Paladar Cuban Restaurant and Rum Bar

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

Guava Mojito

Guava Mojito

Mango Mojito

Mango Mojito

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

Flight of Empanadas

Flight of Empanadas

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

Sauces: Habanero, Spicy Avocado, Barbecue

Sauces: Habanero, Spicy Avocado, Barbecue

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

Chivo

Chivo

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

Bomba y Cafe con Leche

Bomba y Cafe con Leche

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

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

Proper Spain Comes to Chicago

mfk.In September, 2016, I went to Spain and instead of doing the touristy trek, I opted to do a run of wineries throughout the country and to feast on tapas to counter the alcohol. It was one of my best international escapes, one that made me long for returning to Spain. And recently my restaurant advisor sent a text message with the initials mfk.

In Chicago’s Lakeview, at 432 W. Diversey Parkway, is quaint boutique restaurant mfk that focuses heavily on seafood, borrowing mostly from the cafes in coastal Spain. Unlike many restaurants that attempt to “get it right,” mfk seems to have someone from Northern Spain in the kitchen, which may explain the authenticity in the dishes that come without pretense.

To whet our palates, we started with cocktails. My restaurant advisor had a hotel nacional, a rather refreshing mix if Clement VSOP rhum agricole, pineapple, lime, and apricot liqueur. I was more Portuguese in my selection, opting for a caipirinha, very much reminiscent of the Brazilian favourite doctored up with cachaça, demerara syrup, and lime.

Caipirinha

Caipirinha

Hotel Nacional

Hotel Nacional

Having asked for five menu items as server’s choice without much review of the menu, the first landing came as ceviche. Not the usual preparation in a dainty glass with chips on the side, this ceviche came as filets of suzuki, thinly sliced, and tossed in a combination of lemon, lime, and orange juice that sat atop homemade guacamole accented with a little bit of citrus and a touch garlic, all affixed on tostados with squid ink. For each to be bite size, there was an incredible amount of piquancy and without the citrus biting at the back of the jaw.

Ceviche

Ceviche

The second landing was a plate of anchovies. I fell in love with anchovies when I was in Spain and they are nothing like the horrible anchovies that people order for a pizza topping. After having these on toast accented with farm set butter and lemon zest, I guarantee you that you’ll fall in love with these tasties as quickly as I did in Spain, and with my renewed love of them at mfk.

Anchovies on Toast

Anchovies on Toast

The third landing was an exotic one, a plate of crunchy prawn heads. The heads had been lightly breaded and fried. These then sat nestled atop a pepito mojo, which was a mix of different herbs, parsley, chives, and pumpkin seeds, worked up with a touch of olive oil. Not only were the shells easy to devour without them being noticeable between the teeth, but the seasoning and the mojo made for a divine dish.

Prawns Heads

Prawns Heads

The fourth landing was a take on a favourite dish that I order at most restaurants that serve seafood fare. This was a huge bowl of Price Edward Island mussels that had been simmered in a broth of cider with a little bit of butter and vegetable stock. The plating consisted of mussels with bread crumbs, crème fraiche, dill, parsley, and tarragon, along with toasted bread on the side. I have loved mussels with saffron in the recipe, but mfk served up my absolute new mussel crush. No grit in mussels and no mushiness with each bite, they were divine with a hint of the tarragon and dill in the background.

Mussels and Toast

Mussels and Toast

Having completed our first cocktails, we had a second round. Requesting surprises, my restaurant advisor had ranch water, which was a refreshing drink mixed with mezcal, lime, orange bitters, and topo chico. I had a marriage of Spain and Italy, a negroni prepared with mezcal insteal of with gin. People think everything tastes better with bacon in or on it. If only they knew about mezcal.

Ranch Water

Ranch Water

Mezcal Negroni

Mezcal Negroni

The fifth landing was a take on paella. Prepared with tomato and shellfish stock, the addition of herbs brought it up in flavor. For service, prawns, mussels, and clams were simmered and then finished with fresh herbs chopped on top and a couple slices of toast. In true paella preparation, there was saffron rice for utter enjoyment. There was so much flavor building in the recipe that while my restaurant advisor and I were practically stuffed, we did not let any of the paella go to waste. You could hear the Mortal Kombat sound byte saying, “Finish it!”

Seafood Paella

Seafood Paella

The sixth landing was a slice of the most heavenly cake you will ever have. The basque cake is simply the best way to save a failing marriage. Prepared with a generous portion of eggs, four, sugar, and vanilla, it’s extremely moist. To make the cake even more devilish, the almond pastry cream in the recipe has rum in it. Topped with almonds, there is also has a hint of salt from the salted almonds. Finished with a very nice glass of brandy, I’ll leave you with these famous words: It will save your marriage.

Basque Cake

Basque Cake

Brandy

Brandy

The dining area in mfk is very intimate. It is highly recommended that the later you go, it is better to make a reservation. Everything we had on the menu was worth a repeat visit. And a repeat visit we will entertain for a sampling of other dishes we did not have on the first visit. There is authenticity in the preparation and in the taste of the dishes. Since I have plans to go to other countries for vacation during the upcoming years, if I don’t get back to Spain any time soon, I will go back to mfk sooner than later.

mfk. Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bad Hunter, Good Times, Better Foood

A few weeks ago, while trying to figure out what the have for dinner, my restaurant advisor had sent a few recommendations. One recommendation was a restaurant that serves the best seafood boils in Chicago. The other was a vegetarian forward restaurant. Since my restaurant advisor was curtailing certain culinary items for Lent, I went with the vegetarian options. So, our landing spot was Bad Hunter at 802 W. Randolph Street.

Maitake Mushrooms

Maitake Mushrooms

Going back to an approach in ordering that has worked well for us in the past, we rattled off a few ideas to our server and let her surprise us. The first plate that we shared was of maitake mushrooms with parsnips, smoked pecans, parmesan, and lavendar. Perfect for sharing, but tasty to the point where it could introduce a bit of selfishness because every bite is a dream.

Shrimp

Shrimp

The one meat dish we had was of two rather large shrimp with the heads on. The shrimp had been wood grilled and were plump to the bite. Having a little bit of the parmesan from the maitake mushrooms, we also ran morsels of the shrimp through the sauce, which made for a great accent to the shrimp that didn’t take away from the freshness of the dish.

Fried Sunchokes

Fried Sunchokes

The third dish of fried sunchokes was a delectable plus. Fried in a light buttermilk and black garlic batter, and drizzled with aleppo chili honey, these Jeruselem artichokes reminded me of a marriage between turnips without the bitter bite and cubed potatoes. In the same manner of being a plate to share, it took was splendid without being filling.

Wood Grilled Shrimp

Wood Grilled Shrimp

For our fourth course, we continued in the light dish spectrum with a plate of wood grilled carrots and fennel with pistachio-green chili pesto, avocado cream, and queso fresco. Usually I have dishes where fennel is somewhat like a hint thrown in for effect. Having a substantial amount of fennel in this dish made me love it that much more. And having it balanced out with the carrots made this dish one I would return to indulge often.

Fry Bread

The final large course was a plate of fry bread. Stuffed very lightly with dill and served with pickled onions, burrata, and chili oil, this would have been a very good start to the meal. Then again, it would be a perfect snack throughout the day and with  dinner and when you can’t figure out what to eat and just because. Extremely soft to each bite, the burrata spread made it that more inviting.

Turmeric Panna Cotta with Ash Coconut Ice Cream

Turmeric Panna Cotta with Ash Coconut Ice Cream

The finale was an exotic dessert. We had turmeric panna cotta topped with passion fruit, puffed rice, and coconut ash ice cream. Panna cotta is alreay my favourite Italian dessert, but adding turmeric to it livened the flavour without introducing the herbal taste of turmeric. The coconut ash ice cream was not only refreshing but it was also captivating because it was jet black. The combination of all of the ingredients played well without turning the dessert into something busy on the palate.

My favourite pure vegetarian restaurant is Green Zebra in Chicago’s Noble Square area. Bad Hunter ranks highly on my favourite list, although there are a few menu items that indulge meat offerings. The service was an absolute highlight, from the server being conversational to being extremely knowledgeable of all menu items to making recommendations. For a spacious dining area, seating is very close and the restaurant fills up. In the midst of numerous other meat-centric restaurants, vegetarian forward Bad Hunter is a very good option.

Bad Hunter Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Troquet River North, French Style

Troquet River North

Chardonnay

Chardonnay

Several years ago, a colleague who discovered my love for food and blogging about it had recommended a French restaurant in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighbourhood. Like some suggestions, I had entered it into my cellphone but never followed through. And when I did, finally, I discovered that the restaurant had moved closer to downtown. With Restaurant Week in full swing for Chicago, I saw a listing for Troquet, the restaurant that was once farther north, and that the restaurant was participating. So, it was off to 111 W Huron Street for a sampling.

With this being my first visit, I was more of a curiosity seeker than someone wanting to try a long list of menu items. I settled on a few dishes that I figured would be a good introduction to Troquet and a way to gauge whether repeat visits were worthwhile. The first dish that I started with was a bowl of creamy tomato soup. This came in a deep bowl, topped with some croutons that tasted like nothing from the bags at market, and also accented with a drizzle of chili oil. Before the first spoonful, it was apparent that this was not soup from a can, which some restaurants in the Chicago metropolitan area have sneaked out to tables. The chili oil didn’t overpower the base, yet it did provide a mild kick that made the tomato soup stand out as a favourite.

Tomato Soup

Tomato Soup

The second landing was a plate of dorade atop cauliflower, mushrooms, and spinach. Dorade was a curiosity menu item for me, being a lover of seafood, but having never had dorade. The texture was flaky with a faint note of silkiness. I initially thought that I had Chilean sea bass. The skin had been seared enough to have a bit of a crisp to it. However, the fleshy meat was succulent and bursting with flavour. The accompanying vegetables had been seasoned such that they were not screaming with salt or an excess of seasoning. This was a perfect landing.

Dorade

Dorade

The finale was an apple tart. The apples, which had mild hints of tartness and were crisp, were sliced thinly and served atop a flaky pastry that wasn’t a victim of too much sugar. This was an indication of the pastry having been baked on the premises from scratch. To make the dessert that more better, the caramel drizzle tasted like caramel that had been prepared using sugar and butter in a skillet in the kitchen. Yes, it was homemade. It was not melted blocks of Brach’s caramel.

Apple Tart

Apple Tart

Troquet is a spacious restaurant and surprisingly quiet. The interior gives off the feeling of a restaurant that was once a bar and has been repurposed. French restaurants in Chicago tend to have a bistro feel (casual) or a white tablecloth atmosphere (fine dining). River North boasts watering holes for those who love vibrant bar scenes. In the vein of French restaurants, Troquet is not a bar and while it’s not a pretentious place, the cuisine seems to stand out. For a place with great service and outstanding French food, Troquet is worthy of countless return visits.

Troquet - Hotel Felix Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Top 10 Jaunts for 2016

This has been a rather fast and adventurous year. New restaurants, new cafes, new boutiques, and an appetite to go through all of them. So this brings me to the time for me to present my top 10 list of ethnic jaunts for 2016.

10.  Cantón Regio — Mexican — 1510 W. 18th Street

Brochetas de Pollo y Camarones

Pollo y Camarones

Arrachera

Arrachera

There can never be too many Mexican restaurants in Chicago. If most of them were bad, it would be easier to say which is the best. Cantón Regio falls in the category of Mexican restaurants that make you inner fat child very, very happy.

9. Cafe Orchid — Turkish — 1746 W. Addison Street

Patican Salata

Patican Salata

If you can make it through a meal without dancing in your seat, let me know. It can’t be possible to sit through a meal here and have no emotions, except for shedding tears for how delectable everything is.

8. Ay Ay Picante — Peruvian — 4569 N. Elston Avenue

Chupe de Camarones

Chupe de Camarones

Peruvian food served the way it’s enjoyed in Peru. Peruvian food served the “Chicago way,” that being you’ll walk away stuffed. My recommendation for when the food is just “that” good and you start declaring, “Jesus,” clear it up by pronouncing the name the way it’s pronounced in Latin American countries so no one will know that you’re really taking Jesus’s name in vain.

7. Serai — Malaysian — 2169 N. Milwaukee Avenue

Roti Pratha

Roti Pratha

When you can get Malaysian food without it being buried on one of several booklet pages at a Pan-Asian restaurant, run to the restaurant, don’t walk. Serai is “real McCoy” Malaysian food. The Malaysians who are always there and my Malaysian friends can vouch for the way the food makes them miss home.

6. Rickshaw Republic — Indonesian — 2312 N. Lincoln Avenue

Beef Rendang, Coconut Rice, String Beans, Corn Fritter

Beef Rendang, Coconut Rice, String Beans, Corn Fritter

With there not being a short list of Indonesian restaurants in Chicago, Rickshaw Republic is all-authentic. It’s mandatory to make several trips because with all of the offerings, and all of them being amazing, you have to make more than one trip. You have to!!!

5. Animale — Italian — 1904 N. Western Avenue

Fegato

Fegato

When Osteria Langhe opened in Chicago, the city got the best Italian food this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Animale is a more exotic version of Italian food, served in a fast casual setting.

4. Chiya Chai — Nepalese — 2770 N. Milwaukee Avenue

Masala Fries, Balti Pie, Creamy Masala Chicken, Masala Chai

Masala Fries, Balti Pie, Creamy Masala Chicken, Masala Chai

Logan Square is clearly vying for the position of international hub within Chicago, which is already a notable international destination. One of the more recent additions to the Logan Square landscape is Chiya  Chai, a spot where you can get some chai to make you give up coffee and some Nepalese food with authenticity that transports you to Kathmandu.

3. Ras Dashen — Ethiopian — 5846 N. Broadway Street

Communal Platter

Communal Platter

Knives? Forks? Spoons? For the absolute best in cultural dining, Ethiopian dining is what you would want to indulge. While Edgewater boasts several Ethiopian restaurants, Ras Dashen stands out as one of the few that deserves a seating.

2. Little Unicoco — Nigerian — 1631 W. Howard Street

Meat Pie and House Sauce

Meat Pie and House Sauce

The slow renaissance in Rogers Park is bringing about the presence of several restaurants, many from an international eatpoint (new word). Little Unicoco brings Nigeria to Chicago’s Far North Side, complete with authenticity and an inviting atmosphere.

1. Juno — Japanese — 2638 N. Lincoln Avenue

Seared Scallop, Grilled Octopus, Ceviche Maki

Seared Scallop, Grilled Octopus, Ceviche Maki

Most people love sushi, maki rolls, and hibachi fare. But sometimes, it’s better to deviate from the usual and delve into the world of omakases. Small plates, attention to detail, flavours that pop, and the best Japanese food in Chicago without pretension.

There you have it. While this may be the short list, there were several winners throughout the entire year. Once the temperatures warm up, check out a few of them. Oh, what the heck, go even when it’s frosty outside. Not only do you get to take advantage of someone else’s heat, but you also get to eat well. Enjoy. And we’ll see each other in 2017.

Ras Dashen, Ethiopian Flavour

Ras Dashen

For weeks I had been mentioning Ethiopian food to a colleague who wanted to sample some. Having been to a few Ethiopian restaurants in the city that I have reviewed and one that I hadn’t reviewed, I wanted to return to the latter. With my restaurant advisor joining us, Ras Dashen at 5846 N Broadway Street was the destination for some cultural dining after coming down from a Thanksgiving high.

Qezqaza Chai

Qezqaza Chai

Nice and spacious on the inside with seating that accommodates those who like traditional Ethiopian seating or those who prefer tables, Ras Dashen has a comfy feeling. The atmosphere is relaxing such that you can enjoy the complete dining experience while also engaging others in your party without competition from too much acoustics.

We started with qezqaza chai, which is cold red tea accented with spices commonly found in Indian tea, like cinnamon, cloves, and black peppercorns. Along with the tea we indulged cups of mereq, this version cooked with creamed lentils, boasting a flavour akin to puréed mild, sweet potato soup.

Mereq

Mereq

For the main platter, we spared no expense. In keeping with opting for variety, we ordered one chicken, one lamb, one seafood, and a round of vegetarian menu items. The chicken was doro wat, which was dark meat chicken and boiled egg in a spicy berbere sauce. The lamb dish was yebeg de berbere, succulent lamb stew bursting with bold spices. The seafood dish was asa wat, fillet tilapia in a dark berbere sauce that had been prepared from roasted, ground flaxseed. As to the vegetarian offerings, we had telba shimbera misser wat — puréed chickpeas, split peas, and flaxseed in a dark berbere sauce. There was kik alicha, which were puréed yellow split peas cooked with onions, garlic, ginger, and green peppers. We even had tikil gomen alicha — spiced cabbage, potato, and carrot stew. And a final vegetarian item we ordered was ethio salata, which came as romaine lettuce, green onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, and jalapeños. There wasn’t one item that we did not enjoy thoroughly, evident from the empty platter when we were done.

Communal Platter

Communal Platter

The finale was a plate of Ethiopian bread pudding topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. In the same vein of employing cinnamon and cloves in recipes, the bread pudding had both and a nice share of raisins, dates, and nuts. Served warm, it was a fantastic ending to a hearty and delectable cultural meal.

Ethiopian Bread Pudding

Ethiopian Bread Pudding

No Ethiopian meal is complete without tea or Ethiopian coffee. Although there was no Ethiopian coffee service, complete with toasting the beans and going through a ritual, a pot of Ethiopian coffee simply can’t be beaten. Those who have taken Ethiopian coffee will attest that it bests any franchise, chain, or independent coffeehouse trying to play like a franchise or chain. The same is applicable to the coffee at Ras Dashen.

Cup of Ethiopian Coffee

Ethiopian Coffee

When it comes to Ethiopian food, individuals either love it or hate it. It is best enjoyed in a communal setting with a group of friends or family. The injera bread may be a different flavouring on the palate for many because of the slight tangy taste, bordering on what a few may deem as sour. However, mixed with hearty sauces in the vegetables and meats, the whole dining experience is a winner. Chicago’s Edgewater community houses several Ethiopian restaurants, so you can get a good selection of Ethiopian fare from each. I highly recommend Ras Dashen for not only good food, but also for outstanding service and quality all around.

Ras Dashen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Welcome to Hachi’s Kitchen

Hachi's Kitchen

After a nice break for a few weeks, it was time to get back into some restaurants and place my feet under a few tables. Coming off of my “time off,” I opened my email to discover countless solicitations for posting some person’s — or entity’s — press release and photos for events, locations, and functions that have absolutely nothing to do with cultural dining. And the invitations for attending some “out of my pocket” function for one or more guest celebrity chefs were a close count behind the “promote our brand” spam. Being a career food blogger would kill my passion and my appetite.

Miso Soup

Miso Soup

Scallops

Scallops

Tuna Poke

Tuna Poke

But I’m not a career food blogger and my passion for food was ramped up. Not wanting to go any distance more than two miles away from home, I recalled a Japanese restaurant near an Italian restaurant I had gone to several weeks ago. In a small stretch of quaint restaurants is Hachi’s Kitchen at 2521 N. California Avenue. A rather spacious and comfy restaurant inside, outdoor seating is also an option during warmer weather. I opted to indulge an omakase. And because omakases at the restaurant are prepared for parties of two or more, the chef’s willingness to prepare one for singular me was a winner.

King Crab

King Crab

Uni Shooter

Uni Shooter

Seafood and Fruit

Whitefish & Bayberry

The most pedestrian course was the complimentary cup of miso soup. The remaining nine landings comprised two and a half hours of culinary bliss. Landings two through eight were small plates: seared scallops, tuna poke (which has become gold on menus at Asian restaurants as of late), king crab atop miniature cucumber salad, grilled whitefish with red bayberry, uni shooter, salmon, and a trio of nigiri. And I had a bottle of warm sake for sipping while enjoying each course. The ninth landing consisted of two maki rolls, one with tempura asparagus topped with salmon, the other with tuna and avocado. The finale was a green tea crème brûlée with green tea. There wasn’t any course that lacked  in enticing the palate.

Salmon

Salmon

Salmon and Asparagus, Tuna

Maki Rolls

Green Tea Crème Brûlée

Dessert

Hachi’s Kitchen is the third Japanese restaurant I’ve gone to where I’ve chosen to have an omakase rather than order from the menu. All three restaurants had outstanding chefs and food happiness consultants (servers at the top of their game) that made my dining experiences absolutely winning. With this third time indeed being a charm, the trend moving forward for me with Japanese dining will be omakases or kaisekis. Arigatou gozaimasu, Hachi’s Kitchen.

Cup of Sake

Cup of Sake

Hachi's Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ajida — Yakitori and Ramen Happiness

Ajida

I recently posted a few writeups referencing ramen. Thinking that I had grown weary of ramen during my university days, it is rather surprising now that I have been hankering for it. Sure, it’s not the blocks that you open and drop in hot water for boiling. I can’t seem to get enough of devouring it nice and piping hot in a large bowl. So, I thought it would be a good idea to have a bowl for old time’s sake, at least to tide me over for a few months as I try to wean myself from this new addiction.

Wasabi Yakitori

Wasabi Yakitori

While on my hunger quest, I wandered past a Japanese grill and ramen restaurant in Chicago’s Loop. I paused on initial discovery because restaurants in the Loop are for the downtown business crowd: translation — fast food and fast casual so patrons can rush back to the office; authenticity not required. But Ajida at 201 N. Wells Street surprised me, starting with the fact that they’re open on Sundays.

Seeing that there were yakitori options on the menu, I started with four delectable meats on skewers. There were two skewers of wasabi yakitori, consisting of tender chicken breast brushed with a liberal amount of wasabi mayo, enough to clear the sinuses. There were umeshisho yakitori, which were chicken breast brushed with sour plum and basil. One that I loved from the first bite was mentai yakitori — chicken breast with spicy vegetable sauce. The gyu ebi kushi yaki, thinly sliced beef roiled with shrimp, was simply not enough, it was so blooming satisfying. The unagi kushi yaki meant me having another other of the barbecue eel.

Umeshisho, Mentai, Gyu Ebi, Unagi Kushi Yakitori

Flight of Yakitori

And then there was the curry age mono ramen. If anyone wants an example of a Japanese and Thai fusion being done uncompromisingly right, this bowl of ramen is the only example needed. Yakitori of deep-fried, battered shrimp came with the bowl of noodles in a broth topped with curry sauce, pickled red ginger, and scallion. Having recently gone to an Americanized Chinese restaurant that attempted a Thai dish and murdered the curry by cooking the base with an oyster sauce base, I had developed a distaste for Thai curry. Ajida rescued me from my Thai curry despair.

Curry Age Mono Ramen

Curry Age Mono Ramen

For the finale, I had a scoop of green tea ice cream and a scoop of red bean ice cream. I have yet to find any in the local markets and I’ve been okay with that since I freeze my own ice cream. But when I get ice cream with a wow factor in the flavour the way I got in the ice cream at Ajida, it is simply remarkable and you have to enjoy it slowly. No, it’s not fancy and it’s not spectacular. It’s just damn good.

Green Tea and Red Bean Ice Cream

Green Tea Ice Cream

Green Tea and Red Bean Ice Cream

Red Bean Ice Cream

Ajida has been in operation for two years. Much like Ara On, another Asian restaurant I’ve gone to in the Loop, I had passed by without a second glance because downtown restaurants sacrifice quality in flavour for quantity in patrons. The restaurant was empty, given it was a Sunday and I arrived early. The one indicator I paid attention to, that being a slow and stream of Japanese coming through, was all I needed to know that I might want to reconsider slacking up from having ramen; at least from Ajida, I’ll say.

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

Cafe Orchid, All Things Turkish

Cafe Orchid

Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines are quite common in Chicago. You can easily find a restaurant that has hummus, baba ghanoush, tabouli, and kebab on the menu. However, it is rare that anyone can name a specific country associated with the restaurant. There is then this Pan-Mediterranean or Pan-Middle Eastern dynamic that makes the restaurant or cafe catch-all. And then there are restaurants like Cafe Orchid at 1746 W. Addison Street in the west end of Lakeview. This restaurant clearly indicates that they serve Turkish dishes and given the authenticity and worthy flavours, they have boasting rights.

Patican Salata

Patican Salada

I decided on a 5-course degustation for lunch. First, to quench my thirst, I had a glass of iced Turkish tea that I took without any sweeteners. The first course was patican salada, which was eggplant with red peppers, tomatoes, and garlic. There was a basket of Turkish bread that accompanied the dish. I used the bread as a utensil to devour the eggplant salad and then finished the dish by going around the plate sopping up the remaining gravy.

Cig Borek

Cig Borek

The second course was cig borek. This was a traditional meat pie that had been prepared with ground lamb and spices.  Unlike cig borek that I have had at other Turkish restaurants, the lamb had been patted together such that it had the consistency of a sausage. This meant the meat was not falling out of the pastry and that was good because I got to enjoy all of the meat pie. The accompanying yogurt was good for dipping, but I used it over the lettuce and tomato instead, thus having meat pie and salad.

Icli Kofte

Icli Kofte

The third dish, icli kofte, were bulgur koftah tear drops stuffed with minced ground beef and onions. Although this is not considered snack food, I would enjoy these delectable items from a cardboard container without complaint while strolling down the avenue. The recipe resulted in a savoury filling that made them all addictive. And like cig borek, they were served atop a salad with yogurt.

Chicken Shish Kebab with Rice and Salad

Chicken Shish Kebab with Rice and Salad

The fourth dish was a plate of chicken shish kebab with rice and salad. The chicken was tender and juicy without being greasy. Flavoured well, the seasoning had permeated the meat down to the hole where the skewer had been removed. Instead of a dry salad like at many Mediterranean restaurants, there was a light vinaigrette on garden fresh lettuce and tomatoes. Rather than just plain rice, there were chickpeas added that surprisingly added some umph. Of all the Turkish shish kebab plates I’ve had, this was a model of “doing it correct.”

Kazindibi

Kazandibi

For the fifth course, I finished with a kazandibi and hot Turkish tea. Aside from the dollops of whipped cream with the dessert, there was nothing fanciful about the presentation. It was the homemade flavour from actual burned milk pudding and the topping of crushed nuts that resulted in something looking bland tasting instead like a dessert handed down from heaven.

Tea

Turkish Tea, Iced

Hot Turkish Tea

Turkish Tea, Hot

The location where Cafe Orchid sits makes it almost nondescript. It is juxtaposed between a physical therapy building and residence. One would notice it more while walking. While the inside is cozy, there is plenty outdoor seating and highly recommended during warmed months. The service falls in the category of great. Ordering linearly was a plus, as it allowed for a sampling of several dishes without having dishes overlap during the meal. And no one can argue about how genuinely Turkish all the dishes are. Cafe Orchid makes the third Turkish restaurant I’ve gone to in Chicago that remains true to the aromas, flavours, and traditions of Turkey.

Cafe Orchid Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Juno, Gino, You Know, It’s Good

Juno

While waffling between going to my favourite Italian restaurant or going for sushi, the latter won. Juno at 2638 N. Lincoln Avenue in Chicago’s Lincoln Park was one restaurant that looked interesting and after reading a few reviews, there was some hesitation. In retrospect, the evening was one well spent. It was good that I went.

My restaurant advisor and I arrived for a 6:30 PM reservation. The restaurant was empty until 7:30 when the dinner crowd came. Then it was all high energy. There is the minimalist Japanese style to the restaurant that actually gave me some ideas for remodeling my condo. However, the food was what we were there for. As you will discover, we loved it.

Cranberry Juice, United Shooters, Smoked Hamachi

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The server gave us a visual description of the items on the menu to whet our appetites. Given the menu was only one page, we had no problem narrowing down selections for a 10-course degustation.

For our first landing, we had uni shooters. Two vials on ice contained sea urchins, wasabi, tobiko, orange zest, and cucumber. With the sticks that were inserted, we stirred the ingredients and downed the contents in a swallow. Not a filling course, but that was fine. The flavour was simply delightful on the palate with a pleasant aftertaste that we chose not to cleanse with our cranberry juice or sake.

The second landing arrived under a dome with captured smoke. After removal of the dome, there were two spoons of hamachi with shiitake and sweet corn. Devoured in whole from the spoons, this was the size of what one would consider a l’amuse. Still, such a small item had an extreme pop in flavour, thanks in part of the cherry wood accented smoke.

Juno Queen, Sake, Juno King

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The third and fourth landings came as a pair. The Juno Queen was spicy scallop with taro and sweet potato on the top with rice in the centre and wrapped in salmon. Since the queen will always have a king, there was the Juno King, which was a signature nigiri of spicy king crab wrapped in tuna and topped with crunchy potatoes. Words cannot describe how delectable these nigiri items were. Only facial expressions would be telling. And because the two are better served together for comparison and contrast, if nigiri were a marriage, the Juno Queen and Juno King are perfect models.

Seared Scallop, Grilled Octopus, Ceviche Maki

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The fifth landing was the first of the hot menu items that we ordered. This was a plate of grilled octopus with pickled Granny Smith apples, ao nori, and zucchini ribbons atop an eggplant purée. As plain as it looked on the plate, it was anything but bland to the taste.

The sixth landing was the server’s personal favourite and quite understandable after the first bite. Tender seared scallop sat atop squid inked fettuccine with shrimp, black bean, and chopped red chili peppers. When scallops are done correctly, the flavour profile of the scallops come through with freshness and no muddy flavour. That was certainly the case with this course, and it helped that the fettuccine was an equally scrumptious complement.

For the seventh landing, we sampled one of the signature maki rolls, the ceviche. There were whitefish, tuna, and scallions in the middle. On top were shrimp, a hint of spicy aioli, and house made pineapple salsa. With fresh seafood, this was truly Peruvian and Japanese working together in a dish at its finest.

Steak Tataki, Lavender Cake with Lychee Sorbet, Mushroom Ramen

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Moving back to the hot plate items, the eighth landing was steak tataki. This was a plate of medium rare steak with Swiss chard, miso, corn, peaches, and sliced jalapeños. Again, this was a winner in flavour

The ninth landing we ordered was mushroom ramen. This landing had trumpet mushrooms, roasted corn, napa cabbage, pickles, soft boiled egg, and house made noodles in a savoury broth. Ramen has become quite popular in many Japanese restaurants. At Juno, the mushroom ramen had enough flavour appeal to make it a highly recommended ramen dish to order.

For the final landing, we had a dessert of lavender cake topped with sesame seeds, along with cantaloupe, lychee sorbet, and candied almonds. There was also a delectable citrus sauce poured in the bowl that took the dessert to a new level in bliss. Certainly not a heavy dish, but the flavours of all of the ingredients played well without any overpowering or competition on the palate. It was simply heaven.

Juno does exceptionally well with small plates, keeping in the tradition of serving dishes like in Japan. There is a bit of a high price per item, negligible for those who appreciate fine dining. Those who are accustomed to the “Chicago way,” that being restaurants giving so much food that you have to take some home, may find the cost problematic given the size of the dishes. For us, quality trumped quantity. And the service is simply outstanding. Overall, Juno was an enjoyable dining experience on three sticking points that we use to rate restaurants: quality of food, service, and price.

Kesshutsu shita.

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