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Posts Tagged ‘snapper’

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What better way to spend Thanksgiving weekend than to get away from cold Chicago and bask in the Mexican sun? Well, I was with my obnoxious family that took 2 hours to decide, read that argue about, what to do for every meal, so maybe it could be better? Actually, I’d have it no other way. A little aggravation is good for the soul. One thing that was easily agreed upon was heading to the San Benito Market in Merida (where my mom lives) with my two brothers. If you read my post on the market from the last time I was in Merida, you’ll see that I’m a big fan of the various tacos and other food items one can gorge themselves on. One thing I didn’t try on my past trip was any of the seafood. So, my brothers and I set off to find out if it’s as good as the 4-legged creatures one can devour there. We did start off with a couple of tacos each for an appetizer.

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What we found in the pescado section was that none of the “restaurants” served fish ceviche. All of the camarones one could want, but no fish ceviche. One of the stalls was willing to make it for us though. So, they headed over to the fishmongers and grabbed a couple of fish for us. One was a snapper and the other was something else. I did see some baby hammerhead sharks at the fishmongers’ counter (don’t know why my older bro didn’t get a good photo of those as I didn’t have my camera with me, but he’s not as bright as I am, so we’ll give him a pass), and the other fish did have a sharky texture, but I’m not sure if it was shark or not.

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This woman, with all of her years of skill and knowledge, proceeded to skin, inspect, and chop up the various fish. Then she added the lime juice, salt, and pepper, and mixed it around for a bit. She dumped it out and did it all over again and again tasting each time to make sure it was just how she wanted us to eat it.

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Once the fish was “cooked” enough and had enough of the seasoned lime flavor she mixed in some diced onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. Out of the mixing bowl and onto our plate.

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When a little old Mayan woman serves you something she just made right in front of your eyes with a smile like that, how can it not be delicious? Well, it wasn’t delicious, it was beyond delicious! It was delovecious! You see, I had to make up a lame ass word and it still doesn’t do justice to what she just whipped up. With some tortilla’s and super spicy salsa verde none of us had ever eaten a ceviche quite so good. You could really taste the love she put into that dish. This woman didn’t want three handsome men like us (I’m by far the most handsome of the three, and I smell the best too) to go unsatisfied. I think all three of us left a little piece of our hearts, and stomach linings with her.

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So, Yuki and I took a few days to visit some of the early temples and castles in the Kansai region of Japan. Most of the structures we saw date back to the 8th century and are truly amazing! Besides the structures there were also tons of great sculptures from the same time period. However, as you all know, this blog isn’t about architecture, it’s about food. This post is to let you know about the incredible Kaiseki we ate our last night in Nara at the Ryokan (traditional Japanese Inn) we stayed at, Yoshino.

Kaiseki is the classic multi-course meal that progresses through various cooking techniques using regional, seasonal ingredients. It’s the highest art form you can find in food anywhere in the world. Focus on the subtleties of each ingredient to draw out natural flavors and not cover then with heavy sauces (sorry Frenchies, but the Japanese have your asses kicked in food culture!).

It started with that dish in the middle of the picture above. From left to right was a little fish grilled in a sweet soy marinade, a roasted chestnut, ama ebi (sweet shrimp), some sort of seafood that had a jellyfish-like texture in a miso sauce (I have absolutely no idea what it was, but it sure tasted good!), then a three-colored fish cake.

After that they brought out this dish. It was obviously a shrimp, but I’m not quite sure what else there was. I think it was a gratin made with the roe of the shrimp. Also on the plate as a macaroni salad and some lettuce with a tomato.

Then we moved on to the sashimi plate. It had some fantastic Chu-Toro (tuna), Tai (snapper), and the star of the plate….Ika (squid). In the States when you order Ika it’s usually very thin and a little rubbery. Not these two slices. They were about a half centimeter thick, squid steaks! Rubbery? Hell no! Each chew and the squid literally melted away in our mouths. Hands down the best squid I’ve ever eaten.

Then they brought us a plate of steamed Ayu (sweet fish). It’s a river fish that eats moss attached to stones giving it a really fresh and clean taste. It was served with a light ginger sauce. The thing that makes Ayu special is that it’s eaten when the belly is full of fish roe. There isn’t much meat, so it’s like dipping chopsticks into a bowl of fresh water caviar.

Being the meatavore that I am, the next plate was what I was most looking forward to….Beef Tataki. Lightly seared beef to give a little texture to the soft raw meat laden with mouth-watering fat. The dipping sauce is a soy-dashi mix. You see the little mound of reddish gew on the side of the dish? That’s a mix of togarahsi (Japanese red pepper) and yuzu (a small citrus fruit). You mix that into the sauce like you would wasabi for sushi, along with thinly sliced chives. With the tataki there was a small dish of sliced cucumber and I think seaweed in a vinegar sauce that cleansed the palette from the fatty beef.

Then we ate the Shabu-shabu. Unfortunately I forgot to get a picture of the individual hotpots we used, but here’s the ingredients. The broth was a light sake base, in it we added cabbage, enoki mushrooms, and shimeji mushrooms. Once they were cooked, we sloshed the thinly sliced beef around to cook it and then dipped it all in a light soy with more of the togarashi yuzu and chives.

After that we got two different preparations of Unagi. To be honest, I have absolutely no clue what the difference was. One was served on top of rice, the other with rice on the side. All I can tell you is that you will never find eel of that quality anywhere in the States. It tasted like they just caught it that morning. Best eel ever! Both came with a little dish of Japanese pickles. They were probably damn good pickles, but I don’t like pickles so I let Yuki eat mine.

After the Unagi was a clear broth soup with an ingredient we couldn’t figure out. At first, we thought it was some sort of mushroom. It wasn’t. Then we thought it might be shiroko, fish sperm sack. It wasn’t that either. We finally found out that it was eel liver, probably from the Unagi we just ate. It had kind of a crunchy yet soft texture. Not something you’ll find on any old menu.

Finally, to finish things off was a plate with fresh persimmons and grapes. persimmons are in season right now and are everywhere while Japanese grapes are absolutely huge compared to what we get.

All in all this was my 5th Kaiseki. I wish I could afford to eat like this every night as there is always something unusual and strange to the western palette. If any of you get to Japan I highly recommend splurging at least once to experience the delicate yet sophisticated Japanese cuisine at it’s finest.

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So, yesterday was my wife’s birthday. I won’t tell you how old she is now, you should never ask a woman her age. Needless to say, she’s still younger and better looking than me. For this year’s birthday dinner I took her to L2O. I know, I know. I’m unemployed and shouldn’t spend that kind of money right now. But hey, what can you do? I have to say, we were both extremely impressed and satisfied by what transpired at the dinner table last night.

First of all, we were fortunate enough to have found a parking spot right in front of the restaurant. No easy task in Lincoln Park. We knew all would be well when that happened. Saved me $12 on valet!

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The interior was perfect for the concept of Laurent Gras’s food. French sophistication with Japanese minimalism. It was really nice inside. The one weird thing we’re not used to is how they sat us. We got a 4 top to ourselves, but they sat us next to each other instead of across from each other. Our necks hurt a little bit since we had to turn our head to converse, but that’s being nitpicky.

We opted for the 4 course pre-fix. Our choice of one item from the Raw section, one from the Warm section, one from the Main, and one dessert. To be quite honest, deciding what to order might possibly have been the hardest decisions we’ve had to make in years! Everything sounded great. You can see the menu on their website, so you’ll understand what I mean.

Before we ordered we got not one, but two amuse buches. The first was a small little layered octopus and potato thing with a spicy soy paste underneath. It was the perfect little starter. Clean, fresh, and just enough spice to get our taste buds rolling. The second was a little…. you know what? I don’t remember what it was. I do remember it being delicious. You’d think I’d remember something from last night, but then again, my short-term memory is a little off.

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From the Raw section Yuki ordered the Tuna and I ordered the Peekytoe Crab. The Tuna was served with little squares of tomato on top, hibiscus stems along the surface, little dollops of some sort of creamy sauce, and foie gras snow. I can only imagine that it’s frozen foie that’s been grated. It was a truly magnificent dish. Very elegant and buttery but not oily or greasy.

crab and avocado

My Crab was a little lighter but not quite as elegant. It was served in a mound with a sliced avocado dome around it. Around the avocado mound was kaffir lime jelly and lemon oil. The crab was probably the best crab meat I’ve ever eaten. The sweetness shined through all of the tart citrus with the avocado’s creaminess adding depth.

lobster bisque

For the Warm course Yuki ordered the Lobster Bisque. It was a boiled lobster claw with chestnuts and lobster/scallop dumplings. Table service lobster bisque broth was poured over it. I didn’t try the lobster claw, but Yuki claims that she’s never ever had lobster with such a soft texture. I did try a little of the dumpling and judging from that I’d have to say that Yuki’s right about the lobster. Easily the best bisque of all time.

lamb tartar

I got the Lamb Tartare. In a circle mold they layered the bottom with the freshest raw lamb I’ve ever seen. On top of that was a layer of raw diced shiro ebi (sweet shrimp). Then, on top of that was a few sliced of pickled peach and some tarragon. I think it was gold fleck on top of that, but I can’t be sure. The sliminess of the shrimp and the sourness of the pickled peach combined with the herbal notes of the tarragon so well that you hardly even knew you had lamb underneath. It was such a clean taste that nothing seemed raw. As such, I think it belongs in the raw section, but I’m not complaining because then I’d have to have chosen between that and the crab.

On to the main course. Yuki’s Tai Snapper with Deconstructed Green Curry (I couldn’t find a pic online) was a masterpiece. The Snapper seems to have been steamed with lemon zest on top. It was so moist and delicious. There was some coconut sauce, dollops of some sort of spicy chili sauce. A brown sugar tuille. The coolest part were the parsley merengues. They were brought out getting frozen in liquid nitrogen and served tableside. They were so light and airy that they melted in your mouth making you wonder if you had even eaten anything at all. But the flavor was pure parsley. Genius! When you put everything together it really tasted like green curry. Wonderful deconstruction job. Her only complaint was that she wanted white rice with it. But, she’s Japanese. She wants white rice with everything.

pork belly

I got the Pork Belly. Three thick slices of pork belly that had been seared in duck fat. Served with thin slices of potato, scalloped potato, and pureed potato in the scalloped potato. On top of everything they poured some truffle sauce. It was decadence on a plate! I can’t begin to describe to you just exactly what that crisp pig skin fried in duck fat did to my digestive tracts, but I will say this…it was a beautiful thing! My only complaint is that I couldn’t quite finish everything on the plate. I hate to waste food. (please note that the pic I found on Google only shows one slice, I was served three with three potatoes.)

Before dessert they sent out another amuse buche. This was a little ramekin filled with Meyer Lemon Marshmallow. It was super tart the second it hit our tongues, but almost immediately subsided into just a really palette cleansing citrus. It was the perfect thing to prepare us for dessert.

Dessert was two different souffles. One was a Grand Marnier, the other was a Bailey’s and Frangelico. Of course, he got the souffles just right. Super fluffy with a mild egg taste. They spooned a hole in at the table to pour in the alcohol. Absolutely scrumptious!

We weren’t quite done yet. After dessert they sent out these interesting pastry concoctions that the pastry chef came up with. In a small bundt shaped mold they poured some beeswax, let it burn a little to carmelize, then filled it with custard. I’ve never had anything quite like it.

But, there was still more. What meal is complete without chocolate? Our server brought out a loaf of some of the richest, creamiest chocolate mouse of all time! So good, so so good!

When we were done, Tony, the general manager, gave us a quick tour of the kitchen. Laurent Gras was back there with his army of chefs cooking away. It’s great to see a restaurant where the head chef is actually doing the cooking. Too often the big name chefs are never in the kitchen, having their sous chefs handle everything. Not here. Laurent is such a perfectionist that he tends the kitchen almost every single night. The man is tireless. I’m damn glad he is!

It wasn’t cheap, but when you feel like splurging for a special dinner you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place than L2O. It truly is a gem among Chicago restaurants.

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I had a discussion with a buddy of mine the other day regarding El Barco Mariscos, the Mexican fish house on 1035 N. Ashland. You see, I live about a half block down the street on Cortez from El Barco and, as such, I know the restaurant well. While the food has always tasted good my wife and I have stopped dining there and will probably never be back. My buddy thinks it’s the beans.

 

El Barco is one of the most fun dining experiences you can have at a restaurant. Sure, the top-40 Mexican hits being played on the TV monitors are pretty cheesy, but the rest of the atmosphere is fantastic. Built to look like a wooden boat, there are stuffed fish hanging from all over the ceiling. It’s open, bright, friendly, and loud, but not too loud. It’s like a fiesta. There are always families and large groups and the line to get in sometimes starts as early as 5pm, especially on summer weekends when they have the outdoor seating open.

 

Margarita pitchers always set the mood right. Along with tortillas, lime wedges, and three different salsas you can’t help but start to loosen up and take it easy.

 

The menu is huge. I mean that literally. It used to come out in an enormous laminate that must have been 1.5 x 3 feet! They’ve since folded them, but they’re still pretty large. Lots of selections as well. All sorts of apps such as different ceviche, seafood cocktails, salads, bacon wrapped cheese stuffed shrimp (also available as a dinner), and so on. There are different grilled items available, beef, chicken, seafood, mixed. Crab legs are always on hand. Numerous fish preparations are offered, the most popular being their snapper.

 

 

 

 

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They serve their snapper deep fried and then propped up on its belly atop a bed of rice with grilled veggies (usually potatoes, carrots, broccoli, corn, and onions; comes will all dinners), guacamole, and refried beans (also comes with every meal). It comes out and you just pull the meat right off the bones. When the fish is fresh it’s absolutely delicious!

 

El Barco sounds great, right? So why won’t my wife or I go back? Very good question. The answer lies in the internal damage done shortly after ingesting a meal of El Barco. I can recall only one time when El Barco didn’t send me in a cheek-clenching, stiff-legged mad dash directly to the latrine (Yuki and  I only have one bathroom in our place, imagine the difficulty after we’ve both eaten El Barco!). That night we ate crab legs, for some reason they were very gentle on my stomach. Otherwise, I’m sure there’s been some irreparable damage done from about a dozen journeys to El Barco over the years. A hole burned somewhere along my entrails or something.

 

My buddy seems to think it’s the refried beans. Apparently he shares a similar history with El Barco except that the one night he was high and dry he claims to have passed over the beans. I ate beans the night we had crab legs, I know this for a fact. You mash that magical fruit with some lard and I’m in heaven! There’s no way I can pass a good refried bean. Eating the beans on top of everything else is more like throwing water on an oil fire. They don’t help matters, but they’re not the root cause. I think the answer is a short hop across Cortez.

 

On the south side of Cortez, next to their parking lot is a little run-down shack. I think that’s where El Barco keeps meat and other ingredients. I’m not 100% positive about this, but judging by the smells that come out of that place (especially in the hot and humid summer) and seeing the cooks going in and out, there’s meat kept at warmer than should be temperatures inside. Sometimes it smells so rotten I want to instantly heave all over the street. It has completely turned me off of ever going back. I, for one, prefer my food to be fresh as opposed to road kill left on the side of the road for a few days before making it my plate.

 

El Barco Mariscos ought to change their name to “Montezuma’s Revenge.”

 

 

 

 

(Snapper photo courtesy of Brady)

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