One thing I like about Latinicity is the variety, albeit found in only a few vendors. I must admit that I thought there were more restaurants before. Of course, that was over five years ago. I recall there being restaurants to the right of the entrance as well as the current restaurants to the left of the entrance. Nevertheless, next time I am downtown, I will make plans to stop I again to try some other offerings. Continue reading
Happy New Year. Starting 2020 off with realistic resolutions, a new list of international cuisines and restaurants to try, and another list of American restaurants that have a focus on healthy recipes. Now that I am in my 50’s, I have to be mindful of everything since my metabolism doesn’t burn off fat the way that it did when I was in my 20’s and 30’s.
A friend had told me about a post on her high school class page on Facebook. There was mention of a restaurant named Bettie Lou’s Restaurant at 5633 N. Ashland Avenue in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. After a brief review of the menu online, I agreed to meet my friend there so that we could try some of the dishes.
Bang the gavel. Sold!
We started with salmon croquettes, scrambled eggs, and brown rice. Those who are from Down South can speak to having a breakfast consisting of salmon croquettes, rice, and biscuits. You don’t get a Northern brunch. Bettie Lou’s brought a bit of the South to the North Side of Chicago, for sure. The croquettes were not a failed attempt but meaty salmon lightly encrusted with a light batter and fried with onions and bell peppers. The brown rice was the surprise. It occurred to us after we had finished that there was no gravy on the rice. The addition of butter and seasoning actually made me view brown rice in a favorable light.
For a second landing we had turkey chops with cabbage and cheese grits. The turkey chops had been lightly breaded and fried to look like pork chops. It was all turkey and with a well seasoned gravy, it was better than any pork chops I have had. The cabbage reminded me of the same that I have had at countless Jamaican restaurants in Jamaica and off the island. As to the cheese grits, they were a perfect compliment to the course with a proper amount of cheese and creamy consistency.
The third course was of perch served with collard greens and candied yams. The perch was not some thawed fish purchased from the frozen section. We were thankful that it was not encased in a quarter inch of crust. There was a flour batter, which made it very light. As to the greens, this was the first that I have had cooked in a vegan manner that had flavor. Whatever chopped weeds I have had at other vegetarian and vegan restaurants don’t compare to the collard greens at Bettie Lou’s. The yams were not sugary and were just the right balance to the greens. Add to the delight of this landing, the johnny cake that came with the greens made it all feel like New Orleans in Chicago.
My friend had ordered some peach cobbler for takeaway. Before we left, we had a spoonful for a sample. Had it not been for discipline, we would have finished it at the restaurant. The only thing missing was a scoop of ice cream. Once word gets out about how tasty the peach cobbler is, it will be the one thing that will have Bettie Lou’s Restaurant making the news.
For all of the food that we ate, we were sated but not to the point of misery or comatose. That speaks to the ingredients not being so heavy as to leave diners feeling like they’ve eaten past a proper dining threshold. Having gone during the middle of the day on a Saturday, we got the chance to engage the owner in conversation, which made it feel like we had gone to a friend’s or a family member’s house. One thing to note is that dishes are prepared to order. It will take time for food to arrive at the table because nothing is warmed up or microwaved. Although Chicago boasts a long list of soul food, soul food vegetarian, and soul food vegan restaurants, Bettie Lou’s Restaurant has made a flavorful impression on me such that it is now my go-to soul food haunt.
Let me start by saying that I had no idea this cafe existed. I had passed by it countless times and nothing screamed “Open for Business.” A colleague told me about it and we agreed to meet for a Sunday breakfast. This was during the summer. It has become a regular Sunday spot ever since.
First, the homemade bread wins. During the first visit, the cauliflower and broccoli salad in a creamy dressing was addictive. And the pork belly with peppers and cherry tomatoes were worthy of repeat orders. From what I can tell, there is a bit of a farm to table aspect that makes everythig on the menu fresh.
For Logan Square to be a hipster landscape, those working at Cellar Door Provisions don’t have the detached attitude. They’re engaging and attentive without hovering. The cafe is not large and there is a constant ebb and tide of patrons. As I mentioned, I have returned with my colleague quite often since the first visit. I hope that this will be one restaurant that will not succumb to the curse of “closing restaurants” that plagued Chicago in 2019.
Because I had several visits since the first one, there are several compositions that I have captured since. Rather than doing a very long write-up, below is a link to the Flickr page where I posted the photos to ignite your appetite. If you are in or near the Chicago Logan Square area, Cellar Door Provisions is one to add to your list of restaurant spots.
Chicago boasts a number of outstanding museums where one may go for education, enlightenment, and entertainment. One of the many museums in the city is the Museum of Contemporary Art at 205 E. Pearson Street where you can see a collection of paintings, sculptures, and visual art. After a recent visit to MCA, I was pleasantly surprised to find Marisol on the lower level. I sat at the bar and started with a Manhattan that was smooth.
For my first landing, the plate of sweet red shrimp and chopped walnuts was outstanding. As a starter, it was good enough for whetting the palate but not heavy to the point of not leaving room for completing additional dishes. There was a slight kick to the dish, which made the shrimp pop with flavor, but the pepper was not an overpowering ingredient.
The second landing of risotto verde was a dish that I would recommend highly if ever it is still on the menu. The risotto had been prepared in a pesto and served with broccoli in it. Those who are vegetarian and those who lean towards veganism would certainly love this dish.
I finished with a selection of cheeses, graham crackers, apple slices, and honey. There was no way to go wrong with a gorgonzola, a sharp cheddar, and a mild gouda. Having this with a Sidney J cocktail — of which I can’t recall the spirits used in it — this was a better option for a finale than a sweet.
I have a feeling the menu changes seasonally. That’s not a bad thing, as you never have the same thing throughout the year to boredom. This restaurant is a winner.
While dealing with a hankering for something from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and culturally familiar to my palate, I did my usual Google search for some West African restaurants. What should display as a result was The Powerhouse Restaurant at 2113 S. State Street in the Near South Side. I saw a few items on the online menu that were reminiscent of Nigerian dishes that I’ve had, so it was off to the South Side for a taste of Africa.
I started with a ground beef pie and with a fish pie. Served with a spicy tomato sauce, these pies were quite tasty. There was less meat in both than I have had in the ones I devoured shamelessly in Lagos and at several Nigerian restaurants on Chicago’s North Side. Still, I must admit that a lot of flavor was packed into the pastries.
The dish that wowed me during my first visit was egusi. This traditional soup which is made with dried ground melon seeds, bitterleaf, pumpkin leaf, and spinach is my favorite Nigerian dish and The Powerhouse Restaurant did not disappoint. I had the egusi with fish. One note to myself is that West African dishes are prepared culturally, which meant that I had to de-bone the fish and be careful of any fine bones that I did not get while doing the de-boning process. The fragrant rice that came with it made the pop in flavor that more pronounced. With a mild amount of heat in the dish, it was heaven.
For the second visit, I returned with some friends. Having talked up The Powerhouse Restaurant, they were intrigued and later happy to have taken me up on the return visit. We started with a round pamplemouse that made us think of summer as opposed to the chilly temperatures Chicago is experiencing. Think lemon and lime with a soda, but more natural than soda pop. Citrusy and refreshing was this beverage. We also had a round of acho soup, one cooked with salmon, the other cooked with chicken. The soup had been prepared with a dried plantain, seasoned well, and served in a bowl that had been prepped with yam pounded until it had the consistency of mashed potatoes. It was so good that I was all done before I realized I had not taken any compositions.
For our first landing, we had salmon and skirt steak with ndole. Very much like egusi, ndole employs bitterleaf in the recipe but there is a peanut butter base that provides enough of a balance to balance out the bitterness. The skirt steak was extremely tender and the salmon was rather flaky.
The second landing also came with ndole, but served with shrimp and lamb chops. Again, here was a dish with full flavor and meat that had been prepared such that it was neither borderline rare nor dried out from too much heat. It made each bite succulent.
The third landing was smoked fish and shrimp served with jollof rice. Aromatic with smoke, the fish was fleshy while the skin had been seared enough to retain a lot of the flavor. The shrimp, like the shrimp that came with the lamb chops, was fat and bursting with each bite. The star in the show was the jollof rice. Being partial to Ghanaian jollof rice, the aromatic spices in this Cameroonian rice really made it quickly become a favorite.
The Powerhouse Restaurant has mastery in two things that I love most about restaurants: outstanding food and grade-A service. During my first visit, I had a brief chat with the owner who was making the rounds through the restaurant, asking the diners how their experiences were. On the second visit, my friends and I arrived early enough to have the restaurant to ourselves and the owner gave us an explanation of the ingredients used in the recipes and the cultural influences. It felt like going home. And one thing I can say about going home is that there is always a welcoming atmosphere and some of the best food to be had.
A few days ago, a good friend posted photos of rather appetizing barbecue dishes on her Facebook page. Come to find out that it was at a restaurant that her cousin owns. I was excited until I saw that it was in the far South Suburbs. That meant driving through downtown Chicago’s mixing bowl, which is a test of your patience and the soundproofing in your car to mute the screaming. But the food looked so good. So, I dashed through the mixing bowl and way off the map to get some sauce on my fingers.
For my last review, it was of a restaurant where two friends and I met to celebrate a very late birthday and my early birthday. Since then, I had become very serious about losing belly fat. Let me just say that it is possible, but you have to be dedicated to the point of addiction. I have been cooking at home more and spending a lot of time in the gym, so my outings to different restaurants came to a stop. However, I made time to meet my two friends for one of their birthdays. Birthdays seem to be the reason for the occasional dining excursion. We met at Monnie Burke’s in Pilsen at 1163 W. 18th Street.
Along with our first round of cocktails, and I must commend the bartender for mixing some great drinks without being heavy handed or dabbling in Shirley Temple world, we started with a soft pretzel that was served with a smoked gouda and black truffle fondue. I recommend this highly for a starter. While the gouda does not have an expected smoky flavor, the fondue works well with the lightly salted pretzel. I think the black truffle addition helps to bring out more on the palate.
Our first small course was the egg yolk pappardelle. This was angry, or arrabbiata as Italians would say. The ground scallops in the dish were outstanding and I have been looking up recipes that call for ground scallops because I need more. There was enough bite in the dish to pick up the spiciness, yet not enough to that we required sips of water after each swallow. This dish was a nod to Italy.
One supper vegetable that has become more popular than red velvet cupcakes of several years ago are Brussels sprouts. Accented with a white anchovy vinaigrette, Calabrian chili peppers, pine nuts, and parmesan, I can almost guarantee you that you’re obstinate child who hates vegetables would love this dish. It was nice that the additions to the Brussels sprouts did not overtake the flavor of the actual vegetables. This is a nice wink to the toe of Italy, to Calabria.
Another super vegetable is cauliflower. Here it is fire roasted with urfa biber peppers, medjool dates, olives, almonds, and sheep’s milk cheese. With the use of the urfa biber peppers, medjool dates, and olives, there was an injection of Turkey and Morocco into the dish. Goes to show you that you can have ingredients from different yet close regions play very well in recipes and it made the cauliflower stand out as opposed to being reminiscent of milder broccoli.
Those who are fans of seafood would appreciate the Spanish octopus. Prepared such that you could cut through the tentacles with a butter knife and tender enough that there was no rubbery texture. Coming with shishito peppers, papas bravas, and a black garlic mole, there was very little left on the plate. This dish gets the Clean Plate Society Award.
Having taken red meat out of my diet mostly, I broke my discipline for the sake of trying the cheeseburger. Not just a cheeseburger, as listed on the menu, but rather a double cheeseburger, this was worth every bite. This burger is topped with American cheddar, grilled red onions, and served with garlic fries and lemon aioli. As I was never a fan of having my burgers anything close to rare, it was nice that it arrived at the table a slight notch less than well cooked, juicy as juicy can be, and I never had to state how I wanted the burger cooked. This is the mark of a cook who knows his or her trade well.
For dessert, we had a brownie that was baked by the devil, topped with a fist size scoop of ice vanilla bean ice cream, and drizzled with a warm chocolate sauce. The caramel popcorn addition was a unique garnish. It did not take away from the brownie ala mode, though. Those who love moist — spelled “moyse” — brownies will have a problem staying on the wagon after having a taste of this dessert. It is extremely rich, so I would recommend sharing it with your dinner guest or guests.
Monnie Burke’s is clearly a winner when it comes to service and good food. Given the amount of food that we ordered, everything was a hit, not one disappointing moment to be had. With summer now giving us days that we can enjoy in al fresco mode, the patio at Monnie Burke’s fills out quickly. The inside was empty, but that was understandable with everyone wanting outside seating without fear of a torrential downpour or extreme humidity. It’s not of the staple variety that has graced Pilsen’s landscape for decades. However, it is a welcomed addition.
After months of putting off getting together with two great friends because of schedule conflicts, frigid temperatures, and all sorts of other hurdles we were clearing, we finally set a date. This was a celebratory dinner. It was a late birthday dinner for my former flatmate, a celebration for our mutual friend who accepted a position at a new company, and an early birthday dinner for me. What better way for a gathering than to try something new, Dos Urban Cantina at 2829 W. Armitage Avenue in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.
We arrived early enough to partake of happy hour. That meant a sampling of several small dishes, for sure. It also meant discounted cocktails. So there were libations for toasting and mellowing before. And first to the table were chips and dips. The guacamole was creamy and spicy thanks to the addition of some peppers. The roasted tomato salsa was another spicy delight. The pumpkin seed hummus was a nice change from traditional chickpea hummus.
The chipotle glazed chicken wings coated with sesame seeds were very reminiscent of Korean barbecue wings. These also had a kick to them and it was nice that the glaze was neither cloying nor overpowering. This was the appetizer that we wanted to order for a second round.
The tamal tots were a surprise. Who would have every thought to fry tamales up like tatertots? Served with a mild habanero crema, these were way better than expected. The combination of tamale flavor and crunch certainly move these up as a recommended appetizer.
Another winner from the appetizer section was the plate of enchiladas. These were small, fried, stuffed with a tasty cheese, and topped with a queso fresco. Compared to the other appetizers that had a bit of pepper to kick in on the back, this was mild.
I can now say that some of the best ceviche that I have had outside of Mexico, Central, and South America was at Dos Urban Cantina. I love spicy food and anything with heat is a winner. The ceviche was packed with lots of flavor, but the addition of a few red peppers took it up several notches. It countered the tartness of the lemon juice without a need for salt. To sum it up in one word: outstanding.
Moving into big plates, the seared scallops we devoured the seared scallops in silence. Served with shrimp toast ahogada, pickled spring onion, and turnip, we swiped through the gravy and finished this dish with a few random sighs and nods. When the server said that this was one of her favorite dishes, we understood why.
A bit heartier was the plate of short ribs with pinto beans. This came with a side of flour tortillas that we stuffed the tender short ribs, beans, radish, and charred lettuce in. After a while of total satisfaction, we used the tortillas to sop the remaining gravy. Yes, by now, we felt quite at home.
The addiction course was the octopus fried rice. This was what dreams are made of. The accent of garlic thankfully did not ruin the recipe, but rather hinted at its addition. Unlike octopus or squid at some restaurants, it was so tender that slicing through it with a dull eating utensil was possible without effort.
Because we had overindulged, we settled on one dessert: chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream. Okay, that would be two desserts. The cake had the texture and the trace of Betty Crocker in it, quite possibly made moister with sour cream. Texture was a giveaway. Nevertheless, it was a nice wrap-up to an extremely satisfying dinner.
Generally, you get really good Mexican food at taquerias. When restaurants take on a mainstream look and feel, the cuisine seems to pale. At Dos Urban Cantina, while there is a bit of mixing it up in the recipes, the spirit of Mexican food still shines. It’s an action-packed restaurant. After you feast on several menu items, it become apparent why. This is another restaurant I should not have taken so long to visit.
One of the great things about Instagram is that you get some great ideas for restaurants to try out. Recently, I saw a photo from a Japanese restaurant in a section of Oak Park, Illinois, that is not in the downtown area, but is on a stretch that is known as the Art District. New to me, since it had a few years when I was last in the area, is MORA Asian Kitchen at 201 Harrison Street. Quite spacious with a nice bar area, it is a plus for those who would like to delight themselves in several Japanese dishes, robata grill items, and sushi.
I sat at the bar on my first visit. To unwind after being in congested traffic, I had a MORA Mai Thai. Prepared with rum and accented with a twist of some lychee liqueur, it was what I needed for a hint of summer given our frosty temperatures. For a starter, I ordered a flight of three robata grill items. There was barbecued salmon prepared medium well so that it wasn’t the consistency of sushi tuna yet flaky and moist without any indication of dryness. The skewered grilled shrimp with lemongrass sauce were simply not enough because you fall in love with it immediately during the first bite. The same can be said for the lemongrass beef, of which I ordered medium and which fell off the skewer.
The basil chicken was more of a Thai dish and I enjoyed it still the same. Instead of ground chicken, it was work fried to a tenderness and moistness that made each bite a delight. Unlike a lot of Thai restaurants that load their dishes up with vegetables, that heavy handed approach was not applied here. There was a mushroom medley, jalapenos, and lemongrass sauce, none of which was overpowering in flavor or in quantity. The dish may be Thai inspired. It’s till worth every forkful regardless.
While I was tempted to skip ordering any kind of sushi, some of the options I had not seen on other sushi menus and they were too tempting to pass. I settled on having a Samurai since there were lobster and unagi sauce in the ingredients. With the addition of salmon on top and a spicy kick from jalapeno, this would easily be my go-to or my “in addition to” sushi roll for future visits.
I knew that I couldn’t go wrong with any light options from the dessert menu. I had a flight of mochi: mango, green tea, and strawberry. Served over a pomegranate compote that wasn’t syrupy, it was pure satisfaction. It was a perfect finale that did not result in a feeling of having overeaten, even though I had enjoyed several dishes earlier.
MORA Asian Kitchen stands out a little more than other Japanese restaurants in the Near West Suburbs area in that there are robata dishes available for ordering. There is a small selection of about six items, but it is still something many Japanese restaurants don’t have. It was very nice to see it on the menu here. There does not seem to be a Pan-Asian feel to the menu, albeit some of the hot plates seem to be inspired by Korean, Thai, and Chinese. Like many restaurants that I try initially, MORA Asian Kitchen will probably be one restaurant that I will frequent without any hesitation.
February is tootling right along and it occurred to me that I had not written a blog review since summer of 2018. Last year came with a lot of change and I had been riding the wave of “peace of mind” since. And I have been cooking at home more. Nevertheless, a friend had recommended a French restaurant in Homewood, Illinois, from having passed it often on her way to catch the train into downtown Chicago. Not having much French restaurant representation from the suburbs on the blog, I agreed to meet her for dinner so we could sample their offerings.
In the business district at 2034 Ridge Road in Homewood, Illinois, is La Voûte Bistro and Bar. Co-joined with Banque Hotel, it’s a very nice escape from the congestion of Chicago for a bit of French authenticity. Spacious on the inside with a mix of tables, booths, and an airy bar setting, one can enjoy a nice variety of dishes with a bit of a provincial French influence.
Not wanting to order the exact same dishes that one finds on menus at just about every French restaurant outside of France, we did a bit of switching up so that we could try different dishes. We started with a plate of stuffed mushrooms. It may be that I have not had mushrooms for quite some time because these that were stuffed with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, and mascarpone, and topped with a hollandaise sauce were addictive from the very first bite. It helps that you taste all of the ingredients individually, which meant no competition on the palate.
The escargot came with minced crudité. They were not as garlicky and buttery as I prefer, but they were just as tender. This was perhaps the first indication that the preparation of some of the dishes were indeed provincial. Served with the escargot were two strips of pastry that were outstanding as a standalone.
Where it was clear that there is lot of love to come out of the kitchen was with the lobster cigar. Clumps of lobster were stuffed inside of a delicately, flaky pastry and served atop a lobster sauce. There were no other fillers inside of the cigar, just fresh lobster and lots of flavor. This was perhaps the only dish we ordered that had a creamy base.
It seemed that most patrons had ordered the mushroom bisque. So, we were unfortunate that they had run out by the time we ordered. As a contingency, we ordered baked potato soup. Extremely tasty and peppery that way that I like soup during the winter, we forgot that loaded baked potato anything comes with bacon in it. It wasn’t overpowering and given the bacon was rather fine, it all went down nicely.
There was also a cup of French onion soup that was quite satisfying and filling. Topped with cheese, but not to the point of making the soup a chore to eat, this was certainly one serving that I actually liked because of it not being heavy handed with the cheese topping.
For the first entrée, there was Chilean sea bass with a Mediterranean preparation. The bass had been fileted and seared to give the skin a crisp while retaining a lot of succulent meat. Along with the sea bass came a mélange of grilled vegetables: potatoes, zucchini, red bell peppers, green bell peppers, and cherry tomatoes. Any seafood lover would approve.
Another winner was the lamb shank served with ratatouille and couscous. The flavor of the lamb was reminiscent of beef tagine that I found rather addictive in Morocco. And to make the dish that more delicious, the lamb came off the bone with no effort. Clearly the lamb had been slow cooked to perfection, tenderness and flavor at each bite being all the indication needed.
For desserts, we ordered light options. There was passion fruit sorbet with blueberries and a sliver of strawberry. There was also a lemon tart meringue accompanied with strawberry and whipped cream. Both were of the summer dessert variety in that they were citrusy. Neither excessively sugary nor tart to the point of biting at the back of the jaw, I recommend either, or, or both if you devour as much as we had prior to indulging the desserts. And for our finish, we had café au lait, something I definitely needed to wake up from the onset of food comatose.
La Voûte is indeed a vault of delicious, decadent, and lip-smacking dishes. For those in Chicago proper, North Suburbs, and West Suburbs, it’s worth the drive. For those in the South Suburbs, there is no reason why this should not be on your list. Per my friend, the restaurant is constantly filled. That’s a sign that they’re doing something correct. From what we had on our visit, they certainly got our dishes correct enough that we are already contemplating a return. For more offerings from La Voûte, I will make that long drive again.