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

Click to see photos in Flickr album

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

Click to see photos in Flickr album

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

Click to see photos in Flickr album

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

Click to see photos in Flickr album

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

California Pizza Kitchen, When Change Is Good

California Pizza Kitchen

Years ago when I worked on the Magnificent Mile, a colleague had a love for California Pizza Kitchen. It had become something of a palate cleanser for having too much pizza from Lou Malnati’s, Giordano’s, and other Chicago-style pizza eateries. For me, too much pizza, period, had made me lose interest in ever returning to any pizzeria, California Pizza Kitchen included. Imagine my surprise when I received an invitation for a review.

Complimentary Bread, Olive Oil

Bread with Olive Oil

My restaurant advisor, who had also worked with me in the Magnificent Mile, and I recently went to the location in Arlington Heights, Illinois, at 3 S. Evergreen Avenue. Not a considerable distance via commuter train, we arrived for dinner one evening after work. The restaurant was quite lively with families and friends. The front room service was top.

Flight of Sangria

Flight of Sangrias

While perusing the menu, we noticed that there was less focus on pizzas and the specialty pastas that our mutual colleague and we had indulged numerous times years past. Instead, there were appetizers and entrées that piqued our interests more than the usual fare that we remembered. Certainly thinking that it would be a better option to try something different, we told our server to make recommendations and send the dishes to the table. We did stipulate that we preferred to avoid pizza and pasta.

As we waited, we imbibed some rather refreshing cocktails. I ordered a flight of sangrias ranging from a white plum to peach to red raspberry. My restaurant advisor had a strawberry mojito. What we both noticed was that the cocktails did not have the watered recipe that one finds in drinks served at big box restaurants. These had the bracing snap of having been mixed by a mixologist.

Strawberry Mojito

Strawberry Mojito

We had a mini complimentary loaf of bread with herbed olive oil. Basil Leaf Cafe, which is one of my favourite Italian restaurants in Chicago proper, preps their olive oil in the same manner. A huge plus with the bread being fresh, the complimentary feature was great.

Tequeños

Tequeños

First to the table was a plate of tequeños. Very reminiscent of tequeños that I have had at a few Peruvian restaurants, the chicken and avocado in the ones at California Pizza Kitchen were mouth-watering. The added ingredient of bacon in the tequeños was unexpected. Then again, we didn’t order from the menu, but rather let our server handle the menu selections. Nevertheless, we were pleased.

The first entrée was a plate of herbed roasted chicken with vegetables. It was by the second bite that we wondered why the restaurant had not been highlighting such delectable dishes more in the past. The chicken was not only tender, but it was incredibly juicy. Add to that well seasoned cauliflower, squash, and potatoes, this dish actually rivaled chicken dishes that I have eaten at some restaurants in Chicago that people rant and rave about as if the meat had been marinated in gold.

Roasted Chicken and Vegetables

Herb Roasted Chicken with Vegetables

The second entrée was the final determinant that California Pizza Kitchen had decided to take a different approach with its menu offerings. The rib eye steak topped with a light garlic paste had been cooked to a perfect medium well that left the meat succulent. The salad in a light vinaigrette and the fingerling potatoes that had been seasoned with touches of basil comprised  a dish that my advisor and I agreed was better than some steak dinners we’ve had at a few noteworthy restaurants.We had not expected such a divine meal up to this point.

Ribeye Steak, Salad, Potatoes

Steak with Salad and Potatoes

Rather than order multiple desserts, we settled on a butter cake topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and garnished with whipped cream. As sated as we were from the complimentary bread, appetizer, and entrées, it still would have been a crime to have left any of the dessert. Although the cake was pedestrian in it’s presentation, it was anything but regular on the palate. With a cup of coffee each, we finalized the dessert and acknowledged that California Pizza Kitchen was a winner.

Butter Cake, Ice Cream

Butter Cake with Ice Cream

During a brief conversation with one of the staff members of the restaurant, there was mention that California Pizza Kitchen had started a move towards offering dishes that appeal to customers that preferred an expanded menu. It seemed that a certain age bracket preferred pizza and pasta, while an older age bracket had a taste for finer menu items. Without deviating from their core menu, the enhanced menu seems to have been influenced as a result of listening to their regular customer base. What they have done now was enriched their offerings for also enticing refined palates.

California Pizza Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Azucar, 9 Years of Tapas

Azucar

When I moved to Logan Square, there were several restaurants on the landscape that looked inviting. I made plans to go to the restaurants and then I realized one day that eight years had passed … and I had not gone to several of the restaurants. Azucar Tapas & Cocktail Bar at 2647 N. Kedzie Avenue was one of the many eateries that I passed and never stopped in for a sampling. I corrected that recently.

Olivos Machacadas en Casa

Olivos Machacadas en Casa

Having had a spell of hot and humid weather recently, Chicago experienced a reprieve from feeling tropical. During my visit to Azucar, I sat outside to enjoy the nice breeze and a degustation of a few tapas items. For a refresher, I started with a white peach sangria that was quite refreshing. While the alcohol was not heavy-handed, it was indeed there. To go with the sangria was olivos machacadas en casa, which was a selection of olives and baby pickles.

Empanadas Pollos

Empanadas Pollos

The next course to arrive was a plate of empanadas pollos. These were tapas size empanadas, but they packed a huge flavour profile. They were not merely stuffed with shredded chicken, but they were stuffed with well-seasoned shredded chicken. Served atop a tomato sauce and accented with basil, these were ideal with the finishing of the sangria.

White Peach Sangria

White Peach Sangria

Red Raspberry Sangria

Red Raspberry Sangria

I then moved into a seafood option that was extremely tasty. The gambas a pil-pil came as shrimp sautéed in spices and served in a dish that had a creamy garlic butter sauce. The perfect accompaniment with this dish was a mini loaf of bread that was ideal for sopping up the garlic butter sauce. Also, with this dish, I had opted for a red raspberry sangria that was as refreshing as the white peach sangria and also mixed nicely to hide the alcohol.

Gambas a Pil-Pil

Gambas a Pil-Pil

The final tapas I ordered was piquillos al fuego. Even as a vegetarian option, this was absolutely divine. These piquillos peppers were stuffed with a blend of cheeses and chopped portobello mushrooms, lemon, and chickpeas. As an accent, they were topped with fennel and a roasted garlic cream sauce. I had thought the bread with gambas a pil-pil was filling. The piquillos al fuego helped induce a desire for sleep and I was okay with that.

Piquillos al Fuego

Piquillos al Fuego

Per my server’s recommendation, I ordered pastel de chocolate for a postre. Being a few notches close to sated, this decadent cake put me over the top. Served with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, I didn’t think that something so small could be so incredibly rich. And when I say that it took me over 30 minutes to finish it, it was because I didn’t want to have any regrets about leaving any before departing the restaurant.

Pastel de Chocolate con Helado

Pastel de Chocolate

Azucar recently celebrated nine years in spring, 2016. Just across the street from the Logan Square Blue Line and between El Cid immediately next door and a very short walking distance from Longman & Eagle, it’s in a prime location where there is plenty foot traffic. The menu is not extensive, which is very good for narrowing down selections, and the food is full of flavour. It took me eight years to walk the few short blocks from my condo to Azucar. It won’t take eight more years. That’s a guarantee.

Azucar! Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Animale, Casual Atmosphere with Fine Dining

When I initially went to Osteria Langhe in Logan Square, which is my favourite Italian restaurant, I wondered if the owner would ever open another restaurant. When he said that he and his managing partner were considering opening an Italian restaurant that serves casual Italian, I thought to myself, “No, please don’t join the ranks of stock Italian restaurants.” And when Animale opened at 1904 N. Western Avenue, I went and was rather confused. The ambience and decor are casual. The food screams “fine dining.”

Animale

A good friend and I met one early evening shortly after Animale had its opening. Noting that you order at the counter and then have a seat, after which a server brings your food, we opted for a 6-course degustation for sharing. We started with a pappardelle — roasted carrots, green onions, beef cheeks, and buttery flat noodles that were topped with bread crumbs. The first bite was the indicator that led us to believe that the owners are modest. Such flavour and authenticity aren’t present in most casual dining, honestly. The pappardelle was, in a word, outstanding.

Pappardelle

Pappardelle

One of the exotic dishes we tried was animelle. This was bacon wrapped in sweet breads, topped with a spicy endive salad, and drizzled with mustard honey. This dish fell outside of the usual fare found on Italian menus. Starting with sweet breads, American Italian restaurants don’t entertain such options. Dishes like animelle come with such pop that not only do you forget that it’s Italian but you make ticklers to yourself to plan return visits.

Animelle

Animelle

Another exotic dish was sanguinaccio. This dish was remiscent of pollo e funghi that I had enjoyed at Osteria Langhe. Instead of chicken and mushrooms wrapped in a tasty pastry, there was blood sausage encased in a puff pastry. Served on top of lentils in a La Tur citrus cream and a few leafs of endive, it becomes increasingly easy to dismiss spaghetti and meatballs as an Italian delicacy.

Sanguinaccio

Sanguinaccio

When I was younger, there was a commercial that used to come on with a little boy wanting to spend the night at his friend’s house to avoid going home to a meal of liver. At the end of the commercial, the kid was nonplussed because, per him, “Larry’s mother is cooking liver, too.” He probably wouldn’t have been so displeased if his mother or Larry’s mother were cooking fegato. These rabbit livers were accented with thyme and served with mushrooms, shallots, and madeira atop toast. And they had been cooked so that the consistency was slightly spreadable on the toast. Delicious.

Fegato

Fegato

Now, Osteria Langhe has a signature ravioli called plin that is addictive. There it’s simply mini raviolis filled with La Tur and parmesan cheese. At Animale, they’re hand-pinched pillows filled with La Tur cheese and served with house pancetta and arugula. It is difficult for me to say which recipe I like most and I know that I shall return to Osteria Langhe and Animale countless times to sample their plin so I can eventually be decisive about which I prefer more.

Plin

Plin

For the finale, we had panna cotta. There was no way we were going to skip such a delight, and we had the dessert topped with a chocolate sauce and sprinkled with hazelnuts, and raspberries. The portion was perfect, given all the food we had eaten, and it was the same recipe from Osteria Langhe that makes it a difficult dessert to turn away from.

Panna Cotta

Panna Cotta

The last time a restaurant owner mentioned opening a casual dining restaurant as a replacement for a fine dining French restaurant, it was a disappointment. Seeing how Osteria Langhe has raised the bar for Italian dining, from my personal experience, it was clear that quality would be top priority at Animale. Service falls in the Absolutely Best category, if I may add. The atmosphere may be laid back and completely devoid of pretense, but be prepared for the next best Italian restaurant in Chicago. With such bloom in flavour, I foresee long lines at Animale. I’ll be in those lines quite a few times.

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