For my first landing, I had ordered uchepos gratinados. These fresh corn masa tamales drizzle with roasted chilaca, cream, and cheese were a change from the usual tamales with shredded chicken. I must admit that I would gladly order these tamales without hesitation over tamales with chicken in them. The chilacas in the uchepos gratinados were mild. Those who are not fans of heat in their food would love these tamales. Continue reading
For my third landing, I was going for a couscous tagine and was saving a flight of spiedini for my fourth landing. My server recommended that I have both together, which was a splendid suggestion. This third course was a marriage of Morocco, Algeria, and the Mediterranean. The couscous came with eggplant and pine nuts, the latter that I may need to take care to note in the future. It was satisfying the way I remembered in Casablanca, Fes, Marrakech, Rabat, and Algiers. Having it with the flight of lamb kefta, swordfish, and beef filet resulted in a flavor bonanza. If you want to know how tender meat should be prepared, you definitely need to have a dining experience at Testaccio. Continue reading
Given the flow of people who came through after which there were greetings by first name, it became evident that Chef Sara’s Café has a steady stream of regular customers. Once you get to enjoy anything from the menu, engage everyone in conversation, or find yourself dancing to the music played in the background, you will no doubt find yourself being a regular patron. It is rare in today’s environment that you can go into any establishment as a stranger and leave as a part of the family. Chef Sara’s Café will be the first café or restaurant I go to for a proper sit-down after the pandemic eases. I always enjoy going back home. Continue reading
Happy New Year. Starting 2020 off with realistic resolutions, a new list of international cuisines and restaurants to try, and another list of American restaurants that have a focus on healthy recipes. Now that I am in my 50’s, I have to be mindful of everything since my metabolism doesn’t burn off fat the way that it did when I was in my 20’s and 30’s.
A friend had told me about a post on her high school class page on Facebook. There was mention of a restaurant named Bettie Lou’s Restaurant at 5633 N. Ashland Avenue in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. After a brief review of the menu online, I agreed to meet my friend there so that we could try some of the dishes.
Bang the gavel. Sold!
We started with salmon croquettes, scrambled eggs, and brown rice. Those who are from Down South can speak to having a breakfast consisting of salmon croquettes, rice, and biscuits. You don’t get a Northern brunch. Bettie Lou’s brought a bit of the South to the North Side of Chicago, for sure. The croquettes were not a failed attempt but meaty salmon lightly encrusted with a light batter and fried with onions and bell peppers. The brown rice was the surprise. It occurred to us after we had finished that there was no gravy on the rice. The addition of butter and seasoning actually made me view brown rice in a favorable light.
For a second landing we had turkey chops with cabbage and cheese grits. The turkey chops had been lightly breaded and fried to look like pork chops. It was all turkey and with a well seasoned gravy, it was better than any pork chops I have had. The cabbage reminded me of the same that I have had at countless Jamaican restaurants in Jamaica and off the island. As to the cheese grits, they were a perfect compliment to the course with a proper amount of cheese and creamy consistency.
The third course was of perch served with collard greens and candied yams. The perch was not some thawed fish purchased from the frozen section. We were thankful that it was not encased in a quarter inch of crust. There was a flour batter, which made it very light. As to the greens, this was the first that I have had cooked in a vegan manner that had flavor. Whatever chopped weeds I have had at other vegetarian and vegan restaurants don’t compare to the collard greens at Bettie Lou’s. The yams were not sugary and were just the right balance to the greens. Add to the delight of this landing, the johnny cake that came with the greens made it all feel like New Orleans in Chicago.
My friend had ordered some peach cobbler for takeaway. Before we left, we had a spoonful for a sample. Had it not been for discipline, we would have finished it at the restaurant. The only thing missing was a scoop of ice cream. Once word gets out about how tasty the peach cobbler is, it will be the one thing that will have Bettie Lou’s Restaurant making the news.
For all of the food that we ate, we were sated but not to the point of misery or comatose. That speaks to the ingredients not being so heavy as to leave diners feeling like they’ve eaten past a proper dining threshold. Having gone during the middle of the day on a Saturday, we got the chance to engage the owner in conversation, which made it feel like we had gone to a friend’s or a family member’s house. One thing to note is that dishes are prepared to order. It will take time for food to arrive at the table because nothing is warmed up or microwaved. Although Chicago boasts a long list of soul food, soul food vegetarian, and soul food vegan restaurants, Bettie Lou’s Restaurant has made a flavorful impression on me such that it is now my go-to soul food haunt.
Let me start by saying that I had no idea this cafe existed. I had passed by it countless times and nothing screamed “Open for Business.” A colleague told me about it and we agreed to meet for a Sunday breakfast. This was during the summer. It has become a regular Sunday spot ever since.
First, the homemade bread wins. During the first visit, the cauliflower and broccoli salad in a creamy dressing was addictive. And the pork belly with peppers and cherry tomatoes were worthy of repeat orders. From what I can tell, there is a bit of a farm to table aspect that makes everythig on the menu fresh.
For Logan Square to be a hipster landscape, those working at Cellar Door Provisions don’t have the detached attitude. They’re engaging and attentive without hovering. The cafe is not large and there is a constant ebb and tide of patrons. As I mentioned, I have returned with my colleague quite often since the first visit. I hope that this will be one restaurant that will not succumb to the curse of “closing restaurants” that plagued Chicago in 2019.
Because I had several visits since the first one, there are several compositions that I have captured since. Rather than doing a very long write-up, below is a link to the Flickr page where I posted the photos to ignite your appetite. If you are in or near the Chicago Logan Square area, Cellar Door Provisions is one to add to your list of restaurant spots.
While dealing with a hankering for something from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and culturally familiar to my palate, I did my usual Google search for some West African restaurants. What should display as a result was The Powerhouse Restaurant at 2113 S. State Street in the Near South Side. I saw a few items on the online menu that were reminiscent of Nigerian dishes that I’ve had, so it was off to the South Side for a taste of Africa.
I started with a ground beef pie and with a fish pie. Served with a spicy tomato sauce, these pies were quite tasty. There was less meat in both than I have had in the ones I devoured shamelessly in Lagos and at several Nigerian restaurants on Chicago’s North Side. Still, I must admit that a lot of flavor was packed into the pastries.
The dish that wowed me during my first visit was egusi. This traditional soup which is made with dried ground melon seeds, bitterleaf, pumpkin leaf, and spinach is my favorite Nigerian dish and The Powerhouse Restaurant did not disappoint. I had the egusi with fish. One note to myself is that West African dishes are prepared culturally, which meant that I had to de-bone the fish and be careful of any fine bones that I did not get while doing the de-boning process. The fragrant rice that came with it made the pop in flavor that more pronounced. With a mild amount of heat in the dish, it was heaven.
For the second visit, I returned with some friends. Having talked up The Powerhouse Restaurant, they were intrigued and later happy to have taken me up on the return visit. We started with a round pamplemouse that made us think of summer as opposed to the chilly temperatures Chicago is experiencing. Think lemon and lime with a soda, but more natural than soda pop. Citrusy and refreshing was this beverage. We also had a round of acho soup, one cooked with salmon, the other cooked with chicken. The soup had been prepared with a dried plantain, seasoned well, and served in a bowl that had been prepped with yam pounded until it had the consistency of mashed potatoes. It was so good that I was all done before I realized I had not taken any compositions.
For our first landing, we had salmon and skirt steak with ndole. Very much like egusi, ndole employs bitterleaf in the recipe but there is a peanut butter base that provides enough of a balance to balance out the bitterness. The skirt steak was extremely tender and the salmon was rather flaky.
The second landing also came with ndole, but served with shrimp and lamb chops. Again, here was a dish with full flavor and meat that had been prepared such that it was neither borderline rare nor dried out from too much heat. It made each bite succulent.
The third landing was smoked fish and shrimp served with jollof rice. Aromatic with smoke, the fish was fleshy while the skin had been seared enough to retain a lot of the flavor. The shrimp, like the shrimp that came with the lamb chops, was fat and bursting with each bite. The star in the show was the jollof rice. Being partial to Ghanaian jollof rice, the aromatic spices in this Cameroonian rice really made it quickly become a favorite.
The Powerhouse Restaurant has mastery in two things that I love most about restaurants: outstanding food and grade-A service. During my first visit, I had a brief chat with the owner who was making the rounds through the restaurant, asking the diners how their experiences were. On the second visit, my friends and I arrived early enough to have the restaurant to ourselves and the owner gave us an explanation of the ingredients used in the recipes and the cultural influences. It felt like going home. And one thing I can say about going home is that there is always a welcoming atmosphere and some of the best food to be had.
For my last review, it was of a restaurant where two friends and I met to celebrate a very late birthday and my early birthday. Since then, I had become very serious about losing belly fat. Let me just say that it is possible, but you have to be dedicated to the point of addiction. I have been cooking at home more and spending a lot of time in the gym, so my outings to different restaurants came to a stop. However, I made time to meet my two friends for one of their birthdays. Birthdays seem to be the reason for the occasional dining excursion. We met at Monnie Burke’s in Pilsen at 1163 W. 18th Street.
Along with our first round of cocktails, and I must commend the bartender for mixing some great drinks without being heavy handed or dabbling in Shirley Temple world, we started with a soft pretzel that was served with a smoked gouda and black truffle fondue. I recommend this highly for a starter. While the gouda does not have an expected smoky flavor, the fondue works well with the lightly salted pretzel. I think the black truffle addition helps to bring out more on the palate.
Our first small course was the egg yolk pappardelle. This was angry, or arrabbiata as Italians would say. The ground scallops in the dish were outstanding and I have been looking up recipes that call for ground scallops because I need more. There was enough bite in the dish to pick up the spiciness, yet not enough to that we required sips of water after each swallow. This dish was a nod to Italy.
One supper vegetable that has become more popular than red velvet cupcakes of several years ago are Brussels sprouts. Accented with a white anchovy vinaigrette, Calabrian chili peppers, pine nuts, and parmesan, I can almost guarantee you that you’re obstinate child who hates vegetables would love this dish. It was nice that the additions to the Brussels sprouts did not overtake the flavor of the actual vegetables. This is a nice wink to the toe of Italy, to Calabria.
Another super vegetable is cauliflower. Here it is fire roasted with urfa biber peppers, medjool dates, olives, almonds, and sheep’s milk cheese. With the use of the urfa biber peppers, medjool dates, and olives, there was an injection of Turkey and Morocco into the dish. Goes to show you that you can have ingredients from different yet close regions play very well in recipes and it made the cauliflower stand out as opposed to being reminiscent of milder broccoli.
Those who are fans of seafood would appreciate the Spanish octopus. Prepared such that you could cut through the tentacles with a butter knife and tender enough that there was no rubbery texture. Coming with shishito peppers, papas bravas, and a black garlic mole, there was very little left on the plate. This dish gets the Clean Plate Society Award.
Having taken red meat out of my diet mostly, I broke my discipline for the sake of trying the cheeseburger. Not just a cheeseburger, as listed on the menu, but rather a double cheeseburger, this was worth every bite. This burger is topped with American cheddar, grilled red onions, and served with garlic fries and lemon aioli. As I was never a fan of having my burgers anything close to rare, it was nice that it arrived at the table a slight notch less than well cooked, juicy as juicy can be, and I never had to state how I wanted the burger cooked. This is the mark of a cook who knows his or her trade well.
For dessert, we had a brownie that was baked by the devil, topped with a fist size scoop of ice vanilla bean ice cream, and drizzled with a warm chocolate sauce. The caramel popcorn addition was a unique garnish. It did not take away from the brownie ala mode, though. Those who love moist — spelled “moyse” — brownies will have a problem staying on the wagon after having a taste of this dessert. It is extremely rich, so I would recommend sharing it with your dinner guest or guests.
Monnie Burke’s is clearly a winner when it comes to service and good food. Given the amount of food that we ordered, everything was a hit, not one disappointing moment to be had. With summer now giving us days that we can enjoy in al fresco mode, the patio at Monnie Burke’s fills out quickly. The inside was empty, but that was understandable with everyone wanting outside seating without fear of a torrential downpour or extreme humidity. It’s not of the staple variety that has graced Pilsen’s landscape for decades. However, it is a welcomed addition.
This has been a slow year for blogging, for me. Two things have been at play — 1) I bought an Instant Pot and have become a pressure cooker fanatic and 2) the heat, severe thunderstorms, and humidity have been prohibitive for doing much of anything that requires going outside. So, with spending hours in the gym after work and cooking at home more with intent to gain weight — yes, I know that losing weight is most people’s goal — I have been rather laxed with my posting. Well, thanks to a recent recommendation, I got the kick I needed to get back on track.
Prairie Grass Cafe at 601 Skokie Boulevard in Northbrook, Illinois, gave me a chance to return to an area that was my receiving post when I moved from New York to the Metropolitan Chicago area. Very spacious in both main dining and bar areas, this restaurant is a nice escape from the rush of Chicago proper for some flavors that top many restaurants that constantly make the “Best Of” lists that circulate annually.
My restaurant advisor and I arrived for a Saturday evening seating and opted for a variety of dishes so that we could get a sampling of different menu offerings. Back to our usual practice of giving dietary specifications, we left the selections up to our server. Clearly loving a challenge, she was up for it and everything that came to the table was an indication that trusting her was an outstanding idea.
We started with a mozzarella salad that came with heirloom tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, micro salad, basil remoulade, and drizzled with a balsamic reduction. Having an addiction for tomatoes, this was already a winner. It was simply nice having a salad that you could taste the tomatoes, as opposed to what often tastes like “essence” of tomatoes.
The next two appetizers were not only bite size, but also very satisfying on the palate without being too much. The corn fritters were touted as one of the most recommended items on the menu. After the first bite, it was apparent why they are a favorite. Imagine a doughnut hole with corn kernels in them. Served with a honey butter, these fritters could be dessert. The shrimp egg rolls were where we have a hint of an Asian influence. The pop in the egg rolls came with the size and freshness of the shrimp. There was no excessive seasoning, which helped the taste of each bite of shrimp come through.
A dish that played well to my British sensibilities was the plate of cod and coleslaw. The cod reminded me of days spent at fish and chips shops throughout Newcastle. Admittedly, I would have preferred chips with the fish rather than the coleslaw, the slaw added a nice accompanying touch to the dish. The addition of the grapes in the dish balanced it out such that it was neither bitter, nor sour, nor sweet. It was just right and even Goldilocks would agree.
Having a bit of turf to the dining experience, we had hangar steak over mushrooms and potatoes. Going with medium, what came to the table was a plate of perfection, meat so succulent and tender that cutting it was as effortless as slicing through air. Well seasoned au jus and complete lip-smacking without much salt, many steakhouses that I have been to over the years could stand to take a course in preparing a steak without flare so that diners could actually enjoy the flavor, just like what we had at Prairie Grass Café.
Back to the sea, the salmon with house barbecue sauce over Mexi-corn with a corn purée was divine. The salmon was flaky and surprisingly had a texture of skate. Those who have had skate know how moist and silky the fish feels on the palate. Well, the same was the case with the salmon. This was a winner.
Having a little time between the main courses and dessert, we allowed a few minutes before indulging sweets. The first was a cream pie topped with raspberries and accented with a sprig of mint. The beauty of this dessert was that the filling was cream cheese and whipped cream, which made it light. Topped with fresh raspberries and a homemade compote that you could smell, thanks to it not being from a can or a jar, this pie could quickly become a favorite.
The double chocolate cake was nothing short of truth serum. Extremely moist and yet not so sugary that it was overpowering, the rich texture certainly induced a bit of comatose. We, of course, balanced that out with coffee. While some may resort to calling this devils food cake, it was heavenly, nonetheless. And the star of the show was the sticky toffee date cake. Again, this was a cake that should be used as an example of what moist means. At most restaurants, date cakes have the course texture of cornbread. That was not the case with this date cake. It is one that would make a great autumn cake and it would pair well with mulled cider or spiced tea. We may even return during the fall months and see if that’s possible.
Prairie Grass Cafe is not what one could call a hidden gem. It is very surprising that it has not made any recommended lists because the restaurant excels in two very important areas: delicious food and top service. Farm-to-table and local source restaurants are becoming more popular, as people are now wanting their food to be fresh and restaurants are also starting to support local farmers, which ensures quality ingredients for menu items. Prairie Grass Cafe is more than worth a try. It should be top on your list.
Rarely do I ever pass through Skokie, Illinois. A few weeks ago, I was in the vicinity returning to a Jamaican restaurant that I love. On the way, I passed by a Mexican restaurant that, from the outside, looked like it was something akin to a Chipotle. I figured I would try it out anyway. Much to my surprise, it only had the look and feel of a run of the mill fast food restaurant. The flavors are what made it stand out as a restaurant I would frequent.
TBK Grill at 7565 Lincoln Avenue in Skokie, is a spot to check out for authentic Mexican food. With booths and tables spaced out nicely, it doesn’t suffer from congestion. The service was fantastic, and I concede that part of that may be because I switched into speaking Spanish. The grill is behind the cashier, so you get to see your food being prepared.
My appetite was ravenous, which is nothing new. I ordered three plates that I considered to be manageable in one seating. The first was chips with guacamole. The guacamole was chunky, exactly the way I like it. I didn’t think to ask if it was possible to get it spicy and with a little bit more cilantro in. It didn’t matter after I realized that the notion of getting it with a kick and more cilantro came after I had gotten down to the bottom of the cup.
The second plate that I ordered was of quesadillas with chicken, served with a small side of guacamole and sour cream. The guacamole was good enough as an accompaniment, but the quesadillas were flavorful enough without anything else for dipping or dousing. It has been over fifteen years since I had quesadillas that I found to be addictive without any extra sides or condiments. It helped that the chicken was succulent and seasoned well.
The taco platter was my final dish. Instead of ordering the tacos with lettuce and tomato like at Americanized taco restaurants, I opted for traditional preparation with cilantro and onions. These tacos reminded me of the ones that my Mexican neighbor prepares, which are the best that I have had ever. The yellow rice was neither sticky nor overcooked, and the refried beans were also tasty. Given all of the food that I had, I still finished every bit of it, something I never would have completed had there not been authenticity in the recipe.
TBK Grill is in a triangle between the tri-section of Howard Street, Lincoln Avenue, and Skokie Blvd. Depending on traffic and the direction from which you’re coming, it could be a task getting into the parking lot. However, once you are there, you’re guaranteed to find satisfaction on the menu. As mentioned earlier, it’s not a hole in the wall, but the food from the kitchen will put you in mind of small Mexican walk-ups. The best.
During spring and the very beginning of summer, Chicago has had some angry weather. The heat and humidity have been extreme. And it seems that thunderstorms pass over the metropolitan area every other day during the afternoon rush hour. When we have had some nice days, they have been good enough to take advantage of some al fresco dining. I managed to squeeze in a day of some patio dining at Praga/Bonton in Lombard, Illinois, at 229 W. St. Charles Road to see how they tempt the palate.
Only wanting a sampling on the first visit, I settled on two courses. The first was a lobster ravioli. While I have had more than my share of lobster ravioli at various Italian restaurants, it is always a plus when you get a dish that leaves you wanting more. The cheese inside of the ravioli had a la tur texture, very creamy and rich. The lobster chunks were not mere hints, which was all the indication I needed to know that there was neither imitation nor essence stuffed between the pasta. Topped with a corn and bell pepper confetti, this moved up to the top spot as best lobster ravioli that I have had in Metro Chicago.
The second dish was a risotto with diver scallops on top. My favorite Italian osteria in Logan Square serves the absolute best diver scallops risotto that I have had to date, but the dish at Praga/Bonton is a very close second. Filled with mushroom, asparagus, and wild truffle sauce, I recommend this dish. It pops with flavor without being busy on the tongue. Get a bowl for yourself, as sharing may result in too much of it going fast and regrets for not being selfish.
For my second visit, I wanted to try a few other dishes that were more French. The offerings that I had the first time were very much couched in Italian and authentic in flavor, so I was curious to see if there was a proper amount of respect paid to the French menu items. They scored high marks in that space.
Veering away from escargot, since that is such a common item on menu items, I started with a bowl of forest mushroom soup, laced with sherry. Again, dining al fresco, it was rather hot outside, but the soup was not one that left me lethargic from being heavy combined with the outdoor heat. Packed with flavor from fresh mushrooms and a savory cream base, I polished it off and then used the complimentary bread to go around the inside and bottom of the bowl, sopping up as much of the rest of the soup as possible: Clean Bowl Society.
The second course was a crab cake atop an avocado papaya chutney and arugula salad with an avocado vinaigrette. The bliss factor for the crab cake was that there was very little breading used, more dusting than anything. The crab cake was another dish packed with flavor without having one wonder if the chef was trying too hard to season the dish. You could taste a bit of the sweetness in the crab meat since it was not masked by an unnecessary melange of herbs, seasoning, and other spices. The bed of vegetables reminded me of crudites, which is a small side dish of julienne vegetables (e.g., carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers) that many in France enjoy.
The third dish was a plate of beef medallions under frites. The chef erred on the side of preparing the beef tenderloins medium well and I was appreciative. The meat was neither runny nor was it charred to an unappetizing crisp. It was just right and whatever seasoning used to marinate the meat gave it enough smack without a need for any additional seasoning help. Add to that the Cognac flambe and the tenderloins having been sauteed in Bordelaise sauce with wild mushrooms, along with grilled asparagus spears, the marriage with the frites made it delectably French.
The finale was a duo of chocolate mousses, one white chocolate, the other dark chocolate. Served with a berry compote and looking like two scoops of ice cream, each scoop was heaven. The white chocolate was not sugary and the dark chocolate was not milk chocolate. This was a perfect ending to three prior courses that were already mouthwatering.
Needless to say, the output from the kitchen was absolutely winning. The table service is also outstanding. My server during the first visit was quite conversational and good about making recommendations. On the second visit, the server remembered me, minus my 6-inch beard that I had shaved, where I sat, what I ordered, and my preference for cranberry juice. Service is everything and Praga/Bonton sets the bar high for creating a welcoming environment. The menu is a mix of Italian, French, and German-Austrian, but still retains authenticity in each without compromising recipes. If you are ever passing through the downtown Lombard area and wondering about dining options, add Praga/Bonton to your list.