Sunday, May 31, 2015

Book Review: Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier

An English Tale of Two Families in the Early 20th Century

While the story takes alternate voices between the many characters, this is the tale of two young girls that begins in 1901 as Queen Victoria has just passed away, and covers the reign of King Edward. This is an important event for England and sets the stage for the two girls to meet as their family plots at the local cemetery are next to one another. Initially there is discussion behind closed doors, of one family's choice to have an angel on their plot, as the other family thinks that the urn they chose is much more appropriate.

So begins the beginning of a friendship between Maude Coleman and Lavinia Waterhouse, set among the statues in the cemetery and growing up in Edwardian England. Along the way, they become friends with the local grave digger's son that allows them to see past their own privileged existence.

Life is often not as pretty as it looks to the outsiders and we learn a great deal about each family and their own private lives. The Suffragette Movement also plays into the story as well as a few other historical events that also shape the characters' lives.

While this book does play out in the cemetery for much of the story it really isn't morbid and it's interesting how much death and mourning was predominant in this time period. It's a very interesting book for many reasons and I really enjoyed it.

Book Review: Kiss Heaven Goodby by Tasmina Perry

How One Night can Change the Course of all of their Lives


This is an adult version of "I Know What You Did Last Summer"

Four individuals celebrate their milestones from being students to being full fledged adults with a vacation on a private island. There are the rich children of the island's owner along with two other young adults who have their whole lives ahead of them. However, an incident occurs on the island on their last night there, that has lasting effects on their futures, even if they try to bury the past.

In many ways this reminds me of the convention set up of many books, including I Know What you did Last Summer, a story that was very popular when I was a young adult, many moons ago. While the plot may have a similar theme to many stories, it's a good one. It's a pleasant read with alternating chapters focusing on each of the four characters in the story, who may try to stay in their own orbits so they don't have to remember or discuss the past, but ultimately continue to have some connection throughout their lives.

This was a fun read, so much so that I have started another one of Tasmina Perry's books. The author is British and the stories often cross the ocean to include both English and American references. Some of the dialogue is decidedly British but all in all it's a good book.

I would recommend this for a summer read.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Restaurant Review: 11 Cities Diner - Chicago

You know I got one of those shirts!

A Short Trip to Chicago Meant a Jaunt for a Food Adventure


1.7 miles from the hotel according to Mapquest. . .

A few months back I was watching Diners, Drive Ins and Dives and came across a segment for Eleven Cities Diner in Chicago. When I found out that I had to travel near there for a conference, I knew this was going to be my food destination. It just so happened (fortunately) that it was close by to where we were staying.

Now when you look at all the photos of the food I want to make the disclaimer that I didn't eat all of it. Rather, I shlepped (and you can use that word when you are talking Jewish style deli) a few of my colleagues to participate in this journey. I think I'm getting a reputation for knowing something about food and doing my research because I sometimes feel like the Pied Piper leading folks on my adventures.

Let's start with the decor. It's a little bit kitschy but a lot of fun too. They have a section in the front with T-shirts for sale (and you know I now own one as my souvenir) and all kinds of candy. It's 1950's retro diner decor with a Jewish flair. There are signs with what I call "pseudo Hebrew", using Hebrew characters to spell out English words, and even a photo of a famous Rabbi's portrait behind the counter.

 For me, the highlight of this trip was the Egg Cream.  Their version consisted of Seltzer water, chocolate syrup and whipping cream. It's a good version when you can see the striations in color with distinct layers. I haven't had one of these in years and it brought me back to an authentic deli trip in New York when I was in single digits.

Now I know that others are not just as adventurous and may not have the fond memories of an Egg Cream that I personally do. They made some luscious looking shakes as well, topped off with whipped cream, a cherry and a wafer. Of course there are other options including Dr. Brown Soda. You really can't go wrong with a can of Black Cherry. . . I gave up pop a while back but made an exception for this Egg Cream. I think that if I drank a Dr. Brown I would be completely off the wagon so I'm not going to partake but if you drink soda, you owe it to yourself to try it if you haven't. Since this is a Jewish themed post today I would also recommend that when Passover (aka Pesach) comes around, to try and find Kosher for Passover Coke or Pepsi, as well as Dr. Brown Soda. It's the one time of the year you are guaranteed that no corn syrup is used which means you get pure cane sugar retro pop. It's pretty darn good! I should mention that they also served alcohol right?

But back to the diner. . . I ordered a bowl of Bubbie's Chicken Soup. Bubbie is another word for grandmother and this really is old fashioned chicken broth like a Bubbie would make. However, I was not too keen on the matzoh ball. It was peppery but a little too leaden. I prefer a lighter, fluffier matzoh ball although these were probably homemade from scratch. With matzoh balls you are sometimes better off with a mix instead. If matzoh balls aren't your thing anyways, they had kreplach, egg noodles or rice instead. Not sure what a matzoh ball is? Well it's a ball of ground matzoh with chicken fat (shmaltz) and seasonings. At least one of my colleagues frowned when it came to the table. I think they are starting to wonder about me.

Now a deli really is about the sandwiches which is what everyone in our group ordered. I did want to try other things on the menu, including a Ju Pu Platter (latkes, fried kreplach, apple sauce and sour cream) but after an egg cream, a sandwich and a bowl of soup. . . They also serve breakfast all day and had a lot of offering in that area as well.

So sandwiches. . . I ordered a corned beef with a "shmear" of chopped liver. Again, my fellow diners were a little appalled. If you eat pate, or fois grois, this is probably not as alient a concept, but for my group there were some folks that just couldn't get past the liever thing. I love chopped liver. I'm not going to lie. It's probably one of the few things that I  have really kept from my heritage. Part of the reason I picked this place was the feature on how they made the corned beef right on site and I have to tell you it didn't disappoint. It was wonderful. Really thinly sliced and stacked high. Not the least bit dry. Divine. I will say if you are like me and you HATE rye seeds, make sure to ask for an alternate to the rye bread. The waitress understood my plight and brought me out two slices of marble rye to transfer my sandwich's insides to, so I was able to make a new sandwich.

One of the highlights at our table was the Sherm Royale which featured thinly cut salami, with turkey, shredded lettuce, American cheese and Dijon mustard on Challah bread. With a side of fries and a dill pickle it was the quintessential combination of American and Jewish cuisine all rolled into one.

Also at our table was a Rubin's Reuben (actually two of them), which consisted of an open faced Reuben made of either pastrami or corned beef (or a mixture of both), with sauerkraut, thousand island, and Swiss cheese that has been melted on top.

There was also a grilled cheese on Challah, with a side of fries with cheese sauce. You can never go wrong with grilled cheese and especially on Challah. Challah is the ultimate white bread, made with eggs and sugar and this did not disappoint. 

So verdict? I'd do it again.  I think that if you are looking for a good delicatessen and you like traditional food kicked up a notch this might be your place. If you like things like chopped liver, a latke, lox or knish, this place will knock your socks off. Even if you don't like those things but like good fries and a hearty sandwich, I'm pretty confident you will enjoy it as well.

Good stuff. Fun place.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Restaurant Review: Tom + Chee

Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup?!!!


Can it get any better than this?

When I think of grilled cheese and tomato soup, I think comfort food. I reminisce about sitting on the couch curled in a blanket, when I stayed home from school because I was sick. Of course in that memory it's a can of Campbell's Tomato Soup with a can of milk added, and there's a side of Frito's but those are just small details.

Tomato soup is still a staple in my own home but the grilled cheese is a little upgraded. After all, it's not American Cheese in waxy squares toasted between two slices of white bread anymore. If I'm really fancy there may be a selection of cheese and a dab of honey, all fried up nicely in a non stick skillet with butter. On other days, and it's most days with picky eaters here, it is shredded mild cheddar cheese and the idea of fancy is an inside out grilled cheese.

Of course there are days when having someone else make your comfort food sounds really good. After all there are restaurants or carry out joints that specialize in soup and there are places that can make killer sandwiches. The best is when you discover it's not just a matter of convenience but that they are actually kicking it up a notch, or two.

Enter Tom + Chee. I first discovered this notion of a grilled cheese and tomato soup place on an episode of Shark Tank in Season 4 in 2013. Tom + Chee was Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup as a restaurant and I was disappointed to know that at that time their locations were in the Cincinnati area and the first franchise was in Kentucky. But the best part of Shark Tank are the updates and recently they mentioned their increased sales and additional locations. . . Wait, additional locations of franchises?!!! I quickly checked their website and sure enough there was one in Lansing, Michigan and another one coming to Northville.

While Lansing is not exactly walking distance my job takes me there quite often and this location was very close to the capital. I recently was a few blocks away at a conference and used this as an excuse to stop by and try them for lunch. I dragged a couple of friends because a culinary adventure always warrants companions and I have to say that everyone liked it.

One friend ordered a half a sandwich (she displays much more self control when it comes to food than me) and a cup of soup. Now with the soup you have options. There is a classic tomato, a chunky tomato basil (pictured here) and then a creamy tomato basil. They even have non tomato soup offerings - on this day there was a chicken tortilla I believe as well as a second choice. Her sandwich was on whole wheat, and included the addition of red peppers as well as pepper jack cheese. She really enjoyed all of it.

My other friend ordered a small salad and a cup of soup. Now really, why do I have friends that demonstrate such self restraint? They make me look completely out of control as you will see by my order but I digress. She ordered the Green Goat Salad which really had some choice toppings including goat cheese, almonds and cranberries. That salad pictured is a "small" and was $3.45 for that generous portion. She also had the creamy tomato basil soup and pronounced it "delicious".  By the way, a cup of soup is only $3.00 so this is bargain eating when you really think about it.

So now on to what I ordered, right? You know it wasn't that conventional. I'm here to try new things. Things I don't have at home.

You can build your own grilled cheese at Tom + Chee or you can choose one of their suggested offerings. Then there is a whole section of grilled cheeses that come on a donut. Yes, you heard me right, a donut. Now before you start telling me all the reasons why that is gross, if you are inclined to do that, just stop right there. I recently posted a quick snapshot of my sandwich on Instagram and it turned out to be a very passionate and debated topic on Facebook. There are those naysayers that say a donut grilled cheese is disgusting but I'm going to respectfully disagree. Think savory and sweet. If you pair this with some sharper cheese there is a balance. Now, I should note that there were some options with the donut that included items like strawberries and marscarpone cheese, or bacon, or peanut butter, or even blueberry compote with blue cheese. I wanted more of a balance so I made my own combination.

My grilled cheese included a donut with grilled brie and mozzarella as well as mushrooms. As you can see the donut is split in half and then reversed so the flat inside portion is grilled. I also ordered a "dipper" side of classic tomato soup. When you add a really hearty tomato soup there is even more of a yin yang thing going on with that donut. The donut with the cheese is not as sweet as you may think but again, I didn't do it with chocolate pieces and bacon. I might on another day if I wanted dessert but today this was lunch. It was a very good lunch too! While a donut may be a little off the regular path I would do it again and it wouldn't be just to say I tried it like this first experience.

So there you have it. Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup in a new and exciting way. Comfort food with some rock star tendencies and also on a budget. You should try it. I think a franchise in my local neck of the woods would be a great idea if someone is interested. Mmmm soup is good.