Monthly Archives: February 2010

Hello…You are not welcome at Café Spiaggia…

When you say hostess, what comes to mind? Someone who gladly receives you into their restaurant, someone who is gracious, who offers hospitality, and someone who makes you feel welcome. Well, that should have been our first clue, when we walked in the door at Café Spiaggia. There was none of that going on. In fact, we weren’t even greeted until after the people leaving had their coats retrieved; not even acknowledged. Then we were asked in an accusatory tone, if we had a reservation. We should have turned around then and there, like I felt like doing.

Ok, onto the bar to wait for friends. The bartender was friendly enough. That could not make up for the glass of $15 wine I ordered, that was barely drinkable. Thin, flat, tinny, mouth puckering. My husband said he would drink that, he’s good like that, and I ordered a second glass. Just as bad, at least it was only $12. I would have ordered a beer, but I couldn’t find a twelve ounce bottle under $24! Ok. Strike two.

I was very excited for Restaurant Week. I mulled and mulled over where to go. Money is tight right now, so we limited ourselves to one restaurant. I chose Café Spiaggia because I have heard amazing things about Tony Mantuano’s food, Spiaggia is the only 4 star restaurant in Chicago, and I figured I would never go there any other time. Even the café is a bit pricey. I didn’t want to go to the hippest trendiest restaurant; I wanted to go have a great meal. Unfortunately it never happened. The goal of my blog is to be upbeat and to write about experiences that I love, that I am passionate about. Well, this is how passionate I am about having an awful experience at Café Spiaggia. So passionate that I am writing a second post this week!

So, onto the dinner table. Maybe the waiter wasn’t happy that he got “restaurant week” people, who knows. The service was awful. He was snooty, impatient and condescending. Water glasses sat empty, coffee was never refilled.

You know, I always say that the sign of a truly classy establishment is one where everyone is treated equal. You never know who that unassuming customer may be. I have been to plenty of those swanky places, Blackbird, North Pond, Arnauds in New Orleans, the Setai in Miami. The staff at these upscale establishments don’t feel like they have to snub their guests to make themselves feel important. I have never been made to feel more out of place than at Café Spiaggia, amidst the faux finishing, glass sconces and electric blue banquettes. I am so sad that I chose Café Spiaggia to spend my hard earned money at. And that I invited my friends to meet us there. I was embarrassed to have chosen it.

On the bright side, the porchetta was to die for. Pork loin that was butterflied and rubbed with herbs and spices and rolled back up to be, braised for eleven hours and then finished in a wood burning oven; fall off the bone, even though there was no bone. This beautiful roll was served on top of creamy polenta, rapini and a touch of Calabrian pepper spiciness to complement the smoky, fatty, porkiness. Amazingly rich and well worth it every bite. Everything else, meh. The butternut squash ravioli was thick & undercooked with none of the warm brown butter flavor, just oily slickness served as a sauce. Dessert, house made gelato; we would be back on track, right? Three yummy flavors, chocolate chip, espresso and pistachio. Alas, they all tasted the same…of nothing but iciness. And they looked so sad, haphazardly slopped into metal ketchup ramekins and thrown on a plate, not a garnish to be seen. Tiramisu, thank goodness you really can’t make an awful one.

So sad. I was so sad.

I thought once dessert was served the pain would end, but no, one last stab, the check was dropped before we could even finish the mediocre tiramisu, just like at a diner, albeit a very expensive one.

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Mapo Tofu mumblings…recipe writing ramblings….

When I mentioned in my LA post that we had perfected making our own version of Mapo Tofu at home, Shayna asked for our recipe. Well, if you cook like my husband does, you don’t necessarily cook from a recipe. So, this weekend, and a month and a half later, sorry Shayna,  it was time to get out the pen and paper and measuring spoons and transcribe our version of mapo tofu once and for all, so it could claim internet fame! I have written a few recipes before, and I am trying to perfect the art. And let me tell you, it is an art form. This goes hand in hand with developing recipes, which is another art form.  I will never take a printed recipe for granted again. There are recipe testers out there, people’s whose jobs it is to test a recipe before it goes into a cook book or in the food section of a newspaper. I’ll take that job. I love tweaking!

So, first of all you have to decide who your audience is. I am guessing the people reading my blog are foodies and have done their fair share of cooking. I am also assuming that Shayna, who asked for the recipe, must know what the heck mapo tofu is. (I will explain that in a minute!)  If she is interested in the recipe, she must have cooked Chinese food before. Again, I am just guessing this all. So, Shayna, please comment about my assumptions and let me know once you have made the recipe. Another point is that everyone has different taste. I tend to make a recipe the way it reads first to see my results, and then tweak it to my liking.  Recipes are really are just guidelines. Everyone stirs differently, everyone’s idea of medium heat is different & everyone has different equipment. I can now look at a recipe & say, “Hey, I don’t think that is going to work. I should adjust this right away.” The more you cook, the better you get at this.

So, the burning question, “What the heck is this Mapo Tofu anyways?”  Well, I will start by telling you this. It was an acquired taste for me, as were a lot of the Chinese foods my husband ate and prepared. Now congee, xian fan tuan,  and mapo tofu are some of my favorite foods. What all these dishes have in common is that they are peasant food. It is cheap food that uses very little meat and then layers other inexpensive ingredients to add bulk and sometimes a very pungent spice to add interest.

Traditionally mapo tofu is a Sichuan dish that uses ground pork, soft tofu, fermented bean paste, Sichuan peppercorns and a chili infused peanut oil.

When I finally did acquire a taste for this dish, whenever we got it in a restaurant it was always oily, heavy and way too spicy. So we started playing around with our own version, which is not authentic, by any stretch if the imagination. We do not use Sichuan peppercorns or chiles or pork for that matter. Our impetus was not to recreate the dish authentically; our goal was to make a version that suited out tastes for a lighter, more modern, less aggressively spicy and less oily dish.

Our version also happens to be vegan for some reason, maybe our vegan friends. We have served it as an appetizer at parties hosted by vegan friends by hollowing out what we call “puffy tofu” & putting a little rice, a little mapo tofu & a cilantro sprig. It was well received, to say the least, and saved the day, as we had not perfected any other vegan recipes.

I am going to take this opportunity to push buying a rice cooker if you don’t own one. We did not have one for a very long time. I called my husband a “bad Chinese’ for not owning one! I do not know how to cook rice without one. Why would you want to? It can be such a hassle. With a rice cooker, you measure, dump it in & push a button. We have a tiny Salton rice cooker that makes 3 cups of cooked rice that we got at Bed Bath & Beyond for $14.99! It works, I love it! Who needs a Zojirushi with “fuzzy logic”, whatever that is, for $150? Paying that much for a rice cooker in my mind is “fuzzy logic”!

So, here is the recipe. I hope you enjoy it for what it has become, not what it was supposed to be. Feel free to tweak it to YOUR liking, add more broad bean paste for a more intense flavor and spiciness, sub out the tofu for ground chicken. Don’t worry, I won’t be offended. Make it your own.

Timing wise, start the rice in your rice cooker. Once that pops, in about 20 minutes, start the Mapo Tofu, which will only take about 10 minutes.  In that time, the rice can rest and continue absorbing or whatever it does in those completely necessary extra ten post-pop minutes.

Mapo Tofu

1 cup fried tofu, cut into ¼ dice

7 oz extra firm tofu, drained

½ cup chopped straw mushrooms

1 ½ Tbl broad bean paste with chili (you can add more for a more intense flavor & spiciness)

1 Tbl chopped ginger

2 Tbl chopped garlic

2/3 cup veggie stock

1 Tbl oil, canola, veggie or light flavored olive oil (told you it wasn’t traditional)

1 tsp sugar

½ Tbl soy

½ Tbl rice wine vinegar

½ Tbl rice wine

½ Tbl sesame oil

(We call the 4 ingredients above “the usual suspects” as they are in all Chinese food)

“The slurry” – 1Tbl tapioca starch or corn starch mixed with ¼ cup water

Chopped scallions or cilantro for garnish

Heat cast iron pan or wok on medium high heat

Add the oil and then the broad bean paste, sauté for 15 seconds

Some of it will stick to the bottom of the wok. This browning is good, just make sure it doesn’t burn too much. You want to develop flavor, just not burnt flavor!

Add garlic and ginger, sauté until translucent, about 30 seconds

Add hard tofu and stir, sauté for about 2 minutes

Add stock, the “usual suspects”, straw mushrooms and extra firm tofu

Stir this all to incorporate, being careful not to break up the tofu too much.

You don’t want to obliterate it, you want to have larger pieces of it in the finished product, but this is all to your preference, of course.

Bring to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer.

Add 1 Tbl of “the slurry” (You will have to mix it first as it will have separated and settled.)

Cook until this thickens, about 15 seconds or until the mixture returns to a simmer.

Check for desired consistency. If you want the sauce a little thicker, add another tablespoon of “the slurry” & incorporate. We usually add 2 tablespoons total.

Once desired consistency is achieved, remove from heat, break up tofu to desired size.

Serve over rice, garnish with cilantro or scallions.

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Z and H….short for outstanding….

We love nicknames…And thank goodness Zaleski and Horvath MarketCafé  has one…it’s Z and H…much easier, thank you!

I have been wanting to blog about Z and H MarketCafe on 47th Street in Kenwood for quite awhile now. I just had to find the time to head out to Kenwood from Logan Square. Wish I would have found the time earlier. It is worth the trip.

I love everything about Z and H; the market part, the café part, the friendly people part.

At the heart of the operation is a great deli with a wide variety of meats, cheeses and salads, a nice mix of good ‘ol fashioned turkey and artisan cheeses like Dunbarton Blue from Wisconsin. On the café side of things is a substantial size menu of sammies, panini and salads. If you want to get creative and make your own, they have a listing of deli meats, cheeses and yummy condiments and fun additions like curried mayo, quince paste, tomato chutney and guacamole. Tables are scattered around the store for a very comfortable feel.

Pastries are made in house, along with their bagels. Yes, they make their bagels in house. Is that crazy or what? And they are GOOD. You know how hard it is to make a good bagel, especially if that is not your main business? Hard. Do you know any good bagel shops in the city? I thought not. Now you do. Go get one.

I swear I only ate two of the sandwiches. The third was my friend, Caryn's. Really.

Breakfast is cheap, another good reason to go. I got a great sandwich with Nueske’s bacon, ham, cheese, organic eggs on a house made croissant. A breakfast sandwich made with organic eggs for $4.75? Unheard of in this city, or anywhere else for that matter! Breakfast sandwiches are served by themselves, but who needs/wants messy potatoes or whatever filler is being served that just hike up the cost of your breakfast, add calories & are hard to eat if you are on the run. I would have been perfectly full eating just the sandwich. I did have a bagel, also, but that was “all in the name of research’ and I was actually uncomfortably full after breakfast, until 3:30, seriously!

Z and H serves Metropolis coffee three ways, by brewing it, in espresso drinks or using a clover machine. What excited me, though, was the chai mate latte which was perfectly spiced, but still highlighted that signature earthy grassy mate flavor. I don’t know any other café in the city that serves a mate latte. If you do, please let me know.

Onto the market part….Z and H supports small local producers, but also has a great mix of other artisan and international products, as well as everyday necessities, including fresh produce. I was so excited to see that they carried Ayala’s  Herbal Waters. I sampled this product at the Fancy Food Show and unfortunately have never seen it carried elsewhere it the city. It is a great product, consisting solely of purified water and organic herbs and extracts. At $1.50, I think it is a steal. That’s about the same price as a bottle of Evian. Some of Ayala’s flavors are lemongrass mint vanilla, clove cardamom cinnamon, lemon verbena geranium, lavender mint. So refreshing. They’re great when you want a little bit more than a bottle of water, but don’t want sweet juices or ice teas or fizzy water. Sorry for the tangent, but here I go again.

I also bought a disk of Taza Chocolate, Salted Almond, to make hot chocolate with They are a small producer of eating and drinking chocolate in Somerville, Ma. These small types of operations are called “bean to bar”. I’ll actually get into that more, as I’ll most likely do a whole post on chocolate in the future. (Sounds like tasty research to me!) . I have always wanted to try Taza Chocolate, but haven’t seen it anywhere else in the city. I’m starting to see a pattern here. Z and H is carrying items that not many stores carry, making them very unique. They are making amazing products in house, like bagels and serving cool drinks, like chai mate lattes.

To top it all off, everyone is super friendly. That is important to me, because no matter how good a place is, if they are not friendly, I am not supporting them. Customer Service is the name of the game, especially in these economic times. Z and H measures up in this category…and all others.  Z and H is totally worth the trip. Make a day out of it. Think of it as an adventure. After all, Z and H is nothing short of ….outstanding.

Z & H MarketCafe   1126 E. 47th St.   773-538-7372

Coming Soon: Second location at 1323 E. 57th St.

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The Viking breakfast…..just order it….

I used to go to Svea in Andersonville all the time, when I lived up North. When a friend suggested we meet there for breakfast recently, I quickly agreed. I hadn’t been in years. My husband was so jealous that I was going; he demanded we go together the next weekend. Sure, no problem. You don’t have to twist my arm.

I have to admit, I have only ever ordered two things here, the Swedish pancakes and the Viking breakfast. That’s all you really need to know! The rest of the menu has some classic breakfast/lunch dishes, BLT sandwich, meatloaf, omelets, and Swedish fare like lukefish, herring and fruit soup. I’m going to stick with my beloved Swedish pancakes.

I love Swedish pancakes. We used to go to Door County Wisconsin every 4th of July when I was growing up. What I remember most about Door County is the fireworks, the fish boils (Not that I ever tried it. I was not as adventurous back then), Wilson’s Ice Cream Parlor, the goats on the roof at Al Johnson’s Swedish restaurant and Swedish pancakes. (Of course I had to digress down memory lane a little! You know me.) This must have been when I became addicted to the ultra thin pancakes, topped with tart lingonberries and a dusting of powdered sugar. They are sort of like crepes, but a little spongier, in a good way.

So, Swedish pancakes at Svea. Good. Very good. And cheap. Very cheap. $5 for an order… still. I think that was the price when I ordered them fifteen years ago. This place is sort of in a time warp, in a good way. Oh, and the potatoes here are excellent, and a little greasy, in a good way. I think it is the paprika on them that gives them their odd orange color and makes them taste so good. So, this is your game plan when you go into Svea.

Go with a friend, sit down, order the Swedish pancakes and a Viking breakfast and share. The Viking Breakfast comes with two eggs, potatoes, toast, Falukorv sausage, which is kind of like a spicier smaller bologna in link form that sounds much better than my description, although that is totally what it reminds me of, just being honest, and Swedish pancakes. I say order the extra order of Swedish pancakes because that is what you are really here for and the thought of sharing mine has never crossed my mind! I also always order two extra sides of lingonberries because they are so tart and tasty and I love “sauce”. This whole breakfast will only set you back $15 for all this food. Talk about beating the recession. Your two fancy coffee drinks will cost you about half that. Speaking of coffee; a word of warning….caffeinate before you go. Svea’s coffee is pretty awful and their tea is Lipton. I don’t advocate bringing coffee into a restaurant, as I was a restaurant owner, but I would gladly pay for a cup of coffee at Svea and not drink it, in order to bring my own. I’m just saying

Other need to know info about Svea. The service is fast and friendly. It is the same waitress as fifteen years ago, and she looks exactly the same. Svea is open from 7:00- 2:30, until 3:30 on the weekends. Also, they only take cash, but with breakfast being so cheap, that has never posed a problem. Go check them out. It is a nice respite from the see and be seen brunch scene on the weekend. I’m not sure if there is a wait on the weekend, but it shouldn’t get too bad. I can guarantee there will be no waiting outside in the cold for an hour for $13 pancakes like in Wicker Park! After writing this I am craving those darn Swedish pancakes again. I might just have to head over to Svea and make it three visits in three weeks. It may hurt my waistline, but at least it won’t hurt my wallet!

Svea    5236 N. Clark St.  773-275-7738

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Chi Chi La La…LaMill….

Chi Chi La La …LaMill…

The frenzy of LA imbibing continues…at LaMill. This is where you should go if you want the ultimate chi chi coffee experience. Your basic cup of coffee starts at $3.50 here, brewed from a Clover machine and goes up to $20 a cup if you choose a limited selection bean and either the chemex, eva solo or siphon brew method. Wow! I think I can truly say “Only in LA!” The space is absolutely beautiful; it looks nothing like a “coffee shop”. I can’t imagine what the beautifully upholstered teal leather armchairs cost. They were very comfy! We did have breakfast, eggs coquette with lardons and roasted mushrooms and butternut squash polenta with candied pecans. The portions were quite precious, but tasty. I enjoyed a house made chai, that was unfortunately a little sweet, not hot enough and $6 for an eight ounce cup! They do cold brew their ice coffee, which is the only kind of coffee I can drink these days (lower acid) and that only set me back $3.50 and was quite delicious. Glad I went, and am still quite curious what a $20 cup of coffee tastes like. Maybe I’ll split one with Keiko next time!

Mozza was on the top of my list to eat at. The restaurant is collaboration between Nancy Silverton from LaBrea Bakery and Mario Batali, oh, you all know who Mario Batali is. They made it seem so simple to make great pizza. Chewy blackened crust but thin and crispy in the middle, not soggy, at all. I wish everyone could figure this out. They also make tons of the ingredients in house, fennel sausage, guincale, (unsmoked Italian bacon made from the jowl). We had all this luscious meat on our pizza, plus bacon and salami

and, of course, mozzarella. This was house made mozzarella, and I have never tasted anything like this mozzarella. I saw the caprese on the menu and did not order it. What a caprese means to me, is rubbery mozzarella, tasteless tomatoes and basil, a requisite dish at all Italian restaurants.  I saw one go by here, though, and immediately ordered one.

Sorry the picture is not that clear, but I wanted you to see it anyways.

The house made mozzarella had a texture that I have never experienced before. Soft, and buttery and melt in your mouth texture; a mouth feel that was totally new to me. The cherry tomatoes were on the vine still, slightly roasted and bursting with flavor and the pesto was bright oh-so-fresh green and tasted the same. I will never order another caprese in my life, not that I ever did before. The trip to LA was worth it just for this mozzarella…seriously!

Another place high on my list, for years, has been The Hungry Cat. It is hip, modern seafood restaurant at Sunset and Vine, right in the heart of Hollywood, hidden away next to a Borders Book Store. Our visit started out right with one of the best cocktails I have ever had. It was nothing fancy, but it was excellent and way to easy to drink. Juices for the cocktails are freshly squeezed right at the bar. This miracle cocktail I had was called The Penn State and was simply Wild Turkey Rye, fresh lemon and grapefruit juice.  No fancy ice cubes, no house made bitters, just fresh squeezed juice & booze! I’ll have another please.

Dinner was full of interesting seafood choices that I have never had before, the first being a fresh sea urchin. I will tell you, I still not have had it! Laurent jumped at the chance to order fresh sea urchin, but I was not that brave. He and Keiko enjoyed it, although she said that she has had better and cheaper from the Japanese market.

The filets sticking to the inside wall are what you eat.

We also tried a razor clam ceviche that was very refreshing and pretty spicy.  I chose the pan roasted arctic char for dinner with kabocha squash gnocchi, quince, black trumpet mushrooms, hazelnuts and caramel. You know I will order anything that includes caramel in the description. In this case, it was a very thin, lacey caramel crust on the outside of the fish, that I assume was achieved by a light sprinkling of sugar on the fish before it was seared in the pan or flashed under the broiler. Laurent ordered the whole roasted orata served with dates, roasted cauliflower, baby carrots and kale. (or something like that…after two of those lovely cocktails I forgot to write it down. Oops!) Anyways…it was excellent. Both fish were cooked perfectly, had layers and layers of flavors going on without overpowering the actual taste of the fish. Another great meal in LA.

That’s all I’ve got for you on the LA front. As we wrapped up our trip, Keiko came up with at least three more places we had to go…Father’s Office for burgers (I heard that they don’t serve ketchup & that people sneak in bottles strapped to their legs!); Oinkster in Eagle Rock for the pulled pork sandwiches; and Cacao Mexicatessen, again in Eagle Rock (it’s a cool ‘hood), for duck carnitas tacos. You know I’m there next trip!

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