Why You Can't Miss Giant

August 26 2016 - 9:00 AM

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There’s a tiny place next to Scofflaw at the corner of Kedzie and Armitage, and it’s making big waves. Giant may be small in size but it’s enormous in flavor, personality and charm. Chef Josh Vincent of Nightwood fame opened Giant earlier this summer, and its steadily picked up to the point where scoring a reservation is not for the faint of heart. Here’s why you should make your reservation now.

1. The Space

From the modern decor to the Shel Silverstein quote on the wall, this restaurant oozed a sort of welcoming sophistication. Even the plates wowed me.

2. The Drinks

I fell in love with the wine I ordered, a light, effervescent white that was the perfect summer night beverage. The wine list was extensive and cocktails entice.

3. The Service

I’ve found that I can be a bit particular about service at restaurants. It really does make or break the meal. Our waiter was friendly,  helpful and coursed out the meal perfectly, which is really a necessity at any small plates restaurant.

4. The Biscuits

I’ve had  my share of biscuits, from Bang Bang Pie to real deal New Orleans southern style. These were especially addictive and decadent, served with a melty jalapeno butter.

5. The Vegetables

Yes, I said it. The veggies here were out of this world. They reminded me of dishes I’ve tasted at Girl & the Goat, where the vegetables pack the most flavor and tend to steal the show. The charred broccoli left me wanting more, and the Thai chili sweet corn had plenty of sweet and spicy notes.

6. The Pasta

The chef makes up his own pasta shapes. Normal? Not exactly. Amazingly delicious? Definitely. I opted for the sortallini, a playful take on a tortellini, served with juicy cherry tomatoes. I’m already planning my next visit to try the other pastas.

7. The Dessert

If you aren’t too stuffed, make sure you opt for dessert at Giant. The crepe with hot fudge was a delicious surprise, warm and crispy at the edges. It was the perfect end to a truly perfect meal.

 

 

News & Features

Ugo's Logan Square reinvents casual Italian

June 28 2016 - 9:00 AM

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Logan Square has no shortage of amazing restaurants. It’s home to some of my favorites for brunch (Lula Cafe), drinks (Scofflaw), sweets (Bang Bang Pie) and now casual Italian. Full disclosure: Ugo’s reached out to bring me offering a free dinner. But my experience was pleasantly surprising for a restaurant I had never heard of.

Ugo’s opened back in October to fill a void in the area for a late-night spot for chefs that isn’t a greasy burrito chain. The full kitchen is open every night except Tuesday until 1:30 am. While the ambiance has a casual bar feel, the food is far from it.

Ugo's Mista SaladMenu items at Ugo’s are seasonal and local in the best way. While you can get the housemade foccacia any time of year (and don’t miss it), you won’t always be able to find a salad topped with strawberries, hazelnuts and a green goddess-like dressing, along with an addictive creamy cheese on the side. If you’re in the neighborhood for a late night bite, or just in the mood for some indulgence, Ugo’s also has a huge selection of cured meats and cheeses. I was even pleasantly surprised by my cocktail, a blood orange daiquiri with just the right balance of sweet and tart.

One of the most unique dishes we tried was the pappardelle with meaty maitake mushrooms and fresh parmesan, served over a mushroom broth and fresh pesto. Use that leftover focaccia to soak up the sauce. The pasta was tender and perfectly cooked, while the sauce exuded a ton of unexpected flavor. Yes, Osteria Langhe across the street has a much wider selection of pastas, yet Ugo’s gives that same Italian flair at a more reasonable price.

If you want to continue carb-loading, don’t miss out on Ugo’s pizzas. We opted for the kale, maitake and spicy pickled cherry pepper pizza. I’m always dousing my slices with giardinera or red pepper flakes, so the peppers were the perfect touch. This crust was wonderfully crispy, and the toppings provided the perfect balance of flavors.

TiramisuLast but certainly not least – don’t ever miss dessert at Ugo’s. While this course turned out to be a bit pricier than I anticipated compared to the rest of the menu, I understood why the minute our dishes arrived. Gelato is homemade, and the kitchen turns out a special flavor each day. We couldn’t get enough of the cappucino chip, which went perfectly with the deconstructed tiramisu. This was a totally different texture and presentation from your typical tiramisu, yet all the traditional flavors were there.

Not only is Ugo’s a great neighborhood spot, it’s one I would go to again. Wait staff was incredibly friendly and helpful as well as clearly passionate about the food they are serving – and it’s easy to see why.

Ugo’s Kitchen & Bar
www.ugoschicago.com
(773)-698-8984
2833 W. Armitage Ave.

 

Restaurants

Chicago's Best Hidden Patios

June 20 2016 - 10:09 PM

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In case you didn’t get the glaringly bring memo…summer is HERE! Patio weather is my absolute favorite. I have issues eating inside when I know I need to take advantage of the three months out of the year the Chicago breeze isn’t chilling me to the core.

Big Star is great and all if you want to wait 3 hours for your table. Since most places don’t take patio reservations, we’ve rounded up some of the best patio spots all around the city where you might actually be able to nab a spot.

1. Anteprima

Andersonville is full of gems off the beaten path, and Anteprima is one of the standouts. Last year on the 4th of July, I ventured away from the Navy Pier crowds and headed North to this delicious patio. While the patio isn’t great for a large group, it’s beautiful for a date night or intimate dinner. Every dish is fresh and flavorful, and tastes even better with a cold glass of wine.

2. RM Champagne

While this restaurant isn’t exactly a secret, the patio itself is literally hidden from the hustle of Restaurant Row. RM is a solid spot for a night out with girlfriends and some strong drinks. Order up a cheese platter and arm yourself with a Life is a Beach – vodka, cucumber, lemon, sage & cava.

3. El Nuevo Mexicano

I may be biased having lived just down the street from this place, but I can’t deny they make some solid Mexican food. They offer up tons of healthy options and vegetarian-friendly choices as well. The sizable patio is perfect for a group looking to enjoy a margarita and some enchiladas. The menu can be overwhelming but you honestly can’t go wrong.

4. m. Henry

Edgewater has no shortage of awesome brunch spots. In my opinion, m. Henry is more than a neighborhood spot; it’s a destination. It’s worth going to even if you can’t get a spot on the wonderful shaded patio. If you can, all the better to enjoy your blackberry bliss cakes or roasted veggie and goat cheese quiche. If you can’t stand the wait, grab a bakery item to-go.

5. Handlebar

This vegetarian mainstay is more than just that. They have plenty of menu items for any time of day. During brunch you won’t find a crowd, so it’s easy to enjoy the spacious back patio. Order up a breakfast  burrito an some tacos and you won’t be disappointed.

What are your favorite patio bars and restaurants?

Libations

Northdown Cafe and Taproom, Lions and Tigers and Beers

June 10 2016 - 12:53 PM

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If you love beer, and I know you do, I highly recommend – and by “highly recommend” I mean that I’d command it would it were I had such power – that you visit Notrhdown Cafe today for the 5th annual Lions and Tigers and Beers event, currently ongoing.  Every two hours Northdown is rolling out a new slate of kegs housing some rare, elite, and amazing beers.  Right now (as of 12:30 p.m. Central today) they are featuring winners such as Perennial Sump, pictured above, and Cantillion Kreik.  Later today they plan to put up Maine Lunch, a tightly hopped, palate-stripping IPA with a champagne-like effervescence, and also Firestone Walker Helldorado, barrel-aged Surly Darkness, and 2016 Parabola, plus rarities from some outstanding breweries such as Off Color, Three Floyds, Mikkeller, and others.  If that’s not enticing enough, another Cantillion is launching at 7 p.m. and, in addition, all day they’re pouring a Todd the Axeman firkin.  Perhaps the best part is that all of this beer insanity is for the purpose of supporting the Wildcat Sanctuary, whose mission is to provide a sanctuary for big cats and to eviscerate big-cat captivity.  There, indeed, is a reason for you to drink a rare 11%-er at ND today.

You can find the full list here; apologies about the print quality.

I’m bereft of Jedi mind tricks but advise you to get there.   May the beer be with you. Oh my!

– M. Sheppard

Northdown Cafe and Taproom

3244 N. Lincoln Ave.

Chicago

Libations

DryHop Brewers Anniversary Week

June 10 2016 - 1:51 AM

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What in the name of beer is going on here?   DryHop Brewers’ third-year anniversary party, that’s what.  It seems hard to believe but nearly three years have passed since DryHop, those makers of clean, pure, delicious beers, opened their Broadway Avenue doors in East Lakeview.  Since those nascent days, DryHop has not only raised its esteemed stature in the brewing community, it has expanded, opening a sister establishment, Corridor, which brings the Belgian-brewing love to Southport.  As the official anniversary date is this coming Monday, June 13, DryHop is celebrating with a series of events next week to show its appreciation for its loyal patrons and for soon-to-be converts.

Monday is when the party kicks off.   The brewery will be selling limited-run t-shirts referencing its fixture beer, Shark Meets Hipster, one of the cleanest, sturdiest beers you’ll ever try, a beer that had me at first sip.  Also that day, the DryHop Beer League will be open for up to 50 new members to join.  Please stop by the brewery or check the website for details.  That night DryHop ramps things up with the Barman’s Banquet.  I’ll be popping by after softball to get my fill of whatever’s for the offering.

Tuesday, all day, is the Lakeview Neighbors Appreciation Party.  If you live within the blocks surrounding the brewery, check your mail for a “thank you card”; bring it in to claim a free beer.  Now, folks, what’s a brewery anniversary party without a new brew?  On Wednesday, Destructo Comet, an American kettle sour with lychee, takes its opening bows.  Thursday marks the re-release of the 2-year-anniversary beer, Dandelion Disco Ball, a 7-percent oat pale ale.  Finally, Saturday closes out the festivities with a 3-year-anniversary brunch special.

Get on over to DryHop this week, folks, and help them celebrate 3-years of making awesome beer, serving terrific food, and proudly representing the Chicago brewing community.

–    M. Sheppard

DryHop Brewers

3155 N. Broadway Ave.

Chicago

Libations

Pinot Days 2016 Grand Festival at Navy Pier - April 16

April 14 2016 - 8:30 PM

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It’s back, oenophiles of Chicago and lovers of that delicate and delicious grape, Pinot Noir.  Yes, Pinot Days returns to Navy Pier for the 2016 Grand Festival this Saturday on the lakefront.  Whether you are a Pinot Noir aficionado, are someone new to the grape, or are just a general wine lover and seeker of great social gatherings, this event is for you.  It’s a great opportunity to taste up to 150 Pinots which originate from every important Oregon and California region, and many of the featured wines are otherwise unavailable in Illinois.

Having attended Pinot Days six times, I love the opportunity the event offers to sample higher-end Pinots. Most available vintages typically retail for $40 or more, and some even top $200 on restaurant wine lists.  Pinot Days is a fun schooling on some of the top Pinot expressions and, of course, is a chance to drink some amazing and delicious wine.  I encourage you to pay extra for the VIP tasting, particularly if you are, prior to the general public’s arrival, interested in meeting some of the winemakers and discussing the nuances of their bottlings as well as the vineyards’ methods of cultivation.  The event quickly becomes abuzz with activity post-2 PM, so if you are not opting for VIP access, certainly try to arrive a bit early for check-in.

Tickets are $75 for general admission (2 PM) and $125 for VIP (1 PM).  A list of participating exhibitors is here.  My advice is to seek out some of the smaller, up-and-coming producers; these wineries often display some of the event’s most surprising and rewarding vintages.  To identify such wineries in advance of the event try Googling names from the list.  Winery websites usually display the dates for available vintages; the newbies’ oldest releases will be more recent. Also, look for winery reviews and information on the vintners’ number of cases produced.   It’s these smaller wineries which are more likely to be event-only and are probably unavailable in Illinois.

There’s nothing wrong with seeking out old favorites either.  I’ll be paying homage to perennial one seeds (hey, we’re coming off the Tournament) such as J, Davis Family, Davis Bynum, Dutton-Goldfield, Papapietro Perry and others.  Expect Sea Smoke, from whom I happily receive a yearly allocation, to be mobbed.

Looking forward to seeing all of you on Saturday.

– M. Sheppard

Libations

Aged 2012 Founders Imperial Stout

March 24 2016 - 2:09 AM

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It’s been said that only one other band deserves mentioning in the same sentence as the Beatles.  That would be the Rolling Stones.  A parallel comparison is this:  Founders is the Midwest’s best brewer of dark beer, rivaled only by fellow Michigan brewer Dark Horse.  As the Beatles could tuck away “Dear Prudence” on an album, a sensational track on which most bands would stake their careers and save for their encore sets, Founders similarly tosses off its Imperial Stout.   Plainly named and seemingly unheralded, the ten-grain Imperial Stout is annually released to little fanfare, certainly less than its dark-beer label-mates KBS, Breakfast Stout, and the rare CBS.   But for most other brewers a beer this rich and enticing would be a franchise player, perhaps taking second chair only to a barrel-aged beer, as such beers inherently, even if often undeservedly, spark a frenzy.  Yet among beers you can actually get, beers that are on the shelf in plain view at Whole Foods or other retailers, and are not surreptitiously tucked away for regulars by the store clerk, this beer has consistently been about as good as it gets for imperial stouts.  Without question it deserves its “world-class” 96 at Beer Advocate.

After having remarkable success aging Breakfast Stout at home, upon borrowing the idea from Lush Wine & Spirits which was retailing 3-year-old versions for $6, I took the same approach with Imperial Stout.  This massive 10.4% stout ages even better than Breakfast Stout, which registers around 8.2% and maxes out after three years as the coffee bitterness becomes overly tame.  Freshly brewed Imperial Stout, if there’s one knock against it, drinks way too hot with alcohol, and the beer’s aggressiveness is hardly tempered by the sharp bitter-chocolate flavor.  It’s a powerful drinking experience but is not as enjoyable for a drinker unprepared for this level of intensity.  However, these rough edges and high ABV are exactly why it’s ideal for aging, as a buddy and I recently discovered.

The other day, with feelings of curiosity and mild trepidation, I opened a 4-year-old bottle.  Poured in roughly equal portions into two snifters, with perhaps a little extra for yours truly, call it a cellaring fee, the Russian Imperial’s odors emanated very promising chords of robust barley and striking chocolate.  It’s one of those stouts which pours a brown chocolately head that after a few minutes turns white and foamy and it lingers deliciously.  At this advanced stage the beer was truly dynamite.  My mind was nearly blown to bits by how the harsher elements had smoothed out, as the chocolate and barley melded into an off-sweet, dark-cocoa cuveé, making the beer’s velvety texture seem even richer.  This is a beautiful sipper and a beer to be enjoyed on its own – certainly share this one with your girlfriend – without food and not if you plan on being social.

My pal couldn’t believe that my individual bottle, still bearing its price tag, had retailed for only $3.25.  A four pack is currently $13 at Whole Foods, a steal.

This is truly one of the best imperial stouts on the planet, especially if aged substantially.  Four years of aging produced stunning results, to a powerful level probably experienced by many first-time listeners to “Strawberry Fields” or “Elanor Rigby” especially around the time of those songs’ initial release.  But I’m sure that 2-3 years of aging will be ample time to unlock this beer’s massive potential.

Maybe start by purchasing a four pack and drinking one now – in its first-year form it’s still excellent, especially if you’re used to massive stouts – and cellaring the rest.  On bottles meant for cellaring I place an orange sticker bearing the handwritten two-digit year.   It’s hard to wait on beer this good.

–          M. Sheppard

Restaurants

Nashville Hot Chicken At Roost

March 23 2016 - 11:39 PM

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So, I have to credit KFC for the favor. That I’ve never been to Nashville (although not for a lack of interest) was largely responsible for my having never tried Nashville Hot chicken.  But I’d never even heard of the style.  Then KFC, during NFL games, began promoting its own version.  Although the ads piqued my interest, I never pursued my curiosity beyond reading a few articles about KFC’s offerings, which, as I anticipated, were described as being relatively fraudulent and corporate tasting.  I certainly don’t want to eat chemical chicken any more that I want to drink industrial beer.  You know me.

Meanwhile, my interest in experiencing true Nashville Hot chicken only grew.  Legend has it that the style was born from the jealousy of a scorned woman whose lover, a chef who operated a Nashville fried-chicken stand, was caught red handed, cheating.  As payback she whipped up for her loving man a rather special batch of fried chicken coated with batter containing a vengefully searing amount of hot sauce.  But instead of torching the cheating heel’s gums, it engendered feelings of love.  Love for flaming chicken, that is.  As it turned out, the man was crazy about the recipe. Others agreed and so emerged a new style.

Well, a trip to the famed chicken’s birthplace, Nashville, was unrealistic for me, even though I recall at one point researching Southwest flights to Music City for the purpose of stuffing my face with some of the flaming fowl.  Finally, one day I gave in and Googled, “Nashville Hot…” and immediately the search titan added the term “Chicago”.   Topping the results list is a local review regarding the Nashville Hot efforts by Leghorn and The Roost.  Can’t say I’ve been to Leghorn but, as a Lakeview denizen, Roost is merely blocks away and has been an occasional indulgence.   One phone call later and I was on my way to ending my life’s pre-Nashville Hot era, for better or worse.

At the store a half-chicken order awaited me, and I soon claimed the unremarkable white box which housed my meal and emanated enticing odors of hot sauce and toasty herbs.  At home the moment of truth awaited.  Not having seen any photos of it, I anticipated that Roost’s take would be very spicy, perhaps hellishly so, but would be colored an ordinary brown, with maybe a tint of red, and would not resemble the mouthwateringly tempting deep red signifying authentic Nashville.   Even KFC’s surely dye-enhanced displays in the commercials contained a noticeable red hue which at least slightly, albeit artificially, nudges your cravings.

Upon opening the box my doubts were quickly allayed.  Inside were four large pieces of deep, ruby-red bird which looked enticing and deliciously angry.  It was downright beautiful.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  Roost’s Nashville Hot is real and it’s spectacular, Jerry.  I tore into it.  Crispy and supple, the warm crust nips at your fingertips which are quickly reddened by the hot sauce.  As you dive in further, healthy chunks of succulent white chicken crowd your mouth with delicious chewiness.

What’s so enjoyable about Roost’s recipe is that indeed the chicken is hot, it fulfills the promise of its fiery redness, and it satisfies your craving for hot spice.  Yet this fire is under control.  There’s plenty enough heat to keep your attention but not so much to overwhelm the herbal spices and hints of dry-rub sweetness, a note which materializes as the bird cools.  This is Roost’s genius.  They give you what you want, heat, but simultaneously deliver an entire array of flavors.  In one mouthwatering package you get the treble and the bass.  But, unlike KFC, there’s no synth. Roost is made to order and tastes every bit so.

Biscuits were my sides, and they were delightfully fluffy.  My only criticism of Roost is that they should add collared greens or perhaps baked beans to their sides roster.  At least a couple of chicken meals come with two sides but your options are pretty much biscuits, chips, and coleslaw, a slate lacking much variation.  Plus, I’m passionately anti-mayo so coleslaw’s a non-starter.  That aside, the spectacular chicken renders any complaints essentially moot.

I don’t eat much fried food but if I’m facing state-ordered execution this is on my short list.  Further, I can’t imagine that any other Chicago attempts at replicating the genre could top this.  My wanderlust for Nashville has been momentarily sated courtesy of Roost.

The Roost

1467 W. Irving Park Rd.

Chicago

Restaurants

Seafood Bar Showdown

March 01 2016 - 9:00 AM

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One of the biggest food trends of the past year isn’t really a trend at all. Seafood isn’t anything new, but seafood-centric restaurants have been sweeping this non-coastal city at an unusual frequency. From upscale eateries like GT Fish & Oyster, to peel and eat shrimp stop The Angry Crab, we have the full spectrum. Two of my new favorites couldn’t be more different, yet they’re both worth sharing.

Dive Bar is a Lakeview spot with any kind of seafood you could ever want, and it’s kind of a hidden gem. Cold Storage is West Loop’s newest addition to Swift & Sons, a trendy eatery with an unusual menu (and homemade hot sauce on the table!). Here’s the deal.

The Scene

Dive Bar: Casual, fun and more of a bar scene than restaurant
Cold Storage: Hip & trendy

Cold StorageThe Food

DB: Go for the healthy, bourbon glazed salmon but come back for the boom boom shrimp
CS: Share a few of the awesome sandwiches and don’t miss the specials a la plancha

The Standouts

DB: The fish and chips are probably the best I’ve had in the US (I lived in London for 5 months). They use a fresh tilapia, and the “chips” are thick cut wavy fries.
CS: Don’t miss the crab salad on brioche or the grilled calamari with pickled peppers.

The Drinks

DB: I’m a sucker for tropical drinks and these are  the best in the neighborhood. Skip the standard blended options and go for specialties such as the Guava Basil Cooler, with tequila, grapefruit juice, guava nectar and lime.
CS: The pina colada gives a nod to the classic, but with coconut lime sorbet. The drinks didn’t win me over, though. I’d go for a seafood-friendly wine next time.

Dive Bar ChicagoThe Verdict

Both restaurants are great in their own right and deserve some recognition. Dive Bar is definitely off the beaten path of Restaurant Row. Still, it’s worth a visit for some amazing deals, delicious drinks and quality food. Cold Storage has a more unusual menu and takes some chances. Sure, they don’t win all of their bets,  yet it’s a chance worth taking.

 

Home Cooking

Meal Service Delivers for Foodies

February 17 2016 - 9:00 AM

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Fitness equipment
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Fitness equipment
Nutritious food
The recipe
Motor car
Real estate
Motor car
Science and technology
Street fashion
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Fashion show
Small tools
The recipe
A bad girl
Reduce weight
I’ve never been that interested in the newly popular meal delivery services. I’ve always thought they are for those who don’t know how to cook or aren’t that into food. Isn’t that how they’re usually advertised? Leave it to a service (with a pretty awesome name) to prove me wrong. Full disclosure: Marley Spoon did provide me with a sample box to try out their service. Here’s what I really thought.

Convenience

Just like many other services, Marley Spoon delivers fresh ingredients with ice packs, ready for you to cook when you get home. Everything is pre-portioned out for you, so the prep work is minimal. For someone who just doesn’t have time to make it to the grocery store (or even go on Peapod or Instacart to figure out what they want), this is definitely the way to go. Plus, prices come in at $12 per generously portioned meal.

Difficulty Level

Broccoli Coconut SoupMy fiancee made one of the meals in our box. He’s a great cook, yet he is someone who needs really exact directions in order for his recipe to turn out. He made a beautiful plate of salmon and actually said, “If I can do it, anyone can.”

The one thing I will say is that this service is for the foodie. Or at least the wannabe foodie. The person who has an immersion blender, steamer and zester/grater lying around the kitchen. All of the kitchen tools were required for the two meals I prepared from my box. I’m not complaining because I own them all. That might not be the case for some people, though.

The Food

I have to say I was really impressed with the menu variety and originality of the dishes. I always enjoy eating a mix of food throughout my week, from Mexican to Thai, if possible. I personally loved the steamed salmon, kimchi kale and rice, which was healthy yet full of flavor. I wasn’t as much of a fan of the broccoli coconut soup, as it lacked some fat and flavor behind the spice. Still, in both cases the calorie count was low and portions were huge. We could have easily fed an extra person or two with the soup.

The Verdict

The one thing that really stood out to me after having tried out other services is Marley Spoon’s commitment to quality, seasonal ingredients. Renowned meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda provides the meat, fish is wild caught and produce is also organic whenever possible. Not only that, but you can really taste the difference. I’ll admit I only tried a few meals, although from what I tried the fish tasted incredibly fresh.

All in all, I don’t think meal services are typically cheaper than groceries as a long term solution. If you’re short on time and want an affordable, home cooked meal, I would say Marley Spoon is the way to go.

 

Disclaimer: Marley Spoon provided the reviewer with a complementary box