Friday, August 28, 2015

Fig & Olive or The Giving Tree

The Slow and Savory Review

Goodness knows Brandy has done a lot of traveling in her life, having lived on every continent, (including that penguin sanctuary in Antarctica) at some point or another.  Her decision to ultimately settle in Chicago was made for several reasons, and while she has never regretted that decision, she does often long for a different atmosphere for a minute of two.  "This summer has been so bloody humid," she said one day, wiping the sweat from her brow, "The only time I ever remember enjoying humidity was when I was backpacking across the Italian coast.  I used to wander in and out of those little villages, sampling all the fresh and simple foods of the region, then watching the sun set below the water... ah, those were the best summer days of my life!  What I wouldn't give for a little taste of that region now."

Luckily, Brandy stumbled upon Fig & Olive in the Gold Coast, the only Chicago location for the line of fine dining restaurants, based on the cuisines of Southern France, Italy, and Spain.  So devoted to the distinct ingredients of their namesakes was Fig & Olive that not only did they have fig recipes all over the menu all year (their figs being grown specifically for them by a single farm in California), but also the fact that no butter is ever used in any of their savory dishes, choosing instead to utilize a vast array of olive oils.

The elegant dark wood entrance to Fig & Olive led to a gold doored elevator, which took diners up stairs to the host station, bar, and one of two dining areas (the second being located on the third floor, which included a small balcony patio).  The impressive bar was the first thing to catch Brandy's fancy, as at its center stood what looked to be an olive tree, reaching its branches up to a sky light above.  The tree, it turned out, wasn't real, but did represent an actual tree at the center of another one of Fig and Olive's locations and set the perfect impression for the fresh Mediterranean cuisine they were so famed for.  The rest of the restaurant was done in white and gold with orange accents, giving it a warm and breezy feeling.  "I feel like I'm walking the coast in Amalfi already!" Brandy sighed.

The morning started with one of Fig & Olive's signature cocktails, the Rossellini, which consisted of blood orange juice, lime juice, and passion fruit flavored vodka.  Brandy found this to be a nice, zingy twist on a Screwdriver, with the lime juice taming the sometimes too sweet passion fruit flavor into a smooth, bright finish that was perfect first thing in the morning.

She started her meal off with some of the Crostini, asking for three flavors of the chef's choosing.  What she ended up with was three absolutely beautiful looking varieties: one with prosciutto, ricotta, fig, and walnut, another with goat cheese, manchego, and chive, and a third with burrata, pesto, tomato, and balsamic drizzle.  Each crostini settled its variety of toppings on a simple, crunchy toast slice, all of which held their shape and texture without going limp or soggy.  All three of the flavors seemed to Brandy to be the perfect little bursts of flavor, with the slightly sweet and salty prosciutto and fig one standing out a little as Brandy'a favorite.

Next up, Brandy luxuriated in some Truffle Mushroom Fontina Scrambled Eggs, with came served with a few more pieces of toast.  Seeing that, her British instincts kicked in and she quickly scooped some of the eggs and mushrooms onto the bread.  The perfume of the truffle oil kicked in as she brought the toast near to her face, and she was pleasantly surprised that the eggs actually tasted of truffle as well.  The mushrooms were a nice touch and added to the earthiness of the eggs, but Brandy's eternal lust for dairy products left her desiring a little more cheese.

On the more lunch side of the menu, Brandy decided to give the Salmon Burger a try.  The substantial burger came dressed with tomato, arugula, shallots, and a caper and dill mayonnaise and came with a side of skinny fries with even more truffle olive oil on them.  Though not the biggest fan of salmon, Brandy really enjoyed the burger, which was rather fresh tasting, meaning it went down lighter than one might expect.  The sauce didn't over power with the dill, letting the tender fish be the true star.  "It's a little unexpected to have a chilled burger," Brandy commented, turning the brioche bun over in her hands, "But I have to say I rather enjoy it!"  The fries too were a pleasant surprise, as their size made them uniquely crispy.  Again, the truffle oil tasted authentic, and the addition of lots of Parmesan cheese only added to the richness.

Lastly, Brandy had just enough room for a little something sweet.  She ordered up a Waffle, which came served with pearl sugar and some fresh berries.  The simplicity of the toppings and presentation delighted Brandy, but she was even more thrilled when she realized that this waffle was not the typical Belgian style, but a less common Liege waffle.  This meant that the texture of the waffle was more chewy and dense, rather than fluffy and crispy, or in other words, more like a cookie or a pastry than a pancake, and the flavor was very much caramel and vanilla.  The little bits of pearl sugar provided a lovely little crunch, and because fresh berries had been served, they helped to add some tartness to the whole plate.

"I don't think I've felt this pleasantly full in a very long time," Brandy sighed as she patted her belly, "Everything was just so fresh and light that, while I feel satisfied, I don't feel weighed down.  This is just how I used to feel after spending all day sitting on a bistro patio, munching away on all those Mediterranean tidbits so long ago!"  Prices were a tad on the steep side (most everything was between $12 and $20 a plate), but were easily justifiable when one considered the quality of ingredients and the attention to detail in the food, and though the restaurant was buzzing, Brandy had rarely felt so relaxed by an atmosphere that didn't include an actual beach.  "Now that I've had some figs and plenty of olives, I think I'm due for a little relaxing walk down to the ocean...uh, I mean...the lake."  Unfortunately for Brandy, that happened to be the weekend of the Air and Water Show, and the Blue Angels made her stroll by the water a little less than calming.

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
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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

From the Kitchens of Bunny and Brandy: Inside out Croque Madame with Emmi Cheese

If there is a one flaw in Brandy's personality, it might be said that it's that she gets bored very easily.  She is often to be found with the various chaise lounges in her sitting room all askew simply because their arrangement had become tedious.  Sometimes she pulls apart embroidery projects she'd been working on for months simply so that she could start a new design.  And sometimes she likes to re-arrange her brunch foods.

In fact, one spot of restlessness had Brandy pondering the Croque Madame, that bastion of European breakfast food lovers everywhere.  "Funnily enough, a dish so easily identifiable as French gets some of its signature flavor from a Swiss cheese, usually Emmantaler or Gruyere," as Brandy points out, "Personally, I adore the nuttiness of a Gruyere on my Croque Madames, but the smooth, fruitiness of an Emmantaler is lovely too."

Recently, Brandy had the chance to sample some products from Emmi USA, a purveyor of fine authentic cheeses from Switzerland, and tasting their mild, buttery Gruyere immediately gave her an idea.  "I think a Croque Madame could only be made better by putting a cheese like this at the center of it...say, that's not a bad idea!"

And so, the Inside Out Croque Madame was born; a pocket of gooey, nutty cheese in the center of a perfectly cooked egg, accented with some salty Canadian bacon, topped with crunchy panko bread crumbs, and served with a bechamel with even more cheese and browned just a little bit to bring out the nuttiness.

The writers of this blog were sent products by Emmi USA in order to facilitate the writing of this post.

Inside Out Croque Madame

2 cups of whole milk
4 tablespoons of butter
3 tablespoons of flour
1 block of Emmi Le Gruyere, 1/2 shredded and 1/2 cubed into 1 inch pieces
salt and pepper to taste
12 slices of Canadian bacon
12 large eggs
1/3 cup of panko bread crumbs

In a medium sauce pan, carefully heat the milk over low heat.  In a second saucepan, melt the butter.  Add the flour to the butter and whisk until the mixture is smooth and slightly browned.  Slowly add in the milk, whisking to make sure there are no lumps.  Once all the milk has been added and the mixture is smooth, add the shredded cheese, salt, and pepper.  Simmer on low until ready to serve.

Lightly grease a muffin tin and preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Make a slit in each bacon slice half way through the center and curl them into a wide cone shape to fit into each cup.  Add a cube of cheese on top of each bacon slice.  Crack an egg into each cup.  Top each egg with a few pinches of panko bread crumbs, enough to cover the top.  Bake for 10-12 minutes.

Serve warm with sauce.

Friday, August 21, 2015

 A Savory Summer Evening at Filini

It was a rainy summer night when Brandy showed up in the lobby of the Radisson Blu in downtown Chicago, looking for all the world like a drowned rat, dripping water into the fine furniture.  She had been invited to a dinner at Filini, the chic, elegant Italian restaurant inside the hotel, which had recently launched a new menu of authentic Italian cuisine, like house-made pasta and fresh seafood.  "I'm going to need a cocktail and a hair dryer," she told one of the hostesses.

Filini immediately gave off a classy vibe, not only because of the clean looking white and gold decor, but also because of the three piece jazz band playing softly by the buzzing bar.  The lower level seemed to contain more of an after work crowd, enjoying cocktails and small plates, while the second level dinning room was a bit more mellow and relaxed for those enjoying their dinners.  Brandy heard tell of the third level, which featured a terrace with beautiful views of Millennium Park, but unfortunately, the rain that day prevented full enjoyment of that feature.

The evening began with some lovely Bruschetta with heirloom tomatoes, balsamic drizzle, and fresh arugula.  The presentation of such simple Tuscan flavors was a great set up for everything else to come.  Even something as simple as this dish was treated with a sense of dignity, as the servers scraped fresh Parmesan from a gigantic wheel in the middle of the room to accompany the bruschetta.

The first course was an asparagus dish with lemon cream, capers, and a single egg yolk.  Brandy delighted in the clean, richness of the dish, with the charred flavor from the roasted asparagus and a bright bite form the vinegary capers.

After that came a Ravioli, one of several dishes that night to feature the made in house pasta.  The filling was a combination of traditional Italian cheeses, which worked rather well with the tomato based sauce and some fresh basil oil.  The pasta was perfectly cooked and the thickness was just enough to give a little bit of a chew without overwhelming the fluffy cheese filling.

Next came a couple of Angelotti; candy shaped squid ink pasta stuffed with lobster and topped with a roasted pepper sauce and green peas.  Again, the pasta had the perfect al dente texture, though the filling wasn't Brandy's favorite, as lobster had been almost pureed, where as she would have liked a little bigger pieces.  She did however very much like the slightly smokey sauce and the freshness of the peas.

Moving on to proteins, the next course was a grilled piece of sea bass with greens and a salsa verde that more resembled a pesto.  The fish was flakey, moist, and very well seasoned.  Again, Brandy admired the restraint in this dish, which was designed to show off the splendid sea bass in all its glory, rather than overloading it with all sorts of flair and bother.

The final savory dish of the night was a tender cut of veal with prosciutto, sage, and putanesca.  Though not a huge fan of olives, Brandy did enjoy how well the putanesca paired with the salty prosciutto and the juicy veal, all tied in with the earthiness of the sage leaf hidden underneath the meat.

Winding down the indulgent meal with some desserts, the group was presented with some strawberry panna cotta and an adorable little cannoli.  The panna cotta had a thick, almost jelly like texture to it and was packed with milky, strawberry flavor.  The cannoli was another example of an Italian staple done very well with its crispy shell and creamy filling set off with some crunchy pistachios.

Finally, a parade of stunning gelato sundaes served in massive martini glasses made their way to the group, coming in flavors like S'mores, Banana Split, and Salted Caramel.  What turned out to be Brandy's favorite of the group actually ended up landing right in front of her: the signature Blu gelato, which was flavored with a sweet white marsala wine and topped with a fresh strawberry sauce, slivered almonds, and whipped cream.  Not only was the dessert a delight to behold, its flavor was unexpectedly sophisticated with a subtle fruitiness that matched well with the sauce and the nuts.

Brandy was mightily impressed, all in all, with everything Filini had to offer.  The attention to tradition as well as a few modern twists meant that the vast majority of dishes would please just about any kind of diner, from foodies to someone just out for the night.  In fact, Brandy had enjoyed the meal so much, she had forgotten all about the rain outside.  "I was thoroughly convinced for a minute there that I was in a trendy restaurant in Rome on a balmy summer day... perhaps I'll stay here a while longer and have enough cocktails to convince me that really is where I am," Brandy mused.

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

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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Postcards from Bunny: Shine & Dine and Cuisine for Cancer

Photo credit: Kelly Allison       Shine & Dine Mentees
There's a few things that will pull Bunny away from her adventures abroad to come back home to Chicago, and second on that list (after a good plate of Eggs Benedict) is getting to champion a worthy cause with an amazing evening of food, drink, and fun.  Recently, Bunny had the privilege of attending two such events: the inaugural Cuisine for Cancer night, hosted by foodie extraordinaire Steven Lee and Imerman Angels, and for the second year in a row, the Shine & Dine night hosted by Step Up Woman's Network.

First up was the first ever Cuisine for Cancer event, a night of food and frivolity in which chefs from over 20 restaurants in partnership with 10 cancer charities prepared Latin fusion themed dishes and competed for prizes from the crowd and also from a panel of distinguished judges.  The event was held at the absolutely stunning Morgan Manufacturing industrial space, which featured a sunken dance floor, a fiesta inspired main floor, and awe inspiring views from the rooftop, where Liquor Lab was hosting an exclusive experience, complete with specialty cocktails.

Bunny noted quite a few of her and Brandy's favorite spots among the crowds that night, like Public House, Bull & Bear, and Carnivale.  Making her way around the floor and trying the various tacos, gazpachos, and such on offer, Bunny quickly zeroed in on a few stand out dishes.  Carriage House brought a green gazpacho with pickled pink shrimp, watermelon, and charred corn which was vibrant and refreshing, while The Bedford had a zingy and heat packed chicken thigh tostada with pineapple and marinated summer vegetables and Warm Belly Bakery served up spicey and rich Mexican chocolate cookies.  The winner of the crowd favorite came from Dinner Lab with their over stuffed shrimp tacos containing beer battered shrimps, jicama slaw, and ancho chili aioli, while the judges' favorite was a smokey short rib taco from Q Barbecue, and Bunny quite approved of both choices.  The winning restaurants won a large portion of the profits from the event's ticket sales to donate to their associated charities, while the other charities evenly split the rest of the profits.  "Oh, I do hope they do this again next year!" Bunny sighed as she sipped her cocktail and munched on a black rice fritter from Jellyfish, "If there's one thing I love more than good food, its a good deed."

A few days later, Bunny was once again whisked into another vibrant evening of food, this time for Step Up Women's Network 5th annual Shine & Dine.  Held at the gorgeous Bridgeport Arts Center Skyline Loft, this year's event honored Allstate Insurance Company’s Vice President and Assistant Treasurer Stephanie Neely and Step Up alumna Paris Scales. Step Up propels girls from under-resourced communities to fulfill their potential by empowering them to become confident, college-bound, career-focused and ready to join the next generation of professional women, and events throughout the year like Shine and Dine help to bring supportive funds to the organization not only through ticket sales, but also through a rather extravagant silent auction.  All in all, this year's evening raised over $250,000 for Step Up's after school programs.

The food at this year's event was just as good, if not better, than last year.  Bunny delighted in dishes like the smoked prime striploin with corn, cilantro, and pickled onion from Michael Jordan's Steakhouse, hamachi and tuna tartar from Signature Room, and the heirloom melon salad with sheep's milk feta and pecans from Found.  Troquet caused quite a stir with people lining up to try their Angus beef sliders with camenbert, bacon, and truffle aioli, but Bunny's eye was drawn to a variety of delectable desserts, like a passion fruit creme brulee tart from Vanille, some key lime bites from Bang Bang Pie Shop, and a succulent berry gelato from Spiaggia.  

"With such amazing food around, its hard to imagine anything more perfect," Bunny sighed, "But the fact that all of this was done in the name of such a noble organization makes everything taste that much sweeter."

Make sure to check out Bunny and Brandy's Facebook page for loads more photos from both events!

The writers of this blog were admitted to these events free of charge as members of the media in order to facilitate the writing o this post.

Friday, August 14, 2015

GT Fish and Oyster or Mother of Pearl

The Slow and Savory Review

Brandy was becoming more than a little worried about her friend, Mama Bee, and her obsession with honey.  Though Mama Bee's business was in honey (she is of course the owner and operator of the Honey Bee Bakery empire), it seemed she simply could not eat a meal without a generous coating of the sweet stuff.  "What you need is a good dose of savory, maybe even salty food to reboot your palate," Brandy told her.  "But you yourself always say that savory is made better with sweet!" proclaimed Mama Bee. "Yes, but life is all about balance, and right now your diet is balancing on the side of rotting your teeth.  We need to find a good seafood restaurant, perhaps, with lots of briny goodies for you to sample."  "I'm not such a fan of seafood," Mama Bee said, wrinkling her nose.  "When I get done with you, you will be!" said Brandy.

Brandy chose to take Mama Bee to GT Fish and Oyster, one of the original oyster bars that seem to be popping up everywhere in Chicago these days.  GT was unsurprisingly rather hip and modern inside with a slick black and cream color scheme and warm metallic accents.  The little nautical touches, like the model ships and the light fixtures made from black rope to look like oyster clusters, helped to warm the place up a little while providing a pretty literal interpretation of the restaurant's specialties.

First order of business was to decide on a couple of cocktails: a Peach Bellini for Mama Bee and a No Hitter for Brandy.  The Bellini was very well executed with a crisp, dry taste and a fresh peach flavor.  The No Hitter, which Brandy got with some sour mash, had a tangy kick to it that livened up the palate without being too obtrusive and kept the fresh strawberry flavor from being too sweet.

Soon after, food began to make its way to the table.  As Brandy had heard that GT was known for its Monkey Bread, she knew she simply had to try that for certain.  This morning, the doughy delight was in its sweet version topped with caramel and toffee and accompanied by some vanilla whipped cream.  The little balls of dough quite literally melted on the tongue, surrounding it with a buttery caramel flavor.  Indeed, so tender was the monkey bread that it fell apart while attempting to get the pieces into one's mouth, almost requiring a spoon to eat it properly.  The whipped cream, while delicious, almost seemed unnecessary, as Mama Bee and Brandy were too distracted fighting for pieces to actually utilize it.  "Oh, I do like this dish!" said Mama Bee, licking caramel off her fingers.  "Good, now to ease you into the savory realm," said Brandy.

"The place has 'oyster' in the name for goodness sake!" Brandy sighed, but Mama Bee would not budge in her resolution to not let any seafood pass her lips, so Brandy ordered up an Oyster Po Boy Slider for herself.  The little sandwich was a perfect mix of textures and flavors, with a soft bun, bright and sour kimchi, and a single crunchy fried oyster in the middle.  "Normally I take my oysters raw, but this is rather delightful!" Brandy exclaimed, and for a moment, Mama Bee seemed to be regretting her decision.

Mama Bee had chosen the Fried Chicken and Waffles as her entree, not only because it wasn't seafood, but also because it came served with Burton's Maplewood Farms maple syrup, a product she had become addicted to thanks to Brandy.  "If I can't have it with honey, this is the next best thing," she grinned.  The chicken had been perfectly cooked and coated in a nicely light and crunchy batter, but Mama Bee really took a shine to the waffles, which were excellently caramelized on the outside, and light and chewy on the inside with a nice malty flavor.  "I only have one complaint," Mama Bee said.  "Let me guess.  Not enough syrup?" Brandy replied.  "You know me too well," Mama Bee grinned.

Brandy had decided on the Lobster Biscuits and Gravy as her entree.  The dish certainly put the emphasis on the biscuits, as the two gigantic buttermilk biscuits, which had been cut in half so as to look more like four biscuits, dominated the plate.  While the texture on the biscuits was beautifully tender, their flavor was more than a little on the salty side.  The gravy, which was more of a brown gravy than the traditional cream gravy one normally sees on such a dish, wasn't as rich as Brandy would have liked, but the veggies in it added a much needed bit of texture to the dish.  There was a decent amount of lobster mixed in, but it seemed over shadowed by the biscuits, and Brandy would have liked to have seen two poached eggs instead of one, if only for symmetry's sake.  "It's not disappointing, per say, but I would have liked to see the lobster be a bit more extroverted here,  It should be the star here, when really it's merely making a cameo appearance," Brandy commented, hunting under her biscuits for more little morsels of shellfish.

Though Bandy did not succeed in her goal of convincing Mama Bee to gain a new appreciation for seafood, a fine brunch was indeed had at GT Fish and Oyster.  The presentations could have been a bit more finessed, and though perfectly efficient, the service wasn't particularly friendly, but the quality of the food was what really came through.  "Perhaps next time I will finally be able to convince you to down an oyster or two," Brandy chided Mama Bee, who shuddered a little at the thought.  "I'm afraid all my teeth are sweet teeth, my dear," she said, "And unless those oysters miraculously pair well with honey, I doubt I'll ever be able to enjoy them."

The Short and Sweet Review
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Friday, August 7, 2015

Food News: Costa Vida Sneak Peek and Giveaway!

This past week, Brandy had the chance to visit the brand new Costa Vida location, the first of its kind in the Midwest, and find out exactly what sets this fast service Mexican restaurant apart from its competition.

The recently opened restaurant is the first out of the West Coast and features a variety of Baja inspired entrees, snacks, and desserts that put the focus on freshness.  Nothing in the restaurant is ever frozen, and in fact nothing can be, as the locations don't keep any freezers on site.  All of the meats are prepared fresh on the grill or slow cooked, all of the veggies are chopped by hand, and even the tortillas (which come in both corn and flour varieties) are made fresh by hand to order.  Indeed, the toasty smell of the tortillas cooking was the first thing that pulled Brandy in.  "This is most certainly what I like to see in my Mexican food," she commented, hypnotized by the spinning tortilla cooker, "A little bit of extra effort goes a long way to making deliciousness!"

The menu at Costa Vida is fairly simple, but infinitely customizable.  Entrees include items like Burritos, Enchiladas, Tacos, Salads, and Nachos, but diners can design their meals in almost any way they see fit, from their protein choices to the sauces to what kind of beans they want, and of course which of the freshly made tortillas they would like.  This means that not only will carnivores be pleased with the offerings, but everyone else from vegetarian to pescitarians to gluten free eaters will also have plenty to choose from.  The cuisine is authentically Baja inspired, meaning the dishes aren't overloaded with needless heat and feature lots of fresh produce.  Fans of more American style Mexican food won't be disappointed either, as traditional staples like rice and beans, guaccamole, and salsa and chips are served as well, but here they are given fresh twists (like adding cilantro and lime juice to the rice or mango to the salsa) and prepared with the kind of care one doesn't often see in similar chains.

The signature meats consist of things like the Sweet Pork (shredded slow cooked pork in a tangy, fruity sauce), the Raspberry Chipotle Chicken, and Shredded Beef with slight up charges for Grilled Steak and Baja Shrimp.  The variety of sauce and dressings was truly a thing to see, with choices including Roasted Green Chili, Tomatillo Cilantro, and smokey Red Enchilada for hot entrees and Mango Salsa, Tomatillo Ranch, or Cilantro Lime and Raspberry Chipotle Vinagrettes for cold entrees.  Brandy had great fun mixing and matching some of the different flavors, but she found in the end that the staff really were the best resource when it came to picking winning combinations.  In fact, when she ordered up a Steak Enchilada with a corn tortilla and some red sauce, one of the workers behind the counter asked if he might make one of her enchiladas "his way" with the green chili sauce, and though she was loath to admit someone else had been right, Brandy had to say that his suggestion had been the better of the two.

Happily. there are also several desserts on the menu at Costa Vida that help to round out any meal.  The Cinnamon Tortilla is exactly what it sounds like; a warm tortilla dusted with cinnamon and sugar and rolled up to create a sweet, spicy, and chewy treat that goes especially well with the house horchata.  The trio of signature desserts (Tres Leches Cake, Key Lime Pie, and Flan) all came served with a generous swirl of real whipped cream and some fruit for garnish.  While the Key Lime was sufficiently sweet and sour and the flan was amazingly creamy and delicious, Brandy's favorite was the Tres Leches cake, which was moist, sweet, and sumptuous.

Has your interest been sufficiently peeked in Costa Vida's fresh and tasty cuisine?  Then you're in luck!  Brandy has arranged a give away of a Costa Vida Silver card that will entitled its own to one free entree once a month for a year!  That means you'll have plenty of opportunities to experiment with all of the components in order to create the perfect dish!  Only Chicago residents can enter, as the card is only good at the Chicago location on Lake Street.  Giveaway will run Friday 8/7 through 11:00 PM CST 8/13 with the winner being announced on 8/14.  The winner will have 24 hours after being notified to send their shipping address, otherwise another winner will be chosen.  Good luck, brunch fans!

The writers of this blog were invited by the restaurant to sample to menu and provided with materials for the giveaway at no charge in order to facilitate the writing of this post.

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