Sunday, September 30, 2012

Bread & Wine - Brunch

I enjoy meeting friends for brunch and their are a lot of places in the city where to have brunch.  As the friends that I generally dine with think that I am an expert on good restaurants so they leave it to me to choose a nice place.  I like to bounce around and try different places in different neighborhoods so this month we went to Bread & Wine in Old Irving Park.  While it is located on Irving Park Road, it's a few blocks away from other restaurants in the neighborhoods.  It is located in a former laundromat so the building is a single floor with a front window wall and it's own parking lot, a rarity in the city.  The dining room has a very open floor plan with tables on the right side of the dining room and two long counters, one around the bar and the other in front of the open kitchen.  The left side of the room has wine and beer, and a selection of specialty products like Vosges Chocolate and Terry's Toffee for sale.  There is a 10% discount on market purchases on the same day that you dine.  For brunch, I sat at the bar where I had a good view of the rest of the restaurant.  There were many things on the menu that looked really appetizing but I decided to start out with Cured Pork Belly, a Crispy Poached Egg, Cheddar Grits, and Fresno Chili Hot Sauce.  There was also a lettuce garnish.  Bacon is cured pork belly so this was prepared the same way as bacon but it was served as a steak cut.  I have to say that I really liked bacon steak.  The egg was interesting.  I liked it but it did puzzle me a little.  Poached eggs are not crispy.  I have to think that it had to have been fried to finish it.  The cheddar grits were as one might expect of grits with cheddar cheese and the spicy and tangy Fresno Chili Sauce went well with everything.

While this was very good and I could have stopped here, I decided to go for a brunch dessert.  There were a couple of things that sounded interesting but I had to go with something that to me was potentially a little challenging.  I had the Salted Caramel Popcorn Panna Cotta.  The dish arrived in a small mason jar.  The panna cotta was on the bottom and was topped with the caramel sauce.  The popcorn was also caramel coated and topped off the jar.  The dish was very pretty and looked very appetizing.  As I have said before, I am not a huge fan of popcorn.  I can appreciate how it can contribute visually to a dish but generally do not care for it texturally.  In this case though, the crunchiness of the popcorn was the perfect complement to the creaminess of the panna cotta.  And what's not to like about salted caramel?  It was a great dish.

I really enjoyed brunch here and will definitely be back.  The food was very good and the staff was friendly.  There are many things on the menu that look appetizing that I will have to be back for.  I will also have to come back some time for dinner.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Letizia's Fiore

I first encountered Letizia Sorano several years ago when she opened an Italian Bakery and Coffee House in Wicker Park, Letizia's Natural Bakery.  I will grant that Italian pastries are not as elaborate or ornate as French pastries but they are very fresh and good and go well with a dark Italian roasted coffee.  Over time, they added paninis and eventually opened a restaurant and wine bar, Enoteca Roma, next to the bakery.  I was very excited when I heard that she was opening up a restaurant and wine bar in my neighborhood.  It took a while but after about two years, Letizia's Fiore finally opened and while it has been over a year since it has opened, I finally made it here for dinner recently.  The building is two stories with a stucco exterior and a painting of purple flowers on the front and side walls.  There are two exterior dining areas, a small area in the front with a few tables and a much larger area along the side of the building.  Entering the building, you will first encounter the wine bar.  There is a bar on one side of the room with a wine rack and a brick oven behind it.  There is seating at the bar and at a few tables in the room.  The dining room is a large room beyond the bar.  I wasn't looking for anything fancy so I sat at a small table in the bar and listened to the light 70's rock that played in the background.  As this was a wine bar, I was going to drink some wine, and as you might expect, as it was an Italian wine bar, the wines that it featured were from Italy.  It was pretty cool though, for the list, they had a map of Italy and there was a wine from every region.  While I am not a wine expert in any stretch of the imagination, I am familiar with a few wines and know a few styles that I like.  I had had and liked Sicilian wine before and as I was planning on ordering some Sicilian food, I thought it would match well.  For my wine I ordered a Caruso & Minini Inzolia 2009, which was crisp and a little tart.  For my food I had to go with the Arancini.  Ever since I first heard of Arancini, I have had to order them when I see them on a menu.  What they are are stuffed and deep fried risotto balls.  I had heard many good things about the arancini here, so I had to order it.  I had a choice of Italian Sausage or Spinach and Mushroom.  I thought the spinach and mushroom would go better with the wine so that is what I ordered.  As you can see, three arancini were served with marinara sauce and a little cheese.  They were crisp and browned on the outside, but the risotto on the inside was slightly green (from the spinach) and very tender.  It was also stuffed with mushrooms and mozzarella.  It was very good even if a little tricky to eat.  I essentially had to split it open and fork it from the inside out.  The arancini are a definite win and I will definitely order them again.

For my main course, I was a little torn because there were several things that really looked good.  I figured though that since this place is a pizzeria that makes Neapolitan Pizzas, that would probably be the way to go.  I ordered a Rucola Pizza which started with Arugula (hence the name), sliced cherry tomatoes, Limoncello Dressing, and shaved Parmagiano.  I also added Speck (cold smoked prosciutto) because while it did sound good to me as it was.  I did want something a little more substantial than a salad on flat bread.  I will say that I thought that the individual ingredients were very good.  It was difficult though, to have a bite that contained everything though because there was nothing that was holding it together.

I would have liked to have shown a picture of my dessert because it was a thing of beauty but my phone decided it was time to conk out on me so I was unable to get one.  I got a slice of Dark Chocolate Raspberry Truffle Cake.  It was very dark and had a thick topping of ganache on top.  It was topped with chocolate syrup and the plate was dusted with cocoa powder.  It was dense and bittersweet, and while visually it was not obvious that it was a raspberry cake, you could taste raspberries in every bite.  As I said, it looked beautiful but I think it may have tasted even better than it looked.

I really liked Letizia's Fiore and will definitely be back.  The food was very good, I will definitely have to have more arancini, the staff was friendly, and I do think it would be a nice place to learn more about Italian wines that you might want to become more familiar with.


Sunday, September 16, 2012


In the Chicago area, most people will start their Asian food experience with Chinese food.  If they are a little more adventurous, they may then try Japanese or Thai.  If you want to delve any deeper than that, you may need to do a little digging.  While there is China town for Chinese food, Chinese cuisine is ubiquitous enough that you don't have to go to Chinatown to have it.  The same is true for Japanese and Thai restaurants.  this cannot be said however, for Vietnamese or Korean restaurants and in order to dine at a Vietnamese or Korean restaurant, you really have to go to specific neighborhoods.  I knew of the Asian populations around Uptown but I just recently discovered a Korean population in West Ridge which is on the far north side of the city.  I had a craving for Korean food and and traveling to West Ridge was easier to travel to after work than is Uptown, so I did some looking and discovered Solga, a Korean Barbecue where I dined this week.  While the building is large, it really doesn't look like much.  It's a large, single-story, free-standing building with a parking lot that looks like it was built in the 70's.  The windows were all covered and while there is a door in the front, the entrance is actually in the back of the building and not really obvious.  From the look outside, I expected a very dark interior.  I was pleasantly surprised.  The entrance opened into a hallway, one direction leading to the dining room which was surprisingly bright.  The booths and tables are made of dark wood but the walls are white and are covered with Korean writing (printed).  The lighting was overhead and bright and there were also several hoods in the ceiling for grilling at the tables.  I was seated at a booth and made my order.  While I was waiting for my first course, I noticed that my only utensils consisted of chopsticks and a long handled spoon.  This was actually kind of an issue because when my appetizer arrived, I had no idea how to eat it. I ordered what was called a Kim Chee Jun.  What it was was a kim chee pancake that was cut into six pieces.  As I had no way to cut it, I decided that I was going to have to eat it with the chopsticks which was pretty awkward.  I ended up trying to grab it in the middle and wolfing down each piece quickly.  It was served with a small dish of soy sauce.  I tried the pancake with and without the soy sauce and it was good both ways.  As far as texture is concerned, it reminded me more of a frittata than a pancake.  It tasted however, like a tangy pancake.  Despite the fact that it was a little difficult to eat, it was good.

My main course actually arrived a little early.  It came while I was still trying to figure out how to eat the pancake.  I ordered Jae-Yook-Bok-Um which was thinly sliced pork loin and vegetables (onions, peppers, and carrots) stir-fried in a spicy sauce and topped with green onions and sesame seeds.  The plate came out sizzling and after it cooled off, it was much easier to eat than was the pancake.  The meat was tender, the vegetables were crisp, and it was all very spicy.  On the menu it also said that entrees would be served with a selection of side dishes.  Having been to a Korean restaurant before I had seen this before but I have to admit I was a bit overwhelmed by what they brought out.

They brought out soup, eight sides, and a dish of purple rice.  The sides were all for the most part fairly simple but it did make for a huge meal.  Included among the sides were bean sprouts, pickles in a spicy sauce, kim chee, eggs, potatoes, broccoli, a different type of kim chee, and dumplings.  The sides were decidedly less spicy than the pork and the mild things like the bean sprouts, broccoli, and rice helped to soothe my palate so I could actually taste everything.  The restaurant didn't serve dessert, but that was fine because from the Asian desserts that I have had, I haven't been terribly impressed.  Asian cuisine (in general) doesn't seem to lend itself well to sweet.  It also didn't matter because after eating my main course and all of the sides, I saw that the ride home was going to be very uncomfortable.

I enjoyed my meal here.  It was a good value, it all tasted good, and despite the appearance from the outside, it was bright and welcoming on the inside.      

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


If I just want Cuban food, I can go to any number of restaurants in my neighborhood.  Many of these restaurants are also very good but I also like to see what else is out there and how different restaurants compare.  I went to Coobah recently which despite the name, is not specifically a Cuban restaurant.  While it does serve some Cuban-style food, it also does general Caribbean, Brazilian, and surprisingly, Filipino.  Located in Lakeview on the outskirts of Wrigleyville, I expected something pretty casual and it is in a manner of speaking.  It has a nice patio where you can relax in the sun.  The inside of the restaurant is done in weathered wood which did look nice but I was interested in the patio so that is where I sat.  The wait staff was friendly and pretty easy going, and the dress of most patrons there was pretty casual, but the presentation of the food was very definitely fine dining.  For my appetizer, I ordered seared scallops which came with fried plantains, fried yuca, guacamole, balsamic vinegar, and I think, some honey.  The presentation was very nice and it tasted really good.  The scallop had a nice sear and the yuca was crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside.  The sweetness of the plantains went well with the sweetness of the scallops.  Between the taste and presentation, it was a nice start.

My next piece of food art was called Pork Bicol.  What it was was Pork Tenderloin and Crispy Pork Belly, a Coconut Arancini (a fried coconut risotto ball), Pineapple-Bacon Chutney, Wilted Arugula, and Adobo Glaze.  The tenderloin and pork belly were cut in about equal size pieces but it was pretty easy to tell them apart by appearance.  The pork belly was rectangular and you could see the meat and fat layering  as you would in bacon.  While it was crispy, it was crispy to the point of being pretty dry.  This was probably the only fault in the dish.  The pineapple-bacon chutney was very good, the coconut arancini sounded a little weird but it was really good.  The outside was crisp, the risotto interior was creamy, and the coconut was sweet.  The arugula had a nice flavor to it and the adobo glaze was spread over everything and added a nice spice.

I then came to dessert.  I will admit there are a few things on a restaurant menu that I have a bias for and if I see them on a menu, I will be sure to order them.  One of these things is a cheesecake and the cheesecake on the menu sounded especially good so that is what I ordered.  When it came out, I knew that I had chosen correctly.  What I had was a Dulce de Leche Cheesecake with Salted Caramel, Filipino Sea Salt, and a Sliced Strawberry.  The cheesecake was dense and covered with dulce de leche and the flatbread that was stuck into the cake was light, crispy, and light layer of flaky salt.  It was all very good and it was gone quickly.

I liked my meal here even if there was a little bit of a juxtaposition between the look of the food and the feel of the restaurant.  Even with the very nice look of the food, this is a casual restaurant and it was fun.  If I want a nice casual restaurant with a Latin flavor, I know where I can go.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Wellfleet-The Fishguy Market

The Mayfair Area of Elston Avenue is largely an industrial area.   There is some residential but it is mostly  garages and construction businesses.  This is not an area you would think of for fresh seafood.  Just north of Montrose though, is a seafood market called The Fish Guy.   This market carries carries all manner of seafood including lobster, shrimp, scallops, oysters, and when I visited, langoustines as well as salmon, sturgeon, and other sea fish and sells to restaurants as well as walk-in buyers.  There is also a small cafe that will seat about 16 people between the counter and the tables located inside the market called Wellfleet.  The market (and cafe) are done in white tile and the table and counter tops are stainless steel.  There is also a skylight so between the white tile walls and floor and the stainless steel counter and table lights, they make good use of the available light.  The menu is small and is on a clipboard at every seat when you walk in.  There isn't a lot of description to the things on the menu but the kitchen is right behind the counter and the cooks and chef are very friendly (and right there) and encourage you to ask questions.  When you are ready to order, it's easy enough to order all at once or as you go.  The menu items are fairly simple so it doesn't talk an extensive amount of preparation after ordering and everything is right there so if you will not experience a significant wait if you order one course at a time.  I wasn't sure how much I wanted to eat when I came in so I only ordered a main course and a drink.  As I was waiting, they brought me an Amuse Bouche consisting of Salmon Tartare with a Garlic Lime Aioli.  It was a spoonful of awesome and I thought it boded well for the rest of my meal.  The salmon tasted very good and the aioli both held it together physically with it's creamy texture and complemented the flavors with the savory garlic and the sour of the lime.

For the course that I actually ordered, I ordered the Pan Fried Langoustines in a Garlic Butter Sauce.  I thought that I had had langoustines before and thought them similar to shrimp.  When I received them, I saw that they are a bit similar to shrimp but are more like small lobsters.  I also saw that I had never had them before and I really had no idea how to eat them.  They were served with a sliced lemon and a couple of slices of baguette to soak up the garlic butter sauce.  After the cooks saw me puzzling over how to get the meat, they quickly told me that the best way to get to it was to grab one and to split it along the back and the meat would come right out.  I tried it and while it was messy, it did work well.  The meat was very light, tender, and was slightly sweet.  The flavor actually reminded me more of crab than shrimp but it was really good.

After I fought my way through the langoustines and soaked up the garlic butter sauce, I decided that this had been very good and I should order a dessert.  They had a Tortuga Rum Cake on the menu so that's what I ordered.  A Tortuga Rum Cake is a bundt cake with bundt cake with walnuts that is soaked in Tortuga Rum.  It was sweet, dense, and slightly rum flavored although not overwhelmingly so.  The chef suggested having it with whipped cream but I decided to wave that off because I didn't want to be overwhelmed with the whipped cream and wanted to actually taste the cake.  I probably could have ordered a little on the side but I didn't think about it.  In retrospect, I do think it would have gone really well with whipped cream but it was good as it was.

Wellfleet-The Fish Guy is a small operation but they do some very good stuff.  It does surprise me that they are not located in the West Loop where there are a multitude of specialty food businesses and warehouses and fine dining restaurants but if they can do a good business in their location, good for them.  It is actually to my advantage that they are located where they are because I travel near their location frequently and would not have to make a special trip.  Admittedly, I don't cook a lot of specialty seafood but as it is close to a route I travel frequently, I do see myself stopping in again.