Friday, September 29, 2017

Tea Time with Brandy: XXL Icons from La Maison Du Chocolat

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Brandy is a self diagnosed chocoholic. Though her mouth is almost entirely filled with sweet teeth, she does have discerning tastes when it comes to chocolate and how to experience it. "You can't just be biting and chewing away like a heathen," she says, "One has to nibble and savor. Let the chocolate coat the tongue. Experience all parts of it, from the texture to the complex flavors. I've never been one of those people who can taste oak and summer fruits and such in a glass of wine, but I most certainly could be a chocolate sommelier."

The XXL POMME D’AMOUR chocolate, meant to evoke a caramel apple

In fact, Brandy's one criticism of most high end chocolates is that there is never enough of them. "You get one little blissful bite of heaven and it's gone. Now, I understand that too much of a good thing can spoil the experience, but sometimes you just want that one bite to be a little less ephemeral. "It's the difference between a song and an opera," as Brandy likes to put it. 

The entire XXL Icons collection

This is exactly why Brandy was so excited to hear about the XXL Icon collection from La Maison du Chocolat. The infamous Parisian based chocolatier will be celebrating its 40th anniversary this October by releasing six classic and modern favorite flavors in extra large sizes. Each chocolate is about four times the size of a typical piece, making the high quality chocolate shell and sumptuous fillings even more indulgent. They are so special, in fact, that each one comes individually packaged in its own metallic box, as if it were a precious piece of jewelry. 

The XXL NÉROLI chocolate, filled with a strawberry and orange scented dark chocolate ganache

The flavors range from milk and dark chocolate ganaches to luxurious fruity fancies to crisp and delicate pralines. Since each chocolate is over a quarter of a pound, just one is decadent enough to satisfy even the most ravenous sweet tooth (though they're so flavorful and so skillfully made that someone like Brandy might be tempted to have more than one per sitting).

The XXL DENTELLE chocolate, scented with hazelnut and dotted with delicately crispy crepe pieces

The XXL Icons collection will be available online at the La Maison du Chocolat store and in their boutiques on October 11th. Rest assured that Brandy will be waking up especially early that day to make sure she can snag as many of these limited edition chocolately treasures as she can get her virtual hands on.

The XXL BOHÈME chocolate, a dream for milk chocolate fans

The writers of this blog were sent products free of charge in order to facilitate the writing of this post. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

Food News: Meet Michelle Bernstein at Macy's State Street!

NoteThe writers of this blog have been compensated by Everywhere Agency for the information contained in this post, but the opinions stated were not influenced.

The unseasonable warmth in Chicago has Brandy feeling a little confused as to exactly what city she's in lately. "I could swear I live in the Midwest, but every time I go outside, I suddenly start wondering if I accidentally moved to Miami." Her confusion grew recently when she discovered that one of Miami's favorite chefs, Michelle Bernstein, was going to be making an appearance at Macys on State Street on Friday October 6th at noon as part of their free Culinary Council live demo series

The James Beard Award winning chef will be bringing her unique culinary perspective to the Culinary Council demo kitchen on the 7th floor of Macys on State as she prepares some of her signature recipes, which have been inspired by her Jewish and Latin heritage, while telling stories from her legendary cooking career and offering invaluable cooking advice. The gathered crowd will also have the opportunity to taste her creations as she prepares them live. After the demo has ended, they'll be able to meet Chef Bernstein down on the lower level of Macys (in the kitchen wares section) and if they make a purchase of $35 or more, they'll get a $10 Macys gift card and a copy of Chef Michelle's cookbook, Cuisine A Latina, which they can even get personally autographed! 

"Whatever it is city I'm currently living in, I wouldn't want to miss something like this," said Brandy.

To join Brandy on October 6th, for the free demo and tasting, simply RSVP here 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Strings Ramen or Spinning Strands of Gold

The Slow and Savory Review

Record heat waves are nothing to Brandy now that she has set her mind to fall mode. "I don't care what the thermometer says. It is September, for goodness sake, and I'm ready for hot beverages and hot soups," said Brandy, "But I refuse to eat or drink anything pumpkin flavored until October. People tasting pumpkin before October are morally bankrupt." On the receiving end of her rant about the climbing temperatures verses the desire for fall foods was her good friend Brocco. "You know, in Japan, there's this philosophy that if it's hot outside, you should eat hots foods because it will cause your body to try and cool itself off even more," he pointed out as he wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead, "So you can still have your hot drinks and such even though its warm, and they might even help you feel better!" "That does it then," Brandy proclaimed, "You and I are going to go have something hot for brunch. Something that warms the body and the soul."

They headed to the newly opened Strings in Lakeview. This little outpost near the Belmont train station boasted the same lineup of richly flavored broths and handmade noodles as the original Chinatown restaurant, but with plenty of exclusive new additions to the menu. The decor really did evoke the feeling of a ramen shop in Tokyo, with bright and unique lighting all around, high and minimalistic tables, and lanterns hanging from the industrial inspired ceiling.

Brocco and Brandy started off with some steamed Chicken Gyoza and a bowl of Yuzu Miso Salmon Sunomono. The gyoza were just the thing to peek one's appetite for the meal to come. Their interior was wonderfully juicy and tender with just a hint of spice, while the outer skin remained bouncy and supple. The Sunumono was actually quite refreshing, being served over a bed of shaved cucumber and other vegetables and dressed with sweet vinegar. Brocco really loved the succulent fish, which tasted as fresh as though it had been caught that day. Brandy enjoyed the softly sweet flavor from the yuzu miso and thought that the tender chunks of fish were going to make for perfect palate cleansers in between sip of their ramen, which hit the table almost immediately after the starters did.

Brocoo had gone with the Kuro Buta Tonkotsu Ramen, which matched a creamy pork bone broth with sesame seeds, wood ear mushrooms, green onions, a soy sauce marinated egg, and thick slices of fatty pork belly. Diving straight in with his chop sticks, Brocco discovered the tangle of noodles lying just under the surface and pulled up a mouthful-sized portion, then proceeded to slurp them up without abandon. "Young man!" Brandy scolded him. "No, it's ok!" he protested, "You're supposed to slurp your noodles. It shows that you're enjoying them and it cools them off enough to eat straight away. You don't want your noodles to sit too long in the broth, or the texture won't be right." As these noodles had been made fresh, they had an exceptionally wonderful texture with just enough chew to them. Brocco found that the broth in his ramen was actually a bit lighter than he had expected it to be, but it was still deeply flavorful and well seasoned. It wasn't long before he was lifting the bowl to his mouth so that he could slurp every last bit.

Brandy went with the Premium Miso Ramen, which came adorned with corn, spicy ground pork, clams, bean sprouts, red onions, lots of garlic, and a couple slices of filet mignon. "I've never seen ramen served with steak before!" Brocco exclaimed in surprise. Brandy was amazed by just how tender the meat was, and even though it was surrounded by a lot of very strong flavors, its true beefiness still shone through. The miso broth was soft on the tongue and not too salty, but Brandy thought it tasted particularly good with the addition of the fresh garlic. After her first bite of golden, chewy noodles, she found it difficult to stop eating and very soon, her chop sticks were coming up out of the broth empty. Luckily, Strings offers Kae Dama, which is an extra order of noodles, meant to be used with one's broth once the original noodles had been finished off, and Brandy happily took advantage of the service in order to sop up every last bit of her bowl.

Finally, the pair finished off their meal with a couple sweet bites: a Tiramisu cup and a little piece of Sasa Dango. The Tiramisu was amazingly creamy and smooth with a good hit of coffee flavor. "Not what I would expect in a ramen restaurant, but it's rather tasty!" said Brandy. "Funnily enough, tiramisu is a pretty popular dessert in Japan," said Brocco. The Sasa dango was a lovely dumpling, made from sweet rice flour with a sweetened red bean paste center, all wrapped up in bamboo leaf and steamed. Both Brandy and Brocco very much enjoyed the chewy little bite, which made for the perfect end to their meal.

Brandy really appreciated String's adherence to Japanese tradition while making efforts to modernize and customize their selections. The food came to the tables incredibly fast, which is also a fairly common practice in traditional ramen houses, but there still had been an effort put in to present the dishes in a very pleasing way. The prices were also very reasonable considering the quality and time put into the food (only a single item on the menu topped $20). Stepping back out into the sweltering heat, Brocco turned to Brandy and asked, "Well? Did it work? Do you feel any cooler?" "No," said Brandy, "We better go back inside and keep eating ramen until it stops feeling like the inside of an oven out here."

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

Friday, September 15, 2017

Dinner at Trattoria Gianni

"I've still got a bit of residual stress and tension about on my person from the move that I can't quite seem to shake," Brandy told her friend Starr one day. "It's so nice outside right now with fall creeping in. We should get out for some dinner and fresh air. That'll help you feel better," said Starr. "Patios are over rated," grumbled Brandy, "Jammed into a tiny table on a sidewalk with thirty other people while tree flotsam falls onto your plate and a dog does it's business just feet away? No thank you!" "Oh, come on, there's some really nice patios in the city! You just have to look for them!" "At my age, I'm done looking for things. I'm ready to be shown the way." "Well, in that case, I'll just show you to a patio that I think will meet with your approval." "No thank you." "There will be pasta." "Well... alright then."

Starr took Brandy along to Trattoria Gianni, The venerable Italian stalwart situated on Halsted in the midst of some of the Chicago's best theaters. The restaurant was soon to be celebrating its 30th birthday, a gigantic accomplishment in a city which sees even Michelin starred establishments closing after a few years. Importing many of their ingredients straight from Italy and preparing everything in house, Trattoria Gianni has kept alive a tradition of classic Italian food that warms the heart as well as filling the belly.

Starr and Brandy took their seats on the newly revamped patio, which had plenty of lush greenery and twinkling lights, but a blocked off view of the street, making it feel more like a private garden. There were even space heaters scattered around the space, ready to warm diners in case the notoriously fickle Chicago weather were to make a turn towards the chilly. The ladies ordered a few drinks to sip while they perused the menu (some rose for Brandy and a lemony cocktail for Starr), but little did they know what the night was about to bring them, because Gianni Delisi himself was making his way over to their table.

Relying on Gianni's recommendations heavily, Starr and Brandy sampled a trio of signature appetizers; beef carpaccio, bruchetta with fresh burrata cheese, and some arancini. Though the beef was stunningly tender and flavorful and the burrata was pure creamy decadence, the arancini had Starr and Brandy's rapt attention with its perfectly crisped exterior, beautifully scented saffron rice interior, and bits of peas and cheese hiding within.

Next, Gianni brought out a sampling of some of the restaurant's finest pasta dishes. Starr really enjoyed the Conchiglie del Mercante, which consisted of shell shaped pasta, some slightly spicy Italian sausage, and lots of mushrooms and peas. Brandy immediately zeroed in on the Gnocchi della Nonna. The perfectly soft and pillowy little ricotta clouds came served with a bright and herby tomato sauce, making these gnocci just the thing to please a cheese lover such as Brandy. Lastly, they sampled the Rigatoni alla Nocerina, coated in a light and creamy sauce with bit of sun dried tomato, mushrooms, and plenty of garlic.

Not stopping there, they cleansed their palates with a special salad of red and golden beets, arugula, blue cheese, and a citrus scented dressing. The earthy, peppery, and zingy flavors were just the thing to give their taste buds a second wind.

A plate of Braciole found its way to the table, making the ladies grown both with delight and trepidation at having to find the room for it in their ever expanding stomachs. The thinly cut beef encased a creamy filling of cheese, raisins, breadcrumbs, and pine nuts and came accompanied by some sauted spinach, crisped sage, grilled onions, and mushrooms, making for a deeply flavorful and skillfully put together dish.

Lastly, a perfect little panna cotta was presented to the table. Starr and Brandy made a valiant effort to devour every last creamy, silky, smooth spoonful, but their ultimate failure to consume every last bite earned them a little side eye from their smirking waitress.

When they had arrived, the sun had still been high in the sky, but by the time they were ready to leave, the twinkling lights all around the patio had come alive, like little fairies dancing in the early autumnal air. "I don't think I can move," Brandy sighed. "How many glasses of rose did you have?" Starr asked. "One! What you see before you now is not a woman drunk on wine, but a woman drunk on the love of fantastic Italian food. There is no spirit in existence that will ever make me feel as contented as a good plate of pasta will."

And legend has it that Starr and Brandy are still sitting at that table on Gianni's patio to this day, guts busted, waiting for a time when they will once again feel hungry.

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

Friday, September 8, 2017

Rhyme or Reason or Battle Royale (With Cheese)

The Slow and Savory Review

It had been a long time since Brandy last saw some of her best friends in the world, Bambi Buttercup and her husband Bear, so she was quite delighted when they let her know they were coming into town. "And we've got a little surprise for you!" Bambi twittered in her signature sing song voice. Now, one thing to know about Brandy is that she is not good with surprises. When told a secret is being kept from her, Brandy goes into full Baker Street mode and analyzes everything she has at her disposal in order to solve the mystery. Christmas presents are impossible to hide from her. Trying to plan a surprise party? Forget it. Once, she even predicted a marriage proposal before the groom to be had even bought the rings.

So imagine Brandy's surprise when she met her friends in front of her new home and discovered that there was not two of them, but three. "Surprise!" Bambi shouted, "Meet our son, Bambino!" Brandy's eyes grew wide as she was handed a smiling mass of flailing limbs and golden hair. "We were going to tell you, but Bambi thought it would be funnier not to," said Bear as he hauled their luggage out of the town car. "But... but... I thought you were on tour with your one woman show!" Brandy exclaimed. "Oh, I have been! But he doesn't mind. He just goes to sleep in my costume trunk while I'm on stage," Bambi replied. Bambino gurgled and giggled. "Having a baby hasn't affected your lives at all?" Brandy asked in wonder. "Well, we don't get to eat out as much," said Bear. "And that's where you come in!" Bambi sang, "We thought that since you've got the scoop on all the deliciousness in Chicago, you might know a place we could go all together to enjoy a meal out on the town like we used to!"

An idea occurred to Brandy in that moment. Just as Bambino had been created by Bambi and Bear in perfect collaboration, another collaboration had been on Brandy's mind as of late; that of Sherrie Tan, baker extraordinaire at Sweet Mandy B's, and the chefs at Rhyme or Reason, the recently opened disco themed haven in the heart of Bucktown. Rhyme or Reason had tapped Sherrie to partner with them in creating two fabulous brunch dishes to be offered as specials throughout the month of September, one sweet and one savory, and Brandy had been looking for any excuse to try them. Now she had one.

Showing her friends into the sun filled venue, Brandy was delighted to find that even a hip and groovy restaurant like Rhyme or Reason was prepared to help out with baby Bambino, providing him a high chair, a special water cup or his own, and a plate of avocado so that he could munch right along with his parents. Once settled in, the group was able to enjoy the beautiful pops of bright colors all around the room, which stood out against the base of cool grey tones. The retro vibe was certainly there (present most definitely in the music), but it wasn't so intrusive so as to make the place seem like a corny theme restaurant.

The group began with a round of drinks. Bambi went for the house mimosa, made with white grapefruit juice and Segura Vidas Cava, which gave the drink a pleasant bitterness. Bear went with the Bro-Mosa, a more manly version of the drink, made with Triple Sec, vodka, and a citrus scented pale ale along with a splash of orange juice, creating a rather floral flavor along with the zingy citrus. Brandy picked the Let's Get It On, a fruity and tropical delight with mango flavored vodka, pineapple, passion fruit, coconut, and lime juice and a bit of reisling for an extra touch of fruitiness.

To start them off, the group toasted each other with a plate of Deviled Eggs. Bear and Brandy enjoyed the regular version, which was adorned with a dollop of espresso scented bacon jam. The eggs had a nice mustardy flavor, but the hint of espresso really made them quite unique. Bambi and Bambino sampled their eggs without the bacon jam and still found them to be quite tasty and baring the unique espresso flavor.

Bear picked the Chilaquiles as his entree, having never experienced the dish before. He very much enjoyed the mix of tender pulled chicken meat, sweet corn, black beans, and the bright bits of salsa throughout the dish. He was very impressed to see that the house made chips at the base remained crispy under the weight of all the toppings and the perfect amount of heat in the spice mix meant that every bite kept his attention.

Bambi went with the Croque Ma-DAYUM, which just happened to be the previous month's Hanover Special plate. This version of the classic French breakfast dish was absolutely succulent, between the soft eggy bread, the thinly sliced ham, and the deeply flavorful beschamel sauce. "I can imagine that if I were indeed hung over, this would be simply perfect for soaking up all those icky toxins!" she proclaimed.

Brandy, of course, went for the current Hangover Special, the Mac Daddy. This monument to gastronomy was comprised of macaroni and cheese tossed with roasted corn, blistered cherry tomatoes, and hunks of bacon lardon, then topped with a panko breaded chicken breast and two sunny side up eggs. After one bite, Brandy looked up at her companions and proclaimed, "None of you are getting any of this." Between the sweetness of the veggies, the richness of the cheese sauce and bacon, and the crunch of the chicken, Brandy could not imagine a more perfect mix of textures and flavors. Luckily for her, everyone else was also jealously guarding their entrees. "They don't know what they're missing," she silently giggled to herself as she shoveled more pasta into her mouth.

Finally, they decided to share the second special of the month, the Foxy Mama, as dessert. This decadent treat consisted of a whipped cheese cake mousse between two churro buns covered in dulce de leche and accompanied by slices of bruleed bananas. As each of them sunk their fork into this masterpiece and brought it to their mouths, their eyes collectively rolled back in their heads in sheer ecstasy. The problem arose when all of them went back for a second bite and found themselves fencing with their cutlery to get as much of the delectable treat as they could. "We're going to need a few more of these if we want to make it out of this brunch alive," said Brandy as she dead locked gazes with her dining companions. Even baby Bambino reached a chubby hand out for a slice of banana.

Once every last morsel of the Foxy Mama had disappeared from their table, the group were able to finally relax. The cheerful and accommodating service had made the meal all the more enjoyable, even with baby Bambino vocalizing his displeasure every time the group were eating without him, and the prices were so reasonable that Bear actually roared with laughter when the check arrived. "Oh this was just lovely," said Bambi, bouncing Bambino on her knee as he tossed a piece of avocado to the ground. "Yes, well, next time you decide to surprise me like that, if you could do it when we're already at brunch, that would be wonderful," said Brandy, "That way, I'll at least have a drink in front of me already!"

The writers of this blog were given a portion of their meal free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

The Short and Sweet Review

Friday, September 1, 2017

Disotto or The Proof is in the Foccacia

The Slow and Savory Review

"I'm never moving house again," Brandy sighed as she collapsed onto her sofa. Looking around at her newly acquired kingdom, she observed that the subjects of her domain mainly consisted of boxes, bags, and large balls of unusable packing tape. "I've certainly accumulated quite a lot of... stuff," she said, looking down at her dust covered hands. "I think I need a little break from all this. Yes, a nice loooong brunch break is definitely in order."

She decided to venture a little ways out of the city to visit Disotto, a casual Italian restaurant situated on an idyllic street in the heart of Highwood, where diners could take a seat on the beautifully landscaped patio and watch the trains go by, or sit inside and admire the stunning plaster work ceiling, which gave an air of warmth and comfort aided by the exposed brick walls and the worn woods used throughout the restuarant.

Jumping right into the food, Brandy started off with something quite unassuming that ended up being one of the most extraordinary dishes she's had in quite some time; the Foccacia di Recco. What looked to be a simple flatbread was actually a thin and chewy foccacia stuffed with warm, fresh ricotta. The experience of biting into that beautiful bread and suddenly having a mouthful of creamy cheese was indescribably marvelous. Atop the bread was the slightest sprinkling of flaked sea salt and on the side was a hunk of soft, luscious honey comb, which meant that the bread could go either sweet or savory, depending on one's tastes. "This is pure magic," Brandy sighed, and even though she had more food coming, she was genuinely distressed when she saw she had no more pieces of bread.

Moving on to something a little more substantial, Brandy dug into a bowl of Steamed Mussels. These particular sea creatures had been dowsed in a white wine sauce and spiced with n'juda sausage. The result was a flavor rich in umami, lots of garlic, and just a little hint of heat. The mussels were a little on the small side, but they were very tender and meaty, which was met well by the bits of white wine and garlic scented spinach scattered around the plate.

For her entree, Brandy ordered a croissant sandwich, which came dressed with an over easy egg, butterkase cheese, a bit of arugula, and two strips of peppered bacon. The sandwich was a little too floppy to be picked up and eaten with one's hands, so Brandy resorted to a fork and knife. The bacon had a nice crunch and lots of peppery notes to provide the melody to this symphony of breakfasty flavors, but the smooth and subtle cheese got a little lost in the mix. Brandy also could have done with a little more vegetation on the sandwich to accompany the arugula, like perhaps a slice of tomato to brighten things up. The croissant was just substantial enough to stand up to the other ingredients, yet it remained buttery and supple. The potatoes on the side were also very pleasant, having been cut into rounds and crisped with a little herb and cheese mix.

Finally, Brandy ended her meal with a plate of Bombolini; freshly fried little donut-like confections that came covered in sugar and served with a warm chocolate sauce and a fruit sauce. The little dough balls had an almost eggy interior with a slight lemon flavor, which Brandy found unusual, but rather delightful. The chocolate sauce was rich and bitter sweet, which was matched perfectly when alternated with the fruit sauce, which had a bit of acidity to it and a strong berry flavor.

Sighing sadly as she finished the last dregs of her coffee, Brandy starred out the window at a train that was drifting across the tracks outside. With such warm, relaxed service and reasonable prices at Disotto, she was almost hesitant to return to the city, where a simple breakfast sandwich can sometimes run upwards of $18. "If only I didn't have unpacking to finish up, I'd stay here and order about three more plates of that foccacia," she said to herself, "Ah well. There's always next weekend, I suppose."

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