Friday, May 31, 2013

The Great Buffet Debate: Chicago Walking Tours Edition

The elephant in the room when it comes to brunch is always the buffet.  It's usually cheap.  It has all the classic options.  Its easy.  Its quick.  But what you are getting in time saving, gut busting, penny pinching goodness, you are usually sacrificing in quality.  Dried out bits of pancake, greasy bacon, frozen fruit, and stale bagels are just some of the staples of a typical brunch buffet, but sometimes there are gems amidst the ruble, like carved to order meats, smoothie bars, or even the occasional make your own Bloody Mary station.  As Bunny and Brandy have shown in the past, a buffet can be amazing for the right price, or it can be a disaster for a bargain.

But as Brandy discovered this past weekend, there is a way to make that touchy buffet brunch into something rather enjoyable.  Chicago Riverwalk Tours offer what they call the "Brunch Walking Tour" in the heart of The Loop for about $45, taking guests on an informative and entertaining walk through the city, pointing out various sights of interest and sharing trivia that even natives might not have known, pausing briefly in the middle to enjoy brunch at Houlihan's, just off Michigan Ave and Wacker.  

The first half of the tour is definitely enough to build up an appetite, which is why Brandy was a little sceptical that Houlihan's buffet would be enough to power her through the end.  Though a little overly crowded with out of town tourists, the lines at the buffet tables moved along fairly quickly, and the servers did their best to keep a constant supply of fresh things supplied to the masses.  There was a decent spread provided with all the usual fair, such as yogurt, French Toast, scrambled eggs, sausages, hot and cold cereal, etc.  It was nice that there did seem to be options for every taste in the mix, including a customizable omelet station, but the biggest let down was that drinks were not included in the price of the brunch!  Even a simple cup of coffee was an extra $2.75, which caused Brandy to do such a mighty spit take that patrons all over the restaurant thought a leak in the ceiling had suddenly sprung.

After finishing at Houlihan's, the group once again set off on the rest of their adventure, which ended an hour later at the Macy's (old Marshall Fields building) on State Street.  Brandy learned lots of fun things that day and is officially now obsessed by the Carbide and Carbon Building (current home of the Hard Rock Hotel) after learning it was designed to resemble a giant champagne bottle.  Take that, prohibition!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Postcards from Bunny: Buick Food and Wine Discovery Tour

Yes, it's time for another instalment of Postcards from Bunny, only this time, it involves an actual postcard from Bunny!  You see, Brandy had received a letter from her dear friend (who says she is currently knee deep in pottery fragments on the site of what appears to be an ancient Crate and Barrel somewhere in the vicinity of Rome) inviting her to take part in the Buick Food and Wine Discovery Tour, which stopped off in Chicago (at Kendall College to be specific) last weekend.  Similar events are held in cities all over the country and consist of cooking demos by some really choice chefs, a guided wine tasting, an opportunity to test drive the latest vehicles in Buick's luxury fleet, and many more surprises.

Brandy arrived to find a table laid out with delicious pastries, fruits, coffee, tea, and several demos from Molecule-R, Kitchen Aid, and The Olive Grove to entertain guests as they checked in.  She sampled a few of the artisan olive oils from the The Olive Grove first, favoring the subtle citrus twist of the the orange flavored variety, then watched in amazement as vegetables were sent whirling through various Kitchen Aid appliances, only to emerge perfectly chopped, sliced, diced, and everything in between.  The Molecule-R station was of particular interest as it boasted kits for the at home food scientist who really wants to impress their dinner guests with things like capsuled cocktails and foam sauces.

The crowd was then divided into three groups, each heading off to a different adventure to begin the day.  Brandy's group were taken to their first cooking demo, lead by Chef Ben Roche.  As we all know, Brandy has a special place in her heart for Moto and all their alumni, so she particularly loved seeing Chef Roche preparing his Sweet and Spicy Coconut Rice Pudding, which included puffed rice noodles, ice cream made with unconventional spices like caraway, and a strange concoction known as a chiboust (a combination of a meringue and a pastry cream) flavored with yuzu.  The textures in the dish were certainly something to behold, and although the ice cream was oddly enticing, the bright and fluffy chiboust was the definite winner on the plate.  Brandy couldn't resist quizzing Chef Roche after the demo about his newest venture, Baume & Brix,  a restaurant whose entire concept is based on the combination of sweet and savory which he started with fellow Moto alumnus Nate Park and Thomas Bowman.  "How in the world are you not serving brunch with a concept like that?!" Brandy berated him.  "We did just start serving lunch, if that helps," Chef Roche responded, which seemed to get Brandy off his back for the time being.

Next Brandy was taken downstairs for a brief introduction to the Buick family of luxury vehicles and the chance to test drive a few of them.  She was immediately drawn to the sportier Verano and Regal, the later of which she had the chance to take for a spin around the college.  The Regal ran very quietly, handling the torn up road incredibly smoothly and maintaining a firm holding on sharp turns.  Brandy expressed an interest in testing the full capabilities of the "Sport Mode," much to the horror of the poor representative trapped in the car with her.  "Don't worry, dear, I won't go much over 70," Brandy reassured her unsuccessfully (luckily, Chicago traffic didn't allow for such extreme speeds).  Brandy was quite fascinated by all of the bells and whistles the car had to offer, like heated seats, digital displays, and the OnStar feature (which the representative had to explain to Brandy was not to be used for having brunch delivered straight to the car).

Once the vehicles had been returned safely, the group was escorted to their next demo with Chef Gale Gand.  It can be no surprise that this demo was also rather exciting for Brandy, as Chef Gand is a well known thrower of brunch parties and has even written a book of brunch recipes.  "I like the flexibility of brunch," she told Brandy, "Its the only meal where you can make anything work, from hot and cold to sweet and savory, and even interchanging adult and kid dishes, like making a fun cocktail for the grownups and giving the same thing to the kids, but with soda instead."  Chef Gand spent most of her time chatting with the crowd, telling delightful tales about how she wins arguments with her husband ("I'm sorry honey, where did we put your James Beard Award?  Because mine is hanging in the kitchen.") to encouraging members of the audience to book seats at her restaurant so that, "Work will know I wasn't just taking the day off to go to Navy Pier."  Eventually she did demo a quick English Pea Hummus, which she spread on slices of toasted baguette and topped with homemade olive tapenade and smoked salmon.

All the groups were then joined together to participate in a wine tasting guided by the effervescent Michael Greene, who referred to himself as a "Sneaker and t-shirt wearing wine snob."  He first had the crowd try a crisp Rodney Strong Sauvignon Blanc, which Brandy felt was rather acidic for her taste.  "Try it with a slice of lemon," he urged the crowd, and instantly the acid in the wine was subdued.  The change was so extreme that it reminded of Brandy of her adventures with miracle berries.  Next was a medium bodied Tempranillo from Tapena Winery in Spain, which Michael advised serving with a bit of salted dark chocolate to really bring out its fruitiness.

Finally the day ended with a demo from the extraordinary Michael Psilakis, who shared some beautiful stories about how his father inspired him to start cooking, and especially his decision to focus on his Greek heritage.  His dish was a Gyro Spiced Slider with Tzatziki Sauce, which had a brilliant flavor that really enhanced his custom mix of beef in the patty.  Even the tiny cornichon that topped the burger helped to add a bit of crispness and bite.

So all in all, quite a nice day was had at the Buick and Food and Wine Tour.  The best part about the event is that it is free for all!  Simply visit the Buick Discovery Tour website to register for their next event in your city!  And make sure to check out the recipes for all the dishes featured below:

Friday, May 17, 2013

Bel 50 or Waffles are the New Bread

The Slow and Savory Review

Spring time in Chicago usually mean flowers, sunshine, and a chance for the mole people who have spent the winter months huddled under several layers of coats and blankets to finally emerge into the open, don their exercise clothing, and go running or biking in the park.  But for Brandy, spring means an itchy face, watery eyes, and constant sneezing.  It is inevitable every year that when people say to her, "Isn't it gorgeous outside?" Brandy's only response is a succinct, "Not for me," making her seem to be the grumpiest person in the city.  In reality, Brandy doesn't hate the spring, she would just rather be under the cover of air conditioning, appreciating the beautiful flowers from through a thick plate glass window.  "If it wasn't for my head feeling like its about to explode in a mass of sticky-ACHOO!" she says with a sniffle, "I'd be more than happy to join the young in frollicking through the woods and whatnot."

It was while wandering down the sidewalks of River North in a haze of sniffles and watery eyes that Brandy found herself outside of one of the newest gourmet fast food stops, Bel 50, whose main innovation seemed to be replacing the bread in traditional sandwiches with a homemade Belgian waffle.  Brandy eyed up the rather extensive and promising menu for a few moments before deciding to go in.  "Hopefully the flavors are bold enough that I'll be able to taste the food," she said through her swelled nasal passages. 

The inside of Bel 50 was interesting, to say the least; the main dining area was dominated by long wooden tables, meant to accommodate all sizes of parties (but in reality probably just serve to cause frustration when smaller parties spread out across them and take up an excessive amount of seats) with square, orange ottomans for seating.  "I usually prefer something with a back," Brandy said, "Hunching forward over the table is bad for digestion.  It's also horrible manners."  The decor was nice enough, with high ceilings making the room feel open and spacious, and the little pops of orange and tan against the wood of the tables created a happy atmosphere without being too oppressive or trendy feeling.

Rather quickly, Brandy was brought her entree and side.  She started off with the Truffled Tater Tots, a novelty she'd surprisingly never seen before.  She felt that the truffle flavor was subtle, but definitely there, and the tots themselves were perfectly crisp on the outside and soft on the inside.  Her only complaint, if one can call it a complaint, was that she had been given so many of them in her order than eating them became a tad monotonous.  She did consider reaching for the ketchup bottle to shake things up a bit, but didn't want to mar the earthy truffle oil flavoring.  "These could use some sort of dipping sauce, though," she mused.

For her entree, Brandy had chosen the Buttermilk Fried Chicken Sandwich with Apple Slaw.  The sight of the sandwich was a little hard to get over, as it appeared to be taco that had been made with a very thick tortilla, but the first bite put all her fears to rest.  The waffle was surprisingly light and crisp and much to Brandy's surprise and delight, actually held together through the eating of the meal.  "I expected it to spew its innards all over the place, but its actually working quite well to contain them," Brandy muttered as she turned the sandwich over in her hands, "I only wish my nose could to the same!"  The chicken was plenty tender, if a little thin, and didn't stay particularly crisp under the weight of the othering fillings, but the honey mustard sauce had a nice tangy and kick to it, and the slaw provided a lovely crispness.

Lastly was the Creme Brulee Waffle, filled with custard and assorted berries.  Again, Brandy was amazed that the waffle held the fillings in rather nicely, and upon taking a bite she detected an unexpected crunch.  "There's bits of caramelized sugar in here!" she exclaimed.  The sugar provided a nice bit of texture and made each bite a little different, as some pieces had a more pleasantly burnt flavor to them than others.  The berries though seemed a little less than fresh and had gone quite soggy in the sandwich.  Brandy couldn't decide it is was due to them being slightly cooked, previously frozen, or if they had been stored in some sort of syrup that robbed them of their freshness, but either way they were a bit of a let down.  The custard too was a bit disappointing, as it seemed a little thin and bland.  "Its more like a zabayon really," Brandy thought aloud, "But we British know a thing or two about custard, and this is not a custard."

All in all, Brandy ended up thinking that Bel 50 could be onto something with this whole waffle idea.  The food was fast, better than what one would expect from say a corner deli, and decently priced (Brandy paid about $20 in all), but in the end little more than an interesting novelty and not a culinary innovation.  "But perhaps I should try replacing all my bread with waffles," Brandy wondered as she sneezed her way out the door, "It would certainly make for more interesting croutons in my salad."

The Short and Sweet Review
Bel 50 on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 10, 2013

Sandwich Me In or Peace, Love, and Lunchmeat

The Slow and Savory Review

For most who lived through the 1960's, it was a time of great excitement and change, whether it was the music, the fashion, or societal norms at large.  But for Brandy, it was a time of extreme annoyance, as for most of the decade, she lived in a small flat next door the famous Abbey Road Studios.  Many a night she was robbed of sleep by some roundy bunch of musician, chattering and laughing away in the street as they exited from their latest recording session, often times still strumming their guitars or drumming on trash can lids.  "Oy!  You kids out there!" she used to shout from her window, "Didn't you make enough noise while you were in the studio?  Hush up!  And stop blocking the crosswalk!"  So well known was she as the neighborhood grump that often the bands would perform impromptu concerts of love songs outside her window in an attempt to woo her sympathies (which worked more often than not).

It was a warm spring day in Chicago when Brandy was suddenly and abruptly reminded of that period in her life when she heard the sounds of a familiar song drifting through the air.  "That's what those four young hairy blokes used to play outside my window," she mumbled to herself as she wandered towards the music.  Eventually she found herself outside of a friendly looking cafe called Sandwich Me In, from which the music had been wafting through the open door.

Inside was a happy mix of exposed brick walls and wonderful pops of color.  The quotations on the walls drew Brandy's attention immediately, especially one from a member of The Grateful Dead.  It was this she was starring at, and not the menu, when a voice asked, "Have you been here before?"  Brandy shook her head and was gently informed by the smiling man behind the counter that everything they served was locally sourced, organic, and 98% of everything on the menu was made in house. Impressed, she placed her order and grabbed a seat near the open door to enjoy the music that had first grabbed her attention.

Quite quickly, the smiling man brought over a tray of food to Brandy's table, including a piece of Bread Pudding.  "It's our one year anniversary special," he explained, seeing the amazement on her face, "Every dine in order comes with a complimentary slice."  What he didn't know was that Brandy had intended to order the bread pudding from the start, but had been too dazed by the myriad of delicious items on the menu, and had just resigned herself to going back up to order it once she had finished her sandwich.

First off there was the Vanilla Cola.  Normally Brandy wouldn't find a soda remarkable (indeed, she usually doesn't even order the stuff) but the fact that this was made completely from scratch intrigued her.  She found that the drink had a earthy, herbal taste to it, and not the syrupy sweetness she had expected.  There were notes of licorice and rather than cola, she thought it reminded her a little more of root beer.  Never the less, she found it very refreshing and the perfect accompaniment to the food.

As her side, she had chosen the Shoestring Chips with BBQ Sauce.  She found the little pile of potato pieces in front of her to be an excellent compromise between more traditional potato chips and French fries, being crisp and eternally snackable.  The BBQ sauce that accompanied them was also wonderful, with a great clean flavor that left just the littlest bit of sweetness lingering on the tongue.

For her sandwich, Brandy had chosen the Country Fried Steak, and from one end of the bread to the other, she was instantly in love.  To begin with the middle, the steak had been coated in a homemade cracker crust, providing a perfectly light crispness.  The steak itself was tender, plenty moist, and was accompanied by a nice hit of sweetness from some caramelized onions and a creamy blue cheese that somehow managed not to overpower everything else.  Even the bread was delightfully soft, but held together under the weight of all the fillings.

Lastly there was the Bread Pudding, which came topped with a little dollop of toasted meringue.  Brandy found the dessert to be soft and buttery with a caramel like flavor.  It was almost more salty than sweet, but Brandy didn't seem to mind and soon gobbled the whole thing into non-existence.

At an unbelievable price of $12 and change for everything (as the dessert was free), Brandy decided to spend her leftover pocket money at one of the record shops down the street, buying up anything she spied with the words "Recorded at Abbey Road Studios" on the back.

The Short and Sweet Review
Sandwich Me In on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 3, 2013

Wishbone or For the Love of Brunch

The Short and Sweet Review

Being from the British Isles originally, its always been a little hard for Brandy to grasp just how many different cultures there are in the United States.  From the accents and dialects, to the climates and foliage,the USA provides a huge variety to choose from, and though there are slight differences from region to region in the UK, Brandy has always felt there were more thing in common than not.  But its the regional foods of the US that have always amazed Brandy the most.  "You people can't even decide as a country on a base for clam chowder!  It's amazing you have a government at all!" she's often vented.

Living in Chicago has introduced Brandy to the pleasures of hot dogs with salad on them and pizza that is more like lasagna, but there is also a more interesting trend in the Midwest culinary world: Southern food for brunch.  "So odd that there seems to be no breakfast traditions in this part of the country," Brandy has wondered, "I suppose that's why they've had to import cuisine from the South to spice things up."  Having now dined at several Southern themed destinations in the past, Brandy has acquired a liking for the food from that particular region, so it was no wonder that she once again found herself craving that particular mix of bold flavors, heat, and good old fashioned hospitality that the South is famous for.  She decided on one of the more popular and well known Southern destinations in Chicago, Wishbone Northside.

The inside of Wishbone was just as bright and happy as the exterior, with a wide open dining space containing a variety of sitting options.  Brandy couldn't help by smile at the vibrant colors of the walls and the offbeat art work, which mostly consisted of abstract chickens and heads of lettuce.  Brandy was taken to a booth straight away and ordered up some iced tea ("What?  No sweet tea?" Brandy half joked), as to enhance her Southern dining experience.

Brandy started off with some Hush Puppies, an old Southern favorite.  The outside of these little puppies was perfectly crunchy, while the inside remained doughy and soft, with a great bit of texture from the cornmeal.  Brandy also loved the level of heat in the spicy mayo that came on the side for dipping.  "It doesn't add heat for heat's sake, but actually enhances the flavors, which is exactly what spice is supposed to do," she mused.

For her main course, Brandy chose the Shrimp and Grits, which came with a freshly baked biscuit on the side. The biscuit was rather nice, and so tender that it crumbled into buttery pieces when she tried to eat it.  Brandy would have liked something special to slather it with, like some honey butter or house made jam, but alas, none was to be found.  As for the grits, Brandy felt they were rather lacking in texture (she likes her grits to be a little more on the firm side) and seemed to be little more than mush at the bottom of a pool of cream.  The shrimp too were not up to par, as they were rather rubbery and flavorless (Brandy was quite sure they were frozen, but it's not as if Chicago has an endless supply of fresh shrimp at its feet, especially at this time of year, so that at least could be forgiven).  While the flavors of the bacon, mushrooms, and green onions were present in the dish, they just weren't quite enough for Brandy's liking, which was a shame, considering how visually appealing the dish was.  "It's like meeting a beautiful man and then realizing he can't carry on a conversation," Brandy sighed, desperately hoping with each bite that she would discover something fresh or some new texture to excite her palate.

It wasn't until after she had finished her meal that Brandy realized she hadn't had anything sweet.  "It's just not  brunch without sweet and savory!" she exclaimed in a panic.  Luckily, the sweet young waitress advised her of the dessert menu, and as Brandy was already quite full, she decided to take something to go.  When asking about the flavors of pie, one in particular stood out.  "Red Velvet pie?" Brandy asked in disbelief.  The girl nodded and ran off to fetch the confection for her.  But upon closer inspection, the pie looked suspiciously like cake.  Still, Brandy gave it a whirl and found the cake to be fairly traditional.  The crumb was small, creating a smooth texture throughout, but the cake was rather dry and lacked the tell-tale buttermilk tang Brandy has come to expect from a red velvet.  The cream cheese icing was spot on, being just rich and sweet enough without being chalky or sticky.

Though the service was nice enough and the food was decently priced (Brandy's total came out to about $25 even after tax and tip), there was just something lacking about Wishbone that really saddened Brandy.  "Its an odd thing to say, but I felt like I dined at a restaurant today," Brandy explained, "Some places make you feel as though a friend or family member was cooking for you.  Others make you feel like a royal dignitary   More pub like venues have a sense of community and joy.  But this... just felt lukewarm and commercial...  That is just not how Southern food should feel."

The Short and Sweet Review

Wishbone on Urbanspoon