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Category Archives: European Cuisine

Hitting It Big on the Market (Mercat a la Planxa)

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Bon dia!  Finally another post during this crazy holiday season.  It hasn’t always been the easiest to think of what great restaurant I should review next since this time of the year naturally comes with trips to various eateries as well as sampling a variety of homemade morsels.  However, today’s entry on Mastication Monologues has a special place in my heart based on the day we went there.  Next year, I will marry the love of my life, Janice, and Mercat a la Planxa was the ideal backdrop after our engagement photo shoot this past year.

It has been four years since I went back to Spain, and eight years since I lived in Barcelona for a year to finish my Spanish degree.  Although the peninsula is now a far-flung memory from my current home, it always is in the forefront of my mind, especially the food.  Therefore, when Janice said that she made reservations at one of Chicago’s premier Spanish restaurants, my taste buds were having their own tablao de flamenco in anticipation.  Needless to say, Mercat a la Planxa lived up to the hype.  The shoot before the meal went well minus my newer pair of shoes that were ripping the backs of my heels to shreds.  On top of it, it was unusually warm and humid for Fall, and neither Janice nor I are suited for hot climes.  Thankfully, we all took it in stride and much thanks to Tanya our photographer for doing an amazing job through it all (shameless plug for Tanya Velazquez Photography here!).  janicemark-18-of-43After we said our goodbyes and thanks for the enjoyable time, we eventually arrived at Mercat at the corner of Balbo and Michigan Ave.  It is very non-descript on the outside aside from a graphic printed on the windows. img_0706 The interior, on the other hand, is very sleek and modern.img_0677img_0678img_0679  Definitely made an impression on my fiancee and I given it shares a lobby with the Blackstone Hotel.  img_0704This building was known as “The Hotel of Presidents” since some kind of famous Commanders-in-Chief like FDR, JFK, and Teddy Roosevelt spent time in their luxurious suites.  In addition to heads of state, huge captains of industry (Rockefellers, J.P. Morgan, and Vanderbilt) as well as other famous stars (Tom Cruise, Paul Newman, Katherine Hepburn) have made the building their temporary home (the entire list can be found here).  Little did we know that this historical building would lead to a historical night for our palates.  Looking over the menu, I realized that Mercat was unique in the sense that they focused on Catalan ingredients and dishes since all of the items were written in Catalan.  While the southern Andalucian region gets all of the credit for what counts as being Spanish (bullfights, flamenco, sunny beaches), Catalunya on the east coast of the peninsula is firmly anti-Spanish.

Never the best of friends

Never the best of friends

It caused me some trouble when living in Barcelona since speaking Spanish before Catalan is seen as sign of being an outsider, but thankfully at Mercat they were just focused on providing the best experience possible.  As we looked over the menu at the various tapas, we saw everything from vegetable, meat, olives, paellas, and even a roast suckling pig (half of one is $220 and a full is double!).  With that final option, the price reflects the fact it can feed roughly 4 to 12 people, and it comes with its own personal meat carver and sides.  Obviously, we weren’t going to take down one of these hogs, but we were starving since we hadn’t eaten all day.  While we were trying to make our choices, our server brought a classic Catalan pre-meal food:  pan amb tomaquet (bread with tomato). img_0682 This Catalan version of Italian bruschetta is relatively new to the region.  This 18th century invention is believed to be the result of abundant tomato harvests and using the juicy veggies to soften hard bread.  I found this take on the carb-based antipasto quite refreshing compared to what is commonly found in Spain, but that also was because it was closer to bruschetta with its large tomato chunks and oregano compared to the minimalist fare found in cafeterias in Espana.  Eventually we settled on several tapas that could satisfy our ever-burgeoning appetites.  First, there were the datiles con almendras/almond-stuffed dates ($9). img_0683 These were a bit different than typical bacon-wrapped dates given they were drizzled with La Peral Asturian cheese which imparted the salty-sweetness with a milky smoothness that served as the fulcrum to balance both flavors.  Next were the gambas al ajillo ($13).img_0685  This was a definite highlight when this Catalonian bowl was still bubbling when placed in front of us.  From the size and quality of the olive oil/garlic/chili mix the shrimp was swimming in, it was the ideal tapa.  Next was my favorite tapa:  patatas bravas ($5).  These “wild potatoes” are my judge of whether or not a restaurant’s tapas are up to snuff (or if they even have them!).  Honestly, if you’re a professional chef and have mediocre/terrible fried potato chunks and a spicy mayonnaise sauce on the side, you might as well pack up your cooking utensils and find a new day job.  While that has been the case in very few of my tapateos, at Mercat they are the real deal.  They are the closest thing I have tasted outside of Spain to the same bravas I would always get at my favorite cafe on Rambla de Brasil in Barcelona.  First, the presentation was exquisite as they were lined up in a little row with the spicy sauce atop each potato like a barretina or traditional Catalonian cap.img_0695  I don’t know if they did this on purpose, but it was an excellent homage to the culture.

Messi reppin' Catalunya!

Messi reppin’ Catalunya!

img_0694These typically red hats are worn as a symbol of Catalan identity, and they can be seen now every Christmas on their traditions that revolve around poop like el caganer  (the pooping man) and el tio nadal (the pooping Christmas log).  Then there was the taste.  Most patatas bravas I’ve had, they’ve had more of a tomato based, more Mexican-style salsa sauce which isn’t even close to the original.  Mercat, however, has just the right blend of mayo, cracked black pepper, and garlic to go with the crunchy potato pieces.  I highly recommend these tapas if you want a true taste of a Spanish tapa mainstay.  Next came the albondigas/meatballs ($12).  This plate was an homage to the Moorish influence on Spanish cuisine as the meatballs were made of both beef and lamb and a variety of ingredients including smoked yogurt, tahini, pickled vegetables, and almonds.img_0693  It was a hearty Mediterranean/North African inspired tapa that was further enhanced with the slight spice provided from the North African harissa chili sauce.  If you love lamb or Middle Eastern food/flavors or don’t eat pork, this is the tapa for you!  With all of these delicious plates coming our way, we knew we had to sneak some greens in their somewhere to be healthy, so we got the broquil amb cansalada ($12).  img_0692It was good but not as great as it was described on the menu.  It just tasted like some charred broccoli with the occasional hammy pancetta note.  The desserts at the end of our meal were killer regardless of my sweet tooth.  The only problem is that the desserts are quite small.  The horchata bon bons ($4 each) were addictive with a crunchy chocolate shell coating horchata ice cream and topped with cinnamon puffed rice and almond brittle. img_0697 When popped in our mouths, it had a plethory of crunchy, smooth, and rough textures and a nuttiness more common to Spanish tiger nut-derived horchata which differs from Mexican rice-derived horchata.  We also tried the financer ($14).  This small, golden cake was named either due to its resemblance to a bar of gold or its supposed popularity in the financial district of Paris since it could be carried in the pocket of traders for long periods of time without being damaged.img_0700  I don’t know if this delicate treasure of culinary creation could have done the same because it melted under the weight of the cheesecake gelato, candied almonds, and tart cherry gastrique to create a mouth-watering Catalan creation.  Finally, there were the croquetes de xocolata ($10).  This dessert was like a Salvador Dali creation.  img_0702The milk chocolate croquettes were rich to begin with, but then things took a turn for the “interesting” as we found them floating in mini rafts of banana-infused marshmallow adrift in a sea of rosemary-infused caramel and Arbequina olive oil.  Our mastication-filled maritime adventure rode the flavor wave from the bittersweet chocolate, to the sweet caramel, to the surprising whitecaps of banana and oddly fruity (in a good way) olive oil.  If you want a dessert that challenges your senses in all the best, most decadent ways, this is the dessert for you.

In sum, Mercat a la Planxa left us thoroughly satisfied with our meal and the overall dining experience.

img_0687 While there are cheaper tapas restaurants in the City and Chicagoland area, you will find it hard to discover an eatery as unique as this “Market on the Grill”.
Mercat a la Planxa Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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San Diego (Day 2):  A Lambo, Gelato, and Rollin’ in Dough (Donut Bar, Nado Gelato, Village Pizza)

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Ah San Diego.  Home to the Chargers, the Padres, and their most famous mustaschioed ambassador, Ron Burgundy.  While we were visiting the city, we never got into antics like the Channel 4 news team like an anchorman street fight or having our beloved pet dog punted off the Coronado bridge, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a memorable time (I did get a new suit though for the wedding!).  47002647Our first day was fun, but Saturday was a non-stop rollercoaster that had plenty of thrills and a couple spills because we did eat and drink our fair share like any good tourists should.

If you didn’t read my first post, you can check it out here because our morning involved Janice’s friend and local fixer Amber who I introduced before.  Sadly, Ellie the schnauzer was not there to keep us company.  So, she brought us to a local breakfast favorite for both locals and tourists:  Doughnut Bar.  Now, coming from Chicago which has its fair share of fancy doughnut bakeries, I didn’t know what the big deal was about a company that specialized in creating mind-boggling sweets.  The line that stretched down the block that we soon found ourselves in spoke otherwise to my doubts.IMG_9625 IMG_9635  Amber recommended getting there the earlier the better as in like 8 am or 9 am if you want your choice of doughnuts because once the fried treats are gone, they close the entire store.   As we slowly shuffled like a horde of bleary eyed zombies toward our sugary host, something bright and shiny caught my eye.  It was just the Doughnut Bar owner’s new Lamborghini Aventor with a custom paint job. IMG_9629 I don’t know why other people weren’t as enthused as I was about this beauty of a machine just chilling on the side of the road.  It was a sign that it was going to be a great day on west coast.  Thankfully, the line moved quickly because we needed to get our sugar fix on before running off to get ready for the wedding ceremony!  I was having some second thoughts about rushing in and out after we set foot inside.  It was very modern and quirky with plenty of hilarious doughnut themed swag and artwork.IMG_9637 IMG_9640 IMG_9641  The true objets d’art were spread out in front of us like some type of heavenly bounty graced with every color and flavor of the rainbow.  According to Amber, they also switch around their menu and offer vegan options, so they know how to cater to people from all walks of life and keep them on their toes at the same time.  Janice and I didn’t know where to start because all of the doughnuts were calling our names.IMG_9643  There were chocolate ones,IMG_9644 ones made in homage to the local MLB All Star Game,IMG_9642 IMG_9646 cake batter,IMG_9647 and even one with a motherloving Pop Tart baked in the middle!IMG_9645 I didn’t want to look directly into its frosting for fear it would put the diabetic evil eye on me.  Plus, some honorable mentions among many.  IMG_9650 IMG_9649 IMG_9648We eventually made our choices, and they are not the cheapest doughnuts in the world at roughly 2-4 bucks a doughnut.  However, most of them are huge as you’ll see later in the post, and they are some of the most unique doughnuts you’ll ever taste.  Janice and I got a box of the Homer doughnut (mmmm sprinkles), a bacon infused cinnamon roll, a peanut butter cup doughnut, a Mexican hot chocolate doughnut, a Nutella doughnut, and a red velvet. IMG_9651 In addition to our to-go box, we got a French toast doughnut which was a doughnut fried and served up like regular French toast. IMG_9752 IMG_9754 This was an homage to the origin of doughnuts.  According to Wikipedia, some believe the word “doughnuts” came from the Dutch North American settlers who made oliekoek or “oil cake”, but the more compelling origin comes from a mid 19th century tale of an American boy punching holes in his fried dough because the centers were often raw.  This allowed for his dough to cook thoroughly and looked like the traditional doughnuts we eat and enjoy today.  However, the “nuts” part might have originally referenced the fried bits they poked out from the middle and have been referenced in writing as a uniquely American recipe as early as the early 1800s by none other than Sleepy Hollow author Washington Irving.  We enjoyed every bite of this fried piece of Americana as we chilled upstairs surrounded by plenty of interesting paintings and wall art.IMG_9757 IMG_9660 IMG_9659 IMG_9658 IMG_9656  The French toast doughnut also came with a side of butter, honey, and syrup.IMG_9755  I just went with the syrup, but it seemed almost like gilding the lily with how delicate and light the doughnut was.  It was an excellent investment and got us amped up for the very long day ahead of us.IMG_9756  Highly recommend this option if you have the chance to snag one from the hungry masses.  As we were leaving, there was still a plethora of people lining up outside, but I managed to sit in the Lambo which fulfilled one of my lifetime dreams. IMG_9664 Could this day get any better?  Oh yeah!  We got suited and booted and went also with our friend Kathy to the church on Coronado island.

Burt Macklin on the case!

Burt Macklin on the case!

 

Much better

Much better

We made it just in time, IMG_9760and it was a great service.  Personally, I think the flower girl and ring bearer stole the show until the bride’s grandparents came out.

Awwwww

Awwwww

They were so old but in such good shape and happy.  IMG_9763Definitely restored my faith in humanity.  The ceremony went off without a hitch,

The wedding party

The wedding party

and afterward I found myself once again face to face with another beautiful automobile.IMG_9680  This time around it was a classic Rolls Royce that the bride and groom were riding off in, IMG_9681but I wouldn’t have minded if they gave Janice and me a ride just around the block.  Instead, we wished them well and needed to find something to eat before the reception.  Walking around the beautiful isthmus of Coronado, we eventually found Fire and Fly Pizzeria.  It was bright and airy inside with outdoor seating in the front and rear of the establishment.  IMG_9683They seemed to specialize in brick oven fired, Neopolitan style pizzas.  They offer both premade and make your own pizza options in addition to a few sides.  We got an order of two broccoli and tomato pizzas and one chicken pesto pizza ($9 each).  I also got a local brewed Coronado beer ($6).  They were promptly cooked and served as we made our way to the back patio to enjoy the beautiful day and engaging food. IMG_9687IMG_9686 The pizza that Janice and I shared, the broccoli and tomato sans tomato, was good but too bland for my taste.  I’m a man of fiery foods, so the mix of mozzarella, ricotta, and herb garlic olive oil was a bit too safe for my palate.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a quality pizza, but I’d get a different pizza the next time around.  I preferred the chicken pesto pizza that our friend Kathy got because it was coated with a healthy, almost excessive top layer of arugula which gave way to pieces of chicken that were intermixed with mozzarella, pesto, and roasted peppers.  As for my California Amber, I realized that I wasn’t a fan from the first sip.  IMG_9685It had a slight pine/resin aftertaste which turned me off instantly, but it seemed like a trend in California to serve mainly lighter beers like lagers and IPAs.  What does a guy got to do to get a good stout/porter?  Still, Fire and Fly was an excellent place to grab a bite to eat before the wedding reception.  We finished our lunch and walked around the isthmus toward the Del Coronado hotel and decided to get some gelato at Nado Gelato.  IMG_9695It was a non-descript cafe that we strolled into and managed to beat the local crowd from the beach.IMG_9692 IMG_9693  A clear sign we made a good decision.  After looking over their numerous, mouth-watering flavors, IMG_9691 IMG_9689Janice and I got a small cup of the giandua (chocolate hazelnut) and salted caramel.  IMG_9690 IMG_9694It was reasonably priced and extremely high quality.  After learning so much from local Chicago ice cream shop owners in another post, we could tell from the rich, nutty flavor complimented by the salt in the caramel that we found the jewel in the crown of Coronado’s dessert scene.  Highly recommend this tiny spot if you’re looking for something sweet to cool you off.  Eventually, we reached the historical Hotel Del Coronado.  It was originally built in 1888 and didn’t look a year over 100.IMG_9765  Seriously though, it was a reception location that was without equal that I’ve been to in a wedding and hotels I’ve stayed in for my entire life.  We walked through the dark wood lobby under antique crystal chandeliers and past the wrought iron elevator up to the penthouse suite for pre-cocktail hour drinks.  Long story short, the views were terrible, and it was a mainly forgettable time.  If the written word doesn’t convey my sarcasm, I’ll let the view do the talking.

Life is hard

Life is hard

Before we made our way to the cocktail hour, we managed to witness a special part of Sabrina and Thompson’s wedding:  the Chinese tea ceremony.  I thought it was going to be a traditional Chinese ceremony to compliment the Catholic ceremony before, but it was more of a symbolic uniting of families through Sabrina and Thompson serving tea to the new members of their expanded familial network.IMG_9703  In return, they received lucky red envelopes containing many monies I assumed.  However, the real show stopper were the gifts for the bride and groom.  Thompson got a spiffy new watch, but Sabrina managed to wear half of Fort Knox’s gold in the form of two giant bracelets and a gold chest plate.  IMG_9768Once the ceremony concluded, we made our way through the hotel like some sort of entourage.  Jokingly, the girls said I looked like a secret service agent escorting some gold covered celebrity and her squad through to the afterparty.  Little did they know, I was trained by Burt Macklin from Parks and Recreation. 48164ac277ed50a145d31d4620cc4caf Luckily, we made it safely to to the very bright back lawn that was right next to the Pacific Ocean.  IMG_9704No big deal.  The setting was picturesque, the drinks were flowing, and the seagulls were out for burgers, mini-sliders to be exact.  They swooped down on us to steal food, but luckily we were looking stylish and freaked out in our sweet sunglasses party favors. IMG_9713 Their family dog, Bebe, however, was non-plussed looking so stylish in a bowtie. IMG_9705 Eventually, the clock struck the reception hour, and we were led to the back ballroom that was enormous and overlooking the same rear lawn where we were enjoying some classic wild animal attacks.  I won’t get bogged down in every minute detail of the reception in this post because it’s long enough.  In a nutshell, minus the odd band music, we made some new friends and got down with old ones even when the dancefloor was dead sometimes. IMG_9726 IMG_9717IMG_9720The food was par excellence (a dessert bar and a macaroni bar? yeah, that happened), and our one bartender we always went to made sure that everyone was having a great time.  By the time the band’s encore finished, Janice and I made our way past our fellow partygoers outside the hotel entrance who, like us, needed a comfortable bed.  However, our night didn’t end there.  Back at the Air BnB we tried some of the doughnuts from the first part of the post.  I loved the Homer doughnut because it was simple, iconic, and fitting for someone with a big appetite like me.  IMG_9771The Mexican hot chocolate one wasn’t that memorable even with the toasted marshmallows, but the Nutella doughnut was delectable as well as the red velvet one.  By that time, our friend Kathy had made it back as well, and we passed out after an incredibly long day with heads filled with memories and bellies stuffed with amazing eats.

Donut Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Fire + Fly Artisan Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nado Gelato/Botega Italiana Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nice to Meat You!

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Zdravo, friends!  Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  If you didn’t recognize my initial greeting, it was just one way to say “Hello” in Bosnian.  This Balkan nation goes back to time eternal, but after millennia of shifting borders and political alliances have managed to achieve stability and a high standard of life for its citizens.  974e3dc3acc579a582b38880adf839b8The name of Bosnia and Herzegovina is disputed, but many scholars believe that Bosnia is derived from the Bosna river while Herzegovina is a bit more complicated.  A Bosnian nobleman adopted the title Herceg (“duke” in Bosnian) and combined it with the ending “-ovina” meaning “land”.  Once again, a rich guy stamping his name on a piece of land like Pennsylvania and America, for example.  Anyway, moving on from monikers, today’s post involves Kiko’s Meat Market, a homey piece of the Balkan nation located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood which is home to numerous immigrants from the Balkans.

It was a cold night when Janice and I finally made our way into this mysterious restaurant right across the street from one of numerous magic shops that inhabit this part of town for some odd reason.  I didn’t know what to expect from an establishment with the term “meat market” in the title.  IMG_7665IMG_7666Was it going to bring me back to my life as a deli counter worker in the now defunct Chicago-based, all things Slavic emporium Bobak’s Sausage Company, or perhaps something more fitting in the Boystown neighborhood?  It was neither.  There is street and paid parking on the surrounding streets, and the staff were very friendly to us upon entering.  We heard more Bosnian and Serbian conversations than English as we were escorted to our seats which only added to the ambiance of traveling to another corner of the world without even needing a passport.  As for the actual decor, it wasn’t anything over the top or notable.IMG_7664 IMG_7659  It was a basic diner that reminded me of some of the Polish diners that used to be all over on the Southwest side around my grandparents house.  Not only was it a restaurant, but it was connected to a Balkan grocer and deli where you could buy different types of meats and treats from the old country.IMG_7661IMG_7660IMG_7662  Definitely worth a visit if you’re looking for some sausage or bakery or waiting for the waitress to come to your table like I did. Before we got a chance to look over the menu, we ordered our drinks.  I got a Jelen beer which is a Serbian pale lager.  The name of the beer in Serbian means “deer” hence the majestic wildlife on the label. IMG_7646 It was nothing of note.  In fact, it reminded me of every beer from Southern Europe, i.e. thin and inoffensive.  Not surprising when these brews come from wine cultures.  On top of the liquid bread, we were provided the old fashioned sliced kind. IMG_7647 It may not look like much, but it was clearly homemade with the warm, pliant middle and just crusty enough edges that were enhanced by the accompanying European butter that was smoother and not as salty as its American counterpart.  These were just warning shots before the bomb that was dropped in the form of the entrees:  the sampler platter (Mješano meso) and the cabbage rolls (sarma).  The cabbage rolls looked similar to the gołąbki my Polish family makes for most, if not all, family get-togethers.  It consisted of a soft and slightly sour exterior of translucent, pea green cabbage that was doused in a beef and tomato sauce.  IMG_7650These little rolls were camping between two mini-mountains of mashed potatoes that were enhanced with a generous dollop of sour cream like fresh powder in the Alps.IMG_7651  We quickly cut into the rolls and were met with a rice and beef blend that was kind of different from the pork, rice, and pea mixture found in my family’s Polish counterpart.  It was everything I love about Eastern European cooking:  warm, comforting, and hearty.  The cool sour cream cut through the bit of grease that accompanied the meat.  The mashed potatoes were anonymous in a plate full of character and bold flavors.  After that first act, it was time to step up to the plate and take on the champ.  The sampler platter was the Andre the Giant of our meal:  just one giant hunk of meat (thankfully, better looking though).

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

Actually, to be specific it consisted of a variety of Bosnian meats including chevapi, sausages, chicken, veal kebobs, and veal liver all served within traditional a traditional Balkan pita bread with a side of fries, salad, and ‘kajmak’ cheese.  We asked our waitress if it was going to be enough food before we ordered it, and once it was in front of us, we could see why she laughed at our naivete.  I felt like I was King Arthur putting Excalibur back into its stone home, IMG_7649but instead of having my crown rescinded, we were both blessed with a bountiful meal.  Naturally, the bread was warm and much more substantial than a Greek pita and baked to perfection.  The kajmak cheese was like a Balkan version of brie that went very well on the warm bread.  The chevapi weren’t new to us since we’ve tried other countries’ versions of these miniscule skinless sausages.  They’re essentially char-grilled pieces of beef and pork that just go down way too easy. IMG_7652 The sausages were all made in house, and they seemed to be pork based.  I was more particular to their chicken that absorbed a little bit of each of the other meats’ flavors which isn’t surprising since every meat seems to taste like chicken.  Long story short, if you’re a carnivore, this sampler platter is just for you.  The veal kebobs were very tender, juicy, and bursting with flavor.  We both tried a bit of the veal liver, but we weren’t fans of the unique, grainy texture that accompanies liver.  Then again, we were also saving room for dessert like the smart people we are.  Even though we felt like we were ready to burst, Janice jumped for the tiramisu while I went for the more exotic tufahija.  Tiramisu isn’t Bosnian, rather Italian, and is a more recent invention around the 1960s.  The origin of the name of the dessert is up for debate including the name of a Veneto baker’s apprentice’s maiden name, but a layer cake by any other name would taste as sweet and coffee-tastic.  It was a welcome change from the heavier plates we chowed down on earlier. IMG_7653IMG_7654 From the coffee soaked bottom layer to the heavenly light cream on top, it was a dessert fit for my classy bella donna.  As for my tufahija, it is a relic of centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans.  This is clearly evident since the name is derived from the Arabic word “tuffàh” (تفاحة‎) meaning “apple” in English, but the dessert itself originates in Persia.  It consisted of a cold, skinned apple soaked in sugar water and then stuffed with walnuts and topped with whipped cream.  IMG_7655It was so wildly different compared to everything I had that dinner, nay I’ve had in dessertdom, and I loved every minute of it.  The apple was slightly moist and chilled but not soggy somehow.  As I moved my way through the dessert, the core was filled with crunchy, basically raw walnuts that provided a much needed crunch and offset the sweet, but not overly so, apple.IMG_7657  These elements by themselves were wonderful, and the whipped cream was good up to a point.  I think it was a bit excessive with the wavy white sea this dessert was bobbing in.  I would highly recommend this dessert though if you’re looking to break away from traditional end platters to your meal.

We left Kiko’s with very happy and stuffed bellies with another full meal of leftovers in our doggy bag, so you will definitely get your money’s worth at this eatery.  If you’re a carnivore or looking for a new and unique restaurant that also serves one of Chicago’s many Balkan communities, you got to get to Kiko’s Meat Market!
Kiko' s Market & Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Picking Up and Eating the Tab(erna)

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Hola a todos y bienvenidos a Mastication Monologues!  If you couldn’t tell, the flavor of today’s post is Spanish, and what a wonderful flavor that is.  Spain is known for many things:  sun, bullfights, and flamenco to name a few, but few may truly appreciate what a giant Spain is in the culinary world.  It seems like only recently that tapas have become truly popular in the United States, and we are feeling the full force of molecular gastronomy, a technique of manipulating the molecular composition of food and drink in order to render them in a different form, that was pioneered in Europe, first in France and then in Spain.  Two names of chefs/magicians that immediately spring to mind in regard to this food movement are Ferran Adrià, head of the famous but now defunct El Bulli, and José Andrés, restauranteur and one of Anthony Bourdain’s besties.

The real O.G.s

The real O.G.s

However, these giants of the food world would contend that what they do isn’t molecular gastronomy.  Tomato/tomahto.  These advanced ideas have made their way even to Chicago as found at Grant Achatz’s Alinea, widely considered the best restaurant in the world, or at the wildly innovative Moto which was owned by the late kitchen mad scientist, Homaro Cantu.  However, I’m not here to talk about molecular gastronomy but rather tapas.  I’ve had my fair share of tapas after living in Spain, and this has served as the measuring stick for all other taperías outside of the peninsula.  I’ve had some charming tapateos and others not so much, but I found La Taberna Tapas to be a perfect place to get some delicious finger food in the Chi.

Janice and I went here back in the winter wonderland half of this year to meet two of her friends from out of town, and it was a the perfect venue to do so.  The parking on the street is plentiful even though you have to pay for it.IMG_5682  The interior was dark but welcoming, and the live music started soon after we sat down.  IMG_5699 IMG_5698 IMG_5696Thankfully even though it was flamenco dancing and guitar, it wasn’t overwhelming like other restaurants that I’ve been to with live music acts.  IMG_5695I get that you’re enthusiastic about your craft, but there’s a fine line between passion and being obnoxious.  Tread lightly when I’m eating, brah.  Before I get to the foodstuffs, let me have a moment for the beers I tried.  Both of them came from the super verdant and Celtic influenced northwestern corner of Spain known as Galicia, and the Hijos de Rivera brewery that has been making these beers will be celebrating its 110 year anniversary.  Perhaps their longevity could be down to them keeping the operations 100 percent Spanish and keeping it in the family.  Who knows?  I have to say though that when living in Spain, I wasn’t too impressed overall with Spanish beers, but the Estrella Galicia ($5) IMG_5692had a lot more taste than the more grating on the palate Estrella Damm from Cataluña.  This brew from Hijos de Rivera was a slightly bitter lager that went down smooth and heightened the bold flavors of the tapas that were to make their appearance soon.  The Estrella Galicia wasn’t an upper echelon type of libation, but it’s just something refreshing to sip on.  The 1906 Reserva Especial ($5) from the gallego brewery was better since it poured with a good amount of head and had more notes of caramel and grass throughout each sip. IMG_5685 It was another solid, if not spectacular, Galician beer.  Anyway, now onto the good stuff:  the tapas!

First, we had the pinacho de pollo that consisted of grilled chicken breast, sauteed bell peppers and onions, and garnished with a basil aioli and pistashio pesto.  IMG_5683I would recommend this segundo plato since it is a bit more filling than the dainty plates that we followed this one up with.  Not only is it satisfying, but the ingredients are superb.  The succulent, pure white chicken was further amped up by the basil aioli and pesto.  These elements combined with the veggies made for a complete dish that also was quite easy on the eyes.  The torre de berenjena y tomate ($7) or tower of eggplant and tomato kind of fell flat in my mind and mouth.  IMG_5684It didn’t seem that spectacular with some mushy slices of eggplant in a pool of bland tomato sauce.  I’d skip this tapa unless you’re vegetarian.  Another tomato based tapa that I always enjoy, and it was no different here, was the queso de cabra ($7) or goat cheese.  IMG_5691It consists of is a chunk of goat cheese that is baked in a tomato basil sauce topped with truffle oil with a side of tomato and garlic rubbed pieces of toasted bread.  What more could you ask for?  Well, for one thing, I would suggest that they make it more even ratio of cheese to tomato sauce since I felt like we got cheated out of the earthy cheese that goes so perfectly with the seasoned and warm tomato sauce on the crusty bread.  On the plus side, we followed it up with two of my favorite tapas:  patatas bravas ($7) and dátiles con tocino ($7).  With the former, it is hands down my favorite tapa.  It’s nothing fancy since it just consists of cubed and fried potatoes and a paprika infused aioli.  So easy, yet never reproduced Stateside surprisingly.  This version of my favorite tapa was almost like what I inhaled back in Barcelona yet not.IMG_5686  The white sauce was more on the mild side, and the potatoes were also covered in a chunkier tomato sauce bordering on an Italian marinara.  As for the dátiles con tocino, they were the same like I´ve had before yet different.  IMG_5688These sweet and gooey chunks of heaven were put to bed with a crunchy snuggie of bacon, but I think the sweet sherry reduction was a bit too much a case of gilding the lily.  We weren´t only sampling creatures of the land but also the sea.  The script flipped when they brought out our pulpo a la plancha or grilled octopus ($9).IMG_5690  This was another salute to Galicia which is known for quality grilled octopus seasoned with paprika.  I didn’t taste much of the almond pesto, but the squirt of lemon over it with the herb coated potatoes made it a good mix of surf and tuber turf.  The final two tapas we had wouldn’t really be considered true tapas.  The pincho punta de res ($7) is a supposed to be an homage to Basque culinary traditions where the word actually comes from the Spanish “pinchar” meaning “to pierce”.  If you go to the Basque Country in northern Spain, you will notice that all of their “tapas” are actually pierced with toothpicks and not just served in a dish.  Therefore, I don’t understand how these pinchos are Moorish as indicated on La Taberna’s menu.  IMG_5693Origin’s aside, I thought these skewers were more like taking a page from the Brazilian steakhouse than a tapería, but this didn’t take away from the high quality of the peppered steak that was paired with a generous helping of tenderly caramelized onions and a cup of sinus clearing horseradish sauce.  Surprisingly, we still had a bit of room left at the end of the meal for another classic Spanish dish in the form of paella con pollo y conejo or paella with chicken and rabbit ($12).  The word “paella” comes from the Latin “patella” or Old French “paelle“, both of which mean “pan”.  The origin of the dish is a bit shrouded in mystery, but the most likely origin is from Valencia on the east coast of Spain during the reign of the Moors (8th Century-15th Century A.D.).  The Valencian people managed to use the old Roman irrigation systems to grow more rice which was brought to the peninsula by the Islamic rulers.  They then took the rice, local seafood, and cooked them together in a pan.  The popularity of the dish soon grew in the following centuries to other parts of Spain like Madrid where they added other types of meat, like the variety we ate at La Taberna, and eventually became world renowned.  I visited Valencia during my residence in Spain, and I got a tin of paella from the mercado central, and it was a jump up from La Taberna’s version.  La Taberna’s paella was good but not the best ever.  IMG_5694It was well made with plenty of peppers, peas, onions, and even a Latin American twist with chile de árbol that gave the meal a smoky undertone.  The smoke enhanced the chicken and rabbit, but these meat elements didn´t shine as much as the cooked veggies, in my opinion.  I´d still recommend this paella though if you´ve never had it before and want one of Spain´s signature meals.

So in closing, if you want to have a taste of Spain´s delights for a date night or just a fun night out of culture and culinary adventures, get down to La Taberna Tapas for a tapateo you won´t forget!

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It’s Greek to Me

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Everyone needs a no-frills diner.  A place where you can go to get food that may not be the best for you or might not look the prettiest, but you know it will always make you feel good.  This type of culinary sanctuary is as varied as an individual’s palate, mood, and perhaps even time of day.  Let’s be real, late night eats are never the healthiest in the world, but there’s nothing like being a little naughty when the sun goes down. 1433858760_70ec314f6f2232ce557694c962a36572 This is where Margie’s Restaurant comes in.

It was a cold and dark night like any old Midwestern winter night, and Janice was craving a milkshake and some fries.  Instead of just going to the local McDonald’s, I suggested we try a local favorite that I’ve always seen but never visited.  Margie’s is not much from the outside or inside. IMG_5671IMG_5674 It’s just a local fast food joint that serves really basic food for reasonably prices in large portions like your standard hamburgers and hotdogs or Chicago classics like homemade Italian beef sandwiches. IMG_5673 While I do love all of those, I had a particularly greasy favorite in mind when I went to order.  The gyro (plural: gyros) has become a staple of American fast food cuisine compliments of Greek immigrants who brought it here and made it popular in their diners across the nation.  It probably became popular with Americans due to the fact that you can eat it on the go even though I wouldn’t recommend it since they can be pretty jam packed with ingredients.  The name is also a point of contention as you might hear “jai-ro”, “jeer-oh”, or “yee-ro”, but the closest pronunciation is the last one. IMG_5675 The word “gyro” comes from the word for “turn” which replaced the Turkish term “doner” which means the same thing.  The turn part comes from the fact that the gyro meat is roasted vertically and sliced off in thin strips with a long knife or shaver.  This technique was invented in the 19th Century in Turkey, but the Greeks will tell you otherwise.  Your typical gyro consists of a pita flatbread that is filled with spiced lamb, tomatoes, onions, and tzatziki sauce.  However, there are alternatives out there; the most common variant I’ve seen is with chicken instead of lamb.  I always keep it traditional because I love the spice and flavor of lamb that the Eastern Mediterranean nations do so well.  Margie’s had a gyro special where I could get a plate of the Greek classic with a side of fries for 5 bucks.  Naturally, I jumped at the chance.  The service was brisk given I went on a random weeknight, and it was freezing outside.  The food came out quickly and wrapped up very nicely.  When I got home, Janice definitely enjoyed her meal, and when I opened up my bag, I didn’t know where to start.  IMG_5676A huge pita was lain over a facefull of fries, tomatoes, and onions along with two tubs of tzatziki sauce.  Basically, I had to be the mad scientist to put this monstrosity together, and luckily I had the skill and mettle to do just that.  Once I combined everything like a boss, I got down to the business.  IMG_5678The typical problem that I mentioned before is that the meat is oftentimes quite greasy, so you run the risk of having your clothes ruined by the gyro’s juices hopping a ride on your pants and or shirt.  Margie’s gyro, on the other hand, was not greasy at all, and the pita held up quite well to my ravenous choppers tearing through my meal.  The tomatoes were fresh and onions plentiful, and the tzatziki was cool and tangy like any good yogurt based sauce should be with hints of cucumbers.  As for the French fries, they were of the crinkle cut variety, and they were fried to perfection.  I wasn’t able to finish the golden stack of potato sticks due to the filling nature of the gyro, but I highly recommend this special or any of the other specials.  You’ll get your money’s worth, that is for certain.

So if you’re ever out in the western Chicagoland suburbs and need to get a ton of food for not a ton of money, check out Margie’s Restaurant!
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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 (Final Day): Home Is Where the Heart (and ice cream) Is

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So, it has finally come to this.  The final installation in my Canadian food saga on Mastication Monologues (See 1, 2, and 3 here).  While the previous chapters had plenty of panache, today’s post will be going out on a very classy note.

Our day started on a very hot note as we made the trek across the city to the famed Casa Loma that was participating in Toronto’s food week a.k.a. Summerlicious. IMG_7065 What would be more summerlicious than fine dining in a castle?IMG_7066  The storied structure was originally built by Sir Henry Pellatt, a business magnate and loyal military servant to the Queen.  Aaron had told me before we visited that he built this mega-mansion for a woman who was supposed to come over to marry him but duped him.  Turns out that when we went there, we learned that he built it because he was extremely rich.  Go figure.  Beautiful as it was inside with plenty of crystal chandeliers, giant halls, and dark wood carpentry,IMG_7069IMG_7070 I missed a little bit of that modern air conditioning lovin’ as I proceeded to sweat my brains out.  Janice and I made our way out to the garden out back, and we were greeted with a wonderful fountain, lush foliage, and oodles of Asian tourists. IMG_7071 We had our wristbands on since we bought tickets ahead of time and on discount, so we were able to skip the long line into the Summerlicious fest like the ballers/shot-callers we naturally are.   We had a look over the food they had to offer while hunting for a seat, and it all looked great.  After a bit of time, Janice wrangled us a great table in the shade.  Aaron and Alyssa met up with us eventually due to a Google Maps error, but Janice and I were then quickly up and ready to run the buffet ragged.IMG_7087IMG_7088  We started off with some amazing Italian food.  First, there was the prosciutto (pro-shoot-oh or just pro-shoot if you’re a real paisan).  The word “prosciutto” comes from the Latin for “before” (pro) and “sucking out” (exsuctus) which then evolved into the modern Italian word “prosciugiare” meaning “to dry thoroughly”.  What does all this drying have to do for this heavenly meat?  Well, it’s basically a salted, dried, and aged leg of ham that is a pillar of Italian cuisine.  At the Summerlicious festival, the chef serving it was using an interesting slicer I’ve never seen before but sped up the cutting process for the slobbering diners lining up for the meat. IMG_7072 Janice and I picked up a rolled up slice each, and then next to the prosciutto was another Italian dish I had never tried before called panzanella.  It is a salad from the central Italian region of Tuscany, and it is not very in line with the Atkins diet.  The reason being is that this salad is based on bread; well, actually stale bread, but that’s neither here nor there.  It consists of the bread soaked in the vinaigrette along with tomatoes, onions, and zucchini.

Panzanella and prociutto

Panzanella and prociutto

It complimented the salty and savory meat with a light and slightly sour element to the opening plate of our meal.  We then moved on to the second plate of the day which was more diverse cuisine-wise.  First, I managed to snag a seasoned lamb kabob that was savory and spiced to perfection.IMG_7074  The smell alone coming off the grill was driving me crazy.  Then I followed that up with an Indian trio of butter chicken, jasmine basmati rice, and aloo gobi.  The butter chicken is a very mild dish in terms of Indian food, and it meshed with the rice to be a very filling part of the meal.  As for the aloo gobi, it is a traditional and simple Punjabi dish that consists of potatoes (aloo) and cauliflower (gobi). IMG_7075 It was different than traditional Indian dishes given that a plethora of them are typically swimming in a pool of sauce.  These dry veggies were aglow with a jaundiced yellow hue due to the tumeric and curry powder that was cooked into each piece.  It was ok, but not great.  The best part of round two was the mushroom cheesy risotto that was being served literally out of a giant wheel of Grana Padano (“grain” in Italian and the adjective for something from the Po River valley in northern Italy).IMG_7077  It was a creamy rice dish that had a Parmesan-esque sharpness in every forkful. IMG_7078 The final plate to the three ring circus of main courses ended with a vegetable slaw with lime dressing that was like something you could get in a P.F. Changs or slightly more upscale Chinese restaurant especially with the roasted, diced peanuts. IMG_7080 IMG_7090The better part of the third plate were the bison sliders with berry mostarda.  The bison tasted like a very lean beef with a bit more gamey flavor, but it was kind of drowned out by the berry mostarda that isn’t mustard but rather a traditional Italian condiment made of candied fruit and mustard flavored syrup.  IMG_7089We couldn’t put our finger on it if they were cherries or some kind of cranberry, but it strangely went well together as a savory and sweet kind of foodstuff.  Thankfully we didn’t eat breakfast because we had room for that sweet sweet dessert.  While they were serving three different types of gelato, I will save the ice cream for later in this post.  Instead, we chowed down on some white chocolate cannoli and a berry crumble.  Cannoli are well known as a quintessential Italian dessert, but in reality they trace their roots back to the Emirate of Sicily, i.e. when the Muslims ruled the island for almost 250 years.  In fact, some trace the name to the Arabic word “qanawat“.  These little fried tubes of dough were filled by hand right in front of us with sweet mascarpone cheese and garnished with white chocolate shavings.IMG_7092  I thought they could have made it better with some milk or dark chocolate shavings to balance out the sweeter cheese, but they were competently made.IMG_7093  As for the fruit crumble, I heard that it had strawberry and rhubarb in it which was a first for me.IMG_7094  I found it to be like eating a warm strawberry pie with the buttery crumbles, so I don’t know what the rhubarb brought to the equation.  IMG_7096The fresh blueberries and strawberries were also a refreshing solution to beating the heat.  After that we had an epic trek to one of the best ice cream places in all of Toronto according to Aaron who’s kind of a maestro when it comes to the cold stuff.  Ed’s Real Scoop was nothing special on the outside, but clearly on the inside it was happening based on the butt to gut traffic that was occupying the non-A/C interior which was brutal.IMG_7110  Still, I knew this place was my jam based on this punny size display, the large selections of ice cream, gelato, and toppings.IMG_7101  IMG_7104IMG_7105IMG_7109IMG_7107After chuckling to myself, I made the tough decision by getting a large with creme brulee ice cream and burnt marshmallow with a free topping in the form of Coffee Crisp, a Canadian candy bar that isn’t Stateside.IMG_7106  Pricewise, it’s not the cheapest place since my large was around 5 bucks, but I got a ton of ice cream for my money and a free topping! IMG_7111 Not only that, but they hand make all of their ice cream and waffles cones on their own machine that is right to your left when you walk into the store.  They take their ice cream, gelato, drinks, and confections very seriously, and this care is reflected in the quality from first spoon to last.  The creme brulee took me right to the Riviera complete with chunks of the burnt, crunchy sugar topping in each bite while the burnt marshmallow was perfect for a summer night.  All I was missing was a bonfire and some graham crackers to make some s’mores.  The Coffee Crisp was like a flaky wafer coated in milk chocolate that created that s’more effect.  Janice got a cinnamon cheesecake milkshake, and it was a slurptacular way to beat the heat as we walked along Toronto’s beachfront. IMG_7112 After walking for what seemed forever, we made it to Aaron’s neighborhood in the Scarborough area.  We hit up Casa di Giorgio Ristorante. IMG_7117 By this point, we were ready to devour some food, and this Italian eatery fit the bill.  The ladies got different types of pasta, so naturally I didn’t eat it.  Janice seemed happy with her tortellini alla crema ($16.95) which were cheese stuffed shells with a white cream sauce.  IMG_7114I opted for pizza instead.  They have so many great choices, but I picked the Veranzano ($16.95).  It had everything I love:  meat, cheese, and veggies. IMG_7115 The goat cheese and salty prosciutto balanced the fresh arugula and mild, roasted red peppers.  Based on my experience and the others’ plates, it was a good Italian restaurant if you’re looking for simple but well made food.  Aaron and Alyssa hadn’t even been there before, and they live there.  So it was a great hidden find and a molto bene note to end our stay in TO with our good friends and even better guests. IMG_7118 Thanks for everything guys, and see you on the open road!
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