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.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Milk Bar Thanksgiving Croissant

M is always on a quest for Thanksgiving themed sandwiches during this season. I sort of joined in this year having tried two so far this year. When we heard about Momofuku Milk Bar's Thanksgiving Croissant offering, we knew where we would be making a stop. Granted, any excuse for me to get a bottle of cereal milk is fine with me.

Thanksgiving Croissant

The croissant is filled with turkey, stuffing, gravy, and cranberry sauce. I would imagine that it is meant to be eaten warm, but we had no oven handy with which to warm it up. Regardless, we both agree that this is the current leader in our sandwich hunt.


The croissant is laced with herbs, and I distinctly tasted sage mixed in and it is amazingly tasty. The thing that surprised us a bit was that it wasn't very flaky. I prefer flaky croissants but this was just fine.

Croissant Cross Section

The filling was extremely tasty even when cold. The turkey wasn't dry at all, the stuffing was loaded with flavor, and the cranberry sauce added just the right touch of sweetness without being overpowering. I didn't get much gravy flavoring, but M said she really tasted it, especially in the turkey. Maybe I didn't get much in my half, but I still didn't find myself missing it too much.

Overall this was a fantastic offering, and even though it was cold it was still very tasty. We can only imagine what it must taste like when warm.

Hearty Turkey

Friday was one of my only chances to try the zuppa di fagioli soup at Hale and Hearty, and I decided to  continue the Thanksgiving Sandwich Project by pairing the soup in a combo with the turkey sandwich H&H has been offering.  I don't think H&H is offering this sandwich specifically for the holidays, since it's been on the menu for a few weeks now, but it's just a good match for the fall season.

The sandwich consisted of turkey breast, cranberry relish, aioli and red leaf lettuce on ciabatta bread.  I am not normally a fan of ciabatta since it can often be very hard on the outside but I like the Hale and Hearty ciabatta (although I do like it more on the other sandwiches where it is soaked in oil) because it's not as hard or chewy.

This isn't my favorite sandwich in the Thanksgiving Sandwich Project, but it wasn't too bad.  The turkey didn't have a ton of flavor, but I liked the crunch of the lettuce and the cranberry relish and aioli combined to give the sandwich some "holiday" flavor.  This seems most similar to the Panera offering (even though that was a panini) since both of them are just turkey sandwiches with no stuffing.  The H&H version had much more flavor than Panera (and more food), and between the 2 I would definitely pick this one. I do think it would be even better if it had stuffing though!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Paco Meralgo

One place that we starred on our scribbled list of Barcelona restaurant names was Paco Meralgo.  People had great things to say about Paco Meralgo, it was recommended often, and perhaps most importantly, it was one of the few places on our list open on Sundays for dinner.

Paco Meralgo has menus in English, Spanish and Catalan - they must know they are recommended to food lovers around the world!

Paco Meralgo (from the Spanish pa comer algo / para comer algo, meaning "to eat something") is a popular place for tapas and wine, especially the Catalunyan specialty of cava (more on that later).  When we got there, the place was packed.  Clearly everyone else knew that was the place to be for Sunday dinner.  After a bit of a wait, we got great seats at the bar, where we could see all of the food coming out and everyone working hard in the kitchen.  I sat right in front of a bowl of gambas rojas (giant bright red shelled shrimp) on ice, and we're still not sure how we made it through the entire dinner without actually ordering gambas.  It was a great seat.

The gambas looked so good but somehow we didn't order them...

We decided to start off our meal with cava.  Cava is a Spanish sparkling wine which is predominantly made in Catalunya (it even has protected origin status).  A found it dry and refreshing, while I thought it was not as bubbly as the champagne I've had before.  Since it was more subdued I thought it was better.  It had a nice, sweet flavor.  Paco Meralgo serves Raimat cava and it was quite good.

Starting the meal with our Raimat cava

We ordered a bunch of dishes to start with and then added to our order as the night went on, mostly in my out-of-practice Spanish (castellano).  The plates came out quickly but were still pretty well paced so that the bar wasn't covered in plates before we finished the ones we had.  Here's what we got:

Pan con tomate (bread with tomato).  This was the best pan con tomate we had in Barcelona by that time, and it turned out to be our favorite pan con tomate of the entire trip.  The bread was toasted and crisp. It tasted strongly of tomato and olive oil.  It soaked through the entire bread without making it soggy.  It was perfect pan con tomate and we still find ourselves craving it to this day.

Espárragos silvestres salteados con ajos tiernos (wild asparagus sauteed with garlic).  This was really good and exactly the type of vegetable dish we had been looking for our entire trip.  The asparagus here weren't those wide stalks that we sometimes get here, but the skinny type of asparagus.  Each piece was soft but not soggy, perfectly cooked, and so garlicky and tasty.

Buñuelos de bacalao (cod fritters).  These cod fritters aren't much to look at from the outside, but you can tell that they're deep fried!  We saw lots of these leaving the kitchen.

These cod fritters did not have much filler.  It was like deep fried fish paste with some herbs and spices added.  You could actually taste the fish instead of just filler and breading.  We were really happy with these.

Flor de calabacin y mozzarella (squash flower with mozzarella).  We ordered this for a few different reasons - we were looking for more vegetables, it sounded really good (veggies stuffed with cheese? of course we would do that), and it was different from tapas we've had before.  We probably would have preferred squash stuffed with cheese that was not fried, but decided to try it.

We liked the squash but we didn't really need the cheese in our hunt for good vegetables.  The squash would have been good by itself.  The cheese was very melted, a little liquidy.  This wasn't a bad dish, but it wasn't our favorite.  In the battle between the 2 fried things we had eaten so far, the cod fritters were definitely winning.

Ensalada de ventresca, tomate y cebolla (salad of tuna belly, tomato and onion).  When we ordered this, we were expecting a salad of greens, topped with tomato, onion and slices of tuna. Instead, it was a plate with three columns of food - tuna, onions and tomatoes.  The tuna was cooked like tuna you would get in a can, but it was much better quality and much fresher.  There was no fishiness at all but just the pure taste of tuna.  The dressing was light, mostly olive oil and mustard seed. This was a really tasty dish with nice clean flavors.  Healthy too!

Boquerones rebozados (fried anchovies).  A was really looking forward to trying boquerones in Barcelona (as he is a big fan) and this dish met his expectations.  The taste of the fish was evident but just like the ventresca, it was not fishy.  A little salty, but adding the lemon tempered the salt.  You could barely even tell that the anchovies had bones.  

Carpaccio de atún (tuna carpaccio).  This was what we expected - tissue thin slices of tuna in olive oil, soy sauce, pepper and tiny scallions.  It was light and clean and the fish was of excellent quality.  This was one of the few dishes we got at Paco Meralgo that we could probably easily get here at home but it was still worth a try and very well done.

Croqueta de pescado y marisco (fish and seafood croquette), croqueta de pollo y jamón (chicken and ham croquette).  The croquettes were interesting.  I couldn't tell them apart.  At one point, I thought I was eating the fish croquette but A said it was the chicken one (not from the consistency but from the presence of ham).  Like FEBO in Amsterdam, these were fried tasty mush, which doesn't sound good as a description, but which we definitely like.

Fried mush

They even look the same when you cut them in half - only the coloring is a slightly different shade.  We both found them tasty but the flavors weren't that strong that they were easy to distinguish.

Pulpo de roca con cebolla confitada (octopus with caramelized onions).  We had expected to get tender pieces of octopus with onions on top, but what arrived was even better.  This one of the dishes we added toward the end of the meal and we were very happy with our choice.  The dish had small, incredibly tender pieces of octopus, mixed with caramelized onions in a tomato-based sauce.  It was kind of like a stew.  It came with 3 pieces of toasted bread, which were fine but we didn't need them.

Navajas a la plancha (grilled razor clams).  Clean, simply grilled and delicious.  I had not been a fan of razor clams before going to Spain because I had previously eaten some that were so chewy and tough that they were hard to swallow.  In contrast, these were so soft.  They were a little gritty in some parts but not too much.  Clams, olive oil, a little bit of salt, and a little lemon.  So simple but so good.

For dessert, we decided to get crema catalana, a signature Catalan custard.  This was like a less sweet version of creme brulee and we enjoyed it.  The burnt sugar in some parts was a little too burnt and kind of bitter, but paired with the custard, it balanced out and was very good.  The cookie it was served with was crisp and like multiple wafers stacked on top of each other.

A also closed out the meal with an espresso.  A is not a huge espresso drinker, preferring lighter roasts. But the darker roast and the bitterness of the espresso paired well with the crema catalana, so he was happy.

We loved our meal at Paco Meralgo, so much that we would visit again a week later (the only restaurant we visited more than once on our trip).  The service was excellent, they were incredibly nice and put up with my out-of-shape Spanish, the food was amazing, and they're open on Sundays!  This is one of the places we would highly recommend to a Barcelona visitor, especially if you don't speak Spanish (unlike our next review).  Dreaming about their pan con tomate... and that octopus... and the asparagus...

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Happy Pills

Happy Pills is the best candy store name ever.

After wandering the narrow streets of the El Born area in the unexpected rain, we sought dry sanctuary at Happy Pills, a store that advertised happiness and a sugary cure to any problem you might have.  It was conveniently located along our walking route between Barceloneta and the Museu Picasso.  (There are multiple stores in Barcelona but this was the only one we came across.)

Although Happy Pills was a tiny store, they had many options for pre-made candy combinations and lots of bins of loose candy for you to make your own bottles of happy pills.

We got lots of gummy and sour candies - sour peaches, sour apples, gummy sea creatures, gummy sweet strawberries, and more.

Full bottle after leaving the store

The candy in the bottle itself didn't last very long, since it gave us power boosts throughout our afternoon at the Museu Picasso and wandering the streets.  After the bottle was empty, we kept refilling it with the Haribo gold bears and other gummies that we picked up from the grocery store.

Just a little emptier after our visit to the museum

Although a candy store with bulk candy isn't a revolutionary idea (it was the second one we visited on this trip - the first was Jamin), Happy Pills did have a large selection of gummies, including some we hadn't seen before (like these awesome gummy strawberries that we would later see in other Barcelona markets).  Their branding was a big part of why we stopped - all the "pill boxes" in various sizes, shapes and combinations.  Their cute sayings on stickers in multiple languages, like "Let your love flow" or "ayuda a los hombres a fregar los platos" (helps men to wash the dishes), or the one we got, "remedio universal para todos" (universal remedy for all).  (There were better ones but those are the only ones I can read from our photos.)  The candy laid out in bins like the colors of the rainbow. Even their website is really fun. Happy Pills is a really cute shop and if you like candy, it's worth a stop!

El Arte del Helado

After our paella lunch, I wanted some ice cream. M had read about some good ice cream shop in the area, but it was packed when we walked by. Instead, we stopped at a little stand called El Arte del Helado.

El Arte del Helado

I opted for the Tiramisu ice cream in a cone. It was really just okay. The ice cream didn't really taste like tiramisu, but instead it was more like just the marsala/rum that soaks the lady fingers in the actual dish. The nice surprise was that even though it was a single scoop order, there seemed to be a lot of ice cream buried into the cone.

Getting Thanks

Certe's sandwich-of-the-month for November is called "Getting Thanks."  Their November sandwich every year seems to be Thanksgiving-themed but this is the first year I've been able to try it.

The Getting Thanks sandwich consists of turkey meatloaf, string bean casserole, fresh sage, turkey cracklings and cranberry ketchup on an onion brioche roll with a side of giblet gravy for dipping.  It was a pretty decent size for a sandwich with a thick slice of meatloaf between the bread.

The meatloaf is definitely the main ingredient in the sandwich with the string bean casserole acting more like a spread along the bottom bun, similar to the cranberry ketchup on the top bun.  I didn't really notice the sage.

The turkey meatloaf was juicy and flavorful, and I would eat this again in a sandwich or in a platter on its own.  I really enjoyed the cranberry ketchup (would have definitely improved that Panera sandwich).  The string bean casserole wasn't very substantial but added some creaminess (and the vegetable food group) to the sandwich.  The gravy was nice and thick, and had a rich turkey flavor.  It all worked really well together for me except for one thing - the turkey cracklings.

I know cracklings are fried skin and fat, but some pieces were just pure fat (and not as much fried stuff).  The ones that were more like fried skin weren't so bad, but pieces like the one above - just one giant piece of fat - don't texturally agree with me.  I tried as much as I could but I found they just interfered with my enjoyment of the sandwich, so the really fatty pieces had to go.  Without them (and the one above was really the worst offender, or to some people, the best piece) the sandwich was a delicious treat, especially for someone like me that loves meatloaf.

As with all the other Certe sandwiches, this one came with a side of slaw (red cabbage and carrots with raisins) and a pickle.

I did like this sandwich (sans cracklings) and would consider getting it again if there weren't so many Thanksgiving-style sandwiches on my to-try list for the season.  I definitely recommend the special sandwiches of the month at Certe as they are unique and high quality (like the Uncle Sammie I previously wrote about).  You may want to try this sandwich before you get sick of turkey at Thanksgiving which means you still have a few more days left!