RSS Feed

Tag Archives: oil

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

Posted on

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

The Upper Crust

Posted on

Italy is a country known for many cultural exports that range from supercars, beautiful people, political corruption with a real flourish, and a culinary legacy without equal.  From my own backyard to the other side of the world, I have seen variations on some well known Italian specialties like pizza along with some new inventions like the Italian beef sandwich.  A new food superstore called Eataly arrived in Chicago a few years ago and is the figurative baby of famed, Croc-donning chef Mario Batali.  There are currently locations all over the world in Chicago, NYC, Japan, Istanbul, Dubai, and of course, Italy. I had previously spoken with friends and family about their experiences within the establishment, and I heard nothing but rave reviews.  After waiting way too long to finally see what all the hubbub was about, I finally made the trek with my lovely girlfriend, Janice.

It was overwhelming right from the beginning as we walked through the monstrously large glass doors. IMG_3569 Not only that, but Eataly was dedicated to the one and only Ernest Hemingway.  Apparently Papa spent a good amount of time in the Veneto region of Italy which is known for its bountiful food and drink.IMG_3586  Then again, it made me think of the litany of restaurants and watering holes throughout the world that try to cash in on Hemingway’s legacy. IMG_3572 Oh well, I don’t think Eataly was having many problems with business as hordes of people were streaming through the doors and buzzing about the interior as I looked in awe at the cathedral of food that towered before me.  Fresh plums and nectarines lay in front of me as we passed them to the escalator to start on the second floor.  We passed each section that was devoted to a certain part of the Italian culinary landscape like pasta, fish, fried food, bread, cheese, meat and wine.  IMG_3570It looked like all of the produce was kept to the first floor while the second floor was solely devoted to the restaurant portion of the store.  It was like an elite food court where you could go from counter to counter and pay for top notch service and foodstuffs, way too many to enumerate here.IMG_3571  So, I’ll just tell you about what Janice and I tried during our visit.  We settled on the popular pizza and pasta section of the second floor and were immediately seated in front of one of the expansive windows over looking Rush Street.  It was a perfect seat for our date, so hint hint to all you couples out there.10392551_10104334278063879_9013471860543625337_n10425370_10104334278323359_9161369142543183651_n  Our waiter was quite helpful in explaining the menu options while supplying us with complimentary pieces of bread and a plate of olive oil.IMG_3573  This definitely wasn’t Papa Joe’s in terms of the pre-meal munchies, but the bread was delicious.  The edges were crusty and crunchy, and the dough was pliable and had a slightly nutty flavor.  The olive oil was quite smooth on the palate.  I wish they brought out some balsamico as well.  After looking over the menu with lots of deliberation, we settled on sharing the Genovese pizza ($18).

According to the website, at Eataly they only utilize Neapolitan pizza making techniques that one can watch before it comes to the table.  We decided to take in the view instead before as our 12″ pie was delivered to our table. IMG_3574 Looking at it, it was more reminiscent of the pizzas I had in Italy or even New York.  Our waiter said that due to the delicate crust, it was recommended that we use knives and forks to consume the mouth-watering looking pieces.  So we naturally obliged, but we still thought you could eat it with your hands if you don’t feel like putting on airs.  Regardless of others perceptions, we tucked into our meal.  The dough was delicate but with plenty of artisanal flour flavor with a slightly buttery hint.  IMG_3578As for the toppings, there was a generous layer of mozzarella cheese across said crust and topped with a mix of the aforementioned olive oil, tidbits of salty and slightly fatty Parma ham, rich and zesty pine nut pesto, bits of aromatic basil, and diced garlic cloves.  All of these elements came together to make one of the best thin crust pizzas I’ve ever tried.  I normally don’t like crusts, but this pizza’s end pieces were light and chewy which I prefer over their crunch counterparts (this also applies to my cookie affinities).10464354_10104334278473059_7202246310904679489_n  Once we finished that, we moseyed down to the first floor for dessert at, where else?, the Nutella bar. IMG_3580 If you don’t know what Nutella is, it’s the choice snack spread of the gods.  While the British have marmite and Australians have vegemite, once again the Italians outcook them with this sweet, molto chocolately, hazelnut-based topping for bread, toast, and other items.  We could have gone for the gelato or candy counter, but the Nutella bar landed us with their large tubs of the dark chocolate nectar and circular griddles for nutella stuffed crepes.IMG_3581  They had a good amount of Nutella inspired items, but I knew what I wanted:  il bacio di dama ($4.80; literally:  the lady’s kiss).  Fitting for my date.  Janice got the saccottino con Nutella ($3.80).  When we got our individual noms, we couldn’t find a spot to sit down since it was so jammed, but luckily a guy who reminded me of Bill Cosby offered to scoot down so we could sit at the communal tables.  My plate consisted of two hazelnut cookies with a thin layer of Nutella in between. IMG_3584 From the first to last nibble, it was a flavorful pleasure like shifting through the gears on a Murcielago through the hills of Tuscany.  The cookies were soft, fresh, and nutty which balanced out the sweet innards. IMG_3585 As for Janice’s saccottino, it was a pastry made with croissant dough that had an extremely thick schmeer of the hazelnut topping that bordered on the obscene. IMG_3583 I’d recommend they cut down on the Nutella, or you get a drink to go with this dessert.  Perhaps that is all part of their scheme for you to buy more merchandise since half way through it it felt like I was eating a ball of glue coated in chocolate.  It was tasty nevertheless.

In summary, Eataly is a wonderful place for foodie and tourists alike, but it’s not the cheapest place in the world to experience all of Chicago’s culinary potential.  That is not to say though that you will be ripped off since everything is extremely high quality for the price.  I finally visited it, but I don’t know if it will be a regular haunt on my food list in Chicago.

Eataly on Urbanspoon

Aiming to Cheese

Posted on

“The trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later you’re hungry again.”

– George Miller

While many different countries have certain culinary stereotypes that may or may not be true like the British being terrible cooks (try a pasty and get back to me) or Indians only serving spicy food, one interesting cultural interaction in the kitchen is between Italian and Italian American cooking.  While both emphasize fresh ingredients that often times circle around staples like olive oil, tomatoes, and a feisty nonna (grandmother) who’ll put you in your place if you mess around in the kitchen, there is a clear difference in presentation and dishes that exist in the USA that would never happen in Italy.

Made in America

Made in America

 Italians have always enjoyed big meals, and when large waves of Italian immigrants initially came to America, they couldn’t really afford much food or had to stretch their resources to make do.  Thus, one icon of Italian American food culture in Chicago was born, the Italian beef sandwich.  However, as time went on, the concept of abbondanza or “abundance” came to the fore as more and more Italian immigrants and their children were able to integrate into American society and earn a decent wage.  With extra money, came extra ingredients to classic Italian plates to show to the world that these often times poor Southern Italians had finally made it in America, i.e. more cheese, sauce, and meat.  Their legacy survives today from coast to coast especially in Chicago  and New York City.  I do love my Italian food, aside from pasta (yes, I know I’m a weirdo), and Papa Joe’s in Orland Park is a good family restaurant serving down-home Italian cooking.

Upon walking into the establishment, we were greeted by the strains of Old Blue Eyes and Deano.  We went there for my cousin’s graduation party (congrats, Jen!), and there seemed to be an initial confusion with the reservation.  It was a mere hiccough as we were quickly suited at the far end of the lower section by the wrap-around bar.  I wouldn’t recommend sitting there since the some of the air vents on the ground might make it harder to roll your chair back when getting up and down from your table.  Floor plans aside, the wait staff was competent and started us off with baskets of fresh bread.IMG_3343  These piping hot bread orbs were wrapped up in cloth, and were pre-sliced which I enjoyed.  The crust was a bit thick for my liking, but it had a nice crunch and an almost pretzel-esque flavor.  My favorite part was the warm, white interior that was ideal for mopping up the olive oil and Parmesan cheese dust on my plate.  Using butter on such a loaf wouldn’t be too Italian of me now.  After that, we had a few salads places along our table including a typical mixed green salad, a pasta salad, and then a cucumber salad I was especially fond of.  IMG_3345It was soaked in a vinaigrette that also had flecks of pungent goat cheese to counter the tangy and smooth cukes.  The tomato pieces also added a bit of color to the mainly green plate.  Once we moved beyond these antipasti, we ordered our main dishes.  The menu was long and filled with Italian favorites like a plethora of pastas, meat dishes, chicken dishes, paninis, pizzas, fish dishes, and appetizers.  I went for the chicken parmigiana ($14.95) since it was another dish I missed from home while I was in Korea.  We also got a free cup of soup on the side, and that day’s choices were either cream of chicken or minestrone.  I plumped for the former.

The soup came out first, and it was delicious.IMG_3344  I liked to dip the bread in it since it softened up the thick crust.  There were large nuggets of chicken in the creamy, pastel yellow broth along with a few slices of celery and carrots.  After quickly downing that small but rich appetizer, my selection finally was placed in front of me.  A chicken parmigiana consists of breaded and fried chicken cutlets that are then covered in marinara sauce and a hefty layer of mozzarella cheese. IMG_3346 Papa Joe’s also offered veal and eggplant parmigiana.  My poultry version was great.  The tomato sauce was savory and buoyed the gooey cheese that topped the crispy and juicy chicken breasts.IMG_3348  It was all white meat that left me extremely full after just one piece.  My meal also came along with a side of pasta, but I managed to swap it for mixed cooked vegetables that were sauteed and delectable.

So if you’re looking for a cozy and authentic Italian restaurant in the south suburbs of Chicago, pay a visit to Papa Joe’s.

Papa Joes Pizza on Urbanspoon

Punch House: A Real Knockout

Posted on
At the punch-bowl’s brink,
Let the thirsty think,
What they say in Japan:
First the man takes a drink,
Then the drink takes a drink,
Then the drink takes the man!
– Edward Rowland Sill 
Truer words were never spoken by Mr. Sill, a mostly forgotten American poet, especially in regard to today’s post on Mastication Monologues where I entered the exciting world of punch making.
My friend Janice had mentioned that she had extra tickets to a punch making class at an establishment called “Punch House“, so I agreed to partake in this mysterious endeavor.  I didn’t really know much about it aside from it being located in the vibrant center of Mexican culture in Chicago, a.k.a. Pilsen.  However, I was shocked to find that it was located in Thalia Hall, a concert hall from 1890 that was modeled after Prague’s opera house.Exterior-1024x682  It is a relic of the original Czech inhabitants of Pilsen who eventually left once Latino immigrants began to enter the neighborhood.  Thalia Hall’s doors were closed in 1960, but in 2013, the hall has been reopened to the public as a music and dining venue.  Upon walking into Dusek’s, the restaurant on the first floor bearing the last name of Thalia Hall’s founder, we checked in and were quickly hustled downstairs to Punch House.  From Dusek’s to Punch House, I was taken aback with how elegantly it was decorated like a retro lounge that gave off a vibe of yesteryear with a touch of class.IMG_3069  We were greeted by the hosts and found an open booth complete with all of the tools we needed to make Dusek Punch, the house’s signature drink. IMG_3068 The class started with a brief history of punch and punch making.  Fun fact:  the word “punch” is actually a loan word from Hindi.  The drink and word came to England from India in the early 1600s due to early colonial trading routes.  “Punch” in Hindi means “five” which is a reference to the original five punch ingredients (tea/water, spices, alcohol, sugar, and lemon) or the balance of the following five elements of flavor.IMG_3071  It became a favorite drink for English traders and sailors as a refreshing alcoholic beverage that almost always contained rum but enough water to keep them semi-hydrated.  Ok, enough with the history lesson, let’s get down to the punch making.  First, we had to peel the lemons in order to make oleo-saccharum or literally “oily sugar” in Latin.  It would provide the citrus zest for our punch later.  Once the ladies peeled the lemons (I was deemed a threat to myself due to my spastic lemon peeling), we then poured some sugar on the peels to introduce the sweet element to our work in progress.  Soon thereafter, I was in charge of muddling the ingredients until the peels began to excrete their natural oils. IMG_3072 While I was going to town doing the ground and pound to the bowl’s contents, the waitress came over and patronizingly/humorously showed me proper muddling technique.  It became a reoccurring punch line (pun intended) throughout the class much to the amusement of my female companions.  However, it was my time to shine when I had to juice the lemons for the sour portion of the punch.  I should have had my jersey retired with how much juice I got out of the fruit since I even got a couple nods and “good jobs” from the staff when they walked by our table. 10260012_10101616963868411_1608183499052232420_n In the middle of my award-winning performance, they allowed us to order other pre-made punches or beverages to sample.  I originally went with a milk punch recipe from 1711, but since they didn’t have any made, I settled for the Philidelphia Fish House Punch ($8) which was originally invented in 1732.  Needless to say, for a 282 year old recipe, it tasted barely over 100 years old it was so refreshing.IMG_3075  It consisted of Gosling’s black seal rum, Landy cognac, Mathilde Peche liquor, lemon, and angostura bitters.  I could liken it to a sweet, peach-infused Hawaiian Punch that had a moderate kick to let you know you were drinking alcohol but didn’t rip your face off.  Eventually, it came time to combine all of the flavors in the large bowl since the oleo-saccharum was ready.  We started with pouring in a hot cup of water and followed it up with the lemon juice and dark ale. IMG_3076IMG_3073 Finally, we had to add the Templeton Rye whiskey.  Josah was flipping out about since it’s from her motherland, Iowa, and it’s also special since the recipe was born out of the crooked times of American prohibition.Rye  Nothing better than enjoying a spirit with a colorful past.  Now, we could have simply slopped it into the bowl like regular squares, but they taught us how to do the fancy “tornado pour”.  I got to do the honors because I was the only one with hands big enough to grip the bottom of the bottle.  Check me out putting the finishing touches on the punch with the tornado pour here.  After we let it sit for a bit, the staff strained it all into a large glass container, but it proved to be a bit too difficult for Joe the waiter since a quarter of it went on our table.10313748_10101613763422131_1817890989632858173_n  So, they made it up to us by hooking us up with their secret tequila infused punch and experimental pop-top bottle for punch on- the-go.  Believe me, it definitely made up for it as the tequila punch made this tequila hater into a fan.
Overall, we left very satisfied with our experience, and it was a fun and informative activity for those of you looking for something different to do in Chicago.  Not only can you enjoy a piece of Chicago history in the form of Thalia Hall, but you can learn a new skill while making new memories with friends.  I highly recommend Punch House’s punch making classes.

Dusek's on Urbanspoon

%d bloggers like this: