Friday, May 25, 2012

Postcards from Bunny

Greetings dear readers!  We have a very special post indeed for you today.  Recently, Bunny, who was preparing for a journey to visit the Yoshinogari excavation site in Japan, had just enough time to stop over in Chicago for a little sit down chat with world famous chef and Chicago treasure, Takashi Yagihashi. 

Bunny met with Chef Takashi on a lovely Saturday afternoon before he did a cooking demo at Macy's on State Street as part of their Pacific Asian Heritage Month celebrations.  Firstly, Bunny gushed over the brunch she and Brandy once shared at Chef Takashi's flagship restaurant in Bucktown.  Interestingly, the Chef told Bunny that his signature Sunday Noodle Lunch was first conceived by one of his servers.  "We noticed diner service on Sundays was slowing down a bit," Takashi explained, "So to make up for it, we decided to start doing a sort of brunch.  But there are also a lot of other really good restaurants in the Bucktown area doing really good brunches, and I didn't want to do it unless I had something different to offer.  One of my servers suggested we do the big bowls of ramen and the noodles, because I loved them so much.  So we started doing that and it turned out really good.  I think people like it."  The chef flashed Bunny a smile that made her dainty heart flutter a bit.
Next, Bunny asked Chef Takashi what he liked to eat for breakfast.  He described an occasion when he and his family were staying in a very nice hotel in Japan and had ordered a room service breakfast.  The family were presented with a tray laden down with bowls: bowls with rice, bowls with smoked salmon, bowls of pickled vegetables and dried seaweed, pickled prawns, miso soup, and many other condiments.  Chef Takashi described his children's reaction to this bounty as being one of surprise.  "They didn't know where to start," he laughed.

Chef Takashi also gave Bunny the inside scoop on his newest venture, Slurping Turtle, a sort of Japanese styled gastro-pub/tapas bar, designed to sucker in hungry Downtown workers who want a little something before they go home for dinner.  He mentioned a bevy of small plates like sashimi, dumplings, and other cold appetizers, along with delectable sounding desserts like macaroons and cream puffs with Japanese flavors like green tea, red bean, and raspberry wasabi.

After their little chat, Bunny had the privilege to sit in on a cooking demo that Chef Takashi did for an eager crowd at Macy's. As a member of Macy's Culinary Council, along with other famed chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, Cat Cora, and Chicago's own Rick Bayless among others, Chef Takashi has contributed not only to the brilliant Seven on State food court, but also to a holiday themed cook book sold exclusively at Macy's. The dishes he prepared that day included a Grilled Salmon and Cold Noodle Salad, Japanese style Fried Chicken with Spicy Asian Slaw, and a ramen dish with Seafood and Crispy Noodles (some of these recipes can be found in Chef Takashi's own cookbook, Noodles). She promised us that every one of these dishes was simply marvelous.

And so, Bunny set off on yet another one of her adventures into a far away land, but this time with a very helpful culinary heads up from the wonderful, humble, funny, and quite handsome Chef Takashi.

Where to enjoy Chef Takashi's Food:
Takashi- Bucktown
Seven on State- Macy's on State Street
Slurping Turtle- the Loop
*The writers of this blog have been compensated by Everywhere Society for the information contained in this post, but the opinions stated were not influenced.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Waffles or Nooks and Grannies

The Slow and Savory Review
Some may not realize the amount of passionate debate something like breakfast can initiate.  Sweet or savory?  Mimosa or Bloody Mary?  Fruit cup or potatoes?  Even if the debate is with one's self, it can still get pretty heated.  But there is one debate, perhaps more than any other, that can drive people to acts of war: Waffles.  This debate used to be restricted to the streets of Europe, but with recent demands by the American public for more authentic experiences in their food, it has crossed the seas and oceans to reach our shores.  No, we don't mean waffles vs. pancakes, or even what to top a waffle with.    What's the big deal about waffles you ask?  It is this: Brussels vs. Liege.  Crispy or chewy?  Meal or snack?  Sickly sweet or slightly bready?

This problem has been confounded by a newish breakfast spot in Chicago's South Loop simply called Waffles, where not only do they offer both Brussels and Liege waffles, but also sweet and savory options, making the choice all that more difficult. Brandy invited along her old pal Bailey Blue, who, along with her brother Hawke, has started a blog of her own, concentrating on reviewing the deliciousness of hard cider. The space that holds Waffles is quite extraordinary, with extremely high ceilings and dining areas squished into every corner. The walls are painted a very industrial grey, but patches of bright orange and yellow seem to liven the place up. As a cheerful girl lead them to their table, Brandy took note of the orange juice machine (loaded with fresh oranges, ready to be squeezed) and the stools at the bar, that enabled diners to watch as their food was prepared.

The party began by sharing one of the specialty waffles, the Red Velvet. Coming to the table, the dish certainly did look impressive, with its bright red hue and mound of whipped cream cheese. "Dessert as breakfast, what could be better?" Bailey beamed. But sadly, the waffle did not deliver that hard-to-get-right taste central to a red velvet cake. "You always have to look for a slight tanginess that comes from the vinegar," Brandy instructed them. Though the waffle had a lovely texture, being crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside, Brandy suggested they might take the red food dye out of the equation and bill this dish as a Strawberry Cheesecake Waffle instead, as the strawberry compote on top was the most forward flavor in the dish.

Hawke chose a custom omelet for his entree, stuffed with sausage, mushroom, and cheddar.  Though a generous size, the omelet was pretty standard with the eggs being nicely thin and the stuffing full to the brim.  The potatoes on the other hand turned out to be a pleasant surprise.  "These must be reds," Hawke (a known authority on produce) mused, pushing one with his fork, "They have a brilliant creamy interior, but they've also got a nice crunch on the outside.  And the seasoning is spot on."

Bailey went for one of the other waffle confections, a Green Tea Waffle.  While having the same texture as the Red Velvet, the Green Tea flavor was more present, though subtle.  Although the menu had mentioned a second flavor of lemon, Bailey couldn't really detect it.

Brandy went a more savory route, selecting the Cheddar and Short Rib Waffle.  This waffle's texture was the same as the others, but this time it had shredded cheddar mixed into the batter, which made it almost taste like a biscuit.  The meat under neither the waffle was very tender and flavored with a sort of salty sauce that was very pleasant.

Finishing up, the trio sampled a Hot Chocolate Flight, which the waitress had suggested was better as a dessert than a beverage to enjoy with a meal.  The flight consisted of three flavors: Dark Chocolate, Caramel, and Peppermint.  The peppermint was probably their least favorite of the bunch, having an odd artificial taste and being weirdly topped with peanut butter cookie crumbs.  In the middle was the Dark Chocolate, which while lovely, was pretty much standard hot chocolate (hot being the operative word, as the whipped cream on top had rendered the drink tepid).  The best was the caramel, which had a slightly salty taste, though most of the flavor seemed to be in the topping.

The great waffle debate may not have been solved that day, but at least Brandy had found a place where a productive discourse could be conducted in future.  The service was friendly enough, though the table did seem to be forgotten when it came time for the hot chocolate, and the prices seemed a tad steep ($20 for an entree and hot chocolate flight alone), but the unusual choices will keep Brandy returning to sample every waffle on the menu until the Brussels vs. Liege debate is finally resolved.

The Short and Sweet Review

Waffles on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 11, 2012

Milk and Honey Cafe or Pay it Before-ward

The Slow and Savory Review

Having grown up in a sleepy sea-side British village, Brandy never has been one for the hustle and bustle of American living, especially big city living like in Chicago.  To most people rushing to and fro, Brandy may seem to be moving in slow motion, wandering her way down a side walk, smelling flowers, petting dogs, or simply stopping to take in the smell of cooking food from a sidewalk bistro.  And perhaps, in Brandy's opinion, those people are missing out on the simpler things in life.

It was during one of her strolls on a sunny spring day that Brandy came across Milk and Honey Cafe in Wicker Park.  The beautiful sidewalk seating caught her attention first, and the line of people waiting inside the door (on a weekday morning no less) made her curious.  Joining the line, she realized what was going on: in this particular place, it seemed that one orders at a counter first, pays, then gets seated and presented with food.  At first, this made Brandy a little miffed.  "They're rushing it!" she thought, "If they're rushing brunch, what point is there in the rest of the day?"  Regardless of her irritation, she placed an order with a cheerful, yet slightly frazzled looking young lady, paid, picked up some silverware, and seated herself.

The interior of the place was sunny and warm, with happy, muted colors, and tiny touches to make it feel clean and comfortable.  The spacing of the tables was good, but Brandy could see in her mind's eye how packed it might get on weekends.
First to the table was her Chai Tea Latte.  Oddly, the biggest size available came in a to-go cup (which after all might have been for convenience's sake so that patrons wishing to take the rest of their drink with them after they finish their meal aren't forced to ask the busy worker's for a cup).  Brandy found the drink to be sweet and thick with not too much spice.

To start with, Brandy dined on the Grilled Panini, a sandwich filled with scrambled eggs, bacon, cheese, an tomato.  The eggs were light and fluffy, the cheese melty, and the bacon smokey, though Brandy wished it had been a it more crisp.  A large slice of tomato turned out to be the most disappointing part, as it was incredibly watery and flavorless.  "This needs a nice juicy beefsteak, or some heirloom variety," Brandy thought to herself as she pulled the offending vegetable from her sandwich.  The potato chips served on the side, which were topped with flaked salt, seemed to have been made in house and had a lovely crunch.

To finish up, Brandy sampled the Waffle of the Day, Blueberry and Cinnamon.  The molasses colored outside of the waffle implied the spice, while the oddly, yet whimsically bluish inside showed berries scattered throughout the batter, and the whole thing was topped with some fresh berries and a portion of butter as big as a scoop of ice cream.  Brandy found the outside of the waffle to be lovely and crisp, while the outside was soft and flavorful.  Although the blueberry flavor was more than present, the cinnamon was a bit more difficult to detect.  Brandy especially liked the fact that there seemed to be a fresh blueberry for every bite, though she was a bit sad that the waffle seemed to go a bit soggy towards the end (and that is with a minimal amount of syrup).

Although Milk and Honey Cafe's practice of "Pay First, Eat After" at first seemed odd to Brandy, in the end she rather liked the fact that there wasn't any waiter hovering near her, waiting to give her a check (or the reverse, a waiter who seemed to have disappeared).  And so, full of a rather hearty breakfast, which at a cost of just about $20 all said and done put things on the upper side of average, Brandy one again wandered off down the road in search of roses to smell.

The Short and Sweet Review

Milk and Honey Cafe on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 4, 2012

Frog N Snail or The Bold and the Beautiful

The Slow and Savory Review
There are not many who would describe Brandy as being subtle.  Those around her have gotten fairly used to Brandy constantly causing heads to turn over anything from her brassy style choices to her sassy mouth.  But it's never seemed to bother Brandy, no matter how many gasps she elicited or how many stuffed shirts she ruffled (as proof of Brandy's unique ability to amaze and annoy people of all creeds and backgrounds, while strolling through an Occupy Chicago protest, she dropped a one liner that somehow managed to offend both the protesters and policemen.  No one is sure exactly what was said, all that is known is that she was threatened with liable suits from both parties).  Such is the burden of Brandy to bare. 

It was her admiration for all things brazen that lead Brandy, and her infamous companion Mama Bee (owner and operator of Honey Bee Bakery and devoted honey advocate) to check out Lakeview's newest (and we mean brand new, as in opened in March 2012) hot spot, Frog n Snail, pet project of Top Chef alum Dale Levitski.  This little jewel calls itself a "Midwestern Bistro," serving familiar comfort food with a heavy twist of French cuisine.  Brandy was intrigued by the tales of a baker working through the night to have fresh pastries ready to go for the morning's "cafe" service (which starts at 9:00am every day and continues until dinner service) and the one of a kind beverage offerings, so she knew this would be the perfect place to take a celebrity like Mama Bee.

Having been familiar with the space's previous incarnation (a failed Thai restaurant called Sura, a favorite of Biscuit and Birdie Brown) Brandy couldn't help but appreciate the transformation.  The front bar and coffee station mirrored a few high tables and chairs in the only sunny spot of the restaurant, but going deeper in, one is greeted with the warm wood table tops and friendly color and textile choices (sage green, chocolate brown, and a buttery yellow, with sparkling cork overlays on the walls).  "Reminds me of my very own living room!" Mama Bee exclaimed, "I chose these exact colors because they're calming to bees."  "Aren't bees color blind?" Brandy asked.  Mama Bee brushed this inquiry off and took her seat at the table.  Although the back portion of the restaurant was a bit dark, due to lack of sunlight, Brandy thought a good job had been done of adding warmth via the lighting.

The women were presented with two menus, the Cafe menu featuring the aforementioned beverage and pastry choices, as well as a few breakfast-y sounding plated dishes, and the Lunch menu, with more traditional entrees on offer.  They decided to start off with drinks: for Mama Bee, a Peppermint Mocha, and for Brandy, a steamed milk concoction flavored with strawberry, coconut, and elderberry.  Mama Bee took one sip of her coffee, and a slow smile spread across her face.  "It's got just the perfect little hint of mint," she said, "Not too sweet, so it still tastes like its meant for an adult.  This would go perfectly with my special honey shortbread biscuits!"  Brandy also deeply enjoyed her beverage, which had a light, flowery flavor.  The drinks were so delightful that once she had finished her first one, Brandy ordered another, a Cinnamon Malt Latte, a combination that seemed strange at first, but was ultimately warm and delicious.  "It's nice to have a spiced drink that doesn't remind one of Christmas," Brandy said, "The malt almost makes me think of an old soda fountain shake.  Ah, those were the days..." and she trailed off into nostalgia.

To start with, the pair split an order of the Peach and Mushroom Crepes, such an odd sounding combination that it had to be sampled.  What they got was a gutsy blend of flavors and textures: sweet, almost tart peach slices, buttery, crisp crepes, earthy mushrooms, creamy goat cheese, fresh arugula, and a little crunch from tiny cauliflower florets.  All in all, an odd combo indeed, but an ultimately successful one.

For her entree, Brandy originally ordered the Sweet Pea Risotto Cake, but sadly was told that the kitchen was waiting on the ingredients to make the day's batch, so she instead she settled on the Beef Hodgepodge sandwich.  This ingenious idea for using trimmings from some of the more formal cuts of of beef on the menu (shortrib, New York strip steak, and ribeye) came with crisp veggies like carrots, bean sprouts, and baby bok choi on a soft, freshly baked bun, accompanied by some jus for dipping, house made pickled veggies, and a heap of spiced French fries.  The sandwich itself was almost more like a stir fry, and was so juicy that the soft bread was soon falling apart, causing Brandy to revert to a knife and fork to finish every last tender morsel.  The unusual spice on the fries was almost sweet (possibly from the addition of some sweet paprika).

Mama Bee settled on the Manhattan and Egg, a more sophisticated version of steak and eggs.  The steak itself was tender and succulent, but Mama Bee wasn't quite sure about the very peppery house made Worcestershire.  "It's quite a lingering flavor, isn't it?" she said, mulling over the sweetish sauce, which also covered some fingerling potatoes and assorted veggies.  A few more bites seemed to mellow out the sauce's effect, mixing with the rich yolk of the egg to create more of a velvety balance.

Their very attentive, smiling, and helpful server then surprised Brandy and friend with the aforementioned Sweet Pea Risotto Cake (he told them that one prepped cake had been discovered and he had it brought for them to try).  The cake itself had a wonderful crunch on the outside, and was soft and slightly sweet on the inside.  A lemon cream sauce served to brighten the dish, and a salad of mint and briny ricotta brought delight to Brandy's tongue.  "This is probably the most subtle dish we've tried today," Brandy mused, "Which makes it a nice break from all of these bold flavors."

The ladies couldn't leave without a little dessert, of course.  Mama Bee decided on the Sour Cream Coffee Cake, which was incredibly moist, nutty, and well spiced.  "The sour cream they've topped it with is brilliant," she said, scooping a little onto her fork, "Normally I think the sweeter, the better when it comes to my desserts, but I love the tartness in this."

Brandy opted for the Passion Fruit Cups, two very large pastry shells filled with passion fruit puree, pastry cream, and fresh berries.  Brandy was slightly overwhelmed by the size of the dish, as just one of the cups would have been sufficient.  The pastry cups were nice and crunchy, with an almost bruleed like texture and taste to them, the berries were beautifully fresh and untouched, and the pastry cream was thick and indulgent.  Brandy's only complaint was the passion fruit itself, which was quite over powering.  She wished it could have been incorporated into the pastry cream somehow to mellow its forwardness.

Brandy and Mama Bee all but waddled out of Frog n Snail, though their wallets were not as empty as one might have thought (three drinks, one split entree, two full entrees, one complimentary entree, and two desserts, plus tax and tip only came out to about $80 for the two of them, an extraordinary feat for such high quality food and generous portions).  Brandy may have found a culinary match for her boldness, as Frog n Snail managed to accomplish something many have tried to do, but very few have succeeded at; the service, surroundings, and sumptuous offerings had left Brandy speechless, and there seems to be no greater compliment than that.

The Short and Sweet Review

Frog n Snail on Urbanspoon