Here’s a quick recipe that’s good for these chilly nights we’re having. (As far as I’m concerned, the only good thing about winter is noodle soup!)
Here’s a quick recipe that’s good for these chilly nights we’re having. (As far as I’m concerned, the only good thing about winter is noodle soup!)
Just so we’re clear, I think all you marathon runners out there are crazy. There. I said it. It sounds miserable to me. But hey, at least you get to eat a boat-load of past the night before, right? And in case any of you were wondering where the best places to do that are, I’ve compiled a little list. Here’s my 2 cents:
The pizza here is good but I’d opt for the pasta. It’s some of the most authentic, non-foofy pasta I’ve had in the city. Really. I can’t say enough about it. It’s just perfect and real.
Super casual joint under the Lake St tracks in the West Loop. Good pastas, pizza and other stuff like this gorgeous seafood salad with beans and greens.
You can’t see it in the picture but under that rich, delicious pork stock is a pile of ramen noodles. Gawd this stuff is good. Takashi knows what’s up. (Did you see him on Top Chef Masters? So adorable and funny….)
In case you want to treat yourself to a nice dinner since you’ll be torturing yourself for several hours tomorrow. Piccolo Sogno is a little more on the fine dining side but not aggressively so. It’s still welcoming and comfortable.
What a weekend! Bon Appetit-sponsored, 5th annual Chicago Gourmet was one for the books! Both event days as well as the ever-exciting kick-off Hamburger Hop completely sold out…and for good reason.
This year’s event pulled more than 160 Chicago chefs with thousands of portions of tasty snacks. Everyone from Rick Bayless to Girl & the Goat’s Stephanie Izard was there. I’m talkin’, the gamut: the lovely Tony Priolo, father & son Bannos boys, Top Chef’s Sarah Grueneberg, Chicago’s King of Chinese Tony Hu, Oprah’s ex-chef Art Smith, and one of my all-time favorites, Takashi Yagihashi… just to name a few.
There was a ton of buzz around the national celeb chefs, too. John Besh of New Orleans was there as well as the bad-ass Geoffrey Zakarian (who I, unfortunately, didn’t actually see). I did get a wink from the mayor, however, so that made up for it.
I also got to emcee a few demos. It was fun. The Sheerin brothers of Trenchermen made their infamous pig skin noodles and pickle tots and we got the full, inside secrets on how Charlie McKenna at Lillie’s Q does his ribs. Such good stuff.
Obviously, I’m a little sad it’s over. But hey, only 363 more days until Chicago Gourmet 2013! Let the countdown begin!
And here are some pics to make you drool…
Hooray for Chicago Gourmet!
I liked Bonsoiree. Liked being the operative word here. Did I love Bonsoiree? Mmmm…naaah. Now, don’t get me wrong, it was definitely good. It just wasn’t AMAZING… relatively speaking. There’s just a certain expectation when a restaurant has a Michelin star that make you…well, expect a lot.
I mean, L20 has a single Michelin star. As does Tru. I would not put these restaurants in the same category with Bonsoiree. The service was very casual and nonchalant. And the food was good, as I said, just not Michelin-worthy (and clearly my opinion counts on this matter;).
But anyway, here’s what we had:
First, a smoked trout fritter with pink peppercorn-yuzu buerre blanc. The fritter was flavorful but the rest was lost. The buerre blanc was tasty on it’s own, but you had to hunt for its presence when eaten with the smoky fish.
The mosaic of tuna carpaccio was fun. I suppose they had to create a “consumer advisory” plate since menus don’t really exist. I alway like mixing and matching flavor combos on one plate. I got to play with a roasted “superman” tomato (named for its loose peel), pickled ramps (a true springtime ingredient), salty lardons (that’s really largely diced salt pork or bacon), and a savory sauce.
The broth on the green curry poached John Dory with Manila clam was probably my second favorite bite of the night. I’m not sure what a ‘fried tamari yolk’ is, but it was pretty darn tasty, too.
Tasting through the bento box was fun, too. I can’t help it. I like to try a lot of different things. The asparagus salad and the lightly dressed, cold noodles were my fave. The octopus and snails were decent. I could have lived without the potato and my piece of ‘waygu’ left a ball of string in my mouth after 5 minutes of chewing. No thanks.
Oh yeah! The spring pea and asparagus soup was also delicious. I’m a sucker for good pea soup. And the roasted multi-color cauliflower florets were beautiful, as well.
We had a split decision on the next course. The man loved the scallop and crab baked with its homemade aioli. It kinda made me want to barf. Sorry. It could have something to do, however, with the fact that, as a culinary school instructor, I ingest way more homemade mayo than any one human should ever have to. Ever. Baaaa.
The veal was nice. The best part was the leek and rhubarb confit. I licked that part clean in about one minute. I wasn’t into the smoked duck croquet… a little greasy for me… but the big hunk of foie was nicely done. And morels, on their own, are always nice to have. Maybe it just seemed like there was too much going on without much continuity.
I liked the way they transitioned from savory to sweet. Rather than doing a palate cleanser like a sorbet or something, the came out with a course that was half sweet and half savory. It was Explorateur, that delicious, soft, gooey cheese with a bite of Exporateur cheesecake and a sweet strawberry compote.
While delicious, the desserts were not Michelin quality. If I was a bettin’ woman, I’d say these desserts were made by a cook, not a pastry chef. They were a little sloppy, and kinda… how can I explain… without finesse.
The chocolate presentation, too, was fun, but not elegant. I was a little more “rustic” than you’d expect from an otherwise beautifully platted dinner.
And honestly, the best bite of the entire thing was the very last. This little taste of ice cream with black sea salt was outstanding! I should’ve asked if they’d sell me a pint.
I recently returned from one seriously amazing trip. After Christmas, I and three of my favorite peeps hopped a plane (or 5) to Asia for the first time in our lives. Wowza… what an experience. We spent our 10 or so days split between two locations: Singapore and a little island in Malaysia called Langkawi. What follows in this post is a quick chronicle of what we ate during our first stop. There may not be much detail in the descriptions because, frankly, I didn’t know what in the hell we were eating most of the time and the obvious language barrier prevented me from nosing my way into the scoop as I usually do.
Anyway, after we all final arrived and met up from our various locations, a cheers seemed the only natural way to start the trip.
Without delay, we signed up for a “food” tour. To say the least, it wasn’t exactly what we expected. I anticipated being guided from one local joint to the next, with and insiders scoop to the local culinary treasures. Yeah… not so much. Let’s just say that by the time food was actually involved, it was 3 and a half hours later and our guide had a small mob of HANGRY (that’s hungry and angry) tourists on his hands.
We did learn a thing or two though, so it certainly wasn’t all a loss. The first stop (and the only spot where food was actually presented to eat) was a fruit stand. Crazy, unfamiliar Asian fruits were available for tasting. Dragonfruit: delicious. The red is more flavorful than the white. Thai mango: more delicious than the mangos we get here. Obviously, freshness and ripeness plays a factor here, too. Chicago grocery store mangos are clearly not picked at their peek.
Our guide gave us the scoop on each and every one…
…including the infamous Durian fruit. Now this is something… um, special. Let’s just say that the two of my favorite peeps who also happen to be surgeons, compared its ‘aroma’ to those that send their co-workers gagging and running in the OR. Yes, it was probably the worst smell I’ve ever experienced. Ever. F-ing disgusting. But alas, what would my students at culinary school say if I didn’t even taste it? So I did. Weird. Strong. Savory with umami… like stinky cheese and garlic… but also sweet. Texturally, it was dense and soft… maybe like an over-ripe banana that you sucked off of a large pit, which the durian has several of packed inside its spiny, prickly, tough skin. (My bro is holding it in the pic below.)
So the actual food part came a good 4 hours into the ‘food’ tour. We were brought back to the hostel where we met, seated at enormous tables and served a spread of 40 or so different Singaporean foods (and my guess is, not the best version of any of them).
We learned that Singapore is very much a crossroads, which is clearly manifested in its cuisine. Most often you find foods of Thailand, India and Malaysia. This excites me.
The dessert spread seemed to be a lot of same-same. Rice, in one of its zillion forms, coconut, in one of its several forms, and sugar. Gooey, sticky, gummy, spongy and ultra sweet. Yup… that pretty much sums it up. (Oh yeah, and dyed. Ick.)
The real adventure started the next day when we experienced for the first time, the dirty beauty of the Hawker Center. Maxwell St. Hawker Center, I think I love you. So fabulous. A permanent gathering of little booths selling foodstuffs galore! And for dirt cheap.
So we got right to it, of course. We split up and headed in four different directions. Where ever there was a line, someone got in it. We ended up with plates and plates of goodies to taste… most of which we were completely clueless about. All the better.
Roasted meats with condiments…
And noodles and rice and curries everywhere!
Here’s me and my bro waiting for who-knows-what. It was delicious!
Oooohh yeeeaaaahh…. the plates of food. My man has a nose for fried chicken. I don’t know how he does it but this was his first discovery. Fried chicken with bean thread noodles and a fried egg. Everything’s better with a fried egg.
This was one of the hands-down winners. The most delicious, rich curry I’ve ever tasted. I tried to ask the little old lady what the spongy stuff was that was floating in it but all she could get out was, “cheekin, cheekin.” No, not the chicken… the spongy stuff. What is it? Maybe a type of tofu? Seitan? A bread? I have no idea but it was sooooo good all saturated with that amazing, soupy curry. Love.
This was pretty damn tasty too. Also my discovery, thank you very much. It was billed as a “white carrot pancake”. Well, there was nothing pancake about it, nor could I determine what this “white carrot” was that they spoke of. Initially I thought it might be a parsnip. Upon first bite, I ruled out that idea. It was certainly a root of some type but nothing that was familiar to me. I did notice the use of tapioca in its root form more and more during the course of the trip so perhaps that’s what it was. Not sure. If you have answers about these things, I’d love the info. (Comment below!)
This is me in curry heaven. (The crAsian sodas were really good, too!)
And the piles of deliciousness just kept coming. Roasted duck with rice…
Noodles in a salty, meaty broth…
Tangy, zippy cabbage, green beans and marinated chicken…
Yes, a truly amazing place. One of my favorite stops on the entire trip.
The next stop that day was in Chinatown where I couldn’t resist buying a young Thai coconut to sip on. It was different than the coconut water I’ve had before. It had almost a savory, earthiness to it. So delicious. You can see that I’m concentrating very hard on putting my finger on its unique flavor .
We were still stuffed at this point so we didn’t taste the squid on a stick.
Nor did we taste any of the beautiful breads from the random Austrian guy in the middle of Chinatown. Strange, huh?
There were open shops with boxes and boxes of a meeelion varieties of dried fish. Maybe someday I’ll learn what one does with all these stinky little fishies.
Although it wasn’t our intention, the next day we ended up at yet another hawker center. This time, though, it was in the middle of Little India. Total score.
We didn’t go quite as crazy at this one, and, in the end, we like Maxwell St better, but it was still a very cool find.
This one had stalls selling meats, produce, etc for you to take home, too.
As we rushed with all our might, away from the horrid durian stench that overwhelmed most of the produce section, we ran into this: A giant heart hanging on a hook in the TDZ (that’s Temperature Danger Zone). I’m pretty sure that the US Dept of Health would not approve of this .
I’m also pretty sure we were the only two white girls there…
But the curries and rice were delicious.
And we all agreed that this mango juice was a liquid sent straight from the gods, themselves. Man! Why was that stuff so good?!
Yeah… Did I say “holy crap” yet? Holy crap. What an experience! Dinner at Next was soooo much more than dinner out. I’m not even sure if it was dinner. Well, yes, I was ridiculously full when I left the restaurants so apparently this science project/time traveling journey did actually contain food.
Was it the best food I’ve ever had? I don’t know. And I don’t care, either. There was so much more going on than just how it tasted for the brief moment when it encountered my mouth. One cannot possibly judge the experience at Next with any other restaurant because it is completely unlike any other restaurant. We’re talkin’ apples and oranges here…if you will.
The note inside the otherwise blank menu said that “childhood” could have very well been named “Michigan, 1985”. Well, I wasn’t in Michigan in 1985 but from the stories I’ve heard, they hit the nail on the head. With every new course came a memory or a story from my dining partner who did happen to be present in the same time and place as the two mad scientists…um… I mean, chefs… who composed this ever-so-intricate menu.
Let’s start from the top, shall we? First to arrive was a little box. Oooo! I love surprises!
Inside it was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Kind of. It was really a fried bignet-like ball that exploded its PB&J liquid center immediately upon biting. Luckily, we’d been forewarned about the necessity of consuming this morsel in a single go.
Chicken noodle soup may have been my favorite course, flavor-wise. The explanation was that they meant ‘chicken noodle’ quite literally… like, they’d made noodles out of chicken. Hmmm… interesting. Yes, the chicken was made into a forcemeat of sorts, and piped into a simmering broth to create noodles. On top was a chicken hollandaise (made from chicken butter, of course!) that was aerated to lighten it up. The deep chicken broth was poured over these two components as well as some beautiful, strangely unaltered, veg & herbs and what it made was a rich, fabulous soup so good I wanted to swim in it.
One of the most fun courses to play with was the Refrigerator Art Fish & Chips. All of the components of Fish & Chips were present in the child-like drawing of ‘goin’ fishin’’. The batter was the sand on the beach, the chips were in the form of a net resting on the very flavorful fish that was hiding under a malt vinegar sea foam. A meyer lemon sauce became the sun and some lightly pickled cucumbers played the roll of the water. There were even some salty little sea beans for seaweed. Gotta keep it real, ya know.
My balsamic drawing was a girl, of course…
Apparently, Mac n Cheese is a staple in most kids’ diets ‘round these parts. I can’t say that it was part of mine, much like every other course of the evening. And unsarcastically I say, “Thanks, Mom”. Yes, apparently it’s eaten with any variety of side or main dishes or accompaniments: ham, hot dogs, tomato (soup, maybe?), all of which were represented in the ring of accompaniments here. I even got a thorough explanation of ‘ring bologna’ while contemplating the flavor combo of mac n cheese with a crumbly, hot dog flavored substance. I think it may be the closest I’m going to get to this ‘ring bologna’ they speak of and I’m pretty ok with it.
I wish they’d told me I was going to a bonfire… I would’ve worn a different outfit. This course did evoke memories of my own: those of mountains and bonfires and flatbed pick-ups (Fall Creek, for those of you in the know). A hollowed out log was presented before us with slow burning hay beneath a glass top that held the ‘food’. This one was a ‘Walk in the Forest’. I honestly can’t remember everything that was in front of me. Certainly there were mushrooms but that’s all I know. The rest was a forest floor of crunchy, earthy, yummy, colorful mess. So cool.
When the next course arrived, I was perplexed. I shouldn’t have been, but I was. I mean, I’d never seen a hamburger like that before so it didn’t immediately register with me. Upon further inspection, it made perfect sense. The bun was the most interesting component here. They actually pureed hamburger buns with such n such & “magic powder,” poured it out, froze it, broke it and melted it over the plate. Weird. For real. It was almost pasty, but in a good way… if that’s possible. It was one of those things that you just couldn’t stop eating because you couldn’t decide if you really liked it or not. Dollops and splatters of the regular cast of characters was present as well: mustard, ketchup, mayo. Onions and thinly sliced cornichons jutted vertically from the mess and hidden beneath the carefully contrived chaos was the star: a braised waygu shortrib so rich I was convinced I could feel the melted marbling lube my mouth and throat as it went down. Yeah, not quite McDonald’s.
And then the most anticipated course of the evening arrived. The lunchbox! But what was inside I could have never anticipated.
Upon opening it, I found a note from Mom: Sorry, no lobster today, only wagyu & truffles. Fine, Mom. I guess I’ll forgive you just this once. Then what followed was a bunch of lunchbox accompaniments all sealed in their own ziplocs and ‘tupperware’.
There was the most rich teriyaki beef jerky of your life made from a hunk of wagyu. So sweet and deep and meaty! And might I say that had the fruit roll ups in our lunchboxes been Apple-Brandy flavored, no one would have EVER traded me for my carrot sticks! I had a hard enough time as it was with that one.
The ‘funyun’ was slightly different than the ones we had on the back of the bus during volleyball trips, but that’s a good thing. Then there was the oreo. Who knew chocolate and white truffle actually worked fabulously together! Gimme more! This is when I started trying to trade with the next table over. No luck.
Hey! What about the puddin’? Don’t worry. They thought of that too. Chocolate-hazelnut, to be precise. I wouldn’t have minded that for my lunchtime dessert!
And no lunchbox is complete without a thermos. I’m pretty sure my class following lunch would have been a heck of a lot more fun had my fresh berry punch been spiked with wine and port! It was also really funny to look around this fancy restaurant and see a bunch of excited diners sipping from the lid of a plastic cartoon character thermos.
On to the real desserts! First, donuts and ‘foie’sting. Yeah, that’s right. A foie gras frosting that you licked from a beater blade. Rich and rich. I can’t remember the flavor of the donut. Who cares, really, when there’s a beater of foie gras frosting sitting next to it? Who thinks of this stuff?
And who thinks of lighting an entire fire on your table and then making it taste like sweet potato pie? Mad scientists. These charred ‘logs’ were made of sweet potatoes that, strangely, weren’t charred at all. Whatever they were sitting on was the substance that was actually burning, and really, it was some alcohol concoction that was holding the flame so nothing on the plate tasted charred or burned at all.
It came with the crumble, a marshmallow and the most wonderful bourbon barrel ice cream ever. Ok, so I’ve never had bourbon barrel ice cream before, and I assume, not many have, but trust me when I say, “Oh, hell yeah!” Apparently, they steep the cream with actual barrels that held and aged bourbon. Then made ice cream out of it with a little splash of the real stuff for some kick. So fab.
And the obvious choice for the perfect ‘childhood’ finish is hot cocoa! …with a shot of cognac.
The service, of course, was pretty darn impeccable. Every person who crossed our path was super knowledgable and informative… and that’s a tough feat when you’re talking about food/science this complex. It’s the kind of place, though, that you notice with a server reaches across your table instead of going around. That happened once and we noticed.
I’m not sure if Next can even be summed up in ‘The short version’ but here it is….
The Short Version (Out of 10)…
Food: 9, 10, 11? I’m not sure…
Overall impression: 11
Would I go back?
Hahaha! If I can ever get tickets again… hell yes! I’d go for every new menu, that’s every 3 months, if I could! The next Next menu is a tribute to El Bulli, the original molecular gastronomic restaurant, where the original mad scientist himself, Ferran Adria, will be present. Holy crap.
I’d been driving by Ruxbin on Ashland Ave for quite some time before I finally went. Why oh why did I wait? It was soooo good. It’s one of those places where the food gets its flavor from combinations of ingredients rather than the addition of fat (like butter or bacon, as so many chefs like to do these days). Just clean food with whacky combinations that you’d never think of but work wonderfully.
We started with the Apple and Plum Salad with baby arugula, almonds, manchego and a walnut-sherry vinaigrette. Ok, this one wasn’t too much of a stretch. It was clean and bright and fresh. Just what the doctor ordered!
The calamari, on the other hand, was unlike any other calamari I’ve ever encountered. Ever. The bodies were stuffed with a chicken and pork forcemeat (aka sausage without the casing), and was accompanied by potato confit, Korean chili, pickled fennel, peanuts, pea tendrils and some other stuff that wasn’t listed on the menu. A couple of sauces, for one, and some pickled cukes. The calamari itself was tender and it’s filling, full flavored. The rest of the components were its counterparts: fresh tendrils, acidic fennel and cukes, spicy chilis. So delicious. We cleaned it up.
The flatbread was fairly irresistible, as well. I mean, just look at those colors! In house made ricotta, shaved radishes… prosciutto… kumquats!…and fresh basil. Gaaaawd it was good. Salty, creamy, citrus-y, sweet. The crust itself wasn’t anything to write home about but who cares?! With ingredients like that, you could have asked me to lick it off the table and I would have agreed.
Next was the cold Soba, which was so interesting. It had a ton of veggies and other things I know not about, a poached egg and, coolest of all, horseradish granita. ”What?” you say? Yes, horseradish granita. Next to it on the plate were a bunch of pickled goodies, some crazy gelees, and a couple little salty sea beans. They were there, apparently, for you to use as a palette cleanser between bites.
The broth was smoky, the ingredients bright, the noodles earthy. A lot going on, I’d say. Would I rush back to order this again? Not so much. Was I glad we tried it. Oh yeah. Totally weird, but in a good way.
See the ice-y granita? Cool, huh? It lent a little horseradish spiciness as it melted into the broth. Oh, yeah. I forgot to mention the crunch, salty, toasty little soy beans. They were good too.
Then there was the Pork Tenderloin. All I gotta say about that… COME TO MAMA! Crunchy hominy and chickpeas, roasted shallots, grilled peaches, fried basil and chili-coffee salt. Hmmm… ponder that a moment. You can’t possibly understand how these flavors came together so amazingly. Really. Genius.
The waitress informed us that they only had two desserts on the menu. So we ordered one of each, naturally. Fresh berries, homemade biscuit/shortbread and chantilly cream (aka fresh whipped cream with sugar and vanilla) and balsamic vinegar. Ugly as hell, but sigh-worthy delicious.
Last was the lychee panna cotta with toasted coconut. Also fab. Creamy, soft, sweet, tropical, crunchy, toasty. Yup. These guys hit it all on the mark.
I also didn’t tell you that we ordered one of their homemade sodas because it sounded so intreging. It was. Tamarind, vanilla, citrus and poppy seed. Complex and a bit sweet which was balanced nicely with the citrus. It was almost better than a boozy cocktail. Well… almost.
The place is teensy and very rustic but hip and comfortable. Oh! And it’s BYO, so be forewarned!
Service was great, too! Our server was cool and fun and knew her stuff. Great recs and told us the truth about menu items, which I always appreciate.
I heart Ruxbin.
The Short Version (Out of 10)…
Overall impression: 10
Would I go back?
Absolutely! In fact, I’m adding this to my mental list for when people ask, “So what are your favorite places to eat?” Ruxbin. The answer is Ruxbin.
Confession: I had no idea what Thai food was beyond pad thai and curry. I’m sure that’s the equivalent, in my world, of spaghetti and meatballs and chicken alfredo (which doesn’t actually exist in Italy). But Pok Pok, thank you for opening my eyes to a breadth of genuine flavors and dishes from this delicious country! If this is what it really is, sign me up!
However, I am still, very clearly, a complete novice and therefore do not pretend to understand the complexities of this cuisine. Thus, my commentary will be, probably to the relief of some, limited. :) I’ll do the best I can, but hopefully the pictures of this beautiful food will be enough to make your mouth water.
I think this first one was my fave. Prawns and pork belly baked in clay pot with bean thread noodles and a bunch of other delicious salty stuff. Mmmmm… sticky and rich.
It was so good I made my photographer get a shot of the sticky stuff on the bottom. I went in for the scrap. I probably shouldn’t have; I was bloated for 2 days. Nah… it was worth it.
The Vietnamese fish sauce chicken wings are a house specialty. Marinated in a fish sauce concoction, deep fried then tossed in said fish sauce concoction with garlic. Um, ok. I’d take these at a bar with a beer any day.
Charcoal grilled prawns with a spicy lime/garlic/cilantro root dipping sauce. I managed to miss tasting this one but wasn’t disappointed about it. If I had to miss one, this was it because it was the most understandable to me. I like to get my hands in the weird stuff.
Weird stuff like this: grilled boar collar meat. Marinated and sauced. Served with chilled mustard greens that were to be used as a chaser. I’m not exactly sure what the whole concept is there. I guess I could see it if it were more spicy but it wasn’t super hot. Maybe it’s just tradition? Regardless, the meat was wonderful.
Sauteed water spinach with garlic. I always go for the greens. They were simple, fresh and light. Nothin’ too special… just good, yummy greens.
Bean thread noodles’ competition: Braised pork shoulder and belly curry with a bunch of crazy stuff like tamarind, palm sugar, turmeric, Burmese curry powder (whatever that is) and pickled garlic. It was suggested that we eat this one with coconut rice (unpictured). Good suggestion.
Clearly the place is very casual. Here’s the specials board. Notice the ‘drinking vinegars’ in the bottom left corner. They’re mixed into some wonderfully interesting cocktails. They also have a massive list of whiskeys. Thailand, I think you and I are going to get along just fine…
Apparently the place started as just a little shack with very few menu items, including the rotisserie chicken. It’s been expanding little by little. There’s lots of cool, sectioned patio spaces in which to eat and drink. The indoor space is teensy… like, I could have rested my head on the lady sitting at the table behind me.
Me, waiting (relatively) patiently. I hear there’s a lot of that here (patiently waiting, that is).
As for the service, it was pretty slow. It seemed like the staff was so laid back (maybe that’s just a Portland thing) and they all know that they have such a great reputation that everyone will just wait. And we did. Our server was very knowledgable and quite helpful, though. We couldn’t have done it without him. Plus, he’s the one that suggested the bean thread noodles so he’s good in my book!
The Short Version (Out of 10)…
Overall impression: 9
Would I go back?
For sure! And I’d try all new things. I’m pretty sure everything they do here is interesting and wonderful.
Ok, I admit it. I know nothing about authentic Chinese food. Nothing. What I do know is that I have enough Asian ingredients in my pantry to make anything “Chinese”. If it starts with GingerGarlicScallions and ends with soy sauce, I’m callin’ it Chinese. Also, there are nearly ZERO calories in all of those ingredients and they make for very flavorful food. Nothin’ wrong with that!
So a couple of nights ago, I was poking around my fridge and pantry, seeing if I could concoct something resembling dinner without making a trip to the grocery store. Nooooo problem! There were some veggies in the fridge, shrimp in the freeze, noodles in the pantry, soy sauce in the cabinet. Ok, so there was a little more to it than that… but not much!
Here’s what I used:
It’s super fast to put together and can be done with pretty much whatever veggies and/or protein combo you happen to have. This is also why it’s good to have a couple cans of water chestnuts and bamboo shoots in your pantry.
All you have to do is saute the veggies in a little oil until they’re almost done, push them aside to make a little spot in the pan for your ginger, garlic and shrimp (or thinly sliced chicken, pork, beef or what ever). Once the aromatics (ginger and garlic) are giving off their perfume, add the liquids that you’ve already mixed together and tasted for balance. (It should be salty, sweet and bright. I put too much hoisin. Be careful, it’s sweet and strong!) That will stop the browning of g&g while giving the protein a little extra time to cook and the veggies time to absorb. Now toss in your cooked noodles (the ones I used where so thin that I only had to boil them for 2 minutes) and mix it up. You want the liquid to be loose enough that the veggies and noodles will absorb it, but not so loose that you’re left with a pool of sauce in the bottom of the bowl. If it’s too sticky, add a little water. If it’s too loose, move your cooked veggies/noodles to your serving bowl(s) and let the sauce reduce some before pouring it over the rest.
It looks like this:
Now all that’s left is to drizzle it with a touch of sesame oil and sprinkle on the seeds. You’ll only need about a teaspoon of oil per bowl since it’s so fragrant. A little goes a long way! The spice lovers out there can grab for the sriracha, too!
Pretty simple, huh? Yeah, that’s how I like it. Simple, tasty, healthy.
What would I do differently next time? Heavier on the ginger (about 1 tablespoon for 2 people), lighter on the hoisin (1 tablespoon instead of 2!). And I probably didn’t need the leeks since I had scallions, but it was still OK. Over all, pretty yummy for dinner in 15 minutes!
As soon as I started talking to Mary Nguyen Aregoni at Saigon Sisters, I felt a connection. What a cool lady and an awesome story. Apparently, her family moved from Vietnam when she was a young girl and she was brought up in a traditional Vietnamese household here in the US. There was a huge emphasis on education so, as it was expected of her, she excelled all the way through grad school and into corporate America. After accomplishing much success in the business world, she decided to follow her dream and passion and open a restaurant. She had absolutely NO previous experience in the restaurant biz. It takes a ballsy woman to dive into such a thing, right Mom?
So anyway, she, with the support of her sister in NYC, started with her little sandwich shop in the French Market in the West Loop. It was very well received and within some months she was working on the restaurant. She knew what her concept was, traditional Vietnamese flavors remade into new, creative dishes, but since she herself had no professional cooking experience, she also knew that she needed a chef to help make it come alive.
That’s when she found Matt Eversman. He’s young and had training and experience but was still willing to listen and learn about Vietnamese cuisine from Mary’s mother, the true expert on the subject. He, after all, has never been to Vietnam, nor cooked this style of food, until now. The combination of the two of them proved to be a success as Matt was named ‘Breakout Chef of the Year’ by Time Out Chicago.
But alas, chefs will be chefs. On to the next big thing. Ugh. It hasn’t even been a year, for crying out loud. It was just announced, and I believe it came as a surprise to Mary as well, that he’ll be moving on to work on his own concept with some partners. This may be Mary’s first experience with the flightiness of the world of restaurant employees, but I can almost guarentee that it won’t be the last. Sorry, Mary.
I wanted to do a segment at Saigon Sisters because I like it so much and she agreed to do so with much enthusiasm. But when I contacted her to schedule the shoot, she informed me that there were many changes happening and it would be better to wait a while. She’s working on a new summer menu, that I’m sure will be wonderful, even without that smelly boy .
This was my second dining experience at Saigon Sisters and it was quite good, although I might be inclined to say that I preferred my menu selections on the first go.
Here’s what we had:
Three steamed buns: one with wagyu, one with pork belly and hoisin, and one with braised chicken. My fave is the pork belly. Plus, I just love the soft, squish, stick-to-your-teeth texture of steamed buns. They all had a little pickled veg, like they put on their bahn mi sandwiches, for a little crunch and brightness. Mmmm…
The Caramel Prawns is one of the restaurants signature dishes. They’re served with fried rice, an over easy egg and pickled onions. Sounds pretty fab, huh? Yeah, it was, but I have to say that it was a bit salty for me (and I ain’t afraid’a no salt!). The acid in the onions helped to balance the sweetness of the prawns and I’m a fan of anything with an egg on it. Mary says everything in Vietnamese cooking has an egg in it. I can dig it.
Next was the Udon Noodle Soup. Can you say smoky and rich? ”Smoky and rich.” The sticky, deep pork broth was the best part… well… next to the soy-soaked soft boiled egg. There was also some nori, a fish cake, pork belly and some mushrooms in there. Yes, a lot going on. All good things though, except for the noodles themselves which only reminded me of linguine that had been sitting in a pot of unsalted hot water for a hour: bloated, soft and flavorless.
Lastly, we were offered a very interesting dessert that Mary told us has become one of their signature items. It’s a butternut squash and coconut custard with ‘sticky rice,’ peanuts, taro chip and basil. The custard was pretty darn stiff, and I don’t mean that in a bad way, just that I would have never guessed it was a custard (set with eggs). It seemed to me like something that was set with gelatin, but who am I to say. I could be wrong. And I’m not totally sure what the definition of ‘sticky rice’ is but I was expecting rice in it. The white smear on the plate is what they were referring to. The whole thing together was not very sweet, more of a savory finish, but quite an interesting combination of flavors and textures. We enjoyed it.
And like I said, this was my second time dining so I know there are plenty of fabulous and interesting things on the menu. We loved the Fennel and Red Quinoa as well as the Black Pepper Tofu and Rice. I would definitely order that over and over if there weren’t so many other delicious looking items to try. They really do make it hard to choose.
The ambiance is that of a cafe. It’s teensy and casual with wooden banquets, A-14 chairs and a chalkboard full of specials and drinks. I think they might be trying something new with the liquor selection as we were informed by the (arrogant and quite pretentious) “mixologist” that this was a “mixologist’s” bar and therefore only had vodka and gin at the moment. Well, if that was the case, wouldn’t you think that he’d be at least minimally helpful in explaining and/or directing the guest in their drink selection? I mean, since there were no composed cocktails to select from but instead a list of obscure ingredients from which I assume one was supposed to concoct something themselves. Yes, I would too. But he didn’t. He simply looked down his nose at us until we gave up and ordered a beer.
The service, otherwise, was fine. Mary, herself, is the clear highlight of the place. But that’s normal. She cares the most. It’s her place.
Go, Mary, go! You can do it! I can’t wait to see what happens next!
The Short Version (Out of 10)…