Summer House Santa Monica (Chicago)

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset That central "YES" mark on the crisp white backdrop spoke to me upon entering Summer House Santa Monica this past Sunday afternoon. I quickly learned its first impression is a lasting impression amongst the crowd, who harmoniously affirms every aspect of the establishment. The bright and open space, the eclectic menu, the spectacular service, and the cookie-lined sweet shop collectively sing "yes" to every dining guest.

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The well-versed menu isn't overwhelming or unfocused like many "American" spots; it's selective and sophisticated, from the lobster tempura sushi roll and ahi tuna taco to the squid ink pasta and brioche lobster roll. Of course, I had issues choosing an entrée, but that's primarily due to my indecisiveness. I chose the freshly baked brioche bun with lobster and a crisp green salad. I was very content with my decision.

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The smooth guacamole and smoked salsa appetizer was a home run, naturally. We squeezed fresh lime over the tortilla chips to mimic Chipotle's infamous tang. The dish disappeared within minutes.

The cauliflower side was a surprise winner. Roasted with a jalapeño pesto and then topped with a fascinating textural mix of candied lemon and parmesan. Bread crumbs to finish, and bam. The presentation was stunning, as well.


On the way out, we couldn't help ourselves but order an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie to-go. I highly recommend a similar ritual -- Wouldn't you love to carry the spirit of Summer House with you home? The answer? YES.


Ralph Lauren Restaurant (Chicago)

My Memphis interlude between weekends in Chicago and New Orleans has served as a breath of fresh air. Summertime travels have been a doozy, though they've been no less than exhilarating. And as I flipped through the new July issue of Bon Appetit this morning, I realized, "Oh crap! Fourth of July is in four days and I don't have a red, white and blue recipe for the blog." Then, I realized, "Oh, yeah. I balance Caramelized with a full-time and part-time job, am in the midst of possibly purchasing a town home, and am staring at a bare fridge due to my insane travel schedule."

Reality check. And though I most likely will find the time to pick up fresh berries for a blueberry cobbler (priorities), the recipe may not arise in time for your holiday planning. My apologies, truly!


However, while scrolling through photos from this past girls' weekend in Chicago, the Ralph Lauren restaurant brunch shots kept catching my eye. Quintessentially patriotic from the iconic Polo symbol to the American classics menu, RL Restaurant had me swooning over every red, white and blue flourish. I prepared myself for a blog post without even realizing!

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We sat on the breezy Chicago Avenue patio and ordered from the model-esque waiter, whom I swear could have been featured in a Ralph Lauren catalogue. Once complimentary pastries and a few coffees were served in the classic "RL" labeled coffee cup and saucer, we ordered two hearty dishes between the three of us; one sweet, one savory.

The gold coast benedict was simply too good. Who needs an English muffin when you can base your benedict with a perfectly prepared potato pancake? I felt like I had just received a new favorite Jewish holiday present: a golden latke that doubly served as a new breakfast concept. Happy Chanukah to me. Poached eggs and smoked salmon toppers, with hollandaise on the side, comprised the total package.

More notably of the thematic color palette was the berry and granola parfait. Sure, you think you have had a yogurt parfait before...But no parfait beats the RL version. Piped layers of extra dense, honey Greek yogurt were flecked with fragrant vanilla bean. Every berry was, of course, delectable, and the honey granola served as a mild, complementary texture to the other two ingredients.

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Though I know most of you will not be residing in Chicago for the holiday weekend, I hope Ralph Lauren's iconic inspiration serves you well for Independence Day. I'll be road-tripping to New Orleans to Bacchanal and St. Roch Market, among others.

Cheers to red, white, blue, and latkes!

Where to Brunch in Chicago

IMG_9256 As I already established during my write-ups of Sunda and Mercadito, you can't really go wrong with Chicago dining spots. Especially brunch spots. Everything about a "brunch" intrigues me, from the feminine undertones and focus on coffee, to the fried eggs and fruit. My best girls and I dined at three brunch spots in Chicago from Saturday-Monday of our long weekend. Yes, we did work.


Our first brunch (and my personal favorite) was Beatrix. The combination of fresh-squeezed sweet valencia orange juice and a slightly bitter, rich soy cappuccino was fabulous. I had to force myself to drink the hot and cold beverages with composure -- I hate the feeling of finishing before the meal arrives! I shared quinoa cakes with poached eggs with Ashley, along with a side of sliced tomato and avocado (yes, that's a side on their menu.). We were very happy. The spicy chicken tinga is apparently a not-to-miss brunch dish as well. Our group grabbed a just-baked, extra large chocolate chip cookie for the walk around downtown. The pastry is on my friend Brenna's top five favorites list. That's a credible validation of the cookie's deliciousness, in case you were wondering.


Chicago q's commonly known as an urban barbecue restaurant with Southern touches, but our Sunday brunch (complete with bloody mary bar) had a savory selection of wildly creative approaches to the first meal of the day. The benedict flight was super rich but impressive -- Kobe brisket stacked on a cheddar-chive biscuit? Hello. I enjoyed the fresh, grilled fruit assortment over housemade granola. I also shared a sweet potato hash that reminded me of my at-home version with a smokier flavor. The modern ambiance and well-versed menu made for a lovely meal in the city.


Our final morning in Chicago pulled us to Pierrot Gourmet french café at the Peninsula Luxury Hotel. Most of us ordered the egg white frittata with oven-dried tomato, spinach and feta. They arrived piping hot in individual cast-iron skillets and, ooh, did that first bite hit the spot! I felt fueled (and proud of my healthy food choice) for my plane ride back to Memphis.

Happy brunching, y'all. Where is your favorite place to order your coffee and eggs in Chi-town?

Mercadito (Chicago)

10609639_10202949740603781_8774902288918479729_n I'm still trying to figure out why Austin, Texas, the capital of "Tex-Mex + Girls' Nights Out" meals has never (to my knowledge) offered the brilliant large-party feature that proves to be Mercadito's specialty for bachelorette parties, coupled groups, or hungry girls like ourselves. The Tex-Mex on our tastebuds had the seven of us craving anything and everything about Austin (as we do daily), but this Chicago restaurant gave us the perfect taste of the place where we found the finest of friendship.

For $30/person (of parties of seven+), our party chose three types of guacamole, 2 types of salsa, 4 types of tacos, 2 sides, and a dessert tasting. The spread (and service) was glorious. Here's what we chose and highly enjoyed:

Tradicional, mango, and torreado (chile, garlic, oregano) guacamoles. Tomatillo and verde salsas. Shrimp tacos with mojo and avocado. Skirt steak tacos with jicama slaw and crispy shallots. Chicken al carbon tacos with roasted corn, queso fresco, and crispy avocado. Blackened swordfish tacos with cabbage-jalapeño slaw. Mexican-style corn on the cob (the winner). Home-style rice with black beans.

An impossible feat, the meal arrived plate by plate, with a full serving of every dish to feed our overwhelmed appetites. Besides a few super-spicy components, every dish was executed with originality and high quality. The quantity of food and attention to ingredients were well worth my "per person" check. In fact, I urge you to find six or more friends, make a reservation, and order the exact list above. Plus a cucumber pepino el pyu cocktail (below), which was so fabulous I could've had my own pitcher.


Sunda (Chicago)

10377161_10202949751724059_932832358847538060_n When it comes to dining in Chicago, it is essentially impossible to veer off the path of unbelievable options: deep dish pizza drive-bys, brunch spots on every corner, and the dirtiest dirty martinis around. I'm thankful I did not move to the city specifically for the sake of my waist size. But I am thankful I visited, for Brenna and Paige's hospitality and planning surpassed all expectations for my first trip to Chicago since age ten (when I admittedly traveled to Chicago with my mother and grandmother solely to visit the American Girl Museum).

Sunda New Asian hosted our final dinner in the city after a toast at Trump Tower "to many more reunions!" Our waiter swooned us into ordering every sushi roll or starter he recommended. We were told that all plates are meant to be shared and would arrive as they were prepared in the kitchen. The system was perfect for a group dinner and kept our chatter flowing for almost three hours.

For starters, we knocked it out of the park with 3 dishes: crispy brussels sprouts (think ultimate asian chopped salad), steamed shiitake edamame dumplings, and tiger shrimp tempura  You will not find this shrimp tempura anywhere else; Sunda's tempura batter is crispy and light rather than panko-crusted and flaky. The bowl of shrimp is then tossed in a stickily superb honey aioli, whole candied walnuts, and subtle herb garnishes, an unthinkable, out-of-this world combination. Six of us shared the three with some bites remaining, so be aware that not all of Sunda's specialties imply small plates. However, you must get all three. We did not have one weak link throughout the meal, so obviously I am suggesting to copy my order with you and your seven girlfriends!


Sunda's crispy rice with tuna and jalapeno, comparable to the famed Katsuya's, could have easily been my favorite first bite on our entire Chicago vacation. Why isn't all rice served crispy?! The execution was flawless, in my opinion. If only Sunda delivered long-distance.

The sushi at Sunda approached traditional rolls with creative elements such as asparagus in a rainbow roll and unagi in a shrimp tempura roll. The fish tasted as if the sea were in Sunda's backyard -- fine and fresh as ever. The tuna sashimi (below) was brilliantly served with a crab cake crust and hot mustard; I am still attempting to solve how Sunda keeps the tuna raw yet pan fries the crab. Brilliant.


We were (without much persuasion) also swooned into not one, but two desserts. The blueberry seasonal cobbler with vanilla bean ice cream proved an automatic winner, but "The Ridiculous" (yes, that's the title) transformed a ginger carrot cake into glaze form for an amusing ice cream topping. The caramel and nuts took my taste buds back to a traditional butter pecan ice cream favorite.


Feast with your eyes, and then reserve your next feast for Sunda while next in Chicago.