Monday, December 31, 2012

Post 102: Más Peruvian in SF - Fresca (SF: Pacific Heights)

Over the holidays I got another opportunity to visit the Bay Area.  This time I took a road trip with my cousin Emily instead of flying.  Can we say quality cousin bonding time? Packed with a carload of snacks and Porto's pastries, we went up to San Jose to meet some of our South Bay friends.  My old roommate from college Kevin played host for the weekend, and along with some more hungry friends, we ventured into the city for some awesome food.  We sat down for dinner at Fresca, a cozy restaurant in the Fillmore District specializing in comforting Peruvian food.  While we waited for our table, we set out to Harry's Bar down the street from some drinks.  It's also where we returned after dinner for... well, more drinks.

When we finally got seated, we ordered a wide array of various ceviches that were on the menu and a second round of sangria.  Looks like I may have skipped over the mention of the first pitcher of sangria.  Chronological order of events does not bode well with stream of consciousness writing, eh? We were in the mood for seafood, so all of the oyster lovers at the table went in on two dozen oysters.  Unfortunately, the restaurant was completely out of fresh oysters for the day.  We were a little bummed, but it wasn't anything that a little paella, lomo saltado, or another round of sangria couldn't solve.

The lomo saltado was everything that it should be.  The strips of steak were tender, and the French fries were sliced from potatoes with the skin on.  With fresh Jasmine rice and a splash of soy, this dish had to be one of the best fusions of Asian and Latin cuisine I had come across.  It was comfort food at its finest.

Even more comforting was the arroz con mariscos, the Peruvian version of a Spanish paella.  This version was called "green paella" on the menu, most likely because the rice had chopped cilantro and peas mixed in with it.  There was also clams, mussels, calamari, shrimp, fish, and scallops in the cast iron pan.  It even came with a couple of lemon wedges for a last minute citrus addition.

What I really enjoy about Peruvian food is that it starts with fresh or raw dishes like ceviche, but it usually ends with something warm and hearty usually with rice or potatoes.  It really does make for a homey, comforting feeling.  It was a memorable way to finish up the last travel adventure of 2012.  Cheers to all the food, fun, and friends that were a part of this past year.  Oh, and thanks to the guys and Maggie for being good sports about the pit stop on the way up to the city.  You're all diamonds... in the sky.  Until next year, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20121229

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Post 101: Peruvian in SF - La Mar Cebichería (San Francisco: Embarcadero)

Okay, enough talk about sweets and cupcakes.  Let's switch back to some real food.

Back in November my brother and I headed to San Francisco for a quick 24 hour trip.  Our parents had gone on their own weekend getaway, so we thought we would treat ourselves to our own trip too.  Our main goal was to eat.  And eat we did.  The highlight of our meals was lunch at La Mar Cebichería Peruana, an oceanfront restaurant specializing in Peruvian style ceviche.  My friend Diana who had recently returned from working abroad joined us.

As we sat down at a table on the patio we were presented with a bucket of chips.  Every occupied table in the restaurant had a complimentary bucket of this house made appetizer along with a duo of vibrantly colored dipping sauces.

There was a mix of crisp potato slices, sweet yam curls and plantain strips in the bucket, all of which tasted great with the dipping sauces.  The yellow sauce was made primarily of aji amarillo, a Peruvian chile pepper.  It was blended with oil, cheese, and crackers, surprisingly, which made it mildly spicy and creamy at the same time.  The red sauce was made with aji rocoto, a much spicier chile pepper, and vinegar, red onion, and garlic.  This sauce definitely burned my tongue a little bit, so the combination of both sauces created the perfect blend of heat for me.

What's a good meal without a good cocktail right? While the orders were being prepared, we ordered a number of cocktails, the first of which was a pisco sour.  This cocktail was made with pisco quebranta, which is an alcohol distilled from Peruvian grapes also known as Peruvian brandy, along with lime juice, simple syrup, egg whites and bitters.  I really liked that the ingredients were not just shaken together but that the bitters was splashed against the foamy egg white to paint an aesthetically pleasing picture.

Of the six different Peruvian cebiches on the menu, we ordered five of them.  It sounds a bit insane, but it did help that La Mar offered a tasting of four cebiches on the menu.  The first of the four was the cebiche clásico with California halibut, red onion, cilantro, habanero, giant Peruvian corn and yam in leche de tigre.  Also known as tiger's milk, leche de tigre is the acidic liquid, usually containing lime juice, that cooks the raw fish in the cebiche.  The classic cebiche was a great start to the meal.

The next cebiche we had was the cebiche mixto, which was a combination of Mexican yellowtail, calamari and shrimp.  Also mixed in was an aji amarillo leche de tigre, a spicier version of the classic tiger's milk, which gave the cebiche a more potent flavor.  The remaining ingredients of red onion, cilantro, habanero, Peruvian corn and yam were the same combination of ingredients in the cebiche clásico.  The highlight of the cebiche was the tender rings of calamari in the spicy marinade.

After the cebiche mixto, we tried the cebiche nikei, which was a play on Japanese flavors.  There was fresh tuna topped with red onion, avocado, Japanese cucumber, daikon radish, nori and sesame seeds.  The leche de tigre here was sweetened with tamarind, which was a successful way to represent the sweet and salty flavor that is characteristic of Japanese cuisine.  This was a favorite at the table.

The last of the tasting was the cebiche chifa.  This yellow cebiche had more flavors in Chinese cuisine such as peanuts, scallions, ginger, pickled carrots and daikon.  Strips of deep fried wonton skin and cilantro garnished the fish dish.  The sweet and sour sesame oil flavored leche de tigre rounded out the cebiche well.  I really enjoyed the crunchy textures and the rawness of the scallions and ginger.  We thought that it tasted like a sophisticated version of a Chinese chicken salad.

The cebiche tasting was so good that we decided to add on a full order of the cebiche barrio.  This variation of the classic cebiche was probably my favorite because it had some of my favorite seafood... yellowtail, mussels, clams, scallops, shrimp, and deep fried battered calamari.  The red onion and cilantro with the spicy rocoto leche de tigre provided a crisp freshness and spicy yet creamy flavor.  It reminded me of Sriracha mayonnaise used in many Asian fusion dishes.  I could have done without the cancha, the toasted corn nuts, but the fried calamari more than made up for the jaw breaking corn.

After a whirlwind tour through five unique cebiches, it was time for more drinks.  We ordered a bottled sparkling grapefruit beverage and the blood and sand cocktail.  Made with Dewar's scotch whiskey, blood orange, Heering black cherry liquor, and drambuie, this was more to our liking than the pisco sour.  We could taste the whiskey in the drink, which is quite important to some.  It was a bit stronger but also sweeter than the pisco sour.  The blood orange and black cherry liquor blended well to make an alluring cranberry color and a smooth and deep fruit flavor.  The swirling clouds on top of the glass really did make the drink look like blood and sand.

Since we ordered the tasting of cebiches, we thought we should do the same for the empanadas.  Although there were only three of us eating, we really did try to eat just about everything on the menu.  The quartet of deep fried deliciousness was served with the house panchita sauce, another condiment that had crackers and chile peppers in it.  That was the second sauce that was made by blending crackers with oil and chile peppers.  Our eyes were opened to new aspects of Peruvian cuisine.  It was not just lomo saltado anymore.

First, we had the empanada de aji de gallina, stuffed with a Peruvian chicken stew and aji amarillo sauce.  The chicken was shredded but not dry in the least, and the sauce made the inside very savory and hearty.  

Next, we tried the empanada de lomo saltado, and it was amazing.  The soy and oyster sauce flavored beef was beyond flavorful.  It blew my mind that an empanada could contain lomo saltado, a classic Peruvian dish of stir-fried beef and potatoes.  Seriously, amazing.  

There was also an empanada de k'apchi, which was stuffed with pisco flambéed crimini mushrooms.  The shell of this empanada was the crispiest out of the four, and the filling really warmed me up like only a comfort food can.  

The final one was the empanada de tomalito verde filled primarily with sweet corn and blended with queso fresco, cilantro, and more sauces.  The sweet corn had a consistency more like mashed potatoes and the sweetness of yams.  It was a smart way to finish off the four empanadas.

Another sampler round of Peruvian appetizers was on its way down to digestion, which meant that another round of drinks were to be ordered.  This time we decided on the house sangria at the server's suggestion.  We liked it because the taste of the wine was still prominent, but the fresh fruit was present as well.  Our glasses were quickly dried out.

Of all the items on the menu, my brother was the most excited for the anticuchos de corazón, grilled skewers of beef heart.  Knowing my brother he probably thought eating the heart of an animal was primal and masculine, and I guess in some ways it really is.  But after Diana chomped down on some of the grilled heart, I knew it did not seem as primal as it seemed.  Diana's palate is very, uh... how do I say... uh... ladylike.  Yes, ladylike.  So the tender beef muscle was not daunting.  The fried potatoes served with it were like rounds of flat potato wedges.  So fried and so delicious.  What's better than grilled meat and fried potatoes? Oh, and there was some seriously gigantic Peruvian corn piled on the plate too.  Gigantic.

Our stomachs were pretty packed by this time in the meal.  We had spent almost three hours at the restaurant by now, but there was still one more item that we wanted to try.  Peru is a country that is home to many Chinese and Japanese immigrants, and so much of its cuisine is influenced by the culinary cultures of China and Japan.  We wanted to taste some more of the Asian influence, so we ordered the rollo nikei.  We liked the flavors of the cebiche nikei so much that we chose a similar taste for the sushi.  The roll had dungeness crab inside with avocado and cucumber.  On the outside tuna tartar was dropped over the top of each slice, and crispy noodle strips garnished the entire plate.  I liked the mix of meaty and crunchy textures, but it simply just tasted good.

I was really looking forward to the end of the meal because I had noticed the neighboring tables being served little drops of purple sorbet on spoons.  They were actually spoonfuls of chicha morada sorbet.  It was icy.  It was sweet.  And it was made with Peruvian purple corn, strangely enough.  It was more pleasing to the eye than to the tongue, but it was not bad at all.  It, probably due to the color and the sweetness, sparked a unpleasant memory of Welch's grape juice from my elementary years.  But no matter it was an eye opening experience nonetheless.

La Mar was definitely a favorite meal during our quick trip to San Francisco.  And I was more than delighted to see an old friend who I had not seen in a long time.  Thanks Diana for braving the Sunday Embarcadero traffic for us and rushing us to the BART station in time to catch our flight for the airport! Just barely, might I add.  Oh, yes, and happy birthday, Brother.  Until our next quick trip, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.
ML - 20121104

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Post 100: A Quartet of Cupcakes from Wonderland Custom Cakes (LA-SGV: Pasadena)

After finishing up a post on macarons from Old Town Pasadena, I thought it would be fitting to continue posting on sweets from this same neighborhood.  This post features a quartet of cupcakes from Wonderland Custom Cakes.  WCC is one of the newcomers in Old Town Pasadena, an area which has no shortage of cupcakeries and shops that specialize in sweet treats.  However, Wonderland seems more like a seasoned veteran rather than a rookie in the cupcake business.  They are two-time winners of Food Network's batter battle bonanza Cupcake Wars, and it is clear why.  The flavors they feature are distinctly unique, and the taste is neither too sweet nor too greasy.  My cousin Emily brought me some of their champion cupcakes for my birthday recently, and they soon won me over.

The first cupcake I tasted was the chocolate bacon.  Most cupcakeries have thought it quite avant-garde to pair the flavors of bacon and maple.  Wonderland, on the other hand, pairs the flavor of bacon with chocolate instead.  Even better.  The pairing of bacon with chocolate cake tasted less sweet than the typical pairing of bacon with maple syrup frosting.  The pieces of salty, rendered bacon were crispy and provided great crunch against the softness of the cake itself.  In short, it was awesome.

The next cupcake I tried was the biscotti.  I was quite impressed with the idea of a biscotti flavored cake and frosting... the cupcake really did taste like biscotti.  In fact, the cupcakery got the authenticity of the flavors so spot on that the anise seeds are dotted throughout the cake batter.  For those who are not found of licorice flavor, this biscotti cupcake has what seems like a minefield of anise seeds.  Although it brings the cupcake a genuine biscotti taste, the remarkably sparsely added anise seeds gave a startling explosive taste of potent licorice against the background of a mild tasting cake.  For licorice lovers and true biscotti aficionados though, this is the cupcake for you.

After the biscotti cupcake my roommate and I dug into the smores cupcake.  What was really unique about this cupcake was that the frosting was not just marshmallow flavored.  It was actual marshmallow... color, taste, texture and all... white, airy, fluffy, meringue-like, sweet marshmallow.  The center of the cake had a chocolate filling, and the graham cracker was dusted as crumbs.  It was like a childhood campfire in cupcake form.  Oh, what nostalgic genius.

The last of the quartet of cupcakes was the black + white, one of the flavors on the menu of daily produced cupcakes from Wonderland Custom Cakes.  It was a chocolate cake with vanilla frosting complete with little specks of vanilla bean.  The moist chocolate cake and creamy vanilla frosting was a even balance of cocoa sweet and sugar sweet.  It was one of the best standard black + white cupcakes I have ever had. 

A visit to WCC is now in the works after being won over by these cupcakes.  Okay, that is all for now.  Eat more cupcakes.  Sugar high.  Whoo! Until next time let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20121202

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Post 99: I Love Macarons (LA-SGV: Pasadena)

Since my last post on the macarons I brought back from Chicago, I thought I would just blast a photo of the half a dozen I got from 'Lette Macarons in Old Town Pasadena.  Christina, Ron and I hit up the store after gorging on a large, post-5K breakfast.  There is always room for sweets, right?

Upon arriving, we were bombarded by two families that bum-rushed the counter.  It wasn't the daughter but the mom who immediately requested a lychee macaron.  Geez, lady.  Learn to wait in line.  We selected three pistachio ones, one Colombian coffee, an Early Grey, and a passion fruit flavored one.  The Sicilian pistachio flavored macarons really are the best ones on their menu... especially the actual pistachio nut itself has absolutely not appeal to me whatsoever.  Pistachio macarons and pistachio ice cream, on the other hand, are some of my favorites.

The 'Lette website recommends, "For best degustation, our macarons should be consumed within 3 days."  Ha, I learned a new word.  Degust.  Verb.  To taste something carefully so as to appreciate it fully.  Props to the store for extending my vocabulary.  Boo on the store for not organizing the crowds into a first come, first served line.

I love macarons.  That is all.  Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20121118

Friday, November 30, 2012

Post 98: On the Hunt for Macarons (Chicago: Old Town/Near North Side)

I was on the hunt for macarons... specifically macarons from La Fournette, an authentic French bakery in the Old Town Chicago.  After parting ways with Jen post lunch at XOCO I set out for a quick trip to Old Town before heading back to the airport.  Along the way to La Fournette, I came across The Twisted Baker, a local bakeshop/café.  They had macarons too.

Their macarons were bite-sized, and there were just two flavors left in the shelf for the day... vanilla and lime.  So I bought them... all of them.  There was a sign that proudly displayed that their colorful creations were gluten free.  I am not sure if these macarons are specifically gluten free or if all macarons are naturally gluten free.  Does anyone have an answer for that? Gluten free or not, the macarons were quite elastic... a texture that rarely comes across in these petite pastries.  The vanilla macaron had frosty buttercream in the center while the lime macaron tasted more like a citrus flavored cupcake icing.  Both were good and not overly sweet, especially with the hot tea that I ordered.

So now that I held almost a dozen mini macarons in my hand, I stayed to get some work done using their free internet.  I'm glad I did because the twisted baker herself (and her baking staff) began to make pastry tart shells from scratch.  The scent of butter... delicious, irresistible butter wafted through the open kitchen and into the seating area.  The smell was orgasmic.  Really.  I did not want to leave... so I sat there attempting to engage myself in the electronic correspondence of corporate America while the teasing smell of butter kept interrupting my focus.  It was no different from sending e-mails in a strip club... only that the strippers here are baked goods that smell like butter drenched carbohydrates rather than fake strawberry lip gloss.  Or... so I hear.

Finally, I had enough of a butter high.  It was time to jump off Temptation Island of baked goods and high tail it back to O' Hare.  But it was as soon as I stepped off the stairs of the bakery I noticed that La Fournette, what I had been searching for the entire time, was right next door.  There were two bakeries standing back to back... both with macrons... I guess it was my lucky day.

As I walked in through the door, I was greeted with a cheery "Bonjour!" by the staff at the front counter.  There was a bountiful bunch of bread on the shelves.  Chalkboards that displayed the lunch specials hung from the walls.  There was a definite French feel to the bakery.  Not that I have ever been to France, but this is what I imagine a Parisian bakery to be like.  I made a B line for the macarons.

I picked up a variety of flavors (pumpkin, chocolate, peanut butter chocolate), and all were good... but five stood out the most for the intensity of their true flavors.  I enjoyed the pistachio, mango passion, cassis (black currant), and Lord Bergamot (a tea similar to Earl Grey).  The most interesting of them all was a special macaron that used a blend of spices from The Spice House across the street.  I am glad to see that community economics comes into play in Old Town Chicago.  Props to The Spice House and La Fournette for forming a partnership to create inventive desserts.  I will be back for the jams, preserves, and other spreads that are made in house, all of which became a temptation to further stuff my baggage.

Whereas The Twisted Baker seems to be more of an American bakeshop that specializes in pies, cakes, and tarts, La Fournette is more of a French bakery that capitalizes on its bread selection and other traditional classics such as croissants and crepes.  Both of which are worthy local shops that present high quality products.  Next time I visit the Windy City, I will definitely return to Old Town for these two neighborhood gems.  I plan to drop by The Spice House also.  Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20121114

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Post 97: XOCO - Discovering Rick Bayless One Plate at a Time (Chicago: Near North Side)

On my first business trip to Chicago, my friend Jen and I made a full fledged attempt to make reservations at Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill.  During a layover at O'Hare on family vacation, I tried out Tortas Frontera, the order-at-the-counter version of the Bayless experience.  I vowed to return for a meal at one of his sit-down restaurants during my next visit to Chicago.  But alas, Frontera Grill was not taking any more reservations... so Jen and I crafted up Plan B for my second business trip to the city.  We decided on XOCO, the order-at-the-counter-and-then-sit-down Rick Bayless restaurant experience.  I believe it was a good compromise.

As an avid viewer of his show Mexico: One Plate at a Time on PBS, I have seen Señor Bayless work wonders with Mexican cuisine.  He brings to light obscure regional Mexican dishes that help remind us that tacos, quesadillas, and enchiladas aren't all there is to Mexican food.  His dishes are truly authentic in flavor and preparation, but there is always a touch of creativity and showmanship that he employs to connect down home Mexican comida with the contemporary American food lover. 

The combination of authenticity and showmanship shined through in the chicharrones.  The pork skin was deep fried hard exactly the way that Mexican street vendors do it... truly crispy inside and out.  They were topped off with the Bayless showmanship of Tamazula hot sauce, onions, cilantro, crumbled queso añejo, and fresh, squeeze-it-yourself lime.  Tamazula hot sauce tastes similar to the bottled Tapatío hot sauce in that it is thick and slightly smoky and peppery in flavor.  It is deep red, and it is full of flavor rather than simply spicy, and it is far from the peppery vinegar that we know as Tabasco.  The añejo cheese added a complex saltiness to the chicharrones too because its rind is rolled in paprika.  There were only so many deep fried pork skins that we could eat though.  There were many more starters to be had. 

Our starting drinks included the XOCO margarita, made with Cazadores Blanco, Combier, house made lime bitters, fresh lime, and cucumber.  The margarita was salted on the rim and shaken by the cashier himself.  When was the last time you got a margarita made at the cash register by a cashier-bartender? That was awesome.

If you're like Jen, and you happen to be on your lunch break and need to refrain from consuming alcoholic beverages, perhaps the bean-to-cup chocolate or the chocolate coffee on the menu is the proper selection for you.  The chocolate coffee is exactly what Jen ordered.  If you are expecting a piping hot cup of Joe or a mug of sweet milk chocolate, you will be disappointed.  The typical cup of coffee is not what XOCO serves.  The temperature is far from boiling, and it is most likely due to the addition of chocolate.  If you are expecting a soothing cup of genuine chocolate flavor, then you will be quite delighted.  The beverages are nothing short of extraordinary.   

While perusing the menu at the counter, I knew immediately that I wanted to try the pickled pigs' feet tostada.  Surprisingly, the pork was chilled as were the jalapeño pickled vegetables that topped off the handheld toasted tortilla.  But not surprisingly, the blend of cool crema and cilantro complemented the chilled pork.  It made for a refreshing bite especially when the tostada chip itself was thin and crispy.  But biter beware, if you take a big bite like I did, get ready for a flurry of cubed pork rainfall.

At the recommendation of Jen's co-worker, a XOCO regular, I ordered the pork belly torta, which just so happened to be the special of the day.  Packed at the center of the crusty bread was a cut of fatty and tender pork belly.  And... well, this is the part where I tell you how ridiculously delicious this Mexican pork belly panini was.  But guess what... I'm not going to.  You can use your imagination and let your wildest dreams of pork belly take over.  All I am going to say is that when I tasted the pork belly I felt my eyes roll back a little bit.  I had an urge to kidnap the sandwich to a secret hiding spot, perhaps under the table, to enjoy it selfishly so that no one else could share my guilty experience with me.  I completely ignored the arugula and whatever else was inside the sandwich... except... the... bacon.  Yes.  There was BACON.  Lying sinfully next to the pork belly.  What the... hell.  Who thinks of this deliciously heinous combination? Gracias, Rick Bayless.  Te quiero, torta rica.

We also ordered the chips and guacamole, which came with both salsa roja and salsa verde.  All three condiments were great additions to just about everything on the table including the torta.  But whatever.  I just bit into a pork belly and bacon torta.  Holy shit.

Jen ordered the pork belly vermicelli or fideos, the Spanish word for noodles that are most commonly used in soups.  This includes Asian style noodles used in Mexican and Latin cooking such as vermicelli.  The pork belly in the soup was equally as succulent and tender as the cut that was in the sandwich.  However, the texture of this pork belly was a bit more crisp on the outside.  A spicy salsa negra was in the broth base, which gave the soup a fiery taste that was abusively addicting.  The diced up avocado that peaked up through the gleaming pork belly broth was an added plus.  Its smooth and creamy texture contrasted the spiciness from the soup.  Jen and I agreed that we preferred authentic Chinese and Italian noodles to the fideos here, but no matter... the pork belly, once again, was eye-rolling delicious.

What better than a sweet dessert to help cool down the spicy kick of salsa negra? Well, three desserts, of course.  I let all my inhibitions go and ordered all three churros on the menu.  The trio of churros for that happy hump day were the chocolate/peanut, the margarita/almond, and the pistachio.

While the chocolate glazed churro suffered no faults, the margarita glazed churro with almonds actually enlightened my taste buds with its sharp tang and tartness.  The pistachio churro, however, was hands down the most memorable of the three.  If there was one word to describe it, the word would be fragrant.  The churro really was fragrant.  An explosion of pistachio passed through our nasal passages and jumped from taste bud to taste bud... and I'm almost sure that not one taste bud was skipped over.  Who knew pistachios could be so potently powerful? In a good way, of course.  The Disneyland churro is in a class of its own, but this Rick Bayless pistachio churro in all its glorious, green glaze was damned good.  Es la verdad.

After this stomach stuffer of a meal, my good friend Jen had to return to her corporate duties.  And I had digestion on my to do list.  But don't think for a minute that after all these chicharrones and churros, tostadas and tortas, pigs feet and pork belly, that I was done eating my way through Chicago.  There was still some time left before I needed to head to the airport, and one thing I had not accomplished just yet was... find a bakery.  Thanks Rick for showing us some flair with your take on Mexican cuisine.  I loved each plate at XOCO, and I will definitely be back for Frontera Grill next time.  Hasta luego, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20121114

Monday, November 12, 2012

Post 96: Two Times Quartino (Chicago: Near North Side)

In my very short trip in Chicago, most of which was spent in the suburbs by O' Hare Airport, I managed to come across Quartino twice.  The first time was a planned dinner with an old friend.  The second time was accidental... the result of a digestive walk after consuming Chicagoland staples on Ontario Street.  Quartino, is a tapas restaurant, but one that specializes in Italian small plates rather than the traditional Spanish snacks.  The menu is extensive, ranging from pizza to pasta to risotto.  There is a section for salumi and formaggi, and three of the eight folds in the paper menu are dedicated to wineQuartino was an ideal place to meet Jen, my friend from back home who had recently moved to the Windy City.

Whether sitting at the bar in the afternoon or settling down for dinner in the evening, the meat and cheese charcuterie is one that must be ordered.  The full platter is of salumeria tasting is two selection of meat and cheese each, three spuntini, and an assortment of olives.  The star of the salumi on the menu is definitely the house made duck proscuitto, a seasoned duck breast that is smooth and fatty, peppery and fragrant, vibrant and beautiful.  Another highlight is the fontina val d'aosta, a cow's milk cheese that is creamy and soft, and perfectly spreadable over crusty bread.

And now we turn to the dishes we ordered for dinner the night before.  The first thing we ordered was crisp calamari, which has become a must as an Italian appetizer.  It was cut in wide curls, and it was so fresh.  It was not overcooked to the point of tasting like a rubber band, just tender in the middle and slightly crisp from the breading on the outside.  The lemon and organic tomato sauce only added to its freshness.  It had to have been one of the best calamari plates I have ever had.

The next item we ordered was the sea scallops, grilled with beautiful sear impressions with a hint of lemon and caperberries.  There are not too many ways to grill sea scallops, so I appreciated that the restaurant served them on a bed of vegetables and sliced peppers in a buttery sauce.  The peppers gave a pleasant kick to an otherwise mild dish.  It wasn't completely out of the ordinary, but it was just different enough to make this dish have its own personality.

When Jen and I saw that angus beef carpaccio was on the menu, we had to order it.  Any carpaccio, tartare, or steak for that matter, is simply a favorite of mine.  Topped with shaved celery, parmigiano reggiano and extra virgin olive oil, the dish was a perfect balance of savory protein, salty dairy, and light greens.  I really liked that celery leaves were shaved along with the stalk.  The celery leaves gave the dish a very clean taste.  My only wish was that the cheese was grated as thin as the beef, but it was good nonetheless.

For a more substantial dish, we also ordered the roasted Tuscan sausage and peppers.  It was the first truly meaty dish that was served during the meal.  Even though the calamari and the scallops were hot dishes, the sausage and peppers were the first dish to make me feel warm.  Thanks to this dish I had forgotten all about the elements in the Windy City.  It was raining, and the wind was definitely blowing hard.

Of the four risotto dishes on the menu, we selected the mushroom risotto made with portobello, balsamic and pork stock.  The risotto was creamy and hearty, cooked to just al dente.  The comforting, hot food was a smart way to cap off the meal to make us feel full and satisfied. 

Even though we were absolutely stuffed, we had to have dessert.  Okay, so maybe I had to have dessert, and I conned Jen into joining me for dessert.  First were the zeppole, freshly made Italian doughnuts that were like a cross between giant donut holes and mini cream puffs.  They were dusted with powdered sugar on top and served with chocolate dipping sauce on the side.  Chocolate, of course, made the deep fried ball of dough that much better.

We also got chocolate cake.  What's wrong with us? Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs that night... maybe not just that night.  The torta al cioccolato topped with vanilla gelato sealed the deal for the night.  The hot chocolate cake melted the gelato too quickly, so I had no choice but to order another scoop.  Jen looked at me like I was crazy, but a cold gelato must be eaten the proper way.  I made sure to walk up and down the stairs to the bathroom a number of times to somehow stir up the digestion.  I'm not sure it worked out the way I had thought.

It had been years since I had eaten with Jen, but it seemed like we made up for all the lost meals in one night.  I was very glad that we were able to catch up while trying a variety of different Italian dishes all done tapas style.  With all the food that we had ordered for two people, I was surprised that we didn't even order from the pizza or pasta section.  That, I guess, will be saved for next time.  It was good to see both Jen and Chicago again.  Jen, come back and visit soon! Until the next business trip, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20121018-19