Friday, September 30, 2011

Hashbrowns or Breakfast: Starring Potatoes!

The Slow and Savory Review

It been almost a year now since Brandy started her journey through Brunchland, and if there is one food she has had more often than all the others (more than French toast, and yes, more than benedicts) it has to be potatoes.  Served as an often neglected side, it seems no brunch dish is complete without some sort of potato offering.  Brandy has had potatoes in every which way: shredded, diced, fried, roasted, crispy, soggy, spicy, unseasoned, and everything from Idaho Russets to creamy reds.  Needless to say, there is not much in the world of potatoes that Brandy has not seen.

Except one thing, and that one thing was what drew her to Hashbrowns, perennial attendee of the Chicago Taste Festival and favorite amongst students at nearby UIC.  The first thing that struck her upon walking in the door of Hashbrowns was the extraordinary smell; something sort of cinnamony and meaty and comforting.  She was greeted by a smiling server like she was a regular of the establishment (and indeed Brandy heard this very server greet all her tables like this, even knowing people's orders before they could tell her what they desired).  The decor was a little more modern than Brandy expected, and perhaps a little bare and industrial looking, but with nice homey touches.

Brandy started off with an order of Mini Waffles, which came four to a plate, with whipped cream, powdered sugar, and a delicious vanilla sauce on the side for dipping.  The waffles were perfect in texture, with a nice crisp outside and a light, airy inside.  The sauce packed just the right punch of flavor, adding an almost fruity taste to the confections.  But as Brandy's eternal war cry goes, a few pieces of fruit would have done wonders to heighten the taste.

For her main course, Brandy chose the Brideport Burrito, a flour tortilla encasing scrambled eggs, cheese, and steak, which came served with her main reason for being there: sweet potato hashbrowns.  Never before in the sea of potatoes that is Brunch, has Brandy ever heard of such a thing, which is exactly why she had to try them.  The burrito itself, though the eggs were nicely fluffy and the cheese plentiful, was rather bland and dull.  The steak used wasn't tender at all and had absolutely no flavor to it.  The only saving grace was the side of house made salsa, which added a much needed kick to the dish.  The hashbrowns on the other hand were anything but flavorless.  Apparently the delicious smell Brandy had experienced upon entering stemmed from this lovely offering.  Though not as crispy as she had anticipated, the texture of the hashbrowns seemed to fall somewhere between mashed and diced.  A lovely sweetness came from the caramelized onions that were scattered through out, and the top of the mound seemed to glitter with sugar and cinnamon.  Brandy's favorite memories of Thanksgiving and Christmas came flooding back with every mouthful.

With friendly service on par with what television diners have taught us to expect, Hashbrowns certainly does make a newcomer feel right at home.  Their name sake dish definitely did not disappoint, and in fact left Brandy wishing she had ordered the "Hashbrown Platter," a mix of both traditional and sweet potato hashbrowns for sampling.  Perhaps next time, and if other restaurants keep serving up bland, over cooked, and soggy side potatoes, there most likely will be a next time!

The Short and Sweet Review

Hashbrowns on Urbanspoon

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Taste of Heaven or What, no Angel Food?

The Slow and Savory Review

The Cupcake.  Such a lowly pastry, once considered only fit for children's birthday parties, but now so much the focus of a culinary dream scape that every bakery on earth seems to have gone cupcake crazy.  From the humble vanilla to more adventurous creations made with everything from bacon to sweet peas to wine and cheese, the cupcake has become a canvas for every aspiring artist with a whisk and more butter cream than they know what to do with.  Brandy, for one, is a definite fan of this trend, though she does think a few too many eateries have jumped on the cupcake bandwagon without a good recipe behind them.

And so Brandy headed to A Taste of Heaven with high expectations, not only because they have a constantly rotating menu of gourmet cupcakes, but also to sample their equally lauded brunch selection.  A short wait for a table enabled her to admire the bright and quirky interior, dotted with homey and whimsical touches like tea cup lamps on every table.  About every fifteen minutes or so a happy server made the rounds about the room with a plate full of free samples fresh from the ovens (the samples on this day were of a warm and delicious Pumpkin Bar, which tasted like a combination of coffee cake and pumpkin pie). 

Once seated Brandy ordered an iced coffee, which came nice and strong.  A rarity as well, this establishment offered free refills of their iced coffee, as well as the usual iced tea and hot coffee, which Brandy was very pleased to see.

To start off, Brandy ordered a bowl of Greek Yogurt, which came with house made granola and fresh sliced strawberries.  The yogurt and strawberries were nicely fresh and light, but the granola was the true star, lending not only a crunch, but a sort of lemony honey flavor that went along nicely with the yogurt.

As her entree, Brandy chose the Eggs Verde, an omelet made with tomatoes, spinach, provolone cheese, and house made pesto.  Sadly, the pesto was not mixed into the eggs, as Brandy had expected, but came served as a dollop atop the omelet, making the mixing of the quite flavorful condiment into the dish a little awkward.  The spinach was wonderfully fresh, having barely been cooked beyond a wilt, but the tomatoes were a bit overcooked and mushy.  The dish also came served with a variety of sides; a large portion of hash browns, a fresh made biscuit, and a small selection of fruit.  The hash browns were very disappointing, having almost no texture or flavor to them.  The biscuit, on the other hand, was heavy, but very tender, with the slightest sweetness that really made it unique.  Brandy was happy to see a few nectarine slices on the plate along with the usual melon, pineapple, and grapes.

Though stuffed from her mighty breakfast, Brandy did buy two cupcakes to take home with her for dessert; a Boston Cream and a Raspberry Rhapsody.  The Boston Cream was true to its namesake, with a thick chocolate gnache covering a yellow cake filled with equally think and delicious pastry cream.  The Raspberry was more of a surprise, with the berries not only being included in the light frosting, but also in the actual cake batter itself, and a filling of the same pastry cream was just the icing on the... the cherry on the... a very nice surprise.

Extremely friendly service and a few surprises along the way definitely make A Taste of Heaven a divine stop, and with most plates under $10, most eaters will have enough money leftover to sample one or two cupcakes for themselves.

The Short and Sweet Review

A Taste of Heaven on Urbanspoon

Friday, September 16, 2011

Southport Grocery and Cafe or Pancake Chic

The Slow and Savory Review
It has been said that multi-tasking is the true gift of woman kind.  For instance, Brandy is perfectly capable of reading a book, embroidering a table cloth, fixing her reading glasses, and baking the perfect chocolate cake, all at the same time and while enjoying a glass of her favorite wine, Cabernet Sauvigion.  Quite impressive for a days work for some, but for Brandy, this is an average evening (except for the chocolate cake... sometimes its Red Velvet). 

As as an epic multi-tasker, Brandy is always impressed by others who can out do her.  This is what led her to Southport Grocery and Cafe for brunch this week, a multi-tasking establishment that is not only a restaurant, not only a bakery, but also as the name implies a grocer of European and locally produced specialty goods.  The inside boasts about ten tables along one wall, a bakery counter along another, a kitchen at the back, and a line of shelves in the center.  Its not unusual for wait times on weekends to exceed an hour because of this lack of tables (though during the summer, the inside is supplemented by a small sidewalk patio), but luckily the grocery and bakery give one plenty to browse through, including their famous cupcakes.  Brandy chose to delay a trip to the bakery until after she was full of food, as she felt she might buy everything on offer.  Servers prove their expertise in multi-tasking by not only waiting tables, but helping keep the grocery and bakery stocked, which on a busy morning can mean fighting slightly for their attention.

Once seated and refreshed by a glass of water (cutely served from a wine bottle into a mason jar) and some slightly weak iced tea, Brandy was ready to order.  A filling dish simply called "Hash" stood out, as well as the two pancakes on the menu; one made with the same batter used for the cupcakes, and another made from bread pudding.  Both pancakes had a "solo" option, allowing Brandy to order one of each to sample.

The Hash came as a hearty bowl containing crispy and cheesy hash browns, scrambled egg, and smokey onions, peppers, and mushrooms topped by sour cream and chives.  Brandy chose to add brisket to the mix, which seemed a perfect match for the roasted veggies.  Though she wished for a little more cheese, Brandy found everything about the Hash to be flavorful and brightly bold, from the fork tender brisket, to the charred bell peppers.

First of the pancakes was the Cupcake Pancake, served very traditionally with powdered sugar and maple syrup.  The extra sugar in the batter allowed the edges of the cake to crisp beautifully, but the texture was rather dry.  Still, not bad for a traditional pancake.

The second, the Bread Pudding Pancake, was the definite standout.  Looking traditional, this confection was anything but.  Though unassuming  to the eye, the dish came topped with cinnamon butter and served with a sort of custardy crème anglaise, which only served to gild the lily, so to speak.  The interior of this pancake was so soft and creamy, so silky and luxurious, that Brandy swore it must have been stuffed with cream cheese.  Normally, Brandy likes a bit of fruit (as you should have guessed by now) with her breakfast sweets, but in this case, she wanted nothing healthy anywhere near this decadent treat.  And its not as if the recipe is a secret, as the grocery sold bags of "Bread Pudding Pancake Mix" right there on the shelf across form her table!  Brandy thought about ordering a case of the mix, but re-considered after realizing she might never leave her house for brunch again, and she would never deprive her dearest fans of her culinary adventures!

Going to Southport Grocery on a week day might be more advisable to avoid the crowds, but even if you have to add your name to the waiting list and spend an hour in the neighborhood shopping at the many boutiques until you can be seated, your meal will be well worth the wait.  At the fairly reasonable prices (less than $25 for a filling breakfast for one) you'll have plenty of cash left over to raid the bakery and grocery shelves. 

The Short and Sweet Review

Southport Grocery & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Friday, September 9, 2011

Victory's Banner or The Art of Zen and Brunch

The Slow and Savory Review

There is a long standing tradition of fascination with Eastern cultures among the British, from the Victorians to the Beatles and beyond.  Our beloved Brandy is no exception to this rule, as she will swear up and down it was in fact she who gave George Harrison to idea to seek out enlightenment in India in the first place (rumor has it she may have had a hand in ending British rule in India as well, and though we're not able to verify that claim completely, Brandy does have in her possession a certain photograph signed by one Mr. Ghandi that says, "No one needs to know about those pancakes.  Thanks for everything.").  While not considering herself a religious person per say, Brandy does claim to be highly spiritual and always in search of the true meaning of life, hence her many journeys and adventures, and she decided long ago that the path to her own personal happiness was through brunch.  After all, what is bliss if not for a perfectly poached egg, an evenly toasted bit of bread, or a plate of fresh and ripened fruit?

It was these questions and more that lead Brandy to Victory's Banner in Roscoe Village, a restaurant not only know for healthy and hearty vegetarian dishes, but also for its employees, who are all followers of Sri Chinmoy, an Indian Spiritual Master and proponent of self-realization through mediation and healthy living.  The woman all wear saris, fliers for mediation classes are on every table, and the entire restaurant closes down 4 weeks a year so that the employees can go on a spiritual retreat.  The spiritual backbone of the eatery is reflected in the interior decor as well, which consists of bright, clean colors, sparkly wind chimes, and cheerful paintings of birds everywhere from the ceiling to the awning.  As the inside was a bit cramped, Brandy chose a seat on the patio, where she could relax beneath a tree and listen to the wind rustling its leaves.

For starters she ordered a Mango Lasse, a traditional Indian drink consisting of mango and yogurt, with a consistency similar to a smoothie.  The result was thick and rich in mango flavor, though perhaps a little short on portion.

The menu proudly boasts of house made everything, from the pesto to the whipped cream, countered with organic free range eggs and fresh fruit juices.  Brandy chose something sweet and something savory to sample; the Curry Omelet and the Award Winning French Toast ("Funny, I didn't see a plaque from the International French Toast Society on the way in," Brandy commented).

The French Toast, though a little plainly presented, came served with a fabulous peach butter to liven it up.  The toast was thick cut, soft, and eggy, but flavor wise a bit unremarkable, except for the aforementioned butter and the some real maple syrup, which had been provided to every table.  A few pieces of fruit would have done wonders for the taste and the plating.

The Curry Omelet, which was stuffed with mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, and apple chutney, was a strange combination of flavors at first, but Brandy grew to enjoy it more with each bite.  The Curry was present, but no over powering, and turned sweet along with the tomatoes and onions once the apple chutney was introduced., leaving the mushrooms as the odd man out.  The potatoes that came served on the side of the omelet were sadly overcooked and flavorless, despite their enticing appearance.

Full of food and bliss, Brandy left the friendly staff at Victory's Banner with a new found feeling contentment.  Though not the most impressive or inventive dishes are to be found there, the food is most definitely made with love and care, which is more than evident.  And so for now we wish you all Namaste.

The Short and Sweet Review

Victory's Banner on Urbanspoon

Friday, September 2, 2011

Bistrot Margot or Old French Quarter

The Slow and Savory Review

"Old Lady Chic" they call it, this trend of young hip people doing things like knitting, wearing over sized spectacles, drinking Side Cars and Lime Gimlets, or listening to Glen Miller and Frank Sinatra.  Brandy has never trusted this trend, suspecting that these young people may just be making fun of their elders or "appreciating them ironically," as she was lead to believe by a group of hipsters she once encountered.  "We take up knitting when we're old because we can," she always says, "Being young is the time for doing daring and stupid things, not making ill fitting jumpers."

It was this annoyance with all things old and fashionable that lead Brandy to seek out a more traditional brunch destination, namely Bistrot Margot in Old Town, which promised the most traditional of French cuisine.  Although a lovely sidewalk porch had been set up, Brandy chose a table indoors among the red accented wallpaper, the dark wood fixtures, and the white linen tables.  She was glad to see the interior was fairly well spaced, though some tables seemed to allow for more room than others.

Right at the start she was brought some rather unremarkable bread and butter by the prompt, but unfriendly staff, which did not bode well for a lady who is used to more exciting fair like scones and banana bread to start off her brunch.  She ordered one of her favorites, French Onion Soup (though the writer of the menu had decided to list it as the hopelessly pretentious "SOUPE A L´OIGNON LYONNAISE."  As Brandy always says, "Making something French doesn't add class, it simply confuses the English.")  The soup itself was very good and sweeter than expected, though she did wish she had been given a bigger garlicky crouton, as the one she had only lasted about two bites.

For her entree, Brandy chose to honor her dear Bunny and order a trio of Benedicts, which included a traditional one with Canadian Bacon, a nouveau one with Smoked Salmon, and a reinvented one with spinach and artichoke, all served with green beans and potatoes.  The traditional Benedict was just that... very traditional with a well poached egg, grilled meat, and light hollendaise.  The salmon one had a lovely smokey flavor, but was otherwise again very traditional.  The standout for Brandy was the spinach and artichoke, although she found the spinach mixture a little dry and the artichoke slightly cold and oddly tasting of liquorish.  The potatoes also had an odd sweetness that wasn't entirely unwelcome, and the green beans if not for being salty would have been fairly bland.

For dessert Brandy picked a terrine of chocolate, espresso, and raspberries.  The chocolate itself was fudgey, rather like a flourless chocolate cake, and the raspberries in the middle were brilliantly bright and zippy.  The only two disappointments in the dish were that 1) there was really no espresso flavor to be found, and 2) the whipped cream on the plate seemed to be from a can.  Hardly a French tradition.

By the end of this traditional meal, Brandy began to think the young might not be so bad.  "Old Lady Chic" and "Traditional French Cuisine" have their place in sentimentality, but there is a lot to be said for the new, the different, and the breaking of traditions.  Onto greener pastures, as they say.

The Short and Sweet Review

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