October 27, 2010

XOCO @ Chicago

Can I get enough of celebrity chefs? The answer is no. You see, after I left Frontera Grill the day before, I passed by XOCO and decided that I just HAD to come back the next day to have lunch here. Rick Bayless's latest venture is a casual dining spot serving humble Mexican street food. I couldn't help but take a peak inside and was immediately bewitched by the irresistible smell of the tortas (Mexican submarine sandwiches). I'm not one who could pass up a good sandwich, particularly one that's roasted in an wood burning oven!
On a hot, sunny day, another refreshing glass of their Agua del dia is most certainly welcomed. Today the featured drink is some mango and lime mixture, I forget the exact description. Regardless, it was delicious and I can't get enough of it.

October 23, 2010

La Gondola @ Chicago

La Gondola was a restaurant that my cousin recommended. While a suburban strip mall may be the last place one expects to find a great restaurant, La Gondola turns out to be quite a hidden (and tiny) gem. (And strip mall = free parking! Yay!) The entire dining area only had four tables, so it would have been virtually impossible to get a table without a reservation. Luckily, I am always prepared, and we were swiftly seated upon arrival. While we studied the menu, fresh bread was served. The bread was comfortingly warm, soft in the inside and crispy on the outside, just the way I like it.
My cousin had previously declared the Fried Calamari, served with house cocktail sauce and lemon wedges, the best she's had in the city. A self-proclaimed calamari lover, I wouldn't miss it for the world. However, I didn't think it met my expectations. I did like how the calamari was cut up into big chunks, and that the batter wasn't overly thick. However, there was something lacking in the flavour, and I've had better fried calamari back in Toronto. Perhaps we were just there on an off night. On the other hand, bonus points for the generous portion!
I don't know what compelled us to order a salad, as I usually just get them as sides. We felt instantly overwhelmed by the monstrous La Gondola Salad: crisp romaine lettuce, gorgonzola cheese, Belgian endive, fresh tomatoes and kalamata olives, tossed in olive oil with balsamic on the side. I think I had three bites in total before turning to the pasta.
Rigatoni Boscaiola: tomato cream sauce, fresh mushrooms, and sautéed Italian sausage and fresh sage. This was La Gondola's signature pasta dish. In theory, it was everything I love- tomato cream sauce, rigatoni, and Italian sausage. However, I thought this pasta was a little undercooked and too "al dente". Nevertheless, the flavour was excellent, and I still enjoyed it immensely.
The Caesar side salad came in a more reasonable portion. It resembled a dwarf next to the La Gondola Salad. 
While I was in the washroom, my sister went ahead and ordered the Tartufo, a type of Italian ice cream dessert. To me, it simply tasted like a ball of chocolate ice cream, so I was not entirely happy with my lack of input in the decision making process. Although I did appreciate the pretty flowers that someone took the care to draw on the plate with chocolate syrup.
Thankfully, there were four of us, and we could afford to order a second dessert. The Homemade Tiramisu, made with disaronno amaretto, was a much better choice that satisfied my sweet tooth. And yes, I am a sucker for pretty plating.
On the whole, the meal was satisfying, although I felt that the execution on certain dishes missed the mark. Nevertheless, I love Italian food, and when tiramisu is involved, I'm sold.

October 11, 2010

Frontera Grill @ Chicago

It seems that I have a slight obsession with celebrity chefs. Rick Bayless is known for introducing America to Mexican fine dining, and he was also featured in Top Chef. My experience with Mexican food is limited to tacos from Taco Bell and quesadillas from non-Mexican restaurants, so naturally I was very intrigued. The interior of the restaurant is darkly lit with a charmingly funky decor.

An Aqua del dia, a daily drink is featured. Today was something with lime and mango. It was very tasty and refreshing after a long, hot walk to the restaurant.
Wanting to try a bit of everything, we ordered the Entremes Surtido: appetizer platter of cheesy quesadillas, crispy chicken taquitos with sour cream, tangy ceviche tostadas, crunchy jicama salad  and guacamole. The jicama salad (seen in the center of the platter) was my personal favourite, as it was very light and had great texture. Perhaps I was not in a mood for deep fried food that day. The guacamole was also pretty tasty, but I'm not really a fan of tortilla chips. I much prefer soft tortilla or pita.
Enchiladas de Mole Poblano: homemade tortillas rolled around Gunthorp free-range chicken, doused with Mexicos most famous mole; black beans. I've long wanted to try the mole sauce because it is made with chocolate. How can chocolate be worked into a savoury dish? The result is pretty positive. The sauce had a creamy texture with a tinge of sweetness. Although you can taste the chocolate, the flavours merged with the spices in a way that wasn't weird at all. I wouldn't say that it was the greatest thing I've ever tasted, but the combination was very interesting.
Queso Fundido de Pollo: Otter Creek Farm organic cheddar melted with Gunthorp chicken. Habanero-pickled summer vegetables from local farms. We all love cheese, so this was the winner at the table. Although I didn't really like the sourness of the pink vegetable that topped the dish, the cheese itself was very delicious. One problem was that the cheese hardened as it cooled, and I liked it better in its melted state.
Blueberry-lime with tequila ice cream, served with homemade cajeta (goat milk caramel). Loved the ice cream, hated the goat milk caramel. The blueberry flavour was very intense and the texture was delightfully creamy. I couldn't really taste the lime or tequila, but still enjoyed this quite a lot (sans caramel).
Overall, it was a very interesting meal, full of exotic flavours that I've never had before. I look forward to trying more Mexican food back in Toronto.
Frontera Grill on Urbanspoon

October 2, 2010

Girl & the Goat @ Chicago

Top Chef is one of my favourite reality series. So when the chance to dine at Season 4 winner Stephanie Izard's new restaurant came, I jumped on the boat. Although I was slightly concerned with the name "Girl & the Goat" (I hate eating lamb), I figured that there was bound to be non-goat items on the menu. And after all, how can I miss the opportunity to meet top chef herself?
First up, the smokey whipped fat back with bourbon onions and biscuits. Basically, lard is whipped into a butter-like consistency, spread over biscuit and accompanied by a sprinkle of sea salt and bourbon onions. Lard has quite a distinct aroma that really elevates what is essentially a butter and biscuit appetizer. This takes me back to memories of eating in Taiwan, where everything is basically cooked with lard. On a side note, the fattiness makes this dish overwhelming if one consumes too much.
I don't think I can rave enough about the next dish that arrived, the smoked goat pizza, with apple soffrito, black kale, ricotta and cipollini. Initially, I was less than thrilled when my goat-loving sister decided to order this at the recommendation of our server (I've had horrible experience with goat cheese pizza in the past). However, I completely fell in love with this pizza. I struggle to name one element that really stood out, but altogether the ingredients and flavours really merged miraculously to make this an unforgettable pizza. It is probably one of the best that I've ever had, and I wish I can find this in Toronto.
I happily gobbled up five pieces! It was like gourmet pizza heaven. I didn't even mind the goat at all!
Crisp soft shell crab with sweet corn, lime and chili aioli. This was a crowd pleaser, well executed and delicious. The corn provided just the sweet balance that the crispy deep fried goodness needed. However, having sampled too many similarly prepared soft shell crab in the Asian cuisine scene, I was not completely blown away by this this dish. Nevertheless, it was an excellent addition to our meal.
Arriving late in our meal was the tortone bread, served with sweet onion butter and herb oil. I usually like to have bread at the beginning of a meal, and often find myself eating too much of it before my actual entree arrives. I enjoy bread in general, but like it a whole lot more if it was complimentary. Unfortunately this bread was not free, and I felt that in comparison to the other dishes, it was not spectacular, so I wish I had ordered something else.
Rabbit rillette, with crisp rice crepe, ginger giardinare, sweet garlic. This was my first experience eating rabbit, and I really struggle to describe its texture. It reminded me of chicken and fish simultaneously. All in all, I thought it was a good dish, but not as memorable as some of the other fares.
Finally, we got the veal rib roast with veal sausage, confit tropeas, avocado and watercress. The veal was perfectly tender and juicy, and I particularly loved how all the accompanying veggies soaked up all the flavours of the meat. I don't remember the avocado at all, but in spite of that, all the elements worked well together. And after all the fat consumed, it felt really good end of this spectacular meal with some (relatively) healthy vegetables.

At the end of our meal, our server took us to meet Stephanie herself! She was perfectly charming and I giggled excitedly like a 5-year old child at Disneyland. In fact, I was so overwhelmed with excitement that both of the pictures that I helped my sister take with Stephanie turned out blurry. She was not pleased about that at all.


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