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You’ll Love Olive This Food

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Welcome one and all to another mouth-watering entry on Mastication Monologues!  This is part three of my Restaurant Week series in Chicago where a plethora of eateries open their doors to the public with great deals for some of the best food in the city, country, and perhaps the world.  Fig and Olive in the fancy Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago manages to bring the best of the entire Mediterranean region to the Midwest.IMG_5838

It was a fancy eatery to begin with, so I highly suggest you get on your Sunday best as we did on a Friday night.  IMG_5847 IMG_5846This place was so fancy we had to take an elevator up to the main dining room.  IMG_5839Once we arrived, we were greeted to the strains of light jazz and sumptuous surroundings in the form of long cloth couches in a lounge area. IMG_5843 However, we were led to our seat in the mainly glass and metal lined dining room with the creative bar that had trees growing out of the middle of the drink shelves. IMG_5840 IMG_5841 Nothing like admiring a little greenery while spending some.  When we sat down, our friendly waiter greeted us with the drink menu.  I ordered a glass of cabernet sauvignon- tenuta mazzolino from Italy.  It was a bold wine that had hints of smoke and blackberries.  While we were sipping on our wines, we got a complimentary olive oil flight with small cubes of rosemary foccacia. IMG_5849 The three cups were filled with an Italian extra virgin representative, a buttery Spanish olive oil, and a bold Greek olive oil that was a bit spicy.  The Italian option was good but not great.  The Spanish oil was extremely rich when the warm nooks and crannies of the foccacia soaked up the golden nectar.  As for the Greek entry, it slowly grew on me as the most palate engaging of the trio.  After that little appetizer, we ordered off the Restaurant Week menu which was $33 plus $10 for our crostini tasting which was recommended by a ton of people on Yelp.  This was 10 bucks well spent.  We got six of the chef’s choice, and when they came out, they looked amazing. IMG_5854 The most interesting thing about them was that it wasn’t as crumbly and stiff as typical crostini, but rather crusty yet soft.  First, there was the burrata, tomato, pesto, and balsamic vinaigrette. IMG_5856 It was in my top three as it was like a caprese salad on a fresh piece of bread.  Burrata is a softer than normal fresh mozzarella that also is a bit softer than a buffalo mozzarella.  It might not be for everyone with its goopy texture, but I couldn’t help myself.  Then there was the grilled vegetable crostini with the ricotta olive tapenade. IMG_5861 This crostino didn’t leave me with any sort of positive or negative impression.  It just tasted like a lot of olives yet not really.  Thankfully, I followed it up with a lovely manchego cheese, fig spread, and topped with a marcona almond. IMG_5860 This was also in my top three crostini since it was the perfect mix of the buttery and slightly salty manchego, crunchy almond, and sweet fig jam.  The mushroom crostino was in the same category as the grilled vegetable crostino, i.e. a less flavorful mix of greens with a healthy dose of Parmesan cheese.IMG_5855  Next up were the two seafood entries with shrimp and crab.

Crab

Crab

and ze shrimp

and ze shrimp

If I had to pick one, I’d go with the shrimp as being the lesser of two evils since I’m not a huge fish/crustacean fan (sorry, Aquaman).  Both were served cold which didn’t help, but while the crab just tasted like sweet, cold, flaky meat with a hint of avocado, the shrimp had a bit more body to it and a nice cilantro zing.  While we couldn’t choose the crostini, the table next to us ended up getting a sample of the one crostini I was hoping to get but didn’t.  It was the pata negra, tomato, peach, Parmesan cheese, and ricotta cheese.  I couldn’t believe our waiter brought it out to them because I was just telling Janice why the pata negra was the best crostini on the menu.  First off, the name “pata negra” literally means “black hoof” in Spanish due to the color of the pigs from which this ham originates.  Then there is the price of this precious commodity is anywhere from $52 to $95 per pound.  Why is it so expensive?  The reason why is because they are a specific type of black pig that roams southern and southwestern Spain and is raised to roam throughout the oak forests between Spain and Portugal.  They then eat the acorns that fall which then produces a peppery flavor in the meat with a good ratio between the fat and deep red meat.  It took me back to my time living in Spain where I couldn’t turn around without being smacked in the face with one of the large slabs of pork hanging from the ceiling.  Fast forward to that night at Fig and Olive, and I asked our waiter if we could try one of the ham crostino for free.  He obliged and was amazed that someone actually knew what this ham was.  It was my number one crostino hooves down. IMG_5872 The crimson ham, salty cheese, and fresh tomato made it an appetizer I wouldn’t soon forget.  Then the appetizers came out off of the Restaurant Week menu.  Janice got the octopus a la gallega or Galician octopus which was the best I ever tasted.  Even though I’ve been to the emerald green, northwestern province of Spain to taste where this octopus comes from, the thinly sliced tentacles at Fig and Olive bested the Iberian version. IMG_5865 I loved the spicy and sour lemon vinaigrette combined with the melt in your mouth texture of the tentacle laden creature.  As for me, I got the fig and olive salad.  It was delicious but not as unique as the octopus dish.IMG_5862  It was a melange of almost every variety of taste around.  There were sweet elements like the fig vinaigrette and apple pieces, salty manchego pieces, earthy greens, and crunchy walnuts.  The food train didn’t stop there.  We still had our entrees to take down.  Janice ended up getting the Mediterranean branzino or European sea bass in English.  It looked good, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. IMG_5873 I’m sure fish lovers would be bowled over by it though.  The only downside was that Janice said the plate overall was a bit one dimensional with a bland mashed potato side.  In comparison, I got the Fig and Olive tajine.  Now, Fig and Olive labels itself as an eatery serving the best of Italy, Spain, and southern France.  However, what they didn’t mention was that they serve North African food since diners would most likely be a bit hesitant to try something from Africa, and might not be seen as sexy as the three aforementioned cuisines.  Two good reasons why I chose it over all of the other entrees.  Tajine (in Arabic طاجين‎) originates from Morocco but can be found also in Tunisia and Libya.  It is traditionally stewed in a clay pot that tapers at the top to promote the return of condensation to the bottom of the vessel.  This technique definitely came in handy in the hot and arid climate of the former Barbary States.  As for what tajine actually is, it’s basically a North African stew of figs, olives, carrots, tomatoes, and onions.  At Fig and Olive, they don’t serve it in a clay pot, just a regular bowl, but that didn’t take away from the amazing flavors.  IMG_5875On the side, I got a bowl of couscous to mix in with the stew along with a bit of cilantro sauce and harissa (هريسة‎), known as “the national condiment of Tunisia”, mixed with some Spanish Hojiblanca olive oil.

Yellow couscous, green cilantro sauce, red harissa, and fresh almond slivers

Yellow couscous, green cilantro sauce, red harissa, and fresh almond slivers

I found the couscous a negligible carb element in the stew since it didn’t stand a chance going up against the giant vegetables and chunks of spicy chicken (beware of the bones).  However, I did like the harissa since it was a mix of chili peppers, garlic and coriander and managed to nudge itself above the intense flavors found in the dish.  By the end of our main course, we were stuffed and couldn’t think we could eat anymore, but au contraire!  We got both of the Restaurant Week desserts.  The dessert crostini wasn’t like their more savory brethren.   It was basically a cookie topped with candied cherries and a smooth and sweet mascarpone cheese. IMG_5881 IMG_5882I preferred the chocolate pot de creme which was like a fancy chocolate and vanilla mousse cup with a crunchy praline cookie on the side. IMG_5880 It was even better when I crunched the cookie up and mixed it into the decadent cream.IMG_5885

We left the restaurant with some trepidation due to the crush of people by the elevator upstairs and door downstairs and because we were so stuffed with delicious food.  Although it might not be the cheapest place for Mediterranean food, you can get high quality dishes for half the price in a modern and classy environment.

Fig and Olive on Urbanspoon

Hauntingly Delicious (Portland, Part 3)

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Boo!  Scared ya, didn’t I?  Today’s Mastication Monologues entry will be dealing with another Portland institution that I visited during my brief yet enjoyable stay there.  After a long day of learning about how to be a better teacher and help my students speak the Englishes more good, I knew I had to get out and see some of the city.  After looking over Wikitravel, I decided to get one of my favorite foods, pizza, at Old Town Pizza.  There are two different locations, one in the northwest part of the city and the other, the brewery, on the east side of the river.  However, reading further I found out the northwest location on Davis is supposedly haunted and a “must-do” for anyone who comes to Portland.  Ghosts and rave reviews?  I’m sold!

The actual story of the ghost revolves involves sex, slavery, and mystery.  Back in the late 1800s, some of the local timber barons built the Merchant Hotel where Old Town Pizza now stands.  Along with offering guests rooms and beds, the hotel also had the option for customers of the male persuasion to buy hookers to help them “enjoy” said rooms and beds.  One girl, Nina, was sold into this prostitution ring against her will.  Thankfully, a local missionary group was attempting to shut the hotel/bordello down, and Nina became an informant for them.  Unfortunately, she suffered a terrible fate for her attempt to shut down the house of ill repute as her corpse was found at the bottom of an elevator shaft which is now a booth in the restaurant.  Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to see the ghost of this departed dearie…

Anyway, I managed to find the restaurant quite easily after a quick stroll through Portland’s underwhelming Chinatown. IMG_2594 I knew it was going to be a quirky place when it said on the door that they only were closed on Leonardo da Vinci’s birthday. IMG_2602 I don’t know if that’s a joke or not, but I did enjoy the randomness.  Upon walking into the dark interior, it added to the ambiance of it being a haunted former hotel.  The staff was the Portland I was expecting complete with tattoos, ironic facial hair, and plenty of piercings, but that didn’t take away from their service.  They supplied me with a menu, and then I had to order at a booth that was attached to the kitchen.  Note:  the entrance was the former lobby of the Merchant Hotel, and the ordering booth was the reception desk.

Ordering booth

Ordering booth

I put in my order of a small original house pizza which contained signature pepperoni, salami, mushrooms, olives, bell peppers and topped with house made sausage. .  10 inches for $14.50 is a little expensive for my taste, but then again I was on vacation in a haunted restaurant.  They gave me a playing card with the two of diamonds on it as their way of keeping the orders straight, and it’s the only place in the world I’ve seen them do that.  I then moved on to the bar next to the ordering booth where my hipster bartender hooked me up with an Old Joe Chocolate Dark Ale that was brewed at the Old Town Brewery.IMG_2595  Once the pint glass of dark ambrosia was in my mitt, I had the task of finding my own seating.  To my dismay, my original seat I scoped out was already taken.  So after wandering through the packed restaurant I found an empty seat that would accommodate me and make Harry Potter feel at home since it was under the staircase going up to the second floor.  It was a lot more comfortable than it sounds since I had plenty of room for my head, and I would describe it more as a cozy experience.

Nina's corpse was found along the back wall of this room where I ate.

Nina’s corpse was found along the back wall of this room where I ate.

After about half an hour, my hand tossed pizza finally came out.  It looked wonderfully flush with toppings, but I had a hard time trying to find the cheese under them.IMG_2596  It was piping hot, so I sipped on my Old Joe while it cooled off.  I really liked the ale because it was a full bodied libation  that had whispers of chocolate/coffee in every drop.  Eventually my pie cooled off enough for me to actually touch it, but I found the bottom crust to be quite floppy which I really didn’t like since the toppings were cascading down my fingers as I attempted to transfer a slice to my smaller plate.IMG_2598  I was eating it with a fork and a knife for the wrong reason.  The only type of pizza I should be eating with a knife and a fork is deep dish because it’s piled so high with toppings, not thin crust because it doesn’t even have the constitution for basic ingredients.  Structural problems aside, I found the flavors and ingredients to be delightful.  The peppers stood out for me as they weren’t soggy and baked to have a crisp, clean snap that jived with the savory and spicy pepperoni.  It didn’t seem like they focused a lot on the cheese since it was buried under waves of ruby red marinara sauce that was slightly sweet but not overwhelmingly so.  Then at the end of each piece, there was a substantial crust that was on the chewier side and had a strange but pleasing cinnamon undertone.  By the time I finished the last piece, I was stuffed with some hauntingly good pizza.

I don’t think it can measure up to New York or Chicago pizza, but Old Town Pizza is a slightly pricy but quality dining experience with plenty of ambiance that won’t scare you away.
Old Town Pizza on Urbanspoon

A Slice of the East

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Hello everyone out there on the interwebz.  Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues where I have been, as of late, exploring all the new foodstuffs that South Korea has to offer.  Today I will be talking about a Far Eastern twist on a Western favorite:  pizza.  As with many things in the world, pizza has an unusual history in the sense that most people associate the main staple of college students with one country (Italy) when it actually came from a different one (China).  Many historical scholars argue that Marco Polo allegedly brought it back from China and introduced it to the Italian peninsula which eventually led to the modern pie being invented in Napoli.  Where I come from, Chicago, we have a special affinity for this Italian/Chinese treat which has led us to bump heads with New Yorkers over who has better pizza.  Therefore, when I stepped into Pizza Maru in my neighborhood of Seo-gu, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of toppings.  I was greeted by different Korean combinations like sweet potatoes and bacon or thin cream shrimp pizza.  I went for the latter since it just seemed like a bizzare description, but I was pleasantly surprised.IMG_1277  It was made with very thin and crispy crust that supposedly has 12 types of grains, black rice, and green tea.  The toppings consisted of grape tomatoes, black olives, shrimp, cheese, oregano, and an alfredo-esque sauce.  However, it was different from a typical pizza because it didn’t have tomato sauce but rather some sort of clear sauce that really didn’t taste like anything.  It brought down the very flavorful pizza because it made the slices semi-soggy which is not a good attribute to have if your end pieces are nice and crispy.  Overall, it was an okay pizza, but I don’t really see it giving European/American pizza a run for its money anytime soon.  At least the presentation was a lot nicer than back at home.IMG_1276

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