Category Archives: Reviews

Slovenian Mardi Gras: Kurentovanje and Krofi

SlovenianFlag Cleveland has a huge amount of Slovenian culture and Slovenian descendants, so it it perhaps not surprising that Cleveland is home to a local celebration of Slovenian Mardi Gras – Kurentovanje. The emblem of Kurentovanje are the Kurents, big fuzzy beasts who romp through town during Mardi Gras (called Pust in Slovenia), ringing bells loudly. The Kurents are rumored to have the power to chase away winter with their ruckus. For Slovenian Mardi Gras, a traditional food is Krofi – or doughnuts. Doughnuts are a popular choice for Mardi Gras celebrations around the world, since they would use up some of the ingredients that would then be forbidden in Lent: sugar, butter, and oil! Slovenian krofi are simple to make, and mirror the other Mardi Gras fried sweet fritters found worldwide like PaczkiMalasadas, Semla and Chiacchiere. Here are recipes from homemade krofi from E-Slovenie and Homemade Slovenian food. Though krofi looks delicious, we are more intrigued by the Kurents!

Kurents in Ptuj, Slovenia by MarySloA

 

 

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Amazing arepas in NYC at Arepas Cafe

VenezuelaWe think Venezuelan arepas are one of the most perfect foods: a carb-y masa shell, perfectly handheld, filled to the brim with tasty fillings (often including cheese!). Due to this perfect formula, it is no surprise then that arepas are increasingly popular worldwide. We even had arepas in Porto, Portugal (not to mention a few times in Chicago and Cleveland). One of my favorite arepa joints is located off the beaten path in Astoria, Queens, Arepas Cafe (33-07 36th Ave, Astoria, NY 11106). Lucky for me, Arepas Cafe is located conveniently near my cousin’s place, so I get to go there whenever I visit NYC.ArepasCafe.jpg

Arepas Cafe is a humble storefront that does a brisk takeout business. We started out our lunch with my favorite Venezuelan drink, the limeade-like, Papelón con limón ($3.50), which is like the best, sweetest version of lemonade you have ever had (or the Brazilian “Swiss lemonade”). For appetizers you can get mini versions of arepas, empanadas, and cachapas (fresh corn pancakes) or the classic fried yucca ($5 for any). Though the arepas are the main draw, you can also get heartier meat entrees including the Venezuelan national dish Pabellón Criollo ($13) – shredded beef, white rice, black beans, cheese and fried sweet plantains.

Venezuelan Arepas

The bulk of the menu is made up of arepa varieties (All of the arepas are $8 or less). There are combos for vegetarians and meat eaters alike – and we really enjoyed the Arepa Pabellón Pernil – roast pork with black beans, white cheddar and fried sweet plantains and the Guayanesa Tropical – Guyanese cheese (white fresh cheese), fried sweet plantains and avocado (pictured above). The pernil was tender and juicy and the sweet platanos maduros complemented the fresh cheese particularly well. Beyond our favorites, you can also get arepas filled with cheese, mushrooms, black beans, tuna, shrimp, chicken and more (I included my favorite arepa infographic above to give you some potential combination ideas). Arepas Cafe’s arepas are generously sized and delicious, and we have never been disappointed by our selections. Arepas Cafe is an absolute steal for NYC, and is the perfect place for a quick, hearty lunch.

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The best view in Lisbon: Cantina das freiras

There is nothing better than enjoying a meal at a rooftop cafe in beautiful weather. However, sometimes that beautiful view also comes with hype and inflated prices, but not so at Cantina das Frieras (Travessa do Ferragial 1, Lisbon), located at the foot of the Chiado district in Liscon. In fact, this is actually a barebones cafeteria run by nuns that just happens to have some of the best views in Lisbon. The Cantina is only open weekdays for lunch, so plan ahead, and if it is raining, visit on another day, because you are going to want to sit outside. It is a bit difficult to figure out how to get into the Cantina, and the nondescript entrance in the side of the brick building advertises the organization with only a small sign for the A.C.I.S.J.F. (Associação Católica Internacional ao Serviço da Juventude Feminina / International Catholic Association for Women’s Youth Service), the organization that runs the Cantina. Though it is a bit of an open secret nowadays, there is still an air of mystery around the place.

To reach the Cantina you climb the steep stairs to the top floor, where you will find yourself in front of a tiny coffee bar (feel free to order a coffee or tea), and beyond that a simple dining room. Going through the dining room you will reach the Cantina itself. This is really a “canteen” in the truest sense of the word, you take a cafeteria tray and let the nuns behind the counter know what you would like (it is Portuguese only but you will be able to make yourself understood). The menu is limited but includes hearty Portuguese classics like cod fritters, baked fish, ham and cheese sandwiches as well as lighter options like veggie lasagna, minestrone soup and salads. To round out the meal you can get an array of bottled drinks, fresh fruits, and dessert including cheesecake and puddings. You can even get wine! The menu changes daily, so you don’t know exactly what you will get on any given visit. However, the prices are insanely reasonable – we are not actually sure how much any of the unlabeled items cost – but for less than 10 Euros for both of us had a huge 3-course meal.

Now for the REALLY good part – the view. After ordering and paying, you can take your tray out to the rooftop terrace where there are probably about 10 plastic tables with umbrellas. Out on the terrace you have a beautiful view of the Tagus river and the red tiled rooftops of Chiado. We enjoyed our simple hearty meal shoulder to shoulder with students, local office workers and a handful of other foreigners. This is really the perfect place for lunch – cheap, tasty and with an amazing view! If we lived in the area we can see ourselves eating there every day.  If you are looking for a real slice of Portuguese home cooking with a view you definitely have to go to the Cantina. Psssst….  keep it a secret!

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Moles for Days at Guelaguetza in LA

When we told our friends we were going to Los Angeles and asked around for recommendations, one restaurant that kept coming up was Guelaguetza (3014 W Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90006). Located on the edge of Koreatown in central LA, Guelaguetza is a long-running restaurant, founded by the Lopez family in 1994. Guelaguetza was named after the Oaxacan festival of the same name, and the cuisine of Oaxaca is on display. The moles at Guelaguetza, in particular, have gained a following over the years (you may even notice that their website is ilovemole.com), and in 2015 they even won a James Beard award. The restaurant’s unmissable orange exterior is decorated with murals on the outside and though its boxy exterior masks it – the inside of the restaurant is gigantic, with several large rooms, and it even houses a stage (with live music on most nights).

The menu at Guelaguetza is extensive, though the Oaxacan specialties seemed the most intriguing: as a mark of a real Oaxacan restaurant, you can get evem an order of chapulines (fried grasshoppers – $14.50) one of M’s favorites. Guelaguetza is also known for their tlayudas ($14.50) – large tortillas covered in re-fried beans and a variety of other toppings like mole, mushrooms, cactus, cheese and/or chorizo. Other Oaxacan dishes included goat barbacoa tacos ($14.50), Oaxacan-style tamales wrapped in banana leaves ($12.50) and a variety of preparations of tasajo (thin grilled sliced beef) and pork cecina (smoked and dried). While perusing the menu we decided to sample some drinks we had never seen before: horchata with prickly pear and agua de chilacayote. We had certainly have had horchata before (Mexican rice water with cinnamon) but the bright pink prickly pear added another element. The other drink tasted almost like a pumpkin spice late – chilacayote is actually squash – but this surprising drink was both refreshing and very sweet, thanks to the addition of the piloncillo sugar.

One thing we absolutely had to order was the mole – however we were a little overwhelmed at the options. We counted no less than 6 moles! When we sat down to the table, the first thing we were offered was a plate of chips with coloradito mole, giving us an idea of what was in store. The rusty red coloradito mole was rich, complex, salty, savory and sweet all at once (the secret ingredient to coloradito is plantain). We saw the The “Festival of Moles” sampler which served two ($29), and we figured that was our best way to sample the mole universe. The sampler included portions of four moles: Mole Negro, Mole Rojo, Mole Coloradito, Mole Estofado. Each little pot of mole was topped off with shredded chicken, was served with rice and (extra-large) handmade tortilla was there to sop up the sauce. The mole negro (aka mole Oaxaqueño), is the most complex mole, the darkest in color, and spiced with a hint of chocolate. This one was L’s favorite. The mole rojo, a slightly spicier, peppery sauce was M’s favorite, and far surpassed any version he had ever had in the states. The mole coloradito that we had sampled as an appetizer was just as delicious in entree portion. The most unusual mole was the briny estofado, which is made from olives. The salty, puckery taste was one we had never tried before – not even in Mexico.

We used every last bit of rice and the giant homemade tortilla to sop up the mole sauce – this was definitely some of the best mole we have ever had – both inside of Oaxaca and out. For dessert there was of course flan, but we were happy to also see nicuatole ($8.50) – a flan-esque pudding made with corn. We last tried nicuatole at our cooking class in Oaxaca – and it is great!  There is also a little shop in the front of the restaurant that sells Mexican jewelry, bags, molinillos, and most importantly, jars of official Guelaguetza mole and chocolate to take home. Sadly, we couldn’t bring the jars of mole home in our carry-ons, but we certainly will be ordering some soon. We were really impressed by the food at Guelaguetza, especially the mole, which will be really hard to beat!

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How the British Celebrate 12th Night

united_kingdomThough it has faded from memory a bit – 12th Night – occurring on January 5th and 6th was once a major holiday celebration in the UK. It marked the end of the holiday season, and the Epiphany, which in Christian tradition is the day when the three wise men arrived to see the newborn Jesus and bestow gifts upon him. Occurring 12 days after Christmas, Twelfth Night was one last night of feasting and merriment before the Christmas season was officially over.

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Wassail by TDS

One of the key treats of 12th Night is Wassail, a warm alcoholic punch with fortified wine, apples and warm holiday spices. Some recipes even include eggs, in the manner of eggnog. Wassailing also refers to the tradition of roving door to door and singing carols, including of course “Here we come A-Wassailing.” You can find a variety of recipes at Lavender and Lovage,  Nourished Kitchen, or a more modern take at LA Weekly.

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A Twelfth Cake is also a traditional food of the holiday – it is a basically a fruitcake with a dried in it – much like the trinket found in a Rosca des Reyes or Galette des Rois. The person who found the bean was then the king or queen for the day. Though the shape and form of the cake is not as codified as in some other cultures, 12th night cakes were increasingly elaborate by the end of the 19th century. Here are some historical 12th Night Cake recipes from the 1800s and an updated version from English Heritage.

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Bonci brings Roman-Style Pizza to Chicago

When we were in Rome for our honeymoon years ago, we stopped by a little walk-up pizza counter near the Vatican, the Pizzerium, run by renowned pizzaiolo Gabriele Bonci. The pizza was delicious, and served al taglio – by the piece – which in the case of Roman-style pizza means cut by scissors and priced by weight. Roman style pizza is served on a somewhat thick crust with the texture of focaccia bread, with an abundance of topping varieties. We never expected to have Bonci pizza again (short of taking another trip to Rome) so we were floored when we heard that Bonci himself was opening his first overseas location in Chicago. Bonci himself supervised the opening of the Chicago shop, the eponymous Bonci (161 N Sangamon St. Chicago, IL)  over the summer of 2017, and by the time we arrived in December, it seemed to be a well-oiled machine. 

The Chicago Bonci location was similar to the Roman one – except supersized. The concept is the same – you peruse the pizzas on display and get slices to order, which are then, cut, weighed, heated up and brought out to you. When we were at Bonci there were at least a dozen pizzas on display. They varied by weight but most were $10.99 – $14.99 a pound. You can get any size you want, but we went with the smallest samples possible so we could try many varieties (which ran us about $3.50). The flavor combos ranged from classic margherita, to spicy meatball to salmon, and there is something for every taste. We started out with 3 varieties, but then went back for 2 more.

On our first trip we sampled ricotta, zucchini and lemon; anchovy and zucchini; and arrabiata (red sauce and spicy pepper). We followed up with potato and rosemary, and arugula and prosciutto. As we waited for our order to be heated up, we grabbed some stools behind the counter and watched the pizzaiolos do their thing – pressing the dough into rectangular pans and sprinkling toppings across the surface. One of the great things was that in less than 20 minutes, there were already some new pizza varieties to try on our second trip. We really enjoyed all of the pizzas, and we appreciated the attention to detail in the chewy, flavorful crust and all of the super-fresh toppings. Most of the pizzas did not come with red sauce, and all of the cheeses were fresh and delicate. Our favorite slice of the day was the ricotta with lemon, which was light, fresh and bright – and we felt like we could eat a whole pizza!

The service at Bonci was also excellent, and when the GM noticed that our slices did not have enough arugula, he brought some over himself. If you are thirsty, there is still and fizzy water on tap along with a selection of Italian soft drinks, single-serve wines and beers. Unlike the Rome location, there are counters along the wall to sit, though a good deal of the patrons were taking their pizzas to go. All told, we were stuffed with top-notch pizza for less than $20. If you like high-quality pizza, we highly recommend that you give Bonci a try – it is a little slice of Rome right here in Chicago.

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The perfect pre-theater dinner in NYC – Ramen

We were lucky  enough to get Hamilton tickets in NYC this year, which brought us to the age old question – where in the worlds are we going to eat? The key to pre-theater food is that it has be quick and close to the theater – it’s a bonus if it is any good (this is harder than it may seem). Fortunately, we think we have cracked the code for pre-theater dining in NYC – ramen! Turns out there is a pocket of great ramen joints pretty near NYC’s theater district. One of the best places to go is Totto Ramen (366 W 52nd St, New York, NY 10019), or Totto Ramen Next Door (366 W 52nd St. – same address…but next door) if that is a bit too busy! The best rumored ramen in the area is Ippudo (321 W 51st St, New York, NY 10019), and you might also try your hand at getting a spot there, but we heard that the line could be epic.

The name of the game at each of these places is ramen, and each is basically a walk-in. Regardless, there may be a line, even at Totto Ramen, and we had better luck going “Next Door” on a Thursday night. The menu at Totto Ramen Next Door is an abbreviated version of Totto Ramen – but all of the ramen greatest hits are there. You can order a piping-hot bowl of vegetable ramen (regular $9 or spicy $10), richer pork tonkatsu ramen, available with both shoyu or shio broths in both regular or spicy varieties ($12-14). The tonkatsu is the specialty of the house, so we knew we had to try it for ourselves. If you are really feeling peckish you can get a “Mega char siu tonkatsu” with a larger bowl and an extra helping of char siu pork ($16-17). It may have not been the most amazing ramen we have ever tried, but it was rich and flavorful, and the veggie ramen was some of the freshest and most colorful we have ever had. Plus, it may have just been the quickest and cheapest thing in the theater district aside from fast food. We walked right to our show after grabbing a bite, which took less than 45 minutes, all told. So do away with all of the fuss and expensive pre-dinner packages and just get yourself some ramen!

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The Gundis: Kurdish Cuisine in Chicago

We have been to many Turkish restaurants over the years, but we were really excited to learn of a new Kurdish restaurant, The Gundis ( 2909 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60657).  The Kurdish people live in the region of southeastern Turkey and northern Syria, Turkey and Iran. Unfortunately, most of what we hear of Kurdistan and the Kurds relates to conflict and instability in the region, so we were excited to learn about another aspect of the Kurdish culture. The Gundis restaurant was started by two Kurdish immigrants from Mardin province in Turkey: Mehmet Besir Duzgun and Mehmet Besir Yavuz. However, reflecting the multiculturalism of Chicago, their Executive Chef, Juan M. González, hails from Mexico.

We met up with an adventurous foodie friend at The Gundis, which is in an unsuspecting spot on a surprisingly quiet stretch of Clark Street. The restaurant is clean and modern, witch minimal decor and exposed brick walls. The Gundis is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner – so has more options than you may suspect. We saw some familiar favorites, but were excited to see some Kurdish dishes that we had never even heard of before. For breakfast you might be treated to Baklawa Crepes ($11.95) or a complete Kurdish Breakfast for two with all of the fixins: including eggs, fresh cheese, Kurdish bread, sesame butter, tomatoes, cucumbers and more ($34.95+, depending on the egg option).

For lunch and dinner there is a bit more meat, focusing on the staples of beef, chicken and lamb, but there is plenty for vegetarians too, including a surprisingly thorough salad list and more unique options like Tiršik (spicy veggie stew – $15.95). We started out with hummus as a mezze ($6.95), but there were plenty of other appealing options like octopus salad ($8.50), and ezme with walnuts (a spicy Turkish salad with chopped tomatoes and onion with pomegranate molasses – $8.50). For entrees there were a variety of shish kebabs and even an intriguing-sounding encrusted salmon. We asked the server what the most emblematic Kurdish dishes were and he suggested the Sac Tawa ($24.95) and Mardin Special ($21.95 – both with protein options).

The Mardin Special was vaguely described as fried eggplant with lamb, tomato and yogurt sauce. However, the dish that arrived was more than the sum of its parts, and was probably our favorite dish of the night. The yogurt sauce was a perfect counterpoint to the slightly spicy tomato sauce, and the lamb was perfectly cooked and fall-off-the-bone tender. As you can see above, the eggplant was also arranged in a dome shape, which we were not expecting!The Sac Tawa (above) was an extremely generous portion of chicken stir fried with tomatoes bell peppers, heavily spiced. We later learned that this is a traditional pre-wedding dish. Our friend ordered the lamb shank ($26.95), which was a staggering proportion, and was perfectly cooked and tender.

The dessert menu sounded delicious – so we decided to order the Kurdish Tea with Kurdish cookies ($8.50) and the goat’s milk rice pudding ($7.95). The rice pudding had a delicious tang, and we loved the sesame and pistachio-based cookies. Everything we tried at The Gundis was delicious, and prepared in an elevated, clean style. We would recommend The Gundis to anyone who likes Middle Eastern Food but is looking for something a little bit different. Though Kurdish food is similar to Turkish, it has its own unique twist, and should definitely be experienced!

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Happy Thanksgiving!

 

vintage-happy-thanksgiving-postcard

Hope everyone in the US has a lovely and delicious Thanksgiving! We are looking forward to some turkey and mashed potatoes – and cherry pie!

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Xinji Noodle Bar: Ramen in Cleveland

JapanWe are obsessed with getting the perfect bowl of ramen, and until recently the pickings have been pretty slim in Cleveland. Fortunately Xinji Noodle Bar (4211 Lorain Ave, Cleveland, OH 44113) recently opened up, so we have a new place for our noodle fix in Cleveland. To be fair, this is not strictly a traditional ramen place – they do offer ramen – but also an array of other Asian and Asian fusion food. The restaurant is the brainchild of chef Shuxin Liu, who cut his teeth at other Cleveland stalwarts like Momocho.

Xinji

The space is bright and airy with exposed pipes, ramen illustrations on the walls, and an inviting bar. It’s the kind of restaurany that wouldn’t look out of place in NYC or Chicago. The menu is compact, but has something for everyone. For appetizers, Xinji spans the Asian continent: you can start out with spicy Korean fired Chicken ($9) or Chinese bao sandwiches filled with pork or fired chicken ($7). We ordered the veggie dumplings with yuzu, wasabi and seaweed salad ($7) and the fried kimchi balls – which were basically like Korean arancine – yum! While the dumplings were good – they were folded and deep fried, and we were expecting more of a gyoza-type dumpling.

Dumplings

If you are not in the mood for ramen, there are other mains: rice bowls with tonkatsu (Japanese breaded, fried pork cutlets – $12) or grilled eel ($15). However, we were here for ramen, so we had to sample as many as we could. Xinji offers 5 types of ramen: shio (light salty broth), shoyu (a saltier soy sauce broth), miso, spicy miso and vegetarian broth (all $12, $10 for vegetarian).

ShioRamen

When we go out for ramen I usually choose shio ramen as my baseline test, and here it came with chicken mushrooms, naruto (fish cake), bamboo shoots and napa cabbage. The noodles were wavy and slightly irregular, with a firm texture – delicious. The broth was fragrant and salty, but there was not quite enough of it – we should have asked for more! The vegetarian broth was light and savory, and was garnished with bamboo shoots. The spice-loving M enjoyed the spicy miso ramen, which came with pork and bean sprouts. The broth was actually pretty spicy for a change, and was flavored with ginger and chili oil.

MatchaIceCream

 For dessert there were some more unusual options: a fried, sweet bao with matcha ice cream and red beans, drizzled with condensed milk ($6). We can’t resist anything matcha flavored. We liked Xinji’s unconventional take on a ramen restaurant, and we hope it thrives in a dining scene that could really use its presence. We are happy to finally have a legit place for noodles in Cleveland, and we can see ourselves becoming regulars here, especially in the colder months.

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Serai: Malaysian Cuisine in Chicago

We first had Malaysian food in the suburbs of Chicago many years ago at Penang. In the intervening years we have sampled Malaysian food in Malaysia itself and London, and every time we have it, we always fall in love again. Despitwe this deliciousness, Malaysian food is still pretty rare to find . When we heard about Serai (2169 N Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60647), a new Malaysian restaurant opening in Chicago, we knew we had to give it a try. Malaysian food in a unique combination of Chinese, Thai, Malay, Indian and Indonesian influences, and with that amalgamation, it is no surprise that it is one of our favorite cuisines in the world.

Serai is located on a quiet corner of Logan Square, and is bigger then we expected – there are two dining rooms with wooden tables and chairs, and a full bar. The menu is pretty extensive, with Malaysia specialties, and it branches out into more general Thai or pan Asian foods. However, we heard that the Malaysian specialties were the standouts, and we recommend that you start off with Malaysian specialties. Some of the most iconic Malaysian dishes are on the menu including Char Koay Teow ($11.95) – stir fried flat noodles in soy sauce; Hainanese chicken rice ($14.95) – garlic and ginger poached chicken with rice cooked in its stock; and nasi goreng ($11.95)- a Malaysian fried rice. The server we had was very knowledgeable about Malaysian food, so don’t be afraid to ask questions about any recommendations or specialties.

We started out with a roti with vegetable curry (clearly showing influence from India). The roti flatbread was nice and flaky and the curry was mildly spicy and flavorful, and we appreciated that we could get the curry in chicken or vegetarian varieties. After only a little deliberation, we ordered our two favorite Malaysian dishes, beef rendang ($13.95) and laksa curry noodles ($13.95). The laksa noodles came in a coconut milk curry broth with char siu BBQ pork, shrimp, fish balls, a hard-boiled egg and “tofu puff.” Tofu puffs are fried, small pieces of tofu that somehow manage to have an airy texture, and Serai’s were exactly like what we had in Malaysia. The beef rendang ($16.95) is beef in a spicy dry curry sauce with lemongrass and ginger, served on a banana leaf with sides of rice, eggplant and string beans. The beef was extremely flavorful, and extremely complex, with just a hint of heat.

The servings at Serai were generous, but we happy scarfed down our dinner, pleased to get another taste of Malaysia. Though we were too full to partake, there are also a few desserts like coconut pudding or sweet sticky rice, and hard-to-find drinks like iced Milo (an international version of Nesquik), Teh Tarik and Malaysian-style iced coffee. Overall, we were very impressed with the food at Serai. Everything was delicious – and reminded us exactly of the food we had in Malaysia. We can’t wait to come back and try some more of the Malaysian classics, especially the chicken rice!

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Chicago Gourmet 2017 Recap

Chicago Gourmet, one of our favorite foodie events in Chicago, was last weekend and it was an amazing, gluttonous experience, as always. This year was especially good – since I got to go to the event with both M and my mom – which was not only fun, but helped with the strategic planning and maximized the food! This year was unseasonably warm – with temperatures pushing 95 degrees – so we knew we had to strategize especially well to keep backtracking to a minimum. This year’s Chicago Gourmet was set up similarly to previous years, with wine distributors in an aisle in the middle and themed chef tents and individual sponsors on the outside perimeter of the Pritzker Pavilion area in Millennium Park.

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There were 11 themed tasting pavilions this year, each featuring two rotations of 3-5 chefs. We headed to the seafood pavilion right away, always a fan favorite (and the booth with the longest line). Next up was the BBQ tent, featuring not only BBQ restaurants, but the ever-popular Stella Artois booth with its signature glasses. There was also an unusual habanero custard dessert made with dry ice on offer in the Stella Artois booth, served by none other than Top Chef contestant Katsuji Tanabe.

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Always on the hunt for international eats, we liked that there were two dedicated international tents this year: Thailand and Mexico. However, there were no sister cities represented, as there were last year. The Thai booth featured two rounds of Thai restaurants from the Chicago area, while the Mexico tent featured a different region on each day of the festival. Chefs from restaurants in each region were present, with Saturday featuring Guadalajara and the Yucatán on Sunday. We were pretty excited because Yucatán food is some of our favorite in Mexico.

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So what were our favorite eats at 2017 Chicago Gourmet?:

  • Pork Rib from Big Ed’s BBQ in Waukegan. This pork rib was perfectly smoked – it didn’t even need sauce – the true test of good BBQ. Though the sauce was good too. The portion was big, and we didn’t mind at all.Salmon.jpg
  • Smoked salmon toast from Roanoke Restaurant (top left above). This was the first bite we had at Chicago Gourmet, and it ended up being one of our favorites. The salmon was delicate and creamy, and paired well with the crunchy chip.
  • Cochinita pibil from Manjar Blanco Restaurant in Mérida, Yucatán (pictured above). The Mexican tent featured three chefs from Manjar Blanco restaurant, and 3 different types of pork tacos. Our favorites ended up being the flavorful cochinita pibil, spiced up with a little habanero sauce.
  • Thai rice salad from Choun’s in Wheaton (pictured above). Though this dish was only called “rice salad” it reminded us of Nam Khao Tod, and consisted of crispy fried rice, chicken, onions, cilantro, mint and lime – all of our favorite flavors. We had never heard of this restaurant before and are looking forward to visiting them.

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  • Salted caramel brownie from Bittersweet Pastry (Pictured above). This was a perfectly executed brownie with caramel sauce, what could be better?
  • Though we agreed on most of our favorite dishes, there were a few where we diverged. M liked the terrine from Bohemian House, and I liked the inventive tempura shrimp taco served in a crunchy taro root chip shell from Arbella.

We have to say that this year, the desserts particularly stood out. Aside from our previously mentioned top picks, we liked the tasty cherry cobbler from Bang Bang Pie shop and the delicate, layered, Dobos-Torte-like creation from Beacon Tavern. Of course M was particularly happy that there were 2 donut stations at Chicago Gourmet – Firecakes and Stan’s Donuts. The Loacker cookie company also was there with their signature waffle sandwich cookies, and Mariano’s peddled gelato (though it ran out pretty much right away).

Desserts

Chicago Gourmet is always a great place to try international spirits, and this year was no exception. Glenlivet and Glenmorangie whiskey tastings are always favorites, but there were a few more unusual choices this year, including Švyturys, the #1 beer in Lithuania. And of course, to stay cool, an Aperol Spritz was essential (see below). Though we have to say, one change that would be nice for future Chicago Gourmets is to have more non-alcoholic beverages – Bai drinks and Counter Culture Coffee provided a nice respite from the alcohol this year.

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There are also demos and master classes on the main Pritzker Pavilion Stage and tents on the lawn perimeter. We always try to attend one of these, and it is a great chance to see some great chefs in their element. This year we saw two iconic Chicago chefs – Stephanie Izard and Sarah Grueneberg – conduct a recipe demo of dumplings and pasta from scratch. Each created an Italian/Chinese fusion dish and they were each really funny and engaging in person. The demos, aside from being fun and informative, are also a good reason to get out of the sun. We stayed until the bitter end on Sunday, despite the punishing heat and sun. We are looking forward to another Chicago Gourmet next year (though we hope it will be a little cooler)!

Demo

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The perfect Portuguese food experience at Botequim de Mouraria

If you want to eat at Boutequim de Mouraria (R. da Mouraria 16A, 7000-585 Évora, Portugal) you have to plan in advance. There are only nine seats, and a single seating for lunch and one for dinner. Moreover,  there are no reservations – you have to wait. Our party of 4 got there at 1130 AM for the 1230 opening on a weekday, and there was a family of four already there waiting. Despite these restrictions, we really encourage you to go – this was probably the best meal we had in all of Portugal. The Botequim de Mouratia is basically a bar, where you sit at the counter and watch the master of ceremonies, Domingos Canelas, and his wife Florbela cook a classic Portuguese meal and entertain. The bar itself is tiny and old fashioned, lined with vintage photos, wine bottles and the flags of the nations of every visitor that have dined there (a lot at this point).

The menu is small and simple, and at first glance does not really seem like anything different than at any Portuguese corner restaurant. However, you won’t feel lost, and you are free to pick and choose and customize. In essence you just ask Domingos what is good, and he will make it for you. What really sets this place apart is the level of detail paid to every single ingredient and preparation. For example, when picking out the fresh figs to serve with our presunto (jamon serrano) he threw out at least three because they were not up to his standards before settling on the perfect picks. He carefully sliced off each slice of presunto by hand. Our first course was a classic: of fresh figs, melon and hand-sliced presunto from a leg kept right in the middle of the bar (13€). The figs were the best we ever had and the combination of all three together was divine. Next, we sampled a local goat cheese baked with marjoram (4.50€) . The ultimate farm to table appetizer, this goat cheese is from a local farm only a few miles away. I could have eaten this whole dish myself, though we shared it between us. As a complement to the cheese there was fresh crusty bread and fig jam that was delectable enough to eat on its own.

Seafood is an art in Portugal, so we knew we had to sample some here. We each ordered a langostine, which was advertised as “shrimp,” with a whopping price of 80 Euros a kilo. Domingos told us that each shrimp was about 500 grams, which is about half of a pound – so HUGE, but of course we were not envisioning the proper size – even when given full information. So lo and behold that we were surprised when a  giant shrimp came out for each of us – to the tune of 20€ each. However, even with that steep price tag – it was worth it – these shrimp were the most delicious, tender and flavorful ones we had ever eaten. We could have made an entire meal out of these alone.

For mains we tried the wine-braised pork loin (14.50€), other options included fish and steak (13-16€).  The pork loin was a simple cut, but deliciously prepared in a clean wine sauce. One order was more than enough to serve the both of us. On the side were homemade chips and a simple vinaigrette salad. This was the best version of the classic Portuguese meat and two sides we have ever had. Though each sounded simple, the whole was more than the sum of its parts. Throughout the dinner Domingos chatted amiably with guests, and plated, served, and described everything himself.

All of the desserts were displayed on the back of the bar, and they all looked delicious – we didn’t know what to choose. Of course, Domingos then suggested that we tried one of everything. The mixed dessert plate consisted of: a fresh fig in syrup, a queijada, fig and chocolate cake and an almond and coconut Morgado cake. The fresh fig again was a revelation. Before this trip to Iberia I don’t think we had every really had fresh figs (certainly not common in the Midwest), and now we can’t get enough of them. We also like the appearance of the figs in the pound cake with chocolate chunks.

There is an extensive wine selection and Domingos will happily will choose a wine for you, and of course he is extremely knowledgeable about the wide selection of Alentejan wines.  Our dining experience lasted about 2 hours, and we never felt the least bit rushed. You can tell all of the pride that Domingos and Florbela take in their restaurant, and it really shows through in the service and the food. The lunch reminded us of the Japanese dining experience presented in Jiro Dreams of Sushi – a master at the height of his craft in a tiny, well-curated restaurant. If we went back to Portugal, this would definitely be our first stop. Boutequim de Mouraria serves amazing, simple Portuguese food that is worth waiting for!

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BienMeSabe: Venezuelan Arepas in Chicago

When we go to NYC, we always enjoy getting arepas – Venezuelan corn masa patties with a variety of fillings – but we didn’t really have a go-to arepa spot in Chicago (pupusas, yes, but not arepas). When we were back in town, my sister recommended we try BienMeSabe (1637 W Montrose Ave, Chicago, IL 60613) in Ravenswood, a new arepas spot that has been making waves in the Chicago food scene. Apparently, it is even becoming a go-to place for MLB players from Venezuela. The inside of BienMeSabe is clean and simple, and an attractive seating option is the large outdoor patio. BienMeSabe was so new, that when we visited, the mural they were putting up on the wall was not even finished being painted. Another key feature of BienMeSabe is that it is BYOB. When we got there on Sunday for lunch, many people were enjoying the BYOB option on the patio.

BienMeSabe’s menu mostly consists of arepas with a variety of veggie and meat toppings, each running between $8 and 10. We sampled the Reina Pepiada (Chicken Avocado Salad & Gouda Cheese), Caribbean (Caribbean Cheese, Plantain & Avocado), and the After Party (Roasted Pork, Gouda Cheese, Avocado slices). If you are not in the mood for arepas, there are also meat-heavy mains including grilled steak, fish, and the national dish of Venezuela, Pabellon Criollo. We began our meal with the shrimp tostones and the fried yuca. The shrimp tostones consisted of grilled shrimp on top of fried green plantains, and were particularly good, we really loved the spicy avocado-based Guasacaca salsa. We were also excited to see that we could get some classic Venezuelan drinks: chicha – a rice milk drink similar to Mexican horchata, and papelon con limon limeade.

The areaps are decently sized for the price, and they are not stingy with the fillings. The arepa toppings were good overall, but a little bit of a hit or miss. The roast pork on the After Party was flavorful and tender, and we think it was our favorite arepa of the day. Though the fried plantains on the Caribbean arepa were delicious, there was just too much of the somewhat flavorless shredded cheese. And for me to say there is too much cheese, there really has to have been a lot. Despite this, we really enjoyed the arepas overall and we are happy to have a Venezuelan place in the hood. We will definitely be back to BienMeSabe to sample some of the other arepa varieties and maybe a tres leches cake!

 

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Brazilian food and culture in Astoria, Queens

Today is Brazilian Independence Day, so I think some Brazilian food adventures are called for. Whenever we visit a a city in the US we always check to see if there is a Brazilian food or cultural outpost. You’d be surprised at how many places have a hidden Brazilian gem. However, one of the best places for Brazilian food in the US – that is no secret – is the Astoria neighborhood in the NYC borough of Queens. Astoria is perhaps most famously known for its sizable Greek population, though in recent years it has become an amazingly diverse place. Along with an influx of other Latin American and Middle Eastern cuisines, Astoria has become more Brazilian in the past decades and there are the food establishments to prove it.

Our first stop in Brazilian Astoria is always Rio Market (32-15 36th Ave, Astoria, NY 11106), which is definitely the biggest Brazilian grocery store we have seen in the US. They have pretty much every Brazilian dry good you could hope for: coffee, cookies, Guarana soda, sauces, tea, rice, beans, soap, shampoo, and even Brazilian soccer paraphernalia and Havaianas. What sets them apart is their wide selection, and the fact that they also have rarer fresh foods like queijo coalho – the cheese on a stick you can buy on Brazilian beaches – and picanha steaks. There is also a small cafe in the front of the store that serves simple dishes, feijoada, pão de queijo and coffee. A new feature is that you can order products from Rio Market online!

However, for Pão de Queijo, you must stop at New York Pão de Queijo (31-90 30th St.) aka Astoria Pão de Queijo or just Pão de Queijo. This hole in the wall restaurant reminded us pleasantly of a typical urban corner restaurant in Brazil. You of course have to get the Pão de Queijo, but there are also salads, acaí bowls and X-Burgers (Brazilian Portuguese for Cheeseburger – the X is pronounced “Sheese” – get it?).  Within Astoria there are also a plethora of restaurants tapping into a variety of Brazilian food traditions beyond just the churrascuria that is the most known in the US. Point Brazil, Copacabana, Minas Grill, Villa Brazil and Kilo Astoria are kilo restaurants in the Brazilian style (a buffet where you pay by weight). Kilo restaurants are on every corner in Brazil, so it is  only appropriate they have made their way to Astoria, too. Favela Grill and Beija Flor are more, modern, slightly upscale restaurants with live music. And at Casa Theodoro you can get Brazilian-style pizza, which is a genre unto itself. If you want to get a taste of Brazil while in NYC, definitely wander around Astoria!

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A Cevicheria: The best ceviche in Lisbon

peruEven since M first visited Peru in 2004 he has been on the hunt for the perfect ceviche. Even when we are not looking, sometimes a place specializing in ceviche will present itself. When we arrived in Lisbon we had heard a lot of buzz around A Cevicherica (R. Dom Pedro V 129, 1250-096 Lisboa, Portugal), and the word was that it was one of the best restaurants in Lisbon, ceviche or not. A Cevicheria is helmed by Chef Kiko Martins, who has a growing empire of restaurants around Lisbon.

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The Secret History of Melrose Peppers

Would you believe it if I told you there was a pepper unique to Chicago? No, I’m not talking about the ubiquitous sport peppers on a Chicago-style hot-dog, I am talking about the Melrose pepper. Melrose peppers are a type of sweet pepper ranging in color from green to red, that are mainly grown in the Chicago area (though now you can order seeds and plant them anywhere). Below are some green Melrose peppers we found at Mariano’s – you can see how they look like hot peppers – but they have no heat.

Having grown up in Chicago, I am surprised that I have not learned about the Melrose pepper’s existence until now. A recent Chicago Tribune article featuring the peppers was my first introduction, though my mom says that my Italian grandmother used to mention Melrose peppers. The peppers actually have their roots in Italy, and the seeds were brought over to Chicago by Neapolitans Joseph and Lucia Napolitano in 1903. The pepper that they transported grew wild in Southern Italy, and really took to the soil of Chicagoland, specifically the Napolitano’s home Melrose Park (from where they get their name). The peppers proliferated throughout the gardens of Italian-Americans in Melrose Park, and became a Chicago classic over the decades.

Outside of home gardens, you can also now find the peppers in August at Caputo’s and Mariano’s supermarket locations throughout Chicagoland (I would recommend that you call for availability). You can also buy seeds here, here, here and here (which is what we plan on doing next year). You can prepare Melrose Peppers similarly to bell peppers, though they are not as pungent, and are sweeter. A popular Melrose Pepper recipe is stuffing the peppers with Italian sausage, and the Tribune has another recipe for stuffed peppers along with other preparations. We have tried Melrose Peppers a few ways, and even though we do not like green peppers (or at least one of us doesn’t), we really enjoyed the taste – and history!

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Copenhagen Coffee Lab: Third Wave Coffee in Lisbon

The call is coming from inside the house! This may be the first time that I have written a post about a place from inside the place itself, so here I am sitting in Copenhagen Coffee Lab (R. Nova da Piedade 10, 1200-298 Lisboa) writing this post! The coffee scene in Lisbon is very particular. The coffee is very strong, comes from only a few national producers, and is usually taken in tiny shots like espresso standing up at a bar. Barring that, you can get various dilutions with milk and sugar. When espresso exists it is often in the form of Nespresso pods, which seem to have taken the entire city by storm. All of this is fine, but sometimes you just want some really good coffee. Thankfully, Copenhagen Coffee Lab, a new third wave coffee shop, has opened in the cute neighborhood of São Bento.
In Scandinavia coffee is king. While in Copenhagen we tried what was purported to be the best coffee in the world. Copenhagen Coffee Lab makes no such bombastic claims, but I can definitely say that this is the best coffee I have had in Lisbon. And, this place is actually run by two Danes, and imports all of their coffee from the Copenhagen Coffee Lab in Copenhagen, making it sort of a cross-country mini-chain. At Copenhagen Coffee Lab (Lisbon) you can get your full range of espresso-based drinks, from a single shot to a flat white to iced coffee, a dirty chai latte and beyond. For those with more refined tastes you can also get filter coffee made in a V60 (4€), Aeropress (4€) or French Press( 6/10€).

For the non-coffee drinker there are hot teas, chais and house-made iced teas (a rarity here). They get their Chais from David Rio in San Francisco, and they are very tasty, though sometimes they will run out for a week when more is being ordered from San Fran. Along with the full coffee, there is a nice selection of foods and snacks including Swedish style kanellebullar cinnamon rolls, muffins, knækbrød flatbread with spreads, yogurt, oatmeal and creative salads for lunch. This is the perfect place for vegans or vegetarians, or anyone who wants a laid-back brunch with great coffee.

Moreover, what drew us to Copenhagen Coffee Lab is that it is also a great place to study and work, which is no secret because the place is full of people with laptops on most days. True, this may also be a little off putting (and we are contributing to the problem) but there are still plenty of people just chatting. There is also a larger communal table in back where those working tend to congregate. The crowd seemed to mostly be foreigners, and my hunch is that Lisboetas have not quite embraced this type of third wave coffee that deviates so far from their traditions (and there are no pasteis de nata sold here). Whether you are looking to use the free Wifi or not, Copenhagen Coffee Lab is a must for any coffee fiend in Lisbon.

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The Best Gelato in Lisbon

At the start of our latest trip we lamented openly the lack of gelato in Lisbon, but little did we know that, since our last trip in 2015, there had been something of a gelato renaissance in Lisbon. We’re talking about Italian-style gelato here, not ice cream (though Lisbon has that too, the most famous ice cream maker being Santini) Now gelato shops seem to be popping up everywhere (especially anywhere tourists happen to be) but most of it is just meh. But never fear, there are now some great places to get gelato in Lisbon, too.

The gelato renaissance all started with Nannarella (Various locations, main location São Bento), which was founded by expats from Rome. One of the original founders of Nannarella, Filippo Licitra, then split off on his own to start rival Gelato Davvero (Various locations, main location Cais de Sodré). We can attest that both of these gelato places are the real deal, after having visited each several times. The locations are pretty much only walk up counters, but fortunately Lisbon is replete with parks and other places to enjoy your cone. So which one do we like better? It’s hard to say…both of these are delicious, but each has their pros and cons. For each of the following categories we have selected a winner.

  • Prices – Draw. Prices were comparable for either a cup or cone, for Davvero a Piccolino was €1.75, a Piccolo, €2 (seen above), Medio €3, Grande €4, and Grandissmo €5. Anything above a medium is just huge. You can also get half liters and up of gelato in boxes to take home (1L is €16 at each place). For Nannarella, there are fewer options, a small for €2, medium for €3 and large for €3.50. At the top end Nannarella is a little cheaper, but Davvero lets you get larger sizes.

  • Wait time – Davvero. As M can attest, I hate to wait in line. However, I did wait in line 30 minutes for Nannarella (see above, which was just bordering on too much. The waits at Davvero were much shorter, so take that for what you will.
  • Ambiance – Draw, slight edge Davvero. Each place has only storefront outlets with nowhere to sit, except the Cais de Sodré location of Davvero that has both indoor and outdoor seating, which is right on the square.
  • Extras – Nannarella. You can get whipped cream for free at Nannarella. Maybe they also have it at Davvero, but we have never been offered this topping. At Nannarella you can also get a mini cone to put on top of your cup for 20 cents – a great idea we have never seen before.

  • Generosity – Nannarella. For the small cup size, Davvero allows 2 flavors. Nannarella (above) allows unlimited flavors, which basically means you can get 3 scoops or more, as I did here with chocolate, salted caramel and pistachio. The scoops were overall more generous at Nannarella.
  • Taste – Draw. This is a tricky one, and probably relies more on personal preference than anything. The consistency of both gelato is smooth and creamy, and the flavors are delicious, and not artificial at all (we used pistachio as a test for this). Neither of the pistachio gelatos are bright green, and both taste delicious and natural. At both stores you can get classic flavors like strawberry, coffee, hazelnut, chocolate chip and vanilla. However, we liked the salted caramel more at Nannarella, though Davvero’s sour cherry was the fast favorite of our travel buddies. Each location has special flavors of the day, and there are even some more unique flavors like basil (Nannarella) and cheesecake (Davvero).

Overall, Nannarella, the original may have a slight edge over Davvero, though we wouldn’t turn up our noses at either. We are just grateful that Lisbon is experiencing a boom in gelato!

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Classic Portuguese Cuisine in Lisbon at Crisfama

portugalOn every corner of Lisbon there are little family restaurants – tascas – that serve a small menu of Portuguese classics with a wine selection. Often the menus (bacalhau, grilled fish and steaks) and atmospheres at each of these places are pretty similar (though the quality certainly runs the gamut), and it is hard to know which one to try. When attempting to cut through the dizzying quantity of tasca, we got a tip though, the the best tasca in town is Crisfama (R. Cruz de Sta. Apolónia, 58/60A, 1100-188 Lisboa), where everything was fresh, high-quality and cooked to order. CrisfamaCrisfama is on a backstreet on the outskirts of Alfama, the medieval quarter of Lisbon. It is a little bit of a trek to get there, but getting off the tourist track when it comes to food is definitely a good thing. The restaurant has only a handful of tables in the simple, clean dining room, so it is absolutely essential to make a reservation. Moreover, Crisfama is only open for a few hours for each lunch and dinner, so be sure to plan accordingly. The restaurant seems like a two-person show with the affable owner and his wife running the front and back of the house, respectively. The owner/waiter Fernando is an amiable host, ready to give recommendations, pour wine heavily and exchange in some witty banter in English or Portuguese while his wife mans the kitchen.sardinhas

For starters you get the typical Portuguese couvert of bread and olives, along with a choice of local Portuguese cheeses (€2-3). We ordered a round of soft goat cheese with herbs and a semi-hard sheep cheese. We are constantly impressed by the huge varieties of goats cheese in Portugal, and it is always fun to try a new variety. For mains, you can get either seafood or meat dishes for prices so reasonable that they will astound you. Everything is less than €12 (the bacalhau tops out the menu at €11.50), and for that price you can get a whole fish or a huge steak. Other specials included grilled octopus, bitoque (steak with an egg), bifana (pork sandwich), and duck with rice. Side salads are a shockingly low €1.25, and you can even get fresh fruit by the piece.

peixeIn the mood we for seafood, we ordered sea bass, tuna, dourada and the ultimate Portuguese classic, grilled sardines (€8.5 for each seafood plate). Each came with a side of potatoes and green beans, and the sardines came with a side salad. Each fish was cooked perfectly to order, and this was some of the best, freshest fish we have had in Portugal – everything was absolutely delicious. And as you can see, they didn’t skimp on portions. To wash down your meal, each glass of house wine is only €1.

semifreddoFor dessert there is a refrigerator case with an appealing variety of cakes, tarts and semifreddos. We heard that the chocolate orange semifreddo was sublime – so we ordered two – and it lived up to the hype and was basically the perfect treat for a hot summer day. From start to finish, we enjoyed the attention to detail at Chisfama, and it was definitely the best traditional Portuguese food we have had in Lisbon. With great prices and great quality for classic Portuguese food – you won’t find a better deal in Lisbon.

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