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The Hub of All the Hubbub

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Another meal, another post.  What that means for you, the reader, is another great dining experience on Mastication Monologues.  What makes it so great?  Well, in Chicago there’s a little thing called Restaurant Week.  While Chicago is filled with oodles of restaurant that could make any week a restaurant week, but what makes Restaurant Week so special is that there are tons of great deals in restaurants you might have never known existed.  The cuisines range from some delicious, downhome cookin’ diners to Michelin starred establishments and even Alinea, three time winner of Elite Travel’s award as the best restaurant in the world.  While we don’t have reservations at such a prestigious eatery, today I bring you Hub 51, a gastropub/lounge/dance club with a classy atmosphere and super diverse menu.

Hub 51 is located in the upscale River North area of Chicago that is, go figure, just north of the Chicago river.  The sleek exterior exuded an air of subtle confidence, and upon entering the place I could see why.l  It was ultra modern in design from the bar to the dark wood chairs, and eventually we were seated in a leather bound booth that was very comfortable and spacious.IMG_5763IMG_5764  Looking over the menu, they had quite the eclectic menu including American, Mexican, and even Japanese food. However, we were all about trying the Restaurant Week menu where we got three courses for only $33!

Course one consisted of two dishes that were as far apart culinary-wise as apples and oranges.  First, we have exhibit A:  the spinach and artichoke dip.IMG_5772  While I recently wrote about another type of spinach artichoke dip, this was another animal.  Instead of being served with bread, it was paired with super light yet slightly too salty tortilla chips.  Thankfully the dip was a mix of gooey cheese and plenty of spinach that keep the saltiness to a minimum. IMG_5774 However, I didn’t feel like they had as many artichoke pieces as I’ve had in other similar appetizers.  Where as the artichoke dip was more on the fattening side, the Brussels sprouts salad was very refreshing and healthy.  The Brussels sprouts were fresh and crunchy which were also complimented with a few almonds sprinkled in amongst the greens.  IMG_5775I really enjoyed the Manchego cheese chunks that were dispersed as well throughout the greens, and I found the buttery Spanish cheese to pair well with the salty almonds.  The Medjool dates were a worthy sweet element in this appetizer and were countered with the slightly sour mustard vinaigrette.  All of it taken together, the Brussels sprouts appetizer was an option that both danced across the palate with a crunchy and sweet panache but lingered with the aftertaste of the vinaigrette.  I think round one went to team salad but just barely.  In addition to these Restaurant Week choices, Kaitlin and Dan got an order of the homemade hummus (($8.95) and an ahi tuna poke ($14.95).  Both were equally amazing in their own ways.  I love hummus in any form, so I was intrigued by the dukkah spices element of the dish.  While I recognized the typical, fresh cucumber and carrot spears, pita bread, and hummus with virgin olive oil in the middle, but then there was a dried powder on the side of the plate closest to me.  IMG_5768After some research, it turns out that dukkah or duqqa is an Egyptian condiment that consists of dried nuts, herbs, and spices that are then crushed to near powder like consistency.  The name “dukkah” is only fitting given that it comes from the Arabic word meaning “to pound”.  Luckily, it didn’t really pound out any of the other flavors on the plate but rather supported the zingy hummus with a crunchier texture that went well on either the vegetables or bread.  As for the ahi tuna poke (pronounced “poh-kay”), I was less enthused to try it since I’m not a huge fish fan.  On the other hand, I had tried one before and enjoyed it. IMG_5767 This Hawaiian dish is named after the Hawaiian verb meaning “to section or cut” which made sense since there was plenty of cubed, ruby red tuna chunks.  Along with that, there were two large rice crackers, plenty of avocado, and all of it was stewing in a soy based, wasabi-infused sauce.  Although the tuna was raw, it was not fishy by any stretch of the imagination since it was combined with the creamy avocado, super-flavorful sauce, and slightly chewy yet crunchy rice cracker. IMG_5771 The poke disappeared faster than a pack of Pokemon cards circa 1998.

Pre-feeding frenzy

Pre-feeding frenzy

Round two kicked off with the main entrees.  While Janice and I got the braised beef short ribs, Kaitlin got the pulled pork tacos ($16.95), and Dan got the knife and fork open faced BLT sandwich ($10.95).  While I didn’t eat a lot of the tacos, I managed to try one of the Niman Ranch braised pork shoulder filled tortillas, but I wasn’t terribly wowed with the naturally raised pork. IMG_5778 It was slightly spicy but not terribly flavorful compared to other tacos I’ve tried in my life.  As for the BLT, it looked like it was just a mini-mountain of toppings, but the bread was keeping a low profile under a pile of lettuce.  IMG_5779The best part of that plate was the bacon (when isn’t it?) because it wasn’t too crispy with just the right amount of fat and salt combined with a glaze that almost gave it a honey-like quality.  The downfall of the dish was the blue cheese and vinaigrette laced bread. It was way too bold and left an overwhelming residual flavor on my palate after trying a few samples of Dan’s entree.  Finally, I got around to my braised short ribs.  It was served with red potatoes, glazed carrots, and a small tub of horseradish cream. IMG_5782 While it looked delicious, my experience was quite the opposite.  I found it to be too salty and filled with fat deposits.  It left me feeling bloated and greasy, and the horseradish sauce didn’t even salvage this plate.  The glazed carrots and potatoes were tasty, but I was really disappointed with the supposed star of my dining experience.  Thankfully, dessert stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park.  First, there was Martha’s special occasion carrot cake.  It had three orange layers of light, fluffy cake that focused more on the spice element of carrot cake instead of the vegetable. IMG_5785 I would say that it had definite elements of nutmeg and ginger.  Between each layer of mouth-watering cake, there was a thick helping of cream cheese that was decadence incarnate, but it was not so sweet that it felt like I was going to develop diabetes.  The whipped cream on the side with a light powdering of cinnamon cemented this plate as one of the best I’ve ever had.  Then there was Grandma Bea’s chocolate pudding pie.  I don’t know Grandma Bea, but I wish she would invite me over for dinner and dessert more often after tasting this selection.  It was a different beast than the carrot cake but equally scrumptious. IMG_5783I personally preferred the graham cracker crust that not only had some granulated sugar mixed into it along with a hint of cinnamon in each forkful.  As for the filling, it was fluffy and rich with plenty of dark chocolate flavor.  Kaitlin made it a s’more for a dollar more, and it was quite interesting. IMG_5786 It looked like a series of white fish scales on top of a carp, but thankfully there was nothing fishy about it.  They went over the top of the marshmallows to brown them like at a campfire, and then taken all together it really did taste like a s’more minus the smoky flavor imparted by a bonfire.  The only downside to the marshmallow layer was that they were all stuck together, so sometimes someone would almost take all of the marshmallows with them when they just wanted one with a bite of the pie.  If I had to pick one, I’d choose the carrot cake because its cream cheese frosting was unbelievably addicting.

So with restaurant number one down for Restaurant Week in Chicago, I would recommend Hub 51 to anyone looking for an entertaining night out in a hip atmosphere with slightly more expensive fare than in other parts of the city.
Hub 51 on Urbanspoon

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Pane and Pleasure

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There’s nothing I love more than a perfectly made sandwich.  From the crunchy bread to the random assortment of ingredients that reside between the foundation layers, it is a meal that can be customized for anyone from any walk of life.  Ergo, there are a plethora of different sandwich shops throughout the Chicagoland area, and I’d like to tell you today about Panes Bread Cafe.IMG_3895

I had never heard of this establishment prior to a random visit there with my girlfriend.  I didn’t really know what to expect from a place called a “bread cafe”.  I’m sure there would be coffee involved, but then what?  Random slices of bread to go with your espresso?  Anyway, we walked in and were greeted by a brightly painted interior decorated with an eclectic mix of Latin American artifacts, Italian movie posters, and colorful murals.   IMG_3894We walked up to the order counter and looked over the menu. IMG_3890 Panes offers everything from soups, salads, sandwiches, pizzas, and pastas, but I was eventually swayed to the bread side as I looked over the sandwiches.  While they had more tame options like a ham and cheese or a B.L.T., I went for the devilish pollo diablo ($5.95).  My girlfriend got the pompazo sandwich ($5.95).

They both came out about 10 minutes later as they constructed and pressed each fresh panini sandwich to perfection.  They both looked great with the golden potato chips on the side. IMG_3891 I wouldn’t consider my sandwich anything that would render Satan a hot mess due to the spicyness, but it had a slight kick due to the spicy mayo and peppery spice rub on the juicy, all white chicken breast. IMG_3892IMG_3893 I personally thought that the bread really brought the sandwich to the next level.  The pompazo was ok, but I felt that the rich and verdant pesto overshadowed the chicken, tomatoes, and cheese.  Pesto-avalanche aside, I was impressed by their fresh ingredients on perfect bread that was hefty enough to deal with me tearing through it like Pac Man in the labyrinth of white dots.  As for the potato chips, I really liked them because they were crisp but not too salty.

I highly recommend Panes Bread Cafe if you’re looking for a cozy cafe that offers plenty of fresh sandwiches that won’t cost you that much bread.

Panes Bread Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thowback Post- Gołąbki in Poland

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What is happening, everyone out there reading Mastication Monologues?!  I hope this post is finding you well as the summer is slowly drawing to a close.  Things have been happening as of late with my job hunt, so I haven’t been able to update my blog regularly.  My b.  Anyway, this post continues of the same vein of previous posts where I am recounting my culinary tales throughout Europe, and today’s entry deals with Poland.

Poland has often been at the butt of many jokes due to the apparent ineptitude of its residents, but it is a tough country that has constantly been invaded by its larger neighbors like Austria, Russia, and Germany.  However, the Polish people have stuck together through these harrowing periods of history, and today have a vibrant democracy with a booming economy.  I saw plenty of P0land’s cultural history when visiting Krakow, the cultural capital of the south.2819_1239044213300_1052047_n  It’s also close to my great-grandparents’ villages they emigrated from back in the 1910s.  So, it felt like a type of homecoming for me to reconnect with my cultural roots.  While we were wandering about the streets of the charming Eastern European city checking out such sights like the city square, the cloth hall, and the Vistula river, it made us all work up an appetite.

The main square

The main square; Cloth Hall far left and St. Mary’s to the right.

St. Mary's Church

St. Mary’s Church

2819_1239045653336_1332560_n

Old Town

Old Town

Me being dashing next to the Vistula

Me being dashing next to the Vistula

Wawel Castle

Wawel Castle

Inside the castle

Inside the castle

So we stopped into a local restaurant and looked over the menu.  They had plenty of items that one could find in Polish restaurant Stateside like in Chicago and elsewhere.  If you’ve never had Polish food, it’s very hearty and simple food focusing on vegetables that can grow in the cold winters like potatoes and cabbage along with rich pieces of meat and sausage.  One item in particular caught my eye that I knew I had to get:  Gołąbki (pronounced:  Go-wumb-key).  This dish literally means “pigeons”.  According to Wikipedia, during the Thirteen Years War the kings of Lithuania and Poland allegedly fed gołąbki to their troops before the key battle of Marienburg Castle against the German Teutonic Order of Knights.  Result:  a Polish and Lithuanian victory.  Hooray for pigeon power! Don’t worry though, none of the head bobbin’, flying rats were harmed in the making of this meal.  Instead, it is like an Eastern European version of Greek dolmathakia.3354_850557907990_896543_n    First, there is the minced pork/beef blend inside that is seasoned and mixed with onions and rice.  This hearty melange is subsequently wrapped up in boiled cabbage leaves and then drenched in a warm tomato sauce.  The boiled cabbage was semi-firm, and the tomato sauce provided a smooth, tangy background to the spiced meats inside.  While we weren’t going to be engaging in hand to hand combat after our meal, it gave us plenty of energy to tackle the rest of our trip.  Honorable mention for food in Poland goes to the spreadable lard on bread that we tried in a different restaurant. 2819_1239046293352_2136836_n It was like a spreadable, warm butter mixed with bacon chunks that was so wrong yet tasted so right.  It was an homage to my grandparents who loved to spread it on rye bread.  It’s too bad they’ll never make it back to Poland, but I’m sure I made them proud with this meal.

Just like Baba and Papa

Just like Baba and Papa

Saved By The Bell

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Hello to everyone out there and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today I will be telling you about a little birthday celebration I went to last night in Itaewon that could have ended in gastronomic tragedy, but I managed to tame my own hunger with a little piece of home.  One of the girls in my orientation group invited us out to a Moroccan food in Itaewon, the foreigner quarter of Seoul, and naturally I jumped at the chance to eat food I’ve never had before.  However, upon arrival, we found out that the restaurant was under renovation, so eventually we found an Egyptian restaurant down the main drag of the area.  It was called Ali Baba’s, and I didn’t know really what to expect from Egyptian food since I never tried this type of food either.

Upon walking into the establishment, we were greeted with a mostly empty dining room aside from one couple.  There were various tchotkes on the walls representing Egypt from plates sporting the iconic King Tut death mask to images of the pyramids at Giza.  I was more enjoying the vivacious italo-dance techno beats that were mixed with Middle Eastern rhythms and pumping out the speakers all throughout our dining experience.  Upon sitting down, we were served with unleavened flatbread which was not complimentary (1,000 W each piece) and partially undercooked.  One of my fellow diners asked our waiter/owner if they could grill the bread to at least make it less soggy, and the waiter said, “It’s fresh.  We have an oven”.  We took this as, “I have a microwave, so that’s how it is”.  This was just the beginning of the terrible service.  I ordered the shish taouk (17,000 Won) since I wasn’t quite sure what the meat was going to be roasted on a skewer.  We quickly saw that the waiter didn’t know who ordered what, and some people didn’t get their food until everyone else was done eating.  Ineptitude aside, my food was served to me in a semi-attractive arrangement with fresh greens, two tomato slices, and two cucumber slices.

Close but no cigar

Close but no shisha

However, upon tucking into the dish, I was quite disappointed.  The pieces of chicken were succulent but not very flavorful.  I feel that I could have had the same thing if I stayed at home and cooked boneless chicken breasts in my oven-less kitchen.  Shish taouk is traditionally served with rice, tabbouleh, garlic sauce, tomato sauce, or fries.  None of this was present.  Hence I felt the price did not reflect the quality of the meal.  The worst part was the fact that the waiter/owner took pictures of us while eating.  It was not only intrusive, but a terrible PR trick to make it seem like his restaurant is better than it really is.  If you want good Middle Eastern food in Itaewon, look elsewhere because Ali Baba’s is run by one thief.  High prices for mediocre food?  No thank you.

After that meal, a couple of my friends and I decided to go to Taco Bell.  Why?  1.  Taco Bell is amazing back home, and 2.  I want to see how it’s different in Korea.

Even though it's by a mosque, this is my mecca.

Even though it’s by a mosque, this is my mecca.

Even thought the menu is a bit smaller in terms of choices in comparison to back home, I ordered a grilled bulgogi burrito (3,500 w) and a fiesta bulgogi taco (2,700 w).  It was totally worth it.  I just find it funny how Korea adapts almost every Western chain by just stuffing bulgogi in everything.  Not that I’m complaining though.  The grilled bulgogi burrito was moderately sized and was piping hot.

Like a newborn in swaddling clothes.

Like a newborn in swaddling clothes.

The tortilla was very strong and held in all of the contents from the first bite to the meat juice-filled end.  It was an interesting mix of delicious cheddar cheese, spicy Korean rice, onions, tomatoes, and sweet marinated beef.  It was even better with a liberal spritzing of my favorite Fire sauce that seemed a bit spicier than its American counterpart.

Layers of deliciousness

Layers of deliciousness

As for the fiesta bulgogi taco, it wasn’t that spectacular.  It was like eating a taco supreme without sour cream (beef, lettuce, cheese, and tomatoes).  That Korean twist of flavor was seemingly absent in the taco regardless of the bulgogi.  This latter meal was not only more satisfying in terms of flavor and quantity, but the sad thing is that the total bill for my four friends and I at Taco Bell was equal to the price of one entree at Ali Baba’s.  Moral of the story:  Don’t trust places named after famous thieves and just go to Taco Bell.

79 A.D. (Always.Delicious.)

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Hello to everyone out there and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Throughout the history of mankind, we have been plagued with many different types of natural disasters:  earthquakes, floods, and volcano eruptions.  The first two events are more common than the last one, but volcanoes seem to hold a special place in the place of the human mind in terms of threats from nature.  They are so unpredictable and powerful like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.  The cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were completely covered in ash, and their inhabitants were flash frozen in lava casts.  What does this have to do with food?  Well, yesternight I tried the best Chicken Vesuvio ever at the oldest  Italian restaurant in Chicago, Italian Village, located at 71 West Monroe Street  Chicago, IL 60603.

italian-village

There are three different sections to the restaurant, and each area has its own theme.  Even though it may sound a bit tacky/kitschy, we ended up dining in the quaint “Village” room upstairs.  It was decorated with white lights strung across the ceiling like a big famiglia party I saw in San Gimignano, Italy, and there were mini village buildings along the walls that I assumed you could eat inside for an extra fee.

Che romantico

Che romantico

Upon looking at the menu, I could see that the establishment definitely was well stocked with plenty of Italian American favorites like different types of Parmesans and stuffed pastas.  We even received the typical basket of pane italiano and crispy breadsticks without butter.  The olive oil and Parmesan cheese they provided at the table were high quality and made a great combo with the fresh, semi-crusty bread.  Between bites of the delicious carbs, I saw they served a classic Chicago Italian-American dish:  Chicken Vesuvio.  If I was going to dine at the oldest Italian restaurant in Chicago, I might as well get a meal invented in the same city. This dish also had to cook for thirty minutes, so I  ordered a glass of the Barbera red wine.  Plus, since I ordered one of the entrees, I had the choice of soup or salad.  I decided to plump for a side salad with ranch dressing.  The salad itself was nothing special.IMG_1082 It had the typical mix of lettuce, mixed greens, a tomato slice, julienned carrots, and just the right amount of semi-watery Ranch.  I was surprised for how fast they delivered the salad to me that the vegetables were so fresh and delicious.  Perhaps they don’t prefabricate their salads and are just speed demons on the cook line.

Cooking as good as nonna's

Cooking as good as nonna’s

After waiting patiently, my Chicken Vesuvio came out. I was face to face with half a chicken and roasted potato wedges.  Both the potatoes and chicken were herb encrusted, deep brown, and cavorting with each other in a delicious pool of herbs and chicken drippings.  Sounds kind of like a season of the Jersey Shore.  I decided to scale this gastronomic volcano of deliciousness, and it erupted with flavor from the first bite of a potato wedge.  The tubers were semi-crispy on the outside with hints of rosemary and oregano, and the insides were pure white like the snow of the Italian alps.  As for the chicken, the chicken broth made the meat extra succulent since it was literally falling off the bone.  The best part of the meal was combining the crispy skin with the juicy white meat and dipping it into the broth. My Barbera wine went well with this savory dish even though it wasn’t really red meat.  This Piedmontese libation was slighty acidic but bold; two attributes that really brought out the herbs of the broth and chicken skin.  A word of caution:  there might be some splatter with the broth while you’re cutting the chicken.  So if you’re wearing anything fancy on that first date, don’t get too excited while tucking into this festa italiana.    Once the smoke settled from this smoking cauldron of deliciousness, I was stuffed and satisfied with my choice.

So if you want to experience a piece of authentic Chicago, Italian American cuisine, and/or believe that abbondanza is a virtue in cooking, remember that all roads lead to Italian Village!

Italian Village on Urbanspoon

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