Friday, March 29, 2013

Postcards from Bunny

Greetings friends!  We are delighted to inform you all that our dearest Bunny has once again had an opportunity to stop by Chicago inbetween her latest adventures; uncovering the long lost Temple of Artimis in Athens and cataloging the ancient pottery deposits of Machu Picchu.   A quick lay over at O'Hare provided just enough time for Bunny to stop at Macy's on State Street for another one of their famous Culinary Council cooking demos, this time with brand new inductee to the council and Chicago's favorite girl, Stephanie Izard, winner of Top Chef, James Beard Award nominee, and owner/head chef of two of the most talked about restaurants in town, Girl and the Goat, and her newest venture, the diner inspired Little Goat.

Chef Izard (whose last name comes from a type of French mountain goat, hence the affinity for goats) started the attendees off with a refreshing "mocktail" of blueberry juice, seltzer, and cucumber over ice, then moved on to demo several "flower" inspired dishes, as Macy's was kicking off its annual Flower Show.  First was a homemade Water Cracker, a wafer thin, crispy yet sturdy morsel, which was served with some creamy crab dip.  "The best thing about making a giant cracker is you can eat the whole thing and still say all you had to eat was one cracker," Chef Izard pointed out.  "A woman after my own heart," Bunny sighed.

Next was a Roasted Cauliflower dish ("Cauliflower is a flower too," Chef Izard joked) with pickled peppers, parmesan cheese, and pine nuts.  Bunny especially loved the compound butter used in the dish, which was flavored with garlic and panko bread crumbs, giving the veggies a very subtle, but wonderful crunch.  "We like to put a little crunch in all of our dishes," Chef Izard explained, elaborating that her style of cooking uses lots of bold flavors and layers of texture.

Last but not least was a crepe, made of what was essentially a rice noodle batter, stuffed with shredded goat (Chef Izard pointed out that really anything could serve as a filling for these crepes), and served with a little spring salad of blueberries, raw asparagus, and sunflower seeds in a light vinaigrette.  Bunny absolutely fell in love the crepe, which had a lovely chewy texture.  Luckily, everyone in attendance had been provided with the recipe (and you can find Chef Izard's recipes in her new cookbook, Girl in the Kitchen), so all Bunny had to do was find a propane burner and a frying pan among the rubble of her next dig and she would be able to whip up a batch for Benedict and his excavation crew.

Of course Bunny and had to ask about Chef Izard's favorite breakfast.  "I had half a Powerbar on the way over here, does that count?" she asked.  Eventually, she admitted to loving a good omelet full of fresh ingredients  like raspberries, mint, and goat cheese.  Chef Izard also re-iterated over and over again how important shopping at local farmers markets can be.  "If you don't believe me, try it yourselves," she said, "Get some eggs from your grocery store and compare them with fresh eggs from a local farm and do a taste test at home.  You'll be really surprised at the difference."

And so Bunny was off on her travels once more, with a belly full of deliciousness and a head full of new ideas, thanks to Chef Izard and another wonderful event from the Macy's Culinary Council!

*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, March 22, 2013

Stella's Diner or All in the Family

The Slow and Savory Review

They just don't make diners like they used to.  In days gone by eaters were treated to the delights of home made pie, freshly brewed coffee, and the polite conversation of a sassy waitress from the comfort of their bar stool at the counter or vinyl lined booth, but what with the rise of the gastro pub, the side walk bistro, and the ever popular gourmet coffee bar, it seems the classic diner has been degraded to a place for a greasy late night bite after an evening of binge drinking, or worse, a regional breakfast themed franchise packed with screaming children and grumpy servers.

It was a marathon of 1950's teeny bopper movies that got Brandy all nostalgic for the days of the corner diner.  "There must be a few left out there, " she thought, "Like beautiful old dinosaur bones just waiting to be unearthed."  So she called up her old friend Bailey Blue and proposed an old fashioned diner hunt.  "I want a place that is family owned and operated, a place that has regulars and the waitresses know their orders by heart.  The kind of place that has some outrageously kitschy decoration that would draw your attention from across the street and make you want to find out what exactly is going on inside the building that's sporting it." "Well, there's a diner off Broadway in Lakeview that has a giant plaster fist clutching eating utensils above its door.  Would that do?" Bailey asked thoughtfully.  "Perfect!" Brandy exclaimed.

Arriving at Stella's Diner, Bailey and Brandy found a gorgeous bright and open interior, covered in neon colors and blackboard splashes, showcasing various menu items and specials.  They took a booth at the back corner so as to get a clear view for people watching both the room and the sidewalk outside.  Straight away glasses of water were presented with extensive menus, boasting everything from burgers and sandwiches, to pancakes and french toast, to pasta entrees, and even an entire page of desserts.

Feeling a little naughty, Bailey decided to start with dessert and order a Maria's Mystery Shake, a combination of chocolate and peanut butter topped with whipped cream and a cherry.  The shake had the perfect texture: not so thick that it couldn't be sipped through a straw, but not so thin that it lost its decadence.  Brandy followed suit with a South Beach Shake, an orange creamsicle flavored treat.  The flavor was a bit lighter than Bailey's shake, but just as delightful.

 Bailey eyed up the Vegetable Skillet for her entree, but decided to make the addition of some sausage gravy to it.  She found the eggs to have the perfect density; not too hard and not too fluffy.  The veggies still had a good snap to them and the melted cheese was wonderfully gooey.  The only disappointment was the gravy, which was just a bit thin for her taste.  "As a cream of sausage soup, its lovely," Bailey commented, "But as a gravy its a bit lacking."

Brandy opted for the Garlic Scallion butter Steak Sandwich and a side of handcut fries.  The fries weren't as crisp as Brandy would have liked, but they were plenty flavorful without being greasy.  The sandwich was pretty darn satisfying with the incredibly flavored butter slathered over the top of the perfectly medium rare steak and soaking into the hearty bread bun.  "I'm going to need a bushel of mint to freshen my breath after this thing," Brandy joked.  There was also a small cup of creamy cole slaw and some vegetable offerings for the sandwich on the plate, which Brandy only discovered after devouring the sandwich.  "Do you want your salad to go?" the waitress had joked as the dish was removed.

But the real highlight at Stella's was the service.  The waitresses seemed to know everyone who walked in the door by name, and a few were even brought orders without even having to look at a menu.  And then there was Gus, the owner and patriarch of the operation, who gloried in conversing with guests like they had dropped into his home for a visit and a quick meal.  After noticing Brandy scribbling away on her note pad, he approached her, asking, "Hey writer lady, how do you spell 'precision?'"  After that it was story after story about the gloriously weird antics of his patrons, which Gus felt was more fostered by the diner atmosphere than the surrounding eccentric neighborhood.  He even offered Bailey some business advice on how to start selling some of her original art.

Stella's was just what the doctor ordered: inexpensive, great food, happy atmosphere, and wonderful company, just like the diners of old.  "I'm glad they haven't all died off," Brandy sighed as she and Bailey gazed fondly up at the giant plaster fist, "Just as long as this little jewel doesn't spawn fifty more just like it across the Midwest, I'd be happy to become a regular here."

The Short and Sweet Review

Stella's on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Creperie Saint Germain or Parisian Suburban

The Slow and Savory Review

Brandy has always preferred the hustle and bustle, the neighborhood culture, and the accessibility of living in the big city.  Having also lived in suburbs around the world, she finds them too quiet, too sprawling, and just too, well, normal to stay in for long.  So it is unsurprising that ever since moving to Chicago, Brandy has had little occasion (or interest, to be honest) in exploring the suburbs.  "I moved here to get a taste of city life, not suburban normalcy," she says, "If I wanted the suburbs, I'd watch a David Lynch movie."

This is maybe why it was so surprising to her when one of her most fashionable friends, Baranina, world famous Polish pop star, called her up one day and invited her to brunch in Evanston.  "I've been stuck in a hotel here while my private jet is fixed and I've been exploring the area.  I think there's some things you're missing out on," she told Brandy.  Loath to miss the short window of time her friend was in the area, Brandy relented and met the young singer for a bit of a wander about.  Brandy immediately had her big city nose in the air, looking at the all of the chain stores along Sherman Avenue.  "But they have most of these stores in downtown Chicago, don't they?" Baranina asked.  "Yes, but they aren't so... conventional."  Conversation soon turned to European travel, as which Brandy cheered greatly.  "I do miss Paris," she sighed, "Especially the creperies."  "Isn't that a creperie over there?" Baranina pointed out.  Brandy raised an eyebrow and crossed the street in great interest to Creperie Saint Germain.

Upon entering, the two ladies found a small but quaint restaurant with dim lighting and a giant map of the Paris subway system on the right hand wall.  A cheerful server approached them straight away with menus and water glasses, letting them know that all of the entrees served were made with delicate organic buckwheat crepes. The ladies took their time browsing the menu and in the end, decided on sharing a few dishes that sounded too delicious to be eaten alone.

They started off with some Sweet Potato Gnocci, a plate of brilliant orange dumplings, mushrooms, and brussel sprouts served over a butternut squash puree and topped with Parmesan cheese.  The warming dish in front of them was the perfect counterpart to the gloomy day outside, combining traditionally fall flavors (Brandy's favorites) and textures.  The mushrooms were thinly sliced and succulent, the brussel sprouts crisp and flavorful, and the gnocci had a delightfully irregular shape and chewy texture.

Next they picked the Coq Au Van Crepe, a traditional stew like French dish with chicken and vegetables, cooked with red wine and herbs.  The buckwheat crepe, was incredibly thin and delicate, had a brilliant earthy flavor that matched perfectly with the rich filling.  Though the chicken was a little on the dry side, the vibrant gravy did wonders for it, and the vegetables had somehow retained some of their textural integrity.

The desserts were too diverse and delicious sounding to share, so each lady got their own.  Baranina sided with the Nutella Crepe, which she customized with strawberry preserves and a scoop of Dulce De Leche ice cream.  The dessert crepe, which was made with organic wheat flour as opposed to the buckwheat savory crepes, was just as beautifully thin, but this time a little more chewy and with perfectly caramelized edges.  The hazelnut cream that was drizzled over the top was countered nicely by the bright berries and the ice cream made it all that much more decedent.

Brandy went with something called The Myrtille,a slice of layered crepes sandwiching rich mascarpone cheese and topped with blueberry coulis.  Brandy really loved the juicy pop of the berries along with the creamy sweetened cheese and slightly chewy crepes.  "It's almost like a cake, but an incredibly delicate cake made from the interior buttery layers of a croissant!" was the only way Brandy could describe the dish.

After all was said and done, Brandy was really quite impressed with the authentic French culture she found in the suburban paradise that is Evanston, and without big city inflation, her meal with Baranina (one appetizer, one entree, two desserts, and two bottled ciders) came out to about $50 in all.  "I may enjoy the sophistication of Paris and the convenience of Chicago," Brandy relented at last, "But I suppose there is something to be said for the quiet freedom of the suburbs."

The Short and Sweet Review

Crêperie Saint-Germain on Urbanspoon

Friday, March 8, 2013

Sarks in the Park or All Bark and No Bite

The Slow and Savory Review

Brandy has always been an early riser ever since a garbage truck woke her up one morning in 1929 and, after she was unable to fall back asleep, she did some personal financial management that ended up helping her to avoid the stock market crash just before it hit.  While waking up early can have its benefits (getting more things done, seeing the sunrise, reading the newspaper and returning it before your neighbor knows it was missing), it can also build up quite an appetite in someone who usually prefers to wait for brunch.  Some days, Brandy is able to restrain herself for that magically concentrated combination of meals, but other days, its just more productive to brunch early on.  When asked if an early brunch is really just a breakfast, Brandy's response was a raised eyebrow and the statement, "Brunch is a state of mind, not a time of day."

It was one of those early days that Brandy ventured to Sarks in the Park for a quick brunch.  It was so early in fact that the place was virtually deserted.  The white walls and exposed ceiling seemed especially stark, but a few large graphic paintings did help to add some color.  Brandy took her seat at a table by the door and a tired looking, but helpful waitress dutifully brought over some coffee and a menu.  Quite a few things jumped out at Brandy very quickly, so when the waitress came back around a minute or so later to collect her order, Brandy just let the first two things she saw jump out of her mouth.

She started off with the Sark's Special Grilled Cheese, the traditional comfort food classic with a fried egg and crispy bacon added.  At $6.50, Brandy thought the sandwich a pretty good deal, until she realized that the price included no sides (hashbrowns were an additional $3.00).  The sandwich was decent enough; though a little skimpy on the bacon, the melty cheese and the egg in the middle were pretty tasty, but Brandy couldn't help feeling the worst possible thing that could be thought about brunch, "I could have made this at home."  Brandy wished she had investigated the menu a little further to see if there had been a bowl of soup she might have paired with the thing that would have maybe made it a little more special.

For her sweets, Brandy chose the decadent sounding Black Forrest Pancakes, which the menu claimed was a stack of dark chocolate flapjacks, topped with chocolate ganache and a warm cherry compote.  The pancakes themselves were decently sized with a nice chewy texture, but lacked in flavor.  What the menu called "ganache" seemed to be nothing more than store bought chocolate syrup, both in texture and in taste, which was far too sweet.  The cherries on top did a nice job of breaking up the saccharine dish, but rather than a compote, they seemed to be plain old re-hydrated dried cherries that hadn't been cooked at all, sort of a step above canned pie filling.  Once again, Brandy found herself relatively enjoying the dish, but thinking she could have probably stayed at home and made something similar ("And at home this wouldn't have cost anywhere near $10," she grumbled to herself).

Sadly, though the menu boasted some exciting options, Brandy seemed to have chosen two of the more over priced and bland items available.  "Thank goodness I woke up so early this morning," Brandy thought, "Now I can just wait a few hours before looking for another, more exciting brunch!"

The Short and Sweet Review

Sarks in the Park on Urbanspoon

Friday, March 1, 2013

Angel Food Bakery of Nostalgic Du Cool

The Slow and Savory Review

The culture we live in today is one obsessed with its own past.  Old musicals are becoming blockbuster movies, and old blockbuster movies become Broadway musicals, classic songs are being covered by new artists on the millions of musical television programs every week, and lazy writers wait slowly for works of the old masters to become public domain so that they can write sequels to them.  Its hard for Brandy to feel nostalgic about anything any more, seeing as how most of her childhood memories were made before the popularization of the art of photography or audio recording, so when she sees this sort of cultural recycling, she can't help but shake her head and wonder.  "Didn't they just make a film about a super hero?  For goodness sake," she's been heard to ruminate while passing a movie theater, "Why not something new, like a movie about someone my age.  Maybe someone who explores a foreign city by partaking in its rich culinary tapestry   That is a movie I would watch!"

But this longing to relive "the good old days" has even manifested itself in the culinary world in the form of "comfort food," that rare bird that plays on our collective memories of safe flavor combinations, banking on the emotions brought up when the eater samples something so close to home they have to check the kitchen to see if their mother took a job as a line cook they were unaware of.  It was just such a place that Brandy stumbled upon in the Edgewater neighborhood; Angel Food Bakery, a small cafe that prides itself on bringing back the joyful flavors of an earlier time.  It was the vintage aprons in the window that first drew Brandy's attention, and upon entering she found the place to be covered in the bright chartreuses and tangerines of the early 1960's.  A ledge around the dining room boasted an impressive collection of vintage toy ovens, hinting at the sort of flavor profiles spotlighted in the glimmering bakery cases.  Without even realizing she was doing it, Brandy took up residence at one of the small tables and began to peruse the brunch menu.

The food was ready in a flash.  Brandy started off with something called Baked French Toast, which came served with a lovely array of fresh fruit and a shot glass of vanilla orange syrup.  She found the dish to be more of a bread pudding than a French toast, as it was a layered loaf of buttery bread, covered in powdered sugar.  Brandy also thought it lacked the custard like quality of a French toast, but enjoyed the crunchy crust on top, and the vanilla orange syrup had a wonderful tart sweetness that helped to sooth the heavy bread.

For her entree, Brandy chose the Creamed Wild Mushrooms, which she was delighted to see was really just a re-worked version of the traditional full English breakfast.  "Now this is something I can feel nostalgic about!" she exclaimed as the plate was put down before her.  Though lacking the baked beans and blood sausage, the dish did contain a slab of more buttery bread, two perfectly poached eggs, two roasted tomato slices, and two strips of crispy bacon, all covered in a creamy mushroom gravy and assisted by a side of roasted potatoes.  Though the texture of the potatoes and the herbaceous rosemary flavor was spot on, Brandy found them to be a tad salty.  The bread was so hearty that it proved a little hard to cut through, but it was tender in the mouth, and the creamy mushrooms lent a brilliant earthiness to the dish that was brightened up by tomatoes.

Not wanting to let the good-old-days feeling go quite yet, Brandy grabbed a few things to go from the bakery cases: first was the Trailer Park Trio, which consisted of a yellow cake filled with marshmallow cream, the same cake rolled in raspberry jam and coconut, and a decedent chocolate version filled with peanut butter cream, all of which had a cylindrical shape that not only inspired their name, but was also meant to remind the viewer of the storied snack cakes of old.  "I thought they stopped making these things," Brandy said, pointing to them.  The kindly clerk behind the counter smiled strangely at her, perhaps thinking she as joking. Brandy found the cake of the pastries to be perfectly supple with an odd but lovely bit of texture from what she supposed to be corn meal.  The cream on the inside was light and delicious, especially in the chocolate version.  Brandy's favorite of the three was probably the raspberry version, which for some reason made her thing of the word "Zing!"

In addition to that, Brandy also took home three cupcakes in very nostalgic flavors: Boston Cream, Malted Milk Ball, and Mudpie.  The Boston Cream was perhaps the most traditional of the three; a spongy yellow cake that had been filled with a thick, rich vanilla pastry cream and topped by an equally rich chocolate ganache   The Mudpie was amazingly dense with a crunchy top, almost like a chocolate sofflee, and took Brandy two sessions to finish.  To her surprise, Brandy found the Malted Milk Ball to be her favorite, due to the moist chocolate cake, malted cream frosting, and crunchy bits of candy on top.

At the end of the day, the tidbits at Angel Food Bakery left Brandy feeling nostalgic for memories she didn't really have, but was quite happy to have imagined them.  With most entrees around $10 and most pastries around $3, there seemed to be something for everyone's budget, with a heaping helping of love at no extra cost.  "Perhaps remakes aren't such a bad thing after all," Brandy mused, "After all, a good recipe is meant to be treasured and passed on, with each new maker adding his or her own special twist to improve it.  But I still don't see any need for another movie about those damned Hobbits."

The Short and Sweet Review

Angel Food Bakery on Urbanspoon