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To Live and Pie in Wicker Park

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Welcome one and all to another great blog post from Mastication Monologues!  Things have been picking up as of late since it’s the holiday season.  In between studying and braving the Walking Dead-esque crowds at the mall, I managed to squeeze in a trip to a Chicago bakery that was truly memorable in terms of its concept and approach to classic desserts.  If you’re a sweets lover, strap yourself in for a wild ride!  If not, prepare to be amazed!

The adventure all started back when I received an email from A Baker’s Tale saying that they were huge fans of my blog at the bakery, and they wanted to invite me to an exclusive event for local bloggers.  Naturally, I said yes, and informed Janice that we had some serious business to take care of.  Baked goods business.  I looked it up, and I saw it was located in the Bucktown/Wicker Park area which has been recently gentrified.  What this means is that you can’t walk more than five feet without running into an ironic mustache or fixie bike.  However, the exterior of A Baker’s Tale exuded neither a hint of pretentiousness nor any sort of kitchyness. IMG_7877 Walking in, we were immediately greeted by the employees and eventually the owner, Christine, who’s in the middle of the pic below. IMG_7923 I didn’t know where to look first in this coffee shop+bakery+fun house.  Once more bloggers and vloggers and what have you arrived, Christine explained that she loves literature and baking which in turn translated to the Alice in Wonderland and other literature inspired establishment that surrounded us.  Since I am also a fellow librophile, I couldn’t get enough of the homages to many classic works.IMG_7882 IMG_7884From the classic book prints,IMG_7917 the talking doorknob statue,IMG_7921 whimsical cakes,IMG_7889IMG_7887 IMG_7886IMG_7890 hedgemazed trip to the bathroom,IMG_7929 and the breathtaking tree overshadowing our tasting tables with leaves made of pages from Alice in Wonderland, IMG_7888IMG_7933there was no detail left on the sideline as we quickly made our way over to the tasting table. IMG_7878 I was late, so late, for a very important date…with some bakery!  IMG_7926IMG_7918IMG_7880Surprisingly, there was no door mouse, march hare, or Mad Hatter when we sat down.  As more bloggers began to stream in and take their seats around the table, I was half driven to yell, “Change places!” to get in the spirit of Mr. Carrol’s work, but I decided to focus more on the diverse spread of pastries in front of us like a very late high tea.  IMG_7879We started with a plate of a mini cherry pie, a passion fruit raspberry cheesecake, and a s’more bar.IMG_7924  While none of them made me shrink or grown into a giant like Alice when speaking with the doorknob, they were big on flavor.  First, there was the mini cherry pie that was a version of their normal sized pie.  It was topped with hearts as an homage to the Queen, but I felt like a king with this royally decadent dessert.  The crust was buttery and mixed with the sweet and tart filling to perfection.  I then had the passion fruit raspberry cheesecake.  It was filled with a burst of tropical flavor that was like a mix between an orange, mango, and lime that kind of gave the whipped cheesecake a slight key lime pie vibe on the aftertaste. However, if you’re not into tart flavors, it might be a bit overwhelming for you like it was for my gf, Janice.  As good as these first two desserts were, they were beneath the third option:  the s’mores bar.  These desserts date as far back as the 1930s from a Girl Scout campfire cooking manual, or so the legend goes.  However, A Baker’s Tale version of it presented it in the least messy way possible.  One of my personal pet-peeves with traditional s’mores is how the crunchy graham crackers explode with every bite and can’t keep the blazing hot marshmallow inside to save its own inanimate life.  I quickly learned upon the first bite that these bakers really can work magic.

Step 1: Take a bite

Step 1: Take a bite

Step 2: Enlightenment

Step 2: Enlightenment

Step 3: Devour

Step 3: Devour

The graham cracker base was soft yet substantial and topped with a house-made marshmallow fluff that sported a rich, chocolate accent that tied it all together to perfection.  Plate two wasn’t as over the top in terms of bombastic flavors, but it was a solid entry to the tasting event.  IMG_7907The chocolate chunk and peanut butter cookies (both also were available in gluten free versions at the tasting as well) were good but not great probably because they weren’t the most decadent options.  Case in point, they were overshadowed by the toffee chocolate cheesecake that was presented in a Reese’s peanut butter cup form.  From the Oreo cookie crumb crust to the creamy filling that had ample pieces of chocolate coated toffee and a thin layer of gooey caramel on top, this dessert checked all the boxes for me.  Moving from there, the next plate was the belle of the dessert ball.  It consisted of three, vibrant, expertly-crafted macarons sporting three very different flavors:  pistachio (green), raspberry (red), and elderberry (blue). IMG_7932According to the almighty Wikipedia/internet, macarons originated in Venetian monasteries in the 9th Century A.D. but were brought to France when Catherine Medici, an Italian noblewoman, married King Henry II of France.   Their popularity began to rise during the French Revolution when two nuns in the city of Nancy made the cookies to pay for their rent; however, the original version of these desserts were basically a cookie.  The modern version of the macaron with two cookies and a filled center came about in the 1830s in Paris where it was known as the Gerbet, named after the supposed inventor, or the macaron parisien.  They were then brought over the USA and sometimes confused with the coconut-based macaroon.  Actually, the word “macaroon” is just the English translation for the French “macaron“.  Whatever it’s called, these little morsels went down too easily.  My personal favorite was the pistachio because it was sweet but not too sweet whereas the elderberry one was a bit too saccharine for my palate (surprising, I know).  The outer cookies had that thin, crisp shell that gave way to feathery interiors that led to the thin but incredibly rich layer of flavored cream. IMG_7916 Ils sont tres delicieux!  Finally, there was the somewhat sweet and savory plate.  Whereas the other plates contained straight up desserts, the scone platter mixed it up in terms of flavors and textures.  Scones have an interesting history to say the least.  Their name has many different origins including the Middle Dutch schoonbrood or “pure bread”, the Scots Gaelic’s sgonn or “large mouthful”, or perhaps after the Scottish town of Scone.  They were not as cutesy at they look today because before baking powder, a scone was a large, flat, unleavened oat cake made on a griddle.  Thankfully, A Baker’s Tale did not harken back to the scone’s roots.IMG_7931 The two on display were the vanilla scone and the jalapeno white cheddar scone.  I thought I would prefer the former over the latter, but in reality, it was the opposite.  Yes, both were denser and somewhere between moist and arid that scones should be compared to the aforementioned cookies and cakes, but somehow the savory option won me over.  I personally think it was because it was such a sharp contrast to the mountains of sweet stuff I hoovered up over the course of the tasting, but I was partial to the clear pepper notes that came out in every bite that resulted in me showering the floor with crumbs.  Don’t hate me because I’m so debonair.IMG_7908  I highly recommend the jalapeno scones if you don’t have much of an affinity for all things sugary sweet.

As the night went on and my sugar levels reached their optimum level of satisfaction, we called it quits.  We departed A Baker’s Tale with a warm farewell from the owners and thoughts of the wonderful experience we had the priviledge of enjoying.  I highly recommend a visit to this very welcoming bakery that boasts desserts that are as satisfying as a finishing a great read where all of the ends are tied up and the villains receive their just desserts.  Lucky them!IMG_7937
A Baker's Tale Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bro-ing Out with the Apple of My Eye

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Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  If it’s your first time on here or you’re a longtime fan, you’re in for a treat.  I’m all about finding and trying new and unique restaurants, and today’s establishment definitely falls into both categories.  Well, maybe not so much new, but its menu choices are certainly memorable.  Cutting to the chase, I’m talking about Walker Bros. Original Pancake House.  It has been around since 1960, and is considered by Zagat and James Beard the best breakfast place-bar none in the Chicagoland area.  It is so popular that there are now six locations around the Chicagoland area, but in this post, my girlfriend and I visited the original location that opened in 1960 in Wilmette.

I’ve heard of the Walker’s Bros. before, and I wondered what made them so special compared to all of the other types of chain breakfast restaurants or even little hole in the walls I’ve visited in the past.  Breakfasts in America are much more varied compared to breakfasts in other countries, so I feel like I’ve seen it all when it comes to ordering something tasty to fill my piehole with in the morning.  Boy, was I wrong after eating with the Bros.  The exterior of the restaurant just radiated history like it was a living time capsule, but the cars were slightly less hulking and more chock full o’ plastic compared to the motorcoaches of yesteryear.IMG_4201  Walking through the door, however, that hasn’t changed since they first opened it (or so it seemed).  It was full of beautiful stained glass windows and ornate woodcarvings coating the walls. IMG_4200 We were promptly seated in one of the side dining rooms, and we were treated to a perfect view of one of the enormous ceiling lights that were designed in the Tiffany style. IMG_4193 Not only were we taking in the surroundings but also the menu contents.  Janice had been here before, so she automatically knew what she was going to get:  the Dutch Baby pancake ($8.50).  As for me, I was having trouble trying to pick something since everything looked great!  Eggs?  French toast? Crepes?  Waffles?  I was at the pancake house, so I plumped for the apple pancake ($9.95) with the additional $1.95 for French vanilla ice cream on top.  Got to do it big when you’re rollin’ with the Bros.

When our plates came out, I was taken aback since I had never seen anything like it.  Janice’s Dutch Baby wasn’t like a small, screeching, blonde child wearing wooden shoes but rather something that looked like a cross between a taco salad shell and a danish.IMG_4198  What it actually was was an oven-baked pancake that was topped with a healthy sprinkling of powdered sugar. IMG_4197 The kicker was the lemon juice she spritzed over the pancake that really brought it to life.  I personally thought that it was a unique dish as it was less like a bready pancake and more like a lighter, buttery crepe that sizzled over my palate with the sweet powdered sugar combining with the raw sour power of the lemon juice.  Thankfully, the pancake itself wasn’t outshone by the lemon juice.  Then there was the apple pancake….where to start? IMG_4199 It was advertised as an “Original Pancake House tradition”, and that it was stuffed with some apples and cinnamon glaze.  Simple.  I’ve had apple pancakes before where they slice some apples on top and put a slightly thicker syrup over the flapjacks and fruit to leave you full but just moderately satisfied.  My apple pancake from Walker Bros. was the Steve Jobs of the breakfast world.  A revolutionary just doing what it wants to do no matter what.  It’s not for the faint of heart but rather for those with a well endowed sweet tooth, i.e. yours truly.  The exterior seemed to be lacquered with the Sinikiang (fun fact:  Sinikiang or Xinjiang is the Northwestern province of China that is home to the Uighur community and a majority of China’s Muslim minorities.  Also, it was a stop along the famed Silk Road where spices like cinnamon were traded.) cinnamon and sugar glaze so that it shimmered under the ornate lights and beckoned me to tuck into it. IMG_4196 I could see that it was piping hot as its snow white toupee was slowly trickling down its undulating surface through each nook and cranny.  Upon slicing it open, I was greeted with slices of cinnamon apples, pure white dough and more sugar glaze.  It was like an apple pie and a cinnamon roll had a delectable love child.  I was in absolute heaven with every bite, and this is one tradition I hope Walker Bros. never retires.

So if you want a piece of Chicagoland history along with some wonderfully innovative and delicious breakfast items for great prices, run, don’t walk to Walker Bros. Original Pancake House.  Their pancakes will make you flip!

Walker Bros Original Pancake House on Urbanspoon

Throwback Post: Île Flottante in Paris

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Bonjour a tout le monde!  Today’s Mastication Monologues post is the penultimate installation in my throwback Europe series.  It has spanned the Old World from Romania to Scotland and even Slovakia.  Today we are continuing our march westward to France.

I have visited Paris twice along with Marseilles once, but I’m just going to be focusing on the former since it was where I tried a unique dessert that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.  Paris truly is one of the most beautiful cities that I have visited throughout my travels.  I was amazed to finally be face to face with so many iconic landmarks that I only saw on posters and postcards. HPIM1920 Climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower was an epic trek that was helped at the end with a little elevator ride.HPIM1911  From the top, I could absorb the broad boulevards and mid-18th century buildings that made up a majority of the city center.HPIM1912  Once safely back on the ground, I also visited the signature Champs Elysees and Arc de Triomphe that were stately yet highly congested with traffic.DSCN0652  The famed, ultra-sexy Moulin Rouge was also highly congested with foot traffic as well-monied patrons lined up to see the cabaret shows advertised outside.HPIM1812  One of my favorite Paris memories was actually outside of the city of Paris in the form of the Palace of Versailles. HPIM2248 This was hands down one of the most impressive man-made structures I’ve ever laid my eyes upon.HPIM2295  No wonder this life of luxury and Marie Antoinette’s contempt for the common man enraged and caused the French people to rise up in arms against the aristocracy.  Still, it was amazing to walk the same halls that Louis XVI did before being captured and beheaded in the capital.  All of this sightseeing made me hungry, and what better place to find something to snack on than Paris?  From their crepe stands to their pastisseries (pastry shops), one could eat something delicious and different for everyday of the year.  The perfect storm for me to indulge my sweet tooth.  Enter the île flottante.  I had it in a restaurant, and this dessert meaning “floating island” in French lived up to its name.  First, there was a crème anglaise or “English creme” that served as the vanilla flavored base to the dish.  It consisted of egg whites, sugar, and milk, and was a watery custard that was sweet but not overwhelmingly so.HPIM1801  It was also served cold. Then there was the island in the middle of my vanilla flavored sea.  It was a perfect example of how French are able to combine both artistry and innovation through the culinary arts.  The egg whites were whipped with sugar into a fluffy meringue island that was substantial enough to be almost like a large, slightly melted marshmallow yet light enough to bob in the vanilla sea.  It was all jazzed up with a light drizzling of caramel sauce.  I’ve heard that this old-school French dessert is disappearing quickly, so set sail for Paris and find your own hidden island.

Taiwan (Part 1)- Sh*ttiest Dinner Ever (in a good way)

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Hello everyone and welcome to another entry on Mastication Monologues!  I’m nearing the end of my series of vacation posts, but I’ve saved some of the best restaurants/foods for last.  I’ve already sampled snake soup, durian, and some great dim sum in Hong Kong, but now I’m moving onto the isla formosa a.k.a. Taiwan.  I had a great time in Hong Kong, so I was doubtful that Taiwan could top my experiences I already took part in.  Food-wise, it just got better and stranger.  Stranger not in the Camus sense, but rather my first meal in Taipei was at a restaurant where I ate out of a toilet and drank out of a urinal.  I’m talking about Modern Toilet located at 2樓, No. 7, Lane 50, Xiníng South Rd, Wanhua District, by the Ximen metro stop.  Here is their website.  I had seen it previously on a Travel Channel show with its feces-inspired dishes, so it was too odd not to pass up.

I knew I couldn’t miss the actual restaurant because the outside of the restaurant sported a giant porcelain throne as the neon beckoned me inside to finally try their bizarre dishes.IMG_0853  Everywhere you walk in the restaurant, you can’t escape the extra Japanese kawaii (cute) piles of anime excrement.

Goldmember's poo's on display

Goldmember’s poo’s on display

I guess that’s the end result of all of that Pokefood that Brock was always feeding to Pikachu and his Geodude.  Sorry, nerdlinger moment there.  Going back to the food, I wasn’t really shocked with the decor until I walked into the main dining room.

It looks so normal

It looks so normal

Every square inch of the place had something to do with the one room of the house where it’s pretty taboo to do any form of eating.

Then you see poo lights and sit on an arty throne

Then you see poo lights and sit on an arty throne

The tables consisted of sinks with glass over them while I sat on a stylized, non-functional toilet.  Oh yeah, and the lights were also piles of poo.  Thankfully they didn’t include the authentic smell with all of these dookie inspired designs.  Their menu has a mix of curries, au gratin dishes, noodles, and desserts that all revolve around bathroom functions.  I went with a simple chicken curry for 220 TWD which came with a drink on the side along with an ice cream dessert.  To drink, I got a urinal of jasmine green tea for 40 TWD.  The drink came out first, and it was in an actual hospital urinal complete with the clear plastic cap.  As if it wasn’t kitchy enough, the jasmine tea looked like real urine, but thankfully did not smell/taste like it (no, I’ve never tried it like Patches O’Houlihan).  While sipping it out of my urinal using my crazy straw, its herbal and honey tinged notes really quenched my thirst for a cold drink since it felt like a swamp outside the restaurant.  Fun fact, if you get the urinal sized drink, you can take the urinal home for free as a souvenir!  Eventually, my food came out, and it lived up to the kookiness of the restaurant.

So gimmicky, yet so tasty

So gimmicky, yet so tasty

Not only was my curry hanging out in a mini-latrine, but my pickled cabbage was kept fresh under a plastic cover shaped like, yep you guessed, it, poo.  The actual curry was well made but nothing out of the ordinary.  It went well with the rice on the side.  The warm radish soup was pretty good, and I didn’t expect it to come with my meal.  It was fairly bland, but kind of had a chicken broth undertone to each spoonful.  Once I ate all of that food, there was one last act in this three ring circus:  the ice cream dessert.  Most places serve ice-cream in a classic cone or cup, but in Modern Toilet, they serve you your chocolate and vanilla swirl ice cream in an Eastern-style squatter toilet.

A thing of beauty

A thing of beauty

The ice cream melted very quickly, but it was delectable especially the chocolate part since it had an unexpected coffee aftertaste.  I left Modern Toilet a very satisfied diner, so if you want to try some average food in an extraordinary environment, pop a squat at Modern Toilet in Taipei.

Next post, I celebrate the Moon Cake festival with an opulent and very diverse banquet.

On a Spicy Wing and a Prayer

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Hey everyone and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Things have been trying as of late at school with the crazy work schedules due to the Fall festival that is coming up, but that doesn’t mean that my appetite has been affected.  Today I will be talking about a Korean place that I have passed on my way to Geomam station probably 1 billion times already (rough guesstimation right there).  The reason why it stood out from the other Korean restaurants surrounding it was the fact that it specifically advertised spicy food.  It’s called 땅초 or Ttangcho Hot Food which are all over Korea, but the one I went to is located at 인천시 서구 검암동 606-7번지 네오프라자 106호  or Seo-gu, Incheon City Plaza 106 West geomamdong 606-7.  Here is their website (sorry, it’s all in Korean):  http://yupdduk.com/.  On the right hand side of the page, click on “매장정보” to find store locations.IMG_0681

Moving on from logistics, let’s talk about the food.  Now, where I live is a lot less cosmopolitan than Seoul or even other parts of Incheon.  Naturally, when I walked in I was greeted with a lot of curious stares.  Not only because I was a foreigner, but also because I was eating alone.  Group mentality runs deep in all aspects of Korean life even when it comes to eating, and I could see the server/staff become somewhat wary of serving me since I was alone.  In contrast, all the other tables were filled with Korean students digging into their tteokbokki while occasionally staring or offering a giggle/wave coupled with a “Hi!”.  Their most popular items like the 엽기떡복이 tteokbokki (sticky rice cakes in spicy sauce) or the 닭볶음탕 dakbokeumtang (a fried chicken stew) were in the 20,000 W price range since they were family-sized bowls.  Instead, I went for the more manageable 참숯 닭날개 (14,000 W) which I found out were spicy chicken wings.  When they came out, I not only got a small mound of wings, but also an egg soup ( 계란찜) that looked similar to the one I had when I ate the live octopus. IMG_0679 I was expecting the wings to be drenched in some sort of red gochujang sauce that Koreans are so fond of, but these wings looked to be treated with a dry rub that had sesame seeds mixed in with the spices.IMG_0680  Even though the wings looked diminutive, the bone to meat ratio was favorable, and the chicken was sufficiently succulent.  As for the aforementioned seasoning, I could definitely taste some cayenne pepper working hard for its money as I took each bite.  Mid-way through the plate, the guy who looked like the owner came over and said, “Too spicy?”, and I just responded with a smile and an “아니요” (“no”).  He found all of it amusing either because I used Korean, and/or that I could eat food that Koreans had trouble eating.  I’d probably rate the spice level between a jalapeno and a habanero.  I took a couple spoonfuls of the egg soup, but it was quite bland after eating the fire-kissed wings.

On the way back to the bus stop, I passed two old ladies in an open air stall selling these curious snack treats that I had passed by all over Korea but never tried one.  They are called 붕어빵 or bungeoppang which means “fish bread” (“Bungeo” is a type of carp, and “Ppang” means bread).  Based off my picture, they are quite obviously named.

The one that didn't get away.

The one that didn’t get away.

I saw that they were making two varieties of this baked good, the traditional red-bean filled type and a custard filled type.  Never forgetting my dislike for red bean flavored products, (See Ice Cream), I went for two custard filled carp (1,000 W).  I definitely made the right choice.  The outside was like a freshly made waffle with a sugary peck on the lips with every nibble while the inside was gooey and infused with a very delicate vanilla pudding similar to the filling of another Korean pastry, Manjoo Hana.

It's all about the creamy center.

It’s all about the creamy center.

It definitely supplied me with a sweet reprieve after my savory meal.

So if you’re looking for some quality spicy Korean food, check out Ttangcho Hot Food.  Speaking of spicy food, I will be attempting to eat the Drop Dead Donkatsu this weekend.  If I survive, expect a classic recounting of my adventure.  Until then, foodies!

“Non, je ne regrette rien”

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Hello to all out there in the blogosphere!  I have just returned from my recent food adventure for my dad’s bday (happy 59th, big guy!) at a local French eatery which I have been to multiple times before but have never written about its delectable Gallic delights.  The restaurant in question is  called Mon Ami Gabi and is located at 260 Oakbrook Center
Oak Brook, IL 60523 in the mall.

Now I have been to France before, and obviously it is kind of hard to recreate that sort of European ambiance in the Midwest.  However, Mon Ami Gabi manages to do a pretty good job at bringing its patrons a different type of eating experience with its rich, dark wood laden interiors, soft lighting, and an intimate patio which would be the perfect setting for any date night.   These elegant surroundings are just one plus of Mon Ami Gabi, and the food is no different.

Simple happiness: bread and butter

For our dinner, we received a complementary mini-baguette with a side of creamy butter and relish.  I don’t know if they make their own bread at the establishment, but it still was very tasty.  The crunchy crust was lightly coated with flour, and the white inside was still slightly warm and pliant which made the butter seep into every square inch of the baguette. As for the relish, as soon as I took a bite I knew that it was made of julienned  green apples due to its tartness and the general appearance of the side, but there was a slight herbal aftertaste to it that I couldn’t put my finger on.  Thankfully our helpful waitress informed me it was fennel of all things. After finally deciding on an appetizer, we went with the baked goat cheese and tomato sauce.  When it came to our table, I wasn’t too happy with the presentation of it because we have ordered it before, and it was served with mini pieces of toast coated in a garlic/pesto mixture.  This time around, the bread element of the dish came as a whole baguette sliced lengthwise which led us to resorting to ripping the bread apart like a bunch of Cro-Magnons.  I don’t know why they changed it from small pieces of bread, but I feel that it is a choice of convenience by the chefs.  Nevertheless, the actual goat cheese was delectable with its creamy texture melding with the smooth tomato sauce to create a warm mousse that provided a somber yin to the more aggressive yang of the garlic/pesto coated bread.

From this tasty beginning, I moved on to the main star of the dinner:  the steak.  I plumped for the steak au poirve  (or pepper steak) with the hand cut house frites.  The meat was grilled exactly to my request with a solid brown hue throughout and a slight pink inside.  The peppercorns were quite potent and supplied the thin gravy with a much needed kick to highlight the high quality texture and rich meaty flavor of the steak.

I’m a meat and potatoes kind of guy

As for the frites, I didn’t eat all of them since I was saving room for dessert, but from the few that I actually did try, they were not like regular french fries at any restaurant.  They looked like shoestring potatoes on steroids with a bit of a curl from Arby’s curly fries, and the actual body had the consistency of a normal French fry.  They were not over or under fried, and the insides were white and fluffy.

The end of this three ring circus culminated with the highly decadent vanilla bread pudding.  Not only was it infused with minced vanilla beans which dotted its borders like black spots on an ermine cape, but also like Louis XIV it was adorned with an over-sized crown of vanilla ice-cream and chains of golden caramel.

*Drool*. That is all

Its flavors lived up to its regal appearance as the pudding was slightly firm and warm which formed a divine pairing with the slightly melted vanilla ice cream and caramel.  Even though I ate all of this food and finished off the meal with a flourish, I was not stuffed which also speaks to the French culinary tradition of quality over quantity.

So if you’re looking for a new place to try French food, put aside your fears of frog legs and snooty waiters and try Mon Ami Gabi.  You won’t regret it!

Mon Ami Gabi on Urbanspoon

Mon Ami Gabi on Foodio54

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