Best Bites, Chicago

Best Bites: Queso fundido with longaniza, lamb albondiga & more, Mi Tocaya Antojería

Spicy peach-lime frozen margarita, Mi Tocaya

Spicy peach-lime frozen margarita

Chef Diana Davila recently took over a prime spot on Logan Boulevard to cook her family’s soulful Mexican recipes. Mi Tocaya Antojería is the kind of cozy-yet-exciting restaurant that everyone should want in their neighborhood, so I feel very lucky to have it in mine. Each dish blended the familiar and the unexpected, starting with a vibrant peach-lime frozen margarita that was on special the night I visited. It was fruity at first, but the garnish packed some intense heat, a slow build with every citrusy sip.

Guisado de nopalitos, Mi Tocaya

Guisado de nopalitos with fried cheese curds

I’ve eaten nopalitos (cactus) a few times, but hadn’t ever found it noteworthy until this dish. It was tender and meaty, with just enough heat from the chiles, and the fried cheese curds were a creative and decadent touch.

The queso fundido was a great example of a familiar appetizer that’s nearly ubiquitous on standard Mexican menus, but is rarely memorable and often a little too greasy. Mi Tocaya’s version wasn’t greasy at all, in large part because the typical chorizo was replaced by longaniza, a sweet Filipino sausage that I’ve sought out ever since a friend introduced me to it right after college. The photo doesn’t do it justice, but the char on the sausage and gooey cheese, mixed together with poblano peppers and spooned onto tortillas, was definitely something special.

Longaniza, rajas, and queso fundido, Mi Tocaya

Longaniza, rajas, and queso fundido

Lamb albondiga, Mi Tocaya

Lamb albondiga with mint, carrot, and egg

The lamb alboniga (meatball) was another dish that benefited from the influence of a separate ethnic cuisine. This time, it was North African-inspired, with the mint, carrot, and hard-boiled egg that are often seen in a tagine (like this one). It all came together well. And I had to try at least one of the tacos, deciding to go vegetarian after reading rave reviews. As with the cactus, I didn’t miss the meat at all, with textural contrast from the squash, the crema, the swipe of black beans, and even the fried pepper in the middle.

I already can’t wait until my next visit; the lengua (tongue) with peanut butter and frothy nitro horchata are at the top of my list, preferably from a seat on the boulevard-facing patio.

Milpa taco, Mi Tocaya

Milpa taco with charred butternut squash and chile, beans, and corn crema

The details: Mi Tocaya Antojeria, 2800 W. Logan Blvd., Chicago.

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Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Tapas, vermouth & more in Barcelona, Spain

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Liquid olives and house vermouth, Bodega 1900

Liquid olives and house vermouth, Bodega 1900

Barcelona has been on my food destination wishlist for quite some time now, so it seemed worthy of a three-day visit – can’t argue with an emphasis on seafood, snacking, and sangria, after all. Spain has also been at the forefront of molecular gastronomy, and while legendary chef Ferran Adrià no longer operates the famed El Bulli, his brother Albert still operates multiple restaurants. His more casual venture is Bodega 1900, where we scored a reservation our first day in Barcelona.

Bodega 1900 is a modern nod to the old-school vermuteria, so naturally the first thing we ordered was house vermouth. I don’t know that I’d ever had vermouth on its own before that day, but after two glasses I was completely enamored with how drinkable it was, and how well it paired with all the tapas dishes. We opted for the chef’s tasting, and the first dish that arrived was an Adrià classic: liquid olives, which capture the essence of olives using a technique called reverse spherification (here’s a video). Deceptive and delicious.

Russian salad with tuna belly, Bodega 1900

Russian salad with tuna belly, Bodega 1900

The Russian salad was essentially tuna belly thrown into potato salad (with just the right amount of mayonnaise), and was probably the most comforting dish of the meal. Next, slices of (very) smoked mackerel were lined up like sashimi, simply dressed with salt and olive oil. It was just the kind of no-frills seafood snack I had envisioned.

Smoked mackerel, Bodega 1900

Smoked mackerel, Bodega 1900

Skate wing in adobo, Bodega 1900

Skate wing in adobo, Bodega 1900

I always love seeing skate wing on a menu, and these were coated in an adobo-seasoned batter, then lightly fried. They were almost like skate fritters, the outer crust playing well with the dense fish inside. Perhaps the most indulgent dish of the meal was cured, paper-thin beef tenderloin that melted in your mouth to a peppery finish. It was one of the purest forms of beef I’ve ever had.

La Rubia Gallega beef tenderloin cured in salt and spices, Bodega 1900

“La rubia gallega” beef tenderloin cured in salt and spices, Bodega 1900

Even the vegetable dishes held more than met the eye. The tomato salad was especially surprising: what looked like under-ripe heirloom tomatoes tossed in salt and olive oil turned out to be balanced and texturally fantastic. The green peas and mushrooms were served in a savory, piping hot broth that I easily could have slurped down as soup. They both made a nice transition into the rest of the tapas dishes.

Fresh

Fresh “Raff” tomato salad, Bodega 1900

Green peas with mushrooms, Bodega 1900

Green peas with mushrooms, Bodega 1900

Wandering around large food markets is a highlight for me in any major city (see also Florence and London), so I knew a visit to the gigantic La Boqueria would help fight first-day jetlag. While it’s debatable whether complete sensory overload is better or worse while jetlagged, we managed to sample several items. My favorites were the cone of smoky, marbled jamon iberico and a pineapple-coconut juice blend from one of the (shockingly ubiquitous) juice stands.

Pineapple-coconut juice and cone of jamon iberico, La Boqueria market

Pineapple-coconut juice and cone of jamon iberico, La Boqueria market

Beetroot pancakes with smoked salmon, spinach, pickled onion, and creme fraiche, UGOT Bruncherie

Beetroot pancakes with smoked salmon, spinach, pickled onion, and creme fraiche, UGOT Bruncherie

Brunch isn’t necessarily a traditional Spanish concept, but it does fit well with the relaxed lifestyle. I went with the day’s entree special at Ugot Bruncherie, and it combined several of my favorite flavors: smoked salmon, spinach, creme fraiche, and pancakes, which were pink-dyed and faintly savory from beetroot. Between that and the frothy, cocoa-dusted cappuccino, I was quite content. We decided to take dessert to go, so we could enjoy it a little later in a nearby park, and that may have been one of the best decisions all trip. The buttery alfajor cookie held a layer of dulce de leche and a swirly crown of gooey, super-sweet, coconut-dusted meringue. It was messy, but so worth it.

Cappuccino, UGOT Bruncherie

Cappuccino, Ugot Bruncherie

Dulce de leche alfajor with coconut meringue

Dulce de leche alfajor with coconut meringue, UGOT Bruncherie

And of course, you can’t visit Barcelona without snacking on churros. I didn’t end up trying the traditional chocolate-dipped variety, but the Nutella-filled version across the street from the (staggeringly beautiful) Sagrada Familia was weighty and decadent enough for me. And while I didn’t previously associate Spain with pastries, I was impressed by the variety available. My favorite was a flaky croissant filled with white chocolate from a bakery near Barceloneta Beach.

Nutella churro, Xurreria Sagrada Família

Nutella churro, Xurreria Sagrada Família

Mixed berry tartlet and white chocolate croissant, Baluard Barceloneta

Mixed berry tartlet and white chocolate croissant, Baluard Barceloneta

For our last night in Barcelona, we booked a tapas tour through Airbnb. Our guide, Marwa, led us to four different places and weaved lots of history into her explanation of the food and drink we were sampling. We tasted classic tomato toast at one cozy tavern, then made our own at our last stop, a 16th-century bodega where we also tried five different cheeses and five different meats (including a rare, high-quality jamon iberico). It was an excellent overview to wrap up the trip.

Tomato toast, Tasca El Corral

Tomato toast, Tasca El Corral

Variety of Spanish cheeses, fig jam, and quince, Bodega La Tinaja

Variety of Spanish cheeses, fig jam, and quince, Bodega La Tinaja

The details: Bodega 1900, Calle Tamarit 91; El Mercat de la Boqueria, Rambla, Mercat de la Boqueria 91; UGOT Bruncherie,
Viladomat 138; Xurreria Sagrada Família, Plaça Sagrada Família 26; Baluard Barceloneta, Carrer del Baluard 38; Tasca El Corral, Carrer de la Mercè 17; Bodega La Tinaja, Esparteria 9; all Barcelona, Spain.

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Best Bites, Chicago

Best Bites: Focaccia French toast & eggs in purgatory, Coda di Volpe

Focaccia french toast, Coda di Volpe

Focaccia french toast with Nutella whipped cream, candied orange syrup, and buffalo butter

Why it’s a Best Bite: I tend to adore Italian-influenced brunch, so this newcomer to the Southport Corridor seemed worthy of a visit. Coda di Volpe excelled equally in the sweet and savory realms, which is not an easy feat. On the sweet side, the focaccia French toast was dense and decadent in the best way. Each substantial slice of focaccia was topped with buffalo’s milk butter and a scoop of Nutella whipped cream, plus candied orange syrup and hazelnuts on the plate as accompaniments. It was a fantastic (and rich) combination of flavors.

Eggs in purgatory and classic bellini, Coda di Volpe

Eggs in Purgatory with baked eggs, spicy tomato, provola, polenta cake, and fennel sausage; and classic bellini with white peach and prosecco

On the savory side, the eggs in purgatory were sizzling in both spiciness and temperature. I loved every part of this dish, from the polenta to the sausage to the baked eggs bathed in tomato sauce. To quench the heat, I sipped a refreshing bellini of prosecco and white peach.

Our table also shared an order of bomboloni with three dipping sauces. The dough itself was slightly less sweet, so the orange, grape, and chocolate sauces were more necesssary for balance.

Bomboloni, Coda di Volpe

Bomboloni with candied orange syrup, chocolate sauce, and concord grape jam

The details: Coda di Volpe, 3335 N. Southport Ave., Chicago.

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Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Macarons, crêpes & more in Paris, France

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Macarons, Pierre Hermé

Arabesque (apricot and pistachio), passion fruit, and coffee macarons, Pierre Hermé

I vacationed in Europe for 10 days at the beginning of the month, and three of those days were spent in Paris at peak springtime bloom. Brilliantly colored flowers seemed to show up everywhere we looked, and I have to believe that made the food taste even better.

One of my Parisian goals was to sample some authentic French macarons, and Pierre Hermé was consistently recommended as the best. From the first bite, I knew these were unlike any I’d eaten previously. The delicate domed exterior gave way to a chewy interior, where rich fillings took on the purest form of passion fruit, coffee, and other flavors. These macarons were so good that we went back to Pierre Hermé twice more – once to a different location in Paris, and once to the London outpost (so that we could tote macaron boxes on our return flight that were only a day old).

Ham and cheese crêpe, Chalet du Grand Palais

Ham and cheese crêpe, Chalet du Grand Palais

Another Parisian mainstay is the crêpe, served street-side in a cone shape for maximum portability. This one was from a kiosk that we came across as we began our stroll down the Champs Elysées. The classic combination of ham and (lots of) cheese was definitely the right way to go – simple savory snack perfection.

For dinner, we took our Airbnb host’s recommendation for a typical French bistro and landed at Bonvivant. Their take on steak frites involved rare ribeye and compound herb butter flanked by salad and thick-cut fries. It was hearty, but still elegant enough to pair with a glass of dry rosé.

Steak frites, Bonvivant

Beef ribeye steak with meat jus, house-made fries, and herb butter (and a glass of rosé), Bonvivant

For breakfast, the croissants from aforementioned Pierre Hermé also somehow managed to outshine the rest of their pastry competition. Isaphan is the patisserie’s best-known flavor combination: rose, raspberry, and lychee, and the croissant version infused those flavors into the filling, glaze, and candied petals on top. It was so uniquely delicious that I was genuinely forlorn about taking the last bite.

Isaphan and chocolate-pistachio croissants, Pierre Hermé

Isaphan (rose, raspberry, and lychee) and chocolate-pistachio croissants, Pierre Hermé

Quiche lorraine, Maison Eric Kayser

Quiche lorraine, Maison Eric Kayser

Another morning, I tried a typical quiche lorraine from another bakery chain, Eric Kayser, and the texture was even creamier than I expected. There was also no shortage of bacon, which made it especially filling.

Coffee is a must in Paris as well, and we’d read about Le Peloton, an especially charming bike-themed café in the Marais neighborhood. The generously sized cortado was worthy of a break from exploration.

Cortado, Le Peloton Café

Cortado, Le Peloton Café

Because the spring weather was so pleasant, we picnicked at the Jardins du Luxembourg one afternoon with sandwiches from nearby bakery Gérard Mulot. My sandwich was simply dressed: lettuce, juicy tomato, sliced chicken, and tarragon mayonnaise, which all sunk into the pillowy seeded bread. The sandwich was perfectly balanced on its own, but rounding out my lunch with a pear and a small bottle of rosé certainly didn’t hurt. The macarons at Gérard Mulot had also been highly recommended, so we selected a colorful variety for dessert. My favorite of the bunch was the aromatic pineapple-ginger, whose vivid yellow color blended right into the flowers.

Chicken sandwich, Gérard Mulot

Chicken sandwich (with rosé and a pear), Gérard Mulot

Chocolate, grapefruit-rose, pineapple-ginger, and Amaryllis (raspberry buttercream and jam) macarons, Gérard Mulot

Amaryllis (raspberry buttercream and jam), pineapple-ginger, chocolate, and rose macarons, Gérard Mulot

On our last night in Paris, we timed our evening so that we could see the sparkling Eiffel Tower lights at nighttime. A lacey, piping hot crêpe stuffed with Nutella and bananas made the view that much more magical.

Nutella-banana crêpe, Le Kiosque des Fontaines

Nutella-banana crêpe, Le Kiosque des Fontaines

The details: Pierre Hermé at Publicis Drugstore, 133 Avenue des Champs Elysées, and at 72 Rue Bonaparte; Chalet du Grand Palais, 9 Avenue des Champs Elysées; Bonvivant, 7 Rue des Écoles; Maison Eric Kayser, 13 Boulevard Diderot; Le Peloton Café, 17 Rue du Pont Louis Philippe; Gérard Mulot, 76 Rue de Seine; Le Kiosque des Fontaines, Place de Varsovie; all Paris, France.

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Delicious Events

Delicious Event: Joy the Baker Over Easy demo & book signing

Mini ham and bourbon-peach jam biscuits from Joy the Baker Over Easy cookbook

Mini ham and bourbon-peach jam biscuits from Joy the Baker Over Easy cookbook

Joy Wilson started Joy the Baker in 2008, one of the very first food blogs I started reading regularly, so it was surreal to finally meet Joy in person. Her blog has been a go-to resource for any manner of baked goods (especially cookies) and savory dishes (her summery peach tomato mozzarella crostini were captured in my very early Instagram days). Her pancake recipes also never disappoint, including the peanut-butter-bacon-banana pancakes that showed up on this blog a few years back.

The event was held at Read It & Eat in Lincoln Park, a culinary bookstore that also holds cooking classes and author demos like this one. Joy was in the middle of a tour to promote her third cookbook, Over Easy, which celebrates all things brunch.

Joy the Baker cooking demo

Joy assembling the biscuit sandwiches during the demo

During the demo, Joy showed us mixing methods for butter and buttermilk that would ensure maximum biscuit fluffiness. For the jam, she jazzed up canned peach preserves by adding lemon juice, lemon zest, honey, and bourbon (as you do). Two jam-slathered biscuit halves and a slice of country ham combined for a lovely two-bite sandwich.

Throughout the event, Joy was just as friendly, sharp, and playful as her writing had suggested all these years. When she signed my book, we chatted like we’d known each other a while; she just had a way of making everyone feel at ease (a shared love of good food will often do that). I can’t wait to start trying some of these brunch recipes – first stop: French toast breakfast burritos.

Over Easy cookbook signed by Joy

My cookbook, signed by Joy, plus a donut Joy the Baker patch

The details: Joy the Baker at Read It & Eat, 2142 N. Halsted St., Chicago.

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Chicago, Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week 2017: Dinner at Celeste

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2017, held January 27–February 9. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage from 2013-17.

Shake & Fries, Celeste

Shake & Fries with french fry panna cotta, nutella mousse, and fry crumbles

Best Bite: I’d only been to Celeste for drinks in their rooftop garden, but hadn’t yet tried the food. The “Shake & Fries” dessert was probably the most intriguing and bizarre item on any of my destinations’ menus this year, described as a French fry panna cotta with Nutella mousse and fry crumbles. But, surprise! The sweet and salty worked very well, just like dipping fries into a chocolate Frosty. The parfait was a little precarious to eat at first, given the mountain of fry pieces on top, but it was worth it once you were able to dig down for a bite of all three components together.

Eggplant involtini, Celeste

Eggplant involtini with eggplant, ricotta, goat, & pecorino cheese, seasonal veggies, tomato sauce, and crostini

Other notes: My other favorite dish was the eggplant involtini, mostly because of the garlicky marinara and the three kinds of cheese inside the rolled eggplant slices.The bulgogi lamb chops were also a nice starter, with lots of glazed veggies on the side.

Bulgogi lamb chops, Celeste

Bulgogi lamb chops with honey glazed romanesco and baby carrots

The details: Celeste, 111 W. Hubbard St., Chicago.

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Chicago, Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week 2017: Dinner at ZED451

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2017, held January 27–February 9. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage from 2013-17.

Butterscotch bread pudding, ZED451

Butterscotch bread pudding with housemade marshmallow

Best Bite: This was my first time back at ZED451 since Restaurant Week 2014. The all-you-can-eat strategy for salads and meats still made it Restaurant Week’s best value, but interestingly, dessert is what stole the show for me on this latest visit. A housemade marshmallow disc was bruléed on top of the butterscotch bread pudding in the most exceptional way, fully melted inside but still holding its crisp exterior.

Harvest table, ZED451

Salads, cheeses, charcuterie, and more from the harvest table

Other notes: Just as before, the harvest table was overwhelming. I especially enjoyed the veggie salads, from beets to carrots to brussels sprouts, and also the array of cheeses with fig and apricot accompaniments. All three meats served tableside – sirloin steak, glazed salmon, and Moroccan-spiced chicken – were even better than I remembered. My next visit may have to be during brunch, which is also unlimited and around the same Restaurant Week price point.

Char-grilled sirloin, ZED451

Char-grilled sirloin, served tableside with Moroccan chicken and Szechuan-glazed salmon

The details: ZED451, 739 N. Clark St., Chicago.

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Chicago, Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week 2017: Dinner at Gene & Georgetti

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2017, held January 27–February 9. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage from 2013-17.

Broiled filet mignon, Gene & Georgetti

Broiled filet mignon with sautéed spinach

Best Bite: Gene & Georgetti proudly boasts the title of Chicago’s oldest steakhouse. It’s the kind of place that doesn’t seem to have changed very much from when it opened in 1941. Not surprisingly, the steak was the star of the meal. The filet had the right amount of well-seasoned crust, and the garlicky spinach on the side kept with the no-frills theme.

Crab cake, Gene & Georgetti

Housemade crab cake with remoulade

Other notes: The crab cake was classically prepared, with zesty remoulade and old-school garnishes. And as our group wrapped up the meal with tiramisu and coffee, you could almost hear the decades of Chicago business conversations echoing off the dark wood paneling.

Tiramisu and coffee, Gene & Georgetti

Tiramisu and coffee

The details: Gene & Georgetti, 500 N. Franklin St., Chicago.

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Chicago, Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week 2017: Brunch at Appellation

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2017, held January 27–February 9. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage from 2013-17.

Duck confit and vegetable hash, Appellation

Duck confit and vegetable hash with cheddar grits and poached egg

Best Bite: Appellation is the full-service restaurant attached to Pastoral’s relatively new Andersonville location, and was among those offering brunch this year. I’m usually more of a savory brunch person, so the duck confit hash with delicata squash, carrots, and poached eggs was just what I wanted. The cheesy grits at the bottom of the bowl were also a welcome switch from the typical potato base. However, the dish that left the very best impression on me was actually the pancakes. I’m not sure whether it was the dense texture of the cakes or the orange butter on top, but they were excellent.

Buttermilk pancakes, Appellation

Buttermilk pancakes with orange butter and warm maple syrup

Other notes: The baked eggs in squash cream were another creative take on a classic savory dish, especially because you could load up each slice of baguette with a pile of prosciutto, arugula, and the creamy eggs. I was so full at the end of the meal that I didn’t even browse the cheese and artisanal food selection for which Pastoral is most known – that will have to merit its own separate visit.

Baked eggs, Appellation

Baked eggs in squash cream with proscuitto San Daniele, agro dolce onions, arugula, and baguette

The details: Appellation, 5212 N. Clark St., Chicago.

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Chicago, Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week 2017: Dinner at de Quay

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2017, held January 27–February 9. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage from 2013-17.

Chicken sate skewer, de Quay

Chicken sate skewer with beef and vegetable nasi goreng, peanut sauce, and traditional condiments

Sauteed shrimp, de Quay

Sautéed shrimp with shittake mushroom-fennel-roasted garlic dumplings, babi pangang beurre blanc, green beans, and pickled hot peppers

Best Bite: De Quay’s combination of Dutch and Indonesian cuisines has intrigued me ever since they opened, so Restaurant Week felt like the right time to try it out. Both entrée options had a lot going on – the marinated, lightly charred chicken skewers came with spicy rice, mild pickles, and two sauces; the pan-seared shrimp were joined by mushroom dumplings, green bean-pickled pepper salad, and a rich panang beurre blanc. They both showcased a broad range of influences, but still came together well.

Brabant roll, de Quay

Brabant roll with pork farce and smoked rookworst with pistachios rolled in puff pastry, with groningen mustard veloute and dried fruit compote

Other notes: The brabant roll was the first-course winner, a decadent appetizer that brought together flaky pastry, smoky pork, dried fruit, and mustard sauce. And while I was jolted at first by the neon green buttercream atop the cocoa cake, it worked nicely with the curried pineapple. We also had the warm housemade stroopwafel with a generous helping of vanilla ice cream on the side, and while humble in appearance, we agreed it was far superior to any stroopwafel we’d ever had.

Nederlands cocoa cake, de Quay

Nederlands cocoa cake with pandan buttercream and curried pineapple compote

The details: de Quay, 2470 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.

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