For such an outstanding lunch, I would have expected the price point to be something to interfere with the appetite. The price is not ridiculous and there are no compromises in flavor for not charging a ridiculous amount for dishes. My biggest disappointment is that for three years I have passed by Kona Grill and had never bothered to stop in for a dining experience. This first time was just by chance and it is a gamble that turned out to be a winner. They are worth an encore and deserving of a Gnashing Teeth Award. Continue reading
For my first landing, I had ordered uchepos gratinados. These fresh corn masa tamales drizzle with roasted chilaca, cream, and cheese were a change from the usual tamales with shredded chicken. I must admit that I would gladly order these tamales without hesitation over tamales with chicken in them. The chilacas in the uchepos gratinados were mild. Those who are not fans of heat in their food would love these tamales. Continue reading
I am coming up on the end of the ninth week of being in shelter. Lucky for me, my day job in IT affords me the option of working from home. Actually, I don’t have a choice. And because Chicago is rather rigorous with adhering to the pandemic alert, barring knuckleheads that have been having parties with participation volume that no doubt makes there pre-pandemic parties look like failed attempts, I have cooked at home mostly, only ordering takeaway on a few occasions.
Normally, I would have photos that I had captured at some restaurant. However, below is a slideshow of the captures from my own kitchen. I must keep my photography fu current for when I do get back out to various eateries for blogging.
The running joke I have with friends and family is that I will have Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous sessions on the same night. My three meals a day are now six with intermittent snacks in between. When people were in a frenzy for toilet paper, I stocked up on wine. Granted I don’t drink wine daily, but I have several glasses on the weekends. It also doesn’t help that my neighbor one floor below me is a sommelier who always has some wine to spare.
It is my hopes that everyone is safe. I know many are anxious to return to work. All of us are ready to return to a life of normalcy. It will be quite some time before we get to a level of true comfort, though, but all in good time. In the meantime, be safe and eat well.
Let me start by saying that I had no idea this cafe existed. I had passed by it countless times and nothing screamed “Open for Business.” A colleague told me about it and we agreed to meet for a Sunday breakfast. This was during the summer. It has become a regular Sunday spot ever since.
First, the homemade bread wins. During the first visit, the cauliflower and broccoli salad in a creamy dressing was addictive. And the pork belly with peppers and cherry tomatoes were worthy of repeat orders. From what I can tell, there is a bit of a farm to table aspect that makes everythig on the menu fresh.
For Logan Square to be a hipster landscape, those working at Cellar Door Provisions don’t have the detached attitude. They’re engaging and attentive without hovering. The cafe is not large and there is a constant ebb and tide of patrons. As I mentioned, I have returned with my colleague quite often since the first visit. I hope that this will be one restaurant that will not succumb to the curse of “closing restaurants” that plagued Chicago in 2019.
Because I had several visits since the first one, there are several compositions that I have captured since. Rather than doing a very long write-up, below is a link to the Flickr page where I posted the photos to ignite your appetite. If you are in or near the Chicago Logan Square area, Cellar Door Provisions is one to add to your list of restaurant spots.
For my last review, it was of a restaurant where two friends and I met to celebrate a very late birthday and my early birthday. Since then, I had become very serious about losing belly fat. Let me just say that it is possible, but you have to be dedicated to the point of addiction. I have been cooking at home more and spending a lot of time in the gym, so my outings to different restaurants came to a stop. However, I made time to meet my two friends for one of their birthdays. Birthdays seem to be the reason for the occasional dining excursion. We met at Monnie Burke’s in Pilsen at 1163 W. 18th Street.
Along with our first round of cocktails, and I must commend the bartender for mixing some great drinks without being heavy handed or dabbling in Shirley Temple world, we started with a soft pretzel that was served with a smoked gouda and black truffle fondue. I recommend this highly for a starter. While the gouda does not have an expected smoky flavor, the fondue works well with the lightly salted pretzel. I think the black truffle addition helps to bring out more on the palate.
Our first small course was the egg yolk pappardelle. This was angry, or arrabbiata as Italians would say. The ground scallops in the dish were outstanding and I have been looking up recipes that call for ground scallops because I need more. There was enough bite in the dish to pick up the spiciness, yet not enough to that we required sips of water after each swallow. This dish was a nod to Italy.
One supper vegetable that has become more popular than red velvet cupcakes of several years ago are Brussels sprouts. Accented with a white anchovy vinaigrette, Calabrian chili peppers, pine nuts, and parmesan, I can almost guarantee you that you’re obstinate child who hates vegetables would love this dish. It was nice that the additions to the Brussels sprouts did not overtake the flavor of the actual vegetables. This is a nice wink to the toe of Italy, to Calabria.
Another super vegetable is cauliflower. Here it is fire roasted with urfa biber peppers, medjool dates, olives, almonds, and sheep’s milk cheese. With the use of the urfa biber peppers, medjool dates, and olives, there was an injection of Turkey and Morocco into the dish. Goes to show you that you can have ingredients from different yet close regions play very well in recipes and it made the cauliflower stand out as opposed to being reminiscent of milder broccoli.
Those who are fans of seafood would appreciate the Spanish octopus. Prepared such that you could cut through the tentacles with a butter knife and tender enough that there was no rubbery texture. Coming with shishito peppers, papas bravas, and a black garlic mole, there was very little left on the plate. This dish gets the Clean Plate Society Award.
Having taken red meat out of my diet mostly, I broke my discipline for the sake of trying the cheeseburger. Not just a cheeseburger, as listed on the menu, but rather a double cheeseburger, this was worth every bite. This burger is topped with American cheddar, grilled red onions, and served with garlic fries and lemon aioli. As I was never a fan of having my burgers anything close to rare, it was nice that it arrived at the table a slight notch less than well cooked, juicy as juicy can be, and I never had to state how I wanted the burger cooked. This is the mark of a cook who knows his or her trade well.
For dessert, we had a brownie that was baked by the devil, topped with a fist size scoop of ice vanilla bean ice cream, and drizzled with a warm chocolate sauce. The caramel popcorn addition was a unique garnish. It did not take away from the brownie ala mode, though. Those who love moist — spelled “moyse” — brownies will have a problem staying on the wagon after having a taste of this dessert. It is extremely rich, so I would recommend sharing it with your dinner guest or guests.
Monnie Burke’s is clearly a winner when it comes to service and good food. Given the amount of food that we ordered, everything was a hit, not one disappointing moment to be had. With summer now giving us days that we can enjoy in al fresco mode, the patio at Monnie Burke’s fills out quickly. The inside was empty, but that was understandable with everyone wanting outside seating without fear of a torrential downpour or extreme humidity. It’s not of the staple variety that has graced Pilsen’s landscape for decades. However, it is a welcomed addition.
February is tootling right along and it occurred to me that I had not written a blog review since summer of 2018. Last year came with a lot of change and I had been riding the wave of “peace of mind” since. And I have been cooking at home more. Nevertheless, a friend had recommended a French restaurant in Homewood, Illinois, from having passed it often on her way to catch the train into downtown Chicago. Not having much French restaurant representation from the suburbs on the blog, I agreed to meet her for dinner so we could sample their offerings.
In the business district at 2034 Ridge Road in Homewood, Illinois, is La Voûte Bistro and Bar. Co-joined with Banque Hotel, it’s a very nice escape from the congestion of Chicago for a bit of French authenticity. Spacious on the inside with a mix of tables, booths, and an airy bar setting, one can enjoy a nice variety of dishes with a bit of a provincial French influence.
Not wanting to order the exact same dishes that one finds on menus at just about every French restaurant outside of France, we did a bit of switching up so that we could try different dishes. We started with a plate of stuffed mushrooms. It may be that I have not had mushrooms for quite some time because these that were stuffed with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, and mascarpone, and topped with a hollandaise sauce were addictive from the very first bite. It helps that you taste all of the ingredients individually, which meant no competition on the palate.
The escargot came with minced crudité. They were not as garlicky and buttery as I prefer, but they were just as tender. This was perhaps the first indication that the preparation of some of the dishes were indeed provincial. Served with the escargot were two strips of pastry that were outstanding as a standalone.
Where it was clear that there is lot of love to come out of the kitchen was with the lobster cigar. Clumps of lobster were stuffed inside of a delicately, flaky pastry and served atop a lobster sauce. There were no other fillers inside of the cigar, just fresh lobster and lots of flavor. This was perhaps the only dish we ordered that had a creamy base.
It seemed that most patrons had ordered the mushroom bisque. So, we were unfortunate that they had run out by the time we ordered. As a contingency, we ordered baked potato soup. Extremely tasty and peppery that way that I like soup during the winter, we forgot that loaded baked potato anything comes with bacon in it. It wasn’t overpowering and given the bacon was rather fine, it all went down nicely.
There was also a cup of French onion soup that was quite satisfying and filling. Topped with cheese, but not to the point of making the soup a chore to eat, this was certainly one serving that I actually liked because of it not being heavy handed with the cheese topping.
For the first entrée, there was Chilean sea bass with a Mediterranean preparation. The bass had been fileted and seared to give the skin a crisp while retaining a lot of succulent meat. Along with the sea bass came a mélange of grilled vegetables: potatoes, zucchini, red bell peppers, green bell peppers, and cherry tomatoes. Any seafood lover would approve.
Another winner was the lamb shank served with ratatouille and couscous. The flavor of the lamb was reminiscent of beef tagine that I found rather addictive in Morocco. And to make the dish that more delicious, the lamb came off the bone with no effort. Clearly the lamb had been slow cooked to perfection, tenderness and flavor at each bite being all the indication needed.
For desserts, we ordered light options. There was passion fruit sorbet with blueberries and a sliver of strawberry. There was also a lemon tart meringue accompanied with strawberry and whipped cream. Both were of the summer dessert variety in that they were citrusy. Neither excessively sugary nor tart to the point of biting at the back of the jaw, I recommend either, or, or both if you devour as much as we had prior to indulging the desserts. And for our finish, we had café au lait, something I definitely needed to wake up from the onset of food comatose.
La Voûte is indeed a vault of delicious, decadent, and lip-smacking dishes. For those in Chicago proper, North Suburbs, and West Suburbs, it’s worth the drive. For those in the South Suburbs, there is no reason why this should not be on your list. Per my friend, the restaurant is constantly filled. That’s a sign that they’re doing something correct. From what we had on our visit, they certainly got our dishes correct enough that we are already contemplating a return. For more offerings from La Voûte, I will make that long drive again.
This has been a slow year for blogging, for me. Two things have been at play — 1) I bought an Instant Pot and have become a pressure cooker fanatic and 2) the heat, severe thunderstorms, and humidity have been prohibitive for doing much of anything that requires going outside. So, with spending hours in the gym after work and cooking at home more with intent to gain weight — yes, I know that losing weight is most people’s goal — I have been rather laxed with my posting. Well, thanks to a recent recommendation, I got the kick I needed to get back on track.
Prairie Grass Cafe at 601 Skokie Boulevard in Northbrook, Illinois, gave me a chance to return to an area that was my receiving post when I moved from New York to the Metropolitan Chicago area. Very spacious in both main dining and bar areas, this restaurant is a nice escape from the rush of Chicago proper for some flavors that top many restaurants that constantly make the “Best Of” lists that circulate annually.
My restaurant advisor and I arrived for a Saturday evening seating and opted for a variety of dishes so that we could get a sampling of different menu offerings. Back to our usual practice of giving dietary specifications, we left the selections up to our server. Clearly loving a challenge, she was up for it and everything that came to the table was an indication that trusting her was an outstanding idea.
We started with a mozzarella salad that came with heirloom tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, micro salad, basil remoulade, and drizzled with a balsamic reduction. Having an addiction for tomatoes, this was already a winner. It was simply nice having a salad that you could taste the tomatoes, as opposed to what often tastes like “essence” of tomatoes.
The next two appetizers were not only bite size, but also very satisfying on the palate without being too much. The corn fritters were touted as one of the most recommended items on the menu. After the first bite, it was apparent why they are a favorite. Imagine a doughnut hole with corn kernels in them. Served with a honey butter, these fritters could be dessert. The shrimp egg rolls were where we have a hint of an Asian influence. The pop in the egg rolls came with the size and freshness of the shrimp. There was no excessive seasoning, which helped the taste of each bite of shrimp come through.
A dish that played well to my British sensibilities was the plate of cod and coleslaw. The cod reminded me of days spent at fish and chips shops throughout Newcastle. Admittedly, I would have preferred chips with the fish rather than the coleslaw, the slaw added a nice accompanying touch to the dish. The addition of the grapes in the dish balanced it out such that it was neither bitter, nor sour, nor sweet. It was just right and even Goldilocks would agree.
Having a bit of turf to the dining experience, we had hangar steak over mushrooms and potatoes. Going with medium, what came to the table was a plate of perfection, meat so succulent and tender that cutting it was as effortless as slicing through air. Well seasoned au jus and complete lip-smacking without much salt, many steakhouses that I have been to over the years could stand to take a course in preparing a steak without flare so that diners could actually enjoy the flavor, just like what we had at Prairie Grass Café.
Back to the sea, the salmon with house barbecue sauce over Mexi-corn with a corn purée was divine. The salmon was flaky and surprisingly had a texture of skate. Those who have had skate know how moist and silky the fish feels on the palate. Well, the same was the case with the salmon. This was a winner.
Having a little time between the main courses and dessert, we allowed a few minutes before indulging sweets. The first was a cream pie topped with raspberries and accented with a sprig of mint. The beauty of this dessert was that the filling was cream cheese and whipped cream, which made it light. Topped with fresh raspberries and a homemade compote that you could smell, thanks to it not being from a can or a jar, this pie could quickly become a favorite.
The double chocolate cake was nothing short of truth serum. Extremely moist and yet not so sugary that it was overpowering, the rich texture certainly induced a bit of comatose. We, of course, balanced that out with coffee. While some may resort to calling this devils food cake, it was heavenly, nonetheless. And the star of the show was the sticky toffee date cake. Again, this was a cake that should be used as an example of what moist means. At most restaurants, date cakes have the course texture of cornbread. That was not the case with this date cake. It is one that would make a great autumn cake and it would pair well with mulled cider or spiced tea. We may even return during the fall months and see if that’s possible.
Prairie Grass Cafe is not what one could call a hidden gem. It is very surprising that it has not made any recommended lists because the restaurant excels in two very important areas: delicious food and top service. Farm-to-table and local source restaurants are becoming more popular, as people are now wanting their food to be fresh and restaurants are also starting to support local farmers, which ensures quality ingredients for menu items. Prairie Grass Cafe is more than worth a try. It should be top on your list.
During spring and the very beginning of summer, Chicago has had some angry weather. The heat and humidity have been extreme. And it seems that thunderstorms pass over the metropolitan area every other day during the afternoon rush hour. When we have had some nice days, they have been good enough to take advantage of some al fresco dining. I managed to squeeze in a day of some patio dining at Praga/Bonton in Lombard, Illinois, at 229 W. St. Charles Road to see how they tempt the palate.
Only wanting a sampling on the first visit, I settled on two courses. The first was a lobster ravioli. While I have had more than my share of lobster ravioli at various Italian restaurants, it is always a plus when you get a dish that leaves you wanting more. The cheese inside of the ravioli had a la tur texture, very creamy and rich. The lobster chunks were not mere hints, which was all the indication I needed to know that there was neither imitation nor essence stuffed between the pasta. Topped with a corn and bell pepper confetti, this moved up to the top spot as best lobster ravioli that I have had in Metro Chicago.
The second dish was a risotto with diver scallops on top. My favorite Italian osteria in Logan Square serves the absolute best diver scallops risotto that I have had to date, but the dish at Praga/Bonton is a very close second. Filled with mushroom, asparagus, and wild truffle sauce, I recommend this dish. It pops with flavor without being busy on the tongue. Get a bowl for yourself, as sharing may result in too much of it going fast and regrets for not being selfish.
For my second visit, I wanted to try a few other dishes that were more French. The offerings that I had the first time were very much couched in Italian and authentic in flavor, so I was curious to see if there was a proper amount of respect paid to the French menu items. They scored high marks in that space.
Veering away from escargot, since that is such a common item on menu items, I started with a bowl of forest mushroom soup, laced with sherry. Again, dining al fresco, it was rather hot outside, but the soup was not one that left me lethargic from being heavy combined with the outdoor heat. Packed with flavor from fresh mushrooms and a savory cream base, I polished it off and then used the complimentary bread to go around the inside and bottom of the bowl, sopping up as much of the rest of the soup as possible: Clean Bowl Society.
The second course was a crab cake atop an avocado papaya chutney and arugula salad with an avocado vinaigrette. The bliss factor for the crab cake was that there was very little breading used, more dusting than anything. The crab cake was another dish packed with flavor without having one wonder if the chef was trying too hard to season the dish. You could taste a bit of the sweetness in the crab meat since it was not masked by an unnecessary melange of herbs, seasoning, and other spices. The bed of vegetables reminded me of crudites, which is a small side dish of julienne vegetables (e.g., carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers) that many in France enjoy.
The third dish was a plate of beef medallions under frites. The chef erred on the side of preparing the beef tenderloins medium well and I was appreciative. The meat was neither runny nor was it charred to an unappetizing crisp. It was just right and whatever seasoning used to marinate the meat gave it enough smack without a need for any additional seasoning help. Add to that the Cognac flambe and the tenderloins having been sauteed in Bordelaise sauce with wild mushrooms, along with grilled asparagus spears, the marriage with the frites made it delectably French.
The finale was a duo of chocolate mousses, one white chocolate, the other dark chocolate. Served with a berry compote and looking like two scoops of ice cream, each scoop was heaven. The white chocolate was not sugary and the dark chocolate was not milk chocolate. This was a perfect ending to three prior courses that were already mouthwatering.
Needless to say, the output from the kitchen was absolutely winning. The table service is also outstanding. My server during the first visit was quite conversational and good about making recommendations. On the second visit, the server remembered me, minus my 6-inch beard that I had shaved, where I sat, what I ordered, and my preference for cranberry juice. Service is everything and Praga/Bonton sets the bar high for creating a welcoming environment. The menu is a mix of Italian, French, and German-Austrian, but still retains authenticity in each without compromising recipes. If you are ever passing through the downtown Lombard area and wondering about dining options, add Praga/Bonton to your list.
Now that I have been on assignment in the West Suburbs, I had been actively looking for some restaurants in that vicinity with an international appeal that I could sample for blogging. The farther away you are from Chicago proper, the more limited the options are in that space. Imagine my surprise when I discovered La France Café & Crepes at 708 S. Main Street in Lombard, Illinois.
I went with my restaurant advisor on a Saturday and we arrived shortly after they had opened for the second part of the day. First thing we noticed was the accommodating service. It was a small touch, but the greeting of “Bon soir,” was enough to set a tone of comfort that we were both okay with. For me, being fluent in Quebecois and conversational in Creole meant not fumbling for words or feeling out of place whenever certain French words were used during our dining excursion. While perusing the menu, my advisor started with a glass of Pinot Noir and I had an iced mocha, after which I decided to have a Beaujolais once I had something to eat.
On to the good stuff. We ordered three savory crepes and two sweet crepes. The beouf et a l’abricot crepe reminded me of Moroccan tagine but stuffed inside of a crepe. Filled with tender beef, apricot slices, and spinach, and topped with toasted almond slivers, this was just what I needed to put me in mind of being back in Morocco. The beouf bourguignon was the equivalent of beef bourguignon as a stew reduced so that it could go into a crepe without making the crepe soggy. Filled with pearl onions and plump mushrooms, we loved it. The crepe de saumon a l’estragon was my favorite. This was stuffed with salmon that had a mild kick, red onions, tarragon, tomatoes, spinach, and crème fraiche. The seafood lover in me indeed approved.
One of the sweet crepes was a framboise citronnee, which was filled with lemon custard, drizzled with a raspberry sauce (not from a jar), and sprinkled with confectioners sugar. Each bite was like summer on the palate. The other crepe was a abricot et brie, a true sweet and savory crepe thanks to the apricot purée and brie, while topped with candied apricots and dusted with confectioners sugar. Instead of going with whipped cream on the top, we had a fist size scoop of ice cream on the side. And we finished with Moroccan mint tea, yet another trigger to make me miss my vacation in Morocco.
One thing to note is that nothing comes to the table within five minutes, except maybe the complimentary water, a coffee, or a glass of wine. The crepes are made to order, so there is no rush of any of the crepes to the table within five minutes. If you go to a creperie and you get your crepes in a flash, I highly recommend that you run. The crepes at La France Café and Crepes do not have a spongy texture, but rather that of a flat-pressed pancake. This is good because crepes in non-touristy France are prepared accordingly. Well, they reminded me of the ones I had in cafes during my days in Chalon-sur-Saone. For my restaurant advisor and me, there will be repeat visits. Pour de vrai.
We arrived at the very end of March and I realized that I had not posted since the very beginning of the month. This was a rather aggressive month, starting with me jumping out of information technology and plunging into photography seriously, albeit working on a website for a display of my portfolio still has me hooked into IT on a periphery. I added some real estate to my cache, became more engaged in community activism, and started an investment club along with some outstanding friends. My reviews thinned out, but my appetite didn’t.
For months, I had walked by a restaurant in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood that caught my eye after taking a peek at the menu. Antico at 1946 N. Leavitt Street is an Italian restaurant with the exposed brick interior that is rather popular throughout the Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square landscape. A nice setting without claustrophobia, an appetizing menu, and an impressive wine list, I was glad to have finally indulged this winner. And noting the influx of patrons starting immediately at 7:00 PM, it was clear that this was a delight for many.
After skimming the menu, I launched into my “challenge” method of ordering since the restaurant was not busy when I sat. I ordered an appetizer, a pasta, and an entrée, or rather I let the server handle the ordering. And I also trusted the server with the wine pairing. Starting with the mushrooms over polenta, this was certainly a choice I would entertain on future visits. Void of syrup, the mushrooms were not from a can, definitely given from the freshness in each bite. Drizzled with olive oil, the polenta was loose yet not to a runny consistency. With a glass of Nebbiolo that had a hint of berry on the finish, the first course received a compliment to the chef and to the server for the wine pairing.
Given my intent was to indulge myself in a hearty fashion, there was a spacing in time before the pasta course arrived. This was a manageable-sized bowl of lasagna. Prepared with a Bolognese sauce, bechamel sauce, and parmesan cheese instead of mozzarella to give a rich and creamy texture on the palate, this has quickly become my favorite lasagna I’ve had at any Italian restaurant. First, it wasn’t stacked such that it was heavy. Second, there is a very faint touch of nutmeg in the Bolognese sauce that shows up without making an announcement. It felt — or tasted — like a clue. Paired with a glass of Rossi di Montalcino, pure sangiovese that is like a Chianti on the palate, this was another amazing pairing as it still allowed the lasagna to steal the show.
The pork Milanese topped with fresh, crispy arugula along with cherry tomatoes, parmigiano vegano cheese, and fresh lemon, came on a regular sized plate with the pork chop almost hanging off the sides. Simply amazing. The pork milanese was a thin slice but fleshy because the breading was light. The salad, drizzled with a citrus vinaigrette, was a perfect accompaniment considering a rice, potatoes, or pasta would have been a bit much with the dish. This was paired with a Langhe Rosso, which was a combination of Nebbiolo dolcetto and barbera. It was mildly drier than a lot of the red wines that I drink, but the wink of cherries and nuts tricked me into not recognizing that. Again, for this to have been a course that I entrusted my server to order, this was a success.
For dessert, I shied away from anything that I thought would be “usual” on the menu. Having been good about not having a dessert with every meal, I opted for whatever gelato was on the menu. What arrived at the table was a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream with nutmeg topped with raspberries and powdered sugar. A dream this was and I believe the chef has a love for nutmeg, evident in how it was “hinted” in the lasagna and how it was included in the ice cream.
I have been rather unfair with my love of Italian restaurants in Chicago. While I like many of them, there is only one that I loved — Osteria Langhe. Antico now becomes the second Italian restaurant in Metropolitan Chicago that I love. Exceptional food is always a key to having someone return based on a hankering. But service is everything. What I discovered at Osteria Langhe was a staff that clearly enjoyed offering recommendations and listening to the customers. That was the same feeling I experienced at Antico. Good customer service is a dying art and when it rears itself in a restaurant setting, married with superb dishes, you achieve perfection and a spot on any one of my “I love this place for whatever reason” lists.