Thoughts, inspiration and stories from an Australian foodie in California

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fine dining in the Windy City

While visiting Chicago over July 4th, I made the most of the opportunity to enjoy some fantastic food and drinks. Chicago is a city of all kinds of marvels - as well as top restaurants and bars, live music and theater, festivals, Lake Michigan lake-front setting and spectacular architecture set along the Chicago River, I was lucky enough to experience some wonderful summer weather - warm days with a fresh breeze and sunny blue skies - it made for some wonderful outdoor dining. What isn't to love about Chicago!

One of the first big city experiences I sought out was some top quality coffee - and I wasn't disappointed at the Millenium Park location of Intelligentsia coffee.  Smooth creamy espresso, tasty baked goods and filter coffee that fetches up to $12 a cup! The patron in front of me in line was intrigued by the fancy filter coffee and it came highly recommended, however, she said she couldn't bring herself to foot the price tab. Made me wonder - if we seem ok to pay $12 for a glass of wine, what makes a cup of coffee worth more of less than an alcoholic libation?  I enjoyed starting my day with the smooth cappuccino topped with a heart shaped in the foam in a china cup, amongst the passers-by around the outdoor seating with flower pots on the street by Millenium Park.

The next big city food experience that really stood out was street-side dining at the delightful Gemini Bistro in the trendy Lincoln Park neighborhood. I love a restaurant that does simple, elegant food and does it really well, and Gemini Bistro certainly did that. The service was impeccable, the drink menu was interesting (jalapeƱo margarita anyone?) and the outdoor dining on the tree lined street made the overall experience wonderful.  I was impressed by the halibut special - crispy halibut cooked perfectly, topped with an oil and heirloom tomato salad, grilled asparagus and a beurre blanc sauce. Definitely a restaurant I would love to see as my neighborhood local!

The piece-de-resistance from my time in Chicago was dinner at L20, opposite Lincoln Park. I booked at the recommendation of reviews on the Opentable website, and it was quite an amazing fine dining experience. When first walking into the dining room, what overcame me was the serenity - peaceful without feeling quiet or empty, elegant without feeling stuffy. The overall experience reminded me of what makes fine dining in my opinion:

  • Wait staff that are attentive and knowledgable about all aspects of the menu - and can explain any aspect (and do in a friendly and professional manner - we don't all know what a 23-flavor gastrique is - but that doesn't make us the equivalent of a food ignoramus). And all the plates are removed from the table at one time when all diners have finished.
  • A menu that is interesting and creative, without using too many flavors that overpower each other or pander to the latest food 'trend'. L20 did this beautifully - the ora king salmon with pumpernickel crust and grilled artichokes was succulent and tasty with each flavor complementing the overall dish. Their use of savory flavors such as avocado mousse to top the lime parfait dessert, while unusual, added an interesting flavor that added to the overall depth of the dessert.
  • The menu should include techniques and ingredients that are out of the ordinary to the home chef - after all, if I'm paying a lot, I want it to be something I couldn't cook myself. L20 used foams, mousses and parfait in a very subtle, elegant yet complimenting the overall dish - not simply showing off. One of my favorite courses was the palate cleanser - a champagne granita topped with a lemon foam and a lemon meringue on the side. Cleansing, fresh and simp,y beautiful texture and flavors.
  • Even the 'extras' have been paid attention to. For example, the water tastes different. L20 served house churned butter and a selection of breads that was wide enough and tasty enough to start their own French bakery (flaky crossaints, crusty Demi baguette full of flavor and subtle chewy bacon and mustard twist amongst other tasty selections - and the wait staff encouraged seconds!).
  • And the bathrooms have soft towels, just one more little 'extra'.

My biggest regret of the trip was not getting the opportunity to taste authentic deep dish pizza. I guess either the popularity of real Chicago pizza, or the holiday weekend crowds - meant the wait at one outpost of Giordano's was 75 minutes just to get a table. So alas - I'll have to return to Chicago for that authentic deep dish pizza experience.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Fall in New York

We escaped the monotonous grey-ness of Bakersfield, and spent Thanksgiving weekend in New York. Even though it was cold, grey and there was a little sprinkling of rain - there is something uplifting about winter in New York. Wandering around Union Square, I loved the Union Square Farmer's Market - we enjoyed crispy apples with so many varieties to choose from, and delicious, smooth and tangy yogurt drinks. Just enjoying the variety, diversity and freshness of the market was incredible.

The thing I love about New York is the little places you stumble upon that are so unique and interesting. While we were freezing near Union Square - we searched for a place to get coffee - and came upon Joe The Art of Coffee. They had smooth, divine coffee and fantastic rugelah - definitely somewhere I'd seek out again. Nothing beats the cold like a fresh cup of hot coffee!

The highlight of the trip was - Mario Batali! We had dinner at Babbo - which was incredible as always. The most surprising dish was the lamb's brain ravioli - not much choice, but definitely something I would choose again. The ravioli was very subtle, smooth and creamy - almost melt in your mouth. It was served in butter and sage - and transported me to another place! At Babbo we read about Batali's other establishments - including the Italian marketplace 'Eataly'. Wow - this market is huge, with an amazing array of Italian products, but also a lot of fresh food, such as a cheese counter, bakery, patisserie, seafood counter, fruit and vegetable array and meat counter. The unique aspect was the array of food that was served as small tables, or high bar styles tables at various areas in the market. We stopped at the cheese counter and enjoyed Prosecco and a cheese board on a Saturday evening - it was a great way to top off a day's shopping in Manhattan. What I found interesting on the cheese board, was the accompaniment of preserved orange slices which was recommended with the ricotta - served together on bread slices - it was smooth and creamy, with the sweet/sour combination of the orange cutting through the creaminess of the ricotta - mmmm.

The other highlight was Balaboosta, a Moroccan restaurant in Soho. We stopped there for lunch on Saturday, and it wasn't crowded, a very warm and inviting wood decorated restaurant. The menu was interesting - we enjoyed the Shakshouka - spicy tomato sauce, with lamb sausage and swiss chard, baked in a clay dish with two poached eggs on top - it was warm, with a spicy aroma - the ultimate in comfort food. I'm going to seek out a recipe and try my own version of Shakshouka at home.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Farmer's Market

One thing I love about a Saturday morning, is taking it easy... cycling my bike into the Danville Farmer's Market and loading up my pannier with fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables. This week the weather was fabulous - blue skies and relatively warm for a winter day in the Bay Area. I really enjoyed being out in the fresh air, stopping at my favorite cafe - Sideboard, for a fresh coffee and then wandering around the market. Being the middle of the winter, there were fewer stalls at the market this week, but I still found some fabulous inspiration.

The highlight at the market this week was leafy greens, root vegetables and some fresh apples and citrus fruits. One of my purchases this week was a bunch of fresh beets, and I put together this roasted beet salad for an easy Sunday night dinner.

Roasted Beet Salad
1 bunch of fresh red beets
Large handful of spinach leaves
1 orange
1/4 fennel bulb
100g (3.5 oz) roasted hazelnuts
Fresh goat's cheese

Roast the beets in an oil sheet of aluminium foil at 350C for ~1 hour. Peel the skin from the beets by rubbing the skin (with disposable gloves on) after the beets have been roasted. Layer the spinach, then sliced beets, thinly sliced fennel bulb, and half of the orange, sliced. Top with roughly chopped hazelnuts and crumbled goats cheese.

For the dressing, combine 1 part fresh orange juice with 2 parts of good quality olive oil. Add 1 part balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon orange zest and 1 tablespoon of chopped capers. Season with salt and pepper. Whisk together and pour over the salad.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Curry Night

There's something magical about sharing a meal with friends. We have a group of friends that seems to have expanded, so when we all got together for dinner last night - it was curry night. Hot steaming, spicy curries just seem to hit the spot on a cold winter evening. I also love curry because there are so many different flavors, and they allow so much creativity with spices, sauces as well as meat and vegetables.

Thinking about curries makes me think about my brother - he loves curries and anything spicy. When we were teenagers, he would cook dinner for our family, making curries so spicy that no one else could eat them and he would be crying from the heat. So it seemed quite fitting that his wedding was in Thailand in October - the wedding meal was a delicious Thai dinner, and we also spent time in Phuket exploring local eateries in search of the best Thai curry.

So last night each family made a curry, and the hosts provided rice and sides and appetizers. While it is the same concept as 'pot luck', I think the word doesn't do justice to the fabulous meal we enjoyed. Each dish was packed full of flavor, and came from different inspirations. Here's just a sampling of the curries we enjoyed: lamb rogan josh, curry beef pie, thai red chicken curry with peppers, cherry tomatoes and basil, vegetable yellow curry....

The dish I made was a new Thai favorite of mine - inspired from Mridula Baljekar's "Best-ever Curry Cookbook".

Thai Red Beef and vegetable curry with peanut sauce
1 lb (~500g) sirloin beef - sliced thinly
2 Japanese eggplant (the long skinny variety) - sliced
1 large handful of green beans
800mL coconut milk
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp brown sugar
2 stalks of lemongrass
2 tbsp red curry paste (I used Thai Kitchen brand)
3.5 oz (100g) ground roasted peanuts
5 kaffir lime leaves
1 red chilli pepper

Cook half the coconut milk over medium heat until it develops a sheen. Then add the curry paste and cook until fragrant. Add the sugar, fish sauce and lemongrass and continue over a medium heat until the sauce develops a darker color (about 5 minutes).

At this point remove the lemongrass stalks, and mix in the remaining coconut milk. Bring the coconut milk back up to the boil and add the peanuts, beef, eggplant and beans and cook over a medium heat for about 8
minutes, or until the beef is cooked through and the vegetables are just soft.

Stir through the torn kaffir lime leaves and diced chilli, and serve.

** Kaffir lime leaves are available at Asian grocers, and look like other citrus leaves, but have two leaves connected together.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New Year Resolutions

A New Year, new resolutions.....

While I've been excited about food for nearly as long as I can remember, writing about it is something fairly new to me. Previously it has been the likes of my patient husband and anyone else who would listen; that got bombarded by my food rantings. But my resolution for this year is to do more things I'm passionate about. Explore my passions. Spend more time being creative. So I'm combining my passions - food: cooking, eating and exploring it - with my excitement for talking, reading and expressing myself.

For the past two years I've been living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I wish I had started writing about my food discoveries earlier, as the Bay Area is such an enchanting foodie haven. But alas, I'm about to move to Bakersfield, central California. Perhaps the discovery of food gems is even sweeter when they're hidden away.

Being Australian, I've relished the new food experiences I've unearthed in the US: the joy of the seasons at local farmers markets, good Mexican food, hot fragrant apple cider, succulent pulled pork just to name a few. I've reveled in the challenge of using new ingredients and creating new discoveries in my own kitchen. But I've also savored concocting my favorite Australian delicacies, which were of course no longer available from around the corner.

So join me on my food discoveries - I'll share with you my old favorite and newly discovered gems.