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Jonesing for Some Great Eats (Big Jones)

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Welcome one and all to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  It has been too long since my last post where I celebrated this blog’s five year anniversary in the most food-filled way possible.  Unfortunately, the little issue of being in a very intense graduate program for speech pathology has kept me from being the best blogger I can be, but that doesn’t mean that it has prevented me from sampling great meals across the currently chilly and snow-covered Chicago.  Today’s entry comes from another Andersonville staple establishment in the form of Big Jones.

In regard to Andersonville, I am well versed in both their traditional Swedish fare as well as the more colorful installations that reflect the more modern side of the neighborhood.  Janice had always played up the delicious plates the Southern American cuisine eatery offered, but I was skeptical they could truly recreate the funky, soulful, and simple nature of some of the original comfort food from our nation’s early history.  Southern American cuisine has an extremely diverse history based on the various ethnicities that came for a better life  or perhaps had been forced into slavery, contrary to Dr. Carson’s interpretation of that chapter in American history.  African slaves brought their cooking styles from Africa and made the most they could with the ingredients we were given.  This gave rise to such staples of Southern cuisine like collard greens, fried chicken, and barbecue in conjunction with the Native American’s lending some of their smokehouse know-how.  It also helped that the English and Scotch-Irish colonists brought their deep frying skills literally to the fledgling American dinner table.  As time went on and Southern Americans made their way north during the first half of the 20th Century looking for jobs or freedom from segregation, these Southern staples made themselves at home in the culinary fabric of cities north of the Mason-Dixon line, including my town Chicago.  Coming back to our dining experience, Big Jones can be reached either by public transportation or parking on the street.  The restaurant overall had a warm interior with a certain flair that reminded us of our trip to Charleston.  Looking over the menu for a drink, I saw that they stayed true to their Southern roots by having a wide variety of cocktails in addition to the Big Jones Bourbon Society.  Given that I’m not one for drinking early in the morning, I found another southern beverage that caught my fancy:  sweet tea.  Tea has always been a part of America’s history.  Boston Tea Party, anyone?  However, I never knew the history behind this drink.  According to Wikipedia, it was originally an expensive drink due to the then costly ingredients of sugar, ice, and obviously, tea.  What’s even more interesting is that pre-WWII, it was actually made with green tea, but due to anti-Japanese sentiments, the government forbade green tea imports.  Thus, Americans came back to the motherland by drinking English black tea after the war.  Either way, I was loving this refreshing glass to start my brunch off right. It was especially satisfying after having sweet teas at other establishments (read:  McDonalds) that boast a sweet tea which is actually unsweetened iced tea.  Big Jones does it right with plenty of sugar that indulged my sweet tooth.   Drink in hand, we were ready to sample the best Big Jones had to offer us Yankees.  First, they brought out some complimentary boiled peanuts as well as beignets.  This was definitely a nod to Southern cooking as well as a New Orleans staple.  The beignets were just as fluffy and powdered-covered as the treasures my parents and I destroyed at Cafe du Monde in NOLA.  The word “beignet” literally means “bump” in French, and I’m sure if we had enough of these rich pastries, we’d have a few more bumps than when we walked in.  While we were savoring the fried bread, we decided to split the andouille platter ($6).  Then I ordered the corn griddle cakes ($12), and Janice ordered the caramel apple French toast.  The andouille (pronounced “an-doo-ee”) sausage is a carry over from French immigrants who decided to make it part of Cajun culture.  Big Jones’ sausage is all hand-made on site, and this particular type consisted of pecan-smoked pork in beef casings.  These cold cuts were accompanied by warm rye bread, garlic aioli, and another southern staple, chow-chow.  This amusingly named condiment/side has a mysterious origin ranging from Acadian immigrants in Louisiana to Chinese rail workers in the 19th Century to even Indian immigrants.  The name is just as obscure with some contesting it comes from the French word for cabbage “chou” while others advocate for the Indian origin story since one of the ingredients, chayote, is known as chow-chow in India.  Wherever it is from, it wasn’t the highlight of the plate since it seemed to just consist of pickled cabbage and peppers.  Other varieties are more diverse including onions, cabbage, red beans, carrots, asparagus, and cauliflower.  The bread, on the other hand, was hearty, flavorful, and the perfect foundation for an open-face andouille sandwich.  The aioli spread had a good amount but not overpowering level of garlic, and then there was the actual sausage.  It was ok but not great.  I think that if it was smoked over a sweeter wood, it would bring a different dimension to the sausage beyond just the spiced pork flavor.  Before we knew it, our plates were being placed before us.  Janice’s place looked picture perfect complete with golden brown bread slices, cinnamon whipped cream, almond slivers, and a heavenly caramel sauce.  The exquisitely carved apple was the jewel on this crown of a dish.  Unfortunately, it isn’t there all the time due to their rotating seasonal menu, but if it is available, definitely give it a chance.  As for my choice, the corn griddle cakes, it was everything Janice made it out to be.  Their origins reach back to the Algonquin tribes on the East Coast and Cherokee and Choctaw tribes in the Southern USA, and they taught European settlers how to prepare cornbread.  As compared to its more plain Civil War counterpart, the Big Jones version also added Spanish and Mexican flair to it with black beans, salsa, avocado, and sour cream.  These savory pancakes were filling but not too much.  It was the best of both worlds since I love pancakes more than omelets, but the two individual elements combined to make one mouth-watering and appetite-pleasing plate.  I highly recommend them if you’re looking for something beyond shrimp and grits.

Overall, I would highly recommend Big Jones’ for great Cajun food.  It might not be as well known as Heaven on Seven or Pappadeaux, but the line out the door every Sunday would tell you otherwise.  This hidden gem provides generous portions of delectable Cajun fare for reasonable prices, especially if you’re Jonesin’ for just a great glass of sweet tea.  See you next time, y’all!

Big Jones Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Living High on the Hog (Peckish Pig)

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Wow, where has all the time gone?  My first quarter in grad school has come and gone.  I came out on the other side of stats class a little older due to stress, but overall I’m ready to go into quarter numero dos starting January 3rd.  The holidays are currently upon us in Chicagoland, and the weather is definitely playing its part.  We have it all:  -30 F temperatures, icy streets, and snow covered sidewalks.  Luckily, these bleak conditions are ideal for writing some wonderful Mastication Monologues posts that I’m sure you have all been clamoring for due to my prolonged hiatus.  Today’s post involves the Peckish Pig, Evanston’s first brewpub.img_9872

Chicago has always been a city that has enjoyed its adult beverages.  My parents have always told me about how many bars there were in the old neighborhoods they would frequent, and how now most have them have gone away due to changing regulations and consumer tastes, among other influences.  However, the rise of craft beers has been seized upon by many purveyors of food, and they have been reaping the benefits ever since.  Case in point, the Peckish Pig which is always overflowing with patrons come rain or shine, so I would recommend making a reservation ahead of time if you’re not willing to wait.  Janice and I tried this eatery when it was a bit warmer this year, but the laid-back, gastropub ambiance is a warm welcome for most diners even in the dead of a Chicago winter. img_9870

There's always one person creeping on me when I take pictures.

There’s always one person creeping on me when I take pictures.

We started our meal with some libations to cool ourselves off.  The Peckish Pig had an extensive drink list, both alcoholic and non alcoholic.  I was interested in their beers given we were in a brewery while Janice was naturally drawn to the mixed drinks.  She went with the shoemaker ($11), and I got a cherry beer.  The shoemaker was toe-tappingly good with a mix of Belle Meade bourbon, amaretto, amaro, and walnut bitters to cut through the sweetness with an ever-so-slight earthiness. img_9849 My cherry beer was not as elating since it seemed to only be “cherry” in terms of hue.  img_9850They could take some notes from the Belgian Kriek makers if they are looking for a refreshing beer that is both colored and flavored nearly exactly like the sundae toppers.  I would not recommend this beer if you are a fan of fruit beers that are bursting with flavor.  At least it looked pretty if that was any consolation.  Moving on to the appetizer round, we let our grumbling stomachs lead the way.  After looking over their options (there are vegetarian options, by the way!), we decided to try their selection of European meats and cheeses ($15 for a medium and $20 for a large plank) as well as their Brussels sprouts ($7).  When both arrived at our table, we could see why the name of the establishment was the Peckish Pig.  The portions for the price were gigantic, so we were quite excited to tuck into the wonderful repast in front of us.  First, there were the Brussels sprouts.  img_9852The typical scourge of kids’ palates at dinnertime is actually one of Janice and my favorite foods.  Therefore, we expected this version with bacon and brown butter to be a highlight of the meal, but similar to my cherry beer, it did not live up to the hype.  Yes, it contained all of the aforementioned ingredients on the same plate; however, together they did not taste like anything.  It only tasted like some more well done pieces of bacon along with the bitter, almost burnt flavor of the roasted Brussels sprouts.  We were not impressed.  Thank the culinary gods the charcuterie version of Noah’s Ark came ashore on our table.  Where to begin?img_9851  At the top left, there was the Manchego cheese that was a bit better than your typical Manchego which is known for being crumbly and moderately grainy.  It was a bit part player to the other elements on the chopping block.  Next, there was the Gloucester cheddar with chives; the very same of the famous Cotswold Games where they roll a wheel of the delicious dairy down a hill while people give chase and try to catch it.  Don’t believe me?  Check it out here (Fast forward to 2:09 for the rolling).  This was the double variety of the cheddar which meant that it had a very sharp cheddar tang to it which was enhanced by the chives.  Definitely one of my favorites.  To the right of the cheddar was the Stilton blue cheese that was the standout favorite of mine.  It paired particularly well with the apricot jam because the potent funk of the cheese was soothed by the dulcet tones of the fruit spread.  Finally, there was the ash-cured goat cheese that had a hint of smoke to its flavor profile but was not much different from the run-of-the-mill spreadable cheese.  Following the cheese top half, there were the meats.  The salami on the left was slightly spicy which I enjoyed as I moved on to the Spanish chorizo.  I personally prefer the peninsular sausage over its Mexican equivalent due to its low greasiness and high piquancy.  Next to the red disks of chorizo was a fellow Spanish product: Serrano ham.  It is Spain’s take on Italian prosciutto, and I highly recommend trying some in this lifetime.  It is both delicate yet filling with a bold, peppery flavor.  Finally, the Peckish Pig plank treated us to some duck meat which was rich but nothing of note.

We definitely overestimated how hungry we were and the portion sizes at the Peckish Pig when we ordered our food because we also got an order of the hog wings ($13). img_9859 You’ll never see wings this big at another restaurant unless pigs fly.

Slightly intimidating

Slightly intimidating

img_9862 These pork shanks were marinated in a hoisin sauce that was sweet and tangy with a soy base to represent its Far East roots.  If you’re looking for an app that is gargantuan in size and flavor, I highly recommend this tribute to marinated meat.

Good all the way to the bone

Good all the way to the bone

For the entree, I got a duck sandwich ($14).  Mind you, you might be wondering how I survived this marathon of delicious food, but I only ate half of the sandwich.  img_9853img_9854Nevertheless, I greatly savored the meal that on paper should not have left the runway but in practice soared like a Concorde.   The panini-style foccacia was fresh and crunchy and contained a true yin and yang of flavor profiles.img_9858  First, the smoky duck was enhanced by the coffee bacon.  You read that right.  Coffee bacon.

Grounds for imprisonment...in my stomach

Grounds for imprisonment…in my stomach

Once more the Peckish Pig kitchen managed to finagle some coffee-cured piggy into a dish we tried, and it was executed to perfection.  With all of these smoky and savory flavors swirling around my tongue, I appreciated the neutral brie that brought them under control and allowed for the sweet and spicy apricot spread to compliment the rest of the sandwich.  It was a very unique sandwich that expertly balanced sweet, spicy, salty, bitter, and umami between two pieces of foccacia.  Talk about a mouthful!  At this point, we thought it wasn’t possible to finish another bite, dessert was calling our name.  We found room for the English sticky toffee pudding ($7).  It was a sumptuous feast for both our eyes and taste buds.img_9868  The moist cake was studded with small chunks of delicious toffee and swimming in a thin pool of custard cream and caramel sauce.  If anything, skip the meal and just have dessert.  It is definitely worth it.

Overall, the Peckish Pig is a casual restaurant that would be ideal for catching up with old friends and family or perhaps you would like to try one of Chicagoland’s many brewpubs.  I would also recommend it for its attention to both meat-lovers and vegetable fans as well as its extensive drink menu.
Peckish Pig Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

South Carolina (Day 3): Going With the Grain (Granary, Vendue House, Griffin)

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As if this South Carolina series couldn’t get any better, here’s part three of our Charleston chronicles!  (Part 1 and Part 2 here).  We woke up on our first day as fiance and fiancee, and we were on cloud nine.  What better way to celebrate than a brunch fit for a king and queen?  So, after doing some online sleuthing, we found that there were many rave reviews about the Granary.

It was Saturday late morning, and we were blessed with another lovely sunny day.  However, we noticed that the roads were conspicuously empty for such a splendid morning.  All was made clear when we entered the Granary.  It was located in a moderately sized strip mall, and the interior was tastefully decorated in a modern rustic style. IMG_8356 IMG_8350 It also continued in a trend I noticed of the restaurant drawing upon the Carolinian bounty of locally sourced and produced products on their menu such as the plethora of cured meats hanging in freezers right at the entrance of the establishment. IMG_8354 We also quickly realized the lack of cars and giant trucks on the streets that were typical for the previous days of our visit.  Like many parts of the South, football (not futbol or footy as it’s called across the pond or south of the border) is king, and it was no different in the Granary as all of their slick flatscreens had on various college games.  Contrary to the majority of diners, we were instead there to experience the show this Southern charcuterie powerhouse could put on.  Once we were seated in this charming setting, we got down to business.  We started our meal with the butcher plate ($16) which consisted of all house made cured meats, pickled vegetables, and salubrious spreads.IMG_8351  The bounty was spread before us, and I didn’t know where to start.  I immediately tried some of the pickles and mustard on the side since they are two elements of any savory meal I couldn’t pass up.  Unfortunately, they were of the sweeter variety, but the whole grain mustard would prove to pair ideally with most of the meats on the board.  The pickled cauliflower was also sour and crunchy which satisfied my palate much more than the pickles surprisingly.  I’ll start with my least favorite item, and that was the goose pate.  It was like a warm scoop of chocolate ice cream that was both rich and devoid of any sweetness compared to its dessert doppelganger.  However, I’m not a huge proponent of spreadable meats, so it started off with a disadvantage.  Not for me, but perhaps you might enjoy it more than I did.  Then there was the slices of pork rillette which reminded me of bologna with each bite on the accompanying pieces of olive oil kissed bread.  The two other items, the bresaola and soppressata, were the true stars in my eyes and taste buds.  The small disks of soppressata, a specialty sausage of southern Italy, consisted of spicy pork and reminded me of its mouth watering Catalan equivalent, fuet, that I gnawed on during my siesta period during the day.  If you like your fatty meats, this is the one for you.  The bresaola, on the other hand, was thinly sliced but had tons of flavor packed into every fiber.  Bresaola comes from Lombardy in northern Italy and is typically made of aged beef rubbed with salt and spices.  It is then sliced thinly as we had it that day in Charlotte, and it made a great topping for the aforementioned pieces of crusty pane italiano.  This multi-ringed circus was a prelude to the greatness that was to follow.  For our main brunch plates, we were taken aback by how well made and reasonably priced our meals were.  First, there was Janice’s Benedict Hash ($15).IMG_9105  Before I begin describing these delectable creations, I have to add if you’re eating at the Granary, come hungry because the portions are not for the faint of stomach.IMG_9103  In her plate, one could find crunchy yet tender duck confit pieces, sweet pickled peppers, roasted mushrooms, English muffin croutons, poached eggs, and hollandaise in addition to the traditional roasted potatoes.  It was everything Janice could have asked in a meal.  From the fluffy, delicately poached eggs to the plentiful duck confit scattered amongst the semi-crunchy potatoes and croutons, it was like a breakfast trail mix we would have brought along with us on all of the walking we would do for the rest of the day and night.  It was jazzed up with a dash of local Floking red jalapeno hot sauce that was like a sweeter Tabasco type of hot sauce.IMG_8353 However, my sweet tooth conquers all which segues to my French toast.  I’m going to make a bold claim, but this was the best French toast I’ve ever had. IMG_9104 It started with fried pieces of cinnamon-orange brioche that were then covered with candied pecans, bananas, and lying on a criss-cross of fresh blackberry preserves.  IMG_8352As if that wasn’t enough, there was a moderate layer of blueberry cream cheese stuffed throughout the middle of each slice.  This astounding version of a breakfast classic was topped with a generous soupcon of bourbon maple syrup which went well with the fresh banana slices.  It was a true form of Southern comfort in the morning.  Once we were finished, we made our way to the Charleston Aquarium.  As mentioned in a previous post, we had bought tickets to the main aquarium as well as the sea turtle hospital.  It is very worth it as you are able to get up close and personal with these mighty beasts of the deep who were cut down due to disease or human interference, unfortunately. IMG_9199 IMG_9198 Moving around the rest of the main facility, it wasn’t as great as Shedd in Chicago, but there were plenty of interactive exhibits for the kids that we also enjoyed.  Definitely a fun diversion in Charleston if you have young children or are looking for something to do with inclement weather.IMG_9203 IMG_9200 IMG_9207  After hanging out with Dory, Nemo, and the totally righteous sea turtles, we had to go and see the Charles Town Landing.  Many people don’t seem to know about it, but it is actually the actual site English explorers landed in 1670. IMG_8395 It is also where the current name of the city comes from:  Charles Town -> Charleston.  If you love history like me, you’d be in heaven because it looks similar to how they recreated the settlement feel to the embankments, forts, and even cannon.  However, if you’re like my fiancee, Janice, and aren’t the most interested in history, they have animals on the northern side of the nature preserve.  So we got there close to closing time, so we had roughly an hour to see both sections that were on opposite sides of the Landing.  We rushed by the animals to not see any of the animals aside from the trusty bison who were just busy being majestic.  IMG_8399I then proceeded to powerwalk/jog my way to the English galleon on the Ashley River.  On the way, I found out that I accidentally jogged across a piece of a Native American burial ground, so that could have been slightly better labelled.IMG_8400  Eventually, I made it with time to spare, and it was a lot smaller than I thought.  IMG_8407I don’t know how the original sailors survived in such cramped quarters, but I can see why they went crazy colonizing America after getting off the boat.IMG_8412 IMG_9209  Thankfully when Janice eventually met up with me, we were able to walk back and enjoy the sights of the park minus the need to sprint my heart out.IMG_8417 IMG_8404IMG_8402  By the time we got to our car, we were ready to fill our rumbling stomachs with some sustenance.  So, what better time to check out the Vendue Hotel rooftop?  This hotel is in the heart of downtown Charleston, and we had to find the elevator to get to the bar at the top of the building.  Once there, we were greeted with a tastefully decorated bar that also has one of the best views of the city. IMG_9108 IMG_9107 It was a bit too chilly to sit outside and take in the sunset over the Holy City, named for its numerous church steeples and other houses of worship, unfortunately.  Once we were done admiring this breathtaking city,  we got down to business at the bar.  Ordered some cava or Spanish champagne with a side of their pulled pork nachos.  IMG_9112IMG_9111We were celebrating our engagement like a pair of classy tourists. IMG_9110 The nachos were unique and satisfying because it combines a Southern cuisine staple with a tex-mex mainstay.  Plus, instead of having typical neon-yellow nacho cheese, they had an almost cheese gravy spread over all of the tortilla chips.  I’d highly recommend this bar food mainstay with a distinct Charlestonian character.  During our meal, we managed to crush the cava bottle, but I did manage to get an East Coast favorite:  Yuengling beer. IMG_8427 It is from the oldest operating brewery in America established in 1829, and the unique name comes from the German founders last name “Jungling” or “Young man” in German which was Anglicized to “Yuengling” (youngling in English).   As for the taste, I wasn’t a big fan of the thin and kind of hoppy red ale.  Janice got the Temple of the Dog ($11) which was a very strongly made mix of rye, chinato, bitters, and a brandied cherry for garnish.  It was like a lighter Manhattan that was potent yet refreshing.

Very refreshed right now

Very refreshed right now

By the time we finished that shared drink, we made our way down the street to the Griffon, a famous dive bar that has dollar bills coating the walls like wallpaper.IMG_8432  It has reached new popularity after appearing on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown.  It wasn’t too happening when we went in and got a nightcap, but I’d imagine it would be better later at night on the weekend.  Still we had a lot of fun!

Or at least Janice did

Or at least Janice did

We left the dark pub to walk the streets and take in the coastal charm of Charleston walking along a dock under the light of the moon. IMG_8436 An almost perfect penultimate day with plenty of excitement to come during our last day in the Dirty South.

 

The Granary Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
Roof Top Bar & Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
Griffon Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

Once You Go Black, You Don’t Go Back

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December in Chicago.  Perfect time for some ice cream, right? Absolutely!  Especially when the creamery in question is as creative as Black Dog Gelato.  A few months ago I went to this establishment with my lovely girlfriend after a long day of listening and sampling some delicious treats as a lucky participant in the Taste Talks Convention in Chicago.  It was the perfect compliment to the savory tour de force that is Green Street Smoked Meats.

As I previously mentioned, we managed to score tickets to Taste Talks, and one of the meetings we went to was all about the future of ice cream.  Who was there?  Jenny Oloroso, the owner and founder of Black Dog Gelato.  We learned so much from her like how much care, creativity, and gastronomic chemistry goes into creating quality gelato from scratch.  What this means for the consumer is they get to enjoy a light but ultra-rich product that is churned out in limited size batches each day which is how Black Dog Gelato is operated.  Once they run out of a flavor, tough luck!  However, with flavors such as white chocolate banana curry, cucumber rosewater sorbet, and sesame fig chocolate chip, get in quick to get the pick of the litter. IMG_4433 When we arrived, it wasn’t too hopping in the middle of the cold and rainy afternoon. IMG_4431 The warm interior beckoned us to peruse the selection in front of us in the glass case and pick some winners.  IMG_4430Janice got a cup of goat cheese cashew caramel and butterscotch bourbon pecan while I got a cup of Mexican hot chocolate and maple cayenne bacon ($4.50 approximately each).

Left:  goat cheese caramel cashew and butterscotch bourbon pecan Right:  Mexican hot chocolate and cayenne maple bacon

Left: goat cheese caramel cashew and butterscotch bourbon pecan
Right: Mexican hot chocolate and cayenne maple bacon

All of it tasted like a million bucks though.  The goat cheese cashew caramel was an interesting blend that was quite enjoyable even though one would think that the strong flavor profile of the goat cheese would overwhelm the other elements.  On the contrary, it was tempered by the sweet caramel and salty cashews to form the perfect blend of savory and sweet.  As for the butterscotch bourbon pecan, it was a lot less crazy than the first entry since it tasted like a more decadent butter pecan with a slightly boozy kick with each spoonful.  Janice loves her bourbon, so she was in heaven.  I was satisfied with it as well.  Then there were my crazy gelati.  The Mexican hot chocolate was your typical chocolate ice cream; a chocolate ice cream that also happened to be full of chili pepper.  It was exactly what I wanted.  This homage to its Aztec forefathers was both sweet with a slightly spicy kick that slowly but surely engulfed my tongue with a smoldering, but not overwhelming, kiss.  As for the maple cayenne bacon gelato, it wasn’t as good as the ones Janice picked or the Mexican hot chocolate.  True, I could taste each individual ingredient like the sweet maple syrup or the fiery cayenne, whose sibling I had already visited in the hot chocolate, but the bacon proved to be this selection’s undoing.  I’ve always loved bacon (tooting my meat product hipster horn) before the entire bacon craze hit the nation, but this gelato was an example of the fine line between madness and genius leaning towards the former.  The bacon was hogging the spotlight and left a greasy residue in my mouth.  Not a good look.  This didn’t sour my experience overall though.

Overall, I’d recommend Black Dog Gelato due to its high quality gelato and creative cornucopia of flavors for a reasonable price.

Black Dog Gelato on Urbanspoon

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