Friday, November 25, 2011

Hot Chocolate or Marshmallow World

The Slow and Savory Review

It isn't often you meet someone in Chicago who actually like the cold and the snow.  Who among us truly looks forward to digging out parking spaces, putting on five layers of clothing, or sloshing through the street slush?  Well, if there is one thing in this world that Brandy loves without complaint, it might be winter weather.  Snow?  "Nature's glitter," she calls it.  Bone chilling cold?  "You can always put more clothes on, but when its hot, there's only so many clothes you can take off without causing a riot."  In fact there is little anyone can do to convince Brandy that there is anything bad related to winter weather.

Since the snow and cold are still a little while off, Brandy decided to wish them into being by going to brunch at Chicago's favorite dessert bar, Hot Chocolate, the brain child of multiple James Beard Award winner Mindy Segal.  It's funny, for as well known as this establishment is, there are more than a few people who don't realize that they serve anything other than dessert, let alone weekend brunch and dinner every night.  Accompanying Brandy was her old friend, Biscuit Brown, who sat with her in the lovely lounge like waiting area while a table was prepared.  In the intervening 15 minutes or so, Brandy and Biscuit admired the interior, which was done in simplistic chocolate, caramel, and cream shades and dotted with extraordinary original art works.

After being seated at their table (which was a bit of a tight squeeze) Brandy and Biscuit set about ordering their cups of hot chocolate; for Biscuit, the Pumpkin Spice, and for Brandy the Black and tan (a milk chocolate hot chocolate with hot fudge at the bottom).  Both were rich and delicious, with a velvety smooth texture, and both came served with a house made marshmallow.  The Black and Tan was served in a slightly smaller portion (which made $6 a cup seem a little over priced) but the richness of it made it perfect for small sips.  The Pumpkin Spice was truly extraordinary, bringing not only the "spice" portion of flavor, as so many other pumpkin drinks do, but also a true pumpkin taste.

For starters, the ladies split some Warm Donuts, which came served like cinnamon sugar covered breadsticks, perfect for dipping into the bright, house made raspberry preserves.The donuts weren't as melt in your mouth as Brandy would have expected, but in fact they were almost cake like, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

For her entree, Biscuit chose possibly the most interesting and non-traditional brunch item, the Braised Beef Brisket, a tender hunk of meat served in a flavorful broth with two eggs and some fresh made bread.  Biscuit could hardly even scoop up the beef, it was so tender, and the broth was incredibly rich and warming, which only became richer when the yolks of the eggs were mixed in.  "It's so rich, I wager I could pan for gold in it and come up a millionaire!" Biscuit exclaimed.

Brandy chose the Duck Quiche with a side of grits.  Another $6 for the side of grits again seemed like a lot, but this time the portion matched the price.  The grits were very creamy and peppery with just a little bit of crunch, which is just how Brandy likes them.  The quiche, which came in a huge slice with a small salad of greens on the side, was lighter than air with an almost invisible buttery crust.  Compared with the fluffy custard of the egg, the hunks of smokey duck meat and nuggets of cheese were like hidden treasures.  Even the little salad of greens was nicely dressed and refreshing.

A relaxed atmosphere with fine dining sensibilities, the service at Hot Chocolate could have been a little friendlier, but food came warm, on time, and the napkins were even found folded when Biscuit and Brandy returned from the restroom.  And while the prices may have been a tad on the high side, one is definitely paying for quality and quantity at Hot Chocolate.  Brandy briefly considered ordering another one of the signature hot chocolate drinks, but with a stomach full to bursting, she decided against it, choosing instead to wait for that magical first snow to return for her next cup of chocolate brilliance.

The Short and Sweet Review

Hot Chocolate on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 18, 2011

Bittersweet or The Pastry and the Pudding

The Slow and Savory Review:

Believe it or not, there was once a time where one couldn't just go to the grocery store and pick up a steak and a cake at the same time.  Brandy often yearns for a time when she used to visit her green grocer for the finest fruit and veg, her butcher for the tenderest loins and roasts, her baker for the softest loaves of bread, and of course her haberdasher to buy the finest hat to wear to brunch on Sunday.  Gone are the days of milk and eggs from a local farm delivered to your door step and Brandy feels there really is something sad about that.  But now a days it seems convenience has won out over artistry. 

It might be that this is why Brandy feels so strongly about this week's destination, a beautiful European style pastry shop and baker in lovely Lakeview called Bittersweet.  From the enticing cakes in the windows, to the titillating tarts found inside, everything about Bittersweet screams "lovingly crafted."    Along with the dazzling array of treats on display, Bittersweet houses a modest cafe (about ten small tables, which are first come, first serve) that serves a different selection of sandwiches, salads, soups, and quiches each day.  In truth, Bittersweet has been a favorite of Brandy's for many years, mostly because she says it reminds her of all her favorite things from Paris, but she has been hesitant to share this little spot for fear she may never get a table!

Brandy started off with Bittersweet's house Hot Chocolate, a frothy and cinnamon spiked version of the cold weather classic.  Served on a dainty tea tray, one is presented with a pot of rich, dark hot chocolate and a generous dollop of nutmeg scented whipped cream.  The beverage on its own is spiced and warming beyond belief, and the whipped cream only serves to guild the lily.  Brandy absolutely adored the experience of pouring her own portion of chocolate and watching the thick cream slowly  disappear within it.

Next, Brandy moved on to a cup of Thyme Mushroom Soup which came served with a healthy chunk of artisan bread.  The soup had nice mushroom flavor matched with a creamy richness, and the croutons on the top lent a wonderful bit of crunch to the dish.  The bread was thick and hearty and perfect for dipping.

Following that was a modified BLT, coming served with a little bit of avocado and some chipotle mayo.  The bread was soft and scrumptious, reminding Brandy of the kind of thing she used to make cucumber sandwiches with during tea time.  Crisp, smokey bacon combined with the thinly sliced, juicy tomato, creamy avocado,and crisp lettuce to form a perfect combination of textures, and the little hint of spice from the mayo really brought out all of the best flavors from the simple ingredients.  A lovely selection of fruit was also provided as a side.

Finally, Brandy finished the meal with a beautiful Pumpkin Creme Brulee, which came with a sweet little gingerbread cookie.  The top of the dessert had that excellent crack one looks for in a creme brulee, and the custard inside was cold, light, and delicate.  Combined with the crunchy cookie, the pumpkin custard brought out all the best flavors of fall.

Brandy could have spent all day hogging up one of Bittersweet's bigger tables, which she might have since the lovely girls that roam the room serving tables also man the pastry counter, occasionally causing long waits for food or a check.  Of course, one's day is not complete without purchasing a few tarts, cupcakes, cookies, or breads to take home; Brandy highly recommends checking out the homemade granola, the slices of flavored angel food cake, or for a great deal there's the "broken cookie" bags and the previous day's cupcakes are always 2 for the price of 1.*

*Editor's note: We suspect that Brandy requested the bakery deals be pushed so that more people might satisfy themselves with those goodies and leave a table free in the cafe for her.
The Short and Sweet Review:

Bittersweet on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 11, 2011

Cafe Con Leche or The Milk of Human Kindness

The Slow and Savory Review

Over the course of a year, Brandy has sampled brunch delicacies from many different countries.  There has been French fair, Swedish sweets, Greek gourmet, Danish delights, English epicurean offerings, and even a journey into Japanese.  But there was something missing, some part of the world that Brandy had not quite explored properly.  Ironically, she had seen many versions of this type of cuisine popping up in almost every brunch menu out there, but never had she traveled to a restaurant that catered specifically to this kind of food.  Indeed, upon discovering this over sight, Brandy was very upset with herself, as this spectacular culture's cooking lends itself so well to all manner of things brunch, from the beverages to the entrees.  So, in order to correct this mistake, Brandy found herself one of the best Latin themed brunches in Chicago, and dragged along her pals, Biscuit and Birdie Brown for good measure.

They arrived in front of an unassuming store front in Logan Square with a simple sign and arrow pointing the way to Cafe Con Leche, a small cafe attached to a larger restaurant called D'Noche.  Upon entering into the cafe, Brandy was surprised to only find a few small tables and a check-out counter.  It took a few minutes to realize that the attached restaurant lay around the corner and had more than enough room to seat the substantial amount of people waiting for tables.  After a 20 or so minute wait, Brandy and friends were taken into the room proper, which was as bright and vibrant in decor as it was in atmosphere; the walls had been painted a sophisticated shade of burgundy and lined with black, the tables were dark wood, black and white photos hung from the walls, and the enticing sound of Latin dance music filled the air.

Immediately, a very attentive (and handsome, according to Brandy) server appeared to take the party's drink orders.  Biscuit chose her standard, a Bloody Mary, which came extra spicy and with a stick of celery as thick as an ear of corn.  Brandy and Birdie chose the house special Cafe Con Leche, though Brandy chose to add a shot of chocolate liquor to hers (As Brandy always says, "There's nothing like an upper and downer in one glass").  The coffee was smooth and rich and came in a very generous portion that lasted the whole meal, though Brandy considered ordering another just to watch their waiter walk it to the table.

Birdie chose possibly the most adventurous entree of the day, a suedo-sandwich called a Jibartito, which consisted of steak, lettuce, tomato, and onion in between two mashed and fried plantain cakes.  The effect was rather starchy, but not nearly as greasy as one might expect.  The steak came very tender and thinly sliced, and the onions added a very nice crunch to the dish.  "I once had something similar while stationed in Cuba during the 60's," Birdie said through mouthfuls.  When asked what he was doing in Cuba in the 60's, Birdie became rather avasive and mumbled, "Nothing to do with trying to kill Castro, if that's what you're thinking."

Biscuit went a bit more traditional with a dish called Chilaquiles Verdes, a mess of fried tortilla, eggs, sour cream, spiced rice, and refried beans.  Biscuit was rather surprised by the fighting power of the green chili salsa, especially when combined with the spices from the Bloody Mary ("Goodness me, my nose is running like a hound dog after a fox," she exclaimed), but the rice and beans served to cool things down a bit with good traditional Mexican flavors.  The tortilla did go a bit soggy, but there was still enough texture in the dish to keep one awake.

Brandy played things a bit safe with the Breakfast Torta (a steak and egg filed sandwich) and a short stack of pancakes.  The sandwich, though filed with the hearty flavors of the tender steak as well as a spread of beans and sprinkle of Chihuauaha Cheese, was in desperate need of a little burst and crunch that could have easily been provided with a little tomato or onion.  But Brandy did enjoy the softly toasted bolilo roll, and once she had added some of the house made red sauce that had been brought to the table, that burst she was looking for was found.  The sandwich also came served with some rather nicely flavored and and creamy diced potatoes, which lent a very familiar flavor that Brandy just couldn't quite put her finger on.  The pancakes, though traditional, were made well; extremely soft and fluffy and served with fresh strawberries and bananas, the two cakes seemed to make a perfect side dish to share with the table. 
Brandy had definitely found a favorite in Cafe Con Leche, as the perfect service (hardly a sip of water was taken before someone was refilling their glasses), variety of exciting options, and flavorful atmosphere put this little hidden gem on par with some of the finer spots Brandy has visited.  Brandy will never be caught making the mistake of missing out on a good Latin brunch again, "Especially when it comes served by the most delicious dish in the place," as Brandy put it.

The Short and Sweet Review

Cafe Con Leche on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 4, 2011

Flower Flat Cafe or Pixies in the Garden

The Slow and Savory Review

Ah gardening, the traditional English pastime.  There is nothing Brandy enjoys more (other than the possible exception of brunch...or a nice glass of Riesling) than tending to the plants in her garden; Elderberry bushes, climbing grape and blackberry vines, peace trees, lavender, basil, and her prised Tudor roses.  Brandy has no choice but to garden, for as a great man once said, once an English man or woman turns 40, a trowel somehow appears in their hands.

Although she does love the cold weather, Brandy is sad every autumn when she finally has to put away her gardening tools until the following spring.  Perhaps it was this longing for her beloved flowers and fruits that lead Brandy to the Flower Flat Cafe, a  cozy little hole in the wall in East Lakeview.  Upon entering, one is greeted by the sight and smell of fresh cut flowers, ready to be placed into a mixed bouquet.  Colors flow into the small two room cafe from several stained glass window hangings, casting a friendly brightness onto everything.  The tables are small and intimate, but whimsically eclectic.  Walls are lined with adorable touches that really do make one feel as though they are in a magical garden, like gazing globes and picture frames on the ceiling.  Brandy felt as though she had stepped into someone's home for a meal, especially when her waiter collected her silver ware from a hutch in the corner.

The menu warns straight off that one chef + a small kitchen means a little bit of waiting for food, so Brandy ordered some coffee, which came in a french press for pouring at one's own pleasure, which Brandy very much appreciated.  It was a little bit disappointing to not see some more creative beverages on offer, but sometimes a really good cup of coffee or a nice selection of teas makes up for anything.

Brandy started off with the Everything Nice Waffle, a spiced waffle served with fresh seasonal fruit.  The waffle was the perfect size (not the monsters that Belgian Waffles often are) and was nicely caramelized on the outside and fluffy on the inside.  Brandy was a left longing for a bit more of the "spice" flavor, but there did seem to be a subtle malted flavor she very much enjoyed.  The fruit on top was a pleasant mix of strawberries, raspberries, and sliced pear, which really did lend a nice end of summer feeling to the dish.

For her savory, Brandy chose the Chicken Salad Sandwich, which came with more pears and berries, as well as some potato chips.  The chicken salad was nicely chuncked and tender.  The dressing, which was an herbed mayonnaise, blended well with the sweetness of the dried apricots and sliced red grapes, and halved almonds lent a nice crunch.  The bread was pleasantly soft (Brandy hates the use of crusty bread for sandwiches) and buttery.

The cafe had less than ten tables in all, but everyone seemed to know each other (indeed, the chef/owner herself stepped out of the kitchen for a while to socialize and seemed to know the name of every person sitting in the place) and while Brandy expected a wait for food, her dishes had been delivered almost instantly.  So although she won't be able to putter in her own garden for the next few months, Brandy can visit the Flower Flat Cafe for a dose of cozy comfort any time she likes.

The Short and Sweet Review

The Flower Flat on Urbanspoon