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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

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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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London (Day 6)- Taken to Tasca/Dressed to Empress

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Hello everyone, and welcome to the final chapter in my London food chronicles on Mastication Monologues.  While I don’t think that anything will really top the crazy dinner I had at Bunga Bunga on day 5, the last days of London were still filled with great Spanish food at La Tasca and wonderful dishes at the popular Indian eatery The Empress.

During my time in Korea, quality western food items were in short supply, but that is not to say that they were impossible to find.  I had a brief encounter with a taperia in Incheon that supposedly had great tapas but left me wanting.  I’ve lived in Spain, and this place omitted basic tapas that you would find on any menu in Spain or even in the USA.  Then with the tapas that they did have, they couldn’t even do them properly like gambas a la plancha or tortilla espanola.  So, when I landed in London, I was certain that they would at least have the know-how and mettle to pull off a decent tapateo due to the influx of Spanish immigrants or at the very least through geographical proximity to la patria compared to Korea.  I was also meeting up with my friend, Rebecca, who I had met back in 2008 in Manchester, and she also had a taste for Spanish food.  After a bit of wandering around the Covent Garden area, we finally found what we were looking for:  La Tasca.  Rebecca told me she had heard good things about it, so we went inside to see what all the hubbub was about.6905@ltgallery  The decor was filled with plenty of cultural items from the peninsula that were not too tacky, and it was surprisingly empty for the height of lunchtimeIMG_2341IMG_2340.  Oh well, more room for us.  The menu had an extensive offering of tapas of all varieties, cocidos, paellas, and meatless options for you vegetarians out there.  As for drinks, they obviously had an extensive wine menu along with many different types of beers I sampled throughout Spain.  While Rebecca went for more of the seafood options, I went more the land animal route with croquetas de pollo (chicken croquettes, a Madrid favorite, L 4.70), mejillas de puerco (pork cheeks, L 5.25), and patatas bravas (fried potatoes with spicy sauce, L 3.35).  After a bit of catching up with an old friend, our tapas came out.  I began with the pork cheeks that were in a semi-sweet chili sauce nestled in a nest of fries.

Cheeky porky

Cheeky porky

I was greatly satisfied as the sweet sauce combined with the saltiness of the fries to further enhance the tender morsels of pork.  I moved on to the croquetas which were half-heartily presented on tufts of what seemed to be a garlic mayonnaise and garnished with sprigs of clover on top.IMG_2337  Thankfully the presentation did not foreshadow the taste as I found them to have a crunchy, light exterior that gave way to a piping hot interior flush with pieces of all white chicken and melted manchego cheese.IMG_2338  I saved my very favorite for last, the patatas bravas. IMG_2336 This specific tapa is always my personal barometer of how true a tapas restaurant is to the real article in Spain, and while they did an adequate job at La Tasca, I’ve yet to find a restaurant outside of Spain that can recreate the sauce they use.  However, the ones at La Tasca were semi-satisfying in the sense that they had the peppery spice that comes with the dish, but the ratio of mayo to tomato sauce was completely off.  Overall, it was a decent tapas meal, but I would look elsewhere if you are searching for high quality tapas.
La Tasca on Urbanspoon

Moving on from my mini-Spanish adventure, I knew before I left London I had to get some Indian food whether at was at a sit-down restaurant or getting my favorite Chicken Tikka footlong sandwich at Subway.  Either way, I needed to get my curry in a hurry.  So, my friend Ravi set up our last meal together at The Empress located just a short walk from the Aldgate East tube station in the Tower Bridge area of London.empress_indian_restaurant_london_whitechapel_1  The interior was elegantly decorated but had very dim lighting.  I don’t know if they were trying to save on their electricity bills or set the mood, but it made taking pictures of my food a bit harder along with walking through the restaurant in general.  We started off with some Cobra beers (L 3.95) that are Indian in origin but brewed in the UK.IMG_2348  It was a smooth lager that wasn’t terribly filling and had a light, slightly hoppy aftertaste.  After wetting our whistles, we perused the menu to find that they had an extensive menu offering a plethora of Indian specialties from mild paneers to taste-bud scorching phals and everything in between.  To start the feast, we got an order of papadum (Indian flatbread) that came with curry, chutney, yogurt, and pickled vegetables.IMG_2349  The flatbread was crispy and somewhat bland until you put some of the garnishes on it.  My personal favorite was the red chutney that packed a spicy punch.

(Starting at 12 o'clock going clockwise) raita, red curry, red chutney, and pickled vegetables.

(Starting at 12 o’clock going clockwise) raita, red curry, red chutney, and pickled vegetables.

As for the entrees, we decided to split some smaller dishes like bindi (okra), aaloo mutter (potatoes and peas), raita (yogurt sauce) but also have our own meals.  I was contemplating between the spicy vindaloo or the supposedly hellish phal, but the waiter dissuaded me from the latter saying that I’d only be tasting the spice.  I don’t know if he did that because he thought I couldn’t handle it or was just being nice, but I went for the lamb vindaloo (L 11).  All of our food came out at the same time along with some of the naan (flatbread) we ordered, and it looked and smelled delicious.IMG_2352  The taste test would prove equally fruitful.  My lamb vindaloo was filled with plenty of lamb swimming in the spiciest vindaloo sauce I’ve ever had, but it definitely brought plenty of delicious cumin and onion flavor with the flames. IMG_2353 The raita cut through the inferno with a cool, cucumber splash coupled with some of the basmati rice we ordered.  I really enjoyed the aaloo mutter as well since it was simple, hearty, not overly seasoned, and the peas weren’t soggy.  I’d say it was the best Indian meal I’ve ever had for the price I paid, and I highly recommend you seek out The Empress.
The Empress Indian Restaurant on Urbanspoon
Even though we paid our check and got up to leave, the fun didn’t stop there.  After dinner, one of our friends suggested that my friend Bob and I should try this Indian after dinner mint that helps with digestion called paan.  We walked further down the street to the world famous Brick Lane which is regarded as the hub of the best South Indian fare in the world.  First, we walked into a respectable looking Indian bakery looking to see if they offered this paan treat, but the guy turned us away.  Then, we moved 50 feet down the street to a convenience store selling everything from rolling tobacco to an unusual amount of calculators.  I knew we were in the heart of a different community far from the glitz and glamour of more touristy spots as all of the workers referred to me as “boss” since I was the only person not of South Asian descent in the store.  I saw the cashier take our order and proceeded to roll up what looked like a medium sized oval leaf into a cone.  After scooping in something that looked like confetti and pouring some syrup inside along with rolling them up in newspapers, we walked back outside to finally try them.  Bob and I took them out of the newspaper to find what seemed to be green cocoons that were packed tightly with that flaky material I saw that man stuff inside.IMG_2356  While I was taking pictures of this mystery food, Bob popped his into his mouth, and I was frightened by his reaction. His face went quickly from a look of curiosity to a grimace to almost a portrait of pain as he subsequently ran to the nearest garbage can to spit it out.

Yum...

Yum…

I decided to give it a go, and I bit through the semi-bitter leaf to find the interior to be similar to sawdust in terms of texture along with pieces that almost felt like rocks.  When I chewed even further, that is when the true flavor came out that made my friend Bob pay a trip to the nearby rubbish bin.  My mouth was overwhelmed with a taste I could only liken to extremely floral potpourri mixed with cherry syrup with a heavy emphasis on the former.  It was such a mess in my mouth, and I couldn’t get it out sooner.  Unfortunately, it was thoroughly chewed which made it harder to gracefully spit out into the garbage can.  My friend who brought us there said it wasn’t good quality, so I’ll just take his word for it.  I asked him what was in it, and he said coconut, cinnamon, cardamom, camphor, anise, and the cherry syrup among other things.  Either way, it quickly shot up my list into the top three grossest things I’ve ever consumed, and it will live long in my memory.  However, it was a memorable way to say goodbye to some great guys (and the girlfriend of one of them) that I hope to see again, and I still appreciate the hospitality they showed me while in London.IMG_2359

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.

Multum In Parvo

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Hello to all old and new readers of Mastication Monologues!  I have decided to write this blog entry before the overwhelming nature of graduate school manages to kick in and prevents me from even contemplating writing about a restaurant.  This past week has been quite busy gearing up for another semester, but along the way, I had a mini moving adventure with my friend David in downtown Chicago.  After a lot of heavy lifting and a frustrating episode with a U-Haul location on the northside, we finally decided we deserved a bite to eat.  We ended up going to an Italian restaurant called Quartino’s Ristorante and Wine Bar located at 626 North State Street,  Chicago, IL 60654.

My friend David said that I’d like the food since they serve Italian tapas.  Now, after living in Spain and being to Italy numerous times, I didn’t believe that they actually served tapas at an Italian restaurant.  Especially when all of the Italian food I’ve had throughout my life was more about abbondanza and someone telling you to “Mangia Mangia!”  instead of tiny/light portions.  I was pleasantly surprised when I entered the establishment.  We got there at 9 pm, and it was a madhouse with every table filled on the main floor and upstairs.  Obviously, this was a good sign.  So, we quickly got down to business and ordered our entrees:  polenta fries, quattro stagioni pizza, calamari, Tuscan sausage risotto, beef filets, and the organic veal skirt steak.

Fries that will cross your eyes

The polenta fries came out first in a small tin cup wrapped in wax paper that had print on it like newspaper.  This presentation gave it a more street food feel, but the taste was straight from nonna’s kitchen.  The outside breading was crisp and the inside was perfectly seasoned with a pinch of salt.  Thankfully it wasn’t polenta that was too goopy or too dry, but the red pepper sauce on the side was mediocre.  Next came the quattro stagioni pizza.

4 seasons of deliciousness.  Vivaldi would be proud.

It was a moderately sized pizza that had paper-thin, New York style crust that you have to fold in order to keep the toppings from falling all over your shirt.  On top was a thin layer of tomato sauce along with artichokes, roasted peppers, grilled zucchini, Portobello mushrooms, & Grana cheese.  This was probably one of the top dishes of the night (though pizza is one of my favorite foods) since all of the vegetables were fresh, especially the artichokes, and the Grana cheese was thinly sliced over the entirety of the pie which provided a salty kick to the smooth Mozzarella.  The only downside was the integrity of the crust.  The actual bread was delicious and the crunchy crust had a light layer of flour on it, but with every slice that we took, half of the toppings ended up on the pan.  Sorry NY, but I’m just drinking a lot of haterade when it comes to making pizza the right way.  Moving on from regional culinary conflicts, the calamari came out the same time as the pizza, and I wasn’t expecting much out of this dish since I’m not much of a seafood fan.

True fruits of the sea

Thankfully, these calamari rings were partially breaded which allowed the slightly firm squid to shine above the lemon zest, salt, crushed pepper, and buttery breading.  Next came the Tuscan sausage risotto and the beef filets.  With the former, it came out in a little Mount Vesuvius style mound of creamy rice, tomatoes, and peas.  The risotto was extremely rich and dotted with tomatoes that effortlessly blended in with the sauce, and the sausage was portioned out in mini-chunks and was doing a fennel based Tarantella  in my mouth with each bite.  As for the beef filets, they were small medallions of prime meat accompanied by broccoli rabe, red chilis, garlic, and extra virgin olive oil.  The red chilis and garlic mingled with the rabe on top of each slice of the meat like some type of verdant toupee but without any of the awkwardness.  The last plate, the veal skirt steak, was actually a replacement for the pork belly we  originally ordered since they had run out.  It was similar to the beef filets with being grilled to order but was then served with a side of wild Arugala, roasted grape tomatoes, and balsamic syrup.   The salad on the side with the tomatoes and syrup was an interesting mix because the bitterness of the Arugala was wonderfully complimented by dulcet/light undertones of the syrup.

By the end of the meal, I thought that this three-ring food circus was completely over, but my friend’s brother decided to order these Italian donuts called Zeppone.  When they came out, I was overwhelmed at the amount that they gave you for the price and awestruck at how delicious they looked.  They weren’t like the typical doughnuts with the hole in the middle but rather more like mini-Beignets which are served at the world-famous Cafe du Monde in New Orleans.  In addition to these tiny fried pillows of dough sleeping under a thick coating of powdered sugar, we got a dipping bowl of honey and one of chocolate.  These pastries were light, airy, and the chocolate went much better with the buttery dough than the thick and sultry honey.

Che bello!

So if you’re looking for a higher end Italian eatery with a twist on some traditional recipes and serving styles, check out Quartino’s Ristorante and Wine Bar!

Quartino on Urbanspoon

Quartino on Foodio54

Take a Look at These Patatas

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Hola a todos!  Welcome to another addition of Mastication Monologues, and I hope you are ready for an international recommendation.  This past Spring Break, I wanted to go on vacation somewhere overseas.  So I ended up planning a trip to southwestern Spain with my home base in Sevilla.  I had previously travelled to Andalucia when I was living in Barcelona, but this region called me back with its charm and all things people normally associate with Spain, i.e. flamenco, bull fighting, and soccer.  It was definitely different culturally and linguistically from Catalunya.  Today, I would like to talk about my experience at Cafe de Sevilla located on the corner of Paseo de Catalina de Ribera right next to the Jardines de Murillo (Murillo Gardens).

As I was exploring the city’s many different tourist stops like the Catedral de Sevilla and the Plaza de Toros, I was also on a hunt for my favorite tapa:  patatas bravas.  If you’ve never had them, they are kind of like the Spanish version of French fries.  They are diced and fried potatoes that are served often times with a mayonnaise-based sauce with some type of tomato element and black pepper.  However, here stateside I have yet to find a tapas restaurant able to recreate this seemingly simple dish.  I don’t know if they are trying to make it fancier for American diners, but I have seen some interesting variations.  Anyway, while I visited many different restaurants and cafes in Sevilla, I found that it was nearly impossible to find my patatas bravas on the menu when in Barcelona they were quite popular.  This all changed on a walk back to my hostel when I decided to go to a restaurant right by the Murillo Gardens.

Patatas on the left and the fried cheese from a previous meal (it’s delicious as well)

It has both al fresco and indoor dining.  For my last meal in Sevilla, I dined outside on the patio, and it has a classy ambiance with their wooden tables and canvas umbrellas.  It was a perfect night for a refreshing Cruzcampo (Sevillanos are more known for their beer than wine consumption strangely enough), a plate of patatas bravas, and bull tail.  I even had a funny interaction with the waitress because apparently I used the Spanish word for tail, “rabo”, that only old people in the country use instead of the more modern “cola”.  Once I established myself as being an old country bumpkin, I was excited for my last Sevillian meal.

The patatas and the bull tail came out at the same time with the bravas having a much more exquisite presentation than the no-nonsense approach to the bull tail.   The potatoes were perfectly fried with a slightly crunchy outside and soft, white interiors.  They were drizzled with the classic, only-in-Spain patata sauce which was a bit spicier than the other varieties I have tried in other cities in Spain.  However, these were special since they also came with blue cheese sauce that was not too overwhelming with the cheese chunks floating in it, and a spicy tomato sauce that may have had saffron in it as well.  As for the bull tail, it did not look like they just took a tail from a freshly killed bull in the plaza de toros and slapped it on a plate, but rather there were three moderately-sized hunks of meat served in a beef based gravy along with a side of potato wedges.

Un”bull”ievable (I just went there)

The meat itself was very tender, almost like brisket, and I didn’t even need a knife to cut any of it off the bones.  As for the gravy, it went very well with the meat since it seemed to have some spicy undertones to prevent this dish from being mediocre.  As for the potato wedges, they were thrown in with the gravy which I didn’t really care for since they ended up just disintegrating into the rest of the meal.  Nevertheless, it was quite filling, and I was thoroughly satisfied with my meal.

So the next time you are in Sevilla and want to try the best of something traditional or be a little more adventurous, the Cafe de Sevilla has a dish for everyone’s’ personal preferences.  However, this city has many great establishments to dine at in its tiny, winding streets, so follow the advice of a popular Spanish saying, “El perro que anda, hueso encuentra” (The dog that walks, finds the bone). This is only part one of two on places to go to eat in Sevilla.  Part two involves gelato, so get excited!

Tapa the Heap Parte 2: Le Denoument Délicieux

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Annnnd I’m back once again to pick up where I left off in this culinary cliffhanger of a blog entry.  Last time I started out talking about the overall nature of the tapas restaurant Meson Sabika, and what exactly tapas are to the world foodie community.  Now, I can finally get to the heart of the matter with the actual description of these lilliputian dishes that stand large on any dinner table.

I have had quite a few different types of tapas all over Spain from the ubiquitous pulpo gallego (Galician octopus) to the infernally chewy orejas de cerdo(pig ears)

Mmmm Tentacles

, but I can attest to Meson Sabika faithfully recreating these regional Spanish flavors stateside.  They serve both hot and cold tapas in typical Spanish fashion, so I’ll just comment on two hot tapas and two cold tapas to keep it short and sweet.  One of the cold tapas I’d recommend would be the rollito de buey (literally a “little ox roll”) which is absolutely sensational due to the fact that it uses a thinly sliced, succulent beef tenderloin wrapped around a mixture of blue cheese, dates, and Portobello mushrooms.  Now some would think that the addition of dates might turn some picky eaters off, but it provides a flourish of sweetness that nicely balances the earthy flavors of the mushroom, the acidic bite of the cheese, and the savory taste of the beef.  The second cold tapa I’d try again would be the patatas con alioli (potatoes with garlic and oil).  It’s a variant on your typical potato salad which utilizes the Catalan alioli mayonnaise that is molt creamy and packs quite a potent garlic punch.  However, I would not recommend this if you are on a very important date or business meeting since it can make your breath quite pungent depending on who’s making it that day so tread carefully (though if you love garlic as much as I do, it’s worth it everytime).

The duck but with pears, not apples

Definitely not the potato salad from your usual picnic

As for the hot tapas, it is a lot harder to just pick two  because they have greater variety and are quite more creative in terms of their presentation.  The first one you should order is the pato confitado (or duck confit for those who don’t habla español), but the name does not do this dish justice.  Although it is on the smaller size, like all the other tapas, it is a small leg of duck that has a very crunchy skin that leaves a sweet, smooth aftertaste on your tongue whilst the cinnamon apples provide a warm, contrasting texture to the duck skin.  Plus, there are mushrooms that are thrown in for good measure, but they really are not the highlight of this tapa.  As always, I saved the best for last with my number one tapa of all time:  patatas bravas.  This dish is quite possibly one of the simplest of tapas, but the one that I have seen the most variations of in terms of the preparation and taste ranging from bland, undercooked tubers to the perfectly fried potato cubes served with a side of peppery bravas sauce.  This aforementioned sauce, from what I have tasted in the states, has yet to be recreated with the same panache as they do in Spain, but thankfully Meson Sabika provides their own adequate touches to this fan favorite.  They dice up and fry fresh potatoes in a bowl while lightly covering them in a tomato based sauce that is not very spicy, and these potatoes are then covered with a generous helping of shredded Manchego cheese.

The Sauce is the Boss!

Even though this is not the traditional bravas I pine for, they are quite filling and the paprika in the sauce provides a punchy zing at the end of each bite that makes me always come back for more.

Overall, Meson Sabika provides a small slice of Spain in the Chicagoland area in the most elegant of settings.  The prices are decent, the food is fresh and delicious, and the atmosphere is ideal for any sort of occasion.  To close with two of my favorite Spanish sayings, I say hasta luego y ¡A beber y a tragar, que el mundo se va a acabar! (Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die!).

Meson Sabika on Urbanspoon

Meson Sabika-Naperville on Foodio54

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