Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Shrine to the Swine - The Purple Pig & The Publican, Chicago

Arriving in Chicago on the overnight train from New York, we discovered, unlike it's oft-used moniker, the Windy City, it was HOT. Even after spending what felt an age dragging our cases through the muggy streets from Union Station to our hotel in the Loop, it was still too early to check in. Deciding food was now more of a priority than showering or clean clothes we shed our bags, and a couple layers of clothing, grabbed a map from the lobby and set of for the Magnificent Mile, hoping to catch a late lunch at the Purple Pig.

The Purple Pig is a collaboration of chefs from Chicago restaurants Mia Francesca, Spiagga and Heaven on Seven, serving, in the words of the website, 'housemade charcuterie, cheeses and classic Mediterranean fare plus an extensive yet accessible wine list'. The sign on the gate puts it more succinctly; 'cheese swine and wine'.

There's a no reservation policy at the restaurant, but fortunately a spot opened up at the bar almost as soon as we arrived. Other seating can be found at a large communal table in the centre of the room, two tops running down the sides or, on a day like our visit, outside by the canal.

There is nothing better on a hot day than a cold beer. The Purple Pig offers a variety of European brews, including Peroni, Saison Dupont and Belhaven Stout. Getting into the Iberian vibe I settled for an icy Estrella Damm.

First up was the Ewing's choice of broccoli with roasted garlic and anchovy. Now I love broccoli, it's possibly even my favourite vegetable, but I was a bit disappointed when the Ewing chose it seeing how much we already eat at home. Sometimes it's good to be proved wrong, and here was certainly one of those occasions. The broccoli was still nice and crunchy, and had been slightly charred before being tossed in the sweet, salty anchovy garlic vinaigrette. The whole thing was topped with a good handful of crispy, oily breadcrumbs. A good way to get your greens.

Next up was the crispy pig's ear with kale, peppers and a fried egg. Now anyone who knows me knows I'm game to give most things a go, but a unfortunate incident with a bad egg while on holiday in France as a child has left me unable to face them in an unadulterated state. Mostly this doesn't present any problems, but recently I've been wanting to try more things with eggs prominently involved, so I decided to brave it.

As it was place on the counter our waiter instructed us that the best way to eat it was to break the yolk and stir it through the crispy shards of ear, bitter kale and vinegary sport peppers. The Ewing looked concerned, but I grabbed my folk and stabbed away, mixing the buttery yolk right through my first mouthful. It was perfect; the silky egg and fatty pork was cut through with the sharp vinegar and heat of the chili while the kale added a further tannic edge. The contrast of textures was also great, crispy, gooey and crunchy in every mouthful. It is a rich dish, and I couldn't quite manage to eat the egg white, but I was very pleased I had overcome my fear so I could sample it.

The next plate was a light and summery rabbit and panzanella salad which combined the traditional cubes of rustic bread with tender rabbit meat, green leaves, capers and fiddlehead ferns. The pickled ferns and capers cut through the oily croutons, and the rabbit remained juicy and moist.

At around the same time as this we were presented with our dish from the dubiously titled 'smears' section of the menu; pork neck bone gravy with ricotta. Sadly this seems to be the only plate from the trip that no photographic evidence exists for as, despite it's rather alarming name, it was quite a beauty. The neck bone 'gravy' was a meat tomato based ragu, full of tender shreds of pork and flecked with basil. The blob of fresh ricotta on top provided a creamy, sweet contrast and the whole thing was served with chunks of charred bread for dipping.

We finished with the octopus, green beans and fingerling potatoes. Another fine dish, where the, rather scary looking, octopus seemed to melt like butter and everything has been imbued with the smoky taste of the grill, before being seasoned simply with salt, oil and lemon. The sort of dish that transports you to a Greek beach hut, where you can sit enjoying fresh food like this with your feet in the sand and the sea in the distance.

While the Purple Pig might not have the beach views and sunshine it does have some great food that cherry picks its way around the Med, with a little State-side influence along the way. It's also pretty much the ideal stop for most occasions from a quick solo lunch to a lingering meal with friends, remembering that with the no reservations policy to plan your visit accordingly if you're in a bigger group. Oh, and the Ewing very much enjoyed the house made Limoncello digestif, so try and leave a little room for a few shots of that, too. 

The Purple Pig on Urbanspoon

Sunday morning means brunch, and, in at number 9 on Travel and Leisure's greatest brunch spots in America, in Chicago it had to be brunch the Publican. I had already wanted to visit, tempted by the platters of ham, oysters and charcuterie on a regularly changing menu, but I was lured into making a reservation for a morning meal by the idea of bloody mary's with beer chasers, and their legendary maple syrup-braised bacon.

After enjoying a couple of cups of good Intelligensia coffee, these bloody mary's arrived really get the senses going. Mine came with a Brooklyn Blast Pale Ale, The Ewing's with a Cooperstown BPA. As you can see from the picture they were properly garnished with a forest of pickles, always a winner in my book, and the beer chaser was a great way to freshen things up after all the salt and spice.

I was keen to get the sablefish, served with a summery salad and Sam's 3-seed bagel, having run out of time to try some in New York. Also known as butterfish or black cod (yes, like in the famous Nobu dish) they are native to the North Pacific, and as 'butterfish' suggests, are extremely rich in oil, making them an ideal choice for smoking.

The salad was a well balanced, fresh assortment of flavours, from the moist, smoky sable to the crispy radish, cucumber and fennel, and the tangy  Meyer lemon. There was also a goodly blob of fromage blanc to schmear on the toasted, multi-seed bagel. A lovely, light start.

Halfway through The Ewing and I swapped and I was presented with this beautiful plate of maple glazed pork shoulder, kale, grits and fried egg (the Ewing ate the egg, but did leave me most the pork shoulder). This was a a hearty heap of food, the meat soft and salty, making a perfect match with the creamy blandness of the grits, and the whole thing spruced up by the iron rich kale and crunch of pickled red onions.

The Publican's bacon, braised in Burton's maple syrup. Two chunks of sweet, salty, fatty, pork-a-licious-ness. This is nothing like the familiar British back bacon, nor is it like the traditional American streaky. Instead you are presented with a pair of belly slices that are grilled crispy on the outside, fall apart as you cut into them, but still have a good amount of chew. Despite having already eaten a huge hunk of pork shoulder, these presented no challenge, and I daresay they would be pretty great accompanying their coffee cake or waffles, too. Hell, this stuff would be good with anything.

The Publican on Urbanspoon

Monday, 28 May 2012

NY Eats

A New York Breakfast
What better place to start than breakfast. Not know to usually be early risers, a five hour time difference conveniently left us waking up just as the complimentary breakfast was being laid out each morning. Amongst all the Pop Tarts, oatmeal and blueberry muffins were some of the chewiest, sweetest bagels I have eaten. A bagel with 'everything' slathered in cold cream cheese and a cup of Joe in a famous Greek coffee cup made the perfect start to the day. (Yes, we were known to eat a second breakfast at a more reasonable hour...)

Momofuku Milk Bar, Midtown, Manhattan
Getting horribly lost while on holiday is a one of life's few certainties. Normally this means hopelessly tramping round in circles, trying to surreptitiously look at the map and finally asking the only person that 'doesn't actually live here' for directions. Getting lost on our first afternoon in NY did have one upside; we ended up walking right past the doorway of David Chang's Milk Bar just as the sun started to come out.

Top of my list was the cereal milk soft serve; this is ice cream designed to taste just like the leftover milk at the bottom of a bowl of cornflakes, and I was very excited to finally try it out. After eating the first couple of mouthfuls, while strolling through a sunny Midtown, I felt a little let down; it was just like an expensive 99, but without the excitement of a chocolate flake. Then it started to hit me, the malty, salty, toasty undertones that were very subtle at first but grew to give me the nostalgic feeling of sitting around the breakfast table as a child. Very curious and rather delicious.

Of course we had to get some of the infamous Crack Pie. As good as this was (it reminded me a little of the 'puddingy' texture of lemon curd, but with the flavour of a ultra rich sweet/salty butterscotch) I found it a little one-note. The pie certainly gives you a high, but I found the caramel wasn't quite 'burnt' enough to contrast with the richness from all the eggs and sugar. Even the sweet-tooth of the Ewing found it a little too much (yes, she still ate it).

The Candy Bar Pie has a bit more depth, marrying different layers of peanut butter, caramel and chocolate on a graham cracker base and topped with pretzels. Yes, it is quite as brilliant as it sounds and surprisingly not sickly. Tosi's Milk Bar confections are sometimes criticised for being overly sweet or salty, but I found this perfectly balanced.

We also tried some of the celebrated cookies too; blueberry and cream, corn, compost and cornflake choc-chip marshmallow. All very good and recommended. The compost is especially interesting; containing a mixture of pretzels, potato chips, butterscotch, chocolate chips and coffee grounds. It sounds too crazy to work, yet it manages to be a fabulous mix of sweet and salty with a complex, bitter (almost metallic) note at the end from the coffee.

Momofuku Milk Bar on Urbanspoon

The Original Nathan's Famous, Coney Island
Back when I was a kid my parent's listened to a lot of 80's soul music, and one of their favourites was Luther Vandross. I distinctly remember singing the lyrics to 'She Loves Me Back', in which he woos a lady with a visit to Coney Island, and thinking how exciting and mysterious it all sounded. Fast forward to the present day and it's probably more know for is faded and decaying amusement park and being the backdrop rather harrowing 'Requiemm for a Dream'. Undeterred I still wanted to see the charms of the Boardwalk and feel the breeze from the Atlantic ocean for myself. And eat a hot dog.

If you're worried you're not going to be able to find Nathan's Famous then see the pic above, taken as you exit the Coney Island Subway. This is the site of the original Nathan's, and the building dominates the corner of Stillwell and Surf Avenue. Starting out as a nickle hot dog stand in 1916 it has now expanded into a country-wide franchise and, with its giant illuminated signs and wall mural, is pretty hard to miss.

The side of the building has a huge countdown clock that advertises their celebrated 4th July hot dog eating contest, as well as a hall of fame for previous victors. Contestants have 10 minutes to cram in as many hot dogs and buns as they can while been cheered on by the huge crowds that gather at Coney Island each year to enjoy the spectacle.

The Nathan's Famous Dog, naked save for a squirt of mustard. I'm not usually known for my restraint in food related matters (the dog is also available dressed with onions, chilli, cheese or slaw), but here I wanted the tube steak to be the star. They make corn dogs, pretzel dogs and hot dog nuggets too, if you think your digestion's up to it.
It's pretty hard to get a good dog here in the UK, most childhood memories revolve around some thing horrific and spongy from a tin or a 'banger', which is good, but is not a hot dog. This one was everything I wanted it to be; a springy 'snap' to the casing, that let the garlicy juices spurt out, and a subtle smoky, peppery flavour.

My only complaint about my lunch was that it was gone far too quickly. With our appetites sharpened by the sea air (well, that's excuse...), two or three would have made the perfect meal. After finding out Joey Chestnut managed 62 at last summer's famous 4th of July hot dog eating contest then I'm tempted to get into training for this summer myself.

The clam platter; a great big dish full of wiggly, breaded clam strips, crinkle fries, slaw and yellow corn bread sweet as cake; this made the hot dog look like a mere morsel. Initially the Ewing was reluctant to share, but by the end she was begging for me to give her a hand to finish the vast pile of fried food in front of her.

The clams were nice (anything dipped in tartare sauce is nice), if a little heavy going. The fries and coleslaw average, the cornbread like a perfect little pudding on the side of the plate. This is good old comfort food, a US version of our fish and chips, best eaten when a stiff breeze is blowing sand up into your eyes and in your dinner.

The Original Nathan's Famous Est. 1916 on Urbanspoon

Doughnut Plant, East Village, Manhattan
Doughnut Plant was borne out of Mark Israel's underground doughnut bakery, which has now come to the surface and spawned a mini-chain of shopfronts in Manhattan. Israel started biking around New York distributing his wares since 1994, and the Plant in coffee shop form was established in 1999. After being featured prominently in the media, especially The Food Network, it has now become a destination point for tourists and locals alike, tempted by the churros, square jelly doughnuts and stuffed cake doughnuts.

Our first trio; the Carrot Cake and Brooklyn Blackout cake doughnuts and the yeasted Creme Brulee doughnut. The Blackout doughnut was outrageous, a dense chocolate cake filled with chocolate frosting and rolled in chocolate crumbs. One for the chocolate lover then, but not too overwhelming, especially with a cup of the good drip coffee they also serve.

The carrot cake was stashed to enjoy later, and became a sleeper hit when we found it at the bottom of our bag a few days after or visit. This one consisted of a raisin and nut spiked batter filled with a ring of cream cheese frosting and covered in frosting and sprinkles.

The creme brulee doughnut. In a Nation of super-sized treats this was rather modest fare. A puffy little ball of fried dough, filled with a rich vanilla custard and topped with a crunchy sugar glaze it was a perfect balance of creamy and crunchy, just sweet enough and designed to leave you wanting just another bite more.

After insisting she didn't want anything other than a cup of coffee, the cabinet of treats proved too tempting for the Ewing, and she was soon persuaded by their peanut butter and jelly 'doughseed' ( a little smaller than the average doughnut, but smaller than their ordinary, square yeasted doughnuts). As I didn't want her to feel left out I ordered the peanut butter and banana cream doughseed to keep her company.

The doughnuts had both been frosted with peanuts and a sugar glaze which gave way to a light and fluffy middle. The jelly version was a decent jam doughnut, but the banana cream version would have had Elvis up and dancing on the counter. The banana flavour was creamy and tangy without being overpowering and matched the crunchy peanut coating perfectly.

Worth a visit if you're crazing a decent doughnut that's a little bit different. My only regret was not having time to try the Tres Leches cake doughnut; a cake infused, as the name suggests, with three types of leche - evaporated milk, condensed milk and cream. All the more reason to persuade the Ewing we need to cross the pond for a repeat visit....

Doughnut Plant on Urbanspoon

Katz's Delicatessen, Lower East Side, Manhattan
Katz's Delicatessen; an essential stop on any New York food tour. Established in 1888 it has become celebrated for its pastrami, corned beef and hot dogs as well as its "Send a salami to your boy in the army" campaign started during WWII, which still continues for US troops now, and of course Meg Ryan's moment of unbridled joy in 'When Harry Met Sally'.

Not sure anything else can be written about this sandwich; huge, even the Ewing and I split this one. A smokey, juicy, fatty delight with a schmear of mustard and a lovely spiced bark on the meat. As with many of these New York classics there aren't too many reference points to compare it to across the pond (although I'm a big fan of B&K Salt Beef Bar in Hatch End), but even a gentile like me knows a decent sarnie when they eat it.

Pickles are my first love (sorry Ewing) and I was particularly enamoured with the half sours, which tasted like ultra crunchy, slightly salty fresh cucumbers. And to drink, who could resist a can of Dr Brown's Cel-Ray, celery flavoured soda? Usually my more outré choices at mealtimes end up in disappointment, hunger and dehydration. This time I lucked out. Celery soda is actually very nice (and also very impossible to find in the UK, so if anyone fancies sending me another can...). It may sound a rather strange combination, but the celery seed perfectly complements the spice of the beef, and it all manages to be curiously sweet and a little bit savoury all at one.

The lunchtime ques building up on a typical afternoon at Katz's. We got there at about 11.30, just before the rush and giving the opportunity to relax, enjoy our sandwich and indulge in a bit of people watching. The mixture of locals and tourists, plus all the staff made for a very entertaining lunchtime.

Yes it's busy and it's touristy, but it's a great experience and you can get a bloody good sandwich, too. While you might not be interested incoming here to sit in 'that' chair (helpfully pointed out by a big hanging sign above the table Harry and Sally sat at) or to buy a t-shirt, or a baseball cap you should be interested in coming for some great beef and pickles, traditional atmosphere and a few cans of that intriguing celery soda to wash it all down with.

Katz's Deli on Urbanspoon

Yonah Shimmel Knishery, Lower East Side, Manhattan
Yonah Schimmel is a New York Knish Bakery found on Great Houston Street, next to Katz's Deli and Russ and Daughters. Like the previous two, has become as much of a landmark as an eatery, and has featured both in Hedy Pagremanski's painting which can be found in the Museum of the City of New York, and Woody Allen's film 'Whatever Works'.

A Knish is a dough shell that traditionally holds a filling of potato or kasha (buckwheat groats) and onion, and is then oven baked. Recent varieties now include cheese with different fruit, broccoli or chocolate. The Kasha and potato varieties are reported to be made from the same recipe that was used when the bakery opened and you can also get Jewish classics such as borscht and latkes.

The potato knish; roughly the size of my palm, and weighing in at about half a pound, this is one serious snack. The outside is a very thin baked dough, while the innards are comprised entirely of seasoned, mashed poatato, studded with a few tiny pieces of onion. Made without any eggs, oil or yeast this runs the risk of being bland and heavy, and while it is probably a dish better shared, the perfectly smooth potato makes a strangely comforting and tasty treat.

Yonah Schimmel's Knish Bakery on Urbanspoon

Gem Spa, East Village, Manhattan
Gem Stores, backdrop of for the back cover of the New York Doll's first album, mentioned in the poetry of Allan Ginsberg, and, allegedly, home of the 'best egg cream in New York City'. 

The egg cream is a drink containing neither eggs nor cream, but rather a mixture of chocolate syrup (typically Fox's U-Bet), milk and seltzer water. While the origins of the name have been lost to the midst of time the drink is believed to have been invented in Brooklyn by candy store owner Louis Auster. Traditionally a Brooklyn egg cream would be chocolate and a New York version would be vanilla, but most versions available now seem to be chocolate based.

Although attempts have been made to bottle it, the drink depends upon the use of fresh seltzer(preferably charged with CO2), to help the drink develop its traditionally creamy head. To make your own at home simply place a spoon into a glass and then pour in a couple of inches of full cream milk, squirt the seltzer water in until the foam is nearly at the top of the glass and finally pour a thin stream of chocolate syrup into the drink. Stir well and serve.

Inside we started chatting to the very friendly man at the counter (with a very thick Indian accent), who commented that we must be excited to find someone who sounded just like us in the middle of NYC (imagine Apu from the Simpsons on steroids, him not me...). Needless to say we sounded nothing like him, but it was still entertaining to hear all about his visit to Neasden Temple in the 70's while he was mixing up my drink. He then offered us some half price sunglasses. Very strange but rather endearing.

The egg cream is one thing I won't mourn on my return to the UK. If this is the best God only knows how the worst would taste. A little while ago Coca Cola released Vio, their take on a fizzy dairy-based drink. It bombed. There is of course a good reason for this, the combination really isn't very nice. The mixture of seltzer, milk and chocolate syrup in my cup turned into a rather bizarre, sweet, fizzy milk drink. The Ewing saved it from being chucked, but even she struggled to see the merit in this one. It's worth a visit though, if only for the experience. And the cut price shades.

Bouchon Bakery, Columbus Circle, Manhattan
After walking through Central Park from the Upper West Side to Columbus Circle we were well in need of a little pit stop, and where better than Thomas' Keller's Bouchon Bakery, based on the third floor of the AOL Times Warner Building.

The Bouchon Bakery is celebrated chef Thomas Keller's interpretation of a simple cafe-cum-bakery, serving sandwiches, coffee and baked goods and also supplying fresh bread to his Bouchon Bistro next door (there are further branches following the same model in Vegas, Yountville and Beverly Hills). If you fancy a PB&J here you'll be offered a different spin with a cashew nut butter and apricot jam sandwich. Those who are looking for something a little simpler then they also serve classics such as dry-cured ham, Emmenthaler and sweet butter and smoked salmon.

The eponymous bouchon; the French La Bouchon means to cork the wine bottle, and I guess this is why these little cork-shaped cakes are so named. Despite their diminutive size they are rich, dense and impossibly chocolately. Inside is soft and fudgy, like a brownie, and is studded with dark chocolate chunks. A perfect morsel to enjoy with a cup of their house blend coffee.

The TKO, Keller's take on the famous Oreo. So much awesomeness in this cookie. It tasted a bit like the friable chocolate sandwich biscuits I used to make at school as a young child. The kind made of half butter and half cornflour and sandwiched with butter cream, which just melted in your mouth (and sometimes in your hand).

As well as this version of a classic he also serves takes on the Nutter Butter peanut sandwich cookie, peanut butter cups and Peppermint 'Paddies', which he serves amongst all the delicate Viennoiserie, macaron and pastries. If you can't afford a trip to Per Se, or the French Laundry, but still want to experience a little of the man's magic then you could do far worse than stopping in for a coffee and a cake.

Bouchon Bakery on Urbanspoon