Friday, October 30, 2015

Stan's Donuts and Coffee or Quoth the Donut, Always More!

The Slow and Savory Review

One of the many things Brandy has inadvertently become an expert in while on her varied adventures in brunching is donuts.  She's had the jelly filled and the cream filled, the glazed and the frosted, the yeast and the cake, the sweet and the savory.  "If its fried and sold before noon, I have an opinion on it," as she likes to put it.  But recently, Brandy realized she was missing an important part of her donut knowledge arsenal; she had yet to visit Stan's Donuts and Coffee.  Luckily, since Stan's just opened their new location in Lakeview, Brandy took to opportunity to rectify this oversight.

The new Stan's at the corner of Diversey and Clark is pretty tiny, but did host a few chairs and tables for those who wished to take a seat and enjoy their donuts immediately.  Crammed behind the donut counter were several cheerful workers who moved quickly to get the fried dough into the waiting customers' hands as quickly as possible, meaning within five minutes of walking in the door on a busy day, Brandy had an adorably pink box containing half a dozen treats and was ready to head home to enjoy them.

Settling in to the first donut, Brandy eyed up the Peanut Butter Banana Pocket.  This was the ultimate in decadence; a square shaped yeast donut with a chocolate glaze and a peanut butter and banana filling.  Unlike other filled donuts, the unique shape of this one meant that every inch on the inside had filling and not just the center.  As for the filling itself, the peanut butter was thick and a little salty, which was nicely complimented by the sweet flavor of the banana.  The donut itself was of the yeast variety, meaning it was chewy and fairly light in texture.

Next Brandy went for the Captain Crunch donut.  Regardless of not having grown up with the infamous Capt'n, Brandy was rather interested to try this one if only because of its uniqueness, but the flavor turned out to be a little disappointing.  The inside seemed to be a simple, yet delicious pastry cream with lots of vanilla flavor, meaning the only thing that differentiated this donut was the two pieces of crunch cereal embedded into the glaze on top.

Finishing off the square shaped donuts, Brandy went for the Blueberry Danish.  This was probably her favorite of the lot because it wasn't just a breakfast classic, but it was done in a really unique way.  The base, rather than being a croissant style pastry, was another yeast donut with a light glaze, on the top was a perfect blueberry jam and in the middle was a rich cream cheese.  It was a lucky thing Brandy had another half a box of donuts left to go or she might have run out the door to buy a dozen more of these.

Moving on to another classic, Brandy sampled the Boston Cream donut, a flavor by which she judges most donut shops.  "A lot of places can do a plain glazed or a fantastic old fashioned, but the perfect Boston Cream is a difficult thing to accomplish.  It has to have the right amount of filling, a chocolate glaze that doesn't overwhelm, and a donut sturdy enough to hold together while being consumed," as Brandy pointed out.  This one certainly did not disappoint, being filled with plenty of delicious custard like cream and staying together no matter how many bites Brandy took of it.  They had even magically gotten the cream dispersed pretty well throughout the entire donut, meaning Brandy didn't have to strategically plan her bites to maximize the donut to cream ratio.

Next up was the Strawberry Bismark, Stan's take on a classic jelly filled donut.  The jam on the inside of this one tasted surprisingly fresh and didn't seem to be cut with any artificial colors or flavors, unlike those seen at other more nationally recognized donut shops.  The donut also seemed a little thicker, so it stood up to the heavy fruit jam rather well.

Lastly was the adorable Pumpkin donut.  Despite its appearance, Brandy was saddened to discover that the donut was in fact a simple vanilla cake donut rather than a pumpkin flavored one.  Regardless, the sugary decoration was enough to merit its existence, and the flavor was actually enhanced a little by the chocolate sauce that had been used to create the pumpkin.  The texture of the cake donut wasn't overly dense and would have been perfect with a cup of coffee (or dare we say a pumpkin latte?) to accompany it.

Considering the price, friendliness of the staff, and quality of the donuts, Brandy ranked Stan's among her favorite donuts in the city.  "I think now there is no way my expertise in the field of breakfast pastry can be questioned, " Brandy remarked, proudly, "I wonder if one can get a doctorate in that sort of thing?"

The Short and Sweet Review

Stan's Donuts Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

From the Kitchens of Bunny and Brandy: Spicing up Brunch with All Spice Cafe Hot Sauces

 As adventurous as she is with her food, there is one element of taste sensations that make Brandy a little nervous: heat.  A touch of spice here or there is usually fine and even welcomed, but true searing, almost painful heat in a dish has never been Brandy's cup of tea, so to speak.  "I just don't understand why someone would want to destroy their palate like that.  Perhaps its because of how awful most hot sauces taste. If one burns off all their taste buds, they won't be assaulted by a vinagered, bitter, earthy mess of a sauce."

Recently Brandy was introduced to a line of hot sauces from Chicago based All Spice Cafe.  The four sauces ranged in hottness from Mild to Extreme, and while she was skeptical, Brandy was attracted to the fact that the emphasis of these particular products was not just the heat, but also the flavor.  "I'm all for adding more flavor to my food," Brandy mused, "And spice can be wonderful when used correctly.  I suppose I'll just have to be prepared with a big glass of milk on hand."

First up was the Caribbean Spice, which Brandy used as an over night marinade for a skirt steak, which she pan seared in the morning.  This turned out to be Brandy favorite of the four sauces as it was so flavorful.  A heavy hit of cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg was complimented by just the tiniest bit of heat, which served the fatty and flavorful steak extremely well.  Instantly, the jerk spices made Brandy think of warm breezes and tropical drinks, and though there was something fall-like in the taste, it made her long for an afternoon by a BBQ pit.

Next up, Brandy moved to the Medium heat sauce, the Chipotle Garlic.  Brandy reckoned the natural smokiness of chipotle peppers would work well with potatoes, so she used the sauce to coat some baby red potatoes and set them in the oven to roast for 20 minutes at 400 degrees. While the sauce worked its magic on the potatoes, Brandy caramelized some sweet onion on the stove top with a little olive oil and a touch more of the sauce.  All together, the potatoes and onions had the perfect level of heat; just enough to make the mouth tingle, but not enough to be painful.  Brandy really liked how deeply flavored this sauce was and thought it would also work well as a marinade.

Moving into more dangerous territory, Brandy eyed up the Cayenne Habanero.  She decided to do some simple cheesy scrambled eggs ("Americans like putting hot sauce on their eggs, don't they?" she wondered aloud), using a pungent smoked Gouda and a bit of the frighteningly red concoction.  Just a quick dash to the eggs proved to be the perfect amount, standing up well to the cheese and adding a bit of oomph to each bite.  Though bordering on a little too much fire for Brandy's taste, she did immediately think that this one in particular would be an excellent chicken wing sauce.

The last sauce, the Jolokia Ghost Pepper, slightly terrified Brandy.  Coming in a smaller bottle than the others (this one was 8 ounces while the others had been 12) and boasting a label with inverted colors and a heat level of "Xtreme," the blood red slick of oil on its surface was enough to make her gulp.  Testing the sauce by simply dipping her finger into it and blotting it on the tip of her tongue quickly confirmed Brandy's fear that her bland British palate was simply no match for this one.  While the flavor was tangy, much like the previous sauce, the littlest dab of it onto her tongue made Brandy's mouth burn and tingle for a good twenty minutes or so.  "I'm sure all the pepper heads out there would adore this one," she said after regaining some feeling in her lips, "So I will leave this one to be enjoyed by those brave and foolish individuals."

Overall, Brandy was really impressed that AllSpice Cafe lived up to their promise of flavor first, which ended up complimenting the heat in their sauces.  "I'm glad I haven't been reduced to tears or ended up breathing fire," she sighed in relief, "But  I may be beginning to understand that endorphin rush the fans of heated food are always talking about.  In fact, I might chance another taste of that last one...well, maybe after I've regained feeling in my tongue."

The writers of this blog were provided with products by All Spice Cafe at no charge in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Yard House or The Curse of the Empty Stomach

The Slow and Savory Review

There are many reasons that Brandy brunches, but up until recently, she has kept one of the darkest reasons to herself.  But after seeing The Cubs struggling in the playoffs, the guilt began to eat away inside of her and she found she simply had to confess her sins to someone.  Her dear friend Brocco Lee Binto was taking a break from one of his many scientific experiments, so she decided to sit down and tell him the tragic tale.

"The last weekend I didn't brunch was back in 1945," she began with a sigh, "I was visiting Chicago for one of the first times and I was simply too excited to do and see everything.  I barely even knew what baseball was back then, but I knew something special was going on at the ballpark, so I bought a ticket with my brunch money and went to the game.  And that was the last time The Cubs went to the World Series.  Everyone told me not to alter my routines while they were winning, but I didn't listen!  I didn't know!"  Brocco gazed at her, sympathetically.  "Oh Brandy, I'm sure that has nothing to do with it.  Superstitions don't have any scientific basis, so-" "Wait!  What time is it?" Brandy interrupted him.  "Nearly noon.  Why?"  "Quick!  We have to get to brunch!  I'm not going to be responsible for ruining the city's chances at a championship again!"

They headed to Yard House, the recently opened Chicago addition of the successful craft beer focused sports bar concept, since Brandy said she needed to be able to surround herself with as many games as possible to keep the curse at bay.  Yard House was open and spread out across a massive ground level space, a rarity in Chicago where restaurant real estate is at a premium.  The decor was mainly darker woods with colorful art, which made things feel comfortable, but didn't take away from the main focus of the many clusters of television screens surrounding the large center bar.

The morning began with a few cocktails for Brandy and a few beers for Brocco.  The first cocktail, the Black Orchid, was pretty stunning to behold for its electric blue color.  "Since blue is one of The Cubs' colors, maybe this will help," Brandy muttered, making Brocco shake his head.  The cocktail made with raspberry vodka, watermelon schnapps, and blue curacao was fruity and a little syrupy, but not sickly sweet, and was just as pleasant to sip as to look at.  Of course the second cocktail had to have some red in it, so Brandy ordered the Strawberry Bourbonade which was fresh, strong, and perfect with the food.  Brocco opted to try a couple of the hundreds of beers on offer, starting off with the Butterfly Flashmob, a citrusy IPA from Naperville based brewery Solemn Oath, and then followed it up with a Bell's Grapefruit IPA, both of which were quite delicious.

Being terrified of feeling any amount of hunger, Brandy ordered up two appetizers; the Spinach Cheese Dip and the Onion Ring Tower.  The spinach dip was creamy, salty in a good way, and satisfyingly cheesy.  Brandy liked that the dish came served with crispy pieces of a rather unique flat bread, which added a lovely crunch to each bite.  The onion rings had a rather dramatic presentation, being stacked on a long spike and served with a choice of chipotle ranch or buttermilk ranch for dipping.  The crunch on the rings was just perfect, the batter being a light and even texture without being greasy.

"It's still not enough!" Brandy had said when ordering her entree, "We need to make sure neither of us are craving food for the rest of the day.  Oh look!  A poutine!  We'll split that."  "But..." Brocco began to protest, but Brandy had already ordered the thing before he could say more.  The Pork Poutine was actually fairly traditional, which was refreshing to Brandy, as she has seen far too many overly creative poutines as of late.  The thin cut fries didn't have quite enough substance to remain crispy under the gravy coating, but the little chunks of pork helped to live up the texture.  Brandy could have done with a few more cheese curds in the mix, but over all the poutine really hit the spot,

For his entree, Brocco picked the Cuban Roast Pork Dip, a sort of combination of a French dip and a pressed Cubano sandwich.  Brocco found the flavors to be a little toned down from their originator (for instance, the pork was a little under spiced) so as to be a little more palatable to an American bar crowd, but the dip that accompanied the sandwich was rather special.  Brocco also enjoyed his side of Truffle Fries, which were thin, light, and crispy with a good hit of truffle oil.

Brandy's main course was the Steak and Cheesy Eggs, which came served in a skillet with a grilled corn cake and a sweet teriyaki like glaze.  The skirt steak in the skillet was cooked to perfection and tasted splendid when dipped into the glaze.  The eggs had a nice dense texture, which Brandy prefers in her scramble, and plenty of cheesse.  The corn cake at the bottom of the skillet was the real surprise, as it was loaded with actual sweet corn and had a soft, melt in your mouth texture that Brandy really savored.

"Well, I think that'll do it," Brocco said.  "Oh no you don't!  There's still dessert!" proclaimed Brandy.  To get a little more bang for their buck, so to speak, Brandy ordered them a Mini Trio Sampler, which came with miniature versions of the chocolate souffle, the lemon souffle, and the peach and apple cobbler, all topped with ice cream,  The chocolate souffle was pretty dense and rich, while the lemon souffle was light, airy, and bright.  The cobbler, which came served with caramel ice while the other two came with vanilla, was dense, warm, and perfect for fall.

Though full to the brim, Brandy felt a bit better after she'd enjoyed her tasty, hopefully curse breaking brunch.  The friendly service and thoughtful presentations helped to put her at ease as much as the food and drinks did, so much so that she began to reconsider her long held belief that it was her empty stomach that had caused the long drought for The Cubs.  "Perhaps you're right," she sighed to Brocco, "It may have just been coincidence that the one weekend I haven't brunched in the last century happened to be the same weekend the Northsiders faced off in their last World Series game."  "Of course its coincidence!" Brocco laughed, "I'm happy you've finally accepted that."  "It was an extraordinary game, that match in 1945," Brandy grinned, "Almost worth skipping brunch for.  Do you know some silly man tried to sit next to me with his smelly pet goat?  I'd never seen such a thing in my life!  If I hadn't complained to the staff and had that man and his beast removed, I don't know if I would have been able to sit through the whole game with that animal bleeting beside me."  "Oh dear..." said Brocco.

The writers of this blog were invited by the restaurant to dine free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

The Short and Sweet Review

Yard House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Taste of the Nation 2015 Recap

Indulgent food events are all well and good, but those that come with a message are Brandy's true passion.  "Its easy to forget, especially in a place like Chicago where good food is so abundant, but there are so many people in this world who can't afford a good meal every day or don't even know what good food looks like," as Brandy explains, "The best thing is to start with the children; get them fed and the rest will fall into place."

This is perhaps why Brandy so admires the work of No Kid Hungry, a nationwide organization that strives towards ensuring that no child in America goes without food.  They have not only provided over 345 million meals, they help to educate families on making more nutritious choices while living on a budget. With 1 in 5 children in the US facing hunger every day, the programs set up by No Kid Hungry are more than essential.

Taste of the Nation, a yearly gathering of Chicago's top chefs, mixologists, and somaliers, hosts not only adults but families at the Grand Ballroom at Navy Pier for a night of delicious food, cocktails (even some non alcoholic ones for the kiddies), and fun, all benefiting No Kid Hungry and their work.  This year, the night featured winner of Next Food Network Star and Sandwich King Jeff Mauro leading the way for over 50 Chicago area restaurants, all showing their wears and having a grand old time for a good cause.

The top floor of the ballroom hosted the majority of the cocktails and their creators.  Brandy sampled drinks from the likes of Rural Society's Bryson Ryan with his Hypnotize (vodka, passion fruit, Hypnotiq liquor, tonic, and blueberries), Femme du Coupe's Lisa Selman with her Lavender Lady (gin, lemon, raspberries, and flavored syrup), and The Brixton's Rudy Matic with Cold Spell Joy (mint whiskey, cranberry, orange juice, and pomegranate liquor).  Downstairs in the main floor, the non alcoholic beverages were on display, like Owen + Engine with three of their signature juices (activated charcoal lemonade, apple lemon ginger cayenne, and blueberry lime mint sea salt), coffee drinks from Sparrow Roastery, and a tasty punch from Daniel DeOliveira made with kiwi, lemon, cucumber, and mint.

The main event, though, was of course the food.  Fall flavors dominated the offerings, such as a roasted chestnut soup from Acadia, smoked knockwurst with butternut squash and sour corn from The Radler, and cheddar cheese straws with apple butter and country ham from Vie.  The chefs at this particular event also seemed to be stretching their creativity with dishes like the matsutaki soup with apple, chestnut, and duck streusel from Longman and Eagle or an Asian inspired pork boa sandwich from Pork and Mindy's and of course some beef heart tartar with pistachios from The Publican.  The big restaurant groups were out in full force with Gibson's serving Angus strip steak with truffled fingerling potatoes and crab bearnaise and almost every eatery in the DineAmic group line up represented with Bar Siena's mini burgers (with braised onions, American cheese, and herbed mayo), Prime and Provisions serving mini blue crab cakes paired with thick cut bacon, and Siena Tavern bringing mini tortellaccis with roasted carrot, crispy sage, and a creamy Parmesan sauce.  Probably the most stunning dish of the evening was what Brandy called "The Egg Bowl," from El Ideas, which consisted of several types of fish eggs, uni, and was topped off with aerated scrambled eggs to make for a salty and surprising treat.

The desserts weren't lacking either at Taste of the Nation.  State and Lake delighted with their root beer float pops while Scott Green from Travelle (a consistent favorite of Brandy's from his presentations at Chicago Gourmet) had divinely rich slices of devil's food cake topped with German chocolate icing and chocolate ganache.  Pastry chef for The Gage and Acanto, Kymberli Delost, presented gorgeous little Dutch apple pies and RM Champagne Salon brought a decadent hazelnut praline parfait and the spiced pumpkin and chevre tarts from Bar Pastoral were just the thing for a blustery fall evening.

As the night wound to a close, Brandy found herself taking a seat on a bench out on the pier and smiling to herself as she watched a few families delighting their children with the giant Jenga sets that had been set up at the Life is Good clothing tent.  "Its nights like this, people like this, that give me hope for the future," she sighed, "Just think, one of these wee little ones could be inspired to become a great chef by what they've experienced here tonight, or better yet, they might grow up to be the person who stops world hunger for good.  One never knows the impact a simple little plate of food can make."

For more information on No Kid Hungry, please visit their website and consider making a donation.  Also, make sure to check out Bunny and Brandy's Facebook page for lots of pictures from the event!

The writers of this blog were invited to attend this event free of charge in order to facilitate the writing of this post.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Festival Recap: Taste Talks 2015

Food and Wine was relaxed and intimate.  Chicago Gourmet was buzzing and extravagant.  But Taste Talks is the one food festival that puts the emphasis on learning more about one's food.  For the second year, Taste Talks came to Chicago with a weekend of events and panels that aimed to educate foodies on various food issues so that they can cook at home and eat out more mindfully.  Brandy was pleased to attend again this year, especially since there was lots of new events and chefs involved.
Brandy started off her Taste Talks weekend on Saturday morning at the Morgan Building on Fulton Market.  Since the talks began bright and early, Brandy was happy to see some snacking options provided by Kellog's and Publican Quality Bread.  At the Kellog's Cereal Bar, three chefs had been enlisted to come up with creative toppings for classic cereals.  Brandy tried two of the three varieties: the Rise and Dine from Chef Jessica Koslow with Rice Krispies and Frosted Flakes, then green tea powder, candied ginger, raspberry jam, toasted coconut, and coconut milk, and the I Dream of Tahini from Chef Kristina Mack with Rice Krispies, tahini, honey, sesame seeds, fig, and cinnamon.  "I'm not usually one to have cereal for brunch, but this kind of creativity is rather inspiring," Brandy commented.  In another section of the building, Publican Quality Bread (the baking off shoot of Publican Quality Meats) hosted a toast bar, topping their high quality bread with interesting flavor combinations.  Brandy sampled the Cypress Grove Toast with goat cheese, apples, urfa pepper, and pine nuts, which again sent a spark of creativity through her brain.  Throughout the day, more snacks popped up, like coffee and tea from Intelligentsia, beer from Goose Island, and donuts from Longman and Eagle, keeping Brandy fully fueled and energized for the panels.

First up, Brandy attended a talk about the current state of food media with panelists Amy Cavanaugh from Time Out Chicago, Ari Bendersky, and Steve Dolinsky from ABC7.  For a talk about how food media is evolving, Brandy would have liked to have seen a food blogger or two on the panel, as the talk mainly focused around how even professional food writers have to do a certain amount of social media in order to stay in touch with their industry and audience.  Despite this, Brandy found the talk extremely interesting and agreed with a good majority of what was said, especially about a tendency for professional food writers to be a little too harsh, while bloggers tended towards too much enthusiasm in their reviews.  Next up was a panel on using the entire animal in butchery with a very distinguished panel that included Chris Cosentino and Fergus Henderson, plus local butchers Cosmo Goss from The Publican and Rob Levitt from Butcher + Larder.  When Chris Cosentino, who has made a name for himself using offal in his dishes, revealed that his mother to this day refuses to eat his food, Brandy had to laugh, but when he explained this was due to a generational prejudice against odd cuts of meat that stems back to WWII rationing, Brandy exclaimed aloud, "Ah!  That makes so much sense!" 

After these first two talks, Brandy snuck down to the gallery to witness the Kellog's Cereal Bar Throwdown, where the three chefs who had designed the reinvented cereal bowls (the third chef was Matthew Rice) would be presented with a choice of 20 mystery ingredients and tasked to design another bowl on the fly in just 5 minutes.  Chef Mack shocked the audience by adding corn kernels to her cereal as well as blueberries and and maple syrup.  Chef Rice went for everything fruity, mixing Fruit Loops with mangos, peaches, and blueberries.  Chef Koslow won the throwdown with her savory take on cereal, using mint, burrata, and peaches with milk steeped with sweet corn.  Fellow blogger Amanda Topper was lucky enough to be selected from the crowd as one of the judges and her expert analysis of the entries proved to be a great amusement to the gentleman hosting the contest.  "Just goes to show that food bloggers do actually know what they're talking about," Brandy smirked to herself.

The second round of panels began with an intimate chat with Chicago restaraunt kingpin Chef Paul Kahan and musician John Stirratt from Wilco.  The talk was pretty enlightening in that the two compared the sort of collaborations needed between band mates and kitchen mates as well as told stories about their friendship, which began when Paul Kahan spotted John walking with his family outside Big Star and yelled to him across the street that the restaurant was currently playing one of his songs.  After that, an all female panel of pastry chefs and bakers had a very frank discussion about industry operations and stigmas.  Queen of Chicago Sweets, Mindy Segal expressed concern for fellow baker Sandra Holl and her acclaimed bakery Floriole (which started as a farmer's market stall), explaining that many bakeries have to resort to wholesale in order to support their operations, which ultimately hurts the baker and can over time decrease the quality of the products.  Restaurant pastry chefs Meg Galus and Leigh Omilinsky acknowledged how privileged they were to work with restaurant groups and chefs that were fully supportive of their creative process, and also made a point of the kind of open camaraderie that exists between most pastry chefs and bakers, including all the women on the panel, to the extent of being willing to share everything from recipes to sourdough starters with each other.

Sunday ushered in the All Star BBQ, where chefs that had participated in various parts of the weekend gathered together in Palmer Square to grill up some extraordinary bites for the attendees.  Some of Brandy's favorites included a butternut squash sausage sandwich from Chef Matthias Merges (she actually induced a blush in Chef Merges when she informed him of just how much she adored Yusho), a mock Chicago dog made by Chef Jessica Koslow (a Californian) that featured a roasted carrot in place of meat, a beef heart slider from the guys at Publican, and a buttermilk and beef fat parsnip on a stick from Chef Matt Danko.  Paul McGee provided a whopper of a cocktail, paired with Chef Pete Coenen's smoked brisket and green tomato salsa, while Chef Tony Quartaro shocked and amazed with his sweet and savory tiramisu carrots paired with a smooth and creamy coffee drink.  The showstopper was Abe Conlan from Fat Rice who created some sticky rice dumplings wrapped in banana leaves and paired up with visual artist Jordan Martins to create colorful wood blocks that they hung from a tree and then hung the dumplings from to be "picked" like fruit by the attendees.  Dessert was a little lacking this year with the bulk of the sweet stuff being provided by festival sponsors Cypress Grove, which put up some of their delicious blue goat cheese with a drizzel of honey, and Lifeway Foods, who handed out frozen kefir bars.
"I do so love Taste Talks," Brandy mused as she sat back for a moment at the BBQ, "It makes for such a varied and enlightening end to the big festival season.  I am so glad they've decided to make a home for themselves in Chicago because for the second year in a row, I've not only gotten to sample some rather amazing food, I feel I'm coming away with some inspiration, some understanding, and an even better appreciation for what is put on my plate and all the people it took to get it there."

The writers of this blog were invited to attend the mentioned events free of charge in order to facilitate the writing of this post.