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

Super Jalapeño Grill Super Yum

Jalapeno Grill

After a few months of slacking off from my gym regiments because it has been so nice after work that I’ve been busy lifting knives, forks, and spoons instead of weights, my clothes are fitting me a bit tighter than I would like. That means buying new clothes that have breathing room or getting back to my workout routine. So, while biking twenty miles recently, on my return home I passed by a restaurant that I order from online — Super Jalapeño Grill at 2910 W. Armitage Avenue. And what should I do but stop in any undo my long distance ride.

Jarrito Piña

Jarrito Piña

Chips y Salsas

Chips y Salsas

Certainly not a medium or big box restaurant, it’s one of countless taquerias in Chicago where you get real Mexican food, not an attempt at Mexican. There is nothing fancy about the restaurant and once the food arrives at the table, you really don’t care. Since I had already endured one hour of CrossFit, 45 minutes of kickboxing, and a little under an hour of biking, I was ready to sink my fangs into something to tide me over until I got home.

Tres Tacos

Tres Tacos

I had chips and the flight of salsas. There were tomatillo, a mild tomato salsa that reminded me of having a tamarind accent in it, a spicy tomato based salsa, and some pickled vegetables. Loved every crispy bite. Starting with a flight of tacos, I had one camarone, one pescada, and one carne asada. Not stacked with a heaping of lettuce, tomato, cheddar cheese, avocado, salsa from the jar made in New York City, sour cream, and whatever else was in the refrigerator, these tacos were of the variety that my Mexican neighbours prepare. No meat was dry, no flavours were lacking, and I had room for shrimp a la plancha that came in a buttery sauce along with frijoles and rice. With the accompanying corn tortilla, I placed the plump shrimp, rice, and frilojes in them and devoured all of it in total silence. Oh, I also had two quesadillas with this delectable platter.

Camarones a la Plancha

Camarones a la Plancha

Needless to say, my final two miles home felt like I had five more to go. But I was well fed. Chicago has more Mexican restaurants than anyone can keep track of and the beauty of them is that they are all authentic, not placebos to satisfy a common palate. Super Jalapeño Grill is family-owned and operated, so you’re indeed getting genuine Mexican sabor. I have ordered from this restaurant for delivery and always felt they sent the best from their kitchen. The sit-down experience proved that they have pride in what they cook. I’m going back, but not after an intense workout routine and long distance biking.

Super Jalapeno Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Goree Cuisine, Senegal in Kenwood

Goree Cuisine

During my university days, my circle of friends became very specific to West Indians and West Africans — Jamaicans, Haitians, Crucians, Ghanaians, Nigerians, Ivorians, and Senagalese. For us, it was customary to have some cultural representation in food available during study sessions that were not conducted in the library or in the labs. We built our networks so solid that whenever we travel the world, we assured each other that we or our families would look out for any in our network when we pass through their countries. When I started traveling between Chicago and Cape Town for personal holiday, I would stop in Dakar for an extended layover and, of course, partake of Senegalese food before my continuation flight.

Nem

Nem

Goree Cuisine at 1126 E. 47th Street takes me back to Dakar where everything is proper Senegalese instead of essence of Senegal. Spacious on the inside and full of light, Goree Cuisine brings authenticity to Chicago’s Kenwood neighbourhood that many mostly experience on Chicago’s North Side. Having been to two other Senegalese restaurants in Chicago, one having lost a bit of its edge and the other one very much Dakar-in-Chicago, Goree Cuisine is an addition to the Chicago landscape that had won me over during my first visit and had me completely addicted on my second visit.

Fataya

Fataya

The intent for my first visit was for a sampler, so I started with nem and fataya. Already aware of the history of how nem, the French word for spring roll, got its introduction into Senegalese cuisine via a Senegalese soldier’s marriage to a Vietnamese woman, I had an order mostly for comparison and contrast to others that I’ve had before. Stuffed with ground beef, shrimp, chicken, and glass noodles, I found these spring rolls to be considerably more appetizing than any of the proper Vietnamese variety and the best that I’ve had in America. The second street food appetizer I ordered was a plate of fataya. These flaky pastries with fish paste came with a side of kaani, a peppery tomato sauce, for dipping. Not stuffed to the point of the pastries looking puffed up, there was something almost cotton candy like with how they melted on the tongue. And considering they weren’t overly filled, there was still a lot of flavour in each bite.

Yassa Shrimp

Yassa Shrimp

For the main dish, I had yassa shrimp at the chef’s recommendation. This was pure heaven and brought about all the wonderful memories of my university days and layovers in Dakar. The shrimp were plump and fresh, complete with a hint of grilling in the taste. Served with grilled onions in mustard sauce, this was the first time on this side of the Atlantic Ocean I had a yassa dish without a visible squirt of Heinz mustard on top of the dish. The chef worked the mustard into the recipe and that made for the best yassa dish I’ve had since my last trip to Senegal.

Aloco

Aloco

On the second visit, I had my restaurant advisor join me. I knew she would indulge whatever came from the kitchen without complaint and without nose turned up. We had nem again, of which she repeatedly said, “Wow!” We then had maffe and an accompanying bowl of aloco. The maffee came in a bowl of peanut and tomato sauce with carrots, potatoes, and yams, along with rice. Reminiscent of peanut soup we’ve had at Ghanaian and Nigerian restaurants, albeit thicker and heartier, we resorted to silence while finishing this dish. And the aloco were the best prepared plantains we’ve had in months. They must let the plantains get almost overripe before frying them just to the point of caramelizing them: the best.

Maffe

Maffe

When my food advisor starts declaring, “It won’t stay on the fork,” I accept that fact that a dish is well past outstanding. This was the case with the yassa lamb. The yassa lamb came with grilled onions in a mustard sauce like with the yassa shrimp during my first visit and with yellow vegetable rice. The leg of lamb was a winner. Tender to the point where managing it was a bit trying because the meat kept falling off the bone without effort and not staying on the fork, the lamb also had no gamey aftertaste. The chef hit the mark on sending a plate to the table with tender, juicy, succulent meat that left a great lasting impression.

Yassa Lamb

Yassa Lamb

No food at Goree Cuisine goes into a microwave for a few seconds and then delivered to the table immediately thereafter. It is evident in the way the meat pulls apart from bones and how it falls from the fork. It is recognizable in how there are certain spices that you can taste “in” the dishes, as opposed to them tasting like the addition of condiments after the cooking. There is also no rush — no hurry up, be done with that plate, pay, and now leave. It is impossible to enjoy the cultural experience by rushing through it, so Goree Cuisine makes sure that not only will you fall in love with their loving from the kitchen, but that you will make plans to return repeatedly. I may not get back to Senegal often, but I will go to Goree Cuisine regularly.

Gorée Cuisines Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Paladar Cuban Restaurant and Rum Bar

Paladar Cuban Restaurant and Rum BarA few years ago while enjoying the great outdoors and having some Mexican food at a neighbourhood restaurant, the owner had mentioned a nearby Cuban restaurant that he thought I would enjoy. The name he gave was Paladar, at 2252 N. Western Avenue. Like a lot of recommendations, I filed the name and then forgot about it until recently when I was walking along Western Avenue. Let me just start by saying that I should start taking recommendations seriously.

Guava Mojito

Guava Mojito

Mango Mojito

Mango Mojito

Arriving early before the lunch crowd on a Saturday afternoon, I perused the menu, deciding on a common appetizer and leaving the main dish up to my server’s recommendation. To wet my palate, the first cocktail I had was a guava mojito. Reminding myself not to down it like I was thirsting for water, it was hard to fight the temptation to turn it up and finish it in a few gulps because it was mixed just that well. Not heavy-handed with alcohol, it was apparent that the recipe had a good bit of it by the time I got halfway through the drink.

Flight of Empanadas

Flight of Empanadas

Along with the guava mojito, I had a flight of empanadas. There was a guava with cheese that was the best of that kind that I’ve had at any other Cuban restaurants in Chicago. The shredded chicken was flavourful enough that I made it a point to order several for take-away. The same applied to the beef empanada that I ordered in equal quantity to enjoy later. All served with three sauces — house barbecue, spicy avocado, and habanero — these baked treats were worth indulging what most would consider usual fare at Latin American restaurants.

Sauces: Habanero, Spicy Avocado, Barbecue

Sauces: Habanero, Spicy Avocado, Barbecue

Usually when I go to Cuban restaurants I order what I consider safe dishes (e.g., ropa vieja sandwich or ropa vieja plate, arroz con pollo, or chuletas). This time I deviated by accepting my server’s recommendation for chivo. Having eaten more than my share of curried goat, the slow cooked goat stew served with congri and sweet plantains at Paladar was all the reminder I needed to develop a new love for this stew. From the meat falling off the bone without any help to the nice kick from the habanero to the sweet plantains that were caramelized rather than dry to yucca that fell apart on the fork, it should not have taken this long for me to indulge a plate of such an outstanding dish. And the mango mojito that I had with the main dish was a case of a bartender’s concoction done correctly.

Chivo

Chivo

For the finale, I opted for bomba. More like Italian tartufo, this came to the table as an ice cream ball of chocolate and vanilla ice cream encasing a maraschino cherry and slivered almonds, covered in a dark chocolate shell. I countered the cold with a café con leche, a perfect ending to a perfect meal. Perhaps I shall have traditional flan, bread pudding, or guava with cheese on my next visits, but the ice cream was a plus for my first pass.

Bomba y Cafe con Leche

Bomba y Cafe con Leche

During the first few times I had walked past Paladar, the restaurant seemed empty. On entry during my proper sit-down visit, the restaurant still seemed vacant, but then I realized there are two rooms in the restaurant. I sat in the front room, which filled in quickly after I had arrived and ordered. Noting the various cadences of Spanish spoken in the front room, I detected sing-sing Cuban Spanish, rapid fire Puerto Rican Spanish, easy-come-easy-go Mexican Spanish, and the ting-ting-ting of silverware on my plate. Given Chicago’s many Cuban restaurants on its landscape, it’s fantastic having one in Logan Square landscape that’s within short distance to home. I will need to get some more empanadas when I run out of the ones that I ordered to take home with me. Hint, hint.

Paladar Restaurant & Rum Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Rapidito Colombian Gourmet Bites

Rapidito

After a recent excursion to a rather fantastic Spanish restaurant in Chicago’s Lakeview, my restaurant advisor and I noted a Colombian restaurant on the landscape east of where we had experienced a wow factor in coastal Spain dining. What was once a dessert cafe is now Rapidito, at 1855 W. Diversey Parkway, dishing up  authenticity and not as an attempt.

Arepa Blanca

Arepa Blanca

Taking advantage of an early lunch during the weekend, I opted for my first trip to be for a sampling of a few items. Not like many of the Colombian steakhouses dotted throughout the Chicago landscape, Rapidito places emphasis on street food. There were traditional items like pinchos and arepa, the latter being an influence from Venezuala, along with empanadas, and surprisingly Colombian style hot dogs on the menu.

To kick my appetite into gear, I started with an arepa blanca. Topped with cheese, this Venezuelan influence hit the spot. Slightly buttery, it was nice to be able to taste the cheese on the arepa, which reminded me of chihuahua cheese.

Arepa de Choclo

Arepa de Choclo

Having enjoyed the arepa blanca, I also tried the arepa de choclo, which was also topped with cheese. This was an item that I will return and buy in bulk. The sweet corn in the arepa recipe provided a natural sweetness that would make this a favourite for morning breakfast, an afternoon snack, and a side with dinner.

The two final street food items I had were choripapas and a plate of steak and chicken pinchos. The chorizo bites, chopped eggs, and creole potatoes with housemade creamy sauce were first-rate. And the steak and chicken pinchos served with a tomatillo sauce and small Andean baked potatoes on the ends of the skewers also get high marks for the meat being juicy and flavourful without being overly seasoned.

Pinchos: Steak and Chicken

Pinchos: Steak and Chicken

Although not in an area with a lot of foot traffic, there were numerous patrons coming and going. When there is authenticity in food, there usually is a constant lure to an establishment and Rapidito certainly draws an ongoing flow of individuals whose palates enjoy good Colombian eats. As this was my first visit, I can say definitively that I will return for a tasting  of several other menu items and certainly for a batch of arepas de choclo.

Rapidito Colombian Gourmet Bites 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

Ramen Takeya

Ramen TakeyaAs of late, ramen has been the new fad. Those who may have had more than enough ramen from the little block packages during your college days may give a side eye. But proper ramen is all the rage. One good thing about it is there are some restaurants that do the noodle dishes justice. Ramen Takeya at 819 W. Fulton Market in Chicago’s West Loop gets it right.

Having my usual hankering and a bit of curiosity about Ramen Takeya, I made my way over to the restaurant after work and started with a Moscow mule to take the edge off. Not as strong as one I had in Denver when a classmate hipped me to the cocktail, it was still good going down.

Moscow Mule

Moscow Mule

Since I didn’t want to stuff myself, I noted two small dishes and a ramen dish that I figured would be a good introduction to the restaurant. So, I settled on three menu items, reserving dessert for something else later.

The first landing was a bowl of ebi chili. The shrimp was fresh, tossed in a sweet and sour chili sauce, which was a winner. The dish was a salad with lettuce that had been accented with salt and pepper and what seemed like perhaps some lemon juice. It was not competitive with the spicy shrimp, as it was a better complement to the shrimp than I have had at a few other restaurants that prepared the same salad. For those who like light starters and have a taste for shrimp, I recommend this highly.

Ebi Chili

Ebi Chili

The second landing was barbecue eel. Served in a cup over rice, this was a winner. The sauce was neither overpowering nor excessively too much over the rice. Being a fan of unagi, it was great having eel that was meaty without having a fatty texture on the palate.

Barbecue Eel

Barbecue Eel

The final landing was a bowl of spicy chicken paitan. With mushrooms, bamboo shoots, a sunny side egg, onions, scallions, and chili sauce spice, there was a balance to the ramen but still with an allowance for the seasoned chicken to shine. Instead of a huge bowl full of ingredients, you get a nice sized bowl full of flavour.

Spicy Chicken Paitan

Spicy Chicken Paitan

Like many restaurants in Chicago’s West Loop, Ramen Takeya fills up quickly with the after work crowd. There are a few tables in the immediate area where you enter and tables along a short corridor that faces the open kitchen. There is a lot of energy and a lot of tasty Japanese fare to go along with the vibe. Reasonably priced with fabulous service, you’ll understand why it’s a favourite while you’re hovering over a bowl of ramen slurping.

Ramen Takeya 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

JJ Thai Street Food

JJ Thai Street Food

While enjoying some robata grill happiness at Yuzu, my favourite sushi and robata grill in Chicago’s West Town, the owner sat with my restaurant advisor and me so that we could catch up, having not seen each other since the New Year began. Afterwards, she walked us over to the first location where Yuzu first opened its doors for business for an introduction to the owners of the new restaurant that had moved in. My restaurant advisor and I only sampled a small dish called sai-krok e-sam. Two grilled Thai style pork and sour rice sausages were all we needed to return to JJ Thai Street Food at 1715 W. Chicago Avenue.

Sai-Krok E-Sam

Sai-Krok E-Sam

Having perused the menu, we noticed that much of the usual Thai fare was not listed. There was no pad Thai, pad see-ew, red curry, green curry, yellow curry, or Thai fried rice dishes. And during conversation with the owner, who was not present when the owner of Yuzu had walked us over to make the first introduction, it was then known that the food was prepared truly culturally, with made-to-order customizations on request. This was a plus because it was apparent we’d have dishes cooked they way they are cooked in Thailand proper.

Gai Satay

Gai Satay

Gyo Tod

Gyo Tod

Two menu items that we started with were gai satay, which were three skewers of chicken served with a creamy peanut sauce and a cucumber salad. Unlike gai satay at many Thai restaurants, the chicken breasts were substantial. And it took very little work to get the succulent chicken off of the skewers. The dish also came with grilled toast that tasted like cake when dipped in the accompanying peanut sauce. The second item was a small platter of gyo tod, which were fried wonton stuffed with ground chicken. Served with a spicy sweet and sour sauce, I don’t think I will ever want crab rangoon after having these lovelies.

Tom Yum Kung Nam Khon

Tom Yum Kung Nam Khon

Where it was evident that JJ Thai Street Food would make a consistent favorable impression on the palate was with the tom yum hung nam knon. This pot of soup had a spicy kick to it but without the highlighted sweetness one gets at a lot of Thai restaurants. The mushrooms were plump. There were no bell peppers, carrots, and onions. The shrimp was not popcorn shrimp. For the soup to have been minimalist with ingredients, it was aromatic to smell and divine to taste.

Khao Khai Ra Berd Ta Lay

Khao Khai Ra Berd Ta Lay

Because my restaurant advisor and I had budgeted the whole afternoon for a sampling of multiple dishes, one main landing we ordered was khao khai ra berd ta lay. Not a dish one usually skims across on menus at Thai restaurants, this plate of stir-fried shrimp, squids, and mussels with basil over rice and topped with a sunny side up egg was simply heaven. The spices were welcoming enough without making the dish hard to enjoy, but perfect enough to wake senses.

Khao Panang Neua

Khao Panang Neua

Our second main landing reminded me of a lamb panang dish I’ve had at Herb, which is my favourite fine dining Thai restaurant in Chicago. The khao panaeng neua was panang beef served over rice. Another minimalist dish, it came without the addition of a long list of ingredients, just a hearty gravy accented with a perfect amount of herbs and spices. This was proof that very little can be a plus with preparing extremely enticing menu items.

Khao Mun Gai

Khao Mun Gai

The final landing was khao mun gai, which was braised chicken served over ginger rice with a cup of chicken stock. Looking at the plate, one would think it had no flavor to it. The khao panaeng neua had already resulted in very little conversation between my restaurant advisor and me, but the khao mun gai had rendered us completely silent. This must be a surprise dish because for it to look tasteless, the seasoning of the chicken without being too much and the ginger rice made for an outstanding dish. Even with the accompanying spicy side sauce, there was a punch before adding it that made the dish addictive.

Thai Iced Tea

Thai Iced Tea

Chicago boasts a large number of Thai restaurants and while I have been to many that I love and frequent, JJ Thai Street Food is indeed the second Thai restaurant where I have developed an addiction. I recommend it highly. The service is impeccable. Being familiar with authentic Thai food and having a limited grasp of the Thai language, I had a bit of ease with ordering and asking for recommendations. But I am certain that the service would have been just as outstanding had I not switched in my limited Thai. As to the food, I cannot express how much I have become a fan. Everything is cooked once the order is placed, so nothing comes to the table immediately. Be glad because that means you’re getting a meal with fresh ingredients, not pre-packaged, not defrosted and microwaved, but prepared on the spot. I’ll leave you with two phrases to use while at JJ Thai Street Food: aroy (delicious) and kab kun krub (thank you).

JJ Thai Street Food 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