Sable Saves the Evening

A few weekends ago my adventurous sister and I decided that we wanted to try another seafood restaurant. One seafood restaurant just north of downtown had been spoken of highly in reviews, so we opted to see if it was worthy of the high praise. Upon entry, it was clear that the restaurant was a great place to go for having drinks. However, the sazerac that I had left me wondering if I was missing something. And after a forced meal of dishes that looked appetizing, but weren’t, my sister and I were on the hunt for a Plan B. She had mentioned a neighbouring restaurant not far from the seafood restaurant, so we were off to overcompensate for the hunger pains that were overtaking us.

Sable

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

 

We went to Sable at 505 N. State Street in Hotel Palomar. Crowded at the bar with a large seating area for those who want to have a dining experience, Sable seemed like it would be an ideal Plan B. It was. We took a seat in the dining area without having to wait and the server was over to the table to explain the menu, make note of some specials, and offer suggestions. With it being cold outside, my sister started with an Easy Livin’ drink — her way of projecting herself onto a sunny beach. I had an alcoholic beverage that was more like a hot toddy with a nice amount of brandy, a hint of chocolate, some bitters, and bliss. I really don’t know exactly what was in the concoction, but I will say that it was a thousand miles better than the sazerac I’d had earlier that I swear was water with a splash of whiskey and absinthe.

Understanding that we had arrived late, we settled on two items that we knew would do well to ease the growling in our bellies and replace our scowls with smiles. There were creamed corn brulee and mussels. Creamed corn is an appetizing dish all on its own. Having a brulee crust atop of it did not detract from the dish. Actually, this was one item that I have been ranting and raving about since I went to Sable. The other was a huge bowl of mussels in a white wine sauce with garlic and garlic toast on the side. Hello, mussels. Good bye, Dracula. The last time we recalled having mussels as delicious as the ones we had at Sable was when we had gone to Autre Monde in Berwyn, Illinois. Those little morsels were greeted with insatiable appetites and gnashing teeth. Not to let any of the sauce go to waste, we soaked the toast in the sauce and devoured it to complete satisfaction.

 

For our finale, we ordered sorbet — blood orange and blackberry basil. These two scoops were what dreams of made of. Accompanied with berries and dainty cookie crisps, I read my sister’s mind when she was saying to herself, “This is where we should have come from the start.” Sable was an excellent contingency plan.

It may be the weekends or it may be every evening, but the bar section of Sable fills up quickly with a motley crew of lively patrons. Most restaurants in Chicago accept reservations and Sable may be a participating restaurant that does the same. Considering how good the food is for a hotel restaurant, I understand the crowd. What we had, albeit not a lot for our visit, was fine dining without fine dining prices. Those who are looking for a great restaurant with perfect drinks and outstanding food, make Sable your first choice if you are in the River North and Near North area of downtown. You will not be disappointed.

Sable Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon

Waffling About Waffles Cafe

Waffles CafeSeveral times I have mentioned my love for breakfast, which may be at any time of the day. The thing is in Chicago most breakfast spots pack out within the first fifteen minutes of the doors opening for business. This past weekend I decided to get out of bed early enough to try a restaurant that was supposedly known for wonuts — waffles prepared like doughnuts. Well, after a bit of waffling around, I figured I would add my experience to Chicago Alphabet Soup.

Waffles Cafe in Chicago’s Lakeview neighbourhood at 3611 N. Broadway was my destination for sampling a variety of different waffles. It is neither a big box nor is it a hole in the wall. Small in size, but still comfy, it’s a sweet spot for some breakfast bliss. Upon entry, the host was a bit of a space cadet. That all changed when the camera came out of the bag. My server was outstanding and recognized that I was ready to release the Kraken — that being my appetite. Actually, I think she heard my stomach growling, as did the two at the table next to me who started snickering.

Waffles Cafe, Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

I had checked out the menu online on the bus ride to the restaurant, so I had an idea of what I wanted. However, there were so many options. So I decided to do a flight — a flight of hot chocolate and a flight of waffles. The hot chocolate came in dainty little cups. There were caramel, Mexican hot chocolate, and toasted marshmallow. Now that I have a lumberjack beard, complete with wild moustache, each sip left whipped cream across my upper lip making my moustache match the white in my beard at the chin. Each flavour had won me over to the point where I wanted another flight. I had to wait on that to see if my belly would be okay with another flight, considering I had ordered a flight of waffles.

Now, I have had a flight of pancakes at Orange in Roscoe Village and thought those were cute. What I got at Waffles Cafe was more than I had expected. There were four waffles — green tea, Mexican chocolate, red velvet topped with strawberries, and liege with apple compote. One thing I must say is that the waffles had a hint of the flavouring. All while I worked my knife and fork on the breakfast beauties, I wondered if the taste had been a little more prominent if I would have liked the waffles more than I did. Given I didn’t use any syrup, the accompanying dollops of flavoured whipped cream were perfect as highlights. My favourite was the Mexican chocolate, and I swear that was a hint of Kahlua in the recipe. The green tea waffle was my second favourite, followed by the red velvet waffle, and finally by the liege waffle.

There were several customers who had come in to get to buy wonuts for take-away. The wonuts looked inviting, all of a variety of offerings — chocolate covered, cinnamon coated, drizzled, Oreo crusted, blueberry, and other options. I had bought some doughnuts from Somethin’ Sweet in the Cragin neighbourhood, so I did “window shopping” only just to see what wonuts were available in case I should return to Waffles Cafe. Overall, I enjoyed the breakfast and will go back soon, considering I did not have to stand outside waiting for a seat the way you have to at most breakfast shops on the North Side. Many may not be a fan of the waffles not being packed with sugar. If you’re adding syrup, a waffle upping your glucose level may not be a wise delicacy to indulge. But to each his or her own. And to me, I have just made a calendar notice for a return visit in the upcoming weekends.

No more waffling. Release the Kraken!

Waffles on Urbanspoon

Nia — Mediterranean, Tapas Style

Nia

Two years ago a friend surprised me by taking me to a restaurant that she had not heard me talk about. She had mentioned that it was in the West Loop. Chicago’s West Loop is one area that had a rapid growth spurt, resulting in high-priced condominiums, expensive townhouses, bars that fill up quickly, and some nice restaurants. We went to Nia at 803 W. Randolph Street for some Mediterranean food. Because the dining experience was very satisfying then, I made a note to myself to visit again after work so that I could sample some more offerings from the menu.

Being a short distance from where I work, I decided to brave the Chicago wind for the few blocks it took me to walk to Nia. With my New York City stride, I was there in no time, coat off, gloves put away, menu in hand, and had an appetite that I needed to deal with without delay. One thing I remembered about Nia was that the menu was mostly of small plates. Nevertheless, I figured I would do well to order a few items to put a smile on my face and not so much that I would find myself fighting sleep thereafter.

Nia, Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

 

With the evening being what I called a “school night,” I had cranberry juice instead of a spirit or a cocktail. For starters, I ordered a plate of hummus with pita. Given this was a “small plate,” they didn’t skimp on the servings. This came with roasted garlic, a red pepper coulis, and a dollop of horseradish cream. I mixed it all up and worked that pita on the plate until there was a smear of hummus left. I don’t think I need to tell you that I liked it “that” much.

My next course consisted of wild mushrooms with truffle oil. Truffles are all the rage, it seems, and anything accented with its oil is a dish sent from heaven — or hell if you are “that” wicked. I married this dish with a plate of jumbo garlic shrimp in a lemon butter sauce. Although the four shrimp looked manageable, by the time I had finished the mushrooms and the shrimp, I forced myself to slow down so not to deprive myself of dessert. I did, however, request some extra pita so that I could get the last remnants of truffle oil and the lemon butter sauce. It would have been a crime to let any of that go to waste.

My dessert course left me humming, evident from the neighbouring stares I received. The bread pudding came drizzled with a caramel sauce and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream that I swear had saffron in it. If that was the case, then it was not ice cream from the frozen section at the local market. I completed my dessert option with a cup of coffee and cream. Now, I am not a coffee snob, but I know when a French press has been used. The coffee is simply perfect and this was the case with the cup of delight I had with the bread pudding.

For the duration that I sat at Nia, there was a constant flow of patrons coming in and I noticed that turnover was low. That was an indication that people come to enjoy themselves. It’s a great spot for a date. There is the mood lighting — or rather dim lighting. Even those who dine solo at the bar find themselves engaged in conversation with others. The volume gets loud as more customers show up, though. With this being my second visit, I was happy as I teetered from the restaurant. The first time was good. This time was better. I wonder if the third time will be a charm. Well, there is only one way to find out.

Nia Mediterranean on Urbanspoon

Bar Pastoral, You Can Wine All You Want

Bar Pastoral

It seems that the older I get, the faster time goes by. At the closing of this week, January will have only one more week left and then February will be upon us. It dawned on me that in a few more short months, I will have inched a little closer to 50. (Pause) Okay, so I have a few more years to go before I hit the half century mark in my life. I must admit that I have a tendency to want Chicago winters to rush, though. Summer can never arrive fast enough, but we have had some warm days and with one of the most recent warm days, I took advantage of the opportunity to go outside and to some restaurant. My constant New Year’s Resolution is to find more restaurants. That is no problem in Chicago.

Apple Brandy Old Fashioned

Apple Brandy Old Fashioned

Having been to the Lakeview area to sample a few small eateries, there was a pastoral shop that I wanted to visit to get some wine and cheeses for some upcoming winter evenings I know we are doomed to experience. Well, honestly, I wanted to get a few bottles of wine so that in the event that I would experience insomnia — a problem I have never had and probably never will — I’d tackle that problem in advance. While at the shop, I noticed there was a bistro extension next door. I chose to go and get fed rather than buy some wine that I would probably end up taking to a BYOB affair. It was at Bar Pastoral at 2947 N. Broadway that I had my first breakfast happiness for 2015.

Seasonal Frittata and Spinach

Seasonal Frittata and Spinach

On this weekend, I was in a rare mood to really treat myself. I started off with an apple brandy old fashioned. Bartenders in Chicago love to put their own spin on old fashioned cocktails. It’s when they create a cocktail that leaves you sitting with a stupid smile on your face that you know you’ve had a sip of heaven. The brandy made the old fashioned a very relaxing winter drink. (Pause) Okay, that bad boy was slightly heavy-handed and that meant I had to order a lot of food to counter the alcohol effect. My first appetizer was a seasonal frittata served with baby spinach. Very light and still flavourful without an unnecessary amount of seasoning, the dish was a splendid preamble if you planned to go overboard the way I did.

Autumnal Gimlet

Autumnal Gimlet

With my belly primed and the alcohol slowly being soaked up, I was curious about the parsnip and potato hash. Served with a boiled egg instead of a poached egg — my request — and piquillo peppers and a pesto over an avocado and lemon cream, I kept asking myself why it took me so long to pay attention to the bistro. The potatoes were seasoned well. Being on a low salt diet by choice, I am aware whenever dishes are heavy with salt. Not with the parsnips and potato hash. Compliments to the chef, sous chef, cook, or fry guy because for a dish that looked too pretty to eat, I devoured it without shame. I had to wait a few moments before preparing for my “finish him” course.

Parsnip and Potato Hash

Parsnip and Potato Hash

Where I went all out was with an autumnal gimlet. Swimming in a tall glass were Letherbee autumnal gin, fresh lime juice, simple syrup, quince, and apple tart cherry grenadine. Swimming in my belly was nectar. Swimming in my thoughts, I imagined myself in Brazil on the beach showing my flattened tummy. And then I came back to reality when the plate of chicken and waffles arrived. Ummmmm, ummmmph! I was all about sinking my teeth into some chicken and the buttermilk fried chicken was what bliss is made of. Don’t ask me how the chef got cheddar cheese and bacon into the waffles without making a mess. Don’t ask me how I worked my knife and fork on the chicken and waffles as silently as I did without also making a mess. (Pause) Okay, so I shook my head a few times and declared, “Umph, umph, umph,” as I sopped up the brown butter glaze. You would have too.

Chicken and Waffles

Chicken and Waffles

Bar Bistro is not a restaurant with big box appeal. One thing I will say is that the acoustics are all over the place, which makes talking quickly become shouting. Well, not that bad, unless you’re sitting next to a large party. The bistro is quaint, in a European kind of way. I would, however, recommend making a reservation for Friday and Saturday evenings. Considered how busy it was, it was also nice that the server was extremely accommodating. I had no demands and although he couldn’t give me a pillow so that I could take a nap after my two hours of decadence, he did offer regular coffee. I accepted. And you know what? I forgot to get the wine and cheese that I went to buy initially. But I had a really, really, very good brunch. Umph, umph, umph.

Bar Pastoral on Urbanspoon

Top 10 Jaunts for 2014

December has arrived and yet again I have the feeling that there is something that I did not do during the months of January to November. I did satisfy my resolutions for the year — getting my master bathroom remodelled, bringing my blood sugar level down, and engaging in regular exercise to shrink the tire that was around my waistline. What I did not miss throughout the year were delectable meals. And that brings me to my Top 10 Jaunts for 2014. Although I included some American restaurants in my write-ups this year, the following restaurants area reflective of the theme that I created for Chicago Alphabet Soup. So, here are my favourite ethnic jaunts for the year.

10. Turquoise Cafe
Roscoe Village is a nice spot for checking out some swanky boutiques, small cafes, and fine dining without “fine dining costs.” After a stroll down the avenue, stop in for some Turkish offerings. Spacious on the inside for several patrons and growling bellies, outdoor seating during the spring and summer, Turquoise Cafe is one of a few Turkish restaurants in Chicago. It is “the best” in Chicago, though.

Turquoise Cafe, Collage

Turquoise Cafe, 2147 W. Roscoe Street, Chicago, IL 60618

 


9. Rio’s D’Sudamerica
Bucktown is one of Chicago’s premier neighbourhoods. Homeownership, boutiques, and restaurants make up a landscape that result in a constant flow of pedestrians. When a lot of those patrons develop appetites, they find seats at Rio’s D’Sudamerica for Peruvian food packed full of wow. Rio’s D’Sudamerica is large on the inside, but unlike most big box restaurants, the food is consistently blooming with Peruvian flavour. A clear indication is the constant influx of Peruvians who frequent the restaurant. And with service that does not rush you, trust me when I say that you will be stuffed when you are done.

Rio's D'Sudamerica Collage

Rio’s D’Sudamerica, 2010 W. Armitage Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647

 


8. A10
Chicago’s Hyde Park has experienced a renaissance. With that came the addition of an Italian restaurant that deviated from the expected dishes consisting of red sauces and meatballs. There is a coastal influence to the menu, which means a splendid selection of seafood. The wait staff is engaging, the bar service is phenomenal, and the food is so awesome that you may find yourself making a reservation for a return at least once a month. The menu changes each season, so this is even more of a good reason to make A10 Hyde Park a constant entry on your calendar.

A10 Hyde Park, Collage

A10, 1462 E. 53rd Street, Chicago, IL 60615

 


7. Little Bucharest
There doesn’t appear to be a long list of Romanian restaurants in Chicago. Little Bucharest in Irving Park makes up for that. More like a banquet hall, which allows diners to sit comfortably, this bistro does not shy away from authenticity in the Romanian recipes. Expect some hearty dishes, as in plentiful in quantity. There are no boiled potatoes and bland meat dishes. Everything has a wow factor. And before you leave, you may get a special christening of an alcoholic spirit.

Little Bucharest Bistro Collage

Little Bucharest Bistro, 3661 N. Elston Avenue, Chicago, IL 60618

 


6. taKO’s KOreanos
Many restaurants will try to introduce fusion in their cuisine. Some fail. And then there are those like taKO’s KOreanos in Andersonville that get it correct. Who would have thought that Mexican and Korean would make for such a fantastic cultural cuisine marriage? Tacos, enchiladas, and burritos are prepared with Korean accents to the fillings. Having been opened since April with no kinks in the service or output from the kitchen, one would only have to notice the steady stream of customers coming and going to recognize that the fusion dishes are constant draws to those who love a mix of Mexico and Korea.

taKO's KOreanos, Collage

taKO’s KOreanos, 1706 W. Foster Avenue, Chicago, IL 60640

 


5. Altiro
The drive out to Geneva, IL, may be far. I recommend taking the Metra train so that you can go to sleep afterwards. Tacos, tacos, and more tacos, but nothing of the Taco Bell ilk and nothing of the Mexican taqueria brand either. Altiro has cornered the market on creating a variety of tacos that would otherwise be noteworthy entrées without the flour tortillas. Expect to find a bit of Central America and South America in the recipes. I have always thought that French, Italian, and Asian restaurants have the best bar service. Add Altiro to the list. For those who are indecisive, simply tell the server to surprise you and prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

Altiro, Collage

Altiro, 308 Anderson Boulevard, Geneva, IL 60134

 


4. LaNotte Cafe & Bar
The father-son team at LaNotte Caffe & Bar should be taken on the road. Well, their comedy acts should. The food, however, should remain in Berwyn where it is close enough for those in the metropolitan area to get to easily. One may argue that there is a such thing as too many Italian restaurants in the Chicago area. What they can’t say is that they know where the very best Italian restaurants are. LaNotte Cafe & Bar falls into the category of “must visit.” Food is prepared to order and to specification per the customer. The seafood dishes are my favourite and if you order the sea bass that the father de-bones tableside, then you too will understand why that dish is at the top of my list.

La Notte Cafe & Bar, Collage

La Notte Cafe & Bar, 6822 Windsor Avenue, Berwyn, IL 60402

 


3. Himshikar Restaurant
One may be able to find Indian, Pakistani, and combination Indo-Pak restaurants throughout Chicago. However, for the absolute best Nepali restaurant in Chicago, Himshikar Restaurant in the Sauganash neighbourhood is highly recommended for frequent visits. The food is slow cooked, so it does not come to the table immediately. But never mind that. You can relax or even engage the owners in conversation while the kitchen staff prepares your dishes. Himshikar Restaurant is not a large restaurant, so it makes it easy to engage the staff while trying not to shoot to the moon from such incredibly flavourful Nepali food. And once the food arrives, be ready for culinary excitement.

Himshikar Restaurant, Collage

Himshikar Restaurant, 6031 N. Cicero Avenue, Chicago, IL 60646

 


2. Oceanique
Anyone who has had authentic French food will tell you that not everything is drowned in rich cream. There is also provincial French food, which is very indulgent. Oceanique captures the best of both flavours of France. Moderate in size, this restaurant forgoes the big box effect for authenticity in the dining experience. Coupled with superb bar service and A-list table service, each meal is guaranteed to make you forget that you don’t have to fly all the way to France to have some of the best French food on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Oceanique, Collage

Oceanique, 505 Main Street, Evanston, IL 60202

 


1. Osteria Langhe
Don’t expect pasta and pizza. Osteria Langhe serves Italian food that has a bit of a French influence to it. The risotto is the absolute best and the seafood dishes are unparallelled. And if you are so inclined to want pasta, the plin is the best in Chicago. Although the food at Osteria Langhe keeps one returning for more, the atmosphere, splendid bar service, and table service create a feel of going to someone’s home rather than going to an establishment. There is truly an “old country” Italian feel in the middle of cultural hub Logan Square. Chances are by your third visit, you will be on first name basis with the staff.

Osteria Langhe, Collage

Osteria Langhe, 2824 W. Armitage Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647

 


Well, it is at this time that I want to take time to wish a Happy Holidays to all who have been following Chicago Alphabet Soup via the blog, on Facebook, and through my Instagram posts. May the New Year bring you peace, joy, and happiness. And may some server at a restaurant bring you a dish that keeps you returning for more. Until 2015, good eating!

taKO’s KOreanos, Mexican and Korean Food Marriage

taKO's KOreanos

While passing through Chicago’s Andersonville neighbourhood heading to the Argyle area for a sampling of some Vietnamese pho, I noticed a restaurant in my peripheral vision. It was “mex-asian” that caught my attention. Chicago has quite a few very good fusion restaurants. My favourite fusion restaurant is Crepe Town, where they marry French crepes with Thai cuisine and they do it very well. Keeping that in mind, I was curious as to how Mexican and Asian would play well together on the palate. Let’s just say that it is a food marriage made in heaven. So, I reversed my course and found a seat at taKO’s KOreanos at 1706 W. Foster Avenue.

Beef Barba "Korea" Fries

Beef Barba “Korea” Fries

Coming in from a bit of nip in the air, I requested some green tea. Instead of a cup of hot water with a tea bag floating delicately in it, I got a pot of green tea that had toasted rice. Per that alone, I was a fan. With the menu not being extensive, I spotted an appetizer and an entrée that I thought would sate my afternoon craving. Having made some slight modifications to my diet, I ordered beef barba Korea fries. If I were one who had a kiddie palate for the love of chili cheese fries, I would denounce that hankering and indulge beef barba Korea fries daily and without complaint. Pulled beef, seasoned well and topped with shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, and chives, sat atop fries that were neither greasy nor doused with salt. I gobbled the appetizer like a man who had been deprived of a rather fantastic culinary delight.

Tacos: Spicy Chicken and Honey Chili Shrimp; Kimchi Rice; Potato Salad

Tacos: Spicy Chicken and Honey Chili Shrimp; Kimchi Rice; Potato Salad

Where I figured I would see the Mexican-Asian fusion would be with the tacos. What I got was Mexican-Korean and food harmony in my tummy. The spicy Korean chicken taco started out as my favourite taco of all times. Topped with a house vinaigrette slaw and roasted sesame seeds, the server didn’t have to ask if I thought that taco was inviting to the palate. Where I was left in awe was with the honey chili shrimp taco. This taco had butterflied panko shrimp, not popcorn shrimp. Also topped with a house vinaigrette slaw and roasted sesame seeds, the honey chili sauce had me claiming the honey chili shrimp taco was my “now” favourite of all times. The tacos came with a potato salad that was clearly not of the fast food preparation and not of the “refrigerator section” variety either. And the kimchi fried rice, that reminded me of spicy bibimbap rice, rounded out an ideal lunch selection.

Green Tea

Green Tea

taKO’s KOreanos ranks up there in the “Absolute Best” category with service. Although I was too stuffed to entertain the Mexican-Korean fusion burritos or any other menu items, what I had was enough to convince me that anything coming from the kitchen will be appreciated fully by anyone who enjoys food without requiring the dishes to be of a purist recipe. One thing to note is that taKO’s KOreanos has a cash-only policy. Never fear, as the prices are reasonable. As to the fusion, there are not many restaurants that know how to balance or “influence” dishes when mixing recipes from different cultures. But when they get it correct the way that taKO’s KOreanos get it, you understand why most of the customers who come in seem so familiar to the restaurant staff. Like me, they love cultural harmony, even more in their food.

Takos Koreanos on Urbanspoon

Ben’s Noodles and Rice, And I Don’t Mean Uncle Ben’s

Ben's Noodles & Rice

Thai Iced Tea

Thai Iced Tea

December has arrived. As much as December is a festive month, it is also the time that I spend wondering what happened to the other eleven months in the year. In addition to that, there are several holiday parties that I have attended so far, each where I nursed one to two glasses of a nice scotch while I watched others relive their college days of drinking and not being aware that someone had a cellphone out recording their antics. But this December has been one where I have spent a lot of time in front of the mirror looking at my flat tummy thanks to a few months of CrossFit. (Insert bear growl.)

After a Saturday morning of doing some “dreamed up” CrossFit exercises, I had an appetite unlike I have had since I started CrossFit training in September. I finished off some pancake mix that a friend had given me along with a plate of eggs scrambled with sautéed onions and cilantro. I washed it all down with three glasses of protein shakes and my belly was still growling. There was waffling between going for Indian food or Italian for lunch. I settled on Indian as opposed to Italian and while on my way to my favourite Indian cafe, I walked by a Thai restaurant that looked to have a cozy cafe feel to it. Well, having never been there, I stopped in. Ben’s Noodles and Rice at 1139 W. Bryn Mawn Avenue was my destination.

Basil Rolls with Spicy Plum Sauce

Basil Rolls with Spicy Plum Sauce

I was not in a mood for pondering what I wanted. Truth be told, I glanced at the menu for some appetizer that I hadn’t had before. The basil rolls with spicy plum sauce caught my eye. It was meant to be because the fine, ground beef wrapped in basil leaves, wrapped more in finger-length pastries, and then deep-fried was a highlight.  A bigger highlight was the Thai iced tea, which wasn’t merely red tea with milk in it. This tea had a smoky flavour to it that heightened my addiction for the beverage. It may not be to the liking of everyone’s palate, but I was satisfied with its balance to the basil rolls.

Tom Yum Goong

Tom Yum Goong

The temperatures in Chicago had been quite nippy, and being only a few blocks from the lake doesn’t make matters better, I wanted something spicy. I ordered tom yum goong and requested it to be Thai spicy. Warning: If you are not accustomed to eating spicy food, do not order your dishes Thai spicy. Instead, order them mild. I loved the peppery bite in each sip and final slurp of the tom yum goong. Plump shrimp, fresh mushrooms, cilantro, chives, and flavourful broth made for a perfect recipe in a bowl to make the wintry chill not so bad.

Panang Curry Chicken

Panang Curry Chicken

Fried Banana

Fried Banana

To thoroughly sate my appetite, I ordered panang curry chicken. It has been rather hard for me to deviate from Thai curries, being a culinary zombie for any curries. The panang curry was of a thin consistency, but packed with green peas, bell peppers, chicken, and a wow factor. Having had green curry, red curry, yellow curry, panang, and mussaman at countless Thai restaurants, I highly recommend to anyone that they opt for curries when they order. Definitely order the panang curry at Ben’s Noodles & Rice. And for my finale, I had the fried banana and a cup of green tea. Bananas dipped in coconut milk, deep-fried, and dusted with confectioners sugar are the best. They’re golden. They’re delicious. They make me smile. They are the best, indeed.

Ben’s Noodles & Rice is definitely one to go to for an authentic Thai dining experience. There was a constant flow of individuals coming in to enjoy a meal at the restaurant and a steady stream of customers coming in to order something for to-go. Noticing a lot of customers and the restaurant staff greeting each other by name and very familiarly, it was evident that Ben’s Noodles & Rice is common grounds for those who appreciate not only the outstanding food, but the top service. When I think back on the possibility of me having had Indian or Italian food for lunch this particular day, I am glad that I settled on Thai. Yes, I will be one of those customers who return to Ben’s Noodles & Rice so often that they will probably make recommendations for me in advance of me reaching for a menu.

Ben's Noodles and Rice on Urbanspoon

Norman’s Bistro — N’awlins with Samba

Norman's Bistro

When I moved from Hyde Park to Logan Square, my trips to the South Side diminished. There are so many restaurants, cafes, and boutiques in Logan Square and surrounding neighbourhoods such that there is no need to venture too far away to find anything. One thing I must admit that the South Side has are restaurants that have a southern influence. Wondering where I could find one such restaurant, Google popped up a restaurant named Norman’s Bistro, at 1001 E. 43rd Street.

Norman’s Bistro serves New Orleans cuisine with a Brazilian influence to it. Having lived in Central Mississippi and visited New Orleans quite often, I was already sold on the N’awlins aspect of the food. I was rather intrigued about the Brazilian influence, wondering if it I would detect any of the recipes that I recalled from my days in São Paulo. I imagined that the New Orleans flavouring would stand out more, not a case of trying to have a 50-50 fusion to the recipes.

Norman's Bistro, Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

There were complimentary yeast rolls. No sooner had I touched the first roll than I realized they were homemade. The texture was not anything like I have had from bakeries or grocery stores, but what I have had consistently from ovens in friends’ and family’s homes. I started with a garden salad with a raspberry vinaigrette. Nothing spectacular, but the salad was fresh, not the bowl of wilted vegetables that I often get at restaurants. For a starter, there was a cup of seafood chili. You can have your chili with chicken, beef, or pork. Although not as spicy as I prefer, the seafood chili quickly became my favourite.

One dish I was curious about was the gumbo. It was a melange of corn, chicken, shrimp, and lobster in a delectable red roux. Served in a large bowl with a scoop of rice, I was either “that” hungry or incredibly bottomless because there was no way I should have completed that whole bowl. Again, not spicy in a peppery sense but packed with a bloom in flavour, I didn’t bother trying to compare the gumbo to the gumbo that I devoured in New Orleans. The gumbo at Norman’s Bistro holds its own. And the mini cornbread muffins that came with it were a big hit. Actually, they were so blooming good that I felt that the two I had were not enough. I saved up enough of one of them so that I could sop up the rest of the gravy from the gumbo.

By the time I had finished the seafood chili and the gumbo, I had to let some time pass before indulging a dessert. And for a sweet, I had a slice of salted caramel cake. I can’t say whether the cake was baked in-house, or not, but I will admit that it was worth it. It reminded me of the dobo torte that I have had at an Austrian restaurant in Chicago called Julius Meinl. There were layers of cake, salted caramel, and vanilla cream. Given the layering wasn’t “mass-produced perfect,” it was clear that even if it was baked at a bakery, it was one of a kind and delicious to boot.

Norman’s Bistro is one restaurant that I consider to be a surprise find. Many restaurants in the Bronzeville neighbourhood are closer to Martin Luther King Drive and S. Cottage Grove Avenue. There are a few other nice sit-down restaurants scattered throughout Bronzeville, but the far east end of 43rd Street had been void of much activity for a long time. Norman’s Bistro has a spacious interior for dining and another room in the restaurant that I imagine doubles as a spillover room for crowded evenings, as well as a party room. Service is laid back and if you eat as much as I did, the last thing you want is a server hovering over you. I can’t say when next I will be visiting New Orleans, but I will be going back to Norman’s Bistro within the next few weeks.

Norman's Bistro on Urbanspoon

Nigerian Pop-up Dinner, Tunde Wey Style

During this past summer, I got turned on to the concept of pop-up art galleries while at one of the many street festivals that Chicago hosts. Empty stores that had not been repurposed for the Logan Square revitalization effort had been used as temporary showcase areas for artists in the Chicago metropolitan area. It was a rather nice way for local artists to get some initial exposure without having to pay heavy costs to a gallery for display of their works. Shortly after the pop-up art galleries at the festival, I started seeing references to pop-up retail shops. And recently, I got an invitation to a pop-up Nigerian dinner. Not one to turn down Nigerian food, I accepted the invitation without pause.

Isi Ewu Pepper Soup with Goat
Egusi Frejon

Tunde Wey, a restaurateur from Detroit, MI, was in Chicago visiting with some friends who had graciously hosted the Chicago leg of a tour that he was doing across several cities. His tour route also consisted of New Orleans, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and New York City. Those who attended any of the dinner gatherings were in for some damn good Nigerian food that they would otherwise have to go to Nigerian to indulge or find some Nigerians in America who would be open to preparing some authentic dishes.

The motley crew in Chicago was treated to isi ewu, pepper soup with goat, egusi, and frejon with plantains. The isi ewu was spiced goat’s head. Those who love spicy food would enjoy this without a second thought. The pepper soup with goat in it was a grand hit. Eyes were watering. Beads of sweat were on foreheads. Everyone was going back to the pot for seconds and thirds. And had I not been so into my fourth bowl, I would have gotten back to the pot in time to get a proper photo. Another favourite was egusi, a dish prepared with ground melon seeds, spinach, and crawfish. A dish that I did not photograph because, again, I was caught up in the rapture of the whole dining scene, was jollof rice. This rice pilaf is common to the West African palate and unlike British chef Jamie Oliver — you must watch the embedded YouTube video to get the joke — this jollof rice would make any West African in the diaspora homesick. With a finale of frejon, this dish of mashed black beans and fried plantains would actually make anyone hanker for Africa.

The next day after the dinner, I looked up pop-up dinners and discovered that I am rather late finding out about them. The Moroccan dinner I had attended about a year ago felt more like a showcase of the chef’s cooking talents among friends he knew, so pop-up never crossed my mind. But this concept is more popular in Chicago than I thought. Honestly, I think that it is a fantastic way for the chef to get exposure to the diners. The experience engaging people while cooking removes the “oh, they’re strangers” atmosphere and creates friendships that otherwise would never come to fruition. Tunde Wey certainly made the dining aspect of the night one worth bottling. And his interpersonal touch also left us with our bellies hurting from so much laughter. For one night, a group of total strangers had humour, some Nigerian food from “home,” and some “real” jollof rice.

Jamie Oliver, what in Dante’s Inferno were you thinking?

Buzzing About Wicker Park, Bee & Tea

Bee & Tea

When Chicago has beautiful autumn days, the city comes alive in a Wonderland fashion. There is enough nip in the air that only a light jacket is required. The skies are usually the most vibrant blue, thanks to no humidity or clouds. The leaves on the trees look aflame against the backdrop of the sun. The streets are filled with people taking it all in because usually in about a week or so, the temperatures drop, the skies become a constant grey, and it rains enough to give Seattle competition for wet forecasts. As for me, I no doubt take advantage of the outdoors for going to any number of restaurants for food happiness. Then again, I do that all year long.

Bobo Tea: Jasmine Tea with Pineapples

Bobo Tea: Jasmine Tea with Pineapples

I received an email note with a recommendation for a shop in Chicago’s Wicker Park that sells bobo tea and bao sandwiches. Although the leg work I get during my CrossFit training leaves me with stiff legs and a want for soaking endlessly in a tub filled with Epsom salts, I can bend my legs long enough to put them under a table at some restaurant or cafe. So, I noted the recommendation and went to Bee & Tea at 1843 W. North Avenue. Located on a busy stretch of North Avenue, just off the North-Milwaukee-Damen intersection, Bee & Tea is a nice sized restaurant with enough seating for those who wish to dine in. I was thinking that Bee & Tea would be something like Wow Bao, but with specialty teas on the menus. After first glance at the menu, I was surprised pleasantly.

Having gobbled a large breakfast after my morning workout session, I had enough room for a light to moderate sized breakfast. I ordered a jasmine bobo tea with pineapple. There were other flavours that I could have chosen, but I swear the jasmine bobo tea with pineapple had an extra ingredient that fueled my thirst. With no sugar added because I wanted only the natural flavouring of the jasmine tea, milk, and pineapple, this was the most refreshing beverage I have had in a long time.

Chinese Bao with Indian Butter Chicken and Edamame Soup

Chinese Bao with Indian Butter Chicken and Edamame Soup

For lunch, I ordered a cup of edamame soup and a bao sandwich stuffed with Indian butter chicken. Three words to describe those two items: completely blown away. The edamame soup was creamed edamame with corn and peppers. I recalled having edamame soup at a Japanese restaurant that had a wow factor to it. The edamame soup at Bee & Tea went up a few notches with an addictive factor. The bao with butter chicken was a new experience. Baos are usually served as stuffed steamed buns. However, the bao at Bee & Tea is sliced open with the consistency of a bao, but served half open faced like Venezuelan arepa sandwiches. But it was the Pan-Asian blend of the Chinese bao and the Indian butter chicken that left me walking out of the restaurant declaring this my favourite sandwich ever.

Bee & Tea is relatively new on the Wicker Park landscape. What I think will shine the most are the teas. Those who like natural flavouring to their drinks without additives and extra sugar will become a fan of the bobo teas and their smoothies. The baos will be a sure winner and seeing that they also have rice bowls, mixed greens, and quinoa bowls, Bee & Tea serves healthy options that many in Chicago will love. If you find yourself buzzing about near any of their locations, it is worth quenching your thirst with one of their teas or smoothies and indulging any of their food items.

For a selection of locations, click link to Bee & Tea’s main website to see if one is near you — Bee & Tea locations.

Bee & Tea on Urbanspoon