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

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