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

Friday, November 2, 2012

Post 95: Ontario Street Staples (Chicago: River North/Near North Side)

Just a few weeks ago I was in Chicago on business, so I thought I would head into the city to grab some Chi-town staples.  I only had two hours before my return flight back to LA, so I planned to hit as many places as I could in those two precious hours.  My strategy was simple... walk down Ontario Street.  From Al's #1 Italian Beef to Gino's East to the Rock n' Roll McDonald's to Portillo's... many of the well-known Chicago eateries are located down that path.  I could eat and walk... eat and walk... and make my way towards Michigan Avenue before heading to O'Hare.  I thought it was an ideal plan, but it was a plan that even my stomach couldn't handle.

During my first visit to the Windy City four years ago, many of the locals suggested that we try the Italian beef sandwich.  Well, we were too busy stuffing our faces with deep dish pizza that we never got around to trying the local favorite.  So this time I made sure to hit up Al's #1 Italian Beef first.

Knowing that I was about to embark on a marathon of eating, I originally planned to order just a small sandwich.  But go big or go home right? So when the lady at the counter asked me what size, I said LARGE... like a boss! The sandwich came wrapped in about half a dozen sheets of paper, and it was safe to say that each sheet of paper was thoroughly soaked with beef juice... delicious, delicious beef juice.  I took one bite, and I knew I was going to finish the whole thing.  It was juicy, oily, and beefy... all the things that I love.

What made the sandwich even more amazing-delicious was the addition of spicy peppers throughout the sandwich.  And I definitely appreciated the somewhat unexpected crunch from the celery slices in between layers of the beef's pillowy tenderness.  Oh, and the bread... the bread... all the nooks and crannies behind the crust had soaked up all the excess beef juice making it even softer.  Biting into the bread was like squeezing a sponge full of au jus into my mouth.  Gahhh... I may have moaned subconsciously when I took my second bite.  Either that or the way I was consuming that sandwich made the patrons at the nearby tables notice because they were definitely staring at me.  Eh, the sandwich had my full, undivided attention.  Hot damn, that Al's Italian beef sandwich was mind numbingly good.

So I wrapped up what I had just unwrapped, toss the remains in the trash, and headed back out into the chilly breeze.  Granted the temperate was probably warm by Chicago standards, but I'm a Southern California kid born and bred, so I was ready to hop back indoors from the 50 degree elements.  Good thing I was walking down Ontario Street because Portillo's was just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Al's.

I had been to Portillo's Hot Dogs on my first visit to Chicagoland, so I was ready to reunite with the beloved Chicago dog that I remembered.  With mustard, relish, onions, tomatoes, celery salt, spicy sport peppers, and a pickle spear, the Portillo's hot dog had burst of flavor with each bite.  It was just as I had remembered.  And although the dog was good by itself, beer made it even better... I was in heaven.

Now done with an Al's Italian beef sandwich and a Portillo's hot dog, I was ready to get up and order something from Barnelli's Pasta Bowl and then jump across the street for some deep dish from Gino's East, but as soon as I stood up, I felt everything that I had just eaten settle into the pits of my stomach.  Perhaps it was time for a digestive walk.  We'll save all that pasta for the next visit to Chi-town.

So I walked east toward Michigan Avenue.  I walked, and I walked... and it felt like I had not digested a lick of food.  I had come across Quartino, an Italian style tapas restaurant that I had dined at the night before.  I bet anyone that knows me could guess what I did next.  Yup, I plopped myself up at the bar, and before I knew it there was a platter of charcuterie and an ice cold glass of beer spread across the counter.

The post on Quartino is next.  Until then, let's get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20121019