Sunday, August 28, 2011


Every time I think that I have a handle on Japanese cuisine, another restaurant opens and adds something new and different. Although Chizakaya has been open for about a year, I had yet to go to it until this last weekend. I took advantage of a daily deal coupon to get an 8 course meal which gave me a pretty good idea what it was about. Chizakaya is an Izakaya, a Japanese Sake joint that is kind of a cross between a gastropub and a tapas restaurant. It is a bar that serves small plate style food that is shared amongst the table. There was a wide variety of styles and techniques represented on the menu. Most of the dishes are pretty simple but even in their simplicity, there are a few that would challenge even an adventurous eater such as myself. While it can be safe enough for a timid eater, it can also give an adventurous eater the chance to explore. In front of the restaurant is a wooden bench (like a bus station bench, but nicer). It had a container with menus in it. I am going to guess the bench is a pseudo-waiting area for when the establishment gets busy. In order to enter the restaurant, you actually have to walk around the bench. The floor is hardwood and the tables in the restaurant are all black wood two tops which can be arranged fairly easily for larger parties. The bar is in the back of the room but there was a shelf on either side of the room with several bottles. The ceiling was tall, arched and painted light blue with murals of a male warrior on one side and what I might guess was a princess on the other. The front wall is glass with a typical Japanese-style vertical blind in front of it. The only thing that I found slightly odd was the music selection which was all hip hop. The only thing that I can think is possibly in trying to put a Chicago spin on the izakaya, they went with the American version of what might be played in a Japanese Izakaya.

When I was seated, I was presented with a cold towel with which to wipe my hands. I then ordered a cocktail (Pampelmouse, a high end gin with a housemade grapfruit liqueur) and was told about the courses that I would be served (My coupon was for a fixed menu deal). My dinner began with a couple of oysters served with scallions and sriracha. I like oysters although admittedly I am not an expert on them and don't know if I could tell one from another but these were pretty good. The scallions were on top and went down with the oyster and the sriracha combined with the liquor to provide a slightly spicy finish.

After the oysters, I was presented with the salad. They didn't call it a salad, they called it prosciutto and pears but it came with a lot of arugula which is a salad green so I have to say that it was a salad (especially since I have had something very similar to this that was presented as a salad). The utensils that I had at the table consisted of a single set of chopsticks. While I can use chopsticks, I will say that I am kind of clumsy with them but I decided to work on my proficiency instead of asking for a fork. All of the elements of this; the arugula, the pears and the proscuitto were easy enough to handle with chopsticks and while I like proscuitto and arugula, I can't stand pears. I did eat everything but the pears were not my favorite.

LinkFrom the salad, we went to what are called Kushi Yaki, or skewers. I was presented with 2 skewers, the first was three shishito peppers with bonito flakes, and the second was essentially spiced and buttered corn on the cob. I had never had shishito peppers before and I really didn't know what to expect. I was presented with 3 peppers skewered together on two skewers with bonito flakes on top. They are green and wrinkled and about the size of a jalapeno so I was sure that I was going to have to deal with fire in my mouth but they were surprisingly mild. I have to admit though, that I don't get the bonito flakes. I have to think they are added to provide flavor but they look and smell like large fish food flakes and don't provide a flavor that I am particularly fond of. It might be a cultural thing (like natto) but I don't think it added anything to the peppers and if I were to have them again, I would remove the bonito flakes. The corn on the cob was fairly standard corn on the cob with butter, salt, and pepper added. It was pretty good but it's hard to screw up correctly cooked corn on the cob.

From the skewers, we went to a Japanese street food called takoyaki. Takoyaki is (are?) battered and fried balls of octopus served with barbecue sauce. It also was served with the hated bonito flakes. Under the flakes were a couple of balls of dough about the size of a small handball. I tried the takoyaki and really liked it. It had the texture of a well cooked fritter and the octopus flavor, while a little subtle was there. The barbecue sauce was in a light layer at the bottom of the bowl and was of the sweeter type. I like octopus, I like barbecue sauce, and I like fried batter. Once I got through the bonito flakes, it was a total win.

From the street, we went to the sports bar. I was served the world's largest chicken wing which had a deep fried batter and more barbecue sauce called a Chicken Donburi. It was served with a slow poached egg and some rice. Here is where I got some work with the chopsticks. The egg was easy enough. It was like a slightly soft hard-boiled egg that was cut in half. I asked the waitress how I was expected to eat the chicken and was told with my hands and chopsticks. Primarily what I used was my hands to eat it. The batter on the chicken was very crunchy, the barbecue sauce was light and the chicken was nice and juicy. What was really fun was trying to eat the rice with chopsticks. If it was stickier, it would have been easier to handle but I was able to eventually get most of it. While this was good, between the chicken and the rice, I definitely needed a wet cloth to clean my hands after finishing this plate.

My last savory course was ramen. I was given a spoon to eat this. As I said before, there is no comparison between the dried ramen that you get in a grocery store and the ramen that is served in a Japanese restaurant. The ramen served here had braised pork, another slow poached egg, and a fish ball. The broth was dark and very savory, the pork was tender and everything else was also very good. Ramen noodles are pretty narrow, so I will say that I did get a little sloppy when I was slurping them up but I enjoyed doing it.
We then came to dessert and I had two dessert courses. The first was a strawberry sorbet with strawberries, and broken brown sugar cookies and while it was good, I really couldn't see the Japanese in it. Even so, I did enjoy it. The flavor was bright and fresh and the brown sugar cookie added a nice crunchy texture to it.
While the first dessert wasn't really Japanese, the second definitely was. It was a sesame mochi. Mochi is a rice cake made from glutinous sweet rice that has been pounded into a paste. The mochi ball itself had the texture of a stiff marshmallow. These were formed into a ball and two were served on a skewer. They were served on a paste of dark sesame paste. The sweet and sesame flavors actually went together pretty well and I did like it.

I really liked Chizakaya. It was an interesting experience that I enjoyed. While it was fine by myself, it would be fun with a group and it has enough variety that you can have both pretty safe and pretty daring in the same meal.

Friday, August 26, 2011

J. Wellington's

"I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today." This quote, from Popeye's friend Wimpy, is painted across the first cross beam inside J. Wellington's, a burger joint in Wicker Park named for and honoring him. This may be a little confusing unless you know that the full name of Popeye's friend was J. Wellington Wimpy. The small, counter service place has kind of a vintage flare with yellow and brown striped walls and vintage-style pin-up photographs on the walls. The counter is at the back of the restaurant with the menu, featuring 3 named burgers (named for minor Popeye characters), a build-your-own option, a meatloaf sandwich, a chicken sandwich, a fish sandwich, a tofuburger, and oddly enough, a hot dog. All of the sandwiches can be had on a whole wheat, brioche, or pretzel bun. They also have fries that can be had as made, topped with grated parmesan or cheddar sauce, or sweet potato fries as well as chili, mac and cheese, and many different salads. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention their wonderful homemade shakes. The burgers are comparable in size to the average bar burger (about 8 ounces) and J. Wellington's is open until 3 am on the weekends but to compare a Wellington burger to a bar burger would be a little unfair because J. Wellington's is a BYO. While I have been here several times, I seem to always be drawn to the One Eyed Runt which has applewood smoked bacon, blue cheese, a fried egg, and sriracha mayo. Both the regular and sweet potato fries are very good but I went regular the last time around and of course, I had to have a chocolate shake. The ingredients are good and the combinations provide for a lot of flavor but do not go wearing your Sunday best because they are also pretty messy. It might be a little better if it's actually eaten in the restaurant but things get a little sloppy on the ride home.

J. Wellington's is a low key place with good food (even if a little messy) that is good for lunch if I want more than the average burger or a good place to stop after the bar at night to wind down a little when a midnight snack is called for.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Longman & Eagle - Brunch

It has the name like an English Pub, but looks to me like what I think a modern western saloon would look like. It has a long hardwood bar, hardwood flooring, and wooden tables, chairs, and bar stools. Longman & Eagle even has rooms to stay at very reasonable rates. The main room looks like an old bar with a small open kitchen in one corner and a tremendous amount of liquor on the shelves behind the bar. While they have great beer and wine lists, the have one of the best whiskey lists in the city, including over 100 whiskeys, bourbons, scotches and ryes. While I am not a huge whiskey drinker, I do like the occasional scotch. I had been here once for lunch shortly after it opened and while I liked the service, I was really not impressed with the food. It seemed to have a lot of promise but the one dish I had had (a meatball sandwich with great meatballs, tomato, cheese and pesto but lousy bread) didn't cut it. From what I knew of the chef and the owners and the way the menu looked, I had to think that they were just suffering from opening jitters. Since that time, they have won several awards including GQ Best New Restaurant 2010, one of Esquire Magazine's 20 Best New Restaurants, and a Michelin star. I had been there since then and there had been times when I thought about eating there again, but things hadn't worked out until this last weekend. My brother joined me there for brunch.

Longman & Eagle does not take reservations and it gets pretty crowded on the weekend but there were a couple of places at the bar which also offers a full menu so we sat at the bar. I ordered the Fried Chicken and Waffles. The chicken was well fried and very juicy and the breading was very good. I got two thighs and a leg. The waffles were very crisp but softened nicely without getting mushy after adding the maple syrup which was served on the side. There was also a sweet potato and pork belly hash served between the chicken and waffles which was also very good. The sweetness of the pork belly and the sweet potatoes went well together as did the maple syrup. My brother got what was essentially mac and cheese but it was very good mac and cheese. It started with Orecchiete pasta used a combination of white cheddar, Fontina fonduta, and Gruyere for the cheese adds braised pork cheeks and is topped with bread crumbs. The pasta was very tender and the cheese sauce was heavenly. The pork cheeks just added to the flavor (It has a flavor similar to bacon) and the bread crumbs provide some variety to the texture. There was also a side salad that sort of served as a palate cleanser.

Longman & Eagle has redeemed themselves as I thought they would. The menu offers a wide variety on any given day and changes frequently and the prices are reasonable. While I have eaten here for the mid-day meal. I will have to come here sometime for dinner. Luckily it is close.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Paddy Long's

LinkBacon makes everything better. Generally though, it makes things better by being added to a dish. Paddy Longs, an Irish themed bar keeps things simple making beer better by pairing it with various bacons. Four days a week, it pairs five different beers with five different bacons. The bacons, if not housemade, come from local purveyors and are all very good. For the most part the bacons remain constant but the beers with which they are paired with change seasonally. In addition to the beer and bacon tastings, the menu at Paddy Longs serves bar fare featuring their various bacons. A major item on their menu is the bacon bomb, a 5 pound mixture of pork sausage and pepper bacon wrapped in brown sugar bacon, smoked, and served with a housemade barbecue sauce. This is obviously something that one sane person won't eat and is made for a group but you can get a bacon bomb burger. They do have items on the menu that do not have bacon but if you are going to go to a beer and bacon themed bar/restaurant why would you?

The beer and bacon tasting went from lightest to heaviest like a good tasting should proceed so that everything can actually be tasted. We started with Irish Bacon which was paired with Summit Hefe Weizen. Irish Bacon is a back bacon as opposed to regular bacon which comes from pork belly. It isn't smoked and it actually tastes like ham (which was grilled). Summit Hefe Weizen is a wheat beer from Minneapolis with a cloudy light amber color and flavors of pineapple, banana and cloves. The beer brought the sweetness of the bacon out and the bacon enhanced the banana and pineapple flavors.

The second pairing was Pepper Bacon (housemade) paired with O' Fallon 5-Day IPA. The pepper bacon was very good bacon and covered with cracked peppercorns. It's like bacon au poivre. The 5-Day IPA uses seven grains and four hops, two of which are added to the finishing tanks for a hoppy beer that really went with the pepper of the bacon.

Pairing number three was Danish bacon with Trumer Pils. Danish Bacon is a thick cut bacon that is less salty and actually a little sweet. It went very well with the Trumer Pils which is a Czech-style pilsner actually made in Berkeley, CA. The second and third pairings could have actually been interchangeable for their "flavor density" but they were both pretty good.

The servers called the fourth pairing a fairly standard pairing. It was Hickory Smoked Bacon served with Three Floyds Alpha King. The Hickory Smoked Bacon was like very good breakfast bacon. It was very good breakfast bacon, but it was like breakfast bacon. Three Floyds is a local brewery in Hammond, IN that specializes in hoppy beers. Alpha King is their best selling beer. It is an American-style IPA that is pretty hoppy and has a nice citrusy finish. It went very well with the smoke of the bacon.

The last pairing was dessert. It paired a brown sugar bacon with Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter. The bacon was very sweet and the porter was very bitter. It had a very robust roast malt/chocolate/coffee flavor and it was a great end to a great series. Paddy Longs is a great beer bar and it's always fun to see what beers that they pair with their bacons.

Three Floyds Alpha King APA with Hickory Smoked Bacon
Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter with Brown Sugar Bacon

Friday, August 19, 2011

Gourmet Cupcake Shoppe

For several years people have been saying that the cupcake trend is done and then I go to my friend Carrie Fisher's shop, The Gourmet Cupcake Shoppe in Midland, MI and I have to laugh. Open since 1997, they are extremely popular and are growing like crazy. They are incredibly popular in Midland, have recently moved into a new larger shop and have future plans for world domination. Even with the new shop with a bigger kitchen there have still been days when supply couldn't keep up with demand and they have sold out. They make very good cupcakes that are very popular and I predict that they will do well wherever they happen to expand to.

On a daily basis they will make a dozen different flavors, 10 that are regular and 2 that rotate. Some of the regulars will rotate on a seasonal basis but there is generally a core that will remain constant from day to day. My favorite cupcake, Maple Bacon Blueberry, is one of the flavors that rotates. Unfortunately, it wasn't featured the last time I was there. It is the best cupcake with bacon that I have ever had. They also make mini cupcake truffles, chocolate covered pretzels, cookies, cakes, cheesecakes, and the last time I was there, chocolate covered cherry mice. While I am sure that all of this is good, when I go to a cupcake shop, I want cupcakes. Having said that, I went a little crazy the last time I went and got almost one of everything with a couple of repeaters. We actually ended up with 13 cupcakes and a mouse. The cupcakes we got were Detroit Bumpy - a chocolate cupcake with a bumpy chocolate ganache topping, Fleur de Sel - a chocolate cupcake with a salted chocolate caramel topping, Lemon Drop - a lemon cupcake with lemon frosting, Peanut Butter Mousse Cake - a chocolate cupcake with a chocolate peanut butter frosting, Ice Cream Sundae - a chocolate cupcake with a white chocolate ganache frosting topped with a cherry, Grandma's Chocolate Cake - a chocolate cupcake with chocolate frosting and sprinkles, Strawberry White Chocolate - a vanilla cupcake with strawberry frosting and white chocolate sprinkles, Red Velvet- a red velvet cupcake with a cream cheese frosting, and Chocolate Mint - a chocolate cupcake with a mint frosting and an Andes Mint to top it off. All of the cupcakes were good but it may not have been such a great idea on my part to try to sample 10 different cupcakes in one sitting. While I did get some help, let us say that I was a bit uncomfortable at the end. I was uncomfortable but it was fun getting there. Some of the favorites included the Fleur de Sel, the Lemon Drop, Grandma's Chocolate Cake, and the Chocolate Mint.

The Gourmet Cupcake Shoppe makes the best cupcakes in Michigan and could give any other cupcake maker I have tried a run for their money. They are a point of pride in Midland and I am glad that they are so easy for me to visit. Hopefully, my next visit will coincide with the next coming of the Maple Bacon Blueberry Cupcake.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Red Canary

The space in which the Red Canary is located has a good culinary history. Previous occupants have included Como, the Italian restaurant opened by the grandson of the Como Inn (which had been located across the street), and Avenue M, a very good steak house. The Red Canary has decided to go in a slightly different direction. Calling themselves a gastro-lounge, they serve simple American comfort food in a lounge setting. The setting of the lounge/restaurant plays on the age of the building which was built in 1874. The outside has several narrow reflective windows and the building is painted black on the lower floor and red on the upper floor. The entrance actually kind of reminded me of a speakeasy. The outer door opens into a hall that makes a couple of turns before coming to a solid wooden door. Before I opened that door, I was actually wondering if I was in the right place. Walking through the door takes you back to the time of the Great Gatsby. There are a couple of chandeliers, several pictures of starlets of the silent era, and the banquettes are covered in red velvet. It has a really nice retro feel and looked like a nice place to lounge. While the inside looked very nice, they have a large courtyard in the back which is where I chose to sit. While the courtyard looked very nice, the fences surrounding it were high and the brick walls of the building are ivy covered. There is some soft looking lounge furniture in one corner of the courtyard but the dining tables and chairs had a decidedly cheap feel. They were metal, but they looked like garden furniture that you might find in any suburban back yard. The waitresses were either Gatsby era or were rock girls. My waitress was dressed as from the Gatsby era and was very friendly. She quickly brought me my first drink and a bowl of popcorn (which is served instead of bread). I looked through the menu and made my choices which actually came pretty quickly. The menu was divided into bites, intros, and mains and of course I had to try something from each section. To be completely honest, there really wasn't anything that excited me. There wasn't anything that looked bad but there also wasn't anything that really looked exciting. I started with Deviled Eggs which were served with Candied Bacon. While bacon makes everything better, while deviled eggs aren't bad, they also aren't terribly exciting and are actually pretty boring. The bacon helped but the deviled eggs were still kind of boring. My next course was Seared Scallops with Mango Pico de Gallo and a Cilantro leaf garnish. The scallops were cooked well and the mango and cilantro did complement the flavor and texture of the scallops. This was probably the best course of the meal but while it was good, I think that it was overshadowed by the aesthetic of the restaurant.
My main course was a Mushroom Ravioli with Asparagus, Cherry Tomatoes, Mushrooms, Leeks, and Parmesan Cheese, and Mushroom Sauce. If you couldn't guess, it was pretty mushroomy. The vegetables were crisp and the ravioli was well cooked. I really like mushrooms and while this wasn't bad, I have also had better. They could have used a greater variety of mushrooms than simply mushrooms and there wasn't much texture to the filling of the ravioli.While I wasn't terribly impressed with dinner, I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt and decided to give them another chance with dessert. There was no dessert menu, my waitress recited the offerings (there were three) and the one that stuck out for me was the Key Lime infused White Chocolate Mousse Cake with Blueberries. She compared it to a Key Lime Pie and I really like Key Lime Pie. To me, it was more like a cheesecake covered in blueberries which is also good but not what I was expecting.

While I liked the aesthetic of The Red Canary and I really wanted to like the restaurant as a whole, I really couldn't because the food was just not that impressive. The gastro- part of gastro-lounge implies good food which you can see by visiting any of the good gastro-pubs in the Chicago area (The Gage, Owen and Engine, Longman and Eagle, Bangers and Lace). While they do have the lounge part down, they really need to work on their food.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Beetle

A friend of mine commented recently that Chicago has so many good places for food that even the smaller places (as in less expensive and low key not necessarily physically smaller) have to amp up their food to bring in customers. I really have to agree on this point and I think that it's a good thing. I went to one of these "smaller" places recently, The Beetle Bar and Grill (formerly known as The Black Beetle), which is located in Westtown. A good bar and grill is going to have a good bar and they will also generally have wings and other grilled sandwiches like chicken and/or steak. The Beetle has all of this, I can speak for the fact that they have really good and inventive burgers, but they also have appetizers like nachos, fish tacos, and chili, a variety of pizzas, tacos, sandwiches, and a variety of salads for those people that prefer their food to have never moved on it's own. They also have a good beer list which is normally where people start when they go to a bar and grill. I started with a Stone Levitation Ale.

While the other food looks good, I generally stick to the burgers when I come here. They have six burgers all of which include bacon and/or cheese as well as a variety of other ingredients to make them stand out. They are also served with well seasoned waffle fries. I will usually get the Trucker (smoked bacon, aged cheddar, and a fried egg), or the Black & Bleu (lightly blackened with smoked bacon, caramelized onions, and crumbled bleu cheese), but I decided to go a little different this time and went with the Elvis which has smoked bacon, peanut butter, and fried plantains (as well as lettuce and tomato and a pickle on the side). This is actually a lot better than it might sound. What helps I think, is that neither the peanut butter nor the plantains are exceptionally sweet and all of the flavors can be picked out. All of the flavors, believe it or not, go together well. This is actually the second Elvis burger I have had this year and this is the better of the two. I don't know that this will be my goto burger when I come here again but it is good to know that I have some good choices despite how odd they may sound.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


While I really like the sandwiches at Pastoral, if I just talked about their sandwiches, I would be shorting them big time. I first read about Pastoral a few years ago when they had opened in Lakeview but first visited them after they opened a shop in the Loop. I got to know them as a cheese shop. It was very cool to go there because they have a great selection of cheeses and are more than willing to help you learn about cheese. If you buy some cheese without sampling, you either know exactly what you want or you aren't paying attention. It's very easy to browse the cheese selection and I would frequently sample three or four cheeses before choosing what I want. They carry a wide variety of cheddar, Gouda, Swiss, blue, and Bries. Most of their cheeses are cow cheeses but they do some pretty good goat and sheep cheeses as well. In addition to cheese, they also carry olives, charcuterie (which sometimes includes Pata Negra), bread, and some small wines. They have a picnic without the basket. With all of this good stuff, it should make sense that they can make some pretty good sandwiches which they do. Usually when I get a sandwich here, I get Le Canard, which is an herbed duck confit, Fromager D'Affinois, local shallot confit, whole grain dijon mustard, and field greens on a baguette. While I am a sucker for duck, I decided to change things up this time and get something different. This time I got what was called the Blue Pig 'n Fig. It contains Jamon Serrano, Ader Kase Reserve Blue Cheese, local fig and black tea preserve, whole grain dijon mustard, and field greens on a baguette. Basically it was a ham and cheese with fig jam but it was a very good ham and cheese. Even without the great sandwiches, Pastoral has great ingredients and is very willing to teach those who are interested. I always manage to learn something new when I go there and always enjoy going there.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Doughnut Vault

When there is a big trend, people are always ready to call it over and start looking for the next trend. Cupcakes have been declared over for years. A few higher end doughnut shops have opened recently and the trend spotters are starting to say that doughnuts are the new cupcake. I will not necessarily say that because while doughnuts are very good, I don't know if you can be as creative with a doughnut as you can with a cupcake. This is not to say that cupcakes can't be very good but I don't think that you will see an independent doughnut shop on every corner like you do with cupcakes. I do think though, that there is a definite niche for artisanal doughnuts. On Friday morning, I went to the Doughnut Vault, an independent artisanal doughnut shop attached to the Gilt Bar. It had gotten a lot of hype and I had heard that it was kind of small and that there was always a long line when it's open. I got there early because of the long lines and the fact that they only made a certain number of doughnuts a day and stay open until they sell out. I was the second person there but the line grew quickly. The outside of the store looked very nice. Everything was a washed-out blue color. There was a menu on the wall and a long table beside the entrance. From the prices on the menu, the doughnuts looked kind of expensive. I would find out whether the prices were warranted soon enough. The shop opened and I saw how tiny it was. There was room for a person to stand in front of the counter and one person to stand behind them. Behind the counter, there was room for one person, two doughnut racks, a coffee pot and a cash register. When I got to the counter, I ordered two doughnuts, the Gingerbread Stack and the Chocolate Glazed Doughnut.The doughnuts are enormous which accounted for some of the price. I left the shop and found a place to enjoy my doughnuts. Unfortunately, they didn't travel so well and got a little smooshed and a lot of the chocolate glaze got stuck to the bag. They still tasted really good though. The Gingerbread Stack was actually 3 gingerbread doughnuts stacked on one another and the glazed doughnut was about twice the size of a Krispy Kreme. The doughnuts were very good, and I would pay a premium for them over Dunkin Donuts. Because of their hours and location though, they won't be a place I will be visiting often but give the opportunity, I would come again.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Great Lakes Ice Cream Company

I don't know that I have ever had bad ice cream that was properly stored. It can become freezer burned if it's stored too long and I'm not a fan of melted ice cream but in general, even "low quality" ice cream is good. Some flavors might be a little boring, but given the choice between boring ice cream and something like cantaloupe, pears, or popcorn, I will choose boring ice cream every time. Great Lakes Ice Cream Company's Ice Cream is definitely not low quality ice cream. Nor is it boring. They are a premium ice cream manufacturer with a shop in Midland, Michigan. They have some very inventive flavors (or at least flavor names) available for scoops like Copper Country (vanilla with brownie nuggets and veins of caramel), Great Lakes Rainbow (blueberry, blue moon, and key lime), Saffron Spice (yellow saffron ice cream with a saffron flavor), and the ever popular Dog Puke (colored cookie dough in a vanilla base). They also sell floats, sundaes, cakes, and packaged quarts. Admittedly, there is less a selection with the quarts with Vanilla, Chocolate, Cookie Dough, Cookies and Cream, and a couple of sorbets being offered when I was there but good ice cream is good ice cream. I really like Great Lakes Ice Cream Company and will continue to give them my business when I visit Michigan between March and mid-October.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Phoebe's Cupcakes

If you ask someone in Chicago about cupcake places, the first places that will probably be named will be More, Sprinkles, Swirlz, or possibly Flirty Cupcakes. They are all very good in their own way and most (More, Sprinkles, and Flirty) have cupcake trucks to expand their exposure and to sell more cupcakes. However, if you are in East Lakeview you must try Phoebe's Cupcakes. Their space is small and the area that they are located is full of places that will easily draw you in if you are not making a dedicated trip but you should really make a dedicated trip. Their menu contains over 200 flavors but they only make about 12 to 15 flavors in any given week. They will make a flavor that is not on the weekly menu by special order. Most of the flavors that were on the weekly menu when I went in looked pretty good but I did limit myself to 6 and they were all at least pretty good.

While I say that most of the cupcakes looked pretty good, there were a few that were a foregone conclusion for buying. The first was called the Breakfast Cupcake. It is a maple-soaked, buttermilk cupcake with maple butter frosting and a strip of bacon to top it off. While the buttermilk cake and the maple flavoring evoke breakfast, the bacon brings it all together (Everything is better with bacon). Admittedly, it isn't the best cupcake with bacon that I have ever had but it is still very good. Next we have Death By Chocolate which was a thick and dense chocolate cake with fudgy chocolate frosting and topped with chocolate chips. There is no such thing as too much chocolate so this was very good as well. The last of the cupcakes that I had to have was the Salted Caramel. It is a vanilla cupcake soaked in housemade caramel with a caramel buttercream frosting topped with Himalayan sea salt. There is really something to be said about how well the sweet, salty, and buttery flavors of the caramel and salt combine.

The next cupcakes looked good, sounded interesting, and all tasted pretty good. The first of these was the Raspberry Latte, an espresso cake with a raspberry buttercream and topped with a chocolate covered espresso bean. While I liked this cupcake, the coffee flavor is pretty strong and isn't for everyone even with the raspberry frosting cutting some of the bitterness. Next was the Peanut Butter Fudgy Brownie. This is a chocolate cupcake with a cream cheese top and peanut butter butter cream frosting topped with chocolate chips. While I liked it, I am not sure if it was really that clear as to what it was aiming for. It seemed like a combination Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, a chocolate cheesecake, and seemed to have some bitterness to it. It was good but I can't say it was great. The last cupcake was probably my favorite of the second tier. It was the Blue Moon Cupcake and as you can see from the picture, it's pretty blue. The cupcake is pineapple and Blue CuraƧao flavored, uses blue buttercream frosting, and tastes just like Blue Moon ice cream.

Even if Phoebe's isn't one of the more well known cupcake shops in Chicago, they still make very good cupcakes and are a good place to remember if you are in the neighborhood. Their flavor combinations are very creative and they use quality ingredients. They also do shipping through UPS. While I don't travel to that neighborhood often, I now have something that makes it worth the trip.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Bun Mi Express

When people think of Asian food, they almost invariably think of Chinese food or sushi. Asian food though, is much more than meat or seafood with savory sauces served over rice or raw fish. There are a wide variety of cuisines that would fall under the Asian label. While Chinese food is generally meat and sauce served over rice, there are a wide variety of flavors and also includes Dim Sum and Peking Duck. Japanese food includes sushi, but it also includes tempura, hibachi style, and all manner of fried foods. Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Malaysian cuisines all have their own styles that are very separate from what you might find in a Chinese or Japanese restaurant. Vietnam was once a French colony and the French style has rubbed off and combined with the available ingredients to create something very good but different. In the Western world, sandwiches are a common street food and patisseries abound in France. French baguette is great for making sandwiches. The bahn mi is a sandwich that was created in Vietnam in the French colonial days. It generally contains ham, pate, and fresh vegetables. In the colonial days, only the rich were able to have them because everything was imported and so was pretty expensive. When the French departed, the Vietnamese learned the baking techniques, made the baguette a little smaller, and added local spices, vegetables, and herbs. While the French influence can be seen, the bahn mi is very definitely Asian (and specifically Vietnamese) cuisine. I went to Bun Mi Express, which is located in Lakeview, for lunch because I happened to run across them when running an errand for something else and bahn mi are quick, affordable, and very good. I ordered what was called a Saigon Classic which contained, inside a great baguette, ham, headcheese pate, pork roll (similar to a sliced summer sausage), cucumber, pickled carrots, cilantro, jalapeno, daikon, and mayonnaise. I ordered a special and also got a soft drink and a Vietnamese Spring Roll which is essentially rice (wrap and noodles), lettuce, and shrimp served with a peanut dipping sauce. Everything was very good, the staff was friendly, and looking at the traffic coming in, it seemed to be pretty popular. I will be happy to add this as one of my goto lunch places when I happen to be in that part of town.