I have never seen so many food samples in one place as at the NRA Show — that’s National Restaurant Association, not National Rifle Association. If you delight in the samples at Whole Foods, multiply that by infinity and you’ll get a sense of what McCormick Place was like.
The NRA Exhibit Guide is over 200 pages long. There are 16 booths selling and sampling ice cream alone and 20 sampling cheese. Yes, I love my dairy products. Perhaps I should have made a plan for what I wanted to accomplish for the day. I intended to see Rob Levitt’s demonstration of how to butcher a pig, but it took me over three hours to maneuver my way to the World Culinary Showcase, so I unfortunately missed it. I was just a bit distracted. Instead, I just wandered through the show, gobbling up everything in sight. I justified eating well over an estimated 20,000 calories with the fact that this show is a once-a-year event (as are my birthday, Christmas and Thanksgiving).
I somehow missed Eli’s Cheesecake in the fray, though they were constantly posting photos of their delicious desserts on Twitter throughout the day. But you know what? I didn’t even mind, because after 6 hours of constant eating, another slice of cheesecake would have been just too much to handle.
General trends at the show included way too many frozen yogurt machines, domestic wines available at less than $4 a bottle to restaurants (it seems restaurants do make an exorbitant profit on their wines) and twisty potatoes on a stick – the latest in deep-fried fair food.
After trying everything, here are a few standouts:
Best Upscale Accoutrement: Micro-vegetables from Koppert Cress
These are the secret ingredients chefs in high-end restaurants like New York City’s Daniel use to garnish five-star dishes. I was particularly partial to the Atsina Cress, which tasted of sweet anise and licorice. Start your own little cress garden and you too can be a faux-top chef.
Best International Delicacy: Starfruit Jam from Agromas Tropical Exotics
I had never heard of starfruit jam before, but it’s as close as I’m going to come to a tropical getaway this summer. This Malaysian jam is delicious, and the ingredients list is short too, with starfruit puree, cane sugar and a little citric acid rounding out the list.
Best Product You Can Buy in Stores: Nancy’s Organic Kefir
While most of these products are available only directly to restaurants, there were a few commercial brands exhibiting products as well. This tangy cultured milk drink and other Nancy’s yogurt products are available at Whole Foods. Blueberry and blackberry were my favorite flavors and agave nectar is the only sweetener used. On a hot summer day, Kefir is the new milkshake.
Best Ice Cream: Ashby’s Sterling Ice Cream
You can be sure I tried all of them, and Ashby’s came out on top. La Bella Cafe and Internet in Rogers Park is the closest place you can taste some, but they have lots of incredible flavors. I loved the Mocha Almond Fudge but the Banana Pudding, Spumoni and Tennessee Toffee all are worth trying.
Best Salty Snack: Washington State Potato Commission Fries
They look pretty ordinary, regular thin-cut fries, but taste incredible. Blackfoot, Idaho, it is time for you to relinquish the “Potato Capital of the World” crown.
Best Late Night College Munchie: Arepa de choclo
These delicious sweet corn sandwiches oozing with mozzarella cheese are the perfect study snack. Mozzarella sticks out, Arepas in. Maybe Lisa’s or the new convenience store opening in Willard next year can stock them? Bonus: they’re gluten free and available for purchase online.
I foresee a future in competitive eating if this journalism thing doesn’t work out.