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The Hub of All the Hubbub

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Another meal, another post.  What that means for you, the reader, is another great dining experience on Mastication Monologues.  What makes it so great?  Well, in Chicago there’s a little thing called Restaurant Week.  While Chicago is filled with oodles of restaurant that could make any week a restaurant week, but what makes Restaurant Week so special is that there are tons of great deals in restaurants you might have never known existed.  The cuisines range from some delicious, downhome cookin’ diners to Michelin starred establishments and even Alinea, three time winner of Elite Travel’s award as the best restaurant in the world.  While we don’t have reservations at such a prestigious eatery, today I bring you Hub 51, a gastropub/lounge/dance club with a classy atmosphere and super diverse menu.

Hub 51 is located in the upscale River North area of Chicago that is, go figure, just north of the Chicago river.  The sleek exterior exuded an air of subtle confidence, and upon entering the place I could see why.l  It was ultra modern in design from the bar to the dark wood chairs, and eventually we were seated in a leather bound booth that was very comfortable and spacious.IMG_5763IMG_5764  Looking over the menu, they had quite the eclectic menu including American, Mexican, and even Japanese food. However, we were all about trying the Restaurant Week menu where we got three courses for only $33!

Course one consisted of two dishes that were as far apart culinary-wise as apples and oranges.  First, we have exhibit A:  the spinach and artichoke dip.IMG_5772  While I recently wrote about another type of spinach artichoke dip, this was another animal.  Instead of being served with bread, it was paired with super light yet slightly too salty tortilla chips.  Thankfully the dip was a mix of gooey cheese and plenty of spinach that keep the saltiness to a minimum. IMG_5774 However, I didn’t feel like they had as many artichoke pieces as I’ve had in other similar appetizers.  Where as the artichoke dip was more on the fattening side, the Brussels sprouts salad was very refreshing and healthy.  The Brussels sprouts were fresh and crunchy which were also complimented with a few almonds sprinkled in amongst the greens.  IMG_5775I really enjoyed the Manchego cheese chunks that were dispersed as well throughout the greens, and I found the buttery Spanish cheese to pair well with the salty almonds.  The Medjool dates were a worthy sweet element in this appetizer and were countered with the slightly sour mustard vinaigrette.  All of it taken together, the Brussels sprouts appetizer was an option that both danced across the palate with a crunchy and sweet panache but lingered with the aftertaste of the vinaigrette.  I think round one went to team salad but just barely.  In addition to these Restaurant Week choices, Kaitlin and Dan got an order of the homemade hummus (($8.95) and an ahi tuna poke ($14.95).  Both were equally amazing in their own ways.  I love hummus in any form, so I was intrigued by the dukkah spices element of the dish.  While I recognized the typical, fresh cucumber and carrot spears, pita bread, and hummus with virgin olive oil in the middle, but then there was a dried powder on the side of the plate closest to me.  IMG_5768After some research, it turns out that dukkah or duqqa is an Egyptian condiment that consists of dried nuts, herbs, and spices that are then crushed to near powder like consistency.  The name “dukkah” is only fitting given that it comes from the Arabic word meaning “to pound”.  Luckily, it didn’t really pound out any of the other flavors on the plate but rather supported the zingy hummus with a crunchier texture that went well on either the vegetables or bread.  As for the ahi tuna poke (pronounced “poh-kay”), I was less enthused to try it since I’m not a huge fish fan.  On the other hand, I had tried one before and enjoyed it. IMG_5767 This Hawaiian dish is named after the Hawaiian verb meaning “to section or cut” which made sense since there was plenty of cubed, ruby red tuna chunks.  Along with that, there were two large rice crackers, plenty of avocado, and all of it was stewing in a soy based, wasabi-infused sauce.  Although the tuna was raw, it was not fishy by any stretch of the imagination since it was combined with the creamy avocado, super-flavorful sauce, and slightly chewy yet crunchy rice cracker. IMG_5771 The poke disappeared faster than a pack of Pokemon cards circa 1998.

Pre-feeding frenzy

Pre-feeding frenzy

Round two kicked off with the main entrees.  While Janice and I got the braised beef short ribs, Kaitlin got the pulled pork tacos ($16.95), and Dan got the knife and fork open faced BLT sandwich ($10.95).  While I didn’t eat a lot of the tacos, I managed to try one of the Niman Ranch braised pork shoulder filled tortillas, but I wasn’t terribly wowed with the naturally raised pork. IMG_5778 It was slightly spicy but not terribly flavorful compared to other tacos I’ve tried in my life.  As for the BLT, it looked like it was just a mini-mountain of toppings, but the bread was keeping a low profile under a pile of lettuce.  IMG_5779The best part of that plate was the bacon (when isn’t it?) because it wasn’t too crispy with just the right amount of fat and salt combined with a glaze that almost gave it a honey-like quality.  The downfall of the dish was the blue cheese and vinaigrette laced bread. It was way too bold and left an overwhelming residual flavor on my palate after trying a few samples of Dan’s entree.  Finally, I got around to my braised short ribs.  It was served with red potatoes, glazed carrots, and a small tub of horseradish cream. IMG_5782 While it looked delicious, my experience was quite the opposite.  I found it to be too salty and filled with fat deposits.  It left me feeling bloated and greasy, and the horseradish sauce didn’t even salvage this plate.  The glazed carrots and potatoes were tasty, but I was really disappointed with the supposed star of my dining experience.  Thankfully, dessert stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park.  First, there was Martha’s special occasion carrot cake.  It had three orange layers of light, fluffy cake that focused more on the spice element of carrot cake instead of the vegetable. IMG_5785 I would say that it had definite elements of nutmeg and ginger.  Between each layer of mouth-watering cake, there was a thick helping of cream cheese that was decadence incarnate, but it was not so sweet that it felt like I was going to develop diabetes.  The whipped cream on the side with a light powdering of cinnamon cemented this plate as one of the best I’ve ever had.  Then there was Grandma Bea’s chocolate pudding pie.  I don’t know Grandma Bea, but I wish she would invite me over for dinner and dessert more often after tasting this selection.  It was a different beast than the carrot cake but equally scrumptious. IMG_5783I personally preferred the graham cracker crust that not only had some granulated sugar mixed into it along with a hint of cinnamon in each forkful.  As for the filling, it was fluffy and rich with plenty of dark chocolate flavor.  Kaitlin made it a s’more for a dollar more, and it was quite interesting. IMG_5786 It looked like a series of white fish scales on top of a carp, but thankfully there was nothing fishy about it.  They went over the top of the marshmallows to brown them like at a campfire, and then taken all together it really did taste like a s’more minus the smoky flavor imparted by a bonfire.  The only downside to the marshmallow layer was that they were all stuck together, so sometimes someone would almost take all of the marshmallows with them when they just wanted one with a bite of the pie.  If I had to pick one, I’d choose the carrot cake because its cream cheese frosting was unbelievably addicting.

So with restaurant number one down for Restaurant Week in Chicago, I would recommend Hub 51 to anyone looking for an entertaining night out in a hip atmosphere with slightly more expensive fare than in other parts of the city.
Hub 51 on Urbanspoon

Is That Falafel In Your Pocket, or Are You Just Hungry?

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Disclaimer:  Watch out how you pay here.  They stole my credit card number, so caveat emptor!

Hello to everyone out there in the blogosphere!  Welcome to another entry to Mastication Monologues.  A bit of time has passed since my last post, but I guess that’s what happens when grad school rears its ugly head.  Anyway, today I’m going to be reviewing a new place that I have never been to before, but I was very happy after eating there.  It is called Falafill and is located at 72 E Adams St Chicago, IL 60604.  It would make a great pit stop before or after visiting the world-famous Art Institute which is less than five minutes away.

They do have an ingenious logo

Now, I’ve had my fair share of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food with gyros, baklava, doner kebab, and dolma etc. all over the US/Europe, so I was wondering how good this place could be when my friend described it as a place where you create and garnish your own falafel.  All I kept on thinking of was some sort of Middle Eastern Fuddruckers, but I highly doubted they would have one pound falafels for me to tackle in a demonstration of my gastronomic might.  So I decided to visit to see what all of the hubbub was, and I was immediately greeted with free samples outside of the door.  I took the traditional falafel sample which was coated in a typical yogurt based cucumber sauce.  The falafel itself was quite crisp and flavorful with a crumbly, chickpea-based interior that was packed with spice and herbs.  However, I ended up getting the curry falafel which was made of lentils instead of the traditional chickpea falafel I sampled at the door.  When they brought it out to me at the same counter I ordered it at, I was surprised at how large they were as they lay there in the gaping maw of the pita bread that looked more substantial than a traditional unleavened pocket.  With our falafel bread mini-baskets in hand, we got down to business at the “mezza bar” that contained literally a bevy of sauces (babaganouge, hummus, jalapeno and cilantro, harissa, tzatziki, garlic), tabbouleh, and plenty of pickled vegetables like beets and peppers among many other garnishes.

So many dressings and so little time

I was like a kid in a candy store with all of these fresh and powerful flavors, but I festooned my falafel with a helping of babaganouge, hummus, tabbouleh, jalapeno and cilantro sauce, and harissa sauce.  When picking a seat, I noticed something that I didn’t really care for:  communal seating.  At this location, they only had seats along the wall where you face a wall/window or one large table where you sit cheek to jowl with your fellow diners.  I just didn’t like it since it seemed like an invasion of privacy sometimes with conversations, but I guess it wouldn’t matter if you were just there for a quick bite to eat.  Anyway, back to the food.  After semi-attempting to figure out how to lift the pita out of its box without having its contents cascade down the front of my shirt, I just gave up and used a fork.

An example of their falafel with pickled beets, giardiniera, and tabbouleh.

This kind of made me sad and wished that they embraced more of a gyro type of pita that provides more of a wrap/taco kind of sandwich instead of this Muppet-mouthed piece of pocket bread.  Nevertheless, once I took a bite of what was lurking inside the bread, I was thoroughly satisfied.  Below the perfectly fried crust, the curry falafels had the sultry taste of yellow curry.  This boldness was mitigated by the cool hummus, babaganouge, and the freshly made tabbouleh.  However, the harissa sauce and the jalapeno and cilantro managed to jazz up the falafels chilling at the bottom of the bread pocket with a lively and savory kick of spicy flavor.  Plus, once I finished a couple of the top falafels, I was able to lift the bread and eat it like an actual sandwich.  I do have to say that their artisanal baked bread was delicious, fresh, and did not buckle under the stress of the contents of the sandwich.  So, perhaps next time I will order their bowl option to see if that works a bit better in terms of the logistics of eating it.

So if you’re tired of the hamburgers, hot dogs, Italian beefs, and Mexican dishes that are standard Chicago fare, try a new take on Mediterranean food by getting your fill of falafels at Falafill!

Falafill on Urbanspoon

Falafill on Foodio54

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