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The Bomb Diggity Delight

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If there is one culture in the world that is known for being in love with food, I would say that the Italian or French would have to duke it out.  The elegance of fine French dining versus the rustic simplicity of a hearty Italian festa di alimento.  Personally, I love both, but if I had to pick a winner in my heart, it would be the land of pizza and pannettone.  This might be down to my love for Chicago Italian food staples like Italian beef and giardiniera, but they just make food that makes my heart and stomach sing arias.  Thankfully, Chicago has plenty of eateries to cater to my tastes, but my girlfriend told me about one I had never heard about before.  It is called Bombacigno’s or J and C Inn (or Bambolobambo as my girlfriend says in perfect Italian).  It’s located right by Union Station which makes it a great place to get a first taste of Chicago’s Italian American community beyond just Little Italy.

Their lunch hours are quite short (11 am to 3 pm), so the rush is quite intense if you don’t time it just right like we did.  The outside was very nondescript.IMG_4152  However, when we walked in, we were greeted with an interior straight out of one of the Little Italy delis I used to hit up when I was in grad school at UIC, i.e. old school with linoleum floors, a dark wood bar, and the daily specials handwritten on the board in chalk.IMG_4154IMG_4153  Plus, there was enough nostalgic knick-knacks on the walls of times long past in Holllywood and Chicago to make it seem like an amateur museum of the Italian-American experience in Chicago and classic B movies.IMG_4159IMG_4160

Classic repartee

Classic repartee

Looking over the menu, we could eventually decipher that they had a mix of cold sandwiches, salads, soups, hot sandwiches, and grilled sandwiches.  NOTE:  They do not take credit cards.  Cash only!  I wanted something with roots in Italy, so I went for a foccacia sub ($7.25) and a side of cottage fries ($2.75).  Janice got a caprese sandwich ($8.75) which came with a cold pasta salad on the side.  Contrary to what other reviewers say, the staff was friendly and helpful, not rude and obnoxious.  You have to wait to hear them shout out your order, and then you can take your order to your table or to go.  I couldn’t wait to eat mine when they called out our names.  It all looked as fantastic as a Lamborghini on an open Tuscan road with no speed limit.  First, I just got to say that these were some of the best looking and tasting sandwiches I’ve tried. IMG_4157 From the fresh tomatoes atop the fresh and chewy focaccia bread to the expertly layered ham, capicola (gobbagool  or Capicola ham for those gavones out there), salami, and provolone cheese, it was a true Italian masterpiece. IMG_4158 The key ingredient that set this meal apart from other sandwiches was the Italian vinaigrette that provided a semi-sweet and sour splash of flavor that cut through the mostly salty and mild ingredients.  It kept me wanting more and more until it was all gone before I knew it.  I highly recommend this sandwich, and the cottage fries satiated me greatly as well.  IMG_4161They aren’t fries in the traditional potato spear form but rather like irregular, hand-cut potato disks (cottage fries takes less time to say I guess).  I really enjoyed them because they ranged from small and extremely crispy to as big as my face and soft.IMG_4163  Plus, they weren’t super greasy which is a big factor for me when judging the quality of fries.  I had a bite of Janice’s sandwich which was basically a caprese salad between two slices of Italian sliced white bread.IMG_4162  It had the same tart, dark vinaigrette that was on my focaccia, and the ingredients (buffalo mozzarella cheese, basil leaves, and sliced tomatoes) were all in harmony.

If you’re looking for a quality Italian restaurant that goes beyond Little Italy or  is more subtle than the over-the-top presentation of Italian Village, check out Bambacigno’s!

Bombacigno's J & C Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Little Bucharest: All the Meat That’s Fit to Eat!

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Romania.  A linguistic anomaly in Eastern Europe along with mostly being known for gypsies and the Prince of the Night, Dracula.  However, a trip to Romania back when I was studying in Spain left me with a different impression of the nation.  It was a bit off the beaten path in terms of the tourist trails of Europe, but it had plenty of character, friendly people, and great food.  So, when my girlfriend said that she had a Groupon for a Romanian eatery in Chicago called Little Bucharest, I was more than excited.

It was a cold and rainy night, similar to the weather I experienced while traveling between Bucharest and Sighisoara, so I was having a serious case of deja vu minus the feral dogs running around in the street and the airport.  It had a charming exterior with a patio that obviously wasn’t being used that night along with a fountain.  IMG_4589IMG_4570IMG_4569Upon setting foot in the establishment, we were warmly welcomed by the staff and led quickly to a table.  IMG_4571The cheerful music and clean interior put me at ease since other Eastern European restaurants are a bit more rustic in terms of their setup.  To drink, Janice got a sweet red Romanian wine, and I got a beer from Timisoara.  It seems the alcohol content was a bit much for her along with its sugary aftertaste, but it was still enjoyable.  As for my beer, it was a light lager that could be comparable to Heineken.IMG_4574  We also destroyed a basket of fresh baked bread that wasn’t warm, but they said they baked it in the morning.  IMG_4573This definitely showed in the overall quality of the sliced loaf.  It was chewy but slightly crispy on the outside while the inside was fluffy and white.  We demolished it so fast that the owner came over to say that our healthy appetites for his bread were quite the compliment.  For our appetizer, we got an order of the Mititei ($10).  These little sausages were served with a side of salad, fried polenta, and mustard.IMG_4577  These chubby meat nuggets were quite heavenly and juicy with a heavy emphasis on the garlic, and it seemed to have more beef than pork in the meat blend that jived well with the sour mustard.    The fried polenta (corn meal) was warm but not piping hot.  It also had an enjoyable butter flavor that had overtones of French fries.  As for our entrees, Janice got the sarmale ($18) and I got the chicken paprikash ($20).  The sarmale are similar to Poland’s golabki or stuffed cabbage rolls.IMG_4580  These wee bundles were stewed in tomato sauce which led the cabbage to be extra soft but firm enough to keep all of the pork, ground beef, and rice from bursting forth.  It was a bit more sour than the Polish version of the dish, but it still had the Slavic heartiness common to both meals.  As for my meal, the chicken paprikash was essentially half a chicken in a paprika infused gravy along with green beans and pearl onions. IMG_4581 The sauce was the boss for this dish, and the chicken was falling off the bone.  Beware of the small bones in the chicken though!  For both the sarmale and chicken paprikash, there was mamaliga or soft polenta served on the side.  This was my favorite food I tried in Romania, and it was like going into a culinary time machine for me from the first bite.  IMG_4582From the smooth, golden polenta to the cool sour cream and strong Feta cheese, I was in heaven.  The only differences between Little Bucharest and the real Bucharest was that the mamaliga in the Motherland was served in a bowl and with a fried egg on top.  Aside from that, it was the perfect comfort food to combat the terrible weather outside.  I couldn’t finish my meal since my stomach was about to burst from all of the polenta and grilled meats, but I didn’t feel bloated like I did with other meals where I ate a lot.  At the end of the meal, we were walking out, and the owner wished us well and told us to check them out on Facebook.  I then told him that I write a food blog, and he was so overjoyed that he hugged me and gave me a bottle of Romanian dry red wine on the spot.IMG_4587  I’ve never experienced such generosity from a restaurant in Chicago or perhaps anywhere else in the world.  Thanks, Branko!

So in closing, we walked away from Little Bucharest greatly satisfied with the friendly service, great prices for huge portions of delicious Romanian fare, and a memory of one of my many distant travels around the world.  This is the real deal if you want to try Romanian food, and they even run their own limo service if you want to experience it in style.  IMG_4590
Little Bucharest Bistro on Urbanspoon

Bearing the Grunt of Good Food

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Welcome to the 220th post on Mastication Monologues!  It has been quite a trip, but what better way to celebrate another small milestone than going to the first ever Lettuce Entertain You restaurant:  R.J. Grunts.  It still is as funky as it was back in the 1970s, and the food is as unpretentious as their self-deprecating menu humor.

This food adventure was prefaced by an enchanting time at the zoo with my girlfriend Janice at the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Adult Night.  After enjoying seeing the animals chilling at night in their habitats sans shrieking urchins scurrying about, we stumbled upon the mythical establishment.  IMG_4093We walked in on a Saturday night, and it was packed.  However, we were able to get a table for two right away.  We walked past happy, chatting diners along with an epic salad bar that seemed to have every condiment under the sun along with some interesting sides like various neon colored Jellos. IMG_4107 When we sat down, I surveyed the walls that were coated with pictures of random people who I never really found out who they were.  However, the menu was a work of art, and it was gigantic as shown by my semi-hidden boo. IMG_4094

Hide and Seek at our own table

Hide and Seek at our own table

Not only was it hulking in terms of size, but also food and drink options.  One of the most interesting items on the menu was the temperature soup.  What it consists of is the soup of the day that costs the same temperature based on what it says on the lakeside thermometer, i.e. if it’s 32 degrees, you pay $0.32 for your soup.  It can be added to your entree with the following three conditions:  1.  The salad bar doesn’t come with it, 2.  They won’t pay you if it’s -0 F, and 3.  It’s only valid with purchase of an entree.  While it was intriguing, I was much hungrier and looking for something more substantial.  Thus, I came to the burger part of the menu.  After looking it over, I decided to get the Yowza Burger (a common phrase used as an exclamation of excitement during the 70s like in Happy Days) for $12.95 and a hand-dipped creamy caramel shake ($6).  Janice got the Grunt Burger ($11.95) but no shake.  They came out after a bit, and they didn’t look spectacular.IMG_4111  However, I made the mistake of judging a burger by its bun. It was stacked with enough spicy things to make someone yell its name, but with someone who has dead tastebuds after years of heat challenges, it wouldn’t trouble many chiliheads.IMG_4112  Normal people, maybe.  I really liked the pepper jack, spicy ketchup, and peppercorns that were coating the burger.  It was different kinds of spice that activated different parts of the palate along with the crunch from the smoked bacon and occasional peppercorn lodged in the juicy patty.  I personally preferred my girlfriend’s Grunt burger because there were a ton of fried onion strings and crumbly/melted blue cheese chunks on the Angus patty.  IMG_4125Two great, strong flavors and differing textures that would make me happy but sorely needing a breath mint by the end of the meal.  Then there were the fries that were more like potato chips but not really.  I really enjoyed them since they were unique, exquisitely fried, and were just the right amount of crispy leaning more toward the softer end of things.  The piece de resistance was the  milkshake I had there.IMG_4105  I’ve had my fair share of ice cream treats, both good and disgusting, but this was one of my top three milk shakes I’ve ever tried.  The butterfat of the ice cream mixing with the rich milk and sweet caramel created a cool ambrosia that washed over my palate with wave upon wave of dulcet notes that made me happy until there was none left.  I had no shame when taking it down in public like a sweet fiend.  It was a creative, classic all American meal for a fun date night.

Short hair, don't care

Short hair, don’t care

So if you’re looking for a restaurant with plenty of history, character, innovative dishes, and moderate prices, look no further than the blast from the past, R.J. Grunts.  Dy-no-mite!!

R.J. Grunts on Urbanspoon

Food Convention Post: Taste Talks in Chicago

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In Memoriam:  This post is dedicated to the dear memory of beloved Chicago institution, Hot Doug’s (2001-2014).  May you continue to make unique and memorable sausage creations in food Valhalla.  Check out my visit to the now defunct land of wondrous tube steaks.

Today’s post on Mastication Monologues is a unique one since it is about my first visit to a food festival that focused more on the craft and industry than purely the art of gorging oneself on grilled meats and throwing money away buying tickets for beers with skewed prices.  The festival in question is called Taste Talks, and it took place from October 3rd to October 5th.  With two events in Brooklyn in NYC and Chicago, it originally was the brainchild of the carrot-topped, Croc-rockin’ chef, Mario Batali.  However, you’re probably wondering how a small blogger like me could attend such a festival?  I actually was emailed by Paulina from OpenTable offering me a spot on the guest list.  I’d like to thank her once again for the opportunity along with OpenTable for reaching out to me.  Not only that, but I was able to get a pass for my girlfriend as well since I wanted her to share in the glory that was Taste Talks.IMG_4359IMG_4478

While we couldn’t attend the Friday kick-off event with the oyster and champagne dinner at the Kinmont Restaurant, we had essentially free reign over what we could see on Saturday.  It was a cold and drizzly day, but the first meeting we went to at the elegant Soho house.IMG_4394  While it used to be  a tannery at the turn of the 20th Century, in the 21st it is a chic and hip hotel.  We marveled at the lobby as we quickly moved to the elevators to get to the first food meeting. IMG_4392 Even the elevators were swanky as the walls were upholstered like a fine leather couch.  Thankfully we didn’t fall asleep leaning on the walls and quickly moved to the Free-Styling with Ice Cream Desserts talk.  Our panel consisted of Jeni Britton Bauer (Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams), Dana Cree (Blackbird), and Jessie Oloroso (Black Dog Gelato).

Left to Right (Jessie, Jeni, Dana)

Left to Right (Jessie, Jeni, Dana)

During the talk, they were all quite gracious and humorous when interacting with each other and the audience, but I could tell that they knew their stuff based on the emphasis they placed on making their ice cream and gelato from scratch.  While they said most ice cream places throughout America claim to create their ice cream by hand, in reality they just use a dairy base, throw in some sugar and flavorings, and add some toppings.  What they’re selling us is just an image of it being artisanal.  What these ladies do instead is actually break down the ingredients and balance them just right in order to get the right texture, flavor, and melting point.  The choice to do what these ladies do isn’t the cheap route in comparison to the easy peasy ice cream base method, and in reality, the government is against them.  The FDA is very meticulous when evaluating their franchises, and the big dairies are favored in the ice cream industry since they offer an easy way out for people who want to go the traditional route when making the cold treat.  The speakers even made some revealing statements like it turns out the soft serve cones at McDonalds are actually just cold, whipped, leftover animal fats, and ice cream was originally derived from excess butter at dairies.  Ice cream normally is around 10% fat, but McDonald’s, as always, manages to do it bigger than anyone else.  They also explained the differences between gelato and ice cream:  gelato has a lower fat content than ice cream, it’s smoother than ice cream due to the lack of ice crystals, and gelato is served at a higher temperature than traditional American ice cream.  Once they got tired of just talking, each chef did an ice cream demo.  First, there was Jeni Britton Bauer’s ice cream punch.

I knew we were in for a good time when there were bottles of Hennessy on deck right next to the punch bowls. IMG_4364 However, she started instead by struggling to open a bottle of Prosecco, but she eventually opened two and dumped the bubbly into the bowl. IMG_4475 Jeni followed that up with a cup of the smooth brown cognac.  Then, she proceeded to throw a bunch of scoops of different types of sorbet like lemon, strawberry, and raspberry.IMG_4369  Those neon orbs were bobbing in the brew like an extremely adult version of bobbing for apples as she ladled cup upon cup of the crimson mixture.  Janice and I sampled the beverage, and it was quite refreshing. IMG_4373 It tasted like a bubbly, adult Italian soda with rich pieces of ice cream sliding over our palates every other sip.  Next up was Jessie from Black Dog Gelato.

Jessie operated the only ice cream parlor I knew out of the three, and I have heard a lot of buzz about it.  So, I was curious to see what this wizard of cream and sugar could come up with.  She did not disappoint with her chocolate coated pumpkin ice ream pops.  First, she did a simple popsicle using her pumpkin infused gelato, but then melted chocolate using a hot plate on the side.  The pumpkin pops were lovingly caressed in the sweet elixir and then rubbed with a coating of dried coconut and strudel crumbles. IMG_4469 We could sample smaller versions of the pops, and we definitely took advantage of the offer.IMG_4383 IMG_4466 While the crunchy, milk chocolate interior gave way to a more subtle pumpkin gelato that was creamy and understated, it was quite difficult to eat as the slivers of chocolate were flying everywhere.IMG_4465IMG_4385  They probably thought it was my first time eating a cold treat based on how overjoyed I was.  The final creation came from Dana Cree which was a lemon and elderflower infused frozen yogurt that was based on a recipe that used unsweetened Greek yogurt. IMG_4388 This gave it a real tang when combined with the lemon and fragrant notes from the elderflowers.IMG_4390IMG_4389 Out of the three, my favorite was the chocolate and pumpkin pops, and I later found out how creative Jessie could be when Janice and I visited her Black Dog Gelato.  While we would have loved to talk to them for longer, we had to rush to the Art of Salted and Dried Charcuterie.

This lecture took place at Kaiser Tiger at 1415 W. Randolph Street.  IMG_4404IMG_4395It was an eclectic place in terms of decor, but we were there to sample some sausages.  We arrived a bit late and soaked from the drizzle, but it was a very different vibe from the ice cream meeting.  While the ice cream baronesses were approachable and humorous, the speakers were not interested in chewing the fat.  Plus, the people there looked more of the hipster persuasion which gave it an air of pretentiousness that I wasn’t digging.IMG_4403  We just went to town on the sausage sample platter at the back of the room. IMG_4396IMG_4400 It was like a time machine for me for my time living in Barcelona.  Not only did they have the same sliced, orange-red, peppery chorizo I used to make sandwiches with during my siestas, but they also had super fatty pieces of Catalan fuet sausage that contained chewy pieces of meaty flavor.

Chorizo on the left and fuet on the right

Chorizo on the left and fuet on the right

I used to gnaw on a piece of the super rich sausage while working on my homework since it gave me the energy to keep my focused, and I really liked the texture contrast between the fat granules, the melt-in-your-mouth meat, and semi tough casing.

Memories

Memories

After eating our fill of artery-clogging meat, we decided to peace out early for the biggest fireside chat of fireside chats with Rick Bayless.

We boogied on back to Soho House, and we made sure to get a front row seat to see Rick Bayless who is now one of the biggest and most respected chefs in the culinary world thanks to his contributions to the Mexican food scene (he was awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle due to his promotion of Mexican culture and food).  Even with all of his accolades and awards, it was unreal to be so close to someone who seemed so down to earth when talking with the audience.IMG_4406  It’s an effect that happens when you see someone on tv for so long that they take on an almost mythical status, and you expect them to be more imposing in real life like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.  Instead, you just find out that they are human just like you and me.  During his talk, I found out he had similar life to mine with focusing to study Spanish in college along with linguistics in graduate school.  However, cooking and food proved to be his true passion.  Perhaps I could parlay my love into a new career path like Rick.  He went on to talk about the importance of the connection between culture and food which is what I try to achieve here on Mastication Monologues, so his words really resonated with me.  Rick also highlighted the shifting perception of chefs from blue collar workers to veritable rock stars today, and he has provided culinary students with a tempered vision of the future that to get to the top:  hard work and mastery of the craft is crucial to becoming famous.  There aren’t any chefs who open Michelin 3 star restaurants right out of cooking schools.  After talking a bit about his connection to Mexican history and food with his changing menus at Topolobampo (including his 1491 menu that used no ingredients the Europeans brought over like chicken, beef, pork, cilantro, and limes), I got to ask a question during the Q and A session about the shifting demographics in the USA especially with the Latino population.  I asked if he noticed more Latino diners in his restaurants recently , and he said that he saw a lot of younger Latino diners eating his food on date nights as a way to get a taste of their ancestors and learn more about their culture.  Rick graciously thanked everyone, and I was the first person to just thank him for coming out.  IMG_4456Plus, I plugged my blog a little bit, and he seemed really interested in it.  When I said goodbye, I was still amazed that I was less than five feet away from someone I’ve seen for decades on PBS and gracing the covers of cookbooks everywhere.  Janice and I went out on a high note as we walked away from Taste Talks with a new perspective on the food industry and an excitement for the future of dining.  Also, it was a wonderful way to celebrate five happy months together : )IMG_4453

 

Top of the Tabla

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Bienvenidos a Mastication Monologues!  The weather has been absolutely perfect as of late here in Chicago, but I feel like the chill of the Fall will be here sooner rather than later.  With it, comes a longing for hearty food and more robust drinks  in terms of spices and general ingredients.  Ergo, I’d like to put forth a new restaurant review of Las Tablas, a Colombian steakhouse that gives you gargantuan portions of delicious food for reasonable prices to fortify you for Chicago’s terrible winter.  IMG_4076

We went to this eatery earlier in the summer for one of Janice’s friends birthdays, so they were easily able to accommodate our enormous party.  The interior of the establishment was simple and some of the most eye-catching decorations were pictures on the wall of different people who seemed to have a bit of a weight problem.  These rotund subjects were signature pieces of “the most Colombian of Colombian artists”, Fernando Botero.  His unique take on artwork has created quite a following throughout the world, and it was an authentic piece of the homeland as we sat down and perused the menu.  We started with drinks.  While Las Tablas is BYOB, you can also order drinks off their menu.  We split a pitcher of sangria since it was a fun summer drink for the extremely humid night. IMG_4081 It wasn’t anything special though.  The wine was semi-acidic and didn’t really possess any of bold sweetness that comes from the sugar and fruit floating in the blood-red elixir.  The food, however, didn’t let us down.  They have plenty of authentic Colombian appetizers and entrees to choose from.  Even though its a steakhouse, vegetarians never fear!  They do have veggie friendly options for you.  For example, the aborrajado ($6) I got was vegetarian but not vegan friendly.  According to the menu, the aborrajado is a specialty from the coastal region of Colombia that consisted of a sweet plantain filled with guava jelly and topped with melted cheese. IMG_4084 While that seemed like an odd mix of ingredients, it actually jived pretty well.  Apparently, the banana was supposed to be fully fried according to Wikipedia, but my plate was semi-fried and was gooier if anything.  If you get this appetizer, let it cool off for a long time.  Although it smells like a freshly baked apple and banana pie, you will get a blazing mouthful of napalm.  Not a good look when out with friends for a fun time speaking from experience.  When I finally let it cool down enough, I found it to be a unique but tasty dish.  If you have a sweet tooth and a love for chewy, salty cheese then this is the ideal appetizer for you.  The guava and banana were a dynamic duo that teamed up with the cooked cheese on top for a sweet and salty treat.  I was semi-full after it, but I still had to choose an entree.  After looking over the numerous meat options, I got the bandeja paisa (literally:  “country tray”) ($21).  My girlfriend got a combinacion ($21) with a plantain, skirt steak, yuca, potato, and baby calamari.

When both of the plates came out, my eyes were definitely bigger than my stomach.  My girlfriend’s plate was especially eye catching with the slightly char-grilled baby octopodes (or octopi if you’re all about mixing Greek and Roman pluralizations).IMG_4085  Some of them were quite chilling to look at on other peoples’ plates where they had faces similar to Edvard Munch’s The Scream.  Creepy cephalopods aside, they were quite delicious with a nice firm texture and a great charred aftertaste mixed in with the semi-buttery flesh.  As for my plate, where to begin? IMG_4087 First, there was the rib-eye steak.  Lord, was it perfect.  Juicy, tender, and bursting with rich, meaty flavor.  The other meat element, the fried pork belly, looked very similar to another type of bacon I tried that also tricked me in Hungary.  It was a lot harder to eat than the steak because of the tough pork skin it was attached to, but that didn’t stop me from getting my hands dirty and perhaps scaring some of my fellow diners in the process. IMG_4117 You don’t mess with a man and his bacon.  It was worth the greasy face and fingers with each nugget oozing salty and porktastic notes that were probably as addictive as Pablo Escobar’s finest wares.  The beans were ok, but they were enhanced when I mixed them in with the freshly sliced avocados, white rice (that was on the dry side), and the fried egg atop the mini rice mound.  The arepa on the side was also quite tasty since it was filled with more of the cheese that was melted on top of the aborrajado from earlier in the meal.  It was like a South American version of a Mexican quesadilla, and I’ve tangled with the Salvadorian version of an arepa on an earlier food adventure.  There was no way I was going to finish all of this food, so I threw in the towel by the time I finished all the meat, arepa, and avocados.  I couldn’t stuff myself any more with rice and beans.  In the haze of my food coma, I knew I experienced something special that night from a place I had never been to before but hope to experience one day.

Me riding home from the restaurant.

Me riding home from the restaurant.

So if you want a taste of Colombia without having to hop on a plane, check out Las Tablas for some of the best steaks this side of the equator!

Las Tablas on Urbanspoon

Getting My Goat On

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Welcome to another chapter in the Mastication Monologues saga!  Today’s restaurant review takes us to one of the newer but highly regarded eateries in Chicago in the West Loop:  Girl and the Goat.  I had heard so many great things about famed chef, Stephanie Izard.  According to the website, “Izard is name of goat in the Pyrenees”; hence the name of the restaurant.  Looking beyond their rustic take on English on their website, their food was king or perhaps queen of the mountain.IMG_4035

The interior was bumping when I went there around dinnertime for a double date.IMG_4030  Servers were buzzing by as we checked in for our reservation.  There was a bit of a wait, so we grabbed drinks and took in the entire experience.  From the sleekly designed interior to the open cook line, it was like poetry in motion everywhere I looked.  IMG_4037IMG_4036IMG_4034It only whetted my appetite even more for the upcoming meal.  Eventually we were seated and the madness began.  With a tumbler of whiskey in hand, we looked over the menu to see some common items like olives or steak tartare, but then there were crazy things like duck tongues or pig face. IMG_4039 Mind you, the menu is on a rotating basis, so you might be privy to some dishes I never saw on the menu.  We went crazy ordering once our server came over however.  The journey began with a sun-dried tomato bread boule that came with a side of vinegar seasoned corn relish and savory butter with a garlic infusion. IMG_4042 This typical carb starter got us off on the right foot as it was warm, oh-so-soft, and bursting with the taste of fresh tomatoes.IMG_4044  Then for actual dishes, the Girl and the Goat focus on more tapas-esque presentation and portion sizes which means that each selection is meant to be shared amongst all the people at the table.  Ergo, we ordered things that everyone wanted to try.  First, seafood.  We got the raw kusshi oysters with muscatel mignonette and tarrgon along with the wood fired blue point oysters with horseradish, bacon, and preserved lemon.

Kusshi oysters

Kusshi oysters

This was a historical foodie moment for me since it was the first time trying oysters.  While I heard from some people that they tasted like snot going down, I found them to slide right down without any sort of trepidation from my palate.  They didn’t need to be chewed or anything, so I don’t know what those other diners’ problems were.  I personally preferred the wood fired oysters because they were slightly warm along with a nice sinus-tickling horseradish kick.

Woodpoint fired oysters

Woodpoint fired oysters

While we were partying under the sea with the super shellfish, the steak tartare wraps came out.  If you just saw “steak” and “wrap”, the “tartare” part means that the meat was raw inside.IMG_4047  However, that doesn’t mean that it’s unsafe to eat.  In fact, these nibbles were quite light at delicious.  The lettuce leaves were super fresh, and the pieces of red meat were accompanied by some tempura flakes and another corn relish that provided a texture contrast to the tender steak and crunchy tempura batter. IMG_4048 Along with this hands-on dish, we got an order of squash blossom rangoon with wasabi garlic chive yogurt and sliced almonds ($13). IMG_4049IMG_4050 I think these fried gourds were a bit over the top with their cheesy interiors.  IMG_4051It seemed to simply be a high-falutin version of common jalapeno poppers, and they were quite primitive in comparison to the other dishes we tried before.  The duck tongues ($16) that came next were anything but ordinary. IMG_4052 While everyone at the table was disgusted yet slightly curious when I ordered this dish, I was curious to see if it was going to be different from my experiences with duck tongues in Taiwan and China.  Lo and behold, it was since they were neither simply cooked nor still sticking in a duck’s head.  Instead, they were fried and arranged into a mini-mountain over a tuna and black bean poke that was negligible, but the spicy piri-piri bird’s eye pepper (similar to the one at Nando’s in the UK) from Mozambique really kicked these tongues up a notch in terms of flavor.  Plus, my formerly squeamish dining companions found them to be quite pleasant since they melted in your mouth and didn’t feel like you were making out with Donald Duck.  After that bizarre treat, we came back to reality with an order of ham frites ($7) with sides of smoked tomato aioli (literally: “garlic oil” in Catalan) and cheddar beer sauce.  IMG_4053These smoky, savory taters were finger licking good especially with the cheddar beer sauce and powdered ham that took these common bar items to a new level of haute cuisine.  If this redesigned ‘Murikan favorite got my palate amped up, the spring onion potstickers ($15) were a Far East fusion creation to cool it down.  IMG_4054It was served at room temperature, and the fried dough was extra delicate.IMG_4058  Along with that, the dandelion greens and sunflower seeds created many earthy tones as I took down each one.  All of these were leading up to the piece de resistance, the crisped braised pork shank ($25). IMG_4057 Not only was this thing monstrous, but it also came with sides I would have never expected:  Indian naan bread, buttermilk dressing, peach kimchi, and a pepper sauce.  I almost felt like young King Arthur with the sword in the stone, and I took my Excalibur with great aplomb. IMG_4063 The meat fell off the bone, and it was mind-blowingly succulent.  Each strand combined with the golden crispy skin to create a legendary dish that I will never forget.  The naan was fresh, but I didn’t think it really fit in with the other ingredients.  The kimchi peaches somewhat made sense since it was a sour/sweet element to cut through the savory and slightly greasy meat.  The pepper sauce was good but not great.

It gone!

It gone!

As if you thought this was the end to the food madness, the pork belly and scallops came out.  I tried a minuscule portion of the pork belly, and it would have been great if my stomach wasn’t stretched to bursting.IMG_4066  Perhaps for next time.  The lobster was quite sweet while the crab seemed to be a better compliment to the lean pork.  As for the scallops, I can’t really comment on them because I was absolutely stuffed, but their presentation was pleasing to the eye.  Plus, the scallops were quite hefty for the price.IMG_4068

So in closing, if you want to try one of Chicago’s most highly vaunted restaurant, bring your piggy bank and then some because it isn’t cheap.  However, it is high quality food with moderately large portions compared to other similarly prestigious eateries.   Ergo, you should get down to Girl and the Goat ASAP.

Girl & the Goat on UrbanspoonIz

Absolute Cero

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Hola a todos and welcome to Mastication Monologues!  This really has been a post that has been long in the making, but it is not short on quality by any means.  Today’s restaurant in question is De Cero on the Near West side of Chicago.  It is a modern version of a taqueria or taco shop for y’all who don’t habla espanol.  It takes the ingredients from the Pilsen and Little Village Mexican strongholds and presents it in a more Rick Bayless upper echelon Latin cuisine fashion.

Sharing the block with other famous dining establishments like Le Chevre and Girl and the Goat (post coming soon), De Cero is a simple restaurant with open patio dining and indoor dining.  It’s simply furnished with wooden chairs and a soft lit interior.IMG_3961 IMG_3959 IMG_3960 When I went with my girlfriend and her party posse, we hung out on the bumpin patio that was occasionally ruined by spontaneous drizzle storms.  Being the Midwesterners that we are, we just sat through it and enjoyed the wonderful food and drinks.IMG_3947

First, there were the libations.  They have non-alcoholic selections like the classic Jarritos that can be found in every corner store stocked with Latin goods, but we came for the more adult beverages.  I started by wetting my whistle with a mango con chile margarita ($9.75).  Not only did it come with chile, but our waitress indulged my thirst for spicy food by letting me know I can put habanero chili powder on the edge.  When it came out, it checked all the boxes for me for a bebida perfecta (perfect drink). IMG_3948 IMG_3950 It was the perfect blend of the natural sweetness of the sunny yellow mango with the occasional hint of tequila and a bold punch of smoldering chile with each sip.  Later on in the night, I tried the jicama margarita, but it was the blander of the two options. IMG_3958 IMG_3957

As for appetizers, we got the chips and salsa entrada ($6.75) where we chose the pico de gallo, red picante, and tomatillo lime verde salsas.  A side of guacamole was thrown in there for good measure.  IMG_3953Out of the trio of super salsas, my favorite was the pico de gallo.  All of the different elements like the tomatoes, onion, cilantro, and tangy lime juice were in perfect harmony which I couldn’t say the same for its compadres.  The red picante was pedestrian but a bit heavy on the smoky chile element, and the key lime green tomatillo salsa was more sour than savory which didn’t really catch my fancy.  However, the guacamole made me think “Holy moly” with each ravenous bite of the tortilla chips. IMG_3954 Even though it was the same color as toothpaste, it tread the line between chunky and smooth excellently and the cilantro pepped up this potentially bland side.  IMG_3956My girlfriend also tried the spicy goat cheese tamale ($3.75).  IMG_3969

Duck confit taco and tamale

Duck confit taco and tamale

It was nothing special.  The mild masa of the tamale drowned out the flamboyantly tasty goat cheese which left me muy triste.IMG_3971  After munching on these appetizers, the main course came out.

I got four different tacos:  spicy applewood chorizo, rajas, al pastor, and chicken mole ($3.75 each).IMG_3963  Surprisingly, I thought the best one of the four was the rajas. IMG_3967 This doesn’t mean that the other ones were huge let downs, but I felt that I tried better versions in cheaper restaurants.  Especially with the al pastor that had plenty of spiced pork shoulder but not enough pineapple.  IMG_3966The chorizo was not as spicy as I was anticipating which left me crestfallen since I’m used to Mexican sausage bringing the heat.IMG_3965  The chicken mole was more of an experiment for me since I’ve never really been a big fan of mole.  IMG_3964Even though I love chocolate, this cocoa infused sauce never really jived with my palate.  At De Cero, it was no different, but I’m sure many other people love it. The black beans that came with the tacos, however, were a nice change of pace compared to the typical brown refried bean goo they serve at every tex-mex eatery. IMG_3968 They were served whole, simmered in a pork based broth with a chunk of pork thrown in for good measure.  It was food for the soul.

By the end of the meal, I felt like a stuffed gordita, but the overall quality of the ingredients in the tacos and the zesty margaritas made De Cero a taqueria experience without equal, especially with lovely company.IMG_3973
De Cero on Urbanspoon

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