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

Little Unicoco, Big Taste in Authenticity

Little Unicoco

A few weeks ago during lunch, I was reminiscing with a good friend about my days when I lived in Rogers Park. The neighbourhood has since changed. Old businesses have closed. New businesses have opened. The changing demographics of the old neighbourhood are bringing a new vibe. And with all of these changes is a wave of restaurants with international flare. My friend had mentioned that a new Nigerian restaurant opened next to my favourite coffeehouse. So, this week I was off to Little Unicoco at 1631 W. Howard Street.

Plantain Chips

Plantain Chips

Arriving during the mid afternoon, I had a seat in what is called the market area of the restaurant. The larger lounge area was on the other side of the walled partition. After placing my order, I had fried, sweet plantain chips. Forget about potato chips and fancy chips touting less fat and healthy options. The all-natural sweetness and pop in the fried plantains were a winning combination. I was glad to find that the market portion of the restaurant has these lovelies bagged for take-away.

Goslings Ginger Beer

Goslings Ginger Beer

Much like the most recent Doctor Who, I’m not always a good man. Having inquired about whether there was ginger beer for imbibing, the server informed me that there was. She even poured the beverage with care, as if pouring beer. But this was the good kind of beer. Nothing like the fizzy pop that you buy off the shelves at your local grocer, this reminded me of homemade ginger beer, the variety that people take time to boil with real ginger that they leave in and you get to enjoy somewhat as candy when you’re done downing the ginger beer. Being bad, I sent a photo to my food advisor, knowing how much she loves “real” ginger beer. I imagined her shaking her fist at her cellphone before she sent a text back to me with three words: Don’t tease me!

Meat Pie and House Sauce

Meat Pie and House Sauce

One of my favourite Nigerian snack foods is a meat pie. Bread is a vice and the crust in Nigerian meat pies is well past addictive. Filled with a nice amount of minced, ground beef, this is a food addict’s dream along with a tomato based hot sauce. By the third bite, I had decided that I would order several for take-away so that I could have them for breakfast over the next few days. The caveat is I will devour them all in one day.

Suya

Suya

Next to the table was suya. This is another snack food that screams “have at it and know that I am the best barbecue ever.” Sliced beef with Yaji spices on onions and tomatoes, the ginger from the ginger beer combined with the spices on the suya transported me mentally back to Lagos with my university classmates who knew where to find all the good street food.

Egusi and Pounded Yam

Egusi and Pounded Yam

The final dish was one that I have loved with rice. But on this visit, I had to lose my Westernisms and devour this dish with pounded yam rather than with the assistance of table utensils. Egusi soup. This bowl of spicy, pounded egusi seeds filled with fish and beef is my favourite Nigerian dish, with non-vegetarian pepper soup and isi ewu coming in next. I have enjoyed the spicy kick of egusi soup with rice whenever I had a chance to have a bowl placed in front of me, however, there was something about eating it with the pounded yam that made it taste like I was eating something from home.

Chin Chin with Nutmeg

Chin Chin with Nutmeg

As a wrap-up, the server asked if I would like to sample a dessert. You have not had a tastier snack until you have had a fried pastry called chin chin. I sampled some that had been flavoured with nutmeg. I remembered being gifted some from a classmate’s mother who prepared some for a care pack when I was leaving Nigeria to return to New York for an intern when I was in university. It was as if I had gone back to Ibadan in 1989 to relive that flight again.

Chin Chin

Chin Chin

Little Unicoco packs a huge punch with authenticity. Granted I went earlier in the day well before the dinner crowd arrived, the service was still top. The atmosphere was welcoming and even the owner walked to every table and inquired as to whether this was everyone’s first time having Nigerian food and if there were any answers he could provide. Now I have another go-to Nigerian restaurant in Chicago. Big ups, Little Unicoco.

Little Unicoco Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

La Sardine, Not The Canned Kind

La SardineSeveral months ago the owner at my favourite Italian restaurant in the world, Osteria Langhe, recommended a French bistro to me since he knew that I liked the European feel to my dining experience. During my last visit to the Italian restaurant, I thanked the owner for his recommendation. He then offered a recommendation for another French restaurant that he was confident I would enjoy. My sister and I blocked an evening for a sampling and before going into the full review, I’ll just say that I will thank the owner at my favourite Italian restaurant for this most recent suggestion.

Located at 111 N. Carpenter Street in Chicago’s West Loop District is La Sardine. Come to find out that this restaurant is the sister location to Le Bouchon, which was the first French restaurant given to me as a recommendation. La Sardine is larger, less of a bistro, but without any doubt, the food is just as spectacular and the service is also top.

Not being in a rush, my sister and I opted for a round of various dishes for fulfillment of our own little degustation. There was a potato leek soup that puts to shame some of the same soup that I have had at numerous restaurants worldwide. Unlike the thin base that I have had in the past, this was creamy without the potatoes being the thickening agent. Fresh ingredients in the recipe and this was a perfect starter.

Potato Leek Soup

Potato Leek Soup

During my first visit to Le Bouchon, I had ordered the soupe à l’oignon gratinée. When my sister and I had returned for what was to be my second visit, she had not had the French onion soup, so it was a part of the meal for our La Sardine sampling. After cutting through the baked gruyère cheese and down through the crouton, she understood why I talked incessantly about how much of a fan I was of the soup. Midway through the soup, she declared that it was the best she had ever eaten.

Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée

Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée

It would be wrong to go to a French restaurant and not partake of any escargot. So, we had a platter of plump escargots à la bourguignonne bubbling in burgundy, garlic, parsley, and butter. After we had finished the savoury morsels, we used the homemade French bread to sop the remaining sauce from the little cups on the platter.

Escargots à la Bourguignonne

Escargots à la Bourguignonne

Sin entered the picture when the bowl of moules au cidre arrived at the table. Granted the morsels in the mussels are light, the quantity of mussels was not small. To add to that, the mussels were swimming in a delectable cream sauce accented with cider and shallots. After we finished the mussels, we then used the French bread to sop the rest of the sauce. My sister, being a Catholic, spoke to an invisible priest, “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.” Me being a practising Buddhist, simply acknowledged that I was enjoying the moment of gluttony and decided to be at peace with my higher power after coffee.

Moules au Cidre

Moules au Cidre

For my main dish, I ordered the rãble de lapin. The rabbit was delectable, tender, not oily, and nothing akin to gamey on the palate. Served with a potato risotto in an au jus, I had pretty much decided that I will spend quite a bit of time at La Sardine cleaning plates.

Rãble de Lapin

Rãble de Lapin

My sister ordered the magret de canard. This dish, one consisting of duck that was neither oily nor gamey, was a winner. This one came with lentils and rapini in an addictive orange sauce. There were exaggerated pauses in conversation during the main course. I have a habit of humming when food is divine and my sister gets reticent for a few minutes. We were silent for at least fifteen minutes.

Magret de Canard

Magret de Canard

There was no room for dessert. And although we watched some captivating sweets going to different tables, the most we could indulge was coffee. Coffee is the after-diner drink my sister always has and I opted for a cafe au lait. Quality bean, clean coffee machine, or whatever it may be, I can speak to the cafe au lait not requiring any sweetener and not making me feel like there was something bitter in the cup.

Cafe au Lait

Cafe au Lait

The service at La Sardine is through the roof. The restaurant fills quickly and there is a nonstop flow of patrons coming and going. Still, it is evident that the service plays a part in the experience being splendid for those who come. The food is hands-down the best French food in Chicago that I have had as of late — and I include the sister restaurant Le Bouchon in the number one slot with La Sardine. Seating is close, a rather European effect, so be forewarned if you go. Make a reservation because the energy is high. Go on an empty stomach, don’t be in a rush to stuff yourself, and be prepared to experience sin with all the good flavours of France.

Mon Dieu.

La Sardine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Top 10 Jaunts for 2015

How quick the end of the year approaches. And now we are at the time when Chicago Alphabet Soup proudly presents the Top 10 Jaunts for 2015. There are numerous restaurants that I go to throughout the year. Many of them make it onto the blog. Some don’t. However, there are restaurants that stand out more. Those restaurants deserve highlighting.

Several friends and others have asked what criteria I use for coming up with the top 10 restaurants for a given year. I never specified that when I compiled the lists in 2013 and 2014, so now is as good as time as ever to put forth the short list.

  • The food is outstanding on a first visit, consistently outstanding on repeat visits. It doesn’t have to look fancy on a plate, but it must be divine on the palate.
  • The service is top. Restaurants are service organizations and any time diners feel less than welcome, that alone can set a tone for a bad dining experience. And whenever a server makes recommendations that exceed your expectations, you will have struck gold.
  • There is a constant desire to return after the initial visit to the restaurant. This comes not only from delicious food, but from a welcoming atmosphere and top service.
  • For sticking with the theme of international cuisine, the restaurant must serve food that is from cultures abroad. Minus the continuous rattling off about Chicago being a racially divided city, many completely miss the fact that a city with as many various cultures cannot be that nightmarish. And authenticity in the food from the multitide of cultures and ethnicities should be celebrated and shown appreciation accordingly.
  • I hanker for a cigarette when I leave the restaurant. I don’t smoke, by the way.

In the same manner as previous years, the restaurants that made the list were restaurants where I went as a regular Joe. There were no advanced announcements and no one knew that I was blogging. Any restaurant that serves VIP treatment without the diners having celebrity status and food that you won’t shut up talking about is a restaurant that plies its trade well. So, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you in video forms the restaurants that exceeded my expectations for 2015.


10. Cafe Bela — Latin American

9. Saigon Bistro — Vietnamese

8. Demera — Ethiopian

7. Badou Senegalese Cuisine — Senegalese

6. Le Bouchon — French

5. Tandoor Char House — Indian-Pakistani

4. Cohiba Cuban Cuisine — Cuban

3. Taste of Trinidad — Trinidadian

2. Herb — Thai

1. Bolat African Cuisine — Nigerian


Until 2016, enjoy all and eat well.

Bistronomic, Bon Français en Chicago

Not long ago I went to a French bistro in Bucktown named Le Bouchon. I fell in love with the bistro. Shortly after that, I went to Mexique, a Mexican restaurant that has a French influence. I fell in love with that restaurant also. Since I was on a French kick, Bistronomic at 840 N. Wabash Avenue became the third restaurant I added for my “Third Time is a Charm” dining experience. I was blown away just like I had been at Le Bouchon and Mexique.

Pumpkin Soup

Pumpkin Soup

With this being the last restaurant that I figured I would blog for 2015, I wanted a memorable dining experience. I opted for a variety of plates, starting with a cup of pumpkin soup. This was a fantastic autumn soup, filled with puréed pumpkin, highlighted nicely with cinnamon, croutons, and a liberal scoop of crème fraîche. This soup I had paired with a white wine that I left to the server’s selection. Not quite sweet yet not too dry, the marriage of the soup and wine made for an outstanding starter.

Salmon Linguine

Salmon Linguine

The salmon linguine was a dream. The linguine sauce was creamy without being milky and the salad came with a hint of a vinaigrette that still allowed the freshness of the salmon to come through. Where the salmon has been dry in the recipe at many other restaurants that have attempted the dish, Bistronomic should take a bow for having flaky, succulent salmon in the recipe. And this I had paired with another white wine that was closer to sweet to cut down on any acidity of the dish from the vinaigrette.

Braised Rabbit

Braised Rabbit

Apologies to my favourite Loony Tunes character, Bugs Bunny. Because the braised rabbit with root vegetables over what tasted like an autumn purée was met with complete satisfaction. The few smears of gravy from having devoured the tender meat that I struggled to keep on the fork showed my initiation into the Clean Plate Society, as though I have not been inducted already. This paired well with a Merlot, a recommendation that the server thought would be better not quite full-bodied because the dish was rich.

Apple Banana Crumble with Ice Cream

Apple Banana Crumble with Ice Cream

Dessert was heaven. The apple banana crumble came with toasted walnuts, macadamia nuts, and white raisins, all topped with a generous scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. The apples still had enough crisp to them and a complete absence of syrup to indicate that this dessert was prepared on the premises without anything from a can. Talk about playing up tasty autumn treats.

Lemon Tart

Lemon Tart

And if the lemon tart tasted like what the Queen of Hearts baked in “Alice in Wonderland,” I could understand her wanting someone’s head for stealing them. Although not served as a mini pie, the tart was mouth-watering without being tart or excessively sweet. The meringue pillow reminded me of lemon meringue pies of my youth. The raspberry sauce and vanilla cream were the perfect accents.

Coffee

Coffee

Bistronomic has a quiet setting. It looks as though there may be more to the restaurant as far as seating goes. Nevertheless, the lighting and seating in the immediate area provide an intimate atmosphere and patrons tend to be more cognizant of others in the dining area by keeping their voices down. It doesn’t feel like a chic-chic restaurant with sports bar ambiance. The food tastes authentically French, so be forewarned if you expect Americanize comfort food prices. I know that it may be early to end my restaurant jaunts for 2015, but it is hard to come up with other options between now and 31 December 2015. Besides, I have to compile my list of Top 10 Jaunts for 2015. I will save something for 2016. I only wish I had followed that advice while I was overindulging myself with such great cuisine at Bistronomic. I had to walk a mile before I could sit in a cab or on the subway home.

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