Friday, November 28, 2014

Another Thanksgiving Meal Reflection

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone, and I’m now reflecting upon the relative merits of the various components of our dinner yesterday.  All in all, it was one of the better Thanksgiving meals we have cooked, and that success might have something to do with the fact that I decided to keep the menu on the fairly familiar side. 

The only new dish we tried was a “Silky Chestnut Soup”—recipe by Wolfgang Puck can be found here—and that was mostly because we came across packages of roasted and peeled organic chestnuts.  Since the package was from Costco, that meant we had 4 bags of chestnuts to use up somehow.  Chestnut soup to the rescue!

We tried a different chestnut soup recipe before, but we liked better this Wolfgang Puck recipe.  The soup was flavorful, nutty, rich, and super easy to make.  How can you ask for more?  The recipe called for 1 cup of ruby port, and we only had ¾ cup of tawny port around, but I actually liked the tawny (supplemented with ¼ cup more chicken broth for extra liquid) since the caramel notes of the tawny port nicely complemented a chestnut soup anyway.   Along with Will’s trademark Rosette Buttermilk rolls, the first course—soup and rolls—was a great success.

Really, the preparation and cooking for the rest of the courses turned out to be easier than usual.  Having dispensed with the only new item (the soup) with an easy recipe, I found myself preparing the rest of the meal without having to consult a single recipe.

We’ve made roast chickens and bacon-wrapped tenderloin roasts so many times before that those two meat dishes are now on auto pilot.  Then the sides consisted of: Whipped Sweet Potato Casserole, Pan Roasted Mini-Peppers, Caprese Salad with Haricot Verts, and Caramelized Brussels Sprouts with Shallots and Toasted Pecans.  We’ve tried new veggie sides before for other Thanksgiving meals, but these four turned out to offer a great combination of traditional veggies (sweet potatoes, beans, and Brussels sprouts) in new and simple preparations (pan roasting peppers, quick sautéing Brussels sprouts, green beans in a room temperature salad).

Since we had our friends Debra and Sandy bringing desserts, we reduced our workload substantially.  Debra brought her favorite apple pie with her famous flaky crust, and Sandy brought the always popular—and seasonal—pumpkin chiffon pie with whipped topping. 

Two slices of pies (since we all tried both!) and a pot of excellent, dark decaf coffee rounded out the evening of thanksgiving in a lovely fashion.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Sola: Sometimes So Good, Other Times So So

Will and I got married in Kauai, so we have a nostalgic fondness for Hawaiian cuisine.  When Sola Restaurant (3868 N. Lincoln Ave.) opened in Chicago many years back, we were among the first there to enjoy Kalua pork and other distinctly Hawaiian dishes. 

We’ve returned to Sola several times, often times marveling at how amazing some flavors are.  However, other dishes don’t quite measure up to the price point they occupy.  In a recent trip with two friends, I had a similar experience.

We started with Artichoke Fritters—with “truffle aioli, soy-lime sauce.”  It’s a good dish I’ve enjoyed several times, and a safe dish to order with vegetarians.  Perhaps it seems there could be more artichoke fritter halves, but I’m willing to believe that perhaps these are organically sources artichokes and therefore more precious. 

The Waygu Beef Tartar appetizer special was very prettily presented.  As you can see in the picture on the top of this post, instead of the usual raw egg (or raw quail egg), there is a tempura soft-boiled egg sitting on top of a small mount of beef tartar.  Ultimately, the egg was somewhat disappointing because it was quite cold inside—perhaps something they needed to do in order to tempura fry it without overcooking the egg?—but it was a beautiful presentation.  The pickled green beans you can see on the left side of the picture was an unexpected big hit for our table.

One of the main dishes was a vegetarian burger, but that didn’t seem very special.  I’m not sure any of us would go out of our way to order this dish again at a slightly upscale restaurant.  My Waygu Burger was better, and one of the diners at our table declared it not only her favorite dish of the evening but one of the best things she’s tasted in years.  I'm not sure I'd go quite that far, but I enjoyed it.  I love Cambozola cheese (Camembert with Gorgonzola), and caramelized onions, and bacon, and pretzel buns, and Kobe beef, but as another friend mentioned, perhaps all that resulted in a little too much flavor competition.  I might skip the bun next time and go the way of Prairie Grass’s award-winning sirloin burger.

The third main course sort of represents what is both “so good” and “so so” about Sola.  I loved the very crisply fried green beans on top, and the edamame puree on the bottom was a clever idea on making the dish more Asian-inspired.  But the salmon itself didn’t taste very “ginger-glazed.”  And while I’m not normally one who complains about portion sizes in fine restaurants, I thought the dish was fairly insubstantial at $27.

So, a mixed-positive review with great appetizers and some winning main courses.  What’s not mixed, however, is the experience of being able to relax with refills of coffee towards the end of a Friday evening.  Even though the restaurant seemed mostly full, it wasn’t packed with hungry and hip diners eyeing our table at 9:15pm.  The atmosphere—with a fireplace and convivial people—was a great addition to dining enjoyment. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Flaky, Simple Apple Galette for the Holidays

Bon Appétit calls it a “Salted Butter Apple Galette” (from their November 2014 issue), but I think of it also as a rectangular crostada.   Whatever you call it, I think it’s yummy!  Surprisingly, Will—who actually baked it, and bakes most desserts in our household—wasn’t as keen on this.  I—who usually roll my eyes when Will wants to try yet another new recipe—thought that this was definitely a winner.

So, click here for the original recipe, and then let me tell you why I like it.

Simple Crust
There’s something simpler about crusts for crostadas and galettes and tart tatins.  “Apple Crostada” and “Apple Galette” and “Tart Tatin” all seem to have in common the idea that the “Apple Pie” is just as tasty when the crust isn’t labored over and crimped and double-layered.  (Though, of course, the pie is also delicious!)

Apple Slices
Perhaps it’s the fact that apples don’t have to be peeled.  Or perhaps the fact that it gives us another excuse to use one of our cheapest and favorite kitchen implements: the plastic mandolin.  Anyway, the combination of not having to peel and being able to use the mandolin (for those lovely layers of apples!) makes the work for this dessert less laborious.  (Hmmm.  I sense a common thread in all this.  Less work!)

Brown Butter
I love brown butter flavor in desserts.  I love it in Brown Butter Poundcake, in my favorite Pumpkin Pie recipe (click here), and here in this galette.  It lends flavor without having to add too much sweetness.  In this recipe, you only sprinkle 3 tablespoons of sugar on top of the apple slices!  Yet you get a nutty, slightly salty, slightly sweet, buttery concoction.

But I wonder whether that’s also the reason why Will isn’t as fond of this recipe as I am.  (He couldn’t quite identify why, himself.)  There are people who need sugar more, and people who need fat more.  While I personally like both, I’m more a fat person.  I don’t mind the less sweet, as long as there is plenty of fat.  Perhaps those who grew up on sweet and syrupy pie fillings don’t like the idea of NOT having the extra dose of sugar…?

Anyway, I think you should think about this as a possible addition to your Thanksgiving meal, especially if you want something lighter at the end of a heavy meal.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Dove's Luncheonette: Not Your Typical Diner

It looks like a diner.  It calls itself a “luncheonette.”  It serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  And coffee.  But this isn’t your typical diner.  (And if it is, you are a very lucky eater.)

Will and I—normally fuddy-duddy individuals who don't get much south of Andersonville for our dining—have found ourselves frequenting Wicker Park and Bucktown and Logan Square for our recent restaurant outings.  The average age of other diners in these restaurants (Xoco in Wicker Park, Wasabi, Yusho, and now Dove’s Luncheonette) hover around 23—and it’s even that high only because occasionally there are others (like us) who leave their comfort zone to try new places.

Well, our verdict on Dove’s Luncheonette is a definite thumbs up.   The atmosphere is relaxed—once you are able to get seated.  (Otherwise, there really isn’t a great place to “wait” for seating.)  The space is fairly small, with communal larger tables and then stool seating hugging walls, windows, and the bar.  We luckily landed two spaces by the window and (dorkily) felt quite cool being able to see all the hip, young people with their bright futures spread out before them.  Spaces around the impressive tequila bar (pictured above) seemed lively and fun as well.

Having done some research beforehand, we had a good sense of what we wanted to try.  I have to say that I’m really glad I pushed us to order the potato and pepper hash (above).  Potatoes were mashed and then fried such that the we got lots of surface area that got crispy.  The slightly hot peppers—and only slightly hot, and nicely mellowed by the roasting—added a nice complement of soft to the potato’s crisp.  A drizzle of creamy sauce and then chopped cilantro added just the right additional touches.  This side is a definite winner.

Will was warned that the smoked brisket “taco” (above) was in fact ONE large taco—and it was!  You got a large, thicker-than-usual flour tortilla with a fairly substantial slab of smoked brisket, tomatoes, avocados, and other condiments.  His favorites were the chincharron pieces that topped the dish!  Essentially, you use fork and knife to cut off pieces of tortilla and meat, and then make smaller taco bites from the whole tortilla.

We enjoyed my Pozole Rojo but also agree with some yelp posters that the temperature of the soup could have been hotter.  Even without putting in the sides (tortillas chips, shredded cabbage, disks of radish, and avocado pieces—on the left of the picture above) the soup was not quite hot enough.  So I had to make sure that I didn’t drop the temperature to merely tepid by putting in condiments too quickly.   It was good, but I have had cheaper and more flavorful—and hot—pozole at mom-and-pop Mexican taco joints.

Though our meals were filling, we decided that we needed to order the famed Mexican Cholocate Crema pie mentioned in reviews (on both Chicago Reader and Yelp).  It was a thick and fudgy and cinnamon-y concoction with a nice little cayenne pepper heat.  If you like Mexican hot chocolate, you’ll enjoy this dark chocolate pie version (below) as well!

On the whole, it was a pleasant and relaxing experience with lots of good foodTypical diner?  No. But, it’s the kind of diner we’d like around our own neighborhood.