pour in the flour mixture until hardened, and then fill the top of the flour mixture with the broccoli mixture. Fold the flour pancake in half and finish cooking in an oven at 180 degrees Celsius for 5 minutes. To top it all off, you can throw on a table spoon of tomato sauce on top, and then even throw in a nice creamy burrata sauce, which you needs to cook at 65 degrees Celsius for half an hour with milk and a dash of salt. Unfortunately, there are no recipes listed for the sauces, and this is all I have from my notes. Happy cooking!

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Eating at Noma, the World’s Best Restaurant.

Photos up from Noma’s last service of 2010. Excellent meal and definitely one of the best restaurants in the world. It may be a Michelin 2 Star, but it’s a 3 Star in my book, and rivals the best of them, including El Bulli, Fat Duck, etc. Eitherway, photos up for now. Full post and review to come.

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Master White Truffle Cooking Class with Michelin 2 Star Chef Marco Sacco and Truffle Hunter Franco Canta

It’s not very often you get to do a cooking class with a Michelin 2 Star Chef, especially one who has flown half way around the world and who specializes in Italian cuisine. But with the World Italian Cuisine Summit last month, and over a dozen Italian Michelin starred chefs flown in to cook around the theme of white truffles, there were some pretty cool events going on in Hong Kong, including my cooking class with Michelin 2 Star Chef Marco Sacco and famed truffle hunter Franco Canta.

For some reason, I happened to be the only young guy in my 20s at the event. Actually, the only guy I think. Otherwise, it was me with about 2 dozen middle aged “housewives” (also known in HK as “taitais”) fawning over the smell of white truffles and Chef Sacco’s and truffle hunter Canta’s Italian charm. The three courses were: (1) beef and tuna tartar with white truffles, (2) Carnaroli risotto with beetroot, chilly oil and white truffles, and (3) a liquid tiramisu with white truffles.

I admit, I’m a sucker for white truffles. The aroma turns me into something along the lines of a crazed 13 yr old girl at a Justin Bieber concert. And seeing the size of the massive white truffles supplied by suave Italian truffle hunter Franco Canta, and all the women around me going crazy as he shaved his big white truffles over their risotto, just made me think, hum, I’m in the wrong profession…

I won’t bore you with the recipes for Chef Sacco’s dishes since I haven’t tried cooking them myself, nor do I think I will anytime soon (I haven’t cooked a meal for myself in months). However, for me the experience was the celebration of the highly seasonal white truffle, and having a great Italian Michelin 2 Star chef cook a special meal designed around that theme.

My only wish would have been that we had even more white truffles on each dish. Truffles are extremely fragrant, and while shaving a truffle for a guest makes for good show, truffle shavings in small quantity are too delicate and subtle to really appreciate on the palate. But hey, with a market value per gram worth more than cocaine, and my ridiculously discounted first white truffle purchase ever, I’m a happy camper. Great event!

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White Truffle Gala Dinner of Italian Cuisine World Summit

The Opening King Truffle Gala Dinner for the Italian Cuisine World Summit in Hong Kong was spectacular. Michelin starred chefs Pier Bussetti, Giovanni Grasso, Ignor Macchia, Marco Sacco and Sergio Vineis of Piemote were flown in to prepare a menu celebrating the white truffles of San Damiano d’Asti, which were personally selected by the famed truffle Hunter Franco Canta.

White truffles are extremely seasonal and difficult to obtain, and are in a league of their own compared to regular black truffles. They’re also extremely expensive. A 1.5 kilo (3.3lb) white truffle recently sold for US$330,000. As of Dec 2009, the Tuber magnatum truffles were sold at over 10,000 Euros per kilo. So given the rarity and cost for white truffles, being fortunate enough to have landed a seat at a white truffle dinner cooked by five different Michelin starred chefs was an experience like no other.

White truffle risotto with apple, marjoram and egg yolk

Giovanni Grasso and Igor Macchia cooked a classic Piemonte Fassone meat tartar with lobster, goose liver and shaved white truffle, followed by Pier Bussetti who did a lovely white truffle risotto with caramelized apple, fresh marjoram finished with egg yolk. The main entree of sausage, PDO Grana Padano cheese and plums stuffed quail with Nebbiolo grape wine sauce and shaved white truffles by Sergio Vineis was to die for. I would have flown to Italy just for this one dish–my favourite of the night. I also found Marco Sacco’s Sabayon with Piemonte’s typical crumbled cake and shaved white truffles extremely interesting–I’ve never had white truffles on a dessert, but it definitely worked for me.

Coupled with a nice selection of Italian wines including a nice Barolo Preve Riserva Gianni Gagliardo 2004, a Barolo Chinato Gianni Gagliardo NV, Barbera D’Alba DOC Sovrana Beni di Batasiolo 2008, etc., the Gala Dinner of the Italian Cuisine World Summit definitely lived up to expectations, and was a great way to sample the work of some of the top Italian Michelin chefs in the world without the trip over to Italy.

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Michelin Star Predictions and Recs for Chicago

After decades of thinking anything between NY and SF/LA was just a barren land of Walmarts and McDonalds, Chicago has proven me wrong…at least in terms of pure culinary awesomeness. Restaurants like Alinea and Moto rival El Bulli, Fat Duck, and Marc Veyrat in terms of creativeness and originality. Gastropubs like Longman & Eagle are every bit if not better than those in England. Hot Doug’s is a whole tier above LA’s Wurstkuche and Pink’s Hot Dogs. And Schwa, man, Schwa is revolutionary, just like Wolvesmouth.

There has been a lot of talk about Michelin’s Chicago picks, even with Michelin abandoning LA and Vegas, and despite its heavily criticized guides in Hong Kong, Italy and Japan, as well as the inconsistencies in its Michelin 3 Star ratings worldwide. But with limited time, money and stomach capacity, and several recs from tweeting foodies and bloggers, I narrowed my list down to 12 Chicago spots in 3.5 days.

Day 1 was Pizzeria Uno, Al’s Italian Beef and Spiaggia. Day 2 was Longman & Eagle, Publican and L2O. Day 3 was Schwa and Moto. And my final day was Hot Doug’s, Topolobampo, Graham Elliot and Alinea. All this came immediately after some hardcore eating in the D.C. area, including Ben’s Chili Bowl, the Chef’s Table at Volt by Bryan Voltaggio, and his Table 21 the day before.

The 3starbackpacker recs in Chicago go to Schwa, Alinea, and Hot Doug’s, in no particular order. Longman & Eagle and Moto come in a close 2nd. As for my Michelin predictions, they’re as follows:

Alinea: 3 Michelin Stars. 3starbackpacker highly recommended.

This was truly exceptional cuisine, worth the flight to Chicago alone. Alinea was innovative, creative and had excellent food with solid execution. I think it’s better than any other Michelin 3 Star in the U.S., including Robuchon (which recently had topped my list for best Michelin 3 Star in the U.S.), and along the lines of the great Michelin 3 Stars of Spain, including Sant Pau, Arzak and El Bulli. Service was top notch, though didn’t particularly enjoy a hard-sell wine pairing as soon as I sat done, which was almost as expensive as the full menu without being told the price or what the pairing was comprised of.

Schwa: 2 Michelin Stars. 3starbackpacker highly recommended.

GQ declared it “The Most Revolutionary Restaurant in America.” It really is. Schwa is a laid back, no fuss, BYOB restaurant run by a collaborative community of chefs led by proprietor Michael Carlson, who worked with Paul Bartolotta of Spiaggia, Grant Achatz of Alinea, and Heston Blumenthal of Fat Duck. It’s not polished like Alinea or Alain Ducasse by any means, nor an evening of molecular gastronomic dishes out of a mad scientist’s laboratory like Moto or El Bulli. Schwa is something all its own. Amazingly delicious, complex, and unforgettable. Schwa’s better than most of the Michelin 3 Stars out there, and if I ever go back to Chicago, this is where I’m going.

Moto: 2 Michelin Stars. 3starbackpacker recommended.

Had the 20 course Grand Tasting Menu here. Loved the edible menu, exploding Acme chocolate bomb, clam bake, ramen dessert, imitation cheese crepes, wagyu coffee, baseball cracker jacks, and melting margarita snowman. Every bit as fun, creative and original as Alinea, Marc Veyrat, The Bazaar by Jose Andres, though some dishes were conceptually better than they tasted, like their famous pulled pork Cuban cigar or their non-sushi sushi. Service wasn’t as flawless as Alinea or what you’d expect from a proper Michelin 3 Star, though a lot more friendly. Would pick Moto as a nice change of pace over a typical Michelin 2 or 3 Star.

L20: 1 Michelin Star

Had both the Singular 10 course tasting and the Fall 12 course tasting. Solid meal. Service was flawless, and room could compare to any of the best dining rooms in New York, London or Paris. A few hit or miss dishes here, and I found a lot of the dishes more aesthetically beautiful than they tasted. No particular dish knocked me off my feet, but if Spago, Melisse, Providence, Cyrus, Gordon Ramsay in New York and Guy Savoy in Vegas can get 2 stars, maybe L2O will too.

Spiaggia: 1-2 Michelin Stars

John Mariani of Esquire Magazine gave Spiaggia 3 Mariani Stars in his Michelin predictions, and considers Chef Bartolotta’s Spiaggia one of the best Italian joints in the U.S. Well, let’s just say Spiaggia’s seafood carpaccio, truffle gnocchi and chocolate mousse blew my mind, and I don’t even like chocolate or sweets in general. Overall an excellent meal, along the lines of Il Mulino, Del Posto and Babbo in terms of quality and atmosphere.

Topolobampo: 0-1 Michelin Stars

After seeing Rick Bayless win Top Chef Masters and seeing how he brought Tex-Mex cuisine to a level of true gastronomy, coupled with John Mariani giving Toplobampo 2 Mariani stars, Topolobampo was probably the biggest disappointment in Chicago for me. My main entree of Carnitas en Guasmole and the pairing with Bonarda wine were good, both a step above what you’d get from say El Torito. However, the chips and guacamole didn’t beat out El Torito or grocery store guacamole, my trio of ceviches were pretty standard fare, my Bunelo de Manzana dessert unmemorable, and the Cafe de Olla undrinkably sweet. All said, I’d go back to check out the full tasting menu and to try out a few more dishes, since I didn’t really get a full sampling of Rick Bayless’ menu.

Graham Elliot: 1 Michelin Star

Top Chef Graham Elliot’s Chicago joint came recommended by a few Tweeting foodies and bloggers. Reviews on this place are mixed, but I had a pretty good experience at Graham Elliot. My dinner started off so so with truffled popcorn and deconstructed Caesar salad with a Twinkie crouton, but just got better with each course, including a butternut bisque with ginger marshmallow with toasted peptic, a fois gras snap crackle pop lollipop, and a campfire stout cocktail with chocolate peanut butter smores. Coupled with an excellent pairing of beers, cocktails and wines by beverage director Michael Simon who kicked my meal up a notch, thumbs up to Graham Elliot.

Longman & Eagle: 1 Michelin Star. 3starbackpacker recommended.

This is a great whisky gastropub that John Mariani of Esquire gave 2 Mariani Stars, and that has gotten a lot of great reviews. Longman & Eagle is good as other Michelin starred gastropubs I’ve been to, though as a preface, I came for brunch, which has a more limited menu. Nonetheless, my brunch of a baked cheese apple salad and a pork belly BLT with egg all hit the spot, all washed down with perhaps the best Old Fashion I’ve ever had. If I’m ever back in Chicago, 100% I’ll be here for dinner.

Publican: 0-1 Michelin Stars.

A lot of fellow Tweeters raved about Publican as being better than even L20 and Moto. It’s basically simple farm fare in a beer hall atmosphere, and I managed a few ales along with pork rinds, oysters, homemade charcuterie and boudin noir. Food was simple and good, though reminded me of a lot of charcuterie-serving bistros I’ve been to in the past. If I lived in Chicago, it’d be a regular spot for me.

Hot Doug’s: 1 Michelin Star. 3starbackpacker highly recommended.

Hot Doug’s is just plain awesome. Where else can you get a Fois Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage Hot Dog? I’m still bummed I went on a non-duck fat fries day. Next time I’m in Chicago, heading back there and trying every gourmet dog on the menu. Hot Doug’s beat out Pizzeria Uno’s deep dish and Al’s Italian beef as my choice for favorite Chicago grub. So much for my Wurstkuche and Pink’s Hot Dogs obsession.

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