Friday, August 15, 2008

The family descends in town!!!

Well, not the whole family, thank goodness. My sweet cousin and aunt visited me for a weekend recently. We had a ball just doing girly stuff around town and went to a few restaurants that I normally don't go to, whether it's due to price or distance/convenience issues.

We went to NoMi, a Japanese fusion-ish place at the Park Hyatt in the heart of Chicago's Magnificent Mile. I've been here a few times previously, always with visiting family. Not only is their food delicious, the view is simply to die for. We went during Saturday's lunch hour and got a seat by the window easily. The ambience of the dining room and bar was very sophisticated and clean. Service was impeccable and the wine list and cellar looked very impressive. They even had a few different kinds of salts and peppers to choose from, to season your own food! How pretty!
Salts and peppers at NoMi

We started off with a very generous assortment of warm breads and butter. Even though the breads were warm, the butter was rock hard. I must say that warm bread always earns brownie points from me, but rock hard butter doesn't. I know that it'll violate some health code if restaurants were to keep butters warm, but it will definitely help if customers didn't have to struggle to spread it on their breads.

We proceeded to a very clean, delicious citrus beet salad that was topped with the most refreshing citrus vinaigrette. Isn't the plating simply elegant?

I was fascinated by the Saffron Bouillabaisse and opted for that despite a hot, summery day out. Not only was it absolutely scrumptious, the scallops and calamari were cooked to perfection: just enough for a bite and flavor. The plating was clean, yet warm. A half of the sourdough crouton was soft from the bouillabaisse, and the other half retains its crunch, which made for a fun mix of textures and flavors.

My aunt also chose something light: the Ikebana sushi platter consisting of a tuna roll, some fresh salmon sashimi and an assortment of cooked and raw sushi. The dish was very fresh, but I don't know if it was worth the hefty $25 price tag!

My cousin, ever the sweet tooth she is, ordered the French Raisin Toast with fresh cream and fig coulis. It was surprisingly light for a French toast: a tad dry and a bit too crunchy. I think French toasts should be rich, creamy and heavy. It might be due to the fact that NoMi kind of places itself as a "spa" restaurant, which is why their light dishes are way superior than their "enlightened" heavy dishes. I could be wrong, but that's my impression of it. The fig coulis, though, was pretty intensely fig-gy (if there's such a word). It would've been perfect with an assortment of cheeses.

The meal was satiating in terms of the range flavors we enjoyed, but the portions weren't uber generous. Fortunately, we had a complimentary dessert platter. The waitress came out with a silvery cylinder with 3 layers. After placing it on the table, she unfurled each layer to reveal the mini treats in them. The presentation was beautiful, very much like a surprise gift. As you can see, each layer has about 3 mini, bite-sized sweet treats. The most memorable items I tried were the fruit tart (I'm such a sucker for fruit tarts!) and a super intense chocolatey truffle.

Overall, it was a beautiful, light meal. I definitely won't recommend this place if you're famished, but it's perfect for a special occasion or if you want something light at a breathtaking locale.

Another place I wouldn't normally patronize is this Korean restaurant on Lawrence Avenue that I stumbled upon by accident when I was really looking for good ol' San Soo Gap San. The restaurant name is San Chae Dolsot. Everything (well, most of it) was written in Korean at the restaurant; I was half expecting them to not have English menus :)

Located in a mini strip mall along Chicago's Korean town on Lawrence Avenue, it looked like the kind of neighbourhood restaurant that Korean families come to for Sunday dinner. But anyway, my aunt, my cousin and I just stuck to good Korean classics such as kal bee, chap jae and a kim chee tofu soup. The traditional banchan (otherwise known as those delicious starters served on small mini plates) served was deliciously tongue-tingling as usual. We thought the kal bee was not that great, probably due to the quality of the meat. However, the marinade was yummy.

The kim chee tofu soup was simply to die for. I'm sure the chill of the evening helped make it taste even better, but the spice was just right and there's so much silky tofu in it! Just add some bean rice and you get a filling, warm stew.

We all really enjoyed their chap jae, which was cooked very nicely. The glass noddle still had a bite to it and the sweet and salty interplayed perfectly. I love that they added so much sesame seeds on top!

Overall, it was a pretty decent restaurant. All of the other patrons were Korean families. Of course, in true Indonesian form, my aunt didn't find the Korean food spicy enough. My family has this practice bringing around a special bottle of Indonesian chili sauce when we go out to eat. I know, I know, it's really weird. But I must say that it really does help bring out the flavor of most Asian foods. Now, my aunt has officially graduted to bringing around fresh chili in a Ziploc bag! And you can bet on her bringing it out for our Korean food adventure!

It was an awesome weekend, catching up with them and trying out some new restaurants. I can't wait to see them again soon!

800 N. Michigan Ave., #7

San Chae Dolsot
3737 W. Lawrence Ave.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Staying cool...

It has been a whirlwind summer thus far. Actually, make that a whirlwind year! I've been travelling like crazy (counting at least 20 different flights, 6 of them international) and trying to work like crazy so I can graduate soon. Sadly, even though I have so much to blog about, all this activity has left me little time to do so. Nevertheless, I try to cook whenever I can and in this searing summer heat, I like to make easy dishes that will minimize oven time. As they say, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. And I'm one weird tropical girl who really detests heat!

Thanks to all the debauchery and busy schedule I had this year, I seriously need to go on a diet! With the heat and diet, salads have been my saving grace this summer. I know salads don't exactly conjure up the most fantastic, delicious images in most people's minds, but I think that with a little creativity and some sense of adventure, it could be scrumptious, healthy and oh so easy at the same time. My ultimate secret weapon for salads? Great dressing.

Specifically, I'm really into Japanese-style sesame dressing. It's commonly used not only as salad dressing, but also as a dipping sauce for grilled meats in Japanese restaurants. This dressing goes with almost every green and protein, but it is best with softer baby greens, such as spinach. I first got hooked by this dressing when I was eating at a bbq restaurant in Tokyo, where the thinly-sliced beef was served with a fragrant, nutty sesame dip.
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There are many different brands of sesame dressing at the ethnic grocery store, which led me to experiment a little bit. I noticed that the consistency of the dressings vary widely. You can check them out by turning the bottles upside down and observing how quickly (or slowly) the dressing "moves". Thus far, the slower they are, the better. The "slow" sesame dressings tend to be more flavorful and nuttier. I also find that you can use way less of the "slow" dressings for the same degree of flavor. As you can see above, the color of the dressings are also different, I'm guessing due to the different degree of roasting that was done in the production process.

So, for dinner last night, I decided to make one of my favorite salads: a bed of soft baby spinach topped with lightly sauteed garlic shrimp. And of course, it will be served with a drizzling of the sesame dressing.

Recipe for Favorite Garlic Shrimp Spinach Salad

1 Tbsp olive or canola or vegetable oil
Minced garlic
Baby spinach (or any other greens of your choice)
Japanese-style sesame dressing

Heat oil on non-stick pan.

Add shrimp and garlic to hot pan.

Season the shrimp to taste with salt and pepper.

Once the shrimp has been cooking on one side for at most 3 minutes, flip them over one by one.

Cook another two minutes.

Remove from heat. Pile shrimp on top of the baby spinach. Drizzle with sesame dressing and enjoy!
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