Considering that Adam took over 130 pictures of London restaurants we ate at, it was only natural that we start chronicling our thoughts and opinions about the food we eat. We've totally become accidental foodies. It all started out when Sheila started calling Adam "the human trash compactor"; since he eats almost anything. But somewhere along the way we started having discussions about food and seeking out culinary adventures when on travel. We bring a unique perspective to this arena as we're both vegetarians (no meat, poultry, or fish). I suspect we will both have varying opinions on the food, and hope to not only have a record for posterity, but provide some fun, useful if not amateur insight.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

chicago’s girl & the goat - did it live up to the hype?

Located in the West Loop along Randolph’s restaurant corridor, Girl & the Goat is Stephanie Izard’s culinary heaven. Yes, she was the Season Four winner of Top Chef and her restaurant, open since 2010, has received several favorable local and national reviews. But would Sheila and I be impressed (remember our lukewarm reviews from SF’s Frances and NYC’s Devi)? YES!

Let’s just say Girl & the Goat is not easy to get in to. A couple of weeks before our trip to Chicago for a family weeding, I decided to try making reservations and was politely told that the next available table was in November! Instead we decided to walk in on a beautiful summer 85 degree Wednesday evening. Given its location, Girl & the Goat is quite a large space with a large bar and lounge area on one side and formal dining area on the other. The open plan kitchen sits at the back. In look and feel, the interior was very reminiscent of the Mission’s Beratta (upscale yet casual hipster) – dark distressed woods, Edison-inspired lamps, leather chairs, copper accents, and granite counters.

We walked up to the bar, ordered some drinks, and decided to stalk patrons seated at the counter hoping that seats would open up. You could tell the friendly mid-west attitude right away, as the bartender spotted me from afar and promptly took our order. Then 15 minutes later a young hostess came up to us and asked if we’d like to be seated. She was looking for a “nice” couple to sit at the bar counter that just opened up. I call it good omens during Sheila’s birthday week! Let the food experience begin. The menu is broken out in three sections – Veggies, Meats, and Fish. Each dish is served tapas style; our waitress noted that two dishes per patrons were about right. Being vegetarian we stuck to the left side of the menu and decided on five overall dishes, including dessert.

Not Campbell’s Bread – broccoli-cheese country loaf served with tomato soup oil and mushroom soup butter. Sounds like a weird combination, right? The warm loaf, infused with cheddar cheese, comes off a salty on first bite. However, that tapers off as soon as the fresh broccoli hits your palate. This was a wonderful and unique take on the normal table bread. The tomato soup oil (olive oil, red onions, garlic, white wine, parmesan cheese, and tomatoes) is used as a spread. Although decent, both of us felt that the olive oil and cheese added a bit too much richness for our taste. The mushroom soup butter (butter, shallots, garlic, thyme, cream, vinegar, and mushrooms) is also used as a spread. We preferred this spread over the tomato one, because the mushrooms and spices add another layer of earthiness. A perfect way to start our meal, we’d order this dish again.

Kohlrabi Salad – fennel, queso de mano, toasted almonds, blueberries, and ginger dressing. This was a wonderfully fresh dish bursting with savory and sweet elements. The fennel provided a clean base for the other ingredients, but it was not lost. The salty queso and ginger dressing were simply balanced by the sweet ripened blueberries and earthy textured almonds. I would have never thought to combine these elements into a dish. Light and crisp, this was a great palate cleanser before our more heavy dishes.

Roasted cauliflowers – pickled peppers, pine nuts, mint, and cauliflower. This was another savory dish that had a great kick of fresh mint. The pine nuts gave an added bite (crunchiness) to what could have been a soft textured dish. The vinegar-infused peppers were actually not overpowering and provided a nice tangy balance. I felt that the cauliflower took on the flavors of the other elements, meaning it was lost in the dish. All in all though, a solid vegetarian dish.

Chickpea Fritters – eggplant & tomato caponata, rich soft mozzarella, fresh chickpeas, and deep fried chickpea cubes. The chickpea cubes (a la thick cut fries) were very fluffy with a smooth texture. The caponata and mozzarella brought back flavors of Italy, while still holding true to the chickpea’s Mediterranean roots. Both the caponata and mozzarella were extremely fresh and seasoned perfectly. The fresh chickpeas, sprinkled on top, were unusual to see and added some solidness to the dish. In comparison to a similar dish we had a SF’s Frances, the Girl & the Goat version blows it away! The components the accompanied the actual fritters were the main stars, which was fine by us!

Chocolate cake with shitake gelato – bittersweet chocolate cake, shitake gelato, toffee, and crème fraiche. The dish had undertones of savory throughout; in fact it was more earthy than anything else. The crumbled bittersweet chocolate cake was placed on top of a layer of crème fraiche and toffee bits. Eaten separately these two ingredients would have been extremes, but together they were very balanced – yin and yang. The gelato was interesting, rich and creamy without being overly sweet.

Girl & the Goat definitely lived up to its hype. The food was fresh and inventive without being pretentious; the ambiance was warm and inviting; and the scene was SF-esque hipster. Sheila and I felt like this was one Chicago restaurant that we would not only recommend, but would come back to. If you can’t get a reservations, simply show up and wait for a seat at the bar counter. It’s worth it.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

was the nom nom truck worth the wait?

Food Trucks are now mainstream, especially along the East and West coasts. From appearing on Food Network to holding court in parking lots on Fri and Sat nights, they are everywhere you turn. One of the most well know food truck events is Off the Grid, which rotates locations three evening each week in San Francisco; it has now spun off into East Bay and Peninsula versions. Heck, high-flying IT, social media, bio-pharma, college Greek houses, and wedding parties hire them out for private events!

A few weeks ago on a typical foggy and windy SF summer evening, we went to Off the Grid at Fort Mason with our good friends The Laffs. The scene was epic, 20 food trucks in a horseshoe configuration with a dozen or so food carts filling in the spaces in between. The lines ranged from a few patrons to 50+ deep. We were there to try Nom Nom, the Vietnamese banh mi truck that shot to fame on the Great Food truck Race. Started back in 2009 in Los Angeles by two UCLA grads Misa Chen and Jennifer Green, they recently expanded with a truck in SF.

The line for Nom Nom was the longest at this event, about 45 mins, which gate Sheila and JL time to walk around parking lot and pick up a few goodies to hold us over. As we near the front of the line, we mulled over the displayed menu – a simple mix of banh mi sandwiches and Vietnamese inspired tacos (pork, chicken, and tofu). Sheila and I decided on one tofu banh mi sandwich and two tofu tacos; currently the only two veggie items on the menu.

The banh mi sandwich, served on a 12” Le Boulanger French baguette, was stuffed full of marinated tofu, chopped cilantro, marinated carrots & daikon radish, thinly sliced cucumbers, jalapenos, and mayo. Aside from the tofu, these ingredients are the hallmark of an authentic banh mi sandwich. This was the first time either of us had eaten a banh mi sandwich; was it worth the wait? Absolutely! The fresh veggies were bursting with flavor with the jalapenos providing a great spice level to the dish (unexpected). Carrots, cilantros, and radish are common with Asian cuisine, so the combination built within the sandwich felt very familiar. The tofu was well cooked and seasoned, however it quickly became cold because of the outside elements. Similar to my blog on the Curry Up Now truck, I’d venture to say that the tofu was store bought and not homemade. One minor flaw was the baguette – meant to be crackly crisp on the outside and soft on the inside; ours tasted a bit too chewy. Again, this may have been because of the weather. All in all a great dish that we would order again!

The tacos, served on a double layer corn tortilla, had the same elements as in the above sandwich (tofu, carrots, daikon radish, cilantro, and jalapenos). I have to say though that it tasted dry; realizing afterwards that both sriracha and soy sauce were meant to be added over (bottles were sitting on the truck counter. The double layer tortilla was also too thick for my liking; all I could taste was that. Irrespective of the above points, I understand the concept of making tacos and burritos out of any cuisines (like Indian and Korean BBQ), but that diminishes the authenticity and genuineness of the dish. Yes the dish has to remain eatable by hand, but I have to believe there are easier ways to achieve it then stuffing everything into a taco or burrito. Bottom line, I’d stick with the sandwich.

The Nom Nom Truck definitely filled a niche market back in 2009; I just can’t believe it took us 2+ years to actually try their food. Now with a truck in SF, we’re following them on twitter and look forward to tasting their banh mi sandwiches again soon! You should as well!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

teething pains at vapiano

My quest to try interesting restaurants brought me to Vapiano in Charlotte during a recent business trip. It’s a German chain that is trying to elevate the cafeteria concept to another level as lounge / bar / eatery. On the Wednesday night that I colleague and I walked in, it was packed with young banking types – half of which ordered take-out. Vapiano’s has several restaurants, so I’m sure the concept works otherwise they’d be out of business, right? Unfortunately we went 3 days after grand opening and there’s certainly room for improvement.

You walk in and the hostess hands you a swipe card to compile your tab. There are stations set up throughout the restaurant – pizza, pasta, salad, drinks, dessert – where your card is swiped based on the order. After eating at the pay station the cashier rings up your tab total. Kinda felt like I was back in Freshman year at Hedrick Hall! The food is prepared while you stand at the counter. I mean all made to order – pick your pasta, sauce, veggies, meat and the chef cooks it front of you. The problem is that we were waiting at every station and the previously picked up food got cold.

I started out at the antipasti line partially because there was no line. I decided on bruschetta three-ways (classic tomato & basil, pesto & parmesan, and sundried tomato & olive tapenade). Then over to the pasta line where the overall wait was 15 mins. I tried to order ricotta and spinach ravioli (had not been delivered), then penne (they ran out), and finally farfalle (score!). Sauce ordered was pesto and pine nuts. While that was being made, I walked over to the bar for a strawberry basil mojito (there were no cut strawberries and bartender needed to pluck basil from herb tree). I get the fresh from the garden made to order concept, but this was a joke! Alas after a total of 30 mins total wait time, we finally sat down to eat our meal.

Bruschetta – really fresh taste overall and an above average dish. The tomatoes were vine-ripped and slightly sweet; the pesto freshly prepared and not overly oily; and bread tasted fresh baked. Given the lag time between ordering and eating, both the pesto and tapenade versions started to get soggy. With that said, I preferred the classic. However, I can’t complain at the $3.50 price.

Pasta – again, fresh pasta cooked slight al dente just the way I like it. The basil pesto (blended on the spot) and parmesan cheese (grated on the spot) were above average. This pesto flavor was balanced with the right amount of olive oil, salt, and basil. However, the overall preparation was not balanced – I had to “re-toss” the dish to combine the pasta and sauce. After that work, I was pleased with the dish and portion size. But as my colleague pointed out, you can’t really screw up such a simple pasta dish. Dish was priced at $8.50 which is reasonable.

Strawberry Basil Mojito – took about 10 mins longer to prepare than it should have. While waiting, I comment to my colleague that the bartender probably needs the ingredients list – sure enough she did. The drink was way too sweet, watered down, and tasted like an Italian soda. Not the elegant cocktail I was envisioning.

Bottom line, the concept is great, the food is above average, but this place needs operational help. My take is to be more like a Food Network show – have everything chopped and ready to go…and then go! Few other ideas are as follows. Hand out buzzers to come back rather than having people wait at the counter. Don’t roll out the entire menu at once if you’re lacking all the ingredients – ever heard of a soft opening? Teething aside, this place will do well is Charlotte based on the young banking clientele, emerging diversity scene, and trendy concept. I may even go back a few months, but for now please avoid.