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Temenaks in Tenerife (Day 1: Noche de San Juan, Sunset Cruise)

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Welcome back once again to another entry of Mastication Monologues!  I may or may not have more free time to write on this blog now that I have officially graduated from my speech pathology program, but my wife and I actually just came back from a magical honeymoon in the mysterious land of Tenerife in the Canary Islands.  When we eventually settled on the location, I was very excited because I wanted to go somewhere in Spain, but a location I had never been before so my wife and I could explore together.

The Canary Islands are a series of volcanic islands that are off the west coast of Morocco that truly are a hidden gem and basically Hawaii for Europeans who are searching for fun in the sun, i.e. English, German, and Russian tourists mostly.  However, when we told people stateside where we were going, we were greeted with typically an uncertain, “Oh cool.  That’s awesome.” followed by, “So where are they exactly?”  However, they wished us well and to have plenty of fun which we obviously did.  Funny enough though, the islands are not named after the chirpy birds that were used in mine shafts rather the birds were named after the islands.  Numerous theories about the islands’ name abound.  One involves the Romans calling the islands Canariae Insulae or “Island of Dogs” due to the presence of the dogs the indigenous Guanche tribes bred, worshipped as gods throughout the island, and even mummified them to be buried with their owners.  When the Spanish arrived in the 1490s, they described the same large, powerful dogs killing wolves that were attacking their livestock, and today this ancient breed is known as the Prensa Canario as shown below.  Another theory is that the Romans named the islands after the large amount of seals or “sea dogs” they saw on the shores.  Instead of starting our travels in the Eternal City like the ancient travelers, we left Chicago on an overnight flight.  We decided to start our honeymoon off right with a light dinner at Hub 51 at O’Hare airport.  We had been to Hub 51 in Chicago before with friends (delicious food), so we knew they wouldn’t disappoint us.  We got a delicious, not too dry Giuliana prosecco in addition to sharing guacamole and chips.  The chips were on the thin, cantina-style side which sometimes was a drawback if we wanted to really pile on the rich but not too spicy guacamole.  We also wanted to try their Brussels sprout salad, but we had a stroke of luck when they said they were out of the Brussels sprout salad.  We switched it up and ordered the Sonoma salad instead which was delectable from the mixed greens to the fresh slices of grapefruit that offset the sweeter vinaigrette and candied walnuts.  With our bellies full and ready to depart the Windy City, we eventually arrived in London-town  and had a layover in “beautiful” Gatwick airport.  During our time there, we decided to grab some food before our next leg to the islands. We ended up at Garfunkle’s which seemed like England’s take on a Chili’s with general burgers as well as more traditional British fare in the form of fish and chips and a chicken pie which we ordered.  While the fish and chips weren’t as authentic as getting it from a chippy or a fish and chip shop for those who don’t speak British English, the breading was light and crispy with plenty of delicious cod beneath.  Their chips were a bit stale which I didn’t care for, and their mushy peas were a bit too mint heavy.  Janice’s chicken pie was more satisfying with layers of creamy mashed potatoes, seasoned chunks of chicken, a hearty cream sauce, and a side of carrots and broccolini.  After our bite to eat, we grabbed brews to watch the Belgium v.s. Tunisia.  Funny enough, the beers my wife got were from Portland, Maine that her and her friends get when they’re in Connecticut.  It was a quite hoppy IPA, but thankfully it was something light before the second leg of our trip that finally brought us to Tenerife.

Flying into Tenerife, it looked like a more desert-covered version of what I would expect Hawaii to be.  The most breathtaking portion of the island was seeing the looming Mount Teide above the clouds.  It is a still active volcano that the native Guanche people called Echeyde.  They viewed the peak as a portal to hell and the home of a powerful demon, Guayota, who was imprisoned there as punishment for kidnapping the god of sun and light, Magec.  The subsequent eruptions of the volcano, the most recent in 1909, were seen as Guayota attempting to escape.  We were swiftly shuttled from the southern airport on the island of Tenerife to our hotel in Los Alcantilados Los Gigantes.  However, it wasn’t just any special night, it was La Noche de San Juan or Saint John’s night which was adopted by the Catholic Spanish from the pagan Guanche people who originally celebrated the date to ring in the summer solstice.  We could see the traditional giant bonfires dotting the countryside as the local Canarios were burning old belongings to signify a new start to the year.  When we finally arrived to our hotel, we were exhausted yet at the same time exhilarated and ready to find a beach party to experience a unique cultural celebration.  Our first meal wasn’t quite a leap into the unknown at the restaurant across the street from our hotel with a Margarita Italian-style, thin crust pizza with mugs of typical, thin, Spanish lager native to the Canary Islands called Dorada.  Once we were fueled up, we began our hunt for the beach party for San Juan.  We received conflicting information from the waitress and the front desk worker, but they both said that there was a giant wooden sardine to be burned.  We had to be there simply for the randomness.  It soon began a wild goose chase of people telling us to just find the beach in addition to randomly attempting to find the party with a German family.  Suddenly, the skies in front of us lit up with glittering explosions, and Janice and I immediately ran toward them, leaving the Germans in our wake.  We finally found the hidden route to the beach party and were faced with only the finest Euro-techno beatz Tenerife had to offer. I asked the bartender about the burning sardine, and it already happened two hours ago on the beach!  Still, the thrill of the hunt was entertaining, and we enjoyed the ambiance.  After a cold Dorada looking out over the revelers on the black sand beach and the pile of ashes from the wooden sardine in the background, we decided to call it a night.

Our first morning in Tenerife was breathtaking as we enjoyed the iconic cliffs or alcantilados right outside our window.  We then went downstairs to experience the interesting buffet that our hotel had to offer.  It was very European with plenty of cereals, cold cuts, and a bread wall.  You heard me right.  It was literally a wall of fresh bread that you could slice your own piece of baguette, boule, or rye.  I swear I saw Janice kneeling in front of it praising the carb gods, but maybe it was just my jet lag.  I helped myself to a variety of fresh fruits like the Canarian banana that is smaller than the ones found stateside, but are much sweeter and probably the best I’ve ever had.  They also had churros and melted chocolate (not pictured here) which constitute a typical Spanish breakfast.  There was also a sopressata spread that was salty and spicy in all the right ways.  At midday, we decided to watch the England vs Panama game at one of the many local British bars. The food was nothing to brag about compared to what was to come, but I tried a corned beef and Branston pickle sandwich, something I never tried before. While in America, we think of salty, crunchy pickled cucumbers, Branston pickle is an English made spread that consisted of chunks of pickled carrots, onions, and turnips in a sweet, slightly spicy brown sauce.  Apparently it’s very popular in English pubs on cheese sandwiches.  It was okay on a very simple sandwich, but it did not set my palate alight compared to other meals we would have this trip.  After enjoying the 5-0 thrashing of Panama and plenty of airhorn blasts from the barkeeps, we had a date with a private sunset cruise from Puerto Colon.

It was a glorious day, as are most days in the Canaries, and we set sail out on the Atlantic Ocean with Captain Marco and Captain Jan Jan. 

Captain Jan Jan showing us around

We were treated to delicious Spanish cava or champagne and (in counterclockwise order below) a mix of Spanish cheeses, mild and spicy Spanish chorizo, and melt-in-your mouth jamon iberico (Iberian ham).Between the appetizers and the main course, we were treated to something unbelievable:  30-35 pilot whales swimming around our boat.  Captain Marco said he never saw anything like it before because these whales are naturally shy around humans and boats.

Part of a family pod with a little baby whale in the middle

Eventually, all that excitement made us hungry, and we had a mouth-watering mixed paella that contained fresh mussels, tiny clams, plentiful rings of calamari, and juicy pieces of sausage and chicken.  It was followed up by a decadent chocolate torte and an apple tart that were too good for words.  As came into port, we were brought to a lookout point to watch the sunset.  A beautiful end to a beautiful day.

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Picking Up and Eating the Tab(erna)

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Hola a todos y bienvenidos a Mastication Monologues!  If you couldn’t tell, the flavor of today’s post is Spanish, and what a wonderful flavor that is.  Spain is known for many things:  sun, bullfights, and flamenco to name a few, but few may truly appreciate what a giant Spain is in the culinary world.  It seems like only recently that tapas have become truly popular in the United States, and we are feeling the full force of molecular gastronomy, a technique of manipulating the molecular composition of food and drink in order to render them in a different form, that was pioneered in Europe, first in France and then in Spain.  Two names of chefs/magicians that immediately spring to mind in regard to this food movement are Ferran Adrià, head of the famous but now defunct El Bulli, and José Andrés, restauranteur and one of Anthony Bourdain’s besties.

The real O.G.s

The real O.G.s

However, these giants of the food world would contend that what they do isn’t molecular gastronomy.  Tomato/tomahto.  These advanced ideas have made their way even to Chicago as found at Grant Achatz’s Alinea, widely considered the best restaurant in the world, or at the wildly innovative Moto which was owned by the late kitchen mad scientist, Homaro Cantu.  However, I’m not here to talk about molecular gastronomy but rather tapas.  I’ve had my fair share of tapas after living in Spain, and this has served as the measuring stick for all other taperías outside of the peninsula.  I’ve had some charming tapateos and others not so much, but I found La Taberna Tapas to be a perfect place to get some delicious finger food in the Chi.

Janice and I went here back in the winter wonderland half of this year to meet two of her friends from out of town, and it was a the perfect venue to do so.  The parking on the street is plentiful even though you have to pay for it.IMG_5682  The interior was dark but welcoming, and the live music started soon after we sat down.  IMG_5699 IMG_5698 IMG_5696Thankfully even though it was flamenco dancing and guitar, it wasn’t overwhelming like other restaurants that I’ve been to with live music acts.  IMG_5695I get that you’re enthusiastic about your craft, but there’s a fine line between passion and being obnoxious.  Tread lightly when I’m eating, brah.  Before I get to the foodstuffs, let me have a moment for the beers I tried.  Both of them came from the super verdant and Celtic influenced northwestern corner of Spain known as Galicia, and the Hijos de Rivera brewery that has been making these beers will be celebrating its 110 year anniversary.  Perhaps their longevity could be down to them keeping the operations 100 percent Spanish and keeping it in the family.  Who knows?  I have to say though that when living in Spain, I wasn’t too impressed overall with Spanish beers, but the Estrella Galicia ($5) IMG_5692had a lot more taste than the more grating on the palate Estrella Damm from Cataluña.  This brew from Hijos de Rivera was a slightly bitter lager that went down smooth and heightened the bold flavors of the tapas that were to make their appearance soon.  The Estrella Galicia wasn’t an upper echelon type of libation, but it’s just something refreshing to sip on.  The 1906 Reserva Especial ($5) from the gallego brewery was better since it poured with a good amount of head and had more notes of caramel and grass throughout each sip. IMG_5685 It was another solid, if not spectacular, Galician beer.  Anyway, now onto the good stuff:  the tapas!

First, we had the pinacho de pollo that consisted of grilled chicken breast, sauteed bell peppers and onions, and garnished with a basil aioli and pistashio pesto.  IMG_5683I would recommend this segundo plato since it is a bit more filling than the dainty plates that we followed this one up with.  Not only is it satisfying, but the ingredients are superb.  The succulent, pure white chicken was further amped up by the basil aioli and pesto.  These elements combined with the veggies made for a complete dish that also was quite easy on the eyes.  The torre de berenjena y tomate ($7) or tower of eggplant and tomato kind of fell flat in my mind and mouth.  IMG_5684It didn’t seem that spectacular with some mushy slices of eggplant in a pool of bland tomato sauce.  I’d skip this tapa unless you’re vegetarian.  Another tomato based tapa that I always enjoy, and it was no different here, was the queso de cabra ($7) or goat cheese.  IMG_5691It consists of is a chunk of goat cheese that is baked in a tomato basil sauce topped with truffle oil with a side of tomato and garlic rubbed pieces of toasted bread.  What more could you ask for?  Well, for one thing, I would suggest that they make it more even ratio of cheese to tomato sauce since I felt like we got cheated out of the earthy cheese that goes so perfectly with the seasoned and warm tomato sauce on the crusty bread.  On the plus side, we followed it up with two of my favorite tapas:  patatas bravas ($7) and dátiles con tocino ($7).  With the former, it is hands down my favorite tapa.  It’s nothing fancy since it just consists of cubed and fried potatoes and a paprika infused aioli.  So easy, yet never reproduced Stateside surprisingly.  This version of my favorite tapa was almost like what I inhaled back in Barcelona yet not.IMG_5686  The white sauce was more on the mild side, and the potatoes were also covered in a chunkier tomato sauce bordering on an Italian marinara.  As for the dátiles con tocino, they were the same like I´ve had before yet different.  IMG_5688These sweet and gooey chunks of heaven were put to bed with a crunchy snuggie of bacon, but I think the sweet sherry reduction was a bit too much a case of gilding the lily.  We weren´t only sampling creatures of the land but also the sea.  The script flipped when they brought out our pulpo a la plancha or grilled octopus ($9).IMG_5690  This was another salute to Galicia which is known for quality grilled octopus seasoned with paprika.  I didn’t taste much of the almond pesto, but the squirt of lemon over it with the herb coated potatoes made it a good mix of surf and tuber turf.  The final two tapas we had wouldn’t really be considered true tapas.  The pincho punta de res ($7) is a supposed to be an homage to Basque culinary traditions where the word actually comes from the Spanish “pinchar” meaning “to pierce”.  If you go to the Basque Country in northern Spain, you will notice that all of their “tapas” are actually pierced with toothpicks and not just served in a dish.  Therefore, I don’t understand how these pinchos are Moorish as indicated on La Taberna’s menu.  IMG_5693Origin’s aside, I thought these skewers were more like taking a page from the Brazilian steakhouse than a tapería, but this didn’t take away from the high quality of the peppered steak that was paired with a generous helping of tenderly caramelized onions and a cup of sinus clearing horseradish sauce.  Surprisingly, we still had a bit of room left at the end of the meal for another classic Spanish dish in the form of paella con pollo y conejo or paella with chicken and rabbit ($12).  The word “paella” comes from the Latin “patella” or Old French “paelle“, both of which mean “pan”.  The origin of the dish is a bit shrouded in mystery, but the most likely origin is from Valencia on the east coast of Spain during the reign of the Moors (8th Century-15th Century A.D.).  The Valencian people managed to use the old Roman irrigation systems to grow more rice which was brought to the peninsula by the Islamic rulers.  They then took the rice, local seafood, and cooked them together in a pan.  The popularity of the dish soon grew in the following centuries to other parts of Spain like Madrid where they added other types of meat, like the variety we ate at La Taberna, and eventually became world renowned.  I visited Valencia during my residence in Spain, and I got a tin of paella from the mercado central, and it was a jump up from La Taberna’s version.  La Taberna’s paella was good but not the best ever.  IMG_5694It was well made with plenty of peppers, peas, onions, and even a Latin American twist with chile de árbol that gave the meal a smoky undertone.  The smoke enhanced the chicken and rabbit, but these meat elements didn´t shine as much as the cooked veggies, in my opinion.  I´d still recommend this paella though if you´ve never had it before and want one of Spain´s signature meals.

So in closing, if you want to have a taste of Spain´s delights for a date night or just a fun night out of culture and culinary adventures, get down to La Taberna Tapas for a tapateo you won´t forget!

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One In A Milion

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

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

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