Kristina Eats: The Northwest (Portland, Seattle, Victoria)

I just got back from a glorious vacation in the Pacific Northwest. The nature was breathtaking, yes, but so was the food.

First Stop: Seattle

My friend Samara was going to be working the first half of what was going to be a beautiful Friday, so I had some time to adventure by myself. Where did I go? That, my friends, was an easy choice: Pike Place Market.

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The flowers were incredible. The scent, combined with the rainbow of colors, was pure sensory heaven.

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The produce workers are so passionate about their fruits and vegetables. The man working at the Alberg Cherry Farm stand told me that he had just picked his cherries (red, black, and Rainier) off the tree the day before. I immediately bought a pound and ate them happily as I walked around. One worker at the corner produce stand asked me if I wanted an entire pint of rambutans for free since they were a tad overripe (a prickly fruit from the Philippines, next to the dragonfruit, center). I have never eaten a rambutan before, and I told him so. His face lit up, and he said “Ohhh, well you must have one! Here, I’ll peel it for you.” He proceeded to peel the berry for me to reveal an opaque, lychee-like fruit inside. The texture is also similar to lychee, with a refreshing sweetness.

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Pike Place Market is also known for its amazing selection of fish since the Pacific Northwest is a mecca for fresh, plentiful seafood. Be sure to check out the stand where the workers throw whole fish to each other from one side of the counter to the other.

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Across the street you’ll find Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, where you can watch them make cheese, sample fresh and aged cheeses, and purchase cheese to your heart’s content. A few doors down from them is a gem of a bakery called Le Panier. You can smell the butter and the laminated dough from outside. The scent calls your name, puts you in a trance, and takes control of your legs so that you walk into the bakery. Once you are inside, you cannot leave without having one of their croissants.

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I needed to find a place for lunch in the neighborhood that was a little quieter and not as crowded so that I could relax and read my book while I ate. My friend Ben recommended I go to Dahlia Bakery, which happens to be a few blocks away from Pike Place Market. Their chocolate chip cookie was divine—crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, buttery, yet not overly rich. Then I ordered their Veggie Egg Sammy (zesty marinated lacinato kale, a fried egg, roasted garlic aioli, gruyere cheese, flax seed, sunflower seeds, and pine nuts, all sandwiched between a toasted brioche bun). All I have to say is…holy crap. This is the best breakfast sandwich I’ve ever had in my whole life. 20170630_121253

One of my other days in Seattle included a brunch date at Samara’s favorite place: Portage Bay Cafe. Their motto is “Eat Like You Give a Damn,” and all of their ingredients are locally sourced.

Oh, my sweet restaurant. We are kindred spirits.

The menu includes pancakes and french toast that come with a trip to the “breakfast bar.” The breakfast bar includes bowls piled high with seasonal fruits (in this case, summer berries), nuts, and homemade whipped cream. I, naturally, went for the Rancher’s Breakfast, which includes both sweet and savory items. Ask for the eggs “scrambled soft,” and the salad has a delightful tomato vinaigrette. The pancakes are made from organic Bluebird Grain Farms heirloom wheat, so they were naturally the most beautiful pancakes I’ve had in a very long time.

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Next Stop: Victoria, British Columbia

Vancouver Island is a gorgeous fairy land, and I want to go back as much as possible.

Exhibit A:

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This view was made possible by the magical, majestic Butchart Gardens

We needed a place to eat brunch and give us fuel for the day before our high tea, so our host recommended My Chosen Café in a neighboring town called Metchosin. The café is just as cute as its name. There’s a café, bakery, and gift shop in the main part of the house. Then, in the back, they make pizza, which you can pleasantly smell a mile away. Oh, did I mention they have a petting zoo in the backyard, too?

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I ordered the regular breakfast with scrambled eggs, hash browns, local sausage, and grilled tomato. Simple, yet everything I ever wanted. It’s also super affordable at only $10.99 (Canadian dollars).

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Now, being in Vancouver Island, I just had to find a Nanaimo bar. A Nanaimo bar comes from the town of Nanaimo, which is located northwest of Victoria. The bar has three layers: a coconut/chocolate/almond crumb base, a custard layer, and a melted chocolate top layer. Sounds heavenly, right? Well, in the My Chosen Cafe bakery, I spotted something called a “Metchosin bar” (pictured above). I went up to the counter and asked if it was similar to a Nanaimo bar. The woman confirmed that, yes, it is like a Nanaimo bar in every way except that they make the custard layer a coconut cream, and the top layer is more ganache-like rather than a snappy, tempered chocolate. YUM!

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After a day frolicking in the fairy land that is Butchart Gardens, we went back to Victoria’s city center and had high tea at The Empress. Their warm, fluffy scones filled with golden raisins were the most similar I’ve seen to the ones I ate in Oxford, England. The tea sandwiches were made with local smoked salmon, and their shrimp salad was served in a seaweed cone. The pastries were so special, including a white chocolate cup filled with pistachio pastry cream and topped with fresh berries. Such a relaxing way to end the day before hopping on the ferry home!

Final Stop: Portland, Oregon

My friend Maia is a gardener and wild plant expert extraordinaire. I got off the train, she and her friend Sam picked me up, and we drove to Columbia River Gorge for a hike. As we walked along the trail, she saw a bush of berries, stopped, picked a few, and immediately commanded me to pop them in my mouth and squish them with my tongue. I learned that these wildberries are called thimbleberries, and they taste like a raspberry x1000.

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Maia has her own garden, and so in the morning she picked mustard green blossoms and fresh cilantro to make this beautiful toast. We sautéed the mustard green blossoms in olive oil, and scrambled farm fresh eggs with them. Then, Maia made a garlic cilantro oil with her fresh herbs. She topped the toast with that oil and then the egg scramble.

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We spent some time on July 4th in southeast Portland, where they have some lovely vintage shops and boutiques and DONUTS. No, I did not go to Voodoo Donuts. Maia instead recommended we go to Blue Star Donuts. They are made from scratch every day using local, seasonal ingredients. The donut below is blueberry bourbon basil. Again, something simple, yet made exceptionally well. A donut doesn’t need to be extravagant.

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Maia and I took a day trip to Cape Falcon, OR for a hike. Have you ever heard of Cape Falcon? If not, here’s what I’m talking about:

Cape Falcon

After a wonderful day of hiking, we were ready for a hearty meal. Maia and her mom recommended we drive to Manzanita, a beach town just to the south of Cape Falcon. In that town there’s a restaurant called Left Coast Siesta. They make massive burritos.

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That’s just half a burrito.

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Maia and I split one. Those two halves together make one burrito. And it hit the spot, with tequila lime chicken, green chile sauce, and loads of cheese and rice.

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For dessert, we went to the one ice cream shop still open, Schwietert’s Cones and Candy. They serve Tillamook ice cream, so I naturally went for their Mountain Huckleberry flavor. The perfect way to end a summer day is with a creamy, sweet, fruity treat, am I right?

If you ever travel to the Pacific Northwest, I highly recommend all of the above places. Let me know if you have any questions!

Kristina Eats: Chicago

Chicago: bright, electric, innovative, resilient.

I was born in Evanston, Illinois, but I moved to Ohio when I was two months old. Needless to say, I hardly had any memories of Chicago or the surrounding area. Last weekend, I finally made the trip for the first time as an adult. Here are some of the places my friends and I fell in love with.

The Publican

A few of my colleagues at America’s Test Kitchen recommended this West Loop restaurant to me. The Publican and Publican Quality Meats boasts high-quality, local meats and cheeses. They diligently document where they source their ingredients. Our meal was guaranteed to include seasonal ingredients.

To start: Honeycrisp Apple—a salad featuring a whole ball of fresh, ultra-creamy burrata, mouthwateringly sweet honeycrisp apples, julienned brussels sprouts, and walnuts topped with a whole-grain mustard vinaigrette. Every bite was at once sweet, earthy, crunchy, tangy, and creamy. Gorgeous.

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For the main affair: Pork Belly, seared and placed atop creamy, chewy grits. Roasted pears and hazelnuts were placed on top of the pork belly with greens and crumbled farmers cheese. This portion of pork belly featured the meatiest part, with hardly any fatty sections. Pure heaven.

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Bombobar

Located on the side of Bar Siena, this is a walk-up gelato and bomboloni (Italian donut) joint with picnic tables for you to sit at (and heat lamps for when it gets cold outside). The flavors are out of this world. I chose to have one scoop of Caramelized Coconut Fudge and one scoop of S’Mores gelato. Creamy, decadent, and incredibly unique.

Tip: If you ask, they will make you a bomboloni ice cream sandwich. Yes, you read that right.

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Portillo’s

Chicago’s go-to place for the quintessential Chicago hot dog (poppy seed bun, yellow mustard, sliced tomatoes, sweet pickle relish, chopped onions, a dill pickle, pickled sports peppers, and celery salt). I was skeptical, but the poppy seed bun made it work and I loved the combination of flavors. That’s not a soda I’m drinking there, either. Nope, that’s a cake shake. Portillo’s puts a whole slice of double-layer chocolate cake in a milkshake. And that’s their size small. Worth a try, but you’ll probably need to share!

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Lou Malnati’s 

My Chicago friends all told me one thing: feast on deep dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s. Below marks the first moment I’ve ever had this deep dish pizza pie. The crust was crunchy yet buttery. The cheese was melty, gooey, and stringy, even with fresh tomato sauce placed on top (still a conundrum to my Regina’s pizza heart).

Tip: If you have to wait a long time for a table, never fear. You can place your pizza order on the spot. Since the pizza takes almost an hour to make, your pizza will be ready for you by the time you sit down.

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Fork

Situated in Lincoln Square, this casual brunch spot specializes in cheese and charcuterie. Because of this, I ordered their burrata cheese plate (can you tell I’m a bit of a burrata freak?). This cheese plate featured a ball of homemade burrata placed on top of pistachio pesto. To the right of that is grilled grapes with a balsamic vinegar reduction. Grilled, buttered crostini complete the plate. I loved the smoky grapes and the savory, nutty flavors of pistachio in pesto. The burrata was also top-quality.

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The Allis

For an affordable, casual-chic afternoon tea, I could not have imagined a better place in my mind than The Allis. Situated in the West Loop, this historic building features glass chandeliers and chairs upholstered with various colors of velvety fabric or soft leather. So while the building seems to have once been a warehouse, the furnishings make the space chic and luxurious (hence the casual-chic descriptor). I loved the dishes. I wanted to steal them and take them home with me (I didn’t though, don’t worry!). While I would have loved more tea sandwiches, the buttery, flaky scones and the expertly crafted pastries made the experience well worth it.

Tip: If you run out of tea, just ask for more hot water!

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Here’s to you, Chicago. Thanks for treating me like a queen. Until next time!

Restaurant Review: Mei Mei

Three words: scallion pancake sandwiches.

Say no more.

Boston Magazine’s “Boston’s Best Restaurants” series has become a sort of bible for me as I discover my city’s culinary stars. When I saw their entry for Mei Mei, my mouth immediately and involuntarily watered at the sight of scallion pancake sandwiches. The restaurant’s main location is on Park Dr. by the St. Mary’s T stop on the C-line. However, Mei Mei is best known as a food truck. Alton Brown was just here to try it, so I have additional proof that this place is the bomb (dot) com.

I went to Mei Mei’s Park Dr. location with a dear friend of mine for lunch. We are both Master’s students and are both in need of wholesome comfort food. Behold:

The Porco Rosso Sandwich with Sweet Corn Fritters
The Porco Rosso Sandwich with Sweet Corn Fritters

I ordered the porco rosso sandwich. A thin, yet perfectly dense scallion pancake is filled with applewood smoked ham, ginger-scallion ricotta, cranberry hoisin sauce, and fresh mixed greens. The tartness of the cranberry balances the richness of the ricotta. Add the smoky meat and the spicy kick of ginger in the ricotta, and you have yourself a one-of-a-kind combination of flavors with each bite. Be warned: the sandwich can be extremely messy while eating; but don’t worry, it is so worth it. The sandwich is light, yet filling enough to satisfy your hunger.

Now, about those sweet corn fritters. Imagine fried balls of the moistest cornbread imaginable (they use Four Star Farms cornmeal batter). Sweet yellow corn kernels are balanced by the savory flavor of the oil in which it was fried. The fritters are served with sriracha aioli and fresh chopped scallions. It’s sweet and spicy perfection.

If you are looking for an innovative twist to Chinese cuisine, look no further than Mei Mei. I will most certainly be back to taste more of their mouthwatering menu.

 

Culinary Adventures in New York City

This past weekend I took the train to New York City. Whatever your culinary craving, New York City will have it. With a local from Manhattan, I got to experience some of the best (and affordable) places to eat in NYC.

For lunch on Saturday we ate at Taim, a small, cramped mediterranean eatery that serves the most flavorful falafel I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. They offer three flavors of falafel: green, harisa, and red. I chose the green falafel with parsley, mint, and cilantro (can you tell how much I love herbs?). The falafel sits on smooth hummus and comes with tabouli salad, israeli salad, and a warm slice of pita bread. Taim is also known for their unique smoothies, and I ordered the pear, mint, and lemon smoothie. Light green in color, the smoothie was an incredibly refreshing component to my savory meal. Since the restaurant only has a few seats, my group and I sat outside on benches. While I ate, I heard almost every customer entering say, “Yeah, man, this is the place!”

The Green Falafel Platter at Taim
The Green Falafel Platter at Taim

Later in the day we ventured to Brooklyn to visit Smorgasburg. Smorgasburg is a flea market of food with local food vendors and producers.

We wanted dessert, and one of the first stands I saw was The Good Batch. They were selling ice cream sandwiches that day. I chose “The Goodwich,” an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie with sea salt sandwiched between vanilla ice cream and fudge sauce. Oh my word. The cookie was chewy and didn’t fall apart. I could really taste the vanilla in the ice cream and it didn’t melt all over my hands. The sea salt enhanced the flavor of the chocolate. Can you hear me singing with joy right now?

Mid-Bite
Mid-Bite

From here, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Homemade cocaktail mixers next to a specialty horseradish stand
Homemade cocaktail mixers next to a specialty horseradish stand

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On Sunday morning, I met my dear friend Lucy for brunch. We went to Bistro Ten 18 in Manhattan. I ordered the lemon ricotta pancakes with blueberry compote. While the pancakes did harbor a satisfying lemon flavor, I wanted to taste the texture of the ricotta more. The pancakes also could have used some butter or maple syrup. If you come here for brunch, I recommend getting the savory dishes.

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes with Blueberry Compote
Lemon Ricotta Pancakes with Blueberry Compote

I was then introduced to a completely new culinary experience for dinner – hot pot! You each get a pot of boiling broth and order raw vegetables, meat, and fish to submerge in the “hot pot.” Once the items are cooked, you take them out of the pot and dip them into a sauce you make yourself at the sauce bar. We went to 99 Favor Taste (no, that is not a misspelling) in Chinatown. It’s an all-you-can-eat kind of menu for one static price. If you don’t make your sauces too salty, the meal is healthy and you feel quite rejuvenated afterwards. An experience worth trying!

Hot Pot at 99 Favor Taste
Hot Pot at 99 Favor Taste

Before we left the city, we had to stop by my favorite bakery, Two Little Red Hens. The place is always packed for a reason. I love the carrot cupcake spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. The carrot provides a wonderful texture accompanied with a moist cake. Add cream cheese frosting on top, and you have yourself a winner.

A carrot cupcake from Two Little Red Hens
A carrot cupcake from Two Little Red Hens

I can’t wait to visit New York City again and embark on another culinary adventure. Let me know if you’ve ever been to these places, or give me recommendations for my next visit!

Restaurant Review: Taiwan Cafe

Chinatown in Boston, in any major city, is an experience not to be missed. You walk the streets and smell garlic, seafood, fish sauce, and soy. The sidewalk is a little dirty, but so what? The food always bursts with flavor and freshness.

My boyfriend (who is Chinese) and I have tried several places in Boston’s Chinatown. Gourmet Dumpling House and Peach Farm are both excellent choices for Chinese cuisine. Pho Hoa serves fantastic Vietnamese pho noodle soups that I am convinced can cure any ailment.

However, the talk of the town is Taiwan Cafe. Voted Boston’s Best Chinese Restaurant of 2014, I just needed to see what all the hype was about.

The initial hesitation about visiting a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown for the first time is, will the restaurant be small and cramped for space? Will there be a crazy line out the door? This happens (for good reason) in Chinatown, but part of that dining experience means that they will want you out of there in a timely fashion.

Taiwan Cafe is a reasonably spacious restaurant for Chinatown. My boyfriend and I were seated in just a few minutes, and I could walk freely to the table without bumping into anyone. The waitress immediately serves you a warm pot of tea, one of my favorite things about authentic Chinese restaurants. I leave the ordering to my boyfriend, the true expert.

Fuzhou style noodles
Fuzhou style noodles

We started with Fuzhou style noodles. These light rice noodles are sautéed with egg, pork, shiitake mushrooms, scallions, and napa cabbage. This dish was packed with incredible flavor, and the light texture left me feeling satisfied yet not too full.

Chinese Eggplant with Basil
Chinese Eggplant with Basil

Is it obvious that I’m obsessed with eggplant? The Chinese really do know how to prepare their eggplant. Chinese eggplant is small, light purple in color, and oh-so tender! This eggplant, sautéed in a sweet brown sauce, is made more savory with the addition of basil. Each piece melts in your mouth. By itself the dish is a treat, though I would highly recommended getting a bowl of steamed rice to go with it. Yum!

Chicken and Celery Dumplings
Chicken and Celery Dumplings

Dumplings are not the same in every Chinese restaurant. While Gourmet Dumpling House has thicker dough and a wetter filling inside, these dumplings are rich with thick, flavorful filling. Both varieties are delicious in their own ways! I must say, though, that the last item we purchased trumped these dumplings.

Chinese Pork Buns
Chinese Pork Buns

Oh my. Pork buns. I had never eaten pork buns until last night. My boyfriend laughed and smiled as he told me his memories of eating pork buns with his brother, slurping the soup that is inside and then enjoying the pork filling and dough. The buns come steaming hot in a bamboo pot, and yes, they are filled with soup and a pork “meatball” of sorts. You can puncture the pork bun with your chopstick, or you can take a small bite and then slurp the soup from there. Make sure the pork bun has cooled, though! Burnt tongues are no fun. If you do not slurp the soup in time, it will ooze or squirt out of the bun. This creates some hearty laughs for sure! When I come back to Taiwan Cafe, I may just take an order of pork buns for myself. No shame.

Overall, I highly recommend Taiwan Cafe, situated on Oxford St. in Chinatown. Traditional, spacious, and delicious, you can feel right at home with true Chinese comfort food.

Oh! I almost forgot. They have a fish tank in there and you can watch them catch the fish to cook. Cool!

 

Restaurant Review: Highland Kitchen

I live in Boston, which means that the culinary scene is on fire. There are so many amazing restaurants, delis, diners, bakeries, and more to enjoy. As a cook, you can learn so much from these innovative chefs and gather ideas of your own.

Last week I had to say goodbye to a dear friend of mine as she moves to New York City. She enlisted my advice for where to have her goodbye dinner. She lived by Porter Square, so I immediately recommended Highland Kitchen.

Rated at the top of Boston Magazine’s “Boston’s Best,” Highland Kitchen boasts several different cuisines on their menu, from Southern to Italian to English. Not only are the available dishes impressive, but the prices attached are unbelievably affordable. You can get a cocktail for $8.00. Most appetizers are under $10.00, and entrees are reasonably priced for being so close to the city.

Now you’re probably wondering…Kristina, what did you get?!

For my cocktail, I chose what Highland Kitchen calls the “Monsoon.” Ginger beer, Mount Gay rum, fresh mango juice, and fresh lime juice. A wonderfully tropical play on the classic “Dark and Stormy” (just ginger beer and rum).

Highland Kitchen's "Monsoon" Cocktail
Highland Kitchen’s “Monsoon” Cocktail

We all shared the Buffalo Fried Brussel Sprouts for an appetizer. I did not manage to snap a picture of the dish because we ate it so fast! The brussel sprouts were fried to perfection, crunchy on the outside and tender yet not overcooked on the inside. The sprouts were doused in a buffalo sauce that was not unbearably spicy. The spice warmed my mouth, allowing a the sauce’s flavor to more prominently arise.

For my entree, I chose the Pappardelle Bolognese. Now, I grew up with my father’s bolognese, and you should know right now that I’m a major pasta snob. However, I took a chance on ordering this dish because I had a feeling they would make this coveted dish right.

Highland Kitchen's Pappardelle Bolognese
Highland Kitchen’s Pappardelle Bolognese

The noodles were homemade with just the right thickness. The bolognese was spot on – tender, mild Italian sausage meat and ground pork meshed beautifully with a sauce that had the correct balance between tomato and wine. Some bolognese sauces out there have too much red wine or too much tomato sauce and not enough wine. Other sauces make the blasphemous error of using meat that comes dry. I give Highland Kitchen an A+ for their bolognese!

Dessert was decent – a hot fudge brownie sundae and bourbon pecan pie. When I go there again, I’ll just go for the pie! I like my brownies fudgy, but their version was a bit more on the cakey side. If you like your brownies a tad bit on the lighter side, you’ll love their version.

If you are willing to take a little adventure outside of the city, Highland Kitchen has a wonderfully lively atmosphere accompanied with affordable, creative, and delicious meals.