Recently, while making some updates to Chicago Alphabet Soup, I crossed one of my earlier write-ups, one that I had done on a Moroccan restaurant named Andalous. It has since closed and not to sound gloomy in an exaggerated fashion, there was a pang of disappointment in the discovery. Andalous was the only Moroccan restaurant that I had found in Chicago — and I am sure there are many more since the first outing to the restaurant — but the food was outstanding and considering the owner took time out to explain a lot dishes to my friend and me, I was sold on the restaurant being a top recommendation to those near and who would visit from afar. I had visited Rabat, Marrakech, and Agadir, so I had a point of reference for authenticity for the dishes. Andalous did not disappoint on the first visit, but it’s closing was a shock.
So after continuing to refine posts on Chicago Alphabet Soup and reminiscing about Andalous, there arrived an email invitation in my inbox. It was for a dinner at the Hairpin Arts Centre at 2800 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Having lived in Logan Square since late 1995, I was not aware of any art centres in the area. Then again, work had required a lot of travel, which kept me jetting across the skies, across the oceans, and to destinations fun and exciting. Even when in Chicago, I was constantly in motion meeting with friends, dining at various restaurants, and relaxing so that I was not living my life in one day. Other than my condo and a few watering holes, I never paid much attention to any other locations in the neighbourhood. I figured the invitation would give me the opportunity to see the arts centre and indulge one of my favourite engagements — eating.
This was indeed a traditional affair. Christopher Turner, a butcher at The Butcher & Larder at 1026 N Milwaukee Avenue, was the chef. In true Moroccan form, we had to remove our shoes. The invitation had been extended to a fair amount of individuals, so there was a long table that we all sat around on pillows on the floor. I thought to myself that this was going to be a good evening. For starters, there were black and green olives that clearly did not come from a jar. There was also homemade hummus, quite noticeable with a bit of grit to the texture, a sure indication that it was not procured pre-made. With khobz, or Moroccan flatbread, the hummus was an appetizing highlight.
Because the lighting was relatively dim and we had to pass dishes in communal fashion, there were a few dishes that I did not get to capture any visual impressions of. There were carrots that had been prepared with spices and everyone devoured them to completion. There was also what is quickly becoming a favourite vegetable of mine, as well as the source for my red velvet cakes turning out properly red and moist — beets. Many times I have joked about how my grandmother’s spirit is rolling her eyes and declaring, “Now that boy decides that he loves beets.” I had been engaged in conversation with the individuals seated near me, so I had missed the explanation of how the carrots and beets were prepared. I will simply say that rabbit food prepared Moroccan style is not a bad thing.
The first meat dish to come to the table was a beef tangine. I have been quite good with keeping seafood as the only meat in my diet, with a few occasions of falling off the wagon and sampling chicken or beef. With my decision to become a pescatarian being a personal decision, not religious or because of a detriment to my health or fad, I opted for a scoop of the beef tangine with baked apples. One, I am glad the beef was not tough. I used the kobhz to pick up the meat and noticed how tender it was to the touch. It was succulent to the bite. Second, the seasoning of cloves and cinnamon made it that more tasty and the gravy added a richness that I must admit captured the beef tangine I had in Morocco many years ago. The apples and raisins in the dish allowed for a natural sweetness to the gravy to lessen any acidity in the recipe. The table that initially was a burst of conversation was accented with quiet.
Now, there was not going to be meat only, so there was fennel served with the beef tangine. Whenever I have had fennel, it has been in salads and such that any flavouring it could offer would be faint. I do not like licorice, Sam I Am, I do not like it. However, fennel served without anything else being in the way of flavour has a distant licorice highlight to it. I love fennel. How can this be? It’s as bad as me hating peanuts while having an addiction to peanut butter cookies at the same time. Yes, I am an enigma, one who appreciates a plate of smile-inducing fennel.
Once the course of beef tangine and fennel was cleared, we had an intermiso of pomegranate juice with rose-water and mint. Aside from the rose-water being added, the drink reminded me of hibiscus tea or kakade that I loved during my trips to Alexandria, Egypt. Rose water seems to be a common addition to some beverages and desserts in the Mediterranean, so I can only imagine there being an influence in Moroccan recipes. As soon as I find some market in the Chicago metropolitan area that sells rose-water, I will prepare my own concoctions of liquid happiness. The second intermiso was a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice with rose blossom water, served in a glass with cinnamon and sugar around the rim. If this isn’t a summer drink, I cannot tell you what is. I am adding rose blossom water to my list of ingredients for my summer beverages.
We waited for well over fifteen minutes before the next course came to the table. This allowed for bellies to settle without being inundated with more tasty food immediately. Conversation was lively, new names were introduced that I won’t recall but whose faces I will remember, and anticipation was full in the air. Then came merguez and couscous. I had given in with the previous course and indulged the beef, so I forewent the merguez. Those who were seated near me raved about how they loved the chicken and lamb sausage. It definitely sounded like a winner and their facial expressions indicated so in the affirmative. I did enjoy the couscous, which had a citrus flavouring to it. What I loved most about the couscous was that it wasn’t of the consistency of mushy rice or sticky grits. I was reminded of cornbread dressing without the soupiness of it sitting in broth. Had I partaken of some merguez, I bet the dish would have been several notches past the 10 that I had already given it.
After the finale of merguez and couscous, there were desserts and traditional mint tea. The chef for the evening was honest enough to inform us all that the desserts were catered courtesy a bakery named M Desserts. Anyone who has had any desserts from the Middle East, you know that there is a high level of intricacy to the design and baking process. You cannot whip up some batter, put it on baking sheets, bake for some length of time at some set temperature, and serve as if you were some master baker. There is a science to desserts from the North African/Middle Eastern/Mediterranean part of the world. I shall have to find M Bakery. Nevertheless, there was an array of pastries, and cookies, all sweet and full of nuts the way they are prepared and served in Morocco. And we could not have any of those desserts without some mint tea served traditionally in a glass, from which you have to use the tips of your fingers to hold the glass by the rim and sip.
Most of the guests were personal friends of the guest chef. They described him as being great as a butcher. Although I have never been to the shop where he works, I would venture to say that his chef talents probably put his chop-chop skills to shame. It is unfair for me to say that what I had transported me back to my visits to Morocco, but I will say that the food would be worthy of return visits to any restaurant where he was the master chef. I hope that his volunteer chef work for the evening will help towards raising awareness about the Hairpin Arts Centre. Considering I have lived in Logan Square for years and have passed the building where the arts centre resides, the absence of a moniker or any advertisements have resulted in me constantly passing by a significant part of the Logan Square landscape. I would hope to see more coming out of and going into the Hairpin Arts Centre, and I would gladly support Christopher Turner if he were to take his talents up a notch along the lines of culinary arts.