Revisiting Caffe De Luca

Caffe de Luca

After a beautiful Saturday with a sky devoid of clouds and temperatures in the 70′s, Sunday began with overcast skies, temperatures in the 50′s, and a constant breeze. The only good thing about the rain is that it probably washed away a bit of the pollen that had been in the air. Nothing can be more aggravating than the feeling of having pepper in your eyes. But, hey, that does nothing to my insatiable appetite. In my blue Jetta that had a bit of a green colouring to it from a light powdering of pollen, I was on my way in search of food. And once I realized how irritating it is to find parking in Chicago proper, I drove out to the neighbouring suburb of Forest Park. Plenty of options available and me being decisive, I walked into Caffe De Luca at 7427 Madison Street.

Broccoli and Cheese Quiche and Fruit

Broccoli and Cheese Quiche and Fruit

I recalled Caffe De Luca when there was the location in Wicker Park. I had gone on my first visit one New Year’s Eve when I wanted to have dinner without entertaining a lot of friends being scrambled about where to dine, when to gather, what to wear in case we were going to a New Year’s Eve party afterwards, and why the restaurant had to be in Wicker Park. I went alone and was a hundred miles past the last exit to Overjoyed when all was said and done. The Forest Park location has the same rustic feel and layout, which were least of my culinary concerns. It were the flavours of Italy I was hoping to relive.

Grilled Shrimp and Asparagus Salad

Grilled Shrimp and Asparagus Salad

Now, because I went during brunch time, I knew I was not going to have spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, pasta, or any of that. No, I started with a broccoli and cheddar quiche and a mixed fruit of honeydew melon, grapes, cantaloupe, and pineapples. The quiche was fluffy. Last time I had a quiche that fluffy was at Eastgate Cafe in Hyde Park, where the owner had explained that she preferred an airy quiche to a dense one. After finishing the quiche and fruit, I then had grilled shrimp and asparagus salad. This salad could be within the top 5 pescatarian delights. Worthy of each bite, I devoured it as reasonably slowly as possible to keep from looking like a man who hadn’t eaten in several days.

The brunch was very satisfying and the price was fantastic. I shall have to return for dinner one evening to see if I can recapture the sensation I experienced during my visit to Caffe De Luca in Wicker Park. Caffe De Luca in Wicker Park is no longer on the Wicker Park landscape, so I shall remove my first post. However, here are the compositions that I captured when I went. Sigh. I miss having Caffe De Luca so close to home.

Bread, Wafers, Chianti

Bread, Wafers, Chianti

Grilled Calamari

Grilled Calamari

Tortellechi Carbonara, Chianti

Tortellechi Carbonara, Chianti

Tortellechi Carbonara

Tortellechi Carbonara

Espresso with Honey

Espresso with Honey

Tiramisu, Coffee

Tiramisu, Coffee

Caffe de Luca on Urbanspoon

Breaking My Neck for Breakfast

It is time for another confession: I love breakfast. I could make breakfast a constant meal. Of course I say that now, knowing that the Aries in me would kick in and I would tire of having it in an ongoing fashion all day long, everyday. But when weekends arrive, I can play nicely with my knife and fork over a plate of morning goodness. If you have been to any of the breakfast restaurants that I have visited, you would feel the same way, too. Recently, I went breakfast crazy in a fantastic way.

Last year I went to Marmalade at 1969 W. Montrose Avenue for my birthday breakfast. I did a repeat this year. Often you will hear a lot of people go on about certain cafes and restaurants that serve the best French toast ever. Having gone to Marmalade several times, their rants go in one ear and out the other because until you have had the Cuban French toast and couldn’t control your smile thereafter, you’ve only had toast soaked in milk and doused with syrup. I was overwhelmed with breakfast satisfaction while indulging the Cuban French toast again this year.

Cuban French Toast

Cuban French Toast


During the night of my birthday dinner where a great friend and I had our second visit of a French restaurant in Evanston, Illinois, we made plans to meet for breakfast the next morning. Where would we go? What time would we get there? How would we struggle with fighting sleep after four-course meals and flights of martinis and cocktails? Never fear! Food was involved. We opted for a German breakfast, one  well-balanced with pannenkoekens. Yep, we arrived at Pannenkoeken Cafe at 4757 N. Western Avenue in Lincoln Square. Nothing like perking up immediately after having a large apple, brie, and raisin pannenkoken and a chocolate banana pannenkoeken placed in front of you. To my breakfast savvy informants, crepes are no longer “the” pancake of choice for me. Gib mir pannenkoeken.

Apple Raisin Cinnamon Pannenkoeken

Apple, Brie, Raisin Cinnamon

Chocolate and Banana Pannenkoeken

Chocolate and Banana


The thing about living in one of the hottest neighbourhoods in America is the tendency to take everything about it for granted. Logan Square boasts boulevards, swanky boutiques, plenty of culture, hipsters who made single gear bicycles sexy, rising property taxes, and a plethora of restaurants. One restaurant that has been on the Logan Square landscape for several years is JAM, just off the roundabout at 3057 W. Logan Blvd. The time had come for me to see what the restaurant had for its offerings. A l’amuse bouche of a homemade fig newton, green apple juice, chicken and waffles, and coffee afterwards. Let me just say that a waffle prepared with coriander and rice flour in the recipe under pulled chicken drizzled with a fennel gastrique is NOT the same as a large Eggo waffle served with crispy fried chicken wings and “surp” — yes, I misspelled syrup intentionally.

Fruit Cookie

L’amuse: Fruit Cookie

Green Apple Juice

Green Apple Juice

Coffee and Cream

Coffee and Cream

Chicken and Waffles

Chicken and Waffles

At the rate I have been going, it is starting to look like I may wind up with a Top 10 list of breakfast eateries for 2014. Certainly after the visit to Pannenkoeken Cafe, I shall thrust myself into a search for more German restaurants that have pannenkoekens on their menus. And Logan Square has already proven to be a hub of growth. I may not have to go to Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, Lakeview, Uptown, Bucktown, Wicker Park, and downtown for breakfast options. I will only need to walk a few blocks in any direction from my condo and find my feet under some table, tapping my toes while clinking my knife and fork on my plate of morning loving from the kitchen.

Jam on Urbanspoon

 

Batter & Berries and Breakfast Bliss

Berries & Batter

Weekends are for rest. Well, that has been the lie I had been convincing myself was real for the past few years. After long hours at work and then having to get on the computer to do extra stuff, I would look forward to weekends when I would stay in bed late, get up and grab a quick snack, and then lounge around my condo with a plate of something nearby. Alas, there are errands to run, clothes to wash, cleaning around the condo to be done, and a frenzied email that needs to be addressed. Nevertheless, work doesn’t end. So, I have to fortify myself for the onslaught. For example, today I met a great friend at Batter & Berries in Chicago’s Lincoln Park at 2748 N. Lincoln Avenue. Getting there involved work, as driving down roads riddled with cavernous pothole requires dexterity, quick reflexes, and a large vocabulary to avoid a potty vernacular when slamming into any of the many potholes.

Eggs Scrambled with Gouda Cheese

Eggs Scrambled with Gouda Cheese

My friend had gone to Batter & Berries already, so she had warned me of the crowd that the restaurant experiences. Chicago boasts some fantastic breakfast spots where people will gladly wait in long lines — inside or outside, even in cold temperatures — for a seat so that they can slice away at some pancakes, omelette, waffles, or sausages. Knowing the location of where Batter & Berries is, we agreed that we would get there shortly after the doors opened for business. Wouldn’t you believe that at 8:00 AM, the restaurant was full?

Eggs Benedict Over Crab Cakes With Hashbrowns

Eggs Benedict Over Crab Cakes with Hashbrowns

My friend ordered a plate of eggs Benedict over crab cakes. This came with hashbrowns. Not being a fan of poached eggs, my friend ordered the eggs Benedict scrambled. Yes, it was a slight modification to the original recipe for assurance that the eggs were not runny. The crab cakes were of the Maryland style, that being lump crab with light breading. This was fantastic because not only were they delicious, but you don’t have to go all the way to Maryland to have crab cakes done properly. And also with the dish came a side of vanilla rum French toast with a dollop of maple butter. Per my friend’s facial expression, she would have gone outside and had a cigarette to show approval of how tasty the French toast was.

Flight of French Toast

Flight of French Toast

I ordered a flight of French toast. Yes, I am exhausting all avenues of flights, having started with a flight of mojitos, and recently indulging flights of whiskey cocktails. Far be it from me to ring the bell tower when it comes to food. Wait. I will ring the bell tower to announce how much I loved the slices of the vanilla, strawberry, lemon, caramel, and blueberry French toast. I rolled my eyes, hummed, went into radio silence mode, smiled my stupid smile, and mumbled nonsense. And to make matters worse, I had a plate of scrambled eggs with gouda cheese in it. For my next confession, I shall let it be known that I have fallen in love with eggs scrambled well with gouda cheese in them.

Berries & Berries was well worth me getting out of bed early. While I can’t flag the restaurant as being couched in any specific ethnicity, I have an allowance for American fare on Chicago Alphabet Soup, especially when it involves the most important meal of the day. The service is outstanding and you really get won over when they show you photos of different dishes on iPads while using the same device to place your order. The prices are incredibly reasonable. But what matter most is the loving from the kitchen, whipped up in some batter with berries and a sprig of bliss.

Batter & Berries on Urbanspoon

I See Food at Devon Seafood Grill

Devon Seafood Grill

Recently, I bit down hard and started a Chicago Alphabet Soup page on Facebook. For all the kicking and screaming I did as far as delving into social media, it was a good idea. There is still something of a human touch missing. Friends had told me to add Twitter, Tumblr, and a few other brand name social media outlets to my repertoire. I will slowly add them. One avenue that I thought would be good would be to actually engage people outside of my inner circle for advice, feedback, and recommendations. So, I found myself on the Meetup.com site searching for some foodist-photographer groups. There was one that stood out since it seemed to focus on the photography aspect of being a foodist. As much as I would love to claim major photography skills, there is a lot that I need to learn still. I figured I would recalibrate myself to hone my still shot skills and then indulge Twitter and other social media after a bit of more polishing. All of that research had left me with an appetite.

X-Rated Martini

X-Rated Martini

Sidecar

Sidecar

I called a great friend and mentioned that I was considering going to Devon Seafood Grill at 39 E. Chicago Avenue for my favourite American culinary fare — seafood. It was early in the afternoon and I knew that going before 6:00 PM would mean getting there before all the nouveau laissez faire parents arrived with their little wicked Damians and Rhodas to make a complete mess of the whole dining experience. Ah, but we opted to sit upstairs in the bar area, which solved the problem of witnessing bad little kids doing God knows what all it takes to get their parents’ attention. My great friend and I knew we would have no disturbances while she enjoyed her X-rated martini and I enjoyed my flight of whiskey cocktails.

Tuna Tartar

Tuna Tartar

Unlike some people we have heard ordering chicken fingers at ethnic eateries that don’t even have fancy baked chicken on their menu, we started with tuna tartar. Served over cucumbers and accented with a wasabi sauce, ginger, and wafers, we were rather glad that we had braved the bite of the wind coming off Lake Michigan. The cucumbers had a faint flavouring of ginger, although not atop the ginger. The wasabi drizzle did wonders on clearing our heads. Of course, there was sipping — my friend enjoying her X-rated martini flavoured with raspberry and lemonade and me mouthing off at how much I was enjoying my whiskey cocktail flight. Having started this whole thing with ordering flights of cocktails at restaurants, knowing that flights are not on the menu, our server lit up like the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza. Turns out she was not only a server, but she was also a bartender. And her talents are top. The Maker’s Market basil and lemon whiskey cocktail, the twist on a mint julep, and the twist on a sidecar left me speechless for the greater part of ten minutes. My friend and I acknowledged that we will request her when we return. If she’s not there, then we’ll come back when she is.

Biscuit and Butter

Biscuit and Butter

Shrimp Tempura Sushi Roll

Shrimp Tempura Sushi Roll

Lobster Tamale

Lobster Tamale

Lobster  Roll

Lobster Roll

Now, I had mentioned that I had an appetite earlier. That was no lie. The warm biscuits that came to the table with the dollop of honey butter put Southern biscuits to shame. There was a shrimp tempura sushi roll that rivalled the same sushi rolls I have had at countless top-notch Japanese sushi bars. When Devon Seafood Grill says that they get their seafood in fresh daily, the wow factor in their sushi is an indication that they are not lying. Another rather substantial appetizer that we ordered was the lobster tamale. This was nothing short of bliss in a creamy gravy and we all but picked up the plate and licked it after we had finished. Still, I must admit that one of my main reasons for wanting to go to Devon Seafood Grill was for their lobster roll. I rolled my eyes with each bite, and I don’t mean as in being cheeky. Add to that my habit of humming when food is good.

Lemon Basil Manhattan

Lemon Basil Manhattan

Mint Julep

Mint Julep

Sidebar

Sidecar

But now a good hour had passed and we were ready for more, yet something light. And then came a bowl of mussels to the table with garlic bread. People on self-imposed diets are wishing they had a thread of our hair for their voodoo dolls that they would torture relentlessly. I’m bald, by the way, however, my friend isn’t. There is almost a guarantee to get a batch of mussels full of sand in them. That was not the case with the batch we had. The sauce that they were swimming in was perfect for sopping. With a few more pieces of toast at hand, we made the sauce disappear.

Mussels

Mussels

By now, my friend had finished her martini and I had downed my flight of cocktails and a few glasses of water. My friend had a sip of my sidecar and was so pleasantly pleased that she ordered one of her own. I ordered another one. These were a few notches past ideal with the mixed platter and the plate of halibut. The mixed platter came with sea bass over mashed potatoes, haricot verdes, scallops, shrimp, and crab cakes. For those of you who are based in or around Maryland, Devon Seafood Grill prepares crab cakes the way that they are supposed to be done — with lump crab and a few crumbs to hold the crabs together, not as a cake with essence of crab. The halibut, flaky and wonderful, came with a lobster risotto and mashed potatoes. This was also a few notches past satisfying and all of it went bye-bye in appreciation of its great taste.

Mixed Platter

Mixed Platter

Halibut, Lobster Risotto, Mashed Potatoes

Halibut, Lobster Risotto, Mashed Potatoes

Devon Seafood Grill is one of the incredibly good seafood restaurants in Chicago proper. Yes, there are a lot of seafood restaurants that tout divine food, but quite a few have service that doesn’t balance the output from the kitchen properly, and that often detracts from an enjoyable experience. Devon Seafood Grill does an outstanding job of making sure that patrons’ dining experiences are worthy of return visits. Well, for disclosure, my experiences have warranted repeat visits — barring the episode where a little Rhoda threw her knife, fork, pen, and sticky pad at me in a fit of solidarity against her hands-off parents. One thing I shall note is that the price is not cheap. It is not exorbitant either. For those who go and want to enjoy your meal, I highly recommend sitting upstairs in the bar area. You still get great service. Yet there is an adult atmosphere upstairs where you can also enjoy some great bar service and conversation without yelling if you’re on a date. And if you want to take a chance on getting a flight of some beverage, request a flight of whiskey cocktails. Take your spacesuit because you will shoot straight for the stars thereafter.

Devon Seafood Grill on Urbanspoon Devon Seafood Grill - Chicago on Foodio54

Himshikar Restaurant, Nepal Comes to Chicago

Himshikar Restaurant

After a grueling week of work, I was in a mood for an immediate divorce from the mad grind of being attached to the computer. Friday night, and I had met with two friends for dinner. Believe me when I say that there was no slow easing out of what was a maniacal work week. No, it was an immediate escape. We started with a flight of whiskey cocktails, moved into indulging a few entrées, and then wrapped up with a flight of desserts and coffee. Let’s just say that as soon as my head touched my pillow when I got home, I slept as peacefully as I did when I was gassed before having my wisdom teeth pulled. Oh, that was NOT a bad experience.

Papadum

Papadum

Well, wouldn’t you believe that I awoke with an angry appetite the next morning? Being a bachelor, my refrigerator is empty, with the exception of my Brita bottle of water. There is no way to stop the bitter grumble of my belly with nothing in my refrigerator to ease the growling. I had such a hankering for some Indian food and not wanting to go to Devon Avenue, I was beginning to fret. Ah, Google, and it’s display of some Nepalese restaurant north of where I live, I had a recommendation in hand. So, it was off to Himshikar Restaurant at 6031 N. Cicero Avenue in the Sauganash neighbourhood of Chicago.

Shrimp Til Tinka

Shrimp Til Tinka

I arrived at noon, shortly after the restaurant had opened for business. It seems to be my luck that when I get to restaurants, they are teeming with patrons and wait times are long. With Himshikar Restaurant not being in the midst of pedestrian chaos and congestion, I had my pick of a seat and a menu in hand. Having made my selection from the menu, I pulled out my camera, made the necessary adjustments for the lighting, and sat in preparation for finally putting an end to the incessant grumbling of my belly. When I had finished a few test shots of the complementary papadum, one of the owners came over and talked to me about my Nikon D90. He, too, is a photographer and uses a Nikon D800. Talk about different people finding a common ground.

Aloo Makhani, Poori, Basmati Rice

Aloo Makhani, Poori, Basmati Rice

For a starter, I had shrimp til tinka. Shrimp lightly fried and skewered on sticks sat long enough for me capture their impressions for the blog. And then I left teeth impressions on all six of them. There was actually a wow factor to the shrimp that I always experience at Japanese and seafood restaurants. The fact that they came on sticks had already put me in the mind of having yakitori. The flavour of each shrimp, without any excessive seasoning, made them all a hit. Then came aloo makhani, basmati rice, and poori. Having had chicken makhani, paneer makhani, and daal makhani countless times before, I wanted to try it with potatoes instead. There are not enough words to describe how satisfying each mouthful was. Because I had ordered the aloo makhani spicy, there was a proper kick to it that the rice and poori balanced out fantastically. Although I was left speechless as to what words to find to describe how much I was in love with my lunch offerings, my belly apparently was experiencing the same sentiments — because it has finally shut up.

Himshikar Restaurant is one of those gems that surprises you by leaps and bounds. With it not being lost among the Little India mall of shops, I had no idea that it had been in business for a little over two years. And I have said countless times that you cannot go into just any American restaurant and engage the staff in conversation with the greatest of ease. The food was out of this world, but I spent a great deal of time having conversation with one of the owners who sat across from me at an adjoining table and launched into banter very casually. It ceased to feel like I had gone to a restaurant, but rather to someone’s home who I knew well. I don’t have a problem going to friends’ homes, which means that I will return to Himshikar Restaurant regularly for all the good things I may not get in Nepal — that is, until I make that almighty trip abroad.

Himshikar Nepali and Indian cuisine on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Information


* Restaurant Name
Himshikar Restaurant
* Overall
★★★☆☆
* Neighborhood / Cuisine
Albany Park
* Street Address
6031 North Cicero Avenue, Chicago, IL 60646
* Phone
(773) 481-2003

Friendship to Be, Lao You Ju

Lao You Ju

A few years ago, I left a company that was couched in political maneuvering and led by a chief executive officer who let it be known that the employees’ “measly” 2% pay increases were a small sacrifice — so that the Board of Directors could get their 25% pay increases. It was on to another company that was couched even deeper in political madness with a revolving door of contractors and permanent employees who came and went, and a management staff that consisted of supervisors and managers in title only. About two years ago, there began flight from the latter company and recently the company had a reduction in workforce. Several of us who had become good friends while working together had fled and we all remained in touch. We decided that it was time for a gathering. You can never have a proper reunion without food. And with one of us knowing the owner of one of Chicago’s most popular Chinese restaurants, a date was set and there were a Chinese, an African-American, an Indian, a West Indian, and a Filipino walking into Lao You Ju at 2002 S. Wentworth Avenue in Chicago’s Chinatown. Sounds like the introduction to a joke, right? No, it was just five former colleagues gathering for laughter and some authentic Chinese food.

Satay Chicken

Satay Chicken

Preserved Egg Pork Congee

Preserved Egg Pork Congee

Lao You Ju boasts a swell menu of dim sum, Hong Kong style. There are indeed some exotic menu items that the modest palate may find visually intriguing, but not necessarily tasteful. For the five of us who had gathered, our palates are varied, so we played it safely while indulging one or two items that are more commonplace in the Chinese culinary space. Because we had opted mostly for dim sum, we started with satay chicken and preserved egg pork congee. Satay chicken is nothing more than well-seasoned chicken skewered onto wooden sticks. Many of you will have had satay chicken with peanut sauce at Thai restaurants. There was no sauce with the dish at Lao You Ju, as it was rather flavourful sans it. The congee came in a communal size bowl, rice porridge for an insatiable appetite. We filled our cups and went to work.

Cheese Rolls with Shrimp

Cheese Rolls with Shrimp

Shumai

Shumai

While talking about another former colleague who used to take random vacations “off the books” and then return 3 to 4 weeks later as though it was “only a thing,” there arrived cheese rolls with shrimp and shumai. The cheese rolls were like crispy egg rolls that encased cream cheese and plump shrimp. At a lot of Americanized Chinese restaurants, some syrupy dipping sauce would have accompanied the rolls. For those of us at the table, we were quite glad to not have some side order usurping the flavour of the rolls with a punch of unnecessary sweetness. Along with the cheese rolls with shrimp came some shumai. Having forgotten that pork was a heavy staple in the Chinese diet, we tackled them anyway. Rather than requesting that the recipe be modified and erasing authenticity, we gobbled the shumai without complaint — and then realized after we had completed them that we didn’t dunk them in any sauce before devouring them.

Jin-Sha Shrimp

Jin-Sha Shrimp

Crispy Papaya Pastry

Crispy Papaya Pastry

We laughed about how the business analysts, Business Intelligence analysts, and quality assurance team could never seem to work as good as they could have together thanks to interference from management and the fact that information technology is becoming more about service than it is about solutions. Right about this time was when we got to indulge ourselves in some jin-sha shrimp. General chicken what? Kung pao chicken what? Beef with broccoli what? I am in love with this whole concept of fried corn with peppers and breaded shrimp. Put some orange chicken in front of me and I will be inclined to throw it against the wall. To make matters ever more tastefully exciting, there were crispy papaya pastry served. They looked way too twee to have experienced the grinding of our teeth on them. The natural sweetness of the papaya made them that more pleasing to the palates because we got to taste the fruit in all of its bloom.

Beef Tripe

Beef Tripe

Lamb Hot Sizzling Plate

Lamb Hot Sizzling Plate

Two weeks after I had left the company, I got a text message from one of my friends who was at dim sum lunch with us. He had left to go abroad to get married and to have his honeymoon with his wife. When the text message had come across and he discovered the address of where I was working, it turned out that he had accepted a position with a company across the street. Not only is the world flat, but it is indeed very small. We all laughed about that story and chuckled when the small dish of beef tripe was placed in front of us. Tripe, to me, is one of those menu items that shows that cooks will spare no parts. The texture is akin to that of a rubber band, which may not be endearing to many diners. The recipe for the beef trip at Lao You Ju was surprisingly worthy, although I will never get accustomed to having to chew, chew, chew, and chew some more before swallowing it. As to the lamb hot sizzling plate, this spicy dish was a winner. Served with white rice, we worked our chopsticks in true fashion. Move over, Greeks, because you’re not longer the standard bearers of cooking outstanding lamb dishes.

Singapore Fried Rice Noodles with Chicken

Singapore Fried Rice Noodles

Three Cup Chicken

Three Cup Chicken

The Singapore fried rice noodles with chicken was another one of those dishes that will make you want to take up a picket sign and advocate for the closure of all the China Buffet restaurants in the world. And from there, you will probably march in front of every Chop Suey hole in the wall that is open for business. Let’s just say that we didn’t leave any noodles or gravy on the plate — and we all used chopsticks. I have had Singapore fried rice noodles prepared correctly, so I shall not risk having to inquire, “What on earth is this?” at any other Chinese restaurants. And the three cup chicken, Taiwanese style, was a food lover’s dream. Tender, moist, falling off the bone chicken, swimming in a rich gravy and bursting with each bite, was enough to illicit a smoke immediately afterwards.

Fried, Dried Shrimp Crepes

Fried, Dried Shrimp Crepes

Spare Ribs

Spare Ribs

During the reduction in workforce at the company where we all had left, it seemed that one of the main managers who was a model control freak discovered why the axe loves those in management ranks. We had a moment of silence for him, but only because the server was putting a plate of fried, dried shrimp crepes, and a bowl of spare ribs in front of us. The crepes were a pleasant surprise, although having been served in a sauce, they were not of the texture that you get at French creperies. They were, however, like dumplings, but packed with a smile in each bite. It took a while to realize what the spare ribs were. For me, I have always seen them coming off of a grill with a red colouring or drowned in barbecue sauce. Nevertheless, these spare ribs were tastier than any that I have had before — ever.

Green Chive Dumplings

Green Chive Dumplings

Crispy Durian Pastry

Crispy Durian Pastry

We wrapped up with green chive dumplings that were packed with mustard greens. By now I was surprised that I was able to put any more in my mouth to swallow, let along raise my chopsticks to reach for another bit. But these dumplings were way too inviting to let sit. And believe me when I say that they sat for a short time before going down the hatch. For dessert, we had crispy durian pastry. Who would have thought that biscuits with papaya baked in them could leave five individuals speechless after four hours of non-stop eating and laughter? I am considering calling in for a batch of those biscuits to have for a pre-bed snack at night.

Lao You Ju packs out during lunch and I understand why. It is not typical Chinese for Americans. It’s authentic. When you enter the restaurant, you will see a sea of Chinese faces and hear the language accordingly, which is the best indication of authenticity of a restaurant. Aside from travels to Hong Kong and Beijing in mainland China, Vancouver, Toronto, and San Francisco, I haven’t had authentic Chinese food in America except for when my first roommate after college had his parents come to visit and in 2005 when a former colleague had invited one of his Chinese co-workers to meet us at Dragon Court in Chicago’s Chinatown. Now I get to say that I have recently had some more Chinese food prepared correctly thanks for Lao You Ju all because of former colleagues gathering for a small reunion and friendship.

Lao You Ju on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Information


* Restaurant Name
Lao You Ju
* Overall
★★★☆☆
* Neighborhood / Cuisine
Near South Side
* Street Address
2002 South Wentworth Avenue, Chicago, IL 60616
* Phone
(312) 225-7818

Je suis en amour avec Oceanique

Oceanique

Earlier in February, Chicago hosted what has become the annual Restaurant Week. Many restaurants participated, all pandering to a wide range of tastes: American, comfort, ethnic, barbecue, street, exotic, and more. Thanks to frigid temperatures and work-related travel, I was only to take in about three restaurants. And even then, I opted to have my degustation from their menus rather than partaking of the offering from the Restaurant Week menu. I was not dissatisfied, to say the least. Now, one of the restaurants on the list was Oceanique at 505 Main Street in Evanston, Illinois. Seafood with a French influence, something more to the liking of Southern France along the coast. With an outstanding selection of seafood for the pescatarian in me, I paired the menu choices with a flight of mojitos. Flights are not on their menu, so Oceanique got big ups from me when the bartender complied and came up with a flight that won me over tenfold. Not having my camera then, it was necessary for me to return for a proper blog.

L'amuse Bouche: Icelandic Arctic Char

L’amuse Bouche: Icelandic Arctic Char

Much to my surprise, Chicago was in the throes of Chef’s Week during my return. I was in a mood to be truly experimental, so I had made up my mind that I was going to have another degustation and entrust the server and bartender to create an experience that would make my visit worthier than the first visit. Having secured a seat in the dining area across from the bar, taken the white balance for my photos and video, and happy that I was seated nowhere near anyone, I started with a l’amuse of Icelandic Arctic char ceviche wrapped in leek with a cilantro oil essence. It was served with cucumber, fresh seaweed, and crispy potato. By the time I had finished the l’amuse, a couple arrived and rather than sitting in the main dining area, they chose to sit at the table IMMEDIATELY NEXT TO ME.

Blood Orange Old Fashion

Blood Orange Old Fashion

Wild Maine Lobster Consomme

Wild Maine Lobster Consomme

For my first course, I had wild Maine lobster consomme. At most seafood restaurants, there is almost a guarantee of having a chowder or some bisque served. Oceanique deviates from the norm with ravioli of chantarelles, chunks of lobster, cilantro, and chopped carrots in a clear broth. Outstanding! Because I was being daring for what I wanted in my beverage selection, I had requested a flight of whiskey cocktails for my refined palate. The first, which was served with the consomme, was a slight twist on the old-fashioned — a blood orange old-fashioned. Blood orange, cherries, rye whiskey, and Angostura Bitters make for a rather refreshing whiskey cocktail, one that has made the plain old-fashioned fade from my request list.

L'amuse Bouche: Ravioli

L’amuse Bouche: Ravioli

A few minutes passed and then there was a second l’amuse to come to the table. This one was a butternut ravioli prosciutto with parmesan, and crispy sage, served in a brown butter reduction. Considering this was only a palate cleanser interlude, I was in my Food Magazine mode capturing the sight of it before devouring it slowly. Only in my dining experiences abroad have I had a l’amuse interspersed throughout dinner. Even at many of the high-end restaurants in Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, there may be one given at the onset of the meal. Oceanique again smashes the norm. Then again, it may have been because I was creative with ordering a flight of whiskey cocktails and the chef did not want me stumbling about after departing the restaurant.

Beet Salad

Beet Salad

Chartreuse Sazerac

Chartreuse Sazerac

The second course was a salad. One thing I have noticed in my restaurant excursions is that many are fans of beets. Oceanique has a beet salad in a mild vinaigrette that comes to life with a dollop of goat cheese. If ever I were to resort to a diet of rabbit food only, recipes like the one in the beet salad creation would become a staple in my salad recipes. Anyone who favours Thousand Island, ranch, or blue cheese dressing on their salad, should try the beet salad at Oceanique. And the whiskey cocktail that accompanied the salad was a Chartreuse Sazerac. This was another masterpiece, one of whiskey, Peychaud Bitters, and simple syrup with a lemon twist. The second course was absolute tops.

L'amuse Bouche: Wild Skate

L’amuse Bouche: Wild Skate

By the time I had completed the second course, another couple had come in and sat at the table on the other side of me. Plenty of room in the main dining area and lots of tables in the room where I was sitting and they needed to sit near and call some friends, who I gathered was supposed to join them. I sighed and after looking at some of the photos and video that I had captured, the third l’amuse arrived. This was wild Maine skate with leeks and carrots in a white wine reduction. Skate has a texture that is reminiscent of sea bass but slightly silkier. It may be different to some palates, but the flavour overpowers the feel of sinking your teeth through a flavoured cloud. If I could describe how love tastes, the wild Maine skate would be my example.

Evanstonian

Evanstonian

Wild Maine Skate over Mushrooms and Pureed Split Peas

Wild Maine Skate

Up to this point, everything had been a winner. The third course is where I began to wonder why Oceanique was not on the candidate list for a Michelin star. Atlantic char served over mushrooms and puréed split green peas in a savoury reduction were all I needed to start my petition to Michelin to do the correct thing by Oceanique. I had forgotten to mention that I am not a fan of pork in my diet, so the dish came with a few bacon pieces that I moved to the side. However, the bloom in the taste was a true winner for the seafood lover in me. I had not enough compliments for the chef for such a divine course. And to the bartender, the Evanstonian that he mixed has now become my favourite whiskey cocktail. Made with Few white whiskey from an Evanston-based distillery, orange bitters, sweet vermouth, and a splash of Creole Shrubb rum, this cocktail was silky on the tongue and without a bite at the back of the throat. It was this third course that will certainly have Oceanique at the top of my list for the Top 10 restaurant excursions for 2014. And I may have to create a list of Top 10 bartender stations for the year also and add Oceanique to the number one spot in advance.

L'amuse Bouche: Berry Pineapple Sorbet

L’amuse Bouche: Berry Pineapple Sorbet

Allowing time to let the food and cocktails settle, I reviewed more of my photos and video so that I could get an advanced idea of what editing I would do later. Soon the final l’amuse came to the table, appropriately in the form of a berry pineapple sorbet, topped with blackberry and a dash of fresh mint. Having recently become an avid fan of sorbet, I was mumbling “Wow” with each mini scoop. After I had finished the last scoop, the second couple that came in and commenced to place phone calls was joined by two others who spoke in jovial and loud tones. Their need for loud banter became quiet when the bartender approached my table for the dessert course and the chef had come to the table to shake my hand. It had become evident that one of the women was from the South because when she saw the dessert offerings, she rattled off, “I do declare.”

Pot de Creme

Pot de Creme

Whiskey Chocolate Martini

Whiskey Chocolate Martini

The dessert course was for the chocolate fanatic in me — and in all the chocolate lovers who were not at Oceanique with me. The pot de creme is already a part of every chocoholic’s fever dream. This delight was served with blackberries, raspberries, passionfruit, and shavings of Godiva chocolate. You have to enjoy this dessert slowly. To gorge it down quickly would be a crime. Because I was supposed to abstain from desserts until my birthday in April, I initially had a bit of guilt. But I have been good in fending off my dessert desires, so I allowed myself a moment of weakness. To make matters even more wicked, the whiskey chocolate martini was enough for me to be okay with burning in hell. Journeyman wheat whiskey, Godiva white liquor, half and half, and a splash of Kalhua, and the second woman at the table next to me was clutching her “invisible” pearls and mumbling, “Oh my,” while the men were in a trance.

Ravenswood Rye Whiskey

Ravenswood Rye Whiskey

Few White Whiskey

Few White Whiskey

Buggy Whip Wheat Whiskey

Buggy Whip Wheat Whiskey

One thing that my return visit to Oceanique has taught me is that it would be cliché and erroneous to say that if you have gone to one seafood restaurant, you have gone to all of them. The quality of the output from the kitchen is simply divine. Some of the offerings are to be appreciated by a finer palate, though. The term mixologist has been bandied about rather frequently as of late and having discovered that it’s used to reference bartenders, not disc jockeys and emcees, the mixologist at Oceanique deserves an award. The restaurant is not in the immediate downtown section of Evanston, which may make some express surprise when they discover where it is located. The prices are high, as the restaurant caters to high-end and fine dining. With there being a French influence, anything that purports to be French and comes at a cheap price should warrant a rapid dash towards the hills. And as my taxi driver woke me from my snoring on my way home from the restaurant, I paid my fare and spoke in a mock Southern accent: I am in love with Oceanique, I do declare.

Oceanique on Urbanspoon Oceanique Restaurant on Foodio54

Restaurant Information

 

* Restaurant Name
Oceanique
* Overall
★★★☆☆
* Neighborhood / Cuisine
Rogers Park
* Street Address
505 Main Street, Evanston, IL 60202
* Phone
(847) 864-3435

Exhaling Curry, Mughal India

Mughal India Restaurant

Shortly after I joined a company in the West Loop, my colleagues wanted to go to a nearby Indian restaurant. Let me just say that I love Indian food. So, I put my antisocial disposition aside — actually, I’m only antisocial until I’m not longer working with someone — and I joined the troop for lunch. Buffet and mild for the American palates that flooded the restaurant. Slow clap, twice. Well, one thing I have noticed about many of the Indian restaurants very close to the Chicago Loop is that the buffets are indeed for quick bites and incredibly mild. No Indian restaurant should serve its food mild. It MUST come to the table spicy. And I learned later that going back to any of those restaurants for dinner is when you get to see that they can shine with food so full of flavour that you continue to return.

Papadum

Papadum

Well, I returned to Mughal India Restaurant at 560 W. Van Buren Street for some non-work day delight. I had gone back recently for take-away. When I got home and started gobbling my purchases, I knew I had to return for a proper blog. I also made a note to myself that I was not going to indulge any more Indian buffets in the downtown area. It is necessary to go away from The Loop to get authenticity in my Indian buffets. Now, I’m not a stickler for decor since I’m more concerned about flavour than I am about whether the cushions are plush as opposed to crushed velvet. A few whiffs of the air and I was ready to work my fork on some curry dish.

Jeera Aloo

Jeera Aloo

Because Indian food can be heavy, I skipped having an appetizer and decided that I would have two entrée selections. I ordered jeera aloo and fish tikka masala with basmati rice and poori. Ordering the entrées spicy made the dishes that more appetizing. The jeera aloo was bursting with whole cumin seeds and other various spices — no bland potatoes for me.  This was what I considered my “dry” dish since it was not in a gravy. The spices compensated for the absence of sauce. The fish tikka masala was incredible. Boneless fish marinated in yogurt and spices, and then served in a spicy masala gravy. If I was not a seafood lover already, I would have been after indulging this entrée. The rice was good for taming the flame of the spices and the poori, which is my favourite Indian bread along with bhatura, was my eating utensil. Yes, I eat Indian food using bread for my utensils, which may explain why my hands have an everlasting curry smell to them.

Fish Tikka Masala

Fish Tikka Masala

After I had finished the meal, the server did not rush me. So, I took a little time to let the food digest before requesting a masala chai. The beauty of having a masala chai at an Indian restaurant is that you are guaranteed not to have them serve you that concoction from a carton that is all the rage at coffee houses. What murder. What horror. What crime. Oh, and if the masala chai is really good, you won’t require any sweeteners. Such was the case with the masala chai at Mughal India. For all those international coffee commercials that used to come on with the women taking a sip and whimsically imagining all being good and well in the land, imagine someone smacking their cups from their hands and offering them some masala chai. Those women would skyrocket straight to the stars.

Poori

Poori

Now, I can’t say that I will ever return to Mughal India Restaurant for their lunch buffet. They raised the bar with their dinner and Saturday lunches. Oh, let me not forget this. My in-house dining bonanza was on a Saturday afternoon and they served from the menu only. Let’s just say that they curried favour with me in a way that has moved them high up on my list of recommended Indian restaurants. Considering I get to see the Indians in the open kitchen preparing love for the plates, it is authentic in a major way. Mughal India Restaurant will be one of the main reasons why my pores, according to my highschool sweetheart, seems to exhale curry. And I smile.

Masala Chai

Masala Chai

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So Good, Complete Naansense

Naansense

What do you get when you work at a company that acknowledges President’s Day and gives you the day off for a holiday? Well, you get a diet version of a blizzard that threatens to mess up your appetite and your want for going outside to venture to any restaurant for culinary options. To those of you who dare come to Chicago during the winter, welcome to Chiberia. I had the day off and wanted to stuff my jaws, which is not unusual. The really tragic thing is I have a stove at home and the most I do as it involves the stove is glance at it briefly when I enter my condo. Thank God for a disposable income and living in a city like Chicago where you deserve to have a Looney Tunes anvil fall from the sky and conk you on the head if you complain about not having anywhere to go for dining excursions.

Rice Plate with Vindaloo Chicken and Cucumbers

Rice Plate with Vindaloo Chicken and Cucumbers

I had heard about a new restaurant in Near North Loop named Naansense — talk about a swell play on words — at 171 N. Wells Street that has an Indian influence. Once I had arrived, I had recalled its predecessor, Curried, a restaurant that I had blogged a year or so ago. Seeing that it is very much like a small cafe, I wouldn’t be surprised that it packs out quickly during lunch hours. Fortunately, most people were off for President’s Day and the snow was probably an inhibitor that left me with a pick of seats and an appetite that needed to be sated.

Mango Lassi

Mango Lassi

There was that Chipotle method for ordering that has become a staple in most restaurants that are opening their doors for business. Pick your platter, get your toppings, add your sides, pay, and eat. I had decided that I would have a rice bowl for this visit. It all looked worthy of my immediate visit and a possible return visit or two in the future. I had the chicken with vindaloo sauce. Now, my lips curled up in a smile when I heard vindaloo because I love spicy food like Sherlock Holmes loves to solve mysteries. There was a balance to the spiciness of the vindaloo sauce by way of the yogurt sauce I had added to the rice. Where things got to be closer to wholesome as opposed to Indian was with the cucumbers and chickpea noodles I got as sides. With a cup of mango lassi in hand, I grabbed a table and handled the lunch to completion.

Rice Plate with Naan and Mango Lassi

Rice Plate with Naan and Mango Lassi

I am usually accustomed to gobbling some chana bhatura, bhindi masala with poori, baigan bharta with naan, or daal palak with rice. There is an Indian influence to the offerings at Naansense that I think would be an excellent way for those with milder palates to ease into Indian spices before going all out with a plate of shrimp vindaloo. Not only is the food tasty, and I say this after only having a rice bowl, but the service from behind the counter is top. For a small restaurant that has recently opened, they weren’t fumbling around and when you have staff make recommendations, restaurants like that are well worth return visits. Sitting at home wondering what to eat will be a naan-issue because I’ll probably show up at Naansense to satisfy my craving — unless we are in the midst of a Chiberian blizzaster. I see some naanwiches, roti rolls, and salad bowls in my crystal ball. Hint, hint.

Naansense on Urbanspoon

A-One Italian-French and A10

A10 Hyde Park

February is speeding with a quickness. And I had thought that I would have visited at least one restaurant per week since the New Year began. Alas, the constant snowing and arctic temperatures when snow isn’t falling joined forces to have me running to the warmth of my condominium rather than to the inviting flavours of any restaurants. That is not a good thing because it means once the temperatures warm up finally and I go outside to venture to restaurants for sampling, I will overdo it and then have issues with the night elves that visit my closet and stitch up my pants such that they’re tight around the belly. Ugh, I hate winter, but I love food enough to brave the chill of the Chicago air every once in a while.

A10 Dinner

A10 Dinner

Baguette

Baguette

A great friend and I had managed to escape to Hyde Park a few weeks ago to sample a new restaurant on the Hyde Park landscape. We were so blown over by the service and the food that the experience had plagued our thoughts and conversations since. After a long weekend of being inside, I had cabin fever. I am not a fan of shopping and long walks along the beach with the wind blowing angrily off of Lake Michigan may be a romantic escape for those who like to play roulette with pneumonia.  But food is my lover and I can stand a walk to the subway and connect to a bus to get to a destination that will take my mind way from the fact that the temperatures never got out of the single digits. So, after making reservations, we went back to A10 at 1462 E. 53rd Street in the new chi-chi fantasy world that has taken over the corner of 53rd Street and Lake Park.

Benromach Scotch Whiskey

Benromach Scotch Whiskey

Templeton Rye

Templeton Rye

Elijah Craig Bourbon Whiskey

Elijah Craig Bourbon Whiskey

There is always the request for what one would like to start with drinking. My friend tried her hand with an old-fashioned whiskey cocktail since I had it on the first visit and apparently wouldn’t shut up about how much I loved it. After her first few sips, she had kept mentioning how it was an excellent option. I was in a rare mood — no rarer than usual, though. I requested a flight of whiskies. You can hear all the beer connoisseurs mumbling through upturned sneers, “Snob.” With a baguette in front of us served with a plate of olive oil and balsamic with garlic cooked such that it was spreadable, we were off to a smashing start.

Garlic Soup

Garlic Soup

For starters, my friend had a bowl of roasted garlic soup and I had a Portobello mushroom pizza. The soup was hearty and full of flavour. I recommend it highly if you are all about being heart healthy. Even if you are one of those fans of vampire movies and you fear one of the pretty actors with polished fangs may come to you one night to bite your neck, a bowl of that soup would  be perfect for fending off those wicked vampires. The Portobello mushroom pizza was more like grilled toast with cheese, sautéed onions, and pickled carrots. Giordano’s what? Eduardo’s what? Lou Malnati’s what? Domino’s what? Pizza Hut what? The Portobello mushroom pizza was a blast.

Portobello Mushroom Pizza

Portobello Mushroom Pizza

My taste buds had me in a mood for seafood. Fortunately, A10 doesn’t disappoint when it comes to seafood offerings for my palate. I ordered a cold smoked trout that was served over whipped garlic potatoes. Wow! Having had trout fried, having it smoked such that the fish was flaky and meaty has now moved it up into my Top 5 Fish Loves. Because it was all so fantastic, I worked my knife and fork in slow motion, trying to make the moment last as long as possible without letting the dish get cold.

Cold Smoked Trout with Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Cold Smoked Trout with Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Many of the specials had pork in the recipe, which was not something that appealed to my friend. Instead, she ordered blue crab ravioli with fried green tomatoes. During the first visit, she and I had shared a bit of our dishes and when I had tasted the ravioli that was bursting with blue crab, I understood fully why she ordered it again. This was not a case of “when all else fails,” but one of “you are certain not to fail by ordering the ravioli dish.”

Blue Crab Ravioli and Fried Green Tomatoes

Blue Crab Ravioli and Fried Green Tomatoes

We sat for a while after we wrapped up our entrées, reminiscing about how Hyde Park used to look. It appears that change is taking over the landscape of Hyde Park in a rapid fashion that would otherwise eradicate charm in other neighbourhoods because of poor execution. However, Hyde Park has been a bastion of diversity and change, so the new look doesn’t feel out-of-place. By the time my friend’s coffee and my cappuccino arrived, we had recounted where old establishments were that have gone away to give way to a shinier, dynamic Hyde Park.

Cappuccino and Biscotti

Cappuccino and Biscotti

In addition to our coffees, there is one dessert we had that I think that everyone in the Chicago metropolitan area, as well as visitors to the Chicago area, must try. It’s soft serve ice cream — and I don’t mean that cold foam you get at McDonald’s. It’s homemade ice cream, but accentuated with almond granola, a honey drizzle, and thyme. I have prepared my share of savoury ice cream, so this dessert was clearly a winner to me. This was my guilty pleasure dessert in advance of my birthday. I had an allowance for something sweet, yet not sugary and definitely not saccharine. It would be a lie for me to say that I was not in love after the very first scoop.

Soft Serve with Honey-Drizzled Granola

Soft Serve with Honey-Drizzled Granola

A10 is relatively new, perhaps only a few months of being in business. Unlike a lot of restaurants that are still in their neophyte stages, complete with fumbling and blaring presentations of overcompensation, A10 has the air of a well-oiled machine. It is also quite obvious that the residents of Hyde Park are appreciative of the restaurant gracing 53rd Street, as there is a constant flow of those from the neighbourhood coming in to partake of the menu offerings. For this to have been my second visit, I have been a minimum of ten notches past impressed. It’s not that the hostesses remembered me. It’s not that our first server came by and spoke. It’s not that those on the hospitality staff welcomed my friend and me back. It’s that they got it right. And for that, I say, “C’est bon et bravo!”

A10 Hyde Park, Bar

A10 Hyde Park, Bar

A10 on Urbanspoon A10 Hyde Park on Foodio54