Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Spicy roasted garlic miso ramen, Wasabi

Spicy roasted garlic miso ramen, Wasabi Chicago

Spicy roasted garlic miso ramen with egg noodles, rich pork broth, berkshire pork belly, soft-boiled egg, marinated bamboo shoot, bean sprouts, sesame, scallion, roasted garlic, garlic chips, chili pepper, and sesame oil (plus a background pig to match the ramen!)

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: This steaming bowl of ramen hit me with two primary flavors: lots of roasted garlic and lots of heat – both very welcome on a chilly evening. Together with two forms of pork (broth and belly) and miso, each bite was rich and savory. The very best bites included all the other textures, too: a bit of the beautifully soft-boiled egg, crunch from scallions and garlic chips, and chew from the bamboo shoots and the egg noodles themselves. The garlicky broth was luxurious enough to slurp on its own, a testament to the care that Wasabi’s chefs put into a complicated cooking process that takes 45 hours total. Wasabi also offers sushi and Japanese small plates, but when the ramen is this exceptional, it’s tough to order anything else.

The details: Wasabi, 2115 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.

Travel Eats

Travel Eats: a fun-filled tasting at Travail Kitchen & Amusements, plus other fall flavors in Minneapolis

Travel Eats documents my food adventures outside of Chicago.

The last of fall foliage in Minneapolis

Caught the last weeks of fall foliage in Minneapolis

I spent last weekend in Minneapolis to visit close friends and soak in the last little bit of fall foliage. I’ve been to Minneapolis a few times before, but I was more impressed by the food this time around than ever before.

This was in large part because of my dinner at Travail Kitchen & Amusements on Friday night. It was unlike any tasting menu experience I’ve ever had: playful, interactive, a little off-the-wall – but none of the pageantry came at the expense of each dish’s technique and flavor. Across 16-plus whimsical courses, we didn’t just taste the food, but instead took part in more of a multi-sensory experience. For the pasta course, a cartoonish song about pasta blared from the speakers as the staff marched around to the tables, each adding one component until the dish was fully plated. Instead of coming to the table fully assembled, the mini foie gras burger served as the means for an interactive tour of the open kitchen in the middle of the restaurant, with diners snaking through each station until the burgers had all their toppings. And with foie gras mousse, slaw, and a french fry on top, it was probably the best slider I’ve ever had.

Mini foie gras burger, Travail Kitchen and Amusements

Mini foie gras burger assembled step-by-step during an interactive kitchen tour, Travail Kitchen and Amusements

As you can see in the video below, some courses required a little extra effort to eat, though now I can say that I’ve eaten speck (a cured ham like prosciutto) that was dangling from a hook!

The chefs at Travail played around with scent and temperature, too. For the steak courses, a miniature cast iron skillet with fresh rosemary atop smoldering charcoal came to the table first, adding a woodsy depth to the beef and brussels sprouts on the plate. As a palate cleanser before dessert, we were each served a spoonful of raspberry pop rocks straight out of a bath in liquid nitrogen, with firm instructions to “keep them moving on your tongue.” I admit I moved my whole body around as I ate mine, trying to make sure they didn’t stay in one place as chilly vapor poured out of my nose and mouth.

Rosemary coals, Travail Kitchen & Amusements

Rosemary and hot coals as (inedible) scent pairing for the steak course below, Travail Kitchen & Amusements

Steak and brussels sprouts, Travail Kitchen & Amusements

Filet with red cabbage puree, baby bok choy, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and sweetbread sausage, Travail Kitchen & Amusements

Raspberry pop rocks in liquid nitrogen, Travail Kitchen & Amusements

Raspberry pop rocks in liquid nitrogen, Travail Kitchen & Amusements

The next morning, I ate the best autumnal breakfast dish I’ve had all season: a savory waffle at Birchwood Cafe. The pumpkin waffle itself had incredible texture from the millet and gruyere cheese, and the accompaniments added all the sweet and salty notes I needed. And I wasn’t disappointed with my choice to pair it with a sidecar of sweet potato ale, for an extra touch of fall flavor. Later that afternoon, we indulged in Sebastian Joe’s ice cream, and I was especially wooed by my scoop of pumpkin, which was rich with warm spices.

Savory waffle and sweet potato ale, Birchwood Cafe

Pumpkin, millet, and gruyere waffle with red onion jam, apple cinnamon butter, bacon lardons, sunny side up egg, Wood’s maple syrup, powdered sugar, and spicy pepitas, and beer pairing of Indeed Sweet Yamma Jamma sweet potato ale, Birchwood Cafe

Pumpkin and turtle latte ice cream, Sebastian Joe's

Scoops of pumpkin and turtle latte ice cream, Sebastian Joe’s

The Bachelor Farmer, another Minneapolis favorite, pays homage to Minnesota’s Nordic roots through more elevated versions of traditional fare. While we sampled several dishes, it was the delicious board of various pates, pickles, and toast (served on the side in a gorgeous metal stand) that stayed with me the most. We wrapped up the weekend at French Meadow Bakery & Cafe, which made me wish that breakfast quesadillas made with black beans and fluffy eggs were on more menus in Chicago.

Groaning board, The Bachelor Farmer

Groaning board with country pate, headcheese, chicken salad, chicken liver mousse, pork fat pate, pickles, mustard, and toast, The Bachelor Farmer

Breakfast quesadilla, French Meadow Bakery & Cafe

Breakfast quesadilla with scrambled eggs, black beans, cheddar, spinach, house-made guacamole, chipotle sour cream, sprouted tortilla, and house-made salsa, French Meadow Bakery & Cafe

The details: Travail Kitchen & Amusements, 4124 W Broadway Ave. in Robbinsdale; Birchwood Cafe, 3311 E 25th St. in Minneapolis; Sebastian Joe’s, 1007 Franklin Ave. S in Minneapolis; The Bachelor Farmer, 50 N 2nd Ave. in Minneapolis; French Meadow Bakery & Cafe, 1662 Grand Ave. in St. Paul.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Baked potato bing bread, sesame leaves, hand-torn noodles & more, Parachute

Crispy sesame leaves

Crispy sesame leaves with bourbon barrel soy

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: In the past few months, nearly every food critic in Chicago has published a glowing review of Parachute, helmed by Top Chef alum Beverly Kim and her husband Johnny Clark. After dining there, I can only agree that they’ve brought something very special to a quiet block in Avondale – even against financial odds, as covered in this fascinating Chicago Tribune feature. Every dish I tried was imaginative and memorable, which made the whole meal one of my favorites this year.

I was already blown away after sampling the two snacks we ordered: crispy sesame leaves and baked potato bing bread. The leaves were lightly fried in a tempura batter, then ready to plunge in a bourbon-soy dipping sauce. Both components enhanced the sesame flavor brilliantly and make it the kind of snack you’d want to order over and over. The bing bread left a similar impression, packing all the best parts of a loaded baked potato into an even more texturally appealing format. The soft bread was rich without being greasy, and the sour cream butter that came on the side was another subtle hint of genius.

Baked potato bing bread, Parachute

Baked potato bing bread with bacon, scallion, and sour cream butter

Makgeolli rice wine and oysters, Parachute

Locally brewed makgeolli rice wine and oysters with soju granita

I was also impressed by the soju granita that came with an exquisite duo of West Coast oysters; besides being visually stunning, it added a cool, floral complexity unlike a typical mignonette sauce. To pair with the oysters (and the rest of the meal), we ordered makgeolli, a Korean rice wine that was brewed locally by Slow City Brewing. This was my first experience with rice wine, and I was fascinated by how its milky appearance belied a beer-like yeast flavor. One last standout dish was the hand-torn noodles, a toothsome tangle of wide noodles and ground lamb. The dish reminded me of an elevated version of chili mac, especially because of the sweetness in the lamb sofrito balanced by cumin and peppery heat. I’m already looking forward to my next meal.

Hand-torn noodles with lamb sofrito, Parachute

Hand-torn noodles with spicy lamb sofrito, sichuan peppercorn, and cumin

The charming interior, with polka-dotted glass and parachutes as curtains

The charming interior, with polka-dotted glass and colorful parachutes as curtains

The details: Parachute, 3500 N. Elston Ave., Chicago.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Hong Kong-style French toast, eggplant & more, Cha Gordo brunch at Fat Rice

Hong Kong-style French toast, radish cake, minchi hash, Fat Rice

Peanut butter and banana-stuffed Hong Kong-style French toast with jam and fruit; pan-fried radish cake with stir-fried seasonal vegetables; minchi hash with stir-fried minced pork and beef, sunny egg, coconut rice, and bok choi

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Since opening in Logan Square just under two years ago, Fat Rice has quickly become a darling of the Chicago restaurant scene and has even earned national attention for its Macanese cuisine, a distinctive fusion of Chinese and Portuguese flavors. Even though I’ve blogged about Fat Rice before, the Cha Gordo (or “Fat Tea,” a spin on Macanese high tea) brunch was a unique enough experience to merit its own post. The dim sum menu made it easy to try more dishes than at an average morning meal, so we ordered a little of everything.

I have to begin with the Hong Kong–style French toast, a decadent study in contrasts. The peanut butter-banana filling and peach-berry compote were comforting and familiar, but otherwise, the toast was out of the box: it was deep-fried in a batter spiked with lime zest, then scattered with slivers of young coconut and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk. It was what might result if a school lunch PB&J went on an exotic vacation. I couldn’t get enough. The minchi hash, reminiscent of Korean bibimbap, and the unexpectedly smoky pan-fried radish cake were both excellent as well.

Sweet and sour stuffed eggplant, Fat Rice

Sweet and sour stuffed eggplant with shrimp and pork

This brunch also strengthened my conviction that the eggplant at Fat Rice is just better than the eggplant anywhere else. The texture of each slice was soft without being mushy, soaking up an irresistible sweet-and-sour sauce, and the shrimp and pork stuffing added a richer dimension that felt very brunch-appropriate. We also wanted to make sure to partake in the “tea” portion of the Cha Gordo, so we shared a boozy carafe of black tea mixed with spiced whiskey, sweet vermouth, tea shrub, and mint. While I’d gladly drink it year-round, it really set the mood for a laid-back feast amidst flowers, string lights, and fresh air on the charming side patio.

Boozy bourbon tea

Carafe of boozy bourbon tea with spiced whiskey, sweet vermouth, black tea, tea shrub, and mint

The details: Fat Rice, 2957 W. Diversey Ave., Chicago.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: House-blend beef burger and chocolate shake, Butcher & the Burger

House-blend burger, Butcher & the Burger

House-blend beef burger with Grandma’s Onion Soup spice blend, lettuce, tomato, goat cheese, caramelized onions, avocado, and sriracha mayo, on a split-top roll

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: I don’t usually blog about burgers, but this one was memorable enough to merit an exception. A friend treated me to a belated birthday dinner at Butcher & the Burger, which she had always raved about but I’d never visited – and let’s just say that being introduced to this place was a birthday gift in itself. The menu allows you to customize your entire burger, all the way down to the spice blend in your patty, so I had several tough decisions to make. I ended up choosing the house blend of natural, local beef with Grandma’s Onion Soup spices on a classic split-top bun. The patty itself was everything I could have wanted: well-seasoned, cooked to picture-perfect medium, and terrifically juicy (though it was the liquid from the caramelized onions that sent the burger into extra-messy territory). The spongy bun did its best to soak everything up, concealing layers of creamy goat cheese and sriracha-spiked mayo. Lettuce, tomato, and avocado rounded out the contrasting textures. The burger evoked backyard grilling and gourmet gastropub fare in equal measure, which made it one of the best I’ve had in Chicago. And I couldn’t resist stealing a couple sips of the thick chocolate milkshake across the table, a tried-and-true combination of velvety frozen custard and chocolate syrup.

Chocolate milkshake, Butcher & the Burger

A very happy chocolate milkshake

The details: Butcher & the Burger, 1021 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Custard french toast, pork rinds & Smokin’ Mary, The Publican

Pork rinds, Publican

The famous pork rinds

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: I’m happy to finally be writing about The Publican, one of the first restaurants I learned was something special when I started getting into the Chicago food scene. It was where I celebrated with family and friends right after my culinary school graduation, and it also happened to be this month’s pick for the “brunch club” organized among several of my friends. I hadn’t been back for brunch in years, so I was excited to try the Saturday menu.

Whenever I recommend The Publican to anyone, I always add that they have to order the pork rinds. To be honest, I never thought I’d have a favorite pork rind, but anyone who’s tried The Publican’s version knows they’re like none other. The first bite is the loudest, most satisfying snap-crackle-pop you can imagine, and then the spicy, porky flavor just melts away in your mouth. The rinds are dusted with cheddar, malt vinegar, and espelette pepper powder, a bright orange combination that you’d notice was getting all over your hands if you weren’t so absorbed in all the crunching. Chicago magazine made a great step-by-step video of how Chef Brian Huston puts them together.

Custard French toast, Publican

Custard french toast with grilled peach, spiced granola, and whipped ricotta

I’d heard the french toast was not to be missed, and the fact that it involved fleeting summer peaches made it an even easier sell. The custard-soaked bread was creamy on the inside and deeply caramelized on the outside, with more toasty aromas from the grilled peaches (I would have loved even more slices) and an especially nutty, seedy granola. Even after adding syrup, the slathering of mellow ricotta kept the dish from being overly sweet.

The Smokin’ Mary was another hit – I really loved the smoky depth of the stout and chipotle mix, and the white whiskey by Evanston-based Few Spirits is always a no-brainer in cocktails. Simple garnishes and a pilsner sidecar made it a balanced, manageable Mary.

Smokin' Mary, Publican

Smokin’ Mary with Few white whiskey, chipotle house mix, stout, and Krombacher Pils sidecar

Lighting, Publican

The Publican’s now-iconic globe lighting

The details: The Publican, 837 W. Fulton Market, Chicago.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Koshari, falafel & roommates, and Moroccan mojito, Masada

Falafel & roommates, Masada

Falafel & roommates with fried cauliflower, eggplant, potato, and zucchini, with garlic, jalapeño, and lemon hot sauce

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Masada opened this month in Logan Square after 10 years in the works, and its enormous interior is most assuredly a sight to behold. Ornate, colorful lighting and flat-screen aquariums bedeck the main level’s seating area; follow technicolor stairs down to the basement, and you’ll find a full-fledged dance floor. Our table overlooked the downstairs patio, but there are also multiple upper-level patio areas, all sporting festive lighting and wrought-iron fixtures. The food itself was refreshingly simple, considering its elaborate surroundings.

I knew I’d enjoy the falafel, as its sister restaurant, Sultan’s Market, makes some of my favorite in the city, but what stood out in this wrap were its accompaniments, or “roommates,” as they were playfully described on the menu. The potatoes, eggplant, cauliflower, and zucchini were a satisfying mix, especially with doses of garlicky hot sauce and creamy tahini sauce.

Koshari, Masada

Koshari with brown lentils, rice, pasta, chickpeas, tomato sauce, and caramelized onions, garnished with garlic, jalapeño, and lemon hot sauce

Koshari is a classic Egyptian dish that I hadn’t heard of before – one that “built the pyramids,” according to our server. I most appreciated all the textural contrast here: lentils, chickpeas, rice, caramelized onions, tomato sauce, and even macaroni noodles, which made me think of it as an ancient predecessor to chili mac. It was a simple, hearty dish that was easy to envision as being a home-cooking staple. The pita with olive oil and za’atar (a spice blend that I highly recommend using at home) were great to snack on before our meal arrived, and the bold hue and floral aroma of the Moroccan mojito were a perfect match for the patio’s upbeat garden vibe.

Moroccan mojito, Masada

Moroccan mojito with rum, hibiscus, and mint

The details: Masada, 2205 N. California Ave., Chicago.

Travel Eats

Travel Eats: A few summer bites in Washington, DC

Travel Eats documents my food adventures outside of Chicago.

Smoked fish plate, Duke's Grocery

Smoked fish plate with smoked salmon, smoked whitefish, smoked herring, housemade trout rilettes, accompanied by capers, shallot, lemon-herb salad, pickled cucumbers, and buttered toast, Duke’s Grocery

I spent some time with friends in Washington, DC, last week, and while I didn’t get to fit in any overly elaborate meals, I still emerged with a few favorite bites from the nation’s capital. The first came at Duke’s Grocery in Dupont Circle, a café that takes its inspiration from the cuisine of East London. We ordered several of the seasonal, daily-varying dishes to share over a leisurely late lunch on the front patio. I liked everything, but the best part of our umbrella-shaded feast was the colorful fish plate, featuring four different kinds of smoked fish to layer onto toast with pleasantly mild pickles, capers, and a squeeze of lemon.

I started another morning at Penn Quarter’s Red Apron Butcher to try a tigelle, a breakfast item that had piqued my interest before the trip. The tigelle itself was a pressed Italian flatbread that was like a crispy English muffin, but denser and more flavorful. Stuffed between its two halves was spicy pimento cheese, tasso ham, and a hefty portion of egg. It was a little unwieldy at times, with egg and cheese oozing over the sides, but also the most memorable, delicious breakfast sandwich I’ve eaten lately. Plus, how can you not love the flower design that’s griddled into it?

Southern Comfort tigelle, Red Apron Butcher

Southern Comfort tigelle with tasso ham, egg, and spicy pimento cheese, Red Apron Butcher

Peanut butter bacon pop tart, Ted's Bulletin

Peanut butter + bacon pop tart (and a glass of milk), Ted’s Bulletin

After hearing my friends rave about Ted’s Bulletin, I was happy to stop by one evening to snag one of their popular pastries for dessert. And once I saw that a peanut butter and bacon pop tart was one of my options, I didn’t need to consider anything else. It stayed true to the texture of a real pop tart, but with a decadent, sweet-and-savory twist, and went wonderfully with a glass of milk.

Finally, I knew I didn’t want to leave DC without visiting a food truck, as the scene there is much more established and diverse than it is in Chicago. When I got to Farragut Square around lunchtime, there were at least a dozen different trucks, slinging everything from Indonesian, Ethiopian, and Cajun cuisines to crepes, pies, bubble tea, and grilled cheese. After making the rounds, I decided to go with a Venezuelan arepa from Arepa Zone, whose healthy line indicated that the piping hot corn pockets were worth it. I loved the creamy chicken-avocado salad filling, and the watermelon salad on the side was a refreshing, summery touch.

Sifrina arepa, Arepa Zone truck

Sifrina arepa with chicken-avocado salad and shredded yellow cheese, Arepa Zone truck

Arepa Zone truck, DC

Arepa Zone truck parked along Farragut Square

The details: Duke’s Grocery, 1513 17th Street NW; Ted’s Bulletin, 505 8th Street SE; Red Apron Butcher, 709 D Street SW; Arepa Zone, Farragut Square and other varying locations (all addresses in Washington, DC).

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Bulletproof coffee and quinoa cakes with poached eggs, Beatrix

Today is extra exciting because I’m being featured on another blog for Writer Wednesday! Thanks to Kristin of Not Intent on Arriving for featuring me – I really enjoyed answering her questions and reflecting on why I write. Be sure to check out her lovely blog if you haven’t already, and if you found my site through hers, welcome!

Bulletproof coffee, Beatrix

Bulletproof coffee, mixed with high-quality unsalted butter and coconut oil

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Butter coffee, also called bulletproof coffee, is one of the latest buzzed-about concepts in the food world. It’s coffee that is brewed as a pourover, but also mixed with two key ingredients: coconut oil and unsalted butter made from grass-fed cow’s milk. The idea of drinking butter along with my coffee was daunting, but intriguing enough that I had to taste it for myself (and I’d been meaning to try breakfast at Beatrix anyway).

When I took my first sip, I couldn’t immediately detect the butter. It was frothy and toasty, almost like a marshmallow latte, with subtle sweetness from the coconut oil. It tasted even better after a few more sips, coating my throat in a pleasantly silky way. As the coffee cooled down, I grew a little more aware of visible oil inside the cup and could feel myself getting too full to finish it, but I enjoyed the flavor overall. The quinoa cakes made a light, protein-rich companion to the rich coffee, especially because of the bright, basil-packed tomato sauce.

Quinoa cakes with poached eggs, Beatrix

Quinoa cakes with poached eggs, tomato-basil sauce, poached-egg mayo, and window herbs

The details: Beatrix, 519 N. Clark St., Chicago.

Best Bites

This week’s Best Bite: Bag of crisps & eggs and grilled octopus & housemade spam, Bottlefork

Grilled octopus and housemade spam, Bottlefork

Grilled octopus and housemade spam with brussels sprout kim chee and sugar snap peas

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: A friend suggested Bottlefork for a long-overdue get-together, and we were able to duck in early on a weeknight. I was excited to be able to order Goose Island’s Devon Ave. Pale Ale on draft, an addictive limited release that’s brewed with chai tea, cardamom, and other Indian spices. Out of all the small plates we shared, the grilled octopus was my favorite. Tender octopus and well-spiced cubes of housemade spam – which thankfully bore little resemblance to its canned counterpart – soaked up a funky, acidic sauce that also contained sugar snap peas and fermented brussels sprouts. The eclectic combination of ingredients kept me going back for another spicy, vinegary bite.

Bag of crisps and eggs, Bottlefork

“Bag” of crisps and eggs with malt vinegar powder

The biggest surprise, though, was the first bite of the meal, which was listed on the menu as “Bag” of Crisps and Eggs. The seemingly unnecessary quotation marks actually hinted at the unconventional tableside preparation: the server arrived with a small brown bag full of chips and a soft-poached egg in a separate container; he then slid the egg into the bag, shook the bag vigorously, and poured the bag’s contents out onto a plate. What looked like just a pile of soggy, glossy potato chips turned out to be incredibly delicious. Somehow, the mixture of egg, potato, and zingy malt vinegar powder made the not-so-crispy texture work in the dish’s favor.

The details: Bottlefork, 441 N. Clark St., Chicago.