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Topolobampo: One Bday at a Time

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Welcome one and all to Mastication Monologues where I try to try as many different meals as possible while educating the reader about new cultures or the origins of popular foods.  One of the most diverse food scenes out there is Mexican cuisine.  You can go all over the USA and find some form of taco, burrito, or nachos at least even though some interpretations of these meals (especially nachos) might not be seen south of the border.  However, there has been an evolution of Mexican food as of late where different Asian cuisines have been blended to create new and crazy creations like Korean inspired bulgogi (marinated beef) tacos.  On the other hand, one of the biggest names in Mexican cooking, Rick Bayless, has been trying to get to the heart of simple Mexican food after decades of living, tasting, and drinking everything from Juarez to Jalisco.  Janice and I met him during Taste Talks of Chicago where he talked about the constant evolution of food, and how meals bring people together from different backgrounds or may make them more in touch with their heritage.  How does Rick manage to do this?  At his restaurant Topolobampo in Chicago, they serve a rotating menu that draws on Mexico’s culinary history starting in the pre-Colombian era and ending in modern Mexican fusion along with different specialty dishes from all corners of Mexico.  I had the pleasure of paying Topolobampo a visit for my birthday last year with my lovely girlfriend, so I apologize for the delay for this mouth-watering post.

The front of the restaurant consisted of two different restaurants but both owned by Mr. Bayless.  IMG_4981It was slightly confusing trying to find the entrance because we couldn’t see a clear door for either restaurant, but it turns out they shared a common door.  Upon walking in, we were in the lobby for Frontera, the cheaper and more boisterous of the two restaurants.  We walked through the hallway past the strains of musica ranchera to the more demure Topolobampo dining room.  Instead of lots of kitchy Mexican bric a brac on the walls a la Frontera Grill, there were more oil paintings and softer music.IMG_4978  I’d also recommend putting on nicer clothes since its a classy kind of joint.01df7509f997342c67799f4f76e06f709f9e61dfc8  I could hardly contain my excitement as I looked over the menu, but we started off with some drinks.  There weren’t any prices for the food items, but there are for the drinks.  So, it seems they operate on the “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it” train of thought.  Janice went with a classic glass of red wine that ended up being as big as her head, and I got a mezcal margarita ($12.50).IMG_4964  Mezcal has become more popular with the rise of tequila, but still isn’t very widespread.  It is distilled from the maguey agave plant which is so revered that the Aztecs called the fermented liquid the “elixir of the gods”.  Mezcal assumed its current form when Spaniards took the Aztec agave drink called “pulque” and found a distilling process to increase its alcohol content.  While in Mexico mezcal is consumed straight, I had it mixed with the Spanish Torres 10 year brandy, bitters, lemonade, and mezcal from the very home state in Mexico that started it all, Oaxaca.  It was shaken and served tableside with much pomp, and it was one of the best mixed drinks I’ve ever tasted.unnamed (2)  It was super potent, but not too sweet. IMG_4957 The hight quality mezcal and Spanish brandy left my palate with a smooth caress with each sip, and there was no burning sensation when it was going down compared with some tequilas I’ve tried.  Once we got our drinks, we got to figuring out what food to order.  At Topolobampo, diners have the option of doing a three, five, or seven course tasting menu with the eaters choosing the dishes.  A fourth option is doing a “Perfect Seven” chef-chosen seven course meal.  We each went for a 5 course tasting menu since we were starving and ready to sample everything Chef Bayless had to offer.  We expected nothing less than magic after hearing him talk about his pre-Colombian menu where he made Mexican food with no beef, chicken, cilantro, lime, or even pork! Long story short, we were blown away.  Our meal started with an off-the-menu item that we got for free.  It was a tiny stack of radioactive pink disks resting in a similarly colored liquid.IMG_4959  Our waiter explained that it was pickled watermelon and radish topped with cayenne pepper.  It was cool, sour, yet slightly spicy that primed our tastebuds for what was next.  I got the sopa azteca (Aztec soup) that consisted of a medium heat pasilla pepper infused beef stock, incredibly tender chicken, cheese, and tortilla strips.IMG_4961  It was simple yet warmed my soul on that dark and cold night.  It kind of reminded me of a Mexican take on French onion soup.  Janice’s first plate was a surprise knockout in terms of flavor.  She got the Sand and Sea which was green ceviche on a bed of tortilla sand.  If you’ve never had ceviche, it’s basically a room temperature salad made of tomatoes, onions, some kind of whitefish, and lime juice.  In true Rick Bayless fashion, he turned this Mexican coastal favorite on its head with chunks of summer flounder, serrano chiles, lime, jicama, and avocados to give it that Hulk green hue.  01cb2a19792a28dad09df6f12d856abd8ce6b359a7Coming from someone who is not a huge fish person, I loved it, and Janice, a bigger fish lover than I, loved it as well.  It didn’t have that super “fishy” taste that might accompany some dishes; I’d liken it more to a lighter and thinner guacamole in terms of taste and texture.   Next up was my beautiful girlfriend’s sunchokes.  The name “sunchoke” was invented for this tuber that is kind of like a potato in terms of appearance in the 1960’s to revive the sales of this very old plant.  However, the sun part supposedly comes from the Italian name for it “girasole” or “sunflower” due to the similar yellow flowers that grew wherever sunchokes could be found.  As for the “choke” part, that came from famous French explorer Samuel Champlain sending back samples of the veggies to France from Canada and America noting a “taste like an artichoke”.unnamed (3)  They were served in a recado blanco sauce from the Yucatan peninsula, a.k.a. the home of the Maya and every high schoolers’ Spring Break plans.  It was a simple sauce that had some garlic, oregano, and some sweet spices to give it a semi-curry character with a guero chile mixed in to give it a vibrant yellow hue.  unnamed (5)Underneath them were resting fermented kohlrabi pieces which were basically pickled turnips.  It was both spicy yet savory and slightly sweet.  The cool slice of avocado on the side cut down the spice when necessary.  They were ok but not amazing in comparison to my second dish:  the carne asada in mole negro.  Now, a lot of people love the chocolatey, spicy sauce on their enchiladas, and much to my own surprise, I am not one of them.  I love chocolate in all forms, but I normally shy away from mixing sweet and savory items.  Topolobampo made me see the upside of this pre-Colombian sauce.  First, there were the firewood-roasted pieces of ribeye that were small but extremely lean, and these exemplary cuts of meat were surrounded by smoked green beans and a small tamal of chipilin herbs. unnamed (4) Mole comes from the Aztec word for “sauce”, and legend has it that a group of nuns threw a bunch of spices together with some chocolate to make sauce for the archbishop’s meal.  He loved it and wanted to know what it was.  One of the nun’s said, “I made a mole”, and thus the legend was born.  For once, I was like the archbishop in a divine state of being when eating this plate. unnamed The Oaxacan mole wasn’t overly sweet like other moles I have tried; the chihuacle chili peppers really brought a little fire to each bite which I appreciated along with the other 28 ingredients that went into the delicious sauce.  As for the meat, it was astoundingly tender and smoky to compliment the mole.  The same could be said for the green beans.  Next, I got goat barbacoa which was served two ways.  The lower layer was slow cooked goat that could be found in a Jalisco birria stew while the top was a panchetta or cured piece of goat that was crunchier.IMG_4971  It was served with garnishes on the side that were fresh, but the goat when it was coated in the red chili sauce was rich, almost too rich for its own good.  IMG_4973While the barbacoa was melt-in-your-mouth quality, it was a bit too salty for my liking.  Janice’s tamal festivo that was stuffed with turkey, chestnuts, and coated in a red mole sauce was like a Mesoamerican take on a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner.IMG_4967  I was very thankful she ordered it because it was extremely comforting and hearty.  Our final round of savory plates took us to two stewed dishes.  I got the mole de olla or (pan mole) which consisted of beef short ribs wallowing in a ancho and guajillo mole while being topped with some zesty and sour prickly pear fruitIMG_4969.  IMG_4970It covered every taste bud with an explosion of flavors, and I highly recommend this dish.  Janice’s suckling pig was equally decadent. 01f8efcc2b3d20eb4e1e73a399b356a5e08d901b68The braised pork was succulent, overshadowing the greens, and further embellished with the extremely thin veils of 14-month dry cured ham resting softly atop this tiny nugget of greatness.  Even after all of these dishes, we still had room for dessert because as the maxim of high end dining held true where it was a series of small but high quality ingredients that satisfied us, but we didn’t feel stuffed.

Dessert was just as over the top and true to its Mexican roots.  The cacao tree was an homage to the sacred cacao bean that was considered a drink and food only reserved for Aztec emperors and gods.  A piece of milk chocolate bark lay across three different forms of the dark stuff. unnamed (1)unnamed (6) First, there was the moist lava cake that was made with house-made chocolate straight from Tabasco, Mexico.  Words cannot describe how delicious this element was.

So much love for the cake.

Clearly she liked it.

Next, the cacao fruit mousse was the opposite in the sense that it wasn’t extremely rich but rather a smooth and sweet raspberry and chocolate cream.  Finally, there was the rosita de cacao ice cream that was like a lip-smackingly great French vanilla combined with a generous helping of chocolate chunks from Chiapas, Mexico.  Janice got the crepas con cajeta (crepes with cream) which was just as great. IMG_4977 The crepes were slightly warm and filled with bittersweet dark chocolate ganache that became gooey due to the heat, and the pumpkin spice and pecan toffee ice cream on the side started to melt that made it perfect for the Fall.  On top of all of this, there was a meringue and warm apples that made it a mixture of European and pre-Colombian influences to make my stomach very happy.  The final two desserts were the winter buñuelo de viento and the guava atole.  The former was the antithesis to the cacao tree since it was all white errthang.01c17989af02d0e072be4bab7bc510836a68be025e  It consisted of a scoop of vanilla-brandy ice cream topped with puffed rice stewing in a warm traditional Mexican ponche or “punch” infused with hibiscus, tamarind, brandy, sugarcane, and tejocote apples.  The latter, the guava atole, was a complete nod to the Aztecs who invented the corn and flour drink.IMG_4974  On one side there was a steamed masa corn cake that was semi-sweet and moist.   Then the atole guava ice cream was on the other side where the sweetness of the tropical guava mixed with a slightly starchy element.  I liked the crunchy masa strips and flour crumbles because they brought both a change of texture along with an almost pie a-la-mode feel with the ice cream combined with the crumbles.  It was my second favorite dessert behind the cacao tree.

By the end of the meal, we were greatly satisfied, and it was a fantastic birthday from the beginning to the end even though I never found out how much everything cost haha.  If you want some gourmet Mexican cuisine at reasonable prices for high end diners, I highly recommend Topolobampo!
Topolobampo on Urbanspoon

 

 

Winter bunuelo de viento

guava atole

First and Last Tine Eating Here

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Welcome one and all to Mastication Monologues where I review restaurants and bring you some of my food adventures throughout Chicago and the rest of the world!  This post is the final installation of Chicago Restaurant Week, and sadly it doesn’t live up to other great days that were filled with spicy plates and savory treasures.  Today’s review deals with the brand new eatery Knife and Tine that opened in 2014 in the chic Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago.

The outside of the restaurant was modern and clean with flagstone from corner to corner, and the inside was like most modern American gastropubs:  dimly lit and dark accents.  IMG_5952IMG_5950Upon sitting down, we were supplied with our Restaurant Week menus.  It was like most other restaurants that allowed for diners to try a three course meal for the low low price of $33 dollars, but Knife and Tine also had a $44 souped up menu that had more decadent options.  The complimentary bread that started it all off wasn’t decadent.  IMG_5935The pimento cheese spread that came on the side was a bit too salty for my liking, but it was slightly spicy that salvaged my taste buds.  To start, we got an order of the spoon bread and the pear salad.  The former actually didn’t involve any bread, rather fried pieces of whipped cornmeal.IMG_5937  This staple of Southern US cooking left much to be desired on their own.  They were quite bland, and the batter had no character whatsoever. IMG_5940 They came with a hot sauce bacon aioli (dipping sauce) that might as well have been called “cream of salt with a dash of bacon”.  On the other hand, the pear salad was light, refreshing, and balanced in terms of the earthy baby arugula, sweet pear slices, and salty Parmesan flakes that were liberally strewn about the salad. IMG_5941 Then there were the arancini which are a Sicilian dish allegedly being invented in the 10th Century A.D. during Arab rule.  As for the name, it comes from the Sicilian word “arancine” meaning orange since these fried rice balls are shaped like their fruit namesakes. IMG_5943 It was fried like the spoon bread, yet a lot more flavorful than the cornmeal stuffed bites.  Unfortunately, it was a matter of quantity over quality in terms of tastes as the pimento cheese and cheddar took over this plate, and even then it was more salty than savory.  As we moved from snacks to the main entrees, I tucked into my chicken and dumplings platter.  It looked ok, and when I had my first bite, it was a let down.  IMG_5946While the crispy skin gave the chicken a satisfying crunch, the meat was greasy, and the ricotta dumplings were bland and semi-soggy soaking up the au-jus.  As for Janice’s beef cheeks, I actually preferred the brussel sprout salad that had a tangy vinaigrette over the over roasted meat. IMG_5945 I’m sure if you really like pot roast or other really stewed meats, this would be the dish for you.  It’s not quite my cup of tea.  The bone marrow bread pudding (on the left below) was confusing since I felt like the bread part overshadowed the spreadable goodness that is bone marrow.IMG_5947  It was a case of gilding the beef cheek in this case.  I was extremely impressed with the desserts, and this isn’t just my sweet tooth talking.  The denouement of our dinner took the form of coconut lime panna cotta and a super brownie.  The panna cotta (Italian for “cooked cream”) was coated with a blueberry coulis or thick sauce and topped with sesame tuiles (French for “tiles”) or a wafer of sorts and candied ginger. IMG_5949
 This Italian version of flan was also infused with a bit of coconut and lime juice with gave it an interesting tropical feel.  My favorite part were the toppings like the crispy sesame bits that brought a savory side to a sweet dessert and counteracted the sweeter pieces of ginger.  As for the super brownie, I might as well have slapped an “S” on it and called it, “my hero”! IMG_5948 It consisted of a blondie brownie buried under more brownie bites, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and candied walnuts.  On top of this avalanche of chocotastic flavors and crunchy walnuts, it was slightly warm that left me in a food coma and drifting off to dreamland.

While many diners have raved about Knife and Tine on Yelp and Urbanspoon, I honestly don’t know if we were eating at the same place.  Based on my experience and Amy Cavanaugh of Time Out Chicago’s, don’t go to Knife and Tine unless you like overpriced and salty food.
Knife & Tine on Urbanspoon

One In A Milion

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Hola and Namaste to a new Mastication Monologues post!  I got to apologize for the lack of consistent posts due to a new full time job that has been quite time consuming, but I promise that today’s entry will be all killer and no filler in the form of a great Latin fusion eatery in Chicago known as Vermilion.

Fusion in food is as common as the intermingling of cultures.  For example, America is a nation of immigrants, and our food reflects that concept of culinary cross-pollination.  Even traditional barbecue draws elements from Spanish, African, and Native American cooking traditions.  However, Vermilion focuses on a menu based on mixing Indian and Latin American cuisine.  What that means is that the super savory and aromatic Indian dishes get a spicy south of the border kick many are familiar with in Mexican cooking, but that is only part of the picture.  Janice and I went for our second to last reservation during Restaurant Week, and it was on a Sunday night after a delicious lunch at Demera.IMG_5908  The interior was super hip and sleek with a black, red, and white motif.IMG_5909IMG_5910  We were quickly seated in the dining room as a blend of Spanish pop and Bollywood hits bounced out of the speakers overhead.  I would also recommend dressing up a bit since Vermilion is a bit more upscale than most Latin and Indian restaurants.  We both went with the $33 restaurant week dinner which consisted of a standard three course meal with an appetizer, entree, and dessert.  However, our waiter surprised us with a free, little taster plate with a chef’s creation.IMG_5912  These petite squares that we were face to face with was a fried plantain chip topped with mango pico de gallo and resting on a sweet, brown tamarind chutney.IMG_5914  It was a mini t-bomb (taste bomb) of flavor where the sweet backbone of the canape was supported by the chutney, mango, and plantain, but was then tempered by the sour lime juice and semi-savory aftertaste of the fried plantain.  As for the appetizer stage of our meal, I went with a Bombay frankie and Janice got the pumpkin squash curry leaf soup.  The frankie was great. IMG_5915 It is one of India’s favorite street food snacks, and I can see why. IMG_5916 It consisted of a fried flatbread known as a roti that was then filled with chunks of chicken coated in Indian spices like cardamom and curry, but the best part was the shot glass of mint curry on the side.  It wasn’t toothpaste minty, but it gave the spicy sauce a cool aftertaste.  Janice’s squash soup was just as delicious. IMG_5917 It came with an Indian cracker on the side known as a pappad or papadum depending on where you’re at in India.  The soup was extremely creamy and rich with a pepper infused oil that gave each curry-filled spoonful a mild kick.  These bold flavors warmed us up for our entrees that came soon thereafter.  I got the Brazilian feijoada which I was pretty excited to try since it is considered to be the national dish of the South American nation.  Contrary to popular preparation which utilizes black beans and a dark, purplish-brown broth which is a mix of the aforementioned beans and various meats stewing in the dish, Vermilion’s take on it was a mix of Indian and Latin flavors.  First, the color of the stew was a vibrant red that contained a mound of white rice and a rice cracker in the middle that acted like a nacho with taco dip.IMG_5920  As for the rice, it was an element more in touch with its Brazilian roots, but I didn’t see any traditional farofa (manioc flour roasted with butter and bacon) on the side which made me quite sad.  As for the contents of the actual dish, there were red beans (supposedly black beans according to the menu), large chunks of succulent chicken, and hunks of spicy Portuguese chorizo sausage.  Not only was the meat spicy, but the actual stew had an Indian vindaloo flavor to it which means that it was super spicy with a smoky background.  This fiery quality was also a sign of Indian/Latin fusion since a typical Brazilian feijoada isn’t spicy.  Even though it wasn’t the most traditional dish, it was innovative, warm, and hearty.  Perfect for a cold day like it was when we went.  Janice didn’t go down the super spicy route and got the heart of palm Valencia paella.IMG_5922  It consisted of large rings of the pulp found in the middle of palm trees, curried Indian rice, and a bit of orange zest.  IMG_5923Neither of us found it to be as interesting as the feijoada since it just tasted like curry.  However, our meal got more interesting in the wrong way since we found a hair in Janice’s paella.  Thankfully, they replaced it for free with a dish of her choice, so she got the feijoada as well.  It got even better when our desserts came.  I got the mango cardamom flan which was out of this world.IMG_5924  The flan had the perfect firm yet gooey texture and was infused with cardamom.  It was soaking in a mango escabeche (a word originally from the Persian “al-sikbaj” meaning a meat dish soaking in a sweet and sour sauce) or syrup which imparted an incredibly but not overwhelming sweetness to a mostly neutral tasting dessert.  The coconut foam on top tied this entire dish together perfectly since it was both light and sweet.  If you wanted to cleanse your palate after all that sweet flan and heavenly foam, you could follow the trail of  pitted, juicy lychees covering mini mounds of cranberries to the end of the plate.  I jumped from one plate to another to get a taste of Janice’s date chocolate rice pudding that had a little bit of cinnamon and clove to add a savory yin to the semi-sweet yang with the date chocolate. IMG_5927 I never was a big fan of rice pudding though, so it didn’t capture my imagination as much as our final dessert.  Since Janice didn’t make a big deal about finding the hair in her food, our waiter brought out the most popular dessert to our table for free.IMG_5928  It was a flourless chocolate lava cake that was covered in a subtly spicy dark chocolate mole sauce…words can’t describe how satisfying and incredibly rich this dessert was.  It was further embellished with an undulating raspberry syrup trail that led to a creamy, small ball of vanilla bean and coconut ice cream that rested on some fresh sliced strawberries.  These desserts were by far the best part of the entire meal, and the service was superb.

So, even though things got a little hairy midway through the dinner, Vermilion managed to win us over with its creative food (especially the desserts!) and great service.  I highly recommend this restaurant if you are tired of the same old ethnic eateries.
Vermilion on Urbanspoon

All Fired Up For Demera

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Hello and sorry everyone for the lull on Mastication Monologues, but I’m back with a fresh new post that is part of Restaurant Week that is now over in Chicago.  For those of you who don’t know, Restaurant Week in Chicago is a multiple week event where a multitude of eateries throughout Chicago open their doors to everyone with great deals.  In this post, I’d like to tell you a little bit about Demera, one of Chicago’s premier Ethiopian/Eritrean diner.IMG_5907

Janice and I went there for their lunch special, and the inside was brightly lit and bumping with some funky Ethiopian jamz. IMG_5888IMG_5889  We were quickly seated, and we had some trepidation with what to pick since everything sounded so delicious.  I started the meal off with a St. George Beer to drink.IMG_5891  Ethiopia is interesting enough since it is a mainly Christian society surrounded by Muslim nations, and some go on to even speculate that the Ethiopian people are descendants of one of the 12 lost tribes of Israel.   The name of the place, Demera, is the term in Amharic for the ceremonial bonfire used in the Ethiopian Christian version of Ash Wednesday, and we had a similar religious experience with the food.  However, the St. George Beer wasn’t very noteworthy since its neutral flavor and watery consistency left me hoping for the second coming of my food savior to resurrect my taste buds from the bland rapture. IMG_5890 Luckily, the beef sambussas and timatim selata did just that.  First, there were the beef sambussas that I could liken to a lighter version of empanadas.  IMG_5893The dough was less pie-like and more flaky and light like Greek philo dough.  The meat was spiced and amped up in terms of flavor with the spicy yet sweet yet dangerously addicting awaze sauce. IMG_5896IMG_5897 We also got an order of the timatim selata which I likened to an Ethiopian version of pico de gallo.IMG_5892  It consisted of tomatoes, onions, and jalapeno pepper slices all coated in a lime vinaigrette.  It was tangy and flavorful and was handily consumed (pun intended) with the ubiquitous Ethiopian flatbread known as injera.  While flatbreads can be found around the world in cultures that eat with their hands like naan in India or pita in Greece, injera is super unique in the sense that it is spongy with a slightly sour taste compared to its more doughy brethren.IMG_5900  Thankfully, it had plenty of nooks and crannies to soak up all of the lime juice but was also strong enough to enclose the large slices of tomato.  IMG_5894After polishing off that flavorful and refreshing appetizer, we got our main entree.  Traditional Ethiopian cuisine focuses on family style dining where everyone eats from the same plate.IMG_5901  On our plate, we got the ye-beg alicha  (mild lamb cubes), doro wat (chicken in a mild sauce with ayib cheese), ye-misir wot (split red lentils in spicy berbere sauce), and gomen (chopped collard greens).  With the spicy lamb, it was a great mix of spice and the slightly gamey taste that comes with lamb.  The doro wat chicken wasn’t as bold as the lamb, but the ayib cheese was like an African queso fresco that gave this savory part of the meal a cool and semi-salty twist.  IMG_5899I really enjoyed the split red lentils because they were super spicy, but I was mixed on the collard greens.  On the one hand, I enjoyed the earthy, spinach tones, but the ginger notes kind of left me cold on this hot entree.  Surprisingly, we had a bit of room for dessert, but we could only get the missionary delight, a basic vanilla sundae, because they apparently didn’t have enough ingredients for the dessert we wanted, the sambussa turnovers.  Super normal for a restaurant that serves food that isn’t on many peoples’ radars, but thankfully, our waitress told us that we could get the dessert we originally wanted, the turnovers.  What they consisted of were sweet versions of the savory sambussas we had earlier in the meal.IMG_5903  It was the same flaky dough, but instead of beef, there was a melange of walnuts, cardamom, walnuts, saffron, and rose water.  IMG_5904It reminded me of a honey-less baklava with an almost flowery aftertaste compliments of the rosewater.  The strawberry sauce was a bit too much of guilding the rose for me which made me prefer the savory version of these handheld treats.  At the end of the meal, we were absolutely stuffed but greatly pleased with Demera’s food selection.

So if you’re tired of the same old restaurants serving foods you’ve heard of before, check out a red-hot slice of Ethiopia at Demera.

Demera Ethiopian on Urbanspoon

You’ll Love Olive This Food

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Welcome one and all to another mouth-watering entry on Mastication Monologues!  This is part three of my Restaurant Week series in Chicago where a plethora of eateries open their doors to the public with great deals for some of the best food in the city, country, and perhaps the world.  Fig and Olive in the fancy Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago manages to bring the best of the entire Mediterranean region to the Midwest.IMG_5838

It was a fancy eatery to begin with, so I highly suggest you get on your Sunday best as we did on a Friday night.  IMG_5847 IMG_5846This place was so fancy we had to take an elevator up to the main dining room.  IMG_5839Once we arrived, we were greeted to the strains of light jazz and sumptuous surroundings in the form of long cloth couches in a lounge area. IMG_5843 However, we were led to our seat in the mainly glass and metal lined dining room with the creative bar that had trees growing out of the middle of the drink shelves. IMG_5840 IMG_5841 Nothing like admiring a little greenery while spending some.  When we sat down, our friendly waiter greeted us with the drink menu.  I ordered a glass of cabernet sauvignon- tenuta mazzolino from Italy.  It was a bold wine that had hints of smoke and blackberries.  While we were sipping on our wines, we got a complimentary olive oil flight with small cubes of rosemary foccacia. IMG_5849 The three cups were filled with an Italian extra virgin representative, a buttery Spanish olive oil, and a bold Greek olive oil that was a bit spicy.  The Italian option was good but not great.  The Spanish oil was extremely rich when the warm nooks and crannies of the foccacia soaked up the golden nectar.  As for the Greek entry, it slowly grew on me as the most palate engaging of the trio.  After that little appetizer, we ordered off the Restaurant Week menu which was $33 plus $10 for our crostini tasting which was recommended by a ton of people on Yelp.  This was 10 bucks well spent.  We got six of the chef’s choice, and when they came out, they looked amazing. IMG_5854 The most interesting thing about them was that it wasn’t as crumbly and stiff as typical crostini, but rather crusty yet soft.  First, there was the burrata, tomato, pesto, and balsamic vinaigrette. IMG_5856 It was in my top three as it was like a caprese salad on a fresh piece of bread.  Burrata is a softer than normal fresh mozzarella that also is a bit softer than a buffalo mozzarella.  It might not be for everyone with its goopy texture, but I couldn’t help myself.  Then there was the grilled vegetable crostini with the ricotta olive tapenade. IMG_5861 This crostino didn’t leave me with any sort of positive or negative impression.  It just tasted like a lot of olives yet not really.  Thankfully, I followed it up with a lovely manchego cheese, fig spread, and topped with a marcona almond. IMG_5860 This was also in my top three crostini since it was the perfect mix of the buttery and slightly salty manchego, crunchy almond, and sweet fig jam.  The mushroom crostino was in the same category as the grilled vegetable crostino, i.e. a less flavorful mix of greens with a healthy dose of Parmesan cheese.IMG_5855  Next up were the two seafood entries with shrimp and crab.

Crab

Crab

and ze shrimp

and ze shrimp

If I had to pick one, I’d go with the shrimp as being the lesser of two evils since I’m not a huge fish/crustacean fan (sorry, Aquaman).  Both were served cold which didn’t help, but while the crab just tasted like sweet, cold, flaky meat with a hint of avocado, the shrimp had a bit more body to it and a nice cilantro zing.  While we couldn’t choose the crostini, the table next to us ended up getting a sample of the one crostini I was hoping to get but didn’t.  It was the pata negra, tomato, peach, Parmesan cheese, and ricotta cheese.  I couldn’t believe our waiter brought it out to them because I was just telling Janice why the pata negra was the best crostini on the menu.  First off, the name “pata negra” literally means “black hoof” in Spanish due to the color of the pigs from which this ham originates.  Then there is the price of this precious commodity is anywhere from $52 to $95 per pound.  Why is it so expensive?  The reason why is because they are a specific type of black pig that roams southern and southwestern Spain and is raised to roam throughout the oak forests between Spain and Portugal.  They then eat the acorns that fall which then produces a peppery flavor in the meat with a good ratio between the fat and deep red meat.  It took me back to my time living in Spain where I couldn’t turn around without being smacked in the face with one of the large slabs of pork hanging from the ceiling.  Fast forward to that night at Fig and Olive, and I asked our waiter if we could try one of the ham crostino for free.  He obliged and was amazed that someone actually knew what this ham was.  It was my number one crostino hooves down. IMG_5872 The crimson ham, salty cheese, and fresh tomato made it an appetizer I wouldn’t soon forget.  Then the appetizers came out off of the Restaurant Week menu.  Janice got the octopus a la gallega or Galician octopus which was the best I ever tasted.  Even though I’ve been to the emerald green, northwestern province of Spain to taste where this octopus comes from, the thinly sliced tentacles at Fig and Olive bested the Iberian version. IMG_5865 I loved the spicy and sour lemon vinaigrette combined with the melt in your mouth texture of the tentacle laden creature.  As for me, I got the fig and olive salad.  It was delicious but not as unique as the octopus dish.IMG_5862  It was a melange of almost every variety of taste around.  There were sweet elements like the fig vinaigrette and apple pieces, salty manchego pieces, earthy greens, and crunchy walnuts.  The food train didn’t stop there.  We still had our entrees to take down.  Janice ended up getting the Mediterranean branzino or European sea bass in English.  It looked good, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. IMG_5873 I’m sure fish lovers would be bowled over by it though.  The only downside was that Janice said the plate overall was a bit one dimensional with a bland mashed potato side.  In comparison, I got the Fig and Olive tajine.  Now, Fig and Olive labels itself as an eatery serving the best of Italy, Spain, and southern France.  However, what they didn’t mention was that they serve North African food since diners would most likely be a bit hesitant to try something from Africa, and might not be seen as sexy as the three aforementioned cuisines.  Two good reasons why I chose it over all of the other entrees.  Tajine (in Arabic طاجين‎) originates from Morocco but can be found also in Tunisia and Libya.  It is traditionally stewed in a clay pot that tapers at the top to promote the return of condensation to the bottom of the vessel.  This technique definitely came in handy in the hot and arid climate of the former Barbary States.  As for what tajine actually is, it’s basically a North African stew of figs, olives, carrots, tomatoes, and onions.  At Fig and Olive, they don’t serve it in a clay pot, just a regular bowl, but that didn’t take away from the amazing flavors.  IMG_5875On the side, I got a bowl of couscous to mix in with the stew along with a bit of cilantro sauce and harissa (هريسة‎), known as “the national condiment of Tunisia”, mixed with some Spanish Hojiblanca olive oil.

Yellow couscous, green cilantro sauce, red harissa, and fresh almond slivers

Yellow couscous, green cilantro sauce, red harissa, and fresh almond slivers

I found the couscous a negligible carb element in the stew since it didn’t stand a chance going up against the giant vegetables and chunks of spicy chicken (beware of the bones).  However, I did like the harissa since it was a mix of chili peppers, garlic and coriander and managed to nudge itself above the intense flavors found in the dish.  By the end of our main course, we were stuffed and couldn’t think we could eat anymore, but au contraire!  We got both of the Restaurant Week desserts.  The dessert crostini wasn’t like their more savory brethren.   It was basically a cookie topped with candied cherries and a smooth and sweet mascarpone cheese. IMG_5881 IMG_5882I preferred the chocolate pot de creme which was like a fancy chocolate and vanilla mousse cup with a crunchy praline cookie on the side. IMG_5880 It was even better when I crunched the cookie up and mixed it into the decadent cream.IMG_5885

We left the restaurant with some trepidation due to the crush of people by the elevator upstairs and door downstairs and because we were so stuffed with delicious food.  Although it might not be the cheapest place for Mediterranean food, you can get high quality dishes for half the price in a modern and classy environment.

Fig and Olive on Urbanspoon

A Capital Idea!

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Welcome one and all to part deux of Restaurant Week on Mastication Monologues!  If you’re not sure what Restaurant Week is in Chicago, then I highly recommend reading my first post at Hub 51.  Today’s post is somewhat in the similar but even classier vein of high end dining for low low prices.  While I’m all about trying new and exotic foods, my meal at Capital Grille in Chicago was classic steakhouse dining at its finest.  While it’s not one of the old stalwarts of steak in the home of the dearly departed Union stockyards, I really enjoyed my experience at this establishment.

While walking to Capital Grille, I saw that they had valet parking which is a great deal in a part of down that isn’t known for cheap/free parking.  The outside was just a hint of the regal interior inside that had all the pomp of a classic steakhouse down to the dark wood bar and portraits of random white guys sporting some facial hair that would make any modern day hipster proud. IMG_5810IMG_5834IMG_5833 IMG_5832 Capital Grille even has personal wine kiosks for clients who are willing to pony up the cash for their pinot noir, but the coolest thing I thought was that they even had a cabinet for wine for what seemed to be for anyone who is or has served in the armed forces. IMG_5835 I was quickly led to the table for our guys night out that quickly became a double date plus two dudes.  Still, it was a good time had for all as we kicked off the dinner with some drinks.  I got a glass of the Jameson 12 year Reserve.IMG_5815  This drink was smoother than James Bond and Ron Burgundy in a velvet room.  It was the perfect compliment to the free bread basket that was filled to the brim with crisp flatbreads, warm slices of black rye bread, and rock hard rolls (not a fan, personally). IMG_5813 So, since it was Restaurant Week, I went with the accompanying $33 menu which was a bargain for a three course meal.  For my first course, I went with the wedge with blue cheese and applewood smoked bacon.  Initially, I had to ask the waitress what a “wedge” was since I was curious what this wedge consisted of, and she sarcastically answered that it was a type of salad.  When it came out, it all made sense.  Looking at it, it seemed like the laziest salad ever created. IMG_5817 It literally was a quarter of a head of lettuce with dressing and bacon pieces adorning it and sliced tomatoes placed at the foot of this odd looking dish.  So, I proceeded to sliced the lettuce piece to bite-sized pieces along with mixing it up with the extremely decadent ranch, blue cheese chunks, and bacon.  It was the Paula Dean of salads given how fattening it was yet oh so tasty with the tangy dressing mixing with the salty bacon and pungent blue cheese.  It was only a prelude to the epic entree that came out soon thereafter in the form of the 14 oz. bone-in, dry aged sirloin steak along with a side of mashed potatoes and french beans with heirloom tomatoes. IMG_5824 Funnily enough, the girls at the table got the smaller, 8 oz. filet mignon, but that didn’t take away from its quality. IMG_5823 When I dug into the sirloin, it was heaven in meat form.  I got it medium rare which meant that it still was a bit bloody but well done enough to keep in all of the juicy flavors. IMG_5825 It was superbly succulent, and a generously sized piece of steak for the price.  The sides were equally exquisite.  The mashed potatoes were creamy and buttery, and the beans were neither too firm nor too soft.IMG_5822  Then there were the desserts…lord, the desserts.  First, I got the flourless chocolate espresso cake.IMG_5830  It was like a slice of fudge that wasn’t as sugary and not as crumb based as a typical slice of cake.  This texture combined with the intense dark chocolate flavor with coffee hints in each forkful made it hard to beat, and the raspberry sauce was the icing on a cake without equal.  My other dining companions tried the creme brulee which looked lip-smacking good, but sadly I didn’t get to try it. IMG_5831 However, based on their gleaming white bowls at the end of the dessert course, I could only assume they liked it!

So if you want to try a slice of Chicago’s steak culture in the heart of the city, check out Capital Grille.
The Capital Grille on Urbanspoon

The Hub of All the Hubbub

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Another meal, another post.  What that means for you, the reader, is another great dining experience on Mastication Monologues.  What makes it so great?  Well, in Chicago there’s a little thing called Restaurant Week.  While Chicago is filled with oodles of restaurant that could make any week a restaurant week, but what makes Restaurant Week so special is that there are tons of great deals in restaurants you might have never known existed.  The cuisines range from some delicious, downhome cookin’ diners to Michelin starred establishments and even Alinea, three time winner of Elite Travel’s award as the best restaurant in the world.  While we don’t have reservations at such a prestigious eatery, today I bring you Hub 51, a gastropub/lounge/dance club with a classy atmosphere and super diverse menu.

Hub 51 is located in the upscale River North area of Chicago that is, go figure, just north of the Chicago river.  The sleek exterior exuded an air of subtle confidence, and upon entering the place I could see why.l  It was ultra modern in design from the bar to the dark wood chairs, and eventually we were seated in a leather bound booth that was very comfortable and spacious.IMG_5763IMG_5764  Looking over the menu, they had quite the eclectic menu including American, Mexican, and even Japanese food. However, we were all about trying the Restaurant Week menu where we got three courses for only $33!

Course one consisted of two dishes that were as far apart culinary-wise as apples and oranges.  First, we have exhibit A:  the spinach and artichoke dip.IMG_5772  While I recently wrote about another type of spinach artichoke dip, this was another animal.  Instead of being served with bread, it was paired with super light yet slightly too salty tortilla chips.  Thankfully the dip was a mix of gooey cheese and plenty of spinach that keep the saltiness to a minimum. IMG_5774 However, I didn’t feel like they had as many artichoke pieces as I’ve had in other similar appetizers.  Where as the artichoke dip was more on the fattening side, the Brussels sprouts salad was very refreshing and healthy.  The Brussels sprouts were fresh and crunchy which were also complimented with a few almonds sprinkled in amongst the greens.  IMG_5775I really enjoyed the Manchego cheese chunks that were dispersed as well throughout the greens, and I found the buttery Spanish cheese to pair well with the salty almonds.  The Medjool dates were a worthy sweet element in this appetizer and were countered with the slightly sour mustard vinaigrette.  All of it taken together, the Brussels sprouts appetizer was an option that both danced across the palate with a crunchy and sweet panache but lingered with the aftertaste of the vinaigrette.  I think round one went to team salad but just barely.  In addition to these Restaurant Week choices, Kaitlin and Dan got an order of the homemade hummus (($8.95) and an ahi tuna poke ($14.95).  Both were equally amazing in their own ways.  I love hummus in any form, so I was intrigued by the dukkah spices element of the dish.  While I recognized the typical, fresh cucumber and carrot spears, pita bread, and hummus with virgin olive oil in the middle, but then there was a dried powder on the side of the plate closest to me.  IMG_5768After some research, it turns out that dukkah or duqqa is an Egyptian condiment that consists of dried nuts, herbs, and spices that are then crushed to near powder like consistency.  The name “dukkah” is only fitting given that it comes from the Arabic word meaning “to pound”.  Luckily, it didn’t really pound out any of the other flavors on the plate but rather supported the zingy hummus with a crunchier texture that went well on either the vegetables or bread.  As for the ahi tuna poke (pronounced “poh-kay”), I was less enthused to try it since I’m not a huge fish fan.  On the other hand, I had tried one before and enjoyed it. IMG_5767 This Hawaiian dish is named after the Hawaiian verb meaning “to section or cut” which made sense since there was plenty of cubed, ruby red tuna chunks.  Along with that, there were two large rice crackers, plenty of avocado, and all of it was stewing in a soy based, wasabi-infused sauce.  Although the tuna was raw, it was not fishy by any stretch of the imagination since it was combined with the creamy avocado, super-flavorful sauce, and slightly chewy yet crunchy rice cracker. IMG_5771 The poke disappeared faster than a pack of Pokemon cards circa 1998.

Pre-feeding frenzy

Pre-feeding frenzy

Round two kicked off with the main entrees.  While Janice and I got the braised beef short ribs, Kaitlin got the pulled pork tacos ($16.95), and Dan got the knife and fork open faced BLT sandwich ($10.95).  While I didn’t eat a lot of the tacos, I managed to try one of the Niman Ranch braised pork shoulder filled tortillas, but I wasn’t terribly wowed with the naturally raised pork. IMG_5778 It was slightly spicy but not terribly flavorful compared to other tacos I’ve tried in my life.  As for the BLT, it looked like it was just a mini-mountain of toppings, but the bread was keeping a low profile under a pile of lettuce.  IMG_5779The best part of that plate was the bacon (when isn’t it?) because it wasn’t too crispy with just the right amount of fat and salt combined with a glaze that almost gave it a honey-like quality.  The downfall of the dish was the blue cheese and vinaigrette laced bread. It was way too bold and left an overwhelming residual flavor on my palate after trying a few samples of Dan’s entree.  Finally, I got around to my braised short ribs.  It was served with red potatoes, glazed carrots, and a small tub of horseradish cream. IMG_5782 While it looked delicious, my experience was quite the opposite.  I found it to be too salty and filled with fat deposits.  It left me feeling bloated and greasy, and the horseradish sauce didn’t even salvage this plate.  The glazed carrots and potatoes were tasty, but I was really disappointed with the supposed star of my dining experience.  Thankfully, dessert stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park.  First, there was Martha’s special occasion carrot cake.  It had three orange layers of light, fluffy cake that focused more on the spice element of carrot cake instead of the vegetable. IMG_5785 I would say that it had definite elements of nutmeg and ginger.  Between each layer of mouth-watering cake, there was a thick helping of cream cheese that was decadence incarnate, but it was not so sweet that it felt like I was going to develop diabetes.  The whipped cream on the side with a light powdering of cinnamon cemented this plate as one of the best I’ve ever had.  Then there was Grandma Bea’s chocolate pudding pie.  I don’t know Grandma Bea, but I wish she would invite me over for dinner and dessert more often after tasting this selection.  It was a different beast than the carrot cake but equally scrumptious. IMG_5783I personally preferred the graham cracker crust that not only had some granulated sugar mixed into it along with a hint of cinnamon in each forkful.  As for the filling, it was fluffy and rich with plenty of dark chocolate flavor.  Kaitlin made it a s’more for a dollar more, and it was quite interesting. IMG_5786 It looked like a series of white fish scales on top of a carp, but thankfully there was nothing fishy about it.  They went over the top of the marshmallows to brown them like at a campfire, and then taken all together it really did taste like a s’more minus the smoky flavor imparted by a bonfire.  The only downside to the marshmallow layer was that they were all stuck together, so sometimes someone would almost take all of the marshmallows with them when they just wanted one with a bite of the pie.  If I had to pick one, I’d choose the carrot cake because its cream cheese frosting was unbelievably addicting.

So with restaurant number one down for Restaurant Week in Chicago, I would recommend Hub 51 to anyone looking for an entertaining night out in a hip atmosphere with slightly more expensive fare than in other parts of the city.
Hub 51 on Urbanspoon

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