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Hitting It Big on the Market (Mercat a la Planxa)

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Bon dia!  Finally another post during this crazy holiday season.  It hasn’t always been the easiest to think of what great restaurant I should review next since this time of the year naturally comes with trips to various eateries as well as sampling a variety of homemade morsels.  However, today’s entry on Mastication Monologues has a special place in my heart based on the day we went there.  Next year, I will marry the love of my life, Janice, and Mercat a la Planxa was the ideal backdrop after our engagement photo shoot this past year.

It has been four years since I went back to Spain, and eight years since I lived in Barcelona for a year to finish my Spanish degree.  Although the peninsula is now a far-flung memory from my current home, it always is in the forefront of my mind, especially the food.  Therefore, when Janice said that she made reservations at one of Chicago’s premier Spanish restaurants, my taste buds were having their own tablao de flamenco in anticipation.  Needless to say, Mercat a la Planxa lived up to the hype.  The shoot before the meal went well minus my newer pair of shoes that were ripping the backs of my heels to shreds.  On top of it, it was unusually warm and humid for Fall, and neither Janice nor I are suited for hot climes.  Thankfully, we all took it in stride and much thanks to Tanya our photographer for doing an amazing job through it all (shameless plug for Tanya Velazquez Photography here!).  janicemark-18-of-43After we said our goodbyes and thanks for the enjoyable time, we eventually arrived at Mercat at the corner of Balbo and Michigan Ave.  It is very non-descript on the outside aside from a graphic printed on the windows. img_0706 The interior, on the other hand, is very sleek and modern.img_0677img_0678img_0679  Definitely made an impression on my fiancee and I given it shares a lobby with the Blackstone Hotel.  img_0704This building was known as “The Hotel of Presidents” since some kind of famous Commanders-in-Chief like FDR, JFK, and Teddy Roosevelt spent time in their luxurious suites.  In addition to heads of state, huge captains of industry (Rockefellers, J.P. Morgan, and Vanderbilt) as well as other famous stars (Tom Cruise, Paul Newman, Katherine Hepburn) have made the building their temporary home (the entire list can be found here).  Little did we know that this historical building would lead to a historical night for our palates.  Looking over the menu, I realized that Mercat was unique in the sense that they focused on Catalan ingredients and dishes since all of the items were written in Catalan.  While the southern Andalucian region gets all of the credit for what counts as being Spanish (bullfights, flamenco, sunny beaches), Catalunya on the east coast of the peninsula is firmly anti-Spanish.

Never the best of friends

Never the best of friends

It caused me some trouble when living in Barcelona since speaking Spanish before Catalan is seen as sign of being an outsider, but thankfully at Mercat they were just focused on providing the best experience possible.  As we looked over the menu at the various tapas, we saw everything from vegetable, meat, olives, paellas, and even a roast suckling pig (half of one is $220 and a full is double!).  With that final option, the price reflects the fact it can feed roughly 4 to 12 people, and it comes with its own personal meat carver and sides.  Obviously, we weren’t going to take down one of these hogs, but we were starving since we hadn’t eaten all day.  While we were trying to make our choices, our server brought a classic Catalan pre-meal food:  pan amb tomaquet (bread with tomato). img_0682 This Catalan version of Italian bruschetta is relatively new to the region.  This 18th century invention is believed to be the result of abundant tomato harvests and using the juicy veggies to soften hard bread.  I found this take on the carb-based antipasto quite refreshing compared to what is commonly found in Spain, but that also was because it was closer to bruschetta with its large tomato chunks and oregano compared to the minimalist fare found in cafeterias in Espana.  Eventually we settled on several tapas that could satisfy our ever-burgeoning appetites.  First, there were the datiles con almendras/almond-stuffed dates ($9). img_0683 These were a bit different than typical bacon-wrapped dates given they were drizzled with La Peral Asturian cheese which imparted the salty-sweetness with a milky smoothness that served as the fulcrum to balance both flavors.  Next were the gambas al ajillo ($13).img_0685  This was a definite highlight when this Catalonian bowl was still bubbling when placed in front of us.  From the size and quality of the olive oil/garlic/chili mix the shrimp was swimming in, it was the ideal tapa.  Next was my favorite tapa:  patatas bravas ($5).  These “wild potatoes” are my judge of whether or not a restaurant’s tapas are up to snuff (or if they even have them!).  Honestly, if you’re a professional chef and have mediocre/terrible fried potato chunks and a spicy mayonnaise sauce on the side, you might as well pack up your cooking utensils and find a new day job.  While that has been the case in very few of my tapateos, at Mercat they are the real deal.  They are the closest thing I have tasted outside of Spain to the same bravas I would always get at my favorite cafe on Rambla de Brasil in Barcelona.  First, the presentation was exquisite as they were lined up in a little row with the spicy sauce atop each potato like a barretina or traditional Catalonian cap.img_0695  I don’t know if they did this on purpose, but it was an excellent homage to the culture.

Messi reppin' Catalunya!

Messi reppin’ Catalunya!

img_0694These typically red hats are worn as a symbol of Catalan identity, and they can be seen now every Christmas on their traditions that revolve around poop like el caganer  (the pooping man) and el tio nadal (the pooping Christmas log).  Then there was the taste.  Most patatas bravas I’ve had, they’ve had more of a tomato based, more Mexican-style salsa sauce which isn’t even close to the original.  Mercat, however, has just the right blend of mayo, cracked black pepper, and garlic to go with the crunchy potato pieces.  I highly recommend these tapas if you want a true taste of a Spanish tapa mainstay.  Next came the albondigas/meatballs ($12).  This plate was an homage to the Moorish influence on Spanish cuisine as the meatballs were made of both beef and lamb and a variety of ingredients including smoked yogurt, tahini, pickled vegetables, and almonds.img_0693  It was a hearty Mediterranean/North African inspired tapa that was further enhanced with the slight spice provided from the North African harissa chili sauce.  If you love lamb or Middle Eastern food/flavors or don’t eat pork, this is the tapa for you!  With all of these delicious plates coming our way, we knew we had to sneak some greens in their somewhere to be healthy, so we got the broquil amb cansalada ($12).  img_0692It was good but not as great as it was described on the menu.  It just tasted like some charred broccoli with the occasional hammy pancetta note.  The desserts at the end of our meal were killer regardless of my sweet tooth.  The only problem is that the desserts are quite small.  The horchata bon bons ($4 each) were addictive with a crunchy chocolate shell coating horchata ice cream and topped with cinnamon puffed rice and almond brittle. img_0697 When popped in our mouths, it had a plethory of crunchy, smooth, and rough textures and a nuttiness more common to Spanish tiger nut-derived horchata which differs from Mexican rice-derived horchata.  We also tried the financer ($14).  This small, golden cake was named either due to its resemblance to a bar of gold or its supposed popularity in the financial district of Paris since it could be carried in the pocket of traders for long periods of time without being damaged.img_0700  I don’t know if this delicate treasure of culinary creation could have done the same because it melted under the weight of the cheesecake gelato, candied almonds, and tart cherry gastrique to create a mouth-watering Catalan creation.  Finally, there were the croquetes de xocolata ($10).  This dessert was like a Salvador Dali creation.  img_0702The milk chocolate croquettes were rich to begin with, but then things took a turn for the “interesting” as we found them floating in mini rafts of banana-infused marshmallow adrift in a sea of rosemary-infused caramel and Arbequina olive oil.  Our mastication-filled maritime adventure rode the flavor wave from the bittersweet chocolate, to the sweet caramel, to the surprising whitecaps of banana and oddly fruity (in a good way) olive oil.  If you want a dessert that challenges your senses in all the best, most decadent ways, this is the dessert for you.

In sum, Mercat a la Planxa left us thoroughly satisfied with our meal and the overall dining experience.

img_0687 While there are cheaper tapas restaurants in the City and Chicagoland area, you will find it hard to discover an eatery as unique as this “Market on the Grill”.
Mercat a la Planxa Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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A Sumptuous RePass

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Welcome one and all to another very interesting and hearty food post on Mastication Monologues!  Today’s subject actually involves a type of cuisine that is as old as time and comes from an incredibly well traveled part of the world, the Khyber Pass.  While this landmark might not evoke a reaction from most readers, it is actually one of the crucial geographic features to the shifting sands and roaming armies of global empires.  It is a key link between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has been transversed by every conqueror from Alexander the Great, Darius I of Persia (Father of the big bad Xerxes from the movie 300), Ghengis Khan, British colonial forces, and even to the modern day with the murky conflict with the Taliban and NATO forces.  Not only was the Khyber Pass a route for war since time immemorial, but it also was a giant outpost during the heyday of the Silk Road.  With all of these populations moving to and fro in the region, naturally they were going to leave an impression on the local cuisine.  I mean, they were peddling seasonings to Europeans that we take for granted nowadays for imparting all of our food and drinks with immense amounts of flavor like black pepper, chili peppers, cinnamon, cloves, ginger,  and even nutmeg to name a few.  Basic white girls in Fall wouldn’t even be a trending meme in American culture if it wasn’t for the Khyber Pass!  A giant historical stretch, I know, but a definite reality we have to deal with.cowwl  Thankfully, when Janice and I visited the Oak Park location of the Khyber Pass restaurant chain, there wasn’t any pumpkin but plenty of spice on the menu.

It was a cold and frozen drizzle kind of a day, so what better way to cut through the terrible weather than some soul-warming Indian food? IMG_5972 We walked in around the lunch hour after finding some parking in the back, and it was not terribly packed.  It was very welcoming with its warm colors and interesting decorations. IMG_5967

This takes all spice to another level

This takes all spice to another level

IMG_5969

Tea, anyone?

Tea, anyone?

We were quickly seated, and we noticed that they had a lunch buffet special for $15.  Based on my experience with previous buffets, I didn’t have any qualms, so we informed the waiter we were interested in getting our money’s worth since we were starving.  According to Khyber Pass’ website, they champion the cuisine of the Pathan people or more commonly known as the Pashtun in their language, Pashto.  Their homeland spans the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and some famous Pashtun that you might of heard of include Harmid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan, and Malala Yousafzai, the famous young lady who stood up to the Taliban for women’s rights.  Clearly, it is a region that is not the easiest to live in, so their cuisine is similar to Indian food in terms of utilizing simple ingredients in a variety of ways with plenty of spice and flavor in every bite.  This was epitomized looking over the assortment of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes along with a healthy array of curries, salads, soups, sides, and entrees.  We decided to try their half of a tandoori chicken ($12.95 or $16.95 for a whole) along with a side of naan bread to accompany our foray into the buffet.  Before we received all of our food, I got a Maharaja Premium Beer to slake my thirst, and that’s all about it did. IMG_5960 This brew from Mumbai was nothing of great note.IMG_5959  It was a thin, slightly fruity pilsner that had a very faint, bitter aftertaste.  I wouldn’t go back for another one.  However, the tandoori chicken and naan looked great.  Tandoori chicken originally was popular in the northern region of India and Pakistan called the Punjab due to the cultural practice of every home having a charcoal fired oven called a tandoor.  Just like in India, Khyber Pass roasted their chicken in a traditional tandoor after it had been marinated in yogurt, Kashmiri chilies, and turmeric. IMG_5964 However, this chicken isn’t super spicy if you don’t have a tongue of steel.  It is instead savory with swirls of flavor that are both umami yet earthy.  The naan bread we had it with also has an interesting history.  It seems like your typical, slightly leavened, flatbread that has been around since the beginning of time and the word originates from the Iranian word “n’n” which is a general word for “food” or “bread”.  However, this particular type of bread only became popular beyond the Indian subcontinent and surrounding cultures when the Roma people, more commonly known as “gypsies”, brought it during their exodus across the Central Asian steppe all the way to Europe.  Side note:  Based on genetic blood studies done in Roma communities and studying the Romani language, all signs point to an origin in India, not Romania, Ireland, or even Egypt which is where their modern nickname came from.  The Greek’s believed they came from Egypt, so they called the Roma Αἰγύπτιοι (Aigyptioi) or “those from Egypt” which then eventually made its way to the Middle English “gypcian“.  Whatever they call themselves, I can’t get enough of their bread.  IMG_5962It has more body and texture contrasts than a pita but still has its strength when dealing with soupy curries.  Khyber Pass’ naan had both a lightly buttered, crunch exterior that gave way to a moderately chewy center that sopped up all of the delicious chicken juices and the plates we got from the buffet.IMG_5966  My first plate was a mix of different items from their regular menu including:  vegetable pakora ($5.50), green salad ($5.95), chicken curry ($11.95), bhuna gosht (lamb in a light spicy sauce), bengan bhurtha (stewed eggplant; $10.95).

Clockwise: green salad, lamb, chicken, vegetable pakora, and eggplant

Clockwise: green salad, lamb, chicken, vegetable pakora, and eggplant

The pakora were little, deep fried vegetable fritters that were rich with flavor but not super greasy.  Plus, the smooth breading was very different than typically Western fried foods that is flakier.  Surprisingly, their green salad lived up to its name, even more impressive that it was part of their buffet, since it was bursting with fresh, verdant veggies that I topped off with the slightly tangy raita yogurt sauce.  The chicken curry was competently made but nothing to rave about.  I felt that the food overall wasn’t super spicy, so I asked them to bring some sort of hot sauce.  They brought me a Sriracha knock-off, but I told them that I wanted what they, i.e. the South Asian staff, ate.  Next thing I know, I was greeted with a cook inspired hot sauce that looked nuclear from the bright orange yellow that was emanating from the bowl.

This just looks angry.

This just looks angry.

I put it on my chicken, and it was amazing.  It was a coconut based sauce that up on the vindaloo level of spice that let me know that I, a real chilihead, was actually eating something spicy.  They were shaking their heads when I wasn’t dying from heat stroke, and that added to the long list of people from spicy food cultures being flabbergasted at my spice tolerance.  Yet, I think that it offers a more authentic experience that isn’t watered down for the locals.  Tongue searing spice aside,   I was definitely into the bhuna gosht or stewed lamb.  It added the gamey dimension that comes with lamb and fused it with a cumin and curry sauce that took it to another level of flavor awareness.  It was the clear standout on my plate and paired perfectly with a hefty piece of naan for some finger food that was finger licking good.  The bengan bhurtha was a close runner up in terms of flavor.  It consisted of minced eggplant roasted directly over a fire that then was stewed with cilantro, chilis, and onions.  The smoky flavor from the grill was unlike any other eggplant I had ever tasted, and it was melt in your mouth tender.  My second plate wasn’t as over the top as the first with dal mukhni ($10.95) and stewed vegetables as the only new entries.

Clockwise: green salad, eggplant, lentils, vegetables

Clockwise: green salad, eggplant, lentils, vegetables

The dal mukhni was supposed to be a four lentil stew, but it seemed quite heavy on the chickpeas.  I wasn’t impressed by it or the dal mukhni and should have gotten more of the meat dishes and bengan bhurtha.  Unfortunately, by the end of the second plate, we were stuffed and had no more room for dessert sady.  However, Khyber Pass left us with full bellies and wallets before going out into the cold.

So if you find yourself downtown or in Oak Park and are looking for an establishment with typical Indian food prices that aren’t the cheapest in the world but with plenty of authentic and unique dishes, I suggest swiping right instead of left on Khyber Pass!
Khyber Pass Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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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Sarajevo Fo’ Sho’!

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The Balkans have long been a forgotten corner of Europe but one of the most tumultuous and diverse regions of the continent.  A potpourri of Bosnians, Serbians, Croatians, Bulgarians, Greeks, and Montenegrins all interacting with each other, not always positively, mind you, and exchanging ideas and more importantly, food.  While this geographic region is on the Mediterranean Sea, the food is very different to their western neighbors Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal.  While they might focus on the same staples like wine and olives/olive oil, their meals have more of an Eastern European and Middle Eastern vibe due to their location as a crossroads of sorts between East and West.  Instead of having to buy tickets to Europe, Janice and I managed to find a slice of Bosnia quite close to home on Chicago northside at Restaurant Sarajevo.

Sarajevo is the name of the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.  It is an ancient and diverse city that once boasted of being the only European city with a synagogue, Orthodox Catholic, mosque, and Catholic Church in the same neighborhood.  However, much of the city was destroyed by Serbian forces in the siege during the War of Independence from Yugoslavia in the mid 1990s.  Once the guns fell silent, the rebuilding process began, and now it’s back to its former glory.  Due to the aforementioned violence, many Bosnian and Serbian refugees came to Chicago for a better life.  This brings me back to our visit to Restaurant Sarajevo. IMG_6128 It was quite busy around dinner time, but we also just beat the rush by going around 6 pm.IMG_6108  We looked over the menu and decided to try the cold appetizer plate ($10.07) since it contained two of our favorite food groups:  meat and cheese.  While we were waiting, we got a free basket of some delicious, warm, crusty bread.  It came pre-sliced in giant pieces, and the butter that came with it had a thicker consistency that was almost like cream cheese. IMG_6117Turns out it was a Balkan and Central Asian treat known as kaymak.  The word “kaymak” means “melt” in Mongolian which was an apt description since the spread on the warm bread was melt-in-your-mouth delicious.  Our appetizer came out, and it was a gigantic plate filled with savory delights. IMG_6110 IMG_6109We could see smoked beef, two types of Bosnian sausage, peppers, and Bosnian Travnik feta cheese.  It was a who’s who of European food with the Mediterranean represented in the olives and peppers and feta while the Eastern and Central European elements were present in the sausages and smoked meats.  The smoked beef was not as super smoky as you would think it would be like American barbecue, but it still was very juicy. IMG_6111 While the two meats were very distinct in flavor.  The darker of the pair was more like a salami with a salty aftertasteIMG_6113 while the more reddish sausage I could liken to a spicier Spanish chorizo. IMG_6112 As for the feta cheese, it was a great piece of the crumbly stuff when combined with the olive oil coated peppers or the sausages. IMG_6116 For the main course, we were simply awash with great choices, so we shared two entrees.  First, there was the Bosnian chorba ($4.58).IMG_6114  It was a hearty beef based stew filled with large, succulent chunks of tender veal along with bobbing potato cubes and carrots.  Definitely a great choice for the winter months, and it was a lot of soup for a great price.  Then there was our Bosnian mix plate ($19.23).  It was a family dinner for less than twenty bucks, but you really must like meat if you get this entree.IMG_6119  On one plate we had grilled veal and chicken kebab, beef sausage, cevapcicipljeskavica, mixed vegetables, chicken schnitzel, and our choice of side.  Woof.  It was totally worth it since we brought our appetites to this meal and were ready to destroy what came our way.  First, I have to say that every slice of meat was all killer and no filler, i.e. high quality cuts of meat with little to no excess fat or additives.  We learned that they make their own sausages on-site which probably explained the freshness of the meal.  The grilled veal and chicken kabab were good but nothing beyond some competently made pieces of grilled meat.  As I mentioned before, the beef sausage was filling and super fresh and did have a bit of a snap to the casing that comes with using natural casings.  Then there were the super Bosnian entries to our meal in the form of the cevapcici and the pljeskavica.  The first one, the cevapcici, actual comes from the Persian word for “kebab” and is a type of casing-less sausage.  Although during the time of the Ottoman Empire, it became associated with hadjuks or outlaws as an easy food to make while wandering the countryside. IMG_6122 I had had this mini-sausage dish before at Chicago’s Andersonville fest even though it was at a Croatian food tent and served in a fancier fashion.  It was like a Balkan version of a cocktail weenie but with more delicious, seasoned lamb and char-grilled.  As for the pljeskavica, it’s basically a lamb and beef patty that is stuffed with mozzarella cheese.IMG_6121

Once again, meat and cheese reigned supreme in this Balkan favorite, and it was so bad for you yet surprisingly not super greazy.  It also had a helping of the kaymak cheese on top just for good measure.  The chicken schnitzel was a representative of the Central European element in Bosnian cooking, and I really liked the tangy tartar sauce that combined with the super thin but tasty, golden breaded chicken cutlet.  Surprise, surprise!  We still had more food in the form of the potatoes on the side that were simply sauteed with an olive oil and oregano coating. IMG_6123 Even after all of that we managed to find some room for some decadent dessert.  We got the Bosnian chilled apple rolls ($5.50) that apparently is another Bosnian specialty.  IMG_6124IMG_6126IMG_6127It consists of a mix of chopped walnuts and apple pieces with honey that is enclosed in flaky, buttery filo dough.  Surprisingly, it was served chilled like it said on the menu which is a bit different than similar desserts that are served room temperature or even warm like Greek baklava.

In the end, we were absolutely stuffed with a ton of delicious and hearty food.  If you want a taste of a land that isn’t very well represented in America, run down to Restaurant Sarajevo!
Restaurant Sarajevo on Urbanspoon

All Fired Up For Demera

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Hello and sorry everyone for the lull on Mastication Monologues, but I’m back with a fresh new post that is part of Restaurant Week that is now over in Chicago.  For those of you who don’t know, Restaurant Week in Chicago is a multiple week event where a multitude of eateries throughout Chicago open their doors to everyone with great deals.  In this post, I’d like to tell you a little bit about Demera, one of Chicago’s premier Ethiopian/Eritrean diner.IMG_5907

Janice and I went there for their lunch special, and the inside was brightly lit and bumping with some funky Ethiopian jamz. IMG_5888IMG_5889  We were quickly seated, and we had some trepidation with what to pick since everything sounded so delicious.  I started the meal off with a St. George Beer to drink.IMG_5891  Ethiopia is interesting enough since it is a mainly Christian society surrounded by Muslim nations, and some go on to even speculate that the Ethiopian people are descendants of one of the 12 lost tribes of Israel.   The name of the place, Demera, is the term in Amharic for the ceremonial bonfire used in the Ethiopian Christian version of Ash Wednesday, and we had a similar religious experience with the food.  However, the St. George Beer wasn’t very noteworthy since its neutral flavor and watery consistency left me hoping for the second coming of my food savior to resurrect my taste buds from the bland rapture. IMG_5890 Luckily, the beef sambussas and timatim selata did just that.  First, there were the beef sambussas that I could liken to a lighter version of empanadas.  IMG_5893The dough was less pie-like and more flaky and light like Greek philo dough.  The meat was spiced and amped up in terms of flavor with the spicy yet sweet yet dangerously addicting awaze sauce. IMG_5896IMG_5897 We also got an order of the timatim selata which I likened to an Ethiopian version of pico de gallo.IMG_5892  It consisted of tomatoes, onions, and jalapeno pepper slices all coated in a lime vinaigrette.  It was tangy and flavorful and was handily consumed (pun intended) with the ubiquitous Ethiopian flatbread known as injera.  While flatbreads can be found around the world in cultures that eat with their hands like naan in India or pita in Greece, injera is super unique in the sense that it is spongy with a slightly sour taste compared to its more doughy brethren.IMG_5900  Thankfully, it had plenty of nooks and crannies to soak up all of the lime juice but was also strong enough to enclose the large slices of tomato.  IMG_5894After polishing off that flavorful and refreshing appetizer, we got our main entree.  Traditional Ethiopian cuisine focuses on family style dining where everyone eats from the same plate.IMG_5901  On our plate, we got the ye-beg alicha  (mild lamb cubes), doro wat (chicken in a mild sauce with ayib cheese), ye-misir wot (split red lentils in spicy berbere sauce), and gomen (chopped collard greens).  With the spicy lamb, it was a great mix of spice and the slightly gamey taste that comes with lamb.  The doro wat chicken wasn’t as bold as the lamb, but the ayib cheese was like an African queso fresco that gave this savory part of the meal a cool and semi-salty twist.  IMG_5899I really enjoyed the split red lentils because they were super spicy, but I was mixed on the collard greens.  On the one hand, I enjoyed the earthy, spinach tones, but the ginger notes kind of left me cold on this hot entree.  Surprisingly, we had a bit of room for dessert, but we could only get the missionary delight, a basic vanilla sundae, because they apparently didn’t have enough ingredients for the dessert we wanted, the sambussa turnovers.  Super normal for a restaurant that serves food that isn’t on many peoples’ radars, but thankfully, our waitress told us that we could get the dessert we originally wanted, the turnovers.  What they consisted of were sweet versions of the savory sambussas we had earlier in the meal.IMG_5903  It was the same flaky dough, but instead of beef, there was a melange of walnuts, cardamom, walnuts, saffron, and rose water.  IMG_5904It reminded me of a honey-less baklava with an almost flowery aftertaste compliments of the rosewater.  The strawberry sauce was a bit too much of guilding the rose for me which made me prefer the savory version of these handheld treats.  At the end of the meal, we were absolutely stuffed but greatly pleased with Demera’s food selection.

So if you’re tired of the same old restaurants serving foods you’ve heard of before, check out a red-hot slice of Ethiopia at Demera.

Demera Ethiopian 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

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