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South Carolina (Day 2): Hoppin’ John and a Carolina Fried Chicken Ring

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Welcome back to Mastication Monologues, and if you haven’t been back here lately, I am currently recounting the tale of when Janice and I went to Charleston, South Carolina.  Here’s the first installment for your reading pleasure.  The second day is also full of history, good eats, and one of the greatest moments of my life:  proposing to Janice.  So, buckle up because you’re about to read one of the greatest love stories since Jon Snow and Ygritte minus the whole being shot through with a bunch of arrows and tragic death part.

After that first day of gallivanting about the Chuck, as the locals call Charleston, we decided to get out of the hubbub of the city and visit the Middleton Plantation.  However, before we even left the house, I realized that this was the day I would propose to Janice.  I was planning on doing it at the Angel Oak tree after visiting the Middleton Plantation, but now I needed to figure out how to carry the ring.  I could have worn my coat, but it was a warm day outside.  Luckily, before we left Chicago, I had stowed a piece of gauze in one of my jean pockets.  So, when Janice was showering, I went to my backpack where the ring was hidden in my backpack back at the security line in Chicago.  I took out the box, which was too big for my jean pockets, and removed the beautiful ring.  I wrapped it in the gauze, removed some business cards from an interior pocket in my wallet, and placed the ring in that very same pocket.  Mission partially complete.  I played it cool when Janice asked if I was ready to go,ee6cff1497840b03205d99e31d1c1cf3 and we made our way to the Middleton Plantation.

At the current moment in America, race relations are continuing to grow tenser as the country becomes more diverse, and the race interactions established at the outset of our country through slavery and immigration can be seen today at this opulent 7,000 acre estate.  We decided to do the entire tour package, with included a house tour and carriage ride, but we had free time before we got to meet the horsies.  So, we decided to stroll about the grounds and marvel at the natural wonders that were planted and landscaped to perfection.  Some of the highlights were seeing the oak trees that dotted the walkways that ranged anywhere from 200 to 900 years old. IMG_8307 IMG_8308 IMG_8310 IMG_8311 IMG_8312 Mind you, the plantation was first established in 1730, and it actually is home to the oldest landscaped gardens in the United States.  Eventually, it was time to hitch a ride with a born and bred Charlestonian and two old ladies, horses that is.  Janice could hardly contain her excitement as they clip clopped their way to the pickup point and into Janice’s heart.

Cue emotional music

Cue emotional music

IMG_8314

We climbed aboard the old carriage and took off as our driver explained the history of the plantation to us.  IMG_9177The Middleton plantation was not mainly a working plantation but rather a country estate.  That is not to say that there weren’t slaves who worked there, but they were either employed as house servants, lumberjacks to harvest the timber, rice planters in the large rice paddies off the Ashley River, or grow and collect indigo to a lesser extent.IMG_9169  This was not your stereotypical cotton plantation.  The real money was in the signature gold grain Carolina rice which was well suited for the humid Carolina weather and the planters’ profit margins.  We went about the ground looking at the farm house complete with one of the male horses who wanted to bust out of his pen and the famous layabout known as Rocky the guinea hog. IMG_8315 There was also one of the former slave houses next to the animal pens.  We learned that the slave quarters were raised off the ground because it was a way to offer a bit of cool air in an otherwise brutal environment.IMG_9233  By the time we reached the end of our journey, the horses were ready to get some hay and a nap, but we still managed to get some pics with these local celebrities.

Bffls!

Bffls!

All of that excitement going 2 miles per hour with a slight breeze in our hair worked up our appetites, so Janice and I decided to try the plantation restaurant which was housed in a former guest house.  IMG_8323We were led to the main dining room that was overlooking the lily pond. IMG_8322 We looked over the menu which was filled with plenty of Low Country classics. We quickly made our choices since we had to finish our meal before our house tour.  Janice got an order of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, and cornbread, and I got the pecan smoked pork shoulder with Carolina gold mustard sauce.  Before they brought out our food, they also asked if we wanted sweet tea, regular tea, or water.  Naturally, I went for the sweet tea, and Janice got the unsweetened tea.  I was so happy with my sweet tea for one main reason:  it was actually sweet.  McDonalds back home always would promote their sweet tea during the summertime, and I love my sweet iced tea.  When I got it, it tasted like plain black tea poured over some ice.  Naturally, I had to go to the South where they know how to make it correctly.  Then the food came out, and we had to hold ourselves back from going full Cookie Monster on these enticing plates.  My pecan smoked pork shoulder took me to hog heaven. IMG_8320 It was melt-in-your mouth tender, and the smoky flavor mixed perfectly with the slightly sweet mustard sauce.   The creamed green beans were good but not great.  However, I enjoyed the Hoppin’ John on the side.  This southern staple has been around as long as African slaves have been in the USA, and the name is thought to have come from the possible corruption of the Haitian creole for pigeon peas or “pois pigeons” ([pwa pi jahns]).  It was a scaled back version of the richer version that southerners serve on new year’s day with green elements like kale or peppers to symbolize luck and money.  The rice was perfectly cooked with a bit of salt and pepper with plenty of black beans, and I would highly recommend mixing it with the pork.  Janice was equally satisfied with her fried chicken. IMG_8321 The breading was light and gave way to the juicy all white meat chicken below the surface.  I was more of a fan the plantation cornbread since it didn’t skimp on the butter and sugar compared to the more crumbly and savory cornbread at Husk.  While I am averse to eating any type of pasta (yes, I’m a monster), Janice gave the macaroni and cheese two thumbs up.  The collard greens were ok, but not as satisfying as the ones at Hominy Grill.  By the time we were finished, we had to get up and get moving because it was almost time to start our house tour.  Janice was going to pay the bill, but she couldn’t find her credit card.  I paid the bill instead, and we assumed it must have been left in the car.  As we walked past the house for the house tour to see one of the oldest trees on the estate, we heard someone call out, “Excuse me!”.  We turned around to see two older women walking toward us, and they asked Janice if her name was “Janice Kim”.  She replied in the affirmative, and it turned out that two different people had found her drivers license and her credit card in two different areas and turned both in to the visitors’ center.  This was a prime example of Southern hospitality and manners.  We decided to pick the cards up when we would leave, so we went to snap some pictures with the 900 year old oak tree, the same river where they blew up the British ships in the movie the Patriot, and the burned down houses.IMG_9181 IMG_9183IMG_8324IMG_9173  After successfully being insignificant next to this natural giant, we went to our house tour.  It was originally built in 1755, but is only one of the original three houses left standing.  The main house and the north flanker house were burned down by Union troops during the Civil War.  Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take any pictures, but we were up to our necks in historical facts including the lodging being home to Henry Middleton’s son, Arthur, who signed the Declaration of Independence.  We highly recommend checking out the rich mahogany interiors if you love architecture, history, shiny things, and/or how high class society lived.  By the time we emerged from that time capsule, we had to make a decision about what we wanted to see before they closed up the Angel Oak park.  We decided to pick up the all important credit card and drivers license and check out the gift shops.  Janice was on the hunt for souvenirs while I was secretly having time anxiety and subsequent sweats. Visit http://kratomcrazy.com for help on how to fight anxiety in a natural way. She would ask me for opinions on magnets and rice while I was starting to run in place (in my head).  Janice eventually picked up my vibe, and we got to the car quickly.  We had to make the ride from northern Charleston down to John’s Island quick because we had about a hour before the park closed.  Thankfully, we made it with enough time, and on the way, Janice was seriously doubting whether or not I was ever going to propose to her.  She wasn’t joking, and neither was I.  Perfect timing to put a ring on it.  I realized I had to get the rock out of the interior pocket of my wallet, and I managed to do so as Janice rushed toward the tree with her selfie stick.IMG_9186  The Angel Oak is estimated to be over 1500 years old and what a more romantic place to pop the question?  It is one of the biggest and most sprawling trees I’ve ever seen.  We took some pictures on one side of the tree, and I was analyzing the best place to do the deed. IMG_9187 Cue the palm sweat and shifty eyes.  Janice was none the wiser as we walked under the massive branches.IMG_9188  We moved to the back side of the tree, and there wasn’t anybody around.  This was it.  My heart felt like it was going to pound out of my chest as I fumbled for the ring in the gauze and placed it in my hand.  She turned around and everything I had planned to say went out the window.  I said that it was a fitting place since she was my angel.  I could see she was shaking her head due to the high levels of cheesiness in the atmosphere, but then she knew something was afoot when I dropped to my knee.  I choked out my request to spend the rest of my life with her, and her response was like something out of Shakespeare:  *cue crying, some laughing* “I’m holding my selfie-stick”.  Just like in the movies!  I was still waiting on my knee with the ring in my hand as she was more worried about her contraption.  Eventually she took the ring and put it on her finger while still profusely crying with me on bended knee.  Janice finally said “yes” through the tears, and I could get out of the power lunge of the century.  It felt like we were floating on air beneath this relic of antiquity, and we even had an audience eventually who clapped for us. IMG_9191 Once we finally got a picture in front of the tree with her new ring, we proceeded to let the world know of our engagement.IMG_8337  We were then at a loss at what to do next, so I suggested that we could go for a romantic stroll along the river walk in downtown Charleston.  It was the perfect setting as new fiance and fiancee as we watched the sunset, poochies running in the park, and the Citadel cadets getting some fresh air.IMG_8333IMG_8431 All of the aforementioned events had made us quite hungry, so luckily I managed to find a romantic restaurant to celebrate known as High Cotton.

High Cotton oozed class.  IMG_8345It seemed like we stepped into a time machine to an old mansion complete with an antique bar, dark wood accents, and tropical ceiling fans.IMG_9099 IMG_9098 IMG_9097  It is a moderately dressy place, so don’t expect to fit in with your tank tops and jorts.  We were seated at a table in the main dining room, and our waiter informed us of Charleston’s restaurant week which meant there was a special menu where we were able to choose an appetizer, entree, and dessert for the low low price of $40.  Overall though, High Cotton is a restaurant that focuses on local ingredients and classic Low Country recipes.  We also told him of our very recent engagement, so he treated us to a pair of complimentary champagne flutes.  For our appetizer round, I got the fried green tomatoes napoleon which were the bread to a pimento cheese sandwich and surrounded by pickled shrimp. IMG_8340 I found it to be satisfying and surprisingly light even though it was deep fried, and the pimento cheese was like a thick, spicy cheddar with the consistency of peanut butter.  The shrimp were also pleasing even though they were pickled.  Janice’s blue crab soup was ok. IMG_9100 It was savory with a hint of sweetness that came along with the blue crab.  We moved on to our entrees with gusto.  My 8 oz. beef tenderloin with Bearnaise sauce, horseradish mashed potatoes, and Brussels sprouts were fit for a king.  IMG_8341Everything was phenomenal.  The mashed potatoes were creamy with just the right amount of sinus-clearing horseradish.  The Brussels sprouts were roasted and slightly burnt and crunchy but not terribly charred.  As for the meat and sauce, it was grilled to optimum juiciness which wasn’t overshadowed by the rich Bearnaise sauce.  Can’t say enough good things about this dish.  Janice’s shellfish and ravioli had a lot of fresh seafood from the nearby harbor including clams, shrimp, and crab along with peas and ravioli in a Parmesan sauce.  IMG_9101I didn’t try the ravioli, but the clams were extraordinarily good.  Our waiter said that the clams in the Low Country are actually better than oysters, but they don’t get the hype they deserve because they aren’t as sexy as their supposed aphrodisiac cousins.  Couldn’t agree more with him.  Janice thought the plate overall was ok though.  Thankfully, dessert didn’t disappoint.  I ordered the chocolate bread pudding complete with candied pecans, bourbon caramel, and vanilla ice cream.  Need I say more? IMG_8342 It was slightly warm which melted the ice cream which went along with the smoky caramel and crunchy pecans.  It infused the semi-sweet, spongy dough of the bread pudding with a heavenly taste.  Janice went with one of her favorite desserts:  the vanilla bean creme brulee with a Carolina twist with tea infused citrus segments. IMG_9102 The burnt sugar on top was a golden brown with a luscious and moderately rich cream below.   By the time we reached the final spoonful, we were not only in love with each other but with High Cotton’s fare, atmosphere, and service.  We made our way out and enjoyed a bit of the jazz quartet in the bar that was not performing when we first walked in.  However, it was a classy end to a day filled with viewing history past, making history of our own, and plans for the future.  If you’ve successfully made it to the end of this post, congrats and there are plenty more adventures to come!

Middleton Place Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
High Cotton Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

South Carolina (Day 1): Everyday I’m Husklin

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Finally, done with final exams and my 2nd Bachelor’s Degree!!! The feeling is amazing, and what better way to celebrate than starting the story of our journey to Charleston, South Carolina? Oh yeah, and also asking my wonderful girlfriend to marry me!  So, like any good tale, let’s start at the beginning.

Before we left for Charleston, we had been talking about when we would get married and types of engagement rings Janice wanted.  In fact, she was the occasional Debbie Downer thinking that I might never pop the question.  Little did she know I had already ordered and secretly stashed the ring at home.  *Cue maniacal laughter*  Once we got to the airport, the game was afoot.  Through a series of strategic positioning choices while walking, like holding her left hand in my right hand because the ring was in my left pocket, and taking advantage of classic airport situations, like the madness at the security lines and Janice’s subsequent rage at everyone’s incompetence, I managed to sneak the ring in my backpack.  This is where it would stay until later in our trip.  Keep that in mind, readers.  The flight and nighttime jaunt to our Air BnB was relaxing, and we were ready to explore the city the next day.  We woke up to a slightly cool day that was punctuated with plenty of intermittent rain and wind as we were off to brunch at our first Charleston restaurant.  From the outset, we knew this was going to be an eventful day since we were greeted with biblical floods throughout downtown Charleston.  IMG_9076Not only were we learning the streets, but we were also playing our own version of Oregon Trail in our rental car which also oddly had a dial instead of an actual gear shift.  Definitely was freaking me out.

Notice the flood waters right outside our window.

Notice the flood waters right outside our window.


 Fording all of those rivers really whipped up our appetite, and we finally arrived at Hominy Grill (thankfully we didn’t lose any oxen!). IMG_9078IMG_9079 This tastefully and colorfully decorated historical Charleston house was a symbol of the deep roots that run through the east coast port town.  Charleston was one of the richest cities in the original 13 colonies due to cash crops like rice, indigo, and timber that were harvested by the slaves that were subsequently brought over to do all the dirty work.  Although the institution of slavery is based on the concept that one group of people is viewed as being less than human and more like chattel or general investments, the power of good food can still make the oppressed class make their voices heard even when other parts of their culture might be done away with by the ruling class.  In fact, it is often the case around the world that some of the best food comes from the lower classes since they have to make the most of what they could afford.  That would be a common theme throughout our trip as we ate signature Southern American dishes that have African roots but appeased the taste buds of the English colonists.  Hominy grill brought plenty of this blended South Carolinian culture.  We loved the antique interior which also kept the quaint colonial vibe when I noticed they weren’t playing any music in the restaurant. IMG_9094 IMG_8203 I don’t know if it’s a Chicago thing, but we more often than not have music going on in restaurants.  So, it was a welcome change to just hear the sound of families and friends enjoying good food.  The meal began not with a bread basket rather a paper container of boiled peanuts.  IMG_9080While these are now a common Southern snack, they trace their roots back to Africa.  They are commonly sold as a street food in Ghana even to this day, and in the South they can also be called “goober peas” which reminded me of a popular Civil War my mom would randomly sing.  I had actually never had them, so we tucked into them.  It was weird because the normally crunchy shells peeled off like a loose skin, and the peanuts had an almost meaty quality to them.  I can see why they could be a good snack food, but I prefer my honey roasted variety.  I did like that we got more than we bargained for because for some reason it seemed that there were a lot of three and even four nut shells.  IMG_9081We kept the food festival going with two appetizers in the form of fried green tomatoes ($6) and hushpuppies ($5).  IMG_9082I had had hushpuppies before, but never like this.  The first people to have made them were Native Americans in the Southern United States, but they became popular during the Civil War.  Their name supposedly came from the Confederate soldiers using them to make their dogs be quiet or “hush the puppies”.IMG_9083  I can see why because I was making my barking stomach curl up and sleep in a food coma.  IMG_9086I didn’t really get the jalapeno flavor or spice in them as advertised in the menu, but the subtly sweet sorghum butter was a fitting compliment to the crunchy and salty crust.  The real star of the appetizer round was the fried green tomato plate.  IMG_9084It was another Southern fried treat which consisted of unripe tomatoes coated in batter and fried with a side of ranch dressing.  It might have been the Midwesterner in me which embraced the ranch dressing, but the creamy richness was a match made in heaven with the semi-juicy and sour interior and crispy exterior.  As if that wasn’t enough food, we managed to move on to our entrees.  Hominy Grill is a Michelin starred restaurant with not super Michelin prices serving plenty of Southern comforts, and we stayed true to what Hominy Grill is good at.  Janice ended up getting the Shrimp and Grits ($19) which was different than most grits I’ve ever had.  They were more like a very fine risotto compared to the creamier grits that I tried in Georgia or have seen at soul food events.IMG_9089  The shrimp were perfect and the scallions and bacon brought a savory edge to the smooth plate.  Then there was my choice:  the Nasty Biscuit ($10.50). IMG_9087 If there was one plate to sum up Southern cuisine, this tried to roll every element into one meal (minus delicious barbecue).  It was a buttermilk biscuit with a piece of fried chicken in the middle bobbing in a sea of sausage gravy and cheddar cheese.  Straight.  Up.  Nasty. (in a good way, naturally)  There was no easy way to eat this symbol of Southern madness/genius, but it was as heart stoppingly good as you might imagine.  I wouldn’t have to eat for another week with the amount of calories this bomb contained, but I would recommend it to anyone who wants something that’s more southern than Colonel Sanders, the Dukes of Hazard, and Nascar combined.  We also got a side of collard greens since Janice likes them, and we needed to keep the southern food train rolling. IMG_9088 I never really tried them before this moment, but I would liken them to an earthier spinach.  Not something I’d go out of my way to eat, but thank God I got something green to eat in this sea of deep fried goodness.  Somehow, some way we managed to make room for their famous homemade buttermilk pie.  Good lawd, I have never had a pie like this, but it was the lightest pie I’ve ever eaten.  IMG_9091First, it was chilled which made it seemed more lithe than the cumbersome fried food we had before.  Then the filling was like consuming a sweet treat that was like a suave vanilla custard that caressed our overworked palates.  Finally, the crust.  It was minimally intrusive compared to your typical lard based pie crust which made all the difference in this belt buster of a meal.  We came super hungry and left super satisfied. IMG_9093 Can’t praise the Hominy Grill restaurant and staff enough.

Thankfully, we walked like crazy afterward along Charleston’s harbor.  Since the weather was craptacular, we thought we could wait out the rain in the Charleston aquarium, but unfortunately we missed the last tour for the biggest draw:  the sea turtle hospital.

We did come out on top with puns though.

We did come out on top with puns though.

We cut our losses, and got tickets for the next day and instead went to Fort Sumter which just so happened to be next door.  Well, actually it was the national park museum commemorating the flashpoint of the beginning of the Civil War, and it was chock full of historical goodness that we appreciated.IMG_8206  The actual fort consisted of us getting on a ferry boat and going out to an island in the harbor.  IMG_8208It was windy and cold, and I was smart enough to not bring a jacket (or I’m just that tough).  IMG_8220We landed and it was the perfect time to go since the weather scared away the hordes of tourists.  The fort was a mere shadow of its former self, but I could imagine how terrible it must have been for the defenders to be behind its ramparts and being shelled day after day. IMG_8225IMG_8229 IMG_8230 IMG_9156 IMG_9157My favorite part of the visit consisted of the flag lowering ceremony that was similar to how the former Union defenders would do at the end of each day.  It was an extremely windy day, and it was more challenging than you may think.  IMG_8240Think about a fifty foot piece of heavy canvas flying and whipping at you violently, but luckily teamwork saved the day. IMG_9160IMG_9161 IMG_8245Going back on the ferry, thankfully the weather let up to take in the many beautiful views of Charleston skyline and bridge. IMG_8251 IMG_9163I later learned that Janice had thought I was going to propose to her on the ferry which surprised me.  That big event will come later in the story at a more unique location!  Instead, we continued to walk off our heavy lunch along the broad avenues of Charleston’s historical downtown.  I could not get enough of how much history was around every corner.  Surprisingly, we were hungry again, so we had to try a little place called Husk. IMG_8260 It is in a late 19th Century mansion and led by a James Beard award winning chef, so we threw ourselves at the mercy of their menu.  Janice wisely got reservations before we even landed in Charleston, so we checked in just below the steep staircase.  IMG_8270We still had to wait for a table though since the entire establishment was hopping.  Thankfully, they had a smaller guest house next door that was converted into a two tiered bar. IMG_8268 IMG_8267 The drink menu was Charleston through and through with references to parts of the city (the Four Corners of Law) and southern flavors.  We were quickly seated upstairs at one of their rustic wooden tables.  We started off with a Turcotte’s Tipple ($11) and a Charleston Light Dragoon’s Punch ($9).  IMG_8264Janice’s tipple drink was an homage to the rider of the Triple Crown winner Secretariat, and it was a bourbon based, grapefruit-infused drink that was as fleet footed as its steed namesake.  IMG_8266If you’re looking for a light, understated fruity drink for a hot summer day, this is your best bet.  As for mine, it was taken straight from a 1783 recipe from the archives of the Preservation Society of Charleston.IMG_8265  It was much stronger than Janice’s front porch refreshment due to the rum and the peach brandy, and it combined with black tea and lemon juice to add a spiked sweet/iced tea flavor to the mix.  I’d liken this drink to a British version of a Manhattan.  Even though we were next door, Husk’s staff actually came to get us upstairs in the guest house to lead us to our table in the main house.  Now that’s what I call service!IMG_8302  We were shown upstairs past their homemade pickled vegetables and firewood for the ovens to one of the front dining rooms that had a view of the second floor porch. IMG_8300IMG_8272 Janice also got a Copperhead ($11) which a whiskey with a hint of absinthe that was like a licorice infused Old Fashion. IMG_8276 As for food, we got a complimentary basket of fresh pretzel rolls that were small, warm orbs of heavenly dough with a side of whipped creamy butter.IMG_8274IMG_8277  The culinary dream that happened soon thereafter was the stuff of legend.  First, we got fried chicken skins with kimchi mayo, black garlic mayo, and scallions ($11) and glazed pig ear wraps ($12).  The former was continuing with the southern fried theme from our Hominy Grill lunch.  The people at Husk could sell them at any national chicken chain as a guilty pleasure and make a fortune.  IMG_8278They were just the right amount of crunchy, salty, savory, and spice with the kimchi mayo.  As for the glazed pig ear wraps, they were like a southern version of Korean ssam bap. IMG_8282 The cook had similar strips of pork that were a bit tougher than kalbi, but they did have some pickled cucumbers and red onion to keep in line with this Korean fusion dish.  I would highly recommend both of these appetizers.  We moved on to the entrees where Janice got the heritage pork ($34) and the bacon cornbread ($8) while I got the flat iron steak ($34).  I thought that combining the hottest ingredient/breakfast food since sliced bread with a delicious southern staple would have yielded an unforgettable pairing to our flawless dishes, but alas, we were not impressed since it was actually on the dry and crumbly side. IMG_8285 Thankfully, my flat iron steak was assembled to perfection with medium rare steak, mushrooms, broccoli, and shishito peppers. IMG_8288 The steak were burgundy nuggets of bliss and the vegetables were expertly sauteed.  Kudos to the addition of the shishito peppers that gave the mostly mild ingredients a nearly undetectable hint of sweet spiciness.  I thought Janice’s pork plate was ok, and she didn’t feel it warranted the price tag.IMG_8286  I could see why because the pork, while flavorful, was too much of the same flavors.  There wasn’t that element, like my peppers, that always kept you guessing with every forkful.  Finally, there was the dessert, and what a dessert it was.  It was a caramel bread pudding that consisted of a brown butter crumble and cinnamon ice cream with flower blossoms for decoration. IMG_8289 Now, I’ve had my fair share of bread puddings, some good and others not so good (contrary to popular opinion), and this was hands down the best I’ve ever had.  It wasn’t too hot or too cool.  The crumbles were spiced and just in the perfect ratio to the soaked bread below that was filled with luscious caramel.  The warmth of the skillet made the cinnamon ice cream atop this work of art melt and soak into each spoonful.  I was having my own When Harry Met Sally moment by the time we sadly hit the end of our metal clad sweet secret.IMG_8292IMG_8295IMG_8294  After we paid and did a short nightly jaunt around one of Charleston’s main streets, we made our way home after a successful first day in Charleston.  Stay tuned for the next chapters in our journey and the road to our engagement proposal!IMG_8298

Hominy Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Husk Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Too Good To Leaf

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Welcome one and all to another Mastication Monologues!  There isn’t much time to spare this summer in Chitown, so you must take advantage of the great weather before the deathly cold comes and the white walkers take over.  So, I’d like to tell you about a great restaurant we’ve been to before during the winter but could also be a wonderful hangout in the summer.  That place is called Hopleaf Bar.

This establishment is located in the quaint Andersonville neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago.  There are a ton of great brunch places up and down Clark Street, but Hopleaf is more of a lunch and dinner establishment.  There is only street parking, but expect plenty to be found.  Given the name of the restaurant, Hopleaf focuses intensely on the pursuit of the best and most unique brews around.  Due to the focus on alcohol, you have to be 21 or over to enter, and that means there are no children allowed (No offense, but huzzah!). IMG_4304 We were a bit surprised about this policy when we walked in, but we also found out that there are no reservations.  So, we had to wait a bit for a table.  Be prepared to wait for a table if it’s a very nice day/night out or if it’s a weekend. IMG_4303 Eventually, we were sat in the bustling back room that gave us a first hand look into the glass-walled kitchen.IMG_4292  We were first presented with a beer menu that was extremely varied in terms of craft beers, but I found one that really caught my eye.  It was called Etrusca Bronze from the Dogfish Head craft beer company ($9).  The description is below, IMG_4293

but basically it is part of a series of ancient ales that the company has brewed based on recipes from millenia ago found all over the world.  In this case, my drink was based on a 2,800 year old recipe that was synthesized from analyzing the resins inside drinking vessels found in Etruscan tombs.  I’ve been throwing around this term “Etruscan” like nobody’s business, but who exactly were these people?  Basically, they were the tribe of people who gave birth to Rome after settling on the Tibur, but it is still up for debate where exactly they originated from.

Gettin' crunk since 700 BC!

Gettin’ crunk since 700 BC!

Anyway, I’ll leave that for the history scholars to decide.  Back to the beer.  When it came out, it was served in a goblet, and it looked like a cup of warm cider.

Nectar o' the gods

Nectar o’ the gods

I gave it a sniff before imbibing, and I was taken aback by the aroma that overtook my nostrils.  It made more sense when I looked at the variety of sweet, savory, and aromatic ingredients it was brewed with like pomegranate, clover, wildflower, raisins, chestnuts, and even myrrh, an ancient tree sap that was used as perfume, incense, an embalming agent for Egyptian mummies, and even presented as a gift to Jesus by one of the three kings.  Clearly, I wasn’t in bland lager-land any more.  When I finally took a sip, it was one of the most unique and complex beers I’ve ever tried.  The honey notes were tempered by the pomegranate juice that had a very subtle nuttiness compliments of the chestnut.  This was further embellished by the wispy wildflowers still dancing in my nose that joined the flavor party on my tongue.  Long story short, this isn’t a drink to be pounded during a game of flip cup, but if you appreciate something super unique or are a historically obsessed weirdo, then you found your beer.  This distinguished beverage prefaced one of the most epic meals I’ve ever had.  Unfortunately, Hopleaf’s menu, both beer and food, changes with the seasons, so some of the options I talk about may or may not be served when you visit like my pastrami sandwich ($12), for example.  This was a straight old-school dish from the turn of the 20th Century New York deli culture. IMG_4299 From the rye to the thick layers of beet red meat, it was simple in form but exquisite in flavor. IMG_4302 The combo of herbal caraway with the saltiness of the meat was wonderful, but I would suggest finding a heartier form of rye since it was on the dryer side and crumbled under the pressure of my powerful jaws.  The fries were just my type since they were on the softer side with the occasional crunchy one, but I found their smoky taste intriguing.  Naturally, the pickle on the side was an homage to this deli staple, and it was large, crunchy, and sour.  Yes, please!  Janice’s choice, the duck Reuben ($13), upstaged its fellow New York sandwich.  The origin of the sandwich’s name is a point of contention.  Some parties state that it was named after Reuben Kulakofsky, a Lithuanian born grocer who held poker games at one of Omaha’s premier hotels in the 1920s and 1930s.  Other’s believe that this savory snack came from Arnold Reuben, the owner of the now closed Ruben’s Delicatessen in New York.  Arnold claimed to have come up with the “Reuben special” back in 1914.  Whoever invented it, I doff my proverbial cap to them.  It’s a wonderful combo of meat, bread, and condiments.  First, it was on toasted marble rye that was heartier than my basic brown rye.  IMG_4298Then we got to the heart of the matter.IMG_4300  Instead of finding the typical pastrami, we were greeted with thin slices of slightly fatty Peking duck breast that also possessed traces of caramelization due to its traditional preparation.  This sweetness was further garnished with a cranberry cream cheese spread that took the place of mustard or Russian dressing to give this typically savory sandwich a sweet side.  To top all of it off, there was a moderate helping of acidic sauerkraut to cut through the sweet elements, and the gooey melted Emmenthaler cheese held all of these mouth-watering ingredients together.  I highly recommend both sandwiches!

So if you’re looking for a laid back beer heaven or a date night without the kids, check out Hopleaf Bar!
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A Place Drinkers Hold Beer

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Markets have been around since the beginning of establish civilizations.  They are meeting places where people from all corners of the earth can come to exchange goods, news, and ideas.  These markets can take many forms.  There are traditional ones that still exist today like supermarkets or farmer’s markets, or the advent of the internet has led to the rise of the all powerful online marketplace.  Along with markets, alcohol has been the cornerstone of most nation states throughout history.  Whether that be airag, the milky spirt sipped on by one Ghengis Khan, or the wine that filled the goblets of the Caesars throughout the history of the Roman Empire, alcohol has been a double edged sword that has existed for man’s pleasure or survival in the case of areas where watersheds were too polluted to drink from.  Given all of this information, it would only seem natural to place both of these concepts together into a market that sells beer or today’s restaurant:  Beer Market.

They have many different locations throughout the Chicagoland area, but my parents and I visited the franchise branch in Bolingbrook’s Promenade shopping center.IMG_5617  It wasn’t too busy when we walked in since we eat dinner earlier than the average bear or bird in this context. IMG_5613 It was like any other modern American gastropub with exposed brick, dark accents, wooden chairs, and random neon beer signs.  We sat down and were greeted with a monstrous beer menu.  As I leafed through the 25 pages of beers, I was overwhelmed with making a selection.  However, once I was finished reading the tome, I settled for a kolsch to go along with my bratwurst entree.  What better than a German beer to accompany a German meal?  My mom got the cole slaw burger which I had a natural aversion to since it was carrying the stepchild of potato salad in my eyes when it comes to picnic side dishes.  When all of it came out, it didn’t look like the most appetizing meal in the world, but I’d let the flavors do the talking.  Kolsch or Kölsch beer is a German beer that was invented in Cologne in English or Köln, hence Kölsch.  It is a light yellow, pale ale which is quite rare in the land of lagers, but thankfully the hops are not over the top.  Instead, it has a bit more body than your average lager and a more floral/fruity quality to it.  Definitely more of a summer beer if you’re looking for something light and crisp.  It paired very well with my bratwurst.  The word bratwurst comes from the German words “brät” or “finely chopped meat” and “wurst” or “sausage”.   They were actually made popular throughout the USA compliments of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball franchise where even today brats still outsell hot dogs.  Beer Market’s take on the bratwurst had slight riffs on the original sausage.  IMG_5614First, it was soaked in beer to give it even more flavor and seal in the juiciness.  Then, it was buried in a heap of grilled onions that were great, and the brown mustard had a kick to it that was an homage to another ballpark staple.  The sausage and onions were not served on your typical white bread bun or roll but a pretzel bun.  So, the pretzel-mustard-brat combo in short was a home run.  My mom’s cole slaw burger seemed ok presentation-wise, but she wasn’t too satisfied overall.IMG_5616IMG_5615  She said it was average at best, so I think you should check out their other menu items.  So if you’re a beer lover or are looking for a more upscale, solid but not spectacular bar and eatery than the dive on the corner, then check out Beer Market.
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Toronto (Day 3): 10,000 Leagues Over the Jenga Sea

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Welcome to another Mastication Monologues and part three in my Canadian food adventures.  Day one consisted of a mouthful of Dirty South cookin’ while day two was a yin and yang of cool waters and fiery dinners.  Day three was interesting in its own respect.  We started off the day nice and early at the Ripley’s aquarium which was pretty entertaining with lots of interesting exhibits and marine specimens.  While the Shedd in Chicago has a lot more of the big animals like belugas and dolphins, the Toronto had bested our hometown museum with a larger variety of strange creatures.  For example, the giant sawfish that was chilling on the aqua tube we walked through as tons of other fish, sharks, and even turtles swam around us. Oh, boy, I would not want to see that stuff from my kayak seat.11692502_10105957338687379_774183563389597382_n 11695737_10105957338243269_4334976029450824065_n  The jellyfish exhibit was probably my favorite part since the cool blacklit chambers really made the little guys look like aliens. IMG_7035 Janice, however, was going bananas over the puffer fish and even crawled into the middle that was intended for the children school groups.  I captured her passion with this pretty cool picture.

In heaven

In heaven

Then there were the petting areas where we had some hands-on action with the sea-beasties.  Janice was freaking out with the horseshoe crabs,IMG_7013 and I finally overcame my fear of petting stingrays…by petting one as big as me.

They can smell my fear

They can smell my fear

Unfortunately, none of the small, petable sharks  were feeling calm enough to be friendly with the guests.  Overall, we highly recommend a visit while you’re here, but try to go in the morning since there will be less hordes of shrieking children.  We proceeded to walk to the nearby turntable that turned out to also be the Steamwhistle brewery.IMG_7044  If you’re into beer and/or classic trains, this is your paradise.

Just try not to get run over

Just try not to get run over

We finally got in after a bit of waiting, and they didn’t even have any food for lunch. IMG_7046 IMG_7045 On the plus side, we got to see the inside of the brewery, get some taster beers, 11707573_10105957366192259_8561669485023787245_n 11750695_10105957366152339_6453658988414354508_nand find our next party bike.11223302_10105957366232179_7567314927165861357_n  The brew that we had there tasted like a slightly hoppy IPA that was light and good for a hot day.  So, instead of just sitting there and waiting for the food truck to come in, we moved onto the harborfront since we had a kayak lesson in the afternoon.  After a moderate constitutional, we found ourselves looking out over Lake Ontario, a perfect backdrop for lunch.  We stumbled upon, surprise surprise, another brewery.  This one was called Amsterdam Brewery, and thankfully it wasn’t jazzed up like some sort of cheesy homage to the Dutch capital.  IMG_7059We got a seat on the patio where there was thankfully some shade, IMG_7050 IMG_7049but it seemed like they were training a lot of new staff.  Thankfully, our waitress was very on the ball since we had a deadline to stuff our faces and make it to the lesson on time.  First world problems.  The meal started with da beers.IMG_7048  Even though the flights looked tempting, they had to wait.  Instead, I got their all natural blonde while Janice got their Big Wheel amber ale.  These big glasses quickly came out, and we had different experiences.  IMG_7051My blonde seemed quite bland and slightly sour, but Janice’s Big Wheel was a tasty balance of caramel undertones and a hoppy aftertaste.  Moving on to food, their menu was a standard  bar and grill mix of mostly sandwiches, pizza, and a few slightly ethnic items thrown in there for good measure.  I enjoyed their code for pairing the food with the beer through a letter system next to each food option like C for a crisp beer next to the fish and chips.  We picked a few things to share before going to burn them off on the water.  First, there were the sweet chili rib ends ($11).  IMG_7052IMG_7053These pork chunks were delectable minus the occasional bone chip we had to make sure not to swallow.  Definitely not a plate for the little ones.  However, the flavor was definitely grown and developed through a mix of sweet chili sauce and a braise of lemongrass, lime leaves, and ginger.  It kind of was like an Asian sweet, spicy, yet tangy twist on an American favorite.  I recommend them.  Then we had to get the Canadian classic dish:  poutine ($8).  This melange of gravy, cheese curds, and French fries was born in rural Quebec in the 1950s, but the origin of the name is highly disputed. IMG_7054 Some believe that it is a Frenchified version of the English word “pudding” while others conjecture it comes from the Quebecois French slang for “mess” or “leftovers”.  There are even links back to France with regional dialects boasting cognates like the southern Provencal word, “poutité” or “hodgepodge” in English.  Whatever you want to call it, it is a super rich comfort food that will make you want to check your cholesterol levels when you’re done.  I’m not a huge fan of the soggy fries that soak up a lot of the gravy on the bottom, but the perfect forkful that combines the beefy with the salty fry and tangy cheese is without parallel.  Speaking of the cheese, at Amsterdam they use Thornloe cheese that has been a Canadian institution since 1940.  Plus, it was founded by a guy named Rene Laframboise or Rene The Raspberry.  Now that’s a cheese company I want to patronize!  To balance this heavy plate, we rounded out the main course with some of the hoisin chicken lettuce wraps ($12).  These were the opposite of the poutine:  light, sweet, and fresh.IMG_7055  They were basically like make your own tacos, but instead of tortillas we had super verdant leaves of lettuce.  The chicken and veggies were stir fried in a light teriyaki sauce, and we received the dark hoisin sauce and a pepper seed laden sauce on the side.  All of these plates together were a great value for good food, and we still had a little bit of room to split a dessert.  We got the flourless chocolate torte ($7) which was totally our jam, literally, given that the raspberry coulis (coo-LEE; from the Latin colare “to strain”) was the perfect compliment to the sinfully sweet slice.IMG_7056  An added bonus was the whipped cream, fresh strawberry, and a mysterious gooseberry that made its way onto our plate. IMG_7057 I had never even seen one of these fruits in real life, so I didn’t know what to expect from it.  Our waitress warned us that some diners didn’t care for its “interesting” and super sour taste.  So, I braced myself for the worst when I popped the small, bright yellow berry in my mouth and bit down.  I was greeted with a more neutral, partially earthy flavor washing over my palate.  It barely left an impression on me before it was gone.  Guess the kayak gods were smiling on us as we got the check and were running to the kayak dock.  It was a glorious day for a paddle, and before we knew it, we were in our dual kayak.  Our task of getting to the channel islands was harder than expected since we had to try to not get run over by the numerous boats and water taxis that were creating giant waves as well.  As if that wasn’t enough, there were airplanes zooming overhead because the landing strip was out by the islands.  Definitely got the blood pumping.  Eventually, we got to the islands and enjoyed a leisurely afternoon on the calm waters.  It’s also a great experience if you want some fantastic photo ops for the Toronto skyline like we got. 11540821_10105957366820999_7769503925293810602_n Going back to port was maybe that just much harder given the constant paddling we had done for the previous three hours.  By the time we reached the dock, we were ready for a nap before going out with Aaron and Alyssa.  Once we regroups, we were back at the harborfront with the gang, and funny enough they were going to bring us to Amsterdam Brewhouse!  Instead we wandered about taking in the Friday night surroundings,11745761_10105957366975689_7832020117414013761_n including Janice climbing into this contraption that looked like Dr. Seuss’ pimp-mobile.11694806_10105957367190259_489136461148223093_n  Just par for the course.  Eventually, we decided to go out to a bar or two for food and drinks.  We hit up the Wellington first for food and then the Banknote.  Unfortunately, I don’t have pics for the Wellington, but it had some great nachos.  It’s a cozy bar/restaurant too.  The Banknote, on the other hand, was a great bar for late night shenanigoats.  It was there that I tried another one of the Canadian beers that was also offered at the Amsterdam brewhouse:  the Boneshaker IPA.  Boneshaker TBS Bottle Shot1It was surprisingly palatable given that I’m not the biggest fan of the typically hop-heavy IPA style of beers.  Luckily, my bones weren’t shaking too much given that we played over three hours of Jenga that they have at their main long table.11249766_10105957367329979_2502322992411108169_n 11709773_10105957367389859_5852861961107866960_n  Then again, when you’re having a good time with great company, it’s bound to happen.11695752_10105957367903829_7768437875094248237_n  Talk about a wild Friday and penultimate night in TO!11695777_10105957367604429_5737441334686934831_n
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Toronto (Day 1): Sleepless Nights in Hogtown

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Welcome to another wonderful and interesting edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today I’ll be relating the first day of four of our adventure to the Great White North a.k.a. Canada.  There has always been a sort of brotherly love between the two North American nations compared to the more tension filled links with our southern neighbors like Cuba or Mexico.  We Americans see them as hockey nuts that are also extremely polite while they view us as obese, war mongers,ncbn0ni

but national stereotypes aside, we manage to get along just fine.  Case and point:  my friend Aaron and I.  We met each other in South Korea of all places in the same teacher orientation group, and we struck up a friendship through long bus rides and making terrible puns together.

Canada (Aaron), America (Me), and France (Jean) just partying it up in Korea

Canada (Aaron), America (Me), and France (Jean) just partying it up in Korea

After Aaron and his gf, Alyssa, visited Chicago, Janice and I decided to pay them a visit up in Toronto, a place neither of us had visited.

So, our adventure started from Chicago super-early in the morning with driving through a whole lot of nothing until we reached Canada.  Once we crossed the border, we stopped for a sweet piece of Canada in the form of Tim Hortons.  Although there are now branches throughout the Northeastern USA, they haven’t arrived in Chitown.  So, we wanted to see what all the hubbub was about.  it looked like a fancier fast food diner, and I knew that this Canadian institution specialized in having great coffee and doughnuts.  I got a Canadian maple, tres Canadien!, and Janice got the sour cream glazed.  Janice was less than impressed due to the too sugary treat that didn’t match up to a similar, yet less diabetes inducing version in Chicago.  As for mine, I found it to be enjoyable even though I’m not partial to cream filled pastries.  IMG_6878Thankfully there was more fresh, fried dough than cream, and the maple icing was delectable.  Once we finally reached the city and trying not to die with all of the crazy Canuck drivers.  We got to our apartment with a sweet view that would make even Drake jealous, and then proceeded to meet up with Aaron and Alyssa.IMG_6879  We walked all over the town as they showed us the sights that ranged from Korea Town that actually had a lot Aaron and I recognized from our time in the Land of the Morning Calm to the Kensington Market that seemed like a Caribbean island market in the middle of a modern metropolis.

Dude, it's some herbage.

Dude, it’s some herbage.

IMG_6887 After traversing what seemed like half the city, we managed to get our final destination (no, not death like the movies), Insomnia Restaurant & Lounge.  Unfortunately, it was super busy, so we had to wait for a table.  We hit up the bar next door, and I tried a new Canadian beer I never heard of:  Hockley dark. IMG_6897 It was a traditional English ale that was full bodied with a clean, caramel aftertaste that my compatriots likened to a lighter Guinness, or as they say on their website, “a brunette with the body of a blonde”.  We eventually got the call to head on over to Insomnia.IMG_6910  It looked like any other gastropub with the addition of some Christmas lights overhead.  IMG_6909However, our table was quite different mainly due to the super comfortable easy chairs that made the dining experience that much more enjoyable.  The reason why we chose Insomnia over all of the restaurants in Toronto is that they were part of the Summerlicious food festival which was similar to Chicago’s restaurant week that Janice and I greatly took advantage of.  Just like Chicago’s restaurant week, there was a set menu that consisted of a starter, entree, and dessert for $25.  I started the meal with a Maudite Belgian Strong Ale.  IMG_6899If you love lambics or dubbels or Belgian beer in general, I highly recommend this spicy yet fruity brew.  Then looking over the menu, there was a ton of great picks for food which made it all the more difficult to choose just one item.  I, along with everyone else I think, got the pork taco since it was the most interesting appetizer.  It looked super fresh yet simple. IMG_6900 All it consisted of was seasoned, tender, yet slightly spicy pork, pico de gallo, some cabbage, and a creamy, rich avocado spread.  The cilantro sprigs made it all the better since I love the controversial herb.  Then came the entrees.  I was torn between the burger since I had a hankering for one, and the Dirty Dirty South fried chicken and waffles.  However, I wanted something a bit different, so I went for the latter.  Funny enough, Janice, Alyssa, and I all got the chicken while Aaron got the burger.  He was greatly satisfied with the juicy Ontario ground chuck, milk bun, and classic lettuce, onion, pickle combo.  Our chicken and waffles, on the other hand, were a different beast all together.  When it came out, it looked like something inspired from the Spanish Inquisition or Vlad the Impaler. IMG_6901 Our waffles were pre-cut into quarters and alternated with the boneless chicken thigh pieces in a large stack that was held together with a series of wooden skewers.  Atop this unique creation was one of my most disliked foods:  cole slaw.  I love my cabbage products like kimchi or kapusta, but I dislike the cream picnic staple.  I slowly took apart the tower o’ food with the precision of playing the popular game Kerplunk and sliced into my meal.  It was a mouth-watering combo of thick, fluffy waffles and non-greasy but still flavorful pieces of all white meat.  The honey maple butter and maple syrup made this plate the ideal mix of savory and sweet.  I highly recommend this entree.  As if you thought that would have been the end of the meal, there still was dessert! This was the toughest part of the night for me since I have a huge sweet tooth, but since everyone was going for the enticing s’more and creme brulee, I went for the sponge cake.  Long story short, it was all good in the hood aside from a couple bumps in the road.  First, there was my financier sponge cake.  The name of the cake comes from either the traditional rectangular pan that made the cake resembling a bar of gold, or the cake became popular in Paris’ financial district.  IMG_6904It was moist, light, and spongy in texture with a strong almond taste that was enhanced with the Coca Cola foam that was the right kind of funk I like in my meal and a classy caramel drizzle.  The cherry on the side was a nice touch.  Then the burnt marshmallow s’more ice cream was an interesting concoction.  IMG_6905It was composed of the vanilla ice cream on top of a layer of burnt marshmallows that then topped a graham cracker cookie which was drenched with Lindt chocolate sauce.  Diabetes?  I haz it.  Alyssa offered me a bit of hers, but I swear the cookie was made of hardtack since neither I nor Aaron could break it.  Thankfully, Aaron’s was more normal, but it might prove to be too sweet for those of you who enjoy more savory plates.  Finally, there was the creme brulee that Janice wasn’t digging too much, IMG_6906but I found it to be good, not great.  As we sunk further into our chairs, food comas coming over us quickly, we ended the our first night in Toronto there, and it was a sign of greater times to come!  I highly recommend Insomnia to those visiting Toronto if you’re looking for delicious comfort food with a twist.
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Tierra del Fuego

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What’s up, everyone out there!  Welcome to another funky-fresh edition of Mastication Monologues!  While the weather has been getting better, that means that more and more people are getting out and about in Chicagoland.  During much colder times, Janice and I visited the Firehouse Grill in Evanston and had a wonderful time there.IMG_4356

IMG_4357The overall ambiance is of the general pub variety, so no need to bust out your Sunday best when checking out this casual eatery.  Looking over the menu, it wasn’t pages and pages of items, but what Firehouse does offer is tons of variety on every page.  You want bacon wrapped jalapenos?  Pierogi?  Sweet smoked pork tacos?  You got it!  We started our meal with a couple of drinks.  I got the decadent cookie dough milkshake ($5) while Janice got the Secret Stache Stout.  My drink was as delicious as it sounds with plenty of creamy vanilla ice cream jam-packed with pieces of chocolate chip encrusted cookie dough, IMG_4351IMG_4352IMG_4479and Janice’s beer was a super stout with hints of vanilla and chocolate throughout the ebony brew. IMG_4353 As for an appetizer, Janice was feeling the warm pretzel with the warm cheese sauce on the side ($7). IMG_4354 We shared it, but I don’t think it was worth it.  True, the bread was warm, soft on the inside, and slightly crispy on the outside, but it was on the smaller end along with an extremely liberal coating of salt atop it.  Not my style.  However, my entree ended up being the Gaucho Burger ($13).  It was simple but everything I enjoyed in a burger.  The goat cheese was plentiful, and the chimichurri sauce on the side was the icing on this cake of beef. IMG_4355 I could now see why they called it the Gaucho Burger because of two clearly Argentinian cultural items.  First, the gauchos were like Argentina’s answer to America’s cowboys, but they dressed a little differently, din’t carry guns but a giant knife instead, and were more prone to violence even over extremely small things.  Second, there is the chimicurri sauce that is an icon of Argentine cooking.  The South American country is well known for its high quality steak, which was connected to the gaucho’s herds of cattle, but instead of slathering A1 on a nice porterhouse, they dip pieces into this garlic, oregano, and olive oil based sauce.  The name of the sauce is unknown, but I think the most logical answer is that it comes from the Basque word “tximitxurri” which roughly translates to “A mix of several things in no order”.  Whatever it means, I didn’t care in that moment as I combined it all into one hearty and flavorful burger.  The bun was sturdy and fresh with a light coating of flour on the bottom that made it easier to grip even though it was never going to fall apart in the first place.  The bold and notable goat cheese melted on the medium well beef and combined very well with the garlic and herbal notes from the chimichurri’s olive oil.  I was greatly satisfied with my meal, and Janice was as well.

So if you’re looking for a solid choice to eat some comfort bar food or try a new twist on an old favorite, check out Firehouse Grill in Evanston!
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A Deli For a Happy Belly

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Ah college…an idyllic time where you can enjoy every social opportunity there is for an 18-22 year old while hopefully gaining an education.  On any college campus in America, minus the dry campuses, there is always a main street where most students go to shop, eat, and get their drink on.  The last two are especially important given that nothing is better than having a great night out on the town and more importantly, getting some precious food to fill your food before, during, and/or after the shenanigans.  This past fall, I went for the first time to the Indiana University with my girlfriend and her friends, and experienced everything their campus had to offer.  I had always heard good things about Bloomington, Indiana (hard to believe given it’s in Indiana), but I never had been there.  Plus, I went to the University of Illinois at Chambana, so our schools aren’t the best of neighbors.  However, I ended up having a fantastic weekend filled with fun, friends, and especially food.

We kicked off Friday night with exploring the downtown area and visiting a popular bar called Nick’s. IMG_4606 Apparently they’re famous for a drinking game called Sink the Biz, or as I’ve always known it from U of Illinois, depth charge.  Basically, you try not to sink the shotglass while pouring beer into it.

So tense!

The guys behind us were captivated.

Loser has to drink per usual.  Things got really rowdy when Captain Morgan showed up, but we were more into the prompt service and the good bar food like the cheese sticks, fries, and burgers.  Old people priorities, woooooo!  After that, we moved on to the Upstairs Bar where the party really jumped off.  First, there were these drinks called AMFs or Adios Mofos to keep it clean, and after tasting one I can see where the name comes from. IMG_4648 Take down one or two, and you might as well kiss your last functioning neurons goodbye.  If you like to dance, this was the place to be especially when Michael Jackson’s Hold Me from the classic film Free Willy came on.  It was a spiritual experience to say the least.  The rest of the night was pretty fun, but the following morning was even better.

The highlight (one of many) for our visit was the tailgate before the football game.  For the uninitiated, like myself back then, I wasn’t sure what tailgating consisted of.  Turns out it was the biggest food and drink fest of all time, but with the unpredictability of the elements thrown in.  What that meant was while we were freezing outside, we huddled around the Weber grill for warmth as bbq master Cam was slinging burgers at us.IMG_4654  We also were enjoying plenty of adult beverages, making new friends,

Ruby the dog is so popular

Ruby the dog is so popular

ruining old friendships over drinking games,

Something's afoot, but Janice is having too much fun.

Nobody but Janice is having fun.

and getting on Buzzfeed (Check number 15).  Nbd.  Eventually we made it to the football game, and it was about as dismal as the weather. IMG_4614 It was so depressing that one of our friends, Amanda, basically led a mass exodus of fans out of the stadium after loudly voicing her displeasure at a terrible throw and a missed catch.  We thought about going out, but after 10 hours of straight raging, we decided to call it a night.  The following morning, however, we nursed our hangovers with a little something the girls kept calling VD.  Now, that’s something people normally try to stay away from, but in Bloomington, VD or Village Deli is the place to be on a Sunday morning. IMG_4622 Recently it suffered a terrible fire, but thankfully it was repaired and back in business.  I enjoyed their funky fresh paint scheme with their psychedelic paintings on the wall of celebrities, and the food looked delicious as we walked pass the packed tables.  Their menu was simple but filled with great options for pancakes, omelets, and scramblers.  They are known for their Famous, Collosal, Huge, Ginormous, Fresh Buttermilk Pancakes, so that is exactly what I got ($4.50).  You can also add up to three toppings including fresh fruit, walnuts, peanut butter chips, chocolate chips, granola, or cinnamon roll.  That last one greatly intrigued me, so I plumped for just that to see what these from scratch big boys would look like.  What came out was just as large as they were talking about. IMG_4621 They were literally bigger than my face and coated with cinnamon, sugar, and icing.IMG_4620  I seem to have a penchant for ordering large breadstuffs for breakfast.  I quickly got down to business since I was starving, and they were some of the best pancakes I’ve ever had.  I could tell they were made from scratch with the fluffiness of each bite coated in that sweet and slightly savory cinnamon sugar melange.  It was kicked up a notch in the diabetes column with the cinnamon roll icing, but I was back in college for a weekend.  Nothing like letting the hair down a little.  My compadres’ meals looked equally delish, but I highly recommend getting there early if you want a table and not have to wait in line for half an hour or more.  It was a satisfying end to an entertaining weekend with new friends.

Job well done, team!

Job well done, team!

To finish, I would highly recommend visiting U of Indiana and the Village Deli if you’re looking for good times and great food with even better prices.  IMG_4651

Village Deli 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

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

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