Thursday, July 30, 2015

Interlude: Avec, Chicago

A few weeks ago, I was in Chicago for a week-long work trip. My head was so far immersed in Linguistics! the whole time that I barely pulled out the big hunk of a camera I insist on lugging around with me whenever I travel (hey, it's good exercise?), despite how beautifully green and vibrant and wonderful Chicago is during this time of year. Hydrangeas everyone! Flowers abloom! The riverside teeming with picnic blankets! The cityscape shimmering in a post-thunderstorm glisten! Intricate American gothic architecture! Fireflies at dusk!

I was so distracted that here are the only photos I managed to get at the Art Institute (which, by the way, was wonderful, and felt like I had stepped into Musée d'Orsay's sibling museum. 

On one occasion, I did manage to get my head screwed on straight enough to get my camera out, and boy, am I glad that I did. A good linguist friend of mine, who happens to also be an expert foodie, took a a few of my colleagues and me to Avec near downtown Chicago. Tucked away in a small storefront that is reminiscent of a hipsterised, wood-paneled version of a shipping container, the tapa-s style French/Mediterranean fusion was so, so good. I have major respect for restaurants that can put together flavor combinations that surprise, and there were definitely several fun moments for the tastebuds throughout the evening.

Above: bacon-wrapped dates and a watermelon-jalapeno-cheese salad.

Below was one of our favorite salads, with season-peak stone fruit and fava beans and this uber-creamy, light, fluff of cheese. We also had this sort of fantastical roasted cauliflower dish, where the top of the cauliflower was encrusted with whole mustardseeds and baked until black, The whole thing was sauced in this sweet honey glaze and layered upon a foundation of something like yogurt or cheese (I can't remember the details). This is a dish I'm soooo going to attempt to replicate at home. I'm thinking Thanksgiving.

To fill out the meal with a substantial "main", we decided on the freshly-made, nice and sardine-y squid ink pasta, coasted with panko crumbs. The sardine-lover in me adored the fishiness, though it proved too much for some others in our party. But hey, more pasta for me! :D We finished up the evening with a cheeseplate, of which I was most excited by the mounds of bright pink, translucent quince paste. Ah, sign this girl up for good quince paste any day.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Postcards from Paris: Let them eat cake, Part I.

Happy belated Bastille Day! I meant to take advantage of Bastille Day celebrations to finally post about all of the food moments that I had in Paris in April, but of course work and travel got in the way, so here it is, a week late. (Also, the soundtrack for this post.) But I hope that's okay, because oh there are so many good food moments to share, ranging from the planned to the surprising to the serendipitous. I've gone back and forth on how to order this post--savouries versus sweets, neighborhoods versus cuisines--but in the end, I decided to tell my story chronologically, because the stories, the context--that's what makes the food truly memorable, for me. So here's Part I of my Paris food adventures. Part II to come, because there's just too much for one post!

In Paris, I based myself in Upper Marais, on the recommendation of a friend. I swear I picked this AirBnB on the sole criterion that it had beautiful plant life. Green!

After I checked into my place, I met up with a colleague of mine who was attending the same conference, and we went wandering around Paris, getting our bearings. For dinner, we went with a recommendation from another colleague of ours who works in the city: Szechuan hot pot at 蜀九香 Fondue 168. I have to say that I'm pretty excited that this place doesn't even really have a Western name. I know it's a bit unconventional to go to Asian food in Europe, but some of the best food that I had on my Paris trip was Asian-influenced (see below, too!). The hot pot came with so many dippables, from veggies and tofu and mushrooms galore to more unusual meats that I'd never had, like a shrimp/fish cake with an egg inside. Then, we hit up the Experimental Cocktail Club down the street, where I had a cocktail that was garnished with a whole radish at the bottom, which cleverly soaked up a hint of the drink! Talk about experimental!

Of course, when in Paris, one has to get serious about the pastries. Because Paris. Because cake! Luckly, several of the patisseries that I wanted to visit/that were recommended to me were in a similar area, so I got to hit several in efficient fashion. My very first stop (pictured in first photo above) was a pilgrimage to Pierre Hermé, naturally. Like, one of the greatest patisseries. Ah, be still, my heart! Behind the modern, streamlined case were rows and rows of impeccable and beautifully made desserts, in flavor combinations that my puny brain (however creative I pride myself to be) has yet to fathom.

Then it was off to a Japanese-French fusion patisserie, Sadaharu Aoki, that a good friend of mine recommended highly before I left on my trip. It's sort of an out-of-the-way bakery that isn't on a lot of the "top bakery" lists, but in my book, it's one of the most creative places I've seen. I snagged a small layer cake for myself, which had layers of black sesame cake, matcha cake, and vanilla-cognac mousse, and also picked up some gifts for others, in interesting Asian-fusion flavor combinations. All of the matcha things here that I tasted were amazing.

Armed with my various pastries, I headed off to the nearby Jardin de Luxembourg to find a sunny bench on which to dig into my stash. It was really funny, on a Sunday morning, to see so many people out and about, playing ball, jogging around the fields, or practicing taichi--all while my own, personal form of Sunday morning "exercise" was enjoying the hell out of a magnificent piece of cake. Only in Paris.

After pastries, it was time to seek out bread, at Eric Kayser, of course. Ah man, I swear I don't think I'll ever be able to have a baguette anywhere else again. These baguettes have ruined me forever! Accompanied by cheese from a local fromagerie and tapenade from a deli in the Jewish Quarter, this bread constitued many breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and dinners for me while I was in Paris. Because with bread and accoutrements this good, who needs to go out for restaurant food?!

Okay, Part II of Paris food adventures coming soon!