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

Cafe Versailles, Feeling Rather French

Cafe Versailles

One of my favourite restaurants in Chicago — Zebda — is owned and operated by some Algerians. Located in the Irving Park neighbourhood just off one of the many bizarre three-way intersections on the North Side, the restaurant teems with Algerians and North Africans. There is a constant feeling of being in someone’s home and the food is definitely a draw that keeps me returning. What I have also noticed in that Pulaski-Montrose-Elston area are several other cafes and restaurants that are owned and operated by Algerians. One of those cafes is Cafe Versailles at 4102 N. Pulaski Road, which is a few blocks south of the Pulaski-Montrose-Elston triangle.

Cafe Latte

Cafe Latte

While passing by it on my way from the Far North Side, I decided to stop in for a quick sampling. I had already had a nice lunch and only wanted a finale. I figured that a cup of coffee would suffice and with Cafe Versailles being a French cafe, I was certain that there would be crepes on the menu. Upon entering and a brief scan of the menu, there was serendipity. There were crepes for the craving. For a sit-down, I had a cup of cafe latte and a crepe filled with apples and drizzled with caramel. Noting the Bristot brand of coffee, it became evident why the flavour of my cafe latte was so robust and still required no sweetener. The apples were fresh, sliced, and not drowning in a sugary glaze, unlike what you get at many creperies that fill their dessert crepes with apples. The natural sweetness of the apples and the light drizzle of caramel did the trick.

Apple Caramel Crepe

Apple Caramel Crepe

Cafe Versailles has an atmosphere akin to what coffeehouses were before they were taken over by students and single mothers with children who would rather be at home playing rather than watching their mothers engaging girlfriend banter. Everyone is relaxed and the owners tend to be rather conversational. And nothing screams “truly authentic” like being able to watch the owners make the crepes within eyeshot. With the closing of Icosium Kafe, that did a fantastic job preparing savoury and sweet crepes, it is nice to find one that is closer to home for me. The menu has a nice selection of crepes that I think I shall sample over time, as well as salads and sandwiches made to order. A flight to Paris takes seven hours. A trip to Cafe Versailles takes probably fifteen minutes, at most. Guess which location I will visit this week.

Afghan Kabob, Culinary Addiction

While getting a better feel for my neighbourhood in Chicago — Logan Square — and surrounding neighbourhoods, I passed by an Afghani restaurant that isn’t far from my favourite Algerian restaurant and a seafood market that I frequent. I had become a fan of Afghani food years ago when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup and was surprised that out of all the Middle Eastern restaurants in the city, there weren’t more Afghani restaurants. Well, it appears that I had not been looking hard enough. After finding Afghan Kabob at 4040 W. Montrose Street, I shall have to embark on a quest to find some sister restaurants.

Afghan Kabob

Spacious and bright on the inside, Afghan Kabob is not big on interior pizzazz. Since my appetite takes precedence over all else, flavour is what I expect once I take a seat. And flavour is exactly what I got. I had used Kabul House, the first Afghani restaurant I had gone to, as my benchmark and was prepared to be let down. The biggest letdown was having eaten too much and wanting more with no more room for additional indulgence.

Chicken Vegetable Soup

Chicken Vegetable Soup

For starting, there was a complimentary bowl of chicken vegetable soup. Let’s be clear that this was neither Campbell’s nor Progresso soup. Some may argue the observation, but when the tongue doesn’t feel weighted with salt, you know you are having something that took time to prepare in the restaurant’s kitchen, not in a colossal industrial vat.  The soup is not overburdened with chicken, so the broth and the vegetables stand out more.

Appetizer Sampler

Appetizer Sampler

Wanting to try several small dishes, I opted for a round of four appetizers. There were butternut squash, boranee baunjan, vegetarian mantoo, and beef mantoo, all served over lettuce and topped with yogurt. I forced myself to spend the rest of the day alone so that I would not drive my friends crazy talking about how delicious the butternut squash was. That and the wow factor in the bloom of flavour from the eggplant in the boranee baunjan were so addictive that I could have eaten those two only.

Although the beef mantoo was lighter than expected, those dumplings were a big hit and the vegetarian mantoo was a bigger hit. Add to that the homemade Afghan bread that came with the platter, there was very little washing required of the plate after I went all around the plate with the bread. I wondered why it took me so long to find my way to Afghan Kabob.

Chicken Korma Chalaw

Chicken Korma Chalaw

In a few of my recent posts, I mentioned that I have been doing CrossFit training so that I can add a few pounds. Yes, I know that some people are focused primarily on losing weight while I am going in the opposite direction. But my bulking up requires me to have a little more protein intake in my diet. So, I have started having more allowances for chicken. Being a lover of spicy food, I ordered chicken korma chalaw with rice. The spicy tomato-based gravy with succulent cubes of chicken and rice was absolutely divine to the taste buds. Middle Eastern food may pack a flavourful punch, but it is rarely spicy, so the fact that the chicken korma chalaw came spicy without killing the senses in my tongue made the dish a fantastic lunch option.

Those in the metropolitan Chicago area will find that the triangle section of Elston Avenue, Montrose Street, and Pulaski Avenue houses a mixture of North Africa and the Middle East. It could feel like being abroad. The beauty of that cultural diversity is that the food in the restaurants and small cafes retain its authenticity. The restaurants I have gone to in that area of Irving Park have been most addictive not only from a culinary aspect but also from an inviting standpoint. Any restaurant that welcomes you without pretense and leaves you wanting to return for more of its kitchen delights deserves repeat visits. I shall see you again, Afghan Kabob.

Afghan Kabob on Urbanspoon

The Winchester — House, Hotel, or Restaurant

The Winchester

As of late, things have been quite scrambling. What is one to do when you’re dealing with work, CrossFit training, trying to squeeze in a few television shows, and catching up on reading? I can’t speak for most, but I get an appetite, after which I experience that sleepy feeling when I’m done gnashing away on too much food. Nevertheless, I have resigned myself to not skip out on breakfast or brunch. For my latest morning hankering, I ventured to the Ukrainian Village to The Winchester at 1001 N. Winchester Avenue.

Orange Juice

Orange Juice

Mimosa

Mimosa

What looks like a giant beige block is a rather nice contemporary restaurant in one of Chicago’s hip neighbourhoods. Upon entering the spacious area, there is the hipster contingent and a mix of hipster parents. Still, there isn’t the distant demeanor that tends to be prevalent at hipster spots where the service is outstanding if you fit the hipster mold. Actually, the staff at The Winchester is quite engaging, which is a nice change from feeling as if you’re an inconvenience.

Waffle of the Day

Waffle of the Day

I started with fresh squeezed orange juice to whet the palate while scanning the menu. It was brunch, so I figured I would have my “when in Rome” moment and partake of an alcoholic beverage — a mimosa. Yep, champagne and orange juice in the morning is not a bad option, especially when you couple it with waffles topped with toasted rice, apples, and a dollop of whipped cream. Given the waffle was not saccharine, the natural sugar from the chopped apples provided enough sweetness such that no syrup was required.

As if the large plate of waffles was not enough, I ordered a plate of fried black rice with Thai green curry and topped with a fried egg. The football player sized guy sitting next to me looked at me with what I could only describe as mild shock. I know I am not quite the size of a linebacker, but CrossFit really keeps my hunger on full tilt. It became clear to him and his two fashion model girlfriends that I was not playing around. This is not fried rice you will find at a Thai restaurant, but it is definitely fried rice that Thai restaurants may want to add to their menus.

Fried Black Rice

Fried Black Rice

Although not on a main road, The Winchester is not far off from West Division Street or West Chicago Avenue. Those who rank restaurants according to ambiance will love the well-lit interior as well as the spaciousness. The diners who entered received a lot of attention from the wait staff, which is a plus. Where The Winchester shines is with the food. I can say with certainty that the breakfast offerings are top. One of these evenings I shall have to return to sample something from their dinner menu. Based on brunch, The Winchester draws a crowd. I can only imagine how the restaurant packs out after 5:00 PM. There may be popular variations of Winchester, but The Winchester in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village is the one that I have fallen in culinary love with.

The Winchester on Urbanspoon

Ulterior Motives at Altiro

Altiro Latin Fusion Restaurant

A year ago while on my way home from having sated myself senselessly, I received a text message from a great friend with an accompanying photo. Not that I was in any position to eat anything, I did marvel at the appetizing items he had sent in the text message — and in the subsequent text messages. Several months later he sent another text message with more photos and a recommendation that I should venture out to the West Suburbs to sample the small dishes at the restaurant that he was advertising with relish. Fast forward a year and I decided to take his advice finally. It was off to Altiro Latin Fusion Restaurant at 308 Anderson Boulevard in Geneva, Illinois.

Al Trio

Al Trio

Pineapple Margarita

Pineapple Margarita

Al Elotito

Al Elotito

Because the restaurant had a swell variety of dishes to try, my great friend thought that it would be better to sample different menu items to get a range of flavours. In keeping with Latin flare in food, we had the al trio. This was a flight of guacamole with homemade chips. There were pomegranate, apple, and traditional. Although I have had some “experimental” guacamole during my comings and goings, Altiro did not disappoint with their variations. And living in Chicago proper where there is a large concentration of Mexicans, I have had more elotes than I can recount. Those who love the street vendor corn on the cob will become addicted to the al elotito. This plate of roasted corn, prepared with garlic aioli, serrano pepper, epazote, onions, and cojita cheese, could easily become a wanted dish at every meal. Having the al trio and al elotito with a pineapple margarita that had been mixed with a homemade chipotle pineapple ice cube and chili powder on the rim was a beautiful start.

Al Vegetal

Al Vegetal

Al Camaronchizo

Al Camaronchizo

Al Fundido

Al Fundido

Having devoured the appetizers, it was time to begin sampling variety. Starting with the al vegetal, I was completely wowed with how the recipe yielded something flavourful like a succulent steak. The roasted portabello mushroom, avocado, piña, bell peppers, red onions, and chipotle reduction, served with a chipotle and an avocado reduction, was a tasteful deviation from the norm of chicken, steak, pork, and beef tacos.  The al camaronchizo was one of those tacos that one could fall in love with and forget that there are other kinds of tacos that you can enjoy. I have limited pork intake in my diet, but the chorizo with basque shrimp, avocado slaw, and chipotle aioli was something I forgave quickly.

After a necessary moment to pause before attacking another set of tacos, there was the al fundido, a taco lovers plate of sautéed shrimp, Chihuahua cheese, red onions, and cilantro-lime oil. I had completely forgotten about fast food tacos and I had also completely discounted any of the Mexican holes in the wall in Chicago proper that prepare and sell authentic tacos. For a finale of tacos, we ordered al gallina of grilled chicken, with enchilado sauce, grilled piña, cilantro, and red onions. By this fourth dish of tacos, I noticed that there was distinction among all of the dishes. Per my great friend’s commentary, there is consistency in the flavouring. There certainly was consistency in the quality.

Ala Gallina

Ala Gallina

We gave ourselves a bit more time to let our bellies settle before indulging a postre. I was riding the commuter train back into downtown Chicago and wanted to stay awake, so we opted for something light. Without looking at the menu, I rattled off to the server to surprise us. He obliged. There was a dessert platter that looked like sushi. What we received were four key lime cylinders, topped with strawberry quarters, and indeed looking like something from a sushi bar menu. Ever so grateful that the dessert was light, we consumed it slowly, because it would have been a crime to have left any. And to cancel out my desire to stay alert on the commute back into downtown, I had a guava margarita. I have no willpower.

Postre

Postre

Guava Margarita

Guava Margarita

Altiro Latin Fusion is truly off the beaten path. When people go to Geneva, there are two main strips that everyone crowds. However, Altiro is down a side road on a residential street. Clearly the only way one would discover the restaurant is by getting lost or by inquiring of someone who has gone to Altiro where the exact location is. Because I have had taco overload since moving to Chicago in 1994, I have not been excessively quick to go to any Mexican restaurants or fast food restaurants that serve Mexican fare. Sure, Altiro serves Latin fare, but they add enough pizzazz to their items that after the first bite of food from any other Latin restaurant, you may want to throw your plate against the wall. Well, it may be better to simply request the check and make the trek out to Geneva instead. Altiro Latin Fusion will be there. You should be there, too.

Altiro Latin Fushion on Urbanspoon

Las Tablas, All About Colombia

Las Tablas

If someone were to employ me as a bona fide food critic, I would be at least 285 pounds. Either that or I would be more of an exercise fanatic than I am now. After my recent strength and endurance training at the gym, I was not as sore as I had been after each session during my first week. Also what I have noticed is that my appetite has spiked, which is okay since my goal is to gain weight — well, muscle mass. Recalling a Colombian restaurant that I had gone to with a great friend years ago in the early days of Chicago Alphabet Soup, I opted to sample from the Portage Park location.

At 4920 W. Irving Park Road is Las Tablas Colombian Steakhouse. Large, spacious, airy, and with plenty of seats, I arrived early, thinking I would get ahead of the crowd. Because I had been snacking all morning and throughout a bit of the afternoon, I had planned not to order as if I had companions dining with me. So, I ordered a reasonable meal and went through my ritual of getting my camera ready for capturing the photos for the blog. No sooner had I finished then I looked up and saw several patrons coming to sit at tables next to me. Of course I got the stares as if I were a hydra once I began my photography.

Las Tablas Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

Now, in addition to my appetite being wild, I drink water and natural juices constantly. One juice that had stayed in my mind when I had gone to the Lincoln Park location was a jugo naranjilla — lulo juice. It brings to mind pineapple and Jamaican june plum juice. It was good for the starter of empanadas that I ordered. There were empanada con queso and empanada con pollo. There must have been a change in the recipe because the empanadas were deep-fried instead of baked, the way they were years ago during my visit. That was no problem, since I had fallen in love with deep-fried empanadas after going to Costa Rican and Venezuelan restaurants.

The entrée was a Utopian platter, for me. It was spiced shrimp served with half of a potato, yucca, and plantain. Some would probably look at the platter and sneer, thinking there was not much to it. I simply commenced to working my knife and fork on the plump shrimp and seasoned sides. And because there were about ten fat shrimp on the platter, I had absolutely nothing to complain about — nothing at all. With the remaining jugo naranjulla, this was a lunch that I would never tire of having.

Surprisingly, I have been disciplined such that I have not indulged a sweet after every meal. Such was the case after lunch at Las Tablas. I had thought about perhaps a cup of coffee afterwards, but I am working myself out of taking coffee after my meals. Slowly, I am reverting to taking tea after my meals. I am certain at a cup of coffee thanks to Juan Valdez would have been a highlight after my culinary session at Las Tablas, but I was good, nonetheless, and did not have a dessert.

Having arrived at what seems like the beginning of an extreme busy time, the one server who was working the floor alone really looked like he was about to get on his knees and crawl. Recognizing how trying it must be when suddenly overloaded, I was cognizant of my ordering and requests in advance so that I was not like several of the others who stopped the man every time he passed their tables. The prices are extremely reasonable for a steakhouse and I will co-sign on the fact that the quality of the output from the kitchen is top-notch. I have a feeling that the closer evening approaches, it may be advisable to make reservations. Once you sample the food, it becomes evident as to why you’ll need reservations because the last thing you’ll want is to watch platters of aromatic dishes passing within your visual range without the servers stopping and placing the dishes immediately within your reach.

Las Tablas on Urbanspoon

Little Bucharest Bistro

Little Bucharest Bistro

Several years ago, an individual who had done some photography and web development for some restaurants had given me two recommendations. One was for an Italian restaurant — Pasta D’Arte — and the other was for a Romanian restaurant. I went to Pasta D’Arte during the late summer of 2013 and decided that I should also follow up on the second recommendation. So, not far from Logan Square is Little Bucharest Bistro at 3661 N. Elston Avenue in Chicago’s Irving Park neighbourhood. It was a nice Saturday afternoon and my appetite was absolute wildly, now more than ever because I had been doing a few sessions of CrossFit training.

Little Bucharest Bistro has an airy, spacious interior and thanks to plenty of large windows, the setting isn’t dim. For those who wish to sit outside, there is outside seating, but having arrived early, indoor seating next to a window worked perfectly for me. Although Eastern European food is something that I prefer mostly when the temperatures are chilly, I asked my server for recommendations, while informing her that vegetarian is my first preference and seafood is my second. The offerings that I got had exceeded my expectations.

Little Bucharest Bistro Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

For a starter, I had borscht. At most Eastern European restaurants, the borscht tasted like it had been prepared with pickled beets from a jar. The taste was alway too sharp. At Little Bucharest Bistro, there was definitely a flavouring of cooked beets from a garden that didn’t leave an overpowering taste. It was also nice that the soup was full of beets and not just beet juice. Second to the table was the village salad, which consisted of red bell peppers, green bell peppers, red onions, cucumber, feta cheese, tomatoes, and olives. Drizzled with a nice balsamic vinaigrette, this was rabbit food I would welcome anytime. With the complementary, homemade bread, my taste for Eastern European food had a bit of a renaissance.

A light appetizer that I got next was a plate of eggplant, prepared much like baba ganoush, that was served with pita bread, a small salad, and a melange of pickles, crepes with cream cheese, and salmon. What an offering and this small platter still packed a flavourful punch that I would gladly indulge on future visits. And in keeping with vegetarian dishes, there was the vegetarian goulash. This was a hearty dish of grilled eggplant, cabbage, peppers, spinach, and garlic couscous in a tomato sauce. I was expecting something along the lines of a spaetzle, but the goulash was a classic example of different being outstanding.

There is the feel of family-owned and small restaurants that you get as soon as you enter Little Bucharest Bistro. From the owner greeting you at the door — you never get that kind of welcome at downtown eateries — to the wait staff that is attentive and engaging to the food that leaves you wanting more, this is certainly a restaurant that should be on your list of places you must sample in Chicago. Aside from my usual running around, travelling, and getting into other things, it should not have taken me years to follow up on the recommendation to go to Little Bucharest Bistro. This first experience is definitely all the more reason I shall have to return again very, very soon to see what other delights they have on their menus to convert me into a regular customer. And with autumn and winter coming, Eastern European food will do well for my appetite.

After Dinner Drink

After Dinner Drink

Little Bucharest Bistro on Urbanspoon

Rio’s D’Sudamerica in Norteamerica

Rio's D'Sudamerica

Up until the 90’s, Chicago’s go-to neighbourhoods for restaurant life were in the neighbourhoods that bordered Lake Michigan north of downtown. By the mid-90’s there was a new stretch of go-to neighbourhoods along Milwaukee Avenue and the Blue Line elevated train. Gold Coast, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Uptown, Andersonville, and Edgewater now have competition. West Town, Ukrainian Village, Wicker Park, and Bucktown started gaining popularity, as swanky boutiques, independent coffeehouses, intimate restaurants, and nice housing filled the landscape. And none of the restaurants and shops were disappointing. For example, there is Rio’s D’Sudamerica at 2010 W. Armitage Avenue in Bucktown neighbourhood, where you can have some of the best, authentic Peruvian cuisine in the city.

A short trip from the now-popular Logan Square, I met a friend so that I could get an entry on Chicago Alphabet Soup for Peru. She started with a lemon drop martini and I started with a mojito. Compliments to the bartender for mixing drinks that weren’t watery or overpowering. To quote Goldilocks, “It was just right.” My friend had been to Rio’s D’Sudamerica before, so I accepted her recommendations. One that sounded rather pedestrian was papa a la huancaina. This is now my favourite potato salad. The creamy sauce made the dish a dream. With us being seafood fanatics, we also ordered a dish of camarones en costra de quinua con pure de yuca-rocoto y salsa de maracuya. Four plump shrimp, encrusted in quinoa, were served over yucca seasoned with rocoto, olive oil, and lemon juice glazed with passion fruit sauce. Who in his or her right mind would want to awake from this dream?

Rio's D'Sudamerica Collage

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As if the appetizers weren’t divine enough, there was a platter of camarones a la plancha for an entrée. It would be hard to tire of eating sautéed shrimp that had been cooked in a red chili sauce and topped with a garlic and butter cream sauce. Served with white rice that actually had flavour, this was an entrée to enjoy slowly. Although I have had camarones al la plancha before, this was the first time I was silent because it was so lip-smacking. The dish that was new to me was the plate of arroz chuafa con camarones. I have had my share of Chinese fried rice and liked it. However, I am now in love with Peruvian fried rice and the shrimp that exploded in this rice dish that was sautéed with green onions, egg, ginger, and soy sauce was absolutely addictive. I am a fan.

Because the appetizers and entrées were hearty, we sat for awhile and let our bellies settle before our final attack on some desserts. Light in texture, full of flavour, and heavy on the arteries, we had flan Peruano. This was not a regular flan, for it was creamy. The texture was not like that of old Jell-O, but like slicing through a cloud. Not drowned in a caramel glaze, it wasn’t sugary, which made it that more enjoyable on the palate. The dessert that could result in a continuous, long line outside of Rio’s D’Sudamerica is the lucuma temptation. This ice cream, which is made from the lucuma fruit, yielded the flavour of dulce con leche. Had we not been sated, I would have ordered another dish of it.

Rio’s D’Sudamerica has a large interior with plenty of seating. Because the food on the incredible scale is perhaps a 20 on a scale of 1 to 10, the restaurant fills up quickly. As always, I am a stickler for quality of food, service, and price. Rio’s D’Sudamerica blew me away on all three. This is one of the reasons why Bucktown is one of the sought-after neighbourhoods in Chicago. It is definitely the main reason I have an entry on my calendar for a return in a few weeks.

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