Filtering by Tag: pork belly

Foodie Pilgrimage to New Orleans (2012)

This past weekend I took my first ever trip to The Big Easy. It was a long time in the making as I think I've tried every year since I was 21 to head on down to NOLA, the trip just never materialized. Finally, it happened, and the timing of this trip was perfect. It came at a point in my own life where I have been heartily pursuing culinary knowledge, while simultaneously, the city was being recognized as a foodie and culinary Mecca in our country. Travel and Leisure Magazine actually named it the top Foodie city in the U.S. in late 2011. Because of all the hype surrounding it, I knew I would be eating (and drinking...lots of drinking) very well. It also didn't hurt that I was traveling with several foodie masters who make my culinary knowledge look as if it hasn't yet left the Pop-tarts and Spaghettios phase. Among my companions were award winning restauranteurs, chefs, and let's just say I had some good tour guides.

The second I landed I had a big taste for Po'Boys, as this is what I pictured N'awlins food to be. I soon discovered there was so much more to the dining scene than traditional and stereotypical cajun cuisine. It was interesting to discover how most establishments pay homage to the traditional yet expand upon it to make it more contemporary. My first lunch was at a new restaurant called SoBou in the French Quarter. Its bold and quirky design element visually captivated you immediately as you stepped foot in the door. They went the "small plates" route and we tried about 10 different items. They were all so unique and quite delicious. One of my favorites was the Yellowfin Tuna Cone made with pineapple/coconut tuna tartar with a scoop of basil and avocado ice cream. It was awesome and unlike anything I've had. Tuna tartar and ice cream?!?! It worked beautifully. Another cool dish was the Crispy Oyster Taco (oysters appear in EVERYTHING in NOLA). It was made with pineapple ceviche and cajun ghost pepper caviar. The oysters were perfectly fried and popped when you bit into them and the refreshing sweetness of the pineapple counteracted the heat of the ghost peppers. We also had Sticky Pork Belly, Duck and Butternut Beignets, and the Suckling Pig Cuban Sandwich. Everything was delicious and a great first meal for me. However, this was my also my intro to what would become the central theme for our trip... the bizarre world of subpar New Orleans service. This was the first of several times that EVERY single dish we ordered showed up at the same time. We couldn't even fit all the food on our tiny table! This would never happen at Chicago restaurants...with small plates, food should arrive as it's ready. It should be eaten in stages and as a journey... not as an overwhelming downpour.

We all had an incredible experience, however, at Cochon. Chef Donald Links created a "Cajun Southern Cooking" menu and built a trendy, energetic, and visually appealing restaurant around it. Each of his “small plates” dishes was rooted in classic cajun cuisine, yet he put a totally modern interpretation on the preparation and presentation. Every single dish we tried was bold and completely delicious…and I think we had everything on the menu. Some dishes were so good we had to order them in duplicate and triplicate. The standouts were the wood-fired oysters, the crab cake with cucumber buttermilk and English peas, and the fried livers with red pepper jelly on toast…although it’s hard to choose my fave as everything was awesome. Seriously, just look at this menu and tell me that you don’t wanna hop on the next flight down to Loooosiana. And hey, the service was quite alright…

Finally, I had the pleasure of dining at a restaurant I’ve wanted to try for years. Ever since I was 20 years old and starting watching the Food Network, I’ve been a fan of Emeril Lagasse. Even though he can be quite obnoxious with his “BAMs” and “Kick it Up a Notches”, there’s no doubt he’s been a pioneer in his industry and a brilliant chef (and I would argue the first celebrity chef). The food was incredible and the service, for New Orleans, was quite decent. The New Orleans BBQ Shrimp is a classic signature dish of his, and I can see why…we also had the Pasta with smoked mushrooms and house made tasso cream sauce. This might have been one of my favorite dishes of the entire trip. The flavor was beyond complex and the smokiness of the mushrooms and smokiness of the ham went together so sublimely. Even though I have eaten at a couple of Emeril’s other restaurants (in Vegas of course) this one clearly stands out. It’s the original and has proven it has major staying power…a must try if you’re in New Orleans.

I guess I did do a few other things on my trip besides eat...but those activities are just a blur. Actually I can somehow remember a couple drinks I was ecstatic to discover. You have to check out The Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street. It's an OLD (since 1807) dive bar with a rickety old juke box...but they have a bad ass selection of Absinthe. The bartenders are super knowledgeable and can really walk you through different tastes, styles, countries, etc. They do the traditional pour and it was my favorite way to kick off my afternoons and end my evenings (I know that sounds bad...but hey, it was a vacay). The other super classy and fancy drink I discovered is able to be found about every 50 ft up and down Bourbon Street. Just look for one of the places with the frozen rotating slushy machines. They all have their own frozen "Jungle Juice" concoction. It's made with Everclear and even though it tastes like an ICEE, it will have you on your ass after about 5 sips. They serve it in a very luxurious 20 oz styrofoam cup and it's worth every penny of the $9 you spend on it. Shockingly, the hangovers from them are not nearly bad as you would expect.

New Orleans is a special and interesting town, and if you have never can't even begin to picture it's true nature. It's a "must see" at some point in every American's life. The history is rich, the party scene is strong, and the food is world class. I'm thrilled I was able to experience the best of the town and with other people who could really appreciate all that it has to offer. An

Three New Restaurants- Trencherman, Untitled, Pelago (2012)

I've had the pleasure of dining at three new restaurants over the last 10 days. I'm excited I get to combine these three experiences into one review because each establishment was completely unique and stands out so vividly.

Trencherman in Wicker Park (2039 W. North Ave) just opened its doors in the space that used to be Spring... and formerly a Turkish bath house. The decor is striking. For those of you who remember Spring, prepare to be shocked at the complete 180. The large open room is reminiscent of an upscale saloon with rich browns and woods and buttery leather booths. I got to meet both exec chefs... The Sheerin brothers. Michael and Patrick (of Blackbird and The Signature Room prestige, respectively) were delightful, funny, and incredibly helpful while walking us through their creations. The beverage and food menus are not extensive yet very potent and aggressive. My first selection was a drink appropriately called "El Viaje" (The Trip) as it was a delicious blend of Mezcal, pineapple, and Absinthe (my fave).

We moved right down the menu and selected some of the most interesting looking dishes. First, the Scallops- with avgolemono (egg lemon) sauce and asparagus seeds. Enticing indeed. The scallops were cooked perfectly and the Greek touch of the avgolemono was a pleasant surprise. I've never had an asparagus seed before. They look like peas but are bit more hardy with a very bitter taste. Overall a great dish. Next, the Bacon Cured Sweetbreads. Fantastic. Another first for me as I've tried to put off trying sweetbreads as I didn't think cow glands were my thing...but apparently, they are! The sweetbreads were tender and incredibly smokey and the XO sauce gave it a sweet kick that finished it off nicely. One entree which I thought to be too ambitious was the Black Olive and Sesame Crusted Sea Trout served with hummus and roasted beets. I was really hoping for a heavy Mediterranean flavor but the olive crust didn't really deliver what I was hoping. The hummus was great but the trout was a tad fishy. This dish could use some tweaking. The Braised Pork Belly did not disappoint, however. Drizzled with coconut, vanilla, plums, and sorghum- the perfectly crusted pork belly seemed to adopt the flavor of bubble gum which we found out from the chefs was intentional. Sounds weird... tastes amazing. Overall, incredible drinks and a delicious meal.

Untitled is cool as hell. Look closely for a black double door at 111 W. Kinzie, because it's hard to find. This massive 18,000 sf underground venue on one level tries to bring us back to the speakeasy/prohibition era. Decor and lighting are rustic yet beautiful. They boast several themed rooms such as "The Whiskey Room" which has the country's largest collection of American Whiskey, a martini room, and a live entertainment room with a supper club and a huge stage. The menu was supposed to be a modern take on some throw-back prohibition era dishes. I don't quite see that as I can't quite picture flappers in the roaring 20's dining on Pork Belly Confit with Rhubarb Mostarda...but hey, it's a cool shtick. Regardless, the menu is unique and varied. Some of my favorite items which killed it are the Grilled Peach and Arugula Salad with cured Virginia ham and Goat cheese, the Grit Cakes with tomato jam, the Pork Belly Confit, and the Short Rib and Scallop with herb bread pudding.

The absolute standout is the Crispy Squash Blossoms with truffle honey, farmer's cheese, piperade puree. They're lightly breaded and fried and the cheese and corn mixture oozes when you cut into it, and when mixed with the truffle honey... it's like heaven on a plate. Overall it's a small plate menu with a few main courses. The Bison burger with house-made giardinara, tomato marmalade, arugula, and goat cheese was incredibly complex and literally melts in your mouth. This is a great place for a night out with the girls (or boys) or a great place to take a date. They have live music nightly and the amped up energy will make you want to come back again and again.

Pelago is not a brand new restaurant (just over 2 years old) but it's getting a resurgence from all of the heightened activity at the now hot-spot Raffaello Hotel (Drum Bar). It's a small space with only 60 seats inside, but it's gorgeous. The proprietors are a husband-wife duo, Mauro Mafrici (executive chef) and Kimberly Mafrici (interior designer). The service was friendly and attentive, and after some crisp rose champagne, the menu was upon us. Mauro has Northern and Southern Italian roots and his menu reflects as such. He has a very inventive approach to some of the traditional classics. The Polipo alla Griglia con Capponata alla Siciliana (grilled octopus) had a delicious flavor but was slightly undercooked (I had to try it though because it's Sicilian...gotta represent). The restaurant redeemed itself by presenting the most tantalizing array of pastas I've had...maybe ever. The Ravioli di Vitello in Salsa al Pistacchio(veal stuffed ravioli with pistachio cream sauce) was the most exciting dish i've had in a while. The pistachio was understated and the pasta was cooked perfectly 'al dente' and the veal mixture was light and perfectly seasoned. All topped off with a very high quality nutty parmesan. Complimenting it perfectly was the Fettucini with a truffle cream sauce (a special) , and the Maccheroncini al Ragu`D`Agnello (tube shaped pasta with hearty lamb ragu).

For the main course we tried the Coniglio al Forno Con Patate, Tomato e Salvia (roasted rabbit with vegetables and sage). I was ridiculously excited for this dish, yet unfortunately, it didn't quite live up to my expectations. The rabbit was cooked nicely as were the veggies, however the heavy use of sage and rosemary overwhelmed the dish. A warning: This restaurant is VERY pricey. Overall, it was an engaging dining experience that takes you on a delectable tour of Italy...and if you're in the mood for a very expensive tour of Italy...then this restaurant is for you.

I hope my next 10 days prove to be as much of a culinary adventure as my last 10 days... if so, you know I won't be able to shut up about it. Stay tuned!