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Costa Rica (Day 2)- Cruisin’ For Brews, Beans, and Bites

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As this Chicago winter rolls on, I seriously think that Janice and I brought back some of the sunny warm weather with us from Costa Rica.  Seriously, there has been little to no snow in Chicago, and I´m loving it!  However, today’s post is day 2 in my Costa Rica travelogue.  By the way, If you haven’t read day one on my blog, I highly suggest it if you are a seafood lover.

Anyway, day two kicked off with a classic Costa Rican breakfast that is a little bit different than the ol’ eggs, bacon, and pancakes as big as your face back in ‘Murika.  Instead, we were greeted with the quintessential Costa Rican breakfast of gallo pinto, tortillas, and two different types of plantains.   IMG_5097First, there is gallo pinto (“spotted/painted rooster” in Spanish) whose name is derived from the ingredients bearing a resemblance to a type of cockerel.  As for its origins, some believe the dish came over with the African slaves that migrated into Latin America while others believe it came from Spain where its known as cristianos y moros (Christians and Moors).  Whatever you call it, it was delicious.  It wasn’t heavy but very filling and flavorful.  I could see that it came from humble but rich roots with the black beans mixed in with the seasoned and fried rice.  It made a great filler for the tortillas on the side to make small breakfast burritos which do not exist in traditional Costa Rican fare (not every Latin American country has tacos and burritos!).  I do have to say that the Costa Rican tortillas were better than any of their Mexican counterparts I’ve tried.  They are both corn based, but the Costa Rican ones were super resilient compared to their relatives up north.  That scored big points on my foodie scorecard.  As for the two different plantains, there were both baked and fried varieties.  While down in Costa Rica, I also learned the difference between plantains and bananas, and it isn’t the difference in size.  While bananas can be eaten raw, plantains must be cooked if they are to be consumed by humans.  If I had to pick one or the other, the fried ones were my jam like during day one, and they were the ideal sweet compliment to the savory rice and beans.  Once we finished our breakfast to the tunes of a marimba band, we were off on a catamaran to Isla Tortuga on the Pacific coast.IMG_5096  What better to go with the pristine view of the Gulf of Nicoya than a cold, Costa Rican beer?  So, I got an Imperial which is the official beer of Costa Rica.  IMG_5103Once again, this supposed king of beers was a mere pretender to the throne.  It was an average, light lager that was crisp and non-offensive for a beautiful day.  Once we landed on the postcard that was Isla Tortuga, we enjoyed snorkeling, swimming, and some breathtaking views.  IMG_4022When it came time for lunch, it was anything but normal.  First, we were summoned to the feast via a conch shell.  Then we got a full salad bar that was freshly made in the kitchen hut.  The mixed salad was verdant and coated in a semi-sweet vinaigrette, but I was more partial to the cucumber and onion mix.IMG_4005  It was smooth and filled with some funky dill that made a potentially bland salad really pop.  IMG_4007IMG_4006The real star of the show though was the local peccary that Janice quickly made friends with.  Apparently this wild pig has been coming by the cookouts for over 15 years, and the marimba music was almost like its intro song.IMG_4010  It was very friendly and fell over whenever someone would pet it.IMG_5112  I could see that it was smarter than it looked since it worked the room by getting free food from each table.  Lunch was much more elaborate in the form of a full meat and veg platter complete with a Hibiscus flower for a flourish.  This meal didn’t even need a flower to be fancy and eye catching.  IMG_4014The chicken breast was muy sabroso  (very tasty) with just the right amount of char-grilled flavor to compliment the sweeter, coconut based curry sauce that had specks of the white fruit sprinkled on top.  The bread was warm and soft, but the butter was oddly bland.  I especially enjoyed the vegetable hash on the side that consisted of pan-fried carrots and cassava strands.  As for dessert, it was a rich but understated tres leches cake whose vanilla laced crumbs were topped with a drunkenly placed strand of whipped cream.IMG_4018  It, like most other Costa Rican meals, was fresh, filling, but not heavy like most American meals.  It gave us the energy to take on a lame banana boat ride and to savor the final views of that enchanting island that immediately made us realize of the beauty Latin America had to offer.IMG_5120

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Huge Flavors Under the Big Top

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Happy Sunday or Monday depending on where you are in the world!  Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues.  Today’s blog post is all about different Latin flavors coming together under one roof at Carnivale in Chicago.

While I had heard my parents raving about how wonderful the food was at this establishment, I had to try it for myself.  They told me that it was mostly Latin food which meant the name was more of a reference to the cultural practice of Carnival before Lent, not the one with clowns and little bears driving cars (or is that ballet?).  The origin of the word “Carnival” is disputed, but I will champion the Latin camp who states that it comes from “Carne vale” or “putting away meat”.  This reflects the following Lenten period where Catholics typically eliminate meat from their diet on Fridays along with other lustful and sinful pleasures.  However, Carnivals serve as the final hurrah before entering the solemn Lenten period, and boy, do people get crazy all over the world from Brazil to Germany to the USA.  So, I could only hope that Carnivale could synthesize the party atmosphere into an enjoyable dining experience.  While the outside of the restaurant looked quite average, upon walking in I could see that the interior decorator certainly had eclectic tastes.IMG_3130  From the zebra skin chairs to the many random pictures that covered the walls (the men’s bathroom walls look like a tasteful version of Playboy), it really captured the carnal and almost animalistic nature of the holiday.IMG_3131  However, it maintained its sense of class with the elegant, wrap-around bar and dark wood accents. IMG_3132

Main dining room

Main dining room

I was at the restaurant as part of a work party for a few of my mom’s coworkers, so I was privileged to sample a wider variety of food than I would have if I just went there by myself.  While it was a parade of different foods, the bill was astronomic since this is not a cheap restaurant.  The cheapest items, the sides, start at $7 and it goes up from there with the entrees averaging $30.  Thankfully, I was in the presence of doctors, so the only thing I really had to pay for was my drink.  Since we were in a Latin restaurant, I thought I should get a caipirinha ($10)to really celebrate. IMG_3138 While I have never really had good luck finding an adequate version of this Brazilian drink, Carnivale finally fulfilled that need.  A caipirinha (meaning “a person from the countryside” in Portuguese) consists of cachaca (distilled sugar cane liquor), sugar, and lime. IMG_3137 What you end up with is a sweet, strong drink that still has a potent kick but an ephemeral lime background that cuts through the alcohol. IMG_3153 It provided a perfect prologue to the culinary madness that quickly ensued.

Upon sitting down, our table was quickly covered with all sorts of appetizers.  First, there was the ceviche tasting platter ($24). IMG_3142 Ceviche is a cold seafood dish common to Ecuador, but Carnivale really took some creative liberties with the ingredients and presentation.  The Ecuadorian shrimp ($12 on its own) mini-plate was my favorite of the bunch.IMG_3147  Not only did I like it because I love my shrimp but also due to the semi-spicy pepper sauce and cool cucumber sorbet atop the crustaceans.  The salmon ($12 on its own) was ok with its coconut milk sauce and lemon grass garnishes, but it was a bit too bland for my liking.IMG_3160  As for the mixto ceviche, ($12 on its own) it caught my attention after the bland salmon due to its lemon zest and semi-chewy texture.IMG_3159  All of the ceviche was wrapped up with a tuna tiradito ($12) that reminded me of a sushi roll minus the rice.  It was probably my second favorite because of the julienned jicama that provided a crispy contrast to the tender slabs of tuna and the citrus zing compliments of the Japanese yuzu fruit.IMG_3158  After sampling these fruits de mer, I had to try the tortilla chips and guacamole ($8/$15 depending on size). IMG_3145 Both were wonderful.  The chips were light in composition and salt content, and the guacamole was chunky and slightly spicy.  Then there were the ropa vieja tacos ($12).  IMG_3140This Cuban/Mexican fusion was tan sabroso since the braised skirt steak had plantains gently integrated into the savory mixture.  The meaty mixture within the corn shell was topped off with some crumbly queso fresco and red onions to give a temperature contrast.IMG_3141 I’d highly recommend this appetizer.  Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, these ox tail empanadas ($13) scampered onto my plate. IMG_3144 I’ve been around the block when it comes to eating doughy pockets of meat from around the world, but these empanadas were something special.  While all the other empanadas or equivalents I’ve tried consisted of baked, chewy and/or flaky flour based dough, these empanadas had a crunchy, fried corn husk that reminded me of a little armadillo.IMG_3161  The interior wasn’t as innovative as the exterior, but the truffle chimichurri added a savory and aromatic element to a very unique dish.  After polishing off the little morsel, my attention turned to the combination platter of charcuterie and artisan cheeses ($25).IMG_3162  They spared no expense as this smorgasbord of salt and fat contained hard pecorino cheese slices, pungent blue cheese, gossamer-thin pieces of pata negra jamon, Catalan fuet sausage, a few garlic stuffed olives, grapes, and a horseradish-infused,brown mustard seed sauce on the side.  After establishing myself as chairman of the cutting board, there was a lighter appetizer placed in front of me in the form of the wild mushroom coca ($11). IMG_3163 The coca is a plate of Catalan origin but the word came from the Dutch word for “cake”.  Ergo, Carnivale’s version of a coca was pushing it in terms of being a “cake”, but it was a perfect follow-up from the heavier charcuterie.IMG_3164  I greatly enjoyed the goat cheese mixing with the fresh arugula while the mushrooms were pan-roasted that added a semi-beefy flavor.  All of which atop the sourdough flatbread made it seem more like a healthy flatbread pizza than a cake.  If you think that I’m going down the healthy route with this appetizer, think again.  The calamari ($12), albeit fried, was not as greasy as you’d find in your typical Italian restaurant.IMG_3166  Plus, each ringlet was coated in a super sweet and sour adobo sauce that harmonized with the more earthy elements like the smoked hazelnuts, carrots, and green papaya slivers.  Surprisingly, this was the end of the appetizers, and I still had room in my stomach to take on the big bad entrees.

The second act in this gastronomic epic opened with the churrasco from Argentina ($32). IMG_3172 It was a relatively simple plate consisting of succulent slices of prime sirloin sandwiched between a garlic green chimichurri sauce and a yuca puree below that tasted almost tasted like a liquefied mozzarella.  Each bit was like heaven, and the excellent asparagus spears were a mere afterthought to this symphony of masterful meat.  I followed the beef up with a little seafood in the form of paella ($32). IMG_3174 While this Spanish rice dish didn’t seem to contain saffron, the essential but extremely expensive spice in a traditional paella, it didn’t take away from the overall quality of the plate.  Each forkful contained pieces of shrimp, mussel, and squid along with a moist, tomato based rice that wasn’t exactly like what you would find in the homeland of paella: Valencia, Spain. It wasn’t a strong entry out of everything I tried.  Luckily, I ended the entree round on a high note with the arrachera ($26).IMG_3182  There was a lot happening on one plate.  While there were similar juicy skirt steak pieces topped with chimichurri sauce, the meat morsels were atop a mound of arroz moros.   While this Cuban side dish of rice and black beans cooked together is quite dry by itself, it was made more palatable when consumed with the steak.  I also enjoyed the bacon sofrito (sauce) on the sides which served a salty and savory springboard for all of the other flavors to really jump out at me.  Finally, there was the dessert.

While I was struggling with my food baby that was about 2 hours old and almost due, I managed to try one more item off of Carnivale’s menu:  carmelized sweet plantains ($7).IMG_3171  Lord, were these little nuggets the bomb diggity.  I have to make up words to describe what was going through my mind when I ate them.IMG_3168  I wasn’t sure if it was the meat sweats or the hormones from the food baby, but I was having a moment.  From the thin crust to the gooey sweet interiors, these Caribbean specialties were Jamaican me crazy.

In the end, I was lying back in the booth and enjoying the Latin beats bumping over the sound system while I digested my food.  If you’re looking for some of the best Latin fusion food around and are willing to drop some cash, then check out Carnivale!

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