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

Proper Spain Comes to Chicago

mfk.In September, 2016, I went to Spain and instead of doing the touristy trek, I opted to do a run of wineries throughout the country and to feast on tapas to counter the alcohol. It was one of my best international escapes, one that made me long for returning to Spain. And recently my restaurant advisor sent a text message with the initials mfk.

In Chicago’s Lakeview, at 432 W. Diversey Parkway, is quaint boutique restaurant mfk that focuses heavily on seafood, borrowing mostly from the cafes in coastal Spain. Unlike many restaurants that attempt to “get it right,” mfk seems to have someone from Northern Spain in the kitchen, which may explain the authenticity in the dishes that come without pretense.

To whet our palates, we started with cocktails. My restaurant advisor had a hotel nacional, a rather refreshing mix if Clement VSOP rhum agricole, pineapple, lime, and apricot liqueur. I was more Portuguese in my selection, opting for a caipirinha, very much reminiscent of the Brazilian favourite doctored up with cachaça, demerara syrup, and lime.

Caipirinha

Caipirinha

Hotel Nacional

Hotel Nacional

Having asked for five menu items as server’s choice without much review of the menu, the first landing came as ceviche. Not the usual preparation in a dainty glass with chips on the side, this ceviche came as filets of suzuki, thinly sliced, and tossed in a combination of lemon, lime, and orange juice that sat atop homemade guacamole accented with a little bit of citrus and a touch garlic, all affixed on tostados with squid ink. For each to be bite size, there was an incredible amount of piquancy and without the citrus biting at the back of the jaw.

Ceviche

Ceviche

The second landing was a plate of anchovies. I fell in love with anchovies when I was in Spain and they are nothing like the horrible anchovies that people order for a pizza topping. After having these on toast accented with farm set butter and lemon zest, I guarantee you that you’ll fall in love with these tasties as quickly as I did in Spain, and with my renewed love of them at mfk.

Anchovies on Toast

Anchovies on Toast

The third landing was an exotic one, a plate of crunchy prawn heads. The heads had been lightly breaded and fried. These then sat nestled atop a pepito mojo, which was a mix of different herbs, parsley, chives, and pumpkin seeds, worked up with a touch of olive oil. Not only were the shells easy to devour without them being noticeable between the teeth, but the seasoning and the mojo made for a divine dish.

Prawns Heads

Prawns Heads

The fourth landing was a take on a favourite dish that I order at most restaurants that serve seafood fare. This was a huge bowl of Price Edward Island mussels that had been simmered in a broth of cider with a little bit of butter and vegetable stock. The plating consisted of mussels with bread crumbs, crème fraiche, dill, parsley, and tarragon, along with toasted bread on the side. I have loved mussels with saffron in the recipe, but mfk served up my absolute new mussel crush. No grit in mussels and no mushiness with each bite, they were divine with a hint of the tarragon and dill in the background.

Mussels and Toast

Mussels and Toast

Having completed our first cocktails, we had a second round. Requesting surprises, my restaurant advisor had ranch water, which was a refreshing drink mixed with mezcal, lime, orange bitters, and topo chico. I had a marriage of Spain and Italy, a negroni prepared with mezcal insteal of with gin. People think everything tastes better with bacon in or on it. If only they knew about mezcal.

Ranch Water

Ranch Water

Mezcal Negroni

Mezcal Negroni

The fifth landing was a take on paella. Prepared with tomato and shellfish stock, the addition of herbs brought it up in flavor. For service, prawns, mussels, and clams were simmered and then finished with fresh herbs chopped on top and a couple slices of toast. In true paella preparation, there was saffron rice for utter enjoyment. There was so much flavor building in the recipe that while my restaurant advisor and I were practically stuffed, we did not let any of the paella go to waste. You could hear the Mortal Kombat sound byte saying, “Finish it!”

Seafood Paella

Seafood Paella

The sixth landing was a slice of the most heavenly cake you will ever have. The basque cake is simply the best way to save a failing marriage. Prepared with a generous portion of eggs, four, sugar, and vanilla, it’s extremely moist. To make the cake even more devilish, the almond pastry cream in the recipe has rum in it. Topped with almonds, there is also has a hint of salt from the salted almonds. Finished with a very nice glass of brandy, I’ll leave you with these famous words: It will save your marriage.

Basque Cake

Basque Cake

Brandy

Brandy

The dining area in mfk is very intimate. It is highly recommended that the later you go, it is better to make a reservation. Everything we had on the menu was worth a repeat visit. And a repeat visit we will entertain for a sampling of other dishes we did not have on the first visit. There is authenticity in the preparation and in the taste of the dishes. Since I have plans to go to other countries for vacation during the upcoming years, if I don’t get back to Spain any time soon, I will go back to mfk sooner than later.

mfk. Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Mango Pickle, Edgewater Indian

Mango Pickle

With ongoing growth in Chicago, neighbourhoods like Edgewater are becoming hubs for a lot of cultural cuisine. There is influence from the Vietnamese community just to the South in Uptown. There are several authentic Thai restaurants, Ethiopian restaurants, a nearby Nigerian restaurant, sushi bars, American cafes, and a dusting of Indian restaurants. Mango Pickle at 5842 N. Broadway Street was my latest jaunt for a sampling of something representative from afar.

Smoky Negroni

Smoky Negroni

Touted as a cafe, Mango Pickle is a spacious restaurant that serves Sunday brunch and dinner Wednesdays through Saturdays. For my first visit, I went for Sunday brunch. I started with a Smoky Negroni since you can never go wrong with a negroni. The bartender mixed a great brunch cocktail that was neither heavy-handed with the alcohol nor too light that it was watery. To get a good sampling of offerings, I started with chicken soup, which came in a deep plate with tender chicken and root vegetables over a curry gravy. Although I was expecting the landing to arrive in a cup or a bowl, it was still a flavourful dish that I would have again.

Chicken Soup

Chicken Soup

The second brunch landing was a plate of carrot halwa with French toast. Topped with pecans and drizzled with a light syrup, this was a rather light offering considering the toast had the consistency of fluffy, scrambled eggs, rather than grilled bread. The carrot halwa was the item in the dish that stood out as representative of something in Indian dining. With the natural sweetness of the halwa, it was a nice accompaniment to the toast.

Carrot Halwa and French Toast

Carrot Halwa and French Toast

For the third brunch landing, I had bun maska with homemade jam and accompanied it with a cup of masala chai. This was the first time I had ever eaten this Maharashtrian favourite. Dusted with powdered sugar, the bun maska was warm, right from the oven, buttered, and outstanding with the jams. As to the masala chai, Mango Pickle needs a walk-up window where one can order the chai for take-away.

Bun Maska & Chai

Bun Maska & Chai

Recognizing that the brunch seemingly had an Indian influence to American breakfast, I returned a few days later for a tasting of the dinner offerings. Very much like during Sunday brunch, the restaurant was crowded and full of energy. I was full of anticipation.

Chai with Bourbon and Somrus

Chai with Bourbon and Somrus

I started with a cup of masala chai that came with a small vial of bourbon and another small vial of Somrus Indian liqueur. Being a fan of whiskey, scotch, and bourbon, there were no complaints while enjoying the bourbon in part with the chai. Where I was completely won over was with the Somrus Indian liqueur. Having gotten a taste of the liqueur at a media event in December 2016, I was quick to make a reminder to myself to seek out a bottle of it for enjoyment at home.

As usual, I opted for a few landings so I could have a good idea of what Mango Pickle had for the dinner crowd. I started with a lamb slider that came open-faced atop naan and accented with a drizzle of kasundi mustard. Not a large appetizer, but certainly one that will awake the taste buds, I recommend this as a starter.

Lamb Slider

Lamb Slider

The second landing was baigan bharta, a traditional creamed eggplant dish in Indian cuisine. Spicy the way I had requested it, this was a very satisfying vegetarian option. This dish came with root vegetables and was topped with papadum. One thing I noticed with the inclusion of root vegetables (i.e., beets and sweet potatoes) is a hint of Eastern European flare sneaking into certain dishes. It works well here, for sure.

Baigan Bharta

Baigan Bharta

The final landing was still in keeping with vegetarian options. It was chana masala. This dish had a heavier ginger base than I have had before at any Indian restaurants domestically or abroad. I ordered basmati rice with the chana masala that had herbs and two small dollops of ghee added. Fantastic. Looking back, I think naan would have tempered the ginger a bit, but the ginger was actually good for digestion given how much I had ordered.

Chana Masala

Chana Masala

Since I often spend a lot of time in Edgewater visiting with friends, I never paid much attention to Mango Pickle on the landscape. So, I can’t say that it is a new addition to Edgewater. It is, however, a welcomed one, I’m sure. The service during Sunday brunch was superb. And during my return for dinner, the server recognized me as “the photographer who sat at the high-top.” That alone was enough to prove consistency in the service. And for the food, I’m won over completely. Even with the faint hint of Eastern European showing up in the ingredients, the restaurant serves some delicious Indian cuisine still. You should add Mango Pickle to your “Must Go Here” list.

Mango Pickle Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Chocolate, Ukrainian Style at Shokolad

During early summer of 2016 I had the opportunity to go in for the taping of an episode of Check, Please! Based out of Chicago, the show features three guests who visit three restaurants anonymously and then have a round table review of the restaurants. One of the restaurants we reviewed was Osteria Langhe, which quickly became my favourite Italian restaurant in Chicago when I visited for blogging about it in 2014. The other restaurant was a Pan-Asian restaurant named New Star in Elmwood Park. The third restaurant was Shokolad in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village at 2524 W. Chicago Avenue.

Ricotta Bread

Ricotta Bread

Having passed by Shokolad countless times, my mind turned on phonetics and I automatically thought chocolate and, thus, chocolate as a confection. So, I kept passing by it and never stopped long enough to take a brief peak inside. Thanks to it being one of the restaurants to review for the episode on Check, Please!, I was quite satisfied to enter a cafe filled with a range of friends and families, many speaking the language from the Ukraine, others simply showing appreciation for the food.

Borscht

Borscht

With complimentary ricotta bread and butter accented with garlic, I indulged a bowl of borscht. This soup was the first indication that there would be authenticity in the remainder of the meal. The beets had a garden fresh taste, not the doctored up fruity sweetness from canned or jarred beets. And since the borscht had not been overloaded with croutons, there was only the pure flavouring of the soup to enjoy.

Pierogies: Cheese and Potatoes

Pierogies: Cheese and Potatoes

Because Eastern European countries are good at providing food that is rather hearty, there were two varenikis that I sampled. One was a plate of cheese and potatoes pierogies. The other was a plate of mushroom and tarragon pierogies. One may say that once you’ve had the regular cheese and potatoes pierogies, you’ve had them all. When you come to Shokolad, you soon find out that the bar in delectable flavour has been raised extremely high. You’re not feasting on a frozen variety, be it from the market or prepared days in advance and kept in the freezer for warming. The mushroom and tarragon pierogies are simply heaven, the best pierogies I’ve had since I’ve been exposed to Eastern European cuisine. Again, fresh ingredients, preparations to order, and a delight on the palate.

Ukrainian Style Fried Chicken Over Noodles

Ukrainian Style Fried Chicken Over Noodles

For my first main dish, I had Ukrainian style fried chicken over noodles. Considering many say Ukrainian food “sticks to your belly,” the fried chicken was like moist chicken fried in a cloud. The batter seemed to be egg-based, which made the coating light. But the seasoning had some herbs in it that made each bite outstanding. With the noodles being buttery and far from bland, the chicken still was the star in the dish and all of it was satisfying. There was a side of slaw served and not being a fan of anyone’s slaw, I was surprised that I had finished the side order of it to completion. The slaw isn’t creamy and actually doesn’t have a noticeable mayonnaise base, which is probably why it was more like a nice salad instead.

Hutsulske Pechenya

Hutsulske Pechenya

I waited awhile until my restaurant advisor, who was in the area, arrived. After she had ordered a few dishes, I sampled hutsulske pechenya that came with two ricotta rolls. If I were to make a recommendation as to what dish to indulge during Chicago winters, I would suggest the hutsulske pechenya. Order it for a proper sit-down and order some for take-away. This pot of stew with seasoned beef and plump mushrooms left me wondering if the reason my Ukrainian friends never mentioned this dish is because they know I will beg in an irritating fashion for them to bring some for me.

Check, Please!

Check, Please! Review of Shokolad, New Star, and Osteria Langhe

With so much change in Ukrainian Village over the past few years, it is nice to see that a restaurant like Shokolad has retained authenticity such that they did not compromise the recipes. From great service to reasonable prices to food that begs you to return, it’s understandable how we who reviewed the restaurant came to the agreement that it is indeed a restaurant to add to your list.

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

Top 10 Jaunts for 2016

This has been a rather fast and adventurous year. New restaurants, new cafes, new boutiques, and an appetite to go through all of them. So this brings me to the time for me to present my top 10 list of ethnic jaunts for 2016.

10.  Cantón Regio — Mexican — 1510 W. 18th Street

Brochetas de Pollo y Camarones

Pollo y Camarones

Arrachera

Arrachera

There can never be too many Mexican restaurants in Chicago. If most of them were bad, it would be easier to say which is the best. Cantón Regio falls in the category of Mexican restaurants that make you inner fat child very, very happy.

9. Cafe Orchid — Turkish — 1746 W. Addison Street

Patican Salata

Patican Salata

If you can make it through a meal without dancing in your seat, let me know. It can’t be possible to sit through a meal here and have no emotions, except for shedding tears for how delectable everything is.

8. Ay Ay Picante — Peruvian — 4569 N. Elston Avenue

Chupe de Camarones

Chupe de Camarones

Peruvian food served the way it’s enjoyed in Peru. Peruvian food served the “Chicago way,” that being you’ll walk away stuffed. My recommendation for when the food is just “that” good and you start declaring, “Jesus,” clear it up by pronouncing the name the way it’s pronounced in Latin American countries so no one will know that you’re really taking Jesus’s name in vain.

7. Serai — Malaysian — 2169 N. Milwaukee Avenue

Roti Pratha

Roti Pratha

When you can get Malaysian food without it being buried on one of several booklet pages at a Pan-Asian restaurant, run to the restaurant, don’t walk. Serai is “real McCoy” Malaysian food. The Malaysians who are always there and my Malaysian friends can vouch for the way the food makes them miss home.

6. Rickshaw Republic — Indonesian — 2312 N. Lincoln Avenue

Beef Rendang, Coconut Rice, String Beans, Corn Fritter

Beef Rendang, Coconut Rice, String Beans, Corn Fritter

With there not being a short list of Indonesian restaurants in Chicago, Rickshaw Republic is all-authentic. It’s mandatory to make several trips because with all of the offerings, and all of them being amazing, you have to make more than one trip. You have to!!!

5. Animale — Italian — 1904 N. Western Avenue

Fegato

Fegato

When Osteria Langhe opened in Chicago, the city got the best Italian food this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Animale is a more exotic version of Italian food, served in a fast casual setting.

4. Chiya Chai — Nepalese — 2770 N. Milwaukee Avenue

Masala Fries, Balti Pie, Creamy Masala Chicken, Masala Chai

Masala Fries, Balti Pie, Creamy Masala Chicken, Masala Chai

Logan Square is clearly vying for the position of international hub within Chicago, which is already a notable international destination. One of the more recent additions to the Logan Square landscape is Chiya  Chai, a spot where you can get some chai to make you give up coffee and some Nepalese food with authenticity that transports you to Kathmandu.

3. Ras Dashen — Ethiopian — 5846 N. Broadway Street

Communal Platter

Communal Platter

Knives? Forks? Spoons? For the absolute best in cultural dining, Ethiopian dining is what you would want to indulge. While Edgewater boasts several Ethiopian restaurants, Ras Dashen stands out as one of the few that deserves a seating.

2. Little Unicoco — Nigerian — 1631 W. Howard Street

Meat Pie and House Sauce

Meat Pie and House Sauce

The slow renaissance in Rogers Park is bringing about the presence of several restaurants, many from an international eatpoint (new word). Little Unicoco brings Nigeria to Chicago’s Far North Side, complete with authenticity and an inviting atmosphere.

1. Juno — Japanese — 2638 N. Lincoln Avenue

Seared Scallop, Grilled Octopus, Ceviche Maki

Seared Scallop, Grilled Octopus, Ceviche Maki

Most people love sushi, maki rolls, and hibachi fare. But sometimes, it’s better to deviate from the usual and delve into the world of omakases. Small plates, attention to detail, flavours that pop, and the best Japanese food in Chicago without pretension.

There you have it. While this may be the short list, there were several winners throughout the entire year. Once the temperatures warm up, check out a few of them. Oh, what the heck, go even when it’s frosty outside. Not only do you get to take advantage of someone else’s heat, but you also get to eat well. Enjoy. And we’ll see each other in 2017.

Mad Boiler, Mad Delicious

Mad Boiler

Earlier this month, while in West Loop for a concert at a nearby venue, I walked by a Cajun seafood boil boutique. Having experienced the delight at a few other seafood boil boutiques and restaurants, I was anxious to return the West Loop location at 1045 W. Madison Street, by the name of a Mad Boiler.

Clam Chowder

Clam Chowder

For an early Sunday afternoon, the restaurant was empty. Given the city was being blanketed with snow, many who would have been out and about perhaps stayed inside. Unlike them, snow and frosty temperatures don’t deter me.

Cajun Fries

Cajun Fries

I started with a cup of clam chowder. Having had cups and bowls of watery clam chowder, I was well past elated when the chowder at Mad Boiler arrived with a truly creamy base. Even with there being some bell peepers in the recipe,  it was still the best.

For my main feast, I ordered a pound of shrimp and a pound of crawfish in a combination sauce of Louisiana Cajun rub and garlic butter. Served in a bag, the shellfish was also accompanied with corn on the cob and andouille sausage. As if that was not enough, I had Cajun fries and a small loaf of bread, the latter for sopping.

I fell in love with the seafood boil concept here in Chicago in early spring, so I was thoroughly excited when everything I had at Mad Boiler was a winner. The shrimps were plump, the crawfish were fresh, the corn was sweet, the sausage was tasty, and the sauce was out of this world.

Crawfish, Shrimp, Corn, Andouille Sausage

Crawfish, Shrimp, Corn, Andouille Sausage

Mad Boiler gets plenty business through the week and I’m certain it draws a crowd on the weekends during the evenings. The service is absolutely top. The prices per quantity ratio is reasonable, especially if you have an extreme appetite and order a lot. There are other soups, sandwiches, and seafood offerings for your delight. I recommend going, donning the bib and gloves, and being quite okay devouring seafood from a bag. You will eat enough that it may drive you mad.

Mad Boiler 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

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

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

Artango, Food That Makes You Dance

Artango Bar & Steakhouse

I have a friend who is an actress. Years ago, she used to have stage plays in the Lincoln Square neighbourhood and we would catch up after plays at an Italian restaurant in the stretch of Lincoln Avenue between Leland Avenue and Lawrence Avenue. That restaurant has since closed and in its place is Artango at 4767 N. Lincoln Avenue. Recognizing the name from some emails I have received per recommendations for the restaurant, it was time for me to visit the replacement to the old Italian eatery while following through on the recommendations.

Raspberry Mojito

Raspberry Mojito

With the weather being nice enough for sitting outside, I perused the menu and opted for my version of a degustation without going strict “steakhouse” with the meal. I decided to let my server make the decisions for me, which is becoming routine for me and surprisingly enjoyable for my servers. For libations, I told my server I wanted a flight of mojitos and for him to have the bartender surprise me. The first mojito was a raspberry mojito and oh was it a delight on the palate. This was what I will call a true summer drink.

Trio de Ceviche

Trio de Ceviche

The first course was a trio de ceviche. Instead of cuts of seafood in cups of juice with cilantro, onions, and other seasoning, these came as clumps of fresh seafood. There was corvina fish that looked fatty, but was rather meaty. There was a tuna with black mint and topped with a small seaweed salad. The third ceviche was shrimp in a passionfruit sauce. The flavour of the seafood was rather light and the accents in the recipe were also not heavy. All served with plantain chips, this is a good starter without filling up.

Mango Mojito

Mango Mojito

The second mojito was a manjo mojito. Very much like the raspberry mojito, the method used in mixing in the alcohol was done in a way that the alcohol did not jump out immediately. It became obvious after finishing most of the cocktail. If I never had another regular mojito, I would not complain. If I return to Artango and having the mango mojito is not possible, I will indeed complain. This was what I will call a beach drink.

Gazpacho

Gazpacho

The second course was a gazpacho. Served with a medley of chopped red and green bell peppers, grilled toast, and a lump of crab, this gazpacho was enough to invoke a desire for dancing. This was a pleasant surprise because cold soup can taste only like chilled tomato juice if it is not prepared the correct way. And since I have never prepared a gazpacho, I shall concede that Artango has the recipe and preparation under control.

 

Pineapple Mojito

Pineapple Mojito

Easing into the third course, I had a pineapple mojito. All while I sipped it, I kept thinking that if there had been some ginger in it, it would have tasted exactly like june plum juice that you get in Jamaica. The pineapple flavouring was not heavy-handed, but the alcohol was also not heavy on the tongue. Yet, I did have a “Gino in the Sky with Mojitos” moment later. And I was okay with that. This was what I call a tropical getaway drink.

Ravioli

Ravioli

The third course was a ravioli. I know that there may be some who are screaming, “How can you go to a steakhouse and not have steak or any meat?” I am saving the meat indulgence for when I return with friends in a few weeks. Now, the ravioli was still good enough for devouring and may very well be a great accompaniment to a plate of meat. The stuffing contained ricotto cheese and cherry tomatoes. The sauce was not hearty, but it still packed a punch in terms of flavour. Topped with homemade mozzarella and basil, yes, this will go great with some sirloin.

Churros

Churros

The finale consisted of churros that came with a chocolate sauce and also with a raspberry coulis. For all the raving over doughnuts, give me homemade churros from Artango. I will eat them on the bus. I will eat them on the subway. I will eat them in my office. I will eat them on my couch. I will eat them, Sam-I-Am, and I know none of this rhymes. As you can tell, they were worthy. With the churros, I had a cafe con leche. Cubans still dominate the market in making the best cafe con leches, but Artango does a mean one that does not require any sweeteners. I recommend getting churros to go with the cafe con leche, though.

Cafe con Leche

Cafe con Leche

Artango not only dishes out some lip-smacking Argentinean love from the kitchen, but they also have tango classes for those who want to learn how to tango or for those who will have eaten too much and want to work off some of the food. The service was top. When I trust my server to put in the order to the kitchen without me giving exact directions and the entire meal leaves me sated, there is no argument that the service is fantastic. As to the bar service, the bartender deserves an encore. I’m sure I’ll make the same observations about service and food when I return. Sam-I-Am dared me to go back and I love dares.

Artango Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato