Cafe Des Architectes, Un Peu de Français

Recently, I have been in a bit of a French mood. For the longest I had been searching for restaurants that had a basque feel, and without the churn of a crowd. Like in France, one can enjoy a meal alone or in small company in some bistros and cafes without an excess of ambient noise and people crowding your space. My restaurant adviser and I had culled together a list of restaurants that we thought would be good samplers.

Bread Service, Trout Croquette, Lump Crab, Heart of Palm, Summer Squash Soup

Bread Service, Trout Croquette, Lump Crab, Heart of Palm, Summer Squash Soup

First on our list was Cafe Des Architectes in the Gold Coast Sofitel Hotel at 20 E. Chestnut Street. Just west of the Magnificent Mile is this fantastic restaurant that’s surrounded by swanky clothing boutiques and other very appealing restaurants. Located off to the side of the lobby is this very spacious, airy, and well-lit restaurant that also has a large outdoor seating area. With weather being extremely nice for October, we sat outside during our first visit to enjoy the moderate temperatures and to watch people in their comings and goings.

Chardonnay, Champagne, Pinot Noir

Chardonnay, Champagne, Pinot Noir

Opting for small plates, we ordered from the appetizer section with a pescatarian focus. Starting off was a l’amuse of trout croquette atop an aioli and the first of three pairings, a champagne that neither nipped at the back of the jaw nor left a pucker on the front-end of the sip. Seasoned well and void of an excessive amount of breading, the bite size trout was still meaty and the aioli was not the least bit overpowering. The Maryland style crab cakes were a reminder of why those are a favorite. Served with a chipotle aioli, citrus segments, and an avocado purée, there was not a crumb of breading on the crab cakes, which meant we got to enjoy seasoned, fresh crab to the fullest. Following with the hearts of palm, which came with a cauliflower custard, radicchio, and caviar, it was evident that the restaurant was going for full flavor even with small plates. And then we had the chilled summer squash soup with a nice smear of mint yogurt, curry oil, and granola. While most may be accustomed to a hot soup, this is the epitome of a summer soup, best served when it’s very hot outside, enjoyed regardless of when the temperatures are warm enough for patio dining.

Escargot Pappardelle, Butternut Squash Ravioli with Shrimp

Escargot Pappardelle, Butternut Squash Ravioli with Shrimp

Getting more into pasta, we had escargot pappardelle. Accented with a garlic cream, parsley, and parmesan, the plump escargot popped with each bite in this light pasta dish. Unlike when escargot is served in a bubbling pesto, there still was enough of the garlic cream in the dish to remind you of how delicious the delicacy is. Wrapping up the many landings with black truffle and corn ravioli with rock shrimp, pancetta, and parmesan, we acknowledged that we had no room for a cheese board as a dessert. The ravioli was also light, but still it was filling without leaving us overly stuffed. Paired with a pinot noir, this was perfection on the palate.

Espresso, Macaron, Chocolate

Espresso, Macaron, Chocolate

The finale was espresso that was clearly made from a fine bean. While my restaurant adviser was sharing a few chocolates from Veruca Chocolates, we received complimentary sweets of mango macarons and key lime wrapped in chocolate. Enjoying this with the coffee was superb, as the macaron was fresh and the chocolate was nothing like the blocks of chocolate you get from anchor stores at the mall. The key lime was creamy, the white chocolate, which had been decorated to look almost like a precious stone, was outstanding, and it all went well with the espresso. The first visit was noteworthy given the appreciation for the quality of the food and the attentiveness of the service. So, we indeed had a return visit.

Cheese Flight, Sparkling Flight, Espresso, Chardonnay

Cheese Flight, Sparkling Flight, Espresso, Chardonnay

Having enjoyed a nice selection of small plates during the première visite, we settled specifically for wine and cheese, champagne and cheese for my adviser. Yet another day with perfect weather, we had an outdoor seat and settled on a selection of soft mild, semi-firm, and one firm cheese. The creamy and buttery fromages of Edel de Claron, Tallegio, and Brie St. Rocco worked well on sourdough. The Fourme d’Ambert, Morbier, and Tomme were semi-firm enough to enjoy on the olive bread that came with the cheeses. The Cantalet was just right for enjoying with the multigrain bread. And for even more enjoyment, the summer berries and miniature madeleines were exactly what we needed to mentally go back to France. Of course, there was no way of departing without taking an espresso.

Cafe Des Architectes has a very laid back feel. There was no rush, which is a rather appealing touch to a restaurant because good food should be savored. Cafe Des Architectes does a fabulous job making your visit the first of many. The closest I will get to France this year will be via a rendezvous in Paris en route to Morocco. In the meantime, I am enjoying this bit of France in Chicago.

Cafe Des Architectes Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

NaKorn Urban Thai, Aroi Mak Mak

NaKorn Urban Thai

Greater Chicago boasts a large number of Thai restaurants. There are two that have been my absolute favorite: JJ Thai Street Food at 1715 W. Chicago Avenue in West Town for authentic Thai street food and Herb at 5424 N. Broadway Street in Edgewater for refined Thai with 100% authenticity. After most recent visits to NaKorn Urban Thai at 1622 Orrington Avenue in downtown Evanston, it has officially become my third go-to Thai restaurant.

NaKorn Negroni

NaKorn Negroni

While passing through Evanston and a quick search to see what offerings were on the menu at NaKorn, there was a draw to the complete absence of a lot of ubiquitous Thai dishes (e.g., pad thai, pad see ew, curries, Bangkok chicken, bamee noodles, and the like). Recognizing that my original list of two favorite restaurants didn’t serve those staples and I had fallen in love with their dishes, I imagined that NaKorn was a winner.

Not a large restaurant, but not small either, it’s airy and spacious for those who like to enjoy their meals with dinner guests or alone without having neighboring diners practically sitting on top of you. For my first visit, I sat outside to enjoy the summer weather and to imbibe a negroni while figuring out what I wanted for dinner. And oh was the negroni a hit without being heavy-handed: just perfect.

Taro Chicken

Taro Chicken

I opted for a prix fixe flight of three courses. The first was taro chicken. Marinated in lemongrass-infused coconut milk and fried lightly before coated in a chili-peanut gastrique, this appetizer popped with flavor. As much as I joke about hating peanuts, the flavor was faint yet not to a point of being undetectable, but enough to let the coconut and taro take center stage on the palate. Simply outstanding.

Pan Roasted White Fish Fillet

Pan Roasted Whitefish Fillet

The second flight was pan roasted whitefish fillet with a sweet pepper chutney and chili tamarind reduction. The whitefish was not only flaky but it was also tender, clearly prepared to perfection. Rather than having this with an air of pomp and circumstances, this dish is best eaten mixed together. Having the fennel, cucumber, radish, whitefish, chutney, and tamarind reduction is a symphony.

Sazerac

Sazerac

For my second cocktail, I was in a bit of a New Orleans mood, so I ordered a sazerac. My restaurant adviser and I laugh about how at one of Chicago’s most touted restaurants, I left a sazerac at the bar intentionally because it was heavy on the alcohol and tasteless simultaneously. That was not the case with the sazerac at NaKorn. This one was smooth, in the same manner that they mix them in New Orleans.

The finale was a plate of mango and sticky rice. While you can never go wrong with mango and stick rice, this dish fueled an addiction that made me catch myself when I was tempted to order another plate of it. The sticky rice had been prepared to order, evident in it not being gummy. And to make the dessert that more appetizing, there was a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream served with it. Yes, that did add a twist while kicking an old favorite up several notches without compromising any of the love in all of the bites.

Mango Sticky Rice

Mango and Sticky Rice

Giving myself time before a return visit, I included my restaurant adviser for the second jaunt.  We opted for a few dishes without going overboard because she had made a suggestion for another visit so we could sample from the upcoming autumn menu. Really paying attention to the menu and also having brief conversation with one of the managers, it became apparent that the dishes were of the variety enjoyed at home in Thailand proper. That explained why there wasn’t even basil chicken available for ordering.

North Shore Punch

North Shore Punch

Shake and Shimmy

Shake and Shimmy

To keep the summer theme going, my adviser ordered a North Shore Punch. I ordered a Shake and Shimmy. The North Shore Punch looked artsy, a visual parfait of vodka, lemonade, and Thai chili-honey syrup. The Shake and Shimmy was a refreshing cocktail of rose hip, Brut Rosé, cranberry, and soda. And in our Garden of Eden, we had watermelon bites topped with crispy shallots. I never would have thought the combination of watermelon and shallots would be so divine. When the manager described this as a summer dish that her grandmother prepared when she was in Bangkok, I understood why this was a favorite of hers.

Watermelon with Crispy Shallots

Watermelon with Crispy Shallots

The next shared dish was vegetarian scallops. Eryngii king mushroom had been prepared so that it had the consistency of tender scallops and had I not glance at the menu a second time, I never would have known the difference. Served with a house made chili jam and topped with frisée and edible flowers, this was another flight that my adviser and I agreed should be eaten slowly so to experience the kick from the chili jam appearing and disappearing on the tongue. Plus, the whole concept of mushroom passing for scallops, albeit not as a trick, is simply fantastic and creative.

Vegetarian Scallop

Vegetarian Scallops

The third landing was a plate of coriander crispy shredded beef brisket. Described as having been shredded by hand, it was apparent there was a lot of preparation involved in the the dish, but what made it a case study in “Best Beef Brisket Ever” was the right amount of herbs and spices used without overpowering the taste buds. Served atop sticky rice, I will now be very critical of any brisket I have in the future because the culinary bar in preparing succulent brisket has been raised thanks to NaKorn.

Coriander Crispy Shredded Beef Brisket

Coriander Crispy Shredded Beef Brisket

Moving into the main flights, the first entrée was a plate of steamed baby lobster tail with kohlrabi, micro greens, and a Thai chili broth served with coconut rice. With both adviser and me being seafood fanatics, every morsel from the lobster dragged through the chili broth made for a culinary delight. This was the first time I have had lobster at a Thai restaurant and this recipe has become quite possibly the one I will hanker for when lobster is on the menu. Plating was visually stunning. However, there was a point when we resorted to using fingers for extracting the plump meat from the shell and dispensing of using forks except for when eating the rice.

Steamed Baby Lobster Tail

Steamed Baby Lobster Tail

The second entrée was a plate of jumbo lump blue crab served with Thai rice noodles and a spicy turmeric-coconut curry soup poured on the side. Three words come to mind again: Garden of Eden. The crab was fresh and I can always count on my adviser to speak to the quality of crab, of which she vouched could be the equivalent of truth serum. Certainly the aroma was inviting just from the wafting while arriving at the table. The soup had a flavor akin to what one finds in kow soy. The lump crab made it one of NaKorn’s most recommended dishes.

Jumbo Lump Blue Crab

Jumbo Lump Blue Crab

The finale was a take on a favorite that we have had at one of the Thai restaurants I mentioned earlier. There was a mix of jackfruit, mango, and water chestnuts. This is usually served in coconut milk with a little bit of sugar, but instead it was served with a scoop of panna cotta. Thailand meets Italy. Aroi. Delizioso. Outstanding. For an absolute scrumptious dinner, this wrap-up left us with a want for a quicker return than we scheduled.

Panna Cotta with Fruit

Panna Cotta with Fruit

NaKorn retains authenticity in the Thai dishes. The plating may look like something other than Thai, but the palate will say otherwise. No, they don’t prepare pad thai, panang, tom yum, or dishes in sweet gravies loaded with mushrooms, onions, carrots, and bell peppers. They do expose patrons to dining that is customary to Thailand proper while adding creativity to presentation without diminishing the dishes to middle of the road. In a long list of Thai restaurants that have cookie-cutter output from the kitchen, it’s refreshing finding NaKorn moving out ahead with menu items that have those who don’t speak Thai saying, “Aroi mak mak.”

NaKorn Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Farm to Table, Donkey and Stick

Table, Donkey & Stick

After some time off, I have returned with my usual appetite. With the combination of the day job, personal travels, and getting control of weight gain that has resulted in me having to spend a good bit of money buying clothes that I can fit into now, yes, I had been absent. And when you live in a city like Chicago where you can’t walk too far without facing some inviting restaurant, you cave in a little, or a lot as I had been doing.

Dirty Chi

Dirty Chi

The term “farm to table” has been used for many restaurants that have had debuts on Chicago’s landscape.  Being mostly enticed by cuisines from North Africa, West Africa, East Africa, Mediterranean, Italy, Asia, South America, and Central America, the farm to table theme seemed more like a phase, like the red velvet cake frenzy and the current doughnut bliss movement. So, while having a casual walk through the eastern end of Logan Square, I passed by Table, Donkey and Stick at 2728 W. Armitage Avenue and decided that it was time to see what made this particular farm to table restaurant so appealing.

Arriving a little after 6:00 PM, I figured there would be the after-work crowd in the main dining area, so I opted to sit out front to enjoy the nice weather and to take advantage of the last remaining natural light of the sunset for photos. With menu in one hand, a Dirty Chi cocktail in the other hand, I found a few items that piqued my appetite and sat back in anticipation for an enjoyable evening.

Gorgonzola Dolce, Candied Walnuts, Jam, and Baguette

Gorgonzola, Candied Walnuts, Honey, Baguette and Butter

Starting with a cheese platter was a fantastic option. As a huge lover of creamy cheese, I was pleased with creamy gorgonzola dolce, honey, candied walnuts, butter, and a baguette. Put a footnote here. I hate nuts. Hate them. Absolutely, totally, completely hate them. And then I had a bit of the candied walnuts. Oh how I have been missing out. I love candied walnuts, or at least the ones at Table, Donkey and Stick. But spreading a bit of the cheese on the homemade baguette and dabbing it with the raw honey really made this small platter a winner.

Potato Latkes with Garlic Aioli

Potato Latkes with Garlic Aioli

The second small plate I ordered was one of potato latkes with garlic aioli. These latkes were not of the large variety that one finds at Polish, Ukrainian, and other Eastern European restaurants. Noting the legend next to the menu item, this dish is vegetarian and free of gluten. Given dietary restrictions and discipline, those who are vegetarian will love the kick in this small plate and those who are sensitive to gluten or who simply want to remove gluten from their diets will also enjoy each bite without worry, except that you may not feel you have had enough when you find yourself contemplating the last piece. And the house cultured butter made each bite that more tasty.

Runner Up

Runner Up

Because I have been a bit restrictive with my diet while trying to get my waist size down to at least a size 34 — you  never notice weight gain by looking at yourself daily, only that you can’t fit pants from the back of your closet with a size 30 waist, period — I have not partaken of my usual dosage of refreshing cocktails. And the Runner Up at Table, Donkey and Stick almost made me yell, “Compliments to the bartender,” from my outdoor seat. I saw that it had mezcal in it and that was all I needed to know that I would love it, but all the other ingredients in it made me all the more happier.

Sticking with small plates, I had new smashed potatoes with farm beans and snails in a pesto. Wow! Wow! Wow! This should be the signature dish, and I’m saying that having been to the restaurant only once. No competing flavors on the palate, no complex flavors overpowering any of the ingredients in the recipe, no rubbery or mushy snails, and not a single crumb or smear of gravy left in the bowl after I had gone over every inch of it with the last bit of baguette. If you go for a proper sit-down, order the “signature dish” and let the server figure out what it is. This dish should never be removed from the menu.

New Smashed Potatoes with Farm Beans and Snails in Pesto

New Smashed Potatoes with Farm Beans and Snails in Pesto

The finale was a case study in sweet and savory and how a check can present both in a dish that works well together. There was a scoop of blood orange sorbet that was my intended “light item” after having eaten so much food prior to dessert. And there were fried chicharronés. Often when restaurants try to marry sweet and savory, they do so in a single item that becomes a bit too busy on the palate. The beauty of the sorbet and chicharronés here is that you could enjoy them solo or together without disappointment. Like all of the prior small courses, this one ended on a good note.

Blood Orange Sorbet with Fried Chicharrones

Blood Orange Sorbet with Fried Chicharrones

Since I moved to Logan Square in 2007, it has become a landing spot for some of the most popular and most recommended restaurants in Chicago. For a neighborhood that had been plagued with a bad reputation, the presence of restaurants that receive high recommendations and notoriety is something that residents of Logan Square can brag about. Table, Donkey and Stick is a very unassuming restaurant from the street, no flash, no flare, no “look at me,” but when you do notice it and put your feet under one of the tables for enjoyment, you really do come to realize that restaurants with no fancy airs are the best. Three things I discovered: I can indulge farm to table, I love candied walnuts, and Logan Square does indeed have the best unpretentious restaurants in the city.

Table, Donkey And Stick Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bisi African Restaurant — Nigerian Flavour

Bisi African Restaurant

One thing I like about Instagram is that I get a lot of recommendations and prompts for different restaurants throughout the metropolitan Chicago area. I am aware that Chicago proper is considerably more culturally diverse than presented via media, but a lot of cultural representation extends to the far suburbs as well. One Nigerian restaurant I have seen posting on Instagram is Bisi African Restaurant. With a location in Schaumburg at 853 S. Roselle Road, I felt I needed to sample from them considering two of my favourite Nigerian restaurants on Chicago’s North Side recently closed their doors.

Suya

Suya

The inside has an open floor plan that eliminates any feeling of being cramped. There are several tables to accommodate parties of four or more and booths that will accommodate up to four in a party. But it’s the food that draws your attention. Since I was going to try two entrées, I started with a suya to whet the palate. This was a platter of skewered steak served with onions, a favourite street food item, all authentic. In addition to the suya, I had moi moi, a rather tasty bean pudding prepared with black-eyed peas, onions, and fresh ground peppers, again all authentic. I have a tickler to myself to have meat pies the next time I return.

Egusi with Fish

Egusi with Fish

The server had told me that preparation for the entrées was going to take half an hour and I was okay with that, knowing that nothing was going to be microwaved or warmed up and then sent from the kitchen. True enough, everything was cooked to order. The egusi with fish screamed “just like they eat it in Nigeria.” The melon seeds had been ground up nicely and spiced nicely. The whiting was quite fleshy, yet still had bones in. With fufu in hand, I ate all of it without use of table utensils, and I do mean all of it. The second entrée was a plate of ayamase, my favourite and most addictive Nigerian dish ever. Also referred to as ofada stew, Bisi African Restaurant cooked it spicy, which means they serve it “just like they eat it in Nigeria.” In keeping with being true to the recipe, there were beef, tripe, dry fish, and stock fish in the dish. I recommend this highly.

Ayamase

Ayamase

Bisi African Restaurant is a bit of a drive from Chicago. It is worth the trip out to the Northwest Suburbs, though. I can vouch for the food being absolutely lip-smacking, although there are several more menu items that I would love to try. One thing I also like is that the service is outstanding. Granted there was one server working the floor, every table in the restaurant received attention. Good service seems to be a dying trait in the restaurant industry and when you receive top service and see it delivered wholesale to all customers, that makes the dining experience that more enjoyable. I may not make the hour-long drive outside of Chicago, but when I do, it will be back to Bisi African Restaurant.

Bisi African Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Super Jalapeño Grill Super Yum

Jalapeno Grill

After a few months of slacking off from my gym regiments because it has been so nice after work that I’ve been busy lifting knives, forks, and spoons instead of weights, my clothes are fitting me a bit tighter than I would like. That means buying new clothes that have breathing room or getting back to my workout routine. So, while biking twenty miles recently, on my return home I passed by a restaurant that I order from online — Super Jalapeño Grill at 2910 W. Armitage Avenue. And what should I do but stop in any undo my long distance ride.

Jarrito Piña

Jarrito Piña

Chips y Salsas

Chips y Salsas

Certainly not a medium or big box restaurant, it’s one of countless taquerias in Chicago where you get real Mexican food, not an attempt at Mexican. There is nothing fancy about the restaurant and once the food arrives at the table, you really don’t care. Since I had already endured one hour of CrossFit, 45 minutes of kickboxing, and a little under an hour of biking, I was ready to sink my fangs into something to tide me over until I got home.

Tres Tacos

Tres Tacos

I had chips and the flight of salsas. There were tomatillo, a mild tomato salsa that reminded me of having a tamarind accent in it, a spicy tomato based salsa, and some pickled vegetables. Loved every crispy bite. Starting with a flight of tacos, I had one camarone, one pescada, and one carne asada. Not stacked with a heaping of lettuce, tomato, cheddar cheese, avocado, salsa from the jar made in New York City, sour cream, and whatever else was in the refrigerator, these tacos were of the variety that my Mexican neighbours prepare. No meat was dry, no flavours were lacking, and I had room for shrimp a la plancha that came in a buttery sauce along with frijoles and rice. With the accompanying corn tortilla, I placed the plump shrimp, rice, and frilojes in them and devoured all of it in total silence. Oh, I also had two quesadillas with this delectable platter.

Camarones a la Plancha

Camarones a la Plancha

Needless to say, my final two miles home felt like I had five more to go. But I was well fed. Chicago has more Mexican restaurants than anyone can keep track of and the beauty of them is that they are all authentic, not placebos to satisfy a common palate. Super Jalapeño Grill is family-owned and operated, so you’re indeed getting genuine Mexican sabor. I have ordered from this restaurant for delivery and always felt they sent the best from their kitchen. The sit-down experience proved that they have pride in what they cook. I’m going back, but not after an intense workout routine and long distance biking.

Super Jalapeno Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Balena, Lincoln Park Italian

Balena

Balena

I have not been on very many restaurant outings this year since I had added a few inches to my size and had to reassess my wardrobe. So, I’ve had to get some control and do some things like walking architectural tours and theatre. And immediately after going to see “Pass Over” at Steppenwolf, what should my wandering eyes see across the street but Balena at 1633 N. Halsted Street. I have no willpower.

Complimentary Wafers

Complimentary Wafers

Large, airy, and light on the inside, this Italian restaurant has a casual feel to it that I think many would enjoy. There is enough space such that you can have an intimate table without being crowded and you can also have a large party without feeling the restaurant cannot accommodate all who are dining. Aside from the cosmetics of the interior, the service and the food were winners for me. As for ordering, I specified that I wanted to indulge my dining experience in a pescatarian fashion. The server hit the mark with what I had told her to surprise me with.

The first course was Calabrian prawn spiedini. These large shrimp came with heads and tails on, all on wooden skewers. Not overpowered by the seasoning, it was quite evident that the shrimp was fresh. Paired with this course, I had a glass of Vermentino, a white wine from the Piedmont region of Italy that was dry enough to balance out the shrimp without biting at the back of the jaw.

Prawn Spiedini

Prawn Spiedini

The second course was a kale Caesar salad. Prepared in the same manner as Caesar salad with romaine lettuce, the kale had a rich yet bitter taste. With the glass of Vermentino, the bitter bite was a bit more pronounced. It was a nice option for a salad, albeit a large portion compared to what was expected. Those who love the go-to green leafy vegetable will love this salad.

Kale Caesar Salad

Kale Caesar Salad

The third course was simply outstanding. This was a plate of striped bass topped with a small salad tossed in a mild vinaigrette. Lightly seared to give the skin a bit of a crisp, the meaty bass retained a lot of the silk texture that made it a dish worthy of ordering again on return visits. This was the server’s personal favourite and understandably so, given its perfection in seasoning, preparation, and taste. Per the server’s recommendation, I had a glass of Sauvignon Blanc that was a perfect accompaniment.

Striped Sea Bass with Salad

Striped Sea Bass with Salad

The finale was a deconstructed sundae that came as a melange of shortbread, brown butter gelato, raspberry gelato, and fresh raspberries. Complex flavours if taken alone, but enjoyed together with an accompanying cappuccino made this a refreshing finish for a satisfying early dinner.

Deconstructed Sundae

Deconstructed Sundae

During the perusal of the menu, I noticed that the offerings were not heavy with tomato sauces. There were several pastas that I noted for future visits since I opted for seafood during my first visit. There are also some hearth-fired pizza options that caught my eye as well. The menu is not extensive and I get the impression that the restaurant makes adjustments seasonally. We shall see. We shall eat.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

Balena Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Chinese Friendship Restaurant

Friendship Chinese Restaurant

After a recent follow from a Chinese restaurant that is walking distance from my home, I decided to play nice and give it a fair try. I had feasted on Chinese food in mainland China, which resulted in me swearing off anything outside of China and Chinatowns. But let me just say that having discovered that Friendship Chinese Restaurant at 2830 N. Milwaukee Avenue has been in the Avondale area for several years, I am kicking rocks for just now find out about this bliss suite. I had missed out on some really, really, outstandingly delicious food because of my palate bias towards tasteless and nasty Americanized Chinese food. But no more.

Appetizer Sampler

Appetizer Sampler

During my first visit, I was in curiosity seeker mode only. One thing I noted was the menu was one page, one-sided, with a nice listing of options. It was the fact that the menu was not a booklet, as found at countless Chinese restaurants. Playing safe, I ordered the appetizer sampler for a variety of small starters. What arrived at the table were a large platter of a selection of appetizers, two apiece. The Friendship egg rolls had seasoned, roasted chicken in them. The creamy crab rangoons burst with each bite. There were pot stickers, fish tofu kababs, and Peking duck rolls. And to make the appetizer sampler even more of a winner, the China wings in a faintly sweet and spicy sauce were well worth licking fingers afterwards. These wings must be a signature menu item.

China Wings

China Wings

Because the appetizer sampler was filling and I was dining solo, I opted for only one other dish. The clay pot offerings looked interesting, so I ordered the Szechwan seafood mix. Arriving at the table in a small clay pot along with a side of rice, this was a deal maker for me. Filled with shrimp, squid, and abalone, also with a medley of mushrooms, broccoli, and snap beans, I wondered why this restaurant had not been touted as one of Chicago’s best Chinese restaurants. Perfect seasoning, right amount of spiciness, and no MSG, it was easy for each bite to pop on the palate with the same satisfaction I remembered experiencing per my visits to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

Szechwan Seafood Mix

Szechwan Seafood Mix

Not having ordered a lot on the first visit, I made a calendar entry for a return so that I could sample a few more items. There was the same welcoming service that I received on the first jaunt, so I was certain of the consistency with their staff. And since I had planned to try two main dishes, I started with the crispy Peking duck. I didn’t really pay close attention to this appetizer when I had it as a part of the sampler. Indulging it by itself really had me in love well before I had swallowed my first bite on the second visit. Tender duck that was not oily in a sauce that tasted like a marriage between soy sauce and barbecue sauce made for a plus as a starter.

Crispy Peking Duck

Crispy Peking Duck

The first entrée I had afterwards was a plate of spicy peanut chicken. Just to give a little context, I hate peanuts. I have never been a fan of the texture, but I love peanut sauce and ordered the dish thinking I would get chicken in the sauce only. Well, I did get the chicken in the sauce, but also got peanuts in the dish. What popped into my head while I was going around the plate with the rice sopping up the last bit of the gravy was that I had devoured the peanuts without complaint. Maybe it was the enjoyment of the dish full of succulent chicken with fresh vegetable and a savoury sauce that made me forget about the peanuts. I intend to do it all over again.

Spicy Peanut Chicken

Spicy Peanut Chicken

The second entrée was not on the menu. It was a new item that had not been added to the menu yet, a clay pot of short ribs with vegetables, a cauldron of absolute happiness. The short ribs were tender and seasoned like the kind of meat cooked for hours in a slow cooker. And the garden fresh taste of the broccoli, snap beans, mushrooms, and water chestnuts added that much more flavour to an already top dish. This will no doubt become a favourite to those who order it in the future.

Clay Pot Short Ribs

Clay Pot Short Ribs

Friendship Chinese Restaurant is in a section of Milwaukee Avenue just north of the burst of growth that Logan Square is experiencing. There is a fair amount of foot traffic in the area so as revitalization moves along Milwaukee Avenue, there very well may be mention of Friendship Chinese Restaurant as a recommended spot. I must say that being someone who has had an aversion to bad Americanized Chinese food, I got a renewal of faith that there are some fantastic Chinese restaurants off mainland China. If I don’t find any others, I can vouch for Friendship’s authenticity being the draw that keeps me returning. Oh, I typed this review after blocking a few hours on an upcoming Saturday for a threepeat.

Friendship Chinese Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Goree Cuisine, Senegal in Kenwood

Goree Cuisine

During my university days, my circle of friends became very specific to West Indians and West Africans — Jamaicans, Haitians, Crucians, Ghanaians, Nigerians, Ivorians, and Senagalese. For us, it was customary to have some cultural representation in food available during study sessions that were not conducted in the library or in the labs. We built our networks so solid that whenever we travel the world, we assured each other that we or our families would look out for any in our network when we pass through their countries. When I started traveling between Chicago and Cape Town for personal holiday, I would stop in Dakar for an extended layover and, of course, partake of Senegalese food before my continuation flight.

Nem

Nem

Goree Cuisine at 1126 E. 47th Street takes me back to Dakar where everything is proper Senegalese instead of essence of Senegal. Spacious on the inside and full of light, Goree Cuisine brings authenticity to Chicago’s Kenwood neighbourhood that many mostly experience on Chicago’s North Side. Having been to two other Senegalese restaurants in Chicago, one having lost a bit of its edge and the other one very much Dakar-in-Chicago, Goree Cuisine is an addition to the Chicago landscape that had won me over during my first visit and had me completely addicted on my second visit.

Fataya

Fataya

The intent for my first visit was for a sampler, so I started with nem and fataya. Already aware of the history of how nem, the French word for spring roll, got its introduction into Senegalese cuisine via a Senegalese soldier’s marriage to a Vietnamese woman, I had an order mostly for comparison and contrast to others that I’ve had before. Stuffed with ground beef, shrimp, chicken, and glass noodles, I found these spring rolls to be considerably more appetizing than any of the proper Vietnamese variety and the best that I’ve had in America. The second street food appetizer I ordered was a plate of fataya. These flaky pastries with fish paste came with a side of kaani, a peppery tomato sauce, for dipping. Not stuffed to the point of the pastries looking puffed up, there was something almost cotton candy like with how they melted on the tongue. And considering they weren’t overly filled, there was still a lot of flavour in each bite.

Yassa Shrimp

Yassa Shrimp

For the main dish, I had yassa shrimp at the chef’s recommendation. This was pure heaven and brought about all the wonderful memories of my university days and layovers in Dakar. The shrimp were plump and fresh, complete with a hint of grilling in the taste. Served with grilled onions in mustard sauce, this was the first time on this side of the Atlantic Ocean I had a yassa dish without a visible squirt of Heinz mustard on top of the dish. The chef worked the mustard into the recipe and that made for the best yassa dish I’ve had since my last trip to Senegal.

Aloco

Aloco

On the second visit, I had my restaurant advisor join me. I knew she would indulge whatever came from the kitchen without complaint and without nose turned up. We had nem again, of which she repeatedly said, “Wow!” We then had maffe and an accompanying bowl of aloco. The maffee came in a bowl of peanut and tomato sauce with carrots, potatoes, and yams, along with rice. Reminiscent of peanut soup we’ve had at Ghanaian and Nigerian restaurants, albeit thicker and heartier, we resorted to silence while finishing this dish. And the aloco were the best prepared plantains we’ve had in months. They must let the plantains get almost overripe before frying them just to the point of caramelizing them: the best.

Maffe

Maffe

When my food advisor starts declaring, “It won’t stay on the fork,” I accept that fact that a dish is well past outstanding. This was the case with the yassa lamb. The yassa lamb came with grilled onions in a mustard sauce like with the yassa shrimp during my first visit and with yellow vegetable rice. The leg of lamb was a winner. Tender to the point where managing it was a bit trying because the meat kept falling off the bone without effort and not staying on the fork, the lamb also had no gamey aftertaste. The chef hit the mark on sending a plate to the table with tender, juicy, succulent meat that left a great lasting impression.

Yassa Lamb

Yassa Lamb

No food at Goree Cuisine goes into a microwave for a few seconds and then delivered to the table immediately thereafter. It is evident in the way the meat pulls apart from bones and how it falls from the fork. It is recognizable in how there are certain spices that you can taste “in” the dishes, as opposed to them tasting like the addition of condiments after the cooking. There is also no rush — no hurry up, be done with that plate, pay, and now leave. It is impossible to enjoy the cultural experience by rushing through it, so Goree Cuisine makes sure that not only will you fall in love with their loving from the kitchen, but that you will make plans to return repeatedly. I may not get back to Senegal often, but I will go to Goree Cuisine regularly.

Gorée Cuisines Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Paladar Cuban Restaurant and Rum Bar

Paladar Cuban Restaurant and Rum BarA few years ago while enjoying the great outdoors and having some Mexican food at a neighbourhood restaurant, the owner had mentioned a nearby Cuban restaurant that he thought I would enjoy. The name he gave was Paladar, at 2252 N. Western Avenue. Like a lot of recommendations, I filed the name and then forgot about it until recently when I was walking along Western Avenue. Let me just start by saying that I should start taking recommendations seriously.

Guava Mojito

Guava Mojito

Mango Mojito

Mango Mojito

Arriving early before the lunch crowd on a Saturday afternoon, I perused the menu, deciding on a common appetizer and leaving the main dish up to my server’s recommendation. To wet my palate, the first cocktail I had was a guava mojito. Reminding myself not to down it like I was thirsting for water, it was hard to fight the temptation to turn it up and finish it in a few gulps because it was mixed just that well. Not heavy-handed with alcohol, it was apparent that the recipe had a good bit of it by the time I got halfway through the drink.

Flight of Empanadas

Flight of Empanadas

Along with the guava mojito, I had a flight of empanadas. There was a guava with cheese that was the best of that kind that I’ve had at any other Cuban restaurants in Chicago. The shredded chicken was flavourful enough that I made it a point to order several for take-away. The same applied to the beef empanada that I ordered in equal quantity to enjoy later. All served with three sauces — house barbecue, spicy avocado, and habanero — these baked treats were worth indulging what most would consider usual fare at Latin American restaurants.

Sauces: Habanero, Spicy Avocado, Barbecue

Sauces: Habanero, Spicy Avocado, Barbecue

Usually when I go to Cuban restaurants I order what I consider safe dishes (e.g., ropa vieja sandwich or ropa vieja plate, arroz con pollo, or chuletas). This time I deviated by accepting my server’s recommendation for chivo. Having eaten more than my share of curried goat, the slow cooked goat stew served with congri and sweet plantains at Paladar was all the reminder I needed to develop a new love for this stew. From the meat falling off the bone without any help to the nice kick from the habanero to the sweet plantains that were caramelized rather than dry to yucca that fell apart on the fork, it should not have taken this long for me to indulge a plate of such an outstanding dish. And the mango mojito that I had with the main dish was a case of a bartender’s concoction done correctly.

Chivo

Chivo

For the finale, I opted for bomba. More like Italian tartufo, this came to the table as an ice cream ball of chocolate and vanilla ice cream encasing a maraschino cherry and slivered almonds, covered in a dark chocolate shell. I countered the cold with a café con leche, a perfect ending to a perfect meal. Perhaps I shall have traditional flan, bread pudding, or guava with cheese on my next visits, but the ice cream was a plus for my first pass.

Bomba y Cafe con Leche

Bomba y Cafe con Leche

During the first few times I had walked past Paladar, the restaurant seemed empty. On entry during my proper sit-down visit, the restaurant still seemed vacant, but then I realized there are two rooms in the restaurant. I sat in the front room, which filled in quickly after I had arrived and ordered. Noting the various cadences of Spanish spoken in the front room, I detected sing-sing Cuban Spanish, rapid fire Puerto Rican Spanish, easy-come-easy-go Mexican Spanish, and the ting-ting-ting of silverware on my plate. Given Chicago’s many Cuban restaurants on its landscape, it’s fantastic having one in Logan Square landscape that’s within short distance to home. I will need to get some more empanadas when I run out of the ones that I ordered to take home with me. Hint, hint.

Paladar Restaurant & Rum Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Rapidito Colombian Gourmet Bites

Rapidito

After a recent excursion to a rather fantastic Spanish restaurant in Chicago’s Lakeview, my restaurant advisor and I noted a Colombian restaurant on the landscape east of where we had experienced a wow factor in coastal Spain dining. What was once a dessert cafe is now Rapidito, at 1855 W. Diversey Parkway, dishing up  authenticity and not as an attempt.

Arepa Blanca

Arepa Blanca

Taking advantage of an early lunch during the weekend, I opted for my first trip to be for a sampling of a few items. Not like many of the Colombian steakhouses dotted throughout the Chicago landscape, Rapidito places emphasis on street food. There were traditional items like pinchos and arepa, the latter being an influence from Venezuala, along with empanadas, and surprisingly Colombian style hot dogs on the menu.

To kick my appetite into gear, I started with an arepa blanca. Topped with cheese, this Venezuelan influence hit the spot. Slightly buttery, it was nice to be able to taste the cheese on the arepa, which reminded me of chihuahua cheese.

Arepa de Choclo

Arepa de Choclo

Having enjoyed the arepa blanca, I also tried the arepa de choclo, which was also topped with cheese. This was an item that I will return and buy in bulk. The sweet corn in the arepa recipe provided a natural sweetness that would make this a favourite for morning breakfast, an afternoon snack, and a side with dinner.

The two final street food items I had were choripapas and a plate of steak and chicken pinchos. The chorizo bites, chopped eggs, and creole potatoes with housemade creamy sauce were first-rate. And the steak and chicken pinchos served with a tomatillo sauce and small Andean baked potatoes on the ends of the skewers also get high marks for the meat being juicy and flavourful without being overly seasoned.

Pinchos: Steak and Chicken

Pinchos: Steak and Chicken

Although not in an area with a lot of foot traffic, there were numerous patrons coming and going. When there is authenticity in food, there usually is a constant lure to an establishment and Rapidito certainly draws an ongoing flow of individuals whose palates enjoy good Colombian eats. As this was my first visit, I can say definitively that I will return for a tasting  of several other menu items and certainly for a batch of arepas de choclo.

Rapidito Colombian Gourmet Bites Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato