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Toronto (Final Day): Home Is Where the Heart (and ice cream) Is

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So, it has finally come to this.  The final installation in my Canadian food saga on Mastication Monologues (See 1, 2, and 3 here).  While the previous chapters had plenty of panache, today’s post will be going out on a very classy note.

Our day started on a very hot note as we made the trek across the city to the famed Casa Loma that was participating in Toronto’s food week a.k.a. Summerlicious. IMG_7065 What would be more summerlicious than fine dining in a castle?IMG_7066  The storied structure was originally built by Sir Henry Pellatt, a business magnate and loyal military servant to the Queen.  Aaron had told me before we visited that he built this mega-mansion for a woman who was supposed to come over to marry him but duped him.  Turns out that when we went there, we learned that he built it because he was extremely rich.  Go figure.  Beautiful as it was inside with plenty of crystal chandeliers, giant halls, and dark wood carpentry,IMG_7069IMG_7070 I missed a little bit of that modern air conditioning lovin’ as I proceeded to sweat my brains out.  Janice and I made our way out to the garden out back, and we were greeted with a wonderful fountain, lush foliage, and oodles of Asian tourists. IMG_7071 We had our wristbands on since we bought tickets ahead of time and on discount, so we were able to skip the long line into the Summerlicious fest like the ballers/shot-callers we naturally are.   We had a look over the food they had to offer while hunting for a seat, and it all looked great.  After a bit of time, Janice wrangled us a great table in the shade.  Aaron and Alyssa met up with us eventually due to a Google Maps error, but Janice and I were then quickly up and ready to run the buffet ragged.IMG_7087IMG_7088  We started off with some amazing Italian food.  First, there was the prosciutto (pro-shoot-oh or just pro-shoot if you’re a real paisan).  The word “prosciutto” comes from the Latin for “before” (pro) and “sucking out” (exsuctus) which then evolved into the modern Italian word “prosciugiare” meaning “to dry thoroughly”.  What does all this drying have to do for this heavenly meat?  Well, it’s basically a salted, dried, and aged leg of ham that is a pillar of Italian cuisine.  At the Summerlicious festival, the chef serving it was using an interesting slicer I’ve never seen before but sped up the cutting process for the slobbering diners lining up for the meat. IMG_7072 Janice and I picked up a rolled up slice each, and then next to the prosciutto was another Italian dish I had never tried before called panzanella.  It is a salad from the central Italian region of Tuscany, and it is not very in line with the Atkins diet.  The reason being is that this salad is based on bread; well, actually stale bread, but that’s neither here nor there.  It consists of the bread soaked in the vinaigrette along with tomatoes, onions, and zucchini.

Panzanella and prociutto

Panzanella and prociutto

It complimented the salty and savory meat with a light and slightly sour element to the opening plate of our meal.  We then moved on to the second plate of the day which was more diverse cuisine-wise.  First, I managed to snag a seasoned lamb kabob that was savory and spiced to perfection.IMG_7074  The smell alone coming off the grill was driving me crazy.  Then I followed that up with an Indian trio of butter chicken, jasmine basmati rice, and aloo gobi.  The butter chicken is a very mild dish in terms of Indian food, and it meshed with the rice to be a very filling part of the meal.  As for the aloo gobi, it is a traditional and simple Punjabi dish that consists of potatoes (aloo) and cauliflower (gobi). IMG_7075 It was different than traditional Indian dishes given that a plethora of them are typically swimming in a pool of sauce.  These dry veggies were aglow with a jaundiced yellow hue due to the tumeric and curry powder that was cooked into each piece.  It was ok, but not great.  The best part of round two was the mushroom cheesy risotto that was being served literally out of a giant wheel of Grana Padano (“grain” in Italian and the adjective for something from the Po River valley in northern Italy).IMG_7077  It was a creamy rice dish that had a Parmesan-esque sharpness in every forkful. IMG_7078 The final plate to the three ring circus of main courses ended with a vegetable slaw with lime dressing that was like something you could get in a P.F. Changs or slightly more upscale Chinese restaurant especially with the roasted, diced peanuts. IMG_7080 IMG_7090The better part of the third plate were the bison sliders with berry mostarda.  The bison tasted like a very lean beef with a bit more gamey flavor, but it was kind of drowned out by the berry mostarda that isn’t mustard but rather a traditional Italian condiment made of candied fruit and mustard flavored syrup.  IMG_7089We couldn’t put our finger on it if they were cherries or some kind of cranberry, but it strangely went well together as a savory and sweet kind of foodstuff.  Thankfully we didn’t eat breakfast because we had room for that sweet sweet dessert.  While they were serving three different types of gelato, I will save the ice cream for later in this post.  Instead, we chowed down on some white chocolate cannoli and a berry crumble.  Cannoli are well known as a quintessential Italian dessert, but in reality they trace their roots back to the Emirate of Sicily, i.e. when the Muslims ruled the island for almost 250 years.  In fact, some trace the name to the Arabic word “qanawat“.  These little fried tubes of dough were filled by hand right in front of us with sweet mascarpone cheese and garnished with white chocolate shavings.IMG_7092  I thought they could have made it better with some milk or dark chocolate shavings to balance out the sweeter cheese, but they were competently made.IMG_7093  As for the fruit crumble, I heard that it had strawberry and rhubarb in it which was a first for me.IMG_7094  I found it to be like eating a warm strawberry pie with the buttery crumbles, so I don’t know what the rhubarb brought to the equation.  IMG_7096The fresh blueberries and strawberries were also a refreshing solution to beating the heat.  After that we had an epic trek to one of the best ice cream places in all of Toronto according to Aaron who’s kind of a maestro when it comes to the cold stuff.  Ed’s Real Scoop was nothing special on the outside, but clearly on the inside it was happening based on the butt to gut traffic that was occupying the non-A/C interior which was brutal.IMG_7110  Still, I knew this place was my jam based on this punny size display, the large selections of ice cream, gelato, and toppings.IMG_7101  IMG_7104IMG_7105IMG_7109IMG_7107After chuckling to myself, I made the tough decision by getting a large with creme brulee ice cream and burnt marshmallow with a free topping in the form of Coffee Crisp, a Canadian candy bar that isn’t Stateside.IMG_7106  Pricewise, it’s not the cheapest place since my large was around 5 bucks, but I got a ton of ice cream for my money and a free topping! IMG_7111 Not only that, but they hand make all of their ice cream and waffles cones on their own machine that is right to your left when you walk into the store.  They take their ice cream, gelato, drinks, and confections very seriously, and this care is reflected in the quality from first spoon to last.  The creme brulee took me right to the Riviera complete with chunks of the burnt, crunchy sugar topping in each bite while the burnt marshmallow was perfect for a summer night.  All I was missing was a bonfire and some graham crackers to make some s’mores.  The Coffee Crisp was like a flaky wafer coated in milk chocolate that created that s’more effect.  Janice got a cinnamon cheesecake milkshake, and it was a slurptacular way to beat the heat as we walked along Toronto’s beachfront. IMG_7112 After walking for what seemed forever, we made it to Aaron’s neighborhood in the Scarborough area.  We hit up Casa di Giorgio Ristorante. IMG_7117 By this point, we were ready to devour some food, and this Italian eatery fit the bill.  The ladies got different types of pasta, so naturally I didn’t eat it.  Janice seemed happy with her tortellini alla crema ($16.95) which were cheese stuffed shells with a white cream sauce.  IMG_7114I opted for pizza instead.  They have so many great choices, but I picked the Veranzano ($16.95).  It had everything I love:  meat, cheese, and veggies. IMG_7115 The goat cheese and salty prosciutto balanced the fresh arugula and mild, roasted red peppers.  Based on my experience and the others’ plates, it was a good Italian restaurant if you’re looking for simple but well made food.  Aaron and Alyssa hadn’t even been there before, and they live there.  So it was a great hidden find and a molto bene note to end our stay in TO with our good friends and even better guests. IMG_7118 Thanks for everything guys, and see you on the open road!
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Toronto (Day 2): Falling In Love Is Just Peachy

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Oh, Canada!  You have provided me with such great material that I can’t wait to tell everyone about day two of our adventures in Toronto.  Today’s post mainly revolves around our trip to Niagara Falls and to an extremely popular restaurant with a unique and fun to say name.

We woke up to a wonderfully gray sky that quickly developed into a legitimate downpour.  That combined with the speedy Canadian drivers made the trip all the more hazardous.

Jan Jan just being trip photographer

Jan Jan just being trip photographer

Luckily, we made it to the famous falls in one piece, but there was no sign of the rain abating.  We ran through the drops and around the hordes of tourists to the visitors’ center to get our adventure passes, and what an adventure we had.  First, there was the cutesy video they showed us that was pure edutainment explaining how the falls were formed via an anthropomorphic beaver and owl.  That then led to a large chamber that highlighted Niagara’s Fury which amounted to a 360 degree screen that went along with a 4-D movie complete with rain which meant we had to wear ponchos through the entire film.  The only time I felt scared/disturbed was afterward in the gift shop that the movie chamber was connected to, naturally.  The main reason why I was scared was due to the demonic looking beaver plushes. IMG_6922 However, not all was disturbing since we had fun11692670_10105957316152539_8144874219333573867_n and made some friends along the way. 11745424_10105957240139869_5129336564047481268_n We quickly moved on to the fun nature walk that went along the Niagara river, and it was weird to think that we were in another country even though the USA was literally a stone’s throw away in the form of New York State.  Due to the rain, there also weren’t a lot of tourists on this part of the tour, so we were delighted with that development while soaking in the beautiful surroundings.  My socks also soaked up the river when a huge wave crashed against the rocks right where we were standing.  After all of that walking, we worked up an appetite, so we decided to try another Canadian tradition that Aaron recommended:  Pizza Pizza.  When Janice and I first heard him say it, we thought it was Little Caesar’s due to the mascot’s signature catchphrase.  We were wrong!  Turns out it is a Canadian institution that apparently also claims to have done a lot of pizza firsts like putting pineapple on a pizza, using delivery bags, and using virtual advertising.  It’s their go-to for fast food pizza;  it’s not amazing but not terrible, as Aaron put it.  We agreed with his assessment. IMG_6928 We both got slices of veggie pizza that was fresh and covered with peppers, onions, and mushrooms.  We also split a side of fries that were well made, and I spiced it up with this lemon pepper seasoning they offered on the side.  ‘Twas a nice sour and spicy kick to the delicious fries.  I’d recommend trying this Canadian culinary staple.  Once we were fueled up, we got on the Hornblower ship to see the falls.  IMG_6948It was cool, wet, and wild as the wind was blowing up our ponchos a la Marilyn Monroe.11703117_10105957315548749_8925081409671534301_n  After taking a ton of pictures while looking like sea hobos wearing trash bags, we left Niagara for Toronto.  We had a delicious dinner date planned at David Chang’s Momofuku.  It was another restaurant that was participating in Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant week, so we were excited to finally be able to try this high end establishment.  The head chef who created Momofuku, David Chang, is one of the biggest names in the cooking game.

Momofuku the creation of superstar chef David Chang brings his food to Toronto. The much anticipated resto is famous for noodles and pork buns. (Photo by Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Momofuku the creation of superstar chef David Chang brings his food to Toronto. The much anticipated resto is famous for noodles and pork buns. (Photo by Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

He has tons of accolades, experience, and a personality/temper that is larger than life that also reflects his passion for finding and creating good food with simple ingredients.  This outlook on cooking has resulted in Momofuku expanding to a ton of other franchises like Ma Peche, Ssam Bar, and Milk Bar in NYC.  IMG_6959IMG_6994The Toronto location we were at was relatively new and consisted of five different mini-restaurant areas:  Shoto, Daisho, Milk Bar, Nikai, and Noodle Bar.IMG_6961  Clearly, there is a lot of Asian influence in his menus based on the names of the restaurants.  The interior was super busy but modern in design.IMG_6967IMG_6968Noodle Bar was at the bottom with communal seating while the other areas were more traditional in nature.  I’d highly recommend making reservations at Momofuku before you go.  If you’re wondering, Momofuku actually means “lucky peach” in Japanese, and I think a bit of that luck rubbed off on us since they put us right at the bar in front of the open kitchen.  It was all hustle bustle in the narrow corridor as we watched these artists whip together bowls of ramen, appetizers, and boil noodles like their lives depended on it. IMG_6971IMG_6966 We were ready to eat with the same gusto.  The menus were handed out to us, and we had a lot of tough decisions to make in a first world problems sort of way. IMG_6964 In the end, we made our choices which consisted of four courses for 25 bucks, and they came out very quickly based on how the chefs were working.  The first course took the form of a fancy fried jalapeno pepper for me. IMG_6978 It was stuffed with cream cheese and sturgeon, apparently and had a side of ssam sauce. IMG_6979 It was ok, and I didn’t even taste the sturgeon.  The ssam sauce pepped up the tiny pepper a bit with a sweet hint, but I’ve had better ones at your average bar.  Janice’s slightly larger hot and honey chicken wing was a better choice.  IMG_6976IMG_6977It lived up to its name with a garlic, sriracha, and scallion glaze that was both savory and sweet with a subtle spiciness.  After those tidbits, we got our bun course.  They were clearly inspired by the Chinese buns used for Peking duck, and they were hearty little buggers.  I’d recommend these menu items for appetizers.  My spicy lamb bun was very interesting. IMG_6985 The fluffy light bun encased a hunk of spiced lamb, bean sprouts, lettuce, and spicy mayo.  Biting into it, it tasted just like an Asian inspired gyro sans tzatziki sauce.  Janice’s pork bun was average. IMG_6986 Yeah, the ingredients were fresh, and it was well made.  It was just a bit blander compared to my vivacious lamb bun.  Then our entrees finally came out.  My very  extremely spicy noodle bowl was vibrant in terms of presentation and flavor.  Our waiter was pretty skittish when I said I wanted it spicy and even described it as “stupid spicy”, but I was skeptical of his assessment given my previous tussles with fiery meals.  He brought it out with a side of soy milk just to make sure the white boy didn’t lose his mind and taste buds,IMG_6981 but I think I lost them a long time ago when I discovered ghost pepper sauce.  It was spicy but with plenty of savory, smoky flavor.  It could have been a bit better if there was some sort of meat in it, but I was still happy with my choice.IMG_6982 If you like spicy food and have a tolerance for habanero or higher fire, then get this dish.

Good to the last ember

Good to the last ember

My girlfriend tried a bit, but immediately ran to her glass of water.  Janice’s Momofuku ramen was more savory than spicy. IMG_6983 It looked exactly like the ramen I tried in Japan, and it was just as tasty.  The fish cake, eggs, and melt in your mouth pork all were bobbing in a rich beef based broth.  IMG_6984The pork was exceptional with clear layers of succulent meat and juicy fat.

Absolutely gorgeous

Absolutely gorgeous

The noodles were plentiful and slurp-worthy,

She liked it just a little bit

She liked it just a little bit

so it was much more of a solid choice if you appreciate good ramen and less brash flavors compared to my spicy noodles.  Rounding out the meal were our desserts.  I decided to try Milk Bar’s cereal soft serve. IMG_6989IMG_6990 It looked like a run of the mill vanilla cup of ice cream, but its taste was unique.  It literally tasted like milk and cereal!  It was a cool concept, and I’d recommend it.  Janice was less satisfied with the crispy coffee panna cotta or “cooked cream” in Italian. IMG_6991 She was entertained with the chocolate balls on top that looked like rabbit poopIMG_6992 and the coffee layer was delicious, but the custard wasn’t up to snuff. IMG_6993 We left the restaurant greatly satisfied, and it was a pleasing end to a very eventful day.  If you’re into Asian cuisine or comfort food or both, head on down to Momofuku if you have a chance.
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Tierra del Fuego

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What’s up, everyone out there!  Welcome to another funky-fresh edition of Mastication Monologues!  While the weather has been getting better, that means that more and more people are getting out and about in Chicagoland.  During much colder times, Janice and I visited the Firehouse Grill in Evanston and had a wonderful time there.IMG_4356

IMG_4357The overall ambiance is of the general pub variety, so no need to bust out your Sunday best when checking out this casual eatery.  Looking over the menu, it wasn’t pages and pages of items, but what Firehouse does offer is tons of variety on every page.  You want bacon wrapped jalapenos?  Pierogi?  Sweet smoked pork tacos?  You got it!  We started our meal with a couple of drinks.  I got the decadent cookie dough milkshake ($5) while Janice got the Secret Stache Stout.  My drink was as delicious as it sounds with plenty of creamy vanilla ice cream jam-packed with pieces of chocolate chip encrusted cookie dough, IMG_4351IMG_4352IMG_4479and Janice’s beer was a super stout with hints of vanilla and chocolate throughout the ebony brew. IMG_4353 As for an appetizer, Janice was feeling the warm pretzel with the warm cheese sauce on the side ($7). IMG_4354 We shared it, but I don’t think it was worth it.  True, the bread was warm, soft on the inside, and slightly crispy on the outside, but it was on the smaller end along with an extremely liberal coating of salt atop it.  Not my style.  However, my entree ended up being the Gaucho Burger ($13).  It was simple but everything I enjoyed in a burger.  The goat cheese was plentiful, and the chimichurri sauce on the side was the icing on this cake of beef. IMG_4355 I could now see why they called it the Gaucho Burger because of two clearly Argentinian cultural items.  First, the gauchos were like Argentina’s answer to America’s cowboys, but they dressed a little differently, din’t carry guns but a giant knife instead, and were more prone to violence even over extremely small things.  Second, there is the chimicurri sauce that is an icon of Argentine cooking.  The South American country is well known for its high quality steak, which was connected to the gaucho’s herds of cattle, but instead of slathering A1 on a nice porterhouse, they dip pieces into this garlic, oregano, and olive oil based sauce.  The name of the sauce is unknown, but I think the most logical answer is that it comes from the Basque word “tximitxurri” which roughly translates to “A mix of several things in no order”.  Whatever it means, I didn’t care in that moment as I combined it all into one hearty and flavorful burger.  The bun was sturdy and fresh with a light coating of flour on the bottom that made it easier to grip even though it was never going to fall apart in the first place.  The bold and notable goat cheese melted on the medium well beef and combined very well with the garlic and herbal notes from the chimichurri’s olive oil.  I was greatly satisfied with my meal, and Janice was as well.

So if you’re looking for a solid choice to eat some comfort bar food or try a new twist on an old favorite, check out Firehouse Grill in Evanston!
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Costa Rica (Day 6/Final)- Chasing Waterfalls

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Well, it has finally come to this.  The end of our Costa Rican adventure.  It was a wonderful time, and in this post I plan on covering the final two days of our Central American trek.

Our penultimate day kicked off with another super delicious, home-made breakfast that consisted of a quarter of a watermelon, bakery from the night before, and some interesting fruit juice.IMG_5572  First, there was the juice.  When walking through the supermarket the night before, I found this juice of the cas fruit.  Before running into it, the first thing I would have thought of when I heard the word “cas” would be of a terrible Korean beer, but this discovery was worlds apart.IMG_5351  Turns out the cas fruit is a variety of guava grown in Costa Rica, and the juice was a bit more sour than sweet.  It had elements of pear, apple, lime, and orange to be a refreshing glass of juice.  Then there were the pastries. *Cue drooling*.  First, there was my dulce de leche roll that basically was a cinnamon roll with the frosting replaced with that sweet sweet caramel.IMG_5353  It was soft, filled with cinnamon, and super decadent. IMG_5355 My only regret was not microwaving it when I had the chance to get that “fresh-out-of-the-oven” taste and feel. IMG_5356IMG_5359 IMG_5357Janice’s choice, the pupusa de queso, was a surprisingly delicious breakfast addition.  IMG_5352What kind of threw me for a loop was that the Costa Ricans called this a pupusa when I was more acquainted with a more savory and tortilla based variety from El Salvador. IMG_5354 Plus, it was stuffed with a savory cheese that wouldn’t have worked too well without the sugary crust that spanned from stern to bow.IMG_5358  It was a great contrast that left me pleasantly satiated by the end of our breakfast.  These treats were a prelude to our trip to the Poas Volcano.  It was an extremely clear day which was great for us since we were able to see the entire volcano crater complete with the aromatic smell of sulphur dioxide in the air.  How romantic! IMG_4232 After sauntering back down the side of the smouldering mountain, we loaded into the mini-bus to go to the waterfall garden.  However, before we arrived there, we stopped at a roadside store that specialized in strawberries.  In Costa Rica, the land of abundant wildlife and produce, what is grown is dependent on the altitude and climate.  So, in addition to those two factors, the volcanic soil proved to be the ideal environment for growing the sweet fruits. IMG_5379 I tried some from Janice’s purchase and other fellow passengers’ cups, but they didn’t taste any different than the ones from back home.  We arrived at the La Paz animal sanctuary and waterfall garden which was a menagerie of some truly unique flora and fauna specimens like parrots that could sound like crying babies and treasure beetles that looked like they were dipped in precious metals.  Before going to see the waterfalls, we got free samples of a coconut pudding similar to one Janice bought when we were in Sarchi along with a cube of very bland cheese. IMG_4331 The coolest part of the waterfall garden was the magia blanca (“white magic” in Spanish) cataract whose name derives from the optical illusion achieved by staring at the middle of the falls for roughly 20 seconds. IMG_5443 Then, we moved our eyes to the right to see the cliff moving upward against the water.  After we finished with this adventure through the mountains, we went for lunch at another strawberry market and restaurant.  The steak was good but nothing noteworthy.  Janice’s beef stew was a lot tastier since each piece was melting in my mouth. IMG_5457IMG_5460 The strawberry smoothie was a lot better than their intact brethren since it was sweeter due to probable added sugar.IMG_4344  We peaced out of there to get to San Jose, and at night our entire tour group met up for one last meal together.  Our guide, Christian, swore by this place, La Cascada Steakhouse, as one of the best eateries in San Jose.IMG_5478  Fitting that it was also named after a waterfall in Spanish.  It looked moderately more fancy compared to the soda diners we hit up in days past. IMG_5464 IMG_5463 I started the night off with a Pilsen beer that was to a T exactly what the name suggested:  a disappointing pilsner style brew.  IMG_5461On the table, there was a bread and tortilla basket complimented with three different sauces along with butter.  I was a personal fan of the spicy ketchup mix combined with the garlic-laden Chimichurri sauce.IMG_5465  I ordered the Cascada house special, and Janice got the Tierra y Mar (“Surf and turf” basically in Spanish).  While waiting for our food, I decided to get a pic of the grill when one of the servers initiated a conversation with me in Spanish.  I explained to him that I wrote a food blog, so he gave me the lowdown about the grill.  Apparently what sets this steakhouse apart from others was that the grill was that it was coal fueled as opposed to the wood or gas varieties.IMG_5467  This showed in the food when our meals came out.  My steak was expertly grilled and super juicy with a smoky flavor. IMG_5471 Janice’s shrimp and steak combined were super decadent while the side of potato, black beans, and fried plantains were ok. IMG_5473 Surprisingly, we had room for dessert.  I got the apple pie a la mode, and the Tico take on this slice of ‘Murika was pretty damn tasty, especially the carmelized sugar goblet holding the delicious vanilla ice cream.IMG_5474  I loved Janice’s coconut flan that was more bread pudding-esque than the jigglier versions I’ve tried before.IMG_5475  One of our fellow travelers ordered the tres leches (“three milks” in Spanish) cake that was rich yet simple with a creamy topping and vanilla undertones. IMG_5476 It was a bittersweet sign that our time together was coming to a close.

Some of the people in our group.

Some of the people in our group.

The final full day consisted of our ziplining adventure throughout the San Lorenzo canopy which was absolutely exhilarating and ended our trip on literally a high note. IMG_5542 Before becoming airborn, we had some deliciously sweet vanilla pudding puffs for breakfast from the same bakery in downtown San Jose where we got the dulce de leche roll.IMG_5482IMG_5483  After flying through the jungle and over mountains at speeds reaching 50-60 mph (96.5 kph), that worked our appetites up.  So, we hit up the sangria bar at the Best Western down the street.  We kept it simple with a margarita pizza which I guess translates to a regular cheese pizza in Costa Rica.  My dark Bavaria beer was like any of the other beers I had in Costa Rica:  disappointing with minimal taste.IMG_5490IMG_5491  So much for having a full bodied beer on vacation.   The chocolate mousse dessert was a tantalizing dessert that went well with our sweet sangria to top off the night and our journey.IMG_5493IMG_5494

It was hard to say goodbye to the friends that we made along the way, and the wonderful country we explored for that week.  However, reality set in as we passed the marimba players at the airport playing the Chicken Dance, and we walked up to security to return home to freezing Chicago.  It was a perfect vacation, and we stayed classy all the way to the end.   We wouldn’t have done it any other way.IMG_5507

Bro-ing Out with the Apple of My Eye

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Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  If it’s your first time on here or you’re a longtime fan, you’re in for a treat.  I’m all about finding and trying new and unique restaurants, and today’s establishment definitely falls into both categories.  Well, maybe not so much new, but its menu choices are certainly memorable.  Cutting to the chase, I’m talking about Walker Bros. Original Pancake House.  It has been around since 1960, and is considered by Zagat and James Beard the best breakfast place-bar none in the Chicagoland area.  It is so popular that there are now six locations around the Chicagoland area, but in this post, my girlfriend and I visited the original location that opened in 1960 in Wilmette.

I’ve heard of the Walker’s Bros. before, and I wondered what made them so special compared to all of the other types of chain breakfast restaurants or even little hole in the walls I’ve visited in the past.  Breakfasts in America are much more varied compared to breakfasts in other countries, so I feel like I’ve seen it all when it comes to ordering something tasty to fill my piehole with in the morning.  Boy, was I wrong after eating with the Bros.  The exterior of the restaurant just radiated history like it was a living time capsule, but the cars were slightly less hulking and more chock full o’ plastic compared to the motorcoaches of yesteryear.IMG_4201  Walking through the door, however, that hasn’t changed since they first opened it (or so it seemed).  It was full of beautiful stained glass windows and ornate woodcarvings coating the walls. IMG_4200 We were promptly seated in one of the side dining rooms, and we were treated to a perfect view of one of the enormous ceiling lights that were designed in the Tiffany style. IMG_4193 Not only were we taking in the surroundings but also the menu contents.  Janice had been here before, so she automatically knew what she was going to get:  the Dutch Baby pancake ($8.50).  As for me, I was having trouble trying to pick something since everything looked great!  Eggs?  French toast? Crepes?  Waffles?  I was at the pancake house, so I plumped for the apple pancake ($9.95) with the additional $1.95 for French vanilla ice cream on top.  Got to do it big when you’re rollin’ with the Bros.

When our plates came out, I was taken aback since I had never seen anything like it.  Janice’s Dutch Baby wasn’t like a small, screeching, blonde child wearing wooden shoes but rather something that looked like a cross between a taco salad shell and a danish.IMG_4198  What it actually was was an oven-baked pancake that was topped with a healthy sprinkling of powdered sugar. IMG_4197 The kicker was the lemon juice she spritzed over the pancake that really brought it to life.  I personally thought that it was a unique dish as it was less like a bready pancake and more like a lighter, buttery crepe that sizzled over my palate with the sweet powdered sugar combining with the raw sour power of the lemon juice.  Thankfully, the pancake itself wasn’t outshone by the lemon juice.  Then there was the apple pancake….where to start? IMG_4199 It was advertised as an “Original Pancake House tradition”, and that it was stuffed with some apples and cinnamon glaze.  Simple.  I’ve had apple pancakes before where they slice some apples on top and put a slightly thicker syrup over the flapjacks and fruit to leave you full but just moderately satisfied.  My apple pancake from Walker Bros. was the Steve Jobs of the breakfast world.  A revolutionary just doing what it wants to do no matter what.  It’s not for the faint of heart but rather for those with a well endowed sweet tooth, i.e. yours truly.  The exterior seemed to be lacquered with the Sinikiang (fun fact:  Sinikiang or Xinjiang is the Northwestern province of China that is home to the Uighur community and a majority of China’s Muslim minorities.  Also, it was a stop along the famed Silk Road where spices like cinnamon were traded.) cinnamon and sugar glaze so that it shimmered under the ornate lights and beckoned me to tuck into it. IMG_4196 I could see that it was piping hot as its snow white toupee was slowly trickling down its undulating surface through each nook and cranny.  Upon slicing it open, I was greeted with slices of cinnamon apples, pure white dough and more sugar glaze.  It was like an apple pie and a cinnamon roll had a delectable love child.  I was in absolute heaven with every bite, and this is one tradition I hope Walker Bros. never retires.

So if you want a piece of Chicagoland history along with some wonderfully innovative and delicious breakfast items for great prices, run, don’t walk to Walker Bros. Original Pancake House.  Their pancakes will make you flip!

Walker Bros Original Pancake House on Urbanspoon

Food Convention Post: Taste Talks in Chicago

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In Memoriam:  This post is dedicated to the dear memory of beloved Chicago institution, Hot Doug’s (2001-2014).  May you continue to make unique and memorable sausage creations in food Valhalla.  Check out my visit to the now defunct land of wondrous tube steaks.

Today’s post on Mastication Monologues is a unique one since it is about my first visit to a food festival that focused more on the craft and industry than purely the art of gorging oneself on grilled meats and throwing money away buying tickets for beers with skewed prices.  The festival in question is called Taste Talks, and it took place from October 3rd to October 5th.  With two events in Brooklyn in NYC and Chicago, it originally was the brainchild of the carrot-topped, Croc-rockin’ chef, Mario Batali.  However, you’re probably wondering how a small blogger like me could attend such a festival?  I actually was emailed by Paulina from OpenTable offering me a spot on the guest list.  I’d like to thank her once again for the opportunity along with OpenTable for reaching out to me.  Not only that, but I was able to get a pass for my girlfriend as well since I wanted her to share in the glory that was Taste Talks.IMG_4359IMG_4478

While we couldn’t attend the Friday kick-off event with the oyster and champagne dinner at the Kinmont Restaurant, we had essentially free reign over what we could see on Saturday.  It was a cold and drizzly day, but the first meeting we went to at the elegant Soho house.IMG_4394  While it used to be  a tannery at the turn of the 20th Century, in the 21st it is a chic and hip hotel.  We marveled at the lobby as we quickly moved to the elevators to get to the first food meeting. IMG_4392 Even the elevators were swanky as the walls were upholstered like a fine leather couch.  Thankfully we didn’t fall asleep leaning on the walls and quickly moved to the Free-Styling with Ice Cream Desserts talk.  Our panel consisted of Jeni Britton Bauer (Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams), Dana Cree (Blackbird), and Jessie Oloroso (Black Dog Gelato).

Left to Right (Jessie, Jeni, Dana)

Left to Right (Jessie, Jeni, Dana)

During the talk, they were all quite gracious and humorous when interacting with each other and the audience, but I could tell that they knew their stuff based on the emphasis they placed on making their ice cream and gelato from scratch.  While they said most ice cream places throughout America claim to create their ice cream by hand, in reality they just use a dairy base, throw in some sugar and flavorings, and add some toppings.  What they’re selling us is just an image of it being artisanal.  What these ladies do instead is actually break down the ingredients and balance them just right in order to get the right texture, flavor, and melting point.  The choice to do what these ladies do isn’t the cheap route in comparison to the easy peasy ice cream base method, and in reality, the government is against them.  The FDA is very meticulous when evaluating their franchises, and the big dairies are favored in the ice cream industry since they offer an easy way out for people who want to go the traditional route when making the cold treat.  The speakers even made some revealing statements like it turns out the soft serve cones at McDonalds are actually just cold, whipped, leftover animal fats, and ice cream was originally derived from excess butter at dairies.  Ice cream normally is around 10% fat, but McDonald’s, as always, manages to do it bigger than anyone else.  They also explained the differences between gelato and ice cream:  gelato has a lower fat content than ice cream, it’s smoother than ice cream due to the lack of ice crystals, and gelato is served at a higher temperature than traditional American ice cream.  Once they got tired of just talking, each chef did an ice cream demo.  First, there was Jeni Britton Bauer’s ice cream punch.

I knew we were in for a good time when there were bottles of Hennessy on deck right next to the punch bowls. IMG_4364 However, she started instead by struggling to open a bottle of Prosecco, but she eventually opened two and dumped the bubbly into the bowl. IMG_4475 Jeni followed that up with a cup of the smooth brown cognac.  Then, she proceeded to throw a bunch of scoops of different types of sorbet like lemon, strawberry, and raspberry.IMG_4369  Those neon orbs were bobbing in the brew like an extremely adult version of bobbing for apples as she ladled cup upon cup of the crimson mixture.  Janice and I sampled the beverage, and it was quite refreshing. IMG_4373 It tasted like a bubbly, adult Italian soda with rich pieces of ice cream sliding over our palates every other sip.  Next up was Jessie from Black Dog Gelato.

Jessie operated the only ice cream parlor I knew out of the three, and I have heard a lot of buzz about it.  So, I was curious to see what this wizard of cream and sugar could come up with.  She did not disappoint with her chocolate coated pumpkin ice ream pops.  First, she did a simple popsicle using her pumpkin infused gelato, but then melted chocolate using a hot plate on the side.  The pumpkin pops were lovingly caressed in the sweet elixir and then rubbed with a coating of dried coconut and strudel crumbles. IMG_4469 We could sample smaller versions of the pops, and we definitely took advantage of the offer.IMG_4383 IMG_4466 While the crunchy, milk chocolate interior gave way to a more subtle pumpkin gelato that was creamy and understated, it was quite difficult to eat as the slivers of chocolate were flying everywhere.IMG_4465IMG_4385  They probably thought it was my first time eating a cold treat based on how overjoyed I was.  The final creation came from Dana Cree which was a lemon and elderflower infused frozen yogurt that was based on a recipe that used unsweetened Greek yogurt. IMG_4388 This gave it a real tang when combined with the lemon and fragrant notes from the elderflowers.IMG_4390IMG_4389 Out of the three, my favorite was the chocolate and pumpkin pops, and I later found out how creative Jessie could be when Janice and I visited her Black Dog Gelato.  While we would have loved to talk to them for longer, we had to rush to the Art of Salted and Dried Charcuterie.

This lecture took place at Kaiser Tiger at 1415 W. Randolph Street.  IMG_4404IMG_4395It was an eclectic place in terms of decor, but we were there to sample some sausages.  We arrived a bit late and soaked from the drizzle, but it was a very different vibe from the ice cream meeting.  While the ice cream baronesses were approachable and humorous, the speakers were not interested in chewing the fat.  Plus, the people there looked more of the hipster persuasion which gave it an air of pretentiousness that I wasn’t digging.IMG_4403  We just went to town on the sausage sample platter at the back of the room. IMG_4396IMG_4400 It was like a time machine for me for my time living in Barcelona.  Not only did they have the same sliced, orange-red, peppery chorizo I used to make sandwiches with during my siestas, but they also had super fatty pieces of Catalan fuet sausage that contained chewy pieces of meaty flavor.

Chorizo on the left and fuet on the right

Chorizo on the left and fuet on the right

I used to gnaw on a piece of the super rich sausage while working on my homework since it gave me the energy to keep my focused, and I really liked the texture contrast between the fat granules, the melt-in-your-mouth meat, and semi tough casing.

Memories

Memories

After eating our fill of artery-clogging meat, we decided to peace out early for the biggest fireside chat of fireside chats with Rick Bayless.

We boogied on back to Soho House, and we made sure to get a front row seat to see Rick Bayless who is now one of the biggest and most respected chefs in the culinary world thanks to his contributions to the Mexican food scene (he was awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle due to his promotion of Mexican culture and food).  Even with all of his accolades and awards, it was unreal to be so close to someone who seemed so down to earth when talking with the audience.IMG_4406  It’s an effect that happens when you see someone on tv for so long that they take on an almost mythical status, and you expect them to be more imposing in real life like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.  Instead, you just find out that they are human just like you and me.  During his talk, I found out he had similar life to mine with focusing to study Spanish in college along with linguistics in graduate school.  However, cooking and food proved to be his true passion.  Perhaps I could parlay my love into a new career path like Rick.  He went on to talk about the importance of the connection between culture and food which is what I try to achieve here on Mastication Monologues, so his words really resonated with me.  Rick also highlighted the shifting perception of chefs from blue collar workers to veritable rock stars today, and he has provided culinary students with a tempered vision of the future that to get to the top:  hard work and mastery of the craft is crucial to becoming famous.  There aren’t any chefs who open Michelin 3 star restaurants right out of cooking schools.  After talking a bit about his connection to Mexican history and food with his changing menus at Topolobampo (including his 1491 menu that used no ingredients the Europeans brought over like chicken, beef, pork, cilantro, and limes), I got to ask a question during the Q and A session about the shifting demographics in the USA especially with the Latino population.  I asked if he noticed more Latino diners in his restaurants recently , and he said that he saw a lot of younger Latino diners eating his food on date nights as a way to get a taste of their ancestors and learn more about their culture.  Rick graciously thanked everyone, and I was the first person to just thank him for coming out.  IMG_4456Plus, I plugged my blog a little bit, and he seemed really interested in it.  When I said goodbye, I was still amazed that I was less than five feet away from someone I’ve seen for decades on PBS and gracing the covers of cookbooks everywhere.  Janice and I went out on a high note as we walked away from Taste Talks with a new perspective on the food industry and an excitement for the future of dining.  Also, it was a wonderful way to celebrate five happy months together : )IMG_4453

 

Throwback Post: Pilsner Urquell and Olomoucké Tvarůžky in Prague

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Hey there and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  If you haven’t been reading my latest posts, I’ve started to chronicle my past food and drink adventures throughout Europe.  My journey starts in Eastern Europe due to its funky food history and local flavor.  Part one in Bucharest featured a heart-clogging favorite with Romanian shepherds, and part two recalled my misunderstanding over a piece of meat in a unique Budapest restaurant.  Now, part three takes me to Prague where I encountered one of the worst tasting foods I’ve ever consumed, and I actually enjoyed the controversial king of fruits, durian.  So you know it has to be bad.

Prague is hands-down one of the most gorgeous places in Europe I’ve visited, but unfortunately everyone else in the world has found this gem behind the former Iron Curtain.  What this means is that such lovely places like St. Vitus’ Cathedral and the Charles Bridge are crawling with tourists like ants all over a picnic. 2819_1239081974244_3750230_n2819_1239082094247_4265863_n2819_1239080894217_306123_n2819_1239081654236_6953299_n However, there are some hidden gems like the Dancing Building which is colloquially known as Fred and Ginger as in Astaire and Rogers since the two structures look like they’re gliding across the dancefloor like their namesakes.2819_1239082334253_823374_n  Summer hordes aside, it is a metropolis that combines plenty of history with cuisine that has strains of both Slavic and Germanic traditions.  During our stay in Prague, Kevin, his then gf, and I traveled throughout the city and experienced the best Prague had to offer in regard to sites, sounds, and toward the end of our trip, smells.  I’m getting ahead of myself.  First, let’s talk about beer.

In America, we have a very large beer culture compliments of the scores of Northern and Central European immigrants who came to our country, but Czech beer plays a very large part in the history of the hoppy drink, especially when it comes to pilsner beer.  The word “pilsner” derives from the Germanic form of the Czech town of Plzeň (Pilsen in German) since that’s where this type of beer was invented.  Therefore, it only made sense to Czech out (pun YOLO!) the most famous and original pilsner, Pilsner Urquell, in the heart of Prague.  The most interesting part of our bar hopping adventures beyond the beer was a local bar outside the Prague city center that was around the corner from our hostel.  It looked like any other watering hole on the outside, and when we walked in, it didn’t strike us as anything novel.  There was a mix of men and women sitting throughout the establishment sipping on steins, but then there was the all female wait staff.  They were all topless.  TOPLESS!  It wasn’t a nightclub or anything.  No Guns and Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” pumping over the speakers as dancers took their turns on the pole.  Instead, it was like any other bar in the world, but all the ladies must have forgot their shirts at home.  It made holding a conversation with my traveling companions hard and ordering beers even worse.  The whole experience was the polar opposite to the Puritanical views in America toward nudity.  The Pilsner Urquell was equally titillating when it came out.

Bros and brews

Bros and brews

It tasted better out of the tap than the bottles sold in America.  It was crisp, clean, and slightly bitter with hoppy elements that complimented the intense roast pork I had to eat.  Along with the amazing beer, I tangled with a very interesting dish that hails from the capital of Moravia, Olomouc.

Olomouc (pronounced “Oh-luh-moots”) was the only other city we visited in the Czech Republic, but it was the ideal balance to the hectic streets of Prague.  It was more provincial but just as beautiful. 2819_1239094654561_7931694_n The St. Wenceslaus Cathedral was immense like most houses of former worship in secular Europe, and the town square possessed a beautiful sun clock that was shot up by the Nazis during their retreat from Russia in WWII.2819_1239095054571_3336137_n  When the Soviets took over the town, they rebuilt it with proletarian heroes in place of the Catholic saints that originally decorated the clock’s facade. 2819_1239094894567_4225919_n There still are other remnants of Soviet rule like the working scenes in the train station, and all of it added to the character of the town.  We enjoyed our time in the town, and highly recommend it to anyone looking for a daytrip outside of Prague.

Mmm Olomouc ice cream

Mmm Olomouc ice cream

When we came back to Prague, we visited the Jewish Quarter since Kevin’s gf was Jewish. After seeing a synagogue, we stopped at a local restaurant.  They had a mix of Czech and American dishes, but I was drawn in by the “stinky cheese” option.  I ordered one plate which didn’t look that stinky.  It just looked like two patties of fried cheese, but when I sliced into it and took a bite…wow. 1024px-Kartoffelpuffer It tasted like the smell of the pachyderm house at the Brookfield Zoo, i.e. think of hay mixed with pungent urine and aromatic feces.  You know it’s bad when you can only describe the taste of something as a smell.  I could only finish one patty since it was so nasty yet I was so hungry.  Luckily it was only a side to my main dish.  I did some research, and the name of this nasty cheese was  Olomoucké Tvarůžky. tvaruzky It’s a cow milk cheese that originates from Olomouc, the city we visited earlier in the day.  How such a terrible creation could have come from such a wonderful part of the country and has been “enjoyed” since the 15th Century is beyond me.

Overall, the Czech Republic is a great budget vacation in comparison to other places in Western Europe, but you really can experience what the country has to offer at reasonable prices if you venture outside of Prague.  Drink as much beer as you want there but beware of the stinky cheese.  You’ve heard it here first!

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I approve this message on behalf of Pilsner Urquell

 

 

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