Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Chicago, my kind of town

As a student with a limited budget, I spent four years in college largely surviving on dorm food, take out from Hyde Park chinese joints and home cooked meals made by myself, my roommate or friends. Even when I did go out for meals with friends, we invariably wound up in Chinatown, where huge plates of roasted meat along with slushy and sweet bubble tea can be had for next to nothing, or to cheesecake factory along Michigan Avenue, to reward ourselves with cake after a day of window shopping. On those special occasions where pak and I did go out for dinner, I would yield to his francophile tendencies and we would test out the house's coq au vin and creme brulee each time. Hence, with the exception of an arsenal of knowledge around french bistros in chicagoland, my grasp on the local restaurant scene was a little less than desirable.
Without the tight budgetary constraints and with the absence of a certain escargot lover, TPS, ruoying, rosie and I set out to out-eat each other at various Chicago restaurants serving a myriad of different cuisines.
We went russian for lunch at the Russian Tea Time a block away from the Art Institute. With its dark wood furniture, chandeliers, oversized pots of fresh flowers and dark colored walls, the room exuded a faded glamour. And under the ministration of our charming server we noshed on a lamb stuffed blinchinki and enormous platters of assorted appetizers and meats. We washed down the sweet stuffed cabbage and dumplings with house flavored vodka. The black currant tea, slightly bitter at first sip but with a wonderfully fragrant aftertaste was a clear favorite.
Next stop is Cafe Iberico, an old favorite of mine. If you can endure the sometimes interminable wait during dinner time, you will be rewarded with potent sangria, luscious desserts and the tasty and big "small-plates". The tapas portions at Cafe Iberico are huge, and for less than $15 one can get full and/or roaring drunk and all have a great time. Between the four of us, we had my favorite tortilla espanola, a big plate of potatos in pungent and garlicky aioli, perfectly pan seared scallops served with saffron rice, more garlic in the generous bowl of shrimp and a big platter of paella. Throw in half a pitcher of sangria and we were only $12 poorer each leaving the place compared to when we got there. Unfortunately, the wait can be a trial to all, especially those with little patience. Thankfully Macdonald's is always nearby for a short respite while we endure the hour long wait.
Even though the crema catalana at Cafe Iberico's one of the best I've had so far, we saved our stomachs for the real treat of the night, a luxurious night-cap and dessert at Tru. Tru's one of the top restaurants in the city, and when I heard about its dessert offerings in the less formal lounge, I jumped on it and made reservations. I have had dinner a few years ago at Tru, and had shelled out an obscene amount of money for the caviar staircase in the multicourse tasting menu. Dessert was a high point then, and I was hoping it to be the same this time too. Unfortunately dessert this time was rather mundane and unimaginative. The cornbread topped with blueberries was really dry while the napoleon with chocolate mousse and caramel ice cream was merely passable. Luckily, at around $10 per piece, it wasn't too much of a heartache. The unimpeachable service and the after meal gift of moist banana bread helped soften the blow. But what really saved the evening and made it a truly memorable one was what happened post meal. We asked the hostess to help us hail a cab, and instead she offered us the use of the restaurant's towncar! So instead of having to stand unglamorously at the kerb waving for an elusive cab, we were whisked back to TPS's apartment in no time in a slick black limousine. That, my friend, is class.
The next morning, we woke up still full. Still TPS wanted us to try breakfast at Melrose Cafe, her favorite brunch spot, and so we dragged ourselves to Belmont for a spot of hot coffee, gigantic omelettes and a first class hash browns. The runners participating in the Chicago marathon was passing Belmont as we ate our fill and rubbed our bloated bellies. Talk about compare and contrast!
By the time we rolled out of Melrose Cafe, rosie and I were already planning our salad lunches for the rest of the week to pay penance for our gluttonous exhibition. But, we had still one last stop to make before swearing of cholestrol and calories. Peishan had been raving about a certain bread pudding at Rose Angelis, a really cute Italian restaurant that would be a sure neighborhood favorite had I lived in Lincoln Park. Walking by a bar in the front of the room, we were led through a short corridor to our table located in one of the multiple partitioned rooms. Walking through the restaurant reminded me of walking through Peishan's old house on Kimbark, the one she shared with Chuck and Amanda, where a similar corridor connected the living room from the dining area. Anyway, the salad with a peppery ceasar dressing and the chicken marsala wafting in a haze of steam and alcohol was sized with Midwest sensibilities. The pudding was also enormous, more like a brick than those dainty things you find in martini glasses in a New York eatery. The dense pudding was drenched in warm sweet, slightly salty caramel sauce and wow was that a potent combination. Even without wine, I was feeling heady with all that good food and that much sugar in the system.
While I dont lament my poor student lifestyle ( time in the kitchen did hone my culinary skills), am I glad I have another chance to check out what Chicago has to offer!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Gracie's apple pie

This weekend I returned to the alma mater, to relive some good old memories with TPS and to show off to Rosie, our small but charming campus. As visitors, TPS and I reveled in the ordinary, delightfully witnessing the creeping ivy that adorn the grey gothic buildings change from green to gold to red. We walked through the silent hall of the Rockefeller chapel trying to remember the "Aims of Education" message we heard 5 years ago as freshmen while Rosie admired the stained glass. We peered into Hutchinson Commons so that TPS could catch a glimpse of the picture of "the president who looked like Richard Gere". I was comforted that I still remembered all the names of the halls, and gaped in astonishment at the dvd machine on the basement of Reynolds Club, where the ORCSA noticeboards were. What a sign of progress!!!
Unfortunately, the weather, while not too uncharacteristic of a Chicago fall, was a little too chilly for us to continue hiking beyond the main quads, so we decided to warm ourselves over hot drinks and maybe something sweet to eat. And by dessert, both TPS and I wordlessly agreed, that we had to go to Medici for the definitive slice of apple pie.
For the thousands of students attending the University of Chicago each year, Medici is a familiar haunt. With its graffiti loaded walls, good and filling diner food and very, very affordable prices, scores of bookish students take the short walk from the quads to 57th St each day to the Med as we call it, where politics and the arts are discussed, gossip shared and soup sipped. For me and my friends, it was a place to share in our love for good food and great company, as well as to revel in our common identity as survivors of the harsh UofC regime. Between me and my friends, we have had multiple first dates, pre-exam binges, post-exam leisurely chat-n-chew, bitch and snitch sessions at the Medici. We have slurped thick milk-shakes during hot summers and warmed ourselves with spiced cider during winter. When the proprietors opened a bakery next door to the restaurant, I had on many occasions taken the long way home so that I could duck in there for a cup of spicy mexican hot chocolate. But while we mulled over the long list of appetizers and entrees, dessert was a foregone conclusion. We would like to order Gracie's apple pie, ala mode, thank you very much. Sure, our affection for this apple pie may be tinged with more than a little bit of fond memories, but that's not to say that it isn't a mean slice of pie. The pie at Medici is baked to order, wonderfully crusty and redolent of cinnamon. The generous scoop of vanilla ice cream melts slowly into the bowl, its sweetness balancing the tartness of the apples. And the sensation of both hot and cold is plain amazing. Unsurprisingly, we licked this bowl clean, like the many orders of apple pie before it. While the school has progressed in my absence, the taste of apple pie remains the same.

1327 E57th St

Monday, October 09, 2006

munching on the east side

Last weekend, while my usual dinner pal was out of commission due to an oral surgery, I had the good fortune to replace her with two friends who were visiting the city, both friends since Chicago, both students in the east coast, both with a hearty appetite and most importantly, both game enough or foolhardy to agree to a 5 destination within 1.5 hour whirlwind eating exercise.
While both Wellian and Walter have been to New York at least half a dozen times in the past year, both of them are relatively unfamiliar with East Village and the LES. Since that is also a great area for cheap chow and relatively close to the used book cafe, we selected to start of in the East Village and work our way down to Chinatown and back to Soho in one and a half hours. Ambitious? Definitely? But sometimes, its the effort that makes it even more satisfying.
Both Walter and I are certified sugar fiends, so it should not surprise anyone that our first stop is Beard Papa, the noted Japanese chain specializing in cream puffs. The cream puffs are made to order, pumping different flavors of thick, fresh cream into the empty puffs, yielding big puff balls of choux pastry that is full of yummy goodness. While the boys chomped down their cream puffs, we headed a few blocks east to Cafe Zaiya for my breakfast and some coffee. Zaiya happens to be a must-visit for me everytime I go to E. Village, or am in the vicinity of the Bryant Park Library, which is near a sister branch. What makes Cafe Zaiya a favorite of mine is the yakimochi, a traditional Japanese bean pastry that is best eaten when its freshly baked and still warm to the touch. The lotus seed paste is fragrant but not as cloyingly sweet as a Chinese bun filling, and the pastry is both flaky and chewy at the same time, a texture that really appeals to me. The other baked goods, deep fried croquettes and various bento sets are good as well, and Walter couldn't resist buying a deep fried curry bun to eat along the way to our next stop.
Holding our coffee cups, half eaten buns and pastries, we meandered our way through St Marks Place. We peered into the neon pink automat shop that sold overpriced and non-too appetizing looking snacks, identified a few other prospective chow spots, walked down to Tompkins Square Park and reached Houston St, the border between E. Village and the LES. We wandered around for a bit, for I had lost my bearings, but we found our third spot of the day, Il Laboratorio del Gelato right next to the Tenement Musuem and for fear of not having consumed enough sugars, decided to share a cup of icecream. Il Laboratorio is quite the royalty of the New York icecream scene and dominates the freezers of many top notch restaurants in the city. Luckily, the retail store allows us to enjoy the same flavors at a much lower pricepoint (although still expensive when compared to mr. softee) and we happily dug our way through a cup of mint and fig icecream while taking in the sights and marvelling at the pace of gentrification in the still relatively grungy neighborhood.

While the LES had been the stronghold of an older Jewish generation, the influx of Chinese immigrants in the last century, and particularly the last few decades have changed the demographic make-up of the area quite significantly. We observed many signboards in Chinese and even more Fuzhou eateries popping up further north from Canal Street, where Chinatown is largely situated. Another type of eatery that is highly popular in the area are the northern Chinese dumpling houses that served up dirt cheap dumplings in tiny and cramped shop fronts. We visited one of the oldest dumpling shops, simply called Dumpling House to sample the wares. The dumplings, fresh out of the frying pan was crisp and hot to the point of scalding. They were also plump and filled with fresh meat and chives, making for a very greasy lunch. Walter even proclaimed that he could "stand there and eat this all day long." The fact that the dumplings were $1 for an order of 5, or 20 cents each was icing on the cake. We also shared a sesame pancake stuffed with cold spiced beef. What's not to like about fried dough? Better yet, fried dough served right off the griddle, sprinkled with fragrant sesame seeds and filled with slightly spicy and aromatic beef jerky? Just thinking about it makes me hungry =)
At this point, we were all feeling the effects of heartburn, plus had run out of time as my shift at the cafe was about to begin, so I bade my buddies goodbye and rushed to the cafe. I felt a little disappointed as I still had one more place I wanted the out-of-towners to visit to round up our mini snack expedition. Luckily Wellian came back to look for me after I was done for the day and we finally managed to hit Bahn Mi So 1 for a huge vietnamese sandwich ostensibly for some greens (it had cilantro and pickled vegetables) and iced vietnamese coffee. While the sandwich is a great grab-and-go type of food, we decided to rest our feet in a small playground in Nolita to refuel and watch the diverse group of kids, from chinese kids in the neighborhood, to well-dressed children of yuppie European parents who just spent hundreds of dollars in the boutiques on Elizabeth St, to tourists who are enjoying a slice of New York pizza, play in the background. Only in this great city can you simultaneously see people from all walks of life congregate in one spot, and only in this place can you enjoy foods from different ethnicities, price points and stature in the culinary scene within a short 20 block walk.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Pearl Oyster Bar

As readers of this blog well know, I have two roommates. While we all fit the stereotype of nice Asian girls overworked in the financial world, have similar hairstyles and share a kitchen and a vacuum machine, we also all have a good appetite and a distaste (or rather, lack of motivation to go on) for diets. However, when it comes to what we eat, our individuality shines through somewhat. Gerrie's the trendiest amongst the three of us, with an admirable goal of dining at as many brand-name culinary temples in the city. I am the eclectic eater who will munch at anything but the kitchen sink and have a weird fascination for off-beat eats , and Ceci's the classy chick who goes for classic and elegant food. With that in mind, for Ceci's belated bday dinner, we decided to go to Pearl Oyster Bar, a homey New England style seafood house in the village for an unpretentious evening, slurping down fresh shellfish and trying out the "best" lobster roll in the city.
After a 3 day survey of lobster pounds in Bar Harbor during August, I thought I would have good authority to say that the cramped dining room was prettier than any simple shack I had been to in Maine. The seafood at Pearl was also as fresh as those I had eaten in Maine, and perfectly cooked to yield an even better taste than the great tasting, but simply boiled lobsters and sublimely fried fish and clams I had. Between the 5 of us (rmmates + friends), we split a platter of fried oysters (a little over battered), and another plate of briny and yet sweet raw clams and a refreshing, fruity riesling to rouse up some appetite.
After we hacked away at the appetizers, our entrees found its way onto the table and we tasted through 5 dishes, including a good sized and nicely grilled lobster, a generous bowl of bouillabaise that was stuffed with small and plump mussels, a roasted whole fish (snapper? or mullet?) that I did not taste but looked and smelt fantastic. I ate a slice of snow white cod, succulent and flaky, tasting like what fish fingers would taste like if they had been made of real fish and only lightly dusted with floor. And Gerrie ordered the house specialty lobster roll served with a heap of shoestring fries, which at twice the price and almost twice the size of any old lobster roll you see in a fish shack in Maine, was quite a tasty, mayonnaisey monstrosity.
Dinner for the three of us must end on a sweet note, so despite already stuffed stomaches, we ordered a slice of blueberry pie and two sundaes to share. The pie was great. Not too sweet and the slightly sour tang of the blueberries blended well with the creamy sweetness of the vanilla icecream that topped it. The hot fudge and butterscotch in the old-fashioned sundaes were unapologetically viscous and rich and the whole deal with thick fresh cream and more vanilla icecream was pure fatty sin. But so good we ate it all up.
Like Ceci, Pearl Oyster Bar is a classic.

18 Cornelia St

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


It was an indian summer night of sorts this evening, where after a week of grey skies and chilly temperatures, the weather warmed up to hit mid-70s, the perfect weather for a cool treat. Frozen yogurt comes to mind, and with that I walked to ktown for a cup of the heavily touted Pinkberry yogurt.
Pinkberry is an LA transplant, and the Los Angelenos apparently love it so much that it launched a thousand parking tickets, as the yogurt eaters had no qualms double parking and making all sorts of parking violations in order to get to their yogurt. After a small cup of plain yogurt topped with fresh raspberry, I could see what the fuss was about. I really enjoyed the tanginess of the yogurt, which was great alone but also served as a bland enough canvas to highlight the flavors of the toppings. Detractors complain about the texture, citing iciness. Although I enjoyed the taste and the texture, I can see where the complaints are coming from, particularly if they are more used to the creaminess of ice-cream.
Cost-wise, a cup of Pinkberry yogurt is slightly higher than a similar cup of icecream, but in the land of absurd rents and labor cost, I can forgive the slightly higher prices as well. For people who are determined not to be fleeced, the fresh fruit toppings may offer more value for money than say Cap'n Crunch.
To sum up, yes the fro-yo is a little icy, a little tart and a little expensive. But it sure beats the artificial creaminess and sweetness of Tasti-Delite IMHO. I wish the proprietor luck however in attracting enough customers, because despite all the publicity and hype, the customer flow was a little slow on a warm Wednesday night. One can imagine how much business they will get on a cold January day...

7 W 32rd St