Billy Bricks Wood Fired Pizzas – bite into the authentic wood fired pizzas and make them too!

Pizzas have been a soul-food for me since I was a little kid. The delicious combination of bread, marinara and cheese baked together to crispy yet soft perfection gets my heart every time I dig into it. So when I was invited by Billy Bricks Pizza at Oak Park to try out their fresh wood fired pizzas and even get a chance to make one I simply could not refuse!

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Image source – Billy Bricks

Billy Bricks Pizza is a lovely eatery located in Oak Park Chicago, right opposite the Scoville Park. Their first restaurant was started some 13 years ago in downtown Lombart and the Oak Par restaurant started in April, this place is now a hot spot for regulars who stop by for their pizzas, sandwiches and salads. This restaurant is also frequented by a lot of tourists who visit the beautiful Hemingway district.  I was invited by their owner, Ric Gruber, to try out their pizza and also try my hand at their pizza – making class. I knew that I was in for a super fun experience. Apart from Oak Park, they also have 6 other branches in – Lombard downtown, Lombard Yorktown, Mount Prospect, Naperville, West Dundee and Wheaton.

Their pizza making class is conducted once a month on one of 7 their locations. This includes learning the pizza making process from scratch, learning how a pizza restaurant functions, what products & gadgets they use ( I love checking out those things 😛 ) and finally rolling your own pizza! One of their very talented Pizzaiolos is present there to train you and help you build your own pizza and in the end you can relax with a glass of wine/ beer/ soft drink and enjoy the pizza you freshly baked!

Here’s how we went about with the process of making our own pizzas!

We started off  by learning to roll these dough balls. The dough is carefully prepared and stored by them and always scrutinized for freshness before they use it –

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We were then taught how to perfectly roll these dough balls into a pizza base without using a rolling pin (which is real fun to do!)

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We were then taught a bit about the toppings and which toppings go where and then we had to chose how to assort our pizzas using any of these toppings

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And that’ s how our pizzas looked like before baking

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Ric helped us with baking in this wood fired oven while we helped ourselves on the drinks and found a good spot to sit and enjoy the final product

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And this was product of my 1 hour pizza making training 😀 I have never made a pizza before!

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Apart from the whole pizza making experience, I also loved the fact that the restaurant is exceptionally clean, the management and staff care for it like family and they are very friendly. They are very swift yet efficient with their work and they do this with a smile :D. While the class was in session Ric and the staff there also ensured that the regular patrons at their restaurant were promptly served too!

Bricks Pizza also specializes in sandwiches and salads and these are particularly their week-day lunch time specials. I saw a sandwich being made from scratch (bread included) and now I can’t wait to try it out! Who doesn’t love freshly made breads anyways. They have also recently introduced skillet cookies in their menu which would make for a great dessert option.

Apart from their restaurants, Bricks Pizzas also have an awesome completely glass covered food truck  called BRICKSONWHEELS which caters at various fests, locations and you can also call them over for a wedding 😀 (PS: if my wedding was in Chicago I would have definitely called them! 😉 ) Heres a link to all their upcoming events where you can catch live creating Pizza – magic! .

 Overall, whether you decide to go for a pizza making class or just drop by for some great food, I would really suggest visiting Billy Bricks Wood Fired Pizza for indulging in some really good quality authentic Neapolitan Pizza, Salads and Sandwiches!

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5 things to do if you have a day in Chicago

Situated by Lake Michigan, the third largest city in US, Chicago is a city of wonder. Often referred to as Chicagoland, this city is the birthplace of skyscrapers and is well known for its hot-dogs, deep dish pizzas, mindblowing architecture and scenic views of Lake Michigan. This city has a lot to explore and I’ve been here just for 8 months or so. So from a new-comers perspective I wanted to share with you a few things that a newcomer to this city should not miss out on!! 😀

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Weather you are here for leisure or business, or you have a small layover in this city, even if you have just one day to explore the beautiful city of Chicago, you have to make the most of it and here are five things you can do within one day to get a feel of Chicago 

1. Visit Museum Campus at Soldier Field –

The Museum Campus at Soldier field is home to some of the most prestigious institutions of the city, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium. Exploring all three of these in one day is possible, however you won’t have time for anything else 😛 Hence you can visit one of these three spots and reserve the rest for your next visit. For a more detailed itinerary on the museums, you can read my blog on spending a weekend in Chicago here  . In a gist here is a look at these three locations –

Field Museum – The Field Museum of Natural History is one of the largest natural history museums in the world with interesting permanent exhibits such as the largest fossil of T-Rex fondly named Sue, Twenty-three human mummies and mummified animals, replica of the tomb of the last pharaoh, working laboratories and fossil laboratories, cultural exhibits and various interesting temporary exhibits.

The Basic Admission here is for $24 with all access pass for $38 per person and this Museum is open from 9am to 5pm all days of the year apart from Christmas Day

Adler Planetarium – Located at the far end of Museum Campus besides the scenic Lake Michigan, Adler Planetarium is home to full size, extensive exhibits on space science, a wonderful collection on space scientific equipments used since the ancient times and they also have research-active, public-urban observatory – Doane Observatory.

Adler is open every day from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm, their  Basic Admission is for $24.95 with the All Access Pass for $34.95 per person.

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The scenic view of Chicago Skyline from Adler Planeterium 

Shedd Aquarium  – One of the largest aquariums in the world, this place is a must visit for their extensive display of aquatic life, their special exhibits, informative movies and my personal favorite the Pacific wide sided dolphins! Don’t miss to catch the dolphins live in action while you are there and make sure you get a front row seat to high-five the penguins 😀

The General Admission is for $39.95 with a 50% for Chicago residents. Shedd has different operating hours changing as per the season, click here for a detailed chart.

 

 

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2. Cloud Gate & Millennium Park

Also plan a visit to Millenium Park in the Loop area of Chicago for a look at the Cloud Gate and of course for clicking some great pictures at the iconic sculpture of Chicago. The sculpture, nicknamed as “the Bean” for its bean-like appearance is made out of 168 stainless steel plates welded together to give a highly polished exterior and no visible seams. The sculpture reflects Chicago skyline in multiple ways and you can click some really interesting pictures and selfies here by playing around with the reflections.

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3. Take a pizza break

Deep dish pizza is quintessential to Chicago. Some argue it is not a pizza, it is a pie, but Chicago-people simply love their deep dish pizza. Two famous locations for trying this cheesy wonder are Giordanos Pizza and Lou Malnatis Pizzeria. The pizza wars between these two chains are common 😛 and if you ask me, I tend to favor Lou Malnatis 😉

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If you are not a pizza fan, try out Chicago style hot dogs at Portillos or grab some delicious caramel popcorn from Garrett Popcorn Shops 

4. A Panoramic view of the City

While you are exploring Chicago downtown make your way towards Willis Towers for a panoramic view of the city at Skydeck Chicago. Skydeck Chicago is located on the 103rd floor of Willis Tower and it gives you an amazing panaromic view of the city. You can click as many pictures as you like and also get some pictures professionally clicked there, The Skydeck is open 365 days and you can visit here from  October through February from 10am-8pm and March through September from 9am-10pm

The Basic Admission here is $24.00 and the Fast Pass is for $49.00 which gives you express entry to the elevators.

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5. The Chicago River-walk

Chicago river cuts its way through this city and the pedestrian walkway by the side of the river called Chicago River-walk. It offers some amazing views of the skyscrapers of the city and great food and drink options. You can walk the entire stretch and make your way towards Navy Pier for a beautiful view of Lake Michigan, and check out the ongoing events there. This is a great way to spend your evening, taking a leisurely stroll by the river or hopping into one of the many river-cruises available there.

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There are a lot of other things to do in Chicago and places to explore, but sadly these cannot be done in a single day. This is what I believe to be the best things to do in Chicago in a day. Are there any suggestions to it? Let me know!!

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Washington DC for a first timer – An itinerary for 3 days in the capital city

Visiting the capital city of the United States can be both exciting and overwhelming for a first timer. Washington Dc is a city full of memorials, monuments, government buildings, museums, amazing restaurants and it now boasts a really fun harbor point at the National Harbor. Further almost all of these memorials and museums are free and require little to no prior booking at all. Also all of these are situated really close to each other, with an exception of few, which makes it hard to decide what to visit and what to miss.

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For me, this was my first trip to the city. When I read up on what all is to be explored in 3 days in this city all I came across was “you cannot complete the entire city in just three days” and that is the truth. But for a first timer there are things which you simply can’t miss and here I am going to list them out for you with some helpful tips and insights. A blog on the food scene in DC is coming up soon too! So stay tuned 😀

 

Exploring the National Mall 

The National Mall is a stretch of park in DC full of consisting of all the major monuments, memorials and museums. It also consists of prominent government buildings such as the US Capitol building, the US Supreme Court, The National Congress Library, the White House, the National Archives and offices of most of the major government departments.

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the US Capitol Building

Most of the Smithsonian Museums are also located here including the prominent ones such as the National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of American History etc.

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The third important feature in the National Mall are the monuments and memorials, the most prominent ones being the Lincoln Memorial, the Reflecting Pool, The Vietnam War memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial and the World War 2 memorial.

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Exploring all these will not be possible in a single day. So I would really suggest that you break these explorations in two days. Also, the museums close early in the evening and these memorials are open till late n the night, so it would be great if you visit the museums in the day time and reserve the memorials for evenings.

Beyond the National Mall

Outside the National Mall area, if you drive by the Potomac river, you come across the National Harbor. This is a recent commercial development in DC which boasts some really amazing restaurants, open spaces where there are events and parties in the evenings, riverside views and kayaking / peddle-boating options, the National Harbor Ferris Wheel offering some amazing views of the city and the newly opened MGM Casino. Basically this place is a great option of spend an evening if you want to go beyond the National Mall Area.

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Another diversion from the National Mall would be to visit the National Zoo and the Washington National Church. The Zoo has one of the very few Panda enclosures in United States and this would be a great opportunity to watch them up close and personal in action. The Zoo is also home to a vast majority of animals and is free for all.

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The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, more commonly known as the Washington National Church is another location worth visiting while you are in DC. Constructed in Neo Gothic style, this is the second largest church building in the United States. The church has a number of chapels, prayer rooms, beautiful stained glass windows, life-like sculptures and also some quirky gargoyles 😛 (yes they do have a Darth Vader Gargoyle hidden somewhere 😉 ) The church environment is serene and peaceful choir music creates a tranquil ambience.

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Also, don’t forget to visit the Arlington National Cemetery. This is a resting place for most of the servicemen of the country and is also the final resting place of John F Kennedy and his family. While there,you can also visit the Tomb of the Unknowns, a resting place made in memory of the unknowns who sacrificed their life for the country. They have a change of guard ceremony at the tomb and it is definitely worth a visit.

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Neighborhoods in DC

If you love to explore some quaint neighborhoods and indulge in people watching do make a point to visit visit Georgetown and Dupont Circle neighborhoods for some quite quality time and walks through the quaint historic parts of the city.

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How to explore the National Mall

Getting there – You can reach the National Mall by road or by taking a Metro till the Smithsonian Station which will drop you right in the middle of the National Mall next to the beautiful Smithsonian Castle. Alternatively, if you are driving till the Mall, you can park the car at one of the paid parkings available close to the Mall and walk around.

Getting Around –

Walking around the National Mall is really great and that is how we explored the area. However, it can be pretty tiring, especially on a sunny day. The next best option would be to take one of the Big Bus – Hop on Hop off tours which cover most of the prominent locations in DC or if you are exploring just the National Mall the best option would be to take their circulator buses. A trip on these buses cost just $1 and the route covers the entire National Mall. (This is not sponsored, they are really a great option) Check out the route for yourself!

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You can visit the Big Bus Tour website here to check their tickets and routes and the Circulator website here.

Dont forget to carry a bottle of water and some snacks with you while you are exploring the National Mall. There are very few and scattered food stalls and water fountains around. The Maps which you will find along the road will also provide you with information on where the next food stall or water fountain is located!

I hope will help you plan your next trip to Washington DC. Let me know if I have missed out on any spots and if you need more help with planning your holidays do let me know 😀

 

 

 

 

Zaytinya – A beautiful Mediterranean restaurant in the heart of Washington DC

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Mediterranean food always has a very special place in my heart. I love the freshness and the warmth in every dish and the variety of flavors which pleases your palette. Last month I tried cooking some Mediterranean food and while in the process of finding the perfect recipe and spice blends, I read a lot about the Mediterranean cuisine. So obviously I was craving to try out some delicious authentic Mediterranean spread.

When we were visiting Washington DC earlier this month I asked around for suggestions of good restaurants and one name which stayed constant in all the suggestions was Zaytinya. Started by chef Jose Andres in 2002, Zaytinya is one of the most recommended dining spots in Washington DC. It specializes in mezze menu inspired by Turkish, Greek and Lebanese cuisines.

Mezze Platters or Mezze meals are inspired with the idea of a whole family or a group of friends eating together and sharing the meal. Hence here the meal is served in smaller plates and there are a lot of variations in the dishes.  In some Mediterranean cultures, Mezze meals are considered to be a part of the appetizers while in other, Mezze meals are considered to be an entire meal in itself.

Zaytinya has created a wide range of Mezze meals to satisfy almost all kinds of tastes. Their menu is truly vast and if you want to be avoid making any blunders while choosing what to eat they lined up these specials for you –  Lunch Mezze Meal,  Zaytinya Experience and Chefs Experience.

We opted for the Lunch Mezze Meal where we had to choose from this Menu –

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Also I must tell you’ll their every meal is accompanied by an endless supply of freshly baked perfectly fluffed delicious Pita breads!

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The delicious and endless supply of Pita Bread

In the first section, we ordered their Hommous and Baba Ghanoush. Both the Hummus and the Baba Ghanoush were fresh, delicately flavored and were devoured by us within minutes.

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Hommous and Baba Ghanoush

Next up were Skuna Bay Salmon – Salmon served with herbed tahini, roasted pine nuts, Persian cucumber, pickled radish, preserved lemon and Kotopoulo Youvetsi – chicken, orzo, tomato, kefalograviera cheese. The Salmon was cooked to perfection, plated on herbed tahini, radish and cucumber. It was by far the most beautiful plating I had seen :D. It was not heavy on the palette and the portion size was perfect for one person.

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Skuna Bay Salmon

The Kotopoulo Youvetsi was my favorite from this menu and I seriously considered calling for seconds on this. The Orzo was cooked to perfection in cheesy tomato sauce and tiny chicken chunks and this was broiled till a crisp layer formed on the top. It was truly a soul-food for me.

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Kotopoulo Youvetsi

For the third course we ordered Adana Kebab – skewered ground lamb, house-made harissa, grilled tomatoes, sumac, onions and Keftedes Kapama – beef and lamb meatballs, feta cheese, rustic tomato sauce, cinnamon, allspice.

The Adana Kebabs were juicy and not very spicy. They were served on a fresh flat bread with some pickled onions which reminded me of how kebabs are served back home in India 😛 another similarity in Indian and Mediterranean cuisine ;).

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Adana Kebabs

The Keftedes Kapama is a wonderful dish made with juicy keftes/koftas served in luscious tomato sauce with was mildly spiced and the feta cheese crumbled on top of it added just the right amount of creamy tang to the whole dish. Definitely a must try if you are fan of tomato based dishes like me :D.

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Keftedes Kapama

We ended our wonderful lunch with the dessert being Greek Yogurt with Apricots  – which was soaked apricots served with fresh vanilla yogurt cream, apricot sorbet and pistachio powder. The dessert was very visually appealing, the apricot sorbet layered with Greek yogurt was a fresh combination and the pistachio powder added a good nutty flavor to the whole dessert.

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Greek Yogurt with Apricots
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Overall, I would really suggest visiting Zaytinya on your visit to Washington DC. Here are some tips for your next visit to Zaytinya

  • Reserve a table – we decided to walk in but were told that the waiting time for a table was 30 mins. They were however swift enough to give us a table in less than 20 minutes that too on a crowded weekday lunch time.
  • Enjoy patio dining when the weather is pleasant, the food just calls for patio dining 😀
  • Go with a group so you can truly enjoy the Mezze dining experience

 

Hike through Starved Rock State Park

Summer has finally set in at Chicago which means its time to don that hiking gear and get exploring. When I moved here, I set out finding out some cool options where we could go a for a hike and the name which constantly popped up in all my searches along with some amazing photographs was STARVED ROCK STATE PARK. So as soon as the climate warmed up a bit we simply had to go hiking there. Located in Utica IL, Starved Rock State  park is a  stunning stretch of land complete with natural canyons and waterfalls and makes for a great Day out Destination.

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A BIT OF HISTORY

Starved Rock State Park was home to the Native Americans in late 1600’s.The name of the park is based on an old legend where two Native American tribes were fighting and the losing side took refuge atop a butte where they eventually starved themselves. Gradually, as the Europeans explored the United States of America, this area was occupied by the French.

In the late 19th Century this park was converted into a vacation resort and it was later acquired by the State of Illinois for a state park. This park has been subject to several archaeological studies and has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

THE PARK

Stretched over a massive 2630 acres, this State Park has 18 canyons and is divided into 10 different trails so hikers can explore one canyon at a time. During Spring and Summer, you can also find waterfalls in 14 of these 18 canyons.  The best time for waterfalls is after heavy rains and in early spring when the snow is melting. But even if you don’t get to view the waterfalls, the Park itself is gorgeous, the hikes are fun and its a wonderland for photographers. We visited it in Summer, but we are also looking forward to visit this place again in Fall for the Fall colors. Also if you love hiking in winters then a visit here to watch the frozen waterfalls is a must.

PLANNING THE HIKE

Hiking across the entire park will take seasoned hikers an entire day and if you want to leisurely explore it will take you at least 2 days. Entry to the park is free and they even welcome pets. I would suggest that you reach the park early and grab a map from their Visitors Center. The also have some great volunteers who would be happy to assist you with the best route to take and with any other suggestions which you may have.

What we did was, we reached the park at about 10:30 am, geared up with lots of water, sandwiches and trail-mix, grabbed a map and started with our hike.

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A copy of the visitors guide plus their map can also be downloaded here.

 

THE HIKE

We started our hike from the highest point of the Park located near the visitors center i.e. the Lovers Leap Overlook. It is just 5 minutes from the visitors center, gives a good start to your hike. You also get a scenic view of the Illinois River, Plum Island and Leopold Island.

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View from the Lovers Leap Outlook

 

Descending from the Lovers Leap Overlook we proceeded to the French Canyon, one of the most photographed canyon in Starved rock. We visited after 2 days of rainfall so we were lucky to catch the waterfalls but that also meant a slightly slippery hike. The French Canyon is definitely worth the visit when you come here. If you are planning a one day hike in Starved Rock it is difficult to cover all the canyons. But French Canyon is something you shouldn’t miss.

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The trail map shows you routes to reach various canyons through the River-Trail and the Interconnecting Bluff Trail. We hiked from the French Canyon through the Pontiac Canyon and Wildcat Canyon on Bluff trail. The trail routes are marked throughout the park, and if you don’t want to get lost, you simply have to stick on the paved hiking routes. Places where it is unsafe to hike are also marked on the trail, so we have to keep a watch for them.

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Sights from the River-trail 

We checked out the Wildcat Canyon from the top and we wanted to hike down for another look at the waterfall but we lost our way and ended up on the River Trail instead 😛 So we decided to move towards LaSalle Canyon, which another long but enjoyable hike on the river trail.

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Top view of the Pontiac Canyon  

The La Salle Canyon is more fun during the waterfall. It was also the most crowded of the canyons we visited. This is a perfect spot to rest and grab a bite (provided you find a good spot to rest..when we visited we couldnt find an empty spot) . IMG_0337.jpg

You can walk under the waterfalls and also dip in the reflecting pool in which the water flows into.

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Under the LaSalle Waterfall

We turned back from this canyon and hiked our way out, because most of the day was over and we were famished 😛 Next time around we do intend to camp out at Starved Rock and complete hiking the entire path.

Till then, here are some tips for the first time hikers –

  • Always carry lots of water with you, it is essential to stay hydrated during the hikes.
  • pack a bag of hiking friendly foods like nuts, energy bars, small sandwiches. Don’t pack elaborate meals as you may have to eat on the go.
  • Wear comfortable hiking gear and sturdy shoes, the climbs and descends get challenging.
  • Carry an extra pair of clothes in your car just in case you want to freshen up after the hike
  • Apply loads of sunscreen
  • Use the map and signs posted along the trail
  • Finally, please do not litter the Parks, like they say at Starved Rock Leave no trace, take only memories and leave only footprints” 

 

 

Travel Essentials for a great trip

This ones coming after a long long time. I’ve been away for a couple of months travelling to India and back. This one was a quickly planned trip which meant I had hardly any time to pack my backs and clean up my home so it would stay neat for the next two months ( PS – I hate coming home to messy apartment 😛 ). In spite of the sudden planning, I was really looking forward to this trip. But, as much as we love unplanned holidays, we don’t like packing up in a hurry and fear leaving something important behind. We also hate to leave our homes unkempt while travelling – no one likes to come home to a mess after a long trip. I have had my share of packing up wrong stuff/ less stuff / more stuff for a trip and also packing up in a rush leaving my room in a mess causing more frustration upon my return. But every trip teaches me something about managing my luggage and home and I am glad to share this with you all. There were some really helpful products and packing hacks which helped me pack-up, clean-up in time and even manage to squeeze in time for gym prior to my flight. Heres a small two step process 

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STEP 1 : THE PACKING –

Pack up your essentials first. If this is an international trip, make sure you pack your passport and travel documents first along with the required cards and currency. Remember, you can make do with fewer clothes in your bag but not with your documents. So pack them up nicely in a compact case or a handy pouch.

Next come your clothes. Based on the number of days of your trip travel and your type of trip pack the essential clothes. For a trip mixing and matching various outfits always works well. I have created this Pinterest Board for some great outfit ideas which you can refer to and will help with the packing.

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Check out more outfit ideas here

Remember Compact is always better, so roll your clothes instead of folding them and pack lighter fabrics instead of heavier ones. This is make your bag lighter and you may need a smaller bag too. Get a pack of air-travel compliant cosmetic case in which you can store all your cosmetics and beauty products. For a short trip you wont need larger quantities so keep this cosmetic case filled up and ready always to grab on to when you pack your bags.  

Shoes – a girl can never have enough shoes 😛 The general rule is to carry just 3 pairs of shoes with you, where you wear the heaviest pair which is usually the sneakers and stuff the other two in your bag. But I am guilty of travelling with more than three pairs always! 😉 But I make sure that apart from the sneakers, my other pairs of footwear are small and light which won’t occupy a lot of space.

Finally to ensure your luggage stays organized, pack everything in Packing Cubes available easily on Amazon. Trust me, these are life savers when it comes to managing your packing.  These are my favorite packing cubes which I have purchased more than a year ago and have stayed with me (enduring the super heavy luggage) since then.

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They also have a very sturdy and handy toiletry bag which holds a lot of personal care items including a change of clothes if need be. This is my favorite grab-on bag when I travel since it can hold all the things I need and fits perfectly into a suitcase. It is also perfect for carrying makeup. I had a lot of makeup products to carry with me while moving to US and I was worried that the delicate packing may break or get spoiled during the travel. But I packed it all in this little bag, put it in my check-in luggage and all my stuff arrived unscathed.

 

 

STEP 2 : THE CLEAN-UP – 

Food Management – start with your perishables. Veggies and fruits tend to spoil soon, so best way to avoid wastage is to finish them off or if you don’t have time then freeze them. Cleaned washed veggies and fruits freeze up to 4-6 months if frozen in freezer friendly containers or Ziploc bags.

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Meat products can be a bit tricky, if the meat is cooked, then I wouldn’t suggest freezing it as it may hamper the taste and health factor. Uncooked cleaned meat can be stored in Ziploc bags or Airtight containers and frozen again for 3-4 months.

Also, don’t forget to store your snacks, cereal etc  in airtight containers.

Wiping down the house 

After packing your bags, store them in one side and start your wipe down. Start with the kitchen by wiping down the your kitchen counters and cabinets. I love using Clorox tissues for a quick wipe down or if things are messy in the kitchen I give it a good spray-over with a Multipurpose Cleaner followed by a swift wipe-down with soft tissues or cloth.

PS it also leaves your kitchen smelling lovely!

Next is to start vacuuming the whole place. Doing this after your packing will ensure that all those isty bitsy dust bunnies left after the packing will be swept up and cleaned. And this will wind up your packing and you will have a clean home to come back to. 😀 

 

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Mantra – an authentic Indian culinary experience in Chicago

One thing that I have always been skeptical about is how Indian food is represented outside India. There have been prejudices about Indian food being too oily, too spicy and too unhealthy when in reality it is quite the opposite. However, to my disappointment some restaurants outside India stand true to these prejudices. In reality, Indian food is not always oily, spicy and unhealthy. If made with the right ingredients and the perfect technique Indian food tends to be one of the most healthiest cuisine and for me one of the most delicious cuisine. With 29 states in India with innumerable regions in each state and each region having a different specialty food,  you are spoilt for choices when it comes to Indian food and no one can really categorize it as “oily” “spicy” and “unhealthy”.

So I was extremely glad when I realised that these prejudices are mightily smashed by one Indian restaurant in Chicago “ MANTRA – by Indian Garden”

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Mantra describes itself as an authentic yet innovative Indian restaurant with a menu that honors tradition while reinventing it.

Honestly, there is no better way of describing this restaurant. The restaurant is spot on with its decor and ambiance and their food is simply delightful. Right from the Appetizers we knew that the freshness of the food is something they never compromise with. The restaurant is located at 9438 W Irving Park Rd, Schiller Park, IL 60176.

We were graciously invited to the restaurant by its lovely owner Anu Sharma and her team for lunch. When we arrived there we were surprised by the decor of this restaurant, how well the place has been maintained and genuinely impressed by their attention to detail.

 

THE FOOD


Mantra specializes in providing an Indian  fine-dining experience. Their menu is curated to fit this experience. Mantra has a huge menu to offer and they specialize in preparing each item in the menu fresh for the patrons after it has been ordered. They do not promote the principle of “curry in a hurry” and they aim at serving the food which will transfer you in spirit to the region where it originated from.

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For drinks we tried their Mango Lassi – this being the mango season in India I was inclined to try the popular Indian drink in this season. The Lassi was rich, thick made with fresh mangoes. I was worried that it might stuff me up like most of the restaurant lassi’s do (since they have a large proportion of cream in it) but this one was very different. It refreshed me and I could taste the freshness of the ingredients here.

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From their Appetizers menu, we tried a wide array of dishes. We started off with Paneer ke Sholey – a dish I had never eaten before – it was spiced paneer cubes stir fried with bell peppers and onions. I must say here, the Paneer they serve at Mantra is exceptional. It is extremely fresh, has a lovely flavor and the way they make it melts in your mouth.

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We then tried the Papdi Chaat – an Indian street food speciality – which was served to us with freshly made Papdi / Crisps, whipped yogurt and garnished with the right amount of spices.

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We even sampled their Kebabs like the Adraki Chaamp – Grilled Lamb chops flavoured with Ginger, Prawn Angare – Carrom flavoured shrimps grilled in Clay Oven, Malai Kebab – Chicken Marinated with Cheese, Ginger- Garlic and White pepper and Pudina Paneer – grilled Paneer mildly spiced with mint.

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The Grilled Lamb chops were made to perfection, the meat tender with the right amount of spices. The Prawn Angare is my personal favorite – I have never tasted such fresh Shrimps in any restaurant before. The Malai Kebab were soft, tender and they literally melt in your mouth while the Pudina Paneer was extremely delightful. Their appetizers are a true delight and the team at Mantra takes special efforts to customize the food to your preference and liking.

We also tried a different assortments of breads – The Garlic Naan, Stuffed Paratha and Laccha Paratha. The Laccha Paratha is usually a tricky one, since the paratha has multiple layers usually the inner layers stay raw or the paratha gets burnt, but the paratha at Mantra was baked to perfection.

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The Garlic Naan was really fresh and extremely soft, it was so yum you can literally have it just by itself. Coming to the Stuffed Paratha  – this unique flatbread was stuffed and baked to perfection, the stuffed veggies and cheese added the perfect taste to the food when coupled with the gravies.

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In their Entrees we tried four different gravies – Mutton Curry, Chicken Bhuna, Shahi Paneer and Dal Bukhara. Each of this dish has a different technique used to prepare them and Mantra prepares them with the perfect technique.

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The Dal Bukhara requires slow and long cooking of Lentils till they are soft and creamy, we were informed that they take special efforts to ensure that the Lentils are cooked in the same slow cooker manner to perfection. The Mutton Curry was scrumptious, the meat well cooked and extremely tender and the gravy was spiced to perfection.  The Chicken Bhuna is an out of the world dish, the chicken is roasted yet tender and the spicies work perfect with the tomato based gravy. The Shahi Paneer is truly a dish for the royals. The dish has generous helpings of fresh paneer, mildly spiced gravy and has a lovely cardamom flavour. We paired the gravies with the different assortments of breads and their Saffron Flavoured rice – Kersariya Pulao which has a lovely mild saffron flavor, rich color and is topped with fried onions.

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To wrap up this lovely meal, we tried their Pistachio kulfi and Mango Kulfi – both we creamy and delicious and made with natural ingredients. We also tried their Kheer – Indian Rice pudding which was rich and creamy with a nice hint of spice.

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Finally as we were on our way out, Anu offered us to try their freshly made Jalebis which were – crispy , sweet soaked in sugar syrup which was the perfect end to our delicious meal.

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THE DECOR

The decor and interiors at Mantra are definitely worth mentioning. They have poured their heart and soul in every corner of the restaurant. Right from the entry to fresh flowers and the seating fit for royals. We were informed that the owner Anu Sharma has handpicked most of their decor over the years and they keep on developing it with many artistic pieces bought in specially from India. Mantra not only takes you on a culinary journey, the interiors of the restaurant give you a real feel of Indian Royal Dining.

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The entire restaurant is designed and decorated in an elegant fashion with stunning pieces of decor in every corner of the restaurant. Right from the waiting area to the seating, it is very apparent that Mantra has a magnificent taste in decor and they are dedicated to provide a splendid experience to its patrons.

 

THE EXPERIENCE 

A few other things worth mentioning about Mantra is their dedication to quality and customer service. We noticed that the team at Mantra was dedicated to ensure that the patrons got their choice of meals. They patiently asked us if there was a specific way in which the meal could be prepared or any ingredient which was wanted to be included or excluded from the meal.

 

We were also told that Mantra abides by a great “freshly prepared meals” policy. Which means that they avoid pre-cooking as much as possible (unless of course the recipe calls for longer marination and slow-cooking process), every meal is prepared from scratch only once it is ordered in. This way you get the freshest of food on your table. They also avoid unnecessary use of excess butter and cream which is an artificial flavor enhancer and concentrate more on perfecting the spice mix for every meal. This is the reason why at Mantra they do not give you your curry in a hurry but rather concentrate on the flavor and freshness of the food.

I would definitely go in for a second time here, the food and service is such that it calls for repeated visits without question. Keep up with the great culinary service Mantra, you are heaven for foodies like me.