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Category Archives: European Cuisine

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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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

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