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The Cellar: It’s Goin’ Down!

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

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

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

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Huge Flavors Under the Big Top

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Happy Sunday or Monday depending on where you are in the world!  Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues.  Today’s blog post is all about different Latin flavors coming together under one roof at Carnivale in Chicago.

While I had heard my parents raving about how wonderful the food was at this establishment, I had to try it for myself.  They told me that it was mostly Latin food which meant the name was more of a reference to the cultural practice of Carnival before Lent, not the one with clowns and little bears driving cars (or is that ballet?).  The origin of the word “Carnival” is disputed, but I will champion the Latin camp who states that it comes from “Carne vale” or “putting away meat”.  This reflects the following Lenten period where Catholics typically eliminate meat from their diet on Fridays along with other lustful and sinful pleasures.  However, Carnivals serve as the final hurrah before entering the solemn Lenten period, and boy, do people get crazy all over the world from Brazil to Germany to the USA.  So, I could only hope that Carnivale could synthesize the party atmosphere into an enjoyable dining experience.  While the outside of the restaurant looked quite average, upon walking in I could see that the interior decorator certainly had eclectic tastes.IMG_3130  From the zebra skin chairs to the many random pictures that covered the walls (the men’s bathroom walls look like a tasteful version of Playboy), it really captured the carnal and almost animalistic nature of the holiday.IMG_3131  However, it maintained its sense of class with the elegant, wrap-around bar and dark wood accents. IMG_3132

Main dining room

Main dining room

I was at the restaurant as part of a work party for a few of my mom’s coworkers, so I was privileged to sample a wider variety of food than I would have if I just went there by myself.  While it was a parade of different foods, the bill was astronomic since this is not a cheap restaurant.  The cheapest items, the sides, start at $7 and it goes up from there with the entrees averaging $30.  Thankfully, I was in the presence of doctors, so the only thing I really had to pay for was my drink.  Since we were in a Latin restaurant, I thought I should get a caipirinha ($10)to really celebrate. IMG_3138 While I have never really had good luck finding an adequate version of this Brazilian drink, Carnivale finally fulfilled that need.  A caipirinha (meaning “a person from the countryside” in Portuguese) consists of cachaca (distilled sugar cane liquor), sugar, and lime. IMG_3137 What you end up with is a sweet, strong drink that still has a potent kick but an ephemeral lime background that cuts through the alcohol. IMG_3153 It provided a perfect prologue to the culinary madness that quickly ensued.

Upon sitting down, our table was quickly covered with all sorts of appetizers.  First, there was the ceviche tasting platter ($24). IMG_3142 Ceviche is a cold seafood dish common to Ecuador, but Carnivale really took some creative liberties with the ingredients and presentation.  The Ecuadorian shrimp ($12 on its own) mini-plate was my favorite of the bunch.IMG_3147  Not only did I like it because I love my shrimp but also due to the semi-spicy pepper sauce and cool cucumber sorbet atop the crustaceans.  The salmon ($12 on its own) was ok with its coconut milk sauce and lemon grass garnishes, but it was a bit too bland for my liking.IMG_3160  As for the mixto ceviche, ($12 on its own) it caught my attention after the bland salmon due to its lemon zest and semi-chewy texture.IMG_3159  All of the ceviche was wrapped up with a tuna tiradito ($12) that reminded me of a sushi roll minus the rice.  It was probably my second favorite because of the julienned jicama that provided a crispy contrast to the tender slabs of tuna and the citrus zing compliments of the Japanese yuzu fruit.IMG_3158  After sampling these fruits de mer, I had to try the tortilla chips and guacamole ($8/$15 depending on size). IMG_3145 Both were wonderful.  The chips were light in composition and salt content, and the guacamole was chunky and slightly spicy.  Then there were the ropa vieja tacos ($12).  IMG_3140This Cuban/Mexican fusion was tan sabroso since the braised skirt steak had plantains gently integrated into the savory mixture.  The meaty mixture within the corn shell was topped off with some crumbly queso fresco and red onions to give a temperature contrast.IMG_3141 I’d highly recommend this appetizer.  Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, these ox tail empanadas ($13) scampered onto my plate. IMG_3144 I’ve been around the block when it comes to eating doughy pockets of meat from around the world, but these empanadas were something special.  While all the other empanadas or equivalents I’ve tried consisted of baked, chewy and/or flaky flour based dough, these empanadas had a crunchy, fried corn husk that reminded me of a little armadillo.IMG_3161  The interior wasn’t as innovative as the exterior, but the truffle chimichurri added a savory and aromatic element to a very unique dish.  After polishing off the little morsel, my attention turned to the combination platter of charcuterie and artisan cheeses ($25).IMG_3162  They spared no expense as this smorgasbord of salt and fat contained hard pecorino cheese slices, pungent blue cheese, gossamer-thin pieces of pata negra jamon, Catalan fuet sausage, a few garlic stuffed olives, grapes, and a horseradish-infused,brown mustard seed sauce on the side.  After establishing myself as chairman of the cutting board, there was a lighter appetizer placed in front of me in the form of the wild mushroom coca ($11). IMG_3163 The coca is a plate of Catalan origin but the word came from the Dutch word for “cake”.  Ergo, Carnivale’s version of a coca was pushing it in terms of being a “cake”, but it was a perfect follow-up from the heavier charcuterie.IMG_3164  I greatly enjoyed the goat cheese mixing with the fresh arugula while the mushrooms were pan-roasted that added a semi-beefy flavor.  All of which atop the sourdough flatbread made it seem more like a healthy flatbread pizza than a cake.  If you think that I’m going down the healthy route with this appetizer, think again.  The calamari ($12), albeit fried, was not as greasy as you’d find in your typical Italian restaurant.IMG_3166  Plus, each ringlet was coated in a super sweet and sour adobo sauce that harmonized with the more earthy elements like the smoked hazelnuts, carrots, and green papaya slivers.  Surprisingly, this was the end of the appetizers, and I still had room in my stomach to take on the big bad entrees.

The second act in this gastronomic epic opened with the churrasco from Argentina ($32). IMG_3172 It was a relatively simple plate consisting of succulent slices of prime sirloin sandwiched between a garlic green chimichurri sauce and a yuca puree below that tasted almost tasted like a liquefied mozzarella.  Each bit was like heaven, and the excellent asparagus spears were a mere afterthought to this symphony of masterful meat.  I followed the beef up with a little seafood in the form of paella ($32). IMG_3174 While this Spanish rice dish didn’t seem to contain saffron, the essential but extremely expensive spice in a traditional paella, it didn’t take away from the overall quality of the plate.  Each forkful contained pieces of shrimp, mussel, and squid along with a moist, tomato based rice that wasn’t exactly like what you would find in the homeland of paella: Valencia, Spain. It wasn’t a strong entry out of everything I tried.  Luckily, I ended the entree round on a high note with the arrachera ($26).IMG_3182  There was a lot happening on one plate.  While there were similar juicy skirt steak pieces topped with chimichurri sauce, the meat morsels were atop a mound of arroz moros.   While this Cuban side dish of rice and black beans cooked together is quite dry by itself, it was made more palatable when consumed with the steak.  I also enjoyed the bacon sofrito (sauce) on the sides which served a salty and savory springboard for all of the other flavors to really jump out at me.  Finally, there was the dessert.

While I was struggling with my food baby that was about 2 hours old and almost due, I managed to try one more item off of Carnivale’s menu:  carmelized sweet plantains ($7).IMG_3171  Lord, were these little nuggets the bomb diggity.  I have to make up words to describe what was going through my mind when I ate them.IMG_3168  I wasn’t sure if it was the meat sweats or the hormones from the food baby, but I was having a moment.  From the thin crust to the gooey sweet interiors, these Caribbean specialties were Jamaican me crazy.

In the end, I was lying back in the booth and enjoying the Latin beats bumping over the sound system while I digested my food.  If you’re looking for some of the best Latin fusion food around and are willing to drop some cash, then check out Carnivale!

Carnivale on Urbanspoon

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