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2.28.2013

Curiouser and Curiouser...

It should come as no surprise by now that my curiosity regarding new foods and ingredients is relatively boundless. If I could have infinite storage space in my kitchen, I would inevitable fill every corner of that infinite space with odds and ends of bottles, boxes, cans, and bags of ingredients that I purchased because I wanted to see what they would be like, but never used again past the initial recipe that sparked my curiosity. After all, not every experiment is a success, and even recipes that are successful, like the posole I made when we first moved into our new apartment, leave leftover specialty ingredients like dried chiles that have no immediately obvious alternate application.

Still, I remain undeterred. When I saw a recipe for a British dessert relatively unknown here in the U.S. called "flapjacks" (no, they have nothing to do with pancakes besides being flat), I was intrigued despite the fact that it called for Lyle's Golden Syrup. Golden syrup is a form of inverted sugar, similar to honey in appearance and its mild flavor profile, but more related to molasses in terms of how it is produced. It is a popular sweetener in the U.K., but to find it here you usually have to track it down at an import store, unless you live near an exceptionally well-stocked mega-mart.

I set out to find some so that I could give these alternative flapjacks a try, and my search eventually led me to Fox and Obel, purveyors of all things gourmet and obscure, and a dangerous place for my pocketbook if ever there was one. Of course, they carried it and I brought home a bottle (along with several other pricey items I didn't really need), but it lingered on the shelves of my pantry for a while before I finally had the time and inclination to try the recipe.

Last weekend, I was bitten by the baking bug, and had skimmed my Pinterest board in search of something new to scratch off my to-do list. Unfortunately for me, there seem to be a lot of layer cake ideas there, which was more than I wanted to tackle without a specific occasion in mind, and every single other recipe that caught my eye required some ingredient that I didn't have in the house. It was a Saturday and Justin had taken the car to work in the burbs at his part-time job, so I was stuck in the house with nothing to bake. I was especially bummed that we were low on oats after our experiment with pumpkin oatmeal last month, because the flapjack recipe was suddenly, and strongly calling to me.

Though it was getting late in the month, I still hadn't baked a cookie recipe yet for February and I wanted to stay somewhat on course in terms of fulfilling my New Year's resolution. Flapjacks are kind of like a bar cookie, though I think they have more in common with Rice Krispie treats, which I wouldn't exactly classify as a cookie. Still, it was close enough for me.

So tonight, while we were out doing our weekly grocery shopping, I tossed a canister of Quaker Oats in my cart, and I was in business. Thankfully, like Rice Krispie treats, flapjacks are so quick and simple to make that I was able to tackle them on the same night that we went grocery shopping, and still make it to bed on time. You have to love a dessert that can be made in less than an hour!

Convenience means nothing, however, if the result is lackluster. Thankfully, these humble bars more than delivered in the flavor department. In fact, they were astonishingly good! The brown sugar and golden syrup conspired to add complex, caramel notes to the flapjacks, while the oats gained a rich, toasty flavor from their time in the oven. Justin and I easily could have eaten the whole pan, but we limited ourselves to one a piece. 

Now my conundrum is this: do I include the flapjack in my cookie lineup later this year? They are certainly delicious and unusual enough to merit inclusion. But are they really a cookie? At least I have ten months to think about it, and in the meantime, I strongly suspect that flapjacks will be making another appearance or two in my kitchen to help me figure it out.


British Flapjacks
adapted from Bon Appétit

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
1/2 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1/4 cup golden syrup*
2 1/3 cups quick-cooking oats (not instant or old-fashioned)
Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Butter 8x8x2-inch metal baking pan. Combine first 3 ingredients in heavy medium saucepan. Stir constantly over medium-low heat until butter melts, sugar dissolves, and mixture is smooth. Remove from heat. Add oats and salt; stir until coated. Transfer mixture to prepared pan and spread out in even layer.

Bake until top is golden (edges will be darker), about 25 minutes. Cool in pan on rack 5 minutes. Cut into 4 squares; cut each into 4 triangles (mixture will still be soft). Cool completely in pan before serving.

2.25.2013

A Gift That Keeps On Giving...

Ever since we moved in together, Justin has been working on a little gardening project: he has been determined to sprout an avocado seed and grow an avocado tree. I'm wasn't exactly sure where he planned on putting this tree if it ever came to fruition, but considering the fact that his initial five or six attempts were duds, I wasn't too concerned about it. Apparently, according to the internet at least, sprouting an avocado pit is often used as an experiment to teach children that plants give off so many seeds (or fruits that contain seeds) because only a small fraction of those seeds will grow up to become plants. Our experience with the Hass varietals from the grocery store seemed to teaching us the same lesson.

However, some of you may recall that in early December, we were gifted with a pair of truly gargantuan avocados from our family friends' avocado tree at their vacation home in Florida. Though the pits alone were the size of a standard Hass, Justin was determined to see if he could get them to sprout. Due to their huge size, we could not suspend them over a glass of water, as is recommended for sprouting avocado seeds. We could only stick them in a pot with some dirt and hope for the best.

To be honest, I had encouraged Justin to give up on this latest test batch quite some time ago. The dirt appeared to be growing mold, and nothing seemed to be happening with the seeds after over a month. Since they were in the man cave, however, they were largely out of sight and out of mind, so I never seriously followed up on my request for disposal. Imagine my surprise then, when I was deadheading the amaryllis plant we had similarly located next to the man cave window, and looked over to see this:


He did it! We are finally with baby avocado child! Like any expectant parents, we are going to have to do some research on what to do with our fledgling sprout, but we are excited nonetheless. I don't ever expect the tree to bear fruit; after all, we'd never be able to move it outside in this climate, even if we did have a yard. Still, I hope it will become a nice addition to our menagerie of houseplants, especially now that we've lost two of my oldest plants, who never really seemed to thrive after I repotted them last year. I also hope that the size of the seed isn't a predictor of the size of the actual plant, or this avocado tree will take over our entire house!

2.22.2013

You've Got A Friend In Me...

I am not a person who needs an excuse to bake; I will bake when I am feeling bored, when I need an outlet for stress, or just because. Having a purpose behind my hobby can make for a nice change of pace though. There is something to be said for the unique satisfaction that comes from baking a cake for someone's birthday, for example, or to wow some dinner guests. Hence, it should come as no surprise that when Jess asked for my help in making a lemon meringue pie for her mother's birthday, I enthusiastically volunteered my services.

Evidently, lemon meringue pie is Jess' mom's favorite dessert, and Jess had never made one, so she turned to me because I have more baking experience. I didn't let the fact that I've never made a lemon meringue pie stop me from offering to help, since I'm always looking to expand my culinary skill set. Besides, I'd made lemon curd before, for the masterpiece of a birthday cake I made for Justin's birthday back in 2011, I've had a few experiences with making meringue, and I've perfected the art of pie crust. How hard could it be to fuse all three elements? Plus, I don't even like lemon meringue pie, so giving Jess a hand would give me the opportunity to try out a recipe I wouldn't have experimented with otherwise.

Initially, I had planned to have Jess over to bake a practice pie, and then send her off on her own to make the actual birthday pie. The more I thought about it, however, I realized that Jess wouldn't have the proper tools in her kitchen to replicate the recipe in her own kitchen. Friends don't let friends hand whip egg whites to stiff peaks for a meringue, so I decided to cut out the extra step and just invite her over to make the final pie together.

For the crust, I turned to my trusted Cook's Illustrated recipe, and luckily for me, I found a pie crust all ready to go in my freezer, so I didn't even have to make a new one. (This whole freezer inventory thing is really paying off!) For the rest of the pie, I turned to Alton Brown, after happening to catch an rerun of Good Eats recently on the subject of lemon meringue pie. It seemed like a good enough starting point, so I opted not to look further.

With a sous chef in the kitchen, making the pie went much faster than I would have expected. Jess was in charge of juicing the lemons and carefully whisking together the water, corn starch, and sugar base for the lemon curd so as not to create lumps. I rolled out the pie crust and transfered it to the pan, and worked on separating all the eggs. Since I have more experience with making custards from all those ice creams I've tried over the years, I handled the tempering of the egg yolks, but then moved over to monitor the meringue while Jess took over the lemon curd. All in all, I was shocked by how quickly it all came together, and how simple everything felt, but that could just be the effect of the confidence I've built in my skills over the years.

I did have trouble getting the meringue on top of the pie, as the instructions said to do it while the lemon curd was still warm, and it would ooze out of the crust with the slightest application of pressure. As a result, I couldn't get the topping to create the lovely swoops and swirls that one typically associates with the dish, but Jess reassured me, promising that, "If it looked too perfect, no one would believe that I helped!"


The pie was perfectly golden brown when it emerged from the oven, but it was still very wobbly. I was very concerned about how Jess would manage getting it home, especially since she had taken the bus to us instead of driving. She promised to take a cab home, but I was still very leery. I really should have just asked Justin to drive her home (I don't drive in the dark unless it's an emergency because I don't see well at night), but our car was covered in snow, and I didn't want to volunteer him to go clean it off unless it was his idea.

In the end, my anxiety proved to be well-founded: I got a text from Jess after she got home, saying that the lemon curd had leaked all over the taxi seat, and continued to drip as she walked the short distance to her building. The meringue was intact, but she had lost quite a bit of the filling. I was a little crushed that the pie wasn't perfect for Jess' mom, but hopefully it will still taste fine, and she will be touched by all the effort Jess went through to make it for her.

Even though I didn't get to eat any of it (and wouldn't have wanted to anyway), I still had a great time baking with Jess and helping her surprise her mom. Hopefully, she learned a few things as well that she'll be able to put into practice in her own baking endeavors. Truth be told, however, she is more than welcome to come be my pastry apprentice any day!


Lemon Meringue Pie
adapted from Alton Brown

Lemon Filling:

4 egg yolks (reserve whites for meringue)
1/3 cup cornstarch
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/3 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1 (9-inch) pre-baked pie shell
1 recipe Meringue, recipe follows

Preheat oven to 375.

Whisk egg yolks in medium size mixing bowl and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, combine cornstarch, water, sugar, and salt. Whisk to combine. Turn heat on medium and, stirring frequently, bring mixture to a boil. Boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat and gradually, 1 whisk-full at a time, add hot mixture to egg yolks and stir until you have added at least half of the mixture.

Return egg mixture to saucepan, turn heat down to low and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 more minute. Remove from heat and gently stir in butter, lemon juice, and zest until well combined. Pour mixture into pie shell and top with meringue while filling is still hot. Make sure meringue completely covers filling and that it goes right up to the edge of the crust. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until meringue is golden. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack. Make sure pie is cooled completely before slicing.

Meringue Topping:

4 egg whites
1 pinch cream of tartar
2 tablespoons sugar

Place egg whites and cream of tartar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat egg whites until soft peaks form and then gradually add sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form, approximately 1 to 2 minutes. Use to top lemon filling.

2.18.2013

A Capital Idea - Day Three

Having scratched all the essential items off our DC vacation to-do list during the last two days, Justin and I were entertaining a number of options for our last day in the city. I thought that we should see the National Archives, since Justin has never been, and make a trip to the Library of Congress so that Justin could renew his library card -- something he had mentioned wanting to do while he was in town. I honestly could not believe that in his previous two trips to DC Justin had never been to see our nation's founding documents, but no matter how passionately I tried to convince him of the importance of seeing them as an American, he was unmoved.

Instead, he wanted to go to the National Zoo, which at least had the advantage of being in a neighborhood near a 24 hour diner, which we knew would be open on a federal holiday, unlike most of the restaurants near our hotel. So I acquiesced to his wishes, even though I've never been much of a fan of the zoo (unless, of course, it's for seeing something besides the animals), so we could be sure to at least find something to eat for breakfast.

Appropriately named, The Diner was located in the charmingly bohemian Adams-Morgan neighborhood. The area was so cute, in fact, that I was a little bummed that this would be the first, and last opportunity that we would have to check it out on this trip. We had to wait in line to eat, one of the primarily reasons I avoid brunch in general, but we received a very tasty meal in exchange for our patience.

The walk from the restaurant to the zoo, however, turned out to be a much longer hike than I had anticipated, and was uphill virtually the entire way. My joints, still aching from the previous day's exertions, were not amused, and I was not exactly in the right frame of mind to be entertained by the time we made it to the zoo.

Once we got there, we were disappointed to discover that despite DC's warmer climate, a large number of the animals were off display for the winter. Virtually everything in the Asian section of the zoo was closed with the exception of a single red panda. The star attraction of the National Zoo is, of course, the giant pandas, and as we walked I through their habitat, we were starting to get nervous.

We didn't see them outside, and when we walked through the indoor panda house, they were nowhere to be found indoors either. Just when we were starting to fear that the entire sojourn to the zoo had been for naught, we caught a glimpse of Mei Xiang, the female panda, near the back of the last outdoor enclosure. She was a little difficult to see, but one thing was clear - she was pooping. Given the Wyatt family obsession with toilet humor, it was probably appropriate that I would catch this majestic creature in the act.


After that, we started having a bit better luck with the animals. The small mammal house, being indoors, had most of its inhabitants on view. Again, I managed to find two monkeys relieving themselves; one was peeing and the other pooping. Clearly, this was emerging as the theme of my day. I did, however, really enjoy watching an especially lively armadillo, who was scampering around his enclosure like a windup toy, virtually doing laps. For an animal with no hair, it was surprisingly cute.


Justin likes cold-blooded creatures more I do, so we made a stop at the reptile building. While I wouldn't exactly call any of of the lizards, snakes, frogs and turtles cute, some of them had pretty enough markings and colorations that even I was forced to admire them. I particularly enjoyed a tank of vigorously swimming turtles with extraordinarily long necks, who looked like they were constantly head-bobbing.


Next, we headed over to the North American section, by way of the lemur island. Sadly, the display was devoid of the furry prehensile-tailed critters, but the island was running over with turtles, two of which were mid-coitus. Truly, it was a day for bodily and basic functions at the National Zoo.


The North American section, despite being outdoors, had slightly more to see, and we spied a truly enormous seal taking a nap, in addition to a pair of wolves and a lone river otter. I've always been a bigger fan of sea otters; I just find them to be more adorable, I mean, who can resist animals that hold hands in their sleep? Still the river otter was cute in his own way.

By this point, it was starting to get close enough to our departure time that both of us were starting to get nervous, so we made the long schlep back to the Metro station to head back to the hotel to collect our gear. We did, however, make one last stop in DC, to the Nando's Peri-Peri Chicken next to the Shake Shack. We had walked past it the day before on our way back from getting s burger, and were intrigued by the look of the place and all the happy-looking patrons inside eating what appeared to be some very delicious chicken. I was intrigued, and wanted to try to squeeze in a visit before we left.

Apparently, Nando's is a chain that originated in South Africa, and it specializes in Portuguese-style grilled chicken using piri-piri chiles. Hundreds of years ago, Portuguese merchants encountered the chiles in Africa and incorporated them into their cuisine, creating fusion dishes that were popular in both cultures.  There are several Nando's locations in the DC area and in Maryland, and Justin and I enjoyed the food there so much that we wouldn't mind at all if they decided to expand into the Midwest, starting with Chicago.

At Nando's, you can order your chicken according to several different levels of spicyness, and then experiment with a range of different sauces to customize your meal -- a feature that appealed to Justin. The meat was superlatively juicy (always an accomplishment when it comes to grilled poultry), and the sides were top-notch as well. If you are ever in the DC area, I highly recommend scheduling a stop a Nando's.

Duly fortified for the flight ahead of us, we collected our bags from the hotel and opted to take their chauffeured car to the airport instead of a taxi. Our initial taxi from the airport had cost $23 with tip, and the hotel car would cost a flat rate of $25. Given the considerable upgrade in quality, it seemed like a no-brainer.

All in all, we had a great little long-weekend getaway. Even if it was relatively spur-of-the-moment (for me anyway), and we did most of our planning on the fly, we still managed to cram an impressive amount of sightseeing into our three days. Plus, I got to spend quality time with both an old friend and the man I love, and those things alone would have made the trip worthwhile even if we hadn't made it to so many museums and eaten so much delicious food.

2.17.2013

A Capital Idea - Day Two

On our second day in our nation's capital, we managed to rouse ourselves from our slumber in a more efficient manner, and hit the town while it was still morning, though our hotel and its surrounding neighborhood of DuPont Circle is very elegant, we did not encounter a single open restaurant during our entire walk to the Metro. It was like they had rolled up the sidewalks for the holiday weekend, and we ended up having to grab a pastry from Starbucks to fortify us for the morning's activities.

Justin and I outside the Hirshhorn Museum, next to statues of our zodiac symbols. I think our signs are actually fairly appropriate, considering I'm the stubborn one and he's more easy-going.

Our first stop for the day was the Hirshhorn Museum on the Mall, where Justin wanted to see a special exhibit of works by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Contemporary art isn't really my thing, and some of his works were perplexing to me, but I did enjoy his sculptures, which played with surface texture in interesting ways and employed negative space in a compelling way.


His photography seemed sort of mundane by comparison, but there were also several pieces that dealt with the artist's relationship to his homeland, and his problems with the Chinese government. He seemed especially moved by the plight of the children who died in the 2008 earthquake in Szechuan province. Once piece dealing with the tragedy listed the names of all the children who died on a wall, while a voice read them aloud so that they will never be forgotten. Another was a sculpture built from thousands of pieces of rebar salvaged from the buildings that collapsed, which create a sort of fault line of their own.


I was actually more moved by the modern art collection on the third floor, which included a fabulous Gerhardt Richter, several works by Francis Bacon, and a painting by Mark Grotjahn that I particularly enjoyed. Any time I discover a new artist that I can look for in the future, I consider an art museum visit a success, so I was glad that we included the Hirshhorn in our itinerary, even if the Ai Weiwei exhibit didn't especially appeal to me.

Detail of "Rotating Eyes of the Falling Tree Monkey Face 43.35" by Mark Grotjahn.
Since it wasn't quite lunchtime yet, we made a quick jaunt across the Mall to the Museum of American Art to see their collection of paper collages by French artist Henri Matisse. Justin had been to see them the last time he was in DC and had spoken highly of them, so I thought we would squeeze in a visit while we had some time and they happened to be open to the public. You see, to preserve the fragile pigments that were applied to the sheets of paper by Matisse's assistants before he cut them, the exhibit is only open for four hours a day, and even then with very dim lighting,

Is it just me, or does she look like she's menstruating?
I was surprised that the collection was so small; there were four or five pieces at most. I'm not sure that they were worth seeing, but the museum itself was very nice, and full of flower-filled atria, punctuated by tranquil fountains. I didn't have much interest in seeing the rest of the exhibits, however, as I really only enjoy art that was made between the Impressionist era and perhaps the 1970s.

As we were wrapping up there, I received a message from Katie that she would not be joining us for the afternoon after all, as she had had to work that morning and was too tired to go out. She offered to meet us for dinner instead, and though we had made reservations for ourselves to have a romantic dinner at a fancy restaurant, we decided to cancel so that we could spend a little more time with Katie. Since we would now be eating dinner much earlier, however, we decided to expedite our lunch plans so that we would be hungry again in time.

The night before, on our way back to the hotel, I had noticed that we were just down the street from on outpost of Shake Shack, the chain from New York about which I have read endless hype in just about every foodie publication in existence. I really wanted to try it, especially since we never seem to be able to make it to New York, and because Justin is a saint who almost always humors me, we took a huge detour to try it for lunch.

I was able to justify the decision, at least in part, with the fact that there are very few dining options on the Mall besides museum cafeterias, and none of those were going to live up to our experience from the day before. Besides, we had already paid for our Metro pass, I figured we might as well make the most of it.

In a rare turn of events, Shake Shake 100% lived up to the hype, and my resultant expectations. The beef in the burgers was obviously top quality, with excellent flavor, and the patties were cooked, by default, to a lovely shade of pink, not grey. For a fast food burger, they were beyond top-notch, and as Chicagoans, we should be praying that this chain comes our way. They also had great crinkle-cut fries and an incredible cheese sauce for them; Justin and I decided to split an order and soon regretted having to share. The only thing I wasn't crazy about was my shake, which was a little too chocolaty for me (yes, apparently that's possible) and wasn't quite sweet enough.

After our meal, we backtracked to the Mall to see the Museum of American History, where we had to wait in our first real line of the trip. The Mall was packed with people, many of whom were carrying signs from a climate change rally that was going on today. Ironically, I saw many of those signs shoved into trash cans and discarded on the street as litter. Their bearers must not have been all that concerned about sustainability and reducing their carbon footprint after all...


At the museum, we headed straight for the exhibit I had come to see, "Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000." It tells the story of how technological innovations changed the American diet in the 20th century. They explored a number of angles, including mass production, factory farming, the development of artificial fats and sweeteners, and the impact of new transportation methods on both increasing the availability of certain food products and spurring the creation of supermarkets. Oddly, about a third of the exhibit focused on the American wine industry, which seemed like way too much to me. I was forced to question whether they had received major funding from some California winemakers association.

Given all the time and energy I dedicate to reading about food and watching television shows about food, there wasn't all that much for me to learn from the exhibit that I didn't already know. However, I did really enjoy seeing the artifacts on display, including a 1950s-era Krispy Kreme machine that was essential in the development of their assembly line donuts, and an industrial caulking gun used at McDonald's to apply tartar sauce to Filet-o-Fish sandwiches (gross). My favorite, however, was a board containing a range of fifty years worth of travel coffee lids. Each was similar, but different, and it really could have been a contemporary art piece as much as an illustration of how industrial designers have approach the challenge of making hot beverages consumable on the go.


The exhibit also told the story of how television has impacted the way we cook and eat, particularly the impact of Julia Child. Her recreated kitchen is now the centerpiece of this exhibit, and they have props from the show as well as a screen that projects clips from various episodes. Her inspirational appeal is undeniable -- I want to go home and try her recipe for mashed potatoes that includes no less than two entire heads of garlic. In her own words, "Use less and you'll regret it!"


Since I hadn't been to this museum since I was about ten or eleven years old, I wanted to see as much of it as I could, now that I am an adult with an interest in history and four years of experience working at a history museum under my belt. As it turned out, the museum was even open late, so we should have been able to squeeze in more, but the long day of sightseeing, standing, and walking was talking its toll and my back was starting to hurt acutely.

I managed to see the gowns of the First Ladies, the most popular of which is undoubtedly the iconic white gown Michelle Obama wore to her husband's 2008 inaugural ball. I was surprised that there was only one dress from Jackie O., and not even a significant one at that -- it was something she had worn to a White House reception for the Sri Lankan ambassador. Meanwhile, there were three dresses from President Cleveland's wife on display, and two from the wife of Woodrow Wilson. Go figure.


We also made it through the "America at War" exhibit, which dedicated the vast majority of its space to World War II. Having been to the World War II Museum in New Orleans just a year ago, I felt that there wasn't really much for me to learn from the Smithsonian's telling. Mostly, I was shocked by how disproportionate their coverage was of this war compared to other American conflicts. The Civil War got the second most coverage (most of which was not new to me either, after touring the historic battlefields of Virginia with Dad last fall), the Revolutionary War came in third, and Vietnam was fourth, followed by the Cold War. The War on Terror and September 11th had their own gallery, but I was shocked to see that the Spanish American War and the War of 1812 both got more coverage than World War I, which had a meager three cases dedicated to it. I walked around, thinking I was missing something, but apparently that was all they had on this pivotal conflict. I might just have to consider taking a trip to Kansas City to see the World War I Museum itself if I want to learn more about that conflict.

By the time we had finished there, my energy reserves were almost entirely depleted, but I forced myself to walk through the Star Spangled Banner exhibit, as I had not seen the flag since before it underwent a nearly 10 year restoration process from 1999 to 2008. I have to admit, I was taken aback by its poor condition after all those years of restoration. Apparently, the purpose of the restoration was predominately to undo the damage done by previous conservation efforts and to stabilize the piece for future display. In its current state, there are very few fragments of the flag's white sections remaining. Apparently, the dyes used for the blue and red sections had a protective effect on the fibers, whereas the natural, white fibers decayed at a much faster rate. The flag currently resides in a very dark room, where it rests on a ten degree incline, never to hang again.

Finally, I was too tired and dehydrated (there was not a working drinking fountain to be found in any part of the museum we visited), to go on, so we paused for a refreshment in the cafeteria before jumping on the Metro to meet Katie for dinner. I had selected Minh's, a Vietnamese restaurant, for our meal, based on the fact that it was convenient for Katie, who lives in Arlington, not far from the place, and on the strength of The Washingtonian, which has recommended it as one of the best restaurants in the city for years and years.Though Katie has walked past it every day for three years and never gone in, she was open to giving it a try.

Even though we had Asian food last night, I was beyond pleased with the meal we had at Minh's. In fact, I wish we had eaten there yesterday, and tried something else today so that I could erase the memory of the bland dinner we had at Mala Tang. We started the meal with a sampler platter of appetizers, the star of which were crispy fritters made of shredded sweet potato and prawns. Justin and Katie both had pho, and seemed content with their choice, and I went with their caramelized catfish served in a clay pot with rice, and it was incredible. The seasonings were strong but balanced, and the fish was tender, moist, and perfectly cooked. I'll be thinking about it for a long time. Plus, all three of us ate at Minh's for just over half of what we paid the night before. If I lived near Minh's, I'd eat there all the time; I hope Katie goes back.

We lingered over our meal for quite some time, enjoying Katie's company, before we had to tear ourselves away to head back to the hotel. It's always such a joy to be able to reconnect with old friends, even if in this case, I had just seen Katie three months ago. Much as I love my friends and the life I have built for myself in Chicago, I will always have a special place in my heart for my college pals, and it makes me happy that we are managing to stay in touch despite the distance that separates us.

2.16.2013

A Capital Idea - Day One

It is seldom that I do anything that could really be considered spontaneous; I am a planner, and I like to take a measured, calculated approach to life whenever possible. In fact, even when I do something that seems spur of the moment at first glance, there is usually actually quite a bit of forethought that has gone into it, I have just chosen to finally act on it all of a sudden.

That was what happened when I emailed Justin a couple weeks ago and asked him, seemly out of the blue, if he could get President's Day off of work and if he wanted to go to Washington DC for the long weekend.I had found a great deal on a hotel room in one of the many travel deal emails I receive, but we had to act fast. Luckily for me, he was able to secure the day off on short notice, and I was able to cash in my credit card reward points to purchase the airfare, further reducing the cost for our last minute getaway.

Actually, there was really nothing last minute  about it. I have been wanting to get away pretty much ever since  we finished the holiday season, but because I am still in the probationary period at my new job until March, I don't have any time off until May, except for President's Day. I had been devouring my daily deal emails looking for something tempting, but nothing really struck the right balance of a desirable destination, affordable airfare, quality accommodations, and overall price.

Justin and I have been talking about wanting to see New York for a while (I haven't been since before 9/11, and he has never been), so initially I had focused my search there. However, nothing ever turned up in our price range that wasn't in a undesirable neighborhood, and I wasn't willing to break the bank just for the sake of getting out of town.

Just when I had about given up hope, I spotted a deal for Kimpton group hotel called The Topaz in Washington DC. I had had positive experiences at their establishments in the past, and the price was right. I had been interested in going to DC again, not just to pay a visit to my friend, Katie, whom I traveled to DC to see back in 2009, but also because I had seen that there was a new food exhibit opening at the Smithsonian Museum of American History and I was interested in seeing it. Now seemed like as good a time as any.

I booked us a flight for Friday night, under the logic that if we got into town the night before, we could wake up early and make the most of our time in the city. However, our late flight didn't get into DC until after midnight, and when we got to the hotel they tried to give us a room that was directly across from the elevator. As in, the elevator door opened and the first thing you saw was our room.

Much to Justin's mortification, I marched us back to the front desk, complained about the situation, and after a long series of negotiations, got us moved to a huge suite at no additional cost. I was very pleased, but by the time we finally got to bed, it was nearly two in the morning.

As a result, we were so exhausted this morning that we greatly overslept, costing us an entire half a day. Considering all the stress associated with getting to the airport after work for our flight, we could have just flown in this morning and saved ourselves the effort.


After touching base with Katie, we agreed to meet her at the National Museum of the American Indian, and by the time we arrived, it was time for lunch. This was actually fine with us, as we chose the museum in part because we wanted to try their food court, which has stations serving various foods typical of Native American groups from different regions.

I made a beeline to the Northern Plains section, where I knew I would be able to find Indian tacos. Consisting of a piece of fry bread, topped with buffalo chili, shredded lettuce, cheese and tomato, Indian tacos were, by far, the highlight of the school trip I was compelled to take to South Dakota and Nebraska in 2006, and I haven't had another one in the years since.

The one I obtained today wasn't quite as transcendent as those, but it was still very good, and probably one of the best meals I've ever eaten from a museum food court. Justin had the same thing that I did, but Katie sampled the salmon from the Northwest Coast station, and she seemed similarly impressed with the quality of her meal. We ate and chatted, but did not linger too long over the meal, as the dining room was very crowded and not exactly conducive to conversation.

We started our tour of the museum with a movie that introduced the themes of the museum, without going into much detail, before continuing into an exhibit dedicated to exploring the spiritual outlook, origin story, and worldview of different groups. Each group was treated like a spoke on a wheel, radiating out from an inner circle, but the information for each was not presented as clearly as it could have been. For instance, it was very difficult to figure out a geographic location for each tribe, and I often had to infer where they were from based on what they were wearing and how the weather looked.


I appreciated the museum's novel approach to displaying artifacts; instead of hanging items in neat, orderly rows, they tried wavy rows, concentric circles, and other creative arrangements. A case full of arrow heads, for instance, took on the appearance of a school of fish, and small golden ornaments from pre-Columbian Meso-America conjured an image of the sun and its rays. That said, though there was an incredible collection of artifacts, the material culture was not the focus. There was little information about the objects such as when and where they were made.

Instead, the museum was focused on giving the tribes a voice to tell their own stories, an opportunity that has historically been denied them. This led to some redundancies and a lack of cohesiveness from exhibit to exhibit, but I think the curators still deserve to be lauded for their approach.

There were two stories in particular that stuck with me. One was that of the Hoopa Valley Tribe in Northern California, whose way of life depends on the Trinity River, which had been dammed by the California government. Whenever they need to perform one of their ceremonies that requires canoes, they must petition the Sacramento Water Reclamation District to release extra water so that their boats do not get grounded on the bottom of the river bed.

Adding insult to injury, an evangelical Christian group has built a church on the border of their territory, and they broadcast their sermons via loudspeakers into the valley in an attempt to convert the Hoopa people. It's hard to believe that this kind of insensitivity exists even today; it honestly sounds like something out of the 18th century.


I also greatly enjoyed learning about the Metis tribe in Canada, who trace their lineage to a mixture of First Nations people and French colonists. Today they live in Saint Laurent, Quebec, where a number of them make their living in commercial fishing. In the winter, when the water is frozen, they travel over the ice in vehicles called "bombardiers," originally built in the 1950s to transport children to school across the snow. They run on treads, like a tank, with two runners in the front that look like skis. I had never seen anything like it, and they even had one there on display.

About halfway through the museum, Katie left us to go home n get ready for a date she had scheduled that evening. We had made a three person reservation for Mala Tang, a Szechuan restaurant that she had highly recommended, but we decided to roll with the punches and go without her. I guess this is what happens when you are in an established relationship and your friends are still single.
It seriously took us 29 takes to get a decent photo of the two of us with the Capitol building in the background.
Unfortunately, we did not have a very good meal at Mala Tang, causing us to miss Katie's company even more. The focus of the restaurant was hot pot, sort of like the Chinese version of fondue, in which you receive a pot of boiling broth and use it to cook selected proteins, starches and vegetables. Being a Szechuan place, we were expecting the food to be very spicy, so we ordered one spicy broth and one mild broth just in case.

However, we soon discovered that the spicy broth was barely piquant, and the mild broth could have been water as far as we cold tell. The food was shockingly bland, we ordered way too much of it, and it quickly grew tiresome to have to cook everything ourselves. Much as I like to cook at home, when I pay money to go out, I think I prefer to have everything done for me.


Dinner was definitely a bust; the only upside was that I feel newly motivated to return to Lao Szechuan, a legendary restaurant in Chicago's Chinatown, when we get home. We may have lucked out with our free room upgrade in DC on our first day, but you can't win 'em all...

2.14.2013

Be Mine, Valentine...

Being in a relationship has turned me into a Valentine's Day convert; whereas I used to think the holiday was just a way for smug couples to flaunt their happiness in the face of every unhappily single person out there, now I see the occasion as a way of celebrating our love, and the good fortune that we had in finding one another. Yet, this year, for our third Valentine's Day together, we scarcely did much in the way of marking in the occasion. For our first Valentine's Day, there were flowers, cards, and a trip to the theater. We spent our second Valentine's Day in New Orleans, exploring the atmospheric city hand-in-hand and eating muffulettas in bed. This year, we exchanged cards and stayed home to eat leftovers.

Does that mean the romance is dead? I don't necessarily think so; after all, we ate our four times in the past two weeks for Restaurant Week, which wasn't inexpensive despite the deals, and tomorrow, we are leaving for Washington DC for a long weekend getaway, which will be expensive as well. If I weren't still in the initial probationary period at my job and had some actual vacation time, I would have tried to make this a proper Valentine's Day trip as well, but under the circumstances, I was just happy to be able to get out of town at all.

Just because we're not making a big fuss on the actual day of Valentine's Day doesn't mean we're any less in love. In fact, I take time every day to pause and reflect on how thankful I am to have Justin in my life. I've never really believed in the concept of soul mates, because it always struck me as a little depressing to think that there is only one person out there in the entire world that is right for you. What if they die before you ever meet them, or you never find them at all? However, even if I don't believe in the idea of finding "the one," I still feel that Justin and I are about as compatible as two people can be.

I love his silliness, his compassion, his generosity, his intelligence, and his stories. I love to talk with him, listen to him, look at him, kiss him, smell him, touch him, and just generally occupy the same space as him. I love that I get to begin and end every day with him. I love that the things about us that would be seen as faults by others actually bring us together and strengthen us. I love him mind, body, and soul, and I want to spend the rest of my life loving him the same way that I do right now, and building upon that love.

Happy Valentine's Day, babe!

2.11.2013

A Religious Experience - Part Thirteen

Chicago Churches and Synagogues: An Architectural Pilgrimage, my favorite book on ecclesiastic art and architecture in my hometown, has a special chapter on stained glass, which includes almost all of the color photographs in the text (it was published in the early 1980s). Given my abiding love of stained glass, I made a point of reading that chapter right off the bat, and I was struck by an absolutely stunning half-page image of an abstract window entitled, Let There Be Light, and There Was Light.

It was located in the Chicago Loop Synagogue, and I knew at that moment that I needed to see it for myself. After all, I had walked by the outwardly nondescript building dozens of times in my life, with no idea of the beauty it contained. However, like most religious buildings, it was not open to the public, and with the particular security issues faced by synagogues (which are often the targets of anti-Semitic attacks), it was even more difficult to obtain access to this building than others I have seen. Just when I was starting to entertain the idea of emailing them to see if I could arrange a visit that way, I saw that they were going to be participating in 2012's Open House Chicago. I found a place for it in our itinerary immediately.

Chicago Loop Synagogue
16 South Clark Street
Chicago, IL

The Chicago Loop Synagogue was formed in 1929, primarily to serve as a secondary place of worship for highly observant Jews who wished to pray or study the Torah during the workday as well as providing kosher meals at lunch time. The congregation moved into their current space in 1957, and architects Loebl, Schlossman, and Bennett were confronted with the problem of how to situate a synagogue on a narrow, city lot. Going vertical provided part of the solution: the sanctuary is located on the second floor, leaving spaces for offices and a smaller room for daily worship on the ground floor. The sanctuary, which seats 530 congregants, is used only for high holiday celebrations, and weekend services.


The exterior of the synagogue is minimalist in style, with its primary distinguishing feature being the bronze statue hanging over the doorway. Created by Israeli artist Henri Azaz, "Hands of Peace" features two stylized hands reaching outward, surrounded by a blessing from the Book of Numbers in both English and Hebrew: "The Lord bless thee and keep thee; the Lord, make his face to shine upon thee and be gracious to thee; the Lord lift up his countenance upon thee and give thee peace." Because the sanctuary's stained glass windows are not visible from outside the building, the statue is really the only indicator that the structure is a house of worship; all other traditional elements of ecclesiastic architecture have been eschewed.


Inside, the Chicago Loop Synagogue is an exercise in mid-century modernism with an unusual sideways seating arrangement to maximize seating. Instead of placing the altar at the opposite end of the sanctuary from the entrance, the alter is located on the left side of the room, with only the ark against the end of the space. Artificially rough hewn concrete blocks in the walls are designed to evoke the Western Wall in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Judaism.


The only gloriously glaring exception to all this minimalist restraint is the monumental stained glass wall that makes up the entire rear wall of the space. Designed by American artist Abraham Rattner, the wall depicts important themes from the Torah and Judaism in general. Rattner, whose works routinely dealt with religious issues and imagery, had been looking for an opportunity to work in stained glass since the 1940s, and had completed many studies for potential stained glass pieces before he was approached for the Chicago Loop Synagogue project.


When he received the commission, Rattner made an intensive study of Jewish liturgy in order to select just the right themes and imagery, and then worked closely with the glass fabrication firm Barrilet, even going so far as to climb a ladder to different heights to look at the glass samples in the light in order to choose the perfect piece of glass for each section. 

And God Said, Let There Be Light and There Was Light, carries meaning on several different levels: it refers to God's light in the universe, to the enlightenment that can be reached through faith, and literally, to the light passing through the window itself. The colors Rattner selected are symbolic as well. Green symbolizes youth, purple is wisdom and old age, blue signifies the regeneration of the spirit, gold is prophecy, red stands for fire, and white, eternity. 

On the left, one can see the glowing star of David, surrounded by symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel. Below it is the burning bush. In the center of the composition is the tree of life, topped by a menorah whose candles further symbolize the light of God. Other Judaic symbols are scattered throughout, such as the shofar, the instrument used to call worshipers together during the High Holy Days. Across the bottom of the scene is a saying in Hebrew, which translates to, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One."


There was another stained glass window inside the building, in the corridor leading to the sanctuary, which was also covered from floor to ceiling in plaques acknowledging gifts to the synagogue. It was a stark contrast to Agudas Achim, which might still be thriving today if it had the same kind of monetary base behind it. Even though the Chicago Loop Synagogue may not be a primary house of worship to many congregants, it manages to remain a vibrant and active faith community where visit on a daily basis to pray and connect with God. It made me happy to see them doing so well, and to be able to rest assured that the incredible artwork contain within their walls will be protected for years to come.

2.08.2013

Restaurant Week 2013 - Graham Elliot Bistro

After my phenomenal experience at Boka, I got a little greedy. I had only planned to do three Restaurant Week dinners in 2013, but after having such a positive experience, I thought it would be possible to squeeze in just one more, budget be damned. I had been looking at the tasting menus posted by other participating establishments, and could not get the offerings from Graham Elliot Bistro (G.E.B), out of my mind. I had been wanting to try the restaurant anyway, seeing as how it is located next door to Nellcôte, a mere block from my office, and I walk past it all the time. It is only open for dinner, however, so Restaurant Week seemed like the perfect time to give it a try, and besides, their tasting menu was practically tailor-made to appeal to my taste buds.

Being a Friday night, the only last-minute reservation I could obtain was at 5:00, which wouldn't have a problem for me, since I work so close to the place, but it meant that Justin would just have to meet me there late. The problem was compounded early in the day, however, when we awoke to nearly three inches of ice crusting our neighborhood's sidewalks and streets, from the wet, sloppy snow that had fallen the night before and frozen in place. Even with a pair of crampons strapped on to my shoes, we still missed our train and had to catch a later one, causing Justin to be slightly late for work, meaning he'd be even later for dinner.

Once we made it downtown, there was much less ice on the ground, so I decided to remove the ice cleats from my shoes, which turned out to be a fateful error. Right in front of my own office building, I slipped on a patch of black ice (I later learned that we had run out of salt the day before), and though I didn't fall all the way down, I did manage to sprain my knee in the process of trying to stay upright. I spent the whole day icing and elevating my knee and throwing NSAIDs at the problem, so you can imagine my frustration when I hobbled over to G.E.B. and was informed that I could not be seated until my party was complete. Even after I explained to them that I had sprained my knee, they let me know that I could wait in the bar, which I hate doing, because I don't really drink alcohol and I always feel compelled to order something besides a soda when I'm sitting at the bar. Even though the restaurant was practically empty at 5:00, I had to stand awkwardly near the door, waiting for Justin, for nearly 20 minutes.

After that, the evening never fully recovered. There was one problem after another, until I had resolved that I would never return to G.E.B., no matter how close it is to my office. Sometimes, you need to quit while you're ahead, and my Restaurant Week experience at G.E.B. drove that point home painfully.

Ambiance - G.E.B. is located in a narrow shotgun-style space, with only a handful of detached two-or-four-top tables and a long banquet running along the opposite wall. A long partition separates the diners from the kitchen and a corridor were the servers and busboys move to and from the kitchen, which would have been fine if they weren't yelling over said partition to communicate with other staff in the dining room. We were seated at a two-top right against the partition and all the servers talking over us like we were invisible became extremely annoying as the meal progressed.

Service - Aside from my aggravation about being denied a seat despite having a sprained knee (seriously, do they think people make up stuff like tat just because they don't want to wait), the service we received from our waitress wasn't much better. After unsuccessfully trying her best to upsell us on the regular menu and the wine list, she practically disappeared. I had to flag her down for a refill on my drink, and I was not amused.

Food - Considering I booked my reservation on the strength of the menu G.E.B. had posted on the Restaurant Week website, you can imagine my disappointment when the server handed me a hard copy and everything I had planned on eating was gone. I realize that the menus are subject to availability, but you can't tell me that they weren't able to procure potatoes for baked potato soup at this time of year.

Instead, I ordered the chicken and dumpling soup, which I thought would be more like my grandma's version, with a rich, thick broth full of body. Instead, what I received was a bowl of chicken broth, with a scant few pieces of precisely cubed root vegetables and about three 1-inch dumplings. It was too bad that they were so misery with the dumplings, as they were flavored with mustard and herbs and were easily the best part of the dish.

Instead of the beef cheeks, I ended up with pot roast, which was quite tasty at least, but the portion size, in tandem with the bowl of broth, left me suspecting I would be hungry again later. Dessert was the star of the meal; both my Nutella-filled beignets and Justin's ice cream sundae featuring peanuts, caramelized banana, broken pretzels and chocolate sauce were truly excellent. In fact, if I weren't so biased against the place from everything else that happened during our dinner, I'd consider going back there for dessert only, but that's just not going to happen.

2.06.2013

Restaurant Week 2013 - Boka

For my third Restaurant Week outing, I decided to break out of the pattern I had been following so far: not only did I leave behind the West Loop, I left Justin at home to have a girls' night with my friend Jess. Actually, given the romantic vibe at our selection, Boka, it was really more of a lady date, and I kind of wished I had brought Justin, but the location was really perfect for me and Jess. The restaurant had been on my radar for ages, ever since I needed to pick a pre-theater dinner for my mom's birthday two years ago, when we went to see Dixie's Tupperware Party at the Royal George Theater. She ultimately chose to go out for hot dogs instead, but Boka, a Michelin-starred establishment, has been lingering in the back of my mind ever since.

When Jess expressed her interest in checking out Restaurant Week with me, she let me choose the venue, since I spend so much time reading up on the Chicago food scene. Though I could have picked somewhere newer or more trendy, I went with Boka, not only because I'm slowly trying to increase the number of Michelin-starred restaurants I've been to and I couldn't afford to do so without Restaurant Week, but because it was mutually convenient. For me, Boka was a straight shot north on Halsted from my office, and for Jess, it was a short bus trip west on North Avenue. In terms of location, it was the best possible choice.

As a matter of fact, Boka may have been the best decision I've made so far during Restaurant Week. So far, it has had the best food, the best service, and it's easy to see why it has earned a Michelin star and the other two places we've tried have not. Boka is the restaurant I would most want to return to, even if it is the one I am in the position to least afford.

Ambiance - Our reservation at Boka was on the early side, since we were both coming straight from work, and when we arrived, the restaurant was largely empty. We were seated in a dimly lit room that looked like it might have been a glassed-in patio that could accommodate outdoor dining in fairer weather. The tables were spaced far enough apart that diners could engage in private conversations without worrying about interference from neighboring patrons, and the chairs were comfortable enough to want to linger over one's food. Frankly, I felt a little uncomfortable being there with a same-gender friend, but as the place started to fill up, the sense of being on a date diminished somewhat. Still, I think Boka would be a perfect locale for a romantic dinner for a special occasion like an anniversary or Valentine's Day.

Service - Our waiter, though young, was not a pretentious hipster like the servers we had encountered at Nellcôte and BellyQ. He was very friendly, and very accommodating of all our questions about the menu, and shepherded me through my indecision surrounding my dinner choices by providing me with recommendations that took into account the season, the weather outside, and how hungry I was. He even offered us a second helping of bread after we had consumed our initial ration, which was a pleasant surprised compared to Nellcôte, where they charged us $3 for the privilege of sampling their bread in the first place. We didn't get any attitude for ordering off of the Restaurant Week menu, and blissfully, nobody tried to up-sell us on anything. In short, the service was a model of perfection.

Food - Based on the strength of our waiter's persuasive recommendations, I actually ended up going in a totally different direction with my selections than I had been planning on. Initially, I had intended to go with a seafood-themed meal, including the seared diver scallop appetizer and salmon in sweet potato sauce with a seafood dumpling as an entree. However, the waiter suggested that, given the cold day, I might prefer something heavier, so I went with the mushroom soup and Berkshire pork cheeks instead. It was the right call.

Though the pureed mushroom soup was creamless, like the recipe I make at home, the flavor profile was totally different, and worth trying. In the bottom of the bowl was a sweet/tart shallot jam that worked its way into the occasional bite, creating a lovely touch of variety, and the pieces of grilled baby bok choy worked surprisingly well, contributing a smokey component. Floating in the center was a golden brown square of seared chicken thigh that was so good, I honestly could have ordered that as an entree and been happy.

The pork, however, was a masterpiece unto itself, having been braised to a meltingly tender state of submission. It was plated with a Brussels sprout slaw that was delicious enough that I wished there was more of it, as well as small cubes of Honeycrisp apples. I know apples and pork are a classic pairing, but I'd never really considered using Honeycrisps (my favorite apple) for anything other than eating out of hand.

The only place where I felt the tasting menu faltered was the carrot cake, which suffered from an overly generous hand with the cardamon. I also felt that it was a bit fussy and overly deconstructed, what with its orange sorbet, candied kumquats, cream cheese frosting swirl, and garnish of raw carrots cut into flowers. If dessert had lived up to the standards set by the previous two courses, my meal at Boka would have been a more or less ideal dining experience.

2.05.2013

Restaurant Week 2013 - BellyQ

For our second shot at Restaurant Week, I went a bit outside of my usual philosophy of trying restaurants that I otherwise couldn't afford and booked us a table at BellyQ, the newest restaurant in the Bill Kim restaurant empire. Kim is probably the biggest name in Asian fusion cuisine in Chicago, starting with UrbanBelly in Avondale, followed by BellyShack in Logan Square, and finally BellyQ in the far West Loop. I'd been reading a lot of hype about his newest, Asian barbeque-focused venture, and even though it wasn't necessarily too expensive, I just hadn't yet mustered the motivation to give it a try. After all, I had a relatively mediocre experience at BellyShack, where Kim's Latin/Asian fusion didn't particularly inspire my palate.

Still, I was willing to give him another try, especially because BellyQ was reputed to be a much bigger space than his other two eateries, enough so that they take reservations, and it's easy to get to, unlike his other spots. Plus, one glance at BellyQ's Restaurant Week menu was enough to seal the deal. They weren't skimping -- all of their most notable dishes were represented, and their dessert as listed as a Vietnamese cinnamon donut with caramel dipping sauce. Need I say more?

Though I felt much more at ease at BellyQ, I wasn't blown away by my experience there. It seemed more like the kind of place Justin and I would go, and the kind of food that Justin and I often eat, but I didn't feel like they were doing anything especially innovative that distinguishes them from any other Asian fusion restaurant in the city. Don't get me wrong, the food was perfectly good, delicious even, I just didn't feel like there was anything unique that I couldn't find elsewhere, and with Bill Kim at the helm, I was expecting more from BellyQ.

Ambiance - Honestly, I was a little confused by the BellyQ space. It didn't feel as vast and impersonal as I'd seen it described in reviews, and there even warm touches, like the whimsical light fixtures, to break up the otherwise industrial space. I was, however, taken aback by the extremely uncomfortable seating. The metal chairs may have looked nice, but they were so unyielding that I couldn't shake the feeling that the restaurant didn't want us to linger a moment more than necessary over our food. Also, the place was completely packed; Nellcôte was the same way. I'm not sure if this has to do with both restaurants' high-profile trendiness, or if it was just because Restaurant Week is doing its job by bringing more people out in the cold months of February. Perhaps it is a combination of both factors.

Service - Our waitress was extremely friendly, and really seemed to take an interest in us. We mentioned that we had walked to the restaurant (which was probably a mistake, as it was freezing out and much farther away from my office than I had anticipated), and she made good on her promise to make the meal worth our effort. However, I couldn't overlook the fact that she kept trying to upsell us into additional side dishes and upgrades to our Restaurant Week dishes.

For example, our dessert was apparently intended to be served with Bill Kim's famous soft-serve, but it was omitted in the Restaurant Week version. For a modest additional charge, she suggested that it would be so much better with the ice cream, but we demurred. She did manage to talk us into trying the house-made kimchi, but I was annoyed that there was a charge for what should really be a free condiment.

Food - For me, our dinner got off to an excellent start with the Thai fried chicken. I really liked the spicy sweet glaze, even if it made them very messy, and their crunchy coating. I also appreciated the fact that they were boneless, which meant that you could eat them with a fork, thereby cutting down on the amount of sauce that ended up on my fingers. However, part of me feels that once you have experienced Crisp, the Korean fried-chicken restaurant on Broadway that Justin and I fell in love with a couple years back. Their chicken is so good that it has ruined me for all other Asian-inspired fried chicken, which is unfortunate, given that it is a burgeoning food trend. Justin, who wasn't feeling well, had their hot and sour lentil soup, which was much brothier than either of us expected, and he didn't seem especially impressed by it.

He had the salmon for a main course, and seemed to enjoy it , though I think he was sad that he didn't get the barbeque grilled beef that I had. Barbeque may seem like a bit of a misnomer, since BellyQ doesn't deal in the smoked, heavily-sauced version that most Americans associate with the term, but rather in Asian-style barbeque, which is marinated and flavored differently. Though I more or less detest American-style BBQ, I like its Asian counterpart, and I thoroughly enjoyed the version served at BellyQ. The meat was flavorful, though a bit tough, and it was especially good when eaten with the lettuce salad and rice that came on the side. Something about the vinaigrette paired perfectly with the flavor of the beef.

The donuts, as expected, were terrific. Soft and pillowy, hot and crispy, they were excellent on their own, but even better doused in the gently salted caramel sauce. Even without the ice cream, I thought they were great, and I probably could have been happy if we had just come there for dessert.

2.01.2013

Restaurant Week 2013 - Nellcôte

Last month, as one of my New Year's Resolutions, I vowed to get out more. So when I sat down to sketch out my 2013 to-do list, one of the first things I penciled in was Restaurant Week for the month of February. I've had some really great experiences with Restaurant Week in the past, even if it always ends up costing more than I think it will, and the service can be a little dicey when the staff knows they won't be receiving their usual tips. 

I have gotten to have dining experiences that would have otherwise been well outside of my budget, such as Le Colonial and Mercat a la Planxa, and even discovered one of my all-time favorite restaurants, La Madia. Last year, we didn't make it to Restaurant Week because we had just finished moving, and we were reeling from all the money we had spent to do so. I wanted to rectify that oversight by taking full advantage of Restaurant Week in 2013.

I started planning for Restaurant as soon as the participants and menus were announced on the Choose Chicago website. I am an unapologetic planner, and I put all of my talents to bear in crafting an itinerary that worked with our schedule, was compatible with the reservations that were available, and included the most restaurants I was interested in checking out. I finally settled on a line-up of four, three of which I would try with Justin, even if it meant spending as much on dining out in one week as I usually budget for groceries for an entire month.

My schedule for this year was highly influenced by my new neighborhood at work. Being surrounded by trendy restaurants that I read about constantly in the local press but never get to try is a mild form of torture for me (I know, I know, this is a first-world problem), so I was determined to work in as many West Loop restaurants as possible. In the end, three of the four places I went were all on West Randolph Street.

We kicked off our 2013 Restaurant Week experience with Nellcôte, which I walk past constantly, and about which I have heard much from my boss, who is a fan. One of my favorite local food writers proclaimed it one of his favorite restaurants of the past year, and I have to admit, I was curious about the fact that they mill their own flour in-house to create their pizzas and pastas. I appreciated their attention to detail, but I had to wonder if homemade flour could really make a noticeable difference in the quality of the food.

We ended up having a nice enough experience at Nellcôte; the food was outstanding and the setting was glamorous. It just didn't feel very "us." I felt acutely out of place the entire time we were there, and that discomfort overshadowed my perception of the meal. Good as the food was, I can't really see myself ever going back there, but I'm glad to have tried it, and to be able to say I have been there.

Ambiance - The luxurious space at Nellcôte is half of the reason I wanted to try it. Every time I walked past it, I saw their elegantly upholstered chairs, sparkling chandeliers, and wanted to go inside. It was aspirational, in a sense -- I wanted to be the kind of person who ate at such an establishment. However, once we were inside, I felt like a fish out of water. As the restaurant filled up with beautiful women having girls' nights with their similarly stunning friends, ferocious cougars lined up at the bar hoping to snag their prey for the evening, and older couples who exuded an aura of wealth, I started to feel less and less like I belonged there. It was a blatant reminder that I'm not in with the "in crowd," and that I probably shouldn't bother going where the "in crowd" goes.

Service - Though our waiter was pleasant enough and the pacing of the dishes arriving from the kitchen was on point, I think that the service contributed to my overall sense of alienation at Nellcôte. I got the distinct feeling that we weren't interacting with our server in a way in which he was accustomed. It was almost as if he kept waiting for us to ask more questions, so he could show off his knowledge of the menu. He seemed surprised that we already knew what we wanted to eat.

And he kept using pretentious restaurant jargon, such as "Okay, I'm going to go ahead and course that out for you real nicely." Seriously? Don't the dishes sort of naturally fall into courses, considering it's a three-course menu? He just seemed to be taking everything a bit too seriously, but not in a "dedicated to his job" kind of way, and in more of a pretentious, "I know more than you," kind of way. He just really rubbed me the wrong way.

Food - As it turns out, the custom ground flour does make a difference, but not, perhaps, in a universally positive way. I loved the homemade baguette in the bread basket, which had a textbook-perfect crust with a tender interior, and I also felt that it improved the brioche as well. However, I thought that the same characteristics that made for delicious baguettes and brioche made the flour less successful in their foccacia bread and in their pizza crust. I expect both of those bread products to have a toothsome, chewy quality, and while they had a nice, crisp crust, the interior was too tender and lacking in chewy resistance.

The salads, on the other hand were impeccable. The Brussels sprouts in my salad were slightly overcooked for my liking (as they were in the chicken dish that I had as an entree), but the flavors of the salad were exceptionally well-balanced and provided lots of interesting contrasts. The chicken, incidentally, was great as well, with a smokey-but-not-charred exterior acquired from spending time on a wood-burning grill, and crispy skin. I traded half of it to Justin for half of his pizza, which had flavorful, high-quality toppings, even if I found the crust lacking.

My only real disappointment was dessert, which felt like an afterthought. It came in the form of a sweet but bland panna cotta, which isn't really my favorite dessert in the first place, garnished a relish of raw tropical fruits and cilantro. I hate cilantro in any form, but it certainly doesn't have any place in dessert, if you ask me.