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One In A Milion

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Hola and Namaste to a new Mastication Monologues post!  I got to apologize for the lack of consistent posts due to a new full time job that has been quite time consuming, but I promise that today’s entry will be all killer and no filler in the form of a great Latin fusion eatery in Chicago known as Vermilion.

Fusion in food is as common as the intermingling of cultures.  For example, America is a nation of immigrants, and our food reflects that concept of culinary cross-pollination.  Even traditional barbecue draws elements from Spanish, African, and Native American cooking traditions.  However, Vermilion focuses on a menu based on mixing Indian and Latin American cuisine.  What that means is that the super savory and aromatic Indian dishes get a spicy south of the border kick many are familiar with in Mexican cooking, but that is only part of the picture.  Janice and I went for our second to last reservation during Restaurant Week, and it was on a Sunday night after a delicious lunch at Demera.IMG_5908  The interior was super hip and sleek with a black, red, and white motif.IMG_5909IMG_5910  We were quickly seated in the dining room as a blend of Spanish pop and Bollywood hits bounced out of the speakers overhead.  I would also recommend dressing up a bit since Vermilion is a bit more upscale than most Latin and Indian restaurants.  We both went with the $33 restaurant week dinner which consisted of a standard three course meal with an appetizer, entree, and dessert.  However, our waiter surprised us with a free, little taster plate with a chef’s creation.IMG_5912  These petite squares that we were face to face with was a fried plantain chip topped with mango pico de gallo and resting on a sweet, brown tamarind chutney.IMG_5914  It was a mini t-bomb (taste bomb) of flavor where the sweet backbone of the canape was supported by the chutney, mango, and plantain, but was then tempered by the sour lime juice and semi-savory aftertaste of the fried plantain.  As for the appetizer stage of our meal, I went with a Bombay frankie and Janice got the pumpkin squash curry leaf soup.  The frankie was great. IMG_5915 It is one of India’s favorite street food snacks, and I can see why. IMG_5916 It consisted of a fried flatbread known as a roti that was then filled with chunks of chicken coated in Indian spices like cardamom and curry, but the best part was the shot glass of mint curry on the side.  It wasn’t toothpaste minty, but it gave the spicy sauce a cool aftertaste.  Janice’s squash soup was just as delicious. IMG_5917 It came with an Indian cracker on the side known as a pappad or papadum depending on where you’re at in India.  The soup was extremely creamy and rich with a pepper infused oil that gave each curry-filled spoonful a mild kick.  These bold flavors warmed us up for our entrees that came soon thereafter.  I got the Brazilian feijoada which I was pretty excited to try since it is considered to be the national dish of the South American nation.  Contrary to popular preparation which utilizes black beans and a dark, purplish-brown broth which is a mix of the aforementioned beans and various meats stewing in the dish, Vermilion’s take on it was a mix of Indian and Latin flavors.  First, the color of the stew was a vibrant red that contained a mound of white rice and a rice cracker in the middle that acted like a nacho with taco dip.IMG_5920  As for the rice, it was an element more in touch with its Brazilian roots, but I didn’t see any traditional farofa (manioc flour roasted with butter and bacon) on the side which made me quite sad.  As for the contents of the actual dish, there were red beans (supposedly black beans according to the menu), large chunks of succulent chicken, and hunks of spicy Portuguese chorizo sausage.  Not only was the meat spicy, but the actual stew had an Indian vindaloo flavor to it which means that it was super spicy with a smoky background.  This fiery quality was also a sign of Indian/Latin fusion since a typical Brazilian feijoada isn’t spicy.  Even though it wasn’t the most traditional dish, it was innovative, warm, and hearty.  Perfect for a cold day like it was when we went.  Janice didn’t go down the super spicy route and got the heart of palm Valencia paella.IMG_5922  It consisted of large rings of the pulp found in the middle of palm trees, curried Indian rice, and a bit of orange zest.  IMG_5923Neither of us found it to be as interesting as the feijoada since it just tasted like curry.  However, our meal got more interesting in the wrong way since we found a hair in Janice’s paella.  Thankfully, they replaced it for free with a dish of her choice, so she got the feijoada as well.  It got even better when our desserts came.  I got the mango cardamom flan which was out of this world.IMG_5924  The flan had the perfect firm yet gooey texture and was infused with cardamom.  It was soaking in a mango escabeche (a word originally from the Persian “al-sikbaj” meaning a meat dish soaking in a sweet and sour sauce) or syrup which imparted an incredibly but not overwhelming sweetness to a mostly neutral tasting dessert.  The coconut foam on top tied this entire dish together perfectly since it was both light and sweet.  If you wanted to cleanse your palate after all that sweet flan and heavenly foam, you could follow the trail of  pitted, juicy lychees covering mini mounds of cranberries to the end of the plate.  I jumped from one plate to another to get a taste of Janice’s date chocolate rice pudding that had a little bit of cinnamon and clove to add a savory yin to the semi-sweet yang with the date chocolate. IMG_5927 I never was a big fan of rice pudding though, so it didn’t capture my imagination as much as our final dessert.  Since Janice didn’t make a big deal about finding the hair in her food, our waiter brought out the most popular dessert to our table for free.IMG_5928  It was a flourless chocolate lava cake that was covered in a subtly spicy dark chocolate mole sauce…words can’t describe how satisfying and incredibly rich this dessert was.  It was further embellished with an undulating raspberry syrup trail that led to a creamy, small ball of vanilla bean and coconut ice cream that rested on some fresh sliced strawberries.  These desserts were by far the best part of the entire meal, and the service was superb.

So, even though things got a little hairy midway through the dinner, Vermilion managed to win us over with its creative food (especially the desserts!) and great service.  I highly recommend this restaurant if you are tired of the same old ethnic eateries.
Vermilion on Urbanspoon

London (Day 6)- Taken to Tasca/Dressed to Empress

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Hello everyone, and welcome to the final chapter in my London food chronicles on Mastication Monologues.  While I don’t think that anything will really top the crazy dinner I had at Bunga Bunga on day 5, the last days of London were still filled with great Spanish food at La Tasca and wonderful dishes at the popular Indian eatery The Empress.

During my time in Korea, quality western food items were in short supply, but that is not to say that they were impossible to find.  I had a brief encounter with a taperia in Incheon that supposedly had great tapas but left me wanting.  I’ve lived in Spain, and this place omitted basic tapas that you would find on any menu in Spain or even in the USA.  Then with the tapas that they did have, they couldn’t even do them properly like gambas a la plancha or tortilla espanola.  So, when I landed in London, I was certain that they would at least have the know-how and mettle to pull off a decent tapateo due to the influx of Spanish immigrants or at the very least through geographical proximity to la patria compared to Korea.  I was also meeting up with my friend, Rebecca, who I had met back in 2008 in Manchester, and she also had a taste for Spanish food.  After a bit of wandering around the Covent Garden area, we finally found what we were looking for:  La Tasca.  Rebecca told me she had heard good things about it, so we went inside to see what all the hubbub was about.6905@ltgallery  The decor was filled with plenty of cultural items from the peninsula that were not too tacky, and it was surprisingly empty for the height of lunchtimeIMG_2341IMG_2340.  Oh well, more room for us.  The menu had an extensive offering of tapas of all varieties, cocidos, paellas, and meatless options for you vegetarians out there.  As for drinks, they obviously had an extensive wine menu along with many different types of beers I sampled throughout Spain.  While Rebecca went for more of the seafood options, I went more the land animal route with croquetas de pollo (chicken croquettes, a Madrid favorite, L 4.70), mejillas de puerco (pork cheeks, L 5.25), and patatas bravas (fried potatoes with spicy sauce, L 3.35).  After a bit of catching up with an old friend, our tapas came out.  I began with the pork cheeks that were in a semi-sweet chili sauce nestled in a nest of fries.

Cheeky porky

Cheeky porky

I was greatly satisfied as the sweet sauce combined with the saltiness of the fries to further enhance the tender morsels of pork.  I moved on to the croquetas which were half-heartily presented on tufts of what seemed to be a garlic mayonnaise and garnished with sprigs of clover on top.IMG_2337  Thankfully the presentation did not foreshadow the taste as I found them to have a crunchy, light exterior that gave way to a piping hot interior flush with pieces of all white chicken and melted manchego cheese.IMG_2338  I saved my very favorite for last, the patatas bravas. IMG_2336 This specific tapa is always my personal barometer of how true a tapas restaurant is to the real article in Spain, and while they did an adequate job at La Tasca, I’ve yet to find a restaurant outside of Spain that can recreate the sauce they use.  However, the ones at La Tasca were semi-satisfying in the sense that they had the peppery spice that comes with the dish, but the ratio of mayo to tomato sauce was completely off.  Overall, it was a decent tapas meal, but I would look elsewhere if you are searching for high quality tapas.
La Tasca on Urbanspoon

Moving on from my mini-Spanish adventure, I knew before I left London I had to get some Indian food whether at was at a sit-down restaurant or getting my favorite Chicken Tikka footlong sandwich at Subway.  Either way, I needed to get my curry in a hurry.  So, my friend Ravi set up our last meal together at The Empress located just a short walk from the Aldgate East tube station in the Tower Bridge area of London.empress_indian_restaurant_london_whitechapel_1  The interior was elegantly decorated but had very dim lighting.  I don’t know if they were trying to save on their electricity bills or set the mood, but it made taking pictures of my food a bit harder along with walking through the restaurant in general.  We started off with some Cobra beers (L 3.95) that are Indian in origin but brewed in the UK.IMG_2348  It was a smooth lager that wasn’t terribly filling and had a light, slightly hoppy aftertaste.  After wetting our whistles, we perused the menu to find that they had an extensive menu offering a plethora of Indian specialties from mild paneers to taste-bud scorching phals and everything in between.  To start the feast, we got an order of papadum (Indian flatbread) that came with curry, chutney, yogurt, and pickled vegetables.IMG_2349  The flatbread was crispy and somewhat bland until you put some of the garnishes on it.  My personal favorite was the red chutney that packed a spicy punch.

(Starting at 12 o'clock going clockwise) raita, red curry, red chutney, and pickled vegetables.

(Starting at 12 o’clock going clockwise) raita, red curry, red chutney, and pickled vegetables.

As for the entrees, we decided to split some smaller dishes like bindi (okra), aaloo mutter (potatoes and peas), raita (yogurt sauce) but also have our own meals.  I was contemplating between the spicy vindaloo or the supposedly hellish phal, but the waiter dissuaded me from the latter saying that I’d only be tasting the spice.  I don’t know if he did that because he thought I couldn’t handle it or was just being nice, but I went for the lamb vindaloo (L 11).  All of our food came out at the same time along with some of the naan (flatbread) we ordered, and it looked and smelled delicious.IMG_2352  The taste test would prove equally fruitful.  My lamb vindaloo was filled with plenty of lamb swimming in the spiciest vindaloo sauce I’ve ever had, but it definitely brought plenty of delicious cumin and onion flavor with the flames. IMG_2353 The raita cut through the inferno with a cool, cucumber splash coupled with some of the basmati rice we ordered.  I really enjoyed the aaloo mutter as well since it was simple, hearty, not overly seasoned, and the peas weren’t soggy.  I’d say it was the best Indian meal I’ve ever had for the price I paid, and I highly recommend you seek out The Empress.
The Empress Indian Restaurant on Urbanspoon
Even though we paid our check and got up to leave, the fun didn’t stop there.  After dinner, one of our friends suggested that my friend Bob and I should try this Indian after dinner mint that helps with digestion called paan.  We walked further down the street to the world famous Brick Lane which is regarded as the hub of the best South Indian fare in the world.  First, we walked into a respectable looking Indian bakery looking to see if they offered this paan treat, but the guy turned us away.  Then, we moved 50 feet down the street to a convenience store selling everything from rolling tobacco to an unusual amount of calculators.  I knew we were in the heart of a different community far from the glitz and glamour of more touristy spots as all of the workers referred to me as “boss” since I was the only person not of South Asian descent in the store.  I saw the cashier take our order and proceeded to roll up what looked like a medium sized oval leaf into a cone.  After scooping in something that looked like confetti and pouring some syrup inside along with rolling them up in newspapers, we walked back outside to finally try them.  Bob and I took them out of the newspaper to find what seemed to be green cocoons that were packed tightly with that flaky material I saw that man stuff inside.IMG_2356  While I was taking pictures of this mystery food, Bob popped his into his mouth, and I was frightened by his reaction. His face went quickly from a look of curiosity to a grimace to almost a portrait of pain as he subsequently ran to the nearest garbage can to spit it out.

Yum...

Yum…

I decided to give it a go, and I bit through the semi-bitter leaf to find the interior to be similar to sawdust in terms of texture along with pieces that almost felt like rocks.  When I chewed even further, that is when the true flavor came out that made my friend Bob pay a trip to the nearby rubbish bin.  My mouth was overwhelmed with a taste I could only liken to extremely floral potpourri mixed with cherry syrup with a heavy emphasis on the former.  It was such a mess in my mouth, and I couldn’t get it out sooner.  Unfortunately, it was thoroughly chewed which made it harder to gracefully spit out into the garbage can.  My friend who brought us there said it wasn’t good quality, so I’ll just take his word for it.  I asked him what was in it, and he said coconut, cinnamon, cardamom, camphor, anise, and the cherry syrup among other things.  Either way, it quickly shot up my list into the top three grossest things I’ve ever consumed, and it will live long in my memory.  However, it was a memorable way to say goodbye to some great guys (and the girlfriend of one of them) that I hope to see again, and I still appreciate the hospitality they showed me while in London.IMG_2359

A Meal Fit For a King or Queen

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Hello and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today I present to you Taj Palace in Itaewon located at 39, Usadan-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul 서울특별시 용산구 우사단로 39 (이태원동).  Directions: Get off at Itaewon Station (Subway Line 6), exit through Exit 3.  Walk 5 minutes and enter the alley next to the fire station past Kookmin Bank.  The restaurant is located down the street.    Now, I’ve had my fair share of Indian food throughout my life due to the high population of Southern Asians in the Chicagoland area, but this meal contained probably some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had.

The palace of culinary delights

The palace of culinary delights

A bunch of friends and I made our way to Taj Palace in Itaewon for our friend Steve’s birthday, and I was a bit wary of this experience since the last time we went out for someone’s birthday in Itaewon, it ended quite badly in terms of the food (See Saved By The Bell).  The restaurant’s staircase was decorated with beaded strings , and then the actual dining room was tastefully decorated with paintings and pictures of various parts of Indian culture.  We were seated immediately, and I saw that they had a sumptuous banquet laid out against the back wall.  I had only eaten a bowl of cereal the entire day, so I was ready to explore what sort of Desi delights Taj Palace had to offer in their buffet for 18,000 Won.

Enter my first plate:

Clockwise starting with Tandoori chicken, aloo beans, butter chicken, sagg chicken, and vegetarian curry

Clockwise starting with Tandoori chicken, aloo beans, butter chicken, saag chicken, and vegetarian curry

I started with the standard Tandoori chicken that can be found on any Indian restaurant’s menu.  This chicken dish is named after the type of oven it is prepared in, a tandoor, and is first marinated in yogurt before being grilled.  Then the chunks are coated in spices like paprika which give the meat its brick red hue.  These mighty pieces of meat were excellent in terms of size, juiciness, and spice level with just the right amount of paprika to test your heat tolerance.  Then there were the oddly named aloo beans.  I say oddly because aloo is the Hindi term for “potato”, but it didn’t seem like there was a single potato in the dish.  The sauce seemed to be similar to aloo gobi since I could taste hints of savory turmeric, and the green beans were perfectly cooked.  After plowing through that bit, I made my way to the butter chicken.  What it is is pieces of boneless chicken roasted in a tandoor and then plopped into a gravy that consists of tomato puree, butter, and spices like turmeric and cardamom.  It was more of a dish for people with less of a spice tolerance, but still had plenty of great flavors where the tomato puree possessed occasional hints of garlic and some weak chili elements.  I switched gears going from one chicken dish to another as I tasted saag chicken for the first time.  It comprised boneless pieces of chicken sauteed with spinach and spices.  I’d probably say this was my second favorite dish out of the entire buffet because I love spinach to begin with, and the addition of the high quality meat along with the garam masala made it really stand out.  The last part of my first plate was my vegetarian curry piled high on my saffron rice.  It was somewhat pedestrian compared to the other samplings on my plate, but with the perfectly prepared white and yellow rice, it really brought my first mini-meal to a respectable end.  Then there was my second plate.

Clockwise:  green salad, chickpea salad, Kadhai noodles, lamb vindaloo, and dal hariyani.

Clockwise: green salad, chickpea salad, Kadhai noodles, lamb vindaloo, and dal hariyali.

On my second plate and for the whole meal, my favorite was the lamb vindaloo.  It was respectably spicy, but the only downside was the lack of lamb pieces swimming about in the devilishly red sauce.  The green salad was pedestrian compared to the other food since it didn’t possess any of the aforementioned mind and mouth boggling flavors and spices.  The lettuce, carrots, and cucumbers were fresh and verdant though.  I really liked the chickpea salad too because these small legumes are a great source of protein, had a creamy texture, and were mixed with a garlic vinaigrette that really made the flavors pop.   The kadhai noodles and the dal hariyali were nothing special, especially the former.  I thought they kind of didn’t fit in with the rest of the foods in terms of flavor, and the noodles didn’t taste like anything.  As for the dal hariyali, it was a vegetarian dish consisting of red lentils, coriander, spinach, and methi leaves.  While it possessed the same creamy texture as the chickpeas, it was on the blander side of things.  I was surprised that the coriander and methi leaves didn’t bring stronger herbal flavors to the taste spectrum.  While I was eating all of these delicious plates, they provided us with complimentary naan which is basically flatbread that can be prepared in a number of different ways. IMG_0507 This naan wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but it was soft, fresh out of the oven, and garnished with coriander.  I also tried their dal soup which consisted of yellow lentils, but I was indifferent to it.IMG_0509  It just tasted like beans.

However, the dessert was quite interesting.  We were all trying to figure out what to compare it to which ranged all the way from porridge to semolina, but the actual name of it is kheer.

Not a bad bowl of goop

Not a bad bowl of goop

These parallels to other foods were drawn due to the fact that it is made of boiled rice with milk and sugar, so there was a slight grainy texture to each thin, vanilla-tinged spoonful.  Plus, it was garnished with raisins and almonds which took this dessert to the next level in regard to texture.  It wasn’t mind blowing in terms of flavor, but this pudding was a pleasant surprise since it initially didn’t look like the most appetizing after-meal treat in the world.  By the time I slurped up the last drops of kheer, I was thoroughly stuffed and satisfied.

If you’re looking for great Indian food in Korea and don’t know where to turn, visit Taj Palace.  It has it all:  quality food, generous portions, and a great ambiance.IMG_0513

On Top of Mt. Everest, All Covered With Cheese….

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Hello everyone to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Even though the weather in Korea doesn’t know how to make up its mind, today was a beautiful day.  So I went out for a mini-adventure in Incheon.  I also wanted to  find an interesting restaurant on the internet in Incheon, and eventually I landed on a cuisine that I never had before:  Nepalese.  The only things I really know about Nepal is its proximity to India, being home to the mysterious Yeti, and of course, Mt. Everest.  The food?  No clue.  So after making my way to a local point of interest and hiking a mountain, I made my way to Bihanee Restaurant located right by Bupyeong Station in Incheon.IMG_0068

Upon entering, I was greeted by a Korean hostess/waitress which made me a bit nervous since I’ve seen what Koreans do with pizzas (mustard and shrimp, anyone?), so I was curious as to why they would specialize in Nepalese and Indian food.  After sitting down for a bit, all of my questions were answered when a man, who I assumed was the owner, came up to me and asked me how I was doing.  He seemed to be of Indian descent, and I saw his cook who looked Nepalese.  So much for the Korean smokescreen at the door.  Anyway, I ordered the Murg Malai Kebab (10,000 W) and a side of Himali naan (4,000 W).  I also appreciated the gigantic carafe of free, ice-cold water that really quenched my thirst after trucking up the mountain.  After patiently waiting, my food finally came out.IMG_0066  It was arranged in a very tasteful manner, and the owner explained what the sauces were that came with it without even being prompted.  So I started on the kebab which looked scrumptious, and the actual taste did not disappoint.  According to the menu, the boneless pieces of chicken are roasted in a Tandoori oven with cheese, cream, cashews, and spices.  All of these elements came together to form a harmonious flavor profile.  It was on the milder side compared to other Indian dishes, but the chicken was succulent with nutty undertones that were accented with some charred notes from the intense heat of the oven.  The sauces, one green chutney infused with cilantro and one sweet red chili sauce, definitely kept the dish from becoming too boring.  On the side, there was a fresh cabbage salad with some of the same red chili sauce on it, but I preferred the cooked, chili coated onions.  They were not spicy, but I enjoyed employing them in a tag-team of intense flavors with the green chutney when eating the chicken.  Just when I thought my appetite was down for the count, I turned my attention to the Himali naan. IMG_0067 The three enormous pieces of warm flatbread looked very enticing because they were coated in pieces of apples and cherries.  Normally, I’ve had savory naan with garlic or peas, so this Nepali twist allowed me to indulge my sweet tooth.  From the first bite, I knew that I made the right choice.  The bread was warm, soft, and pliable with just the right amount of crispiness on the surface.  In terms of flavor, it was a fitting dessert as the buttery foundation of the bread served as the canvas for the broad strokes of smooth apple and the tart, staccato cherry accents.  By the time I finished, I was thoroughly satisfied and felt it was a worthy trophy meal after such an active day.   Upon leaving, the owner asked me where I was from, and thanked me for coming in and gave me his business card.IMG_0070Just another fleeting moment of great service during my dining experience.  So if you want to try a cuisine that is as rare as the abominable snowman and more satisfying than climbing Mount Everest (individual experiences may vary), then head on over to Bihanee and Mr. Oli will treat you to a fantastic meal.

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