Friday, September 25, 2015

Emilio's Tapas or Eggs-Tending a Helping Hand

The Slow and Savory Review

Brandy is always disturbed by the idea that there are people in this world who simply don't like brunch.  "How can one not love brunch?  It's like the greatest hits album of meals!" is often Brandy's declaration.  At this point, she has heard every counter argument in the book.  Brunch is over rated.  The service is bad.  The lines are too long.  It's nothing but hungover, inconsiderate people.  Well, maybe that's true in New York, but it certainly isn't in Chicago where, as Brandy has proved over the last 5 years, the brunch scene is a dynamic, budget friendly, foodie paradise where chefs are often allowed to experiment with recipes and formats a little more freely than they can at dinner service.  And, as Brandy recently discovered, brunch can even make a major difference in people's lives.

Brunch for a Cause started in San Diego as a group of young professionals who wanted to shine a light on some underfunded charities in their area.  The idea took off with events being held all over the country at various restaurants, all of whom worked closely with their Brunch Ambassadors to provide special deals and dishes to enjoy while benefiting scores of worthy causes.  It was only a matter of time before such a brilliant idea made its way to Chicago, and recently, Brandy was pleased to attend the inaugural event at Emilio's Tapas in Streeterville, which benefited Camp Kudzu.

As the day of the event was a beautifully mild summer day, Brandy did the rare thing of choosing a seat on the patio, which overlooked a quiet side street.  The special the restaurant had worked out for those dining with Brunch for a Cause was a shockingly inexpensive choice of four courses for $25, plus $20 more for unlimited select cocktails and wines.  Never one to turn down an option to make her brunch bottomless, Brandy went for the whole hog, so to speak ("It's for charity, after all," she justified to no one in particular), and decided on the Gipsy Rose (sic), a concoction of Spanish Cava, strawberry, and lemon that made for a bright, sweet, and effervescent treat all throughout the meal.

For the first course, Brandy chose the Queso de Carba con Nueces, some pecan coated goat cheese with honey, red wine poached pear, toast, greens, and grapes.  Such a straight forward dish could have easily had its presentation ignored, but Brandy appreciated the little bit of extra effort that had been put into plating it.  The rich, creamy goat cheese was a perfect match for the sweet pear, with the nuts providing a nice crunch.  Brandy could have done with a few more pieces of toast, but in the end she just mixed what was left of the cheese with the greens to make a nice little salad.

The next course was the Tostada a la Andaluz (which Brandy thought resembled more of a bruschetta) that was topped with some eggplant, beets, and more goat cheese.  The over all taste was actually a nice counterpoint to the previous dish, as this one had a slightly tangy, pickled flavor as well as an herbal finish.  The overall plate was very hearty, even for a dish meant to be shared, and could have easily made for a nice little lunch all on its own. "I'm not usually the biggest fan of eggplant," Brandy said, "But I do have to say that this is possibly the most colorful way I've seen a normally drab vegetable dressed up in quite some time."

For her protein, Brandy chose the Gambas a la Plancha, a row of grilled shrimp with lemon and garlic butter.  The shrimp were very tender and fresh with a wood-fired taste from the grill.  The garlic butter was wonderfully balanced, serving to enhance the shrimp, rather than overwhelm them.  They were so delicious that Brandy considered ordering a second plate of them, but by that point, even her tremendous appetite was beginning to wane under the weight of the previous dishes.

After a bit of a wait (the first three dishes had come out fairly quickly, though as they were tapas and meant to be shared, that perhaps wasn't so strange) the forth course finally arrived, a dessert not on the regular menu consisting of vanilla custard filled crepes with chocolate fudge sauce and sliced almonds.  The crepes had a lovely texture that was light and fluffy, but still thin and delicate, while the custard was thick and rich.  The chocolate sauce, while delicious, dominated the dish a little with its decadence, but the almonds were a nice little touch.

For the price, Brandy thought the amount and quality of food at Emilio's had been a brilliant value, and the fact that it had all been for the benefit of a worthy charity made it that much better.  Though the service had been a little patchy with the drink refills and there had been a long wait for the dessert and then the check, the attitude of the servers was relaxed and friendly.  "It was the thought of benefiting someone while I brunched that brought me here, but its truly the food that would bring me back," as Brandy put it.

Brunch for a Cause will be planning monthly events at restaurants all across Chicago, so make sure to like their Facebook Page to find out when and where the next one will be!

The Short and Sweet Review

Emilio's Sol Y Nieve Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, September 18, 2015

From the Farm Dinner at Farmhouse

Brandy has always been a fan of eating as locally as possible.  Granted, this hasn't always been easy, especially for those six months she spent living in a penguin sanctuary in the South Pole, but for the most part, Brandy finds that she enjoys her food that much more when she knows exactly where it came from.  "Farmers are the unsung heroes of every day life," she often says, "Not a day goes by that I'm not thankful that someone somewhere decided to plant a crop of asparagus or culture some goat cheese.  Providence bless the farmers!"

Being ever conscious of where her food comes from, Brandy has loved seeing the trend of recent years of listing the origins of produce, dairy, and meat on restaurant menus.  Names like Klug Orchards, Slagel Farms, and Three Sisters are practically a guarantee of great produce, meat, or grains for Brandy at this point.  So when one of the leading restaurants of the farm-to-table movement in Chicago, Farmhouse, invited her in to their Gold Coast location for a special five course dinner in which they would showcase not only the fruits of local labor, but also some local craft beers, Brandy simply could not say no.

Farmhouse are such big believers in farming locally that they actually own their own farm, which creates much of the produce for their restaurants (the second being in Evanston with a third to open soon).  There's even a rooftop garden at the Gold Coast location that produces chilies and micro greens, which the chefs and bartenders are encouraged to visit every day in order to get inspired to create new dishes and cocktails.  The decor of Farmhouse is ecologically minded as well, using salvaged pieces from old buildings to create an antiqued, rustic, yet comforting feel.  Even the black walnut wood used to make the bar came from the Farmhouse farm property.

After a gorgeous and fortified summer cocktail, the first of the dishes arrived at the table.  The first course consisted of a simple amuse bouche, made with green grapes and cured ham on a thin piece of crusty bread.  The two bite wonder was a great start for things to come with bright bursts of flavor from the fruit, a smooth umami sensation from the ham, and a nutty, buttery richness from some fresh butter and whole grain mustard.  This paired very well with Farmhouse's own Free Priscilla Cider, made with tart apples from their own orchards, which was crisp and rather refreshing with less sweetness than a typical cider.

Next came the Chilled Melon Soup with spiced yogurt, mint, and njuda.  The soup was bright and fresh as a summer day, ending in a smokey and slightly heated finish that spoke of the oncoming fall.  Brandy particularly liked the torn up bits of poolish (a type of cracker-like flat bread) that added a bit of chewy texture, keeping things exciting bite after bite.  This dish was paired with the Calmut Queen from 3 Floyds, a wheaty beer with a nice citrus finish.

The fish course was a Grilled Rainbow Trout with tomatillos, bacon lardons, and black bean relish.  The skin of the fish was delightfully crunchy, while the meat was tender, flaky, and absolutely perfect.  The beans had a little bit of bite to them, cut with the soft acidic tomatillos, and finished off with some fresh herbs from the rooftop garden.  The bacon actually seemed to be gilding on the lily and Brandy could have easily enjoyed the dish without it.  Revolution Brewery's Rosa was the accompaniment to this dish, a beer that Brandy had already had and grown quite fond of for its floral notes and smooth sipability.

Finishing off the savory dishes was a play on a surf and turf with BBQ braised shortribs and butter poached shrimp with popcorn grits.  This was perhaps Brandy's favorite dish of the night, if only for the fork tender shortribs with their slightly sweet glaze.  The grits too were nothing to sneeze at with a nice stone ground texture and true popcorn flavor, enhanced by crumbles of sweet dehydrated cornbread.  The beer with this dish was Dark Horse's Smells Like a Safety Meeting, a very hoppy, full bodied beer that could stand up to the bold flavor of the meat.

Lastly, for dessert, Brandy was presented with a Peaches and Cream Ice Cream Sandwich.  The peaches, which had been made into a marmalade, were almost so sweet that they bordered on syrupy, but not in a bad way, as the dry shortbread cookies and very floral vanilla ice cream helped to balance them out.  This pairing was perhaps the most well thought out one of the evening, as the Penrose De Minimus Mandarina was rather sour when tasted on its own, but enjoying it with a sweet dessert brought out its more fruity and malty flavors.

Executive Chef Eric Mansavage certainly did himself proud, making use of the absolute best in late summer flavors and showing how locally produced products can inspire all sorts of unique combinations.  "If I wasn't such a city minded gal, I might consider buying a peaceful little farm myself and learn to cultivate the land.  Or I can do what I've always done and let those who already do it, do it better than I ever could while I enjoy the spoils of their efforts.  Yes, that seems the sensible way to go."

The writers of this blog were invited to dine free of charge by the restaurant in order to facilitate the writing of this post. 

Farmhouse Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, September 11, 2015

Baker Miller or The Cream of the Wheat Crop

The Slow and Savory Review

Mama Bee was on a mission.  "If I want to have the best bakery in the Midwest, I need to have the best ingredients," she explained to Brandy one day.  "But my dear, you already have command over the honey world.  No one rivals your hives," Brandy pointed out.  "Yes, but without the best of the best to augment my honey, what good is it?  We need to do some serious research here."  "What is this 'We' business?  I don't remember buying a stake in your bakery."  "But Brandy, you have all the best resources!  I know if you put your mind to it, you can find me what I need."  "Alright, alright, let me think on this.  But in the meantime, let's go grab a bite to eat."

Heading into Lincoln Square, Brandy and Mama Bee stumbled into Baker Miller, another brainchild from the couple that started one of Brandy's favorite unconventional brunch spots, Bang Bang Pie Shop.  While Baker Miller carried on the tradition of pies and their infamous biscuits, it added in a selection of other pastries as well as a short, but well curated menu of savory dishes that are perfect for breakfast or lunch.

The interior of Baker Miller was pretty reminiscent of Bang Bang, with its simple set up.  White walls showcased simple indie art in black frames, while bleached wood tables provided a bit of warmth to the space.  There was also a patio out back, which created a pleasant picnic sort of atmosphere.

Brandy and Mama Bee began by splitting an order of Summer Grits, which came dressed with crisp slices of cucumber, pickled red onion, scallions, and a soft boiled egg.  The vegetables were quite flavorful with a strong hit of vinegar coming from the onions, but also a soft sweetness that really brought out the pure corn flavor in the coarse textured grits.  "Such a different sort of dish to how I've usually seen grits served," Brandy mused with interest, "But I have to say, it does rather evoke summer in a very unique way."  The grits, Brandy noted, were in fact ground by Baker Miller themselves, who in addition to the restaurant, sold a whole line of premium quality flours and grains.  Mama Bee had noticed as well and was eyeing the various packages for sale on the counter with great interest.

Mama Bee went for the simple Ploughman's for her lunch, which came with a sausage patty, a soft boiled egg, some dressed greens, and a few slices of house made bread.  Though missing the typical slices of apple and hunks of cheese that would make for a true Ploughman's, the dish was enhanced a little by a trip to the Jam and Butter bar, where Mama Bee delighted over the selection of house made concoctions.  "As a baker myself, I can see how a simple dish like this is meant to showcase the brilliance behind these breads and spreads," she commented, munching happily on a slice of sourdough.

Brandy decided on the Peachy Keen Biscuit Sandwich, which came with pork sausage, goat cheese, caramelized onions, and fresh peach jam.  The biscuit was just as Brandy had remembered it: tender and buttery, but not too heavy.  The sweet peach jam and the soft onions were a perfect match for the peppery sausage with the creamy goat cheese providing a bit of tang.  "This is exactly how a late summer mid-day meal should be," Brandy sighed, "Fresh, well put together, and simple."

Not able to resist a few sweets, the ladies indulged in some treats to take home: some Strawberry Rhubarb Muffins, a couple of Confetti Cookie Sandwiches, and a slice each of S'mores Pie and (most exciting of all to Brandy) Blueberry Pie.  The cookie sandwich was perhaps the most delightful, not only because it was filled with colorful sprinkles, but also because the filling was a deliciously tart blackberry jam and what seemed to be a thin layer of a cream cheese like substance that balanced it out.  The muffins were a bit on the dry side with a very distinctive chew, but the fruit in them tasted fresh and lovely.  Lastly, the pies were the masterpieces that Brandy expected them to be.  The blueberry was every bit the Mona Lisa of pies that Brandy had remembered from her very first visit to Bang Bang, and the S'mores pie was rich, decadent, and perfect with a graham cracker crust and a bruleed marshmallow top that really reminded one of sitting beside a camp fire.

"Who knew having such control over the flours one uses could make everything taste so authentic!" Brandy exclaimed, "I suppose your quest for the best ingredients to use at your bakeries makes a little more sense now."  Mama Bee nodded knowingly.  Taking care to produce such quality dishes at Baker Miller not only made for a satisfyingly simple and relaxing meal, but it also kept prices very reasonable, as everything extraneous and frivolous had been eliminated, leaving only the finest bits to take their places as stars on the plate.  "Maybe what I need to do is take more control over producing what I need," Mama Bee said, "I already farm my own honey, so why not mill my own grains?  Grow my own fruit?  Why I could even sculpt my own dishes!"  "Now now, there is something to be said for knowing where your talents lie," Brandy replied, "And judging from that pottery class we took together, I'd say your skills at crafting coffee mugs leave something to be desired."  "That was a bud vase!" Mama Bee scoffed.  "Point proven," said Brandy.

The Short and Sweet Review

Baker Miller Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, September 4, 2015

Festival Recap: Food and Wine Chicago

This past weekend saw the premier of the Chicago Food and Wine Festival, the latest notch in the belt of the USA's most popular foodie city.  As with all things involving being able to drink before noon, Brandy knew she simply had to check things out, so she went along on Sunday (which proved to be quite a smart decision, as Saturday's events were slightly dampened by rain) to enjoy a bit of hob-nobbing, food, and frivolity.

Compared to Chicago Gourmet, Food and Wine was much more relaxed and much less crowded.  There wasn't a time during the entire afternoon that Brandy waited in a line for more than 30 seconds, which meant she was able to quickly get the lay of the land and then circle back for another helping of some of her favorites.  The smaller size didn't impede the talent from coming, however, as Sunday alone showcased demos from Art Smith, Jonathan Waxman, Graham Elliot, and others, while local celeb chefs like Stephanie Izard, Sarah Jayne Grueneberg, and Giuseppe Tentori actually served food to the masses themselves at their respective restaurant's tents.

In fact, Brandy's first stop of the day was the Chobani Yogurt tent, where Stefani Izard was featuring a huge variety of dishes using the aforementioned yogurt, including the dish she had brought from Girl and the Goat, a butterscotch bundito with blueberry coulis.  The bundito (a pudding like dessert with the firmness of a flan) along with some lamb meatballs with crispy shallots were Brandy's two favorite bites in the tent, though the simple salad with yogurt feta was a close second.

At the Grand Tasting, Brandy zeroed in on a few favorites quite quickly.  Also coming from Izard's camp, Little Goat's pastry chef brought a delicious PB&J Sundae with peanut butter gelato and grape flavored Pâtes de fruits that was so good that Brandy managed to sneak three of them.  Stephen Wambach from the Four Seasons Hotel definitively won for best presentation of the day with his simple, fresh, and gorgeous ceviche with cucumber.  Seafood seemed to be a big theme of the day with the team from GT Fish and Oyster impressing with a spicy shrimp bruschetta with avocado and pistachio, the up coming Earl's Kitchen serving a well put together Tune Tostada, and Jimmy Bannos Jr. presenting a Shrimp Cracker with micro greens.  Gazpacho was another popular item of the day, with Rockit serving a creamy Heirloom Tomato gazpacho with manchego croutons, TÊTE Charcuterie
 accessorizing their version with pepperoni spiced mortadella, and Country BBQ making a smoked gazpacho with bacon crumbles.  Setting himself apart with his pseudo-gazpacho was Jared Wentworth, of Dusek's and Longman & Eagle, who presented the chilled soup with a spoonful of ingredients, that when consumed all at the same time, brought forth all the flavors of a Sicilian pizza.  Another creative set of dishes came, unsurprisingly, from the guys at Moto, who not only brought along a pork belly dish, but also some watermelon pops and a bite sized version of their famous Breakfast Radish course.

Moving on to drinks, Brandy was enchanted with the Hendrick's Gin tent, which served up a duo of cocktails poured from an intricate contraption.  Brandy preferred their Unique Negroni, which had a nice herbal orange flavor.  Earl's Kitchen again impressed with their Silly Wabbit, a cocktail based around carrot juice that had Brandy already dreaming of enjoying their brunch menu once the restaurant opens their doors later this fall.  The best cocktail of the day was the Jubilee, which was served during a demo with Violet Hour's Eden Laurin, where she gave attendees not only a little lesson in cocktail history and development, but also tips on curing hangovers.  The thing that made the Jubilee special was the addition of the first in a line of products from The Violet Hour, their special "cocktail syrup," made with burnt sugar, spices, and vanilla.  Brandy then headed to a rather enlightening tasting with Kendall Jackson Wineries, in which participants had to guess which wines were most expensive, mass produced, and which processes the grapes had been put to.

After filling up in the first round (and nearly toppling over after a few drinks) Brandy partook in some of the demos and seminars.  Art Smith enchanted the crowd with his Southern charm, teaching them how to make healthy substitutions in every day recipes.  Jonathan Waxman exhibited his trademark cool while whipping up an impressive array of seafood dishes.  Graham Elliot did his best to stay on course while fielding questions about just how good those kids of Master Chef Jr. really are (answer: really really good).

Even more entertainments than the just the food and drinks were close at hand from companies like Zappos, which hosted one of the most popular tents of the day, in which festival goers could make their own wine charms, wine stoppers, customize a glass of sangria, and even go clothing and shoe shopping.  Citi Bank had a table of cheeses and meats to nibble on while they handed out goodies like wine tumblers and sunglasses for those willing to participate in a variety of social media challenges.  Speaking of challenges, Renaissance Hotels hosted blindfolded tasting sessions, asking participants to try a variety of vegetables and identify them for a chance to win a weekend's stay at one of their locations.

All in all, Brandy was rather delighted with the laid back, but vibrant atmosphere at the first ever Chicago Food and Wine Festival.  "I do so enjoy that everything wasn't necessarily set up with a structured flow in mind so that one was encouraged to wander freely and explore in different ways," Brandy mused afterwards, "And I love the close contact with the actual chefs, who all seemed genuinely interested in what the festival goers thought of their food.  That is certainly not an experience you get every day!"

Make sure to check out the Bunny and Brandy Facebook page for more pictures of the festival!

The writers of this blog were given passes to this event as members of the media in order to facilitate the writing of this post.