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You Can Bring a Horse to Water, But He’d Prefer a Burger (Au Cheval)

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I never thought that I would be back this soon, this deep into the jungle that is graduate school at Northwestern University, but here I am!  Back for a limited time on Mastication Monologues, but hopefully I will be able to write more once this mad quarter is finished.  This year has been flying by, and I have visited and eaten at tons of great locations across Chicagoland.  However, today’s review involves a restaurant/diner known best for its hotly-touted cheeseburger.  In a foodie city like Chicago where we love our meat based dishes, especially hamburgers, the previous sentence will elicit a different response almost every time you ask someone from Chicago depending on where they are living in the city.  We even have the Billy Goat Diner made famous by Saturday Night Live and a curse featuring a certain Northside team that is currently trying to break the same curse and win the World Series.  Go Cubbies!  Yet, Au Cheval is one of the most highly regarded establishments across the city when it comes to the signature American dish of cheeseburger and fries. (Quick note:  Two other great restaurants, Cochon Volant and Small Cheval, have similar burgers minus the typical long lines)

Located on Randolph Street in the West Loop/Fulton Meat Packing District a.k.a. Google Headquarters new backyard, it is the flagship on a block of heavy culinary hitters including Stephanie Izzard’s so-famous-you-need-reservations-six-months-ahead-of-time Girl and the Goat  (highly recommend this restaurant too).  Au Cheval is relatively new in a city of numerous old establishments that have withstood the test of time, and based on our experience, there exists the distinct possibility that this burger joint might become part of the city’s fabric if it hasn’t already.  Janice and I met up with our friends Katelin and Dan for lunch.  They have metered street parking that we took advantage of, or you can reach it by taking the L (subway for you non-Chicagoans).  It is a very popular eatery if you couldn’t tell based on my description before, and they do not take reservations.  Because of this fact, it is often subject to mob scenes of people lining up outside during peak lunch and dinner hours to sample their offerings.  Luckily, we managed to beat the lunch rush and were immediately seated in their slightly dim, modern diner. img_9045 As I surveyed the tiny interior, I wasn’t blow away by my surroundings, but I’m a gourmand, not an interior designer.  img_9024Dan and I started the meal off with their Mad Town Nut Brown that was dark, had 7 different malts, and had nice hazelnut notes. img_9026 Au Cheval also offers a wide variety of mixed drinks, shots, and non-alcoholic beverages.  Food-wise, I could describe them as a very upscale diner that managed to find a twist on simple creations like bologna sandwiches or scrambled eggs served with fois gras. img_9025 Breakfast offerings aside, Janice and I were there for the burger that has been proclaimed by the Food Network, Forbes, etc. as “The Best Burger in America” for multiple years. They had a single ($10.95) or double patty ($12.95) option for an upcharge as well as the egg and bacon.  We followed Dan’s advice for choosing the double patty with egg and bacon.  He followed suit, and Katelin ordered the raw vegetable salad with apple and blue cheese ($10.95).  Surprisingly, before you could say “Da’ Bears”, our burgers were in front of us in their full glistening glory as well as a side of fries. img_9036

Our taste buds are ready

Our taste buds are ready

First, let’s discuss the much talked about burger.img_9032  Now, I am not typically a fan of the egg-on-burger trend that has been sweeping America, but visually this fried egg seemed like a work of pure art with its off-center sun in the sumptuous solar system of flavors in front of me.  Plus, if an egg is on top of a burger, it is described as being “on horseback” hence the name of the restaurant being “Au Cheval”.  Then there was the slabs of pure pork that were stacked like massive redwood planks over two serious beef patties donning flowing robes of American cheese.  The Eastern European side of me also appreciated the dill pickle spear on the side to cut through the grease.  Once I stacked it all together, it was a soaked monument to gastronomic greatness.  img_9040I hefted this sandwich to my maw and was immediately drawn into the aromas of beef and sweet pork belly like bees to honey.  I was smitten at first chomp.  The beef was grilled to medium rare perfection while the cheese was omnipresent yet not overwhelming.  I was partial to the pork belly that shone through and enhanced the flavor profile with a maple syrupy sweetness that your run-of-the-mill, crispy, thin bacon could not accomplish in a million dinner parties.  The only downsides to this burger were the aforementioned egg which kind of made the brioche bun hard but not impossible to grip, and the bottom part of the bun which left my burger hanging by my fingertips  at the end of this white-knuckle ride of a meal.  The fries on the side were just as great as the burger with a palatable amount of salt and just the right amount of fry to their golden hued exteriors.img_9027  Katelin said her salad was delectable too even though it wasn’t served between two pieces of bread or hiding beneath a sea of gooey cheese.img_9029  A good option if you want to balance your cholesterol out after downing one of Au Cheval’s incredibly rich burgers.

We left the restaurant to a sunny afternoon with bellies full and greatly satisfied.  I could now see what the hubbub was all about when we would go by the establishment and see people jostling for position in line.  Great restaurant owners know great ingredients which in turn lead to great burgers.  This chain of events was displayed during our visit to Au Cheval, and I would highly recommend it for anyone looking to try a burger worthy of having the word “greatest” in its title.  You might disagree with me about it being the be-all, end-all of burgerdom, but it is a high quality burger for a very reasonable price even with a bit of a wait.  So, if you don’t know where to go for lunch or have time to wait during dinner, gallop over to Au Cheval!
Au Cheval Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

South Carolina (Day 4)- Gettin’ Our Kicks with Nana (Nana’s Seafood, Kickin’ Chicken)

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Finally, I have arrived at the terminus of our South Carolina adventure and not a moment too soon (six months later).  Welcome back to Mastication Monologues where I spread the word of both good food and great times!  This post is the final installment in one of my travel series, and this one was not lacking in terms of major events.  From eating at one of the finest restaurants in the Southern United States to finally asking the love of my life to be with me forever and ever, it was an exhilarating journey from beginning to end.

So, we began our final day in the Holy City with a walking tour around Charleston’s downtown area.  We bided our time looking around the gift shop which boasted plenty of Charleston’s signature golden rice and colonial porcelain, but eventually we found our tour guide, Michael Trouche.  He was in charge of Charleston Footprints Touring Company, and we would highly recommend them if you’re looking for a very informative and affordable tour of the town from a Charlestonian whose family has been there since its founding.  We learned many interesting tidbits about the houses we otherwise would have walked past none the wiser.

Oldest house in Charleston

Oldest house in Charleston from the 1600s

He took us from the waterfront, IMG_8446to the intimate streets where scenes from Porgy and Bess took their inspirations, IMG_8447IMG_8442IMG_8448to even his family’s home that was huge yet still had that antiquated Southern charm.IMG_8445  He even showed us the house where Francis Marion, the real life planter and politician who Mel Gibson portrayed in the movie the Patriot, jumped from a third story balcony to the street below because he was embarrassed that he couldn’t toast to beginning a rebellion against their British overlords.  Why?  Because Marion was a teetotaler.  Even though he didn’t drink, he still managed to have fun by some how escaping the party with a broken leg on a horse and then waging a successful guerrilla war against the Crown’s troops during the war.  The most eye catching of the waterfront properties was Rainbow Row (not Road, Mario Kart fans).  IMG_8450These Georgian style buildings were originally bustling warehouses and storefronts, but they fell into disrepute once the Charleston economy was devastated by the Civil War.  However, in the 1920s they were redone with Caribbean flair in the form of their present day colorful facades.  Not only do they look pretty, but they keep the buildings cool in the sweltering summers thanks to their chromatic appearances.  We also got a taste of local business as we stopped into a local antique store that had everything from paintings to moonshine and of course Janice made friends with the resident poochy!

Just a little excited

Just a little excited

As our tour came to an end, we had worked up a mighty hunger, and I insisted that we should try Nana’s Seafood and Soul Takeout.  I read that it had some of the best and most affordable seafood in the Lowcountry, and it lived up to the hype and then some.  It’s actually such a small place we drove past it at first and had to back it up to make sure it was the right storefront.  IMG_8459When we walked in, it was a much different crowd than we encountered in most of the other restaurants in Charleston. IMG_8462 IMG_8461First, it was simply decorated, and it could only seat maybe 10-12 people, 20 if you really wanted to sit cheek to jowl with your fellow diners.  Second, it was exclusively African American in terms of patrons and staff aside from us, but us integrating the place didn’t stop us from having a wonderful time there.  They have mainly seafood options along with some classic chicken wings and sides for rock bottom prices and generous portions.  IMG_8460Need I say more?  Janice also asked if they had their famous garlic blue crabs ($18)  that they only serve when they receive them which isn’t very frequently.  As for me, I purchased their shrimp and oysters ($12).  We also talked with the owner who took our order which was a nice touch not found in many other restaurants in the US. Once we put in our orders, we took a seat at one of the small formica topped tables right next to a group of alumni from historically black fraternities and sororities and soaked in the atmosphere.  Our meals came out in carry out styrofoam containers even though we were dining in which already was a signal to me that we were in for a treat.  Janice opened hers first, and was greeted with a mountain of blue crabs which would be at least double in any other more touristy restaurant in downtown Charleston.IMG_9118  My shrimp and oyster lunch had a bit more variety with my crustaceans and bivalves being of the fried variety.  All of which didn’t surprise me since we were in the Dirty South, but the real rarity that came with this kind of food was the surprisingly green and fresh salad that accompanied my seafood. IMG_9119 Plus, I would have expected maybe some dirty rice or a helping of collard greens, but that Nana always keeps you guessing!  While we got down to business with our food, it was only the beginning of the Trump train where he was quoting the Bible and acting like a Christian who loves all people.  Funny enough, it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day when we visited, and it was funny to see that everyone in that establishment, regardless of color, knew that Trump was talking nonsense.  Hopefully that spirit carries into November this year.  Politics aside, the food was mouthwateringly good and aesthetically pleasing.  The breading on my shrimp was very light and not greasy at all, but I don’t think the oysters went too well with the fried batter since they were runnier and didn’t lend themself to being fried to perfection.  I think crab or maybe the scallops would have been a better choice.  The fries I forgot to mention kept the “heart healthy” meal keep on going, and I tried to insert some green salad between each fried mouthful.  I think my heart was still beating by the end compliments of the lettuce and cucumbers.  Let me say that don’t think I was going to get too healthy on this trip because we shared a cup of potato salad ($2).IMG_9120  It was perfectly made with diced potatoes, plenty of mayo, and just a right amount of paprika on top. Then there was Janice’s meal.  Talk about having to work for your supper.  I never had fresh crab out of the shell before this visit, so Janice was the Master Yoda to my Luke.

Skilled she is

Skilled she is

Once I got the hang of it, I found the savory and garlickly meat to be worth the work. IMG_9122 If they have these armor plated morsels available, I’d highly recommend them.  Unfortunately, with pride comes one downfall as Janice was having trouble with a particular leg section.  So I thought I could break the shell with my fingers, which I did, but much to my chagrin the crab also sliced my thumb open.  So, I went into the bathroom in the back of the restaurant which was the definition of bare bones, but there was at least soap and water to wash the wound off.  However, we didn’t have a bandaid, so the owner ran out to her car and got me one. IMG_9126 Now that’s some Southern hospitality!  We actually managed to polish off our meals, and we were off to see some last highlights of Charleston.

Pretty she is

Pretty she is

Like a boss!

Like a boss!

We left Nana’s with great memories, full stomachs, and a “See y’all later!”.  We moved beyond the city to the Sullivan Island beach which was covered with plenty of dead starfish for some reason. IMG_9129 Even though it was an all you can eat bonanza for the seagulls, it didn’t ruin the pristene beach on our perfect vacation as a newly engaged couple.IMG_9133  We also went to Fort Moultrie which was originally made of palmetto palm trees during the American Revolution.  Thanks to the supple nature of these native trees, the British naval cannonballs literally bounced off the walls of the rebel-defended fort.  Hence, today we have the nickname of South Carolina, “The Palmetto State”.  It was not the wooden version I was expecting, rather how the fort looked circa World War II when our servicemen had to watch out for those pesky U-boats.  IMG_8464It was an ok experience looking out over the water and walking through the creepy underground bunkers, IMG_8465but its not something to go out of your way for unless you’re really into history like yours truly.  Our final bite to eat was at a local chain nearby our Air BnB called the Kickin’ Chicken. IMG_9135IMG_8472

Somebody's excited!

Somebody’s excited!

It’s like your typical laid back sit down restaurant with a focus on all things poultry with a Southern twist.  IMG_8471We went quite early for dinner, so the place wasn’t too kickin’.  The menu had a mix of bar food and Southern American classics like chicken and waffles.  We were more interested in their signature Kickin’ sandwiches.  Janice got the namesake sandwich ($9), and I got the Santa Fe Wrap ($9).  Clearly, the prices weren’t anything ridiculous, but we also weren’t going to go overboard since we were still stuffed from Nana’s before.  When our plates came out, we weren’t that impressed. IMG_9136 Janice’s was kind of bland with average bacon, a moderate amount of provolone cheese, and not the best chicken we had during the trip.  My Santa Fe wrap was a bit of a let down too.IMG_8469  It did bring the flavors of the Southwest alive with the inclusion of Tex Mex ingredients like peppers, salsa, onions, cheese, and the jalapeno cheddar wrap, but just barely above flat line.  Perhaps we would have been better off ordering the more bar food-esque options because these sandwiches left us wanting.  Once again it proved that small, family owned businesses are typically provide better quality and priced food and drinks.  Although it was the last impression we had of Charleston, it did not leave a sour taste in our mouth because it was drowned out with the great memories we made together on the road to many more in the future.IMG_9134

Nana's Seafood & Soul Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Kickin' Chicken Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nice to Meat You!

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Zdravo, friends!  Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  If you didn’t recognize my initial greeting, it was just one way to say “Hello” in Bosnian.  This Balkan nation goes back to time eternal, but after millennia of shifting borders and political alliances have managed to achieve stability and a high standard of life for its citizens.  974e3dc3acc579a582b38880adf839b8The name of Bosnia and Herzegovina is disputed, but many scholars believe that Bosnia is derived from the Bosna river while Herzegovina is a bit more complicated.  A Bosnian nobleman adopted the title Herceg (“duke” in Bosnian) and combined it with the ending “-ovina” meaning “land”.  Once again, a rich guy stamping his name on a piece of land like Pennsylvania and America, for example.  Anyway, moving on from monikers, today’s post involves Kiko’s Meat Market, a homey piece of the Balkan nation located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood which is home to numerous immigrants from the Balkans.

It was a cold night when Janice and I finally made our way into this mysterious restaurant right across the street from one of numerous magic shops that inhabit this part of town for some odd reason.  I didn’t know what to expect from an establishment with the term “meat market” in the title.  IMG_7665IMG_7666Was it going to bring me back to my life as a deli counter worker in the now defunct Chicago-based, all things Slavic emporium Bobak’s Sausage Company, or perhaps something more fitting in the Boystown neighborhood?  It was neither.  There is street and paid parking on the surrounding streets, and the staff were very friendly to us upon entering.  We heard more Bosnian and Serbian conversations than English as we were escorted to our seats which only added to the ambiance of traveling to another corner of the world without even needing a passport.  As for the actual decor, it wasn’t anything over the top or notable.IMG_7664 IMG_7659  It was a basic diner that reminded me of some of the Polish diners that used to be all over on the Southwest side around my grandparents house.  Not only was it a restaurant, but it was connected to a Balkan grocer and deli where you could buy different types of meats and treats from the old country.IMG_7661IMG_7660IMG_7662  Definitely worth a visit if you’re looking for some sausage or bakery or waiting for the waitress to come to your table like I did. Before we got a chance to look over the menu, we ordered our drinks.  I got a Jelen beer which is a Serbian pale lager.  The name of the beer in Serbian means “deer” hence the majestic wildlife on the label. IMG_7646 It was nothing of note.  In fact, it reminded me of every beer from Southern Europe, i.e. thin and inoffensive.  Not surprising when these brews come from wine cultures.  On top of the liquid bread, we were provided the old fashioned sliced kind. IMG_7647 It may not look like much, but it was clearly homemade with the warm, pliant middle and just crusty enough edges that were enhanced by the accompanying European butter that was smoother and not as salty as its American counterpart.  These were just warning shots before the bomb that was dropped in the form of the entrees:  the sampler platter (Mješano meso) and the cabbage rolls (sarma).  The cabbage rolls looked similar to the gołąbki my Polish family makes for most, if not all, family get-togethers.  It consisted of a soft and slightly sour exterior of translucent, pea green cabbage that was doused in a beef and tomato sauce.  IMG_7650These little rolls were camping between two mini-mountains of mashed potatoes that were enhanced with a generous dollop of sour cream like fresh powder in the Alps.IMG_7651  We quickly cut into the rolls and were met with a rice and beef blend that was kind of different from the pork, rice, and pea mixture found in my family’s Polish counterpart.  It was everything I love about Eastern European cooking:  warm, comforting, and hearty.  The cool sour cream cut through the bit of grease that accompanied the meat.  The mashed potatoes were anonymous in a plate full of character and bold flavors.  After that first act, it was time to step up to the plate and take on the champ.  The sampler platter was the Andre the Giant of our meal:  just one giant hunk of meat (thankfully, better looking though).

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

Actually, to be specific it consisted of a variety of Bosnian meats including chevapi, sausages, chicken, veal kebobs, and veal liver all served within traditional a traditional Balkan pita bread with a side of fries, salad, and ‘kajmak’ cheese.  We asked our waitress if it was going to be enough food before we ordered it, and once it was in front of us, we could see why she laughed at our naivete.  I felt like I was King Arthur putting Excalibur back into its stone home, IMG_7649but instead of having my crown rescinded, we were both blessed with a bountiful meal.  Naturally, the bread was warm and much more substantial than a Greek pita and baked to perfection.  The kajmak cheese was like a Balkan version of brie that went very well on the warm bread.  The chevapi weren’t new to us since we’ve tried other countries’ versions of these miniscule skinless sausages.  They’re essentially char-grilled pieces of beef and pork that just go down way too easy. IMG_7652 The sausages were all made in house, and they seemed to be pork based.  I was more particular to their chicken that absorbed a little bit of each of the other meats’ flavors which isn’t surprising since every meat seems to taste like chicken.  Long story short, if you’re a carnivore, this sampler platter is just for you.  The veal kebobs were very tender, juicy, and bursting with flavor.  We both tried a bit of the veal liver, but we weren’t fans of the unique, grainy texture that accompanies liver.  Then again, we were also saving room for dessert like the smart people we are.  Even though we felt like we were ready to burst, Janice jumped for the tiramisu while I went for the more exotic tufahija.  Tiramisu isn’t Bosnian, rather Italian, and is a more recent invention around the 1960s.  The origin of the name of the dessert is up for debate including the name of a Veneto baker’s apprentice’s maiden name, but a layer cake by any other name would taste as sweet and coffee-tastic.  It was a welcome change from the heavier plates we chowed down on earlier. IMG_7653IMG_7654 From the coffee soaked bottom layer to the heavenly light cream on top, it was a dessert fit for my classy bella donna.  As for my tufahija, it is a relic of centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans.  This is clearly evident since the name is derived from the Arabic word “tuffàh” (تفاحة‎) meaning “apple” in English, but the dessert itself originates in Persia.  It consisted of a cold, skinned apple soaked in sugar water and then stuffed with walnuts and topped with whipped cream.  IMG_7655It was so wildly different compared to everything I had that dinner, nay I’ve had in dessertdom, and I loved every minute of it.  The apple was slightly moist and chilled but not soggy somehow.  As I moved my way through the dessert, the core was filled with crunchy, basically raw walnuts that provided a much needed crunch and offset the sweet, but not overly so, apple.IMG_7657  These elements by themselves were wonderful, and the whipped cream was good up to a point.  I think it was a bit excessive with the wavy white sea this dessert was bobbing in.  I would highly recommend this dessert though if you’re looking to break away from traditional end platters to your meal.

We left Kiko’s with very happy and stuffed bellies with another full meal of leftovers in our doggy bag, so you will definitely get your money’s worth at this eatery.  If you’re a carnivore or looking for a new and unique restaurant that also serves one of Chicago’s many Balkan communities, you got to get to Kiko’s Meat Market!
Kiko' s Market & Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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!
Click to add a blog post for Margie's Restaurant on Zomato

Too Good To Leaf

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Welcome one and all to another Mastication Monologues!  There isn’t much time to spare this summer in Chitown, so you must take advantage of the great weather before the deathly cold comes and the white walkers take over.  So, I’d like to tell you about a great restaurant we’ve been to before during the winter but could also be a wonderful hangout in the summer.  That place is called Hopleaf Bar.

This establishment is located in the quaint Andersonville neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago.  There are a ton of great brunch places up and down Clark Street, but Hopleaf is more of a lunch and dinner establishment.  There is only street parking, but expect plenty to be found.  Given the name of the restaurant, Hopleaf focuses intensely on the pursuit of the best and most unique brews around.  Due to the focus on alcohol, you have to be 21 or over to enter, and that means there are no children allowed (No offense, but huzzah!). IMG_4304 We were a bit surprised about this policy when we walked in, but we also found out that there are no reservations.  So, we had to wait a bit for a table.  Be prepared to wait for a table if it’s a very nice day/night out or if it’s a weekend. IMG_4303 Eventually, we were sat in the bustling back room that gave us a first hand look into the glass-walled kitchen.IMG_4292  We were first presented with a beer menu that was extremely varied in terms of craft beers, but I found one that really caught my eye.  It was called Etrusca Bronze from the Dogfish Head craft beer company ($9).  The description is below, IMG_4293

but basically it is part of a series of ancient ales that the company has brewed based on recipes from millenia ago found all over the world.  In this case, my drink was based on a 2,800 year old recipe that was synthesized from analyzing the resins inside drinking vessels found in Etruscan tombs.  I’ve been throwing around this term “Etruscan” like nobody’s business, but who exactly were these people?  Basically, they were the tribe of people who gave birth to Rome after settling on the Tibur, but it is still up for debate where exactly they originated from.

Gettin' crunk since 700 BC!

Gettin’ crunk since 700 BC!

Anyway, I’ll leave that for the history scholars to decide.  Back to the beer.  When it came out, it was served in a goblet, and it looked like a cup of warm cider.

Nectar o' the gods

Nectar o’ the gods

I gave it a sniff before imbibing, and I was taken aback by the aroma that overtook my nostrils.  It made more sense when I looked at the variety of sweet, savory, and aromatic ingredients it was brewed with like pomegranate, clover, wildflower, raisins, chestnuts, and even myrrh, an ancient tree sap that was used as perfume, incense, an embalming agent for Egyptian mummies, and even presented as a gift to Jesus by one of the three kings.  Clearly, I wasn’t in bland lager-land any more.  When I finally took a sip, it was one of the most unique and complex beers I’ve ever tried.  The honey notes were tempered by the pomegranate juice that had a very subtle nuttiness compliments of the chestnut.  This was further embellished by the wispy wildflowers still dancing in my nose that joined the flavor party on my tongue.  Long story short, this isn’t a drink to be pounded during a game of flip cup, but if you appreciate something super unique or are a historically obsessed weirdo, then you found your beer.  This distinguished beverage prefaced one of the most epic meals I’ve ever had.  Unfortunately, Hopleaf’s menu, both beer and food, changes with the seasons, so some of the options I talk about may or may not be served when you visit like my pastrami sandwich ($12), for example.  This was a straight old-school dish from the turn of the 20th Century New York deli culture. IMG_4299 From the rye to the thick layers of beet red meat, it was simple in form but exquisite in flavor. IMG_4302 The combo of herbal caraway with the saltiness of the meat was wonderful, but I would suggest finding a heartier form of rye since it was on the dryer side and crumbled under the pressure of my powerful jaws.  The fries were just my type since they were on the softer side with the occasional crunchy one, but I found their smoky taste intriguing.  Naturally, the pickle on the side was an homage to this deli staple, and it was large, crunchy, and sour.  Yes, please!  Janice’s choice, the duck Reuben ($13), upstaged its fellow New York sandwich.  The origin of the sandwich’s name is a point of contention.  Some parties state that it was named after Reuben Kulakofsky, a Lithuanian born grocer who held poker games at one of Omaha’s premier hotels in the 1920s and 1930s.  Other’s believe that this savory snack came from Arnold Reuben, the owner of the now closed Ruben’s Delicatessen in New York.  Arnold claimed to have come up with the “Reuben special” back in 1914.  Whoever invented it, I doff my proverbial cap to them.  It’s a wonderful combo of meat, bread, and condiments.  First, it was on toasted marble rye that was heartier than my basic brown rye.  IMG_4298Then we got to the heart of the matter.IMG_4300  Instead of finding the typical pastrami, we were greeted with thin slices of slightly fatty Peking duck breast that also possessed traces of caramelization due to its traditional preparation.  This sweetness was further garnished with a cranberry cream cheese spread that took the place of mustard or Russian dressing to give this typically savory sandwich a sweet side.  To top all of it off, there was a moderate helping of acidic sauerkraut to cut through the sweet elements, and the gooey melted Emmenthaler cheese held all of these mouth-watering ingredients together.  I highly recommend both sandwiches!

So if you’re looking for a laid back beer heaven or a date night without the kids, check out Hopleaf Bar!
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This Foodie Just Keeps Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along

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Welcome to a retro Masticastion Monologues?  What’s that you say, milkshakes?  Retro?  Well, today’s post focuses on the Red Robin Gourmet Burger chain that is throughout America and known by its signature jingle.  It is one of many burger joints that try to evoke the spirit of 1950s diners that rocked around the clock to strains of Elvis on the jukebox.  While the times have changed since then, and the music has become more interesting (not always better), a good burger with a side of fries will never go out of style.

I went with Janice to the location closest by me at the Oakbrook Center shopping mall.  It was a new addition to the upper level by the Nordstrom’s, but it is quite popular with families and the teenage pods that roam from shop to shop.  However, it is also a fun place to go if you want to grab a cold one with your friends. 46716679_IDs7asvk6P2fAMb1kCe5RF3goIR9CPkJrdDMEyGl8Cc We were there to get a bite to eat before seeing a movie nearby, and it was a pleasant experience.  I looked over the menu and after seeing all of the burgers, chicken sandwiches, and side salads the place had to offer, I went for the Burning Love burger ($10.49).  Janice got the Royal Red Robin burger ($10.79).  However, I didn’t want to just get a burger.  I saw that you could “style” your burger in three ways:  Pig Out with extra bacon (+$1.50), Cantina Jack with mild green chiles (+$1.00), or Fiery Ghost with a ghost pepper sauce, fresh jalapeno pepper slices, and fried ones (+$1.00).  Needless to say, if you’ve read my blog, I love everything spicy.  Whether it’s a deadly pork cutlet in Korea or gastro-intestinal shredding poppers in Portland, Oregon, I can’t say no to the tongue burning experience.  Eventually they came out, and Janice’s burger looked delicious. IMG_4562 It was like a combo of breakfast and dinner where the bacon and eggs got down with the beef patty to make an extremely rich but runny burger.  It was a flavorful meal that whetted my appetite to finally tuck into my devilish basket.IMG_4561  I had tried ghost peppers before, and it was a tough but manageable experience.  However, I was pretty disappointed with my burger, spice-wise.  I was expecting to have my taste buds blown off my tongue, but the red ghost pepper sauce didn’t even make it beyond a weak habanero.  I enjoyed the fresh and fried jalapeno pieces more since they provided a crunch and buttery finish to the salsa, chipotle aioli, and jalapeno cornmeal kaiser bun. IMG_4563 Still, it was a finger licking good burger, but if you’re a real spicehead, you won’t blink with the spice levels.  Janice tried some of the sauce on the tip of her finger, and she couldn’t handle it.  So, I think my tastebuds might be dead or perhaps zombies since I can still taste other flavors.  As for the fries, they were of the steak cut variety, probably tied for favorite along with waffle.  They were on average larger and softer than the smaller crispier ones you might find at McDonalds or Burger King, but they had the perfect ratio of fry to salt flavor.  Plus, at Red Robin they’re bottomless!  So if you feel like carbo-loading, hit up Olive Garden and Red Robin.  You’ll definitely get your money’s worth.  By the end of the meal, I couldn’t even finish all of my fries because it was all so filling and scrumptious.

So if you want to visit a new burger chain that isn’t afraid to be creative with their burgers and get a lot of food for a reasonable price, check out Red Robin! Yuuummmmmmmmmmmmmmm!

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers on Urbanspoon

Getting My Goat On

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Welcome to another chapter in the Mastication Monologues saga!  Today’s restaurant review takes us to one of the newer but highly regarded eateries in Chicago in the West Loop:  Girl and the Goat.  I had heard so many great things about famed chef, Stephanie Izard.  According to the website, “Izard is name of goat in the Pyrenees”; hence the name of the restaurant.  Looking beyond their rustic take on English on their website, their food was king or perhaps queen of the mountain.IMG_4035

The interior was bumping when I went there around dinnertime for a double date.IMG_4030  Servers were buzzing by as we checked in for our reservation.  There was a bit of a wait, so we grabbed drinks and took in the entire experience.  From the sleekly designed interior to the open cook line, it was like poetry in motion everywhere I looked.  IMG_4037IMG_4036IMG_4034It only whetted my appetite even more for the upcoming meal.  Eventually we were seated and the madness began.  With a tumbler of whiskey in hand, we looked over the menu to see some common items like olives or steak tartare, but then there were crazy things like duck tongues or pig face. IMG_4039 Mind you, the menu is on a rotating basis, so you might be privy to some dishes I never saw on the menu.  We went crazy ordering once our server came over however.  The journey began with a sun-dried tomato bread boule that came with a side of vinegar seasoned corn relish and savory butter with a garlic infusion. IMG_4042 This typical carb starter got us off on the right foot as it was warm, oh-so-soft, and bursting with the taste of fresh tomatoes.IMG_4044  Then for actual dishes, the Girl and the Goat focus on more tapas-esque presentation and portion sizes which means that each selection is meant to be shared amongst all the people at the table.  Ergo, we ordered things that everyone wanted to try.  First, seafood.  We got the raw kusshi oysters with muscatel mignonette and tarrgon along with the wood fired blue point oysters with horseradish, bacon, and preserved lemon.

Kusshi oysters

Kusshi oysters

This was a historical foodie moment for me since it was the first time trying oysters.  While I heard from some people that they tasted like snot going down, I found them to slide right down without any sort of trepidation from my palate.  They didn’t need to be chewed or anything, so I don’t know what those other diners’ problems were.  I personally preferred the wood fired oysters because they were slightly warm along with a nice sinus-tickling horseradish kick.

Woodpoint fired oysters

Woodpoint fired oysters

While we were partying under the sea with the super shellfish, the steak tartare wraps came out.  If you just saw “steak” and “wrap”, the “tartare” part means that the meat was raw inside.IMG_4047  However, that doesn’t mean that it’s unsafe to eat.  In fact, these nibbles were quite light at delicious.  The lettuce leaves were super fresh, and the pieces of red meat were accompanied by some tempura flakes and another corn relish that provided a texture contrast to the tender steak and crunchy tempura batter. IMG_4048 Along with this hands-on dish, we got an order of squash blossom rangoon with wasabi garlic chive yogurt and sliced almonds ($13). IMG_4049IMG_4050 I think these fried gourds were a bit over the top with their cheesy interiors.  IMG_4051It seemed to simply be a high-falutin version of common jalapeno poppers, and they were quite primitive in comparison to the other dishes we tried before.  The duck tongues ($16) that came next were anything but ordinary. IMG_4052 While everyone at the table was disgusted yet slightly curious when I ordered this dish, I was curious to see if it was going to be different from my experiences with duck tongues in Taiwan and China.  Lo and behold, it was since they were neither simply cooked nor still sticking in a duck’s head.  Instead, they were fried and arranged into a mini-mountain over a tuna and black bean poke that was negligible, but the spicy piri-piri bird’s eye pepper (similar to the one at Nando’s in the UK) from Mozambique really kicked these tongues up a notch in terms of flavor.  Plus, my formerly squeamish dining companions found them to be quite pleasant since they melted in your mouth and didn’t feel like you were making out with Donald Duck.  After that bizarre treat, we came back to reality with an order of ham frites ($7) with sides of smoked tomato aioli (literally: “garlic oil” in Catalan) and cheddar beer sauce.  IMG_4053These smoky, savory taters were finger licking good especially with the cheddar beer sauce and powdered ham that took these common bar items to a new level of haute cuisine.  If this redesigned ‘Murikan favorite got my palate amped up, the spring onion potstickers ($15) were a Far East fusion creation to cool it down.  IMG_4054It was served at room temperature, and the fried dough was extra delicate.IMG_4058  Along with that, the dandelion greens and sunflower seeds created many earthy tones as I took down each one.  All of these were leading up to the piece de resistance, the crisped braised pork shank ($25). IMG_4057 Not only was this thing monstrous, but it also came with sides I would have never expected:  Indian naan bread, buttermilk dressing, peach kimchi, and a pepper sauce.  I almost felt like young King Arthur with the sword in the stone, and I took my Excalibur with great aplomb. IMG_4063 The meat fell off the bone, and it was mind-blowingly succulent.  Each strand combined with the golden crispy skin to create a legendary dish that I will never forget.  The naan was fresh, but I didn’t think it really fit in with the other ingredients.  The kimchi peaches somewhat made sense since it was a sour/sweet element to cut through the savory and slightly greasy meat.  The pepper sauce was good but not great.

It gone!

It gone!

As if you thought this was the end to the food madness, the pork belly and scallops came out.  I tried a minuscule portion of the pork belly, and it would have been great if my stomach wasn’t stretched to bursting.IMG_4066  Perhaps for next time.  The lobster was quite sweet while the crab seemed to be a better compliment to the lean pork.  As for the scallops, I can’t really comment on them because I was absolutely stuffed, but their presentation was pleasing to the eye.  Plus, the scallops were quite hefty for the price.IMG_4068

So in closing, if you want to try one of Chicago’s most highly vaunted restaurant, bring your piggy bank and then some because it isn’t cheap.  However, it is high quality food with moderately large portions compared to other similarly prestigious eateries.   Ergo, you should get down to Girl and the Goat ASAP.

Girl & the Goat on UrbanspoonIz

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