Monday, December 31, 2012

Our Year in Food: 2012

2012 was a good eating year.  We've already posted about our favorites (A's post is here and M's post is here) but here's an overview of our 2012 in food.

The first thing we ate in 2012: Steamed fresh roll with crab meat, pork sausage, cucumber, smoked tofu and tamarind reduction from Pure Thai Cookhouse, New York.

The last thing we ate in 2012:  Cedar plank salmon and green lentil salad, homecooked New Year's Eve dinner, made by A (cookbook project entry to come).

# of different restaurants we tried in 2012 (together and separate): 257. 
(This seemed like a lot to M but was not as high as A expected.)

# of cookbook projects we did in 2012: 2 (we really want to be better about this next year!).

# of Shake Shack custards reviewed: 44 (see reviews here), but less than 40 of those were tried for the first time.

Favorite overall meal of 2012:  The incomparable El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain.

The famous El Celler de Can Roca olive tree with caramelized anchovy-stuffed olives

Progress on WorldEats challenge: Still in Canada (but at least we started, even if we haven't blogged it yet).

2012 blog series that will someday be completedDreams CancunCatalunya trip (Barcelona, Girona, Amsterdam and Haarlem); Chicagoland visitsVegas mini-break.

And to close, a random selection of some of the best food we ate this year that didn't make our top 10 lists:

Hoping 2013 will be a wonderful year!

A's Favorite Food Memories of 2012

2012 was a very interesting food year for M and me. This was an incredibly difficult choice to narrow my list down to 10 favorite memories, and there are so many great things that I had to leave off. With so many great food memories from this year, I can't wait to see what 2013 has in store for us. So in chronological order...

1) Alcachofas (Artichokes) from La Cova Fumada (Barcelona)
The thing about these artichokes was that they were so simply prepared. A drizzle of olive oil and salt and pepper before being grilled/baked in the oven. This was the first time either M or I had ever had straight artichoke and not the preserved/pickled hearts you see most often here in the US. We never knew just how much we would love these wonderful little vegetables, and it spawned in me the drive to emulate this simple dish many times at home for us to enjoy.

2) Tickets Olives from Tickets (Barcelona)
I call these magic olives. This is the signature dish of the Adria brothers from back in their El Bulli days. Avant garde gastronomy at its finest. It's some sort of chemical reaction between olive juice, added chemicals, and an alginate bath. The end result is something that is the size and shape of an olive. You slurp the semi-solid oval into your mouth and let it burst. An intense olive burst is what you get, and it's an amazing and mind-blowing experience. Liquid olive that's actually solid too.

3) Fried Egg with Truffled Duck Fat and Potato Cream from Tickets (Barcelona)
This was not only a tasty dish, but it was another display of amazing melding of science and cooking. The dish claims to be a fried egg, but neither M or I remember a solid egg being present. It was more of a custard or pudding that was egg flavored. The duck fat didn't feel greasy or heavy, and the truffle added a nice decadence. The potato cream was much more of a foam than cream. Overall, it tasted like a really good Tortilla Española covered in black truffle.

4) Xipirons amb Mongetes (Baby squid with white beans) from Bar Pinotxo (Barcelona)
Xipirons are baby squid that are about an inch long or so. They are extremely tender, and most of the times we ordered them in Barcelona, they came fried. Juanito offers you these delectable squids sauteed with white beans and olive oil and then drizzled with a balsamic reduction. The result is one of my favorite dishes of all time. It's a dish I still think about today. If we ever make it back to Barcelona, I think M and I will need to make a beeline for La Boqueria to slide up to the counter.

5) Cigrons (Chickpeas) from Bar Pinotxo (Barcelona)
Oh hey, look, another dish from Bar Pinotxo. Along with the aforementioned xipirons, M and I also got a half order of his famous cigrons. They apparently come cooked with raisins, rock salt, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and parsley. Juanito also has a version that includes murcillo or butifarra, but we don't think we got that version. The chickpeas were perfectly cooked to be soft but still retain just a touch of bite. A wonderful, vegetarian option for a country full of meat.

6) A Whole King Prawn from El Celler de Can Roca (Girona)
One restaurant we knew we had to try and get a reservation for when we decided on Barcelona for our European excursion this year was El Celler de Can Roca. It is currently the #2 ranked restaurant in the world, and we were ecstatic when we got our reservation. The restaurant was started by the 3 Roca brothers who all learned cooking from their mother who has a restaurant just up the street from them called Can Roca. She certainly taught them well. This dish was a masterpiece of ingenuity, creativity, and full-on flavor. The menu describes the dish as "a charcoal-grilled king prawn, king prawn sand, ink rocks, fried legs, head juice, and king prawn essence". What they did with this one prawn was nothing short of magnificent. The "sand" tasted like concentrated prawn, the prawn itself was succulent and sweet, and the fried legs added a nice crunchy texture along with even more prawn flavor. They even chose a wavy plate to mimic the sea floor. A truly magnificent dish.

7) Flower Bomb from El Celler de Can Roca (Girona)
This was one of the most beautiful desserts I had ever eaten in my life. Oh, it tasted really good too. "Rose cream, loquats and orange blossom, chamomile sorbet, calendula gelatine, violet cloud, and jasmine oil" is the description given. In essence, it's edible flowers, rose cream, and sorbet wrapped in a sugar spun "bubble" that you have to crack to get into. The violet cloud is cotton candy touched with lavender for a wonderful additional flavor. As much as it pained me to have to break open this beautiful dish, I was extremely happy to eat it.

8) Drunken Noodle with Fried Sea Bass from Lotus of Siam (Las Vegas)
Lotus of Siam is one of the supposed holy trinity of Thai restaurants here in the US. The other two are Jitlada in LA and Sripraphai  in NYC. Oddly enough, the only one we haven't been to is the one here in our backyard. It's hard to describe the flavor of drunken noodle, but if you have ever had some before, imagine the best drunken noodle you've ever had. Multiply that greatness by 10, and then add on perfectly fried pieces of sea bass, and this is what you're getting. The sea bass is very lightly battered and ultra crisp. The fish is perfectly flaky as well. Lotus of Siam was the only place we knew we had to go to in Las Vegas, and we'll certainly go back next time as well.

9) Adobada Taco with Pineapple from Tacos El Gordo (Las Vegas)
Tacos El Gordo is a taco chain started out of Tijuana. After M heard about this amazing taco joint, I knew we would be going at some point during our trip. She is, after all, taco crazy. As much as I loved all of the tacos we tried, the standout was the adobada taco with a slice of pineapple. Adobada is pork that's layered on a spit similar to shawarma. It's marinated, cooked, and sliced to order. It's piled on to a couple of corn tortillas, layed with onions and cilantro, and slathered with some green sauce that's just out of this world. The pineapple is optional, and you have to actually ask for it if you want. We actually tried it both ways, and the pineapple, while not 100% necessary, really made this taco sing. The sweet and sour mix from the pineapple paired itself extremely well to the flavors of the spices in the meat and also the sauce. The end result is a taco that, for all of $2, is the best bang for the buck on The Strip.

10) Thanksgiving Dinner at My Brother's Home (Chicago)
Sure, this is a bit of a cheat since it's not really one specific dish, but if you're talking about food memories, this is a great one. Ever since M and I moved out to NYC, we've never had a chance to spend a holiday with my family. This year, after my nephew was born, we knew we had to be with them. Now, this wasn't anything special with what we made, but it was the first Thanksgiving meal that we cooked without any help from any parents. My brother and I combined to cook a fantastic turkey, M and I made the stuffing and mashed potatoes, my brother made the cranberry-orange relish, and he took over for the green bean casserole while M and I were stuck still working on the stuffing. The only things we didn't make were a Brussels sprout side from Whole Foods that my brother bought in case we botched the turkey and the turkey gravy. It felt so satisfying to successfully cook this major holiday meal. And no, we didn't eat the little begging dog under the table.

2012 was such a great food year even if it wasn't great for most other things. Hopefully 2013 is even better overall.

M's Favorite Food Memories of 2012

2012 may not have been the best year all-around but it was a fantastic year for food, which made choosing my top 10 food memories of the year really difficult.  When I "narrowed down" my options the first time, I ended up with 59 different dishes.  I could have made multiple top 10 lists just from our 10 days in Barcelona, so it's no surprise that it completely dominated this year's list.  Here's my top 10 (in no particular order, except to end with something sweet):

1.  Contessa de espárragos blancos con consomé de ibéricos (white asparagus contessa with Iberian consomme) from El Celler de Can Roca

We went to El Celler de Can Roca, currently the number 2 restaurant in the world, for a 5 hour lunch during our Barcelona trip in May.  One of the courses on our tasting menu was this amazing asparagus dish, with such vivid flavors that I can still taste it to this day.  It was a duo of hot and cold white asparagus bites - the hot consisted of tender white asparagus with black garlic that was so soft that it melted in your mouth, and the cold was an asparagus ice cream with black truffle that was buttery and salty and creamy all at once.  The hot asparagus alone probably would not have made it onto this list, but the asparagus ice cream was great, and together it was asparagus overload (in a good way). Good thing we love asparagus!

2.  Chicago Style Char Dog from Gold Coast Dogs

Despite living in Chicago for a few years, the only Chicago style hot dogs I had eaten prior to this fall were from Portillo's (and even then, had only had 1) and Shake Shack (here in NYC).  (This was in part due to the fact that I didn't eat red meat for much of the time I lived in Chicago and only started my "ballpark exception" for hot dogs near the end of my stay, but let's not talk about that now.)  In September, A and I decided to explore some of Chicago's best hot dogs, and made our own mini Chicago style hot dog crawl.  I love Chicago style hot dogs because they have so many vegetables, making them rather healthy! If you've never had one, it is a hot dog (in this case, charred) on a poppy seed bun topped with mustard, onions, tomatoes, pickles, (neon green) relish, sport peppers and celery salt. My favorite from our crawl was this classic char dog from Gold Coast Dogs.

3.  Alcachofas (artichokes) from La Cova Fumada

La Cova Fumada wasn't the first place I had ever eaten an artichoke in my life, but it is the place that made me realize I liked artichokes.  La Cova Fumada is a tiny hole in the wall place in the Barceloneta neighborhood of Barcelona, filled with mostly locals and without any signage whatsoever. They don't really have a menu, but just make suggestions based on what you like and what's good that day. When the server suggested alcachofas (artichokes), we said yes, despite not having any idea what kind of artichokes would be coming.  I think I was still picturing slices of artichokes like the ones in the jars, which I think were the only ones I had before.

When the artichokes arrived, we were perplexed. How do you eat those? Luckily I had an international data plan so I googled it.  After peeling away and eating all of the outer layers, we discovered the soft, meaty artichoke hearts that had been soaked in olive oil and it was a revelation.  I had never had an artichoke that tasted this good.  These artichokes would make this list on their own but they also get a place on this list because they completely changed my mind about artichokes.

We went on to order artichokes at many other places but they often came as alcachofas fritas (fried artichokes).  We loved those too, like these perfectly fried, delicious, hearty artichokes from Sant Joan, another place where we were the only non-locals having lunch and where they were really nice and served us really delicious food.  (These artichokes were on the short list but ultimately didn't make this top 10.)

4.  Nam kao tod from Lotus of Siam

When we went off on our Las Vegas mini-break in December, there was only one restaurant that we knew for sure we had to visit - Lotus of Siam, considered by many to be the best Thai restaurant in the United States.  One of the dishes they are famous for is nam kao tod - a salad of crispy rice mixed with minced sour sausage, green onion, fresh chili, ginger, peanuts, and lime juice.  When I hear rice salad, all I think about is khao yam from Jitlada. This isn't the same and khao yam is still my favorite, but this was quite good.  The combination of flavors, the sourness and spice, was so nuanced and different from the Thai food we eat on a regular basis.  I love Thai salads and this one was one of the best.

5.  Pan con Tomate from Paco Meralgo

Paco Meralgo, one of our favorite restaurants in Barcelona, is also one of the few Barcelona spots (and the only one on this list) that we've gotten around to blogging about (post here).  Pan con tomate, literally translated to bread with tomato, is a Catalonian specialty and our favorite was here at Paco Meralgo.  The perfect crispiness, fresh and intense tomato flavor, just the right amount of drizzled olive oil - I dream about this dish to this day and hope to someday eat this again.

6.  Cigrons from Pinotxo

Another place we loved in Barcelona was Pinotxo, a tiny corner bar right at the entrance to La Boqueria, the famous marketplace on Las Ramblas. Pinotxo is famous for having good food but also for Juanito, the charming guy behind the bar who knows exactly what you should order.  He suggested that we get these chickpeas (cigrons in Catalan) which were incredible (and somehow only a half-order, so inexpensive).  The cigrons dish varies based on season and what's available in the market, and on the day we went, we tasted raisins, rock salt, parsley, olive oil and balsamic vinegar mixed in with the chickpeas.  A simple recipe but an incredible dish.  I love chickpeas and could eat this on a regular basis (if only it were here!).

7.  Thanksgiving stuffing

This may seem like an odd entry in a list of favorite food memories since Thanksgiving comes every year, but there is a reason.  This year was the first time I spent Thanksgiving with A's family, and we, along with his brother, made the entire Thanksgiving dinner ourselves.  What I was happiest about was the stuffing (my favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal!).  It's my mom's recipe - herb stuffing with sausage, mushroom, onion and cilantro - and I've made it before at home, but have never done the whole process (ingredient purchasing, all the prep and all the cooking) completely on my own.  It was bittersweet since it was the first Thanksgiving ever that I haven't seen my family, but there was also a sense of accomplishment and pride that I could carry on my family's stuffing tradition.

8.  Olives (and other things that burst) from Tickets

Other than El Celler de Can Roca, the only other reservation we made before leaving for Barcelona was for Tickets Bar, the tapas bar that was opened by the Adrias (formerly of the impossible to get into El Bulli).  Tickets was an entertaining and whimsical place and there were so many options that we picked the "let your server choose your food for you" option.  The only thing we knew we wanted to get were las Olivas del Tickets (the Tickets olives), which were a signature dish and the same ones they had at El Bulli.  These little green bubbles were relatively solid on the spoon (although you did have to be careful), but they liquified instantly when they hit your mouth, bursting open to reveal tons of olive flavor.  It was like eating an olive in liquid form.  The whole experience was so much fun that I think it left me giddy.

We also had some other dishes at Tickets with things that "burst" in your mouth.  The miniairbags rellenos de queso manchego (manchego cheese mini airbags) looked like puff pastries but were crispy shells topped with manchego cheese and caviar which, when you bit into them, exploded with cool liquid cheese.  The ravioli liquido de queso Payoyo (liquid Payoyo cheese ravioli) looked like big opaque white bubbles with crackers on top, but exploded with cheese once you ate them.

While none of these dishes alone probably would have made this list based solely on their flavors (not that they were bad, but there was some tough competition this year), the enjoyable experience of eating the olives (and the other bursting foods) let us know we were in for a really fun dining experience at Tickets, one we will never forget.

9.  Xipirons

To me, one of the greatest food experiences one can have is the discovery of a new food to love.  It was like that with the artichokes, and it was like that with xipirons (Catalan)/chipirones (Spanish), which are a tiny squid that I have never seen anywhere except for Spain.  They're small (only a few centimeters long), really tender, and so much fun to eat.

One of the greatest dishes we had with xipirons (and we searched for them on menus once we realized we loved them) was xipirons amb mongetes (baby squid with white beans) from Pinotxo.  Suggested by Juanito (of course), the dish that arrived was filled with tiny squid, lots of white beans, and lots of balsamic vinegar.  It was delicious.

One of more popular ways to make chipirones was to fry them.

These fried chipirones from La Paradeta (a casual chain of places where you point to the seafood you want, which is all fresh out of the harbor that day, and then they make it) were like popcorn. I could just imagine eating these as a snack while walking around the city. Also delicious.

10.  Flower bomb from El Celler de Can Roca

After trying the flower bomb dessert at El Celler de Can Roca, I knew immediately that this would be on this year's favorite food memories list.  Jordi Roca is a genius.  This dessert - full of edible flowers - just tasted like spring, if spring had a flavor.  According to the menu, there was rose cream, loquats and orange blossom, chamomile sorbet, calendula gelatin, violet cloud and jasmine oil.  It arrived with most of those ingredients, including the flowers, inside a delicate clear sugar shell, sitting on a bed of what looked like violet cotton candy.  It was sweet, it was floral, it was fruity, and most of all, it was perfect for May and springtime.  I've never had any dessert like it - which made me feel so present in the time and space in which we were living - so I knew this would definitely be one of the best things I would eat all year.

Hoping 2013 brings great food memories (and hopefully something in NYC will make the list)!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tuscan White Bean and Spinach

No rest for the weary! Soup on the weekend for this unofficial taste tester. Hale and Hearty has a set of daily soups that they offer, and the Tuscan White Bean and Spinach is one of them. M is sick so I let her have the Yucatan Chicken, Lime, and Orzo that I so loved before.

Tuscan White Bean and Spinach

My initial impression was that this soup was really thick. The white beans make this a really hearty soup that sticks to your bones. Overall, though, I found it to be under-seasoned. The spinach, carrots, and onions are all simmered down to melt-in-your-mouth status, but none of them have any discernable flavor which is a bit sad. Here and there I got hints of oregano, but other than that there wasn't that much else.

This is a soup that, when it's cold and you're hungry, fits perfectly for warming and filling you up. Compared to a lot of the other offerings I've had from them, though, it falls a little short in the flavor department.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Yucatan Chicken, Lime, and Orzo

Even though the Chef Series specials are over, that is not stopping me from getting more soup at Hale and Hearty. After all, it's cold outside.

Today I opted for the Yucatan Chicken, Lime, and Orzo since I'm a little under the weather, and this sounded like the perfect soup to try and get myself right. Their site describes it as "[...] a light Mexican chicken soup made with tomatillos, white meat chicken , orzo and a touch of fresh lime."

Yucatan Chicken, Lime, and Orzo

This soup was exactly what I was hoping for and more. The chicken broth was rich and hearty. The orzo added a nice soft texture while also adding body to the soup and making it a little more filling. The chicken was shredded and tender to the bite. There wasn't as much lime as I was expecting, but that's okay. There was enough of a hint to let you know it's there while also adding a freshness to the soup. What got me, though, and was a welcome surprise was the subtle heat that came from what appears to be chopped up jalapeno peppers.

This was a very satisfying soup given the cold temperatures outside and my slightly miserable sick feeling. I would really consider getting this again given the opportunity.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Red Velvet Crinkle Cookie

We stopped by Panera this weekend, as we often do before or after one of our massage therapy sessions, and this time, they had red velvet crinkle cookies for the holidays.  My mom had a free pastry on her rewards card, so we all decided to split one of the cookies.  It was described on the packaging as a "red chocolate flavored cookie with cream cheese flavored chips and rolled in powdered sugar."

The cookie itself was definitely topped with a lot of powdered sugar, but it wasn't very red until you tore it open.

Inside it was a bright vibrant red color, just as you would expect red velvet to look. The cookie was rich and a little sweet (but not overly sweet), but it didn't taste that much like chocolate to us.  Some of the chips did taste like rich cream cheese, similar to a red velvet cupcake's frosting.  It was a good, soft, chewy cookie, and perfect for the holiday.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Jelly Donut

The custard we were looking forward to most this month was jelly donut.  We're big fans of the Jelly's Last Donut concrete at Shake Shack, and we were hoping that this custard would follow in its footsteps as one of our favorite items.  Turns out that this is the first new custard in awhile we've really liked.

M's thoughts:
After a really frustrating experience at Shake Shack (standing on the C line behind one person was a longer wait than if I had gotten on the regular line, as 10-12 people (many of whom got there after me) went through that line before I took one step forward; holiday tourist crowds and lots of noise; people pushing me over since they thought the C line was an exit; some girl almost running me over in a mad dash to get to her burgers first - sometimes our area at the holidays is just madness), all I could think was: this jelly donut custard had better be worth it.  It was.  There was jelly and little bits of doughnut mixed in with a vanilla custard and it was great.  I think we will get this again next week if we can, because it was quite enjoyable.  I think, between the 2, the Jelly's Last Donut concrete is a little better, as it spins in more ingredients, but they are both good.

A's thoughts:
At first I didn't get why they brought in this flavor since the Theater District location of Shake Shack already has the Jelly's Last Donut concrete that M and I both love. Then it dawned on me. Only the Theater District location has that concrete so patrons of the other locations could potentially have never tasted the beauty which is Doughnut Plant donuts spun with jelly into custard. I really did like this custard since I love the Jelly's Last Donut, but this is different since the pieces of donut are a little larger since they aren't broken up by the concrete mixing blade. However, this is still a great flavor, and I'm glad that other Shake Shack locations finally got something comparable. I just hope this doesn't make our location that much more crowded with people trying to get the concrete now!

Jelly Donut
A's rating: 9/10
M's rating: 8.5/10

Honey Ricotta Chestnut

It's been a crazy busy month, so busy that we didn't get our first Shake Shack custard until this past Tuesday, more than halfway through the month!  (That was also partially due to our Las Vegas mini-break earlier in the month, which we haven't even mentioned here, much less written about.)  The first custard we tried was honey ricotta chestnut.  Wish we could say it was worth the wait!

M's thoughts:
My first thought was wood (can't explain why), followed by Werther's Original, followed by honey cough drops.  It didn't have a lot of flavor and you could still taste the vanilla.  I didn't have any expectations for this flavor, but it definitely didn't wow me.

A's thoughts:
When I first tried this flavor, and also much of the time while eating it, the only thing I could think of was "vanilla". It really had no discernible flavor outside of the plain vanilla it was spun into. Only as it started to melt did I get minor minor hints of honey and chestnut, but I certainly got no ricotta. Perhaps we got a bad batch, but this really was nothing special at all.

Honey Ricotta Chestnut
A's rating: 3/10
M's rating: 4.5/10

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Kale and White Bean Minestrone

So, this is the final week of Hale and Hearty's Chef Series soups. It's been fun looking forward to the new soup each week, and I was sad that I had to miss one. Such as it is, this week's offering comes from Chef Nick Anderer of Maialino fame. His Kale and White Bean Minestrone is described as "[...] tender luscious beans, a unique combination of vegetables and gently simmered Tuscan kale. Laced with olive oil and red wine vinegar [...]"

Kale and White Bean Minestrone

My first taste of this soup hit me hard with the red vinegar. It seriously was like a smack to the face full of vinegar. After that initial shock, the soup settled more into a complex blend of flavors. The vegetables mentioned are the standard mirepoix mix of carrots, onions, and celery. I noticed something red in there as well, but I couldn't quite figure out what it was. Red pepper? Tomato skin? The kale still has a nice bite to it, but I didn't get much "kale" flavor from it. It could just be that I may not know what kale is supposed to taste like. The white beans add heartiness to the soup and also a nice, soft texture. In the end, if you don't mix it up while you eat, you'll get spoonfuls full of vinegar flavoring, and that can sometimes be a bit off putting.

I enjoyed this soup as it's very homey and comforting. On the whole, I think it was my 3rd favorite from the series that I tasted. My final rankings would be:

3) Kale and White Bean Minestrone

Monday, December 17, 2012

Kabocha Squash Soup

I missed last week's Hale and Hearty chef series soup because of work and travel, but I was determined not to miss it this week. On Friday I got to try Chef Michael Anthony's Kabocha Squash Soup. It is described as "From the reigning James Beard Chef of the Year award winner, Michael Anthony, comes this fantastic fall favorite. We slowly simmer Kabocha and Butternut squash with a wonderful combination of spices, then add shiitake mushrooms, the Italian grain emmer, and dried cranberries. So smooth and satisfying you'll want autumn to last forever."

Kabocha Squash Soup

I really wasn't sure what to expect to be honest. When I think of the ingredients on hand (kabocha, butternut squash, and dried cranberries) I'm envisioning something sweet. The shiitake mushrooms I couldn't figure out how they would pair as they have a distinct and non-sweet flavor. The emmer I figured to be texture and heartiness.

After tasting the soup, I was even more confused. It certainly had a sweet undertone to its velvety smooth texture, but it was also oddly savory. There is no meat listed in the description, but it does taste like there was something added. A lot of that could be from the shiitake mushrooms which actually add a nice chewiness to the soup. The emmer adds a nice bite as well, but in the end I'm still left confused by the savory and sweet soup. It's not bad at all, it's just... confusing.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Drink Cupcake

On Friday, I stopped by the Sweetery truck, which had partnered with Cupcake Vineyards in honor of National Cupcake Day to give out free cupcakes around Midtown.

Unlike some of the other cupcake giveaways in the past, this one was a red velvet cupcake.  The cake was moist and dense and the frosting was creamy and rich.  As with the other cupcakes I've had from Sweetery, I really appreciated that the cupcake wasn't overly sweet, but just the right amount.

If you come across a Sweetery cupcake giveaway, definitely stop by.  The cupcakes are always so good, no matter what flavor they are!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

December Custard Calendar

There was good news and bad news when I stopped by Shake Shack earlier today to look at the custard calendar.  (I checked the website around lunchtime but it wasn't up yet.)  The good news: there were some new custards we might like, such as jelly donut.  The bad news: no more chocolate hazelnut and no return of Christmas cookie.  Sadness.

Monday - eggnog - As we mentioned when last year's custard calendar came out, we have tried this one but never wrote about it.  A liked it but I didn't (but I'm not a fan of eggnog generally).

Tuesday - honey ricotta chestnut - A new one for us.  It sounds very rich and heavy to me.  A isn't sure what to expect - he thinks honey and chestnut would go well together, but wonders how the ricotta will fit in.

Wednesday - Uncle Danny's chocolate bourbon pie - Neither of us have had chocolate bourbon pie before and are intrigued to find out what this will be.

Thursday - sweet potato marshmallow - This sounds very sweet to both of us.  Reminds A of Thanksgiving.  I don't love sweet potato marshmallow pie/casserole so I'm not sure if I will like this.

Friday - jelly donut - Hopefully the jelly donut custard will involve Doughnut Plant doughnuts. And bear some resemblance to the Jelly's Last Donut concrete we love so much.  That would be awesome.

Saturday - gingerbread - This one seems to come around every December.  We reviewed it here - it was OK.

Sunday - candy cane crunch - Similar to last year, we think we've had this but there doesn't seem to be a post about it.  Maybe we'll try it again.

We are looking forward to jelly donut the most this month.  Hopefully it will live up to our expectations!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

November Custard Summary

I'm so thrown off by Thanksgiving coming early this year that I keep forgetting there are still several more days left to November.  And if there are more days in November, it means there are more days for November custards! (Although sadly no more chocolate hazelnut for the month.)

Here are the November custards in a quick summary post:

Monday - toffee pear
Tuesday - pretz-idential caramel
Wednesday - pumpkin pie
Thursday - apple spice cake
Friday - cranberry almond marzipan
Saturday - maple cheesecake
Sunday - chocolate hazelnut

Looking forward to the December calendar this weekend.  Fingers crossed for more chocolate hazelnut and a return of Christmas cookie!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Spanish White Bean with Kale and Chorizo

A new work week, a new Hale and Hearty Chef's series soup for me to try. This week's offering comes from Chef Chris Bradley of Gramercy Tavern. Spanish white bean with kale and chorizo. It is described as "[...] fantastic soup which combines tender luscious beans, potatoes and gently simmered kale. Bolstered with fresh chorizo sausage and spicy smoked paprika, this soup is brimming with flavor."

Spanish White Bean with Kale and Chorizo

From the description I was expecting an explosion of flavors similar to the previous two Chef Series offerings. This soup is much more muted, though, in almost every way. The chorizo is meaty, but it doesn't have the salt or spice that I have come to expect from the sausage. The kale doesn't have much absorbed flavor either, but I could also be expecting a lot with a limited knowledge of how kale works. The white beans and potatoes add starch and heartiness to the soup, but overall they also don't have much in the way of flavor. Carrots add some color and a little more texture, but I got no hint of the smokey paprika. What I did note was a hint of citrus (lemon?) as a subtle undertone to the soup.

This is a perfectly satisfying soup that is rich and hearty, but it is my least favorite Chef Series soup so far. I expected big, bold flavors, and those just didn't come out.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Maple Cheesecake

Maple cheesecake was the last flavor of the November batch for us to try.  Month complete!

M's thoughts:
Meh.  This tasted like a combination of rich cheesecake (which I don't really like) and caramel (which I only like in certain circumstances).  I don't eat a lot of maple syrup but maple wasn't the first flavor to come to mind when I ate this.  The caramel-like sweetness was what I got.  I'm ready for tomorrow's chocolate hazelnut again.

A's thoughts:
This flavor was odd. It certainly had cheesecake flavor to it, but there was something else. It didn't taste 100% like maple syrup, though. In fact, I'm not even sure what it was I was tasting. Or perhaps I just don't know what maple flavoring should taste like? I don't know, maybe. In the end this is not a flavor I would rush out to try again.

Maple Cheesecake
A's rating: 4/10
M's rating: 4/10

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Tank Noodle

One thing we really miss in New York is good pho.  Chicago has a really strong Vietnamese restaurant community, and we just haven't found anything in New York that is quite the same (although we do keep looking).  We used to go for pho fairly often when we lived in Chicago, but now, not so much.

The main cluster of Vietnamese restaurants in Chicago is centered around Argyle Street in the Uptown neighborhood.  Our favorite pho place there is Tank Noodle (in Vietnamese, Pho Xe Tang). When we started going to Tank 8 or 9 years ago (hard to remember back that far!) it was a tiny smoke-filled (many years pre-ban) storefront much further east on Argyle Street. Now Tank occupies prime real estate on the corner of Argyle and North Broadway, very close to the Red Line stop.

Tank was our first stop after arriving at O'Hare.  We started out with 2 of our favorite Vietnamese appetizers.  The first to arrive was gỏi cuốn ($4.50), 2 fresh spring rolls (also called summer rolls on other restaurant menus).  Tank's version contains pork, shrimp, noodles, lettuce, mint, chives and bean sprouts.

The sauce is, on taste, a combination of hoisin sauce and fish sauce with crushed peanuts and shaved, pickled radish and carrot as a garnish. The hoisin sauce adds a sweet and salty base while the fish sauce adds a taste that really can't be described. The garnish of peanuts and pickled vegetables add texture and some additional taste (mostly sour).

We really like summer rolls because of the fresh, clean flavors and how healthy they are.  The rolls from Tank were really good, probably among the best we've had.  The rice wrapper was soft without being too sticky or too dry.  The shrimp were plump.  All the vegetables gave the roll a nice crunch on the inside.  We were really happy with these.

We also got chả giò tôm ($4.50), 3 fried shrimp egg rolls, which contained shrimp, carrots, taro and wood ear mushrooms.  We didn't really have a preference between the fried pork and fried shrimp egg rolls, but one appetizer came with 2 rolls and one came with 3 rolls.  There were 3 of us (we were with A's brother who generously picked us up from the airport) so we picked the shrimp egg rolls to make it easier to share.  On the side was the usual fish sauce-based dipping sauce (nước chấm) that also contained carrots and radishes.

The outside of the rolls was perfectly crispy and the inside packed a lot of flavor into each small bite.  At Vietnamese restaurants, M is used to getting lots of lettuce with spring rolls to wrap them in to eat, and has really grown to like that.  There was one giant piece of lettuce with these spring rolls but definitely not enough to wrap all 3.  The extra crunch and freshness of the lettuce around the spring rolls was the perfect finish for the rolls.

We have gone out for pho occasionally in New York, but it's just not the same as Tank.  We haven't found another place anywhere that has matched Tank so far.  Even the plate of bean sprouts, jalapenos, limes and basil that Tank gives is enormous compared to the paltry vegetable accompaniment plates that you get in New York (at least at the places we have tried).

It's probably obvious that we have very good memories of Tank, and therefore, we had very high expectations for our return visit, especially for the broth that differentiates them from the pack.  We are very happy to write that Tank met all of our very high expectations and is still just as good as it was over seven years ago.

A got the namesake phở xe tăng (pho with beef and flank) ($9.95).  This was the beef noodle soup combination with sliced beef, well done brisket, well done flank, soft tendon, bible tripe, and meat ball.

This is what A had been dreaming of for a very long time. The meat is good quality like most places in NYC, but what really sets Tank apart from every other pho restaurant we've ever tried is the broth. It's exceptionally rich and very comforting. The aroma of all-spice hit you as soon as the bowl is placed in front of you. Countless other spices and herbs float through the air after that initial hit as well. The onions and scallions swimming in the broth add their own flavor and aroma to the soup.

As is customary for A when he has a bowl of pho, he first tastes the broth before adding anything to the soup itself. From there he adds a squeeze of lime wedge, some sprouts, a couple dashes of fish sauce, a circular array of basil leaves, a circular pattern of sriracha sauce, and a cross-hatch design of hoisin sauce. He's not sure why he makes it such an artful display, but he's a creature of habit. He did not, however, take a picture of his bowl as he was hungry and started devouring his tasty meal.

The only criticism A has for this bowl is that he only received one small quarter of meatball. It is common for these "all inclusive" bowls of pho to skimp out on meatballs, but he had never had so few.

M got the phở gà ($7.95), which was beef noodle soup with chicken.  Unlike some other places that use chicken broth for chicken pho, Tank uses the same rich and complex beef broth as the other soups. 

M doesn't put as much stuff into her pho as A does.  She only usually adds bean sprouts and basil.

The chicken pho at Tank is much, much better than chicken pho elsewhere, and not just because of the broth (although that is definitely better).  They use good cuts of white meat chicken at Tank.  The chicken this time wasn't as tender as M remembered (the first time she had this pho at Tank the chicken was so soft it almost melted in her mouth), but it was still good.  Other places have grilled chicken (with char marks!) or mediocre cuts of chicken with lots of fat, and the pho at Tank is just so much better.

We are so sad that our visit to Tank Noodle was the last one for awhile.  We are desperately in need of good pho for the coming winter, so any recommendations for the best pho in New York City are gladly accepted and welcomed.  We will have to do some pho tastings!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Cibo Snack

Another flight to Chicago, another trip to LaGuardia's Marine Air Terminal.  (We normally loathe flights out of LaGuardia but the comfortable Marine Air Terminal (aka Terminal A) makes it a little more bearable. Lots of outlets, comfy chairs, very short security time, like the old days of travel.)
For the second time in a row, our flight to Chicago out of LaGuardia was delayed.  Last time weather had delayed every flight and cancelled others.  Ours was the only flight delayed this time around.  They claimed it was weather but since both Chicago and New York were pretty clear, we weren't sure what type of weather they were blaming.
The flight was delayed 20 minutes, and then it was delayed another 20 minutes.  I may have already mentioned that airports make me want to eat, so we got a snack.  The only not so great thing about Terminal A is that there is a lack of food options.  Outside security there is a "Yankee Clipper" restaurant which is like a deli.  Inside there is the usual Cibo Express that you find at every airport (at least around NYC), and there's an expensive sit-down restaurant in the middle of the terminal which has $11 meatball appetizers and $20 plates of dips.  We went with Cibo, which is pretty much the only option for travelers on a budget (or travelers saving their money for their trips), and got a roasted turkey and swiss sandwich.
It was a very basic sandwich: roasted turkey and Swiss cheese on a multigrain hero roll with tomato and green leaf lettuce.  They also claimed that there was honey mustard.  It's the last ingredient on the label and I don't remember there being any noticeable honey mustard.
A and I split the sandwich and neither of us thought it was anything great.  It was just a plain turkey and cheese.  Delis back in Manhattan are definitely better, even the generic ones near our offices, so this sandwich isn't winning any awards.  It just wasn't very flavorful.  And considering I was eating Gulden's mustard out of the package in addition to putting it on the sandwich, I really don't think there was any honey mustard on it (or it was a really weak one).
It was good to have something savory and somewhat healthy to snack on while we waited for our flight (instead of just eating my entire roll of Mentos).  Considering our feelings about LaGuardia, we gladly put up with the lack of food options at Terminal A in exchange for all of the other comforts of traveling from there.  Sometimes a boring sandwich is OK.