Yassa — New Location

Yassa

In 2007 when my first adventurous restaurant friend and I were going through the alphabets, we skipped ahead to S for Senegalese at the recommendation of a mutual friend. The restaurant, Yassa, had been featured on a show called Check, Please! There was a lot of buzz about it then and when we went, we found out why. The were simply outstanding!

Fataya

Fataya

Fast forward to 2016 and Yassa has since moved from its location in the Grand Crossing neighbourhood to Bronzeville at 3511 S. King Drive. There is still the homey interior decor. The service doesn’t have the same welcoming feel as it did years ago, although the servers are accommodating after you’ve been seated and you’ve placed your order.

Nem

Nem

During this recent visit, I went with my sister, who is an addict for any West African cuisine. We started with fataya and nem, The fataya were meat pies stuffed with a tomato-based fish paste. For years ago, the stuffing made the pies hearty. There is still the mouth-watering taste, but the filling is less. The nem, which were smaller when I went in the past, were now larger and more filling. Having its base in Vietnam, many Vietnamese refugees had come to francophone West Africa during the Vietnam War and brought the egg roll recipe with them. Since then, it has been adopted in the West African diets, Senegal being one of the countries to add it to menus. Yassa brings them to America.

Cabbage with Carrots

Cabbage with Carrots

We ordered a dish of curry chicken with yams and djollof rice. The curry gravy was absolutely divine. The lack of meat on the chicken bones did take away from the dish. Being extremely comfortable using our fingers, my sister and I picked up the bones and sucked whatever meat there was off. With the sauce, we scooped it over the djollof rice and devoured that, after which we washed it down with a hibiscus favourite of bissap.

Bissap

Bissap

Curry Chicken with Yams

Curry Chicken, Djollof Rice

The final dish we wanted to try was the red snapper. This came as a whole snapper with bone in. Again, we used our fingers to pick up the fish and devoured it along with a side of more djollof rice, cabbage with carrots, and plantains. The skin on the fish was crispier than its preparation in 2007. Good thing the inside was meaty. The plantains were good, but a few more days would have made them perfect.

Plantains

Plantains

Those who like to go to restaurants that give large portions for menu items will love Yassa. The restaurant was quite lively and filled when we arrived. They were also preparing for a live band that was setting up for an evening set, so that may explain a bit of the scrambling with the table service as well as some “rushed feel” with the output from the kitchen. My sister and I admitted that we would probably have to return to try some other dishes that were familiar to us during our individual trips to Dakar.

Red Snapper with Jollof Rice

Whole Red Snapper with Djollof  Rice

Once again, Chicago has two options for Senegalese restaurants. There is Badou Senegalese in Rogers Park, covering the North Side. And there is Yassa in Bronzeville for those venturing through the South Side.

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

Cafe Orchid, All Things Turkish

Cafe Orchid

Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines are quite common in Chicago. You can easily find a restaurant that has hummus, baba ghanoush, tabouli, and kebab on the menu. However, it is rare that anyone can name a specific country associated with the restaurant. There is then this Pan-Mediterranean or Pan-Middle Eastern dynamic that makes the restaurant or cafe catch-all. And then there are restaurants like Cafe Orchid at 1746 W. Addison Street in the west end of Lakeview. This restaurant clearly indicates that they serve Turkish dishes and given the authenticity and worthy flavours, they have boasting rights.

Patican Salata

Patican Salada

I decided on a 5-course degustation for lunch. First, to quench my thirst, I had a glass of iced Turkish tea that I took without any sweeteners. The first course was patican salada, which was eggplant with red peppers, tomatoes, and garlic. There was a basket of Turkish bread that accompanied the dish. I used the bread as a utensil to devour the eggplant salad and then finished the dish by going around the plate sopping up the remaining gravy.

Cig Borek

Cig Borek

The second course was cig borek. This was a traditional meat pie that had been prepared with ground lamb and spices.  Unlike cig borek that I have had at other Turkish restaurants, the lamb had been patted together such that it had the consistency of a sausage. This meant the meat was not falling out of the pastry and that was good because I got to enjoy all of the meat pie. The accompanying yogurt was good for dipping, but I used it over the lettuce and tomato instead, thus having meat pie and salad.

Icli Kofte

Icli Kofte

The third dish, icli kofte, were bulgur koftah tear drops stuffed with minced ground beef and onions. Although this is not considered snack food, I would enjoy these delectable items from a cardboard container without complaint while strolling down the avenue. The recipe resulted in a savoury filling that made them all addictive. And like cig borek, they were served atop a salad with yogurt.

Chicken Shish Kebab with Rice and Salad

Chicken Shish Kebab with Rice and Salad

The fourth dish was a plate of chicken shish kebab with rice and salad. The chicken was tender and juicy without being greasy. Flavoured well, the seasoning had permeated the meat down to the hole where the skewer had been removed. Instead of a dry salad like at many Mediterranean restaurants, there was a light vinaigrette on garden fresh lettuce and tomatoes. Rather than just plain rice, there were chickpeas added that surprisingly added some umph. Of all the Turkish shish kebab plates I’ve had, this was a model of “doing it correct.”

Kazindibi

Kazandibi

For the fifth course, I finished with a kazandibi and hot Turkish tea. Aside from the dollops of whipped cream with the dessert, there was nothing fanciful about the presentation. It was the homemade flavour from actual burned milk pudding and the topping of crushed nuts that resulted in something looking bland tasting instead like a dessert handed down from heaven.

Tea

Turkish Tea, Iced

Hot Turkish Tea

Turkish Tea, Hot

The location where Cafe Orchid sits makes it almost nondescript. It is juxtaposed between a physical therapy building and residence. One would notice it more while walking. While the inside is cozy, there is plenty outdoor seating and highly recommended during warmed months. The service falls in the category of great. Ordering linearly was a plus, as it allowed for a sampling of several dishes without having dishes overlap during the meal. And no one can argue about how genuinely Turkish all the dishes are. Cafe Orchid makes the third Turkish restaurant I’ve gone to in Chicago that remains true to the aromas, flavours, and traditions of Turkey.

Cafe Orchid Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Juno, Gino, You Know, It’s Good

Juno

While waffling between going to my favourite Italian restaurant or going for sushi, the latter won. Juno at 2638 N. Lincoln Avenue in Chicago’s Lincoln Park was one restaurant that looked interesting and after reading a few reviews, there was some hesitation. In retrospect, the evening was one well spent. It was good that I went.

My restaurant advisor and I arrived for a 6:30 PM reservation. The restaurant was empty until 7:30 when the dinner crowd came. Then it was all high energy. There is the minimalist Japanese style to the restaurant that actually gave me some ideas for remodeling my condo. However, the food was what we were there for. As you will discover, we loved it.

Cranberry Juice, United Shooters, Smoked Hamachi

Click to see photos in Flickr album

The server gave us a visual description of the items on the menu to whet our appetites. Given the menu was only one page, we had no problem narrowing down selections for a 10-course degustation.

For our first landing, we had uni shooters. Two vials on ice contained sea urchins, wasabi, tobiko, orange zest, and cucumber. With the sticks that were inserted, we stirred the ingredients and downed the contents in a swallow. Not a filling course, but that was fine. The flavour was simply delightful on the palate with a pleasant aftertaste that we chose not to cleanse with our cranberry juice or sake.

The second landing arrived under a dome with captured smoke. After removal of the dome, there were two spoons of hamachi with shiitake and sweet corn. Devoured in whole from the spoons, this was the size of what one would consider a l’amuse. Still, such a small item had an extreme pop in flavour, thanks in part of the cherry wood accented smoke.

Juno Queen, Sake, Juno King

Click to see photos in Flickr album

The third and fourth landings came as a pair. The Juno Queen was spicy scallop with taro and sweet potato on the top with rice in the centre and wrapped in salmon. Since the queen will always have a king, there was the Juno King, which was a signature nigiri of spicy king crab wrapped in tuna and topped with crunchy potatoes. Words cannot describe how delectable these nigiri items were. Only facial expressions would be telling. And because the two are better served together for comparison and contrast, if nigiri were a marriage, the Juno Queen and Juno King are perfect models.

Seared Scallop, Grilled Octopus, Ceviche Maki

Click to see photos in Flickr album

The fifth landing was the first of the hot menu items that we ordered. This was a plate of grilled octopus with pickled Granny Smith apples, ao nori, and zucchini ribbons atop an eggplant purée. As plain as it looked on the plate, it was anything but bland to the taste.

The sixth landing was the server’s personal favourite and quite understandable after the first bite. Tender seared scallop sat atop squid inked fettuccine with shrimp, black bean, and chopped red chili peppers. When scallops are done correctly, the flavour profile of the scallops come through with freshness and no muddy flavour. That was certainly the case with this course, and it helped that the fettuccine was an equally scrumptious complement.

For the seventh landing, we sampled one of the signature maki rolls, the ceviche. There were whitefish, tuna, and scallions in the middle. On top were shrimp, a hint of spicy aioli, and house made pineapple salsa. With fresh seafood, this was truly Peruvian and Japanese working together in a dish at its finest.

Steak Tataki, Lavender Cake with Lychee Sorbet, Mushroom Ramen

Click to see photos in Flickr album

Moving back to the hot plate items, the eighth landing was steak tataki. This was a plate of medium rare steak with Swiss chard, miso, corn, peaches, and sliced jalapeños. Again, this was a winner in flavour

The ninth landing we ordered was mushroom ramen. This landing had trumpet mushrooms, roasted corn, napa cabbage, pickles, soft boiled egg, and house made noodles in a savoury broth. Ramen has become quite popular in many Japanese restaurants. At Juno, the mushroom ramen had enough flavour appeal to make it a highly recommended ramen dish to order.

For the final landing, we had a dessert of lavender cake topped with sesame seeds, along with cantaloupe, lychee sorbet, and candied almonds. There was also a delectable citrus sauce poured in the bowl that took the dessert to a new level in bliss. Certainly not a heavy dish, but the flavours of all of the ingredients played well without any overpowering or competition on the palate. It was simply heaven.

Juno does exceptionally well with small plates, keeping in the tradition of serving dishes like in Japan. There is a bit of a high price per item, negligible for those who appreciate fine dining. Those who are accustomed to the “Chicago way,” that being restaurants giving so much food that you have to take some home, may find the cost problematic given the size of the dishes. For us, quality trumped quantity. And the service is simply outstanding. Overall, Juno was an enjoyable dining experience on three sticking points that we use to rate restaurants: quality of food, service, and price.

Kesshutsu shita.

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

Lone Star BBQ Bar, Howdy Texas

Recently, an individual who has been following Chicago Alphabet Soup’s Facebook page sent a fantastic list of restaurants that would be a fit for the blog. There were several ethnic restaurants that are now on the list for sampling so that they may get press on the blog. And then there were a few like Lone Star BBQ Bar that left me hankering for a little Down South eating.

Lone Star BBQ Bar

A friend who was in Chicago briefly and a mutual friend who jokingly inquires as to whether his plate is ready met with me at Lone Star BBQ Bar at 3350 N. Harlem Avenue. Completely devoid of pretense and fancy presentation, if the smell doesn’t win you over, I fear you may not be in the correct place. Since the three of us are individuals with amped-up appetites, we had a go of several menu items.

Pickled Vegetables

Pickled Pickles, Peppers, Carrots, and Onions

While snacking on the complimentary pickled pickles, peppers, carrots, and onions, the first small dish to land on the table was a platter of onion rings with a barbecue sauce and a spicy mayo sauce for dipping. Unlike the “essence of onion rings” purchased from the frozen section at the local market with nothing but crust and imitation onion flakes, these were real onions in a perfect batter. The dipping sauces were considerably better options than usual ketchup.

Onion Straws

Onion Straw

The second small plate was frito pie. This deep dish consisted of well-seasoned ground beef topped with fritos that were topped with healthy helpings of tomatoes, guacamole, and sour cream. Texas came to Chicago and three sets of teeth gnashed away at this dish until the server exclaimed, “I do declare,” when all she saw left were a smear of gravy and a few corn chip crumbs.

Fritos Pie

Frito Pie

By now we figured we’d work our way into the barbecue part of the menu. We ordered barbecue wings. Now was our turn to say, “I do declare.” The wings were plump, bursting with each bite. Not only was the barbecue delicious in a tangy sense, but these were not just bland grilled chicken wings with sauce on them. These were well worth the barbecue sauce all over our fingers, on our chins, and dabs here and there on our cheeks.

Barbecue Chicken Wings

Barbecue Chicken Wings

One friend ordered a double-decker beef burger with a side of macaroni and cheese and a side of fries. The burger had been topped with onion rings and he applied a house made sauce to the sandwich before going to work on it. There was very little conversation from him after he put the napkin across the front of his shirt. That was code for “This is what’s going to happen.” Understood.

Double Decker Beef Burger with Mac and Cheese

Double-Decker Beef Burger with Mac and Cheese

The remaining two of us at the table ordered half slabs of baby back ribs with sides of baked beans, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and buttermilk biscuits with honey butter. The ribs were grilled Texas style such that they didn’t fall off the bone, yet they weren’t tough either. They were just right, said Goldilocks. How we managed to finish all the food that we ate escapes me. Then again, we do become lumberjacks over plates of food after we leave our office jobs.

Beef Ribs, Baked Beans, Biscuit, Slaw

Baby Back Ribs, Baked Beans, Biscuit, and Slaw

Anyone who wants a taste of Texas while in Chicago will enjoy the offerings at Lone Star BBQ Bar. The restaurant is not a gimmick. The preparation of the meat is one indicator. Listening to one of the restaurant staff members explain how they prepare the sausages also gave indication that they’re not buying meats from the grocery store and heating it up either. They’re getting it fresh from a butcher. If you want a laid back dining experience without the shame of getting barbecue sauce all over the place, make your way to Lone Star BBQ Bar. Yawl, hear?
Lone Star BBQ Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

California Pizza Kitchen, When Change Is Good

California Pizza Kitchen

Years ago when I worked on the Magnificent Mile, a colleague had a love for California Pizza Kitchen. It had become something of a palate cleanser for having too much pizza from Lou Malnati’s, Giordano’s, and other Chicago-style pizza eateries. For me, too much pizza, period, had made me lose interest in ever returning to any pizzeria, California Pizza Kitchen included. Imagine my surprise when I received an invitation for a review.

Complimentary Bread, Olive Oil

Bread with Olive Oil

My restaurant advisor, who had also worked with me in the Magnificent Mile, and I recently went to the location in Arlington Heights, Illinois, at 3 S. Evergreen Avenue. Not a considerable distance via commuter train, we arrived for dinner one evening after work. The restaurant was quite lively with families and friends. The front room service was top.

Flight of Sangria

Flight of Sangrias

While perusing the menu, we noticed that there was less focus on pizzas and the specialty pastas that our mutual colleague and we had indulged numerous times years past. Instead, there were appetizers and entrées that piqued our interests more than the usual fare that we remembered. Certainly thinking that it would be a better option to try something different, we told our server to make recommendations and send the dishes to the table. We did stipulate that we preferred to avoid pizza and pasta.

As we waited, we imbibed some rather refreshing cocktails. I ordered a flight of sangrias ranging from a white plum to peach to red raspberry. My restaurant advisor had a strawberry mojito. What we both noticed was that the cocktails did not have the watered recipe that one finds in drinks served at big box restaurants. These had the bracing snap of having been mixed by a mixologist.

Strawberry Mojito

Strawberry Mojito

We had a mini complimentary loaf of bread with herbed olive oil. Basil Leaf Cafe, which is one of my favourite Italian restaurants in Chicago proper, preps their olive oil in the same manner. A huge plus with the bread being fresh, the complimentary feature was great.

Tequeños

Tequeños

First to the table was a plate of tequeños. Very reminiscent of tequeños that I have had at a few Peruvian restaurants, the chicken and avocado in the ones at California Pizza Kitchen were mouth-watering. The added ingredient of bacon in the tequeños was unexpected. Then again, we didn’t order from the menu, but rather let our server handle the menu selections. Nevertheless, we were pleased.

The first entrée was a plate of herbed roasted chicken with vegetables. It was by the second bite that we wondered why the restaurant had not been highlighting such delectable dishes more in the past. The chicken was not only tender, but it was incredibly juicy. Add to that well seasoned cauliflower, squash, and potatoes, this dish actually rivaled chicken dishes that I have eaten at some restaurants in Chicago that people rant and rave about as if the meat had been marinated in gold.

Roasted Chicken and Vegetables

Herb Roasted Chicken with Vegetables

The second entrée was the final determinant that California Pizza Kitchen had decided to take a different approach with its menu offerings. The rib eye steak topped with a light garlic paste had been cooked to a perfect medium well that left the meat succulent. The salad in a light vinaigrette and the fingerling potatoes that had been seasoned with touches of basil comprised  a dish that my advisor and I agreed was better than some steak dinners we’ve had at a few noteworthy restaurants.We had not expected such a divine meal up to this point.

Ribeye Steak, Salad, Potatoes

Steak with Salad and Potatoes

Rather than order multiple desserts, we settled on a butter cake topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and garnished with whipped cream. As sated as we were from the complimentary bread, appetizer, and entrées, it still would have been a crime to have left any of the dessert. Although the cake was pedestrian in it’s presentation, it was anything but regular on the palate. With a cup of coffee each, we finalized the dessert and acknowledged that California Pizza Kitchen was a winner.

Butter Cake, Ice Cream

Butter Cake with Ice Cream

During a brief conversation with one of the staff members of the restaurant, there was mention that California Pizza Kitchen had started a move towards offering dishes that appeal to customers that preferred an expanded menu. It seemed that a certain age bracket preferred pizza and pasta, while an older age bracket had a taste for finer menu items. Without deviating from their core menu, the enhanced menu seems to have been influenced as a result of listening to their regular customer base. What they have done now was enriched their offerings for also enticing refined palates.

California Pizza Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Azucar, 9 Years of Tapas

Azucar

When I moved to Logan Square, there were several restaurants on the landscape that looked inviting. I made plans to go to the restaurants and then I realized one day that eight years had passed … and I had not gone to several of the restaurants. Azucar Tapas & Cocktail Bar at 2647 N. Kedzie Avenue was one of the many eateries that I passed and never stopped in for a sampling. I corrected that recently.

Olivos Machacadas en Casa

Olivos Machacadas en Casa

Having had a spell of hot and humid weather recently, Chicago experienced a reprieve from feeling tropical. During my visit to Azucar, I sat outside to enjoy the nice breeze and a degustation of a few tapas items. For a refresher, I started with a white peach sangria that was quite refreshing. While the alcohol was not heavy-handed, it was indeed there. To go with the sangria was olivos machacadas en casa, which was a selection of olives and baby pickles.

Empanadas Pollos

Empanadas Pollos

The next course to arrive was a plate of empanadas pollos. These were tapas size empanadas, but they packed a huge flavour profile. They were not merely stuffed with shredded chicken, but they were stuffed with well-seasoned shredded chicken. Served atop a tomato sauce and accented with basil, these were ideal with the finishing of the sangria.

White Peach Sangria

White Peach Sangria

Red Raspberry Sangria

Red Raspberry Sangria

I then moved into a seafood option that was extremely tasty. The gambas a pil-pil came as shrimp sautéed in spices and served in a dish that had a creamy garlic butter sauce. The perfect accompaniment with this dish was a mini loaf of bread that was ideal for sopping up the garlic butter sauce. Also, with this dish, I had opted for a red raspberry sangria that was as refreshing as the white peach sangria and also mixed nicely to hide the alcohol.

Gambas a Pil-Pil

Gambas a Pil-Pil

The final tapas I ordered was piquillos al fuego. Even as a vegetarian option, this was absolutely divine. These piquillos peppers were stuffed with a blend of cheeses and chopped portobello mushrooms, lemon, and chickpeas. As an accent, they were topped with fennel and a roasted garlic cream sauce. I had thought the bread with gambas a pil-pil was filling. The piquillos al fuego helped induce a desire for sleep and I was okay with that.

Piquillos al Fuego

Piquillos al Fuego

Per my server’s recommendation, I ordered pastel de chocolate for a postre. Being a few notches close to sated, this decadent cake put me over the top. Served with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, I didn’t think that something so small could be so incredibly rich. And when I say that it took me over 30 minutes to finish it, it was because I didn’t want to have any regrets about leaving any before departing the restaurant.

Pastel de Chocolate con Helado

Pastel de Chocolate

Azucar recently celebrated nine years in spring, 2016. Just across the street from the Logan Square Blue Line and between El Cid immediately next door and a very short walking distance from Longman & Eagle, it’s in a prime location where there is plenty foot traffic. The menu is not extensive, which is very good for narrowing down selections, and the food is full of flavour. It took me eight years to walk the few short blocks from my condo to Azucar. It won’t take eight more years. That’s a guarantee.

Azucar! Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

H. Forman & Son, Smoked Salmon From Heaven

H. Forman & Son, the oldest smoked salmon factory in the world and based out of London, UK, with a location in Northbook, IL, hosted an event recently at 3 Greens Market in River North at 354 W. Hubbard Street, where bloggers and tastemakers met for a sampling of several salmon. All were treated to offerings of London Cure smoked Scottish salmon — cream cheese maki, Sashimi Grade salmon prime loin, and salmon crostini. For the gravadlax offerings, there were Dill cured salmon, Thai cured salmon, and gin and tonic cured salmon.

Smoked Salmon Seafood Selection

Although H. Forman & Son has some of the freshest and most flavourful salmon, they also have a fish collection ranging from smoked Dutch eel to smoked yellowfin tuna to keta trout caviar. Those at the event also got the chance to sample two items from the H. Forman & Son restaurant collection — a paupiette of hot smoked wild salmon mousse as well as a paupiette of blue crab and lobster.

Seafood Flight

Not only were the food bloggers and tastemakers treated to a delightful selection of smoked salmon and seafood, but they were also enlightened to the processing involved in preparation of the seafood. Noting that neither sugar, nor nitrates, nor colouring, nor brining is introduced into processing, what comes out is delectable salmon with a hint of oak wood smoke that enhances the natural flavour.

Preparation Salmon and Roe Salmon Brunch

Those who love fresh seafood and especially smoked salmon, purchasing options are available via the Formans USA website. Additional menu options for purchases may be accessed via Shop All Collections from the main page. If you are purchasing online, use promo code alphabet20 for a 20% discount during checkout.

Smoked Salmon, Choice Selection

Bodhi, Berwyn and It’s Surprises

Bodhi

My restaurant advisor had been prompting me about a Thai restaurant in Berwyn, Illinois. Recognizing how much I love curry and a proper thick curry, she gave the name of Bodhi Thai Bistro at 6211 W. Roosevelt Road. In true fashion, this restaurant falls into the category of Most Modest because for what we had eaten to have been so blooming mouth-watering, they do not employ any grandstanding. The deserve it, though.

Thai Iced Tea, Thai Iced Coffee

Thai Iced Tea, Thai Iced Coffee

We went in the early evening one Saturday per our usual routine of trying to get ahead of the dinner crowd. We arrived at the very start of dinner rush, so we got to see a rather energetic restaurant. Starting off with a Thai iced tea and Thai Iced coffee while scanning the menu, we settled on a few known dishes we order at Thai restaurants, one known dish we’ve avoided, and a few we’ve never had before.

One dish we never ordered was the sweet potato and corn fritters. This was a plate of shredded sweet potatoes fried with corn and served with a savoury sauce topped with crushed peanuts. Light on the palate but packed with flavour, this was a perfect introduction into dinner, since we had opted for several dishes.

Sweet Potato and Corn Fritters

Sweet Potato and Corn Fritters

Another dish that we had not ordered at any Thai restaurants before was the marinated squid. Served as a nice portion, the squid had been marinated such that there was a mild smoky flavour that played well with the salad and dipping sauce. The beauty of this dish was that the squid had been cooked so that the morsels were tender with no rubbery texture.

Grilled Calamari

Marinated Squid

Moving into a dish that we’ve had at other Thai restaurants, we ordered tom yum goong. This Thai favourite came with a broth that was not sweet the way we have had it at some Thai restaurants. Because of this, we actually were able to taste distinct ingredients like lemongrass and ginger while also being able to taste the pop in the carrots and mushrooms. Highlighted with sprinkles of cilantro, there was only so much spooning we could do before we picked up our bowls and slurped properly.

Tom Yum Goong

Tom Yum Goong

A dish that is popular in Thai cuisine, but we’ve avoided because it is so commonplace, is pad thai. This dish tasted very much like what I’ve had on mainland Thailand. Instead of unseasoned boiled chicken in the dish, the chicken had been marinated. The sauce used in the recipe was a fish sauce, not just soy sauce thrown in for effect. The noodles were perfect, neither al dente nor mushy. It may have been serendipity that we had held out on ever ordering pad thai until we came to Bodhi Thai Bistro because they prepare the best.

Pad Thai

Pad Thai

Another dish that we had never tried before was garlic prawns. These tasty morsels came atop green bell peppers and carrots with a dipping sauce that we used as a drizzle and a side of a rice. While the prawns had been prepared with a heavy dose of garlic, it was not overpowering such that we could not recognize that the prawns were fresh. Fresh shellfish has a pop in flavour and when the recipe allows the prawns to still have centre stage, this becomes a dish that we will order repeatedly upon return visits.

Garlic Prawns and Vegetables

Garlic Prawns

The final dish was a return to another Thai favourite, but also to one that is a favourite to us. We ordered panang curry with chicken and this was at my restaurant advisor’s suggestion. Being sticklers for hearty panang gravies, this was  certainly a lip smacking course. The dish came with sliced carrots, fresh green beans, and bell peppers. Fresh ingredients in a splendid panang gravy is something that you cannot pass up on.

We finished dinner with a plate of mango sticky rice and green tea — photo not pictured. The mango was naturally sweet. The sticky rice was warm and the coconut milk that had been poured on top made the dessert a must-have.

Chicken Panang Curry

Chicken Panang Curry

Bodhi Thai Bistro has a pleasant air about it, as far as decor is concerned. What they do incredibly well is wow the appetite without pretense and without fanfare. Truly the dishes are authentic and those who love Thai food will agree. Top service, outstanding cuisine, and Berwyn has been modest. They have bragging rights with such inviting food.

Bodhi Thai Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Animale, Casual Atmosphere with Fine Dining

When I initially went to Osteria Langhe in Logan Square, which is my favourite Italian restaurant, I wondered if the owner would ever open another restaurant. When he said that he and his managing partner were considering opening an Italian restaurant that serves casual Italian, I thought to myself, “No, please don’t join the ranks of stock Italian restaurants.” And when Animale opened at 1904 N. Western Avenue, I went and was rather confused. The ambience and decor are casual. The food screams “fine dining.”

Animale

A good friend and I met one early evening shortly after Animale had its opening. Noting that you order at the counter and then have a seat, after which a server brings your food, we opted for a 6-course degustation for sharing. We started with a pappardelle — roasted carrots, green onions, beef cheeks, and buttery flat noodles that were topped with bread crumbs. The first bite was the indicator that led us to believe that the owners are modest. Such flavour and authenticity aren’t present in most casual dining, honestly. The pappardelle was, in a word, outstanding.

Pappardelle

Pappardelle

One of the exotic dishes we tried was animelle. This was bacon wrapped in sweet breads, topped with a spicy endive salad, and drizzled with mustard honey. This dish fell outside of the usual fare found on Italian menus. Starting with sweet breads, American Italian restaurants don’t entertain such options. Dishes like animelle come with such pop that not only do you forget that it’s Italian but you make ticklers to yourself to plan return visits.

Animelle

Animelle

Another exotic dish was sanguinaccio. This dish was remiscent of pollo e funghi that I had enjoyed at Osteria Langhe. Instead of chicken and mushrooms wrapped in a tasty pastry, there was blood sausage encased in a puff pastry. Served on top of lentils in a La Tur citrus cream and a few leafs of endive, it becomes increasingly easy to dismiss spaghetti and meatballs as an Italian delicacy.

Sanguinaccio

Sanguinaccio

When I was younger, there was a commercial that used to come on with a little boy wanting to spend the night at his friend’s house to avoid going home to a meal of liver. At the end of the commercial, the kid was nonplussed because, per him, “Larry’s mother is cooking liver, too.” He probably wouldn’t have been so displeased if his mother or Larry’s mother were cooking fegato. These rabbit livers were accented with thyme and served with mushrooms, shallots, and madeira atop toast. And they had been cooked so that the consistency was slightly spreadable on the toast. Delicious.

Fegato

Fegato

Now, Osteria Langhe has a signature ravioli called plin that is addictive. There it’s simply mini raviolis filled with La Tur and parmesan cheese. At Animale, they’re hand-pinched pillows filled with La Tur cheese and served with house pancetta and arugula. It is difficult for me to say which recipe I like most and I know that I shall return to Osteria Langhe and Animale countless times to sample their plin so I can eventually be decisive about which I prefer more.

Plin

Plin

For the finale, we had panna cotta. There was no way we were going to skip such a delight, and we had the dessert topped with a chocolate sauce and sprinkled with hazelnuts, and raspberries. The portion was perfect, given all the food we had eaten, and it was the same recipe from Osteria Langhe that makes it a difficult dessert to turn away from.

Panna Cotta

Panna Cotta

The last time a restaurant owner mentioned opening a casual dining restaurant as a replacement for a fine dining French restaurant, it was a disappointment. Seeing how Osteria Langhe has raised the bar for Italian dining, from my personal experience, it was clear that quality would be top priority at Animale. Service falls in the Absolutely Best category, if I may add. The atmosphere may be laid back and completely devoid of pretense, but be prepared for the next best Italian restaurant in Chicago. With such bloom in flavour, I foresee long lines at Animale. I’ll be in those lines quite a few times.

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

The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant

Little Gem Cafe

After years of living in Chicago, I have been recalling a statement that an individual made when we had met in 1989. She had stated that you can spend your entire life in Chicago and never cover all of it. I have discovered that the same applies to some of the edge cities like Evanston, Rosemont, Schaumburg, Skokie, and Oak Park. Case in point was during a casual stroll a block north of downtown Oak Park where I stumbled upon The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant at 189 N Marion Street.

Duck with Salad

Duck with Salad

Spacious on the inside with a bistro feel to it and also with some outside seating, there is an atmosphere of ease that doesn’t feed into ambient noises and acoustics all over the place requiring you to shout with your dining companions. Taking advantage of the outdoor seating, I settled on a four-course meal that had a French influence. Since the restaurant had been touted as a French bistro on Yelp and Google, I chose to stick with that theme, although I did see a paprikash dish on the menu, which is Hungarian.

For my first course, I had a duck carpaccio with a salad in a light vinaigrette with mandarin slices. The server paired this dish with a Sauvignon blanc that had some fruity notes that balanced out the tartness of the duck carpaccio, which had strips of raw duck. Those who like tartar and the texture would certainly enjoy this dish.

Toast

Toast

Because I had opted for a pairing of wines with each course, the server thought that it would be a good idea to have some bread for a palate cleanser, as well as an aid for reducing buzzing. I’m not really sure if the grilled toast was complementary, but I must admit that it was of the variety that I could go off the rails with while enjoying some gouda cheese.

Deviled Eggs

Deviled Eggs

The next course was a plate of deviled eggs. Accented with parsley oil and a balsamic reduction and topped with crispy, fried onions and pickled jalapeños, all four that came were absolutely scrumptuous. Paired nicely with a Chardonnay that had a buttery and oak flavour that was light on the palate while not usurping the centre stage from the deviled eggs, I actually developed a better appreciation for deviled eggs, as I have not had any that weren’t abused by a use of too many herbs and spices.

As of late, I have been introducing pork back into my diet, albeit in moderation. The server had specified the special for the evening, which was a 10-ounce bone-in pork chop in a jalapeño and apple purée with roasted potatoes sautéed in a Spanish chorizo. For the pairing, the server brought at Pinot noir that had a “right” amount of acidity to match well with the dish. For an individual who has not been a fan of pork for many years, this one was one I would rush back to the restaurant to indulge without pause.

Pork Chop with Fingerlings

Pork Chops with Fingerlings

In keeping with the French effect in dining, I had cheese for dessert rather than a sweet. The cheese board came with an assortment of cheeses, housemade strawberry jam, smoked almonds, candied walnuts, and apples. There were aged Wisconsin cheddar, a brie, a housemade cheese, and a casabola. The housemade cheese was an interesting marriage of provolone, cheddar, and cream cheese. The caso bolo was a mixture of goat, sheep, and cow cheeses. Along with a cup of coffee, this was a delectable and ideal finale to what was a spectacular meal.

Cheese Board with Nuts and Jam

Cheese Board

I was somewhat expecting “regular” fare, but was thoroughly surprised and satisfied with the offerings. The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant is not French-specific. If I could apply a word to the restaurant, it would be Pan-European because of some Eastern European offerings and Mediterranean fare. One thing I have not done on the blog in years is name the servers that went well past outstanding. But Liz and Zach were two of the top servers any diners could have at their table. I understand why most at the restaurant were locals. Oak Park is not a local destination for me, but I have a feeling I will be a regular at The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant.

Little Gem Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato