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The Cellar: It’s Goin’ Down!

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Happy Fall to all with this newest edition of the funkiest and freshest food blog in Chicago, Mastication Monologues.  Today’s entry takes us north of the City to the university town of Evanston, home of the Northwestern Wildcats and the American fusion diner known as The Cellar.

IMG_4175It seems that it is located next to a wine and tapas bar that is called the Stained Glass, but we went to the restaurant for a dinner date earlier this summer.  IMG_4178Even though it wasn’t the actual tapas bar, I was informed that most of the dishes were designed like tapas, i.e. smaller portions that are meant to be shared (as oxymoronic as that sounds).  I started with a cold brew in the form of a Headless Man Amber Ale from Tyranena Brewing in Wisconsin. IMG_4164 It definitely was an aromatic choice that had a slightly hoppy aftertaste with hints of caramel throughout the beer.  It was light though to compliment the first dish of the night:  the butter and salt flight with a warm loaf of sliced French bread ($6.50). IMG_4167 If you blinked, you would have missed it being set on the table since we devoured every morsel.  This dairy-palooza sported three different types of butter:  Parmigiano Reggiano butter with fleur de sel, goat’s milk butter with pink Himalayan salt, and truffle butter with truffle sea salt.  The Parmigiano butter with the fancy French sea salt obviously tasted nice and cheesy but not obnoxiously so.  It was personally my favorite since the goat’s milk butter wasn’t as pungent and strong as I would expect from a butter that should have had the soul of a good Feta.  With the truffle butter, I was somewhat surprised that it didn’t possess the aromatic potency I’d expect from the world famous and ludicrously expensive fungi that I sampled firsthand at London’s Borough Market.   I still would recommend this appetizer though.  Our second round consisted of the elotes callejeros ($4.75) and the smoked salmon flatbread ($12.50).  The former was a nod to the Mexican street food scene (calle meaning “street” in Spanish), and it shown through with the fusion of smoked paprika and grilled corn. IMG_4166 The mayonnaise was a more savory choice over the typical butter one can find at any picnic in ‘Murika.  It was a more decadent partner to the more understated smoked salmon flatbread.  IMG_4168This bite of more Northern Europe cuisine with the cold salmon and greens reminded me of the Swedish flatbreads common to smorgasboards.  Instead of a white cream, they utilized a more Mediterranean flavor with the pesto sauce and goat cheese. IMG_4169 It all kind of overpowered the salmon itself, but I enjoyed the herbal pesto along the creamy, potent goat cheese.  It was delicious, but if you’re looking for a great salmon meal, look elsewhere.  Our main dishes finally came.  I got the shrimp tacos ($13), and Janice got the empanadas ($9.50).  The latter consisted of the ubiquitous, fried Latin turnovers filled with roasted poblano peppers, sweet corn, Oaxaca cheese, and avocado-tomatillo salsa on the side.IMG_4170  The flaky yet crunchy crust was bursting with the spicy peppers and were countered with the creamy cheese and sweet corn.  Plenty of textural and flavor contrasts that worked together in harmony. IMG_4174 As for my tacos, I felt that the tortillas were a bit too small for the fried pieces of seafood that were resting on a kale citrus slaw and topped with grilled sweet red onions. IMG_4172 IMG_4171Once I piled all of these ingredients into the flatbread with a dollop of the semi-spicy aioli for good measure on top, I got a mouthful of quality food from beginning to end.  IMG_4173The breading was buttery and golden brown, but the shrimp was just ok.  However, the citrus slaw and semi-sweet onions provided the zest to the seafood that gave the taco a punch of ceviche flavor.  Even though we were chowing down for a good while, we managed to find room for dessert which took the form of the creme brulee sampler ($7.75).  IMG_4176It was three small cups of high quality burnt sugar and egg custard with different kinds of flavor infusions.  The Mexican chocolate one had a bit of a spicy kick in the form of cinnamon and a little hint of chili pepper.  I’ll just say up front that this was my favorite, but the french vanilla was a close second.  The chai one was my least favorite since it was a bit too subtle for my liking, but maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did.  It was a sweet flourish to a light but filling dinner.

So if you are in the Evanston area and looking for a fusion restaurant that I could liken to a more affordable Girl and the Goat, check out The Cellar!
The Cellar Beer and Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

I’ve Seen and Eaten Things, Man…Delicious Things

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Goooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooood morning, Mastication Monologues readers!  Today’s post deals with a country’s cuisine that I have over the years become more acquainted with due to the increased prevalence of said eateries in the Chicagoland area and throughout the world.  While Japanese and Chinese food are the two most popular forms of Asian cuisine in America, Southeast Asia, specifically Thai and Vietnamese food, has thrown its hat into the ring with some wonderful dishes.  While I do like my Thai food as shown on my blog, today’s restaurant is a cozy Vietnamese place called Nha Hang Viet Nam in Chicago.

As I said before, Vietnamese food has quickly grown into the ever-expanding and shifting profile of the American culinary landscape.  Some of the key dishes that have assisted this jump in popularity include Gỏi cuốn or spring rolls and the banh mi sandwiches which could be considered one of the original forms of Asian fusion.  At Nha Hang Viet Nam, I expected that they would have these, but anything else would be a mystery to me. The outside of the restaurant blended in with the rest of the Little Saigon area around Argyle, and yet seemed a bit like a place that they would hold a scene from the Deer Hunter at due to the bars on some the windows.IMG_3196  The shady exterior gave way to a welcoming interior that was almost like walking into a family’s kitchen it was that small.  Not only did the size add to the intimacy of the establishment, but the family was all sitting at one big table waiting to serve us.  We had the place to ourselves essentially aside from another Vietnamese couple.  Upon going over the menu, I had no clue where to start as they had everything from the aforementioned spring rolls and sandwiches along with soups, noodles, vermicelli, fried rice, various meats (fish, pork, beef), and desserts.  While I was pouring over the vast menu, I found an item on the drink menu that caught my eye:  fresh pennyworth juice ($3.50).  What is pennyworth juice?  No, it doesn’t cost a penny (although it probably would in Vietnam), but it has been used in Indian, Chinese, and African traditional medicine.  In Vietnamese, it’s called rau má or “mother vegetable”, and I’m not quite sure what sort of motherly comforts this drink brought to me during my meal.  When it came out, it looked like something from one of the recent body detox diets. IMG_3191 Not only was it frothy, but it had a deep verdant hue that intrigued me.  While I’ve had good luck picking random drinks of menus in Jamaican and Cuban restaurants, I wasn’t quite sure if I won the grand prize with this drink.IMG_3190  I appreciated how cold it was compliments of the ice, but the taste was complex and semi-indescribable.  It had some grassy notes yet a herbal, semi-spicy after taste that could be likened to cilantro almost.  It was a glass of funk that set the stage for my appetizer:  the bánh xèo or “sizzling cake” ($7.95).  Our waiter was incredulous that I ordered it just for myself since he said it was for two people, and he was right in terms of the size.IMG_3192  However, he never met someone like me with a Cookie Monster appetite when hungry.  As I started down at the large yellow pancake, I wondered how to eat it since it had a plethora of mint leaves, cilantro leaves, and lettuce leaves on the side.  Our waiter then explained that I could cut a piece of the pancake, wrap it up in a lettuce leaf, and then dip it in the fish sauce on the side, similar to the ssam bap I tried in Korea.  The pancake itself was made of rice flour and tumeric, and then on the inside there were plenty of bean sprouts, shrimp, and pork. IMG_3193 I tried a piece of it by itself, and it was a rich, buttery, fried piece of heaven that only got better when dipped in the thin, sweet fish sauce.  Slowly but surely, I completed my search and destroy mission against the pancake that was as big as my face.  When the dust settled, my main entree, the com bo nuong or steamed rice with grilled beef, came out.IMG_3194  It came with a delicious, salty miso that had bits of cilantro floating on the surface and rings of green scallion bobbing about the bowl.  As for the dish, the beef was savory and juicy.  I pumped it up a notch with some red chili sauce to satisfy my love for spicy food.  The mysterious part of the meal was the noodles on the side.IMG_3195  While I could ascertain that they were indeed noodles, I couldn’t tell what type of meat was lurking between the strands, perhaps tripe.  It was also a mostly dry side with a generous dusting of some type of powder that I guessed could possibly be dried mung bean or soy beans.  It wasn’t the highlight of the meal, but I wasn’t complaining at that point.

So if you want to try simple but delicious Vietnamese food for great prices in a hidden gem, try Nha Hang Viet Nam!  Đi đi mau!

Nha Hang Viet Nam on Urbanspoon

Last K-Days (Part 3/Finale)- The Long and Delicious Road

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So this is my final post relating to my food adventures in Korea on Mastication Monologues.  It  with some snacks in the form of special kimbap. IMG_2131 What makes them so special?  These kimbap actually contained pieces of donkatsu (breaded pork cutlet), fried shrimp, and spicy peppers.  The restaurant we went to was quite popular in Ulsan, and they said they’d make the pepper kimbap extra spicy for me.  Now that’s service!IMG_2130  They were eventually ready to go as we hit the road back to Incheon.  After jamming out to some R. Kelly and Usher, we were hungry enough to stop and try the kimbap at one of the road stops along the way.

Pepper kimbap

Pepper kimbap

I decided to first try the “special” spicy pepper kimbap, and I don’t know what made them so special.  True, it did have small pieces of the fiery Korean peppers inside that are signature side dishes for meat meals, but it wasn’t any spicier than a jalapeno.  However, the donkatsu and fried shrimp kimbap were crazy delicious.  The crunchy, fried pieces of meat were fresh and were an exquisite contrast to the cold but plentiful vegetables.

Fried shrimp kimbap

Fried shrimp kimbap

Fried pork kimbap

Fried pork kimbap

Some of the slices fell apart while I was trying to grab it with my chopsticks unfortunately.

Getting down and dirty with the kimbap.

Getting down and dirty with the kimbap.

We quickly downed them and were back on the road.  After a bit more traveling, we found a larger rest stop that served potatoes with sugar and salt.IMG_2145  It was pretty straight forward as they were just chunks of steamed potatoes with a bottle of salt and a tin of sugar on the side for your own discretion.  We shook and scooped a generous helping of each on the cup and made our way to a table. IMG_2146 I was pleasantly surprised to find that the sugar and salt worked their own culinary yin and yang for me as I greatly savored this starchy treat. IMG_2147  However, my delight soon turned to disaster as I liberally dabbed a potato piece in a white pile of what I thought was sugar, but it was salt…I ran to the nearest water cooler and washed the taste of the Dead Sea out of my mouth.  I finished the last couple nuggets, and we survived the rest of our long sojourn northward.

My last full day in Korea finished with a gift of food from my friend Bora in the form of chocopies and moju.IMG_2171  The former were what their name suggests.  They consisted of two moist pieces of chocolate cake with white cream in the middle, and the whole dessert is covered in dark chocolate.  I’m kind of a chocoholic, so I loved them regardless of Bora saying that they tasted weird to her.  As for the moju, it was a type of rice wine filled with different ingredients like cinnamon, jujube, and ginger.  I could only liken it to a slightly different egg nog with a low alcohol content.  

Un Tapateo Muy Feo (A Very Ugly Tapas Dinner)

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Ever since living and studying in Barcelona during my undergrad years, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the peninsular nation.  I don’t know if it was the warm people (especially the andaluces), the lovely historical sights, or the fantastic food, but I miss living there.  Back in the States, I would always try to find new places to get tapas to see how they measured up to the ones back in Spain, and I was generally pleased  (See Tapa 1, 2, Patatas).  Perhaps when I’m finished with my time here in Korea, I might make a return to the land of jamon and Don Simon.  However, since I’m still in Korea, I thought I had found a slice of Espana in the form of Que Tal Tapas which is located in Bupyeong in Incheon.  In order to get there you have to go to Bupyeong Market exit 2 and walk for about ten minutes until you look down a side street on your left.  Here’s the front of the restaurant to get an idea of what to look out for:IMG_1310

So I had originally thought of going to this place for my birthday since I love Spanish food, but instead I ended up going to the wonderful Action Grill.  Therefore, I vowed to one day try this taperia before I left the Land of the Morning Calm.  I finally made the sojourn yesterday with a fellow KOTESOL member after attending the smallest teaching conference ever with a whopping total of three people including me.  The interior had some nice, kooky drawings along with various types Spanish paraphernalia hanging on the wall.  That’s about where everything “Spanish” about this place ended.  First, there was the menu.  It took me flipping through five pages of pizza, spaghetti, and risotto dishes to finally get to the tapas.  While Spain and Italy might occupy the same  language family and are both ballin’ peninsulas, a Spanish restaurant should not have more types of pizza than tapas.  I did see that they had paella as well, but it was well tucked away like the tapas.  The tapas that they offered ranged from 4,000-6,000 W, and they were quite uninspired creations.  Not only were they almost all seafood creations, but somehow bruschetta made it on the menu.  I sincerely hope they were referring to pan amb tomaquet or else the owners need a serious culinary geography lesson.   My friend and I decided to get the pizza set for 35,000 W which was a great deal since we got the following:  either a Margherita or verde pizza, two 4,000 W tapas, one 6,000 W tapa, and two drinks which could be soda, coffee, house wine, or an ade.  For our combo, we got the verde pizza, tortilla espanola, cooked mushrooms, roasted shrimp, and two glasses of the house wine.The first items that came out were the mushrooms along with the two glasses of wine.

IMG_1313  I found the wine to be quite pedestrian as it was of the dry red variety, but it was fine since the mushrooms were quite vivacious in terms of flavor.  They seemed to be sauteed with some type of beef stock infused with pepper and had a slight woody aftertaste.  IMG_1312These hongos were garnished with a fried egg on the side which they told us to dip the pieces into, and there were some fresh dandelion greens on top along with some savory purple olives I enjoyed.  Unfortunately, this was the only plate that wowed us, so it was somewhat depressing in hindsight to know that we reached the apex of the meal after one tapa.  After the mushrooms came my nemesis in Spanish cuisine:  la tortilla.  Now, when most people hear the word, “tortilla” they automatically think that I was just munching on some flatbread instead of making a taco like a normal person.  Of course I would hate it if I did that, but a tortilla in Spain is actually more like an omelet with potatoes inside.  When I lived in Barcelona, I thought it was flavorless and nothing special.  Que Tal tapas managed to recreate this signature blandness even more so by having a higher potato:egg ratio in comparison to the real thing.  IMG_1314Why they would serve us such a demure tasting plate after the bold mushrooms is beyond me.  The penultimate entry in this pageant of mediocrity was the grilled shrimp.  Here I was thinking, “Que bien!  Me encantan gambas al ajillo!” (Oh good!  I love grilled shrimp!), but I was in for a rude awakening. IMG_1315 While I admired their presentation, I don’t think I’ve ever consumed such terrible shrimp in my life.  Not only was the texture of the meat extremely chewy to an unsettling degree, but they had an almost chemical-esque flavor to them.  I tried another shrimp after the first just to see if I had picked a bad one.  Nope.  Basura (garbage).  As if this train wreck of a dinner couldn’t get any more interesting, they brought out our verde pizza.  I wondered what made it “verde” (green) when ordering it, and I could see it got its moniker from the mini-garden that was chilling out on top of the actual pizza.

Step 1:  Find out if you got a salad or a pizza.

Step 1: Find out if you got a salad or a pizza.

 Our waitress then said to us, “Roll” while gesticulating towards the pizza.  This was very disconcerting since I’ve never heard anyone tell me to roll my pizza.  I could see why she said this when I went for a piece.  It was incredibly thin, had no cheese, and was just mushrooms and the greens.

Step 2:  Attempt to find a method of eating said salad/pizza.

Step 2: Attempt to find a method of eating said salad/pizza.

 The only way you could eat it without getting half the contents on your pants was like a taco.  I know you fold NYC-style pizza in order to eat it better, but this pizza was just ridiculous.

Step 3:  Why?...Just why?

Step 3: Why?…Just why?

 The taste didn’t even justify its unique consumption style.  While I always appreciate an opportunity to up my fresh vegetable intake, the mushrooms were tasteless and the dough was a non-factor.  This pizza was the equivalent of “that” drunk person at the holiday office party.  The pizza looked like it would be a good time initially, but after spilling itself all over my hands and being really annoying to eat, I never wanted to see it again.

In the end, don’t go to Que Tal Tapas if you’re looking for a real tapas experience.  It’s the culinary equivalent of Don Quijote fighting the windmills.  It tries really hard but fails every time.

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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