Friday, January 29, 2016

Prairie Grass Cafe or Buddha of Suburbia

The Slow and Savory Review

As much as Brandy loves Chicago, sometimes she does feel the urge to get out of the city.  "The eternal convenience of urban living sometimes starts to make one feel claustrophobic," Brandy explained one day to her friend Starr, otherwise known as Chicago Foodie Girl, "I do occasionally long for the space and the quiet of the suburbs or the country, especially in the winter when cabin fever starts to take hold."  Agreeing, Starr suggested they perhaps head out on a little foodie road trip to clear their heads.

Starr's suggestion was immediately agreeable to Brandy; Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbook, a spot she had stopped into last year.  Having already flirted with the food of their executive chef, Sarah Stenger last month when she visited the indoor Evanston farmer's market, Brandy was rather excited to see her style of comfort food with high quality ingredients and simplified French techniques in its home setting.

Being used to city restaurants where space is at a premium, walking into the spacious Prairie Grass Cafe was a bit of a shock for Brandy.  At the front of the restaurant was a long bar, done in natural stones, which transitioned into the dining area.  The light was plentiful and warm with soft watercolor paintings on the walls, rich wood tables and chairs that matched the highly polished floors, and stunningly large light fixtures that gave everything a golden glow.

Brandy and Starr began with a pair of cocktails, of course; a Raspberry Mojito for Starr and a Nordic Nectar for Brandy.  Both drinks were crisp and fruity (Brandy's being a pineapple infused vodka) without being overly complicated.

To start off with, the ladies split an order of the special of the day, Banana Bread Stuffed French Toast.  The toast came served with a perfectly bisected banana that had a thin layer of caramelized sugar on it.  Brandy just loved the tiny crisp of the sugar on the banana, which was a special treat with the dense, soft banana bread.  The filing seemed to be a cream cheese, and though it was a little overwhelmed by the richness of the toast, it was still a welcome addition to the decadence.

Starr went for the Chiliquiles as her main course, which came served with guacamole and sour cream.  Though the guacamole had a wonderfully creamy consistency and the two eggs on top were prepared perfectly over easy, the shear amount of tortilla chips in the dish made the thing less traditional chiliquiles and more breakfast style nachos.  "As good as this is now, I would add a bit of pork or chicken, just some sort of meat to round it out a bit," Starr commented, and Brandy quite agreed.

Brandy decided on the Portobello Mushroom Benedict, a twist on the traditional dish using panko breaded mushroom caps in the place of English muffins.  Brandy simply adored the crunch of the mushrooms when combined with the perfectly poached eggs and some tender sauteed spinach.  The potatoes on the side were also done nicely, with a perfect crisp exterior and just a little hint of spice.  "It's been a long while since I saw a truly innovative Benedict," Brandy mused, "Being in my line of work, I sometimes get quite bored with endless attempts to re-invent the wheel, but every once in a while, you come across something like this and remember why re-invention is a wonderful thing."

Not ready to head back to the hustle and bustle of the city quite yet, Brandy and Starr picked a duo of chocolaty desserts; a slice of French Silk Pie and a Chocolate Muk Muk Cake.  Already well acquainted with Chef Stegner's pie making prowess from seeing her wares at the farmer's market, Brandy was excited to try her take on the classic chocolate pie topped with whipped cream, and she was hardly disappointed.  The crust was buttery and tender, the filling rich and creamy like the center of a truffle, and little curls of bittersweet chocolate were the literal icing on the cake.  The Muk Muk cake was essentially a lava cake with a rich, melty chocolate center that sent Starr and Brandy's eye rolling into the backs of their respective heads.

The relaxed and delicious brunch at Prairie Grass Cafe was just the thing Brandy needed to get her mind cleared and her stomach filled.  The prices seemed fair for the quality of the food and the friendly service combined with the warm atmosphere made Brandy feel she could take her time enjoying her meal, a feeling that sometimes gets lost in busier city restaurants, where table turn over is more prized than customer experience.  "Us city dwellers can get a little jaded when it comes to the suburbs, I think," Brandy mused, "But knowing there is good food to be found even outside of the city does make me want to give these places a bit more credit.  I think some more exploration is on the docket for 2016!"

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

The Short and Sweet Review

Prairie Grass Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, January 22, 2016

Ixcateco Grill or Grill Master of the Universe

The Slow and Savory Review

Brandy has had a rough time getting in gear for 2016.  Perhaps it was the long holiday weekend that threw her off.  Perhaps it was two weeks of eating nothing but cookies and fruit cake for breakfast.  Or perhaps it was the sudden deep plunge of the weather into freezing territory.  Whatever it is, Brandy has simply been in a funk for a good majority of the year so far.  "I just feel like... I need a bit of color in my life," she sighed, "Like everything has suddenly gone a bit grey a lifeless.  Well, only one thing for it; when the world starts feeling colorless, its time to get outside and paint the town red!  And when I think red, I think spice.  I think its time for some Mexican inspired brunch."

Journeying into Albany Park, Brandy headed for Ixcateco Grill, where chef and owner Anselmo Ramirez recently began serving a brunch consisting of authentic home style Mexican favorites.  When he was 14, Chef Ramirez saw Rick Bayless on Spanish television and became determined to work for him.  Starting out as a dish washer, he worked his way up through the ranks to Sous Chef.  Over a decade working in the kitchens of Rick Bayless taught Chef Ramirez everything he needed to know about opening up his own restaurant, but success hasn't made him forget his roots.  Dealing in Mexican comfort food, Chef Ramirez combines his skills as a grill master with traditional recipes, all made from scratch, right down to the tortillas his parents help prepare daily.

Brandy was immediately put into a good mood by the bright and colorful interior, featuring original Aztec inspired art.  The atmosphere is was relaxed and comfortable, highlighted with retro mariachi music, which gave one the feeling of being able to have an un-rushed dining experience.  The dark wood and highly polished tables were beautifully uncomplicated amid the vibrant color scheme.

Brandy started off her brunch with what she thought would be a simple cup of coffee.  The coffee at Ixcateco, however, had actually been spiced up a bit with cinnamon and orange peel, which Brandy just adored.  "How can you not love that little bit of extra effort with something a lot of other places don't even think about?" she commented.

A complimentary basket of chips and salsa was quickly delivered to Brandy's table, so she decided to put in an order for the house guacamole as well.  The guacamole had a nice creamy texture with lots of big chunks of avocado.  The flavor was perfectly fresh with just a tiny hint of spice, exactly how Brandy likes her guac.  "There is a tendency for the authentic flavors of Mexican food to be adjusted to an American palate by over using spice," Brandy mused, "But this is as it should be.  A slight bit of heat used to enhance the ingredients, rather than mask them."

Moving on to some more vegetation, Brandy ordered the Ensalada de Betabel, a mix of beets, watercress, and jicama with goat cheese, candied pecans, and an orange scented dressing.  The earthy salad was much like the interior of the restaurant; a vibrant mix of colors and textures that was all at once rich, bright, and exciting.  Brandy especially loved how the crunch of the nuts mixed with the crisp veggies and the creamy goat cheese to make each bite a little different.  "I suppose this isn't what one would normally expect when ordering a salad, but it makes for such a refreshing change of pace!" as Brandy put it.

For the main event, Brandy went for the Chilaquiles Rojos, served with a side of black beans.  The deeply flavored red sauce was incredibly scrumptious, and even though there was plenty of it covering the tortilla chips that made up the main part of the dish, they somehow magically stayed crisp all throughout the eating of the meal.  Brandy also loved that the queso fresco had been used sparingly, insuring it remain an accent of the dish when others might have been tempted to make it a feature.  The beans on the side had a lovely, creamy texture to them that paired wonderfully with the crunchy chilaquiles.

"I do so love a meal that leaves me feeling refreshed and inspired!" Brandy proclaimed as she scraped the last bit of sauce from her plate.  Alongside friendly service and very reasonable prices, it was the care and thought that went into the simple dishes that Brandy really appreciated.  "It's meals like this that make one want to go out into the world and paint a picture or write a story or stitch the greatest quilt anyone's ever seen!  Just goes to show that comfort food from anywhere in the world when done right can do amazing things for the soul."

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

The Short and Sweet Review

Ixcateco Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Tea Time with Brandy: Healthy Goodies for the New Year

This year, Brandy is more determined than ever to stick to her resolutions, even if she denies making any.  "Just because I've decided to start eating a little healthier near the beginning of the year, it doesn't mean it's because of some silly tradition.  I just thought it was about time I start introducing some more food groups outside of bacon, eggs, and cocktails into my regular diet," Brandy huffed at the suggestion of a resolution.  But what may seem a good idea on January 1st often is forgotten two weeks into the year.  That is why Brandy has safe guarded herself by stocking her fridge with healthy choices for every meal, from breakfast, lunch, dinner, and literally everything in between.

A big part of Brandy's game plan is juice.  Not that she's going for any of those super trendy all juice diets, but supplementing some of her meals with juices has been one of her long held practices.  Recently, Brandy discovered So Good Juice, a Midwest based company making non GMO cold pressed juices and nut milks in small batches that are not only nutritious, but rich in flavor.  After a raucous New Year's Eve, a concoction called Deep Cleanse, which consisted of lemon juice, filtered water, pure maple syrup, and cayenne pepper, was just the thing to get Brandy's digestion back on track.  As a sweet treat that's also packed with protein, Brandy grew rather fond of the Cashew Bliss, a shake like cashew milk with vanilla, cinnamon, a touch of sea salt, all sweetened up with agave nectar. 

Brandy also discovered a delightful way to incorporate juices into her snacking.  Daily Serving, a Chicago based company, is cleverly pairing mini servings of hand crafted juice blends with handfuls of scrumptious munchies, all tailored to specific purposes.  Brandy likes to curb her snack cravings in between breakfast and brunch with Wake, which features some spinach and orange juice as well as deliciously crunchy cinnamon roasted garbanzo beans and dark chocolate covered espresso beans.  A combo called Boost, which featured some spicy red pepper and pineapple juice spiked with cayenne paired with a mix of almonds, toasted coconut, and freeze dried strawberries, helped to keep Brandy's metabolism and immune system running at high capacity, meaning she can keep alive her world record streak of winters spent in Chicago without catching a cold.  And when those late night snack cravings start creeping in, Brandy reaches for Calm, with sweet cherry and pineapple juice as well as dried pineapple, cherries, and almonds scented with lavender for a truly relaxing experience before bed time.

Now that she had her beverage and snacking needs met, Brandy was on the lookout for some healthier options for her day to day meals.  Remembering her visit last year to Snap Kitchen, Brandy checked into the Lakeview location and, much to her delight, discovered a whole host of new and seasonal dishes.  For breakfast, Brandy especially loved the oatmeal, which had transitioned to a Maple Roasted Banana flavor for the winter to make for a hearty and sweet beginning to the day.  A couple of yogurt parfaits in Blueberry Chia Pecan and Strawberry Coconut Almond made for a lovely accompaniment to something savory, like the Oven Dried Tomato and Goat Cheese Tart, which became another particular favorite.  For lunches, Brandy loves a bit of salad and soup, so a warm bowl of Broccoli and Cheddar soup with a Kale Caesar Salad, dressed with pickled raisins and Parmesan cheese, absolutely hit the spot.  For dinner, Brandy tried some of the newer seasonal additions, like the hearty Beef Stroganoff with spinach and brown rice noodles, the Quinoa "Fried Rice" with its bold ginger flavor and crunchy vegetables, and the Crunchy Coconut Shrimp with pineapple and jalapeno spiked Thai basil rice.  Besides the new dishes (all of which are prepared daily in Snap's local commissary kitchen and delivered to its locations in Chicago), Snap Kitchen offered its own juices and other beverages, among which Brandy particularly enjoyed the Easy Greens, which cut its vegetative flavor with sweet apple and lemon juices, the light and refreshing Matcha Mint Tea with a touch of lime juice, and the surprisingly bold Almon-Chino, made with almond milk and a touch of salt to bring out the true flavor of the dark roast coffee.

"Well, now that my fridge is fully stocked with juices and snacks and meals a plenty, I surely cannot fail in my resolve," Brandy commented proudly, "Oh goodness... resolve comes a little too close to resolution for my liking.  If anyone asks, I'm just going to say that I'm gorging myself on lots of delicious food all day, every day.  Yes, that should work.  It's not as if its a lie either."
The writers of this blog were given products free of charge by the mentioned companies in order to facilitate the writing of this post.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Postcards from Bunny: Dinner at The Mexican and Hearth

So far, Bunny has no regrets about staying in Chicago to catch up on all the latest in food.  "There's so much out there that I don't know that I'll ever be able to say I've tried everything!" as Bunny put it.

Wanting to balance her fine dining adventures with some more casual fair while keeping her theme of international dining alive, Bunny headed to The Mexican in Lincoln Park, a sit down spot concentrating on authentic home style Mexican food.  On such a snowy night, stepping into the warmth and brightness of this space was a welcome relief, bringing Bunny back to the last time she was in Mexico on the Baja coast with her husband, Benedict.

The meal started off with a few of the house specialty drinks, like the Smokey Mango Mezcaita with a fruity and spicy kick, the Hibiscus Mule and its floral take on a classic, and the Boozy Horchata, which did indeed taste just like the traditional sweet Mexican beverage.

After that, Bunny dipped into a couple of starters; some guacamole and tortilla chips as well as a Street Corn Fundido.  The guacamole had a nice chunky texture with lots of tomato and garlic, and served well as a snack in between courses.  Bunny utterly adored the corn fundido, which had been made with several different cheeses and some smokey chili powder.  She continued scooping up bigger and bigger mouthfuls of it until there simply wasn't any more of the warm, melty, salty, and sweet dip left to scoop.

For dinner, Bunny ordered up some Steak Tacos Al Carbon and a plate of Shrimp al Mojo de Ajo.  The tacos had a fresh, bold flavor, with lots of tender flank steak, salty fresco cheese, and tangy red salsa.  The sides of yellow rice and re-fried beans were also a perfect accompaniment.  The shrimp were deliciously garlicky with a nice flame grilled smokiness, matched well by some white rice with poblano pepper mixed in and a fresh radish and arugela salad.

Rounding out the meal, Bunny sampled two of their desserts, the Tres Leches Parfait and the Coconut Flan, both of which were simple, tasty, and the perfect way to warm the soul before Bunny had to head back out into the snow.  "It's shockingly hard to find good, authentic Mexican food in Chicago sometimes," Bunny commented, "The flavors are often watered down or over done with heat so as to be re-adjusted for an American palate, so I'm happy there are places like this that are presenting familiar things, but done in the right way."

A few nights later, Bunny again ventured out for dinner, this time going north into Evanston to visit newly opened Hearth, a small, but intriguing spot serving eclectic cuisine that was designed to appeal both to discerning foodies as well as members of the local community.  The relaxed, yet refined dining room was small and comfortable, with an efficient and attentive staff that filtered little surprises into the meal, like a starter of warm cheddar and chive biscuits and honey butter.

The cocktails came both from a classical standpoint as well as a modern one.  Bunny opted at first for a bright and zingy mixture called The Robber Barron, made with white whiskey and St. Germain, but finally settled into the London Fog, a spiced vodka infused with one of Brandy's favorite flavors, Earl Grey Tea.  "Oh, I bet Brandy wishes she were sipping on this lovely thing right now!" Bunny giggled to herself.

From the small plates menu, Bunny sampled the tender and delicate Beef Tartare (which had been dressed with greens and a brie sauce, and presented on a crisp brioche crouton), the Crispy Crab Cake (which was fresh tasting and perfectly crusted in panko), and the Utah Prosciutto (with pesto, fried capers, spiced walnuts, and honey), which she found to be the perfect combination of sweet and salty flavors in one elegant bite.

Moving on to the larger plates, Bunny first tried the Mushroom Ravioli, the newest addition to the menu.  This delicate pasta had been filled with a smooth mushroom puree and topped with almonds, crispy shallots, pesto, and an apricot mustard jam that was so special and unique that Bunny proclaimed, "I've never tasted anything like this before!  The flavors, the textures, the contrast... this dish is simply amazing!"  She followed that up with one of the specials of the house, the Svickova, which Bunny referred to as, "A rather fancy beef stroganoff. but still just as hearty and homey somehow."  The tender cuts of tenderloin were served over a garlicky spaetzle, dressed in a sour cream sauce, and adorned with chewy slices of wild mushrooms,

Finishing up, Bunny went for a simple chocolate Creme Brulee, which came served with a few slices of almond cake.  The custard was perfectly done and tasty with the nice little slices of cake to cleanse the palate in between spoon fulls.  And just when Bunny thought the lovely dinner was done, she was presented with a hand made truffle, filled with a Kahlua whipped cream.  "This is such a delightful place!  So full of little surprises and true warmth," said Bunny, and then upon noticing that the restaurant was about to launch a brunch service on January 17th, she immediately dialed Brandy and attempted to relay the information to her friend through a haze of several cocktails and a large amount of rich, delicious food.

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

The Mexican Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, January 8, 2016

Farmhouse or Old McBrandy had a Brunch

The Slow and Savory Review

People often ask Brandy "Why brunch?" and though she has a myriad of reasons, one of the main ones is that she has always felt that one can only truly judge a restaurant by its brunch service.  "I always say, if dinner is the plot of any restaurant, then brunch is the subtext," as Brandy puts it, "There's the face they want to present, and then there's the real heart of a place, so when I go to a lovely dinner, I can't help but wonder what is really at their core, the same as you never really know a person until you've seen them fully relaxed."

It was this point that Brandy was trying to explain one day to her dear friend Mama Bee.  "But surly, a restaurant could be judged on its dinner service alone," Mama Bee argued.  "Of course it could be, but I've found that even the places I really enjoy the most sometimes take themselves a little too seriously at dinner, while letting their playful sides out more at brunch.  It's difficult to explain, I suppose.  Hang on, I've had a place on my mind ever since I had a fantastic dinner there a few months ago.  I remember thinking that I loved the food immensely, but I wanted to come back for brunch to see how their relaxed attitude and rustic dishes translated into a more casual meal.  Let's go for a little brunch at Farmhouse and you'll see what I mean."

Farmhouse had the same homey, rustic atmosphere Brandy remembered.  The warm woods and whimsical touches gave the place a lively feeling, and though the seating was a little cramped, it wasn't uncomfortable.  Brandy especially loved that a good amount of the decor had been created from salvaged parts of other bars, like the charmingly mismatched stained glass windows that served as patricians in different parts of the dining area.

The meal began with a couple of cocktails; the Morning Bender for Brandy and a Pink Mimosa for Mama Bee.  The mimosa was fairly traditional, more champagne than juice, but light, crisp, and refreshing.  The Morning Bender, a mix of coffee, whiskey, and blood orange, was rich and smooth.  Brandy had expected it to be a bit more sweet, but rather liked it regardless.

Kicking off the food, Brandy and Mama Bee went in for an order of Cheese Curds.  The curds had been beer battered, lightly fried, and came served with some house made catsup as well as a spicy curd sauce.  The little morsels of cheesy goodness were perfectly crisp on the outside and melty on the inside and the sauces were both a perfect compliment to each other and the richness of the cheese.  "Oh, these are just delicious!" Mama Bee exclaimed, popping one into her mouth, "You know, I never knew what a cheese curd was until I came to Chicago, but it's things like this that make me sad that I spent a good portion of my life without them!"

Mama Bee chose the Hoe Cakes for her entree, which were dressed with lemon curd, spiced nuts and oats, and maple syrup.  Mama Bee was at once in love with the cakes, which were a textural delight.  Not light and fluffy like a regular pancake, these was a little more dense and velvety.  The nuts on top not only made for a nice bit of crunch, they also added a lovely kick of spice that really set off the sweetness in the lemon curd.  "I was a little worried that it would be too sweet or too sour, but these are just perfect!" said Mama Bee.

Brandy went for the Crispy Root Vegetables, a mix of potatoes, mushrooms, sunchokes, and radish topped with an egg and served with some home rustic toast on the side.  The vegetables had a wonderful crispness to them with a surprising lightness for so much starch.  Though the dish itself was rustic, the thought behind it was so complex that Brandy was truly impressed.  What might have been seen as a simple garnish of greens and tinly sliced radish actually served the flavor just as much as providing some vibrant pops of color, and the egg on top actually served almost as a sort of sauce for the vegetables below.  "This is just the kind of dish that I love," Brandy said, "Something so simple that you wonder why others aren't doing the same thing, but something also so individual to the restaurant serving it that it's hard to picture it being recreated anywhere else."

Not wanting to end such a pleasant meal quite yet, Bunny and Mama Bee indulged in one of the house made sticky buns topped with fresh strawberry jam accompanied by a pot of fresh pressed coffee.  The sticky bun was a little hard on the outside, but the jam on top of it was truly exceptional, making the pastry the perfect mate for the strong coffee.

The friendly, relaxed service, the non pretentious atmosphere, and the fair pricing was enough to make Brandy fall in love with Farmhouse even more than she already had, but the quality of the food (most of which had been sourced from the restaurant's own farm, and if not from there, then from other local purveyors) and the real attention to detail in the presentations were what made this one Brandy's favorite brunches in a long while.  "Well, I can honestly say I see your point now," Mama Bee sighed with contentment, "While a place may put on a few airs and talk things up a bit at dinner, you don't really feel the heart of it until you go for brunch."  "That's exactly why I do this week after week.  I don't want to just go somewhere and then immediately forget about it, I want to get to know them like I would a new friend, and I've always found that the best way to get to know a person is over breakfast in their own home."

The Short and Sweet Review

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