Prairie Grass Cafe, Northbrook Tasty

 

Prairie Grass Cafe

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.

Complementary Bread

Complementary Bread

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.

Mozzarella Salad

Mozzarella Salad

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.

Corn Fritters

Corn Fritters

Egg Rolls

Egg Rolls

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.

Cod with Slaw

Cod with Slaw

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.

Hangar Steak with Mushrooms and Potatoes

Hangar Steak with Mushrooms and Potatoes

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.

Salmon

Salmon

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.

Raspberry Cream Pie

Raspberry Cream Pie

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.

Devils Food Cake

Devils Food Cake

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.

Sticky Toffee Date Cake

Sticky Toffee Date Cake

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.

Prairie Grass Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

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

de Quay, Where Indonesia and Netherlands Come Together

de Quay

In late 2015, when I was looking for an Indonesian restaurant in the city, my restaurant advisor suggested that I should try de Quay 2470 N. Lincoln Avenue. Having forgotten my camera and not having a cellphone with the snazzy professional setting for the camera, the photos did not come out to my liking and there was no way that I was going to review such incredibly delicious food and associate the food with dark, orange, and blurry photos. Realizing that I still had not written a proper review, I returned recently and was very glad that I did.

Curry Chicken

Curry Chicken

For my first return visit, it was a brief passing and I sat at the bar. Vibrant and filled to capacity in the general seating area, the bar was a great option. I ordered the curried chicken and paired it with a glass of Pinot Noir. The breast of chicken had been marinated in buttermilk and Indonesian spices, and served with basmati rice that had toasted almonds, dried apricot seroendeng, and pea tendrils. For those who love a bloom to their dishes, the aromatic flavour of the dish will certainly scream winner. And the Pinot Noir was a splendid balance while letting the dish take main stage.

Spekkoek

Spekkoek

The dessert was an almond spekkoek, a very appetizing Dutch layer cake that came with a dollop of pandan ice cream. Extremely moist and not very sweet, this is a dessert that should be enjoyed slowly and all the better with a cup of coffee. Now, consider the ice cream accordingly when being slow about eating the dessert, but the nutty flavour of the pandan is a nice accompaniment to the spekkoek. It is a wonder that de Quay does not tout this as the most spectacular dessert you will find in Chicago.

Deerstalker

Deerstalker

The second visit involved more food, as my restaurant advisor accompanied me this time. We started with a deerstalker and an FP-45 for cocktails. Having recently gone to a gin bar, the deerstalker was a fitting starter of gin, vermouth, orange bitters, maple syrup, and fresh thyme. The Old Tom gin, Gran Classico bitters, vermouth, brown sugar, and Angostura bitters in the FP-45 were simply first-rate for an initial libation.

FP-45

FP-45

Indulging the first landing of pea soup, which was a part of the restaurant week offerings, set the mood for what we realized would be a fantastic evening of dining. Hearty more like a stew, the bowl of mirepoix, smoked rookworst, turnips, and crispy shallots with the peas made this a winter soup that works well for the nippy Chicago temperatures. The lovash crackers were a nice touch and the soft baguette that came with the dish was fine for sopping up the remaining remnants of the soup, along with the curry butter.

Pea Soup with Bread and Wafers

Pea Soup with Bread and Wafers

The second landing, also a menu item for restaurant week, was a goat Gouda Bavarian. Served with a spiced pecan seroendeng, raisins, butternut squash, and with a chestnut vinaigrette, it was nice that the goat cheese was not so overpowering so it did not usurp the taste of the other ingredients in the dish.

Goat Gouda Bavarian

Goat Gouda Bavarian

Curious as to the shrimp and mussels menu item and how such a dish could have been prepared to take advantage of an Indonesian influence, we had for our third landing of a bowl of plump shrimp, shelled mussels, roasted hot peppers, and snow peas in a coconut curry sauce with baguette slices for sopping. An absolute winner, the beauty of this dish was not having to fight with plucking the morsels from the shells. You only had to start delighting yourself on the best mussels dish in Chicago.

Shrimp and Mussels

Shrimp and Mussels

The fourth landing was a plate of sate glazed, grilled salmon. The Indonesia fried rice nasi goreng played well with the salmon and a medley of green beans and cauliflower along with wafers and shrimp crisps made for a dish that is well worth repeat visits for samplings. Not the usual searing done to the salmon, it was flaky and succulent, which made the dish that more delightful.

Sate Glazed Grilled Sea Salmon

Sate Glazed Grilled Sea Salmon

The fifth landing came as baked chicken breast in coconut milk and aromatic spices with pea tendrils over a mango and Thai basil emulsion. An added touch was a coconut Gouda croquette. The chicken had been prepared such that it was easy to cut through it with a fork. And it was quite noticeable that the seasoning had worked its way throughout the chicken during cooking.

Baked Chicken with Gouda Croquette

Baked Chicken with Gouda Croquette

The finale was an apple tart that came with an accompaniment of dried currants in a crème fraîche. I had not been eating sweets for several weeks and felt like I had a bit of heaven with each bite. Very much like the spekkoek during my first visit, this was not as sweet as most tarts are, given the apples were not in a compote, and that probably explains why the apples tasted like they had been just plucked from a tree.

Apple Tart

Apple Tart

The one word I use to describe restaurants that have top service and inviting food is outstanding. That certainly applies to de Quay. The restaurant is not large and seating may be close. Reservations are highly recommended, as a lot of diners coming through who clearly appreciate the rich savoury dishes. There may be some poetic licensing with the dishes, but that’s okay. If you were to close your eyes, you would undoubtedly agree that the smells and aromas of Indonesia were not compromised.

De Quay Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Cafe Des Architectes, Un Peu de Français

Recently, I have been in a bit of a French mood. For the longest I had been searching for restaurants that had a basque feel, and without the churn of a crowd. Like in France, one can enjoy a meal alone or in small company in some bistros and cafes without an excess of ambient noise and people crowding your space. My restaurant adviser and I had culled together a list of restaurants that we thought would be good samplers.

Bread Service, Trout Croquette, Lump Crab, Heart of Palm, Summer Squash Soup

Bread Service, Trout Croquette, Lump Crab, Heart of Palm, Summer Squash Soup

First on our list was Cafe Des Architectes in the Gold Coast Sofitel Hotel at 20 E. Chestnut Street. Just west of the Magnificent Mile is this fantastic restaurant that’s surrounded by swanky clothing boutiques and other very appealing restaurants. Located off to the side of the lobby is this very spacious, airy, and well-lit restaurant that also has a large outdoor seating area. With weather being extremely nice for October, we sat outside during our first visit to enjoy the moderate temperatures and to watch people in their comings and goings.

Chardonnay, Champagne, Pinot Noir

Chardonnay, Champagne, Pinot Noir

Opting for small plates, we ordered from the appetizer section with a pescatarian focus. Starting off was a l’amuse of trout croquette atop an aioli and the first of three pairings, a champagne that neither nipped at the back of the jaw nor left a pucker on the front-end of the sip. Seasoned well and void of an excessive amount of breading, the bite size trout was still meaty and the aioli was not the least bit overpowering. The Maryland style crab cakes were a reminder of why those are a favorite. Served with a chipotle aioli, citrus segments, and an avocado purée, there was not a crumb of breading on the crab cakes, which meant we got to enjoy seasoned, fresh crab to the fullest. Following with the hearts of palm, which came with a cauliflower custard, radicchio, and caviar, it was evident that the restaurant was going for full flavor even with small plates. And then we had the chilled summer squash soup with a nice smear of mint yogurt, curry oil, and granola. While most may be accustomed to a hot soup, this is the epitome of a summer soup, best served when it’s very hot outside, enjoyed regardless of when the temperatures are warm enough for patio dining.

Escargot Pappardelle, Butternut Squash Ravioli with Shrimp

Escargot Pappardelle, Butternut Squash Ravioli with Shrimp

Getting more into pasta, we had escargot pappardelle. Accented with a garlic cream, parsley, and parmesan, the plump escargot popped with each bite in this light pasta dish. Unlike when escargot is served in a bubbling pesto, there still was enough of the garlic cream in the dish to remind you of how delicious the delicacy is. Wrapping up the many landings with black truffle and corn ravioli with rock shrimp, pancetta, and parmesan, we acknowledged that we had no room for a cheese board as a dessert. The ravioli was also light, but still it was filling without leaving us overly stuffed. Paired with a pinot noir, this was perfection on the palate.

Espresso, Macaron, Chocolate

Espresso, Macaron, Chocolate

The finale was espresso that was clearly made from a fine bean. While my restaurant adviser was sharing a few chocolates from Veruca Chocolates, we received complimentary sweets of mango macarons and key lime wrapped in chocolate. Enjoying this with the coffee was superb, as the macaron was fresh and the chocolate was nothing like the blocks of chocolate you get from anchor stores at the mall. The key lime was creamy, the white chocolate, which had been decorated to look almost like a precious stone, was outstanding, and it all went well with the espresso. The first visit was noteworthy given the appreciation for the quality of the food and the attentiveness of the service. So, we indeed had a return visit.

Cheese Flight, Sparkling Flight, Espresso, Chardonnay

Cheese Flight, Sparkling Flight, Espresso, Chardonnay

Having enjoyed a nice selection of small plates during the première visite, we settled specifically for wine and cheese, champagne and cheese for my adviser. Yet another day with perfect weather, we had an outdoor seat and settled on a selection of soft mild, semi-firm, and one firm cheese. The creamy and buttery fromages of Edel de Claron, Tallegio, and Brie St. Rocco worked well on sourdough. The Fourme d’Ambert, Morbier, and Tomme were semi-firm enough to enjoy on the olive bread that came with the cheeses. The Cantalet was just right for enjoying with the multigrain bread. And for even more enjoyment, the summer berries and miniature madeleines were exactly what we needed to mentally go back to France. Of course, there was no way of departing without taking an espresso.

Cafe Des Architectes has a very laid back feel. There was no rush, which is a rather appealing touch to a restaurant because good food should be savored. Cafe Des Architectes does a fabulous job making your visit the first of many. The closest I will get to France this year will be via a rendezvous in Paris en route to Morocco. In the meantime, I am enjoying this bit of France in Chicago.

Cafe Des Architectes Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

NaKorn Urban Thai, Aroi Mak Mak

NaKorn Urban Thai

Greater Chicago boasts a large number of Thai restaurants. There are two that have been my absolute favorite: JJ Thai Street Food at 1715 W. Chicago Avenue in West Town for authentic Thai street food and Herb at 5424 N. Broadway Street in Edgewater for refined Thai with 100% authenticity. After most recent visits to NaKorn Urban Thai at 1622 Orrington Avenue in downtown Evanston, it has officially become my third go-to Thai restaurant.

NaKorn Negroni

NaKorn Negroni

While passing through Evanston and a quick search to see what offerings were on the menu at NaKorn, there was a draw to the complete absence of a lot of ubiquitous Thai dishes (e.g., pad thai, pad see ew, curries, Bangkok chicken, bamee noodles, and the like). Recognizing that my original list of two favorite restaurants didn’t serve those staples and I had fallen in love with their dishes, I imagined that NaKorn was a winner.

Not a large restaurant, but not small either, it’s airy and spacious for those who like to enjoy their meals with dinner guests or alone without having neighboring diners practically sitting on top of you. For my first visit, I sat outside to enjoy the summer weather and to imbibe a negroni while figuring out what I wanted for dinner. And oh was the negroni a hit without being heavy-handed: just perfect.

Taro Chicken

Taro Chicken

I opted for a prix fixe flight of three courses. The first was taro chicken. Marinated in lemongrass-infused coconut milk and fried lightly before coated in a chili-peanut gastrique, this appetizer popped with flavor. As much as I joke about hating peanuts, the flavor was faint yet not to a point of being undetectable, but enough to let the coconut and taro take center stage on the palate. Simply outstanding.

Pan Roasted White Fish Fillet

Pan Roasted Whitefish Fillet

The second flight was pan roasted whitefish fillet with a sweet pepper chutney and chili tamarind reduction. The whitefish was not only flaky but it was also tender, clearly prepared to perfection. Rather than having this with an air of pomp and circumstances, this dish is best eaten mixed together. Having the fennel, cucumber, radish, whitefish, chutney, and tamarind reduction is a symphony.

Sazerac

Sazerac

For my second cocktail, I was in a bit of a New Orleans mood, so I ordered a sazerac. My restaurant adviser and I laugh about how at one of Chicago’s most touted restaurants, I left a sazerac at the bar intentionally because it was heavy on the alcohol and tasteless simultaneously. That was not the case with the sazerac at NaKorn. This one was smooth, in the same manner that they mix them in New Orleans.

The finale was a plate of mango and sticky rice. While you can never go wrong with mango and stick rice, this dish fueled an addiction that made me catch myself when I was tempted to order another plate of it. The sticky rice had been prepared to order, evident in it not being gummy. And to make the dessert that more appetizing, there was a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream served with it. Yes, that did add a twist while kicking an old favorite up several notches without compromising any of the love in all of the bites.

Mango Sticky Rice

Mango and Sticky Rice

Giving myself time before a return visit, I included my restaurant adviser for the second jaunt.  We opted for a few dishes without going overboard because she had made a suggestion for another visit so we could sample from the upcoming autumn menu. Really paying attention to the menu and also having brief conversation with one of the managers, it became apparent that the dishes were of the variety enjoyed at home in Thailand proper. That explained why there wasn’t even basil chicken available for ordering.

North Shore Punch

North Shore Punch

Shake and Shimmy

Shake and Shimmy

To keep the summer theme going, my adviser ordered a North Shore Punch. I ordered a Shake and Shimmy. The North Shore Punch looked artsy, a visual parfait of vodka, lemonade, and Thai chili-honey syrup. The Shake and Shimmy was a refreshing cocktail of rose hip, Brut Rosé, cranberry, and soda. And in our Garden of Eden, we had watermelon bites topped with crispy shallots. I never would have thought the combination of watermelon and shallots would be so divine. When the manager described this as a summer dish that her grandmother prepared when she was in Bangkok, I understood why this was a favorite of hers.

Watermelon with Crispy Shallots

Watermelon with Crispy Shallots

The next shared dish was vegetarian scallops. Eryngii king mushroom had been prepared so that it had the consistency of tender scallops and had I not glance at the menu a second time, I never would have known the difference. Served with a house made chili jam and topped with frisée and edible flowers, this was another flight that my adviser and I agreed should be eaten slowly so to experience the kick from the chili jam appearing and disappearing on the tongue. Plus, the whole concept of mushroom passing for scallops, albeit not as a trick, is simply fantastic and creative.

Vegetarian Scallop

Vegetarian Scallops

The third landing was a plate of coriander crispy shredded beef brisket. Described as having been shredded by hand, it was apparent there was a lot of preparation involved in the the dish, but what made it a case study in “Best Beef Brisket Ever” was the right amount of herbs and spices used without overpowering the taste buds. Served atop sticky rice, I will now be very critical of any brisket I have in the future because the culinary bar in preparing succulent brisket has been raised thanks to NaKorn.

Coriander Crispy Shredded Beef Brisket

Coriander Crispy Shredded Beef Brisket

Moving into the main flights, the first entrée was a plate of steamed baby lobster tail with kohlrabi, micro greens, and a Thai chili broth served with coconut rice. With both adviser and me being seafood fanatics, every morsel from the lobster dragged through the chili broth made for a culinary delight. This was the first time I have had lobster at a Thai restaurant and this recipe has become quite possibly the one I will hanker for when lobster is on the menu. Plating was visually stunning. However, there was a point when we resorted to using fingers for extracting the plump meat from the shell and dispensing of using forks except for when eating the rice.

Steamed Baby Lobster Tail

Steamed Baby Lobster Tail

The second entrée was a plate of jumbo lump blue crab served with Thai rice noodles and a spicy turmeric-coconut curry soup poured on the side. Three words come to mind again: Garden of Eden. The crab was fresh and I can always count on my adviser to speak to the quality of crab, of which she vouched could be the equivalent of truth serum. Certainly the aroma was inviting just from the wafting while arriving at the table. The soup had a flavor akin to what one finds in kow soy. The lump crab made it one of NaKorn’s most recommended dishes.

Jumbo Lump Blue Crab

Jumbo Lump Blue Crab

The finale was a take on a favorite that we have had at one of the Thai restaurants I mentioned earlier. There was a mix of jackfruit, mango, and water chestnuts. This is usually served in coconut milk with a little bit of sugar, but instead it was served with a scoop of panna cotta. Thailand meets Italy. Aroi. Delizioso. Outstanding. For an absolute scrumptious dinner, this wrap-up left us with a want for a quicker return than we scheduled.

Panna Cotta with Fruit

Panna Cotta with Fruit

NaKorn retains authenticity in the Thai dishes. The plating may look like something other than Thai, but the palate will say otherwise. No, they don’t prepare pad thai, panang, tom yum, or dishes in sweet gravies loaded with mushrooms, onions, carrots, and bell peppers. They do expose patrons to dining that is customary to Thailand proper while adding creativity to presentation without diminishing the dishes to middle of the road. In a long list of Thai restaurants that have cookie-cutter output from the kitchen, it’s refreshing finding NaKorn moving out ahead with menu items that have those who don’t speak Thai saying, “Aroi mak mak.”

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

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

Balena, Lincoln Park Italian

Balena

Balena

I have not been on very many restaurant outings this year since I had added a few inches to my size and had to reassess my wardrobe. So, I’ve had to get some control and do some things like walking architectural tours and theatre. And immediately after going to see “Pass Over” at Steppenwolf, what should my wandering eyes see across the street but Balena at 1633 N. Halsted Street. I have no willpower.

Complimentary Wafers

Complimentary Wafers

Large, airy, and light on the inside, this Italian restaurant has a casual feel to it that I think many would enjoy. There is enough space such that you can have an intimate table without being crowded and you can also have a large party without feeling the restaurant cannot accommodate all who are dining. Aside from the cosmetics of the interior, the service and the food were winners for me. As for ordering, I specified that I wanted to indulge my dining experience in a pescatarian fashion. The server hit the mark with what I had told her to surprise me with.

The first course was Calabrian prawn spiedini. These large shrimp came with heads and tails on, all on wooden skewers. Not overpowered by the seasoning, it was quite evident that the shrimp was fresh. Paired with this course, I had a glass of Vermentino, a white wine from the Piedmont region of Italy that was dry enough to balance out the shrimp without biting at the back of the jaw.

Prawn Spiedini

Prawn Spiedini

The second course was a kale Caesar salad. Prepared in the same manner as Caesar salad with romaine lettuce, the kale had a rich yet bitter taste. With the glass of Vermentino, the bitter bite was a bit more pronounced. It was a nice option for a salad, albeit a large portion compared to what was expected. Those who love the go-to green leafy vegetable will love this salad.

Kale Caesar Salad

Kale Caesar Salad

The third course was simply outstanding. This was a plate of striped bass topped with a small salad tossed in a mild vinaigrette. Lightly seared to give the skin a bit of a crisp, the meaty bass retained a lot of the silk texture that made it a dish worthy of ordering again on return visits. This was the server’s personal favourite and understandably so, given its perfection in seasoning, preparation, and taste. Per the server’s recommendation, I had a glass of Sauvignon Blanc that was a perfect accompaniment.

Striped Sea Bass with Salad

Striped Sea Bass with Salad

The finale was a deconstructed sundae that came as a melange of shortbread, brown butter gelato, raspberry gelato, and fresh raspberries. Complex flavours if taken alone, but enjoyed together with an accompanying cappuccino made this a refreshing finish for a satisfying early dinner.

Deconstructed Sundae

Deconstructed Sundae

During the perusal of the menu, I noticed that the offerings were not heavy with tomato sauces. There were several pastas that I noted for future visits since I opted for seafood during my first visit. There are also some hearth-fired pizza options that caught my eye as well. The menu is not extensive and I get the impression that the restaurant makes adjustments seasonally. We shall see. We shall eat.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

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