Category Archives: Reviews

Shaya – Amazing Israeli food in New Orleans

israelWe always love to get Cajun and Creole food when we are in New Orleans, but we are also impressed at how much international cuisine and fine dining is present in the city. On our latest trip, we were excited to learn about James Beard-winning chef Alon Shaya’s eponymous modern Israeli restaurant in the Garden District, Shaya (4213 Magazine Street, New Orleans, LA).

ShayaHummus

The key feature of Shaya is the impressive wood-burning stove in the corner of the bright, airy restaurant. The stove was running at full tilt during lunch, and it was fun to watch the pita being pulled out of the oven and being brought right to the table. The menu at Shaya is vegetable-focused and that shines through the menu. For lunch one of the most popular items is the salatim – where you select from a variety of small plates to share (3 for $15 or 5 for $23). Salatim means “salad” and refers to the assortment of cold dishes that serve as a kind of appetizer for Israeli meals.

Salatim

We were really excited to sample some salatim that we had never heard of: Ikra (whipped cream cheese, caviar and shallots), Lutenitsa (roasted pepper, eggplant, garlic and tomato) and the more familiar Labneh (yogurt with peppers and radishes) and Tabouleh (parsley and bulgar salad). Each of the salatim had a unique flavor profile, and we loved the lush, creamy flavors of the Labneh and Ikra, and the piquant peppers of the Lutenitsa (also popular in Balkan and Eastern European cuisines).

ShayaInteriorWe had also heard great things about Shaya’s hummus, which comes in varieties from plain tahini ($9) to more exotic takes with curry, eggplant, or lamb ragu. We selected a variety with asparagus and crispy shallots, which was perfect for early spring. The hummus was creamy and rich and we absolutely could not get enough of the pita, which we sopped up every morsel of hummus with.  Fortunately, you can get as many pita refills as you want.FalafelShayaBeyond the salatim there were soup and salads (including matzoh ball soup and a fresh cucumber salad), small plates (ranging from halloumi cheese to the ubiquitous avocado toast), and sandwiches like the classic Israeli staple, the sabich. For the rest of our lunch we selected L’s favorite: falafel ($12) and the lamb kofte ($15) along with the roasted Brussels sprouts. The kofte was shaped into more of a patty, and was topped with tomato jam, herbs, tahini, and served over a bed of white beans. It was like the best kebab you ever had and a burger had a baby, with a sprinkling of spice. The falafel was our favorite variety, crispy and bright green from the high herb content, and they were each clearly fried to order. KofteShayaThe grand finale was the chocolate Babka cake, served in a small cast-iron skillet. We are huge fans of babka, a sweet brioche loaf marbled with chocolate, and Shaya’s version was divine – and drenched in a caramel sauce (there now appears to be a cinnamon variety on the menu). Shaya reminded us a lot of Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia, another modern Israeli powerhouse, which is a good thing. However, the fresh pita really sent Shaya over the top. This place is the real deal! Alon Shaya is opening up 2 more restaurants, and we can’t wait to see what else he has in store.

ShayaBabka

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The French Pastries of St. Roger Abbey

In honor of Bastille Day, we are going to highlight a taste of France right here in Chicago: St. Roger Abbey. St. Roger Abbey is a French religious order of Friars and Nuns with a worldwide presence, but an American base in Chicago. We first learned of St. Roger Abbey when we came across the nuns selling macarons at Christkindlmarkt one year. The order has a wide variety of authentic, organic French pastries including palmiers, madeleines, Breton cakes and croissants that they sell to raise funds for their charitable work. They even have a cafe in Wilmette (1101 Central Ave, Wilmette, IL 60091) and an online store where you can support their mission. Sounds like a good reason to buy some croissants!

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Pastry Post-Doc: Tulumba for Ramadan

Sorry for the long absence… I meant to post this at the beginning of Ramadan, which was May 15. So, clearly this post is a bit late, but fortunately I managed to write this post before the end of Ramadan, this upcoming Thursday, June 14. One of the most important parts of Ramadan is the nightly Iftar, or breaking of the day’s fast after sunset. We of course have an eye to the sweet, so we decided to share one of our favorite Ramadan desserts, which is enjoyed throughout the former territories of the Ottoman Empire, Tulumba. Tulumba is a fried, extruded churro-like pastry dipped in a sugar syrup. We thought immediately of Indian jalebi when we first had them. A sweet tooth is definitely required for this recipe! You can find Tulumba throughout North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, under a variety of names (it is known in Iran as Zoolbia/Zolobiyah Bamieh, in Egypt as balah ash-sham and in the Middle East as asabe Zainab), though it may be most associated with Turkey. Given the geographical range of Tulumba, you can be sure to find regional variations from country to country. The Spruce has a recipe from Turkey (seen below), and here are other versions from Greece, Egypt, Iran, and the Middle East.

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Pastry-Post Doc: Thiakry / Degue from West Africa

We recently attended the end-of-the-year gala for the local college’s African Student Association, which was a delightful banquet full of delicious dishes from all around Africa: jollof rice, moi moi, plantains, injera, beef tibs, samosas and more. However, there were no African desserts. That got us to thinking – what would be a good African dessert to add in the future? That’s when we first heard about Thiakry (aka Dégué) – a sweet couscous-like dish with origins in West Africa. Both titles refer to the millet grain used in the dish itself, which is called Thiakry in Senegal, or Dégué in the rest of West Africa. The grain used in Thiakry can be millet or if that is not available, wheat, which is then mixed with dairy, dried fruit, vanilla and spices like nutmeg or cinnamon. The final texture is similar to rice pudding. You can check out the following recipes for varieties of Degue/Thiakry: Yummy Medley, Food World, and Salwa Petersen. You can buy Degue/Millet in most African markets, or in various shops online. This is a dish that is open to experimentation and customization – so you can add pretty much anything you want – as in this modern take on the recipe from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (seen below).

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Soup Dumplings come to Cleveland at LJ Shanghai

chinaWe love the southeast Asian food in Cleveland (looking at you Superior Pho), but we are still on the lookout for our new favorite Chinese restaurant in the area. Fortunately, we have found a strong new contender in LJ Shanghai (3142 Superior Ave., Cleveland), which specializes in Shanghainese soups and Xiao Long Bao (XLB) aka soup dumplings. We had been craving soup dumplings and, up until this point, had not been able to find any in the area, so we were stoked!LJShanghaiLJ Shanghai is located in AsiaTown, in a small, unassuming storefront. The inside is modern and bright, and you will know you are in the right place when you are greeted by the little dumpling mascots on the front window. The menu is at LJ Shanghai is relatively small, and we appreciate the curation because we are easily overwhelmed by long menus. Each menu item also has an included photo, which proved to be super helpful. You can start out with lighter bites like the the steamed pork buns ($5) or the garlic and cucumber. There are also hearty entrees like steamed chicken ($15) Braised duck with soy sauce ($10) and sweet and sour ribs ($10).LJXLB

However, we were here for the XLB, ($5 for 6 – seen above).  The dumplings are steamed in a basket, during which time, the gelatinized broth melts, creating the desired ‘soup.’ The soup dumplings at LJ are very good, with a thin noodle skin and a tasty, pork filling surrounded by the mysteriously liquefied soup. The dumplings are accompanied by a variety of other dipping sauces (ginger, vinegar, chili sauce etc) to customize your experience. We have not quite mastered the technique of eating XLB elegantly, but we are looking forward to future attempts.

LJWonton

Another standout on the menu is the soup, which is the perfect hardy antidote to the seemingly never-ending Cleveland winter (though Spring is starting to peek its head out…we think). Some soup options include beef and vermicelli curry soup ($8) Shanghai flat noodle soup ($8) and mixed veggie noodle soup ($10). We sampled both the Wonton soup ($6 without shrimp, $8 with shrimp) and the Chongquing spicy beef noodle soup ($10 with beef, also available without beef, or with pig intestines). The spicy beef soup was nicely spicy thanks to the chili flakes and oil, and as a result was extremely warming. We also appreciated the good cuts of beef, crunchy bok choy and a heavy helping of cilantro and peanuts. The wonton soup was its polar opposite, very light and almost delicate, with a clear broth, and we especially enjoyed the handmade pork wontons.

LJBeef

The prices were very reasonable, and we even had enough soup to bring home for leftovers. LJ Shanghai is a great edition to Cleveland’s AsiaTown food landscape. Though the XLB may not be on par with expert purveyors like Din Tai Fung, they are definitely standouts in the local food scenes. We can’t wait to go back and have another round (and work on our technique)

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Lilia’s new-school Italian in NYC

Italy

We have been traveling a lot this year: LA, Kansas City, New Orleans, Madison, Chicago, Columbus… and as a result, we have an ever-growing backlog of posts we have been meaning to write. So, we thought it was about time that we post about a restaurant we’ve been thinking of for a while: Lilia (567 Union Ave, Brooklyn, NY). We are famously finicky about Italian food, we always figure that we can make it better (and cheaper) at home, so, other than pizza, we rarely order Italian out. But sometimes a restaurant seems interesting and special enough to lure us out of our old habits, and that was the case with Lilia. Lilia is the brainchild of chef Missy Robbins, and was named as one of the best new restaurants in 2016 by the New York Times and Time Out New York.

Photo From Eater NYC

The restaurant is definitely scene-y, and we were certainly not cool enough to be there among New York’s buzziest. And I can’t say we were made to feel particularly welcome: even though we had a reservation early on a Thursday, we still had to wait about a half hour to sit, all the while waiting awkwardly in the vicinity of the bar, because the bar itself was completely full. Though in the meantime we did have time to explore the interesting space – which used to be an auto repair shop – and the menu. The menu was divided into small plates and entrees, but we opted for small plates to share. The pasta is all made by hand, and we heard only great things about the sorcery of Missy Robbins, who cut her teeth as Executive Chef at Chicago’s Italian icon Spiaggia from 2003-2008.

More precisely, the menu is divided into cocktail snacks, antipasti, “Little Fish,” Pasta, “Big Fish,” and Meat. The cocktail snacks are sort of like appetizers for your appetizers: Sicilian olives, prosciutto, house-made mozzarella or radishes with sea salt. Up one level in size are the antipasti, including many interesting veggie-forward combos: Red celery and fingerling potatoes; whole artichoke with mint; and cauliflower with spicy sopressata and pesto. I notice that now they have Bagna Cauda on the menu – which we certainly would have gotten! Our first chosen dish was roasted trumpet mushrooms with balsamic, arugula, and Sicilian almonds (above) – the mushrooms were woodsy, and almost meaty, and went well with the deep, aged balsamic. For a second “lighter” bite, we went with the fennel salad with oranges – one of our favorite dishes that we first tried in Siracusa, Sicily. There is something about the combination of fennel and oranges that is just perfect.

Next was the “Little Fish” menu which featured grilled scallops with walnut, yogurt and marjoram alongside mussels and sea salt. From this section of the menu, we started out with cured sardines with capers, butter and dill on top of fettunta (bread rubbed with garlic – above). This was our favorite bite of the night – salty, savory and a perfect flavor combination. Sardines have really been growing on us recently, and these were the salty, savory bite showcased on some excellent bread. The “Big Fish” and Meat sections of the menu had much larger entrees and included grilled swordfish with sweet/hot peppers and mint and grilled veal flank steak with hot peppers.

The pasta dishes are intended to be a starter course, as in Italy, but we basically ignored that advice. There were almost 10 pasta choices, and each sounded more delicious than the next: ricotta gnocchi with broccoli pesto, basil and pistachios; fettuccine with spicy lamb sausage; or potato-filled ravioli with crème fraîche, garlic and rosemary. From the pasta menu we chose the sheep-milk cheese agnolotti (mini, rectangular filled pasta pockets), topped with saffron, dried tomato and honey and Malfadine – flat pasta with wavy edges – with pink peppercorns and Parmesan. The malfadine dish was a great riff on cacio e pape. The simple Roman classic was elevated by the slightly thick, handmade pasta and high-quality Parmesan. The agnolotti was light and fresh, with a slight sheep’s-milk tang which shone through the light sauce. The handmade pasta was uniformly excellent. We finished off our meal with a seasonal apple galette with winter fruits- which was perfectly proportioned with flaky, crispy crust.

Flipping the script – Lilia is also known for their soft serve (we didn’t sample it this time, but maybe we will be back)! The Italian-only wine menu is quite extensive, and they have the widest selection of amari (after-dinner bitters) we have ever seen! In the morning, and for lunch, you can visit a more subdued Lilia for coffee, pastries and panini. Though you may have to cut through the hype a little bit to eat there, we really enjoyed our meal at Lilia. The small plates were all perfect and simple in an ingredient-forward way, spicing up traditional flavor combinations and dishes. Lilia lived up to our standards for Italian food, and that is saying something!

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Northwoods charm (and pie) at Honeypie

Happy Pi(e) Day! In honor of this auspicious day, we are revisiting one of our favorite places for pie, Honeypie (2643 S Kinnickinnic Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53207) in Milwaukee. Our two favorite things about Honeypie are 1. the PIE and 2. the fact that there is something for everyone. The restaurant is decorated with a classic Wisconsin Northwoods theme, with clapboard walls, reclaimed wooded booths, maps and vintage Wisconsin-y ephemera.

Most importantly, there is a dessert case in the back with a variety of pies, biscuits, sweet breads and cupcakes. Over the years, we have sampled a number of Honeypie’s pies, and we have never been let down. Some of our favorites include the black bottom banana cream pie (below), blueberry (below), Milwaukee mud pie, strawberry rhubarb and ginger chai cream. You can order a whole pie in advance ($29 or $32) or by the slice ($6). You can also ship miniature Honeypie pies anywhere in the nation through their Piegram service. To take the pie love to another level, they even host pie-making classes.

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Black bottom banana cream pie and blueberry pie.

There is also a large food menu, with Midwestern classics like mac and cheese ($14), grilled cheese with tomato soup ($11), a classic Friday Fish Fry ($16) and – a treat unique to the upper Midwest – the Cornish pasty ($10). There is also more elevated fare like scallop ceviche ($15) and confit chicken ($24). Honeypie is an all-day restaurant and you can also get brunch or a drink off of their full menu of drinks and local beers. So whether you are in the mood for pie, a Bloody Mary or mac and cheese, you will find just what you want at Honeypie.

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Banitsa – Bulgarian Pastries hidden in Barcelona

When we went to Barcelona we were not expecting to find Bulgarian food, but that is indeed what we got when we stumbled upon Banitsa (Carrer de la Diputació, 188, 08011 Barcelona, Spain), a hole in the wall cafe serving sweet and savory pastries by the same name. Banitsa is truly tiny, and there is no AC, but the friendly service and good food more than made up for it. The menu basically consists of either sweet or savory varieties of Banitsa (€3). So what exactly IS as Banitsa? It is a filo dough pastry coiled around a filling, similar to a small version of borek, and is popularly eaten as a breakfast food in Bulgaria.

The banitsa offered in Barcelona are a bit more avante-garde and contain fillings you are unlikely to see in Sofia: mint and pear, chocolate and orange, pumpkin and blue cheese and coconut milk curry. There are many vegetarian and vegan options, and even a gluten-free banitsa. The pastry case also contained some tempting-looking cakes including the classic Medovnik honey layer cake. To round out your meal, you can also get coffee, lemonade, tea, yogurt and hearty soups. There is also a small selection of Bulgarian groceries. We sampled chocolate and sesame seed and cheese varieties, both of which were excellent, and we loved the mini-burek format. if you are looking to get off the tourist track and try something new in Barcelona we heartily recommend Banitsa.

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La Monarca: Pan dulce meets coffee in LA

One of the main things we miss since we move away from Chicago was its proliferation of amazing Mexican pandarias and their huge assortment of pan dulce – Mexican sweet breads and cookies. When we went to LA we knew we would be able to get our fix. One of our friends tipped us off to a place in particular – La Monarca, which is an upscale pan dulce (traditional Mexican sweet breads and pastries) shop with espresso drinks and light bites.  La Monarca is a small but flourishing chain of cafes with about a dozen locations in the LA Metro area – think Mexican-tinged Starbucks, but with better everything. We visited the Santa Monica location (1300 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90403). The cafe was bright and airy, and was filled with a combination of people on their laptops, students and patrons grabbing a quick coffee and pastry before work.

Once you enter, on the left is the traditional case of pan dulce – you grab a tray and a set of tongs and load up the tray with whatever you want. Of course there are conchas, orejas (palmiers) and puerquitos, but also a few more unusual options like cuernitos (croissants) filled with dulce de leche, chocolate, cream cheese or guava and dulce de leche bread pudding. You can also go a bit more savory with bollilo bread rolls, baguettes or cornbread. We selected a mini cinnamon sugar concha, a puerquito and a a dulce de leche croissant, which had been particularly recommended to us. Of course we had our eye on the drink menu, which boasted single-origin Oaxacan coffee alongside cafe de olla (hot or cold coffee brewed with brown sugar and cinnamon), Mexican hot chocolate and champurrado (a sweetened chocolate elote drink). We get champurrado whenever we can find it, so we were extremely excited!

The refrigerated case is also full of other tempting looking cakes including tres leches, flan, dulce de leche and tiramisu. For heartier appetites they have salads,  quiches, molletes (open faced sandwiches), and breakfast tacos, all with a Mexican twist including options with chorizo, huevos rancheros, chicken mole and salsa verde. We snagged an extra yogurt parfait for some protein. Everything at La Monarca was delicious (if a little pricey), and we enjoyed their modern twist on the traditional Mexican panaderia. We could definitely see ourselves becoming regulars if we lived closer!

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Recipes to Celebrate Holi, the Festival of Colors

India FlagHoli is one of our favorite holidays, not only for the food, but for the COLORS. Holi, celebrated in India and Indian diasporic communities is a traditional Hindu festival celebrating the arrival of Spring, and is a time of happiness and merriment. Holi is also known as the “Festival of Colo(u)rs,” and only a few glances at Holi pictures and you will understand why – it is tradition to douse everyone with colored water or thrown powder on Holi. This amazing Holi photo above was taken at the Holi celebration of the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork, Utah. Of course, Holi also a time of feasting, and there are plethora of delicious dishes and chaat (snacks) that are associated Holi. One popular Holi snack is Gujiya, a deep-fried empanada-like pastry filled with mawa, a typical fresh milk cheese. However, this is barely even scratching the surface: here are slew of Holi recipes from Cooking with Manali, Indianfoodforever.com, Simply Vegetarian 777, and the Times of India.

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Korean Yaksik for Lunar New Year

It’s was Lunar New Year this weekend AND the start of the 2nd week of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, so naturally we have Korean food on the brain. One of the most important foods for the Lunar New Year – called Seollal in Korea – is Yaksik. Yaksik is a sweet rice dessert studded with jujubes, honey and chestnuts. Not only is the dessert tasty, but it is touted for its medicinal properties. The name “Yaksik” translates to “medicinal food,” (“Yak” meaning medicine, “Sik” meaning food). Think of it as a fruitier, healthier version of rice pudding. Here are recipes for Yaksik from Kimchimari (seen below) and Maangchi.

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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.

wassail

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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