Friday, May 29, 2015

The Sunset Menu at Freds at Barney's New York

Last week, Brandy was privileged to join a group of food writers and bloggers at Freds on the 6th floor of Barney's in the Gold Coast for a preview of their newly launched Sunset Menu; a collection of shareable late afternoon snacks meant to cater to the after work crowd.  "Well why not?" Brandy said upon reading the invite, "After all, often times my brunches blend seamlessly into late afternoon snacking."

Upon entering Freds, Brandy quite literally had her breath taken away by the beauty of the place.  Wall length windows opened out onto a beautiful view of the city below, contrasting with the simple, yet chic design of the restaurant space itself, the focal point of which was a gorgeous fire feature separating the dining room from the kitchen.

The evening began with some bite sized munchies, like a cherry tomato stuffed with bacon and lettuce (a one bite BLT!), mini grilled cheese sandwiches with truffles, and little bellinis with creme fraiche and caviar.  One of Freds signature cocktails, called
the Wallflower, started making the rounds, so Brandy made sure to grab up a glass.  The concoction consisted of orange juice, vodka, rose hips, and St. Germaine and was an instant hit with Brandy, who loved the cocktail for its refreshing and light flavor that resembled a more floral Screwdriver.  "I wouldn't mind a few of these with brunch or dinner!" she exclaimed.  She also made her way over to a young lady who was pouring up some freshly made juices and ordered up her favorite, a mix of apple, kale, celery, ginger, and lots of other nutritious veggies called the Green Jeans, which was actually quite sweet and lovely.

Sitting down at the exquisitely dressed table, the group was welcomed by Chef Mark Strausman, who oversees not only the Chicago location, but also the restaurant's siblings in New York and Beverly Hills.  Chef Strausman talked about how he wanted to keep the menu grounded with lots of fresh ingredients that would be appealing to those looking for healthier options without turning off fans of more decadent fair.  This concept was introduced with the Raw Vegan Cashew "Cheese" Dip, served with a variety of beautiful vegetables.  The dip came in three varieties (sun-dried tomato, turmeric, and olive), all of which were very flavorful and had a hearty sort of hummus like texture.

Next up were a couple of protein courses; the Tuna Tartare and the Beef Sliders with Truffle Pommes Frites.  The tuna was by far the most beautifully presented dish of the evening, causing the entire table a dilemma when it was time to dig into it.  It eventually proved to be just as succulent as it looked with the delicate fish being enhanced with just a little cucumber and pickled ginger.  The Beef Sliders were a showcase for the beef itself, only being adorned with a bit of tomato and pickle, but the scent of the frites was too alluring to ignore for long.  Brandy especially liked dipping the frites into a truffle aioli, because, as she said, "An excess of luxury is never be a bad thing."

The next course were three of the house pizzas; The Farmer's Market with pretty much every vegetable Chef Strausman could find made into an amazing garlicy pesto and garnished with some goat cheese, Bugsy's Pizza with figs, caramelized onions, and pungent blue cheese (this sweet and creamy combo was Brandy's favorite of the three), and The Ba Da Bing, which was an ode to Chef Strausman's New York roots, with a roasted tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, red peppers, and Italian sausage.  Chef Strausman explained that he was especially proud of his crust, which was made to be classically chewy like the street pizzas of old.

Finishing off the savory portion of the meal with a light touch, the Vegan Salad and Robiola with (yes, even more) Truffle Oil were brought to the table.  The salad was a surprisingly hearty mix of beans, avocado, quinoa and greens dressed with a tangy salsa vinaigrette, meaning it could make a filling meal even for a carnivore.  The favorite dish of the night, by far, was the delicious Robiola, which was a soft Italian cream cheese sandwiched in between more of the amazing pizza crust and drizzled with a good dose of truffle oil.  The robiola was so good that Brandy began wondering if anyone would notice if she slipped a few slices into her purse for later.

Though stuffed to the brim, no meal would be complete without dessert, so the group was presented with some Mini Churros with a chocolate fudge dipping sauce and an Italian Almond and Fig Gelato.  The churros were a fun thing to munch on, especially when using them to scoop up as much of the rich chocolate as possible.  Brandy absolutely adored the gelato, which was a little more sophisticated with its creamy texture, almond flavor, and little bursts of sweetness from the figs.

Though reluctant to leave Freds after such a beautiful evening, Brandy was at least comforted to learn that in addition to the Sunset Menu, Fred's has a full brunch service, for which Brandy is determined to return soon.

The writers of this blog were invited to attend this even free of charge in order to facilitate the writing of this post.

Fred's at Barneys on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

From the Kitchens of Bunny and Brandy: Smart Soups and Giveaway!

Brandy has said many time times that if it wasn't for her love of cheese, she could easily become a vegan. "I do like my meat, but I feel I could do without it," she says, "But cheese... there is just no replacing that ooey gooey, milky, stinky goodness."

Brandy predilection for solid dairy came to a head recently when she was asked to try some flavors from Smart Soup's line of low sodium, heart healthy, gluten free, frozen vegan soups.  Smart Soups come in a variety of international flavors meant not only to warm and satisfy, but nourish the body with carefully selected ingredients that are suitable for almost any diet.  As always, Brandy's interest in such a product lay not so much in its health benefits, but in its flavor. "I'm all for eating healthy, but if what one is eating doesn't taste good, there is not a lot of reason to continue in that vein," as Brandy points out.

Luckily, all of Smart Soup's products feature incredibly flavors broths, quite the feat when one considers no meat was used in their production. Brandy's favorite was the Vietnamese Carrot Lemongrass, which had a thick and creamy texture as well as crisp bits of potato, carrot, and soy beans to add texture. The Thai Coconut Curry had a lovely kick of spice that didn't overwhelm the delicate mix of crunchy Asian veggies. The Greek Minestrone was a hearty mix of beans and veggies with a rich tomato broth and just the right amount of Mediterranean herbs.  The French Lentil was very similar, but more filling with the addition of tender lentils. Lastly, the Santa Fe Corn Chowder featured an abundance of black beans and a smokey peppered spice.

As much as she loved these flavorful vegan soups, Brandy couldn't help wishing for the perfect accompaniment to any bowl of soup; a grilled cheese sandwich.  With that in mind, Brandy came up with five different versions of a grilled cheese sandwich, inspired by the bold international flavors of the Smart Soups.

Greek Minestrone
For this soup, Brandy suggests an Italian inspired grilled cheese with whole milk mozzarella and sun-dried tomato on focaccia bread.  The rich cheese and sweet sun-dreid tomato help to balance out the bold tomato broth of the soup, while the hearty focaccia bread is perfect for scooping up all those chunky veggies.

French Lentil
Another soup with a bold tomato based broth, this one, Brandy though, could use some sweetness to balance out the hearty lentils, so she paired this soup with a gruyere cheese and caramelized onions on a classic French baguette.

Thai Coconut Curry
As this soup had a sweet, spicy, and slightly sour base, Brandy thought a creamy and pungent cheese would go best, so she spread some blue cheese on a chewy naan bread, placed the creation under the broiler for just a bit, and topped it off with some fresh avocado.  The combination of this open faced sandwich with the spicy soup was so good that Brandy actually ended up spooning the soup on top of the bread as well to create the ultimate international flat bread pizza.

Vietnamese Carrot Lemongrass
This soup was so creamy and mild that Brandy felt the sandwich should serve to spice things up a bit.  Using the traditional bahn mi sandwich as inspiration, Brandy mimicked the smooth texture of the soup by spreading some smooth goat cheese onto a baguette and topped it with some fresh sliced jalapeno peppers.

Santa Fe Corn Chowder
For this South Western inspired soup, Brandy went all American and used some sharp cheddar and crisp bacon on whole wheat bread.  As this was one of the lightest of the soups, Brandy thought the rich cheddar and fatty bacon worked perfectly with the sweet corn and savory black beans.

Luckily for our loyal readers, Smart Soup has offered to treat one lucky winner to some of their fabulous products!  All that is needed to enter the giveaway is to leave a comment on this blog, on our Facebook page, our Twitter page, or our Instagram page telling us which flavor of Smart Soup you are most excited to try. A winner will be announced the morning of Wednesday June 3rd and will have 24 hours to send us their shipping address and phone number to claim their prize!
Congrats to Joann B. from Facebook with this winning entry!
"I love soup! All the flavors sound wonderful - I especially am interested in the Greek Minestrone. I also like that these soups are low sodium and heart healthy "

The writers of this blog were provided with products from Smart Soup in order to facilitate the writing of this post.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Township or The Indian Spice of Life

The Slow and Savory Review

Having been brunching around Chicago for almost five years now, it isn't often that Brandy is taken by surprise any more.  "Though I still love what I do, the menus full of eggs benedicts, French toasts, pancakes, and bacon can start to get a little monotonous from time to time," Brandy related to her dear friend Bailey Blue one day, "Without an original hook, I'm afraid it all starts to meld together in my mind."  "What you need is to spice things up a bit!" Bailey suggested, cheerfully, "Find somewhere that's fresh, interesting, classic, yet with a unique outlook."  "Easier said than done, my dear," Brandy pouted.

After a bit of research, Bailey found a spot that she though just might do the trick.  Township in Logan Square, a unique concert venue with a small diner at the front, recently revamped it's brunch menu to feature lots of brunch classics, but tweaked with a little Indian flair by Chef Tamiz Haiderali.  Township's goal with brunch is to serve the neighborhood healthy, organic, and tasty meals at a good price, and this sort of point of view is just what Bailey thought Brandy might like to see.

Township was a little small and narrow upon entering, giving off a friendly sort of old fashioned diner feel with mint green walls and minimal decoration.  "I do like a good old fashioned neighborhood diner," Brandy smiled as they took their seats.  She observed the counter off to one side of the space, set up with individual chairs as well as the open space behind the the dining area, where the restaurant could possibly expand into during busier hours or for events.

The two ladies both began with a glass of fresh Pineapple, Kale, and Celery juice.  Brandy was slightly worried that the vegetables would over take the flavor, but was pleasantly surprised that the major flavor was indeed the pineapple.  "I've come to have a great fondness for green juices in the last few years," Brandy explained, "I feel like if I have a nice healthy juice during a brunch it will help balance out the bacon and alcohol."  "I don't think that's how it works," Bailey laughed.

The first course of action, so to speak, was to try out the French Toast, which came with slivered almonds, creme anglais, and fresh fruit.  Right away, Brandy was impressed that instead of the normal mix of berries, this French toast had been garnished with slices of kiwi and pomegranate seeds, which not only made for a stunning presentation, but also provided a more adult bit of tartness to a dish that can sometimes be made sickeningly sweet.  The toast itself was pretty standard, but good, with a soft eggy texture that would please any die hard French toast fan.  The toast also came with an amazing house made Chai Syrup (an authentic chai flavor too, not the pumpkin-spice-esque chai other places try to skate by with) which was so good that the ladies began trying it with everything, from their coffee to a side of bacon.

For Bailey's entree, she chose the PLaT, a fresh take on a traditional BLT, but with prosciutto and avocado.  The sandwich, Bailey said, was like a dance of textures between the crunchy greens, the creamy avocado, and the tender, salty prosciutto.  It certainly did deliver on the promise of a BLT re-imagined in a fresh and more healthy way without compromising taste.  The sandwich also came with a slice of watermelon ("I do love a bit of fruit on a brunch plate as a palate cleanser," Brandy beamed) and a Spicy Potato Cake, which was a welcome change from a typical side of roasted potatoes or hash browns.  The potato cake was buttery and rich tasting with an almost polenta like texture, as it had a nice crust on the outside.

Brandy chose the Saag Paneer Scramble, which added sauted spinach and paneer, a semi firm Indian cheese similar to farmer's cheese or a low moisture ricotta.  Saag Paneer has been one of Brandy's favorite Indian dishes for ages, so the thought of combining it with scrambled eggs was quite exciting.  Though tasty, Brandy did wish the eggs had a bit more of a spicy punch to liven up the palate.  The dish came served with two pooris, a deep fried flatbread with a sort of garlicky seasoning that took the place of toast on a typical breakfast plate.  Brandy really liked combining the pooris and the eggs to add a bit more excitement to each bite.

"You were quite right, Bailey," Brandy smiled at her friend as they finished up their meal, "Sometimes all one needs to fall in love with an old favorite is a fresh outlook."  Township reminded Brandy of one of the reasons she so adores brunch; in capable hands, it provides a chef with a blank canvas on which to build their own vision.  Township not only made this fact apparent, they also brought breakfast back to what it should be, a wholesome meal that wakes up all of one's senses in anticipation of the day.  From the friendly service to the healthy dishes priced mostly around $10 a plate, Brandy found herself feeling quite a fondness for Township's commitment to becoming an asset to their neighborhood.  "Who would have thought all my palate needed was a bit of chai syrup and a dash of international flavor?" Brandy mused, "Just goes to show that though my wanderlust often spurs me to start globe trotting again, there is nothing anywhere else that I can't find here in Chicago."

The writers of this blog were invited by the restaurant to dine at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

The Short and Sweet Review
Township on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 15, 2015

Do-Rite Donuts or Do-Right Up Your Alley 

The Slow and Savory Review

"I just don't understand why we keep loosing!" exclaimed one of the members of Brandy's bowling team.  It had been a full month since they had won a match and the members of the Bowling Brunchers were beginning to think they had incurred a billy goat style curse somehow.  Bad luck seemed to plague them, like the time one of the balls hit an unseen divot in the floor and bounced straight into the gutter, or the other time they managed to hit the pins straight on in the center, but not a single one tipped over because some prankster child had glued them to the floor just before the match.  Brandy looked around her at her team members, seeing them despondently chugging their vegan smoothies and munching on their energy bars.  "There's the problem!" she exclaimed, "What we need is some protein to build our strength and some good old fashioned sugar coated carbs to maintain our energy."  The members of the Bowling Brunchers starred at her incredulously.  "Listen, before our next match, I'm going to bring us the perfect meal to sharpen our focus and get us in the right frame of mind.  No more of this health food nonsense!"

Having set this goal, Brandy zeroed in on the Do-Rite Donuts on Erie.  She knew when she was approaching the Do-Rite because she could smell the sweet scent of frying dough in the air.  The spot was a little small, with more space to move about and sit than Firecakes or Doughnut Valt, but without a full cafe like Glazed and Infused (there was however a nicely shaded patio area just outside).  With the more utilitarian purpose of grabbing and going rather than being a place to stay and linger for a while, there wasn't much to be said about the decor, which was really just fine by Brandy, as it brought the customer's focus to the main event, the wall of donuts.

Since this particular location featured not only an array of sweet treats but also a full menu of fried chicken sandwiches (Brandy noted there were several breakfast sandwiches available, but only before 10:30 am, and as most brunches occur well after that, she decided the lunch menu was more appropriate), Brandy's couldn't resist ordering up a few to take back to her team as well as a half dozen assorted donuts.  "Would you like to pick or have me choose for you?" asked the young sleepy eyed, yet helpful attendant.  "Why don't you decide for me dear.  Give me the best of what's on offer," Brandy replied, feeling adventurous.

First order of business upon returning to the team was to dig into the sandwiches while they were still warm and fresh.  Each sandwich featured a massive fried piece of chicken breast, which was hot, crispy, and deep brown in color.  The CBR was Do-Right's take on the classic BLT, featuring bacon and ranch dressing as well as cheddar cheese and pickles on a brioche bun.  This was most certainly a sandwich for a carnivore, as the smokey bacon and juicy chicken proved extremely satisfying, especially when paired with the tangy ranch dressing.  The Southern featured a nice and crunchy thick cut cabbage cole slaw as well as some tangy BBQ sauce and just enough spice to make things interesting.  The Sweet Heat was possibly Brandy's favorite, as it was both the simplest and most exciting.  Instead of a lot of toppings, the chicken was dressed with a spicy maple aioli and instead of a bun, the chicken was sandwiched between two halves of a vanilla bean glazed donut.  Though a little too on the sweet side, Brandy did like the bit of tang from the aioli, which cooled the kick of spice perfectly.

Moving on to the gorgeous little gems that were her half dozen, Brandy eyed up the flavors the attendant had chosen for her and the rest of the team.  First was a simple Vanilla Bean Glazed, which was nice, but wasn't quite tender enough for Brandy's liking.  "Perhaps its because these sorts of yeast donuts are usually best consumed hot and fresh," she mused.  The Valrhona Chocolate was next up, which was a dense cake donut with a thick, rich glaze of dark chocolate that wasn't nearly as sweet as Brandy expected it to be.  The Pistachio Lemon was much in the same vein as the previous one, but with a bright lemon flavored glaze that cut through the denseness of the cake and some crushed pistachios to provide both color and crunch.  The Cinnamon Crunch Old Fashioned definitely delivered on all fronts with a nicely crunchy exterior and a spicy cinnamon punch.  The Carrot Cake was surprisingly light in texture with a delectable cream cheese frosting dollop in the center.  Last but certainly not least was the special flavor of the week, the Blackberry White Chocolate Bullseye, which was one of the vanilla glazed donuts topped with a scrumptious white chocolate cream that was surprisingly light (less dense than a pudding, but heavier than whipped cream was what Brandy noted) and three sugared blackberries.  The combination of the juicy, tart berries, the rich chocolate cream, and the chewy yeast donut was utterly perfect.  "Such a shame this one's not on the regular rotation!" Brandy moaned, "But it does make me wonder what other wonders they're coming up with week to week."

Now having stuffed her team full of delicious fried chicken and delightfully original donuts, Brandy felt certain their luck was about to turn around, and that very day the Bowling Brunchers finally broke their losing streak by throwing three simultaneous perfect games.  The substantial dose of protein from the chicken sandwiches (which were priced at an unbelievably reasonable price of about $5 each) combined with the latent energy in the gourmet donuts seemed to have revitalized the team in both body and mind.  "Now, of course we can't be eating like this all the time," Brandy smiled at her team, "But if by some miracle we make the league playoffs, I don't want to hear any complaining about gaining a few extra pounds."

The Short and Sweet Review

Do-Rite Donuts on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 8, 2015

Festival Recap: Rioja Wine and Tapas Festival

As the well traveled bon vivant that she is, Brandy loves a good excuse to learn about different and exciting regions of the world, and recently she had the privilege of attending the Rioja Wine and Tapas Festival, which was held for the first time in Chicago this past weekend in the Grand Hall of Union Station.  The festival showcased the extraordinary wines produced in the Rioja province of Spain as well as local and national chefs creating original tapas to compliment them.

The setting of the festival could not have been more beautiful.  Under the sunny skylight of the architectural wonder that is Union Station's Grand Hall, the festival did an excellent job of adding little touches to the atmosphere, such as the candle lit entrance down the stair way, greeting guests with a keepsake wine glass, and having Spanish guitar music played live by a group of lovely and talented young men.

2015 Rioja Wine & Tapas Festival, Photo courtesy of Wines from Rioja
Brandy began the day sampling wine from the over 50 wineries present, all of which showcased several bottles of Rioja's carefully classified varieties.  The wines from this region are so distinctive because of the moderate climate, mineral rich soil, and the signature tempranillo grapes, which mean an abundance of reds (though a few whites and ros├ęs poked their heads out every now and then) with bold, smooth flavors that generally match well with rich foods like red meat and seafood.  The wines fell into four catagories: Crianza, the most versatile (these are the wines the locals drink on a daily basis), Reserva, acidic and dry with notes of red berries, Gran Reserva, an even deeper flavor with more woody notes, and Cosecha, which is sort of a catch all for vintages that don't fit into the other groups.  Brandy tended to favor the Reserva blends, as they were flavorful and complex without being overly dry.

Now thoroughly educated on the Rioja wines, Brandy headed over to the food stations.  Several quadrants of the hall boasted different experiences, with the corners near the entrance being dedicated to the Cheese Cave, Olive Bar, and Jambon carving station, the sides hosting the dessert stations, the edges holding the chef prepared tapas, and the center island making space for the whole animal carving.  Brandy noted that not only were there several notable Chicago chefs, but also quite a few national representatives from places like Las Vegas, New York, and Orlando.

2015 Rioja Wine & Tapas Festival, Photo courtesy of Wines from Rioja
The tapas seemed to be largely centered around different varieties of Spanish sausage, like chorizo, androlla, and morcon.  The heavily spiced meats of course paired excellently with the bold red wines of the region, as did the rich cheeses, the pickled veggies at the olive bar, and the freshly carved cured and roasted meats.  Some of Brandy's favorite dishes of the day were the seared sausage with white beans and red pepper sauce from Chef Nathan Sears at The Radler, a sausage with ramp pesto from Chef Rob Levitt at Butcher and Larder, another red sausage dish with greens, fresh cheese, and a bright citrus sauce from Chef Cory Morris at Rural Society, and  a curried mussel stew from Chef Carlos Gaytan at Mexique (who was easily the crowd favorite with the longest line).  There were also a few sweets to be had, like the delectable chocolate covered banana sorbet with caramel and roasted peanuts, as well as a smooth basil gelato with candied beets from Zarlengo's Italian Ice.

The day focused around different preparations at the center island, which included a huge collaborative starchy vegetable dish, which was laid out on a length of table, then scooped up and served with flat bread.  The main event, however, was the chefs carving up whole roasted animals, serving everything from the loin to the shoulder to the cheeks, which was definitely not a sight for the faint of heart (or squeamish vegetarians for that matter).

2015 Rioja Wine & Tapas Festival, Photo courtesy of Wines from Rioja

Ultimately, it wasn't even the wine that did Brandy in, but the incredibly rich food that had her sneaking off to have a sit down to catch her breath.  "The Rioja people sure know how to live!" she gasped, "Bold wines, flavorful food, great music... this is my kind of place."  Indeed, the "viva" atmosphere seemed to even be permeating the chefs, who were generally in very playful moods while chatting with festival goers, posing for pictures, and serving up their creations.  Seeing such revelry and excitement, Brandy sincerely hoped that Rioja would be making a return trip to Chicago next year.  "Mostly because I'm sure I missed one or two of the wines," she commented, "And my motto, as always, is leave no wine untasted."

You can see more of Brandy's adventurers at the Rioja Wine and Tapas Festival by checking out the full album on our Facebook page or by checking out this exclusive behind the blog video.

2015 Rioja Wine & Tapas Festival, Photo courtesy of Wines from Rioja
The writers of this blog wer einvited to attend the Rioja Wine and Tapas Festival free of charge as members of the media.