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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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Stroop and a Pancake? Bacon and a Blintz?

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Ah the Netherlands.  A land of many contrasts and confusion.  Like is it the Netherlands or Holland or both?  Even though both are generally accepted, the Netherlands is the official name of the country/kingdom while Holland is the combined name for two provinces within the country/kingdom.  Beyond the name, most people have a few common thoughts about the country.  The first thing that probably pops into the heads of many is of Amsterdam and its accompanying delights or vices depending on your moral constitution or perhaps Mike Meyer’s freakish Dutch villain Goldmember, the largest of the Low Countries has a lot more to offer.  For example, it is home to the Frisian language. It is currently an endangered language in the Netherlands, but it once was spoken throughout the North Sea’s southern coast. Not only does it have a once distinguished past, but it currently holds the position of one of most closely related languages to English, more so than German.  Some are quite clear cognates like “help” which is just the same word or “My name is…” is “Myn namme is …” in Frisian or “I’m from…” is “Ik kom fan …”.  However, don’t expect to be able to completely understand them.  While linguistic facts, Dutch ones included, are always interesting, I’m here to talk about a Dutch pancake house in Chicago that is homey and filled with delicious breakfast treats.  I’m talking about the Famous Dutch Pancake House/Pannekoeken Huis in Lincoln Square on the north side of Chicago.IMG_6518

While there are plenty of great breakfast places throughout the city and surrounding suburbs, each one seems to have its own angle.  There’s one that reflects the Swedish community in the Andersonville neighborhood or even a Greek cinnamon themed restaurant.  However, it’s not often you hear of a Dutch breakfast restaurant.  The Pancake House doesn’t serve any of the “special” treats you might assume, but rather a plethora of Dutch pancakes or pannekoeken (pronounced:  pan-eh-ko-kehn).  Although the Dutch word literally means “pancake”, they are different than the American ones we are used to.  Instead of them being thicker than a Snicker, they are more similar to their French brethren:  the crepe, a thin and airy bread that could be sweet or savory.  When we got there on a Saturday morning, we managed to beat the rush just barely around 8:30ish.IMG_6141IMG_6140  It’s a very small dining room, so be prepared to have a real cheek to jowl experience.  We looked over the menu to find a plethora of sweet and savory pannekoeken along with more common American breakfast items like eggs, French toast, and bacon.  IMG_6142After much deliberation and a recommendation from our waiter, I got the apple raisin cheese pannekoek ($9.95) and Janice got a veggie pannekoek ($8.95).  When they came out, I couldn’t believe how big they were, i.e. at least as big as a small hubcap.  However, they were thin which meant that they weren’t as heavy as American pancakes.  Janice’s veggie pannekoek looked verdant and mouth-watering.IMG_6143  She had the option of three veggies and her choice of cheese as toppings, so she went with a asparagus, mushroom, and green pepper combo along with some strips of melted Havarti cheese.  It was a great savory pancake.  While the thin dough provided a solid flavor foundation, the lightly sauteed veggies mixed well with the buttery cheese.  Definitely made this carnivore steal more than one forkful off her plate.  As for my pannekoek, it was certainly different than what I’m used to eating for breakfast.  IMG_6144While I like to keep my savory elements separate from my sweet ingredients when it comes to food, this pannekoek had me singing a different tune.  First, there was the plethora of apple slices that almost completely obscured my pannekoek and was occasionally punctuated with an amorphous blob of melted Havarti cheese.  Then our waiter hooked me up with what seemed to be syrup for my sweet pannekoek, but it wasn’t quite the same.  It turned out to be schenkstroop which derives from the words “schenk”which comes from the Dutch/German verb “schenken” meaning “to pour out”, and “stroop” meaning “syrup”.IMG_6145  Aside from the name difference, this Dutch specialty is made from sugar beets instead of the cane sugar our everyday pancake syrup is made from.  What this meant for my pannekoek experience was two things.  First, it had a much higher viscosity than American syrup which made it seem more like a thick molasses.  Second, after I made it rain all over my pannekoek, I found the schenkstroop to have a cleaner and not as overpoweringly sweet aftertaste compared to its American counterpart.IMG_6146  I thought it was perfect for this type of pancake because of the many competing flavors for my tastebuds attention.  As I mentioned before, I wasn’t a mixing savory and sweet kind of guy.  Hell, I find Hawaiian pizza to be an abomination to food lovers everywhere.  Pineapple on a pizza?  Aloha, brah (and I mean it in the “goodbye” sense).  Anyway, pizza rant over.  The creamy and slightly salty Havarti semi-neutralized the tart, gossamer-thin granny smith apple slices that melted in my mouth.  However, little did I know that the pannekoeken’s dough hid another sweet secret in the form of raisins that were baked right into the cake.IMG_6147  They were like little, chewy barnacles riding along on the underbelly of a blue whale of flavor.  I couldn’t get enough of the sweet, savory, and salty delight, but it was gone before I knew it.

So if you want to sample a cozy little corner of Holland in Chicago for very reasonable prices and great service, grab your wooden shoes and clog your way down to the Pannenkoeken Cafe!IMG_6148
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Sarajevo Fo’ Sho’!

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The Balkans have long been a forgotten corner of Europe but one of the most tumultuous and diverse regions of the continent.  A potpourri of Bosnians, Serbians, Croatians, Bulgarians, Greeks, and Montenegrins all interacting with each other, not always positively, mind you, and exchanging ideas and more importantly, food.  While this geographic region is on the Mediterranean Sea, the food is very different to their western neighbors Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal.  While they might focus on the same staples like wine and olives/olive oil, their meals have more of an Eastern European and Middle Eastern vibe due to their location as a crossroads of sorts between East and West.  Instead of having to buy tickets to Europe, Janice and I managed to find a slice of Bosnia quite close to home on Chicago northside at Restaurant Sarajevo.

Sarajevo is the name of the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.  It is an ancient and diverse city that once boasted of being the only European city with a synagogue, Orthodox Catholic, mosque, and Catholic Church in the same neighborhood.  However, much of the city was destroyed by Serbian forces in the siege during the War of Independence from Yugoslavia in the mid 1990s.  Once the guns fell silent, the rebuilding process began, and now it’s back to its former glory.  Due to the aforementioned violence, many Bosnian and Serbian refugees came to Chicago for a better life.  This brings me back to our visit to Restaurant Sarajevo. IMG_6128 It was quite busy around dinner time, but we also just beat the rush by going around 6 pm.IMG_6108  We looked over the menu and decided to try the cold appetizer plate ($10.07) since it contained two of our favorite food groups:  meat and cheese.  While we were waiting, we got a free basket of some delicious, warm, crusty bread.  It came pre-sliced in giant pieces, and the butter that came with it had a thicker consistency that was almost like cream cheese. IMG_6117Turns out it was a Balkan and Central Asian treat known as kaymak.  The word “kaymak” means “melt” in Mongolian which was an apt description since the spread on the warm bread was melt-in-your-mouth delicious.  Our appetizer came out, and it was a gigantic plate filled with savory delights. IMG_6110 IMG_6109We could see smoked beef, two types of Bosnian sausage, peppers, and Bosnian Travnik feta cheese.  It was a who’s who of European food with the Mediterranean represented in the olives and peppers and feta while the Eastern and Central European elements were present in the sausages and smoked meats.  The smoked beef was not as super smoky as you would think it would be like American barbecue, but it still was very juicy. IMG_6111 While the two meats were very distinct in flavor.  The darker of the pair was more like a salami with a salty aftertasteIMG_6113 while the more reddish sausage I could liken to a spicier Spanish chorizo. IMG_6112 As for the feta cheese, it was a great piece of the crumbly stuff when combined with the olive oil coated peppers or the sausages. IMG_6116 For the main course, we were simply awash with great choices, so we shared two entrees.  First, there was the Bosnian chorba ($4.58).IMG_6114  It was a hearty beef based stew filled with large, succulent chunks of tender veal along with bobbing potato cubes and carrots.  Definitely a great choice for the winter months, and it was a lot of soup for a great price.  Then there was our Bosnian mix plate ($19.23).  It was a family dinner for less than twenty bucks, but you really must like meat if you get this entree.IMG_6119  On one plate we had grilled veal and chicken kebab, beef sausage, cevapcicipljeskavica, mixed vegetables, chicken schnitzel, and our choice of side.  Woof.  It was totally worth it since we brought our appetites to this meal and were ready to destroy what came our way.  First, I have to say that every slice of meat was all killer and no filler, i.e. high quality cuts of meat with little to no excess fat or additives.  We learned that they make their own sausages on-site which probably explained the freshness of the meal.  The grilled veal and chicken kabab were good but nothing beyond some competently made pieces of grilled meat.  As I mentioned before, the beef sausage was filling and super fresh and did have a bit of a snap to the casing that comes with using natural casings.  Then there were the super Bosnian entries to our meal in the form of the cevapcici and the pljeskavica.  The first one, the cevapcici, actual comes from the Persian word for “kebab” and is a type of casing-less sausage.  Although during the time of the Ottoman Empire, it became associated with hadjuks or outlaws as an easy food to make while wandering the countryside. IMG_6122 I had had this mini-sausage dish before at Chicago’s Andersonville fest even though it was at a Croatian food tent and served in a fancier fashion.  It was like a Balkan version of a cocktail weenie but with more delicious, seasoned lamb and char-grilled.  As for the pljeskavica, it’s basically a lamb and beef patty that is stuffed with mozzarella cheese.IMG_6121

Once again, meat and cheese reigned supreme in this Balkan favorite, and it was so bad for you yet surprisingly not super greazy.  It also had a helping of the kaymak cheese on top just for good measure.  The chicken schnitzel was a representative of the Central European element in Bosnian cooking, and I really liked the tangy tartar sauce that combined with the super thin but tasty, golden breaded chicken cutlet.  Surprise, surprise!  We still had more food in the form of the potatoes on the side that were simply sauteed with an olive oil and oregano coating. IMG_6123 Even after all of that we managed to find some room for some decadent dessert.  We got the Bosnian chilled apple rolls ($5.50) that apparently is another Bosnian specialty.  IMG_6124IMG_6126IMG_6127It consists of a mix of chopped walnuts and apple pieces with honey that is enclosed in flaky, buttery filo dough.  Surprisingly, it was served chilled like it said on the menu which is a bit different than similar desserts that are served room temperature or even warm like Greek baklava.

In the end, we were absolutely stuffed with a ton of delicious and hearty food.  If you want a taste of a land that isn’t very well represented in America, run down to Restaurant Sarajevo!
Restaurant Sarajevo on Urbanspoon

Laissez Les Bons Boefs Roulez!

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Beef.  The quintessential meat.  Hearty and filling, it can be found throughout many different cuisines served in very different forms.  If you visit Chicago, you can sample some of the best steaks in the country.  We used to be the butcher for the world with the Union Stockyards, but they have gone the way of smoking on airplanes and pay phones.

So.  much.  beef.

So. much. beef.

 

The Union stockyard gate then...

The Union stockyard gate then…

and now

and now

Still, that doesn’t mean that you can’t find a great porterhouse or t-bone.  If you’re not in the mood to drop some major paper on some of that red stuff, there are cheaper alternatives.  Enter another Chicago institution:  the Italian beef sandwich.  While other US cities have sandwiches that could be considered distant cousins to this hearty and humble meal like Philly’s cheesesteak or Pittsburgh’s Tommy DiNic’s Italian pork sandwich, the Chicago version is the best, I think.  In fact, it is so popular here that there are many restaurants that claim to have the best Italian beef sandwich in the city.  Today’s restaurant review revolves around one of the biggest names in the beef biz:  Mr. Beef.

Two of the biggest names in the city are Al’s Beef located in the Little Italy neighborhood and Mr. Beef on Orleans in the River North neighborhood.  Their rivalry is so notorious that it was featured on Travel Channel’s Food Wars.  I won’t spoil it for you, but I disagree who the real winner is.  Anyway, for those of you who haven’t been to Chicago, an Italian beef sandwich is one of those “must”s for Chicago tourists to try.  It’s in the holy trinity of a Chicago hot dog, deep dish pizza, and the holy beef sandwich.  It arose from the Italian immigrant community’s need to make the meat last longer, so they sliced it thin, stewed it with spices, and slapped the tender meat on a fresh roll.  Thus, the Italian beef sandwich was born.  While I was working at a Mexican university that was located right next to the restaurant, I knew I had to pop over to try it since I’ve walked past it a million times but never tried their sandwiches. IMG_4930IMG_4931 So, I finally fulfilled my vow, and walked in to see a shop that is similar to other Italian delis with lots of pictures on the wall and a deli counter at one end with no fancy decorations. IMG_4932 Scanning the menu, I saw the beef sandwich I wanted, but it was 7 bucks.  I couldn’t believe how expensive it was compared to their competitors, so I was expecting this sandwich to justify the price tag.  I got it spicy which means that I got giardiniera on top.  I think giardiniera is also a Chicago thing since it comes from the Italian community also and consists of a mix of pickled vegetables and chili peppers in olive oil.  However, you can get it mild with cooked bell peppers or with no peppers at all.  Then there’s the juice factor.  You can get it dry or juicy, i.e. dipped in the same herb tinged broth the beef soaks in.  I always get mine juicy since it adds more flavor to savor, but you can get it dry to enjoy the freshness of the bread and the delicious beef.  After the brusque cashier took down my order, they set to making my sandwich.  As I was looking at the menu I saw they had other typical fast food staples like burgers, hot dogs, and sides like fries and onion rings.  Eventually, I finally got my sandwich and was ready to see what all the hubbub was about.  I got a seat in the back room at one of the super long tables you share with your fellow diners.  Once I opened up my wrapped up treasure, it looked mouth-watering. IMG_4995 From the bright verdant giardiniera to the fresh bread, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into dat beef.  The first bite was quite satisfying with a good ratio of bread to meat, but it lacked that spicy flair that comes with other dipped Italian beef sammiches.  The beef was tender and flavorful, but the giardiniera left something to be desired.  While other Italian eateries have a generous blend of veggies, I wasn’t a fan of the mainly celery based mix atop my meal.  It wasn’t as fiery as other spicy sandwiches which made it lose points, but it was innovative in the sense that the giardiniera was extremely crunchy to provide a bit of different texture to the mainly chewy sandwich.

So in the end, would I say Mr. Beef is the be-all, end all of Italian beef in Chi-town?  I’d say no.  It lacks the ingredient complexity of their competitors, and the relatively expensive price tag took it down a couple notches in my book.  However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try this fixture on the Chicago food scene.  It’s just a different take on a hometown classic, so maybe it will be better for you than for me.  Happy hunting!
Mr. Beef on Urbanspoon

You’ll Love Olive This Food

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

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

Crab

Crab

and ze shrimp

and ze shrimp

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

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

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

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

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

Fig and Olive on Urbanspoon

Catching Some Delicious Zzzs

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Welcome one and all to another molto bene Mastication Monologues!  Today’s entry deals with a food that has recently been linked to the epidemic of childhood obesity:  pizza.  Sadly, kids may love this cheesy treat, but it doesn’t love them back.  Still, who can honestly admit that they don’t enjoy a fresh slice right out of the oven with your favorite toppings from your favorite spot without any of the fuss of shopping, cooking, and then cleaning dishes?  This wonderful feeling of culinary satisfaction can be found at a local pizza spot by me called Zazzo’s Pizza in Darien, IL.

While I have had my fair share of different types of pizza from different parts of the globe, Zazzo’s is one of the front runners for a great thin crust pie.  I had never really paid it much mind as I went about my business to the the various stores in the area, but one day my parents had a coupon for it.  Thus the legend was born in my knowledge of all things food.  So, I decided to bring my girlfriend to the local eatery for dinner.  I was surprised to find that this pizzeria bought out the empty storefront next to it to build a new bar and dining room which essentially gave them ten times the capacity for revenue.  They’ve come a long way from the three tables along the front windows.  The new digs had a basic sports bar vibe, so no need for any sort of fancy attire.  IMG_4888The menu had the same no-frills approach as they focused on bar food and Italian cuisine. IMG_4887 We started the meal by sharing an order of spinach artichoke dip ($9.95).  This was a great appetizer since it came with both hot, crust Italian bread along with warm pita bread triangles. IMG_4889 The dip was also warm with a nice sprinkling of fresh Parmesan cheese that gave the artichoke chunks a slightly salty and nutty aftertaste. IMG_4891 We then went for the 14″ Veggie Special thin crust pizza ($21.10).  Now, it serves three, but when I’m hungry, I can really throw down, especially when it comes to Zazzo’s.  When it came out, it was just as good as I remembered it.  IMG_4892It was large and in charge with an enticing smell that immediately tells you that you’re in for a treat.  The Veggie Special consisted of an adequate amount of mozzarella combined with mushroom, green pepper, onion, and fresh tomatoes. IMG_4896 Each ingredient was as plentiful and fresh as the next.  As for the sauce, it was just the right amount where the crust wasn’t dry, but it also wasn’t gushing out with each bite like you’re doing your best Jaws impression (the killer shark, not the killer giant from the James Bond series).  IMG_4895Then there was the crust.  I believe that this foundation of the pizza can either make or break the dish, and in Zazzo’s case I love their thin crust.  It’s not super NYC thin but not deep dish thick.  It has a light powdering of flour on the edges, and it has an almost airy like texture with a crunch that doesn’t hold back.  All of these elements make it one of the hidden gems of the pizza world in the Chicagoland area.

So if you are looking for a great pizza place in the western Chicago suburbs and don’t want to visit one of the big pizza chains like Giordanos or Uno’s, check out the pizzeria with a lot of pizzazz:  Zazzo’s Pizza!

Zazzo's Pizza on Urbanspoon

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

Everything’s Coming Up Roses

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Well, the weeks in October are just flying by.  I can’t believe that October is almost finished, and Halloween is a week away.  My Game of Thrones costume idea has hit a snag, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out in time.  If not, I’m really in for a scare.  However, one eatery that is anything but scary is Rose Angelis in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago.10542851_686606968094365_102258942_n

Chicago has a mountain of Italian eateries that run the gamut from bare bones like Bombacigno’s to high end dining like at RPM, so choosing one is an easy task.  However, finding one with high quality food at low low prices is often times a difficult task.  Enter the aforementioned Rose Angelis.  I had never heard of this place before I was being whisked away to it with my girlfriend for her bday din din with her girlfriends.  The outside was simple yet elegant, and the inside was just the same.  As we walked through the establishment, it was furnished with paintings of Italian landscapes and small white lights.  The Christmas light motif was continued outside on the patio which set the scene for the perfect date night if you’re looking to do one next year (let’s be real, there’s nothing romantic about eating outside in the middle of a Chicago winter).  They were strewn overhead from one end to the other as we took in the atmosphere and the menu.  After ordering a bottle of rose and chianti, we got an order of antipasti in the form of the melanzane miniature alla parmigiana ($7.95) and the caprese roll. IMG_4229 The former translated to inglese is just eggplant Parmigiana or bascially baked slices of eggplant topped with marinara sauce and fresh mozzarella cheese.  While there was plenty to go around, I personally wasn’t wowed by this dish.  It was mostly well done aside from the eggplant which I thought was kind of on the mushy side instead of being firm yet tender. IMG_4230 I was more of a fan of the caprese roll since it combined fresh and slightly chewy buffalo mozzarella that then contained molto thin pieces of salty prosciutto and topped with basil leaves and a tart vinaigrette.  Then for my entree I ordered the pollo Florentino (chicken Florentine) ($19.95).  This dish was the embodiment of the abbondanza Italian food culture, i.e. lots of food=lots of love. IMG_4231 The two hulking panko-coated chicken breasts were napping on a puffy bed of risotto surrounded by semi-spicy marinara sauce.  When I cut into these giant piece of poultry, the provolone and spinach flowed forth like a rich artery-clogging river of deliciousness.IMG_4232  It was quite decadent, and if you aren’t super hungry, don’t expect to finish this meal in one sitting.  You will need a doggie bag…or two.  However, even though it was a giant plate, that doesn’t mean that the quality suffered.  The chicken was high quality and the risotto was delectable when combined with the marinara that had more of a smoky flavor than spicy.  As if that wasn’t enough, since it was my girlfriend’s birthday, they brought out a slice of cheesecake to celebrate.IMG_4234  I had a tiny forkful, but it was molto bene, i.e. just the right amount of creamy and cool cheese with crumbly but firm cinnamon infused crust.

In closing, Rose Angelis is one of those small Italian restaurants you’ve never heard of but with plenty of larger than life flavors and portions for great prices.  I highly recommend Rose Anglelis to anyone who loves Italian food and/or is looking for a romantic dinner date place.
Rose Angelis on Urbanspoon

The Cellar: It’s Goin’ Down!

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Happy Fall to all with this newest edition of the funkiest and freshest food blog in Chicago, Mastication Monologues.  Today’s entry takes us north of the City to the university town of Evanston, home of the Northwestern Wildcats and the American fusion diner known as The Cellar.

IMG_4175It seems that it is located next to a wine and tapas bar that is called the Stained Glass, but we went to the restaurant for a dinner date earlier this summer.  IMG_4178Even though it wasn’t the actual tapas bar, I was informed that most of the dishes were designed like tapas, i.e. smaller portions that are meant to be shared (as oxymoronic as that sounds).  I started with a cold brew in the form of a Headless Man Amber Ale from Tyranena Brewing in Wisconsin. IMG_4164 It definitely was an aromatic choice that had a slightly hoppy aftertaste with hints of caramel throughout the beer.  It was light though to compliment the first dish of the night:  the butter and salt flight with a warm loaf of sliced French bread ($6.50). IMG_4167 If you blinked, you would have missed it being set on the table since we devoured every morsel.  This dairy-palooza sported three different types of butter:  Parmigiano Reggiano butter with fleur de sel, goat’s milk butter with pink Himalayan salt, and truffle butter with truffle sea salt.  The Parmigiano butter with the fancy French sea salt obviously tasted nice and cheesy but not obnoxiously so.  It was personally my favorite since the goat’s milk butter wasn’t as pungent and strong as I would expect from a butter that should have had the soul of a good Feta.  With the truffle butter, I was somewhat surprised that it didn’t possess the aromatic potency I’d expect from the world famous and ludicrously expensive fungi that I sampled firsthand at London’s Borough Market.   I still would recommend this appetizer though.  Our second round consisted of the elotes callejeros ($4.75) and the smoked salmon flatbread ($12.50).  The former was a nod to the Mexican street food scene (calle meaning “street” in Spanish), and it shown through with the fusion of smoked paprika and grilled corn. IMG_4166 The mayonnaise was a more savory choice over the typical butter one can find at any picnic in ‘Murika.  It was a more decadent partner to the more understated smoked salmon flatbread.  IMG_4168This bite of more Northern Europe cuisine with the cold salmon and greens reminded me of the Swedish flatbreads common to smorgasboards.  Instead of a white cream, they utilized a more Mediterranean flavor with the pesto sauce and goat cheese. IMG_4169 It all kind of overpowered the salmon itself, but I enjoyed the herbal pesto along the creamy, potent goat cheese.  It was delicious, but if you’re looking for a great salmon meal, look elsewhere.  Our main dishes finally came.  I got the shrimp tacos ($13), and Janice got the empanadas ($9.50).  The latter consisted of the ubiquitous, fried Latin turnovers filled with roasted poblano peppers, sweet corn, Oaxaca cheese, and avocado-tomatillo salsa on the side.IMG_4170  The flaky yet crunchy crust was bursting with the spicy peppers and were countered with the creamy cheese and sweet corn.  Plenty of textural and flavor contrasts that worked together in harmony. IMG_4174 As for my tacos, I felt that the tortillas were a bit too small for the fried pieces of seafood that were resting on a kale citrus slaw and topped with grilled sweet red onions. IMG_4172 IMG_4171Once I piled all of these ingredients into the flatbread with a dollop of the semi-spicy aioli for good measure on top, I got a mouthful of quality food from beginning to end.  IMG_4173The breading was buttery and golden brown, but the shrimp was just ok.  However, the citrus slaw and semi-sweet onions provided the zest to the seafood that gave the taco a punch of ceviche flavor.  Even though we were chowing down for a good while, we managed to find room for dessert which took the form of the creme brulee sampler ($7.75).  IMG_4176It was three small cups of high quality burnt sugar and egg custard with different kinds of flavor infusions.  The Mexican chocolate one had a bit of a spicy kick in the form of cinnamon and a little hint of chili pepper.  I’ll just say up front that this was my favorite, but the french vanilla was a close second.  The chai one was my least favorite since it was a bit too subtle for my liking, but maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did.  It was a sweet flourish to a light but filling dinner.

So if you are in the Evanston area and looking for a fusion restaurant that I could liken to a more affordable Girl and the Goat, check out The Cellar!
The Cellar Beer and Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

The Bomb Diggity Delight

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

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

Classic repartee

Classic repartee

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

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

Bombacigno's J & C Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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