Monday, May 17, 2010

Elisa's Graduation Weekend

After 7 years of post-undergraduate schooling, my sister finally graduated from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. She is now officially a double-doctor with a PhD and an MD. Congratulations Elisa!

The whole family came home for the weekend. Good Ole Beachwood, Ohio. My sister and her husband still live in the house we grew up in and all 7 of us stayed the weekend. Ernie and I drive from Chicago for the big event. The last time we drove in was for my 10 year high school reunion and we found two great Mexican restaurants along the Ohio Tollway. No such luck this time. The first location in Toledo was closed and we couldn't remember the second location. Such a bummer.

Here are some pictures of the weekend. We hung out with our 'god family' The Chin's. As our silliness prevails, we built a human pyramid!

Sunday was the official graduation day in Severance Hall. Katie Couric was the keynote speaker - my brother Winston didn't even know who she was. We all giggled when the Rabbi who blessed the ceremony was from a Temple in Beachwood. Of course. Katie also referenced princess Rania from Jordan! My guess is that not many people know who she is, but we saw lots of pictures of her while we were in Jordan. Favorite line of the speech: "Sometimes you're the pigeon. Sometimes you're the statue."

The weather was gorgeous, a sunny 70 degree day, but they still had monogrammed umbrellas just in case it rained. Our family grabbed one each (probably excessive, but they were nice!).We took some silly pictures by the fountain outside the Art Museum.

And one nice family picture... (we're in order of age: youngest on the left to oldest on the right)

Friday, May 7, 2010

De Cero

Located in the trendy restaurant blocks of Randolph Street, de cero is among good restaurant company including Veresway and Sushi Wabi that are owned by the same group.  The P^2 were out to dinner yet again and out to create a ruckus on Cinqo de Mayo.  We made reservations for 6:30pm, which is generally a crowded time for popular restaurants, to celebrate Sindhu’s birthday.  Our foursome has had good luck in finding restaurants that suit all of our dietary needs: me as a gluten-free eater, Sindhu as a pescitarian, Tejus with his lactose intolerance and Chris who just doesn’t really like seafood. 
Even though our offices hosted a cinqo de mayo celebration during lunch where we feasted on excellent Mexican foods catered by Chicago Chef Elaina Vazquez, we still were starving by the time we made it to de cero.  Margaritas arrived to the table with our guacamole ($8.75) and pico de gallo ($2.50). The hibiscus margarita was slightly sweet, not too sour and hit the spot after a day at the office.  We ordered the guacamole HOT and it was pretty spicy given that it was served with chopped green jalapenos right atop the mound of my favorite green food.  The pico de gallo was made with fresh ingredients chopped into small cubes and tossed together.
On a previous occasion, I experienced the fantastic duck nachos ($9.75) which, like the menu says, is a house favorite.  The duck confit with melted Chihuahua and topped with bacon mashed pinto beans, pico de gallo and crema is an incredible mix of flavors though is probably extremely caloric and unhealthy.
De cero, which means “from zero” or “from scratch”, hand makes each of their corn tortillas for tacos.  I love the selection of unique tacos on the menu that you can mix and match at $3.95 a piece.  This time, I had a taste for rice and beans and went for the three taco plate ($14.95).  For the tacos, I selected the skirt steak, chorizo sausage and ahi tuna.  The skirt steak was marinated, cubed and topped with potato, onion, cilantro and chipotle mayo.  The mayo gives a bit of a creamy unique flavoring and the potato adds a little bulk to the taco.  The chorizo wasn’t at all greasy or thick and was served with potato, cilantro and crema.  Lastly, the ahi tuna was seared medium-rare with achiote and mango habanero salsa.  The tuna was really fresh and the habanero salsa gives a little of a sweet kick to the flavor.  I was happy because I had a delicious variety of tacos, fulfilling each taco craving possible.  The white rice and beans came alongside in a separate bowl.
The dim lit room filled with wooden tables arranged into long rows wasn’t the most conducive place for private and quiet conversations.  The buzz of multiple conversations in the same open space makes the restaurant feel alive with energy.  Beyond the delicious food, this was one of the loudest meals we had.  At one point, the entire room turned around to stare at us with envy of wanting to be included in the conversation…. er… maybe they were annoyed that we were so disruptive to their own conversations.  Though it was a Wednesday night, every table was filled and the restaurant even turned over its diners while we continued chatting away.   We enjoyed the chance to dine and laugh together, as this sadly could be one of our last P^2 meals.

814 W Randolph Street
Chicago, IL 60607

Sweet Tamarind

Ernie and I were walking around on a sunny Saturday and stopped into Sweet Tamarind. I dry by this restaurant situated west of Sheffield on Belmont often but had never made time to stop in for a bite.  Deciding on Thai over Falafel, we walked to Sweet Tamarind with hunger in our eyes.
The restaurant was sparse with only one other family of four (with mom pregnant with a fifth family member) in the small, maybe 800 sq foot dining area.  The decorations were tasteful with gold painted artifacts from Thailand hanging on the walls.
Sweet Tamarind offers a fantastic value for their lunch special.  Each dish is served with a cup of soup and a small salad to whet the appetite.  The broth soup was light and refreshing; to spice things up, I added some thai chili sauce.  The salad was also light with shaved leafy green lettuce and cabbage.
For our main course, I went for the Paad Thai. Similar to my preference for fish tacos or carne asada at Mexican restaurants, I like to start each new Thai restaurant by sampling their Paad Thai.  I have to say, this is one of the most authentic Paad Thai dishes I’ve had in Chicago.  I can say that because we ate thai food for 10 days back in December.  Although it was authentic and therefore quite good, I still prefer the Paad Thai at Star of Siam in the Gold Coast or Thalia Spice in River North because those places have a bit of a sweeter sauce. The noodles here are still good but a bit too much fish sauce for my liking. 
Ernie ordered the Red Curry with white rice.  I had a little taste and his meal was delightful. It was a lightly creamy, mildly spicy but completely flavorful red curry atop chicken and chopped vegetables.  Next time we return, I will probably try the red curry or maybe go for the thai fried rice (though Penny’s noodles still makes my favorite thai fried rice of all time). 
With the generous portions and the soup / salad starter, our total bill was under $15.
The best part of our meal was the conversation. Ernie was convincing me that “bouncing” is the best method for fast and efficient pooping.  I never tried that one before!

1034 West Belmont Avenue
Chicago, IL 60657-6743
(773) 281-5300

Las Palmas

Last night, I met an old director of mine at Las Palmas for dinner.  The reservations were easy to make via  I got there a bit early and was sucked into one of my favorite Bucktown stores, Akira, where I proceeded to buy a cute orchid colored dress for graduation!  At 7pm, I walked across the street to meet my former colleague.
We decided to sit in the back room of the restaurant where I’d definitely recommend sitting.  The room is completely encased in glass similar to a greenhouse.  There’s also a little outdoor patio with heat lamps that will be perfect once the weather warms up just a bit more.  Our authentically Hispanic waiter took our drink order and guacamole to start.  When my peach mojito arrived, it had an excellently refreshing taste and wasn’t too sweet with just a hint of peach flavoring.  My colleague’s margarita arrived in a short and stout glass mug that resembles ones you’d see in Mayan Mexico.
The chunky guacamole ($7) was delicious with just the right amount of lime, cilantro and salt seasonings.  The salsa was also excellent with a balanced blend and went perfectly with the crispy corn tortilla chips.  A Mexican singer strummed his guitar in the background as we discussed the latest happenings of the friends we had in common.  Our Carne Asadas ($19) arrived quickly and beautifully presented on a thin long white platter. 
There are two dishes I use to evaluate any good Mexican joint – fish tacos and carne asada.  Unfortunately, Las Palmas was out of their signature tacos but the carne asada was a delicious choice.  The 8 oz grilled skirt steak was topped with cubes of sweet plantains, roasted potatoes and yucca.  The dish was drizzled with two sauces: a green jalapeno-cilantro pesto and a red poblano pepper salsa. The meat was tender and cooked medium-rare. Admittedly, it was a little difficult to cut with my butter knife so I switched over to the steak knife halfway through the dish.  The portions were sizeable and not so large that you feel like you are gorging on a huge chunk of meat.  I still wasn’t quite able to finish the whole slab though I really wanted to.
I’m sure I will be back in the summertime when the back patio is open for seating.

1835 W. North Ave.
Chicago, IL

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sunda Restaurant

A couple of weeks back, my work-dinner-club (endearingly named “P^2”) went to the newer Sunda Restaurant in River North. Despite being 30 minutes late, running from a meeting with an entrepreneur, I dropped my car off at the valet and ran inside to meet the other three. Drinks were already served and I quickly ordered a Pinot Noir to settle in. The ever-helpful waiter and his minion in training came over with menus and recommendations.

The restaurant has a very contemporary feeling with dark-brown lacquered wooden tables and chairs. The wooden floor and ceiling lined with track lighting contrasted with the dark walls and I-Beams. There is a hint of Asian d├ęcor, particularly with the floral arrangements and light fixtures. Soft orange-red hues covered the comfortable couches that divided the dining tables from the sushi bars. Our table was by an exposed brick wall near long tables suitable for larger parties.

We put in for some appetizers of the Lemongrass Beef Lollipops ($15) and Indo Corn Fritters ($8). The waiter was helpful in saying that neither were fully gluten-free since the beef lollipops had a spicy chili glaze made from soy sauce which you know has flour in it. The corn fritters were of course made with wheat flour. Since I’m not extremely sensitive to gluten and will willingly eat soy sauce (I am Chinese after all), I tasted the beef lollipops. They were quite good and a very hearty way to start the meal. New York Strip beef was sliced and wrapped tightly around a stick of fresh lemongrass and covered in a spicy chili glaze then grilled to a tender finish. Five pieces were served on a long white platter.

For dinner, I only had a few choices that were gluten-free. One was to go for sushi, but I had sushi the previous night. So, I opted for the Crispy Pata ($23). I don’t even know what Pata means but the waiter said it was more like “comfort food” and a heartier portion. I hadn’t eaten much protein that day so I figured, why not. Out comes a full on leg of pork that is crispy on the outside. On the side was wilted greens covered in a lemon-garlic sauce so strong that I could still taste it the next morning. The confit pork shank was also served with the foie scented gravy which I had to pass on since gravies are made with flour. The portion was enormous and much more meat than I was willing to consume. I dug past the crispy outside to the soft and tender meat near the bone. The pork was extremely flavorful and the garlic fragrance enhanced the sensory experience. If I return to Sunda, I’m not sure I would order this again for the sheer portion size. This is much more suited for a healthy sized man who really loves his pork.

The rest of the P^2 ordered Charsiu BBQ Pork ($14) which looked incredibly tasty and a much more reasonable portion size paired with a bowl of rice; Hand Cut Spicy Tuna and Jalepeno ($12) and Spicy “Tale of Two Tunas” ($14) which confirmed that the Tale of Two Tunas was better than the signature Spicy tuna over the classic crispy pan-fried rice; and lastly, a white fish in a modest portion that the waiter suggested pairing this with a noodle dish for a more filling option. It turns out that the fish filet was a nice portion and a side order of rice was sufficient for a full meal.

Our highlight to the meal was dessert! Three of us split the assorted mochi that is served with a variety of chocolate, raspberry and caramel syrups. The mochi ice cream was so delicious that we even convinced the lactose-intolerant member of our group to try a bite. We had a variety of flavors from raspberry to peach to green tea. There were five flavors in total, each sliced in half for easy sharing.

As we were leaving at 9pm, the crowd was still thick and many young-professionals waiting to dine. The bar area was filled with the hungry who were anticipating their turn at a contemporary Asian meal. Overall, I was surprised by the lack of gluten-free foods since Asian cuisines tend to suit my allergy quite nicely. I’d definitely go back for the assorted mochi platter and maybe to try the sushi.

110 W. Illinois Street
Chicago, IL 60654