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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

San Diego (Day 1): I’m Going Back, Back To Cali (Yankee Pier, Lemonade)

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Time is fleeting.  Summer 2016 is flying by in the Chi per usual as kids are going back to school, and parents are happy the little monsters are out of their hair.  The last of the street festivals are attempting to be crammed into the few days of nice weather we have left before winter comes to our metropolis a la Game of Thrones (hopefully sans the army of the dead).  Luckily, I have another wonderful travelogue to bring a bit of sunshine to your day through the magic of our trip this summer to San Diego, California.

Janice had originally informed me of one of her child hood friends, Sabrina, was going to get married about a year ago, and when I finally found out where the wedding was going to be, I couldn’t be more excited.  It turned out it was going to be in San Diego, specifically Coronado Island.  The reason for my excitement was that I hadn’t been back to California in ages, and I was aching for some of that humidity-free fresh air and West coast sunshine, a definite change from this Chicago summer known more for humidity, heat, and destructive lighting storms. 21dbbc4ca53ea93620d40f5ea967b488c7fe99ae6f2b79b50d8f7ca5ab123e9d No wonder we Midwesterners are so tough.  Janice and I had an ungodly early flight, so by the time we reached our layover in San Francisco, another fun place to visit in California, we needed something to eat for breakfast beside the miniscule treats they handed out to placate us in the coach section.  As we strolled to our gate, we found a restaurant that seemed to be quite popular with our fellow travelers:  Yankee Pier.  They are a chain that has a stand alone location and another one in the San Francisco aiport, so they had a menu and service to compliment the need for people on the run.  However, this focus on culinary efficiency didn’t sacrifice the quality of the food.  I got some sort of Mexican omelet that was liberally garnished with cilantro and filled with peppers, chiles, potatoes, tomatoes, and avocado which was a major game changer.IMG_9601  With a couple splashes of Tabasco hot sauce, I turned this fiesta in my mouth from mas o menos to un bombazo!  There was plenty of flavor to savor in this omelet, and I’d recommend it if you like Mexican flavors in general.  It was so good I even caught Janice in the act of sneaking a bite or three from my plate. IMG_9603 Also, I really enjoyed their sourdough toast because it wasn’t very crispy and more on the chewy end.  Sourdough is actually part of San Francisco’s identity since it was brought to the state by French bakers in the 1840s during the famous gold rush, and Yankee Pier’s version of the iconic bread did not disappoint.  Overall, if you’re looking for a delicious meal that is also mindful of your travel time restrictions, I’d highly recommend Yankee Pier.  Once we downed our food, we were on a plane further south to San Diego.

Life is terrible

Life is terrible

Upon landing we were picked up by Janice’s friend Amber and another little companion I was not expecting.  I got in the back seat and was face to face with Ellie the Schnauzer.  She was such a good lil’ poochy, but she was ready to show us around the town with her owner.IMG_9774  Eventually, we found a place to park and walk around.IMG_9623 IMG_9610  Eventually, we had worked up a bit of an appetite, so Amber took us to one of her favorite local eateries:  Lemonade.  Apparently, it has locations all over the Golden State due to its popularity as a purveyor of healthy salads, sandwiches, and (not so healthy) sweets.  Oh yeah, and they do have their own homemade lemonades, of course! (Sorry, Beyonce fans).  IMG_9622 IMG_9621We didn’t know what to get because there was so much to choose from, IMG_9611 IMG_9612 IMG_9613IMG_9614 IMG_9615but we went with two of the cold salads:  the blt panzanella ($2.75) and the edamame salad ($2.50).  It was cafeteria style, so they scooped a generous helping of each on our plate as we slid down the line.  We also wanted to try one of the sandwiches and purchased the tomato and mozzarella ($6.95).   IMG_9616They also have a plethora of sinfully decadent looking desserts, but we did not give into them.  IMG_9617 IMG_9618 It was time to pay for our goods, and we had fun with the employees having samples of their lemonades behind the counter.  It’s not just your mother’s lemon and sugar based summer drink.  We tried the carrot ginger, hibiscus limeade, and blood orange lemonades.  The best part was that you could mix and match as many flavors as your thirsty heart desired at no extra charge.  In the end, we made a mix of the blood orange and the hibiscus tea.  IMG_9619 IMG_9776It resulted in a deep burgundy hued drink with a slightly tangy and almost cherry-esque tinged flavor profile that would cool us off after running around with Ellie the tour guide and Amber. IMG_9777 We took a seat on the patio in the front, and while the ladies were catching up, poochy was enjoying her time on my lap/losing her cool over my drink.

So calm

So calm

Maybe not

Maybe not

Eventually, we got to eating our salad and our freshly made sandwich.  The salads were fresh and light since we didn’t want to fill up before the rehearsal dinner for Sabrina’s wedding.  IMG_9620The edamame salad was seasoned with a vinaigrette and pepped up with pickled radishes, sesame seeds, and carrots.  I particularly enjoyed each firm bean imparting an earthy note to each forkful.  The panzanella was my choice (on the left), and is an antiquated recipe.  This Italian salad has been referenced in literature as early as the 16th century as a “salad of onions served with toast”.  While it has shifted in focus from onions as a base to tomatoes, it doesn’t take anything away from this hearty side dish.  This savory salad consisted of basically a BLT sandwich with arugula vinaigrette soaked pieces of bread, turkey bacon, avocado, and tomatoes.  It’s definitely a salad for those who don’t love traditional salads, i.e. healthy ones.  As for the sandwich, it wasn’t anything of note.  Yes, it was fresh and handmade, but I’ve had a caprese sandwich before. IMG_9781 I’d like to try one of their other more noteworthy creations the next time we’re in town.  Once we downed our amazing meal, we bade Amber and Ellie farewell (but not forever) and made our way to our airBnB.  We donned our finest duds and Uber-ed over to the picturesque Coronado golf club for the bride and groom’s rehearsal dinner. IMG_9782 While we were wasting time before everyone showed up, we played some Pokemon Go, and I got caught in the act. IMG_9783 Eventually, both families and their friends arrived, and we had to stop being antisocial.  It was a great night meeting Janice’s friends from long ago, the bride’s giant family, and eventually bonding with a good number of the younger folks of the wedding party going around catching Pokemon.  Also, the food and drink was phenomenal.  We went to the restaurant that catered the event on our last day, so I’ll save my review for that post.  It was such a great time overall, in fact, we stayed until the staff kicked us out of the clubhouse.  If this first day was any indication of how the rest of our visit in San Diego was going to transpire, I couldn’t wait for the big day tomorrow!  IMG_9784Stay tuned for part 2…

Yankee Pier Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Lemonade Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

My Neighbor Tokoro

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Hello…helllooo..helloooooo….Is anyone still left out there that reads this blog?  It seriously has been way too long since I have posted any new content on Mastication Monologues, but such is the life of someone working on a 2nd Bachelor’s degree.  Thankfully, the light at the end of the tunnel is near, and I am looking forward to some mental rest and relaxation.  Thankfully, I won’t slack too much though because I have plenty of great reviews and food adventures to bring to you.  Today’s review involves Tokoro Sushi in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.

My fiancee, then girlfriend, suggested we try the new eatery when it opened last year, and we have been back since.  However, our first visit wasn’t the most enjoyable compared to the second time.  There is mainly street parking and there are plenty of public transportation options for those of you rocking Ventra cards on the bus or L.  The interior of Tokoro looks like any other sushi restaurant complete with bamboo prints and assorted Japanese tchotchkes.  Fitting given the name of the restaurant in Japanese literally means “place”, i.e. this could be the interior of any of the other million, lower/middle rung Chicago sushi restaurants.  They have a BYOB policy and a free corkage service which helps if you care for a glass of chardonnay to go with your unagi.  Upon sitting down, we looked over their extensive sushi menu and saw most of the the typical Japanese restaurant offerings from lunch specials, soups, gyoza dumplings, sushi rolls, sashimi, and even hibachi offerings for diners searching for something a bit more substantial.  Janice and I preferred to try the figurative treasure chest of sushi that lay before  us in the menu, so we got the “all you can eat” sushi option for 20 bucks.  Some people always wonder or straight up deny that the all you can eat option is a waste of money, but when you think about it, there is some method to the madness.  Based on current trends of fishing, human consumption, and sushi demand from around the world, the price of fish, especially the fatty toro tuna, is only going to sky rocket.   Therefore, placing a cap on your wallet but not on your stomach makes perfect sense to me especially if you were as hungry as we were.  Then again, who knows if most sushi restaurants actually use the fish advertised on the menu.  The results are often times surprising.  Either way, that didn’t stop us from enjoying some good, not great sushi.  Thankfully, we got a complimentary bowl of miso soup which I think should come free with each meal in Japanese restaurants because it is such a simple but satisfying soup to make.  IMG_6101This traditional Japanese soup consists of a kelp/fish based broth and a soy based paste called, you guessed it, miso.  I have never seen it anywhere, but there are also red and mixed color miso pastes used in miso soup.  However, I greatly enjoy the white miso which is typically used in American Japanese restaurants because it is salty, savory, and has a taste that envelopes your entire body with a warmth that is enhanced with the soft cubes of tofu and slightly crunchy scallion strands.  Definitely great for the cold Chicago winters.  Once we drained our bowls, it was time to dive into our sushi.  Side note:  the service was absolutely terrible the first time around in terms of waiting for food, but thankfully they have improved their turnaround time from ordering to bringing out your order.  Our first platter consisted of the crazy tuna roll, spicy tuna roll, and mountain roll.IMG_6102

The crazy tuna roll, the one closest to the wasabi in the picture above, consisted of the rice rolled around a tuna and pepper mix and topped with slices of tuna and a sriracha chili sauce. IMG_6103 I didn’t find it to be too spicy, but it went down just fine.  The mountain roll was next which left the biggest impression on me for this round. IMG_6104 The inside was a cool cucumber and creamy avocado duo, but the real fire came from the spicy crab and spicy mayo on top that was festooned with a sprinkling of crunchy tempura crumbs.  I liked it the most out of the three selections due to the contrast between the relatively understated interior and the more eye-catching exterior.  Kind of a case of sushi superficiality, but this is a roll whose cover really makes the book a must read.  The same could not be said about the spicy tuna roll which was like the crazy tuna roll minus the “crazy” part. IMG_6105 I’m a big spicy food eater, and I didn’t think it lived up to its fiery moniker.  So it was not a big draw for me.  It was just a transition to the next sushi round we ordered.  We amped it up with a volcano roll, a kiss on fire roll, another mountain roll, and got some actual sushi on the side with a tomago, shrimp, and a piece of yellowtail.IMG_6106  I’ve already spoken about the mountain roll, but the volcano roll and kiss on fire roll were bolder than the first round participants.  The kiss on fire roll (between the raw fish and fried roll) did actually bring some spice since below the tuna there was a raw jalapeno pepper resting in wait for our unsuspecting taste buds.  I always like being kept off kilter sometimes during my dining experience, and I would recommend this roll for those who do like a bit of spice with their rolls.  Then there was the volcano roll.  Frying actual sushi is a crime against humanity, yet with rolls it kind of works.  The light, rice flour based batter goes well with the delicately constructed rolls, especially one that was bulging with spicy tuna, crab, avocado, cream cheese, and eel sauce and spicy mayo streaks across the sliced roll.  I think this was more of a luxury roll than a spice-centric entree due to the amount of ingredients that went into it.  I’d still recommend it though if you’re looking for a bit more heft to your typical sushi roll.  I did not have the tomago (egg) sushi, the shrimp, or the yellowfin, but Janice said they were all competently made but not mind-blowingly fresh/delicious.IMG_6107

So, if you’re looking for a solid, middle of the road sushi restaurant on the far northside of Chicago, roll on over to Sushi Tokoro!

Sushi Tokoro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Great Blogs of Fire: Xxxtra Hot Habañero Sauce

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Summer is in full swing as we’re finally in August, and what better to spice up the summer than a fresh hot sauce blog post on Mastication Monologues?  So, today’s entry comes from the Tropical Pepper Company who manufactures their sauces in the wonderful land of Costa Rica.  Although, Costa Rican cuisine isn’t too spicy, the land is ideal for growing the peppers needed to make their signature sauces.  Check out my post here where I reviewed their hazardous ghost pepper sauce.  While the habañero pepper doesn’t come close in spice to the all mighty bhut jolokia, it still does pack a punch like in today’s Xxxtra hot habañero pepper sauce.  First, there is the bottle. IMG_7286 Instead of the toucan being a skeleton like on the ghost pepper sauce, it is much more inviting with some of the peppers you are about to consume in his colorful beak.  Then there is the back of the bottle which is a bit bombastic in hyping up this condiment, but it still ranks as an “ouch” on their heat scale.IMG_7327  Knowing the potency of the first sauce I bought from the Tropical Pepper Company, I preceded with caution when I popped the top to try it out.  What I found was one of the best hot sauces I’ve tried.  The sauce’s color was red with a hint of orange and punctuated with white/yellow pepper seeds floating throughout the mixture.  IMG_7328Plus, it was noticeably thicker than its ghostly predecessor which became apparent when I had to put a bit of elbow grease to get the sauce out of the bottle a la Heinz ketchup.  The ghost pepper salsa, on the other hand, is a super watery, burgundy solution of doom.  I didn’t get the hint of any sort of gastrointestinal foreboding from the habañero sauce.  Luckily, the bark was like the bite:  pleasant.  Mind you, I have higher tolerance for spicier foods, so if you’re not used to eating fiery meals, don’t dive headfirst into this pool party.  However, I found it to be an interesting mix of elements.  From the outset, it had a kick of spice with a vinegar-fueled tang but with super subtle sweet notes that I think might be attributed to the use of pineapples in the recipe.  The spice quickly ebbed to a more understated, slow burn on my tongue as I ate more of it and got used to its smooth flavor.

Final Score

Flavor:  9/10
Spice:  6/10
Overall:  7.5/10       It’s a spicy, but not too spicy sauce compared to the hype job its packaging does for it.  Thankfully, it doesn’t let the                                    spice overwhelm its flavorful self.  Recommend this sauce for wings or perhaps tacos.

Toronto (Day 3): 10,000 Leagues Over the Jenga Sea

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Welcome to another Mastication Monologues and part three in my Canadian food adventures.  Day one consisted of a mouthful of Dirty South cookin’ while day two was a yin and yang of cool waters and fiery dinners.  Day three was interesting in its own respect.  We started off the day nice and early at the Ripley’s aquarium which was pretty entertaining with lots of interesting exhibits and marine specimens.  While the Shedd in Chicago has a lot more of the big animals like belugas and dolphins, the Toronto had bested our hometown museum with a larger variety of strange creatures.  For example, the giant sawfish that was chilling on the aqua tube we walked through as tons of other fish, sharks, and even turtles swam around us. Oh, boy, I would not want to see that stuff from my kayak seat.11692502_10105957338687379_774183563389597382_n 11695737_10105957338243269_4334976029450824065_n  The jellyfish exhibit was probably my favorite part since the cool blacklit chambers really made the little guys look like aliens. IMG_7035 Janice, however, was going bananas over the puffer fish and even crawled into the middle that was intended for the children school groups.  I captured her passion with this pretty cool picture.

In heaven

In heaven

Then there were the petting areas where we had some hands-on action with the sea-beasties.  Janice was freaking out with the horseshoe crabs,IMG_7013 and I finally overcame my fear of petting stingrays…by petting one as big as me.

They can smell my fear

They can smell my fear

Unfortunately, none of the small, petable sharks  were feeling calm enough to be friendly with the guests.  Overall, we highly recommend a visit while you’re here, but try to go in the morning since there will be less hordes of shrieking children.  We proceeded to walk to the nearby turntable that turned out to also be the Steamwhistle brewery.IMG_7044  If you’re into beer and/or classic trains, this is your paradise.

Just try not to get run over

Just try not to get run over

We finally got in after a bit of waiting, and they didn’t even have any food for lunch. IMG_7046 IMG_7045 On the plus side, we got to see the inside of the brewery, get some taster beers, 11707573_10105957366192259_8561669485023787245_n 11750695_10105957366152339_6453658988414354508_nand find our next party bike.11223302_10105957366232179_7567314927165861357_n  The brew that we had there tasted like a slightly hoppy IPA that was light and good for a hot day.  So, instead of just sitting there and waiting for the food truck to come in, we moved onto the harborfront since we had a kayak lesson in the afternoon.  After a moderate constitutional, we found ourselves looking out over Lake Ontario, a perfect backdrop for lunch.  We stumbled upon, surprise surprise, another brewery.  This one was called Amsterdam Brewery, and thankfully it wasn’t jazzed up like some sort of cheesy homage to the Dutch capital.  IMG_7059We got a seat on the patio where there was thankfully some shade, IMG_7050 IMG_7049but it seemed like they were training a lot of new staff.  Thankfully, our waitress was very on the ball since we had a deadline to stuff our faces and make it to the lesson on time.  First world problems.  The meal started with da beers.IMG_7048  Even though the flights looked tempting, they had to wait.  Instead, I got their all natural blonde while Janice got their Big Wheel amber ale.  These big glasses quickly came out, and we had different experiences.  IMG_7051My blonde seemed quite bland and slightly sour, but Janice’s Big Wheel was a tasty balance of caramel undertones and a hoppy aftertaste.  Moving on to food, their menu was a standard  bar and grill mix of mostly sandwiches, pizza, and a few slightly ethnic items thrown in there for good measure.  I enjoyed their code for pairing the food with the beer through a letter system next to each food option like C for a crisp beer next to the fish and chips.  We picked a few things to share before going to burn them off on the water.  First, there were the sweet chili rib ends ($11).  IMG_7052IMG_7053These pork chunks were delectable minus the occasional bone chip we had to make sure not to swallow.  Definitely not a plate for the little ones.  However, the flavor was definitely grown and developed through a mix of sweet chili sauce and a braise of lemongrass, lime leaves, and ginger.  It kind of was like an Asian sweet, spicy, yet tangy twist on an American favorite.  I recommend them.  Then we had to get the Canadian classic dish:  poutine ($8).  This melange of gravy, cheese curds, and French fries was born in rural Quebec in the 1950s, but the origin of the name is highly disputed. IMG_7054 Some believe that it is a Frenchified version of the English word “pudding” while others conjecture it comes from the Quebecois French slang for “mess” or “leftovers”.  There are even links back to France with regional dialects boasting cognates like the southern Provencal word, “poutité” or “hodgepodge” in English.  Whatever you want to call it, it is a super rich comfort food that will make you want to check your cholesterol levels when you’re done.  I’m not a huge fan of the soggy fries that soak up a lot of the gravy on the bottom, but the perfect forkful that combines the beefy with the salty fry and tangy cheese is without parallel.  Speaking of the cheese, at Amsterdam they use Thornloe cheese that has been a Canadian institution since 1940.  Plus, it was founded by a guy named Rene Laframboise or Rene The Raspberry.  Now that’s a cheese company I want to patronize!  To balance this heavy plate, we rounded out the main course with some of the hoisin chicken lettuce wraps ($12).  These were the opposite of the poutine:  light, sweet, and fresh.IMG_7055  They were basically like make your own tacos, but instead of tortillas we had super verdant leaves of lettuce.  The chicken and veggies were stir fried in a light teriyaki sauce, and we received the dark hoisin sauce and a pepper seed laden sauce on the side.  All of these plates together were a great value for good food, and we still had a little bit of room to split a dessert.  We got the flourless chocolate torte ($7) which was totally our jam, literally, given that the raspberry coulis (coo-LEE; from the Latin colare “to strain”) was the perfect compliment to the sinfully sweet slice.IMG_7056  An added bonus was the whipped cream, fresh strawberry, and a mysterious gooseberry that made its way onto our plate. IMG_7057 I had never even seen one of these fruits in real life, so I didn’t know what to expect from it.  Our waitress warned us that some diners didn’t care for its “interesting” and super sour taste.  So, I braced myself for the worst when I popped the small, bright yellow berry in my mouth and bit down.  I was greeted with a more neutral, partially earthy flavor washing over my palate.  It barely left an impression on me before it was gone.  Guess the kayak gods were smiling on us as we got the check and were running to the kayak dock.  It was a glorious day for a paddle, and before we knew it, we were in our dual kayak.  Our task of getting to the channel islands was harder than expected since we had to try to not get run over by the numerous boats and water taxis that were creating giant waves as well.  As if that wasn’t enough, there were airplanes zooming overhead because the landing strip was out by the islands.  Definitely got the blood pumping.  Eventually, we got to the islands and enjoyed a leisurely afternoon on the calm waters.  It’s also a great experience if you want some fantastic photo ops for the Toronto skyline like we got. 11540821_10105957366820999_7769503925293810602_n Going back to port was maybe that just much harder given the constant paddling we had done for the previous three hours.  By the time we reached the dock, we were ready for a nap before going out with Aaron and Alyssa.  Once we regroups, we were back at the harborfront with the gang, and funny enough they were going to bring us to Amsterdam Brewhouse!  Instead we wandered about taking in the Friday night surroundings,11745761_10105957366975689_7832020117414013761_n including Janice climbing into this contraption that looked like Dr. Seuss’ pimp-mobile.11694806_10105957367190259_489136461148223093_n  Just par for the course.  Eventually, we decided to go out to a bar or two for food and drinks.  We hit up the Wellington first for food and then the Banknote.  Unfortunately, I don’t have pics for the Wellington, but it had some great nachos.  It’s a cozy bar/restaurant too.  The Banknote, on the other hand, was a great bar for late night shenanigoats.  It was there that I tried another one of the Canadian beers that was also offered at the Amsterdam brewhouse:  the Boneshaker IPA.  Boneshaker TBS Bottle Shot1It was surprisingly palatable given that I’m not the biggest fan of the typically hop-heavy IPA style of beers.  Luckily, my bones weren’t shaking too much given that we played over three hours of Jenga that they have at their main long table.11249766_10105957367329979_2502322992411108169_n 11709773_10105957367389859_5852861961107866960_n  Then again, when you’re having a good time with great company, it’s bound to happen.11695752_10105957367903829_7768437875094248237_n  Talk about a wild Friday and penultimate night in TO!11695777_10105957367604429_5737441334686934831_n
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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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Never a Boar in the Kitchen

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What’s up people?  The weather has been relatively all over the place for a Chicago summer, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t try some new and consistently delicious food.  Enter Andy’s Thai Kitchen that me and my girlfriend hit up for her gusband’s birthday.  I was not really super excited about getting Thai food since it just all seems like the same thing, similar to my thoughts about Vietnamese food, but Andy’s Thai Kitchen managed to change my mind.

Bday selfie!

Bday selfie!

While the weather was quite cold outside, the interior is very warm and welcoming.

When we left it was almost closing time

When we left it was almost closing time

Not only that, but the body heat from the masses of people waiting at the narrow vestibule made the experience seem all the more chaotic.  It could almost be an homage to the organized madness that is synonymous with Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok.  Chef Andy Aroourasameruang brings the unadulterated flavors of his home, Chachoengsao Province, to Chicago in the form of one of the most unique Thai menus I’ve seen in a long while.  IMG_6086I had never been there before, but all of my other diners had visited it before.  So, I let them order most of the food for our meal aside from my entree.  First, we started the meal with the som tum tod  or fried papaya salad ($12). IMG_6087 Unfortunately, this was during Lent, and I had given up all fried foods.  So, based on the reaction of my fellow diners digging into the colorful melange of deep fried papaya sticks, giant pink shrimp, cashews, tomatoes, and green beans, they loved all of it.  It was presented differently than other mango salads I’ve seen in Thai cuisine given that the mango was actually fried and not served in its original form.  I’d recommend it though since I ate the shrimp together with the veggies.  The spicy lime dressing gave it a perfect tangy/fiery zip to keep you coming back for more.  As for the entrees, I went with the ATK signature dish:  wild boar pad ped ($11).  Basically, it was a spicy red coconut curry that had “young pepper” (whatever that is), slow cooked and stir fried boar, and Thai eggplants.  IMG_6088The curry was very rich and flavorful with a potent kick, and there was a ton of tender boar that seemed like slightly gamier beef.  It should have been tougher, but the slow cooking made it fall apart in my mouth.  The Thai eggplants were a new addition to foods I’ve never tried before, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Even though they looked like tiny halves of lime in my curry, they added more of a half-crunchy, half creamy element to the softer parts of my meal.  The only downside was that I think that they could add a wider variety of vegetables to the sauce.  As for Janice, she got the basil crispy pork belly ($10.95) which was another ATK signature dish. IMG_6091 This one wasn’t as elaborate as my curry, but it still brought big flavors that Thai cuisine is known for.  It basically was rice served with a plentiful helping of stir fried pork pieces along with mushrooms, garlic, chili, and basil leaves.  It was good but not great.  The meat was the best part with its crispy outer layer that gave way to multiple alternating layers of fat and juicy pork, but it became somewhat monotonous according to Janice.  Thankfully, the food party didn’t stop there since there was still the matter of dessert.  While most of the options had a distinctly South/Southeast Asian flavor like the fried roti or banana blanket, we had to go with the customer pick, the mango sticky rice ($7).IMG_6093  I was surprised to see what it actually looked like when it came out.  After living in Korea, I was skeptical of desserts boasting, in my eyes, typically savory elements like rice or beans.  However, this dessert might have turned my head a bit with its fresh layer of sliced mangoes and generous helping of coconut milk. IMG_6094 It was like eating a Southeast Asian version of bread pudding with the rice taking the place of the flour based dough.  I highly recommend this sweet treat.

So if you’re looking for a restaurant that offers quality and unique Thai dishes, enjoy a great meal at Andy’s Thai Kitchen!IMG_6098

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