Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Birthday dinner at Le Cirque, Las Vegas

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Signature chocolate ball with birthday candle

Signature chocolate ball with birthday candle


In the midst of a week of celebratory Las Vegas dining, I knew that I wanted dinner on my actual birthday to feel extra special. I’d always heard about Le Cirque’s legacy in New York over the decades, and it just felt right to go classic French for this milestone birthday.

I’m happy to report that from the moment we walked into the restaurant, our party was treated in a way that befit such a special occasion. The whimsical and strikingly colorful “circus tent” ceiling set an appropriately celebratory tone, and the window beside our table afforded a view of the famous Bellagio fountains, making the whole thing just a bit more magical.

Circus tent ceiling

Circus tent ceiling

Egg amuse-bouche with lemon mousse and carrot mousse

Egg amuse-bouche with lemon mousse and carrot mousse

The whimsy continued with the amuse-bouche: a hollowed-out egg was refilled with lemon mousse and a dollop of carrot mousse, both tinted and shaped to resemble the egg’s original contents. It was a delightful way to start the meal.

I ordered the escargots as my appetizer, and was pleased to see that Le Cirque’s version went far beyond the typical garlic butter bath. The bowl was filled with so many textures: tomato confit, crispy croutons, tender greens; and, of course, lots of snails and butter for a hearty and aromatic dish.

Escargots with burgundy snails in black garlic herb butter, croutons, tomato confit, and licorice ‘salad’

Escargots with burgundy snails in black garlic herb butter, croutons, tomato confit, and licorice ‘salad’

Foie gras poêlé with St. Germain flambeed foie gras, tapioca, and elderflower gastrique

Foie gras poêlé with St. Germain flambeed foie gras, tapioca, and elderflower gastrique

Thankfully, a dining companion ordered the foie gras starter instead, so I was more than happy to sample a few bites of one of my favorite foods. The crunchy texture of puffed rice and grains on top, together with the sweet floral sauce pooled underneath, made this version really stand out.

For my entrée, I stayed classic with roast chicken, mushrooms, potatoes, and asparagus. Everything was expertly executed – especially the near-silky chicken – and the foie gras sauce gave it another touch of luxury.

Le poulet rôti with roasted organic chicken, asparagus, hedgehog mushrooms, roasted baby potatoes, and foie gras sauce

Le poulet rôti with roasted organic chicken, asparagus, hedgehog mushrooms, roasted baby potatoes, and foie gras sauce

Chocolate ball with praline mousse, white chocolate ice cream, hazelnut caramel crunch, chocolate sauce

Chocolate ball with praline mousse, white chocolate ice cream, hazelnut caramel crunch, chocolate sauce

When it came time for dessert, I was given an option: either the chocolate ball that the rest of the table had ordered, or an off-menu soufflé. I couldn’t pass up the quintessential demonstration of culinary technique that is the soufflé, so I chose that. However, due to a mix-up in the kitchen, I ended up with both desserts! For the chocolate ball, melted chocolate was heated to a precise temperature and poured over the ice cream-filled ball, causing it to gradually crack in a way was completely mesmerizing. The hot-and-cold contrast with a bit of praline crunch was absolute chocolate paradise.

Then, the sky-high chocolate soufflé arrived, and again I was transfixed by the skill of the pastry chefs. There are so many things that can go wrong with a soufflé, and even the best ones can still fall quickly, so tasting its airy, chocolate-y magic bite after bite left a lasting impression.

Chocolate soufflé

Chocolate soufflé

We were each sent on our way with a red leather box that had a housemade truffle tucked inside each of its two drawers. Weeks later, one glance at the box and my mind is right back to re-living this extraordinary meal.

Take-home truffles

Take-home truffles

The details: Le Cirque at Bellagio, 3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas.

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Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Eating & drinking on the Las Vegas Strip

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Interior flowers, Buffet at Wynn

Interior flowers, The Buffet at Wynn

To celebrate my 30th birthday, I gathered some of my closest girlfriends and made my first-ever trip to Las Vegas. I took advantage of my full week there by sampling cuisine from several of the world-class resorts and elsewhere on the Strip, plus a few stops downtown.

I knew I couldn’t go to Vegas without experiencing a buffet, and chose the Wynn for both food quality and overall aesthetics. As you can see above, it was a jaw-dropping floral wonderland. Amidst the overwhelming selection (mini-baskets of fish and chips! Tuna poké and dumplings! Mini-skillets of shrimp and grits! So many hand-carved meats!), my favorite station was the made-to-order latkes, which were served either reuben-style (corned beef and sauerkraut) or with smoked salmon, capers, lemon, and chive sour cream (my selection; it was exceptional). And on top of all that, there’s a full room dedicated to dessert, complete with a spinning gelato wheel. It was a true midday feast.

Made-to-order smoked salmon latke station, The Buffet at Wynn

Made-to-order smoked salmon latke station, The Buffet at Wynn

ork belly bun with hoisin, scallion, and cucumber, Momofuku

Pork belly bun with hoisin, scallion, and cucumber, Momofuku

Momofuku was high on my to-do list, since I’ve still never been to the original New York location. It made the most sense to visit during Social Hour, a resort-wide happy hour at the Cosmopolitan. I had to try the pork bun, the now-iconic dish that laid the foundation for Chef David Chang’s culinary empire. From soft bun to rich pork to simple sauce and garnish, it definitely lived up to its reputation. I was also wowed by the chilled noodles that were coated in a spicy sauce and piled with a satisfying combination of basil, sausage, and candied cashew.

Chilled spicy noodles with Sichuan sausage, Thai basil, and candied cashew, Momofuku

Chilled spicy noodles with Sichuan sausage, Thai basil, and candied cashew, Momofuku

Quesadilla chicharron with housemade chicharron, queso menonita, and salsa cinco chiles, China Poblano

Quesadilla chicharron with housemade chicharron, queso menonita, and salsa cinco chiles, China Poblano

Another Social Hour standout was China Poblano, Chef José Andrés’ colorful fusion of Mexican and Chinese flavors. I went with one dish from each cuisine, and while I enjoyed the messy, red-sauced pork bun, tucking a crunchy chicharron into a melty quesadilla was the truly genius move.

Rou Jia Mo street sandwich with red-braised pork belly, cilantro, and scallion, China Poblano

Rou Jia Mo street sandwich with red-braised pork belly, cilantro, and scallion, China Poblano

Roasted bone marrow with rioja-braised shallot marmalade, Beauty & Essex

Roasted bone marrow with rioja-braised shallot marmalade, Beauty & Essex

And because I apparently couldn’t get enough of the Cosmopolitan’s restaurant selection, I also dined at Beauty & Essex, whose dining room is hidden behind a pawn shop facade with jewelry and fancy guitars. The bone marrow was flawless, with wine-braised shallot marmalade to smear onto strips of toast along with the marrow itself. The tuna poké wonton tacos were bright and refreshing (not to mention adorably served).

Tuna poke wonton tacos with chiffonade cilantro, radish, and wasabi kewpie, Beauty & Essex

Tuna poke wonton tacos with chiffonade cilantro, radish, and wasabi kewpie, Beauty & Essex

My first meal of the trip was at Mesa Grill, Chef Bobby Flay’s high-end Mexican restaurant at Caesar’s Palace. The pork tenderloin was some of the best pork I’ve ever had, a perfect medium with sweet and spicy sauces, and the pecan-buttered tamale on the side was an excellent take on sweet potato. I couldn’t help but think that the blue and yellow corn muffin in the bread basket looked familiar – and then realized it was from when I dined at the original New York location way back in 2008.

New Mexican spice-rubbed pork tenderloin with bourbon-ancho chile sauce and sweet potato tamale with crushed pecan butter, Mesa Grill

New Mexican spice-rubbed pork tenderloin with bourbon-ancho chile sauce and sweet potato tamale with crushed pecan butter, Mesa Grill

The Royale with Cheese burger, with robiola cheese, caramelized onions, grilled treviso, and parmesan-mascarpone cream, B&B Burger & Beer

The Royale with Cheese burger, with robiola cheese, caramelized onions, grilled treviso, and parmesan-mascarpone cream, B&B Burger & Beer

At the Venetian, we loved the canal-side view from the patio at B&B Burger & Beer (the B’s are for Mario Batali and Joe Bastanich). The burger itself was rich and extra cheesy, with nice bitter contrast from grilled treviso (a variety of radicchio).

Todd English’s Olives at the Bellagio was well-suited for a late dinner after our daytrip to the Grand Canyon’s west rim (unimaginably vast and beautiful, by the way). Both the fig-prosciutto and smoked salmon flatbreads had a ton of flavor, and also kept well as leftovers the next day.

Smoked salmon and fig & prosciutto flatbreads, Todd English’s Olives

Smoked salmon and fig & prosciutto flatbreads, Todd English’s Olives

Pub chopped salad with grilled chicken, salami, shrimp, chickpeas, cherry tomatoes, white cheddar, pretzel crisp, and apple cider vinaigrette, Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill

Pub chopped salad with grilled chicken, salami, shrimp, chickpeas, cherry tomatoes, white cheddar, pretzel crisp, and apple cider vinaigrette, Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill

Gordon Ramsay is another celebrity chef with a solid presence in Vegas, so decided to fit his pub into the agenda. The pub chopped salad was a pleasant surprise, especially considering its long list of potentially disparate ingredients (shrimp, pretzel crisp, chickpeas, salami, white cheddar, and more).

For the opposite of a salad, we made an obligatory trip to In-N-Out, the West Coast burger chain with a cult following. The not-so-secret animal-style fries with cheese, grilled onions, and burger spread did indeed hit the spot.

Animal-style fries, In-N-Out

Animal-style fries, In-N-Out

Crack Pie soft serve with sprinkles, Milk Bar

Crack Pie soft serve with sprinkles, Milk Bar

On the sweeter side, I made sure to stop at Milk Bar, which is affiliated with and right next to Momofuku. Their signature Crack Pie (gooey butter cake with oat crust) was available in soft-serve form, and it did manage to capture the same level of decadence.

I also sampled the gelato at Jean Philippe Patisserie, a Bellagio shop that’s best known for boasting what they claim to be the world’s largest chocolate fountain. A few of the floor-to-ceiling glass shelves and flowing chocolate are shown in the background below.

Cappuccino gelato, Jean Philippe Patisserie

Cappuccino gelato, Jean Philippe Patisserie

Whip It cocktail with Dole whip, Island Time Floats Tiki Bar

Whip It cocktail with Dole whip, Island Time Floats Tiki Bar

And of course, you can’t spend a week in 100-plus degree desert temperatures without a few frozen drinks. I knew that Island Time was a rare purveyor of famed Dole Whip (pineapple soft serve), so I stopped by one sweltering evening for their citrusy Whip It cocktail. Though I’ve never seen anything melt so fast, it was just right for the heat.

With its multiple locations along the Strip, Fat Tuesday is the main supplier of the comically large frozen drinks that many people tote from place to place. I ordered a blend of the bellini and pina colada flavors of frozen daiquiri – both tasty and not as saccharine as you’d expect – and split it among personalized cups made as souvenirs for my friends.

Frozen bellini and pina colada daiquiri, Fat Tuesday

Frozen bellini and pina colada daiquiri, Fat Tuesday

Veal parmigiana, Battista’s Hole in the Wall

Veal parmigiana, Battista’s Hole in the Wall

One night, we went old-school Italian at Battista’s Hole in the Wall, a place that’s been around since 1970. It kept coming up in my dining research, possibly because meals are such a bargain. The generously portioned entrees all include soup or salad, garlic bread, cappuccino (which was closer to hot chocolate), and unlimited carafes of house wine. My veal parmesan was the red-sauce classic I was hoping for, and fit right into the endearingly kitschy atmosphere.

I also made sure to visit the downtown area to experience a bit of Old Vegas, and was delighted to find a hidden craft brewery gem among the glitter and grit of Fremont Street. The coffee kolsch was especially good, and reminded me a lot of a Portland brew that I’ve wanted to re-discover ever since.

Morning Joe coffee kolsch, Banger Brewing

Morning Joe coffee kolsch, Banger Brewing

Al pastor taco and carne flautas, Pinches Tacos

Al pastor taco and carne flautas, Pinches Tacos

While downtown, I explored the Downtown Container Park, continuing the trend of converting old shipping containers into shops and eateries. I’d heard that Pinches Tacos was the place to go, and both the tacos and flautas delivered. I also really enjoyed my coconut cold brew at The Black Cup Coffee Co. stand – it gave me the boost I needed to continue my delicious adventures.

Coconut cold brew, The Black Cup Coffee Co.

Coconut cold brew, The Black Cup Coffee Co.

The details: The Buffet at Wynn, 3131 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; Todd English’s Olives and Jean Philippe Patisserie at Bellagio, 3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; Mesa Grill and Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill at Caesars Palace, 3570 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; Beauty & Essex, China Poblano, Milk Bar, and Momofuku at Cosmopolitan, 3708 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; B&B Burger & Beer at Venetian, 3355 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; Fat Tuesday at Grand Canal Shoppes, 3377 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; Island Time Floats Tiki Bar at Grand Bazaar Shops, 3631 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; In-N-Out Burger at Linq, 3535 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; The Black Cup Coffee Co. and Pinches Tacos at Downtown Container Park, 707 Fremont St.; Banger Brewing, 450 Fremont St.; Battista’s Hole in the Wall, 4041 Linq Ln.; all Las Vegas, Nevada.

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Best Bites, Chicago

Best Bites: Chocolate cinnamon roll & gas station sandwich, City Mouse

Chocolate cinnamon roll with espresso and marshmallow

Chocolate cinnamon roll with espresso and marshmallow

City Mouse is the all-day eatery inside the West Loop’s still-new Ace Hotel. It’s helmed by Jason Vincent, currently of Giant and formerly of Nightwood. I’ve missed Nightwood’s brunch since they closed 2 years ago, so I was hoping City Mouse would be somewhat of a reincarnation.

We had to start with this cinnamon roll, which combined all the best dessert flavors (espresso, chocolate, caramel, and marshmallow) into a caramelized morning masterpiece. I would easily go back for that alone.

Gas station sandwich with hashbrown, egg, cheese, grape jelly, and sausage, served with Michigan-grown fruit

Gas station sandwich with hashbrown, egg, cheese, grape jelly, and sausage, served with Michigan-grown fruit

I already knew the gas station breakfast sandwich was emerging as an early favorite from the brunch menu, so I had to try it for myself. And sure enough, I was delighted to find that the hashbrowns bore a striking resemblance to the ones served with Nightwood’s legendary bagel sandwich – just in a flatter form. The humble grape jelly did its job in pulling the meat, egg, and cheese together, and even the fruit on the side was an especially pleasant mix of apricots, strawberries, and blueberries. We sat on the sprawling glass-walled patio, whose fire pits will surely make it a hit into the cooler months as well.

Glass-walled patio, with a view of Google across the street

Glass-walled patio, with a view of Google across the street

The details: City Mouse at Ace Hotel Chicago, 311 N. Morgan St., Chicago.

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Best Bites, Chicago

Best Bites: Loaded baked potato gnocchi, chicken nuggets & more, Split-Rail

Loaded baked potato gnocchi with bacon, sour cream, Hook's 5-year cheddar, and crispy potato skin

Loaded baked potato gnocchi with bacon, sour cream, Hook’s 5-year cheddar, and crispy potato skin

I had the chance to talk to Chef Zoë Schor a few years about a female chef-focused Restaurant Week menu and have always been impressed by her food, so when she left Ada Street to open her own restaurant, I knew it would be one to watch. Split-Rail finally opened in June, putting a fresh spin on nostalgic foods of her childhood.

The loaded baked potato gnocchi was a no-brainer, and my favorite take on baked potato since Parachute’s bing bread. It hits the bacon, cheese, chive, and sour cream notes, but the texture of the gnocchi itself – crispy edges, soft interior – is what makes the dish.

Linguine and clams with egg yolk linguine, briny clams, charred leek, and uni butter

Linguine and clams with egg yolk linguine, briny clams, charred leek, and uni butter

I’m glad my dining companions pushed for the linguine and clams, because it ended up being my other favorite dish. It was briny, spicy, lemony, and buttery (uni butter, no less!), with plenty of clams swirled into the rich, eggy pasta.

And then there were the chicken nuggets. The breading was audibly crunchy and perfectly salted, with a grainy honey mustard sauce that had a heavy hit of citrus for extra brightness.

Chicken nuggets with honey-mustard

Chicken nuggets with honey-mustard

The Breakers cocktail with Gamle Ode Dill aquavit, apricot shrub, black pepper, mace, and basil

The Breakers cocktail with Gamle Ode Dill aquavit, apricot shrub, black pepper, mace, and basil

My cocktail, The Breakers, was also a pleasant surprise. The apricot and basil put it in standard summer territory, but adding in the dill aquavit and black pepper made it exceedingly savory. It worked, though, especially with the mustard and chicken nuggets at the start of the meal.

The details: Split-Rail, 2500 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago.

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Best Bites, Chicago

Best Bites: The Hop Mess waffles & deviled eggs, Rhyme or Reason

The Hop Mess waffles, Rhyme or Reason

The Hop Mess with Revolution Sun Crusher wheat ale-infused waffles, brown sugar-candied bacon, Sun Crusher-infused maple syrup, and fresh berries

While I was sad to see the Wicker Park location of Jerry’s close last year (the endless sandwich menu overwhelmed in a delightful way), I was happy to try out its replacement. Rhyme or Reason is a gastropub that draws inspiration from retro ’70s themes, and its sprawling front patio was especially inviting on a sunny Saturday morning.

I decided to try The Hop Mess, brand new to the menu as a month-long collaboration with Revolution Brewing. Both the waffle batter and the maple syrup were (very) heavily infused with Revolution Brewing’s Sun Crusher, a new seasonal wheat ale that was already a favorite of mine from earlier in the summer. Together with blueberries, candied bacon, and whipped cream, the hoppy malted waffles really worked (especially with a cup of coffee for balance).

Deviled eggs with espresso-bacon jam, Rhyme or Reason

Deviled eggs with espresso-bacon jam

My friend and I also snacked on these deviled eggs before entrees arrived. A sticky smear of espresso-bacon jam on top of each creamy egg set the sweet-and-savory brunch tone. And while the patio was great, I’d easily return in cooler weather to challenge someone to a game of giant Connect Four in the lounge area next to the colorful bar.

Colorful bar, Rhyme or Reason

Colorful bar with hand-shaped light fixtures

The details: Rhyme or Reason, 1938 W. Division St., Chicago.

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Delicious Events

Delicious Event: Tour & fruit brandy cocktails at Rhine Hall Distillery

Pear brandy cocktail, Rhine Hall Distillery

Liquid Diet cocktail with pear brandy, muddled arugula, lemon, simple syrup, and black pepper bitters

I’d been curious about Rhine Hall’s apple brandy ever since I read about the family-owned distillery opening a few years ago, so it was an easy sell to book a tour of the facility through Groupon. I was surprised to learn that each bottle is made from a single ingredient: 25 (or so) pounds of fruit. Nothing else is added during the distillation process so that the brandy retains the fruit’s aroma and flavor. There were 11 varieties on offer during my visit: apple, oak-aged apple, grappa, oak-aged grappa, plum, oak-aged plum, mango, peach, pear, cherry, and bierschnaps.

Before starting the tour, I tried one of the seasonal cocktails meant to showcase all the different fruit flavors. This one combined the pear brandy with lemon, arugula, and black pepper bitters to a brilliant result. It was so fresh and herbaceous, and the pear flavor shone through as the sweet note in an otherwise savory cocktail.

Holstein copper pot still

The Holstein copper pot still where all of Rhine Hall’s brandy is distilled

It was interesting to hear about the full spirit lifecycle: each kind of fruit is delivered in mass quantities from local farms, then pulverized using an industrial chopper. The fruit pulp is then fermented over a multi-month period before it can be distilled, rested, and finally bottled. I could tell that the tight-knit Rhine Hall team is passionate about what they do, and enjoys experimenting to reach the best-possible final product.

After the tour, I tried a different cocktail; this time, plum brandy was paired with lavender, honey, and lots of lemon. I still can’t decide which cocktail I preferred, but they both illustrated how versatile (and tasty) fruit brandy can be.

Plum brandy cocktail, Rhine Hall Distillery

Golden Afternoon cocktail with plum brandy, honey lavender syrup, and lemon

The details: Rhine Hall Distillery, 2010 W. Fulton St., Chicago.

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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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