Friday, February 27, 2015

Vanille or Sing a Rainbow of Macaroons

The Slow and Savory Review

As many of you may know, Brandy keeps herself busy with not only brunching, but also a myriad of hobbies.  "We have to pass these long Chicago winters somehow," as Brandy says, "And I choose to do so with good people, good conversation, and the occasional loom made tapestry or hulu dancing class."

One of her favorite past times with serving as the assistant musical director for the French Learning Choir of Chicago, a group of dedicated francophiles who have banded together to learn to speak French through first singing it.  Headed to practice one morning, Brandy decided she needed to give the choir a bit more of an immerse French experience by bringing the singers some delicious French-style breakfast pastries.  "Nothing lubricates the vocal chords better for French music than a bit of butter and cream," she reasoned and headed to Vanille Patisserie.

Vanille's interior looked just like a bakery should in Brandy's opinion; whimsical, classical, and good enough to eat.  The walls were a rich chocolate color which complimented the brightly lit pastry cases that showcased a variety of gorgeous looking sweets.  Two smiling shop girls behind the counter greeted Brandy immediately, making sure she knew there were macaroons out for sampling.  After listing off about everything under the pastry case as well as a rainbow of macaroons (and showing considerable self restraint to not order every jewel like dessert in the second case), Brandy checked out and took her goodies to be devoured by her singing chums.

First, Brandy gave the baritones some delicious looked financiers, which greatly resembled muffins without tops.  Their texture was a little coarser than expected, but rich and buttery with a lovely caramelized top and a very soft and moist interior.  The blueberry variety was sadly a little lacking in flavor, but the banana was a bit more satisfying in both flavor and density.

Two savory pastries had been obtained for the tenors: a Spinach and Ricotta Croissant and a Ham and Cheese Croissant.  The members of the choir all agreed that the pastry itself was absolutely perfect, being flaky and buttery, but still light and not overly rich.  As for the fillings, they seemed to have been applied with a sparring hand, which some felt showed excellent restraint and some felt left them wanting more.  The Ham and Cheese was surprisingly cheese forward with the ham serving as a nice smokey background flavor, while the Spinach Ricotta had a bit more bite.

The Cheese Danish was a favorite among the altos, sporting the same kind of thin flaky pastry as the the savory snacks, but filled with a delicate sweet cheese that was good, but pretty standard.  The Chocolate Almond Croissant was a great combination of two classic croissant flavors with fillings of both rich, dark chocolate and sweet almond paste.  This croissant's texture was quite different from the other pastries with a lot more crunch and a heavier texture.

Lastly, Brandy presented the sopranos with the array of beautiful macaroons in beautifully vibrant colors and designs, some even with sparkling golden paint on them.  The overall texture of the macaroons was a little on the dry side, but with a good chew inside, and most had easily identifiable flavors.  Favorites of the crowd included a decedent Red Velvet Cake, a chewy Salted Caramel, a jam like Cassis (a black currant flavored liqueur), a punchy Mango Passion, and a sophisticated Earl Grey.  Those that disappointed were the Green Tea (very little flavor), the Lavender (a little too on the soapy side), and the Strawberry Champagne (where the champagne was easily detectable, but the strawberry was not).

Now suitably perked up by their breakfast and snacks, the choir began rehearsal properly by practicing their four part version of "Le Mer" followed by a Jacques Brel medley.  Though a little on the pricey side for Brandy (six pastries and thirteen macaroons came out to just over $50), the goodies she'd gotten from Vanille Patisserie were quite obviously crafted with love, attention, and quality ingredients.  The only downside to her trip to Vanille was that Brandy was slightly incapable of concentrating on the choir because she kept dreaming of going back to the bakery and buying every single one of the beautiful little desserts in the case.

The Short and Sweet Review

Vanille on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 20, 2015

SideDoor or Hops To It

The Slow and Savory Review

"I have very exciting news!" Mama Bee told Brandy over the phone one day.  "Did you finally find a place to open your new bakery?" Brandy asked.  "No."  "Did you... develop a less sticky honey?" Brandy guessed.  "No."  "Did you get stung by a hive of your bees and spent the last three weeks in hospital, unable to speak, but the swelling finally went down, so now you're calling me?"  "No."  "Then what is the bloody news?" Brandy asked, exasperated.  "I can't tell you over the phone," Mama Bee said, slyly, "I need you to pick a place for us to go to brunch, somewhere special, and I'll tell you then."  "Well, Bunny did discover a really fun place a few months ago that I've been meaning to return to called SideDoor," Brandy mused, "It's a gastropub sort of place, but they specialize in rare micro brews and hand carved meat.  They don't have a brunch service per say at the moment, but they do serve lunch and-" "Perfect!" Mama Bee interrupted her, "I'll meet you there!"

Just as she remembered, the interior of SideDoor was Brandy's favorite kind of eclectic, looking like the parlor of an eccentric millionaire's mansion in New England.  Quirky decor infiltrated every open space, like a fossilized tortoise shell, a snowflake made from old dishware, altered classical style portrait paintings, and even framed puppet schematics in the bathrooms, which hinted at the building's own varied history (which, yes, did include at one time being a puppet theater).  "I always feel right at home in any place that looks like it might be haunted," Brandy told Mama Bee, smiling.

The two ladies were seated near the back of the dining area, just beside the meat carving station where they could watch all the action.  "Now if I remember correctly, Bunny said that this place has a pretty good beer program," Brandy said, glancing at the menu.  "I don't know.  I'm not very knowledgeable about beer," Mama Bee said, also taking a look at the daunting line up of options.  Knowing her friend's sweet tooth, Brandy suggested Mama Bee try the Not Your Father's Root Beer, a surprisingly potent alcoholic version of the popular soft drink ("Which is actually a more traditional preparation of root beer," Brandy informed her).  Mama Bee was positively infatuated with the drink at the first sip, immediately searching on her phone to find out where she could buy some more for her own private stash.  Brandy went with her old standby of ordering the darkest beer on the menu, which in this case proved to be the Great Divide Yeti Imperial Stout, which was hoppy, toasty, and very smooth.

After studying the menu in depth, the ladies decided to split a few dishes, starting with the Pear Salad (a recommendation from Bunny's previous visit).  Mama Bee really enjoyed the silky greens mixed with the sweetness of the pear slices and the candied pecans, while Brandy enjoyed the salty shavings of ricotta salata and slight tanginess of the vinaigrette, which had been applied to the salad just perfectly.  "I do think a good salad should be a parade of complimentary textures," Brandy said grandly, "And this little mix definitely delivers on that ideal."

Next, the ladies tried the French Onion Press, a sort of panini inspired by French onion soup.  Much to Brandy's surprise, the sandwich really did have a very authentic French onion soup flavor, right down the meatiness of the caramelized onions.  She also really enjoyed to pop from a decent layer of whole mustard on the sandwich, as well as the butterniess of the toasted bread.  If anything could have improved the sandwich for her, it would have been just a bit more melty cheese, as everyone knows that the best part of French onion soup is usually the crusty cheese cap, but Brandy was still so smitten with the dish that she considered scooping up Mama Bee's half for herself while her friend was distracted by her delicious root beer.  The sandwich also came with a side of house made potato chips, which were pretty good, but were ultimately forsaken for another potato based delicacy coming to the table.

For their last shared plate, the ladies had ordered up the Prime Rib Poutine, which came topped with plenty of shredded, tender beef, a rich brown gravy, lots of melted Pepper Jack cheese, and most unusually, some house made giardiniera.  Being the connoisseur of poutine that Brandy is, she did have to doc the dish points for not actually using cheese curds ("A poutine without cheese curds is cheese fries.  Get it straight, people," Brandy has been known to say), but she was very happy to see that the fries had remained crispy, even under the burden of the toppings.  Mama Bee really liked the addition of the giardiniera, which she felt added a nice bit of heat and a little zing to the dish, as well as some texture from the still crisp veggies.  The only thing somewhat regrettable was that the incredibly tender beef got a little lost among the boldness of all the other flavors.

Just as they were reaching the limit of their stomachs, a well dressed young man approached their table and introduced himself as Jeff Van Der Tuuk.  "Oh yes!" Brandy exclaimed, "You're the beer director Bunny told me about!"  And upon hearing Bunny's name, Mr. Van Der Tuuk insisted on coming up with a few little surprises for the table.  "I've got some things in my stash you might like to try," he told the ladies with a wry smile, "Also, I see you've not had anything sweet yet.  I'll have the kitchen send a little something over."  "Oh, a man after my own heart!" Brandy sighed, "I will always cherish the restaurants that know the value of mixing sweet and savory for brunch."  In due course, a small beer sampler was set at the table, consisting of an IPA from Against the Grain (hilariously entitled Citra Ass Down), which had a sweet, crisp, and hoppy taste with a pleasantly bitter finish, Ol' Leghorn (a collaboration from Three Floyds and Firestone Walker), which was a bit heavier with very smooth, oaky flavor, Fire and Blood from Ommegang, a reddish beer with a surprisingly lighter taste and a fruity finish, and Old Rasputin Imperial Russian  Stout, which was rich, smokey, and slightly creamy.  Delivering on the promise of a sweet finish to their meal, Brandy and Mama Bee were presented with a plate of Sticky Toffee Pudding, topped with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream.  The texture of the pudding was soft and spongy with a little chew from the caramelized crust at the bottom.  There was also little bursts of flavor from a few scattered raisins, and the whole things was topped by a huge dollop of house made whipped cream.

As she had been before, Brandy was mightily impressed with the service at SideDoor, but the food almost made quite a lasting impression.  Though slightly on the high side price wise (most dishes were between $10 and $15), the quality of the food definitely justified the price, and of course, access to such unusual and rare beers was quite a treat.  "I have to say, I have one tiny complaint," Mama Bee said as the ladies headed out the door, "They should be carrying my new honey mead!"  "You have a make honey mead now?" Brandy exclaimed, "Oh yeah!  That was what I was going to tell you over brunch!" Mama Bee laughed.

The Short and Sweet Review

SideDoor on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 13, 2015

From the Kitchens of Bunny and Brandy: Raw Spice Bar Review

Towards the end of last year, Brandy's attention was brought to a soon to launch subscription box called Raw Spice Bar that promised to deliver a selection of chef curated spice blends to one's door every month.  "I do like the sound of that," Brandy mused, "But being British, I'm not sure I know how to use exotic spice blends in my cooking."  Luckily for Brandy, each monthly delivery also comes with full recipes and helpful hints on how to use each one of the spices.

Fully intrigued, Brandy agreed to try out the service, and when her January delivery appeared in her mailbox, she couldn't wait to get into the kitchen.  January's theme was Southwestern Spices and had been curated by Chef Freddie Bitsoie from Albuquerque, whose Native American background was on full display in his choices of spice blends.  The inaugural box (which was really a sturdy brown envelope) contained four spice blends: Posole Spice Blend, Ground Chili Blend, Sumac and Herbs, and Juniper Berries and Spices.  Each spice was accompanied by a detailed description of its ingredients, tasting notes, and uses as well as separate recipe cards that could easily be added to one's recipe card catalog.

As she is nearly incapable of following a recipe to the T, Brandy decided to deviate from the suggestions a bit.  She used half the Ground Chili blend as a dry rub on a flank steak, which she cooked under the broiler, and then used the other half of the spices as directed in a hearty posole (a tomato based soup that is very commonly served in the Southwest).  The Posole Spice Blend obviously made a great base for the soup, and as Brandy is a bit of a heat wuss when it comes to food, she liked being able to control the level of hotness by splitting the chilis between the soup and the steak.  The Sumac and Herbs had a suggested use of adorning some Navajo flatbread, but Brandy decided to use that mix to coat some root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, and brussel sprouts), which she roasted with a little olive oil.  She very much liked the subtle sweetness and deep flavor the sumac added to her veggies.  Lastly was the Juniper Berry Mix, which came with a recipe for red wine poached apples, but as the wine portion was a bit more interesting to Brandy, she decided to use this one as mulling spices, simmering a bottle of fruity red wine with the warm spice blend and a few dehydrated apple slices for sweetness.

All in all, Brandy was mightily impressed by her first Raw Spice Bar delivery, not only with the quality of the spice blends and the ease of use, but even the simple, yet effective and professional packaging.  "I do like this idea of having specially curated ingredients delivered to my door," Brandy mused, "Now if only I could hire someone to come over and wash my dishes after all this cooking, I'd be set!"

The February Raw Spice Bar theme is Indian and comes with three brand new spice blends and recipes straight to your door for only $6, including shipping and handling.

The writers of this blog were provided with products from Raw Spice Bar free of charge in exchange for an honest review of the service.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Postcards from Bunny: Warm Comfort Foods at Pret a Manger

Bunny tends to pick the worst possible times to visit Chicago.  Recently, she was merely meant to be passing through between trips between Crete and Guam, but the surprise blizzard of 2015 grounded her flight and she found herself in a posh hotel room in the Loop and nothing to do.  "I do love you, my dear, but there is no way I will be going out in this snow," Brandy told her dear friend when she phoned her, "I mean, I might get stuck in a snow drift and never be heard from again!  And then where will Chicago get their brunch recommendations?!"  "It's perfectly understandable," Bunny sighed, "But how am I to pass the time?"  "Well, if memory serves, you're within walking distance of a Pret a Manger, and I've heard they are serving lots of new dishes.  Why don't you go try some of those?"
"Good idea!" Bunny grinned, instantly cheered.

First, Bunny took a look at the new Hot Pots, which came in Korean BBQ Pork and Cauliflower and Sweet Potato Curry.  Bunny most certainly would have gone for the curry, but sadly, a friendly worker let her know that he had just sold the last one, so she gladly settled for the BBQ Pork.  She found the bowl to be a hearty mix of the aforementioned meat, which was melt-in-the-mouth tender and smothered in a sweet, tangy sauce, with red peppers, and black sesame seeds, all topping a bed of red quinoa.  Bunny was instantly warmed by the Hot Pot, just as her tongue was tingled by the mix of spices in the sauce, and so smitten was she with the flavor that she found it hard to believe that the entire things was under 500 calories.

Another day stuck downtown necessitated another trip to Pret for more warm goodies.  This time, Bunny went for the Tomato Spinach Mac and Cheese, another shockingly low calorie option that also came in under 500 calories, having had it's creamy cheese sauce cut with cauliflower.  Bunny had seen that Brandy had sampled the Bacon Mac and Cheese last fall, so she knew she would love the rich, creamy dish, but she hadn't expected the delightful pops of sweetness from the slices of cherry tomato that really made each bite come alive.

On the last day of her snow confinement, Bunny's eye was caught by one of the new sandwiches called the Posh Cheddar, which came on a multigrain baguette with arugula and a tomato chutney.  Even though it wasn't hot, Bunny thought she wouldn't have minded if the sandwich was placed in a toaster oven briefly, which would have just slightly melted the sharp white cheddar, wilted the peppery greens, and brought out the flavors in the sweet chutney even more, but that being said, she actually quite enjoyed the sandwich cold as it was.  "Ah, this reminds me of home," she sighed, thinking of the Ploughman's lunches she used to enjoy as a child.

Luckily soon after that, Bunny and able to continue on her merry way to Guam for some sun and excavating with her husband, Benedict, though she did wish she could have stayed just a little longer in Chicago in order to track down that elusive curry Hot Pot.  "Ah well," she thought, "I'll just have to come back to Chicago sooner rather than later.  I wonder when the next blizzard will arrive..."

The writers of this blog were provided with the items mentioned above by the restaurant free of charge in order to facilitate the writing of this post.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Ceres Table or The Haunting of the Frog

The Slow and Savory Review

Ever since she became involved in the Chicago food scene, Brandy has been fascinated by just how quickly things come and go.  Year after year she watches as some of her favorite spots disappear from the map as chefs bounce from place to place and spaces are endlessly re-concepted, whether its out of boredom or necessity.  "It does make it hard on me, doing what I do, to recommend places I loved two years ago to people without being entirely sure the restaurant is still there or is as good as it once was," Brandy explained to her good friend Mama Bee.  "But on the plus side, doesn't the endless rotation give you endless brunch options?" Mama Bee replied.  "I suppose," Brandy sighed, "But now that I've been to several new places that have been built on the bones of old favorites, I never quite get over the feeling of dining in a haunted house."

Case in point, as Brandy and Mama Bee were having this conversation, they were headed to brunch at Ceres' Table, the new rustic Italian joint that took over the space of one of Brandy's all time favorites, Frog 'N Snail.  Though there neither of the restaurants had anything in common besides the space (different owners, chefs, menus, etc.), Brandy couldn't help comparing the two.

The interior layout of Ceres Table hadn't moved away too much from its predecessor, utilizing the narrow front space as more of a bar and lounge and the more open, dimly lit space at the back as the main dining area.  The decor was very modern and sleek, with antiqued woods, grey tones, and little pops of color here and there.  "It's a little stark for brunch," Brandy commented, "But I'm sure its rather lovely for dinner service."

Mama Bee and Brandy began their meal with a couple of house specialty cocktails ("I do love a good brunch cocktail list," Brandy smiled, rubbing her hands together in anticipation): the Top of the Morning for Mama Bee and the Breakfast in Milan for Brandy.  Brandy's cocktail professed to be an "upside down" Manhattan, as it contained more vermouth than bourbon, and though Brandy had initially been intrigued by the idea, she found she actually didn't care for the result that much.  "I'm not blaming the cocktail here," Brandy commented, musing over her drink, "I think that it's just that I'm more of a bourbon fan than I realized, and having it play second fiddle to the vermouth here just doesn't seem right."  She actually found the drink a little too on the sweet side for her liking, which made the cocktail over all rather astringent and less smokey than a typical Manhattan.  Mama Bee's cocktail, on the other hand, was a hit with both ladies.  The Top of the Morning had been made with coffee, dark rum, and just a little bitter herb liqueur which made the drink creamy, smooth, and just ever so slightly boozy.

The pair started off with a plate of Ricotta Pancakes.  Brandy, who is usually a little skeptical of ordering pancakes ("I've had some real hubcaps in my day," she warned Mama Bee), was actually quite smitten with their light, moist texture and deep caramel flavor, and especially with the burst of the fresh blueberries with in.  "It's rare that I can safely say I would sit down and eat an entire plate of pancakes by myself, but this is definitely one of those occasions," Brandy raved.

For her entree, Mama Bee ordered up the Eggs Benedict Florentine, which was unbelievably, her first plate of eggs benedict ever.  "I just never used to pay attention to the savory side of the brunch menu before I met you," she told Brandy, "I used to just scan the thing for the first item with honey in it and order that!"  Mama Bee rather liked her first eggs benedict, especially the smooth and buttery hollandaise, though the eggs were ever so slightly over cooked ("That yolk should be a waterfall when you cut into it, not a mudslide," Brandy observed).  The side potatoes were also rather nice with a good bit of spice to them as well as lots on onions and peppers, though she did wish they had had a bit more of a crunchy texture.

Brandy ordered up the Shrimp and Mushroom Crepe, as once again, she was intrigued by the idea of the dish, but sadly, like the cocktail, it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.  The shrimp were cooked nicely, but what the menu had said were supposed to be cremini mushrooms looked to Brandy to actually be shitakes.  "Does it really make that much of a difference?" Mama Bee asked cautiously.  Brandy gave her a withering glance.  "There is a vast difference, both in texture and flavor," she replied patiently, "And for me, a shitake just doesn't work well here."  The cream sauce that saturated the dish was a little too salty for Brandy's liking, and even though seafood and cheese are usually a sacrilege, Brandy almost wished the sauce had more of a parmesan-like flavor.

Though the food was a little lackluster in places, the service helped to make up for it, as the friendly server actually picked up on Brandy's disappointment with her dish without even being told directly (when he asked if the ladies had enjoyed their meal, Brandy's non-committal "For the most part," was greeted with inquiries on what could have been improved).  For the quality of food, Brandy also thought that the prices were somewhat reasonable, with most dishes coming in well under $15 and the cocktails at an extremely reasonable $7 on average.  "Though this brunch didn't quite measure up to my old favorite," Brandy commented to Mama Bee, "I think I would certainly come back here to try some other things on the menu.  I'm not saying this will be one of my new favorites, but perhaps a few meals here will help me to see this place as it is and not for the ghost of what it used to be."

The Short and Sweet Review

Ceres' Table on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Food News: J. Parker at Hotel Lincoln Debutes New Rooftop

Photo courtesy of The Door
Earlier this week, The J. Parker, a slick cocktail bar that sits atop the Hotel Lincoln in Old Town, opened up their brand new rooftop to the public.  "How can one even think about rooftops at this time of year?" Brandy wondered when she heard this, "I hope they're handing out blankets and ear muffs with the cocktails!" Fortunately for Brandy, this rooftop has a few tricks up it's sleeve, namely that the space is newly enclosed by a retractable roof that keeps revelers warm and comfy while still being about the enjoy the gorgeous lakefront view.

Photo courtesy of The Door
The glass enclosed section of the bar gives guests the feeling of being inside a living snow globe during the winter, but on warm summer nights, it can be pulled back so that guests can fully enjoy the city-scape below.  "It's quite a brilliant set up, I must say," Brandy said when she attended a preview of the space last week, "I'm not sure I feel like being inside a snow globe, but with the panels the way they are, I do feel like I am inside a giant diamond, which definitely does feel luxurious."

Along with the rooftop, the J. Parker is also premiering a new winter menu of small plates and bites by Chef Paul Virant (whose name sake restaurant, Perennial Virant, rests on the ground floor of the hotel) that includes things like hand cut fries, beef shank chili, and shrimp sliders.  Though the food is tempting, Brandy was truly smitten by the cocktails, created by seasoned bar vet Allie Kim.  The craft concoctions include a few warm unique cocktails, like the Rockin' Chair, a sort of spiced apple cider with rum and topped by a pad of melting butter, but Brandy's favorite was the Smoke Rings, a combination of boubon, white chocolate, root beer, and a whole egg that sounds like a sweet mess, but actually tastes sophisticated and surprisingly, well, smokey.

The rooftop at the J. Parker is now open to the public 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

J Parker on Urbanspoon