Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Chicago: The Purple Pig

To round up my Chicago trip, we had just enough time to squeeze in dinner at the wildly popular Purple Pig on Michigan Avenue. The restaurant serves up food that I would categorize as gastro-restaurant with lots of shareable dishes, served with a Mediterranean flavor. Unfortunately the restaurant does not take reservations so there was a large crowd waiting outside for a table at 6pm.

The restaurant has seating inside with communal tables, a bar area and the coveted outdoor patio area. Since it was just a friend and myself for dinner, we knew our chances of getting a seat was higher if we chose to sit at the bar. The hostess was nice enough to let us know when a party was closing out, so we really only waited for 10-15 minutes.

There are quite a number of pork dishes on the menu, but The Purple Pig also has a nice selection of cheeses, vegetables and other meats (clams, veal, lamb).

The Purple Pig has a nice selection of charcuterie and spreads.
Pork Neck Bone Rillette and Mostarda ~ I liked that the rillette was spreadable. It was rich and salty, and paired with a tangy-sweet fruit preserve. The only disappointing factor was that the bread was burnt. Even when we asked for more, they came out burnt too. Must be something wrong with the kitchen timer.

Roasted Corn ~ A nice side dish to help balance out all the meat dishes that we ordered. I liked the texture of the roasted corn which had a slight char to it and a bit of caramelization. The corn kernels were mixed with mushrooms, nuts and fried rosemary. I liked the sweet- salty combination, and how fresh this dish was.

Pig's Ear with Crispy Kale ~ Seems to be a one more their more popular dishes. The thinly sliced pigs ear were lightly breaded and crispy on the outside with a crunch from the cartilage. I just love the texture of pigs ear. Also loved the combination of fried kale and pickled cherry peppers. I thought the fried egg did a good job of holding everything together. Once you broke the yolk and mixed everything together, what seemed like a salad quickly because a warm creamy dish.

Octopus with Green Beans ~ The texture of the octopus was firm, but tender, and its flavors were not too oceanic. In fact, when you cut up the octopus to pieces, they could pass off as a firm calamari steak. The octopus was served with fingerling potatoes and a acidic and zesty salsa verde. I was glad to have ordered some lighter dishes to compliment the heavier pork dishes.

Pig's Tails Braised in Balsamic with Grated Egg and Parsley ~ I really enjoyed this dish. The meat from the pig's tail was very tender and fell off the bone. There was also lots of bones to the tail, which made it fun to slurp up all the meat and sauce around the bone. I've had pig's tail before but only in Asian preparation so I found the flavors interesting in the use of the sweet/tangy balsamic vinegar.

Milk Braised Pork Shoulder with Mashed Potatoes ~ Probably the only dish that I was not impressed with as the pork shoulder was not tender. It was tough to cut through and was rather stiff. Also, it was topped with an unsightly yellow mashed potatoes.

The Purple Pig is a fun place to grab a bite if you are relatively new to the city. It's loud and vibrant, and the dishes are unique and fun to share. Granted there were many tourists (you could tell, they were wearing sneakers and toting cameras) but I found the dishes interesting and the food good.

The Purple Pig
500 N. Michigan Ave.,
Chicago, Illinois 60611
(312) 464-1744

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Chicago: Tavernita (River North) - the corn pudding to die for!

While in Chicago, my friend and I ventured to River North to meet up with friends for a drinks. Even though we bar hopped and nibbled on dishes all night, I was hoping to check out at least one of the recommendations from my colleague. Tavernita was one of them - it is a Latin/Spanish restaurant from the same owners of trendy Mercadito.

They have a great wraparound patio seating area which has kind of a trendy yet casual gastrobar feel to it. The noise level was high and the patio was rather happening. Unfortunately every seat was taken.

We ended up grabbing seats inside, which had a completely different feel to it - it was more sophisticated and uber swank, with modern lightning and flooring. Clientele seemed older compared to the patio outside.

The menu at Tavernita is Spanish inspired, with a variety of small plates for sharing. The dishes are not entirely Spanish flavored, you can find the typical croquettes, patatas and gambas, but also hamachi crudo and lamb sausage.

I ordered a quartino of the refreshing Albarino. I was surprised that the serving was quite large (it felt more than a glass and a half) but it only cost $10.

Because I live in the no-foie state of California, I was so excited to order anything foie. 
Foie gras mousse with cherry compote really hit the spot. Thick and smooth with intense livery flavor. Gosh, I really miss the rich and decadent foie gras. It was paired well with freshly grilled baguette.

Corn pudding with shrimp was such a wonderful surprise. I wasn't expecting a large skillet of baked corned pudding that was soft in the center with zing from poblano, and topped with a nice crust. The corn pudding was topped with large pieces of succulent shrimp and a fresh herb salad. Such a unique dish that I was glad to have ordered.

I was quite pleased with what we ordered. If we weren't so full, I would have loved to order more from their menu such as pork belly bocadillo and braised short ribs with crispy potato puree. But the foie mousse and corn pudding was enough to whet my appetite. It's definitely a place that I would recommend for a fun night out with some good food.

151 W. Erie
Chicago, IL 60654
(312) 274-1111

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Chicago: Brunch at The Bongo Room (Bucktown)

Bongo Room in Wicker Park is a very popular and beloved brunch place in Chicago since opening almost two decades ago. When my friend mentioned that we would have to get there before it opened at 9am on a Saturday, I was deterred a bit. I hate waiting in lines. Thankfully, we managed to get up and out the door in time, and when we arrived at 8.45am, a line was quickly forming. You could tell that they were all locals from the neighborhood in line. That's a good sign. 

When the door finally opened at 9am (not a minute earlier), we were seated in a cheerful dining room with Tiffany blue walls and moose heads (not real) mounted on the wall.

The menu comprises of typical brunch fare such as eggs, pancakes and croissant sandwich. They also have a Specials menu that changes seasonally. I do like that they have some interesting dishes such as red velvet hotcakes and vanilla bean brioche french toast

Bloody Mary and Black Raspberry and Grapefruit Mimosa. The mimosas weren't cheap at over $8 a piece (ouch) but I did like some of the flavors such as Orange Mango and Raspberry and Pear.

White chocolate and caramel pretzel pancakes was on the Specials menu so I had to try it. When it came out, I was a bit nervous. It looked uber sweet but thankfully, the caramel and white chocolate sauce was milder than one would expect. The sauce was outstanding - the right amount of creaminess and milkiness. They also did a great job of balancing the flavors with the saltiness from the crunchy crushed pretzels that were embedded in the fluffy pancakes. It was like a little surprise in every bite. The portions are quite large, with three pancakes in each plate. I don't normally order sweet pancakes but was very very glad that I did. A+!

We ordered a side of Thai chicken sausage with ginger which I was hoping would taste like Issan sausage. Not so much. It was a bit dry, and did not have the strong, sour and fragrant Thai flavors that I was hoping for. Definitely more American in flavor than Asian.

Chorizo, potato and avocado omelet was also very tasty. Large portions here as well, with a hearty omelet with spicy and intense chorizo crumbles. The side of potatoes were nicely seasoned.

I can see why Chicagoans flock over to The Bongo Room. I think the sweet dishes are more unique than the savory ones. I really enjoyed the delicious white chocolate and caramel pretzel pancake, although I am not sure if I would be willing to wait in line for it.

The Bongo Room
1470 North Milwaukee Avenue
Chicago, IL
(773) 489-0690

Chicago: Neighborhood Italian dining at Ripasso (Bucktown)

On the first night I was in Chicago visiting my friend, it was almost 9pm when I arrived at her place - late for a weeknight. So we decided to walk down the street in her neighborhood of Bucktown/Wicker Park to grab a bite. Ripasso is a neighborhood favored Italian restaurant owned by Theo Gilbert, who opened the beloved but now shuttered Terragusto. Gilbert is known for his authentic Italian cuisine, especially his hand-cut pastas. And that was exactly what I was craving after being on the road for 3 hours.

The restaurant was rather empty when we got there, but I attributed it to being late on a weeknight.

The menu is seasonal and comprised of some antipasti, pastas and a few entrees.

The bread wasn't anything special, just regular. Usually I want to devour a whole basket but I did not feel the urge here. I know it's only bread, but I feel that it really just starts an Italian meal off on the right foot if the bread is well seasoned or fresh.

Prosciutto with arugula, crimini and fennel. The prosciutto was soft and buttery, with a lightly salted flavor. Very nice combination of the sharp flavors from the arugula and fennel. The dish was topped with a fragrant black truffle vinaigrette.

Crispy potato and cheese puff was unique and not what I had expected. It had a nice crunchy breading, soft in the center. The puffs were topped with basil pesto and parmigiano cheese.

The pappardelle with creamy four-meat sauce was mouth-watering. I can see how this could be a very addictive dish. The wide flat pasta was fresh and tender. Every strand was covered with a very rich and decadent creamy meat sauce comprising of veal, beef, lamb, pork. I just wanted to slurp up every last drop of the sauce. It was well seasoned and the icing on the top was the white truffle essence and sharp parmigiano cheese.

Overall, the pasta was the winner, everything else was tasty but not memorable. But then, pasta is what Ripasso is known for. I wish we were hungry enough to order more pasta dishes so that we could sample more. There was a squid ink pasta with seafood in tarragon sauce that caught my eye.

1619 N Damen Ave
Chicago, IL 60622
(773) 342-8799

Monday, October 15, 2012

Scenes from Chicago: Ravinia (picnic + FOIE) & Wicker Park Fest

Since June of this year, I have been working at my client's in Central Illinois, so I decided to take the opportunity to visit my BFF in Chicago over the weekend.

My friend lives in Wicker Park, which is supposedly hipsterville. I'm not a hipster but I do appreciate that the neighborhood is lined with bars and restaurants. It is hopping every night. It's also easy to get to - direct train ride on the Blue Line from O'Hare.

During the summer, there are plenty of festivals in the city. Lots of bands, food, booze and people watching. We were there during the Wicker Park Festival, which was super fun. The key (IMHO) is not to get the beer/sangria from the beer stands and stand around drinking. Instead, score seats on the patio at one of the bars right by the festival. That way you get more drink/cocktail & food options, and you get to sit your butt down while still getting in the music and people watching. It wasn't overly crowded at the festival - no nudging your way through the crowd.

A fun thing to do in Chicago is to attend a concert at Ravinia, an outdoor music festival spot in Highland Park (We attended the James Taylor concert and it was sold out). You can hop on the Metra in downtown and it's a short 30 minutes train ride (we drank on the train too!). The trains drops you right at the venue entrance, and when we left, the line to get on the train was much faster and efficient than people trying to take the shuttle back to the parking lot.

We went an hour early and most of the lawn was already packed. Chicagoans really try to enjoy every last second of sunshine before their brutal winter. We Angelenos are so spoilt..

Selection of pasta salads, chicken salad and couscous (from Olivia's Market), cheese, crusty baguette and fruit. I actually really liked the chicken salad - chunks of fresh organic chicken (you could tell) and not too much mayo.

And because we are not in LA, foie gras pate (from The Goddess and the Grocer in Wicker Park). Oh gosh, I miss foie so much. So creamy, so intense livery.

Sometimes it's nice to take a break from the bars & restaurants, and just picnic and listen to some good music

Oktoberfest at Rock & Brews (El Segundo)

El Segundo is really quite an underrated area. I especially like Main Street, which is a cute little downtown area that has quite a number of bars walking distance from each other (Main Street Tavern, Rock & Brews, Richmond Br & Grill, Second City), in fact, we did a bar crawl in Main Street one night and had a blast. Main Street is also a great place to stop by before/after you pick someone up from the airport - it's actually our airport routine. Since it was October, we decided to hit up our old favorite Rock & Brews for a drink when I flew into LAX.

Through October 28, Rock & Brews is hosting their Oktoberfest from Thursdays to Sundays. They have German beers in addition to their extensive craft beer list.

The place was renovated about 6 months ago, now with a more open concept with an open air beer garden. Owned by Gene Simmons (from Kiss) and Southbay restauranteur Michael Zislis (Rock n Fish, Shade), the bar definitely has a rock and roll theme- rock videos on the TVs, band posters on the wall and rock music playing in the background. It's not overly gimicky though.

They have a  nice outdoor space, with a stage where contests are held later in the evening such as the beer stein drinking and stein holding competitions, they will also have you do the chicken dance.

Rock & Brews has a decent selection of draft craft beers (~30) and lots more in bottle. They were serving beers in a big steins but we had to drive home so we decided to go with a regular glass of Mama's Lil Yella Pilsner and a glass of vino.

I love pretzels and am always on the search for the best one - having had my fair share around town, I can honestly say that this is consistently the best pretzel I've had, Some places (like Bru Haus in Brentwood, farmers market) are inconsistent (soft sometimes, but doughy on other occasions). Even Rockenwager's pretzel are sitting in the bakery case and not fresh out of the oven. Rock & Brews has always been fresh and soft. Also, I love when pretzels are served with cheese, in addition to spicy mustard. Bru Haus has a cheese dipping sauce but it is loaded with peppers that give it an overbearing tangy taste that I do not like. I really liked Rock & Brews Beach House Amber biercheese sauce. They used to melt cheddar on top of their pretzel which was fine but a bit messy, but I much prefer the biercheese dipping sauce. It was slightly sweet with a somewhat chalky consistency, and was topped with caramelized onions which added a nice sweetness to the sauce. The Bavarian pretzel was also fresh & soft (as usual), piping hot from the oven.

They currently offer more German beer fare as part of Oktoberfest such as schnitzel and sausage samplers. Unfortunately we were craving their regular fare.

Fish & chips, unfortunately was actually not that impressive. Guess we should not have ordered fish at a burger/brat restaurant. Somehow, the fish tasted rather bland. I would have liked for the Bass Ale batter to be flakier or crunchier.

Thankfully, the slow roasted pulled pork sandwich delivered. I loved the smokey bbq which had a spicy kick to it. There was a lots of pulled pork in the sandwich and the meat was tender. Although I didn't notice at the time, the meat was actually rather salty as I was left parched for the rest of the night. I did enjoy the fresh bun which was lightly toasted with some oil. The spicy BBQ sauce was smattered all over the bun. So delicious.

Rock & Brews is really a fun place to grab a drink, a bite and enjoy the California sun. Love the casual vibe and the fun atmosphere. Definitely get the Bavarian pretzel when you are there, and if you stick with the sandwiches, burgers and pizza, you will be happy.

Rock & Brews
143 Main Street,
El Segundo,CA 90245
(310) 615-9890

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Plan Check: A great American addition to Sawtelle

Sawtelle Blvd in West LA, known as Little Osaka, is lined with Japanese restaurants serving up ramen, sushi and izakaya fare, so it was indeed surprisingly when burger joint Plan Check opened up on the street. That's a bold move which proved a smart one - the place was packed on a Friday lunch-time. I think the western fare at Plan Check also attracts a different demographic to the area. For example, even though the SigO likes Japanese food, he had never ventured out to Sawtelle before, until I mentioned burgers..

It was a hot sunny Friday so we grabbed seats outside on their patio seating.

 Scrimshaw pilsner and wine to start.

Pastrami fries was on the specials menu. The fries were topped with a corned beef, pickles and a mess of cheese. The presentation was a little sloppy. The corned beef was little tender chunks with a cured flavoring. The sour tangy taste of the pickles permeated all over the fries. I'm not a big pickle fan so this was not my favorite, but the SigO enjoyed it.

Sweet potato waffle fries on the other hand, was very good. I liked the sweetness of the fries, and they were crispy and served with an amazing peach ketchup.

Chef's favorite burger ~ cheese two ways, bacon two ways, ketchup leather, sunny fried egg, hot sauce
This burger had just about every possible awesome ingredient. The burger patty was juicy and nicely seasoned, the bacon was crispy and the runny egg really held everything together. I loved the addition of the parmesan cheese tuille which added a nice crunchy texture and nutty flavor to the burger.

Southern fry ~ smokey fried jidori chicken, spicy green pimento cheese, duck breast ham, pickles
This sandwich was to die for. They really piled in a lot of meat between the buns. The fried chicken had a crispy breading which was well seasoned while the meat itself was still tender I was pleased with the amount of fried chicken they layered on the bun. The large slabs of duck ham with layers of fat was a decadent addition. The burger was served with tangy relish aioli and fiery, gooey pimento cheese.

I really enjoyed lunch at Plan Check. Loved the decor, loved the outdoor seating, their menu is exciting and I was very impressed with the burgers which I thought were not only delicious but also comprised of unique combinations. You can tell that the quality of the meats were good, and their sauces are all made fresh. They definitely served up a mean fried chicken sandwich and there's a short rib roast with bone marrow turnover pie with my name on it!

Plan Check
1800 Sawtelle Blvd.,
Los Angeles, CA
(310) 288-6500