I am addicted to you - FOOD AND WINE 5


Russell Casey may be one of the most not appreciated values in the city. This year, he began winning between other area chefs in cooking competitions — first place for his bouillabaisse in February, second place for his ceviche in June( for FOOD AND WINE ).

All of this is from someone who never steped into the culinary school.

“I started in kitchens when I was 14 years old,” remembers Casey, now 35. “And I’ve been doing it ever since. I think the best school you can get is working for good chefs .”

These days Casey will introduce his culinary brio  at Agave Maria. It’s a new Mexican restaurant near the corner of Union and Front, in the old Pa Pa Pia’s space. And, people, it’s a champion. The mix of chic design and can’t refuse cuisine make it the kind of place that will quickly earn a spot on your must go restaurant list.

Take the Enchilada Tinga ($11). Taste a little different? Well it should. The mole is made from paltry of toasted pumpkin seeds and soy sauce. It’s the kind of flavor profile you’d never ally with Mexican food — until now. Rich and aromatic, filled with lime, chili paste, and shredded chicken, it’s a dish you’ll have to protect from fellow diners. On the list to try on: the Seared Sea Scallops ($15) and the Salmon Sashimi Tostada ($12.50).

Agave Maria’s other great plus is its bar, which have the biggest selection of tequila (100-plus varieties) in the city.

“Of course, we’re not above taking shots here,” says Johnson, swirling the tequila in his snifter. “But if you want to, this is a place where you can come to learn and savor.”

Johnson adds that he has plans for tequila pairing dinners and a tequila loyalty program.

Of course, the food tastes better for being served in such classy ambient. The interior — olive green with fuchsia accents — is by Graham Reese, whose inspiration was “Tijuana chic.” In practice, that means comose leather, jewel-tone pendant lamps, and, of course, an enormous taxidermied bull. La Furia (“The Fury”) is said to have killed two matadors and injured 12 more between 1999 and 2001.

Tamp & Tap Triad inhabits the kind of sleek, industrial space you’d expect to find in downtown Chicago. For a color palette, think Oreo cookie: black and white with just a few shades of color. There’s even an egg-shaped meeting skin, belted off from the main dining area by a translucent, white curtain.

Pretty chic, right? Only it’s not in Chicago. It’s not even downtown. Tamp & Tap Triad is in East Memphis, near Poplar and I-240.

When you think about it, it suits. East Memphis has been craving  for good coffee.

“There’s so much energy behind this cup,” Swett enthuses. “We’re talking about fair-trade beans from a single origin, and they don’t get roasted until I order them.”

Tamp & Tap Triad — an offshoot of the original Tamp & Tap downtown — sources all its beans through Metropolis Coffee in Chicago. The shot I tried, a Redline espresso, was spicy and well made. Although its license is still undecided, the shop plans to offer beer and a light lunch, as well as wine, which the other location does not have.

“When I joined the project,” Swett remembers, “they didn’t have a woman on board. I told them, when I wind down after work, I want a glass of wine.”

As for the food, it’s perfect for a business lunch. I especially liked the Stanley Sandwich ($10.50), stacked with smoked turkey, fontina cheese, candied bacon, pickled red onion, and roasted artichoke aioli. The brioche, which is baked in-house, seals the deal.