Friday, October 27, 2017

Festival Recap: Taste Talks 2017

During the first weekend of October one of Brandy's favorite food festivals of the year, Taste Talks, invaded Chicago. With a host of seminars and events, the weekend long event aims to inspire industry professionals and food fans alike to learn about the latest trends and gain a deeper appreciation for the people and processes that go into producing amazing food. This year's conference  was set to impress with new host locations and lots of new talented chefs.

Brandy started off her Taste Talks weekend bright and early on Saturday morning at Revival Food Hall, which served as the new home for all of the food demos, panels, and seminars that form the center of the conference. Mindy Segal's Hot Chocolate stand provided a bounty of brunch bites, such as sweet and savory composed bagel toast and uniquely flavored mini donuts. The items were so popular in fact that many attendees didn't get a chance to taste them before they disappeared, (Brandy, on the other hand, had planned ahead and made sure she arrived early enough to have a crack at the goodies).

She then settled in for a morning of demos and tasting in the main hall. Future Top Chef contestant and Chef at Spiaggia, Joe Flamm  showed off his knife skills by filleting a salmon live in front of the crowd, then composed it into a simple crudo. Fabio Vivani was next, demystifying pasta making by showing the crowd how he could create fresh pasta in less than two minutes and make it into a composed dish in less than ten. Jenner Tomaska from Next made a rare appearance, talking about how the creative geniuses in his kitchen find inspiration for their dishes in unexpected places; from centuries old French cookbooks to childhood favorite poems (indeed, all of Tomaska's talk of "story telling" and "narrative" prompted Brandy to suggest that he might want to consider partnering with some noted fiction writer in order to create an original narrative that could be then be made edible, an idea he seemed to take a shine to. So let it be known that should such a menu appear at Next, Chicago will have Brandy to thank for it!). The last demo Brandy attended had her delighting in watching Phillip Foss of El Ideas explain the genesis and evolution of his signature dish, French Fries and Ice Cream. She was even more pleased when she had a chance to sample that hot and cold, sweet and savory wonder consisting of vanilla whipped cream frozen instantly with liquid nitrogen spooned on top of warm cream of leek soup with small chunks of thrice fried potatoes at the bottom. 

Later that night, Brandy adjourned to Fulton Market Kitchen, where a collaborative dinner themed on a "Family Meal," (no, not Thanksgiving, but rather the meal restaurants serve their staff before service begins) was being hosted. The night was drowned in Altos Tequila cocktails, which helped to loosen up the attendees, many of which were seated at communal tables.  Pat Sheerin kicked things off with a pair of roasted vegetable dishes, followed up by Chris Curren's fish course with tilapia in tomato sauce with Spanish rice and a simple ceviche with lime and garlic. The meat course came courtesy of John Manion and consisted of a Pork posole verde (served in a plastic service cup to mimic how a server would eat it back in the kitchen) and an amazing plate of short rib nachos with avocado crema, chojita cheese, and pickled onions. Finally, dessert came in the form of four beautiful little bites from Becca Zuckerman; Mexican chocolate cookie sandwiches, tres leches cupcakes,and tequila lime tarts.

Brandy had barely recovered by the next day when she headed out to the All Star Cookout in Palmers Square. Having picked the second entry time to accommodate her hangover from the previous night's festivities, she was a little disappointed to learn that two of the restaurants present had already run out of food (the drinks tent also had only a few remaining options). Never the less, the rest of the restaurants in attendance seemed well prepared with enough food to make up the difference. Standouts from the day included Fat Rice's "Dirty BBQ," which consisted of a cinnamon scented beef rib and a delicious chicken wing covered in various crushed up crisped potato snacks. Proxi served a very unique Thai sausage, mini Bulgogi Beef tacos came from Seoul Taco, and Grilled Beef Rolls from Oriole, who had partnered with this year's guest chef curator, Andrew Zimmern from Bizarre Foods.

There were definitely some bumps in the road for this year's Taste Talks, but there was also a great lineup of chefs throughout the weekend who brought their passion and skills to the plate. For more drool worthy pictures (of both the chefs and their food) make sure to stop by Bunny and Brandy's Facebook Page.

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

Friday, October 13, 2017

Tavern on Little Fort or The Big Game

The Slow and Savory Review

For a sports fan in Chicago, autumn can be the most stressful time of year. Are The Bears going to ever find a halfway decent quarterback? Just how many injured players can The Blackhawks put on the ice before everything falls apart? Is there a second part to the Curse of the Billy Goat that means The Cubs will be in the playoffs for the next century, but will kill all of their fans by playing insanely stressful games? These are all questions Brandy never used to waste any of her brain cells thinking about ("Those brain cells are reserved for killing with alcohol, by God!" as she says), but now that she's been in Chicago for over a decade, they are the things constantly at the forefront of her mind.

"Maybe it's because I brunch every Sunday morning and I have inadvertently absorbed all this sports nonsense," Brandy was saying to her good friend Bailey one day, "You know, the televisions are always on at the bars and such, so I must be subconsciously acquiring information from them while I sip my mimosas." "It's hard to live in a city like this and not become a sports fan of some kind," said Bailey, "Speaking of which, there's four different games I need to catch that are about to start. Would you like to come watch with me?" "Well..." "And grab some brunch?" "I suppose I could be persuaded."

They ended up at Tavern on Little Fort, a comfy Bavarian style bar in the heart of North Center. The dark woods that covered the inside of the bar gave the place a warm and familiar feeling, but Brandy was glad to see that they also had a beer garden and a sidewalk patio for those diners who desired a little more light. Though Brandy usually prefers to stay indoors, Bailey convinced her to take a table on the patio where they could still keep an eye the various games being broadcast on the televisions inside. The trick was that alongside the Chicago games, Tavern on Little Fort is actually a Hawkeyes, Raiders, and St. Louis Cardinals bar, so a variety of teams and sports were being shone.

Though the mimosa and bloody mary bar were tempting, they decided to start things off with a pair of cocktails from the regular menu: Bailey got the RBC Spritzer, which was a mix of a honey scented cider and a sauvignon blanc, while Brandy went with the Mimosa After Dark, which came with a splash of passion fruit liqueur along with orange juice and champagne. Brandy rather liked the additional flavor, which gave the drink a pungent yet enjoyable fruitiness. Bailey felt her spritzer was a little more heavy on the wine and sort of watered down the taste of the cider (as an admitted cider snob, it was the addition of the cider that had peeked her interest in the first place).

For their appetizer course, they picked out a couple of easy-to-munch dishes that wouldn't get too messy if they dropped bits of them down their fronts when they had to suddenly turn their attentions to the games. Firstly, there was the Fried Brussels Sprouts, adorned with bacon, smoked almonds, and cranberries. Brandy was pretty taken with these flavorful little morsels, which were crispy, crunchy, smokey, and sweet all at once. Bailey only had eyes for the Loaded Tater Tots; a pile of freshly made golden nuggets topped with crumbled chorizo, chihuahua cheese, tons of green onions, and a drizzle of crème fraîche. The result was an indulgent mountain of deliciousness, held together by some really well made tots that were crunchy on the outside, but like mashed potatoes on the inside. Bailey especially enjoyed the flavor of the chorizo, which had a good spicy kick that helped cut through all the richness and starchiness.

For her entree, Bailey chose the Brunch Schnitzel. The massive slab of breaded pork came topped with a fried egg and a healthy portion of smoked potatoes and pickled red onion. She was very happy with how juicy the pork was on the inside as well as the well flavored potatoes and onions, which stood up to the meat quite well. "I'd say that I could eat this every day, but if I did, I'd be as big as one of those line backers," she giggled, mostly to herself, as Brandy was enraptured by a play happening in the baseball game she was keeping an eye on.

When not distracted by the game, Brandy was munching on her Breakfast Burger. She realized after one bite that she had actually tasted this burger before, at Tavern on Little Fort's sister restaurant Commonwealth Tavern, but it was just as tasty as she remembered. The patty had been made with brisket and bacon, which gave it a wonderful smokey under current, and the fresh made bread and butter pickles lifted the whole thing with a little tangy sweetness. "I didn't even mean to order the same burger I had back at the beginning of the year, but goodness, am I glad I did! Do you see how perfectly that egg on top was cooked? It's certainly the MVP of the whole meal."

Brandy and Bailey eventually tottered away from Tavern on Little Fort with full tummies and a touch of stress induced indigestion from watching their respective teams make things a little too exciting. The service had been very relaxed, an accomplishment for a place that was actually quite busy and a little under staffed. There could not have been a better menu to enjoy a game with and the prices were fair enough to enable a couple of extra rounds of drinks should any games go into over time. "I suppose I have to accept that I am a bonafide sports fan now," Brandy sighed. "Is that such a bad thing?" Bailey chided her. "No, but it's hard for a former athlete like myself to just sit back and watch others compete." "You were an athlete?" "Of course. Competitive eating is a valid sport, isn't it?"

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, October 6, 2017

Festival Recap: Chicago Gourmet 2017

There is a reason that Brandy so eagerly anticipates the end of September every year, and it might not be what you think it is. "Most people count down the days until the beginning of fall so they can get their hands on a pumpkin spice latte," she muses, "But for me, it's all about the countdown to what I refer to as 'Foodie Christmas.'" Yes, the biggest food festival of the year has once again come and gone, and although this year's attendees had to deal with record heat, there was no putting a damper on the party. Chicago Gourmet was celebrating a decade of existence and did so with a bang, adding all sorts of new events leading up to the big weekend while theming everything on the idea of decadence (or Decade-ance... get it?).

Having attended seven out of the ten festivals, Brandy has developed a pretty good strategy for getting through the day in the most efficient way possible, which she would like to share with all of her readers so that they can more easily prepare for future festivals.

Rule Number One: Hit the ground running. Brandy always makes sure she hasn't eaten anything for at least twelve hours before the festival so that she can be sure she has enough room for all the deliciousness. Once in the gate, she immediately made a beeline for the Four Corners Tavern tent, which was serving a selection of dishes, desserts, and cocktails from their collection of restaurants (with an emphasis on their newest venture, Brickhouse Tavern, which recently opened just outside of Wrigley Field). This tent is always ready to go right as the festival opens, while others are still in prep mode. Brandy was able to quickly grab up some savory fry bread, a buffalo tuna cone, some boozy rainbow jello push pops, an adorable unicorn donut hole, and a Moscow Mule, all while others were still consulting their maps.

Rule Number Two: Eat on the go. Once she had a handful of goodies, it was time to find another tent to line up for. Veterans of the festival will often go straight for the Supreme Lobster tent, as it tends to accumulate the longest lines, but Brandy prefers to make her way around the perimeter of the festival first, as those tents tend to run low of food more quickly. Brandy headed for the Mariano's tasting pavilion, and just as she finished up her previous haul, she was ready to collect delicious items for her next round. The K-Pop Fun Time Wieners with "kim-cheeeeze" whiz from the Duck Inn were a definite favorite from this group.

Rule Number Three: Know who your friends are. The beginning of the day is the most important part, because it sets the pace for everything else. If one fills up too quickly, they'll be sluggish for the rest of the day, but if one goes too slowly, they risk being too full by the time the second session comes around. Brandy likes to review the locations of restaurants she knows she loves and plan her stops accordingly so as to waste as little time as possible. Honey Butter Fried Chicken is always going to be a great option, so she headed in the direction of their tent and got the bonus of a delicious hot dog from Bar Lupo, topped with bolognese, giardiniera, and ricotta, as well as a braised short rib slider with tomato jam and truffle aioli from Pearl Brasserie.

Rule Number Four: If you don't love it, don't finish it. Pacing is key, especially when some of the restaurants seem to be trying to out do each other with portion sizes. Brandy spotted Marchesa serving a mini bowl of steamed mussels, which on first glance seemed like a lot of food, but was actually a manageable size once one had removed all the meat from the shells. She greatly admired the bravery of serving mussels at an event such as this one, where the temptation is to present a perfect one bite dish.

Rule Number Five: Take breaks and stay hydrated. There are plenty of oases to be found outside of the more obvious seating areas. 8 Hospitality offered some bar tables and chairs along with cocktails and a truffle and pheasant pie. Counter Culture Coffee had created a pop up cafe, where they were offering everything from cups of cold brew to shots of espresso to give attendees a much needed boost of energy. Thermador had set up a comfy lounge area, offering people pieces of bacon dipped in either chocolate or caramel as a quick snack. Patron had the most impressive spot, right in the middle of the festival, where bartenders were slinging a variety of tequila cocktails.

Rule Number Six: Wait to get sweets until you're almost full. With most of the dishes at Chicago Gourmet being savory, a sweet treat can make quite a difference to one's overwhelmed palate. After sampling a slightly sweet braised beef brisket with sweet potato puree, pickled slaw, and apple jam from Promontory, Brandy found herself craving things with even more sweetness, so she headed to the desserts pavilion. There she found Bittersweet Pastry shop serving up butterscotch brownies, Bang Bang Pie handing out cups of fresh blueberry crisp, and Beacon Tavern presenting a beautiful hazelnut and chocolate layered cake.

Rule Number Seven: Hit the demos before you hit the wall. As Brandy does most years, she headed to the main stage demos while the tents transitioned from the first to the second sessions. Comfortably seated, she watched as Stephanie Izard and Sarah Grueneberg teamed up to make dumplings and pasta (with some assistance from Billy Dec), followed by Art Smith and Lorena Garcia exuding their sass and charm with some Southern/Latin fusion food.

Rule Number Eight: Find the most creative and refreshing dishes to finish out the day with. The second session can be the most challenging part of the day as fatigue sets in and the alcohol starts to seep into the blood stream, but finding new and exciting things can help keep the mind sharp. Brandy really loved her visit to the vegetarian themed tent, where Filini was serving up a gnocci with butternut squash and brown sage butter and Baptiste and Bottle offered a delicata squash with escarole, apple mostarda, and a chili seed romesco. Across the lawn, there was a fried sweetbread from Osteria Langhe, something one wouldn't normally expect to see at such an event, but a welcome surprise. Stings (Brandy's newly discovered go to for ramen) presented a wonderfully refreshing cucumber salad, which was a blessing of a palate cleanser after a day of snacking of such rich fair.

It certainly was a celebration of decadence at this year's Chicago Gourmet, but with her game plan at the ready, Brandy once again survived a long but exuberant day of food and drink. "It's a good thing they only do this once a year," she sighed as she headed out of the park, "I don't know if I could survive doing this even six months apart."

Don't forget, lots more pictures from the festival are available for browsing on our Facebook page!

The writers of this blog were given free admission to this event in order to facilitate the writing of this post.