Friday, December 28, 2012

Nightmare Before Christmas: Guest Cheffing at ING

Twas a few weeks before Christmas
And all through the city
People were filled with holiday spirit
Except for one little old bitty.

With friends scattered to the wind
Brandy felt lonely.
"What I need's a jet," she thought,
"A private one...if only."

"I'd love to join in with
All this Christmas cheer,
But Chicago's for the young,
As I've learned over the years.

"I can't go to the zoo,"
Brandy thought aloud,
"The lights are too bright
And the children too loud.

"I can't go to Kindlemart
Where the tourists all bunch.
Oh, if only I could convince
Homaro Cantu to serve brunch!"

She puzzled and puzzed,
'Till she remembered a post...
Had she seen it on Facebook,
Or perhaps a Twitter riposte?

"Need help in the kitchens?"
She tweeted ING one day
"I'm bored and I want to
Learn how to filet."

Miracle of miracles,
She got a reply!
"How's about Saturday?
Feel free to come by!"

And so to ING she did ride
To help them prepare
Their seasonal menu
Themed on Tim Burton's Nightmare

She was dressed to the nines
In her shabby-chef-chic best
And was given a white coat
To fit in with the rest.

They served her a staff meal
Home made earlier that day
She broke bread with the chefs
While chatting away.

Then off to the kitchen
To start up the prep
They built every dish
Step by detailed step.

She watched them braise octopus
For a dramatic first dish
With smoke, mushrooms, and bao bun
It was simply delish!

A fall flavored offering
Was plated up next
Three bits of sweet potato
With flavors complex.

Then came a skeletal hand
Which held some pork belly
"Well that's something you'd never see
At a butcher or deli!"

A beaker of soup topped with
Root vegetable chip
Made a warm, spicy mix
For Brandy to sip.

A crunchy frog's leg
And the meat of an ox
Wasn't her favorite
But was out of the box!

She helped peel the duck eggs
For a deviled delight
The first part of five holidays
Each distilled to one bite.

A sour snowman
Made of limes and some gin
Turned sweet with a miracle berry,
To make dessert free of sin!

A small fire was lit
With chestnuts and spices
To enhance bread pudding and ice cream
One of Brandy's favorite vices.

Death by chocolate was next
In the form of a casket
Gingerbread and mulberry
Were heaven in a hand basket.

Lastly more chocolate
But gelled with persimmons
All wrapped up like presents
With edible ribbons.

Let's not forget
The beverages served
Like hard cider with tea
Or mix your own eggnog (the nerve!)

By the end of the day
Poor Brandy was stuffed
But new friends had been made
And for her, that's enough.

And so back outside
To the let real chefs start service
(They were shockingly organized
And not at all nervous)
"At least if the world ends,"
She thought with a smile,
"I'll have had a nice dinner
That was certainly worthwhile."

And you too, dear reader
Can sample these treats
For just one more weekend,
So get out there and eat!

Ing Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Friday, December 21, 2012

Small Bar Division or The Un-ironic Irony

The Slow and Savory Review

We've spoken previously about Brandy's confusion with that race of young people known as "Hipsters."  The black glasses wearing, vintage band t-shirt sporting, extreme facial hair touting, PBR drinking, denizens of everything thrift, obscure, and ironic.  "First of all, no American has any idea what irony is," Brandy says, "Secondly, in my day you didn't just walk around with the same facial hair as Kaiser Willhelm unless you wanted to get a good kick up the jacksy."  

The lair of the urban hipster, the faux dive bar, is also of confusion to Brandy.  "It used to be that bars were just that; bars.  You'd have one long counter from which the bartender would operate, maybe a few tables and chairs, always made out of hard wood, the television would be playing a good old footy game," by that Brandy means football in the European sense of the word, "And the walls would be hung not with odd things for the sake of it, but with things the bar owner himself found significant, like an old trophy for dart throwing or the oars of the boat his Grandfather used to take him fishing in."  It seems that every time Brandy walks into a bar these days, it has purposely eclectic lighting fixtures, annoyingly odd chachkies behind the bar, or signed tour posters of bands no one has ever heard of, and it is for that reason that she had somewhat given up her old custom of going for a pint during the dark winter evenings.

While Christmas shopping one Sunday afternoon in Wicker Park, Brandy crossed over into the mecca for hipsters, Ukrainian Village, quite by mistake after she lost her way while trying to send a text through a pager from 1993.  Looking up and finding herself surrounded by flannel shirts, floppy hats, and stores showing the covers of some strange publications called "graphic novels," Brandy quickly took refuge in the first eatery she came across, in order to get her barrings.  The eatery just so happened to be Small Bar on Division, which immediately had Brandy glancing around in awe.  "A real bar...can it be?" she whispered to herself as she looked from the television showing a live soccer game to the heavy wood tables, to the un-ironicly decorated walls.  Before she knew it, she was seated at a table by the window as the nice young bartender poured a glass of water and presented her with a menu.

One cocktail caught Brandy's eye right away; The Moondance, which was a combination of black tea infused tequila, cherry wood vanilla bitters, and a muddled orange peel, among other delicious things.  The drink was oddly refreshing and deeply flavored at the same time, with a sweet and smokey finish.  Brandy wondered at the infused tequila, thinking it tasted almost more like whiskey.

To start off her meal, she ordered a slice of Coffee Cake, which came hot to the table with a slab of cinnamon butter melting away on top of it.  The cake was rich and buttery, very moist and with plenty of spice from the cinnamon.  The outside had a perfect sort of crunch that made Brandy smile to herself, thinking that this was truly the definition of comfort food.

Next came a side of Creamy Yellow Polenta, topped off with some chopped chives.  Being used to seeing cheesy grits on menus across Chicagoland, this was a welcome change.  The polenta was soft, creamy, smooth, and had a good fresh bite from the chives.

For her main course, Brandy chose the BLT and Fried Egg.  This twist on the classic sandwich included shredded lettuce, garlic aioli, and tomato jam as well as the usual suspects.  Brandy was in love at first bite.  The bacon was crisp without being greasy, the bread soft without falling apart, the shredded lettuce added a good bit of texture, and the tomato jam was sweet and just generally delicious.  All of this perfection was topped off by the richness of the fried egg, creating what Brandy deemed to be the best BLT she'd ever eaten.  On the side were some really nicely done potatoes, which were crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, and had a very pleasant flavor that was all at once salty, herbaceous, and buttery without being oily.

As a yellow flag was thrown down on the field of the game on the television, Brandy tossed down about $30 for her brunch and left Small Bar with a great sigh of relief.  Encountering a group of hipsters on her way out, she grabbed one of them by the shoulder, pointed him at the bar and said, "Listen to me, sonny Jim, you go in there with your friends right now.  This is what a real bar looks like, you see.  Now go on in, and woe betide you if you dare try to appreciate it ironically!"

The Short and Sweet Review

Small Bar on Urbanspoon

Friday, December 14, 2012

Lula Cafe or Home of the Haute Made

The Slow and Savory Review

Its a funny old world, this.  At the beginning of the 20th century, it was all industrial this and mass produced that.  The life of instant and convenient, in a sense the push button ideal of the 1950's, was what once was accepted and appreciated, especially when it came to food.  Open a can and instant side dish.  Throw a frozen bag of food into the microwave and you have pasta for two.  And then there's the worst perpetrator of all: instant coffee.  But it seems that, as every generation rebels against the previous one, we are now moving towards a more handmade, home grown, and artisan existence.  This is an age where the spice rubs in your cabinet have all been hand blended, the wine in your glass was cultivated by a tiny vineyard in Virginia, and even your coffee's package tells you what specific farm in which part of the world harvested the beans.

Brandy, in fact, is all for the artisan movement, so much so that she makes everything herself that is humanly possible.  Toothpaste?  Home made with baking soda, salt, and peppermint extract.  Shampoo? Some essential oils, soap, and beer.  Her candles are hand poured, her throws crocheted, her pillows embroidered, and even her furniture has been carefully hand crafted (from broken bits of other furniture.  "Nothing can break because its already broken," as Brandy likes to say).  So when Brandy got a tip from one of the darling chefs at ING that Lula Cafe was one of his favorite breakfast haunts because of their hand crafted goodness, she just had to check it out.

Lula Cafe, being one of the most well known brunch spots in all of Chicago, had been a place Brandy kept putting off visiting for quite some time ("I would rather create the fashions than wear them," as she puts it).  The inside of Lula Cafe did nothing to squelch their hip reputation: industrial chic tin ceilings and exposed duct work were matched with dusky wall colors and some modern looking black and white textured paintings.  The first room was open and sunny with a long bar and a few tables, while the back was a little more cramped and dark, but still comfortable enough.

Brandy started off with a cup of Spiked Hot Ginger Apple Cider.  Her casually dressed young waiter smiled knowingly at her order and said, "Good choice."  The drink arrived in no time, presented in a clear mug that showed off its buttery color.  The drink had a bitter bite to it at first, but a nice sweet finish, and was generally light and warming.

The menu did indeed boast many in-house made items, especially the side dishes like made-from-scratch varieties of sausages and jams. For a little snack before the main event, Brandy scanned the list of pastries (made fresh in house every day of course), which came in three varieties.  First there was the Apple and Goat Cheddar Crostatta, a lovely little open faced tart filled with baked apples and topped with a fine shred of cheese.  Brandy found the crust nice and flaky and the apples a little sweeter than anticipated, but nicely balanced by the mildly salty cheese.  Next was the Chestnut and Chocolate Scone.  Being an expert on scones, Brandy thought the texture had been nailed: crunchy and caramelized on the outside, soft, crumbly, and moist on the inside (so moist in fact that Brandy all but ignored the made in house butter that had been provided).  The chocolate was a nice rich touch, not adding too much sweetness, but the chestnuts seemed to add an odd sort of brininess that wasn't entirely pleasant.  Lastly was the Smoked Pecan Sticky Bun.  Brandy just loved the smokey nuts that topped the rich caramel sauce and the buttery pastry, devouring the whole pastry before she even realized it.

Her main course consisted of the Tofu and Vegetable Scramble, here served with potatoes and sourdough toast (which Brandy suspected was also made in house).  The potatoes, though very well seasoned with herbs, were a bit too oily for Brandy's taste (she usually prefers a crisper spud).  The scramble (or stir-fry, which is more what it resembled) was coated in a rather tangy miso black sesame sauce that Brandy had thought at first glance was going to be spicy  but really wasn't.  Brandy did find the mix of vegetables fresh, crisp, and a good contrast to the soft tofu.

For such an artisan brunch a price of about $30 is pretty fair, and with excellent service from the flock of young and attentive waiters, Lula Cafe's reputation held up on that day.  With a belly full of hand crafted goodness, Brandy set off for home to pour some bars of soap and finish knitting scarves for various Christmas presents.

The Short and Sweet Review

Lula Cafe on Urbanspoon

Friday, December 7, 2012

Glazed and Infused or The Eight Donuts of Hannukah

The Slow and Savory Review

*We apologize for the lack of pictures in this post.  A technological demon seems to have gotten the better of us.
As we are sure you can probably tell by now, Brandy has quite the diverse circle of friends, and not just here in Chicago, but all over the world.  Though not what some would think of as a people person, Brandy's unique charm seems not to be in her considerate nature, but rather in the fact that she makes a world class drinking partner for almost anyone, any time, any where.  "Just goes to show you," Brandy likes to say, "You get more flies with honey than with vinegar, but you get even more with a glass of wine."  In fact, there's not many people who have gone toe to toe with Brandy at a bar and lived to tell the tale.  

But as with every rule, there is always an exception, and in this case, the exception was one Mr. Goldman, who Brandy came across in a hotel bar one late night in 1949.  The two began chatting away over Manhattans, then conversed over cosmos, and finally philosophized over some sherry.  Brandy had finally hit her limit, but didn't want the young man to know it, so when he ordered one final drink for them, a glass of kosher wine (it was the first night of Hanukkah and Mr. Goldman wanted to toast) she knocked it back as quickly as she could.  The following morning when she was roused from her position of sleeping at the bar by the concierge, she discovered a smugly smiling Mr. Goldman descending the grand stair case, adjusting a flawless suit jacket, a twinkle in his bespectacled eyes.  "You owe me a Hanukkah present," he told the bleary eyed Brandy.  "What now?" she slurred.  "You promised last night that if you went to sleep before I did, you would buy me a Hanukkah present every year for the rest of your life.  And now I would like to claim my prize."  Begrudgingly, Brandy bought the smiling man a packet of postcards from the hotel gift shop and, never one to go back on a promise (even one she didn't remember making) she exchanged contact information with him so that she would know where to reach him the following year.

Back to the present and with Hanukkah fast approaching, Brandy was on the hunt for a good present for Mr. Goldman, having settled on finding him a traditional Hanukkah treat, like doughnuts.  Her search brought her to one of the many branches of Glazed and Infused, the made-from-scratch gourmet doughnut sellers who have invaded Chicagoland with their unique take on the fried ring of dough.  Approaching the store front in the West Loop neighborhood, Brandy could already smell the deliciousness inside, and upon entering she was confronted with rows and rows of doughnuts on sheets, laid out on the counter.  A helpful and smiling girl greeted her and asked if she could help, to which an over whelmed Brandy responded, "Just give me one of everything."  "Sure thing," the shop girl said, "We've got eight flavors left, is that ok?  We usually have 12-14 flavors, but we've already sold out of a few.  It always just depends on how crazy the morning is."  In the end, Brandy decided on a full dozen, doubling up on some of the more interesting looking flavors, which set her back just over $35.  Though rather pricey for doughnuts in Brandy's opinion, she conceded that with their massive size, these delights were probably more suited to having one or two fresh ones at a time with a good cup of coffee, rather than taking a dozen to go.

Though she had originally bought the tasty treats for her dear friend Mr. Goldman, once home, Brandy could not resist doing a little sampling.  First, she tried the Chocolate Mint Cake Doughnut.  The pasty was very soft with a smaller crumb to it.  Brandy didn't find it particularly chocolaty, but did like the smooth mint flavor from the topping.

The Chocolate Chip Cookie was a good homage to its baked name sake.  This delivered more of a chocolate punch than the previous doughnut, having large chips both on the inside and outside of the pastry.

Brandy had to giggle when she saw the Maple Bacon Long John, a massive slab of yeast dough drenched in a maple glaze and topped with a single strip of bacon. She very much enjoyed that the bacon was heavily peppered, which contrasted nicely with the almost too sweet glaze, and the doughnut itself had a good chewiness to it.

The Salted Caramel Doughnut was a bit of a disappointment in that it didn't really taste of salt or caramel.  Instead, it reminded Brandy of a caramel apple, being an apple spice cake covered in a thin layer of caramel and coated in toasty chopped peanuts.

Brandy's favorite of the bunch was probably the Creme Brulee, which resembled a traditional Bavarian cream doughnut, except that instead of being covered in sugar, the top had literally been bruleed to a beautiful golden color. It even broke just like the top of a creme brulee when Brandy bit into it. The dense vanilla custard inside was so tightly packed that it tried to make its escape through the bottom of the soft yeast doughnut, forcing Brandy to turn it over and eat the rest of the thing upside down.

The Classic Old Fashioned had an incredible, but subtle spice to it.  The inside was moist and heavy like the other cake doughnuts, but the outside had a good crunch to it, both from the fried dough and the vanilla bean glaze.

Next was the Carrot Cake. This one consisted of a spiced cake, topped off with a cream cheese frosting, walnuts, and candied pieces of carrots. Brandy had never had candied carrots before, but she rather liked these ones, and especially loved the thick and creamy frosting that topped the dense cake.

Last of all was the Bourbon Egg Nog, a cream filled yeast doughnut that was similar to the Creme Brulee, but this time flavored with the aforementioned holiday beverage and covered in white sugar.  After one bite, Brandy experienced a similar problem as the cream came through the bottom of the doughnut, but she wasn't about to waste one tiny bit of that deliciously egg-noggy concoction and once again flipped over the doughnut to solve the problem.

Once Brandy was done "sampling" the doughnuts she had gotten for Mr. Goldman, only four of the duplicate flavors remained.  "Well, I guess it was a good thing they ran out of a few flavors," Brandy mused to herself, "Or Mr. Goldman would be having a very sad Hanukkah indeed."

The Short and Sweet Review

Glazed & Infused on Urbanspoon