Praga/Bonton, Pan-European Suburban Style

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.

Praga

Praga

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.

Lobster Ravioli

Lobster Ravioli

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.

Risotto with Pan Seared Diver Scallops

Risotto with Pan Seared Diver Scallops

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.

Cranberry Juice

Cranberry Juice

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.

Creamed Mushroom

Creamed Mushroom

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.

Crab Cake

Crab Cake

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.

Beef Medallions with Frites

Beef Medallions with Frites

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.

White and Dark Chocolate Mousse

White and Dark Chocolate Mousse

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.

Praga Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

La France Café & Crepes, Lombard Style

La France Café

Now that I have been on assignment in the West Suburbs, I had been actively looking for some restaurants in that vicinity with an international appeal that I could sample for blogging. The farther away you are from Chicago proper, the more limited the options are in that space. Imagine my surprise when I discovered La France Café & Crepes at 708 S. Main Street in Lombard, Illinois.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir

Iced Mocha

Iced Mocha

I went with my restaurant advisor on a Saturday and we arrived shortly after they had opened for the second part of the day. First thing we noticed was the accommodating service. It was a small touch, but the greeting of “Bon soir,” was enough to set a tone of comfort that we were both okay with. For me, being fluent in Quebecois and conversational in Creole meant not fumbling for words or feeling out of place whenever certain French words were used during our dining excursion. While perusing the menu, my advisor started with a glass of Pinot Noir and I had an iced mocha, after which I decided to have a Beaujolais once I had something to eat.

Boeuf et a L'Abricot

Boeuf et a L’Abricot

On to the good stuff. We ordered three savory crepes and two sweet crepes. The beouf et a l’abricot crepe reminded me of Moroccan tagine but stuffed inside of a crepe. Filled with tender beef, apricot slices, and spinach, and topped with toasted almond slivers, this was just what I needed to put me in mind of being back in Morocco. The beouf bourguignon was the equivalent of beef bourguignon as a stew reduced so that it could go into a crepe without making the crepe soggy. Filled with pearl onions and plump mushrooms, we loved it. The crepe de saumon a l’estragon was my favorite. This was stuffed with salmon that had a mild kick, red onions, tarragon, tomatoes, spinach, and crème fraiche. The seafood lover in me indeed approved.

Boeuf Bourguignon

Boeuf Bourguignon

Crepe de Saumon a L'Estragon

Crepe de Saumon a L’Estragon

One of the sweet crepes was a framboise citronnee, which was filled with lemon custard, drizzled with a raspberry sauce (not from a jar), and sprinkled with confectioners sugar. Each bite was like summer on the palate. The other crepe was a abricot et brie, a true sweet and savory crepe thanks to the apricot purée and brie, while topped with candied apricots and dusted with confectioners sugar. Instead of going with whipped cream on the top, we had a fist size scoop of ice cream on the side. And we finished with Moroccan mint tea, yet another trigger to make me miss my vacation in Morocco.

Framboise Citronnee

Framboise Citronnee

Abricot et Brie

Abricot et Brie

One thing to note is that nothing comes to the table within five minutes, except maybe the complimentary water, a coffee, or a glass of wine. The crepes are made to order, so there is no rush of any of the crepes to the table within five minutes. If you go to a creperie and you get your crepes in a flash, I highly recommend that you run. The crepes at La France Café and Crepes do not have a spongy texture, but rather that of a flat-pressed pancake. This is good because crepes in non-touristy France are prepared accordingly. Well, they reminded me of the ones I had in cafes during my days in Chalon-sur-Saone. For my restaurant advisor and me, there will be repeat visits. Pour de vrai.

Moroccan Mint Tea

Moroccan Mint Tea

La France Café Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Porto’s Peri-Peri, Portuguese Skokie

For the past two months, I have been delaying my evening commute from the West Suburbs back to Chicago proper by spending a few hours at the gym. Finding something with international appeal to satisfy my hunger after heavy weights and cardio has not been as easy as I thought. I have, however, driven past a peri-peri restaurant named Porto’s Peri Peri tucked in a strip mall. And while looking up the restaurant on Google to get some information on menu and hours of operation, I found that there is also a location in Skokie, Illinois, at 4915 Oakton Street.

Peri Chips

Peri Chips

What looks like a small storefront restaurant is a nice area for small groups and solo diners. There is a fast casual aspect to the experience. You order at the counter and the food is brought to your table. For those who have gone to Nando’s Peri-Peri, it’s the same concept right down to the menu options.

Grilled Corn on the Cob

Grilled Corn on the Cob

Since I was ravenous during the visit to Porto’s Peri Peri, I was very much aggressive with my ordering. I ordered some peri chips, which were small waffle potato chips that had been dusted with peri salt. Having not had potato chips for several years, these were a bit more appetizing than they probably would have been had I been eating potato chips all along.

Red Skin Potato Salad

Red Skin Potato Salad

The peri chicken is the best. I had two legs and two thighs in the hot sauce. Not overpowering, given I love everything peppery, the chicken was tender and extremely juicy. Most chicken as juicy as what’s served at Porto’ Peri-Peri would not be done thoroughly, but that was not the case here. With a side of red skin potato salad, grilled corn on the cob, perimayo corn, and yellow rice, the meal was complete.

Quarter Chicken and Rice

Quarter Chicken and Rice

The potato salad is of the mayonnaise variety and since I prefer my potato salad with a mustard base, I must admit that Porto’s Peri-Peri has made me a fan of the potato salad. The grilled corn had a spicy rub and reminded me of sweet corn that I’ve had from farmers’ markets. The perimayo corn reminded me of Mexican elotes in terms of visual and in flavor. The yellow rice put me in mind of Indian basmati rice.

Perimayo Corn

Perimayo Corn

Having been to Portugal quite a bit, I have not been to any restaurants that have the flare of Nando’s Peri-Peri or Porto’s Peri Peri. Then again, I was visiting friends and they were gracious hosts with loving from their own kitchens. There are several peri-peri restaurants that are making their presences known in Metropolitan Chicago and if they are representative of kitchen delights from Portugal, I will get in enough samplings here so that I will know what to order next time I return to Portugal. Porto’s Peri-Peri in Skokie is a stop that I recommend. And if you happen to be in the West Suburbs, stop in at the Villa Park, Illinois, location at 100 E. Roosevelt Road. Saboroso (Portuguese for delicious).

Antico, Bucktown Delicious

Antico

We arrived at the very end of March and I realized that I had not posted since the very beginning of the month. This was a rather aggressive month, starting with me jumping out of information technology and plunging into photography seriously, albeit working on a website for a display of my portfolio still has me hooked into IT on a periphery. I added some real estate to my cache, became more engaged in community activism, and started an investment club along with some outstanding friends. My reviews thinned out, but my appetite didn’t.

Focaccia

Focaccia

For months, I had walked by a restaurant in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood that caught my eye after taking a peek at the menu. Antico at 1946 N. Leavitt Street is an Italian restaurant with the exposed brick interior that is rather popular throughout the Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square landscape. A nice setting without claustrophobia, an appetizing menu, and an impressive wine list, I was glad to have finally indulged this winner. And noting the influx of patrons starting immediately at 7:00 PM, it was clear that this was a delight for many.

Mushrooms and Polenta

Mushrooms and Polenta

After skimming the menu, I launched into my “challenge” method of ordering since the restaurant was not busy when I sat. I ordered an appetizer, a pasta, and an entrée, or rather I let the server handle the ordering. And I also trusted the server with the wine pairing. Starting with the mushrooms over polenta, this was certainly a choice I would entertain on future visits. Void of syrup, the mushrooms were not from a can, definitely given from the freshness in each bite. Drizzled with olive oil, the polenta was loose yet not to a runny consistency. With a glass of Nebbiolo that had a hint of berry on the finish, the first course received a compliment to the chef and to the server for the wine pairing.

Lasagna

Lasagna

Given my intent was to indulge myself in a hearty fashion, there was a spacing in time before the pasta course arrived. This was a manageable-sized bowl of lasagna. Prepared with a Bolognese sauce, bechamel sauce, and parmesan cheese instead of mozzarella to give a rich and creamy texture on the palate, this has quickly become my favorite lasagna I’ve had at any Italian restaurant. First, it wasn’t stacked such that it was heavy. Second, there is a very faint touch of nutmeg in the Bolognese sauce that shows up without making an announcement. It felt — or tasted — like a clue. Paired with a glass of Rossi di Montalcino, pure sangiovese that is like a Chianti on the palate, this was another amazing pairing as it still allowed the lasagna to steal the show.

Pork Milanese

Pork Milanese

The pork Milanese topped with fresh, crispy arugula along with cherry tomatoes, parmigiano vegano cheese, and fresh lemon, came on a regular sized plate with the pork chop almost hanging off the sides. Simply amazing. The pork milanese was a thin slice but fleshy because the breading was light. The salad, drizzled with a citrus vinaigrette, was a perfect accompaniment considering a rice, potatoes, or pasta would have been a bit much with the dish. This was paired with a Langhe Rosso, which was a combination of Nebbiolo dolcetto and barbera. It was mildly drier than a lot of the red wines that I drink, but the wink of cherries and nuts tricked me into not recognizing that. Again, for this to have been a course that I entrusted my server to order, this was a success.

Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo

For dessert, I shied away from anything that I thought would be “usual” on the menu. Having been good about not having a dessert with every meal, I opted for whatever gelato was on the menu. What arrived at the table was a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream with nutmeg topped with raspberries and powdered sugar. A dream this was and I believe the chef has a love for nutmeg, evident in how it was “hinted” in the lasagna and how it was included in the ice cream.

I have been rather unfair with my love of Italian restaurants in Chicago. While I like many of them, there is only one that I loved — Osteria Langhe. Antico now becomes the second Italian restaurant in Metropolitan Chicago that I love. Exceptional food is always a key to having someone return based on a hankering. But service is everything. What I discovered at Osteria Langhe was a staff that clearly enjoyed offering recommendations and listening to the customers. That was the same feeling I experienced at Antico. Good customer service is a dying art and when it rears itself in a restaurant setting, married with superb dishes, you achieve perfection and a spot on any one of my “I love this place for whatever reason” lists.

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

Lowcountry, High Quality Goodness

Lowcountry

Two years ago when I opted to have my birthday dinner at a seafood boil restaurant on the North Side of Chicago, little did I know then that I would develop an immediate hankering for the seafood goodness of days long gone when I was echoing distance from Louisiana. Since that birthday dinner, there have been several other seafood boil restaurants suggested to me that I’ve tried and given in to my addiction for shrimp, crab legs, and crawfish drowning in some spicy sauce in a plastic bag. And I found myself giving in to my craving while passing by Lowcountry at 3343 N. Clark Street.

Soft Shell Crab with Jalapenos

Soft Shell Crab with Jalapenos

Calamari with Jalapenos

Calamari with Jalapenos

Having eaten a lengthy brunch, I had enough room to indulge a few menu items from the Restaurant Week offerings. With a friend in tow, we grabbed a seat at one of the many benches in a dining area that was quite reminiscent of the holes in the wall throughout Louisiana. Given the name, Lowcountry, I imagine this is also the same dining layout one could expect in Lowcountry, South Carolina. But what we got screamed Louisiana, for sure.

Lowcountry Limeade

Lowcountry Limeade

We had something from the cocktail menu to whet the palate, neither remembering what exactly because the Super Bowl Game was playing and after pointing at whatever on the menu, we were cheering the Philadelphia Eagles to play like they wanted to win. While imbibing our drinks that we did later find out were made with gin as a base — how we managed to order something without really paying attention to the menu is a puzzle — we had a small order of soft shell crab and another small order of calamari. Topped with jalapenos, these were divine. The soft shell crab had been cooked thoroughly and was extremely meaty. The calamari was tender enough to cut with a plastic fork. Thankful that much of the seeds had been removed from the peppers, there was enough kick to the starters that there was flavor but no need to chase each bite with several gulps of water.

Seafood Boil in a Bag

Seafood Boil in a Bag

The coup de grace were the bags of shrimp, crab legs, sausage, corn, and potatoes in Lowcounty’s spicy garlic, lemon pepper, Cajun sauce. Lowcountry ranks on my list of seafood boil restaurants that clearly knows how to lure people back for more. I usually never get crab legs because I hadn’t mastered the art of plucking the meat, but I did a superb job this time and I am happy to report that the crab meat was fresh, flavorful, and had me hooked. To make it that more appetizing, the jalapeno cornbread that came with it was exactly what we needed for sopping up the sauce.

Jameson and Ginger Beer

Jameson and Ginger Beer

Rather than gobble the seafood up as if in a rush to leave the restaurant, we paced ourselves and enjoyed watching Philadelphia draining the New England Patriot’s morale. I ordered a Jameson with ginger beer while my friend had coffee. This was in preparation for the beignets that we ordered. They got it right. The beignets had a yeast texture to them, not a cake texture. And they actually tasted way better than some doughnuts at some of the boutique doughnut shops in Chicago.

Beignets

Beignets

This visit was the first time even hearing about Lowcountry. There is another location in Chicago’s South Loop at 1132 S. Wabash Avenue. Same “back home” look and feel with wood layout on the inside and the picnic table setup, these locations probably get a lot of patrons. Granted it was Super Bowl Sunday when my friend and I went, there were still lots of individuals coming in to get gravy on their fingers and across their jaws. I can’t say that seafood boils are a fad, considering it’s a normal thing in coastal South Carolina and along the Gulf of Mexico. But it’s certainly a part of my constant slide show.

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

Scofflaw, Gin Bar

When I moved to Logan Square in late 2017, Armitage Avenue was very must desolated. For several miles, there were buildings plastered with boards, vacant lots, and blight. Over the past few years, Logan Square has maintained a slow rejuvenation that has resulted in what is becoming a very attractive neighbourhood. One restaurant that now has residence on the landscape as a replacement for what was once a local bar is Scofflaw at 3201 W. Armitage Avenue.

Devil Egg, Cathead Biscuit, Simple Breakfast, Hong Kong Style French Toast

Devil Egg, Cathead Biscuit, Simple Breakfast, Hong Kong Style French Toast

Touted as a gin bar, it’s definitely a great gin bar also with brunch, dinner, and other cocktail offerings. Having tried to go one Friday evening only to walk into a room with not much navigation space, I opted for an early Sunday brunch for my return visit. Enjoying the cozy atmosphere, instead of enjoying a seat at one of the booths or small tables, the bar was where I parked myself.

The brunch menu had a few items that caught my eye and after a brief acknowledgement that I was going to turn brunch in “drunch,” I spied a few items that I figured I would enjoy slowly while indulging a flight of gin cocktails. The first landing was a devilled egg topped with crispy chicken skin, smoked buttermilk, and fermented celery. Another menu item was a plate of cathead biscuits, topped with cream cheese, trout roe, and chives. The third landing was Hong Kong style French toast that came with cashew butter and honey chamomile whipped cream. This is the best French toast ever! And the last landing was a simple breakfast of toast, sausage, and eggs scrambled with eggs. Not a smear or crumb was left afterwards.

Gimlet and Jasmine

Gimlet and Jasmine

Now, the question now may be, “What exactly did you have to drink?” Wanting to partake of a few gin cocktails, I requested a flight of four different selections, not necessarily exact to the cocktail recipe. The first two were a gimlet and a jasmine, both made with Scofflaw Old Tom Gin. The gimlet was prepared with gin, lime juice and a little bit of sugar. The jasmine was prepared with lemon juice, orange Combier, Compari, and a touch of simple sugar.

Martini and Negroni

Martini and Negroni

The second part of the flight consisted of a classic martini and a negroni. These were made with St. George Terroir, based out of California. The Douglas fir in both helped to bring out a woody note in the sips. The martini had gin, dry vermouth, and a hint of orange bitters, topped with lemon zest.  The negroni had gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth in it. Being one who prefers darker alcohol, these four gin cocktails are now on my immediate go-to list.

The final cocktails were hot to warm things up before going outside into frigid temperatures. The was a wassail, that was made with gin instead of with bourbon. There was also a rum toddy just to introduce a darker spirit into the imbibing equation. Quite possibly not a part of the regular menu, these certainly are good for hastening warmth after coming inside from frosty temperatures and enough to make you not ever want to go back outside afterwards.

Wassail and Rum Toddy

Wassail and Rum Toddy

The brunch crowd filled in quickly, an indication that service is great and quality of food and beverage are top. Having sat at the bar and engaged the bartenders in conversation, it was apparent that they are dynamic in their craft. The weekend evenings indeed see a packed restaurant, for sure. I have not gone during the middle of the week, but it’s a safe bet that this is a neighbourhood favourite for good reason. Chicago has plenty bars, but none specific to be a gin bar. Scofflaw is certainly one I would recommend if you are wondering which one to try.

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

Breakfast Anyone? Kingsbury Street Cafe

Kingsbury Street CafeHello, 2018, you’ve made it. And it’s a very good thing that I did not leave my appetite in 2017. I brought it with me. I must admit that spending a few weeks in Morocco towards the latter part of 2017 left me with a bit of depression. Imagine going to country with so much beauty, culinary delights, and warm weather, only to return to Chicago experiencing an early freeze and a refrigerator that I had emptied before my vacation. Thankful, I had a memo for Kingsbury Street Cafe at 1523 N. Kingsbury Street.

Millionaire Coffee

Millionaire Coffee

My first visit to Kingsbury Street Cafe was a few days after my return to Chicago. Temperatures were not all that bad, so I didn’t complain. When I arrived at the restaurant, there wasn’t the usual long line outside or any kind of wait inside like what you experience at lot of breakfast spots in the city. Spacious and full of light, I was in for what I expected would be a pleasant experience.

I started with a millionaire coffee, which was a nice winter recipe of house coffee, rumchata, kahlua, and frangelico topped with whipped cream. I call this my festive beverage. First to the table was a cup of egg and carrot soup. This reminded me a bit of Chinese egg drop soup in texture, but of a rather light autumn soup thanks to the presence of carrots. If it is still on the menu, I highly recommend having it, especially during the chilly months.

Egg and Carrot Soup

Egg and Carrot Soup

The finale was a plate of shrimp and spinach frittata with stewed tomatoes. The shrimp were plump and nothing close to popcorn size. It was also evident that they were fresh from the absence of a fishy aftertaste. Tomatoes are a vice for me, so I was well past satisfied while devouring the ones in the dish. Everything in the dish worked well and I must say that this was a nice deviation from the usual pancake, waffle, and omelette offerings.

Shrimp and Spinach Frittata with Tomatoes

Shrimp and Spinach Frittata with Tomatoes

During my second visit, which was at the beginning of the New Year, I went a little later in the morning and it was full of quite a few patrons. Granted it was the weekend instead of in the middle of the week like I had gone the first time, there still was no wait. I was fortunate to have the server who was my server during the first visit. After a few pleasantries about the Christmas holiday, I had a mimosa and a parfait of yogurt, granola, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries. Simply divine as a healthy starter.

Mimosa

Mimosa

Parfait

Parfait

The finish was a plate of angel food cake French toast with orange slices and lemon zest topped with whipped cream. Sitting atop a crème anglaise, this weekend French toast was a winner. The concept in French toast preparation was different that what I’ve had before, that being light and fluffy like angel food cake, so that made it the more appetizing. Without any syrup, this can be enjoyed to completion without recognizing that no additional sweetener was needed.

Angel Food French Toast

Angel Food French Toast

Kingsbury Street Cafe scores high points with the great service. It’s clear that the output from the kitchen is consistently good. The amount of navigation space and elbow room is also a high mark, especially when so many restaurants in Chicago entertain crowding diners into the dining area. It may be that Kingsbury Street Cafe is not on a “Best Brunch Spot in Chicago” list, which explains why seating is fast. Nevertheless, if you are seeking a breakfast or brunch — or dinner on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday — spot where you don’t find yourself wondering if you’ll ever get a seat, add Kingsbury Street Cafe to your destination.

Kingsbury Street Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Top 10 Jaunts for 2017

We have come to the end of 2017. This year turned out to be a very busy one and I didn’t get to indulge an overload of restaurants like I had in prior years. I did, however, find some new spots and got a chance to visit a few noteworthy eateries that I had missed.

And so, ladies, gentlemen, and hackers, I give you the Top 10 Jaunts for 2017. It’s a short clip that I had to confine to a minute since I also posted it on Instagram.

See ya next year.

Bia’s Café Marinao, Cuban Style

Bia's Cafe Marinao

Every once in a while I like to deviate from the usual proper sit-down restaurant and delve into something that requires me to pick up food with my hands. Having had a craving for a really good sandwich, I knew that I could not go wrong with a Cuban sandwich. And rather than going to the usual Cuban sandwich shops that I have logged in my smart phone, I looked for a place where I had not been. Bia’s Café Marinao at the new location of 4323 W. Addison Street in Chicago’s Old Irving neighborhood seemed like it was a good spot on reading the menu. It was an outstanding café on going for the first visit.

Chicken Empanadas

Chicken Empanadas

Not large and rather popular, given the constant flow of patrons coming for pick-up and dining in, I had a seat at the counter against the wall and indulged a chicken empanada that came with a guava barbecue sauce and a cubano. The empanada was fresh, quite evident from the flaky crust. And I liked that the chicken was seasoned nicely, which really lent itself to going well with the guava barbecue sauce. Ropa viejas have always been my go-to Cuban sandwich and switching it up a bit this time was an excellent idea. Thinly sliced ham, roasted pork, topped with a mustard jam and pickles, I quickly decided that I will retire my love affair with ropa viejas.

Cubano

Cubano

During my second visit, I wanted to sample another sandwich. This time I ordered a medianoche. This sandwich is very much like a cubano, except the bread has a bit of a sweetness to it and without the mustard jam. Hearty, flavorful, and with a bloom of flavor from each bite, I was conflicted because I had sworn the cubano to be my now-favorite Cuban sandwich during my first visit. While finishing the medianoche and downing a cup of café con leche, I knew that this meant I had to return at a later date to see if I could conflict my interest more.

Medianoche

Medianoche

During the third time, I had one beef and one chicken empanada, this time with a spicy sauce for dipping. Again, trying a different sandwich, I ordered a steak and cheese that came with thinly sliced tomatoes and Swiss cheese, drizzled with a mild citrus oil. While not overloaded, there was enough flavor packed into the sandwich to make me punt a Philly cheesesteak if it were put in front of me. Not only that, I simply had to accept the fact that there isn’t one sandwich at Bia’s Café Marinao that I can’t honestly call my favorite because all of them are.

Steak and Cheese

Steak and Cheese

As mentioned earlier, there is a steady stream of customers that come in to order for take-away and for dining in. Noticing the service the three different times that I have gone, they are consistently friendly and attentive. The café is not in an area with lots of foot traffic, so the fact that they get a lot of constant business speaks to how fantastic the sandwiches are and how welcoming the service is. I have never been one to say that I am a fan of sandwiches, but Bia’s Café Marinao changed that for me. This is my favorite sandwich shop in Chicago.

Cafeteria Marianao Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Volo Restaurant and Wine Bar

During planning for restaurant outings to sample wines and cheeses, I received a recommendation for a wine bar along a hidden stretch in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood. A bit rustic in the look and feel with plenty seating, I had a midweek reservation for an early meal. Volo Restaurant and Wine Bar at 2008 W. Roscoe Street was the landing spot.

Fall Flight

Fall Flight

My restaurant adviser and I had designs on trying a few cheese flights along with wine flights for pairings. While the flights were not extensive, there were enough for us to have a few samplings. The first wine flight was a bubbly flight. The 2014 Spagnol, extra dry Prosecco from Veneto, Italy, wasn’t dry to the point of inducing puckering and the notes of apple, pear, and bread crust, surprisingly, made for a smooth and balanced bubbly. The NV Jaillance, Cuvée de l’Abbaye Rosé from Cremant de Bordeaux, France, was subtle on the tongue with a faint accent of strawberries and cream. The NV La Vida al Camp, Brut Cava from Cava, Spain, gave a nose of grapefruit and floral notes.

Flights of Cheese

Flights of Cheese

With autumn soon arriving, we indulged the fall flight. The 2015 Maison Yves Chaley et Fille, Haute Côtes du Nuits Blanc from Burgundy, France, played well on the palate with fresh Grannny apple, pear, lemon zest, and floral tones. The 2012 Cantina Bove, ‘Marso,’ Montelpulciano d’Abruzzo, from Abruzzo, Italy, was earthy with a mix of black fruits and herbal tones. The 2014 Arsonist, Red Blend carried us to California with a silky blend of Petit Verdot, Malbec, and  Cabernet Sauvignon, bearing notes of blue and black fruits, vanilla, and clove for a spicy finish.

Pinot Noir Flight

Pinot Noir Flight

Sparkling Flight

Sparkling Flight

We had a nice selection of cheeses to start off the evening along with our first flights. For sheep’s milk cheese, we could not go wrong with the three month aged Manchego from La Mancha, Spain, a fantastic semi-firm cheese with a creamy finish. For cow’s milk cheese, we had a Camembert from France, soft and creamy with a flowery rind and a umami flavor. Another favorite, which was a brie, was certainly an offering that we could not miss. And with a vintage gouda from Netherlands on the menu, there was no way we were going to pass on enjoying that along with embedded, crunchy caramel. Wanting to try something made from goat’s milk, we had a Montchevre garlic and herb from Wisconsin. The mix of roasted garlic, rosemary, and thyme in the cheese worked with the the goat cheese almost playing background. One other cheese that we requested to come to the table as a surprise was one akin to a crumbly gorgonzola, very mild, and quite inviting as with the accompanying candied walnuts, crushed figs, and honey.

Salmon Salad

Salmon Salad

Moving into the small plates, we tried a salmon salad that had a light citrus vinaigrette along with julienne cucumbers and crisps. Slightly reminiscent of a deconstructed ceviche, the salad was a rather nice touch to the finishing sips of our initial wine flights. After enjoying this and an allowance for a few minutes, we then ordered a bowl of mussels in a white wine sauce with shallots, parsley and French butter. Very partial towards mussels that come in a saffron sauce, the white wine sauce was ideal not only for the moment but rather fitting given the theme of the wine bar.

Mussels

Mussels

Having enjoyed the cheeses, salmon salad, and mussels with toast, we had an interest in more flights of wine. Having overlooked it earlier, there was the cheese and charcuterie flight. The 2015 PortoVino, Cardedu, Vermentino de Sardegna Nuo from Saardina, Italy, was herbaceous with a slight edge of minerality. The 2016 Domaine Haut de Mourier, Voignier “Cuvee Stephanie Bouix,” from Languedoc, France, came from a mountainous region with a nose of apricots and peaches followed by pear, apple, lavender, and honey. The 2013 Juris, St. Laurent from Burgenland, Austria, had tones of cranberry, raspberry, and florals, slightly tart, yet a wonderful selection for those who love Pinot Noir.

Spicy Chicken Over Coconut Rice

Spicy Chicken Over Coconut Rice

The fourth and final wine flight on the menu was the Pinot Noir flight. The 2012 Ara, “Pathway” Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand, was sweet without crossing into dessert wine territory and perfectly spicy, which paired extremely well with a spicy Asian fried chicken dish that came over coconut rice. The 2014 Bouchard Père et Fils, Pinot Noir, from Burgundy, France, had a bloom of cherry, raspberry, currant, and early notes, and unlike a lot of wine with tannins, the tannins in this selection did not overpower the sips. Finishing with a 2014 Rascal, Pinot Noir, from Williamette Valley Vineyards in Oregon, the cranberry, black cherry, and strawberries in this wine could easily make one fall in love with Oregon wines.

The Wrap-up

The Wrap-up

Finishing with coffee from one of the local roasters, we agreed that the selections were very nice for something light. It was certainly great having a server who was knowledgeable of the wines and could speak to why they paired well with certain cheeses and dishes, as well as speak to personal preference. The wine bar was not teeming with patrons, which may have been due to many in the area crowded into some other bars watching a Cubs game. But if you are looking for a nice date spot without the noise and clamoring, Volo Wine Restaurant and Wine Bar is a sweet spot for libations, small plates, cheeses, and satisfaction.

Volo Restaurant Wine Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato