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You’ll Love Olive This Food

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

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

Crab

Crab

and ze shrimp

and ze shrimp

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

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

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

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

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

Fig and Olive on Urbanspoon

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Un-Ba-Le-Vable Flavors

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Welcome one and all to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Things on my blog have been picking up as of late since I’ve survived my first semester teaching in upper academia, so these posts are keeping me sane in the flurry of bureaucracy and final exam writing.  I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I like writing them!  Today’s post once again brings me to Chicago’s Uptown Little Vietnam neighborhood.  It’s a diverse enclave of Chicago’s ethnic rainbow which boasts a plethora of eateries serving a wide variety of foods from Far East and Southeast Asia.  However, the Vietnamese community is the largest; ergo, I’ve sampled just the tip of the pho iceberg when it comes to fully exploring their culinary representatives.  Ba Le Sandwich shop is one of the best and most popular eateries in the area, and my first visit there was fantastic.

Ba Le’s storefront is at the heart of Little Vietnam at the intersection of Argyle and Broadway and opposite the iconic Tank Noodle where you can get some hot pho soup to chase this newly arrived cold weather away.IMG_4846  Walking into the establishment, past the small Buddhist shrine at the entrance, I was greeted with a sleek and modern interior that boasted a full wall of treats like freshly cut coconuts, Vietnamese head cheese or giò thủ , and a large vareity of chè or sweet pudding/jello treats.  IMG_4217IMG_4212 IMG_4214 IMG_4213On the right hand side of the shop, there were sushi roll packs next to a mini French bakery that was bursting at the seams with macaron mini-mountains.  IMG_4216Delectable remnants of the French colonization of Indochina as they were, I was interested in something more substantial and what Ba Le is known for:  banh mi.  If you want a historical explanation of the sandwich, hit up my Portland food truck adventure here.  Looking over the menu, they also offered side dishes like the famous gỏi cuốn translucent shrimp rolls, noodle salads, fried rice, and egg rolls.  As for the banh mi sandwiches, I went for the Chinese Pork or xá xíu ($4.95), and they do cater to vegetarians with banh mi, btw!   The sandwich was quite big for the price as I took it to one of Ba Le’s window counters you can eat at while watching the locals go about their daily business.  I wasn’t doing much people watching because I was severely distracted and gobsmacked at how delicious this sandwich was.IMG_4218  It was the culinary equivalent of Saul, future St. Paul, being knocked off his horse and converting to Christianity after hearing the voice of God. Oh_Lawd___by_deadprez132001 I don’t know what it was that made this sandwich stand out from the thousands of other sandwiches I tried.  Perhaps it was the extremely fresh French baguette that was just the right ratio of crispness to softness.  IMG_4220Maybe my weakness for mayonnaise combined with the fresh-from-the-garden cilantro, jalapeno peppers, daikon radish, onions, and carrots.  I think the pork helped as well since it was served in the char siu (叉燒) style which originates in China.  It is basically barbecued pork that is roasted while being coated with honey, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, and five spice powder.  What you get is a tender cut of pork that is both sweet and slightly salty, a perfect fauna compliment to the unspoiled flora of my unwrapped Garden of Eden.  Long story short, it was ecstasy in my mouth, and it wasn’t very heavy compared to many Western sub sandwiches.

So if you want a heavenly bite of Vietnamese culture for hellishly low prices, check out Ba Le Sandwich Shop in Chicago!
Ba Le Sandwich Shop on Urbanspoon

Throwback Post: Île Flottante in Paris

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Bonjour a tout le monde!  Today’s Mastication Monologues post is the penultimate installation in my throwback Europe series.  It has spanned the Old World from Romania to Scotland and even Slovakia.  Today we are continuing our march westward to France.

I have visited Paris twice along with Marseilles once, but I’m just going to be focusing on the former since it was where I tried a unique dessert that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.  Paris truly is one of the most beautiful cities that I have visited throughout my travels.  I was amazed to finally be face to face with so many iconic landmarks that I only saw on posters and postcards. HPIM1920 Climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower was an epic trek that was helped at the end with a little elevator ride.HPIM1911  From the top, I could absorb the broad boulevards and mid-18th century buildings that made up a majority of the city center.HPIM1912  Once safely back on the ground, I also visited the signature Champs Elysees and Arc de Triomphe that were stately yet highly congested with traffic.DSCN0652  The famed, ultra-sexy Moulin Rouge was also highly congested with foot traffic as well-monied patrons lined up to see the cabaret shows advertised outside.HPIM1812  One of my favorite Paris memories was actually outside of the city of Paris in the form of the Palace of Versailles. HPIM2248 This was hands down one of the most impressive man-made structures I’ve ever laid my eyes upon.HPIM2295  No wonder this life of luxury and Marie Antoinette’s contempt for the common man enraged and caused the French people to rise up in arms against the aristocracy.  Still, it was amazing to walk the same halls that Louis XVI did before being captured and beheaded in the capital.  All of this sightseeing made me hungry, and what better place to find something to snack on than Paris?  From their crepe stands to their pastisseries (pastry shops), one could eat something delicious and different for everyday of the year.  The perfect storm for me to indulge my sweet tooth.  Enter the île flottante.  I had it in a restaurant, and this dessert meaning “floating island” in French lived up to its name.  First, there was a crème anglaise or “English creme” that served as the vanilla flavored base to the dish.  It consisted of egg whites, sugar, and milk, and was a watery custard that was sweet but not overwhelmingly so.HPIM1801  It was also served cold. Then there was the island in the middle of my vanilla flavored sea.  It was a perfect example of how French are able to combine both artistry and innovation through the culinary arts.  The egg whites were whipped with sugar into a fluffy meringue island that was substantial enough to be almost like a large, slightly melted marshmallow yet light enough to bob in the vanilla sea.  It was all jazzed up with a light drizzling of caramel sauce.  I’ve heard that this old-school French dessert is disappearing quickly, so set sail for Paris and find your own hidden island.

“Non, je ne regrette rien”

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Hello to all out there in the blogosphere!  I have just returned from my recent food adventure for my dad’s bday (happy 59th, big guy!) at a local French eatery which I have been to multiple times before but have never written about its delectable Gallic delights.  The restaurant in question is  called Mon Ami Gabi and is located at 260 Oakbrook Center
Oak Brook, IL 60523 in the mall.

Now I have been to France before, and obviously it is kind of hard to recreate that sort of European ambiance in the Midwest.  However, Mon Ami Gabi manages to do a pretty good job at bringing its patrons a different type of eating experience with its rich, dark wood laden interiors, soft lighting, and an intimate patio which would be the perfect setting for any date night.   These elegant surroundings are just one plus of Mon Ami Gabi, and the food is no different.

Simple happiness: bread and butter

For our dinner, we received a complementary mini-baguette with a side of creamy butter and relish.  I don’t know if they make their own bread at the establishment, but it still was very tasty.  The crunchy crust was lightly coated with flour, and the white inside was still slightly warm and pliant which made the butter seep into every square inch of the baguette. As for the relish, as soon as I took a bite I knew that it was made of julienned  green apples due to its tartness and the general appearance of the side, but there was a slight herbal aftertaste to it that I couldn’t put my finger on.  Thankfully our helpful waitress informed me it was fennel of all things. After finally deciding on an appetizer, we went with the baked goat cheese and tomato sauce.  When it came to our table, I wasn’t too happy with the presentation of it because we have ordered it before, and it was served with mini pieces of toast coated in a garlic/pesto mixture.  This time around, the bread element of the dish came as a whole baguette sliced lengthwise which led us to resorting to ripping the bread apart like a bunch of Cro-Magnons.  I don’t know why they changed it from small pieces of bread, but I feel that it is a choice of convenience by the chefs.  Nevertheless, the actual goat cheese was delectable with its creamy texture melding with the smooth tomato sauce to create a warm mousse that provided a somber yin to the more aggressive yang of the garlic/pesto coated bread.

From this tasty beginning, I moved on to the main star of the dinner:  the steak.  I plumped for the steak au poirve  (or pepper steak) with the hand cut house frites.  The meat was grilled exactly to my request with a solid brown hue throughout and a slight pink inside.  The peppercorns were quite potent and supplied the thin gravy with a much needed kick to highlight the high quality texture and rich meaty flavor of the steak.

I’m a meat and potatoes kind of guy

As for the frites, I didn’t eat all of them since I was saving room for dessert, but from the few that I actually did try, they were not like regular french fries at any restaurant.  They looked like shoestring potatoes on steroids with a bit of a curl from Arby’s curly fries, and the actual body had the consistency of a normal French fry.  They were not over or under fried, and the insides were white and fluffy.

The end of this three ring circus culminated with the highly decadent vanilla bread pudding.  Not only was it infused with minced vanilla beans which dotted its borders like black spots on an ermine cape, but also like Louis XIV it was adorned with an over-sized crown of vanilla ice-cream and chains of golden caramel.

*Drool*. That is all

Its flavors lived up to its regal appearance as the pudding was slightly firm and warm which formed a divine pairing with the slightly melted vanilla ice cream and caramel.  Even though I ate all of this food and finished off the meal with a flourish, I was not stuffed which also speaks to the French culinary tradition of quality over quantity.

So if you’re looking for a new place to try French food, put aside your fears of frog legs and snooty waiters and try Mon Ami Gabi.  You won’t regret it!

Mon Ami Gabi on Urbanspoon

Mon Ami Gabi on Foodio54

The Quay to a Man’s Heart Is Through His Stomach

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Hello everyone once again in the blogosphere to another addition to Mastication Monologues.  Unfortunately, it has been hotter than the inside of a Pepperoni Hot Pocket as of late in the Chicagoland area.  So while lurking about in my air-conditioned cocoon known as my house, I decided I might as well write about a delightful restaurant I visited a few weeks ago.  A friend, Maria Jose, was in town from New York, and she decided she wanted to try out this new place called Quay (pronounced “key” not “kway”; confusing, I know).  It is located at 465 East Illinois Street  Chicago, IL 60611 in the River East building.  Unbeknownst to me, I would be pleasantly surprised by her suggestion.

First, I was surprised at the location because I remember during my childhood the River East building being a hollow shell of an edifice mainly housing empty storefronts with the occasional video game arcade or art gallery, but it functioned mainly as a mooring hub for boats making their way out to the lake/Navy Pier.  Therefore, when I showed up to a buzzing and elegant restaurant with al fresco dining, I was gobsmacked.  There is valet parking for 12 dollars and is valid all night (I opted for this option), or you can park in the parking garage across the street.  As we entered, the decor of the restaurant was very sleek and modern with softer lighting in the bar area, and the staff were very friendly.

The main dining room.

We first split a bottle of Tangley Oaks, a Merlot from Napa which was a soft, full-bodied wine that was not too overwhelming (mind you, I am not a sommelier by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a pleasant compliment to my meal).  The menu boasted a variety of American options (steak, burgers), French cuisine (Tarte Flambe, Lamb au Poirve), and Italian cooking (Suckling Pig Porchetta, Insalata Caprese).  For dinner, I decided to order the Spring Risotto which contained fava beans, english peas, braised radish, spring onions pecorino pepato, and truffled nettle puree.  Unfortunately, I was unable to take a picture of this tiny masterpiece, but it was elegantly presented on a simple white plate along with a drizzling of olive oil and a very dark vinaigrette to provide a bit of slightly bitter bite to the risotto.  The actual rice dish was very nicely balanced as the rice was not too soggy which sometimes can happen to cream-based rice dishes.  Another part of the dish that I enjoyed was the fact that all of the ingredients weren’t simply assimilated into the flavor background.  The english peas were served whole and not mashed contrary to their English heritage.  I am a huge fan of onions, and the spring onions strangely gave the risotto a slightly sweet aftertaste now and then which made me excited to explore more of the nooks and crannies in this mini-mound of goodness.  The pecorino pepato (peppered Italian cheese for those of you who don’t parla italiano) was lightly grated in thin, snow-white slices and perched gently atop Montecello Risotto.   This cheese lived up to its peppery name, but it was not very spicy for those worried about mouth scorching foods.  Plus, the heat of the risotto melted the cheese slightly which made it easier to mix into the rice and integrate it with the other flavors on my palate.

Whilst I was greatly enjoying myself, my friend Maria Jose had a slightly different dining experience.  She ordered the Oven Roasted Sea Bass with a side of grilled asparagus as a substitution for the baby spinach at no extra charge.  Upon tucking into the verdant and evenly grilled and seasoned spears, she found a small amount of hair.  She brought this up to our waiter who was visibly disturbed at this discovery, but he was a gentleman about it and the manager apologized/covered Maria Jose’s meal.  Our waiter even went above and beyond general hospitality and allowed us access to the lounge/bar in the back section of the restaurant even though there was a private function.  It has a lovely view of the Chicago River along with very tasteful furniture and a classy bar area.

The spacious lounge at the back of the restaurant

Upon returning to our table, we finished our main courses and split one of their special desserts for the night:  ice cream sandwiches made with homemade dark chocolate cookies and banana gelato on the inside along with a side of raspberry compote.  These small sandwiches lived up to the Latin phrase “Multum in Parvo” (A lot of stuff in a little package).  They were probably only as big as silver dollars, but the chocolate from the cookies meshed perfectly with the banana gelato to create a classier version of eating frozen chocolate bananas on a stick.  The raspberries also served as a subtle contrast to these two sweet elements with a  slightly sour contribution to the dessert course.

On the whole, I would recommend Quay to anyone who is looking to try out a new restaurant/bar/lounge in the Streeterville area for  a lunch or dinner before Navy Pier, a pre-movie meal, or just looking for a new place to expand your gastronomic horizons.  Even if your visit may seem like it is teetering on the verge of becoming un Inferno like ours was, the helpful staff and delicious food can definitely leave you feeling like you’re in Paradiso.

but leave molto felice. Eyyyy!

You may come in as happy as Dante…

Quay on Urbanspoon

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