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

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

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.

Rios D'Sudamerica on Urbanspoon

Culinary Harmony — Masala Indian & Mediterranean Cuisine

Masala Indian & Mediterranean Cuisine

Nothing like a quick personal holiday away and then returning with an appetite. Food on airplanes do nothing but keep me slightly appeased and I should not complain too much because I will be on another plane towards the end of the week flying away for a another stretch of time. In the meantime, I made it a point to compensate for the lack of tasty morsels while sitting cramped in the economy section for my long flight.

A friend had mentioned an Indian and Thai restaurant in the Uptown neighbourhood, not far from where he lives. Midway through the conversation he said that the restaurant is now Indian and Mediterranean. I understood how Indian and Thai could tie cuisines together — by way of the curry dishes. However, a growling belly leaves very little margin for me to sit around and ponder food for too long. So, I was off to Masala Indian & Mediterranean Cuisine at 1002 W. Argyle Street.

Masala Indian & Mediterranean Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

Initially, I was going to have entrées only, but something told me to satisfy my appetite completely. I started with a samosa. After having added some tamarind chutney and cilantro chutney, I was tempted to order about six for take-away after the first bite. Lately I have had baked samosas and the pastry was not flaky. The crust to the samosa at Masala Indian & Mediterranean Cuisine was a dream. As to the entrées, I had ordered chicken makhani and palak paneer and requested that they were prepared to be spicy. The chicken makhani was outstanding. I was surprised that the palak paneer was more like paneer bhurji with spinach rather than like saag paneer, which made that entrée that more indulgent.

I didn’t see poori on the menu and had mentioned poori rather passively while ordering. What made me an instant fan of Masala was the server returning to the table and saying that the chef could prepare poori. As thankful as I was, I was not expecting that kind of accommodation. On a scale of 1 to 10, it made the whole experience a 25. So, I used the poori to scoop a good bit of the food and a fork, of course, later the course.

Still being diligent about keeping my sugar intake low, I had kheer and masala chai. Topped with crushed pistachios, the kheer was super. I could have had more than just the bowl of it, but I was already too full. However, I could order quite a bit of it for take-away and enjoy for breakfast, as well as throughout the day and after dinner. The mark of a good chai is the skin that floats atop once it’s brought to the table. That is the indication that you’re not getting chai from a carton that has been heated. The kheer and masala chai were a perfect finale to a fantastic lunch.

Masala Indian & Mediterranean Cuisine does indeed have a Mediterranean menu. The restaurant opened its doors only a few months and the husband and wife team have added a welcomed addition to Uptown. I did not get to sample any of the Mediterranean fare since I did not want to mix cuisines. But being able to say that the Indian portion of the menu is worthy of repeat visits, I shall certainly return one day with a taste for some Mediterranean options. Masala Indian & Mediterranean Cuisine aced three things I always seek when going to restaurants — delicious food, first-rate service, and reasonable prices. Restaurants like this make it hard for me to not be in love with eating constantly.

Masala Indian & Thai Cuisine on Urbanspoon

EL Ideas, Where Art Meets Contemporary Cuisine

The thing about family and close friends is that you never have a boring moment. And if eating without shame is your thing, then those family members and close friends know what really appeals to your palate and they make outstanding recommendations accordingly. Friday afternoon before work and a great friend and I were going back and forth about what restaurant would be worthy of sampling after the clock struck 5:00. The one we wanted to try had reservations available for Saturday, so we made reservations for Saturday. In the meantime, we went to Green Zebra in West Town to indulge their vegetarian menu.

Saturday came and after a long day of anticipation, we arrived at EL Ideas in University Village. At 2419 W. 14th Street in an area that looks anything but inviting, is a welcoming restaurant where, as mentioned in the subject, art meets contemporary cuisine. There are countless restaurants in Chicago where presentation trumps taste and several restaurants where presentation and taste are absolutely top. El Ideas falls into the latter because while everything put in front of your looks like fine art, it is all fine dining that makes going to W. 14th Street quite okay.

Collage

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The menu is fixed, which means you don’t have a bill of fare placed in front of you so that you can pontificate what you want to eat. The seating area is small, so those who love going to restaurants with a large party of friends may have to rethink trying to pile in comfortably. Also, because the atmosphere promotes a dinner party concept and the kitchen is in visual range, you get to engage the chefs and see what they’re preparing for your taste buds. But just to give you an idea of what we had, below is a highlight of the menu items that we had for our gastro-feast.

Caviar Blueberry. Moonshine. Banana. You have to eat this by licking the plate. You actually have no choice since no eating utensils are given.
Watermelon Feta. Eggplant. Basil. Mint This was a “you can’t go wrong” course. Unless you drop watermelon on the floor, it is hard to mess up any dish having it as an ingredient. Case in point with this refreshing taster.
Nunavut Char Cantaloupe. Fennel. Chili. I love the silky texture of cooked Atlantic char, but having it in tartar form gives the cooked version a run for its money.
Mussels Beer. Garlic. Tomato. Birch. After you pour the beer sauce over the mussels, those who don’t like beer may reconsider.
Sturgeon Summer squash. Green tomato. Tarragon. With the texture of extremely tender chicken, this course made sturgeon that much more of a favourite fresh fish choice for me.
Raviolo Morel. Plum. Lobster. Having fallen in love with a lobster consomme at my favourite French restaurant in the Chicago area, this was heaven in a deep bowl.
French Fries & Ice Cream Potato. Leek. Vanilla ice cream. This is pure genius, as the dish remains hot and cold at the same time.
Fonduta Black truffle. Bellota. Bread. Because we requested no pork in our course, we had extra truffles as a substitute. Notice I didn’t mention anything about us complaining, for it would be a crime to moan about extra truffles.
Bison Bok choy. Rutabaga. Bleu cheese. Although pork is a no-no in my diet, we had forgotten that there could be other meat choices on the menu. The bison, cooked medium rare, didn’t stand a chance once the plate reached the table.
Foie Gras. Raspberry. Star anise. Huckleberry. This course of raspberry foam over huckleberry had a wow factor that I cannot register on a 1 to 10 scale. No scale could accommodate my rating.
Peach Oatmeal. Elderflower. Lychee. I love peaches. But combine peaches and lychee sorbet, and then put it over oatmeal, you have a truth serum.
Chocolate Cherry. Mahlab. Chocolate brownie, chocolate block, raspberry, and vanilla ice cream made with the help of liquid nitrogen, chemistry comes to the kitchen and everyone is happy.

As you can see, it is better to go on an empty stomach. The portions may be small, and most of them are not as small as they are at some like restaurants, but thirteen courses tend to amount to a lot of food. If the dining experience that my friend and I had is any indication of how El Ideas operates, then you can expect to be at the restaurant for almost, if not more than, three hours. To devour such incredibly delicious food in less than two hours is suspicious — that is, the diner is running from something or someone.

One thing to note is that EL Ideas is a BYOB affair. Not to sound like a snob, but if beer is your thing, a backyard barbecue may be a more fitting venue. However, if you have a refined palate for vegetarian dishes, seafood, and choice meats, a bottle of red wine, white wine, or both would be highly recommended. The price may be steep for some, but the food is outstanding and the service is top-notch. Having been to restaurants in Chicago like Alinea, Moto, and Schwa, I must say that EL Ideas has found a comfortable slot in my Top 5 High End Contemporary Dining restaurant listings. Next time I will take a bottle of wine. No, I will take two.

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