Thursday, July 19, 2012

Naf Naf Grill

Usually one week out of every summer, Hackknife Jr. has a summer school class that he takes via the youth gifted program called Leapfrog (sponsored by Northwestern U., an initiative mainly to groom future students, I imagine). Last year and this year, we had to load up the family truckster and drive to Naperville every morning so that he could attend his class, leaving Hackknifette and me (or sometimes just me if Grandma decided to watch the little one) with discrete chunks of time to explore Naperville's finer food offerings. Last year, we found gourmet cupcakes, but this time around, I wandered a little further afield to discover a European-style pastry and chocolate shop (Hackknifette and her dad are suckers for chocolate), an amazing spice supply store, a gentleman and his wife selling imported flavored olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and a steakhouse specializing in buffalo meat (courtesy of Ted Turner). Possibly my favorite spot, however, was located away from the crowded downtown streets of Naperville in a nondescript strip mall among lots of nondescript chain restaurants. Back in 2009, local foodie discussion board named Naf Naf Grill, a casual Middle Eastern joint in Naperville rumored to offer very authentic Israeli dishes (something not commonly seen around here), to its list of "Great Neighborhood Restaurants" (typically a very reliable approval stamp for us frequent diners). With that designation in mind, I decided to hop on over for an early lunch one morning while waiting for class to conclude.

At 11a, I was the first to arrive after the staff opened the front door. My immediate impression was that this place is basically the Middle Eastern version of Chipotle, down to the decor (simple, loft-ish), menu (a limited number of dishes that can be easily customized to a particular diner's tastes), music (hip, youthful), and ethos (minimal environmental impact, culture sharing, high-quality ingredients, built to franchise). I started looking for a burrito bowl to order, but settled instead on a chicken shawarma (marinated chicken grilled on a rotating vertical spit, much like gyro meat) plate with fries (more like sliced potatoes), a simple Israeli salad consisting of tomatoes, cucumbers, and a light dressing, plus two pitas and complimentary sides of tahini, pickles, and hot pepper sauce. Although it was a bit pricey ($13), you can see above that got me a boatload of food, all of which (other than the fries, surprisingly, which were just mediocre) were really delicious. The chicken was lean and lightly seasoned - good by itself and heavenly when pressed between a piece of puffy pita (all of which are baked fresh onsite) and slathered with a bit of tahini. The hot sauce had a pretty solid kick to it, but added a nice flavor dimension to the chicken/pita combo. Even though it was earlier than my usual lunchtime, I managed to polish off everything on the plate, minus a few fries. Given the great experience, I'll be hoping for someone to franchise a Naf Naf in the Southwest Suburbs sometime soon...

Monday, July 16, 2012

Green City Market BBQ 2012

Last Thursday night, Mrs. Hackknife and I attended what I was told to be one of the city's best annual foodie events: the Green City Market (GCM) BBQ fundraiser in Lincoln Park. GCM is the City of Chicago's farmer's market (taking place every Saturday either outdoors near Clark & Lincoln or inside the Notebaert Nature Museum during the cooler months), which has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years as the farm-to-table cuisine movement has taken off. The annual BBQ provides the market with the funds needed to support the weekly event and, judging from the roster of restaurants that participated (more than 80), nearly all of the best and brightest chefs in town show up to get in on the action.

Luckily for us, the weather cooperated as we ended up with a relatively cool evening (low 80s) given how dadgum hot it's been this summer. All told, the missus and I were really impressed with the proceedings and the turnout - good food and good booze flowed in abundance. Unfortunately, these convention-type dining events (Baconfest was another one) make it difficult to snap pictures of the dishes since one's hands are otherwise preoccupied holding things (hence the lack of visual documentation). Next year, we may follow the lead of some GCM BBQ veterans we saw that brought their own trays with attached cupholders, thus freeing up fingers to do other things. Anyway, I will share below the written descriptions of what we considered to be the event's top culinary creations, at least as far as what we managed to try before maxing out stomach capacity (no, we didn't sample everything - that would have been suicide).

Atwood Cafe - Warm Corn Vanilla & Tomato-Tobacco (hee hee...makes me think of "tomacco" from the Simpsons) Gelee, Crispy Housemade Guanciale

Benny's Chophouse - BBQ Glazed Bacon with Summer Truffle Creamed Corn & Pickled Heirloom Tomato Salad (Mrs. Hackknife's overall favorite)

Chilam Balam - Young Goat Birria, Hard Shell Tacos, Cucumber Sesame Slaw

City Provisions - Spinach & Couscous Salad with Strawberry Balsamic, paired with a great strawberry-rhubarb Saison beer (MCAison) brewed by Flossmoor Station (note to self: get more of this beer)

Dirk's Fish - Grilled Walleye Tacos with Tomato Jalapeno Chutney

El Ideas - Smoked Duck, Turnip, Yogurt, Granola

Embeya - Lemongrass-Scented Beef, Lettuce & Pickled Vegetable Wraps

Frog & Snail - Grilled Skirt Steak with Grilled Stonefruit, Herb Chimichurri, & Homemade Ricotta

The Gage - Elk Sausages, Blueberry Giardiniera, Mustard Relish, & Iceberg, paired with another nice Saison beer (Luciana), this one from Goose Island featuring a smoky finish

Girl & The Goat - Goat Tostada

Perennial Virant - Duck Sausage, House Made Kimchi, Steamed Buns, Relish (my overall favorite - Chef Paul strikes again)

Vera - Pisto Manchego, Roasted Eggplant, Summer Squash, Onions, Grilled Bread, Capriole Goat Cheese

Yusho - Robata Tofu

Honorable mention goes out to Goose Island (again) for making a number of their limited edition "chef collaboration" beers available, including the aforementioned Luciana and Fiona, a Hefeweizen brewed for Cafe des Architectes. Benny's Chophouse gets a second shoutout for the kick-ass dessert they passed out, a warm chocolate-cherry cake that was to die for (I'm sure the homemade ice cream sandwiches at the Hot Chocolate table were also great, but we never found out due to the long line).

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Paris Trip 2012 - Non-French Cuisine

The presence of American fast food chains and restaurants that are obviously catering to Americans in Paris demonstrates that you don't absolutely have to interact with the local cuisine if you're not so inclined (in which case, I'll pray for you). Because this was a family trip, I tried my best to put my needs/wishes towards the bottom of our priority list and experienced some (but not all) surprisingly-decent cooking as a result.

Our first day in town, Mom and Sis arrived late due to aircraft mechanical issues, so they were jonesing for a no-nonsense, easy to digest (read: not French) meal. Our guidebook led us back to the 10th Arrondissement for pizza at Pink Flamingo, a whimsical local pizza chain with an outlet not far from the Canal St. Martin. We opted to sit in the small dining room next door to the pizza counter, which was garishly decked out in bright pink and Elvis Presley album covers (indeed, the restaurant's own website describes it as being "like an American dinner (sic) on drugs" - or maybe they WERE referring to the dinner). As for the pizzas, they took a page out of Hot Doug's playbook, naming various topping combinations after famous people (for example, the Bjork features smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, and creme fraiche). Some of the offerings were pretty esoteric (sag paneer, anyone?), but we stuck with the basic Margherita and one slighty off-center choice, topped with grilled eggplant and hummus (the Aphrodite, see above). Although Pink Flamingo isn't going to join Burt's or Great Lake as a pizza juggernaut anytime soon, both pies were actually pretty good considering the locale (not as good was the Pink Flamingo beer I tried, made for the restaurant by a Belgian brewery, probably the most unremarkable Belgian beer I've ever had).

The next morning's breakfast brought us to another diner, this one actually called Breakfast in America, billing itself as a "real American diner in Paris" and started by a native of Connecticut working in the film industry. I can assure you that they were not whistling Dixie, as the place (small as it was) was operated with a waitstaff of American expats and was pretty much spot-on with its decor and menu, right down to the American brands of condiments (not including the syrup, whose label was nutty enough that I had to get a picture). As much as I figured that most Parisians would rather watch Jersey Shore than ever set foot in such a place, amazingly, there did seem to be a few locals dining there that morning (maybe we underestimate the global allure of pancakes). Sadly, while my tripmates were happy with their meals (except Mom's bacon, which was more like ham), my breakfast burrito missed the mark and I ended up leaving half of it on the plate (in the future, I should probably avoid French renditions of American dishes adapted from Mexico).

We did visit one more eatery shamelessly pandering to Western Hemisphere natives, although this one was quite by accident as we sought out a lunch place one afternoon not far from the Louvre. Charly Bun's was yet another restaurant obviously styled to reflect some sort of Average Joe American tastes, this time in hamburgers. Although I was tempted to order steak tartare (another French specialty I wanted to try that qualified as a potential gross-out dish for Mom and Sis), I decided to stick with the house recommendations and ordered a burger; specifically, the Lausanne, which came with 2 kinds of cheese (Raclette and Emmentaler), strips of viande de grison (a type of air-dried beef), tomato, and ketchup, plus mediocre potato wedge-like fries, and a small green salad. Forgetting that the French tend to undercook their beef, I ordered my usual medium-rare and promptly received a burger that pretty much was already tartare on the inside. This didn't bother me in the least (indeed, the burger was quite delicious, as you can guess from looking at it above); however, having advised the ladies to order theirs medium, they were distraught at how rare the sandwich was when it arrived, prompting them to return it to the kitchen for further cooking and resulting in a shower of angst from the proprietress (who spoke only French, but could be clearly heard muttering unpleasantries about the dining habits of "Les Americains").

My favorite non-French dining experience in Paris had to be a Japanese one. Sis found a recommendation in her guidebook for Zen, a Japanese place again not far from the Louvre that we decided to try for dinner. At first, we sensed a bit of a challenge as they had no English menus or English-speaking waitstaff, but luckily, I was able to fall back a little on my experience with Japanese cuisine to help us parse out the food offerings. While I steered Mom towards a teriyaki pork platter and picked out a glazed teriyaki and yuzu salmon for Sis (both of which were first-rate, the equals if not better of anything comparable I've had in the States), I opted for a cold pork salad, crab spring roll, and wonderful takoyaki balls stuffed with squid and topped with dried bonito shavings (see above). You might recall that I'd recently had my first experience with takoyaki at Yusho in Chicago a few months back - I'd have to say that this Franco-Japanese version was the better of the two, earthy, sweet, and rich all at the same time. The 3 of us agreed that we'd happily return to this restaurant on our next Paris trip (whenever that may be).

Happy Bastille Day to all and to all a goodnight....

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Paris Trip 2012 - French Cuisine

Despite their reluctance, I did actually convince my tripmates that we needed to have at least one traditional French meal in France before leaving (we ate two of them, to be exact). On a damp Sunday evening after viewing Impressionist paintings at the Musee d'Orsay, we stopped in for dinner at a place that was mentioned in my sister's guidebook called Au Bougnat (it had also popped up on my foodie radar during pre-visit research). The restaurant was located on a quiet side street on the Ile de la Cite, not far from Notre Dame Cathedral, and appeared by all accounts to be the stereotypical French bistro (only without the unpleasant waitstaff - I have to say that they tolerated us high-maintenance Americans pretty well). The house special was a 3-course meal (appetizer, entree, and dessert) with several options for each course for 29 Euros (about $36), a pretty fair deal in Paris. I chose the sardine tart below for my starter (in France, just to be confusing, the appetizers are called "entrees", and the entrees are called "plats").

This was an amazing dish, consisting of a puff pastry tart topped with chopped tomatoes, fresh greens, and three meaty sardines, then drizzled with olive oil and dusted with lime zest. Simple, yet incredibly flavorful (note to self: need to learn this "less is more" trick in the Commissary). My main dish was a relatively-lean duck breast, served in a small pool of orange sauce and paired with a tumbler containing sauteed peaches with rosemary (not a combination I've encountered before). For dessert, I had to go with the cheese plate (God knows I'd had enough sweets by then) and was given Brie, a type of blue cheese (Roquefort?), and an unidentified third that made me think of Gouda (which is obviously not French). All in all, my meal here reminded me why I enjoy French cuisine so much.

You are now staring at the entree (er, I mean, appetizer) presented before me at our second traditional French dinner, served at another guidebook recommendation named La Boucherie Rouliere (or Rouliere's Butcher Shop, for the French-challenged), just down the street from St. Sulpice Church (of Da Vinci Code fame) in the St. Germain neighborhood. As one might expect from a restaurant run by a family of butchers going back 150 years, meat is the focal point of the cuisine. At the risk of grossing out my travel companions, I had to get the roasted bone marrow, basically consisting of the fatty goodness located inside beef shank bones (you scoop it out with a spoon). I certainly wasn't expecting to receive this gargantuan-sized portion (a real bargain at 8 Euro, if I recall correctly), which tasted heavenly when slathered on grilled baguette slices and sprinkled with coarse sea salt. Fulled sated with cholesterol, I went with an appetizer (er, entree) portion of the truffle ravioli for my other course - my sister had this rich, earthy dish on her last visit to the Boucherie and highly recommended it (she was on point). The remainder of our meal was unremarkable, save for me getting momentarily trapped in a dark lavatory (damn those automatic power-saving lights!), then being unable to figure out how to work the sink (there was a discrete foot button recessed into the floor). The French can cook, but their bathroom design leaves a bit to be desired.

I did indulge in a bit of street food, although that's apparently not the city's strong suit (compared to, say, Singapore). Almost immediately after I arrived at our hotel and before my tour with M. Girard, I ran up the street to grab a quick lunch, stopping at one of many creperies scattered throughout the neighborhood. I ordered a gallette (which is a large buckwheat pancake more associated with the Normandy and Brittany regions of northern France) stuffed with onions, tomatoes, and cheese from a take-out window (the proprietor was not a local, maybe Indian?), washed down with an Orangina soda. Rolled up like a burrito and wrapped in thin paper, it was hot to handle, and I hurried to find an outdoor sitting spot (next to the St. Michel Fountain a block away) so I could cool of my hands and start to eat. The galette was good, but a little greasy and sloppy, and eventually ran through my colon like a bullet train (pardon the graphic description), forcing me to make an emergency pit stop (where I grappled with yet another dark toilet) in a random 10th Arrondissement watering hole during my tour. Such encounters with gastrointestinal distress are a constant hazard (even necessary, in some cases) of this hobby of mine.

One last item of note barely qualifies as French food and I'm almost ashamed to bring it up, but feel the need to do so in the interest of full disclosure. Mom, Sis, and I needed a light breakfast after disembarking the train to Versailles and what should stand before us than a McDonald's (if not for their iced tea, my mom would have been rendered inert for long stretches of the trip). As sad as it sounds, I actually like to poke my head in McDonald's when traveling overseas to see how different the menu looks from those at home. For the most part, it's essentially the same; however, there are always some weird burger combinations (many of these I wish we'd see at home), plus various offerings that reflect the local culture (such as the aforementioned macarons). In this case, they had their version of a croque monsier (called the Croque McDo, which would be a terrific band name), a popular hot ham-and-cheese sandwich served at cafes throughout France. I'd had one for breakfast a few days earlier and this one, well, let's just say I don't need to have another anytime soon.

One Paris posting remains. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Paris Trip 2012 - Sweet Treats

I recently visited Paris with my mom and sister (Sis and I had been there before, but not Mom, who was taking the trip of a lifetime to see Impressionist Art). Here is what much of our visit looked like:

For those of you unaware, Paris is in many ways a giant open-air museum that attracts travelers from far corners of the globe, all of whom seemed to descend upon it at the same time as we did. We stood in line pretty much everywhere: 30 minutes for the Louvre, 45 minutes for Versailles, 1 hour (in the rain) for the Musee d'Orsay, 2 hours for the Eiffel Tower, lines for food, lines for transportation, lines to pee. I went to brush my teeth one morning in our hotel bathroom and had to wait for a man from Brunei to finish trimming his nose hair (or that could have been my sister - it was early). Anyway, Paris also happens to be one of the world's great food cities and, although I didn't get to experience as much local cuisine as I'd hoped (Mom has a lot of dietary restrictions and Sis is, well, somewhat choosy about what she'll eat), I still managed to do a fair amount of damage for a 5-day trip. Unlike many of my trip postings (which are broken up chronologically), I decided to organize this one a little differently, namely by category. This particular posting will focus on the many sweet treats I encountered across the pond.

Allow me to introduce you to the humble macaron (many of which are pictured above), which is a confection found throughout France resembling flying saucers or the round connecting pieces in a Tinkertoy set. Each macaron consists of two pieces of meringue-like cookie with a frosting sandwiched in-between - almost every chocolatier and patissier in Paris seemed to have their own version offered in a multitude of colors and flavors (even McDonald's has them. And no, I didn't try theirs). I didn't eat a ton, but my personal favorites came from a very unique shop near the Luxembourg Gardens run by Japanese pastry chef Sadaharu Aoki, who fuses Japanese ingredients with French techniques. I tried his yuzu (Japanese citrus), houjicha (roasted green tea), and genmaicha (traditional green tea with roasted brown rice) macarons, all of which were delicious.

After the macarons, I decided I needed to bring home a few goodies for Mrs. Hackknife. The Japanese clerk in the shop (who spoke no English) was very helpful and tolerant of my mangled French, steering me towards a package of off-spec bonbons (examples of which can be seen in the little brochure above), some chocolate-covered macarons, and some dark chocolate cubes filled with a delicate sesame paste, sold like sushi in a gold bento box (complete with mini-chopsticks). I'm already fantasizing about my return visit to M. Aoki's atelier.

Just as beguiling, but more traditional French was a shop on the other side of the gardens operated by French pastry chef Franck Kestener, whose website touts him as some sort of Grand Champion in the world of the chocolate arts (now that's a title I can respect). His wares included some interesting macarons (like banana) and a specialty bar called "Atlantique" (featuring 66% dark chocolate covering shortbread and salted caramel), singled out by no less an authority than American pastry chef/author David Lebovitz, who blogs about the quirks of living in Paris (there's also a great review of it in this chocolate blog here, featuring a photo of the very same item that I'm currently holding in my dirty little hands) (ummm...ok, it's gone now and it was fabulous, a sweet, gooey, crunchy mess. The missus and I completely decimated the thing in about a minute).

Chocolate stores seem to be ubiquitous in Paris, found somewhere on almost every street. My guide for an afternoon, Monsieur Girard (a greeter in Paris just like me in Chicago), showed me several of them scattered throughout his neighborhood in the 10th Arrondissement (like this one, for example):

Although I was tempted to stuff my pockets full of goodies at every opportunity, I managed to restrain myself to buying only a single set of two creme brulee-type pastries from M. Girard's favorite bakery (located conveniently on the first floor of his apartment building). Which brings me to another point - good pastries are everywhere, too. During a long afternoon of sightseeing, we ducked into a random cafe on the Place de la Madeleine so Mom could sit for a spell. Next to our table was a silver tray on which rested some rather pretty objects:

The rich and buttery tartes tatin (pastry topped with caramelized apples) can be seen at the far back of the tray, one of which the three of us made disappear in quick order. Oh, I also might have consumed the house's last mille-feuille (three layers of puff pastry interspersed with two layers of custard) just before the tray picture was taken, its delectable appearance lost to the mists of time. There's really nothing better to recharge your batteries than a couple of decadent pastries washed down with a glass of pink wine (we desperately need some of this cafe culture back in the States).

Not all of the sweets were uppity. Just across the street from our hotel in the St. Michel district was what appeared to be a Tunisian pastry shop:

You probably know that I'm a sucker for anything that we're unlikely to find in Chicagoland, like Tunisian pastries (France has a close relationship with North African countries, being an ex-colonizer and all; hence, the occasional presence of African food). I picked out four different types of sweets, trying to avoid the ones obviously resembling baklava (we can get that at home, of course), and dragged them upstairs to share with my roommates.

I did ask the store's proprietor exactly what I was buying; however, the names didn't translate well and his English wasn't so good, so all I'm left with is descriptions. The one in the upper left of the box contained coconut and pistachios, almost like a little layer cake (maybe a type of baklava?). Below that was a crunchy sugar cookie in the shape of an enlarged Hershey's kiss (Mom liked these so much she went back to buy more the next day). The upper right pastry was like a honey doughnut, only heavier (and almost too sweet). My personal favorite was the last, a dense, moist cake tasting of sweetened rice and nearly dripping with honey, crowned with a single almond. I'm sure the amount of calories involved with this treat could have fueled an entire rowing team, but it was just me and it was damn good.

I think that pretty much covers the dessert portion of our tale. My next posting will feature nosh that's a bit more substantial...