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All Roads Lead to Good Food

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Have you ever heard of a little place called Kyrgyzstan?  While it is not as well known as its neighbor and home of Borat, Kazakhstan, or nuclear armed Pakistan, it a very interesting corner of the world with a lot of history.  The word “Kyrgyz” in Turkic languages means “We are forty” which is a reference to the forty clans the legendary Kyrgyz hero, Manas, united to fight against the Uighurs (A predominately Muslim group that resides in what is now western China).  The number forty also appears in their flag in the form of a sun with forty rays and a criss-crossed center to symbolize a yurt or traditional tent the Kyrgyz sleep in. kg It’s one of my favorite world flags, and recently I found that Kyrgyz food is right up my alley as well.  Janice and I had a double date with one of her best friends and her husband at a Kyrgyz restaurant in Chicago called Jibek Jolu.  Her friend and husband raved about it, so I was curious to see what exactly Kyrgyz food consisted of.

While I never had this particular type of cuisine, I had a faint idea of what to expect given the geographic location of the Central Asian nation and its history.  First, I expected there to be a lot of meat given that most nomadic peoples rely on high energy meals focusing primarily on protein and dairy.  Second, I found out that Jibek Jolu means “Silk Road” in Kyrgyz, so there were bound be plenty of dishes that combined the influences of Chinese, Indian, and Western cooking.  Finally, given that Kyrgyzstan was a former Soviet republic, there would be lots of Russian dishes, and Janice’s friend’s husband is Russian, so we had our cultural “in” if we needed anything.  When we walked up, it was funny to see all of the cabs parked out front due to the high number of Central Asian cabdrivers in Chicago. IMG_6056 We walked in, and the place was jammed for dinner.  IMG_6055We were quickly seated by the friendly staff, and I perused the menu options.  I wasn’t surprised with the amount of meat and root vegetables being offered, but all of that had the making for a great meal in my eyes.  The ingredients don’t have to be super fancy to make a superb meal; it’s all in the freshness of ingredients and execution.  The prices were also very reasonable compared to other Russian restaurants I have been to.  To start the meal, I wanted to try an appetizer, but a majority of them were Russian dishes.  So I went for the tandyr samsy ($4.00) which seemed more Kyrgyz since I had never seen it on a Russian menu.  Plus, it was cooked in an Indian tandoor oven which once again shows the multicultural nature of the cuisine. IMG_6045 When it came out, it reminded me of a ghost from Pac Man,

Four tandur samys

Four tandyr samys

and once I bit through the semi-crunchy crust, I was going “wakawakawakawaka” gobbling it up like the little yellow guy. IMG_6047 It was a great combination of freshly baked bread, plenty of ground beef, and some soft, stewed potatoes to give the dish a little more body.  Then there were the entrees, and each one was quite unique.  First, there was the lagman ($12) which after a bit of research turns out to be more familiar to me than I had previously thought.  Ramen noodles or just “ramen” are known the world over as a cheap snack for poor people and college students, but it turns out the word “lagman” is the Turkic word for “ramen”.  Once again, the interconnected nature of Kyrgyzstan was reflected in this lagman dish that utilized the same hand-pulled noodle techniques that originated in the 16th Century in China.  It was different than the Japanese ramen I tried in Tokyo, but it reflected the no-frills approach to cooking the Central Asian Republics take. IMG_6048 Of course, there was stewed pieces of tender beef, peppers, onions, green beans, and onions along with a beef based broth to bring the ramen bowl together.  I don’t normally say this, but I loved the noodles because they were super soft due to soaking in the aforementioned broth.  I enjoyed every slurping forkful.  We also got a small order of the meat oromo ($7.00), and they were still very substantial.  Looking at these traditional steamed pies, I could only think of the steamed dumplings in Chinese dim sum.  They had the same translucent skin as the little potstickers I’ve taken down many a time in Chinatown. IMG_6049 While the exteriors were Chinese inspired, the interiors were more Slavic in nature with beef, minced potatoes, onions, cabbage and carrots.  They were kind of hard to slice and share due to the fragile skin of the pies, but they were very hearty and all of the ingredients came together like a mini beef stew in a pie.  After we tried that, I got a taste of my girlfriend’s plov ($10.00).  This entree, more commonly known today as “pilaf” which originates from the Sankrit word “pulaka” meaning “a ball of rice”, has been around since the beginning of time.  Alexander the Great comments on being served the same meal while visiting Samarkand, one of the stops for future explorer Marco Polo on the Silk Road.  Alexander’s troops took the “pilav” recipe back to Macedonia, and it spread throughout Europe as “pilaf” from the Greek word “pilafi“.  IMG_6050I didn’t think this rice dish lived up to the other entrees we tried since it just consisted of a broth-infused rice sprinkled with beef, carrots, onions, and garlic.   While moderately flavorful, it seemed to be average in comparison to the other types of food we had tried.  Then there was my kuurdak ($12) which was as elemental as food can get just short of ripping a hunk off a cow.  Turns out this entree is one of the oldest and most traditional of Kyrgyz meals.  It literally was stewed beef, potatoes, and onions. IMG_6051 Simple as it sounds, the combination was amazing in my eyes and on my tastebuds.  I would take this Kyrgyz beef over an American steak and potato dinner any day.  I don’t know what they did to the beef, but it tasted like it was char-grilled and coated in a possible garlic/olive oil mixture.  Then, the potatoes were herbal tinged and extremely tender which combined perfectly with the beef.  The icing on the cake were the raw onions since I love onions in any way, shape, or form.  It was one of the ugliest dishes at the table, but it was a definite hit as the others were sneaking bites off my plate.  The final and most hardcore of the entrees was the beef shashlik ($11.50 for two).  Janice’s friend’s husband, Ivan, ordered it, and when it came out, I couldn’t believe the presentation.  There were two extremely long knives on the plate that had chunks of tandoor cooked beef on them along with a pile of rice and a salad just in case to protect you from a heart attack from ingesting that much red meat in one sitting.  This part of the meal was as delicious as it was fun and dangerous to eat.

In Russia, you cut knife!

In Russia, you cut knife!

The Indian tandoor oven really brought out the intense flavor of the beef, and surprisingly we didn’t cut off our tongues when ripping the beef off the blades as the girls stared on in disbelief.  IMG_6054Best double date ever.

So if you want to try a cuisine you’ve possibly never heard of for a great price with friendly service, make a pilgrimage to Jibek Jolu!
Jibek Jolu 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

Costa Rica (Day 2)- Cruisin’ For Brews, Beans, and Bites

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As this Chicago winter rolls on, I seriously think that Janice and I brought back some of the sunny warm weather with us from Costa Rica.  Seriously, there has been little to no snow in Chicago, and I´m loving it!  However, today’s post is day 2 in my Costa Rica travelogue.  By the way, If you haven’t read day one on my blog, I highly suggest it if you are a seafood lover.

Anyway, day two kicked off with a classic Costa Rican breakfast that is a little bit different than the ol’ eggs, bacon, and pancakes as big as your face back in ‘Murika.  Instead, we were greeted with the quintessential Costa Rican breakfast of gallo pinto, tortillas, and two different types of plantains.   IMG_5097First, there is gallo pinto (“spotted/painted rooster” in Spanish) whose name is derived from the ingredients bearing a resemblance to a type of cockerel.  As for its origins, some believe the dish came over with the African slaves that migrated into Latin America while others believe it came from Spain where its known as cristianos y moros (Christians and Moors).  Whatever you call it, it was delicious.  It wasn’t heavy but very filling and flavorful.  I could see that it came from humble but rich roots with the black beans mixed in with the seasoned and fried rice.  It made a great filler for the tortillas on the side to make small breakfast burritos which do not exist in traditional Costa Rican fare (not every Latin American country has tacos and burritos!).  I do have to say that the Costa Rican tortillas were better than any of their Mexican counterparts I’ve tried.  They are both corn based, but the Costa Rican ones were super resilient compared to their relatives up north.  That scored big points on my foodie scorecard.  As for the two different plantains, there were both baked and fried varieties.  While down in Costa Rica, I also learned the difference between plantains and bananas, and it isn’t the difference in size.  While bananas can be eaten raw, plantains must be cooked if they are to be consumed by humans.  If I had to pick one or the other, the fried ones were my jam like during day one, and they were the ideal sweet compliment to the savory rice and beans.  Once we finished our breakfast to the tunes of a marimba band, we were off on a catamaran to Isla Tortuga on the Pacific coast.IMG_5096  What better to go with the pristine view of the Gulf of Nicoya than a cold, Costa Rican beer?  So, I got an Imperial which is the official beer of Costa Rica.  IMG_5103Once again, this supposed king of beers was a mere pretender to the throne.  It was an average, light lager that was crisp and non-offensive for a beautiful day.  Once we landed on the postcard that was Isla Tortuga, we enjoyed snorkeling, swimming, and some breathtaking views.  IMG_4022When it came time for lunch, it was anything but normal.  First, we were summoned to the feast via a conch shell.  Then we got a full salad bar that was freshly made in the kitchen hut.  The mixed salad was verdant and coated in a semi-sweet vinaigrette, but I was more partial to the cucumber and onion mix.IMG_4005  It was smooth and filled with some funky dill that made a potentially bland salad really pop.  IMG_4007IMG_4006The real star of the show though was the local peccary that Janice quickly made friends with.  Apparently this wild pig has been coming by the cookouts for over 15 years, and the marimba music was almost like its intro song.IMG_4010  It was very friendly and fell over whenever someone would pet it.IMG_5112  I could see that it was smarter than it looked since it worked the room by getting free food from each table.  Lunch was much more elaborate in the form of a full meat and veg platter complete with a Hibiscus flower for a flourish.  This meal didn’t even need a flower to be fancy and eye catching.  IMG_4014The chicken breast was muy sabroso  (very tasty) with just the right amount of char-grilled flavor to compliment the sweeter, coconut based curry sauce that had specks of the white fruit sprinkled on top.  The bread was warm and soft, but the butter was oddly bland.  I especially enjoyed the vegetable hash on the side that consisted of pan-fried carrots and cassava strands.  As for dessert, it was a rich but understated tres leches cake whose vanilla laced crumbs were topped with a drunkenly placed strand of whipped cream.IMG_4018  It, like most other Costa Rican meals, was fresh, filling, but not heavy like most American meals.  It gave us the energy to take on a lame banana boat ride and to savor the final views of that enchanting island that immediately made us realize of the beauty Latin America had to offer.IMG_5120

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